Can Trump Stimulate a New Suburban Boom?

President-elect Trump has “the opportunity to preside over a Great Wave of suburbanization and give another generation the opportunity to unlock the modern version of the American Dream,” says Walter Russell Mead in The American Interest magazine. Mead is a professor of foreign affairs at Bard College. While the Antiplanner appreciates Mead’s ambition, he greatly underestimates the barriers to such a vision.

Mead inaccurately claims that American suburbanization took place in two waves: one between World War II and the 1960s (which he associates with Eisenhower) and the second in the 1980s through the early 2000s (which he associates with Reagan). Since both of the previous waves, he says, were led by Republican presidents, its natural for Trump to lead a third wave.

In fact, suburbanization began in the 1840s and hardly slowed down at any time since then. Mead’s first wave saw a large amount of working-class suburbanization, but even that began in the 1920s. In any case, much of that wave took place under Truman, not Eisenhower, and contrary to popular belief, Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System had almost nothing to do with it.

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It’s Infrastructure, So It Must Be Worthwhile

The city of Port Angeles, Washington spent $107,516 putting up wind turbines in a new city park. The turbines will power 31 lights in the park. This will save the taxpayers of Port Angeles a whopping $41.58 per month. At that rate, it will take 216 years for it to pay off (at zero interest rate).

That’s before subtracting operating costs, though no one yet knows how much it will cost to operate them. The city is in a dispute with the manufacturer, so it will be another month or so before they turn them on.

The ridiculous benefit-cost ratio is unimportant, says one city councilor, because the purpose of the turbines wasn’t to generate electricity, it was “to educate folks about wind power.” That’s quite an education they are getting. “I wouldn’t have voted for it knowing it was that little” electricity, the councilor added. Isn’t it her job to ask questions like that?

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Secretary Carson

Ben Carson has accepted Donald Trump’s nomination as Secretary of Housing & Urban Development, leading to all sorts of personal attacks and dire predictions for the future of cities under his leadership. The main point of contention is Carson’s belief that the federal government should not get involved in most local issues, which ought to be supported by the fact that many federal urban programs have had disastrous results, particularly for blacks.

The Antiplanner’s friend, Samuel Staley, has some “early thoughts” on what Carson might do as secretary. Most of them sound good to me and I hope they aren’t wishful thinking.

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Suburbs Still the Dominant American Lifestyle

How many cities and regions are basing their land-use and transportation plans on the notion that most Millennials want to live in dense cities? Officials in those areas should read a new report from the Urban Land Institute. Among other things, the report says that three-quarters of Millennials in the nation’s 50 largest metropolitan areas live in the suburbs.

That’s not much less than the 79 percent of everyone in those metro areas who live in the suburbs. Moreover, 76 percent of minorities live in the suburbs, again not much different from the overall average. The Urban Land Institute has a history of promoting smart growth and other urban planning fads, so these conclusions aren’t based on any hidden agendas.

Most of the ULI report is spent dividing suburbs into one of five categories: high-end, middle-class, “economically challenged,” “greenfield lifestyle,” and “greenfield value.” Greenfield lifestyle refers to master-planned communities that include parks and other amenities while greenfield value tend to be ordinary subdivisions with fewer amenities. This kind of classification may be useful to realtors, but if urban planners attempt to use it, perhaps to “fix” the economically challenged areas, the result is likely to be a disaster.

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Is Congestion Deliberate?

According to the Texas Transportation Institute, the costs of congestion have quadrupled since 1982. The Antiplanner has often argued that cities have deliberately allowed congestion to increase in the erroneous belief that more congestion would lead people to stop driving and start riding transit or use other modes of travel. However, the evidence for this is merely anecdotal; it’s hard to imagine city officials admitting even in private memos that congestion was their goal.

An article in last Friday’s New York Post, however, makes the case that congestion is deliberate. “City officials have intentionally ground Midtown to a halt with the hidden purpose of making drivers so miserable that they leave their cars at home and turn to mass transit or bicycles,” reports the newspaper that was founded by Alexander Hamilton. The article specifically blames “today’s gridlock” on the “Bloomberg and de Blasio administrations.”

