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Stop Sprawl
Convenient Cities

by Dr. John Holtzclaw, Chair, Sierra Club Transportation Subcommittee
Green Fleets Project Workshop #3:
The Relationship Between Transportation Energy, Land Use, and Urban Form
Chicago, 10-14 September 1995

The area just north of the loop here in Chicago, from River North to the lake invites walking. Convenience abounds. Living there, you could work, shop and play without a car. What makes it so convenient to hundreds of thousands of jobs, shopping and museums? Three primary characteristics of convenient areas:

First, enough density locally and nearby to present a wealth of destinations. Dense, but not necessarily crowded. In grad school, I found Los Angeles terribly crowded, confining and claustrophobic. But where I live now, in the Russian-Nob Hill-Chinatown-North Beach area of San Francisco at 10 times higher density, is not crowded at all. While that may seem illogical, it isn't. We generally think of two types of "crowded": your home is crowded if too many people live there; and the roads are too crowded if you can't move freely. Well, few of my neighbors' homes are too crowded; mine isn't. And since I got rid of my car and walk everywhere, my "roads" aren't congested, unless you call elbowing your way into busy sidewalk produce markets in Chinatown crowded. I don't. I call it urban adventure. People pay good money to visit San Francisco for that.

Second, locate jobs, markets, restaurants, video rentals, et al near homes. Within an easy and inviting one mile walk of my home in San Francisco, I have over 700 restaurants and probably as many food markets. Many of these are mom and pop markets on residential streets. In less dense neighborhoods these businesses could be kept on major streets--but in the neighborhood, not stuck off in a shopping center 5 miles away, accessible only by freeway.

Third, pedestrian-friendly walkways and streets, including:

  • An efficient pedestrian street grid not broken by dead ends, freeways or drainage ditches. The common rectilinear street grid offers many alternative paths, allowing the walker to explore different streets, find favorites, and to link trips more easily. Winding streets, intersected by dead-ends and cul de sacs require longer trips and allow no such variety.
  • Sidewalks, with bus shelters; occasional seating and other sidewalk furniture; trees, awnings and weather protection; and fountains, interesting store windows and other attractions.
  • Building entrances near sidewalks to they don't require the pedestrian to walk through parked cars or tread a long path.
  • Safe, slow, careful traffic, with drivers alert for pedestrians and children, not drivers intent on getting through the area speedily. Or at least sidewalks protected from traffic and frequent stop signs and lights to allow safe street crossing.

European cities have developed attractive street designs to alert motorists that people are likely to be walking, biking or playing, and that it is dangerous to drive hazardously. Sidewalks are widened and streets are narrowed to create a sense of closeness and activity. Cross-walk color and texture, perhaps brick or cobblestone, differs from that of the roadway. Speed humps and speed brakes alert drivers audibly as well as visually. Narrowing streets at the intersection or mid-block, single lanes of traffic or off-setting lanes caution the driver to slow down and pay attention. Landscaping and benches further convey the sense of people strolling and children playing. Some roads are closed to divert or limit traffic.

These neighborhoods convey a sense of being somewhere, rather than a place to pass through. Since autos are given less land, more is available for natural habitats, creeks and wildlife corridors.

So these three steps improve accessibility: density, mixed-use and pedestrian-friendly.

Do they really work?

Do we have proof that these actually reduce driving? Yes. In a couple studies for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), I analyzed communities in the San Francisco region which varied from high density northeast San Francisco, where I live, to low density suburbs like San Ramon. I found that high residential density, nearby shopping, good transit and a good walking environment go together. And, alternatively, sprawling suburbs isolate stores into shopping centers, have poor transit service, and often don't even have sidewalks.

