Highlights From The Comments On NIMBYs

Quixote writes:

It’s odd to me how bad San Francisco is, when other large cities like New York or Paris are basically utopias.

But just a few comments down, Lasagna says:

I despise (I’m choosing that word carefully) [New York City]. I still commute there every day, and I can’t stand it – the broken infrastructure, the horrible smells, the $14 for a yogurt and coffee in the morning, the massive crowds of unpleasant people (how could we NOT be? We’re walking through an open sewer). There’s a litany of other things that keep me permanently angry and depressed (just the thought of how much earlier I would have started a family if I didn’t live there….) I find it decadent, selfish, shallow – pick your bad adjective. I’ll stop now.

Where I live now is nice. We have a town we can walk to, a lawn for the kids to play on and me to mow, we cook at home, we have enough room for our family to live and the kids to get exercise, even indoors. There’s no WAY I’m giving that up so I can live in an apartment again, all so NYC can squeeze MORE people into its area.

If I had my way, we’d be much further away from the metro area than we are now, in a bigger, cheaper home with more land. But that isn’t possible; NYC is where my job is, and that’s that. Fine. But let’s not make things worse, and make NYC (and San Francisco, and DC, and Boston) even MORE indispensable generators of jobs. And please don’t think for a second that there aren’t sizable numbers of people like me, and like you, who do not want these things for our families […] Thanks for letting me rant. You should have seen the first draft of this thing. Twice as long, Scott. A litany of woes and anger.

This would be fascinating if it weren’t so predictable. One person describes NYC as “basically utopia”, and another person can’t stop ranting about how much he hates it and is glad to have escaped it.

In the same vein, from Cerastes:

“I think neurotypical people usually underestimate how bad cities are for people with noise sensitivities, anxiety, purity intuitions, or just a need for nature and green things in their environment, …”


The concept of living somewhere that isn’t green is literally nauseating to me, and the idea of a place that isn’t teeming with wild animals feels like suffocating. My house is in as wild a place as possible given my commute, budget, and region, and almost every room has a fully planted vivarium with an animal (as well as my office).

The amount of urbanist triumphalist crap drives me up the wall, as if these people cannot see why someone would not want to live in conditions far inferior to even low-quality zoos, or why someone might need to balance a job in a city with such desires.

Being 100% honest, I actually feel like there’s something genuinely wrong with people who don’t feel the need to spend time in nature, especially if they also lack pets. They’re like sterile androids in some sort of weird dystopia, utterly cut off from life.

I think this is why these discussions are so hard. People’s preferences on what makes an acceptable place to live differ so strongly, and in so many little ways, that I think a lot of the debate is just people screaming to have their existence acknowledged. It’s infuriating to feel like everyone around you is calmly assuming as obvious and universal, preferences that could make your life not worth living.

And that makes it tempting to come on too strong, to say that no, my preferences are obvious and yours are crazy. An earlier draft of the post suggested that people who enjoy living in San Francisco might be “lizardmen”; I deleted it on advice from more sober-minded friends. I assume it would have just made the lizardmen San Franciscans angrier, and made them talk even more about how they couldn’t stand living somewhere where they had to drive more. I get it. Everyone’s preferences exist, competing access needs, etc.

If cities are your personal Hell, then even if on some intellectual level you know that other people can tolerate them, it becomes hard to fight for subjecting more and more people to hellish conditions. And if cities seem great to you, and suburbs boring and stupid, then you start thinking anyone defending their suburb against urban encroachment must just be classist or racist or something.

FosterBoondoggle writes:

As far as I understand it, the gist of the complaint about YIMBYism here is that SA likes living in a lowish density suburb (Montclair? Piedmont?), thinks that’s his right, and fears the YIMBYs will try to upzone his neighborhood and fill it with condos and 5-story apartments. But if he’s been paying any attention to what YIMBYs (like, say, Brian Hanlon, head of CAYIMBY) are actually saying, it’s not that Montclair needs to be full of skyscrapers (it’s on a hillside with narrow streets, so that doesn’t make much sense). It’s that the parts of Oakland, SF, Berkeley, the peninsula, parts of the S. Bay that are accessible to people without a car (Rockridge, N. Berkeley, S. Berkeley near Shattuck, the area near the Apple spaceship in Cupertino) should be upzoned for greater density. Walkability is desirable to a lot of people.

It brings network effects, like stable and successful local businesses, good restaurants – e.g., College Ave. in Rockridge – that are net positive for everyone. It brings walkable access to mass transit, which reduces climate impact. Another net positive for everyone. It brings easier access to wilderness like the east bay hills or west Marin, because dense communities mean less sprawl. (Which is why the CA Sierra Club’s opposition to most current development, as captured by Scott Lucas here is particularly ironic.)

No one (I know, never say “no one”) is trying to upzone SA’s single family Oakland hills neighborhood.

Yes, a lot of the discussion of preferences above is completely irrelevant, because in the real world there will always be some suburbs and some cities (at least until the age of ecumenopolis).

When I say that YIMBYs are often right about their policy proposals but make me hate them anyway, that’s what I mean. There’s no reason these debates have to devolve into “suburbs and people who like them suck” vs. “cities and people who like them suck”, but they often do – and I admit I am personally guilty of reinforcing this.

(case in point: in accordance with the prophecy, someone definitely wants to upzone my single-family neighborhood)

From fluorocarbon:

I didn’t know what to think going into this article, but I ended up being fascinated with it for anthropological reasons. Is San Francisco really that horrible? Programmers live three to a bedroom? People play music all night at BART stations?

I would say that, though it’s an interesting post, it’s not really an accurate representation of the YIMBY movement outside of the Bay Area. When I think of the YIMBY movement, I think of organizations like Strong Towns. They don’t want giant towers, but rather fewer shopping malls and more pedestrian-centric development.

I’ve also talked to some people in Boston on the YIMBY/pro-development side. The arguments I heard from them are:

1 – parking requirements are dumb
2 – more inner suburbs should zone for multi-family units (triple deckers)
3 – there should be more mixed used developments
4 – increased density should be allowed close to public transportation (MBTA) stations
5 – there’s an absurd amount of red tape when developing anything and it should be reduced

These all seem reasonable to me and nothing on that list would destroy existing neighborhoods. But then again I find walkable multi-family neighborhoods (2-4 stories) with mixed use developments and narrow streets much more pleasant than either single family suburban car sprawl or Mega-City One huge Manhattan towers everywhere.

Okay, I vote that Team Gleaming Skyscrapers and Team Leafy Suburbs come together to burn the heretic.


The equivalent cities by population in Europe [to San Francisco] would be Valencia, Seville, Leeds, Glasgow, Stockholm, Cologne, Frankfurkt. And they don’t suck as much. Most of them are quite pleasant.

You can have a greater density than San Francisco, a lower crime rate, a nice metro system, all while living in an apartment that is at a bikable distance to work and is much more affordable. With clean streets and no visible needles. For that, you need better sidewalks, good infrastructure, bike lanes, better policing and social policies, better public transportation, more parks (and close them at night). I lived in a city with the population of SF, and I never had anybody shout at me in the public transportation (although I usually biked). San Francisco is a high density city. Why isn’t it more bikable? that would reduce the strain on the public transport and the roads.

So, in order to fix all those things NIMBYs complain about, you just need to fire the entire SF city council, and hire a foreign one fix those issues separately from the housing issue..

I agree with this. Most of the US’ problems with dense cities are solveable in principle. But I would still feel more comfortable if the order went first, solve the problems, second, tell everyone not to worry about them because of how solveable they are. Otherwise, I think people are justified in having a high prior that the problems won’t be solved, just as they haven’t been solved so far, and so higher-density cities will indeed keep having all of these problems that make them hard to live in.

Andrew on why prices might go down faster than the models I quote predict:

I think that SF allowing moderately more housing would affect prices far more than what you suggest. Prices follow supply and demand, but prices also build in future expectations about supply and demand. Right now, SF works very hard to forbid construction. Therefore, you get lots of investors buying property. SF’s stance on denying construction affects demand as well as supply. If SF started allowing enough new construction that housing prices would stop going up, many of those outside investors would take their money elsewhere.

Atlas against worrying too much about agglomeration effects:

Increasing density in SF could make things worse, because…it will increase the economic benefits of living and working in SF? Enrico Moretti’s book the New Geography of Jobs did a good job explaining that there are a lot of positive effects that come from people living and working next to each other in big cities.

Gwern adds:

Yeah, that was my problem with #3’s summary. ‘It might not lower housing prices on net, all it might do is fail by creating billions or trillions of dollars in compounding new wealth through greater economic efficiency in a vital technological hub.’ Oh, is that all? Sounds like a pretty good way to fail.

DS against some of the statistics:

Unfortunately, the post’s numbers are based on a badly unrepresentative sample. 2008-2015 is right after the housing bust. This sample looks at housing construction at the single lowest period it’s ever been in modern American history.

The post tries to generalize from 2008-2015 to answer “how fast could we build.” But that’s like measuring unemployment in 2009-2011 or 1930-1934, and using it to answer how many people could have a job!

Even in Texas and California, they used to build a lot more apartment buildings than they do. The peak of American construction seems to have been 1965-1985. New construction permits in that period in (e.g.) California appears to have been about 3-4 times the rate of today. That’s more than fast enough to meet the standard set in your post.

Meanwhile, New York City has been seriously limiting new construction since about 1960, which makes citing Manhattan prices as evidence that allowing construction doesn’t work exactly backwards. (Fun fact: the NYT did an article showing that 40% of Manhattan’s already-existing buildings would be illegal to build today.)

If you want dense with lots of current construction, try Seoul, South Korea. There, rent-to-income is about 35% of average national income.

That’s equivalent to an SF Bay Area with a median rent of $2,000 a month (~35% of average California income), as against current typical rent of about $3,000/mo (~50% of average California income).

So if the Bay Area were as pro-housing as Seoul, over time you might cut housing prices by a third, and get a lot more people in.

Douglas Knight, on how growing cities doesn’t necessarily have to be disruptive for people who don’t like density:

Lots of people in the comments are equivocating or talking nonsense because they refuse to talk about details.

3% growth, doubling in a generation, sounds pretty reasonable to me. If you know it’s coming, then you shouldn’t buy the density you want, but a little less dense. And it is the plan. The State of California requires towns to build at a certain rate and most of them are just cheating. One of these days the State will take back the power of zoning and catch-up building will be disruptive, in part because it will be done at such a distance.

Whether 3% growth is disruptive depends on the details. If it’s smooth in place and time, it sounds pretty reasonable to me. Consider a town of 1 acre lots. Every year, tear down 1% of the houses and build 4 new houses on 1/4 acre lots. The character of the town will change, but smoothly. This shouldn’t disrupt the community, no more than the normal turnover, which is a lot higher than 1%.
Alternately, one could tear down 1/3000 of the houses and build apartment buildings for 100 people each. This would be much more socially disruptive. It would create more economic diversity. It would cluster newcomers, making them less integrated into the new community. This is the kind of thing the State will do, if it acts on its own. On the other hand, if the apartments are near train stations, it might not be as bad for traffic.

TheNybbler on whether cities have to be where the jobs are:

When cities were hollowed-out enclaves of crime and poverty, many employers set up in or moved out to suburban office parks and had plenty of productivity. Some even did that before the fall of the cities, Bell Labs being a NYC area example. Now cities are fashionable again and the suburban office parks are empty (except in Silicon Valley). But it doesn’t have to be that way.

wulfrickson is skeptical that agglomeration effects are really that bad:

The Zuegel piece that Scott linked in point 3 (arguing that agglomeration effects may mean that more housing => higher prices) was discussed pretty widely when it came out, and the consensus was that things could come out that way in theory, but the empirical evidence points in the other direction: agglomeration effects are probably not big enough. Here’s a bit of Twitter discussion. Another paper by French economists estimates that increasing a region’s population by 10 percent would increase costs of living by 0.3 to 0.8 percent, once housing supply adjusts to compensate (in the short run, it’s more like 1 to 3 percent). This isn’t anything to write home about.

peopleneedaplacetogo takes a wider perspective:

I expect my friends to keep moving to the Bay regardless of what happens with housing policy (since their employers can generally pay enough to make it worthwhile no matter how high rent is). But more broadly I think this kind of regional economic inequality is actually exacerbated by NIMBYism; for most of their history per capita incomes in rich US regions (like California) and per capita incomes in poor US regions (like Kentucky) were converging, but this trend stopped in the late 1960s right around when zoning became widespread, and subsequently reversed. Caps on production of housing near jobs made it hard for workers from Kentucky to fill labor shortages in California, but also weakened the bargaining power of the workers still in Kentucky who could no longer so credibly threaten to move to California. Everyone being free to move where they want can help those who don’t move too.

grendelkhan says that one reason California is especially bad is Prop 13:

Normally, these things scale reasonably: if you build more houses, the occupants pay property tax, and that pays for the fire and police service, the roads, power lines, water service, all that.

Prop 13 in California turns this on its head. Housing, even when it appreciates in value, doesn’t pay more in taxes. In fact, the real property-tax rate goes down due to the 2% annual cap on increases, which is generally below inflation.

California has an unusually high cost of living, largely driven by high housing costs. (Everything here is interconnected.) So infrastructure costs more there, because labor costs more. To raise the money for this, cities and counties issue bonds and raise sales taxes, and most of all, “impact fees”, where a new development pays tens of thousands of dollars to make up for the depressed property taxes of their neighbors.

And because commercial developments change hands more often (property taxes reset on sale), and commercial developers can afford larger impact fees, cities fearing a pension crunch approve more commercial than residential real estate; the incentives are such that every town wants someone else to be the bedroom community. So we add more jobs than places for workers to live, as well.

The pension crisis is very real, and cities are trying to make up for a broken revenue model. Infrastructure is pretty much off the table.

And from eternaltraveler:

I’m in SF bay and have been for the last 9 years because this is the best place in the world to find venture capital for anti aging biotechnology. The entire Bay is otherwise almost entirely horrible, but the alternative is certain death.

Uh, thanks for putting things in perspective, I guess?

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402 Responses to Highlights From The Comments On NIMBYs

  1. RodoBobJon says:

    Some people frame their pro-NIMBY arguments in terms of democracy: people that live in an area should have the right to determine how that area is zoned. But how do we define an “area”? Is it your block? Your neighborhood? Your city? Your state?

    The problem with defining the area in which you are democratically entitled to control zoning too narrowly is that you end up with a tragedy of the commons. A city may desperately need more housing and increased density, but every individual resident is incentivized to block developments next door to their home. So if everyone acts in their own interest, you will never build the necessary housing stock.

    So my view is that this situation where individual blocks have the power to kill developments in their immediate backyard is a disaster. If a city collectively decides to block new development, then so be it. But the current situation in many cities is akin to allowing individuals to determine their own tax rate: it is obviously in everyone’s personal best interest to make their personal tax rate as low as possible even as it would be a disaster for society if everyone did that. So the solution to NIMBY-ism is the same as taxes: make decisions about zoning and new development *collectively* rather than allowing each individual to determine the policy according to their own desires about their immediate situation.

  2. Incandenza says:

    Suburbs and the people who like them suck. But let me elaborate.

    I’m a city person, but I completely sympathize with people who want to be in quieter, calmer, more natural environments. Sometimes I think it’s a sign of my own neuroticism that I prefer high-density urban environments. I don’t blame anyone for wanting to live in a suburb.

    What I can’t fathom, though, is why anyone would want to live in a suburb of the sort we have been building in this country for the last 60 years (with a handful of exceptions). Montclair, NJ, or Newton, MA, or other streetcar suburbs have an appeal I can readily appreciate. So, too, do certain New Urbanist developments. (New Urbanism is actually ideal as a plan for suburban, rather than urban, development.) But most suburbs are, like, freeway interchanges, parking lots, strip malls, traffic-clogged and car-dependent… not exactly the verdant, quiet, relaxing environment some of the commenters above say is so important to them. I get wanting to live in a lower-density environment. I do not get wanting to live in… that.

    NIMBYs, of course, fight just as tooth-and-nail to prevent, say, a town-square based development around some sort of reasonable transit access as they do against 40-story condos. We can, and should, accommodate people who want to live in suburbs. That is very different, though, from defending sprawl. But the latter is what an awful lot of NIMBYism amounts to in practice.

    • arbitraryvalue says:

      I bought my house in a place where I had to drive to get anywhere. I liked this and wanted this! I don’t think I’m unusual in this regard – obviously lots of other people want to live in “sprawl”. Otherwise it wouldn’t be the sort of suburb we have been building in this country for the last 60 years.

      I get that you hate my kind of suburb. I am currently in New York City and I hate it here; in fact, I can’t even imagine what someone who likes the city is thinking. But unlike you, I accept that plenty of people do like the city, even if their reasons are mysterious to me. I have no desire to impose the sort of lifestyle I prefer onto them.

      • Matt M says:

        Agreed. I recently moved from a downtown-esque environment (was scored the most “walkable” neighborhood) in Houston to the suburbs specifically FOR this reason.

        Cars have a lot of advantages. Privacy is a major one. Suburbs don’t have a lot of aggressive bums to begin with, but even if they did, the squeegie man is far less threatening than the types who come up to you and accost you on the street. Being able to walk to Chipotle seems all well and good until you realize it means that each trip involves interacting with drug addicts aggressively demanding your money and with nothing between you and them but hope that the fact that the cops often go to Chipotle discourages them from trying anything.

        Suburbs also have a lot less traffic than downtown, at least in Texas. And cars are a part of American culture. I get that to some people that’s a bad thing and further reason to reject them, but some of us actually like that. I got comfortable leather seats, air conditioning, and bluetooth audio. There are tons of worse places to be than inside my car!

        • Hendi says:

          The fact that there are plenty of nice suburban neighborhoods in Houston that you can affordably live in is exactly the point though: YIMBY’s constantly hold Houston up as an example of the kind of looser regulations on density that they want to see other cities adopt. The result isn’t that the whole city looks like one giant block of high rises abutting farm land, it’s that there’s a healthy mix of neighborhood types and you don’t have to pay an outrageous premium to live in one type of neighborhood as compared to another.

          And obviously if you loosened restrictions there would still be plenty of suburbs for all the reasons you state: people like suburbs! They’re great! The overwhelming majority of Americans live in one and suburban neighborhoods can be found in any city in America, from Houston to Philadelphia to Sacramento to LA. What you can’t find in those cities, even if you wanted one, is an area that is as dense as Manhattan. There’s only one of those in the whole country and every attempt to build a second one, even (especially) in the city that is already the second densest, is met by intractable, never ending opposition. (And its not even close, if Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens were independent cities they would be the second, third, and fourth densest cities of over 500k people in the country. We have made a decision in America that if you want to live in a dense area your choices are New York City or nowhere.) No one wants to turn all of Houston into Manhattan (and even if they did, you would need 40 million people to fill that hypothetical Houston up), but it’s infuriating to be told over and over and over that in a metro area that’s hundreds of square miles, we can’t take ten of them to building the kind of neighborhood that I want to live in.

          • Matt M says:

            I had a couple coworkers who lived in high-rise apartment buildings in downtown Houston and did not own cars.

            I grant that the official density statistics for downtown Houston are nowhere near what Manhattan is, but isn’t that a similar lifestyle at that point? I guess there isn’t a bodega on every streetcorner, but there are convenience stores scattered around and they all used instacart anyway.

            I think most cities have a dense downtown core where you can get that “city feeling” even if you don’t literally match the statistics of Manhattan in every conceivable way.

          • Hendi says:

            @Matt M

            I think its important in this context to differentiate between a downtown area with a bunch of tall buildings and a dense residential neighborhood. Most of the 100 largest American cities have at least a few blocks downtown of glassy skyscrapers, in many cities that central business district is quite large. But the usual pattern in the US is that those areas are dominated by commuters during the day and don’t really house anything approaching a vibrant residential community. There might even be a large number of street level businesses, but they tend to be oriented towards commuters, tourists, and other non-residents (you can find this in New York too, East Midtown basically fits this description). But what most of those cities don’t have are large, high-density residential areas that are interspersed with or in close proximity to those dense business districts. That’s not to say there’s none, but you need a critical mass before an area is going to be able to support the density of services that a true urban environment does. (And, if the 2-3 bedroom condos in those areas are selling for a million dollars each, as they are in at least a few cities right now, there’s almost certainly sufficient demand to expand the dense area until it reaches that critical mass.)

            I live in one of the denser parts of Brooklyn now, its not quite Manhattan level density but, as I mentioned above, Brooklyn would be the second densest city in the US if it were independent. The amount of street life, the density of services etc. is extraordinary. To use your grocery store example, there are about five decently sized grocery stores within a 5-10 minute walk of my apartment, at least one of which is open 24 hours (because its Brooklyn there are also some artisanal cheese shops and the like that likewise sell food). There are also half a dozen coffee shops, bodegas, dry cleaners, wine shops etc.

            Before I lived in this area I lived in Center City Philadelphia (in the Graduate Hospital area, for reference). Downtown Philly is chock full of tall buildings and certainly “feels” like a city if you’re just walking around. But the densest parts of the city are very much oriented towards commuters, and the overall residential density is much lower than the place I live now. What I’ve observed is that it makes a huge difference in the vibrancy of street life and availability of services. In Philly I had two grocery stores in walking distance, each about 15 minutes away. Within a 5-10 minute walk of my Philly apartment there were maybe one each of the types of business I listed above. As compared to my neighborhood now, where you’ll very rarely find yourself alone on a street, the streets felt empty. If you go to my local playground right now (it’s Saturday afternoon) there would be dozens of kids and parents, if you went to a playground in Philly you’d more often than not have the place to yourself. It’s a really remarkable difference considering that the built environments of the two places aren’t that different: the block I lived on there was mostly 2-3 story townhouses, the block I live on now is a mix of 4 story townhouses and 5-6 story apartment buildings. But what’s different is the density of residents.

          • Plumber says:

            “….But what’s different is the density of residents….”


            It’s not just density that matters, despite having far less people within a square mile, where I live now has far more grocery stores in walking distance than were near my apartment in Oakland, .

            Wealth matters.

    • The Nybbler says:

      Montclair, NJ is not a streetcar suburb; it’s a college town and a train town. I live one town over (a town which actually used to have a streetcar, though it really isn’t a streetcar suburb either). Montclair differs from its neighbors largely by having two fairly decent “downtown” areas, only one of which has a train station.

      But most suburbs are, like, freeway interchanges, parking lots, strip malls, traffic-clogged and car-dependent…

      Aside from car-dependent, no, they’re not. Take East Hanover, NJ (not far from Montclair) for instance. Ask anyone who doesn’t live there, they’ll think of this. This is the commercial strip along NJ-10. But that’s just because the only reason to go there if you don’t live there or know someone there is to go to the commercial strip. People who live there might live someplace like this.

      As for car dependent, yes. We suburbanites have a solution for that; we own cars.

    • Plumber says:

      Except “YIMBY’s” never seem to agitate for increasing density in post war suburbs, it’s usually San Francisco and Berkeley (which used to be a “street car suburb” with the old Key System that GM and Firestorm bought up to destroy) that “new housing” is always to be built in places which BY AN AMAZING COINCIDENCE!!! have many long-term residents in rent controlled apartments, that get evicted so the young college grads with tech jobs who come from elsewhere may displace them, but for some reason “Silicon Valley” with all it’s empty land escapes YIMBY notice.

      “By their acts shall we know them”.

      So called YIMBY’s are anti-democracy shock troops of plutocracy doing a hostile takeover.

      When I worked construction I saw a small bit of residential construction in Santa Clara county, but it was mostly commercial development, nothing like all the new residential that Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco have had to endure.

      Evict Palo Alto, bulldoze Stanford and build there instead.



      (I’m very much reminded of being a teenager at Berkeley High School in the 1980’s when every sort of “teenage” job was taken by UC students instead, which would be palatable IF WE GOT TO GO ON TO UC! as it was only two of my dozens of friends got to go to UC, one of which transferred from private school and even he had to go to Santa Barbara, it was his elder brother who went to UC Berkeley, so exactly one guy who I grew up with got to go! Except for one guy who’s a homeless beggar, everyone I knew from the class of ’86 had to leave town to find work, and none of the girls stayed, my wife was a UC student from out of state because “the best and the brightest” displace everyone!

      I wish I could ban college grads, and people could live where they’re born and grow uo!)

