The Population Dynamics Behind Sprawl


The original motivation for this report was derived from the incongruity between a Sierra Club report on suburban sprawl and a subsequent article in the Providence Journal that elucidated imprecision in the Sierra Club report. The report, which hailed Rhode Island as strong leader in the battle against sprawl, failed to include '98 data, which apparently significantly altered the Sierra Club's conclusions. The original report was dominated by transportation statistics and the interpreted language of state and local legislation regarding housing development. The report used the existing legislation of the state and local governments along with the fact that the average number of miles driven per year per person was at a five year low in '97. Around 7,161 miles compared to that of 7,600 miles per person/year in 1992. The 1998 data showed vehicle miles traveled per person at 8,000. The first red flag was how could a change this drastic occur in one year and what caused it. It was highly unlikely that if the data and methodology the Sierra Club was using did indeed correctly measure and reflect the factors causing sprawl then one years data should not have made that great a difference. In short, my focus was almost immediately drawn to the idea of vehicle miles driven per person. Was that a good metric when it would seem that vehicle miles driven per driver would say so much more.

One important note made by both the Sierra club report as well as a subsequent, highly detailed and government sponsored report by Grow Smart Rhode Island was the lack of population increase across the state during the 1990's and in fact, a slight decline in population was seen. New housing (the hallmark of sprawl) takes a significant amount of time to implement so was it really that people had left the city in flight but continued to hold their jobs here? Saying it was as simple as people have more money, own more cars so drive more was an unacceptable simplification if one accepts that people are much more rational in formulating decisions.

Since the footpaths of the Native Americans to the Super Highways of today's vehicular generation, "sprawl" has in some way been a part of the fabric in the lives of those who partook in the fruits of what this country had to offer. It is not the haphazard settlement commonly considered. Sprawl is most likely the careful planning of individuals who are pursuing and maximizing their self-interest. It is the government, which needs to provide incentives and leadership to reorganize the process into one with much greater emphasis on the public's interest. The text of the report can be found at the following links. [HTML] [PDF*]

Thomas Bolioli

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Thomas Bolioli

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