An Inaccurate Attack On Smart Growth

Todd Litman's picture

Note: This column was originally titled, "A Stupid Attack on Smart Growth," intended as a pun on 'smart' and 'stupid.' However, that sounds harsh so I retitled it. - T.L.

The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) has a well-financed campaign to discourage communities from considering smart growth as a possible way to conserve energy and reduce pollution emissions. They contend that compact development has little effect on travel activity and so provides minimal benefits. The NAHB states that, "The existing body of research demonstrates no clear link between residential land use and GHG emissions." But their research actually found the opposite: it indicates that smart growth policies can have significant impacts on travel activity and emissions.

My new report, Critique of the National Association of Home Builders' Research On Land Use Emission Reduction Impacts, examines the NAHB's claims. Their campaign misrepresents key issues and significantly understates smart growth's potential impacts and benefits. Actual travel impacts are probably four to eight times greater than the NAHB implies (doubling all land use factors typically reduces affected residents' vehicle travel 20-40%, compared with the 5% they claim), and total benefits are far greater due to co-benefits the study ignores, including more cost-effective public infrastructure, household transportation cost savings, and various safety and health benefits.

The NAHB's campaign responds to recent studies which indicate that smart growth policies can provide significant energy savings, emission reductions, and other benefits, such as the U.S. Department of Transportation's Transportation's Role in Reducing U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Report to Congress, the Transportation Research Board's Driving and the Built Environment: The Effects of Compact Development on Motorized Travel, Energy Use, and CO2 Emissions, and the Urban Land Institute's Land Use and Driving: The Role Compact Development Can Play in Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions. These studies indicate that residents of compact, multi-modal communities typically drive 20-40% less than they would in conventional, automobile-dependent communities, so implementing smart growth policies now can reduce future transport fuel consumption and emissions 5-15%, and provide other benefits.

The National Home Builders Association (NHBA) commissioned five studies that critically examined how land use affects emissions, which they summarize in a report, Climate Change, Density and Development: Better Understanding the Effects of Our Choices. It claims that "The existing body of research demonstrates no clear link between residential land use and GHG emissions and leaves tremendous uncertainty as to the interplay of these factors," and "The assumption of a causal connection between density and GHG emissions is based on prevailing beliefs within the planning community and not on verifiable scientific research or analysis." This is an inaccurate summary of their own research:

  • It presents the most negative results. Most research does not support the NAHB's conclusions that there is no clear link between residential land use and emissions. More recent, statistically sophisticated studies tend to show stronger relationships than older, simpler studies.
  • It confuses the concepts of density and compact development. It argues that the relatively small travel reductions caused by increased density (holding all other factors constant) means that compact development (a set of land use factors that includes increased land use density, mix, connectivity and modal diversity) has minimal impacts and benefits.
  • It overlooked some of the most recent, statistically sophisticated research which indicates a strong relationship between land use and transport.
  • It reports the smallest impacts rather than the full range of values. It claims that the elasticity of vehicle travel with respect to density is only -0.05 (increasing density 10% only reduces vehicle travel 0.5%), although most current research indicates impacts two to four times greater.
  • It highlights the incremental costs of compact development but overlooks significant co-benefits including infrastructure cost savings, consumer savings, improved public safety and health, and habitat preservation.


Most of the NAHB's research is good, professional analysis. I particularly appreciated insights in the Abt Associates report, and the research by Helen Fei Liu which measured how various factors affect travel activity in urban regions. Of the five studies, Portland State University Professor Eric Fruits' literature review is most negative, and the one the NAHB cites most. Fruits argues there is little evidence that land use policy reforms can reduce climate change emissions and concludes, "regional efforts to slow potential climate change through compact development are little more than showy, but costly, curiosities." Last year, Fruits published a summary article, Compact Development And Greenhouse Gas Emissions: A Review Of Recent Research, in the Center for Real Estate Quarterly Journal which he edits.

I doubt that Fruits' article would pass normal peer review because it contains critical errors and omissions. For example, it states that "some studies have found that more compact development is associated with greater vehicle-miles traveled" citing a fifteen-year-old article, Cars And Drivers In The New Suburbs: Linking Access To Travel In Neotraditional Planning. This completely misrepresents that study, which only presented theoretical analysis indicating that grid street systems may under some conditions increase vehicle travel compared with hierarchical street systems. Subsequent research by Ewing and Cervero and the California Air Resources Board indicate that, in fact, roadway connectivity is one of the most important land use factors affecting vehicle travel. Fruit's article contains other important omissions described in my report.

To his credit, Fruits did allow me to publish a response article, Can Smart Growth Policies Conserve Energy and Reduce Emissions?, in a subsequent issue of the Journal. 

The NAHB's campaign is misguided. Residential developers actually have good reasons to support smart growth policies. Current demographic and economic trends are increasing demand for more compact, multi-modal development, and the vehicle and utility savings that result can leave households with more money to spend on housing, which reduces housing foreclosure risks.

What do you think? Is my criticism of the NAHB's claims justified? Have I missed something?  


For more information

CARB (2010-2011), Research on Impacts of Transportation and Land Use-Related Policies, California Air Resources Board (

Michael Dudley (2010), Planning for "Dickensian Gloom"? Refuting Critics of Smart Growth (Again), Planetizen Blog (; at

Reid Ewing and Robert Cervero (2010), "Travel and the Built Environment: A Meta-Analysis," Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 76, No. 3, Summer, pp. 265-294; at

Eric Fruits (2011), "Compact Development And Greenhouse Gas Emissions: A Review Of Recent Research," Center for Real Estate Quarterly Journal, Vol. 5, No. 1. Winter; at

Todd Litman (2011), Evaluating Criticism of Smart Growth, VTPI (; at

Todd Litman (2011), "Can Smart Growth Policies Conserve Energy and Reduce Emissions?" Portland State University's Center for Real Estate Quarterly  (,Vol. 5, No. 2, Spring, pp. 21-30; at

Todd Litman (2011), Critique of the National Association of Home Builders' Research On Land Use Emission Reduction Impacts, Victoria Transport Policy Institute (; at

NHBA (2010), Climate Change, Density and Development: Better Understanding the Effects of Our Choices, National Home Builders Association (; at

TRB (2009), Driving and the Built Environment: The Effects of Compact Development on Motorized Travel, Energy Use, and CO2 Emissions, Special Report 298, Transportation Research Board (;at

ULI (2010), Land Use and Driving: The Role Compact Development Can Play in Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Urban Land Institute (; at

USDOT (2010), Transportation's Role in Reducing U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Report to Congress, U.S. Department of Transportation (, at 

Todd Litman is the executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute.



