Frank Lloyd Wright’s Centrally Planned City

On my last post about Ayn Rand’s views on cities, I received feedback in the comments that obviously she loved cities and on Twitter that obviously she did not. I think I come down on the side that she likely saw cities, and particularly skyscrapers, as embodiment of human achievement. However Frank Lloyd Wright — the likely inspiration for her character Howard Roark in The Fountainhead – strongly opposed population density both for his architectural preference and from a public policy angle.

Wright called his urban development vision Broadacres because he thought that population density should be less than one person per acre. In part this may have stemmed from Wright’s practice of organic architecture. Many of the tenets of organic architecture, such as designing buildings with their users’ needs as the foremost priority, can be practiced as well in dense development as in houses like his most famous Fallingwater. However, Wright seemed to draw particular inspiration from designing buildings in greenfield locations, inspired by the natural landscape.

This is all well and good for those who want to live far from cities. However, Wright went on to argue that density of people and buildings is not merely an issue of preference, but one of democracy. He argued that city life restricted individuals’ freedom of movement, and that skyscrapers limited individualism by increasing congestion and “keeping concentration where it is,” as if working or living in a skyscraper was like being in prison rather than a voluntary activity. Like many who have argued against building density because it increases congestion, Wright downplayed the necessary traffic congestion that occurs when land use restrictions require people to live far from their workplaces.

Wright saw Broadacres as the anthithesis of Corbusian design, but both share a focus on green space and both would rely on heavy-handed planning, making them unlikely to turn out as well in practice as their originators imagined. At the time he promoted it, Broadacres received criticism from liberals who saw his design as anti-communal. While this may be a fair critique of the lifestyle that would result in Broadacres, it’s important to note that it’s also very anti-libertarian. The design relies on a central plan which Wright envisioned repeated over and over in cities across the country. He saw room for individualism in house design, but the land use plan would rely entirely on county-level planners.

In Archiectural Record (1935) he writes that Broadacres represents “a new freedom for America,” but then he goes on:

In the hands of the state, but by way of the county, is all redistribution of land — a minimum of one acre going to the childless family and more to the larger family as effected by the state. The agent of the state in all matters of land allotment or improvement, or in matters affecting the harmony of the whole, is the architect. All building is subject to his sense of the whole as organic architecture.

[...]

In the buildings for Broadacres no distinction exists between much and little, more and less. Quality is in all, for all, alike. The though entering into the first or last estate is of the best. What differs is only individuality and extent.

He sounds not unlike a Randian villain. While Wright professed support of limited government, he advocated authoritarianism in land use. Individual liberty requires the freedom for consumers to choose to live in a setting like Broadacres or in a skyscraper like one of Howard Roark’s, but Wright’s plan would not offer this choice.

(Both video links via The Atlantic Cities.)

Ayn Rand on Urbanism

Ayn Rand’s recent appearances in the news made me think about her position on urban issues. Some of her novels suggest that she is anti-city, believing that individualism can only be achieved by living in remote areas. In Anthemfor example, her protagonist lives in a type of dorm where people are never allowed to be alone. He achieves the freedom that he couldn’t realize in this totalitarian society by escaping to an isolated home in the woods. Likewise, her description of Galt’s Gulch, the mountain utopia in Atlas Shrugged for productive capitalists, is based on Ouray, Colorado. Ouray is a beautiful town in a beautiful part of the country, but its built landscape notably shares little in common with the urban areas where her villains live.

While her Galt’s Gulch description is clearly fanciful, I think it is important to note that the characters would not have been able to support themselves in a small market with the specialties they chose before dropping out of society. Galt himself is an electrical engineer, and other residents of the Gulch include a railroad manager, a metallurgist, and a famous actress. Since the Gulch does not engage in trade with the outside world, those living in the Gulch would not be trading in a market nearly large enough to be specializing in their chosen professions.

In The Gated City, Ryan Avent provides an excellent description of the specialization that is only possible within large cities. Going  back to the Ouray example, this small mountain town provides opportunities for a certain type of specialization, such as spa manager or ice climbing guide, but this is only because tourists visiting the area have the requisite standard of living to visit resort towns. Since the division of labor is limited by the size of the market, the division of labor within Galt’s Gulch would be extremely limited, reducing these capitalist heros to a near-subsistence standard of living.

