City Density—Friend of Trip Efficiency
Cities cater to cars, not people. New fuels, motors, and modes of transport all pale beside fewer, shorter trips.
April 6, 2016
Jeffery J. Smith

PreScript:  What follows is an entry in the MIT contest to solve human hastening of climate change. Last year, my entry was either a finalist or semi-finalist (MIT sent contradictory emails). This year, go to this entry, support it, and help make it win. With MIT behind geonomics, global victory can't be far behind, eh?


Our footprint does alter the atmosphere, but the bigger culprit is our tire-track. Cities are not hives for humanity so much as for automobiles. Dense cities, however, are less hospitable to invasive vehicles. A move to use vacant lots and replace outmoded buildings makes cities dense. Owners do this in-filling when prodded by a local tax shift. To reform local taxes, residents can perform their civic duty. Join a group, or form one, or persuade one they belong to to help shift taxes to spur residents to resettle on land more economically.

Rights of Way

The car’s great appeal is perceived convenience. Yet do what Ivan Illich did. Add the time it takes to earn the money to own and operate a car to the time spent driving the car and you discover you’re actually moving at  6 mph—slower than a bike but faster than a pedestrian.

If cars-to-go, taxis, jitneys, and buses were the ones more convenient, personal cars would be relegated to the back seat. Presently, however, cars and trucks have the advantage of not having to pay their way—literally. Not only do they not pay for polluting the environment, they also don’t pay for conquering the land.

Cars need lots of land.

  • extra lanes
  • places to park; ew cars have dealer lots, old ones have junk yards
  • filling stations, repair garages, parts stores
  • cop shops, traffic courts, and insurance offices.

In some metro areas, more surface land is devoted to cars than to humans. Cars need not just the acreage but also massive infusions from the public treasury, without even including the costs of collisions and first responders.

Mass transit, plus bikes and feet, OTOH, get by with a lot less area. If vehicles paid to occupy space, those that paid more would be used less, those that paid less would be utilized more—duh. We could bill vehicle owners (even public ones) for monthly increases on the odometer. More residents would shift from driving to riding, Passengers per mile would rise as emissions would fall.

Funding Funneling

To meet demand, transit systems would need express bus routes, perhaps trolleys and light rail. Hong Kong shows how to build a world-class mass transit system without taking one penny of subsidy from the general fund. The key is to either tax private land or lease public land to recover the rise in the value of locations near the transit stations. No environmental measure is going anywhere if it violates the bottom line too long.

Joe Stiglitz and Bill Vickrey—two notable economists—both showed that any public works project desired by the public paid for itself and then some. A subway, an amphitheater, in the old days a post office, all those stamps on the land drew up surrounding location values by more than the cost of building and operating the project. Stiglitz named his calculation the Henry George Theorem after the reformer who led a movement of millions back when new technologies were first striking awe in the minds of mankind.

The only problem was not economic but political. Most jurisdictions failed to recover the values which society generated. That allowed those windfalls to become the low hanging fruit for land speculators. With their clout, speculators have made public recovery of location value rare. Yet it's still possible.

What? Me Densify?

Tapping site value to fund one public project is a special case. Tapping regional land value to fund the public is general use. A few jurisdictions do so. Typically, they shift the property tax off buildings, onto land. Melbourne suburbs used to, Sydney still does.

Having government charge people for displacing others more permanently while they own land is similar to charging people for occupying land briefly as they traverse it. Both enjoy the same justification—pay for excluding others from our common natural heritage. But when it comes to making transportation efficient and pollutants scarce, the charge for ownership is much more potent than the charge to traverse—owners influence density.

Some cities are just lucky. They were founded in the age of muscle power when citizens got around on their own legs or the legs of their animals, such as Boston. Or they were founded in a compact topography, like the peninsula on which San Francisco sits. Both factors led to cities of smaller blocks and denser population. Density makes feasible alternatives to driving cars, which cuts emissions.

How to Densify

The modern city sprawling over hundreds of square miles is not totally out of luck. There is a way to resettle a metro region—and rather rapidly—that will make it more compact and less hospitable to automobiles and other invasive vehicles. How? Shift the property tax off buildings, onto land.

To pay the fee, tax, or dues, owners no longer withhold their parcels, awaiting future gains. Instead, they develop their vacant lots and redevelop their dilapidated buildings. (And with zero tax on improvements, they do a good job of it, erecting efficient structures of pleasing looks.) The resultant in-fill increases density.

We can be sure that this shift of the property tax works because it always has, everywhere it has been used. When Scranton shifted its property tax off buildings, onto locations, the city absorbed new development that otherwise would have become sprawl. The mayor, Steven Reed, gave the higher tax rate on land full credit for sparing suburban farms. Across the state, the property tax shift financed the renewal of Pittsburgh without one penny of public subsidy.

Getting Over Driving

As landowners in-fill their cities, that puts homes, shops, offices closer together. Residents can drive shorter distances and not drive at all. Some choose to walk, pedal, or ride public transit newly made convenient. Greater ridership keeps the system in the black. And with more non-poor riders, it loses some stigma.

Pedestrians and cyclists who feel assaulted by the danger, noise, and smell of traffic are likely candidates to support granting space for bikes, outdoor cafes, and street performers. Such amenities lure more people out of their cars, into the streets. Legging it reduces traffic and pollution yet further.

The movement to take back the streets could restrict deliveries to certain hours, as Romans once insisted when their city was ancient. At those hours, trucks would encounter less traffic, fewer interruptions, so they’d go about their business more quickly. Their emissions would be cut, too.

Generating Income for Everyone

When owners redevelop, obviously they must build. That attracts investors and generates jobs. The new structures attract new residents and new businesses. All that increased industry augments demand for labor and its price. Across the workforce spectrum, from construction worker to office worker, wages.rise.

Wherever they are, prosperous people bid up location value. With land dues in place, that swells the public treasury. The embarrassment of riches enables jurisdictions to pay residents dividends from the ground rents—a la Aspen Colorado.

In that glitzy ski resort for the wealthy, a vacant lot goes for $10 million and up. Home sites were getting so pricey, the rich were worried that all their waiters would have to move away. Hence they did not oppose a ballot initiative to tax property at point of sale to raise revenue to fund housing for working households. Because pricey parcels made housing so unaffordable, you could be a doctor making six figures and still qualify for help. The measure passed easily.

Let Aspen be a model for Boston, New York, San Francisco, and anywhere longer term residents can not afford the rising rents and prices of locations. Treat socially-generated land values as common wealth. That is, recover them via dues, tax, or fee, then disburse them in shares to residents. In a virtuous circle, as local land gets more spendy, the resident’s dividend gets more zeros before the decimal point.

(Then longer term residents might welcome newcomers—no more confrontations between well-off techies on Google buses and under-employed Gen-exers in the streets.)

Singapore goes one better. Known for its efficient mass transit and strictures on automobile usage, that city-state recovers so much of the value its presence creates that it keeps taxes on labor and capital low, energizes their economy, runs a surplus, and pays citizens a dividend. Citizens can spend the extra income on anything.

From Rush Hour to Play Day

Enjoying affordable housing or extra cash in the pocket, residents anywhere would find themselves able to work less. Taking time off not only improves human health but also environmental health. It reduces rush hour.

Some human beings spend four hours a day getting to and from their jobs (often less pleasant than their time stuck in their cars). Turning freeways into parking lots is when vehicles do their most spewing into and damage to the atmosphere. A shorter workweek (a good in itself) would spread the times of commute throughout the day. Traffic could flow more smoothly. You’d hurry along rush hour and choke off smog at its source—and disturb the climate less.

Dissipating rush hour improves the quality of life of everyone. It is people concerned about quality of life who are also concerned about the environment. Coupled with greater income, residents can afford the luxury of concern for the entire planet and take action to reduce their own footprint, tire-track, and hoof print, and that of their society in general.

Funding the Fringe

Receiving a “rent” dividend cuts emissions another way. Basement innovators and garage inventors get the wherewithal to bring their novel ideas to fruition. Like the immigrant robot that beat MIT (sorry), major discoveries have come from outside of conventional corporations and mainstream academia. How many more Steve Jobs are there, languishing for lack of funds, depriving society of their novel ways to cut emissions? Imagine if support were democratized so that brilliance need not conform but merely shine?

For example, a novel engine that cuts pollution could be built. This particular design replaces the crank with a cam (of bi-lobal shape) that keeps the pistons at TDC long enough to burn the fuel/air mix thoroughly, leaving next to none leftover to become smog while vastly improving fuel efficiency—less fuel burned, less carbon emitted. If the fuel is not a hydrocarbon but, say, hydrogen, employing a cam allows the piston to travel at whatever rate would be most efficient.

How many other good ideas await widespread use? All innovations could compete in the marketplace if their inventors were supported. Support is what a dividend from regional values, disbursed to residents, provides.

Dues & Dividend, Hand in Hand

The resident’s dividend—being extra money in the pocket—is easier to win than a land tax (being money lost from one’s wallet). Most likely, the dividend is essential. Rarely have economic reformers won a tax on land—most notably in Pittsburgh. Most victories were followed by defeat; within a matter of years, the real estate lobby repealed the reform and sent the city back to the conventional property tax. OTOH, the dividends from recovering the value of land in Aspen and Singapore (and from the price of oil in Alaska) are not going to be repealed any time soon if ever.

To win that extra and needed money in the pocket, a majority (a la Aspen) would endorse its source—a fiscal tool that recovered the annual value of land. Land dues, for example, spur owners to utilize their parcels more efficiently. That reduces the use of motorized transportation and the emission of carbon byproducts.

Since some places have passed geonomic bills, other jurisdictions can, too. First, proponents must listen to much feedback and craft a compelling message. Next, reach out via all media to raise awareness, recruit members, and raise funds. Capture some celebrity endorsements then lobby the local politicians until they shift the property tax and disburse dividends to residents. At last, watch the transportation sector run out of gaseous pollutants.


PostScript:  What you read is an entry in the MIT contest to solve human hastening of climate change. Last year, my entry was either a finalist or semi-finalist (MIT sent contradictory emails). This year, go to this entry, support it, and help make it win. With MIT behind geonomics, global victory can't be far behind, eh?

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Jeffery J. Smith

JEFFERY J. SMITH published The Geonomist, which won a California GreenLight Award, has appeared in both the popular press (e.g.,TruthOut) and academic journals (e.g., USC's “Planning and Markets”), been interviewed on radio and TV, lobbied officials, testified before the Russian Duma, conducted research (e.g., for Portland's mass transit agency), and recruited activists and academics to A member of the International Society for Ecological Economics and of Mensa, he lives in Mexico. Jeffery formerly was Chief Editor at