Planners Beware

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Thinktank books tend to rumble through the mind, even when you agree with them. A scholar with verified ideas excavates evidence to support them and makes it into a book. Such books may be useful, but most have a grayness about them.

Randal O’Toole’s uThe Best-Laid Plans” is published by a thinktank – the Cato Institute – which has given it an attractive cover and professional editing. But it is very much a book of Randal O’Toole, who is not an inside- the-beltway intellectual. O’Toole has spent his life as a guerrilla warrior – first against the U.S. Forest Service, and more recently against the land-use and transportation planners. There is no one in America quite like this man from Bandon, are.

“The Best-Laid Plans” is not a theory-first book. It does not argue that planning is inherently wrong because it violates people’s rights, though you might conclude that from reading it. uWhen government agencies plan, they are making decisions about other people’s time, money and property,” O’Toole writes. uWhen the planners make mistakes, someone else bears the costs.” His point is not that the cost shift is wrong but that it leaves planners with little incentive to plan a future that people want.

O’Toole allows that any organization, even the government, needs to plan. If government builds the roads, it ought to have a roads plan. But when government attempts to plan for complex systems like an entire forest or an urban area of several million ornery humans, it is a wholly different matter. The planners won’t have enough data. Probably a really good computer model would be impossible because it would have to quantify the unquantifiable. In any case the planners don’t have models that are really good.

Then there is a universal law of life: stuff happens. We decide to kill off the grizzly bears. Then we reintroduce them. The human population explodes. Then the birthrate plunges. The globe is cooling. No; it is warming. uComprehensive government planning does not work,” O’Toole declares, “because no one can understand the total complexity of the world.”

Furthermore, the planning organization is distracted from its mission. Politicians steer it from above. Bureaucrats corrupt it from within. Planners cut corners. Pressure groups file lawsuits alleging the plans to be inadequate, which they are. Judges throw the plans out.

O’Toole tells the story of three jungles of planning he has explored: forest planning, urban land-use planning, and transportation planning.

Forest planning was the first. The Forest Service was required by law to produce large, complex plans. It produced them, and O’Toole read them. He also reviewed the data behind them. I skip over this part because I know little about it. With the other two I am familiar, having written about these issues .as a journalist. There I can say that at every point at which uThe Best-Laid Plans” touches my knowledge it appears to be right.

O’Toole talks about U smart growth,” urban growth boundaries, light rail, modern streetcars, traffic calming, boulevarding, and the abolition of one-way streets. All of it is proposed, or is happening, where I live. And he writes much about Portland, Ore., a city three hours’ drive from where I live. Portland has been the pin-up for planners.

A quarter-century ago, Portland’s regional government drew a line around the urban area and declared that line a growth boundary. Building permits would be automatic inside the line, and difficult outside it. The idea was to stop “sprawl.”

Economists said that limiting land would raise the price of housing faster than in cities with no such line. For the first decade they were wrong. The line had been drawn widely, and for a long time there was plenty of land within it. But in the 1990s there wasn’t, and the economists were proven right.

Portland built “light rail” – a type of passenger train that, as O’Toole points out, is “light” only in the work that it does, not in its weight or its cost. The federal government paid for the first line Portland built. Oregonians were proud of it. It was a progressive thing. It would get people out of their cars. I live in Seattle, well within ear- shot of all the gushing over Portland’s little train. Then Portland built a tram, and private developers began replacing warehouses with high-rise condo buildings in a place called the Pearl District. Then came a gondola, which connected a splashy riverfront development with a medical school. Light rail, trams, gondola. Portland was so cool.

No longer affordable, though. The condos are impressive, but visitors don’t see the millions of subsidies dispensed through tax-increment financing, which took tax money away from schools. (Tax-increment financing is a way of bankrolling a project by using the tax revenue it generates. The taxes from, say, an office-retail center go to repay some of the debt of the project instead of being deposited in local government accounts. Sometimes tax increment financing counts the added taxes from land around the project as well.) Visitors don’t know that bus routes were canceled to herd bus riders onto rail, though visitors will notice that it’s tough to find a parking place. Congestion has increased, because most people in Portland did not get out of their cars.

Portland’s “smart growth” strategy is, O’Toole writes, “based on the design fallacy, the idea that urban design shapes human behavior.” It does in some ways, but not nearly to the extent that the planners dream.

If you have followed O’Toole’s work you have read much of what is in this book. I had already read the story of “The Ideal Communist City” – the East German town of Halle-Neustadt, which consisted entirely of mid-rises surrounded by gardens and served by rail transit, with car parking only on the periphery. It was a city that entirely satisfied the criteria of many American city planners – and it was built by the government of Erich Honecker. Since liberation, some of the residents have fled, leaving many buildings empty and others inhabited only on the lower floors. The gardens have been paved over so that people can park cars where they live. I have seen O’Toole’s slideshow of that city, and it is a pity it is not in his book. Still, “The Ideal Communist City” is a most audacious chapter. One of O’Toole’s enemies put up a blog entry accusing him of “redbaiting” city planners.

He did.

A delightful feature of the book is O’Toole’s defense of the personal car. He argues, for example, that it has been the single most important boon for employees, because it has given them access to many more employers. O’Toole also argues in this book (as he did previously in Liberty) that as Hurricane Katrina approached New Orleans, it was the people with cars who got out. He writes:

Automobiles give people the freedom to deal with disasters on their own terms and timetables. Even if buses and trains were available, people would be reluctant to take them. Would the bus or train take them where they wanted to go? Could people take their pets and precious belongings? Could they come back when they wanted to return? The automobile frees people from the whims of other people’s rules and schedules.

Imagine using Katrina as an argu- ment for cars! O’Toole did.

Google it and you can read the furious replies from the devotees of transit. They froth at Randal O’Toole. One blogger responded with a fulmination entitled, “Worst. Article. Ever.” He would hate this book. Liberty’s readers should like it very much.

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