AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: Originally published in the fall 2002 issue of REP’s The Green Elephant newsletter



In addition to encouraging the migration of the middle class from city to suburb, government policy has also affected the design of those suburbs, making them far more auto-oriented than they might be in a truly free market. In the absence of government regulation, many American suburbs might look like Arlington, Virginia, or Bethesda, Maryland: communities that tolerated the automobile without being enslaved by it. But instead, in the majority of American suburbs, non-automotive transportation is an ordeal. How did this happen? One word: zoning.

The federal government encouraged state and local governments to create zoning codes through the Standard Zoning Enabling Act, a model statute enacted in the 1920s.

SZEA defines zones as parcels where all lots have the same minimum lot sizes, effectively mandating single-use zoning which keeps stores out of residential zones and vice versa, and keeps rental property out of zones reserved for single family homes. And SZEA encourages those minimum lot sizes to be large “to avoid the undue concentration of population.” Most states quickly adopted zoning enabling acts based on SZEA, and local governments adopted local ordinances based on these principles.

If these zones were small and close to each other, it might still be possible for people to go from one zone to another without driving. But thanks to zoning, this is not the case. Zoning ordinances typically mandate minimum lot sizes of as much an acre per home (the standard in most Atlanta suburbs). And where densities are as low as one or two homes per acre, very few homes will be within walking distance of stores, and public transit will be economically infeasible.

The practical consequence of SZEA and its progeny are that walkable traditional neighborhoods are outlawed in many American suburbs, because every activity demands a separate zone of its own. People can’t live within walking distance of shopping, and offices can’t be within walking distance of either homes or shopping.

As a practical matter, zoning codes don’t even allow all the things they seem to allow. To quote Professor Douglas Laycock of the University of Texas law school, zoning “is administered through highly discretionary and individualized processes that leave ample room for deliberate but hidden discrimination.” So even if an enterprising landowner tries to build something pedestrian-friendly, some neighbor of the proposed development will complain to the zoning board or the city council, because many people are afraid any change will make things worse. And the zoning board will typically decide that even though property rights may be okay for developers out in the country, in the suburbs people’s property rights are subject to the veto power of the people who already live there—or more accurately, of the loudest neighbor, thus creating a kind of heckler’s veto over new development.


Parking and Street Codes

Zoning law is not the only device that local governments use to force suburbanites into their cars. Local governments frequently force businesses, apartment buildings, and developers to provide parking. 

Parking mandates force pedestrians to walk through a sea of off-street parking to get to apartments and stores, thus making non-automotive transportation inconvenient, if not downright unsafe. Moreover, by forcing businesses to provide more parking than a free market would dictate, government creates a glut of parking, thus lowering the price of parking and essentially subsidizing driving.

Traffic engineers also make streets unfriendly to pedestrians by making them extremely wide. Why does street width matter? Because, as anyone who’s tried to walk in a suburb with six- or eight-lane roads knows, the wider the street, the more dangerous it is to walk down that street.


Why conservatives should worry about sprawl

So sprawl is in large part the government’s fault. So what? Lots of things are caused by government, but conservatives only worry about a few of them.

I believe that sprawl should be problematic for both economic and social conservatives. Economic conservatives believe in more consumer choice and lower taxes. Yet sprawl creates less consumer choice and—at least in some areas—higher taxes. Consumer choice means that people can choose the transportation mode they prefer. But sprawl means less consumer choice, by forcing people to own cars.

The federal government used highway policies to encourage people and their employers to move to suburbs, and then used housing and education policies to turn cities into dumping grounds for the poor—thus causing those cities to have higher crime and less prestigious schools than their suburbs, which in turn forces out the middle class.

And then local government, through zoning, parking and transportation policies, ensured that those suburbs would be totally auto dependent. In other words, car dependency isn’t a result of the free market, it is an unfunded mandate imposed by Big Brother.

