New book by Purple Line activist Ben Ross blames suburban sprawl on status-seeking


In “Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism,” Ben Ross explains how suburban dwellers have built a structure of zoning rules and other mechanisms to protect their social cachet. He argues such actions are hampering the emergence of more diverse and environmentally friendly urban-style neighborhoods. (Trevor Henry)

A prominent local transit activist’s provocative new book on the historical roots and eventual demise (he hopes) of suburban sprawl has its origins in a missing sidewalk and a snooty country club in Montgomery County.

Ben Ross, 65, a scientist by profession, led the grass-roots campaign for the light-rail Purple Line in the Maryland suburbs for 15 years.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

His book, “Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism,” is drawing praise for its well-researched analysis of why so many Americans live in widely dispersed, single-family homes and spend so many hours stuck in traffic.

It also casts light on the cultural forces at play in major disputes gripping our region over affordable housing, the “war on cars,” the Columbia Pike streetcar in Arlington, and the redevelopment of White Flint in Montgomery and Tysons Corner in Fairfax County.

Ross documents how a thirst for status drove the creation of such suburbs as Chevy Chase in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

That’s hardly a new insight. But experts say that Ross makes an original contribution by detailing how suburban dwellers have built a structure of zoning rules, housing covenants and other mechanisms to protect their social cachet.

That’s harmful, Ross contends, because it’s hampering the emergence of more diverse and environmentally friendly urban-style neighborhoods that a new generation desires.

He describes an ongoing struggle pitting “snob zoning” and NIMBYism vs. smart growth and economically mixed communities.

“Americans have long since lost their love for sprawl, yet they struggle to put something in its place,” Ross writes. A major obstacle, he says, is the resolve of owners of single-family homes to preserve “their privileged place in the residential pecking order.”

Personal frustration led Ross to the topic. A hydrogeologist with a PhD in physics from MIT, he got involved in advocacy here in the early 1990s out of annoyance that he had to walk in the street from his Bethesda home to the nearby Medical Center Metro station.

Ross responded by organizing a coalition that besieged the Montgomery County Council with letters requesting more spending on sidewalks.

“We actually got the budget increased from $250,000 to $1 million in a year when they were cutting everything else,” Ross recalled in an interview.

Later, as president of the Action Committee for Transit, he plunged into the battle for the Purple Line because he believed the Columbia Country Club in Chevy Chase had no right to block it just to protect its golf course.

“The fact that you had something that so many people wanted and was basically being held up by opposition of one country club got under my skin,” Ross said.

The country club has now cut a deal so that the light-rail line can go forward. But Ross said continuing fierce opposition from the Town of Chevy Chase proves his point.

“Basically, it’s still a fight because of people who live within a block of the right of way,” Ross said. “Why do people take it for granted that you have the right to prevent your neighbor from building something?”

Robert Steuteville, executive director of a national newsletter on development, praised Ross for linking social striving to what he called “the drive-only suburban machine.”

“ ‘Dead End’ is the shrewdest book on the psychology of the built environment that I have read in a long time,” Steuteville wrote in a review for Better! Cities & Towns.

Ross’s book is hardly a light read. He traces suburban zoning codes back to utopian communities of the mid-1800s. Oxford University Press needed two years to complete the peer review and editing before publishing it.

The author can be just as passionate and outspoken as you’d expect from a community activist. He wants more spending on rail transit and more limits on parking. He vilifies the traditional suburban lifestyle.

“Suburbs are in need of medical attention,” he writes. “Automobile crashes cause carnage on the road; lack of movement on foot brings obesity and diabetes.”

I don’t share all his criticisms. But he’s certainly right that we need more transit and socially heterogeneous neighborhoods.

Ross gets credit for being timely. As the surging population in the District attests, young adults increasingly want to live in urban environments and are less likely to drive than their parents.

This book looks unsparingly at the challenges we face — social and cultural, as well as political and economic — to accommodate the new generation.

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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