Greater Greater Washington

In fringe suburbs, has economics trumped the appeal of new?

The recession and the burst of the housing bubble have stopped development in many fringe suburbs. With many urban neighborhoods on the rise, some suggest that fringe suburbs are on the decline. Has simple economics surpassed the appeal of "new" in the hinterlands?


Photo by Mark Strozier on Flickr.

There's been a lot of chatter around the blogosphere about Christopher Leinberger's New York Times op-ed that I think really hits the nail on the head when it comes to the issue of what's ahead for fringe suburbs.

Basically, the hypothesis presented is that fringe suburbs are headed downward, and I think this piece of evidence is really the most damning:

Many drivable-fringe house prices are now below replacement value, meaning the land under the house has no value and the sticks and bricks are worth less than they would cost to replace. This means there is no financial incentive to maintain the house; the next dollar invested will not be recouped upon resale. Many of these houses will be converted to rentals, which are rarely as well maintained as owner-occupied housing. Add the fact that the houses were built with cheap materials and methods to begin with, and you see why many fringe suburbs are turning into slums, with abandoned housing and rising crime.
Leinberger goes on and cites several examples of urban neighborhoods that have transformed from slum to hip in recent history: Capitol Hill in Seattle; Virginia Highland in Atlanta; German Village in Columbus, Ohio; and Logan Circle in Washington.

I don't know much about Capitol Hill or Virginia Highland, but I do know something about Logan Circle and German Village. One very important (and I think non-trivial) quality that they share is that they both have a high quality, durable housing stock that has held up very well, given its age, all things considered.

When I think about what made cookie cutter houses in suburbs appealing to people, in addition to the square footage and the yards and the school systems, I really suspect that one of the things that people were drawn to was the absolute "newness" of everything. People love having new stuffnew appliances, new counter tops, new floors. When stuff is brand new, it's almost guaranteed to be in style. When it's brand new, it's not in need of immediate repair. There's a lot to like about brand new.

The problem though, as Leinberger notes, is that fringe suburbs were literally built on the cheap. They may have looked nice initially, but the drywall they used to throw up houses in Prince William County is not the same as the brick they used to build rowhouses in Dupont Circle. At the time, the appliances they put into new suburban homes might have been nicer than what was in old urban houses, but appliances can easily be replaced, structures can't.

Around DC, a lot of old rowhouses have gone through the process of renovationsome have gone through many renovations since originally being built. The interiors have been gutted, redesigned and rebuilt, but the physical structure is generally the same. These houses were built to last, I can only imagine what a cookie-cutter house on the suburban fringe might look like in 100 years. The rowhouses in DC that have been re-built look beautiful, easily as nice as what got built in the suburbs during the boom.

At one point, the suburbs looked so much "nicer" because that's where the building wasthat's where stuff was brand new. That's not necessarily true anymore. Now, some of the newest, shiniest stuff is right in the heart of the city.

I was reminded of this when I saw this article in the Plain Dealer last month. The author makes the case that there's more demand for housing in downtown Cleveland than the market can keep up with. A lot of folks will use this as evidence of a downtown renaissance, I think it says that people are no longer afraid to live downtown (something that was true in Cleveland for many years) but I also suspect it has something to do with the quality of downtown housing.

While it seems true that downtown Cleveland is doing well, many other urban Cleveland neighborhoods are not doing well at all. The apartments and condos popping up downtown are all brand new, beautifully renovated spaces. The houses in Cleveland's urban neighborhoods, on the other hand, are much lower quality. Compared to Washington's rowhouses, they're downright terrible. I suspect that many of Cleveland's houses are also below replacement value. The only hope is to knock them down, and that's exactly what's happening.

When I studied home prices in Cleveland a few years ago (pdf), I found that while downtown was in fact the neighborhood in the city with the highest prices, there was nevertheless a positive relationship between home price and the distance from the city center. In other words, the farther from downtown you went, the higher the price of homes. It was "drive til you qualify" in reverse.

I think the future of suburbs as Leinberger imagines them is going to look like some of Cleveland's neighborhoods today - Hough, Mount Pleasant, Cudellplaces with generally poor housing stock that isn't worth fixing up. Places where crime is frustratingly high, where most of the housing that isn't vacant is renter-occupied, and where few are willing to make any investment.

Is it true to say that millennials and baby boomers have a taste for urban living? I think there is good evidence to support that theory, but it's clearly the case that they don't want to live just anywhere in the city. Nobody wants to live in a slum, and the type of homes that people want has to meet at least a certain threshold of quality.

In high-cost cities, like DC, that's not so hard to pull off. A $200,000 rowhouse rehab might be well worth the cost when you can turn around and sell the house for half a million or more. A similar job simply doesn't make any financial sense in a city like Cleveland. In fact, the Plain Dealer article above specifically says that developers aren't building in downtown Cleveland without government incentives because the rents are too low to support the kind of investment they need to make.

I think the more realistic assessment of suburbs and cities is that some suburbs will see a precipitous decline, some urban neighborhoods will experience a renaissance, and the degree to which each happens will be highly dependent on local market conditions. In other words, it will happen, but it won't be as clear cut as the magazine articles might lead you to believe.

Crossposted on Extraordinary Observations.

Rob Pitingolo moved to the DC area in mid-2010 and currently resides on Capitol Hill. He also writes about issues of urbanism, economics, transportation and politics at his blog, Extraordinary Observations

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This is a rather interesting analysis. Comparing the average DC row house ( circa-1950's) to modern construction homes? I wonder how the "new" homes in DC will compare to these existing crop of sturdy row homes. My guess is that the homes (9 x's out of 10) won't have the same sturdy structure that the smorgasbord of brick homes has.

Take a look at some of the condo/townhomes built here over the past 10 years. They're already aging.

by HogWash on Jan 3, 2012 2:36 pm • linkreport

Any of the brick McMansions you see are just brick on the outside. The brick is a veneer attached to the particle board that actually is holding up the house. In places like Logan Circle, the houses were made with true load-bearing masonry walls that stand up basically forever, unless hit with a powerful earthquake. The McMansions will fall down, eventually, while the urban row-houses will live on, unless the August quake presages stronger ones to come.

by Steve on Jan 3, 2012 2:38 pm • linkreport

Cleveland had excellent housing stock. Certain east-side residents enjoy burning it down -- and the mayor isn't helping. The Cleveland Clinic is also guilty.

Any extrapolation based on DC is going to be flawed unless you account for the massive federal spending. But another 250,000 jobs in a city like Cleveland and watch the real estate market go crazy.

Quality of construction -- yep, it is real. Plenty of suburban houses, however, were built to those standards. Lakewood, Rocky River, Shaker, Cleveland Heights. What you can't always do to those houses is expand them -- which is the problem in parts of Arlington and Alexandria.

by charlie on Jan 3, 2012 2:51 pm • linkreport

When I think about what made cookie cutter houses in suburbs appealing to people

You should be more specific. What period are you talking about? To me, the more recent houses (1985 onwards) and housing in both the city and suburbs are much more cheaply built than those built in the 60s and before.

I really suspect that one of the things that people were drawn to was the absolute "newness" of everything. People love having new stuff What about the condo-ization of many parts of Washington? All those buildings are new, and the great majority are ugly. I would suspect that they are probably not all that well-built either. But again, a lot of DC's housing is new. And DC is not the suburbs. A lot of row houses have been razed to make way for these monstrosities.

I object to the characterization of suburbs being attractive because they are new. No. There are many many people who look for aesthetics and things that are well built and who want to live in the suburbs, and can appreciate a neighborhood of great old homes. Many in fact seek out a good sturdy old house.

In high-cost cities, like DC, that's not so hard to pull off. A $200,000 rowhouse rehab might be well worth the cost when you can turn around and sell the house for half a million or more.

EEK! This is the recipe that drives out affordable housing. Argue about it all you want, but if we want a "greater greater Washington" then only seeing our homes as ATMs, well that will not build a great city.

by Jazzy on Jan 3, 2012 3:03 pm • linkreport

A friend of mine who's a city planner in Tucson told me about one main problem with the last generation of suburban housing: while good-sized 19th- and early-20th century homes in cities were able to be divided into apartments and were thus preserved and lived in, even if zoning laws were to change that can't be done to suburban homes of similar square footage, because of their layout and the quality of their construction. Rental properties get a bad rap (there's plenty of sneering at them in this post) but renters have to live *somewhere,* and the transformation of a neighborhood into a rental-heavy one isn't always the end of its vitality. Certainly it's better than having a bunch of vacant houses.

@Steve -- it's not just suburban McMansions, sadly. A mid-rise (4-5 story), block-long condo building with first-floor retail went up a few blocks from me here in my dense, walkable Baltimore neighborhood a few years ago. I was glad to see it happen, but was rather horrified to watch it be built, as it essentially was a one-story concrete platform with a three story pressboard structure built on top of it, with the whole thing then covered with entirely decorative bricks. I mean, I'm not a construction expert, so who knows, maybe with modern building methods a structure like that is stronger and more durable than the true brick high-rises across the street. But I have my doubts.

by jfruh on Jan 3, 2012 3:07 pm • linkreport

I'm not convinced about the economic arguments here. The homes could be priced at less than replacement value, but at this point, they are already built, so the construction cost is a sunk cost and is irrelevant to the economics going forward. They are still worth something, and it therefore makes not sense to simply tear them down or allow them to completely decay. Of course, the condition of the neighborhood affects the value of every home, so some neighborhoods may decay while others do not as individual homeowners decide how much to invest in keeping up their homes based on the quality of the neighborhood as a whole.

by Alan on Jan 3, 2012 3:14 pm • linkreport

Brick veneer is a method that is used not only on recent construction. An acquaintance had the back wall of his house repointed, and it was wood frame with brick veneer. This was north of Cap Hill and I think the house was circa 1900, so I believe brick veneer has been around awhile. The quality of the wood frame materials underneath is another issue.

My 1950's Alexandria house is rather plain, but I like that it is brick veneer over concrete block, with steel I-beams. No sagging floors or crooked windows/doors in this baby. And if I ever renovate, its easier since none of the interior walls bear any load.

by spookiness on Jan 3, 2012 3:21 pm • linkreport

@Hogwash, the DC townhouses/rowhouses I'm familiar with are all 1920s and earlier. The only 1940s-50s-60s era houses I know of in DC are SFHs in "suburban" DC neighborhoods.

Somewhat Off Topic: I object to is this seemingly universal notion that everyone has an entitlement to make money off their home. Housing is a cost. So what if you can't sell your house/condo for more than you paid for it? You are not entitled to free housing (other SES factors being equal) or housing that earns you money. Those who buy real estate thinking they will turn a profit are investing and taking a risk on an investment. That is not the same as seeking shelter you can afford. Even if the assessed value decreases during the time that you are living there, so what? Presumably the payments are something you can afford regardless. Probably reduced since a decreased assessment =lower property taxes. Even if you have to move/sell and can't get what you paid for it presumably you have some equity and can sell it for less then what you paid and still get your remainding mortgage covered.

I really object to this sense of entitlment that when one buys a home it means s/he will make money on it/break even when s/he sells.

More On Topic: I absoultely agree that good quality construction is more durable both physically and in retaining value than lesser quality construction.

by Tina on Jan 3, 2012 3:33 pm • linkreport

I think this article neglects one distinction: Many city neighborhoods are now "saved" as a result of historical preservation laws.

Even in the city, it is often cheaper to demolish and rebuild than to renovate. I watched last summer as a contractor demolished an 1890s rowhouse to construct a new ugly monstrosity one block outside the Capitol Hill historic district. The contractor was adament that it was cheaper to demolish and rebuild than to renovate the existing shell (which matched all of the other homes on the street), even though it was in tolerably good shape. Historic preservation laws often save shells in much worse condition, without regard to the price.

Cities like LA with lots of older suburbs and high property values often see homes (even those that are perfectly livable) being demolished and replaced instead of being renovated. The land and location is worth more than the structure. If this is the trend, perhaps it does make the most sense for a contractor to build a less expensive shell that only lasts 30-40 years before it must be replaced, rather than building a more expensive structure that is more costly to renovate.

by resident on Jan 3, 2012 3:33 pm • linkreport

In high-cost cities, like DC, that's not so hard to pull off. A $200,000 rowhouse rehab might be well worth the cost when you can turn around and sell the house for half a million or more.
EEK! This is the recipe that drives out affordable housing. Argue about it all you want, but if we want a "greater greater Washington" then only seeing our homes as ATMs, well that will not build a great city.

I think this misunderstands the dynamic. There are houses in DC which are so dilapidated that they're practically unfit for human habitation (a RE agent friend of mine could tell you tales that would make your hair curl). The two options here are to let the houses rot in place, or to have a developer come in, gut the joint, and put it on the market for half a million.

These aren't individual homeowners looking to cash out, For some of these places, the "buy for $200k, invest $200k, sell for $500k" is the bare minimum to rehabilitate the housing stock.

by oboe on Jan 3, 2012 3:37 pm • linkreport

@Tina, thanks I didn't know the average circa-date but my point was that the homes were old..and strong...

by HogWash on Jan 3, 2012 3:46 pm • linkreport

You'll never get builders to do load bearing walls today becasue the labor costs far exceed the material costs, something which wasn't true 100 years ago. Just as people will always like decoration of whatever style, there have always been developers who built on the cheap, the only difference is a crappy 12" brick wall will still hold up longer than brick veneer.

The only way to get builders to construct buildings to last longer than 20 years is to mandate them by code, and one would have to approach it from an energy conservation and sustainable argument, but we're several calamities from that point. Another thing that get's in the way of buildings that can actually be sustained through the centuries is the ongoing mania for the new as promoted by modernists. If you're not revolting against some perceived aesthetic or better yet, conceptual frontier, then your hoplessly romantic. Meanwhile, nature has been predicted to become more violent. Talk about romantic!

The thicker the curtain wall, the longer wind driven rain has to get through it. That's why you'll see the East Wing getting a renovation while it's older cousin (The National Gallery of Art) sit's happily by.

There are many aspects to sustainable design that are still to be fully discussed by academia and others. Using recycled rubber may be important, but just as vital is how durrably and beautifully they are built. I'm glad people are starting to wake up to this.

by Thayer-D on Jan 3, 2012 3:53 pm • linkreport

The article makes some good general points, but is screwy on details. German Village made its comeback decades ago and is in no way similar to Virginia Highland (which never slipped that much, was developed at suburban densities, and isn't walking distance to anything) or Logan Circle (which has a better housing stock than either place). Housing in the city of Cleveland's is almost entirely wood (except for a few relatively affluent areas near the fringes of the city proper) and much of it was built as multi-family. It was not unusual for two or more generations to live in the same house. My mother grew-up in a two-family house with an attic that could have served as an apartment. The neighborhood has been a drug supermarket for decades, yet the houses are still standing. the house where she lived later, a bout a mile away, is on a street of well tended, modest frame houses. Any generalization about Cleveland, for example, has to take into account the use of the housing and that even in marginal areas, much of it is still servicable. The new housing downtown is in old commercial and warehouse buildings--it's vastly different from the housing stock elsewhere. Interestingly, the city has managed to find buyers for new condos and single family in some neighborhoods where new housing would have been unthinkable a couple decades ago.

One other concern--housing is underwater in many places. It remains to be seen whether utilitarian economics will prevail and suburban fringes become havens of rental housing. My guess is that it depends how much of it is ultimately bought be people who can subdivide it, get necessary zoning, etc. Illegal subdivisions of home often occur in advance of this, but the locations have to be attractive for other reasons, e.g., drivable or otherwise accessible to work. A long-term problem is the mismatch between housing and jobs for low wage workers.

Intown genetrification is not uniformly driven either. Cleveland is a good example--downtown housing has grown through fits and starts over three decades. I'm not quite sure what has driven it. Virginia-Highland was driven by Emory & CDC people (i.e., out of towners) who wanted houses with character and trees, a short drive from work. The same employment sources have driven more recent waves of gentrification in Atlanta in other neighborhoods and in areas like Inman park and candler Park which renewed around the same time as Virginia Highland. German Village was driven by state workers and people in banking and insurance(Columbus' other established employment).

by Rich on Jan 3, 2012 4:26 pm • linkreport

Thanks for the link to the Cleveland P-D article. I'm sorry I missed it, as I would have linked it with the piece on Nashville that I did the other day.

While the general thrust of your argument is spot on, I'd disagree about your comparison of DC and Cleveland. DC is a growing region and has been for 50 years. Cleveland's metropolitan region, on the other hand, has had stagnant population growth for the same 50 year period. Comparable to Detroit, Cleveland's MSA hasn't grown, but population left the city, making inner city neighborhoods less valuable, and spread through the suburbs. (Technically, Detroit's exurban parts grew, while population growth within the core of the region--Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb Counties--was less than 10% up to 2000, and probably less than that by 2010. Over the same period, the Cleveland region did not grow in population from 1960.)

Cleveland has great housing stock, but because the region is not growing, lacks the momentum to attract in-migration with the exception of some of the center city neighborhoods (Warehouse District, Gateway District, Old West Side).

So it has the same problems of the zombie subdivisions in far suburban Phoenix, but for completely different reasons.

by Richard Layman on Jan 3, 2012 4:29 pm • linkreport

The recession and the burst of the housing bubble have stopped development in many fringe suburbs.

It's interesting that the exact opposite happened in many gentrifying areas of the city. Where speculators had sat on vacant or dilapidated rental properties for decades, waiting for property values to climb ever higher, it was only after the bubble burst that a building-boomlet was triggered.

by oboe on Jan 3, 2012 4:33 pm • linkreport

This is an excellent piece. Quality of construction matters. I took it into huge consideration when I bought my condo.

My condo fees are relatively high but include all utilities and are paying for remodeling and new energy-efficient window installation this calendar year. My building was built in 1964 and is solid with plaster walls on the outside of my unit.

My friend bought his condo as the first owner in a building that opened in 2008. His condo fees were originally $250 less than mine (They don't include utilities and builders consistently lowball the condo fees to first buyers so the unit looks more attractive). They are now $50 less than mine because the residents keep finding more and more ticking time bombs left over from cheap 2000's construction. They have had to refurbish some structural, plumbing, electrical, and the building isn't even 5 years old yet.

I specifically looked for a building that was built before 1970 because of the better construction. My building had just undergone structural maintainence so they could get to cosmetic interior decor and improving on-site amenities. I know I got my money's worth a lot more than with a building built in the 2000's. The poor owners of those condo units will be looking at years of escalating maintenence fees as more and more poor construction goes wrong.

I wonder how long it takes until my condo buying lesson seeps its way into the conventional wisdom. The "New is Better" mindset is a relic from the dawn of the industrial age. Before our industrial era, new goods were hard to come by and were either expensive or labor-intensive to produce. Acquiring something new was something to celebrate as it was rare. Our industrial economy churns more new goods than we know what to do with. Yet, presently, most of them are cheap trash. One has to really shop carefully and sometimes pay more to get a quality product. I like to think that we have started to shift our collective outlook in favor of quality and saving money in the long term but I'm not exactly a conventional person.

I wonder if we'll see a conventional wisdom in our lifetimes that accepts less floor space in exchange for better, more durable construction.

by Cavan on Jan 3, 2012 4:33 pm • linkreport

Leinberger, as usual, doesn't cite any serious evidence. It's all anecdote and impressionistic eyeballing. "Many" this and "you see" that.

Fringe suburbs haven't been doing well over the past few years because they were heavily overbuilt during the housing bubble. The subprime mortgage fiasco caused many people to buy houses they couldn't really afford, with the resulting high level of foreclosures. So there's a lot of excess inventory. It's going to take time for demand and supply to come back into balance. But there's no serious evidence of any fundamental change in conditions or preferences that would reverse the long-standing trend of suburbanization and sprawl.

by Bertie on Jan 3, 2012 4:37 pm • linkreport

Bertie -- can't say about Leinberger and "anecdotes" but you have to accept that he is a ULI fellow, that he talks with developers all the time, and consults with developers and he has a pretty good handle on the market.

Cavan -- yep, the new is better trope is pretty damaging. A lot of the new construction is scary, and the story that oboe? related of the building one block out of the historic district is sadly typical. Most of the people doing one off "renovations" are bottom feeders and they don't operate in historic districts for a reason.

I remember an email years ago on the Columbia Heights e-list that was pretty funny. Someone wrote wanting to buy a "fixer upper" and a respondent said "just go ahead and buy a property advertised as 'recently renovated'."

by Richard Layman on Jan 3, 2012 4:43 pm • linkreport

I wonder how long it takes until my condo buying lesson seeps its way into the conventional wisdom

With all due respect, I've found this "conventional wisdom" pointedly lacking on this blog, where nearly every new condo project is greeted with cheers.

Lots of people know value when they see it. The problem is, it often conflicts with the notion of profit.

Having said that, there are still many issues to be addressed that are not addressed on this blog for people who live in condos and apartments, including older buildings. I'm thinking of a detailed, specific discussion of management companies, lawyers, the law, etc... This is rarely if ever touched upon here.

Fringe suburbs haven't been doing well over the past few years because they were heavily overbuilt during the housing bubble.