Perhaps Rand relies on these different types of developments merely as symbolism; since few people meet her standards of individualism, they must escape to sparsely-populated areas of the country to achieve independence from government. Rand herself lived in a New York apartment in Murray Hill, a far cry from Galt’s Gulch. She lived in New York for 30 years, indicating she probably wasn’t a city-hater. She expressed admiration for the New York skyline, and Howard Roark, the protagonist of The Fountainhead (which I’ve not read), is an architect. He says, “I would give the greatest sunset in the world for one sight of New York’s skyline. Particularly when one can’t see the details. Just the shapes. The shapes and the thought that made them. The sky over New York and the will of man made visible.” Clearly Rand appreciated the type of architecture and large-scale infrastructure projects made possible by urbanization at the same time her protagonists seek to drop out of cities.

While it’s difficult to say what stance Rand herself took on urbanism, we do know that Frank Lloyd Wright is rumored to have been the inspiration for Howard RoarkWright’s views on cities are very clear. He thought that living “communally” such as in apartment buildings was anti-individualist and that densely built cities were anti-democratic. A follow-up post will explore Wright’s urban theories as they relate to individual liberty.

Selling the Rights to Greater Density

At Next American City, Mark Bergen has an interesting long-form piece on municipal infrastructure financing. He argues that the property owners who benefit from public policies, such as infrastructure investment, should be required to fund these policies. He suggests infrastructure improvements should be paid for with Tax Increment Finance or value capture (PDF). I don’t necessarily agree with his infrastructure funding prescriptions, and may take these up in a future post. What I found even more interesting, though, is his suggestion that developers should pay for zoning changes.

The basis for this proposal comes from the Georgist land tax. Because in urban settings, land’s value largely comes from the amenities surrounding it, landowners do not have the exclusive rights to this value, according to Henry George. The suggestion that developers should pay for the rights to build on the land they own is based, Mark explains, on a policy from São Paulo, called Certificates of Additional Construction Potential (CEPAC). These bonds, representing rights to build, are transferable and are publicly traded. He quotes Gregory K. Ingram of Lincoln Institute of Land Policy:

“They’re essentially selling zoning changes,” explained Ingram. Crucially, the building fees have not eaten away at developers’ profits. By some accounts, the rates of return for real estate in the districts increase.

[...]

The notes, sold by municipalities, are one of the world’s most innovative public financing techniques. Across many sections of São Paulo, if a developer hopes to build or do nearly anything with her property — adjust its uses, expand outward or upward — she must first buy a CEPAC.

On a fairness level, selling zoning changes seems wrong to me. Current zoning policies are an arbitrary starting point, so it doesn’t make sense that developers should have to pay for permission to change a policy that is limiting their rights. Additionally, the overarching objective of value capture, as Mark explains, is to facilitate progress toward Smart Growth objectives. To the extent that these objectives include affordable housing, walkability, and permitting denser development, great progress can be made toward these goals with upzoning alone without significant public investments.

On the residential side, increasing the housing supply is the only feasible path toward large numbers of affordable homes. On the commercial side, walkable neighborhoods cannot be achieved without permitting more mixed-use, dense development. From this angle,  São Paulo’s CEPAC policy would act as a tax on Smart Growth.

From a political perspective, it seems that the CEPAC policy would be subject to abuse. Those who oppose density on the conservative side would lobby for the issuance of few CEPAC bonds. Those on the progressive side who support increased public revenue for their favorite causes may also support the issuance of few bonds, requiring developers to pay high prices for the rights to build.

Despite these problems, though, as Mark points out in Brazil the program has led to increased developers’ profits indicating the program has not had these detrimental effects. I was not familiar with the program before reading Mark’s article, and I don’t know much about how CEPACs have played out politically in Brazil. However, I can imagine that paying for the rights to build would be an improvement for many U.S. developers, even though they act as a tax on density.

Currently, to achieve the zoning changes necessary for increasing density and market-rate affordable housing, developers have to spend significant resources of time and money to go through an uncertain political process. In some cities, as-of-right development is so limited that  the rule of law does not extend to urban development. Given this status quo, CEPAC bonds could benefit developers by removing some of the uncertainty surrounding zoning variances. Rather than spending money on lobbying for property rights they may never achieve, developers could simply buy these rights on the open market. This might also benefit small-business development if buying the needed bonds is cheaper than investing in a lobbying arm.

While I think many market urbanists would prefer to see more housing and walkable development allowed as-of-right, perhaps selling these rights is a second-best solution. Additionally, by compensating taxpayers for the damages to their light and air, CEPAC bonds could reduce the validity of NIMBY arguments. Is anyone more familiar with how the CEPAC program has changed land use rights in Brazil or other ways in which value capture has changed land use policy?

