Analysis: President’s Sprawl Initiative Is a Program in Search of a Problem

Published July 1, 1999

The issue of “urban sprawl” recently received top billing at a White House event at which President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore announced their Livable Communities Initiative. The initiative, they promised, would reduce traffic congestion, promote cleaner air, preserve open spaces, and retard urban sprawl.

Organized opposition to sprawl is led by a relatively new school of urban planners, the “new urbanists,” who blame urban expansion for a number of problems, including increased traffic congestion, air pollution, the decline of central cities, and a decline in the availability of valuable agricultural land. The policies promoted by new urbanists go by the label “smart growth.”

New Urbanism Vs. The Facts

The facts demonstrate that new urbanism rests on false premises. Contrary to new urbanist doctrine, for example:

  • Traffic congestion is greater, not less, in compact cities. Greater urban residential and employment density will produce higher concentrations of automobile traffic (and air pollution). Contrary to new urbanist claims, traffic congestion is already worse in urban areas with higher densities.
  • Air pollution is greater, not less, in compact cities. Generally, the higher the population density, the greater the intensity of air pollution. As transit-oriented development increases traffic, it will reduce average traveling speeds and increase pollution, because higher pollution is associated with slower, more congested traffic.
  • Cities are not crowding out agricultural production. Since 1950, U.S. agricultural acreage has fallen by 15 percent, but production has risen by more than 105 percent. The area required for agricultural production has indeed declined, but quite independently of urban expansion. Between 1960 and 1990, the area taken out of agricultural production was greater than the total acreage of Texas, and more than eight times the area consumed by expanding urban areas.
  • “Smart growth” could be no growth. Growth restrictions and increasing density are likely to have a negative effect on economic growth in metropolitan areas adopting new urbanist policies. For example, even the new urbanist regional government in Portland, Oregon found that higher densities and lower automobile usage rates appear to be associated with “higher housing prices and reduced housing output.” Already the National Association of Home Builders has found that Portland, until recently an affordable urban area, has become the nation’s second least affordable.

By bringing about higher housing prices, new urbanist policies are likely to make the American dream of home ownership more elusive. Broad implementation of new urbanist policies could well bring to the United States the economic stagnation that afflicts Europe, where minimal job creation and high unemployment are associated with a high-cost and less competitive economy.

  • Policies like those in Portland will produce more traffic congestion and air pollution, not less. Portland is well on its way to replicating the traffic congestion problems of Los Angeles. Traffic congestion in Portland already is approaching that of the New York metropolitan area–which is 15 times larger than Portland. Projections for Portland indicate that, even after building five additional light rail lines, traffic volumes would rise by more than 50 percent by 2015.

Many new urbanists point enthusiastically to mass transit ridership in Europe as evidence that people might give up their automobiles. The relatively high market share held by public transit in Europe has led to the mistaken impression that transit is gaining at the expense of the automobile. This is not the case. Since 1970, European automobile use has grown at three times the U.S. rate, largely as a result of increasing affluence. Though transit’s market share in Europe remains high, it has dropped significantly in recent decades as more people can afford to operate an automobile. In Europe, as in the United States, urban rail has been unable to attract people away from their automobiles.

The new urbanists also fail to recognize that European cities, like American cities, are suburbanizing, despite their higher population densities, more comprehensive transit systems, higher gasoline prices, lower income, and more centralized job markets.

  • Paris has been suburbanizing with abandon. The city lost 700,000 residents in the last 40 years, while four million people have moved to the Paris suburbs. Paris’ experience parallels that of Chicago over the same period.
  • The cities of Copenhagen, Liverpool, Manchester, and Glasgow lost approximately 40 percent of their population in the past 40 years. In each of these cities, all regional growth was suburban growth.
  • The central city of Stockholm has lost 16 percent of its population since 1950, with all growth occurring in the suburbs.

The depopulation of central cities in Europe and other developed nations is particularly notable because these cities generally did not face the factors that contributed to the depopulation of U.S. central cities, such as high crime rates, urban riots, forced busing, falling education systems, the establishment of freeways, and home mortgage tax deductions. In addition, Europe’s much stricter land use policies, higher suburban land costs, and overall higher cost structure might have been expected to forestall suburbanization, but did not.

By imposing urban growth boundaries on American cities, the new urbanists hope to force higher densities and infill development. But no real increase in density is likely, except where the urban growth boundaries encompass wide expanses of undeveloped land, as was the case in Portland when its urban growth boundary was established.

Even Portland’s draconian policies are projected to increase densities to a level less than that of Los Angeles. Portland will continue to have densities barely one-quarter those of Paris, which is highly automobile-dependent except in the inner city.

The Urban Safety Valve

Despite the criticism new urbanists level against them, America’s spacious urban areas provide significant advantages. For example, their very geographical expansion has provided a safety valve that has kept travel times relatively stable.

  • Average peak hour commuting time fell approximately 6 percent from 1969 to 1995 (from 22.0 minutes to 20.7 minutes).
  • The automobile has shortened travel times. According to the United States Department of Transportation, one of the most important reasons that average commuting time has not increased materially over the past 25 years is that people have abandoned transit services for automobiles, which are considerably faster. The average transit commute trip takes approximately 80 percent longer than the average automobile commuter trip.
  • The flexibility of the automobile has improved the efficiency of labor markets, making a much larger market of employers and employees conveniently accessible to one another.

This is not to suggest that traffic congestion is not a problem. But today’s urban motorist experiences much greater mobility and speed than can be provided by any practical alternatives. Forcing more cars into smaller areas will only make things worse.

Wendell Cox is a senior fellow of The Heartland Institute; a consultant to public and private public policy, planning, and transportation organizations; and a visiting professor at a French national university. He can be reached at 618/632-8507, or by email at [email protected].