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What if we really were doing “social engineering”?

An article on Planetizen a few months back highlights an issue often missed in the debates over roads versus public transport or sprawl versus intensification – the fact that for the last century most government spending and policy has supported car use and lower density development. Yet this is seemingly often ignored by those moaning about how planners are supposedly  ‘forcing’ people into dense living environments while transport planners are supposedly ‘forcing’ people onto public transport.

Michael Lewyn, the post’s author, asks an interesting hypothetical question to set up his argument that really public investment and policy (essentially public sector intervention) has for an incredibly long time been tilted towards urban form and transport outcomes epitomised by car dependent urban sprawl:

After reading yet more blather about the “war on cars” or “density-pushing planners” I recently had a thought: what if government really did favor transit and compact development as aggressively as they had favored sprawl in the 20th century?  How different would planning and transportation rules be?…

For example, in the first half of the 20th century, government at all levels spent public money on roads for automobiles, while giving limited or no support to streetcars (which at first were private).  As transit providers began to lose money, government took them over, and the federal government started to support public transit in the 1960s.  Today, the federal government spends about four times as much on highways as on public transit.   As a result of these policies, many cities have weak public transit systems, while many people and jobs have moved to suburbs served by highways.

This cartoon from Andy Singer springs to mind (he has a heap of other great cartoons on many of the issues we talk about on the blog)

Public Investment - Wasteful Subsidy

Some examples are then outlined to give us a bit of an idea about how extremely pro public transport and urban intensification policies would need to go in order to truly counter-balance what has existed for around a century in the USA (and in New Zealand). For transport funding:

So if government completely reversed course in the 21st century, it would reverse funding ratios: that is, spend half a century spending several times as much on public transit as on highways, and then spent another half century completely defunding highways (much as it ignored transit in the early and mid-20th century). 

For how mortgages for greenfield development were subsidised:

In the 1950s, government heavily subsidized suburbia, through Federal Housing Administration (FHA) lending criteria that favored suburbs.  For example, FHA refused to subsidize mortgages in racially diverse urban neighborhoods, and favored new single-family homes (which tended to be in suburbs) over renovating existing homes- a policy that encouraged middle-class homeowners to move to suburbs.  So to completely reverse course, the FHA would have to spend a couple of decades refusing to insure mortgages in any neighborhood built after the New Deal, while subsidizing mortgages in older neighborhoods. 

For density controls:

Since the 1920s, most American zoning codes have mandated that huge swaths of land be limited to low-density residential use, ensuring that many Americans do not live within walking distance of public transit.  To truly reverse this policy, government would have to spend the 21st century mandating that new development be at densities sufficient to support transit, and would require a mix of residential and commercial uses to the extent possible.

And how about parking?

Since the 1950s, most zoning codes have also required that commercial landowners and multifamily dwellings provide visitors with parking lots and garages, thus effectively subsidizing driving by making parking more abundant.  And because zoning codes also required buildings to be set back from the street, these parking lots were usually in front of buildings, thus ensuring that pedestrians must waste time walking through ugly parking lots in order to reach their destinations.  To reverse this policy over the next 60 years, government would have to establish maximum parking requirements (as a few cities have in fact done) and require buildings to be in front of sidewalks so pedestrians could reach them more easily.

Of course this is just a series of hypothetical questions, which highlight that many of the changes to land-use and transport planning that we promote on this blog: things like removing parking minimums, removing/lessening controls that limit development density and promoting a better balance between public transport and road spending are really pretty mild and attempt to shift planning policy and transport spending back much more towards a ‘neutral’ situation. If we really were promoting bias towards intensification instead of sprawl, public transport instead of road spending, that was to the same extent (but opposite direction of course) as what has happened in the past century – we’d have to be WAY more extreme.

55 comments to What if we really were doing “social engineering”?

  • Phil,,

    Why on earth would anyone not see the car as a benefit to society and if we accept (and you should) that cars are a good thing, then we need to have roads.
    Cars are freedom of movement PT is an A to B option that gives no flexibility – great if you are on the route at point A or B but bloody useless if you want to go to points C-Z

    • Cars are very useful for many things, no one denies that, but the problem is they don’t scale well.

