Urban Mass Transit Out of Suburban Sprawl

The limits of planning.

JUNE 22, 2010 by SANDY IKEDA

The economist F.A. Hayek explained why it’s impossible for human reason to successfully design complex systems such as markets or language.  One can’t simply say, “Hey, I’d like to invent a Germanic language that does away with those troublesome genders and inflections but has plenty of Latin- and Greek-based words sprinkled in.”

That would be English, of course, which evolved over centuries of trial and error.  (Some might want to use Esperanto as a counterexample, but let’s face it: There are probably more people today who can speak Latin, a dead language, than can speak Esperanto.)  The current fashion to construct mass-transit infrastructure in places, such as Phoenix, where none had existed before is like this in a certain sense.

As Hayek explained, the problem is that reason, while powerful and creative, is imperfect and extremely limited compared to the complexity and open-endedness of the social world.  As a result, all actions will have unintended consequences.  The trick is to find “rules of the game” – such as private property and norms of reciprocity – that over time generate consequences that correct errors and promote rather than prevent social cooperation.  While economists and social theorists since Adam Smith have understood this, many in the urban-planning profession don’t seem to have fully grasped the message.

When Sprawl Was Good

Since at least the 1970s in the United States the idea has been to try as much as possible to substitute mass-transit for the private the car.  To New Urbanists, for example, that is the key to solving a host of social ills including pollution, overcrowding, racial discrimination, oil-dependency, and alienation – all allegedly connected to the phenomenon of “sprawl.”  (See, for example, the Charter of the New Urbanism.)

I’ve been rereading Robert Bruegmann’s excellent book, Sprawl: A Compact History, in which he points out that “sprawl” dates back to the earliest cities.  But in his discussion of the outward migration of urban dwellers, away from congestion and toward the delights of the country, it struck me that the great subway systems of the world, such as Paris Metro or the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) in New York, were not originally intended to carry people from one part of the city to another, as they do today. Rather, the idea was to enable the working poor and middle class to move out of the central city, which in the case of New York was Manhattan, to the suburbs in what is today the outer boroughs of The Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens (all united, along with Staten Island, into New York City in 1898).  The subway system, in other words, was explicitly intended to promote sprawl:  low-density, unplanned, scattered development.  According to Bruegmann:

The Lower East Side of New York, for example, began emptying out rapidly after 1900 as soon as immigrants had accumulated enough money to allow them to get better housing in less dense neighborhoods farther afield.  At first they walked over East River bridges to nearby communities like Williamsburg and Greenpoint in Brooklyn.  Eventually, inexpensive public transportation allowed them to live much farther from their place of employment, for example, in northern Manhattan and the outlying boroughs.

Significant expansion of the subway system ended well before it was taken over by the municipal government in 1940, by which time the city had reached its peak population and most of the area within it was developed and urbanized.

You Can’t Get There from Here

Again, modern advocates of public construction of mass transit seem to have something like the New York subway in mind.  But, like language, today’s subway is an unintended consequence of what the original planners intended.  (At any given time, of course, city planners had a plan for the next step in its development, but the cumulative result is something no one did or could have foreseen in its inception in 1904.)

Whether you regard the result of this evolution as a good or bad thing (the MTA is famously non-self-sustaining), two things are certain:  (1) constructing anything like this system today would take a heavy-handedness rarely seen outside Pharaonic Egypt or Pyongyang (which, of course, couldn’t afford it anyway), and (2) even if it were possible, current tastes, technology, and resources would mean the system would look very different, though there’s no way to tell exactly how different, from what exists now.

The pattern that mass transit seems to have followed in New York (and probably London and Paris, too) has been initially to create clumps of sprawl radiating out along the various rail lines, which over time gets filled in by developers (such as Rego Park, Carroll Gardens, Inwood), raising population densities away from city center.  Eventually what you get after all the filling-in of the earlier suburban sprawl is “urban” mass transit.  But that wasn’t the original plan.  Throughout the United States and elsewhere we see a similar evolution taking place today around freeways and interstate highways.  On this see Joel Garreau’s 1992 classic, Edge City.

The lesson, of course, is not that city governments should invest in mass transit to encourage sprawl and hope for the best.  Again, interventions into spontaneous social orders tend to have significant, typically negative unintended consequences.  Although some interventions, such as the MTA, are considered by many to be useful (if not particularly efficient), others, such as the New York public school system — well, not so much.

If only we could tell at the outset which is which!



Sandy Ikeda is an associate professor of economics at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of The Dynamics of the Mixed Economy: Toward a Theory of Interventionism. He will be speaking at the FEE summer seminars "People Aren't Pawns" and "Are Markets Just?"

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