What would it be like in Oklahoma City if a gallon of gasoline cost $10 or even $20?
That’s a question some people will see as alarmist or fraught with political overtones. But the reality is the cost of driving our cars is rising incrementally and there’s no good reason to think that will change. Countries like China and India are increasing their overall oil use, the world population continues to grow and some believe peak oil-the point at which supplies only decline-is fast approaching.
So the simple answer to the question is this: Oklahoma City, with its 621-square miles of urban sprawl, would be devastated. As we all know, the vast majority of city and metropolitan residents are dependent on the automobile in their daily lives. If it costs, say, $50 a day or more, to get to work in a car, then that changes how the city, most importantly its public transportation system, would function at several different levels. Are we planning appropriately here?
Well, at least we’ve begun a discussion about the issue. On Tuesday evening, Oklahoma City Councilman Ed Shadid hosted a meeting about the impact of sprawl in the city. Shadid and several department heads in Oklahoma City government spoke about the issue in front of an overflowing crowd of 500 to 600 people at the Marriot Hotel on Northwest Expressway.
Shadid, who represents Ward 2, gave a thorough overview of the issue as he discussed the impact of sprawl on housing development and the city’s overall public health. When builders, through home owner demand, push housing development to the outskirts of our large city, it creates the need for services, from road maintenance to fire protection, he noted. In addition, many residents in these subdivisions and even elsewhere in the city are essentially automobile-dependent for all aspects of their lives, from going to work or school to shopping, Shadid said.
This is fine, on one level, as long as we have cheap gasoline, but how long will that last? What if there was a major oil supply disruption? What about just gradual oil price increases through the years? Pollution is also a problem.
Shadid also pointed out that sprawl, cheap gasoline or not, directly impacts the public health, and he pointed out the often-cited, dire Oklahoma City statistics, which show a high obesity rate. Part of the solution, he suggested, would be to “program” walking into our routine lives, but that can only be done with better planning and more sidewalks and trails throughout the city.
In other remarks, Oklahoma City Fire Chief Keith Bryant talked about new firehouses that have been built to keep up with development outside the central part of the city. Oklahoma City Manager Jim Couch gave an informative historical view of the city development, which including annexation growth in the 1950s and 1960s. Blair Humphreys, executive director of the Institute for Quality Communities, spoke about how sprawl here and elsewhere was essentially made possible by government policies through the years.
One thing I liked about the meeting is that no one was demonized. The issue, at this point, is not really whether sprawl is a good-versus-bad issue. There are proponents on both sides. For example, it’s obvious a lot of people here like to live in larger homes outside the main city core. What’s wrong with that? Nothing.
But given future predictions about energy and given the city’s poor health rankings, it’s urgent we consider sprawl as we plan for the future. One main component, which I’ve written about, is a thriving public transportation system that would include light rail. Transportation hubs would spark new development. Also, we need to designate iconic neighborhoods and city districts as we plan and renew or develop them for pedestrians. Let’s start there and then expand.
It’s encouraging to see city leaders consider the issue of sprawl, which is by far the most pressing issue when it comes to major planning in Oklahoma City. The size of the crowd indicates there’s a lot of citizen interest in the issue as well.