Michael Lewyn's blog

Michael Lewyn is an assistant professor at Touro Law Center in Long Island.
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The "Contrarian" Myth

Every so often, I read something describing defenders of sprawl as "contrarians", implying that they are underdogs fighting against the elitist, anti-sprawl Establishment. For example, when I did a google.com search for sites including Robert Bruegmann (author of one of the better defenses of the status quo) and the word "contrarian" I found over 1400 "hits."  Similarly, a search for websites using the terms "smart growth" and "elitist" yielded over 6000 hits.

But realistically, most of the U.S. built environment is sprawl by any concievable definition. So how can it be "contrarian" to defend the status quo?

The Unbounded Home

When you buy a house, you might think that you are in control of that house and its value.  But in reality, your house’s value depends on a wide variety of factors beyond your control, such as the perceived desirability of your neighbors, local highway and transit policies, and trends in national and regional housing markets.  Your home may be your castle in a physical sense- but its value is heavily affected by what goes on outside the residential setting.

In her new book The Unbounded Home, University of Chicago law professor Lee Fennell addresses the implications of this reality and of homeowners’ attempts to reassert control over property values through restrictive covenants and zoning.

Snow, Cars and Growth

A couple of years ago, I was listening to a friend explain why she left Rochester for Jacksonville. "I was tired of digging my car out of the snow." It occurred to me that the nexus between driving and winter weather may at least partially explain the decline of America’s northern Rust Belt.

Here’s why: car care and storage makes snow a bigger bother than might otherwise be the case: if you don’t have a heated garage, you have to dig your car out of the snow every day, and if you park on the street you may have to constantly move your car to accommodate municipal snow removal.

How To Raise Fares

A couple of weeks ago, I was on a bus in Chicago and noticed something that I had not noticed before- that how you paid to get on the bus affected how long you took to get on the bus.  People who flashed monthly passes boarded in a few seconds.  People who put in dollar bills got on a lot more slowly, as they fumbled for the right number of bills.  People who had to pay change took longer still. 

So to speed buses’ on-time performance (pun intended) transit agencies should encourage the former and discourage the latter.

More evidence that walkability is marketable

A few days ago, I was in a Chicago neighborhood called Lincoln Square, on Lincoln Avenue just south of Lawrence Avenue.  Lincoln Avenue looks like many posh urban neighborhoods- narrow, walkable streets inhabited by gelato-eating, prosperous-looking people.  Even on a weeknight, the shops and streets of Lincoln Square betrayed no evidence of a recession.*

Externalities, Meet Externalities

(NOTE TO READERS: An expanded, footnote-filled version of this article is online at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1632935 )


Externalities are costs (or benefits) imposed on third parties by another individual’s voluntary action.  Government regulations exist at least partially to protect us from externalities created by others.

What a bus rider wants

As I began to type this, I was on a Greyhound bus somewhere in southern Ontario, on the first leg of my return from Toronto (where I have spent the past year getting an extra degree) to the United States.  As I type, it occurs to me to ask myself: what are the interests of the long-distance bus rider?  Are they the same as users of other forms of public transit, or closer to those of drivers and truckers?  My short answer to these questions is: a little of both.

Being Productive On The Bus

In a recent blog post (at http://www.planetizen.com/node/44518) Steven Polzin argues that drivers are more productive because they get places faster.  His post, in turn, generated an avalanche of critiques noting the negative externalities of auto travel (e.g. pollution, death and injury from traffic accidents, health costs of obesity, etc.).

But what I'd like to address is something else: the positive productivity benefits of transit use.  Let's suppose that it takes me 30 minutes to reach destination X on the bus, and 15 minutes by car.  Obviously, the car is more productive.  Right?

A Blunt Tool

How can one measure the housing affordability of a city or region?  One common option is to focus on a region’s median home price (or the median home price divided by median income).  I’ve used this method myself, and regional medians will often be the best tool available.

But sometimes, this method leads to absurd results.  For example, the median home price for metropolitan Atlanta is $150,000, which makes Atlanta seem like a remarkably affordable housing market.(1)

Waiting for a miracle

I was reading Wendell Cox's recent attack on the Center for Neighborhood Technology's affordability calculations, and was struck by one thing he wrote:“transportation costs will be reduced in the future by the far more fuel efficient vehicles being required by Washington.”* 

In other words, don't worry about Americans being impoverished by the cost of a car for every man, woman, and 16-year old in the House: the technological miracle of fuel efficiency will save us.