Who believes that smart growth caused the recession?

So, I have a question. This might sound like I’m trying to be snarky, but I’m actually genuinely in search of an answer: Is there any economist out there other than Wendell Cox and Joel Kotkin who actually believes this?

This all should give some pause to the relentless hoopla about the country’s supposed “urban renaissance.” The roots of the current economic crisis lie deep in urban economies, where employment growth that has lagged even in good times.  During the last economic expansion, urban job growth was roughly one-sixth that of suburbs and one-third that of smaller communities.

I believe the smart growth-caused-the-subprime-mortgage theory originated with Wendell Cox, and while Joel Kotkin’s statement is rather vague and leaves a lot of wiggle room, it sure sounds like he’s buying into it, too. Any others to add to the list?

More empirical evidence that parking minimums matter

The other day, I had a meeting with Sam Staley and we both lamented the paucity of good empirical evidence about how land use regulations actually affect the built environment. For the ubiquitous minimum parking requirements, the only thing I’ve seen up until now was this study about the effects for LA County’s population of 10 million. But searching on Google Scholar, I found a 2011 article called Minimum parking requirements and housing affordability in New York City in the journal Housing Policy Debate which also addresses the issue:

[…] In this article, we explore the theoretical objections to minimum parking requirements and the limited empirical literature. We then use lot-level data and GIS to analyze parking requirements in New York City to determine to what extent they are already effectively sensitive to transit proximity. Finally, we examine developer response to parking requirements by comparing the number of spaces that are actually built to the number required by applicable zoning law. Our results indicate that the per-unit parking requirement in New York is, on average, lower in areas near rail transit stations, but the required number of spaces per square foot of lot area is higher, on average, in transit accessible areas. We also find that by and large, developers tend to build only the bare minimum of parking required by zoning, suggesting that the minimum parking requirements are binding for developers, as argued by critics, and that developers do not simply build parking out of perceived marked [sic?] need. Our results raise the possibility that even in cities with complex and tailored parking requirements, there is room to tie the requirements more closely to contextual factors. Further, such changes are likely to result in fewer parking spaces from residential developers.

Unfortunately I cannot find an ungated version of the full text (if you can, please send it to smithsj@gmail.com), and this earlier version doesn’t include the part that I’ve bolded.

In the comments of the post with the aforementioned study about parking minimums in LA County, Randal O’Toole, the Antiplanner, said that LA is the densest urban area in the country and so these results are not generalizable elsewhere. If that sounds surprising to you, it’s because he’s using a very primitive measure called “average density” that is in fact a poor proxy for determining whether a place is auto- or transit-oriented. Your intuitions about Los Angeles are right – it’s probably not at all out of the ordinary when it comes to auto-orientedness in American cities.

But the New York study will be interesting when I can get my hands on it because of Staten Island. If parking minimums in Staten Island are largely binding constraints on developers, then I think it’s fair to say that they are probably binding for much of Westchester, Long Island, and North Jersey. With these two studies, I think we’ve come very close to proving that a very large amount of people in and around America’s cities are forced by parking minimums to sprawl and become more auto-oriented than they otherwise would choose in a free market.

Bloomberg pokes (again) at hornet’s nest of entitled drivers

The New York Daily News broke the story yesterday that New York lawmakers are once again trying to push congestion pricing through the state legislature, a task at which Mayor Michael Bloomberg failed in 2008 after meeting fierce resistance from outer borough and suburban drivers. Learning from his previous failed bid to charge drivers $8/day to enter Manhattan below 60th Street, the plan is being rebranded as “traffic pricing” and will be linked to payroll tax relief for those outside the five boroughs in an attempt to win the support of suburban legislators who torpedoed the 2008 proposal.

Despite being the most transit-saturated city in America, New York City drivers have had free reign of its surface streets since the days when they were maintained by private streetcar companies. Unlike highway users and transit riders, drivers have never been asked to pay a penny in direct fees for the local roads they use. This has created generations of Americans who feel entitled to freeride on the backs of their poorer, car-less fellow citizens, which has made congestion pricing one of Bloomberg’s rare failures during his decade-long tenure as mayor.

