Matt Yglesias, Kevin Drum, and Ryan Avent have been discussing the political economy of anti-density regulations, and I have a lot of comments, but I’m not sure I have the time (or, really, the patience) to air all of them. So, we’ll see how long this post gets.
First of all, I think all this talk of federal policy is misguided. Writing about the federal government sells well in journalism since it reaches the widest audience, but even taking into account the feds’ massive power grab over the last century, the real action is still at the local level. Local property tax distortions favoring single family homes are widespread and egregious, but orders of magnitude more ink gets spilled about the relatively ineffectual mortgage interest tax deduction. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s refusal to fund mixed use developments is unfortunate, but it’s nothing compared to the almighty parking minimum. So while obviously the rural-biased Senate isn’t doing urbanism any favors, the nation’s Greatest Deliberative Body is next to meaningless when compared to lowly municipal governments.
Secondly, I think that historically speaking, Ryan Avent is starting his analysis a few decades too late. He cites the Great Migration(s) of blacks out of the South and the law-and-order backlash as a reason that American politicians fear density, but the real anti-density legislation began around the turn of the century, decades before the black boogeyman hit the scene. And while the federal highway projects that Ryan cites were bad for cities, they were really the final nail in the coffin – urban business associations welcomed them as a cure for decentralization. In other words, cities were already in decline by the time the interstate highways started papering over neighborhoods. The real germ entered the system decades earlier.
In my opinion, at least, the original sin was the refusal of turn-of-the-century cities to accept elevated rapid transit systems. Huge cities like New York and Chicago got theirs before the anti-el sentiment really set in, and Philadelphia and Boston got barebones networks, but by the time this revolutionary technology reached the rest of America, public opinion was already decidedly against the private rapid transit networks. Though everyone loved the subway (well, sort of), burying rapid transit is much more expensive than building it above streets and alleyways, so few cities ever mustered up the funds to build subways. (This cannot be emphasized enough: Elevated lines were(/are?) cheap and profitable enough to be built by relatively apolitical private enterprise, whereas subways were not.) From this lack of els came horrible street crowding and congestion as people piled into overburdened at-grade streetcar lines. From this congestion came height limits, and from these height limits came sprawl, and from sprawl came the automobile and parking lots, and by the Great Depression, development pretty much ended. In the decades afterward the city was really running on vapors, a dead man walking, only being propelled by the formidable momentum built up during the greatest period of urban expansion that America has ever known. This explains why people like Kevin and Ryan seem to be concentrating on the post-WWII period, but it’s something they’re going to have to get over if they ever want to truly understand what happened to density in America. (Note: Much of my knowledge from this period comes from Robert Fogelson’s Downtown, which I’ve promoted on this blog incessantly.)
But even the anti-el animus requires an explanation. This is a much more philosophical debate, but I believe that it’s simply human nature to want the government to provide goods (and sprawl – “light and air” – are definitely goods; as much as I love the city, of course my money-is-no-option ideal would be to live in a sprawling mansion in the middle of Central Park) that the state really has no business providing. (Now, I recognize that this might be hard for the liberals engaged in this debate to accept, since they don’t seem to see the question of private vs. public as particularly relevant.) The question then becomes, why did Europeans and Asians resist the temptation to subsidize sprawl, with the US only now vaguely coming to its senses? The reason, I think, is twofold: a) we have a lot of physical space to sprawl, and b) we are a very prosperous nation with a lot of wealth for the government/suburban constituencies to leach off of. After WWII, Europe and Japan were devastated and could not afford to bear the cost of subsidized sprawl. Later in the century we could leach off of our tech sector (think: Silicon Valley, the Research Triangle, and Route 128) to sustain the sprawl. Eventually I think that will come to an end and we’ll have to scale back (land will never be a constraining factor for us), but unfortunately, I’m not sure that I see that in the near future. Yes, there are rumblings now, but we’re still too rich of a nation to be forced to reconsider these wealth-sucking policies in any serious way.
(Also, a side note to Kevin Drum: That rural vs. urban chart you showed leaves out the suburbs entirely, lumping them instead in the “urban” column. This has always been a pet-peeve of mine. I understand why researchers do it, because it’s difficult to disaggregate “cities” from “suburbs,” but if that’s the best we can come up with, it’s probably better to just leave it out of the debate entirely.)