David Brooks: Still Rooting for Auto Dependence and Sprawl

denver_mall_1.jpgDavid Brooks is dreaming of Denver, and in Denver they’re dreaming of transit-oriented, walkable neighborhoods. Photo of 16th Street Mall: ericrichardson/Flickr.

Looks like there’s at least one bubble that has yet to burst: David
Brooks’ unyielding enthusiasm for exurbs and car dependence. In today’s Times, the nation’s most famous sprawl apologist cites a recent Pew study to argue his case:

The first thing they found is that even in dark times, Americans are
still looking over the next horizon. Nearly half of those surveyed said
they would rather live in a different type of community from the one
they are living in at present.

Second, Americans still want to
move outward. City dwellers are least happy with where they live, and
cities are one of the least popular places to live. Only 52 percent of
urbanites rate their communities “excellent” or “very good,” compared
with 68 percent of suburbanites and 71 percent of the people who live
in rural America.

That’s
a pretty thin reed to lean on, but Brooks tries to support a whole
schadenfreude-filled column with it, mocking efforts to curb sprawl and
give people better transportation choices:

The time has finally come, some writers are predicting, when Americans
will finally repent. They’ll move back to the urban core. They will
ride more bicycles, have smaller homes and tinier fridges and
rediscover the joys of dense community — and maybe even superior beer.

America will, in short, finally begin to look a little more like Amsterdam.

Well, Amsterdam is a wonderful city, but Americans never seem to want
to live there. And even now, in this moment of chastening pain, they
don’t seem to want the Dutch option.

Where
to begin? Brooks draws conclusions that the Pew study just doesn’t
support. He gleefully notes the absence of older, Eastern metro areas
from Pew’s list of
the most desirable American cities, while neglecting to mention that
highly-ranked places like Denver, San Francisco, and Portland
are all taking significant steps to become more walkable, bikeable,
or transit-oriented — in other words, more urban.

Likewise,
he sees the relative dissatisfaction of city residents as a judgment
against urban form, but why not pin it on poor urban air quality, or
perceptions of public education, or unsafe city streets that concede
too much to the automobile? One could just as easily spin cherry-picked
Pew data to argue against the Brooks point of view:

  • Americans are all over the map in their views about their ideal
    community type: 30% say they would most like to live in a small town,
    25% in a suburb, 23% in a city and 21% in a rural area.

See,
most Americans would prefer to live in a city or small town. I could
say that they hunger for walkability and "dense community," but I won’t,
because the Pew study is not a useful barometer of American preferences
for urban form and transportation options.

Which won’t stop
Brooks and his ilk from advancing a favorite straw man argument at
every opportunity: that planners want to take away everyone’s cars and
force people to adopt a different lifestyle. As if tens of thousands of Portlanders have no choice but to commute by bike every morning. Or a shadowy cabal put a premium on house values near Denver light rail. Or jackbooted thugs marched Americans to polls at gunpoint last November and ordered them to vote for $75 billion worth of transit-related ballot initiatives

The sprawl dead-enders can deride "planners" and scream "Amsterdam!" all they want. It’s easy to see why they protest so much: If they ever acknowledged the fact that ending car-dependency is about
giving people choices, it might lead to some self-incriminating conclusions about who’s trying to put restrictions on whom.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Brooks doesn’t understand supply and demand. Even if most people prefer a suburban or exurban environment, because that’s all we’ve built for 50 years, there is massive excess supply. That pushes down prices.

    Meanwhile, most older cities became non-viable in the past 50 years, so the supply of economically viable urban neighborhoods is way down. So even if it isn’t what most people want, demand exceeds supply. Many more people would move to vibrant urban neighborhoods, but because of their scarcity they can’t afford them — or can’t sell their suburban house to move.

    And, did Brooks or Pew stratify by age? It doesn’t matter if Brook’s generation wants a suburban or exurban house, because they’ve already got it. Some have two, one occupied and one empty. It matters what people in their teens and twenties want, because they are those who will be reaching their 30s and buying for the next 15 years.

  • brent

    To paraphrase JH Kunstler- It doesn’t matter what Americans “want”, the reality of ecological limits is going to make the menu a lot smaller. Or something like that.

