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Stop the Sprawl

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If cities are to keep growing, as they will, they must stop growing outwards and start growing upwards. The environmental and human consequences are too great to consider otherwise.

As cities grow, perhaps our most serious concern should be how they expand out into the surrounding countryside. Contrary to popular belief, over the past century urban settlements have not only expanded demographically, they have also sprawled outwards – covering some of the world’s most valuable farmland in the process.

The result has been a steady de-densification of urban settlements, by about –2% per annum. Even where inner-city areas have densified over the past few decades (Copenhagen, for example), the citywide trend is still for an overall reduction in average densities.

In 2010, the total area covered by all the cement, asphalt, compacted clay, park areas and open spaces that comprise the footprint of the world’s urban settlements was around 1 million sq km. In comparison, the total area of France is 643,000 sq km.

If the urban population and long-term de-densification trends continue, the area of the planet covered by urban settlements will increase to more than 3 million sq km by 2050. And since the most intensively cultivated farmland is typically located near where the bulk of the food is consumed, much of this additional 2 million sq km is currently our most productive farmland.

In short, continued urbanisation in its current form could threaten global food supplies at a time when food production is already not keeping up with population growth.

Moreover, density has to be achieved with people in mind, not cars.

Across the world, it would be a mistake to focus solely on improving the average densities of cities. Los Angeles has a higher average density than New York, for example, yet LA is regarded as a dysfunctional urban form while NY is functional, because it comprises a network of high-density neighbourhoods interconnected by efficient and affordable mass transit systems.

Seoul is similar: a megacity that has avoided sprawl with this approach. When the mayor decided to dismantle the eight-lane highway that used to run through the centre of the city, he said: “Seoul is for people, not cars.”

An alternative road was not built – resulting in an increase in the number of people using mass transit which, in turn, made mass transit financially viable. Building more highways for cars, then introducing trains and buses in the hope that they will be financially viable, simply does not work (the greater Johannesburg region is learning that lesson now).

China, meanwhile, has urbanised hundreds of millions of people over the past three decades. This has tended to be in high-rise, multi-storey buildings located in “superblocks” with wide, traffic-congested streets and few intersections per sq km. The result is relatively low densities in neighbourhoods with virtually no street or community life – in short, not the kind of urban area one would call liveable.

Compare this with the neighbourhoods you find in Barcelona, where buildings are five to eight storeys high, located on narrow streets with pavements, trees and small piazzas for social engagement, and all well connected to both motorised and non-motorised forms of transport.

This is what makes for liveable urban neighbourhoods. China has realised its mistake, adopting an urbanisation strategy that breaks away from sprawled-out superblocks in favour of a high-density neighbourhood approach, with narrower streets, a high number of intersections, and improved public transport.

The environmental consequences of suburban living will soon be enormous. On the other hand, what this article does not address is cost. At least in the United States, but also certainly in cities like London, Paris, and, yes, Barcelona, the global Gilded Age has driven the costs of urban living through the roof. To some extent this is the lack of housing supply in a nation like the U.S. that had been disdainful of urban living for most of its history. But it’s also about the size of apartments, the profits for building for millionaires instead of the poor, the global mega-rich owning multiple huge apartments in the world’s cities for their jet-setting lifestyle, etc. It’s not just about building up or density or pedestrian-friendly. It’s about affordability and democracy. If those aren’t values in our cities, then they are no more functional than a model of endless sprawl.

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  • N__B

    Los Angeles has a higher average density than New York

    Nope.

    LA: 4,000,000 in 500 square miles.

    NYC: 8,500,000 in 460 square miles.

    I agree with the argument in general, but that’s a pretty glaring error.

    • Vance Maverick

      This is not the first time I’ve seen the claim. Something about definitions?

      Anyway, LA is definitely getting denser with time. Not necessarily handling it perfectly, though the bus lines on the major thoroughfares are moving a lot of people.

      • Amanda in the South Bay

        They’ve expanded light rail a bit, but Metrolink is the poor stepchild in the mix.

      • Michael Cain

        Almost certainly a reference to the Census Bureau’s “urbanized area” measure. Think MSAs or CSAs but with the undeveloped or undevelopable areas excluded (eg, the LA CSA includes Riverside County, which extends all the way to the Arizona border but is mostly mountains and protected desert). Basically, LA’s “sprawly” parts are much denser than NYC’s “sprawly” bits. That’s not surprising, since the LA sprawl is hemmed in by mountains, where NYC’s is not.

        The West, and California in particular, do well by this measure. A notable exception is Phoenix, whose sprawl hasn’t bumped into that sort of limit yet. Denver does surprisingly well, given that it could grow to the east essentially without limit. But the weather gets significantly worse as you move away from the mountains, as does the scenery.

        • N__B

          My response had three links and so is in moderation. It was, however, a moderate comment. In short, the way the MSA are defined makes no sense to me and those definitions are the key to saying western cities are denser than eastern ones.

