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Stop Sprawl
Solving Sprawl: 1999 Sierra Club Sprawl Report

Transportation Planning Transportation Planning
Air Pollution
Removing Roads
Focus on: Rhode Island
Rate Your State


transportation planningGetting people from place to place in sprawl-choked communities is costing us dearly. Once the concern of a few big cities, massive traffic jams have become commonplace across the country. The average American driver spends 443 hours every year -- that's 55 eight-hour work days, or 11 weeks of work -- behind the wheel.

And all that driving means more air pollution. Cars and trucks are among the largest sources of smog and cancer-causing pollution in America, spewing out 12 pounds of cancer chemicals annually for every person in America.

States that are doing the best job challenging sprawl are the ones that recognize the connections between sprawl and transportation. Sprawl spreads out everything, making trips longer and driving mandatory. Studies show that residents of sprawling communities drive three to four times as much as those living in better-planned communities.

Adding new lanes and building new roads just makes the problem worse. New highways are the number one cause of sprawl, according to American Farmland Trust. Build them, and the traffic will come. They may give short-term relief, but long term they just encourage more sprawl.

There are three measures we used to determine a state's performance in this category:

Our first yardstick, drawn from data provided by the Federal Transit Administration, measured the amount of money states are spending per person in their urban areas on transportation choices like commuter trains, bus service, light rail and even walking and bike paths. The data, from 1993 to 1997, is an annual average of capital expenditures in urban areas by local, state and federal governments.

Our second measure asked how well states take care of the road systems they already have. We used data from Surface Transportation Policy Project's 1998 report called "Potholes and Politics" for this measure. Sprawl-busting states maintain current roads and existing transportation systems before pouring money into new ones. By contrast, poorly performing states let pressure from developers dictate where to put roads.

Our final measure was an on-the-ground reality check. Time spent behind the wheel is a good indicator of sprawl. Looking at the period from 1992 to 1997, using data from the Federal Highway Administration, we examined the change in the miles that each person drove. In the top states, time spent in cars did not increase as much as in poorly performing states.

Air Pollution: The Hidden Risk of Sprawl

Kyle Damitz does not know much about sprawl, but he does know that when it's smoggy he can't breathe. Kyle has asthma, and the smog generated by cars and trucks makes him sick.

"If he goes outside on an ozone warning day, he can wind up in the hospital," says his mother Maureen. "He doesn't get to go outside to play most of the summer, but that's better than a trip to the hospital."

They live in Chicago where traffic congestion created by suburban sprawl gets worse every year. Since the 1970s, the Chicago area population has increased by only 4 percent, but the miles driven by cars and trucks has grown by more than 30 times that. During the same time, Chicago's sprawling suburbs more than doubled in size. The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency says that cars, trucks and construction equipment produce more than two-thirds of the Chicago area's smog.

We have to tame sprawl if we ever hope to clean up the air. Awareness of the role sprawl plays in increasing air pollution can help us better weigh the benefits and disadvantages of different modes of transit.

But Kyle and Maureen aren't just waiting for this to happen. In 1997, they worked with the Sierra Club and American Lung Association to lead the fight for tougher clean-air standards for cars, trucks and other polluters. This will force states like Illinois to look at how their transportation choices will impact clean air for kids like Kyle.

We can't let American children breathe dangerous air. And we can't have clean air in an endlessly sprawling society.

Tear Down a Freeway, Save a City

a discussion with milwaukee Mayor John Norquist, by Brett Hulsey

Solving Sprawl: Transportation PlanningFor more than 50 years, our answer to more traffic has been to build bigger roads and promote more scattered development, which of course creates more traffic. Americans now waste almost $10 billion per year in lost time and gas, stuck in traffic. Local leaders are increasingly starting to figure this out and look at other options. One such leader is Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist.

"Widening roads to solve traffic congestion is like loosening your belt to solve a weight problem," says Norquist. "Among traffic planners, this is know as latent demand. Big roads fill with traffic to the point of gridlock, and when you widen them, they fill with more traffic congestion."

In Norquist's recent book, The Wealth of Cities, he explores this trend. "Only in America do we try to pave our cities with highways," he states.

Norquist is working to reverse this trend by using transportation money to remove an elevated freeway spur the city does not need, the Park East Freeway. The freeway was never completed due to neighborhood opposition several years ago. Redeveloping the vacant land under the freeway will result in hundreds of millions of dollars of investment, including the new Harley-Davidson Museum. His efforts were recently highlighted in The New York Times.

The city of Portland, Ore., did the same thing and created the Tom McCall Park along the Willamette River. The area is now one of the hottest commercial properties in the city and a magnet for millions of visitors.