  • d

    Brooks also doesn’t understand basic logic, statistics, and causality. It may be true that “Only 52 percent of urbanites rate their communities “excellent” or “very good,” compared with 68 percent of suburbanites and 71 percent of the people who live in rural America.” But that doesn’t mean that the reason city dwellers are less happy than their suburban counterparts is because they wish cities could be more like the suburbs. And it doesn’t suggest a causality that would make people want to move to the other location. The question was “Are you satisfied with your community?” Not “Would you rather live somewhere else?”

    City dwellers could be less satisfied with their communities because of issues such as crime or vandalism, which historically do not affect suburbs in the way they affect urban areas. But that’s changing. We’ve seen once blighted areas of New York turn around and become a bobo paradise, to paraphrase Brooks. But ask people in suburban communities in Florida or California that have been hit hard by foreclosures how they would rate their communities. Abandoned homes, overgrown lots, reduced services…I doubt they’d come close to the 52% satisfaction rates of city dwellers.

    Brooks’ 1950s suburbs — Westchester, the bedroom communities of Philadelphia or Chicago — are unlikely to see much change in quality or contentment that soon, but the McMansioned exurbs of Phoenix, Atlanta, or Las Vegas are set to become the next slums faster than anyone could have envisioned.

    When gas rises above $4 a gallon, we’ll see how people’s satisfaction levels change.

  • Screw Amsterdam!

    And screw New York. (Sorry guys, nothing personal but New York is just too much.)

    I’ll take Munich over Amsterdam and Philly over NYC any day. Just because I don’t want to live in the examples Brooks gives doesn’t mean I wouldn’t want to live in a city.

    I love most German cities (of the foreign examples I know those best). They typically have a mid rise Central Business District surrounded by low rise neighborhoods with a small shopping district, apartment buildings, townhomes, and even densely but attractively positioned single family homes. Almost every residential setting makes car ownership possible but totally impractical for daily commuting because the public transport is so good and inexpensive. These residences also provide, no matter the form, enough green space for families to have a garden if they choose. Also German cities almost all have superb parks and other public spaces making city living quite lovely and highly desirable.

    Munich is to me the ideal city. While it is probably the most pricey of German cities there is a reason why. Its big enough to be a world city but small enough to not be overwhelming. It is a wonderful place for the pedestrian and the bicyclist alike. Mass transit is superb and gets you where you want to go quickly, easily and cheaply. It also has easy access to the Alps and a host of other areas popular for those who enjoy the outdoors (NYC is pretty good on this front too). But most of all Munich has an incredible world-class park system and other public spaces (beer gardens) that makes living there such a pleasure. It also doesn’t hurt that the city has some of the best beer in the world, far better than what you find in Amsterdam.

    See the problem here in the US (echoing Larry) is that Americans have hardly a clue about high quality urban living because so little of it actually exists here in the US. Portland is great but hardly any Americans really know whats going on there. San Fran and New York are great too but you have to be exceedingly wealthy to experience quality living on par with most American suburbs (I know, a highly subjective statement). If Americans had any clue what quality urban living was all about then I’m sure they would prefer it over the suburban schlock most say they love so much.

  • Good lord, Americans don’t live in Amsterdam because they don’t speak Dutch. Or any number of a zillion other logistical or legal reasons. This must be the most idiotic analogy I’ve ever heard.

    Most people in this country have never travelled abroad and have absolutely no perspective as to what they’re missing. I live in New York because, unlike Europe, the US only has one city that was done cooking before the car came along.

  • It’s no longer a question of what Americans “want.” It’s a question of what we can afford. The nation is simply going to be less affluent in future decades. As individuals, we won’t be able to afford the car payments and fuel bills. And our state, local, federal government will no longer be able to afford the cost of street and road maintenance. We can’t afford our autodependency; a hard fact that some, like Brooks, are reluctant to concede.

