Friday, March 12, 2010

So You're a Libertarian

"I believe that no discovery of fact, however trivial, can be wholly useless to the race, and that no trumpeting of falsehood, however virtuous in intent, can be anything but vicious." HL Mencken, Living Philosophies.
I have a long post outlined in the myriad of drafts (some of which are actually on-going), detailing the type of people, demographic categories or psychographic segments who, logically would/should support walkable communities. The reality of it, and the point of that eventual argument, is to show that pretty much anybody with a brain or a pulse should be in favor of walkable communities. I do have a special category for those who do not. Whether Pew adds it into their psychographic segments is another story.

One of the segments of the population who would/should logically support walkable communities is any/all who identify themselves as fiscal conservatives and it turns out that even enlightend conservatives agree. The American Conservative:
For the 101st time: sprawl — an umbrella term for the pattern of development seen virtually everywhere in the United States — is not caused by the free market. It is, rather, mandated by a vast and seemingly intractable network of government regulations, from zoning laws and building codes to street design regulations. If Stossel wants to expand Americans’ lifestyle choices, he should attack the very thing he was defending, namely, suburban sprawl.
In short, top down standards, tax policy, zoning, and subsidies have made for a generic world of limited (or no) choice:
Perhaps, choice isn't the preferred word than variety, because they are different but the choice is irrelevant. Housing choice is for the most part is the equivalent of cocoa puffs and fruity pebbles...all made of the same crap underneath: corn starch, artificial coloring, flavoring, and some bran flour. Flip the formula around a little bit and you get a two-car garage, a pool, and a third half-bathroom and an hour commute.
Other conservative cases for transit, urbanism, and more transit.

Full disclosure: I consider myself a leftist libertarian. Whatever that means, right? While we are putting all of our cards on the table, I think any rational person could support the idea that any public spending towards the commonwealth should be thoughtful and generate a return of value, whether that value is monetary, social, ecological, or in general quality of life improvements.

One of our key challenges is monetizing, properly assessing the value of, those often overlooked "externalized" factors. Some things like clean water, clean air, healthy food, quality of life. How do you put a number on those things? Some might consider them subjective, which works exactly in favor of "business as usual." It's subjective. Can not value. Can not put into the equation.

The scary thing is that the bill for those costs ALL eventually come due. This is (and will be) the fundamental undoing of neo-classical economics which attempted to add critical scientific objectivity to our decision-making processes. Sounded good in theory.

Our biggest flaw is that we base these decisions on raw numbers. I am "leftist" libertarian because in my mind return-on-investment extends to cockamamie notions like an educated and healthy citizenry. Utilization of the commonwealth covers things that the "free market" has been unable to properly value, nor deliver to everyone. I can't arrive at the statistics showing investment in education or health, but using the blink method I know that investing in people, empowering them to contribute to the economy and society rather than drain from it, is fundamentally a good thing for all of us.

But the gray area of healthcare (or sickcare as is more aptly named) nor education is not what this post is about. Recently, I was asked what I thought of an idea found here of charging a toll to traffic passing through Dallas on highways without stopping of $20. This comes at a time when California recently passed an increase on gas taxes of $.18/gallon. TxDOT is struggling for cash. The Trinity River Toll Boondoggle is on the ropes. And the Federal highway trust fund is running on fumes. Also, two weeks ago, Mayor Moncrief of Fort Worth, made the absolutely true but refreshingly honest statement that car oriented development was a colossal mistake.

This has all come about at the same time, as we are coming to the realization that car-oriented design can't pay for itself. Lobbyist shills like Wendell Cox, posing as crusaders for free markets, often use the argument against public transit initiatives, that public transit doesn't pay for itself. I have news for you. No form of transportation pays for itself. Walking burns energy that isn't replaced without access to new forms of energy in the way of food/calories.

Where we can begin to differentiate between forms of transportation is the type of development that occurs in, around, and because of the form of, or multiple forms of transportation. Development and transportation are inextricably linked, and must be thought of that way. Transportation networks designed strictly for the car are ugly and unsafe. It is not a leap of logic to assume that things "ugly and unsafe" are literally repellent, forcing all real estate investment away from, but gas stations and drive-throughs. This creates a tension within real estate development. It wants to agglomerate near density of movement, ie traffic, but not car traffic.

