City Density—Friend of Trip Efficiency by The Geonomists
Cities cater to cars, not people. New fuels, motors, and modes of transport all pale beside fewer, shorter trips, due to in-filling cities.
If cars-to-go, taxis, jitneys, and buses were convenient, personal cars would be relegated to the back seat. Yet cars use lots of land—extra lanes and places to park. Alternatives, don’t. If vehicles paid to occupy space, those that paid less would be utilized more. Passengers per mile would rise as emissions would fall.
Hong Kong has shown that it’s possible to build a world-class mass transit system without subsidy. Either tax private land or lease public land to recover the rise in the value of locations near the transit stations.
Some places tap land values in general; they shifted the property tax off buildings, onto land. To pay the fee, tax, or dues, owners develop their vacant lots and redevelop their dilapidated buildings. The resultant in-fill increases density.
Siting homes, shops, and offices closer together, lets residents drive shorter distances and not drive at all. Pedestrians and cyclist who dislike traffic support granting space for bikes, outdoor cafes, and street performers. Such amenities lure more people out of their cars, into the streets, further reducing traffic and pollution.
Replacing vacant lots and rundown buildings with new residents and businesses raises demand for labor which raises wages. Prosperous people bid up locations which, with land dues in place, swells the public treasury. A la Aspen CO, jurisdictions could pay residents dividends. Extra income empowers to work less. That in turn shrinks rush hour, the most damaging time of day to the planet’s atmosphere.
Enjoying a higher quality of life, residents can afford the luxury of concern for the entire planet and take action to reduce their and their society’s impact.
Getting a “rent” share, basement innovators and garage inventors have the wherewithal to bring their ideas to fruition. Who knows where the breakthrough in sequestering, fuel, batteries, motors, or propulsion will come from? An egalitarian an empowered society lets everyone contribute.
What actions do you propose?
Our footprint does alter the atmosphere, but the bigger culprit is our tire-track. Cities are not hives for humanity so much as for automobiles. Dense cities, however, are less hospitable to invasive vehicles. A move to use vacant lots and replace outmoded buildings makes cities dense. Owners do this in-filling when prodded by a local tax shift. To reform local taxes, residents can perform their civic duty. Join a group, or form one, or persuade one they belong to to help shift taxes to spur residents to resettle on land more economically.
Rights of Way
The car’s great appeal is perceived convenience. Yet do what Ivan Illich did. Add the time it takes to earn the money to own and operate a car to the time spent driving the car and you discover you’re actually moving at 6 mph—slower than a bike but faster than a pedestrian.
If cars-to-go, taxis, jitneys, and buses were the ones more convenient, personal cars would be relegated to the back seat. Presently, however, cars and trucks have the advantage of not having to pay their way—literally. Not only do they not pay for polluting the environment, they also don’t pay for conquering the land.
Cars need lots of land.
- extra lanes
- places to park; ew cars have dealer lots, old ones have junk yards
- filling stations, repair garages, parts stores
- cop shops, traffic courts, and insurance offices.
In some metro areas, more surface land is devoted to cars than to humans. Cars need not just the acreage but also massive infusions from the public treasury, without even including the costs of collisions and first responders.
Mass transit, plus bikes and feet, OTOH, get by with a lot less area. If vehicles paid to occupy space, those that paid more would be used less, those that paid less would be utilized more—duh. We could bill vehicle owners (even public ones) for monthly increases on the odometer. More residents would shift from driving to riding, Passengers per mile would rise as emissions would fall.
To meet demand, transit systems would need express bus routes, perhaps trolleys and light rail. Hong Kong shows how to build a world-class mass transit system without taking one penny of subsidy from the general fund. The key is to either tax private land or lease public land to recover the rise in the value of locations near the transit stations. No environmental measure is going anywhere if it violates the bottom line too long.
Joe Stiglitz and Bill Vickrey—two notable economists—both showed that any public works project desired by the public paid for itself and then some. A subway, an amphitheater, in the old days a post office, all those stamps on the land drew up surrounding location values by more than the cost of building and operating the project. Stiglitz named his calculation the Henry George Theorem after the reformer who led a movement of millions back when new technologies were first striking awe in the minds of mankind.
