An Interview with Randal O’Toole, the Anti-Planner

An Interview with Randal O’Toole, the Anti-Planner

Randal O’Toole doesn’t like urban planning. He doesn’t like zoning laws, he doesn’t like smart growth initiatives and he doesn’t like light rail. So much so that he wrote a book about it. Then he wrote another. So much so that he spends his time on the clock as an independent policy analyst, working with think tanks like the Cato Institute to put together reports that bring charges against smart growth and urban rail transit ranging from “inefficient wastes of money” to “elitist con jobs” and even “fascism.” On an admirably regular basis he takes to the blogosphere and, from his home in an Oregon resort town, hurls bombs wrapped in mind-spinning wonkishness aimed squarely at “progressive” planners’ green-dreaming heads. His screen-name: “The Anti-Planner.”


Randal O’Toole, the Anti-Planner

A quick Google reveals that while O’Toole may not be single-handedly turning the tide of smart growth, he’s certainly doing his part to raise a little hell. Libertarians are joining him to focus their shouts of “get your government off our backs” at the urban planning schemes O’Toole has revealed, suburbanites are seeing in him a scholar with the goods to defend the way of life they are seeing come under attack more and more, and pretty much everyone else is freaking out. Each side claims the debate comes down to the other abusing and cherry-picking facts in the service of an ideological world-view. (For such numbers-parsing showdowns, start here).

I have adopted the conceit that everyone involved is getting their weltanschuung bruised a little, and decided to talk to O’Toole-qua-AntiPlanner to figure out just what the world looks like from outside the rose-colored glasses we wear at Next American City.

From his home in Badnon, Ore. we recently spoke on the phone. Below is a partial transcript:

First, some background. Your initial work was about forestry, then you made a jump to writing about cities and to city planning. Why?

Randal O’Toole: Well, the forestry work I was doing was all about planning; the Forestry Service was planning each of their national forests and I found that most of their plans were disasters and I actually persuaded the Forrest Service of that and they kind of changed course. And because they changed course I got time to work on other issues. I was living in a suburb of Portland and some planners came to my suburb and said, “we want to make your suburb better!” How’re you going do that? “by hextupling the population density zoning, so if your house burns down you can’t rebuild it, you have to build an apartment building,” and all kinds of other ideas that seemed pretty wacky and that’ve become the norm now in Portland and cities that want to emulate Portland.

I noticed a lot of your work is focused on Portland, but your points are always larger than that, about other cities and planning in general. How do you work? Is it first-hand experience? Do you travel to see the results of planning?

I travel, but I try to rely on the data. My work is data driven. If I go visit something I’m only going to see a real narrow slice of what is really going on there, so I have to have data rather than impressions, rather than interviews. So, I’ll download as much data as I can: census bureau data, department of agriculture data, department of transportation data, department of energy data, and look at the real numbers and what’s going on. What happens if you have a denser community? What kinds of changes does that bring about in your community? What happens if you have urban growth boundaries? What does that do to things like housing costs, and the costs of doing business and all the other costs?

And, you know, I have to put my own preferences aside to a large degree. I happen to be a real rail nut for example – I love trains. If high-speed rail or urban rail transit worked I would love to be in support of it. But the data show they don’t work, and I follow the data rather than my own preferences.

That’s interesting to me, because in reading your stuff I’m wondering what it is –ideally – that you’re aiming for. What’s our ideal city? You’re always the critic, but if you didn’t have to be, if everyone listened to Randal O’Toole and followed your prescriptions, what would that look like?

To start with, I worked for 15 years for environmental groups, so I was identified as an environmentalist, and then I’ve worked for the last 15 years for libertarian groups and I’m identified as a libertarian. But the truth is I’m a pragmatist. I want things that work fine. And, you know, spending millions of dollars and getting very little result and return is not something that work.