NAHB doesn't want to change their model

My experience with the BIA types is that they prefer greenfield development because that's what they know and what makes money for them. To be fair I think some builders, especially in California that I know about, will embrace this "new normal" lifestyle and build accordingly. Also, I think it's shown that what really gets people out of their cars is when transit is located close to their jobs as opposed to when it's close to their house. That suggests there needs to more emphasis on building up our job centers and retrofitting them with transit, while making local neighborhoods more walkable and bicycle friendly. As a planner I can admit I see a lot of romanticizing of infill and how it will mimic some European or non-western model of living, but even so the environmental, spiritual, cultural and emotional benefits are worth the extra effort we are going through to attract this type of development.

A. Lopez

Todd Litman's picture

Resistance to Change

Thank you for your comments, Betobeto.

Yes, much of the building industry is accustomed to large-lot, greenfield development and so will need to change some practices to take advantage of smart growth. However, there is no reason that it cannot be equally productive and profitable; in fact, as mentioned in my column, current demographic and economic trends are increasing demand for more compact development in accessible, multi-modal locations, and this type of housing tends to be more economically resilient because households are not burdened by unpredictable transportation cost increases, for example, when fuel prices spike or a vehicle breaks down. This explains why residential foreclosure rates have been lower in accessible, multi-modal locations than in automobile-dependent sprawl.

This is actually good news because it means that smart growth pricing reforms can help achieve strategic planning objectives that prepare communities for the future. Economic and environmental goals converge. That is why it is so unfortunate that the NAHB not only resists these reforms, but actually presents false information which will make them more difficult to implement.

Todd Alexander Litman
Victoria Transport Policy Institute
"Efficiency - Equity - Clarity"

Fear of Change

It is not so much resistance to change as it is fear of it. A local builder here in Las Vegas built a small community of "Green" homes that were priced about 9% higher than their standard contemporaries nearby. They proved it could be done for just a little more in costs and the public bought them up before construction was finished. The company also did one important thing first, they did their homework. Urban sprawl has been a problem in major cities for years but proper city planning was never done. People are commuting at home jobs are a reality.

Building smaller, more cost effective neighborhoods is the way to go...but most don't see it yet. So far only one builder has caught on and has been hugely successful despite the market. Others are finally starting to take notice but most are still pushing for business as usual.

Charles Richey
Las Vegas Real Estate

Todd Litman's picture

Change Management

Thanks for your comments, Charles.

Yes, I believe that developers and builders can be just as successful with smart growth as with sprawl, they just need to learn some new practices. There is a wonderful website I just discovered, "Smart Growth: The Business Opportunity for Developers and Production Builders," ( ), which analyzes the business case for smart growth. By reducing transportation costs, smart growth leaves households with more money to spend on other goods, including housing. Analysis by Barbara McCann indicates that because vehicles tend to depreciate much more than housing, housing expenditures provide greater long-term value: after a decade, $10,000 spent on housing is worth $4,730 compared with just $910 from the same investment on motor vehicles.

Consumer demands are also changing. Although some households will continue to prefer automobile-dependent, sprawled locations, the existing stock of large-lot single-family homes should meet the demand for the foreseeable future. Most of the growing in housing demand will be in more compact housing types. For discussion see "Where We Want To Be: Household Location Preferences And Their Implications For Smart Growth" ( ).

This is why the NAHB is so misguided in their opposition to smart growth policy reforms. Builders can benefit from more compact, multi-modal development, and will be worse off if they simply try to continue past practices.

Todd Alexander Litman
Victoria Transport Policy Institute
"Efficiency - Equity - Clarity"

Your criticisms may be justified

but there is more to this story than statistical proofing, hypothesis testing, R squared numbers, and the like. You made a reference to higher density not necessarily equating to compact development. Therein lies the problem. It's hard to measure "I know it when I see it" good urbanism with "I know it when I see it" bad sprawl. Sometimes the density numbers are real close or the same.

Fortunately for you smart growth supporters, the most important trends are increasing poverty and the disappearing middle class. We'll have 80% of the population in 600 sf stacked shacks in no time. Of course, you will be disappointed when world carbon emissions will be higher then because China will have just subsidized 64 billion square feet of absolutely usless new development of ghost towns to keep "the man" busy. But, alas we'll probably still fill our 600 sf shacks with poorly assembled cheap Chinese goods.

Todd Litman's picture

Focusing on the Issues

Thank you for your comments. However, you haven't really addressed the issues raised in my column. There is an extensive body of research which examines how specific land use factors such as density, mix, connectivity and walkability affect travel behavior. This research indicates that a combination of these factors can reduce per capita vehicle travel and related emissions 20-40% compared with the same residents in conventional automobile-dependent locations, in ways that do not require reducing housing interior space or eliminating single-family homes. The NAHB sponsored reviews of this research and then misrepresented the results.

Chinese development patterns are irrelevant to this discussion. Your comments about them seem angry and mean.

Todd Alexander Litman
Victoria Transport Policy Institute
"Efficiency - Equity - Clarity"

Brent Toderian's picture

Todd, I just wanted to thank

Todd, I just wanted to thank you for taking the time to, and putting the rigour, into, re-butting these ridiculous campaigns. Although we know them to be false, we are not their audience - rather they are aimed at media and politicians that are quick to pick up on them to give a story "balance" or justify a short-sighted decision... Exactly what the campaign intends. Not different from campaigns regarding climate change science, or father back in the past, campaigns by tobacco companies claiming "science" that smoking is harmless.

