Command and Control

As Matt often emphasizes, there are a great many ways in which the government shapes our land-use patterns. Sprawl apologists often argue that low-density, suburban-style development has dominated the American landscape over the past half century because it is clearly superior to alternatives. Now, there’s no doubt that many Americans prefer suburban life. At the same time, it’s impossible to ignore the overwhelming way in which government policy has encouraged such development, intentionally, and unintentionally. The government didn’t necessarily intend for a massive network of (largely) free-to-user highways to spur suburban growth and gut urban centers, but it indisputably did. Similarly, the government’s long-term commitment to increased rates of homeownership wasn’t necessarily about changing land-use patterns. But as economist Ed Glaeser notes at the New Republic, the relationship between the policy and the outcome is clear:

Roughly 87 percent of all single-family detached homes are owner-occupied. Roughly 87 percent of all homes in buildings with five or more units are rented. Multi-family dwellings have common spaces, such as lobbies, and common infrastructure; sharing joint control over these things can often be quite difficult. Landlord control over large buildings irons out the difficulties of dealing with the cacophony of collective control.

The connection between homeownership and structure type implies that when the federal government gets into the business of supporting homeownership, it also gets into the business of supporting single-family detached homes–and this means supporting lower-density living. New Yorkers have converted plenty of rental units into co-ops, but still 77 percent of the households in Manhattan rent. The government’s big post-war push into homeownership was inevitably also a push to suburbanize. You do not need to be an enemy of the suburbs to wonder why the government is implicitly urging Americans to drive longer distances and flee denser living.

Of course, this is just one of many reasons why we should be skeptical of policies that subsidize homeownership. Such subsidies are regressive. They encourage heavy, leveraged investments in undiversified assets that perform unexceptionally over time. They reduce mobility, which prevents households from responding to changing economic conditions. And should there be a massive housing bubble and collapse, they put millions of households at risk of foreclosure and bankruptcy, and contribute to global economic meltdown. But for all this, the odds of a reversal of these policies, like the mortgage interest reduction, are basically zero. Which is yet another reason that we ought to focus on undoing other suburban subsidies wherever its politically feasible. Congestion pricing, which could address crowded freeways while funding better urban transport, is a good place to start.


  1. BeyondDC says:

    One only has to compare American cities to cousins in Canada and Australia to know that our sprawly cities are the result of careful social engineering and subsidy.

    The idea that things had to be this way (and must continue) is a complete myth. It’s as false as the flat Earth theory.

  2. BruceMcF says:

    Its difficult to lay too much stress on the “detached” there.

    There is far less of an issue of common property management in terraced housing … even Jane Jacob’s stacked townhouses … than in an apartment block. And standard model zoning restrictions are a bigger obstacle to terraced housing, since each exception to the detached, single-use, single-occupant standard must gain an exemption, and so there is an artificial economy of scale introduced into non-detached housing that encourages large apartment blocks.

    Add restrictions that used to exist on the single-family residences that qualified for FHA finance, and the barriers were at one time even stronger (of course, that restriction was eventually relaxed since, to quote President George W Bush, “Homeownership lies at the heart of the American Dream.”)

    And stacked townhouses, of course, permit the density required for an urbanized block.

  3. Mixner says:

    BeyondDC writes:

    One only has to compare American cities to cousins in Canada and Australia to know that our sprawly cities are the result of careful social engineering and subsidy.

    Whatever sprawl-related policy differences there may be between the U.S. and Canada or Australia, they don’t seem to make much difference. Canada and Australia are sprawling like crazy. Here’s how Robert Bruegmann summarizes the trends in Canada and Australia in his book Sprawl:

    Despite these [policy] differences, however, the overall configuration of Toronto or Sydney is surprisingly similar to the pattern in cities in the United States. This is even more the case in cities like Calgary or Perth, relatively new and wealthy and with land-use patterns not so different from those of Minneapolis or San Jose

  4. Peter says:

    I hate it when my city (Minneapolis) gets cited as an example of a sprawly city. Even though it’s true, I just hate that it’s all turned out this way.

  5. It would be interested to see transit ridership charted against homeownership in each major city.

    I wonder if anyone has done that before.

  6. Umm yeah. Vancouver, Toronto, Melbourne, and Sydney are just like the sprawl cities in the United States. Bruegmann, Kotkin, and Cox. Great sprawlagist scholars of our era spreading the gospel.

