Forty years ago Mayor Richard J. Daley and his fellow big-city bosses cut a deal–and cut their own throats. They used their clout to get President Eisenhower’s interstate highway system through Congress. And they made sure the interstates would run through their cities, not around them, as Ike preferred.
The mayors were hungry. State highway programs had slighted the cities ever since there had been highways. Urban drivers were paying far more in gas taxes than they got back in roads. In 1955 Detroit mayor Albert Cobo described urban freeways as “a picture of beauty.” He didn’t need to add “an emblem of justice.”
That’s why interstates 55, 57, 90, 94, and 290 run right into Chicago. The trouble is, they run out too. The mayors didn’t consider that the new roads would make it easier to get to cheap land out on the edge. Forty years later Mayor Richard M. Daley has to live with the ashes of his father’s victory. Chicago’s suburbs are twice the size of the city itself and full of people and stores and factories that would have located within its boundaries two or three generations ago. City residents now make up less than one-quarter of the traffic on the in-town interstates.
Back when the interstates were built it didn’t take long for the Monday-morning quarterbacks to start griping. At first a handful of intellectuals looked upon the new suburbs and found them bad–too white, too complacent, and covered with too many acres of nonfunctional mowed lawns. Gradually journalists and city planners took up the indictment and broadened it. Like the “tower-in-the-park” architecture that gave us high-rise public housing, urban freeways are now widely regarded as a Great Planning Disaster–one generation’s civic improvement that became the next generation’s migraine. All shades of reformers routinely denounce sprawl as inefficient (it uses open space to replace the houses, schools, and stores left behind), unjust (it sucks jobs out of the city), and polluting (you can hardly live there without a car).
Everybody knows this litany of charges, but few realize how novel it is. Reformers used to look forward to the day when working people wouldn’t have to live in tiny, thin-walled cubicles on crowded streets. In 1902 the great union organizer and socialist Eugene Debs wrote that Chicago could not be fixed. “Regeneration will only come with depopulation,” he thundered in the October 25 issue of the Chicago Socialist, “when Socialism has relieved the congestion and released the people and they spread out over the country and live close to the grass.” In the 1930s Frank Lloyd Wright designed “Broadacre City” with a similar idea in mind.
Many of the working people Debs spoke for have acted on this idea, even in the absence of socialism. The reformers who carry on many of his other ideas have not. They have embraced the city, though until recently all they did was draw up toothless regional plans to contain sprawl and write primal-scream books like James Howard Kunstler’s The Geography of Nowhere. Only now have they begun to organize a grassroots movement that could slow, stop, even reverse half a century of decentralization.
“Effective limits must be placed on the extent to which the metropolitan region is permitted to spread out,” proclaims the fledgling movement’s most complete manifesto, “The $650 Billion Decision: The Citizen Transportation Plan for Northeastern Illinois,” spearheaded by the Center for Neighborhood Technology on North Avenue and endorsed by 79 organizations, four suburbs, and one forest preserve district. “Chicago’s dependence on automobiles is causing a slow and steady deterioration in everyone’s quality of life. . . . Fifty years ago, Chicagoans and the residents of the small towns throughout the region didn’t need to own a car: they could walk to the local grocery store or pharmacy and easily take a trolley or El to work anywhere in the city. There was a sense of place, of neighborhood, of community that anchored everyday life. We need to develop a 21st century version of the best of the 1940 Chicago area.” In other words, planners should “target public and private investments to existing communities and transit, rather than new roads. . . . If we use the land wisely, our need for mobility will decrease.”
It’s Field of Dreams turned inside out: “Don’t build it, and they won’t go.” (Or at least not as many will go as far.) It seems so obvious, so fair–every bit as obvious as it was for Mayor Daley to grab his share of the interstate pork back in 1956.
On a beautiful spring Saturday on the south side about 400 people–black, brown, white, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, urban, suburban–sit in a dark auditorium looking up at a bright stage flanked by red curtains two stories tall. There are far more seats than people. Mimicking their ideal of “compact development,” the organizers have roped off all but the middle section, ensuring that everyone sits close together. A black-and-white banner reading Metropolitan Alliance of Congregations hangs behind the podium.
“There is a war being waged,” says Reverend Errol Narain of Trinity Episcopal Church in the opening prayer. “It looks like the target is the city and the people who are its residents.” He quotes the prophet Isaiah: “Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt. You shall raise up the foundations of many generations. You shall be called the repairer of the breach.”
