On Sprawl

by Don Boudreaux on March 16, 2006

in Complexity & Emergence, Myths and Fallacies, Standard of Living

I’m on a listserve pioneered by Michael Strong, Chief Executive Officer of FLOW.  A recent posting caught my eye and impressed me with its wisdom.  Its author is Gary Hoover.  (I post with his permission.)

I was just yesterday thinking how much I hate even the conception of sprawl -- a bad word for a something that does not exist (at least not in the sense that is usually implied when that word is used, as this obvious evil that needs to be stopped or restrained).  What others call sprawl appears to me to be a longstanding and continually evolving desire of people to have land, privacy, and quiet.  The resort or rural retreat is well-entrenched, as is the countervailing desire for urbanism.  They vary by mood, by stage in the lifecycle, and by family structure.  Many of us have a love of the country and a love of the city in one self.  What has changed is that, in the old days, only the rich had options.  The poor -- there wasn't much middle class -- could neither leave the city nor leave the country.

The huge rise in the world's wealth has allowed a new fluidity, one that extends to more nations all the time.  Drive around the outskirts of Dubai or Bangkok or Jakarta or Monterrey and look at all the new housing developments springing up in the countryside.  Come to my neighborhood and see the mobile homes a mile away from the million dollar "McMansions" (another term that hurts more than it helps understanding).

To blame this on Wal-Mart or on developers is ridiculous.  Wal-Mart, like all retailers, has zero institutional preference for locations, all they want to know is, "where do our types of customers live and how can we be convenient to them?"  It is all about being of service to others.

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Kevin March 16, 2006 at 7:51 pm

Brilliant post by Gary Hoover, who is a cool cat.

Mr. Econotarian March 16, 2006 at 10:49 pm

What most people call "Sprawl" is restrictive zoning. If zoning was unrestricted, there probably would be enhanced density in cities, greater mixed commercial/residential areas (like "old main street"), and cheaper housing.

Russell Nelson March 17, 2006 at 1:58 am

Testable theory: does Houston have sprawl given that it has no zoning?

Wilson March 17, 2006 at 3:06 am

Houston has no lack of regulations. Until 1999, houses had to be built on 5,000 square foot lots, and this is still the case for lots outside of I-610, which is where the vast majority of the people live. The city also requires a minimum number of parking spaces for every structure in the city. Finally, the famously built-up road system in Houston takes the city even further away from being anything resembling a free market city. So the fact that Houston has mixed-use zoning does not mean it is by any means free of government intrusion.

JohnDewey March 17, 2006 at 6:53 am

In the Dallas area, I've observed high-income suburban residents seeking to restrict development in their towns. They seem to be OK with sprawl – until after they've acquired their land, privacy, and quiet. In one suburb just a few miles north of DFW airport, half the incorporated land has been restricted to 2 acre homesites. The result of such zoning has been even more sprawl (I also dislike the word) as new suburbs are built beyond the restricted areas. I think I've read that such restrictions just increased commute times and land prices around Washington, D.C., and around Portland, OR.

Alan March 17, 2006 at 9:23 am

The sprawl is so insidious that the profanely large font text at the beginning to the paragraphs is crowding out the text that comes later.

This is not fair to the later text in each paragraph. The initial text should be forcibly shrunk and have it's space ceded to the collective for redistribution which benefits the proletariat. Shootings will commence tomorrow . . .

True_Liberal March 17, 2006 at 9:43 am

I've always tried to choose a home close to my employment, simply because I dislike commuting. If someone else chooses a long commute, that's his choice.

When a company chooses to build a new large factory, there is a choice to be made: Try to find sufficient space in the city, causing major urban disruption to obtain utilities, road access, etc., or avoid those hassles by moving out to a more favorable site.

BTW, the farm acreage reduction is a non-issue. Farming acreage IS shrinking, but more is reverting to natural woodland than is lost to urbanization.

John Dewey March 17, 2006 at 10:07 am

True liberal,

It's not just the factories and warehouses but also the headquarters offices that flee to the suburbs.

It is usually very easy for employees to live close to the workplace. But many just decide not to do so. All the plans of the new urbanists will do nothing to change preferences of the public. Restrict size of plots and promote high denisty housing in the county? Workers just move to the next county and commute longer, until the companies wise up and relocate with them.

What's truly crazy is how much the leaders of declining cities and counties continue to listen to new urbanists and continue to lose their tax base.

Half Sigma March 17, 2006 at 10:28 am

There would clearly be LESS sprawl were it not for restrictive zoning regulations which prevent high density contstruction that the market obviously demands (based on higher prices for real estate as one moves closer to the core of desirable cities like New York or Washington).

It's ironic that it's usually liberals who compain about sprawl, but then the support the very "anti-growth" zoning that causes sprawl to be created.

Robert Cote March 17, 2006 at 10:29 am

There is no sprawl and what the would be social engineers think is sprawl isn't responsible for the decline of cities. They need a villain because without a villain they'd have to look to the planning community itself for the failures of the past generations. Can't have that.

The claim is that New Urbanism has much more to do with relationships among streets, blocks, and lots than it does with density in the abstract. I most strenuously disagree. This is the lie that gains credence through repetition and nothing more. NURB and SmUG are mostly about and above all about density. I am frankly tired to have to continually refute this claim of density not being essential to the planning agenda.

I also have a fundamental problem with the concept of "sprawl." Everyone agrees "sprawl"== bad growth. Great, just what we need; values based public policy. We do it all the time. What we don't do, except for sprawl, is to present those values based determinations AS science.

Every enumerable description of sprawl over the last two years has "proven" Los Angeles is NOT sprawled. Nearly everyone's gut tells them otherwise. Ask yourself why this is. I know why and the answer is disturbing. Urban and Transit planners advocate:

Higher residential densities, just like LA.

Higher transit usage, just like LA.

Fewer roads per capita, just like LA.

Greater public dedications, just like LA.

Higher carpooling, just like LA.

New subways, just like LA.

Stricter emissions, just like LA (& Calif.).

