Tag Archives: Sprawl

Want to Prevent Oil Spill Disasters? Stop Driving


Jason Henderson of AlterNet brings us this timely article on how our car culture is partially to blame for this most recent and almost all other oil spills.  The Deepwater Horizon rig disaster has put offshore drilling back at the center of our political and social discussion, and self-proclaimed progressives need to take a stand.  Henderson calls the focus on green cars “a distraction.”  Green cars still need oil, and progressives need to examine how much their transportation habits contribute to this type of ecological disaster.  To be honest, we still need oil–lots of it–to live how we live today, with computers, pharmaceuticals and plastics; but we don’t need to be drilling into the furthest corners of the earth.  We need to conserve oil for things that are more important than driving.

It is well known that America consumes a quarter of the world’s oil, and 70 percent of that (17.5 percent of world oil production) goes towards America’s driving habit.  Much of this is wasted on short trips that could be made by other means.  92 percent of Americans own at least one car, which consumes oil, puts out CO2 and costs them money in insurance and repairs.  There’s no way that we could build enough coal or nuclear power plants to make the switch to all-electric cars.  Even if we did, those power plants would produce still more CO2 or nuclear waste, and would necessitate an overhaul of our urban infrastructure so as to install charging stations all across America.  Even alternative energy forms need oil to be produced and maintained.

Henderson argues that this should seem unintelligent to any thinking person, but more-so embarrassing to any progressive:

Any progressive-leftist-liberal-“green”-environmentalist cannot, with a clear conscience, drive his or her children to school and expect those children to find a planet they’ll thrive on. He or she cannot smugly shrug that the transit system does not go where he or she wants to go, or that the distances are too far to ride a bicycle. Any able-bodied progressive who regularly exclaims “But I need to drive!” is in need of some deep reflection on his or her values and especially the idea of a green car.

Green cars are still cars, which consume a lot of oil.  “The Prius will not cut it,” Henderson says.  He also argues against carbon offsets, which allow people with enough money to buy some sort of energy savings so as to “make up for” their not-so-green lifestyle.  There are a number of reasons for this, according to Henderson:

Some progressives do this, admittedly, because they are lazy. Others feel “special” and thus entitled to live in scattered sprawl, drive across town to work in less than 20 minutes and then to a dentist on another side of town in another 20 minutes. Many progressive Americans, particularly in coastal “blue” states, expect to be able to drive to the beach and NOT see any signs of oil extraction. That is not progressive. That is imperialism. Those cars are fueled and built with oil from Nigeria, Iraq, Louisiana and Alaska — places laid to waste by unfettered oil extraction…Many of you “progressive” motorists are probably seething in defensive, self-righteous posture if you managed to read this far. You drive a Prius, so you’re doing your part. Or you don’t drive much. Or your groceries are too heavy — you need a car. In the Bay Area and many parts of California, a common refrain is that there are too many hills, so “I have to drive.” Populists will shout that the working poor need their cars to get to work on time and that child care and household chores all but require a car.

He also argues that, had the Gulf Coast disaster happened in the Bay Area, the outcry would have been massive, instead of the passe response that this disaster has generated relative to events such as Exxon Valdez and Cosco Busan.  He encourages people to find ways that they could make walking and biking a bigger part of their lives.  Most trips are under five miles, easy biking distance, and with minimal creativity (backpack, small trailer, jitney delivery service), hauling loads can be easy without a car.  There are also the added benefits of better health and cleaner air, as well as using renewable bags and other resources instead of plastics.  If we used oil more wisely, we could use it to prepare for a future with less or no oil, where communities will be closer together, transportation will be based on rail and other more efficient modes,  and energy can come from sources that still need oil but much less of it, including solar and wind.