The High Cost of Free Parking Preface and Afterword

This is the last post in the series on Donald Shoup’s The High Cost of Free Parking. Previous can be found here:

Chapters 1 – 4

Chapters 5 – 9

Chapters 10 – 14

Chapters 16 – 18

Chapters 19 – 22

Preface

In these two chapters, which Donald Shoup added for the paperback edition of the book, he discusses some of the changes in parking policy since the original edition in 2004. He also reiterates his three prescriptions for saner parking policy:

1) Set the right price for curb parking;

2) Return parking revenue to pay for local public services;

3) Remove parking minimum requirements.

He points out that cities that have tried “performance parking” have had successful results. San Francisco’s SFpark is perhaps the country’s most advanced system for performance parking. Curb sspaces include sensors that can tell whether or not the space is occupied. Then parking amnagers can adjust prices remotely to approach the 85% occupancy goal as closely as possible.

Shoup argues that performance parking should not be a politicized change. Setting an 85% occupancy target is not designed to raise revenue or to benefit any group at the expense of another. Rather, prices can eliminate parking shortages, so that people pay for parking with money rather than with time spent cruising. These prices also incentivise greater turnover. Nonetheless, he points out that performance parking has opponents:

Thinking about parking seems to take place in the reptilian cortex, the most primitive part of the brain responsible for making snap decisions about urgent fight-or-flight choices such as how to avoid being eaten.

The same could be said about many land use decisions which do not seem to be made on the basis of rationality. He points out that performance pricing is very unlikely to reduce customers in any district, as the prices are set to maintain high occupancy rates. Those customers unwilling to pay for parking are unlikely to be businesses best customers at any rate. Despite this opposition, cities that have tried parking performance prices seem to be keeping them in place. Shoup speculates that people tend to oppose performance pricing more strongly before they see its benefits upon implementation.

As far parking revenues going back to the neighborhoods where they are raised, Shoup cites the continued economic growth of Old Pasadena as a success for this policy. Redwood City, outside of San Francisco, has adopted a similar model, where parking revenues stay within the Downtown Core Meter Zone.

Toward his final recommendation, Shoup has found at least 129 cities that have removed some of their downtown parking minimums. Additionally, cities including Los Angeles have introduced some flexibility into their remaining parking requirements allowing, for example, apartment buildings to meet some of their parking requirements off site. This has made some historic office buildings viable renovation projects that otherwise would have been vacant or demolished. While Shoup posits that a slow revolution is underway in planning for parking, but he laments that these changes have not yet reached the suburbs, where parking requirements largely remain intact.

Afterword

Shoup details some of the cities that have raised parking prices to reduce shortages. Washington, DC, New York City, Ventura, and Seattle have all implemented higher parking prices, though not all of them have set specific occupancy targets. He also explains Chicago’s failure in privatizing its parking meters while capping meter rates. The city missed an opportunity to let bidders set higher meter prices to both reduce cruising for parking and to make more money in selling off meter rights.

He discusses the importance of enforcement in making these policies work. Shoup suggests that cities should set graduated parking tickets, perhaps giving warnings on drivers’ first offenses. Tickets obviously irritate drivers and may foster ill-will against higher meter rates. However, drivers cannot be allowed to serially skip paying, or the prices will not be effective.

Shoup also discusses the problem of disability placard abuse. Many cities have set up incentives for this abuse by allowing cars with placards to park free. While this may sound like a good idea, Shoup points out that the current situation may lead to so much abuse that people with disabilities will have difficulty finding spaces close to their destinations. With higher meter prices, the incentive to abuse placards will be even greater. He advocates Arlington County’s policy  of requiring all drivers to pay for parking but reserving some conveniently located spots for those with disabilities, reducing the incentive for abuse.

In this chapter, Shoup cites some recent studies of parking requirements, which find that parking requirements do in fact lead developers to build significantly more parking than they would in a free market. He also explains that some cities, including New York and San Francisco have taken parking pricing to the next step, permitting restaurants to use parking spaces for seasonal outdoor cafes.

Final Thoughts

To reiterate, I highly recommend the entire book. I am in complete agreement with Shoup on his first and third recommendations for parking policy, and he clearly and persuasively makes the case for these two arguments. However, the more I think about it, the more I think that his recommendation of parking revenue benefit districts might not be the best solution, even though it would be much better than the status quo. Yes, this policy has successfully built support for performance pricing in some neighborhoods. However, I think that tax abatement districts would build even more support.

