Posts tagged ‘smart growth’

Awsome Senate Testimony on Transit

From Randal O'Toole (of course). I usually try not to over-excerpt other folks work but I just can't resist in this case.  I like Mr. O'Toole's work on transit because he does not just focus on the cost-benefit issues, but the personal liberty aspects as well:

My testimony focused on two points. First, despite increasing transit subsidies by 1250 percent (adjusted for inflation) since 1970, transit travel has declined from 49 to 45 trips per urban resident and transit's share of urban travel has declined from 4.0% to 1.6%. Second, even if we could get more people to ride transit, transit uses as much energy, and emits nearly as much greenhouse gases, as cars; and the trends suggest that cars will be more environmentally friendly than any transit system in the country by 2025.

There were two interesting responses to my testimony. First, another witness said (and I'm quoting from memory), "All he did was divide total greenhouse gas emissions by passenger miles." A reporter told me later that it sounded like he was questioning my methods, but his real argument was that more money spent on transit in combination with smart-growth land-use planning would lead to reduced auto driving.

I don't believe that is true (and said so), but even if it were true: can you imaging AT&T (back when all phones were land lines) telling Congress, "We want you to restrict property rights, drive up housing prices, and prevent people from living in their preferred lifestyles so that we don't have to extend our lines so far?" Or FedEx or UPS saying the same thing today? Why is transit so special that everyone else in the country has to completely rearrange their lives just for it?

You can say the answer is "climate change," but transit agencies and smart-growth planners wanted to do all these things before climate was an issue. The truth is that transit is a declining but politically powerful industry, and part of its power comes from the fact that it is publicly owned and so elected officials have a vested interest in keeping it going.

In a very real sense, transit is just like the British coal, rail, and other nationalized industries in the 1960s: its main purpose is no longer transportation but to meet other political goals such as keeping transit workers employed and construction contracts going to transit builders. If transit were private, no one would argue that we have to make the world less convenient and more expensive for the 95 percent of people who travel by car so that it will be more convenient for the 1 or 2 percent who travel by transit.

Putting the "Mass" in Mass Transit

Every traveller to London loves the tube.  There is no better way to get around this great city than with a multi-day Underground pass.

But as a tourist, I have always tended to ride the underground during the day, or late at night after a show.  For the first time, for a couple of days in a row, I have had to brave the tube and Victoria Station at around 6PM.

As a result of this experience, I have a message for "smart growth" urban density-seeking urban planners: please don't do this to me.  Never have I been so uncomfortable, so claustraphobic, and so ready to go Postal than I was in those tremendous moving crowds.  It is a system designed to move a maximum amount of people efficiently, but it does so by forcing human beings to conform to the requirements of the system, rather than the other way around.

Unfortunately, it is exactly this dehumanizing vision that so enraptures modern planners.   It is their mindset that people must adjust to their plans, not the other way around.   It is ironic that most of these people, who would claim to be children of the sixties devoted to individualism, are in fact the architects of the ultimate Tayloristic forced conformity.   I understand that such transit solutions may be necessary in a city as high of a population density as London, but please don't force that kind of density on the rest of us.   If you enjoy it, power to you, you are welcome to live in such an environment.  But leave the rest of us alone who want a car and 2.2 acres.

In particular, the whole notion of "congestion" really struck me.  City planners always talk about fighting congestion, but they always mean traffic on roads (though ironically much of what they do actually increases congestion on roads).  But what about pure human to human congestion?  I would far rather be stuck on a freeway in my air conditioned car listening to the radio than packed in a moving mass of humanity in Victoria Station, packed into a platform waiting for a train, and then packed for half an hour standing in a train straining not to topple over on the person next to me.

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.

New York Inspired Thoughts on City Planning

I really can't stand to be in New York City for very long.  The crowds, the hassles and the lines all conspire to drive me crazy.  Every second I feel like I am packed around by more people, and I find it horribly claustrophobic.

If your immediate reaction to this statement is to feel like I am attacking you or your lifestyle, you are wrong.  My purpose is not to say that those who love it here in NYC are making an incorrect choice, for they are not.  If they derive energy from the people and the density and all the amenities that density can justify, great.  It is in fact an interesting (and depressing) feature of modern discourse that my saying that I don't personally choose a certain lifestyle is found as threatening to people who do.  Why should it?  My only answer is that this zero-sum statist society of activists has created the expectation that the next step of anyone who expresses a negative preference for something will be to run to the government to get it banned.

The reason I bring my preference up at all is that the vast majority of city planners get a huge hard-on for New York.  Their goal is to turn the world into Manhattan.  They wish to maximize densities and minimize personal automobile use and, well, backyards.  In other words, a bunch of folks who have the ear of the government wish to use the coercive power of the government to turn the world into something I can't live in.  Again, I have no problem with New Yorkers having New York, but why does Scottsdale have to be New York too?

