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Not By Choice: How We Were Driven To Sprawl

March 5, 2006
Commentary By TOM SEVIGNY

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 prefer.

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 process.

That is what smart growth is all about: more choices and more community participation.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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