Bizarro Randal O’Toole

Reading Randal O’Toole if you care about the growth of cities is often an exercise in frustration. (I do it for two reasons – to know what the opposition is saying, and because you never know where you’ll find good data or ideas.) The really frustrating thing is that he frequently lays out principles that seem to favor dense development in some cities, but still manages to convince himself that single-family residence (SFR) neighborhoods never disappear unless urban planners force them out.

I think part of the problem is that while his analysis might be relevant to Portland, as he lives in Oregon, he applies the same conclusion to places where it’s only part of the story, like SF, and places where it’s almost irrelevant, like LA. For example, it seems unlikely the Pearl District would develop the way it did without tax subsidies. O’Toole is right that subsidizing this development is bad policy, and hurts the ability of the city to provide services to other neighborhoods. And no doubt, the fields and rolling hills south of San Jose would be turned into housing if permitted. But when it comes to SF, he’s all like “just how attractive and hospitable will San Francisco be after all of its single-family neighborhoods have been replaced by mid- or high-rises?” Well I don’t know, how popular would Doritos be if they replaced Cool Ranch with Kimchi? Only way to find out is give people a choice and see what happens, right?

The other problem with O’Toole’s analysis is that it’s rarely mentioned that one of the driving motivations behind zoning is “protecting” or “preserving” SFR neighborhoods from development, usually at the insistence of those neighborhoods. If planners are guilty of trying to force dense development in some areas, they’re just as guilty of trying to stop it elsewhere.

With that in mind, I present you with Bizarro Randal O’Toole. Bizarro O’Toole starts with the same assumptions yet ends up with different priorities regarding the problems facing cities.


You get the idea. I’m going to start calling it a “Bizarro O’Toole moment” any time I realize I could use his arguments in favor of denser urban development.

*I’m aware that O’Toole has written several papers in favor of funding freeways with tolls. However, while he frequently criticizes specific transit projects, I don’t recall seeing any editorials against useless rural freeways, of which there are plenty.


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