Skip Berger gets all giddy at Crosscut this week over an "unexpected" report that, surprise, confirms what he already believes—cities are bad, suburbs are good, and any effort to rein in exurban sprawl is both doomed and counter to the natural order of things. His column begins, breathlessly, thus:
Okay, this is really interesting because it turns some conventional wisdom on its head. It turns out that the suburbs are not populated with urban refugees. Writing at NewGeography, Wendell Cox comes across what he calls an "unexpected truth:"Much has been written about how suburbs have taken people away from the city and that now suburbanites need to return back to where they came. But in reality most suburbs of large cities have grown not from the migration of local city-dwellers but from migration from small towns and the countryside.
Wendell Cox, Wendell Cox.... Wait a minute, could that be the same Wendell Cox who has spent much of the past two decades as a professional anti-transit activist? The same Wendell Cox who has written anti-transit screeds for such impartial publications as the National Review Online and the Heritage Foundation)? The same Wendell Cox who's on the payroll of the American Highway Users Alliance, a pro-highway group created by GM? The same Wendell Cox who is affiliated with the Reason Foundation, the far-right-wing/libertarian think tank? The same Wendell Cox who praised Houston as a fine example of urban planning and transportation management? The same Wendell Cox who makes his living on the speaking circuit arguing against land-use regulations? The same Wendell Cox who wants the federal government to lower clean-air standards? The same Wendell Cox who says the government should stop building transit and just buy everyone cars? The same Wendell Cox who has repeatedly been caught peddling wild inaccuracies (such as his claim that "no new light rail system carries more than a third of the volume of a single freeway lane," his claim that we can achieve all the emissions reductions we need by investing in hydrogen cars, and his claim (in a paper calling Obama supporters "enemies of the American Dream") that "'Green' houses can make it possible... [for] Americans [to] continue their favored suburban life style"?
Yep, that Wendell Cox.
Far from being an "unexpected truth," then, Cox's supposed revelation—that suburbs are awesome, that sprawl is inevitable, and that cities are bad—is exactly the philosophy he's been selling (and profiting from) for decades.
Anyway, the core of Cox's argument, as summarized by Berger, is this:
In looking at data from modern, "first world" countries, including the United States, Cox finds that while the suburbs are growing, most of the newcomers are migrating from smaller cities and rural areas, even in cities like St. Louis that have rapidly depopulated over the last 50 years. And this strong suburban growth is occurring even in the most mass-transit-friendly cities. ...
Cox argues that suburbs need to be seen differently, not as the hostile "other" to core cities:[S]uburbs have to be seen not as the enemies of the city, as just a modern expression of urbanization. They are neither the enemies of the city, nor are their residents likely to move "back" there. You cannot move back to someplace you did not come from.
In other words, the idea that suburbanites can be enticed back into dense urban cores is unlikely. In fact, the bigger cores grow and flourish, the more likely they will generate new sprawl.
Apparently, Berger has never heard of confusing correlation with causation. Just because cities sprawl outward now, doesn't mean that cities are themselves the cause of sprawl. No, sprawl is caused by lax growth management rules and by government policies that heavily subsidize auto travel at the expense of alternatives like mass transit and affordable urban housing. Moreover, arguments in favor of mass transit and affordable urban housing are not, as Berger and his ilk insist, an argument that existing suburbs are somehow evil and should be bulldozed down, but arguments for developing in a smarter way in the future. Just because something has always been one way—for example, as Berger notes, because Seattle's suburbs have continued to grow—doesn't mean it must always remain that way. Nor does the fact that suburban sprawl exists make suburban sprawl the natural order of things. Government policies have supported sprawl for decades. Maybe, instead of treating government subsidies for sprawl and highways as if they were ordained by God, it's time to change those policies.