Monday, March 26, 2018

One more post on the NIMBY/YIMBY debate

[I realize we've covered a lot of this territory before and I apologize for the redundancy, but I thought it might be nice to some everything up in one final post.]

Just to have a framework, let's start with some fundamental assumptions of the conventional urbanist wisdom. These are badly oversimplified, but they should be good enough for our purposes here.

The best and easiest way of alleviating the serious externalities associated with commuting (particularly environmental damage) is by having people move near enough to centers of employment that personal transportation (other than bikes) is not necessary.

The best and easiest way of lowering the often exorbitant rents near the center's is by building up.

The best and easiest way of getting high-capacity housing where we most need it is through market forces.

Putting aside arguments for telecommuting (pretty much by definition the fastest and most efficient way to get to work), here are some of my concerns with this model. Ironically, some of them are fairly closely the concerns that urbanists have about suburban sprawl.

Moving is difficult. Buildings are permanent (and they do have an environmental footprint). One of the hidden social costs of home ownership is that it ties the owner to a specific job market. If you are wedded to the idea of making commuting nondependent on automobiles, this high density approach faces many of the same challenges, particularly for households with more than one working member. These housing units need to be so close to a wide enough range of jobs that two people can find housing within easy commute of two different positions and will have a reasonably good chance of staying in the same location in the event of a job change. What's more, that employment center needs to remain relatively stable more or less indefinitely. Booms and busts could play hell with this model.

Actual researchers tend to take a more nuanced and sophisticated view, but in the press, the urban density debate generally treats the choice of where to live as a fairly simple function of two variables, proximity to employment and housing cost. We have reason to believe that the real relationship has more variables and more complexity with interactions between proximity to employment and the weighting of other factors. For example, we know that a nontrivial number of people in Los Angeles and the Bay Area will opt for rental options that are both more expensive and further from work.

Silicon Valley workers living in San Francisco have gotten a lot of coverage but trendy neighborhoods in LA may be a more useful case for study. "Trendy" is the key word here. We're generally talking about well-paid professionals who are willing to put up with an extra half hour or more of traffic for scenic views, dining and other amenities, and, perhaps most of all, the ability to impress other people with where you live and who your neighbors are. The resulting dynamic can be very much like suburban sprawl, but with the suburb tucked in the middle of a high density urban area.

Partially because of the reasons given above, market forces have a very mixed record when it comes to picking the most efficient spot for development. I'll limit my comments to Los Angeles because I know the town, but I believe they could be generalized to a large number of other areas.

A great deal has been written about the NIMBY push against development in Santa Monica. Utopian urbanists like Dave Roberts have gone so far as to suggest that anyone who claims to be an environmentalist and opposes it must be a hypocrite.

The problem with this line of reasoning is that Santa Monica, particularly the extremely expensive section north of the 10 and west of Lincoln, is one of the worst possible places in the county of Los Angeles (and this is a big God damn County) for using high density development to alleviate the impact of commuting and to reduce cost of living.

Geographically, it's bounded on two sides by ocean and mountains thus greatly limiting the number of commuting destinations. The constant flow of tourists means that prices will tend to be high and traffic will never, ever be good. The trendiness of the town makes it likely to become an urban suburb and an appealing spot for second homes among the rich. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the public transportation actuation is extremely bad. Other than the buses, which have to deal with the aforementioned traffic, the only other option is a single, slow train with a not-that-convenient route. (Don't get me wrong, simply having a train to the ocean is a big step forward for LA, but not nearly big enough to alleviate the traffic woes of a much denser Santa Monica/Venice.)

If the goal really were to create a greener, less car dependent Los Angeles, Santa Monica developments wouldn't even be on our radar. Instead, we would be focusing on development around transportation hubs, particularly Union Station. There's plenty of room for growth with in a two-mile radius, but the best places for development are not in the trendy upscale neighborhoods, and developers know that trendy is where the money is.


  1. I was just in LA, and the traffic was really bad, worse than I ever remember. It was like being in Mexico City, to the extent that the place really seemed close to unlivable unless you're willing to stay close to home all the time (in which case, you're not getting lots of the benefits of being in the big city). I don't know if the traffic is just worse than it used to be, or if I visited in a bad week, or if I'm just misremembering how it used to be.

    One thing that frustrated me is that now there are some trains. Even if the trains don't go quite where you want to go, I wondered about mixed-mode, such as drive to the station and then take the train. But everyone told me that's hopeless, as it can be a big traffic jam just to get to the train, also the trains are slow and infrequent. So once you commit to getting in the car, you might as well fight the traffic and drive to your destination.

