Vanishing Automobile update #15

Planning Magazine Reviews

The Vanishing Automobile

Planning magazine is published by the American Planning Association, one of the leading proponents of smart growth. So it is especially pleasing that the May, 2001, issue of the magazine included a very positive review of The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths.

The review's concluding paragraph sums it up:

O'Toole in 2001 looks a lot like Jane Jacobs did in 1961. They're both outsiders with a detailed grass-roots view of how planners -- with the best of intentions -- are following a fashion into disaster. If smart growth is to be more than a recapitulation of the urban-renewal catastrophe, then its advocates will publicly engage O'Toole with facts and arguments. If they ignore him, or if they brush him off as a libertarian fanatic with no credentials, then we can be pretty sure that he's on to something.

With permission from the APA, we are posting the entire review below. For the record only, I've noted a few unimportant errors at the end.


Crystal ball gazing

(Reused with permission from Planning; copyright 2001 by the American Planning

Randal O'Toole has seen the future, and it doesn't work. A former U.S. Forest Service employee,1 now a senior economist of the Thoreau Institute, O'Toole seeks to demolish every rationale for "smart growth" in The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths: How Smart Growth Will Harm American Cities (2001; Thoreau Institute, P. O. Box 1590, Bandon, OR 97411; 545 pp.; $14.95 + $4.00 shipping).

"Planners," he writes, "are asking urban residents to give up their freedom to choose how they use their own land and, to some extent, how they travel around the urban area in order to achieve some greater social goods. The greater social goods that planners promise include clean air, open space, reduced congestion, affordable housing, and easier access to work, shopping, and recreation areas. . . . But what if smart growth is just plain wrong? What if land-use and transportation planning are more likely to dirty the air, speed the development of open space, increase congestion and housing prices, and make travel more stressful and consumer goods more expensive?"

O'Toole's rhetoric can be harsh, but what separates him from the rabid right is that he can back up his claims. He has read the literature from The Levittowners to Suburban Nation, and from the Journal of the American Planning Association to Section C-2 of the California Exhaust Emission Standards and Test Procedures for 2003 and Subsequent Model Zero-Emission Vehicles. As a Portland Native and Oregon resident, he is not discussing abstract propositions; he's reporting from the scene where smart growth and regional government have progressed further than anywhere else in the country. Smart growth proposes that people live close enough together to allow them to walk and use mass transit more and drive their cars less. O'Toole case against smart growth stands on two legs:

First, O'Toole says few people with other options choose the smart-growth lifestyle, and so deception plays a significant role in its advocacy. In the 1992 referendum to give Metro broad planning powers over 24 cities and three counties in the Portland area, the measure bore the misleading ballot label "limits regional government." When O'Toole lived in the unincorporated suburb of Oak Grove in 1995, Metro surveys and publicity referred to bike trails, public space, and "common sense zoning." The publicity and surveys did not mention the plan's key provision -- to quadruple population density in downtown Oak Grove and double it elsewhere.

Although much public support for smart growth comes from people unhappy about traffic congestion, Metro's plans welcome near-gridlock stop-and-go traffic at peak hours in downtown Portland, in regional and town centers, near light-rail stations, and on many interstates because that is where the opportunity to use alternative modes of travel is greatest, according to the Regional Framevork Plan. The 1999 Regional Transportation Plan adds that transportation solutions aimed solely at relieving congestion are inappropriate at congested areas.

On a more global level, smart growth is said to offer more choices, but in practice it would limit them. The Congress for New Urbanism states that all development should be in the form of compact, walkable neighborhoods. O'Toole points out that this is altogether different from saying that all jurisdictions should allow compact, walkable neighborhoods.

Second, O'Toole states the smart-growth utopia is internally inconsistent. O'Toole argues that in order to pack enough people to support an ordinary supermarket within a quarter-mile walking distance, they would have to live at a population density double that of Manhattan, or 40,000 people per quarter-mile area. Because no such densities are imaginable any where else in the country, either the supermarket also will depend on substantial car traffic or it will go out of business and be replaced by boutiques that also depend on substantial car traffic, or the only "walkable" shopping available in the area will be convenience stores with high prices and limited selection. None of these alternatives is acknowledged to be part of the smart-growth package.

Even if high densities could be achieved they might not reduce driving much, as O'Toole reads the Census Bureau and Federal Highway Administration data: "A 1,000-person per square mile increase in density will reduce auto commuting by no more than one to two percent. Doubling the density of, say, the Seattle metropolitan area from its current 3,000-per-square mile to 6,000 will reduce the share of auto commuting by little more than 3.6 percent." Driving levels are significantly lower in some high-density urban neighborhoods, but that is largely the result of self-selection: People choose to live there because they don't need or want to drive much. Even after drastic increases in road congestion and population density, Metro's own forecasts have transit carrying fewer than seven percent of Portland trips in 2040.

