Monday, May 2, 2011

RAPID Sprawl

No pun intended, but there is an election in various communities across Michigan tomorrow that deserves your attention. Unlike last year, I won’t go into detail on what the end result will be, but I do expect the Rapid millage to pass by a more comfortable margin than the Grand Rapids property tax millage did a year ago. The supporters of the Rapid millage are much better organized, willing to contest the ITP Watch folks aggressively online, and have effectively mobilized the GOTV efforts. I’d put the margin at 54% in favor, give or take 2% (A full and frank disclosure notice: I have advised the Friends of Transit for this millage issue-PB).

The bigger question that needs to be answered on Wednesday morning after the election results come in. Three stories from today’s Grand Rapids Press tell the tale of continued sprawl; the relocation of the regional Social Security office from downtown Grand Rapids to Celebration Village, the continued attempts to develop an urban lifestyle center at East Beltline and Knapp Avenue, and the continued rise in gasoline prices in the region and the United States. The United States in many ways is like a gambler who placed all his bets on one chip, and in this case the gambler placed the chips on the automobile at the expense of other transportation options, whether it be rail transit, buses, biking, or walking. The American way of life that became a natural birthright after 1945 has tied this nation to the path of continued sprawl, whether in terms of employment or housing that is largely inaccessible without an automobile. While gas prices might go down slightly in the next few years, it only buys this nation some more time to put some long-needed land use and transit policies into place. Americans love to mock Europeans for their high gas taxes and mass transit, but the bet European nations made to rebuilt their mass transit systems in the aftermath of World War Two is a bet that surely looks better than the one the United States made.

The successful passage of the Rapid measure will help metropolitan Grand Rapids better address the needs of serving a largely metropolitan region. However, the answer to limiting regional employment and housing sprawl lies with all the communities within Kent County, especially those on the outlying fringe of the urban core. There is a role for government in reforming our current land use policies, and that is to diminish the incentives for sprawl that redirect development to the existing core and to reduce the strain of providing infrastructure to new green field developments. The City of Grand Rapids recently adopted a form-based zoning code that restores traditional land use planning that existed before the 1920s, and I encourage all communities within metropolitan Grand Rapids to consider following this path. The Rapid millage in not a silver bullet for long-standing problems facing metropolitan Grand Rapids, but it is certainly a start.