Smart Growth Must Not Ignore Drivers


For the time being, battles over health care and energy seem likely to occupy the attention of both the Obama administration and its critics. Yet although now barely on the radar, there may be another, equally critical conflict developing over how Americans live and travel.

Right now this potential flash point has been relegated to the back burner, as Congress is likely to put any major transportation spending initiative on hold for at least a year, and perhaps longer. This also may be a symptom of mounting concerns over the deficit. Financing major changes in transportation, for example, would probably require higher federal fuel taxes, which would not fly amid a weak economy.

These delays could prove a blessing to the administration, providing a pause from indulging in yet another policy lurch that might thrill the “progressive” urban left but infuriate much of the country. Initial House proposals on transportation have sought to cut dramatically the share of federal gas taxes — paid by drivers — going to roads while sending more to already heavily subsidized transit. Another large chunk of transport spending would go to a very expensive, and geographically limited, high-speed-rail network.

This kind of radical shift reflects the preferences of ideologues within the administration. President Barack Obama has clustered an impressive array of “smart growth” devotees around him, including Housing and Urban Development Undersecretary Ron Sims, an early climate change “evangelist,” Transportation Undersecretary for Policy Roy Kienitz and the Environmental Protection Agency’s John Frece. Their priority is not better roads for suburbanites but, as Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood put it, to “coerce” Americans out of their cars and into a denser, more transit-dominated future.

This approach can expect strong support from the influential “green team” in the administration, including climate czar Carol Browner and science adviser John Holdren. Browner’s hand was shown during the Clinton years when as head of the Environmental Protection Agency she threatened to cut transportation funds for the Atlanta region unless it adopted a smart-growth policy. The threats became moot after the change of administration in 2001.

It is not difficult to imagine such bureaucrats intruding on how communities and families function on the most basic levels. Traditions governing local land use that have existed since the beginning of the republic would be overturned. The preferred lifestyles of most Americans would come under siege.

This agenda has been widely promoted for decades, first by the Carter administration and, more recently, by both environmentalists and new urbanists. The recent concerns over global warming have provided an additional raison d’être for a policy promoting both higher transit use and denser housing patterns. The president himself has embraced this agenda, declaring in February that “the days of building sprawl” were, in his words, “over.”

The administration can expect strong support for such policies in the mainstream media concentrated in New York and Washington. These areas boast both the highest proportion of transit riders and the largest percentages working in the central core. Many among the young, single and childless couples working in media in these communities see no reason why other Americans should not live similarly.

Politically, such a remaking of America may prove difficult to pull off. Overall less than 6 percent of Americans ride public transit, a percentage that has barely changed for decades. In many states, the transit share is only 1 percent. It’s difficult to imagine a policy that disses roads, small towns and suburbs could pass Congress, 80 percent or so of whose constituents don’t live in the favored dense urban environments. And what about the 95 percent or so of Americans who get around by car? More likely, any spate of new transit and land-use regulations will be enforced through the apparat. In one scenario, administrators at the EPA could simply oppose any transport project — for example, new roads — on the basis of carbon emissions and potential pollution. States and cities with projects not deemed “smart” enough by administrators at the Department of Transportation or HUD might be threatened with loss of funding.

Yet even this approach risks engendering a backlash. Once again, the administration could be seen as imposing a true-blue policy on a largely red, or at least purple, nation. To be successful, the administration needs to address the needs of suburban, small-city and rural residents as well as those of big-city denizens.

This is not to say the administration should not address pollution and congestion concerns head-on. But this needs to be done in ways that make both political and practical sense. Mileage requirements on cars are an excellent first step that follows this playbook, getting results without trying to remake a car-driving electorate.

In addition, the government could develop incentives for increased telecommuting and more flexible work schedules in order to reduce unnecessary driving to work. There is also room for expanded, more economical bus and jitney services that could work in some suburban and small-town locations. Instead of building light rail systems that will never get large ridership, mass transit funding should flow to successful existing systems or to a handful of dense corridors emerging in places like Houston.

