Tyler Cowen votes a not sure to no on high speed rail and then writes:
It’s not about population density per se. It’s about how many independent, hard-to-connect nodes the system has and that is why high-speed rail on the whole works better in Europe or Japan than in many other locales. To give an example from a slightly different realm, I live right near the Metro in a high-density suburban area. Yet I don’t take the Metro to my Arlington office, which is about two minutes from a Metro stop. I’d rather do the 37-minute drive. Why? Because I stop at the supermarket and the public library on my way home at least half of the time or maybe I stop to eat at Thai Thai. If those conveniences were right next to my house I’d consider the Metro but they’re not. The fact that my neighborhood has lots of people doesn’t help me any. In Tokyo you could live for years within the confines of many (most?) individual city blocks.
I respect Mr Cowen very much, but I think it’s long past time we stopped listening to libertarians on the issue of whether or not to build high-speed rail. Who will ask whether road construction remotely passes any of the tests they’re so prepared to push on rail? And if we begin charging an appropriate fee on drivers to maintain existing roads and reduce congestion, what do they all think will happen to land use patterns and transportation mode share?
Consider: the Texas DOT determined that gas tax revenues came nowhere close to covering life-cycle road costs, and that for a typical road to cover its costs of maintenance and construction the gas tax might need to approach $2 per gallon. Now, what does Europe’s experience suggest about the viability of transit and rail in places where gas taxes approach that level?
It really is quite bizarre how these people react to the notion of improving rail service.
But libertarians often act as if they think that this outcome is the result of consumer choice or a free market process. But ask yourself, why is it that there are no conveniences right next to Cowen’s house? Well, I don’t know exactly where he lives, but I believe it’s in Fairfax County which is governed by this exciting zoning ordinance. Fairfax County, in its infinite wisdom, allows for the creation of housing at various different levels of density in different areas. They’re differentiated by the number of permitted dwellings per acre—one, two, three, four, eight, twelve, sixteen, twenty, or thirty per acre. Even within the thirty per acre area, buildings cannot be over “150 feet, subject to increase as may be permitted by the Board in accordance with the provisions of Sect. 9-607″ and there’s a requirement that “40% of the gross area shall be open space.” We also need to make sure to “Refer to Article 11 for off-street parking, loading and private street requirements.”
All multiple-family residential structures in the county must, per Article 11, provide “One and six-tenths (1.6) spaces per unit.” A detached single-family home needs “Two (2) spaces per unit for lots with frontage on a public street and three (3) spaces per unit for lots with frontage on a private street, provided that only one (1) such space must have convenient access to a street.” A bowling alley needs “Four (4) spaces per alley, plus one (1) space per employee, plus such additional
spaces as may be required herein for affiliated uses such as eating establishments” with the eating establishment rule being “One (1) space per four (4) seats plus one (1) space per two (2) employees where seating is at tables” and with different rules for counter service.
One could go on. But I don’t really understand why it is that this kind of thing doesn’t seem to bother libertarians very much. Bryan Caplan specifically cites America’s large houses and ample parking spaces as the benefits of our free market approach when they are, in fact, the product of systematic regulatory mandates. I think this illustrates the basic tribalism of a lot of our politics. If Fairfax County were considering some kind of hippie-inspired stringent rent control law, we’d be hearing no end of it from blogging George Mason University professors. But given a set of extremely severe land use regulations that happen to antagonize environmentalist and left-wing Europhilic bicycle commuters, suddenly mandatory minimum parking requirements become the essence of capitalism.
What makes this issue so tricky for me is that the status quo pattern of settlement and transportation certainly does reflect systematic regulatory mandates, but it’s not clear how worthwhile it is to try to back out of this pattern once it has been established — even if those mandates were stupid. The way we live is indeed very much a function of choices made by government some time ago and reinforced by its ongoing decisions to maintain the established system. I think the case for the proposition that many of these choices were big mistakes — that we’d have an overall better pattern of settlement and transportation had government made different choices — is pretty compelling. Yet it remains that whole cities have formed around the suboptimal status quo system and many tens of millions of people have invested in goods like houses and cars taking for granted the structure of the status quo system.
I suspect defenders of greater density and more public transport overstrain themselves trying to make the implausible case that a transition to their favored alternative would cost most everyone less than maintenance of the status quo, despite the fact that almost everyone has already arranged their lives around the current system. I don’t think this kind of path-dependency/status-quo bias/lock-in effect would be insuperable if government would simply stop actively subsidizing people to arrange their lives around the status quo system. It could make people pay directly for using roads; price for congestion; shift incidence of taxes from labor income to carbon use, etc.
UPDATE: Megan McArdle