Building an American Dream Coalition

American cities today are divided by the debate over automobiles and urban sprawl. On one side is a small group of hard-core anti-auto, anti-suburbs people who back smart growth. On the other side is another small group of people who traditionally support road construction and home building.

In the middle is the great mass of people who are uninformed, confused, or undecided. Many of them live in low-density suburbs--but they get upset when they see another field turned into homes. Nearly all of them drive their cars and sport-utility vehicles--but they worry about air pollution and hate congestion.

Smart-growth advocates have successfully won the support of many of the middle group by telling them that sprawl is paving over the country and increasing congestion. Many of those in the middle will vote for light rail because they hope everyone else will ride transit and let them drive on uncongested roads. They will vote for growth management because they hope that everyone else will be crammed into dense cities so they can enjoy a low-density suburb or retire to a cabin in the mountains.

The single, most important goal of a mobility campaign must be to win the hearts and minds of the people in the middle. A hearts-and-minds effort must discredit smart growth, showing that it will only make the problems worse. But it must also show that congestion, pollution, loss of open space, and other problems can be solved without without higher taxes, paving over the countryside, or forcing people to change their lifestyles.

This paper describes:

A Mobility Campaign Strategy

A mobility campaign strategy must be flexible, opportunistic, and able to learn from its mistakes. No one can predict just which actions will succeed and which tools will have the most effect. So the campaign must include a balance of:

The most important step in this campaign is building an American dream coalition. The coalition should consist of a broad array of groups that engage in a wide variety of tactics. For example, neighborhood activists will help with public education; the homebuilders association will help with lobbying; a property-rights group may take legal actions; and a libertarian think tank will do research and monitoring. Many non-profits will not be allowed to lobby or engage in electoral campaigns, so new groups might be created for political campaigns.

It is not necessary that all of the groups in the American dream coalition see eye to eye on all growth and transportation issues. At the very least, members should agree that smart growth will do the region more harm than good. They may also agree on many of the alternatives to smart growth, though they may disagree on some of them. Since smart growth has made deep inroads into most American cities, coalition members should ignore the disagreements at least until they discredit smart growth.

Most people in any urban area will be harmed by the congestion, density, and other results of smart growth. The problem is that most people won't bother to get involved in a regional planning efforts. While mobility advocates need to win the hearts and minds of voters, their coalitions will have to consist of people who tend to be activists. Some activists, such as developers, conservative think tanks, and automobile associations, are natural members of the coalition. Others will be divided by the attraction of past smart-growth propaganda. Mobility supporters will have to make special appeals to these groups.

Coalition Structure

An American dream coalition could have one of at least three structures.

Which structure is best depends on the local situation.

Strong Coalition Members

The following groups that are natural members of an American dream coalition.

Free-Market or Conservative Think Tanks

Most states now have think tanks that do research and public education on state or regional issues. These think tanks tend to be fiscally conservative or libertarian, and therefore opposed to subsidies and government regulation. They will oppose regional planning, expensive rail transit projects, and smart-growth zoning. They will strongly support user fees and will support new highway capacity if the new lanes are tolled using congestion pricing.

Academic Experts

Universities in most urban areas have many experts whose research has studied some aspect of smart growth. These experts will rarely do anything that is overtly political. But they may be willing to testify, to help explain their research findings in public, and even to write op-ed pieces for local papers. Look first for experts in transportation engineering and urban economics. People in urban planning schools tend to support smart growth, but there are significant exceptions.

Retail and Commercial Developers

Smart growth calls for limiting future retail outlets to small shops and stores that front on the street. Big-box stores (e.g., Wal-Mart), category killers (e.g., Toys-R-Us), strip malls, and large shopping malls will be discouraged or forbidden. The companies that plan and build such stores will be strong allies in an American dream coalition. They are particularly useful because members of the public don't seem to feel as threatened by retail developers as they are by home or highway builders.

Automobile Associations

Outside of the New York metro area, more than 90 percent of urban travel goes by automobile. Yet automobile groups--including local affiliates of the American Automobile Association and the National Association of Motorists--have often been left out of transportation planning. Instead, prompted by the federal government, most cities have gone out of their way to get pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders involved in their transportation planning. Mobility advocates must bring the auto groups back into the process.