Minnesota state representative Myron Orfield offers one way to repair the breach. His series of Chicago-area maps (soon to be published by the MacArthur Foundation) depict prosperous suburbs in blue, decaying and desperate ones in red and orange. The red and orange suburbs, he says, should make common cause with Chicago to limit sprawl, and to share the property-tax revenues that now accrue disproportionately to the blue lands that lie to the north and northwest. Otherwise they’ll be trapped between increasing needs and declining tax bases.
Reverend Len Dubi of Saint Anne’s parish in south suburban Hazel Crest picks up the theme. “The Chicago metropolitan area represents our nation. Will we be a just nation?” he asks the attentive audience. “Inclusion, sharing, and democracy are kingdom principles, according to all world religions.” But sprawl violates those principles. Instead of inclusion, he says, we have exclusion, “a self-perpetuating cycle of decline in which some win and a lot more lose.” Instead of sharing we have “a growing disparity of resources caused by regional polarization.” Instead of democracy we have oligarchy. “People don’t know who the decision makers are, what they do, or even when they meet. This is not class struggle but injustice and politics as usual.” The audience members in their orderly rows break into applause.
Why is this happening now? Because back in 1991 the Center for Neighborhood Technology’s president, Scott Bernstein, and friends from around the country–organized as the D.C.-based Surface Transportation Policy Project–outwitted the highway lobby and got Congress to pass the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act. ISTEA (inevitably known as “iced tea”) gave states the power to spend federal money on bike routes and mass transit as well as highways. It also required them to consider how transportation decisions affect land use, something the mayors would have done well to do in 1956. And it fit right in with the 1990 federal Clean Air Act Amendments, which require transportation authorities to prove that whatever they build will reduce air pollution.
Together the two federal laws took highways off their pedestal and welcomed public involvement in planning how people would get around. They put sprawl fighters on a more level field than ever before.
Now antisprawl activists are trying to break through locally. Doing it now is critical. The next ten months are the NBA finals of Chicago transportation planning. In June 1997 two oddly named agencies–the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission (NIPC, or “nip-see”) and the Chicago Area Transportation Study (CATS)–will adopt a 2020 Regional Transportation Plan. That plan will determine what roads and rail lines will be built in the next 25 years, and thus to some extent how the six-county Chicago metropolitan area will grow. Such plans have been made periodically for decades, but with little public input and a prohighway bias. For the first time a plan will not assume that cars are the way to go. And it will have teeth: if a freeway or transit line isn’t in the plan it can’t be built.
“Transportation investments are the engine of regional sprawl,” says the Center for Neighborhood Technology’s “Citizen Transportation Plan for Northeastern Illinois.” But if those investments were better made, adds CNT’s associate director Steve Perkins, they could be the engine of a regional urban renaissance instead.
“The year is 2020,” he tells the Metropolitan Alliance of Congregations delegates. “We are all 24 years older–and aging gracefully. What about our Chicagoland area? Is it aging gracefully along with us? Or are we both arthritic and can’t get around or breathe very well?”
If the “Citizen Transportation Plan” is enacted, Perkins says, we’ll be fine. According to that vision, in 2020 “our built up area within the region is about the same size as it was in 1996. . . . We’re clearly using our land more efficiently today. . . . We have a thriving economy and an educated populace which makes us competitive in the world economy. . . . Some residents live in high density center cities where urban amenities and culture abound. Others choose well planned, accessible suburban communities. In all communities, however, people have easy access to employment, schools, shopping, and health care because of a highly efficient and extensive public transportation system. The vast majority of the residents of the region carry out much of their business using mass transit because it is competitive and convenient. Often the car is left in the garage because transit is easier.
“One of the major benefits of the freedom from auto dependence has been an increase in the sense of community. People walk more and know their neighbors more. . . . Crime and anti-social indicators are down dramatically. Why? Because we know our neighbors, unemployment is low and community policing has taken hold. . . . Homeownership has increased because people can now put money they used to spend on an automobile into buying a home. And the closer it is to mass transit, the larger the mortgage that they can get.”
All this because in 1996 we decided not to invest in any public infrastructure outside the already settled metropolitan area? A little high-flown maybe, but it’s only a slightly embroidered version of what many city planners have been urging for years. They just didn’t have the applauding audience Perkins has.
