Otis White on Houston and sprawlOtis White's Urban Notebook at Governing.com has a blurb on Houston and sprawl. He's really just recapping what was in the Chronicle, but it's interesting to see the spin from an outsider's perspective.
The Bad-Investment Gambit - Lassoing Sprawl
If there’s a city where sprawl isn’t just tolerated but celebrated, it’s Houston. After all, this is a place where people love their property rights so much, they don’t allow zoning. But even in Houston, residents are having second thoughts about plunking houses and strip shopping centers ever farther out on the prairie. Still, leaders are careful how they criticize these developments. “I don’t want, nor do most people in this community want, to tell people where they can and can’t live or how long their commute should or shouldn’t be,” Mayor Bill White told the Houston Chronicle recently. “One person’s sprawl is another person’s dream house. On the other hand, as a fiscal conservative, I’ll tell you it is much more expensive for us to provide transportation services, water and sewer services and everything else if somebody lives twice as far away.” That seems to be the Texas approach to dealing with sprawl: Label it a bad investment. Also, point to the obvious: that building new highways only invites more distant development. One anti-sprawl group looked over the new regional transportation plan and was appalled by what it found: plans for building 12,900 miles of new roads over the next 20 years. “That was not a plan, it was a continuation of what we’ve always done,” the group’s president told the Chronicle. “A 75 percent increase in vehicle-miles traveled is assumed. Sprawl is written into it — it’s guaranteed, when we should be trying to rein it in.” Mayor White agrees that transportation shapes the nature and location of growth, but he’s unwilling to say no to more roads. His approach: Improve neighborhoods, be quick to turn property seized for tax delinquencies into affordable housing. and work with the school district on improving the schools. Do these things, he said, and the city’s charms will bring the people back.
12,900 lane-miles of new roads over 20 years. Sounds like a lot, huh? Well, we're also getting 2 million new people over that 20 years. That works out to 34 feet of new road per new resident, about the amount in front of their house. Doesn't seem quite so out-of-control crazy from that perspective, does it?
They say the secret to communication is repetition of the key message over and over and over. So here it is again: more freeway capacity actually reduces sprawl by keeping employers in the core, which realistically limits commutes (and therefore sprawl) to 20-30 miles. When the employers flee to the suburbs, people can then live on private estates 20-30 miles beyond that. Then you get real sprawl.
I say: Build the suburban homes. Build the new urbanist density. Whatever sells, keep building more of it, because that's what the market wants (i.e. real people spending their hard-earned money - not polls). Trying to force only one or the other will cause far more problems than it would solve.