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Todd Litman

Opportunity Urbanists’ Bias

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The Center for Opportunity Urbanism recently released a report by Tory Gattis, Maximizing Opportunity Urbanism With Robin Hood Planning, which advocates various policies to increase economic opportunity for disadvantaged residents. This is a wonderful goal that is sometimes overlooked in the planning process, and Gattis recommends some policies I support, including more affordable infill development and more walkable neighborhoods. However, the report primarily advocates more automobile dependency and sprawl, and the research Gattis uses to justify his conclusions is terrible.

The report’s main argument is that Smart Growth policies reduce affordability, ignoring extensive research, such as the Housing and Transportation Affordability Index, which indicates that total housing and transport costs tend to be lowest in compact, multi-modal neighborhoods.


Gattis ignores additional costs to households associated with sprawl, including higher infrastructure and transportation costs, obesity (honesty in advertising should require that the report’s illustrations show overweight models, reflecting the much higher obesity rates in automobile-dependent communities), traffic fatality rates (sprawled neighborhoods have two to four times the traffic fatality rates of smart growth neighborhoods), and chauffeuring burdens, all of which tend to decline with Smart Growth policies.

Gattis points out that a 40 percent increase in travel speed doubles geographic accessibility (the area that can be reached within a given time period), but ignores research showing that increased development density and mix provides far greater increases in accessibility. Smart Growth policies”>Smart Growth policies that result in more compact and mixed development can do more to increase disadvantaged workers’ employment opportunities than policies that increase travel speeds, and high quality public transit that stimulates transit-oriented development, and so increases the portion of high-quality jobs that are easily accessible by transit, are particularly effective at improving economic opportunity.

Gattis is inaccurate and unfair when he claims that planners are unconcerned with increasing economic opportunity for disadvantaged people. On the contrary, most planners I know are very concerned about this issue: They are often the primary advocates for disadvantaged groups in the planning process, and despite criticism and personal threats, for example when presenting proposals for multi-family housing to neighborhood groups, they work hard to improve affordable housing and transport options for the sake of improving economic opportunity.


I agree with Gattis that improving economic opportunity is an important planning goal that requires efficient and affordable transportation options for disadvantaged households. Since most vehicle expenses are fixed, affordable transport requires living in accessible, mixed, multi-modal neighborhoods where it is possible to minimize vehicle ownership. This does not mean that lower income households never own a motor vehicle; certainly for some, automobile ownership is important for accessing education, employment, and services, but many lower-income households can benefit significantly from being able to rely on affordable modes—walking, cycling, and public transit—as much as possible, so they can share vehicles among multiple drivers and minimize their vehicle costs. Smart Growth in general, and transit-oriented development in particular, are the planning strategies that make this possible; for example, residents of transit-oriented neighborhoods own half as many vehicles on average, and spend far less on transport than they would if located in sprawled locations. Yet, Gattis criticizes these strategies based on his incomplete analysis and biased evidence.

Gattis’ report is the latest in a series of inaccurate and biased documents criticizing Smart Growth. Although some of their arguments contain a kernel of truth, for example, urban growth boundaries can increase housing prices unless implemented with policies to allow more compact infill, and lower-income households sometimes benefit from owning automobiles, their analysis is incomplete, biased, and careless. Gattis is wrong to claim that Houston is more affordable overall for lower-income households; the evidence he presents does not meet the most basic standards of good research. Similarly, his attacks on planners are groundless, indicating that he is unfamiliar with our work. If the critics really had a case—if Smart Growth really did harm poor people or reduce economic opportunity—they should be able to show it using credible evidence.

The Center for Opportunity Urbanism must do better if it really wants to identify optimal policies for improving economic opportunity. Please respond Mr. Gattis. Let us establish an honest and open dialogue to identify the truly best planning strategies for improving opportunities for disadvantaged people.

Full story: Smart Planning for Economic Opportunity
Source: Planetizen, August 20, 2015

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