People might like to see more business improvement districts, but I think that they would prefer cash. There would be various ways to provide the tax rebates, and cities could decide whether to provide them to the neighborhoods where revenues are raised or to provide them equally to everyone in the city. For existing business or residential improvement districts, or for neighborhoods that want to start them, residents could agree to dedicate their rebates to the district for if they want to. This would keep improvement districts voluntary and maintain existing incentives for privately funded districts to spend their revenues well.

Property taxes are particularly unpopular, and I think abatement would be sufficient to build support for parking prices that eliminate cruising. As Shoup says, charging higher meter rates is not about increasing cities’ revenue, but rather about eliminating curb parking shortages. By giving the increases in revenue back to the residents who are paying these higher rates, additional cities can build the political support necessary to charge appropriate prices for parking.

Anthony Ling on private buses

A guest post from Market Urbanism’s Brazil correspondent, Anthony Ling, who blogs in both Portuguese and English at renderingfreedom.blogspot.com

For a long time I’ve been thinking about why collective transportation is a synonym to public transportation. Is there anything special about the activity of taking people from one point to another that makes it valid to prevent competition, prohibit entrepreneurship and end with different types of services in a city according to passengers’ needs? Public transportation in Brazil is known to be inefficient, and it is the poor, the most dependent on this service, that ends up being harmed.

How could a company enter the market or technologically innovate in collective transportation? Far beyond the basics that are missing in the Brazilian bus lines, such as a route identification system, both online and on the bus (in Porto Alegre you have to know what codes like T1 and T5 mean as a route), knowing which buses pass in each bus stop would already be a start and a great comparative advantage to a new company on the business. While we depend on the inefficiency of the public sector, the group from Porto Alegre Shoot the Shit has started a collaborative initiative to find out which bus passes at each stop, action that was initially seen by the EPTC as an act of vandalism.

Another strategy would be the identification of which routes are overloaded with passengers, trying to profit with one more bus to be used by people that aren’t being served on the margin. Or do just the opposite: try to find out if there is demand to nonexistent routes through market research. Still, a much simpler way would be what many schools use for the transportation of their students, but in different types of establishments. A company could go to commercial buildings of a specific neighborhood and ask their users which neighborhood they are coming from and if they are willing to hire a service to transport them without stops. If only this last alternative was viable and would come to reality in a generalized manner throughout the city, a lot of people would be able to get rid of their cars, since regardless of where they work, it is very possible that a specific way of transport would exist to supply the route demanded by each person.

A current example of innovation would be the mobile app recently published on TechCrunch called Sidecar, that connects passengers going to the same place, transforming virtually every car into a small vehicle of collective transportation. Here each passenger decides how much he’ll pay the driver, making his decision with information on how much previous passengers have payed. A brilliant invention, but it would take away from the city its existing regulated monopoly on collective transportation, being exactly this kind of regulation which prevents the app from entering the market.

With that in mind, I took my question about the restriction of entrepreneurship on the collective transportation system to Manuela D’Ávila and José Serra, mayor candidates for Porto Alegre and São Paulo, respectively, in the event held by INSPER on cities, which had as a guest (unfortunately through the internet) the urban planner Edward Glaeser.

Manuela told me that she found my question weird, since she considers collective transportation in Porto Alegre a private business in which each route is operated by a private firm. Her response surprised me even further, considering that we all know that it is almost impossible to obtain a license and that all companies that operate in Porto Alegre are highly regulated state concessions, which must follow the standards of Carris, the government’s transportation firm. I tried to continue the conversation by asking via Twitter “how can I innovate on the collective transportation system which has limited licenses, loads, tariffs and controlled routes?”, but unfortunately I didn’t get an answer.

Serra argued that transportation, as well as some others infrastructural public services, can’t have the risk of stopping, since many people depend on it. However, these public services are more susceptible to labor strikes than private corporations, causing the chaos on transportation that we saw a few weeks before the event. If there is an open market, with many firms competing against each other and with easy ways of entering this market, there is no reason for this service to ever stop. These are the same reasons by which it is hard to imagine a shortage of food on the food industry, as said recently on the article by Leandro Narloch on Folha de São Paulo in which I gave a small collaboration.

The most recent experience with a collective transportation system that isn’t monopolized is Chiles’, which allowed free competition and free price setting by companies on this sector from the late ‘70s to the early ‘90s, when the industry once again began to be regulated. After listening to a series of podcasts, reading articles and hearing testimonies about this experience, it seems to me that there are three major criticisms about this system.

The first and foremost criticism of a possible deregulation is similar to the criticism that is commonly made to any sector that has this risk: the establishment of a cartel and the raising of tariffs in a system ruled by private firms, preventing the poor from using this service. According to Gómez-Lobo, the average tariff in Santiago practically doubled in price on the period of 1979 to 1990, but this analysis only sees the problem on its surface.