Following this optimistic prognosis, Jacky Grimshaw of CNT takes the audience on a quick tour of the bureaucracy now in place to decide the future. The tour is considerably less scenic. The policy committee of the Chicago Area Transportation Study, she explains, has 21 members, but only 8 of them represent places where people live. One member comes from Chicago, one from the suburban Council of Mayors, and one from each of the six metropolitan counties. (Thus the 500,000 people of Kane and McHenry counties have the same number of votes as the more than five million people in Chicago and Cook County.) The remaining 13 members represent transportation agencies and companies. “There’s not a lot of democracy going on here,” Grimshaw says.
There’s worse to come. “Who represents the counties on the policy committee? A county board member, someone in touch with the people? No. It’s usually transportation engineers, the people who get to build the roads. If you want to build communities [instead], it’s not in their interest to do this. We need a transportation decision-making body that represents the region’s diversity and that is anchored in the places people live now.”
How can we get it? Showing up at policy-committee meetings would be a good start, Grimshaw tells the audience. “The CATS policy committee meets four times a year, in a place all of us can get to, at a time we can easily get there, right?” She pauses and grins. “Don’t you believe it, folks. It meets in an inconvenient place at a most inaccessible time. Their next meeting is June 13, at 10 AM, in Schaumburg, at the Illinois Department of Transportation District One headquarters. That’s where these folks hold court, spend your money, and make decisions about your transportation future.” (CATS may be almost impossible to find in the phone book–look in the blue pages under “Illinois State Of,” “Transportation Dept Of,” “Transportation Study Chicago Area”–but what isn’t said today is that the agency has tried to encourage public participation. In December it held 13 workshops that drew 260 people and generated more than 400 proposals for “regionally significant” transportation improvements. Those proposals are now being considered and consolidated for a second round of public meetings in September.)
The plan is clear: hire buses and go to that meeting. “We can stop this old-boy transportation decision making that keeps making the rich get richer,” says Grimshaw. “We can stop the governor from building more highways that make his friends in those blue suburbs happier.” Sign-up sheets circulate on the floor. Reverend John Warner of Crerar Memorial Presbyterian Church on South Calumet sums up the morning in a sentence: “There’s a big pile of money out there that could solve a whole bunch of problems. And we’ve just been told where it resides.”
The Chicago antisprawl movement is a loose-knit coalition of public-interest and environmental groups, including the Center for Neighborhood Technology, Environmental Law & Policy Center, Sierra Club, Chicagoland Bicycle Federation, Business and Professional People for the Public Interest, and the American Lung Association of Metropolitan Chicago. Sometimes called the “trans-air group,” its members specialize a bit: CNT’s Grimshaw and Perkins have zeroed in on the 2020 transportation plan. Bob Jones of BPI keeps up with the technical models NIPC and CATS use to simulate alternative futures. ELPC’s Howard Learner, Rob Michaels, and Mike Truppa are organizing against toll-road extensions, one in Will County that would extend I-355 from I-55 to I-80, the other in Lake County that would extend Illinois 53 from Lake Cook Road to Grayslake and Waukegan. Ron Burke of the American Lung Association argues that new developments, even in exurbia, will harm air quality less if they’re built like old-fashioned railroad suburbs, so that you can walk to stores and schools and transit stops.
Two other groups converge on this agenda from different political bases. The venerable and largely business-oriented Metropolitan Planning Council emphasizes research and lobbying in Springfield in its June 1995 report, “Creating a Regional Community: The Case for Regional Cooperation.” And the eight-month-old Metropolitan Alliance of Congregations, representing 107 Chicago-area churches, is organizing against regional inequities fostered by sprawl. MAC is an affiliate of the Gamaliel Foundation, a network of organizations in the hard-hitting Saul Alinsky tradition. Gamaliel is helping similar antisprawl coalitions in Milwaukee, Gary, Saint Louis, Detroit, Cleveland, and Minneapolis-Saint Paul.
Thanks to all these people, the debate over transportation and sprawl is becoming more sophisticated–and louder–than ever. In the old days transportation battles were local affairs: concrete-fixated highway engineers versus the new road’s outraged neighbors. Today it’s no longer just the emotional “Don’t pave my backyard!” It’s the more serious “Paving my backyard will use resources inefficiently, create air pollution, and drain more people and businesses and public dollars from the city.”
