19 November, 2008

Aesthetics, Trade-offs, and Congestion Pricing

Since the Obama win, we've been seeing the new progressive infrastructure that Elliot discussed kick into high gear, with countless policy proposals being floated. Urban policy is no exception. Obama has promised to create an Office of Urban Affairs to coordinate urban-related policies across several departments. Reading the liveblog of a recent conference on "Urban Design After the Age of Oil" I can't help but feel very skeptical of the whole enterprise. I think there are two related reasons for my hesitancy. First, I get the feeling that a lot of urban planner types don't really take the costs (and opportunity costs) of their proposed policies seriously. And two, policies that bring us closer to aesthetic ideals are too often confused with optimal policies.

The only breaths of fresh air on the blog are the posts by Ryan Avent (of The Bellows). Again and again, he tries in vain to bring the designs of the urban planners down to earth. Here's one where he confronts ignorance of opportunity costs head-on:

...the use of urban brownfields for agriculture is far more popular than the elimination of car lanes for bike lanes, which is itself more popular than the use of congestion pricing in a downtown area. Keep in mind that most of these votes were cast by urban planning professionals, attending a conference dedicated in no small part to the use of urban policy to reduce dependence on oil and to reduce carbon emissions.

In fact, ordering the policies by their effectiveness on those measures would likely generate the exact reverse ranking. It is quite true that agriculture involves intense use of carbon. On the other hand, the supply of good urban space is very limited. Using valuable urban land to support agriculture would result in the displacement of potential urban residents, who would be pushed into residence elsewhere--potentially in places less dense, and more carbon intensive. Potentially, in fact, into the city’s suburbs, where existing farmland might well be plowed up to make way for new homes. This isn’t a good trade-off in nearly all circumstances.

Congestion pricing, on the other hand, has been shown (in places like London, Stockholm, and Singapore) to reduce driving and increase transit use. By reducing traffic volume, it becomes easier to allocate street space to other modes, like bikes and surface transit. Best of all, pricing raises revenue, which can be used to invest in new transit, or retrofit inefficient buildings, or invest in renewable power generation, and so on. So why is that policy the least popular? It is, I suppose, the least sexy. It’s playing with prices rather than turning old industrial land into crops. The latter, no doubt, is more visually gratifying to those concerned about environmental activities. But we must always remember that the most important thing is the results.
Both of the reasons for my skepticism are highlighted here. The opportunity cost of urban agriculture is the housing, or schools, or businesses that we could otherwise put there. Ignoring this makes urban agriculture sound like a great idea. But since land in cities is so valuable, we should do more land-intensive things, like growing crops, outside of cities. As Ryan points out, the carbon from an apartment building's worth of people commuting to and from the suburbs every day is probably an order of magnitude greater than the carbon used to transport the crops that could be grown on that land. What's happening is that the aesthetic ideal of a (literally) green, self-supporting city is trampling all over the search for the best way to reduce carbon emissions (not to mention that reduction of carbon emissions needs to be weighed against yet other goals).

Ryan picks up the same vibe from this Dana Goldstein piece on Obama's Office of Urban Affairs. Here's what Goldstein says about congestion pricing:
One example is congestion pricing, which New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried and failed to enact in Manhattan earlier this year. An aggressive pricing system — perhaps one more aggressive than Bloomberg’s proposal — would not only be a response to global warming, but would also make streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists, raise money for public transit, and cut down on inner city air pollution, which is responsible for an epidemic of asthma among poor children.
Ryan points out that, though these reasons are noble, they miss the one big reason for congestion pricing: it reduces congestion. While it has many other benefits, congestion pricing is a good policy because it puts a non-zero price on a scarce good, namely space on roads and highways. Again, I think what's going on here is that the almost ideological drive to create sustainable, walkable cities is overpowering common sense considerations. Here's Ryan making the general point:
I suppose my feeling is this–the emphasis on walkability and sustainability in new urbanism is a good thing, but it’s also a niche thing. We seem to have broadened the urban discussion to the point where instead of just being about the urban poor, it’s about the urban poor and the growing class of metro bobos who want to ditch the car, shop organic, and make very green inner suburbs and central cities a little bit greener. Not that there’s anything wrong with those people — I’m those people, after all — but the issues involved are much, much bigger.

