Monthly Archives: July 2013

With Geniuses Like Larry Summers, Who Needs Idiots?

Tangentially related to this blog’s purpose, because the actions of the Fed chair have economic consequences that cannot be overcome at the state and local level, and because Larry Summers has contributed to a lot of misery in Southern California .

Like so many malefactors in American politics that simply refuse to die, the Larry Summers Machine has again sprung back to life to promote Summers, instead of Janet Yellen, for chair of the Federal Reserve. We had the argument that Yellen “lacks the gravitas” to be chair, which Yglesias correctly translated from Washingtonian as “lacks the penis”. We now have the argument that if it isn’t to be Summers, it shouldn’t be Yellen either because their rivalry has “consumed both of them”, as the New York Times put it.

But what I really want to address today is the strange argument, advanced by Brad DeLong among others, that Summers should be Fed chair because he’s really, really smart. First, we should note that this is only a solid argument for Summers if you think Yellen’s intelligence is significantly inferior. But even that is not what I really want to get at.

Larry Summers is a polarizing figure. So let’s pretend we’re not talking about Summers. Let’s pretend that we’re talking about Person X. And let’s suppose that I told you that Person X’s record included the following:

  • Argued against the Clinton Administration participation in the Kyoto Protocol.
  • Fought the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) and testified in July 1998 that there was “no clear evidence of a need” to regulate derivatives – the financial instruments that at that very moment were torpedoing Long-Term Capital Management and would help tank the entire world economy ten years later.
  • Championed the repeal of the Glass-Steagal Act, which also contributed to the 2007-2008 financial crisis.
  • Told Gray Davis that there was no collusion  or price manipulation during the 2000-2001 California energy crisis, and advised the state that the problem was strong environmental regulations preventing quick construction of new generating capacity.
  • Signed off on (if not promoted) plans for a university to invest in interest-rate swaps, which cost the university hundreds of millions of dollars due to the 2007-2008 financial crisis (which was, remember, caused in part by Person X’s previous actions).
  • Argued against a larger stimulus package in 2009, dooming the country to a recovery that has been mediocre at best.

In light of this record, would you determine Person X to be brilliant? To be someone who should be given major control over the economy?

Now look. I don’t know Larry Summers. Maybe he really does have an amazing, broad intelligence that makes the people around him better. A lot of people whose work I respect, and who I think are intelligent, say that he does. I’m no economist, but his theoretical work with DeLong on fiscal policy in a depressed economy makes sense to me. But good God, at some point, don’t results matter? As one of the foremost philosophers of my childhood put it, stupid is as stupid does. Like National Review columnists who aren’t racists but keep writing racist articles, Larry Summers is a genius who just happens to keep giving stupid advice.

Looking at the Larry Summers resume over the last twenty years, it seems to me that he’s the neoliberal movement’s George W Bush. The latter has racked up an impressive record of callous disregard for human suffering, from mocking a Texas death row inmate to launching an unnecessary war on bogus pretenses, from operating a gulag in Guantanamo to putting the country on the path to legalized torture. Yet he still has his legions of defenders, ready to say it was all a big misunderstanding, ready to rise and proclaim him a good person. Likewise, despite a long list of questionable economic outcomes, there are still many people who rise to defend Larry Summers, to insist that he be given another chance at the economic helm.

The comparison between Summers and Bush can also be kicked up to a meta level. Part of the reason Bush holds so much appeal to many people is his own earnest belief in his own goodness. Regardless of how intelligent Summers may be, he unquestionably excels at projecting his sense of his own awesomeness. Like Bush, that’s one of the things that makes him so polarizing.

Problem is, in many jobs, that characteristic interferes with successful  execution of responsibilities. DeLong says that “if he thinks you know more about something than he does, he will listen to you very patiently and then trust and act on what you have told him”. But the record would suggest that there is very little Larry Summers thinks you know more about than him.

That combination of intelligence and mindset might make for great theoretical work and academic debate, but it produces terrible results in the real world. As commenter Confabulator noted on DeLong’s post, Larry Summers is great in theory. In practice, not so much. With geniuses like Larry Summers in charge, who needs idiots?

Update: on DeLong’s post, commenter PeakVT made the same comparison to George W Bush; I likely read that and subconsciously assimilated it. Credit where credit is due!


Forget About Boston vs Atlanta

Note: this was originally part of Sprawl and Economic Mobility but the main point of that post ended up being the continuing impact of discrimination, and this isn’t really related.

In his series of posts on sprawl and economic mobility, Krugman used a comparison of Boston and Atlanta when talking about the relationship of sprawl and economic mobility, which he said “many people have pointed out . . . as the most obvious comparison among major US metro areas”.

In a word, no. Leaving aside New York as unique among American cities, ATL vs BOS is perhaps the most obvious comparison – if you are a typical East Coast resident who thinks that the country ends at Allegheny Front.

In reality, Boston and Atlanta are similar and in the last 60 years, they have developed in similar ways. The only difference is that Boston grew to be a much larger city earlier than Atlanta did. Check out a comparison of the populations of the metro areas and the cores at the dawn of the Auto Era in 1950 and in 20101:


Or how about this: take a look at the two aerial images below, which are at the same scale. Which one is Boston’s beltway and which one is Atlanta’s? (Answer at the bottom of the post)

boston hotlanta

Both cities have had virtually no growth in their historic core communities. The difference is that Boston had a sizable core when the sprawl era began. Atlanta started sprawling out around very little other than a new skyscraper CBD. But every dense neighborhood that exists in Boston today existed in more or less the same form in 1950. Same goes for the denser suburban town centers. The current growth mode in Boston and Atlanta is the same: low density sprawl.

