Taking a Lesson in Math to Limit Urban Sprawl

Big projects and growth curbs have little positive effect

Order of operations matters. In math, we know the correct solution to several numeric figures hinges on doing your multiplication before subtraction, for example. Screw up the order and you get the wrong answer and a lot of wasted effort. In matters of urban development, there is an analogous situation. But in the real world, you can’t just erase the answer if you’ve miscalculated your order of operations.

The current planning wisdom holds that subsidizing light rail transit systems and downtown redevelopment projects will spur more dense development near transit stations and infill locations thereby reducing urban sprawl, auto use and related congestion and pollution. Another favored intervention, especially in the West, is the urban growth boundary sometimes euphemistically referred to as a greenbelt. Simultaneously, there are dozens of other policies which are in fact, increasing sprawl. But, aggressively attacking one component of urban development without consideration of its causes can lead to poor results and unintended consequences.

Consider that urban growth boundaries do not really preserve open space as much as transfer it to other areas and then by restricting developable land in urban areas, housing prices are artificially inflated. Possibly even worse, development sometimes leapfrogs (a favorite planning term) further outside the growth perimeter into more remote open space. Light rail systems compete, to some extent, with existing bus routes and have done little to solve traffic congestion in many of the nation’s cities. Despite the best intentions, there are good reasons why this two-pronged strategy fails.

A host of policies contribute to our sprawling urban regions such as zoning, revenue-raising land use decisions by cities, poor and inadequate pricing of infrastructure and natural resources, corporate welfare-like economic development by some suburban local governments, and lack of school choice. Without first addressing these fundamental policy flaws in our urban regions, building big shiny, new public works projects and drawing arbitrary lines around cities is likely to have little positive effect.

A better order of operations would be as follows. First, preserve open space in the most remote, pristine areas where there is little development pressure as of yet. The land is cheaper and there would be less political upheaval. Second, start pricing infrastructure such as roads, water/sewer, and other “public services” like utilities, according to use. Third, stop using local land use regulation to swell city coffers and stop pandering to NIMBY activists to limit innovative and high density developments. Fourth, eliminate barriers to downtown or city living by reducing crime, offering school choice, and cleaning up toxic sites known as brownfields. Allowing markets to respond to these new policies and conditions will likely create a more compact region, one desired by planners and environmentalists. Finally, allow private transit companies to offer a transit product that makes the most sense given the emerging land use pattern.

The current conventional wisdom tells us that the order does not matter and that enacting growth boundaries, building fixed-route transit systems, and promoting high density development near transit stations will reshape America’s metropolitan regions and provide environmental benefits. It tells us that an overhaul of zoning can occur later and that infrastructure pricing is not a prerequisite for the shifting of urban form. It tells us that local economic development is in fact, desirable. Unfortunately, this conventional wisdom ignores the underlying economic forces of land development and simply discards the unintended adverse effects of the strategy on the environment, home buyers, commuters, and taxpayers. By acting out of order, we risk large public expenditures with little return and unintended consequences. If roads, autos, and low density development do not pay the full costs associated with their development and use, transit and high density development will have difficulty competing and subsidies will exist in vain. If Euclidian zoning and its sprawl-like requirements are not changed first, what large-scale competitive chance does compact or new urbanist style development have? They will simply be the exceptions in a sea of conventional development with many projects requiring direct public spending to succeed.

Without a fundamental shift by state and local governments to address the fundamental policies that exacerbate urban sprawl, building new light rail systems and subsidizing select projects alone will have no major impact on urban growth patterns or environmental preservation. Let’s learn a lesson from math, get the order right, and alleviate the negatives of urban sprawl the right way.

Chris Fiscelli is a senior fellow in urban and land use policy at Reason Foundation