Baltimore area rates 20th best on sprawl

Group ranks 83 regions on growth problems

Washington is 58th

October 18, 2002|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

The sprawl that clogs the Baltimore area's highways, pollutes the air with smog and crowds suburban classrooms is even worse in other parts of the country, according to a national report.

Baltimore ranked as the 20th-best metropolitan area of 83 rated for their sprawl-related problems, according to a three-year study by Smart Growth America. The Washington area, which includes Prince George's and Montgomery counties and has more development farther from shops and business districts, ranked 58th.

The Washington-based civic group used U.S. Census data to rank metropolitan areas based on commuting times, residential densities, the proximity of homes to business districts and the size of the city streets and blocks.

The report bolsters the arguments made for years by environmentalists, planners and state officials about the need to curb sprawl in Maryland. Gov. Parris N. Glendening has made Smart Growth -- a planning initiative aimed at avoiding sprawl -- a major part of his administration.

But planners and activists say yesterday's report goes a step further than previous studies because it also documents sprawl's effects.

"It says that sprawl actually hurts," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland.

The study gives the average ozone levels and commuting times for sprawl-troubled metropolitan areas. It also says that people living in areas ranked in the worst 10 for sprawl spent more time in their cars and had a greater likelihood of being killed in a fatal traffic accident than residents of more densely populated areas.

Don Chen, one of the authors, said the findings show that commuters living where few houses are scattered over large suburban tracts face long commutes and traffic congestion. "You can't sprawl your way out of congestion, but you can certainly die trying," Chen said.

The report ranked metropolitan areas with more than 500,000 people, and gave credit for residential neighborhoods within a mile of a school or shopping center. Grid-style city streets scored higher than suburban cul-de-sacs because they give more options for driving through communities.

The report ranks New York City as having the least sprawl. Riverside-San Bernardino, a metropolitan area that covers the fast-growing communities just east of Los Angeles, had the most sprawl.

Riverside Mayor Ron Loveridge said he was not surprised at being ranked as the worst. Homebuyers are flocking to the fast-growing suburb because of its affordable real estate, he said. "Sprawl is alive and well here," Loveridge said.

The authors said yesterday that people are tiring of sprawl. "I think the public may be out in front of the elected officials and the developers and bankers on this one," said Rolf Pendall, a professor of city and regional planning at Cornell University and one of the report's authors.

Schmidt-Perkins said that growth-related concerns, such as school crowding and traffic, were major factors in the defeat of incumbent county commissioners in Carroll, Talbot and Queen Anne's counties last month. "People in those areas were sold something that the elected officials could not deliver, and the people said: `You're fired,'" she said.

Jeannie Nichols, who moved to Carroll County with her family eight years ago and is running for county commissioner, said that it took her an hour to drive eight miles from Sykesville to Clarksville on Route 32 about a month ago. She was caught in a morning rush hour with commuters heading from Carroll to jobs in Baltimore and Washington, she said.

Schmidt-Perkins credited Glendening's Smart Growth policies for encouraging development in communities where there are existing roads, sewer lines and schools to support it. She said that without Smart Growth the sprawl would be worse. But she said that sprawl development over the years has led to school crowding and traffic congestion in Carroll, Harford and Anne Arundel counties.

"It's a 50-year habit that we're not breaking that easily," she said.

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