Towns that restrict road access to app users only address the symptoms and not the bigger issue

The decision in a New Jersey suburb to fight back against drivers directed to their streets by apps raises all sorts of questions:

In mid-January, the borough’s police force will close 60 streets to all drivers aside from residents and people employed in the borough during the morning and afternoon rush periods, effectively taking most of the town out of circulation for the popular traffic apps — and for everyone else, for that matter…

But Leonia is not alone. From Medford, Mass. to Fremont, Calif., communities are grappling with the local gridlock caused by well-intentioned traffic apps like Waze, which was purchased by Google in 2013 for $1.15 billion.

Since Waze uses crowd sourcing to update its information, some people — frustrated at the influx of outside traffic — have taken to fabricating reports of traffic accidents in their communities to try to deter the app from sending motorists their way. One suburb of Tel Aviv has even sued Waze, which was developed by an Israeli company….

“It’s a slippery slope,” said Samuel I. Schwartz, the former traffic engineer for New York City known as Gridlock Sam, and the author of the early 1990s book “Shadow Traffic’s New York Shortcuts and Traffic Tips.” “Waze and other services are upsetting the apple cart in a lot of communities. But these are public streets, so where do you draw the line?”

See an earlier post about a Los Angeles neighborhood that raised similar objections.

I can see the reasoning by small communities: the roads are partly or mostly paid for through local tax dollars and thus they should primarily be reserved for the use of locals. These sorts of situations can become big deals in suburbs where residents are often resentful of ways that their local tax monies serve others.

At the same time, this hints at a larger issue: efforts like this by single communities could end up having deleterious effects on the region as a whole. What if every suburb or community employed such tactics? Traffic would only be worse. This then suggests a metropolitan approach is needed to tackle these congestion issues. This might be difficult to do considering how local residents like to hold onto their own monies but drivers across the region might be too mad at that point to care if there are no alternative routes. The best way to tackle this issue may be to lobby for more mass transit and decreased reliance on cars in the New Jersey suburbs.

The architecture of stars versus what emerges in cities

Ron Grossman contrasts Chicago’s architectural gems and the more organic ways that neighborhood buildings developed:

The architecture of affluence breeds anonymity.

Nearby sidewalks don’t play on my heartstrings like those in a blue-collar neighborhood. Walking a block in Pilsen is like looking at Chicago history through a kaleidoscope.

Narrow three-story structures are topped with elaborate false fronts and a bit of Baroque ornamentation reminiscent of the Czech homeland of its original owners. A side wall may be painted in the vibrant palette of Orozco or another of the celebrated muralists of the current occupants’ Mexican homeland.

In Bronzeville, construction crews can be seen pulling jury-rigged partitions out of brownstone mansions. Built in the 19th century for the city’s wealthy, they were divided into sleeping rooms for poor blacks during the Great Migration of the 20th century. Now the neighborhood is gentrifying.

In many American cities, the past – written into stone and other materials in the form of buildings – will disappear unless specific preservation efforts are made. And, if the new structure can be a showpiece, something designed by a noted architect or firm and offering an unusual take, so much the better.

Two quick responses in my own mind:

  1. What will future city residents, say a few decades or centuries down the road, think about the construction booms taking place in many wealthier neighborhoods? If those future residents continue to prize progress, perhaps the loss of more original structures won’t matter.
  2. Like many culture industries, trends come and go in architecture. Is a rejection of cold, impersonal modern architecture more about that trend or more about letting individual properties and neighborhoods develop on their own without intervention from starchitects or government leaders? These are two different issues: whether you like the latest trends and whether you think architectural decisions should be made on a small scale and under the control of local residents.

American property taxes have feudal roots

American property taxes have a long history in English law:

The origins of the property tax aren’t American at all. It, instead, has roots that date back to Europe’s feudal system. First instituted in England by William the Conqueror in 1066, the early tax system worked this way: A king (or conqueror) took over all the land in a given territory. He would then divide it among his lieutenants and supporters, who would pay him (with money or services) in order to keep that land. In return, landholders enjoyed the king’s protection and were able to rent the property out to others—who would live and work the land—for a fee. The punishment for nonpayment was forfeiture of the land, which could result in a considerable loss of money and status. At the time, this system was called “free and common socage,” according to John Joseph Wallis, an economic historian at the University of Maryland. The person who held the land was called a socman, his taxes, socage. The arrangement created a way for people to own land while still having to remain loyal to the crown, which also had rights to the land.

After expansion across the Atlantic started, King James made sure that this system traveled overseas with the first settlers at Jamestown, so that he could partake in the profits of exploration of the new land. The charter of the Virginia Company held that—as in feudal times—the king would protect the lands in Jamestown, and in return, the people living on the land would pay him a share of their profits there. All land of the colony would be held in “free and common socage,” according to the Virginia Company charter. This meant that land could be bought and sold in the colonies, as long as the new holder of land continue to pay the king.