Sprawl opponents typically hail local referenda to buy and preserve open space as victories, without mentioning that a larger proportion of open space within a given area means less density of settlement and hence more need for automobiles. In Portland, O'Toole reports, this contradiction is beginning to hit home. Metro plans to develop nearly 29,000 acres -- many of which are farms, forests, or other open space -- inside the urban growth boundary. To meet population targets, local governments have encouraged development of open spaces. Suburban Clackamas County rezoned two-thirds of a golf course for offices and housing in order to meet regional density targets. O'Toole sees open space being increasingly relegated to outside the growth boundary, where it is less accessible to residents.

These two points -- most people don't want smart growth, and it wouldn't work anyhow -- form the heart of O'Toole's argument, but they don't begin to exhaust it. He contradicts the smart-growth conventional wisdom right down the line: Census data show that commuting times nationwide grew only from 21.7 minutes to 22.4 minutes during the 1980s; highway subsidies for cars are about half a cent per passenger-mile, while subsidies for transit exceed 30 cents; air pollution is decreasing and can be decreased further without forcing people to drive less; there is no current or prospective shortage of land in the U.S. or even in Oregon.

For those concerned with how sprawl hurts inner cities, O'Toole reports Anthony Downs's finding that sprawl doesn't seem to hurt the inner cities. "There is no meaningful and significant statistical relationship between any of the specific traits of sprawl, or a sprawl index, and either measure of urban decline," Downs wrote in frank surprise in Housing Policy Debate in 1999. He concluded that poverty would be concentrated in certain areas with or without sprawl.

O'Toole has a libertarian bent, but his arguments are not ideologically driven. He proposes that stricter fuel-economy standards be applied to so-called "light trucks."2 He speaks approvingly of Portland's policies of the 1970s, when the transit agency relied on inexpensive devices such as park-and-ride stations and increased bus frequencies to lure people out of cars at about $1 per weekday side. Part of his multifaceted attack an the light rail fad is that cost overruns often force municipalities to cut back on the bus services most needed by nondrivers. Light rail in his account is slower and more expensive than the express bus system that preceded it in Portland. Is light rail even an essential part of smart growth? O'Toole's analysis suggests that it crops up so often because federal subsidies favor capital-intensive transit solutions, and because capital-intensive transit solutions create pork barrel that politicians can give out in return for campaign contributions.

Amazingly in a book this big, some things are left out. O'Toole is quick to condemn regional governments like Metro because they are not accountable to the people and because they are susceptible to capture by special interests. But he doesn't seem to have the same problem with state and federal governments.3 Nor does he discuss the fact that Metro itself is an elected body.4

The Vanishing Automobile also suffers from a lack of editing. The author's prose is straightforward, but the book's organization is unnecessarily obscure. It begins with six tables of contents that catalog the book's nine sections, 40 short chapters, 73 "myths," 23 case studies (most from Portland), 11 statistical tables, and 16 web tools. The Vanishing Automobile is easy to dip into, but hard to read straight through.5

O'Toole offers an alternative to smart growth, which he calls the "American Dream Alternative." He would replace zoning with neighborhood covenants, as in Houston, because they're more flexible and easier to change. He would solve congestion problems by charging for roads, ideally on a time-of-day basis, just as telephone rates are higher during peak calling times. These are reasonable, debatable ideas, but this section seems politically naive. He implies that neighborhood-level decision-making can solve most problems. And he does not acknowledge that people will oppose toll roads just as fiercely as they resist higher densities.

O'Toole in 2001 looks a lot like Jane Jacobs did in 1961. They're both outsiders with a detailed grass-roots view of how planners -- with the best of intentions -- are following a fashion into disaster. If smart growth is to be more than a recapitulation of the urban-renewal catastrophe, then its advocates will publicly engage O'Toole with facts and arguments. If they ignore him, or if they brush him off as a libertarian fanatic with no credentials, then we can be pretty sure that he's on to something.

Harold Henderson. Henderson is Planning's regular book reviewer.

A few minor corrections:

1. I have never worked for the Forest Service. I have long criticized Forest Service planning the way I now criticize urban planning.

2. While I say that applying stricter air-pollution standards (not fuel-economy standards) to light trucks would help clean the air, I add that incentive-based solutions would work even better.

3. I didn't "condemn" state and federal governments to the same degree I did regional governments, but my proposed "American dream alternative" devolves most decisions to very local levels of government.

4. The fact that Metro itself is an elected body is discussed on pages 194 and 454.

5. Touché!

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