IL lawmaker considering tax by mile proposal

One influential Illinois legislator is looking into taxing drivers per miles driven:

A new proposal to pay for fixing Illinois’ roads could use devices to track how far Illinois drivers have traveled and tax them by the mile.

The plan from Senate President John Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat, is aimed at gasoline tax revenues that have fallen as drivers have bought more fuel-efficient cars…

Drivers, under the plan, could pick whether a device in their cars monitors their miles one of two different ways. Or they could choose to pay the 1.5-cent-per-mile tax on a base 30,000 miles traveled per year, if they have privacy concerns.

One device would track where specifically drivers go and not charge them when they travel out of state or on Illinois toll roads. The other would simply monitor the odometer reading, not tracking the rest of the information.

Illinois drivers would get a refund for gasoline tax costs paid at the pump, Cullerton said. Out-of-state drivers not registered here would pay those taxes as usual.

The article suggests this could come to a vote in a few days but I suspect it will take some time as there are a number of important details to work out. This has been considered elsewhere (see earlier posts here and here involving Oregon) but this seems like a quick move in Illinois. Gas tax revenue has dropped in Illinois in recent years.

These important details might go beyond the technical details and involve trust in politicians. Do Illinois residents trust their own government to (1) track the data properly and (2) refund gas taxes paid at the pump?

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“The New Urban Blight Is Rich People”

Here is a popular magazine treatment of the debate between New Urbanism and Richard Florida against opponents and Joel Kotkin:

Many cities, in consequence, have become “Floridian,” with “loft districts” rising from industrial ashes in Cleveland and Raleigh, hipster enclaves in Chattanooga, a gayborhood in Philadelphia, reclaimed waterfronts in Baltimore and Minneapolis. Much of this work preceded Florida—but there was socialism before Lenin, too. Florida gave the New Urbanists the vision they wanted of themselves, as saviors of the American city emptied by suburban sprawl, champions of creativity and ingenuity who were going to make Indianapolis the Paris of the 22nd century.

But any intellectual movement must encounter a backlash, and the one to the New Urbanism is only growing, in part because it’s now mature enough for us to see its effects. On the face of it, the New Urbanism is very pretty: Court Street in Brooklyn looks splendid, as does San Francisco’s Valencia Street. The aforementioned travel section of The New York Times has a column, called “Surfacing,” that frequently resorts to profiling some forlorn, blighted neighborhood suddenly graced by taxidermy shops that double as yoga studios. I am, as a matter of fact, writing this from a Whole Foods in West Berkeley, California, a formerly industrial district that was recently “Surfaced” in the Times. The coffee I am drinking was roasted about 20 feet away from my Apple laptop. How’s that for local?

Problem is, surfacing is usually whitening: Gentrification by any other name would taste as hoppy, with the same notes of citrus peel. There is really only one strike against the New Urbanism, but it’s a strike thrown by Nolan Ryan: It turns cities into playgrounds for moneyed, childless whites while pushing out the poor, the working-class, immigrants, seniors and anyone else not plugged into “the knowledge economy.” Right around the time that Michael Bloomberg was remaking Manhattan as a hive for stateless billionaires, I saw a slogan that captured perfectly the new glimmer of the city: “New York: If you can make it here, you probably have a trust fund.”

You could accuse me of writing a faux-populist diatribe, but the numbers are on my side this time around. Jed Kolko, a Harvard-trained economist who was, until recently, the chief of analytics for Trulia, has found that from 2000 to 2014, more Americans moved out of urban centers than into them. Using data from the U.S. Census, he concluded, in a recent post on his blog: “While well-educated, higher-income young adults have become much more likely to live in dense urban neighborhoods, most demographic groups have been left out of the urban revival.” The people who continue to move to cities, he concludes, are “increasingly young, rich, childless, and white.” These are the creatives, the hipsters, the pioneers, who fled the countryside for the big city, where cultures would clash and ideas foment. But all they did is turn Bedford-Stuyvesant into Minnetonka.

So what? I posed this question to Joel Kotkin, an urbanist and demographer based in that decidedly suburban setting of Orange County, California. Author of the forthcoming The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us, Kotkin defends the suburbs, which is nearly as radical as an evolutionary biologist defending creationism. Kotkin argues that suburbs are where middle-class families want to live, and middle-class families are, as he told me in a recent phone conversation, “the bedrock of the Republic.” A city hostile to the middle class is, in Kotkin’s view, a sea hostile to fish.

