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Peak Sprawl Happened—20 Years Ago

Analysis of the USDA’s 2010 National Resources Inventory, which tracks land use, shows the growth rate of suburban sprawl peaking in the mid-1990s, declining by two-thirds since then, even through the most recent housing boom. How did that happen?
February 13, 2014, 2pm PST | James Brasuell | @CasualBrasuell
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Payton Chung provides new analysis of the USDA’s 2010 National Resources Inventory that shows sprawl beginning to slow in the mid-1990s and continuing to slow ever since. The findings don't indicate that sprawl is over, just that it's not expanding as quickly as it did in the past. The "inflection point," or the moment the rate of sprawl began to decrease, occurred perhaps earlier than many realized. As pointed out by Chung, peak sprawl also "predated 'peak car' by 10-15 years."

As for why peak sprawl occurred in the 1990s, Chung speculates: "the 1980s cessation of massive freeway construction may have pushed many metro areas into some version of Marchetti's Wall: the theory that people don't want to travel more than one hour a day, and thus that metropolitan growth has geometric limits tied to how far the predominant mode of travel goes."

Chung also notes that some of the consequences of sprawl, like Vehicle Miles Traveled, will be impacted by the slowing rate of outward growth. "A majority of the VMT benefits from more-central locations come from the fact that destinations are closer and car trips are shorter; only a minority of the benefits come from a switch to other modes. As growth recentralizes, perhaps VMT can be expected to decline further."  

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Published on Thursday, February 13, 2014 in Greater Greater Washington
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