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A Scary Story for Planners

Let me tell you a scary story that you can use to frighten fellow planners at next week’s Halloween party. It’s not just fun and games – this story is true and may cause nightmares.

Todd Litman | October 27, 2011, 2am PDT
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Let me tell you a scary story that you can use to frighten fellow planners at next week's Halloween party. It's not just fun and games – this story is true and may cause nightmares.

Sometime in the near future, during a public meeting concerning land use policy reforms, a critic will say in an athoritative voice, "Recent academic research shows that smart growth policies are ineffective at reducing vehicle travel and climate change emissions," and wave a copy of, Compact Development And Greenhouse Gas Emissions: A Review Of Recent Research, published last year in the Portland State University Center for Real Estate Quarterly Journal.

Some decision-makers will find this persuasive because the article seemed to be published in a legitimate journal, and so will choose to implement policies that increase sprawl and automobile dependency, creating less affordable, more dangerous, less healthy, and more environmentally harmful communities than people would rationally choose. And thus will have succeeded an elaborate effort by the National Association of Home Builders to justify sprawl.

This story began on a dark and stormy night, or whenever the NAHB does its strategic planning. As discussed in a previous column, An Inaccurate Attack On Smart Growth, the NAHB sponsored a major research program intended to discredit recent research such as the report to Congress, Transportation's Role in Reducing U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions, and the Urban Land Institute's Land Use and Driving: The Role Compact Development Can Play in Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions. They cherry-picked and misrepresented their own research results to claim that, "The existing body of research demonstrates no clear link between residential land use and GHG emissions and leaves tremendous uncertainty as to the interplay of these factors," and "The assumption of a causal connection between density and GHG emissions is based on prevailing beliefs within the planning community and not on verifiable scientific research or analysis."

In fact, four of their five researchers concluded that smart growth policies can significantly affect vehicle travel and emissions. The exception was PLU Adjunct Professor Eric Fruits, whose report was particularly critical of smart growth. Fruits subsequently published a summary article of his research in the PSU's Center for Real Estate Quarterly Journal, which he edits.

That article contains what I believe are false statements and conclusions. In particular, it claimed that "some studies have found that more compact development is associated with greater vehicle-miles traveled," a statement based on a total misrepresentation of a fifteen-year-old article which simply presented theoretical analysis indicating that under some conditions a grid street systems could increase vehicle travel compared with hierarchical street systems. In fact, subsequent research indicates that grid street systems that increase roadway connectivity can significantly reduce vehicle travel.

This type of misrepresnetation is possible because the Center for Real Estate Quarterly Journal does not reflect the essential principles of a real academic journal. It does not require peer review. It does not prevent conflicts of interest (the article was written by the journal's editor based on his paid research). The article's subject is outside the Journal's scope (an understanding of real estate markets does not indicate an understanding of urban geography dynamics).

I raised these concerns to PLU's Academic Dean, which, to the University's credit, lead to the following policy changes:

(1) A disclaimer will be added that articles are not peer reviewed.

(2) A bio and picture of the author will be added at the front of each article.

(3) The Quarterly will be referred to as a "trade journal."


This type of conflict raises the epistemological question, that is, it forces us to examine the basis by which we evaluate information. This is always important and has become more so in the Internet age, where the quantity of information available can be overwhelming, which requires careful discernment of sources. In general, academic journals tend to provide higher quality information, but now, even they can be unreliable if special interests are cleaver about manipulating them to achieve nefarious ends.

So, be afraid, be very afraid, of efforts to misrepresent information. Arm yourself with a skeptical eye, good research skills, and a willingness to challenge inaccurate claims.

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Of course, biased and incomplete information is just one of many horrors that planners face. Angry mobs, excessive workloads, contradictory policies, and our own errors ("Opps, I forgot" is never a pleasant response to a query by your boss or elected official). Please use the Post New Comment option below to share your own "horror story for planners".


For More Information 

Here are some sources of guidance for evaluating information and research quality.

Susan Beck (2004), The Good, The Bad & The Ugly: or, Why It's a Good Idea to Evaluate Web Sources, New Mexico State University Library (

CUDLRC (2009); A Guide To Doing Research Online, Cornell University Digital Literary Resource Center (

Economist (2011), "An Array Of Errors: Investigations Into A Case Of Alleged Scientific Misconduct Have Revealed Numerous Holes In The Oversight Of Science And Scientific Publishing," The Economist, 10 September 2011; at

Ann Forsyth (2009) A Guide For Students Preparing Written Theses, Research Papers, Or Planning Projects,

Todd Litman (2008), Evaluating Research Quality: Guidelines for Scholarship, VTPI (; at

Todd Litman (2011), Critique of the National Association of Home Builders' Research On Land Use Emission Reduction Impacts, Victoria Transport Policy Institute ( ; at Also see, An Inaccurate Attack On Smart Growth (

Quack Watch (, is a guide to quackery, health fraud and intelligent decisionmaking.

Skeptic Society ( applies critical thinking to scientific and popular issues ranging from UFOs and paranormal to the evidence of evolution and unusual medical claims.

Wikipedia, Logical Fallacies ( This website lists and categorizes various analytic errors.

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