Anti-“Sprawl” Policy: Congested Thinking and Dense Logic

On Point No. 46

“Urban sprawl” has morphed into a catchall phrase that describes the cause and consequence of any social deviation related to the suburbs, including, and this was no joke, a sexually transmitted disease among Koala bears.2 Let’s be clear (and disinfected): urban and suburban residents can list some legitimate grievances, such as traffic congestion. But upon close examination, much of the public-policy response — labeled here as growth management — misdiagnoses transportation problems, shrinks accessible open space, and reduces housing choices while increasing housing prices. Moreover, federal legislation aimed at controlling “sprawl” may only exacerbate these problems.

To a degree, growth management is based on nostalgia for the compact cities of a century ago when people lived in small houses on small lots. Frequently people traveled by trolley, and neighborhoods had mixed-use development such as corner stores and other retail outlets. Growth management policy seeks to attain this romanticized vision of yesteryear by increasing population density in urban and suburban areas. To achieve that end, development-control planners intend to build the 20th century version of the trolley — euphemistically termed light rail — and impose a host of land-use regulations, zoning ordinances, and moratoriums. But this nostalgia is unlikely to help improve the life of the ordinary urban or suburban resident. Let’s closely examine some of growth management’s rationale and outcomes.

Getting stuck with light rail. Much of growth management is intended to “get people to take that first step toward getting out of their cars.”3 Light rail is the much-touted mechanism for achieving that goal. However, people desire to go where they want, when they want. Light rail only reaches a few destinations, its arrival and departure times can be very inconvenient, and the average commute time by light rail is 45 minutes, while only 21 minutes by car.4 Relative to the automobile, light rail makes it difficult for a parent to pick up groceries, drop off dry cleaning, and take the kids to soccer practice, especially to and from work. Besides being wildly expensive (most light rail projects start in the hundreds of millions of dollars), these projects do not provide the transportation freedom that Americans have come to enjoy. Light rail will not improve mobility.

Public transit is not a decongestant. Arguments promoting public transit initiatives, especially light-rail initiatives, are based, at least in part, on improving workers’ commutes by getting them to switch from automobiles to public transit. However, each of the four cities that built light rail in the 1980’s—Buffalo, Portland, Sacramento, and San Diego — by 1990, each had experienced a decline in the percentage of workers using public transit to get to work.5 Furthermore, the actual ridership on light rail never meet pre-construction forecasts — actual ridership has a stunning 65 percent shortfall.6 Much of the hoped-for increase in public transit ridership is based on the faulty assumption that riders are taken from cars when, in fact, the majority of ridership switches from the bus.7 In short, public transit has proven to be an inadequate means of relieving traffic congestion.

Falsely using the environment to deride automobility. Growth management policy is based on the false premise that pollution has worsened and neglects technological advancements in automobiles. Air quality in the United States — measured by the Environmental Protection Agency’s six criteria pollutants —has improved dramatically in recent decades. Between 1970 and 1997, total vehicle miles traveled increased by 127 percent,8 while total emissions from vehicles decreased markedly: carbon monoxide emissions fell by 43 percent; nitrogen oxide emissions fell by 5 percent; volatile organic compound emissions fell by 60 percent; sulfur dioxide emissions fell by 22; particulate matter fell by 40 percent; and lead emissions fell by over 99 percent.9 Air quality in the United States is measurably better today than in past decades, and the emissions contribution of automobiles continues to decline.

Public transit takes taxpayers for a ride. Between 1970 and 1995, governments at all levels spent a cumulative $299.5 billion (in 1999 dollars) on public transit subsidies.10 Across American cities, public transit revenues consistently fail to cover expenses, let alone payment on debt.11 Government, which is to say the taxpayers, pay the difference. In 1998, for example, Washington D.C.’s metro bus and subway system incurred $665 million in operating expenses but generated only $340 million in operating revenue. Taxpayers foot the difference of $325 million plus another $442 million in capital improvements and rail construction costs.12 With consistent operating losses, taxpayers are rightfully concerned about more public transit schemes that can only operate with a substantial government subsidy.

Saving open space by developing it? Under the ruse of preserving open space, urban growth boundaries, which restrict development beyond a specified metropolitan area, decrease the amount of open space in metropolitan areas. The purpose of urban growth boundaries is to channel new-home construction into metropolitan areas, thereby increasing the pressure to build on metropolitan open space. For example, urban growth boundaries in Portland, Oregon came at the expense of open space: “[the] amount of parkland per 1,000 residents dropped this decade from 21 acres to 19 acres.”13

The Perverse outcomes of urban growth boundaries. Urban growth boundaries target some lands for preservation and others for development. The regulations impede the normal process by which individuals express their preference for housing and land use. While growth management advocates argue that they know what is best for parcels of land (E.g., “detached” homes are not allowed, only high-density condominiums), individuals are no longer free to choose the type of housing that best fits the needs of their families. In a nationwide survey, only 17 percent of Americans prefer a townhouse in an urban setting close to public transportation, shopping, and work, while 83 percent choose a single-family detached home in an outlying suburb.14 By placing restrictions on the location and type of housing, growth management ignores people’s preferences and limits their choices.

