The Secret Worldwide Transit Cabal

Informed but opinionated commentary and analysis on urban transportation topics from the Secret Worldwide Transit Cabal. Names have been omitted to protect the guilty.

Our Mission: Monkeywrench the Anti-Transit Forces

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Monday, September 15, 2003


Home of More Transit Links Than You can Possibly Check(tm), Unless you have no life other than websurfing

"Truth passes through three phases: 1) It is ridiculed. 2) It is violently opposed. 3) It is accepted as self-evident." Albert Schopenhouer. In the United States, rail is currently passing through Phase Two.

From the Cabalmaster:

We here at the Secret Worldwide Transit Cabal have advised you previously that Wendell Cox is not mediocre, but sometimes, he’s dense.

Randal O’Toole is sometimes a little dense, too.

Actually, more than just “a little.”

The Sierra Club began its “Challenge to Sprawl” campaign a couple years back, but the kickoff was marred by a careless oversight. The page contained an “environmental impacts calculator” that allegedly defined “efficient urban density” as 500 households per acre.

Now “500 households per acre” does not literally mean 500 households on a patch of land measuring 209 x 209 feet.

It also refers to 250 households on a 148 x 148 foot lot.

[C’mon, Randal . . . C’MON . . . we’re just waiting for you to challenge us on the fact that a square, half-acre lot measures 148 x 148 feet, rounded to the nearest foot.]

Or 125 households on a 104 x 104 foot lot.

Or 50 households on a 66 x 66 foot lot. We’d probably change the lot configuration for more efficient building design, but this could be accommodated in a 13-story tower, four units per floor, 1,100 square feet per unit. 1,200 square feet per unit would require a slightly larger lot (69 x 69 feet).

Granted, such developments are scarce in the U.S. but not in Europe, where multi-story housing developments may be seen alongside large tracts of farmland and other open space – even in small towns.

Granted in addition that not all Americans would want to live in such developments. However, it’s a safe bet that most Americans have no idea of what such developments look like . . . compact urban “enclaves” in the midst of farms, fields and woods . . . nor the ambiance that such development provides. We have it on good authority that some European parents speak highly of such towns that provide a “close to the farm / close to nature” environment in which to raise their children.

But, rather than clarify the meaning of a yardstick such as “500 households per acre,“ Randal and his minions raised a loud – and totally absurd – counter-argument. The following, dated September 11, 2001, was written by Brian Camell and posted on the “” website; see here

“Initially, when the page went live, the Sierra Club defined efficient urban density as 500 households per acre. Given the average number of people per household in the United Stats [sic], that works out to more than 750,000 people per square mile. Folks ridiculed people for suggesting that the entire world population could fit in Texas, but at the density level the Sierra Club was advocating, all 6 billion people in the world today would be able to fit in an area just 2 percent as large as Texas. The state could hold upwards of 300 billion people at that level of density.”

“Responding to criticism, the Sierra Club quickly took the page down and retooled it, defining efficient urban density as only 100 households per acre. But that's still a population density of 153,600 people per square mile, or a density high enough to put every single man, woman and child in Texas almost 7 times. Forget Texas, the entire world population could fit in Virginia!

“It is almost beyond belief to see a mainstream environmental organization actually advocating population densities that exceed those proposed by the Texas thought experiment. At least the critics of overpopulation claims never actually advocated such an absurdity.”

(Cited source: “Sierra Club exposes 'smart growth' madness,” Randal O'Toole, The Heartland Institute, September 1, 2001.)

(Similar “thinking” along these lines: “The Sierra Club's 'huddled masses' vision,” by Wendell Cox, see here

We tend to support their goals, but we have no sympathy for the Sierra Club. It failed to articulate its point clearly, posted a poorly-designed gimmick – the “calculator” – then “wimped out” in response to the guffaws – or braying – from certain quarters.

We Opinionated Ones also think – to paraphrase statistician Daryl Huff (How to Lie with Statistics, WW Norton & Company, 1954,) – that Randal and Wendell tend to use numbers as an inebriate uses a lamppost – more for support than for illumination. An excellent example is provided by none other than . . . Wendell!

We smart-aleck TransitCabalists sometimes don’t know when to quit (but that’s why you like our blog . . . c’mon . . . ‘fess up!). . . but, at times, neither does Wendell. Take a look at the following “Demographia” page and you’ll see what we’re getting at Wendell added (in yellow) several outputs from the Sierra Club calculator.

Note that the units are “population per square mile” and “population per square kilometer.”

Now recall that the Sierra Club calculator used “households per acre.”

Are these units equivalent?

The answer to that question is unequivocal: NO.

The reason: Because they are used to measure two different things, and the issue is more than just one of scale (i.e. that a square mile is larger than an acre).

“Population per square mile” (or square km) means literally that: how many people live on ALL land within a given perimeter. That’s ALL land, used for ALL purposes, not just housing. There are cases where adjusting for open space makes sense (the “textbook” example is the Santa Monica Mountains in Los Angeles, which divide the San Fernando Valley from “the rest of the city”), but this is not the usual practice. And so, land used for streets, freeways, parking lots and so forth . . . together with businesses, industries, schools, parks, playgrounds, churches and so forth . . . generally gets included in “population per square mile” calculations.

“Households per acre” means something quite different: how many dwelling units are built on each acre (or subunit thereof) of RESIDENTIAL land. That’s RESIDENTIAL land, in other words, residential LOTS.

(We wonder if Randal or Wendell have any idea of the percentage of land within the boundaries of any U.S. city that made up of residential lots.)

And so, once again, the one and only . . . well, Mr. Fudge . . . is comparing apples and oranges. But this time, he may have gone a bit too far. We’ve received the following e-mail message here in the Cabalbunker:

“If [Wendell] Cox were a licensed architect or urban planner [he’s not] in my state, he’d get hauled before the board and disciplined for signing his name to that crap.”

Um, yeah.

As Mark Twain observed in Life on the Mississippi

“In the space of one hundred and seventy six years the Lower Mississippi has shortened itself two hundred and forty-two miles. That is an average of a trifle over a mile and a third per year. Therefore, any calm person, who is not blind or idiotic, can see . . . that seven hundred and forty-two years from now the Lower Mississippi will be only a mile and three-quarters long, and Cairo and New Orleans will have joined their streets together and be plodding comfortably along under a single mayor and a mutual board of aldermen” (full quote is here ).

While we’re on the subject of “that” demographia page:

Kowloon Walled City was an enclave within Hong Kong that remained under Chinese sovereignty after the rest of Kowloon was ceded to Great Britain. We’ll skip the other details in order to better illustrate another example of Wendell’s sophistry. Wendell states that the population density was nearly 5 million – yes, 5,000,000 people – per square mile.

Is there something wrong with this picture?

Uh, yeah, we’d say so.

First, although crowded to the extreme, Kowloon Walled City wasn’t very big – a bit less than 0.01 square mile. Yep, that’s 1/100 of a square mile. About the same area as a square, 530 feet on each side, or a circle, 600 feet in diameter. Prior to evacuation and demolition, an estimated 50,000 people lived in about 300 structures.

“5,000,000 people per square mile” . . . derived from a population of 50,000 people?

If that makes sense to you, then you might want to apply for a job at Wendell’s new amusement park . . . we hear it’s gonna be called WEASEL WORLD.

As for Randal . . . we hear he’s got something planned for Portland . . . sort of an “out in the woods experience.”

(Of course, one of the reasons that Portland’s land-use policies attract broad public support is that people need not go to a theme park for a real “out in the woods” experience.)

And when those theme parks do get built, we have no doubt that the following Mark Twain quote will adorn the entrances:

“There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.”

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