President Obama has a lengthy commentary in the Economist, which that magazine-that-calls-itself-a-newspaper says is an “open letter to his successor. The Economist also describes the essay as “centrist,” as it criticizes Bernie Sanders’ leftism as much as, if not more than it criticized Trump.
But the article isn’t really centrist. Instead, Obama is defending the liberal (in a classical sense of the term) consensus in favor of free trade, relatively open borders, and mostly free markets. That is what liberals believed in during the nineteenth century, and it is what both the liberal and conservative elites believe today, which is why neither Bill Clinton nor George Bush questioned these ideas.
This election year, in fact, is the first time in many decades–perhaps more than a century–that a candidate who challenged these ideas won a major party nomination for president. While Trump openly challenged the open borders ideas, Sanders gained a lot of votes by challenging the free-market ideas. Brexit and similar votes in Europe show this isn’t unique to the United States: many people are feeling disenchanted with the liberal consensus.
If you want a book demonstrating that smart growth is based on mumbo-jumbo, half-truths, and outright fabrications, there are few better examples than The Well-Tempered City. Jonathan Rose is a real estate developer who happens to be married to the sister of New Urbanist architect Peter Calthorpe. Rose claims to have been at the 1996 meeting where the term “smart growth” was coined, though he doesn’t mention that one of the reasons for choosing the name was so its supporters could tar anyone who disagreed with them for favoring “dumb growth.”
Full disclosure: The publisher gave me a copy of this book on the condition that I write a review in my blog, so anything positive I say about the book should be taken with a grain of salt. I told the publisher my review might not be too positive, but they seemed to think a bad review was better than none at all. As it turned out, the book is far worse than I suspected, as I usually expect a semblance of reason from people I disagree with. I could find none in The Well-Tempered City.
Members of the city council argued that unoccupied short-term rental houses often get turned into noisy, “party houses” and that the use of those homes for short-term rentals made housing more expensive for everyone else. The first point might be legitimate, but no owner or renter wants to see their home trashed and so it is likely to be self-policed. The second point isn’t legitimate at all; it is Austin’s over regulated land-use rules that make housing there unaffordable.
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump both say they want to spend more to fix America’s supposedly crumbling infrastructure. But if Congress passes an infrastructure spending bill, this is the kind of thing it will be spent on: digging two tunnels for Interstates 84 and 91 in Hartford, Connecticut. This project is being promoted by Representative John Larson (D-CT), who is obviously looking forward to the day when Democrats control the White House and at least one house of Congress.
How much would these tunnels cost? A mere $10 billion, estimates Larson, who promises that “It’s not remotely close to what the Big Dig was.” No, the Big Dig was only supposed to cost $2.8 billion. Since it eventually cost $14.5 billion, will the Hartford dig end up costing $40 billion?
The purpose of the tunnels is to relieve congestion since there is supposedly no room to add capacity to the existing, above-ground highways. I suspect Larson hasn’t considered overhead solutions such as the Selmon Expressway in Tampa, which added three lanes without taking any new right of way by being built in the median strip of an existing highway. It cost about $7 million a lane mile, far less than a tunnel.
Last week’s commuter train crash in New Jersey has left people wondering how safe our transportation system really is. We can answer this question with data from National Transportation Statistics, which show passenger miles, fatalities, and injuries by mode of transportation since 1990.
Last 10 Years
Table One: Fatalities per billion passenger miles by mode. As noted in the text, the most recent decade is 2005-2014 except for commuter rail, which is 2003-2012. Sources: Calculated from National Transportation Statistics, tables 1-40, 2-1, 2-34, and 2-35.
The statistics show transit data only through 2012, but the Federal Transit Administration has safety data for the years since then. Unfortunately, the Federal Railroad Administration, not the Federal Transit Administration, monitors commuter rail safety, and it doesn’t seem to publish those numbers, so we only have them through 2012.
The city of Portland, which likes to call itself “the city that works,” subsidized the renovation of a 50-unit downtown apartment building. The apartments will now be made available to people who earn less than $15,400 a year.
“In Portland, we strongly believe that downtown should be a place where people of all incomes can live,” said city commissioner Dan Saltzman. One problem with that philosophy, as Willamette Week‘s Nigel Jaquiss points out, is that the city spent $514 per square foot renovating those apartments. For a lot less money, it could have built twice as many brand new apartments elsewhere in the city.
