Wendell Cox Responds to Planetizen Critics


I am pleased to respond to the comments on my recent Planetizen op-ed Trouble in Smart Growth’s Nirvana ( The response comments fell into four categories: (1) personal attacks and name-calling, (2) unsubstantiated charges (3) substantive criticisms and (4) support or calls for reasoned discourse. The principal focus of this response will be on #3, the substantive criticisms, though notes on the other categories are also offered.


1. Unsubstantiated charges: One category of respondents simply made unsubstantiated charges, chief among them those who cavalierly cried “distortion” in a crowded policy agenda.


2. Personal attacks and name-calling: The second category of respondents called names and made personal attacks. Theirs is a long tradition, though not an honorable one; it includes stone throwers and book burners.


3. Substantive Criticisms: Happily, a number of respondents were able to resist the temptation to simply “lash-out” at the messenger and mounted substantive criticisms. Not all, however, succeeded in remaining civil. And a few hadn’t any idea what they were talking about. Below are arguments and data rebutting the criticisms.


Density: On the issue of density, I am pleased that some respondents consulted documentation to support their criticisms. But, alas, they are graded only a “D,” graciously awarded to acknowledge their efforts, however far astray. As regards urban density in the United States, there is but a single, standardized source, and that is the US Census Bureau’s urbanized area data, which is collected only during the decennial census. This is the data that I use and that virtually all other serious urban researchers rely upon as regards issues of density at the agglomeration level. Urbanized areas are based upon micro-area specifications, and exclude the rural (non-urban) parts of both municipalities (cities) and metropolitan areas (CMSAs, MSAs and PMSAs). Metropolitan data is, outside the six New England states (CT, MA, ME, NH, RI & VT), based upon county boundaries, which makes density calculations especially unreliable, at least for comparison between areas.


The problem is perhaps best illustrated by the Los Angeles CMSA, which covers over 30,000 square miles (approximately the size of Indiana). This is the result of the fact that the counties are very large, with two extending all the way across the barren desert to Arizona and Nevada. The actual territory covered by the adjacent core urbanized areas (Los Angeles, San Bernardino-Riverside, and Mission Viejo) is less than 3,000 square miles. If tomorrow, the California legislature were to hive-off new counties to the north and east of the mountain crests that border these urbanized areas, metropolitan specifications would no longer include this territory. By legislative fiat, the metropolitan densities would increase by at least ten times. But the actual urban density would have changed not a bit. Not a single neighborhood would have become more dense. Or, consider the fact that 14,408 foot Mount Rainier, hardly an urban neighborhood, is virtually all inside the Seattle CMSA.


City densities are just as unreliable. For example, glaciers of the Chugach mountain range are within the city of Anchorage, miles from any urbanization. Or, for example, the most dense neighborhoods of Los Angeles could secede from the city, as Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley are so wisely trying to do. The new city would be, by far, the most dense municipality in the nation. But, in fact, no urban densities would have changed.


Data Issues: Some respondents surmised this or that assumption  in an effort to undermine my arguments. They should have read rather than surmised. The transit data on Portland was for the three county Tri-Met area, as noted in the article, not for the urbanized area. Similarly, the Dallas data was, as indicated in the article, only for the DART service area (Dallas County), not for the Metroplex. One respondent deserves special mention for suggesting that the Census does not report the figures that were the basis of my journey to work analysis.


Why Light Rail is Being Built: In Portland and Dallas, like so many urban areas, light rail and its expansion has to do with the availability of federal money. If the federal government made transit funding available to dig massive holes and fill them up again, I suspect that elected officials, bureaucrats and dutiful consultants (in the best tradition of Arthur Andersen) would be piously touting the inestimable value of the holes to the urban fabric, while trying to convince the electorate to provide local matching funds.


100% Suburban: San Jose and Phoenix are referred to as 100 percent suburban because they were minor cities until after World War II, since which virtually all urban development in the US has been suburban. That anyone should think of either as having a significant urban core demonstrates a compelling misunderstanding of what that term means.


Other Criticisms: Data to support the following erroneously disputed propositions below can be found through the links below:


Dallas: Transit’s Work Trip Market Share & Ridership Down Despite Light Rail


Oregon: Housing Affordability Loss Greatest of Any State in 1990s


Portland: Housing Affordability Loss Greatest of Any Metropolitan Area in 1990s (Table E-8)


Portland: Los Angeles More Dense and Getting Denser Faster


Portland: Phoenix More Dense and Getting Denser Faster


Portland: Traffic Congestion Worst of Any Metropolitan Area its Size


Portland: Transit’s Work Trip Market Share Down Since Before Light Rail\ut-por1980.htm


Portland: Transit Market Market Share Gains Small Since 1990


St. Louis: Light Rail Ridership Down From 1998 Peak


St. Louis: Transit Work Trip Market Share 1990-2000 Decline


Urbanized Area Data


Additional Issues: Other additional issues were raised, and detailed data is also available through the internet address noted above.


  • Someone suggested that the St. Louis light rail line has been successful. Success, of course, is a relative term. It appears that to many in the transit business success in rail means than it was built and runs, or that it carries a lot of former bus or car-pool passengers. But if success has anything to do with achieving the traffic alleviating objectives invoked to sell these systems, not one is successful. In fact, St. Louis light rail ridership is below its 1998 peak, despite subsequently opening a new line. Meanwhile, in the 1990s, after opening a new light rail line touted as highly by the local transit-media complex (like in Dallas), transit’s market share dismally dropped 19 percent (also like in Dallas).


  • Portland’s modest transit gains should be viewed in context. From 1990 to 2000, despite a substantial increase in service, transit’s overall market share increased barely 10 percent, estimated at from 1.9 percent to 2.1 percent. At this rate, by Metro’s magic 2040 Plan date, transit’s market share could be struggling over 3.0 percent, hardly the stuff of paradigm shift. Today, at most five percent of trips in the Portland area can be made by auto-competitive transit. Little of Portland’s massive investment in the past, and virtually none in adopted future plans will change that. And auto-competitiveness is the minimum condition necessary to materially increase transit’s share. That transit people either don’t understand this or do and mislead demonstrates less than the best about modern American urban policy.


4. Support or Calls for Reasoned Discourse: There was substantial support for the article, further demonstrating that not all accept the smart growth thesis or its agenda. But a special thank you to those who, without expressing support, called for listening to both sides.


Conclusion: If smart growth is built upon solid foundations (which I believe it is not), then it has nothing to fear from a full and open discussion of the issues. The interest expressed by some in stifling debate might be appropriate for the hierarchy at a council of the medieval Church. It is not, however, for a tax-financed discipline that has so much potential to enhance or retard the quality of life under our government of the people.


There are at least two sides to urban issues and smart growth. Honest, sincere and honorable people on both sides hold profoundly different views. That the majority of people in urban policy today support smart growth is cause for neither assurance nor arrogance. Many intellectual movements in the past have later been rejected or found to be fundamentally wrong. The mob is not always right. Those who ascribe to the Lone Mountain Compact principle that “people should be allowed to live and work where and how they like” strongly believe that much of the predominant urban development thinking is flawed to its core. At the same time, we welcome the opportunity for professional and civil discourse with those of good will, of which there are many.


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