Cherrypicking the sprawl-bankruptcy connection

Bill Fulton has a piece in the LA Times where he argues that sprawl contributes to municipal bankruptcies. There’s so much wrong with his argument that I don’t even really know where to begin.

It’s easy to mistake a sprawling new development for prosperity. New buildings and wide new roads look great at first. But over time, the cost of serving such developments gradually bleeds taxpayers dry. More firetrucks have to travel longer distances to serve fewer people. So do police cars. And ambulances. And school buses. And dial-a-ride buses. And, up in the mountains at least, snowplows too.

This is not a terrible argument as far as it goes; density does leverage economies of scale in the provision of urban services, and so the cost per person goes down. The problem is the assumption that all urban services are cheaper to deliver via density–and that the marginal cost curve associated with service delivery continues to slope downwards with additional people. But that can’t be true past a certain point: using Fulton’s own example, a fire truck is also subject to congestion, which means at some point, the marginal contribution to delay that additional people bring can cause the service to slow beyond what gains to proximity yield–though it’s an empirical question about where that inflection point might occur, and whether most cities that might be more dense are anywhere near it. But that point probably varies for a whole bunch of municipal services. That was the goal of all the economics literature in the 1980s and 1990s about ideal city sizes. People have known for some time about the economic trade-offs between scale and congestion, the tensions between them, and how congestion of urban goods can act as a prompt for de-centralization.

Or, and this is one of our questions, how those economies of scale and marginal cost curves might change slope when cities get institutions large enough to unionize, or how and when collective bargaining attained through statewide public sector union activity acts as a particular problem for small-scale municipalities within the state.

Fulton is a smart growth guy. It’s what he does, so he just nods at pensions: yes, I guess that pension thing is a problem, but let me tell you about my pet issue: sprawl. But really? No mention of Prop 13 or the redevelopment money grab, and just a nod at the pension issue?

Then there’s the cherry picked examples: Stockton and San Bernardino, contrasted with his own shining Ventura, where he was mayor, which he happily notes is ‘not bankrupt.’ Come on. There are currently 3 cities in California that have filed for bankruptcy, and hundreds that, like Ventura, are not currently bankrupt, so don’t self-congratulate too much yet.

Both Stockton and San Bernardino are gritty older cities with struggling downtowns and dreams of urban revitalization. They have sometimes overreached in their zeal to achieve those dreams. Stockton in particular kept trying to rescue the city with grandiose redevelopment projects, none of which were within walking distance of one another and, not surprisingly, none of which succeeded.

Those redevelopments weren’t within walking distance of each other, and that was they reason they “didn’t succeed”? Not the fact that the developments were in Stockton? But if that’s the case, why do redevelopments in LA that everybody drives to walk around in ‘succeed wildly’ (like the Grove, the 3rd Street Promenade?), if by “succeed” you mean “they make a lot of retail cashola and generate an enormous amount of traffic.” You can’t walk between those, though, either.

FYI, the other city that is bankrupt is Mammoth Lake. Sprawled? Meh. What appears to have brought Mammoth Lake to its fiscal knees is…a conflict with developer trying to do one of those fancy new mixed use airport development. Now, in fairness, plenty of Smart Growth folks would guffaw at the notion that this resort town development was in any way sustainable, but it did have a bunch of mixed uses that went along with the airport expansion.

So here’s a story about Stockton that actually makes sense, from the HuffPo. It tells a story that is, indeed, related to the housing market, but also to the pension dodges that a cash-strapped city used to deal with unions and Prop 13. It’s a mess.

Here is a map of municipal bankruptcy filings of all city institutions (including school and park districts) from Governing. You can break out the whole-city chapter 9 filings.

Look, I’m all for the idea that it’s generally cheaper to provide infrastructure to greater population densities, but oye. Smart Growth is not medicine for every problem, even if ‘dumb growth’ doesn’t help.