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Leveling the Playing Field by Getting the Prices Right

A review by Dom Nozzi of “Perverse Cities: Hidden Subsidies, Wonky Policy, and Urban Sprawl” (2010), by Pamela Blais

January 16, 2012

Blais describes a dizzying, almost countless number of ways in which suburban sprawl is heavily subsidized. Such strong market distortions expose the extreme falsehood of sprawl apologists who claim sprawl is the result of an unfettered free market. Instead, Blais shows over and over again the perversity of those living efficient, sustainable, walkable lifestyles in town center locations who are significantly subsidizing andpe artificially increasing the demand for inefficient, unsustainable, car-dependent sprawl lifestyle. As Blais notes, it is as if those driving small, fuel-efficient cars are subsidizing the purchase of Hummers.

“Much of the attention [by governments seeking to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions inducing global warming] has been focused on programs that aim to reduce consumption within the home – energy-efficient appliances, windows, insulation, furnaces, and so on.” But Blais then points out that because household car travel creates such significant levels of emissions, and such travel substantially increases when homes are located in remote suburban locations, “when it comes to reducing energy use and GHG emissions, the location of the home is far more important than are the green features of the house itself…even the greenest house located in the suburbs…and an energy-efficient car, consumes more total energy than does a conventional house with a conventional car located in [a town center].”

How are so many North American cities (inadvertently?) subsidizing sprawl? One extremely important way is by using average cost pricing rather than marginal cost pricing. “…prices charged for [various urban services] rarely reflect the higher costs of servicing a larger or more distant [residential or commercial] lot; rather, prices based on average costs are used. In other words, costs are averaged across a range of different types of development associated with a range of actual costs…those properties that incur lower-than-average costs pay more than their [fair share of] costs, while those properties that incur higher-than-average costs pay less than their [fair share of] costs.”

Examples that Blais cites of this pricing perversity include:

  • “those who live on small lots subsidize those living on large lots;
  • Smaller residential units subsidize larger residential units;
  • Those who don’t drive or drive less subsidize uses that generate more trips;
  • Land uses that generate fewer trips subsidize uses that generate more trips;
  • Those who live in less expensive-to-service areas subsidize those who live in more expensive-to-service areas;
  • Those who live nearer the centre of the city subsidize those who live farther from the centre; and
  • Urban dwellers subsidize rural dwellers.”

Blais also notes that average cost pricing also undercharges those living in remote locations for the following goods and services: “water and sewer services, roads, parking, electricity, natural gas, basic telephone, cable TV, broadband internet, postal service, municipal snow clearance, recycling collection, garbage collection.” Each of these, Blais reminds us, tends to cost more to provide in outlying suburbs, yet average cost pricing charges such residents less than their fair share of community costs (and therefore overcharges those living in efficient town center locations).

“Sprawl is underpriced, and so the demand for it is exaggerated. Efficient forms of development – denser development, smaller lots and buildings, low-, medium- or high-rise apartments, mixed use, and central locations – are overpriced, so demand for them is reduced [below what would naturally occur].”

Local governments have been their own worst enemy. “…it may be troubling to think that the problem of sprawl – one that governments have been struggling to solve for decades – has, in fact, been largely created by those same governments…”

Contrary to what we hear from the defenders of sprawl, “[s]prawl is not the result of market forces but, rather, of a particular variety of distorted market forces. Moreover, these distortions emanate largely from public policy.” We can be somewhat hopeful, however, because since many of these market distortions arise from government decisions, citizens and elected officials have it within their power to correct such distortions. And as Blais says, “[g]etting the prices right, and getting an unbiased market operating, would go a long way towards curbing sprawl…more accurate price signals will prompt new kinds of decisions, choices, and market responses, shifting demand and supply towards more efficient development patterns.”

I would note that this has already started happening over the past decade – albeit not because of government action, but where a noticeable shift toward more fuel-efficient cars and a growth in town center living has been sparked by such factors as rising and volatile gasoline prices, and overall economic woes.

Stronger local government regulations requiring smart growth, compact development, and prohibitions against sprawl have been tried for several decades throughout North America, yet have been almost a complete failure. “This failure is a very expensive proposition, given the considerable resources devoted to this effort compared to tangible results…one could say that we have the dubious honour of being blessed with both the costs of planning and the costs of sprawl.”

According to Blais, this is largely because “sprawl has been viewed narrowly within the planning paradigm – as a planning problem that calls for a ‘planning’ solution. The focus has been on solving sprawl with regulatory and design approaches. While these approaches are without question a critical part of the solution to sprawl, the problem is that they have not addressed, nor are they capable of addressing, other critical causes of sprawl, in particular, the mis-pricing issues [this book describes]. Unless these causes are addressed directly, sprawl will remain an elusive and intractable problem.”

