Anatomy of a Deceptive Analysis

I am just looking over a report on "Smart Growth" as the be-all end-all to carbon emissions reductions  (and everything good up to and including world peace).  I haven't read it in depth, but just skimmed it and had a few thoughts.

First and most interestingly, the entire study is about the effects of "smart growth" but I can find no definition of the term.  I have a general idea of what it means -- zoning and land use policies that prevent the physical expansion of cities and strive for increased urban population densities combined with transportion policies that defund roads and highways in favor of mass transit, biking, and walking.    But it is odd that a real scientific study of the effects of X can be conducted without making sure everyone is talking about the same X.

Second, as with most such studies, the issue of individual liberties is carefully avoided.  Smart Growth is about living in the way planners prefer, not the way you individually might prefer.  Discussing the benefits of Smart Growth without once considering the impacts of individual liberty is a bit like blithely proving that killing everyone at the age of 70 will reduce health care costs without once discussing nagging ethical issues with such a plan.

I may do a more in depth debunking of this report (and I can bet Randal O'Tool will do one) but I want to show you one example of the difference between a scientific study and advocacy marketing materials like this one.  Here is a chart from page 10 of the report.  It is trying to show that higher urban densities will help all of our personal budgets.


First, we can probably assume the numbers here are complete BS.  Does anyone really believe that the average family outside the central city making $50,000 or less is spending more on transportation than they are on housing?

But that is almost tangential.  The real purpose of this chart is to deal with the number 1 criticism of smart growth -- that by limiting land use and restricting growth and forcing everyone to live in the city center, then housing prices skyrocket (and, by the way, help contribute to bubbles - it is no accident that many of the counties hit hardest by the recent housing bubble collapse are in growth managed counties).

This chart is meant to refute this by saying - see, housing in the center city is not more expensive -- the average person spends just as much on housing in the city as in the suburbs.  But hopefully you see the flaw -- what do they get for that money?  It may well be that for people $35,000 a year and under, the amount they can spend on housing is capped by other expenses they have, such that 1/3 of the total is about what they have to spend.  But this does not mean that people in the center city are just as well off as people outside of it.  It is very likely the suburban folks are getting far more for their money.  After all, people are rational, and if they really are spending so much more money for transportation to live in the suburbs, there probably is a good reason.

Postscript: It would also be interesting to know what the rest of the spending pie does from urban to suburban.  My guess is that folks living in city centers making less than $35,000 are not saving a ton - so where is all that "found" money going they are supposedly not spending on transit.  Could something else be more expensive in the city than in the suburbs?  Does anyone really believe it is cheaper to live in the city center than out in the suburbs for equivilent quality of life.  Sure, there are reasons to live in the city, and for some people's preferences it represents a better quality of life.  But not a cheaper one.

Postscript #2: In fact, the best single critique of all the smart growth analysis that purports to show that people will be better off when the planners intervene is "If so, then why are they not pursuing their own rational self-interest today?"  Smart Growth folks will say it is due to lack of choice, but that is silly -- if people want it, someone is going to make money giving it to them.  The only exception might be publicly supplied goods, particularly transportation.  I am sure there is a huge demand for having an expensive rail line run from one's house to one's business with low fares subsidized by other people, but I am not sure this is a realistic good to promise.


  1. Peter:

    The Home and Garden channel has a whole show dedicated to debunking this myth. Its called "What you get for the money". They choose a dollar amount and show what you get for a home in different parts of the country for that amount. Its amazing how $1,000,000 can buy a 40 acre ranch with a 4000 sq ft home in the country but will only get you a 900 sq ft condo with no yard in some cities.

  2. Evil Red Scandi:

    I live in an urban center (by choice), and it's considerably more expensive. The cost of living is about double what it would be in the suburbs, and that's considering the fact that I walk to work, my wife commutes about a mile, and the cars are paid off.

  3. Allen:

    Keep in mind that minimal lot sizes, R-1 zoning and other planning tools are used in many areas to prevent density.

    As for living costs, it's baffeling to see how anyone making $50k a year would be better off in the city. Housing is usually more expensive. Not only in terms of being smaller but also in being old. An old house is like an old car. It's going to require a lot of ongoing repairs just to keep it running. In my neighborhood, I see 1500 sq ft. 1890s Victorian houses going for $300k and more. What do you get beside a house the size of a modern two or three bedroom apartment in the suburbs? A house where you have to go downstairs to shower, hardly an closet space, electrical and plumbing systems that dates back to WWII, a bazillion hoops to jump through just to do minor work on the hours and other "features". Throw into that higher taxes. For example, this city's school district, despite still having over 1/2 it's schools failing and far below capacity, has gotten 3 property tax increases passed during the last decade.

    I've lived almost all of my adult life in central cities. I constantly see my fellow citizens fighting increased density. Seeing the polling numbers and being part of the dinner party conversations, I know a lot of these people say they want more density, that strip malls kill children and that we need to fight sprawl. Yet nearly any redevelopment projects outside of a very few select areas are fought with great vigor. They constantly complain about tear downs, even though they bring density. They fight any sort of high rise, claiming that it doesn't fit with the neighborhood and it'll bring too much traffic (yes, so they say density is needed to increase transit use and reduce congestion yet their actions show they actually believe that more density will result in more traffic). Yet these projects are often near and on prime transit routes and roadways. Instead of taking the bus to their job downtown, they drive to the light rail station 2 miles away and take it and then are baffled when I point out that light rail gets a "premium" in trips over buses because it mostly leaches traffic off those routes. Or if they work in the suburbs they're surprised to hear downtown doesn't have any more jobs than it had 25 years ago and that future projected growth by large is in the suburbs. The same with pointing out the sort of HUD funding that goes on to help give developers cheap financing for those fancy new condos and at that the amount of new households in them over the last decade doesn't even add up to the number of new housing units in just one suburb during the last 3.

    That is to say, they talk about smart growth a lot but don't support it, at least not if it's in their back yard. That's why I have a hard time seeing how it's possible for enough redevelopment to occur in inner ring suburbs and central cities over the next couple of decades to put any sort of meaningful dent in suburban growth.

  4. morganovich:

    schools alone will flip this equation over. the simple fact is that large numbers people leave cities and move to the suburbs etc to raise kids. quality of living etc are all debatable, but school quality is pretty cut and dry. public schools are better in the suburbs. if you are going to stay in the city center, private schools have become dazzlingly expensive. in manhattan, a good kindergarten will run you $25,000/year. in san francisco, private schools run $30k for grade and middle school. this puts such schools way outside the reach of a $50k family. given that SF's public schools are a mess, is it any surprise that people head elsewhere to raise kids?