I live and work in a house in an eminently walkable and bikeable neighborhoodthe kind with 50-foot lots knitted together by streets, alleys, and sidewalks. My house is a block from a bus stop and within a mile of downtown. And yet, I am a hostage to the car culture.
To buy more than a stamp, I must strap on my automotive armor, pour gas in the tank, and hit the road. That’s because the bus runs infrequently and requires time-consuming transfers to go anyplace but downtown. As for shopping downtown, that is little more than a memory. The necessities of life have been disbursed across the map of Metro, and I must hunt them down with my internal combustion engine.
A good grocery store is 15 minutes away; clothing is even farther. Since Acme Farm Supply closed, it takes 20 minutes each way to find quality pet food for my four dogs and five cats. Since the demise of the Belcourt and Fountain Square theaters, there is no commercial movie house within the I-440 loop.
When I’m locked in my car making all the 20-minute trips that define my Nashville lifestyle, I can almost hear the sucking sound that is pulling me toward the perimeter. I am a victim of sprawl.
The pornography of space
Defining sprawl is like defining pornographywe know it when we see it.
We recognize sprawl in the fast-food franchises and chain drugstores and gas stations that repeat every few miles along spokes like Nolensville and Murfreesboro roads. We know we’re sprawling when the traffic coagulates on our interstates, and bleeds onto residential streets like Woodlawn and Woodmont. A more poignant sprawl signpost is the development whose namesay 100 Oaks Mall or Maryland Farmsmemorializes what it has obliterated.
According to Jeff Lawrence, research analyst with the Metro Planning Commission, new residential development in Davidson County has gobbled up land at a rate more than five times the population increase since 1990. That means fewer people on bigger parcels.
Spatial obesity is the bad habit of the suburbs that developed after World War II. It was at this point in our national history that we began to lower the density of new residential developments on the city’s edge. One of the reasons why the term “urban sprawl” is so annoying to me, in fact, is because it gives “urban” a bad rap. There is nothing urban about sprawl.
This lower density on the edges of towns and cities was made possible by a car in every garage and an expanding system of roads. When you had to walk to a grocery store or a school, to a bus or trolley stop, you lived close to those places to make it easy on your shoe leather. That meant living near your neighbor as well. But when you could drive directly from home to wherever you wanted to go, distance between destinations was suddenly no object. Lawns grew; sidewalks disappeared.
Interstates came to Nashville in 1959. Retail, and then offices, followed the home buyers fleeing outward on the concrete spaghetti.
Today the concrete has grown to lasagna proportions, and cars congeal on it like cold marinara sauce. In 1995, for example, I-24 at Harding Place carried an average of 103,970 cars per day, according to the Federal Highway Administration. The 1975 daily volume for the same stretch was 33,890 cars. The result, according to the 1999 Greater Nashville Chamber of Commerce report Beating Gridlock, is that “the average Middle Tennessean motorist wastes more than seven workdays [a year] waiting in rush-hour traffic.”
Seen another way, the Federal Highway Administration reports that Nashville drivers averaged 35.7 miles per day in 1997, an increase of three miles a day since 1995. That puts us fourth in the nation, right behind Atlanta’s 37.3 miles a day. Atlanta, which has failed to achieve federal air quality standards and has therefore lost federal funding for road construction, is a yellow light of caution on our road to sprawl.
It may seem crazy to suggest that decreasing the density of development increases the congestion on our roads. But traffic jams exist, not because we have more people, but because the road patterns on which people drive put them all on the same few routes.
The Chamber’s Beating Gridlock says that Nashville is “the eleventh most congested city in the nation, with longer traffic delays than Boston, New York, or Chicago.” These far more populous cities are also settled three-to-five times more densely than Nashville’s average of 1.9 people per acre. Greater densities support good mass transit, and Boston, New York, and Chicago have it. Perhaps even more key is that these northern cities all have a grid of through-streets that disperses, rather than concentrates, traffic.
A grid layout gives drivers a choice of routes. If one route gets clogged, you turn right or left, and take an alternate. The road pattern serving cul-de-sac subdivisions and shopping malls, on the other hand, allows few choices. Drivers are simply funneled on one major roadway because there are so few through-streets.
It’s no coincidence that 11 of the 12 most congested intersections in Nashville are not downtown, with its 70,000 workers, but are in the suburbs. The hot spots identified by Metro traffic engineerswhich include Lebanon Road/Donelson Pike, Gallatin Road/Old Hickory Boulevard, Nolensville Road/Harding Place, West End Avenue/Murphy Roadoccur where the road layout concentrates traffic. The one exception to our suburban-dominated congestion is the Broadway/I-40 juncture, where traffic is concentrated because of the limited access nature of the interstate.
