The Catastrophe of Wal-Mart or Interstates or Zoning

I got to thinking, with all the heaping of hatred on Wal-Mart about destroying small towns and encouraging sprawl, what really played the largest part of encouraging sprawl?

Wal-Mart, Interstates, or Zoning?

I kind of see the joint catastrophe of zoning changes the Government made to enable sprawling housing, that then needed an enabler which was provided by the auto industry, which then was further enabled by pouring Government expenditures into Interstates & highways, which then landed us with Interstates.  This exacerbated the situation.

With a growing demand for ever cheaper stuff and the change in zoning and lifestyle changes based on the automobile larger and larger consumption volume was met with larger and larger stores.  In turn we finally got the mediocrity that is Wal-Mart.

It appears, that it be a downward spiral to lower and lower standards.  The majority, and key actions that kicked off the spiral I still stand by, where primarily Government actions to “engineer” a new lifestyle and to mitigate many of the problems post-WWII.  Such as what to do with a market that had nothing for the 10,000,000 soldiers coming back from war, the plunging of the economy back into the depression which wasn’t truly finished before the war, and other issues.

Agree?  Disagree?  How did we really end up in this mess?  Did people really choose cars & sprawling mess because of choice or where there other key motivators?  Any other key indicators that lit of this ongoing catastrophe?  How did we lose our transit, really?  I still contend strongly, that the Government and NOT the market got us into transit unfriendly, pedestrian unfriendly, non-human, auto oriented lifestyle.  What are your thoughts on that notion?


  1. No. Remember that Portland was pretty well sprawled out long before the first Wal-Mart opened in our region (which was in the early 1990s).

    First of all was the expansion of the United States to the west, fueled by the Transcontinental Railroad and our search of natural resources. It started with gold, but soon became any resource – wood, water, coal, you name it.

    With natural resources comes wealth, and with wealth comes people who want it. Thus the great migration of the 1870-1920s.

    At first, the typical town was just something that sprang up along a railroad line, but in many areas these small towns grew out to other towns, and became cities. Portland is comprised of dozens of these little towns that were at first nothing more than railroad (or trolley) stops that had a few homes…then a few more…then a subdivision…and now we have sprawl from Troutdale to Forest Grove and Hazel Dell to Wilsonville and all points inbetween.

    This pattern simply continued as the inner cities could no longer hold residents…so people just moved out. This pattern accelerated in the post-WWII era (1940s/1950s) before freeways existed, and still a good 40 years before Wal-Mart came into play.

    By the 1970s/1980s, most of Portland was fully developed; at least as far east as we would go. The 1980s/1990s developed further south to Wilsonville; and growth today is focused west (towards Forest Grove, Hillsboro, Beaverton — ironically, much of it on prime farmland along the MAX line that was built and opened in 1998.)

    It should be noted – there aren’t any Wal-Marts in Washington County. There are two in East Portland, one on the Clackamas County side and one on the Portland side, but both along 82nd Avenue. There are no other Wal-Marts in Multnomah or Clackamas Counties; there is one (a very small one) in St. Helens (Columbia County) and one in McMinnville (Yamhill County), one in Polk County in Dallas and two in Salem (Marion County).

    I don’t believe that automobiles drove our planning but that automobiles were the result of poor transit. That trolley systems were increasingly unable to provide better service and were in need of massive investment…that when new buses were first launched in the 1940s they were launched with the fanfare we see of a Streetcar or Rail line today – because they were "new", "clean", "efficient", "modern"…all the same arguments and buzzwords. But the damage was already done…just as new transit investments have done little to actually increase overall transit usage in our region (where the only mode of transport to see a significant increase was bicycling).

    I don’t believe there were any conspiracies to force automobiles on the public. The transportation providers of the 1910s-1950s were simply unwilling to invest in their system, causing their downfall. Just as today – TriMet refuses to invest in the bus system, and many people have chosen other means of transport (TriMet saw bus ridership drops in the 2004-2007 period while other transit agencies across the national recorded record increases, often more than 10% jumps year-over-year.)