By the way, on a quasi-related topic, the Anti-Planner has an interesting observation:  Supposed gains in sustainability in high-density urban areas have more to do with making everyone poor than with the density  (emphasis added):

Many planning advocates take it for granted that sprawl and auto driving are inherently unsustainable. McShane shows
just how this attitude can go when he describes Halle Neustadt, which
some Swedish urban planners once described as "the most sustainable
city in the world."

McShane here refers to some field work
done by the Antiplanner. To make a long story short, what made Halle
Neustadt "sustainable" was poverty
, and as soon its residents gained
some wealth, many of them moved out and most of the rest bought
automobiles, turning the cities many greenspaces into parking lots.

Owen then turns to climate change, which he describes as the last gasp
of smart growth. Smart growth, he notes, "has always been a policy in
search of a justification, a solution in search of a problem." Now, in
climate change, smart-growth advocates hope they have found such a

One difficulty, McShane notes, is that there is no guarantee that
smart growth is really more greenhouse-friendly than ordinary sprawl.
Depending on load factors, Diesel trains can emit more greenhouse gases
per passenger mile than autos, and concrete-and-steel high-rise condos
can emit more CO2 than wood homes.

McShane refers in particular to an Australian study
that found that "place doesn't matter," that is, low densities were not
particularly greenhouse unfriendly. Instead, income was much more
important, meaning that the high-rollers living in million-dollar
downtown condos were generating far more greenhouse gases than
moderate-income suburbanites

Which implies that the "solution" to sustainability (whatever that is) and CO2 emissions is to promote poverty.  That may seem like a tongue-in-cheek exaggeration, but in fact the latest IPCC warning on climate relies heavily on the work of Nicholas Stern, who says the solution to global warming is to make western income levels look more like those in India (emphasis added):

Mr Stern, the former chief economist of the World Bank, sends out a
very clear message: "We need to cut down the total amount of carbon
emissions by half by 2050." At current levels, the per capita global
emissions stand at 7 tonnes, or a total of 40-45 gigatonnes. At this
rate, global temperatures could rise by 2.5-3 degrees by then. But to
reduce the per capita emissions by half in 2050, most countries would
have to be carbon neutral. For instance, the US currently has, at 20-25
tonnes, per capita emissions levels that are three times the global

The European Union's emission levels stand at 10-15
tonnes per capita. China is at about 3-4 tonnes per capita and India,
at 1 tonne per capita, is the only large-sized economy that is below
the desired carbon emission levels of 2050. "India should keep it that way and insist that the rich countries pay their share of the burden in reducing emissions," says Mr Stern.

Translation: India should stay poor and the West should become that way.

More on Statism and the Housing Bubble

In a followup post to the impact of "smart growth" policies on housing prices and availability, Tim Cavanaugh has this in Reason:

What's weird is how rarely, in San Francisco media, you'll hear the above
argument made at all. The "crisis" in housing prices is almost invariably
described as an inexplicable force of nature (in the local TV news) or as a
conspiracy by developers (in the alt.weeklies). You'd think, in a city full of
progressives who can talk all day about how they wish they could afford a home,
somebody might have started to wonder whether there's a connection between
political decisions and the fact that the city is remarkably segregated and
prohibitively expensive.

He has more, as does Thomas Sowell:

That fact has much to do with skyrocketing home prices. The people who vote on
the laws that severely restrict building, create costly bureaucratic delays, and
impose arbitrary planning commission notions need not pay a dime toward the huge
costs imposed on anyone trying to build anything in the San Francisco Bay area.
Newcomers get stuck with those costs...

People who wring their hands about a need for "affordable housing" seldom
consider that the way to have affordable housing is to stop making it
unaffordable. Foster City housing was affordable before the restrictive land use
laws made all housing astronomically expensive. Contrary to the vision of the
left, the free market produced affordable housing -- before government
intervention made housing unaffordable.

Smart Growth and the Housing "Bubble"

The other day, I wrote fairly tongue-in-cheek about dentists, their investment choices, and the housing "bubble".  In that article I linked to several much weightier analyses, if you are interested in the topic.  The Commons Blog has chimed in today with an interesting point about "smart growth" policies (which I have derided in many other posts):

But few reporters have bothered to ask why some markets have a bubble while
other fast-growing markets do not. The usual answer is that the bubbles are on
the coast because everyone is moving there, but many fast-growing regions in the
West and South do not appear to have a bubble.

The answer appears to be that "smart growth" and other growth-management
policies restrict housing supply. Since housing is an inelastic good, a small
restriction on supply leads to rapid increases in prices. This brings
speculators into the market -- and a large percentage of homes today are being
purchased with no-down-payment, interest-only loans by people who don't plan to
live in the homes; in other words, speculators.

A list of regions that are suffering bubbles reveals that a very high
percentage have implemented some form of growth management such as urban-growth
boundaries, greenbelts, or restrictions on building permits.

More on smart growth and housing bubbles here.  More smart growth resources via Cato.