The great irony is that they are doing their industry a huge dis-service. Mixed use and density is highly profitable, with progressive cities using it to creat value and progressive developers fighting to be allowed to build it. But the suburban builder majority sets the agenda. Our local home-building industry is furious and embarrassed by the campaign. So short-sighted. Luckily, any-one who understands good city-building, knows better.

Few of us have time to refute these campaigns though, so we're thankful you do so for us. The least we can do, is support you.

Thanks again.

Brent Toderian, MCIP, is the Director of City Planning for the City of Vancouver, Canada, and the founding President of the Council for Canadian Urbanism (CanU).

Theory vs theory; reality supports one side.

"....Subsequent research by Ewing and Cervero and the California Air Resources Board indicate that, in fact, roadway connectivity is one of the most important land use factors affecting vehicle travel...."

I thought the NAHB's overall summary paper presented this as one of the main findings. The point is, with the massive decentralisation of jobs that has taken place in most cities, roadway connectivity has assumed much greater importance. It is no longer an issue of building more and more freeway lanes or rail lines into the CBD.

Providing better roadway connections between "suburbs" correlates with reductions in emissions. This is because jobs decentralisation has shifted a lot of the regional congestion to inter-suburb roads.

I think 90% of the difference in opinion between Todd Litman, the USDOT, the TRB, the ULI, etc; and the researchers who reach contrary findings; is due to the former focusing on inter-locality comparisons and concluding that "location X performs better than location y"; and the latter analysing economy-wide outcomes. The inconvenient reality is that the "urban planning" profession so far, completely ignores real estate markets, land rents, and basic economics.

Anthony Downs sums it up perfectly when he says the planners desired outcomes require "collective control over land".

I am baffled that government has still not woken up to the massive failure that has occurred with their planning bureaucracies, theorists, consultants, and policy makers - and the colossal damage that has been done - and sacked the lot of them.

The worst of the unintended consequences so far

From the NCPA June 2, 2011

The Housing Crash and Smart Growth

There is general agreement the financial crisis that began with the failure of Lehman Brothers in 2008 was worsened by the bursting of the U.S. housing price bubble. It is also generally acknowledged that some of the fuel for the housing bubble came from a relaxation of mortgage loan standards that allowed many families to purchase homes they could not afford with loans on which they subsequently defaulted.

However, the U.S. housing bubble varied substantially by geography, says Wendell Cox, adjunct scholar with the National Center for Policy Analysis. Many metropolitan areas with prescriptive land use restrictions were not able to respond to the increased demand for homeownership caused by the greater availability of mortgage credit. The result was higher prices, which encouraged speculation and increased house prices even more. From 2000 to 2007, among the nation's 50 largest metropolitan markets:

In the 10 markets with the greatest rise in prices compared to income, the cost of a house rose by an average of $275,000, relative to incomes.
Among the second 10 markets with the greatest price escalation, house prices rose $135,000.
By contrast, in the major markets with the least rise in prices, houses increased only $5,000.

For the nation as a whole, house values more than doubled from 1999 to the peak of the bubble. From the peak in the fourth quarter of 2006 until the end of 2010, homes values fell more than $6 trillion. Losses after the bubble burst were even more concentrated than house price gains. Consider:

From the peak of the bubble in 2006 to the Lehman Brothers' collapse on September 15, 2008, more heavily regulated metropolitan markets accounted for 73 percent of aggregate value losses.
All prescriptively regulated markets (more heavily regulated markets) accounted for 94 percent of losses, or an average of $97,000 per house.
Responsively regulated markets (less restrictively regulated markets) lost just 6 percent of their value, or an average of $12,000 per house.

If the prescriptively regulated metropolitan areas had instead had responsive land use regulations, prices likely would have escalated at a much lower rate during the housing bubble.

Source: Wendell Cox, "The Housing Crash and Smart Growth," National Center for Policy Analysis, Policy Report No. 335, June 2011.

For text:

(Note from Wodehouse: I agree with Todd that using "Smart Growth" as a handy phrase to represent "urban growth containment", is not helpful. Most of the rest of "Smart Growth" principles are unquestionably beneficial. However, I do stick to my grounds, that those beneficial features are themselves hindered in their effectiveness by urban boundaries and other fringe containment measures, and would have worked more effectively had the fringe growth containment NOT been included as part of the policy package. It is much easier to influence urban form when ALL land prices are low, compared to when they are high).

Todd Litman's picture

Housing Crash and Smart Growth

Wodehouse often posts comments on Planetizen, usually concerning a single issue: the negative impacts of urban growth boundaries. He therefore often relies on Wendell Cox's analysis.

In this case, Cox's analysis is based on several false assumptions. It fails to account for confounding factors in land regulation, housing demand and price. The urban regions Cox classifies as highly regulated, such as San Diego, Portland, Washington DC and Seattle, are coastal cities with geographic constrains, high livability ratings and dynamic economies. Their residential land costs and housing prices, and therefore their rating in Cox's index, would probably be high even if they had less restrictive land regulations. Cox confuses association with causation.

Another error in Cox's analysis is to hold the type of housing constant. Yes, higher land costs increase the costs of land-intensive single-family housing, but in dynamic markets this would shift more households to purchase more compact housing types such as townhouses and condominiums. Current demographic and economic trends (aging population, smaller household sizes, rising fuel prices, increasing health and environmental concerns, and changing consumer preferences) are increasing future demand for these housing types. According to market projections, the current stock of large-lot single-family will meet most demand for the foreseeable future, while growth will primarily be for smaller-lot and multi-family housing (see ). Cox's analysis should therefore be prorated based on market mix of housing types, recognizing that "affordable housing" may be something other than a 2,150 sq. ft. detached home.

