‘Smart Growth,’ Dumb Idea

D. Muska

The belief that development is destroying Americans’ quality of life runs rampant in our culture. And given the population booms in Nevada's two metropolitan regions, it is easy to see why citizens in the Silver State are concerned about the negative effects of growth, from traffic congestion to air pollution. In Nevada and elsewhere, left-wing environmentalists and anti-business activists have seized on the downsides of sprawl to push an agenda they call “smart growth.” Their plan has many facets, but it promotes two policies the most: limiting land usage and expanding government-run mass transit. The smart-growth movement is winning victory after victory, as elected officials and citizens alike embrace its assumptions and adopt its recommendations. In 1998 about 200 cities had initiatives on the ballot to implement growth controls, and a large majority were approved by voters. In 1999, state legislatures enacted an equal number of laws aimed at controlling development. Clearly, the momentum is with those who oppose sprawl. But is smart growth good for Nevada? A closer look at the agenda of smart-growthers reveals that far from controlling runaway development and improving quality of life, the war on sprawl actually makes communities less livable.

The Numbers In Nevada

The notion that Nevada will soon be paved over by development is laughable. The federal government controls almost 90 percent of the state, and Washington’s holdings continue to expand. With less than 10 percent of land available to be developed in the Silver State, it is clear that Nevada will never resemble New Jersey. U.S. Department of Agriculture figures show that in 1992,  only 0.06 percent of Nevada’s land was developed. (The agency will soon release revised figures based on data obtained in 1997.) So to the extent that sprawl is a problem in the Silver State, it is clearly a city and county issue. While the Reno metropolitan region’s population continues to swell, Las Vegas’s phenomenal growth has made that city a national symbol for sprawl. But what’s true for Nevada is also true for Clark County: nine out of every 10 acres in Southern Nevada is controlled by the federal government.

The Ugly UGB

But these statistics are unlikely to convince sprawl foes in Nevada, who seem committed to copying the growth controls in place in other cities. The model for smart-growthers is Portland, Oregon. There, an urban growth boundary (UGB) constrains development through zoning rules, tax incentives and the prohibition of public services beyond the boundary. But by substituting coercive planning for the voluntary decisions of the market, the UGB has driven up the cost of living in Portland. Economist and lifelong Portland resident Randal O’Toole notes that “housing prices are skyrocketing because of the artificial land shortage created by the urban growth boundary, giving Portland the least affordable housing in the nation after only San Francisco.” Cities that have adopted Portland-style growth controls—including Seattle, Denver, Chicago, and Boston—have also seen many of their residents priced out of homeownership. As the Cato Institute’s Jerry Taylor has observed, “Unfortunately, the people most harmed by ‘smart growth’ policies are poorer, younger Americans, who seldom vote and certainly don’t vote in the communities that are busy walling them out.” In one state, the cost of growth controls has prompted a backlash. California’s legislature is currently considering a bill that would let local governments order a report on the impact of anti-development initiatives on land use and housing. The report would be provided to the public before it votes on initiatives aimed at implementing smart-growth policies.

Mass Transit, Mass Insanity

Anti-sprawl ideology puts a heavy emphasis on the alleged benefits of public transportation. In the minds of smart-growth proponents, residents will stop using their automobiles so much—and thus, reduce traffic congestion and improve air quality—once they realize the benefits of mass transit. But overwhelming evidence shows that their claim is untrue. “In the past 40 years,” writes transportation expert Wendell Cox, “public transit has received stunning amounts of money from both the federal government and state and local governments. Since 1960, federal, state, and local governments have provided $385 billion to America’s transit systems, including almost $150 billion in federal subsidies. At the same time, however, public transit’s share of urban travel has plunged, from 7.1 percent in 1960 to 1.8 percent by 1998—a 75 percent drop in just four decades. Furthermore, public transit use is highly concentrated: 70 percent of transit ridership occurs in just seven metropolitan areas, with half of that in New York City alone.” What’s the cause these dismal statistics? O’Toole notes that time is a significant factor: “The average public transit commuter travels a shorter distance yet spends more time commuting than the average driver.” And mass transit’s “opportunity cost”—what could have been bought with the funds devoted to rail and bus projects—is high. Each dollar of taxpayer revenue spent on inefficient mass transit is a dollar that could have paid for additional roads or land for more parks.


In Nevada’s two urban areas, air pollution, traffic congestion and loss of open space are indeed problems. But these difficulties can only be solved by a reliance on facts, not the fears and fantasies of smart-growth proponents. Decisionmakers must also understand that in a free society with a high degree of technological innovation, it is unwise to dwell on how people lived and worked in the past. (For example, telecommuting and improved fuel efficiency are likely to reduce congestion and improve air quality in the near future, yet smart-growthers seem oblivious to these trends.) That is why land-use decisions should be made at the local level, and why the private sector should play as large a role as possible. Market-oriented approaches to sprawl are indeed possible. For example, master-planned communities—such as Summerlin in northwest Las Vegas—provide open space and pedestrian paths. Private toll roads and for-profit parks can also contribute.

So far, Nevada’s two urban regions have not fully embraced the command-and-control agenda of the smart-growth movement. But with newcomers continuing to pour into the Silver State, calls for growth boundaries and massive public-transportation subsidies will only intensify. City and county officials in Nevada would be wise to study the negative effects of these policies in other municipalities. And despite their temptation to meddle, Nevada’s legislators in Carson City and Washington should recognize that sprawl is a local issue, and stay out of the growth issue altogether.

D. Dowd Muska is a contributing editor for Nevada Journal, the Nevada Policy Research Institute’s opinion and investigative magazine.