Another Angle on Planning in Houston

Brian Phillips at Live Oaks contacted me regarding the recent post by Stephen Smith on planning in Houston. Brian is a long time opponent of land use restrictions and defender of property rights in Houston. Brian has a different point of view on the subject, and has written a post on his blog, which I hope will spark some lively conversation.

Brian invited me to publish a copy of his post at Market Urbanism. Tomorrow, I hope my schedule gives me the opportunity to share some of my thoughts on the topic, because I sympathize with both authors’ points of view. In the meantime, I want to share Brian’s post right away to get readers reactions to it:

Urban Legends: Myths About Houston

by Brian Phillips

In a recent posting titled “Is Houston really Unplanned?” on Market Urbanism, Stephen Smith attempts to debunk alleged myths about Houston and planning. In the process, he actually engages in a much more widespread error–the failure to essentialize. (Here is a good explanation of essentializing.)

Smith cites several examples of land use regulations in Houston, such as minimum lot size mandates and regulations dictating parking requirements for new development. He argues that these regulations, along with the city’s enforcement of deed restrictions, refute claims that Houston has developed primarily on the basis of free market principles.

Smith’s position is common. Zoning advocates actually used similar arguments in the early 1990’s. Zoning advocates were wrong then, and Smith is now.

Admittedly, Houston is not devoid of land use regulations. But the nature, number, and scope of those regulations is significantly different from other cities. There is an essential difference between the regulations in Houston and those in other cities. The permitting process in Houston is relatively fast compared to other cities, and the expenses incurred in that process are also significantly lower in Houston. In other words, developers in Houston can respond much more quickly to changes in the market and do not incur exorbitant costs that must be passed on to consumers.

This is not a justification for the regulations that Houston does have. They are wrong and immoral, as are all land use regulations. But the fact is, Houston has far fewer and much less egregious restrictions on freedom than other cities.

Smith, and many others, attempt to paint a picture of Houston land use policies with a very wide, and indiscriminate, brush.

Boosters of Houston’s land use policy – those who believe that Houston’s land use patterns are the free market, revealed – never mention the restrictive minimum lot size and minimum parking requirements. They mention deed restrictions as free market innovations but fail to see how the city’s prosecutors turn private concerns into public budget drains.

If someone defends Houston’s relatively free land use policies, pundits such as Smith seem to assume that those advocates defend all of Houston’s land use policies. This is akin to believing that if someone likes one of Clint Eastwood’s movies, he likes all of Clint Eastwood’s movies (and everything else Clint Eastwood does). This is patently absurd.

As an example, Smith cites opposition to a proposed project at 1717 Bissonnet (the Ashby High Rise) as evidence that Houston does not have a laissez-faire policy towards land use. Smith implies that one particular violation of property rights is evidence that Houston is no different from other cities. He evades the fact that the vast majority of development projects proceed with little or no obstruction from the city.

I have defended the Ashby High Rise many times on this blog and at a panel discussion at Rice University. I have defended the project as a matter of principle–land use regulations are wrong and immoral. I have also addressed numerous other violations of property rights on this blog and elsewhere for nearly twenty years. To claim that “[b]oosters of Houston’s land use policy” have ignored the city’s violations of property rights is simply untrue. It may be true of some, but not of all. Smith chose to put all of us in the same boat with a broad generalization that flies in the face of the facts.

The fact is, Houston has fewer land use restrictions than other cities. Those that do exist are less restrictive (in general) than the restrictions in other cities. Those that do exist are less destructive than the restrictions in other cities. Again, the restrictions that do exist are indefensible.

Smith’s argument amounts to: Either Houston is completely laissez-faire or it is just like every other city. This ignores the degree of the transgression. This equates a pickpocket with a murderer. Both have violated the rights of another. Both have engaged in evil, but on a much different scale. To equate the two is to diminish the murderer’s evil. To equate Houston with cities that erect mountainous obstacles to development is to diminish Houston’s greatness.

