Most urban centres in North America continue to "sprawl" rapidly over the surrounding landscape.
Among the positive factors fuelling urban sprawl are rising levels of wealth and rapid technological innovation. As living standards climb, more of us buy bigger, more comfortable vehicles to travel on high-quality roads to roomier houses on larger properties in new exurban areas. The mobility and convenience of the car have widened our choice of retailers. Shoppers increasingly abandon the small neighbourhood store in favour of the large suburban malls and "big box" retailers. They offer a comfortable, hassle-free place to shop and are off limits to the parking ticket Gestapo.
The big box stores get our business because their huge economies of scale and buying power have enabled them to offer us more choice and lower prices. The most cost-effective place to build these monster emporiums is on undeveloped land – on the edge of the community far from the city centre.
In Manitoba, one still hears alarmist hooting about expensive telephone service. It emanates from the "old economy" crowd that still clings desperately to fading memories of the subsidized government telephone monopoly. In fact, the price of communicating with each other and moving information throughout the world is plummeting. In five years, long distance charges will be history, abandoned in favour of flat-rate access. We will experience the "death of distance." It will allow us to work and shop where we live, be it on a riverbank in the countryside or an island in cottage country. The traditional downtown as a shopping and working centre will continue to fade in relevance.
This reality is unacceptable to conventional thinkers in Winnipeg. But the Economist Magazine entertained different thoughts in a recent report on urban congestion. "A city where people move about in buses rather than in cars, where employment is concentrated in the centre and where shopping is done in the nearby high street rather than the more distant hypermarket may be a planner’s definition of ‘better’ but not the general public’s."
The magazine examined Toronto as a case study in urban sprawl. It observed how the city was planned around the subway track that runs north and south along Yonge Street to the downtown area along Lake Ontario. People have ignored the plan. Job opportunities in the traditional city are declining, while employment in automobile suburbia expands around the 401 expressway that loops east and west. "Transit is becoming irrelevant," says a city Transit official. "We do a good job of moving people downtown, but most aren’t going downtown." The bad news for the transit lobby? Public transport is not an efficient way to service low-density areas With delays and transfer headaches, it’s simply too complicated and inconvenient compared to the car.
Sprawl is thus a natural fact of life in the late 20th century. However, many cities contribute to their own decline by inadvertently promoting artificial urban sprawl. High operating costs caused by inconsistent civic management, excessive administration and centralization, and uncompetitive service-delivery systems push families and jobs outwards. As the core decays, rising crime compounds the exodus.
Winnipeg is a case study example of artificial urban sprawl with 500 families a year now fleeing its sky-high property tax regime. Yet many still advance conventional regional planning solutions as the solution. This approach appeals to old-style thinkers who loathe the car and the urban escape it allows. However, regulatory band-aids consistently fail because they address symptoms of a phenomenon caused by high taxation, not its cause.
Like the Bourbons, the last royal family before the French Revolution, they have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. Policies that ignore economic realities are destined to fail.