Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Linkages: False Dichotomies

On the face of it, Michael Lewis's piece in Vanity Fair about what it's like to be President after spending six months embedded with President Obama doesn't seem terribly relevant to urbanism.  It's still worth a read.  However, I find some utility in Obama's explanation of the job; that if the problem was easily solvable, somebody would've solved it before it got to him.  Chain of command and all that and he's at the top of the responsibility food chain. 

At that point it's all about probabilities.  There is no easy, right answer.  In many ways, that is very much like urbanism.  The answers in complex situations with many moving interdependent parts are rarely straight forward (ie add road capacity to solve traffic, or on the other hand, "just add mixed-use!" -- both lazy, reflexive and ultimately more destructive than constructive).  Urbanism is really not about being right all the time (nobody is), but being less wrong and/or wrong less often (while at the same time speaking with authority and 100% confidence). 

With that said, I'm struck by this Atlantic Cities piece asking whether we should raise gas taxes or pursue "smart growth policies" as the same black/white dichotomy that so frustrated Obama during one defense strategy meeting that he went around the room asking every junior person their thoughts, looking for some other more nuanced, less cynically political/ultimately vacuous solution. 

Here's the other problem, in the Atlantic piece, author Nate Berg cites a study out of San Francisco State which parses that dichotomy, suggesting 10% gas price hike would cause a 20% reduction in VMTs and that a similar 10% increase in Smart Growth policies would see a similar result.  If you too are finding yourself asking "what the hell does 10% smart growth policy entail?"  Apparently this:
By increasing housing density, improving access to jobs and building more public transportation infrastructure
As if those things can magically happen without real strategic actions.  In other words, it's vacuous plannerly B.S. of the highest order.   As for the gas price hike, and I don't have access to the full study, but I'm highly skeptical of their conclusions.  What makes them believe that a 20% reduction in VMTs is possible? 

Did they conduct their research only in San Francisco where alternative modes of transportation are available?  Where half the population lives within a ten-minute walk of a commercial center, ie highly walkable?  In that case, that would be very difficult to translate to the rest of the country where instead of 50% in walkable n'hoods, only 3% actually live in walkable locales.  Here is the actual data on gas prices to VMTs:

Hmmm. That seems to show a 287% increase in gas prices with only a minor dip in overall VMTs nationwide.  Furthermore, the drop only occurs during the recession when people had less jobs to go to and less money to buy things with.  In other words, both sides of this equation or overly top-down and ultimately ineffectual.  Put me in Obama's camp as somebody looking for a potential third solution, that is more of a Nudge, allowing local, bottom-up solution to create broader change.  Are those 97% of Americans going to reduce VMTs by 20% by riding transit that doesn't exist or is highly ineffectual due to that low density?  Should they ride on bike lanes that don't exist or the shoulder of the highway 30 miles to work?

How about this, instead of gas price hikes (which I expect to be as politically as feasible as making everybody eat their broccoli), we approach the problem two-fold (neither of which are mentioned), we relieve the subsidies to gas companies (cuts needless spending, Yay!), but has a similar effect in raising gas prices (frown).  However, it does so gradually, allowing the real estate market to slowly shift with it towards more propinquitous development patterns (also, a gas tax hike would be a sudden shock to a country that is effectively locked into long commutes in upside-down homes).

The reduction in spending on oil subsidies would be mirrored by a reduction in highway capacity spending.  The two of which would then allow for a highway capacity removal, specifically of the destructive intra-city highways in and around downtowns, which only serve to spread the real estate market out while reducing the real estate value of downtown and downtown adjacent property.  In other words, it's those very highways which prevent the densification (smart growth policies!) from occurring as they distort the market so that land costs are higher than demand for density. 

However, by removing highways in and around downtown that opens up real estate for immediate development.  The land sales and the new tax base allows (since it will be dense) allow for expenditures in alternative transportation, as the new development would be within 1-3) miles of downtown job centers, the sweet spot for bike lanes, streetcar, and/or Bus Rapid Transit.  You pick.

For urbanism to work it has to be market-oriented and value driven.  People have to want to make the choice and more importantly be able to make that choice.  This is a worthless piece that never should've been written and adds little to the conversation.  Now you see why "urbanists" that don't understand urbanism make me as angry and frustrated as Obama in the strategy meeting.