The only problem was not economic but political. Most jurisdictions failed to recover the values which society generated. That allowed those windfalls to become the low hanging fruit for land speculators. With their clout, speculators have made public recovery of location value rare. Yet it's still possible.
What? Me Densify?
Tapping site value to fund one public project is a special case. Tapping regional land value to fund the public is general use. A few jurisdictions do so. Typically, they shift the property tax off buildings, onto land. Melbourne suburbs used to, Sydney still does.
Having government charge people for displacing others more permanently while they own land is similar to charging people for occupying land briefly as they traverse it. Both enjoy the same justification—pay for excluding others from our common natural heritage. But when it comes to making transportation efficient and pollutants scarce, the charge for ownership is much more potent than the charge to traverse—owners influence density.
Some cities are just lucky. They were founded in the age of muscle power when citizens got around on their own legs or the legs of their animals, such as Boston. Or they were founded in a compact topography, like the peninsula on which San Francisco sits. Both factors led to cities of smaller blocks and denser population. Density makes feasible alternatives to driving cars, which cuts emissions.
How to Densify
The modern city sprawling over hundreds of square miles is not totally out of luck. There is a way to resettle a metro region—and rather rapidly—that will make it more compact and less hospitable to automobiles and other invasive vehicles. How? Shift the property tax off buildings, onto land.
To pay the fee, tax, or dues, owners no longer withhold their parcels, awaiting future gains. Instead, they develop their vacant lots and redevelop their dilapidated buildings. (And with zero tax on improvements, they do a good job of it, erecting efficient structures of pleasing looks.) The resultant in-fill increases density.
We can be sure that this shift of the property tax works because it always has, everywhere it has been used. When Scranton shifted its property tax off buildings, onto locations, the city absorbed new development that otherwise would have become sprawl. The mayor, Steven Reed, gave the higher tax rate on land full credit for sparing suburban farms. Across the state, the property tax shift financed the renewal of Pittsburgh without one penny of public subsidy.
Getting Over Driving
As landowners in-fill their cities, that puts homes, shops, offices closer together. Residents can drive shorter distances and not drive at all. Some choose to walk, pedal, or ride public transit newly made convenient. Greater ridership keeps the system in the black. And with more non-poor riders, it loses some stigma.
Pedestrians and cyclists who feel assaulted by the danger, noise, and smell of traffic are likely candidates to support granting space for bikes, outdoor cafes, and street performers. Such amenities lure more people out of their cars, into the streets. Legging it reduces traffic and pollution yet further.
The movement to take back the streets could restrict deliveries to certain hours, as Romans once insisted when their city was ancient. At those hours, trucks would encounter less traffic, fewer interruptions, so they’d go about their business more quickly. Their emissions would be cut, too.
Generating Income for Everyone
When owners redevelop, obviously they must build. That attracts investors and generates jobs. The new structures attract new residents and new businesses. All that increased industry augments demand for labor and its price. Across the workforce spectrum, from construction worker to office worker, wages.rise.
Wherever they are, prosperous people bid up location value. With land dues in place, that swells the public treasury. The embarrassment of riches enables jurisdictions to pay residents dividends from the ground rents—a la Aspen Colorado.
In that glitzy ski resort for the wealthy, a vacant lot goes for $10 million and up. Home sites were getting so pricey, the rich were worried that all their waiters would have to move away. Hence they did not oppose a ballot initiative to tax property at point of sale to raise revenue to fund housing for working households. Because pricey parcels made housing so unaffordable, you could be a doctor making six figures and still qualify for help. The measure passed easily.
Let Aspen be a model for Boston, New York, San Francisco, and anywhere longer term residents can not afford the rising rents and prices of locations. Treat socially-generated land values as common wealth. That is, recover them via dues, tax, or fee, then disburse them in shares to residents. In a virtuous circle, as local land gets more spendy, the resident’s dividend gets more zeros before the decimal point.
