Sunday, September 15, 2013

The half-life of cliches is a thing to behold

Today's NY Times includes "Is Suburban Sprawl On Its Way Back?"  Not to beat dead horses, but it was never gone. Most Americans not living in rural places live in "the suburbs". This has been the case since 1970 (see Table 1-15)Wendell Cox has been flogging this issue for years. Bob Bruegmann spelled it out carefully in one of my favorite passages, as follows:
Most American anti-sprawl reformers today believe that sprawl is a recent and peculiarly American phenomenon caused by specific technological innovations like the automobile and by government policies like single-use zoning or the mortgage interest deduction on the federal income tax.  It is important for them to believe this because if sprawl turned out to be a long –standing feature of urban development worldwide, it would suggest that stopping it involves something much more fundamental than correcting some poor American land-use policies.  In the following chapters I will argue that the characteristics we associate today with sprawl have actually been visible in most prosperous cities throughout history.  Sprawl has been as evident in Europe as in America and can now be said to be the preferred settlement pattern everywhere in the world where there is a certain measure of affluence and where citizens have some choice in how they live.
The writer and editors of the Times' piece could also have benefited from just a little research beyond the likes of Smart Growth America. The article dwells on all the awful commutes that must be the fate of suburbanites. But there is more to the story. Prof Alex Anas has summarized substantial research on commuting and cities this way:
The data on the largest U.S. MSAs show that commute times increase only slightly with city size: the elasticity of the average commute time with respect to the number of workers was about 0.1 in 1990 and 2000. (p. 146 of this Handbook).
People and firms make location choices that are strategic rather that suicidal. This includes finding ways to avoid impossible commutes. But that is a matter of trade-offs and we all make individual choices, including lengthy commutes by some, all things considered such as schools, prices, other destinations, etc.

Looking at the bigger picture is always a good idea. But that old time religion casts its own spell.