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How to Reclaim Suburban Sprawl

Regardless of your political persuasion or your views of suburban style development, you will find Ben Ross’s scholarly and precise writing style captivating and edifying. This journey through the intellectual and philosophical underpinnings of the American suburbs to the sprawl miasma of today is peppered with surprising facts and meticulously supported conclusions. Sifting through a wealth of materials, the MIT-trained author articulates a well-researched, compelling narrative that documents how and why we have arrived at today’s urban-suburban dichotomy. This dichotomy is itself fast approaching its shelf life and does not fully portray the blurring overlap between traditional suburban boundaries and renewing urban cores. Ross makes the case that today’s sprawl suburbs, created and sustained by the three pillars of zoning, covenants and historical preservation, stifle the ability of developers to offer products desired by the free market. These three pillars, in concert, dictate what can be built (single family dwellings, office parks and strip development, for the most part). Ross also argues persuasively that status and the desire for exclusivity were primary motivations for suburban development.

Some conservatives cite statistical evidence that the preponderance of growth is occurring in the suburbs, reflecting the middle class’s continuing fealty to that single family dwelling sited on a quarter acre plot of land. Ross maintains that consumer choice is stifled by the aforementioned building codes, zoning restrictions and other exclusionary devices (that effectively separate residential from shopping and business activities) that keep the suburban development machine going. This adversely affects the ability of the market to respond to demand for rental housing, especially since the suburbs have the greatest supply of land available for new apartment construction. Rising rents indicate both changing consumer preferences (especially among Millennials) and the relative scarcity of new rental housing construction. Ross also describes the myriad of subsidies that benefit the suburbs, including free parking, which, Ross points out, exceeds the value of all cars and trucks in the U.S. Ross also points out the contradictory positions that libertarians have taken regarding subsidies, especially when they advocate abolishing them but hedge on when to do so. Ross writes that they are “the St. Augustines of the free market – end government regulation and make me chaste some day, they pray, but don’t take away my subsidy just yet.”

Ross lauds the efforts of New Urbanism adherents to chip away at the zoning juggernaut. He sees these efforts coalescing around form-based building codes that give the zoning commissions control over the shape and size of structures but not what goes on inside them. Currently, developers who wish to build to the new urbanist mode must carve out sometimes hundreds of variances in order to build New Urbanist communities. This can be enormously expensive and discourage the heartiest of developers. Some New Urbanist developments have emerged but many have been compromised on some aspects to placate zoning boards and reduce expenses.

A paper written by the late Paul Weyrich, William S. Lind and Andrés Duany, one of the original founders of the New Urbanist movement, explored what the New Urbanism represented (the 27 point Manifesto) and whether conservatives could (or should) support New Urbanist principles (Conservatives and the New Urbanism: Do We Have Some Things in Common?). Weyrich and Lind found, among other things, that conservative and New Urbanist interests clearly intersect on the issue of codes. Both Weyrich and Lind believed that communities should have the ability to choose between codes that perpetuate current suburban development and the New Urbanist codes that promote (in their view) a return to time-honored traditions in how we develop our cities and towns. Ross makes a similar point in that suburban development represents a sharp deviation from how cities and towns were successfully developed and nurtured in the past and gives a detailed description of the obstacles New Urbanists face in suburbia.

As an alternative, Weyrich and Lind strongly advocated the adoption of a dual codes approach as one that conservatives could whole-heartedly support. It would allow developers to continue to build suburban sprawl if they so desire or opt for New Urbanist-aligned communities. This would allow the free market to work. Bth Weyrich and Lind expressed their apprehension over the culture-killing aspects of suburban developments – – where meeting your neighbor can be a difficult task, and any movement requires an automobile to accomplish. They viewed more traditional developments as fostering conservative norms and morals. Invoking Edmund Burke, they spoke of his view that “traditional societies are organic wholes. If you disintegrate a society’s physical setting, as [suburban] sprawl has done, you tend to disintegrate its culture as well.

