Monday, June 13, 2005

Mayor White gets it right on sprawl

The Chronicle has an article this morning on Houston and sprawl which unfortunately repeats the same dangerous myth about sprawl that has hobbled so many other cities. The claim is that we should be "planning the transportation investments that influence where development occurs", but that's really a code phrase for the belief "if we don't build any new roads, everybody will move into nice high density developments in the city core and sprawl will stop."

The Washington DC metro area is exhibit A#1 for how this approach completely fails. They hobbled road building and built heavy rail to the core. What did they get? One of the most hyper-sprawling metro areas in the country. As soon as commuting into the city became unbearable, the employers scattered to the four winds over huge swaths Maryland and Virginia so they could be near new, affordable housing their core middle-class family employees wanted to live in. The cruel irony is that, once my employer has moved 30 miles out of the city, I can now move 30 miles beyond that, live on my own country estate, and still have a reasonable commute. DC metro now has commuters that live in West Virginia! That's 90 miles from the DC core. To put that in a local context, you could live in a beach house halfway down Galveston Island and still be closer to downtown Houston than that.

The paradox that people find hard to grasp is that large transportation investments - and especially freeways - actually reduce sprawl. By providing access to new, affordable housing and making the commute bearable into the city, employers stay here. When employers stay here, that puts a real limit on how far out you can live and keep a reasonable commute - realistically 20-30 miles.

Employers really would like to stay in the core. They have employees scattered over all points of the compass, from Clear Lake to Sugar Land to Katy to The Woodlands to Kingwood - and moving out to any one suburb is going to be seriously disruptive to a good chunk of their employees. But once they bite the bullet and make the move, there's just about nothing that can bring them back. Silicon Valley employers aren't going to San Francisco, Orange County employers aren't going to LA, and the hundreds of auto industry companies in southeast Michigan have no intention of going back into the city of Detroit.

Fortunately, Mayor White seems to have a handle on the real solutions.
Mayor Bill White, meanwhile, said he is launching initiatives to help the city — particularly areas of northeast and southeast Houston that have been "leapfrogged" by new development — capture a greater share of the single-family housing market. 
"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," White said. "One person's sprawl is another person's dream house." ...
White agreed that transportation "is a critical issue in defining where and how the city grows." His strategy for directing more growth into the city, however, doesn't involve withholding transportation projects from remote areas. 
Instead, White said, he wants to make the city more attractive for development through initiatives such as Project Houston Hope, a redevelopment plan for six neighborhoods just outside Loop 610. The plan calls for making tax-delinquent property available for affordable housing, working with school districts to improve educational quality and building streets and utilities to replace crumbling infrastructure. 
With reasonably priced houses available in improved neighborhoods, White said, young families might be attracted by urban amenities such as libraries and entertainment venues that "are difficult sometimes to create in a new community." He said people who live outside the city often tell him they wish they were served by Houston police and firefighters. 
White said he wants to more than double the number of single-family housing starts inside the city within two years. He said his staff is researching the current figure for the city; builders typically release new home-construction figures on a regional basis.
It's almost enough to make me want to throw out term limits and let him become Houston's version of Mayor Daley (the father and son that have run Chicago for 50+ years).

Update: a follow-up to this post.


At 10:20 AM, June 13, 2005, Blogger John Whiteside said...

Some points on Washington DC, my old home.

Yes, there's lots of sprawl. But the idea that by building more freeways the DC area could solve anything doesn't pan out at all. For one thing, the area is already dealing with the worst air quality on the east coast - not as bad as Houston, but pretty bad. For another, the areas in the core that would have been destroyed by the planned freeways are now some of the most economically productive land in the city.

What you've actually got in DC is a set of cities - the downtown city, the northern VA (Tysons to Dulles) city, and the MD suburbs city (centered around Rockville). Each have their own residents, amenities, and commuting patterns.

I'm curious about your assertion that freeway building fixes sprawl. In the suburban areas of DC where freeways have been built, it's only gotten worse.

Bottom line is that there are situations where freeways are needed, and there are those where they're a mistake. Houston is very different than DC and it's tough to make good comparisons. These decision also should be guided by an understanding the urban cores have value and should not just be paved over, and by looking at the costs (in terms of environmental quality and its health impacts) that roads bring.

That said, I agree with you that the Mayor is right on the money. The only way to bring cities back is to make them appealing on their own merits; forcing people by shutting down alternatives is unlikely to do more than create more city/suburb resentment.

At 11:11 AM, June 13, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This could very well be the first time that Houston has been placed in a discussion as a city that reduces sprawl (!!) by building more and wider freeways (!!).

Without connecting transportation investments to land use decisions, we'll remain in a cycle of building more and wider freeways, which will trigger more sprawl, which will mean more and wider freeways... ad nauseum. If those decisions are well-connected, then we can have that conversation about the role freeways can play in reducing sprawl.

Minor correction about DC and West Virginia: Charles Town, WV, which is where you're seeing some DC suburban growth, is about 70 miles from the White House.

Related to John's comments about air quality, I'll direct everyone's attention to the news that Portland has already reduced CO2 emissions to 0.1% below 1990 levels (nationwide they are up 17% in the same time frame), and that city could very well become the first major US city to meet Kyoto targets if it gets to -5% before 2012. Portland's approach to land use and transportation has played a role in this reduction. Read more:

At 12:29 PM, June 13, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I know it sounds paradoxical, but it's true: when you don't build adequate freeways, that's when you get leapfrog development as employers scatter to the exurbs.

