Government subsidies support suburban sprawl

Makes more sense to subsidize urban transit systems

TORONTO, ON, Jun 27, 2014/ Troy Media/ – Why do we discriminate against people who live in cities? They’re by far the majority of the population in North America – 80 per cent in Canada for example. But, many of our laws, funding mechanisms and public policies help rural people most and hurt urbanites.

Cheap gas, compared with European prices, encourages urban sprawl and living in the suburbs. A transport Canada study points out that our highways are not used to their capacity and the last quarter inch or so of asphalt amounts to a subsidy to the trucking industry – cars don’t need that strong a surface. The roadways themselves and the acres of free parking everywhere from shopping malls to roadside rest stops amounts to a subsidy to the automotive industry and private car owners. Transit riders don’t get much for free – not coffee, newspapers, snacks, free parking nor shoe shines.

Then there’s the support for housing. A variety of policies from low interest rates, mortgage insurance and the historic role of the Veterans’ Land Administration and Canada Mortgage and Housing have encouraged home ownership, usually in suburban sprawl, not the core of cities.

It’s far worse in America with mortgage deductibility and the Eisenhower Interstate Highway and Defense Act. The American governmental system is worse too with earmarks and porkbarrelling so that most bills have goodies for remote, rural areas, even if they are trying to help cities. A recent article in Scientific American noted that President Barack Obama “skewed the stimulus bill toward more dollars for rural America.”

In Canada, the Prime Minister has more power and can skew dollars wherever s/he wants to. But in reality, we can’t have an initiative that only helps our biggest cities. An initiative has to be seen to be helping Goose Bay as much as Gotham. But building a curling rink in a small city on the prairies doesn’t do as much good as a transit line in big city.

It’s fine for Presidents to speak of the frontier spirit and rugged individualism in America. It’s nostalgic for a Prime Minister to speak of the sod huts that prairie pioneers lived in. But they need to realize than when the speech is over, we’re in the urban, 21st century and we need policies to match.

The Scientific American article recommends “gas taxes and . . . congestion pricing in urban areas so that society no longer subsidizes driving.” It worked in London, England.

I’ve burned some “purple gas” on farms which is cheaper because there’s no road tax on it. There’s nothing wrong with this subsidy to farmers because we all benefit from the food produced and by helping those who still want to live in rural areas to do so. But how about a little help for the majority of people who are urbanites and who collectively contribute more to the economy per capita that rural folk do? Probably the first thing to subsidize in a bigger way is transit. Then educational institutions at all levels, skills training and apprenticeships to keep the workforce sharp. Then cultural institutions.

In the end, we’ll receive an additional benefit. Won’t tourists want to ride a Skytrain like Vancouver’s if it gave them a view of Edmonton’s river valley or Calgary’s Bow River? Don’t tourists stay a little longer in Halifax to see the Maritime Museum on the waterfront. We can build more efficient and effective cities to keep the economic engine going. But at the same time we’ll receive spin- off benefits in quality of life for urbanites and new money coming in as those cities attract more tourists and conventions.

Dr. Allan Bonner has consulted on some of the major planning and public policy issues of our times on five continents for 25 years. He loves cities and his latest book will be titled Safe Cities.

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