Unlike many other works on suburbia, Mr. Ross has covered all aspects of this story. It is not an easy picture to paint, with so many factors and policies to describe and account for. He has traced the origins of suburban sprawl, its metamorphosis over the years, and its pervasive and saturating effects on all levels of society. He has detailed the associated devastating impact of the over-reliance on the automobile; the ghastly urban forms that have arisen to accommodate the automobile; and the traffic engineering that decrees that the automobile has premium claim on all street space and that all other street-based activity is subordinate (in effect, one automobile equals one streetcar loaded with passengers- no wonder the streetcar almost disappeared). He has documented the crippling effect on transit in this country, the attendant policies that resulted in the demolition of huge swaths of American cities in the name of urban renewal or new highways (through old but viable neighborhoods) distorting our national and state policies to service growth, and ramming tentacles of roads throughout America.

Ben Ross ends on a positive note, stating that we have the tools to redirect the ship, to successfully fight the status quo and to return to quality developments that serve all Americans. To our delight, Mr. Ross contends that it is rail transit that has the ability to light the spark of urban (and inner suburban) revival. He has drawn on his experience with the Purple Line in suburban Maryland to reach some conclusions on how a rail project can capture the imagination of citizens! He quotes the likes of Daniel Burnham, who said, “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized.” Ross cites the ability of rail transit to “remake cities” and in doing so, “rail lines bring rethinking.” It is this characteristic that strikes fear in the heart of defenders of the status quo. While certain groups will fight tooth and nail, write endless editorials, and set up inflammatory websites to stop a rail project, no such fervor is ever directed by these groups toward a highway project. The reason, as Ross points out, is the ability of rail projects to force a rethinking of the urban and suburban paradigm. This has to be done one project at a time. While success is not always assured (witness the demise of Arlington’s Columbia Pike Streetcar), every new rail project that survives this process brings the day closer when a true level playing field will be established and flourish, whether for rail versus other competing modes, or being able to freely choose building codes for new developments.

I unequivocally recommend reading this book. The different perspectives are illuminating and clarifying. In my view, Mr. Ross has confronted a maddeningly difficult subject and successfully laid a meticulously documented foundation on which he builds his narrative. You may not agree with his conclusions but you will be challenged to formulate an equally vigorous reply.

Glen D. Bottoms serves as Executive Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation 

29 Comments (Open | Close)

29 Comments To "How to Reclaim Suburban Sprawl"

#1 Comment By Bob Johnson On April 30, 2015 @ 1:00 am

This is a great book; libertarians and conservatives seems to ignore the most onerous regulations, zoning laws. The right used to care about urban issues; Jane Jacobs had an essay in William F. Buckley’s anthology of conservative writers called “have you ever seen a dream walking?” Martin Anderson, who also died this year, was an acolyte of Ayn Rand and a future advisor to Ronald Reagan who forcefully argued against urban renewal in his great book, “The Federal Bulldozer.” The John Birch Society sold Clarence Carson’s “the war against the poor” in its bookstores, which argued against highway construction and urban renewal. Nowadays, even though most of the right has succumbed to idiots like randall o’toole, wendell cox, and stanley kurtz, joel kotkin, and agenda 21 paranoia, you still have opponents of highway construction and zoning like e. michael jones, william lind, josh barro, ed glaeser, and reihan salam. Other excellent books on zoning are william tucker’s “the excluded americans,” jonathan levine’s “zoned out,” and donald shoup’s “the high cost of free parking.”

#2 Comment By Winston On April 30, 2015 @ 2:49 am

This article complements Charles Marohn’s. Suburbs shelf life is limited, especially now that aging Americans have no savings and will be marooned in places with poor services and transportation options for people who cannot drive!

Conservatives who like suburbs are hypocrites, who behave like adolescents who want what they want and do not want to pay for it. Frankly they deserve to be marooned in the burbs!

#3 Comment By grumpy realist On April 30, 2015 @ 11:59 am

How much of the allure of the suburbs has to do with their newness? It’s one thing when you’re purchasing a newly-built house created to your specifications–it’s something quite different when you end up saddled with what you find is a monstrously over-built McMansion which is starting to require expensive upkeep.

The other problem is the suburbs aren’t very efficient when it comes to dealing with the ebb and flow of population. As a city expands, it’s easy to see where to put the new population: you add another ring to the outside. But as a city’s population drops, people disappear more or less evenly from across the entire area. Which means that the city still has to provide the same infrastructure (roads, lights, water, etc.) but with a dwindling property tax base. Suburbs, with single-family housing, seem to be the most affected by this problem.

