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.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).
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.
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.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.
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.
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.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.
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.
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.