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A Runway to Sprawl

The consequences of a way out yonder lifestyle

May 22, 2002 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  A nation of nervous travelers has yet to contemplate the other knee-quaking environmental and urban consequences of our fly-drive society, including growing sprawl around airports. A solution? Mimic Europe’s salutary trains for trips of 200 to 500 miles?

The word sprouted last month, as if in time for Earth Day. At long last, planes could fly the now-friendly skies over Washington. To and from National Airport. Over the Pentagon. Over the Capitol. Over the White House. Great god of the airways, we’re free at last!

Well pardon me if I don’t uncork the metal-capped, water-thin red wine, the insipid white Bordeaux, or the Bloody Mary mix — no vodka — that keeps me from starving on the new food-free flights.

In World War II, we fought for the Four Freedoms. Now we’re blessed with the four freedoms of flight: freedom of filling the skies with noisy aircraft. Freedom for air personnel to search and seize our nail clippers. Freedom to pollute the airways with noxious, dirty fumes. And the last thing Americans need: freedom to support sprawl-breeding, habitat-wrecking airports.

Alas, while we have become a nation of nervous travelers, we have yet to contemplate the other knee-quaking environmental and urban consequences of our fly-drive society. For instance, Todd Hettenbach, a policy analyst at the Environmental Working Group in Washington, concludes that 2l9 volatile organic chemicals add poisonous smog to the air around Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.

Pollution may triple at higher altitudes even as jet contrails alter the climate below, according to a University of Wisconsin report in May. Friends of the Earth, the Aviation Environment Federation, and others report that a one-way flight from Florida to the United Kingdom produces as much carbon dioxide as a year of driving by the average British motorist.

But that isn’t the worst of it. What about the damage to our cities, our suburbs, and ourselves as we spread way out yonder? Instead of supporting appropriate short-distance rail, the $40 billion given to build or enlarge airports under the federal Air Expansion Act of 2000 has fed more flying and more haphazard development across our "unused" farmland and fringes. The political reason? Some 71 percent of the members of the U.S. House of Representatives received PAC money from the air industry that year.

Not only do airports despoil the land and add to sprawl, they draw jobs outwards: a scenario that some find just fine. John D. Kasarda at the University of North Carolina Business School speaks positively about airport expansion. This air afficionado envisions airport gateways stretching l5 miles to airport entrances in a new study. Dr. Kasarda points to airports in Los Angeles, Dallas, Memphis, Miami, and D.C. as business and service "aerotropolises," regional economic engines for white and blue collar jobs. By his calculation "42 percent of the value of world trade" now goes by air and all business depends on the on time-sensitivity it supplies.

Other observers question the costs of runaway airport expansion, however. Preston Schiller, a prominent transportation consultant, calls it the "airport city phenomena." It isn’t just the clutter of mall-filled mega-terminals that hit the outburbs, observers note. It’s also the roads and parking lots for flyers and workers, the clogged eight and ten-lane freeways, the airport-convenient conference halls and edge city hotels that suck business from downtown. Airports far from city centers deaden the urban communities they draw from as they expand outward at mega-scale.

No wonder the neighborhood reaction all over the country grows ever more audible and palpable from communities fearing new airports and living under the flight path of existing or expanding ones. In Orange County, California airport rage contributed to voters nixing the development of El Toro military base for a new airport.

Earlier this month, a consortium of rail advocates from 55 organizations, including the U.S. Conference of Mayors, assembled in Washington to rally for rail. Union leaders joined manufacturers to lobby for new transportation policy that shifts investment away from roads and airways, and much more vigorously toward rail.

Their meetings with 50 lawmakers couldn’t come at a more opportune time. Some $750 billion in taxpayer funds has advanced the auto-air age since the airports set off on a building binge a decade ago. The result is ever- more congested roads, and airports and airlines relieved of gridlock only by the downslide of the economy and the disaster of September 11.

In contrast, a scant one-thirtieth of that sum has gone to Amtrak. Similarly, the annual $38 billion to roads has drained light and heavy rail lines, weakening the energy-efficient, cost-effective, car-free service essential to reinforce cities, unclog roads, and stop sprawl.

Why not spread such rail every place? Why not stop the inefficiencies of the auto-air age? Why not mimic Europe’s salutary trains for short and medium hauls of 200 to 500 miles?

And, hey, why not a high-speed, long haul, east-west, cross-continental line from, say, San Francisco to D.C.?

Let it run at 200 miles-per hour for 2,600 miles, says John Holtzclaw of the Sierra Club. It needn’t be a daydream. Set off at 5 p.m. by train from the west coast. Have dinner at eight. Snooze in a comfortable sleeper, and come 9 a.m. the next morning you reach Washington rested and ready to work. No red eye. No unfriendly skies. No battered landscape.

Jane Holtz Kay is the architecture and planning critic of The Nation and author of Asphalt Nation. Reach her JHoltzKay@aol.com.

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