          • The Lorax

            In this context “LA” should include at least large parts of LA County, if not all of it. So, it should include Pasadena and Santa Monica and Long Beach, e.g. And most (I think) people living in LA County think of themselves as living in LA in some real sense (in a way that those living in Naperville don’t think of themselves as living in Chicago). Not Downtown. But most of LA isn’t Downtown.

            • mikeSchilling

              I live in the Bay Area and can say authoritatively that LA is everything south of Monterey.

              • I live in the Bay Area and I can say authoritatively that this is bullshit.

              • bender

                I live in the Bay Area. Places in southern California that I have visited and spent time in, e.g. Long Beach, Pasadena, San Diego are themselves but everywhere else in LA County and Orange County is LA to me (and to be avoided if possible).

          • Michael Cain

            I agree that the MSA definitions make no sense, especially in an age of satellites, GIS, and detailed mapping for everything.

            If your second statement is that the rules underestimate density more for eastern cities than western ones, you’ll have to show me examples (and the links in limbo may have — also, I apologize if I misunderstood you). The latest version of the Denver MSA (not CSA, just MSA) added 4,000 square miles that average less than 10 people per square mile. The MSA now stretches more than 120 miles east-to-west, which is just silly.

            • N__B

              My second statement was meant, and badly worded, to be specifically aimed at LA versus NYC MSAs. I don’t know if there is a general rule about how their definitions are strange.

              ETA: My moderated message pointed out that the NYC MSA includes Ocean County NJ and Orange County NY, which are far from NY and are far suburbia, exurbia, and semi-rural, but excludes Nassau County, which is pretty urban and immediately adjacent to the city.

              • njorl

                Ocean County? Does the NY metropolitan area also include Philadelphia?

          • CrunchyFrog

            I don’t think it will ever get approved – i had one of those a few days ago and it never did.

      • N__B

        Probably. But then you’re not talking about cities. NYC’s core standard metro area includes semi-rural areas a damned long way from the center.

        • Snarki, child of Loki

          The “political boundary” of LA is seriously *fractal*, NYC not so much. So a rational study of stuff like sprawl/density/demographics needs to use some other method of deciding “inside” from “outside”.

    • wjts

      The word “average” makes me think that it’s not just a comparison of the two cities’ populations divided by their areas.

      • N__B

        If it’s a median, what are the subareas? Census tracts?

        It’s just a bad sentence in terms of not conveying useful information.

        • wjts

          Zip codes? Neighborhoods? Maybe the word “average” is extraneous, and the sentence is wrong.

  • Amanda in the South Bay

    To some extent this is the lack of housing supply in a nation like the U.S. that had been disdainful of urban living for most of its history.

    How to profit:
    1. Get a house in someplace like San Francisco, Palo Alto or Berkeley in the 1980s or 1970s
    2. Do everything possible to stop new housing.
    3. Literally profit from how much your house is worth because you’ve stopped people from moving in
    4. Pray to your deity of choice how lucky you were to move in at exactly the right time, unlike those annoying newcomers.

    • CrunchyFrog

      To some degree this is part of the problem, but the bigger reason for increase prices in the bay area has been geographic limitations. The available land has been close to built out for a very long time. There still are a lot of fill-in developments being built all of the time, and more and more of it is higher density. It’s true, though, that you’re not going to get a multi-family house built in an established neighborhood of single family homes unless you can buy up those homes – at which point rezoning for multi-family isn’t hard to get.

      But even all of that fill-in development doesn’t come close to meeting the demand.

      In addition, some of the resistance to building on open, privately-owned spaces like between Gilroy and Morgan Hill are anti-sprawl forces. Back in the early 1980s Gilroy wasn’t considered a realistic commute for most people – then the 101 freeway was opened – 2 lanes each way – and it was quickly overwhelmed with new commuters and Gilroy housing boomed. 101 has since been expanded but they’ll never keep up with the commuter demands.

      • Amanda in the South Bay

        The Bay Area never seemed that dense to me, outside of the FiDi or the Mission. I mean, just take Caltrain north from San Jose, and see how not very dense San Mateo County is. I also relied on VTA for years to get around Santa Clara County, and Santa Clara County is the very antithesis of dense.

        • Amanda in the South Bay

          I mean, you have stuff like this blocks from one of the busiest stations in the entire BART system.

          https://goo.gl/maps/q67ow6Bw7mJ2

          There’s a lot of space to become denser in.

          • Vance Maverick

            And when someone proposes to build up in that neighborhood, people go door to door gathering signatures to stop it.

          • CrunchyFrog

            Well, true, but if you look around that zone you’ll find active replacement development that has higher density. This neighborhood was built out decades ago. Most of what you see is likely to get replaced in the next 40 years, and always with higher density construction. It’s a lot slower replacing existing construction that building over a greenfield.

