Urban Sprawl and the Stimulus

March 24, 2009 at 7:40 am (Economy, Politics) (, , , , )

There’s an article in the New York Times about Urban Sprawl in Houston that caught my eye yesterday.  Basically, Texas intends to use some of its spending money for a toll road that would connect I-10 with HW-290.  It would end up being out in west Houston where there’s at least one developer who wants to build a new planned community, and it would cut right through some of the Katy Prairie that is currently not developed.

What’s interesting about it is that Obama has said, explicitly, that he doesn’t support urban sprawl, and doesn’t want states to use their stimulus money that way.  Texas is not alone in doing this – I think the article mentioned that New Hampshire, Washington, and North Carolina are also trying to expand freeway networks which would tend to encourage the growth of cities.

It’s an interesting topic, I think.  On the one hand, urban sprawl certainly has a lot of downsides.  Huge cities can be rather unwieldy for those who live in them.  They undoubtedly contribute to pollution because people tend to rely so heavily on cars.  They do eat up the land around them.

But on the other hand, not every large city is the same.  Not every region has the same kinds of issues.  And, dare I say it – I don’t think urban sprawl is always as bad as its made out to be.  Uncontrolled sprawl isn’t a good thing at all, but I don’t think that every city in the country needs to be as dense as those in the Northeast.  And, of course, some of those cities have the worst of both worlds – sprawl and density.

When I think about the way that I tended to live when I was in Houston, it’s not at all the way that people who have never lived there might expect.  There were huge chunks of the city that I never visited in the 22 years I lived there.  Nearly everything I did was within a much narrower radius around my house.  If I had to spend more than 30 minutes driving to get somewhere, I often decided it wasn’t worth it.

And I think that’s part of what can make a city like Houston work.  There isn’t one city center – the Galleria or the Medical Center are just as much population centers as Downtown.  They have their own radii of jobs, housing, and businesses that are really rather separate from each other.  With a more extensive and creative use of reliable public transportation, it could be possible to do most things within one of those centers without a car.  Instead of a network of just freeways connecting these various centers, the city could add high-speed trains to get from one to another.

That said, I don’t think that Houston should just keep expanding outward indefinitely.  As much as I personally love the single family home with a big yard, I think people who live in cities have to come to terms with the fact that they can’t all live in a place like that.  At the very least, everyone ought to scale down their expectations of what a single family detached home can reasonably look like in a big city…and McMansions aren’t really it.

But, I also think that this proposed toll road in Houston is not the best use of the city’s stimulus money.  It seems like a much better use of it would be to figure out how to increase public transportation options for commuters.  Instead of pouring money into more freeways, which only encourages more driving, it would be much smarter to try and find a means of public transportation that people out in the suburbs are actually willing to use.  It might not ever be quite as convenient as driving, but surely there are other incentives for leaving the car on the outskirts of the city.  If people would just open their minds a little bit, they might even see that those incentives are pretty darn good.

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7 Comments

  1. Kristan said,

    I am ALL FOR more/better public transportation in Houston. And everywhere. I basically think there needs to be a worldwide subway, haha. Because seriously, everywhere I’ve been that had a subway system (NYC, Madrid, Paris, Rome) rocked it.

  2. Mary said,

    Well, you know, subways and high water tables would be a pretty bad mix of things. So I don’t think Houston should have one of those. But definitely some form of transportation that’s more convenient and faster than just taking the bus.

  3. Kristan said,

    Oh I lump light rail in with Subway. Below or above ground doesn’t matter to me. 🙂

  4. Elizabeth said,

    One of the underlying issues with freeway expansion in Houston is the destruction of natural habitats. In the case of the new toll way (part of the Grand Parkway–doesn’t that sound like a wonderful road to drive on?) the Katy Prairie will lose a good portion of acreage for its wildlife. Continued development of the Grand Parkway, which will form a large loop around Houston, will eventually get to another parkland, Brazos Bend, which is home to the only telescope in the Houston area with enough darkness to allow a good view of the skies. With the construction of the planned highway, development is sure to follow, which will bring more lights, which will effectively destroy the ability to view the night sky.

    So urban sprawl might not be bad, but destruction of our few remaining natural habitats is not good. And all the various city centers you list (medical center, downtown, Galleria) are still all within 5 miles of each other and easily 20 miles from most suburban areas.

  5. Mary said,

    I agree with you about the destruction of natural habitats. I really wish that whoever is in charge of allowing developments would just stop allowing the westward spread of the suburbs, but I’m thinking that’s rather unlikely.

    I guess one other example I was thinking of was The Woodlands. It seems as though a lot of people who live there also work on the outskirts of the city. I’ve always been under the impression that people in The Woodlands don’t really drive into Houston all that often (unless they work there), because they don’t have any particular reason to. Plus, if people are going to develop suburbs on the outskirts of the city, The Woodlands is probably a better way of doing that than most.

    But if people who lived there had actual public transportation that was convenient enough to be worth it, it wouldn’t matter so much if they lived far away and came into town to work. If all of their leisure activities happened closer to home (and it’s my impression that they mostly do), then they wouldn’t be driving any more than someone who lived in the middle of the city and worked Downtown or in the Medical Center. And there would be a lot less automobile traffic overall.

  6. Kristan said,

    Madrid, baby. They have commuter trains in addition to their city subway. ;P

  7. aheaton1 said,

    I really like your post man! it brings up a lot of great points. urban sprawl is not bad if it is controlled and well planned out to include open-areas for parks and trails as well as mass-transit as a viable form of transportation, to both the city and surrounding areas. the key is to go about developing these areas wisely.

    i agree the toll road sounds like a bad idea for exactly the reason you said. not to mention the prarie land that may suffer from the highway itself and all the noise, pollution and traffic(maybe even development in the future).

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