California Weighs Anti-Sprawl Legislation

The California Senate approved a bill over the weekend that is being hailed as the most far-reaching urban sprawl bill in the country. The legislation, which is supported by both the Natural Resources Defense Council and the state’s largest home builders’ lobby, would tie tens of billions of dollars to state and federal transportation funding based on compliance with efforts to reduce sprawl, and by extension, commutes.

Though Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has yet to commit to signing the legislation, he has been a major supporter of carbon cutting initiatives in the past. California recently garnered headlines stemming from a lawsuit it filed against the EPA in an effort to enact more rigid emissions standards than those mandated by the federal government. The case is still pending.

Many reasons have been given for why the United States evolved into such a “car culture,” and why it’s been so reluctant to change its transportation habits in light of rising gas prices and global warming. A recent study found that 68 percent of Americans haven’t altered their commutes since the recent price spike began, and that only 7 percent use public transportation.

The simple answer is population density: Of 241 countries measured in a 2004 United Nations study, the US ranked 180th. Americans simply live further away from one another—and their schools, jobs, and malls—making biking, public transportation, and carpooling more difficult than it is in countries like France, England, and Germany.

If California’s legislation is successful, it would lead to fewer permits for developments built on cheap, remote pieces of land, and stimulate more affordable housing closer to city centers. Portland, Ore. has received national attention in recent years for its success in fighting sprawl, and the California bill looks to copy several key components from Portland’s approach.


  • Forrest

    Build buildings closer together. Not let someone build a shopping mall 30 miles away.
    It is so crazy that it just might work.

  • David

    The American Dream is to own your own home. That says it all right there.

    You have a ridiculous survey that shows that 68% of Americans haven’t changed their commutes or habits in the last year.. Think about that. Do you think it would be ‘normal’ for a majority of people to have changed jobs or bought a different car within ONE YEAR? It takes DECADES for new commuter rail or other mass-transit options to be built.

    Look more at the current sales figures from the automakers. That will tell you that a lot of Americans who HAVE the opportunity to make a choice are doing that. If you’re in a job that you can’t leave or can’t afford to buy a new car, that other survey means nothing.

    I shouldn’t have said that the survey was ridiculous. How people use the results is the ridiculous part. It’s been said that a person uses statistics the way a drunkard uses a lamppost – for support rather than illumination.

  • Dom

    This actually makes some sense. Instead of letting the CAFE nuts run free with crazy and expensive emission regulations (which past this point are very small gains), refocus and attack the root of the problem and the reason for our car culture.

  • Bryce

    Inexpensive big city housing…..lol. That will never happen. That is one of the main reasons for suburbs. To allow for inexpensive homes for many people of the city. Have you looked at the housing prices in the San Francisco, or LA. They are through the roof and it would be quite ridiculous for someone who is 20 minutes away to sell their half a million dollar home and get a million dollar home exactly the same size in the city….if not smaller. I saw a 3 bedroom 2 bath in San Fran last month for 1.1 million. lol…..cheap city housing…..my arse! The only thing this will do is hurt working people….o, and hey, why would they want a more efficient car when they are now closer to their work, say 5 or ten minutes. No reason to get a hybrid then. Defeats the whole damn purpose of this entire site…..ROFL!

  • steved28

    Bryce is right, San Fran is often likened to Boston. The further you go from Boston, the cheaper the housing. You simply make a choice. How much can you afford for a house, and how far does that place you from what is important to you (jobs, school, goods)

    Around here a 10 mile move to the West can be worth hundreds of thousands off your mortgage. It’s not like we WANT longer commutes. Many people just can’t afford shorter ones.

  • TD

    The no sprawl crowd are just trying to pass feelgood legislation. They mostly live in the urban core all their lives and once every 10 years they venture outside of it and are shocked, shocked that things have not stood still while they lived in their hip city bubble and that farm that was there when they were a kid is no longer there. If these people don’t want progress then they should move to a rural town in the midwest. Then they can be sure to live in a place that will not have urban sprawl, and no jobs.

