Expanding the Future by Contracting the City

August 29 2008 / by John Heylin
Category: Social Issues   Year: General   Rating: 3

“Los Angeles would probably be a lot more livable today if this law had been passed 50 years ago.” — George Skelton, LA Times

If there’s one thing that pisses people off about living in a major city, it’s poor public transportation. Often one has to walk half a mile to the nearest bus stop and wait patiently for the next arrival (which typically will only lead you to another bus), only to arrive at the intended destination three hours later. For example, I recently tried to get from SeaTac to Port Townsend and it took me 6 hours using public transportation, not to mention the 1.2 miles I had to leg it to my friends house with all my luggage.

The only U.S. city that has a decent public transportation system as far as ease of use, speed, and the ability to get me within a few blocks of where I need to go is New York City. Subway stops are frequent, tickets are cheap and walking takes care of the rest.

So how is it that New York City has developed such a great public transportation system?

The key is a phenomenon called urban sprawl.

Areas like Los Angeles have populations that are so spread out that a public transportation system servicing everyone is downright impossible. The city has enough buses, but with such incredible distances to cover, a simple ride is turned into a grueling trek. But in New York, the populations are so concentrated that buses are always filled to capacity and very frequent.

Urban sprawl is choking public transportation.

It is for this very reason the California Senate is considering passing Bill SB 375 which aims to cut urban sprawl through cash incentives.

The legislation is authored by State Senator Darrell Steinberg last year, who states:

“Current planning models used for transportation decisions and air quality planning must be improved to assess policy choices. This includes encouraging more compact development patterns, expanding transit service, creating walkable communities, and providing incentives. It is also necessary to achieve significant greenhouse gas reductions from changed land use patterns and improved transportation.”

Steinberg believes the bill would eventually result in shorter commutes, reduced fossil fuel consumption, better air quality, and greater protection of the environment. Basically, the argument is that as we get rid of sprawl, we save the environment.

Assemblyman Mark DeSaulnier (D-Martinez), a proponent of the bill and amazing character in his own right (he’s been calling for biometric safeties on all guns), says that “the era of dollar-a-gallon gasoline … of planning the way we have in the past, that era has passed.” He and other supporters argue that our ability to travel long distances from our homes to work is dwindling with rising gas prices. Their conclusion is that change must happen now.

An interesting report on cities boasting the worst sprawl can be found in this Forbes article on Best and Worse Commute Times for Commuters. It reveals that housing prices in cities such as San Bernardino outside of LA are on average $150,000 cheaper, but that “as gas prices go up, if we continue to rely on automotive transportation options, that affordable-home advantage becomes less valuable.” And so moving into central cities may become inevitable as gas prices continue to rise.

The passage of this bill has been highly anticipated in the San Francisco Bay Area by city planners and environmentalists alike. Jim Wunderman, President & CEO of the Bay Area Council which touts itself as the “voice of bay area business” sees the bill as a blessing for the Bay Area. “For a region that values open spaces, plus clean air and less cars — yet expecting 1.4 million new residents in the next 20 years — it is the only way to go.” He predicts that this bill will result in a stronger economy, shorter commute times, and the cutting of greenhouse gas emissions.

In fact we are seeing more and more urban development projects over the years. There are micro-wind turbines for city-dwellers hoping to produce their own energy, apartment complexes that incorporate greenhouses and energy-saving techniques directly into the architecture, and even vertical farms that hope to make cheap produce in cities a reality. And of course let’s not forget Dubai’s ambitious Ziggurat, which aims to house over a million people in an entirely self-sustainable structure.

So yes, sprawl has come back to bite us in the butt. Gas costing only $1.20 a gallon six years ago has spread people so far that it’s amazing New York workers didn’t take over all of New Jersey (although they certainly tried). But the important thing now is to start planning for the future, so that down the road we don’t get caught with our pants around our ankles again.

Image: Mark Strozier (Flickr,CC-Attribution)

Comment Thread (1 Response)

  1. It’ll be interesting to see if people would be so willing to save money and forgo the stress of travel that they’d move into huge apartment buildings. So much for having your own garden. Maybe they’ll have community gardens for each floor.

    Posted by: martymcfly   September 04, 2008
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