Sprawl and preferences

Kevin Drum and Matt Yglesias have posts examining suburban sprawl, in particular whether it happens because people just like to live that way, no matter what pointy-head planning professors tell them, or in some way against our will.  Kevin adduces first-order evidence, voting with feet and voting with votes to go to and to preserve low-density places. Matt thinks its more about xenophobia, that density regulation is the only tool available to be sure I don’t have to live near the wrong kind of people.

I’m generally amenable to arguments about preference based on behavior rather than assertion and posturing, but it’s not always so simple. One could easily say “alcoholics just like drinking” because they keep doing it. In fact there’s lots of evidence that people are generally poor judges of their own future tastes, and not just where addictive behavior is involved. Furthermore, it’s vacuous to infer that someone prefers A to B when he repeatedly buys a lot of A at a heavily subsidized price, or where its costs to him are hidden, and he would either have to pay the full cost of B or has no experience of it from which to choose. (It’s simply silly to infer that a society should have a lot of A when the costs to others are not borne by those who choose it, and housing and land use are like this in spades.)

I regularly have a conversation like this with my students, mostly from suburbs: “How many of you have as a goal in life to live in a nice house with a three-car garage and a pool in the back yard?” Lots of hands go up.  “OK. How many of you have as a goal in life to be a seven-day chauffeur for twenty years?”  Lots of bulbs lighting up as they reflect on their parents’ experience of their childhoods. “How many of you hope to spend two hours a day alone, keeping a car between two white lines?”  “How many of you hope to become fat because you never walk anywhere?” “How many of you hope your kids will never be able to do anything you didn’t arrange for them, other than sit in front of the TV or the computer?” and so on.

Kevin has earlier noted our research on the indirect land use carbon cost of biofuels.  But building suburbs in farmland has precisely the same carbon effect, as does anything that competes with food for land; I have estimated (not published, and I might change the number either way with more analysis) that if there were a $20/ton carbon tax, and we counted land use change, the land price of suburban housing around most cities would double. People who say they like living in the suburbs are not expecting to pay a lot of what it really costs to do it. Furthermore, a lot of them are having second thoughts: the fastest-growing demographic in Manhattan is now children: people who can afford to live anywhere they want are increasingly deciding that a real city is the best place to raise a family. My fair city of Berkeley, no transit paradise, has built hundreds and hundreds of downtown rental units without parking spaces, something wise heads predicted would be a disaster of vacancies and parking wars at the curbs of nearby residential streets, but neither of those things has happened .

The real problem with sprawl is not so much the houses as cars, which are the only practical way to get around when things you might want to go between get too far to bike and there aren’t enough people per acre to make buses and trams practical.  Cars push everything apart by their appetite for parking and operational space, and they make streets (i) unable to support the retail that makes a street fun to walk on and (ii) scary because there are no other pedestrians. Cars are toxic to social capital, because if you wear a two-ton iron suit, you can’t meet anyone and instinctively become afraid to take it off (I know Angelenos who are even afraid to drive their cars in the street, and will sit on the stop and go 405 rather than getting off and driving on Sepulveda, which is moving right along). The car life, one of whose complements is sprawl, has a lot in common with real addictions.

Behavioral evidence of choice is real evidence, but it has to be understood in the context of what the choosers think they’re confronting and what alternatives they think they have. One alternative, life with less physical stuff, streets full of people and shop windows to look in, and a transit system that’s clean, comfortable, frequent and properly priced at marginal cost, is simply outside the experience of a lot of the understandably angry voters in US suburbs, especially in the West.

Comments

  1. Bernard Yomtov says

    if there were a $20/ton carbon tax, and we counted land use change, the land price of suburban housing around most cities would double.

    I wonder if you could clarify this. I'm afraid I don't understand what you are saying. Thanks.

  2. Michael O'Hare says

    Anything that displaces food cultivation (biofuels, or housing/roads/etc in farmland) induces a chain of crop displacements because food demand is fairly inelastic, ending in some conversion of wild land (forest and pasture) somewhere to cultivation. The carbon stocks (soil carbon, roots, and above-ground plant materials) are burned or decay, releasing a big puff of carbon dioxide that is caused by the non-food use of the original land. More here http://www.aibs.org/bioscience-press-releases/100… .

    If we charged developers who buy a farm and build housing on it for this carbon discharge a tax of $20 per ton of carbon they cause to be released this way, it would total about as much as the land price.

  3. Brett Bellmore says

    Just be careful you don't elevate your hypothetical "preferences if people agreed with me" over revealed preferences. That way lies an infinitude of excuses to run roughshod over other people while imagining you're only doing what they'd want if they were more rational/informed. It's one of the greatest ways to numb the conscience man has ever invented.

  4. Andrea Knutson says

    It is really very simple. Everyone wants to live in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Housing prices prove it. No one leaves unless they can no longer make it up the stoop. The real estate people befriend the elderly so that they will be the first to know of their decline or death.

    Four story buildings split up in any way mathematically possible, lots of subways, a park, lots and lots and lots of restaurants.

    Just copy it; they will come.

  5. says

    All this is good, but I want to mention another way in which sprawl is subsidized, which oddly doesn't seem to get mentioned much. Consider the builder could divide a parcel of land to either build row-houses, or single family dwellings with land area equal to the size of the house. Unless purchasers are willing to pay as much for the land as they pay for the house, the builder is selling half as many units for less than twice the profit and is therefore making less on the single family units than on the row-houses. The builder will do this if the law forbids him from building otherwise, but in that case the law is effective requiring that he give away free land if he wants to sell houses. The upshot is that yes, people will buy in the suburbs if it comes with free land, but Yglesias's claim is that they will buy less in the suburbs if the subsidized free land isn't given away.

  6. CharlesWT says

    One way to slow the spread of suburbs onto farm land is to greatly reduce or exempt farm land from property taxes.

  7. Josh G. says

    Michael: "One alternative, life with less physical stuff, streets full of people and shop windows to look in, and a transit system that’s clean, comfortable, frequent and properly priced at marginal cost, is simply outside the experience of a lot of the understandably angry voters in US suburbs, especially in the West."

    A lot of these "understandably angry voters" think, and not without good reason, that if America tries to force denser development, they're going to wind up with "less physical stuff" but without all the nice amenities that might make up for that.

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