    Anti-sprawl does one thing: Drive up the cost of housing, which forces the poor to live even further outside of the no sprawl zone. Few people live 50 miles from their job and commute because they want to. Its because they actually want to raise a family in a nice home in a nice community. Something the anti-sprawl city DINKs just don’t get.

    It is interesting to note that many of the areas in southern California also have ordinances to limit the height of a building to two stories. Can’t have high housing density and low buildings too!! Stupid Californians!

  • Collin Burnell

    The solution is population ‘control’.

  • Boom Boom

    Do any of the pro-sprawl folks (Bryce, TD, Steve) have any alternatives? (Besides complaining about the folks from the City?) $4 gas is making that 30 mile commute so you can have a bigger yard rather spendy isn’t it? (Of course, this too, must be the fault of all the city dwellers.)

    Our cities were built on the idea that individual transportation is cheap. They threw out public transportation. This lasted for 60 years. Now, individual transportation is not cheap and there is no magic car (Volt, Plug-in Prius, etc.) that will make it so. The suburban dwellers of this nation are going to have to come to grips with this sooner or later. (And it appears CA is making an effort.)

    The effort isn’t to force everyone into the city. The effort is to promote development along transit corridors to facilitate mass transit. It is more efficient, cheaper, and if done right, builds a stronger community.

  • steved28

    BoomBoom says “Do any of the pro-sprawl folks (Bryce, TD, Steve) have any alternatives?”

    I’m not pro sprawl. I’m just stating why it is so. The solution we have here (as close as it gets anyway) is what they call the “commuter rail line”. These trains take folks from the burbs into the city every morning, returning them in the evening. The actual automobile commute is usually less than 5 miles (for most people) to the parking areas. They are so popular that most of the trains are “double deckers” and they keep adding cars and departure times. They sell out every day. There are 5 strategic lines heading to/from Boston which encompass about a 40 mile radius of the city.

  • TD

    Boom Boom,

    It has much more to do with good county and state planning and their ability to say no to developers than with anti-sprawl legislation. Anti-sprawl legislation just forces the developers outside of the urban growth boundaries, where they find city and county officials who are eager to bring new jobs to their communities.

    Anti-growth = anti-poor

    The US became urbanized much later than our European cousins. They made their large cities when there were no cars, hence, trains became the defacto means of transporting large numbers of people. Only a handful of US cities were large enough and had the population density in the late 1800′s to make trains a worthwhile proposition. Boston, NY, Chicago, DC. Those cities still have decent train systems. Today it is much more expensive to build rail and acquire the land it takes for the rails, the stations and the park and rides. Most cities in the US are still relatively small: < 500,000 and do not have the tax base to pay for rail. Plus most US cities are much further apart than European cities. Going from one end of California to the other is like going from Paris to Moscow. So the point of all this is we cannot expect to develop a European like transportation infrastructure without investing hundreds of billions or even trillions of dollars. Anti-sprawl legislation will not provide one red cent build the infrastructure needed to get people out of their cars.

    Better short term solutions include tax incentives or legislation to require companies to have telecommuting programs. Another is for companies with many locations (banks, supermarkets, retail outlets, etc.) to have programs to relocate people to branches nearer to their own home. What difference does it make to Safeway if a checker at a Safeway checks at a store 20 miles away or 10 miles away from their home? These are low cost solutions which can be implemented now and they will reduce traffic congestion and reduce fuel consumption.

  • TD

    Should have been a reply to Steved28 and not Boom Boom. Sorry for the mistake.

  • Samie

    Guess I’m a CAFE nut, thats ok I admit it encourages people to live farther out and actually increases oil consumption. Guess I better prey that EV’s become popular in the next few years. So say what you will I don’t see many other options that could pass political and social tests in America in a attempt to reduce oil consumption.

