Monday, October 29, 2007

Do Americans Embrace Smart Growth And Tolls?

Smart Growth America has released the results of an opinion poll assessing the public's attitudes concerning some land use and transportation issues. The national survey of 1,000 adults has a 3.7% margin of error. Some of the results are interesting.

The study found relatively strong support for public transportation. In response to the question "which of the following proposals is the best long-term solution to reducing traffic in your areas" the results were as follows:
  • Improve public transportation (49%)
  • Develop communities where people do not have to drive as much (26%)
  • Build new roads (21%)
Do you think these results will send a chill through road builders associations, or do they know that when the public says it favors public transportation it really means public transportation that the other guy has to take?

The respondents clearly favored improved fuel efficiency over increased taxes as a way to reduce energy use. When asked if they strongly approved of the following solutions to climate and energy problems, they responded:
  • Regulate the car industry to make vehicles more efficient (74% strongly approve/90% total approve)
  • Provide improved public transportation (62%/88%)
  • Require homes and other buildings to be more energy efficient (62%/88%)
  • Build communities where people can walk places so that people can use their cars less (49%/83%)
  • Increase taxes on gasoline to discourage driving (8%/16%)
Clearly, the public values existing levels of mobility.

When is comes to land use, 81% said they preferred that new housing and commercial development be placed in already developed areas rather than continuing to build suburbs on the edge of existing suburbs (14%). When it comes to more specifics, 61% favored limits on new home construction in outlying areas and investment in very urban areas, 57% said they favor building businesses and homes closer together, within walking distance (57%) and to shorten commutes (55%).

Respondents strongly opposed (72%) privatization of existing public roads and using toll concessions to private companies to build new roads (52%). Total oppose percentages were 84% and 66%, respectively.

Interestingly, the percentage of respondents who strongly approved charging tolls on more roads if the result was better roads and reduced traffic congestion (26%) almost matched the percentage of people of who strongly disapproved (33%). In all, 55% approved of tolling and 44% disapproved. In the Great Lake states, the approval rate was 58% and the disapproval rate only 41%.

What to make of these numbers? The percentage of people strongly approving of tolls (26%) was over three times as high as those who strongly approved of an increase in the gas tax (8%). Some of all of the difference might be how the questions were phrased. People were asked if they supported a gas tax to reduce driving or tolls to improve highways and reduce congestion. Perhaps the approval rate would be higher for the gas tax if respondents had been asked if they supported such a tax if it resulted in better roads and reduced congestion.

Nevertheless, the results suggest more public support for--or at least tolerance of--tolling than for gas taxes. This is too bad in at least one respect. It is much cheaper to collect gas taxes than it is to collect tolls.

Another interesting finding is the relatively strong public support for using toll revenue on transportation uses other than the toll highway on which the tolls are collected. When asked whether they approved of spending toll revenue on the following uses, the respondents responded as follows:
  • Toll money would be spent on maintaining all roads (48% strongly approve/77% total approve)
  • Toll money would be spent on public transportation as well as roads (41%/70%)
  • Toll money would be spent only on building and maintaining the toll roads (26%/47%).
Perhaps the respondents didn't realize that higher tolls will result if toll money is "diverted" from the toll roads to other uses. But perhaps the public recognizes that some roads add sufficient value that relatively high tolls are appropriate and can be used in part to subsidize other parts of the transportation network. Maybe this suggests that it is politically possible to increase the tolling of roads so long as the the proceeds are used to fund public transit and improvements in arterial roads.

Despite some significant support for tolling, the respondents were less enthusiastic about congestion pricing. When asked if they supported charging tolls to reduce congestion during rush hour 47% strongly opposed the idea and only 20% strongly supported the idea. In all only 37% supported the idea and 61% opposed the idea. When asked if they favored congestion pricing if the money were spent on transportation alternatives to the highway, the strongly opposed percentage dropped from 47% to 35% and the strongly support percentage went from 20% to 26%. The public was evenly split--49% to 49% on whether they approved or disapproved of congestion pricing if proceeds were used to support travel alternatives.

For me the most surprising result was the level of support for (a) concentrating investment in existing built-up areas and restricting greenfield sprawl and (b) higher fuel economy limits. The level of support for tolling and "diverting" toll revenue from toll roads to other uses was also surprising, especially in light of the reluctance to embrace congestion pricing.

Is there a common theme in these results? If I had to pick one it is that policies or rhetoric that appear designed to reduce use of roads (e.g., gas taxes and to lesser extent congestion pricing) are disfavored while policies that do not seem intended to restrict freedom but may nonetheless raise the cost of driving (e.g., road tolling, increased fuel economy standards) are more heavily supported.