  7. Reid says:

    There is no tax policy more unjust than the mortgage deduction. You can deduct interest on a $1 million dollar mortgage (which inevitably means you are rich) but you want to deduct that student loan interest and you make over $70k (a large chunk of which goes right to the loans)? Sorry Richie Rich. No deduction for you.

    There should be a (low) income cap for people to deduct their mortgage interest. It’s absolute horse sh*t that we shovel this huge subsidy to people regardless of their income, but we treat people like plutocrats for making barely enough to cover their student loans.

    I realize that in this real estate crash driven market crisis, we aren’t about to level a huge tax hike on mortgages, but it should be the eventual goal of Obama. There are few equitiable arguments against it.

  8. DCreader says:

    There’s a huge feedback loop here with public school districts. Affordable housing in your school district reduces the per-pupil tax base and lowers the overall socio-economic status of the average student in the school. Since people value sending their kids to schools with high test scores, and test scores are a function mostly of SES, then the most desirable schools are those with no kids from affordable housing. People understand this intuitively and try to move into the school catchment with the most expensive housing they can.

    Building density closer to a “good” school than your own house also increases the risk that you will be redistricted out of the good school. If you paid a 10% premium to buy a house in the good school’s area then you have yet another incentive to fight that increased density since you could lose access to the good school and a bunch of $ on your house.

    Finally, people don’t like change. They moved into a neighborhood because they liked it the way it was. If you let them, they will put in policies to keep it that way.

    None of this has to do with tax policy. The mortgage interest deduction just ratchets up the competition for desirable housing and increases the price. When it was implemented it represented a transfer of wealth from taxpayers to homeowners. Everyone who has bought a house since then has had the anticipated tax benefits built into the price of the house. Removing the tax deduction would therefore be a transfer of wealth from those homeowners back to taxpayers.

  9. Alon Levy says:

    Umm yeah. Vancouver, Toronto, Melbourne, and Sydney are just like the sprawl cities in the United States.

    They pretty much are. Toronto’s land use pattern is very similar to Chicago’s; its transit modal share, already the highest in Canada, is 22% within city limits. It’s better than Houston, but a far cry from even New York and DC, let alone Tokyo and Hong Kong.

    To find first-world cities with high transit modal share, you’ll have to leave the US, Canada, and Australia, and go to Europe and East Asia.

  10. Mixner says:

    The Overhead Wire writes:

    Vancouver, Toronto, Melbourne, and Sydney are just like the sprawl cities in the United States.

    No, not “just like,” but mostly like. The basic land-use and transportation patterns and trends in Canadian and Australian cities and are the same as in American ones. Public transportation has a slightly higher share of the total travel market in Canada and Australia than in the U.S., but we’re talking about a difference of a few percentage points. And the long-term trend is the same as in the U.S. Here’s how the Australia Institute summarizes the urban travel and commuting trends in Australia:

    Since World War II, a shift has occurred from the use of public transport to the use of private motor vehicles (Gargett and Cosgrove 1999, pp. 1-2). For example, in 1945 rail accounted for over 40 per cent of city transport but had declined to four per cent by 1995, while cars which accounted for 40 per cent in 1945 had increased to over 80
    per cent by 1995 (Gargett and Cosgrove 1999, p. 2). Among commuters there has been a similar shift towards the use of private cars. Between 1976 and 2001, commuting by private vehicle increased from 51.5 per cent of all commutes to 71.8 per cent with a corresponding large decline in commuting by
    public transport (Parker 2003, pp. 3-4). There has also been a significant increase in the number of commuters undertaking ‘single occupant’ car commutes to and from work, further contributing to congestion on the roads (Parker 2003, p. 8).


  11. Reid says:

    “Removing the tax deduction would therefore be a transfer of wealth from those homeowners back to taxpayers.”

    I am absolutely fine with that. Particularly if it is targeted towards those that need no incentive to buy a house. I agree that it needs to be phased out, so that it is not too abrupt, but frankly those people don’t deserve it and if they can’t afford their mortgages without the deduction, well tough.

    You could make that argument for the income tax too: i.e. you can’t raise the income tax on people because they bought their homes thinking they’d have “x” dollars after taxes. Well tough. Rich homeowners’ incomes should be first on the chopping block when it comes to raising taxes.

    The right to a sweet deal from the government cannot spring from the fact you’re already getting a sweet deal from the government.

  12. BeyondDC says:

    “Sprawl” was a poor choice of words. Canadian and Australian cities do sprawl, although not nearly as much relative to the populations of the cities, their transit ridership numbers are vastly higher compared to peer cities in the States, and their central cities never declined.