With the beginnings of success come disagreements on how to proceed. One long-term goal of antisprawl activists is to rejuvenate the city. But Chicago transportation commissioner Thomas Walker–who agrees with many antisprawl ideas–is cool to the MAC/CNT strategy of lobbying for more votes on the CATS policy committee. He doesn’t think the city needs them. “That’s not the way it works,” he says. “No such organization should be dominated by any one segment. It should find the plan that works best for the entire region, not based on who has the most votes.” He’s more worried about the Illinois Department of Transportation than about CATS, because most of the city’s federal transportation money is filtered not through CATS but through IDOT. “We’re not receiving a fair share of that total,” he says.
The antisprawl movement is strongest on the supply side: why is the state spending so much on the suburbs, making it so easy to settle out there? One answer was offered by James Capraro of the Greater Southwest Development Corporation on May 29, at the only public hearing on the Will County toll-road extension.
“Our community [Chicago Lawn] is the home of scores of manufacturing companies, including nationally recognized names, such as Tootsie Roll, Kool-Aid, Sweetheart Cup, and Occidental Chemical. We are the site of the world’s largest bakery, Nabisco. But these companies have no roads which would transform their sites into an accessible industrial corridor with expressway access. Their semitrailer trucks meander among residential traffic in front of single-family bungalows. But when our people ask for these and other improvements, the state repeatedly tells us that it has no money. When the [state] needs tens of millions of taxpayers’ dollars to build this new toll road, however, funds are no longer in short supply. . . . This is not economic development. This is economic displacement so that land speculators can get wealthy.”
Facts like these are raw meat for speech makers and organizers. They undermine suburban complacency and stimulate urban anger, spurring the formation of groups such as the Metropolitan Alliance of Congregations. And regardless of the merits of the case against sprawl, the city will get nowhere without this kind of militant grass-roots movement. No wonder CNT’s Perkins says, “I’m very excited that an Alinsky organization is getting involved in this.”
The antisprawl movement is weakest on the demand side: would people stay in the city even if it got its fair share? “The 16-year-old’s dream of a lifetime is a driver’s license and the keys–not a bus token,” Oak Brook village president Karen Bushy reminded a NIPC forum in June. “When we try to enforce responsibility we use the driver’s license. We even use it to enforce child support!” Chicago itself impounds cars to punish crimes that jail can’t seem to touch–prostitution, drug dealing, fly dumping, illegal possession of firearms, and teen curfew violations–confirming Bushy’s conclusion even for urbanites: “In our heart that driver’s license and set of keys represents the freedom of being an American.”
So is the antisprawl crusade doomed before it starts? Have most people freely rejected the city in favor of big lawns and cars? These questions are tougher than they look. Most city dwellers and antisprawl activists share what can only be called a class bias. We knew suburbanites were tacky and stupid long before public policy gave us its benediction. As a result, the antisprawl movement has trouble explaining why people leave town. For instance, Hank Dittmar of the D.C.-based Surface Transportation Policy Project writes, “People are responding to a set of signals our society gives them by building ring roads and beltways, subsidizing free parking and suburban development through utility infrastructure, and providing tax incentives that favor car use and suburban home ownership.”
This supply-side theory of human motivation is no more believable now than it was when Ronald Reagan used it as an excuse to cut taxes and run up the federal deficit. Businesses do not invest because their taxes have been cut. They invest when they see a market to serve–taxes just make it easier or harder for them to do so. Likewise, people don’t leave the city (or stay out of it) because of freeways or federally insured home mortgages. These subsidies do make it easier to move out, but they don’t motivate people to uproot themselves. People leave because of crime, schools, land and housing costs, blight, race, jobs, and taxes. Not building roads will not stop them. If anything, it will just make them move farther out–exacerbating sprawl and bequeathing another Great Planning Disaster to the year 2036.
One of the few people to make this case is David Schulz of Northwestern University’s Infrastructure Technology Institute. A massive, genial fellow who’s as outspoken as his trademark garb of Northwestern-purple T-shirt and sweatpants, he’s been delivering an anti-antisprawl slide show around the area since last November. Schulz thinks the antisprawl activists’ work will backfire because “they have this idyllic notion of the urban village. They don’t realize that life has changed. I grew up in a high-density Milwaukee neighborhood. Our parents let us go, morning to night, confident that we lived in an environment that was relatively benign for kids. That’s gone. The whole nature of raising a family has basically changed. How many parents do you know who don’t insist on accompanying their kids on their daily activities? You’re chauffeuring them anyway! If you’re in the city and you can’t even let your kids sit in the yard [for fear of drive-by shootings], don’t you think a lot of people are looking at the real estate ads this weekend? Yet the PC crowd is talking about denying that lifestyle to people.”
