Is Cork Destined to Sprawl?

How we organise our cities has an impact on the environment, innovation and our pockets. International cross-city comparisons of sprawl are likely to become the norm. Recent evidence from the European Commission also suggests Cork is a bad offender when it comes to sprawl (see map).

Local governance has propelled this development over the past 50 years. The satellite town model has led to leapfrog residential development and led to problematic car dependency throughout the city-region.

The sprawl of the current footprint may cost our society (Cork) more dearly relative to other cities that are organising themselves more carefully. Current statistics using American data put the costs at more than 10,000 dollars per capita for citizens living in the worst sprawling cities versus the smartest compact cities (see table below).

The outcome of not tackling this problem could be a loss of innovation, a loss of economies of scale, a loss of FDI, a loss of Irish businesses and a lower standard of living as businesses and creative people will be searching for more innovative, sustainable and ultimately cheaper places to live. One of the key sources of the problem is our pro car-dependent led development model. Nearly 70 per cent of us in Cork travel to work, school or college each day by car.

The assumption I make when looking for potential solutions is that all humans are not perfect when it comes to thinking about the impact of our decisions on others. We do not wake up each day and consider other peoples interests and the sustainability of the planet is not to the forefront of our everyday thoughts. Like most of my fellow corkonians - I am car-dependent. I live in a satellite town which enabled more house and garden space for less money. I have free parking at home and at work. I have free parking in suburban shopping centres and in most places I visit. The level of city parking costs do not act to discourage my travel to the city by car. I save time going to work by car because the bus is congested in satellite town traffic, stops at a plethora of different areas (due to sprawl) and is inefficient. As a result, locating myself by a bus stop or a cycle lane did not inherently influence my choice of where I lived.

The opportunity cost of time of cycling or taking the bus is high. There are poor cycling networks and the bus takes well over an hour from my house to get to my place of work at peak times. In contrast, my journey to work by car (albeit cross-country to avoid congestion on main roads) takes 30-40 minutes and it is more comfortable and flexible. As a result, I have and continue to individually contribute to our public problem of congestion and sprawl. I am incentivised to do so... or in another way not disincentivised enough to kick the car. In a way - the system told me so. This is a similar perspective to how the market system incentivises entrepreneurs to maximize profits and consumers to maximize their utility. I am not going to wake up tomorrow morning and be sustainable. It is not in my interests to be. My concerns are maximising my well-being for my family and spending time on inefficient buses and endangering my life in poorly designed cycle lanes conflicts with that goal.

A key question though for society is: am I paying enough taxes (relative to my more central urban dwelling citizens or less car-dependent neighbours) to compensate others for my sprawling way of life? for the congestion I am causing? for the pollution? for the extra road infrastructure required? for traffic services? for the extra capital infrastructure required? for a loss in business competitiveness?

If we are to tackle the sprawl problem - as a society, we cannot rely on the unconstrained vision of human nature, in which, man is assumed to be capable of directly feeling other people’s needs as more important than his own and this in turn motivates him to do the right thing. Instead, 'we' need to compromise 'ourselves'. That means making us pay more for our sprawling behaviour ( for example through higher parking charges at work etc, higher road and car taxes and outskirt development taxes) and pay the full social costs of our decisions. If people continue to drive, of course, that is perfectly fine as they will be compensating society for their decision to do so. But many others will change their behaviour and, in turn, buses will become more viable; cheaper; and more efficient. People will cycle and ride, rather than park and ride. We will be incentivized to live closer to work. Incentivized to walk. The footprint of our city will fall and we will have a more compact, sustainable and healthy city. The ultimate question is are we willing to trade our car for this alternative world? Do we want to change the way we live? This is the trade-off. The recent debacle of the car-ban in Patrick Street is a signal of a serious lack of appetite. And the trade-off of not dis-incentivizing the car is lower innovation, liveability and prosperity. That is the cost we are presently absorbing.