This amount does not take subsidies into consideration, funds collected through taxation, used to keep this tariff low. According to economist Mike Munger, Santiagos’ bus system, which is regulated by the state nowadays, has an annual loss of Ch$600 million, and even though I don’t have the numbers for the period prior to 1979, it is expected that there was a huge state subsidy to keep tariffs low. In Porto Alegre, the city’s company Carris had an annual loss of R$1,8 million due to tariff prices, and in São Paulo Capital the money loss gets to almost R$800 million to maintain tariffs at R$3,00. This basically means that people who don’t use collective transportation end up paying for those who use it. There are people who defend this as a social policy, since usually people who use this type of transport are part of the poor segment of the population. However, what really happens is that many of the users are also from middle and upper classes, ending up receiving subsidies from those who are poorer, but who also pay taxes. Still, in my opinion, collective transportation shouldn’t be limited to the poorer sectors of the population, with the possibility of existing alternatives that are either cheap or expensive depending on the value each citizen puts on his personal transportation. At last, I see a great problem on trying to fix social inequality and low incomes through the distortion of the whole public transportation network. If the problem is low income, then the same subsidies could be given directly to the poorer citizens so that they could choose by themselves which kind of transport they would like to use.

In general, it is known that if the political barriers to entry the market are really eliminated, there will always be pressure from competitors to increase efficiency and lower prices to attract customers in the market. Furthermore, differences in capacity, routing flexibility, age and quality of vehicles, passenger density per bus and, also, efficiency of management of each company would influence the price of each route, creating a wide range of choices in transportation.

The second issue raised from the Chilean experience, which I heard for the first time from the Urban Mobility Secretary of Porto Alegre, Luís Afonso Senna, is the competition between bus drivers to pick up passengers at a certain bus stop. Since the stops remain public and drivers are rewarded by their efficiency, the stories of Santiago’s locals are that bus drivers acted as if they were Ben-Hur in the racing chariot, rushing to pick up the group of passengers that was waiting. This caused an increase on the number of accidents and bad public perception of the system, where the search for profit increased the number of deaths on the streets. However, the problem existed because they had private companies acting on a public platform – bus stops which belonged to all companies together – which generated this distortion on the market. These perverse incentives were analyzed by Daniel Klein in a paper about “curb rights”, arguing that a simple way to solve this problem would be to establish specific bus stops for each company or group of companies, ending any sort of competition for a single stop and increasing traffic safety. Physically, these bus stops format could be similar to the BRTs that exist in Curitiba and Bogotá. Since waiting passengers in a bus stop have already bought their ticket, the ticket could be exclusive to a company or a group of companies, ending any sort of race for passengers and, at the same time, practically implementing a BRT privately, without burdening the government coffers.

The last criticism to the Chilean free-market buses was that, to reduce costs, companies stopped renewing and doing maintenance on their fleet, producing a great number of old, unsafe and polluting vehicles on the city. My first comment to this criticism would be that, for automobiles, the Brazilian incentive is precisely the opposite: cars older than 10, 15 or 20 years don’t have to pay IPVA (vehicle taxes), depending on the region. The reason behind this is a social one, since poor citizens that usually the owners of these vehicles. Repeating what I said before, it doesn’t seem efficient to encourage the usage of cars that are less safe and create a problem of urban pollution if the reason for that is income distribution: these issues must be resolved separately. Moreover, if a big chunk of the population that uses collective transportation has less financial means or cares less about the quality of buses, it would be natural, in a free market, to have companies with vehicles that supply these consumers. One can imagine some kind of municipal regulation to prevent private agents that are emitting toxic gases or threatening others with vehicles that are falling apart, but I believe that this regulation shouldn’t establish prohibitive standards to the poor nor be restricted only to buses or only to cars, since the damage both cause is the same. Anyway, I don’t believe that this argument alone could be reason enough to hinder innovation in the collective transportation sector.

Still, collective transportation continues to be confused with public transportation, restricting incentives to innovation that are brought by competition and possibility of bankruptcy, which never happens when you can cover up any inefficiency with more taxation. When people get bad service, or don’t have the routes they need, or have to put up with polluting vehicles, or the price is considered too high or route information is simple not there, one’s only option is to complain to the public power with very low chances of success, with no possibility of exchanging provider or venturing something better.