Even with the resurgence of Boston’s core cities since 1990, it’s still 200,000 below peak. Somerville – and you keep hearing about what an awesome place Somerville is, right? – has actually lost population since the Red Line Extension opened. The story of urban revival is about the core gaining population, but it is just as much about what kind of people are moving there. Somerville has more young professionals than it used to, but it also has less blue collar workers and immigrants than it used to.

Really, the same can be said for almost any East Coast city. The dense neighborhoods of Washington, Baltimore, Philly, and so on – they all predate the auto age. So does any smaller node of density like, say, New Haven or Albany. If you want a real comparison with a place like Boston or Atlanta, you need a place with a different growth mode. You need Los Angeles, or at least a city doing a decent impersonation, like San Jose or Houston.

New England is the land of two-acre residential zoning suburbs. The governor of Massachusetts wants to promote dense development around transit stations – dense being 4-8 units/acre, or in other words, about the default density allowed anywhere by the generic residential zone in far-flung LA suburbs like Lancaster and Adelanto. Let’s have a look at some recent LA growth, shall we?


I don’t expect Lancaster to be winning any awards from the CNU anytime soon (though they did get one from EPA). James Howard Kunstler probably woke up in a cold sweat when I grabbed that screenshot. But as far as I can tell, the primary problem with LA seems to be that people don’t like how it looks. That’s fine, but if we’re talking about the viability of a development pattern, we need to put our architectural preferences aside. If you want to compare Boston or Atlanta to anything, this is what you should compare it to, and fact is, it stacks up pretty well.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I used to live in Boston, and it’s a great city – they should build more of it. I’d be very happy to see the Boston region resume its pre-WW2 growth pattern so that more people could take advantage of that. Knowing the ferocity of NIMBYism, even in the near suburbs, and the strong level of local control afforded to New England towns2, I’m not going to hold my breath. If the choice is between low-density East Coast sprawl like Atlanta and high-density LA style development, LA wins every time.

Boston is on the top, Atlanta on the bottom.

1For the region, for Boston I used the MSA less the New Hampshire counties, plus Worcester and Bristol Counties; for Atlanta I used the MSA. For the core, for Boston I used Suffolk County plus Quincy, Newton, Brookline, Waltham, Watertown, Arlington, Belmont, Cambridge, Somerville, Medford, Malden, and Everett; for Atlanta I used just the city itself.

2One of the ways that not having counties hurts the Boston region.

Sprawl and Economic Mobility

Paul Krugman was spurred by Detroit’s bankruptcy to put up a few posts about the link between sprawl, prosperity, and economic mobility. He started with a comparison of Detroit and Pittsburgh, and then went on to look at a general relationship, including a comparison of Boston and Atlanta1. I wanted to expand a little on these posts, since I think they’re good, but missing some important details.

Steeltown vs. Motown

First, the tale of two rustbelt cities. Krugman says it’s obvious that Detroit’s central city has collapsed, while Pittsburgh has had a revival, and cites a Brookings report on job sprawl. The report shows that Pittsburgh’s jobs are much more centrally located than Detroit’s, and Krugman concludes that “sprawl killed Detroit, by depriving it of the kind of environment that could incubate new sources of prosperity”.

Let’s add the Los Angeles MSA, where manufacturing is of comparable importance and where jobs are distributed like they are in Detroit. So what does the Brookings data show? Here’s the breakdown of Detroit, Pittsburgh, and LA jobs data from the report:

Det-Pitt-LA jobs

So the core of Pittsburgh lost jobs during that time period, and over 90% of the job growth was more than 10 miles from the core. Unless the contention is that preserving the core is juicing job growth out in the suburbs, the argument that Pittsburgh’s economy was saved by preserving the core doesn’t seem to be that strong. Meanwhile, LA was not doomed by job sprawl, and Pittsburgh is less dense than Detroit by weighted density. Pittsburgh is your classic small- to mid-size East Coast city, with a lot of jobs in the core, very low density suburbs, and a lot of people commuting to the CBD. But at any rate, Las Vegas and Phoenix also rank highly in the Brookings report – in fact, their jobs are more concentrated than Pittsburgh’s. Y’all ‘bout to tell Detroit to emulate them?

Sprawl may have bankrupted Detroit, but  it has been a particularly malicious kind of sprawl. Detroit has been forced – and given all of the history, I use that word deliberately – by the rest of the region to suffer unduly. Declining population does not necessarily doom a city, because increasing incomes and productivity mean that each resident can support more infrastructure. But if the population declines and there’s extreme income segregation, the city is screwed. It is impossible to look at Detroit without looking at a long history of horrible discrimination.

Moving On Up… Out of the South

Speaking of horrible discrimination, it’s also a factor in upward mobility. This is getting way out of my comfort zone but I think it’s important, so I’m going to give it a shot anyway.

Krugman writes a post citing this David Leonhardt article that in turn cites this study that was originally about the economic impact of tax expenditures. Now when I looked at the map at the top of the Leonhardt article, my reaction was: no duh. If you grow up in the Deep South or on an Indian Reservation, you’re going to be at a huge disadvantage. Nothing new there. But I also believe that denser development contributes to upward mobility by facilitating matching and reducing transaction costs. Krugman put up a chart of the largest ten metro areas comparing weighted density to upward mobility. I’ve expanded this to the all MSAs with population over 300,000.2 I excluded New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Honolulu, since their weighted densities are much greater than the other MSAs.


