Monday, September 7, 2015

An Urbanist and His Lifestyle

My wife and I live in a neighborhood that is on the fringe of walkability.

The Walk Score folks assign a score of 63 to our home, which is better than average, but not exceptional.  (For comparison, the apartments above Theatre Square in downtown Petaluma have a Walk Score of 94.)  And as much as we enjoy having a deli, tavern, and small grocery store within a couple of blocks, I understand that much of our Walk Score is the result of living within walkable range of elementary, junior high, and high schools.  My wife and I live in great location to raise a family, but that isn’t our time of life so much of walkability value is wasted on us.

Using my own measure of walkability, we’re 0.8 miles from the nearest bookstore, which isn’t bad but somewhat beyond the comfort zone for an after-dark or wintertime book walk.

To make the home location work, I own a car, a Prius that is quickly approaching 11.5 years old, an age that almost exactly matches the 11.4 years of age for the average American car.

The Prius is our only family car and we put a moderate number of miles on it.  A few moments ago, I tallied my miles for the past twelve months.  The result was almost exactly 10,000 miles, a modest amount compared to many, but still more than I would like it to be.  But a major task of the past year was moving a parent from a long-time family home to a senior living facility and then selling the home, with both tasks requiring multiple driving trips around Northern California, so it’s likely that my annual driving mileage will soon decline.

(Plus, the reality is that we live in a world in which a car is virtually required for many daily tasks.  As much as I’d prefer to use my car even less, it isn’t a reasonable option much of the time.  I admire the folks who manage to make do without a car, but that life requires compromises that I’m can’t justify right now.)

Overall, I live a moderately low-impact life.  If I were to give our household a letter grade on an urbanist scale, it’d probably be a B-.  I tried to justify a full B, but just couldn’t do so.  It’s an okay grade, but there is room for improvement.

And yet, I write an urbanist blog.  And there are some who would try to blast me for what they perceive as an inconsistency between the housing and car choices I make and the words I write.

Admittedly, there aren’t many who take that approach, but there are a few.  I had one particular adversary who was frequent in his antagonistic comments, some of which took him into head-scratching illogic, but he seems to have disappeared in last year or so.  I sometimes fear that he succumbed during a fit of apoplexy, but prefer to think that he’s now ensconced at home in his recliner, reading “Suburban Nation” and “Walkable City” and beginning to grasp that I was onto something.

But even in that correspondent’s absence, I still have occasional folks who engage in the strawman exercise of claiming that I believe that we should all drive our cars to the edge of town for a giant bonfire and then move downtown into Soviet-era unadorned concrete apartment houses.  They then castigate me for not living that life myself.

To keep those few folks in place, I occasionally feel moved to debunk their flawed argument.  Today is one of those days.

The debunking is surprisingly easy because, over nearly four years of writing and nearly 600 blog posts, I’ve never once suggested a forced relocation into urban cores or a mandatory confiscation of automobiles.  You can spend my entire oeuvre and you wouldn’t those find those ideas anywhere.

Also, my wife and I have twice considered a move downtown, even going so far as picking homes from the plans for downtown projects for which I was the civil engineer.  But neither project could overcome the institutional biases against urbanism, so both succumbed, leaving us in our semi-walkable location.

Besides, what I believe isn’t that everyone should live downtown, but that people should have the freedom to live wherever they wish as long as they bear the fair costs of their life choices.  It’s a simple model and one that is based on both logic and free choice, but it’s a model from which we have largely strayed in recent years.

Let me apply the model to my own life.  To begin with, it’s likely that my wife and I aren’t paying enough in property taxes to sustain our community.  Even though we live moderately close to downtown, there are still infrastructure costs of single-family neighborhoods that aren’t adequately borne by property taxes under Proposition 13.  Potholes and aging waterlines are only the most evident manifestation of that underfunding.

