The Failure of Long-Range Metropolitan Transportation Planning

In a policy analysis for the Cato Institute, Randal O'Toole reviews plans for more than 75 of the nation's largest metropolitan areas reveals that virtually all of them fail to follow standard planning methods, and half of them are not effective.

Randall O'Toole find that nearly half the 75 plans reviewed for his analysis are "not cost effective in meeting transportation goals. These plans rely heavily on behavioral tools such as land-use regulation, subsidies to dense or mixed-use developments, and construction of expensive rail transit lines. Nearly 40 years of experience with such tools has shown that they are expensive but provide negligible transportation benefits.

Long-range transportation planning necessarily depends on uncertain forecasts. Planners also set qualitative goals such as 'vibrant communities' and quantifiable but incomparable goals such as 'protecting historic resources.' Such vagaries result in a politicized process that cannot hope to find the most effective transportation solutions. Thus, long-range planning has contributed to, rather than prevented, the hextupling of congestion American urban areas have suffered since 1982."

From the conclusion of the analysis:

"It comes down to this: Government planners can't accurately predict what future generations
will want or need, yet long-range transportation plans can lock agencies into plans and projects that make no sense. Twenty years ago no one predicted that the Internet would lead telecommuters to outnumber
transit riders in the vast majority of urban areas, or that intercity bus service (driven by online ticket sales) would be growing for the first time in decades, or that FedEx, UPS, and DHL would be making daily deliveries of online purchases on almost every residential street in America. Just as plans written 20 years ago would be wrong about those things today, plans written today for 20 years from now will also be wrong.

In short, any long-range plan is guaranteed to be wrong. Yet, as Drucker observed, that fact that it is a government plan makes it is very hard to change. That means long range transportation plans are locking more and more urban areas into dubious programs of increased congestion (in the hope of discouraging a few vehicle miles of travel), unaffordable housing (in the hope of encouraging a few more people to crowd into transit-oriented developments), and costly rail projects the environmental and transportation benefits of which are dubious at best."

Thanks to Peter Gordon

Full Story: Roadmap to Gridlock: The Failure of Long-Range Metropolitan Transportation Planning



O'Toole And Recycling

O'Toole is finally becoming an environmentalist, in one respect at least. This survey of 75 long-range plans is just a way of recycling his old, familiar, discredited claims that:

"... long range transportation plans are locking more and more urban areas into dubious programs of increased congestion (in the hope of discouraging a few vehicle miles of travel), unaffordable housing (in the hope of encouraging a few more people to crowd into transit-oriented developments), and costly rail projects the environmental and transportation benefits of which are dubious at best."

Charles Siegel


I'd love for some of these sprawl apologists and shills for the automobile-dependent status quo to sit down, face to face, across from any one of the decent folks who bought into the "suburban dream," barely able to make the mortgage payments on a house in a new subdivision surrounded by farm fields, 26 miles from where they work, a house that they bought because they had no choices in closer-in and more accessible locations because of separated-use zoning regulations spawned by NIMBYism that kept decent, affordable housing far, far away from the office park, regretting the day they bought the SUV because they thought it was safe and because gas was less than two bucks a gallon back then, and tell them that they can't try and save a few dollars walking to the store safely because there's no sidewalk since the county didn't want to spend the money, that they can't try taking the bus or the train because mass transit's nonexistant for miles around, and that they'll have to start ponying up tolls on roads that used to be free if they want to get to work on time without sitting in a jam.

These authors frequently attempt to smear the ideas behind smart growth and its proponents as elitist - I think that it is they who are the ones actually preaching elitist ideas, willing to say or do anything to preserve their cloistered enclaves of automobile-based affluence from the inevitable (i.e., what the markets demand, what people want to buy, what developers want to build, etc.) creep of urbanism (mostly upward, not outward) and its connotations of government in the public (rather than private) interest, economic and ethnic heterogeneity. As long as they can keep their big energy-sucking houses on large "country" lots away from all the undesirables and yet still have easy, unfettered access via automobile to the economic nodes of our urbanized regions, without having to share in the costs of public goods and infrastructure, then fantastic. If $4 for regular gasoline and variable toll lanes keep some of the riffraff off of the highways and make their drives smoother, all the better.

