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Staley article in Washington Post | Congress for the New Urbanism

Staley article in Washington Post

MLewyn's picture

Sam Staley coauthored an article in the Washington Post. I think he is one of the more thoughtful smart growth critics- partially because he agrees with me sometimes, and partially because his tone is a bit more measured than some others I might name. Moreover, he seems to be playing with more or less the same deck of facts that I play with. On the other hand, he interprets those facts differently than I do; he tends to see the glass as half-empty while I see it as half-full, and vice versa. Below are some of his thoughts and my responses.

Myths About Suburbia and Our Car-Happy Culture

By Ted Balaker and Sam Staley
Sunday, January 28, 2007; B03

They don't rate up there with cancer and al-Qaeda -- at least not yet -- but suburban sprawl and automobiles are rapidly acquiring a reputation as scourges of modern American society. Sprawl, goes the typical indictment, devours open space, exacerbates global warming and causes pollution, social alienation and even obesity. And cars are the evil co-conspirator -- the driving force, so to speak, behind sprawl.

Yet the anti-suburbs culture has also fostered many myths about sprawl and driving, a few of which deserve to be reconsidered:

LEWYN COMMENT: I think the term "anti-suburbs culture" is a bit unfair. Although sprawl critics certainly don't like the way suburbs have developed, we are arguably less anti-suburb than the defenders of the status quo. How so? Sprawl is a revolution that eats its own children; newer suburbs drain wealth and vitality from older suburbs (at least in slow-growth regions where there is not enough affluence to go around). By supporting infill and redevelopment, sprawl critics seek to protect older suburbs.

(Staley continues)

1. Americans are addicted to driving.

Actually, Americans aren't addicted to their cars any more than office workers are addicted to their computers. Both items are merely tools that allow people to accomplish tasks faster and more conveniently.

The New York metropolitan area is home to the nation's most extensive transit system, yet even there it takes transit riders about twice as long as drivers to get to work.

In 1930, the interstate highway system and the rise of suburbia were still decades away, and yet car ownership was already widespread, with three in four households having an automobile.

LEWYN COMMENT: I couldn't find this statistic, but knowing Staley, I trust that he would not say something that was literally false. Having said that, this statistic conceals as much as it proves. According to the 1933 Statistical Abstract, there were 26 million vehicles registered to people in 1930. (Table 372). There were 72 million Americans over 21 (Table 27). Assuming that no one under 21 owned a car and that no individual owned more than one, this still means that over 60% of adults did NOT own a car. It may well be that most heads of households owned a car. But even assuming this is so, a society where Daddy owns a car and the wife and kids don't is a very different society (and much less car-dependent) than one in which everyone over 16 owns a car! In such a society, most people will be (and were) able to get around more places without driving.

(Staley continues)

Look at any U.S. city and the car is the dominant mode of travel.

Some claim that Europeans have developed an enlightened alternative. Americans return from London and Paris and tell their friends that everyone gets around by transit. But tourists tend to confine themselves to the central cities. Europeans may enjoy top-notch transit and endure gasoline that costs $5 per gallon, but in fact they don't drive much less than we do. In the United States, automobiles account for about 88 percent of travel. In Europe, the figure is about 78 percent. And Europeans are gaining on us.

LEWYN COMMENT: What about Europe? Yes, rural and suburban Europe is car-dependent just as rural and suburban America is. But 69% of Stockholm residents walk, bicycle or take transit to work, as do 62% of Munich residents. (Peter Newman and Jeffrey Kenworthy, Sustainability and Cities: Overcoming Automobile Dependence, p. 83 [1999])

Bottom line: in places where transit is most plentiful (e.g. Manhattan, European cities) most people don't drive to work. In places where transit is not so plentiful (e.g. NYC suburbs, rural and suburban Europe) most people do drive to work. In other words, automobile dependency is not inevitable in modern society.

(Staley continues)

The key factor that affects driving habits isn't population density, public transit availability, gasoline taxes or even different attitudes. It's wealth. Europe and the United States are relatively wealthy, but American incomes are 15 to 40 percent higher than those in Western Europe. And as nations such as China and India become wealthier, the portion of their populations that drive cars will grow.

LEWYN COMMENT: Then how do you explain the Upper East Side of Manhattan, one of the wealthiest parts of America but also one of the most transit-friendly? In one Upper East Side zip code (10162), the average household income is over $100K, yet about 60% of households (550 of 943) own no car.

