Category Archives: sprawl

Expensive gas can be a problem for suburban sprawl


Greening the ‘burbs

Interesting story in the Sunday New York Times on efforts among suburbanites to make their low-density communities greener.

Since 2005, the mayors of hundreds of suburban communities across America have pledged to meet or even beat the emissions goals set by the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty to reduce greenhouse emissions.

In November, Levittown, N.Y., the model postwar suburb, declared its intentions to cut carbon emissions by 10 percent this year. And a few suburban pioneers are choosing solar heating for their pools, clotheslines for their backyard, or hybrid cars for their commute.

But the problem with suburbs, many environmentalists say, is not an issue of light bulbs. In the end, the very things that make suburban life attractive — the lush lawns, spacious houses and three-car garages — also disproportionally contribute to global warming. Suburban life, these environmentalists argue, is simply not sustainable.

Where the environment’s concerned, I’m of two minds (for civic budgeting, I’m not — the suburbs are a major problem for city budgets). They’re certainly unsustainable in their current form, but they’re also where an awful lot of the famous low-hanging fruit is. If current suburbanites just went with xeriscaping instead of heavily chemicalized lawns, kitted themselves out with high-efficiency heating, went with fans instead of air conditioning, and drove fuel-efficient cars, we might find that went a long way.

I do suspect that 21st-century housing-bubble McMansions aren’t going to work, but expensive oil should put paid to those. Post-war suburbs are, I suspect, quite salvageable even in a low-carbon, low-energy future, if the owners are prepared to invest in them.

I have no research to support this, but I think we should push in that direction and see what happens. At a minimum, it’s much more palatable for a mass audience than saying everybody’s got to move into apartment blocks.

Long-term adjustments

Tim Haab of Environmental Economics notes a data point suggesting people are beginning to make some significant life- and work-style adjustments to cope with higher gas prices. Telecommuting is on the rise, encouraged by bosses.

There’s been a lot of public-opinion research and economic forecasting trying to figure out at what point gas prices would really make people reduce their driving (more from Haab on this point, and some less-learned commentary from me), but it’s difficult to make accurate predictions about things as “sticky” as what kinds of cars commuters driver and where they choose to live in relation to where they choose to work.


I’m not sure how long large-scale adjustments take, but I’m sure it is longer than 3 months. My guess is that we are just starting to see the beginnings of adjustments and over the next six months or so, as long as gas hovers around $3/gallon, we’ll see more and more stories like this one

This is something to keep in mind when reading apocalyptic predictions like some of Jim Kunstler’s, for instance, about our inability to adapt:

Mostly, we don’t want to face the tragic misinvestments we’ve made in the infrastructure of happy motoring, and we don’t want to face the inconvenient truth that there really isn’t any combination of alt.fuels that will permit us to keep running all the cars the way we like to run them. Either we keep getting the oil or say goodbye to the American Dream Version 2.K.

The public has now decided that this nation’s primary mission is to find some magic way to keep the cars running on a fuel other than gasoline …

There will be shocks and there will be adjustments and some of them will be hard and some of them will take a long time, and a combination of peak oil (which is coming eventually, whether that’s sooner or later) and climate change will hurt. But we are an adaptable species and we’ll figure some things out. The goal is to make the process as painless as possible, and not to mindlessly dump the problems prosperity has created onto people who haven’t enjoyed any of it.

The public-housing death spiral

Keeping housing affordable is a problem anywhere, but it’s a particular problem in a city built on a foundation of sustainable urban design.

Portland, Ore., might be North America’s best example of sensible urban planning — compact development, lots of mass transit, etc. — and as such it’s a really desirable place to live. Desirable places to live are really expensive: in 2005, Forbes did some math and found Portland was the third-least affordable American city in which to live, better than only New York City and Seattle. So it’s a natural that the city government would spend a lot of time trying to help poorer people get by, particularly in their housing arrangements.

One of their methods is about to bite them, according to the Portland Tribune, which reports on the desperate attempt to keep rents down in 950 privately owned apartment units. They’ve been subsidized by the federal government, but the subsidy deals are all set to expire by 2013, when the mortgages do — the deal with the Housing and Urban Development Department back in the late ’70s and early ’80s was that the feds would subsidize the rents for that long.

The rent is geared to tenants’ income: they pay 30 per cent of what they make, and the government makes up whatever the difference is between that and the market rent. To get in, you have to be making less than half the median income for a family like yours in Portland.