The Tennessee Roadbuilders Association (TRA), for obvious reasons of self-interest, is lobbying hard to obscure why we’re suffering from a hardening of our arteries. In a “Nashville Eye” editorial in the Oct. 17 Tennessean, TRA vice-president Kent Starwalt claims, “New roads don’t cause traffic; new houses, new businesses, and more people cause traffic. The only thing new roads do is make sure that the traffic has somewhere to go.” The pavers are recycling the NRA’s mantra: “Guns don’t kill people, people do.”
Starwalt ignores the phenomenon of induced traffic. Thoughtful studies by University of California at Berkeley professor Mark Hansen have found that a 10-percent increase in road capacity induces a 9-percent increase in traffic, new traffic that did not exist on the road before the expansion. Listen up, Mr. Starwalt. New roads that enable sprawl and concentrate cars ensure that we’ll be driving more and enjoying it less.
Seeing the light
The good news is that the anti-sprawlers are no longer lone voices crying in the wilderness. Some clarion calls to common sense are even turning up in the pages of The Tennessean. On four Sundays from mid-September through mid-October, our self-styled “Newspaper for the 21st Century” finally acknowledged what’s been happening in the second half of the 20th. The Tennessean published “The Peirce Report.”
The series of articles were written by sprawl-busters Neal Peirce, of Washington, D.C., and Curtis Johnson, of St. Paul, Minn. These two writers and policy analysts founded the Citistates Group to study growth issues from a regional perspective. Their Nashville Peirce Report, which focused on 10 Middle Tennessee counties, is the 17th in a series that has included takes on, among others, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Charlotte, and San Diego. The Nashville report was sponsored by the Vanderbilt Institute for Public Policy Studies, which raised the report’s funding of slightly under $100,000 from a collection of corporations, foundations, and private donors.
The Nashville Peirce Report is generalist in its approach, rather than deep with insights into our region. And the report features some boilerplate prose that reads like a cut-and-paste job from some of the duo’s previous writings. Nevertheless, the report’s broad exposure in The Tennessean puts the language of smart growth into the vernacular. And the report’s basic themes are sound: the need for regional planning, good mass transit, and citizen involvement in the planning process.
Peirce and Johnson admire the booming Middle Tennessee economy, the rising population and low unemployment, the infusion of high tech with Dell. But the authors warn that the development pressures could lead to more traffic congestion, declining air and water quality, and higher taxes.
Nashvillians express great fear about living in another Atlanta, Peirce and Johnson notice, yet pursue Atlanta-like development policies, which “stoked the economic fires without protecting quality of life.... Middle Tennessee counties are still in a race for development, a course that can lead to the worst kind of growth problems.... But in Davidson and its surrounding counties, smart growth has caught the attention of but a few leaders and thinkers.”
Our collective lack of attention, Peirce and Johnson point out, saddles us with “zoning that vastly favors suburban-style development.” It also means we are pursuing dumb transportation projects such as the 840 ring road“the antithesis of smart growth” because it will create yet more sprawl by further loosening the belt.
The Peirce Report notes that “Middle Tennesseans don’t seem to have caught on to the leading architectural trend of the ’90s: New Urbanism.” In over 100 sites in the countrybut not hereNew Urbanist designers are reintroducing traditional building patterns that were established before the car was king. New Urbanist developments typically include small lots, through-streets, and town centers. The idea is to both conserve open space and provide the density to enable mass transit to work.
Choosing the size of the wasteline
Peirce and Johnson did find something in Tennessee to admire, something that had caught their eyes over a year ago. In an Oct. 11, 1998 Washington Post column, Peirce waxed euphoric on Public Chapter 1101, a planning law passed by the Tennessee Legislature. The law requires each county in the state to file a plan designating urban growth boundaries for each town and city, planned growth areas for the county, and areas that will remain rural, for the next 20 years. Plans must be filed by the end of this year.
In his Post column, Peirce described the measure as “a planner’s dream” for “not only discouraging unwise growth but mandating a sophisticated local planning process to sidetrack sprawling development before it’s even proposed.” The later Peirce Report is more cautiously optimistic, but still hopeful that the law could serve as a welcome antidote to the current “ ‘let ’er rip’ mentality about growth.”
The 1101 planning process is supposed to work like this: City officials, county officials, and planners establish a density for future development, based on the cost of providing services to the yet-to-be-developed areas. (Density is the number of units or people per acre.) Because supplying water, sewer, utilities, and fire and police protection is more expensive when dwelling units are situated far apart from one another, sensible counties and cities will want only as much land for development as they can afford to serve.
