Laying Reagan’s Ghost to Rest

In a recent 48 Hills post, housing activist Peter Cohen aimed a couple rounds of return fire at SPUR’s Gabriel Metcalf. The post comes in response to Mr. Metcalf’s own article critiquing progressive housing policy. Mr. Cohen bounces around a bit, but he does repeat some frequently used talking points worth addressing.

Trickle-down economics

Mr. Cohen calls the argument for market-rate construction ‘trickle down economics’.  Trickle down economics actually refers to certain macro theories popularized during the Reagan years. These models assumed a higher marginal propensity to save among wealthier individuals. And given this assumption, some economists concluded that reducing top marginal tax rates would result in higher savings. This would then mean higher levels of investment which would, in turn, have a positive effect on aggregate output. And from there we get the idea of a rising tide lifting all ships.

Note that none of that has anything to do with housing policy.

Labeling something ‘trickle down’ is a way to delegitimize certain policy proposals by associating them with Ronald Reagan. It’s somewhere between rhetorically dishonest and intellectually lazy. Though to be fair, it’s probably pretty effective in San Francisco.

The concept Mr. Cohen is trying to critique is actually called filtering.

In many instances, markets do not produce new housing at every income level. But they do produce housing across different income levels over time. Today’s luxury development is tomorrow’s middle income housing. The catch, however, is that supply has to continually expand. If not, prices for even dilapidated housing can go through the roof. For a more thorough explanation, see SFBARF’s agent based housing model.


San Francisco, where only Reganites want to build more housing

If you build it, they’ll just come

But even accurately defined, Mr. Cohen still objects to the concept of filtering. He cites an article by urban planning authority William Fulton to make his point. He quotes Fulton:

The folks taking the cool jobs may not be uber-rich, but they have tons more money than everybody else, and so they drive prices out of sight. Build more market-rate housing, and you’ll just accelerate the cycle – more smart kids will show up wanting to work for tech start-ups, and that means you’ll have more tech start-ups, and pretty soon demand will rise faster than supply – in large part because you increased the supply. To a local community activist, it feels like a no-win.

Mr. Cohen–via Mr. Fulton–is trying to argue that supply will create its own demand. This misunderstands the nature of the regional economy.

It’s not far fetched the think that there are plenty of people ready to move to San Francisco. And that if prices were lower and housing more available, they would. But that doesn’t explain why so many want to come here in the first place. That has to do with tech and the knowledge economy. New workers, entrepreneurs, and investors all come here because of all the workers, entrepreneurs, and investors that are already here. And thanks to the logic of industry clusters, it’s a self reinforcing cycle unlikely to change anytime soon. For tech worldwide, there’s the Bay Area and everywhere else. For tech already in the Bay, there’s the Peninsula/San Francisco and everywhere else. Even if you don’t build it, they’ll still have every reason to come. And despite some of the highest housing prices in the country, they continue to do so. 

Setting the record straight

Increasing supply will put downward pressure on prices. But it’s important to keep a few things in mind.

First, increasing supply may never actually lower prices. Prices will be lower than what they’d otherwise have been. That, however, doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily be lower in real terms.

Second, this process takes a long time. There’s lots of high end housing that didn’t get built over the last several decades. Consequently, the pipeline of aging high-quality housing isn’t there to provide supply at lower price points. This is a housing shortage decades in the making. Under the most supply friendly of conditions it’ll take decades more to bring prices back in line with national averages.

And third, there is no San Francisco housing shortage. San Francisco is only one part of the larger Bay Area housing market. The shortage is region wide. When increasing supply is talked about as a way to combat rising prices, that’s referring to the housing market in its–regional–entirety. Specific neighborhoods or even cities might still only get more expensive. Even in a world where massive development tempers prices across the entire Bay.

And here’s the real heart of the disagreement. Market-rate development won’t privilege incumbents. It won’t reserve specific neighborhoods for specific income levels. And it won’t guarantee that specific communities remain the majority residents in any specific areas. And for some, these are the challenges that we’re facing, not high housing prices per se. And that’s fine. But let’s stop talking past each other and taking potshots at straw men. And lets start being clear about what we think the actual problem is and what our policy goals should be.

Free parking isn’t free

Donald Shoup estimates that about one-third of cars in central business districts are cruising for parking.

