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Why Many Cities Have No Money (strongtowns.org)
576 points by cassieramen on Jan 10, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 414 comments



I can't say much about mathematics of taxes described in the article, but I always thought that Soviet Union got a lot of it's city planning very much right. Even a small town is built as a relatively tight formation of high-rises, yet leaving plenty of public space and greenery in the middle. The quality of life in the town that I grew up in is super high, because everything one might need: school, hospital, store, swimming pool, park, woods is an easy _walk_ away. The traffic through the town was even disallowed, which opened up a giant traffic-free area for us to play around as kids and elderly to use for socializing and to run their errands. For ease of visualizing here's an aerial photo of said town in early 00s: http://i.imgur.com/sj9t3Jy.jpg


I live in Russia at the moment and probably the most startling thing is how well planned many of the cities and towns are and how very clearly these cities were not made for cars. While it's a hassle for vehicle traffic because the roads were never designed to handle everyone owning a car, the benefit is that no matter where you live there is a shop nearby for essentials (groceries, clothing stores, repairs, cafe's, etc), transit is readily availble even in the smallest of towns and fairly affordable. I spent time in Pereslavl-Zalessky about 140 km north of moscow and was surprised that even a relatively small town had faster and more regular public transit than most of the cities I've lived in in the US.

Granted it all comes with a slight adjustment to get used to some of the holdovers of life in the USSR, but when I lived in Seattle, it used to be if I missed the bus I had to wait ~30+ minutes for the next one home, and I needed to plan whether I'd take a side trip to get groceries or not, adding an additional mile or two to my walk home. Here it's nice to just be able to walk a few hundred meters at most to the nearest store for groceries.


Any city planned and developed before cars is generally considered very friendly, walkable, and desirable. Europe is full of such cities and they're loved for it.

If only planners, politicians and citizens would realise what they have given up just to make it convenient to drive.


You see it in the U.S. as well, as you go from east to the west you can see the influence of the automobile on city layout and infrastructure, with possibly the epitome being Los Angeles. Ask most any 60+ year old in any of the larger American cities so designed (Dallas, Denver, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Seattle and so on) defends the idea of road widening to the tooth. Rip out the boulevards. Rip out these silly bike lanes. Rip out sidewalks. Make room for more cars! I've not seen much in the way of a road widening project that a baby boomer didn't love.

As a 45 year old, it's one my examples of how my elders aren't infallible, don't always have good advice, and have made very poor choices that cannot be unwound except through great expense of time and money. Mistakes have consequences and they can (and will) last generations.


Don't worry, for the last 50-60 years most European countries have been working hard to destroy this model and turn both cities and countrysides into a car nightmare more or less following the US model.


> most European countries have been working hard to destroy this model

No. Most European countries have been working hard to improve their economy.


Just came back from Tokyo and realized how much I miss riding my bicycle in Singapore. The city is just not made for bicycles. It would increase the quality of living by a wide margin since Singapore is so small.


It has been a long time since I was in Singapore, but looking back it isn't obvious why it would be bad for cycling. Obviously one wouldn't use the elevated expressways, but there are lots of other streets of varying sizes with varying amounts of traffic (like Tokyo). Is there a law against taking the lane? Perhaps there just isn't a culture of cycling, so one would be the only one on the road? Just curious...


It's road behaviour. Due to the high COE car owners feel an entitlement for the road. In addition people are driving selfish and are in general bad educated (comparing to Europe and Japan). See roads.sg for examples.


I lived in Tokyo in the late 90's and the bike lanes are a new (or newer) thing. They really make the city nice (at least in the summer).


> Europe is full of such cities and they're loved for it.

Sure, Florence is beautiful and lovable, but I personally like the possibility to also drive to a commercial center, buy what I need for a few days, drive back home and park my car in a closed garage conveniently connected to my apartment via a lift, or my house via a door.


> Sure, Florence is beautiful and lovable, but I personally like the possibility to also drive to a commercial center, buy what I need for a few days, drive back home and park my car in a closed garage conveniently connected to my apartment via a lift, or my house via a door.

Why? That sounds like hell. If I had to drive everywhere for everything I'd go mad.


How do you get from "also have the option to" to "had to drive everywhere"?

I don't own a car, but I can completely understand why having the option to take one for occasional larger shopping trips is nice. Friends and family with cars do that, but they still make 97% of their trips without the car.


Because there's no such thing as just giving you the option to use your car. Once that option exists people will use cars, more car use requires bigger roads, more spaced out shops due to parking, and eventually gigantic junctions and highways.

Soon enough what used to be a 500 meter walk turns into walking 2 kilometers because of all the car-related infrastructure in the way, which then becomes a self-reinforcing feedback loop as more people own cars, so they're willing to travel longer distances, reducing the business & zoning incentive to make things walkable.


More cars don't require bigger roads. That's exactly the point where pushback has to happen, and does in cities where a compromise works. If increase in traffic does not mean a scramble to accommodate it using your car becomes less attractive, which stabilizes the traffic level. That of course requires a culture which values public transport/bikes/walkability over cars.

E.g. in my hometown every building in the city core is accessible by car, but you have to take narrow, often single-lane side alleys to get there, the major paths all are pedestrian only. All that means taking a car there stays the exception for when it really is useful to do so. Tons of inner-city routes that are faster to walk than to drive. The further out you get, the more car-friendly things get, but public transport bridges most of it. Density is key to maintain that, it makes public transport and local businesses viable and puts pressure on cars.

Making large areas completely pedestrian-only isn't really politically viable, even here in Germany, but the compromises IMHO can work out fine, and people move to areas that have the characteristics they like.


I don't think this works in places with cold weather. A 5 km drive in the winter is so much more pleasant than a 200m walk.


I live where it's cold and I disagree. Winter is the time I really wish I could ditch my car for good. You car is just starting to get warm at the end of 5km unless you've warmed it up ahead of time. And you have to clean it off and shovel it out which sucks.

As long as you are dressed appropriately then a 200m walk in the cold is nothing.


Just buy adequate winter clothes, it's certainly much cheaper than a car. If scientists can stroll around Antarctica in winter gear for hours on end so can you in whatever city you live in.


Agreed with adequate winter clothes having a quality coat, gloves, and possibly boots are all you need.

If it's snowing I almost never drive (if I don't have to) but I have absolutely no problem walking to the store, or to pick up food, or even just to get out of the house in the snow.


If I had to pay the insane real estate prices to live close to everything (or take buses) everywhere I'd go mad too.


One of the factors driving insane real estate prices is low density, partly to accommodate cars. Another factor is bad zoning laws, tolerated on the assumption that cars will be used. And if the bus service in your neighborhood is bad, that's likely because the rich and powerful drive cars, so they have no incentive to improve the buses.

Remember, the proposed new state of the world is not just like the current one except that you personally don't have a car. It's one where nobody owns a car, and everyone shares the benefits of that.


>the rich and powerful drive cars, so they have no incentive to improve the buses.

The urban rich and powerful can afford to live within short walks of their offices, or right next to stations on the best parts of (small) existing transit corridors. They are most assuredly not sitting in rush-hour traffic.

>low density, partly to accommodate cars

Figure 1000 people work downtown, half of them park in 200sqft spaces, the other half live in 400sqft apartments.

Convert all the parking to apartments. Now downtown can support only 750 workers. Great for me if I'm one of the 250 who no longer has to drive, but what if I'm one of the 250 who can now neither drive nor live there?

Statistically, it was worth ~$9,000/year to me not to ride a bicycle or use public transit. Unless that was purely ignorant, starting to do so will be a bad time.

>bad zoning laws,

I'm with you there. We need to massively increase the height of buildings in the small walkable cores and along transit corridors so that more people can live in them. Over time, employers could also spread out, so that there is not a single downtown that everyone's trying to get to. And of course it is ridiculous that any one lives far from a grocery store by fiat, rather than by economics.

>It's one where nobody owns a car, and everyone shares the benefits of that.

But if we do that and, the contention for housing along the transit corridors will be so intense that only the wealthiest can remain, even with free-for-all zoning and a huge construction boom. I've no doubt that the proposed new state of the world will be awesome for the few people who can afford it, I merely doubt that I will be one of them, and I'm not looking forward to 3+ hour/day commutes, no matter how safe the streets.

Sprawl, the automobile, and the highway are fundamentally housing affordability devices. Land value isn't so important if you can traverse 10 miles in 10 minutes. When 10 minutes its half a mile, it suddenly matters a great deal.


I am not convinced by your example about converting parking to living spaces because it assumes it's not possible to achieve a one to one replacement. Building vertically like you suggest seems like the clear answer to this problem.


In the cities I'I familiar with, the vast majority of urban parking is in tall structures (and often underground). Although there is a decent argument that multilevel parking structures are less financially sustainable than multilevel apartments.

I'm much more interested in blanketing the suburbs in fast, cheap transportation with low wait times and minimal to zero parking requirements on the urban side. Probably a combination of e-bikes, electric motorcycles and scooters, and UberPool. Then personal car ownership (and demand for urban parking) can fade because it is actually less compelling than the alternative, instead of by fiat.


Over here in Holland we use bikes for all of that. It gets you some free exercise and it's less polluting.


One helpful factor for bicycling in Holland is the flatness. It's relatively easy to get to work or shopping without having to climb a big hill. Other parts of the world aren't so blessed, and people who do ride to work feel like they have to shower before the work day, which reduces some people's desire to do so.


The weather also surely helps. I live in a moderately warm city (Buenos Aires), and temperatures go up to 30º or even almost 40º in the summer, and biking is a trip to hell and back.

I can't even imagine people closer to tropical climates trying to ride bikes anytime except winter.


What do people do who can't bike?


First, we have a law called Wet Maatschappelijke Ondersteuning[0] (and a 2015 update to it), which means "law for societal support", specifically aimed at helping everyone partake in society. Part of that is monetary support to buy, for example, a mobility scooter[1] if you have a disability that limits you in your freedom of movement otherwise. Many elderly use this.

Also gaining in popularity recently is the so-called "Duofiets", which is a two-person side-by-side tricycle[2], which lets people without a disability help out. Here's a video of a project that combines student housing with elderly care[3] (also an interesting project in itself) that shows off the bike halfway. My grandma was taken on daytrips with such a bike in the last years of her life, and it really brightened her day.

[0] https://www.rijksoverheid.nl/onderwerpen/zorg-en-ondersteuni...

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mobility_scooter

[2] http://www.koekange.info/2015/03/fietsen-op-duofiets/

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tjRtaulQsZU


Cyclists never retire, they just buy a tricycle.

Hase Bikes in Germany build a wonderful range of adapted bicycles and tricycles that can accommodate almost any disability. If you're capable of moving your arms or legs, there's a cycle that will work for you.

http://hasebikes.com/


That's the answer I was kind of expecting, thanks.


I presume that they learn how to bike.

If you meant to ask "What about people that physically can't ever bike (but can drive)?"

What percentage of the population, honestly, do you think that is? Out of shape people can lose weight and eventually learn to bike. Very few people can-drive-but-not-bike, and surely exceptions can be made for them.


Funny coincidence: just yesterday I helped out a (to all appearances) rather old man who had dropped his keys and had trouble leaning down to pick them up. His hands were shaking as I handed him the keys, and he gave off a very frail impression. He was cycling when he dropped his keys.

I remember being impressed by the fact that while this guy had so much trouble bending down, he was riding a (regular) bike.

I've also seen 'seriously' pregnant women bike around, men/women with a kid strapped to the front and back of the bike, with sometimes a third kid in a kart behind the bike. I also regularly see groups of elderly people on sports bikes (often with some electrical help though), as well as really young children.

There are plenty of people who really can't ride bikes, but probably far fewer than people from non-biking places assume.