      • Hendi says:

        If people had to live where they were born and grew up there basically wouldn’t be any people in California at all, you’d likely be living in Ireland or Sweden or wherever your ancestors are from. Maybe you’d be living in New York City or Oklahoma or wherever your immediate ancestors who moved to California were from. Thank god the people who got to the Bay before they did were more open to newcomers than you are. San Francisco was the original boom town, born out of basically nothing during a time that’s barely outside of living memory; we’re not talking about some small village in England where the same eight families have been since their names were written in the doomsday book. The fact that San Franciscans act like because they moved in 30 years ago they have an anciently rooted, blood right to the very soil beneath their feet is absolutely one of the most ridiculous things about how this has been playing out in the last few years.

        If you don’t like where you live because its changed too much, you can go somewhere else! There’s a near certainty that that’s exactly how your grandfathers (give or take) landed in the area in the first place. Heck, if your people were originally Okies you’ll be pleased to learn that Tulsa is a wonderful suburban city with an economy that’s doing quite nicely and where you’ll have an even better claim to deep roots in the area than where you live now.

        • Brad says:

          Maybe he’s a member of the Muwekma Ohlone tribe, but more likely just a hypocrite.

          • Plumber says:

            “Maybe he’s a member of the Muwekma Ohlone tribe, but more likely just a hypocrite”


            Said the Norman to the Saxon “You moved the Welsh”.

            Yes, I had the “Ohlone Way” as assigned reading in Junior High School as well (and I remember it well enough to remember that “Ohlone” is a made-word based on ‘alone’ and the Spanish called them “Costanoan” for ‘dwellers on the coast’, and they made great shellmounds, and ate acorns and venison) so your saying that means that the land clearances should continue forever, and we all must give way to the needs of commerce? 

            Funny how “efficiency” and “rationality” always fit the wants of the rich and powerful. 

            Nice for you how evicting the dying from their homes is “rational” and for “the common good”.

            And I ask again,  why here?

            Why not Palo Alto? 

            EDIT: Before someone brings up “property rights” again, why does that trump self rule democracy?

            We voted for rent control and zoning, and you don’t have the decency to wait for us to die first so you may just out vote us before you bribe out-of’area state politicians (yes I’m talking about Mr. Costa and Mr. Hawkins) to work your wills.

        • Plumber says:

          “If people had to live where they were born and grew up there basically wouldn’t be any people in California at all, you’d likely be living in Ireland or Sweden or wherever your ancestors are from. Maybe you’d be living in New York City or Oklahoma or wherever your immediate ancestors who moved to California were from…”


          Your guess is half right.

          My grandfather could be considered an “Okie” (actually Kansas) who came to California “On the fender of a Model A Ford” (his words) but his wife was born in California as was their daughter. My father (who my mother divorced) though, was born in New Jersey, so just like my sons I was born in California and have one parent who was born in California, who had one parent born in California, and if half my childhood peers could stay near I’d be happier, but the only one left in town pushes a shopping cart full of cans to the dump (he recognized me first), and of homeowners I’m it!

          That the “cognitive elite” should displace some to make their fortunes elsewhere is understandable, but all?

          Couldn’t you leave some crumbs?

          Must you have everything? 

  3. christianschwalbach says:

    Regarding the SF issue, I am surprised at how few responses on the original post had to do with the geography of the peninsula itself, and the paucity of flat land in SF city limits. This greatly affects the level by which new building is a challenge and also how it affects neighboring views, etc… there is a very strong incentive for NIMBY types in SF to hold down new construction, as views of the bay or the ocean are premium, and most other US cities are not in this situation. NYC is flat, LA is a sprawl, Chicago is flat, TX cities are flat…..even Seattle, which I feel is the most apt comparison, has a natural geographical flow that allows construction to fit together a bit smoother. That, plus suburbs in seattle are more tightly packed in around the main city, but thats another discussion…. We also deal with the issue that SF was one of the first West Coast cities to really grow and become a hub, so its had much longer for problems to arise, and of course for bad policy to become a factor. Perhaps we should look at the revitilization of NYC for some form of inspiration? What happened there, on a macro scale? Policy change? Economic change???

  4. deciusbrutus says:

    Assume that adding tons of high-density housing will not reduce the price per unit of housing, but instead create tons of new value.

    Is there any reason why we couldn’t replace a house with a 100-unit condo and add a 2% tax to the sale of condos and use that to buy out the people negatively affected? If the assertion is true for all scales, that would allow everyone who is forced out to be paid between three times the value of their home and ninety-eight times the value of their home, less the cost of building the condos.

    • arbitraryvalue says:

      Two problems here:

      1. Houses aren’t fungible. I own a house, and if you offered me three times its value, I still wouldn’t sell it to you. (And I don’t even get to live in that house now, it is four hours away from where I work.) Ninety-eight times its value? I’d sell, but not everyone would.

      2. If my neighbor sells you his house for three times its value, I would have to live next to a 100-unit condo, which would destroy most of the enjoyment I get from my house without my consent or any compensation to me. So I have a strong interest in preventing anyone from being allowed to build those condos; that way my neighbors can’t screw me over.

      • Temple says:

        2. If my neighbor sells you his house for three times its value, I would have to live next to a 100-unit condo, which would destroy most of the enjoyment I get from my house without my consent or any compensation to me. So I have a strong interest in preventing anyone from being allowed to build those condos; that way my neighbors can’t screw me over.

        If your enjoyment is contingent on the house next to you being a one story house, perhaps you could purchase the house from your neighbor and keep it as a one story house?

        • arbitraryvalue says:

          If your enjoyment is contingent on the house next to you being a one story house, perhaps you could purchase the house from your neighbor and keep it as a one story house?

          No, because trying to do that won’t work, whereas having a local government which makes it illegal for anyone to screw over his neighbors does work? Even if we assume a purely libertarian solution could theoretically work (and I don’t think it could) then we should still acknowledge that it will not be successfully implemented, because most people range from apathetic to hostile to libertarianism.

          Being a libertarian unilaterally means giving up the advantages but not the disadvantages of the current system of government control.

          • Matt M says:

            No, because trying to do that won’t work

            What do you mean it “won’t work?” Of course it would “work.” If you own the property next door, you can 100% control whether it gets turned into condos or not.

            If you mean “that might cost more than I’m willing to pay” well, that’s a very different sort of criticism that gets into your own choices and values.

          • arbitraryvalue says:

            @Matt M

            Let’s see… To buy all the land near my house where a 100-unit condo would significantly reduce my enjoyment of my property, I would need on the order of 100 million dollars. Then I would have to somehow deal with the people who realize that if I buy all the houses except theirs, my plan won’t work, and so they can demand much, much more than market price. And then I would be stuck with a hundred or so houses that I have absolutely no use for.

            Or I could rely on the law, already in place, which says no one may build a 100-unit condo anywhere near my house.

            So yes, technically your proposed solution is not impossible, but it is entirely impractical and you want to to replace a system that already exists and already works the way my neighbors and I want it to.

        • brmic says:

          If your enjoyment is contingent on the house next to you being a one story house, perhaps you could purchase the house from your neighbor and keep it as a one story house?

          Actually, he bought his house contingent on his neighbour not being able to build a 100 condo unit. Implcitly or explcitly, if that had been on the table, the price he was willing to pay would either have been much lower or the guarantees against it much stronger.
          You can screw the current homeowners, but eventually you either end up with land you can’t sell or homeowners with very strong protections against their neighbour building a 100 condo unit. You can then get the government to screw them over, but afterwards a new party will be elected.
          The only way, in a democracy, is to actually convince people that density is beneficial and should be allowed.

        • Anthony says:

          That’s the whole point of HOAs. The development rights (and many other rights) are separated from the land and building use rights, and made much more difficult to alienate.

          (Unless you’re in a single-building condo HOA. Then the point is to have enough money to replace the roof.)

          Development restrictions on the neighbors are a valuable-enough good that people will pay extra *and* put up with other people telling them what color they can paint their house and how often to water their lawn.

    • hollyluja says:

      There is a pretty respectable proposal to do just that, called “Tax Increment Local Transfers (TILTs)”. You take some of the expected increase in taxes and use it to pay the surrounding property owners for their troubles.

      Might make some YIMBYs happy that the NIMBYs get “rewarded” for being annoying, but they get rewarded even more if nothing is built.

  5. ADifferentAnonymous says:

    Update: Scott Sumner has weighed in.

    Highlights: “The current tight controls on development make developers anxious to build upwards on any scrap of land in the Bay Area where they can get permission to build. But there’s only so much demand. If they could build anywhere, they would not build everywhere… Pressures at the margin in a highly distorted market are not evidence of what a completely free market would look like… Density advocates will never “win” in the sense of replacing most of our low density suburbs with dense metro areas, because there are nowhere near enough Americans to make density anything other than an exotic exception to the boring suburban rule.”

  6. johan_larson says:

    Maybe we should be looking for some baby steps, small measures that aren’t particularly controversial, and certainly don’t solve the whole problem, but would make things a bit better.

    One thing the Bay Area governments could do is to make commuting by bus easier. The big high-tech companies already run private bus services. Build on that by creating pick-up and drop-off centers in the more remote suburbs that these services can use. And make travel by bus as smooth as possible by adding more HOV lanes (which buses can use) and perhaps even (dare we dream?) special VHOV with minimum occupancy of six or so.

    Another thing to do is to make sure builders are allowed to create medium and high density areas in new areas on the fringes what aren’t built up yet. If too much low-density housing that (for whatever reason) can’t be densified is the problem, let’s at least not build more of it. This shouldn’t gore anyone’s ox, since no one lives in these places yet.

    • Matt M says:

      Build on that by creating pick-up and drop-off centers in the more remote suburbs that these services can use.

      “Park and ride” is hardly a new concept. It’s been around for decades. Why SF may or may not be using it, I can’t say.

      • AG says:

        Ride-sharing was invented in the Bay Area for a reason, and that was for the Bay Area’s specific context.

  7. jonabar says:

    Differing preferences about where to live isn’t actually the issue. The problem is that people have very similar preferences about what kind of jobs they want, and so far cities are the only unit that offers those jobs in any significant quantity. The commenter who hates NYC and the one who keeps a vivarium in each room wouldn’t even be part of this discussion if they didn’t want to maintain their living preferences while also keeping a job that only a city provides.

    I think the reason YIMBYs get so angry at people like this is because it seems like they want most of the benefits of a city without bearing or sharing any of the cost. If you assume that not upzoning medium-density suburbs helps keep city rents high, then suburbanites are actively making life worse for people who live in cities, even though they both are in cities for one thing: city jobs. I think the resentment isn’t so much “If you want to live in a city you have to deal with noise and bad transit” but rather “If you want to live on a big plot of land with animals, go work on a farm or in a rural post office or remotely, and stop mooching off the city benefits you enjoy.” (it’s like an extension of the argument of which locality you should pay taxes to, the one where you work or the one where you live). To put it another way, maybe traffic wouldn’t be so bad in San Francisco and maybe the BART would be improved if everyone who worked in San Francisco lived in places where it was inconvenient to own cars).

    • Nornagest says:

      maybe traffic wouldn’t be so bad in San Francisco and maybe the BART would be improved if everyone who worked in San Francisco lived in places where it was inconvenient to own cars

      It’s already inconvenient to take a car into SF. When I lived in Oakland, I avoided it whenever possible, and I would have BARTed in every day if I’d had a job in the city (instead, I worked in Concord). Traffic is so bad in San Francisco and BART is so poorly maintained partly because getting anything done is so expensive (which is because of high labor costs, which in turn is because people have sat on these problems so long), but mostly because the Bay Area regional governments can’t be trusted to manage a banana stand.

      I’m generally on the YIMBY side, but new urbanist car hate can get incredibly condescending.

      • jonabar says:

        Inconvenient to take a car in but not inconvenient to *own* a car. I think the YIMBY position is something like “the cost of a parking space should = cost of renting that equivalent square footage in housing”, and thus a lot of vitriol against mandatory minimum parking spaces for new construction. If your neighborhood was upzoned and developed so that it looked more like the densest part of San Francisco, both taking a car *and* owning a car would be inconvenient, and you probably wouldn’t do either. You would, theoretically, has much more incentive to vote for better public transportation. If you think regional governments cannot ever deliver decent public transportation, then, yeah, you’re kind of stuck, but I’m assuming you’re not powering your computer on a generator.

        • The Nybbler says:

          If your neighborhood was upzoned and developed so that it looked more like the densest part of San Francisco, both taking a car *and* owning a car would be inconvenient, and you probably wouldn’t do either. You would, theoretically, has much more incentive to vote for better public transportation.

          So your going to make his neighborhood hard on car ownership in order to pressure him to vote for better public transportation? This does not strike me as particularly ethical, and if I were handing out punishments I would sentence you to a NJ Transit Summer of Hell.

          • jonabar says:

            I don’t know how much of that argument is coming from an endowment effect. I mean, imagine if NYC had always had much larger jurisdictional borders, so they could limit cars in favor of public transit well into New Jersey, and then person who is me in this equation said, actually, we should impose restrictions on the New Jersey side so that the houses have to have big lawns and we should increase transit fares to get people to support car ownership because cars are fundamentally important, and then the person who was you said, “So you’re going to make his neighborhood hard on public transit in order to pressure to pressure him to vote for more cars?”

            I get that endowment effects matter and people make choices expecting the future to be a somewhat similar to the past, but we’re not making policy decisions here, we’re arguing between theoretical possibilities.

          • whateverthisistupd says:

            I live in New jersey. I don’t like the city. I don’t go there or work there. Your argument suggests that the things I like about new jersey are due to the proximity of NYC, even if I have no interest in living IN NYC, and you think New jersey should get shittier because, somehow this is more fair to people who live in NYC? They don’t have to live there, they choose that for convenience and jobs or whatever reason.

        • Nornagest says:

          Yep, there’s that condescension.

          I’d vote against mandatory minimum parking spaces for the same reason I’d vote against any other building standard not directly linked to safety, but I don’t think middle-class neighborhoods outside city centers would end up with a strikingly different number of parking spaces if the requirements evaporated tomorrow. The existing zoning-mandated ones are mostly full, after all. Maybe a few builders would gamble on being able to attract enough rail or foot commuters, but otherwise, there’s gonna be parking. High-end customers want a place to put their vehicles, and not many developers in dense areas deliberately target the low end of the market (instead, slightly lower-end customers go into the apartments that the high-end customers just vacated, and so on down the line).

          On the other hand, I’d oppose zoning restrictions preventing the construction of new apartments with parking, because at that point you’re deliberately complicating people’s lives in hopes of creating the kind of political pressure you want. Which as far as I’m concerned is no better than the NIMBY side. I’m not interested in trying to magic up some kind of centrally planned utopian community, I just want to let people build more housing if there’s a market for it.

          I’m assuming you’re not powering your computer on a generator.

          Not today, but I was around for the rolling blackouts of the early 2000s.

          • jonabar says:

            To be fair, the condescension was just for the banana stand comment 🙂 I love my car!

            I don’t think I disagree with any of that, and I agree with letting people build what there’s a market for, but someone is going to decide regulations for what can and can’t be built. Now the default is relatively small communities have that authority, some argue the authority should be in the hands of the city and the city’s borders should include commuter communities. Maybe the latter has a more Soviet ring to it, but personally I’ve found many small communities do lots of “central planning” within their narrow borders, and it’s not less unpleasant for being local.

        • CatCube says:

          “the cost of a parking space should = cost of renting that equivalent square footage in housing”

          I really hope that’s a strawman of the YIMBY position, because that’s goofy. Constructing a square foot of parking is way cheaper than constructing a square foot of housing.

          • jonabar says:

            Yes, should have phrased it in terms of opportunity cost or expected value or something . That being said, in the cities we’re talking the rise in rents is from rising land values, not from rising construction costs or fancier materials (though stricter building codes matter too)

        • Garrett says:

          I’ll start believing you can create good public transportation once you can make sidewalks in SF that aren’t unpleasant to use. Public transportation has all of the downsides of the “eccentrics” on the sidewalk combined with even more crowding, poor reliability, etc.

    • The Nybbler says:

      “Commuting is unfair to people who live near the jobs” is an awfully strange position. Furthermore, while your description applies to NYC, it doesn’t apply to San Francisco, with an awful lot of jobs in the suburban areas of the South Bay.

      • jonabar says:

        It’s not inherently unfair, but it seems pretty obvious that it could be. If NYC built a bridge out of its budget but didn’t charge tolls on it, and most of the people who used it were commuters who did not contribute to the budget, that would give NYC residents a reason to complain. Obviously, trivial fix, but I don’t see anything wrong with that logic. There’s a similar fight in New York State because NYC pays a lot of money to the state budget but then, people feel, the state doesn’t give enough to fix NYC subways. You can extend that logic to commuters – they get a large benefit from the city in the form of jobs that only arise from certain agglomeration/centralization effects, but they don’t give up any zoning autonomy in exchange for it.

        The underlying question is something like, how small of a governing unit gets to decide what kind of zoning to allow within their unit. In America the answer is pretty small. Even within cities, often these are local decisions. But you could just as easily say, the city has all these benefits because its big, the political boundaries of the city should extend to all commuter areas that draw most of their income from city-based jobs, and the city has to have a unified strategy for maximizing those benefits, including setting all zoning regulations within its new political boundaries. I don’t know how that would apply to SF; obviously if you have a suburb that is mostly self-contained in the sense that people who live there work there, then it doesn’t make sense to treat it as part of the city unit.

        • Garrett says:

          The trick here is to move to user fees wherever possible. The subway can increase its fares until it’s taking in enough revenue to cover maintenance requirements. Likewise for gas taxes for road usage.

          • Matt M says:

            The subway can increase its fares until it’s taking in enough revenue to cover maintenance requirements.

            This is not politically feasible. Most public transportation is so ineptly run that for the fees to actually offset the costs, they’d have to double or triple, such that they would suddenly be “out of budget” for the lower classes.

            Public transportation in the US, in most cases, is not economically viable. It exists as a political subsidy to the poor.

          • poipoipoi says:

            For example, the one part of the subway system that’s actually funded is something called “Fair Fares” which gives half-price subway fares to the poor.

            Never mind that the New York subway is both:

            A) Actively falling apart (No, seriously, the ceilings are all falling off)
            B) About a fifth to a tenth of the cost of car ownership.
            C) Broke trying to afford union salaries.

            But we can’t charge poor people $121/month to ride everywhere within 2 hours instead of $60.50.

          • idontknow131647093 says:

            But that is all caused because (ever since they took the subways out of private control) they have always been subsidized, so they have never had to be competent. Its a sunk cost fallacy of sorts.

          • Brad says:

            One more problem with the plan is that the Manhattan DA, in his infinite wisdom, has decided that fare beating is no longer illegal as far as his office is concerned.

          • Aapje says:

            I see the argument that publicly funded organizations can’t be competent quite often from Americans and yet other countries manage a lot better.

            If you want to have well-maintained and functioning subways, as well as very good access by the poor*, you can:
            – subsidize it heavily, so it is very cheap for everyone by having prices be (way) below cost
            – give the poor a special pass or something like that, which allows them to pay less
            – Increase welfare, so the poor can pay more

            What is not compatible with well-maintained and functioning subways is to severely limit the income by having very low prices for everyone and then also having insufficient subsidies. Public organizations can’t magically create money out of thin air.

            * although I would personally suggest not making it too cheap for them, because it results in the predictable outcome that the homeless start living there, which goes against the purpose of transportation.

          • sharper13 says:


            Based on where their spending actually goes to, subways (and most public transit in the U.S.), especially in NYC, are patronage programs designed to pay off and maintain political power. Any use for actually transporting people where they want to go is secondary.

        • whateverthisistupd says:

          what about the people who live in those towns but don’t commute, dont want to, and want nothing to do with the city?

          • Hendi says:

            I take your point as a general matter, but I think that people in the suburbs of New York, SF, and a few other very wealthy cities have a real blindspot when it comes to how much those cities contribute to making those suburbs as nice and as prosperous as they are. I grew up in central NJ, close enough to NY that some people in my area commuted to the city but far enough away that the commuters were a very small minority of the overall population. But enough did that it made a serious difference for the local economy, to say nothing of all the people who worked at the large Merrill Lynch and Dow Jones campuses that were located in the area in no small part because it was within helicoptering distance of Wall Street. The amount of money, and associated economic opportunity, in that area was far beyond what you see in suburbs of Philadelphia and Chicago (the other two areas where I’ve spent significant amounts of time). While there are, no doubt, upscale suburbs of both of those cities, the sheer extent and wealth of New York’s suburbs is a difference in kind, not degree.

            I often think about this in the context of a conversation that took place maybe 5-10 years ago about Brooklyn. Around the time that Brooklyn-as-brand was at its peak there was a lot of talk by people in other cities about trying to build their own “Brooklyn”, by which they meant a low rise but dense area populated by well educated young people working in creative fields, that supported a large number of hip, independent, upscale businesses. To go back to Philadelphia, this was more or less an explicit goal of developers and local business leaders in a few neighborhoods located just to northeast of the main business district (Northern Liberties and nearby). You can see why this was an appealing idea: in the popular imagination Brooklyn was proof that such a place was possible, a way to foster growing businesses and a vibrant culture; New York but less crowded and not (yet) populated by the bankers and fashion people that comprise a lot of negative NYC stereotypes. Fast forward a few years and most of these efforts have been met with mixed results at best. I can’t be certain, but it looks to me like this is in large part because people didn’t recognize that, for all that Williamsburg circa 2007 was populated by writers, freelancers, and artisanal soap makers who didn’t work in Manhattan, the entire ecosystem was only sustainable because it was located about 3 miles from the giant money geyser that is center the global financial industry.

          • Brad says:

            Almost the entire country—millions of square miles—are virtually empty. They are spoiled for choice (and just plain old spoiled.)

    • Lasagna says:

      I’m not sure this holds up. “Having a job” is the sole benefit you’re talking about, and the sole benefit commuters receive. Commuters don’t get the rest of the stuff that you like about cities. For the most part, they get the crap parts. And some pay commuter taxes, so there’s that too.

      And since that benefit goes both ways – a job is not a gift, commuters add economic value to the place where they work – it’s not really a benefit per se.

      Further, your complaints about the negative effects of suburban people – driving up the cost of housing in the city, traffic jams – are just part of that economic benefit they bring. Those jobs that you think are such a huge gift to suburbanites are largely transferable to the suburbs. It’s happened before, It’ll happen again, I’m sure it’s happening now in some places. And I’m sure plenty of suburbanites would be more than happy to leave your city desolate with cheap real estate, cut down on their commute and aggravation, and get home earlier, if you’d prefer that.

      • jonabar says:

        “Sole benefit” seems like underselling it. You personally choose to spend the majority of your waking hours in or commuting to a city that you despise, just because you want to keep your job. I would understand “[Soviet-era Moscow] is where my job is, and that’s that,” but you live in a free and capitalist country! If you work in a job that is so NYC-specific, you’re obviously smart and talented, you can’t do anything that’s a bit of step down somewhere else? Manage a bank in Silver City, NM? Run a State Farm office in Vermont? What other benefit in life would you accept in exchange for the 50 hours of NYC misery a week? Nothing exerts quite as much choice in most people’s lives as their job.

        And I think this undercuts your second point. The job has all the bargaining power. You can’t pick your job up and take it to whatever city you want. If you move to tomorrow, someone will fill your job. The job is generally much less fungible than the people doing it.

        I’m not sure what to make of your third point. It clearly hasn’t happened in the last 20 years, and if the market adjusted this readily, there’d be no reason to have any of this debate. But I hope you’re right! I would love a desolate NYC with cheap real estate.

  8. gbdub says:

    For me, I enjoy visiting walkable cities. It’s nice to be able to walk around to restaurants or shows or whatever without hopping in the car and needing to find parking.

    On the other hand, it would have to be really, really walkable before I’d ever consider living without a car. And maybe you software geeks can find 100 jobs in a 10 block radius, but a lot of other industries can’t. I build rockets – you can’t really put a rocket factory that makes a damn bit of economic sense in the middle of a walkable downtown. The best you can do is stick them in the relatively undesirable real estate next to the airport – and no reasonable person is gonna live in El Segundo without a car any time in the near future. So now I have to commute from my walkable neighborhood to (or at least crossing through) a not-walkable place.

    And beyond all that, I like being able to drive to the woods to go camping or hiking, or the beach, or another city. So I’m gonna have a car. Now I need a place to put it. Now that I have it and have a place to put it, I’m going to be annoyed if it’s hard to move around. Now that I’ve got it, have a place to put it, and it’s relatively easy to drive around – I’m going to take it a lot more places. Suddenly, boom, you’re right back to a car-centric city.