Donald Shoup estimates that about one-third of cars in central business districts are cruising for parking.

Last week I wrote a piece for City Journal on how smart parking could allow New York City to implement variable pricing. Street parking sensors allow prices to change to maintain an empty spot on each block, as parking expert Donald Shoup recommends. By eliminating the incentive to drive around looking for parking, this policy could drastically reduce traffic congestion and save drivers significant amounts of time.

All of the comments on my post argue that charging for parking according to demand would increase the cost of living in already expensive cities and hurt low-income people. While this argument is very common among supporters of underpriced street parking, it’s false. In actuality, today’s standard policies of underpriced street parking and off-street parking requirements increase costs of living, and low-income people bear a disproportionate share of the costs of these policies.

Properly implemented variable pricing systems may not even increase the total price that drivers pay to park their cars. San Francisco has gone farther than any other city to implement variable parking. Its SFPark system updates the prices on the city’s meters periodically with the goal of keeping the occupancy on each block below 80%. While this objective has led to significant price increases for the most in-demand blocks, it has actually reduced the city’s total parking meter revenues because prices were allowed to fall on many blocks to reach the 80% target.

Whether they cause total parking meter revenue to increase or decrease, variable parking prices are key to reducing off-street parking requirements, which is a huge cost of development. The political pressure for off-street parking often stems from homeowners who live near commercial destinations. Because people who drive to businesses prefer free parking to paid parking, they may park in a zero-price curb spot in a residential neighborhood near their destination rather than at a paid spot on the commercial street. This increases traffic in the neighborhood and reduces parking availability for residents. Residents then demand that businesses provide their patrons with enough free on-site parking to eliminate the demand for free nearby curb spots.

While off-street parking requirements reduce demand for street parking, they also create a significant cost for businesses. Shoup estimates that “the total subsidy for parking (the total cost of parking not paid for by drivers in their role as parkers) … was between $127 billion and $374 billion, or between 1.2 percent and 3.6 percent of the gross domestic product” in 2002. Some businesses would undoubtedly provide free parking for their customers without parking requirements, but these regulations cause developers to build more parking than they otherwise would. The cost of these mandatory spaces is ultimately passed on to consumers, resulting in higher prices for everything that we buy. This parking tax is like a sales tax on all consumer goods, and because it eats up a larger portion of low-income budgets than high-income budgets, it’s regressive.

Ultimately, parking requirements that are repeated on every lot across a city lead to an environment in which destinations are very spread out from one another. This sprawl makes living without a car more difficult. Foregoing a car can save households of any income level thousands of dollars per year, an option that can provide low-income households in particular with the choice to free up a large percentage of their budget for other priorities, but its an unattractive choice in many American cities that have been shaped by parking requirements.

Variable street parking prices will increase the cost of car ownership for drivers who prioritize parking in highly-demanded spots. However, city residents can avoid these charges by parking in places out of the way, varying the times of their trips to avoid peak-pricing, not driving to destinations that will require expensive parking, or even choosing not to own a car entirely. Pricing parking high enough to eliminate queuing for spots will require drivers to pay for their spots with their money rather than their time, but people at any income level face choices that allow them to reduce their parking costs. Current parking policy is an unavoidable regressive tax, and pricing street parking to manage its demand is the first step toward reform.

The Right to the City

This post draws heavily from Tom W. Bell’s “Want to Own a City?”  and would not have been possible without his prior writing and research

The “Right to the City” is an old marxist slogan that’s as catchy as it is ill-defined. Neither the phrase’s originator Henri Lefebvre, nor David Harvey, a more recent proponent, seem to have articulated the idea in any meaningful way. Even the Right to the City Alliance stops short of explaining what the right actually is. When it comes up, it’s typically alongside a claim that something is being stolen or taken away from long-standing communities, as if neighborhoods were sovereign territory suffering from an invasion. For practical purposes, no one has any right to reside in any place beyond their ability to pay. But if the desire is for a way in which communities could actually own the places they call home, perhaps the Right to the City should be a property right.

San Francisco. Ground zero for the debate over who gets to live where and why.

San Francisco. Ground zero for the debate over who gets to live where and why.

Public Ownership through Private Property

What’s the difference between a private company and a municipal corporation? You can own the former but not the latter. Investors have clearly delineated property rights in their corporations. Residents have no equivalent ownership rights in their cities. But what if living in a city meant owning a piece of it as a legal entity as well?