        • los

          Bay Area never seemed that dense to me,
          coastal areas (and other edge areas) have unique ecologies…

          • Amanda in the South Bay

            I’m talking about (for example) the sprawling parking lots and recessed businesses along El Camino from Santa Clara all the way up to San Mateo County, not Bay wetlands or anything. Just due south of downtown Mountain View on Castro, around El Camino Hospital, you’d think you’re in single family housing heaven.

            • CrunchyFrog

              Yes, true, but again, it’s changing. Try parking in the newer areas – like the PF Changs/Trader Joe’s lot in Sunnyvale. And that’s part of a big multi-family development on what was one of the last orchards. Zoning is changing.

              (And yes, that development is called the “Cherry Orchard”. Insult to injury, destroying something good for personal profit then naming the new thing what it was that you destroyed.)

              • (And yes, that development is called the “Cherry Orchard”. Insult to injury, destroying something good for personal profit then naming the new thing what it was that you destroyed.)

                Somebody should write a play about that.

                • mikeSchilling

                  Hang a pen on the wall, and someone will write it in the third act.

              • PatrickG

                Re: cherry orchards… they actually razed the trees and planted new ones here and there for “authenticity”.

                Couldn’t be bothered to save some mature trees.

              • Amanda in the South Bay

                Home of a conveniently located Borders while it was around.

                • CrunchyFrog

                  Yep. By the way, fill-in development has been going on in the south bay for quite a long time. Consider the Santana Row development on Winchester near 280/880. That space was originally a large 1950s-style set of single-story shops, the kind that still exist in a few places like where Hobees is (was?) across from DeAnza college. Lots and lots of open parking. In the late 1990s it was razed and the medium density multi-use, highly popular Santana Row was put in to replace it. I think something similar happened to the 1950s-style set of small shops that was on the SW corner of Wolfe and Homestead – I can’t now remember what they replaced it with but it was medium density. Ditto all of that empty land that was east of Vallco across from the old Tandem buildings before that company was Compaqted.

                  Last year I spent a lot of time working on a project in Milpitas. You want to see higher density fill in, drive around the area in northern Santa Clara and San Jose – lots of new stuff in the past 10 years, and all higher density. Even the Levi’s stadium development gets credit for re-using the under-used parking lot at Great America, plus since the games and events are mostly on the weekend they can borrow the extensive office parking within walking distance.

              • LosGatosCA

                But go north on Matilda and see all the new density plus all the apartments along Evelyn going toward Fair Oaks.

                Density is going up all along the Caltrain corridor.

                Also, Down in San Jose near the old Saddle Rack location there’s nothing but high density housing from Parkmoor to Stevens Creek and Lincoln to Meridian.

                • Amanda in the South Bay

                  Yeah, it seems like density is only recently increasing-it always felt like for the longest time that Santa Clara County was stuck in the 70s and 80s-low density, car centric and unwalkable.

          • sparks

            Yes, they have at times included dead jockeys, too.

      • los

        early 1980s Gilroy wasn’t considered a realistic commute for most people
        Eventually, business/employment follows the spread/sprawl, and commuters overlay. Very few commuters commute from far outskirts to the old center. That would require multiple hour travel during peak commute periods
        (this gradient cost of living is also pertinent to minimum wage arguments)

        • LosGatosCA

          Neither was Tracy or Stockton or Brentwood.

          Santa Cruz to San Jose/Santa Clara/Sunnyvale has always been a thing.

          And of course there was a time about 25 years ago when a San Francisco to Palo Alto drive was considered a reverse commute.

          • Amanda in the South Bay

            Santa Cruz to San Jose/Santa Clara/Sunnyvale has always been a thing.

            Slightly frustrating, since Santa Cruz refuses to build new housing, techies who commute over the hill are able to afford living there, but not working class peons without six figure salaries.

            • N__B

              And, of course, Sunnyvale’s progress has been held back by the Hellmouth below it.

              • Amanda in the South Bay

                If I had a dollar for every time I heard that while I lived there…
                Actually there are parts of Sunnyvale that are growing well-I used to live at the corner of Fair Oaks and Tasman, renting a room from a batshit crazy Paulite engineer (I know, in Silicon valley, what are the odds!!!???) in a mobile home park. Across the street (in what I think at what was once an Atari building from ages ago?) they built this:
                https://goo.gl/maps/WfmWt9LShgT2

                There’s a bunch of room along North 1st and Tasman to build more than two stories, since so few people live directly along those streets, people can’t NIMBY about them.

    • Cash & Cable

      Seriously, the impact of NIMBYism dwarfs the impact of millionaires buying pied a terres. At times, it’s kinda hard to blame developers for avoiding the headaches of dealing with existing homeowners in the neighborhood and opting instead for greenfield developments that have far fewer preexisting stakeholders.

      • DAS

        I don’t know if that’s always true. Is NIMBYism limiting the development of Manhattan and driving up real estate prices?