    This feels like a very tough nut to crack, until and unless the whole concept of a “personal car” becomes easily replaceable by a fleet of autonomous summon-by-iPhone rent-by-the-hour transport pods that park themselves in a big garage in the exurbs at night.

    Now that

    • ana53294 says:

      The European Space Operations Centre is in a walkable place in the town of Darmstadt (near Frankfurkt). I am not sure how many rockets they build, but they do presumably do something (they do spend our tax euros).

      • Nornagest says:

        “Operations center” sounds like the kind of place that talks to satellites and space probes after they’ve launched, not the kind of place that builds rockets.

      • gbdub says:

        That’s a fairly small facility on the outskirts of a relatively small city (~150k population). I don’t think they build anything there – it’s basically Mission Control for satellites, so a bunch of engineers sitting at computers.

        Compare that to the actual manufacturing campus of major Aerospace corporations (e.g. Lockheed, Northrop Grumman) around LAX and you’ll see the difference.

        It would be nice to be an engineer in a place like Darmstadt (I love Ann Arbor Michigan, which I’d class in a similar city size range) but companies often like to collocate their manufacturing and engineering in much larger cities it seems. And I wouldn’t live in AA without a car either (although most of the town proper is walkable).

        EDIT: I’d add, I have no idea what other industries are in Darmstadt – if I got laid off from the ESA, would I have to leave? That sort of thing is what pushes people like me to LA, DC, etc. – there’s value to being able to get an equivalent or better job without having to necessarily move.

        • ana53294 says:

          If you have a car, you have Frankfurkt with all its industrial areas. I know a couple of aeronautical engineers. He works in the ESA, she works in Frankfurkt airport (the commute is half an hour or so). She designs something for planes, not rockets though.

          So if you are open to working on other related fields, yes, there are other industries near Darmstad.

          • gbdub says:

            Looking at Google Maps, Ann Arbor was actually a decent comparison since it sort-of-kind-of serves the same function vis a vis Detroit that Darmstadt does for Frankfurt.

            I like the idea of living in a ~100k town with a reasonable commute to a nearby big city – that’s just not as common in the US (and it doesn’t make you car-free, which is what the anti-car fanatics seem to want).

            One advantage Europe has I think is that the smaller cities already had well-established “old school” town centers designed and built in the pre-car days for medium density cities to sprout around. Whereas a lot more of the US was tiled with car-based subdivisions serving as bedroom communities for big cities in the post-car era.

    • Civilis says:

      I think much of the issue has to do with the density and interchangeability of jobs. You’d do away with much of the problem if 90% of workers lived within a mile of their work location. I have relatives that grew up in small town Pennsylvania, where the town had one or two real employers with factories, and all the factory workers, managers, administrative staff and the town services necessary to serve them (the bank tellers, the bar owner, the mortician, the teachers, the clergy, the gas station attendants, etc.) all lived in the same four traffic light town. Even if they all drove to work, they’d still not be on the roads enough to make much of a difference.

      But when 23,000 people work in the Pentagon, there’s no way you can optimize to give even a significant fraction of them a place to live conveniently close to where they work, so they’re spread out over much of Northern Virginia, and likewise people working elsewhere in NoVA that could otherwise live closer to their office have to compete with them for space and therefore find themselves having to work some distance from where they live. Adding to this is that a lot of the low-end jobs necessary to support these workers have to compete for space, and so therefore are stuck driving in from cheaper areas further away. Instead of 1 million people with 1 mile commutes, you have 1 million people with 10 mile commutes, and hence need significantly more roads.

    • poipoipoi says:


      I’m in Queens. Which isn’t terribly walk-friendly, but there’s 3 grocery stores within a 10 minute walk of me, and I can make occasion

      I take the 7 to Midtown, where I transfer to any other subway line and boom, I’m anywhere in Manhattan inside of an hour. That includes the major (tech, anyways) jobs centers of Wall Street and 14th Street, and Midtown.

      Whenever I need to leave the city, I either take a train to Zipcar in New Jersey/Upstate/Connecticut, or on rare occasions (I don’t like driving the BQE at all) take a slightly more expensive Zipcar from the parking garage 5 minutes walk from my apartment and pay what are admittedly obscene bridge tolls to drive to New Jersey.

      One of my urbanist heresies is that: “You are 100% correct, and I wish we had 100 Zipcars instead of 15”.

      Now, as you mentioned, there’s that middle ground. And I did that too. I lived within (increasingly vague as the rent went up) walking distance of Caltrain, and owned a car. And… locally, I put about 3000 miles on it. I sold it at 30,000 and I could tell you right now today exactly what ~18,000 of that was, and renting a Zipcar for the weekend (or even, on one notable occasion, the week. 3100 miles, 9 days, 6 national parks) would’ve been noticeably cheaper than the cost of actually owning that car.

      And 3000 miles barely makes a difference. You don’t need fantastic car infrastructure when I’m putting 3,000 miles a year on my car and my father’s putting 20,000.

      And maybe once you do that, some of that 3,000… Well, I drove up and down El Camino a lot, nothing a monthly bus pass and some dedicated lanes wouldn’t have dealt with. Dead serious, that would’ve been a thousand a year. So 2,000 miles and suddenly, spending $2000/year on Ubers, and $1000/year on Zipcar suddenly looks a lot more viable.

  9. Eternaltraveler says:

    Ideally people who like yards and lots of land then would just buy the land around them, join a homeowners association or shut up. NIMBY concerns can be addressed by joining voluntary homeowners associations. The existence of almost ubiquitous zoning has drastically harmed homeowners associations’ ability to cater to just about every set of preferences (contingent on their being at least one neighborhood’s worth of people who share your tastes).

    If you need wilderness and no other people around you to be happy, then you really need to buy all the land around you yourself or at least go somewhere far enough out there that its unlikely to be developed soon. This is my strong preference, which unfortunately I can’t meet because as referenced by OP; otherwise certain death (here as a pilgrim in an unholy land it is slightly less certain).

    One problem, I suspect, is that most YIMBYs in most other contexts are completely behind using the government as a club to bludgeon their enemies just as the NIMBYs are also happy to do back at them.

    • hollyluja says:

      I’m have not seen “using the government as a club to bludgeon their enemies” in the sense of making their aesthetic preferences the only legal option. In all cases of real YIMBY proposals, it’s been about expanding the options to allow more types, not shutting off existing options.

      See Vancouver, BC allowing duplexes by right everywhere, or Minneapolis and Portland with their fourplexes. This is the change most West Coast YIMBYs are fighting for, which NIMBYs say will “destroy” everything. It’s laughably far from 60s style tower in a park Le Corbusier developments.

      • Eternaltraveler says:

        I’m behind (almost) any proposal that would actually be successful in limiting government including YIMBYism. I think I should be able to build my oil refinery next to your apartment complex if I buy that land (just as you should be able to sue my oil refinery for damages if it physically harms you). My suspicion, based on anecdotal accounts of speaking to YIMBYs, is that outside of opening up building in San Francisco(and nearby) to apartment buildings so they have to pay less rent, there is almost no other context where they would be in favor of limiting government in any way, and they certainly would join the NIMBYs in blocking my oil refinery on my land. Powerful government is just a club waiting for enough fingers to get together to wield it.

        • Lasagna says:

          I don’t want to wait until they’re physically harmed to keep your oil refinery away from my toddlers, so I’m in favor of the “no oil refinery’s in my neighborhood” law.

          • Eternaltraveler says:

            Instead of using your “The children!” rhetoric to block people from making use of their private property how they please (if only it stopped at blocking refineries) you could join a homeowners association and have your refinery free neighborhood.

            No, I don’t expect the above to happen.

          • Guy in TN says:

            Or, he could use the power of democratic government to regulate oil refineries, because “there will be dead children” is an extremely effective argument both in terms of descriptive accuracy and sound morality.

        • Guy in TN says:

          I feel like this conversation would be more productive if both sides could admit that, yes, we’re trying to advance our preferences over your preferences. And since for a given plot of land, we can’t both have our way (it will necessarily end up either be urban or rural), that means one of us will have to submit to the other.

          No more rhetoric of, “I’m not trying to control things, I just want to let private landowners do what they want”.

          Or its counterpart, “I’m not trying to control things, I just want to let the City Planning Commission do what they want”.

          • whateverthisistupd says:

            but that;s utterly ridiculous, because one uses violence to force it’s will on others, and one doesn’t.

        • Matt M says:

          outside of opening up building in San Francisco(and nearby) to apartment buildings so they have to pay less rent, there is almost no other context where they would be in favor of limiting government in any way


          These people don’t give a damn about property rights in any context at all, other than this one.

    • gbdub says:

      I don’t know, I find my HOA a lot more arbitrary and annoying than my local government, and I think a lot of people would agree.

      Tile the Bay with HOAs enacting effectively the same policy as the current local government, and I don’t see how anything changes. If anything, its worse – if it comes to it, the State of CA can overrule the City of SF, but the State isn’t going to be able to control the HOAs the same way.

      • Eternaltraveler says:

        CA can overrule the City of SF, but the State isn’t going to be able to control the HOAs the same way.

        yeah, private property is annoying. Best do away with it.

        • gbdub says:

          Did you even try to discern my point?

          If you give NIMBYs the power to “zone” through their HOAs, they are going to NIMBY even harder than they do now, only this time without any means to check their NIMBY desires. The problem isn’t that the zoning board is defying the otherwise YIMBY preferences of their constituents, it’s that they are by and large giving their constituents what they want.

          I’m all for private property, but I don’t see how your proposal satisfies either side relative to the status quo (because the end result basically will be the status quo)

          • Matt M says:

            As smaller entities, HOAs would presumably be easier to either persuade to change policies, or to successfully co-opt with like-minded people.

            It seems obvious to me that it would be easier for me to convince all of my neighbors to do a certain thing than to convince everyone in my city, county, or state, to do a certain thing.

          • The Nybbler says:

            In practice HOAs combine all the corruption of local government with all the accountability of the UN.

          • Eternaltraveler says:

            My apologies for being snarky. I don’t necessarily agree that the end result is the status quo. Ultimately if someone wants to bulldoze a neighborhood and build high rise apartments or a refinery they have to buy it first and presumably if you buy every house in a given HOA you can rewrite the HOA however you want, although I suspect some would like to be in HOAs that were at least very difficult to break so it would be hard to bulldoze the neighborhood and build refineries/apartments next door even if they were the last hold out. That’s fine by me.

            Maybe HOAs would tile the countryside, maybe they wouldn’t. I personally wouldn’t buy a house in an HOA if I could avoid it. But I also wouldn’t buy a house with restrictive zoning if I could avoid it (I could not avoid it, tradeoffs…).

          • gbdub says:

            Maybe, but to really “fix” SF, to the degree it needs fixing, you’d need a pretty wholesale change. Patches of extra development here and there won’t really cut it.

            Are the NIMBYs really concentrated into a few small areas, or are they spread more or less evenly? If the latter, you probably won’t be able to convince a “critical mass” of HOAs to sell out.

          • gbdub says:

            @Eternaltraveler (sorry, you ninja’d my last post so I didn’t address your point there) – I think “holdouts” or “HOAs deliberately hard to break” are going to be the sticky bit.

            What’s to keep the HOA from incorporating itself saying “every lot stays 1 story unless 100% of the HOA votes otherwise”?

            Maybe some HOAs will be little mini-cities where a democratic vote can force the whole thing to dissolve and sell to the highest bidder, but given the way actual HOAs behave in the wild, that seems unlikely.

      • Eternaltraveler says:

        I don’t know, I find my HOA a lot more arbitrary and annoying than my local government, and I think a lot of people would agree.

        The only point of an HOA is to have more restrictive rules than the government imposes. With zoning as restrictive as it is the only existent HOAs live far out in arbitrary restrictive rules land.

        • Nornagest says:

          My understanding is that the point of an HOA post-Clean Water Act (1977) is generally to have a local body that’s accountable for things like drainage that the city government doesn’t want to manage (for, um, reasons). They were a lot less common before that, though not unknown. Drainage isn’t very sexy, though, so a lot of them come up with other reasons to justify themselves to their members.

          • gbdub says:

            Mostly mine seems to:
            1) collect funds to maintain a small community park, pool, and some landscaping on the outskirts of the subdivision
            2) Serve as a forum for nosy neighbors to get all anally retentive about a couple of weeds in my front yard and give me a nominal but annoying fine for it.

      • whateverthisistupd says:

        because HOAs ae voluntary and state regulations aren’t?

  10. Edward Scizorhands says:

    I didn’t participate in the original thread, so I might be duplicating a comment.

    But you won’t always be able to bike. You will get old some day.

    The common response is “you can stay biking if you do it every day.” Maybe. Maybe not. I am in pretty good shape, I think, and I take care of myself, so I can walk miles and bike tens of miles even in middle-age. That is partly due to good choices I have made over the years, but also partly due to the privilege of not having had any disease or injury that would stop me from being able to be mobile. There is a wide band of people who are mobile enough to be able to drive everywhere but cannot hop in and out of buses all day.

    (Also, parts of Austin are completely unwalkable. I like visiting hipster cities because I like walking around, but I am amazed at how pedestrian-hostile South Congress is, while being part of Austin.)

    • hollyluja says:

      You won’t always be able to drive, either! I live in Portland, which pioneered “retirement communities” back in the 60s and 70s. Lots of mid-rise apartment buildings that cater to seniors, just steps away from the streetcar. The older couple I bought my house from was able to move into a single floor condo just down the street. They were able to keep their community connections and lifestyle, but lose the maintenance on a 100 year old house with lots of stairs. More neighborhoods should make those kinds of options legal to build.

    • baconbits9 says:

      You can stay biking longer if you bike everyday, that is true enough and there are power assist bikes for when you get older. My dad is 72 and only recently stopped biking the 5 miles to work entirely, he had been slowing down for a long time up to this (never switched to a power assist bike either).

      When people say they got lucky not to have an illness or injury that is the norm for a healthy lifestyle. Injuries and illnesses that will permanently inhibit your ability to bike are fairly rare for people under 60 once you knock out stuff like diabetes which is going to be infrequent for regular bikers anyway.

      • poipoipoi says:

        I’m not sure if you’re lucky or not, the number of active people in my extended family with either knee or hip replacements approaches 100%. (And the one lucky bastard wasn’t so lucky, he ended up with stomach cancer)

        Meanwhile, the inactive types seem to be living longer with a much higher rate of their original limbs. Obese, weak, and able to walk.

        /And I’m 26 and the transit has CAUSED my knee injuries that my biking STARTED. So you know, when I can no longer walk by the age of 30, it’ll be because I did everything right.

    • arlie says:

      I think it’s a bit unpredictable which will happen to you first – inability to drive, or inability to walk (or take busses) even short distances. I’d expect inability to bike before both of those, in most cases, but I’m no statistician.

      • hollyluja says:

        I grew up in a retirement town, and it’s TERRIFYING how long people are allowed to drive. Way past the point when they are safe. But when the built environment requires driving, it’s much harder to take someone’s license away.

        • ana53294 says:

          I was really surprised when I learned that you don’t need a medical check up to renew your driving license in the US.

          You need a medical check up every 2 years after 70 and every 5 years after 45 to keep your driving license in Spain.

          • hollyluja says:

            we had one guy, 95% blind, sit in the DMV waiting room until he had memorized the answers to the vision test. Kids there were either quick or dead.

          • ana53294 says:

            While I would be OK with this guy biking (there is a high probability he will end up dead, but that’s his business), I am not OK with this guy driving a car.

            This kind of thing should not happen.

          • Matt M says:

            There are also old people in the US who simply refuse to stop driving. We have a neighbor like this. Her license has been suspended or taken away countless times. She doesn’t care. Once my dad disabled her car. She scrounged up a few hundred bucks and bought a new one in the classified ads. The cops can ticket her if they want, she’ll just pay the fine.

            Short of throwing a 90 year old dementia patient in literal jail, which they aren’t particularly inclined to do, she’s going to keep driving until she literally kills someone.

          • ana53294 says:

            Old enough people would probably get away with a very big sentence and some kind of reprieve – even for manslaughter.

            Jails are expensive. Jailing an elderly person will be costlier than an old people’s home – because you don’t have the very limited economy of scale a old people’s home has. Otherwise, committing a crime would be a good way for somebody who is too sick to care for themselves to avoid paying for that care.

  11. eqdw says:

    I probably should have left this post on the previous comment but better late than never, amirite?

    Scott is correct, I think, that a large amount of the disagreement on this issue is the result of people with incompatible preferences not fully realizing that other people feel different from them. But I have another explanation that I think deserves some consideration.

    When I moved to SF a while back, I was convinced by some tech friends who lived there that it was an urban paradise. I moved there and spent six years living in what I felt to be urban hell. While I was there, something really bothered me: how is it that I am having such a dramatically different experience from my friends?

    Over time I came to realize that the upsides and downsides of urban life in SF were not evenly distributed, and a _lot_ of my difference in experience came down to having lived on bad blocks. So, for instance, when I moved to SF I first lived in the Mission district because everyone told me the Mission is great and awesome and super cool. But all those people who lived in the Mission, they lived west of Valencia ave.

    To my friends, being “in the Mission” meant living west of Valencia. It meant being two blocks away from beautiful Dolores Park. It meant being able to take a ten minute stroll past beautiful Victorians to go to any one of the billion fancy hipster restaurants on Valencia ave.

    But, see, I ended up living in a small apartment building on Potrero Ave, on the far east boundary of the neighbourhood. To _me_, living in the mission meant living on a shitty six-lane stroad, beside a hospital with sirens going all night. Right beside the freeway, which dramatically degraded my air quality. It meant that my nearest grocery store was a Safeway with violent homeless people in the parking lot, instead of the fancy Safeway on 14th/Market (and, later, the Whole Foods across the street). It meant that, in order to get to those fancy restaurants on Valencia I had to walk for half an hour through creepy run-down light industrial blocks that, again, filled with violent angry people.

    Essentially, all the friends of mine who thought SF was an urban utopia lived their lives in a way that they were isolated from all the downsides. But I could not do this, because, well, I couldn’t afford it. They had higher paying jobs at more widely known tech companies, because they had university degrees from more prestigious jobs. They were better able to find housing in the desirable parts of town, and didn’t have to compete as hard on the housing search for it, because they had social connections and always had a friend who was moving out and needed someone to take over a lease. In many cases, they had moved there 5-10 years earlier, gotten much nicer apartments for much lower rents, and then had those rents locked in with rent control. For an extreme example of that last one, I knew a guy who split an 1800 sqft, 3 bedroom apartment on the top of Nob Hill with one other guy. Their _total_ rent between the two of them was about 50% less than what I paid for my shitty 500sqft 1br in the crimiest part of the Mission. Why? Because they moved there in 1997 and rent control means their rent can only rise 1ish% per year, and I moved there in 2012.

    Anyways, my point in all of this was that, basically, many of the people I knew who really loved SF were so wrapped up in their bubble that they were completely unaware of all these downsides that I had to deal with every day. Meanwhile, I was oblivious to the fact they lived lives where they didn’t have these downsides. And this prompted several arguments over whether or not SF was “good” or “bad”.

    I suspect a similar dynamic is in play here. I suspect that many urbanists would be a lot more understanding of the NIMBY point of view if they realized how many people have had such extremely negative experiences in cities. And I think also that many suburbanists would be more sympathetic to the YIMBY side if they realized how good urban living _could_ be

    (And, finally: I’m generally of the opinion that if the steelman’d version of YIMBYs got their way, the positive elements of urban living would expand and the negative elements would contract. This fact makes all of this quite ironic)

  12. Liface says:

    An earlier draft of the post suggested that people who enjoy living in San Francisco might be “lizardmen”; I deleted it on advice from more sober-minded friends.

    I’m very glad you did.

    It appears that you’ve been hanging around a certain subset of people who have skewed your view on this.

    My friends are mostly in The Bay because they genuinely love it. I don’t know anyone in anguish and tied to the area by a large salary.

    I just woke up, there’s blue in the sky, and it’s warm enough to ride my bike without a jacket. I’m happy.

    • christianschwalbach says:

      Do you and your friends happen to be migrants from cold climate areas by any chance?

    • Hendi says:

      Seconded, everyone I know who moved to the Bay seems pretty thrilled with their choice. Maybe this is because I work in law rather than tech (lawyers do well in the Bay area, but not notably better than they do in NY, DC, Boston, Houston etc.), but I know a bunch of people who moved there in their 20s and are all pretty thrilled about it. The only exception to this is that a number of the tech focused law firms basically have a waiting list of associates assigned to their Palo Alto / Menlo Park / etc. offices that want to transfer to the SF offices, so I do know a few people who had to suck up commuting down to the valley for a few years before they could get the job they wanted.

      • Plumber says:

        “…everyone I know who moved to the Bay seems pretty thrilled with their choice….”


        I didn’t choose to move to the Bay Area, I was born here (Highland Hospital, Oakland), and all of the folks my age that I knew growing up are gone except one homeless guy who pushes a shopping cart full of cans to the dump (he recognized me first, “Class of ’86?), and of homeowners I’m it!

        After living in a Hellish apartment in Oakland for 17 years (it was nice at first, but after the Ellis and Costa-Hawkins act my quiet neighbors were replaced by college students (HATES THEM FOREVER!!!), after much saving we bought a house on a leafy block Albany a few miles up the road, when me and my wife were both past 40 years old, but having it allowed us (with difficulty) to have a second child (it really feels like we should have been able to have the house and children 20 years earlier than we did).

        The house is small, and even when we bought it in 2011 it was extremely expensive, but the neighborhood is quiet, and I like the leafy tree lined streets, the quiet, while still being walking distance to public libraries, cafes, bicycle shops, auto repair, restaurants, grocery stores, and a safe walk to my son’s elementary school (I’d like a closer bookstore, hardware store, and indoor tavern as well, but not next door).

        I work in San Francisco, and while I like some of San Francisco (Borderlands books, Box Dog Bikes come to mind), I really don’t want to live there (too many used hypodermic needles, and the streets smell like pee), and what YIMBY proposals I see aren’t about changing say suburban Meno Park into nice but walkable neighborhoods, instead they’re about turning places like my current neighborhood into where I used to live in Oakland: a Hellish loud apartment building next to another apartment building that’s next to another apartment building on a loud busy street with nighttime traffic making sleep difficult and a very long walk to a grocery store requiring crossing dangerous streets with fast moving cars, witb my son had to cross the same street to get to Kindergarten, and I’m a proud NIMBY against turning my current neighborhood into something more like my old neighborhood. 

        I’m a YIMBY when it comes to turning Mountain View, Menlo Park, et cetera into walkable mixed use neighborhoods replacing the more asphalt than anything else developments of outer suburbia, which is where many jobs are! Private “employee shuttle” busses go from San Francisco to jobs in Mountain View, which isn’t a short distance! 

        The problem with where I live now is the rent is too damn high (cheaper rent is why I spent 17 years in an apartment in a Hellscape), and turning the neighborhood would make it cheaper, but wouldn’t that make the few remaining nice places to live even more rare and expensive? 

        I’ve seen hundreds of new apartments, and condos built in Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco and those developments bulldoze the shops and increase motor traffic which makes the neighborhoods less walkable not more! 


        First: Stop paying U.C. Berkeley faculty so damn much!

        After we bought the house our real estate agent immediately told us “I have a potential tenent if you want to rent it out”, which we decided to do in order to finish out our sons school year and not break our lease, and we got a statement of pay from a new hire proffesor, which was appallingly high, well above median pay, no wonder prices are bid so high!

        Second: Raise above median income taxes way, way higher so “Tech” stops out-bidding median income people forcing them to Antioch, Stockton and four hour commutes!

        And please don’t make walkable inner suburbia into un-walkable urban Hellscapes, instead make outer suburbia into mixed-use walkable neighborhoods instead.

        Build near Silicon Valley!

        Leave most of Berkeley, much of San Francisco, and a lot of Oakland alone.

        Let people stay near where they’re born and the streets are familiar, the air and water doesn’t taste foul, and the weather is normal to them.

        I just don’t favor “disruption”.

        And please stop the evictions.

  13. Statismagician says:

    I think it’s important to point out that there are suburbs, and then there are suburbs – most [Midwestern] US cities have a set of ‘inner ring’ suburbs, built in the late 1800s-early 1900s around rail and streetcar lines, and characterized by mixed-use central districts surrounded by relatively small-plot single-family developments within easy walking distance of shops, restaurants, and schools, and which have streets and public spaces which connect to each other readily. These are what Scott and various other people are describing as the most pleasant places to live in America, I think, and I happen to agree. It is important not to confuse them with the below.