Pretty solid correlation. But in light of the map at the top of the Leonhardt article, I wanted to try to correct for geography, so I added a dummy variable for being located in the South. I’m defining the South as the ex-Confederate states, less Texas and Florida, which have undergone major demographic changes. Here’s the same data split into two groups.


Yup. I ran a regression on upward mobility using weighted density and the dummy as the independent variables. They are both predictive, and both statistically significant. Note that if you divide the coefficients, the result is that being in the South has the same impact as decreasing weighted density by 7,790 people per square mile. But it may even be worse than that: if you restrict the analysis to Southern cities, the impact of weighted density is statistically insignificant.


Ok, you say, but it’s pretty obvious that there’s a major correlation (r=-0.45) between weighted density and the dummy South variable. And other than Newport News and New Orleans, we don’t have any Southern cities with weighted density over 2,500 people per square mile. Maybe that variable is useless because of the correlation or insufficient sample size. I’m glad you asked. Let’s add something with a weaker correlation3 (r=-0.20) to weighted density but still related to racism: percent African-American. Here’s the results of that regression.


Weighted density is still important, and percent African-American is important, but the dummy South variable is now statistically insignificant. So racism isn’t just in the South. The authors of the initial study noted the impact of race as well, and they ran some regressions (page 31) to compare white upward mobility to overall upward mobility. They found that where upward mobility is bad, it is bad for both black and white residents, and conclude that the pattern in upward mobility is not driven by racial composition.

To which I say: not really. By that same logic, you could look at the fact that few Confederate soldiers owned slaves and conclude that the Civil War was not about slavery. After all, they had no economic interest in perpetuating that system. But that’s how the politics of racism works: it is all about keeping those people down in their place; everything else comes after. Consider that 74% of white Mississippians said they would vote for the Republican candidate for governor in the last election. That governor is doing things, like opting out of the Medicaid expansion and moving forward with a voter ID law, that are going to screw poor white Mississippians out of upward mobility. But at least he won’t be letting black people get any, and that’s the whole point.

This may seem far afield from a blog about land use, transportation, and economics in Los Angeles, but it’s not. Racism and racist policies are morally wrong, but they also have economic consequences. By denying a group of people full humanity, they waste human and economic potential, reduce innovation, and keep the region from improving the human experience as much as possible.

So yes, let’s talk about how sprawl hurt Detroit. And let’s talk about how allowing greater density increases economic mobility. But let’s also be forthright and honest about the long history and impact of discriminatory policies, and the need for change. When you read things like Richard Florida saying that mobility is prevented by a class and skill divide, remember, it’s partly true, but it’s also true that we still don’t live in a post-racial society.

1I was originally planning to talk about the comparison of Boston, Atlanta, and Los Angeles in this post, but that ended up being irrelevant to the main point here, so I’m saving that for another post.

2The data in the Leonhardt article seems to be presented in terms of CSAs, not MSAs, so I had to assume that all constituent MSAs in a CSA are the same.

3The Atlantic did an article that looks at percent African-American versus weighted density, but only for the ten largest metros outside New York, which is a small sample size.

The Geography of Nowhere

Seminal. I think that’s the only appropriate away to describe James Howard Kunstler’s 1993 book The Geography of Nowhere. Would it be too much to call it one of the most influential book on urban form since The Death and Life of Great American Cities? I don’t think so. This passage is the essence of the livable streets movement:

[The perfect modern suburban street] is at least thirty-six feet wide… with generous turning radii. This makes it easy to drive well in excess of thirty miles an hour, a speed at which fatal accidents begin to happen. The perfect modern suburban street has no trees planted along the edge that might pose a hazard to the motorist incapable of keeping his Buick within the thirty-six-foot-wide street. The street does not terminate in any fixed objective that might be pleasant to look at or offer a visual sense of destination – no statues, fountains, or groves of trees. Such decorative focal points might invite automotive catastrophe, not to mention the inconvenience of driving around them. With no trees arching over the excessively wide streets, and no focal points to direct the eye, and cars whizzing by at potentially lethal speeds, the modern suburban street is a bleak, inhospitable, and hazardous environment for the pedestrian.

The Geography of Nowhere is probably Kunstler’s finest work. Easy to read, humorous, and passionate about the development of American cities and towns, the book connects with readers on human terms. The esoteric practices of engineering, economics, and planning are stripped of their technical facade and discussed in terms of how ordinary people experience them: how we get around, what we do, what our communities look like.

I just reread The Geography of Nowhere on the 20th anniversary of its publication, and more or less 10 years since I first read it. The book provides an excellent overview of the history of architecture, city development, and city reform movements in the US, which is worth reading on its own terms. However, for my purposes here, I’m going to focus on two specific chapters of the book and some overarching themes: the three places discussed in the chapter on capitals of unreality, the three cities Kunstler contrasts against one another, and what I see as the three central themes of the book.

Three Capitals of Unreality

Atlantic City: casinos are, with the exception of Wall Street, perhaps the most tangible manifestation of the long-running get rich quick streak in American culture. Atlantic City today is as Kunstler described it twenty years ago, but even more so. The strip of mega casinos on the beach, flanked on one side by a depressing string of Cash 4 Gold type establishments and the storm-ravaged boardwalk on the other, would seem bleak to many observers.