I found that higher density community residents drive less. Comparing the extremes, the Nob Hill area was found to have 32 times higher household density, and 200 times higher local serving job density than San Ramon, while only about 1/4 the household auto ownership and vehicle miles traveled (VMT). Both studies found that, on average, we drive 20 to 30 percent less per capita or per household than residents of an area half as dense. In other words, if you live in a neighborhood with twice the density as your sister, on average you will drive 20 to 30% less than her, whether you both live in low density areas, middle or high. This general pattern has been found in New York, Chicago, Toronto, across the U.S. and Britain.

The second study, which included Los Angeles, San Diego and Sacramento neighborhoods, found statistically significant driving reductions in areas with higher density and frequent transit service, predicting that a family in such an area could save $400 to 500 in monthly auto costs compared to suburban families. We at NRDC, along with the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) and the Surface Transportation Policy Project, are about to expand that study in San Francisco and LA, and to Chicago, and maybe Pittsburgh and New York. We'll study every neighborhood in these areas so we have enough sample points to get statistically significant predictions of reduced driving from not only density and transit service, but also from mixed-use and pedestrian-friendliness. It's fun describing research that confirms my prejudices.

A purpose of this study is to further specify how much a family living in these areas can save in driving costs, so they can qualify for larger mortgages--the Location Efficient Mortgage. So, instead of using guilt to get people out of cars, we are going to try greed, which is much more effective.

Will the public accept accessible areas?

We are told the public doesn't want to live in dense, mixed-use areas. They are wed to low density single-family housing with a yard to mow. Are they?

In early 1993, Portland set out to find out what kind of neighborhoods their residents preferred. At 34 widely publicized public meetings, 3000 adults and 1,500 children viewed 240 slides of urban neighborhoods and shopping areas, and gave their gut responses to the scenes on a scale of -10 ("ugh," "awful") to +10 ("beautiful," "nice"). The people spoke...what did they say?

Let's look at a scene they strongly liked: a dense shopping area full of pedestrians, with brick walkways, pedestrian seating, trees, banners and awnings. Many stores are small, but may be mixed with large ones. The architecture and building materials are high quality and varied. Occasional tall buildings are ok if interesting and attractive at sidewalk level. The streets and driving lanes are narrow with curbside parking and clearly marked bike lanes, or the streets are closed off to cars.

Another winner: a narrow tree-lined residential street, with wide sidewalks, mature trees, bungalows mixed with articulated, not monolithic, 3 to 6 story apartment buildings. No parking is visible except at the curb. Another: small parks and public spaces with trees, other plantings, attractive walks, seating, tables, and maybe fountains and ponds.

Some scenes repelled them: strip mall development with wide streets, high traffic, no or broken sidewalks, few pedestrians, buildings set back behind parking or in the center of huge parking lots, large windowless walls facing the street or parking. Another: large projects, either low or high-rise of monolithic architectural style and color, made of poor materials, with high fences and large parking lots. Another: Single family dwellings dominated by wide garage doors and driveways, with wide streets, no sidewalks and few trees.

There was a remarkable consensus. People don't like strip commercial development or large parking lots, either in shopping areas or near housing. They have a strong preference for pedestrian-oriented mixed-use development at transit stations and along main streets, with higher densities in central areas. In residential neighborhoods, viewers preferred bungalows with pedestrian-oriented neighborhood centers. Residential densities of 25 to 40 units/acre or higher were quite acceptable if the buildings were not too wide and built with quality and beauty. They loved small parks and open spaces.

In the San Francisco area housing in such dense neighborhoods commands 3 to 5 times higher prices than in distant suburbs. Yet the belief that people want sprawl persists.

Since people like convenient, pedestrian-friendly areas why don't we build them? Well, they're illegal in most places! That's right, zoning laws prohibit markets and restaurants in residential areas. They require low densities, building set-backs and excessive parking. With convenient, pedestrian-friendly options absent, families buy in sprawling areas. That's what's available. That's what the banks will finance.

