Rothbard The Urbanist Part 6: Traffic Control

Maybe the delay in posts led you to believe the Rothbard Series was complete.  The good news is that there are a few more posts to go, and the ones coming up next should be the most interesting to urbanists. 

If you haven’t kept up with our discussion, Murray Rothbard’s classic For A New Liberty can be downloaded free from Mises.org as pdf, web page, and audio book read by Jeff Riggenbach, and you can read the first five posts:

Rothbard the Urbanist Part 1: Public Education’s Role in Sprawl and Exclusion
Rothbard the Urbanist Part 2: Safe Streets
Rothbard the Urbanist Part 3: Prevention of Blockades
Rothbard the Urbanist Part 4: Policing

Rothbard the Urbanist Part 5: Diversity and Discrimination 

Not long ago, I posted a video from a friend showing one traffic intersection in Cambodia that appears to function well without any signaling.  Here are some other resources on the emergent order of traffic without signals:

I caught some flak from a commenter who considered it “disingenuous” to present the video of the intersection as evidence “of a workable intersection.”  Of course I had to remind the commenter that I don’t consider these types of intersection something that I advocate as a “free market” solution: 

Don’t mistake me as an advocate of a world without traffic signals. I am quite certain that some sort of traffic signaling would likely emerge from a free-market street system. But, my bigger point is that when information is dispersed widely among decision-makers without government monopoly, sustainable solutions emerge from the uncoerced behavior of individual agents over time.

This is a case where governance is needed, but not necessarily provided by government.  Some sort of cooperation would emerge among road operators, just like with technologies such as USB, DVD, or plain old electrical outlets and light bulbs.  A coercive government authority is not needed to dictate to manufacturers to use certain standards, manufacturers choose to produce industry-standardized equipment simply because it is what the customer desires.  If a lighting manufacturer decided to make a bulb that did not fit into standard sockets, who would buy it?  Probably nobody. 

I see roads as no different.  Road customers will likely choose to avoid intersections as nerve-wracking as the one in the Cambodia video if they have a more stress-free option.  Thus road operators will work to optimize flow through their intersections while minimizing unpleasantly stressful situations. 

Of course, Professor Rothbard communicates this more elegantly. I find the railroad example particularly interesting:

The principle that property is administered by its owners also provides the rebuttal to a standard argument for government intervention in the economy. The argument holds that "after all, the government sets down traffic rules — red and green lights, driving on the right-hand side, maximum speed limits, etc. Surely everyone must admit that traffic would degenerate into chaos if not for such rules. Therefore, why should government not intervene in the rest of the economy as well?" The fallacy here is not that traffic should be regulated; of course such rules are necessary. But the crucial point is that such rules will always be laid down by whoever owns and therefore administers the roads. Government has been laying down traffic rules because it is the government that has always owned and therefore run the streets and roads; in a libertarian society of private ownership the private owners would lay down the rules for the use of their roads.

However, might not the traffic rules be "chaotic" in a purely free society? Wouldn’t some owners designate red for "stop," others green or blue, etc.? Wouldn’t some roads be used on the right-hand side and others on the left? Such questions are absurd. Obviously, it would be [p. 208] to the interest of all road owners to have uniform rules in these matters, so that road traffic could mesh smoothly and without difficulty. Any maverick road owner who insisted on a left-hand drive or green for "stop" instead of "go" would soon find himself with numerous accidents, and the disappearance of customers and users. The private railroads in nineteenth-century America faced similar problems and solved them harmoniously and without difficulty. Railroads allowed each other’s cars on their tracks; they inter-connected with each other for mutual benefit; the gauges of the different railroads were adjusted to be uniform; and uniform regional freight classifications were worked out for 6,000 items. Furthermore, it was the railroads and not government that took the initiative to consolidate the unruly and chaotic patchwork of time zones that had existed previously. In order to have accurate scheduling and timetables, the railroads had to consolidate; and in 1883 they agreed to consolidate the existing fifty-four time zones across the country into the four which we have today. The New York financial paper, the Commercial and Financial Chronicle, exclaimed that "the laws of trade and the instinct for self-preservation effect reforms and improvements that all the legislative bodies combined could not accomplish."3

3. See Edward C. Kirkland, Industry Comes of Age: Business, Labor, and Public Policy, 1860-1897 (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1961), pp. 48-50.