Imagine that a city issued shares to its residents. Shares would vest over time and long-time residents would have more equity than new arrivals. Now assume that this city took in all of its revenue through land value taxation and that land revenues were used to pay dividends to the city’s resident-shareholders. Instead of facing displacement, incumbent residents would benefit from rising demand to live in their city.

Shares might also be used to weight the voting system. More shares could mean extra say in electing representatives, city-wide ballot measures, neighborhood level participatory budgeting, or perhaps even corrective democracy. Again, the point would be to formally privilege long-time residents over newcomers in deciding how the city is run.

All of this should be taken as more of a thought experiment than a policy proposal. For one, policy reform would go a long way in solving the problem of displacement without having to favor incumbency. There are also plenty of blanks to fill in when thinking about how a shareholder system would work. And, of course, there’s a lot that could go wrong. The devil’s in the details and given the wrong details the devil might look like hyper-nativist parochialism. But, given the right arrangement, privileging tenure through ownership could tie together the fortunes of residents with the fortunes of their city as a whole. It could encourage long-time residents to welcome newcomers with open arms. And it could offer political and economic enfranchisement beyond what the status quo is able to provide.

How to Fix San Francisco’s Housing Market

Want to live in San Francisco? No problem, that’ll be $3,000 (a month)–but only if you act fast.

In the last two years, the the cost of housing in San Francisco has increased 47% and shows no signs of stopping. Longtime residents find themselves priced out of town, the most vulnerable of whom end up as far away as Stockton.

Some blame techie transplants. After all, every new arrival drives up the rent that much more. And many tech workers command wages that are well above the non-tech average. But labelling the problem a zero sum class struggle is both inaccurate and unproductive. The real problem is an emasculated housing market unable to absorb the new arrivals without shedding older residents. The only solution is to take supply off its leash and finally let it chase after demand.

Strangling Supply

From 2010 to 2013, San Francisco’s population increased by 32,000 residents. For the same period of time, the city’s housing stock increased by roughly 4,500 units. Why isn’t growth in housing keeping pace with growth in population? It’s not allowed to.

San Francisco uses what’s known as discretionary permitting. Even if a project meets all the relevant land use regulations, the Permitting Department can mandate modifications “in the public interest”.  There’s also a six month review process during which neighbors can contest the permit based on an entitlement or environmental concern. Neighbors can also file a CEQA lawsuit in state court or even put a project on the ballot for an up or down vote. This process is heavily weighted against new construction. It limits how quickly the housing stock can grow. And as a result, when demand skyrockets so do prices.

To remedy this, San Francisco should move from discretionary to as-of-right permitting. In an as-of-right system, it’s much more difficult to stop construction. As long as a project meets existing land use requirements, city planners have to issue a permit. And although neighbors can sue based on nuisance, they don’t have any input in the actual permitting process. As-of-right permitting would go a long way toward defanging NIMBYs and overzealous planners.

Yellow equals a height limit of 40 feet or less than 5 stories.  Credit Mike Schiraldi

Yellow equals a height limit of 40 feet or less than 5 stories. Credit Mike Schiraldi


But even if San Francisco opened up the permitting floodgates, height limits, floor-to-area ratios, zoning designations, and minimum parcel sizes all prevent land from being put to its best use. Land use restrictions like these can increase the price of housing by as much as 140% over construction costs. Relaxing–if not abolishing–these types of restrictions would be hugely beneficial.

But for as much as regulatory reform would help, there’s another way of encouraging supply to catch up with demand. And, interestingly enough, it involves raising taxes.

Tax the Land

The more you tax something, the less of that something society produces. Raise taxes on income and you discourage labor. Raise taxes on capital and you discourage investment. Raise taxes on property and the same logic applies; the higher the tax rates the greater the burden on new construction. But property taxes aren’t just a tax on buildings, they’re a tax on the land underneath as well. Separate the two in favor of taxing land alone, and construction is not only unburdened, it’s encouraged.

A pure land tax would amount to fixed overhead for each assessment period. This would encourage landlords to use their holdings as intensely as the market would bear. Holding a valuable parcel vacant or underused would become prohibitively expensive.

