Photo by Oran

Last month, Josh Barro at the conservative-leaning Washington Examiner wrote a critique of transit advocates’ lamentations that road subsidies are often overlooked, arguing that land use, not auto investment, should be the target of disdain.  Barro’s underlying point is absolutely correct, even if his slant isn’t very favorable to our cause.  The second sentence in this quote, in particular, is a point that we’ve beat to death on this blog.

That’s because the real culprit keeping Americans away from mass transit and inside cars isn’t subsidies; it’s planning and zoning. Cities impose barriers to density that limit the number of housing units and offices that can be located near buses and trains, which reduces mass-transit usage.

I won’t even deny Barro’s argument that if you eliminated all transportation subsidies tomorrow, cars would probably win out.  However, I think this is all moot if you don’t consider the context of transportation and land use subsidies, which have historically favored automobiles by a large margin.  There was a significant amount of post-war growth attributable to government mandates– highways, sprawl, single-use zoning, to name a few.

The important thing to remember is that because of this massive infusion of subsidies, we built our cities around the car, sprouting land uses that effectively put transit at a cruel disadvantage.  This inequity persists today– clear evidence that the pace of land use changes are monumentally slower than the speed at which we implement transportation investments.  As a result, it would be difficult for transit to catch up, even if we matched the real value of historical subsidies for automobiles.

I think there’s something to be said about demand here.  Tract developers and highway advocates say people want single-family low-density living environments, as if there’s pure market demand for it.  However, much of this demand is latent, having no basis for existence had the government not meddled in suburbanization and land use affairs as a matter of public policy.

Ultimately, it’s difficult to find anything that hasn’t been subsidized in one way or another.  But for transit to be a winning battle, I think our focus should be less about how much money taxpayers fork over, and more about the benefits–enhanced mobility, transportation choice, economic development, etc.– the things that people really care about.

20 Replies to “Rethinking the ‘Subsidy’ Debate”

  1. So, is there any minimum of square footage per unit or occupant you would allow to be set by zoning? If so, what do you think is reasonable?

    1. Square footage *of internal floor space* per occupant is an entirely different matter from square footage of *ground space*.

      The zoning rules which this blog usually complains about are the ones prohibiting “building up” or requiring lawns rather than living space. In practice it is impossible to actually regulate how many people live in a given room, but this blog’s authors do not seem to object to “minimum internal floorspace per person” requirements.

      1. Other jurisdictions have regulated against “packing houses” and against “unrelated” persons cohabitating. Kind of bizarre from one perspective. But I could see a reasonable regulation of a minimum amount of floor space per occupant. I don’t want to ever see happen here what is common place in other large cities in the world where whole families occupy extremely small, cramped spaces. That is simply a dehumanizing defect of market capitalism left unchecked.

      2. Regulations against “unrelated” persons cohabiting are very intrusive and not the sort of social engineering I like to see.

        However, regulations against “packing houses” — well, I’m not sure if they would actually *work*, but I’m totally in agreement with you that we WANT them to work. I like the idea of a “floorspace per occupant” requirement, if it can be made effective.

  2. There’s no reason to concede anything to libertarian cranks. So what if transit needs subsidy and car hegemony doesn’t? Cars are bad for children, old people, people who breathe, the planet, etc. These are real things. Right-wing economic ideology is just an abstraction. There’s no reason to play out this argument on enemy territory. Forget about winning it according to their rules.

    1. Get your terminology straight. Paying for roads with general tax money is hardly “libertarian.” Many libertarians would love to see all roads privatized, with the owners of the roads responsible for the cost of their upkeep. These costs, of course, would be passed on to the toll-paying users of the roads. Other libertarians recognize that such a system would likely be quite chaotic, with the potential for a tollbooth on every other street corner, so they will grudgingly admit the government is the best entity to manage roads as long as the costs are borne by the road users.

      In few cases would a libertarian argue that it is proper for the government to use general income, sales, or property taxes to pay for roads. Short of privatizing the entire road system, high gas taxes and tolls are just about the most libertarian way there is to pay for roads.

      Of course, a libertarian would also argue for transit systems to be financially self-sufficient. This would likely result in much higher fares on transit, and complete elimination of service in areas where the service cannot be operated at a profit.

      1. Historically, from the examples we have, it is clear that transit systems will be financially self-sufficient if all roads are tolled and self-sufficient.

