Category Archives: cities

Bloomberg’s congestion charges revived

Duly noted: NYC’s traffic plan first had to crack Albany’s gridlock.

As I read it, this is very, very, very far from a done deal, just a political compromise to meet a deadline to file some paperwork to get some federal funding for the idea, if it actually happens. A key deadlock was between New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat, and State Senator Joseph Bruno, a Republican, who, according to the Associated Press, just despise each other:

Although Bruno and Spitzer supported the mayor’s “congestion pricing” concept, negotiations with the skeptical Assembly Democrats never started while Bruno was calling Spitzer a spoiled brat and Spitzer said Bruno chose summer vacation over doing the people’s business. Calls for investigations of each other’s use of state helicopters, Bruno’s claim that Spitzer used state police to spy on him, even Spitzer’s bouncing of a Bruno staffer from a news conference, were part of feuding that became so heated it raised eyebrows beyond New York.

“Now, now boys,” tsked the headline in The Economist of London. “Even by Albany’s standards, their recent feuding has caused new highs, or rather new lows, of dysfunction.”

The Bloomberg plan was just a casualty in the crossfire, before it was bandaged up, given some painkillers and sent back out there to fight another day.

So it’s good the New York City congestion charge hasn’t been killed because this politicking, which had nothing to do with the issue, might have made the city miss an arbitrary deadline set by another government, but again, it’s wrong that that might have happened at all.

Free public transit?

Stay behind the yellow line!Andrew Sullivan, the thoughtful Anglo-American libertarian, thinks free public transit is a good idea.

Here’s a great idea: no fares for buses in major cities. It speeds things up, gets more people out of cars, opens up parking spaces, helps the enivronment… How to afford it? Tax cars some more, or enact the London-style traffic tolls.

His link goes to The Tyee, the B.C.-based online magazine, which has a full treatment.

I’m careful, when writing about the subject, not to assume that mass transit has to be public transit. In theory, I can’t think why the private sector couldn’t do the same job with intracity transit as it does with transit between cities, particularly using buses. It always strikes me that the problem with transit now is that it’s monolithic and lowest-common-denominator; maybe we’d have better luck getting people out of cars if they had more options and could, if they wanted, choose to pay extra for luxury service.

From a purely urban-planning perspective, though, it’s a no-brainer that free transit would be better, and that would obviously have to be paid for out of the public purse. Yet even running a free transit service would surely be cheaper than all the roads and other infrastructure a city wouldn’t have to build.

(Photo credit: “Stay behind the yellow line!“, Flickr/Marios Tziortzis.)

Equal bureaucracy for all

At first glance, a plan in San Mateo County, Calif., to speed up approvals for buildings meeting certain green standards seemed like a good idea. It’s a small way of rewarding conscientious builders with sustainable projects without shipping them public money. From the Palo Alto Daily News:

Under the proposal, a builder who chooses to employ environmentally friendly construction in San Mateo County’s unincorporated areas would have his application for a new building or major addition processed by the county’s planning department twice as fast.

It takes about six to seven weeks to complete an application for a residential or commercial building permit. A builder who goes green would have his permit processed in three weeks.

“What we’re looking to do here is to provide incentives so more individuals will build green,” said San Mateo County Supervisor Mark Church, who has asked the planning department to look at developing the program. “The public sector already has taken the lead in developing green buildings, so now is the time to provide incentives to encourage the private sector to do the same.”

But then again, why should the promise of a government bureaucracy heaving itself into action at more than it usual torpid pace be used as a reward for anything? If they can process permits in three weeks, shouldn’t they do so for everyone? What if the project isn’t particularly green, but it’s for a school or a church or a seniors’ centre or something?

An urban-planning process might favour greeniness in granting approvals, but that quality shouldn’t factor into the effectiveness of the process itself. And besides, it’s just begging for people to game the system by submitting environmentally friendly plans at permit-granting time and then — oops! — not living up to them in the actual construction.

(Via Planetizen.)

Congestion charges on life support in NYC

The shame of the stories about the defeat of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposal for a downtown congestion charge is that there appears to have been no discussion of whether he actually had a good idea. Instead, it’s all politics and pique — from Bloomberg and from the state legislators whose co-operation he needed.

“If the mayor came in with one vote, he left with none,” said Senator Kevin S. Parker, a Brooklyn Democrat.

“His posture was not ingratiating,” he said. “He says he doesn’t know politics, and he certainly bore that out by the way he behaved.”

So angered were Democrats that they decided to vote as a bloc to defeat the measure, and there were not nearly enough votes among the Republican senators for it to pass.

