Tag Archives: Randal O’Toole

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all like “just how attractive and hospitable will San Francisco be after all of its single-family neighborhoods have been replaced by mid- or high-rises?”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.

Neil Young, Environmentalism, and LA

Just a quick post; working on some longer things, one of which will hopefully be ready later this week.

I’m finishing up reading Neil Young’s book, Waging Heavy Peace. Not exactly your normal land use and transpo fare, but there are interesting lessons everywhere. The book, like Young’s music, does what it wants and is sort of all over the place, but there’s a couple things that stick out in my mind.

First, Young was of course part of the hippie dream, and caring about the environment was a huge part of that movement. It’s something that’s still a huge part of his character; for example, the home page on his website talks about smog in China and the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, like I tweeted about Randal O’Toole’s backstory (fighting to stop the USFS from clear cutting national forests), the relationship between environmentalism and cities has always been uneasy. US environmentalism is not just about preserving nature, but about the right to be among nature and enjoy it on one’s own terms. Young’s automobile project – converting a 1959 Lincoln Continental to run on biomass – is typical of that view: that you should be able to have your cake and eat it too. That’s not always the case. Dense cities, which inherently require individuals to surrender some connection with nature and share space with others, are not a natural complement to that type of environmentalism.

That brings me to the second notable thing in Young’s book – the City of Los Angeles. It isn’t explicit, but if you pay attention it’s there. Young moved to Los Angeles in 1966 and formed Buffalo Springfield, playing at clubs on the Sunset Strip and trying to get exposure to the Hollywood-based music industry. The band members, along with many of their musical contemporaries, lived in rented houses in Laurel Canyon and Topanga Canyon.

Stop and think about that for a second. A 21-year old with no money moved from Canada to Los Angeles. . . and rented in Laurel Canyon! And he didn’t even have a green card until 1970! That’s what cities are supposed to be about: providing that type of opportunity for anyone. It only worked because Young and many like him could afford to be near the strip and Hollywood, where matching in the music industry was taking place. Affordable housing in the IE wouldn’t have helped. To provide opportunity for all, the city has to be affordable for all. And that’s the biggest challenge facing LA today.

LA Land Use Patterns Help Reduce VMT

Sometimes you find things in the darnedest places. While reading Randal O’Toole’s testimony on Washington’s Growth Management Act (spoiler: he’s opposed), I see he references work by David Brownstone down at UC Irvine:

As University of California (Irvine) economist David Brownstone concluded after thoroughly studying this issue, the link between land uses and driving is ‘too small to be useful’ in attempting to save energy or reduce emissions.

Hmm, as someone they tell me was a Great Communicator used to say: trust, but verify. So let’s see what Brownstone has to say in his most recent paper:

The estimation results indicate that residential density has a statistically significant but economically modest influence on vehicle usage, which is similar to that in previous studies. However, the joint effect of the contextual density measure (density in the context of its surrounding area) and residential density on vehicle usage is quantitatively larger than the sole effect of residential density. Moving a household from a suburban to an urban area reduces household annual mileage by 18%.

I’ll leave you to speculate as to why O’Toole would cite authoritative sounding sources that, on closer review, clearly do not say what he would like you to think.

Nevertheless, the result of the Brownstone paper is very important: density on the census block level has a relatively small impact on vehicle miles traveled (VMT). Regional effects dominate. In other words, density is much more important on the regional scale than the local scale. If you want to decrease VMT, you need to increase regional density, not just build TOD projects at transit stations.

This study lends support to things we’ve explored from an intuitive perspective before (and data is almost always better than intuition). It explains how places like LA and Orange County can show up in lists of lowest household gasoline use* – even if you have to drive, you never have to drive very far. And it also shows a possible way forward for a region that shows up on lists of highest household gasoline use – the IE. Rather than focus on building TOD projects near transit stations, officials in the IE should upzone everywhere. They should allow things like Palms-style apartments and redevelopment of Cudahy-style lots the way they’ve been redeveloped in their namesake city. Because while the IE will probably never be able to emulate New York City’s travel patterns, it could certainly emulate LA’s.

*Note: 7 of the 10 worst gas guzzling cities are in the South (excluding Texas), which also makes sense in the context of my post on suburb types.