What is the answer to this debate, which like many others, have become politicized (Republican visions of small towns and suburbs and Democratic visions of thriving cities)? Could both sides have some merit to their arguments – New Urbanists regarding aesthetics and community life and Kotkin et al. with American’s continued interest in suburbia? One possible solution is to introduce more New Urbanist developments and communities in suburbs. This would allow people to have their suburban life but at higher densities and with planning that might encourage more street life.

At the same time, neither New Urbanists or Kotkin really address issues of race and ethnicity in the United States. Both do so indirectly, suggesting that their models offer better options for non-whites. But, what if the larger issue was really residential segregation, which can occur in New Urbanist communities as well as in suburbs?

Additionally, I cannot imagine too many city or suburban leaders would turn down or discourage wealthy residents moving to their community.

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Cities will need to adapt to self-driving cars

If self-driving cars arrive soon, cities may not be ready:

Just six percent of long-range transportation plans in major US cities are factoring the impact of autonomous cars, according to a report released in the fall by the National League of Cities. That’s a bad sign. “Even though driverless cars may be shoehorned to fit the traditional urban environment in the short term, it won’t be a long-term solution for maximizing potential benefits,” says Lili Du, an assistant professor of transportation engineering at Illinois Tech.

The Driverless Cities Project is developing a comprehensive answer, folding in urban design, landscape architecture, transportation engineering, sociology, urban networks, and planning law. (The project is a finalist for the university’s $1 million Nayar Prize for research with meaningful social impacts.) The idea is to explore current research around the country, along with the more forward-thinking planning initiatives, and fold in their own studies to create a suite of guidelines—including model urban codes that determine so much about city environments—for municipalities to incorporate into their planning.

There’s plenty to consider. For example, we don’t know how parking will work for autonomous vehicles. Should cities be building lots outside urban centers? Is parking still necessary at all? Wireless vehicle-to-vehicle communication will lets cars pack together more tightly, which raises questions about how we fit them onto our streets.

Their autonomous operation alone can obviate the need for traffic signals and road signs. That’ll go a long way toward beautifying city streets, Marshall says, but brings up other problems regarding pedestrian safety, speed limits, roadway design, and the need for and sizes of driveways and curbs. Even further, vehicle ownership and usage patterns will change, once we’re able to summon an autonomous car through an app and then shoo it away once it delivers us at our destination. Who’s going to own and operate those cars, and what will they do when not serving their owners? Park in the ‘burbs? Infinite-Uber-loop?

It sounds like there is a lot of good that could be done in helping to reverse the changes that occurred from the early to mid-1900s where cities were altered in significant ways – wider streets and smaller sidewalks, the construction of highways – to make it easier for cars to operate in the city. Of course, making some of these roadway changes doesn’t necessarily lead to a Jane Jacobs urban paradise. Take downtown Manhattan: you could reduce the size of roads and give pedestrians more space. Yet, the scale of the buildings often would not help; you can create all sorts of sidewalks but if they are shrouded in shadows from skyscrapers, is it inviting? Or, adding more pedestrian space may not necessarily lead to more lively street life if there isn’t a mix of uses to attract people. On the whole, having to emphasize cars less could be very attractive but a lot of additional work would need to be done to truly take advantage of the opportunity.

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What to do if “a McMansion is going up next door”

If a McMansion is built next to existing houses, what can neighbors do?

“It’s built so much higher than my house, virtually every window looks out into my backyard,” she says. Desperate to protect her privacy, she planted Italian cypress trees as a natural barrier. She tried to reason with the builder, whose unsympathetic response was: “Shouldn’t everyone be able to build their dream home?”

What’s going on in Mountain View is an extreme version of a problem cropping up all over the country: Huge houses are being built on plots of land originally meant to accommodate smaller dwellings, sparking a heated debate over what’s best for the community. Some argue that owners of larger homes pay more taxes, which can benefit all. But if your home happens to have its air and light blocked by a behemoth next door, you would likely be very, very upset — and can most likely kiss the idea of cashing out on your home sale goodbye…

A similar drama is playing out in Arcadia, CA, where more than 30 homes larger than 5,000 square feet (some as large as 8,000 — 9,000) have been proposed in the 850-home community over the past six years. In response, a group of longtime residents formed Saving Arcadia, which is currently battling the municipal government and City Council. Its argument: Overly lenient rules for developers have led to the proliferation of McMansions on lots that were zoned back in the 1950s for smaller homes. Plus, these oversize dwellings overburden the city’s water, gas, electricity, and other utility services…

Another option is finding a creative solution. One example is building downward (if a property is set on a hill) in order to increase square footage while preserving neighboring views, which is increasingly happening in various areas near Newport Beach. So maybe there’s hope that we can all play nice after all?