The city and county officials calculate how much land will be needed to absorb their projected population increases, and establish growth boundaries. Each county’s coordinating committee must then ratify the plans of the various cities and the county. Cities and counties that cannot come to a mutually agreed upon plan enter into arbitration to produce one.
If 1101 accomplishes nothing else but getting governments to think collectively about development, that’s still a big first step. Recently, for example, the process caused Goodlettsville and Hendersonville to agree on a shared boundary, resolving a 20-year legal dispute. But facing a deadline of the end of this year, some counties are producing plans that suggest 1101 will need tightening before it effectively curbs sprawl.
“Even though this is a planning law, my impression is that there’s very little actual planning going on,” says Goodlettsville planning director Bill Terry. “If the philosophy is growth at any cost, cities will take as much land as they can get, even without a plan to provide urban services.”
In fact, many cities are trying to annex large chunks so they can capture commercial tax revenues. Thus, 1101 appears, at times, to be little more than a land grab on the part of greedy cities. The city of Murfreesboro, for instance, initially proposed an urban growth boundary that included all the major roadways entering the city. Franklin staked out a growth area that is more than three times the city’s current size. The Franklin population, however, is only projected to increase by 85 percent, according to Williamson County planner Joe Horne. Such a boundary line as suggested by Franklin would yield a density of a scant 1.2 persons per acre.
Terry, who with Sam Edwards of the Greater Nashville Regional Council was the planning expertise behind 1101, admits that some aspects of the law are weak. “You have to walk before you can run. The law talks about high density and moderate density, but doesn’t give guidelines on what those terms mean.”
Some counties are cracking down on their cities’ annexation plans. “Fairview backed off 8,000 of the acres it wanted,” says Horne. “According to our numbers, their boundary was almost 12 times what they really need.”
In Dickson County, “We got off to a rough start,” says Jeff Carr, a member of Dickson’s coordinating committee. “But we’ve managed the initial growth fingers significantly down in size because they didn’t make sense. At this point we have a rational growth plan, so I’d say the process has been good in Dickson.”
Follow the money
Some counties are not exactly filled with the best of intentions as they seek compact development patterns and try to halt their cities’ spread. In fact, they’re trying to grab some land for planned growth areas of their own. The reason for this city-county yin-yang is taxes.
One thing The Peirce Report failed to address is how the Tennessee tax structure drives sprawl. Andrew Jackson was elected president on a low-tax platform, and Tennessee politics hasn’t changed much since.
Property and sales taxes finance local government. But property taxes on residential real estate do not provide a sufficient cash flow to pay for county schools, police and fire protection, and water and sewer services. A study for Rutherford County by planner Jim Rhody found that 100 new homes would cost taxpayers approximately $2 million in capital improvements and operating costs over 20 years, yet bring in less than $1 million in revenue during the same period. That leaves taxes on commercial property and sales.
“Every county wants its share of retail to support local schools,” explains Bill Terry. “Rivergate Mall does it for Sumner.”
So cities try to annex arterial roadways because that’s where the tax revenue-producing Wal-Marts go. But to get a Wal-Mart, you have to have a lot of subdivisions around it. Therefore, “officials promote growth even though it doesn’t pay for itself,” says Terry. “No one admits that growth increases property taxes. But did the taxes go down in Williamson County after Cool Springs? Does anyone think they’ll go down after Dell arrives?”
Terry says that tax reform is “an essential element” in curbing sprawl, but he doesn’t mean the versions Sundquist proposed. Only a tax system much less dependent on sales tax, while providing for some revenue sharing between the state and local governments, can slow the dog-chasing-the-tail of residential-retail sprawl.
Riding the rails
Travel by rail has a certain romantic aura that the bus, the workhorse of mass transit, has never managed to conjure in the American psyche. Hurtling along on rails of iron reminds us of the golden spike that tamed the West, of Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint heading North by Northwest, or of Europe’s Orient Expresseven if the reality is closer to John Cheever’s harassed, martini-fueled commuters.
Commuter rail runs on conventional railroad tracks, using regular railroad cars. Light rail runs through cities on narrow tracks.
Light rail’s charisma is a futuristic one. Portland and Seattle, Denver and Dallas have light rail. They also have progressive profiles to match. These “major league” cities sliding smoothly into tomorrow are the benchmarks against which we measure ourselves; we want what they have. “If we could get a light rail system from another city the way we got the Oilers,” says local transportation planner Steve Tocknell, “we’d have one by now.”
