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.