      On top of that most of the trips that people use cars for are A to B trips from home to work and back.

    • Tim A

      Unless, of course, the public transport option constitutes a network (which roads are otherwise required to do) and/or points C-Z are within close proximity of where that network goes.
      It’s worth mentioning, also, that I like cars (a lot), I enjoy driving (both the journey itself and the ability to arrive at a destination of my choice), and that I think this attitude is common amoung readers/authors here.
      What we don’t like is incredible inefficiency, economic wastefulness, environmental destruction and poor human health. When these problems arise, it becomes more difficult to argue that “cars are a good thing”. Most things are good only in moderation.

    • Nathan

      I believe Phil you are rebutting an argument about an extreme no cars position. This post is about balance and moving away from an extreme cars only position.

    • Loraxus

      Hi Phil. Point is over here. You missed it – by responding to a post that didn’t exist.

    • Brendan

      Sounds like a great argument for the skypath:

      Why on earth would anyone not see the bicycle as a benefit to society and if we accept (and you should) that bicycle are a good thing, then we need to have separated cycleways.
      Bicycles are freedom of movement, PT is an A to B option that gives no flexibility – great if you are on the route at point A or B but bloody useless if you want to go to points C-Z, especially if C is on one side of the harbour, and Z is on the other side :)

  • Fred

    Nice post. Modernists were unashamed social engineers when pushing for sprawl and an exclusive focus on private vehicles. Hilarious that efforts to be more neutral & balanced gets called social engineering.

  • That really is the laughable irony of it all, aiming to remove regulation, laws and compulsion that control how people live, how the use their land and how they get around is somehow “social engineering”.

  • john smith

    With all respect to the good intentions of the writer, I think this type of thought experiment is not helpful as it simply entrenches the idea that this debate is about polar opposites, and mimics the one-eyed argument style of the Wendell Cox types.

    Also, even within the terms of the thought experiment, the idea that ‘balance’ would mean ‘spending as much on transit in the next 50 years as we have spent on roads in the last 50 years’ is silly. Infrastructure investment should respond to need. In deciding what is ‘needed’ there is often a tension between ‘cope with today’s demands’ and ‘plan for a different future’. The overwhelming feature of transport change in the 20th century was the growth of car use. Authorities responded to the need they saw at the time. We now see the bad effects of going too far in that direction, and want to set a different trend. But what proportions of investment would constitute the right ‘balance’ to achieve that is debatable, and there is no special logic in the formula quoted above.

    • Phil,,

      Nicely put Mr Smith

    • conan

      “But what proportions of investment would constitute the right ‘balance’ to achieve that is debatable”

      Is is debatable. We (as in wider society) don’t seem to be having that debate though. We build roads. We don’t debate whether they make sense. We plan to spend huge sums on roads in the future, again without debate (the debate has been framed as how to fund, not what to fund).

    • You seem to have missed a crucial point of the post which was that car-dependent sprawl, parking and motorways were not created in a vaccuum in response to “need”, but were actively directed by planners and regulations that disincentivised higher density, walkable communities, mixed use, etc.

    • Stu Donovan

      the other relevant point is one of path dependence: The inefficient development patterns these ill-informed policies have created are unlikely to just gradually unwind themselves if we now suddenly move to more “neutral” policy settings. Urban development patterns are relatively durable, hence shifting towards a neutral urban form (one characterised by higher density, more walkable and PT friendly inner city areas) may require some interventionist policies. In saying that – we could get a long way simply by reversing current policies that favour/subsidise cars, without needing to favour/subsidise other modes much at all (perhaps just CAPEX).

    • Sacha

      “Authorities responded to the need they saw at the time.”

      Yes Aucklanders were loudly demanding that the tram tracks be ripped up so those 100 million annual journeys had to use other methods. Gagging for it, I tells ya. #pffft

      • Yes, the trams 50% modal share in the 1950s certainly indicates that people were itching to drive their cars.