Sensational news, perhaps, but not necessarily persuasive. The article attributes this information to “high-level sources,” later saying it comes from “a former top NYPD official.” While the article offered specific examples of ways the city has increased congestion, including the conversion of auto lanes to bicycle lanes and restrictions on the ability of drivers to make turns at many intersections, it offers no documentation that these things were done specifically to make auto drivers miserable.

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Hyperloop None

When Elon Musk first proposed the hyperloop–a transportation tube between Los Angeles and San Francisco–the Antiplanner panned the idea saying that it would cost a lot more than Musk claimed, that passengers would be reluctant to be accelerated to high speeds in a windowless capsule, and that a point-to-point technology wouldn’t be able to compete with the door-to-door convenience of the automobile. Recently, New York magazine has published an article confirming the first point and possibly the second.

In “A Kink in the Hyperloop,” writer Benjamin Wallace recounts efforts by venture capitalists to put together a company called Hyperloop One that would build and operate the hyperloop. Most of the article deals with personal frictions between the various players, but a telling statement near the end of the article blows up the entire idea: “The projected cost-per-mile has gone from 6 percent to 60 percent of that of California High Speed Rail.”

Musk’s original cost projection for a San Francisco-to-Los Angeles line was $7.5 billion. If costs have increased ten times, the current projection must be $75 billion.

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Not All Infrastructure Is Created Equal

An op-ed in the New York Daily News argues that Trump’s infrastructure plan “will result in wasteful spending and do little to fix crumbling facilities or promote economic growth” unless it is properly targeted, and the best way to target is to spend only on infrastructure that can be built and maintained with user fees.

The country should also avoid building new infrastructure that will soon be obsolete. For example, Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) spent nearly half a billion dollars building the Airport Connector, a 3.2-mile elevated cable-car line to the Oakland Airport. BART expected to cover operating costs by charging people $6 to travel between the airport and the nearest BART station. Instead, it is losing money, and they are blaming Uber and Lyft. It was a dumb idea even if they did recover operating costs, but new technologies have made it even dumber still.

The Trump Administration needs to learn the Antiplanner’s Law of Transportation Infrastructure: Any transportation technology that requires new infrastructure is doomed to failure because it will be unable to compete against technologies using existing infrastructure such as the nation’s hundreds of commercial airports and millions of miles of highways.

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Meet the New Secretary of Transportation

In what may turn out to be his least controversial cabinet nomination, President-elect Trump has picked Elaine Chao as Secretary of Transportation. Chao was previously Secretary of Labor under George W. Bush and Deputy Secretary of Transportation under George H.W. Bush. She has also served as director of the Peace Corps and worked as a distinguished fellow for the Heritage Foundation.

Chao was born in Taiwan and when she was 8 years old her family emigrated to the United States, where her father ended up founding a major shipping company that owns a fleet of at least fifteen ships. She earned a degree in economics from Mount Holyoke College in 1975 and an MBA from Harvard Business School in 1979.

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America Has Enough Infrastructure

Many people in Washington are talking about infrastructure spending. Infrastructure is a bi-partisan issue, because every elected official is happy to spend other people’s money on projects that will get their names in the paper and contributions to their re-election campaigns.

George Will throws a dose of cold water on the party when he points out that it’s hard to spend money on infrastructure when we’ve thrown up so many roadblocks in the form of environmental reviews. But that’s not the real problem with infrastructure spending. The real problem is that we really don’t need any new infrastructure.

Most writers assume that government spending on infrastructure has a multiplier effect: that every dollar spent will generate more than a dollar of gross domestic product. That worked for early highway spending, which generated a huge amount of new travel and shipping that didn’t exist before. It won’t work for most infrastructure spending today.

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Back in the Air Again

The Antiplanner is flying to Washington DC today to participate in a forum on housing tomorrow, Should Urban Areas Grow Up or Grow Out to Keep Housing Affordable?. The forum will include a broad range of views including Gerrit Knaap of the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Emily Hamilton of the Mercatus Center.

If you plan to attend, please register at the above link. If you are unable to attend in person but would like to view the conference over the Internet, also use the above link to get the live stream.

The Antiplanner’s presentation will be based on a recent paper on The New Feudalism and additional data showing that increasing densities makes urban areas less affordable, not more.

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