Henderson encourages progressives to either change their ways or stop being obstructionist.  Making life easier for pedestrians and bicyclists often means making it harder (i.e. more fair) for drivers, who have been pandered to for too long.  We need to stop letting rich out-of-towners park for free when we charge the urban poor to use transit.  Henderson comments, “I see you progressives every day — the Prius in the bike lane, the speeding, honking Subaru and the hybrid SUVs careening at pedestrians and cyclists, with fashionable Obama stickers or save this/save that bumper stickers on the cars. Honking, hoarding, fighting for a parking space at Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. It is madness.”  Progressives need to set an example of living within our means, especially relative to oil.

Will Tysons halfway plan bolster or doom the future city?


David Alpert of Greater Greater Washington brings us this story on the future of Tysons Corner.  Tysons is in many ways the poster-boy for post-war American suburbia.  Even PBS has noted it’s car-dependent, highway-oriented state.  Pedestrians in Tysons are taking their lives into their hands.  The city is made up of single-use office towers, strip shopping centers, tract housing, and parking, parking, parking.  Fortunately, Tysons’ local leaders are aware of the changing market conditions pointing toward mixed use development, and they are trying to fix their city.  Fairfax County has produced Transforming Tysons, a document that is still being revised that will guide more pedestrian-scaled development, focused on Tysons’ four Metro stops and tapering down to the surrounding low-density development.

Traffic engineers don’t believe that the plan will work, and are advocating expanded freeway facilities.  But Washington has ample examples, the District in particular, of how wrong traffic engineers could be.  According to their models, DC couldn’t be built today.  This and other debate has encouraged Planning Commissioner Walter Alcorn to propose that 3/4 of the proposed density be built in the next 20 years instead of building 100% in the next 40 years, as well as eliminating density maximums in favor of having the Board of Supervisors analyze every proposal in turn.  The Sierra Club endorsed Alcorn’s plan, hoping that the shorter time frame will encourage that the necessary transit upgrades to the periphery of the city are built.  The Audubon Society, on the other hand, wants the complete plan.  Stella Koch of Audubon said, “This plan must be implemented as a whole or it falls apart. Without the internal grid of streets, transportation inside of Tysons does not work. Without an integrated network of sidewalks and paths, and inviting shops and storefronts, people do not want to walk to destinations. The Tysons Vision must be implemented as a whole.”

Also agitating the process are landowners in the non-transit-oriented areas.  Many have been waiting on the plan to be finished, and some people are worried that these land owners may just up and build a strip mall instead of waiting for pedestrian-friendly guidelines.  If Alcorn’s plan is implemented, it could hurt the county’s ability to pay for necessary amenities, such as the improved street grid, storm water system, transit, and streetscapes.  The plan also opens up the possibility of the plan being compromised a little bit more for every project.  By doing it all at once, it’s easier for elected officials to do what is right for the largest number and not be swayed by NIMBYs.  Tysons should work to avoid the evenly spread, low density development of nearby failures such as Gaithersburg‘s Science City.  This type of development is hard because instead of trying to build a city from green fields like Washington was, Tysons is trying to build it out of an existing framework of suburban sprawl.  Development happens fast today, and if the leaders of Tysons don’t get this plan figured out quick, they may have a few thousand more acres of strip malls to deal with.

American Makeover Episode 1 – SPRAWLANTA


I probably should have plugged this a long time ago considering that I actually gave these guys money (and anyone who knows me knows I’m not loose with cash), but better late than never.  The creators of last year’s award-winning short film Built To Last have taken their efforts to the next level, creating American Makeover, a series of videos on sprawl in different parts of the city and efforts that are being made to overcome it.  Their first episode, SPRAWLANTA, looks at Atlanta, Georgia and how it has developed, taking special care to highlight Glenwood Park, a growing New Urbanist development there.

To continue their work, these guys need your help.  They are quite a bit shy of the funding goal that they need to achieve to continue this project.  I gave them a small contribution and got my name put at the end of SPRAWLANTA, so feel free to donate either out of interest in the project or self-interest, just help these guys to continue making great videos.  Here is SPRAWLANTA, for your viewing pleasure.