The Tribune reports that the city is trying to scrape together the money from many sources to buy the buildings before the subsidy deals expire, and the process is a mess:

The funds needed to buy the 12 buildings and pay for any needed repairs probably will have to come from a variety of sources, including private financiers, the state of Oregon and the Portland Development Commission, the city’s urban renewal agency.

The city’s share of preserving the buildings will probably total in the millions of dollars. Although the buildings have not yet been formally appraised, the PDC estimates they are worth anywhere from $1.5 million to $25 million each, depending on the size and location.

“This will be a significant resource issue for the city for years to come. It’s going to cost us some money,” [city housing official Margaret] Bax said.

PDC funds may not be available for all of the remaining buildings, however. Six of them are in existing urban renewal areas administered by the PDC. The rest are not.

Although some members of the City Council have suggested that PDC funds should be available for projects outside renewal areas, the agency is not yet authorized to help finance such projects.

Now, this situation was predictable from the very beginning — everyone knew the subsidies would end, because they were time-limited from the get-go, and everyone knew the tenants living in the apartments when that happened would be screwed unless some other subsidy program kicked in. Now the city wants to make that happen, but doesn’t have the money, and is considering using money set aside for urban renewal projects for non-renewal purposes, just because it’s convenient.

Permanent subsidy programs are just a terrible idea. They always end up like this, one way or another.

There’s no easy, principled solution. The traditional approach is to allow ever-more construction out where land is cheap, but that’s off the table in Portland, where a firm urban-growth boundary constrains budget-eating, environment-killing sprawl.

(My libertarian argument for such boundaries is that it’s reasonable to draw a line beyond which many expensive city services simply will not be provided — you want to live way out there, you’re on your own — and a similar principle applies to justify most elements of ordinary zoning within the boundary.)

Instead, the only viable long-term solution is for Portland to loosen its zoning codes to permit even more compact construction, while spending more on transit to make it easier for people to live farther from expensive destinations and still get where they’re going efficiently. Seems to me that’s a much better investment than sinking tens, maybe hundreds of millions of dollars into buying social-housing buildings so you can take over the rent subsidies forever.

Update: More on the Portland housing situation here.

What are gas taxes for?

Gaspump2The U.S. federal government is experimenting with ways of replacing some or all of its gasoline tax with a system that would charge drivers according to how many miles they drive, according to North Carolina’s News & Observer. About 450 drivers in its coverage area, which includes some extremely high-tech–savvy folks, will be participating in a technical test of a GPS system that’ll track their driving.

The problem, evidently, is that drivers are switching to high-efficiency cars, and road-construction costs are going up.

Lew Rentel of Morrisville drives one reason our road money is running low — a Toyota Prius.

Rentel, 69, used to drive a hulking Lincoln Aviator that burned up a gallon of gas every 13 miles. With 48.6 cents in state and federal taxes per gallon, he was paying the government 3.7 cents for every mile he drove.

But he ditched the luxury SUV for what he called patriotic reasons: to help fight global warming and cut our need for foreign oil. Now with a thrifty hybrid that gets 44 miles per gallon, Rentel has cut his tax payments to barely a penny per mile.

He realizes that people like him are doing less to help pay for the roads.

“Something’s going to have to be done,” said Rentel, a retired UPS executive. “You’re either going to tax by the mile, or you’re going to tax some other way.”

According to the News & Observer, the gap is so great that the federal Highway Trust Fund, which depends on gas taxes, is expected to go from an $8.9-billion surplus this year to a deficit by 2009. According to the Congressional Budget Office, it’s actually worse than that — a report from last March (PDF) seems to say pretty plainly that the fund has been in deficit since 2000 and is down to $9 billion, which in highway-construction terms is like being down to whatever cash is in your wallet right now.

So they’re trying to figure out what to do, and finding ways to make people pay by the mile is at the top of the list.

The Iowa researchers will outfit volunteers’ cars with computers and satellite gear to record where and how far they drive. Each month, the volunteers will receive sample bills for how many miles they have driven. Their mileage fees will be compared to the per-gallon taxes they pay now. Congress is considering a call to boost new-car fuel efficiency standards by about 40 percent, to an average of 35 mpg, by 2020. By then, some Americans will be driving cars that use no gas or diesel fuel — and pay no fuel taxes.

