Friday, October 23, 2002
The Halifax Herald Limited

Urban planners out of step with society

By Brian Lee Crowley

THE DAYS when urban planners and city councils could impose their tastes and preferences on the rest of us are dying. Currently fashionable, but misguided, efforts to contain the geographic spread of cities and to force people to live in higher densities and without cars will fail. But just as central planners devastated Eastern Europe before being tossed out, so too the old central planning model of urban development can do us a lot of harm before people finally come around to see that it is incompatible with the direction our society and economy are headed.

These are fighting words for a great many people who sincerely believe that urban sprawl, population growth and the automobile are an unholy troika that must be combated at every turn for the sake of the planet and our health. Nothing could be further from the truth. And if we surrender to these anti-growth prejudices, we will only end up driving away the prosperity that alone will allow us to attain a quality of life and a level of public services that will make our cities successful.

The general trend in cities everywhere is toward less density. Why? As people become wealthier, one of the things they want to buy is more space. New York and Paris, like most major cities, have consistently seen reductions in their population densities throughout the 20th century, and there is every reason to think that this trend will continue into the 21st century.

Then there is the private car. Because of it, people do not have to live within walking distance of work or mass transit, giving them more freedom. As people have become wealthier, they have increasingly chosen suburban living, with larger houses and their own yards. The land-use patterns criticized as urban sprawl have enabled people to have higher standards of living than ever before.

Cars offer many advantages, including flexibility about when to travel and the ability to make deviations, such as stopping at the store on the way home from work. Cars carry more cargo than one can manage on the bus or walking, and this in turn has allowed people to shop at supermarkets and discount stores farther from home. While many lament the passing of the local shops and corner groceries they have been replaced by larger chains that offer better prices and selection, again enhancing overall standards of living.

Many urban planners want to discourage the car and put resources into mass transit rather than roads, but the grounds for this are far from self-evident. A tiny fraction of commuter trips are made on mass transit. Even if we were to double the share of mass transit (in itself a huge, and hugely expensive, task), it would still be too small to have much impact on congestion and pollution.

Moreover, economic activity, far from being concentrated in city centres, is increasingly dispersed across the city, meaning that the patterns of movement of people during the working day are less and less aligned with the needs of urban mass transit. In any case, the increasing wealth and falling population density of most modern cities militate against this solution. People are widely and enthusiastically expressing totally different preferences to those of many urban planners, and they’re not likely to stop any time soon.
In fact, looking at what people actually do (everyone talks in favour of urban transit, but what they really mean is that they hope someone else will leave their car at home), no transport policy will succeed that does not take as its starting point that the vast majority of people will rely on their cars for transport. Mass transit will be seen as a social program chiefly for those who don’t have a car.

Lower density living and travel by car are things that people want, because they reflect a higher standard of living and more personal freedom, so the trends that fashionable planning philosophies are trying to reverse are a consequence of higher incomes. If they succeeded in reversing these trends, the result would be, and would be seen to be, a lower standard of living for people who are forced out of their cars and pushed into more crowded living conditions than they find desirable. Only a land-use philosophy that recognizes these trends as signs of higher standards of living will have any hope of creating the conditions in which cities such as ours will thrive, because these are conditions that are in fact attractive to people.

That is not to say that there will not be, in a dynamic and growing city, high density neighbourhoods, or people who will get by without cars. But these will be choices that people will make for themselves, and they will be just a part of a much richer and more diverse mix of land uses and approaches to transport.

Brian Lee Crowley is president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a public policy think tank in Halifax. E-mail: brianleecrowley@aims.