    The fact is that Portland is sprawled out and people did – and continue – to choose to live in outer areas away from downtown for a variety of reasons. Engineering demand in the central city (though the use of tax breaks/credits) is a false solution. The fact that affordable housing remains unattainable in the central city proves that developers know the demand does not exist, it is being artifically created. And the suburbs continue to grow at a faster rate that Portland has for several years – even last year.

    The solution is to encourage communities, and encourage mass transit as a way to help reduce pollution and carbon emissions. Because the suburbs are not going to revert to farmland anytime soon, we can either accept it and try to fix our ways, or we can do what we’re doing – ignore them (but gladly take their tax money) and pretend that we have a solution when the majority of our residents are simply left out of the solution because of political convenience.


  2. I’m going to respectfully disagree with Erik here on the premise that Portland is a sprawling town. Compared to many other cities and metro regions, Portland is quite compact. Portland is nothing like Houston or Atlanta or LA.

    People choose to live in the suburbs because our energy policy has allowed them to do so–roads and gasoline have been subsidised and underpriced, allowing someone to live in the ‘Couv, drive in on subsidised gas and roads, and then bitch about traffic that they create.

    Trolleys and streetcars were not taken out by a conspiracy, but they were taken out by a marketing campaign. Having a car and stuff equated to affluence for the post-WWII generation; people who had suffered greatly in the Depression. This was a cultural backlash against the 30-40 years prior during the Robber Baron days of the early 20th C. Cities were considered dirty (considered? They WERE dirty) and smelly and rife with problems. Urban renewal has only been a recent phenomenon–urban decay has been the norm for a long time.

    Autos were (and still may be) a status symbol. Many people identify with their cars: that’s a product of successful marketing. Marketing and lobbying made these things so–there’s a reason why rail is covered up with asphalt and it is a perfect analogy.

    When you start to drive everywhere, your perspective as to what is far or reachable changes. When you start to bike or use transit, your perspective becomes much more local (and topographical in the case of bikes). It would be easy to curb sprawl–get those in the suburbs to bike in once a week. They wouldn’t want to do it– mandating it would create a mad dash to the centre of the city (or at least their workplace).

    Of course, that’s not a solution, it is just a story.

    The Wal-mart issue, though, is distinct from Portland. I think Erik is missing the point of Adron’s argument here. The way I’m seeing it be constructed is that America got hooked on the auto. It then went through a honeymoon period. Now that peak oil prophecies are affecting our energy costs, the honeymoon is over and people are hooked. They’re being crunched financially from lots of different angles. Wal-mart meets a desire (again marketed) for cheap stuff; it also creates a self-fulfilling prophecy by driving down wages in the small towns that it parasitically is hosted in. When wages are driven down, people shop at Wal-mart.

    The success of Wal-mart has been an indicator of America’s loss of affluence. It has been celebrated by the Right, but is a horrible marker of the end of an era. Wal-mart doesn’t encourage sprawl, but is a function of it. Sprawl is a function of zoning or policy. Interstates weren’t intended as a commuter route–but with the rollout of the auto-for-everybody movement, that’s what has happened, which, as you point out, encourages sprawl.

    Now, we’re seeing sprawl as a negative. It is expensive. And unless we change our habits, it will get more expensive. I moved closer to downtown Portland because I saw this coming. I saw it coming in 2000 or so, and I’ve been working to get closer to downtown as a living place for both cultural reasons (I’m not very suburban) and for transportation reasons (I like my bike). Now that I live within 20 blocks of the centre of the city, I save over 70$/mo in bus passes, thousands in gas/insurance/maintenance for a car, etc. So, I don’t need to shop at Wal-mart.

    I had help in getting here, no doubt, but seeing the future helped me to motivate myself toward positive change. Houses in the suburbs will be valued inversely with the price of a barrel of oil; but it is too late to get out–if you live there, you’re screwed. People are starting to value their time, and a 3 hour commute is not very attractive anymore. When I ride my bike, I find it to be health-bringing, inexpensive, and it changed my perspective: I see your community, I smell the seasons change, I interact with the world more richly.


  3. I have said before, here and elsewhere, that Wal-Mart is an opportunistic intestinal parasite in the American economy.

