Tag: Urban

Cato Unbound - There Ain’t No Such Thing As Free Parking

This month at Cato Unbound we’re discussing a practical, everyday issue – parking!

Yes, Cato Unbound is supposed to cover big ideas, deep thoughts, and the like, but parking policy is both important in its own right and also points to what I consider a very interesting problem: Given a theoretical or abstract commitment to free markets, well, how do we get there in the real world? What would a free-market policy look like in this or that issue area?

The answer isn’t always obvious, and the map isn’t the territory. Parking is interesting in this respect and possibly helpful. Parking is all around us, most of us deal with it every day, and the unintended consequences of parking policy are I think maybe easier to see than the unintended consequences in other fields. Parking affects how we live, how we shop, and how we work. It touches our cities, our family life, our environment, and even our health. Learning to look for such unintended consequences is part of developing a political culture that values economic insights and puts them to work.

That’s why this month we’ve invited four urban economists, each of whom can fairly be said to value the free market. Still, there will be a few disagreements among them – as I said, the map isn’t the territory. Donald Shoup leads the issue with his essay “Free Parking or Free Markets?” – arguing that our expectation of abundant free parking is both bad for our communities and the product of anti-market planning.

The conversation will continue throughout the month, with contributions from Professor Sanford Ikeda, Dr. Clifford Winston of the Brookings Institution, and Cato’s own Randal O’Toole. Be sure to stop by throughout the month, or else subscribe via RSS.

Randal O’Toole Takes on Smart Growth in the NYT

The New York Times has a long profile today of Cato’s Randal O’Toole, scourge of urban planners.

But O’Toole doesn’t fit the portrait of a corporate advocate. On visits to Capitol Hill, he blends in as a middle-aged, middle-height man in a dark suit – but his beard gives him away, its shaggy twists seemingly fitting for a forest dweller. He wears a string tie that most Americans would only recognize on Colonel Sanders. His lapel doesn’t carry the standard-issue flag pin but a bronze bust of his dog, Chip. The Belgian tervuren won it in a dog show.

O’Toole routinely hikes and bikes dozens of miles, and he proudly announces that he has never driven a car to work. Far from living on a luxurious Virginia manor, he left his last Oregon town when it added a third stoplight.

Now, from his home computer in Camp Sherman, Ore., population 300, O’Toole rails against smart-growth policies as money sponges that never calm traffic, fill seats on trains, or help the environment.

The story ends with Randal on his way to a conference in Las Vegas, which I also attended. There in the 80-degree early morning heat, he biked 50 miles each morning, on a folding bicycle that he could fit into a suitcase – and still got back to the hotel in time to fix my Powerpoint before my speech. He’s a Renaissance man.

The Black Divide on School Choice

I’ve been reading the debate between our own Andrew Coulson and Rev. Joseph Darby with interest, not least because it is an extreme rarity to find an opponent of school choice with the courage and good faith to engage in such a public debate on the topic.

That said, something Rev. Darby wrote in his response caught my attention because of its parallels with the modern fight over school choice:

The first schools established for African-Americans following the Civil War were private schools. They sometimes, however, exclusively accepted the children of the black upper and middle economic classes while excluding the children of former slaves who struggled economically to survive. Public schools for African-Americans were decidedly and intentionally inferior, and the irony is that the opponents of quality public education in Charleston, South Carolina in that era included affluent African-Americans who saw good public schools as a threat to their private schools.

Too little is said about an uncomfortable contemporary truth: the irony is that the opponents of school choice across this country include affluent African-Americans who see good private schools as a threat to their public schools, their livelihoods, and their political and economic power.

There is a class divide in the African American community. If you take a look at the economics of urban areas, you will find that schools provide a large percentage of good middle and upper-middle class jobs for African Americans. If you look at the polling data, it is low-income blacks who are most supportive of school choice. And yet black elected officials are overwhelmingly opposed to choice.

And if you look at the black leadership class that runs our cities and failing public schools, you will find that many send their children to schools other than those in which they teach or those in the city they lead. I hold up as the most prominent example our first black president, Barrack Obama, who opposes private school choice policies and yet has always sent his own children to private schools.

Rev. Darby suggests, “a mass exodus to private schools will weaken public schools by leaving behind parents who have the least ability to advocate for or assist their children, and remove positive peer role models from struggling students.” If this is indeed true then the greatest damage has already been done to public schools by the likes of President Obama and other parents with the means to choose private schools for their children.

Why do Rev. Darby and other government school advocates not excoriate President Obama and other school choice opponents who patronize private education? Why are Rev. Darby and others not working assiduously to ban private schools altogether?

Why, in the final analysis, does Rev. Darby’s logic hold for the poor but not for the wealthy?

Below the fold I have more on these claims.

The self-interest-driven divisions among urban African Americans are real and serious. Much of the following comes from a great paper written by Patrick McGuinn, professor of political science at Drew University.