    We must be reading different numbers, because the last time I saw per capita transit ridership, Toronto’s levels rivaled New York’s and Calgary’s (a metro region comparable in size to Richmond) were close to Washington’s.

  13. Mixner says:

    Canadian and Australian cities do sprawl, although not nearly as much relative to the populations of the cities, their transit ridership numbers are vastly higher compared to peer cities in the States, and their central cities never declined.

    You offer no evidence to support these claims. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of 2000 4.7% of American workers commuted to work by public transportation (down from 5.3% in 1990). According to the report I linked to above, the corresponding figure for Australia in 2001 was 8%. Thus, the difference in the modal share of public transportation was a mere 3.3 percentage points. In both countries, the overwhelming majority of commuters get to work by private motor vehicle: 87.9% in the U.S., and 78% in Australia. In all the major cities of Australia except Sydney the share of workers commuting by car was above 80% – 82% in Brisbane, 84% in Melbourne, 86% in Adelaide, and 87% in Perth.

    So you’re talking about modal share differences of just a few percentage points between the two countries. In both nations, the car is king. Its just slightly more dominant in the U.S. than in Australia (but the aussies seem to catching up).

  14. Alon Levy says:

    Here and here are the statistics about public transit modal share in Canadian metro areas. It rose from 14% in 1996 to 15% in 2006 nationwide.

  15. Mixner says:

    Here and here are the statistics about public transit modal share in Canadian metro areas. It rose from 14% in 1996 to 15% in 2006 nationwide.

    For Canada in total (to allow comparison with the U.S. and Australian figures), the corresponding numbers from your link are 10.1% and 11%. Higher than in the U.S. and Australia, but only by a few percentage points.

  16. BeyondDC says:

    I don’t have time this week to give this its proper attention, but quickly:

    >4.7% of American workers commuted to work by public transportation.
    the corresponding figure for Australia was 8%.

    So that means Australian mode share is 170% what it is the US! That’s a significant difference. The car is king is both places, but *something* has clearly caused Americans to go further down the route than Australians.

    Annual per capita transit boardings comparing American and Canadian urbanized areas.

    Per capita VMT and car ownership.

  17. Alon Levy says:

    Well, you’re right. The main thing about Canada that’s different from the US is that despite rampant suburbanization, transit modal share is rising. For example, between 1996 and 2006, Toronto’s population rose by 4.9%, whereas Mississauga’s rose by 22.8%. With such a shift from transit-oriented cities to auto-oriented edge cities, it’s surprising that the region’s transit modal share is holding steady.

    The difference could be due to regionalism, though. In the US, the fastest growing region is the Sunbelt; the traditionally more transit-oriented parts of the country are growing at a glacial rate. In Canada, the trend doesn’t really exist. Whereas the US needs the average metro area to post growth in transit share just for the national transit share to remain constant, in Canada any such growth will translate to growth in the national rate.

  18. Mixner says:

    So that means Australian mode share is 170% what it is the US! That’s a significant difference. The car is king is both places, but *something* has clearly caused Americans to go further down the route than Australians.

    There is little difference in transit’s share of the total market. 4.7% in the U.S. vs 8% in Australia. In both countries, surface transportation is overwhelmingly dominated by the automobile, and in both countries densities and land-use patterns reflect that fact. Suburbanization and sprawl have occurred in Australia just as they have in America. The process is just slightly more advanced in America than it is in Oz.

    You seem to think that sprawl is some uniquely American phenomenon, the product of uniquely American policies and preferences. The reality is that sprawl is a global phenomenon and seems to be an inevitable consequence of rising incomes and the mass affordability of automobiles. Bruegmann goes into this in much detail in his book.

  19. BeyondDC says:

    I didn’t say sprawl only happens in the US. If my post came across that way, I’m sorry. The point is that you get the city you plan, regulate and subsidize for, and the US has gone much farther than other comparable countries down the path of planning, regulating and subsidizing suburbia. Other countries have done it too (in no small part because they saw us doing it), just not to the same extent.

    Because Canada didn’t go as far, their cities are generally healthier and greener than our cities, to the extent that the difference is easy enough to spot. Even visually, it’s easy to see in aerials of Canadian cities that generally speaking they have observably less sprawl and denser cores than in American cities with comparable populations.

    I don’t want to trigger the spam filter with a bunch of links, but use Google Map aerials.

