In The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future, Randal O’Toole defends the car against its environmental foes
Automobiles are blamed for “wasting” land in the form of urban sprawl. Yet autos actually have produced significant land-use benefits. Consider first the land supposedly wasted by sprawl. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, urban land increased from 15 million acres in 1945 (the earliest year for which data are available) to 60 million acres today. During this time, urban populations increased by 160 percent, so if densities had remained the same as in 1945, urban areas would occupy only 39 million acres today. Thus, some 21 million acres of urbanizations might be attributed to postwar automobile-oriented sprawl.
Of course, whether this is waste depends on your point of view. Low-density development brought the American dream of owning a home with a yard to far more people than ever before. Large yards do not destroy open space so much as they convert one form of open space—farms and forests—to another—backyards. From the point of view of watersheds and certain kinds of wildlife, backyards may even be better than intensely managed croplands.
Still, automobiles have more than made up for the 21 million acres of low-density development. Thanks to autos, trucks, and tractors, farmers across the country no longer needed to dedicate tens of millions of acres of land to pasture for horses. As a result, between 1920-1970, farmers returned 82 million acres of pastureland to forests. This is almost certainly the largest area of deforested land ever to be reforested. The number of acres reported as forestlands has declined since 1970, but nearly all that decline resulted from the transfer of federal forestlands to the National Park Service, which (by the Department of Agriculture’s reckoning) takes them out of the forestland category.
Forests provide much more biodiversity than pastures. Instead of producing fodder for horses these lands now offer habitat for wildlife, wood for housing, and cleaner water for fish and downstream users.
At the same time, farmers converted millions of other acres of pasture to croplands. When horses were the main source of farm power, virtually all farms had to dedicate a portion of their acreage to pasture. Now, farmers can dedicate their most productive lands to growing crops, while less productive lands are used for range or forests.