        Remember Aucklanders love their cars and hate PT, that is why Britomart and the Northern Busway have failed so miserably. Haven’t they?

        • SlowJoe

          To be fair, not that many Aucklanders would have owned cars in the 1950s. I might be wrong.

          Of course, transport planning over the last fifty years has necessitated car ownership, willing or not (and oftentimes multiple car ownership)! Aucklanders were virtually forced off the trams and into cars. The tram system was run down after the War, yes, BUT it’s not like it was replaced by another public transport network worthy of the name, was it?

          • We had pretty high vehicle ownership by world standards – we were a wealthy country. People were still using the trams though it was slowly decling

            Yes, the trams were rundown, just as they were in Melbourne and Toronto but the Melbourne and Toronto ones were retained. And how glad Melbourne and Tornonto are that they were.

            Trams were replaced by buses that sat in the ever growing traffic and so started the vicious cycle. The same as happened in Los Angeles, another very strong PT city before the 1960s.

          • Nick R

            Actually the Melbourne trams weren’t rundown. They electrified their cable trams late and most of the fleet was brand new at the start of the Second World War. That’s probably why the network still exists today.

          • Nick R – Yes very true: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trams_in_Melbourne#Network_under_MMTB

            “Also, the infrastructure and vehicles were relatively new, having only replaced Cable Tram equipment in the 1920s–1940s. This destroyed the argument used by many other cities, which was that renewal of the tram system would cost more than replacing it with buses.”

            It is certainly a decision it never regretted:

            “By the mid-1970s, as other cities became increasingly choked in traffic and air pollution, Melbourne was convinced that its decision to retain its trams was the correct one, even though patronage had been declining since the 1950s in the face of increasing use of cars and the shift to the outer suburbs, beyond the tram network’s limits.”

        • SlowJoe

          Exactly – because we had no dedicated busways, buses got stuck in traffic with everyone else. Not a very attractive mode of transportation. Not to mention the fact that few bus services ever ended up using the motorways, which was the public transport “solution” proposed in the 1955 Master Transportation Plan, if I recall.

  • mfwic

    I dont really get the point you are trying to make. Politicians ladle out the money to make themselves popular. Caesar had bread thrown to the mob, US elected officials threw money at roads, neither cared what the money was spent on only that people wanted it and so would keep them in power. The USA has a racist history. There were lines on city maps where banks didn’t lend, not because it was inner city or suburbs but because of the skin colour of people who mostly lived there. Mortgage insurance was to protect banks against collapse and wasn’t to compel people to live in a particular place. The article you quote seems to be another load of biased claptrap. Why do you bother when so much of what you put up on this blog is so reasonable and aimed at getting people to question their views? This just makes both sides of the argument feel smug and superior to then other.

    • TimR

      Yes, I think the blog is about good positive debate. Yes, racism in America did apparently drive many policies. Lending policies: more to it than you suggest I think.

      Cut to the chase: your comment on politicians is absolutely relevant. And the point of a post like this is that those authority figures need some pretty blunt messaging in the mix for them to see that an increasing proportion of their voters want the exact opposite of perpetuating old-skool roads based policies.

  • barb insull

    I found this blog a useful projection exercise that highlights today’s transport issues and the degree of investment needed to help solve Auckland’s congestion problems, and speed up a mode shift for those who want to use cars less often. I don’t read any of your blogs as black and white statements but an exploration of what changes might make Auckland a better city to live in. Thanks Matt

  • mfwic

    Did anyone notice this yesterday? http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/9796451/Browns-bold-tax-plan since we are on the subject of social engineering

    • Brendon Harre

      Yes I sent the following to some friends.

      Can I ask you some questions about land taxes and economic rent?

      Len Brown wants a wider a tax base as there is a limit to how much rates he can demand from elderly areas to pay for the needed infrastructure that benefits all. http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/9796451/Browns-bold-tax-plan

      We know Auckland and other parts of NZ need more transport infrastructure as indicated by the TomTom results.

      So Len Brown is making a point I have made before (Note I don’t support Len and think he has the morals of an alley cat).

      I know you are a supporter of land taxes and there is strong theoretical support from the likes of Henry George.