        Even in the outer borough neighborhood where I live, although one could argue that NIMBYism is limiting some development, there is still plenty of development near our subway line. The problem is that apartments in any new development immediately get purchased for exorbitant sums, limiting the ability of middle class folks to purchase apartments near enough to mass transit and our local central shopping district to live comfortably without cars. Are there so many rich people that these apartments they are purchasing near subway lines in our nabe their primary residences? Or are (as we know), many of these properties purchased as “investment” properties by rich (often foreigners) for use as pied-a-terres or sometimes they are even largely vacant.

        Heck, even if there were more development near our subway lines, at some point, the subway system would be completely overwhelmed. Already some lines (e.g. the E line) are jammed packed during rush hour.

        The real problem is that people cannot afford to live near their workplaces. And even still, you need to find two jobs both near your home if your spouse works as well. And even if you find a place to live near both of your jobs (with good schools, affordable, not in a flood zone, etc), what happens if you get let go from your job and the nearest job you can get is a huge commute? Do you move and then risk losing that job and having to move again?

        Also, having dense, non-car centric development is no guarantee that people won’t eventually own cars unless the mass transit infrastructure is there (and also is good where people work). For instance, the building I live was built assuming the majority of people in the building would not own cars. But then they removed the bus stop near our building and never brought it back. And also the nearest places to get food are a half a mile away, which is a long distance to shlep food on foot on a cold rainy/snowy winter’s day or on a hot summer’s day. So between that and many people finding jobs in car-centric areas (which means it’s difficult to take mass transit to work), people have cars in spite of our local population density.

        • Cash & Cable

          There’s a two ways to answer your first question:

          1) Yes, there is opposition to greater density in Manhattan: http://ny.curbed.com/2016/6/14/11925996/far-state-senate-bill-de-blasio-affordable-housing

          2) Manhattan is the densest borough of the densest city (not metro) in America. It’s not very representative of the country’s housing market, or even very representative of other cities that have strong housing markets. Foreigners aren’t buying up second houses in Nashville or Seattle. I doubt they’re even buying significant numbers of such homes in SF or Boston.

          • Unemployed_Northeastern

            Folk from abroad are buying increasing numbers of homes in and around Boston, particularly in the city’s new glass midrise and highrise condo towers. However, the common consensus is that these buyers aren’t so much the usual NYC/Miami unused pied a terre / money-laundering scheme type as they are buying to avail themselves of the area’s prep schools, universities, or hospitals. But to be clear, metro Boston gets enough international attention about its housing market that the glossy real estate porn rag Boston Magazine is now putting out full editions in Mandarin. Excusive content, too – not just a straight translation of the English-language version.

            Interestingly, the public residential real estate record for Boston was recently shattered. It was somewhere in the high teens or maybe around twenty million, but the grand penthouse of a new 60-story tower just sold: price TBA, but it was asking over $37 mil. Owner? A guy from the South Shore of Massachusetts who founded a hedge fund or PE group and then renounced his citizenship and moved to Ireland for its lower tax rates. Classy.

            • It was somewhere in the high teens or maybe around twenty million, but the grand penthouse of a new 60-story tower just sold: price TBA, but it was asking over $37 mil. Owner? A guy from the South Shore of Massachusetts who founded a hedge fund or PE group and then renounced his citizenship and moved to Ireland for its lower tax rates.

              The best thing about that place is that, if the artist’s renderings (endlessly reprinted by the Globe—at least, they can’t end soon enough for me) can be believed, the penthouse features an open patio separated from 59 stories of vertical air by only an (at most) shin-height parapet. I look forward to learning some morning that the proud owner is, in fact, the goddamn Batman.

              • Unemployed_Northeastern

                I mean, for $37 million, you can literally a $5 million mansion in like Weston or Dover, a $5 million waterfront home on Cape Cod, a $5 million condo or townhouse in Boston, a $5 million farm out in the Berkshires, and $17 million to live on for the rest of your life, but that’s just me.

          • bender

            The SF Chronicle IIRC had a story recently breaking down the percentages of foreigners buying SFBA housing. I don’t have time to go hunt for it. I recall that it was a significant part of the housing market, and that more than half the properties were being purchased by resident non-citizens, rather than as investments or second homes. The explanation given was that rents are so high that if you are going to be living here for a couple of years, it makes more sense to buy.

    • Dennis Orphen

      5: Sell your house; move to Nevada County; lather, rinse, repeat.

      • Woodrowfan

        are you kidding? Have you seen Tremors? It’s not safe out there!!!!

    • thebewilderness

      That was not as much of a problem of greedy profiteers here in the NW as it was low income seniors being taxed out of their houses, until the county finally froze property taxes for seniors.
      They make a nice easy target though.

      • The Lorax

        Here in CA that led to Prop 13, most of which has nothing to do with seniors being taxed out of houses. But it was sold as such. In November we will have a ballot measure to provide 1/2c sales tax in LA County to fund roads and mass transit. It probably won’t pass, as it needs a 2/3 vote thanks to Prop 13. We are haunted by the ghost of Howard Jarvis to this day.

