Wednesday, October 8, 2008

What If?

Image: DVRPC

Two posts ago I talked about the high cost of our auto-centric, sprawling development pattern in many parts of our nation. Many Americans see this cost at the gasoline pump, but what are the true costs for continuing to build farther away from where people work and shop, only accessible by car?

What are the costs in building new roads, new schools, new infrastructure? What are the costs to economic development, to commuting time, to the environment? These are the questions that a new study by the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission seeks to answer.

The study, titled “Making the Land Use Connection: Regional What-If Scenario Analysis” is part of a series of documents analyzing the new long-range plan for the greater Philadelphia region in 2035. It is available in pdf format.

The study uses DVRPC’s modeling tools to simulate a number of factors in three scenarios.

“Trend” projects out the current growth patterns for the region.

“Recentralization” accounts for more growth in urban areas, towns, and older suburbs, bringing jobs and housing back into the region’s existing centers.

“Sprawl” shows an acceleration of growth, expanding farther into the region’s outlying areas than anticipated in the Trend scenario.

Clearly, with such a complicated range of factors, these models are not perfect. However, they use the same methodology for all three scenarios, bringing a consistent and controlled analysis of the costs and benefits of how we grow as a region.

The study describes the methodology and explains, “The main differentiation between the scenarios is the location of future population and employment by planning area. All other assumptions between the scenarios are identical.”

Here are some highlights from the study’s findings:

• The Recentralization scenario saves 163,000 acres from development compared to the Trend scenario. This is an area roughly the size of Camden County.

• Under the Sprawl scenario, an additional 309,000 acres will be developed in the region compared to the Trend scenario. This is an area roughly the size of Montgomery County.

• The Recentralization scenario saves 71,800 acres from agricultural development compared to the Trend scenario, and an additional 167,500 agricultural acres compared to the Sprawl scenario.

• The Recentralization scenario could reduce annual VMT [vehicle miles traveled] in 2035 by 1.7 billion compared to the Trend scenario, and by 3 billion compared to the Sprawl scenario.

• Compared to the Trend scenario, the Recentralization scenario could save 1.25 working days of time spent driving in 2035 per capita.

• In 2035, the Recentralization scenario could produce person hours of delay due to congestion by 24 million hours region-wide, or four hours per capita, compared to the Trend scenario.

• Less driving in the Recentralization scenario translates into an average of 4,299 fewer vehicle crashes in 2035 compared to the Sprawl scenario and 2,200 fewer crashes than in the Trend scenario.

• The average household in the Recentralization scenario will require 2.3 percent less energy to power, heat, cool, and transport than an average household under the trend scenario.

• Under the Recentralization scenario, the sum of CO2 emissions from residential and vehicle energy use can be decreased by nearly 3.7 million tons in 2035…compared to the Trend scenario.

• The Recentralization scenario is estimated to save 24 million gallons of water per day in the region…

• The Trend scenario anticipates increasing jobs in disadvantaged…communities by approximately three percent over the 30-year period.

Now let’s talk money. What are the costs/savings of all this?

• Excess time and fuel wasted in congestion in the Sprawl scenario could cost the region an extra $909 million, or $148 per capita, more than the Trend scenario in 2035; and $1.57 billion, or $255 per capita…compared to the Recentralization scenario.

• The Recentralization scenario is estimated to save the average household $300 in annual auto and utility expenses compared to the Trend scenario and nearly $1,300 compared to the Sprawl scenario.

• Total supporting infrastructure cost for schools, local roads, sewers and water is $25 billion more under the Sprawl scenario than under the Trend scenario. … By more fully utilizing existing infrastructure, the Recentralization scenario could save nearly $3 billion total dollars…

This last figure shows the true burden of sprawl on our society. The costs of supportive infrastructure in the Trend scenario are $10.8 billion, in the Recentralization scenario $7.38 billion, and in the Sprawl scenario $35.6 billion. It matters how we grow our region and nation. The study explains this fact more fully:

“As population grows in previously undeveloped areas, new infrastructure and increased revenue from real estate taxes generate healthy fiscal conditions. Population growth, though, brings the need for additional services, and as infrastructure ages, it becomes expensive to maintain and replace, straining municipal budgets. As a result, over time, taxes need to be raised, fees increased, services reduced, or additional debt incurred. Tax increases and service cuts eventually lead to lower property values and/or outmigration, and the municipality begins losing its tax base and risks falling into distress.”

If we as a nation wish to continue to expand farther and farther away from our developed areas, our transportation infrastructure, our jobs and services, then there is a real cost to our society. As the DVRPC report shows, it is potentially a cost we cannot afford.

However, if we make a committed decision, as a nation, to change the way we grow, travel, and live, if we reinvest in urbanized areas and their supportive infrastructure, then the cost savings to our society and our environment, will be profound.

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