Described differently, housing inaffordabilty results if restrictions on urban expansion occur in conjunction with restrictions on more compact housing types. Wodehouse and Cox only consider the former and ignore the resulting costs of sprawl; because I am very aware of sprawl costs I focus on addressing the latter problem ( ).

Although I believe that other smart growth policies are more important (reduced parking regulations, reduced restrictions on compact housing types, location-based development and utility fees, and improvements to walking, cycling and public transit, see ), I think that urban growth boundaries have a role to play in protecting openspace and encouraging more accessible development. Ewing and Cervero's research ( ) indicates that regional accessibility is the single most important land use factor affecting per capita VMT, suggesting that reducing exurban development is an important way to reduce automobile dependency and its external costs.

I believe that Cox is quite wrong to blame housing market collapse on smart growth polices. Both urban economic theory and empirical evidence indicate that housing foreclosure rates are lower ( ) and per capita GDP higher in more compact, multi-modal locations. Part of the reason that sprawled housing is cheap is because it has high transportation costs. That is why urban fringe housing values declined in 2008, in response to fuel price spikes. Put differently, smart growth housing is more costly because it provides transport cost savings that are capitalized into house values. To the degree that this is true, the best way to increase true affordability (housing and transport costs combined) is to increase the supply of smart growth housing, so more is available, which will reduce its price premium.

Todd Alexander Litman
Victoria Transport Policy Institute
"Efficiency - Equity - Clarity"

Facts to consider

It is true that urban growth containment is the main issue with which I am concerned. This is because it negates the very useful impacts of many other very good policy measures that we are adopting. For the record, I am in favour of abolishing "minimum lot sizes", abolishing height restrictions, raising inner city parking charges to reflect the true cost of providing them, and "pricing" roads also to reflect the true cost of providing them, according to the specific location. Of course roads that required an expensive inner city strip of land to be bought and buildings to be knocked down, need to recover much higher costs than a greenfields road.

To address your specific points. The fact that cities with geographic constraints would have high land costs anyway, is all the more reason to regulate in ways that LOWER land costs, not inflate them even more. "New cities" with low land costs, to draw population away from the price-inflated ones, would help too.

Ironically, if the California coast was as populated as the Tokyo-Osaka coast, rail services would be just as viable as there. It is ironic that planners saving the planet drive population away from the very areas where allowing population increase, would make the most sense. It makes far more sense to increase population centralisation in the most temperate regions, not drive people away to less temperate regions where energy use has to be higher.

I don't mostly quote Wendell Cox. On the subject of "type of housing", I have drawn extensively on British research that shows that median multiples under conditions of restrictive planning continue to get higher and higher, as well as home sizes getting smaller and smaller. I won't repeat it all here, but there are numerous other highly negative effects on household choices.

You say: "....the resulting costs of sprawl; because I am very aware of sprawl costs I focus on addressing the latter problem...."

What you are oblivious to, is that the increased costs of land as a result of regulations, are a far greater burden to the city economy than the cost of new fringe infrastructure. Looking at the local tax levels of alternative city "growth" models, tends to bear out that the "rapid fringe growth" cities have LOWER taxes, not higher.

You interpret "regional accessibility" to mean that growth at the fringe needs to be constrained. But in real life, growth at the fringe is always moderate, and the beneficial effects in lower land prices, result in massive efficiencies due to households and businesses being able to afford more efficient locations. If all the jobs are at the region's core, EVERY move closer to work will involve higher land costs, but in a dispersed-employment city, a move closer to work might just as likely result in a FALL in the cost of land for the "moving" household. This is one reason why dispersion is a natural, efficient, free market phenomenon.

We argued on an earlier thread, about the relative importance of housing costs and transport costs. My whole argument is based on the fact that housing costs are far more significant, and the higher land prices are inflated, the less relatively significant transport costs become. Charles Seigel tried to prove me wrong, and provided a study that helped prove me right. California's disastrous 100-km-inland suburbs were a direct result of development closer to the existing built areas, being disallowed. the cost of transport, even in a 100 km commute, still resulted in "money saved" compared to buying a typical $1,000,000 home near the coast.

You say yourself: " growth housing is more costly because it provides transport cost savings that are capitalized into house values...."

EXACTLY. So the effect is always "neutralised". What matters is the "base price" of land and the effects of regulation and planning on them.

The concise illustrated version.

To illustrate with some rough figures.

Transport costs might vary from as low as $5,000 per year in an inner suburb, to $20,000 per year in an outermost fringe suburb. I am giving the planners the benefit of the doubt and not assuming that jobs will be available nearer the fringe.

Typical "free market" lot prices range from $30,000 at the fringe to $100,000 in an inner suburb, and typical homes could be built for $180,000. Financing or renting the new fringe home might cost close to $20,000 per year. The inner suburb homes , older and depreciated, might sell for even less than the new fringe homes. Even if they sell for the same price, clearly there are big savings to be made by living in an inner suburb.

So what is the point at which urban land prices start to render moves closer to the centre, irrational? Take the $15,000 to be saved on transport costs, and work backwards. The point at which the $15,000 is wiped out by higher BASE land prices, is when the inner suburb house-and-land price is around $150,000 to $200,000 more expensive than a fringe suburb.

This could be the result of fringe lots being inflated in price from $30,000 to $100,000 by "planning gain". The way real estate markets work, the inflation in price of the inner suburb land prices is not by straight-line addition, it is by multiplication. (This is why inner suburb lots end up priced at levels of $1,000,000 and more, when fringe land is inflated in price). It is entirely typical of price-inflating urban real estate markets, that when fringe homes (land and building) inflate from $210,000 to $280,000, the inner suburb "lots" inflate in price from $100,000 to $300,000. Add the price of the dwelling, at the $100,000 depreciated price we used before, and we get $400,000. All of a sudden, there is nowhere near as much left of the $15,000 per year we were looking at saving in transport costs.

Approximately when the fringe lots are $150,000 and the inner suburb lots are $450,000, it is "game over" for the "savings on transport" hypothesis. When inner suburb lots are $1,000,000 plus as in Vancouver, Sydney, and other highly planned cities, it is nonsense to even THINK about saving in transport costs, what you pay for an efficiently located home.

