July 7, 2006
The decline of the traditional commuter city?
While everybody knows that jobs are moving out of cities and to suburbs, there are still plenty of people who commute to the city each day, right? After all, isn't commuting traffic still terrible? Here's some fascinating statistics from the Census Bureau that show that many American cities don't really gain that much in human occupancy during the day.
Quiz: Which big city (of more than 500,000 residents) grows by the highest percentage during the day? Hmmm … It would have to be a city with a traditional downtown and lots of offices to attract suburban commuters (factories are almost gone from the cities, of course) and perhaps with a fairly modest resident population compared to its suburbs. Answer?
It's Washington, D.C., which grows by 71.8 % each work day, according to the 2000 Census -- far ahead of second-place Boston, which expands it population by 41.1%. Seattle (only 28.4%) , Denver, Portland (Ore.), San Francisco, and Charlotte (a sun belt city, but one with compact boundaries and big office towers) round out the top six.
What's most surprising to me, however, is that many other traditional "downtown" cities don't expand by all that much. Philadelphia grows by only 5.9%, Chicago by only 4.9 %, and even New York by only 7.0%. (In other words, of the nearly 8.6 million routine occupants on a typical New York day, more than 90 % live in the city!) Los Angeles's number is 3.5%.
Second quiz: Which big cities lose population during the day? Two very different cities -- Detroit, which has a moribund downtown, and San Jose, which is the quintessence of the new mobile suburb-city without a true focus.
These statistics further support the view that today's so-called "suburbs" are more and more self-sufficient realms that have little reliance on their so-called "central city." For most metro areas, not only do most suburbanites work in the suburbs, but most people who work in the city also live there. These facts complicate transportation and social policies that assume a traditional relationship between city and suburb.
July 6, 2006
Backyard apartments: Low-cost housing or flying beer bottles? ...
Ever since the invention of land use zoning, affluent governments have used the power to discourage the migration of the poor and those who would generate government expenditures, under the cover of serving the “public welfare.” In the famous 1926 Euclid decision, of course, the U.S. Supreme Court approved of the practice of discriminating against the “parasites” of apartment buildings. In recent years, critics have revived the once-dormant criticism of the exclusionary effects of such zoning (the lower court in Euclid had struck down the zoning at issue in part because of its effect in segregating people by wealth), but, at the same time, local governments are becoming more sophisticated in their pursuit of maximizing the welfare of their homeowners, regardless of the costs to others.
How have local governments responded to the low-cost housing crunch of this decade? In the case of Seattle, the city government is considering an "experiment" to allow for a backyard apartment in one section of the city, most of which is zoned, of course, for single-family houses only. A leading opponent quoted in the Seattle Times predicts "flying beer bottles" and excessive noise from such apartments (I didn't know that Justice Sutherland was still alive!) and others fear -- oh horror! -- the duplex-ization of Seattle. Although the Times uses the real-life example of a homeowner who wants space for her mother, my guess is that a more common use may be for to provide a bed for the homeowner’s nanny or maid. One doubts that any janitor, fire fighter, or store clerk will be accepted in such apartments; they’ll still have to figure out how to commute from some faraway locality (Spokane?) that provides low-cost housing.
July 5, 2006
Ideas for farm subsidy reform ...
The faults in the current farm subsidy program, as highlighted in the Washington Post all this week, are worth a second post. The most expensive component of the system is the "direct and countercyclical payments" to those who have refrained from growing crops on land that was once planted. The biggest fault is that the payments may go to any owner of the land and can continue on for decades after the land was last farmed. In addition to wasting money, the system discourages useful production of some crops.
Cynics and public choice advocates may snicker that the largest impetus to the current system was not the ostensible one -- propping up farm prices by reducing production -- but rather was the political power of farmers … and of influential non-farmers those who may reap the benefits of a system that can be politically marketed as a farm support program.
Here are some ways to control the pay-for-not-growing system, which may serve as boundaries for any type of subsidy program: (a) Require that any recipient have farmed at least some -- say, 1/3 -- of the land in the year in which the subsidy is given; (2) Limit the number of years -- say, 10 years -- for which the subsidy may be given for any particular farm (so as to remove the subsidy for land that has not been planted for many years or is no longer suited for the crop); and (3) Restrict the subsidy to only those years in which crop prices are lower than in recent history.
July 3, 2006
Billions for subsidies for ... well, not necessarily the farm ...
More than $9 billion a year in federal money is paid to landowners for NOT growing crops, according to an extraordinary report yesterday in the Washington Post. I had thought, ignorantly, that payments for not growing cops had been phased out in the 1990s. The laws were indeed changed, but a new program that was expected to be a temporary transition to a free market has now become permanent. The most outrageous aspect of the system is not simply the idea of paying people not to engage in useful activity; after all, if one accepts the idea of government's meddling to raise farm prices, any economic mechanism would have its problems. The worst aspect, in my view, are the loose details for receiving the payments. According to the Post, there is no requirement that the landowner be a farmer or that any of the land be used to grow crops; payments are made to any owner of land that was historically used for crops. This incentive both discourages farming and encourages purchases of subsidized land as investments by wealthy (and now subsidized) investors who have no ties at all to farming.
July 2, 2006
The amazing Dubai ...
Can giant land use projects make a nation? Dubai certainly appears to think so; perhaps no other place in the world has spent more money and effort on huge projects than the once obscure and poor emirate on the eastern Persian Gulf. From the world's largest man-made port, to the world's tallest hotel in a 1000-feet-high sail-shaped structure built on a man-made island, to one of the world's largest airports, to plans for the world's tallest building, Dubai attracts tourists, architects, and expatriates from all over Asia, and copious attention for its lavish buildings, public places, and infrastructure. Costs include huge traffic backups and a critical housing shortage from workers drawn from across the globe. But if one wants to "see the future," one went to New York in 1950, to Tokyo in 1990, and perhaps to Dubai today.