That last bit of hyperbole is why one PC crowd member has called Schulz “a massage therapist for the business-as-usual set.” But in Europe something like his predicted backfire has already occurred. “Since the 1930s there has been a greenbelt, a growth boundary, extending in a circle around London,” writes UIC architectural historian Robert Bruegmann, “and a policy of channeling any further growth into tightly controlled New Towns on the periphery beyond the greenbelt.” The result? “It drove up the price of land within the belt and forced much growth out beyond it, creating for many people even longer commutes than they would have had without the growth boundary, and extending the reach of the London conurbation even further out into the countryside.”
“When someone says they want to “manage’ your travel, they mean limit it,” says Schulz.
Nothing makes antisprawl activists madder than Schulz’s repeated claim that they’re trying to make people stay home. “We’re trying to expand choices, not limit them,” says ELPC’s Rob Michaels. “It’s true, people have chosen cars and suburbs. Those are rational choices in an irrational system. We want to change the system.” CNT’s “Citizen Transportation Plan” doesn’t envision laws against driving. It calls for mass transit so fast and frequent that most folks will gladly leave their cars at home. In 2020, “often the car is left in the garage because transit is easier,” remember?
Sounds fine, purrs Schulz. But exactly what do you have to do to get that kind of service? Transit can only beat out cars when people live close together–very close together. Otherwise it’s impossibly expensive. (Transit riders in northeastern Illinois already pay only 52 cents for every dollar their rides cost.) Transit planners figure that you need a minimum of 4,000 people per square mile to run buses at all efficiently, and even more to run them often enough to entice people away from driving. (Trains cost more and are less flexible.) None of the collar counties even comes close. DuPage County averages 2,338 people per square mile, and the others are far less dense: Lake, 1,153; Kane, 610; Will, 427; and McHenry, only 303. (Chicago has an average density of more than 12,000 people per square mile.)
In other words, there’s no way to fight sprawl or undo the car culture unless Barrington and Naperville and Mokena start looking a lot more like Oak Park and Evanston and Lincoln Park. (Nor, for that matter, is there any way to undo the car culture if Chicago keeps filling up with big-box retail stores surrounded by Schaumburg-style parking lots.) The density numbers show just how radical the antisprawl vision is. Schulz doesn’t think suburbanites will buy it when it’s stated plainly, though he admits he doesn’t know.
CNT’s Steve Perkins thinks they might, though he admits he doesn’t know either. “We believe, but we haven’t been able to prove yet, that each suburban house costs an extra $50,000-$60,000 in infrastructure that its buyer doesn’t pay–for sewers, local roads, regional road capacity, electric lines, school and hospital capacity. To the extent that these costs are included in the purchase price, you’ll see a bias toward compact development. One incentive to move to Buffalo Grove is that you can buy a house for $200,000 that would cost you $250,000 in the city. If that $50,000 is added back, then the financial difference vanishes.”
Then what would happen? If suburbanites had to pay the full cost of their cars and highways and houses and huge lots–whatever that is exactly–then would bus tokens start to look better than driver’s licenses? Would people begin moving into subdivisions, town houses, and apartments that are 5 or 15 times more compact than where they live now? If not, the “Citizen Transportation Plan” is in trouble.
Here the debate over sprawl collapses into guesswork and rhetoric. Make no mistake, the real issue is whether cities as we know them have a future. But the evidence is only fragmentary.
Signs that antisprawl measures would backfire:
This spring the Illinois EPA randomly polled 500 Chicago-area people about air pollution. They asked the 100 most concerned people what actions they personally would be willing to take to reduce air pollution. Almost everyone said they would do the little things: avoid oil-based paints, tune up their cars, and use environment-friendly household products. But less than half of this receptive subsample expressed any great willingness to carpool or vanpool or take the train.
“Traditional neighborhood developments” and “transit-oriented developments”–which place houses close together and within walking distance of stores, schools, and jobs fight sprawl to some extent. But they remain extremely scarce in Chicago suburbs. Despite earnest advocacy from the Regional Transportation Authority and the Lung Association, golf-course communities are far more common. If many suburbanites are actually yearning to give up their low-density, large-lot, car-dependent lifestyle, why have so few developers managed to cash in on that market?
In Portland, Oregon, restraining sprawl has been practically a state-sponsored religion for decades. But even there heresy abounds. According to the National Journal, “From 1980-90, more and more Portlanders drove to work alone. Fewer traveled in car pools, used public transit or walked to their workplaces.”