The Limits of O’Toole-onomics

Update: Randal O’Toole was kind enough to respond via email. I’ve updated the post to reflect those corrections, and added his full comment and my reply at the bottom of the post.

This thought has been kicking around in my head for a while, but this Next City – The Works post by Stephen J. Smith on commute times in cities finally motivated to me to hash it out.

It’s long been noted that, super commuters aside, human beings tend to have a fairly constant travel time budget. This means that increases in the average speeds of transportation facilities often result in people traveling further distances in the same amount of time, rather than the same distances in less time. It also means that, given an average speed for a mode of transportation, there’s a practical limit to the size of city you can serve primarily with that mode.

For example, in a rural town that predates cars, you can access everything in the town by walking. No matter where you are, nothing would be more than a mile or two away. People might bike or drive to save time out of convenience or to avoid unpleasant weather, but functionally, the town can work without cars. For example, if you’re in Lone Pine, you can get to anything else in Lone Pine just by walking.

Biking expands your reach, and in a small city – say the size of Merced or Santa Maria, maybe even Santa Barbara or Ventura – could provide you access to everything the city has to offer. Now, maybe bicycle facilities in some of those places are sadly lacking, but that doesn’t mean the concept is technically unsound. We could make it work if we wanted to.

If your city gets much bigger than that, though, you need some type of higher speed transportation. There are many possible combinations that work. For example, New York and Boston provide rapid transit to move you quickly across parts of the city, depending on you to walk the last bits of your trip. Places with huge bike usage, like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, provide transit and plenty of bike parking. Phoenix and Houston give you freeways and craploads of car parking. Ignoring environmental, aesthetic, and efficiency concerns, the only requirement is that you increase the amount of distance people can cover in the same amount of time.

In very large metro areas, it’s hard for even freeways and rapid transit to overcome the distances, and as a result, new nodes of development start to spring up – places like Irvine and Tysons Corner – to keep commuting times down to what people will tolerate. And in fact, despite the perception of Orange County as a suburb of LA, 85% of people who live there work there as well. Cross county flows are about the same in each direction – 180,000 live in Orange County and work in LA County, with a similar number doing the opposite.

Okay, we have the technology to build lots of freeways, transit, whatever – so why don’t metro areas just sprawl out into infinity to keep land costs down? Well, working in opposition to things that tend to decentralize cities, like quality transportation and communications, we have agglomeration economies. Basically, people and businesses want to be located as close as possible to the people and businesses that they interact with. If you want to start a movie studio, it makes sense to do it in Los Angeles, where there are lots of people you need like actors, grips, gaffers, show runners, and so on. If you know how to write smartphone apps, it makes sense for you to move a place like San Francisco where there are lots of jobs for people with that skill.

And that brings us to today’s question: what is Randal O’Toole’s answer for a place like Los Angeles, that has grown out to the practical limits of presently available transportation technologies?

First, let me define what I see as the essential points of the Randal O’Toole plan:

  • Public transit can’t compete with the car in modern cities. It’s cheaper to build more roads and use things like congestion pricing. Bus transit is cheaper than rail transit.
  • Centralized land use planning is inherently less efficient than the free market.
  • Things like urban growth boundaries drive up the cost of housing by limiting the amount of developable land and forcing multi-family construction that is more expensive per square foot than single-family residential (SFR).

For the sake of argument, let’s accept these points. In this framework, places like the Bay Area and Portland are unquestionably making bad decisions that will cost a lot of money, hurt their economies, and make the regions less affordable.

And hey, he’s got a point. Throwing open West Marin and all of Clackamas County to master planned suburban development like Clark County would enable you to build a lot of housing relatively close to the centers of San Francisco and Portland. You might not like the idea of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area turning into Daly City, but technically, it would work. In his critique of Plan Bay Area (PBA), O’Toole calculates that currently, 21% of the land area is developed, and by increasing it to 44%, growth could be accommodated by SFR development. Again, that might seem like an unacceptable change to a lot of people in the Bay Area – including, ironically, a lot of the NIMBYs who cited O’Toole’s analysis when fighting PBA – but it would work.