No doubt. I wouldn't take away anyone's bike (unless I was their child or spouse, maybe), but I'd worry about old "frail" people on bikes. Their strength and flexibility declines (in general with individual exceptions), and a fall can debilitate or kill old people. Glad to see that three-wheelers are an option.


To add to mercer's comment, an article and video about the city of Groningen:

https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/jul/29/how-groningen...

https://vimeo.com/76207227

Mind you, whether or not Groningen is the most bike-friendly city in the Netherlands is largely irrelevant, all of our cities are so even if it was it's not exceptional. It's kind of comparable to how we dominate in speed-skating[0] - from the outsider's point of view it's irrelevant who is the best.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Netherlands_at_the_2014_Winter...


> Any city planned and developed before cars...

Before cars and before skyscrapers! The model of town you're talking about doesn't scale well.


It scales a lot better than suburbs as far as the eye can see.


Seoul and Tokyo scale pretty well.


Do you mean Seoul and Tokyo are meant for pedestrians? Or that they have have the same type (please note: type, not quantity) of charm of Florence or Prague?


Tokyo is one of the best cities in the world for pedestrians, maybe THE best.


i think the auto is a red herring. i think what it is is that these cities have a level of lifestyle that happened to be commiserate with the revenue that they can generate, because the more expensive infrastructure- fibre, 4g, or undergrounds, tram lines, auto traffic control, or even a large network of roads, have not or cannot be built in.

when i travel to the cities in the developing countries in asia, and speak to the locals, there's always a sense that they look forward to building their city into something like sydney or singapore. the people elect mayors and governors that promise development towards that goal. most of time, it doesn't go anywhere. what i thought, but did not say, is that these smaller cities don't generate the same kind of revenue that pays for the kind of infrastructure, modern buildings, and diversity in imports that you see in the major cities. To try and pursue that without finding a way to increase the value and productivity of their economy is going to get you in the kind of trouble that you see a lot of these bankrupt towns in the US in.


> their economy is going to get you in the kind of trouble that you see a lot of these bankrupt towns in the US in.

I think you're discounting the affect that big box retailers have had on rural and small towns in the US. They're often given tax brakes and other incentives to build and then they park themselves right outside city/town limits to avoid any sales or property taxes. They then proceed to drive every small business in the town out of business. As shops close down, fewer people go into town which the impacts other shops and gradually the entire town shuts down. To add to it, the big box retailers will often have leased space in the front of their stores where small businesses that they don't directly compete with can take up space. These businesses were probably the remnants of what remained in town but moved to where the people are.

You can see this in many towns if you drive across the Midwest. You'll see a "Welcome to <town>" sign, then drive through an abandoned town, then you'll see a "Thanks for visiting <town>" and then a massive super store with a filled parking lot.


Big box retailers sell things in big boxes. Without the giant parking lot, it isn't viable to sell most of the products. Delivery from a separate warehouse would be required. Buyers aren't going to toss a refrigerator in a backpack and then hop on a bicycle! Putting a refrigerator in a minivan is reasonable. The same goes for large TVs, washing machines, clothes dryers, mattresses, sofas, desks, chairs, whiteboards, canoes, etc.

The old-style downtown shop simply can't handle large products in a reasonable way. Since it can't, people get used to shopping at places that can handle everything.


I always thought "big box" referred to the size of the store itself, not the items it sells. Wikipedia seems to agree with me: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big-box_store


And so people end up with a car three sizes too large just because so they can go to a big box retailer twice a year. How many refrigerators does a family really need?

Renting a van or getting the big box item delivered is so much more convenient. Commuting to work and running errands in a minivan is just so wasteful.


A minivan becomes a necessity when your family hits around 5 people. You can get by with a midsize sedan but it's difficult and you're unable to offer rides to anyone. Unfortunately in the US they can't or won't sell 6+ seater variants of smaller vehicles like the Prius or Accord.

Larger vehicles like conversion vans and full size SUVs that don't seat anymore people than a minivan but get half the fuel efficiency and take up twice the space are on the other hand completely impractical.


> Big box retailers sell things in big boxes.

Err... I think we have different definitions of what a big box retailer is. Big box is a reference to the shape of the building and not what it sells.

Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big-box_store


Yes, but why is the building like that? The building is a big box largely so that it can sell large items. You can't fit very many large items in a small store; small stores typically limit themselves to small things.

You could sell refrigerators in a small building. The selection would be very limited, and there would be a high risk of stock running out. The refrigerators out on the floor at a Home Depot or Lowe's take up more space than an old-style downtown store has. That's just refrigerators, and just the ones put out on the floor for display. Many more refrigerators are stored in the back, away from customers, and refrigerators are just one of many products.


It's not about size, it's about quantity. Big box stores are warehouses and that allow for pallets of product to easily be moved around and put on the floor for consumption.

It has nothing to do with the size of the product being sold.


The auto is at the center of what's unique about American towns. The chart in the article essentially says that the urban core generates surplus revenue that is used to subsidize low-productivity outlying areas. The car is at the heart of why the outlying areas are so large and thus need so many direct and indirect subsidies, and a direct source of the subsidies and costs. See something like "The High Cost of Free Parking"

The exurban paradigm that is now standard even in very small towns is just incredibly costly, miles of pavement, huge parking lots that cause stormwater problems, for a very low density of tax base.


> the urban core generates surplus revenue that is used to subsidize low-productivity outlying areas

What's so surprising about it? You work (and produce) in the overcrowded center and then go back to a nice suburb for the evening.


It may not be surprising, but many find it disagreeable. Residents of those overcrowded centres are rarely enthusiastic about subsidising the suburbs. Businesses often find it difficult to exist in the centre, both due to taxation (again, to subsidise the suburbs) and the difficulty in convincing car-centric suburbanites to drive downtown.

Those subsidies can be quite significant, ranging from roads and poorly utilized transit routes to developing land and services that will be under utilized (e.g. parks and recreation centres).


No one said it was surprising, but the article's argument is that the subsidies to the outlying suburbs are so large that they are overwhelming the tax revenue generated by the core.

People find different things pleasing, and some people enjoy commuting so they can live quite far from their job, friends, and basic services. Others prefer to live closer to these things, close enough to walk, cycle, or take transit. Based on prices, it's clear that in many metro areas, there's a great demand for urban-style living that is going unfulfilled, mostly do to zoning restrictions.


Part of the problem in the US is too much planning, alongside too many subsidies for cars. Look at a zoning map of any city: there's an incredible level of detail about what's permitted where. The local zoning code here in Bend, until recently, had a section on how many parking spots per customer for barber shops. As if, in a competitive market, those businesses couldn't figure out for themselves the optimal amount of parking to pay for to keep their customers happy.

Most of Europe is pretty walkable and it doesn't have that 'planned' look either.


> As if, in a competitive market, those businesses couldn't figure out for themselves the optimal amount of parking to pay for to keep their customers happy.

I don't know anything about Bend, but speaking generally ...

There are many ways that markets are inefficient and flawed; I wouldn't assume they would yield a good result. For example, the barbershops may be incentivized to push the parking costs onto others. It may be that every business has that incentive, nobody wants to pay for other people's parking, and thus nobody makes the first move. In situations like that, people succeed by coordinating their activities through democratic government and laws.

People living in cities, elbow-to-elbow and sharing large numbers of resources (such as parking), may need to coordinate more than people in rural areas.

Also, as they say, don't tear down a fence until you know the reason for which it was built. It's like that odd, useless-looking bit of code in that old application - maybe do some research before you delete it.


"Externalities" is how economists describe those costs.

Realistically speaking, the barber shop could only really push people to park:

* On the street. And you know what? That's fine. If the street was built to have parking, and people are parking there, it's not a problem. It might be more of a PITA for the clients. If it's too much of a PITA, the business may suffer. But that's how markets work.

* In some other business' parking spots: that can easily be solved by other means, rather than having city-wide laws covering all barbers in the city, some of which may cater to hipsters riding fixies who do not need car parking, and others who have elderly patrons who will not tolerate being forced to walk more than they absolutely have to.

I'm not a "markets solve all the problems kind of guy" because externalities are real things. But I feel that our cities are way too regulated. Zoning didn't even exist in Bend until 1947. Some of the first zoning regulations didn't come about until the early 20th century in the rest of the US.

How would we react if there were a "planning commission" that dictated how much of each kind of restaurant (Vietnamese, Mexican, Burgers, etc..) at what kind of price point could exist in a city? Zoning should be to keep truly noxious things away from where people live, not to keep duplexes away from single family homes, or barber shops outside of residential areas.


Yes, there are externalities and also other ways markets fail; that's why I didn't use the term.

Maybe there aren't enough street parking spots for all the businesses, and then the market fails: No business wants to spend on on-site parking in order to free up parking for everyone else. The way to move forward is to come together and pass a law.

> Zoning didn't even exist in Bend until 1947. Some of the first zoning regulations didn't come about until the early 20th century in the rest of the US.

I'm not sure that means anything either way. Baseball didn't become desegregated until 1947 either. Is there something suspect about advances or changes in society that are recent? Did humans live better before 1947?

> I feel that our cities are way too regulated.

With due respect, this is too easy to say without evidence, is too general to have much application, and it has become cliche to say it about everything. In what ways are they too regulated, and in what ways not regulated enough? Do you have anything to back it up? How much regulation is just right?

> How would we react if there were a "planning commission" that dictated how much of each kind of restaurant (Vietnamese, Mexican, Burgers, etc..) at what kind of price point could exist in a city?

Vote them out of office? Appear at the planning commission meeting? Organize restaurant owners and talk to elected representatives? Democracy is a proven, effective tool. Case in point: I haven't heard of your hypothetical extreme scenario happening.


By enacting laws, you create a very rigid situation that's much more difficult to change than "there's not enough parking", which is something the neighborhood could adapt to without too much trouble.

When I was born, Bend was still a wood products industry town based around logging and the local mills. These days, it's trying to develop a high tech industry, and doing reasonably well at it for a small-ish town. Places need to adapt, and rigid zoning is probably detrimental to that adaptation. Markets take in everyone who lives, or wants to live in a place. Planning commissions, or even city councils, have just a few people with their own ideas of "how things should be".

In terms of how they're too regulated, sure:

http://marketurbanism.com/2016/09/06/shut-out-how-land-use-r...

https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/10/04/...

https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/04/business/how-anti-growth-...

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/08/10/why-c...

And Exhibit A: the market for housing in the San Francisco Bay Area, which is completely batshit crazy because of the refusal to build housing.


I do think the market is a very useful tool and that some things are over-regulated and some are under-regulated. But I don't understand your point: All regulations are bad? Everything is too regulated? I know these ideas are trendy, but they don't really mean anything or inform us. As I asked before:

In what ways are they too regulated, and in what ways not regulated enough? ... How much regulation is just right?

Without answers to those questions, we have nothing serious to act on.

> By enacting laws, you create a very rigid situation

A general statement, but laws can change. Laws often are written to create flexibility, delegating authority to regulatory commissions. Markets can be very rigid; look that the market power of Windows, whose dominance has lasted longer than most politicians' careers. When is the last time the market allowed in a new car manufacturer (Tesla hasn't yet survived infancy, and if it does it will be the only exception in (80?) years). How long does it take to change a web standard in the 'free' market? If they were government regulations, they could be changed like analog to digital TV or the reallocation of spectrum. I thought Europe's regulated, universal GSM was better than the U.S.'s 'market' solution of competing technologies.

Also, laws allocate power democratically to all citizens. The 'market' allocates it to those with the most money.

> Planning commissions, or even city councils, have just a few people with their own ideas of "how things should be".

I disagree; they are creations of and responsive to the democratic process. The market, on the other hand, is responsive to a few people with the most money; most citizens have no say. I don't want my community run by the wealthy, with 99% of citizens living like subjects under an aristocracy.