Taking gasoline consumption as a proxy for road usage was always questionable, though it was certainly convenient for quite a while there. The taxes have always sent a mixed message, though, particularly since gas taxes are always thrown into the “sin tax” category with liquor and cigarette taxes. Are they taxes on sin or user fees for the roads? What if the money goes to mass transit (as some of the trust fund actually does)? What, precisely, is the rationale behind the tax? If you’re a legislator levying a tax and you can’t give a specific answer to that last question, you’re eventually going to have problems.

This is a variation on the problem with giving hybrid cars access to high-occupancy vehicle lanes even if there’s only a driver in them — are HOV lanes a congestion-fighting measure or a way to reward the environmental benefits of carpooling? Don’t know? Better figure it out, or else your policy on who gets to use them isn’t going to make any sense.

It’s never made sense to charge people buying gasoline for their lawnmowers a fee to go for highway maintenance, just as it doesn’t make sense that cyclists get to use the roads for free (or at least only for the portion of their income and other taxes that go for road maintenance). These have been minor evils in a system whose efficiency has overriden those considerations, though. It hasn’t mattered till now, when a whole lot of people are looking for ways to use the roads in ways that happen to involve not paying for them, based on the system we’ve set up.

I think the lesson applies to another great big policy question: carbon taxes. I’m still vacillating on the usefulness of carbon taxes versus the other measures that are available for controlling greenhouse-gas emissions, but this gas-tax problem seems like a worrisome parallel: If using gas consumption as a proxy for road usage gets us into trouble eventually, what problems might we be setting ourselves up for if we use the purchase of carbon-based fuels as a proxy for greenhouse-gas emissions?

One is that if I’ve already paid a zillion bucks in tax for the coal that powers this generating plant I own, I don’t have a lot of incentives to sequester the carbon dioxide the thing emits. Heck, I’ve already paid for all that stuff, so why would I pay extra to keep it contained?

Unless there’s some separate incentive system — rebates on the tax if I sequester the carbon — in which case it seems to me that a carbon tax’s key selling point, its simplicity, is right out the window.

(Via Planetizen. Photo credit: “Gas pump,” Flickr/romulusnr.)

B.C. business group calls for road tolls

The B.C. Chamber of Commerce — “The voice of B.C. business” — endorses road tolls as a way of making users pay for consuming a public service and, incidentally, keeping traffic from getting any more out of control than it already is.

The proposal is, as I read the Vancouver Sun‘s story, subject to approval by the chamber’s members at an annual general meeting.

“The chamber realizes that while this may be unpopular for many we cannot fool ourselves any longer, there is a need to look to the greater good and that greater good is ensuring that the road network facilitates the movement of goods and people,” John Winter, chamber president, said in a statement.

And it’d help make public and shared transportation more competitive with driving single-occupant vehicles on massively subsidized roads and discourage sprawl by imposing some of the public costs of distant development on the people who choose to live in it.

This actually might be less controversial in British Columbia than elsewhere, for two reasons. One is the abysmal state of traffic in the Lower Mainland, particularly along Highway 1 running up the Fraser Valley (one long road serving essentially all of Vancouver’s suburbs). Trains and HOV lanes help, but not enough.

The second is that B.C., being crisscrossed with rivers and canyons, is already heavily laden with toll bridges and fee-charging ferries. Drivers are accustomed to paying to use expensive public infrastructure, since levying these charges was the only way a lot of it would ever have been built.

Road tolls for major stretches of highway — already charged on the Coquihalla in the mountains — are just applying this thinking to the next level of infrastructure down.

Overpass collapses in Oakland, traffic improves

I’d wait a few weeks before drawing any firm conclusions about whether the closure of part of Oakland, California’s “MacArthur Maze” thanks to a fiery tanker-truck crash will have lasting positive effects on local traffic, but local experts sure do seem surprised by how smoothly everything has gone.

“It doesn’t seem like travel times were getting worse; in fact, in some cases, they actually seemed to be getting better,” said Karl Petty, an engineer who heads the company.

Petty said a small percentage of drivers staying off the roads can make a huge difference in lowering traffic congestion — not just at the freeway collapse site, but around the region. This week’s changes by a few drivers along key routes seemed to make a big difference, according Caltrans data from thousands of buried freeway sensors.

On Monday and Tuesday, the number of miles traveled by Bay Area drivers dropped very little — about 1.7 percent, according to state traffic data. But along the affected routes the decreases were much higher.

