Tag Archives: Market Urbanism

WMATA’s failures are institutional, not personal

Chris Barnes who writes the DC blog FixWMATA  is supporting a petition to replace the Board of Directors of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. Frustration with the transit agency is growing among Washington-area residents as ongoing system repairs have made the system’s weekend service increasingly unusable. The situation has led to the birth of multiple blogs documenting WMATA’s failures. As an intern in DC from the Czech Republic recently summed up the situation, “Metro is both terrible and expensive.”

While the need for reforms at WMATA is clear, replacing the Board of Directors is unlikely to lead to significant improvements in the system. Rather, WMATA’s problems are institutional, and new actors facing the same incentives as the current WMATA Board are unlikely to produce better results. Some of the institutions preventing a Metro of reasonable quality and cost include:

1) Union work rules. Stephen Smith, my co-blogger at Market Urbanism, has done an excellent job of explaining how union work rules make transit needlessly expensive. One of the biggest culprits is requiring shifts to be at least eight hours and preventing the hiring of part-time workers. WMATA rationally runs trains and buses more often during morning and evening rush hours, but it is not permitted to staff these time periods at levels above mid-day staffing because of the eight-hour shift requirement. Combined with the above-market wages and benefits that WMATA employees make, these bloated employee costs prevent WMATA from achieving a higher farebox recovery rate and having more resources to dedicate to needed capital improvements.

2) Intergovernmental transfers. Over half of WMATA’s current capital improvement budget comes from the federal government, meaning that while the benefits of the system are narrowly bestowed on riders, a large share of the capital improvement costs are spread across U.S. taxpayers. This large dispersal of costs permits much more expensive transit than would be tolerated if all funding came from the localities that benefit from the system. Furthermore, with funds coming from the District, Maryland, Virginia, and the federal government, the flypaper effect comes into play. This means that a $100 million infusion from the federal government to WMATA will not reduce the cost born by local taxpayers by $100 million; rather, total spending on the project will increase with grants from higher level of government. Absent incentives to spend this money well, WMATA demonstrates that high levels of federal funding will not necessarily result efficiently carried out capital improvements.

At Pedestrian Observations, Alon Levy provides a comparison of transit construction costs across countries, and finds that U.S. construction costs are exorbitant. The reasons for these cost disparities are many and not well-understood. One reason for high costs in the U.S., though, may be that the prevalence of  federal funding comes with the strings of costly federal regulations.

3) Accountability. While all U.S. transit systems suffer inefficiencies from intergovernmental transfers and union work rules, DC’s Metro has a unique governance structure that seems to produce particularly bad and costly service. WMATA has the blessing and the curse of being multijurisdictional. On the one hand, the Washington region is not plagued with the agency turf wars that New York City transit sees. Several of the system’s rail lines run through Virginia, DC, and Maryland, providing many infrastructure efficiencies and service improvements over requiring transfers between jurisdictions.

Despite these opportunities to provide improved service at a lower cost, WMATA’s lack of jurisdictional control seems to do more harm than good. No politician can take full credit for running WMATA efficiently, so none prioritize the agency’s performance. It’s a tragedy of the political commons.

Josh Barro has recommended directly electing the Board of Directors of WMATA to create elected officials with an incentive to improve service. This institutional change would be more likely to improve outcomes than replacing the current Board with new members who would face the same incentives. Clearly, WMATA’s Board of Directors is failing in its job to oversee quality and cost-effective transit for the region; however, replacing the board members without changing the institutions that they work under will not likely improve outcomes. Intergovernmental transfers and union work rules limit transit efficiency across the country, but WMATA’s interjurisdictional status exacerbates inefficiencies and waste.

Detroit’s Art is Not the Key to its Revival

This post originally appeared at Market Urbanism, a blog about free-market urban development.

Detroit’s art assets have made news as Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr is evaluating the city’s assets for a potential bankruptcy filing. Belle Isle, where Rod Lockwood recently proposed a free city-state may be on the chopping block, but according to a Detroit Free Press poll, residents are most concerned about the city auctioning pieces from the Detroit Institute of the Arts’ collection.