        • los

          1/2c sales tax in LA County to fund roads and mass transit
          gas (or mileage-related tax) should pay for mileage related expenses.

          • The Lorax

            It wouldn’t be enough.

  • CrunchyFrog

    The US political system isn’t designed to combat sprawl, but to encourage it. When there is money to be made by building on vacant land no money to be made opposing the building then in most cases the construction will not only be approved, but the politicians will approve funding of all kinds of infrastructure to support it. In places like NYC and SF Bay there are natural geographic barriers to growth – in places without those barriers, well, good luck.

    Sometimes you can establish green belts. What usually happens is that over time the green belts will be skipped over and the commute traffic just drive through them. Sometimes the green belts themselves become compromised. All it takes is one election – if one set of politicians votes to built on the green belt then that land is gone from preservation forever.

    Chicago still has the forest preserves, but of course they were targets for freeway routes. Morten Arboretum suffered the worst – since that land had been so preserved its land was grabbed for freeways on two of fours sides – and no politician cared about the impact of all that car pollution on the plants that had long been kept there.

    Even in Denver – a Democratic metro area where people move to specifically for the outdoors and quality of life and where there is fortunately been a long-time vision for building extensive parks and transit – the mayor still favors cars over other transport and there still is a tendency to shift funds to new infrastructure to support rich developers versus maintaining existing infrastructure. In right wing cities like Colorado Springs you can just forget smart development. Let the city streets decay in the poorer areas – we need new overpasses (*not* for freeways – for intersections of thoroughfares) near large new developments first.

    I’ve finally come to the conclusion that the only thing that can possibly fix this problem in the current political climate is an event that would push oil prices to 10x the current levels.

    • veleda_k

      I lived in the Denver Metro area until two years ago, and the growth and sprawl there is incredible. Even in Boulder County, a famously liberal area where there’s real investment in open space and skylines, development is fast eating away at all the things people moved there for.

      • CrunchyFrog

        A real test will come in 10-15 years in the far south of Denver in south Douglas County. Well, assuming water shortages don’t force Denver’s politicians to realize that there are limits to how many people can actually live locally, even after getting rid of lawns, etc. Right now there is a terrific open space effort south of Castle Rock. The money is spent either buying ranches outright or buying the development rights – the people still own the ranch but can’t build more than the existing house due to a conservation easement. None of the builders minds this because in the the north half of the county they’ve declared open season on any and every green field – with tax funds pouring in to build out street, water, emergency, school, and communication infrastructure well in advance to make the developers even richer. However, the area will eventually get built out. And the pressure will start to build to sell off some of the open space for more developments. You know – they won’t call it a sale outright – it’ll be disguised as a land swap or something. But that’s what it’ll be.

        In the south Springs there is an effort to pull a fast one on the city in a similar fashion under the guise of completing a trail.

    • Dennis Orphen

      the only thing that can possibly fix this problem in the current political climate is an event that would push oil prices to 10x the current levels

      That could (and I believe will) happen, but not from a major event. It will happen (and has been happening) slowly, like boiling a frog. And it won’t just be from the price of petroleum products rising, people will have less and less income to actually buy oil, due to both real incomes declining or other things such as food and shelter costing more. Or both.

  • bernard

    I’m not familiar with Barcelona, but the raw numbers are that there seems to be a central area, about 40 sq. mi., with a population density of around 40,000/sq. mi.

    Manhattan, by contrast has a density of over 70,000, while both Brooklyn and the Bronx are at about 90% of Barcelona.

  • los

    costs of urban living through the roof.
    Obstacles:
    1. NIMBY suburbs resist denser housing, though the “inner suburbs” are the ideal for expanding “urban sprawl”.
    2. Toxic social tradition: Too many people in the USA cannot live in multiple unit residences (and sometimes in multiple unit commercial), because they enjoy annoying other people.

    density has to be achieved with people in mind, not cars.
    3, Preference for individual transportation will grow. “Self driving cars” will be smaller with shorter separation distances/gaps.

    about the size of apartments, the profits for building for millionaires instead of the poor
    … an outcome of privatized redistribution. A broad middle-class consuming mass-produced items of adequate quality is more efficient.

    • BobBobNewhartNewhartSpecial

      density has to be achieved with people in mind, not cars.
      3, Preference for individual transportation will grow. “Self driving cars” will be smaller with shorter separation distances/gaps.

      The ability of self-driving cars to drive with shorter distances/gaps and possibly, to be smaller, may have some effect, but I think the overall result (assuming these actually become feasible for a large chunk of the population) is to increase sprawl. Self-driving cars combine all of the potential benefits of mass transit with the privacy and independence of cars that people seem to like so much. So why not add an hour to the commute?

      • JMP

        Self-driving cars are not going to happen, no matter how much money Google keeps wasting on an unfeasible pipe dream.