Fire and Emergency Service Providers

Emergency service providers hate many of the limits on mobility called for by smart growth, especially narrow streets, traffic calming, and other deliberate efforts to increase congestion. While fire chiefs may be reluctant to get involved in a political coalition, they will often have a history of opposition to traffic calming measures. Mobility advocates can help publicize their efforts and promise them effective support.

Property-Rights Groups

So-called wise-use or property-rights groups are likely to oppose the heavy regulation of land demanded by smart growth. These groups tend to be rural in nature but often include many active members. They may be important allies, especially if many of their members own land at the rural-urban interface.

Trucking Companies and Associations

The increased congestion that smart growth will produce will be extremely costly for truckers. They may think they have higher priorities than working on urban planning. Mobility advocates must convince them otherwise.

Potential Coalition Members

The following groups should also be natural allies in a mobility campaign. But in many cases mobility advocates may have to work hard to counter smart-growth propaganda.

Neighborhood Associations

Most homeowners want to keep their neighborhoods as they are today. They might like to see eyesores removed, nicer parks, and perhaps sidewalks on the streets. But they don't want to see apartments, row houses, granny flats, or other increases in neighborhood densities. But the leaders in many neighborhood associations may be committed smart-growth activists.

Mobility advocates should begin to participate in monthly meetings of their neighborhood association and to arrange for speakers at other neighborhood association meetings. At least some people in every association, and the leadership of many associations, will welcome mobility supporters and become active in the American dream coalition.

Suburban Elected Officials

Suburban mayors and other elected officials should be natural enemies of smart growth since most of their constituents will oppose the neighborhood densification that smart growth calls for. But the major concern of city officials is to keep their revenues sufficient to cover their costs. The promise of federal funding for smart growth may appeal to some; others may have been convinced by the cost-of-sprawl argument that density will reduce their expenses. With the help of local neighborhood associations and research from the conservative think tanks, mobility advocates should be able to convince many to join an American dream coalition.

Retailers and Other Businesses

The increased congestion from smart growth should be bad for retailers and other businesses. Yet existing operations may see benefits from smart growth. Existing supermarkets surrounded by large parking lots may see a competitive advantage if smart growth limits parking next to future supermarkets.

The businesses that will be hurt the most by smart growth are the ones that depend on large customer bases--Costcos, Wal-Marts, and Cub Foods as opposed to neighborhood marts such as Safeway or Krogers. Mobility advocates should convince the large-base stores that restrictions on people's mobility will greatly harm their businesses. The smaller stores might join when they understand that smart-growth congestion will increase their costs and make just-in-time stocking more difficult.


Like retailers, homebuilders are conflicted by smart growth. In Portland, Oregon, the increased land prices caused by the urban-growth boundary convinced many homebuilders who owned land inside the boundary to support smart growth. Tax breaks and other subsidies to developers of high-density, mixed-use projects brought others on board. Many of these builders realize that what they are doing is harmful to the region. Mobility advocates must get as many as possible to join the American dream coalition so that the group as a whole is at least neutral.

Poor and Minority Groups

Anti-highway campaigns of the 1960s sometimes used the persuasive slogan, "No white man's freeway through black man's neighborhoods!" Today, the slogan should be, "No white, middle-class rail transit line at the expense of reduced bus service to poor, minority neighborhoods!" In Los Angeles, the NAACP successfully challenged expensive rail construction on racial discrimination grounds because the city was reducing bus service to poor neighborhoods to pay for the rail lines.

The impacts of smart growth on housing prices will also have their greatest effects on poor people. Mobility advocates must find representatives of poor and minority groups who can speak to those groups about the issues.

Additional Coalition Possibilities

Many powerful people that might support an American dream coalition. However, these people have long been targeted by smart-growth activists, so mobility advocates may have a difficult time persuading some to oppose smart growth. Success will depend more on their personalities than on the merits of the arguments.

Central City Officials

Central city mayors and other officials have long harbored resentments against the suburbs. Like suburban officials, their goal is to increase revenues and reduce costs. They think smart growth can do this by channeling more developments into the city. Most also know that federal spending on transit is more likely to keep money in their cities, while federal spending on roads is more likely to go to the suburbs. However, don't write them off too soon. Mobility advocates can persuade many that the increased densities called for by smart growth will make the city less livable and more likely to turn into slums.

