Livability and All That


Livability is one of those once innocuous words, like sustainability, that now receive almost unquestioned acceptance in the bureaucracy, academia and the media. After all, words like sustainability and livability have no acceptable negative form. Who could be in favor of anything unlivable, insensitive, unhealthy or unsustainable?

Back in the late seventies, when I served as Special Assistant for Information Policy in the Office of the Secretary, our shibboleth was “balanced”. Can anyone be in favor of unbalanced transportation? It didn’t matter that the word had no meaning and we couldn’t explain it to others, it still became standard in the rhetoric of secretarial officers. In an unkind moment a reporter asked the present DOT Secretary Ray LaHood what he meant by livable, given that the department had just added it to its criteria for giving away money. He replied vaguely it was something about being able to walk to work and the park and a restaurant, to a doctor and a few more things.

Well it turns out I was living the livable life style when I was growing up in Queens, New York in the fifties and didn’t know it. Here all along I just thought we were poor.

Aside from seeking to have the same modal shares of America in 1910, or Tajikistan today, this idea fails on both theoretical and practical grounds. Theoretically, whatever merit the idea might have, livability means very different things in a tenement in Brooklyn, or a place in Billings, Des Moines, or Peoria. I can recall being sent to the store for milk or lettuce by my Mom after school. If I didn’t get there in time the four heads of iceberg lettuce (I was 16 before I found out that there were other kinds) were gone. The milk was “milk”. Today in a supermarket the milk section is bigger than the grocery store I went to as a kid. There’s skim, 1%, 2%, whole, lactaid, acidophilus in quarts, half-gallons, and gallons and 86 kinds of lettuce. The typical market today has above 50,000 items. That means that the market shed for such stores is far broader than it was back in the day.

We were three generations of the family in the same household and we all had the same doctor who lived two blocks away. Today I don’t have a doctor – I have half a dozen – none of them selected on the basis of distance. When one selects doctors, best, not closest, matters. Hospitals are growing in size but declining in the number of facilities per thousand population. All of this is simply representative of the immense trend towards specialization in our society – an increasing division of labor in all activities and an accompanying division of tastes and preferences in an increasingly affluent society. If you want a loaf of wonder bread there’s a 7-11 down the street; if its ciabatta with sun-dried tomatoes there’s this really great place I know a few miles off of exit 29 on the freeway.

In today’s job market don’t we expect that people will be willing to go farther to find the job they want or can get? If the average travel time is about 25 minutes and a half-hour commute is acceptable, how long is one unemployed before the acceptable becomes 45 minutes or an hour? In this period of housing constraint in which people are even more locked into their homes by underwater mortgages, the commute will grow as people get desperate.

In my town of College Point, Queens when the factory whistle blew a few thousand walked in the gate and out again when the whistle blew in the evening. People don’t live outside the factory gate anymore and haven’t for awhile. Again, specialization and division of labor are the main factor. Job groupings are far smaller today, and the rate of job turnover means more people won’t/can’t move every time they change jobs. Moreover, about 70% of workers live in a household with other workers – whose job will they live next to?

More importantly, the great competitive strength of America lies in access to skilled workers. Employers will be reaching out farther and farther to find the specializations and skills they require. We should expect work trip lengths to grow not become walking trips. It won’t be inner city oriented either. The metropolis of today is of immense size because many employers need a market of hundreds of thousands of potential workers to reach the ones they need. The Atlanta region with 26 counties is not a great economic engine because it is 26 charming adjacent hamlets, but rather because the market reach of employers, suppliers, customers and job seekers spreads over several million residents.

In this environment it takes massive transportation capability to assure that market shed. The questions are how many potential employees can I reach in half an hour; how many suppliers, how many customers? In the future more of us will be free to live where we want and work where we want. Most will not be willing to trade living floor space for a close-by sidewalk café. Americans will drive to where they want to walk.

