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Smart Growth: More Traffic Congestion and Air Pollution

Issue Backgrounder
January 11, 2001

By Wendell Cox

Americans have moved to the suburbs: Over the past 50 years, Americas suburbs have grown to contain most urban residents. As the nation has become more affluent, people have chosen to live in single-family dwellings on individual lots and have also obtained automobiles to provide unprecedented mobility.

The air is cleaner, but road expansion has lagged behind population growth: As population has continued to grow, the amount of new roadway constructed has fallen far short of the rise in automobile use. As a result, American urban areas are experiencing increased traffic congestion. At the same time, strategies to reduce air pollution have been successful, and the air in most American urban areas is cleaner than it has been for more than a century.

A strong anti-suburban movement has developed. As development has continued, a powerful movement (including the Sierra Club and many urban planners) has arisen to oppose what they term as urban sprawl. The low-density suburbanization of U.S. urban areas is perceived by the anti-sprawl movement as inefficiently using land, by consuming open space and valuable agricultural land. The anti-sprawl movement believes that suburbanization has resulted in an inappropriate amount of automobile use and highway construction and favors public transit and walking as alternatives. Moreover, they blame suburbanization for the decline of the nations central cities.

The anti-sprawl movement suggests so-called smart growth: The anti-sprawl movement has embraced a set of policy initiatives called smart growth. In general, smart growth would increase urban population densities, especially in particular corridors served by rail transit. Development would be corralled within urban growth boundaries or growth areas. There would be little or no highway construction, replaced instead by construction of urban rail systems. Attempts would be made to steer development toward patterns that would reduce home to work travel distances, making transit and walking more feasible. Development would be governed by strong regional or state land-use plans. The anti-sprawl movement believes these policies will improve the quality of life, while reducing traffic congestion and air pollution.
The anti-sprawl diagnosis is flawed: The anti-sprawl movement, however, sees problems that simply do not exist.

Urbanization does not threaten agricultural land. Since 1950, urban areas of more than 1,000,000 have consumed an amount of new land equal to barely 1/10th the area taken out of agricultural production. Agricultural land has been taken out of production
as a result of improving agricultural productivity. Moreover, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has indicated that urbanization
does not pose a threat to agricultural production.

  • While the nations central cities have declined, only 15 percent of suburban growth has come from the cities. Most suburban growth is the result of simple population gain and the movement of people from rural to suburban areas. The same process is occurring throughout affluent nations, from Europe to Asia and Australia. In these nations, virtually all urban growth in recent decades has been suburban. Both U.S. and foreign central cities have lost population. Since 1950 Copenhagen has lost 40% of its population and Paris 25%.
  • Urban areas cannot practically be redesigned to significantly increase transit and walking. Whether in America or Europe, the vast majority of destinations are reasonably accessible only by automobile. Transit can be an effective alternative to the automobile only to dense core areas, such as the nations largest downtowns.
  • Large expanses of land are already protected as open space. All of the nations urban development, in small towns and major metropolitan areas, accounts for approximately four percent of land (excluding Alaska).

Smart growth would intensify the very problems it is supposed to solve. Smart growth promises more traffic congestion, air pollution and higher housing costs.

  • The higher densities that would be the result of smart growth would increase traffic congestion. International and U.S. evidence strongly shows that higher population densities are associated with greater traffic congestion (charts).[1]
  • Automobile produced air pollution tends to be reduced as traffic flows faster and more freely. International and U.S. experience shows that the slower, more stop-and-go traffic smart growth would increase air pollution (charts).

Smart growth reduces housing affordability. Urban growth boundaries (growth areas) ration land for development. As with any commodity (such as gasoline), rationing of land drives up housing prices. For example, where smart growth policies have been most comprehensively adopted, Portland, Oregon, housing affordability has declined considerably more than in any other major metropolitan area (chart).[2] This makes it unnecessarily difficult for low-income and many minority citizens to purchase their own homes.

People should be allowed to live and work where and how they like: As the Lone Mountain Compact[3] puts it, people should be allowed to live and work where and how they like
absent a material threat to others. The anti-sprawl movement has not identified a problem that warrants such draconian measures.
Sufficient road capacity should be provided to accommodate growth: As urban areas continue to expand in response to population growth and greater affluence, sufficient street and highway capacity should be provided, so that traffic congestion and air pollution are minimized.

[1] Internet: https://i2i.org/SuptDocs/Enviro/AirPollutionSmartGrowth.htm
[2] Internet: https://i2i.org/SuptDocs/Enviro/HousingAffordability.htm
[3] Internet: http://www.demographia.com/db-lonemtnpress.htm