Chicago's Coalition

Let's look at how people right here in Chicago are fighting such practices. The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) closed several stations on the Lake Street Elevated Train Line (El) between 1985 and 1990 due to a 30% decline in ridership and needed repairs, and threatened to close the line. The Lake Street El runs from the Loop, Chicago's central business district, through Chicago's west side to the near-west suburbs of Oak Park and River Forest. The decline in ridership was attributed to the loss of population in the corridor, service cuts, fare increases and the high rate of unemployment.

Upon hearing of the closure plans, West Side and west suburban area community and development organizations, business and industrial groups, local leaders and transit riders joined together in 1992 to mobilize a broad coalition of inner-city and suburban interests and to take steps to fight for the preservation of the line. The Lake Street El Coalition, convened by two nonprofits, CNT and the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group (NCBG), now consists of 500 neighborhood, disabled, health care, low-income, elderly, environmental, transit and other groups.

With foundation support, the coalition hired an architectural firm to develop a transit-oriented development (TOD) project centered on the El's Pulaski Street Station. It sought to create a more accessible, convenient and safe station, improve the overall feeling of the neighborhood, attract employment and residents, and reduce automobile dependence. The community, working with the architect, designed the plan. They selected housing type and density, libraries, museums and other cultural institutions, commercial development, transit access, bike and pedestrian facilities and parking.

In July 1993, the Coalition unveiled the design, and their plans to make it a model for stations throughout the now-renamed Green line. A month later the CTA announced that the Lake Street Line would not be closed. Instead, $300 million will be spent to upgrade and renovate the line. The coalition is using this as a catalyst for further investment and economic growth. This broad coalition is beginning to dictate transportation planning in the Chicago region.

San Francisco's Frustrated Planning

Now let's go now to San Francisco to illustrate how good planning can be averted. As the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) developed its 20-year Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) in 1993, it soon became obvious that no non-highway alternatives were to be considered. So the Regional Alliance For Transit (RAFT) -- a transit and environmental coalition -- proposed to define a pedestrian- and transit-oriented alternative. MTC agreed to analyze it in their modeling system.

RAFT specified a year 2010 transportation system which eliminated nearly all of MTC's 500 new highway lane-miles, and put the savings into cost-effective public transit. We stressed rail improvements in the urban corridors, including CalTrain from San Jose to San Francisco's downtown Transbay Terminal, light rail in San Francisco and Santa Clara counties, heavy rail on existing tracks to link Santa Clara light rail to East Bay BART and on to Livermore, Sacramento and San Joaquin county, and commuter rail in Marin and Sonoma counties. We also included electric trolley-buses in the East Bay urban corridor between Hayward, Oakland and Richmond, and express buses on I-80 and I-680. Having improved CalTrain service to San Francisco Airport, we eliminated the parallel, more expensive, BART extension. We converted some freeway lanes to bus/carpool lanes.

Further, in order to reduce the subsidies to driving that total $3 to $7 per gallon of gas, we assumed parking cash-out, whereby non-driving employees receive the cash value of their unused "free" parking. California law allows county congestion management agencies (CMA) to mandate such parking cash-out.

We also sought to increase accessibility to transit, especially by foot and bicycle. So RAFT assumed the same total regional population and job growth as MTC, but clustered the growth of households and employment after 1995 around transit stations. We saved some 200 square miles of forests, grasslands and farmlands that MTC's alternative would have developed for residences, commerce, industry and local streets. By developing in areas mostly supplied with infrastructure -- schools, public facilities, streets and utilities, the region could save up to $25 billion on these facilities.

MTC's models predict that by 2010 RAFT's alternative will reduce VMT 6% below MTC's alternative, saving the average family 1,148 miles of travel annually, worth $379, using FHWA estimates of auto costs. RAFT saves 350,000 gallons of fuel daily (we could have saved even more if federal fuel economy standards were tightened) and cuts mobile source particulate emissions 10%, carbon monoxide 4%, reactive organic gases 5% and nitrogen oxides 5%.

