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Smart Choices, Less Traffic
Sprawl Main
Sprawl Report 2002 Main
In This Section
Transportation Choices Improve Quality of Life
Americans Want Better Transportation Choices
More Highways Are Not the Answer to Congestion
Over-Dependence on Highways Harms Communities
Unbalanced Transportation Spending Feeds Sprawl and Pollution
Air Quality and Transportation
Get A Free Sprawl Map!
Read the Press Release

"We need to ask, much more critically, about each piece of highway construction or expansion: What will it really achieve? Could we use the money better—for transit…or for subsidizing housing so that moderate-income folks don’t feel forced to move to less expensive, far-out suburbs?"
—Neal R. Peirce, Washington Post Writers Group

"The work-bound traveler of 1950, even 1900, had more transportation options than does the ultramodern, cell-phone-equipped millennial commuter of today."
—Jim Motavalli, author of Breaking Gridlock

As traffic and smog continue to degrade quality of life for millions of Americans, visionary communities are turning to alternative transportation choices, such as modern commuter trains, clean bus lines, vanpools, bike paths and safe sidewalks to improve quality of life. By focusing on moving people rather than autos, these communities are pulling commuters out of traffic jams by giving them more choices in how they get to work.

Unfortunately, many of our public officials continue to support an unbalanced approach to transportation planning. Expensive and inefficient transportation projects that offer only a short-term solution receive the lion's share of taxpayer funding. These projects gobble up our farmland and natural open spaces, increase smog, promote poorly planned, sprawling developments, and often increase the traffic problems they are supposed to fix.

This map samples some of the best and worst transportation projects in America. From simple community-based initiatives to large-scale projects with billion-dollar budgets, it is a glimpse of what is happening with transportation planning in America. It shows the many different approaches we can take to solve our transportation challenges and the vastly different directions our planning can take us.

Transportation Choices Improve Quality of Life

Runaway, haphazard development—which brings more roads, more traffic and more pollution—is not inevitable. One of the best ways to curb sprawl is through wise transportation planning and investments. By balancing funding between highways and public transportation choices, such as rail, buses, bike paths and sidewalks, we can:

  • Reduce air and water pollution
  • Reduce traffic congestion and gridlock
  • Promote energy conservation and resource efficiency
  • Protect open space, farmland and fish and wildlife habitat
  • Help downtown businesses thrive
  • Enhance the quality, distinctiveness, vitality and livability of our communities

    Americans Want Better Transportation Choices

    Spending money on public transportation is a good investment that responds to public demand. Americans are increasingly turning to public transportation. The public wants a clean environment and more public transportation choices—it is up to federal, state and local governments to provide these options.

  • Since 1995, transit ridership has grown by 21 percent.
  • More than 14 million people use public transportation on a typical weekday.
  • In 1999, transit ridership topped more than 9 billion trips, the highest level in nearly 40 years.


    According to a National Association of Realtors poll conducted by Public Opinion Strategies in September 2001, most commuters are willing to try transportation alternatives if they are convenient, safe and accessible.

    Transportation Alternatives Americans Want:

    65% Car pool, ride sharing, or van pool
    62% Rail or train
    57% Combination of public bus, rail and train
    52% Public bus
    Source: National Association of Realtors Poll, 09/2001

    More Highways Are Not the Answer to Congestion

    Recent studies show that building or widening highways invites more traffic, a phenomenon called “induced traffic.” Shortly after the new lanes or road is opened, public transit or carpool riders switch to driving. Motorists decide to take longer and more frequent trips or switch routes to take advantage of the new capacity on the roadway.

    As the new/expanded roadway stimulates more development away from core cities and suburbs, motorists move farther from work and shopping. Often, induced traffic eats up 50 to 100 percent of the roadway’s new capacity. After a few years, the “new” roadway has once again reached full capacity, and created extra traffic on the local streets at both ends of the trip.

    transportation spending graph

    Over-Dependence on Highways Harms Communities

    Short-sighted transportation planning and investments that rely on highway construction to the neglect of other transportation choices traps people in their cars and pollutes the environment.

    Over-dependence on highways hurts communities by:

  • Polluting our air and water
  • Increasing congestion and gridlock
  • Wasting gas and energy
  • Eating up open space, farmland and habitat
  • Increasing commute times and distances
  • Lowering the local tax base
  • Shifting businesses from downtown
  • Limiting commuter choices
  • Leaving behind those who can’t or don’t drive (students, seniors, people without cars)
  • Reducing options and safety of pedestrians and bikers

    Sprawl and lack of transportation choices force people to own and drive cars in order to reach most destinations. The average American driver spends 443 hours per year—the equivalent of 55 eight-hour work days—behind the wheel.