You can play with the figures, trade off size of home etc. This means of course that the smaller home in the inner location is a new-build, so is more expensive than the old, depreciated structures we were considering before. But there IS good money to be saved on the "lot size" if regulations allow for smaller and smaller lots. However, British experience shows that the longer that these regulations and price inflations are persisted with, the MORE rising land prices erode "size trade offs". No wonder the British now have less floor space per person than any other OECD nation.

The bottom line is that when land prices in the "inner suburbs" are in the millions of dollars per acre, almost ANY length of automobile commute becomes justifiable.

The stress on households is of course very much increased because the total cost of "housing plus transport" is very much increased. In the "free market" hypothesis we considered initially, the best "total of housing plus transport" cost will be down around 20% of median household incomes. But in the million-dollar lot cities, the BEST "total cost of housing plus transport" will be the long-commute, "least unaffordable" fringe home; which will still come to about 70% of median income. No wonder the "sand suburbs" were the worst hit by mortgage defaults.

This is the BEST case. Every mile closer to the city centre, of home location, will INCREASE the "proportion of income" required for "total cost of housing plus transport", because the price of land increases faster than the savings on transport. 71%, 72%, 73%........

I hope this is "concise" enough. I am sure that young planning students will "get it", being at the stage of life where these things are ahead of them, unlike planning professors and advocates who got on the property ownership ladder in a more benign era - or whose natural choice always was a solitary lifestyle, and who willingly live in cramped conditions and whose main source of enjoyment in life might be CBD night life, etc.

Tory Gattis presentation

I look forward eagerly to Tory Gattis turning this presentation into a "paper".

NOTE SLIDE 13.....!

"Discretionary incomes" by city.

Game, set, and match to the low land cost cities.

Students, young people; you know where to move to if you want a life off the living cost treadmill, eh? No wonder millions are.

Todd Litman's picture

Tory Gattis presentation

I want to warn Wodehouse and anybody else who uses Gattis' presentation that the ACCRA Cost of Living Index data it is based on reflects expenditures by the highest income quintile households. It is intended to help negotiate business executive pay. Apparently, Houston is an affordable city for relatively wealthy people. I believe it is wrong to imply that this reflects affordability or economic opportunity as the concepts are usually defined, and I think it is dishonest to present this information without explaining its bias. My research indicates that lower-income residents spend significantly less on transportation if they live in an area with high quality public transit ( ), but this is not evident in the ACCRA data.

For more about this issue see my debate with Wendell Cox in "The First Casualty of a Non-Existent War: Evaluating Claims of Unjustified Restrictions on Automobile Use, and a Critique of 'Washington’s War On Cars And The Suburbs'" ( ).

I also want to respond to another false claim by Wodehouse: that the higher housing costs in smart growth communities fully offset the transportation cost savings. The Center for Neighborhood Technology's Housing + Transportation Index ( ) measures combined housing and transportation expenditures by geographic location. It indicates that households in more compact neighborhoods enjoy combined housing and transport cost savings that average from $1,580 annually in lower-priced markets such as Little Rock up to $3,850 annually in higher-priced markets such as Boston. Smart growth provides other savings and benefits, such as significant reductions in per capita traffic fatality rates, improved mobility for non-drivers, and improved physical fitness and health (due to more walking activity). For more discussion see "Understanding Smart Growth Savings" ( ).

Gattis and Wodehouse make numerous claims about the benefits of automobile-oriented sprawl and the costs of smart growth that may have a kernel of truth, but misrepresent the issues. For example, it is true that in automobile dependent areas, lower-income workers have better job opportunities and higher average incomes if they have a car, but this ignores the facts that 1), about half of their additional income is then spent on their vehicle, 2), not everybody can or should drive, and 3), this additional driving imposes significant external costs. As a result, although I support some policies that improve automobile access to lower income people (such as distance-based vehicle insurance and carsharing), I believe that everybody can be better off from improvements in affordable modes (walking, cycling, ridesharing and public transit), and by smart growth policies that increase the supply of affordable-accessible housing ( ), so physically, economically and socially disadvantaged people have better transport options besides driving. For more information see "Evaluating Criticism of Smart Growth" (

Todd Alexander Litman
Victoria Transport Policy Institute
"Efficiency - Equity - Clarity"

Underinformed attacks, links, and Dunning-Kruger.

...Wodehouse make[s] numerous claims about the benefits of automobile-oriented sprawl and the costs of smart growth that may have a kernel of truth, but misrepresent the issues.

The Google: still without a 'wisdom' button. We are used to it, Todd. I doubt our handful of usual suspects on this board are misleading anyone (except those who need to be misled). Surely if Greasemonkey worked on this site there'd be no reason for concern or correction. Not a problem.



Todd Litman's picture

Responding to Attacks

Thanks for the comments, Dano. I must respectfully disagree. I do not think it is useful to simply dismiss a post because the author is unreliable. Although I generally disagree with Wodehouse and his sources such as Cox and Gattis, they do raise relevant issues that need to be considered. I do not necessarily expect to convince them, but I think it is useful to other Planetizen readers to explain exactly why I disagree with such arguments and provide evidence if possible. In this case, I believe it is important to show that Cox and Gattis base their claims on misrepresented data, such as the ACCRA Cost of Living Index and inaccurate information on smart growth impacts. This should help others respond to false and misrepresented claims.

Todd Alexander Litman
Victoria Transport Policy Institute
"Efficiency - Equity - Clarity"

H+T Data that reveals WHAT....?