This seems right to me. I also happen to think we have overbuilt within the city.

by Jazzy on Jan 3, 2012 5:07 pm • linkreport

@Jazzy:

This seems right to me. I also happen to think we have overbuilt within the city.

Interesting. In what sense?

by oboe on Jan 3, 2012 5:15 pm • linkreport

Bertie -- can't say about Leinberger and "anecdotes" but you have to accept that he is a ULI fellow, that he talks with developers all the time, and consults with developers and he has a pretty good handle on the market.

Leinberger is a real estate consultant, developer and investor specializing in "new urbanist" and transit-oriented development. He constantly promotes the idea that we are on the verge of, or are already undergoing, a "back to the city" shift in housing and lifestyle preferences. But I've never seen him produce any credible evidence to support this idea. It does align nicely with his personal financial interests, however.

by Bertie on Jan 3, 2012 5:29 pm • linkreport

But I've never seen him produce any credible evidence to support this idea. It does align nicely with his personal financial interests, however.

Well, at least his interests are transparent. Which reminds me, have you talked to Wendell Cox lately?

by oboe on Jan 3, 2012 5:40 pm • linkreport

@oboe

Ding! I have to believe there are many more people who are defending their financial interests in the status quo.

by Adam L on Jan 3, 2012 5:52 pm • linkreport

I remember an email years ago on the Columbia Heights e-list that was pretty funny. Someone wrote wanting to buy a "fixer upper" and a respondent said "just go ahead and buy a property advertised as 'recently renovated'."

I don't get this.

by Jazzy on Jan 3, 2012 5:56 pm • linkreport

I remember an email years ago on the Columbia Heights e-list that was pretty funny. Someone wrote wanting to buy a "fixer upper" and a respondent said "just go ahead and buy a property advertised as 'recently renovated'."
I don't get this.

I do, but only because my brother-in-law is in negotiations to have a new roof put on his "recently renovated" row house (in Columbia Heights for that matter).

by oboe on Jan 3, 2012 6:00 pm • linkreport

@jazzy "recently renovated" often means "very badly renovated with the cheapest materials available and poorest craftsmanship imaginable" especially in properties that were bought on speculation, i.e. as investments, like a bunch of places in Columbia Heights have been since 1999. Go to some open houses. You'll soon be in on the chuckle.

by Tina on Jan 3, 2012 6:30 pm • linkreport

No it was a cognition thing, and I was slow. A fixer upper IS "recently renovated." Got it.

by Jazzy on Jan 3, 2012 6:34 pm • linkreport

My interpretation was the "recently renovated" means flip, and it will be a fixer-upper because you'll spend the next 5 years or more after you move in fixing all the shoddy work and replacing all the Home Depot sources fixtures and crap.

by spookiness on Jan 3, 2012 6:46 pm • linkreport

I'm with Bertie on this. It's too early to call a 50+ year trend of suburbanization over based on evidence of a handful of years. Clearly, there's been at least a rapid decrease in the rate of suburbanization and the trend may eventually go toward urbanization. However, to say that the suburbs will experience a precipitous decline seems like sheer extrapolation and speculation.

50+ year trends don't just turn on a dime and just because a trend isn't true for a few years (a counter-trend period) doesn't mean the trend is over.

Suburbanization has always benefited from the forces of technology and that's a trend that's unlikely to stop anytime soon. One of the biggest techs making suburbs possible is the automobile where tech advances continue to make them much more pleasant to operate and cheaper (even with rising gas prices).

The suburbs' existence is based on feats of engineering, and as engineering progresses, the suburbs stand to gain. Sprawl has been a technologically based trend since the first settlers established new world colonies. In fact, suburban sprawl can be seen as just the next stage after the country spread out from the Atlantic to the Pacific and everything in between.

One could argue that sprawl is evolutionary/biologically driven. Species take on new adaptations so they can live in ever more varied ecosystems. For animals, the adaptation might be the white fur of the polar bear. For humans, it might be innovations like igloos, or air conditioning, or the automobile.

by Falls Church on Jan 3, 2012 9:34 pm • linkreport

"biological" systems like FHA not insuring mortgages in inner city mixed neighborhoods, and the creation of interstate highway systems with 10 cent dollars (90% paid for by the federal government) etc. ?

I've argued that sprawl likely will last longer in the DC region because it's a strong market, but it's not sustainable. That's why you see regions in places not just AZ but NC, SC, FL, GA, CA etc. with low valued housing. Parts of TX have been that way for years.

As MoCo seems to understand, they won't be able to fill those big houses with new families when the current owners age out in distant subdivisions, etc.

If you read a variety of reports from newspapers across the country, the drumbeat of info is more than just anecdotal.

by Richard Layman on Jan 3, 2012 10:35 pm • linkreport

The Interstate Highway System was funded on a pay-as-you-go basis from the Highway Trust Fund, which gets most of its revenues from taxes and fees levied on road users. The law specifically included a provision to delay construction if projected revenues were insufficient to cover projected costs.

Housing in the south and west (not California) has long been relatively inexpensive because there's lots of available land, light regulation, and the housing is generally low density (meaning low construction costs). During the housing bubble, prices rose dramatically in states such as AZ and FL, and parts of CA, and then crashed when the bubble burst. The 2010 Census showed that the decades-long trend of population shift from cities to suburbs, and from the northeast to the south and west, has continued during the most recent decade. It slowed substantially in the wake of the housing crisis and the recession, but it's still occurring. Short-term booms and busts are not evidence of a fundamental change in longstanding conditions or preferences.

by Bertie on Jan 3, 2012 11:26 pm • linkreport

Bertie:

Like most things, the IHS was built first before there was revenue flowing into the highway trust fund. Numerous posts on this blog and elsewhere have shown that gas taxes absolutely do not provide anywhere close to all the money needed to plan, construct, and maintain the nation's highways. And they certainly do not cover the costs of local roads built to supply suburban and exurban developments at public expense from general revenues.

I believe that public transportation infrastructure, including roads, should be paid for by the public but we shouldn't pretend that drivers pay for all that they use in gas taxes.

by Adam L on Jan 3, 2012 11:40 pm • linkreport

Like most things, the IHS was built first before there was revenue flowing into the highway trust fund.

The Highway Trust Fund was created specifically to fund road construction and maintenance when the IHS was authorized. As I said, the law included a specific provision, the Byrd Amendment, to maintain balance between revenues and spending.

Numerous posts on this blog and elsewhere have shown that gas taxes absolutely do not provide anywhere close to all the money needed to plan, construct, and maintain the nation's highways.

As I said, the Highway Trust Fund gets most of its revenues from "taxes and fees levied on road users." Not merely "gas taxes." Road subsidies are on the order of 1 cent per passenger-mile. This is vastly smaller than the subsidies provided to mass transit and intercity rail, and only a tiny fraction of the total costs of driving. The overwhelming majority of driving costs are paid by drivers themselves. The overwhelming majority of mass transit costs are paid by taxpayers, not mass transit users.

by Bertie on Jan 4, 2012 12:31 am • linkreport

@Bertie

If road costs were paid for by user fees as you claim there wouldn't be billions in deferred maintenance. Roads would be building themselves.

I would also note that your response says nothing of local roads which account for 2/3 of total passenger miles in the US and are not included in the HTF. Not to mention the external costs that government shifts to the private sector such a parking minimums. This isn't about which forms of transportation get a subsidy but how much those subsidies really are.

by Adam L on Jan 4, 2012 12:56 am • linkreport

iIf road costs were paid for by user fees as you claim there wouldn't be billions in deferred maintenance.

Deferred maintenance has nothing to do with the source of the funding. It's the result of allocating too large a share of the revenues to new construction and non-highway purposes (including mass transit).

If you're concerned about deferred maintenance, you should be complaining about the enormous misallocation of transit funding to new projects instead of maintenance and repair of existing infrastructure. The Federal Transit Administration estimates that there is a $78 billion maintenance and repair backlog. This is more than the entire annual national mass transit budget from subsidies and fares combined.

local roads ... account for 2/3 of total passenger miles in the US and are not included in the HTF.

Please substantiate these claims.

Not to mention the external costs that government shifts to the private sector such a parking minimums.

What "external costs that government shifts to the private sector?" Parking minimums reduce externalities arising from inadequate parking supply. Without parking minimums, businesses would have an incentive to provide less parking than they need for their customers, and free ride on parking provided by neighboring businesses and local streets. That would impose costs on those businesses and local residents.

by Bertie on Jan 4, 2012 1:34 am • linkreport

Working on a mobile device, but this should be helpful:

http://subsidyscope.org/transportation/direct-expenditures/highways/funding/state/

by Adam L on Jan 4, 2012 2:11 am • linkreport

"It's too early to call a 50+ year trend of suburbanization over based on evidence of a handful of years...
50+ year trends don't just turn on a dime and just because a trend isn't true for a few years (a counter-trend period) doesn't mean the trend is over."

The re-urbanization trend has been going on since the 1980's. Back then there was a front cover of Time magazine describing this trend. The only reason it's taken on momentum as of late is the constant uptick has led to having reached a tipping point, at least in DC. After decades of Hollywood, the government, and the realestate industry both activly promoting the suburbs and devaluing the cities, there has been a reaction that's more than a trend.

This isn't a suburb/rural vs. urbanists, as much as some would like to make it. Just as there are many "types" of people, there will be as many housing choices, but the days of scaring whites into the suburbs is over, for the most part. Beyond that, business has followed the return to the city becasue that's where the (big) money is at. You'll always have the choice (hopefully) of living on the fringe (Thoreau), or wherever you'd like, but you won't have as much of the public's tax role backing you up, thank God. Look at the history of human settlement, and you'll find that the recent dominance of the suburbs is the anomoly.

"Suburbanization has always benefited from the forces of technology and that's a trend that's unlikely to stop anytime soon."

Thankfully, technology (ie: science) is a little more encompasing than hyping the latest techie device. Throw in the latest advances in human psychology, biology, and ecology, and it's easy to see the urbanist movement as much more than a trend. Canned goods and preservatives was also once touted as the solution to hunger, before scientists saw the whole picture, now you can't shake a stick with out hitting a farmers market, etc.

"The suburbs' existence is based on feats of engineering, and as engineering progresses, the suburbs stand to gain."
That same logic can be applied to the city and the skyscraper boosters.

Just as the pseudo scientific approach of the modernists like LeCorbusier who used to hustle the public with bland statements of man's needing x amount of sun and space, people are wising up to the intangibles, the unquantifiables that make up so much of our personal happiness and well being. By all means keep whatever lifestyle that suite you, but the days of staring into the magic technological crystal ball are over.

by Thayer-D on Jan 4, 2012 4:15 am • linkreport

My point about the 10 cent dollars wasn't about the trust fund at all, but the fact that the roads were subsidized by the federal government, that sprawl was induced specifically through this process, that it wasn't some sort of "natural" biological phenomenon.

ANd I wasn't specific enough about the FHA mortgage underwriting guidelines. It wasn't just for FHA mortgages, it also affected the provision of mortgage insurance. So banks wouldn't give mortgages to white people in so called "red lined" areas in city neighborhoods, because mortgage insurance wasn't available.

by Richard Layman on Jan 4, 2012 5:06 am • linkreport

Bertie is quite simply wrong about highways paying for themselves. They are subsidized by a large degree from the general fund.

Suburbia was hardly an organic phenomenon, it's a result of deliberate government policies.

by JimT on Jan 4, 2012 8:55 am • linkreport

@JimT:

I think Bertie's point was that highways are paid for by road users in the sense that most people own cars, therefore use roads, therefore roads are paid for by road users. Meanwhile, most Americans don't regularly take transit, therefore making "most Americans" pay to subsidize transit is grossly unfair.

by oboe on Jan 4, 2012 9:26 am • linkreport

I don't think this is the end of suburbs, but it is the beginning of something new. Suburbs really relied on cheap resources--resources to build the houses and cheap fuel to make driving long distances OK. While the housing bust is what beat the suburbs up, they were already starting to show some signs that the big population gains were slowing.

What the core cities still lack are AFFORDABLE neighborhoods, so what we may see are a re-working of the suburban landscape with less sprawl, more commuter rail, slightly more dense planning paradigms. Radical change? I doubt it, but definitely change.

by Michael North on Jan 4, 2012 10:06 am • linkreport

@Betrie

"Fringe suburbs haven't been doing well over the past few years because they were heavily overbuilt during the housing bubble. The subprime mortgage fiasco caused many people to buy houses they couldn't really afford, with the resulting high level of foreclosures. So there's a lot of excess inventory. It's going to take time for demand and supply to come back into balance. But there's no serious evidence of any fundamental change in conditions or preferences that would reverse the long-standing trend of suburbanization and sprawl."
----
Exactly.

And the trend of urban neighborhoods being in-filled and gentrified by a near-exclusively affluent, young or empty-nester, white demographic is hardly evidence that "urban living is on the rise and suburbs or declining".

The recent "rush to urban neighborhoods" is and always has been the product of a niche market. It's by no means as socially significant as the trends (white flight and later the rise of the middle class) that created suburban sprawl. Calling it anything more is nothing but wishful thinking and an elistist, neo-urbanist "my choice is better than yours" slogan.

by ceefer66 on Jan 4, 2012 10:10 am • linkreport

Lots of core cities have plenty of affordable neighborhoods, just not the cities in strong real estate markets.

Philadelphia, Wilmington, Newark, Baltimore, St. Louis, hell Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh... can be great places to buy a house and aren't bombed out like Detroit (some of the houses in places where I lived there don't exist anymore).

by Richard Layman on Jan 4, 2012 10:12 am • linkreport

What's considered a fringe suburb around here? Ashburn?

by Fitz on Jan 4, 2012 10:20 am • linkreport

I think the fringe suburbs in the DC area are probably subdivisions in Jefferson County, West Virginia, Stafford County, Virginia or St. Mary's County, Maryland. As long as Ashburn is near tech jobs in Reston/Tysons and Eastern Loudoun, it's a far better value proposition than some 99% AA neighborhood in NE or SE DC with aging housing of no architectural merit, poor schools and persistent crime. If the term "fringe suburb" is to have any meaning, it has to connote more than simply a subdivision that a single GS-12 living in Logan Circle doesn't find aesthetically appealing because it doesn't have enough turrets.

by Dan on Jan 4, 2012 10:45 am • linkreport

'The recent "rush to urban neighborhoods" is and always has been the product of a niche market. '

the flight to the suburbs did not begin in 1946. It was underway in the 1920s or even earlier. at that time it too was a niche market, all affluent, and all white. It was only later that it took hold as a mass movement.

Whether the return to urban living will take off the same way is hard to say (though it should be noted that the trend to walkable, TOD, etc is not confined to the cities, but is also found in suburban locations - in some places strongly appealing to families with children (have you been to Del Ray lately?) Even if it never appeals to a majority, if it appeals to 20 or 25% of all households, it would be an important change.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jan 4, 2012 10:59 am • linkreport

And the trend of urban neighborhoods being in-filled and gentrified by a near-exclusively affluent, young or empty-nester, white demographic is hardly evidence that "urban living is on the rise and suburbs or declining".

The US population is getting older. Which means more empty-nesters. Young people are getting married later, and when they do, they're having children later, or not at all. So when you say, "Cities and urban areas will mostly be populated by the young, the childless, and empty-nesters" you are essentially conceding that the future belongs to the cities.

Actually, as those young, affluent folks get older, in an increasingly gentrifying city, local schools are going to look more and more attractive--just as has already happened in places like Capitol Hill over the last 5-10 years.

As far as "white" goes, the "newcomers" in DC are certainly as (or more) diverse than any other population group with a comparable socio-economic status. What you're complaining about is the generalized economic inequality of the nation at large.

In any case, when by every metric (e.g. crime, population, household income, etc, etc...) DC continues to radically improve after a half century of steep declines, and by many metrics area suburbs continue to stagnate, I'm not sure if any evidence could convince you "urban living is on the rise".

by oboe on Jan 4, 2012 11:01 am • linkreport

The long term trend is for the suburbs, but the short-term trend is toward urban living. It's true that assuming the short-term trend will continue is dangerous. But so too is assuming the long-term trend will continue.

Part of knowing which trend will hold sway involves knowing what energy will cost in the future, and if you can predict that accurately you're wasting your time on this blog. You can make a killing in the futures market.

Another cause of the trend away from the city is that we made a lot of affordable housing illegal (for good reason) and Americans are unwilling to live the way they used to. As a little girl, my grandmother lived in an apartment with 2 bedrooms and a kitchen. Where was the bathroom? Down the hall, shared by all the residents on her floor. That's probably illegal today (outside of group homes). But to a large extent this element has worked itself out of the system, so what I expect to see for awhile is urban and suburban growth rates that more closely match one another.

by David C on Jan 4, 2012 11:02 am • linkreport

TOD, etc is not confined to the cities, but is also found in suburban locations - in some places strongly appealing to families with children (have you been to Del Ray lately?)

Del Ray is one step removed from such "streetcar suburbs" as Capitol Hill and Takoma Park, and slightly more "urban" than Brookland, for example.

As you pointed out to me on a separate thread, the city/suburbs dichotomy is nowhere near cut-and-dried.

by oboe on Jan 4, 2012 11:04 am • linkreport

Part of knowing which trend will hold sway involves knowing what energy will cost in the future, and if you can predict that accurately you're wasting your time on this blog. You can make a killing in the futures market.

If you solve the energy problem, you still haven't solved the congestion problem though. At least until we're all using self-driving cars that whizz through our city streets at 75 mph. At which time I'll be moving to the suburbs, too.

by oboe on Jan 4, 2012 11:07 am • linkreport

"At least until we're all using self-driving cars that whizz through our city streets at 75 mph. At which time I'll be moving to the suburbs, too."

According to Bertie these will arrive next week.

by Jackson on Jan 4, 2012 11:13 am • linkreport

AdamL

Working on a mobile device, but this should be helpful: ...

I don't see anything in that link that supports either of the two claims I asked you to substantiate.

by Bertie on Jan 4, 2012 11:18 am • linkreport

Does anyone know what has caused this obvious great rift between those who choose urban and suburban living? It really is the strangest thing.

For many reasons, I love the large, spacious, 2, 3, 4-car garage homes and environment of my surburban friends. I also love what living in the city has to offer for a carless resident. But geez, I don't hate my friends nor seethe over the fact that they "should've" moved into the city. We like what we like and suburban living ain't for everyone just as urban living ain't.

There is no right or wrong here despite what we might believe.

by HogWash on Jan 4, 2012 11:19 am • linkreport

@Hogwash -maybe this has something to do with it:

“Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods,” mused Gingrich, “have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works … They have no habit of ‘I do this and you give me cash,’ unless it’s illegal.”

Gingrich’s comment is an example of surviving remnant of dog-whistle politics that demonize urban residents; recent examples include new state laws to drug-test those on public assistance and the ongoing effort to cut food stamps (and Gingrich did call Obama the “food stamp president”). The specter of the black ghetto still scripts urban dwellers as villains (often as thieves robbing the citizen either directly, or as in this Rick Santorum comment, indirectly: “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them other people’s money”). But unlike the era of Ronald Reagan’s welfare queen, today cities are more ignored than attacked. And this goes well beyond Iowa.

“The core of the Republican constituency in metropolitan America are the growing, racially and economically exclusive ‘outer suburbs’ whose privileged status Republicans seek to protect at all costs,” says former mayor of Albuquerque David Rusk, now a consultant. He cited New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as an exemplar of the trend.

Today’s Republican candidates are rarely city-dwellers.

http://politics.salon.com/2012/01/03/iowa_centric_candidates_ignore_the_urban_crisis/

by Tina on Jan 4, 2012 11:25 am • linkreport

The US population is getting older. Which means more empty-nesters. Young people are getting married later, and when they do, they're having children later, or not at all. So when you say, "Cities and urban areas will mostly be populated by the young, the childless, and empty-nesters" you are essentially conceding that the future belongs to the cities.

Except the evidence indicates that empty-nesters are not moving back to the city, either. A Brookings Institution study of 2010 Census data found that the suburbs are experiencing faster growth among older Americans than cities:

Suburbs are aging more rapidly than cities with higher growth rates for their age-45-and-above populations and larger shares of seniors.

by Bertie on Jan 4, 2012 11:36 am • linkreport

@Tina, I don't doubt that republicans and their dog whistles have contributed to the divide. But in this case, I'm really talking about the rift between, what I assume are not republicans, but likely democrats. This board is a good example. I don't think many people can objectively read the articles and ensuing posts and decide that there isn't a healthy number of "city dwellers" who have some serious issues with suburban dwelling/life. It's really an us vs. them thing of the strangest kind and unfortunately, we city dwellers are too much into the habit of assuming that everyone wants to live like us..or should.