HSR Urbanists: “We Are All O’Tooles Now”

I probably won’t make any friends today, but now I’ve read one too many urbanist (many who’s ideas I usually respect) use unsound logic to support high speed rail. This argument often includes something like this: “…and furthermore, highways and airports don’t come close to paying for themselves, therefore high speed rail need not meet that hurdle either.”

Here’s some examples of the typical contradiction many usually-reasonable urbanists are making when arguing for high speed rail-

Ryan Avent in an article plagued with this pseudo-logic:

Government is going to build more capacity. Given that, what is likely to be the best investment, all things considered?

Available alternatives, as it turns out, are not all that attractive. Roads do not appear to pay for themselves any more than railways do. Receipts from the federal gas tax come close to covering federal highway expenditures, but gas is used on highways and non-highways alike, indicating that at the federal level, highways are subsidized.

and:

I respect Mr Cowen very much, but I think it’s long past time we stopped listening to libertarians on the issue of whether or not to build high-speed rail. Who will ask whether road construction remotely passes any of the tests they’re so prepared to push on rail? And if we begin charging an appropriate fee on drivers to maintain existing roads and reduce congestion, what do they all think will happen to land use patterns and transportation mode share?

Some have emailed to ask me why I dislike Randal O’Toole so much.  The main reason is because people like Avent will always be able to point to the government highway-lover from CATO and rashly proclaim all libertarians have forever lost credibility when it comes to transportation and land use.  Of course, Avent’s narrow-mindedness on this topic deserves contempt too.

And Infrastructurist’s take seems to be favored by Avent, Yglesias, and others:

The construction of a high-speed rail line would require a large environmental sacrifice – construction crews would need to shape the land, poor concrete, lay the tracks, and build the stations. This work would release millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. But building a new highway such as Texas’ planned I-69 would require similar work and would almost certainly be just as ecologically damaging. On a somewhat smaller scale, the same can be said for new terminals or runways at airports.

In a rapidly growing state like Texas, though, a serious need for a transportation capacity upgrade is bound to arise over the next decades – especially between the state’s two biggest cities. The construction of this infrastructure would require carbon emissions on a large scale–but since we don’t yet have competing plans for highway or airport capacity expansions if the high-speed system is not built, the most meaningful question for us is the rail system’s environmental effects in operations rather than construction.

So, in other words, building either of the options, roads or rail both require “a large environmental sacrifice”, but all other options must be kept off the table, so let’s just sweep that under the rug.  Yet, there is an other option to consider for those who really think something should be done about carbon: STOP WASTING MATERIAL AND ENERGY ON CONSTRUCTION OF INFRASTRUCTURE BOONDOGGLES THAT SUBSIDIZE TRANSPORTATION!  That still goes double for roads and airports, where congestion and carbon emissions could be reduced through revenue-generating measures such as congestion tolling.

To me, the high-speed rail logic just doesn’t sound much different from what O’Toole might say (just interchange some words and continue to ignore facts):

Not only did the Interstate Highway System cost much less and move much more than our visionary rail network is likely to do, interstate highways have the virtue of being 100 percent paid for out of user fees. The rail system would require subsidies for pretty much all of the capital costs, most or all of the periodic rehabilitation costs, and at least some of the operating costs.

In the Infrastructurist article quoted above, Yonah Freemark smear’s Ed Gaeser’s back of the envelope critique of high speed rail (I admit, a little sloppy) with a hand-waving claim sounding eerily similar to the type Mr. O’Toole is so often criticized for making, “High Speed Rail Pays For Itself”.