In addition, because only certain lands are sanctioned for development, urban growth boundaries restrict the supply of developable land, causing housing prices to rise. For example, urban growth boundaries (and similar land use regulations) have resulted in all four of Oregon’s metropolitan areas to rank in the top 15 least affordable housing markets in the country.15 Those people who are least able to withstand housing price increases — low-income families — are damaged the most.

A federal role in local issues. In 1998, there were about 240 state and local ballot initiatives in an effort to manage growth and open space.17 Believing that growth management will resonate with voters, Vice President Al Gore and other lawmakers want to show leadership for growth control at the national level and capitalize on state and local government trends. The Clinton/Gore Administration will soon release portions of its growth management plan, and others plan to introduce proposals similar to his “Better America Bonds” program which provides subsidized funding for qualifying state and local government projects.17 Through the use of the federal purse and its attached strings, these programs will give federal agencies greater control over local land-use decisions.

However, when it comes to housing development and local land use, individuals in urban and suburban areas can identify what ails them better than Washington “experts”. The same can be said for the remedy. Having a keen awareness of local concerns and information, local decision-makers are more likely to be adept in their understanding and responsible in their actions than are distant bureaucrats.

The American people recognize that point. A survey by the polling company, commissioned by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, shows that in areas where “sprawl” is a concern, only 8 percent of Americans think that the federal government should address the issue.18 When local problems do emerge, local solutions are warranted.

Conclusion. Growth management seeks to implement a set of policies that, upon close examination, are either based on false premises or make legitimate grievances worse. It is a public-policy response that will restrict mobility and increase population density in urban and suburban areas. Far from improving the lives of urban and suburban residents, growth management will produce communities that reflect the preferences of planners, rather than that of ordinary citizens.


1 David W. Riggs ([email protected]) is Director of Land and Natural Resource Policy, and Dan Simmons ([email protected]) is an Environmental Research Assistant at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

2, “Urban Sprawl Causing Koala Illness, Experts Warn” The Courier-Mail. June 10, 1999.

3 Joel Cowan (Chairman of the Georgia Regional Transit Authority), quoted in “Atlanta Fights the Downside of Prosperity” USA Today, June 18, 1999.

4 Alan E. Pisarski., Commuting in America II, (Lansdown, VA: Eno Transportation Foundation Inc. 1996).

5 Wendell Cox, Light Rail in Milwaukee, (Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, March 1998.)

6 Charles H. Pickerell. Urban Rail Transit Projects: Forecast vs. Actual Ridership and Costs ( Urban Mass Transit Administration Report, U.S. Department of Transportation) 1990 cited in James V. DeLong, Myths of Light-Rail Transit, (Reason Public Policy Institute.) Interestingly, even with its whopping government subsidy and a 28 percent increase in the U.S. population, the number of public transit trips fell by 5 percent between 1970 and 1995.

7 See, James DeLong, Myths of Light-Rail Transit.

8 Environmental Protection Agency, National Air Quality and Emissions Trends Report, 1997.

9 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Air Pollutant Emission Trends Update: 1970 – 1997,(

10 Wendell Cox Consultancy, US Public Transport Subsidies from 1960 (

11 See, Federal Transit Administration, National Transit Database, Transit Profiles for 1997, ( In metropolitan areas with a population of 200,000 or greater, transportation agencies, in aggregate, only recover 40 percent of their operating expenses with fare revenue—the majority is paid by tax-dollars.

12 Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, Fiscal Year 1999 Budget, (

13 Robin Franzen, Brent Hunsberger, “Have We Outgrown our Approach to Growth? ” Oregonian Sunday, December 13, 1998 (

14 National Association of Home Builders, Consumer Survey on Growth Issues, (Washington, D.C., April 1999.)

15 National Association of Home Builders, Housing Opportunity Index: Fourth Quarter 1998 (

16 Phyllis Myers, Livability at the Ballot Box: State and Local Referenda on Parks, Conservation, and Smarter Growth, Election Day 1998, January 1999. The Brookings Institution. (

17 Jere Downs, “Government Lauds Clinton Proposal to Limit Suburban Sprawl” The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 9, 1999.

18 National Environmental Survey. Prepared by the polling company for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, January 1999.