The report recently released by Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s
Michigan Land Use Leadership Council is a good example of what happens when
political agendas collide with facts: The facts lose, big time.
Where to begin? A good place is where the council tries to
scare us into believing Michigan might become like America’s most urbanized
state. "Michigan must do a much better job rebuilding its cities and protecting
forests and farm lands," the report states, "or risk becoming a
concrete-covered, Midwestern imitation of New Jersey."
From such a statement, one gets the feeling that New Jersey
is probably 90 percent concrete, and that Michigan isn’t far behind. In fact,
New Jersey does have the largest share of its land in urban areas — 38 percent,
according to the 2000 U.S. Census. Michigan, at 6 percent, has a ways to go
before it can mount a credible challenge.
But according to the Council’s consultants, Michigan will
be two-thirds as urbanized as New Jersey by 2040 and will catch up to it at some
point after our children’s children’s children enter retirement. True — if the
average new home in Michigan from now until we catch up is built on a lot that
is 20 square miles or more in size. That figure comes from plugging into the
equation the Census Bureau’s projected rate of growth for Michigan. Lot sizes
may be increasing, but not by that much.
In fact, U.S. Department of Agriculture data show there has
been no loss of farmland in the state since 1997. The Michigan Department of
Agriculture recently announced that the number of small farms in our state
actually increased in the last year.
The Land-Use Council’s report repeatedly makes assertions —
about the feasibility of mass transit for relieving urban sprawl, for example —
without offering any evidence that transit can make a difference.
That’s because there is no such evidence. The urban area
of the 21st century is too large and diverse to be able to afford
transit as an alternative to the automobile, except for trips to and from
downtown. In edge cities like Southfield and Troy as well as in the edgeless
cities that spread throughout Michigan’s urban areas, few people use transit who
have cars available. If all or even most employment were downtown, mass transit
would make more sense. But only 5 percent of metropolitan Detroit’s employment
is downtown. Transit is similarly limited in other major cities in North
America and Western Europe.
One of the consultants writing for the report implies,
without evidence, that traffic jams would increase if Michigan does not change
its development patterns. Yet, in America, Europe or Asia, more traffic
congestion is associated with the kinds of development patterns the Council
advocates — in which population densities are higher and there is more transit
use. Commuters in such areas spend far more time traveling. In Hong Kong, the
developed world’s most dense urban area, so many people are packed into such a
small area that mass transit offers a preferable alternative to the automobile.
But the average Hong Kong commuter spends 40 minutes longer every day traveling
to and from work than commuters in Detroit.
Of course, the reason it’s so easy to find errors,
exaggerations and unsupported assertions in a report like this is because of its
political agenda, which involves a host of recommendations for greater
government intervention with regard to land use in Michigan, with nary a mention
of any drawbacks.
For example, the council’s report contains not a word about
the fact that if its land-use recommendations were implemented, real estate and
land prices would rise to heights never before seen in Michigan. Harvard
researchers Edward Glaeser and Joseph Gyourko have shown that the primary
difference between high- and low-cost housing markets around the nation is
land-use regulation. This effect can be clearly seen in areas that have adopted
similar policies, like Portland, Oregon, and the San Francisco Bay Area.
How would such a price rise affect home ownership here in
Michigan? For minorities, who lag whites in home ownership by anywhere from 25
to 30 percent, it would pose an almost insurmountable obstacle. Anti-sprawl
strategies will, for many minority and other lower-income households, have the
same detrimental impact as the now-outlawed racial restrictive covenants — they
will keep people from being able to own their own homes. Home ownership is the
principal mechanism for creating savings in middle income America. It can be
the source of funds for sending the kids to college or for starting new
businesses. Take that away and you injure more than just those denied home
ownership. You injure the economy and the community as well.
In its report, the Michigan Land Use Council has identified
no imperative that justifies its interventionist social engineering. As the
Lone Mountain Compact put it, "People should be allowed to live and work where
and how they like." That’s what America, and American prosperity is all about.
And Michigan is no exception.
# # #
Wendell Cox is an adjunct scholar for the Mackinac Center
for Public Policy, principal of Wendell Cox Consultancy in metropolitan St.
Louis and a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers
in Paris (a French national university).