why high taxes?
July 5, 2010, 7:51 pm
Filed under: Cities, density | Tags: , , , ,

Most people I know are unaware of who pays for what when it comes to our built environment.  ‘Developers and corporations pay for roads,’ insisted a friend last week.  Evidence suggests otherwise:  our worst, least sustainable, most costly developments have been heavily subsidized by the public purse.  Here is an example:  the development of public and private transport systems in America.  The public enables the original development and also pays dearly over the life of the poorly conceived, sprawling, inefficient, car-based systems.

A civilization completely dependent on cars, as ours is now, was not inevitable.  The automobile and the electric streetcar were invented and made commercially viable at roughly the same time:  the period from 1890 to 1915.  However, the automobile, a private mode of transport, was heavily subsidized with tax dollars early on, while the nation’s streetcar systems, a public mode of transport, had to operate as private companies, received no public funds, and were saddled with onerous regulations that made their survival economically implausible.


The costs to the public mounted early.  A commission under President Hoover concluded that the automobile was the ‘most potent influence’ on the rise of local taxes between 1913 and 1930.  The price of building new roads and repaving the old cobbled city streets was staggering.  Chicago spent $340 million on street-widening alone between 1910 and 1940.  The new low density auto suburbs required expensive sewer and water lines to be laid before the new homes were sold – meaning that the carless urban working class had to pay for the new infrastructure that the car-owning middle class would enjoy.

James Howard Kunstler, The Geography of Nowhere, pp 86, 90.


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