*Podcasts and Additional Articles:*

Munger on Private and Public Rent Seeking (and Chilean Buses)
http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2010/08/munger_on_priva.html

Munger on the Political Economy of Public Transportation
http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2008/07/munger_on_the_p.html

Privatisation and Deregulation of Urban Bus Services: An Analysis of Fare Evolution Mechanisms, J. Enrique Fernández e Juan Carlos Muñoz
http://ideas.repec.org/a/tpe/jtecpo/v41y2007i1p25-49.html

The Limits to Competition in Urban Bus Services in Developing Countries (Draft), Antonio Estache e Andrés Goméz-Lobo
http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.198.162&rep=rep1&type=pdf

The Limits to Competition in Urban Bus Services in Developing Countries, Antonio Estache e Andrés Goméz-Lobo
http://captura.uchile.cl/jspui/bitstream/2250/2289/1/Estache_A.pdf

Planning Order, Causing Chaos: Transantiago, Mike Munger
http://www.econlib.org/library/Columns/y2008/Mungerbus.html

The Zoning History of Barcelona’s Eixample

Server glitch wiped the last few articles, so here’s a repose of the Barcelona one. Also, comments should be working now, should you deign to leave one…

Somehow I managed to visit Barcelona a few years ago and not learn about the history of the city’s Eixample (x pronounced sh in Catalan), or extension/widening (ensanche in Castilian). So to spare you all that fate, I’ve assembled a short history of Barcelona’s Eixample, which has parallels in eixamples/ensanches/zabalgunes (Basque!) across Spain.

So here’s the history, as told by Eduardo Aibar and Wiebe E. Bijker! (.pdf)

It starts in 1714, when Philip V, the Bourbon King of Spain based in Madrid and supported by the Castilians, conquered the Catalan capital of Barcelona, creating modern, unified Spain. Catalan culture and language was suppressed for more than a century, but more relevantly for urbanists…

The technical shape of society was also checked. An enormous military engineering project was launched to put the city under continuous surveillance of the Bourbon troops. A huge pentagonal citadel, designed by the Flemish military engineer Prosper Verboom, was built near the harbor to dominate the city. The army thus could bombard any target within Barcelona with heavy mortars. A high wall, fortified with bastions and fronted by a moat, zigzagged from the western face of the citadel up the north side of the city, around its back, and down south again to the port, meeting the sea at the ancient shipyards. This way, Barcelona became an enormous fort in which the military installations covered almost as much space as the civilian buildings.

The result of Philip V’s project was to enclose Barcelona in a rigid straitjacket of stone that prevented any further civic expansion and industrial development. The walls soon became the main urban problem of Barcelona, and the whole military complex remained a hated symbol of Castilian rule for a long time. The walls were not only a physical obstacle for the city’s extension but also a legal one. Construction was prohibited in the so-called firing range-a series of overlapping semicircles with a radius of some 1.25 km and their centers at different points in the fortifications. This firing range created a no-man’s land outside the walls covering almost 61 percent of the territory within the city limits. In the nineteenth century, with the walls still there, it was impossible to propose any town-planning idea without making simultaneously an implicit political statement. One’s personal attitude toward the walls revealed much of one’s political position.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, living conditions in the city were dreadful. The population density, with 856 inhabitants per hectare, was the highest in Spain and one of the highest in Europe; the average population of Paris was, for instance, under 400 inhabitants per hectare. The average living space for workers was about 10 m2 per person. This extremely high density, a bad water supply, and a poor sewer system made for atrocious conditions of hygiene. Different epidemics broke out in 1834, 1854, 1864, and 1870 – each time killing about 3 percent of the population. Between 1837 and 1847, the average life expectancy of men was 38.3 years among the rich classes and 19.7 among the poor.

Nevertheless, all the different Spanish rulers since 1718 took great care of keeping the walls upright, until they were demolished in 1854-1868.

So here we are in the mid-1800?s, and Catalonia has gone from walled to the heart of Spain’s industrial revolution. The Ciutat Vella, or old walled city, grew in a relatively organic and unregulated fashion, but the advent of rail transit, the sudden expanse of new land, and, perhaps most importantly, the Enlightenment, meant that the expansion of Barcelona outside its old walls – the Eixample – would be much more orderly and controlled. (The old city did not have a grid forced onto it à la Haussmann’s renovation of Paris due to opposition by property owners, though it did have a few straight-ish streets carved through it, the most famous of which is La Rambla.)

Enter Ildefons Cerdà. He proposes a standard gridded street pattern, with the flourish of having the corners cut at 45 degree angles – “chamfered street corners,” they’re apparently called – to afford vehicles a wider turning radius (nowadays they’re mostly used as a place to park cars, as you can see in the first photo below). But he also lays out strict restrictions on bulk, calculated by a weird pseudo-scientific quadratic equation-like formula that he never bothered to explain.