    Then you get the outer-ring suburbs, which are what people usually mean by ‘suburban sprawl.’ These were built starting after WWII and continue to be put up today, are designed around the Interstate system, and are characterized by a Byzantine system of cul-de-sacs, gigantic houses inhabited by two people and a dog, strip malls, and big-box stores. These are utterly soulless and awful places and I hate every second I have to spend in one.

    • arbitraryvalue says:

      characterized by a Byzantine system of cul-de-sacs

      What’s wrong with these? Living on a dead-end street is way better than living on a street with through traffic; I would pay significantly more for a house on a cul-de-sac.

      • Statismagician says:

        My experience is that ‘lots of cul-de-sacs’ is very negatively correlated with ‘overall walkability,’ which is much more important to me. The kind of suburbs I’m talking about have ‘through traffic’ in that both ends of the street go somewhere, not in that there’s transfer trucks going through at 3am; it’s basically all residential traffic that uses them and therefore not significantly different from a cul-de-sac setup from that standpoint.

        • Eric Rall says:

          A workaround I’ve seen has been to put in a network small foot/bike paths connecting the dead ends in the car-accessible streets. This preserves a significant amount of walkability while still keeping the main benefit of cul-de-sacs (minimizing through traffic on residential streets, to reduce traffic noise and so parents feel comfortable letting their younger school-age kids play in the front yards or walk to neighbors’ houses without close supervision).

          As an example, here’s the google map of the neighborhood I grew up in. The green lines are the foot/bike paths.

      • eric23 says:

        If the dead ends stop pedestrian as well as car traffic (and they usually do), they multiply the distance need to walk anywhere, making most foot trips impractical, requiring more car traffic, increasing noise/pollution and congestion.

        • The Nybbler says:

          There’s nothing nearby to walk to anyway. I live in a development with mostly through streets. It’s adjacent to a commercial strip on one side. Except for the few people who live adjacent to it, people don’t walk to it; the development is over a mile wide and no one’s walking two miles round trip to go to the convenience store or deli when they have a car.

          There are many people around who do regularly walk at least once a week. The places they’re walking to are all on a main road, it doesn’t much matter if they are on a cul-de-sac; they only have to traverse one to get to a through road. The parts with cul-de-sacs are dendritic, not space-filling curves.

          • Statismagician says:

            That’s rather the point. Lots of branching cul-de-sacs and large ‘developments’ with insufficient amenities in walking distance are very much a post-WWII building/planning style, I think, and I for one don’t care for it.

          • The Nybbler says:

            My point is that it’s not the cul-de-sacs, it’s the distance. Look at Levittown, PA — hardly a cul-de-sac in sight, but you wouldn’t call it walkable. It’s not just post-WWII either; the other side of the hill I’m on was largely built in the 1920s, and while the houses are spaced closer, most of it isn’t any more walkable (even if you discount the fact that the amenities are down a rather steep hill)

    • Matt M says:

      These are utterly soulless and awful places and I hate every second I have to spend in one.

      Good. Stay away. We don’t want you around, either.

      • Statismagician says:

        Look, I get that there are people who like the unwalkable McMansion-centric planning style, and you’re of course free to live wherever you like. Just, could that maybe stop being the default way to build new living spaces?

    • hollyluja says:

      I don’t have any feelings about the level of soul in a cul-de-sac exurbs, but I do think they would not exist without massive subsidies. Mortgage interest deduction, cheap gas for the car, underpriced storage for their car once they get to the city job, and a tax rate too low to maintain existing infrastructure all make them possible.

      Granola Shotgun is a blog documenting what happens when the infrastructure starts to reach the end of its lifespan and the taxes aren’t enough to cover it. It’s decay porn.

      • Statismagician says:

        This is a very interesting blog and I appreciate your having mentioned it.

      • The Nybbler says:

        Mortgage interest deduction

        The one landlords get too?

        cheap gas for the car

        Not a subsidy. And all mass transit systems in the US are heavily subsidized — usually 100% of capex and at least 50% of operating expense.

        underpriced storage for their car once they get to the city job

        Not in NYC. And in places where parking is available on site, it’s typically paid for by the employer, so again, not a subsidy.

        and a tax rate too low to maintain existing infrastructure all make them possible.

        Maintaining physical infrastructure is a rather small part of town budgets in my area. The high cost is _people_ — fire, police, teachers and other school employees. Granola Shotgun seems to be part of the Strongtowns orbit; they keep pushing this stuff but it’s nonsense where I’ve lived.

        • hollyluja says:

          NYC is its own place, and I agree that Granola Shotgun/Strong Towns does not apply there since it is all well over the density threshold they consider financially viable.

          I’m talking about most other cities where parking on the street is either free, or <$1/hr, and they devote massive amounts of urban land to moving cars from the suburbs around on untolled roads, spewing their untaxed pollution into my city.

          Put a carbon tax in, remove the mortgage interest deduction entirely, tax land instead of buildings, and I think you'd see development like in pre-auto areas – streetcar suburbs, with relative density near the stops and less density further away.

        • The Nybbler says:

          I don’t live in NYC; I live in a suburb of NYC. (I’ve also lived in suburbs of Philadelphia and of Washington, DC.) People live in these suburbs and commute to NYC (by train, bus, and automobile. And occasionally helicopter), where parking is not subsidized. Densities vary in a wide range. And cost of physical infrastructure is not the issue. These so-called subsidies do not create the suburbs.

          Put a carbon tax in, remove the mortgage interest deduction entirely, tax land instead of buildings, and I think you’d see development like in pre-auto areas – streetcar suburbs, with relative density near the stops and less density further away.

          There you go; that’s the kind of thing I mean when I say things are “optional with gotchas”. Not removing a subsidy, but adding a tax (which I presume won’t apply to buses and trains, or will be effectively cancelled by additional operating subsidies). And that land value tax… we’ve currently got municipal/school budgets where the expenses depend far more on the number of people than the amount of land. So a quarter-acre which holds a 40-unit apartment complex imposes a much greater expense than one which holds a single family home. If you tax them the same, you’re driving the single-family homeowners out.

          • hollyluja says:

            Seattle has built parking spaces worth $117,677 per household. That’s not counting the acres of interstate cutting through valuable urban land.

            Right now, NIMBYs are land speculators. In many places the house makes more money than the occupant each year, and every NIMBY vote they cast increases that value. It’s a huge negative externality, and I can’t think of a way to internalize that without taxing land more heavily. The increased value of the private land is created by society building amenities and density nearby.

            In most places built before SF zoning, single family homes are not common within 5 miles of the city core. If SF zoning only exists to preserve those homes in the face of population pressures, then we should see the SF zoning as a massive subsidy to the owners and they should pay for it via Land tax.

          • The Nybbler says:

            Seattle has built parking spaces worth $117,677 per household.

            I found that study. It’s counting all parking, including public, private, and even people’s driveways, and giving a replacement cost based on current land values and construction costs. It’s a silly highball number, and has nothing to do with the cost to the city.

            As for the interstates, that land wouldn’t be so valuable if people couldn’t get to it.

          • gbdub says:

            Don’t NIMBYs actually suppress land value? A restrictively zoned lot with a single family home on it is less valuable than an empty lot that can be filled with a dense housing or commercial building.

            I agree though that some sort of land tax (or at least an end to protecting homeowners from being taxed on the fair value of their property) might be the fair solution here – a lot of city outlays scale by population, by lack of density has costs to the city as well, and that scales with “how much space you’re taking up”.

          • poipoipoi says:


            No. At least in the case of the Bay Area.

            I was making $300,000 at the age of 25. In the 4.5 years I was there, I made an average of $190,000/year as an entry-level programmer.

            My job offers in Detroit were for $60K. Both of them.

            Land value is the residual of (Value – Construction Costs) and right now, that value is $65,000/year after taxes or a little over $5,000/month.

            (Note: Not all of that is going to *my* landlord, some of that is going to my $10 beer, which is then paying the rent on the bar, and the wage that my bartender uses to pay their rent, but…)

            Right now, the vast, vast majority of that $65,000 goes straight into land value. There are 3 jobs in Palo Alto for every house, so the richest third bid up the price of some house that was built for an inflation-adjusted $200K, and will cost a million to replace with a decent house, land value is $1.8 Million.

            If you run around building more housing, the key point is that everyone who works in Palo Alto can live in Palo Alto. It’s not just the richest third anymore. And mid-rise construction is much more expensive on a per-square-foot basis than SFH.

            So you have people with lower incomes bidding DOWN the price of more expensive housing. Tada, your land value just went to zero.

            /Oh, and that’s before we ask if that $130,000/year salary increase sticks around once a 1BR apartment isn’t $3,000/month and a home isn’t $2 Million. I doubt that all of it sticks around for good.

          • gbdub says:

            I don’t get why the Detroit comparison is relevant here – I’m talking about the same lot, or adjacent lots in the same town, given two different zoning restrictions.

            The data seems to show that there is tons of demand that will keep the rents in SF high for any plausible level of development in the near term. It’s not going to turn into Detroit.

            A developer is going to get more total value out of land he can put 10 units on than one he can only put 1 on. Why would he pay more for the lot zoned for lower maximum density?

          • poipoipoi says:

            The Detroit comparison is relevant because without significant quantities of building somewhere, lots of people get told to stay in dying communities and dead-end jobs.

            I’m watching some REALLY smart people try to make that work in real-time on my Facebook feed, and… it’s not working. Or it is working, but it’s not $200,000/year working. Meanwhile, I’m sitting here in NYC debating if I want to go work at Google or not.

            The key thing is that right now, you can make an obscene premium for moving from Detroit to the Bay Area to work, almost every last penny of that is being extracted in rents, and since none of that rent value is allowed to get placed into construction, it all shows up as residual land value.

            /And um… I have numbers for comparison because I got job offers there.
            //If you want, we can use Chicago, which offered to pay me $45,000 and $55,000 respectively, ahahahah wtf no.

          • hollyluja says:

            gbdub my understanding is that NIMBYs depress their own land value, increase their *home* value, and drive up the price of any multifamily-zoned land in the area.

            From Seattle, the city advertised a MF site to developers with the following language:

            Favorable “renter” demographics, positive job numbers, strong population projections and a low unemployment rate, together with high barriers for entry in home ownership, also position the region as a strategic market for multifamily investment gains.

      • whateverthisistupd says:

        huh. I’m currently living in Ocean Grove which was the second story on the blog.

    • whateverthisistupd says:

      Agreed. This is what I was talking about, having grown up in Montclair NJ.

  14. Lasagna says:

    I made it into a post! Nice.

    This would be fascinating if it weren’t so predictable. One person describes NYC as “basically utopia”, and another person can’t stop ranting about how much he hates it and is glad to have escaped it.

    I hate to mess with your summary, which I think is pretty accurate, but I think I can add some nuance that might help explain this.

    Like I mentioned in my initial post yesterday, I lived in NYC for almost twenty years. I loved it when I moved there, and I thought I still loved it by the time I left. Obviously there’s a LOT else to this – the city changed quite a bit in 20 years, for example, and my relationship to it was always more complicated than this bald statement – but it’s a fair summary.

    I can’t stand it now, and I realize now that I was ready to leave years and years before we did. But there are two things to keep in mind:

    1. I don’t live there anymore, I’m a commuter. The most important thing. A commuter into NYC is a horrible thing to be, particularly compared to a resident. The infrastructure is a nightmare, which I didn’t care about when I lived there because I walked everywhere. Everyone else you run into is commuting too, and none of us want to be there (I can say with confidence that nobody from the suburbs rolls into Grand Central Station, descends to a subway, stumbles out of it a half hour later and says “whew! I’m so glad I’m back in NYC, away from my home and family. What a wonderful stench.”) I don’t do any of the fun things anymore. I used to run in Central Park every morning, which is such a great thing that it makes up for a lot of crap. When you take away that run but leave the crap, it’s a whole different story.

    2. I discovered that I love the suburbs way more than I loved the city. That discovery has not been entirely comfortable. It means, in some respects, that I wasted a lot of my life screwing around in NYC when I should have been doing the much more important and fulfilling stuff I’m doing now – having a family being chief among them, but there are a lot more. That makes me dislike urban life by proxy. That’s unfair, obviously, but I don’t really care, since I know one thing with certainty: I’m not a unique snowflake, and I’m sure that there are lots of other people like me, living in expensive, frenetic places, who would be much better off elsewhere, but it’s easier to stay put and pretend that you can put off life.

    Anyway, here’s my point: as much as I dislike it now – and I’m leaving off lots of stuff I dislike that don’t have to do with the two points above – I get why someone would describe it as a utopia. Yes, I think they’re wrong, and that most would come to see it, maybe too late – but I absolutely, 100% get it. I felt the same way. I get it, and I’m not looking to take it from them.

    My complaint is that these feelings do not seem to be reciprocated. There seems to be a real attitude of “well, OK, you can have your neighborhood now, but if we need it back to help [X social cause], we’re going to take it, and you WILL get on board.” How many comments responding to your article demanded that people accept money in exchange for the destruction of their communities?

    • A Definite Beta Guy says:

      I’m generally YIMBY, but my issue with the YIMBY folk are the same issues that Scott highlighted in his post: the YIMBY posts are claiming fanciful returns on their higher-desntiy zoning that have no chance of being realized. The Bay Area should probably be upzoned, but it will still be expensive for quite some time, which means people are still going to whine about how expensive the Bay Area will be. We will not get better mass transporation, we will get DC-esque total shutdowns of BART because of lack of maintenance, and probably like the Blue Line in Chicago will quickly run into capacity limitations. We will get major stresses on sewer structures that, like Deep Tunnel in Chicago, will take something like 70 years to fully fix. And we will get events like the Big Dig in Boston to “correct” infrastructure that will end up being massively more expensive.

      A lot of the talk here is about stuff from foreign nations. You cannot just import governening institutions from another nation.

      I personally think “the city” is pretty cool and has a lot of amenities. There are more people to socialize with and they are generally much nicer to be around. There are festivals and events and beaches within relatively short distances. I wouldn’t mind living there, as long as I could get a single-family detached home in a nicer neighborhood with a good school. But the actual problem for my family is the inverse, our jobs are in the suburbs, so we would have to reverse-commute, which is stupid.

      Also, for criteria “nice neighborhood, good school” you have many more options in the suburbs.

    • Quixote says:

      For what it’s worth I get where you are coming from and can see the merits of other lifestyles. My parents live out in the middle of the woods and it’s absolutely beautiful there. I lived in a suburb of an overseas city for a few years when one of my parents had to take an overseas assignment and it was a nice place to be a small child. While, I wouldn’t actually do it, I sometimes imagine moving to some mountain in Colorado. I have to admit, I don’t fully see the appeal of living in a commuting suburb as an adult (commutes really really suck) but I wouldn’t take any action to prevent there existence. It takes all kinds.

      That said, I think that people don’t often have a very realistic conception of the level of implicit subsidy to various lifestyles and the degree to which suburbs are vastly subsidized, typically at the expense of those who live in cities, and to the detriment of the quality of life of those living in cities. If suburbs were asked to pay their own way to the extent that cities do, people wouldn’t choose to live in them. The high cost of cities and the lower costs of suburbs arise, to some extent, from forced wealth transfers. I feel like those paying for things should be allowed to at least gripe a little : )

    • whateverthisistupd says:

      This may help to explain my disdain for NYC. There aren’t many people who live in Northern New jersey who actually like going into the city.

  15. Quixote says:

    I just wanted to note, in response to the point about people needing green space, that lots of New York has tree lined streets, and lots of New York is near parks with both large open areas and dense groups of trees. While places in NY usually don’t have lawns, I would suspect the number of trees within a two mile radius of most people to be comparable or higher to what is typical in suburbs (mediumish confidence on the last sentence).

    • Brad says:

      The guy from that comment thinks it doesn’t count unless one regularly encounters dangerous animals.

    • arbitraryvalue says:

      A public park isn’t the same thing as a yard, since there’s no privacy. Plus the park isn’t the default state; it’s like having a really cold house with heat in one closet. You can stand in that closet periodically and warm up, so it’s better than nothing, but you’re still going to be cold and miserable most of the time.

      • ana53294 says:

        Lawns have no privacy either. Backyards do, but lawns have no privacy. Even if we just keep the backyards and eliminate lawns, that would free up a lot of prime city real estate.

        • arbitraryvalue says:

          If your house isn’t offset from the street, you’re going to get much more noise, smells, and strangers looking into your windows. Even a small front yard helps a lot; if I were deciding where on an empty lot to put a house, I would leave space for a front yard even though I would never spend any leisure time there.

          • baconbits9 says:

            An enclosed porch basically accomplishes all of these things to a better degree and cheaper while providing better insulation for your house plus a more functional backyard.

        • Matt M says:

          You can usually fence in your front lawn to a certain extent if you really want to.

          • ana53294 says:

            My understanding was that lawns are awful useless things forced on people by HOA, and any attempt to make them more useful would be challenged by the HOA.

          • John Schilling says:

            No, lawns greatly predate HOAs. None of the neighborhoods I’ve lived in, from childhood to present, have had HOAs, but they’ve all had lawns. Fenced or not, to the owner’s taste.

            Not sure how many people would have built out to the sidewalk if the zoning laws had allowed; I think the demand for that sort of thing was adequately satisfied by nearby high-density residential zones, and none of these were anywhere near the Bay Area.

          • CatCube says:


            Lawns are “awful, useless, things” to people who find them awful and useless. A lot of people actively enjoy them. I hate lawn maintenance, but my parents live in a backwoods area, and they maintain gardens and extensive lawns. They have expanded the lawn area over the years by having timber cut, to a about a 100m×100m area, with absolutely zero legal, HOA, or other pressure. The nearest neighbor isn’t within sight, and would have zero problems with them letting the trees grow back into the huge yard.

        • gbdub says:

          We need to be careful to distinguish between lawns that are part of a yard, i.e. a relatively large area you can use for stuff, and lawns that are only there due to “minimum setback” laws.

          It’s not clear to me how reducing minimum setback is going to lead to tons of extra housing – it’s a lot of space in aggregate but the wasted space on any given plot is relatively small compared to the total size, and in most places you can’t create additional plots without redoing the whole street network. Maybe there are some plots that are just on the margin between a duplex being reasonable with an extra 10-15 feet of house on the front. But I think in practice, without major street rework and/or zoning changes, eliminating offset is just going to result in somewhat larger single family homes in the affected area.

          • poipoipoi says:

            California yards in particular are really useless. They’re just enough setback that you have to mow the lawn, but not enough that you can do things like “Store 10 cars in the driveway during a party” or “Invite 200 people over for a graduation party” or “Have a family reunion of 75 people on the front lawn”.

            When people say that they hate lawns, ask them how big their lawn is.

            I’m not a fan of the maintenance (and also a single 20-something who travels a lot, so it’s not my preferred use of cash), but yeah, if/when I have a couple of kids, it’s time to go buy a big lawn somewhere.

    • whateverthisistupd says:

      This is difficult to parse, but it’s not the same. There are green spaces, but they “feel” very artificial and sort of caged in. It helps, but I think for people who don’t care for the psycho-geographical feel of a big city like New York, it’s not a fix.

  16. Zakharov says:

    What is your opinion on internal migration controls (e.g. hukou/propiska)? It aims for the same ends as NIMBYism, preventing population growth in cities, but has some advantages over it. Bay Areans would be able to move from one part of the Bay to another to be close to a job, add space for a family, or downsize after the kids move out without losing their rent control or prop 13 tax rates. Gentrification would be more effectively prevented, and poor people would have less risk of eviction. The character of the area, which lies mostly in its people, would be more effectively preserved.

    I’m a YIMBY, personally, but I think this is a useful way to consider the issue.

  17. bean says:

    I’m not sure that the European cities comparison works. SF is broadly the same size as the listed cities, but it’s got a much bigger metro area, which is going to have all sorts of weird effects. For instance, you’re going to see a lot more commuters from Oakland to SF to work, and those people need offices. I also suspect that the restricted land area available drives up prices a lot. Valencia can presumably sprawl, which the Bay Area can’t. And the density isn’t always the same either. I looked at Valencia and Leeds (chosen arbitrarily) and while the density of Valencia is almost as high, the density in Leeds is about half what it is in SF.

    • ana53294 says:

      For a city with an extended metro area, higher density that can’t grow because it is in the middle of a valley surrounded by mountains, check out Bilbao. It does have a smaller population, but it does have a very high density.

      Google Earth
      shows the physical constraints.

      • bean says:

        I’m not claiming that there aren’t places which do urbanism better than San Francisco, just pointing out that you need to choose your controls more carefully. There are a couple of trends going on in SF that I think interact negatively. One aspect is the density with little room to sprawl, and another is the fact that it’s a major economic hub. Bilbao doesn’t seem to be, at least not globally. I’d pick Singapore as one of the better controls. Density is a little higher than SF, but it’s a lovely place to be. Some of that is because the government nationalized a bunch of land to fix the housing problem, and built huge towers full of apartments. And then built parks, which it keeps clean and free of the homeless, drug addicts, public defacators, and gum-chewers. If I had to live in one or the other, I’d pick Singapore without question.

    • johan_larson says:

      The Bay Area does have room to sprawl eastward, and that’s what’s happening now. When I worked in SF, I had colleagues who commuted in from as far as Walnut Creek, which is 26 miles away. I occasionally hear of people, typically working construction or something like that, commuting in from Stockton, which is 80-some miles away.

      • bean says:

        Yes, but 80+ miles at SF traffic speeds is a very long way, and people are going to pay a lot to avoid it. Particularly when you have to live in Stockton, which isn’t a very nice place.

        • johan_larson says:

          Oh sure. I’m just making the point that things aren’t standing still, and what’s actually happening in response to the housing pressure is eastward sprawl. And it’s pushing some people to pretty extreme commutes.

        • AG says:

          They usually take the Ace Train in, and then public transport from the station.

    • Brad says:

      We should probably distinguish between political constraints and physical ones. There’s plenty of empty land just south of San Francisco. Some of it is probably too hilly to be useful, but far from all of it.

      • bean says:

        Why? A lack of land within quasi-reasonable commute distance, regardless of if it’s because it’s water, or a nature reserve, or full of land-mines, is going to have a fairly similar effect.

        • The Nybbler says:

          Because water can theoretically be filled in or development done on piers, and land mines can be removed, but political restrictions are forever.

        • Matt M says:

          You can theoretically bulldoze the nature reserve. One potential “solution” to the Bay Area problem is “level the Muir Woods and put up apartments.” People might not want to do that. They enjoy the luxury of living near a nice forest. Well fine, but those luxuries have costs.

          • poipoipoi says:

            In that specific case, there’s not really a good way to get people over the hills onto the flats, there’s a reason why Muir Woods (IMO the best single redwood grove on the coast including the ones that make up Redwood National Park) only has a hundred parking spots, no cell service, and no mass transit.

            That’s solvable, but it’s more cheaply solvable by… building a bunch of condos.

  18. DutLinx says:

    This post makes me cry Brazilian tears, especially when I hear arguments trying to balance “walkable, but cramped” against “spacious and close to nature, but car-focused and far from everything else”. São Paulo is extremely cramped, far from nature, lots of skyscrapers, but also very car-focused and everything is far away from everything else.

    In fact, the transportation problem is so big here that São Paulo has the world’s largest fleet of private helicopters

    At this point, I’d happily live in either SF or its suburbs, as long as I can get at least one of the upsides that should come with all the downsides of São Paulo.

    • eric23 says:

      Sao Paolo is a city of 22 million people. The only way to provide transport in a city of that size is with a massive subway system.

      Beijing, for example, is about the same size as Sao Paolo but has built the world’s busiest subway in the last ~20 years – basically, a grid covering the city at 1km intervals. From most of the city, you can walk 5-10 minutes, get on a subway, switch to a different subway, get off, walk 5-10 minutes, and be at your destination. It’s a comfortable, generally-uncrowded, pollution-free way of getting anywhere quickly. It’s seen as so successful that every other major Chinese city has copied it.

      I see that Sao Paolo has several subway/monorail lines under construction, but it still has a long way to go.

      • whateverthisistupd says:

        Beijing is becoming unliveable for other reasons; to te extent that the CCP is building a new capital so they get out of there.

