Sprawlophilia vs. Sprawlophobia

Ginger Stampley has a long post on suburban sprawl and it’s downsides:

Where my theoretical libertarianism often stops and my theoretical liberalism begins is in places where public bads and public goods need to be distributed. Unchecked development isnít a public bad in Houston because my snarky inner-Loop self doesnít like it. Itís a public bad because it gets me and my neighbors flooded and it makes me spend my time lobbying the state and the county not to tear up my neighborsí homes to make it easier for folks from the Woodlands to commute downtown. If thatís not a taking and a transfer of value from me to developers and new homeowners that I should be able to fight, I donít know what is.

Some folks act like outbound development is the way God intended things and itís natural for inner-Loopers and in-town folks to get screwed. The idea seems to be that it was our own fault for being stupid enough to buy there. But I can remember when the Beltway and Highway 6 were smugly new and now theyíre about to get the short end of the stick. I hope they, like the inner-Loopers, will insist that the county and state kiss them first.

Meanwhile Patrick Crozier wants to turn the whole of southern and central England into one massive American-style sprawl:

The other alternative is, if the old urban areas are found wanting, to build new ones. This is the big idea of South California academic, Peter Gordon. As he points out: people like sprawl (to use the pejorative term). They like it domestically and, as jobs move out of city centres, they like it economically. And because they are new developments they tend to have the right amount of road space.

The problem with sprawls (which just doesn’t occur to car-owning sprawlophiles) is that anyone who, for any reason, doesn’t have access to a car is completely marginalised. They’ll have trouble getting work, won’t be able to shop, and will have to forget about having any sort of social life. There may be some people who think this is a feature rather than a bug, who think reducing the mobility of the poor is a good thing. The latter group are probably the same sort of wingnuts who think gated communities are a good idea.

The real dilemma is that the optimal design of a city for car users and public transit users is completely opposite.

Public transport requires businesses to cluster around transit nodes, each of which needs a critical mass of homes and businesses within walking distance in order to be economically viable. This is best achieved through relatively high density.

Car users require the complete opposite; everything spread out, with no congested nodes. This requires a low density; often too low for public transport to survive without massive subsidies.

I’m sure it’s possible for a city to achieve the optimum balance of the two. But I don’t expect the blind god of Market Forces to build it.

I suspect America has gone the way it has not because of pure market forces, but as a result of political decisions to subsidise road usage and let public transport wither away. There are also geographical and cultural factors that don’t apply so much in Europe; the fact that cities have room to sprawl, and the implied racism of the ‘white flight’ phenomenon. (Not that Europe is totally immune to the latter).

Britain’s looming transport gridlock is caused by the fact that we’ve failed to invest adequately in transport infrastructure for decades, especially public transport. And when we have invested, much of the money has been wasted by bad management and stupid political meddling. Good examples are the 1955 modernisation plan, when they bought new trains like Imelda Marcos in a shoe shop. Or the more recent gross financial incompetance of Railtrack and Network Rail. Most European countries with equivalent population density not only have better rail networks, but have better roads as well.

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One Response to Sprawlophilia vs. Sprawlophobia

  1. It’s been very interesting for me, going from a place that’s all sprawl to a very urban carless environment. I’m glad we have the car and can go places at night and on the weekend, but unless we’re getting out of town I find myself looking for excuses not to get the car out.

    It wouldn’t work well in most of Houston, but it works here.