He backs this bold claim with a calculation that shows how a hypothetical Dallas-Houston high speed corridor would cost $810M annually for construction and maintenance, while providing $840M in benefit.  Surely, we will see many more people use this analysis as evidence to back claims that high speed rail is good without proper scrutiny.  However, this analysis doesn’t even pass the O’Toole-level test of credibility, because it claims it pays for itself with 150M annually in carbon savings.  I can understand making the case for analyzing carbon savings as a “benefit” to society, but one must compare against all other options for use of cash to reduce carbon emissions – at least against a no-build + congestion toll option.  Just think of all the alternatives one might consider with a $810M annual budget for carbon reduction. At say $20/ton, that comes to 40 million tons a year.

On top of that, Freemark ignores all the other opportunity costs Randal O’Toole conveniently omits when claiming roads pay for themselves.  These omissions include:  opportunity cost of investment capital, opportunity cost of right of way land used, legal costs of eminent domain and related delays, inevitable cost overruns, accounting for optimism bias, and interest on bonds.  In my opinion, the largest of these is the opportunity costs of investment capital, which I would guess at over 15 percent compounding annually (vs a non-compounding 5% generously assumed by Glaeser and Freemark) for all costs during the 10 years (just a little optimistic?) of construction, and 8-10 percent once ridership is stabilized.  Responding to Matthew Yglesias’ hasty endorsement of Freemark’s analysis as “A real cost-benefit analysis of HSR”, Tyler Cowen similarly noted:

I’m not sure what discount rates he is using but even if we put that problem aside this screams out: don’t do it.  Given irreversible investment, lock-in effects, and required hurdle rates of return, this still falls into the "no" category.  And that’s an estimate from an advocate writing a polemic on behalf of the idea.  I’m not even considering the likelihood of inflation on the cost side or the public choice problems with getting a good rather than a bad version of the project.  How well has the Northeast corridor been run?

The urbanist in me would love a vast high speed rail network – it would centralize density at rail nodes and aid agglomeration.  But it just won’t be viable until government first stops wasting money subsidizing automobile and air travel.  In the meantime, HSR advocates commit an intellectual fraud similar to ones Randal O’Toole and his ilk make regarding roads when they make claims that HSR can pay for itself. 

If Ryan Avent is expecting to keep any credibility on infrastructure spending using these words:

In this country, we do not build transportation infrastructure for profit. Perhaps this is upsetting to the libertarians among us, but that’s how it is and how it should be.

Then, perhaps he should think twice next time he thinks of laying into Randal O’Toole for attempting to reconcile infrastructure spending using similarly shoddy arguments. Otherwise, similar to O’Toole, all the HSR advocates are saying is, “Never mind billions of dollars that must be appropriated from people of future generations. Never mind that most of those footing the bill will never ride high speed rail if they’re not fortunate enough to afford a ticket or don’t live in one of the chosen cities. Never mind the drastic effects of the construction on the environment. High speed rail would be a pretty neat thing for some cities, so ‘build baby build’.”

Urban[ism] Legend: Traffic Planning

Mathieu Helie at Emergent Urbanism posted a link to a interesting game created at the University of Minnesota. Mathieu explains it better than I can:

The game begins in the Stalinian Central Bureau of Traffic Control, where a wrinkly old man pulls you out of your job at the mail room to come save the traffic control system. You are brought to a space command-like control room and put to work setting traffic lights to stop and go. Meanwhile frustrated drivers stuck in the gridlock you create blare their car horns to get your attention, and if their “frustration level” rises too high you fail out of the level. As the road network gets as complicated as four intersections on a square grid, the traffic becomes completely overwhelming and failure is inevitable, but the old man reassures you that they too have failed anyway.

OK, you’ve played the game? If not, don’t go further until you have.

Now that you’ve played the game and failed to control traffic, compare that top-down system with this amazing video a friend sent to me from Cambodia. You’ve gotta see this:

Man, I love this video! I must have watched it a couple dozen times. I keep expecting a crash, in what to me (only being familiar with top-down planned traffic systems) looks like complete chaos. Yet pedestrians, bikes, motorcycles, scooters, rickshaws, and cars all make it to their destinations safely, and probably quicker than in the system in the game above. It must be similar to how capitalism must seem chaotic to people who have always lived in planned economies.