  • Commenting on the picture rather than the article: The 16th Street Mall in Denver is a great bit of redevelopment, complete with free and frequent shuttle bus service stretching from the Amtrak station (near Coors Field) at one end to (almost) the state capitol at the other, with connections to the light rail and one of the main bus terminals in between. Apparently Denver metro area residents like the light rail they have (opened in 1994) because in 2004 they voted to approve a pretty massive expansion to their transit system including a combination of light rail, commuter rail and BRT. As much as I love living in NYC, it’s tough not to see the appeal of a mid-sized city where projects like that aren’t overwhelmingly complex and can actually get done.

  • Brooks does his homework and ‘gets it’…..I think he accurately reflects how many folks think about ‘density’. He uses the Pew Research data very effectively.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “I think he accurately reflects how many folks think about ‘density’.”

    As I said at the beginning, it doesn’t matter what many folks think. It doesn’t matter what most folks think. What matters is what the supply and demand is for different types of places. Where the supply exceeds the demand, that’s where values drop and people with problems can afford to live. We’ll see about satisfaction then.

    What also matters is what young folks thinks. They are the buyers. Older generations are the sellers. I wouldn’t want to be selling in the exurbs, or in an aging inner suburb that doesn’t re-invent itself.

  • Larry Littlefield

    And, by the way, not to pull rank but this is something I think about for a living. I write reports about it every day: the readers are investors and underwriters. Capital was on the move, and not in the direction Brooks indicates. It is now in lockdown, but when the recession is over, we’ll have a good idea in which direction it is flowing.

  • Tom

    Larry

    Thanks for putting your bona fides on the table. I cannot compare to your great wisdom, but, why do think that real estate developers build supply where they don’t see demand? Especially when it causes the “values to drop”. I would think that this practice would stop after one iteration unless the developers have an unlimited supply of investors that want to maximize sprawl instead of returns.

    I am a professional economist and your description of how the supply and demand work does not match up with the real world. It is, to borrow a term from the smart growth world, unsustainable.

  • GaryJG

    Brooks doesn’t understand supply and demand. Even if most people prefer a suburban or exurban environment, because that’s all we’ve built for 50 years, there is massive excess supply. That pushes down prices.

    Your argument makes no sense. People don’t prefer suburban housing simply because it’s there. And we wouldn’t have been building lots of suburban housing for 50 years if there weren’t a huge demand for it. If more people decide they want dense urban housing in the future, then more will be built. I suspect you’re going to be disappointed, though.

  • “And we wouldn’t have been building lots of suburban housing for 50 years if there weren’t a huge demand for it.”

    Single-use zoning forbids building anything else. That had a lot to do with it.

  • Jim Labbe

    Fried is absolutely correct.

    We hear the same vacuous arguments from those in the Portland-Metro region who would oppose any land-use or transportation policy that attempts to unleash the pent up demand for denser urban living.

    The most common refrain is that our urban growth boundaries (UGBs) restrict land-supply; that is false. State law in Oregon requires cities to expand UGBs to maintain a 20-year supply of land so they determine where not if land is supplied to urban development.

    So contrary to the spin of a lot of anti-planning polemicists, Portland has not grown denser because of a “tight UGB” but because it has 1. tried, weakly, to direct limited infrastructure dollars to more efficient land-use and 2. liberalized zoning inside the UGB, upzoned centers and corridors to absorb the expanding demand for mixed-use development to house an aging population with smaller families.

    Regional growth management in the Portland-Metro region has simply been about eliminating the many barriers to denser urban living. To acknowledge this would require advocates for low-density development to acknowledge the many government policies that has made car-dependent single-family housing the only option for many people.

    Jim Labbe

  • joe bloggs

    Here is a more interesting question: Would Amsterdamers want to live in the United States?
    Culture and history aside, I don’t know. I guess a great deal of foreigners people admire the American lifestyle – a car, a house, a yard, etc… Surely a great deal of people would not want this.

  • I just can’t comment on what people “want” because the American Dream of a huge house you have to break your back cleaning, a yard that needs constant attention so your neighbors will think highly of you, and several cars that you have to maintain in a good enough condition to keep up with all the ferrying around you have to do to accomplish the simplest task, is just not on my radar. Yes, that is the lifestyle that the majority seem to desire but for the life of me I can’t figure out why. So I’ll let others argue about what people “want”.

