‘Livable Communities’ May Be Anything but

Published August 1, 1999

Vice President Al Gore says he wants to curb urban “sprawl” and improve the livability of American cities. To do so, his Livable Communities Initiative would use tax dollars to reward cities that adopt such policies as

  • limiting growth with urban-growth boundaries;
  • increasing urban population densities within those boundaries;
  • building rail transit instead of roads; and
  • redeveloping neighborhoods near transit corridors into high-density, mixed-use transit-oriented developments.

Advocates claim these policies will reduce congestion, clean up the air, preserve open space, provide affordable housing, and reduce infrastructure costs. But cities that have tried them have achieved only the exact opposite of those goals.

The most frequently mentioned “livable community” model in the U.S. is Portland, Oregon, which has been developing its plans since about 1990. Metro, a regional planning agency with authority over 24 cities and three counties, has written a plan that calls for:

  • increasing the region’s population density by two-thirds, by limiting development outside of an urban-growth boundary and giving population targets to cities and counties inside the boundary. These targets are to be met by re-zoning existing neighborhoods to higher densities.
  • building and running 120 miles of rail lines, but almost no new roads. In fact, flow capacities on many existing roads will be reduced through “traffic calming,” which consists of various sorts of barriers in streets to limit traffic flow.
  • targeting dozens of neighborhoods for redevelopment into high-density transit centers, all of which will be connected by corridors that will also be redeveloped into high-density commercial and residential areas.

Soon after the plan was developed, land prices in Portland hextupled. The city, one of the nation’s most affordable housing markets in 1989, was one of the five least affordable by 1996, according to by the National Association of Homebuilders (using methods developed by the Census Bureau). The increase in housing prices should come as no surprise: Simple economics teaches that if supply of land is fixed in a growing market, prices are bound to increase. As a percent of household income, housing prices in low-income neighborhoods have increased the most–good for property tax collectors, but not for poor people.

So “livable communities” are more expensive communities. But won’t anti-sprawl policies at least reduce congestion and air pollution by getting people out of their cars?

It turns out that not even the planners think Portland’s transit-heavy plan will lead many Portlanders to stop driving. In 1990, 92 percent of all trips in the Portland area were by car; less than 2.5 percent were by transit. Metro says that after its plan is fully implemented, transit’s share of traffic will double to nearly 5 percent, but the auto’s share will fall little, to 88 percent.

Since Metro expects Portland to grow by 500,000 people in the next few decades, all of those cars on very few new roads will mean lots of congestion: Metro planners predict that congestion will triple. That’s okay, says Metro, since “congestion signals positive urban development.” It doesn’t signal cleaner air, however: Since smog is partly a function of stop-and-go traffic, it will increase by 10 percent.

But at least Portland’s plan is protecting open space, right? Guess again. It turns out that, to meet population targets, planners throughout the region are re-zoning 10,000 acres of prime farm lands, golf courses, and even city parks for high-density development.

Metro does have a program of buying greenspaces. But it’s buying them where land is cheap, outside of the urban-growth boundary. Those rural open spaces, which make up 98 percent of Oregon, were never in serious danger. It’s the urban open spaces that city dwellers most often use and enjoy that are rapidly disappearing.

Will Portland-style policies reduce infrastructure costs? Not enough for taxpayers to notice. Portland is finding it difficult to convince developers to build high-density housing that most people don’t want to live in. So it is enticing them with property tax waivers, assorted subsidies, and outright grants. Residents of the rest of the city will pay more taxes (or receive poorer services) to subsidize the high-density areas.

San Diego, Europe: No Better Models

The city of San Diego learned the hard way what happens when you adopt a plan that increases population densities through in-fill. That city’s 1980 plan encouraged in-fill of the city and required very low-density development in an outer ring. By 1990, in-fill had so increased urban densities that the city faced an acute infrastructure shortfall. Streets were heavily congested and sewer breakdowns were common. The city estimated it needed $1 billion to make up the infrastructure shortfall.

The National Association of Homebuilders counts San Diego in the top twenty least-affordable cities in the nation. Meanwhile, the outer ring is rapidly turning into an enclave of privately owned open spaces for the wealthy.

European cities are often touted for their livability. After World War II, most European governments adopted strict land-use laws to protect the countryside and built high-density apartments for city dwellers. They imposed high taxes on cars and fuel and heavily subsidized urban transit.

Those policies delayed suburban sprawl, but they didn’t stop it. When people can afford to do so, most buy cars and move to the suburbs. Today, Europeans buy three times as many cars per capita as do Americans, and the number of kilometers they drive each year is rapidly growing. Most inner cities are losing population, while their suburbs are booming. Suburban Stockholm, says British planner Peter Hall, “is almost indistinguishable from its counterparts in California and Texas.”

“The tough anti-auto policies in Western Europe have been overwhelmed by a far stronger force: the growth of personal income,” says University of California (Irvine) transportation economist Charles Lave. “The desire for personal mobility seems to be unstoppable,” at least by government policies.

“There is no convincing evidence” that initiatives such as Gore’s Livable Communities can “influence travel behavior at the margin,” says Randall Crane, an associate professor with the University of California (Irvine) planning department.

Gore’s proposals sound great to people who don’t drive or don’t like cars. But for the vast majority of Americans, who consider the automobile an indispensable part of their lives, those proposals mean more congestion, more pollution, higher housing prices, higher taxes, and less open space.

Randal O’Toole is senior economist with the Thoreau Institute, a nonprofit organization that finds ways to protect the environment using incentives.