(Then longer term residents might welcome newcomers—no more confrontations between well-off techies on Google buses and under-employed Gen-exers in the streets.)
Singapore goes one better. Known for its efficient mass transit and strictures on automobile usage, that city-state recovers so much of the value its presence creates that it keeps taxes on labor and capital low, energizes their economy, runs a surplus, and pays citizens a dividend. Citizens can spend the extra income on anything.
From Rush Hour to Play Day
Enjoying affordable housing or extra cash in the pocket, residents anywhere would find themselves able to work less. Taking time off not only improves human health but also environmental health. It reduces rush hour.
Some human beings spend four hours a day getting to and from their jobs (often less pleasant than their time stuck in their cars). Turning freeways into parking lots is when vehicles do their most spewing into and damage to the atmosphere. A shorter workweek (a good in itself) would spread the times of commute throughout the day. Traffic could flow more smoothly. You’d hurry along rush hour and choke off smog at its source—and disturb the climate less.
Dissipating rush hour improves the quality of life of everyone. It is people concerned about quality of life who are also concerned about the environment. Coupled with greater income, residents can afford the luxury of concern for the entire planet and take action to reduce their own footprint, tire-track, and hoof print, and that of their society in general.
Funding the Fringe
Receiving a “rent” dividend cuts emissions another way. Basement innovators and garage inventors get the wherewithal to bring their novel ideas to fruition. Like the immigrant robot that beat MIT (sorry), major discoveries have come from outside of conventional corporations and mainstream academia. How many more Steve Jobs are there, languishing for lack of funds, depriving society of their novel ways to cut emissions? Imagine if support were democratized so that brilliance need not conform but merely shine?
For example, a novel engine that cuts pollution could be built. This particular design replaces the crank with a cam (of bi-lobal shape) that keeps the pistons at TDC long enough to burn the fuel/air mix thoroughly, leaving next to none leftover to become smog while vastly improving fuel efficiency—less fuel burned, less carbon emitted. If the fuel is not a hydrocarbon but, say, hydrogen, employing a cam allows the piston to travel at whatever rate would be most efficient.
How many other good ideas await widespread use? All innovations could compete in the marketplace if their inventors were supported. Support is what a dividend from regional values, disbursed to residents, provides.
Dues & Dividend, Hand in Hand
The resident’s dividend—being extra money in the pocket—is easier to win than a land tax (being money lost from one’s wallet). Most likely, the dividend is essential. Rarely have economic reformers won a tax on land—most notably in Pittsburgh. Most victories were followed by defeat; within a matter of years, the real estate lobby repealed the reform and sent the city back to the conventional property tax. OTOH, the dividends from recovering the value of land in Aspen and Singapore (and from the price of oil in Alaska) are not going to be repealed any time soon if ever.
To win that extra and needed money in the pocket, a majority (a la Aspen) would endorse its source—a fiscal tool that recovered the annual value of land. Land dues, for example, spur owners to utilize their parcels more efficiently. That reduces the use of motorized transportation and the emission of carbon byproducts.
Since some places have passed geonomic bills, other jurisdictions can, too. First, proponents must listen to much feedback and craft a compelling message. Next, reach out via all media to raise awareness, recruit members, and raise funds. Capture some celebrity endorsements then lobby the local politicians until they shift the property tax and disburse dividends to residents. At last, watch the transportation sector run out of gaseous pollutants.
Who will take these actions?
As with any reform, elected bodies must act. Elected officials must hear from a critical mass of voters. Voters must hear from likable, informed, and articulate activists.
For deep change—such as a shift of the property tax coupled with a resident’s dividend—advocates would take the activist path.
Make information compelling. Cite big-name thinkers, such as ex-World Banker Joseph Stiglitz among others. Target individuals and groups likely to support the reform, and those with deep pockets who contribute to causes.
Write articles, bumperstickers, and research reports. Since a picture is worth a thousand words, shoot and disseminate captivating photos and videos. Use all media, social conventional media, from print to radio and TV, from local to global. Reach out to every audience.