Marion Orr, in “The Challenge of Reform in Baltimore,” notes that “because a significant proportion of the school system’s employment base is African-American workers, the interplay between race and jobs hinders reform efforts. The school bureaucracy is an employment regime for blacks …”

Similarly, Jeffrey Henig recognizes in “The Color of School Reform,” that “there is a kind of ‘holy communion’ between prominent black clergy and the members of their churches whose livelihood is schooling and for whom the school system is a source of wages, professional development, and economic advancement.”

Paul Hill and Mary Beth Celio note in Fixing Urban Schools, “the public school systems have become the principal employers of African-American and immigrant middle class professionals in big cities.” And Julian Bond, as chairman of the NAACP, admitted that “the black teacher class is solidly entrenched in the African-American community and that teacher unions occupy an important political position in the black community.”

So it should come as no surprise to find that Terry Moe finds in his survey work that 79% of the inner city poor support vouchers. The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank that focuses on African American issues, found that black leaders are wildly out of step with their constituency on this issue, with Black elected officials 70 percent opposed to vouchers while “in the black population, there was what can accurately be described as overwhelming support for vouchers (approximately 70 percent) in the three youngest age cohorts” under age 50.

It’s far past time we recognize that black public opinion and interests are not monolithic.

Obama the Planner

New Republic editor John Judis has a couple of insights about the Obama administration’s economic and social goals. He points out that, for more than a century, Progressive and free-market forces have gone through cycles of “reform and reaction.”

The Progressives — who my friend John Baden calls the “American counterrevolutionaries” — have repeatedly sought to increase the size and scope of government: railroad regulation, public land agencies, and the income tax in the 1900s; Social Security, low-interest home loans, and government ownership of power plants in the 1930s; Medicare, the war on poverty, and environmental laws in the 1960s.

In between, friends of free markets tried to roll back those reforms, but were never completely successful. Thus, each successive reform era has further increased government power and reduced free markets.

This reminds me of the basic strategy used by the wilderness movement (in which I was active from about 1975 through 1993). Wilderness activists basically considered land that had already been preserved as wilderness or some other classification to be “theirs,” while all remaining land was “potentially theirs.” Successive congressional land-use bills or presidential decrees would put more land in “their” category, but no matter how much they got, it was never enough.

At the time, I called this the “scorched earth policy,” meaning wilderness advocates embedded so many poison pills in the protected lands that no one would ever try to declassify them. This isn’t necessarily a deliberate strategy, just an effect of our political system.

Judis goes on to outline the ways in which Obama wants to build on past reforms. First, he wants to use “the budget to shift the locus of industrial production toward ‘green’ jobs and products.” He also wants to “make dramatic changes in transportation with [government’s] intervention in the auto industry and in its funding of high-speed rail.” Finally, he wants to institute a form of “national planning” in order to “reverse existing trends” towards “suburban housing [and shopping] malls.”

People who are attracted to such policies tend to judge them based on their intent rather than their results. In fact, these interventions have nearly all either backfired or had huge unintended consequences.

Railroad regulation was imposed just as trucks appeared on the scene in 1907, leaving railroads helpless against growing competition. “Progressive” income taxes ended up with so many loopholes that they weren’t really progressive. The federal loan companies, such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, played a key role in the current crisis when they succumbed to political pressure to buy increasingly risky loans.

Social Security is a giant Ponzi scheme that is also one of the most regressive taxes on the books, not to mention that it has provided billions of dollars of surpluses for Congress to borrow with little hope of ever paying it back. Medicare is an even bigger Ponzi scheme, while the war on poverty created a semi-permanent underclass that has been all but forgotten by the liberals who claim to care most about them.

Environmental laws produced many benefits when they focused on technical solutions, but they failed miserably when they attempted to change people’s behavior. As transportation expert Alan Pisarski recently told the Institute of Transportation Engineers, technical solutions to air pollution are responsible for 95 to 105 percent of the improvements in air quality in the past 40 years, while behavior solutions produced only minus 5 to 5 percent of the improvements — minus 5 meaning some behavioral solutions made pollution worse.

Unfortunately, Obama’s plans are all about changing behavior. This means two things: they will be expensive — especially when counting the unintended consequences — and they won’t work. High-speed rail and urban revitalization, for example, are all about redesigning the country for yuppy elites, not ordinary Americans. The question for free-market advocates is: how can we minimize the damage now and roll back the reforms later?

Obama’s Recycled Moderate-Speed Rail Plan

The Obama administration believes in recycling, as shown by the so-called high-speed rail plan it announced last week. Below is a map of the plan, and below that is a map of the Federal Railroad Administration’s 2005 high-speed rail plan. As you can see, the proposed routes are identical. (The grey lines on the first map represent conventional Amtrak routes.)

map of the plan

2005 map

Of course, this is a time-honored practice. Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System was really the Bureau of Public Roads’ Interregional Highway System. There is no doubt that the Federal Railroad Administration is thrilled that Obama has adopted its plan.

