Urbanization driving reforestation to outpace deforestation?

by Stephen Smith

While most people associate cities with pollution and the material and ecological excess of late capitalism, I’ve long believed that urbanization has the potential to be a great environmental savior. The NYT has a fascinating article that confirms what I said about cities attracting people who would otherwise live more environmentally profligate lives: the amount of total rain forest is likely growing, due to the reforestation of towns and villages abandoned by people in Latin America and Asia who are moving to cities. Elisabeth Rosenthal, the article’s author, explains the reasons that people are abandoning land at a growing pace:

In Latin America and Asia, birthrates have dropped drastically; most people have two or three children. New jobs tied to global industry, as well as improved transportation, are luring a rural population to fast-growing cities. Better farming techniques and access to seed and fertilizer mean that marginal lands are no longer farmed because it takes fewer farmers to feed a growing population.

By some estimates, these demographic and technological shifts mean that forests are growing back far faster than they’re being cut down:

These new “secondary” forests are emerging in Latin America, Asia and other tropical regions at such a fast pace that the trend has set off a serious debate about whether saving primeval rain forest – an iconic environmental cause – may be less urgent than once thought. By one estimate, for every acre of rain forest cut down each year, more than 50 acres of new forest are growing in the tropics on land that was once farmed, logged or ravaged by natural disaster.

There are two problems, though, with the new forests: they aren’t “old growth” forests, and they aren’t necessarily able to support many endangered species. The first part – the fact that they are “secondary” forests and not primeval – might be important in that it means the ecosystem is not as dense and complex as it would be in, say, a rain forest that hasn’t been touched since pre-Colombian times. Scientists haven’t reached a consensus on how significant this is, though it’s comforting to note that as time passes, the now-secondary forests will become denser and older. As for the endangered species, it’s a combination of the first point (new growth) and the fact that these new jungles are growing in different places than the forests which are being cut down, and are not reachable by the animals that are endangered within the old growth.

Reading this makes me think of a Wired article from a few years back about the Mayans and the rain forest, and how much of the Yucatán jungles are likely to be feral gardens of the ancient Mayans.

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

Redistribution (a follow up)

I threw up Friday’s Redistribution post somewhat hastily during my break, but there isn’t much more that I haven’t said before.  As a follow-up, I’d like to tie it in with some other interesting reads.

Ryan Avent at The Bellows agreed with Yglesias’ post and added:

Anyway, I saw in Google reader that libertarian intellectual Will Wilkinson had shared Matt’s post, presumably because he agreed with it. And indeed, this is one of those times when libertarians and liberals can find common cause. On the other hand, most of Cato’s planner types vigorously defend suburban sprawl and highway construction, and vigorously oppose smart growth and transit construction, despite the obvious point that it takes an immense web of regulations and subsidies to support rapid suburban and exurban growth.

Over here! Ryan, Will! We’re over here!…

Definitely check out The Bellows post. Will Wilkinson stopped in to comment, too.

I think the “common cause” concept was conveyed well in Ed Glaeser’s recent NY Times piece, called The Case for Small-Government Egalitarianism. Harvard’s Glaeser reaches out for “common cause” between libertarians and progressives – kinda like the links between Free-Markets and Urbanism:

Libertarian progressivism distrusts big increases in government spending because that spending is likely to favor the privileged. Was the Interstate Highway System such a boon for the urban poor? Has rebuilding New Orleans done much for the displaced and disadvantaged of that city? Small-government egalitarianism suggests that direct transfers of federal money to the less fortunate offer a surer path toward a fairer America.


Many of my favorite causes, like fighting land use regulations that make it hard to build affordable housing, aid the poor by reducing the size of government. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, I also argued that it would be far better to give generous checks to the poor hurt by the storm than to spend billions rebuilding the city, because those rebuilding efforts would inevitably help connected contractors more than ordinary people.

