This piece first appeared on Forbes.com.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) recently introduced a Green New Deal resolution (earlier draft here) that calls for a host of policies, including free education, guaranteed jobs, and a nationwide mandate for 100% renewable energy, all within a 10-year plan. All of this may sound great, but like many grand resolutions it lacks specific details and ignores economic reality, especially when it comes to transportation policy.
The earliest version of the resolution provides more details than the final version and gives us a better sense of what Rep. Ocasio-Cortez really wants. For example, one point regarding infrastructure reads:
“Totally overhaul transportation by massively expanding electric vehicle manufacturing, build charging stations everywhere, build out highspeed rail at a scale where air travel stops becoming necessary, create affordable public transit available to all, with goal to replace every combustion-engine vehicle”
It’s far-fetched to think this could all be accomplished within 10 years—especially under government management—and the points contradict themselves; why do we need electric vehicles and charging stations everywhere if everyone has access to affordable public transit and high speed rail?
Contradictions aside, the plan is an expensive disaster waiting to happen. Green New Deal supporters may like public transit, but many of America’s cities are not set up for it—especially rail—on a grand scale.
Cities have two basic forms, monocentric and polycentric. A monocentric city has a clear downtown that contains a significant amount of the city’s jobs and is an obvious commuting destination, while a polycentric city has several scattered employment centers. While the U.S. has both types of cities, many large U.S. cities are more polycentric than monocentric.
For example, New York City, where Rep. Ocasio-Cortez is from, has a more monocentric layout: many of the jobs are clustered in and near Manhattan. This is seen in the figure below which shows jobs per acre (darker colors mean more jobs) in the New York City area (figure from the EPA’s smart location map viewer).
Jobs per acre in New York CityEPA’S SMART LOCATION MAP VIEWER
Alternatively, in cities like Phoenix and Atlanta jobs are more evenly spread out and there are no really dark clusters signaling an especially high density of jobs (figure below).
Jobs per acre in Phoenix and AtlantaEPA’S SMART LOCATION MAP VIEWER
A city’s form matters because as urban planner and researcher Alain Bertaud points out, rail “…is incompatible with low densities and urban spatial structures that are dominantly polycentric.” A subway works in New York because a lot of people commute to the center for work and for the amenities, such as shopping and restaurants. But it’s difficult and expensive to retrofit more polycentric cities like Atlanta and Phoenix with rail because there are several employment and amenity centers and commuting patterns are more irregular as a result.
In fact, Atlanta’s attempt to establish rail in the city has been a failure. Ridership for its streetcar was projected to be 2,000 people per day but has halted at only 700 per day and the system isn’t making enough money to cover its operating costs. In general, Bertaud says a city needs about 7,700 people per square mile to make a transit system financially feasible, which exceeds the densities in Columbus, OH (3,960), Denver (4,530), Tampa (3,326), Atlanta (3,549) and many other cities.
Buses are more flexible than rail, but even they are tied to city-defined routesthat can be slow to adjust to economic changes. And if they rely on priority lanes to increase their speed, route adjustments are likely to be even slower.
Cities are also becoming more polycentric, meaning it’s a bad time to use scarce resources to build or expand rail systems. U.S. Census researchers Matthew Marlay and Todd Gardner show that the number of employment clusters in metro areas increased substantially from 1960 to 2000. Their figure below shows this for several U.S. metro areas.
Employment centers 1960-2000
Some may claim that expanding rail would halt the process of employment decentralization, but any improvements in transportation technology, including subway expansion, cause people to spread out and decentralize.
Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s fascination with expanded public transit may be due to her experiences in New York City, a place where the subway—though a mess—is a large part of the transportation system. But much of the rest of the country is not built for subway or above-ground rail and drastically reshaping cities would be expensive—infrastructure and buildings are very durable—and disruptive for tens of millions of people.
Economic forces are working against the Green New Deal’s infrastructure plan and its supporters don’t seem to understand this. Smaller local initiatives, such as reforming land-use regulations to encourage more density, the elimination of parking requirements and free parking, and congestion taxes, would reduce driving and carbon emissions and can be tailored to individual communities in a way that grandiose national plans can’t.
The federal government can’t mandate these changes, but creative use of federal rules—such as HUD secretary Ben Carson’s idea to tie HUD grants to zoning reform—can incentivize communities to make reforms. These smaller changes aren’t as attention-grabbing as a Green New Deal, but they are consistent with reality and feasible instead of fantasy.
Adam A. Millsap is the Assistant Director of the L. Charles Hilton Jr. Center at Florida State University and an Affiliated Scholar at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.
The feature image is from PopularResistance.org.