    Compare Vancouver to Seattle, for example. They have similar urban histories and regional populations (2m urbanized in Van to 2.7 in Seattle) so observable differences should be caused mostly by relatively recent phenomena, though we can expect Seattle to be a little bigger on most counts. But look how many more dense neighborhoods there are in Van’s core! And while Seattle has multiple highways carving up its downtown, Van has not a one, and precious few in the entire region. And while Van has plenty of sprawl on its edges, compare the ratio of streets in the rectilinear grid to the more suburban ones, then note how much larger a percentage of the Seattle area is non-grid. On just about all the indicators of what makes a good city that are visual from the air, Vancouver out-classes Seattle despite being smaller.

    Make the same comparisons between other peer cities and you’ll get similar results. From HERE you can get urbanized area populations. Find cities with similar populations and similar histories (no fair comparing Montreal to Phoenix, though Boston might be a good one). If you know what you’re looking for, the visual difference is compelling.

    So yes, Canadian cities have sprawl. But as a general rule, they’re doing better than comparable American cities.

  20. BeyondDC says:

    Anyway, I don’t dispute that some sprawl is inevitable given population growth (at the very least growth needs to be added to the income+cars formula). But that it exists at all is not really a problem. The problem is that it exists in quantities that are too large. The question then, is why otherwise similar cities contain different quantities, and why some central cities thrived despite sprawl, while others failed.

  21. Mixner says:


    I think you’re cherry-picking your example to try and support your conclusion. Although Seattle and Vancouver are similar in some ways (geography, climate, current population) they have very different histories and socioeconomic roles in their respective nations. I think Vancouver is more properly compared to an older U.S. port city like San Francisco or Boston than to Seattle.

    But a comparison of any two cities would be problematic, anyway. The important point is that the overall transportation and land-use patterns in the U.S. and Canada (and Australia and Europe) are very similar have followed similar post-war trajectories. Transit provides a small and shrinking share of transportation (notwithstanding the recent stability of transit’s share of commutes in Canada). Car ownership and use has exploded. There is rampant suburbanization and sprawl. Yes, there are some differences, but the big picture is basically the same. Whatever role the particular U.S. policies you’re referring to as “social engineering” have played in shaping American land-use and transportation patterns, their influence must be relatively small, because the same basic patterns have emerged independently in virtually all other wealthy industrialized democracies.

  22. BeyondDC says:

    Vancouver’s most impressive urbanism is the result of post-war development, unlike San Francisco. That’s an incredibly important difference.

    In any event, two points about the overall difference:

    1. It is NOT a small one. Canadian cities are not European, but nonetheless there is a clear pattern of health and vitality that surpasses comparable American cities. Vancouver’s peninsula is often cited in planning circles as the best post-war urbanism in the world, Montreal has virtually no sprawl, downtown Calgary is a monster compared to absolutely any American city of comparable size, Toronto has the largest streetcar network in North America. All of them have per capita transit ridership exceeding anything you’d expect from an American city. Etc etc ad nauseam.

    2. That Canadanian cities aren’t perfect illustrates two things, that there was legitimately some natural movement away from cities after WW2, and that they probably have their own set of bad policies that just aren’t as bad as ours.

  23. Mixner says:


    I find it truly bizarre that you continue to claim that modal share differences of just a few percentage points represent some kind of dramatic difference in basic transportation patterns between the U.S. and other countries. In virtually all advanced democracies, transit has only a tiny share of the market. Transportation in both urban and rural areas is overwhelmingly dominated by private autos. The dominance of the automobile is just slightly higher in the U.S. than in Canada or Australia or Europe. And the long-term trend in Canada and Australia and Europe is towards a larger share for autos. They’re catching up with the U.S.

    Your latest claim that “Montreal has virtually no sprawl” is just utter nonsense. Montreal, like all other Canadian metropolitan areas, has been sprawling like crazy. Statistics Canada reports:

    Between 2001 and 2006, the growth rate of peripheral municipalities that surround the central municipality of Canada’s 33 census metropolitan areas was double the national average (+11.1% versus +5.4%). During the same period, the central municipalities grew more slowly (+4.2%) than the Canadian population and less than half as fast as the peripheral municipalities.


    The map of population change by Census Subdivision for the Montreal CMA makes this even clearer. There has been virtually no growth in the central subdivisions. Virtually all the growth is happening in the outlying subdivisions. And the same is true in the other 32 CMAs.(

    And it’s not just Canadian people who are shifting to the suburbs, but jobs too. Statistics Canada again:

    Between 1996 and 2001, the relative economic importance of inner cities declined, as the number of jobs in the suburbs increased at more than four times the pace that they did in the core areas.