I’ve written previously about the downsides of publicly funding art from the perspective of free speech, but the Detroit case presents a new reason why cities are not the best keepers of artistic treasures. Pittsburgh’s Post-Gazette contrasts the Detroit Institute of Art’s situation with the benefits of a museum funded with an endowment:

As usual, Andrew Carnegie knew what he was doing.

The steel baron turned philanthropist put the City of Pittsburgh in charge of operating the library he gave it in 1895, but when he added an art museum to the Oakland facility just one year later, he kept it out of city hands.

“The city is not to maintain [the art gallery and museum],” Carnegie said in his dedication address. “These are to be regarded as wise extravagances, for which public revenues should not be given, not as necessaries. These are such gifts as a citizen may fitly bestow upon a community and endow, so that it will cost the city nothing.”

Museums and other cultural amenities  are a sign of a city’s success, not drivers of success itself. The correlation between culturally interesting cities and cities with strong economic opportunities is often mistakenly interpreted to demonstrate that if cities do more to build their cultural appeal from the top down, they will encourage job growth in the process. Rather, a productive and well-educated population both demand and supply these amenities. While an art museum may increase tourism on the margin, it is unlikely to draw additional firms or individuals away from other locations. Detroit is sitting on an estimated $2.5 billion in art, enough to put a dent in its $15 billion long-term obligations.

On a recent episode of Econtalk, Ed Glaeser explains that over investing in public amenities relative to demand is a sign of continued challenges for municipalities:

It is so natural and so attractive to plunk down a new skyscraper and declare Cleveland has ‘come back.’ Or to build a monorail and pretend you are going to be just as successful as Disney World, for some reason. You get short-term headlines even when this infrastructure is just totally ill-suited for the actual needs of the city. The hallmark of declining cities is to have over-funded infrastructure relative to the level of demand in that city.

Similarly, cities throwing resources at museums and other amenities designed to attract the “creative class” are highly likely to fail because bureaucrats are poorly-positioned to learn about and respond to their municipalities’ cultural demands. When cities do successfully provide cultural amenities, they are catering primarily to well-educated, high-income residents — not the groups that should be the targets of government programs.

I think it’s highly unlikely that Detroit will sell off any taxpayer-owned art to pay down its debts based on the media and political blow back the possibility has seen. However, seeing the city in a position where it owns enough art to cover a substantial portion of its unsustainable long-term debts demonstrates why municipalities should not be curators. Tying up municipal resources in art is irresponsible. The uncertainty that the city’s debt creates for future tax and service provision is clearly detrimental to economic growth. While assets like museums are nice for residents, they do not attract or keep residents or jobs.

Detroit does have an important asset; new ideas need cheap rent. Detroit’s affordable real estate is attracting start ups with five of the metro area’s young companies making Brand Innovator’s list of American brands to watch. While these budding businesses could be key players in the city’s economic recovery, top-down plans to preserve and increase cultural amenities for these firms’ employees will not.

Shortfalls in non-profit disaster rebuilding

This post originally appeared at Market Urbanism, a blog about free-market urban development.

After receiving years of praise for its work in post-Katrina recovery, Brad Pitt’s home building organization, Make It Right, is receiving some media criticism. At the New Republic, Lydia Depillis points out that the Make It Right homes built in the Lower Ninth Ward have resulted in scarce city dollars going to this neighborhood with questionable results. While some residents have been able to return to the Lower Ninth Ward through non-profit and private investment, the population hasn’t reached the level necessary to bring the commercial services to the neighborhood that it needs to be a comfortable place to live.

After Hurricane Katrina, the Mercatus Center conducted extensive field research in the Gulf Coast, interviewing people who decided to return and rebuild in the city and those who decided to permanently relocate. They discussed the events that unfolded immediately after the storm as well as the rebuilding process. They interviewed many people in the New Orleans neighborhood surrounding the Mary Queen of Vietnam Church. This neighborhood rebounded exceptionally well after Hurricane Katrina, despite experiencing some of the city’s worst flooding 5-12-feet-deep and being a low-income neighborhood. As Emily Chamlee-Wright and Virgil Storr found [pdf]:

Within a year of the storm, more than 3,000 residents had returned [of the neighborhood’s 4,000 residents when the storm hit]. By the summer of 2007, approximately 90% of the MQVN residents were back while the rate of return in New Orleans overall remained at only 45%. Further, within a year of the storm, 70 of the 75 Vietnamese-owned businesses in the MQVN neighborhood were up and running.

