Randal O'Toole is often the bane of the planning profession. He has made a career out of poking holes in the best laid arguments of the modern planner. He is largely anti-planning - certainly anti centralized planning in a big-government sense. One of his recent books is titled The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook and Your Future. Here is a review of that book I copied from its listing on Amazon.com.

O'Toole documents example after example of government planning gone hideously awry. He demolishes the widely held belief that government planners are somehow smarter or more capable of managing the future than market forces. Yet despite all evidence to the contrary, many Americans still expect the planners to miraculously get it right the next time around. Better to fire the planners and let free people, free minds and free markets use the genius of their freedom." --The Washington DC Examiner Editorial Board -- The Washington DC Examiner

It may come as a surprise to some - perhaps even some of my colleagues here at Strong Towns - that I really enjoy Randal O'Toole.

I'm a planner, but before I was a planner I was an engineer. These are professions that, on paper, should be two sides of the same coin. One planning the future of a community and the other ruggedly implementing that plan. The ying and yang of community building. Oh, if it were only true.

The reason I am one of but a handful of individuals in the United States with both an engineering license and a planning certification is that these professions attract very different types of people. One requires a theoretical, broad, systems-oriented approach. The other demands a technical, specific and solution-oriented approach. Planners scoff at engineers for their narrow-mindedness. Engineers scoff at planners for their lack of practicality. 

They are both right. And largely, so is Randal O'Toole.

Just before our holiday break I listened to a podcast from the CATO Institute that featured an interview with O'Toole. It is titled, "Urban Planners Romanticize Mobility". I've embedded the link below below so our readers can hear the entire interview (it's only about six minutes).

Some of the good arguments O'Toole makes that planners should note include:

  • The automobile has provided us a tremendous amount of mobility. A century ago people traveled an average of 400 miles per year, largely by train. Today we average 18,000 miles per year by automobile or airplane.
  • Increased mobility has created tremendous benefits. It has given employers access to more workers, which has allowed businesses to grow. It has also allowed workers to choose from more places of employment, which has increased incomes and productivity.
  • The planner's idealized notion from the past that society traveled romantically about in streetcars and trains was a reality for only the wealthy. The vast majority of people were confined to foot travel because they could not afford the fare.

O'Toole then puts forth the argument that, if the United States essentially "went back" to the industrial age in terms of transportation we would cripple the economy and destroy the income gains of the past century.

This is where the engineer and the planner agree, but it is a false argument, because nobody is proposing we do such a thing. 

O'Toole embraces the classic engineer approach that increasing AUTO mobility is always a good thing (he argues that government programs to direct money to transit is the "government trying to discourage mobility"). He believes that "mobility" means a person in their car with the theoretical freedom to drive wherever they wish to go whenever they wish to go there. He summarizes the argument with the following, which I have transcribed:

"There is this feeling that we can substitute transit, cycling and walking for driving if we just put everything closer together.....That's not the way people want to live. They want to have a choice of grocery stores. They want grocery stores to compete for their business and not be limited to the one that is within walking distance. They want to be able to live in multi-income households and not everybody in the household is going to be able to work in the place that is located within twenty minutes of their home.

And people like to have a house with a yard and if everybody's got a house with a yard we're not going to be able to be compact enough that everybody can be within twenty minutes of work or twenty minutes of a grocery store. The idea that we can pack people in and not lose the things we have gained over the past century is simply a fantasy." 

In truth, it is this argument that is fantasy. The notion that the gains we have seen since WW II have been real and not the product of massive public debt, private over-leveraging, government spending and continuous subsidy is a fallacy. We have seen enormous gains, but only because we have spent trillions of dollars to make it so.

Is it not fair for the planner to stop and question the engineer as to how this "way of life" is ultimately to be paid for? Especially when the engineer has already told you that they have no idea? (Oh, and it will cost a fortune too).

If people want a house with a yard, I agree with Randal O'Toole that they should be able to have it. Where I apparently differ with Randal O'Toole is in my belief that they should actually pay for it. Today. Now. Like the highways and the traffic lights and the roads and the sewers and the water systems and the police and fire protection and on and on and on....

Engineers and anti-planning advocates should not be allowed to credibly argue that the government is trying to "limit mobility" - engineers have already done that by creating systems that induce congestion in a way and at levels that are impossibly expensive to remedy. More of the same is not the answer.

If we want to truly increase mobility, we need to take a Strong Towns approach and start looking at the real ROI we get from transportation improvements. If we do, O'Toole is right that trains to sprawling suburbs will not rank high. But neither will more highway lanes to those same areas. In other words, it is not the transportation option but the development model itself that needs to change. Fix our approach to land use, and the transportation solution will follow.