Thank you for the continued civil engagement with the issues I raise, Todd.
I am delighted to see that "Housing plus Transport costs" has been the subject of papers by the advocates of Transit-oriented development and urban growth restraint. I look forward to further studies hopefully from non-partisan academia.
I still stand by what I am saying, having now digested the "Housing plus transport costs" papers you refer to and the supporting papers. Here is where THAT research differs from what I am saying the focus needs to be on.
1) The H+T index data includes "incumbent" property owners, who are necessarily the greatest proportion of sample sets. There is nothing wrong or dishonest about this, but it does not provide valid comparisons of choices facing NEW households following a decade or more of volatile shifts in house prices. Of course somebody lucky enough to have bought their home in an inner suburb of Los Angeles 20 years ago, will have mortgage payments today that are a fraction of what it would cost a first time buyer today. My concern is solely on the choices facing NEW households, and the TREND that will result from THEIR decisions. The "average" mortgage costs of a census region is not at all a valid indicator of the cost faced to "buy in" to a location after prices have been rising for a decade or more. The greater the inflation of house prices, the less valid "average" mortgage costs become.
2) The H+T data fails, egregiously, to differentiate between house sizes and different households requirements for space. Average "housing costs" for some areas include a higher proportion of "homes" in which only 1 person can live; or 2; or 3; rather than a traditional family.
3) The cost of vehicle running is, as I have criticised other studies before, comprised of averages and estimates based on the entire vehicle fleet. This includes discretionary purchases of gas guzzlers, luxury vehicles and new cars that depreciate rapidly. Nowhere are "best option" vehicle running costs considered.
4) I have no problem with results obtained in cities with low, stable land prices. The H+T index data completely fails to identify the massive differences in land price levels and volatility between different cities. Low land price cities necessarily must have lower H+T DOLLAR costs and H+T costs relative to incomes; this is masked in the H+T data, by the incumbent owner factor, and by the use of intra-city percentages rather than inter-city comparisons. It hardly matters if Houston residents spend more on transport than housing; the cost of housing is so low, that discretionary spending on types of vehicle, etc is likely to be higher. It really is inappropriate to comment that my argument, and Tory Gattis', is based on Houston being "good for wealthy people". This is completely the opposite of what I am saying. Low income people enjoy low house prices AND spread of employment opportunities in Houston.
Given "median multiples" from Demographia, it is fair to assume that "discretionary incomes" will be higher in Houston for ALL income cohorts, even if Gattis' data is derived from a higher income cohort. And if the higher income cohort in LA is struggling, how can that possibly support an interpretation that lower income cohorts will be better off there than in Houston?
The thing that got me concerned about the unintended consequences, via LONG TERM trends, of urban growth boundaries, was the simple observation of numerous real life young first home buyers opting to "drive to qualify". THEIR real life options and real life decisions made perfect sense. The H+T data completely fails to "tease out" the right data, and has the effrontery to condemn "drive to qualify" on wholly spurious grounds. I say effrontery, because I am well aware of the real life pain inflicted on the younger cohort in the high land price cities.
VALID studies would look at those who bought their first home within the last 5 years, and what THEIR actual housing costs are, and their actual vehicle running costs. I would expect to see, in the high land price cities, far FEWER such households than in the low land price cities; but the H+T comparisons I am discussing above will be validated nonetheless. Ironically, the higher proportion of young people delaying child-bearing, and living alone in tight, "budget", accomodation as they save money for a high-cost housing target, will distort the H+T indexes in favour of the high-land-cost cities.
It is the options and choices necessarily being confronted by the YOUNG, that gives a true and accurate picture of the "trend" in urban population dispersion that is provoked by inflated land costs. It is no surprise when analyses of "the spatial distribution of density" in LONG TERM high land price cities, shows unusually high density remoter suburbs.

I find it odd that the advocates of restrictive planning care so little about these realities, that they never seem to bother to collate data of any kind other than data that obscures the problem.

The correct finding is already out there.

It is not as if someone did not come up with the correct finding years ago. The famous TCRP/Brookings "The Costs of Sprawl 2000" contained a section headed "The Effect of Lower-Cost, Outlying Land on Housing Costs":

page 448 onwards of the following PDF:

The overwhelming conclusion is in fact that in lower land price cities, it is NOT worth "driving to qualify" and in high land price cities (median house price above $170,000) it IS worth "driving to qualify".

Ironically, the TCRP study cites some of the same studies as the NAHB "summaries of research".

One other thing that does confuse findings in this context, and it applies to the H+T studies above, is that "blight" in some cities results in some locations nearer CBD's being artificially affordable. I have nothing against this "solution" to the location efficiency problem. I have said on here before, that planners are prone to pursue ideologies that a later generation of planners will then try and reverse - "urban renewal" is an obvious example. Slums are the perfect "walkable", short-commute to the CBD, low transport cost option for the poor. Renewal removes this option for them.

It would not surprise me at all, if I live long enough, to see a future generation of urban planners stressed out about the problems caused by the current policies, once the policies have been in place long enough to make the problems undeniable. I actually regard the great 2007 housing crash of growth-restrained cities as the first chicken coming home to roost. There are a lot more consequences that are painfully obvious now in Britain after 55 years of "Town and Country Planning Act". I have posted on this site before about the Cheshire and Sheppard Papers, and the Evans and Hartwich papers, and the Barker Review of Housing Supply. Even the OECD is now starting to ring alarm bells in papers for Britain and numerous other countries economies, including Australia, regarding the effects on the economy, growth, productivity, and incomes; of inflated land prices.

THIS blog run by the London School of Economics, is outstanding:

So is this Australian one:

There are custodians of wisdom and truth out there.

Talk about misrespresenting the issues

"but this ignores the facts that 1), about half of their additional income is then spent on their vehicle, 2), not everybody can or should drive, and 3), this additional driving imposes significant external costs."

So, this private decision still nets over half the additional income (and enables other non-income gains from mobility such as greater shopping choice, access to better prices, etc)? Well then, my Econ 101 textbook says that's a good decision. What does yours say?

And to address the other two downsides you pose, 1) few if any who cannot or should not drive actually choose to drive or locate where they are solely reliant upon private automobility (so is this not a strawman argument?); and 2) are those "significant external costs" (presumably only the marginal costs an individual's choice may add or impose) so large that they offset the individual's net economic & mobility gains? If so, why are there not laws preventing such significant external costs from occurring as people seek opportunities to improve their lot? I mean legislatures are all about social welfare, are they not? If those external costs are so significant, they'd be obvious to lawmakers wouldn't they?