In San Francisco, where land is incredibly valuable, a land tax would encourage  denser development.

In San Francisco, where land is incredibly valuable, a land tax would encourage denser development. Credit Ascher, Kate. (2011).


There are a few different proposals for implementing land taxation. The most aggressive approach calls for a 100% fee on land values and the abolition of all other taxes. A slightly more moderate proposal favors an 80% land tax to allow for some margin of error in assessment. The most realistic plan would be to retire San Francisco’s property tax in favor of a land tax and make the change revenue neutral. Considering the city’s property tax rate is barely over 1%, a revenue neutral land tax probably wouldn’t deliver the sun, the stars, and the moon like it would at much higher levels. That said, it would still be an improvement over the existing property tax.

Fix the Market, Not the Price

Neither rent control nor inclusionary zoning will fix the housing crisis. Both amount to price controls. Both drive up the price of market rate construction. Both create a gap between subsidized and unsubsidized housing. And as long as San Francisco can’t set its own immigration policy, there will never be enough subsidized housing to go around. It’s simply not a scalable solution. But that doesn’t mean there’s no room for a safety net.

Housing vouchers are like food stamps for….well, housing. They put resources directly in the hands of those who need them while avoiding the negative side effects of price fixing. It’s welfare that doesn’t try to mandate a price, but instead ensure that the least well off can pay whatever that price might be.

Funding via a land tax would tie the amount of revenue available for vouchers to the state of the housing market. When housing costs increase, it’s not the buildings themselves that are becoming more expensive, it’s the land that they’re sitting on. Houses aren’t wine, they don’t typically improve with age. The actual ground they sit on, however, can become more valuable if more people want to move into a neighborhood. If a sudden surge in demand sends land prices through the roof, a land tax would ensure that funding for vouchers would increase as well.

Funding through a land tax would also prevent vouchers from becoming a subsidy for landowners. Pumping other sources of revenue into housing might simply make the market more competitive and allow landlords to charge higher rents. A land tax would limit this by moving resources from landlords on one end of the market to tenants on the other end without increasing the total amount of dollars chasing housing. Regulatory reform would also limit any price increases from a voucher system since an increase in demand would better stimulate an increase in supply. The extra supply would then put downward pressure on prices.

Slowing down–let alone turning back–the rising cost of housing will require a massive amount of new construction. Relaxing land use rules will clear the path. Changing the tax code will hurry things along. And rethinking the social safety net will ensure that no one gets left behind.

The benefits of the market in both infrastructure and urbanism


Alain Bertaud, a senior research scholar at the Urbanization Project, has had a long career in urban planning, and many of his writings have a market urbanist flavor. He is currently working a book called Order Without Design, and last year he published an excerpt from that book called “The Formation of Urban Spatial Structures: Market vs. Design.” In the article he offers a compelling case for letting the market determine building sizes and uses, but he argues that infrastructure provision must be left to the state. I agreed wholeheartedly with the first portion of his paper, but find that his arguments for the market in land use contradict his arguments for the state in infrastructure.

Bertaud eloquently explains the knowledge problem facing urban planners who seek to regulate efficient land use patterns. Because economic growth is such a complex process that’s dynamic over time, he explains that top-down design will fail to keep up with changing land use needs to the detriment of economic growth. He cites Hartford, Connecticut as an example. The city developed a large insurance industry, but as it became profitable for American insurance companies to outsource clerical work abroad, fewer Connecticut residents find employment in the industry. However, in a futile effort to maintain jobs, urban planners have refused to update land use regulations to permit new employment opportunities. Rather than succeeding in keeping historical sources of employment in place, urban planners have prevented economic diversity that can hedge against a downturn in a specific industry.

Bertaud describes price mechanism that allows the market to identify land’s highest value use:

Markets …  recycle obsolete land use quasi-automatically through rising and falling prices. This constant land recycling is usually very positive for the longterm welfare of the urban population. In the short term, changes in  land use and in the spatial concentration of employment are disorienting and alarming for workers and firms alike. Responding to the disruptions caused by land use changes, local governments are often tempted to intervene in order to slow down the rate of change and to prevent the recycling of obsolete land use. However, the long-range effects of maintaining obsolete land use through regulations are disastrous for future employment levels and for the general welfare of urban dwellers.

