Vanishing Automobile update #18

The "National Deceptivegraphic"

The National Geographic Society is famed for its maps. So it must be downright embarrassed at the map that it published on pages 56 and 57 of the July 2001 issue of National Geographic magazine.

The map purports to show the extent of urban sprawl in the United States. In fact, it exaggerates the extent of U.S. urban development by nearly ten times.

Take, for example, Vermont, nearly a third of which is covered by urban sprawl on National Geographic's map. Yet USDA's 1997 Natural Resources Inventory says that only 3 percent of Vermont has been urbanized.

Or take Oregon's Willamette Valley, home to more than two out of three Oregonians. National Geographic's map shows the valley covered with nearly continuous sprawl. Yet the Willamette Valley Livability Project, a pro-smart-growth group closely allied to 1000 Friends of Oregon, admits that less than 6 percent of the valley has been urbanized to date.

Take any state in the U.S. and compare the sprawl map with the "large urban and built-up areas" in the Natural Resources Inventory (which itself is probably an exaggeration of the extent of urban development). National Geographic has clearly overstated development by eight to ten times.

How could an organization that prides itself on its accurate maps make such a mistake? The map is credited to "National Geophysical Data Center, NOAA; Raw Satellite Data: U.S. Air Force Defense Meteorological Satellite Program; National Geographic Maps." In fact, the map looks very similar to a map that can be downloaded from the National Geophysical Data Center's web site, except National Geographic's is in color while NGDS's is in black-and-white.

But NGDS doesn't claim that its map represents urban sprawl or urban development. It is simply a map of "nighttime lights." The agency proudly states that its satellite (the Air Force Defense Meteorological Satellite) can "observe faint sources of visible-near infrared emissions present at the Earth's surface, including cities, towns, villages, gas flares, and fires." If the satellite can pick up a gas flare, it can probably pick up the mercury vapor lamps that so many farmers use to illuminate their yards. Whatever it is picking up, it is not an accurate reflection of urban development.

National Geographic's map uses different colors to show the change in urbanization since 1993. The magazine must have overlaid a 2000 nighttime lights map on top of a 1993 nighttime lights map. This is pure speculation, but I wonder if the 2000 map reflects newer technology that is able to detect fainter sources of light than the 1993 satellite? This would account for the huge increase in urbanization since 1993 shown on National Geographic's map.

The sort of sloppiness represented by this map pervades the National Geographic magazine feature on urban sprawl. The article opens by blaming "traffic jams, high taxes, and pollution" on urban sprawl (p. 48).

The web version puts it a little differently, saying that "Most people agree that unchecked development is a bad deal for commuters, for taxpayers, for the environment." Whether or not most people agree, these claims have been thoroughly disproven by many analysts.

In a nutshell:
* Low-density development is the response to, not the cause, of congestion. Congestion and high density go hand in hand; people move to low densities to get away from the congestion (see The Vanishing Automobile, pp. 257-259).
* An analysis of actual tax rates shows that high taxes and high density also go hand in hand (see VA, pp. 278-280).
* Similarly, the cities and urban areas with the most toxic air pollution are those with the highest densities because such densities are needed for pollution to concentrate to dangerous levels (see VA pp. 272-273).

The article goes on to assert many of the other myths of urban sprawl. "Sprawl keeps a person in the driver's seat," says the article (p. 58), reversing cause and effect. In fact, people everywhere are driving more. This makes the suburbs attractive because low-density areas provide the best place for driving people to live. But even people in high-density central cities are driving more (see VA, pp. 253-256).

"By most accounts," says National Geographic, "nothing moved the suburbs so efficiently towards sprawl as" the Interstate Highway System (p. 62). In fact, people began moving rapidly to the suburbs right after World War II, and it is not clear that the freeways accelerated that movement at all (see VA, pp. 238-239).

As Kenneth T. Jackson wrote in Crabgrass Frontier (Oxford, 1985), "suburbanization was not willed upon an innocent peasantry" (p. 216). Jackson blames the federal government for racially discriminatory housing policies and concentration of the poor in the cities, but not for suburbanization. As urban economist Edwin Mills says, federal policies "have had a greater effect on who lives and works in suburbs than on how many live and work there."

National Geographic has at least wised up to the "Los Angeles is the epitome of sprawl" myth. Instead, it turns to Atlanta, of which it says the metropolitan area is "larger than the state of Delaware" (p. 58). Well, Delaware covers 1,945 square miles, while the 1999 Highway Statistics says that Atlanta covers just 1,757 square miles. Besides, it is not as if Delaware were really a state in the sense that Georgia, Oregon, or Minnesota are states: The Corporate Headquarters State is only about 4 percent of the size of the Peach State.

For what it is worth, the Natural Resources Inventory says that 8.5 percent of Georgia and 14.7 percent of Delaware have been urbanized.

"Sprawl is claiming farmland at the rate of 1.2 million acres a year," says National Geographic. "Throw in forest and other undeveloped land and you're waving goodbye to more than 2 million acres." This one isn't entirely a myth. According to the Natural Resources Inventory, forest lands are actually growing in area, but farmlands -- especially pasturelands -- are shrinking.

But are they shrinking due to urbanization? Or is it because U.S. crop productivities are growing faster than its population, meaning we need less land for growing crops each year?

The United States has nearly 936 million acres of farmlands. "Losing" 1.2 million acres a year means we have a mere 780-year supply. Even the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which conducts the Natural Resources Inventory, admits that urbanization is "not considered a threat to the Nation's food production overall."

Furthermore, is suburbanization really a "loss" of open space? Or does it merely transfer a tiny percentage of one kind of open space -- farms and forests -- to another kind -- people's backyards? Backyards get far more recreation use than farms and forests or even many city parks.

