Monday, September 15, 2008

The Sprawl Tax

(Newspaper Column, Sept. 15)

With all the election chatter about who will or will not raise your taxes, there’s one self-imposed tariff that few people are talking about – the sprawl tax.

Our awareness of the added costs of suburban sprawl is not unlike the boiling frog syndrome. You know the story. It is said that a frog will jump out of the pot if thrown in scalding water, but if lukewarm water is heated slowly, the frog remains oblivious to the danger and soon, without realizing what’s going on, becomes soup meat.

As our built landscape has morphed from compact neighborhoods with most services within walking or short driving distance to sprawling suburbs and commercial strips, the cost to each individual of supporting this way of building – both in tax dollars and out-of-pocket expense – has gone up and up.

It wasn’t that long ago when the norm was one car per household. One car was enough because our physical connections to the places we lived, worked, and played were human scale. Neighborhoods all had sidewalks and people used them.

But increasingly, our built environment has become disconnected from what preceded it. We build large tracts of housing with no sidewalks and no place to walk even if there were sidewalks. Strip shopping centers and big-box retailers line up end to end with parking lots cut off from the store next door. Regional K-12 megaplexes have replaced neighborhood schools in outlying parcels far away from the homes of students and teachers who drive there every day.

Like the poor yet now tender and salted frog, many of us have lived with this disconnectedness for so long we don’t even realize the economic impact it has on our lives. But now, especially with the high price of gas, the economic consequences of living in a sprawl world are looming large.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the average distance driven per household has increased from 12 to 21 thousand miles in the just the past 30 years, even as the size of households has diminished. That’s a direct reflection of our dependence on the automobile to negotiate our newly laid-out communities.

We are now a one-car-per-adult society. A family of 4 with two teenagers must own and operate four vehicles to lead a “normal” life. Sprawl, by its nature, demands that as the ante for full citizenship.

But it’s not just the price of gas. The bill to each taxpayer for longer and wider roads, expanded utilities, and storm-water management increases when the components of our built environment are spread-out and disconnected. In short, sprawl raises your taxes.

There are solutions. All over America, people are re-thinking the way we plan our communities. Neighborhoods are springing up where housing is clustered around neighborhood businesses and walkability is a prime asset

With sprawl as a new economic liability, the suburban McMansions of today may just be the slums of tomorrow.

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