But painting with a wide brush is not the only error that Smith makes. He questions the validity of contracts:

Another form of planning that Houston has, which is celebrated by the self-titled Antiplanner, is the institution of supposedly voluntary deed restrictions, or private land use covenants agreed upon by the owners of the property under restriction. I’m personally torn over the “libertarianness” of such schemes – are they truly voluntary? Can an individual owner of a property opt out of them once they’ve been signed? What’s the statute of limitations? One thing that makes me suspect that they perhaps aren’t as “free market” as they seem is that though the contracts are between individuals, Houston’s city code allows the city attorney to prosecute these lawsuits at no cost to the supposed victims – fellow property-owners.

Consider Smith’s own question– “Can an individual owner of a property opt out of them once they’ve been signed?” In other words, after a contract has been signed, can one party unilaterally breach that contract? This is nothing more than a desire to invalidate the very concept of contracts. If one party can unilaterally breach a contract, contracts–all contracts–are rendered meaningless.

A contract is an agreement to engage in certain actions over a period of time. If one party can unilaterally breach that contract–that is, declare the agreement void–the contract isn’t even worth the paper it is written on.

I agree that the city should not be enforcing deed restrictions–that is the responsibility of those who are party to the contract. But this error on the part of the city does not invalidate the fact that Houston remains freer than other cities. Smith fails to distinguish between minor transgressions and major.

A right is a sanction to act according to one’s own judgment without seeking permission from others. In this regard, Houston recognizes individual rights more consistently than other cities. This does not mean that Houston is perfect–it means that Houston recognizes individual rights more consistently than other cities. Where Houston does not recognize individual rights, it is wrong.

But Smith–and those who share his position–uses isolated facts to argue his case and then fails to identify the essence of those facts. He implies that all “[b]oosters of Houston’s land use policy” are the same. He implies that the voluntary and contractual planning that accompanies deed restrictions is no different from zoning or other coercive land use regulations. Both of these implications are false.

When one does not think in essentials, disparate facts can seem very similar. On the surface, deed restrictions and zoning might seem the same–both restrict land use. But the former is voluntary and consensual, while the latter is coercive and mandatory. There is an essential difference between the voluntary and the coercive. There is an essential difference between allowing individuals to act on their own judgment and forcing them to act contrary to their judgment. There is an essential difference between Houston and every other major city in the nation.

Yes, Virginia, government roads really are government subsidized, and no, they don’t approximate freed-market outcomes

Recently, I came accross an article by Charles Johnson, who blogs at Rad Geek.  The article had linked to a Market Urbanism post about how user fees and gas taxes fall well short of funding road use in the US. Charles’ article further debunks the Urbanism Legend asserted by free-market imposters that a free-market highway system would be similar to the system we see today.
I like the post so much that I asked Charles about posting it at Market Urbanism.  Charles requested that I, “indicate that the post is freely available for reprinting and derivative use under the terms of the
Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 1.0 license.” I am happy to comply, and must admit that I haven’t taken the time to acquaint myself with Creative Commons.  So, here it is, in it’s original form, and feel free to read the comments in the link:

Yes, Virginia, government roads really are government subsidized, and no, they don’t approximate freed-market outcomes

by Charles Johnson, RadGeek.com

When left-libertarians argue with more conventionally pro-capitalist libertarians about economics, one of the issues that often comes up is government control over roads, and the ways in which state and federal government’s control over roads has acted as a large subsidy for economic centralization and national-scale production and distribution networks (and thus, to large-scale “big box” retailers, like Wal-Mart or Best Buy, dependent on the crafty arrangement of large-scale cross-country shipping as a basic part of their business model). People who have a problem with this analysis sometimes try to dispute it by arguing that government roads aren’t actually subsidized — that heavy users of government roads are actually getting something that roughly approximates a freed-market outcome, because users of government roads pay for the roads they get, in proportion to how heavily they use them, because government roads are funded by gasoline taxes, tire taxes, and government-imposed licensing fees, which all go up in cost more or less proportionally to increases in use of government roads. Thus (the argument goes), funding for government roads is more like a fee-for-service transaction on a freed market than it’s like a classic case of government subsidies. But in fact, this argument is completely bogus, for at least three reasons.

