Day By Day

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Myths About Suburban Sprawl

One of the keywords to look for in domestic policy debates over the next couple of years is "suburban sprawl." Social engineers blame it for all manner of ills, Al Gore has placed it high on his agenda, and with Democrats running Congress and many State Houses plans for containing or reversing suburban sprawl will be moving from the back to the front burners.

I have long argued that the major complaints regarding the suburbs are based more in aesthetic sensibilities than in hard facts. It is true that there is a sort of suburban crisis in some specific areas (L.A. and the D.C. area come to mind) but that for most people in most places suburbanization has been an important benefit.

Sunday the WaPo ran a nice piece titled "5 Myths About Suburbia and Our Car-Happy Culture" that represents one of the opening volleys in this upcoming battle. The article notes that, contrary to conventional wisdom,

1) Americans are not addicted to driving -- automobiles are basically tools that vastly increase the productivity and happiness of American workers. Even the best transit systems cannot begin to compare to the efficiency of automobiles and for all their massive investment in transit technology, Europeans still drive almost as much as do Americans.

2) Investment in transit technology will not reduce traffic congestion -- this is one of the hard truths each generation of urban planners has to learn again. Suburbanization is, more than anything else, a function of prosperity and prosperous Americans choose auto transport. Transit improvements can be effective only on the margins, facilitating the movement of the poor and handicapped. They have little effect on traffic.

3) Decreasing traffic will not do much to improve air quality. The major gains in pollution reduction have already been made despite increased automobile usage. Air quality has been improving for several decades while traffic has been increasing due to improved automotive technology.

4) We are not replacing paradise with parking lots; we are not becoming an "asphalt nation." Only about 5% of the nation's land has been developed.

5) Cutting down on driving will not have any major impact on global warming. Even the most stringent measures being offered will have only a marginal impact on the warming phenomenon.
Read the whole thing here.

Each of these assertions is subject to debate, although I agree with their major thrust. Be assured that they will not go unopposed. A major fight is brewing. Strap yourselves in and start your engines -- it's going to be fun.

I just hope that at the end of the process wise and cool judgment, such as is emanating from the White House will prevail, but the loonies in Congress and the activist organizations will be getting most of the ink.

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