The mayor moved from meeting to meeting in the Capitol, his expression grim, and he declined to take questions from reporters. He did take a shot at his critics on WROW-AM radio in Albany on Monday morning, saying, “Anybody that says we didn’t have enough time to look at this is ridiculous.

And worst of all, Bloomberg needed the state’s co-operation so New York could get access to hundreds of millions of dollars in federal money, which is just about to be taken off the table.

Why on earth must New York City meet artificial deadlines just so it can exercise reasonable control over what happens within its own boundaries?

Flush this ban

Another case of sending a ban to do work that price signals ought to. From the Toronto Star, which quite enjoys banning things:

In a remarkable display of environmental consciousness, the leaders of 29 municipalities around the Great Lakes have adopted the worthwhile goal of cutting their water consumption by at least 15 per cent.

That action is an encouraging sign that many cities are now committed to the principles of “reduce, reuse and recycle.” When it comes to water consumption, the key is to reduce the amount being drained from our lakes. The province could play an increased role by banning the sale of wasteful traditional toilets in favour of low-flow models.

Toronto Mayor David Miller called for such a ban at a recent meeting of officials from Great Lakes cities. Low-flow, quite simply, is the way to go. Some toilet models use as little as six litres of water per flush compared to more than 20 litres for some wasteful older brands. That is a lot of liquid. Low-flow toilets do a good job of removing waste and save consumers money by lowering their water costs. And they help the environment because cities don’t have to purify as much water.

If it’s so difficult for cities to purify water, charge more. In Ontario at least, cities are required to charge the full cost of water treatment — the real problem is that cities, like any other mass consumer of Great Lakes water, don’t pay to take water out, so the price is artificially low. Rather than deal with that problem, cities are going to police toilet capacities.

The real price of a toll

tollboothMark Thoma at Economist’s View takes an interesting look at this New York Times story about how tolls demonstrably rise sharply after the introduction of quick-payment technology like transponders:

After an electronic system is put in place, tolls start rising sharply. Take two tollbooths that charge the same fee and are in a similar setting — both on highways leading into a big city, for instance. A decade after one of them gets electronic tolls, it will be about 30 percent more expensive on average than a similar tollbooth without it. There are no shortage of examples: the Golden Gate Bridge, the George Washington Bridge and the Tappan Zee Bridge, among them.

The E-ZPass economy is indisputably more convenient. It saves time and frustration. But the old frustrations that came with cash also brought a hidden benefit: they forced you to notice that you were spending money. With electronic money, it’s much easier to be carefree.

Marketers understand this dynamic well, which is a big reason they promote refillable gift cards and other forms of money that don’t feel like money. Part of what’s so intriguing about Ms. Finkelstein’s work is that it suggests that government officials may be coming to understand the dynamic, too.

The writer, David Leonhardt, looks at it from the consumer-affairs angle and wonders whether governments that install these fancy electronic payment systems, rather than forcing drivers to stop and throw coins in a bin or hand bills to a worker in a tollbooth, jack up the prices as soon as drivers stop actively thinking about paying them.

But what if tolls people scarcely notice don’t achieve the desired effect of reducing traffic on a premium road? That’s Thoma’s hypothesis:

One thing to note is that after the E-ZPass system is installed, waiting times fall, frustration falls, and the inconvenience of not having correct (or any) change also falls. Thus, the economic cost is lower even if the dollar cost of the toll stays the same, and this would cause the quantity of trips demanded to increase.

It certainly fits with current thinking about the effect of roads on transportation happens: the basic assumption is that as many people will drive as can stand to — so if you widen a road because it’s clogged with cars, it’s only a matter of very little time before the damn thing is full up again. The cost of gasoline is a factor and the convenience of alternatives such as mass transit is a factor, too, but they’re not very important compared to the appeal of a big wide smooth road with nobody but you on it.

So while the dollar cost of a toll is an issue, perhaps a greater consideration for drivers is the inconvenience of paying it. Which, interestingly, is how Leonhardt gets into the story in the first place. This is his story’s second paragraph:

I spent a good part of my childhood summers at the Jersey Shore, and the tollbooths on the parkway always seemed to be a cruel final obstacle between me and the beach. Every 15 minutes or so, our car would have to stop yet again to drop a measly quarter in a bucket.

Maybe a nickel would have been enough.

(Photo credit: “Toll Road,” Flickr/billjacobus1)

The public-housing death spiral

Keeping housing affordable is a problem anywhere, but it’s a particular problem in a city built on a foundation of sustainable urban design.

Portland, Ore., might be North America’s best example of sensible urban planning — compact development, lots of mass transit, etc. — and as such it’s a really desirable place to live. Desirable places to live are really expensive: in 2005, Forbes did some math and found Portland was the third-least affordable American city in which to live, better than only New York City and Seattle. So it’s a natural that the city government would spend a lot of time trying to help poorer people get by, particularly in their housing arrangements.