While Bertaud waxes romantic about the power of the market in allocating land use and supporting economic growth, he makes two primary arguments for why the private sector cannot provide road networks. First, he asserts that private sector is incapable of assembling the necessary rights-of-way to build major thoroughfares.  Second, he makes an externality argument. He says that because roads can improve accessibility and increase land values, it’s “impractical to allocate and to recover its cost from beneficiaries since not only road users but also landowners benefit from better accessibility.”

To the first point, it’s false that the private sector is incapable of constructing a road network beyond local access streets. In fact, several major roads in the United States have been financed, constructed, and maintained by private companies that collected tolls. By constructing these roads in existing easements, these companies didn’t need to resort to eminent domain. Private U.S. companies built turnpikes in an era when road building was much less efficient than it is today, and more importantly tolls had to be collected by humans in tollbooths, rather than electronically, requiring more overhead than a toll system would today. Turnpike companies sought investments from landowners near the road who stood to gain from road construction, demonstrating that mutually beneficial exchange can happen even in the face of the externalities that Bertaud describes. Aside from roads, private enterprise has historically provided canals, streetcars, and elevated rails demonstrating the powerful incentive that people have for identifying opportunities for cooperation even when the benefits to buying and selling a good aren’t fully captured by the consumer and producer. Bertaud points out that, unlike regulators, the price system can effectively make tradeoffs between land uses. Similarly, the price system could determine resource allocation between different types of transportation, but instead this role is delegated to “designers” in developed countries today.

History demonstrates that privately built and financed roads are in fact possible, but Bertaud is likely correct that they would not be possible in developed countries today because government infrastructure spending and regulations have largely crowded out private investment in the industry. Those who assume that roads must be built by the government rely on market failure arguments to assert that the private sector fails to produce the efficient amount of infrastructure. Bertaud writes, “to build an effective, citywide circulation network, a city needs to connect privately-built roads, linking various neighborhoods and allowing travel speeds consistent with the efficient functioning of labor markets.”

It’s possible that the free market would fail to reach some optimum level of travel speed as identified by technocrats, but it’s key to note that government’s infrastructure building record is rife with failures. The political process results in bridges to nowhere and costly mixed-traffic streetcars. Robert Caro provides a detailed account of Robert Moses’ trangressions against the people of New York for the cause of his infrastructure building mania, but neighborhoods across the country were irreparably damaged by highways with relatively little recognition of the damage wrought by government road building. Unlike state road designers who can raze entire neighborhoods for the sake of infrastructure, privately built roads would not likely be built through densely populated neighborhoods.

Government infrastructure planning is subject to many of the same problems that Bertaud points out plague government land use planning. If neither the market nor government can reliably provide the “efficient” amount of infrastructure in the right places, which sector does it better is an open question that won’t be answered without developed countries’ governments drastically curtailing their involvement in infrastructure. Those who argue that the market cannot provide the level of infrastructure deemed efficient by econ 101 models make an unfair comparison to idealized models of how the public sector provides infrastructure rather than looking at the infrastructure that government actually delivers. Infrastructure provision presents private sector challenges because it isn’t bought and sold according to the textbook example of perfect competition. But starting with the assumption that government can identify and execute an optimal infrastructure plan whitewashes publicly provided infrastructure failures.

Thanks to Anthony Ling for pointing out the article.

How Land Prices Obviate the Need for Euclidean Zoning

Yesterday, Reason TV released a video comparing Houston with more heavily regulated East Coast cities, explaining that Houston’s relatively lax land use regulations contribute to its housing costs that are much lower than in other large cities. While the video paints an exaggerated picture of Houston as a free market paradise in spite of its codified sprawl, Todd Krainin makes some great points about Houston’s land use tolerance. For example, the city’s tin houses that save on construction and energy costs would be illegal in many cities that have tighter restrictions on building codes.

In the video, the former mayor of Victoria, TX makes the great point that in spite of the absence of Euclidean Zoning in some Texas cities, residents don’t need to worry about heavy industry cropping up in their neighborhoods. “Economics dictates that you’re not going to put a rendering plant next to a residential subdivision,” he says. He’s referring to rent gradients that lead to land near amenities being priced at higher rates than land farther from amenities. Owners of low-value land uses don’t choose to pay high prices to be near these amenities. While there are occasionally legitimate nuisance cases in which housing and industrial uses impose externalities on each other because of their proximity, in a free market these cases would be very rare because it doesn’t make sense for industrial uses to take place on the land that people are willing to pay premium prices to live on.

