Culs de sac for safety?

"Evil cul-de-sac" flickr user rleong101

“Evil cul-de-sac” flickr user rleong101

At Cato At Liberty, Randall O’Toole provides a list of recommendations for reversing Rust Belt urban decline in response to a study on the topic from the Lincoln Land Institute. He focuses on policies to improve public service provision and deregulation, but he also makes a surprising recommendation that declining cities should “reduce crime by doing things like changing the gridded city streets that planners love into cul de sacs so that criminals have fewer escape routes.” This recommendation is surprising because it would require significant tax payer resources, a critique O’Toole holds against those from the Lincoln Land Institute. Short of building large barricades, it’s inconceivable how a city with an existing grid of streets would even go about turning its grid into culs de sac without extensive use of eminent domain and other disruptive policies.

O’Toole is correct that the grid owes its origins to authoritarian regimes and that today it’s embraced by city planners in the Smart Growth and New Urbanist schools. But while culs de sac may have originally appeared in organically developed networks of streets, today’s culs de sac promoted by traffic engineers are hardly a free market outcome. As Daniel Nairn has written, the public maintenance of what are essentially shared driveways “smacks of socialism in its most extreme form.”

Some studies have found that culs de sac experience less crime relative to nearby through streets, perhaps in part because they draw less traffic. However, it’s far from clear that a pattern of suburban streets makes a city safer than it would be would be with greater street connectivity. Some studies find that street connectivity correlates with greater social capital. O’Toole’s promotion of social engineering through culs de sac to create a localized drop in crime at the expense of a city’s residents’ social capital is not a clear win. If a pattern of culs de sac streets reduces a city’s social capital, it could increase overall crime rates.

O’Toole also makes a smart land use recommendation, suggesting that struggling Rust Belt cities can reduce regulation to foster development. He writes:

Reduce regulation, including zoning rules, so property owners can engage in urban renewal without government subsidies or top-down planning. Historic preservation ordinances may sound cool, but they are one of the biggest obstructions to private redevelopment.

It makes sense for cities like Detroit to reduce or eliminate their zoning and permitting requirements, allowing as many new businesses as possible to take advantage of the their inexpensive prices. Interestingly, this recommendation for deregulation in the Rust Belt directly contradicts his past writings on deregulatory upzoning in other cities. O’Toole’s native Portland has seen deregulation allowing denser development, and in this case he advocates preserving neighborhood character over allowing the market to drive development styles. I’m glad to see he’s changed his tune to support deregulation.

Urban Development in Charter Cities

In light of approval in Honduras for three new charter cities (REDs), much has been written recently on their potential to improve economic development. Economist Paul Romer makes a compelling case for the potential of charter cities, asserting that countries with institutions that impede economic growth can benefit by designating small areas with rules that permit free trade.

Despite the promise of REDs, designating new areas for urban economic zones may pose some challenges that haven’t been addressed elsewhere. Cities almost always grow through spontaneous orders in locations that emerge through human migration. Cities are a product of human action, not of human design. Older cities grew through their accessibility to trade and natural resources. More recently, towns have become cities as they have become centers for specific industries. This process happens not with top-down planning, but rather as the market process leads individuals to move to specific places, resulting in the urbanization patterns that we see. In the case of Honduras’ REDs, however, the locations were selected by the state.

Unlike the approved sites for REDs in Honduras, Hong Kong and Singapore (models of charter cities) were not greenfields before they became charter cities. Since becoming models of charter cities, both islands’ populations have exploded, but some level of development existed before British rule, and the British did not set out to create large cities. Rather than being planned, the success of these two islands was an accident, in which good institutions in fortunate locations have facilitated enormous economic growth. In contrast, all of the infrastructure and design for the REDs will be built from scratch, at first by one company, MKG, until other investors and individuals move to the city. In a sense, city construction may have to begin before there is demand for it. MKG has pledged $15 million to begin building infrastructure, a small amount in the scheme of city-building, but as of now it’s unclear where future investment will come from, and whether it will be centralized within a few large firms or dispersed.

Greenfield development for charter cities is absolutely key; otherwise, they would coerce people to adopt new rules, eliminating the choice and voluntarism that Paul Romer explains is essential for charter cities to succeed, not to mention potentially leading to violent conflicts. However one firm starting a city in a greenfield will face enormous knowledge problems in beginning to build a city from scratch. The magnitude of this challenge will depend on how much development is required of the few initial, large investors before attracting significant numbers of entrepreneurs. I don’t think either the investors or Paul Romer support top-down city design, but this is a necessary aspect of starting a new city in a government-designated location.