JMO

by HogWash on Jan 4, 2012 11:53 am • linkreport

Is it really surprising that a blog about urbanism and related issues draws folks who are more passionate in both directions than the average person? And that the threads tend to escalate, as internet discussions do?

by Awalkerinthecity on Jan 4, 2012 12:09 pm • linkreport

@bertie

thats largely because people are staying in the homes they were in when they had kids. Many folks have always done that, and the current difficulties in selling ones home increase the tendency. Empty nesters who do move, are, AFAICT, likely to favor smaller more convenient, often walkable places - sometimes in suburbs rather than the center cities.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jan 4, 2012 12:11 pm • linkreport

@Bertie

Sigh. Okay. Here's the statistic to showing miles driven on interstates. With the feeder roads to interstates, it comes up to about 40%: http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/policy/ohim/hs03/htm/vm1.htm

The link I provided on the breakdown of transportation funding by state shows that a significant portion of highway funding is provided by general taxes and other revenues in direct contradiction to your assertion that highway construction is paid for by user fees.

by Adam L on Jan 4, 2012 12:19 pm • linkreport

A Brookings Institution study of 2010 Census data found that the suburbs are experiencing faster growth among older Americans than cities

The phenomenon of "seniors aging in place" is a different phenomenon than wealthy seniors downsizing and moving into less auto-dependent neighborhoods. Obviously the majority of people are not going to be in a position, economically, to express their preferences. That's because there's an artificial scarcity of such places, so they're too expensive for many (most) people to afford. I say "artificial" because US housing policy generally subsidizes sprawl, and makes more desirable urban forms illegal.

But as AWalkerInTheCity says, the elderly can be "aging in place" either in the literal boundaries of the city, or in/near urbanizing nodes. The latter would still--somewhat misleadingly--be tallied under "suburban growth".

In any case, given the growing economic inequality we're seeing in the US, it's not surprising that the suburbs are projected to grow at a much faster rate than the more urbanized areas. After all, the concentration of wealth at the top means more poor people. In the 21st century, the suburbs will be responsible for a larger share of the poor than currently.

by oboe on Jan 4, 2012 12:39 pm • linkreport

Walker,

The evidence indicates that most empty-nesters are staying in the suburbs, not moving to the city. I see no evidence of any increase in the walkability of suburbs resulting from the behavior of empty nesters, or of anyone else. As people get older, I would expect them to become LESS inclined, not more, to get around on foot, by bike, or by public transportation. As you get older, the comfort and convenience of cars becomes even more valuable.

by Bertie on Jan 4, 2012 12:50 pm • linkreport

@HogWash:

I don't think many people can objectively read the articles and ensuing posts and decide that there isn't a healthy number of "city dwellers" who have some serious issues with suburban dwelling/life.

I really don't see this at all. Certainly there are a few commenters who get worked up about how "you suburbanites are killing the planet!" But that's not the majority by any stretch. Obviously, I'm going to favor my side, but I think there's a lot of projection going on on both sides.

When I argue that there's a epochal cultural shift underway that is driving the renaissance of the top handful of US cities--and that there's a similar dynamic at work in "urbanizing" suburban towns and commercial clusters--the appropriate response isn't "Why do you hate our freedoms! Let people live where they want!"

Aside from eliminating restrictive zoning and building codes, and making federal funding more equitable between rural/suburban/urban districts there isn't even a whole lot of prescription going on.

Obviously people are invested in their neighborhoods, but it's as though you're at a cocktail party and someone says, "The Steelers are gonna WIN the SuperBowl!!" The appropriate response isn't "Why do you hate people of New Orleans?"

Or as ceefer66 put it, "[Pointing to well-documented social trends] is nothing but wishful thinking and an elitist, neo-urbanist 'my choice is better than yours' slogan."

by oboe on Jan 4, 2012 1:03 pm • linkreport

adamL

Sigh. Okay. Here's the statistic to showing miles driven on interstates. With the feeder roads to interstates, it comes up to about 40%:

Huh? Your claim was "local roads account for 2/3 of total passenger miles in the US." I don't understand how you think a statistic on miles driven on interstates tells us the share of miles (actually, passenger-miles) driven on local roads. In fact, if interstates and their "feeder roads" account for 40%, then all other roads combined -- local roads, state highways, urban freeways, arterials, etc. -- only account for 60%, so your 2/3 claim cannot possibly be true.

The link I provided on the breakdown of transportation funding by state shows that a significant portion of highway funding is provided by general taxes and other revenues in direct contradiction to your assertion that highway construction is paid for by user fees.

Again, this does not support your claim, which was that local roads "are not included in the HTF." Your link tells us nothing about funding of local roads from the HTF.

by Bertie on Jan 4, 2012 1:09 pm • linkreport

60% is similar enough to 2/3 that you're quibbling. As you are with the second claim as well. The link does show that the HTF can cover the costs of interstates, but not local roads, which is the point.

by David C on Jan 4, 2012 1:16 pm • linkreport

The evidence indicates that most empty-nesters are staying in the suburbs, not moving to the city.

Sure, because there's an artificial scarcity of such places. "Most" Americans--much less empty-nesters--don't have the option of expressing their consumer preferences.

"Most" Iraqis voted for Saddam Hussein in elections before the US invaded.

by oboe on Jan 4, 2012 1:16 pm • linkreport

"The evidence indicates that most empty-nesters are staying in the suburbs, not moving to the city. I see no evidence of any increase in the walkability of suburbs resulting from the behavior of empty nesters, or of anyone else. As people get older, I would expect them to become LESS inclined, not more, to get around on foot, by bike, or by public transportation. As you get older, the comfort and convenience of cars becomes even more valuable."

I am an empty nester and I LOVE to walk, and I use public transport. Empty nesters can be as young as 45, and even most 65 YOs are not decrepit. Walking can become more difficult when you get MUCH older, but so can driving.

And there is lots of new walkability in suburbs. Here in NoVa alone we have it in north arlington, in shirlington, in the Carlyle project near Old Town, in Vienna - old town and near the metro - in Dunn Loring - in Reston - in a few other places. Some of those draw empty nesters more than others.

Of course the continued shortage of such places - which means folks who might be willing to trade in a 3 or 4 br house for a 2br condo, instead have to face the prospect of fitting into a 1 BR condo - can be a deterrent.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jan 4, 2012 1:23 pm • linkreport

oboe,

When I argue that there's a epochal cultural shift underway that is driving the renaissance of the top handful of US cities

The only basis for your "argument" seems to be wishful thinking on your part. The evidence contradicts your claim. Suburbs continue to grow faster than cities. People continue to move out of cities and into suburbs. Between 2000 and 2010, New York City lost over a million migrants to other parts of the country. That's a "renaissance," is it? Some AREAS within some cities are growing. But the general pattern is a continuing shift of people, jobs and amenities away from cities and into suburbs.

by Bertie on Jan 4, 2012 1:28 pm • linkreport

60% is similar enough to 2/3 that you're quibbling. As you are with the second claim as well. The link does show that the HTF can cover the costs of interstates, but not local roads, which is the point.

As I said, based on the figures he presented, all other roads combined could only account for 60% of the total. So local roads must even lower than that. To call that a quibble is absurd. And his second "point" (assertion) was NOT that "HTF can cover the costs of interstates, but not local roads." It was that local roads are not included in the HTF at all. He has produced nothing to substantiate that claim either.

by Bertie on Jan 4, 2012 1:34 pm • linkreport

Not sure if you don't get it, or if you're trying not to get it, but a) a lot of the "suburbs" you're talking about are de facto extensions of the "city" (i.e. they are essentially urban); b) you bring up the example of NYC as though you're God in a race against Satan to see who can collect the most "souls".

I mean this with all due respect, but anyone who can look at NYC from 2000-2010 and snort, "That's a 'renaissance' is it?" clearly has a strangely metaphysical set of criteria for what constitutes a 'renaissance'.

by oboe on Jan 4, 2012 1:45 pm • linkreport

oboe,

Sure, because there's an artificial scarcity of such places.

There you go again. What is "artificial scarcity" (as opposed to just "scarcity") supposed to mean? How do you know there's an "artificial scarcity?"

by Bertie on Jan 4, 2012 1:48 pm • linkreport

@Bertie:

Just to be clear: I agree with you completely that more people will be living outside the literal political boundaries of cities than within them. Also that the population growth of areas outside the literal political boundaries of cities will be higher than within.

So in that sense, not-cities will be more "successful" than cities.

by oboe on Jan 4, 2012 1:48 pm • linkreport

@oboe, I really don't see this at all. Certainly there are a few commenters who get worked up about how "you suburbanites are killing the planet!" But that's not the majority by any stretch. Obviously, I'm going to favor my side, but I think there's a lot of projection going on on both sides.

IMO, the general consensus here (from the articles to the posts) is that there is something superior about living in the city and "those" people who choose to live outside do so at their own peril. I do believe that the numbers are far greater than what you imply. There is so much us vs. them negativity out there that people latch on to issues..just because..exacerbating what would otherwise be tame issues. Yes, this is a reflection of our nations piss poor levels of acceptable discourse and I often wonder about the long-term consequences. DC's current state of us. vs. them is a great example and the unknowns are rather unsettling. I'm also not sure to what extent "the other side" is represented in these sort of discussions.

When I argue that there's a epochal cultural shift underway that is driving the renaissance of the top handful of US cities--and that there's a similar dynamic at work in "urbanizing" suburban towns and commercial clusters--the appropriate response isn't

That might be your intent behind your many arguments and reading as it is...sounds great and reasonable. However, I don't believe that how it always comes across in the same way that the tone of many articles here have an anti-suburban feel. Sorta like this article.

by HogWash on Jan 4, 2012 1:52 pm • linkreport


Oboe@ - "When I argue that there's a epochal cultural shift underway that is driving the renaissance of the top handful of US cities--and that there's a similar dynamic at work in "urbanizing" suburban towns and commercial clusters--the appropriate response isn't "Why do you hate our freedoms! Let people live where they want!"

It's interesting to see that the bold declaration of a[n] "epochal cultural shift" is immediately hedged by the reference to "the top handful of US cities" and the inclusion of additional "suburban towns" and "commercial clusters." Sounds like you may not be quite as confident in the sweep of your characterizations as you'd like, but I'm sure it still feels totally awesome to use words like "epochal" and "cultural shift." Throw in "new paradigm" and you'd win the trifecta! Maybe the arguments aren't with your analysis but instead with the feel-good rhetoric.

by Dan on Jan 4, 2012 1:53 pm • linkreport

Well, I took Adam L as defining all non-interstate's as local roads. The other link showed that 75% of all roads are not federal-aid eligible, which means that they are paid entirely by local funding (local being anything non-federal here). Like I said you're quibbling. The main point of Adam's post was that user fees don't pay for roads anymore (if they ever did) which the subsidyscope links clearly shows.

why does the percentage of passenger miles driven on local roads matter? What matters is that at least 37% of what is spent on roads is from non-user revenues. And another large part comes from bonds which may or may not be paid off by users. So stop quibbling over the insignificant details.

by David C on Jan 4, 2012 1:54 pm • linkreport

How do you know there's an "artificial scarcity?"

Look, we've been through all this before, but for the benefit of those who just joined us, @Bertie has previously claimed that the very restrictive building/zoning laws that make non auto-dependent developments illegal in many, many parts of the country are an expression of consumer preferences, not a distortion of the market.

In my opinion, it's an odd sort of libertarianism that demands heavy-handed state intervention to deny property owners their right to serve market demands, but there you go...

[Disclaimer: I don't mean to put words in your mouth if you've since refined your thinking on this. Just thought I'd save everybody a couple more iterations.]

by oboe on Jan 4, 2012 1:55 pm • linkreport

oboe,

Not sure if you don't get it, or if you're trying not to get it, but a) a lot of the "suburbs" you're talking about are de facto extensions of the "city" (i.e. they are essentially urban);

All suburbs are urban. Urban areas include central cities, suburbs and exurbs. All land that is not rural is urban.

The point is that the URBAN FORM of suburbs is generally much less dense than that of cities. Suburbs are generally not "compact" or "walkable." They are oriented towards transportation by car, not mass transit. You keep alluding to isolated examples of more city-like suburbs, such as parts of Arlington. But isolated examples are not a trend. The vast majority of suburbs are nothing like Arlington.

by Bertie on Jan 4, 2012 1:56 pm • linkreport

...quibbling over the insignificant details.
Like pointing out that not all smokers get lung cancer and not all people with lung cancer were smokers? -pointing to this indisputable logic that smoking does not cause lung cancer? Its a time-tested method...

by bored on Jan 4, 2012 2:01 pm • linkreport

oboe,

@Bertie has previously claimed that the very restrictive building/zoning laws that make non auto-dependent developments illegal in many, many parts of the country are an expression of consumer preferences, not a distortion of the market.

I've never claimed that. Building and zoning regulations are an expression of POLITICAL preferences, not consumer preferences.

So by "artificial scarcity," all you apparently mean is that the supply is restricted in some way by regulations. I'm not sure why you think the market in housing, or any other kind of product, should not be regulated.

by Bertie on Jan 4, 2012 2:03 pm • linkreport

That might be your intent behind your many arguments and reading as it is...sounds great and reasonable. However, I don't believe that how it always comes across in the same way that the tone of many articles here have an anti-suburban feel. Sorta like this article.

I think it's incredibly uncomfortable for people to have their assumptions challenged. Particularly when those assumptions are almost universally portrayed as normative by the dominant culture.

People who are made uncomfortable tend to resent it and feel victimized.

by oboe on Jan 4, 2012 2:04 pm • linkreport

First off, people are extrapolating from the very real trend of "re-urbanization" that this will somehow mean the suburbs are entering a death spiral. It is entirely possible for urban areas to renew without the death, or even decline, of the suburbs. Just because the rise of the suburbs meant the death of cities doesn't mean it has to work the other way around as some kind of retribution. It's possible (and very logical) for both to prosper since they represent options that a very desirable to significant sets of people.

As for the really really big picture trend, humans have been spreading themselves into new areas around the globe since the dawn of civilization (and possibly longer). Suburbanization is just a very recent incarnation of this natural tendency of all living things to expand the footprint of their species. As long as there is open space, there will be humans trying to settle and develop that space (and they will be competing, rather unfairly, with other living things trying to occupy that space). That's not necessarily a good thing, but without regulation to prevent it, spreading out is a matter of when, not if.

Part of knowing which trend will hold sway involves knowing what energy will cost in the future, and if you can predict that accurately you're wasting your time on this blog. You can make a killing in the futures market.

What matters is not the absolute cost of energy but the cost of energy as a proportion of income. While there are a couple years here or there where it's increased, the long term trend is firmly in place for energy to be an ever smaller share of income/GDP.

by Falls Church on Jan 4, 2012 2:05 pm • linkreport

Well, I took Adam L as defining all non-interstate's as local roads.

I don't know why. It is not true that all non-interstates are local roads. If he thinks they are, his entire premise is false.

The other link showed that 75% of all roads are not federal-aid eligible,

I don't know which link you mean by "the other link."

why does the percentage of passenger miles driven on local roads matter?

I'm not sure it does matter. Ask Adam. He made the claim, so he apparently thinks it matters.

by Bertie on Jan 4, 2012 2:07 pm • linkreport

I don't have time to dig it out of the archives. But it goes without saying, consumers are also political actors.

As for "artificial scarcity", I didn't mean to be cryptic, I just thought it was self-evident: lakefront property is naturally scarce.

by oboe on Jan 4, 2012 2:11 pm • linkreport

Falls Church: This is why transportation is so key. I would love to live on a small tropical island. There are some that are pretty cheap, in really remote parts of the world. But I want to be within a short distance of work, friends, and good shopping. A very few people can afford to have a private jet and can live on that island and get other places fairly quickly (though not really that quickly), but for most people, that's not feasible.

If the government suddenly decided to start free helicopter service from the Shenandoah to downtown DC, I bet a lot of people would want to live in the Shenandoah. I wouldn't blame them. But is that the natural human tendency to spread out?

And if some folks came in and said, you know, this policy of free helicopter service to everyone's valley is really pricey. Maybe we should design our policy to better accommodate people living in Northern Virginia instead of the Shenandoah. Is that government limiting people's choices?

A new house in western Loudoun costs more to the public in long-term cost than a new dwelling unit in, say, Arlington. It might be cheaper in the short term because there's a more profit in building on empty land than in settled areas, and fewer neighborhood opponents. Developers are even often willing to pay for some local roads. But then those roads all need replacing a generation hence, and the developer isn't paying again, and the tax revenue doesn't cover that plus schools plus utilities plus fire protection plus snow plowing and everything else. And over time the houses age and then they bring in less revenue. This is what Strong Towns has described as the Ponzi scheme of sprawl.

I have no problem with people spreading out if they want to, but a problem with government providing the equivalent of the free helicopter service to let them go there or underwriting ongoing infrastructure costs to keep making it easy to get there even as the housing stock becomes more and more financially unsustainable.

by David Alpert on Jan 4, 2012 2:14 pm • linkreport

- most empty nesters may be staying in the suburbs but there is a significant phenomenon of empty nesters moving to "the city." People in the trade discuss the "bookend" of the young and the older driving the back to the city housing movement.

The seniors come for condo living because they don't want the responsibilities of taking care of a house. When I helped person the H Street NE booth at the City Living Expo in 2003, I was surprised to hear this sentiment expressed not just from the old, but from the "young" too.

- wrt "the city" like I and others have pointed out, moving to the city is a product of a number of trends that are reaching critical mass.

But as David C. points out, it's a function of energy prices. Since it's fair to say that these prices will increase significantly over time if only because of demand increases in Asia, living further out will be a disadvantage, especially if housing values are more likely to be stagnant.

- but lots of "the cities" aren't at the point that DC, SF, Manhattan, Brooklyn, Boston, etc. are at.

- some of those center cities will revitalize, others won't. In any case, it will take a long time. But it really is more a neighborhood phenomenon than it is an "entire city" phenomenon.

Even Detroit/region's housing market is improving somewhat. The issue isn't that every block in a city becomes revitalized, just that many neighborhoods and/or the downtown area become viable and competitive residential neighborhoods.

- oboe, you might be interested in reading this NRHP document on the history of "residential suburbs". Del Ray happens to be a function of the same processes that produced Brookland and Mount Pleasant, just a bit farther out from the core of the city, but more a function of its proximity to Downtown Alexandria.

- http://www.nps.gov/nr/publications/bulletins/suburbs/suburbs-start.htm

It's well written btw, a joy to read.

- the other thing that the pro-suburb contingent in the thread seems to fail to acknowledge is that there is a strong amount of demand for urban living, although yes, much of this demand will be met by conurbations in the suburbs like Wheaton, Rockville, Clarendon etc. and their equivalents across the country.

The problem has been that new housing production was mostly focused on suburban single family dwellings (detached and attached), not to mention municipal service failures (which fortunately are changing in some places, including in fits and starts, in DC).

Leinberger argues that 30% of people want to live in city like places, 40% in classic suburban type places (single use, detached, car-centric) and the other 30% can go either way.

As cities become more competitive and successful and on an upward trend, they will capture more of that 30% of the market that's in play, that can go either way.

by Richard Layman on Jan 4, 2012 2:30 pm • linkreport

"You keep alluding to isolated examples of more city-like suburbs, such as parts of Arlington. But isolated examples are not a trend. The vast majority of suburbs are nothing like Arlington"

well first of all it aint binary. Lots and lots of suburbs are trying to get bits and pieces of what arlington has - whether its sidewalks, or mixed use, or whatever. You see that in Loudoun, you see it in the more recently built parts of PWC (Gainesville area has a lifestyle center instead of a mall). Not that many newer areas are "pure" old style suburbs any more. then you get the areas that have none of the pedestrian oriented features, but still want transit - PWC and Stafford want VRE, some folks in loudoun not only want the silver line but want a rail connection to leesburg.

They may not all fully grasp the contradictions involved - wanting transit without TOD, wanting walkable far from transit (and with problematic walking to employment). But they are getting there. Certainly whats going on in the suburbs is far more complicated than "we are just fine with the old ways" or even "we are just fine with the old ways, except in Arlington"

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jan 4, 2012 2:32 pm • linkreport

I'm not sure it does matter. Ask Adam. He made the claim, so he apparently thinks it matters.

Well then why are you challenging him on it? This is exactly what I'm talking about. You're arguing points that even you concede are irrelevant. That's the definition of quibbling.

Can you agree that a non-trivial percentage of passenger miles are driven on local roads and then we can move on?

by David C on Jan 4, 2012 2:33 pm • linkreport

David C understood what I was getting at. User fees have not paid for the construction of roads as much as people honestly believed. The Pew Research Center makes that information clear and also shows the breakdown between interstates, federal highways, federal-aid state/local roads, which all combined make up 20-30% of total road miles in each state, versus regular state/local roads. I am very aware of the differences.

The point about the number of vehicle miles on local roads was not to argue about the exact percentage split between passenger miles versus vehicle miles. Rather, I was trying to make a point that a large percentage of roads that people travel on are not federal roads, which is creating more of a burden on states and local governments to pay for them. Google "[state name] road funding" and see the articles from nearly every state about how much state/local governments need to raise in taxes in order to cover non-federal road maintenance expenses. The costs are immense and are not being paid for entirely by user fees as many would like us to believe.

by Adam L on Jan 4, 2012 2:44 pm • linkreport

I've never seen any comprehensive analysis to support the claim that the public costs of housing, or urban development more broadly, are higher in low-density areas than in high-density ones (e.g., Loudon vs. Arlington). Of course, even if it's true that the public costs are higher for suburban development, the public benefits may also be higher.

by Bertie on Jan 4, 2012 2:45 pm • linkreport

@Richard Layman:

Thanks for the Del Ray link..

