Are you tired the sprawl game yet? Did you read the newspaper article in the Free Press headlined “The Joy of Sprawl”? Maybe not, so I’ll summarize it. I’ll keep it brief because you’ve read it all before.
Robert Bruegmann reminds us how much we like the mobility the private automobile gives us, and how unpopular public transit is (not exactly true of Winnipeg, which, despite its old-fashioned bus fleet, draws far more passengers than any comparable American city’s transit system does). He says the problem with Los Angeles is not that people there are too dependent on their automobiles, but that too much money has been spent on transit and not enough on roads. He ends with a vague outline of unspecified new technology that will (when it’s been invented) combine the convenience of the private automobile with the efficiency of buses or trains. Meanwhile, presumably, we should put more money into roads.
But that’s actually Move Two of the sprawl game. The game starts with a handsome youngish architect, wearing an expensive sweater and Italian leather shoes, cataloguing environmental costs of excessive automobile use and telling us that the solution is Cute Neighbourhoods. He paints an attractive picture of fashionable townhouses, brick pavement, a community centre, some stores within walking distance, and happy children riding their bicycles to the transit stop.
Next we get a representative of a right-wing think tank with a word like “heritage” or “frontier” in the name. Hanging on for dear life to the fact that, if planning controls are very weak, you may be able to get a piece of cheap land by the highway at a distance from the city, he represents himself as an advocate of affordable housing. He then reminds you how much you love your automobile and hate public transit… well, you know the rest.
Finally, we get a representative of the city planning department, telling us that, because of an alleged lot shortage, which is driving increases in the price of housing, we desperately need to open a very large tract of farmland for urban development. (House prices have been rising all over North America, so I guess there must be lot shortages everywhere.) But, she adds, we’re going to build Cute Neighbourhoods on that large tract of farmland, so we’re actually on the same side as the guy with the Italian shoes.
The problem with the sprawl game, aside from its repetitiveness, is that, while everyone is publishing his way to a full professorship, taxpayers are being smothered by the cost of roads, sewers and water lines, and transit systems are declining. There are no mysteries here. We know the best way to deal with this situation, and Cute Neighbourhoods are OK, but they’re optional.
If we can provide a reasonably efficient transit system, quite a lot of people will use it. We’ll save wear and tear on roads, and reduce global warming and air pollution. The way to get an efficient transit system is density: there have to be enough people where the transit stops are to fill the fare box. There is a lot of density in any city, so the trick is to locate the apartment buildings, town houses, factories, and office buildings in such a way as to keep as many people as possible within walking distance of a transit stop.
We used to know how to do this in Winnipeg. For example, there are lots of apartment buildings along Portage Avenue, St Mary’s Road and St Anne’s Road and, not coincidentally, those streets get good transit service. But what are we doing now? Well, the planning department was drastically reduced in the 1990s, and hasn’t been anywhere nearly fully restored, so developers do pretty much whatever occurs to them. Their job is to worry about the bottom line. They don’t have a lot of time or incentive to think about efficient infrastructure and transit.
As a result, what we get, instead of configurations of density that support transit, is random scattering. For example, there’s a large, new apartment building near the north end of St James, with a big parking lot, that gets a bus every half hour at the height of rush hour, and that bus only takes you to a far western location on Portage Avenue, after which you have to transfer – at least twice if you’re going north, east or south of downtown. You can count on it that those apartment dwellers will be using their cars most of the time. The same is true of an apartment building in the middle of Island Lakes, and many others in similarly ill-thought-out locations.
Another example: City Council decides to allow the building of a hog processing plant that will employ a lot of immigrant workers. Winnipeg is an ideal location for such a facility. Because the planning process took place largely in secrecy, it is difficult to know what went on, but the location of immigrant neighbourhoods and of the proposed plant suggests that transit connections were not considered. So we may well end up with low-wage workers forced to spend hours each day commuting to their jobs.
Another thing we need to do in order to keep ourselves from being smothered by the costs of infrastructure and a declining transit system is to make sure that we develop green fields that are closer in before we open up ones that are farther out. City Council committed a violation of that simple rule when it opened up the massive tract of farmland called Waverley West to suburban development.
We know that because the city planners’ own figures tell us that the estimated number of lots available for conventional suburban development (before we opened up Waverley West) was more than the maximum estimated demand for such lots by 2011. (See note at the end of the article.) Wait a minute, you say, how is that possible? Didn’t the planners and the Manitoba Homebuilders’ Association keep telling us that we suffered from a critical lot shortage?
The answer is that the few planners left working for the city after the cut-backs of the 1990s haven’t had time to do the planning work necessary to open up the tracts that were already available before the city opened up Waverley West. Presumably that small but stalwart band of city planners is now busy doing the planning work for Waverley West, and the empty spaces in the city will become our children’s liabilities.
Apparently, although, as a society, we can afford to finance the heritage guy and the architect with the Italian shoes, as well as all those Cute Neighbourhoods, we can’t afford to keep our infrastructure and transit system affordable.
NOTE ON SOURCES: You can check the planners’ projections of requirements for suburban land and land available for suburban development by consulting the City of Winnipeg Residential Land Supply Study (City of Winnipeg; Department of Planning, Property and Development, 2004). In that document, land usable for conventional suburban development is called “greenfield” and the number of lots available within Winnipeg (before Waverley West) was estimated at 20,300 (p. 13), while the most optimistic population growth projections yielded an estimated maximum demand of 19,618 for lots by the year 2011 (p. 8).