Schulz’s parting shot: “A lot of antisprawl is Lincoln Park cocktail-party talk. These people don’t have a clue as to how bad it really is. They should rent a car, if they don’t have one, and find out. Until five years ago you could still see a discernible edge to the built-up area. Not anymore. It’s exploded. DuPage is full. Now there are subdivisions in DeKalb County; Porter County, Indiana; Racine County, Wisconsin. To me that says people value the lifestyle they think they’re getting in the suburbs, and they’re willing to pay for it with longer commutes.”
Yet there are also signs that antisprawl measures would work:
As they fight the tollway extensions in Lake and Will counties, Rob Michaels and Mike Truppa of the Environmental Law & Policy Center have found suburbanites willing to make common cause with urbanites in channeling growth back toward the city. That’s more than organizers’ wishful thinking: in the March primary Lake County voters tossed out prodevelopment county-board chairman Robert “Bulldozer Bob” Depke and his top two lieutenants.
If people were hopelessly fixated on cars, adds Michaels, they would drive into the Loop as often as they drive to suburban job centers like Lake-Cook Road at the Edens. “Clearly when the setup is transit and pedestrian friendly people are willing to park and ride.”
Again, if people were hopelessly fixated on cars, they would drive alone, regardless of parking charges. But seven studies in three cities show otherwise. When drivers have to pay to park at work the percentage of solo driving drops from 67 to 42 percent–to put it another way, the number of cars driven per 100 employees drops from 72 to 53.
Houses near Metra commuter train stations and walkable suburban downtowns may command higher prices than comparable homes in drive-only surroundings. According to a 1994 consultant’s study for Metra, “Of seventeen residential brokers interviewed . . . eleven brokers felt that, all other factors being equal, having commuter rail service nearby increases residential property values.” Metra plans before-and-after surveys along its new Wisconsin Central commuter line.
The District One headquarters of the Illinois Department of Transportation is about as antiurban as a building can get. It’s surrounded by parking lots, which in turn are bordered by the Northwest Tollway, a golf course, and more parking lots. The arrival of two busloads of Metropolitan Alliance of Congregations backers on the blisteringly hot morning of June 13 promises fireworks that don’t quite come off.
Indoors it soon becomes clear that the Chicago Area Transportation Study, obscure as it may be, has prepared for this onslaught. The policy committee has moved its meeting to a bigger room than usual and copies of its public-involvement plan have been piled by the door.
The buses are late. When people with signs and placards begin filing in, the policy committee is murmuring through “an FY 98-02 TIP development schedule,” the third item under “new business.” By the time the Metropolitan Alliance of Congregations comes up on the agenda, every seat in the room is taken and at least 20 people are standing.
Reverend Len Dubi thanks the board and announces MAC’s position. “Your expertise is transportation, and we’re raising the question, where are we going? This board doesn’t include equal representation of the communities where most people live and work.” Reverend John Warner makes two specific requests: that all the policy committee members attend MAC’s October 19 “issues assembly,” and that the committee hold its next meeting in the Loop, at the James R. Thompson Center.
Kirk Brown, chair of the policy committee and head of IDOT, tries to cool any possible confrontation. “Either I will be there October 19, or the assistant secretary of the department will be there. I’ll call you tomorrow to tell you which one.” He adds that the committee was already considering meeting downtown anyway, at the new CATS headquarters.
Brown doesn’t get off quite that easily. Individual MAC members now come up, introduce themselves, and ask individual policy committee members by name if they will come October 19 and relocate their own meeting. The board members’ replies are mostly friendly and occasionally forthright, so much so that one of the MAC members says, “I have been charged by a number of families to let you know how angry we are. But you seem to be very agreeable, so I hope they’ll forgive me for not transmitting their anger.”
The policy committee votes unanimously to meet the evening of October 10 in “a place of adequate size” downtown. “You’ll find this group concerned about the issues you raise,” says Brown with diplomatic imprecision. “We hope you folks will be interested in hearing from us and not just assuming what we do, or what you’ve been told we do.” The meeting breaks up in an amiable hubbub of conversation. But everybody knows the battle has just begun.
In July 1959, on the way from the White House to Camp David, President Eisenhower was shocked to see a deep freeway construction gash leading into Washington from the outskirts of the city. Furious, he called the Bureau of the Budget, then ordered a formal study of urban interstates. To his chagrin, he discovered that his lobbyists had sold the interstate program to Congress in part by promising roads and construction dollars to big-city mayors. Even though he was president and thought it extraordinarily wasteful to run interstates through cities, there was no way he could stop it now. The Great Planning Disaster was underway.