Some towns have been started with charters in greenfields previously, in the American colonies, for example, but none of these were founded with the intent of becoming large cities. Those that grew did so spontaneously because of their advantages over other cities. I don’t think that a state-selected greenfield location will prevent success in REDs or other charter cities, but I do think it bears acknowedgment that starting a city from the top down will create an added challenge. Assuming success, however, REDs will provide a fascinating case study in modern urban development under free markets. Here’s hoping the charter doesn’t include height limits or parking requirements.

TGIF Links

1. A reader from Vancouver wrote in to let Stephen and me know about a proposed policy to tax foreign investors at a higher rate than local property owners. Support for this policy is growing among residents, and with a mayoral election this Saturday, some are hoping to get candidates to endorse the policy now. Of course the higher tax rate would be done in the name of affordable housing for Vancouver natives. Hmm, with this one I’d say that the road to hell is paved with questionable intentions.

2. In other Vancouver news, recently upzoned parcels have sold for three times their previous value.

3. Two NYC taxi medallions sold for over $1 million each this week. On Marketplace, David Yassky, chairman of the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission said that he believes the fundamentals are solid in the medallion market. When the supply of your commodity is rigidly fixed, you’re already halfway to strong fundamentals.

4. A University of Connecticut study finds that growth in the number of a city’s parking spots is inversely correlated with population growth rates.

5. Some have questioned whether the abismal state of American infrastructure is a fact or just something that everyone knows and repeats. Gizmodo points out that in the United States we have a road system that built with cheap initial construction but expensive and ongoing maintenance costs.

6. Roberta Brandes Gratz at The Atlantic Cities speculates that Jane Jacobs’ female perspective led her to be able to see the small-scale, bottom-up activities of cities more effectively than men, who tend to look at cities from the macro level. Not sure where this leaves Hayek.

New funding for roads in Georgia

The Georgia Department of Transportation recently approved $102 million in projects to improve the state’s infrastructure. The department gave the go ahead on these projects as the state is in the midst of a debate over a new proposed one percent sales tax to help fund infrastructure.

Highway supporters often argue that fuel taxes fund road construction and maintenance, but this is simply not the case, leading to the need for other dedicated transportation funding, like the Georgia sales tax. Improvements slated to benefit from the new fund include highways, bridges, and public transit. Metropolitan Planning Organization Coordinator Corey Hull said, ”We … want them to know this is our only option right now. The state does not have a plan B for funding transportation and infrastructure.”

Clearly, the fuel tax is not meeting the funding requirements for the states’ drivers, so the funding is being drawn from the wider state population, including non-drivers. Currently, this may be a small distinction in Georgia, though, where only 2.7% of residents take public transportation to work. Like road improvements, public transportation projects in Georgia are funded by the broader tax base rather than the constituents that actually rely on the service.

Perhaps the number of Georgians who take public transportation to work will grow with the proposed expansions to Atlanta’s light rail. However, it’s hard to imagine that such marginal improvements to public transit will create meaningful change to transportation in a city like Atlanta, which was was largely designed around the highway system.

As a result of low demand for transit in Atlanta, the city hopes to cover only 20 percent of the operating costs of a new streetcar system with fares. Rail has many clear advantages over buses — these systems are typically faster and easier for riders to navigate. However, in a large, low-density city like Atlanta, geography simply does not allow many people to use a reasonably sized rail system. Without major reforms to density and parking regulations, Atlanta’s light rail is likely to largely run empty.

Rather than attempting to force a Smart Growth vision on their residents, Atlanta policy makers should take a step back and allow the market to guide transportation resources. In a city built around highways and cars, buses and bus rapid transit make much more sense for environmentally friendly, cost-saving public transit. They have a shot at paying for themselves, or at least necessitating fewer tax dollars than street cars, particularly if the state does not continue policies that subsidize driving. Light rail should not be built without the repeal of anti-density policies.

Before there were stimulus projects

In his new book, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, Richard White explores the financing of railroads in the American West and the political process behind it. In history books, this accomplishment is often looked on as a heroic feat of engineering and perseverance, but White offers a contrasting perspective of the abuse of tax dollars and manipulation of public opinion. I have not had a chance to read his book yet, but White offered a very interesting interview on Morning Edition. He explained:

Western railroads, particularly the transcontinental railroads, would not have been built without public subsidies, without the granting of land, and more important than that, loans from the federal government … because there is no business [in the West at that time], there is absolutely no reason to build [railroads] except for political reasons and the hope that business will come.