Don’t mistake me as an advocate of a world without traffic signals. I am quite certain that some sort of traffic signaling would likely emerge from a free-market street system. But, my bigger point is that when information is dispersed widely among decision-makers without government monopoly, sustainable solutions emerge from the uncoerced behavior of individual agents over time.

Another article at Infrastructurist discusses the philosophical differences Dutch and American road designs, and gives an example:

A fascinating example is a major–20,000 cars a day!–intersection in the Dutch city of Drachten that used to look a lot a typical American intersection, with lots of bright paint and traffic signals and enormous signs telling you what and what not to do. Traffic planners tore that stuff out and went naked, just putting down a roundabout in the center. The sidewalks even disappeared as distinct structures. Everyone figured it out though. Fatalities at the intersection dropped markedly, as did travel times.

Also read Tom Vanderbilt: News for Traffic Signal Manufacturers

O’Toole Under More Fire

At Streetsblog, Ryan Avent presented a scorching attack on the most notorious free-market impostorRandal O’Toole: Taking Liberties With the Facts for his consistent hypocrisy:

The Cato Institute’s Randal O’Toole gets under the skin of many of those interested in building a more rational and green metropolitan geography, but in many ways he’s an ideal opponent. It would be difficult to concoct more transparently foolish arguments than his. The man is an engine of self-parody.

The requisite identification of “libertarian” contradictions:

This is one thing I’ve never understood about the libertarian love affair with highways; they seem utterly blind to the fact that it has required and continues to require massive government action to build and maintain the road network. The interstate highway system is perhaps the single largest government intervention in the economy in the 20th century. Reading O’Toole you’d think it was a wonder of the free market.

And with ease, Ryan points out the data needed to take O’Toole to task on his persistent assertion the “roads pay for themselves”:

The source of his blindness on the issue seems to be due to his belief that roads pay for themselves, and that congestion exists only because governments shift gas tax revenue to pay for transit and other smart growth projects. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

In the first place, gas tax revenue comes nowhere near paying for roads. Federal gasoline tax revenues cover barely half of the annual budget of the Federal Highway Administration. Add in diesel tax revenues and you’re still short. And that’s just the federal budget picture.

In response, Randal replies to critics in the comments of his latest post of his “Antiplanner” blog:

The Antiplanner sees the American dream as freedom of lifestyle choices and opportunities to realize those choices unfettered by government subsidies or restrictions.

As for the claim in D4P’s link that the Antiplanner ignores highway subsidies, I’ve addressed that many times in this blog. Yes, there are highway subsidies, but they are tiny compared to transit subsidies. I oppose all subsidies. Will D4P agree with me that we should get rid of all subsidies and then let people make their own choices?

Great!  So, this is the standard by which the “anti”planner wishes to be judged?  Very well – From now on, this shall be the standard I shall point out his hypocrisies.

The rhetoric of his first statement is noble, but I don’t think Randal read Avent’s post, or simply evades the arguments.  I’d like to see him rebut Avents arguments directly, as opposed to brushing them aside.  To assert that transit subsidies outweigh highway subsidies may be true when only considering the proportion of public vs private funding, but is absolutely absurd when compared on a national scale, especially over the past 70 years.  I’m more than willing to grant to him that transit is significantly over-subsidized, but the vast subsidies to highways over the years have empowered planners to shape the landscape irreversibly away from what one would expect when “unfettered by government subsidies”.

Nonetheless, O’Toole and Avent both understate the scale of highway subsidization when looking at explicit costs (or accounting costs) and neglecting opportunity costs.  First, highways take up a vast amount of real estate, which can no longer be used productively.  Second, publicly-run transportation enjoys tax-free status, saving agencies on property taxes, sales taxes, taxes on revenue generated, and other significant expenses.  At the same time, accounting costs neglect the opportunity cost of capital diverted from private investment for public projects, Capital projects should earn a return sufficient to “pay for itself” plus a profit for the capital put at risk, but funding for public projects usually come from low-interest, tax-exempt bonds.  I didn’t even mention parking mandates and subsidies, cost of policing and a vast array of externalities.