Urbanism is an area where free-market folks and progressive city dwellers can work together and share knowledge on so many concepts – I think we’ll find we have more in common than what’s on the surface.  As Noah Millman puts it:

But forgive me if I question the proposition that any political group is actually purely rational, and actually acting entirely out of concern for the common good. People who are, fundamentally, more distrustful of big government because they are convinced it will inevitably become the tool of special interests against the common good will be more alive to the kinds of things that can go wrong with big-government solutions than will other kinds of liberals who lack that basic distrust. By the same token, libertarians might be more likely to be won over to liberal perspectives if liberals can articulate arguments that libertarians would respect about how their policy proposals will actually limit government capture by special interests.


Discussing Ithaca, New York’s plan to increase permitted density and reduce parking minimums, I can dig what Matthew Yglesias says :

The distributive impact of parking minimums is to redistribute income from people who don’t own cars to people who do own cars—not to shift income from poor to rich. A rich family will probably have at least one car for every family member who’s at least 16 years old. A family of more modest means will probably own fewer vehicles.

More generally, while I’m obviously not a hard-core free marketers, it does make sense to consider a free market position our default position. Mandating the construction of extra parking doesn’t reduce harmful environmental externalities. Rather, it generates them. It doesn’t help the neediest members of society, it makes it more difficult for them to afford housing. It doesn’t correct important information deficits—people are perfectly capable of asking whether or not a house they’re considering buying or renting comes with a reserved parking space.

Update: here’s a follow up.

Taxing Land Speculation

Bill Hudnut at the Urban Land Institute wrote a post that attracted some attention at Austin Contrarian and Overhead Wire. Hudnut discusses a different approach to taxing land:

How about restructuring the property tax across America to install a two-tiered system? More tax on those horizontal pieces of empty land and asphalt, less on the buildings. That is, reduce the tax rate on homes and other improvements, and substantially increase the rate on the site value. I think such a system would induce more compact development and more infill work.

It sure would induce more development.

Higher taxes on the land, lower taxes on the building, discourages a land holder from leaving his land fallow and speculating on its increased value, and conversely, encourages improvements on the land and redevelopment. The monograph used Sydney Australia as a case study, but its general point, that a site value tax system puts “pressure on owners to sell their property for redevelopment if they cannot or will not redevelop it themselves.”

Note that ULI is an organization primarily of real estate developers, investors, and related professions. (I am a member.) So, I can see why developers would favor a mechanism that would force more land into development.

Overall, this type of scheme will help drive development in the short run, but be harmful in the long-run.  By encouraging development in the present by discouraging land speculation, we can expect a few consequences:

  • Speculators play an important role in the land market, even if we don’t like the surface parking lots they often operate on their land.  Speculators essentially hold the land until development is optimal for the site, and all sites cannot be optimally built at once. Discouraging speculation drives the land into the hands of developers at cheaper prices than current market prices.
  • At the same time in reaction to the new tax regime, all the new developers will compete for users of the space they are building on the vacant land. This either means they’ll build smaller in anticipation of the glut of new development, or vacancy rates will be much higher.
  • The new supply of space will likely serve to lower rents and condo prices, but this will only be temporary as available development sites quickly disappear.
  • Had speculators been forced to build on their lots, less dense, and less optimal buildings would be in their place, and a future developer faces the opportunity cost of demolishing that building. This would be similar to developing in New York, where vacant parcels are very rare, compared with developing in Chicago where developable parcels are relatively plentiful.  There is a huge affordability gap between New York and Chicago, which can be partially attributed the the availability of development sites.
  • It will harm the diversity of building age that Jane Jacobs claims as a key ingredient that makes for great cities. The stock of buildings will be disproportionately represented by buildings built shortly after the tax scheme is enacted. As new development occurs, affluent people will be attracted to the developing areas. As these buildings depreciate, the more affluent will relocate. Without enough diversity, over a long period of time a neighborhood will be predominantly lower-class residents.
  • This under-developed scenario will breed NIMBYism over the years, as the new development will be of lower density than under current taxes.  Residents will likely be resistant to future higher density development of sites to meet market demand.  However, new development would necessarily involve demolition of existing lower-density buildings, which is costly from an opportunity cost point of view, as well as community relations.

