Over 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.
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:
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.