Landmark Incentives

by Sandy Ikeda

The other day I was lecturing to my students about externalities and the Coase Theorem.  One of the examples I used came directly from the our textbook – Heyne, Boettke, & Prychitko’s The Economic Way of Thinking.  It asks what would happen if you tried to declare a large tree in your neighbor’s backyard a landmark in order to prevent her from chopping it down and depriving you of the valuable shade it casts into your backyard.  The answer is that it gives her an incentive to chop the tree down much sooner, before the landmarking can go through.

It turns out that that’s exactly what some landlords in New York have been doing to avoid the severe building constraints imposed by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Law.  Of course they use jackhammers instead of chain saws, but the principle is the same.  According to this front-page article in today’s (Saturday 29 November) The New York Times:

Hours before the sun came up on a cool October morning in 2006, people living near the Dakota Stables on the Upper West Side were suddenly awakened by the sound of a jackhammer.  Soon word spread that a demolition crew was hacking away at the brick cornices of the stables, an 1894 Romanesque Revival building, on Amsterdam Avenue at 77th Street, that once housed horses and carriages but had long served as a parking garage.  In just four days the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission was to hold a public hearing on pleas dating back 20 years to designate the low-rise building, with its round-arched windows and serpentine ornamentation, as a historic landmark.

(Hat tip to “The Volokh Conspiracy” via Mario Rizzo.)

Now, regulations and private exchanges both have unintended consequences.  The difference is that the latter represent opportunities that when exploited tend to create value (e.g., dirty air and air conditioners, noisy engines and mufflers, fast-food and gyms), whereas the former tend to frustrate the intentions of those who support the regulation (e.g., rent control and housing shortages, minimum wages and unemployment, and industrial bailouts and, well, more industrial bailouts.)

Anyway, about half the class chose not to attend that particular lecture, thereby depriving themselves of much wisdom.  It was the day before the Thanksgiving break, however, so I guess they too were just following their incentives.

Euclid’s Legacy

While well intentioned, like many progressive interventions of the eary 1900s, zoning has contributed to sprawl (which has begun to be demonized by progressives over the recent decades) and served to inhibit the vitality and diversity of urban neighborhoods. The triumph of the core philosophy behind Euclid vs. Ambler later enabled destructive urban renewal projects using eminent domain to displace entire neighborhoods, the emergence of unfriendly NIMBY activism, and more recently helped give legitimacy to the decision in the highly controversial Kelo v. New London Supreme Court Case.

Steve at Urban Review STL, a Saint Louis-based urbanism blog, wrote a great summary of Euclidean Zoning in the US.

The solution to these urban ills was zoning. Cities would create “land use” maps segregating industrial, office, retail, and housing. Early efforts were often used to keep industry from spoiling more pleasant areas of town. In Ohio the Village of Euclid, a Cleveland suburb, enacted zoning in 1921 to keep Cleveland’s industry out of its jurisdiction.

A property owner viewed the restriction on the future use of their land as a “taking” by the government and filed suit. The case, Village of Euclid, Ohio v Ambler Realty, went all they way to the U.S. Supreme Court. A lower court had ruled the zoning law to be in conflict with the Ohio & U.S. Constitutions. The Supreme Court, however, disagreed and reversed the lower court’s ruling. Their November 22, 1926 ruling declared use zoning as legal. Since then it has been known as “Euclidean zoning.”

In the 82 years since the Supreme Court validated the zoning ordinance for the Village of Euclid, Ohio we’ve managed to take a simple concept — keeping out heavy industry — to a point beyond reasonable. Cities and their suburbs now over regulate uses on land. Residential areas, for example, are broken down by single-family, two-family, multi-family. Even within Single-family you have different sections requiring different minimum lot sizes.

“Exclusionary zoning” is the term used when zoning is such that it excludes that which might be perceived as undesirable. For example, if a municipality has al their residential zoning so that lots sizes must be at least 3 acres in size. Minimum house size is another way to keep out more affordable housing options. Similarly, maximum sizes for apartments means those will end up being kid-free zones. It is one thing for a developer to set project specific standards but another for government to mandate it.

Houston is famous for its lack of Euclidean zoning. It does, however, have regulations such as 5,000 sq. ft. minimum lot size for a single family house. In Houston, according to Wikipedia, “Apartment buildings currently must have 1.33 parking spaces per bedroom, and 1.25 for each efficiency.” These sorts of rules produce the same results – sprawl and auto dependency.