Leinberger argues that 30% of people want to live in city like places, 40% in classic suburban type places (single use, detached, car-centric) and the other 30% can go either way.

As cities become more competitive and successful and on an upward trend, they will capture more of that 30% of the market that's in play, that can go either way.

I think one of the more interesting scenarios that may play out in the future is that--due to congestion, energy prices, and schools--we might see a situation where folks who would prefer to live in a traditional suburban style development might not get the chance to.

In a mirror-image of thwarted urbanophiles of previous decades, they may end up moving into a smaller, more dense community for reasons outside of consumer preference.

"Oh, sure. It's all well and fine to live out in the sticks now. But just wait until you have kids! What are you going to do? Home school them?"

by oboe on Jan 4, 2012 2:46 pm • linkreport

That's what I was asking for the other day. While searching, all I was able to dig up was this from Wendell Cox:
Proponents fail to account for the fact that infill development also requires more infrastructure. The existing water and sewer systems in densifying areas are likely to require upgrades, now or later. In many older cities, these systems are older, even obsolete and may not have the capacity to meet the increased demand. Constructing these upgrades will generally be far more expensive in an already developed area than building new, state of the art facilities in greenfield areas.
(http://bit.ly/6DzwQ6)

Which really seems to sum it up as far as the pro-sprawl lobby goes. Are the long-term costs of maintaining infrastructure higher in dense urban areas, or sprawling suburban areas? Who cares! It's cheaper to move another 10 miles out and build "new, state of the art facilities in greenfield areas"!

That's great if it's 1934. Not so great if your region's aging infrastructure extends as far out as the Shenandoah Valley.

by oboe on Jan 4, 2012 2:53 pm • linkreport

Sorry, that was a response to @Bertie's "I've never seen any comprehensive analysis to support the claim that the public costs of housing, or urban development more broadly, are higher in low-density areas than in high-density ones."

by oboe on Jan 4, 2012 2:54 pm • linkreport

AdamL,

User fees have not paid for the construction of roads as much as people honestly believed. The Pew Research Center makes that information clear

Where does Pew make that information clear? Give us a link. I assume "people" here is supposed to mean "most people" or "people in general" rather than just some number of people.

The point about the number of vehicle miles on local roads was not to argue about the exact percentage split between passenger miles versus vehicle miles. Rather, I was trying to make a point that a large percentage of roads that people travel on are not federal roads, which is creating more of a burden on states and local governments to pay for them.

So what? Are you suggesting that all roads should be "federal roads" and funded entirely from federal sources? Or what? Like many other public services, the nation's road system is funded and managed jointly by federal, state and local governments. This seems reasonable to me.

by Bertie on Jan 4, 2012 3:02 pm • linkreport

I think Falls Church's point that revitalization of cities does not mean the death of suburbs is right. But, as others have pointed out, the suburban model is deeply flawed. Lack of walkability, poor land use and focus on cars has created sprawl and traffic. And to top it all off, there's the bland architecture, which has even started to seep back into the cities, if DC's new apartment buildings are any indication. Maybe the revitalization of cities can serve as a blueprint for improvements that suburbs can make to create more functional, efficient, and beautiful spaces. After all, developers are already going in that direction (tentatively) by eschewing enclosed malls for faux downtown shopping areas. Making the suburbs more urban would create better transportation and lifestyle choices while keeping some of the aspects that current residents like.

by The Heights on Jan 4, 2012 3:07 pm • linkreport

@Bertie, even if it's true that the public costs are higher for suburban development, the public benefits may also be higher --and, as you nearly always demand, can you supply quantitative evidence supporting this assertion?

by Tina on Jan 4, 2012 3:08 pm • linkreport

One other point that is often overlooked. One of the great drivers of suburban sprawl is the allure of homeownership. Obviously the growth at the fringes is driven by folks who are buying new homes, not renting. We're looking at a future where homeownership is likely to be a much less universal phenomenon. Which means more multi-family homes. Which means increased density.

The Fed foresees "a potentially long-term downshift in the supply of mortgage credit."

http://t.co/tbVm6kZ2

by oboe on Jan 4, 2012 3:11 pm • linkreport

Bertie: You know exactly what I mean by the general term "people." I don't think I need a poll to determine what large percentage of Americans believe that road costs are entirely or near-entirely paid for by gas taxes and other user fees.

Go to: http://subsidyscope.org/transportation/direct-expenditures/highways/funding/analysis/

by Adam L on Jan 4, 2012 3:21 pm • linkreport

as you nearly always demand, can you supply quantitative evidence supporting this assertion?

Since the assertion is merely that the public benefits of suburban development MAY be higher, no. Is there some reason why you think it is simply not possible that suburban development has higher public benefits?

by Bertie on Jan 4, 2012 3:23 pm • linkreport

"Is there some reason why you think it is simply not possible that suburban development has higher public benefits?"

Yes - because the person making the point hasn't given any evidence that it MAY be true. If adding the word "MAY" means you'll never be able to obfuscate by continually demanding evidence and then claiming that evidence's insufficiency, then "MAY" has become my favorite word (and a lovely month). You can't have it both ways, my friend.

by The Heights on Jan 4, 2012 3:33 pm • linkreport

I don't think I need a poll to determine what large percentage of Americans believe that road costs are entirely or near-entirely paid for by gas taxes and other user fees.

Why not? What other evidence do you have that a large percentage of Americans believe that?

And again, why is this so important anyway? Road costs are just a small fraction of the total costs of driving, and we use roads so much that the actual value of the subsidy per unit of transportation is very low. As I said, road subsidies are on the order of 1 cent per passenger-mile. Mass transit, in contrast, is subsidized on the order of 75 cents per passenger-mile. That is an enormous disparity. If you find transportation subsidies so objectionable, why aren't you railing against transit subsidies?

by Bertie on Jan 4, 2012 3:34 pm • linkreport

Yes - because the person making the point hasn't given any evidence that it MAY be true.

I don't need to give any evidence that it MAY be true. One is not justified in believing that something is impossible without evidence that it is impossible. My friend.

by Bertie on Jan 4, 2012 3:38 pm • linkreport

@oboe, a historic driver in the mushrooming of suburbs is over looked too: The GI bill gave funding only for SFHs.

by Tina on Jan 4, 2012 3:38 pm • linkreport

@Bertie:
I believe that may be the point The Heights was making.

by Matt Johnson on Jan 4, 2012 3:39 pm • linkreport

"we use roads so much that the actual value of the subsidy per unit of transportation is very low"

Premise 1: Roads have lower per-unit subsidy than transit.
Premise 2: Roads have lower per-unit subsidy because there are more of them.
Therefore: Build more roads to gain even lower per-unit subsidies regardless of costs.

Look, mom! It's a self-fulfilling prophecy!

*slams head on desk and cries for the future of our country*

by Adam L on Jan 4, 2012 3:47 pm • linkreport

Well it may be true that social costs and economic costs, environmental costs and health costs of car-dependent suburban development greatly overshadow any social benefit some individual may percieve them to confer.

by Tina on Jan 4, 2012 3:48 pm • linkreport

Why not? What other evidence do you have that a large percentage of Americans believe that?

I frequently hear people and read letters from people claiming that the roads are paid for entirely by user fees. But this is also a trivial point. What most people think is irrelevant. Again you latch on to some non-important issue.

why is this so important anyway?

The original claim was that "sprawl is evolutionary/biologically driven". And this was countered that it has been subsidized. Even at 1 cent per mile [It's even less per foot] those subsidies distort the marketplace. Which means it's not organic but designed. That's why - in this context - it is important. Had we not provided these subsidies and instituted parking minimums, had we taxed pollution and put in more environmental protections, had we respected property rights more etc...we MAY have found suburban living much more expensive and would find a much different dynamic than the one we have now.

by David C on Jan 4, 2012 3:51 pm • linkreport

I frequently hear people and read letters from people claiming that the roads are paid for entirely by user fees

Do you? I rarely hear and read that. I do frequently hear and read people complaining about road subsidies, however. I don't think unsubstantiated personal anecdotes will resolve this question.

And this was countered that it has been subsidized. Even at 1 cent per mile [It's even less per foot] those subsidies distort the marketplace.

1 cent per passenger-mile is about 3% of the total cost of driving. Its effect on the market for driving is trivial. 75 cents per passenger-mile is about 75% of the total cost of mass transit. Its effect on the market for transit is enormous. If you are truly worried about the distortion of the transportation market through subsidies, you should be far more concerned about transit subsidies.

by Bertie on Jan 4, 2012 4:10 pm • linkreport

Heights,

But, as others have pointed out, the suburban model is deeply flawed. Lack of walkability, poor land use and focus on cars has created sprawl and traffic. And to top it all off, there's the bland architecture, which has even started to seep back into the cities, if DC's new apartment buildings are any indication.

The fact that there are aspects of the suburban model you dislike, or even that everyone dislikes, does not mean that it is "deeply flawed." All urban forms have certain advantages and disadvantages. I expect that most advocates of the suburban model would probably concede that in some respects the dense city model is better. What matters is which model is better overall, which one has the most favorable mix of costs and benefits. Fifty years of expansion of the suburban model, not just in the U.S. but in virtually all the wealthy democracies, makes the answer pretty clear.

Perhaps in the future there will be a dramatic change in conditions or preferences, making the dense city model much more attractive than it is now. But for the reasons Falls Church has described, this doesn't seem very likely.

by Bertie on Jan 4, 2012 4:26 pm • linkreport

If you are truly worried about the distortion of the transportation market through subsidies, you should be far more concerned about transit subsidies.

Who the hell is talking about transit? That's a total red herring. Stay on subject.

by David C on Jan 4, 2012 4:39 pm • linkreport

@Bertie:
All urban forms have certain advantages and disadvantages. I expect that most advocates of the suburban model would probably concede that in some respects the dense city model is better. What matters is which model is better overall, which one has the most favorable mix of costs and benefits. Fifty years of expansion of the suburban model, not just in the U.S. but in virtually all the wealthy democracies, makes the answer pretty clear.
With the full understanding that I am probably going to regret wading further into this discussion, I have to address this point.

You have not proven anything with your statement, Bertie. Let me summarize your stipulations:

  1. All urban forms have advantages and disadvantages.
  2. What is important is deciding which is better in terms of costs* and benefits*.
  3. For the last 50 years, people have chosen the suburban model.
  4. Therefore: The suburban model is "better".

First off, while people's choices (whether affected by regulation or not) may be an important factor, it does not necessarily equate to good public policy. Nor does it necessarily equate to an efficient or favorable mix of costs and benefits.

Let's think of an example (these stipulations are for example only, they do not attempt to reflect actual circumstances):

  1. All food groups have advantages and disadvantages.
  2. What's important is promoting healthy choices.
  3. Government subsidizes the production of french fries.
  4. Government regulations inhibit the production of vegetables.
  5. The vast majority of people choose french fries.
  6. Therefore: French fries are the healthier choice.

Do you see how that logic fails?

So, too, does yours. The fact that more people choose one alternative over another does not necessarily indicate that it is better on a cost/benefit scale (or any other scale besides "popularity".

There are many confounding variables that can affect popularity. And even if there weren't, popularity is not a proxy for things like sustainability, efficiency, or cost of infrastructure — the things that could be elements of determining whether a particular urban form is "better" in terms of costs* and benefits.*

*I am assuming that you mean cost/benefit to society as a whole and not to an individual consumer, since that's the general framing this thread has been using.

by Matt Johnson on Jan 4, 2012 4:42 pm • linkreport

@Matt Johnson:
Also, I should note that in my example (the second ordered list), the logic still fails even if numbers 3 and 4 are left off:
  1. All food groups have advantages and disadvantages.
  2. What's important is promoting healthy choices.
  3. The vast majority of people choose french fries.
  4. Therefore: French fries are the healthier choice.

by Matt Johnson on Jan 4, 2012 4:44 pm • linkreport

fifty years is just about the time needed to start seeing the costs of the unintedended consequences. The fact that humans have been doing something new for 50 years does not prove the behavior is going to withstand the test of time. Fifty years is not even a human lifespan. Men have been going without hats for 50 years now. A fashion trend can be seen in fifty years not an undeniable human behavior adpated for the ages.

by Tina on Jan 4, 2012 4:49 pm • linkreport

@bertie -- if you want "evidence" that people believe that gas taxes pay for roads, just read the online comments for any news article from a traditional media source (newspapers, magazines, tv, radio) about gas taxes, paying for bike infrastructure, etc. Most every comment is about how gas taxes pay for roads completely, that bikes and transit are free riders and require subsidies, etc. It's a pretty uniform phenomenon. I'm surprised you haven't noticed it.

wrt David C's point about why the road tax thing came up, yes, I argued that the subsidization of interstate highways, where federal monies paid for 90% of the cost of the roads, subsidized sprawl, that it wasn't a natural, biological phenomenon.

http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post/13226/in-fringe-suburbs-has-economics-trumped-the-appeal-of-new/#comment-125896

Your comment immediately following brought up road taxes, I never did. That wasn't the point I was making.

by Richard Layman on Jan 4, 2012 5:14 pm • linkreport

If I understand Bertie, I think her point is that the suggestion that a large percentage of Americans believe that road costs are entirely or near-entirely paid for by gas taxes and other user fees isn't necessarily true. That does not mean that NO american believes this but that we shouldn't/can't determine what large percentage of americans want by reading online commentary. I think it plays on our belief that our comments actually reflect what most americans want when in fact, what we really believe is that most "should" want it.

by HogWash on Jan 4, 2012 5:27 pm • linkreport

matt johnson,

First off, while people's choices (whether affected by regulation or not) may be an important factor, it does not necessarily equate to good public policy. Nor does it necessarily equate to an efficient or favorable mix of costs and benefits.

Yes, the market and political process don't "necessarily" produce those things on this or any other matter. Thank you for that trivial observation. If you think you can make a serious case that the people have been wrong about this for 50 years, all over the world, please do so.

Do you see how that logic fails?

It wasn't a formal logical argument. It was an informal argument about real-world preferences and outcomes. I thought that was clear from the form of the comment.

by Bertie on Jan 4, 2012 5:33 pm • linkreport

@bertie -- if you want "evidence" that people believe that gas taxes pay for roads, just read the online comments for any news article from a traditional media source (newspapers, magazines, tv, radio) about gas taxes, paying for bike infrastructure, etc. Most every comment is about how gas taxes pay for roads completely, that bikes and transit are free riders and require subsidies, etc.

I think the idea that this claim counts as serious evidence is absurd.

What you need is a random national poll or survey, of the kind used to discover public belief on other issues. Then you might have a rational basis for the claim about what people believe on this question.

by Bertie on Jan 4, 2012 5:47 pm • linkreport

If you think you can make a serious case that -- even if it's true that the public costs are higher for suburban development, the public benefits may also be higher -- please do so.

by Tina on Jan 4, 2012 5:48 pm • linkreport

Tina, why do you think you are justified in believing that it's impossible that the public benefits of suburban development are higher?

by Bertie on Jan 4, 2012 6:00 pm • linkreport

What you need is a random national poll or survey

you mean something like this?

"60% of the respondents — Republican and Democrat alike — believe the federal gas tax is raised annually" 2009 poll results from Building America’s Future, Public Opinion Strategies, and Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research

Meanwhile the fed. gas tax hasn't been raised since 1993. Yeah. A lot of people are misinformed about the gas tax. I'll posit that since there is evidence 60% wrongly believe the tax is raised annually it may be true 60% also wrongly believe it covers the cost of road bldg & maintainance.

by Tina on Jan 4, 2012 6:04 pm • linkreport

Bertie, why do you think you are justified in believing that it's impossible that the public benefits of suburban development are not higher?

by Tina on Jan 4, 2012 6:05 pm • linkreport

you mean something like this?

Yes, something like that, but one that actually asks people the question we're discussing, rather than a different question.

Bertie, why do you think you are justified in believing that it's impossible that the public benefits of suburban development are not higher?

I don't believe that "it's impossible that the public benefits of suburban development are not higher."

by Bertie on Jan 4, 2012 6:11 pm • linkreport

Can we agree that it is a non-trivial number of people who believe this and move on?

by David C on Jan 4, 2012 6:25 pm • linkreport

Who the hell is talking about transit?

You complained about market distortion caused by road subsidies. I pointed out in response that road subsidies are so small per unit of travel and in comparison to the total cost of driving that the distortion is trivial. In contrast, transit subsidies are so large that their distortion of the market is enormous.

by Bertie on Jan 4, 2012 6:35 pm • linkreport

@BertieI think the idea that this claim counts as serious evidence is absurd.

What you need is a random national poll or survey, of the kind used to discover public belief on other issues. Then you might have a rational basis for the claim about what people believe on this question.

I think that the idea that it's necessary to have a random national poll or survey to have a rational basis for a claim is absurd.

by Miriam on Jan 4, 2012 6:37 pm • linkreport

Not just "a claim," Miriam. The particular claim that "user fees have not paid for the construction of roads as much as people honestly believed." If you think you have some other kind of serious evidence of what people believe on this question, please present it.

by Bertie on Jan 4, 2012 6:45 pm • linkreport

I pointed out in response that road subsidies are so small per unit of travel and in comparison to the total cost of driving that the distortion is trivial

That was not your claim. But, again, you're talking only about direct subsidies, not direct and indirect subsidies. I think if we priced driving at the full cost we'd see behavior change. And even if we raise the gas tax by the penny per mile (or 24 cents per gallon, which would be a 6% rise in the price of driving) you're talking about we'd see behavior change. For example, people might be willing to pay a little more to reduce the number of miles they have to travel. If we raise the gas tax AND stop subsidizing transit, we'd still see the cost of driving go up and we'd still see that change behavior. So transit is a red herring.

In contrast, transit subsidies are so large that their distortion of the market is enormous.

Not really. Most travel is by car. So even if you cut transit use in half, it wouldn't change things that much. Whereas a 2% reduction in miles driven would be a much larger change in behavior.

by David C on Jan 4, 2012 6:47 pm • linkreport

That was not your claim.

Yes it was.

But, again, you're talking only about direct subsidies,

I'm talking about road subsidies, since that is the subsidy you complained about.

I think if we priced driving at the full cost we'd see behavior change.

I think if we priced anything at the full cost we'd see behavior change. If we priced mass transit at full cost, I think the market for transit would shrink to a small fraction of its current size, and that transit-oriented urban forms and lifestyles, which are already relatively rare, would become much rarer still.

And even if we raise the gas tax by the penny per mile (or 24 cents per gallon, which would be a 6% rise in the price of driving)

As I said, eliminating road subsidies would raise the cost of driving on the order of 3%.

Most travel is by car. So even if you cut transit use in half, it wouldn't change things that much.

It wouldn't change overall urban transportation patterns much, because transit is already such a small share of the total market. But it would have a dramatic effect in cities that are heavily dependent on transit.

by Bertie on Jan 4, 2012 7:03 pm • linkreport

I think if we priced anything at the full cost we'd see behavior change.

Then we're in agreement that the subsidies for driving have distorted the marketplace in such a way as to make suburban living cheaper than it actually is.

by David C on Jan 4, 2012 7:09 pm • linkreport

Subsidies have distorted the marketplace in such a way as to make almost everything cheaper than it actually is. There's nothing special about suburban living in this respect.

by Bertie on Jan 4, 2012 7:35 pm • linkreport

Subsidies have distorted the marketplace in such a way as to make almost everything cheaper than it actually is.

This is clever-sounding nonsense.

by oboe on Jan 4, 2012 9:02 pm • linkreport

This is clever-sounding nonsense.

It's not "nonsense," but it's very poorly phrased. The phrase "make cheaper than it actually is" comes from David C, not me. I just repeated it in my own comment, which probably wasn't a good idea. I won't try to guess what David C meant (his writing is full of this kind of mangled wording), but what I mean to say is that almost all products and services produced by our economy are subsidized in some way, so market or legislated prices do not reflect their full cost.

by Bertie on Jan 4, 2012 9:59 pm • linkreport

Subsidies have distorted the marketplace in such a way as to make almost everything cheaper than it actually is.

You make an excellent point Bertie. Not only is driving to the suburbs heavily subsidized, but so is transit, which largely serves suburban commuters. Commuter rail almost exclusively serves to move suburbanites into the city, and suburban commuters make up a large number - if not the majority - of other transit users.

If we were to stop subsidizing all of these forms of transportation it would make the suburbs far less appealing as transportation costs would go up and service would go down.

That becomes even more true if we consider not only road subsidies, but subsidies to oil/gasoline and parking as well as indirect subsidies like pollution.

Part of the reason the suburbs have been so popular is that we have been subsidizing the transportation of suburbanites by subsidizing both driving and transit.

Thank you for making this excellent point.

There's nothing special about suburban living in this respect.

I'm assuming this is typo since it contradicts your earlier point about how much we subsidize transportation and how suburbanites consume more of that transportation.

