Randal O'Toole vs. the Livable Communities Act

O'Toole asks why, if there is such a demand for high-density, mixed-use housing, that the government needs to subsidize it?

O'Toole says that the findings in the Senate bill "claim that people who live in compact developments drive 20 to 40 percent less than average. In fact, part of this difference is due to planners confusing 'per household driving' with 'per capita driving.' In other words, compact developments have smaller households, so there is less per household driving, but when measured on a per capita basis, the driving is about the same."

"This is all garbage," says O'Toole.

Full Story: Urban Planners’ Employment Act



Fighting fire with fire

It wouldn't need to be subsidized if its competitor, sprawl, were not also subsidized (artificially cheap gasoline, freeways built from general sales tax revenues, etc.) and required (minimum parking requirements, etc.).

Artificially cheap gasoline?

Artificially cheap gasoline? Ah, I see, after reading the article, all those negative externalities are not priced into it.

The thing with the extermalities argument that seems to have been lost sight of in this day and age, is that classical economics decided that POSITIVE externalities almost always outweighed negative ones, and most of their theoretical framework was developed around the possibility of capturing the maximum possible amount of positive externalities. Believe it or not, THIS is the reason why roads are owned and operated by governments using taxpayers money.

If you want less roads and more congestion, the quickest way to achieve this would be to privatise the lot and rely entirely on tolls for their funding. Classical economists calculated that this would result in an under-provision of roads and constrain economic growth too much, hence governments would need to use taxpayer money to provide "enough" roads.

But back to the "artificially cheap gasoline". The study "Consuming Australia", by "the Centre for Integrated Sustainability Analysis" at Sydney University, provided the following analysis:

"Travel and commuting" absorbs around 11% of total energy consumed by households: 29% is from goods and services consumed, 28% from food, 20% from household uses (mainly electricity) , 12% from construction and renovations.

Alain Bertaud, in "Clearing the Air in Atlanta", estimates that achieving meaningful increases in density in even a 30 year time frame, would require so much new construction and abandonment of existing property and infrastructure, that it would waste many times as much resources as just continuing with the status quo.

Urban form and transport modes are just trifles if things like AGW and "peak oil" are real. Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger are "sincere" activists, as they insist that EVERYTHING is going to have to change, the whole jobs structure in the economy, and the level of agrarianism (which is going to have to increase manifold). If all you can go on about is high density living and transit, you don't actually believe AGW or peak oil are crises at all. And I don't, either, I just find this a handy test of sincerity for activists and policy makers.

I'm glad O'Toole is so

I'm glad O'Toole is so worried about the long term costs of the extra roads, pipes, and emergency service transportation costs that are incurred as a result of suburban sprawl. Apparently the entitlement of cars is above question for O'toole.

Costs? Who really cares about costs?

I'm glad you're so concerned about the costs of digging up properties and buying land for infrastructure purposes, in areas that have been built out for 100 years, to put in more pipes, railway lines, emergency services, etc. Not to mention the costs of putting extra stories on top of buildings, and building multi storey buildings, in such areas; all while the normal life of a 100-year established area goes on with uninterrupted efficiency all around - yeah, right.

What did Alain Bertaud estimate in "Clearing the Air in Atlanta"? Off the top of my head, increasing urban densities would require so much new infrastructure and so much abandonment of old infrastructure; that it would be much more wasteful of resources than continuing the status quo; even over a 30 year time frame.

Apparently the fact that this is very, very, very much more expensive than just building sustainable, walkable "edge cities", and multi nodal development with high connectivity between nodes, is something the planning nomenklatura does not want us to know.

There is such a thing as the freedom and mobility of citizens. It was wrong to restrict these things for the natives in South Africa under Apartheid, and it is wrong anywhere.

If there is such a demand for...

If there is such a demand for highways why do we have to subsidize them?
If there is such a demand for home ownership why do we have to subsidize it?

Positive externalities

"Positive externalities" is the argument usually given.

But our public debate now accords a lot more weight to the "externality" of CO2 emissions than it does to anything else. As with all "too complex" externality-based policy decisions in the past, this one risks doing more harm than good.

It is also absurd to have 2 different arms of government working directly at loggerheads: e.g. one arm promoting "home ownership" by subsidising mortgages; while another arm of government is forcing land prices up by cutting off the near-infinite supply of cheap urban fringe land in the name of reducing VMT and emissions.

By the way, Randall O'Toole has made a good point. We need accurate statistics, not faulty ones.

Should there be ANY subsidized planning?

Commentary against federal handouts for smart growth projects does not equal an endorsement of federal handouts for sprawl & interstate projects. Instead of reacting as if backs are against the wall, planners should take the federal spending argument to the sprawl initiatives at local, state, and federal levels.

For example, county engineers plan to "improve" a major arterial by widening it from 4 to 6 lanes with taxpayer dollars. Intersection footprints explode, speeds increase, and peds play Frogger to cross the street. Federal funding is often secured by engineers through creative writing regarding the multimodal character of the corridor. What are the chances this project would occur without the 80% federal funding? What if the limited funds were instead used to improve a network so that drivers had options besides one mega-arterial?

It is interesting to consider how many skinny, naked, walkable streets exist in 2nd and 3rd world countries -- countries where sprawling roadways are not funded through large, central governments. That seems to be the type of discussion that should come out of O'Toole's article. The post-WWII "good idea" was for our government to spend money on wide, high-speed roads and encourage physically separated suburbs. Later, the "good idea" was for our government to spend money on recreating urban centers.

What if our federal government did not fund any planning or engineering projects? If the demand truly exists for higher density nodes, isn't it logical that planners embrace free market principles?

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