And why did the system persist even after the American Revolution?

It’s a peculiar note of history that the founding fathers, who spoke often of abolishing the feudal system, kept this remnant of the Old World. But the rationale is very simple: They needed the money. In fact, the federal government levied a national property tax in 1798, 1814, 1815, 1816, and 1861. The tax in 1798, for example, charged households for their slaves (50 cents), houses, and land. It raised $2 million, according to Wallis. These taxes usually outraged residents, who would often revolt, but the system of collecting property tax remained. That’s because property taxes were locally spent and collected in the beginning, and often paid for things like roads and canals that property owners would be able to see, and that increased the value of their property.

If indeed property taxes are the most hated tax for Americans, I wonder if residents would prefer the alternatives. One advantage of the property tax is that the monies are often spent closer to home, usually on local school districts and municipal services. Eliminate the property tax and taxes may be collected by governmental groups further way that have fewer responsibilities to local residents. Americans may not like property taxes but they do like local control.

 

“Federal Officials Push to Urbanize Suburbia”?

Conservatives are still worried the Obama administration is against suburbs:

In its final months, the Obama administration has set up a strategy to bring inner city living to the suburbs by deploying three federal agencies to dictate to states and local communities how to set up schools, housing and mass transit…

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) expanded the reach of its Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule to two other federal agencies: the Department of Transportation and the Department of Education…

State and local educational agencies, for example, are urged to develop “boundary-free open enrollment or lottery schools when drawing school attendance boundaries, and selecting sites for such a programs like charter schools or magnet school.”

The three federal agencies also want their local and state education officials to “consult with transportation and housing authorities and housing development agencies” when planning a school site.

The federal authorities want local and state transportation officials to create mass transit plans and more public transportation routes, as well as include local school districts, housing authorities, Head Start programs, community colleges and similar entities in putting together the mass transit plan.

The first two thoughts that come to mind when seeing the specifics here:

  1. It sounds like this applies to communities that receive HUD block grants for redevelopment. So, if suburbs don’t apply for this, the guidelines may not apply.
  2. At the least, the guidelines would encourage more conversations between some important actors – like developers, local officials, school districts, transportation planners, and others – that could build upon and expand existing infrastructure. Instead of doing all of their work independently, a little collaboration could go a long ways.

In other words, wealthier suburbs will still have ways to resist lower-income residents. And isn’t what this is really about? Or, more broadly, suburbs want the ability to have complete local control over land use – which is all about quality of life, property values, and attracting the right kind of people. For example, see this statement from a Westchester County official:

“This document proves what I’ve been saying for six years: The federal government is planning to take control of the American suburb and forever change it in the false name of equality. If HUD gets its way, small town America will literally disappear. It will be forcibly urbanized by Washington social engineers.”

Suburbs are unlikely to disappear anytime soon. Plus, market forces may lead to denser suburbs anyway as there is plenty of demand for new housing in attractive suburbs. But, there could be more conflict in the future as wealthier communities want to retain control and regional and federal governments try to spread opportunities around.

“Forty Percent of the Buildings in Manhattan Could Not Be Built Today”

Manhattan’s zoning code is complicated and there are a number of buildings – many built prior to 1930 – that would not meet current standards:

New York City’s zoning code turns 100 this year. That may not sound like cause for celebration — except maybe for land-use lawyers and Robert Moses aficionados. Yet for almost every New Yorker, the zoning code plays an outsize role in daily life, shaping virtually every inch of the city…

New York’s zoning code was the first in the country, meant to promote a healthier city, which was then filling with filthy tenements and office towers. Since it was approved in 1916, the ever-evolving, byzantine code has changed many times to suit the needs of a swollen metropolis. Just in March, the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio won approval for a vast citywide plan that would encourage sleeker, more affordable developments…

Mr. Smith and Mr. Trivedi evaluated public records on more than 43,000 buildings and discovered that about 17,000 of them, or 40 percent, do not conform to at least one part of the current zoning code. The reasons are varied. Some of the buildings have too much residential area, too much commercial space, too many dwelling units or too few parking spaces; some are simply too tall. These are buildings that could not be built today…

Nearly three-quarters of the existing square footage in Manhattan was built between the 1900s and 1930s, according to an analysis done by KPF, an architecture firm based in New York. In a way, the zoning code helps to preserve such architectural diversity. The laws have gotten more restrictive over time, giving an edge to properties built in earlier eras.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. I particularly like the two examples of buildings cited in the story where it is clearly shown what would have to change should the buildings be subject to current standards.
  2. It is not entirely clear but it looks like this article credits zoning for protecting a lot of these older buildings. If you wanted to purchase an older building, tear it down, and build a new one, the new structure would not be quite the same. This means that zoning acts as a kind of historic preservation. Of course, we could ask how many older buildings are too many?
  3. There are calls to overhaul the zoning code to make it simpler. One of the problems is that different areas of Manhattan want different standards. Even though New York City the global city, many of the building decisions are local and residents want some control. Think of Jane Jacobs’ efforts to save Greenwich Village and certain structures during the 1960s. A more vanilla zoning code would make things simpler but could hinder local character.