Without passing judgment on vice and economics, to me Atlantic City demonstrates the dangers of having all your economic eggs in one basket – be it the summer tourists of the 1920s or the casinos of the 1970s. Atlantic City suffers both because it is difficult to displace the alpha city of a particular type of economic agglomeration (in this case, the casinos and resorts of Las Vegas) and because the removal of regulatory barriers in other cities has saturated the market for gambling.

Disneyland: since this was always intended to be a fantasy, I have trouble seeing it as an unrealistic city model. Unlike Kunstler, I do not believe you can make a direct connection between visitors’ fondness for Main Street USA and a desire to live in such a place. I like camping in the middle of nowhere for vacations, but it doesn’t mean I want to be a subsistence hunter/gatherer. I have little to say about Disneyland except that, given Kunstler views it as a capital of unreality, it should be more troubling that many people who claim to love real cities want to model their transit systems after Disneyland.

Woodstock: this is the most interesting and relevant of Kunstler’s capitals of unreality, because unlike Atlantic City and Disneyland, Woodstock has a history as a real town, not a resort. Kunstler provides nice detail of this history, of Woodstock’s transition from rough frontier town to mill town of regional importance to weekend escape for wealthy New Yorkers. (Vermont in microcosm, right?) The key insight Kunstler provides here is that Woodstock looks like a functioning town  but is in fact something else entirely. In the twenty years since his writing, this type of economic arrangement has proliferated, and the concept of a “Woodstock” is one I intend to use in the future.

Three Cities

Detroit: has any other American city faced the same disastrous level of misfortune, social unrest, and incompetence (public and private)? Kunstler describes the inner neighborhoods of Detroit as nearly abandoned, beyond what could even be called a slum, and the city economy as failing… in 1993! Like Atlantic City, this has only grown more true with time. The only economic activity that seems to be prospering in the Detroit of 2013 is the dismantling of the city itself through scrapping, with an occasionally self-righteous dash of creative class development downtown. Right on cue, as I was working on this post, the city declared bankruptcy.

Detroit demonstrates that even an alpha city can be brought to its knees. The city was heavily dependent on the auto industry and related enterprises, which have been lost to southern states that offer lower wages and Asian corporations that make better products. Given the immense problems Detroit faces, I’m not sure to what extent I’d accept Kunstler’s theories on the impact of the city’s auto-oriented development and monolithic residential neighborhoods. They may not have helped, but Detroit seems to be the victim of both its own internal failings and larger economic forces.

Portland: here, I think Kunstler is half-right. In the last twenty years, Portland has demonstrated that it is possible to build a modern American city without doing everything in sprawl mode. There have been growing pains, but the city continues to succeed economically. However, with housing becoming less affordable in Portland, the ability of a planned city like Portland to grow fast enough to allow all people to reap the benefits is an open question. The only American cities producing housing fast enough to stay affordable are the ones still doing what most people would consider sprawl – Phoenix, Las Vegas, Houston, the far fringes of Los Angeles.

There is also the issue that, as time goes by, Portland seems to put an increasing amount of emphasis on urban form, without regard for any sacrifices towards building a functional city. In other words, Portland runs the risk of becoming a Woodstock. Thus you have streetcars that run on 19 minute headways, and Fred Armisen spoofing the city as the place that people in their thirties go to retire. Top-down heavy-handed control over urban form also leads to self-selection of people who like that form, causing a positive feedback loop of what Jane Jacobs called the self-destruction of diversity. It drives other people to leave the city and compare it to Orange County – without a hint of irony, and perhaps unaware that Orange County is far more diverse than Portland.

Los Angeles: ah, and that provides a nice segue to talk about Kunstler’s third city, for which this blog is an unabashed promoter. Los Angeles is so iconic as “nowhere” that the four-level interchange appears on the cover of the book. Well, the results of the last twenty years are in, and Los Angeles wins. The city has been tested on virtually all of Kunstler’s substantive points and it keeps passing the test. Real gas prices have doubled, and it was not a disaster for Los Angeles – probably because we don’t actually drive as much as anyone thinks. Downtown LA is one of the hottest neighborhoods around. Our economy keeps bouncing back, despite the losses of many defense industry and manufacturing jobs. The ports continue to hold prominence, not because of any federal subsidies but because LA is the only west coast port with snow-free rail and highway connections to the rest of the country and a vast, flat hinterland where you can do all sorts of cool stuff like sorting rail cars and transloading. LA County has the nation’s most ambitious transit plans. And AQMD has managed to clean up the air without taking anyone’s hibachi. LA 1, James Howard Kunstler 0.

At the end of his section on LA, Kunstler declares that LA has always been an experiment, and that if it survives, it will be in a form we do not recognize. I am curious to know what he thinks today – has the day of reckoning not yet come, or is LA transitioning to a new form? But either way, LA already had an urban form that few recognize, and I think Kunstler failed to understand it when he wrote the book. It’s hard to make accurate assessments of a region’s future if you don’t realize how it works today.

Three Themes, Intertwined

As I read it, three main themes keep coming up in The Geography of Nowhere: (1) the economics of cities and towns, that is, their ability to generate prosperity and the degree of economic self-sufficiency, (2) the form of cities towns, such as the arrangement of land uses, particularly concerning the accommodation of cars and impacts on pedestrians, and (3) the architecture of individual buildings.