        • Dennis Orphen

          Has anyone noticed the horrible job humans do driving cars? Self driving cars will never be perfect, but people can’t even use turn signals (people usually meaning white guys in pickup trucks), which means they can’t respond to other people using turn signals or make a connection between the two. Or how about multi-lane limited access drivers who cant stay right unless passing? We could have an autobahn if people would just keep right unless passing another car, then get back in the right lane. Of course that means enforcing that by having the highway patrol sweep the left lanes and that would take away from more important duties, like pulling over people who drive slowly, safely, deliberately, considerately, and defensively, because they obviously have some weed in the car, why else would they be so conscious in their driving? They must have something to hide, right?

          http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/08/us/more-states-are-cracking-down-on-left-lane-slowpokes.html?_r=0

          • jim, some guy in iowa

            weirdly enough I was in the city yesterday, driving in the slow lane and slightly gaining on a SUV in the fast lane, when a pickup went around the SUV and back into the fast lane. Far as I could tell the pickup driver’s middle finger was the only signal used. The driver of said SUV *still* refused to get the point and kept poking along in the fast lane

            that said the only way I see self-driving cars working out is if they are the only things on the road- but that’s something for another time

            • Dennis Orphen

              Cuz the cops wont flush out those lanes. A few days or weeks of that, and people would get the message pretty quickly. But most of those people who would get pulled over would skew, older, maler and whiter. And we can’t have that.

              • jim, some guy in iowa

                the only thing that I could think of that didn’t involve the word “idiot” or “jackass” was that the SUV might be an older driver (or maybe a less-confident kid) who was going to need to make a left turn at an upcoming intersection (which at that point was in my opinion quite a ways away) and didn’t want to come across from the slow lane to catch the left turn lane

                • Dennis Orphen

                  Which is why I limit my rant on the subject to limited access freeways. A multi-lane arterial is a different story.

            • Dennis Orphen

              Also, on a more philosophical note, the reason white guys in pickup trucks won’t use turn signals is because it’s a form of communication.

              • Snarki, child of Loki

                You have incorrectly identified those “turn signal indicator lights”.

                Their actual purpose is “NOT-AN-IDIOT identification lights”.

                Unfortunately, there is a non-zero failure rate.

                • Dennis Orphen

                  There ought to a be a system that tests drivers and issues licenses to keep idiots people who should not be operating a motor vehicle off the road.

                • njorl

                  They should issue duplicate numbers at the DMV so that when they call “D34” up for the eye test, two people show up. If one or both of them acts like a dick about it, no license for them. If you can’t calmly decide who gets to take the test first, you’re going to cause crashes in merge lanes.

          • addicted44

            Self driving cars can also talk to each other unlike human beings. A car trying to switch lanes could literally tell the neighboring car in that lane what it wants to do and both could come to an agreement about what should be done.

            Atrios is convinced that self driving cars are a pipe dream. I’m convinced they’re an inevitability, simply because how terrible a job humans do driving cars.

            Humans have been automated away in hundreds of industries where they do a much better job than driving cars.

            • Redwood Rhiadra

              How good or bad humans are at a task is *completely* irrelevant to whether the task will be automated.

              What is relevant is how good *computers* are. And Atrios is right, self-driving cars are a pipedream.

    • Mike G

      Toxic social tradition: Too many people in the USA cannot live in multiple unit residences (and sometimes in multiple unit commercial), because they enjoy annoying other people.

      An important but little-discussed fact…

    • mikeSchilling

      Too many people in the USA cannot live in multiple unit residences (and sometimes in multiple unit commercial), because they enjoy annoying other people.

      Not exactly; they’re why other people don’t want to live in multiple unit residences. Many of the people I work with have apartments in San Francisco. I have a house in the suburbs, my mortgage is less than their rent, and I have peace and quiet.

      • Origami Isopod

        Not exactly; they’re why other people don’t want to live in multiple unit residences.

        This. The jackasses don’t care how many other people live around them; they can’t hear them anyway through their stereos and TVs turned up to 11, their barking dogs, and their screaming matches.

      • Jordan

        No, not this. I’ve lived in multiple unit residences my entire life, both crappy and non-crappy, and its been fine. Sometimes, of course, it can suck. But that is true for literally everything.

    • bender

      I have happily lived in low rise apartment buildings and condominiums, and prefer the lower carbon footprint and the walkable neighborhood and the availability of mass transit, but I also like to garden. There are not nearly enough community garden plots available for town and city dwellers who want to grow more plants than will fit in some pots on a small deck.

  • namekarb

    If cities are to keep growing, as they will, they must stop growing outwards and start growing upwards.

    Upwards? Really? Urban centers should grow downward with everything above ground restored to natural habitat. In the shorter term, think of a shopping mall with underground parking. Much smaller footprint. Or even bury the mall along with underground parking leaving open parkland above the mall

    • Murc

      So we can live like rats, never seeing the sun. Delightful. There’s a reason nobody wants to live in a basement apartment.

