Sprawling Thru the Wreckage

Instapundit pointed me to a review by the Chicago Sun-Times’ architecture critic Kevin Nance of Sprawl: A Compact History, by Robert Bruegmann.  The point of the book, I gather, is “everything you know is wrong” — a popular theme for non-fiction books. 

For example, we know that sprawl leads to lengthier (and lengthier) commutes.  And that’s wrong. Er, no, actually that’s right. It’s our current transportation system that’s wrong:

 “The problem is that we have an old-fashioned 19th-century technology, the internal combustion engine using fossil fuels. Let’s solve that problem — maybe by creating small, fuel-efficient vehicles — and stop talking about putting the city back into its 19th-century state to make mass transit work. Instead, let’s see what people want to do, then see how the city can be built around them.”

Probably isn’t fair for me to comment without reading the book, but…are we supposed to take this seriously?  Cars today are far more efficient, and less polluting, than they were 40 years ago, but those gains have been largely offset by the vast increase in numbers of vehicles trying to reach regional centers of commerce, and the increasing distance they have to travel to reach them.  

Sprawl is a matter of degree. The more miles between home and work, the worse its effects are.  As each ring of suburbs is added, the challenge to serve those far-flung areas becomes less feasible and more expensive.  The miles of new roadway will never catch up with the increased population of vehicles.  Mass transit systems cannot affordably be designed to serve all those new areas, and voters in the unserved areas become–understandably–unwilling to fund a system that doesn’t directly benefit them.  And what’s true about transportation systems is also true about the other basic services: water, electricity, sewage.

It’s not just the environmental effects that have made sprawl such a nemesis.  So many households in far-flung suburbs are structured like this: Dad works full-time, and is away from home between the hours of 5 a.m. and 8 p.m.  Mom’s doing the same. Nannies or older relatives have to come in to get the kids to and from school. As the kids get older, they take on this role for themselves. They come home from school to a fridge, a TV, a computer, and a stern note from Mom to stay in the house until a parent arrives home. 

Eventually, a parent shows up–utterly exhausted from a day at the office plus four hours of driving. No time to prepare dinner?  Fast food. No time to help with homework? Oh well.  No way to get them to Little League or soccer practice?  They can play video games. Kids taking drugs, or having sex, in these empty houses?  Gee, I never knew, I didn’t notice anything had changed.  

I wish I could be like Mr. Bruegmann, and snap my fingers to create a solution to all these problems as facile as “creating small, fuel-efficient vehicles.”

Sprawl is so ingrained in our lifestyles in Southern California–and all over the country–that it will take generations to transform it into something more sustainable. And that assumes developers and home buyers are ever convinced to stop fostering it. So, perhaps books like Bruegmann’s are helpful in beginning to conceive how America can cope with the problems of its own device. But the cheerleading seems misplaced.    

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