Regional governance, just like LA.

See the planner paradox? Everything they want yields… LA.

Near as I can tell, sprawl is density independent but congestion and crime are primarily density dependent. That means advocating for higher density is actually advocating for more crime and congestion with no decrease in sprawl. NURBs, NUTs and SmUGLers don't admit this.

This is why I find dictionary definitions of sprawl or anti-sprawl to be wholly inadequate to address a real and serious public policy/planning concern.

Sorry for Rambling but this is pertinent. People drawn to the planning "profession" do so out of a desire to make a difference. The thing they think they see is sprawl and their solution to sprawl is density.

Higher residential densities squander land and resources and wealth in a vain attempt to replicate the undesirable urban patterns of Pre WW-II cities. Everything about higher density increases costs and expenses. Everything. It's also a false economy to imagine building residential at higher density "saves" land. It doesn't after you've allocated enough to required roads and other urban amenities.

In general what planners want cannot be revisited because it never really existed in the first place and no one would want to go there in the second.

If you'll pardon the language the real problem with New Urbanism and all the other repackagings of urban planner graduate class theories is that they want to put 10 lbs of manure in a 5 lb sack. Physics and geometry intrude on the noble ideals of these schemes. The unfortunate part is that since urban planning is not in any form a science the practitioners are not familiar with math, physics, et. al. For instance. it's amazing the "deer in the headlights" looks my presentations get when I explain how I knew what the 2003 population of Oxnard would be back in 1989 when all the city county state staff projections kept getting it wrong. Even more amazing is when I after 15 years of being right and staff being wrong my 2020 projections are immediately dismissed in favor of staff "calculations."

It's not that you explain the NURB position poorly, its' that the NURB advocates are unsupportable as public policy advocates. As others have pointed out the working goals of NUTSO are shaky as well. NUTSO, the form, new urbanist transit subsidized orientation. Not to be confused with NUTS, the people, new urban transit supporters.

Planners assert any level of density one picks can be handled well or poorly. Not true. Not true. Not true. This is planner hubris writ large. Planner -think- this, doesn't make it true. Truth is it becomes increasingly more difficult and expensive and liable to fail and less flexible to changing conditions the more density is allowed to increase.

The proponents of SmUG describe the -intent-. The skeptics describe the -result-. The old saying applies, the road to hell is paved with the best intentions. In this case; reduce traffic, promote vitality, etc.

The SmUGLERs will do everything in their power to avoid a testable definition of SmUG. It is in their best interest to be all things to all people all the time and a definition prevents that sales technique. The proponents of SmUG describe the -intent-. The skeptics describe the -result-. The old saying applies, the road to hell is paved with the best intentions. In this case; reduce traffic, promote vitality, etc.

LA is the poster child for every planner agenda seeking to show how things go wrong with low density, poor planning and too much dependence on the auto despite LA in TRuth being the height of planning, density and transit imposition.

The reason aesthetics comes into play so much with New Urbanists is that New Urbanism even now consists disproporionately of architects, who are supposed to be concerned with aesthetics as part of their professional competency.

No, no, no. Aesthetics is the last resort of intellectually superior urbanists who lack the FActs with which to advance density.

Areas with the most sprawl:

1. Riverside-San Bernardino, Calif. 2. Greensboro-Winston-Salem- High Point, N.C. 3. Raleigh-Durham, N.C. 4. Atlanta 5. Greenville-Spartanburg, S.C. 6. West Palm Beach-Boca Raton- Delray Beach, Fla. 7. Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk Danbury, Conn. 8. Knoxville, Tenn. 9. Oxnard-Ventura, Calif. 10. Fort Worth-Arlington, Texas

Cities with the least sprawl

1. New York 2. Jersey City, N.J. 3. Providence 4. San Francisco 5. Honolulu 6. Omaha, Neb. 7. Boston 8. Portland, Ore. 9. Miami 10. New Orleans

Source: Smart Growth America
More silly science available at:

Only SmUGLERS (smart urban growth lovers) and planners are unhappy with the current process. Everyone else is content to let evolutionary land use policies develop. SmUGLERs like all malcontents claim the -need- to change the status quo. Planners are merely pursuing their life goals of shaping the developed environment to their will. Recent trends in land use regulation, notably Napa and Ventura Counties in California represent the greatest threats to the NewUrb/NeoTrad/SmUG fad du jour of the "professional" planning community. Surely Napa and Ventura counties are effectively promoting the -claimed- goals of those planner driven marketing progroms but their failing is in their inability to promote the agenda planners assumed would follow from such programs. It should be noted that every single planner at the city and county level publicly opposed the passage of Ventura Counties' SOAR initiative and one of the most visible skeptics, Bill Fulton, is now running for city council.

The supposed benefits have been promoted to no end and the technical literature are filled with the measured failings. It is hubris in the extreme to think there is any substantial body of pro SmUG evidence or that there is not a large body of measurable SmUG refutation already extant.

SmUGLERs are generally anti-POV for reasons of either religion or demonization in order to advance a competing agenda. It is also important to expose what misguided Nurbists refer to as "evidence" of unwieldy conspiracies and roads cabals and evil capitalist plans . The failure resides in not addressing the many legitimate social and economic forces that were responsible for reshaping society over the same timeframe. These forces are actually easy to tease out of the fabric of 1920-1960 if one is diligent. Transit usage was falling, mobility was rising, transit costs were rising at many times an already high cost of living rate, POV costs were falling in both real and relative terms, etc., etc. The pervasive success of the POV to address unmet societal needs is the effect and not the cause of social pressures for a different urban model.

Recall that classic bit of Americana; "It's a Wonderful Life." It describes exactly how miserable the "company town" old style density could be. This is the reality of presuburbanamerica. Only planners and SmUGLERS pine for the days of pre- WW-II urban patterns. An excellent example BTW of the urban legend syndrome among the planning class.

The politics of SmUG are all about mixed use and close proximity. SmUGLers are instead griping about the -results- of government meddling in the development process for reasons other than their responsibility to community (safety, compatibility, etc.).