    Anyways looking at the posts everyone has some truths in thier arguments. One magic plan either say my CAFE or the California Plan can not curve all behaviors or choices. One option I feel that many need to look at is mixed zoning of business and residental components all in one unit. Will be interesting to see the outcomes of this plan.

  • Boom Boom

    Steve,
    Boston is a perfect example of an area that has worked against sprawl by providing commuter rail (which works well). People live in towns along the rail and don’t have to commute into Boston by car. What California is trying to do is rework cities to look more like Boston.

    TD,
    Your history is a bit in error. LA had one of the largest networks of trolley lines in the US at the end of WWII. It was dismantled in the 50s and 60s because we all got cheap gas, big cars, and cheap land. Large cities all over this country had infrastructure like Boston and New York, they just dismantled it.

    Your solution of manipulating the entire human resources models of all of the companies in the US is kind of simplistic. I’m sure that companies are relocating anyone they can, just as good business practices since the employees will leave otherwise due to gas costs. But simply saying, “optimize Human Resources practices and allow telecommuting” isn’t going to be more than a drop in the bucket. We need a bigger plan, a comprehensive plan, which doesn’t allow people to run away from it. (And besides gas prices will keep people from going further out. That is what got us here in the first place.) If we just let market forces do their thing, I fear that the folks that suffer will be the suburbs, not the urban areas, since as gas goes up everyone will want to move back towards town.

  • Samie

    Recently I read an article that talked about how people where going to work 3-4 days at 10-12hrs or telecomuting each week. The part of the article I found fascinating was this trend in business has actually created an incentive to leap frog the burbs and move farther into the sticks for some folks.

    Many small towns don’t have the tax revenue or legislative tools to control fast urbanization. So a comprehensive plan is needed by State and Federal agencies to help communities across the nation deal with fast expansion. As for the East coast love the train service especially around DC. Alternative forms of transportation like trains don’t get much funding compared to our highway system. Love to see more train service around big urban areas in the U.S. with suburbs that utilize this service.

  • TD

    Boom Boom,

    Ok a few cities had trollies and most of those cities have replaced them with buses and some with electric buses. But that still does not obviate my argument that most European cities got big before the invention of the automobile and had no other choice than trains or horses and that was a very messy problem indeed. Since, most, not all, American cities became larger after the invention of the automobile. America is still very rural by European standards. Thus we had an alternative to trains which in the short term cost less to introduce than new rail lines everywhere. Hence, sprawl became and still is, at least in America, more cost effective than building up.

    You obviously have never worked for a big corporation. They do not do the kind of planning necessary to move people around to optimize commute time. Why? It generally costs money to have a plan and to implement it by moving people from one store or branch to another. Also, since it , theoretically, it does not effect the bottom line corporations, generally, don’t care how much time their employees spend on the road.

    The corporation I currently work for recently took a step backward and said telecommuting can only be done for very rare circumstances, even though for my job I could probably work from home 2 or 3 days a week without missing any meetings. I can sit at a desk in Instanbul and do my job as long as I have a computer and a decent internet connection. Force employers to allow people to work from home without penalty and there is instant gas savings. If everyone who worked in a big office building telecommuted one day a week. That’s a 20% reduction in the number of people commuting on the regular work schedule. That’s a big savings if you ask me.

  • Anonymous

    I’m not against all sprawl, I’m against dumb sprawl. Some of the cookie cutter sprawl in south eastern PA really makes me wonder if the American dream of owning your own home got a little warped somewhere along the way. Some of these subdivisions are not planned at all. No sidewalks, hardly any street lights, no trees, no businesses in walking distance, terrible storm water drainage, no common community areas. They have all the services of a slum, yet they contain $500,000+ houses.