#4 Comment By superdestroyer On April 30, 2015 @ 12:55 pm

It is hard to take seriously any writing on new urbanism when children are not mentioned once. Unless someone can have multiple children in a one bedroom apartment in a walkable neighborhood with no day care, no parking, and no stores cheaper than Whole Foods, then maybe the New Urbanist should just admit that they are writing for unmarried single adults.

#5 Comment By James Canning On April 30, 2015 @ 2:08 pm

Great piece. American suburban sprawl is grotesquely wasteful, and frequently hideous too.

#6 Comment By PGL On April 30, 2015 @ 3:10 pm

I thank a merciful God that I don’t have to get around on a train or bus. The few times I have been without a car it was incredibly time consuming to use public transportation. It is usually cheaper to own and maintain a car if one needs to move around town every day. I don’t want to live in a bee hive, next to a train station, with restaurants and shops on the first floor. My grandparents had to live that way in filthy cities and because they couldn’t afford a car. Maybe I am selfish but I’d rather not share a wall with neighbors. I prefer to leave home without having to meet people on an elevator. I know all my suburban neighbors, and interact with them, but I like to have my own structure. When living in an apartment people isolate themselves from fellow apartment dwellers. City life is not better. It may be a necessary evil if one is impoverished. Cars give us freedom.

#7 Comment By Global Twitizen On April 30, 2015 @ 3:16 pm

Many excellent points here that my spouse and I have discussed for years.

‘superdestroyer’ makes a compelling and important point, one which I hope the book addresses.

FYI: for the first approx 10 years of our marriage, we (w/ 3 small children) lived in a 2-bedroom/1-bathroom apt in a very expensive part of California — one of the most expensive in the nation. Mercifully, the neighborhood was walkable in many places and close to shopping: two good supermarkets, dry cleaning, drugstore, etc.

Being one of the few full-time “Moms” could indeed be isolating but, having worked full-time for almost 10 yrs prior, it was energizing to finally be my own boss! And — having lived in the city all through my working life — the quiet of the ‘burbs’ made me re-think certain party-lines (some uber-liberal) I’d grown up & lived with for many years.

AND — because we’d literally moved from east-to-west coast — I had to start from scratch re. making new friends and associations. The children are grown now but I guess you could say that — tho’ the kids at first didn’t have typical middle-class amenities of large house; private bedrooms; fancy stores — they’re now accomplished young women, both academically and professionally, working f/t or in college, one living overseas, and all “pursuing their bliss” (Joseph Campbell).

#8 Comment By ARM On April 30, 2015 @ 3:30 pm

But PGL, were you trying to get around by transit in a town that was designed for it, or in a suburb designed for cars? That makes all the difference. The latter is horrible and time-consuming; the former is incredibly freeing and makes you feel like you own the place.

I’ve lived in two small cities/towns old enough to be designed with mixed zoning so many errands could be done on foot, a large city with terrific transit, and a walkable suburb right next to a subway station, and they were all great places to live – none were dirty or cramped and all had plenty of green space and trees. I just don’t recognize these places at all in the false dichotomy you describe.

#9 Comment By Jason Segedy On April 30, 2015 @ 4:12 pm

@superdestroyer

You’re foisting a totally false choice upon us. People raised far more kids in “old urbanism” than anyone is raising today.

Not all New Urbanism is what you describe in your comment. There is plenty of room for single-family homes on small lots, car ownership, walkable, affordable retail, etc. This is how most urban areas in the U.S. functioned prior to 1960. Most of the U.S. looked like Akron (where I live) and not New York. But it was still financially-stable, walkable, and functional – until we decided as a society to throw it in the garbage can.

The idea that returning to time-honored urban design concepts is just for unmarried singles is simply not true.

Some of us were raised (as children) in these neighborhoods and still live in them today:

[1]

#10 Comment By z On April 30, 2015 @ 4:44 pm

@superdestroyer:
I see, so apparently no one in the thousands of years of human civilization, including the modern era, figured out how to house more than one child in a walkable urban environment. Gotcha.

Suburban life does a huge disservice to children and their development: they rarely get to leave their own street, unless escorted by an adult, typically to some adult-organized event (‘play-dates’, sports, etc), they don’t learn how to interact with adults as people, how to navigate the world around them, and aren’t exposed to the plethora of people you get in cities (‘sheltered child syndrome’).

