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New Book Explores The End Of Suburban Sprawl

Evening Edition

Aired 4/28/14 on KPBS Midday Edition.


Benjamin Ross, Author of, "Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism"

Howard Blackson, Chair of the California Chapter of the Congress for the New Urbanism

"Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism" is a new book by Benjamin Ross, a transit activist who lives in Maryland.

The suburbs take a lot of criticism. They are ridiculed in songs, portrayed as stultifying and bland in literature and blamed for everything from childhood obesity to climate change.

But, in the beginning, suburbs seemed a benign idea, a patch of green to give middle-class families a breather from noisy, dirty cities. So what happened?

Author Benjamin Ross was president of a group in Maryland that has been trying to build a light rail line since the early 1980s.

Ross said the group built a coalition of environmentalists, labor and civic groups who supported the project but after 15 years of work and no light rail line to show for it, he wanted to understand why it was so difficult to get the job done.

The result is his new book, "Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism." Ross traced the history of suburbia across the nation and here in San Diego. He examined the reasons that suburban sprawl continues to exist and offered suggestions for a comprehensive change in land use planning.

Ross will be singing copies of his book and giving a talk on April 28 at 7 p.m. at Upstart Crow Bookstore and Coffeehouse in Seaport Village


Avatar for user 'twells'

twells | April 28, 2014 at 12:42 p.m. ― 2 years ago

I always find it amusing that planners hold up 19th century transportation technology, such as rail, over 21st century transportation technology, such as managed freeways, automated / robotic piloting of ground vehicles, bus trains, smart roads, etc. There is such a bias in the planning community against cars that they cannot see the future of transportation, and hence their entire basis is off the mark.

The amount of time, money and effort, spent by governments trying to force a eastern US rail-based solution on southern California shows a lack of vision in using what infrastructure there is here now to its fullest potential with technology.

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Avatar for user 'sdurban'

sdurban | April 28, 2014 at 12:53 p.m. ― 2 years ago

I always find it amusing when folks continue advocating building more freeways and widening them through our communities, while opposing true alternative transit choices that many younger Americans seek.

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Avatar for user 'hopeheadsd'

hopeheadsd | April 28, 2014 at 12:58 p.m. ― 2 years ago

@twells, I agree with you, up until the part where we run out of land and have to build up. We might no be around for it, but density and increased population have a lot to do with it. Seems like a logical reason.

Its not an 'eastern' thing either. Rail has been very successful solution in many many other cities around the WORLD where they have the density. This is no secret.

But alas, here is the dilemma of SoCal and the NIIMBY lifestyle we have grown accustomed to.
At some point we will become LA if we don't plan correctly. Just like the freeway is a subsidized system so is mass transit.

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Avatar for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | April 28, 2014 at 2:06 p.m. ― 2 years ago

It's funny how people keep saying they don't want SD to look like LA, but they keep making us look more and more like LA by promoting freeways over mass transit.

The irony in all this is that LA is actually investing a lot into mass transit, far more than SD is.

Soon, SD will look more LA than even LA.

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Avatar for user 'twells'

twells | April 28, 2014 at 4:28 p.m. ― 2 years ago

Mass rail transit is a boondoggle. The cost of construction per linear mile is staggering when compared to upgrading existing road infrastructure within its right of way. Furthermore, the system you are building is inflexible and cannot adapt to changing transportation requirements. The primary reason people in SD and the rest of southern California do not use mass transit is because it is terribly inconvenient when compared to the automobile, even with traffic. There are exceptions to this rule, but it is the rule.

Te fact is that we are just not dense enough to do mass rail transit, and will not be so for the far future. That and the pesky geography and size of San Diego doesn't work well for rail. Mass bus transit is another story, but buses use roads, and building / updating roads seems to be an anathema to most urban planners.

Those who plan like to think that they can control development, but there are far more failures than success stories because of sticking to dogmatic theories like New Urbanism rather than using engineering principals to solving these problems.

