Published: 29 May 2005
This backgrounder, by Wendell Cox & Ronald D. Utt, appeared on The Heritage Foundation’s website on 28 July 2004. The link to the full version is at the foot of this shortened version.
US Environmental Protection Agency withdraws inaccurate smart growth traffic congestion report
In February 2004, the Environmental Protection Agency released Characteristics & performance of regional transportation systems, a report that purported to prove that communities built along 19th-century urban designs experienced less traffic congestion than those built to design standards typical of the modern suburb.
The report, however, proved no such thing. Indeed, the report was so contrived and lacking in analytical rigour & integrity that a formal complaint by another federal agency led the EPA to withdraw the report within 2 months of its release. To close observers of the EPA’s traditional bias against cars and its recent cultivation of a fashionable dislike of suburbs, it was only a matter of time before the EPA would combine these 2 biases into a single document, and Characteristics was the unhappy result.
Because EPA’s analysis of the air & water quality of individual communities can often lead to harsh penalties & costly remedies, substandard analysis by EPA staff – as used in Characteristics – could lead to needless expenditures to remedy non-existent problems.
Typical of the EPA’s war against the automobile and its counterproductive remedies was its threat in the waning years of the Clinton Administration to withhold federal highway money from the Atlanta metropolitan area unless the region adopted a plan to alter land-use practices toward “smart growth” principles and to encourage commuters to shift from cars to transit.
The Georgia legislature responded accordingly and created the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, while the Atlanta Regional Council crafted a plan to achieve the EPA’s approval. Among the plan’s provisions was the Atlanta region’s commitment to devote 55% of all regional transportation spending to transit over the next 25 years. Although the regional council estimated that shifting these billions of dollars would increase transit ridership from 2.6% to only 3.4% of the travelling public and that it would have only a trivial effect on air quality, the EPA was satisfied.
The Atlanta case is revealing for another reason: It represents the formal unveiling of the EPA’s intention to add an anti-suburban initiative to its already robust anti-auto traditions. Beginning in the 1990s, when smart growth & “new urbanism” became trendy belief sets among America’s artistic elites, the EPA has been an outspoken advocate of smart growth strategies.
The EPA has provided grants to anti-suburb advocacy groups around the country, currently supports New Partners for Smart Growth conferences, is a partner in the Smart Growth Network, and has created a national award for smart growth achievement to highlight “exemplary” local smart growth initiatives. More troubling, on at least one occasion EPA staff have gone so far as to contact a journalist and criticise her for writing favourably about a sceptical assessment of smart growth strategies that was published in 2001.
Although there is no precise definition of smart growth land-use/housing development strategy, for the most part the movement’s adherents advocate higher-density housing arrangements such as townhouses & highrise apartments, smaller lot sizes for detached houses, a closer mix of commercial & residential uses (to encourage walking) and a greater reliance on transit (to discourage automobile use). Companion movements to smart growth include new urbanism, which buys into much of the smart growth coda, but goes on to adopt a more nostalgic approach to community development. It urges greater reliance on traditional architectural design (the early 20th century arts & crafts style is now much in vogue) and traditional 19th century square-block grid pattern in which streets cross at right angles, block after block.
Officials at the US Department of Transportation responded to the EPA report by commissioning a comprehensive internal analysis of Characteristics. After the analysis exposed numerous significant flaws, transport department officials shared their findings with EPA officials who – to their credit – took the unusual step of withdrawing the report in April 2004, approximately 2 months after its initial release. Although the transport department has not formally released its critique to the public, copies were leaked to the editor of a transportation newsletter, who has published them on his Web site.
“The report defines desirable transportation performance in narrow, incomplete & modally biased terms, without regard to the views of the transport department”
“EPA’s criteria for desirable transportation performance, which are at the core of the analysis, appear to have been selected to serve a limited set of national policy goals to the exclusion of broad, balanced national transportation & environmental policy”
“The report uses data which are wrong/inappropriately applied or inappropriate statistical techniques”, and
“Outside reviewers urged EPA to improve the methodology and expand the scope of analysis, but EPA did not do so, citing cost limitations”.
In the discredited report, the EPA attempted to prove that smart growth land-use strategies lead to lower traffic congestion. Among the problems in proving such a claim is that smart growth land use lacks any clear definition, because the term has been applied loosely – and contradictorily – throughout the nation. EPA writers solved this problem by borrowing an idea from smart growth’s companion movement, new urbanism – which is obsessed with the traditional grid of rectangular city blocks & streets that cross at right angles block after block – and renaming this traditional grid “interconnected street systems”.
The EPA claims that interconnected road systems make walking easier and facilitate better traffic movement. In measuring an area’s degree of “smart growth,” the EPA also considered the extent to which people used transit. Having defined the traditional street grid pattern as a smart growth strategy, the EPA then set out to prove that interconnected street systems & transit use reduce traffic congestion. This, in turn, would prove the superior congestion-fighting properties of smart growth.
