The Best-Laid Plans of Govt. Planners Usually Screw Up Your Life

By Bill Steigerwald | 11/5/2007

It is safe to say economist Randal O'Toole is an expert in many of the things that have caused Pittsburgh and other cities great pain -- government planning, government mass-transit systems and government attempts to shape or contain the redevelopment of cities. A senior fellow at the Cato Institute, he specializes in urban growth, public land and transportation issues. His daily blog is called The Antiplanner and his new book is "The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future." I talked to O'Toole Thursday, Nov. 1, by telephone from his home in Bandon, OR.

Q: Can you give us a quick synopsis of “The Best-Laid Plans”?
A: Well, I’ve often heard people say, “I’m not against planning, I’m just against bad government planning.” After 30 years of looking at government plans -- forest plans, park plans, transportation plans, city plans, state plans, all kinds of plans -- I’ve realized all government planning is bad. Government planning -- that is to say, comprehensive, long-range planning that often tries to plan and control other people’s land and resources -- always does more harm than good because the planners don’t have an incentive to make sure that their plans are the right plans. Cities, forests and so on are just too complicated to plan, so they oversimplify, and since they don’t pay the costs of their mistakes, they don’t have an incentive to try to get it right.

Q: Who did you write the book for?
A: The book is aimed at people who are annoyed with planning but haven’t thought about what to do instead. I’m arguing that we need to stop planning. We need to repeal planning laws. Congress and the states should stop passing new planning laws. Cities should shut down planning departments and do other things instead that will actually solve the problems planning is intended to solve but too often makes worse.

Q: If you had to single out which kind of planning was most harmful,what would it be?
A: Certainly, in general, “Smart Growth” planning is planning on steroids. Back in the 1950s, we had urban renewal that devastated individual neighborhoods and often replaced them with unlivable high-rise towers that since then have been blown up because they have been proven to be so terrible to live in. But that just harmed individual neighborhoods. Smart Growth attempts to apply the same benefits to entire urban areas -- not just cities but all the suburbs, all the incorporated areas around those urban areas -- with devastating effects. Smart Growth makes housing too expensive; it makes traffic worse; it usually results in increased taxes or declining urban services. If I had to point to just one Smart Growth plan that was the worst, it would probably be San Jose’s in California. But, of course, Portland, which is often held as a shining example of good Smart Growth planning, has lots of problems too.

Q: What’s the short definition of Smart Growth?
A: The short definition is that cities should grow up, not out. They should have higher densities. They should have more pedestrian-friendly design and transit-oriented design. Transportation should be more focused around public transit, bicycles and walking than around automobiles. The higher densities are meant to encourage people to drive less and use transit more and to minimize urban sprawl. to prevent cities from overrunning the countryside, although that’s less of a goal than just getting people out of their automobiles.

Q: Who are the political and economic interests that push planning like Smart Growth and what are they after?
A: There are a number of different interests, and they don’t have the same goals. Just to name a few, there are downtown property owners who resent the fact that a lot of new development is going into the suburbs. Smart Growth makes suburbs more congested and more expensive, so it gives downtowns a slight advantage that it otherwise wouldn’t have. Because the city is already congested and expensive, by making the suburbs congested and expensive, people have less of an interest in going to the suburbs. Also, there are contractors who like to build things like rail transit, which is extraordinarily profitable to build -- far more profitable than highways. They’ll support Smart Growth. There are certain types of housing developers who specialize in in-fill housing, higher density housing in cities rather than lower density housing in suburbs; they support Smart Growth. Then, of course, there are environmental interests who don’t like to see people driving. There are also central cities like Portland that think that if they can have Smart Growth and cram more people in their city, they can therefore have a bigger tax base than if they allow those people to live out in the suburbs. Each of these interests has a different goal, but the one thing they have in common is that they all benefit from congestion -- so I call them “The Congestion Coalition.”

Q: Where do our friends in government and the politicians come in to play here?
A: Well, you see the same kind of relationships that you see in Pittsburgh with urban renewal. Smart Growth actually is not very marketable. A few people want to live in high-density housing. But most Americans prefer to live in a house with a yard. So in order to promote high-density housing and rail transit, you have to heavily subsidize it. That heavy subsidy means that somebody is going to make a lot of money from the subsidies. They in turn make campaign contributions to the politicians who then vote for the subsidies. So you end up with a kind of I’ll-scratch-your-back, you’ll-scratch-mine relationship. Of course, that’s what urban renewal is about in Pittsburgh and everywhere else. Urban renewal is not just building new developments in slums or otherwise blighted areas; it’s taking people’s tax dollars to build those developments.

Q: What would you say to the average person to make him understand the dangers of government planning?
A: There are two big problems with planning. Everybody plans. We plan our vacations, we plan our careers. But our plans are flexible. If your Uncle Joe calls up and says, “I want to take you to Hawaii next week,” you don’t look at your calendar and say, “Oh, I’m supposed to be doing my laundry so I can’t go.” You’ll change your plans if a new opportunity arises. When government writes a plan, that plan gets locked into concrete because immediately special-interest groups consisting of people and businesses that benefit from that plan form to make sure that the plan never changes. So it becomes extraordinarily difficult to change the plan no matter how mistaken and costly it turns out to be.

