The argument for density first in the US

Earlier this week, I caused some trouble by pointing out that I think it’s possible to overemphasize cities, and in particular, regional form changes, as a climate strategy. The consequence of doing so, I argue, is a tendency to ignore broader-based policies like Pigouvian taxation that would make motorists think twice, right now, before getting in a car. This is the argument I actually believe; we’re putting a lot of stock in our ability to reshape regions and yet fuel prices stay comparatively low. We’re building lots of nice infill developments, but fringe areas are still growing in some regions, and while VMT is not growing, it’s not sliding as fast we’d like. An uptick in what people pay at the pump would noodge them in the right direction: towards transit or another mode if it’s there, and towards fuel economy if isn’t.

I had some pushback (mostly by smartest boy urbanists) who note that there are no carbon taxes anywhere in the US, and they are right about that, and that gasoline taxes are unpopular. And they are right about that. But just because a more effective policy is not popular does not reduce its effectiveness, and doing something popular but less effective and longer-term may be a very poor substitute. That may be particularly so in this case where the unpopular strategy, petrol taxation, is really an important part of making the regional form and human settlement density strategy happen–see the work of Shlomo Angel on urban footprint.

But nobody has raised the possibility that density and infill redevelopment might be the key that unlocks the political acceptance of higher fuel prices at the pump. If there is a high-functioning transit system in place with lots of great condos and attractive places to live near them, and you have planners and urbanists singing the praises of this lifestyle (aka doing the social marketing), it may be much easier to get people to accept higher prices on the fringe (in terms of development penalties or gas prices) than trying to get them to accept those first, before they see the possible alternatives. That means quite a bit of slack for some time: transit is likely to underperform while you supply spaces that nobody is ready to use yet, but must be there so that people see the option. You’d have to build up quite a bit in the areas slotted for infill because the central-area land prices are high and changing the relative prices between central locations and farther out is a steep problem granted where the coastal US is in terms of supply.

Shlomo Angel’s geographic models are not causal. There is a correlation, and a robust one, between petrol tax and the spread of human settlement. But it might be that petrol taxation–>urban form effects might work the other way around, or urban form—>petrol taxation.

One thought on “The argument for density first in the US

  1. There are two problems with forcing density in terms of providing incentives for infill. First, infill apartments and condominiums are more expensive than apartments built “at the urban fringe.” This results from two primary factors: 1) Land within downtown areas is more expensive, given its location. 2) The companies who build and manage infill apartments use computer programs to raise rents well above the true market rate, such as Yieldstar, Rainmaker, and Yardi.

    Building infill apartments displaces individuals who are paying lower rents, often at the true market value, in apartments that are owned by “mom and pops.” Apartments built at the urban fringe generally rent for much less, compared to smart growth units downtown. The only way to solve this problem is for local governments to cap the rents during the approval process at affordable levels. I do not see this happening anywhere.

    Furthermore, they must also prevent the management companies from using the computer programs to raise the rents. This could be done by indexing the annual rent increases to any increases in the median income. However, median income has not increased since 2010, yet rents have nearly doubled, due to the computer programs that raise rents well above the market value.

    Many of the people who favor smart growth want 100% Caucasian cities, with no drugs and no crime. They fear that Hispanics and Blacks are the primary cause of crime and drugs. Not so. These city councilors should be required to rent an apartment, and see the skin color of people using drugs. It’s mostly whites here in the metro Phoenix area. This is part of the reason why the city councilors, who share the same view, never pass rent controls and never index the rent increases to changes in the median income.

    The second problem with forced density is that many conservative families will not live in downtown “hipster” areas where there are millenials having parties, and wearing tattoos, piercings, and using drugs. Here in the Phoenix-Scottsdale area, there are many families in the distal suburbs who would never live in a condo tower in downtown Phoenix and Scottsdale. Therefore, an increased gas tax would increase the cost of living for these families, and penalize them for living in distal suburbs that provide the social support system that they are looking for. I live in one of these suburbs in the Phoenix metro area, and it is too conservative for me. There is nobody out after dark, and very few streetlights. However, I will not live in downtown Phoenix, or even Tempe, since they are too congested with high crime. (An area like La Jolla is perfect for me, but that’s another story.)

    Smart growth and new urbanist projects, so far, are primarily going up as infill. When there is so much desert land around Southwest cities, why not build them within the urban fringe on cheaper land, around employment centers, such as the new smart growth downtown planned for Temecula? Southwest Riverside County is booming, and is expected to grow significantly due to the lower cost of land. Areas along the coast, are too expensive for both new towers, and warehouses. Temecula wants a new downtown to attract millenials for the new businesses moving into Temecula, Murrieta, and vicinity.

    Finally, planning for climate change in terms of lowering VMT’s does very little to lower the existing high levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. The excess CO2 in the atmosphere has a half life of several hundred years. The smart growth construction companies are using “global warming” merely as a way of “getting their way” with planning commissioners and city councilors. Most cities are “anti-growth,” and do not want the towers, but as soon as the global warming bomb is dropped, then they tend to loosen up to the idea of smart growth infill. My response: just plant more trees…….!

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