Kitsap County: How "Smart" is Smart Growth? Economist offers myths and facts at local presentation

By Mary Swoboda

"Uncommonly good sense"

Kitsap County, WA - 8/5/02 - Should government tell people where they can live and how they can travel? Does Smart Growth rob people of their freedom? Why do politicians promote Smart Growth? These questions were answered by Randal O'Toole, senior economist at the Thoreau Institute [] and author of "The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths" at a meeting sponsored by the Kitsap Alliance of Property Owners [] and the American Dream Coalition [] on August 1, 2002.

Among the myths of Smart Growth are:

* "Mass transit" is cheaper, saves energy, reduces highway congestion and eases pollution.

* Smart Growth saves "open space."

* Smart Growth produces "affordable housing."


Smart Growth had an unassuming start in 1989, but by 1995, one of its parent organizations received a large grant to come up with a "growing smarter" legislative model. According to Randal O'Toole, there is no one "parent" of Smart Growth. Many special interest groups make up the coalition, including private foundations, "grassroots" environmental groups, government groups like the National Association of Governors and the National Association of Counties, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Other players include downtown business interests who regard Smart Growth as a good thing because it will increase the value of downtown property, the rail transit industry and engineering firms who produce Smart Growth studies on land use and transit. What they all have in common is they all benefit from urban congestion.

This "congestion coalition," as O'Toole calls them, "uses an effective technique called lying." Governors, county commissioners, city mayors and other public officials have been propagandized about how wonderful Smart Growth is. "It can reduce congestion, reduce air pollution, put two chickens in every pot, cure poverty, stop teenage suicide... Whatever the problem, Smart Growth will solve it." State Legislatures were urged to pass this "growing smarter" model legislation. Washington has already passed the Growth Management Act, which is an embodiment of this top-down Smart Growth model.

"These myths are what people have heard, and they're only beginning to hear the other side now," O'Toole said. "There's about a half-dozen people like me who have been digging into the numbers and finding out the numbers all show that Smart Growth doesn't work. We aren't supported by the Environmental Protection Agency and we're not supported by a bunch of large foundations, but the truth is on our side."


Automobiles pay their way in terms of highways, according to O'Toole. Professors of Economics at the University of California calculated that it costs 5 to 7 cents per vehicle mile (or 3 to 5 cents per passenger mile) for automobiles, while public bus transportation, like Kitsap Transit, costs about $3.50 per passenger ride (or about 50 cents per passenger mile). Plus, transit subsidies are about 10 times greater per mile than automobiles.

"Buses use as much energy as automobiles per passenger mile, so you're not saving energy riding the bus. You're not saving pollution. It's questionable you're saving anything," O'Toole said.

The audience burst into laughter and applause when O'Toole remarked, "Whenever I see a cloud of smoke, I only have to look a little further ahead and there's a diesel bus with three people on it driving down the road."

O'Toole also noted, "When you go to a pump and pay for gasoline, the gas taxes pay only half as much as what you paid in 1960 for every mile you drive because automobiles today are much more fuel efficient than older vehicles." In addition, huge shares of our gas taxes are being diverted to mass transit ("light rail" and bus transit). "Light rail costs the same as an 8-lane highway, but ridership equals LESS than one lane's worth. And it costs nearly double a similar bus system." Whether it's "light rail" or buses, according to O'Toole less than 3 percent of the population use public transportation and only 8 percent of workers use public transportation to commute in the Puget Sound region.

The government has a pork barrel monopoly on mass transit, said O'Toole. He recommends:

* Eliminating empire-building by opening mass transit up to competition.

* Providing vouchers to the people who depend on public transportation, such as seniors and teenagers.

* Going to a highway toll system. The people using them pay for them.


Many players in the "congestion coalition" advocate higher density housing to save "open space." The reality is urban growth areas in Washington equal only 5 percent of the total land. The rest -- 95 percent -- is rural open space. Sprawl, or low-density housing, doesn't threaten rural open space, says O'Toole. Smart Growth restricts expansion of Urban Growth Areas, forcing infill of existing open space within existing boundaries.


Smart Growth planners think they know best where you should live and work. By controlling land use, they think people will voluntarily move into high-density housing and give up their cars. The reality is:

* The cost of housing is much higher because urban growth boundaries raise the price of land, creating a permanent underclass of people.

* Job centers are disbursed rather than concentrated, making public transit inefficient.

* A permanent underclass is being created. (Who can afford to buy when the cost of land skyrockets?)

* Emergency service providers are inhibited by speed bumps and other "traffic calming" congestion builders.

* Congestion and air pollution are higher.

"If the goal is to turn Kitsap County into Los Angeles, adopt Smart Growth," O'Toole said.


"Instead of faceless bureaucrats trying to dictate lifestyle choices, why not give people the opportunity to choose how they want to live, whether it's low density or high density, driving or bicycling or mass transit? But they must pay for the cost of their choices. Don't subsidize anybody," O'Toole said.

"Robert Nelson of the University of Maryland wrote an article for the George Mason Law Review [] suggesting state legislatures pass a law allowing people of any neighborhood to petition to take over the zoning for that neighborhood. Once they get a majority of people, or maybe a supermajority of people in that neighborhood, then its homeowners association will decide the zoning. Three cities in America don't have any formal zoning; instead they have protective covenants, and neighborhood associations enforce those covenants. The cities don't have to spend millions of dollars a year on planning because the people plan for themselves. The neighborhood negotiates all changes; you don't have to go through planning commissions and hearings, environmental impact statements and so forth. People like to live in a neighborhood where they feel secure about the future of that neighborhood. The value of the property will be higher."

"Some people within the neighborhood may find themselves stuck with the covenants. However, considering what goes with zoning now, I think they'd feel a lot more secure and a lot safer. I trust my neighbors more than I trust the bureaucrats miles away," O'Toole said.

"I love trains and bicycles. I'd love it if Smart Growth worked, but it doesn't work. And as more and more politicians get that message, I think you'll see a lot of people changing sides," O'Toole concluded.

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Additional resources on the Web:

Competitive Enterprise Institute Profile: Robert H. Nelson

Privatizing The Inner City by Robert H. Nelson, November 1, 1997

Collective Private Ownership of American Housing: A Social Revolution in Local Governance by Robert H. Nelson, University of Maryland, Competitive Enterprise Institute and ICER, July 2000


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