Midnight parking round-up

1. Donald Shoup makes up for last week with an interesting piece on how America’s tax structure biases employers towards providing parking for their employees, similar to how untaxed employer-provided healthcare shapes that industry.

2. Back in August Randal O’Toole asked for proof that minimum parking requirements force Walmart to build more parking than they otherwise would. I think this is a bit of a red herring, since obviously parking reform would have more of an impact in areas that are more urban than where Walmart typically locates, but lo and behold, here’s the proof, at least in the case of one store in Northeastern Connecticut. In this case it looks like the parking minimums are going to be reduced, but I question whether smaller companies without Wal-Mart’s clout and money could have demanded such changes.

3. A survey of urban planners, supposedly biased towards big cities, found that 60% feel that the free market would not provide an adequate amount of parking if developers were not given parking minimums, with only 1 in 10 believing that the market would provide too much parking. The author of the paper, called “Are suburban TODs over-parked?” (.pdf), and published in the Journal of Public Transportation, found that suburban TOD projects in the East Bay and Portland supplied too much parking for the amount of cars that were actually parked. The authors unfortunately don’t do a great job of linking the parking surplus directly to parking minimums, but they do provide some interesting empirical evidence for what Matt Yglesias called “parking feedback loops” and what the study’s authors term a “virtuous cycle” – the idea that parking itself is a barrier to walkability, and thus removing spaces will lessen the demand for parking, even if nobody was using the spots that were removed.

Midnight links

1. Cap’n Transit weighs in on the ARC debate, and shows that Chris Christie is more interested in shifting resources to his suburban constituents than to cutting spending. Here’s the best part:

Editorial board member: What’s the difference between a gas tax hike and a fare hike, besides who it lands on?

Christie: That’s the difference.

2. The Los Angeles Times profiles Donald Shoup. I liked this part:

Shoup depends on his bicycle for much of his mobility. He freely confesses, however, that when behind the wheel of his silver 1994 Infiniti J30, he often circles the block looking for a free parking space. “I don’t like paying for parking,” he says with a shrug.

3. Matt Yglesias notes DC’s second-only-to-NYC office rents, and blames them on the city’s absurd height restriction.  I’m happy that Yglesias is interested in urbanism, but it doesn’t really appear like he reads/interacts with the wider planning blogosphere (I stand corrected).

The economics of redevelopment and the shape of socialist cities

Earlier today I read an article by Daniel Garst about Bejing’s awkward population distribution that reminded me of a journal article about the general shape of socialist cities that I read a while back. Garst talks about Beijing being a “circus tent” when it comes to density, with population density increasing as you travel away from the city center, in contrast to the “pyramid” style of most cities, with high densities in the center and lower densities around the periphery (see chart for a visual representation).

This immediately made me think of an article by Alain Bertraud and Bertrand Renaud called “Socialist Cities without Land Markets,” where they describe exactly this phenomenon, and explain it as a failure of administrative urban planning. Here’s an excerpt:

Gross population density by distance from city center in Moscow and Paris

As their economy and their population grow, cities expand through the progressive addition of concentric rings, similar to the growth of trees in successive seasons. New rings are added to the periphery as the city grows. With each ring, land use reflects the combined effects of demography, technology, and the economy at the time when the ring was developed. Wile this organic incremental growth is common to all cities, in a market city changing land prices exert their pressure simultaneously in all areas of the city, not just at the periphery. Land prices exert a powerful influence to recycle already developed land in the inner rings when the type and intensity of the existing use is too different from the land’s optimum economic use. Thus, changing land values bring a built-in urban dynamism as ceaseless variations in land prices put a constant pressure on the current uses of land and trigger changes to new activities and/or densities.