The first reason is that, contrary to popular misconception, government-imposed gasoline taxes and “user fees” on road users do not actually fully fund the costs of government road-building and maintenance; government funding of roads actually includes a substantial subsidy extracted from taxpayers independently of their usage of the roads. Government budgets for road building and maintenance in the US draw from general funds as well as from earmarked gas taxes and “user fees”, and those budgets are subsidized by state, local, and federal government to the tune of about 20–70 cents per gallon of gasoline expended.

The second reason, which ought to be obvious to libertarians given how much we have talked about the use of eminent domain over the past few years, is that government road-building is substantially subsidized by the fact that government can — and routinely does — use the power of eminent domain to seize large, contiguous stretches of land for road building at arbitrarily fixed rates below what the land-owners could have demanded in a free market land sale. Even if it were the case (as it is not) that usage-based levies like gasoline taxes and government licensing fees were enough to cover the budget for government road building and maintenance, that budget has already had a massive, unmentioned government subsidy factored into it due to the use of eminent domain.

The third reason is that a freed market is able to match the supply for roads to the demand at something like the appropriate cost not only because people pay for the roads in proportion to their use of the roads, but also because the prices for road use are set by negotiations between road users and road builders in a competitive market, and because the ownership and management patterns of roads are determined by patterns of free economic decisions to buy, sell, lease, develop, abandon, reclaim, and subdivide land. Freed markets aren’t just a matter of paying for what you get (as important as that is); they also have to do with the freedom to get what you get by alternative means, and with patterns of ownership and control based on consensual negotiation rather than on force. No matter how roads are funded, there is no way to approximate freed-market results with government monopoly on sales or politically-determined allocation of ownership. (Again, this is something that ought to be obvious; it is just the socialist calculation problem applied to the market for road transportation.)

And roads funded by government-imposed gasoline taxes will always be either noncompetitive or subsidized: if there were any significant private roads competing with roads funded by government gasoline taxes, the taxes on the gasoline that drivers burn on those roads become a subsidy to the government-controlled roads. The more users use the non-government roads, the more they would be subsidizing the government roads.

Further, the ownership and management patterns of government roads are determined by electoral horse-trading and arbitrary political jurisdictions, not by free economic actors. As a result, decisions about what roads to build, how to direct funds to those roads, how to price the use of those roads, etc. are typically made by state or federal legislatures, or state or federal executive bureaus. Governments are far more responsive to political than to economic pressure; governments generally will not, or cannot, sell off roads or spin off control over local roads to the people who use them most and can best manage them; state and federal governments exercise centralized control over far larger fiefs than it would ever be possible or profitable to amass on a free market. Thus, for example, because the building and maintenance of roads in Las Vegas is controlled, not by free market actors in Las Vegas, but rather by the Nevada state government, we have Las Vegas drivers paying in 70% of the state’s gas taxes and getting back only 61% of the state’s spending on roads (which is an increase over the 2003–07 average of 53%) — meaning that we are forced to turn tens of millions of dollars over to subsidizing highway building and maintenance in the rest of Nevada. Here’s NDOT’s reasoning as to why we should get stuck with the bill:

If NDOT based its road building program strictly on usage, [NDOT assistant director of engineering Kent] Cooper said, then no new highways would be built outside of Clark County.

He noted that freeways in Las Vegas attract 150,000 to more than 200,000 vehicles a day. No other area in the state has such high use.

Ed Vogel, Las Vegas Review-Journal (2008-11-26): Southern Nevadans get less bang for their road tax buck

Now, maybe Kent Cooper thinks that it is just and wise to force Las Vegas drivers to pay tens of millions of dollars in subsidies so that NDOT can build expensive roads that nobody wants to use.

Maybe he’s right about that, and maybe he’s wrong. But whatever the case may be, the only way to get freed market results in roads is by freeing the market. Under government ownership, government funding, and government control, roads are subsidized by taxes that are levied independently of road usage, built using a subsidy created by forced seizure of land, and users of high-volume local roads are typically forced to subsidize expensive, long-distance cross-country roads that they aren’t using. This kind of allocation of resources for long-distance, non-local highways — which further distorts an already subsidy-distorted system by distorting the flow of money within that system away from the heavily-used local roads and into the high-cost, high maintenance long-distance roads, can certainly not be called any kind of approximation of a freed market in roads.

