How Hong Kong Pulls Off Transit Oriented Development

Integrating rail and property development is the cornerstone of the MTR’s success. In the U.S., coordination between transit authorities and developers tends to be mediocre at best. In Hong Kong, however, the MTR is both the transit authority as well as the property owner, and this makes all the difference.

Coordination Problem

Most attempts at transit-oriented development in the U.S. involve multi-party negotiations. The agency responsible for the transportation system haggles with different developers interested in undertaking projects along the line. Instead of implementing a unified plan, the transit agency has to negotiate specific agreements with each developer. And, because the priorities of the transit agency and the developers are never perfectly aligned, development agreements become subject to second-best compromises. Further, any disputes that arise once significant capital has been committed are costly to resolve.

This arrangement makes leveraging land values difficult as well. Developers frequently get tax breaks as an incentive to undertake projects. Whether abatements on property tax or straight-forward rate reductions, tax incentives typically preclude the use of land values to help fund transit. And, even without special incentives, major property owners who stand to benefit from proximity to a transit system have every reason to resist tax increases of any kind if there’s a chance of free-riding.

Kowloon_Station

The MTR, on the other hand, uses the integrated rail-property development  approach which combines the two roles of landlord and transit developer. The MTR owns the right-of-way as well as the surrounding properties. This removes the necessity of extended negotiations, having to settle for second best solutions, and the potential downside of disagreements partway through a project.

By combining the functions of landlord and transit developer, the MTR is also able to internalize land values. The rail line drives up the value of the MTR’s properties and that value covers the capital costs of the MTR’s rail lines.

Coase On Mass Trasnit

In 1937, the economist Ronald Coase asked why, if market exchange is such a good way to allocate resources, do firms even exist?

The short answer? Transaction costs.

Participating in a market comes with a price, and in some instances, the cost of participation is more than it’s worth. When transaction costs are too high, firms avoid them by internalizing specific functions and allocating resources at the discretion of management. This is not unlike the way in which socialist command economies deployed resources, albeit on a much smaller scale, and within an organization that’s actually responsive to external price information.

In many industries, falling transaction costs have brought about a wave of decentralization, supplanting the old paradigm of Fordist vertical integration. Younger companies now specialize in a narrower range of core competencies and outsource the rest. Apple, for example, is really a design firm that uses a global network of manufacturing and logistics partners to get its products into consumer hands.

In the case of transit development, however, transaction costs remain high. Technological innovation hasn’t made construction much less capital intensive or shortened time horizons for investment. This means that the costs of coordinating transit and property development mentioned above have remained persistent. What the integrated rail-property development model suggests in theory, and the MTR demonstrates in practice, is that a little centralization could bypass these costs entirely. To paraphrase Coase, there’s a price to pay for using prices; and in the case of transit development, that price may still be far too high.

Part 2 of 2 covering the policies and institutions behind mass transit in Hong Kong

Shortfalls in non-profit disaster rebuilding

After receiving years of praise for its work in post-Katrina recovery, Brad Pitt’s home building organization, Make It Right, is receiving some media criticism. At the New Republic, Lydia Depillis points out that the Make It Right homes built in the Lower Ninth Ward have resulted in scarce city dollars going to this neighborhood with questionable results. While some residents have been able to return to the Lower Ninth Ward through non-profit and private investment, the population hasn’t reached the level necessary to bring the commercial services to the neighborhood that it needs to be a comfortable place to live.

After Hurricane Katrina, the Mercatus Center conducted extensive field research in the Gulf Coast, interviewing people who decided to return and rebuild in the city and those who decided to permanently relocate. They discussed the events that unfolded immediately after the storm as well as the rebuilding process. They interviewed many people in the New Orleans neighborhood surrounding the Mary Queen of Vietnam Church. This neighborhood rebounded exceptionally well after Hurricane Katrina, despite experiencing some of the city’s worst flooding 5-12-feet-deep and being a low-income neighborhood. As Emily Chamlee-Wright and Virgil Storr found [pdf]:

Within a year of the storm, more than 3,000 residents had returned [of the neighborhood's 4,000 residents when the storm hit]. By the summer of 2007, approximately 90% of the MQVN residents were back while the rate of return in New Orleans overall remained at only 45%. Further, within a year of the storm, 70 of the 75 Vietnamese-owned businesses in the MQVN neighborhood were up and running.

Virgil and Emily attribute some of MQVN’s rebuilding success to the club goods that neighborhood residents shared. Club goods share some characteristics with public goods in that they are non-rivalrous — one person using the pool at a swim club doesn’t impede others from doing so — but club goods are excludable, so that non-members can be banned from using them. Adam has written about club goods previously, using the example of mass transit. The turnstile acts as a method of exclusion, and one person riding the subway doesn’t prevent other passengers from doing so as well. In the diagram below, a subway would fall into the “Low-congestion Goods” category:

club goods

In the case of MQVN, the neighborhood’s sense of community and shared culture provided a club good that encouraged residents to return after the storm. The church provided food and supplies to the first neighborhood residents to return after the storm. Church leadership worked with Entergy, the city’s power company, to demonstrate that the neighborhood had 500 residents ready to pay their bills with the restoration of power, making them one of the city’s first outer neighborhoods to get power back after the storm.