> In terms of how they're too regulated, sure: ...

I don't see a few op-eds as evidence; I have no doubt there are enough people who believe it that op-eds could be supplied daily. If you are correct about SF Bay Area (I don't know), it is an example of something that is over-regulated in some way, not evidence that the everything is over-regulated (again, could you really be saying that?).


I'm not a 'markets solve all problems' guy. There are plenty of good regulations and plenty of places where markets don't seem to work. I'd be happy to tell you about how single payer health care works in Italy - better than the mess we have here in the US.

That said, I think housing and cities are overregulated in the US.

Those op-eds point out a lot of issues that you can study further and find that mostly, the cause is zoning and regulation of housing/land use. They also cite other sources.

Here's a book, talking just about parking:

http://amzn.to/2jvfxpJ - Donald Shoup's "The High Cost of Free Parking".

Here are some books about zoning and regulation:

Ryan Avent's "The Gated City": http://amzn.to/2jv3dpk

Bill Fischel's Zoning Rules!: http://amzn.to/2j62fTw - dry and very, very thorough.


Doesn't parking specifically seem like an easy thing for a market to fix: paid parking lots.


The word "fix" is important here. When you fix something it starts broken and ends up working how it should. Since space in cities is fiercely constrained any change is always a trade-off with repurcussions.

Cities plan transport infrastructure years or decades in advance, and spend vast sums of money, with very different incentives to the market. Leaving parts of that plan (like parking) up to the whims of the market might seem a bit irresponsible.

For example; if a city makes design trade-offs favouring heavy long-term road use, but the market decides in the shorter term that office blocks are more profitable, then you end up with mismatched capacity (headaches for drivers and ineffective public spending) and inadequate investment in infrastructure for cycling, walking, and public transport. Now you could argue that the market will step in and fix the parking problem, but that could easily take longer than an election cycle, and cost the local economy vast sums in wasted investment and lost opportunity.


>very different incentives to the market.

They are concerned about being elected, that's it. Hence why we have huge infrastructure bills coming to haunt us, pensions that are out of control (though dwarfed by infrastructure costs), and other passing the buck behavior.

That's not to say they're bad, do no good, etc. Just that their incentives are such that they can't enact good policy oftentimes or possibly even tell the truth to voters. Otherwise they lose power.

>Leaving parts of that plan (like parking) up to the whims of the market might seem a bit irresponsible.

In NYC, large portions of the subway system, Metro North, the PATH, Long Island Railroad, and New Jersey Transit and the Amtrak Northeast Corridor were built by private companies (or even multiple competing companies) to make a buck.

In the case of the subway, the city wanted control and fixed the price such that it wouldn't rise with inflation. A few decades of that and heavy car subsidies and suddenly the two companies go bankrupt and the city takes over.

Then the city demolished a whole bunch of useful elevated lines which even now are not fully replaced.

Then it continued to fix prices (even had an elected board to set prices, guess what voters wanted?) and now we have a huge backlog of deferred maintenance and outdated technology when we once were world leaders.

Most American cities have similar stories, it just is streetcars instead of subways. LA even used to have a bigger rail system than NYC, believe it or not.

Tokyo by the way continues to have multiple semi private companies run its rail and subway systems. Seems to work well. Same in Hong Kong IIRC and a few other Asian cities. Outside of Asia, many cities at least outsource running the systems to companies like Keolis (which is French), even if they fund expansion.

>For example; if a city makes design trade-offs favouring heavy long-term road use, but the market decides in the shorter term that office blocks are more profitable, then you end up with mismatched capacity

The best transportation policy is to not move at all or otherwise minimize trip distance and increase the density of connections.

Pre-zoning US cities were all mixed use, compact, and generally either gridded or (as in downtown Manhattan) grew organically with many connections (lots of narrow windy streets down there) as you see in many Old World cities.

Transportation costs were low; foot, bike, and transit were sufficient, even after the advent of the automobile.

If the city is ignoring this to promote cars it's a failure of city planning, not the market, when valuable land is used for valuable purposes. It's doubly a failure since it can use zoning to prevent these buildings from being built and / or eminent domain afterwards.

What that has to do with the market I don't understand.

>inadequate investment in infrastructure for cycling, walking, and public transport.

Businesses generally love walkers, hence why Fifth Avenue rents are so high. They'll pay for sidewalks for sure if they're not provided in front of their buildings if it's a place walking can be expected.

In Okinawa Japan where I lived it was a car centric place but they provided (possibly paid) parking with no legal mandates.

Historically most transit was built by private companies in the US, including the NYC subway (which was two companies originally, with the city owned IND later).

>Now you could argue that the market will step in and fix the parking problem, but that could easily take longer than an election cycle, and cost the local economy vast sums in wasted investment and lost opportunity.

The first subway line, using mostly pickaxes and other hand tools to excavate, took 4 years to build. We had a whole bunch of elevated rail lines and streetcars in NYC built by private funds. I'm sure with modern technology we could build faster than that.

So long as competition isn't heavily subsidized the market can work.

With transit cars were subsidized (even by transit itself; oftentimes they'd have to pay for some of all road maintenance on their routes) and most cities fixed transit prices driving them out of business.


> They are concerned about being elected, that's it.

Politicians are clearly incentivised by election, but saying its their only concern is generalising and reductionist.

The rest of your comment makes a lot of points, but broadly seems to assume that I'm claiming that private companies have no place in transport infrastructure, which is not the case. My point was that "the market" meaning an unmanaged build-it-and-they-will-come approach would not be optimal, in response to my parent commenter's "an easy thing for a market to fix".


Trying to plan very complex, dynamic systems leads to:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economic_calculation_problem

Of course, public things like streets and roads and so on needs some planning. I'm no Ayn Rand "privatize all the things" guy.

But make that infrastructure flexible and less rigid and allow a city to adapt. The city where I live had 20K people 40 years ago, and was a logging/mill town. Now it's a tourist town with a budding high tech industry and closing in on 100K. Too much land use planning gets in the way of a city adapting.


Totally valid. It happens. On the other hand it's clearly a statistical outlier. I'd be wary of trying to create one ruleset that covered both wherever you live, cities like Detroit, rural towns, industrial towns, etc. that will all have different environmental needs, density, rates of change, access to private investment capital, etc.

Similarly... it's hard to impossible to predict the future, which is why economists predictions are so often wrong, as you point out. Gold rushes often ended in ghost towns. Who's to say in another 20 years your town won't be back doing logging and milling, and would be better off not bending to support an industry that may turn out to be ephemeral?


>My point was that "the market" meaning an unmanaged build-it-and-they-will-come approach would not be optimal, in response to my parent commenter's "an easy thing for a market to fix".

The item that worries me, and based on decades of observation, that the private companies will snap up all the profitable routes and leave the non-profitable routes to the city, thus deepening the budget gap.

The "market" will do that w/o some sort of regulation specifying that the private companies have to support the other routes.

Kind of points to the cable industry and local agreements w/ towns.


> They are concerned about being elected, that's it. ... / That's not to say they're bad, do no good, etc. Just that their incentives are such that they can't enact good policy oftentimes or possibly even tell the truth to voters.

I must say, I'm happy with my local elected officials. The main problem I see on the national level are politicians with an ideology - government can't do anything, thus they obstruct everything. They are the problem, not government.

(I'm not saying government is at all perfect, but democracy is a great tool.)



Thanks for making all these points so eloquently.

It does seem like an easy, and popular, refrain to claim over-regulation. It's a great way to sound contrarian and wise without actually having to do any analysis, after all, the market do the work so no planning is needed. In that noisy environment, asking for specifics of precisely what is over-regulated and why seems both fair and necessary.

> I thought Europe's regulated, universal GSM was better than the U.S.'s 'market' solution of competing technologies.

A similar example, the market has decided on competing standards for charging points for electric vehicles (in the UK at least, I expect most other places too). If a family of standards had been created to cover the various voltage/current requirements, rather than leaving it solely up to manufacturers then the time overhead for drivers of EVs could be dramatically improved, removing a significant obstacle to adoption.


>Maybe there aren't enough street parking spots for all the businesses, and then the market fails: No business wants to spend on on-site parking in order to free up parking for everyone else.

Or it could be parking is a low value land use and little parking is truly optimum. Oftentimes when streets are closed to car traffic permanently there's a boost to business in dense cities.

Many cities don't have parking minimums and they have minimal parking but yet function well. Manhattan for instance is like that.

I lived in Japan and I don't think auto centric Okinawa where I lived had Parking minimums. It had less parking, but from what I recall more private paid lots and higher utilization (no seas of unused parking because a random bureaucrat decided malls needed exactly 2.5 spaces per 1000 square feet).

>Did humans live better before 1947?

In some ways, yes. There were obviously planning failures, but mostly zoning was put in place to exclude the poor and minorities without passing an explicit ban. Just build a place they can never afford and it'll be all great, or so they thought.

IIRC a majority of wealth inequality is due to housing costs. These zoning laws prop up the cost of housing and make it more and more difficult for the young to buy.

Used to be you'd have like a 5 or 10 year loan to buy a house, which might cost 3x the average salary. Not anymore.

>Do you have anything to back it up?

You can compare US zoning with that of other nations and compare cost of housing, transportation, and other metrics.

I think you'll find that on many metrics we do quite poorly.

Also: mobility is decreasing as the cost of housing has increased, which in turn has GDP growth ramifications as workers cannot seek out the highest paying jobs.

This is why some countries like Japan handle zoning at the national level.

>Vote them out of office

Good thing in many cities these planning guys are unelected. Voting out, say, the mayor or city councilman is also ineffective as a majority would be needed.

Incentive wise it's in each district's best interest to ban new housing as that gives land owners more and more money as the population rises and chases the same housing stock.

Add in rent control and rent stabilization and a slim majority are incentivized to keep things as they are.

>Democracy is a proven, effective tool.

Democracy is effective at not rounding up dissidents in secret police raids, but in cases like this it breaks down. Zoning acts as a ban on people, and those people can never become voters, thus perpetuating the system.

Choosing the voters is almost as good as not having a vote at all.


>> Did humans live better before 1947?

> In some ways, yes.

Humans in the U.S. are far better off now in almost every way. Of course there are exceptions.

> Democracy is effective at not rounding up dissidents in secret police raids, but in cases like this it breaks down.

I disagree strongly; democracies perform exceptionally well economically. All the wealthiest economies are democracies, and they are far wealthier than any other economies in the history of the world. Saying democracies do well for political rights but not economics is like saying Microsoft did well with operating systems but not office suites.

And one could argue that human welfare is better in democracies with more planned economies, such as the Nordic countries.

Are democracies still very flawed? Absolutely, but I haven't seen a better option. As someone said, democracy is the worst possible choice, except for all the others.


This desire of urban planners to regulate virtually every aspect of city life is precisely why I live in the suburbs.

I like to remind budding conservatives and libertarians that the free market is an ideal, not a mandate. The situation you describe is one that it perfect to be handled by the market. It's a cliche but it's also true that what matters is "Location, Location, Location". If you locate a business in an area where the people who would normally patronize it do not often travel or where they can't obtain adequate parking, that business will suffer.


> This desire of urban planners to regulate virtually every aspect of city life is precisely why I live in the suburbs.

That's a bizarre thing to say.

Construction in the suburbs is far more tightly regulated in the suburbs than in the city.


> regulate virtually every aspect of city life is precisely why I live in the suburbs.

You could easily get the same thing out of a HOA in a city with fewer city-wide rules and regulations.


You are absolutely right about that, I also would never buy a home in a community with a HOA.


Ah, I see what you are saying: you think that suburbs are not planned down to the most minute of details?

I don't know where you live, but I bet if you read a copy of your local zoning code, and have a look at the zoning map, you will probably find that yes, your suburb is very, very heavily regulated, including parking minimums, minimum floor/area ratios, setbacks, uses, and so on and so forth.

