The Argument Against Smart Growth

Will smart growth result in more traffic congestion and air pollution? Wendell Cox presents the argument for sprawl and against urban 'smart growth' development.

Photo of Wendell CoxOver the past 50 years, America's suburbs have grown to contain most urban residents. As the nation has become more affluent, people have chosen to live in single family dwellings on individual lots and have also obtained automobiles to provide unprecedented mobility.

As population has continued to grow, the amount of new roadway constructed has fallen far short of the rise in automobile use. As a result, American urban areas are experiencing increased traffic congestion. The good news is that improved vehicle technology has made the air cleaner in many cities than it has been in decades.

Low density suburbanization is perceived by the anti-sprawl movement as inefficiently using land, by consuming open space and valuable agricultural land. The anti-sprawl movement believes that suburbanization has resulted in an inappropriate amount of automobile use and highway construction and favors public transit and walking as alternatives. Moreover, they blame suburbanization for the decline of the nation's central cities.

The anti-sprawl movement has embraced "smart growth" policies. In general, smart growth would increase urban population densities, especially in corridors served by rail transit. Development would be corralled within urban growth boundaries. There would be little or no highway construction, replaced instead by construction of urban rail systems. Attempts would be made to steer development toward patterns that would reduce home to work travel distances, making transit and walking more feasible. The anti-sprawl movement suggests that these policies will improve the quality of life, while reducing traffic congestion and air pollution.

But the anti-sprawl diagnosis is flawed.

  • Urbanization does not threaten agricultural land. Since 1950, urban areas of more than 1,000,000 have consumed an amount of new land equal to barely 1/10th the area taken out of agricultural production. The cultpit is improved agricultural productivity, not development.
  • Only 15 percent of suburban growth has come from declining cental cities. Most growth is simple population gain and the movement of people from rural to suburban areas. The same process is occurring throughout affluent nations, from Europe to Asia and Australia. In these nations, virtually all urban growth in recent decades has been suburban, while central cities have lost population. Since 1950 Copenhagen has lost 40% of its population and Paris 25%.
  • There is no practical way for low density urban areas to be redesigned to significantly increase transit and walking. Whether in America or Europe, most urban destinations are reasonably accessible only by automobile. Transit can be an effective alternative to the automobile only to dense core areas, such as the nation's largest downtowns.
  • Large expanses of land are already protected as open space. All of the nation's urban development, in small towns and major metropolitan areas, accounts for approximately four percent of land (excluding Alaska).

Ironically, smart growth will bring more traffic congestion and air pollution, because it will concentrate automobile traffic in a smaller geographical space. International and US data shows that:

  • higher population densities are associated with greater traffic congestion.
  • the slower, more stop-and-go traffic caused by higher densities increase air pollution.

Further, urban growth boundaries ration land for development. Rationing, whether of gasoline or of land drives up prices. For example, in smart growth oriented Portland, Oregon, housing affordability has declined considerably more than in any other major metropolitan area. This makes it unnecessarily difficult for low income and many minority citizens to purchase their own homes.

The anti-sprawl movement has not identified any threat that warrants its draconian poliicies. As the "Lone Mountain Compact" puts it, people should be allowed to live and work where and how they like absent a material threat to others.

As urban areas continue to expand -- which they must do in a growing affluent nation -- sufficient street and highway capacity should be provided, so that traffic congestion and air pollution are minimized.

Wendell Cox is principal of Wendell Cox Consultancy, an international public policy firm. He has provided consulting assistance to the United States Department of Transportation and was certified by the Urban Mass Transportation Administration as an "expert" for the duration of its Public-Private Transportation Network program (1986-1993). He has consulted for public transit authorities in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand and for public policy organizations.



Wendell Cox Responds

Just a few comments in response to the comments on my oped on smart growth.

1. As regards the loss of agricultural land, the US Department of Agriculture, under a Clinton-Gore administration, found that urbanization is no threat.

2. I reject outright the "anti-transit" label. My proposals for transit, enunciated for more than a decade, would increase transit ridership, but lowering unit costs (thereby increasing service levels and lowering fares) and providing five times as much rapid transit for the available money (busways, etc.). Those who pursue policies that limit transit ridership would be more appropriately labeled anti-transit, regardless of the high offices they hold in the industry. What is good for transit as an industry or bureaucracy is not necessarily good for the riders and taxpayers, as the last 30 years should surely have taught us.

3. Smart growth policies, especially impact fees, have exacerbated the housing affordability crisis in California. Rationing home ownership by raising prices through impact fees removes the bottom rungs of the economic ladder.