Rick Powell said...

As far as greenfield building vs. "infill" development, you will usually find people favoring the infill development in theory. However, there must be a reason, or multiple reasons, people are buying all the exurban housing stock, and Cook County continues to have high net emigration rather than immigration. The real "poll" exists in the pocketbook, where desirable neighborhoods close to city centers are pricey, and people will go outward to get more bang for their buck even as their transportation costs increase. At some point, the trend might be reversed due to high transportation costs and commute times; but then, would infill land (especially near transit) be priced even higher, sending some people outward again?

I have a feeling that availability of water might be the one factor that slows sunbelt growth and provokes a Rust Belt Renaissance. This may be a mixed blessing for the Chicago area, as there are already some counties with anomalous Sun Belt-like growth like Kendall, Will, Kane and Lake, which are already having difficulty handling the surge. New development is slowly turning towards smart-growth ideas like actually allowing a grocery store near or within residential, and providing multi-use trails, but it is a slow increment in the areas where we are reviewing development permits and seeing the proposals.

As far as the road builders go, they will always have work, whether it be building sprawling development, smart growth development, new roads, widening existing roads, or new or rebuilt transit facilities.

A few questions for the area re: tolls would be:

1. Do you favor tolling existing free roads to raise money for transportation? If so, which ones?

2. Should any new toll roads be built? If so, where?

Keep in mind there are some limitations on what can be tolled today. But the nation will someday move from a fuel tax-based system of transportation funding to a mileage or use-based system.

pc said...

Rick, the reason why the prices are higher closer in is because of NIMBY opposition. 75% of developers in Midwestern inner suburbs say that they would build at higher densities if zoning allowed them to. Since developers do ultimately answer to buyers -- they only build what they can sell -- that shows that government is thwarting market demand.

Although many people prefer infill development in theory, that support is often of "soft salience." The few people who oppose particular developments usually are much more vocal about their opposition.

Rick Powell said...


I hear you. I have reviewed countless permits, attended meetings discussing developments, etc. in the outer fringes of Chicagoland. The 2 most frightful words you can use are "density" (as in lots smaller than 1/2 acre)and "affordable" (as in lower income housing). I'm not surprised the attitude is similar in the inner suburbs as well. However, if planning and zoning reflects the will of the people as represented by municipal officials, it will take an attitudinal change and more public support to pay more than lip service to denser infill development.

I also realize there are "vested interests" in keeping land values up that flexibility in zoning and permitting might open the competitive market up a little bit.

We are even beginning to see tear-down issues in the exurbs. Tear-downs seem to be wasteful of existing housing stock, but people often do not want the amenities of a house or storefront of 50+ years vintage. If it's an issue of tearing down a block of houses or an old shopping center that has lost its appeal and re-developing the site, vs. building on a greenfield site, property owners/developers should have reasonable ability to rebuild. Unless a neighborhood has truly unique and extremely significant historical significance, there should be no public policy guarantee that it be frozen in time.

edna welthorpe said...

Rick, you can't have it both ways. Saying that nobody wants to live in the central city because it's too expensive sounds way too much like Yogi Berra's comment about the restaurant nobody eats at because it's too crowded.

Planning and zoning may well reflect the (political) will of (some of) the people, particularly the ones who own property, but the aggregated preferences of everyone who needs to live somewhere are tellingly revealed in the market. What the market demands and what politics permit can be (and often are) rather different.

Rick Powell said...


I am confused by your comment.

There is already "demand" for "desirable" property in neighborhoods close to the central core, if supply and demand have indeed set the prices where they are. Yet there is a net emigration from the inner core, which includes a range of properties from "desirable" residential to less desirable residential, industrial, vacant land, brownfields, etc. PC may be correct that there is a latent demand for more desirable inner core development, if only the developers were allowed to do it. We shall find out - CMAP's 2030 population projections are based on an urban renaissance of 600,000 more people in Cook County. In order to achieve that #, the county will need to first reverse a slide of 15-20,000 net emigrants each year (US Census estimates) by the end of the decade, and then attract about 30,000 additional people PER YEAR for the next 20 years. It will take an attractive mixture of housing, amenities, and jobs to make it happen, and the flexibility of the locals to make it happen, IMHO.

Price is but one consideration in where people choose to locate. But I am bemused by DuPage County officials who tell me their governmental employees can't afford to live in the county.

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Anonymous said...

Well... that's interessting but to be honest i have a hard time seeing it... wonder how others think about this..