A Fresh Look at American Sprawl

WelcometoConcrete.jpgThere’s only one Concrete, WA, but concrete and asphalt are the welcome mats for towns across America. Image: Gord McKenna/Flickr.

American advocates for livable streets know that our addiction to the automobile is almost without peer. We know that we’ve given our land to driving lanes and parking lots and our air to exhaust fumes. Nevertheless, it can be hard to step outside of the car culture we’ve spent our lives marinating in and see the country with a new perspective.

That’s why this letter we received from two British tourists is so refreshing. It’s both a stark admonishment of how much we’ve given up for the car, sometimes barely noticing it, and a heartening reminder that what often seems normal to us need not be: 

We are visitors to the States from England. Our main reason for coming was to visit friends, however upon researching into transport options we were horrified to discover that the only viable option to get from NY to LA via many small towns was by car. Many of our friends have tried to justify this saying that ‘America is simply too big to have public transport’. To us, this is purely INSANE. Surely a huge country should offer the best public transport in the world! Bullet trains could cover the driving distances in no time.

We are feeling quite ashamed of ourselves as we write this but inevitably we did end up driving across America. We have found the American people to be welcoming and friendly and the landscape beautiful but we have not yet seen a single ‘town’ in the US that we, as Europeans would class as a town. I would class them more as motorway service stations. Buildings designed for cars. People waiting in line for a drive through. People competing for car parking spaces at gyms! These are not communities as we would recognise – market squares, parks, rivers, cafes, stations, public art, gardens etc. ‘Towns’ are simply not towns! We feel saddened that many Americans are not afforded the community lifestyle that we enjoy in Europe.

Our purpose of writing is not to attack your country and we do apologise if we have offended. I am writing to urge you, beg with you, plead with you to keep up the fantastic work that you are doing. Despite the wonderful time that we have had in the US I simply cannot wait to get home in order to walk from my flat and pick up a newspaper and a pint of milk, on my journey I shall say hello to everyone I meet, take note of the weather and breathe some fresh air.

  • The issue of how our transportation system accommodates visitors and tourists is one that doesn’t get enough attention. For many Americans (who can afford it), the backpacking trip around Europe is practically a cliche. Just buy a Eurorail pass and you’re set. On the other hand, foreigners who travel here have to figure out how to secure a rental car, and everything that goes along with that. Longer-term stays may practically require a driver’s license, if possible. In reality, I’ve known many foreign-exchange students who have had a pretty difficult time getting themselves around without access to a car.

  • Of course, the distance between New York and LA is ~2,800 miles.

    Also, I can’t help but be amazed at their ignorance of small towns. Most of those American small towns they’d have driven through on a cross-county trip like that have only been around for a fraction of the time that their European counterparts have been.

    As far as actually seeing the countryside goes, there’s no better way to do that in the USA than in a car – particularly in the West. And I say that as someone who lives car-free in a big city. For small towns, I sure hope these folks actually got off the interstates every once and a while because there are still plenty of cool small towns around – you just have to know where to look.

  • On the one hand, don’t even get me started on my raging jealousy towards Europe that goes far beyond livable cities, into health care, affordability of higher education… etc.

    I do agree with what Alex B is saying about what you will inevitably see from the interstate. Of course everything near an interstate is going to be a car-infested piece of crap. That’s just a result of the proximity of the interstate. I feel terrible for people whose towns were destroyed by the proximity of an interstate, but the truth is, there are still “real” towns a bit further away.

    Consider the state of New Jersey. Most people who aren’t even from this region think its a horrible place, because they go through on the Jersey Turnpike, and see billboards, gas stations, fast food, etc. But take one of NJ Transit’s commuter rail lines, and you will see adorable, walkable urban centers, anchored by the train station, with older, more traditional, tree-lined suburban residential streets clustered around the downtown.

  • This is why I travel abroad once a year, which is as often as my finances allow. To find a decent place in which to walk around, I need to leave my own country.

  • JTS

    +1 to Jeff’s comments. Take a look at Princeton, NJ (or Frenchtown, NJ) to see a beautiful American town. Or much of Western Massachusetts. Or the Fingerlakes in New York. Or some inner DC ‘burbs like Takoma Park or just outside of DC like Annapolis. Or Rogue, Oregon. Or Madison, Wisconsin. Or Carmel, California. Or Boulder, Colorado. Or Cape Cod. Or Savannah, Georgia.

    Obviously there is much about Europe that is undeservedly belittled in American culture. I yearn for the day when our towns are connected by HSR and we can all be entrepreneurs because we don’t need to worry about keeping a 9-5 day job for the healthcare. But this is an unfair characterization of our country by two visitors who, it seems, did not stray far off the interstate. For every cute british hamlet there are dozens of American towns that are thriving.

  • Jeff & JTS,

    Thanks for the good words about SOME New Jersey towns. Still I have to agree with most of what our British friends have to say. Even the nicest American towns can’t compare to the average European town.

