Last week I wrote about how loosening height limits on building could help the Charleston area adjust to a growing population and improve the quality and variety of new architecture. A lot of people weren’t on board.
I get that. And some of the aesthetic and practical arguments against taller buildings in the Lowcountry make sense.
But one doesn’t. It’s the notion that we don’t have enough infrastructure to support more density, which incidentally was not a word used in the column, since height does not necessarily equal density.
That argument gets tossed around in a lot of different contexts, usually as a reason why we need to build more roads. The thing is, it’s completely misguided. In fact, a more accurate statement would be that we don’t have enough density to support more infrastructure.
Low-density neighborhoods require far more infrastructure per capita than do denser areas. More miles of road, more feet of pipes, more electric cables. They still need everything a denser neighborhood needs, but have fewer people to pay for those things.
Most people in Charleston who worry about increases in density aren’t worried about the cost of sewers or electricity, or even about the viability of providing high-quality fire and police protection.
We should worry about those things, of course. They cost a lot of money. In fact, they account for most of the city’s budget here in Charleston and in most other cities and towns.
But when people worry about infrastructure, they’re usually worried about traffic. And again, I get that. I live here too. As much as I want us to have better public transportation, and more walkable, bikeable places, I mostly drive a car. I sit in traffic with everyone else. I understand the intuitive logic that putting more people in the same place would cause more traffic. But that logic, based on real-world examples, is flawed.
Sure, high-density cities like New York and Chicago have lots of traffic. So do sprawling, low-density Atlanta and Dallas. In fact, if there’s any successful city in the United States — dense or not — where residents don’t complain about traffic, I’d be shocked.
In other words, building a little more density in Charleston isn’t likely to fix traffic. It’s not likely to cause much more of it either.
Building more or wider roads won’t help much. If a new or wider road isn’t as backed up as an older option, people will find out. In the short term, they’ll adjust their routes or sleep a few more minutes in the morning, since traffic isn’t as much of a concern as before. When enough people do that, the traffic returns.
Even if that short-term impact isn’t particularly devastating, faster commutes will encourage people to live farther from where they work, where they can afford more space for less money. Eventually, that newer, wider road is right back to gridlock.
Really, it’s not clear that Charleston has a traffic “problem” at all, at least aside from a few well-known choke points. Average commutes are 20 minutes, which is five minutes less than the United States average. But traffic is clearly something that a lot of people are upset about, myself often included. So what can we do?
We could start by connecting more roads to each other, eroding the hierarchy between local streets, arteries and highways or freeways. The region’s watery geography makes that challenging, but we should disperse traffic as much as possible on land.
We could also build roads that are more pleasant at lower speeds. Traffic on most downtown Charleston streets, for example, isn’t nearly as enraging as it is on Ashley Phosphate Road. There’s more to look at for one thing, and driving slowly feels natural rather than like some sadistic torture.
We could incentivize a better mix of development in mostly residential suburbs to bring good jobs closer to where people live and cut down on commute distances.
Density shouldn’t be a goal in and of itself. In many cases density is indeed unpleasant. It just shouldn’t be a dirty word either. There are dense neighborhoods that would feel perfectly at home in the Charleston area and plenty that would be completely out of place.
But if we’re concerned about the effectiveness and affordability of our infrastructure — and I think those are good things to be concerned about — then a little more density might be a good thing.
Ed Buckley is an editorial writer with The Post and Courier.