Vanishing Automobile update #50

Should Conservatives Oppose Sprawl?

25 February 2005

Law Professor Michael Lewyn says that "sprawl is a conservative issue" and that conservatives should oppose it. Unfortunately, his facts and logic are as flawed as those of liberal sprawl opponents, and his prescriptions for sprawl are, for the most part, anything but conservative.

The terms "conservative" and "liberal" are pretty meaningless today. This is partly because their definitions somehow flip-flopped between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but mainly because someone can be "conservative" on some issues, such as fiscal policy, while being "liberal" on other issues, such as social or foreign policy.

Still, rail transit and smart growth are often seen as liberal issues. So rail advocates such as the American Public Transportation Association eagerly embraced social conservative Paul Weyrich when he came out in favor of fiscally liberal spending on rail transit (see Wendell Cox points out several flaws in Weyrich's facts and logic in .

Now John Marshall Law School Professor Michael Lewyn, who is conservative on some issues, has written a paper titled "Why Sprawl is a Conservative Issue." Naturally, he has been embraced by such anti-sprawl groups as the Smart Growth Network.

A close reading of Lewyn's paper reveals that he uses the same flawed reasoning as liberal opponents of sprawl. While Lewyn identifies "conservative" with support for limited government, most of his prescriptions require government power.

Lewyn's basic argument is that urban sprawl resulted from government policies. Without those government actions, most people would still be living in relatively high-density cities they did a century ago. Those government policies are:

All of these claims are addressed on pages 250 through 259 of The Vanishing Automobile, but it is worth briefly reviewing them here. In each case, Lewyn's claim can be checked with a simple test: If a particular policy caused sprawl, then places that didn't have that policy should not be suburbanizing. Of course, the reality is that suburbanization is happening everywhere; it began before any of Lewyn's policies were implemented; and it continues after those policies end. As a result, experts who have looked at these policies agree that suburbanization would have taken place in the U.S. even if none of Lewyn's policies had ever happened.

The housing policy Lewyn describes is the federal mortgage insurance program that began in 1934. During its first fourteen years, it was racially biased; insurance was provided only for lily-white neighborhoods, which supposedly means suburban neighborhoods. Yet suburbanization was rapidly taking place long before 1934 and it continued long after 1948, when the Truman administration ended racial biases in federal housing programs.

As Kenneth Jackson, author of Crabgrass Frontier, writes, "The dominant residential drift in American cities had been toward the periphery for at least a century before the New Deal, and there is no reason to assume that the suburban trend would not have continued in the absence of direct federal assistance."

Lewyn's transportation policy is, of course, the Interstate Highway System, which supposedly drained cities of their people. But this program did not begin until 1956, and most cities did not actually have interstate highways until the 1960s. Yet suburbanization was rapidly taking place long before that time.

Like other sprawl opponents, Lewyn paints the cities as victims of federal transportation policy. But it is important to realize that the only reason interstate highways entered the cites, instead of going around them as was initially planned, is because the cities themselves demanded it. Harvard transportation professor Alan Altshuler notes that big-city mayors realized that downtowns were "strangled and congested. And one way to bring them back was to deal with the congestion problem." If the highways had not been built as the mayors wanted, says Altshuler, "the decentralizing consequences might well have been even greater than they were."

The education policy that Lewyn says drained the cities was the federal integration effort, especially forced busing. Here we have counterexamples in both time and place. These policies did not begin until the 1960s, long after suburbanization was well underway. Moreover, race was virtually a non-issue in many American cities that had tiny minority populations, yet those cities suburbanized just as much as more racially diverse cities.

As urban economist Edwin Mills observes, "It is almost certain that social issues [such as race discrimination] affecting the central cities have had a greater effect on who lives and works in suburbs than on how many live and work there" (emphasis in the original).

Finally, Lewyn argues that zoning forced people to live at lower densities than they would prefer. If so, then Houston, which has no zoning, should be much denser than Los Angeles, which has long had zoning. Of course, the exact opposite is true: the Los Angeles urban area has about 7,000 people per square mile while Houston has less than 3,000 per square mile.

Counterexamples to all of Lewyn's claims can also be found by looking at cities in Canada, Australia, and Europe. Many of these countries have long had strong anti-suburban policies, yet they are all rapidly suburbanizing. Any differences in the timing of such suburbanization can be traced to differences in income rather than urban policy. As experience in eastern Europe shows, the one policy government can use to prevent suburbanization is to keep people poor.

