Will COVID-19 “Social Distancing” Further Upend “Smart Growth” High Density Dreams?
The desire for increased population density and greater reliance on public transportation are among Maryland liberals’ most cherished public policy objectives. However, these misnamed “Smart Growth” policies come with a substantially higher cost of living price tag. For anyone doing business or living in Montgomery County, where these Smart Growth policies have been the most aggressively applied, the added expenses of the county’s costs must be accounted for.
The post-Covid-19 world of social distancing and remote working threatens to further upend the willingness of residents to pay this “Smart Growth Cost.” Expanded opportunities to telework mean more workers can perform their own form of social distancing by working from more economically hospitable locales.
Under Montgomery County’s strict land-use policies, more than half of our land area is reserved for open space uses, including agriculture and parkland. To be precise, 53% has been taken off-limits. The county’s residentially zoned land is limited to just 33%. Factoring in roads and nonresidential uses, the number drops to about 25%. Consequently, a million-plus of the county’s population is effectively confined to living in an area smaller than the county’s agricultural reserve, an area with a population of just 15,000. [i]
In the Maryland of a century ago, just over half the state’s population was concentrated in less than 1% of the state’s landmass, the city of Baltimore. That perhaps reflects the Smart Growth-er’s ideal living arrangement. Since then, however, Marylanders have opted for increasingly less densely populated living.
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Restrictive land-use policies drive up housing costs. Based on assessment data for much of Montgomery County, land costs for housing far exceed the value of structures, reflecting elevated housing costs. According to one study, more than half of Montgomery County renters are paying too much for housing, with costs often gobbling up more than 50% of their incomes.[ii]
Residents pay the cost of these “Smart Growth” policies with worsening traffic congestion. Nearly half of Maryland’s transportation spending is devoted to mass transit, although cars account for approximately 97% of all travel. Congestion results in less time spent with families.
After spending billions over the past two decades on public transit, Maryland mass transit’s modest increase in 52,000 daily commuters has been more than offset by a 62,000 loss in carpool commuters. In fact, almost as many commuters have been ‘diverted’ from the roads by working at home (47,000), as were by mass transit.[iii]
Having “working from home” already nearly trump public transit in addressing congestion should give Montgomery County’s Bus Rapid Transit proponents pause.
The COVID-19 crisis occurs while the 2020 Census is being conducted. Over the past decade, far more population growth has occurred in exurban areas than in central cities or so-called first-ring suburbs. In the years since the 2010 Census, estimates indicate that the suburbs and exurbs attracted 92% of major metropolitan area population growth, while 8% of growth was in the urban core.[iv] More and more Americans are opting to live in communities the Smart Growth-ers pejoratively label as “sprawl.”
Six of the seven most densely populated states in the nation have experienced the highest levels of domestic population outmigration in recent years: New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Maryland. (Curiously, all these states other than Maryland, are also among the top ten states with the most COVID-19 cases proportionate to population.[v])
“Working from home” and its twin “Working from home from a less costly or more remote community” are both already threatening the dreams of Maryland liberals of our collectively returning to higher density living.
[i] To be honest, Montgomery County’s sky-high housing costs create significant beneficiaries, especially among those affluent enough to have bought houses. Long-term owners benefit from the substantial appreciation of their homes. Some “cash-out’ by selling and moving to less costly communities. Others “cash-in” by borrowing against their appreciation.
[iii] Work trip data from the Bureau of the Census; referenced in https://www.mdpolicy.org/maryland_journal/detail/transportation-policy-in-maryland
[iv] POPULATION GROWTH CONCENTRATED IN AUTO ORIENTED SUBURBS AND METROPOLITAN AREAS