SmUGLERs neither speak with a single voice nor even with a consistent voice. Even SmUG is nothing more than the latest incarnation of previously discredited Nurb and NeoTrad and whatever came before that. It is a "given" in any discussion of planning meta-principles that urban advocates will attempt to continually redefine the discussion and their public personas as the previous claims are refuted, disfavored and exposed for what they are. Recent outrages such as Monster housing are only targets because they aren't on the agenda not because they are bad. On the contrary, newly constructed super homes are nearly unique in one, all important, municipal characteristic; They pay for themselves from the beginning. Requiring neither subsidy nor tax breaks and also needing fewer infrastructure investments and fewer social service burdens, McMansions are the moneymakers of the zoning for dollars racket. More taxes and fewer burdens, this is the formula for running a city like a business. We needn't get into the moral implications just by acknowledging the situation. To harken back to another buzzword it turns out that from a community perspective McMansions are "sustainable" by all the enumerable criteria usually associated with that concept.

Everyone -can- live in a pleasant exurban community. We just cannot all live in the -same- community. We know what happens when we allow infill at the city level; San Fernando Valley. Infill, of course, being a central tenet if SmUG. We'd have none of the problems if the "cities" (urban nodes) in the SFV had remained discreet. When they all grew together into a vast continuous urbanscape the inevitable congestion and inability to provide new, adequate infrastructure became obvious.

I propose the following bumperstickers for the campaign to change the hearts and minds of the people before "we" change their lifestyles:

"Density; Even rats get it"
"Smart Growth; Simple Solution"
"Club of Rome Lives!"
"Save resources; help China"
"LEMs = Apartheid"
"Transit is addictive"
"Freedom = Mobility"
"Invest in Nature; Sprawl"
"Congestion first, transit later"
"Light Rail, watch the first step"

SmUGLers (Smart Urban Growth Lovers) don't really care about transit mode. They advocate density and transit. They place their relative value of natural open spaces over the well being of people. They place their emotional hatred of autos above the rational provision of transportation resources.

Sustainability has replaced Smart Growth. Same pig, different dress. Still a pig in a dress.

The problem is that when the sides are aligned along "Change vs. No Change" the compromise always involves "Change." The advocates for change can always start with an extreme position and negotiate down to merely radical positions. No Change is stuck with principles and no way to negotiate without losing. Perhaps the answer is in the zoning that you dislike. Make requests for rezoning , exactly that. A potential developer risks losing the zoning intensity they already have when they request a rezone.

At least the NUTS (NewUrbanistTransitSupporters) are left to clean up the mess left by the last round of social agendaists rather than impose their mandates on those of us fortunate enough to escape the borders of their inhuman experiments on unwilling subjects.

The following is offered as a definition to the term "Sprawl". It was created by planning staff at the McHenry County, Illinois, Planning and Development Department. McHenry County is in the Chicago Metro Area. Much of McHenry Counties development appears to have characteristics of "SPRAWL" however, in their opinion, a good definition for "SPRAWL" does not exist. Staff created a definition which they feel is comprehensive and universal.

"SPRAWL" – haphazard exurban development
characterized by: 1)inefficient, conspicuous consumption of raw land,
typically built at low densities resulting in conflict with established
rural land use patterns; 2)abandonment of existing infrastructure in
of new public facilities; 3) location outside existing service areas,
disrupting continuity and heightening demand and associated costs for
services; and; 4) heavy dependence on automobiles as opposed to mass
transit or other non-auto related transportation modes.

The Sierra Club points to a Vermont organization that has actually stepped up to the plate with a partially enumerable definition of sprawl:


- Unnecessary land consumption
- Low average densities in comparison with older centers
- Auto dependence
- Fragmented open space, wide gaps between development and a scattered
- Separation of uses into distinct areas
- Repetitive one story commercial buildings surrounded by acres of parking
- Lack of public spaces and community centers

Robert Coté, a well recognized skeptic of these sprawl theories has also
proposed a succinct definition:

Sprawl is private ownership of exurban land beyond the reach of public
policy development dictates.

Other definitions proposed by Mr. Cote:

Sprawl is the resultant pattern of land use development that occurs when
personal choice and operational efficiency (aka sustainable) are not
compromised in a government effort to accommodate planning theories or
transit viability.

Sprawl is a wonderful, spontaneous and natural solution to all the
problems of overly intense urbanism.

"Not-Sprawl" is: Constrained urban boundaries
conscribing a high density mixed use setting (aka Urban Growth Boundaries)
with no strip malls (or big boxes) also served by public transit and
governed by a regional monolithic centrally controlled and powerful
development authority that promotes forced social integration of all
strata of rich and poor into common residential areas.

Suburban sprawl does not exist. There is no accepted definition of
suburban. The Census identifies rural and urban. "Suburban sprawl"
is an attempt to paint certain urban patterns as "bad" and somehow but
not defined as to how, different from the "good" urban forms.

Fire away.

cb March 17, 2006 at 10:58 am

Wow, now that was a long post. A couple of people mentioned that they believe if there wasn't any zoning then people would cluster in the cities. I'm not sure about that, in chemistry, equilibrium of a gas occurs when all the molecules are equi-distant from each other. I don't think the removal of zoning would cause people to tend to cluster together, at least not for living. Maybe it's because I don't live in NY, but I don't know anybody that would rather live in a high rise over a house on a piece of land.

Robert Cote March 17, 2006 at 11:11 am

Sorry for the long post but sprawl is one of the most insidious, multiheaded attacks on individual liberty and choice to come along as an internal threat. It needs to be quashed definitively and without leaving any room for the proponents to wriggle out and attack again.

Steve Plunk March 17, 2006 at 11:33 am

Try living here in Oregon. Not only is sprawl the word of choice but we have to live in a top down land use management system. Even if a local jurisdiction wants to approach growth in a more free market stance the state Land Conservation and Developement Commission and it's staff will quash those attempts forcing density upon us.

