Treat the Town Part 4 – Fiscal Health

March 29, 2023

Suburban sprawl isn’t satisfied with wrecking your mental, physical and social health, but likes to kick you in the wallet as well. Repeatedly. Our fascination with suburbia has been a fiscal disaster for individuals, families, and municipalities. There are a handful of people benefiting from the “modern” design of cities and none of them are you. The ones benefiting sell cars, they sell oil, they sell plastic garbage from China and they sell pavement. Building sprawl is the surest way to drastically remove resources from your town. Our cities aren’t just sick, they are broke too.

First, let’s look at this from an individual/household perspective. In ye olden days, people could walk, bike, or take some form of public transportation to work. Density ensured that everyone could get to their job. As we have put considerably more space between ourselves and all of our needs, we have learned that we just can’t walk or bike or take the bus to work.

It is outlandish to consider we built a landscape that requires a person to own an expensive contraption to go about acquiring the goods and services to survive that once were accessible just by owning feet.

Today, less than 3% of Americans can walk to work. 3%! Around 5% use public transportation to get to their job and less than 1% ride a bike to the office. Consider that 100 years ago, these numbers would have constituted nearly 100% of all trips to work. Now they add up to less than 10%. So 90% of Americans drive to work. Or a better way to state it, almost everyone in this country has to own an automobile to earn a living. Cool.

I don’t know if you have bought a car lately, but those things aren’t cheap. When you factor in the loan, gas, maintenance, insurance, registration, and fees, the cost to own a car is nearly $800 a month and almost $10,000 a year. So we have reconfigured our cities at an incomprehensible cost in a manner that requires a person to spend an additional $10,000 a year to go to work or the grocery or school. Again, very cool. 

An additional $10,000 in anyone’s budget would make an enormous difference to their standard of living, but that’s just one car. In a household with two adults working, now you are talking about $1600 a month and $20,000 a year. What is a family living in suburbia to do? US cities dismantled most public transportation while pushing everyone apart. For most families, car ownership isn’t an option, it’s not a luxury, it’s a matter of survival.

The average US worker commutes 54 minutes to and from work. Nearly an hour of every work day is wasted sitting in traffic listening to Enya in order to keep calm. This is time someone is not spending at work, or a second job, time not spent with family or friends. This time is completely wasted because we invented the dumbest way possible to use land and operate cities.

Sprawl isn’t content just to make people poor by requiring cars, it also drains cities of decent jobs and local ownership. When I think about how cities have changed in terms of the local economy, I can’t help but think about my hometown today, compared to my grandfather’s hometown of the 1920s. While both of us grew up in the same town, we grew up in vastly different places.

He grew up in a city full of locally owned shops and buildings. In his city, he knew the owners of the business and buildings. People from within the community owned the real estate and commerce that made up the local economy. My Lima was nothing like this. The businesses of his day have been closed for decades. Those doors shuttered, and those legacies were lost. By the time I was born, those buildings had all been torn down or abandoned. The pride they once embodied was left to whither away for all to see and despair.

Local ownership was all but abandoned when sprawl was invited into the community. My grandfather owned a bar downtown, but downtown was left for dead. Later, he built a motel out by the highway to take advantage of the sprawl, but national chains eventually made his endeavor obsolete. Suburbia is uniquely adept at removing any local ownership.

It is beyond time we stop facilitating the swindle. Any investment in the edges of town is just another mining operation set up to extract more local wealth. The sooner we come to grips with what sprawl is actually doing to our town, the sooner we can stem the tide. 

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