I’ve listed these themes in increasing order of subjectivity. The economic success or failure of a city is fairly quantifiable, and there is not much disagreement about what constitutes success or failure. The form of a city is somewhat subjective; different people have different preferences, but from a detached perspective, some forms make more efficient use of resources. Architecture, so long as it does not impact the ability of the building to function as intended, is entirely subjective.

In the Kunstlerian world, these themes are heavily intertwined – in fact, inseparable. The architecture of individual buildings, their relation to the public realm, and their arrangement in the city are not simply matters of taste. In the Kunstler View, it is impossible to have a truly successful economy if the city’s architecture and urban form are wrong. Likewise, getting the architecture and urban form right contributes to the prosperity of the city. This latter corollary view seems to be widely prevalent in the urban commentary of today.

Subjectivity Matters

The problem with the Kunstler View is the subjectivity of urban form and architecture. If you do not like the urban form and architecture of Los Angeles, you are forced to conclude that the city cannot generate prosperity. This results in the need to insist that Los Angeles has “fake” prosperity, that it depends on the largesse of government projects, or cheap oil, or whatever.

If you look outside the US experience, something Americans should do more often, the connection between urban form, architecture, and economics is even more tenuous. At the time of this writing, southern Europe is full of beautiful, walkable cities whose buildings are in proportion to the street and respect the public realm, and whose residents enjoy 26% unemployment. On the other side of the globe, China is getting less walkable, more auto-oriented, more architecturally insane – and lifting millions of people out of poverty.

But even if you restrict your view to the US, just think about what has happened in the last 60 years. All the urban design features now considered to be essential to city success? Back then they were thought to be the things dooming cities to obsolescence. And the things now supposedly dooming suburbs were thought to be essential! Shouldn’t it at least give us a little pause that the ingredients for economic success happen to coincide with the architectural and urban planning fads of the day?

Building a successful economy is hard. Predicting the future is hard. Combine the two and you’re bound to run into trouble. And even if you do everything right, you can still have bad luck! If your region is struggling, you probably face a very complex, and somewhat unique, set of problems. If your region is successful, stay out of the damn way and don’t screw things up. Either way, don’t expect architectural style or the relation of a building to the street to make that much difference. That’s not to say we shouldn’t pay attention to urban quality of life – we should! – but the justification is found elsewhere.

Home from Nowhere

For Kunstler, the result of his bias towards the architecture and urban form of the late 1800s and early 1900s results in an affinity for the economic arrangements of the same period.

Ultimately, therefore, the conflation of economics, urban form, and architecture is the book’s shortfall. Even twenty years after its publication, The Geography of Nowhere is informative and insightful. The three capitals of unreality and three cities that Kunstler discusses remain important archetypes of urban form and development in the US – perhaps even more so than when the book was written. There are excellent lessons in improving the public realm. But on economics, it borders on being a rant against production at industrial scales, and Kunstler’s recommendations must be analyzed in the context of his view that America will regress to the turn-of-the-century economy. As is usually the case, the instructions cannot be considered without also considering the instructor.

The Right Argument for Tolls

Aaron M. Renn, aka The Urbanophile, has an article out today about the need for tolling in Rhode Island. There’s no doubt that things in the Ocean State need some work; I was on the 195 recently and saw some terrifying levels of spalling concrete like that seen in the picture of the Warren Ave overpass. Renn pitches tolls for facilities like the Sakonnet River Bridge, and VMTs, which he calls de facto tolls.

I’ve written before about how VMTs do not make sense and do not actually solve any of the stated problems, so I don’t have anything to add there.

However, the issue of traditional tolling is another good one to discuss, and I think Renn’s article runs into trouble there. First, while tolls solve the problem of inadequate funding, they do not solve the other major issues that Renn identifies: corruption and incompetence. Toll money can be wasted just as easily as gas tax money; it does not force the state to stop deferring maintenance. There is no substitute for building competent governing institutions, and evidence would suggest Rhode Island has a ways to go with that.

Beyond that, though, Renn uses the same faulty user fee logic that I wrote about in the context of VMTs. Renn says that “it’s intuitively fair for those who use something to pay for it”, an argument frequently heard from progressive writers who don’t care for cars. As I said, this is a disastrous line of reasoning for progressive causes, since transit users don’t pay for the entire cost of transit either. We don’t provide roads “for free” any more than we provide bus service or public education for free.

There is a logical framework with which you can make an internally consistent argument that highway users should pay the entire cost of highways, but transit users shouldn’t pay the entire cost of transit. If you think that highways are not public goods, but transit is a public good, then you’re good to go. But if roads are not public goods, then there’s no reason for the public sector to supply roads at all, and the solution would be to just privatize roadways. That argument seems plausible regarding limited-access highways, but certainly not with respect to local roads and bridges.

If you think that roads are public goods, there are still arguments in favor of tolling. I think there are two, one solid and one marginal. The solid argument for tolling is congestion charging as a way of capacity management. Congestion is a negative externality of driving, and drivers should pay for it. Unlike VMTs, congestion charges account for a negative externality that cannot be properly captured by the gas tax.

The marginal argument for tolling is that users of expensive facilities, like bridges and tunnels, should pay more. This is a marginal argument because it partly relies on the faulty user fee framework. People who have children that require special education use more expensive school facilities, but we do not make them pay additional school tax. The strength of tolls for expensive facilities is that it forces local users to pay for the facility, instead of allowing them to fleece distant taxpayers who may not be paying attention, which provides an incentive to control costs. Note that this is also partly a substitute for competent governing institutions.