Many cities have put forth reasonable growth plans only to see them sent back after review for not including mass transit mandates or open space mandates. It can create a plan that in the end no one thinks will work at all but since it fits the mold it is adopted.

The facts need to be shouted more often so our elected officials can counter the planning bureaucrats and the sickness they spread.

eddie March 17, 2006 at 11:40 am

I'm generally with Mr. Cote on the topic of sprawl – I like it. Clearly a lot of other people do too, because they certainly are building a lot of it. What's not to like about living in a house with a yard within easy driving range of a wide variety of amenities?

Half Sigma's comment makes an interesting point, though. City living must be more desirable than suburban living (or at least more desired), because the price of housing and land goes up the closer in you go.

Question for Mr. Cote (or anyone): if high-density leads to the undesirable effects you posit, why is housing more expensive in high-density areas? If people are fleeing the cities, wouldn't the cities start falling in price?

Perry March 17, 2006 at 12:10 pm

Yes – long post indeed. I don't think that you should take any mention of 'sprawl' as such a visceral affront to your sense of being, robert.

(As an aside I did go to school for urban planning and I do think that I can make a difference in the world.) The problem is not anyone trying to infringe on the rights and liberties of people to build a 10,000 sq/ft house on a 40 acre lot.. if thats what they want to do, fine. But if they want to build an 8 unit townhouse on the lot of an old duplex, I don't see why they shouldn't be able to do that as well.

But that's the problem – between parking requirements, emergency vehicle access requirements, concurrency requirements, political/school requirements and etc, the system is certainly strongly set to favor those who "got there first", and encourages them to shut the door right after they get in.

We have a strongly developing history of kowtowing to and placating anyone who has any sort of real or imagined stake in a development, and the end result of having to satisfy so many different folks besides who will build and who will use a building, is that buildings get built very wastefully, with huge and often unnecessary parking lots, with service and access roads that are so big they are very unfriendly to walk across, at lower densities with costlier material and building requirements and so on and so on.

In every city and county across this great nation, developers lessen density, widen roads, 'dumb down' design and do plenty of other unnecessary and unmeaningful things in front of and behind the scenes just in order to get the 'blessings' of the people in power to get the right to build something on the piece of land that they own. (I work for a developer, I see it every day)

Thats the real travesty of justice that goes on here and it goes on at a scale to which, once we notice it on the macro level some decide to call it "sprawl". Unfortunately most people who decry sprawl dont realize that it is overregulation that gets it there in the first place and propose more regulation to try to correct the problem. Thats not the answer either.

But to bury your head in the sand and say that nothing is wrong and that this system that we've got here is foolproof, thats a bit disingenuous as well.

Kevin Feasel March 17, 2006 at 12:45 pm

I think a big reason for why downtown housing is so expensive (relatively speaking) can, to a large extent, be summed up in two words: night life. Downtown areas tend to appeal to the young (yuppies, bohemians, and so on), particularly in the cleaned-up areas of downtowns. They're big, have a lot of places to go, and are filled with people and social events (sporting events, bars, clubs, etc.). And when you're young and single, without too many responsibilities, living in a downtown area isn't bad. You don't have to care for children, and that takes a lot of the advantage of settling in a more suburban area away: a better place to raise children. That's the part that pushes housing prices up.

As an example of this, there is Columbus, Ohio (which I know from pretty strong experience, having lived there most of my life…). In Columbus, there are some areas of downtown that have been completely renovated in the last 30 years, and a few blocks away are a couple of areas where your best hope is to get out. The renovated areas are full of young people (as well as older, wealthy people who can afford the large houses and "scenic charm" bits), and the draw is what you can do there.

I am trying not to disagree with Mr. Cote inadvertantly (as, having read his post, I find myself in strong agreement), so I shall put it this way: there are good downtown areas and there are bad downtown areas. Many bad downtown areas were good 30 years ago, and vice versa. Good downtown areas are liable to have more crime (and bad downtown areas much more crime) than more rural places, if only because of the lower density. However, good downtown areas also have amenities that can draw people in.

That and the semi-binding space constraints. After all, downtowns can only get so big before they aren't really downtown anymore and you can only pack so many people into a fixed space. So this is another factor in higher prices for downtown areas, as we should only expect marginal prices (in a state of equilibrium, yada yada) to match up, not actual prices, and thus a studio apartment in downtown New York would, if for no other reasons, cost more than a studio apartment in rural Iowa.

And rent control having a negative effect on non-controlled housing, but this is already getting too long…

Robert Cote March 17, 2006 at 1:53 pm

Dense central urban conurbations cost more to live in because they are more expensive to run. There's nothing evil or negative about this despite the implications. The Cenurbs don't need to appeal to all, only enough to mantain a critical mass of population and economy. Just like the exurbs by the the way. The built environment is constantly remodeling. The cenurbs are slower to adapt but have a larger investment base to draw upon. The exurbs move swiftly but can crash just as quicky.

My biggest complaint about the fight is that the urbanists are quick to make claims that have no scientific basis but rather they chose to play upon assumptions and fear. If big/dense citiesare so sustainable why are they near constantly in need of subsidies? I'd be happy if transit merely paid for operating costs but that happens nowhere in the entire US. This isn't some secret cabal plot. We tax POVs and pay transit riders and yet urbanists continue to complain about an unfair field. I've no problem with core cities. My issue is with the balance of payments that arises when cities refuse to change and the solution proposed is to encumber the exurbs to their detriment and the inner cores' benefit.

J-Deal March 17, 2006 at 1:54 pm

Great post Cote.

A lot of reasons for inner city housing being more expensive. But it all just comes back to supply and demand.

More land in the exurbs = cheaper prices.

Less of a commute in the exurbs makes city life more desirable.

Most people in the city rent, most in the burbs own, so in the city, buyers are competing with those who buy to rent, and those who buy to own and live – this might be the single biggest reason.

There are also a lot of personal reasons, a lot of people don't like to move out of the cities they grew up in, and seeing the high city living prices mostly affect older cities, you have this phenomenon.

Tons and tongs of reasons for all of this, I don't have time now to go into it, after reading Cote, he'll do a better job than I, I am sure.

