What would a lack of water and power from the Colorado River do to sprawl?

The suburban sprawl in the United States depends on the availability of water and power, among other resources. So what happens if the Colorado River, a source of water and power for numerous people, no longer can supply either?

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Such an outcome — known as a “minimum power pool” — was once unfathomable here. Now, the federal government projects that day could come as soon as July.

Worse, officials warn, is the remote possibility of an even more catastrophic event. That is if the water level falls all the way to the lowest holes, so only small amounts could pass through the dam. Such a scenario — called “dead pool” — would transform Glen Canyon Dam from something that regulates an artery of national importance into a hulking concrete plug corking the Colorado River…

As the water has receded, so has the ability to produce power at Glen Canyon, as less pressure from the lake pushes the turbines. The dam already generates about 40 percent less power than what has been committed to customers, which includes dozens of Native American tribes, nonprofit rural electric cooperatives, military bases, and small cities and towns across several southwestern states. These customers would be responsible for buying power on the open market in the event Glen Canyon could not generate, potentially driving up rates dramatically.

The standard rate paid for Glen Canyon’s low-cost power is $30 per megawatt hour. On the open market, these customers last summer faced prices as high as $1,000 per megawatt hour, said Leslie James, executive director of the Colorado River Energy Distributors Association.

The issue of water has already increased concerns about development in the Southwest. A landscape full of single-family homes, lawns, lots of roads, and other suburban features requires a lot of water. Can life in sprawl not require as much water or is there a point where no more sprawl is just not possible? Then add in the issue of power. This includes transmission lines, homes, and other structures. Can the existing sprawl even be maintained with less electricity and water?

It also worth paying attention to how these changes with the Colorado River have ripple effects elsewhere. If as much water is not available, where can water come from? I imagine those around the Great Lakes have thoughts. If not as much power is generated, is there electricity capacity elsewhere? How much can be done short-term to shore things up while also considering long-term consequences?

More broadly, what might stop American sprawl? Not having water or power would be a powerful incentive. Others have speculated about a certain price of gas. Perhaps cultural beliefs about the suburban good life change. Or there might be something unforeseen. The conditions with the Colorado River might just offer a glimpse into what happens when sprawl has to stop.

Locating a new grocery store: too close to “death trap” road? Is it actually in the city?

A letter to the editor in Fort Worth highlights two perceived issues with a new grocery store:

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The new H-E-B grocery store that was just announced is not really in Fort Worth, in my book. That area is basically Keller or Alliance. If they build a store inside Loop 820, you could call it Fort Worth.

I have no intention of ever driving on Interstate 35W (also known as one of the worst death-trap highways in the state) to go grocery shopping.

In the future, I hope the company might consider North Main in the new Panther Island complex, the Hemphill corridor, Berry Street, Eighth Ave, South Main, Rosedale Street, University Drive or even Lancaster Avenue, to jump start that area.

I talked with a few of my friends, and they have told me, no way are they driving to the far north to buy some taters.

How exactly do companies decide where to locate their stores? Generally, I imagine locating near a major highway is a good thing. That road can help bring customers and suppliers to and from the location. The new location is right near an existing Kroger (as well as other big box stores). The highway might enable more access than if located in a neighborhood with smaller nearby roads.

At the same time, there might be other areas that also would like to have a grocery store. How about in a denser or walkable neighborhood? Bunching a lot of retail options near the highway might not be terribly accessible for some.

The second matter involves which community the new store is in. The official address is in Fort Worth. However, it is quite a ways north of the center of the city. It is a block or so away from the Alliance Town Center mall. This might technically be Fort Worth but it is a sprawling location. (There is also the matter of the planned community of Alliance which includes part of multiple municipalities.)

This hints at the sprawling nature of some cities in the United States, particularly in the Sunbelt. Fort Worth is surrounded by suburban neighborhoods and roadways. Just a short drive from this store location and one is in another municipality as the city sprawls northward.

Let us see how the potential grocery shoppers respond to this new store. This is a sizable investment for a company and I am guessing they imagine a good probability of success.