A homeowner who doesn’t like the nearby McMansion has a number of options available to them – these are sorted roughly in order of severity:

  1. Talk to the neighbor and builder. Might they be willing to make changes? They don’t have to but perhaps they are also unaware of what neighbors think of their actions.
  2. Modify your own lot or house to avoid having to see the new dwelling (if this is possible given its new size). For example, buy some artificial plants.
  3. Fight for local regulations. Many communities (see examples like Austin and Los Angeles) have considered rules about teardowns in recent decades and try to balance the interests of property owners versus those of neighborhoods. A variety of tools can be used including design guidelines, lot to house size ratios, approval processes, and historic districts.
  4. Buy up the properties that may become McMansions. This requires money but then you can control the fate of the nearby properties. See examples here and here.
  5. Sue your neighbor. You have to have resources to fight this out and it is likely to sour relations for a long time. But, some neighbors choose this option. See an example here.
  6. Move away. This is what the resident in this particular article does. This may be a last resort option or one favorable to those who don’t like open conflict (which is often minimized in suburbia).

In many places, the teardown McMansion cannot be stopped, particularly if there are not existing guidelines which are likely based off earlier cases or if the neighbor is not independently wealthy. Still, the neighbor who does not like it can pursue a number of options and each is likely to affect their relationship with the teardown neighbor.

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“Housing Bust Lingers for Generation X”

The Wall Street Journal discusses how Generation X’s ability to own a home was significantly affected by the housing bubble:

The data show an enormous swing in the fortunes of people born between 1965 and 1984, the group defined by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies as Generation X.

Compared with previous generations, Generation X went from the most successful in terms of homeownership rates in 2004 to the least successful by 2015, according to the data, which date to the early 1980s.

The culprit: a historic bull market for housing, fueled in part by easy-to-get mortgages, that encouraged record levels of home buying until the financial system cracked and the housing market collapsed. Earlier generations such as baby boomers, who entered the market before the frenzy of the early 2000s, have fared better.

Wrong place, wrong time? The effects of this could be long lasting:

  1. Less wealth in the long run since owning a home is one of the biggest investments Americans make.
  2. What does this mean for retirement, both for the money that could be gained in selling a home and the need for different housing options as people age?
  3. With the assumptions Americans make about community involvement and homeownership (as compared to renting), does this mean a whole generation is less involved in community life?
  4. Will economic changes like this affect future decision making both for Generation X and their children who saw what happened?

In other words, we won’t know how important this change is for quite a while.

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When money is tight in NYC, cut spending on critical water infrastructure

All big cities need water but when budget priorities were determined, New York City chose to delay building some key water infrastructure:

Mayor Bill de Blasio has postponed work to finish New York’s third water tunnel, a project that for more than half a century has been regarded as essential to the survival of the city if either of the two existing, and now aged, tunnels should fail…

But last year, Mr. de Blasio’s administration, eager to keep a lid on water and sewer rates that had grown by an average of 8 percent annually under Mr. Bloomberg, moved financing for the third tunnel to other projects, Amy Spitalnick, a de Blasio spokeswoman, said.

The city intends to finish the remaining portions of the tunnel sometime in the 2020s, but it has not set a date for completion nor allocated money in the budget to carry out the work. For the foreseeable future, the $6 billion tunnel will remain dry in the two largest boroughs, where well over half the city’s population lives.

“You look back over the last 50 years, whenever there were fiscal pressures, the unseen world of the municipal water system is where weak city leaders turned to cut spending,” said Kevin Bone, a professor of architecture at Cooper Union and an editor of “Water-Works: The Architecture and Engineering of the New York City Water Supply.” “I’m disappointed to hear that they’ve deferred it. It is symptomatic about planning for the future in America.”

Let’s hope that this doesn’t lead to disaster: imagine Queens and Brooklyn without water for three months (which would happen if aging Tunnel 2 fails). This is one of the issues with infrastructure and why the public would be furious if something happened: people don’t pay attention to this stuff until it fails but the issues are largely preventable as long as communities keep up with the necessary maintenance and new construction.

Imagine New York City, the top global city, being incapacitated by not having enough water because city leaders didn’t have enough foresight…

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Google exploring constructing their own city

A new Google city would allow the company to test ideas:

The boss of Sidewalk Labs, the firm’s New York City firm described as an ‘urban innovation’ company mentioned the idea at a summit hosted by The Information. 

‘Thinking about a city from the Internet up is really compelling,’ Sidewalk CEO Dan Doctoroff said at the event…

Later he added that building a new city could help test solutions to cybersecurity and privacy issues: ‘If you could create a place, it’d be a laboratory to experiment with these problems.’…

‘Sidewalk will focus on improving city life for everyone by developing and incubating urban technologies to address issues like cost of living, efficient transportation and energy usage,’ chief executive Larry Page said in a post at the Internet titan’s Google+ social network.