Under the administrative-command economy, the absence of land prices eliminated the main incentive to redevelop built-up areas by removing site value considerations from the investment decisions since the nationalization of land in 1917 [in the Soviet Union]. Without price signals to reveal the opportunity cost of land in alternative uses, it was administratively simpler to respond to current land demand pressure by developing at the periphery than to redevelop well-located areas with obsolete land uses. While the city expanded outward, land use in already developed areas remained unchanged and there was very little land recycling. This process explains the persistence and uniformity of housing types in successive rings around Moscow, with each type being usually named according to the period when it was built. Thus, driving from the center of Moscow, one passes through rings of Stalin, Khrushchev, and then Brezhnev flats.

This socialist land allocation process leads to land that differs from market economies. This land use has three features that imply urban inefficiency on a very large scale, which we will describe in turn. First, the population density gradient has a perverse slope that rises as one moves away from the city center. Second, very large industrial areas occupied by land-intensive, obsolescent industries in prime areas of the city. Third, households are concentrated in the periphery. Residential densities are increasing toward the periphery while “historically” low densities are found in central areas. This pattern tends to increase community requirements, transport costs, and pollution because it requires higher energy expenditures. At the same time the effects of this type of urban planning are not compensated by the provision of better amenities such as large housing unit sizes of a better environment that is the normal trade-off for increasing commuting distance in a market economy.

In Beijing, these ” ‘historically’ low densities” are the one-story hutong/siheyuan neighborhoods. Because they were not gradually redeveloped during China’s heavily communist period, their densities are woefully inadequate for China’s growth, and thus the city is presented with the dilemma that Garst describes – how to rationalize development without destroying the city’s historical character? His solution seems to be creating self-contained “edge cities,” but that makes you wonder why bother developing Beijing at all if you’re going to create neighborhoods that are inaccessible to the traditional core anyway. The only way edge cities have worked is with intense automobile connectivity, which Garst doesn’t want, either.

Unfortunately for Garst, who calls redevelopment of the hutong neighborhoods “not really a practical solution,” it’s likely to be the only way to make Beijing workable. Of course the market city trajectory is preferably – gradual redevelopment, so that the architectural loss is not so immediate and some vestiges of the past can be preserved in graceful ways. But just because Beijing did not have this luxury doesn’t mean it should remain a hostage to its original form, forever doomed by long commutes and low mobility.

I should note that I’d also be very interested to see the population gradient for a few US metro areas. Although I’m sure it’s not as warped as Moscow’s, I’d bet that it’s not quite as steep as other market cities. Obviously America is not a socialist country and its land use policy is significantly more market-oriented than the USSR’s, but I suspect that NIMBY and anti-density forces hamper this organic redevelopment to the degree that it would be visible in a density gradient. Anybody know where I could find a few?

News and thoughts on the gas tax

An influential highway group has called for replacing the flat tax on gas with a percentage tax, according to the Wall Street Journal. They want to replace the current 18.4 and 24.4 cent taxes on gasoline and diesel, respectively, with more flexible 8.4% and 10.6% tax rates. At current gas prices that would be about a 2-cent increase (at least on the gasoline side of things), and it would at least allow for automatic increases with inflation. It is a bit awkward for road funding to rise and fall with the cost of fuel, but it may be the only politically feasible way to raise the gas tax – to pass it off as an unintended consequence. Of course, there’s the possibility of the price of gas falling, although I don’t know how likely that is over the long-run.

As you can imagine, the political reaction was quite hostile, with Rep. John Mica, who’s on the soon-to-be Republican-controlled House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, saying that anything that would raise gas prices is a “non-starter.” It’s unfortunate that the gas tax is seen as just another tax and not the explicit cost of the road infrastructure, but it looks like it’s going to be a casualty of the Tea Party’s anti-tax mantra. In any case, the issue will be dealt with after the midterms when hopefully politicians will be a bit more clear-headed. The WSJ suggests that politicians are reluctant to keep borrowing from the general fund for road projects, but I’m afraid that their fear of budget deficits will be overpower by their fear of raising the cost of driving. And as much as I resent Obama and this Congress for refusing to raise the gas tax, it could have been worse – both McCain and Hillary Clinton were in favor of a gas tax holiday during the 2008 election.

