Roads to nowhere

by on 25 February, 2010

Government interference could be responsible for massive urban sprawl, writes Michael G.

One of the strangest things I often see the political right criticise is the trend towards densification, public transport, and a lesser reliance on cars. It is assumed that the automobile is the natural form of transport, and a large lot in the suburbs is the natural form of housing.

When the announcement was made to duplicate the one-way Southern Expressway in Adelaide, South Australia, the President of the Real Estate Institute of SA welcomed it, saying that “just [like] the Heysen Tunnels, I think you’ll see the flow-on effect from easy access, [an] increase [in] prices … people will be happier to live further away because the access distance will be reduced.”

He’s right. Land to be bought was there and available, but at the previous price and without the expressway duplicated, it did not gain much interest. People would buy elsewhere, closer to the city, because this would be the better option for them. But with the completion of the Southern Expressway, their choices are distorted, and their decisions are different from what they otherwise would be.

The expressway is in effect a subsidy, a form of welfare, a handout, propping up development where there otherwise wouldn’t have been any. The problems of urban sprawl, traffic jams, higher pollution, and the wasting of people’s lives in their daily commute will result directly from the expressway’s completion.

But a natural course of development continues, however: throughout central Adelaide, within the outer ring route, older houses are knocked down and subdivisions see more and newer houses built. In the city centre, more and more apartment buildings rise towards the sky.

More people are living closer to the best schools, closer to their places of work and worship, and closer to where oppourtunities are and will be.  This is done despite government infrastructure spending encouraging the opposite.

The degree of Adelaide’s urban sprawl is not due to private development, but to government interference. Whether it is the former City of Elizabeth in the north, the masses of housing trust homes in the south, or the Heysen Tunnels in the hills, these were all government projects that distorted people’s erstwhile choices.

Where would people develop without all this interference? With a cessation on the construction of new government-built roads and the removal of heritage and other restrictions on development, where would people then choose to build? I am willing to bet they would not have their first choice more than 30 kilometers from the city centre.

Michael G is completing degrees in finance and history at Flinders University and works at Bendigo and Adelaide Bank.

Leave a Reply