And these sheltered children become sheltered adults who never experienced a wide variety of civic life, and as they age become less likely ever to do so. Suburbs are great if your goal is to create inward-looking people with little sense of civic responsibility or empathy with the diversity of the modern world.

Regarding your other points:
– Driving/parking: Parking requirements and driving are a consequence of the suburban lifestyle. If your city has even moderately adequate transportation, you can get around by that and bikes or walking. If other cities around the world can do it, why can’t we – are you claiming we are too soft, weak, or dumb to do it? Do you hate America??

– Day care: Why couldn’t you have daycare in a city? That argument makes no sense.

– Store prices: Pricing can vary a lot: Whole Foods suffers from high prices and is typically the choice for those who can afford to shop there, but alternatives almost always exist (and any good free-marketist will tell you that if the need arises, alternatives will fill those niches). All shops being very highly priced is more an effect of ’boutique’ urban areas, where a disproportionately large number of residents have lots of extra spending money; a well-settled city has a mix of lower and higher income households.

#11 Comment By philadelphialawyer On April 30, 2015 @ 6:47 pm

I don’t agree with PGL, but millions of PGLs are what anyone who wants livable cities and towns, with sidewalks and bike paths and mass transit, are up against. Viewed from the individual perspective of the suburban or ex urban, single family homeowning person, there is no need to change anything, and there is no desire to have to pay for any change.

Driving, if you can afford it, does provide more freedom, autonomy, control, privacy, etc, than mass transit. Living in a stand alone house does provide more space, more privacy, more greenery, more cleanliness, more choice in terms of how much one HAS to socialize with one’s neighbors, and so on than living in an apartment or even a row or town house. And living in a suburb does mean that one can drive to conveniently arranged (for drivers!) malls, strip malls, box and stand alone stores where one can shop more cheaply and efficiently than in a downtown.

“Maybe I am selfish….”

At least PGL recognizes the possibility! But many suburbanites don’t. As they see it, they pay high property taxes and mortgages and also pay a lot for all of the costs associated with their cars, plus their income and other taxes, and have no desire to pay for bike paths, busses, and so on, on top of all that. Perhaps they don’t realize the degree of subsidization they are the beneficiaries of, or all of the externalities of their way of living. Or, they do and they don’t care.

As a society, the costs of suburban, car based predominance are high. But, to many, many individuals, the benefits are enormous. Somehow, we are going to have to win the political battle to connect these two facts.

#12 Comment By Hibernian On April 30, 2015 @ 9:01 pm

“But PGL, were you trying to get around by transit in a town that was designed for it, or in a suburb designed for cars? That makes all the difference. The latter is horrible and time-consuming; the former is incredibly freeing and makes you feel like you own the place.”

I live in Chicago. There are plenty of hassles involved in using transit in old neighborhoods built for transit. For rush hour commuting they’re preferable to the extreme hassle and expense of driving at those times (especially parking fees), if you work downtown as I do. I tried transit only for a few years in my 20s. It took the energy and endurance of an under 27 year old to pull it off. That was about 35 years ago for me, and another factor is that the transit system is more employee oriented and less rider oriented now than it was then.

If transit ever made me feel like` I “owned the place” it must have been when I was a 23 year old very new to the city.

#13 Comment By Michael D. Setty On April 30, 2015 @ 11:08 pm

Philadelphia Lawyer:
If the benefits of living in auto-oriented suburbs are “so great” then the denizens of said places should be willing to pay most of the economic and social costs of obtaining those benefits. That is the point being made by Ben Ross and Glen Bottoms in the book review. To reiterate, too many conservatives and libertarians apparently aren’t willing to do this, or admit that auto-oriented suburban lifestyles are heavily subsidized and have many negative impacts on society.

#14 Comment By PGL On May 1, 2015 @ 2:14 am

Philadelphia Lawyer, it is less expensive to live in suburbs even though one has more living space, relative freedom from crime, and all the things one might wish to buy a short drive from home. I happen to like riding my bicycle and will use that to pick up a few groceries or beer. It is nice to have the cars available when it is raining or if time is short. The bike is pretty useless for picking up some bags of mulch at the garden center? There are bike paths but any biker knows it is more efficient to use the roads.