John Dewey March 17, 2006 at 2:19 pm

Perry, I'm having trouble believing many urban planners take into account the desires of the public they're planning for. I've read too many proposals from planners arguing for more transit-oriented, high density development. What people everywhere want, as shown by the dollars they spend, are low-density, automobile-oriented single family housing. I'm convinced that little high density, transit-oriented development could survive if not subsidized by tax revenue confiscated from everyone else. What amazes me is the extent to which transit and high-density proponents have fooled the public into accepting that confiscation.

Half Sigma March 17, 2006 at 2:23 pm

eddie: "If people are fleeing the cities, wouldn't the cities start falling in price?"

People flee bad cities like Detroit and flock to good cities like New York and Washington.

cb: "I don't know anybody that would rather live in a high rise over a house on a piece of land."

I, for one, prefer the high rise. It's a lot more convenient. People (most people) do value their own piece of land, but people also value the company of other humans and being close to work.

In a desirable city like New York or Washington, no developer has EVER had a problem filling an empty apartment or selling a new condo, even though they are outrageously expensive. New York City won't let more development go up in Manhattan. And DC has some weird law which prohibits the heights of buildings throuhought the district.

Someone said that big city living isn't necessarily more efficient, and I agree that this may have some merit, I blogged about it, but people who value the benefits of the cities are willing to pay extra. Unfortunately, zoning makes it cost a lot more extra than it has to.

Ayn Rand was a big fan of New York City. Read The Fountainhead, a novel about architects who design skyscrapers (among other things).

Here's a link to my blog post about cities being economically inefficient:


MjrMjr March 17, 2006 at 5:03 pm

I think Half Sigma nailed it in his first post. Perry also makes some good points.

I'm someone who generally dislikes sprawl. I have no problem at all with someone having their acre(or more) and 4 bedrooms(or more) in the suburbs. What I do find troubling is that often, the people who buy these houses aren't paying the *true* market price. If the land their house is built on is zoned such that no more than one house per acre can be built then that creates an artificial subsidy. The land would be worth much more if zoning laws were less restrictive. Why not ease these restrictions and make the landowners face the real opportunity cost of putting up one house where instead they could build 8 townhouses? Robert Cote raises a good point about subsidizing public transit and other aspects of urban life. However, I question whether the subsidy given to purchases of houses on low density zoned land is possibly greater.

I don't know how many readers are local, but every time I drive west on Rt. 7 out of Tysons Corner I notice that very close to Tysons are lots of houses on multi-acre lots(which must cost well over $1million each). Imagine how much more the land would be worth without the restrictive zoning. How much below true market value did those people pay for their houses? That land has to be worth a fortune if you could build townhouses or condos on it. Of course, Great Falls not having a sewer system nixes that and I'm sure the people there like that just fine. That's what these zoning laws give us, pieces of some of the most valuable real estate in the country(and perhaps the world?) where people still use septic tanks.

Perry March 17, 2006 at 5:20 pm


Its not that i'm arguing that people are choosing wrongly when they choose space and suburbs, if thats what they want and they can truly afford that choice, then they should be free to do it. Forcing people to live in TOD's or forcing an urban growth boundary isn't the answer any more than forcing people to live in 10 acre zoning.

But lets not pretend that the massive outlays in highway and road construction spending that get come from the state and federal level are not distorting the real costs for the suburban choice. Without that billion dollar highway, it would take the Prince George's county resident (for instance)about 3 hours to drive into DC on local roads instead of 1 1/2- pretty much making it a non-choice.

(not that cities do not take in substantial federal and state funding, but thats a seperate story)

I choose with my wallet to live in Manhattan, and a few million others have made that choice as well. Its not as cut and dry as, since people are moving to the suburbs than thats the panacea of urbanity. What i'm getting at is that most municipalities are so entrenched in this anti density mindset that even when people do WANT to build denser and WANT townhouses, rowhouses or what have you, the options that all members of the public want simply aren't there.

Half Sigma March 17, 2006 at 5:28 pm


The raw land would be worth more per square acre with less zoning, but it's the house that's built on the land that's really worth a lot of money. Because the number of houses in desirable areas around DC increase much more slowly than the number of people wanting to live there, the prices skyrocket. People who own houses have a greedy self-interest in keeping the zoning restrictive.

I think that the DC area is one of the most messed up places in the country from a land use perspective. Suburban homeowners have the biggest amount of NIMBYism I've ever seen, and although the city of DC is in the center of the area, the stupid height restriction in the District prevents it from becoming a real big city like New York, so a lot of exurbs have popped up to meet the area's growing demand for office space, creating traffic jams as people have to drive ridiculous commutes around the Beltway.

The whole problem could be fixed easily by allowing a bunch of forty story skycrapers go up in DC.

John Dewey March 17, 2006 at 6:39 pm


As I see it, the public made their choice to build highway systems, and then implemented their choice through elected officials. The users of highways pay the gasoline taxes that fund the construction and maintenance of those highways. They also pay for the automobiles they drive and for the gasoline to fuel their automobiles.

If the users of mass transit paid for their trains and buses, I would have no problem whatsoever. But they do not.

I disagree that cities are entrenched in an anti-density mindset. In fact, the cities I've lived in and their planners go to great lengths to convince the public that high density living and mass transit are wonderful. Dallas is providing tax breaks for builders to convert empty downtown office buildings into condos. They've given tax breaks to developers of central city townhomes. Dallas also poured $4.5 billion in sales taxes into a light rail system that less than 2% of commuters use. And the public continues to buy suburban homes and accept 45 minute commutes. They basically are saying "Screw high density and congestion and crime!" What should really wake up the big cities and their planners is the continued migration of company headquarters to the suburbs.

Sorry, but the planners I've met and talked to seem clueless to me. Or maybe they just don't care what the public wants or what the cities really need to survive.

