Revive U.S. Housing by Killing Cars and 'Spurbs'

If U.S. housing is going to rebound long-term, we need to vanquish the car and stop encouraging sprawl.
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If U.S. housing is going to rebound long-term, we need to vanquish the car and stop encouraging sprawl.

First, let's hasten the demise of the spurb, an ugly word I made up to describe sprawling, unwalkable urban-suburban areas that have no connection to public transportation and central cities.

The spurb's time has long past. Future energy demands from the rest of the world mean higher energy prices down the road. We need homes where there are jobs, infrastructure and transportation.

If the housing bubble and bust has taught us anything, it's probably a bad idea to build homes in the middle of nowhere, stretching along vast deserts and inland regions that are poorly served by highways. Americans are tired of wasting their lives in endless commutes.

Not only does driving everywhere waste our precious time, it ruins our health leading to heart disease, obesity, asthma and a host of other ailments. It's bad for our individual well being and the health of the planet. Cars contribute to climate change and bad air.

As I've explored the extensive downside of the spurb in my book The Cul-de-Sac Syndrome, I've also examined what we could do about it. I traveled from the San Francisco Bay to the tip of Florida to see what works and how we could re-invent the American home and community.

The first order of this revival is to reawaken our sense of the walkable neighborhood. They used to exist in every small town in America and every established city neighborhood. In New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Denver, San Francisco, Seattle and Portland, Oregon, they still exist and are thriving.

A walkable neighborhood means situating amenities such as stores, dry cleaners, libraries, bakeries and restaurants within about a three-quarter-of- a-mile walk. Not only can you abandon your car in these areas, you become healthier and start to know your neighbors. You look out for them and they look out for you. You can't do that in the freeway-choked suburbs of Los Angeles or the ring of overdeveloped towns surrounding Dallas. You're shackled to your car, but hey, it's the American Way, isn't it?

While it's too early to tell, walkable cities may hold their real-estate values better than car-dependent areas. According to the research of urbanologist Christopher Leinberger of the Brookings Institution, with each incremental increase in walkability, property values are likely to rise.

That bodes well for pedestrian heavens like Boston's Back Bay, Portland's Pearl District and Chicago's Lincoln Park. It's bad news for sprawl-infested, foreclosure-ridden places like Stockton, California, Southwest Florida and suburban Phoenix and Las Vegas.

That doesn't mean that spurbs are doomed or cities will prevail when we work our way out of this bust a few years from now. Nearly every community can be rebuilt to accommodate light rail, pedestrians and bikes. Maybe when diesel buses are converted to fuel-cell/electric vehicles, they, too, will make economic and environmental sense.

The key theme is to make communities more people-centric. The population is getting older, so this is a win-win situation. Design new communities around transit stops. Create pedestrian-only zones in suburbs and cities that ban cars.

Two of my favorite examples of "people places" are the pedestrian mall in Charlottesville, Virginia and the ramblas in Barcelona. The first is a celebration of public, private and sidewalk culture. You can walk to a movie, dining, an ice rink or municipal buildings. In the Spanish city, when my wife and I were vacationing a few years ago, we walked from our hotel in the middle of the city to the beach and downtown neighborhoods. It was several miles, but we didn't have to cross a major highway and ate, shopped and people-watched the whole way with great delight.

Life on the other side of the housing bust can be livable, healthier, more economical and ecologically sound. Think of the money you would save by not having to own a car or two (or three). You would get more exercise and help local merchants, not gargantuan chain-store operators situated in mega-shopping districts. You could patronize farmer's markets and get fresh food instead of worrying where your food came from and what pathogens it contained.

What will it take to ensure that the spurb mentality doesn't take over again? Demand that Washington divert most of its transportation dollars (in the upcoming transportation bill) away from new highways and into public transit, high-speed rail, pedestrian and bike paths. Demand that local and regional planners build walkable communities with affordable, energy-efficient housing near where people actually work. That may require changes in zoning and building codes, but this is America, we were founded on the idea of building something better for everyone.

Getting out of the traffic jam that was and continues to be the defining suburban experience will also give you more of the commodity you can't replace -- your time. How much is your time worth in your present lifestyle? Let your elected officials know now.

John F. Wasik, author of Cul-de-Sac Syndrome: Turning Around the Unsustainable American Dream, is a personal finance columnist for Bloomberg News and the author of several books. His most recent book, The Merchant of Power, was praised by Studs Terkel and well reviewed by the New York Times. Wasik has won more than fifteen awards for consumer journalism including the 2008 Lisagor and several from the National Press Club. He has appeared on such national media as NBC, NPR, and PBS. He lives in Chicago.

©2009 John F. Wasik, author of Cul-de-Sac Syndrome: Turning Around the Unsustainable American Dream.

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