[…]So, I’m a pragmatist. I don’t a vision of what a city should look like, I have a vision of a process that allows people to live in the kind of city they want to live in. There’s a significant amount of people that want to live in a city like Manhattan or San Francisco. And there’s a significant amount of people who want to live in a city like Houston. And what I want is a process that allows people to live in whatever kind of city they do want to live in. I think that if a process were implemented that basically allows property owners to do what they want with their property as long as they’re not directly harming other people, and basically allows people to decide how they’re going to get around based on the real cost of transportation – making sure that auto drivers pay the full cost of their travel and making sure that people who ride transit pay the cost of they’re transit, with, perhaps, subsidies for low-income people who need help – if they have that kind of system I think most American cities would look a little more like Houston and Omaha then San Francisco or New York. But we’d still have dense areas – we’d still have Manhattan, we’d still have downtown San Francisco, for the people who want to live in places like that. [for O’Toole’s thoughts on Houston, go here]

The market brings me to another interesting point: the argument for increasing high-density housing – New Urbanist developments, Smart Growth – is that they’re more sustainable; that while there may be a huge market for these other kinds of [low density] houses, in the long run they’re going to end up harming everybody. Those ideas would seem to present a tension in someone who is an environmentalist, but also believes so strongly in the free market in the way you do.
Well, first of all, I don’t see that they’re being realistic. They are misusing the data, they’re making things up, relying on people’s assumptions that are based on years of propaganda against low-density development and automobiles. The assumption is that automobiles pollute a lot, that they waste a lot of energy, that low-density development forces people to drive more, things like that. Those assumptions – there’s really no justification for that. If you compare the highest density urban area in America – people drive in it a lot. A lot. Not many people realize that the highest density development in America is Los Angeles, and Los Angeles is considered to be “King of the Automobile,” where everybody drives everywhere. The average density of Los Angeles is two or three times the average density of most other urban areas in America. If you can increase your density by two or three times and all you can achieve is Los Angeles levels of driving, you’re not really getting very far.

The New Urbanists rely on studies – neighborhood studies, where they go look at a neighborhood that’s high-density with maybe transit oriented developments and they say “look people aren’t driving as much.”

And then they especially bias the studies by counting automobile trips per household rather than per person, when the reality is, you go to high-density neighborhoods, they tend to be neighborhoods with very few children, which means the households are small – 1 to 2 persons per household – whereas you go to low-density neighborhoods there’s a lot more children and 2 to 3 children per household, and so when you count it on a per capita level, the driving in the high-densities is really pretty close to the driving in the low-densities, and most of the differences in driving is due to the fact that most of the people in the high-densities tend to be young, like to walk, like to bicycle and things like that, whereas people in the low density neighborhoods tend to be older, tend to have children, and don’t find it convenient to go bicycling with their children everywhere they want to go.

You bring up a point that comes up in your writing a lot and that I’m really interested in, and it’s about propaganda. You hint at New Urbanist planners and Smart Growth planners willfully bending data. Why do you think that is? What do you see as driving them? What are they getting out of willfully bending data and fighting for New Urbanism?

I think there’s a bunch of different motivations, and it’s partly because there’s a bunch of different people who have joined what I call the “Congestion Coalition” to support these ideas. And – let me distinguish New Urbanism from “Smart Growth.” New Urbanism is the idea – as Andres Duany defines it – that people – some people – would like to live in higher densities and let’s build for those people. “Smart growth” is the idea that people ought to live in higher densities and let’s forbid or restrict or increase the cost of lower densities so that more people will have to live in higher densities. And so the proponents of “smart growth” I think include downtown property owners who have seen their property values not grow as fast as suburban property owners because more jobs and people are moving to the suburbs; they include central city mayors and city councils because the central cities aren’t growing very fast, the suburbs are growing fast, and so you say “where are we going to send federal funds? Where are they needed?” well, they’re needed where the growth is, so the central cities aren’t getting as much so they say “let’s change it, let’s make more people live in the central cities and so we’ll get more of those federal and state funds, and we’ll get more of the taxes.” So a lot of this comes down to a fight between jurisdictions about who gets the tax revenue from people living in either cities and suburbs.