Lawmakers and External Costs

"If those external costs are so significant, they'd be obvious to lawmakers wouldn't they?"

Sure they would. Global warming is the most significant external cost the world now face, and we can all see how obvious this cost is to the current crop of Republican presidential candidates.

Charles Siegel

Todd Litman's picture

"Roadway Connectivity"

Thanks you for your comments.

I think you misunderstand the concept of "roadway connectivity" used in this context. It refers to the number of street connections within a neighborhood, measured as the number of street intersections per square mile or kilometer, or the number of roadway links divided by the number of roadway nodes (see the box titled 'Connectivity Index' in ). A traditional grid street network is more connected than the hierarchical street networks build during the last half of the Twentieth Century. By allowing more direct connections between destinations, a well connected street system reduces the distance that must be traveled between destinations, and increases the portion of destinations that can be reached by walking. The result is a reduction in per capita vehicle travel.

Also, I don't believe it is true that providing better roadway connections between suburbs reduces emissions over the long-run, and I challenge you to provide evidence. Suburban roadway expansion is associated with increased per capita vehicle travel and fuel consumption; any fuel saved from reduced congestion is temporary, offset over the long run by induced vehicle travel ( ). Similarly, dispersing employment to suburban locations can reduce commute lengths, particularly for local service jobs, but tends to increase non-commute vehicle travel, and therefore total per capita VMT. See Randall Crane and Daniel G. Chatman (2003), “Traffic and Sprawl: Evidence from U.S. Commuting, 1985 To 1997,” Planning and Markets, Vol. 6, Is. 1, September; at

Todd Alexander Litman
Victoria Transport Policy Institute
"Efficiency - Equity - Clarity"

Studies, studies, studies

You are right that the Ewing and Cervero study said that, but it also said that "regional accessibility" correlates with reduced VMT.

"By allowing more direct connections between destinations, a well connected street system reduces the distance that must be traveled between destinations". Of course. I strongly agree. But this is also true at the regional level, not just the local one.

Ewing and Cervero don't seem to disaggregate the findings regarding this correlation, into "inter suburb" travel and "suburb to core" travel. The various advocates seem to be interpreting this finding however it suits them. I think it relates more to the dispersion of employment that has taken place, than it does to improved accessibility from suburbs to core. Accessibility from suburbs to core tends to have been neglected in most cities.

"Accessibility" relates to what you said, "more direct connections between destinations". Often, this will involve a new bridge, a new tunnel, a new bypass, a new through route (with buildings demolished), a new flyover, a new underpass. Of course this will relate directly to lower VMT, than under an alternative scenario where everyone has to keep "going the long way round".

I am familiar with Crane and Chatman too. Why should we automatically regard it as a "negative" for employment dispersion if work related VMT falls and non work related VMT rises? The relationship with income and number of workers per household is stronger than location anyway.

Ewing and Cervero are actually a lot more humble about the importance of their findings, than certain advocates who claim to be able to interpret them better than anyone else. What marks Ewing and Cervero's studies, is honesty about the weakness of the findings, when major disruptive policy prescriptions are at stake.

I find both the Ewing and Cervero, and the NAHB, "summaries of literature" very helpful in getting an understanding of how advanced research has become as yet. I stand by what I have said before, that the big blind spot in the understanding of most researchers so far, is real estate markets, land prices, regulatory distortions, and how people react according to "what they can afford". It is all very nice to describe just how "sustainably" household "X" lives in their million-dollar condo near the CBD. This has no relevance to Joe and Jane citizen with a combined income of $90,000 per annum, and who want to raise a family. Of COURSE they are going to live in a suburb, and the best thing we can do for them is keep land prices LOW, not high; encourage, not discourage, employers to continue to decentralise; and do moderately costly improvements to inter-suburb accessibility by road.

We're all for Smart Growth

Unfortunately, this critique ignores NAHB’s strong support of Smart Growth and green building over more than a decade and misconstrues the purpose of our recent research.

In fact, the list of vibrant, attractive, mixed use and higher density communities built by our members over the last 20 years is long and clearly shows that with the encouragement and cooperation of forward-thinking local governments, the market can help meet the growing demand for higher-density, transit-oriented development.

However, the literature indicates there are many trade-offs that must be made in the density and climate change equation. NAHB’s report, which provides a fact-based look at the existing research on these issues, found that focusing on only one or the other doesn’t work. Planners need to take into account the affordability of the homes, their appeal, the cost of production, and the privacy, comfort, utility and protection they offer to residents.

There are resource tradeoffs as well. These higher-density and transit-oriented communities almost always use more concrete and brick products, which represent significantly more embodied energy than wood and other products.

Because the relationship between residential development patterns and climate change is not as simple as “higher-density development equals lower greenhouse gas emissions,” the research makes clear that it is difficult to identify or quantify the benefits. There are many market and demographic forces that influence how often someone who lives in a low-density development gets in a car – everything from job changes to after-school activities and soccer tournaments.

Please look at NAHB’s smart growth principles and read the research report itself, which is based on publicly accessible government data and an exhaustive review of the literature. And find more information about the relationship between density and climate change at

Density and Embodied Energy

"These higher-density and transit-oriented communities almost always use more concrete and brick products, which represent significantly more embodied energy than wood and other products."

That it not true of TOD made up of five or six-story buildings, which can use wood-frame construction.
As Michael Mehaffy's article on this subject pointed out, this is one of the reasons why high-rises are not as green as mid-rises.

This failing of high-rises should not be used as a criticism of smart growth. As traditional European neighborhoods prove, mid-rise housing gives you plenty of density and walkability without this environmental cost of high-rises.