Conversely, suburbia is sometimes the choice of people who can't afford urban life, as people "drive to qualify."

It probably is the case that other things being equal, more wealth means more car ownership. But it is also the case, I think, that some people with money are willing to spend that extra increment of wealth in a place where they don't HAVE to drive.

(Staley continues)

2. Public transit can reduce traffic congestion.

Transit has been on the slide for well more than half a century. Even though spending on public transportation has ballooned to more than seven times its 1960s levels, the percentage of people who use it to get to work fell 63 percent from 1960 to 2000 and now stands at just under 5 percent nationwide. Transit is also decreasing in Europe, down to 16 percent in 2000.

LEWYN COMMENT: No longer as correct as it was a few years ago. Staley has a point: it IS true that transit use declined during the 70s and 80s and early 90s- but in both Europe and America, transit is bouncing back.

Between 1995 and 2003, European streetcar and subway ridership rose by 12.5%. See EUROPEAN COMMISSION, ENERGY AND TRANSPORT IN FIGURES 2005, TABLE 3.3.2.

And to the extent driving is increasing in Europe, it may be less due to increased affluence than because government makes the same mistake that American government makes: it builds more roads to more suburbs, creating more auto-dependent sprawl. Id., Table 3.5.1 (length of roadways in Europe tripled since 1970).

And in America, the picture is similar. Between 1995 and 2003, transit ridershp rose by 20%. See U.S. CENSUS BUREAU, 2006 Statistical Abstract at 722 (after decreasing in early 1990s, transit ridership rose from 7.7 billion passengers in 1995 to over 9.4 billion in 2003)

Indeed, driving is actually starting to decline in America (though this may be a temporary result of high gas prices).

(Staley continues)

Like auto use, suburbanization is driven by wealth. Workers once left the fields to find better lives in the cities. Today more and more have decided that they can do so in the suburbs. Indeed, commuters are now increasingly likely to travel from one suburb to another or embark upon "reverse" commutes (from the city to the suburbs). Also, most American commuters (52 percent) do not go directly to and from work but stop along the way to pick up kids, drop off dry cleaning, buy a latte or complete some other errand.

We have to be realistic about what transit can accomplish. Suppose we could not only reverse transit's long slide but also triple the size of the nation's transit system and fill it with riders. Transportation guru Anthony Downs of the Brookings Institution notes that this enormous feat would be "extremely costly" and, even if it could be done, would not "notably reduce" rush-hour congestion, primarily because transit would continue to account for only a small percentage of commuting trips.

LEWYN COMMENT: Enormously costly compared to what? The $150 billion or so that governments spends on highways?

Also, I think the last sentence of the above quote illustrates a key difference between myself and Staley: how much do marginal differences matter? For example, suppose we tripled transit ridership in every American city. Staley would presumably focus on the fact that transit's share of commuters rose from 5% to 15%, and declare that a defeat for transit. But in many of the most congested regions, a threefold increase would be pretty significant. For example, in Atlanta's central city about 11% of riders use transit. If transit tripled, that percentage would be up to 33%- comparable to San Francisco or Chicago or Washington. To me (a native Atlantan) somehow making Atlanta as transit-friendly as Washington or Chicago would make a huge difference in the regional quality of life, even if suburbia was unaffected.

To me, even smaller differences matter. I've lived without a car in Jacksonville, Atlanta, Buffalo, Cleveland, Washington and Philadelphia (and with a car in the first two, as well as in St. Louis). Staley writes that cars are "dominant" in every city in America. But there is a huge difference between the ironclad dominance of Jacksonville, where life without a car is really very difficult indeed, and the more gentle dominance of Washington, where even in inner-ring suburbs one can survive fairly comfortably without a car. Indeed, my sense has been that there is a significant difference even between Buffalo and Jacksonville, let alone Washington and Jacksonville.

(Staley continues)

But public transit still has an important role. Millions of Americans rely on it as a primary means of transportation.

LEWYN COMMENT: This is what I like about Staley; he actually is willing to acknowledge some value for public transit.

(Staley comment)

Transit agencies should focus on serving those who need transit the most: the poor and the handicapped. They should also seek out the niches where they can be most useful, such as express bus service for commuters and high-volume local routes.

