Vanishing Automobile Update #19

Is Sprawl a Defense Against Terrorism?

The real lesson of the terrorist attacks is, "Don't bunch up."

Since the shock of September 11, almost every interest group in the nation is putting its spin on the terrorist attacks. Automobile opponents such as Gar Smith of Earth Island Journal blame the attacks on U.S. consumption of oil and urge that we give up our use of oil.

"The American Dream of a permanent drive-in utopia died on September 11," enthuses auto-basher James Howard Kunstler. "These new circumstances ought to compel us to live more locally, to depend on cars much less than we do now, [and] to begin immediately to reconstruct a meaningful intercity rail network." By "live more locally," Kunstler means we should live in more compact, denser communities and urban areas.

Auto haters are quick to blame America's dependence on Mideastern oil for the terrorism. Nevermind that most of the oil we use comes from the Western hemisphere. Nevermind that the terrorists seem mainly motivated by religious issues, such as the presence of "infidels" on the Arabian peninsula. Nevermind that the U.S. has made great efforts to preserve peace and stability in oil-poor locations such as Yugoslavia and Africa. Weaning Americans off the automobile will somehow make the terrorists go away.

Following that line of thought, others say that we should build more rail transit and intercity rail lines. The U.S. "cannot depend on any single mode of transportation," says Mayor John Robert Smith of Meridian, MS, who also happens to be on the Amtrak board of directors. The Surface Transportation Policy Project says we should spend billions on rail transport so we can have a "shock-resistent transportation system."

Some big-city mayors even hope that the recent tragedy will give urban residents a "sense of community" that will keep them in the cities. Pittsburgh's Mayor Thomas Murphy thinks that installing metal detectors in public buildings and hiring more police will provide an urban atmosphere that is "safe and vibrant" so they won't flee to the suburbs.

Environmentalists committed to smart growth feel a moral imperative to maintaining dense inner cities. "The No. 1 environmental concern is that the center holds," says Eric Goldstein, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council in favor of a "strong central core." Suburbanization, claims Goldstein, would lead to increasing congestion, air pollution, longer commutes, and loss of open space. Readers of The Vanishing Automobile and other Urban Myths know that all of these claims are wrong.

Contrary to all these spin attempts, historian Stephen Ambrose points out that the real lesson behind the terrorist attack is, "Don't bunch up." Maintaining a "strong central core" only offers terrorists a better target.

"It is no longer necessary to pack so many people and offices into such small spaces as lower Manhattan," writes Ambrose. "They can be scattered in neighboring regions and states, where they can work just as efficiently and in far more security."

Even smart-growth advocate James Howard Kunstler has concluded that "the age of the skyscrapers is at an end." As other smart-growth advocates point out, their vision of the future is low- to mid-rise mixed-use housing: Brooklyn, not lower Manhattan. "Skyscrapers are not a necessary part of smart growth," says Maryland smart-growth leader Harriet Tregoning.

But even high-density midrise may be too dense for comfort for many people. "We have now seen what population density looks like in the age of terrorism, and it's not pretty," says Detroit News columnist Thomas Bray. "So much for the idea that what this nation needs is an end to 'sprawl.'"

"The logic of decentralization has never been more clear," argues San Jose Mercury columnist Dan Gillmor. "Safety once resided in large numbers. In tomorrow's world, there will be more safety in spreading out."

This lesson should be clear to anyone who watched the horrifying videos over the last few weeks. The World Trade Center compactly fit into just 16 acres, and the terrorists destroyed it and several nearby buildings with two airplanes. The Pentagon, which has about two-thirds of the office space of the WTC, sprawls across 583 acres. With one plane, the terrorists demolished only about 6 percent of that space.

(Incidentally, after adjusting for inflation the World Trade Center cost about three times as much to build per square foot of office space as the Pentagon. So much for the "costs of sprawl.")

No matter what you think of sprawl, many corporations and individuals will take the "don't bunch up" lesson to heart in the next few months and years. "Executives calculating where to house their employees are factoring in the need not to build something a suicide bomber might be tempted to knock down," writes Holman Jenkins, Jr., in the Wall Street Journal. Many firms whose offices were in the trade center, Jenkins adds, are "rushing to sign leases on nondescript properties outside the city, on terms suggesting no plans to come back."

Naturally, this has been a major concern of New York City Mayor Giuliani from the very first. No doubt Chicago's Mayor Daley is similarly worried about the future of the Sears Tower, and San Francisco's Mayor Brown is worried about the Transamerica Tower or the Golden Gate Bridge.

Giuliani naturally wants to rebuild the trade center skyscrapers so as to keep businesses in his jurisdiction. New York Senators Clinton and Schumer have promised federal funds to do it. But such construction will be both expensive and unlikely to attract businesses that have learned the lessons of multiple attacks on the old trade center.

