Stimulus and Suburbia

A number of urbanista bloggers have expressed disappointment with President Obama’s stimulus package and its focus on road infrastructure over transit (and tax cuts over transit).

As vehicle miles are declining and dense urban areas gentrifying, advocating for better transit certainly makes sense from a long-term planning perspective.

However, I think there is a good argument to be made that focusing on stimulating suburbia will be more likely to give the economy the boost it needs right now.

First, if road infrastructure improves, driving will be easier (at least temporarily, but that’s the only concern right now).  While gas is cheap, the combination of better roads and cheap fuel might encourage automobile sales — even sales of big motor vehicles still sitting around in dealer inventories .  And the last thing the Treasury and the Politicians and taxpayers who support the Big Three auto bail out would want is for those companies to go down anyway because no one bought the cars.

Second, if road infrastructure improves, then the unsold housing in suburbia might be more attractive.  Most of the unsold housing in outlying suburbs is low density, so wouldn’t support transit well.

Third, White House encouragement of better fuel efficiency standards and investment in greener automotive technology could help prolong the era of the individual automobile, and therefore suburbia.   At least, I see this as a hope in the policy — that the American car-centred way of life can continue but in a more sustainable way.

If I’m right, the stimulus package is partially designed to support the suburban way of life.  The question will be whether this can turn into something sustainable, or is just postponing the inevitable collapse of this economic and social way of life.

Another concern: if gasoline prices roar back to mid 2008 levels quickly, this could undermine the whole stimulus plan.


  1. Chris says:

    So I have two questions:

    1. Is the suburban way of life legitimate – speaking more to just it’s romanticism – enough to advance it via ‘sustainable’ means – as if the fabric of community is still not threatened should cars become environmentally acceptable? The American Car Way of Life as it were has been tainted not by shoddy roads so much as gridlock where once there wasn’t. So while I think road improvement projects, repairs and investment in current roads is actually a great way of creating jobs without sprawling, it seems this would have to be coupled with much greater suburban transit – think Park and Ride – to take the weight off of gridlock and make the road repairs themselves actually justified. Any investment in NEW roads, at this point seems completely unjustifiable and point us back into a direction of unwaranted sprawl, be it environmentally sexy or not. As for the Big 3, well congress blew the bailout. That money should have come with a caveat expressing the industry’s new venture: Sustainability. Maturity. Adulthood.

    So, second question: I’m hearing so much talk about these “Shovel Ready” projects. How much of this infrastructure on roads is going to new roads vs. road repairs? Do we know that?

  2. Wendy Waters says:

    Great questions / comments Chris. Many urbanista bloggers were hoping and even expecting to see transit along with roads.

    While I’m not sure the sprawl style is long-term sustainable, American government policy now says “we’re going that way and hope we can make it more sustainable”

    In the Canadian stimulus there does seem to be more transit — or, perhaps better put, it’s being left to the cities and provinces to put forth projects for matching federal funds. So, if they have transit projects ready to go, that just lack funds (like the Evergreen line in Vancouver’s NE Suburbs) they can be funded assuming the region can find their half of the money.

    For the Canadian budget, it definitely looks like road repairs — and transit repairs — will be prominent.

    I haven’t seen the US details — but I’ll try to dig up the plans for a couple cities.

  3. Daniel Nairn says:

    But the Obama administration has two stated goals for the stimulus:

    1. Short-term jolt to the economy.
    2. “Building the foundations for economic growth” (long-term)

    Increasing the sprawl subsidies will undoubtedly be one way to meet the first goal, but I would argue that it is certainly not the only one. We could feasibly arrange a mixture of maintenance of existing roads and brides, help with transit operations costs (many agencies are cutting service due to local budget constraints), and generous tax cuts.

    But increasing the sprawl subsidies will have a detrimental effect on the second goal. Once all of the magic money gets spent, we will find ourselves with an incapacitating debt. Everyone agrees that an overhaul toward a 21-century infrastructure will require a lot of effort and capital. I worry that a chastened future government will simply not be able to carry this out, even if it becomes abundantly obvious that the current paradigm of gridlock, oil depletion, and environmental sacrifice truly is unsustainable.

    I’m with David Brooks, this may be the only shot we get.

  4. Daniel Nairn says:

    Maintenance of “bridges” not “brides.” Clearly :)

  5. Maryam Kaur says:

    I think that the stimulus package have helped a lot in restoring the economy. right now we can see some improvements in the economy. right now we can see some improvements in the eco~;”

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