Seven reasons why government planning failsRandal O'Toole of The Thoreau Institute recently started a new blog called The Antiplanner. It can be a bit extreme at times for my tastes, but it did have a few recent posts that give the best summary I've seen to-date on the inherent problems of planning and visioning - a recent area of debate in Houston. The first post starts with seven concise reasons government planning usually fails:
- The Data Problem: The amount of data needed to write a truly comprehensive plan is more than any planning agency can afford to collect. Even if collected, it is more than anyone, even with the help of computers, can comprehend.
- The Future Problem: Writing a long-range plan requires information about the future that is unknowable, such as future technologies, costs, and personal preferences.
- The Modeling Problem: All planning requires models, but before a model becomes complicated enough to be useful for comprehensive planning, it becomes too complicated for anyone to understand.
- The Pace of Change Problem: By the time planners collect all available data and go through the public process of writing a comprehensive plan, conditions have changed so much that the plan is obsolete.
- The Incentive Problem: Government planners who deal with other people’s resources, whether their land or their tax dollars, have no incentive to find the right answers because the costs of their mistakes will be imposed mostly on others.
- The Political Problem: Ultimately, the final decision in any government plan will be made through the political process, a process which is hardly rational.
- The Special Interest Problem: Any time you give a government agency the power to write plans for other people’s money and resources, you create incentives for special-interest groups to lobby in favor of plans that primarily benefit them. Such interest groups will not provide a balanced view; in particular, taxpayers will be underrepresented.
In lieu of accurately predicting the future, planners use a technique they call visioning in which they ask people to imagine what they would like their city to look like in the future. They then try to plan for that city.I'd add to that list that's easy to "vision" a utopia where everybody conforms to what you personally want, because a vision doesn't cost you anything or demand any tradeoffs. It lets you appropriate something from somebody else (like their property rights or taxes) for your personal benefit.
Visioning has numerous flaws. Most obviously, the people doing the visioning still have no special knowledge of the future. So it is most likely that their visions will really be based on a nostalgic view of the past.
Second, visioning results in a mandate for coercive planning. After all, if you can imagine the best possible future for your city, you would not want to risk that future to the uncertainties of the free market or people’s short-term preferences.
Finally, the people writing the vision do not represent all of the people who will live in that future. If they make mistakes, the cost of those mistakes will be shared with others, so they have little incentive to try to get it right.
For all these reasons, visioning is the wrong solution to planners’ inability to predict the future. Instead, in many cases, it just become one more excuse for planners to impose their own nostalgic ideas on their cities.
Finally, he dissects Denver's Metro Vision 2030 plan, and really exposes the flaws above in a real-world case. It's long enough that my excerpts can't do it justice, so I highly recommend reading the whole thing. Here are a few of the nuggets that jumped out at me:
Contrary to what some planners believe, increasing density increases rather than reduces congestion. Planners like to believe that people will drive less if everything is closer together, but the truth is that an X percent increase in density results in less than an X percent decline in per capita driving (so car trips per sq.mile, and thus congestion, still increase substantially). Even the latest in rapid transit and pedestrian-friendly design cannot help. DRCOG predicts elsewhere that its plan will increase congestion (measured in hours of delay) by 73 percent by 2025.
With added congestion comes more air pollution because cars pollute more in stop-and-go traffic. ...
The associated Metro Vision Regional Transportation Plan calls for spending $5.8 billion on regional road improvements (at least part of which will be privately funded) and $4.2 billion on rapid transit (all of which will be taxpayer subsidized). In other words, 42 percent of the region’s transportation capital funds will go for transit, even though DRCOG predicts that by 2025 transit will carry less than 3 percent of passenger travel (see p. 24). Contrary to wishful thinking, blowing a lot of money on transit will not reduce congestion.
The Metro Vision plan imposes other costs on taxpayers. Many of the 70 high-density, mixed-use areas will require subsidies in the form of tax-increment financing (TIF). Some planners claim TIF is not a subsidy, but the new development it funds imposes costs on fire, police, and other urban services without providing any revenues to cover those costs.
Planners consider large yards to be destructive of open space, yet Americans regard large yards as some of the open spaces that they enjoy the most. Taking people’s yards away by mandating compact development effectively reduces the amount of open space people use on a daily basis.
Metro Vision 2030 imposes another hidden cost on residents: unaffordable housing. The emphasis on multifamily and compact development means there will be plenty of these types of housing, but the housing that most people want — single-family homes with a yard they can use for gardens, play, and entertainment — is already priced out of sight in parts of the Denver area. Coldwell Banker says that a house that costs $155,000 in Houston would cost $357,000 in Denver and $536,000 in Boulder. DRCOG’s Metro Vision plan will only make this worse.
In short, DRCOG’s plan calls for making most if not all of the major problems it identifies — congestion, air pollution, tax burdens, and open space — worse, not better. It will also impose high housing costs on the region. DRCOG is committing billions of dollars to subsidies for rapid transit, high-density housing, and infrastruction for infill. It is adding billions of dollars to the cost of housing.
Why does this happen? Because there is no scientific basis for regional planning. Instead (to quote a paper cited by Dan in response to a previous post), DRCOG relied on “visioning, scenario-building, and persuasive storytelling”.
In what sense can this planning be called “rational”? DRCOG is not planning for what people want — people don’t want congestion and high housing prices. It is not planning for any particular future needs — Colorado is not going to run out of open space any century soon. This planning is merely some people trying to impose their preferences on other people. That is not rational planning. It is authoritarian government. It is exactly what Americans are supposed to be against.