Around the nation, the current in-vogue urban planning strategy is smart growth. Smart growth seeks to stop the expansion of urbanization (so-called "urban sprawl") by forcing more development into currently developed areas, while discouraging automobile use and building new rail transit systems. Here, Envision Utah prides itself on seeking to implement smart growth strategies through voluntarily instead of mandatory measures. This is surely commendable, especially when compared to Portland, which has imposed an urban growth boundary, beyond which any development can occur. In Portland, smart growth strategies are already reaping the consequences of densification --- more traffic congestion, more air pollution and a housing affordability crisis.
This should not be surprising. For half a century, European cities have placed serious restrictions on suburban development. The result is that, while suburban development has occurred (virtually all European urban growth has been in the suburbs), it has been at much higher densities. This has not kept people from purchasing cars and using them to get most everywhere except the core city areas where transit systems provide effective mobility. As a result, the average European urban area has a concentration of traffic that is more than double that of the Wasatch Front, and greater than that of Los Angeles, the nation's most congested urban area. And it doesn't stop there. European urban areas have typically not developed effective high capacity roadway systems, which when combined with their greater traffic volumes, means that there is more stop and start operation, and generally slower speeds. This means more air pollution. European urban areas typically produce double the air pollution contentrations of US cities.
All of this should give great pause with respect to efforts, voluntary or mandatory, that would increase population densities in the Salt Lake City area. Envision Utah's prescription for urban development is likely to land the Wasatch Front in virtually the same situation as Portland. Envision Utah seeks to accommodate nearly 75 percent more households in an area that expands by only 40 percent. As a result, traffic volumes are projected to be more than 25 percent more concentrated. This might be acceptable if there were a plan to spend billions of dollars to greatly expand roadway systems throughout the region. But neighborhoods will not stand for the arterial widenings that would be necessary to keep today's already problematic traffic situation from deteriorating. As a result, the Wasatch Front could emerge world class in a new category --- traffic congestion. And with it will come air pollution more intense than would be the case if densification had not occurred.
Some expect transit to play a greater role, failing to recognize that UTA's sometimes full trains and nearly empty buses carry an imperceivably small percentage of trips. It is true that the projections call for a tripling of transit's market share. But with such a small base, this is of little consequence, as fewer than three percent of trips will be made by transit by 2020 and less than 15 percent of residents will be within walking distance of a light rail and commuter system that provides effective mobility only to downtown.
Perhaps the most serious impact of smart growth's densification is the loss of housing affordability. Any time that development is steered by the whims of planners instead of market forces, housing costs can be expected to rise. This occurs because, as when OPEC gasoline rationing raises prices, when planners ration land prices also go up, while more larger, more efficient projects simply cannot be built. In Portland this has manifested itself in a 56 percent reduction in housing affordability over the last decade (percentage of households that can afford the median price house) --- the worst out of the nation's 84 largest urban areas. The Denver area, which has adopted voluntary smart growth initiatives has seen its housing affordability drop 31 percent over the same period. Salt Lake City already has a problem in this regard, with housing affordability having declined 21 percent in the last 10 years, more than all but 77 of the 84 largest areas. Further, Envision Utah foresees at least 150,000 fewer people in single family houses by 2020 than would be the case if normal development were to take place.
And so, Envision Utah's futures is about fewer people living the American Dream of the single family house, everyone breathing more air pollution and a Wasatch Front entangled in greater traffic congestion. There has to be a better way.