Bob Smith March 17, 2006 at 7:36 pm

Land and housing is expensive in places like San Francisco mostly because of development restrictions and regulation. San Francisco is an object lesson in this matter. SF has a height restriction over most of the city like DC does. It regularly extorts huge fees from developers for uses unrelated to the external costs (water, sewer, etc, which the developer also pays for) of the development itself. It prohibits apartment owners from creating more open-market housing via condominiumizing or TIC-ing units without the city's express permission, which usually includes a big fee and mandatory low-price housing which just raises prices for everybody else. Getting development permits of any kind is an inducement to suicide: satisfying the "just say no to everything unless we get our pound of flesh" activists seems more important to the planning authority than serving the community.

Half Sigma March 17, 2006 at 7:48 pm

"If the users of mass transit paid for their trains and buses, I would have no problem whatsoever. But they do not."

Mass transit is paid for with a combination of taxes and fares. Roads are also paid for with taxes. It seems pretty equivalent to me.

eddie March 18, 2006 at 2:13 am

Hm. So if I'm reading this thread correctly… the government is forcing density to be too low through minimum lot sizes and maximum building heights, and is forcing density to be too high through subsidized mass transit and insufficient roadbuilding.

Seems like everyone here agrees that the cause of the problem is government… but what was the problem, again? Too much city or not enough?

Robert Cote March 18, 2006 at 7:57 am

Government has compelling reasons to limit density and does so. Government has no compelling reasons to mandate increased density yet does so anyway. All the reasons given by planners and their ilk advocating increased density fail in light of the facts. Ask urbanists what the benefits of dense conurbations and you'll hear the usual; reduced ecological footprint, reduced pollution, reduced costs of infrastructure. Ask them for the supporting evidence or even just definitive examples and you'll hear nothing.

JohnDewey March 18, 2006 at 8:21 am

Half sigma,

Transit funding may sound fair to you. But consider who pays the taxes that fund the roads and the taxes that fund mass transit. Highways are funded by taxes on gasoline, purchased primarily for the purpose of moving along those highways. So highway users fund highways.

Transit is funded in several ways:

- a portion of the gasoline taxes paid by highway users;
- sales taxes paid by everyone for the benefit of the tiny few who use transit;
- fares which cover anywhere from 40% to as little as 10% of the cost of transit.

In order to get voters to approve transit sales taxes, planners claim that transit will remove enough cars so that highway congestion is reduced. Planners also grossly underestimate the cost of transit projects. Net result: public is saddled with permanent taxes for costly trains that very few use.

Planners then compund the lie by changing the ridership estimates after taxes are approved. Even though ridership is only a small fraction of what was claimed when the vote was cast, planners can now say that ridership is exceeding estimates.

Sorry, sir, but I see little fairness about modern transit funding and I see much fraud on the part of transit planners. Those planners, of course, depend on transit taxes for continuation of their employment. It is not surprising they deceive the public.

Robert Cote March 18, 2006 at 8:49 am

Public transit as practiced in the US is IMO the most wrongheaded public function we allow government to exercise. On every level it sends the wrong signals and the cost/benefit ratio is absymal. We need to rethink why we have public transit at all. If it turns out there are still places or reasons to keep providing some form, then fine but we don't even question these things anymore.



And don't get me started on the "level playing field" we tilt the field in favor of transit with preemption, preference, priority, subsidy, force of government and in some
cases monopoly. Private rail used to work, it was so profitable that the
nations first mega-wealthy industrialists were rail barons. Lots of things
happened from WW-I to present that made the passenger portion of rail
transportation no longer viable. This should have been no big deal. My
grandfather was an ice man, that industry went away too.

Our national transportation policy lavishes money and preference on
passenger rail transport like no other modality and cannot even manage to
hold onto existing customers. Even the people that claim to be rail transit
supporters are fooling themselves. They won't pay even the operating costs
for their preferred mode nevermind the total costs.

The very last thing anyone advocating passenger rail transport would want is
a fair chance. I once did a thought experiment on what would happen if the
playing field were leveled. It isn't pretty.

True_Liberal March 18, 2006 at 10:23 am

Government's attempts to manipulate population density through lot size, building heights etc. are ultimately futile, because people will choose where they want to live. Unattractive housing schemes will be unable to command a reasonable profit for the builder or landlord.

It's the old approach-avoidance conflict.

Half Sigma March 18, 2006 at 12:23 pm

I wrote a very long essay on this topic at my blog:


All of the most recent comments are at Cafe Hayek have to do with mass transit. First of all, I am in agreement that dense cities create transportational and space inefficiencies. In other words, yes, mass transit systems are less economically efficient than people driving in their cars.

HOWEVER, mass transit is necessary when the populatio density is too high to allow efficient use of personal automobiles.

Now the arugment some are making is, if mass transit is expensive, then too bad, let's do without it and without dense cities. However, that's ignoring the hidden but very powerful economic BENEFITS of dense cities. The evidence that these benefits exist is obvious when one looks at how expensive cities are yet people CHOOSE to live there and businesses CHOOSE to locate there.

Mass transit is paid for with a combination of fares and taxes on people who live in the geographic area that is served by the mass transit. And that seems pretty FAIR to me. No one is being forced to live in New York City.

I don't believe mass transit to be a government intereference in the economy any more than roads are an interference.

Charlie Q March 18, 2006 at 2:24 pm

Here in Minnesota, we heard similar arguments against transit and urban density from our governor who wanted to starve the light rail line developed under Gov. Ventura. He appointed an opponent to chari the state planning authority that oversees transit. But more people than expectedp used the new rail line anyway, developers are building all along the line and downtown, and people are buying them.

Now even the governor and his chairman are supporting more light rail.

This was no thought experiment, but it looks pretty good.

JohnDewey March 18, 2006 at 4:15 pm

Charlie Q,

If Minnesota citizens wish to fund mass transit, fine. Let them do it. But why should a portion of U.S. gasoline taxes be used mass transit? Highway users pay for their highways. Let rail users pay for their trains.

Light rail transit pays for itself nowhere in the U.S. Nowhere! Nowhere that I've read about – and I've read about most – does light rail transit remove enough cars from the roads to impact highway congestion. But planners continue to promise – despite all the evidence – that light rail will do both.