Although I am very excited about a higher gas tax, it would be a shame if the amount of money expended on roads and highways actually increased on net. Robert Poole at Reason has argued that we should spend all money collected in user fees on roads, and while it’s true that a lot of fuel tax money goes to mass transit and non-road expenses, there are also massive amounts of money traveling the other way, from general revenues going to the roads. State and federal highways are covered by their user fees, but the local roads that run outside your doorstep and which are in many ways most important are paid for almost entirely out of general revenues. So although it may sound counterintuitive, unless we stop building roads out of local budgets, spending less of the gas tax on highways will actually bring the total amount spent closer to the total amount collected.

The inanity of airport connectors

Despite my issues with how new transit projects are implemented in America today, I’m generally happy to see them built. Even though they’re flawed, heavily-subsidized government creations, they make upzoning more palatable and can later be sold off and privately managed. There’s a lot I’d do differently, but on net I think most new transit projects are a step, however imperfect, in the direction of market urbanism. But there’s at least one form of transit that I can almost never get behind: the airport connector.

The airport connector is a special beast of a rail-based transit system that’s a relatively recent phenomenon outside of transit-dense regions like Western Europe and Japan. So manifestly wasteful that it generates more animosity towards mass transit than it does riders, it’s a project that only politicians and unions could love. Unlike more integrated networks where the airport is just one station on an otherwise viable route (like Philadelphia’s Airport Line or DC’s proposed Silver Line), airport connectors generally serve only the airport and one local hub. With no purpose other than to get people in and out of the airport, they provide neither ancillary transit benefits nor TOD opportunities.  Oftentimes they don’t even reach downtown, acting instead like glorified park-and-rides.

The most egregious example in the US would have to be BART’s proposed Oakland Airport Connector. The rail line will extend for a little more than three miles, replacing what is now a bus routes.  The $3 fare will double, along with the half billion dollars that it will cost the government. Like the current bus route, it will only connect Oakland’s airport to the nearest BART station with no intermediate stops. It’s opposed by transit activists, who would rather convert the bus into a dedicated BRT lane and spend the rest of the half billion elsewhere. Its support seems to lie entirely with unions eager for the work, and one commissioner actually called it “too big to fail”…as an endorsement of the project! Even the feds knew better and took back their $70 million in funding, citing its impact (or lack thereof) on Oakland’s low-income population. Still, the city is pressing froward with the guaranteed boondoggle and is continuing to allocate funds for it, though transit activists vow to keep fighting it.

"Rhode Island can't build its way out of traffic congestion," said one parking garage-cum-rail station backer

Oakland is hardly alone, with the Rhode Island DOT recently reaching a deal on its $267 million “Interlink” project, which entails building a station at the airport on an existing line, along with a commuter parking garage and a rental car facility. The station is only expected to see six trains a day initially, which is probably for the best since Providence’s T. F. Green Airport isn’t exactly O’Hare. No word on whether any additional density is being allowed around the new station, but something tells me the answer is no.  New York’s five-destination Stewart Airport could also snag a rail line, as might a couple of other airports if Obama’s high-speed rail plans ever see the light of day – and I doubt they will, but that won’t stop consultants from being paid to consider them.

America, however, has no monopoly on ineffective government, and like all forms of excess, the Chinese have perfected the genre with their maglev airport connector in Shanghai. It literally levitates above a track through a system of magnets, and with only air friction it can achieve speeds of up to 268 mph. The Chinese government can acquire land at zero cost and labor is cheap, so it only cost $1.3 billion to build, but it makes up for its low cost in utter uselessness: in addition to being too expensive for ordinary Chinese to ride, it doesn’t even take you downtown – “it virtually goes nowhere,” as the Asia Times puts it. The project can be seen in the broader context of Shanghai’s misguided rivalry with Hong Kong, where it seeks to copy the trappings of the wealthy city-state while avoiding the attendant economic liberalization.