Lewyn adds some other silly claims that sound just like liberal smart-growth advocates: that suburbs "force" people to drive, that driving imposes huge costs on people, and that suburbs have higher taxes than cities. The reality is that autos are the lowest cost form of transportation we have for most urban-length trips. On average, Americans spend about 18 cents a passenger mile driving, and subsidies and social costs of autos add maybe 5 more cents. Yet the cost of mass transit averages about 75 cents a passenger mile and rail transit is even more expensive.

Because cars are more flexible, more convenient, and less expensive than public transit, the vast majority of people prefer to drive. Since they prefer to drive, most also prefer to live in areas that have been designed for cars, which mainly means the suburbs and other areas built since World War II. The fact that taxes tend to be significantly lower in the suburbs than the cities is only an added bonus.

Having misdiagnosed the problems, it is not surprising that many of Lewyn's solutions are also terrible. Some of Lewyn's prescriptions aim to reduce the size of government, and if that is all he suggested, they might not be bad. But most of prescriptions do the opposite.

For example, Lewyn's first prescription is "no new roads." A truly conservative position would be that the federal government should get out of the business of taxing and funding transportation. But Lewyn's idea that we should have a "paving moratorium" is absurd.

Ironically, the federal road program was at one time one of the few federal programs that worked from a conservative viewpoint. It was funded out of user fees and transportation engineers designed the roads to best meet the needs of those users. Those engineers enjoyed a market-like feedback relationship: if they built roads where they were needed, people would use them and generate more user fees.

This system broke down for two reasons. First, the user fees, being mainly a cents-per-gallon tax, failed to keep up with inflation. Second, urban planners are now using those fees more for social engineering than for transportation.

Lewyn's big objection to roads is that, if you build them, they will be used. In other words, he buys into the "induced travel" argument. If there is any truth at all behind the induced travel claim, it is that new roads make travel less expensive so more people will travel. Why is that bad? In the same way, broadband internet makes internet access less time consuming and therefore less expensive. Does Lewyn object to broadband for the same reason?

In other words, does Lewyn think that it makes more sense to build things (such as light-rail lines) that won't be used than things that will be used? If so, such muddleheaded thinking betrays conservative principles.

Lewyn suggests that school vouchers will take care of the education problem. While that is certainly a conservative policy, I suspect that vouchers are not going to lead a lot of families to move back to the cities. Many cities today still have excellent school systems that were never disrupted by forced busing. Yet their school-age populations are typically declining even as their overall populations grow because -- as the New York Times -- families prefer low-density suburbs.

Lewyn's approach to zoning is almost as bad as his no-new-roads prescription. He considers the idea of abolishing zoning, but says that this "would eliminate sprawl-limiting ordinances (such as those limiting development in newer suburbs) as well as sprawl-creating ordinances." His apparent desire to keep "sprawl-limiting" zoning doesn't sound like limited government to me.

Instead, he wants the states to pass laws dictating how local government do their zoning. Such laws should prohibit low-density zoning, require that apartments and duplexes be allowed in all residential areas, and require that residential zones also allow retail shops. This is exactly the sort of government intrusion that conservatives should oppose.

The fact is that, until recently, most zoning codes reflected what people wanted: low densities, separation of multi-family from single-family homes, and separation of residential from commercial areas. Again, we can see this by looking at places that have no zoning and see that the covenants written by developers and maintained by homeowner associations follow similar patterns. We can also see this from surveys of suburban residents, most of which find that they prefer low-density, single-use neighborhoods. As sociologist Herbert Gans found after living in Levittown for two years, his neighbors wanted "to make sure that commercial establishments did not infiltrate residential areas."

Finally, Lewyn would forbid cities to require developers to include "more free parking than the market would dictate." Apparently he doesn't realize that such requirements arise because developers often build less parking than needed in the expectation that people will park on public property. While zoning might not be the best way to solve this problem, the real problem today is that planners are trying to limit the amount of parking developers are allowed to build.

In sum, Lewyn is wrong on every major charge and his prescriptions are either bad or irrelevant. If we did have minimal government -- no federal housing programs, no federal transportation programs, no state or local zoning -- most American cities would look pretty much the way they do today. If anything, some of them might be even less dense than they are. I don't say this because I think this is a good thing -- in fact, I don't particularly care one way or another -- but only because all the evidence indicates that it is true.

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