Monday, June 26, 2006

more on Bruegmann

After a few weeks of being out of town, I got back to Bruegmann. One of his most widely publicized points is the universality of sprawl- the idea that because some rich people had country estates one or two or twenty centuries ago, the status quo is just fine. This argument rests on the assumption that if some sprawl is OK, lots of sprawl is even better.

But this kind of argument overlooks important differences of degree: every city may have some sprawling development, but not all cities are identical.

In the most sprawl-bound cities and metropolitan areas, most residents will be unable to get to classes, jobs or shops without driving, and carless residents are thus virtually helpless. For example, in Oklahoma City, a city with over 500,000 people, buses do not run at night or on Sundays, and thus the 8.2% of households without cars are essentially frozen out of jobs that require evening work.

And in cities planned around the automobile, streets are often so wide, and traffic moves so quickly, that the basic human act of walking outdoors becomes dangerous. Even residential streets are often dangerous for pedestrians due to the absence of sidewalks.

In such cities, most people need a car to function.

By contrast, less sprawling regions give residents a variety of transportation options. For example, the majority of New York City residents get to work via public transit, and the city has prosperous neighborhoods where most households own no cars. In metropolitan New York, transportation choice is not limited to city residents: New York City has some highly automobile-dependent suburbs, but also has two suburbs (Hoboken and Brownsville) where a majority of commuters use public transit regularly. In other words, New York, to a greater extent than other American cities, accommodates both consumer preferences for automobile-dependent sprawl and consumer preferences for less automobile-dependent lives.

So how much sprawl is too much? And how do you define "too much" sprawl?

It seems to me that if you need a car to live in a place, that place has too much sprawl- because at that point sprawl becomes not a result of consumer choice but a burden on consumer choice, freezing people who (for one reason or another) can't drive out of civic life, and imposing huge costs on people who can.

Michael Lewyn

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