Teardown McMansions in Tampa

A large number of teardown McMansions have been constructed in recent years in Tampa:

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Nearly 5,000 residential demolition permits have been issued in Tampa in the last decade — including 709 in 2021. That’s the most in any single year since at least 2005, according to city data.

“Having all of these homes torn down is a wrinkle we haven’t had before,” says Tampa historian Rodney Kite-Powell, “and the pace is really incredible.”

A blogger has tried to keep up with“The McMansioning of South Tampa.” About 2,700 razed dwellings are pictured. Some of the lost homes are majestic and sad. Many, though, were tired and untended. The sheer volume is beyond what a single blogger could chronicle. Ten of the 14 homes knocked down this century on Jerry’s block aren’t depicted on the site’s map. Even so, the layers upon layers of red pins are striking…

Not everyone is happy. Search the local Nextdoor site for the term “McMansions” and you’ll encounter one of the more passionate running discussions in the city. When a one-story home came on the market at the start of the pandemic, neighbors implored the owner to seek a buyer who would maintain it. “I beg you not to sell it to a builder that will level it and build a ridiculously oversized McMansion that ruins the charm of our neighborhood,” wrote Lisa Donaldson. “Please.”…

Others counter that the older homes are no longer functional and that the newer onesraise the value of those around them. “The curmudgeons will always complain … until they are ready to cash out,” posted Marc Edelman. “Tampa is progressing for the better.”

A few quick thoughts in response:

  1. If just looking at economic factors, teardowns tend to occur in desirable neighborhoods where the new homes can fetch a significant profit compared to the previous dwelling.
  2. Socially, teardowns are more difficult to navigate given the competing interests of property owners who want to make money, builders and developers looking for opportunities, neighbors who might be opposed to a changing neighborhood, those interested in local history and preservation who might prefer to keep older dwellings, and local leaders who may or may not support teardowns.
  3. Sunbelt cities and communities have experienced much growth in recent decades. People are used to change and growing populations. But, this is a different kind of change where existing homes are replaced rather than new subdivisions spreading across available land. There is now an established landscape that could look quite different in coming decades.
  4. Sunbelt communities are generally pro-growth. Does this change at some point given population sizes and composition, the availability of resources, and several decades of established history?

Good for preserving suburban green space…but is it also contributing to inequality?

A group in the northwest suburbs of Chicago announced an agreement to buy and preserve nearly 250 acres of land:

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In a watershed moment for suburban land preservation efforts, a Barrington-based conservation group announced Monday it is buying the Richard Duchossois family’s 246.5-acre Hill ‘N Dale Farm South, long considered one of the most important and desirable tracts of open space in northern Illinois.

Citizens for Conservation’s acquisition of the land near Barrington Hills will ensure it remains protected open space and provide a critical wildlife corridor with the 4,000-acre Spring Creek Forest Preserve next door…

All told, the acquisition and restoration carries an estimated $10 million price tag, according to the organization. Citizens for Conservation received nearly half that through a $4.9 million grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation, the largest such grant awarded for a single-parcel purchase…

Although not within Barrington Hills’ corporate limits, the property is surrounded by the village. Village President Brian Cecola was enthused by Citizens for Conservation’s acquisition of the land.

“Citizens for Conservation’s dedication to land preservation aligns with our village’s objectives of preserving open spaces and maintaining our 5-acre zoning. It’s a win-win for everyone involved,” he said.

With all of the concerns about land use and environmental degradation due to suburban sprawl, isn’t preserving space for animals, plants, and nature a win?

Here is another possible way to read this: the purchase of this land continues patterns of uneven development and inequality in metropolitan regions. How this might happen:

-Who has this kind of money to purchase the land? In this particular case, a non-profit secured a sizable grant – not an easy task in itself – and found other money. This group purchased and maintains property on its own and has contributed to Forest Preserve acquisitions.

-This green space is in a wealthier suburban setting. According to 2020 Census data, Barrington Hills has a median household income of over $157,000.

-As described above, Barrington Hills has a guideline involving 5-acre zoning. Such zoning practices mean properties are larger and both the land and housing is more expensive. This limits who can live in the community.

Hopefully, there is some consideration given to who benefits from using this green space and how all people in metropolitan regions could benefit from proximity to and access to nature and green spaces.

