Tag: urban planning

Fake News Harms Our Economy

Democrats complain that fake news stories from web sites supposedly linked to Russia undermined the electoral process. The Antiplanner has been concerned with a related issue for some time, which is fake news stories inspired by Russia that undermine our economy. Here are a few of those stories that I hope Democrats will disavow.

Fake News Item #1: Urban sprawl is paving over all of our farms

This is an old one that has been used to justify central planning similar to that done in the Soviet Union. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the contiguous 48 states have 900 million acres of agricultural land, of which we use only about 40 percent for growing crops. The acres used for crop production have been declining, not because they are getting paved over, but because per-acre yields of most crops are growing faster than our population.

Meanwhile, the department also says that just 84 million acres have been urbanized. This is a little less than the Census Bureau’s estimate of 106 million acres, but either way, as the Department of Agriculture says, urbanization is “not considered a threat to the Nation’s food production.”

Fake News Item #2: Suburbs make people fat

This fake story came out when a fake-news group did a study that found a “small” correlation between suburbs and obesity, then loudly proclaimed that they had proven that suburbs make people fat. They ignored the truth that correlation does not prove causation, and later studies found that, if people in suburbs weigh slightly more than people in cities, it is because overweight people choose to live in the suburbs. Thus, the real story is that overweight people helped to make the suburbs, not the other way around.

Fake News Item #3: Urban transit saves energy

This fake story has been retold so often that people take it for granted. In fact, as the Department of Energy’s Transportation Energy Data Book reveals, the average car used about 3,122 BTUs per passenger mile in 2014 while the average transit bus used 3,829.

While some rail transit lines (notably the New York subway) used less energy than cars, calculations based on the National Transit Database reveal that, on average, transit used 3,141 BTUs per passenger mile in 2014. Moreover, of the 50 largest urban areas, just five have transit systems that use less energy per passenger mile than driving. Most transit also produces more greenhouse gases per passenger mile than the average car.

Will Obama Make Housing Affordable?

Property-rights and housing-affordability advocates were surprised and elated that the chair of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors, Jason Furman, gave a speech blaming housing affordability problems on zoning and land-use regulation. They shouldn’t be: while Furman is correct in general, he is wrong about the details and the prescriptions he offers could make the problems worse than ever.

There is no doubt, as Furman documents in his speech, that land-use regulation is the cause of growing housing affordability problems. Yet Furman fails to note the fact that these problems are only found in some parts of the country. This is a crucial observation, and those who fail to understand it are almost certain to misdiagnose the cause and propose the wrong remedies.

Citing Jane Jacobs (who was wrong at least as often as she was right), Forman blames affordability problems on zoning that “limits density and mixed-use development.” Such zoning is found in almost every city in the country except Houston, yet most cities don’t have housing affordability problems. Thus, such zoning alone cannot be the cause of rising rents and home prices.

Based on this erroneous assumption, Furman endorses what he calls the administration’s agenda, which is its Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing program. Rather than making housing more affordable, this program is aimed at ending racial segregation of middle-class suburbs by requiring the construction of multifamily housing in suburbs that are not racially balanced relative to their urban areas. It assumes that multifamily housing is less costly (and thus more affordable to low-income minorities) than single family, but that is only true because units are smaller: on a dollar-per-square-foot basis, multifamily costs more than single family, especially for mid-rise and high-rise apartments. Multifamily also uses more energy per square foot than single family, which means heating bills will be higher.

Housing and Wealth Inequality

American Nightmare is in some ways the most profound of the three books I have written for Cato. It covers a wide range of issues, including a detailed explanation of the 2008 financial crisis. But the overarching theme is that urban planning and zoning are best viewed as a form of economic warfare by the upper and middle classes against the working and lower classes. While that might not have been the original intent, to judge by the smug attitudes of the beneficiaries of such planning and zoning, they are perfectly happy with the results.

The book, therefore, was really about inequality, an issue that of course has been made popular and controversial by Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Piketty’s thesis is that income inequality is necessarily rising because the returns to capital wealth are greater than overall economic growth, thus giving people one more reason to hate capitalists.

Last month, a paper by an MIT graduate student in economics named Matthew Rognlie, examined Piketty’s thesis in detail. Rognlie found that, contrary to Piketty, the returns on most kinds of wealth and capital have not been greater than overall economic growth, and therefore haven’t been contributing to income inequality. The one exception, Rognlie found, was housing.

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?

Selling Big Government

The front page of the Washington Post Metro section has an interesting headline today:

Silver Line may be tough sell in Va.

You have to know that the Silver Line is a new line for Washington’s subway system, intended to run to Reston, Va., and Dulles Airport. But when I saw it, I thought – especially with subheads indicating that Virginians prefer cars to the Metro system – it meant that it’s going to be tough to persuade frugal Virginians to agree to spend tax money on a subway line they’re not eager to use.

But no. Turns out the line is already mostly built (to Reston, though not to Dulles), and planners are worried that nobody will use it. Just like Obamacare, it looks like the planners bulled ahead with an expensive big-government scheme that wasn’t exactly popular and are now working on how to persuade people to use it.

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