When Americans argue about suburban sprawl (that is, the movement of people and jobs from cities to thinly populated auto-dependent suburbs), they typically argue about the convenience of the middle class. Environmentalists argue that the growth of suburbia lengthens the commutes of the middle class, and turns suburbs into congested clones of the cities that suburbanites fled; developers and their political allies call suburbia the "American Dream" and swear that sprawl means less congestion rather than more.
But there are larger issues at stake. For over 3000 years, the Judeo-Christian tradition has condemned those who sought to make the poor poorer. For example, the Bible dictates to ancient Israel's legal authorities: "Ye shall do no unrighteousness in judgment; thou shalt not respect the person of the poor, nor favor the person of the mighty" (Leviticus 19:15). These words of wisdom do not mandate abolition of poverty -- but they do warn that the coercive arm of the state may not be used to impoverish the already poor in order to make life more convenient for the affluent majority.
But sprawl-promoting government policies do exactly that. For the past century, government has built highways to suburban areas with minimal or nonexistent public transit, thereby making it convenient for businesses and civic facilities to abandon transit-friendly cities and move to car-dependent suburbs. By making car ownership a necessity for work and play, sprawl penalizes the millions of Americans who are too poor to drive and the 24 million disabled Americans who are physically incapable of driving, freezing them out of the labor market and out of civic life.
For example, a few years ago Georgia's government built a road called Georgia 400, which made a suburb called Dunwoody far more convenient to businesses and homeowners. Atlanta's Jewish Community Center, taking its cues from Big Brother, abandoned midtown Atlanta and moved to a Dunwoody road where bus service ends two hours before the center closes and evaporates on weekends. So unless the JCC decides to provide shuttle service on its own, the 39% of Atlanta's African-American households that own no vehicle can't reach jobs at the JCC, and the children and elderly who the center is meant to serve can't reach the JCC without begging the powers that be for rides. Other Atlanta jobs have moved to Gwinnett County, a suburb of 500,000 people which has no public transportation whatsoever. Nevertheless, the Atlanta Regional Commission, the region's transportation planning agency, plans to widen thirteen roads and build or extend three more in Gwinnett County, thus ensuring that even more people and jobs will move there. (To be fair, the ARC does claim that it will institute a bus system in Gwinnett--but it may take decades for bus service to catch up with the area's highways).
In Rust Belt metro areas like Buffalo and Cleveland, rich and poor live in separate municipalities. In such areas, the poor are even worse off than in Sun Belt cities that have annexed suburban areas. This is so because in growing Sun Belt cities like Charlotte and Albuquerque, rich and poor share one tax base and one set of city services. All citizens therefore share minimally decent city services, and city taxes are low because the tax base includes rich and poor alike. By contrast, in most Rust Belt cities, the rich get to live in suburbs with superb tax bases and fine services, while the poor get penned up in cities with weak tax bases that force municipal politicians to choose between high taxes and poor services. In other words, sprawl (combined with state laws restricting cities' ability to annex their suburbs) creates not just unequal justice for rich and poor, but entirely separate governments for rich and poor.
Just as the Judeo-Christian tradition condemns American suburban sprawl, that tradition also suggests possible solutions, solutions based on equity rather than competing values such as shaving a few minutes off suburbanites' commutes.
A public policy based on justice would not eliminate suburban development or force people to move back into older cities, but would require that some of the so-called benefits of government-generated sprawl trickle down to the powerless.
For example, state and federal governments could implement a "no roads without transit" policy, requiring that any new or widened roads be accompanied by bus service that allows the poor, the disabled, the young and the old to reach business development generated by those roads and their interchanges. A more ambitious proposal would be to compensate transit-dependent Americans for past roadbuilding sprees, by require some minimal level of bus service to every significant employer. According to one staffer at the American Public Transportation Association (who opposed the proposal), hourly bus service to every employer with 15 or more employees would cost $1 billion (only 1% of government transportation spending). Such proposals are a logical extension of current law. Today, the Americans with Disabilities Act requires that the disabled be given bus service comparable to that given to the citizenry as a whole, regardless of cost. If we can disregard efficiency considerations to make disabled bus riders equal to other bus riders, we can do the same to make them equal to the citizenry as a whole.
We could also eliminate the system of suburban governments that creates one government for the rich and another for the poor. Specifically, states could mandate city-county mergers so that rich and poor would share the same government services, or at least mandate some form of regional tax sharing to limit fiscal disparities between richer and poorer cities.
It could be argued that since rich people pay more taxes, they are entitled to better government. Leaving aside the moral problems with this argument, it is based upon an incorrect factual assumption: our tax system as a whole is not particularly progressive, because the progressive federal income tax is offset by state sales taxes and Social Security taxes (both of which make the poor pay more than the rich) and by to some extent by local property taxes (which often hits people living in poor cities the hardest, because those towns have smaller tax bases and thus higher taxes or worse services). It could be also argued that the division of metropolitan areas into dozens of governments reduces taxes by creating competition between cities. But the high taxes of Buffalo and its suburbs belie this argument.
Whenever any scheme to improve the lot of the disadvantaged is proposed, some will cry "redistribution." But curing the impacts of government-financed sprawl does not require that the market be tampered with or that poverty be abolished, but only that government stop redistributing income away from the poor--that is, that government stop segregating the poor into poor cities and stop using transportation policy to steer jobs away from the poor.
Michael Lewyn is a contributing writer to the Buffalo Beat (www.buffalobeat.com) and the author of Auto-Free In Buffalo: A Guide To Buffalo's Neighborhood's And Public Transportation.