The end of sprawl? Not likely.

The urban dreamers who want sprawl to end really wear me out. You see, sprawl is bad. It costs a lot of money to have a spread out city: all that driving is inefficient, and it costs more to build and maintain spread out infrastructure, let alone service it with police, etc. Plus its so damn boring. Cookie cutter houses, lame strip malls, big parking lots. I agree with these people. I hate sprawl. But we have sprawl for a reason: its what the market for land use creates. You fight the laws of supply and demand at your peril.

Governments seem to have a bass-ackwards view of sprawl. Omaha is a case in point. Well-intentioned urban planners provide incentives for urban redevelopment. They go out and offer tax breaks to developers for building in the decaying downtown areas and then invest a fortune in public sponsored areas like parks, arts, and new street lights. Millions of dollars are borrowed to build a convention center that no one bothered to mention to KPMG that Omaha as a convention destination is probably not going to rank as high as oh, say, Orlando and Las Vegas.

Then, the State goes out and turns Dodge Street in to a highway and builds an overpass over 114th Street so that people can get to West Omaha faster. You’ve just pissed all the hard work of the those city planners down the leg. How? By reducing the time it takes to get to a home in West Omaha, you effectively reduce the net cost of living in West Omaha. Demand for businesses and housing in West Omaha increases, and ten years later the City finds itself trying to help developers turn Crossroads into a viable mall. Crossroads sucked, but it may have had a fighting chance before it took five extra minutes to get to Village Pointe.

There’s a couple of op-ed pieces in the New York Times that appeared on November 25th and 26th. One seems kind of interesting and is a concise thesis of a forthcoming book by Louise Monzigo. It describes how suburban office campuses have contributed to sprawl. She doesn’t mention it in the article, but I’m sure her book does: require developers to build parking garages, and you’ll get much more dense cities. She also raises an interesting question about infrastructure. The days gotta be over for cities building all this spread out infrastructure. We just can’t afford it any more.

But the other piece is from a Brookings Institution scholar who says sprawl is what caused our economic crisis and how exurbs (far suburbs) will never come back.This guy totally sucked the energy out of me. I was bored by the reverse-logic. Sprawl didn’t create the financial crisis, loose credit did. All those people who bought houses with 110% leverage were living the dream: home ownership. Where are the cheapest houses? On the edge of a city. Sprawl is a coincidental factor, not the cause.

Will the exurbs turn into dust and vanish like ghost towns? No. As much as urban planners would like them to, they’re not going away. They will come back. Why? Its cheaper to live at the far reaches of the city. It’s simple math. If I can buy a cheaper house on the edge and drive to work, why wouldn’t I? The only reason I wouldn’t is if my time was so valuable that I needed to be closer to my job and couldn’t afford to sit in a car two hours a day.

The only thing that will change this equation is $5 per gallon gasoline. Then it won’t make sense to live that far away. But that’s a whole other issue. What can government do to stop sprawl? Stop building infrastructure that can’t be paid for and serviced efficiently. Stop building sewers, water lines, and widening country roads into five lane divided highways. Essentially, the government policy on sprawl should be to do… Nothing. No more infrastructure. We, as taxpayers, can’t afford it.

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