But what about LA?

Other than Ventura County, LA doesn’t have any urban growth boundaries. The developable areas that are protected – the Santa Monica Mountains, the Chino Hills, the San Joaquin Hills – are small in the scheme of the region, and would end up being luxury housing anyway. The boundaries we’re pushing up against, like the San Gabriel Mountains, have topography that is simply too insane for development on a meaningful scale, along with having challenges like insufficient water supply.

Meanwhile, on the fringes of the LA region, the suburban development machine is coming back to life in places like Temecula, Beaumont, and Rialto, and the folks up in the Antelope Valley and the Victor Valley are waiting for their turn. They don’t have any urban growth boundaries, and they’re eager to see your subdivision or industrial park get up off the mat and start growing again. Their problem isn’t controls on land use, it’s slow growth in manufacturing, construction, trade, and logistics.

You know what could help those industries? More construction in the Los Angeles Basin. The parts of the LA economy that are doing well are centered in places like the Westside, and due to agglomeration effects, they want to expand on the Westside, not in Palmdale. But the places where suburban development is happening – Porter Ranch, Santa Clarita – are really far from the Westside. Housing isn’t expensive on the Westside because land use controls are preventing construction of SFRs; the problem is that the undeveloped land where you can build SFRs for under $200k is 90 miles away in Beaumont. What we need is construction of more apartment buildings on the Westside, construction that would almost certainly happen if it wasn’t prohibited by zoning laws and discouraged by onerous permitting requirements.*

To his credit, O’Toole is generally against zoning restrictions as a form of central planning. But his substitute, deed covenants, is even worse. Zoning, at least, can be changed by democratically elected officials, for better or worse. A homeowners association with deed covenants seems to me like a horizontal condo – a neighborhood that has no hope of being redeveloped, no matter how high property values go, because it’s just about impossible to get 100% of that many people to agree on anything. If you believe in letting the market guide development of cities, things like deed covenants are right out. Update: Mr. O’Toole corrects me on the issue of deed covenants. In many areas, deed covenants automatically renew unless 51% of owners vote to get rid of them, which is obviously an easier threshold to reach than 100%. If that’s the case, developers could conceivably buy 51% of the lots and vote to eliminate the restrictions. That still seems like a hard way to do things, and it will prevent the market from responding to demand.

So, what would Randal O’Toole suggest that we do?

*Note that if you follow this logic through, I’m saying that allowing more urban development in LA will encourage more suburban residential, commercial, and industrial development on the edges of the region. I think this is true: construction in the LA Basin will cause growth of construction-related industries, which are the kinds of the uses that need a bunch of cheap land. Contrary to the way many people on both sides of land use debates see it, regional growth is not zero-sum.

Update: here’s his full comment.

You raise a lot of issues. First, LA may not have formal urban-growth boundaries. But LAFCos effectively prevent extension of urban development. Under California law, developers cannot create the special districts needed to support development of unincorporated land without approval from the LAFCos. Under CEQA, such approval would almost certainly require an EIR, whose cost of $15 million or more must be paid by the developer. As a result, development is pretty much restricted to existing incorporated areas. Cities can’t annex without LAFCo approval either. This explains why the L.A. urban area has become the densest urbanized area in the U.S.

Congestion can be fixed through congestion pricing. If the toll revenues generated from congestion pricing are more than needed to operate the roads, then that is a signal that more roads should be built. If not, no need to build more roads.

You misunderstand how covenants work, at least in Texas, Kansas, and many other areas. These covenants typically renew periodically unless 51 percent of lot owners in the neighborhood decide not to renew them. It doesn’t take 100 percent. Developers have been known to persuade homeowners in some Houston neighborhoods to change their covenants to allow different kinds of development.

My thoughts: first, I appreciate the correction on deed covenants.

On the issue of LAFCos (Local Agency Formation Commissions): In California, counties have LAFCos, which can approve or deny applications to incorporate new cities or annex territory to existing cities. For example, not long ago, the LA County LAFCo turned down an application to incorporate East Los Angeles, on the grounds that the city would not be able to raise sufficient revenue to fund its operations. LAFCos also approve or deny applications to add territory to service districts like water and sanitation.

