Suburban Sprawl Continues at Breakneck Pace

Mon January 12, 2004 - Northeast Edition
Pete Sigmund

The great exodus from the cities that began after World War II brought millions of motorists into suburbs and the outlying countryside, following their dreams of new homes on their own piece of the land.

Now, population and the number of cars have multiplied. Homes and condos are springing up like new crops. People who flew from cities often confront congestion, which rivals big cities such as New York.

The Road Information Program (TRIP) in Washington, D.C., which studies highway trends, said that since 1970, vehicle miles traveled has increased 148 percent, the number of licensed drivers rose 71 percent, the nation’s population rose 38 percent, and the number of vehicles is up 99 percent. The American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) in Washington said 235-million motor vehicles were on the road in the United States in 2001. And, as many people are caught in daily traffic jams can attest, it’s getting a lot worse, especially outside metropolitan areas.

The Texas Transportation Institute said traffic congestion costs American motorists $69.5 billion a year in wasted time and fuel costs, and that Americans spend 3.5-billion hours a year stuck in traffic.

As population, new single-family homes and the number of cars have increased, traffic fatalities have led to highway sobriquets like “Blood Alley” for a 16-mi. stretch of Highway 21 in Missouri, where average traffic doubled to 16,000 vehicles, more than twice what it was designed to handle.

Now the country has to worry about a new nightmarish trend, “Devil Sprawl.” This phenomenon of often-uncontrolled development is causing many states to run out of most of their open space, and is forcing people to drive more often, over greater distances, spreading congestion like a contagious disease.

Getting Worse

“Sprawl means very spread-out development that is out-of-control and not well-planned,” said Deron Lobaas, deputy director of smart growth and transportation programs at the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in Washington, D.C. “Land uses are separated so that it’s not convenient for people to shop near where they live or work near where they live.”

Sprawl is happening throughout the United States, whether it’s a subdivision edging close to public lands outside of Denver or a snarling intersection outside Detroit.

“The conversion of open space to development is definitely accelerating,” said Lobaas. “From 1982 to 1992, the average annual conversion was 1.4-million acres. This increased to 2.1-million acres a year for the period from 1992 to 1997.”

Asked about the need for more highways throughout the country, Lobaas said, “Unquestionably you need to build new roads and highways. Where you build that infrastructure, and when you build it, is important for making sure you don’t have additional sprawl. Growth may be inevitable; sprawl is not inevitable. It’s a matter of planning how to manage and accommodate that growth so you do not have as much sprawl.”

Lobaas added, “What we have is a development pattern that made sense in the early 20th century and then right after World II when veterans and veterans’ families needed housing. As growth and population continue to increase, the costs of this are beginning to outweigh the benefits.

“In spite of the fact that vehicles are getting cleaner, that some are becoming more fuel-efficient, and that fuel mixes are cleaner, inevitably the vehicle miles traveled in any given region because of continued sprawl will swamp the gains that you have made, and air pollution will increase. We have figured out vehicle miles traveled in the U.S. [in one year] are equivalent to 10,000 round trips to the planet Mars.”

Lobaas said water pollution from highway spills and remnants of tires are increasing, and that less open space diminishes the quality of life: “You pave paradise and put up a parking lot.”

Seeking Answers

If growth, congestion and sprawl continue, where will it all end? What can be done about it?

New roads, of course, properly planned, are necessary and can alleviate some of the problems. Highway groups point out that, while the number of registered cars increased 87 percent over the past 30 years, road capacity increased only six percent.

However, there’s a growing sense that the answers are much deeper than new roadways.

Towns, municipalities, counties, states, and sometimes, homeowners themselves are raising questions about open space, quality of life, infrastructure, economic growth, preservation of the environment, and other essentials. An increasing number of people are even moving back into cities and towns that can sometimes offer more convenience and charm than the now-cluttered country.

“People leave the cities or suburbs and buy these huge houses with 10 acres of land only to realize that the land and the house own them because they have so much work to do,” commented Elliott Negin, Washington, D.C., communications director for NRDC. “They frequently wind up selling the new house. These large properties are also a burden on community fire, police and other services.”

Critical Issue

The critical, very difficult, issue is managing growth to meet economic, lifestyle, environmental and other goals. Some land-use experts say growth management is actually the most important domestic issue facing this nation at the present time.

John Clearwater, managing director of the Construction Industry Advancement Program in Edison, NJ, said, “The ability to deal with load has not kept up with growth. Everywhere you look, we have capacity problems, whether it’s roads, transit, water systems, sewers or other infrastructure. We need to meet the demand with a balanced approach resulting from sensible planning decisions.

“The whole issue of balance is probably the most important to the state of New Jersey in terms of future growth, quality of life and the state’s economy. It’s a critical issue because New Jersey is the most densely populated state, even more dense than India, and because our population will increase by one million people in 10 years.”

Clearwater said that, “We need to push both planning and development, but we can’t say no to needed projects like transportation infrastructure. It’s very easy to delay highway, sewer and water projects but very difficult to get capacity built because of the tremendous overload. What we need is smart growth that conforms to good planning. Unfortunately, most growth is driven by economic considerations.”

Commented Paul Haaland, associate director, policy and research, for TRIP, “We believe that a balanced approach, which we call quality growth, is needed, whether it involves roads, public transportation, or intelligent transportation systems.”

Matt Shaffer, national media representative of the Trust for Public Land in San Francisco, CA, said, “Growth is inevitable, but it’s how communities grow that will define the character of how they shape their future. Open space should be a vital component of any new growth. We’ve seen very successful efforts by states helping communities make open space part of their plans. We like to look beyond cities and towns to regional opportunities linking communities to purchase open space.’