Thus, when considering opportunity costs under any accounting comparison, all transportation is clearly subsidized at an amount that is absolutely unsustainable by private (“unfettered by government” interventions) means.  For the intellectually corrupt “anti”planner to consider highway subsidies “tiny” is a completely absurd disregard for the rational examination of reality.

For more, read, Urban[ism] Legend: Gas Taxes and Fees Cover All Costs of Road Use.

or some of O’Toole’s rare attempts at analyzing gas taxes and highway subsidies:

http://ti.org/antiplanner/?p=88

http://ti.org/antiplanner/?p=500

Yglesias Has My Head Spinning…

In his last two urbanism-related posts, Matthew Yglesias makes great points only to dissolve them in a vat of unrelated statements posed as conclusions.  His logical inconsistency seems to invalidate his otherwise pretty good blogging on urbanism.

A couple days ago, Matthew blogged about regulation of neighborhood retail, quoting a DC blog:

“In DC, zoning laws make that idea [mixed-use retail] prohibitive, and what the zoning laws don’t cover ANC and neighborhood groups do in their zealousness to protect residents from interspersing residences with commercial activity.”

….

I really and truly wish libertarians would spend more time working on this kind of issue. And I also wish that ordinary people would think harder about these kind of regulations.

Yes!  More, please?   But then, the next sentence leaves me saying, “huh?”:

I’m a big government liberal. I believe business regulations are often needed. But still, there ought to be a presumption that people can do what they want.

So, I really don’t understand what this post has to do with libertarians anymore – why even mention them. It seems logically inconsistent to presume people can do what they want, while presuming a big government can regulate their economic choices.

Now, on to today’s post:

Randall O’Toole is a relentless advocate for highways and automobile dependency in the United States. Consequently, I don’t agree with him about very much.  But the thing I consistently find most bizarre about him, is that the Cato Institute and the Reason Foundation have both agreed to agree with O’Toole that his support for highways and automobile dependency is a species of libertarianism.

then…

Central planning, of course, is the reverse of libertarianism. So if promoting alternative transportation is central planning, then building highways everywhere must be freedom! But of course in the real world building highways is also central planning. The Long Island Expressway is not a free market phenomenon.

Alright!  This fits in with our recent discussions at Market Urbanism! (and here)  But, of course he concludes:

It’s just a field that, intrinsically, requires a lot of planning. The question is about what kinds of plans to make.

So, libertarians should agree with you, but they’re wrong anyway?

Either Yglesias has some hidden respect for free-markets and has to add caveats to maintain his progressive street-cred, or he has some kind of chip on his shoulder and has to call out the hypocrites in circles he doesn’t respect anyways…  (the latter, I would interpret as a rational fear of the potency of free-market philosophy – at least not the impostor brand)

—-

Also check out c4ss:  Libertarians Against Sprawl:

Fighting sprawl isn’t a matter of imposing new government mandates.  It’s a matter of scaling back existing restrictions on mixed use development, and prying the mouths of the real estate industry and the automobile-highway complex off the taxpayer teat. It’s not clear that can be done without abolishing government completely.

How Pricing Tolls Right Eliminates Congestion

Chris Bradford over at Austin Contrarian has been making some solid points in favor of congestion pricing. (here, here, here and here)  Chris’s core argument in favor of congestion tolling is that:

congestion pricing does more than relieve congestion.  Congestion pricing tells us when a road needs more capacity.  Additional capacity costs money, and drivers are willing to pay only so much for it.  That “so much” is exactly equal to the price they are willing to pay to avoid congestion.

The idea that toll profits send a signal to road operators to produce additional capacity is often neglected in discussions of the benefits of congestion pricing.  Without pricing, the only signal is the manifestation of congestion itself.  This is problematic, as the only solution is to build more roads when congestion is observed.  Actually if done right, years before congestion occurs with the help of foresight and luck on the part of transportation planners and agencies.  This problem feeds the dangerous new highway –> sprawl –> congestion –> highway expansion –> sprawl, etc., etc. positive feedback loop.  This feedback loop is quite a powerful mechanism that helps drive the unhealthy types of sprawl.

