Planning Transit Friendly Development or Restricting Mobility?

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.”

Writing in The Big Sky Business Journal The Reason Foundation’s Randal O’Toole has a different take on defining “American Development Patterns”.

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.


20070731williamson 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


5 responses

  1. O’Toole loves to throw around exclamation points and numbers that he has no way of verifying. His work is all theater, to scare the audience away from the opportunity to choose efficient transport. Selecting 1900 as a year to measure American travel habits is rather odd. Sure the auto was appearing; there were horse drawn street cars. So his point is? Even if his numbers are correct. It has little to do with the trillions of government subsidies given over to highways since Eisenhower. And now we are in a fix because the car is costing us fuel, land and our personal health. To invoke free market today will only get us more of the same instead of relief from sprawl, highways eating up taxable and arable land. As he runs away from government sponsored transportation, let’s hope he doesn’t bump his head on the multi-continental corporations that are becoming today’s version of the “big” government he laments.

  2. I can appreciate O’Toole’s interesting historical perspective but don’t necessarily agree with his assertion about a demise in economic and income prosperity. There’s this thing called the Internet that enables people to do pretty much anything, including work, from the comfort of wherever they choose to be. I do agree people want the freedom to jump in their vehicles and go somewhere on a moments notice but the development of more walkable communities wouldn’t necessarily lead to the outcomes he predicts. Besides, we’re all going to one day use hover craft like the Jetsons so we won’t need roads.

  3. Bill and Todd, do you commute or walk to work?

    I personally do “commute” over the internet, but that is not possible for most jobs.

    Cilimberg’s statement about zero home building in rural areas sounds more to me like, protect nice places for the haves and put the others in the towns. We now push all growth up Rt 29 and prevent it south of the interstate.

    1. JMC,

      I chose my house with commuting in mind. I gave up my car because I could do it, and have realized some massive savings of otherwise expendable income. Mostly I bicycle to the office, although I can do quite a bit of work from home as well, thanks to the growing power of the Internet (was not always that way). I use the bus, particularly when the streets are snowed or icey, but otherwise bike year round. Having a downtown location is still an important “location” component of my business’ image.

      What’s ideal about density springing from good public transportation is that dense cities protect by default those “nice places” in the country. Less pressure on our green countryside the better. In Wisconsin there still is countryside that is inhabited by middle America who do not need suburbia to live comfortably.

      I see a political effort to build a coalition with the fans of country-living with the fans of dense city-living (me). We can support each other’s goals with more dense livable housing in the city. See CNT.ORG for the relationship of housing and transportation costs.

  4. Hi, I am from the northwest and cities like Seattle, Portland, and Salem are very friendly to both the haves and the have nots. You don’t find a restricted workforce – in fact Portland is one of the few places in the US where housing prices have remained high – people flock to live there because it is so extremely liveable/walkable. As a matter of fact, I would say mobility there is not restricted at all and is in fact enhanced by their efforts to reduce auto-use. For example, I could walk to the grocery store by my house in Charlottesville, but I choose not to do so with my children because of the lack of sidewalks and the dangerous blind curves leading into the parking lot. Wide lanes for bikes and sidewalks that are friendly to wheelchairs and strollers are a big amenity that allow a family to enjoy walking around their neighborhood after work. Similarly, our house is only three miles from my husabnds work – easily bikeable, were it not for the dangerous narrow roads that lead to work. Biking to work is an amenity I miss very much – nothing like getting your morning exercise without need for a gym membership! That said, I also favor some development here on the south side of town. If done properly, the shopping center and road connecting 5th and Avon will provide me with a safe path to bike my daughter to school, and shopping that can easily be accessed by foot via the Rivanna trail.

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