Subsidizing Sprawl

In Dallas, we’re currently faced with a heated debate on growth and the need for improved infrastructure to facilitate future development. Jim Schutze wrote a post on Unfair Park about the recent tollroad debate and how the Mayor is promoting regionalism vs. localism. I was struck by several commenters who dismissed urbanism and multi-modal transit options as a novelty and something that a slim minority cared about. What really amazed me was the lack of understanding many voiced in favor of our modern car-centric, sprawling development…a network that was completely brought about by massive government intervention and subsidization. The free market would never have created something so wasteful and inefficient on its own. An example I gave recently was the following:

If you wanted to develop a small bakery in your neighborhood, you would not be able to due to zoning restrictions brought about by local government separating basic uses (homes here, business there). This is the first step in deconstructing pedestrian oriented environments. It’s no longer the industrial revolution, yet we still base much of our land use on the ideas of separating factories from homes.

Next, let’s say you finally discover a plot of land where you can build your own bakery. Before you even begin construction, the local government will require you to use at least 40% of your private land for free parking. No if’s, and’s, or but’s…you’ve just been told by the government what to do with your property and your valuable retail shelf space has been truncated with the slash of a pen. Now, let’s extrapolate this out to hundreds of other businesses who own private land and are forced to provide everyone free parking. At some point, the system has been sufficiently gamed to where it no longer makes sense to walk.

You just drive, my business will make sure you have a free parking spot.

Next, let’s say you want to save money by living above your business and operating on the ground floor. Again, this option has been regulated out of existence, further promoting auto-centric development because now you have to live in the residence zone, and work in the business zone.

So far, we’ve separated land uses by great distances, required private property owners to ensure their land was split in half for free parking, and cut off the potential for live/work environments. It’s fairly difficult to justify pedestrian-oriented development at this point. For what it’s worth, we’d been allowed to do all of these things for hundreds of years prior to government intervention and our communities did fine. In fact, many of the problems we face today are related to our need to try and manage the unsustainable nature of suburban sprawl. From the subprime mortgage crises to constant highway/tollroad development (which we can’t afford to maintain), we’re continually having to accommodate an unnatural development pattern.

Okay, we’re not done yet. Now that we’ve separated uses and incentivized cars over other modes of transit, your bakery is going to have a harder time competing because now the all-in-one store can do away with your business model. Since everyone is now driving, it’s inconvenient to hop from one store to the next…you might as well mix the bakery, with the farmers market, and the butcher, and the pharmacy. Voila, small business can barely compete while the multi-national box store can now offer loaves of bread for pennies and chalk it up as a loss leader. Hey, that’s the free market working…except, the market was completely dominated by government intervention throughout the chain and we’re not even close to being finished. Also, though we’re saving a dollar on bread, the social fabric of our community is beginning to erode because the Super Target doesn’t seem to want to pay for the local school’s baseball uniforms, but Joe’s Deli, which is no longer around, was always supporting the team. If you don’t believe that’s the case, you don’t own a small business. As a local restaurant owner, I can tell you firsthand that we’re asked for and give out donations to neighborhood fundraisers (PTA’s, girl/boy scouts, soccer teams, chess clubs, etc.) on a weekly basis. Head to any community silent auction and you’ll see nothing but local products being offered as prizes…Home Depot and Tom Thumb are surprisingly absent.

Notice, 2/3rd’s of this lot is for free parking.

Now let’s look at the land itself that we’re developing on today. A 250 foot block on a classic Main Street in any downtown would have contained ten commercial buildings built next to eachother (saving on distances for utilities, and creating greater energy efficiency) with retail establishments on the first floor, service related businesses on the second floor, and space for business owners to live on third and fourth floors. Now, thanks to zoning and more, we can fit roughly 2 to 3 businesses on that same plot of land, and they’re separated by more free parking that isn’t really free. This is why your average suburban block will only contain a fast food chain, a gas station, and an auto parts store. Small businesses can be developed in shopping strips that are tied to large chain retailers, but once that chain decides to move on (from Wal-Mart to Super Wal-Mart), then your business will die a slow death as your customers move on to the next, larger strip two miles down the road.

You wouldn’t be allowed to build this today if you wanted to.

We haven’t even begun to touch suburban housing. In 1934, the Federal Housing Administration was created which subsidized middle class families moves to the newly developed suburbs. The Veterans Administration and the Federal Housing Administration’s (FHA) mortgage loan program provided over eleven million low-cost mortgages after WWII. These mortgages, which typically cost less per month than paying rent, only insured homes of a typical type and size – generally new single-family suburban construction. Furthermore, a home insured by the FHA was required to be of a certain size and quality desired by those of above-average means, to guarantee quick resale of the home. FHA did not support renovations of already-existing homes, construction of row houses, mixed-use buildings, and other urban housing types. These policies led to deterioration of the urban housing stock and disinvestment in existing urban housing.

Alright, we still have the Federal Highway program and a host of other government interventions that sufficiently tore apart pedestrian oriented environments that existed naturally for hundreds of years in favor of heavily subsidized (from the oil pumped out of the ground to the GM badge on the grill) auto dependency. Sadly, it was only in your grandparents generation when you could have opened that bakery at the end of the block, lived on the top floor, while the community walked by and picked up a loaf of bread.

