The Problem with Smart Growth: A Response to Benjamin Ross

The Problem with Smart Growth: A Response to Benjamin Ross

?Seemingly bizarre? is how Benjamin Ross characterizes the Tea Party?s contention that to promote ?bike lanes and apartment buildings??code for transit-oriented development [TOD] and smart growth?is to advance a UN-sponsored global conspiracy against the ?American way of life.?

I wonder why Ross qualifies ?bizarre?: surely he thinks the Tea Party?s charge is deluded, and rightly so, at least as far as a UN plot is concerned. What?s more puzzling?and interesting?is Ross?s implication that, unlike zoning for single-family homes and private cars, which he calls ?a program of coercion,? zoning for TOD and smart growth is a program of freedom.

Like all laws, zoning of every sort is backed up by the state?s police power and thereby coercive. That said, some laws allow a greater latitude of behavior than others. Ross suggests that land use informed by smart growth expands Americans? choices about housing and transport by offering an alternative to suburban sprawl: high-density housing built close to public transit.

But here in California, a hotbed of TOD, smart growthers pursue their agenda as single-mindedly as the most zealous Tea Partiers. Far from being an option, TOD is pitched as the sole path of environmentally enlightened land use. Ross and other smart growth advocates would have us believe that their agenda threatens only suburban sprawl and its benighted opponents. In fact, as implemented in the Bay Area, TOD also turns a blind eye to the needs of industrial users and their blue-collar employees, among other things.

Since the New York Times ran the story cited by Ross, the Bay Area edition of the paper has run an article about the grassroots backlash against the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency?s effort to get people out of their cars and onto public transit, bicycles, or their own two feet by installing parking meters in previously unmetered neighborhoods. Six of the eight areas slated for the new meters are working-class districts.

In one of those districts, the Mission, ?200 upset neighbors? recently packed a public meeting and assailed the plan. The owner of a moving and relocation company observed that her fifteen workers drive in from outer neighborhoods and the East Bay carrying ninety pounds of tools?a trip that can?t be made on public transportation, foot, or bicycle. Moreover, they can?t afford to feed the meters all day. ?If the plan ultimately prevails,? she said, ?her company might leave.?

Such economic myopia, not to say elitism, typifies the practice of smart growth in the Bay Area, as documented in economist Linda Hausrath?s meticulous studies of zoning and goods movement in the region that were commissioned by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission between 2003 and 2008. Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, the studies? findings have been disregarded by MTC and other regional entities.

Industrial uses aside, it?s disingenuous to imply, as Ross does, that TOD is about ?keep[ing] land undeveloped.? The ?growth? in smart growth refers to the aggrandizement of property capital by developers, which is to say, squeezing maximum profit out of land. Smart growth advocates do want to change the American way of life; if anything, they don?t want to change it enough.