Saturday, April 22, 2006
It’s as inevitable as the tides: Whenever gasoline prices rise, the media fill with doom and gloom reports of how “working Americans” are suffering and politicians issue stern warnings about profit-craving oil companies and potential government responses.
Why this obsession with gas prices? It could simply be that the topic makes good “copy” for the media, in that it’s a human interest story that everyone can relate to, while politicians chase votes with oil-company-bashing (Were Exxon and Chevron less concerned about profit back in 1990, when gas was barely a dollar a gallon?). The social fixation also highlights a number of policy issues of transportation and land use.
First, the phenomenon of lamenting gas prices shows the shallowness of America’s claim to environmentalism. While environmentalists and even President Bush encourage curbing our addiction to oil, and while even moderate policy thinkers propose a gas tax to dissuade consumption, the average American, when push comes to shove, would rather complain about high prices and hear their politicians talk about intervention. (Six years ago, with crude oil and gasoline prices about half of today’s nominal figures, both President Clinton and supposedly environmentally friendly Al Gore briefly supported a plan to tap the national petroleum reserve to lower prices).
Moreover, America’s love affair with huge and gas-gulping vehicles shows few signs of abating. Here’s an interesting side phenomenon: When I was a kid in the ‘70s, the goal of every red-blooded young American male was, as it had been for most of the century, to buy a sexy sports car to whiz around corners in. What ever happened to the sports car? I think its disappearance relates to the fact that one can’t whiz around corners anymore; there’s simply too much traffic. In our sedentary culture, most Americans would rather just sink down into a cushioned SUV seat and take comfort in the fact that we’re riding high above the ground, even if we’re not moving very fast.
Gas is now approaching $3 a gallon nationwide; this compares to a nominal price of $1.35 a quarter-century ago in 1981 (a little less than $3 in inflation-adjusted prices). How does this compare with the price of automobiles? In 1981 the average price of a new auto was a little less $9000; today it is about $28,000 – more than thrice as much. A key factor in this rise is, of course, the size of today’s vehicles. If consumers are looking to assign blame for their big bill at the gas pump as they head to their exurb, a look in the mirror is a good place to start.
Friday, April 21, 2006
“You have meddled with the primal forces of nature!” warned a capitalist in Paddy Chayevsky’s screenplay for the classic film Network 30 years ago. Today, libertarians warn us that if law meddles with market forces, it is likely to create unintended, and unhappy, consequences.
If law subsidizes something, we not only help those who get the assistance, economists tell us; we also encourage more people to do the things that get subsidized. This may be good for subsidizing solar-power generators, but bad for subsidizing the unemployed.
Consider Florida’s venerable Greenbelt law, which gives tax breaks to owners of “agricultural land.” The law is touted as helping farmers stay farmers and to slow the transformation of farms into built-up land. But for land speculators, it is also a way to reap tax benefits while waiting for development. The Disney Corp., which owns many acres of land in central Florida, reportedly leases land to farmers and gets more than $1 million in tax breaks. Other “farmers” may be even cleverer in taking advantage of the law. A member of the Florida legislature introduced a bill last month to revamp the law, asserting that some speculators in effect use a “rent-a-cow” service to fulfill the loose requirements of "agricultural land." Not surprisingly, the bill seems to have died for this term.
If the idea is to help the traditional farmer, a law surely could be crafted more tightly so as to subsidize only resident farmers who make most of their income from farming. Drawn as broadly as it is leads to the suspicion that the motivation may be less about helping farmers and more about simply slowing development. If so, subsidizing "agricultural land" seems like a rather arbitrary and costly way of limiting new construction.
Thursday, April 20, 2006
What if land use law required you and me -– the average household –- to limit our impact on the environment in the way that big businesses are regulated?
A straightforward and effective method of pollution control is the “best technology” approach, which is an application of the larger idea of “best practices.” If a factory someplace has developed a new way to limit pollution -– say, by a new filter, different raw materials, or a new chemical process – then all competitors in that industry must roughly follow suit.
What if “best practices” were applied to household land use? After all, the biggest culprit behind many environmental harms these days are not big factories but the average citizen. Consider three examples.
First, think about lawns. Americans dump thousands of tons of fertilizers and billions of gallons of potable water on their lawns, in the pursuit of suburban perfection. Commercials warn us of the evils of the insidious dollarweed and dandelions invading our acres of grass. What would be a “best practice”? Accept local climate constraints (no bluegrass in Utah or Maine), use water very sparingly (and apply only in the morning), use no fertilizer, and accept some weeds and bald spots.
Next, think about auto usage. Unless one got a variance for a physical infirmity, law could require citizens to walk or bicycle for trips of less than one mile. Indeed, all trips to the ATM or the convenience store might have to be made without a motor vehicle. Such a law would compel local governments to allow for the return of the corner grocer and would ensure demand.