The persuaded would coalesce into a vanguard who would inform organizations across the political spectrum. Partnerships of Democrats and Republicans shifted the property tax in a couple dozen Pennsylvania towns. In Philadelphia, the Chamber of Commerce and the real estate lobby promoted the landward tax shift. Libertarians initiated the Alaska oil dividend. Hearing from both individuals and groups, enlightened officials would shepherd the requisite bill through the legislature.
Since the property tax is a local tax, proponents would operate in the local arena. That has a definite upside. You can engage more people directly, and learn from their responses. And without having to wait for any national players to act, victory can come more quickly.
Local people won this shift in Aspen, Pittsburgh, and back nearly a century ago, in New York, Sydney Australia, Johannesburg South Africa, Hong Kong, and Singapore. In Alaska statewide residents won a dividend from a tax on oil. What worked in those times and places can work again.
Where will these actions be taken?
In all discussions of policy re economics and environment and in local legislatures around the world, and at the social events where movers and shakers meet and relax and listen to the input from advocates, advocates will raise awareness of the geonomic solution to transportation overload and urge listeners to hop on board the bandwagon.
How much will emissions be reduced or sequestered vs. business as usual levels?
These revenue reforms would motivate landowners and others to use land and resources efficiently. In urban areas, that means less vacant lots, less abandoned buildings, less sprawl. That, in turn, means faster, shorter trips, and fewer emissions.
While making transportation efficient might not have the impact of curtailing cattle, it should have more impact than plugging the leakage of heat from buildings, something that, happily, would also be achieved by the same reform of shifting taxes and paying a dividend. Less demand for fossil fuels results in fewer oil tankers crossing the oceans, emitting carbon.
Sharing recovered “rents” would tap the genius of loner inventors and hasten the pace of techno-progress. Unconventional ways to power ships and planes would be brought to light or discovered all that sooner. Our modern, energy-intensive economies could evolve beyond burning fossil fuel to what comes next.
What are other key benefits?
More efficient land use and vehicles reduces the emission of much pollution. Less smog in general. Less dust and particulate matter. Less oily runoff. Healthier streams and soil. Farms can be closer to their markets. So can wilderness.
Getting people out of cars, onto their feet, benefits health. They not only feel better but also impose less demand on doctors. The inflation of medical costs, the economy’s fasting inflating sector, worse even than college tuition, slows.
Enjoying higher wages and a dividend, people feel materially secure. They no longer have to choose between income vs ecosystem. They do what it takes to safeguard the environment in general.
People can choose leisure, to enjoy friends, family, neighbors, culture, nature. Humans can evolve from econo-man to beings fully realized. The’d no longer serve the economy; the economy would serve humanity.
Land stops being an object of speculation, a sine qua non for gaining eco-librium. Geonomics does that. What's not to like?
What are the proposal’s costs?
Outside the usual costs of doing what it takes to raise public awareness, the costs are minimal—a few tax dollars to reclaim streets, a few more to upgrade mass transit.
Fortunately, the public works projectd needed to facilitate residents switching from driving to riding could pay for themselves. Two big-name economist, Joe Stiglitz and Bill Vickrey, showed how separately. Follow this: Every project that the public makes good use of actually pays for itself by raising nearby location values. Bridges do that, schools do that, parks do that. It’s only white elephants—like eviscerating freeways ripping out the heart of downtowns and neighborhoods—that don’t do that.
The problem is, most jurisdictions never get around to recovering those socially-generated values in order to pay for the public project. Instead, they let nearby locations become the landed objects of speculation. Land speculation is the force behind both vacant lots and sprawl, two mis-uses of land that force residents to drive more, burn more fuel, and emit more gaseous byproducts.
Hence the public recovery of land values can correct a lot of local economic wrongs. When you consider all the savings from less driving, less smog, less illness, not to mention less climate change, the savings absolutely dwarf the meager costs of upgraded infrastructure.
After that, with the economy made vastly more efficient, factor in higher wages and an extra income from the dividend based on regional site values. The bottom line starts to look so good, it becomes reason enough to geonomize the local public revenue system, even without curbing global climate change.
