Curing Cities of Car Infestation
|December 18, 2013||Posted by Jeffery J. Smith under The Geonomist Blog|
If you’re used to it, you might not notice it, but US cities are infested with cars. To really feel how much cities here are less habitat for humanity, more habitat for vehicles, spend at least a few weeks in almost any European city with its car-free center. Your senses will gradually adapt without you noticing it but when you get back to Portland or wherever, your senses will be assaulted by the noise from wave after wave of seemingly pointless traffic.
Because Old World cities grew up when people had to use their muscles and those of their animals, citizens erected buildings side by side, didn’t bother to widen streets, and left central plazas open, organically. Since New World cities grew up when all people had to do was fire up a machine, cities here sprawl. Yet the expansiveness of cities here was quickly filled by vehicles and any advantage of room to move was lost. Indeed, many disadvantages raised their ugly heads, including residents’ alienation (see Bowling Alone).
As with most human-caused problems, there are human-devised solutions. What a few cities have done, including Sydney Australia, with success is this: they recovered the value of locations for public use.
One thing cities do strikingly well is sprout not just skyscrapers but also push up land values. Downtown lots tend to be thousands of times more valuable per acre than parcels out in the boonies. It’s a value that’s generated by the population’s presence and could be the region’s common wealth or be included in its tax base.
Recall the realtors’ mantra: location, location, location. The ones who generate the value of sites are not owners so much as virtually all of us. How much one is willing to pay for the location itself is due not to what an owner has done on it but what society has done around it — infrastructure, low crime, high salaries, etc. — and what nature has done — good views, deep harbors, natural resources, etc. Those cities that do recover the value they create set in motion a cascade of welcome benefits.
What do owners do in order to afford land taxes or land dues? What they don’t do is speculate, as they now keep some lots vacant or under-used; rather they put their parcels to good use. If the locality also lowers or eliminates its tax on buildings, then owners go all out to improve their property. If the locality also quits taxing sales or business, while recovering more of its land value, then businesses, able to utilize prime sites that had been a parking lot or abandoned building, profit more and pay better wages and ROI. If the locality also quits taxing income, while recovering yet more socially-generated site value, then watch out — entrepreneurs and cultural creatives would flock to the city.
If not just a locality but an entire state or region were to recover its spending for land and resources — while not taxing labor or capital — then the jurisdiction would suffer an embarrassment of riches. What to do with so much surplus revenue? Share it. Pay members of society a dividend, similar to Alaska’s oil share, or Aspen Colorado’s housing assistance, or Singapore’s cash dividend. Most of the money for the dividend would come from urban areas, where site values are vastly higher, so countryfolk would finally be compensated for being the target (as many of them feel) of unwanted regulations.
Citizens would get to enjoy not just economic benefits but environmental ones as well. Infilling cities frees residents and workers from having to drive everywhere; instead, they can conveniently walk, pedal, or ride transit in much less time with infestation being over. Less traffic not only means less pollution and energy consumption but also the conversion to car-free downtowns, a la Old World cities, becomes much easier, making urban living far more vibrant and satisfying.
People who hope to make cities into healthy habitats for humans, not cars, have little choice. One can not leave the billions of location value up for grabs and expect results other than those we now endure. Curing cities is feasible. Once New World cities do recover their own values and quit taxing individual earnings, then it’ll be back to the future for them.