Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Slugfest Over Sprawl and Transit-Oriented Development

There is a week-long "Brawl Over Sprawl" going on in this week's L.A. Times. (Access round one here.) One contestant is Gloria Ohland, Vice-President for Communications for Reconnecting America: The Center for Transit-Oriented Development. Ohland co-edited and co-wrote "The New Transit Town," and “Hidden in Plain Sight: Capturing the Demand for Housing Near Transit,” and is writing a book on streetcars and development.

In the other corner is Chicago's own Robert Bruegmann. Bruegmann is a professor of Art History, Urban Planning and Architecture at UIC and is the author of "Sprawl: A Compact History" (great title).

The debate thus far is a good short introduction to the issues of sprawl and transit. Ohland describes sprawl as a sort of cancer on the landscape. She prescribes a big dose of transit-oriented development. In her view demographic trends, such as the rising percentage of non-traditional households, and economic trends, such as rising land prices that are making urban in-fill developments more popular, are pushing us to more transit-oriented development. She argues that increased investment in public transit will yield more rail stations that will stimulate more transit use and more transit-oriented development--a sort of virtuous cycle.

Pish-posh says Bruegmann. He points out that cities have sprawled for centuries and this generally is a good thing, reflecting both rising affluence and technological developments that give the common person more mobility. He acknowledges the trends Ohland identifies but argues that the relative low densities of the suburbs are likely to be the predominant form of urban growth. Bruegmann says that given public transit's relatively low ridership share investing large sums in public transit as a way to address the environmental problems associated with sprawl is a bad investment. Instead, he argues, we should be investing in greener transportation technologies that will preserve the speed and privacy benefits of the private auto, but with a lighter environmental footprint.

A new round in the debate comes each day. A fight worth watching.

A side note: It is surprising and disappointing that the UIC Urban Transportation Center, or even individuals associated with the Center, have not been active participants in the debate over the Moving Beyond Congestion initiative. (Bruegmann is not listed as being affiliated with the Center.) If there have been research papers, editorials and the like from those associated with the Center, please link them in the comments.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

We can certainly build more enviornmentally efficeint cities if we promote more transit-oriented development. It is evident when we compare ourselves to other major cities around the globe. If people walk more and drive less, they consume less energy. Per Capita, Americans consume much more oil than Europeans.

Bruegmann's argument assumes that if we simply "invest" our money in new technologies, somehow and someday we might be able to create a "green" suburbia. How exactly will this happen? Will all of our cars run on banana peels?

No amount of investment will guarantee an eco-friendly, motor-happy utopia. We know we can start to conserve resources and reduce carbon emmisions by using less energy. So let's start doing that first. Drive less, and walk, bike and take the train more. Build cities where this is possible. And later, when cars can fly and are powered by bean-sprouts, we can go back to our suburban way of life.

Anonymous said...

Fully electric cars are not far off(5-10yrs)--held back only by storage (batteries) technology. When the conversion occurs it will change everything about the surface transportation system.

Moderator said...

Anonymous #1--Can you conceive of a future where the "suburban way of life" is approximately as energy efficient as urban living. Let's say, for example, that that the McMansions start getting built with wind turbines and solar panels. If overall energy use were then roughly comparable, are their other environmental considerations that favor one form of development over another?

Moderator said...

Anonymous #2--

How will the advent of viable electric vehicle technology affect the comparative advantages of dense urban development versus suburban development?

Are electric cars the real-life equivalent of the banana peels and bean sprouts refered by Anonymous #1 that will render suburbia as energy efficient as the urban core?

Will small, low-priced electric vehicles cut into public transit's market share? Will people switch from transit (and bikes) to such vehicles if and when they become available.

BTW, check out the Electric Avenue Auto Mall in Oak Forest. (http://www.evautomall.com/index.cfm) They have electric cars ready for use today.

Anonymous said...

The technology of electric cars is improving, but is still much farther off from being a mainstream alternative than 5-10 years. I'm no expert, but when no electric car is anywhere near available here on a mass, affordable scale, it is safe to say that the horizon is more like 20-30 years.

Secondly, electric cars still require energy. Where will this energy come from? Our electrical network is almost at capacity right now, so how long would it take to upgrade that capacity to produce enough energy to power electric cars? It takes years and years to build just a single plant, preceded by many more years of impact studies and politcal battles. If we were to continue our free-motoring way of life, but with electric cars, we are talking about perhaps a doubling of our nation's power generating capacity.

The largest solar power development in the world is right now in Germany. It generates enough electricity to power 9000 homes. Imagine generating enough electricity to power 250 million automobiles. You can't do it without oil or coal.

Per capita, Americans consume almost twice as much energy as in Germany, Japan, or the UK. I don't think our lifestyle is twice as better as theirs. Perhaps we should follow their example first before we bet the farm on switchgrass and solar cells to power our wasteful economy.

pc said...

Bruegmann doesn't know transportation because he's an art historian. Ohland is right: demographic trends point towards a nation where more people will be at the phases in their lives when they will *want* to live around strangers.

As for energy efficiency, anyone with an ounce of sense can see that Americans use energy tremendously inefficiently. Ethanol, biodiesel, photovoltaics, fuel cells -- all these are glorious technologies, but they'll never be as cheap as gasoline circa 1970. Suburban sprawl consumes prodigious amounts of energy (and water), not just in transportation but in operations; in a forthcoming era when energy and water will both be scarce, the cost of living/driving in sprawl will necessarily rise. Whether our society chooses to pay those higher costs or to invest our income in potentially more productive endeavors is up to us.

Anonymous June 25 is correct: batteries are not a way of creating energy, they're a way of storing energy. The base price of that energy is still going to be high.