The New Republic has two long pieces on urban economics this week. One is by Ed Glaeser; it's nominally a review of Traffic, by Tom Vanderbilt (a tremendous book), but Glaeser also uses his platform to discuss urban issues more generally. The second—this week's cover story—is by Alan Ehrenhalt, an editor of Governing magazine and a frequent commentator on urban issues. The two articles are not necessarily compatible. Glaeser dismisses the commentators who claim that we're on the brink of a radical shift in the urban landscape:
The housing stock is durable and valuable, and all those shiny new homes on the edges of Atlanta and Phoenix are not going to be abandoned anytime soon. As long as those homes are occupied, the people living in them will drive. They have to drive. Attempts to service these low-density areas with rail are enormously expensive undertakings that can never be justified on the basis of ridership.Ehrenhalt seems to be one of the commentators Glaeser is dismissing. Ehrenhalt's thesis is that:
[W]e are living at a moment in which the massive outward migration of the affluent that characterized the second half of the twentieth century is coming to an end. ... As [the affluent move to central cities], others will find themselves forced to live in less desirable places—now defined as those further from the center of the metropolis. And, as this happens, suburbs that never dreamed of being entry points for immigrants will have to cope with new realities.g As I've noted before, the idea that the rich and the poor are going to switch places is stupid. The problem is, I'm not really sure Ehrenhalt believes his own thesis. He concedes so many points and offers so may qualifiers that his argument basically boils down to the claim that Chicago is undergoing a "demographic inversion," even though most other cities aren't. For example, Ehrenhalt concedes:
We are not witnessing the abandonment of the suburbs or a movement of millions of people back to the city all at once.He also concedes that "[i]n most metropolitan areas, in the first few years of the twenty-first century, many more people have moved to the suburbs than have moved downtown." Most importantly, he admits that "[t]he bulk of the married-with-children middle-class has not only been living in the suburbs, it has been moving to the suburbs." Ehrenhalt is completely oblivious to the fact that residential preferences are dynamic. So when he sees that young people want to live in cities more than the suburbs, he interprets this as a generational change in attitudes that will have far-reaching ramifications. Yes, it's true that young people view cities as cool places to live; but then they grow older, get married, and have kids. This completely changes their prefereces, because now the most important factors are very likely to be school quality and crime. Ehrenhalt notes that crime rates have fallen in central cities, but for the purposes of housing decisions, what matters is relative crime rates. And urban crime rates are still higher than suburban crime rates. I very much disagree with Ehrenralt's thesis, but overall his piece wasn't actually that bad. He just forces a thesis that's unsupported by his own arguments and data. It's certainly much better than his previous ad hominem attacks on economists (not just one economist, all economists in general), that's for sure.