The free market made us sprawl. This
is the argument I often hear when I speak to individuals or groups
about the negative consequences of our current land-use patterns
in Connecticut. Someone, usually a male, stands up and says there
is nothing we can do about sprawl because it is the result of our
free market system - that low-density, auto-dependent development
dominates our state and our country because that is what Americans
We chose sprawl, and corporations,
being the profit-driven entities that they are, gave us want we
wanted in the form of big boxes, big cars and big houses. Sprawl
is nothing more than the fulfillment of the American dream, and
any effort to challenge that dream, is, well, downright un-American.
Well, the fact is that we had no choice.
Far from being the result of a free market system, urban sprawl
is the direct consequence of government subsidies, intense corporate
lobbying and manipulation through the legalized bribery we call
campaign contributions, not to mention stifling zoning regulations
that have limited the choices Americans have when it comes to where
we live and how we get from place to place.
Exhibit A is our auto-dependent society.
In 1922, Alfred P. Sloan, president of General Motors, established
a special unit within the corporation that was charged with the
task of replacing the United States' electric railways with cars,
trucks and buses. At the time, 90 percent of all trips were by rail,
chiefly electric rail; only one in 10 Americans owned an automobile.
There were 1,200 separate electric street and interurban railways,
a thriving and profitable industry with 44,000 miles of track, 300,000
employees, 15 billion annual passengers, and $1 billion in income.
General Motors used a variety of techniques,
legal and illegal, to convince electric railway owners to convert
to buses. However, the primary method of destroying America's electric
railways was the formation of a holding company called National
City Lines. Created by General Motors in conjunction with Firestone,
Standard Oil and Phillips Petroleum, National City Lines bought
out more than 100 electric railway systems in 45 cities between
1936 and 1950.
As soon as the transaction was complete,
service was reduced, fares were increased, property was sold off,
routine maintenance was ignored, and finally the entire system was
dismantled and replaced by buses.
In 1936, when GM organized National
City Lines, 40,000 streetcars were operating in the United States;
at the end of 1965, only 5,000 remained. In December of that year,
GM bus chief Roger M. Kyes correctly observed: "The motor coach
has supplanted the interurban systems and has for all practical
purposes eliminated the streetcar." In 1949, a federal court
found General Motors and its corporate conspirators guilty of criminal
conspiracy. Their punishment: a $5,000 fine.
While General Motors was systematically
ripping up tracks, it also ran massive public relations campaigns
to indoctrinate the public with the idea that cars were what people
really wanted. In addition, they formed a secretive group called
the "Road Gang," 240 representatives of the automotive,
oil and trucking industries who lobbied the federal government for
more highway construction.
Their lobbying and campaign contributions
paid off handsomely during the Eisenhower administration, when the
recently elected president appointed members of GM's board to key
governmental positions. Those appointees in turn declared the building
of highways a matter of "national security."
Eisenhower then formed a committee
of business executives with ties to the auto, oil, trucking and
construction industries to negotiate a deal among the various special
interests. The culmination of their negotiations was the National
Interstate Highway and Defense Act.
The act ensured that the automobile
would be the primary mode of transportation for Americans. The money
collected through gas taxes and automotive excise taxes would be
used exclusively for highway and road construction. From 1945 to
1970, only 16 miles of new subway were constructed in the entire
country. In addition, the highway system opened up suburban land
for speculation and development to the enrichment of automobile,
truck, oil, construction and real estate interests.
We are now dealing with the detrimental
consequences of the General Motors campaign. While it is not, by
any means, exclusively to blame for our auto-dependent sprawl society,
its actions are indicative of how special interests and government
officials have created a low-density, auto-oriented pattern that
has effectively removed the multiple alternatives associated with
a free market system.
Local and state governments have only
exacerbated the problems associated with urban sprawl by developing
land-use and roadway regulations that mandate large roads and large
parking lots and encourage low-density, single-use developments
that separate people from their destinations.
People who want affordable housing
in pedestrian-friendly, multi-use neighborhoods with easy access
to public transportation are simply out of luck. Simply put, government
regulation favors one kind of living arrangement over another.
It is time for government at all levels
to open up the market. The federal government needs to invigorate
a national mass transportation system and stop viewing the construction
of larger and larger highways as the means to eradicating traffic
jams. For decades, federal subsidies have favored the automobile
to the detriment of alternative means of transportation. We are
now dealing with the implications of such exclusivity not only domestically
but in the foreign policy area as well.
At the state and local level, government
needs to also embrace mass transportation while allowing for coordination,
cooperation and innovation when it comes to land-use decisions.
Regional and state land-use plans need to be developed that will
end the vicious cycle of competition between municipalities for
development, driven by the desperate need for property tax revenue.
Local land-use regulations need to
stop zoning out pedestrian-friendly, multi-use neighborhoods in
favor of low-density, McMansion subdivisions. Finally, we as citizens
need to let our elected officials know that we demand alternatives,
that we demand choice, and that we want to make these decisions
for ourselves, our families, and our communities through a democratic
That is what smart growth is
all about: more choices and more community participation.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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