State Officials

Like city officials, many state officials are swayed by the promise of federal subsidies. Many state transportation departments have been captured by the you-can't-build-your-way-out-of-congestion crowd. Mobility advocates must convince them that this is wrong.

Federal Elected Officials

No matter what their political party or rhetoric, most senators and representatives live by the rules of pork. Among other things those rules say that a big, highly visible project makes better pork than many smaller projects. Rail transit is ideal because it costs a lot (and so creates potential campaign contributors) yet is more politically correct (and so alienates few potential voters) than highway construction. Mobility advocates should win over those who are on the fence by making rail construction as unpopular as highway construction used to be.

Mobility Campaign Tactics

Once the coalition has begun to form, it is time to think about tactics. The most successful tactics are those that help educate the public even as they accomplish some other goal such as persuading an elected official or stopping an undesirable plan in court. Sometimes the public education benefits are great enough that it doesn't even matter if the overt goal of the tactic fails.

Remember that some members of the coalition will have natural advantages in some tactics. This makes it possible to divide work up among coalition members. In fact, the original coalition should have as tactically broad a group of members as possible. Later more groups can be added whose tactically abilities may overlap the original members.


By itself, research is not going to win any campaigns because few people will read it. Yet research can lay a critical foundation for the mobility campaign by providing support for public figures who are willing to support mobility. Research can play a role in media efforts and give public officials something to lean on when their views are challenged by smart-growth advocates.

It is vitally important that research be done by an independent organization. Research by local university professors will carry more weight than research by a conservative think tank, which in turn will carry more weight than research by a consulting firm hired by the local road building or home building association.

Research must cover two important topics.

The second step will be most difficult because some members of the coalition will inevitably object to some alternative proposal. But the important immediate step is to show that there are viable alternatives to smart growth, not to convince everyone about one particular alternative or to develop a final plan.

Public Education

Beyond the media, there are many ways of promoting public education, including public speaking, videos or slide shows, and brochures and flyers.

Public Speaking

The coalition should set up an informal speakers bureau that seeks out speaking engagements and tries to line up the most appropriate speaker for each audience. Neighborhood groups, service clubs, chambers of commerce, and similar organizations are always interested in speakers with different points of view. Audiences may be small, but people who take the time to attend such meetings are usually more politically active than people who just watch television. Before speaking to the media or any audience, be sure to read the section below titled, "how to talk about the environment."


Videos or slide shows may be a good way of getting mobility ideas across. Videos take time to produce, but they have the advantage of being a self-contained way of reaching any size audience. If a member of the coalition can put one together, consider putting up some money for a fifteen-minute production.

Slide shows are less expensive and often can get ideas across that can't be expressed in words only. Even if accompanied by a recorded narrative, however, a slide show needs at the least a technician to set it up. The least expensive way is to just take slides to a public speaking engagement.

Factsheets, Brochures, and Flyers

Small paper handouts provide support for public speakers and can also be used to motivate people to come to meetings or otherwise get involved in planning.

Factsheets may present specific concepts, such as problems with light-rail, in a page or two. They are aimed less at the general public than at giving coalition members enough expertise to feel comfortable in dealing with the public.

Brochures present a group's views on a single issue to the general public. Usually they are printed on letter- or legal-sized paper and folded in half, thirds, or (if legal-size) fourths. This creates four to eight panels, each of which can briefly cover some topic. Brevity is the point: No panel will hold more than around a hundred words, and the fewer the better.

Flyers are used to attract attention to a public meeting or other event. Best printed on one side only of a letter-sized page, well-designed flyers can double as an attractive poster and contain very few words. Everyone tends to write too much, but any more than a few dozen words will detract from the flyer's effectiveness. Don't forget to include the date, time, and location of the event in question!

Legal Actions

Anti-highway groups have long experience at using environmental laws to stop projects they don't like. American dream coalitions can use those very same laws to stop inane rail transit projects or other plans. Legal actions also provide a good avenue for media exposure. Even if attorneys don't think a particular action is winnable, it might be worth trying just to get public attention or to delay projects until public opinion can be swayed against them.

Legislative Lobbying and Electoral Politics

Legislative lobbying and ballot measure and candidate campaigns can vary tremendously from one state to another. While many members of the coalition will be unable to participate in these actions, it is also likely that other members are highly experienced with lobbying or campaigning.

Thoreau Institute Home | Vanishing Automobile Web Tools