I won't try to guess what David C meant (his writing is full of this kind of mangled wording),

This is an uncalled for insult, based on a misquote and I demand an immediate apology.

by David C on Jan 4, 2012 10:58 pm • linkreport

mangled wording vs. mangled logic...
I think you put the nail in the coffin David C. In Medieval times when there was no subsidy for any transportation, everybody lived in a hamlet, village, town, or city all of which are subsets of the other. There is nothing organic about segregated zoning, which is what separates the suburbs from small towns.

by Thayer-D on Jan 5, 2012 6:22 am • linkreport

If we were to stop subsidizing all of these forms of transportation it would make the suburbs far less appealing as transportation costs would go up and service would go down.

No, if we were to stop transportation subsidies, the incentives would shift in favor of car-oriented suburbs and against transit-oriented cities, because transit is subsidized at a vastly higher rate than driving.

by Bertie on Jan 5, 2012 11:50 am • linkreport

No, if we were to stop transportation subsidies, the incentives would shift in favor of car-oriented suburbs and against transit-oriented cities, because transit is subsidized at a vastly higher rate than driving.

It's more likely that cities would benefit. Heavy transit subsidies make it easier for folks to get into--and out of--the cities. Heck the massive subsidies that went to creating (and now maintaining) the interstate highway system made the post-war exodus from the cities largely possible.

Make it harder for suburbanites to get into and out of the cities, and more of them will live in the city than city-dwellers forced to move out to the suburbs.

by oboe on Jan 5, 2012 12:03 pm • linkreport

@Bertie, no you're wrong. Thats not what would happen.

by Tina on Jan 5, 2012 12:16 pm • linkreport

if we were to stop transportation subsidies, the incentives would shift in favor of car-oriented suburbs and against transit-oriented cities

If all transportation in transit-oriented cities were done by transit that might be true. But it isn't. One advantage of transit-oriented cities is the number of trips you can do on foot and on bike. And these would still be free. So cities would be cheaper for this reason. Plus the total number of miles driven and miles on transit are lower in the cities.

So city residents would see walking and biking trips remain the same price. They'd see an uptick in the annual cost of taking transit and an uptick in the cost of driving.

Suburban residents would see a larger uptick in the cost of taking transit - since their trips are longer and many systems charge more for longer distances, and see a larger uptick in the cost of driving.

To make my point. Imagine if driving cost $100 a mile and transit cost $600 a mile. Where would you want to live? I'd want to live someplace where I can walk and bike almost everywhere and when I had to drive or take transit it was only a short distance. There is a name for that place - and it is the dense urban area. It is not the suburbs.

by David C on Jan 5, 2012 12:26 pm • linkreport

Eliminating subsidies would raise the price of using transit by a factor of three or more. That would create an enormous incentive to reduce the use of transit. Substituting biking and walking for transit at current densities would cause an enormous increase in travel times, and for many trips would not be feasible at all, because biking and walking are much slower than motorized transportation. This loss of time and mobility would impose huge social and economic costs. In order to allow most trips currently made on transit to be made on foot or by bike instead in a reasonable amount of time, density would have to increase enormously. That would enormously increase housing costs, crowding, noise, congestion, pollution, loss of privacy and all the other costs of higher density. That's why no wealthy industrialized society has organized itself in that way. The closest examples are Asian cities such as Hong Kong, Singapore and Tokyo, and their density is the result of necessity, not choice. They just don't have enough land for low density, car-oriented urban forms.

by Bertie on Jan 5, 2012 1:49 pm • linkreport

I disagree.

by David C on Jan 5, 2012 1:52 pm • linkreport

Bertie, no you're wrong. Thats not what would happen

The stunning force of your argument overwhelms me.

by Bertie on Jan 5, 2012 1:52 pm • linkreport

Bertie, I learned that technique from your example. Thanks for the mentoring.

by Tina on Jan 5, 2012 2:03 pm • linkreport

Substituting biking and walking for transit at current densities would cause an enormous increase in travel times, and for many trips would not be feasible at all, because biking and walking are much slower than motorized transportation.

Funny, I've found I can ride cross town during rush hour in about half the time it takes to drive. From this we can incur that, in the absence of massive subsidies (both highway and transit) to support sprawl in the region, proximity to the various urbanizing nodes (e.g. downtown, Tysons) would be even more attractive than it is now. This would be reflected in even higher real estate prices as congestion got significantly worse, and consequently quality of life in auto-dependent places went into the crapper.

by oboe on Jan 5, 2012 2:31 pm • linkreport

Or "infer" as the case may be.

by oboe on Jan 5, 2012 2:35 pm • linkreport

Funny, I've found I can ride cross town during rush hour in about half the time it takes to drive. From this we can incur that, in the absence of massive subsidies (both highway and transit) to support sprawl in the region, proximity to the various urbanizing nodes (e.g. downtown, Tysons) would be even more attractive than it is now. This would be reflected in even higher real estate prices as congestion got significantly worse, and consequently quality of life in auto-dependent places went into the crapper.

I can't make sense of this. Regardless of your personal experiences, biking and walking are generally much slower than motorized transportation. Therefore, a large-scale shift from motorized transportation to biking and walking would require much higher densities to maintain reasonable travel times. Much higher densities would cause much higher housing costs, and the other problems I listed.

by Bertie on Jan 5, 2012 2:50 pm • linkreport

I can't make sense of this. Regardless of your personal experiences, biking and walking are generally much slower than motorized transportation.

Just to get you up-to-speed with the argument you've been making, you said "if we were to stop transportation subsidies, the incentives would shift in favor of car-oriented suburbs and against transit-oriented cities".

David C made the obvious point that, this might be true if cities were "transit-dependent" to the extent that non-urban environments are car-dependent. But they're not. You can walk. You can bike.

You then argued that biking and walking take far too long to get anywhere. And I pointed out that, on the contrary, in an urban environment biking is usually faster than driving.

At which point you feigned confusion and fell back on generalities.

In any case, if we eliminated Federal subsidies tomorrow (both transit and those that favor auto-dependency) most metropolitan areas would fund them out of local money. And the vast, vast majority of far-flung auto-dependent communities across America would wither on the vine.

Federal subsidies (like most Federal spending) is a massive socialistic wealth transfer from wealthy, denser metropolitan areas to everywhere else.

If everyone had to pay their way, metropolitan regions like Chicago, NYC and the Metro DC area would come out ahead, and the low-density areas would generally go bankrupt over time.

It's why the "conservative" obsession with states rights and local control is so ridiculous. If it ever happened we'd see an almost immediate bifurcation of states into "haves" versus "have-nots". And almost every one of the "haves" would be Blue States that would favor urbanism.

by oboe on Jan 5, 2012 3:20 pm • linkreport

@ Bertie

I'd like some evidence for your contention that density creates greater pollution than the suburbs. After all, cars emit tons of pollution. Having to heat and cool large McMansions produce lots of pollution. Running electricity to miles and miles of streetlights creates pollution. Cities are more snarly packed, feature smaller living spaces, and more energy-efficient transportation. So, as you would undoubtedly demand of others, please back up your bald assertion with some evidencee.

by The Heights on Jan 5, 2012 3:49 pm • linkreport

Sorry, not "snarly packed," but "tightly packed." And "evidence," not evidencee."

by The Heights on Jan 5, 2012 3:55 pm • linkreport

@The Heights- yes, I agree. However-"snarly" packed? And I assume "bald" is a typo and you meant "bold".

by Tina on Jan 5, 2012 3:55 pm • linkreport

in an urban environment biking is usually faster than driving.

No it isn't. And your claim is irrelevant anyway because the comparison is between motorized (cars or transit) and non-motorized (walking or biking) transportation, not simply between biking and driving. Non-motorized transportation is generally much slower. The average one-way bus, light rail or subway trip would take more than 90 minutes on foot. Even longer for children, the elderly and disabled people who walk more slowly than average. The average commuter rail trip would take more than 6 hours on foot. It would not be remotely feasible to substitute non-motorized modes for motorized modes without an enormous increase in density to maintain reasonable travel times. Eliminating transit subsidies would therefore cause an enormous increase in the cost of dense urban living through some combination of an enormous increase in transportation prices (a quadrupling of transit fares) and an enormous increase in density.

by Bertie on Jan 5, 2012 4:17 pm • linkreport

No it isn't.

Yes it is.

I guess it depends on how we define "urban". Anyway, there used to be these things called "bicycle couriers" before the days of the Internet. Under my hypothesis, they were hired to deliver packages in dense urban environments because they were faster than other modes.

Under your hypothesis, perhaps it was a sort of quasi-charitable initiative to encourage young men to get more exercise.

Funny that my claim that "in an urban environment biking is usually faster than driving" is "irrelevant" because the comparison is between motorized and non-motorized, not simply biking and driving.

Speaking of irrelevant, since we're talking about how the end of such subsidies would transform both urban and non-urban areas, what's really irrelevant is comparing current trip distances. A current commuter rail trip would take 6 hours on foot. Obviously that wouldn't happen. So congestion would continue to spiral out of control, and proximity would be even more desirable. And yes, there would be an enormous increase in density.

Funny how added number are a sign of success when they're in the suburbs, but a sign of failure when they're in urban areas though. It's fun to watch you shift your argument with each successive comment.

I may be wrong, but at least I'm consistently wrong. Heh.

by oboe on Jan 5, 2012 4:57 pm • linkreport

Can we keep this thread going..I'm thoroughly entertained!

by thump on Jan 5, 2012 5:21 pm • linkreport

I guess it depends on how we define "urban".

Well, I'm using the standard government definition. I don't know what definition you're using. Whatever your definition is, how do you think you know that "in an urban environment biking is usually faster than driving"? Assuming you didn't just make up this fact out of thin air (which of course you never do), where did you get it from?

Funny that my claim that "in an urban environment biking is usually faster than driving" is "irrelevant" because the comparison is between motorized and non-motorized, not simply biking and driving.

I don't know why you think it's funny. I explained why it's irrelevant. Urban travel includes transit and walking as well as driving and biking.

Speaking of irrelevant, since we're talking about how the end of such subsidies would transform both urban and non-urban areas, what's really irrelevant is comparing current trip distances. A current commuter rail trip would take 6 hours on foot. Obviously that wouldn't happen.

Right. Of course it wouldn't happen. That's the point. Without transit subsidies, the commuter would either have to pay four times as much for his train ride, or he'd have to give up his spacious, comfortable, affordable home in the suburbs for smaller, more expensive housing closer to his job in the city so he doesn't have to travel as far. If he's going to live within walking or biking distance of his job, his housing is going to be very expensive indeed. Either way, it would be a huge cost to him. More likely, he'd look for a new job in the suburbs where he can commute by car.

Funny how added number are a sign of success when they're in the suburbs, but a sign of failure when they're in urban areas though.

I have no idea what this means. "Added number" of what?

by Bertie on Jan 5, 2012 6:00 pm • linkreport

I have no idea what this means. "Added number" of what?
people, housing units, population density.

how do you think you know that "in an urban environment biking is usually faster than driving"? Assuming you didn't just make up this fact out of thin air (which of course you never do), where did you get it from?

Empirically.

Because you continue to deny this reality you have revealed that you have never biked, on a consistent basis as a form of transportation, in an urban area. If you had you no doubt would have compared it to making those same trips by car, assuming you drive, and then you too would know empirically that biking is often faster than driving.

Even when biking is not faster than driving it often takes the same amount of time or minimally longer (< 10 minutes) even for trips as long as 7 miles that traverse hilly terrain in detached SFH developments. I know this by the method described above. Empirically.

by Tina on Jan 5, 2012 6:58 pm • linkreport

Empirically.

Then show me this empirical evidence that "in an urban environment biking is usually faster than driving." I doubt it's true even in an urban environment as dense as New York City, let alone in urban environments in general.

by Bertie on Jan 5, 2012 7:26 pm • linkreport

Substituting biking and walking for transit at current densities would cause an enormous increase in travel times, and for many trips would not be feasible at all, because biking and walking are much slower than motorized transportation.

First of all, I'm not talking about substituting biking and walking for transit. One factor in making the suburbs so popular was cheap transportation. If tansportation becomes expensive, the suburbs would be less popular. And if transportation had been unsubsidized since the beginning, the suburbs would have never gotten to be so popular. So what I'm talking about is a combination of simply not travelling as much, not travelling as far, choosing more dense living and replacing some driving and transit trips with biking and walking. But the latter groups would only be those that are of a reasonable distance, where travel time is competitive.

But, oboe is right about biking not necessarily being much slower than motorized transportation. The average Metro bus goes about 12mph. A cyclist can easily average that speed. And a cyclist can go directly to their destination without dwell time. In the urban core, I believe metro goes about 25 mph average. But again the cyclist can go point to point and not have to wait for a train or wait for a transfer. There are few places in DC proper that I can't get to on my bike faster than I can on Metro. In fact I used to race my wife home after we went out to dinner, me on my bike and her in a taxi, and I won as often as I lost. This was not at rush hour and I don't bike that fast.

I will gladly race you from any point in DC to any other during rush hour. You can drive and I'll bike. Mitt Romney has $10,000 that says I win.

The rest of this comment is irrelevant because I'm not arguing that most trips will be replaced by biking and walking if subsidies go away. Only that people will seek to replace some trips with biking and walking which means living in denser areas.

It would not be remotely feasible to substitute non-motorized modes for motorized modes without an enormous increase in density to maintain reasonable travel times.

Bingo. Which is why if motorized transportation becomes more expensive the result is a return to the cities.

Eliminating transit subsidies would therefore cause an ... an enormous increase in density.

Exactly. That's my point. The suburbs exist becaue of subsidies. Without them people would flood into the city. I'm glad we agree again.

That's the point. Without transit subsidies, the commuter would either have to pay four times as much for his train ride, or he'd have to give up his spacious, comfortable, affordable home in the suburbs for smaller, more expensive housing closer to his job in the city so he doesn't have to travel as far.

Yes. YEs. YEs....Which is why we both agree that subsidized transportation has artificially created a market for suburban living. It's like David Alpert's analogy about free helicopter rides. The only reason the suburbs are so appealing is that someone else pays for your helicopter ride.

If he's going to live within walking or biking distance of his job, his housing is going to be very expensive indeed.

I don't think you can prove that. It used to be that many more people lived in the city and that seemed to work somehow. You've talked about how cities have hallowed out over the last century. If they could afford it then, certainly we could now. He might have a smaller place, but it need not be more expensive. And he'll have some extra money, since he taxes will drop now that he doesn't have to subsidize everyone's transportation, pay for the added health costs of pollution or lack of activity, etc... So more in housing or more in transportation, but less in taxes. I think the total cost savings may dwarf the expenses.

by David C on Jan 5, 2012 7:32 pm • linkreport

First of all, I'm not talking about substituting biking and walking for transit.

Then their transportation costs would increase enormously. Eliminating transit subsidies would require a quadrupling of fares to cover the costs of providing transit services.

One factor in making the suburbs so popular was cheap transportation. If tansportation becomes expensive, the suburbs would be less popular.

Eliminating subsidies would increase the cost of driving by only a small amount, but would increase the cost of using transit by an enormous amount. The economic incentives would become even more favorable to suburbs over cities than they already are.

So what I'm talking about is a combination of simply not travelling as much, not travelling as far, choosing more dense living and replacing some driving and transit trips with biking and walking.

Not traveling as much is a cost. Not traveling as far is a cost. Higher density is a cost. If people wanted to live the way you're describing, they would already be doing so.

But, oboe is right about biking not necessarily being much slower than motorized transportation.

He didn't say that. He said "in an urban environment biking is usually faster than driving."

we both agree that subsidized transportation has artificially created a market for suburban living. It's like David Alpert's analogy about free helicopter rides. The only reason the suburbs are so appealing is that someone else pays for your helicopter ride.

We don't agree. Suburbs would be even more popular if transportation subsidies were eliminated, because the cost of dense urban lifestyles would increase relative to the cost of suburban lifestyles. If you live in the city, someone else pays far more of your "helicopter rides" than if you live in the suburbs. You're the only person I've ever come across who thinks that eliminating transit subsidies would promote dense urban living rather than undermine it.

I don't think you can prove that.

It's proved by the enormous disparity in housing prices between dense urban areas and suburbs. Housing is much more expensive in dense areas. Land costs increase with density, because there are more people competing for each square foot. And construction costs increase with density, because it costs more to build vertically than horizontally.

by Bertie on Jan 5, 2012 8:06 pm • linkreport

And, as always, we return to the "Miracle of The Hyper-Dense And Unimaginably Expensive Real Estate On Which No One Wants To Live." Oh well.

by oboe on Jan 5, 2012 8:55 pm • linkreport

No, we're talking about the "Reality of The Very Expensive Real Estate in Dense Urban Areas." For examples, see the dense urban areas of pretty much any metropolitan area in the U.S. or Europe.

by Bertie on Jan 5, 2012 9:07 pm • linkreport

Land costs increase with density, because there are more people competing for each square foot.

Why?

Why are more people competing for each square foot?

by oboe on Jan 5, 2012 9:22 pm • linkreport

Why are more people competing for each square foot?

Seriously? Because that's what higher density (of people) MEANS. More people per square foot. If there weren't more people per square foot, it wouldn't be higher density.

by Bertie on Jan 5, 2012 9:36 pm • linkreport

But your argument is that they are *competing* for space. Not that they're compelled to do so. And they are paying a ridiculously high premium for the privilege.

Again, *why* are more people competing for each square foot?

by oboe on Jan 5, 2012 9:43 pm • linkreport

There are more people per square foot because that's what "higher density" means, by definition. They're competing for land because housing consumes land. More demand per unit of supply means a higher unit price.

by Bertie on Jan 5, 2012 9:53 pm • linkreport

I think we're dangerously close to a Turing Test failure situation here.

by oboe on Jan 5, 2012 10:52 pm • linkreport

Eliminating transit subsidies would require a quadrupling of fares to cover the costs of providing transit services.

What is your obsession with focusing only on transit?

Even if your claim is true, it is coupled with a massive increase in the cost of driving as well. Not only will the cost per mile double to account for all of the direct and indirect subsidies, but if - as you claim - people abandon transit, drivers would find themselves in more congestion and in more competition for parking.

So, yes, transit and driving would become more expensive. Travel would be more expensive. If travel is more expensive, then long commutes would be less desireable and people would move back to the city.

By saying that transit - which is used substantially by people in the suburbs - would quadruple, you only make my point more. People will seek out places where they can walk and make short trips, because long trips will be expensive.

The economic incentives would become even more favorable to suburbs over cities than they already are.

OK, let me turn this around. What caused the explosion of the suburbs. What made it possible? The theory I most often hear is the streetcar and then the car. Both made it cheap and easy to travel between the suburbs and the city. What if transit and driving were no longer cheap and were less easy? Wouldn't that counter the previous trend and push people back to the city?

If not I'd like to see a breakdown of these economic incentives. How much would transportation costs go up for the average suburban driver and the average urbanite who takes transit, but also walks and bikes and drives and takes taxis.

Your claim sounds more like wishful thinking than fact.

If people wanted to live the way you're describing, they would already be doing so.

What this have to do with what people want. The question is have suburbs become popular because we made them artificially cheap. If people want to live in the suburbs we wouldn't have to bribe them to do it.

He said "in an urban environment biking is usually faster than driving."

Well, he's right about that too. Here's proof.

If you live in the city, someone else pays far more of your "helicopter rides" than if you live in the suburbs.

Per mile the subsidy is higher for transit than driving. But city residents travel fewer miles and few - if any - do all of their trips via transit, whereas people in auto-dependent areas do all of their trips via car.

But what is the per capita subsidy for each city resident when compared to the per capita subsidy for each suburban resident? And you have to include the share of transit that serves suburban commuters. What is my subsidy per day as a city resident compared to the subsidy per day of the average Rockville resident who travels to DC for work?

If you can't answer those questions, then your claim cannot be justified.

You're the only person I've ever come across who thinks that eliminating transit subsidies would promote dense urban living rather than undermine it.

That's not what I've claimed. I've claimed that getting rid of transit subsidies and getting rid of driving subsidies (as well as pricing carbon, pollution and other indirect subsidies) would promote dense urban living. And you have agreed above.

Land costs increase with density

True, but transportation distances, and thus transportation costs, increase with sprawl. So which cost is larger? You haven proven that one is larger than the other. Hence you haven't proven your claim.

Nor have you proven that your hypothetical person will demand a home of the same size and thus one that is more expensive. It is possible that he will realize that he can get by just fine with a reasonable rowhouse instead of a McMansion. So his cost won't go up at all, but the size of his home will go down.

by David C on Jan 5, 2012 10:59 pm • linkreport

Even if your claim is true, it is coupled with a massive increase in the cost of driving as well. Not only will the cost per mile double to account for all of the direct and indirect subsidies,

Please present your analysis showing that eliminating all direct and indirect subsidies would cause the cost of driving to double. The National Transit Database reports that direct public subsidies account for almost three-fourths of total direct spending on mass transit. Therefore, eliminating direct transit subsidies would require a quadrupling of transit fares to cover the direct costs of the services. Eliminating indirect transit subsidies would require an even larger increase in transit fares. This would have a devastating impact on transit-oriented areas and lifestyles.