There remains, of course, lots of room now within the existing land use distribution to make it easier for those who wish to live closer to shops, jobs or entertainment. People also are free to go to the nearest store or nearest doctor. The fact that so few do so reflects the oft-forgotten fact that people have their own notions of what is most important. Trying to coerce them to live the way government – particularly the upper bureaucracy – thinks they should live holds many perils. The American people have no obligation to live in ways that make it convenient for government to serve them. Government isn’t smart enough to know how people should live or to order their lives in more “convenient” arrangements.

On the practical side:

It’s on the practical side that the concepts of livability really fail. The central failure inheres in what the Europeans call subsidiarity, proposes that any necessary activity of an authority should be conducted by that level of governance closest to the problem that can effectively address it. Having livability rise to become central principle of federal transportation investment planning is an egregious failure in our historical system of decentralized government. If sidewalks and bike paths are federal then everything is federal.

The mayors of our cities love it. Why not? It is the closest they have come to being able to lay claim to direct federal funding, getting those pesky states and suburban communities where the majority of Americans live out of the way. They see it as finally being their turn at the money from Washington. In these times, when every government level is broke, livability and sustainability can prove a potential lifeline, and a bonanza as well to developers – often themselves subsidized – who focus on the inner city.

The livability criterion is ultimately centralist: fed-centric. It is not up to local people if they want to densify or not, but real power will rest with a really “smart” guy behind a desk in Washington. Proposals for federal “performance measurement” degenerate into a charade that produces pre-ordained results. Now I can fund my friends, who are as right-thinking as I am!

The problem here is a total disconnect between what people in a diverse democracy want, and what the central bureaucracy, and their academic allies, wish to impose. The livability agenda may be popular in the press and among pundits, but for most communities and people it’s neither popular nor remotely democratic.

Alan E. Pisarski is the author of the long running Commuting in America series. A consultant in travel behavior issues and public policy, he frequently testifies before the Houses of the Congress and advises States on their investment and policy requirements.

Photo by Mastery of Maps

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I find it amazing that the

I find it amazing that the author can deride a lack of choice in produce while going on to justify hour-long and greater commutes. In each case one's living situation creates limitations on one's personal freedom, and to assume that one kind of limitation is somehow more acceptable or detrimental than the other without any reasonable justification is simply delusional. It cannot be assumed that people will continue to accept extreme commutes or be outraged if they don't have 86 kinds of lettuce to choose from.

I for one would much rather buy a head of boring iceberg that requires a 5 minute trip than spend an hour or more sitting idly in traffic five days a week. Especially since if I live in a truly livable urban area, I will have access to those 86 varities by way of a longer trip on public transportation, even if I don't own a car. Livability means that I have the choice of making a long trip to the supermarket for that special kind of milk, or the convenience of having a bare-bones alternative just down the street.

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A very thoughtful article. Sometimes I think the good effects of specialization are outweighed by the bad. We are still the "people of plenty", whose desires have multiplied our needs. I too, as a kid, in the Bronx, went to the grocery store to buy milk. There were not up-teen choices. There was one choice: just plain old milk. What's true for also true for services. The art of living simply is lost in all the hub-bub of the modern requirements for living. The earlier, is the original sustainable way to live...the original green....when populations were much smaller than today...and individual families grew 40% of their own in the 1930s.

Needless to say, that the USA was much poorer then. Perhaps not having quite as much money...never a popular idea!...or quite as many choices...will be a good thing for a more sustainable culture. But the greatest adaptions in the end will be made by the people, right where they their own homes and communities. Government should aid this process along...but should not dictate it.

IMHO...Where government should play a a countervailing role is at the macro level of the corporation...increasingly the monopoly corporation....increasingly predatory, and out for the profit of the relatively few. This legitimate role has been largely co-opted to the private interest, and obfuscated by the media, in our broken political landscape.

Weird. I live in Queens and

Weird. I live in Queens and have far better access (without a car) to a much better selection of lettuce, milk, jobs, and doctors than when I lived an auto-centric suburban life. Maybe -- just maybe -- the "livability" attacked in this article is just a straw man, and the author is a dinosaur?

