Friday, November 24, 2006
How is American land use law adapting to our increasingly diverse and economically stratified populace? From the recent election results, some would have us believe that Americans have rejected a bias against immigration. But the "on the ground" details of land use decisions tell a nother story. Here's a vignette from Montgomery County, Maryland, a Democratic-dominated and affluent suburb of Washington. Like countless jurisdictions across the nation, the city of Gaithersburg (motto: "Character Counts!") has been looking for a location for an organized center for day laborers (who are most often Latino in Montgomery County) to congregate and get jobs. But nearly every proposed location generated some local opposition. Instead of merely imposing this locally unwanted land use on any of a number of potentially appropriate sites, the city has announced that it has given up. (Here's an editorial of the Washington Post.) The failure of the local government and the supposedly progressive populace to allow such a simple and important land use shows, yet again, that much of America still prefers social segregation.
Wednesday, November 22, 2006
[More on transportation during this busy travel week ...]
The nation continues to spend billions of dollars on urban rail systems, which are touted as green solutions to congestion, pollution, and unease over gasoline supplies. But for the most part, the social benefits (broadly defined) of such systems fail to cover their enormous costs, according to a study by Winston Clifford (Brookings Institution) and Vikram Maheshri (U.C.-Berkeley), neither of whom should be accused of a pro-auto bias. Only the San Francisco Bay area's BART provides a net social benefit, they conclude.
The biggest problem with rail is that it simply does not serve conveniently a huge number of Americans who live and work across the hundreds of square miles of a typical modern metro area. Although lauded by politicians and environmentalists for their speed, cleanliness, and hi-tech feel, rail lines are simply inconvenient for most commuters. Take a look at the Los Angeles rail system map (top left) and imagine how far most of these lines are from millions of southern Californians.
A potential solution? Read here the recent opinion of Los Angeles's Michael Woo and Christian Peralta, who argue for an expansion of a dedicated bus lane on Wilshire Boulevard. Although not as "hip" as trains, a modern bus system (see the L.A. bus map at bottom left) can get far more people around at much less cost.
Tuesday, November 21, 2006
In celebration of the most infamously busy travel week of the year, I'll focus on transportation for the days around Thanksgiving.
Imagine driving to the store in 2030: As soon as you start your low-emission-diesel-electric-hydrogen hybrid, coordinated signals from both the vehicle and the roadway are fed into a centralized computer system, which charges you, the operator, an impact fee for the miles traveled. As a result of this incentive, you combine trips to the automated dry cleaner (the new soy fibers are indistinguishable from cotton), to the drive-through grocery store (to pick up your halibut for dinner, ordered by e-mail yesterday and flown directly from the aquaculture farm in Uzbekistan), and five other errands, each completed within the hour. The regional transportation authority immediately debits your bank account as you return home.
Sound unlikely? Well, many skeptics predicted failure for London's imposition of a fee on vehicles entering central London. The impact fee system has worked fairly well in decreasing traffic, encouraging public transportation, raising revenue, and not crippling the central London micro-economy.
In a variant of the Peter principle, however, the leftist mayor of London has now proposed that the fee be raised from 8 pounds to 25 pounds for high-polluting vehicles. This plan confuses policies. It would take a straightforward land use policy -- charging an impact fee for usage of the limited public roads -- and mix it with anti-pollution policy. One problem is that air pollution over central London is not, of course, caused solely (or even largely) by vehicles in the fee area. Thus the fee matches up poorly with the harmful usage of the public air. One possible motivation for the plan is a dig at yuppie Londoners who (like their American counterparts) drive Range Rovers in the city and, not coincidentally, tend not to vote for leftist polticians.
Monday, November 20, 2006
What types of land use questions should be decided by the voters, as opposed to their representatives? In this era of widespread referenda, let me express a note of skepticism over the practice of having the voters make policy choices. Voters often do not understand the issues they are asked to decide -- not because they are stupid, but simply because they haven't had the occasion to think deliberately before they reach the voting booth (the media is to blame for much of this problem). And while the electorate presumably is immune to influence-peddling, it is also not as inclined as representatives to consider the nuances and consequences of difficult choices. (At this point, I recognize that my comments may remind one of the views of the deranged colonel in Stanley Kubrick's film Dr. Strangelove, who asserted that war shouldn't be left to politicians, as opposed to colonels, because they do not have the time, training, or inclination for strategic thought.) What does make sense for pure democracy, I contend, is for citizens to vote on whether they are willing to spend their own tax money for undeniably socially beneficial expenditures.
With these comments in mind, it is heartening to read that the American voters approved the great majority of land preservation tax and bond initiatives that were on the ballot across the nation earlier this month. More than three-quarters of these efforts passed, according to CNN, and are worth more than $5 billion. Voters seem to like the idea of using public money to pay for parks and other conservation lands. I'd be even happier if I thought that the typical voter thought, "It's important for the environment and future generations to protect natural land," as opposed to, "Let's stop development near me; the traffic is getting terrible."