A Free-Market Energy Blog

Mobility versus the “Congestion Coalition” (freedom versus planning revisited)

By Randal O'Toole -- February 2, 2010

“Unrestricted mobility is every bit as important to American freedom and economic health than health care reform. I hope that the people who have fought socialized health care will work just as hard to fight the congestion coalition.”  – R. O’Toole

The United States is the most mobile nation on earth, with the average American traveling nearly twice as many miles per year as the average resident of any other country. That mobility, the vast majority of which is provided by automobiles, has produced enormous benefits, including higher incomes, lower cost consumer goods, better housing, and access to a wide variety of social and recreational opportunities.

Transportation touches everyone’s lives every single day, and most American have to deal with traffic congestion several times a week. So when Congress takes up the subject of federal transportation funding, which it does every six years, people ought to be as concerned as they have been in the ongoing health-care debate.

This is especially true because there is a congestion coalition of powerful interests that wants to reduce our mobility. This coalition includes: 

  1. Big city officials who view the suburbs as rivals;
  2. Downtown property owners who similarly would like to limit the growth of edge cities;
  3. Rail contractors who make far larger profits building;
  4. Subsidized rail lines than from roads paid for out of highway user fees;
  5. Urban planners who think Americans should be happy to live in cramped, European-like cities;
  6. Natural area advocates who think no one should be allowed to live in rural areas except for an elite few who know how to appreciate nature; and
  7. Environmentalists who argue getting people out of their cars is critical to stopping global warming.

The Obama administration has gladly joined this coalition, saying it wants to emphasize livability, not mobility. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood recently threw out rules designed to insure that federal transportation funds are cost-effectively spent. Instead, LaHood prefers projects that do not encourage “urban sprawl.” Since the low-densities that planners derisively call sprawl are a direct result of mobility, LaHood is saying he wants to fund wasteful transportation projects that don’t truly enhance personal mobility.

To help people understand and speak out in the livability vs. mobility debate, the Cato Institute published my latest book, Gridlock, which shows how so-called livability plans really make areas unlivable and proposes new policies that would devolve transportation decisions to users, not politicians. Obama’s proposed policies will make housing less affordable, increase traffic congestion, and require cities to either increase taxes or reduce budgets for fire, police, and other vital urban services.

State-level Planning

Several states, including Oregon and Washington, have already set targets of reducing per capita driving by 15 percent or more. To reach these targets, planners promote “compact development.” On one hand, Oregon planners have told rural landowners that they can build a house on their own land only if they own at least 80 acres and earn at least $40,000 to $80,000 (depending on soil productivity) per year farming that land. On the other hand, Portland and other city planners have rezoned neighborhoods of single-family homes for apartments with zoning so strict that, if someone’s house burns down, they will be required to replace it with an apartment building.

Planners say this compact development will lead people to drive less. The fact that there is almost no evidence that this will work has not prevented Transportation Secretary LaHood from planning to impose such rules nationwide.

City-level Planning

Meanwhile, urban areas such as Denver, Minneapolis, Portland, and San Francisco are spending most of their transportation funds on rail transit projects that hardly anyone will use instead of on projects that can actually relieve congestion (see p. 15). Instead of relieving congestion, they often use highway funds on so-called “traffic calming” projects designed to reduce the capacity of streets and highways to move vehicles. Again they hope–with very little supporting evidence–that increasing congestion will lead people to drive less.

Ironically, congestion is responsible for some of the biggest wastes of energy and unnecessary emissions of carbon dioxide and toxic pollutants in our cities. A recent University of California study found that low-cost measures to relieve congestion could reduce transportation-related CO2 emissions by 30 percent, which is about three times the reduction that most studies predict will result from compact development.

Congress Gears Up

Many of these issues will be debated when Congress reauthorizes federal transportation funding, which it does every six years. The next reauthorization was scheduled to take place in 2009, but will be delayed at least until 2011.

A blueprint reauthorization proposed by House Democrats, led by Minnesota’s James Oberstar and Oregon’s Peter DeFazio, would massively shift federal spending from highways to transit and high-speed rail. Since nearly all federal surface transportation dollars come out of gas taxes and other highway user fees, this means auto drivers would be subsidizing forms of travel that will be used only by a narrow elite.

