Is it smart to grow off the grid?


Today, Bruegmann and Ohland discuss Smart Growth. Yesterday, they debated the social tensions over urban sprawl. Later this week, they’ll debate environmental concerns, modifying public behavior and more.

A greener American dream
By Gloria Ohland

Smart growth makes sense for every kind of city because it isn’t a choice, really. Given the crises that we face—global climate change, traffic; housing affordability; lack of resources to maintain the infrastructure we already have and to build more; the loss of habitat and open space; dependence on foreign oil; air pollution; sedentary lifestyles that lead to obesity and ill health—we have no choice but to practice smart growth everywhere. Because smart growth is the only way we can begin to limit the number of vehicle miles traveled, it is an important solution to these many problems. And that is why we must practice smart growth.

Cities are developed and then they redevelop. As the value of land increases, parking lots are redeveloped as buildings. Strip malls, one-story buildings and underutilized industrial sites can be redeveloped for a higher use. Infill parcels that may not have been worth building on suddenly become valuable. Los Angeles is built out, but it is being redeveloped as a higher-density, mixed-use, more walkable and more visually interesting city. Green space that we used to turn our backs on is suddenly becoming valuable—the L.A. River is finally being recognized as a natural resource and important ribbon of green through our concrete city. Even the area under the arches and columns of the First Street Bridge connecting downtown Los Angeles with historic Boyle Heights is being reclaimed as public space for a park, cafes and shops—like the Viaduc des Arts in Paris or the Hackescher Market in Berlin.


Reconnecting America released a market study in late 2004 that found that because of regional growth trends and demographic changes in this country (older, smaller, more diverse households with singles becoming the new majority, as I wrote yesterday), demand for higher density housing near transit is likely to more than double by 2030. That means nearly a quarter of all households entering the market to rent or to buy are likely to be looking for higher density housing near transit. And that means that in order to meet demand we’d need to build another 2,000 housing units around each and every one of the 4,000 existing and planned transit stations in the United States.

The real estate market is coming back to urban core neighborhoods and suburban town centers all across the United States for the first time in 50 years. And we aren’t the only ones to notice. The esteemed market study “Emerging Trends in Real Estate,” released each year by ULI/PricewaterhouseCoopers, has for the past three years ranked sites near transit as a best bet for investors. The market has opened a window of opportunity to make our cities more sustainable environmentally and economically. Transit can become the armature for new development, with nodes of walkable, higher-density, mixed-use, mixed-income development around transit stations. This has the added and significant benefit of allowing us to redevelop to accommodate more growth at the same time that we preserve existing single-family neighborhoods.

I don’t mean to suggest that it’s the end of sprawl—contrast the opportunity for development outside cities compared to inside—but rather that we are sprawling and reinvesting simultaneously. But there are reasons to believe the balance could shift to the latter, to smart growth: because of rising gas and oil prices, because the capital for new infrastructure to serve new suburbs is tight and getting tighter and because the fees for greenfield development are getting higher ($100,000 per house in Orange County). Moreover, infill development can be very lucrative because of the scale, and financing is getting easier. That’s why nearly every major homebuilder and even big box retailers are developing infill models. Finally, the market is providing Americans with more housing and transportation choices, and providing for a greener American dream.

Gloria Ohland is vice president for communications for Reconnecting America, a national nonprofit organization that works with the public and private sectors to promote best practices in development-oriented transit and transit-oriented development (TOD). She is co-author and co-editor of the award-winning Street Smart: Streetcars and Cities in the 21st Century; The New Transit Town: Best Practices in TOD; and Hidden in Plain Sight: Capturing the Demand for Housing Near Transit, a national market study funded by the Federal Transit Administration and released in 2005.

If smart growth is the answer, what is the question?
By Robert Bruegmann


Along with most transit and “Smart growth” advocates, you would like to believe that changing demographics, the cost of land, energy costs and environmental worries will force Americans to abandon low-density suburbs and their cars and move into apartments in transit-oriented villages where they can take the train to work and walk to their local Starbucks. It is possible that many people will eventually choose that way of life. But there is very little evidence to date that this is happening, and it certainly won’t happen for the reasons you give.

You cite a report that says that because household size is declining, more people will want higher density housing near transit. There may indeed be a demand in the future for smaller units and higher-density housing near transit, but the overwhelming evidence of the last 50 years gives little support to this assertion. Household sizes have plummeted since World War II at the same time that average house sizes have risen from 1,000 square feet to well over 2,000 square feet. Despite over 50 years of campaigning by planners and others to stop sprawl, the overwhelming amount of new housing both in this country and in every urban area in the affluent world continues to be in the suburbs at some of the lowest densities ever seen in urban history.

The case for any massive increase in the use of buses or trains is no stronger. The reason the majority of people in every urban region in the affluent West use automobiles for most of their trips today is because, on average, automobiles are twice as fast as mass transit in getting from any given point A to point B. The average commuting time in Paris, for example is under 30 minutes by automobile and over 50 minutes by transit. This is why residents of dense cities, even with highly developed public transportation systems, spend longer getting to work than residents of low-density places where almost everyone drives. And that is why the average commuting times in the high-density Los Angeles urbanized area, with one of the smallest numbers of freeway vehicle lanes per capita in the country, is so much higher than the times in much lower -density cities like Houston. It is also why the commutes in Los Angeles are so much shorter in time than those in London or Tokyo.


To get any significant number of people out of their cars and into transit it would be necessary for transit to be faster and more efficient than cars. Except in the case of rush-hour commuting trips to the very center of a few large cities in the United States, this not now the case. Without some dramatic changes in the type of transit we use, transit is very unlikely to be able to compete anytime in the near future.

It would take massive increases in density to boost significantly the present, extremely small market share of transit use in Los Angeles. And even if the market share of transit gained, the number of automobile users would increase more quickly than transit users for the foreseeable future. Without some dramatic increase in road capacity, this would guarantee worse traffic and longer trips for motorists and bus passengers alike. In fact this is what has been happening in L.A. for some years now. Most of the nostrums promoted by “smart growth” advocates are likely to make matters even worse.

At least, you might still claim, more transit use would save energy and reduce pollution and greenhouse gases. In fact, even this proposition is shaky. Because automobiles have become so much more fuel-efficient over the last few decades but buses typically have not, if you measure results per vehicle mile traveled, the automobile, even with only 1.25 people in it on average uses little more, if any, energy and emits little more, if any, greenhouse gases than the average bus. If this sounds implausible, it is important to remember that the bus, which carries the overwhelming majority of transit riders in the U.S. today, is a heavy piece of metal that uses a lot of gas and that the average number of people in the bus in American cities, when you average in all of the runs at night and over weekends, is fewer than 10.

In fact if we didn’t have the polarizing debate about sprawl and smart growth, it would probably be easier to tackle our transportation problems.

After all, the environmental problem is not the kind of vehicle people use to get around but the outmoded technology of the internal combustion engine used in both autos and buses. The most promising modes of transportation of the future are probably neither the car nor “big box” transit vehicles like buses and trains but small, nimble vehicles that use alternative fuel, run on guideways and can be grouped to achieve very fast and efficient transportation throughout our urban areas whether at high densities or low. That would afford maximum choice of living conditions and true smart growth.

Robert Bruegmann is professor of Art History, Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His most recent book is Sprawl: A Compact History, published by the University of Chicago Press in 2005.

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