Everybody knew that freeways were a good idea then. Everybody knows that they’re a bad idea now. Among educated people the manifold evils of sprawl are taken for granted–just as among uneducated people the manifold evils of welfare are taken for granted, beyond discussion. A good debate based on evidence and mutual respect might just save us from looking as stupid in 2036 as the mayors of 1956 look to us now.
If you know anything about Chicago sprawl, you know that between 1970 and 1990 the metropolitan population increased only 4 percent while gobbling up 55 percent more land.
Unfortunately that statement is false, misleading, and quoted everywhere–a kind of urban-policy legend. Shortly after the 1990 census the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission estimated that we had consumed 46 percent more land in the preceding two decades. “Somebody rounded that up to 50 percent,” says NIPC planning director John Paige, “and then rounded it up again to 55 percent.” Meanwhile NIPC carefully examined 1990 aerial photos of the six-county region–and revised its figure downward to a 35 percent increase in land used.
The other side of the statistic isn’t false, but it is misleading. While northeastern Illinois’ population grew only 4 percent during those 20 years, the number of households here increased 20 percent. (In other words, families are getting smaller and more people live alone.) That’s the important number for those concerned about sprawl, because households are what occupy land. An extra person in the family doesn’t use up land so much as floor space. So 20 percent seems like a more reasonable measurement to use–unless you’re proposing to combat sprawl by communal living.
In short, the nonpropagandistic way to describe Chicago-area sprawl during the 1970s and 1980s is that 20 percent more households consumed 35 percent more land. Don’t expect to see these numbers often though. They just don’t sound as alarming as 4 and 55.
The new arguments that suburbs and highways are bad for you carry more weight than the old ones, which just found them to be in bad taste. But they’re hardly conclusive. A sampler:
Does sprawl cost too much? That depends on whom you ask. The common-sense argument–why leave behind sewers and streets and schools in the city?–misses the point that it can cost more to renovate outdated facilities than to build new ones right. (Would you really expect to pay the same amount for adding two lanes to Fullerton as for laying a four-lane road through a cornfield?) Many antisprawl manifestos rely on the three-volume 1974 Costs of Sprawl study by the Real Estate Research Corporation, which was based on hypothetical neighborhoods that weren’t comparable. In their 1993 book Regulation for Revenue Harvard planners Alan Altshuler and Jose Gomez-Ibanez conclude, “Contrary to popular belief, low-density sprawl and other often-criticized types of development probably do not add greatly to the costs of servicing infrastructure demands”–perhaps 5 to 10 percent.
Does sprawl cause traffic congestion? Maybe. Traffic engineers measure congestion by comparing a road’s capacity to the volume of traffic it carries. This ratio appears to be worsening in the Chicago area. Mysteriously, however, the average time it takes commuters to get to work is not–nor are Chicago commute times especially high. A few planners even argue that sprawl actually lessens congestion as people move farther out to avoid traffic tie-ups.
Is it foolish to build new roads “because they only fill up with cars”? Only if you’ve already decided for other reasons that cars are bad. As the Urban Land Institute points out in its new report “Transportation and Growth: Myth and Fact,” “The weakness of this argument becomes clear if it is applied, say, to new schools (they just fill up with students) or libraries (they only fill up with books). The fact that a new highway is well used demonstrates its success in offering a shorter or cheaper route for users.”
Does sprawl make people drive more? Yes. Has it increased air pollution? Not yet. “The air quality, if you compare it to the 1970s, is better,” says NIPC planning director John Paige. “Chicago is still a federal nonattainment area for ozone. But we used to be in nonattainment for carbon monoxide, and we are not anymore. And we don’t violate the ozone standard as often as we used to.” The reason is simple: federal law has forced cars to get cleaner faster than travel mileage has increased. Some conclude from this that we should rely on more improvements in technology. (“We know how to improve cars,” writes Charles Lave of the University of California, Irvine. “We don’t know how to improve people.”) Others conclude that we must somehow reduce the number of miles vehicles travel, because technology can’t keep up forever, because Chicago still isn’t up to federal standards, and because those standards may well be too weak to protect children, the elderly, and those with breathing problems.
