Wednesday, November 18, 2009

"Smart growth" is not so smart

From Randal O'Toole at The Anti-Planner (

Throughout most of this history, compact development was a solution in search of a problem. Early advocates claimed that denser development was needed to preserve farmlands. Yet the United States has a billion acres of agricultural lands, less than 40 percent of which are actually used for growing crops, while the nation’s urban areas occupy only about 100 million acres. So compact development for the purpose of farm preservation made little sense.

In the 1970s, advocates of compact development argued that it would reduce air pollution and save energy because people living in compact cities would drive less. Yet it proved to be far easier to simply build cleaner, more fuel-efficient cars than to completely rebuild American cities. Between 1970 and 2007, for example, urban driving increased by 250 percent, but autorelated air pollution declined by more than two-thirds. Meanwhile, Americans responded to higher gas prices in the 1970s and early 1980s by buying cars in the 1990s that were an average of 40 percent more fuel efficient than those available in the early 1970s. In 1991, for example, Americans drove 41 percent more miles than in 1978, while using only 3 percent more fuel. After gas prices fell, Americans bought larger cars, but technological improvements produced a continuing increase of tonmiles-per-gallon. This shows that considerable progress can be made in improving fuel economy without reducing mobility.

Another early argument for regulating sprawl was that the cost of providing infrastructure to low-density communities was significantly greater than in higher-density areas. The most detailed study of this question concluded that low-density suburban development imposes about $11,000 per residence more in urban-service costs on communities than more compact development. Some have questioned this number. But even if valid, most homebuyers would gladly add $11,000 to the cost of a $150,000 home in order to have a good-sized yard and not share a wall with next-door neighbors.

In the 1980s and 1990s, some New Urban advocates argued that denser neighborhoods had a stronger sense of community. Studies have found, however, that suburbs actually have more social interactions than denser cities. Even the data in Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, which promoted the notion that Americans were losing their sense of community, showed that suburbanites had higher social participation rates than residents of dense cities.

In the early 2000s, compact-city supporters jumped on the obesity issue by claiming that suburbs make people fat. In fact, even studies prepared by smart-growth supporters found that the differences in obesity rates between low-and high-density areas were trivial. One study found, for example, that about 2 percent more people in low-density Atlanta are obese than in high-density San Francisco. More careful studies have found “no evidence that urban sprawl causes obesity.” In fact, these studies say, compact-city advocates confused cause and effect: “individuals who are more likely to be obese choose to live in more sprawling neighborhoods.”

If all these reasons for supporting compact cities are wrong, then why is the idea so persistent? The answer, at least in part, says Peter Hall, is that it is a class conflict. Ironically, Hall observes, before 1920 the main goal of urban planners was to move working-class people from high-density inner-city tenements to low-density suburbs. No one complained about urban sprawl when low-density suburbs were occupied solely by the upper and middle classes. But when working-class families started moving to the suburbs—more due to Henry Ford’s mass-produced automobiles than to anything urban planners did—conflicts between upper- and lower-class tastes led to a backlash. While often giving lip service to the idea of mixed-income communities, the elites decided to promote policies that made singlefamily housing unaffordable to all but the wealthy...

Growing Cooler insists that reductions in the growth of driving are needed so that transportation will contribute its “fair share” of greenhouse gas reductions. But what is fair? The report implies that, since transportation accounts for a third of emissions, it should provide a third of total emission reductions. This ignores the fact that emissions reductions can be achieved in other sectors much more cheaply and easily, which would be far more efficient for society. For example, the McKinsey study found that more than half of the cost-effective opportunities for emission reductions are in the electricity sector, while transportation offers only 15 percent of such opportunities. Unless advocates of compact development can prove that their policies would cost less than $50 per ton, proposals to reduce driving to meet emission-reduction targets are almost certain to be cost-ineffective...

Growing Cooler
provides no evidence that compact development is a cost-effective solution to greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, it relies on a weak metaphor of a three-legged stool, the legs being more fuel-efficient cars, alternative fuels, and reduced driving. The first two “legs” alone will not meet emission-reduction targets, says the report, so we must reduce driving.

The only evidence the report offers that the first two legs are insufficient is based on the corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standard in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which called for increasing the average fuel economy of cars to 35 miles per gallon by 2020. The report also accounts for a federal requirement that alternative fuel use be increased so as to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by about 10 percent. The report shows that the emission reductions from these two standards will be offset by increases in driving. This leads to the conclusion that driving must be reduced.

In effect, the report assumes that no further increases in fuel efficiencies or alternative fuels are possible beyond those in the 2007 law. That assumption has already been proven obsolete, because in 2009 auto manufacturers accepted an even tighter CAFE standard of 35.5 mph by 2016. The report further assumes that auto manufacturers will make no additional improvements in fuel efficiency or alternative-fueled autos after 2020...

(I've left out the footnotes, which can be viewed along with the rest of the document at See also O'Toole's take on the automobile: "The Greatest Invention: How Automobiles Made America Great":