Finally, think about air-conditioning. This April, where I live in Florida, the weather has been perfect -– highs in the low 80s, lows in the upper 60s. Yet I hear the annoying rumble of a number of air conditioners on my block every morning. Why? Because cooped-up houses experience the greenhouse effect to some extent –- radiant heat builds up during a sunny day and does not escape well at night; thus the median indoor temperature of a sealed house rises somewhat above the median outdoor temperature. A “best practice,” however, can easily solve this. Open the windows! By keeping the windows open at night, one can keep the temperature down (I have yet to turn on my AC this year). Yet many Americans can’t be bothered when the air-conditioning switch is so easy.
Can one truly be an environmentalist these days unless one follows best practices in one’s own household land use?
Wednesday, April 19, 2006
The 100th anniversary of the great San Francisco earthquake raises obvious comparisons with last year’s hurricane Katrina that devastated New Orleans. Watching a PBS documentary about the quake and reading about its aftermath, one is stuck by so many similarities -– the complacency of a government that should have prepared better, the inadequacies of the first-responders, the tens of thousands of people left homeless, and the headaches of creating temporary housing. I was disappointed that PBS’s discussion of the rebuilding effort ignored the land use laws that in effect banned brick construction in San Francisco and made buildings far more resistant to shaking. Did any property owner argue that this regulation had “taken” its property? …
A number of writers are comparing 1906 and 2006. Here are stories from Business Week, the New York Times, National Review, Planetizen, and academicians in California. One of the most opinionated is an essay by Russ Britt for marketwatch.com, who writes that the “attitude" of 1906 -- “do-it-yourself” and self-reliance -- led San Francisco to rebuild its structures, its economy, and its culture more quickly than New Orleans appears to be capable of doing. Just as important were San Francisco’s prominence as the chief center of business and trade in the West. Alas, New Orleans holds no such advantages in the early 21st century ….
Tuesday, April 18, 2006
Suburban sprawl is blamed for environmental degradation, excessive energy consumption, and the disintegration of the social fabric. Now sprawl is linked to another problem: that America’s kids are too fat. See reports of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Public Health Association. A concern is that the low-density, automobile-based culture traps kids at home and encourages them to do nothing but play video games and munch on snacks all day.
It’s certainly true that auto-reliant suburbia makes it hard for some kids to walk or ride their bikes to school or the malt shop. I’m in favor of laws requiring sidewalks, encouraging pedestrianism, and creating bike paths.
But sprawl is not the the chief culprit here. After all, an attraction of suburbia is that it’s supposed to be good for kids, of course. The famous (or infamous) opinion of Justice Douglas in Village of Belle Terre v. Boraas in 1974, upholding a town’s outlawing of group houses, included the striking passage that, “A quiet place where yards are wide …are legitimate guidelines in a land use project addressed to family needs…. It is ample to lay out zones where family values, youth values, and the blessings of quite seclusion and clean air make the area a sanctuary for people ….”
So why aren’t kids enjoying the outdoor blessings of the suburbs? Here’s an empirical test: Drive through a suburban neighborhood outside of school hours and take a look at the plentiful playgrounds. Chances are that you won’t see many kids playing. If you do, it’s likely to be a rigorously organized event with parents in attendance.
A bigger problem than sprawl, I suggest, is that today’s social and family culture discourages spontaneous play and exercise, in contrast to years past. Television and video games are more charismatic than pick-up basketball or splashing in the creek -– both in suburbs and in the city. And today’s parents are close-to-paranoid about letting their kids head to the park without adult supervision; many parents don’t even let their kids play in the front yard, out of fear of child-snatching or other horrors.
Sprawl doesn’t stop kids from keeping fit; people do.
Monday, April 17, 2006
[one of an occasional series entitled “Home at Ten: Are the New Urbanists Right?” on the 10th anniversary of James Howard’s Kunstler’s book “Home From Nowhere”]
Ten years ago, social critic James Howard Kunstler predicted in "Home From Nowhere” that “the regime of cheap gas is near its end.” Americans would return to living close together in small towns and cities, he predicted. Without a cheap-gas-and-automobile culture, laws would have to allow mixed land uses and foster greater interaction among various cultures.
Kunstler may yet prove to be correct. Some oil experts say that we have already reached “Hubbert’s peak,” at which world oil production is at its apex and starts to decline. (But it remains to be seen when whether oil scarcity won’t occur until after engineers figure out a way to run our cars and SUVs on hydrogen.)
But Kunstler’s broader prediction in 1996 of a decline of the suburban lifestyle appears to have been premature. He wrote at the beginning of the SUV craze, which would have astounded the dour prognosticators of the ‘70s and ‘80s, and which shows no sign of ending, despite the imploring of the new urbanists.
In fact, the relentless move to the suburbs -– indeed, to the exurbs -- is continuing unabated. According to new Census figures, millions of Americans continue to value a large yard and a cul-de-sac over proximity to culture and community. Ninety-minute auto commutes are becoming more frequent. And as jobs move further out, workers can move even further away from the city center. A demographer at the Brookings Institution, William Frey, was quoted in USA Today as saying that this is “the decade of the exurbs of the exurbs.”
Ten years on, therefore, Kunstler’s prediction of a move back to cities and small town seems to have been simply wrong -– as was the similar prediction of Columbia’s Kenneth T. Jackson in “Crabgrass Frontier” 20 years ago. Are these two harsh critics of suburbia victims of wishful thinking? Time will tell …