© by Charles Johnson
This post is freely available for reprinting and derivative use under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 1.0 license.

Urban[ism] Legend: Is Houston really unplanned?

by Stephen Smith

It seems to be an article of faith among many land use commentators – both coming from the pro- and anti-planning positions – that Houston is a fundamentally unplanned city, and that whatever is built there is the manifest destiny of the free market in action. But is this true? Did Houston really escape the planning spree that resulted from Progressive Era obsessions with local planning and the subsequent grander plans of the post-WWII age of the automobile? Michael Lewyn, in a paper published in 2005, argues that commentators often overlook Houston’s subtler land use strictures, and recent developments in the city’s urban core reaffirm this.

It is definitely true that Houston lacks one of the oldest and most well-known planning tools: Euclidean single-use zoning. This means that residential, commercial, and industrial zones are not legally separated, though as I will explain later, Houston remains as segregated in its land uses as any other American city. But single-use zoning is not the only type of planning law that Houston’s government can use to hamper development.

As Lewyn lays out in his paper, minimum lot sizes and minimum parking regulations abound in this supposedly unplanned City upon a Floodplain. He discusses a recently-amended law that all but precludes the building of row houses, a stalwart of dense urban areas (the paper is heavily cited and poorly formatted, so I’ve removed the citations):

Until 1998, Houston’s city code provided that the minimum lot size for detached single-family dwellings was 5000 square feet. And until 1998, Houston’s government made it virtually impossible for developers to build large numbers of non-detached single-family homes such as townhouses, by requiring townhouses to sit on at least 2250 square feet of land. As Siegan admits, this law “tend[ed] to preclude the erection of lower cost townhouses” and thus effectively meant that townhouses “cannot be built for the lower and lower middle income groups.” Houston’s townhouse regulations, unlike its regulations governing detached houses, were significantly more restrictive than those of other North American cities. For example, town houses may be as small as 647 square feet of land in Dallas, 560 square feet in Phoenix, and 390 square feet in Toronto, Canada.

Though this law was eventually changed to allow denser homes within Houston’s ring road (though not nearly as dense as some American cities allow), this change only affected a quarter of Houston’s homeowners, leaving the rest still as regulated as ever. Not to mention the fact that even for those within the ring road, the rules only matter to new construction, leaving the vast majority of the building stock in compliance with the old rules.

typical parking lot encouraged by minimum parking standardsNot to be outdone by minimum lot restrictions, the parking planners are also hard at work in Houston. As Donald Shoup explains in his magnum opus on parking regulations and the free market, minimum parking regulations are an oft-used and under-appreciated way for city planners to decrease density, push development farther from the city’s core, increase an area’s auto dependency, and decrease walkability and the viability of mass transit. Houston’s planning code mandates that developers, regardless of what they perceive as the actual demand, build 1.25 parking spaces per apartment bedroom, and 1.33 spaces per efficiency apartment. Retail stores are also saddled with these parking minimums, and even bars as Lewyn notes are required to build “10 parking spaces per 1000 feet of gross area,” flying in the face of common sense. To add insult to injury, the city requires that structures on major roads have a significant setback from the street, and the only rational thing to do with this unbuildable space is to put the mandated parking there, meaning that Houston actual codifies the hideous and inconvenient parking lot-out-front model of sprawl that is so typical across the US.

Another form of planning that Houston has, which is celebrated by the self-titled Antiplanner, is the institution of supposedly voluntary deed restrictions, or private land use covenants agreed upon by the owners of the property under restriction. I’m personally torn over the “libertarianness” of such schemes – are they truly voluntary? Can an individual owner of a property opt out of them once they’ve been signed? What’s the statute of limitations? One thing that makes me suspect that they perhaps aren’t as “free market” as they seem is that though the contracts are between individuals, Houston’s city code allows the city attorney to prosecute these lawsuits at no cost to the supposed victims – fellow property-owners. In this way, as Lewyn explains, Houston’s land uses are just as “Euclidean” as in other American cities:

But in Houston, restrictive covenants are so heavily facilitated by government involvement that they resemble zoning regulation almost as much as they resemble traditional contracts. Houston’s city code, unlike that of most American cities, allows the city attorney to sue to enforce restrictive covenants. The city may seek civil penalties of up to $1,000.00 per day for violation of a covenant. Thus, Houston forces its taxpayers to subsidize enforcement of restrictive covenants even when litigation is too costly for individuals to pursue. In its covenant litigation, the city focuses on enforcement of use restrictions (that is, covenant provisions requiring separation of uses), as opposed to enforcement of other restrictions such as aesthetic rules. By subsidizing enforcement of use restrictions, Houston’s city government subsidizes segregation of land uses–and in fact, land uses in Houston are only slightly less segregated than in most cities with zoning codes.

More recently, Houston’s supposedly laissez-faire attitudes towards planning have again been tested by the proposed 23-story tower at 1717 Bissonnet Street. The tower would have been in a low-rise residential neighborhood, within walking distance of Rice University. After years of wrangling, the project was finally denied by the city, on grounds that the developers failed to prove that the project would not adversely affect traffic flow (a pretty arbitrary and un-libertarian requirement considering Houston’s legendary congestion and the fact that developers have little say over where the city places its roads). And this, despite the fact that many of the tower’s prospective residents – Rice students and staff – could have either walked or biked to school/work.

Boosters of Houston’s land use policy – those who believe that Houston’s land use patterns are the free market, revealed – never mention the restrictive minimum lot size and minimum parking requirements. They mention deed restrictions as free market innovations but fail to see how the city’s prosecutors turn private concerns into public budget drains. And though the Antiplanner in his aforelinked comments on Houston recognizes the anti-density movement that reared its ugly head after the 1717 Bissonnet proposal, he evidently doesn’t see this as seriously detracting from Houston’s anything-goes land use policy.

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


This post is part of an ongoing series featured on Market Urbanism called Urbanism Legends. The Urbanism Legends series is intended to expose many of the myths about development and Urban Economics. (it’s a play on the term: “Urban Legends” in case you didn’t catch that)

To receive future Urbanism Legends posts, subscribe to the Market Urbanism feed by email or RSS reader here. If you come across an interesting Urbanism Legend, let me know by email or in the comments and I’ll make a post debunking the myth. Of course, I’ll give you credit for the tip and any contributions to the post you make…

MTA Rider Report Card: an F for Incentive Structure

This morning, as I stepped to the stairway that brings me into Brooklyn’s 86th street subway station on the R line, I was greeted by two MTA employees who handed me MTA’s ‘Rider Report Card’ to fill out and mail in. As I started down the steps, I noticed something different than the usual routine; the stairway was an absolute mess. The turnstile level was just as messy. Litter was strewn about the steps and floor of the station. This wasn’t the normal subway station clutter; it caught me off guard immediately. Several other employees stood by the turnstiles handing out report cards.

I bought a new monthly pass and headed through the turnstile. Above the stairs leading down to the platform there were another 10 or so MTA employees holding stacks of report cards, just socializing with each other amongst the litter. When I saw this, I became disgusted. Why were they all standing around while there was a huge cluttered mess throughout the station? Why couldn’t they even pick up the report cards that had been discarded?

Then I got more upset as my cynical side kicked in. Could there be some perverse incentive for the MTA employees to want the station cluttered? Would a failing grade for cleanliness cause hiring of more maintenance employees?

Strangely, the train platform was its usual shape, with limited clutter. No employees were present on the platform. As the train arrived and I took my seat, I decided to blog this incident. I wished I had taken pictures, but it was too late for that. I will be prepared to photograph tonight and tomorrow if this peculiar incident repeats itself.

Is anyone familiar with how the report cards are used? Is the fact the 10-20 employees weren’t cleaning the mess just a by-product of union turfs? Or was it a truly perverse system of incentives created by how the report cards were to be used to make funding decisions?

