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Compactness or Sprawl: America's Future vs. the Present

Harry W. Richardson and Peter Gordon
This is the first time in U.S. history that an urban planning problem has featured, if peripherally, as a Presidential campaign issue. Never before have academic urban planners been in so much demand for T.V. news programs, radio talk shows, and newspaper op-ed pieces. Why? Because of a raging debate about U.S. residential lifestyles. The long-held American dream of a suburban detached home with a garden and a two-car garage (now often four!) has become a cardinal sin, if not a crime: indulging in and contributing to "sprawl". This addiction has a touted antidote: densification and public transit. Its defect is a widespread distaste for the medicine. Revealed preferences strongly favor the single-family home (and surveys among apartment dwellers show that this is their dream too) and driving. The New Urbanists who live on multi-acre lots and the transit agency bosses who choose among a Mercedes, a Lexus or a limousine rather than between bus and rail are more than anecdotal. But perhaps the world is changing. In 1998, threequarters of the 250-plus local ballot initiatives in favor of growth management and development controls passed. Many developers have been "converted" to promote Smart Growth projects, such as infill townhome developments close to transit lines that pass a "sustainability" test. Billions of Federal and State dollars continue to be poured into transit (especially rail) with the perverse result that transit ridership continues to fall (primarily as a result of the diversion of resources from bus to rail). Suburban living is blamed for high school shootings, obesity and dysfunctional families. But, even if these diagnoses were correct and even if there has been a change of heart, would it make a difference?