4. Not only is Los Angeles not a sprawling urban area (by comparison with others around the nation), it is the most dense urban area in the country. And that is only the beginning. Outside of New York, there is no larger area of high density.

5. Yes, more dense cities have shorter trips, but not enough shorter to negate the additional trips that occur from having more people in a square mile or kilometer. At the census tract level, traffic volumes tend to rise approximately 8 percent for each increase of 10 percent in density. That slows down traffic and increases air pollution.

6. The reality is that there have never been walkable cities of 5 million, much less 10, 15 or 30 million.

7. I am intriqued by proposals to equalize subsidy levels for transit and highways. It would make sense if based upon passenger miles. Of course, most of the expenditure on highways is user fees, not subsidies (just like payment to a city owned electric utility is a user fee, not a subsidy). Right now, transit receives many, many times the subsidy per passenger mile as the street and highway system.

Urban Myths Refuted

Thanks, Wendell for your outstanding work! I've read your materials at your website.

Here's something that reinforces Wendell's work --

Randall O'Toole of the Thoreau Institute in Oregon --

The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths,
the 545-page book
about how smart growth will harm
American cities. For more information,

This will provide an alternate viewpoint, from a native Oregonian who
grew up in Portland, about the "Portland
experiment", to people around the nation
who are wondering what to think about

Scott Kozel

Old Paradigms Die Hard

Mr. Cox has obviously reached his sad conclusions due to the fact that he is relying upon the methodology and statistical assumptions of an old paradigm. One that did not recognize the finite nature of the earth. he proposes that we MUST keep consuming land, but where will it stop? He assumes that traffic will increase because he personally is unable to concieve of a better life than suburbia(yuck).
Furthermore, to say that suburbanization does not threaten agricultural land or natural lands is a slap in the face to the intelligence of everyone who has moved to the burbs only to have the pastoral landscape paved over a year later. I have personally witnessed the conversion of tens of thousands of acres in N.E. Illinois and to hear him deny it is really very sad. I hope he rethinks his ideas and opens his eyes to the reality of a new paradigm. One that holds people accountable for thier impact on the land, and that always tries to accomodate our activities in a way that makes efficient use of the blessings of this planet.

Smart Growth Falsehood

Wendell Cox once again poses falsehoods regarding smart growth. According to the article in Globe Street, he says smart growth proposes density as the substitute for sprawl. He just loves using the "scare" word density. Mixed-use & economic diversification are the buzzwords of smart growth. Density is not the goal. At any level of density, any district -- whether it be housing, commercial or industrial -- will suffer the negative affects of accomodating transport. Smart growth proposes mixed-use zoning. This is contrary to densifying. Wendell Cox's propaganda ought to be castigated.

Cox ignores facts

Anyone who has lived in one of the US's major urban areas over the past 2-3 decades can give personal witness to the loss of ag lands to become subdivisions.

His contention that higher density will bring more congestion ignores the basic idea that destinations that are closer together AT LEAST give an option for not driving. And I concede that it may be difficult to redesign SOME current subdivisions. Is Mr. Cox unaware about the residential redevelopment that is occuring in downtowns-- even in car-crazy LA and Houston?

Fair Growth first

At last, someone told us the emperor has no clothes!

Common sense tells us we should not leapfrog infrastructure and lay waste to our open spaces just because we cannot make our urban centers into places people want to live. But somewhere along their way, the anti-sprawl leaders lost their way. The problem with the Smart Growth movement is that, armed with large grants, some of us are trying to impose a one size fits all policy that threatens fragile rural communities and impose a greater burden on the poor than the well off. I write this from rural Maryland where a rich household can buy 10 or 20 acres and build a huge estate house outside Smart Growth areas. Low income persons needing subsidized loans would not be permitted to do so. In one poor rural county of 30,000 with no urban areas, the state has even blocked federal funds to repair existing houses on the grounds that this might lead to sprawl.

It is time for a moratorium on Smart Growth until we can agree on a common definition. Many who write about the subject have the Portland Model in mind. In the real world, my region has one county that defines 3.5 acre lots as Smart Growth. Commissioners in another define it as no growth. A proper Smart Growth policy that confines growth will trigger higher land prices and that calls for mandatory higher densities and more investment in affordable housing. In Maryland, we have neither. In fact, the Governor cut the state housing budget in the year he introduced Smart Growth.


