Smart Growth policy is chock-full of dumb ideas

May 10, 1999|By Steven Hayward

ANYONE who's been following Vice President Al Gore's speechifying in recent months knows that the idea of stopping suburban sprawl through Smart Growth is considered smart politics.

It's not just the vice president who thinks this. More than half the nation's governors endorsed some notion of Smart Growth in formal addresses this year. All of which must make Maryland's Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who coined the term, awfully proud indeed.

In an age where small policies (i.e. school uniforms), wrapped in large rhetoric are all the rage, the idea of Smart Growth is a piece of political genius.

Who, after all, could possibly be in favor of dumb growth, except some cloddish, greedy developer? But what does Smart Growth mean in practice?

For Mr. Gore, it means backing a few billion dollars in bonds to buy some green space, which really is the land-use equivalent of school uniforms. On the state level in Maryland and elsewhere, it means that government will more carefully decide where to build roads and sewers to help guide where growth occurs. This is a conscious effort to give our suburbs much higher density patterns.

Smart Growth in practice can perhaps best be understood by analogy: If you owned a grocery store where the customers were lined up 15-people deep in check-out lines for much of the day every day, would you as a matter of course say, "Gee, we shouldn't build a new store because people will only buy more food and get fat."

The sharpies of the Smart Growth movement think that if a new road is built, the road gives people the idea to move farther out. The Smart Growth folks are simply oblivious (or contemptuous) of the fact that low-density suburban lifestyle is driven, so to speak, by the overwhelming preferences of ordinary people. Just look at any survey of housing and job-location preferences.

Much to the chagrin of the smart growth crowd, "sprawl" (which is never defined in any specific or rigorous way) is happening all over the developed world, even in nations without the alleged subsidies for sprawl that we have. Consider Toronto: its new "sprawling" suburbs look just like ours.

Low-density suburbanization is driven by two factors: affluence and population growth. Mr. Glendening and Mr. Gore want to compel people to live in high density areas against their wishes by limiting infrastructure development.

The Smart Growth movement thinks there is a positive trade-off to this. If we all live closer together, traffic congestion will ease because we will all be able to walk, ride mass transit or drive shorter distances to our work and shopping. Sounds fine in theory.

But consider this: What happens at a cocktail party when a new wave of people show up and the population density of the living room doubles? Does it become easier or harder to get to the bar and the cheese tray? Is it harder or easier to carry on a conversation and move around the room?

In fact, studies show that as metropolitan population density rises, auto traffic congestion gets worse, not better, and commute times get longer, not shorter. So why do we want to embrace a "solution" that will make the problems people complain most about even more severe?

The Smart Growth movement is absolutely right about a few things. For example, urban planners have made a mess of our cities and suburbs with their prohibitions on mixed-use development and the requirement that strip malls be pedestrian unfriendly by having huge amounts of parking fronting the street.

But why should we reward the planners who admit to botching things with even more power to make a new set of mistakes?

The ultimate reason for suspicion about the Smart Growth agenda is that it clearly embraces the utopian view that we can force people out of their cars. But we're not going to get people out of their cars, no matter how hard anyone tries.

If we were serious about solving the problems of congestion and the costs of growth, we would consider privatizing some government services.

Indianapolis, for example, has privatized wastewater treatment, so new development pays its own way. More governments could charge motorists a variable price based on the time of day they use a busy road.

This is done electronically on some roads in California and in some foreign cities, including Seoul, South Korea. These ideas work a lot better than thinking you're smarter than the people.

Steven Hayward is senior fellow with the Pacific Research Institute, a San Francisco-based think tank. He writes from Northern Virginia.

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