When the Guardian originally commissioned me to do my recently published interview with Patrik Schumacher, it was originally planned to be more generally about dissident urbanism and be a joint discussion with Wendell Cox. Things evolved as they usually do and the piece ended up as the Schumacher interview that you read.
However, I did record a podcast with Patrik and Wendell together that I plan to post shortly. I also want to include here some of what I chatted about with Wendell.
While Patrik is more known in Europe, Wendell is much more well known in the US. Frequently labeled a “sprawl apologist” and even called an “intellectual terrorist,” he’s one of the leading bêtes noires of American urbanists.
What’s interesting is that Wendell was actually an early and influential advocate for the expansion of urban rail transit. He served on the Los Angeles transit commission in the 1980s and may be one of the important players in Los Angeles deciding to build a rail transit system. He says, “Yes, indeed it was me in 1980 that introduced the motion, completely all by myself, on the Los Angeles Transportation Commission which provided the dedicated 35% funding for the building of the rail system. Largely the rail construction that occurred up through the early 90s was all out of that…I was strongly of the view that rail transit was something we need in LA. We had the worst traffic congestion in the country.”
So whatever he may believe today, Wendell Cox has almost certainly done more to make rail transit a reality than virtually anyone reading this.
He soon soured on rail transit, however, because he didn’t believe that it actually worked. “What we have seen in the United States is right from the start rail transit didn’t add anything at all to transit [ridership] in the United States. It didn’t reduce automobile use at all…By the late 1980s, after having left the commission about four years before I had come to the view that it wasn’t something we ought to be doing…I became very critical of spending billions of dollars to achieve less than we promised we would achieve.”
Indeed, the LA Times reported a while back that despite billions in rail transit investments in LA, overall transit ridership had fallen. And it is falling as we speak. There are many possible explanations for these declines. Bus ridership is falling in many markets, and LA is still very heavily skewed towards buses. Uber and Lyft are eating into market share.
I’m not ready to pronounce the death of transit in LA by any means, but the clearly underwhelming results for rail in LA despite very large investment in new lines, a relatively dense environment, and horrible traffic congestion, is something that transit advocates need to seriously confront.
Wendell also denies that he’s anti-urban, but does believe development should be allowed on the fringes. “I love cities. I’ve lived in three of the four European and American megacities. Only London have I not lived in. I’ve lived in Paris, LA, and New York…I am not a proponent of low density or high density. I am a proponent of those arrangements that get us great affluence and less poverty. And that means low land prices. The big problem with urban planning in the United States…[is that] the competitive market for land has been absolutely destroyed on the urban fringe and we have seen unbelievable two and three times increases in the price of housing relative to incomes in some cities. I couldn’t care less quite frankly about sprawl or densification, though at the same time I do believe that in the United States we’ve made some major errors in failing to put some limits on the extent of sprawl, but that doesn’t mean we should be doing things like green belts or urban growth boundaries because those inherently destroy the market and destroy housing affordability.”
He claims, “Virtually all cities that have severe housing affordability [problem] have some sort of serious urban containment policy. That is a real problem…That’s not to suggest that there aren’t other things as well…A lot of our cities rightly criticized for having large lot zoning in the suburbs.”
He’s very direct that he opposes limitations on development of greenfields. “My goal is to stop the spread of this cancer in the United States. And that means we’ve got to stop the implementation of urban containment policy.” But he recognizes that any policy that would reduce housing prices would be political kryptonite for homeowners. “I think it’s one thing. If you were make me the czar of housing in any of these cities that has these kinds of policies, I would last till the afternoon. Because the basic problem is these policies create unbelievable political support on the part of homeowners who see the prices of their houses go up.”
In my view it does appear that various development restrictions, including an anti-sprawl bias, has helped drive housing prices up in various coastal markets. On the other hand, in weak or declining markets, sprawl and new construction on the edge has likewise undermined urban and inner suburban areas. Absent some type of limitations on sprawl, further neighborhoods seemed destined for future abandonment in those places.
In any event, this was a bit of my conversation with Wendell. I again will plan to post to my podcast feed shortly an hour long three way conversation between Patrik Schumacher, Wendell Cox, and me.