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Area Sprawl

The Price of Commuting

Gerrit Knaap
Executive Director, National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education and Professor of Urban Studies and Planning, University of Maryland
Monday, August 9, 2004; 12:00 PM

No one wants workers to live hours from where they work. But strict building restrictions in some jurisdictions make it easier, and cheaper, to construct entire communities miles from where the jobs are. That results in longer travel times, more gasoline consumption, dirtier air and congested roads. Have the measures enacted to stop sprawl simply pushed it further out?

Sprawl Series:Space for Employers, Not for Homes (Aug. 8) and Washington's Road to Outward Growth (Aug. 9)

Gerrit Knaap, executive director of the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education and professor of Urban Studies and Planning at the University of Maryland, was online Monday, Aug. 9., at Noon ET to discuss the Post series on sprawl.

A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Madison, Wisc. Can you define sprawl? Can you measure it so that you can tell if one place is more sprawled than another.

Gerrit Knaap: There has been a lot of research by urban planners and others on defining and measuring sprawl. We at the National Center for Smart Growth have several papers on this on our Web site.


College Park, Md.: What I gleaned from the Post's story on urban sprawl is that counties like Montgomery County purposely work to create more offices but less housing because offices don't use as much services. And so other counties are footing the bill by housing these workers. Very foxy.

Gerrit Knaap: Its not really a new thing. Local governments have been doing this for years.


Arlington, Va.: Isn't the fundamental problem that the average American values a large home on a large lot, even if owning one means an hour's commute? Frankly, I prefer living in walking distance to stores and transport, because that's how I grew up. Unfortunately, this is not common, and with current building patterns, sprawl will self-perpetuate as each generation sees a long commute and a big house as acceptable and normal.

Gerrit Knaap: Preferences and demographics change. There is some evidence that more people are choosing to live in "smart growth" settings.


Farragut West, Washington, D.C.: It seems that even jurisdictions that are trying to build housing are simply trying to attract a particular type of resident: No kids. There are so many studio and 1 BR apartments in the city and inner suburbs, probably because children need to be sent to schools. I don't think that we can just say "build housing" and that's enough. We need to build housing for single people and families with children. More 2 and 3 BR units, please. What do you think?

Gerrit Knaap: I agree. But its unclear there is much demand for inner city living among families with more than one child. Of course, that's not true in Europe.


Alexandria, Va.: Maryland legislators and Virginia Congressman Frank Wolf oppose the construction of a new bridge upstream of the American Legion Bridge, whereas Virginia congressmen Davis and Moran support it.

Would the proposed new bridge across the Potomac open up new areas of Montgomery and Loudoun counties to urban sprawl?

Gerrit Knaap: Perhaps. But I think preventing sprawl by creating (or failing to address) congestion is a bad strategy.


Bethesda, Md.: I'm doing a series of papers for Harvard Joint Center on Housing Studies (Montgomery, Fairfax, Loudoun) and find that the political culture of a jurisdiction has a profound influence on growth policies. Montgomery has put 40 percent of county in ag preserve or park land, but has permitted dense development in Friendship Hts., Bethesda, etc. Isn't this part of the solution? There must be alternatives to the large lot -- at least for those who want more convenient living. And this may be a matter largely influence by demographics. Comment?

Gerrit Knaap: Yes, but its only part of the solution.


washingtonpost.com: National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education


Atlanta, Ga.: Does the development concept called New Urbanism address the environmental consequences of sprawl?

Gerrit Knaap: It does at the micro scale: high density, mixed use, pedestrian- friendly neighborhoods. But it doesn't do much to resolve regional issues.


Spotsylvania, Va.: Do you believe there is any chance that jurisdictions south of DC will be able to preserve 'quality of life'issues and cultural resources with the massive population influx continuing in our direction?

Gerrit Knaap: Yes, there are many places where an influx of new populations has added to the vitality of the place.


Innsbruck, Austria: How does alternative transportation, e.g. bicycling, fit into the picture?

Gerrit Knaap: Bicycles are good at the neighborhood scale. But labor markets must be of regional scope to be efficient. Bike can only play a minor role in resolving regional transportation issues.


Northern Virginia: After reading today's article, I wonder what the the solution is. Actually, I wonder what the problem is. People want cheaper, bigger homes and they're willing to drive long distances to get them. While I don't like the traffic congestion, I fail to see what we can do to stop this. As long as people make the economic calculation that wear and tear on their cars and time are worth the trade off, they will keep moving farther and farther out. Do we build a Berlin Wall to keep people in?

Gerrit Knaap: A Berlin Wall, or inflexible greenbelt is not the answer. Well planned and integrated transportation and land use policies are the answer.


Washington, D.C.: Can you say whether the growth of office space under construction is outpacing homes under construction or is the imbalance just a zoning thing? My reason for asking is my belief that real estate values are unusually high due to unusually low interest rates. As rates trend back to normal, the only way to prevent a slump in values is to restrict supply. Zoning everything for commercial development would provide some assurance to existing homeowners that their properties are insulated from a downturn, even if development never occurs. There'll just be a bunch of weed-covered office park signs, big home prices, or lengthy commutes.

Gerrit Knaap: Land use policies are not the best approach for addressing real estate cycles.


Greenbelt, Md.: Can anything be done to stop counties and communities from this practice of purposely creating jobs, but not enough housing to match.

Gerrit Knaap: Yes, in Oregon and Washington, local governments must accommodate their share of growth and have their plans approved by a state agency


Washington, D.C.: Seems that a large part of the problem is that this region has three "states" (including one with no congressional representation and limited budgetary autonomy), about a dozen counties, and scores of local governments. Each jurisdiction has little incentive to solve problems like jobs-housing balance on its own. What could we do to create a regional growth strategy, where every jurisdiction and community pitches in together?

