Michael Lewyn's blog

Michael Lewyn is an assistant professor at Touro Law Center in Long Island.
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Census 2010: the early returns

Census data is already in for a couple of dozen states, and already blogs are starting to speculate about their lessons for American cities.  Some commentators look at the continued decline of Rust Belt cities like Chicago and St. Louis, and suggest that suburban sprawl continues (and will forever continue) unabated.  But reality is not quite so simple.

John McCain for President (?)

My sense is that most new urbanists and smart growth advocates were happy to see Barack Obama elected President two years ago.  While John McCain opposed Amtrak and had not been overly supportive of local public transit, Obama created an Administration full of advocates for transit and urbanism, and high-speed rail is one of his Administration's signature programs.  So the Obama Administration will slow sprawl, and will make our cities more transit-oriented, prosperous and walkable.   Right? 

Why Drivers Might Hate Bicyclists

I spent the last two weeks of December in Atlanta, living (mostly) with my parents.  My life in Atlanta is much more car-dependent than my life in Jacksonville; in the latter city, I live a block from a bus stop, while in Atlanta, I live at least a mile from the nearest bus stop (and more importantly, near no sidewalks to take me to said bus stop).  So naturally, I drove everywhere in Atlanta.

And while driving, I noticed a couple of unusual things.  First, I noticed that unlike in my Jacksonville neighborhood, bicyclists actually tried to ride on the street rather than on sidewalks.*  Second, I noticed that I was beginning to get annoyed with bicyclists- to a much greater extent than I have ever been annoyed with pedestrians while driving.

The Federal Interest in Non-Highway Transportation

As Congress begins to draft transportation legislation next year, fiscal scarcity may induce a fight between transit and highway advocates over federal funding, rather than the cooperation of the last few years.  And if highway advocates seek to tear down federal support for other forms of transportation, they will probably rely heavily on federalism considerations, arguing that highways are inherently an interstate concern while transit and non-motorized forms of transportation are a nonfederal concern.  For example, Alan Pisarski writes: “If sidewalks and bike paths are federal then everything is federal.”

There are two flaws in this argument.  First of all, highways are not always primarily an interstate concern

Highways and Labor Markets

In a recent blog post,(1) highway expert Alan Pisarski suggests that highway-oriented sprawl development is somehow necessary for the development of modern labor markets.(2) Pisarski writes that regional job markets are jobs are more specialized today than they were in his youth, and labor markets are thus "of immense size because many [highly specialized] employers need a market of hundreds of thousands of potential workers to reach the ones they need. The Atlanta region of 26 counties is not a great economic engine because it is 26 charming adjacent hamlets, but rather because the market reach of employers, suppliers, customers and job seekers spreads over several million residents."

The Tie Goes To Freedom

While critiquing one of my blog posts, Prof. Randall Crane asked: "Is any parking regulation a net social burden or only 1.75 spaces per Jacksonville, Florida apartment?" This question in turn is an example of a broader question: how do we resolve an issue when we don’t know, and perhaps have no way of knowing, the ideal empirical answer?

Parking regulation presents a classic example: looking at environmental harm alone, it seems to me clear that minimum parking requirements create some environmental harm by on balance encouraging driving, but also reduce environmental harm from "cruising" (motorists wasting time and fuel searching for parking spaces).*

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.

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