Friday, September 29, 2006
Last week’s train crash in Germany highlights again the failed promise of high-tech rail lines to help our transportation needs. In the United States, there is an uncertain future for Seattle’s once-futuristic monorail, which was built to ferry passengers to and from the 1962 World’s Fair and, just as importantly, to be part of the fair itself.
Plagued by mechanical problems and a recent accident, the monorail is now halted and the city is debating whether to restart it. Seattle’s one-mile-long monorail was never much more than a tourist attraction; more serious efforts at urban monorail transportation, such as Detroit’s underutilized “people mover,” have not been much more successful.
Until the world changes radically, high-tech rail lines are simply too expensive and too limited in their ability to connect spread out suburbs to spread out jobs sites in today’s American metro areas. (They hold more promise for denser or more linear urban areas outside the United States.) For American metro areas, only dedicated bus routes, like those of Curitiba, Brazil (see picture)
hold any serious promise of encouraging much greater public transportation usage in the coming years.
Thursday, September 28, 2006
Pasadena, Cal., used to be a paradise. One can get wistful about life in the old L.A. suburb in the 1920s, when one could quickly drive one’s Model T up to the nearby wilderness of the San Gabriel mountains on a Saturday morning, marvel at the view (and even see snow in winter), drive back through uncrowded roads to one’s attractive little bungalow for lunch (finished with home-grown oranges), then take the electric rail line over to Santa Monica for a walk along the warm beach at sunset, returning home by the same transit for dinner.
Today, of course, times have changed. There are ten times as many people in the Los Angeles area as there were back then, the drive up to the mountains (with less snow in this age of global warming) may get you stuck in traffic and smog, and you’ll have a very long wait for the electric streetcar, which even if it did come would probably take a couple of days to work its way across the Los Angeles streets to the packed beach.
The housing boom has been further changing Pasadena, and long-time residents are complaining about the loss of the old suburb’s famous “character,” according to the L.A. Times. [And see a similar complaint about changes in Madison, Wis., in the reader comment to this Tuesday’s entry about tear-downs.] Pasadena (now a close-in suburb) is trying to do its part for “smart growth” by allowing infill of high-density construction. The city is permitting the construction of many new multi-family housing units, often in mixed-use complexes with stores. This is the kind of dense development that new urbanists argue for. It preserves land at the outskirts and allows for trips to the dry cleaner or grocery store without a car. But the new urbanization of Pasadena means that some renters and some established retailers –- including some local semi-landmarks –- are being pushed out.
Governments of established localities across the nation are facing this difficult question: Allow for denser development, or preserve old character? Years ago, nearly all suburban communities with powerful residential lobbies chose the latter. With today’s concerns about sprawl and the emphasis on “smart growth,” some suburban communities are choosing the former. The effects on established residents may be somewhat adverse, but the benefits accrue to the entire region.
Wednesday, September 27, 2006
[Fallout from the Housing Slump, Part II]
After being gleeful over the early millennium skyrocketing of housing prices (the “last big gift of our nation to the 1946 baby boomers,” some have said), the media and economists now predict doom and gloom from the housing slump. Many economists predict that the flatness (or even decline) in housing prices will depress housing construction, which will have a negative domino effect across the economy.
But do housing prices affect construction all that much? One economic critique is that that our restrictive land use and housing laws have artificially constrained the supply of new housing units, thus driving up prices. See a 2005 study of the Harvard Institute of Economic Research to this effect, which I discussed at 37 Urban Lawyer 385. With laws limiting supply, does this mean that small variations in housing prices don’t affect construction numbers, because construction is already at its legally constrained peak?
The numbers are interesting. According to the National Association of Home Builders and the Commerce Department, housing starts did indeed shoot up significantly in recent years, to more than 2 million in 2005 –- a number that was more than double the total from the housing-price-stagnant era of 1991. The monthly numbers for 2006, however, are falling rapidly.
How does the 2005 peak compare to years past? Interestingly, the 2 million total was exceeded way back in 1972 (just before the oil and stagflation crises of the next few years). So, yes, housing prices do affect the quantity supplied, but the correlation seems to be less than crystal clear.
Tuesday, September 26, 2006
[Fallout from the Housing Slump, Part I]
Many established neighborhoods are concerned about the “tear down” phenomenon, in which a small house is replaced by a much bigger one. Tear downs have become more popular in recent years with the high prices of houses; a family wishing to “move up” will often find it easier to stay, avoid the high cost of land and transactions costs, and take advantage of relatively moderate costs of construction by building a new house on their old property.
Neighbors are not so thrilled with having a bigger house nearby, of course. National Public Radio broadcast a segment this morning about complaints in Kenilworth, an affluent suburb outside Chicago, where little old houses now exist next door to giant McMansions. One neighbor is unhappy at the loss of her view, privacy, and shade from a now-torn-down tree that was once in her neighbor’s yard. Of course local governments should check their zoning laws to ensure that new houses aren’t “too big” for the area (no three-story houses, for example, in a neighborhood of one-story bungalows) and don’t come too close to property boundaries.
Other than this, however, I assert that tear downs are a fairly healthy phenomenon. They are the quintessence of infill –- new construction in already built-up areas, as opposed to development “sprawl” in greenfields and exurbs.
Why is there so much pressure for sprawl when there are so many old urban and suburban areas in which higher density and infill could be tolerated? The reason is that American families don’t want to live “just anywhere” –- they demand neighborhoods with “good schools” (I’ll let you figure out precisely what they mean by this) and other community amenities. Many older areas simply don’t make the cut. And they demand more space than generations past to fit their huge vehicles, their big-screen TVs, and their new expectations of high-square-footage in the affluent society.
Accordingly, land use law shouldn’t make it too hard for families to tear down and rebuild. We might hope that more people would want to stay in their old houses. But if law makes it too difficult to rebuild, families will simply move to the exurbs. Neighbors may not like it, but tear-down-and-rebuild is a “second best” option for land use policy.
Monday, September 25, 2006
Land use law should not be used as a surrogate for other policy judgments. A striking example is currently at issue in California, where proposition 83 –- in California, almost anything and everything can be a proposition -– would make it unlawful for any released sex offender to live within 2000 feet of a school or park. The L.A. Times reports that this would cover nearly all of the city of San Francisco and most of the built-up Los Angeles area. Accordingly, many offenders -– which include people such as distributors of adult obscenity, not just child sex offenders -– would have no other legal option but to live in rural areas -– a fact that chagrins rural policymakers. The proposition also reflects our nation’s paranoia about child safety. Expect the rural areas to respond with their own ordinances to keep sex offenders out, as part of an “arms war” of ever-tighter regulations.