Tag Archives: sprawl

How to Write Your Very Own Pro-Sprawl Trend Piece

If you’re sitting around reading pro-sprawl opinion pieces by the likes of Wendell Cox and Joel Kotkin thinking, “sounds good, how can I get in on this action”, not to worry. There’s a simple template to follow, as demonstrated yesterday by an article in that venerable institution of urban research, Politico. This one was written by Robert Bruegmann, but it doesn’t really matter. Like 80s hair band power ballads, if you’ve heard one, you’ve heard them all.

Anyway, here we go. Items to include:

Generic comparison of cities that, in real life, have remarkably different urban forms: “Atlanta has wrested away from Los Angeles the distinction of serving as the poster child for sprawl.” Bonus points if you use two cities that I chose to demonstrate different types of suburbia.

Everything since 2007? Ignore ignore ignore: “Atlanta, over the last half century, has obviously seen its population and its economy grow faster than most of the older, higher-density, more transit-oriented cities of the United States or Europe.”

Talk about congestion but never mention VMT or transportation energy use per capita: “the greatest congestion and longest commuting times in this country. . . tend to occur in the largest and densest urban areas.”

Assert that transit doesn’t help the poor: “a major expansion of the transit system wouldn’t even benefit most people who can’t drive because the jobs are already so scattered around the metropolitan area, and the poorest people can’t afford the fares.” Oh, you can’t afford a car either? Welp.

Imply or state that expensive cities all have the same land use policies: “it is certainly not true of many of the highest-density places in North America – urban areas such as San Francisco, Vancouver, Toronto or even Los Angeles—where public policies aimed at curbing sprawl have led to sharply higher housing prices.” In fact, these four places have important differences in land use policy. Vancouver and Toronto are building new towers like crazy, and, especially in the case of Toronto, are cheaper than SF or LA. Vancouver, Toronto, and SF all have significant controls on suburban growth at the fringe, but in LA, you can build all the sprawl you want in the Antelope Valley, the Victor Valley, and Riverside County. I’m still waiting for someone to show me the policies in LA that are “aimed at curbing sprawl” other than maybe these things. Show me! SHOW ME!

Equate today’s dense first world cities with Third World slums and old law tenements: “every poor urban area in the world continues to have very high densities by historic standards, usually more than 50,000 people per square mile. On the other hand, every affluent urban area in the world. . . where urban densities often topped 100,000 people per square mile in 1900, in the Atlanta today the figure currently stands at an exceptionally low 1,800 people per square mile.”

Decry anti-sprawl efforts as unnecessary interference in free markets, while ignoring the reams and reams of regulation that enforce suburban development patterns: “as people have become richer they have demanded more space, and they have gotten it everywhere there has been a truly democratic government and anything resembling a free market in land.”

Studiously avoid mention of any other “historical background” that might explain why US cities started decentralizing in 1950 and why Southern cities in particular are very spread out: “this historical background helps explain why Atlanta, as a city in the affluent world that has done most of its major expansion fairly recently, is such a sprawling place.” You don’t need me to spell this one out for you, right? Wink, wink.

Notably on-point critique of a lot of anti-sprawl activism: “it has been a conspicuous fact of urban life that many of the same people who deplore sprawl at the edge are also determined to preserve the character of their existing neighborhoods in the center.” Credit where credit is due, right? We’re looking at you, Westside, Marin County, San Francisco, and Peninsula.

Ignore international examples like Japan when they might be inconvenient for your narrative: “strident efforts to reverse the course of urban history and push these places back into the mold of dense 19th-century cities heavily dependent on public transportation risk destroying the very things that have made them such magnets for population and economic growth in the first place.”

Easy, right? Crank out a few of these and see if you can’t get a job at Reason or Cato.

To be honest, I wish the criticism of anti-sprawl activism and smart growth was, well, smarter. If you read O’Toole, Kotkin, and Cox regularly, you’ll find that they do make good points. But you have to sort through a lot of junk to find them. In a way, the criticisms of dense development are a lot like the “pop urbanist” analysis of cities – unwilling to understand and think about each city on its own terms. One side will tell you that you need more freeways and subdivisions. The other side will tell you that you need streetcars and high-rise development to attract the creative class or Millennials or whatever we’re calling young people with money now. If they say anything helpful, it’s almost coincidental.

Cities are complex. To have any chance of understanding them, we have to be willing to set aside any worries about what a city should look like, and study how they work (or don’t work). And we should be willing to learn from anywhere, but also willing to accept some lessons may not apply. Assuming that all cities have the same problems which have the same solutions is bound to result in recommendations that are embarrassing – or at least should be.

Forget About Boston vs Atlanta

Note: this was originally part of Sprawl and Economic Mobility but the main point of that post ended up being the continuing impact of discrimination, and this isn’t really related.

