Monday, January 27, 2014

The Google Bus Issue Triggers Insightful Urbanist Talk

One of the great things about the urbanist community is that high-profile social issues will always elicit cogent and insightful comments from active urbanists.  It’s partly that a cohort of good critical thinkers has become attached to urbanism and partly that urbanism is a good solution to many contemporary social ills.

To be clear, urbanism isn’t a panacea to every issue that might need improvement, but it’s one of a half-dozen building blocks that can make the world a better and more sustainable place in the 21st century.

So I’ll return to the Google bus issue and sample some of the best thinking that has bubbled up around it.

Of course, the North Bay doesn’t yet have its equivalent of the Google bus issue.  Because of the historical happenstance of Silicon Valley continuing to burgeon while the North Bay’s equivalent, Telecom Valley, stagnated, the North Bay doesn’t yet have as much of the young demographic segment looking for an urban lifestyle.

But the North Bay is a good place to live that is eager to remain economically vital, so will soon attract the young and affluent who are roiling other areas of the Bay Area.  The Google bus issue should be studied in the North Bay so we can be smarter when our time comes.

On the Google bus issue, several commenters have noted that San Francisco and Oakland aren’t alone in their failure to anticipate and to prepare for the coming flood of young adults looking for an urban lifestyle.  Fingers are being pointed at Peninsula and South Bay communities for failing to facilitate the type of development that would have been attractive to techies.

I agree with the finger-pointing.  A more far-sighted residential program around the Silicon Valley would have defused much of the Google bus issue.  In an odd coincidence, I found myself in conversation over the weekend with someone who owns a large chunk of land in the South Bay which now has a low-density land use.  The landowner is intrigued by the possibility of creating a higher-density, urbanist use, but finds daunting the prospect of tackling the public, city, regional, and state issues that would be raised.

Others have concurred with me that blaming the tech buses is akin to blaming the messenger.  As Michael Coyote noted on Twitter, “I can totally understand why people are mad, but who does it help of you are mad at a tech worker versus some NIMBY?”  While NIMBYism certainly had a role, I'd also add CEQA and ponderous land-use processes to the list of wrongdoers.

But perhaps the most interesting thinking was put forth by Noah Smith in an article published on Quartz.  Dusting off the work of Henry George, a long-dead economist from San Francisco, Smith suggests that a property tax that focuses more on the land, especially the land that has an increased value because of public facilities such as street and sewer, is more fair than the current system which focuses on appraised value.

Early in my urbanist reading, I came across a suggestion that property taxes should use a sliding scale, with taxes in the urban core based solely on the value of land, taxes in surrounding rural land based solely on the value of the improvements, and taxes in between based on a combination.  My memory is that it was James Howard Kunstler who put forth the concept, but I haven’t yet come across it in my rereading of his work.

 The Henry George and the sliding scale concepts are largely similar.  And I see value in both.  But I also see points of discomfort in both.

As currently constructed, property taxes are intended to ensure that a uniform standard of public facilities and services are available across the community, while also keeping cities solvent.  Those are valid goals that must be preserved.  Modifying the property tax system to encourage urbanism while maintaining the first two goals would be a tricky endeavor.

Also, one of the greatest benefits conveyed to land isn’t public improvements, but zoning.  If we’re to tax the property owner for having a public street across the front of his land, taxing him for higher zoning seems reasonable.  Indeed it seems only fair.  Changing zoning from rural to residential can be a windfall of a million dollars or more per acre to the property owner. 

But what if a city does rezoning on its own initiative, perhaps as the result of a new General Plan, and not at the request of the land owner?  And what if it’s likely to be a decade or more before the land is developed?  Is the property owner liable for the higher tax burden over that decade, even if it pushes him toward bankruptcy?

Lastly, I’ve often argued that many of our current institutions, including property taxes, lending practices, judicial rules, etc. have been inadvertently slanted toward drivable suburban development and that urbanism would do fine if we could just rebalance the rules to be closer to a free market.  To now argue that we instead must bias the rules toward urbanism is philosophically uncomfortable to me.

None of this is intended to reject the Henry George concept, only to note that it would be a deep pool with tricky currents that should entered only after careful thinking and planning, neither of which are strong points of our political system.

I’ll look at more Google bus thinking in my next post.

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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