The Heritage Foundation

Executive Summary on Smart Growth

March 18, 1999

March 18, 1999 | Executive Summary on Smart Growth

Executive Summary: The President's New Sprawl Initiative: A Program in Search of a Problem

The issue of "urban sprawl" recently received top billing at a White House event at which President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore announced their Livable Communities Initiative, which, it was promised, would reduce traffic congestion, promote cleaner air, preserve open spaces, and retard urban sprawl. Today, organized opposition to sprawl is led by a relatively new school of urban planners, the "new urbanists," who blame the expanding urban area for a number of problems, including increased traffic congestion, higher air pollution, the decline of central cities, and a reduction in valuable agricultural land. (New urbanist policies also go by the label "smart growth").


The facts demonstrate that major tenets of the new urbanism rest on false premises. Contrary to new urbanist doctrine, for example:

  • Traffic congestion is greater, not less, in the compact city. Higher concentrations of urban residential and employment density will produce higher concentrations of automobile traffic (and air pollution). Contrary to new urbanist claims, traffic congestion is already worse in urban areas with higher densities.

  • Air pollution is greater, not less, in the compact city. Generally, the greater the intensity of air pollution, the higher the population density. As transit-oriented development increases traffic, it will reduce speeds and increase pollution, because higher pollution is associated with slower, more congested traffic. To the extent that new urbanist policies are implemented, air pollution is likely to be increased relative to levels that would be experienced in less dense environments.

  • Cities are not crowding out agricultural production. Expanding urban areas do not threaten agricultural production. Since 1950, U.S. agricultural acreage has fallen by 15 percent, while production has risen by more than 105 percent. The area required for agricultural production has declined, quite independently of urban expansion. Between 1960 and 1990, the area taken out of agricultural production was greater than that of Texas and more than eight times the area consumed by expanding urban areas.

  • "Smart growth" could be no growth. Increasing density and growth restrictions are likely to have a negative impact on economic growth in metropolitan areas adopting new urbanist policies. For example, even the new urbanist regional government in Portland, Oregon (Metro), found that higher densities and lower automobile usage rates appear to be associated with "higher housing prices and reduced housing output." As a result of higher housing prices, new urbanist policies are likely to make the American dream of home ownership more elusive. Broad implementation of new urbanist policies could well bring to the United States the economic stagnation that afflicts Europe, where minimal job creation and high unemployment are associated with a high-cost and less competitive economy.

  • Policies like those in Portland will produce more traffic congestion and air pollution, not less. Portland is well on the way to replicating the traffic congestion problems of Los Angeles. Traffic congestion in Portland already is approaching that of the New York metropolitan area-which is 15 times larger-and Portland projections indicate that, even after building five additional light rail lines, traffic volumes will rise by more than 50 percent by 2015.

Many new urbanists want to mimic European policies, but Europe's comparatively high public transit market share has led to the mistaken impression that transit is gaining at the expense of the automobile. This is not the case. European automobile use has grown at three times the U.S. rate since 1970, largely as a result of increasing affluence. In recent decades, transit market shares have dropped from even higher levels in Europe as increased affluence has made the automobile affordable for more people. In Europe (as in the United States) urban rail's record in attracting people away from automobiles has been insignificant.


Despite all the criticism, America's spacious urban areas provide significant advantages. Their very geographical expansion has provided a safety valve that has kept travel times relatively stable.

  • Average peak hour commuting time fell approximately 6 percent from 1969 to 1995 (from 22.0 minutes to 20.7 minutes).

  • The automobile has improved travel times. According to the United States Department of Transportation, one of the most important reasons that average commuting time has not increased materially over the past 25 years is that people have abandoned transit services for automobiles, which are considerably faster. The average transit commute trip takes approximately 80 percent longer than the average automobile commuter trip.

  • The flexibility of the automobile has improved the efficiency of labor markets, making a much larger market of employers and employees conveniently accessible to one another.

  • The competition provided by large suburban shopping malls and retailers has lowered consumer prices.

This is not to suggest that traffic congestion is not a problem. But today's urban motorist experiences much greater mobility and speed than can be provided by any practical alternatives. The question is not how governments are going to force people out of their cars, but whether capacity will be provided for the traffic growth that will occur regardless of which measures are adopted.

Wendell Cox is Principal, the Wendell Cox Consultancy, St. Louis, Missouri.

About the Author

Wendell Cox Visiting Fellow
Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies

Related Issues: Smart Growth