NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

"New Urbanist" Policies Don't Work

March 18, 1999

"New urbanists" blame "urban sprawl" for increased traffic congestion, higher air pollution, the decline of central cities and a reduction in farm land. They support such policies as the establishment of urban growth boundaries, outside of which development is discouraged; channeling urban development toward "infill" of undeveloped urban areas; "transit oriented development" along urban rail corridors; higher population density; and little if any expansion of highway capacity, while increasing subsidies to mass transit.

However, urban expert Wendell Cox says such policies actually increase congestion and pollution, which are associated with higher population densities:

  • For example, the new urbanist regional government in Portland, Ore. (Metro), found that higher population densities and lower automobile usage rates appear to be associated with "higher housing prices and reduced housing output."
  • Traffic congestion in Portland already is approaching that of the New York metropolitan area, and Portland projections indicate that, even after building five additional light rail lines, traffic volumes will rise by more than 50 percent by 2015.
  • By contrast, average peak hour commuting time nationwide fell approximately 6 percent from 1969 to 1995 -- from 22.0 minutes to 20.7 minutes.
  • One of the major reasons commuting time hasn't increased is that people have abandoned transit services for automobiles -- with the average transit commute trip taking approximately 80 percent longer than the average automobile commute.

Cox points out public service costs tend to be lower where population densities are lower; the flexibility of the automobile has improved the efficiency of labor markets; and competition by large suburban shopping malls and retailers has lowered consumer prices.

Urban growth boundaries aren't a new idea, says Cox: Queen Elizabeth I established one around London in 1580 and King Louis XIII around Paris in 1638. They both failed to contain growth.

Source: Wendell Cox (Wendell Cox Consultancy), "The President's New Sprawl Initiative: a Program in Search of a Problem," Backgrounder No. 1263, March 18, 1999, Heritage Foundation, 214 Massachusetts Avenue, N.E., Washington, D.C. 20002, (202) 546- 4400.


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