BE WARNED... This post started as a nice little response to Earl, but I ended up studying for comps on my blog. Read it and give me feedback, but don't expect it to be all that exciting... or short.
I'm just going to respond to some previous comments. First, I'm going to respond to Earl. He offered a solution to encouraging people to walk or ride a bike rather than driving everywhere. He argued that telling them that they're killing the environment won't work. Government involvement not only won't work, but will also mess up the capitalist system. So the solution is in engineering. For the most part I agree.
I would agree that telling people that they are destroying the environment won't work. People don't seem to care. That's why I want to do research in this area, I want to know what will help people change their behavior to improve their health and the health of the earth. Telling people to change doesn't work. That's why I spend my time on this blog telling people to change....
Government involvement is sort of a sticky topic. I agree that the capitalist system works better when the government keeps their hands out. The problem is that motor vehicle travel is already highly subsidized. I'm paying for a portion of your gas so that Americans can have some of the lowest prices in the world (outside of major oil producing countries). This is important to help with 'economic growth'.
If we were to really let the capitalist system go, gas prices would go way up. The idea behind the capitalist system is that companies want to make a profit after paying for all aspects of a product and buyers will find the best deal for their money. I am all for getting government out of the center, but that would be a major change. I don't think that Navy boats (paid for by the military portion of the budget that comes out of my taxes) should guard oil tankers going in and out of the Persian Gulf, make the oil industry fund that. Once the oil is back on American soil, oil companies need to pay for clean-up due to water, air and soil pollution. That includes the use of petroleum based pesticides and fertilizers that get into soil and water. That includes the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico caused by chemical runoff from the Mississippi drainage basin. That would also include water treatment plants that treats storm drain water that is contaminated with auto guano. Should I also go on to health implications? Motorized vehicles are contributors to all 5 of the leading causes of death in the United States. Oil companies play a major role in that (their product makes the cars go, without moving cars, they really don't do much damage). They should be held financially responsible for the health issues caused by use of their products.
Earl expressed that he felt that government should stay out of the equation, and I agree, but I think that the government is already in extremely deep facilitating, or even promoting the situation.
So the solution is in engineering. I like that idea, but I don't foresee it working until government is out of the equation and that isn't likely to happen. I know that many cities are adopting 'complete street' initiatives so that all new streets or rebuilds have to be built with amenities for pedestrians and bicycles in addition to motorists. That's a start, but it still doesn't feel safe. I have talked with several police officers who used to ride their bikes regularly, but don't any more because they don't feel safe.... Wait, isn't it the police that are supposed to be keeping the streets safe? So I have some issues with the laws that are on the books and the enforcement of the few laws that are supposed to protect cyclists.
This section probably should have gone earlier, but it didn't flow. As I think of it though, I want to throw it in because it is helping me study for comps. Sprawl is a function of capitalist economics (and in my perception due to the government and business subsidies on motorized travel). Businesses started in the central business district with homes located nearby for the sake of convenience. As cars became more available and remained inexpensive, it became attractive to live further from work and commute from the 'suburbs'. This lead to the development of residential areas further and further away from the city center because land was cheap and commuting was relatively inexpensive (as far as out of pocket expenses go, really commuting is extremely expensive for society as a whole). Now these people living a long way from the city demanded amenities. They wanted a gas station and a grocery store so they didn't have to go to the city to run errands. With enough people commuting and living outside of the city center grocery stores found it economically beneficial to add more stores near the new homes. While this increased the demand for workers in the suburbs, most of the high paying jobs remained in the city center.
The people from the suburbs are still commuting long distances, but as the population of the suburbs increases, small cities form out there and traffic increases. Wait, I studied this on Saturday, here's how the cycle goes. First (well, it's a cycle so really there isn't a 'first'), we have increased business growth to meet demand. This increased business increases traffic demand and therefore congestion. With an increase in congestion people demand more roads to accommodate the increasing number of people taking the roads. To appease demand, they build more roads which increases accessibility to local amenities as well as vacant lots. The increased accessibility increases property values and leads to changes in zoning with businesses interested in moving into an area with high traffic and good accessibility. The city, interested in the potential tax revenues of a new business, will readily accommodate new commercial stores. As the new stores come in, traffic increases and we are back at the beginning of the cycle where increased traffic is demanding more roads.
Here's another problem and it lies within the solution. You see, the way to stop the above cycle is to not grand a change in land use. If the land use in a highly accessible area remains residential, businesses can't move in. But therein lies the problem, cities want money. Cities make very little money off of residential areas, but they make what they need off of businesses and tax revenues. That city is under pressure to change from a residential area to commercial in order to increase tax revenues. 'People' (I don't know who this refers to, but supposedly they exist) say that they want to keep a small town feel and a certain level of walkability. The problem is that if the city chooses to follow the 'desires' of the people, the business will find a different city to set up shop. While the people now have what they wanted (a smaller, more walkable community), they then drive to that business in a nearby city and give their taxes to another city. So why did your city not put the business in and get the tax revenue? Because 'they' didn't want it... yet 'they' go around the cities back and gives their money to another city. So now cities are battling to get big box stores into town so they can have that tax revenue. Sure that's not what 'the people' want, but it's the only way to keep the city with a steady income.
To be fair, there are regions where neighboring communities have made alliances where they share all tax revenues, so there is no advantage to the store going into one city or the other and this helps to drive development based more on peoples' demand rather than tax revenue... although the region still needs big tax revenue and that doesn't come from the mom and pop shop.
I'm going to stop now. I think that answer will look good somewhere on my comps... Feel free to critique it (if you were able to wade through that much gunk), I need to continue preparing.