Virgil and Emily attribute some of MQVN’s rebuilding success to the club goods that neighborhood residents shared. Club goods share some characteristics with public goods in that they are non-rivalrous — one person using the pool at a swim club doesn’t impede others from doing so — but club goods are excludable, so that non-members can be banned from using them. Adam has written about club goods previously, using the example of mass transit. The turnstile acts as a method of exclusion, and one person riding the subway doesn’t prevent other passengers from doing so as well. In the diagram below, a subway would fall into the “Low-congestion Goods” category:

club goods

In the case of MQVN, the neighborhood’s sense of community and shared culture provided a club good that encouraged residents to return after the storm. The church provided food and supplies to the first neighborhood residents to return after the storm. Church leadership worked with Entergy, the city’s power company, to demonstrate that the neighborhood had 500 residents ready to pay their bills with the restoration of power, making them one of the city’s first outer neighborhoods to get power back after the storm.

While resources have poured into the Lower Ninth Ward from outside groups in the form of $400,000 homes from Make It Right $65 million  in city money for a school, police station, and recreation center, the neighborhood has not seen the success that MQVN achieved from the bottom up. This isn’t to say that large non-profits don’t have an important role to play in disaster recovery. Social entrepreneurs face strong incentives to work well toward their objectives because their donors hold them accountable and they typically are involved in a cause because of their passion for it. Large organizations from Wal-Mart to the American Red Cross provided key resources to New Orleans residents in the days and months after Hurricane Katrina.

The post-Katrina success of MQVN relative to many other neighborhoods in the city does demonstrates the effectiveness of voluntary cooperation at the community level and the importance of bottom-up participation for long-term neighborhood stability. While people throughout the city expressed their love for New Orleans and desire to return in their conversations with Mercatus interviewers, many faced coordination problems in their efforts to rebuild. In the case of MQVN, club goods and voluntary cooperation permitted the quick and near-complete return of residents.

Opportunity for States to Protect Land Use

This post originally appeared at Market Urbanism, a blog about free market solutions to urban development challenges.

If this season’s political campaign rhetoric has demonstrated anything, it’s that governors love to take credit for job creation. What I haven’t seen any governor mention, though, is that there is huge opportunity for economic growth in relaxing zoning codes. Most obviously, allowing new opportunities for infill development will create construction jobs. More significantly though, in the long run, cities allow for faster economic growth (and job growth) than other locations.

The regulations that prevent cities from growing keep economic progress below what it otherwise would be. While researchers disagree over whether population density or total population is the variable that is most significantly correlated with economic growth, either way zoning plays an important role in holding back job growth, providing policymakers who are willing to deregulate with opportunities to improve their competitive standings next to other cities.

Political incentives stand in the way of this growth opportunity, however. Most zoning restrictions benefit a city’s current residents at the expense of potential residents. For example, minimum lot size requirements serve to raise the price of homes, preventing low-income people from moving into neighborhoods that current residents wish to keep exclusive. By changing this current order, policymakers risk losing the support of their homeowning constituents, and interest likely to be better organized than renters and potential city residents. Limitations on housing supply raise the value of existing homes, artificially raising the value of residents’ assets, which homeowners strongly fight to protect.

At the local level, policymakers are therefore incentivized to privilege homeowners’ interests at the expense of broad economic growth. At the state level however, the incentives may be different, such that economic growth may benefit state policymakers more than protecting home values. State policymakers have constituents who live in a wide variety of municipalities, some where land use restrictions are less binding in some than others. Additionally, homeowners will face greater challenges in organizing to support artificially propping up home values at the state level compared to the municipal level. State policymakers could therefore benefit themselves by setting limits on the how much municipalities are permitted to restrict development. Importantly, limiting the degree to which municipalities can restrict development does not force density; rather, it allows developers to provide more density if residents demand it.