Bucks County in Pennsylvania lets municipalities approach growth in their own way.

“We let our municipalities establish their own priorities,” said Kent Baird, director of the county’s open space program. “This allows for the concept that growth is not such a dirty word. Some may want a balance of growth and conservation. Others may say ’We’ve been second cousins too long; we want some growth.’”

Baird believes one answer is “educating newcomers, talking about the heritage and farmlands we are trying to protect; we are not necessarily passing on negative attitudes; we’re trying to show them what we’re about and that we’re trying to embrace our heritage. If municipalities set their own priorities, that means they have pretty well paid attention to cultural, historic and natural resources that lend to the character of the municipality.”

The Quality Growth Coalition, which includes numerous construction industry organizations, has studied the impact of sprawl and congestion extensively.

Results of its studies, including mitigation suggestions like telecommunications, balanced work schedules, and automated signals, are available in a document “Building Better Communities, A Toolkit for Quality Growth.” More information on this document is available on TRIP’s homepage (

Efforts by a ’Garden State’

Enmeshed in sprawl, New Jersey is an example of a state aggressively (some would say desperately) attempting to preserve its diminishing open space and control growth.

Voters last November approved Public Question No. 1, a constitutional amendment providing an additional $150 million for open space, farmland, drinking water and parks.

This increased the bonding capacity of the Garden State Preservation Trust to $1.15 billion from the $1 billion which voters approved in 1998. The sales tax dedicated in 1998 to pay off the bonds will now cover additional bonds, taking advantage of today’s lower interest rates.

New Jersey dedicates $98 million a year, over 30 years, from sales and use tax revenue to provide a stable source of funding for open space purchases, farmland preservation and historic preservation. It uses the $98 million to pay off the debt on the $1.15 billion, which it can borrow over a 10-year period.

Stopping sprawl and improving quality of life is asserted as a top goal of Gov. James E. McGreevey’s administration, which has acquired more than 1,977 acres of open space and more than 1,160 acres of farmland per month since January, 2002.

McGreevey also signed four bills last June authorizing $47.1 million in matching grants and loans from the state’s Green Acres Trust Fund. These go to local governments and non-profit groups to buy open space and improve local parks. One objective: supplementing smart growth initiatives to mitigate the threat of over-development.

Recognizing the Problem

States must balance many competing interests as they address sprawl. Between 1982 and 1997, Pennsylvania, for instance, experienced a 1.4-percent increase in population but a 41-percent increase in developed land. This state also saw a 61-percent increase in the number of miles traveled by vehicles each day, a 43-percent increase in the number of registered vehicles and a drop of 15 percent in public transit ridership.

“We’re not growing; we’re just going somewhere else and it’s usually into the Pennsylvania countryside,” said Kurt Knaus, press secretary for the state’s Department of Environmental Protection in Harrisburg, PA.

“Pennsylvania is at a crossroads. We can either keep spreading our development across our rapidly diminishing green fields or we can rethink the value of cities and towns that make life here so enjoyable. Our governor [Edward Rendell] is putting a strong emphasis on the reuse of land and facilities in our older cities, boroughs and townships.”

Knaus said Rendell has proposed a plan to the state legislature that would allocate $700 million in grants and loans specifically targeted towards small and mid-sized towns.

“There has been a migration away from our urban centers; there needs to be a focus and a larger vision on rebuilding these areas and drawing people home," Knaus said, adding, “Our mid-size cities, smaller towns, and boroughs have assets which are of tremendous value. They have the infrastructure in place, and the siting which we need for industry.

“Properly nurtured, these towns can be the state’s gold standard for sustainable development. They place homes, stores and offices in a compact area and can be far more energy-efficient and environmentally benign than a sprawling environment. They would also help preserve farmland and open space to promote walking. They also bring together people from different incomes. Really, if you look across the country, resurgent cities and towns are the ones that are attracting young, highly educated workers, which we desperately need.”

Rendell has shown keen interest in the connections between land use, transportation, economic development and quality of life.

Last May, he organized the first inter-agency conference, in Hershey, PA, to discuss and coordinate these activities, saying, “The thoughtful and thorough integration of land-use and transportation policies is essential to improving the economic and social vitality of our communities, while at the same time protecting resources and natural wonders.”

Cabinet secretaries met with planning partners from the private, public, and not-for-profit sectors. One of the featured speakers was Robert Grow, founding chairman emeritus of Envision Utah, a public/private partnership seeking to develop a long-term growth plan in that state.

During the recent November elections, nearly 78 percent of voters in Montgomery County, PA, approved a referendum authorizing the county to borrow $150 million to preserve open space, farmland, parks and historical sites over the next 10 years.

The “Green Fields and Green Towns” plan also will help municipalities improve their infrastructure by rehabbing derelict houses, knocking down buildings and upgrading parks.

“It’s all about keeping the land open, or improving it so people can use it in a recreational way,” said Sandy DeSipio, open space program administrator for the Montgomery County Planning Commission. “Sprawl is definitely growing and is already a problem because of traffic congestion.

“More water issues are also coming into play. Communities in the eastern part of the county are having a lot of flooding problems, which are probably at least partially caused by too much development. We are going to keep going and not have everything paved over.”

Voters approved the plan despite the fact that it will raise taxes an extra $23 a year on the average property assessed at $161,000. It succeeds a previous 10-year $100-million open space plan, which ended in 2003.

Asked about the future, DeSipio said, “I think open-space preservation will continue to be popular because the general public is becoming a lot more knowledgeable about how it improves their communities. I don’t know what the county will look like in 10 years, but, if there are still opportunities for open space, I think people will still want it.”