Steve Stofka has a post detailing his ideal new city, built on principles of high density through very narrow streets, and an interconnected, pedestrian-friendly grid. Its population is given as 30,000, and its area as about 2 square miles, or 5 square kilometers. Although it’s meant to illustrate urban design principles, in a similar matter to my description of my ideal urban arterial street, the proposed location in exurban South Jersey raises questions about why new subdivisions remain auto-oriented.
Let us zoom out and see the general location of this Triangle City. It is exurban; there’s no access except by narrow local roads. This means that residents would drive to all locations outside the town, forcing high car ownership and raising car use well beyond the ability of narrow, pedestrian-oriented streets to carry them. Such towns can be built along potential commuter rail lines, but most of the time the stations along these lines are already developed at vastly lower density than 6,000/km^2. This alone means that such new development would not look like the narrow-street neighborhoods of Tokyo, which have rapid transit to get people to the rest of the metropolis.
Even if a rail line were built, it would not do much to make such development less auto-oriented. A town of 30,000 is very far from self-sufficient; its residents will do much of their shopping outside, making car ownership even more attractive. Morningside Heights, a neighborhood of 33,000, is not self-sufficient either, but because it’s part of a contiguous urban fabric with rapid transit links to the rest of the city, it has low car ownership.
For a more reasonable take on why sprawl absolutely requires cars and long drives, here’s commenter JJJ writing on his blog about a proposed Fresno sprawlburb of 10,000 people:
A self-sufficient community? So much laughter. 2,800 homes may be able to support a supermarket, a CVS, a few nail salons and chinese take-out….but people want more. People want to shop at Target, Best Buy, Costco, etc, none of which will EVER locate in a community of that size (they require much larger customer bases). People want a Cinema and bowling alley. People want a large selection of restaurants.
So residents will have to drive for 30 minutes, through the only road, which is used by those heading to the lake for recreation, or passing through to the national parks. That means congestion.
And the future supermarket, library, pharmacy, elementary school etc? The people who will end up working there won’t move into an expensive rural suburb. They’re going to live in Fresno. And every single one of them will have to drive in that one road. The idea that the retirees will be so self-sufficient that they will be busing tables at a small chinese restaurant is hilarious.
In other words, in a society where most people are rich enough to own a car, building sprawling subdivisions makes car use inevitable. Transit-oriented development done right should start in the dense cities and expand outward slowly, making it feasible to do all of one’s errands on foot, by bike, or by public transit.
Meticulously planned subdivisions usually flop in terms of urban quality, but if one wants to build any, they should be surrounded by or adjacent to existing high-intensity urbanization. This is the reason for gentrification: such areas are almost never empty, and as a result the only way to create them is to displace existing neighborhoods, either organically (Williamsburg) or by fiat (Manhattanville).