If travel is more expensive, then long commutes would be less desireable and people would move back to the city.

Moving to the city, especially within walking or biking distance of the central business district, would cause an enormous increase in housing costs, as well as all the other costs of high-density living (noise, crowding, congestion, loss of privacy, stress, etc.). Raising the cost of commutes into the city would encourage suburban residents who work in the city to look for new jobs in the suburbs. Jobs are already migrating from cities to suburbs. Making it more expensive to travel into the city would accelerate that trend.

The question is have suburbs become popular because we made them artificially cheap. If people want to live in the suburbs we wouldn't have to bribe them to do it.

We don't bribe them to live in the suburbs. We bribe them to live in the city, by giving them enormously-subsidized transit fares. Despite that huge bribe, the population has been shifting from cities to suburbs for more than half a century.

That's not what I've claimed. I've claimed that getting rid of transit subsidies and getting rid of driving subsidies (as well as pricing carbon, pollution and other indirect subsidies) would promote dense urban living. And you have agreed above.

I do not agree. Please stop attributing to me statements I have not made. As I said, you're the only person I've ever come across who thinks that eliminating transit subsidies would promote dense urban living rather than undermine it, regardless of what you think about driving subsidies.

by Bertie on Jan 5, 2012 11:46 pm • linkreport

Please present your analysis showing that eliminating all direct and indirect subsidies would cause the cost of driving to double.

Here

Eliminating indirect transit subsidies would require an even larger increase in transit fares. This would have a devastating impact on transit-oriented areas and lifestyles.

It would be even more devestating to the suburban commuters who rely on transit to get into the city.

Making it more expensive to travel into the city would accelerate that trend.

More wishful thinking without facts.

We bribe them to live in the city, by giving them enormously-subsidized transit fares.

Transit serves suburbanites as much as it serves city residents. Who do you think rides commuter rail?

As I said, you're the only person I've ever come across who thinks that eliminating transit subsidies would promote dense urban living rather than undermine it

Nope. Didn't say that. If you eliminate both, it would promote urban living. I have taken no position on what eliminating ONLY transit subsidies would do to the attractiveness of urban living. That is not the issue we're discussing. Do pay attention.

I do not agree. Please stop attributing to me statements I have not made.

You wrote "Without transit subsidies, the commuter would either have to pay four times as much for his train ride, or he'd have to give up his spacious, comfortable, affordable home in the suburbs for smaller, more expensive housing closer to his job in the city so he doesn't have to travel as far."

And "Eliminating transit subsidies would therefore cause an ... enormous increase in density."

Ergo, you agreed.

by David C on Jan 6, 2012 12:00 am • linkreport

True, but transportation distances, and thus transportation costs, increase with sprawl. So which cost is larger?

The question doesn't make sense. Transportation costs tend to increase with sprawl and housing costs tend to increase with density, so the answer would depend on the degree of sprawl and the degree of density being compared. But I don't know why you think a cost comparison alone would be useful anyway. What matters is the size and relationship of costs to benefits. The fact that sprawl has increased dramatically over the past 50 years, not just in the United States but in virtually every wealthy democracy, indicates that sprawl generally provides a far more favorable mix of costs and benefits than dense urban living.

Nor have you proven that your hypothetical person will demand a home of the same size and thus one that is more expensive. It is possible that he will realize that he can get by just fine with a reasonable rowhouse instead of a McMansion. So his cost won't go up at all, but the size of his home will go down.

What hypothetical person? A person who doesn't place a lot of value on housing size is obviously more likely to be willing to live in a smaller house than someone who does place a lot of value on housing size. I don't know what "reasonable rowhouse" is supposed to mean, but rowhouses seem to be a lot less popular than detached, single-family homes with yards and a 2- or 3-car garage.

by Bertie on Jan 6, 2012 12:19 am • linkreport

The fact that sprawl has increased dramatically over the past 50 years, not just in the United States but in virtually every wealthy democracy, indicates that sprawl generally provides a far more favorable mix of costs and benefits than dense urban living.

The fact that obesity has increased dramatically over the past 50 years, not just in the United States but in virtually every wealthy democracy, indicates that obesity generally provides a far more favorable mix of costs and benefits than a healthy weight.

In other words, people are irrational. What they choose is not always better. And they're especially irrational in the face of irrational government subsidies.

What hypothetical person?

The one mentioned here. Do pay attention.

The question doesn't make sense.

The problem isn't the question. It's your ability to understand it. You can't even remember the things you wrote.

by David C on Jan 6, 2012 12:32 am • linkreport

Here

I meant a serious analysis. 11 cents per passenger-mile for air pollution? 10 cents for "global warming?" "Transportation Diversity?" Absurd. I have previously shown you academic research concluding that total subsidies to motor vehicle users are a few cents per passenger-mile. This is just a small fraction of the total cost of driving, and a small fraction of the subsidies provided to mass transit in direct public funding alone.

It would be even more devestating to the suburban commuters who rely on transit to get into the city.

I doubt that, but as I said, raising the cost of commutes into the city would encourage suburban residents who work in the city to look for new jobs in the suburbs.

Transit serves suburbanites as much as it serves city residents.

No it doesn't. City residents use transit far more than suburbanites.

Didn't say that. If you eliminate both, it would promote urban living.

Yes, you did say it. Eliminating both means eliminating transit subsidies. As I said, you're the only person I've ever come across who thinks that eliminating transit subsidies would promote dense urban living rather than undermine it.

You wrote "Without transit subsidies, the commuter would either have to pay four times as much for his train ride, or he'd have to give up his spacious, comfortable, affordable home in the suburbs for smaller, more expensive housing closer to his job in the city so he doesn't have to travel as far."

Yes, I did write that. But I did NOT write "getting rid of transit subsidies and getting rid of driving subsidies (as well as pricing carbon, pollution and other indirect subsidies) would promote dense urban living," or any words expressing that view, which is the position you falsely attributed to me.

by Bertie on Jan 6, 2012 12:40 am • linkreport

raising the cost of commutes into the city would encourage suburban residents who work in the city to look for new jobs in the suburbs.

Or to look for homes in the city.

City residents use transit far more than suburbanites.

Proof please.

Yes, you did say it.

No I said if you do both. And only if you do both.

As I said, you're the only person I've ever come across who thinks that eliminating transit subsidies would promote dense urban living rather than undermine it.

Bertie, meet Bertie. In your own words...

"Eliminating transit subsidies would therefore cause an ... enormous increase in density."

by David C on Jan 6, 2012 12:50 am • linkreport

Transportation costs tend to increase with sprawl...

True nuff. Increased transportation costs are a result of sprawl.

...and housing costs tend to increase with density...

It's laughably wrong to argue increased housing costs are a result of density.

by oboe on Jan 6, 2012 12:56 am • linkreport

Also, the idea that the rising cost of commutes into the city would lead people to simply "get jobs in the suburbs" is equally nonsensical. There is no "the suburbs" that is magically close to any given resident of "the suburbs". Individual people still need access to distinct job locations. You don't solve the problem of transportation costs by moving the job from the city to Springfield. That just means the commuter needs to commute from Falls Church to Springfield rather than Falls Church to DC.

A suburb-to-suburb commute is still a commute. And as likely to be a shitty one compared to commuting into town. No problem, though. Everyone will just quit their jobs and get new ones in their own neighborhoods.

by oboe on Jan 6, 2012 1:05 am • linkreport

The fact that obesity has increased dramatically over the past 50 years, not just in the United States but in virtually every wealthy democracy, indicates that obesity generally provides a far more favorable mix of costs and benefits than a healthy weight. In other words, people are irrational.

On what basis do you claim that the increase in obesity is irrational? If the benefit that obese people get from the behavior that causes their obesity (pleasure from eating foods they enjoy, physical comfort of a sedentary lifestyle, or whatever else it may be) exceeds the costs to them of that behavior in terms of health or appearance, then it's a rational choice for them. Life expectancy and health measures in general have improved significantly over the past 50 years despite the rise in obsesity. It's not at all clear that obese people are behaving irrationally.

But there's a more fundamental problem with your comparison, anyway. High consumption of fatty foods may be driven by a physiological compulsion similar to alcoholism or drug addiction. I've never seen any evidence of a physiological compulsion for sprawl. The evidence suggests that sprawl simply reflects people's rational preferences about how to live and get around. So even if the increase in obesity is the result of mass irrationality, it's simply irrelevant.

The one mentioned here. Do pay attention.

But I wasn't talking about that person in the text you quoted. Do pay attention.

The problem isn't the question. It's your ability to understand it.

No, the problem is most definitely the question. It doesn't make any sense to ask whether A is larger than B when A and B represent overlapping, unbounded ranges of values rather than single values.

by Bertie on Jan 6, 2012 1:10 am • linkreport

Well, he's right about that too. Here's proof.

No, it's not proof. It's not even evidence. A single trip on a single day tells us absolutely nothing about which mode is "usually" faster. It doesn't even tell us which mode is usually faster in New York City, let alone in urban environments in general.

Or to look for homes in the city.

Possibly, but very unlikely, for the reasons I already explained. His housing costs would increase dramatically, and he'd incur all the other costs of dense urban living. If he wanted that kind of lifestyle and was willing to accept those costs, he probably wouldn't have been living in the suburbs.

Proof please.

Sure, just as soon as you provide proof of your prior statement that "transit serves suburbanites as much as it serves city residents." Since you would never just make something up and pretend it's a fact, you must have a source for this claim. So please produce it.

No I said if you do both. And only if you do both.

Yes, I know you said that. The point is that "both" includes eliminating subsidies for transit. As I said, you're the only person I've ever come across who thinks that eliminating transit subsidies would promote dense urban living rather than undermine it.

by Bertie on Jan 6, 2012 1:27 am • linkreport

It's laughably wrong to argue increased housing costs are a result of density.

I just explained to you how higher density results in higher housing costs. It increases the price of land, because more people are competing for each square foot. And it increases the cost of construction, because it costs more to build vertically than horizontally. Construction costs per square foot are around three times as high for high-rise apartment/condo buildings as for single-family homes.

Also, the idea that the rising cost of commutes into the city would lead people to simply "get jobs in the suburbs" is equally nonsensical. There is no "the suburbs" that is magically close to any given resident of "the suburbs". Individual people still need access to distinct job locations. You don't solve the problem of transportation costs by moving the job from the city to Springfield.

There's nothing "magical" about it. Just as people have long been migrating out of cities and into suburbs, so have jobs. Land is cheaper in the suburbs, so office space, factories, warehouses, etc. are cheaper. And workers don't have to put up with a long and difficult commute into the city on commuter rail or on congested roads from their suburban homes. If the cost of commuting into the city increased, that would accelerate the trend of job migration to the suburbs.

by Bertie on Jan 6, 2012 1:46 am • linkreport

Bertie,
Empirically.

Then show me this empirical evidence that "in an urban environment biking is usually faster than driving." I doubt it's true even in an urban environment as dense as New York City, let alone in urban environments in general

I HAVE reported the results of empirically collected data. You say you doubt it but you can't refute it with any evidence of your own b/c you don't have any. Where's your empirical evidence? All you have are assumptions.

by Tina on Jan 6, 2012 8:38 am • linkreport

FWIW, in the transportation planning field, it's generally considered that for trips of 3 miles or less, when you factor everything in, biking and driving take about the same amount of time.

It's definitely faster than transit, although some trips can be faster depending on topography and other conditions. Still with transit, the time you have to spend to get to the station, wait, and get to your final destination can just be spent on the bike getting to your final destination.

In center cities this is definitely true.

Personally, I think that trips up to 5 miles are capturable by bike when you figure in people's time budgets (basically people allocate about 30 minutes to get somewhere).

Obviously, walking takes about 20 minutes per mile, it's not the same. There the strategy is to have more amenities/destinations located within the walkshed so that more trips can be performed close by, thereby eliminating some trips (by car, transit) that would have been beyond the one mile distance.

If you want to understand the point about cities and exchange, I'd recommend Engwicht's _Reclaiming our cities and towns_.

The basic discussion here is about transportation and agglomeration economies. It's pretty well accepted within economics, geography, and transportation planning, even if not by some people within this thread.

With regard to cities and density, this has to do with exchange. There is a reason that more dense places tend to cost more, because more happens there and it's more valuable to be there, so you pay more to be there.

Yes, that's why suburban land is cheaper, generally, at least in high value locations compared to other high value locations either commercial or residential.

It does reflect a different set of choices. Choices that have been significantly subsidized.

The thing about eliminating all subsidy of transit, even presuming elimination of subsidy of all roads is that mobility would then become impossible because it is not possible to move everyone around a region in 150 s.f. boxes carrying one or two people...

by Richard Layman on Jan 6, 2012 9:13 am • linkreport

Empirically.

Then show me this empirical evidence that "in an urban environment biking is usually faster than driving." I doubt it's true even in an urban environment as dense as New York City, let alone in urban environments in general.

You have seen the empirical evidence. All we've seen from you to support your assertion is a false assumption that has been proved erroneous. IMO you consistently present assumptions and conjecture as truth and then when you're called on it you back up your conjecture with even more conjecture and assumptions as "proof" that your first assumptions must be right.

David C. has the patience of a saint in systematically eliminating each of your assumptions.

Really Bertie?
On what basis do you claim that the increase in obesity is irrational? If the benefit that obese people get from the behavior that causes their obesity (pleasure from eating foods they enjoy, physical comfort of a sedentary lifestyle, or whatever else it may be) exceeds the costs to them of that behavior in terms of health or appearance, then it's a rational choice for them.

http://win.niddk.nih.gov/notes/summerfall03notes/obesityaffects.htm

The QOL of obese children is the same as children diagnosed with cancer and undergoing chemotherapy.

Are you sure you want to go down the road arguing that contraction of ICD-9 and DSMIV diseases is a choice whose benefits outweigh its burden? Especially one occurring on a pandemic scale?

http://www.cdc.gov/pdf/facts_about_obesity_in_the_united_states.pdf

The fact that you would posit this shows a gross lack of understanding of the etiologies of both obesity and addiction, which are both characterized by complex biopsychosocial interactions with the environment.

Your cavalier assertion that obesity and addiction are conditions achieved and sustained by complete rational behavior and decision making is yet one more assertion based on uninformed assumption. In addition it is grossly inhumane.

Clearly you know as little about these codified diseases as you do about biking for transportation in the city.

by Tina on Jan 6, 2012 9:48 am • linkreport

It increases the price of land, because more people are competing for each square foot.

This is different than saying "Land costs are high because of density." Density is high because more people are fighting for proximity. You're confusing cause and effect. If large numbers of people were compelled to live in an arbitrary area at the point of a gun, you might have a point. But people do so by choice--it's an expression of consumer preferences.

You're mulishly ignoring the fact that more people are competing because proximity is desirable. It's actually kind of funny to see you contort yourself into such agonizing shapes to avoid conceding this point when to everyone else it's plain as day.

Again, density doesn't cause high prices, competition for scarce and highly desirable resources causes high prices. Density is a secondary effect of the market to supply scarce but highly desirable goods.

"Why are such areas dense?" "Because lots of people live there!" is a dodge and surely beneath what you're capable of. If density were a liability instead of an amenity, such places would be cheaper per square foot, not radically more expensive. For example, real estate prices are significantly more expensive *and* more dense near the beach than a bit inland. This is akin to if you tried to argue that inland property is more "desirable" bu that prices are higher for beachfront property because development is much denser.

"Well, why is it denser?" we ask.

"Because more people live there!"

"And why do more people live there?"

"Because that's what DENSER means!"

And it increases the cost of construction, because it costs more to build vertically than horizontally.

I'd be curious to see how much of the urban price premium can be explained by building costs. Much of DC proper is two-story row-houses on small lots. The difference in cost to build such housing units is negligible compared to a suburban townhouse. Yet they are vastly more expensive. So your assertion that building costs have any significant bearing on price per square foot is unconvincing to say the least.

by oboe on Jan 6, 2012 10:45 am • linkreport

The thing about eliminating all subsidy of transit, even presuming elimination of subsidy of all roads is that mobility would then become impossible because it is not possible to move everyone around a region in 150 s.f. boxes carrying one or two people...

True on the second part, but I'm not convinced that transit would disappear. My wife would still use Metro, even if the cost quadrupled and driving remained the same price. Because it would still be cheaper than paying for parking. As more people drive the cost of parking would only go up and eventually we'd hit a new equilibrium where enough people are willing to pay for transit to keep it arounnd. Not that I think that that is the solution, but just as an academic exercise. In DC we'd only need to double prices to cover costs, and I'd assume that if federal funding goes away so does the federal mandate that transit cover the cost of Metro Access. If drivers had to cover the cost of that service it would make Metro look much better in comparison.

by David C on Jan 6, 2012 10:45 am • linkreport

Also a non-subsidized transit services would tend to concentrate in the closer-in areas to the detriment of further out, auto-dependent areas. As it is service on the periphery of the system is more heavily subsidized than service in the center. If heavy subsidies were eliminated, it would be similar to eliminating rural telephone subsidies or postal subsidies. Service in denser areas would be economically feasible, and so would remain, and areas in the fringe would be left to wither, which would result in a feedback loop intensifying density.

by oboe on Jan 6, 2012 11:13 am • linkreport

True on the second part, but I'm not convinced that transit would disappear.

My guess is that service at the periphery would be curtailed significantly.

If federal/state subsidies for transit ended, you'd end up with something like an expanded version of the proposed streetcar system, funded at the very local level, and serving close-in urban areas: DC, Bethesda, Alexandria, Arlington, etc...

Service would probably improve on the whole for folks in denser areas. Auto-dependent areas would be spending every penny they had maintaining their roadways at a slightly lower level of service as they do now. You'd probably see a lot more gravel roads at the periphery.

by oboe on Jan 6, 2012 11:19 am • linkreport

If he wanted that kind of lifestyle and was willing to accept those costs, he probably wouldn't have been living in the suburbs.

He would if transportation to the suburbs was subsidized. THat's the whole point. Heck even oboe would live in the suburbs if you gave him free helicopter rides to a free house. Not everyone needs a subsidy that high, but you get my point. Offer me enough money and I'll live almost anywhere.

Sure, just as soon as you provide proof of your prior statement that "transit serves suburbanites as much as it serves city residents."

a.k.a. You don't have any proof at all, and you just made it up.

But as proof I offer the substantial prescence of transit stations and bus stops in the suburbs. Most stops on DC area commuter rail are in the suburbs, for example. And almost every transit stop in the suburbs has commuter parking. Without transit those people are driving into the city where they'll find very expensive parking if they find any at all. Or they could pay more for transit and keep it operating. If that is insufficient according to this study 30% of transit users are from the suburbs. Those users travel more miles per trip, so it is likely that their passenger miles are closer to 50%. During rush hour I would expect them to make up more than 50% of users.

As I said, you're the only person I've ever come across* who thinks** that eliminating transit subsidies would promote dense urban living rather than undermine it.

And as I said

Bertie, meet Bertie. In your own words...

"Eliminating transit subsidies would therefore cause an ... enormous increase in density."

So apparantly YOU think that.

*The beliefs of people you've come across are totally irrelevant. But as urban habitat points out "transit subsidies disproportionately favor suburban transit and expensive new commuter bus and rail lines that serve wealthier “discretionary riders.” Which means I would not be alone in believing that a reduction in transit subsidies would harm urban residents more than suburban ones.

**Again I have said absoultely nothing to make you believe that I "think" that. Quit lying. Use my words, not what you want to pretend that I think.

by David C on Jan 6, 2012 11:28 am • linkreport

@oboe, @David C. - thnx

by Tina on Jan 6, 2012 11:51 am • linkreport

oboe & David C. -- I agree that transit wouldn't go away, that in the inner core it would in fact succeed. Add congestion charging or other such access fees and there would be other reasons to take transit besides.

But yes, for transit use to be efficient, there need to be relatively short and direct distances between origin and destination.

oboe -- this is an old piece, but relevant for construction cost.

http://places.designobserver.com/media/pdf/Explaining_Res_803.pdf

It'd be better if it had a separate index for land cost included as well.

Yes, rowhouses cost the same to build, roughly, whether you're in the city or suburbs. The issue is the cost and competition for land.

Rowhouses don't get built now, unless you are outside of the core, and even then without yards (e.g., the EYA development in Brookland on land sold by St. Pauls College, or further out, by Pulte at Ft. Lincoln, or the EYA now Pulte development, Arts District in Hyattsville) because of the cost of land.

Once you get to taller buildings, the big issue is concrete construction, necessary because of building codes/fire codes, but much more expensive compared to stick built (wood).

by Richard Layman on Jan 6, 2012 11:56 am • linkreport

Sorry, I wrote this:

But yes, for transit use to be efficient, there need to be relatively short and direct distances between origin and destination.

And left off a sentence:

So transit use and success would more likely favor center cities and inner ring suburbs over the outer suburbs and suburbs generally.