While resources have poured into the Lower Ninth Ward from outside groups in the form of $400,000 homes from Make It Right $65 million  in city money for a school, police station, and recreation center, the neighborhood has not seen the success that MQVN achieved from the bottom up. This isn’t to say that large non-profits don’t have an important role to play in disaster recovery. Social entrepreneurs face strong incentives to work well toward their objectives because their donors hold them accountable and they typically are involved in a cause because of their passion for it. Large organizations from Wal-Mart to the American Red Cross provided key resources to New Orleans residents in the days and months after Hurricane Katrina.

The post-Katrina success of MQVN relative to many other neighborhoods in the city does demonstrates the effectiveness of voluntary cooperation at the community level and the importance of bottom-up participation for long-term neighborhood stability. While people throughout the city expressed their love for New Orleans and desire to return in their conversations with Mercatus interviewers, many faced coordination problems in their efforts to rebuild. In the case of MQVN, club goods and voluntary cooperation permitted the quick and near-complete return of residents.

Emergent Order in Cities and Markets

Last week at The Atlantic Cities, Allison Arieff posted a Q&A with Alex Marshall about what Marshall asserts are Jane Jacobs misunderstanding of how cities work. Marshall says:

Human interaction takes place, but it shouldn’t obscure what makes it possible, which is government. As much as I admire Jacobs, I suspect her experiences fighting Robert Moses, the master builder and destroyer of New York City, turned her off to government. So much so that I suspect she began to ignore it. Jacobs described how urban economies, such as say the computer ecosystem in the Silicon Valley, emerge in an organic way. I argue that these business ecologies emerge only within the containers that government builds. Both cities and economies emerge as overt political acts. They are constructed things.

Here Marshall completely eschews the historical evolution of both cities and markets in making his assertions. Both cities and markets are vehicles for human exchange, but neither is built by a person or a government. Populations, not infrastructure, are cities’ most important assets. Population changes, much like prices in a market, are a product of human action but not of human design. Historians have found evidence that the emergence of cities was not the result of ancient leaders’ direction but was rather the result of individuals acting in their own best interests. Likewise, we see both historical and current examples of trade emerging without government. States have much more power to limit trade or initiate plunder than they do to facilitate successful trade. Jacobs identified that the spontaneous order that allows prices to direct trade likewise leads city streets to serve their residents’ commercial and civic needs when they are not restricted from doing so.

Marshall asserts that Silicon Valley didn’t emerge organically because it came about within the legal and infrastructure “containers” that government provides. While it’s true that government provides infrastructure and rule of law in Silicon Valley, it’s impossible to point to a person or group who created this tech cluster from the top down. Rather many individuals pursuing their own plans created this tech center. We can see a clear difference between unplanned clusters like Silicon Valley and top down attempts to create similar economic centers. As Gert-Jan Hospers, Pierre Desrochers, and my former colleague Frédéric Sautet explain, governments are not equipped to create successful clusters:

There are no fundamental reasons to believe why policy makers are better informed than entrepreneurs in assessing the future economic potential of particular ventures (including clusters). Due to the inherent uncertain character of new technologies such government failure is likely to occur especially when it comes to high-tech clustering. As Schmookler (1966, p. 199) argues, almost all instances of innovative activities that he studied were not stimulated by policy-pushed scientific research but by the realization that a costly  problem had to be solved or that a profit opportunity could be seized. According to Miller and Côté (1985), this is one of the main reasons why ‘innovation centers’ and other greenhouses in innovation parks opened in the USA and Canada in the 1970s and 1980s have failed without exception. Also French high-tech policy in the 1980s shows the risks of a strategy of picking winners. After five years of subsidizing the micro-electronics sector the French had to admit that they backed the wrong horse.

The dispersed knowledge that prevents governments from creating economic clusters likewise leads to countless failures in government efforts to build or rebuild cities. While Jacobs recognized that both urban and economic development must be driven from the bottom up to succeed in the face of these knowledge problems, she was not anti-government as Marshall claims.  Benjamin Hemric, a regular Market Urbanism commenter, commented on the post to point out that Jacobs did not in fact disregard the importance of government. In fact while libertarian writers have often pointed out the free market themes in her writings with her appreciation of emergent orders, Jacobs herself rejected the libertarian label and instead spent the end of her life promoting the role of good government in both cities and economic development.