Responce to PhilBest

So, what are you trying to say? Areas where there are no urban growth boundaries and land supply is not effected by zoning are more efficient because the “market’ works things out in a logical fashion? On its own, the market will result in logical urban form? Isn’t that how we got sprawl? It would seem that was a result of cheaper land prices outside of town that were easier and less expensive to develop.

You state “The single strongest force distorting "choices" for household location is inflated land prices as a result of planners rationing land supply. “

I take it this speaks to the idea of urban growth area (UGA) boundaries that eliminate the alternative of sprawl forcing growth into a confined area for urban growth? This in turn makes UGA properties more expensive as they are in limited supply?

If there is a UGA that limits the supply of land beyond demand that could be a contributing factor in inflated prices. But, I would argue this is not what we see when we look close at the housing bubble and subsequent burst. Urban planners “rationing land supply” is not cause of land costs.

I work at the City of Lacey as an urban planner, one of those folks that has been “rationing land supply”. I say that jokingly. I have little control over rationing anything and whatever legislation we write locally we work over with the local Master Builders and reality representatives.

Our work is based upon goals and policies for planning for growth under the state’s Growth Management Act (GMA), which among a number of things is intended to prevent sprawl. However, it also requires providing adequate developable land to accommodate expected population growth, which includes a market factor to ensure there will be land available to accommodate the need.

In Lacey, we experienced extensive development pressure at the height of the last market. Lacey had 80% of the new housing starts for Thurston County in 2006. This was the result of land and housing prices in King County, compared to the cost of land and what could be built in Lacey, which was very attractive to companies that would develop the land for fewer dollars in Lacey and market their product to the King County demographic.

When the housing bubble burst, Lacey was left with a surplus inventory of developed lots that will be able to accommodate land needs for new housing starts for years. The housing bubble in Lacey was not a result of a UGA that was too restrictive that created a shortage of land supply. It was the result of a market that promised high returns for whoever could get a product to market first, coupled with the same mentality that fuels stock market swings.The complexity of what drives that defies simple answers; certainly it is beyond the notion of planners “rationing land supply”.

The land use model we have had for the last 5 decades has not worked well. It has given us sprawl and an unsustainable land use pattern. The idea of confining growth into a designated UGA makes sense, unless you believe we can continue sprawl indefinitely; the cowboy mentality of there is enough land for everyone and we will never run out. A thought that is so obviously fail, I don’t usually hear anyone argue it. People generally don’t want sprawl, yet they are afraid of density for their neighborhood. The fact is we can’t have it both ways.

A well formulated UGA should make provision and maintenance of infrastructure and urban services less expensive. It should also protect outlying resource lands from development pressure. Can local government accomplish this for their community without a UGA? The answer is no. The solution has to be properly sized UGAs that set the ground rules for accommodating growth and zoning codes that provide the opportunity for a full range of urban development in a form that will contribute to the type of neighborhoods the community wants to see.

This will require well crafted design expectations for urban form, both at the macro and micro scale, promoting those things that make a city livable; the opportunity to enjoy the things we do during the day with experiences that make life memorable.

It gets down to creating environments that will give us the sense of place people want to identify with, attention to quality of life issues and providing this for a range of demographic needs. Neighborhoods with walkability is a characteristic we will need to provide to achieve this.

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I don't know anything about your area specifically. I don't think Lacey features in the annual Demographia survey.

It is not hard to pick from the evidence, that metros that AVOIDED having a land price bubble, did so because their planning systems do not yet restrict or delay urban growth. There is a growing amount of academic analysis of this, too. Glaeser, Gyourko, Mayo, Malpezzi, Green, Raphael, Quigley, Hwang, Gordon, Richardson, Crane, Chatman, off the top of my head.

I do not yet know of any policy other than a pretty much free supply of fringe land, that was anything like as effective at keeping housing affordable. The best study of "all the other factors" that I have seen so far, was done by Australian economist Alan Moran. Capital Gains Taxes - no correlation. Low interest rates - no correlation. Investment profits taxation policy - no correlation.