      And even that notwithstanding, the engineering challenges of building downward, especially on a vast scale, are if anything worse than building upwards. Trying to invert Houston would require keeping all that pesky water out of the structures thus built. Ventilation is a nightmare as well.

      • wjts

        The first place I lived in Pittsburgh was a windowless basement room in a shared house. It was not pleasant.

        • sparks

          The only person I ever knew who liked living in a basement apartment was a photographer in the film age, the reasons for that are obvious.

          • los

            Degenerate vermin modernist artist loves living like a rat! His muslim mother was a gypsy fortune-teller and rheumatologist who never wore my army boots WHILE BATHING!
            /Trumpshirt in training

        • Dennis Orphen

          So we can live like rats, never seeing the sun

          No, you go outside when you feel like it. Good morning heartache false choices, sit down.

      • namekarb

        So you would rather live above ground in a densely populated urban area with window views of what? Alleys? Street traffic? Ever hear of skylights?

        • Vance Maverick

          Skylights are nice, but I prefer window views of alleys and traffic, definitely.

          • los

            as long as she keeps fogetting to close the curtains, i’m happy.
            /s

        • Murc

          If you’re close enough to the surface to have a skylight, then you’re still using area on the surface, defeating the whole purpose of your scheme.

          Also, yes. I would choose a window view of an alley over no window view at all, because that window is still going to let natural light in, and that’s a big fucking deal even if the view is shit.

          And, again, the engineering challenges here are immense compared to building upward and for very little gain. Dealing with the water table alone would be a nightmare.

      • Origami Isopod

        I think the southernmore climes of the U.S. are going to have to start building downward, because of hotter and hotter summers. I can’t speak to the engineering challenges but I imagine that extreme heat plus other severe-weather events related to climate change will take a toll on structures.

        Full-spectrum lighting might help somewhat with the sun deprivation, though it’s not a replacement.

        • bender

          Same is likely to be true on the Great Plains, which are on the way to becoming the Empty Quarter. Between the extremes of temperature and the tornadoes, if you are not a nomad it would make sense to put most of your living space below ground level, as many of the settlers did.

          Fiber optic cables can pipe sunlight into any room. I wonder whether there is a technical reason why that is not more widely used in current construction.

      • njorl

        We can compress the molten portion of the Earth’s core into an artificial sun. Then we manipulate gravity so that we are pulled against the inner surface of the Earth’s crust.

        I’m not saying that won’t take a bit of doing…

    • Vance Maverick

      How about shops in a mixed-use neighborhood with apartments upstairs, rather than a shopping mall at all?

    • BobBobNewhartNewhartSpecial

      Or even bury the mall along with underground parking leaving open parkland above the mall

      This is fairly common in Korea, although the land above isn’t always open parkland. As for the “living like rats” concern — how many side windows does a typical American mall have? The Seoul Coex Mall is largely built underground, but as you can see in these pics, it gets plenty of natural light from the use of skylights and from having some open space around the entrances. The experience of being in the mall is little different from a typical mall in the US.

      https://duckduckgo.com/?q=seoul+coex+mall&t=ffsb&iax=1&ia=images

      • Murc

        As for the “living like rats” concern — how many side windows does a typical American mall have?

        How many people live in a typical American mall?

        I mean, building underground is just fine. There’s space to be used there and used well. A lot of mass transit is built underground, as it should be!

        But namekarb isn’t proposing we just make better use of that space; they are literally proposing we straight-up invert entire cities and restore the space above them to their “natural habitat.” This is crazy for a number of reasons and an actual impossibility (the natural habitat of a lot of areas would require not having millions of people dug into the ground underneath a relatively thin layer of soil) for a lot of others.

  • Amanda in the South Bay

    I’m very much a YIMBY, but I’m also aware of the irony (at least it seemed to me) that a lot of the YIMBY crowd in the Bay Area are tech workers younger than 40-the very people who are doing the displacing of a lot of poorer folk. And some of them even deny gentrification is a thing. Its like, if you admit that the supply of housing impacts price, then you have to admit that your own demand is helping to make things worse (until the YIMBY utopia).

    • Philip

      Yeah, which is why you get a lot of infighting among the YIMBY/SFBARF crowd.

  • NeonTrotsky

    This will never happen so long as people are so extremely opposed to mass transportation in basically all of its forms

  • veleda_k

    This is an issue I care a whole lot about as a city dweller who really likes living in a city and would like to continue to do so, but who fears that will soon no longer be possible. Here in Chicago, as far as I can tell, our problem isn’t lack of space to build, but the fact that when developers tear down abandoned complexes and build new ones, they have no incentive not to just build multi-million dollar condos. I have vague, half-baked ideas about laws to cap housing and rent prices, but even if I could figure out how to make it feasible, no one would vote for it anyway.