    Source: 1997 USDOT Report, "Our Nation’s Travel

    Infrastructure needs arising from sprawling development cost American households an average of $630 per year. Transportation is the second biggest household cost for American families, more than food, education or healthcare.


    Residents of sprawling communities drive three to four times more than those living in efficient, well-planned areas and can waste up to three to four times more energy from driving than people who live in better-planned, efficient cities that offer more transportation choices.


    While roadways for autos continue to be expanded, there has not been a corresponding increase in safe and convenient pedestrian walkways, making it more difficult and dangerous for people to walk. Between 1986 and 1995, approximately 6,000 pedestrians were killed each year in the U.S. by automobiles. For every pedestrian killed by a car, another 15 were injured.

    "Wide roads have been built without sidewalks or frequent crosswalks, and high-speed traffic makes these roadways particularly deadly. In many areas, intersections with crosswalks may be as much as a half-mile apart, leaving pedestrians with no safe way to cross the street."

    Source: "Mean Streets 2000," Surface Transportation Policy Project,

    air pollution chart

    Unbalanced Transportation Spending Feeds Sprawl and Pollution

    The federal transportation bill, called the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, appropriates over $217 billion, but it spends five times as much on highways as on public transportation.

  • A single track of rail moves as many people as a six lane highway during rush hour.
  • For every $5 that is spent on highways, only $1 is spent on public transit.

    Air Quality and Transportation

    Smog is a serious public health threat. Twenty percent of Americans live in areas where doctors and scientists say the air is not safe to breathe. Exposure to smog can trigger or cause a range of illnesses and conditions, from asthma to pneumonia. According to the EPA, over 50 percent of all cancers that are attributed to outdoor air toxics can be traced back to the toxics released from mobile sources such as cars, trucks and SUVs.

    Our reliance on cars and trucks has led to severe air pollution problems and a significant public health threat. Giving people more transportation choices can dramatically lower automobile use, reducing air pollution and the accompanying effects on public health.

    Providing more transportation choices during the 1996 Olympics reduced traffic by 22 percent, air pollution by 28 percent and asthma attacks by up to 42 percent.


    By better balancing transportation spending between roads and less-polluting public transportation, like rail transit and clean buses, we can reduce the number of miles people have to drive, provide Americans with more transportation choices, and better reflect America’s priorities for a clean environment, good health and enhanced quality of life.

    In order to protect our communities and clean our air, water and environment, transportation policy should:

  • Make significantly greater investments in clean public transportation.
  • Improve walking and bicycling facilities around shopping and parks, and implement traffic calming measures.
  • Build more affordable housing near transit and job centers.
  • Promote and support regional and statewide planning that combines transportation, land use and environmental planning.
  • Support public involvement in the transportation and land use planning process.
  • Fund innovative incentive-based programs for encouraging alternative transportation use, such as tax credits for public transit, walking or biking, parking cash-out and parking fees.

    Press Release
    Read the Sierra Club Press Release - July 30, 2002


    This project was made possible through the hard work of many Sierra Club volunteers and staff, including:

    Neha Bhatt
    Melody Flowers
    Tim Frank
    Nat Garrett
    Ed Hopkins
    John Holtzclaw
    Cynthia Hoyle
    Brett Hulsey
    Richard Klein
    Greg LeRoy
    Bill Myers
    Judy Kunofsky
    David Sullivan
    Peter Tyler

    Project Coordinator: Neha Bhatt

    Design: John Byrne Barry

    Research: Jenna Musselman, Neha Bhatt, Melody Flowers, John Holtzclaw
    Communication Consultants: Nat Garrett, Allen Mattison
    Field Research and Editorial Assistance: Bonnie Bick, Glen Brand, Russell Butz, Chase Davis, Pat Dezern, Roger Diedrich, Peggie Griffin, Brian Hager, Marc Heileson, Gary Lauerman, Erika Kreider, Melanie Mayock, Jeremy Marin, Tancred Miller, Nat Mund, James Wamsley, Rosemary Wehnes, Cynthia Wentworth
    Cover Photo by Barrie Rokeach

    This report was funded by a grant from The Sierra Club Foundation.

    Photo courtesy National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

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