Light rail is a fraud.

JohnDewey March 18, 2006 at 4:38 pm

Half Sigma,

Where in the U.S., other than Manhattan, is population density so high that personal automobiles cannot be used efficiently? As Robert Cote pointed out, Los Angeles is a very high density city. And yet personal automobiles are the chosen means of transport for most of that city.

What are the powerful economic benefits of dense cities that you refer to? Throw them out there for our consideration. If such economic benefits exist, why is there no post-automobile U.S. city that evolved to even remotely resemble Manhattan?

Even if you are correct about high density development being efficient – and I believe that to be incorrect – why would rail transit make any sense? Bus transit is far more efficient, doesn't require the construction of rails, doesn't require the purchase of multi-million dollar trains, and doesn't interfere with any other traffic flows whatsoever. Before 1980, bus transit was working just fine for those who could not make use of personal automobiles. It would work fine today if we were not foolishly abandoning it to chase after this toy train fantasy.

JohnDewey March 18, 2006 at 4:54 pm

"I don't believe mass transit to be a government intereference in the economy any more than roads are an interference."

How are roads an interference in the economy? Except for a very few commodities, all goods in this country are transported at some point over those highways. Emergency vehicles of all sorts can reach any populated area and many other unpopulated areas of the nation via the highways. Private automobiles travelling along those highways allow citizens to drop off kids at daycare, travel to work, stop off at the grocery store on the way home, and do hundreds of other tasks that would be just about impossible if the highways weren't available.

Sorry, Half Sigma, but I cannot see how highways are an interference in the economy.

Trains, however, suck up billions in funds that would be more effective if spent on roads and buses. Trains interfere with highway and street traffic. Except in a few pre-automobile cities, trains provide very little of the benefits promised.

Perry March 18, 2006 at 6:44 pm


Please don't tell me that the public made the "choice" to fund the interstate highway system when it was plainly a job creation act justified under national defense (sound familiar, anyone?) That would be like saying that the public made the "choice" to invade iraq when in fact all they did was elect someone who decided to make that choice.

This is not to make any judgement that the interstate highway system is good or bad in the 'grand scheme', just that iraq may or may not be good in the long run grand scheme, but that was a HUGE subsidy that plainly tilted the dynamics of the cost dynamic for city vs suburb. The annual TEA appropriations allocate about 30 billion per year, most of which gets funneled towards highway construction and maintenance. Do you honestly think that small exurban and semi urban areas would have the budget to build those highways that make it even semi-feasible to build residential development there without that initial investment and annual funding?

And trust me, go to a zoning or variance board meeting in any city, and you'll see what goes on – developers make concessions mainly for density in order to get projects approved. Whatever forced minimum density regulations that these planners that you speak so endearingly of are nothing compared to the subtle yet powerful interests in the other direction. They're both wrong.

All I'm saying is that the true market forces that would bring density naturally are scuttled and tamped down in every city and every county and virtually every development planned across this country. What you get at the end of that process is this thing that people have chosen to call "sprawl".

Perry March 18, 2006 at 6:51 pm

And just as a total side note – I don't believe that government subsidy for mass transit is the correct answer just as much as government monopoly of mass transit is. But this isn't an argument for or against mass tansit, its about density vs non-density.

MjrMjr March 18, 2006 at 8:52 pm

Another GMU professor, Bryan Caplan had a good post on some of these issues on his blog a while back.


On a somewhat different topic, I'd bet that the majority of libertarians or folks on the right dismiss the idea of peak oil but what happens to the economics of sprawl if gasoline prices increase significantly faster than inflation for another 5 years? 10 years? At some point do the economics of denser development in urban areas become more compelling? I think that fuel prices are likely to continue to rise quickly and that the answer is probably yes.

JohnDewey March 18, 2006 at 9:07 pm

Perry, I agree the argument is density vs non-density. But highway funding is very much a requirement for the low density design that Americans prefer. I cannot see how discussion of one can ignore the other.

I agree that defense was the reason Eisenhower and many members of Congress wanted an interstate highway system which connected all parts of the U.S. Robert Cote can confirm that I argued that point for two weeks on another forum. But defense was certainly not the only reason the interstate system was funded. Defense requirements had nothing to do with the huge expansion of urban freeway systems beyond the original plans.

You are correct that the representatives of the people decided to fund highways with a tax on gasoline. I am certain the citizens of the 50's wanted an interstate highway system. I clearly remember how proud we all were as it was built. I am certain the citizens of most states wanted the non-interstate highways converted to freeways. They want that today, so much so that they are creating tollways across the nation to speed up building of freeways. That's necessary to make up for the funds stolen for the rail transit fraud.

You can talk forever about modern highways depended on "subsidies" from the federal government. The truth is that U.S. citizens have always wanted high speed highways, and would have found ways to fund them if the national gasoline tax were not in place. Federal funding was simply a mechanism for reallocating funds from populous to non-populous states. It also guaranteed that freeways would be consistent in structure.

People call expansion of metropolitan areas "sprawl" because the liberal mainstream media picked up the derogatory term and force-fed it to the public for years. The expansion is realy just an accomodation of a rising urban population.

What is particularly irritating is how some people would deny citizens access to inexpensive housing and freedom from congestion because an expanded metro area does not fit with their view of what a city should be. My metro area, Dallas/Fort Worth, has mass transit, has clustered urban housing, and has powerful advocates for high density/mass transit in charge of the two newspapers. But its citizens continue to choose low density and auto transport by at least 20 to 1.

JohnDewey March 18, 2006 at 9:17 pm


The public has twice shown how they will adjust to rising gasoline prices. They buy smaller cars, they re-prioritize spending, they devise more efficient travel patterns (multi-tasking trips, for example). Very few people opted for high-density housing after even a doubling of gasoline price increases. Even if gasoline prices increased fivefold, suburban America will not give up their excellent schools, their large backyards, and their freedom from all the ills that accompany high-density housing. They'll just reduce expenditures and carpool.

