Status Quo Elitist Attacks Contrarians for Being Elitist Members of the Status Quo

Michael Lewyn, a law professor and anti-“sprawl” activist, has a post on Planetizen about how he and his ilk are supposedly unfairly maligned as elitist social engineers, while those opposed to so-called “Smart Growth” and more subsidies to public transit are labeled contrarians.

Every so often, I read something describing defenders of sprawl as “contrarians”, implying that they are underdogs fighting against the elitist, anti-sprawl Establishment. For example, when I did a search for sites including Robert Bruegmann (author of one of the better defenses of the status quo) and the word “contrarian” I found over 1400 “hits.”  Similarly, a search for websites using the terms “smart growth” and “elitist” yielded over 6000 hits.

But realistically, most of the U.S. built environment is sprawl by any concievable definition. So how can it be “contrarian” to defend the status quo?

Moreover, numerous wealthy corporate elites are quite invested in this status quo, and give generously to politicians to ensure that nothing changes – most notably the road-building industry and large chunks of the real estate development industry. Other well-heeled industries (such as the tire, auto and oil industries) also benefit from the status quo to some extent.* Although the majority of planning academics may support less sprawling development, they control few dollars and fewer votes. If “elitism” means favoring wealthy corporations, supporters of sprawl are true elitists.  And if “elitism” means disenfranchising the poor and the disabled, supporters of sprawl are the true elitists, since automobile-dependent development keeps jobs away from people too poor or too disabled to drive.

I won’t even address the rest of the post as it sinks into a bizarre, offensive racial-division analogy (I’m surprised Nazism wasn’t invoked), and will instead focus on the preceding paragraphs.

The “status quo” more or less reflects the preferences of individual Americans.  Poll after poll (PDF) confirms what the current planning establishment fears: people prefer to live in less-dense areas in single-family homes. Particularly households with children. Of course, there are caveats. People desire more alternatives to driving, but this likely has more to do with congestion problems, which transit cannot address in any meaningful way. More people also support a land-use regime that offers residents walkable retail options, with which most on our side have no problem.

But anti-sprawl ideologues such as Lewyn aren’t particularly concerned with what people actually want, and they plan accordingly. Smart Growth proponents dominate academia, state and local planning agencies, and — since the early 1990s — federal policy and grant-making. They, in fact, are the status quo when it comes to those actually pulling the strings and directing public funds to their pet projects (such as diverting revenue collected from drivers to fund heavily subsidized and unpopular transit programs).

The notorious road lobby to which Lewyn refers — the almost-mystical enemy of greens and contemporary planners — is for all intents and purposes dead. Smart Growth and pro-transit organizations are today funded more than 20 times as much as pro-road groups and programs, and receive significant government support from agencies such as the EPA to engage in outright activism. The American Road Builders Association, once the largest member of the road lobby, has changed its name to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association and is now indifferent when it comes to building roads or building rail transit infrastructure — as long as their members get their government checks. The same goes for major developers: most are unabashed rent-seekers who are often the chief drivers for more transit spending. Lewyn is about 30 years too late for his conspiracy theories to even approach making sense in reality.

The charge of elitism faced by Lewyn and his cronies is not about [obnoxious left-wing cliché alert!] “wealthy corporations” or opposing the “disenfranchis[ement of] the poor and the disabled,” as he alleges, it’s about the elitism of believing that the majority of Americans’ personal preferences are somehow wrong and thus must be changed through technocratic manipulation to fit a narrow, politically charged world view. It is that elitism to which the “contrarian” camp objects.