Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Post-Election Urbanism

Those readers who have been following me over the last few months know that I bemoaned the absence of urbanism discussions in the presidential campaign.   That absence continued right to the end.  With the challenger conceding the election and the incumbent giving his victory speech in historic cities that have continued importance in the national economy, urban policies and urbanism went unmentioned.

Despite the silence from the top, there was still good news on election day.  And there are many willing to offer urbanist to-do lists for the new administration.

From the ballot boxes, Eric Jaffe reports for Atlantic Cities that most transit ballot measures around the country passed.  And the great majority passed by margins that were greater that the margin in the presidential election, showing solid local commitments to a key element of urbanism.

Smart Growth America offers a different list of the ballot results, many of which were good news for urbanist issues beyond transit.

Kaid Benfield of the National Resources Defense Council despairs of the election results facilitating any great breakthroughs in Washington, D.C.  But he still offers a list of changes at the federal level that he’d like to see implemented over the next four years, starting with improved inter-agency coordination.  Among his other suggestions is an increased focus on the triple bottom line, assessing the financial, social, and environmental benefit-cost ratios of possible urban undertakings.

It’s a modest list from Benfield, but the minimalism might just make it achievable.

Emily Badger and Sommer Mathis of Atlantic Cities weren’t as diffident as Benfield.  They present a more elaborate and optimistic list, including reorganization of the Federal Rail Administration to facilitate high-speed rail development, creation of a national infrastructure bank to get the country moving on long-deferred maintenance and improvement projects, and the implementation of a “location efficiency” standard for federal buildings, to keep future buildings from being sited on urban fringes.

Also, Badger and Mathis take up an idea offered by Governor Romney in the final weeks of the campaign, a reduction in the home mortgage deduction.

I’ve long argued that the home mortgage deduction, which began as an economic stimulus measure to help the recovery from the Great Depression and has become engrained in the tax code over the following eighty years, is creating inappropriate marketplace incentives.  However, an abrupt removal of the deduction would upset too many long established family financial plans.  Therefore, I’ve argued for a gradual elimination.  Perhaps four percent per year for 25 years.

To that end, I prefer the Badger/Mathis proposal, which sets the maximum amount of mortgage debt subject to deduction at $500,000.  For comparison, Romney proposed a cap on the total amount of deductions.  At various times, he proposed cap amounts of $17,000 and $25,000, either of which would have had a far greater immediate impact that the Badger/Mathis approach.

Indeed, I would add incrementalism to the Badger/Mathis proposal, perhaps starting the mortgage cap at $750,000 and then reducing it by $50,000 per year until it reached $300,000.  I believe that economies respond better when given time to adjust to new rules.

Lastly, Badger and Mathis propose a 15 cent increase in the federal gas tax, which is another argument I’ve made over time.  However, once again I’d propose an incremental approach.  Perhaps 15 cents per year, for at least ten years if not more.  Nor should the increased revenues be directed solely toward road construction and repair.  The use of gasoline has had far-ranging geopolitical and environmental implications, the costs of which have been subsidized by the general fund.  An increased gas tax can begin to redress that imbalance.

Rebuilding Space in the Urban Place also supports an increase in the gas tax.  Plus they provide a graphic of the current state-by-state gas taxes.  If you’ve been complaining that California has the highest gas tax in the country, you’ve been wrong.  Connecticut and New York lead the parade, although only by fractions of a penny over California.  Meanwhile, the lowest taxes are in Hawaii, but transportation costs ensure that Aloha State motorists still pay plenty at the pump.

Finally, Kristen Jeffers, writing as the Black Urbanist, presents a list of urbanist strategies that is nominally for her home state of North Carolina, but can apply to the country as a whole.  She includes commuter rail, improved bicycle facilities, and continuing grassroots movements.

I include the Black Urbanist not so much because her list is any different than Benfield or the others, but because it often seems that the most influential urbanist writers are middle-aged white guys.  (Not that I call myself influential, but it’s also my demographic.)  It’s comforting to see that a black woman comes to the table with almost the same list of wants for the next four years.  It’s a check that we’re on the right path.


A regular reader, who has become a friend through this blog, was enthusiastic about my recent posts on bicycling.  His comments seemed worthy of sharing.

“When I was new in the biking public of Petaluma, I started to learn and know who the other regular bicyclists in town were.  Then it got to be too many.  Now I don't even think about it, I see so many different people — every single day — riding bicycles on our streets and pathways.”

That’s good to hear.  And there’s plenty of room on the streets for more bicyclists.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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