    But here's a thought, related to the themes of your blog. There are certain technologies which might be thought to be solutions to traffic congestion or at least ways of making it more tolerable---here I'm thinking of taxis you can arrange from your cell phone, and apps that allow you to avoid traffic jams and find the fastest route---are making things worse. The taxi thing is obvious: now there are thousands of these taxis circulating, flooding the roads. But the route-finding apps could also be making things worse by taking all the slack out of the system. Short-term, it's better for people to avoid jams and take the emptier freeways; but, medium- and long-term, these technologies will just push LA traffic to an equilibrium in which large sections of the city are completely jammed.

    I'm no LA expert, so take this as the impressions of an outsider.

    1. Andrew,

      Though I base this only on anecdotal evidence (albeit extensive anecdotal evidence) both the traffic and the housing in LA have gotten far far worse over the past few years. I moved here about 15 years ago and for the first decade or so was able to largely avoid high rents and traffic jams. It required a little planning and flexibility, but I was able to live in cool neighborhoods and keep my commutes mostly under 20 minutes. Now both the housing market and the roads are saturated and I am skeptical about our ability to build our way out of either problem.

      Much of the trouble comes from the nature of the town. Geographically huge, much of it rugged terrain with a tremendous pool of people who would love to move here. That said, a smarter, more extensive, and better maintained public transportation system could undoubtedly help a lot. The problem with the trains is less a question of where they go, and more a question of where they go directly. To a lesser extent, this applies to the bus system as well. These slow, circuitous routes mean that a car trip is almost always faster, often by a factor of four or five.

      As for mixed mode systems they would seem to be such an obvious fit for LA (at least in certain areas) that I have to wonder if the objections to them aren't driven in part by certain biases about cars and urban living. Undoubtedly, there would be challenges, but they would seem to be solvable, particularly compared to the alternatives.

  2. I definitely agree that building up around Union Station makes more sense than trying to build up both residential and more business in Santa Monica. You mention the obvious geographical constraints of northern Santa Monica and I can't think of any good examples in that neighborhood where someone wealthy enough would choose not to drive.

    When I lived nearby, in Brentwood near Montana and San Vicente, I happened to walk to work. But that was only because I got a cheap apartment near my office after I got the job. I eventually switched jobs and worked in Culver City and started driving. Looking back on it, I should have ridden a bike and would do so if I was in that situation again today.

    I left Los Angeles for San Francisco in 1999 and a lot has changed since then, such as the train. However, I assume that much of the train traffic comes from people that were riding the bus before. Wealthy people often forget how packed the Big Blue Bus and MTA are.

    One factor about city living that is often overlooked is that, in some circumstances, it can lead to more driving than suburban living. This is especially true with families with young kids and
    I have known many working parents that spend hours each day driving around San Francisco to get kids to and from school, which could be anywhere in the city. When I had three kids, I moved out of San Francisco to Berkeley's only suburb, Albany, and rarely drive the two cars we own.

    Because I moved from Los Angeles before the train went in, I didn't get to try Andrew's mixed-mode there but I will put in an endorsement for it in the Bay Area. I usually commute to downtown by bike and BART and when I need to go to other places, such as Dublin for jury duty or to Stanford, I always prefer the train plus bike ride. That is unless I'm traveling with my kids.

    1. The problem of urban driving is greatly exacerbated when you have a multi-centered city like LA. It's actually one of the things I like very much about LA, the fact that, whatever side of town you find yourself on, there is someplace interesting nearby. If you take a "love the one you're with" attitude, this can minimize the driving, but the opposite approach can have the opposite effect. You can find lots of people who live on the west side, work in Long Beach, and send their kids to a pricey prep school in Pasadena. Usually, they're the ones driving the big luxury SUVs.

    2. Mark:

      Perhaps the problem was worse for me because I was doing tourist things. Go to the neighborhood place is fine, but not if I want to go to the tar pits, visit my friend in Santa Monica, and go to a Guatemalan restaurant.

    3. It's less a question of sticking to "neighborhood" places and more of thinking in terms of adjacent zones and traffic flows. LA is spread out not just in terms of population, but also in terms of culture, cuisine, and entertainment. Not to mention some spectacular natural beauty.

      When you do go to a non-adjacent area, you make a list of interesting places that are either on your way or near to your destination. For example, if I were meeting friends in Venice in the evening, I might grab lunch at my favorite Persian place in Westwood, then do some writing on the bluffs overlooking the ocean in Santa Monica then head down the street to Venice.

      That strategy served me well for a number of years, but recently traffic has gotten so bad that no one mount of careful planning can safely avoid it