    Also, talking mass transit: I’m always ashamed when I see international travelers on a grungy PATH train from Newark Airport. NJ Transit, with all its problems still manages to produce a very respectable rail transit product but the Port Authority should be ashamed of PATH, particularly when you think it is one of the first things international visitors see as they head for lower Manhattan. Even the new PATH are just marginally better than the old ones; nothing 21st Century (or even lat 20th) about them when compared to Metro systems around the world.

  • Even the new PATH “trains” … uggh, I need to proofread better.

  • JTS

    Andy B –

    Your first point is strictly opinion. Believe me, for all of their quaintness and accessibility, there are plenty of things to detest about small town Europe – including healthy amounts of provincialism and xenophobia that you’d be hard pressed to find in much of the US, including the south. Not only that, but there are plenty of places in Europe that are identical to some of the worst suburbs in the US (albeit with better transit options) – places littered with bix box retailers, mcdonalds, surface parking lots, and sprawl. See suburban Vienna towns like Hutteldorf, or Skelmersdale in the UK. Let’s not even talk about some of the exurbs of Stockholm or Copenhagen.

    I’m not saying that the EU is as bad about planning as we are – they aren’t. But this article presents an unfair depiction of a slice of Americana that is still rich and varied, that can be as beautiful and idyllic as the best places the EU has to offer. Just because our towns aren’t littered around 1,000 year old castles doesn’t mean we are somehow totally bereft of great places.

  • Andy, how do the international travelers even get to the PATH? Are they taking a bus from Newark Airport to Newark Penn Station? That seems like an advanced technique and not one I’d ever expect international visitors to know about. More likely those people you’re seeing on PATH are budget-conscious New Yorkers who don’t want to pay NJT’s extortionate airport fares and don’t know about the North Elizabeth trick.

  • Nice way to thank your American hosts who welcomed you to their homes and communities, by writing a poison-pen letter to a livable-streets blog. And extra points for successfully deploying the “driving to the gym” canard.

    Andy B: the PATH train doesn’t go to Newark Airport.

  • Shemp

    There are also fantastic places in the UK, let alone the rest of Europe, that are pretty far off the beaten rail tracks. Like the northwest coast of Scotland. Maybe a few trains go to Glen Coe etc. but I found it a lot more convenient to hitchhike. Even if we really build out HSR someday, the idea that it will serve Frenchtown, Ithaca, Rogue etc., to take some of the examples in comments, above is pure fantasy. My sense is that these Brits live in a city or big town, not “small town England.”

  • smax

    The more I read this, the more I think streetsblog should issue a retraction. There are a ton of examples of this blog railing against anti-urbanist types for pretending anecdotes are data. These visitors are entitled to their opinion, but I would bet that plenty of brits come here and love it, and love the open spaces.

    Pretty sloppy article, if you ask me. Receiving a letter like this is “refreshing?” Are you always ‘refreshed’ by reading things that generally reinforce your worldview?

    I’m as pro bike/ped/transit/car free as the next guy (and I’m all of those things), but this is just a ridiculous piece of cathartic fluff.

  • New Jersey? Walkable? Where?

    No, seriously. Forget the Turnpike for a second. All the places around Middlesex County where the hotels and conventions are are just sprawl, sprawl, sprawl. As in, you have to walk 1.3 miles on sidewalk-free roads to get off-hotel food, which turns out to be just a strip mall with a Subway and a deli.

    As for the letter, it has so many British biases it’s painful to read. For example, the HSR point is exactly backward: low population density means HSR can’t get the traffic density to succeed. Russia isn’t planning HSR between Moscow and Vladivostok. British people keep thinking high density is bad for HSR because the local FUD there is that Britain has to stick with legacy rail because it’s denser than France, but that’s just a consequence of European ignorance of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.

    For another example, the dig at driving to the gym would ideally not come from people living in a country that has the same obesity rate as the US. (The OECD statistics say the US has 33% obesity and Britain 23%, but they’re not comparable. When you survey the US the way other countries are surveyed, the US obesity rate is 23%.) So it turns out that eating pastries and fish and chips every day is no healthier than driving everywhere.

  • garyg

    A rail pass pass can be the better choice if you’re just going between major cities within a few hundred miles of one another. But getting between smaller cities and towns in Europe by rail can be very inconvenient and time-consuming because of the lower frequency of service and the need to make connections in the major cities. A rental car would generally allow you to cover a lot more ground and see a lot more places off the beaten track. And unless you’re traveling alone, renting a car would probably also be cheaper, at least compared to a Eurail pass covering a comparable area.

  • I watch HGTV called “House Hunters”, and I see buyers that still want a three car garage on a cul-de-sac without sidewalks, spaced far apart, big yard requiring sit-down lawnmowers, and in need of a car to get milk. All things that add to sprawl, and making public transit unaffordable.

  • Well my perspective on Europe is biased by visiting mostly southern Germany, Austria and Switzerland (where I have family) where towns are very well planned for pedestrians and bicyclists.

    Mike E & Jonathan,

    Yes, I know PATH doesn’t go to EWR (you got to give me more credit) but international travelers do figure out that they just have to switch at Newark Penn from NJ Transit. I see foreign travelers with bags from the airport making the switch all the time. It’s not all that difficult. Also don’t forget that many foreign travelers have much more experience with public transit so a two seat trip from the airport is no big deal.