You may believe the cost of fuel for transport will increase more than five-fold. No one is betting money on such an increase.

Half Sigma March 18, 2006 at 9:52 pm

" suburban America will not give up their excellent schools, their large backyards, and their freedom from all the ills that accompany high-density housing."

As Ronald Reagan once said, there you go again.

"Excellent" suburban schools are an artificial creation of government, not the free market. School districts were zoned so that there was no poor people housing in the district. Without poor children, the school seem excellent.

One could do the same thing with dense living. Create a school district that is zoned only for "luxury" high rise buildings that poor people can't afford and you'll have the same excellent schools in the city.

The schools are one of the major methods with which government has created an artificial incentive for people to live in suburban "sprawl" rather than in high rises.

superdestroyer March 19, 2006 at 1:40 pm

I am amazed that no one has discussed fricitonal unemployment as a cause of traffic and sprawl. High density, new urbanism only works as long as workers are willing to limit their job hunts to where they can take public transporation. Of course, no one limits a job hunt to where they can commute. In addition, most people do not want to relocate inside a metropolitan area just to make their commute easier. Thus, over time you end up with large number of people who are forced to commute.

JohnDewey March 19, 2006 at 2:16 pm

Half sigma wrote: "Excellent" suburban schools are an artificial creation of government, not the free market."

Do you really believe this? Were you around in the 60's and 70's when first urban crime and then forced busing in many cities drove half the urban population out of metropolitan school districts? Excellent suburban schools are a product of the public's insistance, not some edict imposed by or strategy devised by government.

Half sigma wrote: "The schools are one of the major methods with which government has created an artificial incentive for people to live in suburban "sprawl" rather than in high rises."

It was and still is the people who push local government to place restrictions on housing density. The people in the suburbs know that low income families cannot afford low density housing. People like me do not want to live next to low income families. We do not want our children spending the schoolday with low income gangs. People like me do not want to live in crowded high rises on congested streets, regardless of whether our neighbors are rich or poor. The U.S. – and the world – is filled with people who believe like me.

In the nineteenth century, those who could afford it began moving to suburbs as soon as local trains allowed them to do so. They migrated before high rise buildings were possible and they continued doing so after. The only restriction on movement was the amount of land close to the railroad tracks. The automobile opened up much more of the land around cities, and developers created the type housing the public has always desired.

Please don't be fooled into thinking the government was the driver behind the expansion of urban freeways and low density housing.

JohnDewey March 19, 2006 at 2:40 pm


I agree that urban traffic has increased because workers do not wish to limit job opportunity to the immediate area. That's especially true for two-income families. I appreciate your mention of that important factor.

I'm not so sure about your other point. Didn't expansion of metro areas (known by detractors as "sprawl") start before metro employment was decentralized? The first ring of suburbs around center cities was made up of housing developments. Joel Garreau explained in "Edge Cities" that it is the second ring of suburbs which contain the employers competing with the center cities for talent.

The point is that low density housing is what people desire in the first place, and neither government strategies nor employment opportunities create that desire.

True_Liberal March 19, 2006 at 9:29 pm

Here's a site laying out some real data, and challenging some popular assumptions about "sprawl": http://www.demographia.com/

Half Sigma March 20, 2006 at 11:29 am

"Were you around in the 60's and 70's when first urban crime and then forced busing in many cities drove half the urban population out of metropolitan school districts?"

Exactly my point, forced busing is a government policy. Government policy created bad schools in the cities. Government policy prevents the creation of urban school districts without poor people.

Crime is also caused by poor people, and once again that's a government policy creating areas where poor people can't live.

If there was actually a free market, poor people would live far away from the city where land is cheaper, leaving the more desirable short commute time areas to richer people.

John Dewey March 20, 2006 at 12:03 pm

""Excellent" suburban schools are an artificial creation of government, not the free market."

"Exactly my point, forced busing is a government policy. Government policy created bad schools in the cities."

Sorry, Half Sigma, but I really do not understand what is your point.

Most suburbs built after World War II were the result of free market forces. Some were admittedly a reaction to government policies, such as forced busing. Some were the reaction to non-functioning local governments, such as lack of crime control. But long before the public so reacted to government actions and inactions, people of all incomes were moving to suburbs. The simple fact remains: most people do not desire congestion and high-density. They only put up with it for centuries because of limits on mobility and the need for commercial activity to be centralized. Technology, especially automobiles and computers, has finally freed man from the ills of congested living. Yet some folks would use government to take away that freedom.

Half Sigma March 20, 2006 at 1:52 pm


I'm sure we both agree that the personal automobiles made suburban living more economically efficient than before such transportation existed, and this opened up rural areas to suburbanization.

I also have no doubt that urban living causes you a great deal of personal disgust, and it's surely your right not to be forced to live in an environment you don't like.

The point of my argument has never been that suburbs make no sense at all, but rather that more people live in suburbs than otherwise would were it not for government interferences that favor suburbs over city. This seems to be the opposite of your contention that cities would not exist at all were it not for liberals forcing people to live there. It's not true that all people hate urban living, you are presuming that everyone else has the exact same likes and dislikes as you do.

John Dewey March 20, 2006 at 2:24 pm

You misinterpret my post. I fully recognize that some folks prefer urban living. I'm happy to let those folks stay huddled together, as long as they stay away from my low density suburb. My fellow townspeople feel the same way.

It is not suburban folks who seek to transform our cities. It is urban folks who seek to either transform or steal from our suburbs. In the Dallas-Fort Worth area they would use our taxes to subsidize their view of cities by providing incentives for transit-oriented development. They already use our gasoline taxes to subsidize mass transit oriented toward the remaining center city employers. In Texas, wealthy suburban school districts have been forced to subsidize less wealthy districts.

Cities such as Dallas have made themselves so unfriendly to families that we deserted them in droves. The tax base for those cities has seriously eroded. Liberals now scheme to confiscate funds from suburbanites to make up that shortfall. For many urban leaders, "sprawl" is a red herring. The real problem is declining tax base.

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