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kottke.org posts about Gregory Shill

The Symbiotic & Toxic Relationship Between Houses and Cars in America

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 29, 2019

Since reading Gregory Shill’s writing about how heavily subsidized cars are in the United States, I’ve been on the lookout for different frameworks for thinking about America’s relationship to cars. I recently ran across a pair of interesting things about cars & housing. First, a refresher on what Shill had to say about how our nation’s laws have made cars all but mandatory:

Let’s begin at the state and local level. A key player in the story of automobile supremacy is single-family-only zoning, a shadow segregation regime that is now justifiably on the defensive for outlawing duplexes and apartments in huge swaths of the country. Through these and other land-use restrictions — laws that separate residential and commercial areas or require needlessly large yards — zoning rules scatter Americans across distances and highway-like roads that are impractical or dangerous to traverse on foot. The resulting densities are also too low to sustain high-frequency public transit.

Aaron Bady shared a few meaty pages from Nathanael Lauster’s The Death and Life of the Single-Family House: Lessons from Vancouver on Building a Livable City about houses being urban parasites and their symbiotic relationship with cars. Here’s an excerpt (italics mine):

Returning to the metaphor provided by the pine beetle and blue stain fungus, one parasite often works with another. In similar form, houses cultivate cars. Integrated through planning, they displace vastly more habitat than either could manage alone. Because houses consume space and tend to surround themselves with other houses, which also consume space, people often cannot walk to where they need to go. Because all that space results in a relatively low population density, it is also not very efficient to run public transit lines to areas with many houses. Low-density areas tend to end up with very few riders for what are often very expensive systems to maintain. In short, public transit loves density. The relationship between urban density and public transit use is exceptionally strong, with some suggestion of a cutoff — perhaps around twelve persons per acre (or about three thousand per square kilometer) — below which ridership drops off and expense per user makes transit impractical. By contrast, cars love the sprawl associated with houses and houses love cars back.

Houses cultivate cars. Cars love the sprawl associated with houses and houses love cars back. Lauster continues with the nature metaphor:

Altogether, house habitat displaces alternatives. The establishment of a Great House Reserve has protected house habitat even as it continues to expand in size. Agricultural and wild lands suffer in an immediate sense, as do the more urban habitats prevented from expanding beyond a constrained Urban Core. The house allies itself with the car at the same time as both contribute to global warming, potentially risking the displacement of everyone and everything. The house habitat excludes the poor. But even for those who can afford to live there, the Great House Reserve is a troublesome place to live. By its nature it leads to disengagement, contributes to inequality, and encourages a sedentary, unhealthy lifestyle.

And so on:

Houses are not just unaffordable for most people; they’re ultimately unaffordable for cities too. The fiscal situation of cities varies from place to place, but overall, houses tend to create a drain on municipal coffers. They are often taxed at lower rates than other properties, reflecting zoning restrictions on what could be built on single-family lots and how they can be used. But houses are more expensive to service on a per-unit basis, both in terms of the basic utilities infrastructure and, as previously noted, in terms of transit and transportation infrastructure. This could mean that my modestly wealthy neighbors and I, living in low-rises and town houses, end up supporting the very wealthy house owner nearby by paying more property tax relative to the amount of urban land and services we receive. The disparity becomes more notable as one crosses municipal boundaries into nearby house-dominated suburbs, where residents frequently enjoy the services (e.g., roads, commerce, employment opportunities) provided by the city without paying into the municipal tax base at all.

Josh Vredevoogd’s No Parking Here is about the poor parking policy in LA and leads with the statement: “Let’s build houses for people, not cars.”

For commercial buildings, it’s common to see a parking space required for every 100-200 sq ft. Meaning that parking is built at an almost 2:1 ratio to actual retail space, marginalizing the place that actually creates value and prioritizing temporary car storage. This inefficiency is carried into rent, groceries, meals, and overall raises the floor for cost of living.

Per City of LA code, a set of storefronts like above are illegal to build, instead they are required to be surrounded with empty pavement at the cost of walkability and comfort.

This forces people into driving. Parking requirements increase the density of cars but reduce the density of people. It also puts pressure on businesses by taking up useful real estate and replacing it with car storage.

Certainly a lot of food for thought here. See also Cars! What’s the Matter with Cars Today? and on a lighter note, What On Earth!, Kal Pindal’s Oscar-nominated short film about Martians visiting Earth and their observations about the dominant form of life here, the automobile.

America’s Cars Are Heavily Subsidized, Dangerous, and Mandatory

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 09, 2019

This is a fascinating & provocative article from law professor Gregory Shill: Americans Shouldn’t Have to Drive, but the Law Insists on It. The first line of the piece sets the stage: “In a country where the laws compel the use of cars, Americans are condemned to lose friends and relatives to traffic violence.”

Let’s begin at the state and local level. A key player in the story of automobile supremacy is single-family-only zoning, a shadow segregation regime that is now justifiably on the defensive for outlawing duplexes and apartments in huge swaths of the country. Through these and other land-use restrictions-laws that separate residential and commercial areas or require needlessly large yards-zoning rules scatter Americans across distances and highway-like roads that are impractical or dangerous to traverse on foot. The resulting densities are also too low to sustain high-frequency public transit.

Further entrenching automobile supremacy are laws that require landowners who build housing and office space to build housing for cars as well. In large part because of parking quotas, parking lots now cover more than a third of the land area of some U.S. cities; Houston is estimated to have 30 parking spaces for every resident. As UCLA urban planning professor Donald Shoup has written, this mismatch flows from legal mandates rather than market demand. Every employee who brings a car to the office essentially doubles the amount of space he takes up at work, and in urban areas his employer may be required by law to build him a $50,000 garage parking space.

Cars and car ownership are massively subsidized on a state, local, and federal level and our laws and regulations have built a nation where cars are mandatory and “driving is the price of first-class citizenship”.

Why are we taxing bus riders to pay rich people to buy McMansions and luxury electric SUVs?

And this speed limit thing is just eye-poppingly fucked up:

The National Transportation Safety Board has determined that speed is a top risk factor in motor vehicle crashes. Yet the most prominent way of setting and adjusting speed limits, known as the operating speed method, actually incentivizes faster driving. It calls for setting speed limits that 85 percent of drivers will obey. This method makes little provision for whether there’s a park or senior center on a street, or for people walking or biking.

As a matter of law, the operating speed method is exceptional. It enables those who violate the law-speeding motorists-to rewrite it: speed limits ratchet higher until no more than 15 percent of motorists violate them. The perverse incentives are obvious. Imagine a rule saying that, once 15 percent of Americans acquired an illegal type of machine gun, that weapon would automatically become legal.

Ok, this is one of those articles where I want to excerpt every paragraph…just go read the whole thing. (via @olgakhazan)

Update: Eric Jaffe shared some interesting bits from Shill’s recent paper, Should Law Subsidize Driving?, in a Twitter thread.

Until the 1910s, “street parking was broadly outlawed: if you owned a car in a city, you were responsible for storing it, just as you would be any other piece of movable property.”

“Tax subsidies for commuting prioritize driving. Those who walk, bike, or carpool to work, and in some cases those who take transit, pay other people to drive to work.”

Never realized (or forgot) that CAFE fuel economy rules — generally a good thing — have a loophole that “light trucks” don’t need to be as fuel efficient as cars. “Light trucks” have come to mean SUVs, which means SUVs are easier to produce. No coincidence that the share of “light trucks” has soared from 20% in 1976 to 69% of market today. The upshot, of course, is that SUVs are much worse for pedestrian safety: you’re 3.4x more likely to be killed if hit by an SUV vs. a car.