There was some drama with the awarding of the prize for the plan, though, and Cerdà never actually earned any money off of his design, but it was the basis of the urban plan that was eventually enacted for the Eixample.

What’s interesting, though, are the changes that were made. Basically, it was made more dense (something that the authors of the paper, who analyze it in a Marxist framework, seem hostile to)…

Cerdà’s building bylaws were considered very demanding: buildings could not exceed more than 50 percent of the block’s surface (the other 50 percent should be set aside for gardens), they were allowed in only two of the four sides of the block, they should be less than 20 m high, and their maximum depth varied from 15 to 20 m.

After the Royal Decree a slow process of implementation began, in which a large number of small modifications were introduced, eventually resulting in big changes. Even the approved plan (1859) showed remarkable changes compared with the first version (1855). Evidently, Cerdà introduced them to diminish the resistance by his opponents. The average width of the streets was reduced from 35 to 20-30 m; the explicit concern with special housing facilities for workers, as a means of achieving a more egalitarian city, was completely abandoned; the depth of buildings was extended to 20 m in all cases; and the former regular distribution of parks (82.35 hectares) and public facilities was not made obligatory (Grau 1990).

Cerdà’s position as the governor’s expert in charge of the implementation of the extension plan was weakened by the threatening demands of the land owners of the Extension. The land beyond the walls – once cheap and useless-had become, thanks to the extension, an enormous potential source of income as the site for the new city. The owners wanted to control the extension development as much as possible to secure profits. Actually, to promote the building process – deliberately stopped by the land owners during 1861 as a sort of lockout – Cerdà had to give up and accept crucial modifications of his plan: blocks started to be closed (that is, with buildings placed along the four sides); narrow passageways splitting some blocks in two were allowed; and the depth of buildings grew to 24 m, thus reducing the inner garden space.

Regarding the “egalitarian city,” I can’t get access to the original Grau source so I’m not sure if he had other means of achieving mixed-income neighborhoods, but part of Cerdà’s plan was the grid itself: he thought that its uniformity would eliminate class-segregated neighborhoods. In reality, the wealthy clustered their modernisme mansions and apartment buildings by Gaudì and Domenech in certain neighborhoods, like always:

Another important transformation – against the spirit of Cerdà’s plan – took place during the first decades of implementation: a hierarchical [social] structure was superimposed on the regular geometrical grid. The zone around the Passeig de Gràcia was increasingly considered an aristocratic residential space. Land and housing prices were established as a function of their proximity to the Passeig de Gràcia. As a consequence of this slow process, during the 1890s the right (northeast) side of the Eixample had already achieved a higher level of quality than the left side (García 1990a, 1990b). To live in the right side of the Eixample remained for a long time a sign of distinction.

The authors say “was superimposed,” whereas I’d say “emerged,” but anyway, moving on…

But maybe the most important modifications were the ones introduced in the plan’s specifications for the blocks. In that sense, not only was the rejection of Cerdà’s bylaws crucial, but it was particularly remarkable that the land owners were powerful enough to act beyond the limits of the bylaws, with no serious opposition from the city council. In 1872, 90 percent of the buildings in the Eixample (about 1,000) were violating the building bylaws. Already in 1890, buildings occupied 70 percent of the block surface on the average-instead of the original 50 percent. The situation was worsened by successive building bylaws, and in 1958 the building volume of the block, that according to Cerdà’s bylaws should not exceed 67,200 cubic meters, reached 294,771.63 cubic meters.

(New York City has a similar trajectory before the 1916 unified zoning code, with many pre-1916 buildings being in violation of relatively unenforced limits on density.) The authors seem very dismissive of the increased density, although I see it as evidence of the inadequacy of Cerdà’s plan. Barcelona’s Eixample neighborhoods are beautiful, and I can’t imagine thinking they should have their density cut by more than three-quarters, but that was the plan.

These days, we’re much more deferential to urban planners, and property owners wield much less influence. Density is usually reduced from the original plan rather than dramatically increased, and there’s almost always affordable housing set-asides.

Today’s Eixample is inching back towards Cerdà’s original plan, but only inching. Apparently a law was passed in 1986 that encouraged the courtyards – many of which had been filled in to maximize floorspace and rents, as you can see in the photo below – to be cleared, although I’m not sure how much effect it’s had.


And here you can see the clear division between the Eixample and the Ciutat Vella:
Source: Institut Cartogràfic de Catalunya

The High Cost of Free Parking Chapters 19-22

This post from the series on The High Cost of Free Parking is reposted from last week because the site’s database caused recent posts to be deleted.

