It’s no secret that conservatives and libertarians don’t have very warm feelings towards urbanism. But with their emphasis on upzoning and reducing parking minimums, shouldn’t new urbanism and smart growth have at least some libertarian constituency? And given that local roads are paid for almost entirely out of general funds – that is to say, local roads are a blatant example of socialist redistribution – you’d think that there would be people on the free market right advocating raising the gas tax and tolling highways.
But alas, no such luck. Michele Bachmann thinks roads shouldn’t count as earmarks, Carl Paladino’s never met a road he didn’t want to detoll, and Mother Jones managed to cobble together a whole article’s full of “We don’t need none of that smart growth communism”-style rhetoric coming from the Tea Party. Now, it could just be that there are just too many suburban Republican voters whose homes, lives, and culture are invested in sprawl for any politician to oppose it. But that doesn’t explain the lack of support from libertarian think-tanks and magazines, who, by virtue of their complete lack of political viability, don’t have to worry about politics and getting re-elected in the suburbs. Cato and the Reason Foundation still toe the “war on drivers” line, with Randal O’Toole denying that any developers even want to build less parking than current minimums require.
So why don’t conservatives and libertarians have more compunction about sprawl? I believe the problem is more the messengers than the message. Despite the free market aspects of modern-day urbanism, smart growth and new urbanism are not libertarian movements. Urban planning is dominated by liberals, and it shows – few even seem aware of the capitalist roots of their plans. The private corporations that built America’s great cities and mass transit systems are all but forgotten by modern-day progressives and planners, who view the private sector as a junior partner at best. Yonah Freemark views Chicago’s meek and tentative steps towards transit re-privatization as a “commodification of the formerly public realm” that’s “scarring” American cities – his version of history apparently starts in 1947. The Infrastructurist must have been reading from the same textbook, because Melissa Lafsky calls libertarianism her “enemy” and apparently believes that America reached its free market transportation peak around the 1950s. And Matt Yglesias, a rare liberal who understands the economic arguments in favor of allowing density, is routinely rebuffed by his commenters, who I doubt would be so offended if he were arguing for urbanism for environmental and social engineering reasons, as so many progressives and planners do today.
Beyond their voiced hostility towards capitalism, planners too often pass by obvious free market solutions in favor of mandates that are opposite from, but just as restrictive as the status quo. The DC Office of Planning wants to replace parking minimums with parking maximums, without any intermediate stop at the market equilibrium. Philadelphia is seeking to force parking garages in some places to be hidden behind retail facades, while vast swathes of the city still have minimum parking requirements. Washington State forces its cities to designate urban growth boundaries, but meanwhile kicks down very little state gas tax money to its localities, who in turn promote sprawl by paying for their local roads almost entirely out of general revenues. And when density is allowed, it is often contingent on developers getting LEED certification, offering some below-market rate housing, and building particular kinds of public space – nevermind that an expanding dense housing supply is inherently good for the environment, housing affordability, and street life.
Republicans and libertarians have not traditionally been very receptive to urban concerns, but planners have gone too far in their anti-capitalist attitudes. These tendencies not only result in bizarre contortions of public policy, but they also blind planners to their own libertarian tendencies and history. Unable to communicate these commonalities to conservatives, it’s no wonder the Tea Party doesn’t see why eliminating parking minimums, allowing dense development, or raising tolls are good things. Urbanists have to overcome the urge to write more stories about yuppies riding bikes, and instead channel some of that energy towards issues of fiscal fairness and overregulation in land use. They have to recognize that arguments about social justice and the environment aren’t going to cut it if they want to unite both halves of America and reverse its sprawling ways.