    But more importantly, as others have implied, that lifestyle is only possible because of the endless flow of nearly free oil we’ve had for the last 100 years. Nothing else even comes close to replacing it. It seems to me we’re looking at a gradual change into an economy where only the wealthy are going to be able to afford what today’s boomers take for granted.

  • da

    One thing I have to give credit to Brooks for is pointing out how idiotic most Americans are. And Brooks seems perfectly aware of this fact, as evidenced by this column excerpt after the 2000 election. Even I, who hate the guy’s politics, have to admit he is on to something distinctly “American” with these observations:

    People vote their aspirations.

    The most telling polling result from the 2000 election was from a Time magazine survey that asked people if they are in the top 1 percent of earners. Nineteen percent of Americans say they are in the richest 1 percent and a further 20 percent expect to be someday. So right away you have 39 percent of Americans who thought that when Mr. Gore savaged a plan that favored the top 1 percent, he was taking a direct shot at them.

    It’s not hard to see why they think this way. Americans live in a culture of abundance. They have always had a sense that great opportunities lie just over the horizon, in the next valley, with the next job or the next big thing. None of us is really poor; we’re just pre-rich.

    -David Brooks, “The Triumph of Hope over Self-Interest”, NY Times, Jan. 12, 2003

  • “why do think that real estate developers build supply where they don’t see demand?”

    The supply is the land. Slapping down cul-de-sacs and vinyl houses is just an elaborate form of flipping it. Who can say if people “want” to live in outer ring suburbs or if they want something that is cheap because it’s in plentiful supply? Americans consume more hot dogs than steak; does that mean they prefer hot dogs?

    I do disagree with Larry on one thing, though. It’s not that Brooks doesn’t understand basic economics, statistics, or the folly of drawing conclusions from anecdote. It’s that he doesn’t care about intellectual honesty or anything else. He advocated a security state as the future of American conservatism, right before popular opinion turned decisively against such craven (and traitorous) thinking. The thing I don’t understand is why anyone still take this boomer whisperer seriously.

  • Thank you for ripping this apart. This article was “making the rounds” amongst planning students at University of Illinois at Chicago, and several of them were missing its point. Although what they were saying was accurate and relevant, their discussions in no way brought up how Brooks espouses the continuation of the status quo: suburbs and drive throughs. His article was merely a well-spun, dirty interpretation of a Pew survey. It also does little to sway Americans to support the work of grounded, rational planners by calling their work “dreams.”
    http://www.stevevance.net/planning/2009/02/urban-planning-the-stuff-of-dreams-says-david-brooks/

  • bb

    I live car free in Arizona The sprawl is really bad.

    I live right next to the Salt River/ Pima Indian Reservation.
    You have 90 blocks of sprawl to Central Phoenix. Like a line drawn in the desert, the madness ends and the farm fields start growing cotton.

    The most craziest thing you could ever image.

  • That 100 years of “free” oil wasn’t free. Ask the Palestinians.

  • Brooks, and everyone commenting here observe the great taboo: Talking about class.

    The main selling point of auto-dependent places is isolation, especially in the context of public school, from people too poor to afford cars.

    It being uncool to come right out and be a racist, housing policy and real estate advertising keep the focus on ostensibly class and race neutral talk about “Density” and “Lifestyles.”

  • garyg

    Americans consume more hot dogs than steak; does that mean they prefer hot dogs?

    Given the price of each, yes. Which points to the stupidity of asking people whether they “prefer” density-and-transit or sprawl-and-autos. The real question is which alternative they CHOOSE given the differences in price and other real-world considerations that influence that choice. And Americans have overwhelmingly chosen the sprawl-and-autos option over the density-and-transit one.

  • “Americans have overwhelmingly chosen the sprawl-and-autos option over the density-and-transit one”

    Because most local zoning laws require developers to build sprawl and because most federal transportation money has gone to freeways.

    If we got the gummint of their backs, more Americans would choose walkable neighborhoods.

