Category Archives: City planning

Sofia Housing and Transport

The capital of Bulgaria and the nation’s largest city, Sofia has 1.2 million people packed at a density of 6,900 people per square mile, which is nearly as dense as the densest urban area in the United States. The actual density is probably much higher as the developed area of the city is surrounded by a wide greenbelt of undeveloped land within the city limits. Whatever the density, it is achieved through lots of mid-rise (four to six stories) and high-rise (more than six stories) housing, most of which was built during the soviet era. Before that time, the city was nearly all low-rise (one to three stories) with a few mid-rise buildings in the city center.


This former single-family home is cute enough that someone built a Lego model of it. But the land it is on is too valuable to use it as a house today.

Many pre-war single-family homes are scattered throughout the city, but most of the ones near the city center have been turned into businesses. According to former Sofia resident Sonia Hirt, 47 percent of Bulgarians live in single-family detached homes. But too many in Sofia live in soviet-era high rises.

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John Oliver Attacks the Wrong Target

As a policy analyst, the Antiplanner has a lot of appreciation for John Oliver‘s Last Week Tonight, which often includes in-depth analyses of important but sometimes forgotten issues such as stadiums, Guantanamo, bail, mandatory minimum sentencing, and municipal violations. I don’t always agree with his conclusions, but he and his writers usually ask the right questions and put a lot of thought into most of his shows.

However, he missed the mark in last Sunday’s show about special districts. “Special districts are small units of government with the power to take tax dollars to do one special thing,” he notes, adding that there are about 40,000 such districts in the country. Instead of weighing whether such districts were better or worse than other forms of government, such as cities and counties, he then proceeds to attack the idea of such districts using often specious reasoning.

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How Not to Create a City

Damascus, Oregon, was supposed to be a great experiment in urban planning. A rural community just outside of Portland’s original urban-growth boundary, in 2002 it became the largest addition ever to the land within that boundary. Yet it has had almost no new development since then, and it appears local opposition will lead to the disincorporation of the city, supposedly only the fourth city ever to dissolve in the history of Oregon.


Looks like the perfect spot for a transit-oriented development. Flickr photo by Ian Eure.

The problem is that urban planners don’t understand how cities work. Here’s how a private developer creates a city. First, they buy land. Then they divide it into neighborhoods of commercial, residential, and other uses, then subdivide each neighborhood into lots. Then they put in infrastructure to support those neighborhoods. At some point along the way, they either incorporate a city or a service district to provide a mechanism for maintaining and expanding the infrastructure and create a process to allow the people who live there to democratically elect officials to oversee the government.

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Take the T Out of TOD and What’s Left?

The latest issue of the University of California Transportation Center’s Access magazine has an article that asks, “Does Transit-Oriented Development Need the Transit?” Noting that previous studies found that people who live in TODs are less likely to own cars, the authors dare to ask if the observed changes in travel behavior had anything to do with having rail transit near the TOD.

Since you are reading this here, the answer, of course, is “no.” Instead, the biggest influence on travel behavior is the presence or absence of parking. (The paper didn’t mention the self-selection issue, which is that differences in travel behavior are largely accounted for by the fact that people who don’t want to drive are more likely to live in TODs than people who do.)

In any case, whatever benefits may come from TODs, the authors conclude, “may not depend much on rail access.” That’s good news, the authors claim, because rail lines are expensive to build, so the benefits of TODs could be attained without that expense.

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Utterly Impractical or Practically Unutterable?

In his reflections on the debate we had last week, Charles Marohn’s main comment is that he found my ideas “utterly impractical.” What were those ideas? Privatizing local streets. Privatizing utilities. Privatizing other common goods.

Just how impractical are these ideas? Most utilities in this country are, after all private. Many streets are private–I live on one. St. Louis has privatized some of its streets.

During the debate, Marohn called himself a libertarian, but his response reveals him to be a progressive. Progressives believe that commonly owned resources are a good thing because they value the tragedy of the commons. Without the tragedy, there is no need for government intervention. Without a need for government intervention, the role of progressives is greatly diminished.

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Should Cities Worry About ROI?

Last week’s debate between the Antiplanner and Charles Marohn was supposed to be about urban planning, but it ended up being more about urban finance. Marohn had been hired by the city of Lafayette, Louisiana to help it decide where to fund its infrastructure. He and his organization, Strong Towns, advocates that cities use return on investment model to help make such decisions.

