This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.
Cascadia Prospectus uses a blog post about to the Port of Vancouver to launch into an extended tangent against the “putative progressives” who are opposed to alternative fuels and, by proxy, their tendency to encourage suburban sprawl. He writes:
For its part, “sprawl” is a somewhat loaded concept, reducing to a disease-like term the proclivity of actors in the free market to decide where to live based on laws of supply, demand and consequent household costs.
Just as people cannot be hectored into pricey and pinched urban townhomes merely to suit the objectives of planners and environmentalists, they cannot be browbeaten into taking mass transit. It will work for some on a daily basis, but not for many others, based on their daily travel patterns.
This is an idea you hear a lot from anti-transit people. Sprawl is the product of (presumably rational) “actors in the free market” while dense neighborhoods are the product of “hectoring planners and environmentalists.” In short, sprawl = freedom, density = communism.
But this is obviously not the case, as Matt eloquently argued here on this blog. Suburban sprawl was not handed down from upon high by God and Adam Smith, as some free-marketeers would have you believe. The Federal Highway Administration is one of the biggest corporate subsidies ever conceived. And it’s $30B budget doesn’t even include the billions more spent by states, cities, and counties.
Sprawl is a choice that we made, collectively, in the 1950s. And it was a smart choice at the time! FDR had just inked a deal with the Saudis to keep the black gold pumping, there was a ton of land outside of the cities to develop, and there were so few people with cars that congestion and traffic were almost nonexistant. Given those conditions, it made a lot of sense to re-build our society based on the automobile (let’s bracket, for now, the pernicious efforts of the auto companies to buy up and dismantle the streetcar lines, another way in which the car has robbed us of choices).
But we’ve learned a lot since then. We’ve learned that auto-dependent lifestyles have a cost: wars in the Middle East, greenhouse gasses, time stuck in traffic, loss of rural land, and an obesity epidemic. Those first two can be reduced by switching to alt fuels, but the last three cannot. So just as we made a collective choice to standardize on the automobile 50 years ago, we can make a different choice today.
Or better yet, we can make a lot of choices: we can build roads, trains, bus lanes, bike paths, sidewalks, and ferry lines. And down the road, jetpacks and hovercrafts, anyone? The more the merrier. Let’s have true choice. Not the illusion of choice.