Chapter 19: The Ideal Source of Local Public Revenue

In this chapter, Donald Shoup makes the case that passing up the potential revenue source of curb parking doesn’t make fiscal sense for cities. He bases his case heavily on Henry George’s theory of land taxation. George argued that land is the fairest and least distortive good to tax because its value comes not from individuals, but from the community. Milton Friedman agreed saying, “the least bad tax is the property tax on the unimproved value of land.” One obstacle to relying on a land tax as a sole revenue is that accurately appraising unimproved land is difficult. But Shoup points out that charging for parking avoids this problem because cities can use prices as demand management.
Shoup further explains the political potential for parking benefit districts and includes a section discussing the potential to create similar benefit districts for freeway tolls. He points out that dedicating toll revenues to the neighborhoods that they pass through would create an interest group for congestion pricing and that this would benefit the often low-income neighborhoods where freeways are located.
I think a key part of this chapter is that Shoup explains how charging for parking to prevent shortages illuminates the opportunity cost of dedicating land to curb parking. As this price becomes visible, it may open up opportunities to lease current parking spaces for other uses, such as outdoor dining or outdoor retail. While he is optimistic about the potential for parking reform, he includes this great line: “Staunch conservatives often become ardent communists when it comes to parking, and rational people quickly turn emotional.”

Chapter 20: Unbundled Parking

This chapter is based on the likelihood that if cities stopped setting parking minimums, developers would no longer build so much parking that the marginal cost of additional spaces exceeds the marginal benefits. In this case, parking costs could be unbundled from other goods, like apartments, offices, and retail goods. This will allow resources to be dedicated to higher valued uses and will create better decision-making among consumers by causing the cost of car ownership including parking to reflect the true cost.
Unbundling also requires that street parking is priced to eliminate shortages, or else those who do not want to pay for unbundled off-street parking will spill out to curb parking leading to cruising and wait times to find parking spaces. He points out that unbundling could lead to benefits to consumers who choose to reduce their car ownership or not own a car at all through cheaper rent or a parking cash-out from their employer:
Unbundling will thus convert parking from hidden, fixed cost of living into an explicit, marginal cost of owning used cars.
In a world without parking minimums and with appropriately priced street parking, we can expect parking to be unbundled from other goods when the transaction costs of doing so are lower than the value of the space, leading to improved use of land over time.

Chapter 21: Time for a Paradigm Shift

This chapter brings home the points made in the first section of the book; planners have fallen into the trap of requiring as much parking as people want to use at a zero price. This practice encourages driving and thus leads to even higher parking requirements. As Shoup says, it’s time for a new paradigm that requires drivers to internalize the costs of their own parking. In this new paradigm, those who don’t drive or who already economize on driving and parking will not be forced to subsidize those who do not. He points out that a new paradigm requires messaging and an interest group to support it and says that parking benefit districts can take care of this challenge.

Chapter 22: Changing the Future

In the final chapter, Shoup points out that our current parking problem stems from free or underpriced curb parking and the resulting commons problem. The economical and efficient way to solve this commons problem is with prices, not with requiring enough off-street parking to bring the price of all of a city’s parking to zero. He concludes:
These three reforms — charge fair market prices for curb parking, return the resulting revenue to the neighborhood to pay for public improvements, and remove the requirements for off-street parking — will align our individual incentives with our common interests, so that private choices will produce common benefits.

Thoughts so Far:

The next and final post on this book will cover two chapters that are not included in the first edition. I’ve been reading the older version, but Shoup has added two new chapters discussing how parking policies have changed in the years since that he was kind enough to share.
I have one potential alternative to his policy prescriptions introduced in earlier sections and expanded here. While Shoup focuses on the potential for parking benefit districts to create a constituency that supports appropriate prices for curb prices, I would suggest that a property tax abatement district could create even more support for parking prices. While voters may like a parking benefit district and visitors to the neighborhood would get to enjoy its work as well, I think more people would more enthusiastically support a lower property tax burden. Additionally, one asset of Business Improvement Districts is that they are voluntary and rely on the support of participating businesses for their existence. Parking benefit districts would have a guaranteed source of income and thus would not face the same good incentives.
I would highly recommend the full book to any readers who haven’t already read it. The book includes much more empirical support than I’ve covered, and while it is long, it is not a difficult read. Shoup is frank in acknowledging that people like free parking and that instituting prices will be unpopular, but he provides examples of tested reforms that have overcome the initial political hurdles to charging appropriate prices for parking.