Probably less than some HOA's demand, but still a lot of details. I too am not the kind of person who relishes that level of control, but I suppose some people like it.


You raise a valid point. I just looked at my local code book of ordinances and they do cover a lot, including the number of parking spaces by square footage.

In my experience, in a smaller town, these things are primarily used as a weapon to punish otherwise bad businesses.

For example, we had a bar whose patrons became a neighborhood nuisance. They began to enforce the letter of the law for every violation until the bar closed.


There's an alternate universe where these kinds of problems are entirely dealt with through nuisance and noise laws and that kind of thing: the bar is permitted wherever people want to build it, however, the local authorities come down hard on people being a PITA. So if it's a wine bar where middle aged people sip quietly and chat about business, it's not going to bother anyone. The rowdy biker bar probably won't last long in a residential area.


That sounds pretty bad. If you make everything illegal then only selectively enforce the laws...


In the USA, that seems to be the model at all levels of government.


Just have metered parking everywhere and have the cost per unit time reflect the local demand for parking. Now you've eliminated an externality.


> Just have metered parking everywhere and have the cost per unit time reflect the local demand for parking. Now you've eliminated an externality.

But that doesn't resolve the question of the supply of parking spaces - i.e., how many there should be. That only allocates the existing ones.

Also, it allocates them to those who can pay more; that's not always desirable. For example, should citizens' access to the grocery store be limited by their ability to pay for parking? To city hall?


Yes? It's a finite resource that has to be allocated somehow. Having to have space for parking is a negative externality of owning a car. Make owning a car more expensive and you'll see fewer people driving, taking up parking spaces.

I don't own a car because it doesn't make financial sense for me to do so. That's the kind of longer term market impact you'd want to see.

Edit: The choices are not between allowing people to go to the grocery store and courthouse or not, it's between taking the bus and driving. I do just fine on public transport without a car.


Who gets to decide the cost per unit time? Do we have 24/7 real-time bidding system?


Presumably some governmental authority. Some realtime bidding system would be nice, but that may or may not realistic. I think a realistic goal is that the prices should be set such that there's always 1-2 spots available in any given small area (say, one city block). If you have zero spots available, then the prices are too low and should be raised. If half the street is empty, the prices are too high and should be lowered. The prices will have to adjust based on time of day and day of week, etc.. It doesn't have to be be perfect to be much better than the system we have now.


> Some realtime bidding system would be nice, but that may or may not realistic.

Realtime bidding would be a UX nightmare, though I guess it's Econ 101 (i.e., ignoring lots of real factors, including transaction costs) optimal.


Yea, I don't really think realtime bidding is worthwhile for these kinds of transactions. It makes bothering with it too much trouble.

Rather, I think a municipality setting prices by fiat to be something that mostly gives the an approximate solution most of the time.


> the barbershops may be incentivized to push the parking costs onto others

You mean others who post "Parking for McDonald's only" on their spots and have a towing service visible?

There are problems that are not pragmatic for markets to solve without a bit of legal rigidity, but the whole "who will build the roads?" seems to stem from a lack of creativity and just overall contrarianism. "Who will build the interstate highway system" is a much more fair question, but I think cities would enjoy a nice efficiency boost from the decentralized, organic growth of a less bureaucratically-planned city (plus fewer budget problems).


Suddenly I understand why a lot of cities with those cutesey redone downtowns have central parking in mutual places, like the median in the middle of the street. The city fronts it, to keep businesses from doing annoying crap like that.


> The city fronts it

Surely you mean the taxpayer? Isn't that what the whole article is about? They're going bankrupt by preventing businesses from doing "annoying crap" like buying/constructing parking places and reserving them for their OWN customers. But perhaps bankruptcy is not such a terrible price to pay for aesthetics and bureaucratically instituted uniformity.


> I think cities would enjoy a nice efficiency boost from the decentralized, organic growth of a less bureaucratically-planned city (plus fewer budget problems).

Consider the infrastructure costs in the article: Less centralized, less planned cities would, I expect, create higher infrastructure costs as efficiencies of scale, standardization, reduced redundancy, and planning would be lost. Also, different parts of the city would try to dump costs on each other.

As I asked in another comment:

In what ways are they too regulated, and in what ways not regulated enough? ... How much regulation is just right? And: To which cities are you referring? What kinds of cities?

It's too easy to say, 'there's too much regulation'; it's cliche and doesn't really mean anything.


> Less centralized, less planned cities would, I expect, create higher infrastructure costs as efficiencies of scale, standardization, reduced redundancy, and planning would be lost.

Sounds like pure speculation. Economies of scale is a real phenomenon, but you should be aware that diseconomies of scale is also a real phenomenon that tends to manifest most clearly in government bureaucracies (and in fact, does, per the example in the article).

There is no logical reason to be a naysayer without introducing solutions of your own when the current system is clearly not working (either in terms of results OR financial sustainability). Many companies adopt informal policies like "if you complain, you need to provide a solution of your own." I'm complaining, and I propose decentralizing road building and providing incentives to make it practical for companies to develop them freely (no property taxes on roads open to the public, for example), and a reduction in zoning by city governments in the first place. Prove me wrong and provide a better solution, and I'll be thrilled. I am certainly not an expert on this subject. But I hope you don't think what we have is working -- almost every city in the US is on a practically irreversible path to bankruptcy.


In that case, you set up a corporation that buys an entire subdivision of the city, has 'zoning laws' in its corporate bylaws, and makes 'landowners' shareholders.

Isn't this just local city government with another name? Well, no. There are significant differences between a city government and an organization of private citizens. For one, it's illegal for Walmart to bribe voters; but a corporation would love to have Walmart 'bribe' its shareholders.

Since I assume the land value of neatly organized sections is higher than that of poorly organized sections, there would be an entire section of the economy that buys up individual plots of land, forms corporations out of them, and redevelops and resells the area.


Should citizens have a vote in what happens in their city, or should they be ruled by corporate executives?

Also, a common and essential part of the free market is failure and bankruptcy. What happens when parts of the city go bankrupt? What happens to the citizens there? What happens to the debt?


Ask a local HOA for a copy of their bylaws. My idea isn't novel or weird. Wikipedia says 62 million people in the US live in a HOA. Those questions are all well-settled legally.

I'm not suggesting to remove the city; just a way of re-implementing land-use and building codes if a city doesn't handle it. Probably you'd want fire codes and limited zoning for polluting heavy manufacturing to be handled by the city no matter what; though lawsuits and insurance could cover in a pinch.


An HOA is a democratic institution; it's not rule by the wealthy or corporate executive.


I really don't want to live in the world of Snow Crash


Portland, Oregon did an interesting analysis of the impact parking minimums has on housing costs. (spoiler: it's substantial)

https://www.portlandoregon.gov/bps/article/420062

Paradoxically, during my brief time living in San Diego, the nicest (and most expensive) neighborhoods were generally the ones built before parking minimums, because they were actually pleasant to live in. Newer areas had plenty of parking but nothing to do that didn't involve driving.


Actually in the eastern part of the Europe (former soviet influence zone) smaller cities are planned, and they are planned really well. As the parent posters have said, it is very similar to the former USSR - you have a lot of green, shops, schools, kindegardens, parks within a walking distance from where you live.

After we ditched the planning and switched to market economy, suddenly developers (the ones that make buildings, not code) started building a lot of buildings without leaving a space for either green or parking spots. As a result in the newer parts of the cities we have a very crowded leaving space, cars are parking everywhere, there are few shops, schools are far away etc.


That's because market-economy developers expropriate planning properties that lead to higher quality of life, externalizing the resultant downstream costs upon their customers, who in this instance of a market with highly asymmetrical information between parties (out of many in market economies) are not aware of the longer-term, cross-functional factors decided against their interests when they make their housing purchasing decisions. This is only somewhat mitigated by customers gradually over time (a few generations) building up a kind of institutional knowledge of preferences that painfully slowly express themselves into the market, and quickly vanish if not assiduously and consciously protected; see many much older walkable neighborhoods in less well off sections of towns and cities get gentrified over with less walkable developments.


Emailed you recently. Can you check if I understood your address correctly? :)


Yep, you reached me.


The number of parking spots isn't for the barber, it's so that the customers don't park their cars in the spots of the residents or other users of the area! We in 'Europe' have exactly those rules (and then some). And we need them, because these old, not-planned looking cities lack space for everything that didn't exist 500 years ago, obvious things like cars but also 100's of people per building (few residential building were higher than 3 stories 300 years ago) and even bicycles (which already increase the travel range and thus centralization viability for core infrastructure like shops).


No, you don't. Your city would look very, very different if you had parking minimums like in the US.

A parking spot is about 30 square meters. 300 square feet. My house is on a footprint of 900 square feet. When you add driveway length, you can see that my driveway takes up almost as much land as my house, and for homes with more than one parking spot in my area, it can take up more than the house.

For businesses, it's even worse. Look at a satellite image of any American suburban area, and start coloring in the parking spots, and you'll be appalled at how much space is taken up by these things.


I'm not saying we require the same amount of parking, just that we have the same type of rules. Just like your areas that already have higher density don't require the same number of parking spots as those in suburban and mall-style developments.

Look, I know about the problems with car-centric development (I've been a researcher on (urban) land use for over 15 years now). What I'm saying is that the argument the GP tried to make, how Europe is an example of better solutions with less regulations, is wrong. (A) because we don't have better solutions (just different outcomes, the jury's out on whether it's 'better') and (B) because we have just as much regulation.


> the spots of the residents

Those are generally driveways in the US, and are private property: you park your car there, it'll get towed in short order.

Parking minimums are not a thing in large areas of Italy, where I lived. I once lived in an apartment downtown and there was no parking spot included: we walked 20 minutes to a place where we could park. If we had wanted to pay something, we probably could have found a spot that was closer. This is the market at work: we were not forced to pay for parking we didn't really need (we used the car rarely at that point in our lives).


So how many people came by car to the shops at ground level from where you lived? You're not making a case for less regulation, your making a case for more private ownership of space. Which is fine (although it does reduce overall efficiency, so there are limits to the circumstances in which it can work), but it doesn't say anything about how much or little regulation is 'required' or 'reasonable' (nor about the relative amount between the US and 'Europe', which is what this (sub)argument is about).

I mean, you'll have to agree with me that if you're holding up Italy of all places as an example where few regulations (and/or lax enforcement) lead to good outcomes, you're really stretching the criteria of what can be considered 'good outcomes'...


> Most of Europe is pretty walkable and it doesn't have that 'planned' look either.

The pattern that I've observed in my area (East Germany) is that towns have grown by merging with the hamlets and villages around them. So you can have a rapid succession of relatively loose areas with small houses and businesses (the former village centers) interspersed with large prefab apartment blocks (like those that were built in large numbers in GDR times) in the gaps between the villages.

The only major pattern change after the reunification was the emergence of a lot of small shopping malls that bundle a portion of the shops in each district into one place (usually at an intersection of large streets and tram lines).

In contrast, American cities look more like one big blob that grew out into the vast, empty space surrounding it. Since there wasn't any structure to hold onto, everything turned out much more uniform.


Houston actually has relatively lax zoning laws. This makes for some interesting stuff:

http://www.chron.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/Weir...


Yeah, Houston gets trotted out a lot by the Market Urbanism folks:

http://marketurbanism.com/2016/06/02/houston-beautiful-yet-p...

But that city also has massive sprawl, so it's kind of tough to point at as an example for more coastal folks. Certain areas may showcase how things could be, but it's still a very car-centric city.


While it lacks many types of zoning, Houston still has minimum parking requirements, which push people towards driving. It also exists in a conservative state that favors highway expansion over transit expansion.