You need to look at some international studies like Alan Moran's one, and like the OECD's one, "A Bird's Eye View of OECD Housing Markets". It is a huge mistake to view this as a "USA" centric problem. It applies internationally, at the level of the metro, or the region, or the State - whichever level urban planning policy is imposed from.

It is important to distinguish between a supply "boom" and a price "bubble". There have been supply booms that have resulted in a crash. However, price bubbles, we are finding out, are a LOT more economically destructive. "Overbuilding" keeps prices low, and the total "capital destroyed" amounts to the "number of excess houses built" multiplied by the average price. However, a price bubble affects ALL the millions of homes already built, has almost no "ceiling", and hundreds of times as much capital can get wiped out in the crash that follows.

How familiar are you with median multiples? Median multiples don't lie. REAL "demand" HAS to relate to "income" and the region's ability to generate it (through true efficiency of urban form - this is what Ricardian Rent is all about). Politicians and planners looking at median multiples that historically never went above 4.0, elevating through 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and beyond, and saying that this is the result of "demand", because their area is so popular, and/or they have made it so desirable, are deluded. And their delusions come with a tragic economic cost.

I didn't mean to emphasise this in my original posting; what I have moved on to point out, is that the elevated land prices distort re-development patterns in such a way that the opposite effect to that intended, occurs. Households and businesses overwhelmingly are priced out of "efficient" locations, and unnaturally high density at INEFFICIENT locations is the result.

I have had some interesting correspondence with a few urban planners whose interest in researching this phenomenon has been aroused. There is no point persisting in policies that are having the opposite effect to what they are intended to, is there? What you and your colleagues in Lacey should look at, is median multiples; urban density profile (if geography permits); and the "step up" between the value of adjacent farmland and fringe lots. The $30,000 fringe lot is the "norm". Analyse LAND prices as well as "house prices" over time, and the market distortions will become even more obvious to you.

In some metros that have $30,000 fringe lots, the MOST EFFICIENTLY LOCATED lots, because the metro is non-monocentric, are as cheap as $90,000. Redevelop as 3-on-1 units, and the land cost per unit is $30,000. BUT in heavily regulated metros where fringe lots are $200,000, and the planned form is monocentric, the "price premium" of efficiently located lots results in them costing $2,000,000 each. Even divided 3 ways, can you not see that to achieve the "desired number" of people buying into those areas, will result in COLOSSAL debt overhang? Because INCOMES are little different to the $30,000 - $90,000 metro. But you won't get anything like the desired number of people living at those locations. Study the density profiles and see where they ARE going.

I believe this will become more and more obvious over time - but it may be too late for our economies by the time we find a policy solution. Like I say, I don't know where Lacey fits into this thesis, but you will be able to tell from the guidelines I have given you.

I am unsure how much of these arguments you are already familiar with; please feel free to ask further questions. Do you see my point about land prices and re-development even if you don't regard limits on fringe supply as responsible for them?


A quick look at some Washington maps, leads me to suspect the following has happened in your county.

Urban growth boundaries in the adjacent metro area/areas have forced the price of land up. Seattle is definitely included in the Demographia survey as a severe bubble area. Then people who are priced out of the area completely, "leapfrog" out into surrounding rural counties and commute many times further to jobs in the metro where they couldn't afford to live.

Every day they commute for dozens of miles past empty fields where it would have made better sense for them to be allowed to live.

These people are stretched financially AND for quality of life, and it is no wonder if they are the first to send jingle mail to their bank. This situation is familiar in California's Inland Empire too. It has led to shallow assumptions that "too much sprawl" was the cause of the crisis. But the inner city condo and apartment market bubbles have well and truly burst too now.

Its misleading to state that

Its misleading to state that people choose auto dependent suburbia purely by choice. Factors like federal mortgage subsidies, gas taxes that don't cover the full cost of driving, and the ability to escape legacy costs like pension obligations by moving into new areas push people in that direction. Also you say that people could move closer to shopping etc. if they wanted to. In many parts of the country zoning prohibits that.

So lets be democratic and remove all the subsidies and restrictions that coerce people into a suburban lifestyle.

Many may still choose suburbia, but we don't really know, because right now we aren't choosing that lifestyle on its inherent merits, but because its subsidized.