Because my wife and I bought our home near the peak of the real estate market before the Great Recession, we haven’t benefited from the Proposition 13 cap on annual property tax increases.  However, it’s likely that even the one percent rate at which we’re paying is deficient.  My preferred property tax model is one in which the tax rate gradually increases from the urban core to the urban fringe as the demand on municipal services increases.  I’ll make a guess that 1.2 percent is the sustainable property tax rate for my neighborhood.

In a recent post, I roughly estimated that an overall rate of 1.4 percent was necessary in the North Bay.  However, I think I can safely use a slightly lower rate here because I’m unbundling road costs in my next calculation.

Although there are legitimate technological and privacy questions depending on implementation approach, I remain committed to a Vehicle Mileage Tax (VMT).  Much as we pay per gallon or per kilowatt-hour for water and electricity, I like the idea of paying per mile for road usage.  Elsewhere in the country, there are VMT trials underway for which rates of one to two cents per mile are being applied.  However, those are only tests.  I suspect that an appropriate VMT is closer to a dime per mile.

And there is the cost of gasoline.  Although we now have a gas tax, it’s only for road construction and maintenance.  The greater costs of gasoline use, addressing the looming threat of climate change and managing the geopolitical burdens of oil-dependence, are borne by the general fund.  And that isn’t right.

Early in the history of this blog, I linked a report that tried to estimate the fully-burdened cost of gas.  Depending on assumptions, of which there were many, the authors estimated that somewhere between $6 and $15 per gallon was the correct price for gas.  At the time, the study was several years old and another three years have passed since I linked the study during which the appropriate rates have climbed.  But to be conservative, I’ll suggest a rate of $10 per gallon.

I won’t show all my calculations, but applying a 1.2 percent property tax rate, a dime per mile VMT, and a $10 per gallon cost of gasoline to the current life of my wife and me would result in an increased household cost of $3,700 per year.  It’s a chunk of money that would likely cause belt-tightening elsewhere in our budget, but it’s a burden I’d gladly bear for a more financially sustainable community that properly incentivizes urban life.   And that makes me a card-carrying urbanist.

Plus I’d expect that applying these new costs to our lives would trigger more urban development, perhaps finally creating the right opportunity for me to move downtown.

I can already hear three objections to my proposal.  First, some will suggest that if I feel so strongly about my conclusion, I should write a check for $3,700 and deliver it to City Hall tomorrow.  But while there are some individual actions that can done in the furtherance of a more responsible lifestyle, such as driving an electric or hybrid car (done), installing solar power (done), and removing grass (done), other actions are only useful if done cooperatively.  Higher property taxes, a VMT, and greater gas taxes are among those.

Second, some will argue that many citizens can’t afford the additional cost burdens.  I agree with them.  That’s why I began suggesting these changes nearly fifteen years ago coupled with a long transition period.  I thought everyone should have a chance to adjust their lifestyles before the cost burdens became too onerous.  But that didn’t happen, so the now the threats of climate change, municipal dysfunction, and infrastructure collapse are more nearly upon us without the same window for a transition.

I still believe that a transitional period is appropriate, but with the need being more urgent, the transition must be more abrupt.  I wish it wasn’t so.  I know there will be pain during the transition, but less pain than if we continue to duck the inevitable.

Lastly, some will argue that they enjoy their acre lots on the urban fringe and their 30-mile drives to their places of work and ask why they should pay for those enjoyments.  To which I can only say that, as much as I like my Prius, I’d rather have a Tesla.  And perhaps also an original Mondrian for my office.  But I’d never suggest that the public subsidize those personal desires.  So why should I be asked to subsidize someone’s personal choice of a home?

Ultimately, none of objections hold water.

And ultimately, my willingness to pay my fair share of my cost of my community, and thereby incentivize further urbanism, makes me an urbanist, even if a less that fully-practicing urbanist.

In my next post, I’ll dig further into VMTs, along with offering some thoughts on how schools are organized in the 21st century.

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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