So again, like the gas tax, there are good reasons for tolling, but you should always think twice about the user fee approach.

Sticks and Stucco

A quick follow-up to this post on LA density, after some more good conversation yesterday on Twitter, with Neal Lamontagne and Niall Huffman. That exchange drifted towards removing barriers to smaller-footprint mid-rise projects, for example, trying to configure parking on a small site. There are others, and this is an excellent but separate topic, so I’m still leaving it for another post for now.

However, the issue of barriers to small scale projects was not the thrust of the LA Downtown News article at hand, which was more like “gee, developers downtown are building a lot of wood-frame mid-rises, and we really wish they’d have built high-rises instead”, and my post on LA density was intended as a response to that mentality.

To wit, in the article, Eric Owen Moss, director of the Southern California Institute of Architecture, is quoted saying that, “it seems odd that as the city grows, the quality of Downtown stone construction is being replaced by sticks and plaster”. As I said in my initial post, that is simply a matter of taste. From an engineering perspective, well-built wood-frame construction is pretty high quality in terms of its load bearing capacity, ability to resist earthquake loads, and so on. I lived in Boston for a long time, so personally I’ve had enough brick and stone work to last a lifetime, but if someone wants to build it here in LA, more power to them.

Neal tweeted that it seems strange that downtown sites would not support taller construction. Maybe, maybe not, but from the article it seems like developers are getting to make the decision for themselves, which I think is a good thing. When I read things like “sites where some say the city should be encouraging more density”, alarm bells go off in my mind. “Encouraging” reads like saying that the mayor should call and give the developer a motivational speech; in practice, it means that the developer will be given monetary incentives to build high-rises. In a city like Los Angeles, where housing costs are already very high and public services face budget cuts, it is simply ridiculous for taxpayer money to be given to developers to construct housing – especially housing that, by the very nature of its type of construction, is going to be high-rent.

At least, it’s ridiculous from the perspective of my goals – so we’re back to that point, about defining our goals. If your goal is to have high-rises or stone construction, maybe those sacrifices are worth it. My goals center on affordability for residents and businesses. For the foreseeable future, it is going to be cheaper to build five six-story buildings than to build one thirty-story building. Los Angeles is so vast, and served by such a solid grid of arterials that could offer high quality transit, that the supply of sites suitable for mid-rise construction is nearly limitless. Again, I have nothing against high-rises, and if developers want to build them, that’s fine by me. But given this blog’s focus on affordability, and stated neutrality regarding architecture, if the details are sticks and stucco, it’s cool with me.

Revelations on Carmageddon

In the summer of 2011, with the 405 through Sepulveda Pass set to close for construction, there were so many dire warnings of epic traffic jams that a new portmanteau, Carmageddon, was born. When the congestion failed to materialize, Streetsblog took a victory lap and declared that it was now apparent that LA doesn’t need so many freeways. Now, it’s Randal O’Toole’s turn to gloat, asserting that the BART strike has revealed the system to be unnecessary. (Although since it’s O’Toole, you have to consider the possibility that he had that post finished the day before the strike and so all he’d have to do is hit “publish”.) There are other similar examples of closures that were not known quite as far in advance: the closure of the 10 and the 14 after Northridge, the MBTA Green Line getting flooded, and so on. Why don’t the traffic prophesies bear out?

The answer is pretty simple. Cities are dynamic systems and people adjust. The predictions are silly because they assume a static system. The interesting thing to me is the apparent lack of curiosity about the knock-on effects of those adjustments.

Example: I’m right-handed; so let’s say I break my right hand. The static analysis says that my work and blogging productivity will go to zero because I can’t type, and that in a couple weeks I’ll starve to death because I can’t eat. Now obviously, that’s not going to happen. I’m going to type and eat with my left hand. I’ll type slower and I’ll probably spill coffee on myself, though I will get a little better with time.

There are two important takeaways here. One, the fact that I survive breaking my right hand does not mean that it is useless. Really, that reveals nothing about its utility for my survival. Its utility is shown by all the things I use it for when I have the ability to use it. Likewise, the utility of transportation is demonstrated by the people using it. Just because a city survives having a piece of infrastructure closed, it does not mean the infrastructure is useless. There is plenty of useless infrastructure in the United States, and it is self-evident because it is there and it has no users.

Second, even though I survive, there are still negative effects, because I get less work done and I ruin some of my clothes with coffee stains. In the case of cities, these losses are social and economic, manifest through lost economic activity, additional commuting time, etc. The losses diminish with time as people adjust, but the shadow can be very long. If I lose my right hand, I’ll recover some of my abilities in time, but I’ll never be able to do everything I could if I had both. The effects can be cumulative – if enough city infrastructure is broken and not replaced, the city will decline.

Finally, it is worth noting that there are cases where the loss of infrastructure does result in crippling traffic jams. This occurs when the disruption was not foreseen or when its magnitude was misunderestimated. The most common example is snowstorms, but even then, the system adjusts – if the roads are still blocked the next day, no one goes out. Likewise, if I order a steak for dinner and then discover I have somehow broken my hand splitting a dinner roll, I’m going to be pretty screwed that night because I won’t be able to cut my steak. But the next night, I’m not going to order another steak, knowing going in that I won’t be able to cut it.

We’re getting another experiment today with the 5 freeway closed at the interchange with the 2 due to the gas tanker spill and fire. Here’s betting that traffic won’t be as bad on Monday, since people have had time to plan ahead, as it was on Saturday, when everyone was caught off-guard. But remember, no matter what happens, it won’t tell us very much about the long-term effects of changes to the transportation network.