Perhaps in Lincoln, Nebraska there aren't enough people to do a considerable amount of damage to the supply of farmland, but here in California the issue of sprawl vs. agriculture is a serious problem. The state is expected to double in population within my parent's lifetime and triple in mine. With the Los Angeles Basin completely built out and stripped of any remaining agricultural land, and rediculously high housing prices along the coastal areas, the Central Valley of California is facing phenominal growth. Agriculture in the Central Valley is an $80 billion industry and the state's largest. Urban Sprawl, especially around the largest cities has greatly reduced the amount of crops grown, many of which depent on the Mediterannean climate of the lowlands and don't grow in the high and dry desert areas. The suburbs of Sacramento currently extend all the way to the Sierra foothills, and have almost completely stripped that whole area of prime citrus, olive, and almond land. If current trends of sprawl continue, the entire Central Valley will look just like L.A. within 30 to 50 years. Yes my friends, the amount of land in our nation is limited. We will then be forced to depend on other nations for many of the foods that we eat every day. Sprawl has already failed us in California. Alternatives such as smart growth are not only wise, they are the only hope for the future. I just hope that other states can learn from the mistakes of Los Angeles and work toward cities that really work.


Mr. Cox-
Judging by your anti- transit message, you have not spent much time in a wheel chair, without a driver's license, or without a car. One of the benefits of smart growth is that it fosters development that makes life more livable for all people- not just those that own and operate a car. Smart growth environments allow all people to move about, to meet others, to enjoy culture, entertainment, and employment, outside the home. By making all people dependent on the automobile, you are limiting choices and quality of life for all.
Is your aversion to being in closer proximity to other people or is it strictly a matter of promoting a self-serving tax policy? Or do you have investments in the auto industry? Please provide some insight....

Nate Hutcheson

Cox delivers weak pro-sprawl arguments

As smart growth and New Urbanism gain momentum, a small number of apologists try to justify the mess that 60 years of mass suburbanization has brought. In the typical fashion, Mr. Cox has delivered a defense full of falsehoods and weak arguments.

First of all, one of the largest falsehoods is that mass suburbanization happeded by accident, by the will of the free market. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, sprawl has been heavily subsidized while traditional urbanism has been practically outlawed in most of the country. FHA mortgages that could only be used for new suburban homes, massive highway building and neglect of transit, urban renewal policies that killed cities, and low gas taxes compared to Europe made sprawl possible. Without these and other government policies, it would be impossible to house a majority of our population this way.

One of the biggest factors, however, is zoning. By requiring large lots, the separation of houing types, and the separation of land uses, zoning makes tradtional urbanism illegal. Anyone attempting to build dense, mixed use, walkable urbanism will be shot down by most municipalities in the nation.

What happens when a developer is able to get a traditional, non-sprawl project built? Usually it sells like hot-cakes, that's what! In Sacramento, a downtown infill project with a density of 20 units to the acre called "Metro Square" sold out in one day. Real estate analysts in Maryland studying the Kentlands, a New Urbanist project, said that if a home was moved from the surrounding sprawl subdivisions into the Kentlands neighborhood it would gain $35,000 in value that day. This stuff sells. Does everyone want to live this way? No. But should it be illegal? Certainly not. Market surveys shouw that approximately 30% of homebuyers would like to buy a home in a New Urbanist project. With this style of development outlawed in most of the country, most of these homebuyers have to settle for a typical subdivision.

Another of Mr. Cox's weak arguments claims that higher densities bring traffic congestion. That may be true if the higher densities are laid out in a suburban fashion with segregated land uses and a disconnected street pattern. But if the higher densities are laid out in a traditional urban fashion with mixed uses and a connected grid of streets, then this is absolutely false. I visited a New Urbanist development outside of Portland called "Orenco Station." It is much denser than a typical development, but because of its layout and relation to the region's light rail line, 22% of the residents take transit to work every day! Studies of vehicle miles travelled in the San Francisco Bay area show that suburban residents drive twice as much as residents in pre-WWII "main street" neighborhoods and four times as much as the urban core of San Francisco where densities are fantastically high.

As for the arument that there is plently of open land... the fact that most of the Nevada desert is wide open doen't make me feel better, Mr. Cox. Most of us want open space in our own regions.

If Mr. Cox is so sure about the virtues of suburbia, let's let the two systems compete equally. Equal funding for transit and highways. Equally easy approval for New Urbanist projects and conventional subdivisions. Equal infrastructure investments in urban and suburban areas. I think he would be surprised at the results.

What's the definition?