I do favor some regional, state, or other tax based upon acreage. (if offsetting income tax or other productivity-stifling taxes)  However, I would implement the tax to discourage sprawl, not to discourage speculation.  Thus, I would tax each acre equally, whether developed or vacant.  Encouraging development of vacant land may only serve to encourage lower density development as a “tax payer”, as opposed to a more optimal use of the land. As long as density isn’t overly restricted, speculation can allow for higher density, and more optimal land use in the long run.

By burdening speculators, we should expect speculation to shift to under-optimal “development” like this:

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The Story of I’On: Struggles of a New Urbanist Project

43 John Galt Way

43 John Galt Way

27 Mises Street

27 Mises Street

I recently googled upon a post at a blog called “Rub-a-Dub” that mentioned a land development project in Mount Pleasant, SC called I’On

I imagine the developers of the I’On “Traditional Neighborhood Development” (TND) community are sympathetic with Market Urbanism, as they named streets after John Galt (of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged), free-market economists Ludwig Von Mises and Thomas Sowell, as well as urbanist writer Jane Jacobs. (ironically, Jane Jacobs Street doesn’t have sidewalks yet according to google street views)

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Who says New Urbanists and free markets can’t mix?  (well, I’m sure we all can name at least one such person…)

What I found interesting was the story of the development shared in the comments of the post by Vince Graham, Founder and President of the development company.  The story really conveyes the struggles developers go through to get projects through the approval process; especially when the standard 20th century, auto-centric layout is being challenged by innovative development solutions.

The reason why there is only single family homes and a limited amount of commercial space in the neighborhood is due to unfortunate compromises necessary to get the neighborhood approved through the arduous political process. Here is a summary:

A Summary of the Political Background and Permitting History for I’On.


The traditional walking neighborhood of I’On is located on a 243-acre infill site in Mt. Pleasant, SC located 5 miles from Charleston’s historic district and 3 miles from the Old Village of Mt. Pleasant. The site is surrounded by conventional subdivision development of the 1950’s, 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. Approximately 60% of I’On’s acreage was originally comprised of former agricultural fields, 30% was 30-40 year old hard wood growth, and 10% took the form of three man made lakes. The design workshop for I’On took place in May of 1995. I’On received approval in March of 1997, and ground was broken on infrastructure in June of 1997, and on the first house in March of 1998. As of January 1, 2003, approximately 300 homes were occupied in I’On, with another 60 homes or so under construction. 19,000 s.f. of commercial space is complete and occupied with another 8,000 s.f. under construction. Two civic buildings have also been completed.

Mt. Pleasant is a bedroom community of Charleston. It has a population of approximately 50,000 people spread over 26,000 acres (roughly the size of Hilton Head Island or Nantucket Island). In 1992, well in advance of the initial design workshop for I’On, the Town Council of Mt. Pleasant unanimously adopted a town-wide Master Plan incorporating Traditional Neighborhood Design (TND) principles. This plan, known as the Redmon-Johnson Master Plan, praised the Old Village of Mt. Pleasant with its mix of civic, commercial, and residential uses as the development model to emulate. It even recognized the site upon which I’On was to be built as an ideal location for a TND. In addition, the Town had adopted and unanimously approved a Strategic Plan in 1994, which also encouraged future development to take the form of compact, traditional neighborhood like the Old Village of Mt. Pleasant. Unfortunately, the Town’s zoning had never been modified to make it consistent with the Master Plan or the Strategic Plan. The underlying zoning for the site was “R-1” specifying 10,000 s.f. minimum lot sizes with accompanying requirements of conventional development (minimum lot widths, setbacks, etc). Thus, to develop the property as a TND required a zoning change to “Planned Development”.

The Founders retained Dover Kohl and DPZ as land planners for the neighborhood. The Founders led the combined firms on a tour of the best models of urbanism in the region including Savannah and Charleston, as well as the historic areas of lesser known coastal towns like Beaufort, Rockville, and the Old Village of Mt. Pleasant. In addition, the group toured Newpoint, a three-year-old TND the Founders were currently building in Beaufort.