    • whateverthisistupd says:

      well yes, perspective. Clearly SF and NYC are far superior to Sao Paulo or say, Kinshasha Congo.

  19. jasmith79 says:

    I don’t want to say this, but I have to say this (as a no-Californian):

    Is this really a negative equilibrium/coordination problem? Or is this just people’s revealed preference for income and career advancement outweighing their stated preference to not live in SF?

    I realize that’s a false dichotomy, in theory you could have both, but the capitalist/free market guy on my shoulder is having a hard time agreeing to market failure here.

    Because if there are enough like-minded people at say, a bay area tech giant(s), they could just… go start a start-up somewhere else. Yes, it will make it harder to get funded. But it shouldn’t make it harder to hire, again we’re talking about people with other skilled people in their network who feel the same.

    • Matt M says:

      Is this really a negative equilibrium/coordination problem? Or is this just people’s revealed preference for income and career advancement outweighing their stated preference to not live in SF?

      I realize that’s a false dichotomy, in theory you could have both, but the capitalist/free market guy on my shoulder is having a hard time agreeing to market failure here.

      Completely agree with this.

      As I said in the previous topic, when an uneducated dropout takes a high-paying job (relative to what he would otherwise be qualified for) in a coal mine, everyone acknowledges that working in a coal mine sucks, but shrugs and says “Well, he’s getting paid for it, them’s the breaks.”

      But when some private school CS major moves to SF and makes 250K a year coding, everyone cries and weeps for the poor soul’s “horrible living conditions” in SF. Even though nobody made the guy major in CS, and nobody made him take a job in SF.

      I honestly think this is mostly political. Most SF residents are quite progressive and have been indoctrinated their whole life with anti-capitalist values. Therefore, they cannot be honest with themselves about what they are doing (selling out their souls and comfort in order to earn the highest possible income they could theoretically achieve).

      • gbdub says:

        It’s been said in the last thread, but there’s a certain minimum awfulness of mining coal, drilling oil, or fishing for crab in the Bering Sea. It would be silly for a fisherman to complain about having to live on a boat part of the year. But if his crewmates were crapping in his cabin every night, or if the company was putting arbitrary limits on the content of his iPod, it would be reasonable for the fisherman to be annoyed by that.

        Likewise, there is certain minimum awfulness of living in a city. It is going to be crowded. The density of weirdoes, criminals, and homeless street people is going to be much higher than the suburbs. It’s going to be more expensive, to some degree.

        Complaining about that when you’ve made a choice to take a job that requires you to live in a city, when you had other options, is silly – you made your choice.

        But then again, that doesn’t mean that everything that is awful about a particular city is inevitable, or can’t be improved. The homeless problem in SF (really throughout CA) seems uniquely awful. It seems uniquely difficult to build additional housing there. The infrastructure is poor compared to other cities, etc. Complaining about those things and/or agitating to improve them is perfectly reasonable.

        • Matt M says:

          I disagree. I’m not at all convinced that “convince the population of San Francisco to elect politicians that will be harsher on the homeless” is at all more feasible of a solution than say, “convince the owners of fishing boats to make them as comfortable and luxurious as cruise ships, and to hire more hands such that everyone only has to work 8 hour shifts, etc.”

          Fishing boats are uncomfortable and dangerous because that’s the only way to make the venture economically profitable. San Francisco is full of feces because that’s the only way to make running for office achievable for an aspiring politician.

          • Eternaltraveler says:

            San Francisco is full of feces because that’s the only way to make running for office achievable for an aspiring politician.

            That’s it. It’s the culture that is the problem. Most people here do not see the link.

          • whateverthisistupd says:

            could you explain that?

      • peterispaikens says:

        The point is that we’re losing out on value creation – a private school CS major moving to SF apparently creates so much value that $250k a year out of that value can be handed out to him/her. Thus, a similar person *not* moving to SF because of the horrible living conditions means that the society has lost that value, because they didn’t move to a place where the network effects make their work much more productive and valuable than elsewhere.

        For a person working in the coal-mine, the disadvantages that justify the relatively high pay – hard labor, risk of injury, remote location – are unalienable parts of the coal mine’s value creation. For a person working in SF, the disadvantages that justify the relatively high pay are artificial and fixable, so it’s frustrating that they don’t get fixed. The unalienable part of that value creation is doing the work in a densely populated location with all the network effects and positive feedback loops of e.g. VCs, relevant university communities, etc; but the actual horrible living conditions need not be part of it – if they would get changed, we could get much more people to create value at the level they do in SF as opposed to the (much lower) level of value creation for just as talented people in an Arkansas suburb.

        • Matt M says:

          1. The unpleasant parts of a coal mine aren’t unalienable. They’re just… costly to alienate. Coal mines could pay their workers just as much, but cut their shifts in half, to reduce muscle strain and fatigue. They could dramatically increase their spending on safety measures, equipment, personnel, etc. They could hire Taylor Swift to sing to the workers in the mines while they swing their pick-axes. They don’t do these things because these things aren’t efficient.

          2. That’s also the reason tech companies don’t locate in Montana. Networks effects are valuable. They could allow every employee to live anywhere in the nation and telecommute. But they’ve determined that’s not every efficient. A whole lot of what makes SF unpleasant is quite highly correlated with density. I know a lot of people here are saying “But New York isn’t as bad!” but it’s not like New York isn’t known for being expensive and for having rude homeless people about and for having smelly transit stations. And density and networks effects are also highly correlated, such that measures to make SF less dense (say, by having a lot of the employers move away and take their workers with them) would therefore reduce the overall efficiency.

          TLDR: I reject the premise that “coal mines HAVE to be unpleasant but SF can be fixed!” You could make a pleasant coal mine if you threw enough money at it. And “working for a tech firm” could be made pleasant with things like telecommuting, and other such measure that are not in place because they would reduce the economic value of the firm (just as having Taylor Swift sing in the mines would reduce the economic value of the mining firm)

      • Sebastian_H says:

        The problem is that the city is getting so expensive that the non-coal mine support jobs (in this case janitors, teachers, hotel workers, waiters, etc. can’t afford to live anywhere near the places they are supposed to work. So city companies have to jack up their pay enough to justify a 3 hour round trip commute, which just isn’t sustainable.

        • arbitraryvalue says:


          which just isn’t sustainable

          I don’t see why that would be so. It seems like a negative feedback loop to me:

          Increasing numbers of high-earning “miners” crowd lower-paid supporting workers out of desirable housing ->
          Supporting workers have to be paid more to compensate for their commute ->
          Prices go up and the quality of services declines (the phase San Francisco seems to be at) ->
          The location becomes less desirable for the “miners” and their numbers stop increasing.

          I’m not saying that’s a good outcome (because people end up living in an awful place or working at an awful job) but it seems quite sustainable to me.

        • Matt M says:

          But once again, this isn’t unique to SF. It’s also expensive to hire, house, and employ a full-time chef on a fishing boat.

          “Support jobs” are also a problem for distant mines. I recall stories during the early days of the fracking boom of fast food locations offering $20/hr in North Dakota because they simply couldn’t attract enough workers. A lot of the “support workers” adopted a similar lifestyle to the miners, they moved up there, lived out of their cars, socked away as much money as they could, and left.

          And nobody seems to lose any sleep over the fact that none of these miners can realistically bring their families with them to settle down and raise their kids in the Canadian Oil Sands. It’s just assumed that they will have to be separated from their friends and families for long periods of time, but hey, that’s the price they pay for those lovely high wages, right?

          • Plumber says:

            @Matt M,

            Just posting to say how very much I agree with your post!

            I well remember when many desperate men in my local paid money they really couldn’t spare for the background checks Canadians required to work tar sands jobs, and I also remember how incredibly overpaid (judging by the pay statement) the UC Berkeley professor who moved up from San Diego was and how much complaining he did about our water heater being “too small”, despite it sufficing for my family of four (how long were his and his wife’s showers?).

            And now for some of my ranting that you probably won’t agree with Matt M:

            To all the “skilled” college grads who keep moving here, PLEASE STOP MOVING HERE!

            All the tents of the homeless didn’t start appearing all over until after construction cranes and all the new housing popped-up.

            Why is first San Francisco and now Berkeley and even my hometown of Oakland your bedroom community?

            Please move to San Jose and the rest of the south bay instead!

            I don’t care how cheap housing was where you grew up, as you moving here is what’s bidding it up here where I was born, so please don’t whine to me about prices, go back to your hometowns instead of forcing us out of ours!

            By Crom I want a border wall to keep out all the Americans who keep moving here.

          • Temple says:

            I don’t care how cheap housing was where you grew up, as you moving here is what’s bidding it up here where I was born, so please don’t whine to me about prices, go back to your hometowns instead of forcing us out of ours!

            You do realize you can just.. not rent or sell your property to them.. right?

            Ohhhh, you mean you want to prevent your neighbors from doing what they want with their property, I get it.

          • Plumber says:

            “….Ohhhh, you mean you want to prevent your neighbors from doing what they want with their property, I get it”


            Yes exactly.

            ‘Doing what they want with their property’ dramatically effects my use of my home if (for example) a tall structure (like an apartment complex) is built on the south side of my house that casts my home in shadow, we bought the house because of the light, and if the current height limit rules are proposed to change, as long as I have a voice and a vote I’ll oppose changing those rules, as I spent too many years living in a moldy apartment to want to go back to that against my will.

            I’d have much less objection if the house north of mine built up, but I can’t risk the rules change.

  20. static says:

    It seems like the balanced solution is to start with high density very near rail stations, say a 1km walking distance radius, with medium density in the 2km radius, and then lower density outside of that. That maximizes the efficiency of the very expensive mass transit assets. This is more of a suburban solution, but, when mass transit options are dense, it trends toward urban. There were some attempts to do this in Virginia with the new Silver Line, but they made some mistakes in not putting parking garages at some rail stations and failing to upgrade the road infrastructure around the stations, which increases the usage of those rail options for those living in the surrounding area.

    The anti-car people strike me as overzealous, and seem to think that by imposing restrictions on cars in the short run, we will see long-run positive development effects. However, the sort of changes they want often take 20 years to develop. I bought a house in 2002 which was advertised as being about a mile from one of the new proposed Silver Line stations. That station is not open yet. More improvements to the road infrastructure are still needed. One type of suburban NIMBY I run into a lot is people that want to ensure that the car is acknowledged as a primary part of the infrastructure, and that worse traffic is not looked at as a positive, as it encourages more transit use.

    That said, the huge problem I see in SF is really SV. The intransigence against development there puts more pressure on the city. The rail stations seem pitifully underdeveloped. While SF has its own problems with development, and a ridiculous attitude towards homelessness, the suburbs failing to do their share is a big problem.

    • whateverthisistupd says:

      Bingo. I HATE the urban designers who think that intentionally making traffic worse is a good thing because it will discourage driving. It’s the same line of thinking that says we need to keep people moving in cities so let’s not make any one place too comfortable, and let’s pack people into tiny rooms that ca be converted into bedrooms or living rooms depending on which wall you pull down.

      It’s like they’re idea of an ideal city is some hellish consumer dystopia.

  21. zzzzort says:

    But I would still feel more comfortable if the order went first, solve the problems, second, tell everyone not to worry about them because of how solveable they are.

    I’d like to second the observation that SF (and to some extent NY) are uniquely awful cities to live in. But the YIMBY analysis is that they are uniquely awful precisely because they are uniquely bad at providing affordable housing. A lot of the problems originally cited are an effect of homelessness uncommon in other 1st world cities; people aren’t defecating on the sidewalk for shits and giggles. Asking a city to solve it’s problems before it can develop further sounds reasonable, but asking a city to reduce homelessness before it can build more housing sounds perverse.

    • The Nybbler says:

      people aren’t defecating on the sidewalk for shits and giggles

      Yeah, they pretty much are. Some of them even giggle as they shit.

    • Anthony says:

      San Francisco’s homeless problem is not very related to its shortage of housing.

      San Francisco could, if State and Federal laws allowed it, solve its street-living problem, and rents would still be outrageous. Contrariwise, it could build as much housing as Paris (which has a slightly smaller area and 2.5 times the people), but still have people sleeping in the shit on the sidewalk.

      • Plumber says:

        The presence of the visibly homeless increased dramatically at the same time construction cranes and new residential buildings popped up.

        It looks like somehow the more housing there is, the more tents and street screamers.

        • Brad says:

          Post hoc ergo propter hoc.

        • whateverthisistupd says:

          the homeless come to SF because it has reasonable year round weather, at one point a fair amount of services, and a pre-exsting homeless population which i believe started with the haight ashbury hippies who were especially drug driven,

        • Hendi says:

          It’s worth noting that NYC has also seen a sharp spike in homelessness over the past ten years or so. I’m not as familiar with other cities, but there’s at least a chance that this is a generalized phenomenon resulting from the economic crisis, a widespread lack of housing that’s not confined to any particular city (even if it’s worse in SF), and general economic and social conditions.

          As to why it appears to be more pronounced in the every day lives of San Franciscans, there could be a number of reasons ranging from favorable climate for living outside to the fact that New York has a much more expansive shelter system (there’s a right to shelter enshrined in the New York state constitution and the city devotes substantial, though arguably still insufficient, resources to meeting this burden).

    • whateverthisistupd says:

      but the housing being built wouldn’t be affordable to the homeless

  22. ana53294 says:

    While cities can be terrible for people who like lots of green spaces and a quiet life (in which case they should choose a suitable career), they can be the most suitable place for people with reduced mobility.

    In a well designed city it should be easy to go to work, buy groceries, go to the doctor, and do whatever else you need to do. This is why the city should prioritize people who use the least amount of public space to get the most use out of it. So an urban designers priorities should be:

    1. People with reduced mobility (the disabled, the elderly, the injured, parents with prams, etc.). In cities with high slopes, which apparently SF is, you can build mechanic ramps in well transited hilly downtown areas. Plenty of ramps, wide sidewalks, well designed street crossings are crucial.

    2. People walking.

    3. Public transportation. This should be accessible to all people with reduced mobility, frequent, clean, safe, affordable.

    4. Bikes/scooters/rollerblades. Bike lanes should be well-designed. They should be separate from roads, not just painted on roads, where cars can go over them. They should also be separated from sidewalks. There should be enough bike lanes in a city so that you can bike across a city without using the road or the sidewalk. Bikers using sidewalks should be fined (once you have enough bike lanes, this should be heavily enforced for a couple of months).

    5. Taxis and moving cars with disabled people on them.

    6. Moving motorbikes.

    7. Moving cars with multiple occupants.

    8. Single-occupant moving cars.

    9. Parked bikes/scooters.

    10. Parked motorbikes.

    11. Parked taxis and disabled cars.

    12. Parked cars.

    SUVs parked in a city belong in hell.

    Cities should not give public land for parking spaces for free. People should park on their own property (it can be an undergroung parking lot or they can par on their lawn; either way, it should be on their private property). City parking should be time-limited and expensive (as expensive as it needs to be to make sure that there are empty spots, and private parking places are built). The money from the ridiculously high parking fees can be used to buy nicer buses.

    A city that has gone through significant renovation to increase sidewalks, reduce parking spots and increase parks and squares is Moscow. While most European cities where already very people-centric, Moscow was quite car-centric. You can see how much better Moscow looks after the renovation (ignore the text, just look at before-after photos).

    • Statismagician says:

      I approve of all of this, especially the bit about cities not subsidizing parking – have to mandate specific changes to existing homeowner’s-association regulations/equivalents, of course, but that’s a really good point that I’d somehow never thought of before.

    • John Schilling says:

      Conspicuously absent on the list of “urban designers priorities” is the true, non-negotiable #1 priority:


      A building without truck access, is a building that doesn’t exist, because nobody is going to deliver a building’s worth of construction materials and equipment by motorbike, scooter, or whatnot. And even if it does exist, it’s not going to be terribly useful without at least occasional deliveries of stuff in non-bikeable quantities. For some buildings, very frequent deliveries.

      So, everything else will be very strongly influenced by the fact that you’ve already paid for enough concrete to provide truck access and parking for every building, which usually isn’t occupied by trucks, and your people-movers see marginal cost reduction in proportion to their ability to share truck infrastructure.

      • ana53294 says:

        You can have wide sidewalks that allow parking for hauling and unhauling.

        A parking lot for a truck can only fit 3-4 cars.

        Quite a few cities limit big trucks to certain night hours, though, which is why most daytime deliveries are done by small trucks.

        • John Schilling says:

          You can have wide sidewalks that allow parking for hauling and unhauling.

          These would also make effective bus stops with very little modification. Not so easy to make them into subway stations.

          A parking lot for a truck can only fit 3-4 cars.

          Right. So the first 3-4 cars cost nothing, and then you’re paying just the marginal cost of one parking space each.

          Quite a few cities limit big trucks to certain night hours, though, which is why most daytime deliveries are done by small trucks.

          And during the daytime, you’re doing what exactly? Putting up “please keep off the pavement” signs? Using them as massively overdesigned sidewalks? Tearing them up piecemeal to put trolley tracks down the center, while hopefully not blocking the delivery trucks at night? Or using all that empty motor-vehicle-optimized concrete to move your people around on motor vehicles?

          All of these are possible, yes, but one of them is going to be rather more efficient than the others.

      • S_J says:

        A building without truck access, is a building that doesn’t exist…

        One comment about this.

        There is a vacation destination in Michigan known as Mackinac Island. The island was originally home to a Fort and trading post, and became a desired vacation spot during the mid-19th Century. It’s still a busy vacation spot.

        The local government on the island has forbidden most cars and trucks, and is thus crammed with horses, bicycles, carriages, and pedestrians during tourist season. [1]

        The island is only accessible by ferry…but the ferry service and the local businesses have large cargo-wagons that fill the role of trucks. These wagons transport construction material when work is being done on a hotel/restaurant on the island. They also transport horse-food, deliver supplies to the local grocery store, deliver supplies to the local restaurant, and transport other cargo items around the island.

        There is one large truck that visits the island on a special ferry once a week. That truck is a garbage truck, and it empties the dumpsters that are hidden from the eyes of most tourists. (I guess some of the wagons mentioned above also fill the role of take-trash-to-the-dumpster…)

        Mackinac Island is not really an exception to your mention of trucks. But it is a special case, and they need a substitute for trucks.

        On another front: most of the roads on the island are paved. I can’t quite figure out if the local government makes an exception for trucks to maintain that road…or if they figure out how to transport the repair equipment for asphalt/concrete a way that makes it capable of being pulled by horses.

        [1] One tour guide said that most years, the island would have one medical doctor and three veterinarians present. Apparently, the health of the many horses that work there is more important than the health of the residents/visitors.

        • Matt says:

          Apparently, the health of the many horses that work there is more important than the health of the residents/visitors.

          Alternate interpretation: It’s easier and preferable for people to get medical treatment off the island, while moving horses off the island for medical treatment and checkups does not make as much sense.

    • wysinwygymmv says:

      (in which case they should choose a suitable career)

      Do people choose their careers? I fell into tech because I’m good at math and that’s where the jobs were.

      • John Schilling says:

        I’m good at math and I spent a decade working in the Mojave desert twenty miles from the nearest town. If someone told you that the One True Path for math nerds is to become coders and work in the Bay Area, that was a lie.

      • Matt says:

        I work at NASA Marshall. Huntsville does not have the problems discussed here.

        Also, not everyone chooses their careers, but I knew at 12yo that I wanted to be a rocket scientist.

        • AG says:

          Yeah, but there are people who work in Decatur that live in Nashville to have things to do in their social lives.

          • Matt says:

            Is that not the opposite of what’s being discussed here?

            You’re now talking about living in the city and working in the sticks, relatively. Or did you mean the opposite? Because I drive to Nashville for social fun. I just don’t need to live there.

          • AG says:

            I’m saying that simply moving the jobs centers won’t solve the housing problem, because it seems that in this day and age, people moving out of a city for a job is not necessarily the case. The case of living in the sticks and commuting to the city is only because they can’t afford the city. If the job out in the sticks pays enough to live in the city, the people won’t move out to the sticks.

        • 2181425 says:

          If you don’t mind me asking on a public forum: what’s an overview of your path to MSFC? I have a 13yo who fits the “I knew at 12yo that I wanted to be a rocket scientist” description and am curious. Thanks!

          • Matt says:

            I don’t mind.

            I was the smartest kid in my grade and I thought designing top-secret jets would be cool.

            When I told adults that’s “what I wanted to be when I grew up” some humored me by acting enthusiastic or interested or whatever. My stepfather flat-out told me (at 12!) that I was not smart enough to pursue aerospace engineering.

            I wasn’t particularly supported (neither my school nor my parents were interested in helping me choose a good school for my goals) so I sort of fell into the aerospace engineering program at a 3rd-tier state school in my hometown while I worked construction to pay the bills. Eventually got a co-op job at an engineering firm instead of construction. Then got a Master’s while working as a teaching assistant. The entire time I did this I worked a weekends-only job in home construction that paid better per hour than anything else I did.

            Decided I wanted a PhD so I applied at a first-tier engineering school and got a fellowship. Worked at that for a few years but did not finish and took a job at a subcontractor for a private space venture. That venture folded almost immediately and my employer put me on a NASA contract. That was about 12 years ago.

          • 2181425 says:

            Thanks! Sorry for your lack of support growing up, I hope it’s working out for you now.

  23. Tibor says:

    I never understood the people who like living in megalopolises like SF, NYC, Paris or London. Those cities are extremely crowded and while it is true that they offer a lot in terms of culture, traveling from one part of the city to another takes just as long or longer than traveling to those cities from a smaller one located 100-200km away (100km with a car, 200 km if they are connected with a high-speed railway). I don’t see any benefit living in a place like that other than getting a better job.

    I’m currently living in Pilsen, my hometown of about 200 000 people (the 4th largest city in the country by the way). I am likely to get a new job in Prague (90 km away from Pilsen, 50 minutes with a bus to the first metro station, slightly longer with a train to the Prague city centre) but my goal is to get as many home office days as possible and commute to Prague every day that is not a home office day (luckily in all of the jobs I am considering I can work in the bus to and from Prague so the commute won’t cost me that much time). I really really don’t want to move to Prague and Prague only has slightly over a million people and a fairly good public transport system (worse than that Hong Kong or Singapore, much better than Berlin). Still, to me it is just too large. I want to be able to get in a car in the city centre and leave the city in 20 minutes. Prague is also much more expensive to rent (especially as the last city council was extremely bad in development and the prices skyrocketed…this Friday and Saturday we have communal elections so that might improve a bit but it will remain much more expensive than Pilsen).

    Even the center of Pilsen would not be an attractive place to me, I live in a quarter which is sort of suburban-like even though still a part of the city and a trolleybus* stops just in front of my house. Except for peak hours (8-9,17-18) you can get also get around very comfortably by car (I can see the city border from my flat and it takes me 15 minutes to get to the city square – parking is free in the centre between 7pm and 7am and on the weekends, completely free everywhere else). If I want to see a concert or something in Prague I can get to the venue in 90 minutes and even here we sometimes get pretty interesting events (Maceo Parker has a concert here next month for example). In Berlin, 90 minutes would be a pretty normal (above average but not extraordinary) commute. I cannot realistically use an even wider array of activities that a huge city such as Berlin might offer (that is more than Pilsen and Prague combined), I simply don’t have the time (or even energy) to do all that, so that takes away the only advantage of such a place other than the job offers (well, Berlin specifically isn’t that great in terms of jobs either compared to other European 1million+ cities).

    That said, some megalopolises are better than others. I felt quite comfortable in Singapore. The public transport is very efficient and well-organized (HK and SG have the best public transport systems I’ve seen so far) and even though it actually has a roughly 25% higher population than Berlin, it feels smaller. It is full of fairly large housing blocks but they are clean and neat. It’s true that the flats are rather small by European standards, but they are not even that horrendously expensive given the average income (SG also offers a lot of subsidized housing for the poor). I only spent 2 weeks in Singapore (and 3 days before that in 2014) but it felt like quite a nice place to be (except that I got lost in one of the unbelievably huge shopping centres and couldn’t find a exit for about 10 minutes 🙂 ). I still prefer Pilsen but I can imagine living in Singapore. Berlin on the other hand made me feel like suffocating. I only spent 3 days there and I was so relieved when it was finally time to leave. Getting from one place to another takes forever even with the public transport, the city is grey and ugly, rather dirty (nothing horrible but still not exactly nice, but maybe the ugliness simply makes it more apparent) and crowded. And I haven’t even been to ghettos like Neukölln. I had the same feeling in the Ruhr-area (a group of several German cities that have grown so close to each other they almost form a huge megalopolis). The only similarly depressing place I’ve been to was Moscow (at that was exotic to me at least, so the 6 days there didn’t feel as annoying). Sydney, which has the same population as Berlin, also felt quite nice, somehow it felt more like a huge village than a city and the transport was decent even though they don’t have a metro there. I would miss the history (of which there is none in Australia, not by European standards of what history is), but otherwise it felt nice. I guess this is the crucial bit – I can tolerate a huge place as long as it doesn’t feel gloomy, the traffic system is good and as long as it is clean and the people are nice (Australians are almost a bit too nice, I don’t feel like having a small talk every single time I enter a shop to buy something…but it is still much better than people being unfriendly like in Moscow). Then it feels like a huge small town rather than an impersonal depressing hellhole.