We need to understand the extent to which our urban structure affects everything. This isn’t just about urban poverty, or facilitating growth in the new pedestrianism craze. It’s about recognizing that better national metropolitan policies can be used to lever significant improvements on energy and environmental issues, but also on things like inequality and basic growth in output and incomes–fundamental pocketbook issues that resonate in suburban America.
Not exactly how I would say it, but I completely agree. We may have our own personal visions of what a city should look like. Indeed, I want a very dense city where I don't need a car, I can walk to work, the store, or a park, and easily take public transportation to every conceivable destination. Someone else may want a porch, a backyard, and the independence that a car provides. But good policy isn't about enforcing our personal aesthetics, it's about finding the best balance between everyone's preferences. And good policy is also about being smart about how these goals are achieved. We shouldn't be leaving any $5 bills on the ground.

UPDATE: I would be remiss if I didn't point out Matt Yglesias' post which makes basically a similar point:
That did, however, give me plenty of time to reflect on what I think has been one of the major oddities about the conversation on congestion pricing. Namely, that I don’t really understand why this has normally been construed as an “anti-driving” or “anti-driver” policy initiative. At the end of the day, folks with pedestrian-, cycling-, or transit-oriented lives in a city like New York or Washington have relatively little at stake when it comes to adopting a sensible policy approach to congestion. By contrast, people who commute every day to and from work in congestion heavy cities would benefit a lot from policies that reduce the amount of traffic they deal with on a daily basis. It’s true of course that habitual auto commuters would be paying the bulk of the direct financial cost of such a policy, but they’d also be receiving the vast majority of the benefits. Maybe some people just think sitting in traffic is awesome, but personally it seems terrible to me.

Looking back on the New York congestion pricing fight, it really seems as if the whole thing got somewhat misframed as of a piece with Jeanette Sadik-Khan’s efforts to make the city less car-oriented. In fact, that’s really quite a separate debate. The case for congestion pricing is simply that if you have a valuable, scare resource like “space on a road in a major urban area at peak traffic time” you need to price that resource appropriate (i.e., at something more than $0.00) or else it will get consumed inefficiently and you’ll have endless traffic jams. That case holds up whether you think cities should look like Copenhagen or whether you think they should look like Phoenix and really has nothing to do with urbanism per se.
I think he's actually wrong that drivers would receive the vast majority of the benefits. The government would receive the vast majority of the benefits through increased revenues. Drivers would pay in toll costs exactly the benefit they received through lower congestion. And of course many drivers would simply choose to take some other method of transportation.

But the point he makes at the end is quite correct. Congestion pricing isn't about what cities should look like. It's a basic case of taxing an externality.


Paul Hughes said...

Urban ag can manifest in remarkable ways that do not require large tracts of land. Unused lots are just an example, but wherever there are fields and parks, edges and low traffic areas are ideal. When schools and hospitals are built, incorporating urban ag into the land use, not to mention the green roof option, is essential.
This is a great blog. I'm a new fan as of now.

Elliot said...

Yeah Spence, as a good urbanist I agree with all these considerations. There is definitely a sense in which considerations of "how do I have easier access to organic food" (which is a good thing, don't get me wrong) crowd out considerations of "how do we make it easier for Joe the Janitor to get to work on time using public transportation". It will be interesting to watch the OUA, which will hopefully be oriented towards investing in transit rather than subsidizing urban agriculture.

On a related note, as I was riding my bike home from my cafe recently, I looked down and saw a line of $10 bills lying in the street. Like a good policymaker, I did not leave them on the ground.

spencer said...