I would prefer to live in a more remote area but work forces me to be a suburbanite. The city is great for single people in their 20s with no family and dogs. It can also work for older people who no longer want a patch of land. For some reason most people seem to crave a piece of land, even a quarter acre. The rest endure life in the city because of limited resources. If one lives next to a train station, and if one’s work happens to be on the same train line, commutes could be short and pleasant. This describes a tiny percentage of commuters. Once it is necessary to transfer from one subsidized public transportation to another, the commute becomes a large part of the day. Driving is almost always more convenient. There is that freedom to make a stop on the way home which would be difficult on the trains and busses.

The nostalgia for the older way of living in apartments and row houses mystifies me. All of my Philadelphia relatives and ancestors left the city for opportunities and improved quality of life. One retired couple sold their suburban house and moved back to center city. The condo costs more than their house but they can afford it. They happen to love the arts scene that the city offers. I don’t think my relatives are exceptional in their desire to get out of the city. Those who pine for the urban experience have a difficult sales job to make. They will ultimately need to force people to revert to the old ways.

Cheap energy allows people to have a better life. Good news: we have unlimited energy resources if the state would get out of the way. No doubt the billions of poor people in the city slums of the world would really like to have a suburban lifestyle.

#15 Comment By philadelphialawyer On May 1, 2015 @ 8:24 am

Michael D Setty:

Perhaps I didn’t make myself clear. I KNOW that the suburbs are subsidized. My point was that while their residents indeed, as you say, “should” be made to pay their own way, they don’t want to, will oppose it, and some don’t even realize that they are being subsidized.

And PGL once again provides a perfect example of that. He loves the suburbs, and does not admit that he is being subsidized. To him, it is all about the “cheap energy,” and “the state,” far from subsidizing his lifestyle, as he sees it, is actually hindering him!

#16 Comment By SD On May 1, 2015 @ 9:10 am

PGL,

I think the first mistake you make is labeling all those who live in urban centers “poor” at the end. There are those, like myself, who choose to live in the city to be close to work, to experience a vibrant arts scene or other entertainment, and who like the purely local feel (ie. no Olive Gardens in the middle of downtown.)

I don’t fault you for living in the suburbs. It does offer a lot including, normally, cheaper housing, less crime, and some land. But like others said, the point is that we have come to a fundamental argument here- are we publicly subsidizing transit in general and if so, what portion goes where? A 2010 study showcased on reason.com showed that 10 trillion would be needed just to repair and maintain our current highway/state route infrastructure. Obviously our 18 cent/gallon tax isn’t doing that so we ARE subsidizing road transit (no they don’t pay for themselves) and if that’s the case, why not subsidize inner city transit that is actually more economical?

Either we subsidize it all, or suburbanites should be expected to pay for the resources that they directly consume (ie. tolls out at stops along the highway going to far flung suburbs.) Suburban sprawl has taken off because it has been fundamentally made cheaper by our policies that roads dominate all and that all costs for them will be borne by all as a necessary cost.

#17 Comment By Brooklyn Blue Dog On May 1, 2015 @ 9:17 am

Last night I had dinner with a friend who is also married to a Japanese woman and has also lived for long stretches of his adult life in Japan. He mentioned how he and his wife were thinking about retiring in Japan, and the reason he specifically mentioned was the ease of getting around there as an old person. This is ease is from several factors. There are far fewer completely car-dependent places in Japan. Even in rural areas, towns are concentrated — farmers commute to their fields. As an old person, you can easily walk to shops and have a life, even if you cannot drive. Second, the train network is incredibly extensive in Japan, meaning that even if you live in a small town, it is generally possible to get almost anywhere in the country from your local train station. Finally, unlike the US, Japan is facing its aging population head-on rather than sticking its head in the sand. Train stations throughout the country are being retrofitted so that people in wheelchairs can easily navigate the train and subway systems.

My friend contrasted life in Japan as an old person with his father’s existence in suburban Illinois. Once he is too old to drive, he will become house-bound because there is nowhere he can walk to. He will become dependent on other people to bring him groceries and take him where he wants to go.

That will be your fate, suburbanites. You will sacrifice your future freedom on the altar of your McMansion.

#18 Comment By Don Mynack On May 1, 2015 @ 11:06 am

“Either we subsidize it all, or suburbanites should be expected to pay for the resources that they directly consume (ie. tolls out at stops along the highway going to far flung suburbs.) Suburban sprawl has taken off because it has been fundamentally made cheaper by our policies that roads dominate all and that all costs for them will be borne by all as a necessary cost.”

