Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Promoting Obnoxious 'Burbs
How the Government Creates Gridlock and Sprawl


By David G. Young 

WASHINGTON, DC, June 15, 1999 --  

What a bunch of hypocrites. Last month, voters in Loudoun County in Virginia threw out their incumbent County Supervisor in the party primary and replaced her with a "slow growth" challenger.1 Sound sensible? Think again. In 1998, Loudoun, a suburb of Washington, DC, was the third fastest growing county in the United States2 Few of the residents who voted in the primary lived there 10 years ago. Where do these people get off using the power of the law to keep others from doing exactly what they did a few years ago?

Is it really reasonable to move into a sprawling new townhouse development with the expectation that you will be the last one allowed to arrive?

Of course, it isn't. But, unfortunately, the idiots in Loudoun aren't alone in their hypocrisy. In last year's elections, voters in suburban districts across the country elected leaders running on such slow growth platforms.3 The main ill motivating this voter sentiment, of course, is traffic. Ever since the federal government completed the Interstate highway system in the late 1970s, freeway construction has lagged far behind suburban growth. The dramatic building boom of the late '90s has exacerbated the problem and re-ignited the debate over the merits of suburban development.

The main beneficiary of suburban discontent is the small group of urban idealists and environmentalist intellectuals who have raged against the'burbs for years. They hate sprawl. They despise the automobile, and especially the gas-guzzling, polluting sport utility vehicles and minivans that are ubiquitous in suburban areas. For decades, their quaint ideas have been mocked to irrelevancy by the relentless stampede of Americans to ever more distributed new suburban developments. Now that cracks are showing in the suburban ideal, these people can hardly contain their glee.

In Washington, DC, Oregon, New Jersey and Southern California, urban idealists have allied themselves with NIMBY* establishment suburbanites to bring new road construction virtually to a halt and limit housing developments. This has done little to stop population growth, or further sprawl—it has simply forced it to occur in ever more distant locations not covered by legal restrictions.

This new coalition is doomed to failure. The urban idealists cannot hope to impose their patronizing views on Americans. Like it or not, Americans love their suburbs. As a result, the NIMBY suburbanites cannot expect to keep others from following their own example. The only thing that they can hope to accomplish is to create inefficiency and pain for tens of millions of people who sit in gridlocked traffic as hostages in a national standoff.

If Americans are ever to accept the destructiveness of their beloved sprawling developments and their giant SUVs, then the consequences of their choices must be based in reality. The simple truth is that irrational U.S. laws encourage the irrational and obnoxious behavior of American suburbanites.

Generally, governments pay for roads, and people can use them as much as they want. Hence, they have little incentive to live closer to work. The simple solution is to charge drivers for the actual costs they incur. This may require expensive tolls. This may require privatization of highways. Deal with it. Nothing short of a rational private sector pricing model will lead to rational behavior.

A similar solution exists with respect to the proliferation of the much derided and hugely inefficient SUV. The explosion of these vehicles in the U.S. has little to do with need and everything to do with irrational behavior induced by irrational laws. The energy crisis-inspired 1978 CAFE** law forces U.S. auto manufacturers to produce a large percentage of small cars with high gas mileage. This led to the virtual extinction of the station wagon, despite Americans' desire for larger, roomier vehicles. In their place, Americans began buying minivans and SUVs—vehicles covered under the less-strict "light truck" category of the CAFE law.4 Get rid of
the irrational CAFE law, and we will take a big step toward controlling the irrational safety arms race of larger and "safer" SUVs on our nation's clogged roadways.

The urban idealists may be right about the destructive behavior of American suburbanites, but their prescriptions are all wrong. Legislation to limit growth will accomplish nothing, as long as much more powerful and insidious laws on the books encourage Americans to pursue their dysfunctional lifestyles. Such laws must be repealed. Get rid of "free" highways, and you will go a long way toward controlling traffic and sprawl. Get rid of CAFE, and you will take a giant step toward curtailing SUVs.

No, this hands-off approach won't bring an end to Americans' love affair with the 'burbs. But it will help ensure that the new roads and houses people want are built in a more rational way. Given America's current state of clogged freeways and restless suburbanites, a rational approach to development would be a wonderful breath of fresh air.

* Not In My Back yard
** Corporate Average Fuel Economy


  1. The Washington Post, Congestion: Find relief at The ballot box?, June 6, 1999
  2. The Washington Post, Loudoun Growth Ranks Third in U.S., March 12, 1999
  3. The New York Times, Dreams of Fields: The New Politics of Urban Sprawl, November 14, 1998
  4. The Cato Institute, CAFE'S RECIPE FOR "LIGHT TRUCKS", 1997