A talented core of proponents with captivating memes that resonate with major demographics could quickly conjure a movement. They would raise public awareness and win needed public support in a couple years. Then it becomes a matter of implementing policy.
Just like with other deep changes, it takes time to turn the wheel of politics. Politicians may be quick to react irrationally (witness the Patriot Act) but not so fast to advance justice (on their watch the wealth and income gaps just keep yawning wider and wider).
To get tax law changed would take a few sessions of city councils. How fast is really up to the enthusiasm and commitment of advocates. Then, once passed, the benefits would appear quickly and substantially, compared to retooling.
Redesigning and manufacturing cars and trucks to trap exhaust, burn cleaner fuels, and use cleaner engines would take years. Trying to get vehicles off petroleum altogether, onto other power sources, would also take a long time, probably longer. And that’s just cars and trucks.
Unlike car travel, the trips taken by trains, planes, and ships can not exactly be shrunk—at least not until tunnels are bored through the earth’s crust to come out thousands of miles away from their entry points. Before that merry day, we need to find ways to power these bigger vehicles without combusting fossil fuel. Bringing about that transformation could require the input of all engineers, even those now on the sidelines due to lack of support.
Paying residents a share of regional land value would empower the basement inventors to actualize their dreams. Even though most wild ideas may not pan out, the nuggets among them could gain recognition. Society could benefit from all its members.
OTOH, upgrading mass transit takes a year, converting streets to other uses take even less time. Hence, demand reduction delivers the biggest impact the soonest. And nothing reduces demand for travel like efficient use of surface land in metro regions.
What similar proposals have been made to this contest, I don't know. However, beyond the contest several similar, "geonomic" proposals regarding revenue reform have been made. The carbon tax is similar. So are other taxes on "bads" such as "sin taxes". So are others tax shifts from goods to "bads", such as reducing taxes on businesses who fund a particular public good (e.g., employee medical insurance). Also similar are shifts in spending of public revenue, from the bank accounts of insiders to the pockets of everybody, such as de-funding sprawl or logging roads or military contractors and instead disbursing a dividend to the citizenry. These other proposals have their constituencies who are likely candidates to becomes supporters of the shift of the property tax to curb harmful emissions and then to recycle the raised revenue locally.
“Your Bicycle Is Faster” — One of the articles in Reclaiming Politics (IC#30), In Context, originally published in Fall/Winter 1991 on page 7, by Context Institute
“Land for Vehicles or People?” — Todd Litman’s blog in Planetizen, 2014 November 21.
“Gas Taxes Don’t Cover US Road Costs — Not Even Close” — CleanTechnica, 2015 November 2, by James Ayre.
“The Unique Genius of Hong Kong's Public Transportation System” — The Atlantic, 2013 September 10, by Neil Padrone.
“Aggregate Land Rents, Expenditure on Public Goods, and Optimal City Size” — The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 93, No. 4 (Nov., 1979), by Richard J. Arnott and Joseph E. Stiglitz.
Dr. Mason Gaffney, PhD, emeritus, UC Riverside.
“How much does density really cut down on driving?” Grist, 2015 April 9, by Ben Adler.
“Where Tax Reform Has Worked” by the Progress Report at iPhonesHDgames.
“The Public Health Benefits of Infill Development” — Community Commons, 2014, by Ben Winig, senior staff attorney and program director at ChangeLab Solutions.
“In Aspen, even doctors need affordable housing” — Colorado Independent, 2015 June 1, by Nancy Watzman.
“Memorable Singapore Budgets” — Straits Times, 2015 February 8, by Marissa Lee.
“Commuters Inhale Most Harmful Traffic Fumes During Morning Rush Hour, Urban Pollution Study Finds” — Science Daily, 2006 November 29.
“Alternative Work Week Innovations” — The Alliance for Innovation, transforming local government, 2008 August.
“How 4 Mexican Immigrant Kids and their Cheap Robot Beat MIT” — Wired, 2014 December 2, by Joshua Davis of Autopia.
Ideas Breaking Through: Be a Game-Changer, 2016 February 24, by Glenn Rothberg.