Previous reauthorizations required the nation’s urban areas to form metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) that write transportation plans describing how they will spend federal, state, and local funds. About a third of those MPOs have written plans emphasizing compact development and other social engineering schemes designed to get people out of their cars. LaHood has proposed to require that all MPOs rewrite their plans to require such compact development.

To ensure that people cannot escape the compact cities planners are preparing for them, the House bill would also create rural planning organizations that would impose strict limits on development, similar to Oregon’s farm-income test. In effect, transportation is being used as a back-door method of creating a national land-use policy that would virtually eliminate private property rights.

Based on those urban areas that have already written compact development plans, we already know what the effect of those plans will be. First, urban-growth limits cause housing prices to rise dramatically–and then periodically crash when demand flattens out. The housing bubbles that recently decimated the nation’s economy took place almost exclusively in regions that promoted compact development; regions such as Houston and Dallas, which had no such rules, also had no bubbles. If you think the recent crisis was bad, just wait until all of the nation’s housing markets bubble and collapse.

Second, congestion will massively increase. Doubling population density may reduce per capita driving by 5 or 10 percent, but that still means 80 to 90 percent more cars on the road. This represents a huge and completely unnecessary waste of people’s time, fuel, and clean air.

Third, taxes will rise or urban services decline as cities pour money into rail transit and subsidies to developers of compact housing projects. Surveys repeatedly show that the vast majority of Americans aspire to live in single-family homes, and simply increasing the cost of land and home construction is not enough to persuade people to live in higher densities. So Denver, Portland, and other cities subsidize developers with property taxes that would otherwise go to fire, police, schools, and other urban services. As the quality of those services decline, people often end up voting to raise taxes to restore such services, not realizing that they are really funding subsidies to developers.

Let the Market Work

Despite these huge costs, the effect of these plans on people’s transportation habits is minimal. Driving in many of these regions has grown just as much, and transit has remained just as irrelevant, as anywhere else. As a recent plan for Sacramento noted, although previous plans have managed to octuple traffic congestion, efforts to get people out of their cars have “not worked out.” (Yet the new plan called for even more of the same.)

Unrestricted mobility is no less important to America’s freedom and economic health as health care reform. I hope that the people who have repulsed the drive toward socialized health care will reject the government-planning nostrums of the congestion coalition.


  1. T. Caine  

    Freedom is a great thing and all, but I don’t know if I agree that using programs to alter settlement in this country is a bad idea, fated to be unsuccessful, or completely unnecessary. Suburban development is ultimately inefficient, despite its accolades of privacy and elbow room. That is not to say there is not a more efficient version of suburban design possible, but most current models are somewhat flawed. It is not as though the suburbs of Houston and Dallas are even attractive.

    When it comes to “increasing congestion” you are noting city examples that do not have fully matured transit systems necessary to give an alternative to driving. One cannot simply making driving tough without having another way to get around. I do not think that congestion in New York City has increased in line with the population. On the contrary, the city strives to make it harder to drive on the island yet demand remains high because of the efficiencies that density offers when it is well-designed.

    I will agree that simply making suburban houses closer together and smaller does nothing. However, making transit-oriented developments, barring development on rural land and promoting urban living can change a lot–which is the direction in which I think we should be moving.

    As much of a proponent as I am for high speed rail, I agree we’re just not there right now. We should be supporting smaller scale transit systems (light rail, commuter trains, street cars) to relieve car traffic than jumping into an infrastructure we cannot afford or have the complimentary systems to fully utilize.


  2. antiplanner  

    T. Caine,

    In what sense is suburban development inefficient? That is just another canard spread by the anti-suburban crowd. This nation has given far more subsidies to cities than to suburbs, which pretty much pay their own way.

    If you think the suburbs of Houston are not attractive, then you haven’t visited the same suburbs I have, such as Sienna Plantation and The Woodlands. These are not only attractive and affordable, virtually all of the infrastructure was paid for by developers and home buyers.


  3. RadicalCentist  

    Is there a link to “rural planning councils?”

    The only person I’ve heard talking about them is Randal O’Toole.