And then you’ve got the rail transit lobby. The transit lobby is about 4 or 5 times bigger than the highway lobby. People always think there’s this huge highway lobby, but the highway lobby is very small compared to the transit lobby. And there’s enormous profit to be made. The average urban freeway in America costs about 5 to 10 million dollars per lane mile, and the average light rail line is cost up to 80 million dollars a route mile. So obviously there’s a lot more profit to be made building rail than there is building highway and so naturally the companies like Parsons-Brinkerhoff and so forth – Bechtel –that build transit are going to be lobbying for it.

And then there’s an environmentalist component, and I would call this really an elitist component, represented by the Sierra Club that says, you know, “we can appreciate wilderness, but most people can’t. They don’t have our refined aesthetic sensibilities so they can’t appreciate it so we’re gonna do everything we can to keep Them out. It’s okay if I live on my 10 acres, or my 40 acres, but nobody else should be allowed to live on their quarter acre plot of land because they can’t appreciate it the way I can.” I think there’s a lot of that within the environmental community. And probably some feeling of “well my job is so important that I have to drive around, but all these other people, they should be taking transit because they don’t have the excuse that I have.

To stay on the talk of propaganda, while you were talking, and in your writing, this theme of “faddishness” and “trends” keeps popping up, and it’s almost a psychological argument, or it’s in people’s heads. There’s something about the New Urbanist ideas and light rail that’s very attractive to people. I just really want to get your take on this. What, to your mind, explains why people who are not benefiting economically from these developments are so in favor of them, and keep producing and supporting these ideas that you say just don’t work?

We’ve heard so much about how evil automobiles are that people take it for granted that getting people out of their car is a worthwhile social goal. My argument is that it’s a lot cheaper to make the externalities of the automobiles go away – to reduce air pollution, to make them safer, to reduce greenhouse gasses, to reduce their energy consumption – it’s a lot easier and cheaper to do that than it is to try to change people’s lifestyles to get them to stop driving, to get them to ride bicycles or transit or whatever. Live in higher densities so they can walk to their coffee shop and their grocery store rather than drive. That’s simply not an effective tool, whereas changing the automobile itself is very effective. We know that because we’ve reduced air pollution coming out of cars by 90% — a new car today produces much less than 10% [of the pollution] than a new car 40 or 50 years ago – we know that we can make similar effects on other areas. We’ve seen similar effects on accidents: even though we drive more then we did 30 or 40 years ago we have 25% less annual fatalities. We know we can have those effects, and yet we’ve propagandized people against the evil automobile so much that it’s taken for granted that anything that gets people out of their automobiles is good, no matter what the cost.

And we see transit agencies come in and say “we want to spend billions and billions of dollars building a light rail line that costs 200 million dollars a mile, or more, and it’s gonna get a handful of people out of their cars and we get policy makers saying “O yeah! Let’s do that! It’s good to get people out of their cars.” And I’m saying wait a minute, that’s just not cost effective.

So, we’ve got this propaganda, we’ve got the interest groups like the rail builders who are benefiting from these things, we’ve got the environmentalists who are just happy to have any effect and let anybody else pay for the cost, and the result, to me, is a big waste.

A big waste of money?

A big waste of money, a big waste of people’s time, you know it’s a waste all around. You know, if we really do have a global warming problem we should be working on something that will cost effectively solve that problem. Rather than waste our time forcing people to live in higher densities on the hope that it will get people to drive a little less, and not even consider the cost.

So it’s a waste of time to talk about passing that legislation, which California, of course, has already passed and other states are looking at as a model. It’s a waste of time to try to impose those things on people. So it’s a waste of money, but it’s a waste of a lot of different things.

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