Sprawl In Canada and the U.S.: A Comparison


This article by Michael Lewyn of Planetizen is a preview of his research on sprawl in the US and Canada.  Despite following similar courses in our development history, there are some significant differences between us and our neighbor to the North (other than their superior healthcare).  First of all, Canadian cities are growing.  Lewyn compared the ten cities in each country that had the largest population in 1950 and found that eight of the American cities had lost population (St. Louis has lost about 59%), while all of the Canadian cities had grown.  This is partially because of an aggressive annexation policy in Canada, but controlling for that, six of their cities still grew, and the other four did not experience losses comparable to their American counterparts.

Canadian cities are also less car-dependent.  In the US, 8% of trips are taken by transit.  In Canada it’s 14%.  Canada is still considerably more car dependent than Europe (Lewyn mentions that less than a quarter of trips in Zurich and Copenhagen are by car), so it sort of functions as a middle ground between American auto-dependence and European auto-freedom.

Some of Canada’s advantages, such as lower crime rates and higher gas prices, are either not related or distantly related to planning.  And while Canada still supports sprawl through excessive highway funding and single-use zoning, it doesn’t do so to near the degree of the US.  So there are more lessons we can learn from Canada than just healthcare.

When the real estate market recovers, smart growth will claim a larger share. Here’s why.


Kaid Benfield of NRDC brings us this article on the changes in the real estate market that show positive indicators for smart growth, transit-oriented development and New Urbanism.  The shift from sprawl domination to some level of urbanity was already beginning before the recession, and that along with rampant foreclosures and rising gas prices could very easily continue the trend, hopefully to the point where sprawl doesn’t come back as the dominant building form.  There are more foreclosures in suburbs than in cities, and city property values have declined less and in some cases even increased during the recession.  Central cities and inner-ring suburbs are experiencing a building boom, and urban schools are seeing greater enrollment.  At the same time, suburban locations have seen a drop in their share of building permits being granted.  Surveys show that the majority of people want offices and shops near their homes, don’t want greenfield development, want to redevelop old areas, want to live in communities where they can walk more and drive less, and want more public transportation.  Only 25% of Americans want single-family homes on large lots (bigger than 1/6 acre).  Benfield argues, as many have, that a large part of this is due to demographic shifts.  We are no longer a nation of traditional families.  People are having fewer children, they are taking longer to have them (if they do), and they are living longer after they leave the house than previous generations.  People without children care less about big backyards and privacy than they do about having things to do and opportunities that don’t require a car.  We need to plan for singles and non-nuclear families as well as traditional ones.

Could Recession Lead to Death of Sprawl?


Ted Smalley Bowen brings us this article on what may be the death of sprawl.  The numbers from Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies show that cities have taken a hit, but it isn’t the knockout that suburbs and exurbs are experiencing.  Many outer areas have simply stopped growing, whereas cities are still growing slowly, in some cases faster than they have in recent years.  The economic crisis seems to have accelerated the trend away from suburbs and back to cities.  John Norquist, who arguably may be biased, says that this is a permanent change.  I would have to agree.  Although economics are forcing people to downsize in the short term, increasing gas prices and other elements that will only get worse in the future will keep them from going back in the future.  In addition to economic factors, demographics are also encouraging the move back to cities.  Baby boomers have become empty nesters, and they want smaller, more manageable nests, closer to everyday needs.  At the same time, Millenials that grew up in the suburbs but had all of their fun in cities (like me, my wife and my sister) have a desire to live a more vibrant life closer to the center.  Bowen cites changes in Phoenix, focusing on it’s new light rail line and connections to Tucson and Flagstaff, as a great example of this change.  Even in suburban western cities like Phoenix, the future for cities looks bright.

The roots of sprawl


More good stuff from our friends at The Daily Loaf.  Grant Rimbey gives a short history of sprawl, along with how it will specifically effect Florida and the Tampa Bay area.  This is intended to be the beginning of a series about the various methods of fighting sprawl.  He finishes the post with “Built To Last,” the widely covered CNU Video Contest Winner.