David Brooks: Still Rooting for Auto Dependence and Sprawl

denver_mall_1.jpgDavid Brooks is dreaming of Denver, and in Denver they're dreaming of transit-oriented, walkable neighborhoods. Photo of 16th Street Mall: ericrichardson/Flickr.
Looks like there's at least one bubble that has yet to burst: David Brooks' unyielding enthusiasm for exurbs and car dependence. In today's Times, the nation's most famous sprawl apologist cites a recent Pew study to argue his case:

The first thing they found is that even in dark times, Americans are still looking over the next horizon. Nearly half of those surveyed said they would rather live in a different type of community from the one they are living in at present.

Second, Americans still want to move outward. City dwellers are least happy with where they live, and cities are one of the least popular places to live. Only 52 percent of urbanites rate their communities “excellent” or “very good,” compared with 68 percent of suburbanites and 71 percent of the people who live in rural America.

That's a pretty thin reed to lean on, but Brooks tries to support a whole schadenfreude-filled column with it, mocking efforts to curb sprawl and give people better transportation choices:

The time has finally come, some writers are predicting, when Americans will finally repent. They'll move back to the urban core. They will ride more bicycles, have smaller homes and tinier fridges and rediscover the joys of dense community -- and maybe even superior beer.

America will, in short, finally begin to look a little more like Amsterdam.

Well, Amsterdam is a wonderful city, but Americans never seem to want to live there. And even now, in this moment of chastening pain, they don’t seem to want the Dutch option.

Where to begin? Brooks draws conclusions that the Pew study just doesn't support. He gleefully notes the absence of older, Eastern metro areas from Pew's list of the most desirable American cities, while neglecting to mention that highly-ranked places like Denver, San Francisco, and Portland are all taking significant steps to become more walkable, bikeable, or transit-oriented -- in other words, more urban.

Likewise, he sees the relative dissatisfaction of city residents as a judgment against urban form, but why not pin it on poor urban air quality, or perceptions of public education, or unsafe city streets that concede too much to the automobile? One could just as easily spin cherry-picked Pew data to argue against the Brooks point of view:

  • Americans are all over the map in their views about their ideal community type: 30% say they would most like to live in a small town, 25% in a suburb, 23% in a city and 21% in a rural area.

See, most Americans would prefer to live in a city or small town. I could say that they hunger for walkability and "dense community," but I won't, because the Pew study is not a useful barometer of American preferences for urban form and transportation options.

Which won't stop Brooks and his ilk from advancing a favorite straw man argument at every opportunity: that planners want to take away everyone's cars and force people to adopt a different lifestyle. As if tens of thousands of Portlanders have no choice but to commute by bike every morning. Or a shadowy cabal put a premium on house values near Denver light rail. Or jackbooted thugs marched Americans to polls at gunpoint last November and ordered them to vote for $75 billion worth of transit-related ballot initiatives

The sprawl dead-enders can deride "planners" and scream "Amsterdam!" all they want. It's easy to see why they protest so much: If they ever acknowledged the fact that ending car-dependency is about giving people choices, it might lead to some self-incriminating conclusions about who's trying to put restrictions on whom.