Marohn raised some legitimate questions about city finances. For example, in a typical subdivision, the developer builds roads and streets and then deeds them over to the city. The city collects property and sales taxes on the new development, which can be a windfall for many years. But then, after 25 years or so, the street needs to be repaved, and the cost of doing so may not be justified by the taxes collected from adjacent properties.

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The Wonderful World of TIF

City officials regard tax-increment financing as free money, when actually they are stealing it from other taxing entities. Nowhere is this more visible than with a special kind of tax-increment financing involving sales taxes. In Missouri, Colorado, and other states, private shopping malls and other retail districts can effectively assess their own sales tax, just like a government agency, and keep the money. Their patrons end up paying the tax but probably don’t realize it because taxes aren’t included in advertised prices.

Under Missouri law, a community improvement district can assess its own sales tax with the approval of all voters in the district. If there are no voters residing in the district, then a majority of property owners get to decide whether to assess the sales tax. Since other people will pay the sales tax while the property owners get the benefit, it’s an easy question.

The inequity of this system was made clear when a group of property owners in Columbia, Missouri defined their district in a way that, they thought, excluded all voters. As it turned out, there was one voter, and when she examined the proposal, she realized that it “just didn’t seem to be as good as they were saying to me at first.” As a result, the district may not hold the election, at least until it can figure out a way to gerrymander the sole voter out of the district (or perhaps bribe her into supporting their scheme).

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Portland Cuts Police to Fund TODs

The Portland Tribune reports that the number of police officers in Portland has declined by 9 percent since 2001, even as the city’s population grew by 13 percent, resulting in a 20 percent decline in officers per capita. This decline is typical for a city that is neglecting its streets, its schools, and other essential services all so that it can fund streetcars and transit-oriented developments.

The Portland Development Commission (the city’s urban-renewal agency) is using tax-increment financing (which is a polite term for stealing) to gobble up as much tax revenue as it can. According to the State Department of Revenue, that’s nearly $100 million per year (see page 45). Since nearly all of that development would have taken place without the subsidies (though perhaps not as dense as planners would like), that’s $100 million that’s not available for police, streets, schools, and other services that depend on property taxes.

All of that urban renewal isn’t doing much to create jobs. Oregon was just ranked the second-worst state to make a living in due to its high cost of living (meaning housing costs), low average incomes, and the highest income taxes in the country.

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Big Government, Shrinking Cities

The Economist laments that cities are shrinking all over the world. More than a third of the cities in Germany are losing population, as are nearly one in ten in the United States. What the Economist fails to note is that most of the cities it uses as examples–Detroit, cities in the former East Germany–were once dominated by strong governments that taxed people heavily and often tried to control how people lived.

American urban planners are no longer trying to make people live in high-rise housing that is so common in eastern Europe. Instead, they are trying to make people live in mixed-use, mid-rise housing, so-called transit-oriented developments. The type locale for this kind of housing is New York City’s West Village, where Jane Jacobs lived when she wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jacobs was convinced that the urban planners of her day didn’t understand how cities worked, but she was just as convinced that she did understand how cities worked, and in her mind the West Village was the model.

Her book, in turn, became the model for New Urbanists. Indeed, some call her the mother of what passes today for urban design. Unfortunately, she was as wrong about how cities work as the planners she criticized.

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TODs and Subsidies

Transit-oriented developments (TODs) are supposed to promote economic growth because the demand for it is so high. But if so many people want to live in dense, mixed-use developments, why do they so often need subsidies?

The latest proposal to subsidize TODs comes from Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ). He wants to expand use of the Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing (RRIF) program to allow the funds to be used for TODs. RRIF was created mainly to provide low-interest loans to smaller freight railroads improve their facilities and restructure debt so shippers along those rail lines would not be stranded (or have to resort to trucks) if the rail lines failed.

However, some of the money has been used for passenger rail, including $663 million for Amtrak and $72.5 million for the Virginia Railway Express commuter trains. Considering that these are perpetual loss-making enterprises that have no hope of repaying the loans except out of other tax dollars, expanding this fund for money-losing TODs may seem a natural next step to Booker. But Booker’s fundamental assumption, like that of many Democrats, is that the federal government has an infinite capacity to give away funds, which is what these “loans” are if they can’t be repaid.

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