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!

The sprawl apologists who get so riled up about "government planning" never seem to realize that the world that they know -- of sprawling suburbs lining huge freeways -- was just as, and perhaps even more, "socially engineered" than the (red-baited) Big Government conspiracies that dance around their heads.

Unfortunately, O'Toole writes little more than broad generalizations about the dozens of regional plans that he supposedly studied in great detail. It's difficult to refute such accusations, but regional planning for growth has indeed worked to improve quality of life and economic development in many cities, from Stockholm's new towns to Singapore's congestion fees. American MPOs don't have the authority (or, in many cases, foresight) to enact such policies, but that hardly discredits the idea.

Usual suspects

One would think that Mr. O'Toole's typical strawmen (unaffordable TOD, rail boondoggles) would be wearing a bit thin with gas over $4 a gallon, even with his usual audience. Oh well - maybe next year!

Planning failure?

I have a case study for Mr. O'Toole: the Tappan Zee Bridge. Maybe it's too early to tell for sure that the planning is failing, but it sure looks like it.

But he probably won't be interested, because it's planning that encourages road-building.

O'Toole criticism?

Does there exist measured criticism of O'Toole's position? He only mentions CO2 emissions once when talking about congestions, yet studiously avoids it when claiming that 2-mile trips are not different in pollution from 20-miles.

However, I'm not really familiar with the zoning issues, and while I see nothing wrong in trying to influence behavior by setting transportation and land use policy, I'm alarmed that O'Toole claims that the behavior is not influenced at all. This will obviously not be the case as gas prices go up, but the deficiencies in the cost-benefit analysis that he points out are worrying nonetheless.

Never mind

Found Litman's answer:

I wonder

how many people actually read the 24 page document before commenting? Perhaps they think it doesn't matter because it is O'Toole.

Instead of the knee-jerk, defensive reaction, why wouldn't you at least see if his points have any merit. After all, we have had years of Metropolitan transportation planning and not much in the way of progress, defined by the smart growth community. (Note: If progress is defined by having people seek non-single occupant driving modes).

One of my biggest beefs about planning in general is that plans rarely come to fruition. They are constantly revised to fit the reality, not the other way around. The main reason is because the policies that set reality and the human behavior behind individual actions don't jive to the plan. And, I would agree with O'Toole in this respect: we will never be able to accurately fully plan something as complex as metropolitan growth 20-50 years into the future. We just don't know what will exist then - $20/gallon gas, new technologies that make driving small cars cheap, trends in the economy and use of space, cultural shifts, etc. Even business plans are much shorter time frames and they still use them primarily to get financing and then many times abandon some major principles. They adapt to the new reality.

Planning takes a set model/paradigm of growth and tries to fit everything into it. Despite new theories of megalopoli, edgeless cities, suburban downtowns, etc., planning still operate very much under the metro region/ downtown hub and spoke transit model.

One other thing O'Toole pines about here is that most transportation planning is, in today's world, land use planning. I used to have this philosophical discussion with a guy I worked with in an MPO. We talked about this very issue about 12-13 years ago when the change was already in progress. Clearly, land use greatly influences transportaion and O'Toole rightly acknowledges it, but my argument has always been if municipalities control land use and regions (who have no control) are trying to plan it, you get a disconnect. The Mayors and Councilmembers speak out of both sides of their mouths. They advocate all this smart growth stuff in broad long range (after their term) plans, but it's mostly biz as usual at the local land use level. How many have adapted land use policy to the smartcode or abandoned conventional zoning? How many have cowtowed to NIMBYs?

Until we fix that, I tend to agree with O'Toole in the broadest sense that long range broad-based land planning is mostly futile. I think some specific pland have some merit, but that's about it.

Michael Lewyn's picture

planning, schmanning

The libertarian Right excoriates planning; the mainstream Left praises it.

But it seems to me that planning is just a procedural tool - and procedural tools are no substitute for substantive policies, especially if those procedural tools set broad goals instead of creating those policies.

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