Friday, May 8, 2009

Another perspective on whether cars are loosening their grip …

Atlanta-highway    Are Americans forsaking their cars – at least to some extent?  I’ve had a number of posts on this over the past year or so.  Here’s an interesting perspective from super statistician Nate Silver, in Esquire, who reports on his creation of a regression model that takes into account both gas prices and unemployment in predicting automobile usage.  Applying this model, Silver asserts that driving is down significantly in 2009 from what would be expected.  He speculates that this might be a delayed reaction to 2008’s spike in gas prices.  But it also might be “a paradigm shift in Americans’ attitude towards their cars.”  The plummeting sales figures for automobiles of all kinds over the past year also appear to be deeper than most models would predict.  Certainly a combination of a weak economy, decreasing retirement portfolios, foreclosed exurbs, and fluctuating gas prices might be forming a perfect storm for questioning the car … and stoking interest in high-density land use.  Stay tuned …


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Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The land use (and other) costs of our non-urban university system …

   Commentaries are filled these days with stories about the crunch on college students, whose savings (or parents’ savings) have diminished, while college fees continue to rise, especially at state schools, whose own parent governments typically are desperate to raise more revenue.  What are we to do about the financial hurdles to an affordable education?     
   Here’s an interesting report from public radio’s Marketplace about the debate in Germany over whether to charge higher fees for universities – something that the country has been loath to do.  In much of western Europe, universities have been considered, in effect, akin to libraries: free for anyone.  By contrast, here’s a separate story about the financial dilemma faced by a Los Angeles student who hopes to attend UC-Berkeley next year, although the total cost of $27,000 would be difficult for a family that earned “only” $58,000 last year.  
UFlorida    What’s wrong with this picture?  And what does all of this have to do with land use law (you might ask)?  There is a connection.  Here’s my thought:  One overlooked reason that European university education has been so much more affordable (at the cost of being less “competitive” and thus perhaps less effective) is that most European university students live at home (from my anecdotal experience).  On the continent, most major universities are in cities, as are all other major institutions, and students tend to attend their local urban universities.  But in the United States, we followed – especially with our public universities, unfortunately – the “Oxbridge” model of the prized university in a small city or even rural setting (consider the original settings of colleges such as Penn State or the U. of Illinois), and then expected these large state schools to serve large areas.  It is the American university equivalent of the anti-urban and low-density utopian ideal that has filled so much of the American land use psyche over the past 100 years or more. 
   So let’s return to a Los Angeleno student who can’t figure a way to afford the $27,000 it costs to go to Berkeley, which is more than 350 miles away.  Why can’t she live at home and attend UCLA?  The NYTimes article asserts that costs would be “nearly as high” at UCLA (the NYTimes quaintly refers to it as the “University of California campus[] in Los Angeles,” in case you’re a Manhattanite who’s never heard of UCLA).  Surely this can’t be true, I thought?  I checked UCLA’s website, which states that fees for in-state students was only about $7500 this school year (although it also suggests a “budget” that includes an equal amount for food, transportation, and other personal things – wow, that’s a lot more pizza, beer, and gasoline than I used in college!).  One problem, I suggest, is that too many American students have become used to the idea that living away from home (and thus paying for meals as well as a car) is an essential part of the college experience.
  When governments consider new public college campuses in the future, they should do what urbanites have been clamoring for governments to do in other aspects of land use law.  These colleges should be built in central cities, with access to public transportation, and convenient to as many people as possible, in order to enable students to live with their families, and to enable the college dream to be available for more students with modest incomes. 
  Now that’s new urbanism …      


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Monday, May 4, 2009

Walmart wars (no hyphen any more), an update …

   It’s become a cliché that the most notable American business that is doing well in the recession is the biggest one of all, which also happens to be the haven of the penny-pinched American:  Walmart (and here’s a note to all journalists and writers out there: the company no longer uses a hyphen in the name).  And so the Walmart wars continue, as local governments debate whether to allow the big retailer into their communities.
Wal-mart     Here are two current stories.  First, according to the Charlotte Observer, city advocates are trying to encourage Walmart to build along Independence Boulevard, the big thoroughfare that leads southeast out of the great banking and trade city that in part symbolizes the recent financial boom (and bust, in part); the route today holds too many empty storefronts.  A big complication – ironically, for opponents who charge that Walmart is the embodiment of sprawl – is that the city’s zoning rules limit construction near the highway, in order to allow for possible future expansion of the route as sprawl continues outward in the future.  Will expectations of sprawl stop this Walmart?      
    A more traditional battle is playing out in Orange County, Va., where the retailer would like to build a store near the locations of the famous battles of the Wilderness (it’s not really wilderness anymore, but it is still largely rural) and Chancellorsville.  A number of county supervisors appear to favor the plan as a way of stimulating economic development, while a number of groups, including the Civil War Preservation Trust, oppose it.  Recently, both the wealthy landowning King family and famous nearby resident Robert Duvall (who has often been associated with Republican causes) have expressed skepticism of a quick decision to approve the store plan.  But they, of course, do not need to shop at Walmart …

  
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