Paul, good point that it's possible to have agriculture in dispersed small areas. But I can't imagine that's not an order of magnitude more expensive than using large tracts of land outside of cities.

Paul Hughes said...

I think you do have the capacity to imagine Spencer, but it does help to create the understanding if we have examples.
1. I was viewing aerial photos of North American cities taken in the 30's 40's & 50's... I was amazed to see these small squares and rectangles in the back of many homes, each with little rows. Of course, gardens! These are now lawns, decks, BBQ's, gazebos and pools. Leisure replaced personal food production or home based food security ie gardening.
2. Community gardens, with SPIN (Small Plot INtensive) technology, offer tremendous benefits to communities. These benefits are not just food centric, they are also social in nature (bad pun), craeting community pride, interaction between neighbours, green space for families, vehicle for contribution which provides sense of self worth... et al.
3. Reclaiming roads and boulevards, turning the grey/asphalt into green/food. This transition requires time, just as it did when going from green to grey. Reverse urbanization of infrastructure. It is a myth that we have to live in the concrete jungle. This reconceptualization of urban communities is a juggernaut of a movement.
4. How much can we logically produce? I suggest that using available urban ag technologies, such as green roofs/greenhousing, perimeter planting (around fields and parks), container gardening, unused lots, lane gardens, reclamation gardens, et al, we could produce close to 50% of our food in an urban setting. That is considerable. The carbon footprint is also reduced by a considerable factor. Look at it as a leap frogging of our food source from outside the perimeter to inside. The remainder of the food could be grown in our suburbs and in the brownbelts.
Reconceptualizing our food system is a wise use of calories at this critical point in urban evolution.

spencer said...

I appreciate that it's certainly possible to have agriculture within cities. And yes, there would be some benefits to some people. But the relevant question is whether those benefits outweigh the advantages of the next-best use of that land.

Suppose there is an empty half-acre plot of land in a relatively dense city. Should we use it for agriculture or for housing? The benefit of using it for agriculture is that a little extra food does not need to be shipped in from the countryside. The benefit of using it for housing is that a few extra people do not need to commute in from the suburbs.

Let's say, optimistically, that the plot can produce a truckload of food per week throughout the growing season. But a plot that size can support fifty people living in an apartment building. So, what's better? Fifty fewer people commuting from the suburbs every day or one fewer truck driving in from the countryside every week? It seems to me that it's obviously better to have fifty fewer people commuting, both in terms of reduced transportation costs and reduced carbon emissions.

This is just an example of a broader principle. City land is far more expensive than rural land. This is because it's very valuable for firms and workers to be very close to other firms and workers. Agriculture is far more land-intensive than housing in terms of overall benefits produced. So why would we use valuable city land for agriculture instead of housing people?

There is a trade-off between density and green space. If houses already have gardens, that's great. But if we're designing a city a priori or reclaiming roads or brownfields for other uses, it's always better to create more density, because that's why cities exist, to reduce transportation costs between people and firms.

I also have to take issue with the claim that we could produce 50% of our food in an urban setting. Some 37% of the world's land is used for agriculture. Food output from agriculture is proportional to the land used. There's simply no way that even a tenth of that amount of food could be grown in cities, even with greenroofs, container gardens, reclaimed roads, and the like.

Paul Hughes said...

I was wrong about the 50% claim, Spencer... I meant 100%.
Reconceptualizing is the key word here. If you are using existing paradigms, then I would agree with you. I, however, am not thinking within the narrow confines of our present and failed ag dynamic.
Certainly we will be combining residential and growing environments, to name a few, in the very near future.

Vernon Malcolm said...

Inspect away Congestion! The city should toughen inspections for medical, psychiatric and vehicle reasons to cut down the number of congestion. This way, we will also get the voters against congestion pricing, who live in Bayside and Staten Island, to move away. Free health care means psychiatric care for all those angry talk radio white males!