Tag Archives: urban planning

Left thrives in compact communities, dies in suburban sprawl

Suburban sprawl is an enemy of the Left and progressives should support efforts to discourage it, including tolls.

In opposing tolls on Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway, a number of leftists cite political strategy. They argue the tolls will elicit a rightist populist backlash and alienate potential supporters.

On Facebook John Bell complained, “to all the ‘progressives’ who support road tolls, and then wonder why a Ford or a Trump gets elected give your head a shake.” Slightly more restrained, Nora Loreto wrote, “if progressives want to have a hope in hell in reaching the average Mississauga commuter” they should oppose tolls.

The Toronto tolls are no doubt highly unpopular among suburbanites who currently use the two highways without paying either through fees or municipal taxes. But, Bell and Loreto’s statements are short sighted. In fact, there’s a case to be made that Rob Ford and Donald Trump wouldn’t have been elected if not for the vast sums in public funds (mainly roadway and mortgage subsidies) spent partly in the hopes of atomizing communities.

Since at least the European revolutions of 1848 elites have repeatedly sought to undermine progressive organizing by dispersing communities. In Toronto Sprawls Lawrence Solomon traces the ways in which the city’s dispersal was a reaction to the breakdown of social control that accompanied growing migration from farms. In the early 1900s, Toronto’s elite became concerned about the growing number of single women and immigrants living in the city, as well as the success unions were having in organizing urban workers. Government officials responded by razing buildings in high-density areas, banning apartment buildings and promoting single-family dwellings more conducive to the traditional family.

Conducive to consumerism, disconnected and depoliticized, the suburbs are bastions of conservatism and infertile grounds for social movements to back the scale between rich and poor. Surveys indicate that suburbanites are less inclined to support government programs, unless considered directly beneficial — highways and education, for instance. Compared to their counterparts in small towns and urban areas, suburbanites reports Urban Sprawl and Public Health, “place little emphasis on such social goals as eliminating discrimination and reducing poverty, and tend to reject initiatives such as park acquisition and mass transit.”

Right-wing politics reign supreme, intensifying as suburbs sprawl further outwards. Conversely, according to Robert E. Lang, Director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech, “at each greater increment of urban density, democrat John Kerry received a higher proportion of the vote [in the 2004 Presidential election].” Put differently, as the dominance of the car increased, so did votes for George W. Bush.

Canadian voting patterns are similar. In the 2011 election Stephen Harper’s Conservatives won almost every suburban riding in Canada’s major cities (outside of Montréal) and lost most central districts. Similarly, former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford received stronger support in the outer rings of the city.

In a Globe and Mail piece headlined “The real reason Donald Trump got elected? We have a white extremism problem” Doug Saunders correctly cites “higher population density” and mass transit oriented neighbourhoods as a way to reverse white support for Trump. “White people who live in areas where they’re immersed in longstanding populations of immigrants and minorities – that is, in big cities – don’t generally tend to vote for the politics of racial intolerance. That’s called the ‘contact effect’ – you don’t get anxious about immigration if you live around immigrants. But people who live in mainly white areas that adjoin cities with greater diversity often show very high levels of support for people like Mr. Trump.”

Diffuse suburban landscapes discourage political gatherings. In Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit notes that “cars have encouraged the diffusion and privatization of space, as shopping malls replace shopping streets, public buildings become islands in a sea of asphalt, civic design lapses into traffic engineering, and people mingle far less freely and frequently.”

How many demonstrations take place in low-density suburbs? A diffuse geography and population denies a pedestrian scale. As a result, suburbanites’ interaction with protests — and progressive political culture more generally — is limited or mediated through the dominant media.

During the 2012 student-led uprising in Québec the vast majority of demonstrations and neighbourhood “casseroles” (pots and pans) marches took place within the core of Montréal. Yet, those living on the outskirts of the city were significantly more likely to tell pollsters that the protests were disruptive than those in neighbourhoods closer to the centre. In effect, people expressed annoyance with the political disruption in an inverse relation to which they were impacted. Or to put it differently, the more Montréalers interacted with the activism through the dominant media, rather than in person, the more it seemed troublesome.

A pedestrian scale is required for political posters to be read. Signs in the suburbs (think billboards) are enormous and usually too expensive for grassroots groups. Unlike car-oriented billboards, street posters are ideal for volunteer-run movements. Putting up posters is labour intensive, but not expensive, which makes it among the most democratic means of mass communication.

And there are other obstacles to community organizing. Where does one leaflet in a suburb with no centre or subway? The highway?

British historian Eric Hobsbawm’s description of “the ideal city for riot and insurrection,” stands in stark contrast to the modern day suburb. In an insurrectionary city, the poor majority would live in close proximity to government authorities and the wealthy. The ideal city would also “be densely populated and not too large in area. Essentially it should still be possible to traverse on foot.”