    Ludicrous houses on ½-1 acre lots that are surrounded by barren half dead grass punctuated by bad landscaping. There is absolutely no way those places are going to maintain property value, they are completely soulless. I can’t believe people are going into debt to live in such places. Local government and local home owners need to stop bending over backwards for developers, who just want to take the money and run. Unfortunately, it is a catch-22. If they make demands, the developer will just move over the next township and find a place were they can do whatever they want. Local governments are desperate to increase tax revenue by 1 percent so they are willing to sacrifice the long term character of their communities. The American way: sacrificing moderate long term prosperity for a quick buck.

    Now I live in New England. New England town governments have plenty of power, they actually make businesses and developers meet their demands. Are the house prices cheap? No, but the community integrity and access to rail is a valuable asset. I think the “I own my own home” American dream needs to get its priorities straight and demand better standards.

  • David

    The other thing that has to be taken into consideration is that the ‘classic’ mass-transit solution only works for a small minority. Take the case of Boston. Yes, there’s a good commuter rail system extending out 30-40 miles. But it’s ALL geared towards getting people to Boston in the morning and evacuating them in the evening.

    I live in southern NH. It finally looks like commuter rail will be extended 15 miles north form it’s current terminus in Lowell to go to Nashua NH in the next few years. However, that only does me good if I’m working in Boston.

    Here’s a list of the cities and towns I’ve worked in, going backwards from today: Lexington MA, Londonderry NH, Danvers MA, Watertown MA, Andover MA, Boston MA, Boston MA, North Andover MA, Framingham MA, Tewksbury MA, Lowell MA, Merrimack NH, Woburn MA.

    That list goes back to 1978. As you can see, very little of my career was in a place where mass transit was even an option. Like it or not, suburb-to-suburb planning has to be included in the mix.

  • Bryce

    suburb to suburb mass transit isn’t possible though, which is why we will always be with the automobile or some sort of personal transportation vehicle. As cars get more fuel efficient, the clamoring for public transit will go downhill…..again.

  • Boom Boom

    TD,
    So you are suggesting that, rather than use big government to plan our cities, we use big government to manage human resource needs for every company in the US. That’s great.

    I work for a large company, by the way, and they try to allow folks to work from home, but most of the staff in the office can’t work that way because of the nature of their jobs. Telecommuting is a great way to solve congestion for certain people, but it is only a viable solution for a small minority of folks out there. There are no cities, states or countries that have solved the sprawl/congestion problem single-handedly by allowing folks to work from home. There are many cities/countries that have solved or reduced their sprawl problems by planning cities appropriately.

  • Need2Change

    In my opinion, the anti-sprawl legislators create sprawl.

    I live in Fairfax County outside of DC. A developer wanted to build 20,000 condos in an abanded rail yard about 3-4 miles from DC. It was disapproved. It would cause too much congestion. I don’t see anyone living on the streets so I suspect the 20,000 homes were built — on average 25-30 miles from DC.

    Another developer wanted to build over 10,000 condos near Dulles Airport. The county only approved less than a thousand — to avoid congestion. So I guess there’s over 15,000 people comuting on average over 15 miles to get to work in the Dulles area.

    County planning should allow high density homes near employment centers.

  • UrbanDweller

    Driving, during business hours, between San Diego and Los Angeles takes an hour longer than necessary. This is an unnecessary “tax” that the exurb dwellers and putting on all businesses and drivers. I would gladly pay at $50 toll to not have to sit in traffic the 1-2x per month that I travel to LA, but the trip eats a whole day because exurbs use I-5 as their own personal driveway to their office, causing both me, and my employer to lose money. I live downtown and about 1/2 mile from my office, and walk. I pocket about $11K extra a year after ditching my car, and renting a car when I need to make a trip. The ultimate revenge will be $7 gas. At $7, the exurb houses become virtually worthless, because of the gas price and inconvenience, and those living closer to their jobs will see the price of their condos or townhomes increase rise due to demand.

    Exurbians, with SB 375, you can see the future, and its not in the suburbs or exurbs.