Here’s a link to the source (Planetizen: Zoning Without Zoning) of that Wikipedia quote.

“The answer: Freedom.”

I related to this particular post by Michael Lewyn at Planetizen, Why I fight:

Occasionally, someone familiar with my scholarship asks me: why do you care about walkability and sprawl and cities? Why is this cause more important to you than twenty other worthy causes you might be involved in?

The answer: Freedom.

Now, the article doesn’t discuss freedom from a property rights or free-market point of view, but from a mobility point of view. As a former “carless teenager” in suburbia (well, carless until 16), I can relate to that. I think my yearning for freedom is what sparked my interest in the city too.

Of course, some people equate driving to freedom. For some its walkability, transit, or silent star filled skies. Freedom means different things to everyone, and I found my freedom in the diverse experiences and opportunities only available in the city.

Links to Interesting Articles

Market Urbanism readers may not have noticed, but not too long ago I added a feature to the sidebars labeled “Check these out.” This is a feed from the Market Urbanism bookmarks. I added this feature as a timesaving alternative to creating a new post every time I find a relevant article, leaving more time for in depth posts.

You can subscribe to the feed here: rss feed

Let me know what you think – is it better, or should I post more often?
Look up! Based on your feedback, I made the feed a feedburner feed and created a animation at the top of the page featuring posts from the links feed.

It looks like this:
Market Urbanism Related Articles:

Cul-de-sacs – Privatize ‘em

Daniel Nairn at Discovering Urbanism brings up a great point about cul-de-sacs. Are they public goods, or truly unnecessary “socialism in its most extreme form”?

Take the standard cul-de-sac that serves a handful of households. The purpose of this design is to exclude the general public from passing through while serving the automotive needs of a small number of individuals. Does it pass our intuitive sense of fairness to declare that the entire public, say the local municipal citizenry, ought to foot the bill for what could essentially be considered a shared driveway? Perhaps a more important question: How does the government’s decision of where to draw the line between public and private encourage or discourage the connectivity of the road system?

image from Discovering Urbanism

image from Discovering Urbanism

Dan discusses that Virginia’s DOT is looking at shifting funding away from roads that don’t play a significant role in the transportation network, by using a very well defined metric:

The link-node ratio is calculated by dividing the number of links (street segments and stub streets) by the number of nodes (intersections or cul-de-sacs). A perfect grid of streets will have a link-node ratio around 2.5 and a network of complete cul-de-sac or dead end streets with only one way in and one way out will have a link-node ratio of 1.0. It is suggested that a ratio of 1.4 will provide adequate connectivity in many situations.

The link-to-node ratio seems like a very rational approach to determining public roadway funding, if one chooses to concede that roads are a public good.

Unfortunately, owners of homes on cul-de-sacs have grown acustomed using their publicly-funded, communal driveways, and would suffer from decreased funding for roads they are entirely dependent upon. A viable solution would be for the municipality to grant the cul-de-sac roadway and land to the owners of the homes. The home owners could then use the street land per its highest-and-best use, and maintain their private communal driveway at their own expense. Observing the rise or drop in the value of those homes, we’ll then see if cul-de-sacs add value to the community, or are just sinkholes for public funds that benefit only a few home owners.

Who Owns the West?

Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution – Now is the Time for the Buffalo Commons:

The Federal Government owns more than half of Oregon, Utah, Nevada, Idaho and Alaska and it owns nearly half of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Wyoming. See the map for more. It is time for a sale. Selling even some western land could raise hundreds of billions of dollars – perhaps trillions of dollars – for the Federal government at a time when the funds are badly needed and no one want to raise taxes. At the same time, a sale of western land would improve the efficiency of land allocation.

Alex suggests using the funds to buy cheaper land in the plains for The Buffalo Commons, the world’s largest nature park. I haven’t looked into the nature park idea, but I would like to see the Federal Government unload much of that land.

The MR post links to an article at a blog called Strange Maps, which uncovered the map from Stanford Magazine. Strange Maps explains:

This map details the percentage of state territory owned by the federal government. The top 10 list of states with the highest percentage of federally owned land looks like this:

1. Nevada 84.5%
2. Alaska 69.1%
3. Utah 57.4%
4. Oregon 53.1%
5. Idaho 50.2%
6. Arizona 48.1%
7. California 45.3%
8. Wyoming 42.3%
9. New Mexico 41.8%
10. Colorado 36.6%

Tolling NY’s East River Bridges Back on The Table?