The EPA’s research & analysis into this hypothesis was limited to 5 “smart growth” urban areas, ranked by size. This critique focuses on only the 3 largest areas reviewed by the EPA – Philadelphia, Pittsburgh & New Orleans.
For each of these urban areas, the EPA also selected 2 “non-smart growth” urban areas of similar size: Philadelphia’s control group was Houston & Atlanta, Pittsburgh’s was Tampa-St Petersburg & St Louis, and New Orleans was compared to Charlotte & Nashville.
Despite the fatal flaws in the procedures used to test the relationship – the sample cities used in the analysis are not randomly selected and the sample size is too small to yield meaningful results – the EPA nonetheless claimed to have uncovered an important relationship between traffic congestion & traditional street design. However, they uncovered no such thing. Indeed, selecting another set of cities that meet the same EPA criteria would yield completely different conclusions.
First, all 3 of the EPA’s premier smart growth urban areas share another significant characteristic: Since the 1950s, all of their central cities have suffered disproportionately from significant population, employment & business declines, and none of them participated in the revival that many other cities – large & small – experienced during the 1990s. Such growth/no-growth trends are important factors to consider when comparing traffic & street designs.
Only by choosing the least representative large urban area – and the slowest-growing – was the EPA able to support its smart growth theories. Indeed, if the study had examined a more representative sample of cities, it would have concluded that smart growth street patterns create congestion.
By building more roadways, Houston has managed to improve from having the nation’s worst congestion in the mid-1980s to ranking number 9 in the most recent survey. As late as 1986, Houston’s traffic congestion was worse than that in Los Angeles.
Atlanta, however, is a real problem case. As the fastest growing large metropolitan area in the industrialised world, Atlanta has a feeble roadway system, which has virtually no non-radial freeways (freeways that do not lead toward downtown) outside the I-285 Perimeter. Outside the Perimeter is the greatest expanse of urbanisation unserved by non-radial freeways in the world. Moreover, few places in the world have invested more in transit than Atlanta has over the past 2 decades. Since 1980, only 7 urban areas in the world have built more miles of subway (also called elevateds or metros). One of the 7 is the even more congested Washington DC area. Within its transit service area, Atlanta has higher ridership/head of any place in the US outside New York City.
The EPA’s 2nd category of city comparisons has the most significant analytical lapses. Including Portland would have utterly undermined the EPA’s smart growth thesis. Smart growth Portland has more traffic delay than Tampa-St Petersburg & St Louis, and the worst traffic congestion of any metropolitan area its size, despite its extravagant spending on transit. While implementing smart growth strategies, pretending that light rail will reduce traffic congestion and neglecting roadway expansion, Portland has managed to experience the greatest increase in traffic congestion of any major urban area in the nation.
In the third group, “smart growth” New Orleans is compared to Charlotte and Nashville. New Orleans’ economic stagnation seems to have been the secret of its “success.” Charlotte & Nashville both have approximately 20% more employment/1000 people than New Orleans. If the same proportion of people was working in New Orleans, the additional travel demand would almost certainly make traffic conditions as bad as, or worse than in Charlotte or Nashville.
While attributing better traffic conditions to transit, the EPA failed to check the usage trends. Over the past 2 decades, Philadelphia, Pittsburg & New Orleans have experienced some of the largest declines in transit ridership in the nation – not just in market share, but in actual declines in ridership. That some of the largest transit ridership losses occurred in urban areas that now have better traffic conditions belies any positive material connection between transit & traffic congestion in the modern urban area.
The EPA also overlooked the impact of population growth on observed traffic patterns in currently congested areas. In 1982, when federal data on urban traffic congestion were first reported, there was little difference in the annual delay hours among the smart growth & non-smart growth areas reviewed by the EPA. The difference between then & now, however, is not alternative strategies of land use or transit use, but rather that for the much of the past 20 years serious political constraints have been placed on roadway expansion, often by planners seeking to socially engineer people out of their cars.
Roadway systems were comparatively sufficient in most areas in 1982. Where there was little growth in population, existing roadways continue to handle the demand. However, where populations have grown with little roadway expansion, traffic congestion has predictably worsened. The EPA’s ideological predispositions seem to have blinded it to this reality. Smart growth cannot take the credit for reducing congestion, as Portland so clearly demonstrates. Instead, the credit belongs to economic stagnation.
Wendell Cox, principal of the Wendell Cox Consultancy in St Louis, is a visiting fellow at The Heritage Foundation and a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers in Paris. Dr Ronald Utt is a senior research fellow in the Thomas A Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation. Joshua Utt is working on an economics doctorate at Washington State University and is an adjunct fellow at the Discovery Institute in Seattle, Washington.
The sprawl papers, on the Urban vision website:
The original papers via The Heritage Foundation and the Victoria Transport Policy Institute:
3 December 2004: Understanding smart growth savings: What we know about public infrastructure & service cost savings, and how they are misrepresented by critics, by Todd Littman of the Victoria (British Columbia) Transport Policy Institute
This series on urban sprawl versus smart growth/compact city was prepared in August 2004, not completed then and placed on the Urban vision website on 29 May 2004.