Land Price effects of regulation are the REAL "biggie"

The single strongest force distorting "choices" for household location, is inflated land prices as a result of planners rationing land supply.

Alain Bertaud, who specialises in urban density analysis, has identified that in Portland and Curitiba (Brazil), urban densities are now unnaturally LOWER closer to the urban core, and unnaturally HIGHER closer to the fringes, because of the cost of land. Households desperately seeking the "least unaffordable" choice of a home are obliged to live at INEFFICIENT locations that they can afford, rather than EFFICIENT locations that they now cannot.

I believe that if Bertaud's study was broadened, this effect would be found to be at work in every metro where land supply has been constrained and land prices forced up. Some time spent on Google Earth will provide anyone with visually apparent evidence. Use the Demographia surveys to identify metros where median multiple prices have gone higher than about 4.5 (even if they have crashed since), and compare them with metros where no bubble occurred.

In the bubble metros, you will find increased density occurring at illogical, inefficient locations; but in non-bubble metros with relatively free land markets, you will find the clusters of densification all occurring at logical, efficient "nodes" nearer to employment and social amenities.

The urban planning profession desperately need to "get it" - their plans are not only not working, and they are not only causing disastrous unaffordability and property bubbles; they are having exactly the OPPOSITE effect as that intended, on "household location choices" and obviously, VMT.

There is actually no lack of academic study showing that jobs dispersion and mixed land use and multiple nodes, are the best thing out for reducing VMT, but I fear that academic analysis is missing the massive differences that are evolving between "free land market" metros and "restricted land supply" metros. Analysis of the latter will reveal tendencies to REDUCED location efficiency and INCREASED VMT, that may get blamed on the wrong things. Especially by analysts who do not have a clue about Urban Economics - which criticism sadly, applies to most "planning" specialists including some tragically influential ones.

We simply cannot afford to keep building in this way!

By citing Portland and Curitiba you are only addressing very extreme examples of regulation. 99.9% of other us cities have very little if no growth controls. That fact coupled with policies subsidizing unorganized inefficient sprawl has produced the endless miles of crap that we have to deal with every day. By only look at the dollars of home price you cannot get a full picture of the cost of a home. There are countless other factors... time spent commuting, environmental degradation, air and water pollution caused by this pattern of development and the human health implications of that, land fragmentation hurting wildlife and agriculture, loss of sense of place, immense costs to fund huge transportation projects leading to green fields that only encourage more of the same, increased costs of doing business, abandoning schools where population used to be to build new ones on the fringes…the list goes on and on. Those that make arguments for perpetuating the status quo are only looking at one small piece of the entire picture and choose to ignore the history of federal government subsidies and policies that created this. We simply cannot afford to keep building in this way!

Extreme examples, or typical examples?


You do not make sense. First you tell me that Portland and Curitiba are "extreme examples", then you make all the usual shallow alarmist arguments to justify regulations like Portland and Curitiba have.

I would agree that about 70% of US cities do not have growth controls. The figure is certainly NOT 99.9%.

It ia also abundantly clear to me that the 30% or so of cities that DID have growth controls, are where ALL the land price bubbles occurred. The other 70% escaped.

If you look at international evidence, the case is even stronger, because MOST cities in the first world DO have growth controls, and MOST cities in the first world ALSO have land price bubbles. Some have burst and some have not. Many countries are going to be in much worse condition than the USA, because the USA only had 30% of its cities in a bubble situation - many other countries have 100% of their cities in this situation.

Have you never read the annual "Demographia" surveys?

Furthermore, not only do these urban growth controls trigger bubbles and ruin economies, they FAIL to have any effect on VMT and emissions and so on because of the land price effects that I describe. Use the Demographia surveys, identify the cities with the worst bubbles, look at them on "Google Earth"; and you will see that ALL of them have the same "inverse density" trends as Portland and Curitiba.

The Density Profiles that Alain Betraud specialises in are expensive to do, but someone badly needs to fund a large scale project to do them on a whole lot more cities.

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