Chris is on the right track, but sets a sub-ideal objective (in my opinion) when he says:

The optimal congestion toll should be set just high enough to achieve free-flow (45 mph) traffic.

Since the goal should not only be to avoid congestion, but to get the highest number of commuters through the system as possible, I would restate that as:

The optimal congestion toll should be set at exactly the price that maximizes traffic flow.

As Chris said, “Congestion pricing is hard.”  Although it seems complicated, you might be shocked at how easy it is, in concept, to price roads optimally.  That’s because it’s somewhat counter-intuitive: flow is maximized if revenue is maximized.  (it’s approximately true, the variance is negligible enough that it’s not significant in practice.)

I’ll say it again, flow is maximized if revenue is maximized.  Don’t believe me?  OK, I’ll have to convince you rationally.

First, and most importantly, you have to understand some basic traffic engineering concepts.  (as a structural engineering student, I always assumed I’d never use anything I learned in the required traffic engineering course…)  The simplest explanation is using the fundamental diagram of traffic flow:

wikimedia

Looking at the third diagram, we see that traffic flow peaks (Qmax) at a particular density of traffic, D (cars/km) before reducing due to congestion.  This makes sense if you consider that in gridlock, despite a high density of cars on the road, not many cars are actually passing though a particular point.  Thus, a toll is optimal if it is priced to achieve maximum possible traffic flow, Qmax and maximum velocity Vc from the second diagram.  When a toll is introduced to a congested road, a certain number of drivers are incentivized away by the toll, which decreases traffic density (D) to a point where those who are left, travel more quickly, than if those drivers had simply added to congestion.

It is much simpler to understand the revenue concept:

Revenue ($/hour) = Toll ($/car) x Traffic Flow Q (car/hour)

Thus, the revenue is (approximately) maximized when maximum traffic flow is achieved.  (I say approximately because, the optimal toll is slightly higher because of the elasticity of toll pricing, but I think there there are more upsides than down of charging a tinsy bit more than for Qmax, even if it turns out to be significant)  One can maximize revenue by carefully selecting the optimal toll for the road at a given time.  We can derive with calculus, but I’ll steer us clear of calculus in this blog unless a reader really, really wants to challenge me on this.

So, we can conclude that traffic flow can only be maximized by carefully pricing the roads.  If the toll road operator charged a toll one dollar more than optimal, we can see that traffic density (D) will move to the left of the dashed line going through Qmax (into the free flow area), traffic flow would be drastically cut, and revenue would be reduced accordingly.  If the toll road operator charged a dollar less than optimal, traffic density (D) will move to the right of the dashed line into the congestion area, which will also reduce flow and revenue.  The trick is to be able to price the tolls correctly and dynamically, while maintaining price predictability to keep commuters loyal.

Next, I plan to discuss why the private sector is better equipped to get this tricky optimal pricing mechanism right.  I hope to follow that up with a discussion of the other economic, social and environmental benefits of congestion pricing, as well as dispelling some of the Urban[ism] Legends surrounding congestion pricing and private roadways.  (as time permits between feedings of the little guy)  Stay tuned…

The Nation’s mass transit hypocrisy

by Stephen Smith

I was heartened to see an article about the need for mass transit in the pages of The Nation, though I was severely disappointed by the magazine’s own hypocrisy and historical blindness. The article is in all ways a standard left-liberal screed against the car and for mass transit, which is a topic close to my heart, though I’d prefer a more libertarian approach to returning America to its mass transit roots as opposed to the publicly-funded version that The Nation advocates.

