Thursday, March 22, 2012

California dreaming

The Urban Land Insitute had commissioned a report by Prof Chris Nelson re The New California Dream:  How Demographic and Economic Trends Shape the Housing Market -- A Land Use Scenario for 2020-2035.  Note the dates. I don't buy the whole thing.  In fact, I was asked to comment in a public session this morning. 

California's SB 375 mandates reduced greenhouse gas emissions by somehow redesigning urban growth in the state.  The report rests on survey responses that suggest there is a trend away from demand for single-family detached housing anyway.  People want to live in attached units and near public transit.  SB 375 can easily be fulfilled.

Here are the take-aways from my response (based on trend, not survey, data):

1) Long run forecasts are implausible; no one knows (no one can know) what 2035 will be like; flexible plans and codes are best. 
2) Surveys of preferences are always second-best. Respondents’ “talk is cheap.” Real data are best; look at what people do, not what they say they would do. Voting with feet and wallets, most people still prefer spacious/suburban housing.
3) People make mistakes, but competitive markets are error-correction devices. This is the best we have for moving into the uncertain future. We inevitably make mistakes -- and we often get to learn from our mistakes. Natural selection is “the only game in town”.
4) Development opportunities are varied, complex and area-specific; broad generalizations and prescriptions can be misleading. Flexible policies and plans that “let 1,000 flowers bloom” are a good idea.
5) Most people (here and abroad) prefer auto travel; conventional transit will continue to be a small niche (NYC is not representative).
6) Urban forms that respond to preferences are resilient; policies that challenge people’s preferences have little chance of success.
7) There is no evidence that patterns we have seen are cause for alarm (or drastic action) -- in spite of the normal collections of “market failures” and “policy failures”.
8) The best air quality fixes are a pollution/carbon tax.