Usually on weekday mornings, about 30,000 cars pass along the section of Interstate 580 going toward the MacArthur Maze. That westbound stretch is unaffected by the freeway collapse. On Monday morning, nearly 7,000 fewer cars passed through that stretch — a drop of 22 percent. The volumes dropped by 15 percent on Tuesday and 11 percent on Wednesday, according to data from Caltrans’ Freeway Performance Management System.

“Getting rid of 10 percent of the traffic can totally eliminate the congestion,” Petty said.

It seems that rather than risk traffic chaos in one of the busiest traffic interchanges in the United States, a lot of people who usually drive were parking their cars and taking public transit, or possibly finding longer and less congested routes to get where they’re going. The San Francisco Chronicle reports record ridership on the Bay area’s rapid-transit system.

Jane Jacobs disciples have argued for years that widening one particularly congested road or interchange usually solves the problem there while worsening traffic everywhere else — all the roads feeding into and fed by that particularly troublesome spot. If this pattern holds up, there’ll be some extraordinarily strong proof of the intuitive theory.

Living smaller

The National Post starts a three-part series on great big houses with a spot of good news:

There is some evidence that housing development is beginning to comply with this push away from living large. For the first time in generations, house sizes have stabilized. Evidence is still anecdotal; there is no Canadian organization that measures house sizes. But real estate analysts think the situation here almost mirrors the experience south of the border, where Mc- Mansions were invented.According to census reports in the United States, house sizes stopped growing almost five years ago. “The average new house size is now 2,459 square feet,” says Gopal Ahluwalia, a statistician with the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Home Builders. “What’s happened is that people have seen building and maintenance costs rise to unprecedented levels. The new home of the future, we think, will fall somewhere between 2,300 to 2,500 square feet.”

Mr. Ahluwalia adds that Mc- Mansions cost a great deal to heat, power, and furnish. “Property taxes are increasing, everywhere,” he says.

Economics doing what taste apparently couldn’t.

The $30.11 road toll

Road work aheadEconomist John Whitehead posts at Environmental Economics about a story on possible toll lanes meant to keep traffic running smoothly on a 56-mile stretch of highway in northern Virginia running away from Washington D.C. (Here’s a Washington Post version of the story.)

The goal would be to cut congestion and leave the road open for people who really, really needed to get where they were going quickly, and they’d adjust the tolls as often as every six minutes, according to how bad traffic was. The more crowded, the more it would cost to add yourself and your machine to the dogpile.

At peak times, the consortium responsible for the toll-lane project figures it would have to charge $1.60 U.S. a mile on the most congested stretch, to keep traffic moving briskly (full vehicles could cruise the toll lanes for free). For someone driving the full length of the toll route in the evening, including the less crowded parts, the charge could be $30.11!

Now, this isn’t about the cost of building the highway or maintaining it, just about keeping part of it relatively clear of traffic so it could be used the way you normally would like to use a highway, and it’s heavily dependent on the local economic factors. What it would cost to keep the 401 or the Met or your local urban stretch of the Trans-Canada open is anybody’s guess. But it gives some indication of the scale of the mismatch between what drivers want of major roads and what it would cost to meet that demand.

The above photo is the work of Flickr user Daquella Manera,
used under the terms of a Creative Commons attribution licence

The suburbs’ fair share

TTC expansion mapThe Citizen‘s Randall Denley points out in a column today that public transit, poorly done, can be a yawning money-pit that makes urban sprawl worse. It’s behind the pay wall, but here’s a key paragraph, talking about the $2.4-billion light-rail wishlist the Toronto Transit Commission just unveiled:

The trouble with the hugely expensive public transit proposal is that it assumes the pattern of North American development we’ve seen in the past 50 years will remain the same. People will live far from their place of work and face a daily commute, their housing will be relatively low density and there will be no walkable destinations in their neighbourhood. Even a task as simple as buying a bag of milk will require using a car.

In other words, instead of sending streetcars to Vaughan and Brampton, maybe somebody should stop building things like Vaughan and Brampton.

I’m a fan of mass transit, as a necessary addition to a healthy city once it reaches certain density and size, and in practice, anything more ambitious than a taxi or charter bus system probably has to be publicly run, especially since cities are the way they are because of government-mandated development restrictions and publicly owned roads. Like Denley, though, I think both transit and the road system would be immensely more efficient and effective if we made the people who use them pay a lot more for the privilege. Transit, I bet, would suddenly become a much more popular option, second only to not living so damned far from everything in the first place.