Without adequate wealth, which has essentially been underwritten for decades with debt, a fantasy of wealth, a lack of density can not afford the amount of infrastructure and amenity of cities, of proper urban design. Suburban development as we know it is wrecking school systems, the environment, and even our physical health and now we collectively and despondently are staring straight into the reality of that bill arriving in the mail.

Of course, the kind of suburbia I am referring to, isn't the good kind of suburbia: the self-sufficient satellites of major cities - often of about 25,000 or so people, only about a square mile, and including a range of housing types, a jobs to housing balance, adequate public spaces and public services, and an agricultural belt coating the voids between celestial nodes of development.

This is about the corrosive form of suburbia that has no future in its current form. Fortunately, for us, this provides ample opportunity for rebuilding. The way out of recession is the qualitative improvement of our cities and interconnected network of suburbs into a new built form that increases quality of life, access to amenity, cuts waste through travel time and inefficient use of public infrastructure. It creates for more interconnected economies, that eliminates the unspoken tax that is the distance between things and the cost of energy to traverse that distance.

To do so, however we have to pay for it. There are no free lunches. The irony is that this suburbia, hailed as the brave new world of freedom and choice is often filled with those who hypocritically excoriate others for the threat of possibly taking advantage of the system and "living off the state." Well, call me H.L. Mencken 'cause I also have news for you. You are going to have to start paying for that lifestyle. (I'll refrain from calling anyone part of the 'booboisie' as Mencken did.)

Stepping back a second, the city (in its abstract form) is a manifestation of local economics. Its form defined by various related economic inputs, all mentioned above: Design standards, tax policies, zoning, myriad of subsidies, and the implementation of transportation networks are all components of a cities genetic code, its "urban genotype."

Despite what some will have you believe, the phenomenon of this particular brand of suburbia is quite young in relation to the evolution of human settlement patterns. And how could it not be. The car was an entirely new phenomenon, fundamentally changing the way we perceived space and time. However, time, as always, has allowed us to see the error in our ways. If the output, city form (urban phenotype), is no longer useful, the inputs have to change. In the absence of a complete overhaul of zoning/coding, the quickest way towards profound change is the implementation of some or many policies designed to make the luxury of individual (auto)mobility pay for itself.
  • Does this mean increases in property taxes under a certain density threshold?
  • Is it a singular, large toll, such as mentioned above for pass-through traffic?
  • Or is it many smaller tolls?
  • Is it a slow, gradual increase in gasoline taxes?
Each of these is a form of a pigovian tax. A punitive policy constructed to limit behavior that negatively affects society. The question becomes what is politically implementable?

A singular, large toll on a new road like the Trinity River Toll Road (or any other) could effectively eliminate the need for the road in the first place. So why build it? It would also potentially reduce inter-city commerce.

Gas taxes and more road conversions to tolls could possibly and unfairly punish only the middle- and lower-classes. But, they are precisely the ones who would benefit most from relocation to new development areas, walkable communities, near transit.

What can we stomach and how much at a time? Complex systems often react poorly, convulsing under pressure of quick, dramatic change. When immediate, reactive adaptation occurs, sometimes the next evolutionary iteration isn't an improvement, which is why steady, incremental change is always preferred.

My personal preference is to slowly but firmly increase gas taxes by year (say a dime/gallon each year), add tolls to all highways priced to regulate capacity, AND market-based parking. The key is to not limit choice, but to charge for the cost driving and its related infrastructure places on society.

The next question is where does that revenue go? I would roll all of it into an appropriate hierarchy and provision of alternative transit (but done efficiently and intelligently so as to not overbuild), street re-design into complete street/context-sensitive design, and housing programs to increase affordability and variety of housing types near transit-stations as well as the improved walkability and interconnectivity of those areas.

Or just remember my new catch-phrase: Walkability is a tax cut.