Congestion pricing schemes, touted as environmentally-responsible at the time of $4 gas, were defeated in New York City last Spring. However, as the market turmoil threatens to wreak havoc on tax revenues, fiscal necessity has lured New York State and New York City politicians to re-examine the political viability of charging tolls to drivers entering Manhattan.

The NY Times City Room blog discusses the history of tolling on New York City’s East River bridges, but much of that history features plans to reinstate tolling and the popular resistance to those plans. How East River Bridges Stayed Toll-Free:

On numerous occasions, politicians have tried to reinstitute tolls on the four bridges — the Brooklyn (completed in 1883), Williamsburg (completed in 1903) and Manhattan and Queensboro (both completed in 1909). After all, the Brooklyn Bridge charged horse-drawn carriages a toll from the time it opened. But by the Depression, the tolls were a thing of the past.

The history shows that officials have failed again and again to revive tolls on the four bridges. (Other major crossings, including the bridges run by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, already charge tolls.)

Tolling being “the third rail of of New York City politics”, it will be hard enough to institute in the face of voter sympathy for road socialism. So, we shouldn’t hold our breath for the ideal solution, full privatization of the bridges and transit, but tolling may be a step in the market direction. Or is it??

Is tolling just away for politicians to let themselves off the hook for their irresponsibility, and will just result in another new tax? Or can we hope it will soften the resistance to market-based solutions.

[thanks to loyal Market Urbanism reader, Benjamin Hemric for the tip]

Matt Yglesias fails to make the right case against highways

Matt Yglesias is one of the best mainstream bloggers on land use/transportation that I know of. As one blogger (who I don’t recall right now) once said, his urban planning and transportation posts could be blogs in their own right. However, it’s puzzling that in an article for Cato Unbound, he comes up with such a pathetic rejoinder to the O’Toole/Cox/Poole “vulgar libertarian” transportation cabal, who don’t seem to have ever met a road they didn’t like:

Or consider the fact that Randall [sic] O’Toole is indignant about the prospect of public expenditures on mass transit systems, but appears to have little to say about public funding of highways. This, too, looks more like a case of narrow business interests than sterling free market principles.

While Yglesias’ instincts are right – current transportation markets in America are highly distorted – the reason they’re distorted has little to do with the ways highways are financed. Based on some basic figures, Randal O’Toole concludes that the vast majority of road funding – over 80% – comes out of user fees. Now, of course there are still some subsidies there, but it’s really nothing compared to the subsidies that mass transit systems receive, which in America never even come close to covering operating costs, never mind capital expenditures. Now, there are some problems with the 80% number, such as the government’s favorable access to bond markets and the legacy of infrastructure that wasn’t paid for with user fees, but all in all, it’s hard to argue that roads have a subsidy advantage over mass transit.

However, that’s not to say that Yglesias doesn’t have a point when he says that libertarians and conservatives have blind spots when it comes to how they see transportation. But the real government benefit that the road/car system has over mass transit is density: there are innumerable regulations at every level of government in the United States which favor low-density, single-family detached housing over the denser forms that dominated non-rural areas before the 20th century. Successful roads as we have in America require this low density to remain (almost) financially solvent – it would be very difficult to cope with people’s road needs if they were allowed to build as densely as they would without maximum density zoning rules and minimum parking regulations.

As a thought experiment, imagine your local town/neighborhood with twice the density. Chances are, the roads would quickly become very congested. They would have to be widened, which would require money, and even more money than normal, because the government would have to purchase valuable land next to existing roads. (That is, assuming that eminent domain is not used.) The gas tax would have to be raised, and soon the costs would get out of hand. On the other hand, mass transit would become more profitable rather than less, because much less track needs to be laid to satisfy the same demand, and mass transit systems have much more excess capacity than roads. If densities are limited, though, then this alleviates both stress on roads that go through valuable urban property (which are expensive and difficult to widen) and forces people to drive farther, thus paying more in user fees.

There’s a legitimate case to be made against American transportation and land use policy, but condemning highway subsidies ain’t it.

This post was written by Stephen Smith, who writes for his own blog called Rationalitate.