Back in 2000, I read and reviewed the superb book Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream.” The book describes how America decided, consciously, to pursue a development pattern known as “sprawl,” based in large part on massive subsidization of automobile travel, as well as almost complete discounting of negative “externalities” such as environmental damage, medical treatment necessitated by car-related injuries and pollution, adverse economic and national security implications of our “oil addiction, etc. Instead of incorporating all those “externalities” into the price of gasoline, we instead pay the cheapest price for gasoline in the developed world. Here in Virginia, our current governor just recently proposed making matters even worse, by slashing the gasoline tax. Another Republican, Jim Gilmore, came to power in part by promising “no car tax” – the exact opposite of what “Suburban Nation” recommends we should be doing if we want to have livable communities and a society that works for everyone.
Today, 13 years after my book review, gasoline is double the $1.75 per gallon (in inflation-adjusted dollars) that it was back then. We’re also living in the aftermath of 9/11, which in part resulted from the bin Laden family’s petrodollars funding a previously obscure group named “Al Qaeda.” Since 2000, the threat of global warming has become far more urgent, while our economy has experienced a real estate collapse concentrated mostly in areas (e.g., Prince William County) where gasoline-fueled transport, long commutes, and large houses heated and cooled by fossil fuels, are king, and where sprawl is the standard development model. In stark contrast, places like Arlington and Alexandria – walkable, bikeable, near Metro stations – saw little decline in housing prices, followed by a sharp rebound in the past couple years. Coincidence? I think not.
Anyway, the question today is whether the sprawl model still makes sense in any way (I’d argue strongly NO), and also whether the economic incentives are causing people’s “preferences” (in quotes, because these are meaningful only in the context of various policy choices, path dependency, the price of energy, etc.) to shift. I’d argue that we’re shifting to some degree in the direction of “smart growth” and more urban living, and away from the sprawl model, but not nearly fast enough.
There’s a lot more to say on this subject, of course, and my intention here was not to write a long post on this subject. Mainly, I just wanted to point everyone to Bacon’s Rebellion, where Jim Bacon has an excellent post which asks the question “Do American Households Really Prefer “Sprawl” Development?” I don’t usually agree with Jim Bacon, but in this case, he had me at “the vast apparatus of zoning codes, transportation policies and federal housing subsidies – which amounts to a different form of social engineering – that continue to under-write traditional suburban-sprawl development.” Yeah, I know, it’s really geeky, but I’ll admit it: I love this stuff. I also loved Bacon’s analysis in this article, and particularly his conclusion, which sums up my feelings towards the just-signed transportation bill perfectly. Enjoy.
Walkable urbanism in Virginia. I opposed Governor Bob McDonnell’s transportation tax package on the grounds that it would raise more money to squander on road and highway projects that would support Business As Usual development. My side lost, so I won’t carp about it anymore. My goal now is to ensure that the money is well spent. We have a choice, people. We can build more roads to support more sprawl – as we have in the past and continue to do – or we can invest our money in projects that support re-development, maximize the use of existing infrastructure, and create more fiscally sustainable human settlement patterns.
The bottom line: I had mixed feelings about the transportation bill all along, but now that it’s signed into law, the goal should be to make it work as well – or least badly – as possible. And that means absolutely NOT spending the new revenue stream on building terrible, wasteful, sprawl-encouraging projects like the ones I talk about here (e.g., the horrendous “Outer Beltway”). The problem is, I don’t trust the powers that be to do the right thing here. Have any of them even read “Suburban Nation?” It sure doesn’t seem like it from what I can determine…