Fighting for water in Southwest subdivisions

Suburbanites in the Southwest are looking to secure water:

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As the Southwest enters its second decade of megadrought, and the Colorado River sinks to alarminly low levels, Rio Verde, a largely upscale community that real-estate agents bill as North Scottsdale, though it is a thirty-mile drive from Scottsdale proper, is finding itself on the front lines of the water wars. Some homeowners’ wells are drying up, while others who get water delivered have recently been told that their source will be cut off on January 1st. “It’s going to turn into the Hunger Games,” Harris said grimly. “Like, a scrambling-for-your-toilet-water-every-month kind of thin.” The fight over how best to address the issue is pitting neighbors against one another. “Water politics are bad politics,” Thomas Loquvam, the general counsel and vice-president of EPCOR, the largest private water utility in the Southwest, told me. “You know that saying, ‘Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting’? That’s very true in Arizona…

Most Foothills residents draw their water from wells, but several hundred homes sit on land without reliable access to water, so the inhabitants rely on cisterns, which they fill with a delivery from a water truck every month or so. When Cindy Goetz moved to Arizona from Illinois, in 2012, she had never heard of hauled water. “But I did some research on it – you know, is a well better, or is hauled water better? And my decision was, hauled water is better,” she told me. “A well can get contaminated, it can run dry. How about just pay a little extra to have someone bring it in from the city? It’s already drinkable. I asked [my real-estate agent] and he said that it’s done a lot in Arizona. And it wasn’t like a homestead out in the middle of nowhere. There were streets and power and phone lines and all that. I assumed it would be O.K. It’s wasn’t presented as, ‘By the way, it could stop.'”…

Homeowners who didn’t have wells were suddenly uncertain that they’d be able to wash their dishes or flush their toilets. Some water haulers reassured their customers that they could find water for them, at least for now. Hornewer, who runs a water-hauling company, told me that not all haulers were scrupulous about the legality of their sources. “To them, it’s just kind of like the Old West,” he said. “If the water’s there, grab it. If you want to get it from Phoenix illegally, sure, you can do that. But that’s a short-term fix.”

Some residents came to believe that the best long-term solution for the hauled-water homes was to form a Domestic Water Improvement District, or DWID. The DWID, as a political subdivision, would be able to buy land to extract water from one of the few aquifers in Arizona that still had excess capacity for sale. A DWID could also get funding, or apply for grants, to eventually build water-treatment infrastructure for the area.

But not everyone in the Foothills wanted their neighbors to form a new government entity. Rumors spread on Facebook, claiming that the DWID was a power grab. People who had once acted as if worries about water scarcity were overblown began imagining their own elaborate worst-case scenarios: What if the DWID imposed taxes, or used the power of eminent domain to seize non-members’ wells, or put liens on people’s houses? What was next, an H.O.A.? “They have the power to condemn, whether they claim they’re going to use it or not,” Christy Jackman, the DWID’s most vocal opponent, told me. “They do have the power to put in streetlights, to pave areas. So here’s this little group, and they’ll have those powers.” The pro-DWID faction grew frustrated that their neighbors, many of whom had wells, were blocking their ability to secure water for themselves. “It’s the haves and the have-nots,” Nabity said. “Literally, some neighbors were like, ‘Screw you guys. You bought a property that doesn’t have water. That’s not my issue.’”

The suburban sprawl of the American Dream assumes there is cheap, accessible water for the new homes. Few residents would even think about water not being available unless there are some unusual circumstances.

So what then happens to sprawling subdivisions when water is hard to obtain? The article above discussed multiple solutions that either do not work well when a whole region has limited water or when they run up against the preferences of suburbanites.

Since having water is essential for life, including in the suburbs, it will be interesting to see what solutions are reached. One solution – not building sprawling communities – does not seem like a viable option since there are many people who want to live in such settings and Americans have constructed such developments for decades.

Higher housing prices mean suburbs are less affordable, Houston edition

New data suggests residents in the Houston region have fewer cheaper housing options in the suburbs:

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The Kinder Institute and Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies released Tuesday morning their annual reports on the state of housing in the Houston area and the nation. Together, they painted a picture of a deepening divide between the prospects of current homeowners, whose equity has been buoyed by record-breaking home price appreciation, and renters, who have seen the monthly costs of buying a home rise far more quickly than wages.