Charles Siegel

Todd Litman's picture

Smart Growth Housing Material Costs

Yes, shifting from low- to high-rise construction may require more cement, but in other situations smart growth reduces embodied energy and emissions. The following studies examine in detail the relative costs of smart growth and sprawl housing development. They point out that more compact development often reduces material consumption. For example, two-story homes require less foundation and roofing material than single-story homes of the same interior space.

Jonathan Ford (2009), "Smart Growth & Conventional Suburban Development: Which Costs More?" U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (; at

Jason Miller (2008), "Production-Built Homes: The Cost Advantages of Smart Growth," U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (; at

Todd Alexander Litman
Victoria Transport Policy Institute
"Efficiency - Equity - Clarity"

Todd Litman's picture

The NAHB's Report is Excessively Critical of Smart Growth

Thank you for your comments, DBASSERT.

However, you have not addressed the issues raised in my column.

Yes, many NAHB members do build housing in higher density, transit-oriented communities, but many others continue to build in automobile-dependent sprawl. Yes, policy makers and residents must consider many trade-offs when making land use decisions, which should include the many direct and indirect savings and benefits of smart growth (infrastructure savings, consumer transportation savings, habitat preservation, increased traffic safety and public health, improved mobility for non-drivers) ignored in the NAHB study. And yes, higher, density buildings often do involve more embodied energy, but that is generally small compared with the additional energy used for transport by residents in automobile-dependent areas.

The key issue raised in this column and in my report, "Critique of the National Association of Home Builders’ Research On Land Use Emission Reduction Impacts," ( ) is whether the NAHB's publications correctly reflect current knowledge of the relationships between land use and transport, and therefore the potential of smart growth policies to reduce vehicle travel, conserve fuel and reduce pollution emissions.

I reviewed all of the NAHB's reports. I do not believe that the research reports support the summary report's statements, “The existing body of research demonstrates no clear link between residential land use and GHG emissions and leaves tremendous uncertainty as to the interplay of these factors,” nor “The assumption of a causal connection between density and GHG emissions is based on prevailing beliefs within the planning community and not on verifiable scientific research or analysis.”

I challenge you to show me how you reached those conclusions. Four of the five research reports clearly indicate that land use factors do significantly affect travel activity. The Abt Associates report states, "The research on the relationship between density and travel is virtually unanimous: after controlling for socioeconomic factors, density directly influences VMT and mode choice." Dr. Liu's study included original research showing how various land use factors, including density and rail transit availability, affect travel behavior. Only Professor Fruits is strongly skeptical, yet the NAHB seems to rely primarily on that study. This indicates that the NAHB's conclusions are selective and biased, and belies the claim that your research and conclusions are "fact-based."

This debate is not simply about whether, “higher-density development equals lower greenhouse gas emissions,” as you claim. Compact development and smart growth refer to a much broader range of land use factors besides density. The NAHB report seems to intentionally confuse these concepts. It argues that the relatively small travel reductions caused by 'increased density' (holding all other factors constant) means that 'compact development' (a set of land use factors) have minimal impacts and benefits, so 'smart growth policies' (a set of land use policies that support compact development) are unjustified. This indicates either a lack of clarity or an intentional intent to confuse.

It is also worth noting that after the NAHB-sponsored research was completed in 2008 several newer studies have increased our ability to model the impacts that land use factors can have on travel activity, including research by CARB (, Professor Frank , et al. ( ) and Brownstone and Golob ( ), as summarized in my report, "Land Use Impacts on Transport" ( ). Much of the NAHB's criticism is therefore outdated.

It is unfortunate that the NAHB is so negative about smart growth because these policies can help their industry better prepare for future consumer demands and community needs.

Todd Alexander Litman
Victoria Transport Policy Institute
"Efficiency - Equity - Clarity"

Attacks on smart growth ARE stupid

You should have kept the word "stupid" in your title to define and target those reactionary, typically right wing, opponents of smart growth who refuse to see the forest for the trees. It's not that they can't. It's that they won't. Too concerned, apparently, with their own selfish interests to do so.

While some progressive and independent folks like you worry about coming off as "harsh" in assessing the extreme damage caused by suburb-dominated, freeway-scarred, car-addicted, mass-transit-poor cities and ways to fix them, opponents of smart growth routinely describe it as "communist," "elitist," "coercive," "disordered," "delusional," and "profligate," inferring something sinister and even something un-American about attempts to reign in sprawl, revitalize our cities, create sustainability, heal the environment and balance public spending between urban and suburban areas.

There is a battle brewing for the future of this country and this planet and playing Mr. Nice guy won't win it.

So go ahead, be "harsh."

Todd Litman's picture

Best Response To Attacks

Thank you for your comments, Baycityroller1.

Yes, I share your frustration. Smart growth critics are sometimes irresponsible, ignorant, and downright rude. Most experienced planners can tell stories of critics who present inaccurate and misrepresented information, and of being insulted and threatened at public meetings or through the media.

To the degree they are successful our development patterns will be less efficient than than what citizens and public officials would choose if they had more objective information, resulting in economically excessive land consumption, vehicle travel, infrastructure costs, transportation costs, traffic fatalities, sedentary living, energy consumption, and pollution emissions.

However, I think it is best for planners in general and myself in particular to be respectful in our communications. We must not descend to deceit, namecalling or rudeness simply because other people have lost their civility. Our strength is in providing comprehensive, accurate and fully referenced information. It may sometimes seem otherwise, but over the long-run, truth shall prevail.

Todd Alexander Litman
Victoria Transport Policy Institute
"Efficiency - Equity - Clarity"

OK, don't be harsh. But don't sugarcoat your criticism, either.

OK, I get it. You're not comfortable being harsh. Fine. Leave that to me. But don't downplay or sugarcoat your criticism, either.

In your reply to me, you used the words "irresponsible," "ignorant" and "rude" to describe opponents of smart growth, who march in lockstep at the behest of leaders that have fooled them into thinking sprawl is in their interest and attacking those who understand the benefit of compact development.

I think you could have upped the ante just a bit with words like these when you edited your original title.

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