Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Our dumb mantra: cars rule from the ‘burbs to breakfast
Elizabeth Farrelly; Elizabeth Farrelly writes on planning, architecture and aesthetics for the Herald.
THE sprawl debate is fast becoming political: sprawlers to the right, urbanists (or smartgrowth) to the left. This in itself is arse about, since the sprawlers (or dumbgrowth?) plug the prole-ordinary while tarring the urbanists as both pinko public transport interventionistas and pointy-headed elitists. Worse is the sprawlers’ refusal to consider that anything could matter more than what we want. Survival, say.
It’s the same lower-chakra thinking that swells our obesity rates: “Duh, I wannit an’ I wannit now.” Underlying dumbgrowth are two presumptions: that what we want is automatically good for us, and that all goods are individual goods, and that the ultimate good is freedom. Not surprisingly, the focus is that ultimate personal freedom icon, the car.
“I am not an advocate of sprawl,” says the US consultant Wendell Cox, in Sydney recently to persuade us to build more motorways. “I am an advocate of freedom.” Like, not anti-abortion, pro-life. Cox’s first point is that except for “a material threat to other individuals or the community, people should be allowed to live and work how and where they like”.
So far, so plausible. Less is certainly more on the governance front, and Australia has much to learn regarding elegant regime design. It’s stage two of Cox’s argument that leaves you gasping – that since ‘burbs and freeways are what people like, Sydney (and everywhere else) should have more of them. Lots more.
If you think Cox sounds like an apologist for the development lobby, you’d be right. His company, Demographia, is part-owned by the controversial New Zealand developer Hugh Pavletich, who, as well as co-authoring Cox’s high-profile “housing affordability” surveys, is known for his demolitions of listed heritage buildings, including one of NZ’s last bowstring truss rail bridges in 2002.
Aside from the company he keeps, though, Cox glides on thin logical ice. Freedom is the first obvious crack. The classical view of freedom, as the Cambridge philosopher Quentin Skinner noted in Sydney recently, is what separates “liber homo” from slave; absence of coercion and independence from “the arbitrary will of someone else”.
Of course, on such a definition, none of us is free, nor ever will be. We are profoundly compromised by other individual wills and by the common will; our personal freedoms limited by every statute, tax, building, encounter and traffic light. This is not because government is evil (though that may be the case) but because we choose to curtail our individual rights in exchange for the immense advantages of the herd.
This voluntary relinquishment of rights suggests a more complex definition of liberty, such as Thomas Cranmer’s that “service is perfect freedom”.
It sounds paradoxical. In fact, it points to one of our ludicrous species’ most lovable traits: that we need to give quite as much as we need to take. The best cure for depression is altruism. You can call this morality, or religion, or just plain demonstrable fact. Freedom may lie in satisfying needs, but one of our needs is to subjugate our needs to others’. Analyse that.
For Robert Menzies, however, as quoted by Cox-Pavletich, “one of the best instincts in us is that which induces us to have one little piece of earth with a house and a garden which is ours”. Forget altruism. Menzies was a master tantric, appealing directly to that old lower chakra swadhisthana which, translated, means self or own abode.
Take the car. We all love our cars. Never mind that the interior is usually tacky while exteriors get more generic every passing moment, as Jaguar, Audi and BMW compete for the brown-paper Ford look. What we love is the bubble of personal space, the illusion of total freedom and control, the feeling of engagement without threat, the aural delight of a personal soundshell on wheels. We love the acceleration. Above all, we love the way a car sucks space into a nutshell, making “me” it.
And that’s the problem. Cars are swollen selves. Swollen centres of “self and own abode”; our motorways swarm with fat little swadisthanas, dodgeming about – which helps explain road rage, as well as our addiction. It also explains how, for all their transparency, cars blind us to so many evident truths.
Like the fact that more roads don’t mean less congestion, but only more traffic. Demand is limitless, so all roads eventually clog. Just look at Auckland or Los Angeles, with more per capita kilometres than anywhere on the planet, all clogged with daily traffic jams stretching from, well, the ‘burbs to breakfast.
Cox says sprawl is good because the outer ‘burbs are what people want. They also have high home-ownership rates and are more affordable. But that’s silly. The ownership rates are higher because, in big cities, renters gravitate inwards. Outer suburbs are more affordable precisely because they’re not the people’s choice; otherwise Kogarah or Minto would be about as affordable as Woollahra.
Cox and the sprawlers package themselves as a rare voice supporting the popular. But populism is already dominant, by definition; why support it, except to make a quid?
What popular culture needs is not mindless back-patting but constant clear-eyed appraisal. And the clear-eyed fact is that sprawl – in eating arable land, destroying forest, polluting air (with extra car-miles), bankrupting public transport and wasting money on attenuated services – busts Cox’s “absent material threat” principle wide open. The sprawl threat is utterly material. You’re breathing it.
PHOTO: Photo: Peter Rae
Wednesday’s article “Our dumb mantra: cars rule from the ‘burbs to breakfast” incorrectly said Wendell Cox’s company Demographia was part-owned by Hugh Pavletich. Mr Pavletich has no financial interest in Demographia.