To put it another way, car dependency is a tax. According to the Statistical Abstract, average Americans spend about $6,000 a year on their cars— counting car purchases, gasoline, maintenance, insurance, and a variety of smaller costs.

But sprawl means tax increases in a more direct way. As cities lose their middle-class residents and retain the poor, they become poorer.

Even though poorer cities have less revenue to play with, their needs continue to multiply. Poorer cities have to spend more money to obtain adequate public services than their richer suburbs, because poor people need more money for poverty-related health care and public assistance than suburbanites. They also tend to commit more crimes, thus causing additional public spending on jails and cops. So, other things being equal, sprawl means that cities have to raise taxes to keep their public services at the same level, because their tax base is smaller and their expenses are higher.

But everything else isn’t equal. Here’s why…

As a city becomes poorer, its electoral base changes too. For example, between 1976 and 1996 the GOP vote in the city of Buffalo nosedived from 37% for Jerry Ford to 17% for Bob Dole, even though Dole’s national percentage of the two-party vote was only four points lower. Similarly, Philadelphia—which had Republican mayors for the first half of the century—now votes just like Buffalo. A city with a 20% poverty rate is a lot less likely to elect a tax-cutter as mayor, and a lot more likely to elect a tax-and-spend politician—because all its Republicans have left town.

Some conservatives say: “Well, sprawl is the cities’ fault because they keep electing people like Mayor X.” But these folks are confusing cause and effect. Sprawl causes a Mayor X as much as his opposite. To put it another way, if you took the 572,000 people who live in the District of Columbia now and swapped them for 572,000 randomly-selected residents of Fairfax County, the next few elections would be different indeed.

In fact, there’s even an argument that sprawl means higher taxes in the suburbs it supposedly benefits, by causing suburbs to need more roads and schools for all their new residents. To quote the web page of the National Association of Home Builders, hardly an anti-sprawl group: “Appropriate bodies of government should adopt capital improvement plans…designed to fund necessary infrastructure required to support new development.”

English translation: Sprawl means bigger government, because once a suburb gets the so-called benefit of middle-class flight from cities or older suburbs, the developers will come swooping down on wings of eagles, pleading for local governments to tax, spend, and develop. Sprawl means less consumer choice—because consumers have to live in the suburbs and drive a car—and more government.


Sprawl & Cultural Conservatism

Sprawl means today’s suburbs become tomorrow’s slums, as the middle class moves farther out. Suburbs are vulnerable to the depredations of sprawl, as urban decay spreads beyond the central city limits. Even some affluent suburbs are losing population, and many second- and third-ring suburbs are becoming poorer.

In sum, sprawl devours its own children. It creates inner-ring suburbs, only to destroy them a few decades later by creating outer suburbs to skim off their elites.

As long as cities and suburbs continue to lose their most affluent citizens to newer suburbs, no community is truly safe from the ravages of neighborhood decay, and no stable community can long endure.

Sprawl also affects another conservative value, one shared by economic and social conservatives: the preference for work over welfare dependency. Thanks to suburban sprawl, many low- skill jobs are located in areas that are inaccessible by public buses, or nearly so. To find a job and get off welfare, a welfare recipient may need a car, which of course she probably cannot afford.

So suburban sprawl means that welfare recipients are often better off on welfare or in illicit activity than trying to get a job that they can’t hold due to inadequate transportation, or for wages that are canceled out by auto costs.


Conservative Solutions

You may ask at this point: so sprawl is bad, and sprawl is caused by government. But isn’t it a fait accompli? That is, is there anything conservatives can do about it that doesn’t involve more subsidies for mass transit or more regulation of property rights? Are there free-market solutions to sprawl?

In fact there are, in transportation, land use, and education.


First solution: transportation

As I’ve explained, government creates sprawl by building roads. In fact, government at all levels spends about $100 billion a year on roads. So to stop the sprawl, stop the roads and give the money back to the taxpayers. Period. Specifically, no more widened roads, no more new roads in undeveloped areas.