One of their methods is about to bite them, according to the Portland Tribune, which reports on the desperate attempt to keep rents down in 950 privately owned apartment units. They’ve been subsidized by the federal government, but the subsidy deals are all set to expire by 2013, when the mortgages do — the deal with the Housing and Urban Development Department back in the late ’70s and early ’80s was that the feds would subsidize the rents for that long.

The rent is geared to tenants’ income: they pay 30 per cent of what they make, and the government makes up whatever the difference is between that and the market rent. To get in, you have to be making less than half the median income for a family like yours in Portland.

The Tribune reports that the city is trying to scrape together the money from many sources to buy the buildings before the subsidy deals expire, and the process is a mess:

The funds needed to buy the 12 buildings and pay for any needed repairs probably will have to come from a variety of sources, including private financiers, the state of Oregon and the Portland Development Commission, the city’s urban renewal agency.

The city’s share of preserving the buildings will probably total in the millions of dollars. Although the buildings have not yet been formally appraised, the PDC estimates they are worth anywhere from $1.5 million to $25 million each, depending on the size and location.

“This will be a significant resource issue for the city for years to come. It’s going to cost us some money,” [city housing official Margaret] Bax said.

PDC funds may not be available for all of the remaining buildings, however. Six of them are in existing urban renewal areas administered by the PDC. The rest are not.

Although some members of the City Council have suggested that PDC funds should be available for projects outside renewal areas, the agency is not yet authorized to help finance such projects.

Now, this situation was predictable from the very beginning — everyone knew the subsidies would end, because they were time-limited from the get-go, and everyone knew the tenants living in the apartments when that happened would be screwed unless some other subsidy program kicked in. Now the city wants to make that happen, but doesn’t have the money, and is considering using money set aside for urban renewal projects for non-renewal purposes, just because it’s convenient.

Permanent subsidy programs are just a terrible idea. They always end up like this, one way or another.

There’s no easy, principled solution. The traditional approach is to allow ever-more construction out where land is cheap, but that’s off the table in Portland, where a firm urban-growth boundary constrains budget-eating, environment-killing sprawl.

(My libertarian argument for such boundaries is that it’s reasonable to draw a line beyond which many expensive city services simply will not be provided — you want to live way out there, you’re on your own — and a similar principle applies to justify most elements of ordinary zoning within the boundary.)

Instead, the only viable long-term solution is for Portland to loosen its zoning codes to permit even more compact construction, while spending more on transit to make it easier for people to live farther from expensive destinations and still get where they’re going efficiently. Seems to me that’s a much better investment than sinking tens, maybe hundreds of millions of dollars into buying social-housing buildings so you can take over the rent subsidies forever.

Update: More on the Portland housing situation here.

Watery morality

WaterBottlesGet past the incredibly careless writing in this Newsweek story, and it turns out that the mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom, has made an order that the city government won’t buy any bottled water or allow it to be sold from concessions it controls. Like the City Hall cafeteria, type of thing.(For carelessness, this TreeHugger headline is even worse: “San Francisco Mayor Bans the Bottle.” Arguably true, but definitely confusing, since it’s only the city administration itself that’s affected.)

The argument against using city money to buy bottled water — for speakers at public meetings, say, or visitors to the mayor’s office — is pretty straightforward. Buying the bottles and then disposing of them is more expensive than keeping and cleaning glasses that get filled with tapwater, which is of perfectly good quality. They’re a waste of taxpayer money, $500,000 a year according to Newsom.
Unless they aren’t, in a wholly intangible and unprovable way.

Bottled water, in places where the tapwater is drinkable, is purely a positional good — people buy it because they like the way the brand makes them feel, makes them look, and makes them feel about how they look. Clearly, even though it’s based on vapour, that feeling is worth something, or else people wouldn’t buy ordinary water that costs more than something useful, like gasoline. In the corporate world, bottled water is a mark of status.

So what’s it worth, if you’re the mayor of a major west-coast city, to serve a visiting dignitary a chilled bottle of branded water, versus a glass from the pitcher in the fridge? Might you be giving up more than you get, if somebody who could do good things for the city goes away thinking San Francisco is run by cheap losers?

In San Francisco’s case, the glass of water is a different kind of positional good, one that ostentatiously declares Newsom a green champion. His real argument isn’t just based on efficiency with tax money, but on moral principle: “These people are making huge amounts of money selling God’s natural resources. Sorry, we’re not going to be part of it,” Newsweek quotes the mayor saying.

