Sprawl Is Good For You?

There are times I pick up my morning Globe & Mail and wonder who selects their articles, especially in the Report on Business where investigative journalism does not exactly reign.  A few days ago, right on the top of page B2, they had a piece of drivel by Brian Lee Crowley entitled “Sick of congestion? Build roads, not transit“.

Is the Globe playing for the Ford Nation readership?  Is their soon-to-be-neighbour on King East, the dwindling Toronto Sun, rubbing off on the Globe’s brand?  Will being at the mercy of the King car give them second thoughts about downtown?  After all, they’re also unable to plump for mayoral candidates who might be seen as part of the downtown elite even thought they might actually be competent for the position.

Crowley argues that building more roads is the secret of success far more productive than building new transit lines.  This is the orthodoxy one expects from someone who views Wendell Cox as an informed, unbiased source of information.  On the issue of concentrating resources on transit construction, Crowley writes:

As urban geographer Wendell Cox likes to say, this idea that road construction only worsens congestion is like believing that building more maternity wards will cause more babies to be born.

This argument is a total non-sequitur because the issue is not cause and effect, but capacity and latent demand.  The existence of a new, comparatively uncongested road will induce more driving simply by making this a more attractive option.  More maternity wards do not, of themselves, make having a family more attractive.  To continue the analogy, it would be like a construction program fixated with on ramps.

Cox is no “urban geographer”, but an apologist for anti-government, anti-transit arguments going back decades.  There are enough transit boondoggles in the USA for anyone to show how vast resources have been spent to build new lines of dubious value.  The USA, like Canada, has a long history of spending on capital projects as a job creation scheme regardless of the intrinsic value of what is actually built.  Pork barrel politics bring billions to cities and to the construction industry that feeds off of them.

That does not make all transit a waste of money any more than recent subway debates would invalidate any transit spending plans for the GTHA.  What those debates do achieve is to undermine the credibility of those who ask for more money when voters are suspicious that nothing of real value will be created.

Only when one is well into Crowley’s piece, does one find the real heart of his argument — lower density cities with spread out jobs and populations, and lots of road capacity, are actually less congested and have shorter commute times than the more traditional configuration of downtown-plus-suburb we know so well.  His poster children are Phoenix and Houston.

Certainly, if one has a city with ample room to grow, a history of leaving wide swaths of land around main roadways, and a development model that favours decentralization, one can easily have uncongested roads.  We saw exactly this in much of the 905 until growth caught up with road capacity and, suddenly, those quick trips through suburbia became a commuting nightmare.  The problem is not just “downtown” but throughout much of the GTA.

Crowley pulls a “bait and switch” on his readers giving the implication that he has a solution to congestion when, in fact, his answer is to not build denser cities in the first place.  One can easily argue that there are many other benefits of density and that the effect on commute times is a trade-off we make for a more “urban” environment.  Our problem in the GTA is that we only half-heartedly embrace a truly “sprawling” city.  We already have a dense core, and the idea of keeping housing and jobs spread out all the way from Steeles Avenue to Lake Simcoe is not a model the development industry cares to follow.

Crowley ends by exhorting planners to think of sprawl as part of their toolkit to make better, less congested cities.  This is complete nonsense.  He starts with the premise that where sprawling cities do exist, there is little or no congestion, but then reverses cause and effect to imply that sprawl can be used as an antidote.  No, it doesn’t work that way.  Our congestion already exists, and more sprawl won’t make it vanish.  Neither will road building, at least on a scale we can afford and tolerate within our already-developed city.

If anything, our problems are compounded by the demands of the industrial sector who want to see less congestion for their trucks and, by implication, a shift of road priority away from individual motorists by spending on alternatives like transit.

Simplistic analyses like this may keep Ford Nation warm at night dreaming of more expressways (provided the roads and traffic don’t go through their neighbourhood).  For the debate about Toronto’s transit future, Crowley’s empty and misleading thesis is a useless distraction.

Links to Other Articles in Response:

Jarrett Walker on Human Transit

Todd Litman on Facebook