Patterns of Development
More and more, patterns of development in Sonoma County resemble the patterns of other California counties that preceded their irreversible sprawl. Fortunately, in light of those examples, Sonoma County has begun to take some corrective measures.
Most everyone now agrees that we can’t afford more sprawl. Urban Growth Boundaries have been established in every Sonoma County city. Further urban development will likely soon be curtailed in the lowest density zones outside the UGBs. When that is accomplished, we will have to grapple with the driving forces that actually cause the sprawl, most of which can be characterized as politically determined economics.
Patterns determined by automobiles
Both rural and urban areas have suffered from the automobile excesses of the past six or seven decades. But their woes are different.
The central urban areas have tended to lose density as more and more of the space once occupied by people is turned over to automobiles. Rather than develop transportation alternatives that are more space-conserving, the central jurisdictions have widened streets and subsidized construction and operation of off-street parking to compete with low density suburbs. Even when the central cities don’t offer the parking as a governmental enterprise, they usually require developers to incorporate large amounts of parking in their structures. The result is the same.
Urban-rural asymmetry. Development has become increasingly less nodal primarily because of an asymmetry in the way we treat transportation that connects high density areas with low density areas. Cars are well suited for trips connecting low density areas. Transit, augmented by foot and bicycle travel, works well between high density areas. Both modes are poor for movement from high to low density areas, and vice-versa.
Providing for complete trips by car, from low density to high density, requires exorbitant parking subsidies at the high density end of trip, where car travel is ill-suited. To make transit suitable for trips from high to low density, the low density end would have to bear the cost of a level of service greater than justified by ridership(1). Over the years it became standard procedure to subsidize parking in high density areas, while ignoring the need for large bus operating subsidies in low density areas. As a consequence, trips not involving automobiles are left inconvenient and impractical for all but a few people.
This asymmetry causes sprawl by giving low density areas an artificial economic advantage over high density areas. The businesses and residents of the high density areas pay dearly so that residents in low density areas can conveniently complete their trips into high density areas.
This is an economic incentive for people in the cities to move to rural areas if they can afford it. Cheap and fast road travel permits people to have rural or suburban lifestyles with urban incomes. Modest landholdings that would permit small farms aren’t available for farming because farmers can be easily outbid by the commuter class.
Although this asymmetry causes sprawl in Sonoma and Marin counties as it does almost every place else in the U.S., it could be worse. These counties still have density patterns that are somewhat nodal.
With the UGBs in place, coordinated development of transit and Transit Oriented Development around rail stations can augment this historical pattern to bring it back toward the nodality that once existed. Both counties have accomplished a lot in preserving their beautiful rural lands. Now is the time to focus on exceptional towns and cities.