National Geographic, of course, credits Oregon for being "the one state that has moved better than any other to put a brake on runaway sprawl" (p. 66). Certainly, Oregon has imposed more draconian policies on landowners and drivers than any other state. But the data indicate that those policies have had little effect on sprawl.

Between 1992 and 1997, Oregon's population grew by a mere 9.1 percent. But the Natural Resources Inventory reports a 14.1 percent increase in urban development. Meanwhile, the sprawling population of Arizona grew by 17.7 percent but its urbanized area expanded by only 9.4 percent. Nevada's population grew by 30 percent but its urbanized area expanded by just 8.1 percent. It sounds as if Nevada and Arizona have done more than Oregon to put the brakes on sprawl.

What is the secret of their success? For one thing, both Las Vegas and Phoenix have built a lot more freeways than Portland or almost any other urban area. Not exactly a great advertisement for smart growth.

Of course, National Geographic's writer loved Portland, which he described as "a tight little city of 528,000" (p. 66). Excuse me? Portland's average population density is only about 3,500 people per square mile. By comparison, the density of Seattle, Minneapolis, and Los Angeles are all over 6,000 per square mile, while Sacramento, San Jose, and Honolulu are over 4,000 per square mile. Just what is so "tight" about Portland?

Of course, National Geographic lauded Portland's "pedestrian-friendly downtown." The main reason it appears pedestrian friendly is because the idiot who laid it out more than 150 years ago used 200-foot blocks -- far smaller than in almost any other city. This means that nothing is very far away but it also means that a higher percentage of Portland's downtown is in streets than most other downtowns. Despite downtown's apparent friendliness, most Portland-area suburbanites and many city dwellers avoid downtown like the plague because it is so congested with automobile traffic.

Portland's "residential areas [are] growing up, not out," say Nat Geo. Yes, there are four- and five-story apartment buildings sprouting up all over town. Nearly all of them are subsidized. Despite the subsidies, nearly all of them are unaffordable to low-income people. The Portland Oregonian reports that they typically have vacancy rates in excess of 10 percent.

Finally, the magazine says that transit usage is outpacing auto driving. Maybe it did in 1999, but if so Portland wasn't unique: The American Public Transportation Association claims that transit growth outpaced driving growth nationwide. But over the past decade or two, the Texas Transportation Institute reports that Portland per capita driving has been growing faster than almost any other urban area in the nation.

From 1982 to 1999, per capita driving in Portland grew by 79 percent. Of the 68 cities tracked by the Texas Institute, only Laredo, Texas, Albany, New York, and St. Louis grew faster. From 1990 to 1999, Portland per capita driving grew by 29 percent. Only Laredo, Austin, and Louisville grew faster. Smart growth doesn't appear to be changing Portland's travel habits, unless it is causing them to drive more.

If it is worried about congestion, the National Geographic should have consulted the Texas Transportation Institute, whose data show that Portland has the fastest growing congestion of any U.S. urban area.

If it is worried about taxes, it should have taken a look at the City of Portland's web site, which currently features an article saying that the city transportation department faces an 8-percent "reduction in services" unless the city imposes a new "street fee" tax on existing households. So much for smart growth reducing taxes. Of course, since this tax is totally unrelated to actual transportation usage, it will not change anyone's travel behavior.

If it is worried about quality of life, National Geographic should have talked to Mike Weier, a Portland newcomer from Nebraska who (reports the Oregonian) nearly cried when he realized that he couldn't give his children the same large yard he enjoyed as a child. "The squeeze by Metro," says the newspaper, "makes it impractical -- and often impossible -- to plan neighborhoods with big yards."

Or perhaps National Geographic should have talked to Brandi Lyons, the mother of a six-year-old girl who was recently killed in a New Urban neighborhood in Eugene, Oregon that the Eugene Register-Guard called "an accident waiting to happen." Backyards are too small for "active group play," so the children ride their bikes and play in the streets that are also covered with parked cars because the New Urban homes were built with only single-car garages.

But it is clear that National Geographic made no attempt to hear the other side of the urban sprawl debate, or even to find out if there is one. A list of links that accompanies the on-line version of the article almost exclusively includes sprawl opponents such as the Sierra Club, Sprawl Watch Clearinghouse, and Congress for New Urbanism. The on-line bibliography mainly refers to writers such as James Kunstler and Andres Duany. (It does list Crabgrass Frontier, but misidentifies the author as Peter Jackson.)

Also on line you can explore a New Urbanist neighborhood and see animated drawings of what like will be like in a smart-growth future. It features light rail, mixed uses, and front porches. Here are some of the features of this great new suburb (I'll let you fill in your own snide remarks):

Needless to say, all of these statements are mere suppositions that are unverified or contradicted by available data. Ironically, this particular web page is co-sponsored by the Ford Motor Company -- which is one more reason to buy a Toyota Prius.

National Geographic has always had a slight environmental bias. But it also usually tries to show all sides to a story, whether it is loggers vs. spotted owls, energy issues, or developing nations. This time neither the magazine nor its web site made an effort to show any side other than that of the anti-auto, anti-low-density development crowd.

Maybe the magazine wasn't aware that there is another side or, if it was aware of it, didn't think it was important enough to cover. Obviously, we need to do more to identify our goals -- less congestion, lower taxes, and a cleaner environment -- with our tools: freedom of choice, ending subsidies, and new incentives. To get the attention of mainstream media such as National Geographic, we need to get into more public forums, hold more conferences, and get more political leaders to understand and spread our message.

This update has been summarized as a letter to the editor of National Geographic.

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