    • The Lorax

      For a while there was an incentive: There aren’t enough rich people to buy those. But with the influx of foreign money in the US that incentive is diminished. It may be somewhat better in Chicago, which is less fashionable than LA, NY, or SF (which puzzles me, as Chicago is amazing).

      • Dennis Orphen

        If Chicago is amazing Wisconsin must be heaven.

      • veleda_k

        We’re definitely more affordable than any of those places. But the North Side is gentrifying fast, and our completely dysfunctional city and state governments aren’t exactly making things easier for the 99%.

        (It is amazing! Completely fucked up. But amazing!)

    • Philip

      At least in SF (I can’t speak for Chicago), I think building those does actually help. You need enough of them to skim the very rich out of the market for the less upscale apartments. Otherwise prices keep pushing up the whole way down the market because people look at the next step down from what their income would predict, but they can still pay a lot.

    • bender

      In San Francisco all new housing developments are required to have a minimum percentage of below market rate units. If the developer wants a variance from some of the other regulations, such as height limits, they have to up the percentage of below market rate units. Below market rate doesn’t mean cheap enough for the poor, more like two schoolteachers’ salaries. So far it’s bailing out the ocean with a teacup, but a lot of these projects have been approved recently, so maybe it will have an effect.

  • Ronan

    “China, meanwhile, has urbanised hundreds of millions of people over the past three decades. This has tended to be in high-rise, multi-storey buildings located in “superblocks” with wide, traffic-congested streets and few intersections per sq km. The result is relatively low densities in neighbourhoods with virtually no street or community life – in short, not the kind of urban area one would call liveable.”

    My understanding of Chinese urbanisation (take this with a pinch of salt) is that the “unlivable cities with no street or community life” has been the result of explicit state policy, which has aimed to undermine urban civic life and politics, and so opposition to the ruling regime. They’ve specifically tried not to repeat the “mistakes” of other fast growing developing countries where semi spontaneous, large urban areas developed and bred fiery, oppositional political cultures .

    • djw

      Yes. Also notable here that the experiments with ‘village democracy’ in the 90’s had no urban counterpart.

  • Gareth

    they have also sprawled outwards – covering some of the world’s most valuable farmland in the process.

    If the farmland is replaced by city, it was less valuable than the city is.

    • E.Garth

      For some rather limited values of valuable. A whole variety of costs – increased food costs, less natural recreation, etc. – are usually external to that calculation, with the consequences borne by people who had no participation in the decision.

      • Gareth

        Does having a yard and a garden count as natural recreation?

        • MyNameIsZweig

          My instinct would be that it does not, simply because we are talking about taking away public access to natural recreation and privatizing it. So yes, there is a very real cost to society of losing access to that natural recreation space, even though a private owner continues to be able to enjoy a slice of that land for that purpose some of the time.

          • Gareth

            We’re talking about privately owned farmland, not wilderness.

    • los

      farmers ‘pioneered’ the best agricultural locations. Then the population grew…

    • Origami Isopod

      … until the city suddenly doesn’t have enough food. And when the oil runs out, good luck shipping the food cross-country.

    • CSI

      Less valuable, maybe, in the very short term. In the longer term it would be in the best interest to maintain it as farm land. As a contingency at least. Because digging it up and paving it over severely damages it as farmland.

      But our current civilization is all about very short term outlooks unfortunately.

  • Lt. Fred

    We can’t just STOP sprawl, we need to reverse it. My city, Brisbane*, has almost exterminated an entire species, the koala. We need to fund the department of the environment to buy up large bits of exurbia and demolish them. We also, obviously, need to defund departments of roads and legally banish them to rural areas, stage mass executions of the private road lobby (or whatever) and build the department of transport into a massive public behemoth, annexing all PT planning powers with a mandate to blow up freeway and build railway.

    And we need to get rid of almost all zoning rules.

    * Brisbane is the worst designed city in the world. It has a 9% PT user share, is 200 kilometres long and will be about as wide in ~25 years.

  • jamesjhare

    I live and work in my suburb of DC. I ride a bicycle to work and walk to do most of my shopping (once every 2 weeks we do a big grocery trip that needs the car). Suburban living doesn’t require outsize energy use. The problem is folks who buy a house 2 hours from work so they can have more house that they never actually spend time in.

  • Gwen

    The biggest problem with anti-sprawl politics is that it can lead to a crisis of affordability.

    Pretty much every economists would agree that New York-style rent control is not the solution.

    • Philip

      Anti-sprawl politics hasn’t caused the crisis, though. Artificial scarcity via anti-density policy has. If your housing market explodes but no new housing is going up, you have 3 options: be rich, be homeless, or be 2 hours from work.

  • JustRuss

    Contrary to popular belief, over the past century urban settlements have not only expanded demographically, they have also sprawled outwards

    Is the author really saying that urban sprawl has been a well-kept secret?

  • nas

    Nice graphic! I live in Seoul, reminds me of thr view from my balcony. It is a very dense but very liveable city. I often wonder how they keep the rent so low here.

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