Urban Sprawl article

This article is from the Richmond Times-Dispatch and, curiously, mentions some of the potential problems regarding taking the "urban sprawl" argument TOO far.

Chaotic and Wasteful: Beware Sprawling Plans to Restrain Sprawl

September 19, 2000

The recent Times-Dispatch series on sprawl led off with some seemingly strange poll results: A majority of those surveyed consider sprawl a serious problem and want open spaces protected. But a majority also say their community is growing at an appropri- ate rate and oppose changes that would restrain the rate of growth. This is not as great a contradiction as it first appears. To some degree, sprawl and its consequences are merely the unpleasant side-effects of otherwise pleasing changes.

For example: In recent decades development has grown twice as fast as population, and the number of vehicle-miles traveled has increased four times faster than population. Why?

For one thing, more women entered the workforce. For another, minorities and immigrants climbed up from poverty and bought houses and cars.  Census figures show the median income for an African-American household, in constant dollars, rose from $5,537 in 1970 to $25,050 in 1997. Median Hispanic income more than doubled. And the bigotry that once consigned
minorities and immigrants to certain neighborhoods is now, mercifully, mostly a thing of the past.

In fact, just about everybody is doing better than they used to. Fifty years ago, the typical family home was a one-story, 1,000-square-foot residence. Houses are roughly twice as large today, when a great many families bring in two incomes, and even single-earner families enjoy much higher wages.

SO PEOPLE buy more cars and bigger houses farther out, and therefore suffer longer commutes. Unfortunately, the drive-time problem proves The Second-Order Rule of Bureaucracy, which states: The more directives you issue to solve a problem, the worse it gets.

One answer to congestion - widely advocated in Northern Virginia - is to build more roads. That will work only if the land near the new roads stays undeveloped. Yet the most powerful Northern Virginia voices urging road construction say the region needs roads to sustain economic prosperity - i.e., to continue adding more businesses, more stores, and more residents.

Some advocate increasing regional density. But density is no panacea.  The longest average commute time in America - more than 36 minutes - is to be found in New York (with a density of 23,700 persons per square mile). The second-longest average commute takes place in Washington, D.C., (9,882 persons per square mile) and the third-longest in Chicago (12,251 persons per square mile). All three have extensive public transportation, suggesting that might not be a silver bullet, either.  Where is the nation's briefest commute? Mitchell County, Kansas (10.3
persons per square mile).

Density also increases air pollution. Assume a region's population density doubles, and 25 percent of drivers then decide to save themselves some grief and take mass transit instead. Vehicle emissions still have increased by half.

WHAT PROSPERITY and progress have wrought, prosperity and progress might help repair. In the information age, telecommuting can keep some vehicles garaged. Wireless sensing technology might be able to track traffic flow, relay real-time road conditions to drivers, and suggest alternate routes. Flex-time and peak-time pricing of tolls could adjust incentives to clear up rush-hour bottlenecks.

Technology also figures strongly in the loss of farmland - an issue about which some state legislators and localities have shown a concern that is admirable but disproportionate. While the state's farm acreage has decreased more than 30 percent since 1964, an acre of cropland can produce three times the food it could in 1960. Hence, more farmland reverts to meadow and forest than is consumed by development, the federal government pays farmers $1.7 billion a year to let fields lie fallow, the United States remains a major food exporter, and the Agriculture Department says "losing farmland to urban uses does not threaten total cropland."

Still, though 75 percent of the nation's populace lives on just 3.5 percent of the land, there is no point in developing more of it recklessly. An instructive study of the Washington metro region two years ago found that 75 percent of the drivers on the road between 4 and 7 p.m. were engaged not in the daily commute but in attending to matters such as errands and shopping. The same probably could be said of the Richmond area.

The fault lies largely with zoning that too often separates home, workplace, and shopping by too great a distance. (This ink-stained wretch resides in an apartment building less than two miles from work, but has to drive 10 miles or more for many of life's amenities; others have it much worse.) Relaxing zoning ordinances could provide some surcease from that particular sorrow. However, doing so would require planners to exercise less control rather than more.

But what of that? Though John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich von Hayek eventually stood at opposite ends of the debate over economic intervention, the early Keynes observed: "Our power of prediction is slight, our command over remote results infinitesimal." In this he agreed with Hayek, who held (in the words of Oxford professor John Gray): "Because the planner cannot know relative costs and scarcities, the planned economy will in fact be chaotic and vastly wasteful." Given planning's track record, a little less of it might not be altogether bad.

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