Gerrit Knaap: The place to start with by having a regional agency, like WashCog, conduct regular assessments of local government plans and plan implementation. Information is the fist step toward accountability.


Portland, Ore.: Can I get a better idea of what you think will work for sprawl? You've already mentioned that New Urbanisim, bicycles, and reducing new roadways won't work ... what does work?

Gerrit Knaap: Portland's approach of a flexible growth boundary, coordinated land use plans, and careful investments in transit is the best in the US to date.


University Park, Md.: This ever-expanding sprawl is an environmental disaster. But even if there were more demand for high-density development, would there be enough housing for most people to live near their jobs? And would the transportation infrastructure support the new load? In the past we thought all would be well if everyone used public transportation, but it's bursting at the seams and no new capacity is planned. Help!

Gerrit Knaap: Yes, we need more investments in transit and better integrated land use plans, but most of the claims of environmental disaster, I think, are overstated.


Occoquan, Va.: It seems that housing goes up before anything else -- roads, area support(schools, etc.) and that the lack of roads is a major contributor to the commuter problems. You can't think that a two-lane road will be sufficient when new homes go up, so why do county/state/city authorities allow that to happen before the roads, etc, are underway?

Gerrit Knaap: Two causes: bad planning and the unwillingness of citizens to be taxed enough to provide needed public infrastructure.


Downtown, D.C.: Are "commuter busses" (or other links to public transit) from these new far-away developments potential solutions to the traffic problems?

Gerrit Knaap: Yes, commuter buses, or what's called bus rapid transit, has worked swell in some places. There have also been some promising experiments in congestion fees. We simply have to do a better job of rationing scarce transportation facilities.


Laurel, Md.: There are many still affordable communities in suburban Maryland, but many people are not open-minded enough to begin rebuilding inner beltway communities such as Suitland, District Heights, Temple Hills, Hyattsville and New Carrollton. These communities are in very convenient locations and have Metro stations. Many would rather spend 500-700k and commute 2 hrs. from Clarksburg, Maryland, West Virginia or even Pennsylvania. Be open minded people.

Gerrit Knaap: Good point.


Arlington, Va.: It seems to me that there is one element of the problem that may be beyond the reach of urban planning, which is the quality of local schools. As long as certain jurisdictions are perceived (rightly or wrongly) as having inferior schools, it seems that urban planners would have a seriously uphill battle in enticing people to live there.

Gerrit Knaap: Agreed. Schools are part of the problem. DC will never attract the 100k new residents the Mayor wants until it addresses the school-quality problem.


Please Explain ... : The people who are buried in long commmutes are those that accepted a long commute in exchange for living in a house and area that they feel is more desirable than living close in. You live close in because you prefer a short commute. Where is the problem here? Life is a series of choices. Why criticize the choices of those who accept a 90 minute commute in order to have a house on a large lot and a view of sunsets over mountains.

Gerrit Knaap: Its fine--in fact ideal--to facilitate freedom of choice. As long as everyone pays the true cost of their decisions. Its probably the case that those who commute 90 minutes are being subsidized to some extent.


San Francisco, Calif.: I see that DC's regional planning agency, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG), includes D.C.'s regional transportation agency, the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board (TPB). Do MWCOG and TPB coordinate their efforts in regional land use and transportation planning? If no, do you think they should? If yes, do you think they do so effectively?

Gerrit Knaap: this is a very good question. Im sorry I don't know the answer.


Arlington, Va.: Doesn't this issue (like others) call for comprehensive regional planning? Pick a few zones, build high density mixed use in them, with affordable housing, mass transit and other amenities, and then have a regional tax that supports things like education in those areas ... otherwise, it won't happen. Where are the regional problem-solvers in this story? If they exist, they are very quiet..

Gerrit Knaap: I couldn't agree more.


Downtown D.C.: You wrote that land use policies aren't the solution to real estate cycles. I'm assuming that you mean land use policies should be for the long term. How are area jurisdictions planning for the long term? I can imagine a city planner taking the articles to his or her boss and saying, "Yikes, we need more housing!" However, there is a disparity between what's being built now and what's planned for the long term. The real estate cycle may determine what is currently being built, but the land use policies determine what should be built over time. Which cities/counties have good long term planning?

Gerrit Knaap: Its actually not that difficult to project long term housing needs. Cycles will vary around long term trends. Part of the problem is that projections and forecasts are political, and sometimes reflect knee-jerk reactions to short-term trends.


Springfield, Va.: As the workforce population ages you have signigicant amount of people who move away because they no longer need the amenities offered in Fairfax and Montgomery Counties. Public Schools and community recreation centers are no longer needed because the kids have grown up and moved away.

Gerrit Knaap: Yes, but its also part of the reason people move back to the City.


Fairfax, Va.: Home ownership in the U.S. has always been subsidized by the tax deductions for mortgage interest. You need to get off you good goody two shoes high liberal horse and get a life.

Gerrit Knaap: Gee, thanks. Ill keep that in mind next time I get blasted by the liberals.


Washington, D.C.: Isn't a solution to Washington, D.C. sprawl a matter of moving some of these government agencies to other states that need the high paying jobs for economic development? The D.C. area has an unfair advantage because a majority of federal agencies are based in this region instead of being spread out among the rest of the country.

I don't know if it would eliminate sprawl here but it would not hurt our quality of life. I would gladly move to a cheaper part of the country (with my government job) if I could. I think many others would too.

Gerrit Knaap: That's an interesting thought. The counter argument, of course, is that there are advantages to concentrating the workforce here. It would be a good question to explore.


washingtonpost.com: Gerrit Knaap thanks everyone for their questions and invites readers to visit National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education for more information.


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