Category Archives: Regional planning

Planning for the Unpredictable

How do you plan for the unpredictable? That’s the question facing the more than 400 metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) that have been tasked by Congress to write 20-year transportation plans for their regions. Self-driving cars will be on the market in the next ten years, are likely to become a dominant form of travel in twenty years, and most people think they will have huge but often unknowable transformative effects on our cities and urban areas. Yet not a single regional transportation plan has tried to account for, and few have even mentioned the possibility of, self-driving cars.

Instead, many of those plans propose obsolete technologies such as streetcars, light rail, and subways. These technologies made sense when they were invented a hundred or so years ago, but today they are just a waste of money. One reason why planners look to the past for solutions is that they can’t accurately foresee the future. So they pretend that, by building ancient modes of transportation, they will have the same effects on cities that they had when they were first introduced.

If the future is unpredictabie, self-driving cars make it doubly or quadruply so.

  • How long will it take before self-driving cars dominate the roads?
  • Will people who own self-driving cars change their residential locations because they won’t mind traveling twice as far to work?
  • Will employment centers move so they can take advantage of self-driving trucks and increased employee mobility?
  • Will car sharing reduce the demand for parking?
  • Will carpooling reduce VMT or will the increased number of people who can “drive” self-driving cars increase VMT?
  • Will people use their cars as “robotic assistants,” going out with zero occupants to pick up groceries, drop off laundry, or doing other tasks that don’t require lots of supervision?
  • Will self-driving cars reduce the need for more roads because they increase road capacities, or will the increase in driving offset this benefit?
  • Will self-driving cars provide the mythical “first and last miles” needed by transit riders, or will they completely replace urban transit?

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Facts versus Ideology

Debates over smart growth–sometimes known as new urbanism, compact cities, or sustainable urban planning, but always meaning higher urban densities and a higher share of people in multifamily housing–boil down to factual questions. But smart-growth supporters keep trying to twist the arguments into ideological issues.


The choice should be yours: suburbs, or . . .

For example, in response to my Minneapolis Star Tribune article about future housing demand, Thomas Fisher, the dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota, writes, “O’Toole, like many conservatives, equates low-density development with personal freedom.” In fact, I equate personal freedom with personal freedom.


. . . New Urbanism. Flickr photo by David Crummey.

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Why Plan Housing?

University of Minnesota planning professor Richard Bolan has responded to the Antiplanner’s critique of the Twin Cities’ Metropolitan Council’s plan to emphasize high-density housing and discourage large-lot single-family homes. My op ed pointed out that planner Arthur Nelson’s predictions that the demand for single-family homes was declining were based on oversimplified surveys that asked people questions like would they want to live in a “walkable community.”

A lot more factors are at work in people’s housing choices. “Given a choice between a 1,400-square-foot home on a tiny lot in a congested part of town for $375,000 and a 2,400-square-foot home on a large lot in a quiet suburb for $295,000,” my op ed said, “most people would prefer the larger home.” My point was the issues were too complicated for planners to be able to see what people would want 26 years in the future, and since homebuilders can adequately respond to changes in demand, there was no need for central planners to try to predict the unpredictable.

Bolan admits that he’s “not a supporter of Arthur C. Nelson’s report” on future housing demand. But Professor Bolan has his own reasons why central planners should try to determine people’s housing choices in the future: externalities.

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Bus Shelters for the Poor, Trains for the Rich

Low-income residents of the Twin Cities can rest easy, as planners at the Metropolitan Council, the area’s regional planning agency, are proposing a regional transit equity plan. According to the Metropolitan Council’s press release, this equity plan consists of:

  1. Building 75 bus shelters and rebuilding 75 existing shelters “in areas of racially concentrated poverty”; and
  2. “Strengthen[ing] the transit service framework serving racially concentrated areas of poverty” by building bus-rapid transit and light-rail lines to the region’s wealthy suburbs.


The blue line, the yellow line to St. Cloud, and the green line between the Minneapolis interchange and St. Paul Union Depot are open; the next priority is the green line from the interchange and Eden Prairie.

Bus shelters for the poor, light rail for the rich: that sounds equitable! Of course, the poor will be allowed to ride those light-rail trains (for example, if they travel to the suburbs to work as servants), just as the well-to-do will be allowed to use the bus shelters. But for the most part, the light rail is for the middle class.

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Ignoring the Law of Supply & Demand

The Twin Cities Metropolitan Council is currently writing the Thrive Plan, which–like so many other urban plans today–aims to cram most new development into high-density transit centers. To justify this policy, the council naturally hired Arthur Nelson, the University of Utah urban planning professor who has predicted that the U.S. will soon have 22 million surplus single-family homes on large lots.


