It's All About Freedom

This commentary is adapted from an invited column in Carbuster's magazine (Autumn 2002).

It’s all about freedom. People are happier when they are free, they produce more and they are more affluent. The Lone Mountain Compact states the urban corollary: absent a material threat to other individuals or the community, people should be allowed to live and work where and how they like. In short, people should have the freedom to travel where they like, whether to work, shopping, school or elsewhere. The extent to which this increases or decreases driving or public transport use is of no account.


The anti-sprawl (“smart growth”) movement is based upon contrived alarm and has failed to prove a case. No problem impels its coercive cures; indeed they would make things worse. The higher densities smart growth requires means more concentrated road traffic, which in turn means slower speeds, higher pollution intensity, longer work trip times and less free time. Costs of living tend to be higher where densities are higher. Home-ownership, so essential to social cohesion and wealth creation, is lower because smart growth’s land rationing policies drive prices up and households out of the market (especially lower income households, which are disproportionately minority). More restrictive land markets discourage industrial and commercial innovations artificially forcing prices higher. The reality of smart growth is a lower standard of living and a lesser quality of life.


The “free city,” in which government interferes with the living, shopping and working patterns of its citizens only where unavoidable will have less severe traffic congestion and air pollution. Because work trip travel times will be less, people will have more free time. The cost of living will be lower, home-ownership will be higher and the standard of living higher.


This is neither to endorse sprawl nor to oppose public transport. It is rather to endorse freedom. The pro-freedom vision of the city is the product of people’s desires, not planners dictates. Human ingenuity has produced unprecedented prosperity, mobility and access, while substantially reducing related pollution.


Government should preserve environmentally sensitive areas and can purchase green spaces. But a government of the people has no business herding masses into crowded districts against their wills; it is out of line when it codifies the latest, or any, urban planning fashion, architectural taste or any other subjective preference.


Public transport is important, such as in Manhattan, Paris, central London and similar urban core areas, where it is competitive with or even superior to the automobile. Public transport is also important in serving people whose income is not yet sufficient to afford automobility. But it is futile to pretend that public transport can provide auto-competitive mobility or relieve traffic congestion in the vast suburbs where most people live and work, whether Pheonix, Portland, Perth or Paris.


Regrettably, the free city’s prosperity and sustainability is under constant threat from powerful political forces who would impose their own fleeting, restrictive personal preferences on all. But, freedom means that those disposed to controlling the lives of others must be content with controlling their own. No one likes to be told what to do, not even urban planners. The innate human longing for freedom doomed Soviet planning and has in store a similar fate for overly prescriptive urban planning. This is as it should be where government is the servant of the people.


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Demographia is "pro-choice" with respect to urban development.
People should have the freedom to live and work where and how they like.

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(c) 2001 --- Wendell Cox Consultancy --- Permission granted to use with attribution.