The Public Purpose
July 1999 . Number 28
A Straitjacket on Growth

By Wendell Cox

Vice President Al Gore travels to Detroit on May 4 to stump for the latest social gerrymandering project out of Washington. It's called "smart growth," and its purpose is nothing less than the end of suburbs as we know them. Under a new $10 billion initiative, Mr. Gore would curb suburban sprawl by shoe-horning development within "urban growth boundaries." But smart growth will ultimately fail because it rests on several questionable assumptions.

For example, smart growth purports to relieve traffic jams and reduce air pollution by concentrating growth within pre-determined areas. Common sense tells us that packing more people and cars into tighter spaces will make congestion and air pollution worse. But the vice president assures us these problems will vanish as people switch from cars to mass transit.

That's unlikely. Modern metropolitan areas are so dispersed that most trips require a car. Forcing growth within certain urban boundaries will never reduce the demand for automobile travel. Express buses and subways provide a realistic alternative to cars only for trips to and around downtown areas. Smart-growth proponents favor using light-rail alternatives such as streetcars, but these systems aren't speedy enough to make it worthwhile for Americans to abandon their cars.

A smart-growth agenda could lead to other unintended consequences. Large retail stores will be banned within urban growth boundaries, resulting in higher prices at smaller stores. Houses would have to be built on smaller lots, driving up real estate prices-something residents of Portland, Ore., a city often cited favorably by smart- growth proponents, have learned firsthand. And with fewer and smaller buildings going up, jobs in the construction industry will likely decline.

Despite its good intentions, Mr. Gore's agenda can only make major metropolitan areas less attractive by stunting their population and economic growth. And the nation's major metropolitan areas are already facing several unprecedented challenges, which smart growth is likely to make worse.

For example, cities have historically functioned as a marketplace for large-scale commercial and business activities. But the computer revolution is making it possible for large numbers of people to work from home orremote business locations. Likewise, the expanding Internet shopping industry has the potential to reduce the retailing market share of major metropolitan areas. In short, the city is becoming less necessary. As smart-growth cities attempt to corral growth, they are likely to make the emerging computer-based alternatives more attractive, hastening their own decline.

Another significant advantage of most major metropolitan areas is their high level of airline service. But that advantage is also being eroded. New regional jets have begun linking smaller metropolitan areas with the rest of the nation. With smart growth making larger metropolitan areas more congested and more expensive, smaller metropolitan areas are likely to experience greater growth.

Consider that since 1950, Phoenix, Las Vegas and Austin, Texas, have risen from small cities to major metropolitan areas with populations of more than 1 million. The nation has plenty of room for a new Phoenix or Austin to develop. Indeed, Austin's anti-growth policies could catapult nearby San Angelo, Texas, to major status within 50 years. And Portland's policies may already be fueling the boom in Boise, Idaho.

The computer and the evolving airline industry are providing businesses with unprecedented freedom to locate where they wish, even as Mr. Gore and other smart-growth proponents advocate placing greater restrictions on development in major metropolitan areas. But businesses naturally gravitate toward areas where they have more freedom to operate. With its potential to turn prosperous areas into stagnant ones, smart growth may well add up to no growth.

If such a scenario sounds familiar, it should. Virtually the same thing happened in the 1960s, when Washington bureaucrats and planning gurus promised to rejuvenate inner cities across the country with "urban renewal." Such policies contributed heavily to urban blight, complete with skyrocketing crime rates and plummeting property values. City dwellers reacted by moving to the suburbs in droves. If smart growth becomes a reality, where will they go this time?

Wendell Cox, consultant, is the author of a
recent study on smart growth for the Heritage Foundation.

Copyright © 1999 News World Communications, Inc.
Nationally distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service
The Washington Times, 05-01-1999, pp A12.

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