Testimony on
Smart Growth and Public Transit
by Wendell Cox
Before the
United States Senate Committee on
Environment and Public Works



15 May 2002


Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee:

Thank you for inviting me to testify today.

My name is Wendell Cox. I am an independent consultant headquartered to Belleville, Illinois, in the St. Louis area. I was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles Country Transportation Commission by Mayor Tom Bradley and was appointed to the Amtrak Reform Council by Speaker Gingrich. I have just returned from an assignment as a visiting professor at CNAM, a French national university in Paris and am a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation. The views expressed today are my own and not that of any organization.

I will share with you perspectives you may not have heard before --- about the problems with smart growth. Analysis of the data has induced other professionals and academics to reach similar judgements as well, judgements that challenge what is considered to be the conventional wisdom in urban planning. Let us recall, however, that urban renewal, which was so destructive and is so reviled today was strongly supported by the planning community just a few decades ago.

First of all, it is important to understand that sprawl is not an American phenomenon. It occurs wherever there is population growth and rising affluence. So, for example, the growing Paris area has sprawled significantly. Even European urban areas that have not grown have sprawled.

I do not favor sprawl. I favor allowing people to live and work where and how they like. And, there is no reason not to allow it. Even today, urbanization accounts for less than three percent of the nation's land area.

The "Smart Growth" movement seeks to stop or control urban sprawl. Proponents claim that it will reduce traffic congestion, reduce air pollution and reduce costs. It is important to understand that smart growth and containing sprawl require higher densities. Smart growth's goals simply are unattainable without much higher densities.

The claims of the smart growth movement simply do not hold up.

National and international data clearly indicates that traffic congestion rises with population density. Research commissioned by the United States Department of Transportation indicates that at current US urban densities, vehicle miles rise more than 80 percent when population density is doubled. Now, admittedly, that means that per capita driving declines marginally, but it means that there are more miles of driving per square mile.

More driving per square mile means that traffic slows down and that people must spend more time in their cars. Not surprisingly, journey to work travel times tend to be longer where population densities are higher --- whether in the United States or internationally.

And, as traffic volumes in a particular area increase, there is also an increase in stop and go driving. Slower speeds and stop and go driving mean greater production of air pollution. So, not surprisingly, air pollution production tends to be higher where densities are higher. And, it is well to consider the great progress that has been made in air pollution abatement in the United States. In the last 30 years, driving has increased substantially, while criteria air pollution production has decreased --- not just per capita --- but overall.

So, smart growth increases traffic congestion, travel times and air pollution.

Some months ago research was published showing that transportation costs are higher in more sprawling areas. This is to be expected. But what may be surprising is that overall household expenditures tend to be lower where densities are lower. The big factor in this equation is housing costs. Housing costs are less where densities are less, and they tend to be less to such a great degree that the transportation cost disadvantage is more than canceled.

But, the worst impact of all is social. Home ownership is lower where densities are higher. Thus, smart growth works to make home ownership more difficult for lower income households. Recent decades shows than minority home ownership, such as African-American and Hispanic, is rising faster than that of non-Hispanic whites. At the same time, minority home ownership levels still remain well below that of non-Hispanic whites.

By raising the price of housing, smart growth promotes social inequity. Smart growth rations land and development. It is a fundamental principle of economics that when valuable goods are rationed, their prices rise. When prices rise, it is the lower end of the income spectrum that is driven away from the market. The lower income spectrum has a disproportionate representation of minorities. As a result, smart growth reduces home ownership opportunities for lower income households, especially African-Americans and Hispanics. There is a raging debate between supporters and opponents of smart growth about the extent to which home ownership is reduced by smart growth. We often hear from smart growth supporters that the way to compensate for smart growths reduction of home ownership is to provide greater amounts of affordable housing. Such proposals are no more than empty platitudes in view of the fact that, by some reports, current public resources are sufficient to provide housing assistance to barely one third of eligible recipients.

Finally, there is the overall issue of wealth creation. Land is crucial in the creation of wealth. Where there are fewer restrictions, there is likely to be greater wealth creation. The relatively free market that has existed in land development is at least part of the reason that the United States remains by far the most affluent nation in the world larger than Fresno. And this is in per capita terms. We need to be very careful about placing unnecessarily restrictions on land because it is likely to mean less wealth creation in the future.

And now to transit. This is not about being pro-transit or anti-transit or pro-highway or anti-highway. But the expectations of what can be accomplished with transit are simply unrealistic. First of all, it is important to recognize that transit demand is very concentrated. One-half of the national ridership is in New York and Chicago and 76 percent is in seven metropolitan areas.

Make no mistake about it. Transit works where the circumstances are favorable. And so, 75 percent of commuters to Manhattan ride transit. Those who don't might be considered crazy. More than 60 percent of commuters use transit to work in the Chicago Loop. Among people who have a choice --- people who have automobiles --- transit commuting is largely limited to downtown. And, downtown areas are a small and declining portion of metropolitan employment, averaging only 10 percent of the market. Outside downtown corridors, there is little that transit can do to reduce traffic congestion. This, by the way is also true to some extent in European urban areas.

The key to getting people out of their cars is to provide automobile competitive service --- service that is competitive in travel time. But there is little auto-competitive service in the United States and little more planned to areas other than downtowns.

The Union of International Public Transport is hardly the type of organization that would be expected to make critical comments about public transit. But this organization, the international equivalent of the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) put it this way:

    In the United States, with the exception of New York, public transport is unable to compete with the automobile: its speed is half as fast, which means that door-to-door travel times, incorporating terminal distance times, waiting and transfer times, are 3 to 4 times longer on public transport.
Actually, this is something of an overstatement. Transit plays an important role in providing auto-competitive service to a number of the nation's downtowns, not just Manhattan.

This brings me to three conclusions:

  • No problem has been identified of sufficient magnitude to justify coercive smart growth strategies

  • There is little potential for reducing traffic congestion or increasing transportation choice for all but a few through transit. There are no material successes, US or international.

  • Smart growth strategies tend to intensify the very problems they are purported to solve. New federal mandates are inadvisable.
A year ago, a number of us gathered in the mountains of Montana and issued a statement of market principles of development --- the Lone Mountain Compact. It stated, among other things:

    absent a material threat to other individuals or the community, people should be allowed to live and work where and how they like.
Forty years ago, Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson expressed similar sentiments:

    Our people have had more happiness and prosperity, over a wider area, for a longer time than men have ever had since they began to live in ordered societies 4,000 years ago. Since we have come so far, who shall be rash enough to set limits on our future progress? Who shall say that since we have gone so far, we can go no farther? Who shall say that the American Dream is ended?
We are a great nation. We have accomplished much. We should face the future in confidence, not fear.

Demographia is Affiliated with The Public Purpose, A Top National Journal Internet Site
Demographia is "pro-choice" with respect to urban development.
People should have the freedom to live and work where and how they like.

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(c) 2001 --- Wendell Cox Consultancy --- Permission granted to use with attribution.