Monday, February 1, 2010

Suburbs inevitable, but sprawl isn't

From The Toronto Star, Feb 01, 2010

Christopher Hume

City hall would like us to believe it has a plan, but it's developers who decide where and in what we live.

And, argues Murtaza Haider, director of the Institute of Housing and Mobility Studies at Ryerson University, "that builder is not a very educated builder. We need to convince builders that a high- and medium-density model is profitable. A lot of this is already taking place, but the toughest thing I have done in the last 15 years is talking to builders. They are motivated by an economic model that has worked for 50 or 60 years."

But as Haider and even a few developers have realized, that model is no longer sustainable. That would be news to many of the 400 to 600 builders operating in the GTA. Though the big firms do 80 per cent of the construction, that leaves a lot for the rest.

As Haider sees it, developers ignore planning realities; planners ignore economic realities. The demand for affordable middle-class family housing fuels the suburban market, but doesn't justify sprawl. The former may be inevitable, but not the latter. Typically the focus is on one or the other, however, rarely both.

"Suburbia is a result of the demographic needs of the population," he says. "Our problem is that planning is done without taking economic realities into account."

In this scenario, young couples happily ensconced in a downtown condo decide to have kids and then move to the 'burbs to get the room they need at a price they can afford.

"What we have is an economic reality," he explains, "but the built-form of suburbia is not a given. There is a desire for more space than you get in a two-bedroom unit downtown."

As for the gridlock that comes with suburban life, Haider says for most commuters it's not a problem. The limit, he notes, is 45 minutes; more than that and people start to get antsy.

"But," he makes clear, "transit is the only way to move people efficiently and sustainably. It has to be competitive in time and cost."

As he also points out, however, "No other system in the entire economy except road space is not paid for by users."

That means one thing: Road tolls, something few Canadian politicians are willing to discuss publicly. They will happen, of course, most likely when it's too late to make any difference.

Haider, and others, suggest implementing a system of graduated road charges on a temporary basis, say, six months.

"We have to start practising what we preach," he says. "Why do people need SUVs? I don't understand. It's time to get rid of excesses like SUVs. Our incentives are wrong; if you take away subsidies from SUVs, people won't buy them.

"Legislating our way to being green is difficult," Haider argues. "Our revealed preferences make it clear we are motivated by selfish interests."

Those interests, no matter how selfish, will change whether we like it or not. Factors such as the cost of gas, oil, electricity, heating and cooling will provide incentives of one sort or another, whether they go up or down.

"I'm an optimist," Haider insists. "I'm in the camp that believes we can do better. The question is whether we can change our built-form, not drastically but incrementally. We have the infrastructure, but do we have the capacity? The auto-carrying capacity of highways has peaked, but not the passenger capacity."

Sounds like an argument – but whether for carpooling or revolution isn't clear.

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