The median-priced home in the suburbs of Clear Lake and Jersey Village, for example, were priced between $162,000 and $175,000 in 2011, according to the Houston Association of Realtors. They now go for $300,000 to $317,000.

“You have to go farther and farther out until you find a home that’s affordable,” explained Stephen Sherman, a researcher at the Kinder Institute. “The whole saying is drive until you qualify. We’re finding that people will have to drive even more” — a development which will have rippling implications on traffic and the way floodwaters drain…

“Suburban Houston — and new homes in suburban Houston — used to be extremely affordable,” said Lawrence Dean, the Houston regional director for Zonda, which does market research related to new home construction. Since then, the costs of land, materials and labor have all shot up. These days, it’s near impossible to build a home for less than $200,000, he explained.

This gets at three long-standing questions about suburban life:

  1. How far will people be willing to drive from the big city or other population centers in order to get a cheaper, bigger home? In some metro areas, this extends past 40 miles and multiple ring highways. If more people can work from home, more suburbanites might be willing to be further out.
  2. Even as suburbanites protect and celebrate rising housing prices, this also limits what others can purchase. Suburbanites have a long history of moving in and pulling up the gates behind them. But, even as suburban homeowners watch their personal wealth grow, others will not necessarily get the same opportunities.
  3. Is the primary plan for affordable housing in American metro regions to just keep the sprawl going? At some point, this may not be possible due to conditions – see the price jumps in construction cited above – or changing ideologies about where to live.

It would be interesting to compare this to other metropolitan areas across regions and price points.

Can new suburban developments be sustainable?

A long-proposed big suburban project north of Los Angeles aims to be sustainable:

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The company’s proposals promise a reprieve from California’s existential crisis about its way of life, suggesting that the environmental consequences of the state’s notorious sprawl can be reformed with rooftop solar panels, induction cooktops, electric cars, and careful bookkeeping. The threat of wildfires can be held at bay by stricter building codes. These proposals preserve the idea that, although the climate may be changing, the California dream of sunshine, a single-family home, and a two-car garage needn’t change at all.

But the debate it intense about whether the sustainable features of the development offsets what suburbia brings:

Cheap fossil fuels, the supremacy of private-property rights, and the maximization of shareholder value have, for decades, dictated the patterns of land use in America. People need homes, and, in Southern California and other growing metropolitan areas, those homes get built in areas far from the centers of cities. Disasters that follow this approach are attributed to natural causes or climate change, rather than to the avoidable flaws of poor planning. Consider the Marshall fire that burned a thousand homes last December, including all of a hundred and seventy-one properties in a nineteen-nineties-era subdivision built on the outskirts of Boulder County, Colorado—or the disappearance of water from exurbs constructed in the two-thousands in the Rio Verde Foothills, outside of Scottsdale, Arizona. Even reasonable predictions on a twenty-year event horizon are seen as fussy impediments to construction…

California has a severe housing shortage; a recent state assessment called for more than a million new units in Southern California to meet demand. Barry Zoeller, an executive at the Tejon Ranch Company, told me, “That’s going to have to take, in our estimation, a combination of both infill development in urban areas and also new master-planned communities of sufficient scale that can also meet climate-change criteria.” But many environmentalists argue that the imbalance between jobs and housing in Los Angeles can not be solved by building houses that are a thirty-minute drive from the city’s outermost suburbs. “Aren’t there better places to build?” Pincetl asked. “Yes, but you don’t own the land, so no.” She added, “If we’re turning over the provision of housing and the land markets to private entities, their motivation is not to house people. Why are private-equity firms coming into the real-estate market? Tell me. Not to provide housing.”…

I used my phone to scan QR codes and open the self-entry locks on a handful of model homes by Lennar, KB Home, and Toll Brothers, among others. The houses were built close together. They were large and well appointed, with gray laminate floors, giant appliances, many bathrooms, and cold air-conditioning. Some stoves at Valencia were electric, but many were still gas ranges—the era of banning natural-gas hookups hadn’t arrived when this development was approved. Some of the planned homes were already sold out, and a steady stream of racially diverse prospective buyers in luxury cars made their way around the neighborhoods-to-be. It looked like every other subdivision I’ve ever been in: paved-over farmland with a few transplanted trees, an island in a landscape hostile to pedestrian life. Maybe I just wasn’t seeing it with new eyes. The wind blew hot and the sun beat over the newly built homes, and from far away came the faint screams of people riding the roller coasters at Magic Mountain.