Over the next seven days, the group worked to develop a design code and plan comprising 800 single-family lots, 440 multi-family units, 90,000 s.f. of commercial space, and a number of civic sites. Andres Duany presented the plan to a standing room only crowd at the Mt. Pleasant Town Council chambers in mid-May of 1995.

The Founders spent the next few months working with members of DPZ and Dover Kohl to fine tune the plan and code to ready them for rezoning application submission. The rezoning application was submitted in August, 1995. After several public meetings, it received a 7-2 recommendation for approval by the Mt. Pleasant Planning Board. Prior to being reviewed by Mt. Pleasant’s Town Council, compromises were made to the rezoning application reducing single-family lots to 730, and multi-family units to 120. These 850 units worked out to a density of 3.5 units/acre. 3.5 units/acre met the Town’s definition of “low density” [Note: this definition has since been revised downward to 2.8 units/acre.]. Despite more citizens speaking in favor of the project than in opposition at the Mt. Pleasant Town Council meeting held in December of 1995, the application was rejected by a 5-4 vote.

Among other concerns, several residents from the adjacent subdivisions of Hobcaw Point, Molasses Creek, and Heron Pointe feared that the smaller lots would depress their property values, the proposed roundabout would be a “circle of death”, some of the planned streets would be too narrow for fire equipment to use, the parks and apartments would attract “undesirables”, and traffic from I’On would overwhelm Mathis Ferry Road.

After much debate, the Founders elected to continue with option payments to purchase the property. They worked to decipher what kind of plan would be supported by those council members who voted against the application. They also worked with planners to make further compromises to the plan such as removing the multi-family component, reducing the number of proposed thoroughfare types from 11 to 4, reducing commercial from 90,000 s.f. to 30,000 s.f., eliminating a vehicular connection to the adjacent neighborhood, and reducing the total unit count to 759. The Founders had deep regrets about making these compromises as they felt the neighborhood would be less diverse and less affordable, thus reducing the overall quality of I’On. However, political circumstances made these compromises necessary to get anything approved.

Note: 759 units on 243 acres works out to a density of 3.1 units per acre. For comparison, the Old Village of Mt. Pleasant has 3.7 units per acre, Charleston south of Broad Street has 5.2 units per acre, and a conventional R-1 subdivision in Mt. Pleasant has about 2.7 units per acre.

The compromises alleviated the concerns of a large portion of the opposition. However, there was still a core group of four or five individuals lead by Vince Adams who were determined to defeat the development proposal. Opponents argued that the neighborhood plan would generate too much traffic on Mathis Ferry Road. They refused to believe a traffic impact study prepared for the project, which found that because of the off-sight improvements being made by the developer (which included a new connector road between Mathis Ferry Road and U.S. 17) the traffic impact from new homes in I’On would be less than it would be from a conventional subdivision development where no connector road was required. This study also found that the level of service (a qualitative measure of traffic flow conditions) on Mathis Ferry Road would not change once the development was fully built out. Nor would opponents believe the Town of Mt. Pleasant’s own traffic engineering consultant who reviewed the study and concurred with its findings.

The opponents’ claimed the I’On Founders were being deceptive, and the maximum number of units that could be built on the property using R-1 guidelines was between 450 and 500 units. Their basis for this claim was a land plan that had been prepared for the property in the early 1990s, which opponents would cite in public meetings and letters to the Planning Board and Town Council. This plan, which showed 450 units, had been commissioned by Bob Miller, a developer with strong political connections, who had been building conventional subdivisions in the Town for many years. Miller had worked on this plan with Dick Jones, a former Mayor of the Town.

This new plan and rezoning application was submitted in December, 1996. After the requisite public hearing, it received a 7-1 recommendation for approval by the Mt. Pleasant Planning Board in January, 1997, followed by a 7-2 first reading approval by Town Council in February of 1997. The plan and rezoning application received 6-3 final approval by Town Council in March of 1997 (one council member who had supported the rezoning in February, switched his vote after intense lobbying by rezoning opponents). As with the 1995 application, the majority of citizens who came to speak at public hearings voiced support for the plan for I’On.