Like I said, I find it interesting that people seem relatively uninterested in those effects, because if you’re going to talk about eliminating infrastructure, that’s what matters.

Los Angeles: Density Done Well

Wait, what’s this, an actual post on LA? ‘Bout time. I’ve been trying to cover the philosophical stuff up front to give context of where I’m coming from. I’ve still got a lot of ground to cover there, but this post provided a good opportunity to use real LA examples to back up the theory side of things.

I recently had an interesting exchange with Neal Lamontagne on Twitter, about density in Santa Monica and mid-rise versus high-rise development.


I guess that still sounds like tastes to me. Some people prefer towers – call it Vancouverism – and some people prefer sprawling low-rise and mid-rise density – call it the LA pattern, since LA invented it, perfected it, and turned itself into the densest US metro using it. Given that I’m an unabashed LA cheerleader, you can guess which way my tastes run. The LA pattern: tastes great, less filling. You can get a ton of density that doesn’t feel dense, which is perhaps LA’s most underrated achievement. It’s one of the main points of my project here.

Now, another premise of this blog is that personal tastes shouldn’t get force of law through zoning and permitting. So if I’m gonna come at you with the LA pattern, I’m gonna come correct, and give you some solid theoretical reasons you should learn to love it.

Note: Neal also raises an interesting point about the street-level impact of developments that take up an entire block. This is worthy of discussion in a separate post. For now, I’m going to focus on low-rise and mid-rise development in comparison with high-rise development.

For one, low-rise and mid-rise density offers more development model options, which leads to more diversity of use – something both Neal and I highlighted as being important. Why does low-rise and mid-rise offer more possibilities? Well, for the reason that Neal notes: it’s cheap. Lower construction costs mean lower rents, which makes it possible for a greater variety of land uses to make a go of it. There’s a good reason why skyscrapers are overwhelmingly built by the FIRE industry, luxury residential developers, and the government. It’s something Joe Satran touched on recently in the context of restaurants, too. LA has space for everybody to try their idea, and that’s an asset we ought to strengthen and reinforce when we have opportunities like Recode LA.

Lower construction costs also open the door for a wider variety of players to try their hands at land development. A low-rise or mid-rise block can be built by small-time local developers, backed by local banks, insured by regional firms. That means the development will be built and backed by people who know the city better, have a better feel for the local market, and have a bigger stake in its success. Skyscrapers require bigger developers, bigger banks, and bigger insurers, which means more generic development and less concern for the city. When I lived in Boston, a major skyscraper was derailed because Anglo-Irish Bank and CalPERS pulled funding. Not surprisingly, people in Dublin and Sacramento don’t care that much about their impact on Boston. People in LA care more about LA.

This being LA, there is one other thing we should mention: earthquakes. Contrary to what you may have heard from armchair engineers on the internet, geotechnical and structural design have made some major advances since 1906, and there is no technical reason we can’t build skyscrapers in LA, at least provided we’re not building it right on top of the damn fault. However, if you look around LA, you’ll notice that a lot of the new construction going in – say, NMS buildings in Santa Monica or the Italian series buildings downtown – tops out at, oh, I’ll guess 65’. Why? Well, get out your ASCE/SEI 7-05 and flip to Table 12.2-1…

Wait, you don’t have an ASCE/SEI 7-05?

It’s the standard design loads for buildings. Unfortunately, it’s copyrighted, so I can’t reproduce it here, but the point is this: for Seismic Design Categories E and F, the maximum height for a wood frame structure is 65’. If you’re in California, it’s almost certain you’re in E or F. If you want to go taller than 65’ you’re into special moment frames or eccentrically-braced steel frames or some other fancy structural system. This means that in LA there is a very real break point at 65’, about six or seven stories, above which there is a major non-linear jump in construction costs. Again, low-rise and mid-rise density allows for a variety of uses without breaking the bank.

None of this should be taken as being anti-skyscraper. I think skyscrapers present more significant architectural challenges than low-rise and mid-rise buildings because they present two problems that low-rise and mid-rise buildings do not: the potential for monotonous repetition of surface treatments in the middle, and the skyline view at the top. For a long time, these problems were solved by the International Style, which said that monotony and boxy tops were good things; now, they are being solved by Gehry-esque mind tricks. I’m not really a fan of either, though I do think that the early Art Deco and Neo-Gothic skyscrapers proved that these challenges can be addressed elegantly. But again, all of that is tastes. So, if a private developer thinks they build a profitable skyscraper in LA, I’m all for it!

The question we need to ask ourselves is this: what are our goals? What outcomes do we hope to achieve through things like Recode LA? Only then, goals in hand, can we proceed to determine what the best policies would be. My goals are as follows:

  • Increase housing affordability so that people spend less of their income on housing and transportation. This is usually pitched as a problem of low-income people, but it’s increasingly applicable to the middle class.
  • Make it easier and cheaper to do business, which together with the previous goal, would allow LA to resume its historic role as a place for people of all backgrounds to come and get another chance at life.
  • Make efficient use of previous capital investments in infrastructure.
  • Use the market to help reduce environmental impact.

When it comes to zoning, the best policy for achieving these goals would be allowing more low-rise and mid-rise development.