      Now as I understand it land taxes are similar to rates but only tax the land component not the improvements -buildings, etc are taxed.

      But do land taxes have the same flaw as rates, being they generate only a small tax base because they quickly reach the point where the economically inactive (the elderly being the biggest group) can no longer pay.

      You could argue that this is the whole point of land taxes being it is a system whereby land and land tax is allocated to those willing to pay the most. So land is allocation based on economic efficiency.

      But this is never going to work politically. It means that when people retire they should move from there home because from an economic perspective they are not the most efficient user of their home. Good luck to the politician who tries that argument in the face of grandma’s being driven from their homes.

      So my question is how to square the circle of local government taxes.

      I like MUDs because they are like a special higher rates for new sub-divisions to pay for their community infrastructure. This means younger and economically active people can pay higher rates for better infrastructure. MUDs have a lot of other benefits too like increased competition in the provision of community infrastructure. Really MUDs are little different to Body Corporates for sub-divisions. I think they should be allowed underneath a reformed regional structure discussed below.

      But that doesn’t work for city or region wide infrastructure like motorway system, Public transport etc. and these are the areas we are lacking. I think historically the US has funded these federally through the Highways Acts and this is a lot more generous than our NZTA. You can see from the graphs in my report that the US has 6 times more motorways per person than we do. http://www.interest.co.nz/opinion/65197/brendon-harre-thinks-we-have-problem-poor-quality-and-inadequate-quantity-local-infras

      So to me I think Len is right we should have a regional income tax and it should go to fund transport. The Act that allows it should have Alain Bertaud’s objectives explicitly stated. Being the purpose is to provide mobility and housing affordability. This might not be the theoretical best outcome but I believe it is the best achievable outcome.

  • Phil,,

    I’d be very happy to swap rates for council tax. Why should I as a rate payer be paying for services used by many people who are renting and not paying tax.

    • James

      Which would make sense if those who rent weren’t paying rates indirectly.

      • Phil,,

        Stop kidding yourself – landlords do not add rates to the rent, they charge what ever is the market rate for renting and pay the rates as an unrelated expense. People who don’t pay rates get a free ride and it isn’t very fair on those that are paying.

        • Bryce P

          Although if rental income doesn’t cover rates then pretty soon the business is broke.

        • Stu Donovan

          Fairness is not the only consideration when levying taxes. Transactions costs are also important.

          The simple fact is that charging property owners has lower transaction costs than charging tenants. Charging tenants would require the sorts of bureaucratic registration processes that Europe specialises in. You’d spend half the money collecting the revenue, which in turn means the tax would need to be twice as high.

          That ultimately would be bad for landlords as they’d find Auckland increasingly unfavoured compared to, say, Sydney. OECD research also shows that property taxes are fairly efficient/non-distortionary compared to other forms of taxes.

        • Frank McRae

          Stop kidding yourself – petrol station owners do not add fuel excise to the pump price, they charge what ever is the market rate for petrol and pay the fuel excise as an unrelated expense. People who don’t own petrol stations get a free ride and it isn’t very fair on those that are paying.

          • conan

            No one pays income tax either, employers just pay the lowest amount they can per employee. All those freeloaders out there. Terrible.

        • Sacha

          “they charge what ever is the market rate for renting ”

          Which is distorted by houses being treated as ‘investments’ rather than homes. Don’t be a dunce. Weren’t you banned?

    • Frank McRae

      Why should us petrol station owners be the only ones paying fuel excise when everyone who buys petrol uses highways.

    • mfwic

      An income tax would be a worry. I like rates as they are basically a tax on land. You can double or halve a land tax and the supply of land stays constant. If you change the tax on most other goods the supply changes which alters both price and demand. That makes a land tax one of the most efficient as it doesn’t create a net loss somewhere. Taxing incomes has got to be one of the worst ideas humankind came up with. We want people to earn and yet we add an incremental penalty.