Steady on, there. A solar power plant or a wind farm (or a coal mine, or a wheat farm) does substantially the same thing, right? As long as the water in the bottle didn’t come from someplace dry where someone who couldn’t pay the price went thirsty so this 16-ounce bottle could be filled, I don’t get the moral argument Newsom is making, and I’m not convinced he ought to be making it on behalf of the people of San Francisco.

(Photo credit: “water bottles,” Flickr/shrff14.)

How much public annoyance are we shooting for, here?

I’m all for trees, and trees on public rights-of-way at the edges of residential properties are complex mixed goods that I don’t find it too offensive if a government supplies them and then asks homeowners to do a little to maintain them. Nevertheless, what they’ve done to Toronto blogger “Politique Vert” seems wrong:

 We have a new tree the city gave us after our 100 year old Maple tree died of old age and too many root cuttings by the gas company. The new tree is an ugly honey locust with barely any branches, just a few on the very top. It looks like a scrawny mutant palm tree. The tag that was on it when it was planted said I’m supposed to give it 2 or 3 full pails of water a day in the summer for the next 2 years. You’re supposed to add water until some of it stands and doesn’t drain into the soil right away. Watering with a hose is easier but you never know how much water is actually going in. Hauling the pails is a drag but it’s faster than standing around with a hose in my hand at 6 am.

(Emphasis mine.) Honey locusts barely grow in southern Ontario. I grew up on a street in the Toronto suburbs that had several of them and they were tall, leggy things with sparse, pale leaves that always looked like they were dying even as they got taller and leggier year after year. Whereas maples, you practically can’t stop from growing.  Politique Vert, being a green sort, might keep the thing alive till it can grow on its own, but it seems to me something a little less demanding of the citizenry would be a better public investment.

Toronto doing what it can

Toronto City HallThis is what you get when governments with appropriate powers to fix genuine problems abdicate their responsibilities:

Tolls on Toronto-area highways, a ban on gas-powered lawnmowers and leaf blowers, a requirement for hybrid taxis and a massive retrofit of city buildings are all needed to slash greenhouse gas emissions in Canada’s biggest city, according to a Toronto city report.

The report, issued late yesterday, calls for efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 6 per cent within five years; 30 per cent by 2020; and 80 per cent by 2050. It also asks council to find ways to reduce smog-causing pollutants by one-fifth over the next five years.

“This will change everything about the way Torontonians live,” Councillor Gord Perks (Ward 14, Parkdale-High Park), vice-chair of the parks and environment committee and a longtime environmentalist, said of the report…

Franz Hartmann of the Toronto Environmental Alliance said the report contains “some very, very good recommendations and elements.” He called the proposed ban, by 2011, on the two-stroke engines fantastic.”

Councillor Paula Fletcher, who chairs the parks group, said the phase-out would be gradual. The city will start replacing its mowers next year and other city vehicles will become more environmentally friendly over time.

“We banned pesticides,” she said. “Why not ban things that are destroying things, that are bad for the environment in every neighborhood?”

All this stuff described in the Toronto Star story I’m quoting from is in a menu of options for greening up Toronto (PDF) offered by the city’s bureaucracy, partly but definitely not exclusively by cracking down on things that emit greenhouse gases. (The proposal for road tolls is a little bomb tossed at the provincial government, incidentally, whose acquiescence would be needed. There’s an election schedule for October and this is one no politician seeking votes in Toronto is going to want to touch with a 50-foot subway car.)

Many of the options are reasonable, particularly those to do with making the city’s own operations more efficient. And with others, the goals are quite desirable — leaf-blowers don’t do anything you can’t do with a rake, and modern push-mowers are easily as good as gas-powered ones for a typical lawn. Getting rid of them would be a good thing.

It’s the means that are awful: ban this little thing here, ban that little thing there, command by legislative fiat behaviour that rational people wouldn’t choose on their own (in particular, pity taxi drivers who might have to spend extra on hybrid cars whether hybrid engines achieve the desired effect or not). How will we enforce all this stuff? Don’t really know. Neighbours will tell on their neighbours and maybe somebody from bylaw will come by an hour later to see if the guy’s still mowing, probably.

Toronto’s resorting to this partly because its city council is dominated by — not unanimously controlled by, but dominated by — angry nannies, but also partly because the municipal government is using the tools available to it under Canadian law.

Toronto can’t apply a carbon tax or any variation thereof, to make the gasoline that powers those hated two-stroke engines more expensive and encourage individuals to find the best alternatives for themselves. But it can ban just about anything it feels like banning. So that’s what it’s doing.

(Photo credit: “Toronto City Hall 2,” Flickr/bennylin0724.)