In many ways, Portland is the model for nearly all of the policies advocated in the White House policy paper described here yesterday: minimum-density zoning, streamlined permitting for developers who want to build high densities; all single-family neighborhoods put in zones allowing accessory dwellings; lots of neighborhoods zoned for high-densities and multifamily housing; tax-increment financing and property tax abatements to subsidize density; and elimination of off-street parking requirements (which is the only policy discussed in detail by a Washington Postarticle about the White House paper). Yet, despite doing all of the things that the White House recommends to make housing affordable, Portland politicians claim that the city is suffering from a terrible housing crisis. Of course, most of the ideas proposed to solve the crisis, such as rent control and inclusionary zoning, will just make it worse.
A new Housing Policy Toolkit from the White House admits that “local barriers to housing development have intensified,” which “has reduced the ability of many housing markets to respond to growing demand.” The toolkit, however, advocates tearing down only some of the barriers, and not necessarily the ones that will work to make housing more affordable.
“Sunbelt cities with more permeable boundaries have enjoyed outsized growth by allowing sprawl to meet their need for adequate housing supply,” says the toolkit. “Space constrained cities can achieve similar gains, however, by building up with infill.” Yet this ignores the fact that there are no cities in America that are “space constrained” except as a result of government constraints. Even cities in Hawaii and tiny Rhode Island have plenty of space around them–except that government planners and regulators won’t let that space be developed.
Instead of relaxing artificial constraints on horizontal development, the toolkit advocates imposing even tighter constraints on existing development in order to force denser housing. The tools the paper supports include taxing vacant land at high rates in order to force development; “enacting high-density and multifamily zoning,” meaning minimum density zoning; using density bonuses; and allowing accessory dwelling units. All of these things serve to increase the density of existing neighborhoods, which increases congestion and–if new infrastructure must be built to serve the increased density–urban-service costs.
Raj Rajkumar, a self-driving vehicle researcher at Carnegie Mellon, warns that self-driving cars are being over-hyped. Despite promised by Ford, Nissan, and other companies, they are actually many years away.
Ford’s promise to have fleets of self-driving cars in cities by 2021 is deceptive, the critics say. “Dig into the statements and press for details,” says the Wall Street Journal, “and a Ford spokesman says that car will only be self-driving in the portion of major cities where the company can create and regularly update extremely detailed 3-D street maps.”
However, that is exactly what the Antiplanner said a few months ago. As the Antiplanner noted at the time, a company called Here has already mapped two-thirds of all paved roads in the United States, and updates its maps every day. It seems likely that all paved roads will be mapped by 2021.
Palo Alto may be the most expensive housing market in America. The American Community Survey says the home of Stanford is the only city whose median home price was more than $2 million in 2014; the survey numbers don’t go higher than $2 million so we don’t know how much more.
Coldwell Banker’s 2015 report on average prices of a four-bedroom, two-bath home found that Palo Alto’s was $2.1 million; only Newport Beach, at $2.3 million, was higher–but the American Community Survey says a median home in Newport Beach was “only” $1.7 million. (Coldwell Banker’s 2016 numbers don’t include Palo Alto.)
Palo Alto residents earn more than the national average, but not enough to make up for the high housing prices. The median family income was $176,000 in 2014. That happens to also be the nation’s highest, but value-to-income ratios are still more than 11 when they should be under 3.
The CEO of Valley Metro, Steve Banta, “went golfing on workdays, took 50 days off that did not count as vacation time, flew first class and failed to provide documentation for his expense reports,” says the Arizona Republic. Banta and his wife spent $26,000 of taxpayer money flying 56 times between Portland and Phoenix for “relocation-related trips.” A city auditor found $272,449 in “unallowable or questionable” expenses.
After the Republicrevealed these excessive expenses, Banta, who previously worked for Portland’s TriMet, resigned. But then he changed his mind and, when Valley Metro’s board wouldn’t give him his job back, hesued Valley Metro for “wrongful termination and breach of contract,” asking for $1.65 million. The case was settled last week: without either side admitting any wrongdoing, Valley Metro will give him $125,000 severance pay.
Strangely, the Republic blames Banta’s behavior on Valley Metro, which “created a system that allowed him to” do these things. But that’s not really fair. On one hand, the public has a right to expect that any public official who is paid $265,000 a year will be honest in their use of taxpayer money. On the other hand, the real problem is that Valley Metro, like TriMet and so many other rail transit agencies, has become a giant scheme for transferring billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money to the pockets of rail contractors, manufacturers, and operators. It is only natural that agency officials seeing all that money going out the door for truly trivial transportation benefits would want to get their fair share of the take.