Rail lines consume massive subsidies. In fact, they rarely exist unless propped up by government. I can’t think of a commuter line, or any form of public transportation, anywhere in the U.S., that doesn’t survive almost exclusively on gov’t largess. Do you support floating their tolls to a self-supporting market price?

#19 Comment By ARM On May 1, 2015 @ 11:33 am

Good point, Brooklyn Blue Dog. Right now we’re living in a car-dependent suburb built in the 50’s that demonstrates the problem of suburbs for the elderly. Most of the houses are still owned by the first or second owners, who are now quite elderly.

Besides the fact that no errands are close enough to walk, the sidewalks are too narrow for a wheelchair or an unsteady cane-user. Only a couple of our neighbors – a married couple still fit enough to walk their dog – are ever seen outside their doors at all, and many houses are actually empty because the owners have gone straight to assisted living.

Perhaps they’d be in assisted living anyway, but a more accessible and denser neighborhood might at least have given them a chance at managing longer at home. In the small town I used to live in I saw old folks doing errands in their wheelchairs and scooters all the time.

I’m sure this neighborhood looked like a great idea for family barbecues, etc., back when they bought, but the only people to be seen on the nice private lawns now are the hired landscapers.

#20 Comment By superdestroyer On May 1, 2015 @ 1:04 pm

Brooklyn Blue Dog,

Japan has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world. The price of having very expensive, very dense housing is that Japanese citizens refused to have children. When having children has a major impact on one’s standard of living, one does not have children.

Look at the walkable neighborhoods in the U.S. They are filled with adults who walk to bars, restaurants, exercise gyms, hair salons, and nail salons. Almost no physician office or physical therapy office can afford the rest in a mixed-use neighborhood. The elderly living in those mixed use neighborhoods still need to be driven to healthcare.

#21 Comment By ARM On May 1, 2015 @ 2:15 pm

Superdestroyer: I call BS on both your claims there. What’s your evidence that the reason for Japan’s low birthrate is the population density? A quick search suggests that professional demographers disagree on what caused Japan’s dramatic birthrate decrease after WWII, although I don’t see anybody suggesting that population density has anything to do with it.

About walkable neighborhoods, that’s total nonsense. In the town I just moved from, I had four grocery stores, our doctor’s and dentist’s offices, the post office, the church, the library, a hardware store, a liquor store, a bike repair shop, and many more such businesses within a 15-minute walk of my home. (And yes, there were physical therapists within a couple blocks, too.) Roughly the same was true in the walkable big-city neighborhoods I’ve lived in, too. You sound like you’re speaking from stereotypes and hearsay, not actual experience of such neighborhoods – is that correct?

#22 Comment By Matt in AK On May 1, 2015 @ 4:47 pm

PGL,
No one is asking you to live in a tenement. Although I bike the 8 1/4 miles to work year round, for a lot of reasons (many of them selfish as well) I own my own house and three cars as well.
The point you seem to be missing is that the folks who are “enjoying” suburban sprawl and automobile-centric development aren’t paying for it themselves. So, while you are thanking a merciful God for your auto-centric life, I suggest you thank Him for the things that make that life possible:
Add a petition thanking Him for the communist Chinese who are paying for the federal portion of the road infrastructure budget through their loans to the US government. Thank Him for our children who will continue to pay the interest on those loans. Thank Him for the cyclists and users of mass transit who are paying disproportionate shares of the local and state portion of the road infrastructure through their property, and other taxes. Don’t forget to thank God for the military folks willing to go to war to defend the sources of cheap oil, and especially my colleagues that were killed doing so, David, Jerry, Mike, Jeff, Willy, Keith, Greg, Eric, Bill, and the families they left behind. (They are a drop in the bucket: motorists kill about 35,000 fellow Americans by running into them w/ their cars, and over 100,000 additional Americans are killed annually by diseases of the fat and lazy. It’s a dumb way to live, and a dumber way to die.)
It only seems cheaper to own and maintain a car because you are ignoring the heavy subsidies being paid by others on your behalf. Your Auto-based “freedom” is being paid for by the sacrifices of many other people. If you are honest enough to thank God for them, perhaps you will also start questioning the sustainability of our auto-centric life.