  • Streetsman

    I thought it’s already been well established that asking people what they want is such a loaded, subjective form of questioning with so many invisible variables that such survey data is virtually worthless. There was a whole chapter about this in the book Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. “Chapter 5 – Kenna’s Dilemma: The Right – and Wrong – Way to Ask People What They Want.”

    In famous example, in market research, Pepsi beat Coke in sip tests in the 80’s. Coca-Cola responded to those sip tests by launching New Coke, with a taste dictated exclusively by market research. It was one of the most notorious product flops of all time. Original Coke is still vastly preferred when buyers make their choice of which to consume in the marketplace. Sip tests do not tell the whole story.

    Another example is that pilots of All in the Family and the Mary Tyler Moore Show did horrible in market research, yet they eventually became two of the most popular programs in television history. They tested poorly because they were very different from what viewers at that time were accustomed to watching in sitcoms.

    A lot of times people will vote for what they know, not what they prefer. An AIA national architecture survey showed that America’s favorite house is the White House. Are you telling me that because of this we should be designing all our houses stark white, featuring grand porches with tall columns and flags on top and those will be the best selling?

    It’s just like big market radio. The programming of all the private radio stations in New York are based on market survey data. And yet everyone in New York thinks that local radio here sucks.

    I want data about what people choose, not what they say they want when taking a survey. Tell me, of all the people of means who moved voluntarily in the last 3 years from one “zone” (city, suburb, small town, rural) to a different zone, how many of those people were moving to a more dense zone? I’d bet it was 4/5 or more.

    Or howabout simply assessing market demand using market value? “Per square foot, urban residential neighborhood space goes for 40 percent to 200 percent more than traditional suburban space in areas as diverse as New York City; Portland, Oregon; Seattle; and Washington, D.C…. It’s crucial to note that these premiums have arisen not only in central cities, but also in suburban towns that have walkable urban centers offering a mix of residential and commercial development.” – http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200803/subprime

    We could build denser, walkable communities based on what purchase data shows there is demand for, or we could build based on poorly-phrased market research studies like David Brooks recommends, and we’ll end up with a flop bigger than New Coke.

  • Like Deep Throat said, follow the money.

    It costs $2 million to own a 3,000-square-foot home in Park Slope; its costs one-tenth that to own a similarly sized place 80 miles west of NYC. The commute seems like an acceptable trade-off, until gas hits $4.50 a gallon and you begin to realize you only see your house in daylight on weekends.

  • Marty Barfowitz

    Americans have overwhelmingly chosen the sprawl-and-autos option over the density-and-transit one.

    Of course they have. Auto sprawl has been massively subsidized for decades while mass transit and cities have been starved and decimated by highway construction.

    Today, the market is sending very clear signals on what Americans want:

    Compare the price of houses in Greenwich Village or any other walkable, transit-oriented, urban place in America with the price of houses in Stockton, California or any other sprawling, isolated, urban dependent place in America.

    The demand for urban places far outstrips supply. The demand for auto-dependent sprawl is cratering. Suburbs are becoming slums and ghost towns.

  • garyg

    Because most local zoning laws require developers to build sprawl

    No, most local zoning laws do not require that. But even if they did, zoning laws are the product of the democratic process. If people wanted zoning laws that were more conducive to higher densities, they’d lobby and vote accordingly.

    Auto sprawl has been massively subsidized for decades while mass transit and cities have been starved and decimated by highway construction.

    Transit is massively subsidized. Fares cover only about 27% of total transit costs. The rest comes from public subsidies. The claim that transit has been “starved” of public funds is laughable.

  • garyg

    Or howabout simply assessing market demand using market value?

    You can’t assess demand from price alone. Price also depends on the cost of supply and other characteristics of the market. A pound of caviar costs more than a pound of potatoes, but that doesn’t mean there’s more demand for caviar than for potatoes.

  • Ian Turner

    Gary,

    What percentage of highway maintenance costs are covered by highway tolls?

  • garyg

    What percentage of highway maintenance costs are covered by highway tolls?

    About 5%. An additional 53% is covered by gasoline and vehicle taxes paid by highway users. So about 58% of highway costs are funded by usage fees. Versus only 28% of transit costs.