While city planners make the case for Euclidean zoning by saying that they are protecting residents from living near industry, zoning often results in the exact opposite outcome. Valuable property in cities including New York and San Francisco that is zoned industrial gets surrounded by residential neighborhoods over time as the city grows. Planners’ inability to keep codes up to date with evolving cities means regulations require industrial uses adjacent to residential ones, mandating inefficient land use and creating industrial blight near homes. In Washington, DC, recent rezoning of industrial uses near Union Station and Navy Yard has created rapid fire gentrification. Without zoning, industrial uses would have gradually move from these valuable sites, allowing for housing and retail to enter these neighborhoods slowly allowing for filtering prices over time.

In Bushwick, warehouses abut apartment buildings.  Image via Real Estate Weekly.

In Bushwick, warehouses abut apartment buildings. Image via Real Estate Weekly.

In Los Angeles, the problem of cementing the location of industrial uses has reached an extreme. Torrance, CA, a city where the median home sells for over $600,000, is home to an oil refinery, located about two and a half miles from the coast. A few miles northwest in El Segundo, where the median home is worth $860,000, a Chevron refinery occupies 1,000 acres of beachfront property. This isn’t because these companies enjoys refining oil surrounded by residential neighborhoods or find it particularly profitable to do so, but rather because its unlikely that they could ever receive the necessary approvals to open a new refinery elsewhere.

In some cases, such as developing world mega cities, it’s more likely that industrial uses would locate adjacent to housing than it is in the United States because of different transportation systems. In these cases, people with progressive attitudes might argue that zoning would protect residents of cities like Karachi, and Lagos from living near polluting industry. But even in these cases, using zoning to prevent the market from allocating land use is likely to hurt cities’ most disadvantaged residents rather than making them better off.

True, developing world residents accept risks when they live near factories, including the small potential for a catastrophe such as a factory fire in a residential neighborhood. However everyone accepts risk in their daily lives in their efforts to make a living and pursue happiness. Those with low-incomes in the U.S. and even more so in the developing world accept greater risks than those with higher incomes because risk reduction is a normal good whose demand rises with income. Individuals must make risk-risk tradeoffs in their lives, including the decision to live near a factory in exchange for shortening a difficult and dangerous commutes or in turn for saving money on housing to have more resources for other essentials.

In the United States, legally separating industrial uses from residential land uses at time zero is unlikely to result in a significant change from a market outcome because owners of industrial property will want to locate on cheap land far from where people live. In those cases where industry and residents choose to locate next to each other, it’s worth considering that the people involved are making the best choices given their circumstances. Given that cities grow and evolve, it’s likely that industrial-zoned land will end up adjacent to higher value uses, leading regulations to achieve the opposite of their intent. In those rare cases when economics do not naturally separate residential from noxious uses, the court system is well-equipped to mediate cases as they arise.

Parking is not a public good

Writers at Salon, Slate, and Time have criticized new San Francisco-based apps that allow users to purchase access to a parking spot as another driver is leaving it. The apps MonkeyParking, Sweetch, and ParkModo provide a platform for drivers to let others know when they’re leaving a spot, and reserve the spot until the another user bidding on the spot arrives to pull in. As of last week, the future of these apps is unknown since San Francisco issued a cease and desist order based on the city’s rule against auctioning or leasing public parking spots. All three writers express outrage that the apps’ creators and users are profiting off of government-owned parking spots. At Salon, Andrew Leonard writes:

Monkey Parking’s solution intended to generate profit off of a public good by rewarding those who are able to pay — and shutting out the less affluent. 

One problem with this line of reasoning is that parking is clearly not a public good. It is both perfectly rivalrous and easily excludable. Unlike a public good, the price system provides the right incentives for suppliers to provide the optimal amount of parking based on consumers’ willingness to pay. While Leonard uses the term public good, he may mean simply a good that the government provides, and he argues that entrepreneurs should not be permitted to profit from these public services. While this argument provokes a populist sense of unfairness, Monkey Parking should be evaluated against the current problem of under-priced curb parking rather than against the assumption that city governments are currently pricing curb pricing appropriately.