 

Opportunity for States to Protect Land Use

If this season’s political campaign rhetoric has demonstrated anything, it’s that governors love to take credit for job creation. What I haven’t seen any governor mention, though, is that there is huge opportunity for economic growth in relaxing zoning codes. Most obviously, allowing new opportunities for infill development will create construction jobs. More significantly though, in the long run, cities allow for faster economic growth (and job growth) than other locations.

The regulations that prevent cities from growing keep economic progress below what it otherwise would be. While researchers disagree over whether population density or total population is the variable that is most significantly correlated with economic growth, either way zoning plays an important role in holding back job growth, providing policymakers who are willing to deregulate with opportunities to improve their competitive standings next to other cities.

Political incentives stand in the way of this growth opportunity, however. Most zoning restrictions benefit a city’s current residents at the expense of potential residents. For example, minimum lot size requirements serve to raise the price of homes, preventing low-income people from moving into neighborhoods that current residents wish to keep exclusive. By changing this current order, policymakers risk losing the support of their homeowning constituents, and interest likely to be better organized than renters and potential city residents. Limitations on housing supply raise the value of existing homes, artificially raising the value of residents’ assets, which homeowners strongly fight to protect.

At the local level, policymakers are therefore incentivized to privilege homeowners’ interests at the expense of broad economic growth. At the state level however, the incentives may be different, such that economic growth may benefit state policymakers more than protecting home values. State policymakers have constituents who live in a wide variety of municipalities, some where land use restrictions are less binding in some than others. Additionally, homeowners will face greater challenges in organizing to support artificially propping up home values at the state level compared to the municipal level. State policymakers could therefore benefit themselves by setting limits on the how much municipalities are permitted to restrict development. Importantly, limiting the degree to which municipalities can restrict development does not force density; rather, it allows developers to provide more density if residents demand it.

California legislators considered a bill of this model earlier this year which would have limited cities’ abilities to set parking requirements in neighborhoods where transit is widely available. As Stephen explained, this bill came under criticism from both the American Planning Association and the Reason Foundation, both citing the need for local control of land use. However, this misses the key role of higher level governments within a federalism model.

After the Supreme Court decided in Kelo v. City of New London that municipalities have the power to use eminent domain for economic development, 44 states adopted amendments to protect their citizens from eminent domain for non-public use to various degrees. States did not have this type of reaction to Euclid v. Ambler, which set the precedent allowing cities to create zoning codes, but there is nothing stopping them from setting limits on cities’ zoning power now.  Federal and state governments have a role to set a floor of freedom for all of their residents, which gives states an opportunity to set limits on how much their municipalities can restrict land use.

Height Limit Links

1) Yesterday, two pieces on Congressman Darrell Issa’s proposal to relax the federal limits on DC’s buildings heights got a lot of coverage. At City Block, Alex Block makes the key point that outside of downtown, DC’s density is limited by zoning, rather than the height limit. He supports allowing more multifamily housing by, for example, dividing row houses into apartments. He also makes the point that taller buildings can actually add to the vistas that height limit proponents are so concerned about. I think this is particularly true on the 14th Street Corridor, Connecticut Ave, and New Hampshire Ave.

2) On the other hand, Harry Jaffe at the Washington Examiner denies the laws of supply and demand, claiming that increasing allowable height could not possibly lower rents. He writes of the limit, “It has forced development out of downtown and into the neighborhoods, around Metro stops, which is healthy growth: out, not up.” The most troubling part of his piece is that he suggests developers’ use of the profit incentive is “about greed, period,” ignoring the mutual benefits that increased density in the city would permit.

3) Will Doig interviewed me for a piece on historic preservation at Salon. He concludes, “Landmarking is meant to preserve structures whose loss would be an affront to history. Removing entire neighborhoods from the natural evolution of cities is another thing entirely.”

4) Matt Yglesias observes that in Tom Vanderbilt’s series about pedestrianism, most of the cities with the highest Walk Scores are liberal. I think Matt rightly concludes that this correlation is primarily driven by older, more walkable cities being coastal, where more liberal people tend to live. However, this also ties in to a question Charlie Gardner raised a while back with regard to proposed changes to the zoning process in Tennessee and Arizona:

Oddly, the idea of selectively or fully repealing zoning  – a perfectly legal course of action – seems not to have gained any traction even in such ostensibly pro-property rights states as Arizona or Tennessee.  Arizona’s libertarian-supported Proposition 207 focused on declines in property value resulting from rezonings, while avoiding the broader point that it is zoning itself that serves as the greatest suppressant of
both property values and the free use of land.

[. . .]

Do libertarian principles perhaps yield to a strong personal preference for low-density, use-segregated single-family zoning and fears of change? Are restrictive covenants, in spite of the example of Houston, seen as an inadequate stand-in? And why cast the language of these statutes in terms of landowner objections to city rezonings, rather than granting owners the right to obtain rezonings on their own terms?