This is a decades-long issue as suburbs, first found in the United States in the 1800s, exploded in popularity and policy in the 1900s. With the expansion of driving and highways, the postwar suburbs sprawled in all directions from big cities and have not stopped since. All of this comes at an environmental cost: all of the materials used, the pollution from all of the driving, the inefficiencies of single-family homes, and the loss of land and habitat.

There are numerous ways to make suburbs more sustainable. This includes the moves suggested above as well as increased suburban densities, mass transit options or walkability or other transit options so that driving is not the only options, and better locations nearer population centers and jobs and away from important land and habitats.

So, where exactly is the line where suburbs might be “sustainable enough”? The article above suggests this line is in flux as communities, states, and other interested actors negotiate and set regulations for new development. It is unlikely that all suburban development will be banned or limited and it is unlikely that all suburban development will just happen without any questions about the environmental costs. This line can also vary across contexts as the local concerns are different outside of Los Angeles than they might be outside Columbus, Ohio or Jacksonville, Florida.

Hot rental market in Phoenix and supplying enough housing

In an article about a large and expanding encampment of the homeless in Phoenix, here are some details about how rental prices in the city have shot up:

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“People say, ‘Are you surprised?’ And I say, ‘No, not really, because all of the housing forces in Phoenix and Maricopa County have been working against us for years,’” said Human Services Campus Executive Director Amy Schwabenlender, who works in the area with the encampment, sometimes referred to as “the Zone.” “We’ve had ongoing population increases in Phoenix and Maricopa County. We haven’t had housing production at all income levels keep up and meet that increase in population.”

Real estate investors are pouring cash into Phoenix and driving up prices. Rents there have spiked 25.6% over the past year, compared to a 15.9% increase in the U.S. from January 2021 to January 2022, according to data analyzed by Zillow. (Other popular Sun Belt cities like Miami and Tampa have also seen dizzyingly fast increases in rent.) Vacancy rates in Phoenix, or the availability of places for people to rent, are also at their lowest in 50 years, according to the Arizona Republic

While much of the rest of the article focuses on addressing housing for the homeless, this sounds like a bigger issue. This is an area with a growing population: Phoenix is now the fifth-largest city in the US and had a little over 100,000 residents in 1950 before experiencing double-digit percentage population growth in all but one decade since. Housing opportunities, particularly in rentals, have not kept up. American sprawl often produces a lot of single-family homes but necessarily cheaper houses or multi-family units for those who cannot secure a sizable mortgage.

What can Phoenix and surrounding communities do? Addressing housing in the United States is a difficult task. It will take concerted effort across communities for years. It may not be popular. But, it is essential for ensuring housing for all who need it.

It would be great to have an example of a city and region in the Sun Belt – roughly Virginia to southern California – that has successfully addressed this even as they have experienced significant growth in recent decades. I do not know if there is a great example, outside of some places not becoming too popular such that it raises demand and housing prices.

Save the farm from turning into McMansions by writing a song

Tennessee’s 11th state song – “I’ll Leave My Heart in Tennessee” – was inspired by a threat of McMansions in a Nashville suburb. According to the writer of the song:

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So, I sold the farm and horses and moved into the beautiful suburb of Brentwood where I was on only an acre of land. It was great but not me, as I grew up in a rural area and loved the farm. I so missed walking the land.

