All you can eat
Two speakers, at two separate events I attended, today used the analogy of the all-you-can-eat buffet to describe aspects of our urban policy.
This afternoon, Christopher Leinberger (author of The Option of Urbanism) gave a talk to the Washington Smart Growth Alliance. Despite centuries of experience building walkable urban places, Leinberger explained, after World War II we forced developers to build low-density suburban places (what Leinberger calls "driveable sub-urbanism") instead. We actually made it downright illegal in almost all areas where new development was happening. A developer in the 1950s couldn't build a walkable place without going through enormous and nearly insurmountable obstacles.
On top of that, our public policy gave huge subsidies to driveable sub-urbanism. Taxpayers paid for freeways, power, water, and other infrastructure without being reimbursed by what we now call "impact fees". Instead of charging developers proportionally to the cost of infrastructure, where those building in areas that required more expensive infrastructure paid more, we all paid equally for it. Therefore, developers built neighborhoods in areas that were cheaper to construct but cost more in infrastructure, instead of areas where construction cost more but with the infrastructure already in place. Imagine, said Leinberger, "if the goverment said all restaurants must charge one price for all you can eat. Then, someone on a diet is subsidizing those who are pigging out." The costs for high density and low density development vary between construction, maintenance, infrastructure, and more, but our public policy mandated one price (the tax rate) for the infrastructure, regardless of which choice people made.
Earlier, I attended the hearing on raising DC's meter rates to raise revenue to restore critical housing programs. I testified in favor of the bill, as I wrote last week, with the recommendation that we divert the new meter revenue to housing during this budget crisis, but return them to transportation use once our tax revenue recovers. Ed Lazere, of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, explained that cheap or free parking is like an all-you-can-eat buffet. I'd add that it's like a buffet where almost all of the food is gone, and all you can get is scraps, or go to the high-priced restaurant across the street. Likewise, as Councilmember Tommy Wells explained at the beginning of the hearing, people today can choose to pay about $13 an hour in downtown DC for a garage space, or circle for half an hour to find a $1/hour meter space.
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