On the other hand, there is the bus. The cultural icon that the bus presents to our collective imaginations is Rosa Parks. Her heroism is unquestionably a historical high point, but may inadvertently remind us that the habitual bus rider often sits in the seats at the back of our society.
The different associations of rails and rubber tires are perhaps one reason why so many champions of mass transit view commuter rail and light rail as the great white hopes to get the middle and even upper classes back onto public transportation.
The Peirce Report saves its strongest advocacy for transportation by rail. The authors explain that commuter rail from the surrounding counties makes sense, because “History has left Nashville with a critical group of rail corridorsfive in allthat actually parallel major interstates and development corridors. They connect the heavy travel points of the metropolitan region.”
Peirce and Johnson describe the light rail line proposed by the Metro Transit Authority as not merely a complement to commuter rail, but “the icing on the cake of a Nashville transit system built to 21st-century standards.” They say the start-up segmentcirculating through downtown and out West End Avenue to Murphy Road“would provide the connective tissue for a remarkable body of Nashville attractions” and “give Music Row and Medical Row a permanent spine.”
The Greater Nashville Chamber of Commerce is also a big rail booster. Its Beating Gridlock report focuses on commuter and light rail as two of the “missing pieces in the puzzle” of how to get around. The Chamber’s support for mass transit is welcome, if schizophrenic, because the organization has also voiced support for ring road 840. Mass transit requires a density of development along the routes to provide sufficient riders. State Route 840 will create another ring of low density sprawl around the region and pull potential passengers away from transit lines.
As for the price tag for both commuter and light rail, The Peirce Report states that “even by the Nashville region’s own standards, a $342 million capital bill for a major transportation system is modest. Compare the monies proposed for State Route 840.... That’s a $1.2 billion total.” The Peirce Report suggests the figure for a commuter rail plan would be $266 million, according to numbers they use from a 1996 commuter rail study. More recent figures from the Regional Transit Authority peg the cost at even less than that, approximately $150 million, or $1.07 million a mile.
If most local transportation experts agree with the Peirce and Chamber reports that commuter rail is worth the investment, the consensus on light rail is less solid.
One reason for the skepticism is the route of the first segment proposed by MTA. A downtown circulator would be part of any logical rail plan. But the stretch out West End to Murphy Road reaches to the most affluent section of the city, where people have the least economic incentive not to drive. Current bus ridership on West End ranks fifth in the city, with an average of 902 riders per weekday. The highest ridership is to the east, where there is greater residential density and a wider variety of income levels. The Gallatin Road bus carries 2,200 people on an average weekday.
If the West End bus ridership is relatively low, the car volume is correspondingly high. But the light rail route stops short of the residential sections, the source of commuters. If relieving congestion is one of the needs to be met by light rail, then it may seem like a dubious proposition to ask people to drive to Murphy Road, park in a garage, and then take the train. Some East Nashvillians have recognized the illogic. In comments to MTA, they have claimed that if any section of the city might support light rail it is theirs, where the neighborhoods were originally designed for trolleys. In response, MTA has asked its consultants to study adding an eastern spur to Five Points to connect it to downtown.
The Peirce Report states that the connective value of the light rail would depend on “a vastly expanded and improved MTA bus system,” and most transportation planners agree. But some think we should get on the bus before we ride the rails.
Vanderbilt economist Malcolm Getz points out that Nashville light rail analysis by the firm of Wilbur Smith included information on an electric trolley bus option that would cost half as much to follow the same route as light rail. Estimates peg the cost of light rail at between $18 million and $27 million per mile. “It’s nuts to build a single rail out West End,” which would restrict the frequency of service to every 15 minutes, Getz said. “The Wilbur Smith consultants conclusion is that the financial feasibility of [the electric buses] can be affirmed; the case for even an initial investment in rail hasn’t been made,” Getz says.
Marian Ott, former director of the Regional Transit Authority and a current member of the MTA board, says, “My frustration with all the light rail talk is that it’s diverting attention from our current needs,” Ott says. “Older buses are less reliable and more expensive to repair. To keep our bus fleet healthy we should be purchasing 10 or more buses a year. This year MTA capital funding will allow us to buy four.”
Ott says she’d “like the light rail discussion to include upgrading the bus system to the point where it attracts enough riders in one corridor to trigger going to light rail.” Federal officials use 15,000 riders a day on a route as the traditional benchmark for investment in a light rail line. Right now Nashville has a total daily average on all routes of 25,000 riders.
Whether it runs on rails or rubber tires, two basic problems must be resolved before mass transit works in Nashville. The first is the lack of a dedicated source of funding to cover annual operational costs. Once you build a system you must be able to run it, and a budget at the whim of Metro Council doesn’t promise financial security. The other more crucial problem, which Peirce and Johnson point out, is that our sprawling land use is going in the opposite direction from transit support. If we keep sprawling, we’ll have to keep driving.
