Monday, January 29, 2007
Is suburban sprawl the destiny for all affluent cultures? A growing number of market-oriented commentators argue that spreading suburbs are less the manifestations of subsidized highways and corporate greed, and more the result of a natural human desire for a big house and the personal freedom afforded by automobile travel. A new entry in the pro-suburban camp is "The Road More Traveled: Why the Congestion Crisis Matters More Than You Think, and What We Can Do About It," by Reason magazine contributors Ted Balaker and Sam Staley (I'll let you try to figure out the title). A commentary appears here.
Some of their more interesting numbers concern the supposed rejection of sprawl in other countries, especially Europe. While it is true that public transportation and density have been more common elsewhere, these features may have been the result more of necessity than of preference. Wherever people become more affluent, they tend to buy cars more often, ride the train less, and look more favorably upon a house outside the city and a road-borne commute.
Balaker and Staley also score some easy points by deflating some of anti-sprawl's more hyperbolic and over-heated claims. No, America is not being paved over with asphalt, and we're not running out of farmland. And no, driving less isn't likely to do much about global warming; other sources of pollution (including power plants that create the electricity that runs your computer right now) are far greater culprits. Indeed, modernity-fueled growth, including more asphalt roads in health-care-starved countries, might help poor people in climate-change-vulnerable countries more than rising temperatures may harm them. It's food for thought.