City governments systematically undercharge for street parking, especially in cities like San Francisco where land is very valuable. These apps are able to profit because the city charges prices for parking below the level that drivers are willing to pay. Without an app that lets drivers pay for the knowledge of parking spot availability, parking spots are allocated by drivers’ time spent driving around and looking for a spot.

Curbside parking spots, typically the most conveniently located and most accessible spots on a block, are often priced lower than nearby garage spots. Because these spots are desirable, they are often full. Drivers circle their destinations looking for available curb spots, paying for the cost of the spot with their time and wasted gas rather than in dollars as they likely would in a free market. Donald Shoup, the expert on all things parking, estimates that 30% of downtown urban traffic congestion is caused by drivers who are cruising for parking. In just one Los Angeles neighborhood, Shoup estimates that drivers waste 47,000 gallons of gas, or 730 tons of carbon annually just looking for parking spots. The cost of the cruising phenomenon in terms of drivers’ time and in greenhouse gases across cities and around the world is clearly immense.

Slate’s Will Oremus argues that allocating parking spaces based on drivers’ willingness to pay for them is regressive:

As if it weren’t enough that middle-class San Franciscans are getting squeezed out of their housing, now they get to worry about some tech tycoon outbidding them for their parking spot. These are public, metered parking spaces, mind you, paid for by taxpayers.

Keeping the price of parking below the market-clearing price is not clearly beneficial to low- or middle-income people as these authors assert. If a low-income person is running late for an important appointment or has a heavy load to carry to his destination, he will likely be thankful for the opportunity to pay a premium for a conveniently located, available spot. The app allows people to trade money for time and convenience, and people of all income levels may or may not want to make this tradeoff in a given situation. Under-priced curbside parking is a subsidy to all drivers, regardless of their income. In San Francisco, low-income residents are less likely to have access to cars than high-income residents, so providing under-priced parking likely subsidizes high-income residents more than low-income residents.

Rather than prohibiting these parking apps, San Francisco policymakers have the opportunity to make them irrelevant. Their program SFPark is already implementing reforms based on Shoup’s recommendations. 8,200 of the city’s curbside parking spots have sensors that indicate whether or not they are occupied. These sensors provide data on when parking spots are occupied, and the meters for these spots are set with the goal of maintaining 15% availability to eliminate cruising. The prices are capped at $6 per hour, so they may not reach levels high enough to maintain 15% availability, creating an opportunity for MonkeyParking to allocate spaces based on price.


Image via San Francisco Examiner

By expanding SFPark to more of the city’s curbside spots and allowing parking prices to go as high as necessary to maintain 15% availability, San Francisco policymakers would capture the parking apps’ potential revenues for the city. For those concerned that charging market-clearing prices for parking hurts low-income residents, this new revenue source could be used to provide a tax credit for low-income people. However, it’s unclear to me why the price of parking should be artificially low to benefit low-income people as opposed to all other goods. Allocating parking based on pricing rather than by queuing allows people to plan their travel based on the true cost of their trip. Setting parking prices at a market-clearing rate would create an incentive for people of all income levels to consider taking transit, biking, or walking to their destination, and would allow anyone to have the availability of conveniently located parking spots at their destination when the it’s worth the price to them.

DC streetcar: Worse than nothing

On Tuesday, DC’s city council passed a tax reform package that will cut funding for future streetcar construction. These cuts come as the H Street streetcar delays continue to mount, and much of the commentary supporting the streetcar has shifted from touting its transportation benefits to its economic development role. As Stephen has explained, the benefits of streetcar over bus depend heavily on streetcars having dedicated lanes, which most of DC’s streetcars wouldn’t have.

Earlier this spring, I was in a bike accident that cemented my opposition to DC’s streetcar. Because the streetcar tracks cover the right two-thirds of H Street’s right-hand lanes, bicyclists typically ride between the two tracks. This creates a situation in which the sudden need to swerve or a brief loss of concentration puts cyclists at a risk of catching their front tire in the track, causing an over-the-handlebars accident when the front wheel comes to a sudden stop. In Toronto, streetcar tracks are a factor in nearly one-third of serious bicycle accidents. While I can say I’ll now go to great lengths to avoid riding on H Street, DC’s lack of good east-west bike routes make it unrealistic to expect all cyclists to avoid the streetcar tracks. Avoiding tracks will be much more difficult for cyclists under DDOT’s plan to eventually construct 22 miles of tracks.