    Wal-Mart is reprehensible, but one thing it cannot be blamed for is encouraging sprawl. In fact, it has cause and effect backwards.

    Wal-Mart is a late-comer to the mass merchandising game, relatively speaking. It did not pioneer any of the practices for which it receives scorn. The "Always low prices" it offers — by wringing the costs from producers — was first started by supermarkets toward food. Wal-Mart applied it to general merchandise.

    Wal-Mart first built up in the rural South, out of the reach of urban centers or the sprawling suburbs. Because of the poverty and remoteness of the rural towns, Wal-Mart pretty much had a market and a following to itself.

    Only then did it grow to move into the suburbs and urban centers. But the suburbs were already settled by both department stores and mass merchandisers, which began fleeing the city centers.


  4. I’d have to say the "Always low prices" mantra of America started around 1880 with the first real industrial revolution price reductions on things like oil (Standard massively dropped the price, regardless of their supposed "monopoly" on the industry), steel, iron, transportation (rail, streetcars, etc, were booming between 1880-1920), houses (the increasing numbers of middle class where buying tons of them, at then intelligent loan rates for a mere 3-5 years), and tons of general merchandise. All of it was becoming priced at "always low prices" by comparison to the ridiculous prices of hand made merchandise.

    By 1920 we were addicted to and had bought into the consumerism.

    A good book on the rise of this consumerism & middle class is covered in interesting points in "Tycoons" written by Charles R Morris. This was, of course, well before the sprawl of the suburbs was incurred during the late 40s and 50s (and of course, continuing today).

    I by no means blame our "consumerism" on our piss poor development & zoning paradigms nor do I blame it on our addiction to cheap oil (re: subsidized heavily) or the overuse of the automobile. Consumerism stands alone, to be viewed as either a grand mistake or a great uplifting of society – but it is encouraged and brought to the brink of addiction by our other addictions of oil & excessive space.

    All three of course, we’re pushing the limits of and are starting to push up against the wall of limits. Oil, consumerism (cheap credit/money), and sprawl have become so costly (in terms of money along with a deluge of other things) that it is becoming unsupportable.

    …I digress, must run off to Transit Beer. 🙂


  5. I don’t see the bad side in the middle class…certainly there is "excess" — too much of a good thing that can cause waste, but mass production has its benefits. Costs are reduced and more people have work, income, the ability to care for their families…

    I’m not defending WalMart because they certainly have their issues but those issues are by no means limited to WalMart – any of the "-Marts", "-Depots", -"Max"es…they’re all guilty.

    The alternative is poverty for most? Shantytowns? Poor health? Do we really want to convert our country into what India was – a Caste system where some of the greatest minds are next to folks who are forbidden by law to improve themselves? (Yes, I know, the Caste system is technically illegal now but it hasn’t disappeared.) I agree that we’ve probably hit the tipping point for consumerism (do we really need two home theater systems in a home? Four video game systems? Three computers? Two cell phones per person?) but that is not indicative of suburban lifestyles, urban lifestyles can be just as guilty; while many in the suburbs are quite frugal and have minimal luxuries if any. Having a modest home is not a "luxury"; I know downtown condos that are bigger than my soon-to-be new home. I won’t have a gourmet kitchen that is equipped as a commercial restaurant kitchen; I’m not going to have a home theater at all (nor do I have one today); and admittedly I’ll have a two car garage – with only one car in it (which is a low end Mazda 5 — hardly the "ride" of luxury.) And I see downtown condo owners in their Lexuses and Land Rovers and BMWs…


  6. There’s at least two real issues that lead to the "success" of mass retailers:
    1. Heath care is payed by employers. This means that some can shirk that responsibility and save money. (Having worked in mass retailing, I’m not saying that they necessarily do that)
    2. One of the ways that producers can make products cheaper is to avoid environmental, labor and other regulations by having them made in foreign countries. Overall, I believe that there should be a law that products sold in the US must be made to US standards (as if it was made in the US).

    In addition, for large-store retailers, as has been noted cheap transportation has allowed single stores to attract shoppers from a wider area.


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