Blessings+,
-Matt in AK

#23 Comment By Rambler89 On May 1, 2015 @ 5:27 pm

1)

Free parking in the suburbs isn’t a subsidy–it’s a natural advantage. Where there’s lots of space, there’s space for parking. There’s vastly more free parking in rural areas. Does that reflect a subsidy even greater than the alleged subsidy enjoyed by the suburbs? Doubtless, by playing with speculative metaphysical redefinition of the relevant terms, one could construct an ad hoc system in terms of which free parking in the suburbs (and rural areas, if one wished) would fit that system’s definition of a “subsidy”. But that is only to say that one can construct an ad hoc system to redefine any inherent advantage as a subsidy. (Such ad hoc systems can always be discarded when they are no longer expedient, and replaced with new ones when a different talking point is needed.)

In contrast, the subsidies typical of development in today’s cities, and of large-scale development anywhere, are subsidies in hard cash paid by governments, either for government-built projects (notably rail lines) or directly to developers, or in privileged treatment (tax breaks or exemptions from law) that is directly convertible to hard cash. This happens outside the cities too, but the really spectacular amounts, and the damning frequency of instances, are mainly in the cities.

Major government-built projects, in addition to being cash subsidies of a policy, are not financially pure alternatives to private initiatives. They’re built by contractors, and have major impacts on the real estate market. The interested parties, like private development initiatives, form a powerful constituency, which enjoy wholesale discounts when they need to buy media people, legislatures, judges, and ad hoc rationalizations.

Does Benjamin Ross specify unequivocally somewhere that, if the sort of development he advocates is to be socially beneficial, it must not benefit from direct cash subsidies? If not, then how much of a point does he have with the speculative redefinition of free parking outside the cities as “subsidized”. Given the massive corruption that is often (perhaps always) behind such subsidies, and other financial forces that tend to twist the subsidized developments from their proclaimed purpose, does Ross, if he ignores this factor, really deserve to be considered as a) competent or b) honest?

2)

“Unlike many other works on suburbia, Mr. Ross has covered all aspects of this story.” No. In addition to corruption, and the pervasive corruption of city governments generally, the most important and widely acknowledged aspect was omitted entirely, at least on Bottoms’ presentation. One must suspect that all the detail was meant primarily to distract from the glaringly obvious.

Waves of people would not have moved to the suburbs if living in the cities was an alternative. The move to the suburbs was nothing less than mass flight. The problems they fled from have only gotten worse: soaring cost of living, social insanity, and just plain constant irritation. The people who moved to the suburbs were generally quite conscious of the tradeoffs, of the advantages they were leaving behind in the cities. But those advantages were just the gravy. The cities failed to provide the basics.

For decades, this was so obvious that no amount of “scholarly and precise writing” could even attempt to cover it up. The attempt can be made now only because so many readers are too young to remember, or to take seriously, the reasons for their parents’ flight. They grew up in the suburbs, and the grass looks greener in the city. Or at least in some cities. They can’t afford to live in those cities, so they want more such cities built–and the building of course, will require massive subsidies, both direct, in the form of asset transfer from outside the cities, and indirect, in the form of the sort of targeted legal pressure and privilege that constitutes the very same sort of subsidy that suburban development is said to have enjoyed.

3)

“As an alternative, Weyrich and Lind strongly advocated the adoption of a dual codes approach as one that conservatives could whole-heartedly support. It would allow developers to continue to build suburban sprawl if they so desire or opt for New Urbanist-aligned communities.”

I take it that, since the choice is to be left entirely to the developers, no control is to be left to the communities in which the development is to take place. The developers can do what they want. Some magical force will presumably override the developers’ tendency to build (with all the subsidies they can buy) whatever makes the most money, whether building is needed there or not. This magical force will see to it that what the developers want is in line with what the “New Urbanism” presently claims to want.

Or if the communities are to be given some choice, what happens when they consistently reject what the developers want to build? We have already seen what happens: “regionalism”, in which political entities accountable to developers and unaccountable to the public make the choices.

I doubt that conservatives, or moderates, would whole-heartedly support this. I doubt that conservatives, or moderates, have the same tender sympathy for developers and big municipal governments that this review is meant to excite–a sympathy that, at TAC, sticks out like a urinal in a nunnery.

