Sprawl is Auto-Oriented

Steve Stofka has a post detailing his ideal new city, built on principles of high density through very narrow streets, and an interconnected, pedestrian-friendly grid. Its population is given as 30,000, and its area as about 2 square miles, or 5 square kilometers. Although it’s meant to illustrate urban design principles, in a similar matter to my description of my ideal urban arterial street, the proposed location in exurban South Jersey raises questions about why new subdivisions remain auto-oriented.

Let us zoom out and see the general location of this Triangle City. It is exurban; there’s no access except by narrow local roads. This means that residents would drive to all locations outside the town, forcing high car ownership and raising car use well beyond the ability of narrow, pedestrian-oriented streets to carry them. Such towns can be built along potential commuter rail lines, but most of the time the stations along these lines are already developed at vastly lower density than 6,000/km^2. This alone means that such new development would not look like the narrow-street neighborhoods of Tokyo, which have rapid transit to get people to the rest of the metropolis.

Even if a rail line were built, it would not do much to make such development less auto-oriented. A town of 30,000 is very far from self-sufficient; its residents will do much of their shopping outside, making car ownership even more attractive. Morningside Heights, a neighborhood of 33,000, is not self-sufficient either, but because it’s part of a contiguous urban fabric with rapid transit links to the rest of the city, it has low car ownership.

For a more reasonable take on why sprawl absolutely requires cars and long drives, here’s commenter JJJ writing on his blog about a proposed Fresno sprawlburb of 10,000 people:

A self-sufficient community? So much laughter. 2,800 homes may be able to support a supermarket, a CVS, a few nail salons and chinese take-out….but people want more. People want to shop at Target, Best Buy, Costco, etc, none of which will EVER locate in a community of that size (they require much larger customer bases). People want a Cinema and bowling alley. People want a large selection of restaurants.

So residents will have to drive for 30 minutes, through the only road, which is used by those heading to the lake for recreation, or passing through to the national parks. That means congestion.

And the future supermarket, library, pharmacy, elementary school etc? The people who will end up working there won’t move into an expensive rural suburb. They’re going to live in Fresno. And every single one of them will have to drive in that one road. The idea that the retirees will be so self-sufficient that they will be busing tables at a small chinese restaurant is hilarious.

In other words, in a society where most people are rich enough to own a car, building sprawling subdivisions makes car use inevitable. Transit-oriented development done right should start in the dense cities and expand outward slowly, making it feasible to do all of one’s errands on foot, by bike, or by public transit.

Meticulously planned subdivisions usually flop in terms of urban quality, but if one wants to build any, they should be surrounded by or adjacent to existing high-intensity urbanization. This is the reason for gentrification: such areas are almost never empty, and as a result the only way to create them is to displace existing neighborhoods, either organically (Williamsburg) or by fiat (Manhattanville).


  1. Tom West

    ” A town of 30,000 is very far from self-sufficient”
    I disagree. I grew up in a town of 10,000, and we were able to deal with the vast majority of our shopping needs within the town. It also had a full-time library, a supermarket, pharmacies, schools – pretty much everything you need. Maybe once a month we went to the nearest big city for certain shopping needs.

    The important thing is not that a town is 100% self-sufficient – i.e., a 100% of needs can be satisfied by trips within the town – but that *most* of the needs can be satisfied within the town. Unless you live in a very (million+ population) big city, there will almost always be needs which cannot be satisffied in your town/city.

    I also think the focus on shopping is slightly irrelevant. If you work full-time and shop once a week, then ten out of twelve (83%) of your weekly trips are commuting. In that case, it is better that you work in the town and shop elsewhere than vice versa. Transit suits commuting better than shopping anyway, because you will (generally) be carrying more on the way back form shopping. Further, a commuting trip by transit reduces congestion more than a shopping trip by transit, becaause commuting is concentrated in shorter timespans.

    • TLP

      I agree with your disagreement partially. I think that statement would better read: “A *newly-constructed* town of 30,000 is very far from self-sufficient.”

      The reason that a town of 30,000 — or even 10,000 — is largely self-sufficient is that it grew naturally in it’s location over time. The businesses and the services that the residents needed were added over the course of decades, if not centuries, at a time when travelling far for simple needs wasn’t feasible.

      If the town were to start today, some of those needs would never get built in a way that lets the town be self-sufficient. It’s hard to open a hardware store or a market or a show store when there’s Walmart and Home Depot 30 minutes down the highway. But, for towns where these local resources already exist, they stand a chance of remaining self-sufficient, even if closing the hardware store and going to Home Depot is the more “efficient” choice.