In her history of walking, Solnit highlights the vital connection between Paris as a great city for walkers and revolution. She also contrasts walkable San Francisco, with its rich history of progressive political activism, to car-dependent Los Angeles, which has seen less political upheaval. Solnit explains:

Only citizens familiar with their city as both symbolic and practical territory, able to come together on foot and accustomed to walking about their city, can revolt. Few remember that the ‘right of the people peaceably to assemble’ is listed in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, along with freedom of the press, of speech, and of religion, as critical to a democracy. While other rights are easily recognized, the elimination of the possibility of such assemblies through urban design, automotive dependence, and other factors is hard to trace and seldom framed as a civil rights issue.

Instead of fearing a populist backlash for challenging automotive hegemony, all progressives need to recognize their strategic interest in promoting pedestrian, bike and mass transit scale urban spaces.

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Auto industry requires massive public subsidies to survive

When are capitalists in favour of public ownership? When it earns them a profit. Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than when looking at car companies.

As auto interests have pocketed stupendous profits over the past century they’ve also pushed to socialize huge amounts of urban land. While this may contradict textbook economics, capitalists often prioritize socialized costs/privatized profits over “free markets.”

Ignorance of the auto industrial complex’ drive to socialize public space was highlighted in a number of leftists’ recent criticism of tolling two Toronto highways. Bemoaning Mayor John Tory’s “neoliberal policies” and “neoliberal lens of public infrastructure,” Nora Loreto argued the tolls might pave the way to privatization. “Getting people used to paying to use the Gardiner and the DVP [Don Valley Parkway] would make it possible to start talking about full-scale privatization of these roads,” she wrote. “If you’re opposed to privatization, a toll plan under a right-wing administration is effectively creeping privatization. If you can’t put that cat back into the bag, do everything you can to not let it escape in the first place.”

While it’s not inconceivable the city would privatize the Gardiner and DVP, the broader concern reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the auto industrial complex (car, tire, oil, asphalt, etc. companies, as well as big box retailers and suburban developers). Cars are produced for profit, owned by private individuals, but are completely dependent upon public roads. It is even hard to conceive of a large-scale privately owned road network. While there are a good number of toll highways financed and operated by private corporations, it is almost impossible to envision an entire city road system — let alone that of a province or nation — financed and operated privately. Simply put, cars need roads and the state must pay for them; otherwise most of us would still be riding public transit because an unsubsidized private automobile would be too expensive and too inefficient.

The private car’s ability to offload costs onto the public is at the heart of its rise to dominance. German auto historian Winfried Wolf explains: “In road transport there is a possible separation, based on modern technology, between the transport infrastructure (the motorway or road) and the means of transport (the car, truck etc.) This transport technology can therefore be easily organized according to the principle of private appropriation of profit, socialization of costs and losses. Private profits are appropriated by the vehicle manufacturers, the insurance companies, and the motorway construction firms; costs are socialized by means of public financing of motorway construction, policing, hospitalization of the injured and repairs to the environment.”

Out of every economic sector, the auto industry receives by far the most public support. In 2001, reports Heat: How to Stop the Planet From Burning, the world’s 30 richest governments spent $1.1 trillion (1,100,000,000,000) on road transport. The costs of auto infrastructure are so great Carfree Cities claims: “The savings on street maintenance in a car free city probably exceed the operating costs of the transport system.”

Curbside parking alone sucks up tens of billions of dollars in government subsidies each year. A century ago North American cities began devoting tens of millions of dollars to widen streets and cut down trees to increase parking space. Today it’s hard to find a street without space for curb parking, which the author of The High Cost of Free Parking, Donald Shoup, argues, “may be the most costly subsidy Americans cities provide for most of their citizens.”

For those of us of left-wing persuasion, it’s counterintuitive to call for the privatization of public lands. But, often the less public space there is in a neighbourhood, the more pleasant it is. And the less of a toll it takes on the planet. Why is this? The answer is simple and so overwhelmingly a part of our shared existence that we have trouble seeing it: Most public land in urban areas is devoted to noisy, dangerous and polluting vehicles, which contribute significantly to the climate crisis.

Of the 40 per cent of Toronto that is public land, roadways make up 27.4 per cent, while parks and open spaces cover 13 per cent. Many beautiful, walkable, old cities have less than half as much public land. On the Old Urbanist blog Charlie Gardner writes, “the traditional city of narrow streets and small squares, typified by towns of medieval plan, find ten or fifteen per cent [public space] perfectly adequate.”

So, privatizing the arteries that feed the automotive cancer could lead to healthier, more pleasant and ecologically sustainable cities.

Or, an alliance of environmentalists, urbanists, public health advocates and housing rights activists could campaign to turn roadway into co-ops/social housing. But, a prerequisite for this type of “Leap Manifesto coalition” is leftists recognizing the need to move beyond the private automobile.

This is the second of a four part series on the “Great Toronto toll debate’.

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