Ed Braddy: 'Command and control' growth management won't work

Published: Monday, January 4, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 1, 2010 at 10:52 p.m.

Mayor Pegeen Hanrahan's account of her trip to Copenhagen to attend the COP15 climate summit ("After Copenhagen," Dec. 20) was illuminating. She suggests American ingenuity can solve many problems and lead to substantial reductions in greenhouse gases through local government initiatives.

Indeed, her trip to Copenhagen was sponsored by the ICLEI, an association of local governments promoting sustainable development. The organization covered our mayor's travel expenses, which is nice since Gainesville has paid $1,750 annually in dues for more than a decade.

If you want one-size-fits-all regulations promising transformative change, the ICLEI is a good source. Its ready-made rules cover work, home and everything in between.

For example, if you want to mandate transit-oriented developments, you can download a template complete with parking restrictions, building setbacks and sidewalk widths. Following a planning charrette, these regulations can be re-cast as a locally inspired vision aimed at preserving Gainesville's "unique sense of place."

In short, the ICLEI pushes the same tired formula of high density, transit-oriented, compact development found on Web sites like SmartGrowthAmerica.org and NewUrbanism.org.

Besides being derivative, another problem with ICLEI is its failure to provide transparency for making sound policy decisions.

In a constitutional republic where the people are sovereign, transparency establishes trust between citizens and the decision-makers they elect.

Unfortunately, the Smart Growth agenda is driven by strategic ambiguity.

From Austin to Charlottesville to Seattle, Smart Growth advocates say much higher population densities are necessary to promote transit and reduce the amount of vehicle miles traveled.

But they don't say how high these densities should be.

Gainesville's current population density is 2,100 people per square mile while Portland's is 3,300 and San Francisco's is 5,500.

Mayor Hanrahan said in Copenhagen "almost everyone here seems to walk, bike and use the metro." Converted from kilometers, the density in this auto-light utopia is 6,100 people per square mile.

Will achieving appropriate density levels mean crowding two to three times as many people into our neighborhoods and restricting new developments to primarily multi-family dwellings?

Smart Growth advocates offer nothing more than glittering generalities.

Smart Growthers also fail to recognize trade-offs. Apparently, saving the Earth and transforming our way of life is all gain and no pain.

The prevailing assumption in the planning profession is that traffic congestion must worsen in order to "trigger" a shift to public transportation. Gainesville's Comprehensive Plan, largely written by a former planner who says congestion is our friend, seems to prescribe greater congestion.

Is this a desirable trade-off? If commissioners don't want more congestion, shouldn't they scrap the comp plan's transportation element? Specifically, what share of travel is even achievable by transit? How high the subsidies? Our local officials are silent on these critical questions.

Nationally, transit accounts for just 1.5 percent of passenger miles traveled. Subsidized at more than $9 per trip, Chicago's transit gets 3.8 percent of the transportation market. And in Portland, after a quarter-century of massive subsidies, transit's share of work-related travel is 6.8 percent and only 2.3 percent of overall passenger miles.

It's hard to reconcile these numbers with the impression one gets when visiting Portland or Paris or Copenhagen. Tourists rarely leave the cultural attractions in the central district where it appears most people walk, bike or take metro.

They don't see the outlying communities and commuting preferences that make the region livable and generate its wealth. International policy consultant Wendell Cox calls this the "Louvre Effect" when officials use snapshot anecdote rather than trend analysis to base decisions, and consequently they miss the big picture.

Since 1960 Copenhagen's population density has decreased by 52 percent. The decline in Paris is 31 percent, and the European average is 50 percent. In other words, European cities are decentralizing as people move to suburbs, buy automobiles, and escape the command-and-control policies that led to economic stagnation and high unemployment.

The failure to show transparency, acknowledge trade-offs, and recognize trends gives citizens just cause in rejecting political promises for painless transformative change. Just because it's imposed locally and called "sustainable" doesn't change the coercive nature of Smart Growth.

Mayor Hanrahan and the ICLEI should know we cannot regulate our way to prosperity. Technologies to address climate change come from markets, not mandates aimed at lifestyle modification.

Ironically, Mayor Hanrahan references the 1960s space race to illustrate America's can-do attitude.

This was a Cold War achievement that pitted capitalistic America against the command-and-control economy of the USSR.

How tragic it would be if, in pursuit of a "green economy," we abandon those principles that have made us free.

Ed Braddy is a former Gainesville City Commissioner and current executive director of the American Dream Coalition, a non-profit policy organization that examines transportation and land-use policies at the local level.

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