Infrastructure construction began in the summer of 1997 (two years after the initial design workshop took place) and ground was broken on the first house in March of 1998. Homes in the neighborhood have ranged in price from $160,000 to $1,700,000, and lots range in size from 1/20th to one half of an acre. It is worth noting that some of the more expensive homes sold in the neighborhood are located on some of the smallest lots. Quantity is not quality, and thus, does not necessarily translate into a higher price.

During the time the Planned Development ordinance received first reading approval in February of 1997 and infrastructure ground breaking in the summer of that year, the opponents of the project gathered a petition of 3,500 registered voters, which they presented to Town Council requesting that governing body overturn the approved ordinance, or otherwise, hold a referendum enabling the citizenry to vote on the zoning. The Founders challenged this action, and a Circuit Court Judge placed a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) on the Town prohibiting them from acting on this petition. This TRO was subsequently lifted, and while the Town Council voted 6-3 against overturning the rezoning, they did schedule a Town-wide referendum be held in October of 1997.

The Founders continued their legal challenge, while preparing a campaign to win support for I’On at the polls in October of 1997. Site work construction continued unabated throughout despite the opponents’ legal attempts to stop it. One week prior to the scheduled referendum, Circuit Court Judge Markley Dennis ruled that a municipality could not hold a referendum on zoning issues. The Town was satisfied with the decision, but the opponents were not and intervened to appeal this decision. The appeal was heard by the South Carolina State Supreme Court in December of 1999. In January of 2000 the Supreme Court ruled unanimously to affirm the lower court decision.

The principal opponents of I’On targeted the incumbent supporters for defeat. In subsequent elections, five of the six council members who had voted to support the rezoning of I’On were defeated at the polls, and the other member of Council who had voted to support the rezoning, elected not to run. Despite all its aesthetic, economic, environmental and social successes, I’On was effectively used as a galvanizing issue for the anti-growth forces of the Town to defeat incumbents.

Since its approval, I’On has received numerous local, state and national awards for environmental sensitivity, sustainability, and design, including a Stewardship Award from the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, and the National Association of Home Builders “Best Smart Growth Community” in the country in 2002. It has also received national and international recognition from media outlets ranging from CNN to National Geographic magazine. The neighborhood has played host to college groups, city councils and planning staffs from other municipalities in the Carolinas, and developers from as far away as Europe, Japan, and Australia. They come to learn more about smart growth principles in action.

The political fervor has died down over the years as I’On’s residential property values have consistently outperformed the market and are easily the highest of any new community in Mt. Pleasant. However, from time to time a new controversy will arise. A 2001 proposal to connect with the new subdivision of Braemore to the southwest was fought by Council. Another 2001 proposal to allow up to 80 of the 762 approved homes to take the form of “Rainbow Row” styled townhouses was voted down by Town Council 9-0. In January of 2002 the Town chose to fight a Montesorri School’s decision to locate on one of the sites designated for civic use in I’On, by arguing that a school is not a civic use. A circuit court judge ruled that the Town cannot exclude a school from its definition of civic use, but despite this, the Town asked its city attorney to appeal this decision to the S.C. Court of Appeals in April of 2002. In October of 2003 the Court of Appeals handed down a unanimous decision affirming the lower court’s decision, which opens the door for a school to be built in the neighborhood.

    A few observations.

As discussed, the neighborhood is located in close proximity to two historic districts that are, if price is any measure, the most sought after places to live in the area; through its Master Plan and Strategic Plan the Town had adopted a clear vision for the kind of development they wanted; we had two of the best, if not the best, planning teams in the country creating the initial plan; no less than four environmentally oriented groups endorsed the plan along with a substantial number of community leaders; and the developer had a track record of successful TND development within a 90-minute drive of the subject property.

