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Hey Suburbs, We Thought You Thought Gated Communities Were Cool

Another busy rush hour on the train as suburban commuters unload.
Another busy rush hour on the train as suburban commuters unload.

Culture is the most confusing thing. In today's Dallas Morning News, a state representative from a northern suburb is quoted objecting to a proposal for tolled lanes on U.S. Highway 75, the main road north from the city, saying, "We'll basically be a gated community."

Wait. I thought that was what they wanted to be.

But there you have it. The basic nut, if you want to figure out the culture of the 'burbs, is this: The people who really run the suburbs, the sprawlmeister raw-land real estate developers, are caught on the horns of an inner contradiction. They want to peddle exclusivity, prestige and security. OK. But they want to sell it to everybody. How can their realm be exclusive, prestigious or that much more secure if everybody's there?

Another window into the basic oxymoron: A few days ago the News ran an interesting piece by Brandon Formby (see -- I give them a lot of crap over there, but I really depend on them, don't I?) in which experts were quoted trying to account for the decrease in passenger trips on mass transit in the region in spite of massive investment over the last 35 years.

In that piece, Michael Morris, a regional transportation planning official who has become the region's greatest road-huckster politico, was quoted saying the problem is that we need more rail lines to our farthest-flung suburban outposts. "We've got to build rail to Frisco one day," Morris told Formby. "We've got to build rail to McKinney one day."

But ... why? Isn't that the basic failure? Back when this region first started building a rail system, there was a chance to leave the suburbs out of it, raise the money exclusively within the city and use it to build a heavy rail system with a lot of subway. That would have given the city fast trains that didn't have to stop at streetlights and presumably would have incentivized development of a no-car zone where people could live in high-rises and not even own the damn things.

Unfortunately, DART, our regional transit agency, was corrupted from the beginning by me-too-ism among the raw land elite, who still had great power and influence in the city, who did not want to see Dallas develop an edge that might have diluted their investment in the 'burbs and who saw trains as trophies, like Lionel sets under their Christmas trees. Hence we have wasted decades and untold treasure building the stupidest thing possible, a commuter train system, when what we needed from the beginning was a train system to free people from commuting.

In his piece, Formby quotes a transportation economist at the University of Toronto, Matthew Turner, saying something like that, if not exactly:

"Turner said expanding into low-density suburbs on the outreaches of the region is 'like a Ponzi scheme' because demand there isn't enough to financially sustain the infrastructure costs of rails lines and trains. 'They're big, expensive machines for moving lots of people, and they're going to bankrupt you unless you have a lot of people wanting to move,' he said."

I looked Turner up and found a Q&A in which he talks about congestion pricing, a theme I would assume is related to the proposal for tolled lanes on U.S. 75. He says that building more free road capacity is exactly the wrong thing to do, if you want to relieve congestion. For every 1 percent increase in free capacity, his studies have found, there is a 1 percent increase in driving: "This means that we should not expect either road or transit expansions to alleviate traffic congestion in the long run. The only policy that we know to be effective at reducing traffic congestion is congestion pricing."

Charging a toll, on the other hand, does reduce congestion, he says. "If we impose tolls on congested roads at congested times, we give people an incentive to shift their travel to an uncongested time when we have surplus road capacity. This saves people from waiting in traffic and will likely increase the capacity of our road network."

What we really see in the remark above of the state representative from the northern suburbs is that the raw land culture wants it both ways. It wants to build a gated community without a gate. For obvious reasons it objects to anything that might slow the flow of new homebuyers into its realm.

We in the city are the people who should really want the suburbs to be gated. We need to put a big gate between us -- a vault door, in fact. It's in our interest to see the costs of sprawl honestly priced.

Of course people should be free to live where they want to live in the way they want to live. But they should have to pay the true price for their lifestyle. At the very least those of us who live in cities should not go on paying subsidies to prop up raw land sprawl, which is pretty much what DART and free highways have become.


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