So next time someone says, “public transit doesn’t work because it doesn’t go near my home”, remind them that had government not intervened, their home would have been next to the train station.


  1. A reasoned and rational post, Jason.
    Me? I blame the Republicans.

  2. Your Fwend Mawk · ·

    I suspect Tex is joking. Or at least victimized by lazy thinking.

    The problem lies in government bureaucracy.

    As Ronald Reagan famously said, “Big Government doesn’t solve the problem. Big Government IS the problem.”

    Rather than bitch and complain about the way things are, let’s do something about it. Unleash free enterprise!

  3. A very reasoned and rational post – I’m with you on that, Tex.
    Blame the Republicans? sure. But Democrats are equally guilty of these sorts of decisions – if not in Texas, certainly elsewhere.
    I’m for anyone who realizes that government intervention always has unintended or unmentioned consequences, whatever their party.
    Kudos to you, Jason, for calling a spade a spade.

  4. While I agree with the argument against the suburbs, and I hate having to drive from Plano all the way out past Allen to McKinney for somethings. I also agree that we are seeing things unrelated to others.

    I’m not saying this is not rational, I agree that we have sprawled because of irrational laws, regulations and government. I will say that we should be embracing and asking for change to some of our other systems.

    Look at the East Coast, NY Chicago, Boston and Philly. They all have a very good metro system in place. We don’t seem to use our buses, trains given to us. We don’t seem to realize there are places to build around them or connect them.

    People will travel the same amount of time on a subway as they would in a car. We don’t have express trains we don’t allow for more tracks but we do allow for 18 lane double decked highways.

  5. Colin · ·

    Great post. What baffles me the most is how hard the city tries to send money to other city’s. If the traffic was slower every day, people would move/stay in Dallas, they would buy local to save time, the contractors would be hired local to cut costs, and Dallas would have Tax revenue increase. The list can go on forever.
    I say let the highways lock-up it’ll improve the city.

  6. Great post. Love taking down “market-has-spoken” folks on this issue.

    PS: Change “since” to “sense” in Paragraph 3.

  7. Boris · ·

    There is no shortage of absurdity in the planning and zoning laws that have shaped the north Texas landscape, but the mother of all absurdities has to be the situation currently playing out at the Dallas Arboretum. The Arboretum, which is literally yards away from the White Rock Trail, has no bicycle or pedestrian connection to the trail. The only way to get to this showcase of nature is by automobile. Not surprisingly, there is a parking problem at the Arboretum. In a sane world, the solution would be to open up access to cyclists and pedestrians by simply extending the existing White Rock Trail a mere ¼ mile up Garland Road from its current terminus at East Lawther Drive. In Dallas though, the preferred solution (of the city and the Arboretum) is to build another parking lot in a field of wildflowers. If an arboretum and a bike trail are not seen as a suitably compatible by Dallas leaders, what hope is there for any serious consideration of mixed-use zoning?

  8. @Tony Thanks! Got it.

  9. I was just debating this subject in my mind Sunday as I drove between Fort Worth, Addison, Arlington and back to Fort Worth. There an inordinate amount of road construction going on in what seems to be an endless cycle. We should be investing more in public transportation. I agree, let the roads back up! Build a rail system, more clean energy buses, bike and pedestrian friendly areas. Folks will get tired of the delays and frustration and move to public modes. It make economic sense, environmental sense, and certainly will reflect an improvement in the livability of our towns and cities.

  10. […] our last post, I discussed how post-war government intervention systematically dismantled hundreds of years of […]

  11. Concerning the Arboretum: There is a sidewalk connection from the Trail to a bike/ped gate on Garland Rd. Heading South on the trail, just after the bridge you turn left, instead of right to the spillway. Unfortunately, it is not well marked or advertised.

    They also have several nice bike racks that do get used.

  12. Alan Rodriguez · ·

    Jax the cities you mention never destroyed their urban rail systems. This is why those cities retain some capacity to live without cars. Dallas once had an extensive street car system. Our visionary leaders decided to construct a car paradise post WW2 and continue to produce aggressive results against their 70 year old vision. The problem is their vision is now out-dated and not what younger generations want in a city. Older people get to a point where they cannot drive and desire the same kind of walkable community. Hence the reason Dallas population growth has stalled. Once a city begins a population decline it’s almost impossible to reverse. Detroit can happen here.

  13. Alan Rodriguez · ·

    Regarding parking I’m going to keep saying the same thing – why is parking on Garland road not the obvious solution? Parking calms traffic, protects pedestrians and attracts people. We have plenty of parking spaces in Dallas we just refuse to allow people to use them. They are called roads. Last I checked this is a common practice in other cities.

  14. @Alan agreed, didn’t know Dallas had such an extensive system. I know LA is in the same hurt as us because of this. Their street car and subway systems are a mess because they were destroyed slowly post WW2. I will say we are slowly gaining it all back. I take the system we have right now as much as I can; sometimes though it doesn’t reach an important spot or a popular spot.

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