#24 Comment By Rambler89 On May 1, 2015 @ 5:34 pm

4)

Transit is a problem largely because many people in the suburbs still commute to jobs in the core cities. What is it that kept the jobs from moving where the people went? The answer is mainly subsidies, openly granted to certain classes of employer (the ones with the most loose cash), for the declared reason of keeping jobs in the city.

#25 Comment By grumpy realist On May 1, 2015 @ 5:40 pm

Also don’t forget that a daily diet of walking is one of the best ways to make sure you REMAIN able to walk into your 80s.

When I lived in France it was normal to nip out in the morning and buy fresh bread and croissants from the local bakery. Ditto for picking up the daily groceries at the local store. (Something you had to do because the average French fridge is tiny.)

Living in Japan? Ditto. I didn’t NEED a car, period. And even now here in Chicago I managed to spend a full year without a car (rented one when I needed it) and still use public transit and foot leather for most of my transportation needs.

(If people living in the suburb had to pay 30$/parking space every time they used one, they’d have a completely different idea about the “value” of living via car.)

#26 Comment By Tom On May 2, 2015 @ 2:23 am

Rail lines consume massive subsidies. In fact, they rarely exist unless propped up by government. I can’t think of a commuter line, or any form of public transportation, anywhere in the U.S., that doesn’t survive almost exclusively on gov’t largess. Do you support floating their tolls to a self-supporting market price?

Subsidies to rail lines only look high if you ignore the actual economics. But they’re actually lower than the amortized cost of our automobile infrastructure.

Highway subsidies look low at the moment because we’ve been deferring maintenance like crazy. This does not work so well for railroads, which must be maintained to a certain standard to avoid derailment.

Because of this, railroads have been subsidized at the actual amortized cost, while roads have been subsidized at an artificially low rate that does not keep them in a state of good repair.

This cannot continue forever.

#27 Comment By SD On May 2, 2015 @ 9:17 am

Tom says:
May 2, 2015 at 2:23 am

Rail lines consume massive subsidies. In fact, they rarely exist unless propped up by government. I can’t think of a commuter line, or any form of public transportation, anywhere in the U.S., that doesn’t survive almost exclusively on gov’t largess. Do you support floating their tolls to a self-supporting market price?

Subsidies to rail lines only look high if you ignore the actual economics. But they’re actually lower than the amortized cost of our automobile infrastructure.

Highway subsidies look low at the moment because we’ve been deferring maintenance like crazy. This does not work so well for railroads, which must be maintained to a certain standard to avoid derailment.

Because of this, railroads have been subsidized at the actual amortized cost, while roads have been subsidized at an artificially low rate that does not keep them in a state of good repair.

This cannot continue forever.

Thanks Tom. You pointed it out before I came back to this.

#28 Comment By Rambler89 On May 2, 2015 @ 3:49 pm

Tom wrote: “Subsidies to rail lines only look high if you ignore the actual economics. But they’re actually lower than the amortized cost of our automobile infrastructure.”

It’s difficult enough to do a genuinely useful and impartial economic analysis of issues as complex as road vs rail. In addition, economic analysis leaves lots of room for selecting the factors to analyze so that the results favor one policy over the other. They also leave lots of room for selecting different factors for each policy, and being much more selective for one than for another, so that you get an apples-to-oranges comparison.

There is also the question of whether the analyses are accurately and impartially reported to the general public. The actual analysis may present a much more nuanced picture than the catchy headlines selected for stories hastily written by people who don’t even think it’s their job to analyze and judge credibility. (Officially, the story is always that so-and-so said such-and-such, not that such-and-such is true in any degree.)

Abuses happen, in both analysis and reporting, especially when there are billions of dollars in contracts riding on politically loaded decisions. Incompetence and carelessness happen too, in both analysis and reporting.

Anyone can play the game of pointing out factors that weren’t taken into account by one analysis or the other. Such points will often be valid.

Serious evaluation of the economics, then, requires detailed and critical attention to the actual analyses presented. The topic has little real use or credibility as a talking point in a blog post or comment. Little use, that is, except to distract from more obvious criteria.

#29 Comment By Winston On May 2, 2015 @ 7:04 pm

Rail lines are too expensive for America’s dwindling tax base. Need to focus on BRT and feeder buses that follow settlement pattern!