New York State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Nassau County) calls it “just another tax,” but it differs from a general tax in one critical way: It is levied solely on those who drive in Manhattan, meaning that it does not redistribute wealth from those who don’t use the roads to those who do. And while the accounting costs for modes of transportation are subsidized to some extent, roads have enormous opportunity costs—far higher than transit, which uses relatively marginal underground land and has a minuscule footprint relative to paved roads. Land is extremely expensive in New York City, so these opportunity costs are larger than they might be out in less dense areas—imagine how much the city could get from auctioning off the land beneath the West Side Highway, and you start to get an idea of the magnitude of these subsidies.

Congestion pricing has been in place for a few years now in London, Copenhagen, and Singapore (cities you may never have heard of, since they were vaporized the instant they started charging for the right to drive), but the motorist lobby in America has so far managed to stave off any attempts to make local road users pay their fair share. San Francisco is mulling over a congestion charge as well, so it’s a race between the nation’s two most notoriously leftist cities to see which one will de-socialize its local roads first.


1. Laneway housing, Vancouver vs. Toronto.

2. New York state lawmakers want to ban using a phone or listening to headphones while crossing streets. Unfortunately for us pedestrians, there are very few limited access, grade-separated walkways, so in essence this would criminalize listening to an iPod while walking.

3. An interesting article about transportation in Singapore, with an emphasis on congestion pricing and other ways of recouping the enormous opportunity costs of urban roads.

4. I’ve been aware of this for a while, but it still shocks me every time (emphasis mine):

We know New Yorkers are being injured and killed just about every day. (Like the 35-year-old woman who was run over by a dump truck on the Upper East Side Monday while legally crossing the street. Did you hear about that one? The dump truck driver stayed at the scene and wasn’t drunk, so it was basically a freebie for him — a clean, legal kill as far as the NYPD is concerned. Can you imagine if she were your wife or sister or colleague? Anyway… back to those damned bikes, right?…)

5. Yet another example of why I don’t think the Texas Transportation Institute’s congestion metrics are useful.

6. As if we needed any more proof: Big cities are inherently green.


1. Systemic Failure praises Gov. (again) Jerry Brown’s efforts to do away with California’s redevelopment agencies and “enterprise zones” (there’s a euphemism if I’ve ever heard one), which the author claims promote autocentric development with public funds. He then cites a few examples of redevelopment agencies pushing such plans in San Jose. If he can come up with that many in one city, I can’t even imagine how much damage they’ve done throughout the whole state. So far I’m liking Jerry Brown’s second act.

2. A very interesting Wikipedia article about a controversial Brooklyn-based developer.

3. One Staten Island councilman wants to use the dreaded environmental review against bike lanes.

4. An article about the Toronto condo boom. I’d like to know more about this:

But perhaps the biggest demographic that will continue to drive sales this year is the investor market, both local and international. Mr. Lamb says there are few developers building rental towers any longer, in part due to the city’s rent control laws, so investors hold the key to rental accommodation. He says it’s not uncommon for 40% of a building to be owned by investors, with most rentals situated below the fifteenth floor because they are less expensive than those with a brighter view. Mr. Myers estimates 50% to 60% of downtown condo units are owned by investors who rent them out.

The origin of user fees?

I just started reading Paving the Way: New York Road Building and the American State, 1880-1956by Michael R. Fein, and though I don’t have time to talk as much about it as I’d like, I will say that I’m only a couple pages in and I can already tell it’s going to be great. Its thesis is essentially that the development of the road building bureaucracy was as important as the New Deal, if not more so, in shaping 20th century political development (this may be something that liberal urbanists, who otherwise support the expansion of the state, don’t want to hear). There’s much I’d like to excerpt, but I’ll stick with this paragraph in the introduction:

Engineers framed their decisions in the language of scientific rationality and professional expertise. But these were merely forms of political expression that advanced their traffic-service vision of highway planning. Though New York’s road-building program predated mass automobility, engineers quickly seized on the phenomenon as a means of cementing their political legitimacy. Traffic censuses became the main foundational beam to engineers’ authority, a scientific measurement of public demand for highways that was difficult to contest [ed. note: reminds me of the Texas Transportation Institute]. As long as state highway construction focused on the improvement of existing roads, dissent was weakly expressed. As engineering projects increased in scale, impact, and potential for controversy, resistance spiked. It was in the process of responding to increased opposition that strong tensions developed between engineers’ service to their professional agenda (building a better highway system) and their responsibility to the public (balancing highway construction with other aspects of social development). These interests, once operating in tandem and instrumental to the engineers’ rise to power, began over time to feed conflict and meet with cross-purposes. The engineers’ solution to this problem was to stop treating motorists as citizens and start treating them as consumers, who paid “user fees” through motor fuel taxes and registration fees that were then dedicated toward the maintenance and expansion of the highway system. The adoption of this “motorist-consumer” logic suggests the extent to which highway engineers sought to crowd out dissenting political voices, diminishing the public nature of highways whilte interpreting the simple act of driving as an unqualified endorsement of the highway program.

Has anyone else ever read this book, or otherwise have anything to say about it? Is the author overstating the purpose of user fees?

Russia links

1. “Experts have proposed increasing road taxes for Moscow drivers six or seven-fold in an effort to alleviate the Russian capital’s notorious traffic congestion.”

2. Moscow Mayor Sobyanin wants to regulate taxis, of which over 80% (!) are current unlicensed. Racial undertones abound (“They should get them off the road, especially those who came from the mountains”), and you know a plan is probably not a good idea when even the monopolists (i.e., current licensed drivers) are skeptical.

3. Moscow drivers are planning a protest over the recent death of a student at the hands of one of the city’s notorious official cars that use flashing blue lights to routinely halt traffic throughout the congested capital.

4. Russian President Medvedev has signed a decree banning foreigners from owning land along most of Russia’s borders with Finland and Norway. It’s unclear how they’ll deal with land already owned by them. It’s unclear to me if the ban includes land extending into, say, the Russian city of Vyborg.

5. The Potemkin Village of Skolkovo. Is there any officially-designated Silicon Valley wannabe that hasn’t been an utter failure?

More on Moscow’s unfortunate urbanism here.

Even Jane Jacobs thought Houston doesn’t have zoning

“Houston has no zoning” is a very popular urban planning meme. It has its roots in Houston’s lacks one very specific kind of zoning: Euclidean separation of residential, commercial, and industrial uses. Euclidean zoning happens to be the one kind of planning that people easily understand (the whole meatpacking-plant-in-my-backyard fear), and so the usual panoply of density-inhibiting regulations (parking minimums, minimum lot requirements, FAR restrictions, etc.) is downplayed or even outright ignored, despite Michael Lewyn’s claims that Houston is in many ways more restrictive than even its Sun Belt neighbors.

But still, despite its pervasiveness, I was surprised to hear from commenter Alon Levy that in a 2001 interview with Reason Magazine, even Jane Jacobs was still laboring under the myth:

Reason: When the change comes, if it is an incremental, slowly evolving, uncontrolled sort of natural change, it’s easy for society to accommodate that, isn’t it?

Jacobs: Yes it is. But if all that zoning is kept, that can’t happen.

Reason: This is why I’m one of the few people you’ve met who likes Houston, because it has no zoning.

Jacobs: It has no zoning. But all the same, it looks like all the places that do have zoning. Because the same developers and bankers who deal with places that do have zoning carry their same ideas when they finance or build something in Houston.

Reason: There are not enough Houstons to change the way things are built or developed?

Jacobs: Right.

Maybe I’m just a sadist, but my favorite part of the interview was the first few pages where the interviewer tries to get Jacobs to support the usual libertarian “war on cars” line and she deftly avoids it. Finally, he thinks he’s gotten her when she says something bad about New Urbanism, but then it turns out that her issue seems more to be that New Urbanist communities aren’t really urban enough.