Fearer: The elephant in the room is San Jose’s sprawl

The intimate relationship between land use and transportation is critical to the success of our sustainability efforts.

Segregated, spread out land uses — including a lack of affordable housing — and incomplete transit, biking and walking networks are antithetical to “being green,” no matter how many light bulbs we convert to LED or how much plastic we keep out of landfills and waterways.

As my friend, Alex Baca, recently pointed out, we are a nation of sprawl. It’s no surprise that in this city of more than a million neighbors, the majority of us live in the suburbs rather than in the denser, urban core.

San Jose is awash in suburban neighborhoods, and there is no getting around the fact that our city grew around the needs of the automobile. We’re left with a land use pattern that is extremely difficult — and sometimes impossible — to navigate without a car. In that sense, Silicon Valley isn’t all that different than much of the U.S.

So, similarly, it seems disingenuous to proclaim ourselves to be leaders in sustainability while continuing to tout road widenings and fund highway expansion projects at the expense of public transit investments that could alleviate the seemingly insatiable desire for wider, faster roadways that further divide our communities.

The elephant in the room is our sprawl, yet we continue to feed the beast.

That means we don’t have a local or regional jobs-housing fit, and people who work in the retail and service industry, in our schools and hospitals, and in the arts and community-based organizations can’t afford to live near their jobs.

It means that without viable transit networks, we will “drive until we qualify” for the housing we can afford. It means that we’ve even created a catch-22 scenario where too many of us drive for a ride-hailing service as a second or third gig to pay the bills. It ultimately means we aren’t truly fulfilling our commitments to sustainability, and may be instead digging a deeper hole.

We shouldn’t wait for so-called disruption and innovation to reverse these trends.

What we need now is the political will — locally, regionally and at the state and national levels — to make decisions that may not pay off today in votes, but will benefit our children and grandchildren.

We need to increase investment in public transit and decrease funding for highways. We need to substantially increase housing production, particularly affordable housing and transitional housing, complete with wraparound services. And we need to build both out in tandem.

While there’s been a good deal of focus on “smart cities” lately, we must face the deficit we’ve created for ourselves while building out our sprawl. If we continue to plan and build disconnected land uses and transportation networks, we will not only further harm the environment, we will also push more and more of our neighbors out.

Our sustainability relies on this recognition, and on us taking action now to correct course and invest in a not-too-distant future where it’s controversial to expand highways rather than public transit.

That sure would make us one smart city.

San José Spotlight columnist Jaime Fearer is deputy director of California Walks, the statewide voice for pedestrian safety and healthy, walkable communities for people of all ages and abilities. Her columns appear every first Thursday of the month.

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