There may be a limited place for short airport connectors in large, transit-rich cities like New York City, but many of the projects turn out to be far too expensive for the limited service that they provide. They are often a sort of cargo cult urbanism that seeks to emulate the frills of good transit systems isn’t willing to make the hard decisions necessary to actually build a robust network and allow the density to fill it. In the case of the the Providence airport, lawmakers said they hoped the station would attract international service to the currently domestic-only airport – as if Providence can acquire the amenities of a big city without allowing itself to become one. Airport connectors instead are often little more than highly inefficient subsidies to the airline industry, wealthy frequent fliers, and construction unions – which, now that I think about it, might explain why legislators love them so much.

Hell freezes over, or: the one in which I agree with Randal O’Toole’s argument over Shoup’s

Cato's DC headquarters

I never thought the day would come, but I actually find myself taking issue with Donald Shoup’s recent criticism of the Cato Institute (which Randal O’Toole works for) and its own DC headquarters’ employee parking program. While I agree with Shoup’s more general critique of Cato’s stance on transportation and land use issues, and consider him to be the greatest urbanist since Jane Jacobs, his attack on Cato for giving its employees free parking appears to me to be misdirected.

The gist of his argument is that since Cato offers free parking to its employees and neighboring NPR (both on Massachusetts Ave. in DC) charges its workers for parking, NPR is taking the “free market” approach and Cato is taking the “free parking” approach. But I don’t see how this comports with Shoup’s broader research, which focuses on parking policies of governments and not private (well, sort of) entities like NPR and Cato. Corporations are allowed to take a command-and-control approach to their operations and still be considered “free market institutions” as long as they are competing in a free market, and in fact some of the most successful ones are (Facebook, for example, is still run as Mark Zuckerberg’s own personal fiefdom).

Now of course, Cato is not operating in a free market when it comes to parking. It likely was forced to build some amount of parking by law, and even if it wasn’t, the influence of neighboring areas’ land use policies looms large on a single building like Cato’s. There’s also the issue of employer-provided parking as a fringe benefit not being taxed, which Shoup mentions. He then suggests that Cato offer a parking cash-out program, whereby they pay employees who choose not to park the cash equivalent of the spot, which Cato doesn’t appear to currently offer. Maybe it’s because of the tax effect, but it seems more likely that Cato just doesn’t want to take on an added expense (paying its employees not to park) when it’s already built the parking infrastructure under the old rules.

It just doesn’t seem fair to blame Cato for what is essentially a program of government policy. Cato and all the other businesses that provide free parking are simply acting rationally when presented with status quo incentives. I do think that Cato should be working harder to do away with the incentives for cars and roads in the marketplace, but that doesn’t seem to be the argument Shoup is making in this article.

Furthermore, I’m worried that this sort of finger-waving at private firms for providing free parking will give ammo to Shoup’s critics who claim that he’s anti-free parking rather than anti-mandated and subsidized free parking. I understand that his using the examples of the NPR and Cato HQs is meant to be symbolic and rhetorical, but I personally found it to be a bit muddled. It’s only a minor disagreement, and like I said, I still have the utmost admiration for Shoup’s work, but I felt it needed to be said.

Darien, CT gets sued by the DOJ over inclusionary zoning

The New York Times has an interesting article about a Justice Department probe into Darien, CT’s local inclusionary zoning rules. Inclusionary zoning means essentially that multi-unit developments have to offer a portion of the project as “affordable housing,” which invariably means charging below-market rents. We here at Market Urbanism oppose it because it essentially acts as a tax on dense development that’s not levied on the sort of one-off developments that are usually large lot, detached houses, which discriminates against the very people that it purports to be helping. While the people who live in the units certainly benefit from the too-good-to-be-true rents, every other poor person loses out as their housing costs rise.

