The answer to congestion is not to build roads and encourage sprawl. It's to get people out of their cars


There is pretty much a consensus that sprawl is not a good thing for the people who live in it, the communities and governments that have to provide services to it, those concerned about climate and the CO2 emitted by the people driving to it. Then along comes Brian Lee Crowley of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an "independent non-partisan public policy think tank." He thinks sprawl is wonderful because it spreads everyone out and gives them so many more roads to drive on. He writes in the Globe and Mail:

How easy it is to assume that travel times must be shorter where cities are dense and people therefore have shorter distances to travel to work. What the real world shows us, though, is that when urban population density is lower, and jobs widely dispersed rather than concentrated in a city centre, commuter traffic is more widely scattered on the road network, lowering commuting times.

Crowley relies on data from the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) that claims that congestion is a huge problem that can be solved by more roads. However if you google TTI and follow twitter tips from Charles Montgomery of the Happy city, you will find articles with names like Just how stupid is the TTI Urban Mobility Report? that say the opposite:

The “key tool” in the Urban Mobility Report — the Travel Time Index — “actually penalizes cities that have shorter travel distances and conceals the additional burden caused by longer trips in sprawling metropolitan areas,”... The UMR, by emphasizing congestion, puts its weight behind the idea that metro areas need more and bigger highways to speed the volume of vehicles, in the view of CEOs for Cities. “It rewards sprawling patterns.”

Not mentioning any of this criticism, Crowley concludes:

Remember “urban sprawl” is not a problem to be solved, but part of the answer to how vast numbers of people can live together in big cities without life grinding to a halt in traffic.

Really, In the dying days of 2013 someone is proposing that sprawl is part of the solution, not the problem. What's going on here?

How to lie with graphs. Note that the circle representing Toronto is half the diameter, not half the area. Properly represented, The Tory blue would be a whole lot smaller./Public Domain

1. This isn't a non-partisan response, In fact, it is laying pipe for the Ontario Conservative Party policy platform released last week, where they write about how they want to end restrictions on development, open up land, build more highways. The Tories write in the policy statement: (emphasis mine)

To listen to some politicians and urban planners, you’d think suburban development was a sin.... Not only is home ownership personally satisfying, but it’s also a big economic generator. Owning a house or condo is the foundation of middle-class life, and developing unused farmland is a major wealth creator for landowners, home builders and home buyers.

After paying lip service to the need for subways, which is dog whistle for saying that they won't put any light rail or streetcars in the way of cars or ever actually build anything, they continue:

While it’s clear our cities need better public transit, we know that transit is not the whole solution to urban traffic congestion. While transit use is high in cities like Toronto and Ottawa, most people still drive their cars, family vans and pick-up trucks. Manufacturers need roads to move their goods, not transit....Road widening and highway extensions are a big part of what’s needed to get people moving again.

2. This isn't a non-partisan organization. Wikipedia says it is:

a think tank directed by high-profile businesspeople with an emphasis on lowering business taxes, reducing government spending, privatizing the healthcare system and "working toward a common security perimeter with the United States" the institute's sympathies are on the right wing of the political spectrum. There are direct links between the founding of the institute and Jim Flaherty, the Conservative finance minister.

The article in the Globe and Mail isn't an outlier. It is part of what will be a larger campaign to justify sprawl, to get suburban votes, to play on urban/suburban divisions, to get money from developers. It won't be the last time Ontarians will hear from the likes of Joel Kotkin, Wendell Cox and Brian Lee Crowley in this Ontario election cycle.

Tags: Ontario