Yet there are several problems with Obama’s plan. First, it is important to understand that most of Obama’s plan is not bullet trains or TGVs. Instead, it is conventional Amtrak Diesel-powered trains running a little faster – up to 110 mph, but averaging only 60 to 70 mph – than Amtrak runs today. Based on this, here are my most important objections to Obama’s moderate-speed rail plan.

1. Less than 1 percent will ride, more than 99 percent will pay

More than 4 percent of federal transportation spending goes to Amtrak, yet Amtrak carries only 0.1 percent of passenger travel. Moderate- and high-speed trains will significantly increase the subsidies but have little effect on the total travel. Why is it fair for 99.8 percent of people to pay for the rides enjoyed by the other 0.2 percent?

Even with subsidies, high-speed rail fares will be about 50 percent higher than ordinary Amtrak fares. For example, passengers pay $69 to ride conventional trains from New York to Washington, and $99 to ride high-speed train. (By comparison, an unsubsidized bus is $20 and unsubsidized airfares are $99.) This means only the wealthy and those whose employers pay the fare will ride high-speed rail. All taxpayers will end up paying for rides of bankers, bureaucrats, and lobbyists.

2. Moderate-speed rail is dirty

Obama’s claims that trains are better for the environment are pure speculation. Amtrak today is only a little more energy-efficient than cars and planes. While cars and planes are expected to get far more energy-efficient in the future, running trains at higher speeds will make them less energy-efficient.

True high-speed rail, which generally powered by electricity, is dirty too. Even if the electricity comes from renewable resources, the energy and environmental cost of construction will be enormous. It will take decades for the trivial annual savings to pay back that cost.

3. It doesn’t work in Europe

High-speed trains in Europe are convenient for tourists, but the average European rarely uses them. Even in France, which has more high-speed trains than any other European country, the average resident rides heavily subsidized high-speed trains just 400 miles per year. Despite punitive fuel taxes, they drive 7,600 miles per year, a number that is increasing faster than high-speed rail travel.

4. It doesn’t work in Japan

The Japanese drive less than French or Americans, but they don’t ride high-speed rail more than the French. The average resident of Japan drives 4,000 miles per year and rides high-speed trains 400 miles per year. The Japanese ride trains more than the residents of any other country – nearly 1,900 miles per year including subways and other urban rail – but due to premium fares, nearly 80 percent of train riding is on conventional trains.

5. Every car off the road means more new trucks on the road

Obama’s moderate-speed trains will run on the same tracks as existing freight trains. Since many of America’s rail lines are near capacity today, there is a real danger that moderate-speed trains will push freight onto the highways.

Europe’s rail network carries 6 percent of passenger travel, while ours carries only 0.1 percent. But European trains carry less than 17 percent of freight, while 73 percent goes by highway. By comparison, American trains carry 40 percent of our freight, while only 28 percent goes on the highway. In other words, to get 6 percent of passengers out of their cars, Europe put nearly three times as many trucks on the road.

Personally, I love trains. But Obama’s plan is bad for taxpayers and bad for the environment. We would be better off ending all subsidies to transportation than piling on subsidy after subsidy for transport that is supposedly environmentally friendly but in fact hardly anyone will use.

Homeless Scare Numbers

The National Center on Family Homelessness has generated headlines today by releasing a report that claims “one in 50 children is homeless in the United States every year.” That would be a total of 1.5 million homeless children, a truly shocking figure. The number is all the more shocking because the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development says there actually only 671,000 people were homeless in 2007 (the last year for which data is available), of which only about 249,000 were people in families. Assuming even one adult per family would mean there were around 166,000 homeless children, far too many, but also far fewer than 1.5 million.

What accounts for the discrepancy? First, the National Center uses an incredibly broad definition of homeless. For example, in addition to those we usually think of as homeless (those living in shelters or on the streets), they also include people “Sharing the housing of other persons due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason.” Under this definition, when your out-of-work in-law crashes on your couch, he’s homeless. The National Center also includes people “living in motels, hotels, trailer parks, or camping grounds,” children awaiting foster care placement, and children of migratory farm workers. And, a child needs only to fall into one of these categories for a single day to qualify as homeless.

Second, this study, like the HUD study as well, are not actual counts of the homeless, but estimates and extrapolations based on reports by various government agencies. The Census Bureau does attempt to do an actual head count of the homeless (170,000 in 2000), but that estimate is both out-of-date and generally criticized as an undercount. Still, going from that estimate to 1.5 million homeless children seems quite a stretch.

Homelessness is clearly a problem, and for the children involved, a tragedy, but scare headlines are a poor substitute for thoughtful public policy.