Does sprawl use up scarce farmland? No, because farmland isn’t scarce. Farmers already produce more food than they can sell at what they consider reasonable prices. Ironically, for years left-wing reformers have proposed that farmers grow less in order to bring prices up.
Does sprawl use up scarce open space? Yes, but it doesn’t have to. The Prairie Crossing development in Lake County will include 317 homes on 667 acres, with the houses clustered so that the development can include a farm and natural areas, rather than a traditional two-acre lot around each house. Thus it preserves open space and sprawl at the same time. “Clustered developments” like this look especially good to those who want to mitigate the worst aspects of sprawl but who don’t expect to stop it in its tracks, as CNT’s Citizen Transportation Plan aims to do.
“Those who joined the migration to the collar counties are paying their own way,” wrote the Tribune’s Bruce Dold on May 3. “Nobody’s subsidizing their sprawl.”
Not true, replied MarySue Barrett, president of the Metropolitan Planning Council. “The region spends about $2.6 billion in public dollars annually to build, maintain and support its road infrastructure,” she wrote in a letter to the editor. “Yet funding sources directly related to driving, such as the gas tax, fees and tolls, account for only about $2 billion.” That’s $600 million a year, roughly a 12-cent subsidy for every gallon of gas sold to Bruce Dold and everyone else in the six-county area.
Barrett and Dold are probably both wrong, but the council deserves credit for trying to find the facts before pontificating. The group performed a public service with its February 1995 study “The Cost of Driving in the Chicago Metropolitan Region,” the first attempt ever to calculate the region’s “automobile budget.” But Barrett performed no public service by putting more weight on that study than it can bear. Authors Jeanette Corlett and David Urbanczyk themselves described their work as “not . . . the final word on the cost of driving in the Chicago region, but rather a starting point for generating a healthy debate.” No, it’s not the final word–because it exaggerates what driving costs and minimizes what drivers pay. The authors make three highly debatable assumptions.
First and most important, they assume that we would have no local streets in the absence of cars. Adding up Census Bureau figures, they found that cities and townships in the six-county area spent just over $1 billion on roads in 1993. Then they threw that entire amount into the $2.6 billion “cost of cars” total. This might make sense if we were talking interstate highways, but since the figure includes country roads and neighborhood streets it’s a preposterous overstatement. Roads and streets existed before Henry Ford was born, and they would still be a big expense even if few people relied on private motorized vehicles. How big? That’s a judgment call, but even if you assume just half, that cuts the $2.6 billion cost-of-cars figure down to $2.1 billion–and cars would be close to paying for themselves after all.
On the other side of the ledger Corlett and Urbanczyk minimize drivers’ payments in smaller but telling ways. “The Cost of Driving” tried to answer two slightly different questions at once. One is from the point of view of an imaginary all-government accountant: overall, do cars pay for the costs they create? The other is from the point of view of an average Jo Driver: does she pay the true cost of driving every time she decides to get behind the wheel instead of taking a bus? These two viewpoints are similar but not identical, and Corlett and Urbanczyk switch from one to the other in such a way that cars always look bad.
For example, some federal gas-tax money is diverted away from roads and spent on mass transit, underground storage tanks, and deficit reduction. Clearly the diverted amount doesn’t affect Jo Driver’s decision about whether to drive because she has to pay the full tax at the pump regardless of where the government chooses to spend it. But the diversion does affect the all-government accountant because it lowers the true amount cars are contributing to road maintenance. Corlett and Urbanczyk take the accountant’s point of view and do not include “diverted” gas taxes when they add up cars’ $2 billion payments.
Yet there are also sales taxes paid on cars, gas, oil, tools, fuzzy dice, and “Car Talk” T-shirts, not to mention income- and property-tax revenues from car dealerships, car washes, and all the rest. Jo Driver pays for this stuff, but usually she pays up front. Since it doesn’t affect her decision to drive or not on any given day, for her it doesn’t count. But these taxes do count for the all-government accountant: they’re money paid in by car owners that arguably should appear on the credit side of the ledger. This time Corlett and Urbanczyk take the point of view of Jo Driver.
Every study has to make assumptions, and the first study is always the hardest. But to assume that no cars equals no roads is indefensible. And to switch points of view from one statistic to the next is dubious, particularly given that in all three cases the authors choose the assumption that’s least favorable to automobile users. Antisprawl activists who want to wake the Bruce Dolds of the world from their carbon-monoxide daze might do better to emphasize air pollution–a serious and costly health hazard that drivers do create and do not pay for.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustrations by Slug Signorino.