Friday, July 18, 2008

Transit and satire …

Public_transportation    Satire is notoriously difficult, and attempts at it often leave me cold.  But I picked up an “environmental” issue of the satirical newspaper the Onion recently and laughed out loud at a “news” story about public transportation, which neatly and subtly packages many insightful thoughts about the public policy dilemmas of bus and rail transit.  Enjoy here.

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July 18, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, July 17, 2008

A toilet tale .. and its meaning …

   Here’s a story that crystallizes the challenges of American urban public land use policy:  Seattle is junking its public toilet system.  Four years ago, the high-tech-savvy city ballyhooed the introduction of the sleek and expensive potties that gave aural instructions (in a choice of languages) and promised to be self-cleaning.  But Seattle has now given up on the project.  The reasons: excessive cost (Seattle wouldn’t allow extensive advertising on the toilets), so much garbage and filth dumped around the toilets that the self-cleaning system didn’t work, and extensive use of the facilities for drug use and prostitution.
Restroom_2    What’s most depressing is the comparison of the American failure to the success of street toilets in many European cities.  (We can add public potties to the list of things, such as dense housing and health care, that Europe can do and we can’t).  Why can’t Americans work well with public toilets?  Here are some possible ideas:  (1) Americans simply do not respect private spaces, obsessed as we are with our private spaces.  (2) Our society of rugged (and narcissistic) individualism leads to a scorn of communitarian ideas.  (3) Our socially diverse society results in alienation and a disdain for public-minded solutions.  (4) Our naïve idealism leads us to over-emphasize technology and de-emphasize the necessity of simple ruggedness for public architecture.  (5) Our overly solicitous public ethos (through which anybody could get a $500k mortgage four years ago) does not demand sufficient efficiency of our citizenry (the Seattle toilet doors can stay closed for 15 minutes:  Forgive my ignorance, but who needs this long?).
   The tawdry toilet tale may not seem, in itself, such a great disaster.  But if our cities cannot succeed with such a simple project, how can they succeed with much tougher jobs such as providing affordable housing, overcoming NIMBY, and keeping citizens safe from crime? 

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July 17, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Too many TDRs?

Farm     High agricultural prices have encouraged many farmers to plant on land that has been left unplowed in recent years, often because of government subsidies or incentives to leave wetlands and other lands undisturbed.  What should government do to keep land for conservation purposes?  Increasingly, governments are turning to transferable development rights –- a technique that is often used to preserve historic buildings and other socially desirable (but privately held) land uses.  Government regulates the land to be preserved, but quells private objections by giving the landowner a TDR to use or sell; the TDR allows a more intensive land use in other, receiving locations, than would otherwise be permitted under zoning and land use laws.
   TDRs make sense as a matter of moderate land use regulatory theory.  But when I teach about them, I inevitably run into this colloquy from a sharp student:
   Student:  “So, if the TDR allows for doing more on the receiving end than would otherwise be permissible, there must have been some reason for the previous land use restriction on the receiving end, yes?”
   Me:  “Well sure, but not a reason that now seems as important as the preservation of the land use on the sending end.”
   Student:  “Okay, maybe this makes sense for some especially urgent ad hoc preservation project, like a plan to demolish Grand Central Terminal.  But if it becomes a permanent part of land use policy, doesn’t this encourage government to impose artificially restrictive laws over wide areas, in the expectation that some of these restrictions might be lifted with the receipt of TDRs, with the result that widespread zoning restrictions are imposed beyond what is needed to serve the public interest?
   Me:  “Well …”

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July 16, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, July 14, 2008

The battles of booze and land use law …

  Since at least 1856, in which a New York court held in Wynehamer v. People that liquor restrictions can violate the right to property, public efforts to suppress alcohol consumption have often clashed with assertions of land use rights.  And so the debate continues over whether land use law is an appropriate venue to try to curb the social harms of excessive drinking.
  From Pennsylvania come two stories about efforts to dissuade alcohol usage through land use law.  First, in Philadelphia, many are complaining about cartoonish, graffiti-like murals for Colt 45 malt liquor, which conclude with the phrase, “Works every time.”   The complaints have been especially loud because some of the murals for the extra-powerful beverage are placed in neighborhoods that are gentrifying.
   Not far away in Scranton, Pa., a bar and pizzeria owner complains that the University of Scranton, which happens to be next door, is trying to stop him from extending his establishment to include a dance club and expanded bar in the basement.  While a liquor establishment must of course take steps to try to ensure that it does not sell booze to minors, industrious college students often find a way around these efforts, of course …

July 14, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)