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My suburban sprawl-dwelling neighbors and I were chatting when they clucked their tongues at some new apartments going up nearby. "Isn't that awful!" ...is what they were saying.

And you can't blame them not being happy with sprawl apartments. These typically dump a lot of strangers in a neighborhood already straining to have public amenities like parks and good schools, without funding more amenities (and in our County, residences don't pay their own way in taxes). 

But starving the public realm--things like parks and schools available even to the poor--has been the bipartisan, multi-generational agenda for decades now. We don't need to give all the money to our billionaires, but that's what we've been doing. So what I'm about to say needs to add the caveat that a well-funded public realm is absolutely necessary to make it work.

So, instead of the ill-informed sentiment that government can do no good, we'll have to acknowledge that government can do much better than even the supposedly "innovative" private realm. After all, it was publicly funded research that produced lithium-ion batteries, flat screens, touch screens, the transistor, the integrated circuit, the internet, 75% of pharmaceutical innovation. A good portion of those innovations made the iPhone possible, not just Steve Jobs.

So let's grant at least the possibility that government can solve problems, not just create them.

Back to civic design:

Apartments provide more, desperately needed affordable housing, and at least the potential for enough residents to patronize neighborhood commerce within a walk, or transit stops made viable by enough customers. That might even cut the CO2 from commutes and shopping trips since mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods require roughly half the Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) per person when compared to sprawl.

The hallmark of sprawl is that its design accommodates autos and little else. You must get in your car to shop, or work, or even to go to the park, typically. Pedestrians and cyclists are clearly a distant afterthought in the design. There's no mixed use (commerce, offices, residences in the same neighborhood), and the only thing connecting these different uses is a trip in an automobile.

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The hallmark of sprawl is that its design accommodates autos and little else. You must get in your car to shop, or work, or even to go to the park, typically.

You might imagine relying on autos for all our trips pollutes, and is otherwise unhealthy--just 10 minutes of walking daily makes for significantly fewer late-life health problems. But the absolute requirement that every driving age adult own and use a car amounts to a regressive tax, one that falls most heavily on those least likely to afford it.

We all know "it takes a village to raise a child," but we stopped building villages in the '50s. No village exists where you can't shop or work, and that distance between uses is what defines sprawl. So sprawl continues to produce alienation, poor health, and it exaggerates the financial distance between rich and poor. My question is: How bad does it have to be before we do something different?

Pedestrian-friendly mixed use is a win for everyone. It's not unprofitably different from sprawl. In fact the market acceptance for traditional, mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods is very high. The most valuable real estate in our region (McKinley Park) is a very old neighborhood, but one beloved because it supports pedestrian-friendly mixed use.

Photo by Andy Holmes on Unsplash

Photo by Andy Holmes on Unsplash

 I've written about this before (in 1993 and since), but the message appears to be lost to us suburbanites. Here are a few more videos to make my point.

Americans used to spend 10% of their income on transportation. Now, it's 20% (85% of money spent on driving leaves the local economy)

Speck notes wide streets speed up traffic. Skinny streets are safer. In Sacramento County's legacy residential (tertiary) streets we have two 12' travel lanes, --as wide as freeway lanes--two 8' parking lanes. Twelve foot travel lanes are freeway lanes. This invites enough speeding that street standards require a bend every 1,000 lineal feet to slow traffic down. That's where we get the "spaghetti streets" in sprawl. It's a safety feature!

And no...wider streets don't cut congestion. People find out about the widening and start driving that street more. It's called "induced demand." So we'll spend $40 million widening Hazel, and within a few months the congestion will return to the old, high levels. And no, we don't get our money back.

What does cut congestion? The Southern California Association of Governments mathematically modeled every congestion remedy they could imagine, up to and including double-decking the freeways. Only one solution provided significant congestion relief: mixed use. It stands to reason that drivers will not clog the freeways if they can get everything they need in their own neighborhood, but everything else does not relieve congestion.

A bit of good news: the State of California now requires all new development contain "Complete Streets"--streets that accommodate pedestrians and cyclists as well as autos.

defunding the police is a start

Personally, I'd like to see some of these commercial properties--the sprawl malls--start incorporating residences. Nearby Citrus Heights is already encouraging apartments amidst the (failing) Sunrise Mall brick-and-mortar commerce.

Mark Dempsey
It's Simpler Than it Looks