I just returned home from a two-week speaking tour in New Zealand during which I gave more than a dozen presentations at various conferences and workshops in six cities and towns. A major theme was the way that current demographic and economic trends are increasing demand for walking, cycling, public transit and smart growth communities, which justifies changing development policies and planning practices to better respond to these changes. These trends are occurring in New Zealand as well as most developed countries.
This message was generally well received. However, some participants raised questions about these reforms. Let me describe them and my responses.
Some people argued that efforts to promote walking, cycling and public transit travel, and encourage households to choose homes in more compact, multi-modal, “smart growth” communities, are coercive. In my presentations I cited research showing that, all else being equal, smart growth community residents tend to have much lower traffic fatality rates and are more likely to achieve physical fitness targets than residents of more sprawled, automobile-dependent communities. I recommend that transportation and public health officials provide information about these benefits targeting households when they are searching for a home to rent or purchase, with the hope that this information will influence some households to choose smarter growth locations. One participant criticized this as “nanny state” intrusion.
Nobody in the lecture hall was smoking cigarettes, yet, not too long ago it was common for people to smoke in public meeting rooms, restaurants and airplanes. During the last two decades smoking practices have changed substantially in recognitions that tobacco consumption harms users and has significant external costs. Smoking is still legal but discouraged through public information campaigns, public smoking restrictions, higher taxes and support strategies such as publically-funded nicotine patches. These have caused adult smoking rates to decline by 50-80%.
When first proposed these policies usually face significant opposition, but now that we experience the results I know few people who want to return to the old practices. It turns out that many smokers wanted to stop but needed support.
Similarly, there is plenty of evidence that, for various reasons, many people would prefer to drive less and rely more on walking, cycling and public transport, provided they receive suitable support, including information, suitable facilities and services, and financial incentives. Where these features are in place we see substantial increases in use of alternative modes, indicating latent demand.
Of course, you could argue that automobile travel provides substantial functional benefits which smoking does not, but on the other hand, automobile travel imposes higher total costs on users and society, taking into account the total economic costs of roads, parking facilities and vehicles, plus the total health costs of traffic accidents, vehicle pollution and physical inactivity.
Another response to the accusation that it is coercive to try to influence travel and housing decisions for the public good is to point out that we are inundated by commercial advertising intended to influence our consumption decisions. Social marketing programs simply attempt to balance this, giving consumers the information they need to make truly informed decisions. For example, I suspect that many people would be interested to learn about the safety and health benefits provided by living in a walkable community; they will not necessarily act on it right away, but it allows them to make more informed decisions.
An objection raised by an economist is that efforts to encourage alternative modes and smart growth housing contradict consumer preferences as indicated by the large portion of households that chose automobile-dependent home locations. But this is the point: demands are changing and so should our policies. For example, real estate market studies indicates that during the next two decades many Baby Boomers will want to move from their single-family homes in automobile-dependent suburbs into townhouses and condominiums in more compact, walkable neighborhoods, and similarly, many Millenniums prefer such housing; at the same time many people want to drive less and rely more on walking and cycling for the sake of health and affordability. In addition, many current transport and land use policies, such as underinvestment in alternative modes and generous minimum parking requirements, distort the market in favor of automobile dependency and sprawl. For these reasons, it is wrong to assume that current consumption patterns are good predictors of future consumer preferences.
This is not to suggest that in two decades all Kiwis will give up driving and live in multi-family housing – under most scenarios automobile travel will continue to be the dominant mode and most households will live in single-family homes. However, much of the growth in travel demands will be for other modes, and much of the growth in housing demand will be for smaller-lot homes in more compact, multi-modal communities. Responding to these demand shifts can benefit everybody.