Not too long ago, cities were compact living spaces serviced by public transportation. However, many in government and business feared city populations as the source of such evils as promiscuity, feminism, race mixing, and worker unrest. To protect society from these urban ills, city planners, business leaders, and government officials subsidized the growth of suburbs at the taxpayers' expense.
As people move out of denser urban areas, developers lobby city and county government to build more sewers, electrical power lines, and roads. School, fire, and police services are also required. Fees collected from developers cover only a small percentage of the costs incurred by the city. (Ever notice how chummy city commissioners are with developers?) City government subsidizes suburban migration.
The national government also pays for sprawl. The Department of Transportation subsidizes the cost of commuting each year by spending billions on roads. These are taxes everyone in the city pays.
There are 43,000 traffic fatalities a year. Cars maim or disable 2 million citizens each year. One fifth of traffic accidents involve pedestrians or bicyclists. If a group of foreign terrorists killed as many Americans as cars do each year, we would bomb their county until it looked like one of our big, ugly parking lots.
Exhaust pollution is not just paid for by drivers but is borne by all citizens. Our health is suffering visibly from the automobile. Asthma, cancer, and obesity are directly related to our car culture.
Both our physical and mental health are affected. Noise pollution and the sheer aggravation of traffic take their toll. Commuters all over the country are firing pistols at other drivers.
To hasten commuter travel, roads have been widened all over Memphis, sometimes to the destruction of older, compact, efficient neighborhoods. Memphis came within inches of losing the best urban old-growth forest in the country, Overton Park. What would I have told my grandchildren?
Ugly gas stations and fast-food stands sprout like mushrooms. Vast deserts of asphalt form, making the suburbs too ugly and awkward to attract pedestrians. The cost of ugly cannot be overemphasized.
Car manufacturers spend over $12 billion a year to tell us how fun driving is. Have you noticed that they always film the car driving down a beautiful empty highway? What planet do they film this on? As our commuting and errand-running hours increase, the response of car manufacturers is to increase the comfort of our car interiors.
We now listen to music, talk on the phone, surf the 'Net, eat, drink, and, heaven help us, watch TV in our cars. Expect to do more because 2 million more cars hit the road each year and the commuting hours are going to continue to increase.
Even though the population is spread thinly, the roads in suburbia become more crowded than the inner city. In response to the congestion, wealthier suburbanites move farther out only to begin the cycle again. In our city, Germantown went from a sleepy village to a traffic nightmare. Collierville is next.
This migration is in spite of the fact that large tracts of land remain undeveloped in the inner city. This is an endless cycle that is doomed to repeat itself if our government continues to subsidize driving and sprawl.
Remember the last time you visited a city that, by design, welcomed pedestrians? For vacation, Americans travel thousands of miles to walk in places like Greenwich Village, San Francisco, and Paris. We visit these places because it feels good to walk there. It feels natural. It reminds us that a neighborhood is something one can walk through.
Bill Stegall is a self-described "free thinker and businessperson" who has relocated to Memphis after spending three years in New York.