While you theoretically could use a LAFCo to stymie suburban growth by denying all incorporations, annexations, service districts, and so on, that doesn’t seem to happen in practice. LALAFCo recently approved annexations to Santa Clarita and Glendora. Riverside LAFCo has approved four incorporations in the last five years (Wildomar, Eastvale, Menifee, & Jurupa Valley). LAFCOs will naturally reflect the development climate of the county; I’d guess that no one at San Bernardino LAFCo or Riverside LAFCo is that worried about confining development to existing urbanized areas. On top of that, the cities in the Antelope Valley and Victor Valley have already annexed huge swaths of undeveloped desert.

Antelope Valley:


Victor Valley:


Also, let’s not forget that sometimes cities incorporate to prevent more development, like say Malibu or Rolling Hills.

You could write a book about California municipal finances, and I’m no fan of CEQA requiring people to analyze things that can’t be predicted anyway, but that’s a topic for another time!

Revelations on Carmageddon

In the summer of 2011, with the 405 through Sepulveda Pass set to close for construction, there were so many dire warnings of epic traffic jams that a new portmanteau, Carmageddon, was born. When the congestion failed to materialize, Streetsblog took a victory lap and declared that it was now apparent that LA doesn’t need so many freeways. Now, it’s Randal O’Toole’s turn to gloat, asserting that the BART strike has revealed the system to be unnecessary. (Although since it’s O’Toole, you have to consider the possibility that he had that post finished the day before the strike and so all he’d have to do is hit “publish”.) There are other similar examples of closures that were not known quite as far in advance: the closure of the 10 and the 14 after Northridge, the MBTA Green Line getting flooded, and so on. Why don’t the traffic prophesies bear out?

The answer is pretty simple. Cities are dynamic systems and people adjust. The predictions are silly because they assume a static system. The interesting thing to me is the apparent lack of curiosity about the knock-on effects of those adjustments.

Example: I’m right-handed; so let’s say I break my right hand. The static analysis says that my work and blogging productivity will go to zero because I can’t type, and that in a couple weeks I’ll starve to death because I can’t eat. Now obviously, that’s not going to happen. I’m going to type and eat with my left hand. I’ll type slower and I’ll probably spill coffee on myself, though I will get a little better with time.

There are two important takeaways here. One, the fact that I survive breaking my right hand does not mean that it is useless. Really, that reveals nothing about its utility for my survival. Its utility is shown by all the things I use it for when I have the ability to use it. Likewise, the utility of transportation is demonstrated by the people using it. Just because a city survives having a piece of infrastructure closed, it does not mean the infrastructure is useless. There is plenty of useless infrastructure in the United States, and it is self-evident because it is there and it has no users.

Second, even though I survive, there are still negative effects, because I get less work done and I ruin some of my clothes with coffee stains. In the case of cities, these losses are social and economic, manifest through lost economic activity, additional commuting time, etc. The losses diminish with time as people adjust, but the shadow can be very long. If I lose my right hand, I’ll recover some of my abilities in time, but I’ll never be able to do everything I could if I had both. The effects can be cumulative – if enough city infrastructure is broken and not replaced, the city will decline.

Finally, it is worth noting that there are cases where the loss of infrastructure does result in crippling traffic jams. This occurs when the disruption was not foreseen or when its magnitude was misunderestimated. The most common example is snowstorms, but even then, the system adjusts – if the roads are still blocked the next day, no one goes out. Likewise, if I order a steak for dinner and then discover I have somehow broken my hand splitting a dinner roll, I’m going to be pretty screwed that night because I won’t be able to cut my steak. But the next night, I’m not going to order another steak, knowing going in that I won’t be able to cut it.

We’re getting another experiment today with the 5 freeway closed at the interchange with the 2 due to the gas tanker spill and fire. Here’s betting that traffic won’t be as bad on Monday, since people have had time to plan ahead, as it was on Saturday, when everyone was caught off-guard. But remember, no matter what happens, it won’t tell us very much about the long-term effects of changes to the transportation network.

Like I said, I find it interesting that people seem relatively uninterested in those effects, because if you’re going to talk about eliminating infrastructure, that’s what matters.