But unfortunately, the DOJ doesn’t appear worried about inclusionary zoning generally, but rather is interested in the “priority populations” provision, which determines who gets the low-rent housing, which is in high demand because of the artificially low price. Currently the town favors current residents, which the Justice Department is right to find discriminatory, since the well-healed New York City suburb is overwhelmingly white.

While I’m always glad to see inclusionary zoning challenged, the focus on the priority populations provision strikes me as a bit narrow-sighted – they should be concerned about inclusionary zoning itself reducing affordable development. And in fact, the New York Times seems to recognize this, as they quote a developer at length as she describes the difficult of developing anything affordable in Darien. Sorry for such a long quote, but it’s very interesting:

Inclusionary zoning was one strategy for accomplishing that goal. The policy hasn’t been used yet, as no qualifying developments have been approved since it went into effect in May 2009.

The federal inquiry came to light last month, when Christopher and Margaret Stefanoni, a local couple who have sought approvals for two affordable-housing developments in town, told local news organizations that they had been contacted by a Justice Department lawyer.

That lawyer “wants to understand our experience as affordable-housing developers in Darien,” including reactions to their proposals from local officials and residents, Ms. Stefanoni said.

Those interactions have often been fiery. The Stefanonis have been controversial figures since 2005, when they proposed an affordable-housing development for retirees on the site of their home in the Noroton section. The Stefanonis filed the application under the state’s affordable-housing law, known as 8-30g, which allows developers to sidestep local zoning restrictions in communities with a small percentage of affordable housing.

Opposition was fierce. After two years, when the Stefanonis had obtained nearly all of their approvals, the local land trust stepped in to buy the one-acre plot for more than $4 million.

In 2008, the two again accepted a buyout offer for a single-family property they had bought in the Tokeneke section. Mr. Stefanoni said that right after he inquired about a demolition permit at Town Hall, a lawyer for a resident of an abutting property phoned him to ask, “How much do you want for it?”

The couple are currently in litigation with the town over their 8-30g proposal for a 16-unit age-restricted condominium complex at the corner of Leroy and West Avenues. The zoning commission denied the application on the ground that the development would be too dense for the site.

Mr. Stefanoni says that he and his wife relish going up against what he calls the rich “bullies.” “I do not do this for the money,” he said. “I do it for the fight.”

This year the zoning panel approved another 8-30g application, from Garden Homes Management Corporation, which is converting an office building on the Post Road into 35 small rentals, 11 to be classified affordable.

But at the same time town officials are seeking to halt any further such developments. Earlier this year they filed an application with the state Department of Economic and Community Development for a four-year moratorium on 8-30g applications. In order to qualify, Darien must prove that at least 2 percent of its housing stock meets the standard of “affordable,” as calculated through a complex point system.

Darien wants a reprieve to plan for and guide the placement of affordable housing on its own terms, Mr. Campbell said.

“The moratorium to me isn’t what’s important,” he said. “It’s much more important to get housing in the right places.”

The Stefanonis have submitted to the state two lengthy reports disputing Darien’s point calculations. They are adamant that Darien doesn’t qualify for a moratorium, but they aren’t taking any chances that one might go into effect: over the summer, they filed two more 8-30g applications for age-restricted housing projects on two more sites.

Note that first paragraph – the inclusionary zoning rules have never been used, likely because they’ve made dense development completely unprofitable. I’m not going to go so far as some, who accuse the residents of Darien of intentionally sabotaging affordable housing, although it’s an uncomfortable coincidence that lily white wealthy neighborhoods tend to be the ones so adamant about self-defeating affordable housing mandates.

The NY Times doesn’t mention it, but the Darien Times reported last month that the town might scrap its inclusionary zoning regulations altogether as a result. This would be a local, short-term victory, but it looks like IZ still has support in Darien, and it seems easy enough to just move to a lottery system to fill units and keep the program.