California sociologist J.F. Scott points out that the idea that financial districts need towering skyscrapers to bring traders close enough together to do their work is refuted by Silicon Valley's financial district in Menlo Park, California. This district, observes Dr. Scott, "consists of low-rise buildings (none over 3 stories) with abundant parking."

Economist Paul Krugman frets whether the September 11 attack will "permanently damage New York's position as America's economic capital." While he says, "this is a real question and deserves a serious answer," it is in fact a question of concern only to Manhattan property owners and the City of New York. The rest of America doesn't care whether our economic capital is in New York, Menlo Park, or somewhere in cyberspace (which is probably the safest place for it).

Contrary to those who think of the World Trade Center as a symbol of free enterprise, it was actually built by the Port Authority of New York to aggrandize the city and stem the tide of businesses spreading to suburban and other locations. The idea for the center was originally promoted by banker David Rockefeller and supported by his brother, Nelson Rockefeller when he was New York governor.

The trade center towers were a financial failure for their first two decades, requiring subsidies from users of airports, bridges, and other Port Authority facilities. During the recent economic boom, the Port Authority managed to convince a developer, Larry Silverstein, to lease the center for 99 years.

Silverstein says he wants to rebuild the center, but in the form of four 50- to 60-story buildings instead of two 110-story structures. Shorter buildings would make less of a target, but might not discourage companies from migrating to lower-density areas.

The very reason that terrorism is so hard to combat is that terrorists absolutely refuse to bunch up. Though Americans may want to defy the terrorists, the notion that we should all subsidize New York's position as America's economic capital, effectively bunching ourselves up, is absurd.

Similarly, it makes no sense to bunch people up on passenger rail lines. High-speed rail networks could cost tens or hundreds of billions of dollars to construct and operate with no hope of ever covering those costs out of rail fares. As shown by the sabotage of the Amtrak Sunset Limited in 1995 and the Southern Pacific City of San Francisco in 1939, it would be easy for terrorists to take out a rail line and kill many people.

If terrorists destroy a highway, we can reroute traffic to numerous parallel routes. In most cases, destroying a rail line leaves little easy alternative other than highways -- the cost of which, incidentally, is almost entirely covered by gasoline taxes and other user fees. Trains are romantic, but emphasizing rail travel decreases, rather than increases, American security.

Without trying to put more spin on the situation, it is possible to predict some likely trends. First, companies and individuals will slightly accelerate their move to lower density areas. Of course, the trend to the suburbs is more than a century old. Despite a slight increase in the 1990s, Manhattan's population has fallen by more than a third since 1910.

Mayor Giuliani's recent order prohibiting single-occupant autos in Manhattan during certain hours won't help, since in the long run those who want to drive such vehicles will simply go somewhere else. If Giuliani really wanted to help Manhattan, he would encourage developers to include huge parking garages in any buildings replacing the ones demolished on September 11.

Second, people may fly less if increased security measures increase the costs or, especially, the time required to fly. But that doesn't mean they will ride trains more. Instead, people are going to do a lot more intercity driving. Air service will especially lose market share to the auto for trips of 250 miles or less. For longer trips, even high-speed trains are not competitive against air service.

Third, the terror will make it harder for sprawl opponents to argue that people should bunch up in compact cities. While the provincial New York Times gave NRDC's claims lots of print space, Ambrose's op ed in the Wall Street Journal will have a greater long-term impact because Ambrose is a popular writer not identified as pro- or anti-sprawl.

Fourth, AMTRAK will probably use the increased demand for its services to convince Congress to bail it out for another few years. But unless there are further hijackings, rail will not gain a significant share over air or auto in any market. AMTRAK carries an insignificant share of intercity passenger miles in any case -- less than a quarter of a percent in 1998. Even in Europe, a century of huge subsidies to trains and huge disincentives to driving have not prevented rail's market share from falling below 15 percent and declining. Passenger trains are pretty, but outside of the Northeast corridor not much of a salvation to U.S. transportation woes.

Fifth, local pride, the desire to maintain economic supremacy, and billions in federal aid will lead New York to disregard economic and security questions and rebuild new skyscrapers to replace the World Trade Center. Whether they will be 110-stories tall is still open to question, but they will no doubt stand out on the New York skyline.

Finally, smart-growth advocates will continue to twist the facts to make their crazy ideas appear reasonable. But even if New York City is foolish enough to build another symbolic target for terrorists, the rest of the nation should not rush to support so-called smart-growth measures that waste taxpayer dollars, reduce urban livability, and expose more people to terrorism.

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