Deannexation option could lead to smaller Tennessee cities

Efforts by the Tennessee legislature may make it easier for residents and neighborhoods to deannex from large cities:

The growing deannexation debate could ultimately shrink six cities in Tennessee, including Knoxville, Chattanooga, Memphis, Johnson City, Kingsport, and Cornersville.

For more than six decades, communities across Tennessee could simply pass an ordinance to forcibly expand their city limits, whether the people who owned the annexed property liked it or not.  In 2014, the state passed a law requiring residents to vote in favor of joining a city before their property can be annexed…

However, the 1990s and early 2000s were a time of rapid expansion under former mayor Victor Ashe.  Knoxville grew by 26 square miles during his time as mayor, mostly through what was nicknamed “finger annexation” that extended the city limits in the shape of fingers along the interstates…

Deannexation means the city would also lose out on some property taxes.  Rogero said if every annexed neighborhood left the city, it would add up to around $377,000 in annual property taxes.  That figure is actually much smaller than you may expect based on how much property Knoxville annexed in the late 1990s.  Rogero noted only residential property would be eligible for deannexation and much of Knoxville’s annexed property was zoned for commercial use.

Annexation stopped for many Northern cities around the turn of the 20th century as suburbs stopped wanting to join big cities but Sun Belt cities have often had different policies and more land growth over recent decades. Forced annexation would be one of the worst things one could do to many suburbanites who prize property rights and local control. But, it is another thing to allow them to deannex themselves. Would a better solution be to have both parties – those who want to leave as well as the larger community – both approve the annexation or deannexation via vote?

More broadly, there are various efforts for more metropolitan government, particularly to help balance out disparities (housing, education systems, tax bases, etc.) wrought by residential segregation, or to consolidate or limit the growth of local taxing bodies. Thus, it is interesting to hear of an effort to go the direction and let people continue to fragment within regions.

When conservatives move to squash local control

Republicans are typically known as the party in favor of more powerful local governments. Yet, this may not be the case in places where local governments limits their quest to power:

The strange spectacle of Republicans trying to roll back local control makes a bit more sense in context. For years, Democrats mostly controlled both the statehouse and the governorship. But Republicans captured the legislature in 2010, and the governor’s mansion two years later. Ever since, they’ve been busily passing a series of very conservative measures, some of which I explained here. The rightward shift inspired a prolonged series of protests in Raleigh and other major cities called “Moral Mondays.”

The large demonstrations, combined with their general impotence to stop the legislature—internecine GOP struggles, and not public opposition, have generally killed the most controversial measures—illuminate what’s going on. Rural-urban divides are a fixture of American politics, and they’re a particularly powerful force in North Carolina right now. Its urban centers tend to be far more liberal, while the rest of the state is far more conservative. The liberals can gather large, impassioned crowds to rally against conservative moves, but they don’t have the numbers (so far) to elect a majority in the state legislature—especially after post-2010 redistricting that made the map more favorable for Republicans. (Barack Obama narrowly won the state in 2008 but lost it in 2012.)

Despairing of Raleigh, progressives have often pursued their priorities at the local level. That’s exactly what the state bill was intended to stop. When Congress does this to state and municipal governments, it’s known as preemption—it’s a bedrock constitutional principle that federal laws trump state laws. With a Democrat in the White House, though, there are limits to what the Republican Congress can pass. But the GOP has been gaining seats at the state level for years, and now controls most state legislatures. Cities often tilt left, even in very red states, but conservative state governments around the country have begun passing laws that preempt municipal legislation. Last year, for example, Matt Valentine chronicled how state governments are overturning much stricter gun laws passed by cities with preemption laws…

In other words, it’s a classic case for big-government uniformity. Faced with these bills, Democrats in turn tend to make a strikingly conservative argument: Local people know best, and they ought to have the right to make their own rules about how they live, as long as it isn’t negatively affecting their neighbors.

Local control is very important to many Americans, particularly if you have some means to get to a community where you can have a voice or be assured that local government generally agrees with what you want.

Let’s be honest: both parties today are willing to forgo some (most?) principles if it means that they can use their particular tool of power to get what they want. Opposed to executive power when your party is out of the presidency? Just argue your interests are too important when your party is in office. Control Congress while another branch isn’t doing what you want? Try to bypass their power and/or limit their abilities. This leads to a rhetorical question: how well can these levels of government or different branches work together to get things done if the primary goal is just to exert power?