    Not only that, isn’t it interesting that the CATO Institute, founded and funded by Charles and David Koch of Koch Industries–a BIG OIL company–support research and publish books about how much we need the car culture?

    And how bad the alternatives to car culture are?

    Yup, I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that their concern for their fellow man just happens to overlap with their own financial interests.


  4. Robert Bradley Jr.  

    To Radical Centrist:

    Enron espoused public policies just the opposite of the company you cite above–and Enron was quite self-interested in its climate alarmism and push for government favor after favor for wind, solar, etc.

    So who is right? I have argued that it is not Enron and invite you to examine more closely the arguments at http://www.politicalcapitalism.org. The Left needs to abandon corporate welfarism that is handmaiden to (false) climate alarmism.


  5. T. Caine  


    As the suburban allure is based in more space per capita the distance between your neighbor grows. One mile of infrastructure (sewers, fire hydrants, potable water, telecom) and all of the dollars and manpower that it takes to install and maintain serves a fraction of the people that it can in a more dense setting. Of course roadways have to bridge all of this which only cost more money and resources to build and upkeep. More energy has to be expended to travel anywhere because nothing is close. More square feet are tempered per capita throughout the year. If the benchmark for efficiency is urban dwelling (whether or not one thinks it should be the goal) then suburban living is inefficient in comparison.

    As for your suburban examples, I do believe that whatever solution suburban planning has, it does not include developer driven homes. Their products are affordable because they are cheap where every fifth house looks remarkably similar. Our neighborhoods can be held to a higher standard. Better quality products are worth inducing a premium.


  6. antiplanner  

    T. Caine,

    You make the same mistake as planners everywhere: relying on hypothetical data and thought experiments rather than real data. Several studies have shown that the costs of urban services rise as population densities increase.

    You also appear guilty of the design fallacy, that is, that “looks” are the relevant criteria. Even if they are, have you seen any New Urban developments lately? UGLY!


  7. T. Caine  


    As you will note I am not talking about cost (of building, of living or of running services.) I am talking about energy and resource efficiency. I am not saying it is cheaper to live in the city, clearly that is seldom the case. I am talking about the resources expended per capita, per resident of each respective development type. Yes, it is cheaper to build and live on virgin land, but it requires more energy and resources per person than building in urban settings. The cheaper solution is not always the best one.

    As I am an architect, commenting on the visual appearance of the product has to factor in somewhere despite it’s inherent subjectivity. I did not say they look ugly. The only comment about looks that I made was guessing that they follow a repetitive model of recycling store-bought drawings. Craftsmanship and remarkable integrity are seldom accolades of suburban, developer spec-housing.


  8. antiplanner  

    T Caine,

    Once again, you write without checking the data. According to the Department of Energy’s Buildings Energy Data Book, single-family detached homes have the lowest energy consumption per square foot of any home type. 2- to 4-unit multifamily housing consumes 25% more energy per square foot than single-family, and 5-unit-plus multifamily consumes 8 percent more energy per square foot.

    So denser development “saves” resources only because it is so expensive that it forces people to live in smaller quarters. But people who live in large apartments or condos are actually using more than people who live in single family of the same size.

    It turns out that the cheaper solution IS the best one.


  9. T. Caine  


    I think that this data is rather broad stroke, lacking the specificity for a accurate comparison. There are many factors here that are unaccounted for. For example, your data states that space heating is by far the largest portion of energy usage. I would imagine (this is a guess without crunching the numbers) that the majority of the urban residents in the country are in the northern half, especially in the Northeast, where as suburban residents may be more prevalent in the southern half. You need a side by side building comparisons within the same region. The climate conditions of the country, and their effects on energy use, are too varied.

    Per the data, it also seems clear that energy use per household drops significantly the more units you group together leaving suburban households at up to twice as much as denser buildings–marking increased efficiency on the family level.

    You also continue to avoid my point which is simply that every lineal mile of services run (water, gas, power, sewer, even roads) will serve drastically more people than in a suburban setting, marking its use and installation as more efficient.


  10. antiplanner  

    T Caine,

    My point is that if you look at one thing like lineal miles of services you will get a very slanted view of reality. You need to look at all costs. As Wendell Cox and Joshua Utt show, when all costs are considered, suburbs are actually less expensive than denser areas.


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