      Creating a town out of nothing, like they’re trying outside Fresno, isn’t going to create something self-sufficient, because no amount of planning can spending can instantly provide every need in local way. The now pre-existing highways and pre-existing shopping centers make auto-dependence the default choice in an area that isolated.

    • Alon Levy

      Of course transit suits commuting better than shopping. No argument there. My problems with trying to create transit-oriented exurban towns of 30,000 are,

      1. Because shopping would be done by car and not on foot as in traditional cities, car ownership would be high, which is not true of Tokyo (the 23 Special Wards have slightly lower car ownership than New York City); thus much more space would be needed to store cars.

      2. A sizable minority of residents would work outside the town but not in the big city, and would have no transit options, so they would drive; since the road capacity is pedestrian-scaled, the cars would overwhelm it.

      3. Furthermore, the roads would have to be widened to support such a town, and this would open up much more space for low-density postwar-style sprawl.

  2. Steve

    Alon, perhaps you should go back and check the conditions I was making this model under. The choice of using farmland for this exercise was deliberate, since the point Charlie and I were making was that boundaries and localized transportation options in farmland can form the genesis of urbanization in rural areas (cf. the settling of the West, in which urbanized areas were all platted as grids). Farmland gives a gridlike network, since farm boundaries are gridlike.

    South Jersey was also a natural choice because the land is flat and individual fields manageable in size. The community this plan shows would be something akin to the county seat of a rural county–a place like Uniontown, PA.

    As such, beyond the tautological statement in the title, several of your concerns–while valid in the metropolitan framework–are quite simply misplaced in the deliberately-rural framework I was working in.

    • Alon Levy

      Well, sure, it could have worked in the West in 1900, when population growth was so quick it would be reasonable to expect 30,000 people to be added in a short time, and when there was not a large network of auto-oriented retail. In today’s world, it’s different. Rural areas are inherently car-oriented, even in places with world-class rural regional transit such as Switzerland; a transit revival would reach them last, long after having effectively abolished the need for a car in urban areas. A scheme such as the one you propose could work for a city, but it would need to be greenfield urban development, maybe on empty land adjacent to Philadelphia or Trenton.

      • Steve

        It was always an interesting exercise suggested to me by Old Urbanist.

        Actually, I learned something else while doing it–grid-like cities probably have farm boundaries hidden in them. I’ll bet those old farm boundaries and lanes can be seen in the street networks of large organic cities, too, like London…of course, teasing them out, especially when farmland was surveyed in metes and bounds, would be well-nigh impossible, unless somebody had access to a property map of the area ca. Shakespeare’s time and a Google Maps overlay (come to think of it, somebody might).

        So while Triangle City might represent a better way to build cities than straight boring grids, what’s done is done, and I highly doubt I would be asked to build it today (not that I would want to).

  3. David Crossley

    ” A town of 30,000 is very far from self-sufficient”
    The trick is to have several other such towns a couple of miles away. A transit-connected network of towns surrounded by agriculture could support big boxes. Even if you drove to them, they’d be short trips. Most of your car trips would be gone.

  4. Danny

    I have yet to see a top-down planned city that could even approach the awesomeness of real cities. The closest thing to it would be Washington DC, but even then, it only grew into its own after about two centuries of being just a place where Senators kept a second residence. The best that planned cities can do is show off grandiose monuments to powerful politicians. Cool to look at, but a city it does not make. Nobody goes to a sporting event to watch the referee, or admire the architecture of the stadium, which is essentially what a planned city is trying to invite people to do. “Hey, look at me! I built this! Isn’t it awesome? Don’t you want to live here?”

    I can totally understand the appeal of Sim-City urbanism…everybody wants to be the architect of something great. But urbanists could do so much for their cause if they would stop trying to build cities from the ground up, and focus on the system of rules and regulations (ie. incentives) instead. It isn’t glamorous, and it won’t make you famous…but it is the only true key to creating a lively and dynamic city where people actually want to live.

    • Wad

      Even SimCity doesn’t practice SimCity urbanism. In the newer versions of the game, growth is organic whether you like it or not.

      The player is given the option of three densities, but if you are just starting your city, you’d be wasting your money if you lay out high density. All zones start low density and only become higher density as the population expands.

  5. Pingback: Planned Cities | Pedestrian Observations

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