There are too many definitions of "Smart Growth". Some think this is about having infrastructure planned to meet new development requirements (concurrency). Some think this is about small-scale community design that enables an 8 year old to safely walk to a nearby neighborhood grocery store (site/neighborhood planning). Some think this is about encouraging land use policies to enhance rail corridors already planned (rail investment justification). It's a great term but any author needs to define it before mocking it.

Ignorance is bliss!

Wow, I don't even know where to begin. It does't take a genious to see that the religion of constant growth is ultimately a self destructive faith.
If the logic followed by Mr. Cox is correct then Los Angeles must be heaven on earth. For no place on earth has as much low density sprawl and a corresponding high number of road miles. Therefore, according to Mr. Cox, everything must be wonderful in sunny Southern Cal.
What Mr. Cox refuses to acknowledge is that the way of life of auto bound Americans, or Europeans, is bankrupt. The premise of his arguments are that, to quote Margeret Thatcher, 'There Is No Alternative' to the current lifestyles of auto dependence.
For the most part I find his arguments to be the tired arguments from yesteryear to rationalize our current state of affairs. Please, let us all open our eyes and begin to honestly assess the fundamentals of our way of life. If we do, I have faith that the failings of our system will smack all of us equally in the face.
If we don't the results will probably be so catastrophic that our ability to cope will be overcome. The environmental consequences are becoming clearer every day, not just in Europe or the Americas but in the remotest corners of the earth. The information is out there Mr. Cox, I invite you to partake of the knowledge so readily available.

Smart Growth

Here in Lincoln, being a university town, we constantly hear the drumbeat for "smart growth". However, without smart growth 90% of our county population is housed on 8% of the land in Lancaster county. You can't get much smarter growth than that. Our density per sq. mile is slighlty greater than Portland. For us to try to institute mass transit would be unworkable because like most areas of the country, before you have mass transit you have to have mass. I find the wailing and gnashing of teeth over the loss of prime farmland curious. In our county, 4% of the land area is sequestered in the CRP. In other words, the government pays landowners not to farm an area almost half as large as Lincoln. We have had real population growth, about 1.5% per year in the 90s. Interestingly, almost half of our population growth has come from foreign born persons resettling in our community.

Fanatic falsehood

Wendell Cox,

When will you admit that the automobile is a dreadful presence in society? Never, no doubt. I won't bother to argue the other side of the coin.

Wendell Cox op-ed

Mr. Cox's arguments against the anti-sprawl movement (anti-anti-sprawl) hold on a macro level, but miss the point overall.
Farmland: Yes, agricultural yields have increased, but sprawl consumes prime farmland. Many major urban areas developed around farming centers; the loss of prime land means agriculture requires more artificial means to sustain increasing yields. The United States is a huge land mass, so any measure of gain or loss of lands to various uses appears insignificant when taken as a whole. A city-by-city analysis reveals a much different picture. Metropolitan Cleveland, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, and other cities lost population for decades after 1950, while their suburban land areas expanded. Metro population growth resulted more from the shift from city to suburb than from real growth. Sprawl and growth are not synonymous.

Further, while higher densities are required to support transit and offer choices of how and where to work and live, smart growth does not suggest that all development be of equal density. The highest densities should focus on the 1/4 - 1/2 mile radii surrounding transit stops. At 3/4 mile, few people will walk to a station, suggesting a lowering of densities with distance from a station.

Transit can reduce automobile trips, as confirmed by conservative writers Paul M. Weyrich and William S. Lind (Does Transit Work: A Conservative Reappraisal). While only 3-4% of all trips are by transit nationally, approximately 50% of trips into Chicago's Loop occur by transit, with higher figures for New York, of course. Safe, convenient public transit to a central location works; if more jobs returned to central cities, transit would be even more effective.
But what amount of street/highway construction would be effective? The Surface Transportation Policy Project reported in 1999 that regions where road building kept pace with population growth experienced just as much congestion as did regions where road building declined on a per capita basis. This suggests that regions cannot build their way out of congestion; in fact, new roads lead to induced demand.

Finally, very few states or regions have adopted or will adopt urban growth boundaries. Most smart growth policy initiatives simply call for focusing infrastructure spending in existing communities, rather than reaching out to foster further sprawl. We are in little danger of running out of land available for development or growth. Finally, housing costs have increased in Portland, yes, but also in sprawling areas such as Salt Lake City. Portland attracts new employment, and along with it new employees, some of whom aren't yet ready to buy housing: of course home ownership will decline as a percentage...But providing low income housing requires a number of approaches, none of which requires sprawl as an outcome.

The smart growth or anti-sprawl movement does not restrict choice in how we live: it requires communities to provide more choices than one-size-fits-all suburbanization.

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