Aside from creating a hazard for cyclists, this streetcar will only provide effective transportation for people visiting H Street retail destinations from the adjacent residential neighborhoods. It does not connect residential neighborhoods to job centers. While some have argued that it’s designed to serve tourists rather than District residents, the streetcar line doesn’t pass by any sightseeing, I don’t think that H Street’s retail is a common destination for tourists. Passengers using the streetcar to travel east from Union Station have to navigate a large parking garage to board the streetcar in the middle of a pedestrian-hostile overpass.

Passengers coming from Union Station will board the streetcar on an overpass outside of a parking bride. Image via Fulertography.

Passengers coming from Union Station will board the streetcar on an overpass next to a parking garage. Image via Fullertography.

Its poorly planned route will, however, cause delays for bus riders and drivers as the streetcar comes to a stop behind cars turning right, cars that don’t park close enough to the curb, or inevitable breakdowns. The H Street corridor has the one of the city’s busiest bus routes with an average of over 15,000 riders each weekday. Unlike the streetcar, the X1, X2, and X9 buses actually connect residential neighborhood’s to job centers and they serve passengers who live farther east in Anacostia. The streetcar will reduce the effectiveness of these valuable routes by adding to delays and reducing frequency as a result.

While streetcar construction has coincided with rapid-fire gentrification on the H Street corridor, those who attribute these changes to the streetcar’s presence discount other policies and trends that happened simultaneously. In 2006, then mayor Fenty implemented the Great Streets Initiative, a grant program that provides up to $85,000 to small businesses businesses renovating space on corridors designated for the program. H Street was the first corridor designated as part of the Great Streets Initiative and the only corridor eligible for small business grants until 2013 when the program was expanded to include several additional corridors. explains:

DMPED [Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development]  received an initial capital authorization of $16.6 million to provide development assistance, multiple property owner grants, technical assistance, loans and credit enhancements to projects like those happening on H Street. DC Council also authorized DMPED to issue up to $95 million in tax increment finance (“TIF”) notes or bonds to support retail projects within six retail priority areas along the initial GSI corridors. Up to $25 million out of the $95 million was authorized on H Street NE.

Staff at DMPED were not able to provide data on grant recipients before 2012, but for 2012 to the present, they provided data for each grant issued. Since 2012, H Street businesses have received nearly $2 million in grants for facade improvements and renovations. This is about a third of all of the grant money that the program has awarded in that time period. It’s clear that between 2006 and 2012 H Street businesses received millions of economic development spending, including a $5 million subsidy for Giant supermarket. These grants factored into dozens of entrepreneurs’ decisions to open businesses on the H Street corridor rather than another neighborhood in the city.

Furthermore, the pattern of redevelopment in the Atlas District suggests that these grants may have played a more important role than the streetcar. Typically, neighborhoods experience residential gentrification first, and the commercial gentrification bringing new shops and restaurants follows. As developers sometimes say, “retail follows rooftops.” However, the Atlas District experienced the reverse order. The bars and restaurants on H Street didn’t spring up to serve a new affluent neighborhood population or people moving to live near the streetcar line; rather a dedicated shuttle bus from Chinatown brought bar patrons from other neighborhoods in the city out to H Street for the first years that new bars were opened their doors on the corridor. In the 20002 zip code, home values held fairly steady from 2009 to 2012, indicating that demand for residential property didn’t surge until well after the commercial corridor began to gentrify. Home values in this zip code closely follow the city’s trend from 2005 to the present, whereas other zip codes, like 20009, show home price spikes that can more likely be attributed to a change in the neighborhood’s desirability, rather than the city’s general growth.

Of course, H Street’s gentrification is far from an objective policy success. The Great Streets Initiative grants that encouraged building renovations were tailored to benefit new businesses coming to the neighborhood, rather than existing businesses that served long-time residents. But even given the questionable policy goal of gentrification, it’s unclear that the streetcar can take credit for economic development. The streetcar will make commuting more difficult for X bus riders, and if tourists want to take the streetcar, they’ll have a difficult time reaching its western terminus from Union Station. Still not carrying passengers five years after construction began, the streetcar is a very expensive bike trap.