Yes - that's pointed out in the article where they talk about how parking minimums and covenants enforced by the city, rather than privately, create a sort of 'zoning lite'.


An interesting view of how parking affects Houston is at http://www.citymetric.com/transport/what-bombs-did-rotterdam...


The great thing about Houston from a market urbanist perspective isn't that it's particularly dense or walkable, but that it's dirt cheap for the amenities it does offer.


> those businesses couldn't figure out for themselves the optimal amount of parking to pay for to keep their customers happy.

Those businesses don't pay for the parking themselves. The tax payer pays for those parking spots. That's the entire point of street parking, city run parking lots, and the like. Public parking isn't market controlled it's state subsidized. That's why it's called 'public' parking.


The parking spots on a business' property, right out front as is often the case in the US are not public. A business could choose to locate somewhere with more or less of this, or forego it altogether. However, currently, businesses are almost always required to have some spots of their own, that are not public.

Public spots (street parking) might get used by customers of a barber, or by local residents, or by another business. This might prove frustrating to customers of the barber who demand easy parking, and they'll go to another barber who does provide more reserved, non-public parking. Or maybe not! Maybe different barbers have different clientele.

This is something the barber shop ought to be able to decide.


> However, currently, businesses are almost always required to have some spots of their own, that are not public.

I don't think that's actually true; certain types of developments are required to include parking as part of the development (e.g., strip malls), but the individual businesses, either in those developments or not, are rarely required to have their own parking.


Look it up in your local zoning code. Here it's true. Perhaps it's true that they get to combine their spots with other businesses in a development like a strip mall.


Oh, it was definitely "planned" in the modern era. You can see similar problems to the states in many European suburbs (though not as bad because a lot more planning).


Sure, there's planning there, but not quite as much as the US. I own a flat in a suburb of Padova, Italy. It's in a building with 5 other flats. Next to it are two single family homes, as well as another apartment building with 8 flats. Some of the flats are owned, some are rented.

In the US, things get separated out into giant apartment complexes where everyone rents, and single family home districts, where people lose their shit at the mere whiff of a duplex being built.


Eh, Swiss laws on zoning would make an American's head spin. There is a huge emphasis on mixed use, but that is planned as well!

There are plenty of condo buildings that are owner owned and also rented out! It's just that the USA has plenty of buildings designed for rentals, which is more about the American market than zoning (residential is residential).


Europe is pretty diverse, I guess :-)

> It's just that the USA has plenty of buildings designed for rentals, which is more about the American market than zoning (residential is residential).

How things are done in the US tends to favor larger developers who can come along and make a bunch of apartments in an area where that has been approved (which tends to be a fairly small portion of the city), rather than a more incremental development style where things slowly transition building by building. This is in large part because of zoning laws that make it difficult to get apartments in many places, so having the means to face the legal challenges is only something those with deeper pockets can handle, rather than a smaller developer who may only wish to develop a few buildings.


Zoning controls single and multi unit housing, but the "apartment building" that consists of just rentals is an American thing unrelated to that. In fact, one can convert apartments to condos if one wants (assuming rent control is not an issue). The developers alternate between doing condo and apartment projects, I guess the distinction is important when projects are approved individually, but you can't set that bias in zoning!

The US is not alone in large developers doing large projects. There is nothing else in china, though almost all (if not all) projects are unit for sale (that can and are rented out by the buyer).

Individual units aren't really that common in Europe either, especially in cities (I lived in Lausanne for 2 years also). At best you might have (what the USA calls) duplexes in all but the ritziest of areas. Most of the buildings were fairly large multi unit housing that must have been done by a largish developer at some point; then it is only a matter to deal with the gerrance to do the rental.....

The US is weird in its fixation on detached housing, for sure.


The US is weird in its fixation on detached housing, for sure.

Is it really so weird not to want to hear your neighbors' every amorous evening? Or worry that your kids are bothering them when they run around, or that your work schedule will interfere with the sleep schedule of your neighbors (or vice versa)?


It's weird that you tolerate houses built to such a low standard that hearing through walls is a major problem solved only by doubling them and adding an air gap of a few feet...


It's also not weird to want to live in a huge house on several acres of land. Many people would like that.

Economics is about the infinite wants of people colliding with limited resources. Given the option, some people would live in a cruddy apartment to be 'close to the action' in a place like San Francisco or New York.


It's kind of weird when choosing to live in a large city, where being in close proximity to people is the whole point. It's not so weird when choosing to live in a low population area, but also not so much of a problem.


Insulation solves all of those problems. Mineral wood between the studs and (especially) the floor and ceiling joists goes a long way.


I think the issue here is what is meant by "more planning"

The US is "more planned" in the sense that zoning laws are more strict. More lenient policies in many countries in Europe have more thought put into them, but end up being less strict because that's the way to build nicer cities the way people want them.


There are zoning and planning because, well, people actually live in those places, and it's natural for people to want some control over their environment. Is that really such a bad thing?

It's like drugs, and prostitution, and all of the many things that seem so trendy to want to 'free' from government these days. On paper, the ideas look fantastic and efficient. That is, until a 24-hour strip club / pot dispensary opens across from your kid's elementary school.

Government sucks because it is by nature design by committee. It's inefficient and ugly. Yet, what's the alternative? Maybe AI at some point, but until then we have either collaborative government or authoritative.

But back to the article. One thing overlooked is the pressure on city officials from developers to get rezoning rules waived. And, there's often a lot of corruption in that process, also. For instance, most cities know that residential units cost more in services than other units. And, usually the taxes are structured (too low) such that the residential tax is insufficient to pay for the supplied services. The city planners know this and they account for it in their zoning plans. But, the developers later pressure cities to allow rapid expansion of residential. And, ultimately the plans become broken by too many new units.


In Canada towns have strip clubs in the main commercial area across from banks and grocery stores. It's not an issue. The windows are blacked out and the mere aura of a strip club doesn't somehow damn children. Heck in the D.C., liquor stores are precriously close to playgrounds yet it causes no trouble. People who buy liquor have children too, and if not are still part of the community and thus tend not to do whatever it is you think those who buy legal pot will do.


There's an SM club and a store for adult toys right across from the kindergarten and the school in my area. It's mostly windows with blinds, only the signs are a bit of a giveaway. Sometimes late in the evening you see folks dressed up according to their planned activities, but I have yet to observe any ill effect on me, any of the children or anybody else. I bet a lot of people still haven't noticed what kind of action happens there.


Sorry - was just using that as an example to illustrate that most people have some preferences about what they want and need in their environment. The purpose wasn't to demonize strip clubs or pot houses. Some people may prefer a strip club next door. To others, it may be a church or a parking lot or a factory that they don't want.

Some people don't want free markets to be a force in their lives - pushing up against their personal preferences. And, those people have as valid of a position as those that do, particularly when in a community of like minded people. It's ironic that libertarian minded people try to wash away this fact - some communities want central planning and zoning, and others don't.


It ultimately comes down to how much you think that 'majority rule' should be able to force things on other people. Some communities, in the past, wanted all the non-white people to stay away from certain neighborhoods. These days, we view that as abhorrent.

I'm not a libertarian by the way - I'll happily argue for regulations and government solutions to other problems where I feel they make sense. But in this case, I think we have gone way too far in regulating and dictating things in the US.


Without knowing the actual parking regulations, it's difficult to say whether the regulations are useful or unnecessary. Maybe they are saying that you need a certain number of handicapped parking spaces? Maybe they are saying you can't build a lot with 50 spots if you expect 10 customers?


All real estate related problems in American cities are about nonsensical level of regulation. It is really cool to find so much free parking in Sunnyvale but then we cant really complain about high rents can we ?

People fail to see the basic premise that you cant really have both, plenty of parking and lower rents. They go hand in hand.


You can easily have plenty of parking and lower rents. You might also be seeking big-city stuff like subways and major-league sports, and that just isn't going to happen.

Proof: Palm Bay, FL (got parking and low rent, and even has tech jobs -- but no subway or major-league sports)


Well, they got walkability mostly right, but living in those panel boxes was still not great. I'd never want to go back to that...

Personally, I find the 5-8 story setups of cities like Paris, Barcelona or Rome much more appealing - enough density to make all the good things like walkability and local cafes happen, but no blocked out sun (Like in NYC) or need to climb to 20th floor when the elevator gives out for the nth time.


Having lived in Berlin, which is mostly 5-6 story buildings, I think there's a real sweet spot at this height, perhaps a bit higher if people want larger apartments. This puts enough people in a small area that having good transit, including subways, makes economic sense, and all of the daily essentials are within a block or two. Going higher means you need bigger spacing between buildings in order for the lower floors to get any sunlight, especially in the winter. Bigger spacing between buildings creates a sense of disconnectednes between buildings. At 5-6 stories, you do need fairly wide streets. If you do them like Berlin, you allocate a lot of that width to sidewalks, which are then wide enough for the retail to spill out onto the streets with outdoor displays and sidewalk seating for cafes and bars. It also gives you plenty of room on the sidewalk for other infrastructure like subway stops with adequate width stairwells, bus stops, bike sharing stations, etc. It's also fairly easy to work on underground infrastructure without huge disruption because it runs near the street but under the sidewalk, so normally working on it just means closing off part of the sidewalk. The streets aren't so wide though that they create this cut-off feeling, everything feels continuous.


How was the soundproofing in these 5-6 story buildings? I've lived in flats in the UK and had endless problems, from people vacuuming at 6am on wooden floors above my bedroom to sleepless nights from parties, to hearing TV and conversations.

I like the idea of 5-6 story buildings and know we need higher density housing, but past experiences make we want to live in a 2-story (semi-)detached house with enough garden to keep the neighbours at a distance.


Well, Germans have a lot of rules about when you're allowed to make noise, and they have a reputation for involving the authorities more than in other places. Having lived in several apartments in different parts of the city, noise from neighbors was rarely a problem, but street noise sometimes was in the summer when the windows were open.


Where I've lived, the flats made in 60s to 90s had rather varying soundproofing. Worst case you could hear neighbors chatting and their babies crying, best only bigger noise.

But apartments made since 2000 have had excellent sound-proofing. Absolutely silent from neighbors. Only reason not to live in a new flat with walking distance from services is if you really like gardening.


Re flats in the UK, if you want soundproofing then often new builds are way better, since the floors are concrete.


I live in a GDR-era 5-story apartment block (a model WBS-70/5, to be exact). The soundproofing is quite good; I don't feel disturbed by the neighbors in the surrounding apartments at all. My only gripe is that the door to the entry door is a bit thin. On weekends, when I like to stay in bed a bit longer, I frequently hear people passing by on the stairs.


If you put enough mineral wood in the walls, floors, and ceilings, install triple-pane casement windows (seriously, sash windows are shit), and mount all the plasterboard on stand-offs instead of directly on surfaces, sound shouldn't ever be a problem.


Unfortunately, nothing new is built that way, that art seems to have been lost at some point during world war one. We can't even blame the car for that, as true mass motorization happened much later.

Early modern housing schemes (of which Berlin has quite a few really interesting examples, e.g. the Siemensstadt developments to the north of Siemensdamm subway stop) were a great response to how those traditional patterns sufferered from overcrowding back when they supported much higher density than today. Unfortunately, that style developed into something very ugly when it was ruthlessly scaled vertically a few decades later.


You don't need such density to have walkability to shops and cafés. Any 2-3 story small town from 2000-4000 to 30000-40000 inhabitants can provide it.

That's not at all in the league of the 1-3 millions inhabitants cities you quoted. Paris is a nightmare to live in and people want to flea from it. There used to be close to 3 millions inhabitants and it is now down to slightly over 2 millions.


Ick. In Vancouver we have some areas which are basically paved with 5-10 floor buildings -- there's no space between adjacent buildings, and only a narrow sidewalk separating buildings from vehicular traffic. We also have areas with 30-40 floor towers separated by parks and playgrounds, with plenty of trees and wide sidewalks.