I agree that DC should not have built freeways to the core, but the network should have been much denser outside of DC proper.

I'm not an advocate of infinite freeway building, but we should use the rights-of-way we have available, combined with congestion-priced toll lanes for bus transit and car/vanpools. That will keep as many jobs as possible here, which, in turn, will help continue the nice redevelopment trend we have going in the core (inc. high-density new urbanism along light rail corridors). If the jobs aren't here, then there won't be market forces driving core improvements. This is the problem Dallas is facing with a 25+% office vacancy rate and employers all over the far suburbs: the light rail lines aren't generating the new developments they had hoped for.

At 1:06 PM, June 13, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I respectfully disagree with John,

I currently live in the DC metro area (Northern Virginia). One of the biggest contributors to pollution in here is the congestion. Interstate highways are clogged with massive traffic congestion every day including weekends! Too much stagnation and stop-and-go burns more fuel and cause more pollution.

You also mentioned that “freeways have been built”. I am not sure what freeways you are referring to? We don’t have any freeways or major highways built in the last 25 years or more! We don’t even have any major re-builds or expansions. The fact is for our road infrastructure have not been updated for a very long time. We don’t have enough highways to support the population. That’s exactly why home prices are up through the roof. The average single family home sold today in Loudon County is $650K. Realistically if you have three kids and would like to get a decent 3000 sq. ft. single family home, then you need at least $700K. Only the rich can afford that and the ones who can’t are forced to move further out and deal with undesirable long commutes.

If we build more freeways or tollways and expand the ones we already have, we would be in a much better shape. More roads will make more land accessible and affordable to the average person.

I love Houston because it is the exact opposite of DC!


At 2:47 PM, June 13, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

RE: Oz's comments about no highway/freeway construction or re-builds in the DC area in over 25 years, I would point to a few projects that were underway when I lived in NoVA in the early-mid 90s:

1) Widening of I-95 in VA
2) Widening of I-66
3) Opening of several segments of the Fairfax County Parkway
4) Construction of the Dulles Greenway Toll Road
5) Beginning of reconstruction of 1-95/I-395/I-495 interchange
6) Planning activities related to Woodrow Wilson Bridge widening
7) I think I-270 in Maryland was also being widened
8) I-495 widening from I-270 to the American Legion Bridge
9) Beginning of Route 50/New York Avenue widening in DC to Maryland border

...and those are only the ones that I can think of... there were probably more. There was actually quite a bit of highway construction activity.

At 10:00 PM, June 13, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Most of the construction mentioned above is not really significant and did a little or nothing to alleviate congestion.

Fairfax County Parkway is only two lanes in each direction and got tons of lights on it. I drove on it a lot when I used to work in Reston, VA. Could you imagine commuting on FM1960 between 290 & IH-45!

Reconstruction of I-95/I-395/I495 (The Springfield interchange): this interchange should have been build decades ago. It is supposed to take about 10 years to build and we are about half way done. It is on schedule but way over budget. I don’t understand why it costs VDOT over $1 billion to build a 3 level interchange! Correct me if I am wrong but Houston builds 4 and 5 level interchanges for ~$350million in 2-4 years.

The Woodrow Wilson Bridge is still under construction and is simply a replacement for the old span that is aging and becoming unsafe. I can not believe that they decided to make this new bridge a draw bridge! It is the only draw bridge on the busy east coast corridor I-95 between Maine and Florida!

The Dulles Greenway Toll Road was built by a corporation. Not by VDOT or Loudoun County. It is probably the least congested highway in Norhtern VA.

The other projects that were mentioned are insignificant.


At 1:19 PM, June 14, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re: the assertion that freeways relieve sprawl by relatively increasing transportation costs (both time and money) for edge-city businesses.

This argument may seem tempting, but only in the tilted logic of today's automobile-oriented transportation subsidies. With gasoline prices kept articficially low with federal assistance, and most of the costs of new highway construction likewise paid for with federal money, then auto-oriented solutions are naturally more attractive.

If, however, we remove such subsidies, and make road projects and energy companies pay their own way, including the public costs of pollution, then bus and rail transit, and denser urban communities, will become much more viable and attractive.

In short, holding the line on road expansions will only encourage sprawl further afield if auto-commuting remains artificially inexpensive. And with widespread talk of peaked oil production and the near-term possibility of $5/gallon gasoline, as well as public demand for improved air quality (unhealthy ozone levels today, by the way), it seems shortsighted to maintain this old-fashioned faith in freeways.

At 3:41 PM, June 14, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I'm not so sure on the subsidies. Substantial gas taxes exist, and they fund almost all the roads. And I often see false models that essentially throw in all road costs as if they could go away with transit. I'm guessing a good 70-80% of road-miles in the network must exist no matter what, if only for trucks, freight delivery, commercial vehicles, fire trucks, police, and ambulances (definitely don't want emergency response riding transit to get to you!).

I agree gas costs are likely to go up substantially, but that just means a switch to tiny fuel-efficient cars like in Japan and Europe (which is also sprawling rapidly), not a sudden conversion to density and transit.


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