In his series of posts on sprawl and economic mobility, Krugman used a comparison of Boston and Atlanta when talking about the relationship of sprawl and economic mobility, which he said “many people have pointed out . . . as the most obvious comparison among major US metro areas”.

In a word, no. Leaving aside New York as unique among American cities, ATL vs BOS is perhaps the most obvious comparison – if you are a typical East Coast resident who thinks that the country ends at Allegheny Front.

In reality, Boston and Atlanta are similar and in the last 60 years, they have developed in similar ways. The only difference is that Boston grew to be a much larger city earlier than Atlanta did. Check out a comparison of the populations of the metro areas and the cores at the dawn of the Auto Era in 1950 and in 20101:


Or how about this: take a look at the two aerial images below, which are at the same scale. Which one is Boston’s beltway and which one is Atlanta’s? (Answer at the bottom of the post)

boston hotlanta

Both cities have had virtually no growth in their historic core communities. The difference is that Boston had a sizable core when the sprawl era began. Atlanta started sprawling out around very little other than a new skyscraper CBD. But every dense neighborhood that exists in Boston today existed in more or less the same form in 1950. Same goes for the denser suburban town centers. The current growth mode in Boston and Atlanta is the same: low density sprawl.

Even with the resurgence of Boston’s core cities since 1990, it’s still 200,000 below peak. Somerville – and you keep hearing about what an awesome place Somerville is, right? – has actually lost population since the Red Line Extension opened. The story of urban revival is about the core gaining population, but it is just as much about what kind of people are moving there. Somerville has more young professionals than it used to, but it also has less blue collar workers and immigrants than it used to.

Really, the same can be said for almost any East Coast city. The dense neighborhoods of Washington, Baltimore, Philly, and so on – they all predate the auto age. So does any smaller node of density like, say, New Haven or Albany. If you want a real comparison with a place like Boston or Atlanta, you need a place with a different growth mode. You need Los Angeles, or at least a city doing a decent impersonation, like San Jose or Houston.

New England is the land of two-acre residential zoning suburbs. The governor of Massachusetts wants to promote dense development around transit stations – dense being 4-8 units/acre, or in other words, about the default density allowed anywhere by the generic residential zone in far-flung LA suburbs like Lancaster and Adelanto. Let’s have a look at some recent LA growth, shall we?


I don’t expect Lancaster to be winning any awards from the CNU anytime soon (though they did get one from EPA). James Howard Kunstler probably woke up in a cold sweat when I grabbed that screenshot. But as far as I can tell, the primary problem with LA seems to be that people don’t like how it looks. That’s fine, but if we’re talking about the viability of a development pattern, we need to put our architectural preferences aside. If you want to compare Boston or Atlanta to anything, this is what you should compare it to, and fact is, it stacks up pretty well.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I used to live in Boston, and it’s a great city – they should build more of it. I’d be very happy to see the Boston region resume its pre-WW2 growth pattern so that more people could take advantage of that. Knowing the ferocity of NIMBYism, even in the near suburbs, and the strong level of local control afforded to New England towns2, I’m not going to hold my breath. If the choice is between low-density East Coast sprawl like Atlanta and high-density LA style development, LA wins every time.

Boston is on the top, Atlanta on the bottom.

1For the region, for Boston I used the MSA less the New Hampshire counties, plus Worcester and Bristol Counties; for Atlanta I used the MSA. For the core, for Boston I used Suffolk County plus Quincy, Newton, Brookline, Waltham, Watertown, Arlington, Belmont, Cambridge, Somerville, Medford, Malden, and Everett; for Atlanta I used just the city itself.

2One of the ways that not having counties hurts the Boston region.

Sprawl and Economic Mobility

Paul Krugman was spurred by Detroit’s bankruptcy to put up a few posts about the link between sprawl, prosperity, and economic mobility. He started with a comparison of Detroit and Pittsburgh, and then went on to look at a general relationship, including a comparison of Boston and Atlanta1. I wanted to expand a little on these posts, since I think they’re good, but missing some important details.

Steeltown vs. Motown

First, the tale of two rustbelt cities. Krugman says it’s obvious that Detroit’s central city has collapsed, while Pittsburgh has had a revival, and cites a Brookings report on job sprawl. The report shows that Pittsburgh’s jobs are much more centrally located than Detroit’s, and Krugman concludes that “sprawl killed Detroit, by depriving it of the kind of environment that could incubate new sources of prosperity”.

