Tag Archives: public transit

Building from the Top Down

Senator Chris Dodd is sponsoring a bill to promote development of livable cities.  The Livable Communities Act is designed to coordinate federal policies on housing, transportation, energy, and the environment.  It would provide grants to cities to build in alignment with federal urban policy.

As Reuters explains:

Dodd described the bill as combining housing development, public transit, and infrastructure and land-use planning into one comprehensive approach to city development. Currently, many of those decisions are made separately from one another, and Dodd and others said the partitions have led to urban sprawl.

However, Dodd’s explanation of the causes of urban sprawl ignores the history of density restrictions, federal subsidies of highways and mortgages that have pushed and pulled many cities to their current states of sprawl.  His policy prescription does not address the types of challenges that cities pose.

Urban development is the essence of an economic problem, rather than an engineering problem.  Even a “coordinated” federal policy will not necessarily help urban development, which must be a ground-up process.  As Jane Jacobs explains, top-down funding for urban development is often “cataclysmic” because vital development must come from entrepreneurs rather than politicians, and must be supported by local residents.  Without an understanding of the hyper-local issues that impact block-by-block development, federal funding for urban development is likely to destroy blossoming vitality by diverting resources from their most valued uses.

Previous federal urban policies, such as Community Development Block Grants and Federal housing Administration loans have led to systemic problems in American cities such as concentrated poverty and urban sprawl.  The Livable Communities Act is likely to have similar, unforeseen consequences.

Public Transit 2010: Higher Fares and Less Service

The Wall Street Journal reports higher fares and less frequent service will hit public transit systems nationwide this year. About $8.4 billion of the $787 billion stimulus  meant to boost state and local budgets and prevent transit cuts has only pushed forward tough decisions by 11 months. Chicago will furlough some transit workers. San Francisco is raising fares to close a $129 million budget gap. And New York is cutting service. Transit riders may well be frustrated in 2010, but ultimately that’s because riders aren’t customers, they are beneficiaries of a subsidized service. As Sam Staley writes at Planetizen, only one-third of transit’s revenues come from fares, the bulk comes from tax revenues and federal grants. Urban transit systems have evolved as a product of political lobbying not in response to rider needs.

The crisis in budgets has a silver lining. More cities and states may be forced to pursue fundamental reform. Leonard Gilroy writes in the Reason Foundation’s  23rd Annual Privatization Report, Chicago leased its parking meters and Dunwoody, Georgia is contracting out non-safety-related services. Given the revenue outlook for local and state governments 2010 may be the year that cities finally try and fix what ails public transit.

Can Tysons be Fixed?

Last week, Tyler Cowen wrote about planning issues in Northern Virginia on Marginal Revolution.  He compares Tysons Corner to Clarendon, demonstrating the importance of street layout in urban development. While the two areas are geographically close DC suburbs, they have very different atmospheres because Clarendon has successfully fostered pedestrian-friendly mixed use development, while Tysons has a lower residential density, fewer public transportation options, and roads that are much more difficult to traverse on foot.

Fairfax County planners are in the process of creating a redevelopment plan, promoted as a way to make the area more urban and less car-dependent. Cowen points out that simply providing incentives for higher residential density will not necessarily give Tyson’s the vibrant street life experienced in Clarendon:

The whole area is carved up by major roads, including three significant highways, one of which could be called massive.  Try crossing Rt. 123 at Tysons Corner or try crossing Rt.7. Even some of the “small” roads on this map are harder to cross than is the main Clarendon/Wilson thruway in Arlington.  It’s not just the roads and the overpasses; crossing or circumventing either major shopping center is a daunting experience.  Furthermore very little is laid out in a line and thus the presence of Metro stops (right now there aren’t any) would not cover the area nearly as well as they do in central Arlington.

Even for those not familiar with these Northern Virginia suburbs, Cowen’s description of Tysons probably conjures images of urban sprawl problems across the country. On his blog The Bellows, Ryan Avent responded to Cowen:

At any rate, it does seem odd that once again, we have a libertarian-ish figure cheering on the planners’ decision to artificially reduce density.