  • Gary, do you drive your car exclusively on toll roads? Or do you use “free” roads and local streets as well, which are funded entirely by state and local taxes?

  • garyg

    Gary, do you drive your car exclusively on toll roads? Or do you use “free” roads and local streets as well, which are funded entirely by state and local taxes?

    See my last post. Roads are funded primarily by gasoline and vehicle taxes paid by road users themselves. The more you drive, and the heavier your vehicle, the more you pay.

  • Streetsman

    You can’t assess demand from price alone. Price also depends on the cost of supply and other characteristics of the market.

    Yes I understand basic laws of supply and demand. I also understand that what people say they want depends on characteristics of the market as well. When you ask people “If you could live anywhere in the United States that you wanted to, where would it be?”, and more of them say suburbs, that most means Americans like suburbs. But that does not a trend make.

    2/3 of America’s 258 cities with populations over 100K are experiencing growth rates higher than the national average of roughly 1% (http://www.citymayors.com/statistics/us-cities-growth-2007.html). And those cities’ demographics are shifting from less affluent to more affluent as you can read about in this article on Chicago (http://www.tnr.com/story_print.html?id=264510ca-2170-49cd-bad5-a0be122ac1a9) or this one on D.C.(http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=89803663), where home prices in the suburbs have fallen 18 percent while those in the District have risen 11 percent. That is a trend. Not a survey of people saying they want to live in Denver. From the article about Chicago: “We are not witnessing the abandonment of the suburbs or a movement of millions of people back to the city all at once. But we are living at a moment in which the massive outward migration of the affluent that characterized the second half of the twentieth century is coming to an end.”

  • Streetsman

    See my last post. Roads are funded primarily by gasoline and vehicle taxes paid by road users themselves. The more you drive, and the heavier your vehicle, the more you pay.

    This I can’t believe is a point that people are still making, and on this blog of all places. I can’t count how many times this argument has been discredited. Try this Charles Komanoff study from way back in 1994:
    http://www.komanoff.net/cars_II/Subsidies_for_Traffic.pdf

    Here are some extracts:

    “Motor vehicle-user expenditures in New York State exceed motor vehicle user-derived revenue by $2.4 billion annually. That is, New York State drivers receive $2.4 billion annually in taxpayer subsidies. This subsidy is paid by the general public through taxes not tied to motor vehicle use, i.e., property taxes, income taxes and sales taxes.”

    “Most of the taxpayer subsidy of motor vehicles in New York State is borne at the local level, i.e. by New York cities, towns and counties, at a rate of $2.15 billion a year.”

    “Over 80% of local government spending to support motor vehicles in New York localities outside of New York City is raised through general taxes -primarily property taxes.”

    “These figures do not account for the estimated $21 billion a year in environmental and social costs imposed by motor vehicles through air and noise pollution, accidents, use of land and congestion in New York City alone.”

  • prog-real

    “If people wanted zoning laws that were more conducive to higher densities, they’d lobby and vote accordingly.”

    Sadly, not true, or at least not true in the vast majority of situations I have observed over 20+ years where communities have had the opportunity to zone for greater density.

    Many people fear density, and elected officials–who are much more likely to vote directly on the zoning regulations than are individual citizens–have a knack for listening to those who fear density over those who do not.

  • garyg

    Yes I understand basic laws of supply and demand.

    Good. Then we agree that “higher price” does not mean “higher demand.” So the mere fact that dense urban housing tends to be priced higher than suburban housing does not mean there is more demand for the former than for the latter.

    As for trends, the most recent Census Data contradicts the claim that there has been a shift towards higher densities and more urbanism. Between 2000 and 2006, more than 90% of the population growth in U.S. cities was in suburban areas. Less than 10% was in core city areas. Many core cities actually lost population over this period, including Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, San Francisco and Minneapolis. See:

    http://www.demographia.com/db-msacore.pdf

  • garyg

    This I can’t believe is a point that people are still making, and on this blog of all places. I can’t count how many times this argument has been discredited.

    I don’t understand how you think any of the text you quote contradicts, let alone discredits, the statement of mine you’re responding to.

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