In 2004, when I wrote the song, the only bucolic land in Brentwood was a 250-acre farm called Green Pastures on the corner of Franklin Road and Concord, owned by the Turner family (Dollar General/etc). They boarded horses there and a friend ended up bequeathing me a gorgeous six-year -old paint mare and said he would pay for its care if I got it ready to ride for his daughter someday. It was a beautiful compromise to living in the suburb yet having a masterpiece of a farm three miles down the road. Everyone there just loved it, and it was a close group of people who boarded there. Many said it was what kept them sane going through divorces or cancer, etc. Horses really are healing creatures…. especially when you don’t have to pay for them! It was such a gift to go out there and ride on the property or just hang out there with the horses and boarders. It was a family.

Well, at one point, developers (‘damn those developers they’re cold and heartless’) got the ear of the Turners and they were going to sell it off to put up what we called McMansions…. the LAST thing Brentwood needed. It went so far as to have a huge sign with the plans and everything. The barn family was of course heartbroken. So, I said, ‘Let’s at least try and see if we can have them save at least part of the property.’ I suggested we put a digital scrapbook together with each boarder having two pages of pictures and what the place meant to them. Underneath I put the song I’ll Leave My Heart In Tennessee. We gave it to the Turners and were told they cried when they watched it. I’m not saying my idea was the only reason they decided to stop the development, but I do think it may have been the catalyst/last straw to validate what a unique place they had.

They helped SO many people PLUS just driving by and looking at the property was uplifting to anyone with eyes! It staved off the development for over 10 years. A few years ago, they decided to stop the boarding business, but the property still remains today. I don’t know what their plans are for it. I worked with a grass roots group called Save The Brentwood Green Space for a while who put up an idea for the city of Brentwood to buy the property, but the citizens took a look at the $50 million price tag and got spooked. I would assume the price NOW would be over $100 million so they lost a deal!”

Today I learned Tennessee has 11 state songs (!!).

At the same time, this could be a story from many states and metropolitan regions: the farmland once common is quickly turning into houses. Not just any houses; big houses with dubious architectural quality (i.e. McMansions). The farm will be gone and replaced with supposedly impressive yet private homes.

How often does such a scenario lead to writing a popular song? Not often. Instead, neighbors and residents might quietly seethe. They could show up at local meetings and make their displeasure known. Some might even move away to find a different plot of land still near farms or open space.

As far as I can tell in watching performances of the song on Youtube, the song decries “progress” and sprawl but does not specifically call out McMansions…

The multiple NIMBYs in the way of “electrify everything”

A new book suggests a climate change answer is “electrify everything” but the author describes some NIMBY roadblocks to this idea:

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Griffith: There is no easy answer. There are different NIMBYs at play. There are “No wind turbines off my coastline!” NIMBYs. There are “No gas line running through my backyard!” NIMBYs. There are “I don’t like the look of solar cells!” NIMBYs. For those complaining about the view, I would remind them that a huge amount of land is already taken up by our energy-transmission systems. Millions of miles of dedicated coal rail lines and natural-gas pipelines are already strewn across the landscape. They only seem invisible because they’ve blended in over the past century.

Thompson: Okay, if there’s no easy answer, what’s the hard answer?

Griffith: I’m going to give you an answer that I’ve only been thinking about for a few weeks. I think the argument will be won on local economics. If you take a suburb with a thousand homes in it, those families might spend $3.5 million a year on gasoline. When those families fill their car with gas, the money immediately leaves the community and goes to Texas or Saudi Arabia. But if the cars are run on electricity that comes from their own rooftops and houses, then no money is leaving the community. You can take that $3.5 million and build new classrooms. That’s really exciting to me…

Griffith: Electricity literally is the network that connects every home. You are connected to everybody through this thing in your community. And it really might be the opportunity for community renewal that America needs. It might be the thing that binds us back together again. Because it saves us money and has a damn good chance of being bipartisan.

This does seem to be the trick: how to convince the majority of Americans that green energy benefits their daily lives. And if they actually gain money for their own households or for goods they want in their community, this would help. If individual homeowners do not want to take more responsibility for generating electricity (solar panels on the roof), it could devolve into arguing which less fortunate suburb should be home to the solar panels, wind turbines, etc.

Thinking bigger, what if green energy enables suburban life to continue, as opposed to a vision where people need to live in denser concentrations in order to use less energy? I wonder about this externality of more electric vehicles: if pollution via driving and the need for gas are reduced, can sprawl even expand?