Now I realize that Big Brother justifies new and widened roads by uttering the magic words “traffic congestion.” Taxpayers will fight government spending on welfare or jails or foreign aid, but if you say “traffic congestion,” suddenly a lot of ordinarily sensible people start to believe that government is their Lord and Savior. Not so!

If new and widened roads did not affect development patterns, a new road might actually reduce congestion. But of course, roads do affect development patterns by shifting development to the area where the new road is located. So when the road is built, more people move to the area near the road, causing more traffic, causing instant congestion. In 1991, Montgomery County, Maryland, widened I-270 to 12 lanes. Twelve lanes! But still there are complaints about congestion. Why? Because suburbs near I-270 grew because of the road widening, causing more traffic. And I-270 is no aberration.


Second solution: land use

Housing policy is even more susceptible to free-market solutions than transportation policy. 
As I’ve explained, zoning creates sprawl, so cut it out. One obvious free-market solution: eliminate zoning laws. I concede, however, that abolishing zoning entirely may not be politically possible. 
Alternatively, eliminate zoning requirements that adversely impact pedestrians and nondrivers, through a state law barring requirements like off-street parking, lot size or density, or requirements restricting residential use in commercial zones.


Third solution: education

Education is a slightly more difficult problem. Our education laws cause sprawl by requiring people to go to public schools in the city or neighborhood where they live. Since lots of people who are willing to live in a diverse city aren’t willing to send their children to a diverse public school, this encourages middle-class flight. The solution is obvious: break the link between schooling and residence, so parents can send their children to school anywhere they feel like it. This means that if parents are dissatisfied with urban public schools, they can stay in the city and still get a satisfactory school without shelling out $10,000 per year for private school tuition.
How do you achieve this goal? Some variation of a voucher system or tuition tax credit would appear to be ideal: however, exactly what policy to create is best left for another day. 
Conservatives tend to favor either tuition tax credits or voucher systems that include private schools; moderates and liberals tend to support some sort of open enrollment plan that allows city children into suburban schools but doesn’t support private schools.

In sum, I hope that I’ve persuaded you that sprawl was in large part created by government policy, that it affects conservative policies, and that it is in part susceptible to free-market solutions.


EDITOR’S NOTE: The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author. REP America has taken no position on such issues as tuition tax credits, vouchers and zoning.


Click here to go back and read Part 1.


Michael E. Lewyn, a long-time REP member, is a columnist, author, and associate professor at John Marshall Law School in Atlanta. He earned his B.A. at Wesleyan University and his J.D. at the University of Pennsylvania.

Mike has published extensively on the related subjects of sprawl and transportation, including:

  • “Sprawl, Growth Boundaries and the Rehnquist Court,” accepted for publication by Utah Law Review.
  • “Oregon’s Growth Boundaries: Myth and Reality,” 32 Envtl. Law Reporter 10160 (2002).
  • “Campaign of Sabotage: Big Government’s War Against Public Transportation,” 26 Columbia Journal of Environmental Law 259 (2001).
  • “Suburban Sprawl: Not Just an Environmental Issue,” 84 Marquette Law Review 301 (2000) (reprinted in 2001 West Planning and Zoning Handbook).
  • “Are Spread Out Cities Really Safer?” 41 Cleveland State Law Review 279 (1993).
  • “The Urban Crisis: Made in Washington,” 4 Journal of Law and Policy 513 (1996) .

The speech from which this article was taken was given in August 2001, at the Smart Growth Speaker Series at the National Building Museum in Washington D.C. We thank Mike for allowing us to publish this outstanding contribution to the national debate over sprawl.

Here’s another fine article on the subject, written by State Representative David Steil, a member of REP’s Pennsylvania Chapter and published in the chapter’s newsletter, The Green Elephant’s Gazette: Is sprawl a Republican issue?