Irrationality Towards Shortages

Brendan Crain at Where tipped me off to a great post by Ryan Avent at The Bellows. Here’s a little snippet of Shortage:

For whatever reason, we’re not built to naturally internalize negative externalities. When riding on a crowded highway, no one (no non-economist, at any rate) curses the government for not making the road more expensive; they demand more capacity — fewer traffic lights, higher speed limits, more lanes, more roads. And when free parking results in no available parking, no one demands market pricing for spots; they ask why the lot’s so small and the garages so scarce, and they get angry about those two new developments that just went in, bringing new residents who unsurprisingly use the valuable, yet free, parking spots when they’re open.

We see a shortage of a public good, and we think more, not more expensive. And as a result, the failure to price public goods appropriately leads to an inefficient use of existing resources, and an inefficient allocation of new resources. We don’t use existing roads well, and we spend too much valuable capital building new roads. We don’t use existing parking well, and we spend too much valuable capital building new parking OR we allow shortage concerns to undermine good investments.

This type of anti-market bias which seems to be the natural default in humans creates unhealthy positive-feedback loops such as the highway -> development -> congestion -> widen/extend highway, etc. loop. But in that light, we should be glad modern society has been able to overcome so many of its anti-market biases such as making profits, charging interest, and trade between strangers. Hopefully, as society adapts to deal with issues of scacity of land, resources, and time, it will overcome the unhealthy biases it needs to shed to sustain growth.

The Bellows post also refers to a post Matthew Yglesias wrote about the Chicago parking meter privataization, where he said:

In general, the market price of street parking should be very similar to the market price of garage parking. Since a garage is more secure and protected from the elements, that has certain advantages. But a street spot might be more convenient. So you’d be looking at rough similarity. And in parts of the city where there’s no viable market in garage building, that’s a market signal that parking demand is low and therefore street parking should be very cheap. But where garages are charging a lot, street parking should also be expensive. Among other things, that would reduce the need for new construction to be accompanied by expansive parking garages.

Perhaps more important, it would reduce the tendency for conversations about any new development to become immediately dominated by people’s fear of parking shortages. The whole shortage phenomenon is (as shortages tend to be) a symptom of bad pricing policy. Chicago is a big city with a vibrant downtown and tons of economic activity. Space is limited and expensive. Unless you charge more than a quarter for it, you’ll get shortages.

Still, the privatized meter pricing will remain highly regulated (to satisfy the anti-market bias of political constituents), preventing the full “market price” efficiency to be achieved.

Urban[ism] Legend: Creating Jobs With Infrastructure

This post is part of an ongoing series featured on Market Urbanism called Urbanism Legends. The Urbanism Legends series is intended to expose many of the myths about development and Urban Economics. (it’s a play on the term: “Urban Legends” in case you didn’t catch that)

Last week President-elect Obama announced some details of his economic stimulus package:

Second, we will create millions of jobs by making the single largest new investment in our national infrastructure since the creation of the federal highway system in the 1950s. We’ll invest your precious tax dollars in new and smarter ways

This further taxpayer subsidization, beyond currently insufficient highway revenue sources, of sprawl and auto-dependency seems to contradict Obama’s promise of “green jobs”. As Tyler Cowen remarks, “for better or worse you can consider the opposite of a carbon tax.” Furthermore, the Obama plan intends to fund the stimulus directly to states, as opposed to metro areas, which have historically received almost two-thirds of the funds directly.

Certainly, Obama’s plan is not an urbanism-friendly plan, yet I consistently hear urbanists subscribing to and spreading the myth that jobs can be created by spending on infrastructure, and that these jobs will lead to economic recovery. Even if the job creation myth were true, and could stimulate the economy immediately, you would think urbanists would not sacrifice urbanist ideals for the sake of short-term recovery through their commitment to so-called progressive ideology.

In his enduring 1961 classic, Economics in One Lesson, Henry Hazlitt addresses the long-standing myth about “creating jobs” through public works projects:

A bridge is built. If it is built to meet an insistent public demand, if it solves a traffic problem or a transportation problem otherwise insoluble, if, in short, it is even more necessary to the taxpayers collectively than the things for which they would have individually spent their money had it had not been taxed away from them, there can be no objection. But a bridge built primarily “to provide employment” is a different kind of bridge. When providing employment becomes the end, need becomes a subordinate consideration. “Projects” have to be invented. Instead of thinking only of where bridges must be built the government spenders begin to ask themselves where bridges can be built. Can they think of plausible reasons why an additional bridge should connect Easton and Weston? It soon becomes absolutely essential. Those who doubt the necessity are dismissed as obstructionists and reactionaries.