    *we have trolleybuses, trams and buses here…incidentally why aren’t there more trolleybuses around in other cities? To me they seem like the perfect hybrid between a bus and a tram, cheaper to build and more flexible than trams, cleaner and more energy-efficient than buses – the modern ones are equipped with a battery so they can even reach the villages around the city without the need for extending the cables there and equally, if there is a traffic accident in their way or the road is being repaired they can use that to go around like a bus would. The only advantage of a tram is that it usually has its own dedicated lane, but you could easily do that for a trolleybus as well. In Bogotá, they have a bus system called Transmilenio which consists of buses with their own dedicated bus lane separated from the rest of the traffic…not sufficient for a megalopolis like Bogotá (whose population is roughly equal to that of the Czech republic) but it’s still quite a good system for when you cannot afford a metro (which the politicians in Bogotá have been promising for decades now).

    • Tibor says:

      Wow, this is longer than I expected…sorry about that 🙂 Hopefully someone will find it at least a bit interesting.

    • johan_larson says:

      As far as I can tell, the big attraction is the job market. The really high-paying and prestigious jobs are typically found in the big cities.

      The other attraction is the amenities. Big cities bring together a lot of people, so they can cater even to minority tastes. If you want mainstream pop, you can live anywhere. If you want live opera, you need a big city.

      • Tibor says:

        We have a live opera in Pilsen, albeit admittedly the quality is not comparable to a large city ensemble. Nevertheless, I think my point stands – very few people want to see an opera every day (similarly for other “minority” hobbies). If you do that a couple of times a month, commuting from a smaller town nearby doesn’t cost you almost any extra time and you get to enjoy the benefits of that place for the rest of the month. From a certain population size upwards what you get is not necessarily a wider variety of hobbies but rather a larger number of people doing them – so you get to meet more people with your hobbies and also the average instructor level of the people in that hobby is going to be higher (which does not necessarily mean that the best people in everything will be there, but overall the quality will be higher just as with the opera example). IMO the returns are diminishing quite quickly in this regard but I can sort of understand someone who doesn’t think so.

        Of course, jobs are different story. I could find a job here in Pilsen but I cannot find one in which I would not be essentially throwing away 4 years I spent getting a PhD in maths (and most likely even the master degree before that), for that I have to commute to Prague (and London or Singapore would provide even more opportunities, even Frankfurt probably would). But still, since home office seems to be getting more and more common in this line of work and there really isn’t the need to talk to people in person every single day, plus it is possible to work on the bus, commuting 2-3 days a week doesn’t seem nearly as bad especially when you actually get to make more money that way – you save a lot on rents/house prices and even the services are usually noticeably cheaper. Of course, if you run a hair salon or something like that then this is not exactly an option, you have to be physically present in the workplace to be able to do any work. But SF in particular seems to be mostly about programming and related fields and those people can definitely do that.

      • CatCube says:

        Yeah, when I was stationed at Fort Leonard Wood (nicknamed “Lost in the Woods”) I’d commute the few hours into St. Louis every other month or so to hit the orchestra. It’d be a weekend trip for me…somewhat extravagant, but if that’s your only reason to hit the city, more than doable.

        I now live in a suburb of Portland, and don’t hit the orchestra any more frequently, so the only advantage (and it can be a big one depending on budget) for this is that I can easily come home after, rather than getting a hotel room. Admittedly, I’ve sort of fallen away from frequent orchestral performances, because I didn’t realize how much of my enjoyment of the orchestra in St. Louis were the friends that I had there that I’d link up with, which I’ve not been able to duplicate here. When I moved from Ft. Leonard Wood to Fort Knox, I’d go to St. Louis, though less frequently, since it was only double the trip time (4 hours, instead of 2), rather than the closer Cincinnati Orchestra because of this.

        But in terms of using “culture” opportunities now that I live in a city, within walking distance of a train stop, I can count the number of times I’ve gone into the city for any reason other than work in the past four years without running out of fingers, and several of those trips are by car. Aside from some infrequent trips that I could do from a several-hour radius, there’s really nothing that I want or need from a city center.

      • poipoipoi says:

        The job market and access to hub airports.

        If you’re in Top 10% tech, that’s where the action and salaries are.

        And then you’re making enough money that you can afford to get bored and fly anywhere within a 500 mile radius on a Friday evening after work. Or if you’re in NYC, ride the timezones to anywhere in the USA that isn’t Florida. That’s just an expensive enough plane ticket (and difficult enough logistics getting back) that I do that for a week away in rural beauty and not a glorified donut run.

      • Michael Handy says:

        Germany has, at last count. 93 full-time Opera companies. I’m sure the Czech Republic is similar.

    • po8crg says:

      The big advantage of first-generation trams over trolleybuses is that they were invented first, so lots of cities built tram systems before trolleybuses were invented.

      Trams require less overhead wiring than trolleybuses (trams have one pickup and do a neutral return through the rails; trolleybuses need two wires, both a live and a neutral). This means that they can use the (simpler and more reliable) pantograph rather than a trolley pole for electrical pickup. Trolleybuses get dewired much more often than trams do, and take longer to connect back up. A mechanical arm with a camera and a bit of AI is probably capable of doing an auto-pickup while moving these days, which makes that much less of a problem – until very recently a dewired trolley had to stop and the driver had to hook the poles back up manually.

      The big advantage of second-generation trams (ie post-1970s) over trolleybuses is that they can be much longer. Because of the rails, a long, multiply-articulated tram will stay in lane when going around a corner, which is a problem for buses/trolleybuses even with a single articulation.

      Trams are regularly over 50m long, which is far longer than any trolleybus can be safely – which means that a single tram can carry far more passengers, making them a useful intermediate-capacity system between bus/trolleybus and metro.

      The other advantage for trams is one that isn’t much talked about – Bus rapid transit like Bogota or Brisbane, whether petrol buses or trolleybuses, is a big improvement over normal buses. But BRT schemes can be squeezed politically or financially – add a short section of buslane that’s just paint and not physical segregation; add a section of mixed traffic; cross a road through a signalled junction rather than grade separation; take away signalling priority at a junction; etc. The danger for a BRT scheme is that it gets cut down to a few improvements for the existing buses. Trams, because you have to lay track, can’t be cut back that much – either there is track somewhere or there isn’t. The worst cases are the US cities that have unarticulated trams in mixed traffic; those are completely pointless. But tram schemes work out much better on average because it’s harder to chip away at a tram scheme without cancelling large bits of it (the worst is generally taking dedicated lanes and letting buses in, or replacing grade separated junctions with at-grade ones with signal priority for the trams). This is not something that politicians talk about, because it involves an admission of how crap politicians are, but when politics turns against trams, they tend to get cancelled; when politics turns against BRT, they tend to get cut back to pointlessness, which results in lots of really bad BRT schemes which then gives BRT a bad name.

      • Tibor says:

        The trolleybuses here routinely put trolleys up and down automatically since many have suburban/village stops as well and the trolleys typically do not reach those places. This is not done manually and the whole process only takes a couple of seconds. However, when I was a kid I remember the older generation of trolleybuses which did not have batteries or a way to reconnect the trolleys remotely and the trolleys were indeed disconnected occasionally (I think this is also much less common today, maybe the technology used to keep them on the cable improved as well).

        You’re right about the length of trams though, that’s something I missed (the political bit as well I guess, but that is a separate issue and I’m not sure whether the politicians who introduce a new public transport lane do it with these considerations in mind). Also I guess that the trams are still a bit more efficient – at least the railroad is a lot more efficient than the asphalt road and the tram tracks are more or less a miniature railroad.

        The way it is done here is that there are tram lanes connecting the city to the centre via the biggest streets and the trolleybuses use a bit smaller routes between them. The buses do that too and more of them actually reach quite a bit past the city itself (the trolleybuses sometimes do that too nowadays, using their batteries, but not as much as the buses). I guess that actually makes sense.

    • eric23 says:

      It doesn’t matter *what* the attraction of cities is. The high real estate prices are proof that there *is* an attraction (or rather, attractions). Lower income classes are excluded from those attractions, and YIMBY would fix that.

      • Tibor says:

        I agree that the high prices are a signal of the existence of attractions. But I would like to understand what they are. People who willingly choose to live in a place like Berlin (or worse) seem like lizardmen to me, their motivations completely unintelligible.

        • whateverthisistupd says:

          I think some of it is a sense of being somewhere important. I know many people who live in NYC who are living paycheck to paycheck and constantly moving from closet to closet because they have a sense that just living in NYC makes them somehow higher class then people who don’t.

    • MuncleUscles says:

      After growing up a <1 million people city in Eastern Europe and having lived the past year in a small-ish UK town, I'm voluntarily moving to the center of Manchester. It's not even for work, I'm a software engineer and I'm free to work from anywhere and I plan to do that mostly from my apartment. I'm young and I'm single.

      I want the anonymity of a bigger city – you can have all these people around you who don't even notice you in the crowd. I want all the restaurants walking distance from where I live. I want to be able to go party in weird niche underground clubs and not worry about how I'm going to get home. I want my dating apps to have less boring generic small-town people. I want to know I can go out and experience something interesting on a moment's notice, even if most of the time I'd rather stay home playing video-games.

      • whateverthisistupd says:

        perhaps people are talking about different things when they talk about city versus non-city. I live in NJ which is f the most densely populated US state and all those things ar available without going into the city. There is a mix of types of neighborhoods as well. To me, NYC is actually more difficult to get around- it takes forever to get anywhere and it is so expensive.

  24. idontknow131647093 says:

    I feel like this response is a bit of a category error on all counts.

    Is it illegal for a private citizen to build a walkable, high-density city? Most private citizens don’t have the resources to do this, but if they got them, they would be allowed. I recommend Nevada since land there is very cheap.

    Your selection of Nevada is fun. You can’t actually build there because your people will lack water or will have to buy water rights from other people. You are essentially enslaving your town forever. OTOH, a place in a remote area of Lake Erie might have great water access, but has no natural commerce and shitty weather. All the places with good weather and water and natural commerce are already occupied, so this is a kind of handwaving. I think much of the rest follows suit.

    Is it illegal for a town to direct their urban planning in the direction of becoming a walkable, high-density city? No, any town that wanted to do this could. It’s just that every town always votes this proposal down, because their citizens would hate it and believe these kinds of cities would be terrible places to live.

    I think you don’t really have a good understanding of why these proposals are voted down: It is actually an example of people cooperating in a Prisoner’s Dilemma. For each individual voter, they would want their land rezoned to allow for development, because then they would be able to sell for 2, 3, 4x+ more. However, if they don’t sell (and most don’t really want to move because moving blows) and others do sell and get rezoned, they get screwed. YIMBY only works if you secure a critical mass of YIMBYs, and there is no real way to hold them to the agreement.

    Is it illegal for you as a private citizen to force your town to become a walkable, high-density city? That seems like a category error, kind of like “is it illegal for you as a private citizen to make your town ban abortion?”

    This is true, but it is not really relevant. It is possible if you are the only doctor in town to get your town to ban abortion because your choice on this would then become “law”. It is also not possible for me to get my town to enforce bans on assault. This question, combined with the previous question really are just illustrations of both sides of collective action problems that government is allegedly supposed to be the solution for. However, if government cannot solve NIMBY/YIMBY disputes, it is hard to argue it will effectively solve other disputes.

  25. Michael Handy says:

    All of this is making me think the cities I’ve spent significant time in (Sydney, Hamburg, Bregenz/Lindau), and the cities I like most (Vienna, Auckland.) are like some kind of crazy Utopia. OF COURSE you need significant public green space. OF COURSE public transport needs to be both decent and non-murder-y. My rent IS expensive (about $1400 a month for a studio in an inner city area of mixed wealth.) but that is accounting for a nice, safe house near extensive green space and what passes for a central business district in Australia. I’m half an hour from true wilderness, if I’m not particular about its extent, and an hour from proper uninhabited frontier.

    Hamburg is busy and crowded, but is also mostly safe with easy access to both nightlife and green space, though wilderness proper is hard to come by in north-west Europe.

    Lindau/Bregenz is legitimate paradise on earth, if you like colder climates. Expensive and growing fast though, and kind of a resort town.

    Basically, it sounds like American cities are just uniquely hell-holey. Australia has similar rent and ownership issues and a high growth rate, and is generally a pretty nice place to live for a wide range of preferences. Germany seems to be keeping rent pretty stable despite severe immigration and demographic challenges.

    I know the Bay area is much bigger, and maybe cities reach a liveable density limit. But I suspect this is more of an issue with American society and public planning.

    • christianschwalbach says:

      SF Tech workers are some of the highest paid in the world, so there isnt really a great comparison to that save people in Finance in London , NYC etc…

  26. Nate the Albatross says:

    fluorocarbon for the win.

    That sounds like France. I used to live in an ancient leafy neighborhood in St. Paul, Minnesota and take the light rail to my job in gleaming Minneapolis with its skyscrapers and gigantic library.

    Now I live in the small “leafy city” of Lorient, France. Not regarded as beautiful by European standards (post war construction after mostly getting leveled in WWII). Super cheap apartments with first floor retail, an enormous library within walking distance, sprawling network of city parks, tree lined wide boulevards with more parking, bike and pedestrian width than street width. All in a large harbor with commercial shipping.

    Team Gleaming Skyscraper and Team Leafy Suburb kinda remind me of the “horseshoe” problem. Team Leafy City is basically CIMBY. Compromise in my backyard. Skyscrapers don’t have good answers for introverts, dogs and elderly people who like to garden. Just as suburbs are pretty awful for pedestrians and jobs.

    fluorocarbon’s summary easily doubles or triples density, allows cities to build commercial property and housing simultaneously, and does so while being able to utilize excellent designs from picturesque cities that people love living in and working in.

    • hollyluja says:

      If you look at concrete YIMBY proposals around the country, it’s mostly centered on fourplexes, or “four floors and a corner store” type development which is familiar to anyone who has been to a Europe city and would produce fluorocarbon’s green leafy city.

      I hear this apocalyptic language from the NIMBYs, but I live in a neighborhood of mixed single family, duplexes, and small (6-20) apartments no more than four stories. It’s fantastic. It should be legal (not required) everywhere

      • arbitraryvalue says:

        I live in a neighborhood of mixed single family, duplexes, and small (6-20) apartments no more than four stories and I hate it. Honestly I’d rather live in a Manhattan studio; I almost never go outside except to go to work anyway (too many people around) and the commute from the studio would be shorter.

        Note, however, that I’m not trying to destroy the neighborhood I’m in, whereas you want to destroy the kind of neighborhood I like.

        • hollyluja says:

          NIMBYs have “destroyed” my neighborhood already by downzoning it so anything more than a single family home is illegal to build. All the old apartment buildings are not compliant with current zoning code, and could not be re-built today.

          NIMBYs have put their aesthetic preferences into law that applies to everyone. YIMBYs want to re-legalize more traditional options for homes. Legalization mandate.

      • Nate the Albatross says:

        @Hollyluja I think this especially makes sense as a gradual change. Going from single family homes straight to skyscrapers is a ridiculous sell. People who live in a four story with retail on the first floor are orders of magnitude more likely to support a skyscraper. So even if you are on team skyscraper obviously the four story is the gateway drug. Plus I feel like you can get a 4 story through the permit process much easier. A 4 story can be an experiment to get the city on board. A skyscraper is an all in commitment.

        Plus, I don’t think people realize how much more efficient a four story is than single family homes. Sure it isn’t Manhattan. But NYC actually does build four story buildings. Also beyond San Francisco LOTS of small cities and towns could benefit from a four story push. Small towns and small cities don’t need skyscrapers. San Francisco is kinda unique.

        West Des Moines, Iowa and Lorient, France don’t need skyscrapers.

        • hollyluja says:

          I think 99% of the affordability problem in US West coast cities would be solved by making up to four stories legal by right, with no setbacks and no density restrictions. It’s easy to imagine this style of development because it’s the way people lived for millennia. Every city built before cars and elevators looks about like that.

          • fluorocarbon says:

            And that kind of development is really pleasant! Cambridge is just as dense as San Francisco and Somerville is even denser. These cities are short, green, quiet at night, and I have yet to see feces in public (I did see urination a few times, but I also saw that sometimes when I lived in the suburbs).

            I think anti-urban NIMBYs should visit Somerville, Cambridge, the nice parts of Allston, and Jamaica Plain (though maybe not in the winter if they’re coming from California) before thinking that all density is horrible and soul destroying.

            Some people may still prefer more suburban places, and that’s fine, but it really shouldn’t be a choice between terrible city and terrible suburb.

        • Edward Scizorhands says:

          One of the most stressful parts of living in a multi-family in the Boston area was the working-class guy on the second floor who took out his petty aggressions and gentrification anxieties on the rest of us during the required condo meetings.

        • The Nybbler says:

          Unless you’ve got thick concrete floors, there’s a distinct drop-off in quality of life when you have neighbors above and/or below.

          • hollyluja says:

            Concrete floors are AMAZING. I’ve lived in two places with concrete floors and walls and it was so freaking quiet.

          • The Nybbler says:

            Thick concrete floors are going to drive your costs way up.

          • Mabuse7 says:

            You don’t need concrete to get the proper insulation, there’s insulating materials and CLT, not to mention more traditional masonry. I don’t think it’s too much to demand better building standards as a tradeoff for allowing more development in more areas.

  27. Joseftstadter says:

    New York City is so big that it be can be utopia or hell for the same individual, depending where you are standing. When I have to go to business meetings in Midtown I tend to agree with Lasagna. But when I go visit my brother in his quiet, tree lined street in Brooklyn, near parks, great shops and full of happy kids playing soccer or chasing ice cream trucks, I could easily be convinced that New York is one of the greatest cities in the world.

  28. LepidopteristBB says:

    The only real long-term solution is to begin to control our runaway population. Limit or end aid to the indigent past the first child or make receipt of aid conditional upon accepting a (subsidized) sterilization procedure. Offer free sterilizations to every citizen 18 and over who wants one. End child tax credits after the first child. Limit legal immigration and withdraw all non-emergency services from undocumented immigrants and enforce hiring laws upon employers of them. This way 90% of the undocumented will leave, or not arrive/overstay in the first place, with no mass deportations needed.

    In the meantime… offer BIG tax breaks to employers who relocate to out-of-the-way/rural/depressed regions so as to relieve pressure from the unsustainable urban cauldrons of NYC, San Fran, Seattle etc and/or allow telecommuting for all workers.

    • johan_larson says:

      What runaway population? The US fertility rate is well below replacement level, just like pretty much every place in the industrialized world.


      • Bugmaster says:

        This does not account for immigration (at least, I don’t think it does).

        • eric23 says:

          Most of the world is either below replacement, or about to get there in a few years.

          • LepidopteristBB says:

            1: The population in *big urban centers* is completely unsustainable and this has created a mass casualty time bomb. For one example California’s infrastructure is built for ~15 million people. We have around 40. What happens when NYC faces a huge natural disaster, even if we can see it coming like with a hurricane? Where are ~10 million people going to go in a hurry?

            2: Our elites push high immigration and pro-natalist policies at every turn out of (I think largely BS) worries about the tax base, Social Security, etc. That’s why a poor single or childless person is often screwed in terms of available benefits, whereas we wind up wholly subsidizing irresponsible and antisocial behavior from folks who really have no business reproducing in their present situation.

            3: Our population is increasing, for whatever reason (immigration or birthrate or even just lower death rate) enough that we simply can’t stop developing and destroying more land/habitat/nature/whatever you want to call it. The fact that developing countries with poorer populations do this on a larger scale (to put in grazing land or oil palm plantations because that’s the only way they can eat) than we do doesn’t make our level of development OK.

    • gbdub says:

      One of the biggest issues facing cities and states these days is the pension crisis from overgenerous benefits to former workers who got to retire too early. Reducing population is going to exacerbate that.

      For all SF’s faults, Detroit, which went through a couple decades of pretty serious population loss, has its own well known set of financial and infrastructure problems.

      • LepidopteristBB says:

        You can’t blame “childfree” people for the excessive generosity of political machines beholden to public employee unions and/or the misplaced heartstrings of sucker voters (other than the fact that they tend to vote on the left, but I digress).

        • Nornagest says:

          No, but you can observe that their preferred policies will unavoidably lead to disaster in the presence of those machines and voters.

          • LepidopteristBB says:

            So then, what is the solution? You can’t hold all of society hostage to an entitlement class the Democratic Party has created and the politicians who are afraid of stepping up to it.

          • gbdub says:

            And it’s not like the childfree people will get a free “told ya’ so” pass that immunizes them from the collapsing infrastructure as the cities continue to burn their (shrinking with the population) budgets on supporting their retired workers and indigent elderly instead of “repairing roads” and “replacing shot out street lights”.

  29. outis says:

    SF is particularly bad as a city. Tokyo is like thirty times bigger than SF, yet it’s more livable, safer, and cheaper.

    • ilikekittycat says:

      The comment about the noise and chaos of the city being triggering immediately made me think of Tokyo. It’s unreal how they’ve managed to preserve the value/aesthetic of polite quietness for whole sections of it. There’s a lot of things in small-town or suburban USA now like the motion-detecting ads that blare at you from a tinny speaker in the super Wal-Mart or the gas pumps that wait until you’re turned around to start playing their advertisements that make “quiet personal space” feel sharply violated more than anything in hustling, bustling Japan

      I have no evidence at all for this gut feeling but I bet a lot of the most dedicated anti-urban NIMBY people are just mad about a couple years they tried living in a shitty or poorly managed city and would actually be happy with *something* in the urban possibility space if they had experience with it (i.e., people that reject the high-tension fuck-you-I-got-mine neurosis of an NYC or DC that would thrive in Berlin or Tokyo.) I’ve never been to a suburb/exurb that just stunned me at how different it was from all the others in the way I’ve been amazed at megalopolises managing to have radically different characters

      • silver_swift says:

        The motion-detecting ads that blare at you from a tinny speaker

        Wait, those exist now? Man, we truly live in the darkest timeline.

        • Nornagest says:

          You can often turn the ones at gas stations off by pressing the upper-right button. Still sucks, though.

      • Civilis says:

        The big question is, then, how much of the difference between Tokyo and San Fransisco comes down to high level civic culture combined with incidental geography and history?

        I’ve lived in the DC suburbs for most of my life. I like the DC metro system as a way to get downtown when I occasionally want to do so on my time off. It seems much cleaner and safer than the other mass transit systems I’ve had to use on occasion (NYC and Paris). On the other hand, when I briefly had to use it to commute, it’s unreliability made it next to useless, and this was before the recent spate of problems. It’s also both expensive and underfunded, and doesn’t have near the capacity to make a significant dent in road traffic. Further, in practice, it’s a hub and spoke system, useful if you want to get to the hub(s) (downtown DC and the Pentagon), not so much if you’re trying to get from one part of the suburbs to another.

        I have no first hand experience with the Tokyo subway, but from what I understand, it’s incredibly reliable and safe, decently clean, reasonably priced, and takes a significant portion of Tokyo’s commuters. If I wanted to replicate the success of the Tokyo subway system in DC, I’d probably need to build a lot more lines and stations, to accommodate that much of the job growth in the DC area since Metro opened in 1976 has been in the suburbs, and that would get the NIMBYs out in force. It would also mean dealing with the feud between the DC, VA, and MD governments, the issues with civic and business groups (and possibly the occasional congresscritter) demanding a station (who might qualify as YIMBYs), the various environmental and progressive groups (BANANAs), and I’m sure I’m missing a few other factors. I’d also need to replace the notoriously unreliable and corrupt Metro maintenance crews that can’t fix an escalator in 4 months and I’d need to get DC Metro riders to accept a much higher level of crowding on the trains, both of which have to do with the different culture of DC as opposed to Tokyo.