    What we should be talking about is why one of the best funded agencies in the NY Metro area operates such a crappy rail system and why the Port Authority extorts $5.50 from people who take their crappy monorail to the airport train station while driving to the airport is free. Use of an identical airport monorail at SFO is entirely free!

  • Omri

    Mark Walker, I got one word for you: Provincetown.

  • You never miss a chance to bash rail, eh Garyg? Next time try not generalizing to a whole continent. As Daniel pointed out, there are plenty of places in Europe where you can see small towns by rail. Sure, it may take a little while, but who’s in a hurry?

  • garyg

    Then you never miss a chance to bash cars, Cap’n. Or anyone who dares challenge your ideology.

  • No, GaryG; we actually talk about other things than why cars are bad in here. It’s you who’s never written a comment that’s not arguing something from Randall O’Toole’s talking point list.

  • Okay. Eurail is a ripoff, period. Get on a bus. Hell, just go to fewer places in a trip. I don’t think I actually saved any money because of Eurail. The ticket fees were more than enough to compensate for the slower trains I could have taken, but did not qualify for under the pass.

    As for small towns, I’ve been to a few in France, Russia, and Germany. They were quite fine, but not much better than what you can see in one of the original 13 states. It’s too bad for these tourists, but they can stay put on Knifecrime Island if they’re too dull to enjoy a road trip or at least find human-oriented destinations. Did they even visit a National Park?

  • JW

    i think they would have had more luck finding what they were looking for in some of the larger cities where there is walkability and a vibrant center. most american small towns are dead from unemployment and walmart or have become touristy selling only high end candles and fudge. though if you do some research youll find the nice ones but youll have to hunt for them as they are few and far between today.

    i’m a pretty hard core urbanist but when i visited relatives in the english countryside i found it very liveable and wouldnt mind living in that setting, i would never say that about the american countryside. they lived in true farmland surrounded by other farms with small towns containing a church, pub and village hall/community center and were only 20 minutes from the heart of a major city. i guarantee that same farm in the US at that proximity to a major city would be covered with sprawl in particular a subdivision.

    that said while england has us beat on a lot pertaining to urbanism and transport, they have a long ways to go compared to mainland europe and parts of asia. how about the beeching axe?

    i agree with a lot that they said about traveling carless in the US and about how our culture worships the auto.

    just about every city or town in england of any decent size has shopping downtown… clothing, everyday essentials, you name it. in the US all of about 10-15 cities have downtown shopping where you can get everything you need.

    i live in one of the most walkable neighborhoods in america outside new york and see many people drive to the gym, its shocking. the gyms are about the only businesses in my neighborhood with abundant free customer parking.

  • Emily Litella

    Yep, things sure are messed up and about to get much worse.

  • JSD

    10-15 cities with downtown shopping for everything you need? Really? My town on Staten Island has a downtown. I can walk to the library, supermarket, deli, restaurants, doctor, pharmacy, bakery, dentist, etc, etc, etc. 10-15 is grossly biased and unfairly critical.

    I understand these tourist’s concerns. We have a long way to go in rolling back the mistakes of the past. But just because they have driven across the country doesn’t mean they have seen the United States. This nation has one of the most beautiful and varied landscapes of any country in the world, with some amazing small towns, large towns, and big cities. You simply will not see this if you stay on I-90something and eat at rest stops along the way.

  • I agree with one of the earlier posts that stated that it’s understandable how the interstates can make it seem like everything is just one big car park, however, I do disagree with the overall sentiment that ALL of America is like that.

    I live in New England and while we have our cities that have public transportation and are busy centers of people, we do have some great towns that capture that small town, walk around feeling. Living on Cape Cod, you really have that sense of a small town community.

    While driving is recommended, there have been great improvements to public transportation so getting around without a car is a little easier but to get to the off the beaten path places such as great antique stores, art galleries, and specialty shops, a car is still recommended. If you don’t really want to have to drive, then plan on staying in one of the main towns that have everything within walking distance.

  • I agree with Alon actually. Europe is not utopia. Get out of the cities (where a lot of people can’t afford to live anyway) into the suburbs and people rely on cars.

    Last year I was in a medium sized French City (Annecy) visiting a friend. The downtown was adorable, but lots of people still lived further out. The density out there was comparable in my opinion to the far outer boroughs here: older suburban neighborhoods with more apartment buildings and sparse but not zero transit options. You could walk to your every day errands, but there was still a need to get downtown on the buses that stopped running way too early. My friend didn’t have a car, but everyone she knew who grew up in the area did.

    I agree you won’t find a Levittown-on-Thames, but both Europe and America have diverse habitation patterns. It hurts the cause to frame it by saying the problem is Americans don’t act enough like Europeans.

  • Consider the state of New Jersey. Most people who aren’t even from this region think its a horrible place, because they go through on the Jersey Turnpike, and see billboards, gas stations, fast food, etc. But take one of NJ Transit’s commuter rail lines, and you will see adorable, walkable urban centers, anchored by the train station, with older, more traditional, tree-lined suburban residential streets clustered around the downtown.
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