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.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

9 thoughts on “Sprawl and preferences”

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

  7. 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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