Plus times are changing re the suburbs and transit anyway, here's what Sen. Jamie Raskin said that's on the front page of this week's Gazette:

The Purple Line, a proposed extension of the Metro system through Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, must be the centerpiece of the state’s transportation investment, said Senate delegation Chairman Jamie B. Raskin (D-Dist. 20) of Takoma Park.

“A great metropolitan area deserves a great metropolitan transit system for its people,” Raskin told county advocates at a recent legislative breakfast.

http://www.gazette.net/article/20120104/NEWS/712309955&template=gazette

by Richard Layman on Jan 6, 2012 11:59 am • linkreport

Bertie,

Do you ever support your arguments? I've seen a lot of links to sources in posts on this thread, but few, if any, are yours. In fact, I'm still waiting for you to substantiate your claim that density raises pollution when, in fact, density is more efficient than sprawl. You made the claim, so please back it up. Stop pivoting and prevaricating, and try to make a serious argument. Maybe then people will take you seriously.

by The Heights on Jan 6, 2012 12:03 pm • linkreport

One more thing for the record:

@Bertie wrote:

More likely, he'd look for a new job in the suburbs where he can commute by car.
You hear this a lot by boosters of suburban sprawl, but if you think about it for a moment, the argument falls apart.

The fallacy here is in comparing a given urban node "X" with a nonspecific entity "the suburbs". If transportation gets too costly (either in dollars or time), the argument goes, workers will merely stop working in urban node "X", and look for a job "in the suburbs".

But "the suburbs" is not a place. It's a large set of places of varying densities, and with various costs of getting from one node to another. So "getting a job in the suburbs" doesn't gain you anything. What you need is "getting a job with a cheap cost of travel between my house and my job." Where your argument fails is that it assumes that a job in "the suburbs" will be easier to commute to from a house in "the suburbs" regardless of the actual specific location of either.

Despite the fact that both "my house" and "my job" are in "the suburbs", that doesn't say anything about the cost of getting from one to the other and back again. Tysons Corner is in "the suburbs", so is Columbia, MD. Obviously that commute would be excruciating in comparison to commuting from either one into the city.

One of the characteristics of urban areas (in addition to their density) is their "cheap" connectedness. The DC region was once a hub-and-spoke model. Now it's several hubs with spokes. So when you say, our commuter will just "find a job in the suburbs", all your saying is that he'll find a job in a dense, urbanizing node closer to his house (If it exists). But the original problem remains regardless of whether the "city" he needs to get to is DC or a future, upsized Tysons Corner (or Springfield, or wherever).

Sorry if I'm over-thinking this, but it's an argument that crops up regularly and has always bugged me.

by oboe on Jan 6, 2012 12:33 pm • linkreport

Great point Oboe. Many of the people I work with (in an inner-suburban office) commute from gargling suburbs and constantly are complaint about traffic and time wasted in transit. So living on the suburbs and working in the suburbs is not necessarily efficient and, sometimes, far from it.

by The Heights on Jan 6, 2012 12:47 pm • linkreport

"Gargling suburbs?" Thanks, auto-correct. I meant "far-flung" suburbs.

by The Heights on Jan 6, 2012 12:49 pm • linkreport

gargling suburbs is snarly.

by Tina on Jan 6, 2012 1:04 pm • linkreport

The Heights -- wrt the energy efficiency of urbanism and greater pollution of suburbanism, see the Green Manhattan (New Yorker article), Green Metropolis (book) pieces by David Owen.

- http://www.greenbelt.org/downloads/resources/newswire/newswire_11_04GreenManhattan.pdf

There's also this graphic on energy consumption that I use all the time:

- http://www.flickr.com/photos/rllayman/107880025/

and this one from an old New York Times piece:

- http://www.flickr.com/photos/rllayman/2278851567/

However, it is true that to support dense urbanism food comes from "away" and that imposes some environmental costs.

by Richard Layman on Jan 6, 2012 2:18 pm • linkreport

"Despite the fact that both "my house" and "my job" are in "the suburbs", that doesn't say anything about the cost of getting from one to the other and back again. Tysons Corner is in "the suburbs", so is Columbia, MD. Obviously that commute would be excruciating in comparison to commuting from either one into the city."

The assumption, implicit or explicit, is that since there is cheap housing close to suburban employment centers (except for some large close in ones) people would locate very close to them - a 10 minute drive or whatever. IE they assume A. a single earner family B. No other locational preferences but housing cost and commute time/cost C. An equilibrium result

In the real world people have all kinds of other locational variables in their utility functions (I MUST live in Md, not confederate VA, I need to live with african americans in PG, my uncle lives in herndon, whatever) . In the real world people live with SOs with jobs, or they have additional part time jobs, or they work and study. In the real world their jobs change (or other life factors) and yet they dont move, or they want to stay in the area where they have made friends. This complicates some urbanist assumptions, but I think even more it complicates the "suburban jobs always equal short commutes" kinds of arguments.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jan 6, 2012 2:28 pm • linkreport

"However, it is true that to support dense urbanism food comes from "away" and that imposes some environmental costs."

to get your winter blueberries at least cost, in this region you should live near Dulles, where the flights from Chile arrive, I guess.

The locavore folks are nice and all, but I dont think the quantity of local food consumption comes CLOSE to having an impact on the energy cost of city vs suburban living. Aside from which, the locavores to get realistic, typically count everything from several states as realistic - if you are in FFX and your corn is from SE penn, thats "local" - and isnt any closer to you than it is to someone in DC.

by AWalkerInTheCIty on Jan 6, 2012 2:32 pm • linkreport

tina

I HAVE reported the results of empirically collected data.

You haven't produced any evidence that "in an urban environment biking is usually faster than driving." Neither has anyone else. I think the claim is almost certainly false. Cars can travel at much higher speeds than bikes. Only for very short trips where parking is a problem, or trips under very congested road conditions, is a bike likely to be faster than a car. In most urban environments at most times, parking is not a problem and roads are not congested.

Your cavalier assertion that obesity and addiction are conditions achieved and sustained by complete rational behavior

I didn't assert that. You keep angrily responding to statements I have not made. I said it's not clear that obesity is always or generally irrational behavior. None of your links suggest otherwise. And even if obesity is the result of an irrational compulsion, there's no evidence that sprawl is the result of an irrational compulsion. Sprawl is the result of rational choices resulting from preferences for spacious, affordable housing, the comfort and convenience of car travel, a quiet and peaceful urban environment, privacy, and so on.

by Bertie on Jan 6, 2012 5:59 pm • linkreport

In most urban environments at most times, parking is not a problem and roads are not congested.

I think here we're getting to the heart of the matter.

by oboe on Jan 6, 2012 6:05 pm • linkreport

Sprawl is the result of rational choices resulting from preference...

Sprawl is the result of irrational policies that make transportation artificially cheap.

by David C on Jan 6, 2012 6:13 pm • linkreport

oboe,

You're mulishly ignoring the fact that more people are competing because proximity is desirable.

No, as I have repeatedly explained, "higher density" (of people) means, by definition, more people in a given area of land. That means competition for land rises with density, so land prices rise with density. It does NOT mean that higher density is more desirable than lower density.

I'd be curious to see how much of the urban price premium can be explained by building costs.

As I said, construction costs per square foot of high-rise condo/apt buildings are around three times as high as construction costs of single-family homes.

In addition, dense urban environments more often feature "mixed-use" development, where residential buildings are mixed in with commercial buildings. Commercial property owners can generally afford to pay more for land than renters or homeowners, because they are using the land to generate income. This tends to further bid up the price of land compared to suburbs, where mixed-use development is relatively rare.

So there are at least three separate mechanisms causing higher housing costs in dense urban places: greater competition for land resulting from higher density, higher construction costs, and competition for land with commercial businesses. This is why housing tends to be much more expensive in dense urban areas than in suburbs.

by Bertie on Jan 6, 2012 6:19 pm • linkreport

I'm still waiting for you to substantiate your claim that density raises pollution

See here, for example.

by Bertie on Jan 6, 2012 6:28 pm • linkreport

This is why housing tends to be much more expensive in dense urban areas than in suburbs.

Wrong. We can actually do a side-by-side comparison of townhouses, where construction costs are roughly the same, but the price per square foot of dense urban homes are significantly higher.

The difference in price per square foot is a function of land costs. Land costs are significantly higher because land in dense areas is more valuable. In other words, human beings value it more--and are willing to pay more for that land.

by oboe on Jan 6, 2012 6:48 pm • linkreport

greater competition for land resulting from higher density

Again, you're getting the chain of causality wrong. Development is denser because that's where people want to be. Hence the greater competition.

by oboe on Jan 6, 2012 6:50 pm • linkreport

Bertie,

Really? Wendell Cox?

Quickly, his claim is that there is more pollution and driving in dense areas (which is true because there are more people) and so density increases pollution. He gives it a veneer of science by calculating it on a per acre basis. As if land is the cause.

What is missing from his "analysis" is the words "per capita". On his table New York County has twice as much driving per acre as Fredericksburg, VA. But it has about 7 times as many people.

Or course there is more pollution and driving in a dense area as there is in a rural area of the same size. There's also more sex in an areas of high density. So the same logic would prove that densification causes people to have sex (actually there may be some truth to that). And it causes more people to go to church, and eat steak and watch TV and everything.

But of course, that logic is flawed. Density causes less pollution per person

by David C on Jan 7, 2012 12:09 am • linkreport

Wendell Cox's article is pretty astonishing. It's a textbook example of "how to lie with statistics." Mr. Cox can't have quite so poor an understanding of geographical data. That leaves only the conclusion that the author is deliberately misrepresenting the facts: he's spreading lies in support of his ideas, and he knows it.

by David R. on Jan 7, 2012 8:02 am • linkreport

Bertie, there is plenty of evidence that increased indices of sprawl = higher BMI and the built environment effects health wrt car-dependency, walkability and obesity. The complex topic of etiology is not worth responding to. It seems to me you are not curious to learn more and instead invested in repeating lay myths.

WRT the relationship between the built environment and obesity here are a couple of studies. They are easy to find in PubMed or even just a google search. There are many going back a decade or more covering total population samples and subgroups. Note the second perspective also addresses the fact of externalized costs of car-dependent forms, subsidies for these forms and unmet desire for more walkable forms:

http://journals.lww.com/epidem/Fulltext/2009/11001/Associations_Between_Urban_Sprawl_and_Body_Mass.628.aspx

http://www.rand.org/publications/randreview/issues/spring2005/perspect.html

by Tina on Jan 7, 2012 10:33 am • linkreport

Really? Wendell Cox?

Really? David C?

But of course, that logic is flawed. Density causes less pollution per person

I have no idea what "pollution per person" is supposed to mean or why you think it's relevant. Pollution is measured as the concentration of a contaminant in the environment, in units like parts per million or grams per cubic meter. The higher the concentration of contaminant, the worse the level of pollution. It is the concentration that matters, not simply the quantity of contaminant per person. And the concentration tends to increase with density, as Cox explains, because higher density means more emitters of pollution per unit area or volume. Hence the phrase "the solution to pollution is dilution."

Perhaps it would be easier for you to understand this simple concept by considering ambient noise, which is also a form of pollution. The ambient noise resulting from ten jackhammers distributed over ten square miles is likely to be much lower than the ambient noise resulting from ten jackhammers distributed over only one square mile, because ten square miles provides a much larger area to dissipate the noise.

by Bertie on Jan 7, 2012 3:47 pm • linkreport

oboe,

I don't know why you can't understand the difference between demand for land and demand for density. They are completely different things. Consider the following metro area:

City: 100,000 people living on 10 square miles (10,000 people per square mile).
Suburbs: 900,000 people living on 900 square miles (1,000 people per square mile)

Land prices in the city are likely to be much higher than land prices in the suburbs, because there are ten times as many people competing per square mile of land in the city as there are in the suburbs. But this DOES NOT mean there is more demand to live at the city density than at the suburb density. In fact, the opposite is true. Nine times as many people choose to live at the suburb density as choose to live at the city density.

by Bertie on Jan 7, 2012 4:09 pm • linkreport

Bertie, You haven't produced any evidence that "in an urban environment biking is usually faster than driving."

Yes I have.

Neither has anyone else.

Yes they have. oboe, Richard Layman and David C. all have.

I think the claim is almost certainly false.

And you most certainly are wrong.

Just as you are wrong in your surmises about the etiology of obesity & addiction.

Just as you are wrong in your belief that car dependent suburban forms represent a choice based on nothing but preference for that form.

Just as you are wrong that car-dependent forms and life styles produce less pollution than walkable forms and lifestyles.

You have repeatedly expressed magical thinking.

by Tina on Jan 7, 2012 4:14 pm • linkreport

WRT the relationship between the built environment and obesity here are a couple of studies.

Those studies found only a correlation between built environment and obesity, not a causal relationship. Other researchers have concluded that the correlation is most likely the result of selection effects. See, for example, this study:

Abstract: We study the relationship between urban sprawl and
obesity. Using data that tracks individuals over time, we find no evidence
that urban sprawl causes obesity. We show that previous findings
of a positive relationship most likely reflect a failure to properly control
for the fact the individuals who are more likely to be obese choose to
live in more sprawling neighborhoods.
Our results indicate that current
interest in changing the built environment to counter the rise in obesity
is misguided.
But you're missing the point anyway. Even if you could conclusively demonstrate that sprawl causes a higher rate of obesity or some other adverse outcome, that still wouldn't mean that choosing sprawl over dense urban living is irrational. You can't conclude that a choice is irrational simply because it has a particular cost. What matters is the total mix of costs and benefits. And the evidence from 50 years of increasing sprawl and suburbanization in the U.S. and Europe (and Canada and Australia and all the other wealthy democracies) is that low-density urban forms offer a far better mix of costs and benefits than high-density ones.

by Bertie on Jan 7, 2012 6:05 pm • linkreport

Yes I have.

No you haven't. Neither you nor anyone else has presented any evidence that "in an urban environment biking is usually faster than driving." As I already explained, the simple fact that cars are capable of much higher speeds than bicycles suggests that the claim is almost certainly false.

by Bertie on Jan 7, 2012 6:11 pm • linkreport

David C

according to this study 30% of transit users are from the suburbs. Those users travel more miles per trip, so it is likely that their passenger miles are closer to 50%. During rush hour I would expect them to make up more than 50% of users.

Your guess is contradicted by the evidence. The study you yourself cite says that only 30% of transit users are from the suburbs. That means 70% are from the cities. 70% is much higher than 30%.

You try to dismiss this inconvenient fact by claiming that suburban transit users "travel more miles per trip." But you offer absolutely no evidence to support this claim. And passenger-miles is a product of both miles per trip and number of trips. So even if the miles-per-trip number were higher for suburban transit users, it still wouldn't support the conclusion that the suburban share of transit passenger-miles is any higher than the suburban share of transit users, which is only 30%.

In fact, there is overwhelming evidence that city residents account for not only the vast majority of transit users but also the vast majority of transit passenger-miles. This study (Table 5 on Page 44) found that across a sample of 66 metropolitan areas city households produced more emissions from mass transit than suburban households in every metro area in the sample. Your claim that "transit serves suburbanites as much as it serves city residents" is just flat wrong.

by Bertie on Jan 7, 2012 7:41 pm • linkreport

Land prices in the city are likely to be much higher than land prices in the suburbs, because there are ten times as many people competing per square mile of land in the city as there are in the suburbs. But this DOES NOT mean there is more demand to live at the city density than at the suburb density. In fact, the opposite is true. Nine times as many people choose to live at the suburb density as choose to live at the city density.

This is fantastical hoo-ha. The only way your analysis makes any sense whatsoever is if people are forced to live in dense areas under duress. This hasn't been the case since the Fair Housing Act was passed. Nine times as many people are priced out of living close to the urban centers, and are forced to make due further out.

This is pretty much obvious to anyone who is not ideologically blinkered, or paid to think otherwise: take a 6000 square foot house in the city, and a 6000 square foot house in the suburbs, and the price that consumers are willing to pay for the large SFH in the city dwarfs the price of that in the suburbs.

There's simply no other way to explain it. The fact that you haven't even bothered to attempt to do so just underlines that fact.

One more time for those naturally incredulous among us: "Land prices in the city are likely to be much higher than land prices in the suburbs, because there are ten times as many people competing per square mile of land in the city as there are in the suburbs."

Remember, it has nothing to do with the desirability of close-in land. Why, none whatsoever! It's just that ten times as many people are trying to buy it! Sure, those people could all buy 'more desirable' land in the burbs in the blink of an eye, and pay a quarter the price. But they don't, because of some magical secret factor that only Bertie (and Wendell Cox) is privy to!"

I think the only reason this thread is getting so much traffic is that we're waiting for the practical joke to be revealed.

by oboe on Jan 7, 2012 8:37 pm • linkreport

It has nothing to do with "duress." It simply follows from the definition of the word "density" and the effect of supply and demand on prices. The price of land in the city is higher than the price of land in the suburbs because the ratio of demand to supply for land in the city is higher. But the vast majority of the total demand is for land in the suburbs, not the city.

by Bertie on Jan 7, 2012 8:53 pm • linkreport

I have no idea what "pollution per person" is supposed to mean ... It is the concentration that matters, not simply the quantity of contaminant per person."

Do you know what "contaminant per person" means? What's the differnce between "contaminant per person" and "pollution per person"?

It is the concentration that matters, not simply the quantity of contaminant per person.

Concentration is non-trivial, but as you concede the quantity of contaminant per person matters. The advantage of density is that the quantity of contaminant per person goes down. So if more people move to the suburbs the quantity of contaminant per person would go up and so would the total amount of contaminants created.

Perhaps it would be easier for you to understand this simple concept by considering ambient noise

Actually, no. Noise dissipates quickly - in a matter of seconds. The noise of a million jackhammers operating on Baffin Island will never impact someone in Diego Garcia. But a million coal-fired power plants operating on Baffin Island will impact someone in Diego Garcia. CO2 and other air and water-bourne pollutants have a longer-lasting and wider ranging impact than noise dose. To deal with global warming, we need to reduce the total amount of CO2 created, not the concentration of it.

you haven't produced any evidence that "in an urban environment biking is usually faster than driving."

Here's a study that shows that biking is either faster (during rush hour) or the same speed (the rest of the time) than biking. And that's without considering the time for parking or the fact that bike trips can be made on a shorter path than auto trips.

"Over an average trip, cyclists travel 2.49 km in 14.7 minutes so their average speed is about 10 km/h. That compares well with the average car speed in inner cities across Europe.

During the rush hour, however, the average speed rises to almost 15 km/h, a speed which outstrips the average car speed. And that's not including the time it takes to find a place to park

The data also shows that bike journeys between two points are shorter in distance than the corresponding journey by car."

So even if the miles-per-trip number were higher for suburban transit users, it still wouldn't support the conclusion that the suburban share of transit passenger-miles is any higher than the suburban share of transit users, which is only 30%.

Ummm...yes it would. That's basic math.

If the 30% of suburban trips are each 3 miles and the 70% of urban trips are 1 mile, then you have 9 passenger miles of suburban travel to each 7 passenger miles of urban travel. I can't believe you don't get that. It's math.

This study (Table 5 on Page 44) found that across a sample of 66 metropolitan areas city households produced more emissions from mass transit than suburban households in every metro area in the sample.

That study simply divides the total emissions for transit for the region by the number of households. All it shows is that there are more people living in the suburbs.

But let's see if we can find commonn ground, since I can't find an analysis of suburban vs. urban use ppm. Suburbanites will be hurt badly, but possibly less badly and possibly more badly, than urban residents by an increase in transit costs. It's an irrelevant distinction in the end.

The point is that an increase in transit fares will not leave suburbanites unscathed. And unlike urban residents they can't simply walk or bike more, because as you point out, they're so far away from everywhere. When there was a transit strike in London, it was people in the suburbs who were unable to get to work. But people in the city simply hoofed it. And suburban residents would also be taking a larger hit on driving costs.

BTW, that same study shows that energy use and emissions is much higher in the suburbs than in the city. Same table.

the vast majority of the total demand is for land in the suburbs, not the city.

According to a recent survey 25% of people want to live in a suburb. That is neither vast nor a majority.

by David C on Jan 7, 2012 11:02 pm • linkreport

Also, here are some sites dealing with some of the issues we're discussing.

On other ways we subsidize sprawl.

Ron Paul on how subsidizing highways created the need to subsidize transit.

"Pushkarev and Zupan in their pioneering 1980 study compared the six American regions with rail transit (New York-northeastern New Jersey, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston and Cleveland) to other U.S. urban areas over 2 million population, concluding that for every p-m ridden on transit, four vehicle miles were not driven."

by David C on Jan 7, 2012 11:12 pm • linkreport

Do you know what "contaminant per person" means?

Pollution is not "contaminant per person." As I already explained to you, pollution is the concentration of a contaminant in the environment. That's why it's measured in units such as parts per million or grams per cubic meter. The higher the concentration of contaminant, the worse the level of pollution. Pollution tends to increase with density, because higher density tends to mean more contaminant per unit of area or volume.

The noise of a million jackhammers operating on Baffin Island will never impact someone in Diego Garcia.