Many officials say we should reconfigure the landscape -- pack people in more tightly -- to make it fit better with a transit-oriented lifestyle. But that would mean increasing density in existing developments by bulldozing the low-density neighborhoods that countless families call home. Single-family houses, malls and shops would have to make way for a stacked-up style of living that most don't want.

LEWYN COMMENT: If we abolished zoning, street design and parking rules that limit density, we might be surprised how many want something different from the status quo. See http://pedshed.net/?p=25#more-25 (suggesting significant possible demand for more walkable neighborhoods). But to be fair, I don't know how exactly far the free market could take us in this area.

(Staley continues)

And even then the best-case scenario would be replicating New York, where only one in four commuters uses mass transit.

LEWYN: As President Clinton might say "it all depends on the meaning of the words "New" and "York."" Yes, if you include sprawl 20 miles from NYC, then the figure is 1 in 4. But if you look at the urban parts of NYC, the data is very different indeed.

In the city of NY (including the far-flung outer boroughs) only 1/3 (1.049 million commuters out of 3.192 million) of all workers 16 and over drove to work in 2000.

And in New York County (aka Manhattan, aka "The City") only 11% (82,754 out of 753,114) of residents drove to work. 11% (or even 1/3) doesn't sound real "dominant" to me.

(Staley continues)

3. We can cut air pollution only if we stop driving.

Polls often show that Americans think that air quality is deteriorating. Yet air is getting much cleaner. We miss it because, while we see more people and more cars, we easily overlook the success of air-quality legislation and new technologies. In April 2004, the Environmental Protection Agency reported that 474 counties in 31 states violated the Clean Air Act. But that doesn't mean that the air is dirtier. The widely publicized failing air-quality grades were a result of the EPA's adoption of tougher standards.

Air quality has been improving for a long time. More stringent regulations and better technology have allowed us to achieve what was previously unthinkable: driving more and getting cleaner. Since 1970, driving -- total vehicle miles traveled -- has increased 155 percent, and yet the EPA reports a dramatic decrease in every major pollutant it measures. Although driving is increasing by 1 to 3 percent each year, average vehicle emissions are dropping about 10 percent annually. Pollution will wane even more as motorists continue to replace older, dirtier cars with newer, cleaner models.

LEWYN: Staley has a point; certainly, emissions of many pollutants have decreased, most notably carbon dioxide. On the other hand, emissions of carbon dioxide (arguably a contributor to global warming)_ have not. According to Table 10 of this EPA report, carbon dioxide from motor fuel increased from 952 million metric tons in 1990 to 1169 in 2004. Assuming that "motor fuel" has something to do with cars, it may well be the case that carbon dioxide emissions have increased along with vehicle miles traveled.

As former President Clinton might say. "It all depends on what the meaning of the word 'emissions' is."

(Staley continues)

4. We're paving over America.

How much of the United States is developed? Twenty-five percent? Fifty? Seventy-five? How about 5.4 percent? That's the Census Bureau's figure. And even much of that is not exactly crowded: The bureau says that an area is "developed" when it has 30 or more people per square mile.

But most people do live in developed areas, so it's easy to get the impression that humans have trampled nature. One need only take a cross-country flight and look down, however, to realize that our nation is mostly open space. And there are signs that Mother Nature is gaining ground. After furious tree chopping during America's early years, forests have made a comeback. The U.S. Forest Service notes that the "total area of forests has been fairly stable since about 1920." Agricultural innovations have a lot to do with this. Farmers can raise more on less land.

LEWYN COMMENT: Mostly true, but with some qualifications. In much of America, there are ample supplies of undeveloped land. On the other hand, some areas (such as New Jersey) have less undeveloped land than others; so the "running out of land" argument may make more sense there than in the rest of America.

(Staley continues)

Yes, American houses are getting bigger. From 1970 to 2000, the average size ballooned from 1,500 square feet to 2,260. But this hardly means we're gobbling up ever more land. U.S. homeowners are using land more efficiently. Between 1970 and 2000, the average lot size shrank from 14,000 square feet to 10,000.

LEWYN COMMENT: On the one hand, Staley asserts a few paragraphs ago that more density means " bulldozing the low-density neighborhoods that countless families call home".

On the other, "U.S. homeowners are using land more efficiently." Sounds like the authors want to have it both ways- on the one hand density is increasing and that's good, yet on the other hand density might increase and that's bad.

(rest of Staley article deleted, since I don't know enough to comment intelligently about global warming)

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