Sprawl’s costs aren’t just in land , but economic development

“The Cost of Sprawl: More than $1 Trillion Per Year, Report Says” – Wall Street Journal

Growth is good.sprawl

Local growth is an efficient tax base generator.
If you widen a highway, it will ease congestion.

In a vacuum.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that widening a highway doesn’t ease congestion. It makes it worse.  As a state widens a highway, local development increases to take advantage of the higher volume of projected business. More housing developments sprout up around retails areas associated with the new and improved artery – increasing the volume of traffic. (Sierra Club white paper)

PLANNERS PLAYING CULTURAL CATCHUP
But there are two trends at work, here. Today, jobs downtown tend to be skilled, white-collar, and well-paid. Jobs out in the suburbs tend to be more retail, construction, and lower paid. And with the rise in more jobs in city centers, living there will become more expensive and limited to only those who can afford it. This is no more true than in places like New York.

Yet, planners are trying to resolve the issue in many cities. “People increasingly desire to live, work, shop and play in the same place, and to commute shorter distances — particularly the young and educated, who are the most coveted employees. So in many cities, both policy makers and employers have been trying to make living and working there more attractive.” (NY Times)

But the imbalance between population and infrastructure remains. Few other cultures on earth desire convenience as much as Americans do. And so drives the need for planners to provide urban dwellers them the cake and their ability to eat it too. Enter the neo-suburb and sprawl.

So, you now live in a single, interlinked strip mall urbanscape. Forget about the absence of parks or green areas, the scattered tax base from the collection of small businesses that can’t support long-term growth. It begins to decay. Your morning walk now takes you along a split six-lane thoroughfare crammed with Big Box retail shoppers and the on-the-go crew who are picking up their egg & sausage muffins at the drive-thru.

This is not just about the environmental effects. It’s about the question of where our cities will be in the future – and where the land falls into that algorithm. Just look outside our nation’s capitol. (Washington Post)

IF YOU BUILD IT, TOO MANY WILL COME
Meanwhile, local and state governments, like that in Tyson’s Corner, VA., continue to do what they feel necessary to adapt to changes in population behaviors.

(courtesy: Charleston, SC)

(Denver, CO) “State may widen I-70 to ease congestion
(Tyler, TX) “New expansion project set for West Loop 323″
(Asbury Park, NJ)  “Parkway widening to restore shoulders, lengthen overpasses”

In a paper published in the National Bureau of Economic Research, economists Gilles Duranton and Matthew Turner of the University of Toronto nail the problem. “People drive more when the stock of roads in their city increases; commercial driving and trucking increase with a city’s stock of roads; people migrate to cities which are relatively well provided with roads.” (NBER

WAITING FOR MODERNIZED INFRASTRUCTURE POLICY
There are additional examinations of the issue citing the three most congested cities in the U.S. are that way, precisely because of ‘road-based” development solutions. And it’s not limted to the U.S.: “Meanwhile, China has increased its expressway network from 16,300 km in the year 2000 to around 70,000 km in 2010. Yet the average commute time in Beijing increased by 25 minutes between 2012 and 2013 to 1 hour and 55 minutes.” (City Metric/UK)

Additional research surveys from both sides of the coin continue to flourish on the numbers and impact of population growth and lagging infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) says $3.6 trillion of investment is needed by 2020 to meet the needs of growth. The National Construction Association calls for a more free market approach to the problem. Researchers there have also put together their own in-depth report. But, much like the climate change debate, how well advocacy organizations, the business sector, and policy makers agree on a long-term vision may unfortunately rest on the growing direct and existential evidence of doom.

In an earlier blog, I talked about the nation’s desperate need for a cohesive plan to strengthen the nation’s infrastructure by essentially promoting teamwork between local governments and federal officials. It’s a basic observation to be sure. But to not have a long-term vision of what we’re all about as a society is to jeopardize who we will become as a nation. In Australia, the Aborigines believe they do not own the land but are part of it. Therefore, they have the duty to respect and maintain the land. Maybe we’ll figure that out before it’s too late.

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