Let me make one other quick point on the topic of density and productivity. If you read Ed Glaeser, you see him arguing, in compelling fashion, that dense collections of human capital are the secret to innovation and growth. And I believe him. From this position, he’ll argue against foolish restrictions on new housing supply. But his main emphasis, which appears again and again, in column after column, is that the most important investment America can make is in education. Smart cities drive growth, and the way to grow better and faster is to make Americans smarter. Indeed, in his view education is very nearly the only worthwhile urban investment — far more so than infrastructure.
I strongly support wise investments in education, but I think Glaeser is making a bit of a mistake here. One of the strongest points in Tyler Cowen’s new book The Great Stagnation is that America has exhausted its low-hanging educational fruit. It was relatively easy to move the bulk of the population from next-to-no education, to universal primary and secondary school, to a situation in which nearly half of all young people go to college. The gains from here on out will be difficult to achieve. They’ll involve high-intensity remedial efforts at all stages of the educational process, to better prepare marginal students. That’s worth doing, but it’s not easy or cheap, and it’s not likely to produce big gains in national innovation and growth.
It seems to me that the low-hanging fruit here is in making productive cities more dense. It’s hard to get the population more educated, but maybe it’s not as hard to move a larger share of the population to richer cities. But how can we do that?
Obviously, it’s not going to be easy to get suburban homeowners to agree to major relaxations in land-use rules in their neighborhoods. But one development does seem promising: the use of new transit nodes to support high-density redevelopment of old urban and semi-urban neighborhoods. You can’t get people to agree to an apartment building where their neighbors’ gorgeous old colonial used to be. But you can get them to agree to upzoning of commercial areas that used to be home to ill-considered garden apartment complexes and strip malls, especially if you focus that redevelopment around transit. As it turns out, walkable development is in high demand.
The Washington area is home to many examples of this kind of transit-oriented redevelopment. Tysons is the biggest and most ambitious of the projects that fall into this category, but there are plenty of neighborhoods that fit this description along Metro lines, around in-fill Metro stations, and along planned streetcar routes. Many other cities have had success with this strategy, as well. There would be more examples of this pattern if there were more opportunities for it, but precious few neighborhoods have the transit access that seems to be a key catalyst for dense redevelopments.
I understand why people like Glaeser are skeptical of this approach and reluctant to endorse it. I don’t think Glaeser has much confidence (rightly) in the federal government’s ability to deploy transportation funds wisely. And I think he is extremely wary of the tendency to try and use transit as a redevelopment tool for struggling cities. And he’s right to be worried. I do think that better connections between struggling cities and thriving cities would be good for the struggling cities. I don’t know that that’s necessarily in the best interest of the country as a whole (should we save Detroit or just try to make it easy for Detroiters to move to dynamic cities elswhere?). I do think that the best way to use transportation funds is in new transit capacity in the most successful, most productive cities, the better to facilitate new growth there.
Tyler Cowen would make a public choice argument against this strategy, and maybe he’s right. Maybe what appears to be low-hanging economic fruit is actually defended by a dense thicket of thorny political roadblocks. And so perhaps we should just revise our growth expectations down. But perhaps not. I think that understanding this potential avenue to faster and better growth is the first step to trying to get it on the agenda.