Topic: Energy and Environment

Planning for the Unpredictable

How do you plan for the unpredictable? That’s the question facing the more than 400 metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) that have been tasked by Congress to write 20-year transportation plans for their regions. Self-driving cars will be on the market in the next 10 years, are likely to become a dominant form of travel in 20 years, and most people think they will have huge but often unknowable transformative effects on our cities and urban areas. Yet not a single regional transportation plan has tried to account for, and few have even mentioned the possibility of, self-driving cars.

Instead, many of those plans propose obsolete technologies such as streetcars, light rail, and subways. Those technologies made sense when they were invented a hundred or so years ago, but today they are just a waste of money. One reason why planners look to the past for solutions is that they can’t accurately foresee the future. So they pretend that, by building ancient modes of transportation, they will have the same effects on cities that they had when they were first introduced.

If the future is unpredictable, self-driving cars make it doubly or quadruply so. Consider these unknowns:

  • How long will it take before self-driving cars dominate the roads?
  • Will people who own self-driving cars change their residential locations because they won’t mind traveling twice as far to work?
  • Will employers move so they can take advantage of self-driving trucks and increased employee mobility?
  • Will car-sharing reduce the demand for parking?
  • Will carpooling reduce the amount of vehicle miles traveled (VMT), or will the increased number of people who can “drive” self-driving cars increase VMT?
  • Will people use their cars as “robotic assistants,” going out with zero occupants to pick up groceries, drop off laundry, or do other tasks that don’t require much supervision?
  • Will self-driving cars reduce the need for more roads because they increase road capacities, or will the increase in driving offset this benefit?
  • Will self-driving cars provide the mythical “first and last miles” needed by transit riders, or will they completely replace urban transit?

Smart Growth Facts vs. Ideology

Debates over smart growth–sometimes known as new urbanism, compact cities, or sustainable urban planning, but always meaning higher urban densities and a higher share of people in multifamily housing–boil down to factual questions. But smart-growth supporters keep trying to twist the arguments into ideological issues.

The choice should be yours: suburbs, or …

For example, in response to my Minneapolis Star Tribune article about future housing demand, Thomas Fisher, the dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota, writes, “O’Toole, like many conservatives, equates low-density development with personal freedom.” In fact, I equate personal freedom with personal freedom.

Fisher adds, “we [meaning government] should promote density where it makes sense and prohibit it where it doesn’t”; in other words, restrict personal freedom whenever planners’ ideas of what “makes sense” differ from yours. Why? As long as people pay the costs of their choices, they should be allowed to choose high or low densities without interference from planners like Fisher.

… New Urbanism. Flickr photo by David Crummey.

Another writer who makes this ideological is Daily Caller contributor Matt Lewis, who believes that conservatives should endorse new urbanism. His weird logic is conservatives want people to love their country, high-density neighborhoods are prettier than low-density suburbs, and people who don’t have pretty places to live will stop loving their country. Nevermind that more than a century of suburbanization hasn’t caused people to stop loving their country; the truth is there are many beautiful suburbs and many ugly new urban developments.

Lewis adds, “Nobody I know is suggesting that big government–or the U.N.!–ought to mandate or impose these sorts of development policies.” He apparently doesn’t know many urban planners, and certainly none in Denver, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, the Twin Cities, or other metropolitan areas where big government in the form of regional planning agencies (though not the U.N.) are doing just that. If new urbanism were simply a matter of personal choice, no one would criticize it.

The real issues are factual, not ideological.

Influencing Climate Policy on the Back of a Lame Horse

Global Science Report is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”

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While we hate to beat a dead horse, despite our best efforts, it’s apparently still alive and kicking.

It is a horse called “Global Warmed Causes Cold Winters and Therefore We Should Regulate Carbon Dioxide Emissions” and proudly jockeyed by White House science adviser John Holdren. (It is rumored that the horse was sired by “Comply or Die,” the winner of the 2008 Grand National Steeplechase and a favorite among the global warming alarmist crowd.)

Previously, on several occasions, we have pointed out that  Holdren’s view that greenhouse gas-induced climate changes lead to more frequent cold outbreaks (as espoused in this YouTube video produced by the White House during last winter’s frigid cold) is a (dwindling) minority viewpoint. Leading researchers on the topic have made a special point of declaring that the hypothesis is rather unlikely. 

In recent months, new research, in part inspired by last winter’s “polar vortex” excursion southward into the eastern United States,  and the White House-spurred speculation that it was caused by anthropogenic climate change, has hit the scientific press. In each case,  new research has found little evidence in support of Holdren’s contention and a rather lot of evidence to the contrary.

In fact, so much evidence has built up against Holdren that the good folks over at the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) filed a formal request for correction with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy under what’s known as the federal Data Quality Act.