All this speaks to a kind of pragmatism that may not please either the road-building zealots or the smart-growth aficionados. Such an approach would be far preferable — and more politically sustainable — than the current attempt to drive a 21st-century country back to a transportation model more appropriate for the 19th.

This article originally appeared at

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is author of The City: A Global History. His next book, The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, will be published by Penguin Press early next year.

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Even a simple Tucson auto

Even a simple Tucson auto repair shop could be affected by any change in taxes directed towards anything related to driving. I think that politicians should rethink their strategy. Good luck!!

I completely agree, cars are

I completely agree, cars are have an important role in our lives and they're also part of the economy so it makes full sense that a growth plan should include cars as well. I'm still waiting for the auto industry to shape upon new green standards until then I'll just get one of those used cars Derry NH it will help me save some money and afford a green car when the time comes.

Let the voters decide

I just don't see how Kotkin can write this entire article without addressing the fact that more than 70% of transit initiatives throughout America passed in November of 2008.
- Wall Street Journal:

While he attempts to spin the paradigm shift as some sort of backroom cabal, it simply cannot be denied that more Americans are interested in more urban lifestyles. Whether the desire stems from environmental consciousness or a yearning to replace suburban alienation with a public, social, and neighbourly existence, many Americans are ready to embrace change.

Simply stating how few Americans currently ride transit relative to those who drive is a logical fallacy, as the situation results from years of auto-oriented development. The political will for change must, and has, preceded any large-scale shift in transportation choices.

Kotkin also argues that the needs of small town, suburban, and rural residents are being neglected. That statement is simply ludicrous considering the exorbitant and wide-ranging subsidies for suburbia that have taken place over the last century (for a detailed analysis, see Gutfreund's 20th Century Sprawl.) The tax and development system continues to favor exurban expansion at the expense of urban dwellers, and the situation should be speedily rectified, for the sake of justice and progress.

Feel good projects do not make for real transit policy.

70% of all transit initiatives may have passed, but they still will not increase the usage of transportation beyond that 6% (and don't forget last fall was after a huge run-up in gas prices).

To say that Americans are more interested in Urban lifestyles is utterly without support when you consider that population gains made by urban cores in the late nineties stalled or even reversed since 2000. (fwiw, I live a block from Grant Park in Chicago and would love to see more people downtown, but that is not the trend). Your statement sounds more like a projection of personal feeling than fact.

Furthermore, the existing transit infrastructure DOES benefit a few at the cost of the majority. Whatever may have caused people to live in suburbs doesn't change the fact of that is where they are. Given the poor state of governance of many urbanized cities, no amount of taxation if going to coax them back in. That would partially be hard to do because taxes are already very high in most dense urban areas.

The crux of the issue is that most citie cores are playgounds for the wealthy, with the very poor at the edges. Most cities are extremely unfriendly to the middle class in terms of taxation, pricing and governance.

Transit policy and construction is more concerned with the feel-good desires of the wealthy and providing money for protected constituents like transit unions and vendors. The most cost effective and efficient form of transit is the bus, but you rarely see the expansion and upgrading of bus service come up for ballot. Instead, it is gold-plated 'light rail' lines that serve few and achieve little.

Also, as a last throw away line, Cars will never go away. Ban gasoline tomorrow and they'll all become electric (i.e. coal fueled). But the car will not go away.

poor logic

Kotkin's argument, once again, works on a false premise: that the automobile is, or should be, the preferred transit mode of the future. Invented in the 19th century, the automobile was popularized in the 20th because of marketing materials from General Motors plus government subsidies. Most recently, the government has had to subsidize the manufacture, sale, and use of automobiles through bailouts of manufacturers, cash-for-clunkers programs, and artificially low gas taxes.

In truth, Kotkin is simply repeating, without evidence, false assumptions about the past and connecting his argument with specious logic. In truth, people are driving less and choosing public transport where the marketplace isn't skewed toward automobile use.

This isn't to say that some people won't choose the automobile--certainly not. But those choosing the auto should pay higher gas taxes, higher parking fees, and the complete social and medical costs of their choices through higher taxes on automobiles.

The automobile might have good in past centuries, but it definitely isn't he sane choice for transit in modern times.