        • eric23 says:

          The DC (and NYC) subways are unreliable for commuting. But pretty much anywhere elsewhere in the world, subways are about the most reliable way of commuting.

          The DC region has 6 million residents, Tokyo has 37 million. So there would not be as much crowding, nor the need for as many new lines.

          • Civilis says:

            Again, goes back to civic culture. Japan is the country which had a bus strike where the bus drivers still drove their routes, they just didn’t collect fares. I can’t see that happening in the US, anywhere. There are multiple articles about how bad the DC Metro system’s maintenance issues are, in part because of funding, in part because of labor issues, and if you fix the funding, there’s nothing guaranteeing it all won’t get sucked into the dysfunctional system without fixing the problems.

            Comparing the DC area to Tokyo, the population is less dense, so you need more track mileage per rider. Maintenance costs per mile and rider are almost certainly higher in the US per worker hour. So DC’s Metro would be more expensive per rider even if you were running at the same rider density that the Tokyo system was running at. You can skimp on maintenance and security (ignoring that a US worker still probably costs more per hour for less productive work), but you end up with a dirtier, less safe system, and even then you eventually have to pay up when the system starts breaking down, as it finally has in DC.

          • BillyZoom says:

            For NYC, I can’t imagine how you’d think that. I’ve commuted to work by subway daily for 20 out of the last 23 years (I walk now), my kids have taken the subway to school for 4 and 7 years respectively.

            Neither of my kids has even been late due to the subway, and I only had significant issues *maybe* 10 times in 20 years.

            There are occasional signal malfunctions, fires on the tracks, sick passenger, etc., but these are routed around. With average weekday ridership hovering around 5.5m (which is 2-3M more than weekend), you have to imagine a good number of people *do* rely on the subway for commuting.

            To the extent your station of choice is on a single local track, and that track is having a significant issue (I think the G train has had this problem), you might be more exposed. But no more so than saying driving is unreliable because occasionally there is an accident.

          • poipoipoi says:

            @BillyZoom doesn’t live in Brooklyn then.

            If you live in Brooklyn, especially past the branching, you’re looking at 8-10 minute peak headways, 12-15 minute off-peak with near-future plans to make them every 20 minutes.

            Meanwhile, at this point in time, there is no working subway line between Brooklyn and Manhattan, where working is defined as “I’m pretty sure I can get to and from work 5 times this week without any delays of more than 5 minutes”.

            I personally commuted over the Manhattan Bridge, and my record was 75 minutes to go one subway stop. At 11:30 at night on a Sunday.

            And the “re-routing” doesn’t come with warning, instructions, or active comms, so even “re-routing” is in and of itself questionable.

            /This story ends with me giving up and moving to Queens where the 7 train is at least vaguely usable, and hooks into fully-merged lines in Manhattan, where I can expect a train to show up every 5 minutes.

          • BillyZoom says:


            Not to get too inside-basebally here, as most readers will not care, but the lines over the Manhattan bridge were really bad while they were replacing the vertical suspension cables. As with all things infrastructure related, this took way too long (over 5 years I think), and was really disruptive (in this case to subway service). Especially on weekends.

            I live in Manhattan; my kids pick up the trains just as they come over from Brooklyn (one takes the 4 to 205th in the Bronx, and the other the A or C to 59th), so maybe the trains are stacked up entering Manhattan, and I just don’t see it.

          • poipoipoi says:


            No, they get stacked up ON the bridges. Even after the construction is done. in both directions.

            It’s taken 75 minutes to get from Manhattan to Brooklyn before.

            On the trips you’ve described, you wouldn’t notice. If you live in Brooklyn and work in Manhattan… you’d notice.

        • whateverthisistupd says:

          you would also need a relatively homogenous culture that views stoic quietness in public as the key to what makes them more civilized then the countries around them.

      • Hoopyfreud says:

        Not a NIMBY, but anti-urban.

        I’ve been in cities of all kinds, and the truth is that it’s just inevitably impossible to be alone in nature in them. Suburbs aren’t great at this either, but often they still have disused trails and back roads where you’ll run across someone every few days, if at all. I still don’t like those either. Cities have little to offer me, by comparison. I play games online for fun and cook for art, and that’s *while* I’m living the city life. I have trouble seeing what I’d miss if I weren’t.

        • BillyZoom says:

          My alternate perspective is that I moved to NY because that’s where the game was being played at the time(in finance). If you weren’t playing in NY, then whatever, go be a shepherd somewhere.

          The last 30ish years has seen the rise of SV, but if you were one to subscribe to the “go big or go home” aesthetic in the 80s/early 90s, then global cities were (and still are to a large extent) the place to be.

          Some people want to compete at the highest level, and will go to where that level is available.

          • Hoopyfreud says:

            Oh, absolutely. I’m doing something similar (though not in the bay area). My point is that “everyone can be comfortable in an urban environment, it’s just YOURS that’s bad” isn’t true. I hate it here, and I hate every city I’ve been in, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t chosen to be here. It just means that stress, emotional instability, and depression are a part of my life.

        • Ketil says:

          it’s just inevitably impossible to be alone in nature in them.

          Really? My experience is that very few people want to go off the beaten path, literally. Most cities I’ve lived in have forests, hills, or at least large parks within rail, bus, bike, or car distance, and while these areas can get crowded, 99% of the people stick to the paths – often a limited set of paths, too. I can see this not being true in very densely populated areas, and some places, it is actually illegal to go off the paths.

          • Hoopyfreud says:

            The operative word here is *in* more than alone. Near is not the same as in, and it requires a lot more effort than I’m able to put in to access acceptable places from a city. Also I make it a habit to obey posted “do not go off-trail” notices because I try to take care of what nature there is.

      • christianschwalbach says:

        Japanese culture is a lot different though. There is a higher value on harmony and societal cohesion, so in a way it seems natural that Japanese cities would run smoother, both from a planning and compliance perspective.

    • aristides says:

      Tokyo is also 97% Japanese compared to 41% non-hispanic white in San Fran. A cohesive culture helps with livability and safety among other things. For me the biggest disadvantage of cities was the visible disdain I felt from a large minority of residents. I think a cohesive culture that shames impoliteness helps with that. You can’t bring Japan’s policies to the US and expect the same results.

  30. Sniffnoy says:

    The Cerastes link currently is just another link to the Lasagna comment. It looks like the link is supposed to be this: https://slatestarcodex.com/2018/10/01/steelmanning-the-nimbys/#comment-673910

  31. Brett says:

    As others brought up in the other thread, I’d be happy just with the Japanese zoning set-up: national zoning rules, lowest density residential zoning allows small shops and small condo/apartment buildings, etc. I have a friend who lived in a neighborhood like that, and they had plenty of quiet and space (and a grocery store that blended visually in the neighborhood and was really convenient).

    I’ll give the NIMBYs this – I do like the quiet, and the space, and the green parks of suburbia. I also like being able to see a bunch of stars in the night sky. I don’t think the above would seriously hurt that.

    EDIT: Also, I hope we never get the ecumenopolis. Ugh. Coruscant makes more sense if it was originally a lifeless planet the founding worlds of the Republic picked as a neutral capitol site (the Star Wars equivalent of Washington DC). Even then, you’d still probably have preservationists upset at the idea of covering everything in cityscape.

    • Plumber says:

      “….I’d be happy just with the Japanese zoning set-up: national zoning rules, lowest density residential zoning allows small shops and small condo/apartment buildings, etc. I have a friend who lived in a neighborhood like that, and they had plenty of quiet and space (and a grocery store that blended visually in the neighborhood and was really convenient).


      That sounds much like living where I live now, and I like the leafy tree lined streets, the quiet, while still being walking distance to public libraries, cafes, bicycle shops, auto repair, restaurants, grocery stores, and a safe walk to my son’s elementary school (I’d like a closer bookstore, hardware store, and indoor tavern as well, but not next door).

      I work in San Francisco, and while I like some of San Francisco (Borderlands books, Box Dog Bikes come to mind), I really don’t want to live there, and what YIMBY proposals I see aren’t about changing say suburban Meno Park into nice but walkable neighborhoods, instead they’re about turning places like my current neighborhood into where I used to live in Oakland: a Hellish loud apartment building next to another apartment building that’s next to another apartment building on a loud busy street with nighttime traffic making sleep difficult and a very long walk to a grocery store requiring crossing dangerous streets with fast moving cars, witb my son had to cross the same street to get to Kindergarten, and I’m a proud NIMBY against turning my current neighborhood into something more like my old neighborhood. 

      I’m a YIMBY when it comes to turning Mountain View, Menlo Park, et cetera into walkable mixed use neighborhoods replacing the more asphalt than anything else developments of outer suburbia, which is where many jobs are! Private “employee shuttle” busses go from San Francisco to jobs in Mountain View, which isn’t a short distance! 

      The problem with where I live now is the rent is too damn high (cheaper rent is why I spent 17 years in an apartment in a Hellscape), and turning the neighborhood would make it cheaper, but wouldn’t that make the few remaining nice places to live even more rare and expensive? 

      I’ve seen hundreds of new apartments, and condos built in Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco and those developments bulldoze the shops and increase motor traffic which makes the neighborhoods less walkable not more! 


      Don’t make walkable inner suburbia into un-walkable urban Hellscapes, instead make outer suburbia into mixed-use walkable neighborhoods instead.

      Build near Silicon Valley instead.

      Leave most of Berkeley, much of San Francisco, and a lot of Oakland alone.


      • The Nybbler says:

        It’s really not “YIMBY” when you want the development in someone else’s back yard. That’s traditional “NIMBY”. What the SF Bay area has a lot of besides NIMBY is BANANA — Build Absolutely Nothing, Anywhere, Near Anyone.

  32. nestorr says:

    I thought the first comment was being sarcastic.

    I’ve been living in various locations, a few months at a time from rural isolated to urban (The “utopian” Paris, to be precise). Everything has it’s pros and cons. I would say I can adapt to everything but I must admit the fact I’m not permanently tied to any location factors into my tolerance of places’ flaws.

    • Ketil says:

      Me too, “utopia” sound like too much of an exaggeration. But then I checked the rest of the comment:

      Its odd to me how bad San Francisco is, when other large cities like New York or Paris are basically utopias. Brooklyn (the nicest, hippest, most historic part of NY) has twice the density of San Francisco. Paris has 50% more density than that. Consider that maybe the problem with SF doesn’t intrinsically relate to density, but rather relates to other aspects of city management.

      It looks like the author genuinely thinks Brooklyn is a great place to live.

      • Quixote says:

        For the avoidance of any doubt. I genuinely think Brooklyn is a great place to live.

        • Hendi says:

          Ditto, I’ve lived a half dozen places and finally landed in a brownstone-y part of Brooklyn. I wouldn’t trade it for the world, though I’m almost certainly going to get priced out in the next few years given how things are going.

      • whateverthisistupd says:

        Whereas I would probably shoot myself if i had to spend more then a few days in modern brooklyn. Williamsburg has sprawled everywhere.

    • Plumber says:

      I very much like living where I know my way around, and I like the leafy tree lined streets, the quiet, while still being walking distance to public libraries, cafes, bicycle shops, auto repair, restaurants, grocery stores, et cetera of where I live now (I’d like a closer bookstore, hardware store, and indoor tavern as well, but not next door).

      I work in San Francisco, and while I like some of San Francisco (Borderlands books, Box Dog Bikes come to mind), I really don’t want to live there, and what YIMBY proposals I see aren’t about changing say suburban Meno Park into nice but walkable neighborhoods, instead they’re about turning places like my current neighborhood into where I used to live in Oakland: a Hellish loud apartment building next to another apartment building that’s next to another apartment building on a loud busy street with nighttime traffic making sleep difficult and a very long walk to a grocery store requiring crossing dangerous streets with fast moving cars.

      I get that more people want to live where I do, and I get that it’s too expensive (it took me decades of saving!) but is changing places like where I live now into the hateful places I used to live the only solution? 

  33. alyssavance says:

    “People’s preferences on what makes an acceptable place to live differ so strongly, and in so many little ways, that I think a lot of the debate is just people screaming to have their existence acknowledged.”

    Urban-preferring people are screaming to have their existence acknowledged because, in 99.9% of the US, their preferred city format is illegal, and it’s therefore very hard for them to have their preferences fulfilled. See this study on people’s stated preferences in housing (auto-oriented vs. pedestrian-oriented), and how that compared to their real neighborhoods: http://cityobservatory.org/the-myth-of-revealed-preference-for-suburbs/

    • Lasagna says:

      Rural areas, suburbs, and small cities are not encroaching on large urban areas, forcing people who wanted to live in high-rise apartment buildings to move to single-family homes. Zoning changes only move in the other direction.

      • The Nybbler says:

        Not quite true. When you get regional/state planning, they often upzone some areas and downzone or block any local upzoning of others. For instance, some Western Marylanders are pretty pissed that they can’t build new developments out there because the state has decided that growth should take place in Montgomery County. So your suburb gets encroached upon, but you can’t even move out further because even new low-density development is blocked out there. An Urban Growth Boundary is the same idea.

      • hollyluja says:

        That’s not true at all. the NYT had an article on how >40% of current residential buildings could not be built today due to downzoning.

        In my own neighborhood, which is a mixture of single family and small (<4 story) apartments, if it all burned down tomorrow only the single family homes could be rebuilt. And I'm less than a mile from downtown.

        Between that and mandatory setbacks, suburban style development is the only thing possible in the vast majority of the inner city. Multifamily development is only legal in 10% of Portland CITY (not suburbs)

      • peopleneedaplacetogo says:

        To the contrary, zoning changes almost only move towards more restrictive/lower density. Most of Somerville, most of Brooklyn, even large parts of Manhattan are significantly denser than would be permitted today due to relentless downzoning.

    • whateverthisistupd says:

      that’s a silly comparison because you’re looking at total land. Obviously you can’t have dense cities being a high percentage of land usage because there aren’t enough people.

  34. ordogaud says:

    I’ll probably get reamed for saying this, and it sounds really naive (even to myself), but reading Gwern’s post made me feel like “so what, that’s just like a bunch of numbers man.” Besides the network effects of centralizing jobs and peoples personal preferences for locating near culturally similar folks, the utility of housing people shouldn’t be that different between SF or NoName exurb. So what does that extra generated wealth actually represent? I guess those two factors must be worth that much in our current system, but from my naive perspective it seems mostly to represent fluff created from nothing for the centralized uber-rich and their employees.

    Edit: I guess I should say I don’t put that much stock in the theory that centralizing our technology sector provides that many tangible benefits. I think it’s mostly a bunch of people following a trend and/or signaling gone overboard more than there’s actual utility to it, though I’m willing to have my mind changed on that. For example, the same general thing is said about NYC and finance, but there’s examples like Warren Buffet who built his financial empire from little old Omaha. While I do think there is something to be said about having the local talent and the network/cultural effects, I think people often overestimate those factors. If you’ve got a winning tech idea you could probably base your business anywhere that’s got decent internet and build/lure talent there.

    • Aztonarra says:

      I’ve lived in the Bay since graduating, for about three years. In that time I’ve been laid off once and I’ve quit a job. In both cases, I had maybe a hundred options for alternative jobs within biking distance of my apartment. I interviewed at my favorite dozen, got a few offers, and took one. I spent about a month unemployed each time, mostly prepping and interviewing, and then slacking off for a week.

      If I’d had to move, or spend months searching, or take a job at a place I didn’t like, I might have missed out on months of somehow magically producing a confusingly high salary. Reminder that my minimum standard for a new job was that it be within a 40 minute bike ride of my current apartment – I don’t own a car. If we call the cost of a car, plus a month every two years of decreased unemployment due to density, we get ballpark $10-15000 value added for me+whoever I’m paying taxes to.

      I also worked at a startup for a bit. I would never have considered moving for them, though. Actually, I got hired there through Triplebyte – a really excellent hiring company that advertises through Slatestarcodex and exclusively services the Bay.

      This is not to say I’m sure the effects justify the costs – just a window into what the Bay is providing to me, an acceptably talented junior developer. I theorize it’s a larger benefit if you’re a veteran CTO with industry contacts and stuff, but I can’t say from experience.

      • arlie says:

        This! I moved to the Bay area for precisely this reason. I’d had to move for new jobs, or compromise significantly, several times in a row, and I wanted to stop doing that.

    • Alsadius says:

      There’s a big difference between what NYC does and what Buffett does with finance. If you’re trying to do occasional buys of stock to build up a portfolio, Omaha is fine. If you’re trying to do high-frequency trading on the NYSE, doing it anywhere other than New York City is physically impossible(due to lightspeed limitations). Underwriting an IPO isn’t the sort of thing you want to be doing from random places – the specialized legal work and sales force required are the sort of things that justify centralization.

      • Tibor says:

        There’s a rather successful (the founder is a billionaire now, wasn’t rich at all when he founded it) Czech company which specializes in algorithmic trading of options (RSJ Invest). They operate from Prague and rent an office in Chicago close to the commodity market. That’s where they send the trading orders from. Obviously, they need some employees there as well but those are more or less maintenance workers whereas the development of their algorithms is done in Prague.

        • Droch says:

          RSJ is more of an exception, isn’t it? Most big HFT firms (e.g. Jump, Optiver, Citadel) have a sizable presence in Chicago. While it is possible to have algorithm development anywhere, it is much easier to hire _experienced_ quants in Chicago than it is Prague.

          • BillyZoom says:

            Cash equity HFT is in NY as that’s where the equity exchanges are. Option HFT is split between Chicago and NY, again due to exchange location (e.g., CBOE is in Chicago, NYSE Options is in NJ).

            As long as you can co-locate, there’s no particular reason why this needs to be so beyond historic. If you could find a bunch of like-minded folks in any other city, you’d be fine. But attracting and retaining staff is much more difficult.

            Outside of vanilla equities (cash and listed options), there’s almost a complete lack of knowledge outside of NY (in the US).

          • Tibor says:

            No argument there. But the point is there is no a priori need to concentrate the quants where the stock market is, they can be anywhere as long as you have the computers near it. If there are so many people who hate SF and the like, maybe a company offering a quant job with an office in a small town might actually attract quite a few people.

    • zzzzort says:

      My instinct is that winning tech ideas are pretty common, but that actually building a working company is quite hard and requires a lot of networking.

      Besides the geographic distribution of successful startups, one way to get at this is by looking at the skill set required to make a business. I know a lot of techies with cool ideas, and personality-wise we’re often quite similar. On the other hand, all of the entrepreneurs I know (people that have founded startups rather than worked at them) have been relentless, often exhausting networkers.

  35. alyssavance says:

    “I also know people who rage to each other about the fact that city-dwellers are still allowed to have lawns, because that’s space into which we could be cramming more people, and so it’s like literally stealing from the public.”

    I have been in YIMBY discussions hundreds of times, and to my memory, have never met anyone who believes this. The people who complain about lawns are complaining because, in 99.9% of the US, it is illegal *not* to have a lawn, it’s illegal for your lawn to be too small, and it’s illegal for your lawn to not be the right shape (eg. it must be distributed evenly between the left and right sides of your house). If these laws were abolished, it is true that some neighborhoods would have very few lawns, but only because very few people would be able to afford the real market price for all the land they want to use for lawn-space, just as airplanes have mostly coach seats. Someone who says “I want *your* house to have a lawn, and therefore I will legally mandate that it does for my own benefit, even though it destroys most of your land’s value” is, IMO, pretty clearly stealing from the public.

    • hollyluja says:

      And if the only way you can afford your lawn is to make it illegal to build anything else in theirs, then that is a moral wrong.

      • eric23 says:

        YIMBY would actually make it easier to have your own lawn, should you choose. People who like dense housing will live in dense housing, which will decrease the demand for land, so your big house with a big lawn will be more affordable.

    • shakeddown says:

      And from a top-down perspective, having a bunch of private lawns is massively inferior to having a single medium-sized park using up the same space.

      • Brett says:

        Plus I think people overrate how much they’ll like and use their lawns. There’s a somewhat dated but really interesting book called Green Metropolis that goes into that.

        • idontknow131647093 says:

          I’d love a lawn, particularly one that is like 30% or so larger than the one my parents had when I was growing up, and with slightly better drainage. Lawnmowing for an hour (push mower) for me is what I expect golfing or birdwatching is for people who enjoy those things.

          The problem is that cities have jobs. (At least for me). I have little use for the restaurants and stuff. In fact, in the city I live in (Chicago) its harder to get a good burrito/taco compared to the suburb my parents live in. Its also harder to pick up good raw fish to make my own sashimi because there is rarely parking near the good fish markets in the city.

      • johan_larson says:

        Public space is not private space. The rules and expectations about what you can do matter enormously. In particular, parks have a nasty habit of becoming unsafe, particularly at night. And if the local social workers and cops aren’t well-funded and empowered to act, parks tend to get filled with homeless people. If an intimidating homeless person sets up shop in someone’s back yard, the cops will definitely remove him. If he sets up shop in a park, they might not.

        • Le Maistre Chat says:

          So much this. Rules surrounding the police removing heroin campers matter a lot.

          • ana53294 says:

            But why aren’t they removed?

            I have seen dispruptive behaviour in European parks. Young people tend to go drink at night in parks in Spain (this is called botellon and is illegal, but de facto allowed as long as you don’t bother the neighbours). But I was never unable to use a park because of heroin (alcohol is allowed during the fiestas and festivals, even if technically illegal). During normal working days, this doesn’t happen.

          • johan_larson says:

            But why aren’t they removed?

            Because the police are told not the bother them. In the US, a lot of fairly sensible rules about minor misbehavior have been used by racist cops to mistreat black people. This makes some municipalities shy away from having such rules at all.

            At other times, it’s just not clear what to do with the homeless. It’s not typically illegal to be without a legal residence. And some homeless say no to shelters, sometimes with good reason. What to do with someone who is on-the-street homeless but says no to shelters is a tricky problem.

          • Matt M says:

            Yeah – how stupid would an SF resident have to be to actually believe an argument that went like “You won’t need your lawn – we’ll just build a public park nearby where your kids can play.”

          • Le Maistre Chat says:


            But why aren’t they removed?

            Bleeding heart local magistrates, at minimum (I also welcome evidence for Bayesian updating about the role of bleeding heart judges). If they see homeless drug addicts as victims instead of the law-abiding citizens whose utility from public spaces is reduced, they won’t lift a finger to remove the camps and biohazards like feces and used syringes from public ground.

            Contra johan, I don’t see “what to do with on-the-street homeless people who says no to shelters” as a hard problem. The Emperor should make it very hard to live on public ground and the Church should have more soft power/money to shelter them. Stick, carrot.

          • Brad says:

            Contra johan, I don’t see “what to do with on-the-street homeless people who says no to shelters” as a hard problem. The Emperor should make it very hard to live on public ground and the Church should have more soft power/money to shelter them. Stick, carrot.

            Right, easy problem. The Wizards can just conjure them castles in the sky to live in.

      • Alsadius says:

        That’s a question of personal preferences. Having a couple dozen friends over for a BBQ is easier and more pleasant at home – better backup plans if it rains, more ability to customize the space, and far cleaner bathrooms too. It’s also easier to keep sketchy people out, which is a big concern in some areas. For myself, I’d be happier with the park, but the friends I live with(who like entertaining, gardening, landscaping, etc.) would prefer the yard.

      • aristides says:

        Things I can do in my lawn that are frowned upon in parks. Gardening, landscaping, drinking, leaving my dogs off leash, raising chickens, building a tree house, letting my kids play unattended, naked sunbathing, threatening people who bother me, ect.

        I don’t really have a dog in this fight. I chose a 30% paycut and a lengthy commute to ensure I wouldn’t have to worry about YIMBY for several decades, but I do feel bad for the people that are in less flexible career fields, ie. tech, that want the same things I have, but couldn’t get a job. I also feel bad for anyone who bought a house expecting it to be a suberb, and then the zoning laws change. Yes it might raise the market price of the house, but it lowers the personal value. I would want to guarantee that YIMBY doesn’t rezone until I’ve owned a house for 10 years, then I would be fine grudgingly moving.

    • Tibor says:

      Huh? It is illegal not to have a lawn? That’s one of the strangest things I’ve heard recently. What is the justification for those laws/regulations?

      • johan_larson says:

        Keeping up property values. The idea is that if your house and yard look like crap, it will affect the desirability of the neighborhood and thereby the value of your neighbors’ homes.