Further, RAFT cuts congestion by 7%. These come from only 15 years of reversed development patterns. It'll take 50 years, however, to correct 50 years of sprawl. Further, RAFT boosts transit passengers regionwide by 24% over MTC's alternative, including Muni Metro 29%, CalTrain 167%, Santa Clara light rail 76%, East Bay heavy rail (Amtrak) 152%, and AC Transit 39%. We boost BART patronage 15% higher than MTC's RTP even though we eliminated BART's proposed extension from Colma to the San Francisco Airport.

Despite all these benefits for the region, MTC adopted its own alternative, signaling how difficult our task still is.

That's why we are here. This conference will give us some tools to evaluate urban patterns and trends, arming us to storm the walls of suburban orthodoxy.

Do not despair at the difficulty of "changing human behavior". When I was in college, unmarried women graduating top of the class were asked why they had wasted their time. Times change. Only 20 years ago if you asked someone not to smoke in the office or restaurant you would have been considered crazy, or punched out. Auto companies spend $5 billion a year trying to keep Americans addicted to cars. Let's roll them.

Over 20 years ago Ivan Illich reported that when the miles Americans drive are divided by the time spent driving, parking, servicing and paying for the automobile, we average 5 to 7 mph. That's slower than bicycling. Since we are going so slow, we might as well enjoy walking and biking, and get our exercise.

1. Wolfgang Zuckermann, End of the Road, Chelsea Green, 1991

2. John Holtzclaw, Explaining Urban Density and Transit Impacts on Auto Use, Natural Resources Defense Council, San Francisco, January 1991, in California Energy Commission Docket No. 89-CR-90; and John Holtzclaw, Using Residential Patterns and Transit To Decrease Auto Dependence and Costs, Natural Resources Defense Council, San Francisco, and California Home Energy Efficiency Rating Systems, Costa Mesa CA, June 1994.

3. A Nelessen Associates, Picture This...The Results of a Visual Preference Survey, Princeton NJ & Seattle WA, 206-441-7579, June 1993

4. Surface Transportation Policy Project, Mobility Partners Case Study: Chicago Community Green Line Initiative, 1994. Center for Neighborhood Technology, 2125 W. North Ave, Chicago IL 60647, 312-278-4800.

5. Brian Ketcham & Charles Komanoff, Win-Win Transportation: A No-Losers Approach To Financing Transport in New York City and the Region, Komanoff Energy Associates, New York City, 9 July 1992 Draft;

James MacKenzie, Roger Dower & Donald Chen, The Going Rate: What It Really Costs To Drive, World Resources Institute, Washington DC, June 1992;

John Moffet & Peter Miller, The Price of Mobility; Natural Resources Defense Council, San Francisco, 6 November 1991 Draft; Michael Vorhees, The True Costs of the Automobile to Society, Boulder CO, 4 January 1992; Office of Technology Assessment, Saving Energy in U.S. Transportation, U.S. Congress, OTA-ETI-589, 1994

6. Using per acre mixed suburban infrastructure costs, in 1994 dollars, from Real Estate Research Corporation, The Costs of Sprawl: Detailed Cost Analysis, U.S. G.P.O. Stock Number 4111-00021, Council on Environmental Quality, Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Environmental Protection Agency, Washington DC, April 1974. This and other such studies are reviewed in James Frank, The Costs of Alternative Development Patterns, Urban Land Institute, Washington DC, 1989.

7. Dahms, L. "Memorandum to Work Program Committee: Regional Alliance for Transit Proposal for RTP Track 1." Metropolitan Transportation Commission, 101 Eight St, Oakland CA 94607, 13 May 1994.

8. Federal Highway Administration. Cost of Owning & Operating Automobiles, Vans & Light Trucks: 1991. U.S. Department of Transportation, Washington D.C., Table 4.

Ivan Illich, Energy and Equity, Harper and Row, 1974. 