    • mfwic

      But Phil the big problem with Council tax is why pay it? I have lived under the hated Poll Tax regime and the Council tax regime and I won’t confirm or deny avoiding it. But when I first got to London the younger people I worked with all told me to never sign a lease for more than 6 months as the Council would find out I lived there in time to send a poll tax claim. So people became transient. Council tax was harder to dodge as landlords tried to dob you in so they didnt get stuck with the bill. But again all you had to do was move often. By the time the summons arrived you were long gone with no forwarding address. The cost to Council of collecting must have been huge and they must have put up the tax on those who stuck around long enough to pay. Better to tax land as it isn’t going anywhere and the Council can encumber the title.

  • USA: declining public investment, increasing traffic congestion. Do we really want to be stuck in traffic for 64 hours per year, like LAX commuters?

  • Phil Donovan

    Good questions Mat, but keep going deeper! Fundamentally what went wrong with the system? How did ‘planning’ get it so, so wrong?

  • Bryan

    Setting aside the “what’s good for GM is good for America” argument, suburbia was a “social engeneering” response to the social problems blighting American cities in the early 20th century – an answer to the epidemics that spread quickly in the cities, and the crime and poverty that also existed there.

  • harminder

    Wasn’t sure where this should go, but this seemed like an OK place: https://twitter.com/RegaJha/status/440941647954993153/photo/1

  • James

    Phil – you are the last person who should be accusing others of delusion..

    • James

      That was a reply to Phil at 1.17 pm..

    • Phil

      How are the sandals and hemp trousers today James? This entire blog is full of delusional comments. People that think we have reached peak oil or peak car – people that think that Aucklanders want to give up their cars for cycling or catching the bus – people that think Labour are going to win the next election… I mean – there are a lot of calls going on here that are so wrong its like a flat earth convention.

      • Sailor Boy

        Well Phil, there are several people on this blog who have given up a car for cycling and PT, so we are definitely right on your first point.

  • The question is why are we building new motorways to support the use of full size vehicles if many are single occupant?
    I spotted the new electric trains on the southern line yesterday.

  • john smith

    General comment on the replies to me above:

    Stu on path dependence – I think it’s reasonable to say that in the major period of growing car ownership – say up to the 1970s – that was a cause, and the political/planning/infrastructure responses were an effect. After the cycle of autodependence became selfperpepuating, things are different, as discussed at http://transportblog.co.nz/2014/01/10/what-is-auto-dependency/
    How much positive discrimination is needed to break the path dependence is a fair debate.

    Sacha & Goosoid – I was thinking of low density car-owning rich nation cities generally, not Auckland in particular.

    On the thought experiment: My concern is that this sort of ‘rhetorical exaggeration’ piece feeds the anxiety of the folks who think that *permitting* densification means forcing people to live in apartments, making look like Hong Kong etc. They’ll picture the counterfactuals negatively and miss the irony.

    Remember, communication is not about what you say, it’s about what the other person hears. I think we should promote the urbanist program with simple positive messages, like:
    – better urban amenity
    – fewer restrictive planning regulations
    – more choice (better public transport means more people can choose not to sit in traffic; + housing choice)

    • John I think the rising car use/falling PT use is a bit of a chicken and egg debate. The number show that car ownership levels in NZ (no Auckland specific figures available) in the late 40’s when we started pulling out the trams were at similar levels to what they were pre WW2. I think car ownership would undoubtedly have continued to rise but probably not at the same speed that it did if we hadn’t pulled out the trams. I think the auto-dependance cycle was in full effect by the end of the 50’s

    • Sacha

      John, freedom from regulation appeals to a subset of people. You’ll note recent poll results for the Act party.

    • “I was thinking of low density car-owning rich nation cities generally, not Auckland in particular”

      I dont really know what that was specifically in reply to, but the story of the trams in Auckland was replicated in almost every Anglophone city – trams were removed and replaced by buses, PT use plummetted as the buses were stuck in the traffic with cars, rinse and repeat until city is immobile with congestion. LA is the classic example.

      All while spending huge amounts of money building motorways through the centre of the city and destroying the urban places.

      There are only a handful of Anglophone cities that avoided this fate of inner city motorways (e.g. Vancouver; though it did lose its trams).

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