Let’s add the Los Angeles MSA, where manufacturing is of comparable importance and where jobs are distributed like they are in Detroit. So what does the Brookings data show? Here’s the breakdown of Detroit, Pittsburgh, and LA jobs data from the report:

Det-Pitt-LA jobs

So the core of Pittsburgh lost jobs during that time period, and over 90% of the job growth was more than 10 miles from the core. Unless the contention is that preserving the core is juicing job growth out in the suburbs, the argument that Pittsburgh’s economy was saved by preserving the core doesn’t seem to be that strong. Meanwhile, LA was not doomed by job sprawl, and Pittsburgh is less dense than Detroit by weighted density. Pittsburgh is your classic small- to mid-size East Coast city, with a lot of jobs in the core, very low density suburbs, and a lot of people commuting to the CBD. But at any rate, Las Vegas and Phoenix also rank highly in the Brookings report – in fact, their jobs are more concentrated than Pittsburgh’s. Y’all ‘bout to tell Detroit to emulate them?

Sprawl may have bankrupted Detroit, but  it has been a particularly malicious kind of sprawl. Detroit has been forced – and given all of the history, I use that word deliberately – by the rest of the region to suffer unduly. Declining population does not necessarily doom a city, because increasing incomes and productivity mean that each resident can support more infrastructure. But if the population declines and there’s extreme income segregation, the city is screwed. It is impossible to look at Detroit without looking at a long history of horrible discrimination.

Moving On Up… Out of the South

Speaking of horrible discrimination, it’s also a factor in upward mobility. This is getting way out of my comfort zone but I think it’s important, so I’m going to give it a shot anyway.

Krugman writes a post citing this David Leonhardt article that in turn cites this study that was originally about the economic impact of tax expenditures. Now when I looked at the map at the top of the Leonhardt article, my reaction was: no duh. If you grow up in the Deep South or on an Indian Reservation, you’re going to be at a huge disadvantage. Nothing new there. But I also believe that denser development contributes to upward mobility by facilitating matching and reducing transaction costs. Krugman put up a chart of the largest ten metro areas comparing weighted density to upward mobility. I’ve expanded this to the all MSAs with population over 300,000.2 I excluded New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Honolulu, since their weighted densities are much greater than the other MSAs.


Pretty solid correlation. But in light of the map at the top of the Leonhardt article, I wanted to try to correct for geography, so I added a dummy variable for being located in the South. I’m defining the South as the ex-Confederate states, less Texas and Florida, which have undergone major demographic changes. Here’s the same data split into two groups.


Yup. I ran a regression on upward mobility using weighted density and the dummy as the independent variables. They are both predictive, and both statistically significant. Note that if you divide the coefficients, the result is that being in the South has the same impact as decreasing weighted density by 7,790 people per square mile. But it may even be worse than that: if you restrict the analysis to Southern cities, the impact of weighted density is statistically insignificant.


Ok, you say, but it’s pretty obvious that there’s a major correlation (r=-0.45) between weighted density and the dummy South variable. And other than Newport News and New Orleans, we don’t have any Southern cities with weighted density over 2,500 people per square mile. Maybe that variable is useless because of the correlation or insufficient sample size. I’m glad you asked. Let’s add something with a weaker correlation3 (r=-0.20) to weighted density but still related to racism: percent African-American. Here’s the results of that regression.


Weighted density is still important, and percent African-American is important, but the dummy South variable is now statistically insignificant. So racism isn’t just in the South. The authors of the initial study noted the impact of race as well, and they ran some regressions (page 31) to compare white upward mobility to overall upward mobility. They found that where upward mobility is bad, it is bad for both black and white residents, and conclude that the pattern in upward mobility is not driven by racial composition.

To which I say: not really. By that same logic, you could look at the fact that few Confederate soldiers owned slaves and conclude that the Civil War was not about slavery. After all, they had no economic interest in perpetuating that system. But that’s how the politics of racism works: it is all about keeping those people down in their place; everything else comes after. Consider that 74% of white Mississippians said they would vote for the Republican candidate for governor in the last election. That governor is doing things, like opting out of the Medicaid expansion and moving forward with a voter ID law, that are going to screw poor white Mississippians out of upward mobility. But at least he won’t be letting black people get any, and that’s the whole point.

This may seem far afield from a blog about land use, transportation, and economics in Los Angeles, but it’s not. Racism and racist policies are morally wrong, but they also have economic consequences. By denying a group of people full humanity, they waste human and economic potential, reduce innovation, and keep the region from improving the human experience as much as possible.

So yes, let’s talk about how sprawl hurt Detroit. And let’s talk about how allowing greater density increases economic mobility. But let’s also be forthright and honest about the long history and impact of discriminatory policies, and the need for change. When you read things like Richard Florida saying that mobility is prevented by a class and skill divide, remember, it’s partly true, but it’s also true that we still don’t live in a post-racial society.

1I was originally planning to talk about the comparison of Boston, Atlanta, and Los Angeles in this post, but that ended up being irrelevant to the main point here, so I’m saving that for another post.

2The data in the Leonhardt article seems to be presented in terms of CSAs, not MSAs, so I had to assume that all constituent MSAs in a CSA are the same.

3The Atlantic did an article that looks at percent African-American versus weighted density, but only for the ten largest metros outside New York, which is a small sample size.