California legislators considered a bill of this model earlier this year which would have limited cities’ abilities to set parking requirements in neighborhoods where transit is widely available. As Stephen explained, this bill came under criticism from both the American Planning Association and the Reason Foundation, both citing the need for local control of land use. However, this misses the key role of higher level governments within a federalism model.

After the Supreme Court decided in Kelo v. City of New London that municipalities have the power to use eminent domain for economic development, 44 states adopted amendments to protect their citizens from eminent domain for non-public use to various degrees. States did not have this type of reaction to Euclid v. Ambler, which set the precedent allowing cities to create zoning codes, but there is nothing stopping them from setting limits on cities’ zoning power now.  Federal and state governments have a role to set a floor of freedom for all of their residents, which gives states an opportunity to set limits on how much their municipalities can restrict land use.

Detroit’s Financial Future

This post originally appeared at Market Urbanism.

After flirting with Chapter 9 bankruptcy or a state takeover of its finances, Detroit has reached a deal with the state of Michigan that will allow it to remain independently managed with a requirement for state oversight. The Detroit Free Press reports:

The city has seven days to create the positions of chief financial officer and program management director and 30 days after that to make a hire from a list of three candidates from the mayor and state treasurer. Lewis said the city is compiling a list of candidates.

“We’ve got a lot of requirements that are in the agreement,” Lewis said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do (with the agreement) and then getting to the work of fixing the city. Our focus is on executing the plan and getting the resources here to execute the plan.”

Snyder reiterated that the city “shouldn’t expect” a cash bailout, adding that Detroit is one of many troubled communities in the state. But he said the state would use its resources in a variety of ways to help the city.

Snyder said the agreement assures the things that need to be done will get done, describing it as a “progressive series of steps” that first allow the mayor and the council to make the decisions, and then empowers the project manager to do so if they don’t. “This is a legal document designed to deal with situations when they don’t go right,” he said.

While bankruptcy protection offers the advantage to cities of achieving a more manageable debt load, it doesn’t come without a cost. Bankruptcy would add an additional stigma to Detroit, already known for municipal financial distress, encouraging business disinvestment.

Vallejo, CA filed for bankruptcy in 2008, and as the New York Times explains, the city is still in a difficult financial position. After bankruptcy cities have less room in their budgets to provide public services such as infrastructure, parks, and schools while their tax rates don’t fall accordingly. This contributes to further erosion of the tax base as businesses and residents leave the city.

Municipal bankruptcy is always a two-sided issue involving both revenue and debt. At The Atlantic Cities, Emily Badger covers the equation from the revenue side. While cities often both subsidize and enforce sprawl through road-building, parking requirements, and minimum lot sizes, these policies are detrimental to their property tax equations. She cites the positive example of Asheville, NC as a city that has taken advantage of denser downtown redevelopment to improve its ratio of property taxes to infrastructure costs:

Asheville has a Super Walmart about two-and-a-half miles east of downtown. Its tax value is a whopping $20 million. But it sits on 34 acres of land. This means that the Super Walmart yields about $6,500 an acre in property taxes, while that remodeled JCPenney downtown is worth $634,000 in tax revenue per acre. (Add sales tax revenue, and the downtown property is still worth more than six times as much as the Walmart per acre.)

[. . .]

All of this is also just looking at the revenue side of the ledger. Low-density development isn’t just a poor way to make property-tax revenue. It’s extremely expensive to maintain. In fact, it’s only feasible if we’re expanding development at the periphery into eternity, forever bringing in revenue from new construction that can help pay for the existing subdivisions we’ve already built.

[. . .]

“The thing is it all works fine when you have all this new growth and the new gap is met by all these new permit fees – that’s like free money,” Joe Minicozzi [of Public Interest Projects] says.