So what? A million jackhammers operating on Manhattan island will create far more ambient noise than a million jackhammers operating on Baffin Island, because Manhattan is so much smaller than Baffin Island. In Manhattan, the sound waves are concentrated in a much smaller volume of air, so the level of noise pollution is much higher. The same is true for other contaminants commonly emitted by human activities -- sulphur oxides, nitrogen oxides, carbon oxides, volatile organic compounds, particulates, toxic metals, and so on. That's why Manhattan has the third highest cancer risk from airborne chemicals of all counties in the United States.

Here's a study that shows that biking is either faster (during rush hour) or the same speed (the rest of the time) than biking.

No, that study found only that bicycle speeds in Lyon, France compare favorably with the average car speed in "inner cities across Europe." But the claim you're trying to defend is not about "inner cities." It's about urban environments. The vast majority of urban environments are not "inner cities." Inner cities, especially in Europe, tend to be much slower for cars than urban environments in general because inner cities are denser and more congested.

by Bertie on Jan 8, 2012 12:37 am • linkreport

If the 30% of suburban trips are each 3 miles and the 70% of urban trips are 1 mile, then you have 9 passenger miles of suburban travel to each 7 passenger miles of urban travel. I can't believe you don't get that. It's math.

Also, 2+2=4. That's math too! I'm not sure why you think making up some numbers and doing some arithmetic with them supports your claim about transit use. Your comments are full of this kind of irrelevancy.

That study simply divides the total emissions for transit for the region by the number of households. All it shows is that there are more people living in the suburbs.

It doesn't show any such thing. It indicates that city households use transit far more than suburban households, which directly contradicts your claim that "transit serves suburbanites as much as it serves city residents."

Suburbanites will be hurt badly, but possibly less badly and possibly more badly, than urban residents by an increase in transit costs. It's an irrelevant distinction in the end.

It's entirely relevant. The evidence, not to mention common sense, shows that city residents depend on transit far more than suburban residents. Thus, eliminating transit subsidies would hurt city residents far more than suburban residents. Eliminating transit subsidies would have an especially harmful impact on dense cities like New York, because so many people in dense cities depend on transit for day-to-day mobility. It would induce even more New Yorkers to flee to the suburbs, where it's much easier to get around by car.

According to a recent survey 25% of people want to live in a suburb. That is neither vast nor a majority.

Not this again. What matters is what people choose in the real world, after they've had a chance to review and consider the pros and cons of each option. Not what they say when a pollster springs a question on them during a 5-minute cold call. And in the real world, the overwhelming trend is a preference for suburbs.

by Bertie on Jan 8, 2012 1:01 am • linkreport

On other ways we subsidize sprawl.

Or, rather, a blog post claiming to find what is possibly, but not necessarily, a small subsidy for a sewer line in Celina, Ohio.

Cities are enormously subsidized by the government. In addition to transit subsidies, which pay for almost three-quarters of total transit costs, other city projects that commonly receive enormous subsidies are transit-oriented development projects, civic centers, convention centers, museums, sports stadiums, arenas, concert halls, theaters, libraries and assorted projects described as "urban renewal" or "urban revitalization."

by Bertie on Jan 8, 2012 1:48 am • linkreport

Bertie,

(1)None of the studies I cited nor indeed any I am aware of conclude causation (for this topic). (2)The rigor for proving causation is very stringent in health research. (Apparently not so in economics). (3)This is an inherent problem of lay audiences not understanding how health science works and misinterpreting the clinical importance of "correlation" when s/he sees it reported as a result of a study. Thus this study does not prove non-causation. It reiterates the correlation already shown.

The authors of the study do not say that other researchers have concluded causation. They say "A growing and influential literature studies this connection between the built environment and obesity. Loosely, its main finding is that individuals living in sprawling neighborhoods are more likely to be obese than those who live in less sprawling neighborhoods." The study does not dispute this finding. It accepts it. It uses this correlation as a foundation and goes on to find the same thing: those living in sprawl are more likely to be obese than those in less sprawl.

Weaknesses of this study:
-It is not a health study and thus important aspects of the health condition of its dependent variable are not addressed.
-It does not state that once obesity is achieved it is extraordinarily difficult to reverse due to systemic physiological changes. Yes there are examples of individuals who do reverse it and sustain new weight for more than 5 years but it is very rare. There is a metabolic syndrome interaction going on in the state of obesity and it is not a simple matter of losing weight, especially if frank diabetes is present.
-Thus the primary challenge of the obesity epidemic is prevention on a population scale, not reversal.
-This study assumes that the thrust to help people maintain health by providing environments in which healthy choices are supported is aimed at reversing existing obesity. That is not at all the case. The goal is to help prevent and reduce current proportions of obesity from occurring in younger and future generations.

-This study assumes sprawl is the only major factor effecting obesity. That has not been asserted. Sprawl is one major factor. This study did not control for other factors such as the food environment, which, like the built environment, has undergone large scale changes that preceded the obesity epidemic.

In any case:
-B/c of the well documented difficultly in reversing obesity there is no reason to think that those with high BMIs who move to less sprawly areas (or vice versa) will experience a significant change in BMI.
-Furthermore even in overweight people a small weight loss, as little as 5-7% of body weight significantly reduces risk for complications and/or chronic conditions associated with overweight/obesity.
-This small but significant change in weight would not register as a significant change in BMI.
-Thus significant changes to health risks due to small decreases/increases in weight that can occur from moving to sprawl or less sprawl are not measured in this study.

-This study did not measure physical activity (PA).
-Going from complete sedentary to minimal physical activity confers the largest associated health benefit increases of any group.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2920578/
For example running 45 minutes a day does not translate into a significantly bigger health benefit compared to walking at a moderate pace 30 minutes a day. However going from walking 0 to 15 minutes a day has a significant benefit; much bigger than the difference of the former example.
-The benefit of this increase in PA is conferred whether or not it is accompanied by weight loss.
-We know from other studies that on a population scale people walk on avg 19 minutes more /day in walkable settings than in car-dependent areas. Even people who report that they do not particularly like walking report walking more if they live in these areas. This increase is enough to confer significant health benefits on overweight/obese people even if they don’t lose weight.
- Thus any significant health benefits gained/lost from very small increases/decreases in PA that occur from moving from sprawl to less sprawl and vice versa are not measured in this study.

-This study ignored design. Design is a major factor.
-It used a Smart Growth index for sprawl but that index is not fine enough to measure the walkability of individual neighborhoods
-It did not use a stratified sample for walkable neighborhoods

The fact remains that there is an epidemic of obesity that cannot be explained by spontaneous widely occurring genetic drift within the population in the past 50 years i.e., an increased "propensity for obesity". The proportion of the population that has a "propensity for obesity" has not changed in 50 years time. The follow-up on this study was 4-6 years. The obesity epidemic followed the increases in proportional sprawl by 10-15 years. The diabetes epidemic followed the obesity trend by 15-20 years.

Thus even if we accept that those with a "propensity for obesity" are self-selecting certain forms we then must conclude that the increased prevalence of those forms are having an impact on the obesity epidemic. Furthermore we all have a propensity for obesity given the right conditions. It reminds one of Dr. Snow putting a lock on the Broad Street pump to end an earlier epidemic. He noticed that people who had a propensity for cholera were choosing to use that pump.

And, some criticisms attributed to others that I liked:

“In this study the argument for self selection is reasonable, if the binary choice is being debated (does physical infrastructure cause obesity, or does obesity lead to infrastructure choices).
But is that likely to be the whole story?
What if growing up in car-burbs leads to obesity inducing habits AND the choice to live in car-burbs?
What if people self sort to car dependent environments... but then find it more difficult to recover from obesity once they are there?
There are so many more complex and multi-causal relationships that may be involved here that answering the first level question about causation doesn't really end the discussion at all.”

And

“This study asserts that "people who are more likely to be obese (e.g. because they have an idiosyncratic distaste for walking) are more likely to move to sprawling neighborhoods."
If we lived in a country where only a few people (a) were obese or (b) lived in sprawling neighborhoods, this "finding" might make sense. But realistically, something close to the majority of Americans are overweight, and more importantly, sprawl is where the majority of people live. In Jacksonville (where I live) sprawl is the ONLY choice, except for a few small neighborhoods.
So the notion that sprawling areas are dominated by a few people with "idiosyncratic" tastes simply beggars belief.

by Tina on Jan 8, 2012 2:09 am • linkreport

Pollution is not "contaminant per person."

Pollution: 2) a pollutant or a group of pollutants

Pollutant is a synonym for contaminant. So, yes it is. You may not be using it that way, and that's fine, but you're trying to create a distinction where there is not one, and frankly wasting all of our time. You know very well what we're talking about.

pollution is the concentration of a contaminant in the environment.

That may be one definiton, but not the only one. And it's the height of arrogance to insist that every one use the definion you prefer.

So what?

Right back at you. The point is that people living in the suburbs create more "contaminants" per person than people living in the city. That is bad. If we want to create fewer contaminants in total, we can get more people to live like people in the city do, or we can murder some people. Perhaps you choose murder.

" But the claim you're trying to defend is not about "inner cities." It's about urban environments

Talk about moving the goal posts. Why don't you define for all of us what oboe meant when he said "urban environment". You two seem really to be thinking with the same mind, so I expect that you are also an expert on how he defines words.

I'm beginning to see that your whole strategy is to define a word a specific way, one that differs from the standard, and then argue that someone else is wrong based on this flawed definition. I guess that's what you do when the facts are against you.

Also, 2+2=4. That's math too!

This is also what you do when you're losing.

The evidence, not to mention common sense, shows that city residents depend on transit far more than suburban residents.

What evidence?

Thus, eliminating transit subsidies would hurt city residents far more than suburban residents.

Well, for the umpteenth time I'm talking about eliminating both transit and road subsidies, and you haven't proven this assertion. Not even close.

Eliminating transit subsidies would have an especially harmful impact on dense cities like New York, because so many people in dense cities depend on transit for day-to-day mobility.

Farebox recovery in NYC is 55.5%. For MTA - which suburban commuters use to get from Connecticut, the recover rate is only 36.2% and for PATH it's only 41%. So prices will almost triple for CT commuters and not quite double for NY commuters. So it would actually be harder on CT commuters. Especially since a trip from CT is more expensive than one across Manhattan. And of course once those CT commuters are in NYC, the still need to ride the local transit at times. If they drive, their prices go up quite a bit too.

What matters is what people choose in the real world, after they've had a chance to review and consider the pros and cons of each option.

I thought we were talking about preference. In other words what people prefer. Most men prefer to sleep with Megan Fox, but few actually choose to do this because few can.

But if we're talking about what people actually do, then again, only 26% of people live in the suburbs (same link). Which is neither vast nor a majority. It isn't even a plurality. 31% of people, OTOH, live in the City - that is a plurality. So either way, you're wrong.

Cities are enormously subsidized by the government.

Proof please.

by David C on Jan 8, 2012 11:42 am • linkreport

I thought this thread was more entertaining this time around.

by oboe on Jan 8, 2012 1:45 pm • linkreport

The price of land in the city is higher than the price of land in the suburbs because the ratio of demand to supply for land in the city is higher. But the vast majority of the total demand is for land in the suburbs, not the city.

I anyone is interested in a previous smackdown of this extremely wrong hypothesis, I recommend WRD and SRL here:

http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post/12117/housing-is-more-than-supply-and-demand/#comment-116902

http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post/12117/housing-is-more-than-supply-and-demand/#comment-116939

by oboe on Jan 8, 2012 1:53 pm • linkreport

This one's pretty good too:
Land is priced based on the cash flows that come from it. Land in Iowa, for example, commands a high price precisely because it isn't dense. It commands a high price because there's cash flows that come from growing corn on it. Land in New York is priced highly because there's cash flows that come from renters.

Now add in government. They cap the number of renters on the land in New York. What happens to the price of land?

With no demand growth, the price goes down! Owners lose option value and as a ceiling on rent is imposed.

With robust demand growth, renters compete back and forth for rent slots. Real estate players compete back and forth for ownership rights to the rent streams.

http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post/12117/housing-is-more-than-supply-and-demand/#comment-117087

by oboe on Jan 8, 2012 1:58 pm • linkreport

tina,

None of the studies I cited nor indeed any I am aware of conclude causation (for this topic).

Right. They're not evidence that sprawl causes obesity. So they're not an argument against sprawl.

even if we accept that those with a "propensity for obesity" are self-selecting certain forms we then must conclude that the increased prevalence of those forms are having an impact on the obesity epidemic.

Now you're contradicting yourself. You just admitted that the studies you cited are not evidence of a causal relationship between sprawl and obesity. Without a causal relationship, sprawl is NOT "having an impact" on the rate of obesity. The rate of obesity would be the same regardless of the prevalence of sprawl.

by Bertie on Jan 8, 2012 2:42 pm • linkreport

That may be one definiton, but not the only one.

It is the concentration of the contaminant that matters, not simply the quantity, because a higher concentration produces a greater risk to health. Higher density tends to produce higher concentrations of contaminants, and therefore higher risks to health. That is why the risk of cancer in Manhattan from air pollution is so high, even though other counties emit larger total volumes of contaminants.

Talk about moving the goal posts. Why don't you define for all of us what oboe meant when he said "urban environment".

I'm not moving the goal posts. You are. The claim referred to urban environments, not "inner cities." Inner cities account for only a small fraction of urban environments.

What evidence?

I just showed you. You yourself just cited a paper stating that only 30% of transit users are suburbanites.

Farebox recovery in NYC is 55.5%. For MTA - which suburban commuters use to get from Connecticut, the recover rate is only 36.2% and for PATH it's only 41%. So prices will almost triple for CT commuters and not quite double for NY commuters. So it would actually be harder on CT commuters. Especially since a trip from CT is more expensive than one across Manhattan. And of course once those CT commuters are in NYC, the still need to ride the local transit at times. If they drive, their prices go up quite a bit too.

Huh? Farebox recovery is the ratio of fare revenues to operating costs. It doesn't tell you anything about the ratio of fare revenues to total costs, or the total amount of the subsidy. And MTA includes the New York City subway and bus networks. So I have no idea why you think a low farebox recovery ratio for MTA implies that transit subsidies favor suburbanites over city residents. And New York is just one metro area anyway.

I thought we were talking about preference. In other words what people prefer. Most men prefer to sleep with Megan Fox,

We are talking about preference.

But if we're talking about what people actually do, then again, only 26% of people live in the suburbs (same link).

The evidence overwhelmingly shows a massive shift in the distribution of the population over the past 50+ years from cities to suburbs. In 1950, suburbs accounted for only 23% of the populatuion. By 2000, suburbs accounted for 50% of the population. See the chart on page 33 of Demographic Trends in the 20th Century, from the Census Bureau. And even within cities, there has been an enormous decrease in density, from about 7,500 people per square mile in 1950, to only about 2,700 people per square mile in 2000. See the chart on page 39. And the same basic pattern of suburbanization and sprawl has occurred in Canada and Europe and Australia and the other wealthy democracies. The vast majority of people don't want dense urban living. They want low-density, car-oriented living.

And dense cities would be in even worse shape were it not for immigration, which has helped to sustain city populations in the face of massive domestic out-migration.

by Bertie on Jan 8, 2012 3:33 pm • linkreport

It is the concentration of the contaminant that matters, not simply the quantity

As I said concentration is non-trivial, but total quantity matters. You're behaving as if it doesn't.

The claim referred to urban environments, not "inner cities."

And again, what do you think oboe meant by "urban environments"?

You yourself just cited a paper stating that only 30% of transit users are suburbanites.

But that doesn't show "that city residents depend on transit far more than suburban residents." Use is not necessarily a measure of dependency.

And MTA includes the New York City subway and bus networks.

That part wasn't clear, the link separated out the Metro North Railroad from NYC Transit. The 36.2% recovery ration was for the Metro North railroad. So that should explain that. Also Long Isand's is 26.6%.

And New York is just one metro area anyway.

You: Eliminating transit subsidies would have an especially harmful impact on dense cities like New York

Me: No, look it would hurt NYC suburbanites worse

You: well, NYC is just one city.

Nice. But for the record, WMATA's recover ratio is 62.1% whereas MARC and VRE are in the 40-55% range. BART 64.5%, Caltrain 41%. So that's three cities.

In 1950, suburbs accounted for only 23% of the populatuion. By 2000, suburbs accounted for 50% of the population.

It all depends on how you define suburbs and the Census Bureau's is very expansive.

Regardless even using your numbers gives us 50% of people living in the suburbs, which technically is not a majority and obviously isn't a "vast majority". So, even using your numbers, you're wrong.

by David C on Jan 8, 2012 6:24 pm • linkreport

Bertie, okay I know you’re not really interested in this topic in an honest way – that is, understanding this epidemic. However if you are interested in learning something new then I recommend this wiki definition of correlation in epidemiology. I agree correlation does not mean causation. However repeated specific significant association points that way.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epidemiology

So the study you cited is not proof of anything except that obesity is complex. The study has many weaknesses. (See comment above.) Primarily I see a very large difference in the way this study is written and the way studies by clinicians and health researchers write about investigations into this and other health topics. In comparison the economists who did this analysis exhibit a low standard for declaring causation/ruling out causation on a highly complex chronic condition. They are willing to do this on a subject on which they have no background expertise or insight, based on a single study: their own. I find that rather hubristic.

I don’t know if this rush to claim causation/rule out causation is a characteristic within the field of economics or of the lead author of this paper. It’s the opposite of conservative, which is the standard approach in health research where a very high standard for claiming/ruling out causation for complex chronic conditions is set. (See wiki article).

In addition, this one study that stands out because of its bold non-conservative claim must be evaluated among scores of other studies just as or more sophisticated, that have been executed over two decades by professionals with expertise in the field of health care, obesity, diabetes, and health research. The body of this inquiry has resulted in consistent repeatable specific significant association between environment and weight gain and sedentariness. This body of work includes experimental interventions in which, in a conservative way seemingly foreign to the authors of the paper you cited, there is repeated failure to reject the null hypothesis. The inference from this evidence is that the built environment is a major factor in the diabesity epidemic. There is wide concurrence among health professionals that we live in an obesogenic environment. The built environment and the food environment are modifiable. Our genome is not. Behavior is dependent on environment.

To be sure healthy skepticism and paying attention to studies that don't show association is important to fully understanding whats going on. But I don't think Bertie or the authors of the paper he cited are honestly interested in understanding the obesity epidemic. I say that b/c of what I think is hubris in declaring absolute non-causation based on the results of a single study that happens to be their own.

On the subject of the complexity of obesity and the gene-environment interaction I think these two papers are very interesting and well written.

Bouchard: http://www.nature.com/oby/journal/v16/n3s/full/oby2008528a.html

Shuldiner: http://www.nature.com/oby/journal/v16/n3s/full/oby2008523a.html

by Tina on Jan 8, 2012 10:39 pm • linkreport

And again, what do you think oboe meant by "urban environments"?

Just to clarify, for my purposes:

non-urban environment:

"urban environment":

by oboe on Jan 9, 2012 9:52 am • linkreport

@David C:

This whole thread is kind of reminding me of the classic Star Trek episode, "The Changeling". All that's left is for you to posit that @Bertie is illogical, then we use the transporter to beam it into space.

Everything that is in error must be sterilised! EXECUTE YOUR PRIME FUNCTION!!!

Heh.

by oboe on Jan 9, 2012 10:04 am • linkreport

oboe, if we had transporters, everyone would live in the suburbs.

by David C on Jan 9, 2012 12:02 pm • linkreport

Depends on the bandwidth of the transporter system, and the capacity of the transporters at desirable destinations like Dupont Circle, and the U Street corridor. :)

by oboe on Jan 9, 2012 2:46 pm • linkreport

Regardless, transporter technology can only survive with massive subsidies.

by David C on Jan 9, 2012 2:48 pm • linkreport

would current sedentary car-dependent suburb dwellers walk more or less than they do now if transporters were available?

by Tina on Jan 9, 2012 3:03 pm • linkreport

@Tina:
It would depend on how cheap transporters were to install and operate. If they were cheap, some would conceivably teleport from their bedroom to the kitchen.

If, on the other hand, transporters were located only in centralized areas, suburbanites might need to drive to the nearest transport "station" and then park+teleport to the one nearest their office.

Maybe they could bikeshare to their office from there.

Let's just hope nobody gets splinched.

by Matt Johnson on Jan 9, 2012 3:06 pm • linkreport

Yes, Oboe, yes! I want to live on Sesame Street!

But, um, not on that Sesame Street. I want to live on this one:

Can you tell me how to get there?

by Miriam on Jan 9, 2012 3:20 pm • linkreport

@Matt Johnson, Let's just hope nobody gets splinched.

or this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tuvix

by Tina on Jan 9, 2012 3:29 pm • linkreport

oboe,

That's funny, I was thinking it's more like The Next Generation, with you and David C trying to assimilate everyone into your "more efficient" way of living, like the Borg.

by Bertie on Jan 9, 2012 7:04 pm • linkreport

I was thinking it's more like The Next Generation, with you and David C trying to assimilate everyone into your "more efficient" way of living, like the Borg.

"Oh snap" said absolutely no one.

by David C on Jan 9, 2012 10:40 pm • linkreport

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