Thursday, September 06, 2007

I Half-Agree with Wendell Cox

"Notorious" anti-planning and anti-transit crusader Wendell Cox has written an interesting article, appearing in the Orange County Register, predicting that, despite most predictions, California's population will grow slowly in coming decades, noting that growth has stalled or even reversed in the last decade.

His makes points that I agree with:

What is going on? Try housing affordability. In the three large coastal metropolitan areas, median home prices have exploded to more than 10 times median household incomes. Historically, this "median multiple" has been 3.0 or less and remains so in many parts of the United States. People have moved inland to take advantage of lower housing costs. But now housing costs are escalating substantially inland and, not surprisingly, growth has slowed.


In fact, California has brought the housing affordability crisis and the resultant slower growth on itself. California's strict and bureaucratic land-use regulation has driven the price of developable land through the roof.


California may be pricing itself out of the future. Given the choice between a rental unit 20 miles from the coast in San Diego and a 3,000-square-foot house on a third of an acre in the suburbs of Kansas City or Indianapolis, it is not surprising that places like the latter are now domestic migration winners.

As readers of my frequent rants against stupid NIMBYs will likely guess, I find much to agree with here. Adamant opposition to denser housing by California cities' current residents, and the simple fact that the only land left open for new sprawl is a hundred miles or so from employment centers, has produced a housing availability/affordability crisis (which I've tried to quantify in this post).

So why can I only half-agree with Wendell Cox? You would not know if from this article, but Mr Cox is known among pro-transit circles as an anti-transit, anti-smart-growth crusader, funded (unsurprisingly) by groups associated with the highway building business. And while he may portray himself as a type of less-government/less-spending conservative, like many conservatives, he's pretty selective in what spending and what regulation he criticizes. He apparently sees no contradiction between opposing subsidies for transit while lobbying for handouts for highways. And whatever merits there may be to his criticisms of growth limits in this article, he is most vocal, in fact relentless, in attacking "smart growh" regulations such as Portland's--rather than the zoning that actually produces scarcity of housing, that which enforces low-density sprawl, and prohibits the kind of efficient land use that can boost the supply of housing units.

Years ago, I came across a libertarian website which advocated ending subsidies for all forms of transportation. They pointed out, correctly, that a century ago, public transit was a profitable business, until publicly funded highways undercut it--and advocated privatizing of roadways, turning all freeways into toll roads. At least the argument is logical and honest. These days, conservatives/libertarians only believe in "small government" as a club to beat programs they dislike, rather than a principle.

I am intrigued by the idea that transit ridership might actually grow in a less regulated, less subsidized environment. Planning has been used so much for exclusion--basically, cities are zoned to keep "too many" people from moving in--that I've become wary of it, even when it has better intentions. And I cannot deny that public subsidies for transit have produced wasteful overengineering, intattention to cheap and simple solutions, and all too often a diregard for the needs of passengers than no private enterprise could get away with showing its customers. And given that car commuting is only marginally bearable with constant and massive infusions for cash, it's tempting to speculate that if we just stopped spending money on transportation at all, we'd have instant gridlock so severe that public transit would turn profitable overnight.

There are more subtle ways to move in this direction. We could make drivers pay for more of the real cost of car commuting, such as by raising the tax on gas. Ultimately, maybe transit could be less subsidized too. Hell, I'd happily pay for the full cost of my CalTrain rides (CalTrain's farebox recovery ratio is about 40%, so my $60 monthly pass would be $150) if I could be excused from having to pay for freeways I barely use. Cities could also be planned more by incentives than decree. Let developers build, more or less, what they want or need to--but make them pay for whatever burdens it places on the community (as I advocated in my manifesto), for examply by taxing them per parking space.

Returning to Mr. Cox's article--he is correct to remind us of the links between development, population, and economic growht, and to point out that the status quo is destroying California's future. Simply put: NIMBY's opposition to new housing drives away residents, and ultimately business. Calfornia and especially the Bay Area must grow or wither--and the only way to grow is as cities--denser and mobilized by transit more than cars.

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