It also makes much more engineering sense for Los Angeles to develop mass transit long before San Diego, as there is roughly 6 times as many people living in a LA square mile as there are in a SD square mile.

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Avatar for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | April 28, 2014 at 6:13 p.m. ― 2 years ago

"It also makes much more engineering sense for Los Angeles to develop mass transit long before San Diego, as there is roughly 6 times as many people living in a LA square mile as there are in a SD square mile".
According to a 2012 census report, San Diego has 4,037 people per square mile and LA has almost 7,000 people per square mile. That's significantly less than "6 times".

Furthermore, San Diego was found to have greater density than LA and Chicago.

I don't know why you think city planners are trying to "scam" the public, if they think mass transit makes sense for our future plans what motive do they have for, according to you, promoting something that is not viable?

I will agree with you that people in SD don't use mass transit because it doesn't have an extensive enough route, but that's the whole point in investment in this area, to improve the networks and then more people will use it.

I admittedly rarely use it I. This city, but if there was a light rail line going from downtown to/from uptown (balboa Park/Hillcrest/N park) I would use it. I will use the line going to UTC. I also would use HSR between SD and LA as I drive that frequently.

When you evaluate these planning ideas, I think you need to look not just at the transportation ideas themselves but what various types of transportation do to surrounding communities.

Freeways seemed like a great idea in the 50s, but we've seen since then the impacts they have on urban environments. Communities are often cut-off by mass freeways, and they create disjointed areas that are often isolated, encourage more sprawl and take away from walkable neighborhoods.

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Avatar for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | April 28, 2014 at 6:15 p.m. ― 2 years ago

Correction to above:

Furthermore, San Diego was found to have greater density than Philadelphia and Chicago (not L A)

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Avatar for user 'twells'

twells | April 29, 2014 at 12:57 p.m. ― 2 years ago

Peking Duck SD:
The figure I used for population density was for the Greater Los Angeles area, with 18M spread over 525 miles. Far, far denser than San Diego, or Greater San Diego, which are consistent with a 4k per sq. mile density. I would argue that one cannot consider only the City of Los Angeles proper if one was trying to develop a successful mass transit system, hence the validity of my density numbers.

I do not think that urban planners are trying to “scam” the public. I do think they are biased towards rail solutions and are subject to group-think with respect to this.

The point is that, contrary to some people’s thoughts, government funding is a zero-sum game. It is not unlimited, and the cost of laying out an effective rail mass transit system that the public would use regularly and in sufficient numbers is orders of magnitude higher than upgrading road infrastructure to accommodate budding technology, which will invalidate rail efficiency within the next 50 years.

Take for example, managed freeway lanes where control of the vehicle is relinquished to the road. Robotically controlled cars and road trains (buses) can travel at high speeds with minimal distance between vehicles .. all driving the same speed. Freeway through-put is multiplied as the variances of individual drives are taken out of the equation. Buses do not have to deal with the freeway traffic of today and travel times become more efficient, hence much more enticing to commuters. Buses also have the flexibility to change routes as population travel requirements fluctuate.

We would have robotic controlled cars right now if lawyers and manufacturers could agree on who to sue when a collision occurs.

This is where the urban planners lack vision, and rely on outdated technology (rails) to solve contemporary problems.

The reality of the situation is that sprawl and freeways are already with us, and unless we have a dictator who can mandate people all move to the higher density urban core, or a meteor wipes out San Diego and lets us start again, we will have to deal with the sprawl. For many reasons, a rail system is not that solution.

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Avatar for user 'DeLaRick'

DeLaRick | May 1, 2014 at 8:14 a.m. ― 2 years ago

Growing up, I noticed some of my friends from the East Coast seemed to have an easier time being sociable than most of my West Coast friends. I learned that higher-density environments prepare people better for various social situations than Southern California's lower-density environment. (There are exceptions, of course, but check it out for yourselves.) It would be interesting to see gradual social changes with reverse flight.

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