Rob Christensen

Seeing Raleigh’s traffic congestion coming

John G. Scott, Wake County’s first planning director.
John G. Scott, Wake County’s first planning director. 1984 News & Observer file photo

There are some people so smart that it seems as though they can see around corners. John G. Scott was one of those people.

A tall, courtly, ex-Marine who fought in the Pacific during World War II, Scott had been born in Mississippi and raised in Alabama, but came to North Carolina in the late 1950s to be a planner.

When I sat down with him nearly 40 years ago, Scott was serving as Wake County’s first planning director. As a young reporter, I had asked him to give me a tutorial on Raleigh and Wake County’s growth.

In his mind’s eye, he could see the future Raleigh and Wake County unfolding with rare prescience. In the area along Glenwood Avenue and in surrounding neighborhoods, he foresaw the rise of Glenwood South and the sea of new apartment construction, where at the time only warehouses and old houses stood.

Along the sparsely settled U.S. 70 beyond Raleigh-Durham Airport, Scott could see Raleigh and Durham growing together. It is now the area where Brier Creek and dozens of other developments have cropped up. A slice of Raleigh is now in Durham County.

Raleigh had only about 135,000 people back then, less than a third of the 439,896 people now estimated to live in the city.

But even back in the 1970s, Raleigh’s rapid growth was a major political issue. A neighborhood movement grew up to block the construction of a proposed north-south freeway that would have gone through downtown, preventing the gentrification of the Oakwood and Mordecai neighborhoods. That is why Raleigh is one of the few cities without a major artery bisecting its downtown.

Other groups formed to protect other old downtown residential neighborhoods such as Cameron Park and Boylan Heights.

In the 1970s, Scott was in the forefront of planning in the region, pushing a still rural Wake County to consider land-use planning such as zoning regulations, and fighting to keep certain areas green.

In 1981, Scott was part of a group of eight government officials from Raleigh and Wake County who spent a week in the Santa Clara Valley of California, the area between San Francisco and San Jose, known as Silicon Valley. They wanted to know what lessons could be learned from that fast-growing high-tech area that could be applied to the Triangle area.

Based on what they found on the trip, Scott and city planner William Brazeale said local officials should explore limiting suburban sprawl through preserving open space/farmland and by limiting public utility extensions. They said officials should make sure “the rate of development does not outdistance the availability of adequate roads to serve commuters in the private automobile.” They said that employment centers should be scattered so everyone is not commuting in the same direction. And they said that employment centers should be surrounded “with high density housing to give workers the opportunity to locate close to their jobs.”

In the 34 years since that report, almost none of that has happened. Suburban sprawl has continued apace. Road construction has not kept up with automobile use. Employment is still concentrated in the Research Triangle Park, which means that I-40 is often clogged. And there is still relatively little housing near where people work.

On the one hand, government leaders were responding to the public’s desire for the relatively cheap land outside the city, its preference for living surrounded by lots of land, and its desire to keep taxes low.

But what you get is daily commuter crawl.

Scott, who died in 2002, saw it all coming. In an interview 30 years ago, Scott said “we the citizens expect miracles from Raleigh government but we’re not really prepared to pay the price of growth, which is a darn sight higher than most people realize.”

“If we don’t solve these urban dilemmas right soon,” Scott said in 1985, “the Sun Belt is going to be a carbon copy of the Frost Belt.”