Unlike the railroads of the Northeast where Vanderbilt made his fortune, private financiers were uninterested in the West, where rails would not be making a foreseeable profit. If the expected benefits of an infrastructure project outweigh the expected costs, private financing will be available in the absence of public funding. Only when costs are expected to exceed benefits do infrastructure projects require subsidies. Historically, the argument that infrastructure is a public good that must be paid for by taxpayers has been proven false by private infrastructure projects ranging from highways to lighthouses, canals, and city streets.

The transcontinental railroad, the largest public works project of its time, marked a shift toward American policy of relying principally on federally funded infrastructure rather than on entrepreneurs to supply these goods. In the 20th century, the Federal Highway Act of course dwarfed the scale of the transcontinental railroad, and today publicly provided infrastructure is claimed to do everything from creating jobs to allowing for long run economic growth. Without a market mechanism to guide infrastructure construction, we are left with the clumsy political process to determine the amount and distribution of money spent on transportation.

Not Marshmallows, but a Really, REALLY Big Lollipop

In the last post, commenter AWP helped me realize that the marshmallow mountain analogy could be improved upon, since one person eating a marshmallow prevented another person from eating that same marshmallow.  But the road cannot be subdivided as simply.  Yes, a nit-picky implication of the vagueness of the term “good”, but I want to communicate as well as I can.

So, I plan to revise the article to use the analogy of a really, really big lollipop.  It’s a significant enough revision that I think it deserves mentioning.  Let me know if you think of a better analogy.

Government built the interstate highway system, they could build a BIGGER lollipop than this...

When are user fees just redirected sales taxes?

Ben Ross at Greater Greater Washington has an excellent post about the pernicious habit of states (and maybe the federal government?) mislabeling sales taxes as user fees. Sorry for pulling such a long bit, but it’s good:

Maryland is considering raising its gas tax. This long-overdue measure would allow some of the general revenues now subsidizing highways to go to the Purple Line, the Baltimore Red Line, and MARC expansion instead.

This need has unfortunately gotten mixed up with a proposal, originating mostly from the highway lobby and its supporters, to put transportation money into a “lockbox.” The concept is to amend the state constitution to forbid transfers from the trust fund into the general fund.

However, there’s a big hole in the bottom of the “lockbox.” Contrary to what some say, the money in the transportation trust fund mostly come from revenue sources that would have otherwise have gone into the state’s general fund, where it wouldn’t be locked.

If I buy a bicycle in Maryland, I pay 6% sales tax and the money goes into the general fund where it pays for education, public safety, the governor’s salary, and other state expenses. Cars and gasoline are exempt from the sales tax.

Instead, if I buy a car, I pay the same 6%. but it’s called “titling tax” and the money goes into a separate trust fund that is used only for transportation. It’s essentially the same when I buy gasoline, where the tax rate of 23½ cents a gallon comes to a little over 8% of the pretax price. [...]

The idea behind the lockbox amendment is that drivers pay for the roads they drive on. This idea is mistaken, but it’s widely held, and it’s an enormous obstacle to sensible transportation planning. The danger lurking in the lockbox is that this damaging misconception could be reinforced, making it even harder to correct failed transportation policies.

Does anybody know how widespread this is? (It sounds like it happens in most states.) I’m curious as to what my fellow libertarian urbanists have to say about this – if there’s no sales tax on gasoline and cars, then are these really user fees?

If highways push traffic onto local roads, why not toll them too?

Peter Gordon blogs about a paper he presented at the Transportation Research Board conference in DC:

My friends and I just presented this paper at the Transportation Research Board meetings in Washington DC. We tested the effects of tolling Los Angeles’ freeways in the peak hours (we tested 10 cents and 30 cents per mile). It’s a simulation on a real network and many substitutions occur. As expected, peak-hour freeway speeds increase, some people switch to surface streets and that traffic slows, some switch to off-peak hours and some (very few) travel less. And politicians take in a lot of money! That’s for the 10-cent toll. The 30-cent toll overloads the surface streets. Many other options can be tested, including only tolling some of the freeways. Planners have voiced concern that tolling the freeways would overload surface streets. There is probably a “sweet spot” that can easily be found. We also plan to look for effects on freight travel as well as travel by income groups.

He’s established that “very few” people lessen their travel. And if the the number of people who switch to off-peak hours is small compared to the number of people who move to surface streets (and judging from my very cursory perusal of the paper, it seems like this is the case), then tolling is just shifting the burden from highways to local roads. This could be a problem since local roads, unlike highways, are paid for almost entirely out of general revenue, not user fees. It seems like the rational thing to do at this point is to argue for tolling local surface streets as well, perhaps through a congestion charge. Maybe I missed it (like I said, I didn’t read the presentation paper thoroughly), but his talk of a “sweet spot” in the summary makes me think he didn’t consider tolling local roads to be an option.