Ignoring the Law of Supply and Demand

A recent report from Fannie Mae finds that baby boomers are not leaving their comfortable suburban homes for lively inner-city communities with walkable streets. As a news article about the report observes, this challenges the “conventional wisdom that ‘empty nester’ baby boomers would eventually downsize from the homes where they raised families, flocking instead to apartments or condos.”

Rather than conventional wisdom, it would be more accurate to say that this notion was wishful thinking among urban planners who believe more Americans should be packed into high-density “compact cities” where they will get around by foot, bicycle, or transit rather than by automobile. In contrast, demographers have known that populations of virtually all age groups, whether millennials or empty nesters, are growing faster in the suburbs and exurbs than in the cities. After all, the baby boomers’ parents overwhelmingly preferred to “age in place” rather than move when their children left home; why should baby boomers be any different?

Despite this, regional planning agencies all over the country are writing plans that presume America will need no more single-family homes, especially on large lots, and instead will need lots of apartments, condos, or townhouses. Many of these plans effectively zone away the possibility of new single-family homes on large lots while they subsidize construction of high-density housing. For example, the San Francisco Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s Plan Bay Area mandates that 80 percent of all new housing be in high-density urban centers.

To justify these plans, the planning agencies often hire Arthur C. Nelson, the University of Utah urban planning professor who in 2006 predicted that the U.S. will soon have 22 million surplus single-family homes on large lots. Nelson wrote a 2011 report predicting that the Bay Area, which has one of the most acute housing shortages in America today, would have a surplus of nearly 572,000 single-family homes by 2040; Plan Bay Area relied heavily on this report to justify its strict land-use policies.

Bus Shelters for the Poor, Trains for the Rich

Low-income residents of the Twin Cities can rest easy, as planners at the Metropolitan Council, the area’s regional planning agency, are proposing a regional transit equity plan. According to the Metropolitan Council’s press release, this equity plan consists of:

  1. Building 75 bus shelters and rebuilding 75 existing shelters “in areas of racially concentrated poverty”; and
  2. “Strengthen[ing] the transit service framework serving racially concentrated areas of poverty” by building bus-rapid transit and light-rail lines to the region’s wealthy suburbs.

Bus shelters for the poor, light rail for the rich: that sounds equitable! Of course, the poor will be allowed to ride those light-rail trains (for example, if they travel to the suburbs to work as servants), just as the well-to-do will be allowed to use the bus shelters. But for the most part, the light rail is for the middle class.

As with most American urban areas, Twin Cities poverty is concentrated in the core cities. Minneapolis and St. Paul have less than a quarter of the region’s population but more than half of the poor and more than 60 percent of the poor blacks. On average, 23 percent of residents of Minneapolis and St. Paul are in poverty, compared with just 7 percent of their suburbs.

Subsidies for the Seacoast

A June 24 article in the Washington Post looked at sea level rise in North Carolina. Unfortunately, the article followed a common template of portraying a battle of science vs. conservative politics and environmentalism vs. capitalism. But as I noted here about water and drought in the West, liberals and libertarians can agree on the benefits of cutting anti-environmental subsidies.

My Washington Post letter on Friday pointed to the newspaper’s omission of the government subsidy angle:

There is disagreement about rising sea levels on the North Carolina coast, but there is one reform that all policymakers should support: ending subsidies that promote building in high-risk places. For decades, the National Flood Insurance Program has allowed people on the sea coasts to buy insurance with premiums less than half the market level, and the program does not cut off people even after multiple floods. Meanwhile, the Army Corps of Engineers continually rebuilds beaches, thus encouraging development in areas that nature is trying to reclaim. Ending this wave of subsidies would be sound fiscal and environmental policy.

Matt Ridley Discusses the Improving State of Humanity

If you have a free ten minutes over the weekend, your time will be well spent watching Cato’s spanking-new interview with the best-selling author of The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley. In it, Ridley, who is also a member of the Advisory Board of HumanProgress.org, argues that humanity’s impact on the environment need not be catastrophic. This is partly because there is a strong relationship between economic growth and a greener planet. I am going to reiterate that fact - acknowledged by no lesser authority than the IPCC - because everyone should know it: the richer we become, the lesser our impact on the environment will be. Since economic freedom and growth are correlated (i.e.: more economic freedom means higher growth), economic freedom encourages a higher quality of life and a healthier environment. Gloomy predictions about the future of the planet are based on unrealistic assumptions that are unlikely to happen. The current scare, in other words, may be just like the doomsday scenarios from the past that have never materialized. Watch the video here:

And if you have another few minutes, check out HumanProgress.org, Cato’s newest website. It is a data-heavy site that presents reputable, third-party data and a host of analytical tools. Use it to discover what Matt Ridley spoke about: the state of humanity is improving, and fast!