Two arguments are put forward for the bridge, one of which is mainly heard before it is built, the other of which is mainly heard after it has been completed. The first argument is that it will provide employment. It will provide, say, 500 jobs for a year. The implication is that these are jobs that would not otherwise have come into existence.

This is what is immediately seen. But if we have trained ourselves to look beyond immediate to secondary consequences, and beyond those who are directly benefited by a government project to others who are indirectly affected, a different picture presents itself. It is true that a particular group of bridgeworkers may receive more employment than otherwise. But the bridge has to be paid for out of taxes. For every dollar that is spent on the bridge a dollar will be taken away from taxpayers. If the bridge costs $10 million the taxpayers will lose $10 million. They will have that much taken away from them which they would otherwise have spent on the things they needed most.

Therefore, for every public job created by the bridge project a private job has been destroyed somewhere else. We can see the men employed on the bridge. We can watch them at work. The employment argument of the government spenders becomes vivid, and probably for most people convincing. But there are other things that we do not see, because, alas, they have never been permitted to come into existence. They are the jobs destroyed by the $10 million taken from the taxpayers. All that has happened, at best, is that there has been a diversion of jobs because of the project. More bridge builders; fewer automobile workers, television technicians, clothing workers, farmers.

But then we come to the second argument. The bridge exists. It is, let us suppose, a beautiful and not an ugly bridge. It has come into being through the magic of government spending. Where would it have been if the obstructionists and the reactionaries had had their way? There would have been no bridge. The country would have been just that much poorer. Here again the government spenders have the better of the argument with all those who cannot see beyond the immediate range of their physical eyes. They can see the bridge. But if they have taught themselves to look for indirect as well as direct consequences they can once more see in the eye of imagination the possibilities that have never been allowed to come into existence. They can see the unbuilt homes, the unmade cars and washing machines, the unmade dresses and coats, perhaps the ungrown and unsold foodstuffs. To see these uncreated things requires a kind of imagination that not many people have. We can think of these nonexistent objects once, perhaps, but we cannot keep them before our minds as we can the bridge that we pass every working day. What has happened is merely that one thing has been created instead of others.

Unfortunately, big spending on infrastructure projects are political chess pieces. As politicians align themselves for the handout, Governors are sure to push for spending that will allow them to funnel federal tax dollars into vanity projects that will do the most to boost visibility and popularity. I wouldn’t expect any wise long-term planning on the part of the spenders.

From an economic recovery point-of-view, it will be years before the money spent on infrastructure trickles back into the overall economy, and even longer for any productivity gains to be realized by the newly constructed infrastructure. This pervasive myth is a dangerous enabler of one of the least effective strategies for recovery (in the short-run), and a harmful disservice the the environment and living patterns (in the long-run).


To receive future Urbanism Legends posts, subscribe to the Market Urbanism feed by email or RSS reader here. If you come across an interesting Urbanism Legend, let me know by email or in the comments and I’ll make a post debunking the myth. Of course, I’ll give you credit for the tip and any contributions to the post you make…

Using eminent domain to blight neighborhoods

by Stephen Smith

The Weekly Standard has a comprehensive and compelling piece of investigative reporting on Columbia University’s attempt to acquire 17 acres in the heart of the Manhattanville section, north of its Morningside campus. The tale is a classic example of eminent domain abuse – the university worked hand-in-glove with the government to designate the area as blighted and eligible for eminent domain action, and the university’s lawyers pushed the limits of rational argument so far and yet look like they’ll probably come out on top.