On the one hand, it would be difficult to test certain products – like a self-driving car – without having your own city that mimics real life.

On the other hand, I could see certain issues arising:

  1. If people lived in this city, what kind of rights would they have?
  2. For those who are already worried about the lack of public spaces in many big cities, what about a big city owned by a globally powerful corporation?
  3. Could such a model of corporations building cities offer benefits such that they become more attractive than what we have now where cities are theoretically for residents?

See an earlier post about Google planning its own city.

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Infographic: “Is Your McMansion Killing You?”

Put together a number of statistics about large American homes and an infographic can point the way towards death. These factors – everything from more TV watching, eating poorly, not getting much exercise, and paying more for space that isn’t necessarily needed – are not necessarily related to McMansions. You could do all of this and live in a more modest home or have a really large home that is more architecturally pleasing. For example, did growing up in a 1880s Victorian home or a 1950s ranch necessarily lead to better behavior or were these larger social issues? In this line of reasoning, McMansions may just be a symptom of larger issues such as increased consumerism and individualism.

All that said, I could imagine even more data that could be added to the infographic:

-How much extra infrastructure needs to be built to support suburban McMansions (as contrasted with denser apartment living in big cities)?

-What about the loss of aesthetic beauty in seeing or living in mass-produced, poorly designed McMansions? Can’t this decrease one’s enjoyment of life?

-What is the cost of all the driving often done to accommodate McMansions?

-How about the decrease in civic life encouraged by such large and well-furnished private spaces?

This infogrphic could keep going on and on and on…

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Four reasons American mass transit went awry

John Rennie Short explains why America’s mass transit infrastructure is in such bad shape today:

The first is the early and continuing embrace of the private car as a form of urban transport. In Europe, expensive gas and restrictive land use measures kept people in dense cities, and urban growth followed along the lines of mass transit, reinforcing and consolidating their use…

Second, as cities were designed to meet the needs of the motorist, mass transit systems that had been owned by private companies were abandoned or effectively dismantled in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s because they were losing money…

The third reason is that all infrastructure ages and needs costly maintenance and continual improvement, yet funding is often constrained…

Fourth, there is a deeper tension in the U.S., first noted by economist Kenneth Galbraith, between private affluence and public squalor.

It is difficult to overestimate the effect the car had on American social life. Many cities had thriving mass transit systems – railroads, electric streetcars – before automobiles reached the mass public. People had to live closer to where they worked. Street life could be very hectic – just remember all those horses out on the streets of major cities – but there was more interaction. Today? People often prefer driving solo in their vehicle at their own convenience. Mass transit simply didn’t look as appealing with the new option of driving on the table and governments spent lots of money to push driving rather than mass transit.

Is the insistence on driving America’s ultimate enduring response to big government? Residents may be willing to put up with being constrained in other areas but don’t you dare tell me that I can’t go where I want when I want.

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Miami’s luxury housing market fueled by ill-gotten gains

The latest big Wikileaks event shows what has been fueling Miami’s luxury housing boom:

Mossack Fonseca’s leaked records offer a glimpse into the tightly guarded world of high-end South Florida real estate and the global economic forces reshaping Miami’s skyline.

And MF’s activities bolster an argument analysts and law-enforcement officials have long made: Money from people linked to wrongdoing abroad is helping to power the gleaming condo towers rising on South Florida’s waterfront and pushing home prices far beyond what most locals can afford…

A Miami Herald analysis of the never-before-seen records found 19 foreign nationals creating offshore companies and buying Miami real estate. Of them, eight have been linked to bribery, corruption, embezzlement, tax evasion or other misdeeds in their home countries.

That’s a drop in the ocean of Miami’s luxury market. But Mossack Fonseca is one of many firms that set up offshore companies. And experts say a lack of controls on cash real-estate deals has made Miami a magnet for questionable currency.

Later in the article, one analyst suggests no one really wants to know this information as luxury housing is a big deal. Who benefits? City leaders who get to trumpet the new growth. Local construction firms, people in real estate, and the finance industry who are involved with the new units. Municipalities like the new tax dollars. Possibly, nearby business owners who could see an uptick in activity with more people nearby who have money to burn. And the whole region benefits from the status of some of the world’s wealthiest people plus an attractive (and expensive) housing market.

If this is happening in Miami, it is also likely affecting other important cities. Take New York: as the leading global city, wouldn’t people who have ill-gotten gains want to be there? Or, how about other leading cities in different regions like London, Hong Kong, and Tokyo?

 

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