On the other hand, maybe you like the way Vancouver looks, and you want LA to be more like Vancouver. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if that is your goal, you need to understand that, and realize that other goals, like affordability and diversity of use, are going to take a back seat. But if you want to allow for density to increase quickly and cheaply, for different development models, and for greater diversity of use, you should learn to love LA!

Transportation Myopia

One of Cap’n Transit’s best contributions, in my opinion, is the idea of transportation myopia – where people get so focused on transit that it becomes the goal in and of itself. We have to remember that transit competes with cars. If you’re going to advocate for a highway project (something I reserve the right to do on this blog) or even take a neutral position, you need to ask yourself what impact that will have on the viability of transit. In this context, Cap’n Transit has defended some commuter rail projects with disappointing ridership, San Jose’s VTA, and Amtrak’s long-distance services, the point being that low ridership does not occur in a vacuum.

It is important to remember that different modes of transportation are indeed competing with each other, but we’re still missing a crucial component: the do-nothing alternative. Because highways and transit are not only competing against each other, they’re also competing against doing nothing. The do-nothing alternative is what you pick when all the transportation options available to you are so terrible that you decide to not even make the trip at all. For example, if you’re in Westwood and your friend wants to have dinner in Studio City, your highway option (the 405 to the 101) is crappy and your transit option (Metro Rapid 761 to the Orange Line) is crappy too. You might decide to just stay home. This is fundamentally different than choosing between a good highway and good transit. In other words, having bad highways does not make up for having bad transit.

Notice the distinction. Cap’n Transit is wrong to say that transit can win by default. If we extend the baseball analogy, the important thing is not which team wins, but how many spectators each team attracts. Two evenly matched professional teams are going to attract more spectators than two evenly matched teams of beer league scrubs.

Why does this matter? Because there are economic deadweight losses associated with the do-nothing alternative. In the short run, it means lost opportunities for businesses in your city. In the long run, it means that existing residents and businesses will leave your city, and prospective residents and businesses will choose to locate elsewhere. In economese, having a poor transportation system makes matching more difficult by increasing transaction costs.

In human terms, consider the lost romantic connections attributed to the G Train in New York. As Second Ave Sagas notes, the G Train isn’t objectively terrible, but it is relatively terrible if you’ve oriented a car-free life around the excellent Brooklyn-Manhattan or Queens-Manhattan subway lines. Cap’n Transit says the G Train is in competition with the BQE. Fair enough, and it is appropriate to ask why NYSDOT seems hell bent on widening the bridge over Newtown Creek, especially given the zero probability that the rest of the 278 will be widened. Nevertheless, the solution to the G Train’s woes remains a better G Train – better headways, restoration of service to Queens Blvd, and rectification of the ridiculous lack of connections to other lines.

The long-term dynamic effect is something that our environmental review process is ill-equipped to understand. From the standpoint of an environmental impact report, the impacts of doing nothing are almost always negligible. But in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. I touched on this when I wrote about greenhouse gas emissions. In the case of transportation, poor systems may cause people and businesses to do nothing in the short term, resulting in economic losses, and to locate elsewhere in the long term – perhaps in places harder to serve by transit, or where environmental impacts may be greater.

This is why I’m bothered when I hear urbanists wish that we had low quality highway infrastructure because it would increase transit ridership. Wishing for crappy freeways is, like shuttle envy, making excuses for bad transit instead of trying to make transit better. So anytime you’re looking at your city’s transportation system, remember: transit and cars compete with each other, but people can also do nothing. Transit needs to be high quality, in both absolute and relative terms.

H8ers Gon H8: BART Strike Edition

Well, here we are, about a month after my post Shuttle Envy, and with BART transit workers on strike, the shuttles, along with apps like Uber and Lyft, are back in the news. Kevin Roose published a piece postulating that the rise of the shuttles and ride-share apps is contributing to the poor quality of public transportation services, and eliminating the incentives for policy makers to improve service. Matthew Yglesias and Reihan Salam, with an assist from Stephen Smith of Market Urbanism, do most of the dirty work in showing that the shuttles and apps are largely irrelevant to the quality of Bay Area public transit. Salam’s third point is essentially what I was saying in Shuttle Envy.

However, I’d go two steps further. First, it is a dubious proposition that because a wider cross-section of people in NYC use transit, a transit strike would be more effective in getting politicians to improve service. Rich people in New York have other options too – that’s one of the advantages of being rich. And as Salam says, poor people in New York have other options, like the dollar cabs and Chinatown vans. Note that these services are also mercilessly attacked by both the taxi cartel on one side and public transit services on the other, for stealing ridership, but since they serve low-income people instead of Silicon Valley Millenials, they’re not ripe targets for progressive equity and social justice attacks.

But even beyond that, the whole issue at hand here – the BART strike – has literally nothing to do with the quality of public transit services. The unions are asking for higher pay, smaller health care cost increases, better pension benefits, and some tangential safety items. They are not asking for proof-of-payment fare collection, or modern signaling and driverless trains, or better maintenance practices, or any of the many things that would have a positive impact for riders. If management gives in to all of the union’s demands, the quality of BART will be exactly the same as it was June 30.

And that brings us to one of the real problems with public transit in the US, the heart of the Shuttle Envy post: the first step to fixing a problem is to admit that you have a problem and that not exercising control is part of the problem. Public transit services in the US are not poor because Mark Zuckerberg runs private shuttles, they’re not poor because Lyft stuck a bunch of pink mustaches on the fronts of cars, and they’re not poor because BART management is holding out against the unions. They’re poor because we allow them to be and don’t demand any accountability.