It is important to recognize that our society has politicized property rights and democratized land use to the point that most re-zonings now involve a political campaign. Even with great built examples such as the historic area of Charleston and the Old Village of Mt. Pleasant, one should not make the naïve mistake of assuming that citizens or their elected leaders will understand the concept after hearing a lecture or reading a few articles on Traditional Neighborhood Development. Some may take years to understand the concept, while others may never understand it. And there are some who feel that accepting the design principles of TND involves an admission that what has been built over the last 50 years was a mistake. They may be unable or unwilling to make such an admission. Also, one should not assume that if a politician or appointed board member likes a project or thinks it is “the right thing to do” they will necessarily support it in a public forum. Few are those who possess the political will or guts to stand up to an angry room full of NIMBYs, or a well-connected citizen.

It is extraordinarily difficult to win such a political campaign in most areas of the country for several reasons: (1) Prior to World War II people were excited about growth. Their expectations were that what was built would be beautiful and contribute to their quality of life. However, the overall quality of the built environment of the last 50 years has been poor. This makes people distrustful of anything new, and gives rise to a legitimate belief that anything new will, by association with most of what has been built over the last 50 years, will necessarily be bad; (2) the private/exclusive mindset embodied in the suburban mentality (which has spread to many urban areas) leads people to believe that any more development will degrade their privacy and exclusivity; and (3) it is in the best short-term economic interests of existing property owners because limiting supply of new homes, puts upward pressure on existing home prices.

There are many bright spots in the I’On story that those involved in campaigning for, building, and living in the neighborhood can view with pride. As mentioned, the neighborhood continues to grow in aesthetic, economic, and social value. It attracts people from around the world interested in smart growth principles, and demonstrates that it is still possible to build in a beautiful manner.

The present Town Council of Mt. Pleasant attempts to address growth by widening roads, and mandating lower densities and segregated land uses. This has the effect of spreading new growth out to the fringes of Town, requiring longer travel times, mandating the need for a car to meet daily needs, and thus exacerbating the problem of traffic congestion. There are however, many municipalities taking aggressive measures to address the problems of sprawl. For example, the Founders have been welcomed by other municipalities and their citizens in South Carolina and North Carolina to participate in building new neighborhoods. With I’On and other examples of mixed-use development now taking shape across the country, the future looks bright for an expanded availability of housing choice.

Vince Graham
The I’On Company

President Obama on Jane Jacobs and Cities

Without getting too political on inauguration day, I’d like to share a positive video featuring our new President that urbanists should appreciate, regardless of political persuasion:

Let’s hope President Obama keeps Jane Jacobs’ lessons of spontaneous order from The Death and Life of Great American Cities in mind as he makes economic decisions.

While on the subject of Jane Jacobs, Sandy Ikeda discusses Jane Jacobs’ thoughts on poverty from The Economy of Cities (1969).

[hat tip for the video: Vince Graham]

Uncomfortable truths about the progressive legacy

by Stephen Smith

Yesterday I was listening to the pre-inaugural concert at the Lincoln Memorial on the radio, and one of the speakers said something that struck me as emblematic of the challenges that Barack Obama faces, though I doubt she realized the ironic significance. She was praising Theodore Roosevelt’s conservationist legacy as a model for Obama, with some quotes from him at the Grand Canyon or Yosemite or some other celebrated national park, though she only touched on a small sliver of Roosevelt’s environmental legacy. He definitely did cherish the environment; a timeline of his life shows that in early April 1903 he “commune[d] with deer while writing letters in Yellowstone, WY.” He was indeed a conservationist, as were many progressives at the time.

But the progressives were also something else – something that today’s progressives would do well to remember: ardent planners whose plans often had grave unforeseen consequences. Just after his time communing with the deer at Yellowstone, Roosevelt traveled to St. Louis to address the 1903 Good Roads Convention. The “good roads” movement dated back to before the automobile rose to prominence, and was formed to agitate for improved roads for bicyclists and farmers. But around the time of Roosevelt’s speech, the movement was hijacked by the budding auto-industrial complex. Unwilling or unable to compete on their own against mass transit, the automakers, highway engineers, and road contractors sought for the state to both acquire the rights of way necessary for the roads, and to pay for them to be paved – an advantage the streetcars and railroads did not generally have. Not wanting to appear to be too blatant in their rent seeking, these interests lobbied the government indirectly, giving organizations like the AAA money in exchange for influence and seats on their boards.