        Having all roads tolled and self-sufficient is completely and utterly impractical, though — the scheme for private tolled roads was already falling apart in the *18th century* in the UK, with road nationalization and subsidy from general taxes being the main response.

        Even more importantly, transportation is a public good — many of the benefits accrue to people who aren’t directly using it, and that appears to be unavoidable. The private sector consistently underprovides transporation. So the institution of public subsidies from general taxation for roads, railroads, etc. seems to consistently link to general economic improvement, by providing the transportation which everyone wanted but which no private entity could justify providing.

  3. We need to be careful about carrying on political discussions in the language of accounting. One citizen’s “subsidy” is another’s “investment”.

    With utilities like public transit, for matters like both taxation and fare collection, good example is what’s politely called “public comfort”. There’s a place for coin-operated toilets. Stockholm Central Station, a huge rail and bus complex, features rest-rooms with admission desks like an elegant club.

    If you pay for a shower as well as toilet use, you’re handed a cloth towel.

    But measures like using fareboxes to collect Tunnel fares might be better compared to putting a coin mechanism on everybody’s residential toilet. Inconvenience will eat your budget.

    In public matters, accounting is about what things cost, and politics is about what they’re worth. A true balance sheet needs more than two columns, with figures in more colors than black and red.

    Mark Dublin

  4. “But for transit to be a winning battle, I think our focus should be less about how much money taxpayers fork over, and more about the benefits–enhanced mobility, transportation choice, economic development, etc.– the things that people really care about.”

    Can’t be about one without the other. The latter are the things we want to promote, the former (money) is part of the formula that we measure effectiveness and value.

  5. I find the density argument hard to fathom.

    Here I am on Kent East Hill, with a car and two guaranteed parking spaces in my apartment complex, abd yet I am in walking distance of now fewer than 3 local major bus lines and a paratransit service. In addition there are 4 express buses downtown and all the buses stop at the Sounder station in Kent. From there I can also get a bus to Seatac and an express to Bellevue.

    I cannot see how residential density helps transit at fact having good transit allows us to have sparse liveable neighborhoods.

    And think of the destinations. Once I’m on a transit network that has sufficient speed (and comfort) does it really matter if I go 10 stops or twelve, 35 minutes or forty?

    A bus going 30 mph will cover one quarter of a mile in 30 seconds. That means I can have a building or complex 403 meters long and it really doesn’t matter if I get off at the beginning or the end!!

    Good transit affords us the ability to do without costly, unhealthy and obsolete density.

    1. You live in greater density than you advocate. That’s the difference. You’re in Kent’s second center (second-highest density node), analagous to the U-District in Seattle or Crossroads in Bellevue. Such places have a concentration of shopping, bus routes, and apartments, compared to most of the city. That’s what urbanists are advocating: a chain of walkable “neighborhood center” nodes linked together. They just want to make it more walkable with infill development on underused parcels. Any one- or two-story big box building with a sea of parking around it, or a mid-century strip mall, is an underused parcel. It’s friendly to automobiles but hostile to pedestrians. Also, the number of transit riders per bus stop increases as the density increases; that’s just intrinsic.

      The problem is when you advocate extending this level of service to single-family areas or rural areas. Again, you say these environments are ideal so why aren’t you living there? Putting a bus stop in a single-family area means ten people can walk to the bus, while a thousand people around them have no nearby bus. It’s just not efficient to provide superior service in that kind of layout, or to “waste” a station area with a single-family block immediately off the station’s street.

      As for more suburban highways, who’s going to pay for them, and where in King County would you put them? The most useful highways already exist, and people don’t want their houses knocked down for a new highway or widening.

      1. Did someone flip a light switch over at STB? After 3 years of arguing some is admitting I live in density!!

        The think the idea is density and more density. I think I would rather be in the densest of the least dense. I’m like the guy who lives above the barber shop in an Old West town on a railroad line but surrounded by prairie.

        One thing about too much density at TOD nodes is that they could contribute to their own demise.

        By having lots of open space and parking near the transit hubs, people can utilize them and will shop in these relatively higher density areas.

        Do things like overdo TOD and restrict parking by underbuilding spaces and high rates, and you’ll end up killing it off as people will figure ways to just drive to Seattle or avoid the denser shopping areas in favor of malls with free parking.

        If you want to answer questions about how density fails, go to 5th avenue in Belltown at 5pm on a weekday. Go up to one of the hundreds of cars in traffic and ask “Why are you driving home when your surrounded by urban condos”?