The first bit of historical blindness comes at the end of the second paragraph, when The Nation argues for government investment in mass transit on the grounds that it will “strengthen labor, providing a larger base of unionized construction and maintenance jobs.” But don’t they realize that the demands of organized labor were one of the straws that broke the privately-owned mass transit camel’s back during the first half of the twentieth century? Joseph Ragen wrote an excellent essay about how unions in San Francisco demanded that mass transit companies employ two workers per streetcar instead of one, codifying their wishes through a series of legislative acts and even a referendum. Saddled with these additional costs, the streetcar companies could not make a profit, and eventually the lines were paved over to make way for the automobile. Mass transit companies, whether publicly- or privately-owned, cannot shoulder the burden of paying above-market wages and still hope to pose any serious threat to the automobile’s dominance.

The second, and perhaps more egregious error, comes a little later, when The Nation lays the blame on every group but itself for the deteriorating state of mass transit in America:

Nonetheless, smart growth and transportation activists still have high hopes that the Obama administration and a Democratic Congress will revitalize mass transit. But institutional stumbling blocks–including generations of federal policy favoring roads and cars; pressure from fiscal conservatives; and the power of auto, oil and highway construction lobbies–may cause them to miss this opportunity.

Smart growth, though not a libertarian movement, has a distinctly libertarian issue at its core: reversing the mandatory low density zoning and parking regulations that afflict almost every city, town, and village in America. But who started the movement for zoning and low-density planning in the first place?  Progressives, a group which The Nation fancies itself a member of.

And in fact, a search of The Nation’s archives reveals that my suspicions were correct: the magazine was, sure enough, among those who were calling for a de-densification of America, and railing against the inefficiencies of mass transit. From the April 24 issue published in 1920, there’s an article entitled “The Lack of Houses: Remedies” in which the author, Arthur Gleason, lays out his policy prescriptions for dealing with what he considered to be a dearth of housing in America. Regarding zoning (which at the time almost always meant separating homes from jobs and decreasing density – anathema to the New Urbanist call for mixed uses and density), Gleason was wholeheartedly in favor of it:

Zoning regulates and limits the height and bulk of buildings, and regulates and determines the area of courts, yards, and other open spaces. It divides the city into districts. It regulates and restricts the location of trades and industries and the location of buildings. It conserves property values, directs building development, is a security against nuissance, a guarantee of stability, and an attraction to capital.

Not only did The Nation circa 1920 abhor density, but it also treated mass transit with disdain, writing that “[s]ubways make a slum out of a suburb.” This is typical of progressives of the era, who saw mass transit as capitalistic and backwards. There was also a tinge of racism to the attitude, as the “slum” was populated largely by Polish, Italian, Irish, and Jewish immigrants, while the “suburb” contained more acceptable non-immigrant Americans.

The Nation pays lip-service to America’s mass transit-laden past, writing that “it predates the automobile,” but then conveniently forgets the reasons that mass transit in America ceased to exist. And that’s convenient, because the reasons – almost all driven by government intervention against streetcars, subways, and density – were once causes that The Nation championed.

This post was written by Stephen Smith, who writes for his own blog called Rationalitate.

Uncomfortable truths about the progressive legacy

by Stephen Smith

Yesterday I was listening to the pre-inaugural concert at the Lincoln Memorial on the radio, and one of the speakers said something that struck me as emblematic of the challenges that Barack Obama faces, though I doubt she realized the ironic significance. She was praising Theodore Roosevelt’s conservationist legacy as a model for Obama, with some quotes from him at the Grand Canyon or Yosemite or some other celebrated national park, though she only touched on a small sliver of Roosevelt’s environmental legacy. He definitely did cherish the environment; a timeline of his life shows that in early April 1903 he “commune[d] with deer while writing letters in Yellowstone, WY.” He was indeed a conservationist, as were many progressives at the time.

But the progressives were also something else – something that today’s progressives would do well to remember: ardent planners whose plans often had grave unforeseen consequences. Just after his time communing with the deer at Yellowstone, Roosevelt traveled to St. Louis to address the 1903 Good Roads Convention. The “good roads” movement dated back to before the automobile rose to prominence, and was formed to agitate for improved roads for bicyclists and farmers. But around the time of Roosevelt’s speech, the movement was hijacked by the budding auto-industrial complex. Unwilling or unable to compete on their own against mass transit, the automakers, highway engineers, and road contractors sought for the state to both acquire the rights of way necessary for the roads, and to pay for them to be paved – an advantage the streetcars and railroads did not generally have. Not wanting to appear to be too blatant in their rent seeking, these interests lobbied the government indirectly, giving organizations like the AAA money in exchange for influence and seats on their boards.

