Sitting behind the wheel during "beep and creep" time, fuming about how long it takes to get home from work, commuters reflect a new social and political trend: the growing number of Americans for whom urban sprawl has become their top concern.
Growth and traffic congestion, in fact, have caught up with crime as the most serious public problem personally faced by those surveyed around the country. And in many urban areas, sprawl-related issues have leapt past crime, education, and the economy as areas of concern.
This presents both opportunity and challenge to politicians seeking votes at a time when reduced crime rates have helped make people feel safer, and when peace and prosperity have pushed to the background concerns about jobs and national security. Al Gore has made a big deal out of controlling sprawl, and elected officials around the country - Republicans as well as Democrats - have begun to address the problem.
The Washington-based Pew Center for Civic Journalism this week reported the results of five public-opinion surveys showing that "Americans' top concerns are directed much closer to home, with dramatic frustrations over sprawl and growth now edging out more traditional issues...."
"Sprawl is now a bread-and-butter community issue," says Jan Schaffer, executive director of the Pew Center, "and Americans are divided about the best solution for dealing with growth, development, and traffic congestion."
Asked to name "the most important problem facing the community where you live," 18 percent of respondents across the country cited building sprawl and traffic as their top concern - the same percentage as those citing crime. But in urban and suburban areas across the country, the number of people who think sprawl is their community's worst problem jumps to 26 percent - higher than crime or any other issue - and in some areas, that concern is far higher.
In addition to the national survey, which was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates, Pew specifically sought responses from people in Denver, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Tampa-St. Petersburg, Fla.
"In Denver," reports Pew, "an astonishing 60 percent of residents name sprawl as the biggest problem facing the area." Forty-seven percent did so in the San Francisco area, 33 percent in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area. In Philadelphia, an older city with less recent growth, crime outpaces sprawl as the top concern. Still, 60 percent of Philadelphians think "too much growth and development" is a problem, with 34 percent saying it's a big problem.
Other recent data confirm such findings. A poll released last week by the University of Colorado's Institute for Public Policy had 83 percent of respondents saying they are "concerned" about growth, with 73 percent saying the region is "growing too fast." Two-thirds of those surveyed in Colorado said they wanted more government spending to preserve open space, even if they had to pay more taxes.
It's difficult to gauge the political impact of this shift in public concerns. At the least, it could cause some serious rethinking among elected officials and hopefuls who run primarily on a tough-on-crime or cut-taxes platform.
Vice President Gore has been outspoken in advocating a federal role in controlling sprawl, pushing a $2 billion plan to set aside new park land and fight urban sprawl.
Last week, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge (R) proposed a "Growing Smart" program that would provide state aid to cities and towns for land-use planning. The plan also would increase local officials' ability to contain growth within already developed areas.
In Georgia, officials are looking for federal help to deal with the sprawl and resulting traffic and air-quality problems that have hit the 13-county Atlanta metropolitan area. Last week, officials made a pitch on Capitol Hill for $15 million in federal aid.
"I believe the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority can turn the Atlanta region from the poster child for sprawl into a national model for regional cooperation and progress," said Catherine Ross, head of the state's transportation agency.
In California, the nation's most populous state, a new legislative proposal would require that new state office buildings around the state be located in downtown areas.
"The state has the opportunity to help revitalize downtown areas by the location of its buildings," says state Sen. Patrick Johnson (D), one of the bill's authors. "This bill fights sprawl and helps rebuild our cities."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society