Urban Sprawl: It's the American Way. For Now.


Photo via Berlin Washington

Sad but true. For decade upon decade, the uS government incentivized the development of urban sprawl -- funding highways and subsidizing suburban homes and so on and so forth. Not exactly a news flash. But yesterday, when I posted on Slate's great reader-curated video on the top 5 solutions to traffic congestion, it got me thinking about the issue all over again. And, once more, I was reminded of how deeply ingrained our inclination towards sprawl really is -- did you know many cities' sprawl-inducing zoning codes still mandate that bars provide 20 parking spaces per 1,000 sq ft of establishment? -- and what a steep climb we face if we hope to address it. The issue is thoughtfully detailed in a newish American Prospect article, the Reverse Commute. At the focus of the piece is the Obama administration's newly overhauled Dept. Housing and Urban Development, and its partnership with the Department of Transportation and the EPA. These organizations are now working together to (slowly and incrementally) change the very culture of sprawl that has run rampant for so long.

At the center of the effort is funding for local-level projects that steer communities towards being pedestrian or mass-transit friendly. This funding, the Prospect points out, is still absolutely dwarfed by the sums once directed towards projects like highway development. But by giving local governments an incentive to draft plans for light rail or speedy commuter buses -- and to develop housing accordingly -- the HUD is making progress, and "nudging" private investment in the right direction. From the Prospect:

the administration is moving to do things for which it doesn't have to ask Congress to pay, such as influencing consumer choices through devices like the location-efficient mortgage, which gives homebuyers who settle near mass transit more borrowing power. The Obama administration is betting that such gestures can influence individual decision-making on a large scale by tilting economics to favor certain geographic choices over others.
But we've got a long ways to go. This work seeks to change the very culture that allows for sprawl -- and only then things like zoning codes that promote unsustainable development may finally fall.

Like, for instance, that code I mentioned earlier that requires bars in American cities to have a certain amount of parking. Why should a bar -- where people consume alcohol, making subsequent driving dangerous -- be forced to provide parking? Because that's the way we think, and have thought, for nearly 70 years. There's got to be parking, because everyone drives. Which is why an entire paradigm shift still must take place before we can speed truly sustainable development on a large scale -- people need to value living close to that bar (or better yet, other establishments like markets and restaurants), or to mass transit that can get them there and back safely.

And that shift is what the triumvirate of the EPA/DOT/HUD is trying to instigate, through "nudges" and incentives. Here's to hoping the effort picks up steam.

More on Sprawl
Chicken vs Egg: Does Suburban Sprawl Represent the Free Market or State Control
Uncovering an Ancient City Felled by Urban Sprawl

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