The Public Purpose
Number 53 - January 2003

Anti-Sprawl Policies:
Hazardous to Our Wealth

By Wendell Cox

In 2002, California's San Joaquin Valley displaced Los Angeles as the home of the nation's worst air. The Los Angeles Times reports that not a single day of clean air was registered during June, July, August or October in this sprawling agricultural heartland stretching from Bakersfield through Fresno to Stockton. And, unlike former smog champions Los Angeles and Denver, things are getting worse, not better in the San Joaquin Valley.

Things are so bad that local officials are petitioning the federal Environmental Protection Agency for the nation's first "extreme noncompliance" classification, to allow more time to solve the problem. But the San Joaquin Valley's air pollution is not of its own making --- it is being exported from elsewhere.

Part of it is exported every day from the San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose (San Francisco Bay) area, where the activity and industry of seven million people produces smog that is transported by the prevailing westerly winds into the San Joaquin Valley. As a natural phenomenon, this is unavoidable.

But the San Joaquin Valley's bad air is also being exported from the Bay area as a consequence of public policies that are both willful and avoidable. For years, cities and counties in the San Francisco Bay area have been imposing "smart growth" policies such as urban growth boundaries and hefty development impact fees in an attempt to control "urban sprawl." These policies significantly raise the price of housing by rationing land, politicizing land use decisions and restricting competition in home building.

Today, the median house price in the San Francisco area is $525,000, more than three times the national average. It is little better in the San Jose area, at $450,000, and still well beyond the reach of most households at $350,000 in the Oakland area. A recent report by University of Pennsylvania Wharton School researchers Edward I Blaeser and Joseph Gyourko attributed the much of the inordinately higher costs of housing in some metropolitan to the more restrictive land use regulations that are typical of the San Francisco Bay area.

So, many families have been forced to look farther away for housing. And, the affordable housing they need is 75 to 100 miles away, in the San Joaquin Valley, where median house prices range from $160,000 to $220,000. As a result, over the past 10 years, the San Joaquin Valley grew more than 50 percent faster than the Bay area.

And as a further consequence, people drove farther to work and produced more air pollution in the process. The 2000 US Census indicated a huge increase from 1990 in average journey to work travel times in the San Joaquin Valley counties closest to the Bay area. While average work trip one-way travel time was increasing 3.1 minutes nationally and 3.8 minutes in the Bay area, it rose 6.5 minutes in the three closest San Joaquin Valley counties. The greatest increases were in Merced County (Merced-Los Banos) at 9.1 minutes and San Joaquin County (Stockton) at 7.3 minutes. This means that the average Merced County commuter spends the equivalent of 1.7 more work-weeks (68 hours) annually commuting than in 1990. The number of people traveling more than one hour to work tripled in Merced County and doubled in San Joaquin County. The one thing that San Francisco Bay area anti-sprawl policies seem not to have accomplished is controlling sprawl. Like London's Green Belt, which led to an explosion of urban development across 10,000 square miles of southeast England, Bay area policies are well on their way toward creating a hyper-sprawl that would not otherwise be conceivable together with unnecessarily long travel times.

Worse, Bay area politicians have locally repealed the American Dream, denying entry to the escalator of home ownership by artificially raising prices (Home equity represents about half the net worth of households below $50,000 in annual income). Worse yet is the fact that urban planners and politicians elsewhere are rushing to copy these policies that have made the air dirtier, limited wealth creation and retarded the quality of life in California.

Perhaps the next Clean Air Amendments should limit emissions from na´ve policies that are both "hazardous to your health" and "hazardous to your wealth."

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