The nascent auto industry was not the only booster of subsidized roads – even the private railroads were not immune to the siren song of the great new progressive future. They joined the cause in the 1890s with the idea that improved roads would mean more business for railroads, unaware of the threat that the long-haul trucking industry would come to pose to their business. This new semi-public, semi-private corporatist transportation model suited the progressives as well, who believed in a statist future where “private” enterprise was directed and controlled, though not outright owned, by the government.

In the years since the 1903 Good Roads Convention, the idea that government ought to be providing “good roads” has fundamentally altered the landscape of the country in ways that Theodore Roosevelt never could have imagined. The highway lobby gathered strength throughout the first half of the 20th century, eventually culminating in the Interstate Highway System, the widespread suburbanization of America, and the destruction of American cities. Urban planners like Robert Moses razed neighborhoods and blighted the remaining barren landscapes with highways that have become increasingly congested ever since. In order to stave off this inevitable overuse, planners flattened America with zoning laws and parking regulations that forced Americans to sprawl away from city centers, to areas reachable only by cars and trucks. A century later it’s hard to imagine it happening any other way, and it’s often forgotten that there was a workable free market urbanism before there was unsustainable sprawl.

Especially in recent decades, the system has acquired the façade of self-sufficiency and thus the illusion of being a market institution, because of the Highway Trust Fund and separate gas taxes and user fees levied specifically on motorists. But some of the most significant costs – the acquisition of land for rights-of-way – were paid for earlier in the century, when the government’s power of eminent domain was near absolute. Furthermore, roads are asked only to recoup their capital and operating costs (well, most of them anyway), though every freshman in Econ 101 ought to know that a profit-seeking entrepreneur seeks to recoup his opportunity costs rather than just his accounting costs. In other words, not only does he try to make a profit, but the underlying land shouldn’t earn him any more money were it put to some other use – a test no roads are subject to. To add insult to injury, the nature of roads and private cars is such that they work best in low density environments, but cannot scale upwards without becoming prohibitively expensive due to the cost of ever-widening roads. Mass transit is precisely the opposite – it handles high densities well, and is utterly unprofitable at lower ones. Predictably, America’s zoning rules and parking regulations are overwhelmingly oriented towards densities lower than what the market would demand in their absence.

Theodore Roosevelt might be more commonly remembered for his conservationist work, but it’s important for people today to remember the unforeseen consequences of the his other grand plans. The “good roads” path that he helped put America on has shown itself to be an enabler of global climate change, encouraging Americans to live farther apart, travel farther each day, have bigger houses, and fill those houses with more things. The common telling of the roading of America is that it oiled the gears of commerce and is an integral part of the “American dream,” but it’s impossible to know what sort of advances in mass transit technology would have come about and how we’d be living had the government not favored the automobile and the truck over the streetcar and the train. Theodore Roosevelt’s conservationist efforts are indeed praiseworthy, but might both the environment and the economy be in better shape today had the progressives not interrupted the rail-based urbanization of turn-of-the-century America and put us on the car-based sprawling sub- and exurbanization that characterizes America today?

In calling for the government to fund more mass transit and urban projects, Barack Obama has shown that he sees the problems in America’s land use configuration. But in doing so, he’s shown himself to be ignorant of the root causes of the crisis: government meddling in the transportation and land use industries. Just as the progressives and futurists failed to use the government to design a more efficient transportation scheme, Obama will likely fail in using the government to fix America’s energy problems. Unless he renounces the legacy of the progressives and admits to America that it needs to return to its market-based roots – at least with respect to transportation and land use policy – his campaign promises of reversing our unsustainable ways will go unfulfilled.

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