But perhaps more importantly in this process of acquiring the necessary Manhattanville land on which to build its gleaming new Campus upon a Hill (and under which to build a mammoth garage complex) is not the explicit use of eminent domain, but rather the threat of the land being taken by force. Whereas Columbia’s initial land acquisitions before the expansion plans were made public were probably not made under duress, as time went on, Columbia’s plans became known, and, as a holdout landlord’s leasing agent put it: “At some point along the line, with all of these concerns, the knowledge that Columbia University can or will invoke eminent domain has caused [ground floor retail renters] to seek out alternative space arrangements.” This is a phenomenon that affects all negotiations with the government and big institutions like Columbia – and, post–Kelo, even private buyers – and which makes it very difficult to be sure that the owner didn’t sell for less than they’d have liked (or, indeed, might not have wanted to sell at any price).

As it is, the land that Columbia has already acquired – 70% of what it wants – is largely vacant and most definitely more “blighted” than the land it wants to buy, however the relevant (and irrelevant) acronymed planning agencies made sure not to recognize any of their own studies that come to that obvious conclusion. So while the school is gathering all the land it wants, the buildings are vacant and the neighborhood is deteriorating. And even once it gets what it wants, the university’s own plans admit that they have not decided what they will build on some of the land, meaning even more years of blight.

Unfortunately, the practice of taking land via eminent domain or otherwise restricting use has a long and illustrious history of not working out too well in the end. In the 1926 landmark Supreme Court Case Village of Euclid vs. Ambler Realty Co. that validated zoning codes as constitutional, the justices dismissed as “mere speculation” the plaintiff’s argument that the restrictions aimed at keeping out industrial development would lower the property’s value. Obviously this mere speculation turned out to be right, because the property didn’t find a buyer until some two decades later, when the city relented, and the land has been used for industrial purposes ever since.

In the most recent land use decision handed down by the Supreme Court, Kelo vs. City of New London in 2005, the justices’ decision has also shown itself to be clearly detrimental with respect to the specific property in question. Not two years after the would-be developer succeeded in wresting the holdouts’ property from them, the proposed development has fallen flat on its face, and there are no plans to develop the vacant properties.

In my own hometown of Bryn Mawr, a suburb of Philadelphia, the eponymous “non-profit” hospital fought a protracted battle to acquire a good chunk of prime surrounding property (which would be even more valuable under the hospital’s desired zoning designation), and while it never used eminent domain, the specter of it led people to sell their properties where they otherwise wouldn’t have. Unsurprisingly, the Bryn Mawr Hospital’s plans for developing the newly-acquired property seem to have stalled. Of the lots, one had a few houses that were turned into a parking lot that was supposed to replace a different parking lot which was to be developed, but that development never materialized, so now instead of a full parking lot and a house, there’s a full parking lot and an empty parking lot. The other lot was a block of row homes, some of the few affordable property left in the area, and they were razed to the ground and now an unused grassy field stands in their wake.

But despite the constant disappointments in eminent domain and zoning outcomes, the courts and local governments don’t seem to have learned the most fundamental rule of economics: private actors are better at determining the most efficient use of productive inputs than public ones like land use and eminent domain boards.

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

Chicago Privatizes Parking Meters

Of course, Chicago is just privatizing the revenue from meters, not the actual parking spaces. Plus, the city will regulate rate increases, but it’s a step in the right direction. (right?)

For today’s politicians, this is a great way to get windfalls of money today for revenues of future generations in order to mask their fiscal irresponsibility. I think we’ll see more of this during the current mess as other municipalities catch on.

Ideally, cities should auction off the spaces (including the land), with no regulations on rates or use of the land. Let market mechanisms determine the highest-and-best use of the spaces and land.

Chicago Tribune: Most city parking meters to cost $1 an hour [Hat Tip: reader, Dan M]

City Hall officials said that after the first five years of the 75-year parking meter lease, rate hikes will be subject to approval by alderman and are expected to be at the rate of inflation.

The $1.1 billion to city coffers will come from Chicago Parking Meter LLC, which is made up of two Morgan Stanley infrastructure funds.

The Daley administration said $400 million will go into a long-term reserve, $325 million will be spent in city budgets through 2012 and $100 million is earmarked for programs helping low-income people. An additional $324 million is headed toward a fund city officials said “may be used to help bridge the period until the nation’s economy begins to grow again.”

and a video: