Thursday, April 19, 2012

The war on sprawl is war on the working class

Photo by Bruce Wrighton

The War on the Working Class  
by Randal O'Toole

The Occupy Wall Street movement has focused attention on a supposed divide between the one percent and the 99 percent. But a much more serious class struggle divides America: that between the middle class, meaning college-educated people whose jobs require a lot of thinking and the working class, meaning less-educated people whose jobs tend to be more physical or repetitive

Americans often pretend this class divide does not exist, yet there are clear differences in tastes in music, food, and entertainment. The politics are very different: Tea Partiers tend to be working class; Occupy Wall Streeters tend to be middle class. Despite pretentions of tolerance, few members of the middle class have any real understanding or appreciation of what it means to be working class, and they often treat working-class tastes and preferences with sneering contempt and hostility.

One of the more visible manifestations of this hostility is the War on Sprawl. This is a middle-class war, fought by college graduates who themselves usually live in single-family homes and drive for most of their travel. Yet, they are convinced that only people with their refined tastes can appreciate suburban living, and only people with their special skills need to drive―most everyone else should live in apartments and take mass transit.

Intentionally or not, the War on Sprawl is a war on the working class. To curb sprawl, planners use urban-growth boundaries and other limits on suburban development, making housing unaffordable for working-class families. To reduce driving, planners deliberately increase traffic congestion, limit parking, and put other restrictions on driving. This hits working-class commuters, whose jobs are less amenable to flex time, telecommuting, or relocation to suburban offices, the hardest.

This battle goes back to the nineteenth century when America’s fast-growing industrial cities housed both classes. Surprisingly, working-class homeownership rates were then far higher than middle-class rates. Working-class families viewed homes as potential sources of income, taking in boarders, growing small livestock in their yards, and starting in-home businesses; and they worked hard to own their homes.

By contrast, middle-class families treated homes as merely a place to live, and the vast majority of them rented. A major disincentive to buying a home was the worry that a working-class family might move in next-door, bringing down the value of neighboring homes with their boarders, livestock, and home businesses.

That changed in the early 20th century as cities adopted zoning codes that often banned non-family residents, backyard livestock, in-home businesses, and other features found in working-class homes. Middle-class homeownership soared.

After World War II, a combination of unions, immigration controls, and —most importantly—improved worker productivity increased average working-class incomes to nearly 75 percent of average middle-class incomes. By the 1960s, working-class families often lived in the same neighborhoods, drove on the same streets, and shopped at the same stores as middle-class families.

Yet differences in tastes and preferences remained. Large pick-ups and, later, truck-based SUVs were more likely to belong to working-class families. Volvos and, later, Priuses were more likely to belong to middle-class families. “It is a great mistake to equate an income which permits most of the basic amenities of what the middle class calls ‘decency’ with becoming middle class,” observed sociologist Bennett Berger in 1960.

When “even a semiskilled factory worker” can “own two cars, a Ranch house, a TV set, and clothe his wife in excellent copies of Paris fashions,” Berger presciently noted, “higher-status groups (perhaps without considerably greater income) defend the potential threat posed by widespread material abundance to their ‘status-honor’ by designating such economic possessions ‘vulgar’ and asserting the indispensability of a particular style of life—that is, something that cannot be immediately purchased with no down payment.” By declaring a War on Sprawl, the middle class sought to exclude working-class families from pretentions of middle-class amenities.

The much-feared environmental costs of sprawl are in fact negligible: The suburbs are no threat to America’s vast farms, forests, and open spaces, and thanks to pollution controls the environmental impacts of cars are rapidly falling. The real question is not whether we sprawl but who gets the benefits of single-family homeownership and automobility.

The War on Sprawl aims to prevent many people from enjoying these benefits. Those who prefer higher densities and mass transit are free to locate in urban centers where such housing is concentrated. But understanding the sociological roots of the War on Sprawl provides just one more reason to end it.

Randal O’Toole This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScriptis a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and author of "American Nightmare: How Government Undermines the Dream of Homeownership," which Cato will publish this May. He is a guest contributor for Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research center.

See also "California declares land war on families" at CalWatchdog.

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33 Comments:

At 12:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is one of the stupidest things you've ever linked. It is really grasping at straws.

 
At 12:49 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

You say that because you're a San Francisco bike guy and a charter member of the elite O'Toole is talking about.

 
At 12:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh yeah, that's right - marginalize me to void my opinion. My parents (and my whole extended family) are part of the "working class". What you and O'Toole fail to realize (or are just willfully ignorant of) is that saddling the "working class" with huge mortgages and car loans (not to mention maintaining and gassing up) is what is really holding back the lower classes.
And O'Toole acts like the free market is choosing suburban lifestyles and the gov't is against them completely ignoring the HUGE subsidies for the last 70 years towards roads/sprawl/oil/cars/etc. Give me a fucking break.

 
At 1:09 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

Oh yes, you just want to help working people avoid burdensome mortgages and car loans! Why not let them choose for themselves? If they would just trade their cars for bikes and live in an apartment in SF, they would be so much happier! Subsidies or no subsidies, everyone should be able to live in the suburbs if they so choose.

 
At 1:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Subsidies or no subsidies, everyone should be able to live in the suburbs if they so choose."

Yes, totally agree. However, you remove those subsidies and all of a sudden the suburbs aren't so cheap.

 
At 4:25 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

Why remove them---I assume you're referring to highways and mortgage deductions---if they benefit everyone who wants to live there equally?

 
At 6:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Because they benefit people in the suburbs disproportionately, Rob. If you live in the suburbs, you (statistically) receive more aid per capita than somebody in the city. If subsidies like highways and mortgage deductions were spread evenly per capita, living in the suburbs simply wouldn't be as cheap as it is today. The affordability of the suburbs is an illusion created by artificially depressed transportation and housing costs, and it's one of the biggest contributors to the recent mortgage crisis.

Who are you to call the middle class "elite", anyway? Don't you live alone in an inherited house in San Francisco? You're in no position to criticize anyone who works for a living, "middle class" or not. O'Toole is just another free-market ideologue trying to convince uneducated people that anyone with an education or a less back-breaking job is "elite", which is the height of hypocrisy coming from somebody on the Cato Institute's payroll.

I'm actually surprised that you trust him at all, given that, according to Wikipedia, he is an "avid cyclist who has stated that he rides a bicycle to and from work." (Who said we all think alike?)

 
At 9:12 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

Where have I criticized anyone who's working for a living? Pretty poor reading skills, Anon. I live on Social Security, since I'm retired from a working life of mostly blue collar work---a lumber mill, a couple of garment factories, a lot of restaurants and institutional kitchens, etc. My first full-time job was way back in 1960, right out of high school.

I know who O'Toole is, and I don't "trust him" in the sense that I think whatever he says is gospel. I don't "trust" anyone that way. I'm actually a Democrat and a big government guy, not a conservative or a libertarian. He makes a good point about the elitism of many cyclists and "smart growth" advocates (in SF, the SFBC and SPUR are good examples) That he himself is a cyclist means that he knows what he's talking about.

He's particularly good on the peculiar love progressives and Democrats have for trains, even though they make the least sense economically than any other transportation "mode."

He's also wise to the goofy anti-carism of you folks. I particularly recommend his blog, the Anti-Planner.

It all comes together here in SF in big, dumb development projects, like the Market/Octavia Plan---40-story residential highrises at Market and Van Ness!---Treasure Island, and Parkmerced that essentially ignore the traffic problems that, for example, 19,000 people on Treasure Island will cause on the Bay Bridge and downtown SF. Never mind traffic congestion and an inadequate transit system: people can ride bikes!

You keep talking about subsidies, but you're suspiciously vague. States, counties, and the federal government shouldn't build and maintain highways and roads? Would you eliminate the mortgage deduction? The Great Recession was caused by the housing bubble, with millions of people buying houses they couldn't afford, which suited banks and the real estate industry just fine---until the bubble burst, and securitized billions in housing bonds turned out to be worthless.

None of that makes living in the burbs in a house with a yard and a garage any less valid as a way of life than it's ever been, especially for families.

 
At 11:07 PM, Blogger Nato said...

The two biggest artificial reasons housing in the city is so expensive relative to the suburbs are 1) because people in the city oppose development plans so vigorously, preventing supply from rising to meet demand and 2) because the government has provided and continues to provide huge amount of car-related services at far below market prices. As time passes, I expect the second item to continue to decline, driving up the costs of the suburbs, but Rob is far from the only person carrying the flag for the first, so that will always persist. It's ironic, of course, because as long as the cities are so expensive to live in, they will be dominated by upper-income folks, and suburbs will continue to be the demographic center of the middle class, allowing Rob to continue to criticize urban planners who want to change that situation as anti-car elitists.

 
At 9:23 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

You need to specify all those "car-related services" the government is providing.

While you're at it, please name a single recent major housing development in SF that "people" here have opposed.

 
At 12:40 PM, Blogger alai said...

"Why not let them choose for themselves?"

Why not indeed? Oh yes, because they can't be trusted, so we have to use the government's power to forbid them from building "big, dumb development projects".

"None of that makes living in the burbs in a house with a yard and a garage any less valid as a way of life than it's ever been, especially for families."

Oh, it's perfectly valid. And once you successfully ban the alternatives (like that big, dumb Market/Octavia plan), it won't just be valid-- it'll be mandatory. Of course you'll still have a choice-- a house with a yard and a garage in the burbs, or (for those that can afford it) a house with a yard and a garage in the city, or maybe even-- for those crazy types-- an apartment in the city! (with a yard and a garage, of course).

The important thing is to protect people from choosing an apartment without a yard and a garage.

 
At 4:30 PM, Anonymous sfthen said...

Joel Kotkin interviewed in the WSJ shares many similar opinions on how "smart growth", high speed rail, green jobs, big government, etc., relate to disappearance of a middle class in California: The Great Exodus.

 
At 2:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rob has a point here, especially poignant when you look at that picture. San Francisco has "planned" its way into a future with no jobs for "Carnies".

 
At 8:40 AM, Blogger Nato said...

Rob, when I mentioned "people" in the city, I was thinking most proximally of yourself. It doesn't require a majority, just a litigious few to block developments, or, rather, make them so expensive that they don't happen.

As for car-related services, I could point to free parking as one of those, and legal aids like mandatory parking minimums, though also the fact that the government spends much more on roads, the DMV, the CHP, etc, than the gas tax pays for*, and the much more permissive safety regime for cars as opposed to other kinds of transit (e.g. trains, where a collision is essentially the end of the world), plus the various government credits for hybrids and etc., the various tax advantages given to US automakers... the list goes on.

*Both mass transit and roads aren't paid for by their user-fees, and to approximately the same extent, so this isn't really a way in which car riders are subsidized *more* than city dwellers. I merely mention it because so many assume that drivers aren't being subsidized while transit riders are.

 
At 3:54 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

Except for your beloved Bicycle Plan, please name other "developments" that have been "blocked" recently in SF by a "majority" or a few individuals. Your claim is pure mythology perpetrated by developers and misguided journalists like C.W. Nevius.

The reality is that motor vehicles are essential for millions of people---in SF and in the country in general. Our economy depends on motor vehicles. Tourism is our largest industry, and tourists don't ride bikes and trains to visit SF; they drive their own cars or they rent cars at the airport. The suggestion that there's some serious alternative to motor vehicles in SF or the rest of the country is pure fantasy.

 
At 4:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You've obviously never been on BART to/from SFO.

 
At 3:51 PM, Blogger alai said...

Ok, Rob: How about the Whole Foods on Stanyan?

Way I see it, we have a choice: we can insist that everyone, tourists and locals alike, should drive, and shouldn't have to pay any more than someone in Modesto. If we do this, we need lots of room for parking and for traffic--more, even, than we have today. Only way to achieve it is to put severe limits on how many people are allowed to live here and how many people are allowed to visit. It'll be an exclusive city, with exclusive prices (except, of course, people will deny this by pointing to rent-controlled tenants and long-term residents. Which is all well and good, but it's still just as exclusive).

Or we can forget that. We can focus on building up other modes. The advantage of this is that it can accommodate far more people at far lower cost, per capita, both to them and to the city at large. No ridiculous traffic problems (unless you consider people hanging out outside a cafe a serious traffic problem). Yes, it'll require significant investment in improving the transport infrastructure-- but when you're carrying hundreds of thousands a day, that's doable.

Yeah, it'll be less convenient for some people. It'll be less attractive for those who are used to jumping in a car and driving everywhere. But that's OK. Tourists are not going to stay away because they're forced to ride the F-line (oh heavens!). So why obsess over getting more people to drive in, when there's obviously a limited amount of space? Why not just focus on improving Muni and crime and the things that actually harm people, visitors and residents both?

 
At 10:21 PM, Blogger Nato said...

I've lived lots of places, and I visited SF as a tourist many times before I moved here to stay. I'm not sure I ever drove a car to do it (nor did my parents, back when I was visiting with them). I work down in silicon valley, and so many of my coworkers visit the city as tourists. Maybe half the time they drive, and even then they usually say it's because they don't know how to use the transit system (admittedly it's complex), not because they prefer driving. Then there's my mother, who makes her city-resident sons drive because it's so easy to make mistakes, go the wrong way, look at the wrong light, etc. San Francisco is astonishingly "car friendly" for a city of its density, but it was never laid out with cars in mind, and the way I see it you would have to destroy a lot of the city's character (like they tried to do with the freeways in the early 60s) if they were going to make SF a driver's city.

 
At 10:20 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

Do you think that SF was "laid out" with bikes in mind? Come off it! City streets were originally designed for horse-drawn vehicles. SF is now pretty easy to drive in, but you bike zealots would like to change that on behalf of your small minority movement.

Back in 2005, Curt Sanburn wrote in the SF Weekly about how easy it is to drive in SF, which annoyed you anti-car folks, but it's still more or less true.

 
At 3:29 PM, Blogger Nato said...

I should perhaps quote myself: "San Francisco is astonishingly "car friendly" for a city of its density" and being as I am a car owner who drives in the city more than once in a blue moon, I do know how easy it can be to drive here if once one becomes familiar with the various quirks of each neighborhood. I've also driven in Atlanta Georgia, Los Angeles, Colorado Springs, Portland Oregon, Seattle, and many other places. San Francisco is easily the most challenging of them all, in my perception. Now that I've been driving here for five plus years, it's radically easier than it was at first, and I would rather drive here than Los Angeles (largely because drives here aren't very far) or any number of other places, but that doesn't do much to support your asseverations that 1) the bulk of tourists drive cars 2) there's no serious alternative to (presumably private*) motor vehicles in the city.

In any case, when the city was being laid out, there were horse-drawn vehicles, yes, but from 1873 to 1890 there were also a couple dozen cable cars put in. From 1892 on, it was electric streetcars. Also, it was during the 1880s and 1890s that the "safety bicycle" became a huge craze, spawning, amongst others, the Wright Cycling Company. It was in fact the bicyclist-led Good Roads Movement that formed the most powerful advocacy group for road improvements from the 1870s to the 1920s. Meanwhile, the straight grid over steep hills is exactly the sort of thing that's not helpful for horse-drawn vehicles. I think it's fair to say that private vehicle is the one mode for which San Francisco was *not* designed.

*Why do I say 'presumably private"? Because you relentlessly advocate for mandatory parking minimums and free street parking, which taxis don't need. In fact, the more expensive parking is, the more likely people are to catch taxis. Busses don't need parking either. So I can only interpret your personal crusade as being in favor of everyone driving their own car, since that's the only mode that requires all that parking.

 
At 5:02 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

In the end, whether factual or not, your historical essay is of no help in dealing with today's traffic.

The only information we have on how tourists travel in SF is from the San Francisco Travel folks, who have this to say in a visitor profile about how they arrive here:

"During 2010, twice as many
visitors arrived in San Francisco by air (58.0%) than automobile (28.1%), which was the second most common transportation mode. Relatively few visitors arrived via other forms of transportation."

The profile says this about how tourists get around after they've arrived:

"Four in ten report taking taxis while in the city (38.1%). Other automobile options are popular amongst San Francisco visitors, with 35.1 percent using a personal car and 14.6 percent using a rental car. Additionally, the city’s public transportation options are being utilized by important shares of visitors. Over one quarter (27.6%) rode the cable cars, while 22.9 percent took MUNI trains and/or buses and 18.3 percent rode the F-Line street cars. One in four used BART (26.7%)."

Funny but bikes aren't mentioned at all.

If of course have never written anything like "there's no serious alternative to (presumably private) motor vehicles in the city." Muni is the best, most realistic alternative to driving in SF for the overwhelming majority. I don't own a car and walk and ride Muni wherever I go.

I only object to parking meters in our residential neighborhoods, except for commercial areas.

 
At 12:58 AM, Blogger alai said...

A question:

You clearly support minimum parking requirements. There was a fire on Haight & Fillmore where the apartment building which housed a Walgreens, three storefronts, and 31 apartments. As they are repairing it as-is, my understanding is that they don't have to bring it into compliance with the various codes, but if it had burned to the ground they would be required to build 31 spaces which would take about 10,000 square feet, plus whatever was required for the commercial. This would require at least two floors of parking, and probably wouldn't leave much (if any) room for Walgreens or any other shop (but I guess this would be ok because now the residents will have cars to drive to stonestown).

In practice, it would probably result in a building with dramatically fewer apartments and no commercial space at all. And they would certainly be more expensive than they are currently (what's the premium for a parking space?)

So here's my question: do you think the neighborhood would benefit if the city required the owners of the building to replace the Walgreens with a parking garage, and to replace a large number of cheaper apartments with a smaller number of more expensive ones?

 
At 9:53 AM, Blogger Nato said...

At 5:02 PM:"If of course have never written anything like "there's no serious alternative to (presumably private) motor vehicles in the city."

Really, you've written nothing like that? Because I was paraphrasing you fairly closely:

At 3:54 PM:"The suggestion that there's some serious alternative to motor vehicles in SF or the rest of the country is pure fantasy."


Also, I think you've gone farther than this:
"I only object to parking meters in our residential neighborhoods, except for commercial areas."

In your own commentary in this thread you linked an old post: http://district5diary.blogspot.com/2005/07/morning-rush-hour-is-nothing.html

In it you complained about "undermining the city law that requires a parking space for every new housing unit" - that's not just objecting to parking meters, that's supporting mandatory parking minimums regardless if there is demand. It's one of the many common ways to impose costs on the public for the benefit of automobiles.

 
At 10:42 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

Motor vehicles---cars, buses, trucks---are obviously vital to the country and the city's economy. I personally don't need one at this stage of my life, but that's not the issue in SF. Yes, I think providing one parking space for each new housing unit is good public policy.

 
At 4:10 PM, Blogger Nato said...

"Yes, I think providing one parking space for each new housing unit is good public policy."

You realize that this imposes costs on non-drivers for the benefit of drivers? I mean, it wouldn't hurt you personally so much, since residential supply constriction helps those fortunates who already own, but those wishing to move here would all have to pay higher prices for a service that only benefits drivers.

 
At 5:42 PM, Blogger alai said...

So, specifically in the example I gave, would you prefer that the Walgreens and the ice cream store (or whatever stores replace them) be done away with in favor of parking? You do recognize that a building like 499 Haight would simply not exist if parking were required, right?

 
At 6:56 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

You've provided no links or citations to anything to support what you're saying about that site.

 
At 8:00 PM, Blogger alai said...

What do you want citations for? The basic information about the building is here.

The size of the required parking garage is here, (or just measure the size of any parking lot in Google Maps). Multiply 31 x 325 square feet, and you get a bit over 10,000 square feet.

The total square footage of the building is 23,700 sf, and the lot size is 7737 sf. Adding a 10,000 square foot garage to that is not going to work. The only way to build it today would be to replace the commercial areas with parking, and to reduce the number of units (in order to reduce the number of spaces required).

The same is true for any of the apartments-over-commercial buildings that line Haight St, or many other San Francisco streets. Build them today and you would have to replace the storefronts with a garage.

If you want an example of what minimum-parking buildings look like, see here.

Is it any wonder that San Franciscans love our old buildings? It's because you wouldn't be allowed to build them today. Thanks in no small part to the efforts of people like you.

 
At 9:48 PM, Blogger Nato said...

Rob, should we take your silence to mean you concede that alai's point carries?

 
At 9:32 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

What point? He/you are accusing me of what, exactly? I only oppose over-large projects---M/O Plan, UC on lower Haight, Treasure Island, Parkmerced---that are going to contribute nothing but snarled traffic and more tax revenue to an improvident City Hall.

Every development, large or small, should provide a parking space for every new housing unit built.

 
At 10:52 AM, Blogger alai said...

I am not accusing you of anything, exactly-- I'm trying to point out that these policies have big consequences, which would, if they were applied to existing buildings or their potential replacements, lead to a radical change in the city-- fewer commercial establishments, fewer customers for remaining establishments, more exclusivity, and higher prices all around.

You hedge a bit by applying them only to new housing units, but new ones become old ones soon enough, and what is built now will determine the shape of the city for decades to come.

And "contribute nothing but snarled traffic and more tax revenue to an improvident City Hall"? Please. They create housing for people who need it, and these people do work here, engage in culture, and patronize the businesses of SF. They create less traffic-- and contribute more-- than anyone who lives in the suburbs and drives in. The people who live with "inadequate" parking are the same ones who patronize the small groceries, the bookstores, the laundries, and all the myriad small businesses which keep the city running and make it interesting. Give everyone a parking space and it would be great for Serramonte-- but not so much for the corner grocery. Of course, that space will be needed for more parking anyway.

 
At 11:05 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

Fuzzball bullshit. You don't mention the specific developments I list. 19,000 people living on Treasure Island! More than 16,000 new residents on 19th Avenue! 10,000 new residents in the Market/Octavia area, and 1,000 on the old UC extension site, one block from the chronically gridlocked Octavia Blvd!

All I'm talking about are these grandiose, stupid "smart growth" developments in San Francisco, not the suburbs. What are you talking about?

 
At 11:23 AM, Blogger alai said...

What of it? Traffic on the Bay Bridge or on the Octavia onramp could easily be managed through congestion tolling. The proceeds could be used to improve Muni connections to the western neighborhoods.

Instead, you propose to manage the congestion by limiting the number of people allowed to live in the area-- even though many of these people may wish to live at Market/Van Ness precisely because the excellent transit connections allow them to avoid-- and avoid contributing to-- the congestion. You'd have them move to the suburbs and drive to work on freeways (because that wouldn't contribute to congestion at all?!)

Same for Treasure Island. Implement a bridge toll and a 5-minute frequency bus service to downtown, and there'll be plenty of people happy to take advantage of the short & cheap commute-- better than most any suburb. Require heaps of parking and no toll, and yeah-- you'll get congestion. Which is why we shouldn't do that.

 

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