      2. I’m being generous about density. Parts of 104th Ave SE can be considered “almost medium density” if you squint hard enough. They’re more dense than the single-family neighborhoods west and east of them. We have to start somewhere. 104th is dense enough for three overlapping Metro routes, which makes it easier to get from there to Kent Station and the world without a car, than it is from the surrounding neighborhoods. You can also walk from there to Fred Meyer and supermarkets and other businesses.

        It’s like when I moved from eastern Bellevue to downtown Bellevue in high school; it opened up a lot more possibilities to walk to things. Downtown Bellevue was all one-story and two-story in the early 80s, so it was kind of like East Hill but rectangular rather than linear.

        ““Why are you driving home when your surrounded by urban condos”?”

        That’s not a failure of density, that’s the result of drivers who are either (1) small-minded, (2) can’t afford to move, (3) have a spouse working in the opposite direction from their house. The success of density is shown by the fact that in-city condos and apartments cost the same as spacier houses further out. That shows that the intangible benefits of living near downtown are valuable to people. Therefore, we should expand the areas of high- or medium-density so that there will be opportunities to live in it at a lower price.

      3. I am still not getting the logic..building more of something, which according to you, is already a great bargain but which because of reasons (1), (2), (3) cannot keep people from driving 30 miles from a $90,000 a year planning job with the city to a 5 bedroom in Snohomish will not change the problem at all.

        This is like seeing a chocolate cake on the table which no one is eating, and saying “well if I put another chocolate cake there, then people will want some”.

      4. There will always be people who want different things. What about the person who work in Kent or Redmond but live in a Seattle apartment/condo because they insist on a certain amount of density/walkability? What about about another person who’d like to live in Seattle and find a job closer in but can’t afford to so he lives miserably in Kent or Redmond?

        If there were no demand for in-city dense housing, it would be empty. If there were equal demand for denser housing and single-family housing, the price per square foot would be the same. But there’s more demand for in-city housing, that’s why the price is higher per square foot.

        The empty $700K and $1 million condos do not change the picture because they’re unrealistically priced; no sane buyer would pay that. But these developers would rather wait a year or two or four for a buyer than lower the price.

      5. There’s way more demand for suburban housing than inner city. The reason it costs more per square foot is because by definition the supply is limited unless you build a new urban center. It’s like water front. There’s not really that large of a percentage of the population who’s goal is to live on a lake or the Sound but prices are through the roof because it’s all taken.

      6. If you look at prices as an indicator of supply and demand, you discover that people want housing which is
        (1) in the middle of downtown next to all the stores and restaurants
        (2) next to a gigantic park or wildnerness, and also the beach,
        (3) quiet,
        (4) with lots and lots of private floorspace
        (5) and your own garden
        (6) and your own servants. :-)

        In other words, penthouse apartments next to Central Park. (OK, so it’s missing the beach.)

        Obviously, there is some problem providing this for everyone! :-) Which aspects people are more willing to compromise on varies wildly. Most urban planners have tried to create some combination of these features, but few have succeeded. Finding suitable balance is not actually easy. Mass transportation is one way of providing something closer to this; so that many people can live within a short train ride from a giant park, or from downtown, etc.

        I think one key is soundproofing regulations. One of the least desirable things about urban apartment living is thin walls.

  6. Did anyone look at the picture? Does anyone realize this is next to a Swift Station? LYNNWOOD SUCKS!!!! They are actually approving this CRAP! They are allowing it in a mixed use zone because it has 2 kinds of retail. And more insulting, it’s a Seattle developer who would never get away with proposing this trash in the city. It’s horrible. It is a complete missed opportunity to put real density in a place that is perfect for it. Sure a lot of SR99 will remain carlots, but this spot had potential. For f**k’s sake, they could at least build 2 stories. They should do 5. We need a law banning single story retail in urban growth areas because well-designed mixed use retail isn’t getting built by lazy developers that want a quick buck. This cheap crap will stand for 30-40 years and ends up destroying property values and reducing the tax capacity of the land that should be supporting essential services. If Lynnwood is going to have Light Rail and you want it to be successful then someone needs to knock the city administration and their dumbass planning/engineering departments off the stupid stick they are mounted on. And Lynnwood, if you read this – APPROVE THE MF’ing BUS STOP on 196th Street right now damn it!!!!!!!!!!!!

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