Friday, February 9, 2007

What We Don't Know about Sprawl

I have been reading a lot in the rhetoric of the debate over "urban sprawl" and "smart growth", with a particular angle. I am interested in the question of whether and to what extent people can be said to choose sprawl.

If the rhetoric (pro and con) is any guide, then the question comes down to this: Is sprawl the true and highest expression of human freedom, as individuals pursue their own preferences in a free market, or are people coerced into building and living in the sprawlscape by political and economic forces beyond their control?

As far as I can tell, this way of framing the debate is all but worthless. That's not what I wanted to write about, though.

Instead, I hereby present a few more examples of the kind of shoddy scholarship and shoddy thinking that rises to the surface in debates like this, like . . . never mind. The appropriate simile would ruin your dinner. I'm focusing on one side of the coin here, though I know there's plenty of shoddy work to go around.

I just finished reading (slogging through) Randal O'Toole's The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths, a sprawling and highly disorganized screed against "smart growth", apparently motivated by a personal grievance against Portland's Metro. The work is also informed by O'Toole's own libertarian leanings. I could devote an entire blog just to picking the book apart, but I won't.

One interesting question about choosing sprawl concerns the role of the federal government in creating sprawl in the first place: How much of a role, if any, did the federal policies (taxation, transportation, water and sewer infrastructure, mortgage lending, etc.) play in shaping the current landscape of the United States? How much of a role do they play now?

The stakes for O'Toole and others with a predilection for free-market ideology are high: If government policies and subsidies shaped sprawl, then sprawl is not the pure expression of freedom they want it to be. Worse, if government policies and subsidies shape sprawl, then different government policies and subsidies might be effective ways of changing development patterns in a direction that people might really like better.

O'Toole claims it is a "myth" that "low-density suburbs have grown because of government subsidies and other policies favoring suburbs over higher-density cities." A major piece of evidence he cites is an April 1999 report from the General Accounting Office, entitled Community Development: Extent of Federal Influence on "Urban Sprawl" is Unclear.

(By the way, when people claim to be demolishing "myths" and revealing "reality", they are usually weaving myths of their own. Lomborg did the same in The Skeptical Environmentalist.)

O'Toole summarizes the report by saying that the GAO "could not find any clear evidence that federal policies were promoting sprawl." (p.234). This is not an inaccurate statement of what the report was about, but it is not a complete statement either. O'Toole does not quite say it, but he clearly wants to take this as demonstrating that federal policies simply do not promote sprawl.

In another work from the same quarter, Ronald Utt doesn't hold back at all. I am looking here at Utt's chapter "The Federal Role in Smart Growth" in a book published by the Heritage Foundation and PERC, A Guide to Smart Growth: Shattering Myths [ahem!], Providing Solutions. Citing the same GAO report, Utt boldly asserts that "the GAO could not find any definitive impact and concluded that the extent of federal influence on "urban sprawl" is not well documented or quantified." (p.95) Later, in passing, he asserts that "an analysis of federal transportation, housing, and infrastructure policies suggests that they have done little or nothing to foster suburbanization . . . " (p.101)

This is a misrepresentation of what the GAO report actually said, and it amounts to a classic argument from ignorance.

Here's a more complete passage from the GAO report, including a fragment that was cherry-picked by O'Toole and Utt alike:
The extent of the federal influence on "urban sprawl" is not well documented or quantified. The lack of agreement on a definition of "urban sprawl," coupled with the many interrelated factors that contribute to this condition, makes it extremely difficult to isolate and measure the influence of specific factors - including those relating to federal programs and policies. The shortage of quantitative evidence does not mean that federal programs and policies do not have an impact on "urban sprawl"; it simply means that the level of federal influence is difficult to determine. (p.19-20)

So, what the GAO actually concluded is that there is not enough quantitative evidence to determine the extent of the federal contribution to sprawl, though elsewhere the report notes that "anecdotal evidence exists" that supports the contention of many experts that there is such a contribution (p.2). O'Toole acknowledges this "anecdotal evidence"; Utt does not.

What O'Toole wants to imply, and what Utt blithely assumes and boldly asserts, is that the lack of evidence for x constitutes firm disproof of x. In other words, a straightforward argument from ignorance. The problem is that ignorance works both ways: I could just as easily (and with just as much warrant) argue that there is no clear evidence that the federal government is not contributing significantly to sprawl, so the federal government must be contributing significantly to sprawl.

I came across another example of shoddy work in a chapter in the Heritage Foundation/PERC book entitled "Lessons from the Atlanta Experiment". The author, Angela M. Antonelli, is presented as having managed "The Heritage Foundation's research on budget, tax, regulatory, labor, and environmental policy".

It would seem that either she doesn't know much about transportation and transportation policy, or she has never actually been to Atlanta. She refers repeatedly to "the fascination with light rail" among planners and others in Atlanta, and she refers to the core of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) as a "light rail" system (p.139).

Anyone who claims to know anything about transportation should know that MARTA operates a heavy rail system, which makes a big difference in terms of capital costs, operating costs, capacity, and speed.

Now, this does not mean that other points in that particular chapter are invalid. Or, rather, if other points in the chapter are invalid, they are invalid on their own grounds. It is a particularly shocking bit of sloppiness, though.

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