The nascent auto industry was not the only booster of subsidized roads – even the private railroads were not immune to the siren song of the great new progressive future. They joined the cause in the 1890s with the idea that improved roads would mean more business for railroads, unaware of the threat that the long-haul trucking industry would come to pose to their business. This new semi-public, semi-private corporatist transportation model suited the progressives as well, who believed in a statist future where “private” enterprise was directed and controlled, though not outright owned, by the government.

In the years since the 1903 Good Roads Convention, the idea that government ought to be providing “good roads” has fundamentally altered the landscape of the country in ways that Theodore Roosevelt never could have imagined. The highway lobby gathered strength throughout the first half of the 20th century, eventually culminating in the Interstate Highway System, the widespread suburbanization of America, and the destruction of American cities. Urban planners like Robert Moses razed neighborhoods and blighted the remaining barren landscapes with highways that have become increasingly congested ever since. In order to stave off this inevitable overuse, planners flattened America with zoning laws and parking regulations that forced Americans to sprawl away from city centers, to areas reachable only by cars and trucks. A century later it’s hard to imagine it happening any other way, and it’s often forgotten that there was a workable free market urbanism before there was unsustainable sprawl.

Especially in recent decades, the system has acquired the façade of self-sufficiency and thus the illusion of being a market institution, because of the Highway Trust Fund and separate gas taxes and user fees levied specifically on motorists. But some of the most significant costs – the acquisition of land for rights-of-way – were paid for earlier in the century, when the government’s power of eminent domain was near absolute. Furthermore, roads are asked only to recoup their capital and operating costs (well, most of them anyway), though every freshman in Econ 101 ought to know that a profit-seeking entrepreneur seeks to recoup his opportunity costs rather than just his accounting costs. In other words, not only does he try to make a profit, but the underlying land shouldn’t earn him any more money were it put to some other use – a test no roads are subject to. To add insult to injury, the nature of roads and private cars is such that they work best in low density environments, but cannot scale upwards without becoming prohibitively expensive due to the cost of ever-widening roads. Mass transit is precisely the opposite – it handles high densities well, and is utterly unprofitable at lower ones. Predictably, America’s zoning rules and parking regulations are overwhelmingly oriented towards densities lower than what the market would demand in their absence.

Theodore Roosevelt might be more commonly remembered for his conservationist work, but it’s important for people today to remember the unforeseen consequences of the his other grand plans. The “good roads” path that he helped put America on has shown itself to be an enabler of global climate change, encouraging Americans to live farther apart, travel farther each day, have bigger houses, and fill those houses with more things. The common telling of the roading of America is that it oiled the gears of commerce and is an integral part of the “American dream,” but it’s impossible to know what sort of advances in mass transit technology would have come about and how we’d be living had the government not favored the automobile and the truck over the streetcar and the train. Theodore Roosevelt’s conservationist efforts are indeed praiseworthy, but might both the environment and the economy be in better shape today had the progressives not interrupted the rail-based urbanization of turn-of-the-century America and put us on the car-based sprawling sub- and exurbanization that characterizes America today?

In calling for the government to fund more mass transit and urban projects, Barack Obama has shown that he sees the problems in America’s land use configuration. But in doing so, he’s shown himself to be ignorant of the root causes of the crisis: government meddling in the transportation and land use industries. Just as the progressives and futurists failed to use the government to design a more efficient transportation scheme, Obama will likely fail in using the government to fix America’s energy problems. Unless he renounces the legacy of the progressives and admits to America that it needs to return to its market-based roots – at least with respect to transportation and land use policy – his campaign promises of reversing our unsustainable ways will go unfulfilled.

This post was written by Stephen Smith, who writes for his own blog called Rationalitate.