Another take on “Dead End: Suburban Sprawl”

Here is an excerpt from a new book where the author suggests suburban sprawl has reached the end of the road:

Despite the struggles of the 1970s, or perhaps because of them, sprawl moved on. It spread over wider territories. It mutated into new forms. The eye was assaulted by landscapes never seen before. Fields of McMansions sprang up in the countryside, gated communities cowered behind stucco walls, office towers were sprinkled among parking lots…

These toll lanes were quickly dubbed Lexus lanes, and they deserve the name. A study showed that drivers with incomes above $100,000 were four times more likely than those who earn less than $40,000 to have used the toll lanes on their last trip. Tolls can reach levels that seem astronomical to drivers accustomed to free interstates, yet they rarely bring in enough money to pay back the cost of construction. Most Lexus lanes need heavy subsidies.

Highways are thus segregated by economic class, much like suburban neighborhoods. Lexus lanes, by design, serve a minority—if most of the cars were in the pay lanes, the free lanes would move at the speed limit and there would be no reason to pay. The tolls are primarily an allocation mechanism, and only incidentally a source of revenue. Their purpose is to deter those less able to pay from using the new lanes. Those wealthy enough to afford the tolls bypass the traffic jams, while everyone backed up on the free lanes gets to pay the bills…

Only the tightening of land use regulation in the nimby era can explain the falloff in construction of apartment houses. Their builders face stricter zoning, growth controls, and aroused neighbors.

It would be interesting to see the unique argument of this new book because this excerpt puts together a number of the complaints about suburban sprawl that have been around for decades: roads are expensive and wasteful as regulations and taxes encouraged driving, promoting bigger single-family homes leads to more private lives marked by NIMBYism and increased consumption, and all of this led to a housing bubble and economic crisis. Perhaps the new argument – hinted at in this excerpt – is that the pace of all of this really picked up from the 1970s through the early 2000s. Sure, American suburbs existed before then but even the post-World War II exemplars, the Levittowns, had much smaller housing and were denser compared to the far-flung new waves of suburban development of recent decades.

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