What is Norquist's advice for other communities? "If road widening and super-highways don't work, what does? What works is consumer choice. Instead of putting all eggs in the Department of Transportation's basket with bigger highways, give people more choices, such as commuter trains, clean buses, and safe walking and biking trails."

You can help your community fight more traffic and sprawl by promoting transportation choices, such as commuter trains, and encouraging your state's department of transportation to look at safer streets, not just bigger highways.

Focus on: Rhode Island

Rhode IslandAmericans are addicted to the automobile, but Rhode Island has been trying hard to help its residents kick the habit.

The state has maintained and expanded its rail, ferry and bus systems in the face of federal funding cuts. It has committed real money to make walking and cycling safer and more practical. And Rhode Island has improved citizen access to the transportation planning process itself.

In recent years, as Congress cut spending for mass transit, Rhode Island has made up much of the shortfall. Two commuter ferryboats between Pawtucket and Providence have been added to the area's transportation system. And there is a serious effort to build a new train station near the main airport.

The state also recently put into service a new downtown shuttle that runs on compressed natural gas. It is investing in the infrastructure needed to make clean-fuel vehicles a significant part of the fleet.

In the arcane world of transportation planning, people refer to different ways of getting around as "modes." The car, the bus and the train are each a mode of transportation. A "multi-modal" approach is best: When citizens have the choice of hopping from a train to a bus, or from a bus to a bike, traffic congestion is reduced and getting around without a car is made easier and more convenient. Through its "Rack n' Ride" program, which added bicycle racks to many buses, the state found a cheap and easy way to improve its transportation system and encourage cycling.

In an effort to make the most efficient mode easier to use, Rhode Island is spending millions of dollars on a statewide system of bike trails -- including about 50 miles of new bike paths. In November 1998, the voters of the state overwhelmingly approved bonds for bikeways. The state's transportation department just announced that instead of tearing down the beautiful and historic Old Jamestown Bridge, they would study its reuse for pedestrians and bicyclists.

This project is an example of what is perhaps most important, a real increase in opportunities for citizen and community involvement in transportation planning. Traditionally, state departments of transportation and transit agencies made it hard for the public to have a meaningful role in decision making. In Rhode Island, that may be changing.

Rhode Island is far from perfect on transportation issues. Most notably, the state still plans what local environmentalists regard as a destructive, unnecessary and expensive new freeway to Quonset Point. But as Professor Barry Schiller, transportation chair for the Sierra Club Rhode Island Chapter (and the public member of the transit authority's board of directors) put it, "More than ever before, there's an opportunity for innovative ways to improve transportation."

Rate Your State: Transportation Planning

1 State, local, and federal spending on public transit from 1993 to 1997.
2 Percent of federal money spent on repairs vs. new highway construction.
3 Reduction in vehicle miles traveled per capita from 1992 to 1997.
4 Field Expert Input

: very effective
2: moderately effective
3: not effective


Rank State 1 2 3 4
1 Rhode Island 2 2 1 2
2 New Jersey 1 2 2 3
3 Hawaii 2 2 1 2
4 Washington 2 2 1 3
5 California 2 2 2 3
6 Oregon 1 2 2 2
7 Vermont 3 1 2 3
8 Montana 2 2 2 3
9 Illinois 2 2 3 2
10 New York 2 2 2 3
11 South Dakota 2 1 2 3
12 Maryland 2 3 2 2
13 Pennsylvania 2 2 3 3
14 Michigan 2 2 2 3
15 Idaho 3 2 2 3
16 Kansas 3 1 2 3
17 Minnesota 2 1 3 2
18 Alaska 2 2 2 3
19 Massachusetts 1 3 2 3
20 Maine 3 1 3 2
21 Louisiana 2 2 3 3
22 Ohio 2 2 2 3
23 New Hampshire 3 2 2 3
24 Georgia 2 3 3 2
25 Arizona 2 3 2 3
26 Colorado 2 2 3 3
27 Wisconsin 2 2 3 3
28 Connecticut 2 3 2 3
29 Florida 2 3 2 3
30 Virginia 2 3 2 3
31 Texas 2 3 3 3
32 Indiana 2 2 3 3
33 North Dakota 3 1 3 3
34 Delaware 2 2 3 3
35 Missouri 2 3 3 3
36 Wyoming 3 1 3 3
37 West Virginia 2 3 3 3
38 Utah 2 3 3 3
39 Nevada 2 3 3 3
40 Iowa 3 3 3 2
41 New Mexico 3 3 3 3
42 Nebraska 3 2 3 3
43 Kentucky 2 3 3 3
44 North Carolina 3 3 3 2
45 South Carolina 3 2 3 3
46 Tennessee 2 3 3 3
47 Alabama 3 3 3 3
48 Oklahoma 3 3 3 3
49 Mississippi 3 3 3 3
50 Arkansas 3 3 3 3

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