The second problem with planning is that cities are really, really complicated organisms. They consist of hundreds of thousands or millions of people. Each of those people has different tastes, different travel needs, different housing needs and desires. It’s impossible -- literally impossible -- to plan to the level of detail to make sure that everybody achieves what they need and want. So planners oversimplify. They rely on fads.

The fad was once to tear down slums and build high-density housing projects. Then there was a fad to tear down neighborhoods and put in freeways. Now the fad is Smart Growth -- to build cities at compact densities and provide urban transit rather than highways. But each of these fads only accounts for a small portion of the people. Less than 10 percent of travel in any urban area except New York is by mass transit. Yet we see Smart Growth planners dedicating 50, 60, 70 and 80 percent of their transportation funds to transit and only 10 to 30 or 40 percent to highways that are used by 90 percent of the travelers in the city. So it’s totally skewed, and they don’t learn from their mistakes.

You look at Portland. It still has great PR, even though traffic congestion is horrible, housing is getting to be unaffordable, poor people are moving out, families with children have escaped over the border to Vancouver, Washington, because they can’t afford a house with a yard in Portland. The New York Times will say, “Portland is a city that loves transit.” Yet, in fact, the percentage of people who use transit has declined since they’ve started writing these plans.

Q: Has any city come to realize that building expensive light-rail lines is not a good idea?
A: One is Buffalo. They built one line and it shattered their transit ridership. They lost a lot of riders and they said, “We’re not going to build anymore.” Here’s the problem with rail transit: It’s so expensive -- and it almost always has cost overruns; cost overruns average 40 percent but in some cases they’ve been over 100 percent. So transit agencies end up cutting bus service and raising bus fares to help pay for the high cost of rail transit. The result is, you get fewer riders.

When Los Angeles was building its rail system, it lost 17 percent of its bus riders. They were sued by the NAACP for building rail lines into white, middle-class neighborhoods at the same time they were cutting bus service in black and Hispanic neighborhoods.

Q: That’s what’s going on here. Our light-rail line goes into middle-class neighborhoods and bus service is being cut back and fares are going up.
A: It’s happening in Washington, D.C., in Chicago, Philadelphia, San Jose, Portland, Sacramento -- the list is endless. Because of the lawsuit, Los Angeles had to restore bus service and pretty much has stopped building rail lines.

Q: Has any city either resisted the kind of planning you want to see ended, or already ended it themselves?
A: There’s been a lot of cities resist, but most of the cities that are doing this kind of planning are in states where the state legislature has mandated it -- Oregon, Florida, about 10 states have mandated it. They call it “growth management.” There’s a Florida growth-management act. Oregon has its land-use act, which is growth management. Washington, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire. Hawaii passed theirs in 1961 -- they were the first.

California’s is unique in that they didn’t have a law called a growth-management act; they had a law that gave cities control over the rural areas. You could not build a housing development outside of a city’s limits without the permission of the city, essentially. That meant that the cities could deny all development outside their boundaries and force all development inside their boundaries and that way keep all the taxes from such developments for themselves. So they just said, “Hell, why should we bother to annex land? We’ll just keep all development in our boundaries.” Now California has the densest urban areas in America. The top three densest of the urban areas are in California and 11 of the 20 densest are in California. On average, California urban areas are 80 percent denser than those in the rest of the country. Los Angeles is the densest urban area -- it’s 25 percent denser than New York (“urban area” only includes a city’s urbanized land and not rural land or parks).

Q: Are you optimistic or pessimistic cities will ever see the light or learn from their mistakes and end planning as we know it?
A: I’m optimistic that they will learn from Smart Growth and Smart Growth planning. It’s a generational thing ... . It seems to take one planning generation -- that is, 30 years -- for the planners who come in and say, “We’re going to do this great new idea to finally retire and be replaced by other planners who are willing to admit that the original planners were wrong.” Planners will never admit they were wrong, but they will admit their predecessors were wrong.

So today, urban planners will say, “Oh, we don’t believe in that urban renewal, high-density housing-project stuff. That was the mistakes of bad urban planners of the past.” But then they make other mistakes. Whether cities are actually going to give up on planning, that's a tougher nut. I’m hoping that we can persuade people that Smart Growth is so bad that we’ll just never try planning again.

Between urban renewal and Smart Growth, we had about a 20-year hiatus when graduates from planning schools were declining, cities were not doing all that much planning, and it looked like the pendulum was swinging the other way. But now it’s swung back much harder than before, so I’m hoping that we can use a backlash against that to kill it off completely. Am I optimistic? It’s going to depend on a lot of things.

Bill Steigerwald is the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's associate editor. Call him at (412) 320-7983. E-mail him at: