Bay Area growth: Why not spread out into rural land instead of building in cities?
The last two centuries have brought unprecedented urbanization around the world. Large cities have become the norm by meeting the aspirations of new residents. Cities are primarily economic organisms and are justified only by improving the lives of their residents, by facilitating higher discretionary incomes and reducing poverty.
However, in recent years, those more concerned with what the city looks like and how residents travel have dominated urban policy. Regional plans had been adopted with virtually no attention to the economic impacts of their strategies. Urban expansion (which detractors call by the ill defined term “sprawl”) has become the bugaboo, despite the fact that 97 percent of the nation’s land is rural. The result has been to price people out of the housing market, severely restrict affordable housing for low-income households and increase traffic congestion, with its attendant costs.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the San Francisco Bay Area, under the Association of Bay Area governments and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission “Plan Bay Area.”
Plan Bay Area seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by reducing automobile use and by forcing people to live in smaller houses at much higher densities. Between now and 2040, more than three quarters of the new houses would be built in high-density, transit-oriented developments, called “priority development areas.” It further suggests that fewer detached houses will be needed, despite a larger population. Priority development areas would also accommodate nearly two-thirds of all business expansion.
Little or no new development would be allowed on or beyond the urban fringe, where cities have grown organically since the beginning of time. Less draconian constraints on fringe development have been employed for 40 years in the Bay Area. This has led to a more than doubling of house prices relative to incomes, making a formerly affordable metropolitan area one of the most expensive in the world. This is not unexpected, since rationing of any demanded good or service, including land for houses, increases its price, other things being equal. At least partly because the first principle of livability is affordability, a net one-half million people have moved from the Bay Area to other parts of the country since 2000.
Yet, even after seeking to play musical chairs with the lives of 7 million current residents and a million additional residents who could move there by 2040, Plan Bay Area predicts that people will drive cars just about as much as they do now. But much of this traffic would be concentrated around the priority areas, which would intensify traffic congestion. The effect would be to radically alter the character of communities from Larkspur to Orinda to Morgan Hill, by crowding them with higher population densities and making traffic congestion and local air pollution even worse.
None of this is necessary. The United States Department of Energy forecasts that automobile fuel efficiency will improve materially by 2040. This would reduce Bay Area per capita emissions 49 percent by 2040. Plan Bay Area’s policies are not necessary to reach the state’s emissions reduction target.
The Bay Area has an opportunity to reject the policy overreach that has made housing so expensive and traffic congestion so bad. Plan Bay Area should be withdrawn. Officials should instead focus on facilitating the aspirations of present and future residents.