The population density is basically identical between these areas, but I can't imagine why anyone would want to live in a low-rise area.

(Incidentally, the reason we have low-rise areas is because the city has an absurdly long list of "sight cones" to protect views of the local mountains.)


Seems like a problem with street design. As someone noted above, you do need wider streets with wide side walks for this type of construction to be livible. If you cluster too tightly, window to window, it definitely degrades the setup.


It's not just a matter of the streets; it's also the space within each block. Having towers makes it possible to have open spaces as well without decreasing the density.


New York City -- even in Manhattan -- still has neighborhoods like you describe:

https://goo.gl/maps/zQTS15XWCh92


Town's have totally different economics. My town is fiscally solvent, takes are of it's infrastructure, and doesn't much raise taxes. And we are very spread out, with an average lot size of 2 acres. Small roads are the responsibility of the town. Bigger roads (there aren't many) are the responsibility of the county. I'll claim that the layout of the town doesn't matter nearly as much as the fiscal discipline of the town government.

As you scale from town to city, it is too easy for this discipline to break down. Whereas in my town, the town manager has to put up a pretty strong argument to justify hiring another employee or buying a piece of expensive equipment, in a medium to large city I, as a taxpayer, don't have any visibility let alone say, in any such expenditure.

Fiscal discipline comes mainly from individuals not wanting to spend their hard-earned money - unless going so is necessary to keep things in their current working order. Once these spending decisions are made by nameless bureaucrats, that personal discipline is lost.


That's not quite correct... fiscal discipline isn't going to make most suburb-heavy cities in America solvent. You can't cut your way to profitability in the long term, you can only stave off bankruptcy in the short term.

The article is saying that mostly-suburb cities are not sustainable. They cost more to build and maintain over the long term than the majority of cities can recoup in taxes. That has little to do with employees, they are mostly talking about straight-line capital costs to dig up the streets and install new sewer lines. Even worse is that many cities grew in a relatively small post-war boom so a lot of that infrastructure will need replacing at the same time.

Towns don't typically provide all of water, sewer, storm sewer, and other such services... they might provide water. They can also just dig up everyone's yard to replace what infrastructure they do have because things are more spread out (lost of "wasted" land between the house and road) and far fewer people are disrupted (that also means projects can be done at a slower pace). They also have a much sparser police and fire department, far fewer parks, etc.


You are indeed supporting my assertion that towns have different economics. Mine is an old suburb (1920s) of a medium-sized city (Pittsburgh). And as I stated, our town is sustainable. We have "more" parks not "fewer parks". Parks require much less maintenance cost than does residential spaces(plus much is done by volunteers). I'll also assert again that how "spread out" things are doesn't matter. If anything, denser clusters will have lower maintenance costs (less digging).

So how can we make cities have the same fiscal discipline of towns? We'd have to reverse the land-grab of the cities. Have them split into fiscal units the same size as my town (20K people). Have the managers have to come ask those residence to approve their budget.

Same issue with schools. Why does the Pittsburgh city school district spend the same per pupil as the suburbs, but the such worse results? Lack of fiscal discipline.


For your last point, if your student demographic is more impoverished, you will get worse results compared to a more well off demographic even with the same per pupil spending; the resources the kid has at home is important! (Charter schools get their results through selection bias, American suburbs with large lots that aren't suitable for low income housing likewise).

The white flight to the suburbs in the 60s is largely responsible for that, creating a negative feedback loop that we haven't been able to break even now. Anyways, it isn't always about fiscal discipline, often the answer is much more obvious than that. Suburbs basically outsourced poverty to the cities.


This is the 21st century. Urbanites are not impoverished.


Not sure why the downvotes. There way more activity in the urban core here now, and both young adults and empty-nesters are choosing to move into the city. What used to be boarded-up storefronts are now cafes, bookstores, art galleries, restaurants, etc. Please don't continue giving progressivism a bad rap by sticking with this "impoverished city" bs.


Neither young adults nor empty-nesters are the demographic that impoverished school-age children are associated with, so those populations moving into the urban core doesn't have a very direct positive impact on the educational outcomes of schools that impoverished children attend.


Then we'll have to wait 5-6 years to see if these young adults stay in the city after they have kids. Frankly I am hopeful that they will.


They might, but it hasn't happened yet. Pittsburgh is a good example of a city that hasn't thrived as much as others, but even Seattle city schools suffer compared to the suburbs. "Live in Seattle until you have kids, then move to Bothell or Bellevue."


I don't think the schools example is parallel. There's a lot of factors that go into the success of a student, both in and outside of school. Equal funding doesn't translate to equal opportunity.


But I'm not talking about individual students. In my example, we'd be averaging the students individual situation over the 20-30K in their new fiscal neighborhood. Any "success factors" that did exist across such averages would be more than canceled out by the empowerment given to parent and child.


I grew up in the same town and strongly share your sentiments! I noticed Americans tend to be incredulous when I speak positively about it. Perhaps this is due to the obvious similarity to public housing layouts here and their negative associations, but also from a lack of appreciation (due to lack of first-hand experience of) the benefits that you mentioned above.


What's the town's name?



The very same town?


Sorry new HN and didnt see your response but yep lived in Troitsk until the early 90s.


Sprawl is pretty easy to avoid when car ownership rates are as low as they were in the Soviet Union.


Not it didn't, speaking as someone who lives in such a planned part of a city. There are several problems: - the areas for living, for offices, and for industry are disjointed and far from each other, necessitating a lot of travel each day. This was partly understandable for workers in polluting industries, but now it's just a pain. - the 'green' spaces are too big (yes, really), which further increases distances and makes it too expensive for the city to take care of them properly. Furthermore the absence of enclosed communal space (what is sometimes inside the 'city blocks') means that the inhabitants don't feel the green space 'belongs to them'. So they don't feel incentives to care for that space, and they don't. (as an aside, the absence of city blocks is sometimes explained as it should make easier for tank armies to control the area in the event of an uprising or war) - the supporting infrastructure was to be built later than the flats, sometimes much later, sometimes never. That's a problem of the execution, though.

I'm not saying it's all bad, but it could be much better.


>Furthermore the absence of enclosed communal space (what is sometimes inside the 'city blocks') means that the inhabitants don't feel the green space 'belongs to them'.

Yeah this. I never liked the "one huge park for everyone in the city" approach. I think the Chicago-style "many parks" approach is superior. In my neighborhood I have four parks within walking distance, seven or eight if you include school playlots.

>So they don't feel incentives to care for that space, and they don't.

Trash gets picked up quickly in the parks. I do feel a sense of ownership with the closest parks and get pissed when I see trash and promptly pick it up. I think smaller localized spaces do a good job of fighting the 'tragedy of the commons' we see with larger spaces. When something belongs to 'everyone' it really belongs to no one. Sorry but that's just human nature and one of the many reasons communism failed.

Not to mention, a lot of those Soviet towns are little more than endless ugly apartment blocks. The idea of a home with a unique design or a single family home with its own yard didn't fit in with the engineer led design of 'everyone lives in efficient boxes.' I find towns like that to be depressing and ugly. I'd rather trade some efficiency for beauty and livability. Top-down approaches get praised by geeks, but ultimately are simply worse than bottom-up approaches many American cities developed from. I'd much rather live in chaotic NYC, LA, or Chicago than 'ultraplanned' cities in Russia or China. Considering how many people we have dying to immigrate here, I suspect wanting those types of lifestyles reflects something in human nature.


OTOH, Brasilia [1], the Federal Capital of Brazil, was 100% planned and included just spaces for cars. Not parking, just roads. Everything is very far apart, and the living part of it (houses, buildings) should consist in mega-blocks that would provide those basic needs: markets, pharmacies, groceries...

Didn't work. You need a car for everything. The roads are flooded with cars. The city expanded and a great part of the habitants live very far from the place they work, so it takes a long time to go home.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bras%C3%ADlia


But isn't this what public housing projects in the US did, and are now considered massive failures?


The reason for the US public housing projects' failure is wealth inequality. When your population has a mix of well-off people and very poor people, and you provide super-cheap housing, the very poor people gravitate to it, among them those who are desperate, have nothing to lose, involved in drugs and crime, etc.

Once this happens the crime rate goes up, the area feels unsafe to 'normal' people, and anyone who can do so gets the hell out of there. The area turns into a slum and is basically impossible to 'fix' without redeveloping it.

I'd guess that in Russia, one of two things happens. Either Russia's wealth distribution is even enough under communism that the rot never sets in, or in practice they're just as much of a slum as the American ones and we're just seeing a romanticized view.


in Russia most people with low-income just can't afford new housing and live with parents or in inherited apartments after their grandparents/parents die

those apartments we not bought, but privatized after Soviet Union collapse, where people get apartments for "free" after approx. 10 years working on a factory or so...

so in new projects, which are sold for money with mortgage rates at 12% annually there's no people that have "nothing to lose", people that have "nothing to lose" are widespread, living in apartments their parents got in Soviet Union


I was born in one of those cities where most housing is in the form of the old communist panelaks. But there is a clear distinction between the nice neighborhoods (5-10 floor buildings, trees and parks filling the sizable spaces) and the shitty ones (20+ floors, densely packed, near interstates, spaced with dirt). The former are a nice place to raise a middle class family, and the latter are crime filled slums.


How would having fewer rich people prevent the poor from committing crimes against the middle class (or just publicly engaging in victimless crimes[1]) and engaging in other behaviors that make an area feel unsafe?

As a counterpoint, consider India and most of Asia. Poor areas are dirty and have little infrastructure, but they don't feel unsafe. I occasionally shop in Dharavi and don't feel unsafe at all.

[1] I believe that lots of strung out drug addicts make an area feel unsafe even if they don't harm anyone.


In Chicago at least, it was a vicious circle. The rich (who by extension are the powerful) moved poor (or maybe more inline to their thought process at the time, black) people to specific areas so that they would be away from the rich (or again, really more relevant at the time, white) people.

This concentration of people required more services both because of the sheer higher concentration of people and because of the lack of private money to backstop gaps. At the same time, those areas received less services/investment precisely because the people who lived there were not powerful. This gap of services lead to increased crime due to factors such as lack of opportunity, increased drug abuse due to hopelessness, worse education options, etc.

The gap widened and got worse until it became untenable to maintain (and in some cases the land became too valuable) and political power was used to disperse the public housing population.


According to you, the problem is that the rich moved away and stopped providing resources.

Suppose inequality were lower and those rich people simply didn't exist. They would still be unable to provide resources, and the low level of services you describe would still exist. Wouldn't the crime/drug use/etc still happen?


> According to you, the problem is that the rich moved away and stopped providing resources.

That is not what I said. What I said was that the powerful moved the poor, into higher density, more resource intensive areas and then neglected to provide adequate services.

If the inequality were lower and those rich people (and really I prefer powerful in this case, but they are largely the same group so I suppose it is fine) did not exist, the concentrated population would be diffused across more areas, making it less tenable to actively neglect them and making the problem less severe in the first place.

That said, I believe crime/drug use/etc are not avoidable, so its not a question of whether those things would occur but a question of the rate.


If this narrative is true, and concentrated poverty is the result of rich people somehow moving the poor, then countries with lower inequality will not have concentrated poverty.

At least here in India, with significantly less inequality than the US, we still have lots of concentrated poverty. It's almost as if residential separation is the result of market forces and individual choices (c.f. the Schelling model).

http://nifty.stanford.edu/2014/mccown-schelling-model-segreg...


Dharavi used to have terrible violent crime in the 70s-80s, but despite the apparent squalor, it has since developed into a functioning "township" with long term established businesses and organized political and cultural institutions[1].

