By. Neil Williamson, President
After attending the Places29 work session in Albemarle County yesterday (1/13), I was encouraged by the discussion of potential additions to the development areas in Albemarle County. Regular readers know in 1980, 5% of Albemarle County was designated as for development. Recently that number dropped by 3.5% due to the new Biscuit Run State Park.
The discussion prompted a bigger question in my mind, how has the first 30 years of the development areas concept worked out for Albemarle County?
The vision of Albemarle’s comprehensive plan is to build densely populated walkable, mixed use communities. Wayne Cilimberg, Albemarle County Planning Director is quoted in today’s Daily Progress in a story by Brandon Shulleeta:
The town-center style development, including housing units over storefronts and developing taller buildings, is being encouraged.
“That’s pretty much the American-style development up until World War II. It wasn’t auto dependent,” Cilimberg said. “There was more of a relationship between where people lived and where they worked and shopped. The current trend is in the direction we want. Ideally, we’d like to get the rural areas down to zero-growth for new homes, but that’s not likely to happen, and we realize that.”
A lot of people like to imagine some kind of golden age where we all rode around on trains or bicycles or street cars, but the reality is only the wealthy could do that, and the wealthy didn’t do all that much of it. The average American only traveled, in 1900, about 200 miles a year by inter-city train, and another two or three hundred miles by street car. And, today we are traveling 18,000 miles per person per year almost all of it by automobile or airplane.
The idea that we can go back to some kind of age when we can just have inter-city high speed trains or street cars is foolish, it’s not going to work. Mobility has given us a tremendous amount of benefit.
For one thing, it gives employers access to far more workers. If you can draw workers from a thirty-mile radius, instead of a one-mile radius (because you can only get to the ones who can reach you on foot) — because it gives employers access to more workers, workers are more productive and employers can pay workers more. So, mobility has been associated with a seven-fold increase in real, inflation-adjusted incomes, since Henry Ford developed the mass production of the Model T Ford. So, this huge increase in income is largely due to that mobility.
Mobility gives us access to lower-cost consumer goods. It gives access to a wide range of social and recreation opportunities.
So, when the Obama Administration says they want to coerce people out of their cars — when places like the City of Portland adopt plans that aim to reduce per capita driving by two-thirds in the next forty years — we’re talking about, not just reducing peoples mobility, but reducing their incomes, reducing their access to consumer goods, reducing their social and recreation opportunities. These kinds of impacts will fall hardest on low income people because they are going to be the ones that won’t have access to alternatives.
“[The planners] are romanticizing the plan as it worked for the rich. There is a planning advocate named James Howard Kuntsler, who gave a speech a few years ago, in which he said, imagine living in Chicago in 1881 and you could take a train from your downtown office to a wonderful suburban neighborhood. It was a glorious way to live. Yes, it was for the 10 percent who could afford to live that way, or maybe 20 percent, but the vast majority of Americans were confined to travel on foot. They couldn’t afford trains. They couldn’t afford street cars. Even as late as 1910 most travel in America was on foot. So the idea that we can go back to that age and not lose the incomes we have gained since then — not lose the spread of mobility throughout our population since then — is just a fantasy.
The reality is that we are going to severely cripple the economy. We are going to harm lots and lots of low-income and middle-income people, if we try to implement these plans aimed at reducing people’s mobility.
The Free Enterprise Forum tends to lean toward the O’Toole mobility based vision with one caveat, since there clearly exists a market segment (not a majority) interested in densely populated, walkable communities; Such market driven communities should not be prevented by ordinance (as they once were in Albemarle via set backs) but should also not be mandated.
Using their wallets, Americans should be provided the freedom to chose their level of density and the limits on their mobility.
Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna and Nelson County. For more information visit the website www.freeenterpriseforum.org