RAFT 2010 Transit Additions

  • SF: MUNI Metro Bayshore LRT Line
  • SF-SC: CalTrain electrification and extension to Transbay Terminal, with BART schedules and local & express service
  • SM - SFO: People Mover, with CalTrain/BART transfer station, and express bus to Colma BART
  • SC: Capitol Ave/Exp and Tasman LRTs, with Great America transfer station
  • SC-Sol: Expanded Capitol Corridor service, with Shinn St and Benecia transfer stations
  • SC-CC: Expanded San Joaquin service Tamien-Livermore commuter rail, with Shinn St (Fremont) transfer station to BART
  • Al: Trolley buses on San Pablo (from Richmond), E 14 St, Telegraph Av, College Av, MacArthur Av & Foothill Bl, with traffic light preemption, express & local service
  • SF-Sol: I-80 Vallejo-SF express bus service
  • CC-Sol: I-680 Vallejo-Pleasanton express bus service
  • CC-Ala: I-680 Martinez-Pleasanton express bus service
  • Marin-Sonoma: NWP Larkspur-Sonoma commuter rail
  • Region: 19 miles of freeway lanes, compared to MTC's 500.  

Daily Transit Riders (1000)

1990 2010 RAFT/
Muni 756 788 807 1.02
Metro, F, Cable 173 227 293 1.29
CalTrain 24 32 84 2.67
SamTrans 74 73 101 1.39
Santa Clara Transit 111 142 224 1.58
Light Rail 12 35 61 1.76
AMTRAK: SC-Ala  + 0 11 27 2.52
AC Transit 222 232 321 1.39
BART 250 384 443 1.15
Golden Gate Transit 47 54 72 1.34
Regional Total 1,576 1,858 2,311 1.24













Households, Employment, and Open Space Saved in 2010

Households (1000) Employment (1000)
MTC Superdistrict 1990


1990 2010
Downtown SF 58 73 73 391 438 488 0
Richmond District 96  99 99 80 86 86 0
Mission District 104   112 133 92 134 134 -0.3
Sunset District 47 47 47 22 26 26 0
Daly City/San Bruno 92    99 119 132 157 162 -0.06
San Mateo/Burling 76 91 111 95 117 125 2.6
Redwood City/MenloPk 73 86 106 93 120 135 4.0
Palo Alto/Los Alto 66 73 90 125 133 145 0.8
Sunnyvale/Mtn V 80 102 117 335 395 407 0.1
Cupertino/Sarato 112 122 122 125 147 147 0.6
Central San Jose 87 107 128 139 173 238 -0.4
Milpitas/E San Jo 87 105 105 32   121 121 1.5
South San Jose 64 77 68 35 58 45   3.1
Gilroy/Morgan Hil 24 48 26 23 79 25 11.9
Livermore/Pleasan 48   90 70 71 155   116   12.8
Fremont/Union Cit   88 108 108 92 147   145 1.9
Hayward/San Lean 113 137 142 138 163 178 1.6
Oakland/Alameda 165 178 193 231 261 305 0.2
Berkeley/Albany 66   72 75 89 105     116 0
Richmond/El Cerri   80 98 103 66 90 97 4.2
Concord/Martinez 76 99 103 93 125 127 4.1
Walnut Creek 56 63 64 71 80 84 3.0
Danville/San Ramo 32 46 39 40 65 57 6.9
Antioch/Pittsburg 56 106 76 31 78    51 11.5
Fairfield/Vacavil 66 120 78 67 132 74 24.7
Napa  28 38 33 30 52 33 5.7
St Helena 13 17 14 19 25 19 1.6
Petaluma/Rohnert Park 53 74 57 41 77 60 13.0
Santa Rosa/Sebastopol 72 98 98 94 142 150 17.2
Healdsburg/Clovrdale 24 41 30 18 34 20 8.7
Novato 21 28 28 19 36 25 3.1
San Rafael 40 48 48   51 62 72 0.9
Mill Valley/Saus 34 38   38 32 37 37 1.3
Regional total 2,246 2,802 2,802 3,113 4,128 4,128 151.3

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