It has been widely asserted by writers such as Will Wilkinson that libertarians tend to support government incentives that favor roads and driving as opposed to public transit, even though both require taxing, spending, and distortions of the free market.  This larger issue may be a relevant point for debate in future developments. In existing suburbs, it remains true that existing traffic patterns that are not navigable on foot are difficult, or at any rate very costly, to redesign into bustling city neighborhoods.

For creating blocks that support high residential density and mixed use, Jane Jacobs recommends short blocks and small streets, similar to those witnessed in Clarendon, although it is easy to imagine that she would like to see much wider sidewalks even there. However, it is worth considering whether her policy recommendations would be feasible in a place like Tysons where land value is very high and the urban geography is already completely designed for transit by car.

Cowen recommends focusing on new, more urbanist developments in other parts of Northern Virginia that are currently less built up than Tysons, which may make more sense. Working within the municipal government confines that currently rule streets and zoning, cost benefit analysis must be relied upon instead of market signals.

Is Smart Growth the Way to Better Cities?

Anthony Flint of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy wrote a Boston Globe op-ed explaining that cities are well placed to become increasingly important centers of population and commerce. This is due in part to the ongoing pattern of national urbanization and in part to the Obama administration’s emphasis on the importance of cities and sustainable development.

20071018-garden_city_detailSmart growth, a policy championed by some people within the environmentalist and urbanist movements, advocates goals such as improving public transportation, protecting the environment, creating affordable housing, and supporting economic development. These goals are hard to find fault with, but the question remains whether federal policy is an appropriate place to be promoting a specific type of urban development.

Flint cites Jane Jacobs as an important thinker in shaping the contemporary ideal of urban living with vibrant mixed-use development that invites pedestrian use. While this sort of development fits in with some “smart growth” objectives, Jacobs emphasized that land use needed to be determined using local knowledge rather than top down mandates. She fought these mandates at the municipal level, and one can only imagine how she would react to development direction from the newly created Office of Urban Affairs.

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Incentives for Mixed-Use Developments

Followers of the New Urbanism movement in city planning believe policies should be undertaken to encourage people to move into city centers and discourage sprawl. A New York Times article reports:

Urban-style development may be the brightest spot in a generally gloomy market. A recent survey of developers and investors by the Urban Land Institute for its annual Emerging Trends in Real Estate report found that urban redevelopment had the best prospects among all types of housing, while urban mixed-use properties and town centers scored high among niche property types. “These are the places that will be creating and holding value,” Ms. [Shelley] Poticha [the president of a transit-oriented nonprofit] said. She said proximity to public transit could raise property values significantly.

[. . .]

That often requires collaboration between local governments and private developers. Local governments might invest in transit, parks and infrastructure, revise zoning laws and offer financial incentives in return for a developer taking the risk of building in an unproven area.

If in fact consumer preferences are changing, shifting demand toward higher density, mixed-use housing and away from suburban single-family homes, of course it makes sense for developers to cater to these desires.  Some urban planning scholars see benefits in these types of residences such as increased quality of life or a more ecologically sound lifestyle. Home buyers likely see these same benefits, which may explain why some people are wanting to leave the suburbs for areas that they see as having superior amenities.

When consumers’ tastes in housing change, developers do not need incentives from any level of government to create housing products that satisfy their customers; in fact, they will have to build houses that meet changing demand conditions in order to stay in business.

Relaxing zoning code in order to allow for more mixed-use development in some cities may allow builders to better provide housing of the sort people want and may make cities that allow for mixed-use development more desirable places to live. However, proposed government incentives for specific types of developments, whether enacted at the local, state, or federal level, will move the market equilibrium away from optimal variety and quantity of housing which is demanded, making the politically-supported new developments cheaper relative to existing housing stock than they otherwise would be.

Particularly now, as many analysts think that the current housing stock is still in excess of what consumers want to buy at prevailing prices, it seems bad policy to create incentives that will allow builders to profit off of new housing in a way unsupported by market demand. The fallout of the mortgage market should have made it abundantly clear to everyone, especially urban planners, that incentivizing home building is not without risk.