The Darien Times also includes this stunningly contradictory lamentation by a local selectman:

“Our moratorium is under fire, there’s no plan for affordable housing, whatever’s happening with Edgerton, and two more 8-30g applications we’ve been hit with. What is the town doing?” Bayne said.

The “moratorium,” you may recall from the NYT excerpt, is a moratorium on 8-30g applications, which are exemptions for developers from local zoning laws if the town in question has a dearth of affordable housing. So, in effect, we have a selectman decrying the lack of affordable housing, all the while describing the town as being “under fire” and having “been hit” by people trying to force them to allow more affordable housing.

No ARC without TOD

A lot of fuss has been made by urbanists about how important the ARC transit tunnel under the Hudson is to curbing sprawl in North Jersey, but frankly I’m not convinced that more commuter rail into Manhattan is the cure for what ails New Jersey. The state’s fundamental problem is its reliance on two cities outside its borders for providing jobs to its people, and it’s used the existence of New York and Philadelphia as excuses to remain a sprawled, suburban oasis in the middle of a dense Northeast Corridor, which can’t continue once it runs out of land and money.

Commuter rail in post-WWII America has never quite lived up to transit activists’ hopes, and the NJ Transit service and the ARC tunnel will be no different. Instead of viewing suburban train stations as smaller versions of city stations, locals like to think of them as their own personal portals into downtown business districts. Suburbanites don’t want transit-oriented development – they want lots of parking so they have access to the station, since most of them don’t live within walking distance.  Increased density and less parking might benefit future residents who would move in to new developments, but they don’t show up to zoning board meetings and don’t get a vote.

As an example of how many towns waste their transit, I grew up in Bryn Mawr, a suburb of Philadelphia, and a town which has better transit access than the Upper East Side. It’s part of a string of towns collectively known as the “Main Line,” after the train tracks that run through the area, there’s a light rail line that runs south of the main commuter line, and there are a few bus lines (both SEPTA buses and private college shuttles) that connect the towns. Despite its intense connectedness and the relative frequency of rail service, the areas around the train stations are woefully underdeveloped – one sidewalk near the Villanova station ends not a block away at the edge of the university’s campus. Some shops with apartments on top that were built earlier in the century around the stations still stand, but most new development along the main commercial drag is not mixed use, and is set back in a sea of parking. New apartment buildings are not allowed in the commercial zone where the train stations are located, but rather are pushed back to a busy street north of the train line with no commercial development, where they are less accessible and desirable. Along the light rail line there is even less development, with large free parking lots taking up much of the prime real estate around stations. (Perhaps the most shocking irony is that the parking lots taking up prime real estate around stations are owned by the transit authorities themselves.)

Because of the underdevelopment around commuter rail lines, they attract relatively few riders and require ever-larger subsidies (in Philadelphia’s case, at the expense of inner-city lines) to maintain the systems for the few, wealthy commuters (in New Jersey’s case, Wall Street bankers) who still use them. And it is this low ridership and revenue that makes projects like the ARC tunnel such a tough sell for politicians.  Many lines run infrequently outside of peak hours as a result, and sometimes not at all on weekends, further limiting their usefulness.  Anti-density land use policies, so popular with suburban constituents, rob transit systems of the fares they need to be self-sustaining, or even, god forbid, profitable.

If New Jersey wants billions in federal subsidies to funnel even more commuters into Manhattan, it should have to make transit more than just a subsidy to the rich and an excuse not to develop North Jersey. There are plenty of cities, like Newark and Jersey City, that are ripe for expansion and densification – something that wouldn’t require a new rail link, and could be done at a fraction of the cost.  But unfortunately for transit-oriented development, funding decisions are made based on political clout rather than real need, and allowing for dense development around stations is never a prerequisite for continuing to receive subsidies. It’s easy to throw money at the ARC project, but unless North Jersey becomes something other than New York City’s suburb, it will never truly have enough bridges and tunnels.