Click image to download a copy of the report.

“Demand for attached and multifamily housing in the Twin Cities will continue to grow,” trumpets the Met Council’s press release about Nelson’s report on Twin Cities housing. That, of course, is what the Met Council wanted Nelson to “prove,” which is why they hired him. However, his report can’t really justify the Met Council’s plans.

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In Memory of Common Sense

Happy Memorial Day. Today, the Antiplanner feels a need to mourn common sense, which seems to have died a few decades ago. In place of common sense, we have plans that amount to little more than fantasies, rent-seeking special interest groups, and an environmental movement ready to defend any amount of subsidies to corporations that claim to be green.

One example of the death of common sense is the stubborn insistence on the part of planning advocates that restricting the supply of land for housing doesn’t increase home prices; that growing prices in regions with restricted supply are solely due to demand. This has most recently been challenged by economist Thomas Sowell and The Economist magazine, but I doubt they changed any minds.

Another example of the death of common sense is the eagerness of public officials to spend phenomenal amounts of money building transit systems that will carry very few people. Houston, for example, has so far spent $587 million on a 3.3-mile light-rail line, which reporters say equals $3,000 an inch–and the line isn’t even yet complete. The first modern light-rail line in America, San Diego’s Blue line (sometimes called the Tijuana Trolley), cost less than $10 million a mile in 1981, equal to about $17 million a mile today, and was of questionable value then. Yet Houston’s line, which costs ten times as much per mile, will be capable of carrying no more people than San Diego’s.

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Herding the Poor

TransForm, a smart-growth group in Oakland, has analyzed California’s household travel survey data and made what it thinks is a fascinating discovery: poor people drive less than rich people. Moreover, poor people especially drive less than rich people if they live in a high-density development served by frequent transit.


Click image to download the executive summary of TransForm’s report.

According to TransForm’s report, poor households who live in transit-oriented developments (TODs) drive only half as much as poor households who live away from TODs, while rich households who live in TODs drive about two-thirds as much as rich households who don’t live near TODs (see figure 1 on page 7).

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Challenging the Poverty Plan

In late February, the Twin Cities Metropolitan Council issued its draft Thrive 2040 plan for public review. No one will be surprised to learn it is a standard smart-growth plan with lots of emphasis on transit, high-density housing in transit corridors, and reducing driving. Of course, this isn’t always obvious, as the plan uses euphemisms such as “affordable housing” when it means high-density housing and “orderly and efficient land use” when it means restricting development in rural areas.


Click image to download the 3.7-MB plan.

The Met Council calls it the Thrive plan because it wants to give the impression that, without government planning, the region will wither away and die. Of course, the Antiplanner believes the opposite is true, and that it would be more accurate to call it a poverty plan, since it will likely make housing unaffordable and require higher taxes, both of which will slow economic growth.

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Progressives Promote Inequality

Why is it that cities that consider themselves most progressive also tend to have the most segregated schools and the greatest income inequality? UCLA economist Matthew Kahn offers one possible answer: “Educated liberals are tolerant people who are willing to live in racially integrated areas even if the minority neighbors are poor,” suggests Kahn. “Such liberals are more willing to vote for redistributionist policies and this may attract poor people to collect such transfers.”

This off-the-cuff answer sounds unlikely. The Antiplanner has a different suggestion. Progressives are more likely to give government power to try to control people’s lives. The planners who get that power are all middle-class people who use their power to try to design cities for middle-class people like them. This prices low-income people out of the market, putting them in inferior housing and neighborhoods with poorer schools.

Kahn’s own research finds that blacks are more likely to own their own homes in lower density urban areas (“sprawl”). Regions that try to control sprawl end up making housing unaffordable. In most of these regions, the liberals already own their own homes and don’t mind policies that keep others out of the housing market.

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Repeating the Big Lies About Sprawl

Those crazy planners at Smart Growth America are at it again: issuing another report all about how urban sprawl is bad and people are better off living in compact communities. Most news reports take it for granted that sprawl is evil and something ought to be done about it. But the report does devote all of three out of 51 pages to repeating claims about how sprawl makes housing unaffordable, transportation expensive, people fat, and lives shorter.

Almost all of these claims cite another report written back in 2010. Most of the claims are readily dismissed for several reasons.

First, some of the claims are based on models the planners made of cities and how they affect people, not on real life. For example, claims that transportation is less expensive in compact areas are based on models, not actual measurements. (They also fail to account for the huge differences in subsidies between transit and driving.)

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