Cities should not be in the business of requiring the sort of development that is most expensive for them to support. However, this analysis ignores the debt side of Chapter 9, one that may be even more difficult to tackle politically. Despite the harm that poor financial management causes, local elected officials simply do not have the proper incentives to avoid it.

Politicians operate on election cycles, and during their time in office they generally seek to provide their constituents with the best possible services at the lowest tax rate. This leads them to put off payment on long term debt and liabilities using accounting gimmicks and fiscal evasion techniques to spend more on goods that residents will see in the near term.

A combination of debt and declining revenue has put Detroit in the position it’s in today. Its urban development strategy must be a part of the property tax revenue solution. Perhaps the new officials that the city hires will help with debt management, but this additional oversight is unlikely to overcome the incentives of election cycles.

Spreading ideas through the urban process

A shorter version of this post originally appeared at Next American City, where I was live blogging at the 20th anniversary of Living Cities.

Steven Johnson and Paula Ellis, of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, discussed some of the themes in his new book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, including the unique environment for innovation that cities provide. Johnson draws on the work of Jane Jacobs and Geoffrey West to demonstrate that innovation is most likely to happen in places where humans are densely clustered because entrepreneurs rely on the work of others. Both to see through the uncertainties of the future to realize profitable ideas, and to overcome the challenges of product development, entrepreneurs need to live in urban areas.

Johnson began his conversation explaining that many of the ideals that emerged in the Scottish Enlightenment came out of coffeehouses, through the spontaneous conversations that many brilliant men had, and the evolution of their ideas in this urban space. Looking back to these Enlightenment ideals, we can see that Adam Smith, perhaps one of the original urbanists, explained that the division of labor is limited by the size of the market. Continued urban growth provides individuals with growing opportunities to specialize, as both the consumers and technological developments that fuel the market process are consolidated in the same place.

In West’s work that Johnson referenced, he explains that, unlike firms that become increasingly bureaucratic and inefficient as they grow, cities continue to become more productive as they grow in size and density. As Johnson explained, cities have a “liquid property because they have the convergence of diverse people sharing a space. This is an incredible asset.” West demonstrates that the relationship between city size and innovation is exponential. “What the data clearly shows, and what [Jacobs] was clever enough to anticipate, is that when people come together, they become much more productive.” Smith demonstrated that wealth grows through the exchange that urban environments make possible.

However, unlike other scholars of entrepreneurship, Johnson diminishes the importance of profit in facilitating entrepreneurial alertness. Megan McArdle points out that he places a greater importance on “openness and inspiration” than on the profit motive in facilitating entrepreneurial innovation. Of course, entrepreneurs don’t operate in vacuums. Entrepreneurs living in a densely populated city will draw on each other’s work — and find markets for their products — more so than in less densely populated places. And the legal environment surrounding intellectual property, or openness, certainly affects innovation. Despite these outside influences, though, the profit motivation and the essential feedback mechanism that profits and losses provide cannot be downplayed in the market process.

Urban scholars from Jacobs to West to Johnson have built on the insight that dense populations facilitate innovation, where the size of the market is continually growing. While it’s often easy to fall into critiques of urban policies and focus on the challenges facing individuals in cities, yesterday’s conversation struck a happily optimistic note.

 

Gov. Christie Cancels the Hudson River Tunnel (again)

The Hudson River tunnel expansion has again been nixed by Governor Christie. Fearing another “Big Dig” debacle, he says the project is over-budget with cost overruns projected between $2.3 billion and $5.3 billion above the $8.7 billion estimate. Simply put, the project lacks financial resources. The tunnel has received $3 billion in commitments from the federal government, $3 billion from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and a further $2.7 billion from New Jersey.

Cost overruns in infrastructure projects are common. As Christie succinctly notes, “jobs created” doesn’t mean much when there isn’t any money to meet payroll. That’s why asking a federal government awash in debt to pony up more funds isn’t the way to go. If the tunnel is a good idea, New Jersey and New York might consider the approach developed here by economist Steve Hanke to finance improvements to their shared infrastructure. Market Urbanism argues New Jersey’s real commuter problem is its underdeveloped cities. And The TransportPolitic offers another way around transit overcrowding.