Your comparison of Dharavi to the situation in American public housing projects is fallacious because it draws the equivalency based on Dharavi's dirtiness while ignoring how incredibly dissimilar the places are.

[1] http://in.reuters.com/article/india-landrights-slum-idINKCN1...


When the middle class is only barely more wealthy than the destitute, there is no point for the poor to try to rob them. And then only the political elite is much richer (in practise even if not in theory), and they are protected well by the police and the military.

This can be the situation in places with centrally managed economies like North Korea today. Obviously, they are also very safe (from the regular criminal behaviour point of view).


If that were true then areas with concentrated poverty should have negligible crime - why bother robbing anyone if everyone is poor? Yet that is the exact opposite of what is seen in reality.


A single concentrated poverty spot naturally doesn't work like that. It is immersed in a culture that shows it the income and wealth inequalities, as well as uses them to justify violence.

But when a country is universally poor but has a working and stable government, you may have surprisingly low crime rates. But then, such a country often doesn't stay poor. (Look at China...)


So the poor commit crimes against each other solely because rich people exist somewhere else and don't interact with them?

Malaysia is oddly anti-semitic for a country with about 0 Jews. I'd expect that if the Jews were causing all the problems, then Jews would actually need to exist in-country. But now you are making me re-think; is it plausible that simply by existing somewhere else, the Jews cause Muslims to engage in bad actions that harm themselves?

I don't understand your general principle. When is it reasonable for one group to blame their actions on the existence of some far away out-group?


Not exactly "somewhere else"; rich people exist in the vicinity to set a role model and perhaps target for easily and quickly acquired wealth.

Jews are of course a global scape-goat for Muslim extremists.


The difference is that there wouldn't be such intense concentrations of poor people when people moving to the area are less driven by wealth inequality.

Also strung out drug addicts are likely to be driven to theft.


It was the former.


Public housing in the US was poorly implemented. It was strictly low-income, rather than mixed-income, and the housing was largely soulless large complexes far from amenities. Other countries, like Austria, have public housing that works perfectly fine.


I found "Blueprint for Disaster: The Unraveling of Chicago Public Housing" very educational about why the US had such poorly implemented public housing (at least in Chicago).

Early efforts were mixed income, small and in desirable locations. They were also by many measures very successful. That model was moved away from because it eroded the power base of the political leaders of the day and for straight up racist reasons.

Its also largely a myth that the large block, low income model was ever seen as likely to succeed. Public housing experts and advocates at the time anticipated the disastrous results that came about.


Well, the theory, as I've heard an urban planner explain in a video, is that the problem with projects is that they are populated by people of exactly the same class. A mixed income/background area is less likely to turn into what projects did. I'm just quoting somebody else here, won't claim that it's a fact.


You should check out Stuyvesant Town in NYC. I really like its layout and the lack of cars. It's a good community. I've envisioned building an entire city as a chain of these self contained Stuyvesant Towns.


I don't know a better solution in terms of space efficiency, but living in a high rise is so depressing. I prefer to live way out in the woods, but the benefits of what you describe sound great


It's the same in most of the eastern bloc, I've always been super surprised at how good the public transit is in Czech cities, and that's because of the high-rises.


Why did that town exist? Why did a small number of people live in that isolated area, instead of closer in to population centers?


Said town site is on a communication mainline - railroad.

Guess what, US lacks those for what would mostly be called political lobbying reasons. Including light rail and underground rail.

Rail is comparatively cheap to maintain compared to roads due to much higher passenger density and construction details. Even a tunnel is cheaper to maintain (not build) than a properly drained, pothole free and soft road.


It's not isolated. In another comment someone from there mentioned that it's not far from Moscow.


Is it still the same way now?


It has grown, and more sprawly type of development has been accumulating around it, sadly. This is Moscow region and the population has been growing very fast. Parking space has become an issue as well.


Here in Vilnius parking is an issue two. As I understand (I'm originally from the UK), in an apartment building of maybe 30 units there would be maybe 2 cars during Soviet times, where as now its more like 30 :D

The buildings here aren't that big (I went to Kiev a couple of years ago and was surprised how much taller they are) so there is usually just about enough space between the buildings to fit all the cars in. New buildings almost exclusively have underground parking, which is nice to recover the green space.


If anybody's curious in looking further, the place appears to be Troitsk, Moscow.


They've got fewer people, so probably. Outside of the boomtowns and the capital, almost certainly.


If your quality of life is determined solely by walkability, then sure, you'd consider it "high". In the USSR things were walkable out of necessity: not everyone had cars. And besides, if you're building a block of high rises (stuffed with tiny 650sqft apartments, for the proletariat) and estimate there will be 1K kids, you might as well build a school, a drug store and a grocery store in the middle. Swimming pool within a walking distance was a rather extravagant luxury, not everyone had that. Shit, I hadn't even seen a real swimming pool until I started college. Woods, sure, that's kinda nice.

My point being, you make it sound like every town in the USSR was like that whereas in reality what you're describing sounds like a "unicorn" situation that was rarely encountered in reality. Walkability was about the only thing Soviet urban planning had going for it. Ironically, these days I live in US suburbia within walking distance of a pool, elementary/middle/high school, and a convenience store. And woods too: we pretty regularly see deer in our back yard.


Soviet union planned cities are mostly awful. They mandate helluva lot of open space between high-rises which doesn't get any care. It also creates corridors for fierce cold winds to blow. Most of buildings don't have space for commerce making area either as dead as suburbia or blistered with shackles selling stuff. Transit stops are far between and you have to get there thru ice and hail. Roads are few and congested while still getting in your way.

http://pora-valit.livejournal.com/4740340.html it mostly looks like this

It was fine up until the 50-s and then worse and worse with each year (even now)


A lot of open space is great because the wind can blow. When you block the wind you get poor air quality. In Cracow, Poland we have that trouble, there are buildings that block natural wind and the polluted air sits and makes people sick (PM2.5 and PM10 are > 300% their safe levels, see https://map.airly.eu/)


Most of Russian cities are built on a plain (or even better - major river) and they don't have any problems with venting out polluted air. Regular pre-Brezhnev street gaps are more than enough for that.

However, most of Russian cities have half of year of virtually winter, with temperature near or below zero celsius.

This pretty much makes such apartment blocks torturous/unlivable due to chilling winds if you don't have a car. And if you do, keep in mind that they're not built for that, so lack of parking and congestion are your new friends.


I've seen the infrastructure thing come up for awhile now, and it's definitely true. In my area, as in others I've read of, they're smashing paved roads into gravel roads as the paved are too expensive.

The thing that fascinates me is that it feels like a forgone conclusion that infrastructure costs cannot be made cheaper. Have we really hit the most cost effective, cheapest, most sustainable method of laying/replacing sewer/gas/water lines and roads?

There's no innovation left at all when it comes to making pipes that are more easily replaceable without digging the entire road up? There's no brilliant ideas left at all on how to 'pave' roads so they're smooth enough in a way that costs less money, or lasts way longer? Heck, while we're talking improvements maybe we should have a way to pave a road such that we don't have such massive runoff and its more resilient to minor settling underneath without opening large potholes.

I do wonder whether the shit really hitting the fan, and massive chunks of the population having their roads smashed back to gravel might shake a few new ideas out.


We have an infrastructure system that maximizes spending to political donor companies. Naturally under those conditions its laugh out loud obvious that its going to cost more to build roads than to build an entire city of houses. If the houses were built under the same level of government corruption as the roads, they'd cost 10x as much minimum and only last 5 years before needing teardown replacement, and then the ratio of replacement cost of structure to infrastructure would look more natural or believable.

The puzzle they have is trying to fix a corrupt system. Merely replacing "evil car streets" with "progressive bicycle paths" will not fix anything, they'll just be a followup article about how horrible it is that the replacement cost of the bicycle path infrastructure curiously remains the same $32B because that's what the politically active re-election campaign donor contractors require.


Another article by this author (http://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2017/1/8/a-utah-republica...) describes a rejected federal proposal to hand over most federal infrastructure dollars to states, the implication being local governments would know how to allocate dollars more effectively than the federal government. The author suggests going a step further and letting majors direct the funding.


As the article says, there are plenty of solutions for these problems, individually.

The predicament, as a whole, is that we cannot afford them.

Infrastructure quality is, like so many things, directly proportionate to investment. You can trade off future maintenance by spending more initially, or vice versa, but you can't magically reduce both at the same time while providing the same level of service.

This is precisely the same problem as Terry Pratchett talked about in the boots theory of economics: http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/72745-the-reason-that-the-ri...

The problem is that the level of economic productivity supported by (for example) a strip mall is so low that it cannot support the ongoing maintenance of the infrastructure that is required to allow it to exist. This is also true for many suburban homes and office buildings.

You must either extract more productive value from the same land area and population, reduce service quality, or invest massive quantities of capital in maintenance cost reduction, which has virtually the same effect as either of the previous.


I think schools is as big (or bigger) of a problem than the infrastructure. So many towns are bedroom communities that have people commuting to other more dense areas. All the businesses that make money (and pay lots of taxes) are in those other dense areas, not local. Now the local community is on the hook forever to support the school base. Very few communities have rules saying that new developments must pay a substantial fee that could be saved against future school, infrastructure costs. But like most things in this country, people want it just don't want to pay for it (and if it is bad, don't want it here).


So the land could be used better. That's my takeaway from the article, too. If the zone can't afford the infrastructure then it should be repurposed/zoned. Bonus points if it makes cities more walkable/less designed by car.


>You can trade off future maintenance by spending more initially, or vice versa

Umm is that really true ? Maybe it is I just don't see why this would be - if anything I would guess spending more would lead to more expensive maintenance as well

> but you can't magically reduce both at the same time while providing the same level of service.

Not magic - innovation.


The classic example here is using concrete or asphalt for roads. Building a four-lane highway in concrete costs something like a million dollars per mile, all told. Building a four-lane highway with asphalt costs something like half as much. But the problem is that the asphalt highway will wear out much more quickly and will require you to go in every year and patch potholes, whereas the concrete highway will be much less susceptible to potholes and won't need to be torn up and repaved every 5-7 years. So by spending the extra money to build in concrete today, you're saving yourself extra expenses later on.

Of course, asphalt is cheaper and easier to put down, so there is always the temptation to go ahead and build the asphalt road now and take credit for it in front of voters while leaving the problem of maintaining those roads for the next person in office.


  if anything I would guess spending more would lead to
  more expensive maintenance as well
The idea is to buy a $100 thing that lasts 10 years, instead of a $20 thing that lasts one year, thus halving your long-term spending.

Of course, not all more expensive products last longer, so careful attention to value for money is a must.


I get the concept in theory I'm just not sure it's a given in practice - the way I've seen people spend extra money on projects isn't really for long term cost reduction but features that make it look flashy (increasing the scope and making it more expensive to maintain).


Take, for example, road surfacing. You can use gravel, which requires multiple maintenance visits per year to remain functional and definitely has knock-on costs in terms of car damage and such.

Or you can upgrade to asphalt - lasts much longer, much lower maintenance in terms of required manpower and visits to remain functional, etc.

Or, if you want to go the whole way, you can use reinforced concrete or a slab paver setup, they will last ~30-50 years depending largely on traffic (asphalt tends to degrade even with little traffic).

That's what I mean. It's about a 3x initial cost difference between each of the tiers, but your long term maintenance costs go down the more you spend. It's not a strict one-to-one, but still.


Just because it isn't done in practice doesn't mean it can't be done--it's a cultural/institutional/incentive matter.


>>You can trade off future maintenance by spending more initially, or vice versa

> Umm is that really true ?

Maybe not universally, but often, yes. E.g., you can build using more expensive materials that will last longer/are more resistant to environmental decay.


asphalt vs concrete roads are a good example. of course, if you want maintain stuff under the roads, concrete is a real bear.