In the past few years, a number of private groups have begun to pressure government officials in the region for smarter development policies. The broad framework of The Peirce Report could help to unify these local initiatives into a coherent voice.
On Nov. 13, the Nashville Urban Design Forum presented an open-to-the-public workshop for the Metro Council entitled “City Smarts: Strategies for Community Design.” Three visiting experts explained to a crowd of 140 how to design neighborhoods and transportation systems that are economically viable, pedestrian-friendly, and support mass transit. The assembled crowd included a dozen Council members, representatives from the Metro departments that plan and build our city, as well as private developers, neighborhood types, and environmentalists. One of the few planning wonks not in attendance was unfortunately the guy who’s in charge: Planning Commission executive director Jeff Browning.
Perhaps the smartest thing to grow in Nashville in recent memory has been the Metro Greenways system. With its plan to provide a pedestrian and bicycle link throughout the county, the greenways offer expanded opportunities for recreation as well as a green transportation infrastructure. Cities like Austin are using large public greenspaces in areas targeted for development to make greater density more acceptable to the average home buyer. The theory is that if you can walk to a hundred acres of public open space, you’ll feel less need for a big yard.
There are other indications that at least some citizens of Middle Tennessee are beginning to appreciate smart growth. Citizens have banded together to oppose such sprawl-inducing projects as the northwest and southwest sections of 840 and the widening of Hillsboro Road. Former mayor Phil Bredesen founded the Land Trust for Tennessee to preserve open space. The Nashville Career Advancement Center and Tying Nashville Together have begun to study the impact mass transit has on the ability of people to go from welfare to work. Walk/Bike Nashville is pushing for a Metro bicycle/pedestrian coordinator to review all transportation projects for friendliness to other modes of transportation besides cars. Mayor Bill Purcell has committed to establishing a community design center to provide expert advice on alternatives to typical suburban planning.
One signal that smart growth is gaining some power players comes from an institution that in the past has been accused of failing to look beyond its magnolia curtain. As a direct result of The Peirce Report, Vanderbilt University is sponsoring a regional planning summit on Dec. 9 in cooperation with the Greater Nashville Regional Council. The ultimate goal of the Vanderbilt initiative is a private, membership-based organization to use education, research, and advocacy on growth issues to encourage citizen involvement in our region’s planning.
The environmentalists and the urban designers, the farmers and advocates for the working poor, the walkers and bikers and roller bladers are finally starting to talk to each other. They are beginning to realize that the way we develop could reign in the centrifugal forces of sprawl that are pushing us apart.
There goes the neighborhood
In Middle Tennessee, the smart growth movement is largely a phenomenon of the economic elite and planning and policy wonks. Most agree they have little apparent impact on public opinion. For example, the citizens of the Florence community in Rutherford County recently blocked a progressive proposal for a 250-acre mixed use development, combining retail, offices, and housing on a variety of lots sizes. The citizens instead opted for a traditional subdivision.
While the “mini-village” development was hardly New Urbanist in its layout, it nevertheless would have allowed residents to work and shop without lots of driving. But the planned community concept was rejected in the name of less traffic and congestion and the preservation of rural values. Unfortunately, the subdivisions marching down Florence Road will soon clog traffic and obliterate any semblance of country living.
Yet suburbanites cannot be blamed for their skepticism over higher density housing and commercial development, given what both have meant in the past. “Out here ‘high density’ is a bad word,” explains Goodlettsville’s Bill Terry, “because the product developers have put on the ground is not that great: three-story apartment buildings with bad architecture and minimal landscaping.... The basic conception in suburban areas is that larger lots mean bigger, more expensive houses, which means better folks. That’s a concept we’ve got to overcome if we’re going to control sprawl.”
Conservatives, such as columnist George Will, often depict smart growth policies as a conspiracy by pointy-headed liberals to deprive the American people of their suburban dream. But they ignore the obvious. The dream is fast becoming a nightmare. The car culture is sold as an exercise in personal freedom, but the suburban lifestyle leaves us free to do little but talk on the cell phone or change the dial on the radio.
Other critics of smart growth try to portray the movement as anti-growth. But it is not that either. It recognizes growth will occur. And it rejects a “not in my backyard” philosophy, which advocates placing growth anywhere but near where one lives.
Smart growth is about a saner, simpler system of ordering the civic organism. It’s about getting off the interstates and back into the home. It’s about figuring out what we want our city to look like, and then heading there. It’s about being smart, something we haven’t been for a while now.
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