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Filed under Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Urban Design, Walking

Fighting Traffic: A Review of a Book by Peter Norton

February 3, 2009

Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City.

By Peter D. Norton.

Published 2008 by MIT.

Review by Dom Nozzi

This book is provocative, exceptionally enlightening, and a must-read for all pedestrian and bicycle professionals, urban designers, traffic engineers, elected and appointed officials.

Another title that the author could have considered to accurately describe the message of this book is “The Fall of the Pedestrian Street.”

The book is an analysis of how the American street, its perceived purpose, and its design paradigm has been transformed over the past century. Up until the dawn of the 20th Century, the rights of and sympathy for the pedestrian were supreme. Street rules (to the extent that any existed) and street design were focused on pedestrian travel.

The emergence of the motor vehicle, however, radically changed all of this.

Motorists and auto makers united and organized in the first few decades of the 20th Century to overthrow the prevailing paradigm of the street. As motor vehicles started to be found on streets, they were quickly seen as inefficiently consuming an enormous amount of space. And combined with their horsepower, weight, and high speeds, motor vehicles were soon killing an alarmingly high number of pedestrians—particularly children and seniors.

Huge numbers of citizens at this time rallied to fight against the motor vehicle. There was a consensus that in a crash, the motorist was always at fault and the pedestrian (particularly children) were innocent. The media regularly faulted motorists for being “speed maniacs.” And “murderers.” Particularly in Cincinnati, there was a strong campaign to require cars to have “governors,” which would not allow a car to be Road-Rage_1689375cdriven over 25 mph.

The growing number of motorists and auto makers became alarmed that the “freedom” and speed of car travel was being threatened by these nationwide campaigns. “Motordom” united, and in the course of a few decades, completely transformed the American transportation paradigm.

First, they succeeded in convincing the public that the car itself was not to blame for crashes. Nor was the problem due to speed. Instead, the motorist lobby succeeded in (falsely) convincing Americans that the problem was entirely due to “reckless” motorists. The lobby also achieved another crucial victory: No longer were pedestrians always innocent in crashes. Increasingly, the lobby convinced us that “reckless” pedestrians were often at fault.

Instead of motorists being vilified as speed maniacs, the new villain became the “jaywalker,” a derogatory term that assigned blame to pedestrians who were irresponsibly crossing streets in unexpected locations (as they had done throughout history). Unexpected, carefree walking had become an incompatible public safety threat in the age of high-speed car travel. It was essential that uncontrolled pedestrians not using their designated crosswalks be seen as irresponsibly unsafe and immoral.

So the paradigm shift managed to reshape our thinking. Cars and car speeds are not a problem. What is needed, instead of slowing cars, is to vigorously prosecute “reckless” motorists and be vigilant in urging pedestrians to be careful. Comprehensive public safety education campaigns must teach all of us (particularly children) to be careful near roads. And to insist that pedestrians (and playing children) be kept out of the way of cars by keeping them off roads—or at least confined to intersection crosswalks.

Thus, the “forgiving street” (what the author calls the “foolproof street”) was born. Dominating street design for nearly 100 years, this paradigm strives to design streets not to be safe and convenient for all users (including bicyclists, pedestrians and transit users), but to keep all non-motorized travelers out of the way of freedom- (and speed) loving American motorists. Streets are to be designed for safe driving at high speeds. And because forgiving street designers assume we will always have reckless drivers, streets must be designed to forgive reckless, inattentive driving. Grade separated intersections are needed. As are pedestrian skywalks. Move street trees and buildings and pedestrians away from the street.

The ultimate result, after several decades of this new motorist speed paradigm, has been an annual roadway death rate that remains extremely high. High levels of speeding and inattentive driving. Streets that are designed and safely usable only by cars, instead of being Complete Streets accessible to all. Unimaginably high levels of car dependency, heavy and worsening congestion, plummeting quality of life, a near absence of pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users, endless suburban sprawl and strip commercial, and declining downtowns.

I’m certain the author would agree with me that an essential task for safety and quality of life is to return our communities to a lower-speed environment. And this must largely be achieved not through laws against speeders or speed limit signs, but through the design of streets that effectively ratchets down urban travel speed via such tactics as human-scaled dimensions to achieve traffic calming—and Monderman’s “shared space” concept (what I like to call “attentive” streets). High-speed car traffic is simply incompatible with the human habitat.

This is not a call to re-vilify cars, but to reshape our world to obligate motorists to behave themselves.

 

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