And when concrete roads fall into disrepair, they get to be really nasty to drive on. I feel like I'm going to shake my car apart driving on some roads in Iowa.

I can't say that asphalt roads in disrepair are much better, but potholes tend to be more quickly fixed than slightly mis-aligned sections of concrete roads.


Lowering maintenance costs is one of the things you can spend money on when building infrastructure, but not the only thing, so it depends on how you spend the money.

> Not magic - innovation.

Innovation is great, but in most cases requires new upfront expenses that have already been covered for existing solutions. We already have a fairly good amount of infrastructure for producing infrastructure, so usually innovation is one of the ways you can spend more upfront to reduce long term maintenance.


> I've seen the infrastructure thing come up for awhile now, and it's definitely true.

Sort of. I'm not convinced their infrastructure pricing is accurate at all. I fully believe infrastructure has a higher cost in the suburbs, and that we aren't fully saving for/planning for those costs. But the numbers this article uses are insanely too high, to the point that it feels like an outright lie.

Strongtowns claims it costs more money to maintain the infrastructure for a single-family home (on average), than the average house would cost to build from scratch using retail pricing today (including land + construction of the house, and all of the related road/water/power/sewer infrastructure).

The StrongTown estimate seems to claim it's replacing infrastructure "once a generation" (30 years?), but is charging enough money to rip-and-replace every piece of all infrastructure 6 times per generation. Which is really high -- no one does that, there wouldn't usually be any need to do so.

Or to put it another way, StrongTowns is claiming that infrastructure maintenance alone costs the same as leveling the entire neighborhood and rebuilding it all from scratch at retail pricing every 30 years. Which is just outlandish -- if infrastructure actually was that expensive, 90% of these suburban houses never could have been built in the first place, even if financed using subsidy or debt.


> StrongTowns is claiming that infrastructure maintenance alone costs the same as leveling the entire neighborhood and rebuilding it all from scratch at retail pricing every 30 years.

This doesn't seem that surprising to me. Replacing existing utilities in place is far more expensive than laying them in the first place because you have to do it without cutting off everyone's access to water/electricity/whatever while you do it. Plus you have to work around other infrastructure and houses and dig up roads etc. And it's difficult to coordinate utility replacements so you do this stuff once for gas and later for water and again for the sewer.

On top of all that, infrastructure is just terribly expensive. Price out laying a driveway. Now imagine scaling it up by maybe 10x just for the section of road in front of your house.


> Replacing existing utilities in place is far more expensive than laying them in the first place.

Sure, but it's not 6X more expensive in the suburbs. Water / Gas lines, for instance, are often under sidewalks or yards now so you don't have to dig up the road to replace them.

> because you have to do it without cutting off everyone's access to water/electricity/whatever while you do it

You don't have to. When utility work gets done in the suburbs, people often just lose water / electricity / gas / whatever for the 24-48 hours while they do it, and just have to deal with it.

(We're talking about sprawl -- stuff done cheap, by definition. This is not the complex operation that replacing water lines in Manhattan would be).

> On top of all that, infrastructure is just terribly expensive. Price out laying a driveway.

Here are some actual average costs for street construction from the State of Michigan - https://www.michigan.gov/documents/Vol2-40UIP16SubDevCosts-Y...

Even after adjusting for inflation, it's only about 2X the cost of a driveway, not 10x.

And that's my problem with the article. It seems they took the actual cost of infrastructure, "imagined scaling it up maybe 10x", and then claimed a crisis using their imaginary costs. Real infrastructure costs, while high, are simply not anywhere near as high as they are claiming.


> Sure, but it's not 6X more expensive in the suburbs. Water / Gas lines, for instance, are often under sidewalks or yards now so you don't have to dig up the road to replace them.

Sometimes. Digging up sidewalks and yards is also expensive, regardless.

> You don't have to. When utility work gets done in the suburbs, people often just lose water / electricity / gas / whatever for the 24-48 hours while they do it, and just have to deal with it.

I've never been anywhere that 48 hours without electricity or water was considered acceptable for maintenance. In my experience, most maintenance is done during business hours with the expectation that people have utilities when they get ready in the morning and when they get home.

24 hours without a major utility is generally considered an emergency and crews are driving in from other states to help.

> Even after adjusting for inflation, it's only about 2X the cost of a driveway, not 10x.

You're probably right that the 10x number isn't accurate, since I completely made it up. It's still a lot of money and the cost to replace is always higher than the cost to build in the first place (with perhaps the exception of cost for grading).

> And that's my problem with the article. It seems they took the actual cost of infrastructure, "imagined scaling it up maybe 10x", and then claimed a crisis using their imaginary costs. Real infrastructure costs, while high, are simply not anywhere near as high as they are claiming.

I feel like you're nitpicking their claims without providing any alternative data or a compelling reason why their numbers don't make sense. You're asserting that they arbitrarily scaled up costs but you've not shown that they did so. The author is a civil engineer and a PE and a city planner so there's some weight behind his claims. You're asserting that his numbers are lies because you don't like them.

I'm not sure where your "6 times per generation" replacement claim is coming from, either.


Whether the maintenance 2x or 6x or 10x the original cost, does it matter when the reality is that the tax revenue raised can't pay for it?


Who is going to do that innovation? A startup? Good luck getting a municipal government to take risks by handing maintenance contracts to a startup. Their incentives are to do nothing and wait to be bailed out through inflation.


+1 If you're having a hard time finding innovators in some area that has obvious utility and isn't already mathematically proven to be near-optimal, the next logical question is, "what's preventing this type of work from being monetized/incentivized?"


I think you may be too used to the tech industry where factor-of-2 improvements frequently happen overnight, or at least over a few years.

> In my area, as in others I've read of, they're smashing paved roads into gravel roads as the paved are too expensive.

How much traffic do these roads get? How dense is the population in the area?


It seems to be a uniquely American practice to expect infrastructure maintenance and renewal to be funded by cities exclusively using property taxes.

Cities generally act not only as trading hubs providing services to the region surrounding them, they also act as tax revenue sweeteners due to higher concentration of high income residents. Ie. they have positive externalities for the region, province or nation.

While I'm certain there would be a level of corruption in city administration, it seems to be incredibly short sighted to force cities to fund infrastructure through only property taxes and such without funding from income tax the province/nation collects as what happens in other parts of the world.


> it seems to be incredibly short sighted to force cities to fund infrastructure through only property taxes and such without funding from income tax the province/nation collects as what happens in other parts of the world.

In America, many cities get some revenues like that as well.

Many cities levy their own income or sales taxes, in addition to the state income/sales taxes. (NYC has a 2.9-3.6% income tax itself, Seattle has a 2.7% sales tax itself, many small cities in the Midwest have their own income taxes, etc)

Cities typically also get some amount of revenue back from state taxes -- although it has unfortunately become common for some state governments to take city/road/school funding to cover spending in other places.


Cities have access to money from property taxes and sales taxes. States have access to sales tax and income tax. The state should be assisting with local budgets to level the playing field but that isn't really detailed in this article for some reason.


States and the federal government certainly do help fund city infrastructure. Often it comes in the form of grants (used for capitol costs) and matching funds.


There's a blog I enjoy that covers this sort of issue very frequently. It's interesting to see a hard data approach to explaining some of the municipal funding problems that are brewing nationwide.

https://granolashotgun.com/2016/08/31/a-thousand-hidden-subs...


I wish they would add some figures. They keep saying "doing you know how much these roads cost?". No I dont. Please tell. But they never do.


His stuff is frequently featured on Strong Towns as well, if I recall correctly.


thanks for this, the blog is quite interesting


Sorry if that hurts some American self-respect, but what's the difference between this and the Chinese housing bubble that American media always complain about? Sure some details are different, but the basic layout is the same from what I can see: Politicians had about 20 years long time of incentives to grow without really building self sustaining cities. Now the current generation is at a point were it nearly doesn't know any more what to do. Seems quite similar, doesn't it?


The everything. In the US, those cities were built in the past for uses that are now outdated or outsourced. In China, the government appears to want "the city" to fulfill some sort of ego trip. They perceive cities as more valuable than rural towns despite their culture not really being at that point. Overtime US cities have become outdated while Chinese cities are a solution in search of a problem.


Yes, and it's the same with public employee pensions.

It's great to be able to spend (or at least commit) tomorrow's dollars today and then be long gone by the time the bill comes due.


No, public employee pensions are supposed to be paid with today's dollars into a separate entity which manages the money in the same way private pensions do. This is why CalPERS has $300bn assets. Those are yesterday's dollars saved for today.


That's a great sentiment but that is not what happened. Or (at minimum), it was massively underfunded.

With regards to CalPERS specifically, it was covered here two weeks ago: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=13287078 and from that article:

"For every $100 the city paid a police officer in 2016, it had to pay an additional $71 to CalPERS to fund payments to current and future retirees."


There are some cities that get around this by requiring HOAs in new subdivisions, and requiring those HOAs to pay for maintenance of much of the infrastructure. The homeowners pay the same property tax they would pay anywhere else in the same city. There are a number of cities in the Sacramento area that have been doing this kind of thing for over a decade now.

That approach brings in another set of problems, but it's worth mentioning.


I'd love to see a more local approach where say a couple hundred of my neighbors from the few blocks around me could vote to raise taxes for something specific, like repaving a street, or rehabbing a park. It's local money that you know stays local.


These already exist where I live (CA), there are line items for things like city-wide storm sewer, improvements to local parks, levies for specific work.

It's managed by the city, so I'm not sure if it hits the general fund, but it is a tax specifically for those things.


In some areas it might be possible to set up a local special tax district that does just that.


I'm not sure why my original response, "Curing cancer with AIDS? No thanks" was flagged. HOAs are awful and mandating them is despicable. Curing one problem with another is not a solution.


It's not a civil and substantive comment. Inflammatory, no-information posts aren't what this site is for.

https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html


[flagged]


You prefer that your local neighborhood be administered by a national bureau of neighborhood affairs?


Homeowners associations are abominations. They put "property value" above everything else to the point that you're not allowed to have the wrong brand of car or put your garbage out before midnight the night before it's collected. They should honestly be illegal.


I wonder if that is not a symptom of them having nothing real to worry about?

If they had infrastructure issues to discuss, they would never get to the car brand point on the agenda.


"They" aren't som abstract entity, they're you and your neighbors. If you don't like the direction your homeowners association is going, why not join it and propose changes?


Making changes to an HOA, once it's established, is functionally impossible in many places due to the way they are set up. They require a certain percentage of homeowners to approve a change, which ends up being far more of them than you can get to respond to mailers or doorbells. The meetings of the HOAs themselves tend too often to devolve into wasting everyone's time on minor, petty differences about how to spend the dues.

This is at least partly intentional, I suspect, because it allows the city to make certain assumptions about newer neighborhoods which have these boilerplate HOAs that are essentially the same across a whole region. This type of thing may or may not be better in some situations than no HOA at all, but it undermines what I would consider true property ownership while also preventing any kind of effective adaptation to new information or circumstances over time. For example, I know of a neighborhood where they are required to put a certain color of asphalt shingles on their roofs when they need a new one (about every 10-15 years). Roof mounted solar panels or tiles will never be allowed in this neighborhood, which I find utterly insane.

If I was in a position to buy property, I would strongly favor a location unburdened by this kind of albatross.


I prefer it be administered by something subject to due process and reasonable legal protections.

In most places a town council member who dislikes you is very limited in how they can make your life difficult... This is far less true for HOAs.


Zoning is almost entirely a local affair, and it's city wide. HOA's are something I would personally stay far, far away from, but the amount of terrain they can effectively control is a small part of a city. I'd rather live in a more dynamic place with a few HOA's for people who want to live in a Rigidly Controlled Environment than what we have now, which is entire cities that are rigidly planned down to how many feet of front yard houses must have.


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