Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality
By David G. Young
Promoting Obnoxious 'Burbs
How the Government Creates Gridlock and Sprawl
WASHINGTON, DC, June 15, 1999 --
What a bunch of hypocrites. Last
month, voters in Loudoun County in Virginia threw out their incumbent
County Supervisor in the party primary and replaced her with a "slow growth"
challenger.1 Sound sensible? Think again. In 1998, Loudoun, a suburb
of Washington, DC, was the third fastest growing county in the United
States2 Few of the residents who voted in the primary lived there 10 years
ago. Where do these people get off using the power of the law to keep
others from doing exactly what they did a few years ago?
Is it really reasonable to move into a sprawling new townhouse development
with the expectation that you will be the last one allowed to arrive?
Of course, it isn't. But, unfortunately, the idiots in Loudoun aren't
alone in their hypocrisy. In last year's elections, voters in suburban
districts across the country elected leaders running on such slow growth
platforms.3 The main ill motivating this voter sentiment, of course, is
traffic. Ever since the federal government completed the Interstate highway
system in the late 1970s, freeway construction has lagged far behind suburban
growth. The dramatic building boom of the late '90s has exacerbated the
problem and re-ignited the debate over the merits of suburban development.
The main beneficiary of suburban discontent is the small group of urban
idealists and environmentalist intellectuals who have raged against the'burbs
for years. They hate sprawl. They despise the automobile, and especially
the gas-guzzling, polluting sport utility vehicles and minivans that are
ubiquitous in suburban areas. For decades, their quaint ideas have been
mocked to irrelevancy by the relentless stampede of Americans to ever
more distributed new suburban developments. Now that cracks are showing
in the suburban ideal, these people can hardly contain their glee.
In Washington, DC, Oregon, New Jersey and Southern California, urban idealists
have allied themselves with NIMBY* establishment suburbanites to bring
new road construction virtually to a halt and limit housing developments.
This has done little to stop population growth, or further sprawlit
has simply forced it to occur in ever more distant locations not covered
by legal restrictions.
This new coalition is doomed to failure. The urban idealists cannot hope
to impose their patronizing views on Americans. Like it or not, Americans
love their suburbs. As a result, the NIMBY suburbanites cannot expect
to keep others from following their own example. The only thing that they
can hope to accomplish is to create inefficiency and pain for tens of
millions of people who sit in gridlocked traffic as hostages in a national
If Americans are ever to accept the destructiveness of their beloved sprawling
developments and their giant SUVs, then the consequences of their choices
must be based in reality. The simple truth is that irrational U.S. laws
encourage the irrational and obnoxious behavior of American suburbanites.
Generally, governments pay for roads, and people can use them as much
as they want. Hence, they have little incentive to live closer to work.
The simple solution is to charge drivers for the actual costs they incur.
This may require expensive tolls. This may require privatization of highways.
Deal with it. Nothing short of a rational private sector pricing model
will lead to rational behavior.
A similar solution exists with respect to the proliferation of the much
derided and hugely inefficient SUV. The explosion of these vehicles in
the U.S. has little to do with need and everything to do with irrational
behavior induced by irrational laws. The energy crisis-inspired 1978 CAFE**
law forces U.S. auto manufacturers to produce a large percentage of small
cars with high gas mileage. This led to the virtual extinction of the
station wagon, despite Americans' desire for larger, roomier vehicles.
In their place, Americans began buying minivans and SUVsvehicles
covered under the less-strict "light truck" category of the CAFE law.4
Get rid of
the irrational CAFE law, and we will take a big step toward controlling
the irrational safety arms race of larger and "safer" SUVs on our nation's
The urban idealists may be right about the destructive behavior of American
suburbanites, but their prescriptions are all wrong. Legislation to limit
growth will accomplish nothing, as long as much more powerful and insidious
laws on the books encourage Americans to pursue their dysfunctional lifestyles.
Such laws must be repealed. Get rid of "free" highways, and you will go
a long way toward controlling traffic and sprawl. Get rid of CAFE, and
you will take a giant step toward curtailing SUVs.
No, this hands-off approach won't bring an end to Americans' love affair
with the 'burbs. But it will help ensure that the new roads and houses
people want are built in a more rational way. Given America's current
state of clogged freeways and restless suburbanites, a rational approach
to development would be a wonderful breath of fresh air.
* Not In My Back yard
** Corporate Average Fuel Economy
Washington Post, Congestion: Find relief at The ballot box?, June
Washington Post, Loudoun Growth Ranks Third in U.S., March 12, 1999
New York Times, Dreams of Fields: The New Politics of Urban Sprawl,
November 14, 1998
- The Cato Institute, CAFE'S
RECIPE FOR "LIGHT TRUCKS", 1997