        • Tibor says:

          I see. That does make a bit of sense. For example, right in front of my house they’re currently building a huge 9 storey building which is taller than everything around it – almost three times as high as our house (well, the tower is, the rest of the building is just slightly above ours). In practical terms, this means that I lose quite a portion of the view from my flat (previously there was nothing significantly higher than my flat in sight) as the tower blocks quite a bit of it. Since my windows are to the east it also blocks the sunlight in the morning (it’s getting worse now as the sun’s trajectory gets flatter…in July and August the sun manages to narrowly avoid the tower). Both are depreciations to the value of my flat so I feel like I should either have a say in what can or cannot be build right in front of my flat, or should be eligible for a monetary compensation.

          Of course the exact nature in which that would be calculated or how much of a say the owners of the surrounding plots ought to have about what can or cannot be built there is where it gets tricky and I don’t know what the right solution should be. But I’d rather see the “zoning” to occur organically in this way, that is to say with the owners having some say about their surroundings with the number of votes based on the area of the plot and the power of their votes decreasing as you move away from it.

          • baconbits9 says:

            If you want compensation for all that stuff are you willing to pay back for any benefits? Are you going to give a nickle a month to every resident in that building if a store opens closer to you because the density will support it? If a local entertainment option that wasn’t available before now is? If increased population makes your job more stable or allows you to find a better compensated job? If you meet a significant other somehow because of the new residents?

          • Tibor says:

            @baconbits9: Ultimately, I’d like to be compensated for a decrease in the market price of my property – admittedly, there probably is no easy way to turn that into efficient regulation. So instead, I’d like to have a direct say in what may or may not be built next to my property, i.e. that the property rights be (in a weak sense) expanded to the neighbourhood.

        • arlie says:

          *sigh* There’s a certain aesthetic that goes with car-only suburbs. Lawns are part of it. And this aesthetic is more important to those who share it than the externalities imposed, as you see especially clearly in places that don’t really have enough water for the human population, let alone for a water-thirsty lawn per nuclear family.

          Alternatively, the purpose is signalling. In that case, desire is for everyone to prove they can afford to pay for someone’s time maintaining their lawn – kind of like wearing clothes that are clearly expensive and would be ruined if one did any physical work – or changing clothes based on swiftly changing fashions for that matter.

          Best of all, you can combine both – here, in this near desert, everyone in this neighbourhood can afford enough water for many sensible families, and personal servants and/or voluntary under-employment besides.


          As you can guess, I don’t find lawns attractive, and I regard maintaining them as a major chore. Fortunately this area has had enough drought – with associated watering restrictions – that while most houses are built to the island-in-lawn standard, and there are rules about leaving unoccuppied space on one’s land, it’s OK to plant it in cactus, or pave it, or install astroturf – or leave it brown for half the year, for that matter.

      • hollyluja says:

        Mandatory setbacks are ubiquitous. 10-15 feet required around here, less than a mile from downtown and not in a suburb. You can’t build in it, you can’t park in it. It has to be a lawn or landscaped area that you maintain.

      • Nornagest says:

        99.9% is a serious overstatement, but lawns really are often mandatory if you live in a neighborhood with a HOA and accompanying rules about how you can use your property (which describes most suburban development over the last fifteen years). They were still common before then, but not mandatory.

        Personally I’d never live in a house like that, but a lot of people seem to find it worth the tradeoffs.

        • peopleneedaplacetogo says:

          They’re mandatory almost everywhere they exist, due to setback requirements and/or FAR limits of less than 1.0. 99.9% sounds like a plausible estimate for the fraction of the area of the US where homes without lawns or other empty space around them are illegal (though of course fraction of the population is another matter since places that don’t require lawns/setbacks are denser).

          • Nornagest says:

            You’re kinda moving the goalposts here. Setback requirements are common (though 99.9% is still absurd), but a lawn’s a very specific use of space, and a lot of the arguments I’ve heard against them (water use, nitrate pollution from fertilizers, etc.) don’t apply to the other stuff you could use that space for.

      • christianschwalbach says:

        Im not exactly sure how wide spread this is tho. In San Diego, where I was born, suburban lawns are rapidly dissapearing due to H2O issues, and either going to artificial lawns, or some mix of rock/drought tolerant landscaping.

    • The Nybbler says:

      I have been in YIMBY discussions hundreds of times, and to my memory, have never met anyone who believes this.

      You’ve never heard talk of “zero setback”?

      • eqdw says:

        Here I’ll do it right now.

        I’m somewhat neutral on this issue. I used to be more firmly in the YIMBY camp but after spending half a decade in SF I have grown fairly disillusioned with America’s ability to build cities correctly. Scott’s post the other day pushed me over the edge and I think I’m leaning towards team NIMBY now.

        That said: Mandatory setback is stupid and zero setback (not mandated) is often good. Having an area in front of your house that you have to keep landscaped and maintained but that you can’t use is infuriating, not to mention it’s an arbitrary cost imposed upon the resident.

        There should be no setback requirements anywhere. People who want lawns should be free to build structures that have lawns, and people who don’t should be free to not.

        Ideally, for me, I’d take the existing suburban plot of land that has a house with a setback and a front lawn, I’d move that house forward to the sidewalk. I’d eliminate my lawn entirely, because lawns are stupid, and I’d instead use that extra space to make my _completely private_ backyard even larger.

        • Nornagest says:

          I’m somewhat neutral on this issue. I used to be more firmly in the YIMBY camp but after spending half a decade in SF I have grown fairly disillusioned with America’s ability to build cities correctly.

          SF is governed by a pack of yahoos who’re obsessed with maintaining their city’s Sixties legacy and polishing its activist cred. Even by Bay Area standards, it’s its own little bubble.

          A while back, I observed that everything the Dark Lord Mencius Moldbug wrote makes a lot more sense once you realize that he’s a San Franciscan.

      • peopleneedaplacetogo says:

        That’s about legalizing zero setback, not mandating it. I gather the NIMBYs think everything should be either forbidden or mandatory, but please don’t project that attitude onto the YIMBYs.

        • The Nybbler says:

          Basically everyone involved in urban planning thinks everything should be either forbidden or mandatory. Certainly setbacks — nobody wants a neighborhood with random setbacks. There isn’t any “optional” in this space; it’s going to be forbidden or mandatory, or “optional” but with gotchas that actually make it forbidden or mandatory.

          • hollyluja says:

            That’s a good point, Nybbler. I’m a solid YIMBY but I will not support policies that mandate the kind of new urban design that I prefer. I admit that there are some who want to make a duplex the minimum unit of density, but I think that’s just as bad as the NIMBY position.

          • peopleneedaplacetogo says:

            I’m fine with random setbacks, why wouldn’t I be? Attempting to plan these things through regulation is how we got into this mess; let people build whatever there is demand for (subject to basic safety rules, which already exist). Stop projecting NIMBYs’ petty authoritarianism onto others.

    • whateverthisistupd says:

      There are some people who are like this- a lot of them don’t necessarily live in cities, but they seem to have this almost religous view of organizing the “right” way to live. Not saying it’s generally representative, but I have seen the persepctive.

      I agree the lawn laws are nonsense. The entire concept of making laws on the premise that what I do on my property affects someone else’s property value ignores individual preference, since the law determines what those preferences are.

  36. hollyluja says:

    My problem with this framing is that it is extremely asymmetric. It’s not a matter of aesthetic preference. NIMBYs have codified their preferences in law and zoning code, and receive a huge subsidy for that. YIMBYs are not to my knowledge asking for single family homes to be made illegal, just for other options to be available.

    No West Coast city has land zoned for multi families at >20%. Portland, where I live, is at 10%.

    • shakeddown says:

      This. Framing it as “competing preferences” masks the fact that one preference is massively subsidized and the other is basically illegal.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Some areas are zoned closer to the way YIMBYs want, other areas are zoned closer to the way NIMBYs want. The NIMBYs aren’t going to the urban areas and demanding that they downzone, but the YIMBYs are going to the suburban areas and demanding that they upzone.

      • alyssavance says:

        On the contrary, even the densest urban areas in the US have well-funded, well-organized NIMBY groups that continually push for downzoning. San Francisco is the second-densest major city in the US, but people routinely move there and then demand less density and suburban-style neighborhoods, and have been doing so for decades. An article from 1999:

        “What would seem to be the most urbane city in the western United States was born, grew up, and survives with a deeply conflicted sense of its own urbanity. To this day, the city’s most pitched civic battles are fought over seemingly suburban issues such as maintaining parking, preserving yard space, avoiding shadows, and maintaining, at all costs, unfettered bay views.”


        Even in dense areas, down-zoning advocates have been so successful that many of the buildings there are now legally “too dense”, and would be illegal to build today. Somerville, MA (a fairly dense Boston suburb) has been downzoned so much that, of its tens of thousands of buildings, only twenty two would be legal under current zoning rules:


        • Scott Alexander says:

          It sounds like you’re just saying that NIMBYs sometimes successfully prevent cities from becoming denser.

          I’m claiming that NIMBYs rarely if ever actually make cities less dense (eg they don’t say that people who are very happy in a neighborhood of high-rises have to convert their neighborhood to single-family homes), whereas the entire YIMBY strategy is based around making suburbs more dense even when the inhabitants don’t want that.

          • alyssavance says:

            Large-scale demolition mostly doesn’t happen nowadays, but one reason for the shortage of urban neighborhoods in the US is that it already happened in the 1950s and 60s, when buildings nationwide were indeed torn down en masse to make way for freeways, parking lots, and other auto-oriented infrastructure:


          • Brad says:

            I’m claiming that NIMBYs rarely if ever actually make cities less dense (eg they don’t say that people who are very happy in a neighborhood of high-rises have to convert their neighborhood to single-family homes), whereas the entire YIMBY strategy is based around making suburbs more dense even when the inhabitants don’t want that.

            There’s a false symmetry there.

            No land owner wants to tear down a high-rise and put in single family houses because that’s value destroying. So it takes no laws to prevent that from happening. On the contrary it would take deliberate government effort to make it happen.

            On the other hand, tearing down a single family home and putting up an apartment building is tremendously valuing creating and so it takes strict government intervention to prevent it from happening.

            How do you square your defense of NIMBYism with utilitarianism? 40 people could live on that same plot of land that 4 are currently occupying.

          • baconbits9 says:

            US population has been steadily increasing which means that population density has to be increasing somewhere. By blocking density increases where it makes the most sense they force it into areas where it is less efficient and more ecologically damaging.

      • Robert Jones says:

        The difficulty with this phrasing is that it treats zoning as if it were it were part of the natural order that all land is zoned. The default position should be that you can build what you like on your own land. There are all sorts of good reasons why there should be exceptions to that, but they do need to be good reasons.

        • Alsadius says:

          And that right there is basically the YIMBY argument in a nutshell.

        • Matt M says:

          Houston is famously not zoned at all.

          I don’t know how it compares with the various statistics cited above, but anecdotally, I see a ton of new apartment buildings being constructed in downtown and in close proximity to downtown.

          Maybe people should vote with their feet? If living in a place where people can construct new apartment buildings is important to you, then move to Texas.

          • eqdw says:

            > Houston is famously not zoned at all.

            (Note: I am not certain of the following. I read about it a while back and may be misremembering details)

            It’s misleading to call Houston unzoned. It has a form of de-facto zoning for population density in the form of minimum parking requirements on various types of buildings in various areas. By increasing or decreasing parking requirements, the government can control the level of density in a given area. And by controlling the level of density, they can exercise a certain amount of indirect control over the type of activities that go on in a given area

          • ana53294 says:

            You can build underground parking in sufficiently expensive areas.

          • Matt M says:

            Yes, that’s totally fair. I agree and acknowledge that it isn’t complete and pure anarchy.

            But I think my point stands. If you want to live in a place where they don’t hesitate to tear stuff down and build shiny, new, four-story, luxury apartment buildings – such a place exists. It’s right there waiting for you. At 1/4 the cost of Bay Area housing prices.

          • Matt M says:

            You can build underground parking in sufficiently expensive areas.

            Most of the new apartments going up have their parking completely enclosed in the apartment block structure – a mixture of underground and 1-2 level garages, with most of the actual apartments occupying floors 2-4 or 5.

          • Janet says:


            It’s misleading to call Houston unzoned. It has a form of de-facto zoning for population density in the form of minimum parking requirements on various types of buildings in various areas.

            But this is exactly right! Houston doesn’t intervene, except to prevent landowners from offloading inconveniences onto their neighbors– such as overcrowding the street parking. Land owners can solve that any way they want to– building underground parking, putting the living spaces above a garage level, or just building a smaller building with enough driveway parking.

            Which has a lot to do with the result that Houston has a “living wage” of $20,493/yr– and San Francisco has a “living wage” of $40,833. Indeed, the San Franciscan can expect to spend more on housing ($22,980) than the Houstonian will spend on everything. And the disparities get much worse for people with kids, of course. (Data source: livingwage.mit.edu)

        • hollyluja says:

          This is the best argument for YIMBYism IMO. Giving people power over what is built on property that isn’t theirs seems very…. unAmerican. If we were starting from scratch, modern density-based zoning would sound very odd to all of us SSC readers.

          • Guy in TN says:

            I don’t know why you are assuming “starting from starch” or the “baseline” would be private property law that gives unlimited power to the landowner. That’s not the default state of nature, but an active governmental policy choice, not categorically different from zoning law.

          • Lambert says:

            @Guy in TN
            That is the way in which the vast majority of property works.
            Being able to do what you want with something is a pretty big part of the concept of owning a thing.

          • Guy in TN says:

            That is the way in which the vast majority of property works.

            In the US, approximately 0% of property has unlimited power given to the landowner. There’s zoning law, environmental law, tax law, labor law, others too numerous to mention.

            Being able to do what you want with something is a pretty big part of the concept of owning a thing.

            Being able to do what you want, within the confines of what society has deemed acceptable is what it means to legally own a thing. If you have a particular meta-legal concept of ownership, and want to say zoning law fails to conform to this philosophy, that’s fine. But then the argument of “this differs from historical/cultural norms” doesn’t hold anymore.

          • Plumber says:

            “This is the best argument for YIMBYism IMO. Giving people power over what is built on property that isn’t theirs seems very…. unAmerican. If we were starting from scratch, modern density-based zoning would sound very odd to all of us SSC readers”



            This American SSC reader prefers democracy to liberty.

          • Doctor Mist says:


            This American SSC reader prefers democracy to liberty.

            Interesting. On what grounds?

          • Plumber says:

            “Interesting. On what grounds?””

            @Doctor Mist,

            Just personal preference, as I’d like to see the democratically passed laws against pooping on the sidewalk and against not stopping for pedestrians when my kids are trying to cross the street enforced.

      • peopleneedaplacetogo says:

        Literally nowhere in the US is zoned the way YIMBYs want. Every city privileges the interests of people who already happen to live there over those of newcomers.

        • Doctor Mist says:

          Elected city officials do what they were elected to do? Tear out the front page.

          • hollyluja says:

            It’s understandable at a local level but suboptimal from a national level.

          • baconbits9 says:

            Its sub optimal at the local level, and not actually what the majority of homeowners want.

          • SpeakLittle says:


            Is the national level more valid than the local level?

            In a previous thread, someone (I forget whom) posited that the immigration debate, the NIMBY/YIMBY debate, and the gentrification debate were all facets of the same argument: At what scale do we allow a group of people to self-organize and determine what kind of culture they want to have? To reframe that into a larger question: at what level do we draw the line on majority rule?

          • hollyluja says:

            It’s a good question, and the answer should probably fall in the middle somewhere. But the current status quo allowing rich people in high opportunity areas to build invisible walls has created a huge racial wealth gap and perpetuates past inequalities of class as well.

          • peopleneedaplacetogo says:

            My position is that restrictions on what people do on their own property can be justified only if the restrictions benefit humanity as a whole on net. If you want a neighborhood run for the benefit of your ingroup at the expense of your outgroup you should have to buy up all the land in that neighborhood. I oppose any policy that entails using state power to for the purpose of favoring one subset of humanity over another by preventing voluntary transactions, including the vast majority of immigration laws and density-limiting zoning laws.

          • Nornagest says:

            My position is that restrictions on what people do on their own property can be justified only if the restrictions benefit humanity as a whole on net.

            Fine, but that’s almost vacuous in practice. Ninety percent of the people you’re talking to think their favorite restrictions benefit humanity as a whole. People generally don’t actually say “fuck you, I got mine”; they come up with more or less strained reasons why getting theirs is best for everyone.

            It’s best to engage them on those terms, or you come off as condescending.

          • peopleneedaplacetogo says:

            @Nornagest: In the immigration case (and the free trade case) I think people often do openly admit they care less about whether foreigners are better off. In the NIMBY case they’re often less explicit about it, but I’ve definitely seen people use e.g. “San Francisco for San Franciscans” as a slogan. And here I’m responding to Doctor Mist who thinks city officials privileging the interests of people who already happen to live there over those of newcomers is fine and good.

        • SpeakLittle says:

          @hollyluja: That’s a fair point, but I’m not sure centralizing things at the national level, particularly in a nation as large as the US, will make things much better.


          I oppose any policy that entails using state power to for the purpose of favoring one subset of humanity over another by preventing voluntary transactions, including the vast majority of immigration laws and density-limiting zoning laws.

          While admirable, I don’t believe that is an achievable goal in the long run, short of infinite space and infinite resources (or a singularity where we all get to inhabit our own digitally-constructed utopia).

          • peopleneedaplacetogo says:

            Achievable in what sense? A huge amount of active effort (and more than a little violence) goes into enforcing borders and zoning laws. All I’m calling for is to stop doing that.

    • whateverthisistupd says:

      While I don’t care for cities, I don’t see the problem with eliminating zoning and letting the market decide, or at least having some type of diversity where people could choose the amount of zoning they want.

  37. James Mcelia says:

    For a look at a higher density city that still has quaint, quiet little suburbs, look at The Next American Metropolis. It’s far from perfect, and if my untrained eye noticed a few flaws, surely others would too, but it outlines a path forward similar, I think, to fluorocarbon’s comment.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      It seems like if the goal of suburbs is to balance low density with proximity to the city, then it’s important to have a high surface area/volume ratio – so the ideal would be many small but dense cities, surrounded by a ring of suburbs, separated by rural land.

      • po8crg says:

        separated by rural land


        Most of the parts of the world where people live has a much higher national population density than the USA, and therefore what you get is joint commuter towns (ie towns that are commuter towns for multiple cities).

        Development also tends to be more public transport oriented in Europe and much of Asia, which means that suburbia forms series of medium-density bubbles around each station along the railway line, with the rural land forming the separators between those bubbles, rather than a huge belt of suburban sprawl and then rural beyond that.

        • christianschwalbach says:

          Sure, but thats also a factor of most other developed nations having a much smaller land area than the us, and in many cases, like Japan and SK, lacking extensive flat land.

          • whateverthisistupd says:

            I think it has a lot to do with age of growth. Cities in europe and asia are older and thus grew in a way that fit with the technology of the times.

            Cities and urban/suburban areas grew with railroads an later cars, which probably accounts for a lot of the difference.

  38. peopleneedaplacetogo says:

    On the subject of differing preferences, this paper finds that across the US as a whole people are willing to pay a significant premium for housing in walkable neighborhoods. This suggests that at present the US housing supply is doing a worse job of meeting the preferences of people who want more walkability than meeting the preferences of people who want more space/car-oriented suburbia, and so permitting more of the former would be beneficial in aggregate.

    I also don’t think the difference in preferences is totally a neutral “competing access needs” thing, because cars in the US kill around 100 people every single day (with around 16% of the victims being pedestrians and another 2% being cyclists). Your preferences literally lead to killing people who don’t share them, and that’s before even considering climate change and the other negative externalities of car use. I can’t think of any comparable harms inflicted by those who prefer density on those who don’t. (I don’t think cars should be banned but I think a lot fewer people would want to use them regularly if they had to actually pay for the full costs of their externalities.)

    • Unirt says:

      It’s my impression that the US towns are famously unwalkable and that visiting Europeans frequently get in difficulties trying to walk to some not-far-away place and almost getting run over by cars.

      • eqdw says:

        I think there needs to be some significant pushback against walkability rhetoric.

        I like walking, I really do. I used to live in the Bay Area, where one of few things I really enjoyed about it was how walkable it was. I used to post comments praising walkability and advocating for it online.

        I’ve left California for Texas and since moving my perspective has done a complete 180. Because, it’s really easy to talk about how cars are bad and walkability is key when you live in SF. In SF, where it’s almost always clear and 75 outside. Here, well, we’ve just ended a 3 month stretch where the temperature was above 100 almost every day. Now the weather is down to a chilly 85-90 degrees, alternating between 80+% humidity and torrential rain.

        Or take where I’m from, Canada. Winter lasts from around the start of November through mid-May, typically. It’s brutally cold (below -40 overnight) through Jan/Feb, and for most of winter there’s a lot of snow that makes walkability painful at best

        My understanding of Europe is that most places in Europe have fairly mild climates that make walkability rather easy. To my knowledge, most of western/northern Europe does not get extreme temperatures in either direction. This makes it much much easier for people to go about their daily lives outside on foot.

        Walkability is great. I like it. I wish I had more of it. But the level of walkability that urban advocates talk about online is just not realistic for many of the cities in North America. If you invest in significant changes in that direction, not only do you end up with infrastructure that is only usable for half of the year, but you also subtract resources from vital infrastructure that could be used year-round.

        • ana53294 says:

          Copenhaguen, Stockholm, Helsinki, have as much as you can get in the way of extreme cold, and they are very walkable and bikable. They prioritize walkers so much that they put salt and gravel on the sidewalks first in Stockholm, before cleaning the roads.

          Valencia, Barcelona are very warm.

          • A Definite Beta Guy says:

            The above post should probably be altered from “we can’t” to “we really don’t want to.”

          • zzzzort says:

            I agree with the sentiment that walkability is possible in bad weather, but Stockholm is significantly less cold than Chicago or Minneapolis, and Valencia is significantly less hot than Dallas. Turns out having cities in the middle of a continent just kind of sucks weather wise.

          • hollyluja says:

            I think something it’s hard to understand in American cities is how close everything is in, for example, the Netherlands. People aren’t bike-commuting for 10+ miles per day – it’s an average of 1.5 miles per day. That means they mostly live closer than a mile from work

            Dutch Hardly Bike

          • eqdw says:

            Jul/Aug average high: 22C, 21.8C
            Annual record high: 31.2C
            Jan/Feb average low: -0.7C, -0.8C
            Annual record low: -17.8C

            Jul/Aug average high: 23C, 21.4C
            Annual record high: 36C
            Jan/Feb average low: -3.7C, -3.9C
            Annual record low: -32C

            Jul/Aug average high: 21.5C, 19.8C
            Annual record high: 31.6C
            Jan/Feb average low: -6.5C, -7.4C
            Annual record low: -35C

            Winnipeg (My hometown in Canada)
            Jul/Aug average high: 25.9C, 25.4C
            Annual record high: 42.2C
            Jan/Feb average low: -21.4C, -18.3C
            Annual record low: -47.8C

            Austin (Where I live now)
            Jul/Aug average high: 38.3C, 39.4C
            Annual record high: 44C
            Jan/Feb average low: 5.3C, 7.1C
            Annual record low: -19C

            Copenhagan’s record low is higher than Winnipeg’s average low. Every European city’s record high is lower than Austin’s average high. Winnipeg’s record low _and_ record high are respectively lower and higher than record temperatures for each European city.

          • SEE says:

            Copenhaguen, Stockholm, Helsinki, have as much as you can get in the way of extreme cold . . . Valencia, Barcelona are very warm.


            (Temperatures from Wikipedia entries for the cities, “Climate” subsection.)

            Copenhagen January/February average low: -0.7°C/-0.8°C
            Stockholm January/February average low: -3.7°C/-3.9°C
            Helsinki (Central) January/February average low: -6.5°C/-7.4°C

            Denver January/February average low: -8.1°C/-7.3°C
            Denver July/August average high: 31.9°C/30.7°C

            Barcelona July/August average high: 28.6°C/29.0°C
            Valencia July/August average high: 29.7°C/30.2°C

            So, Denver alone is colder than your best example of extreme cold and warmer than your best example of very warm.

            I accordingly suggest that your examples demonstrate “most of western/northern Europe does not get extreme temperatures in either direction”, rather than contradict the proposition.

        • arlie says:

          I’m also from Canada. Montreal, as it happens, where you can walk through large chunks of downtown without going outside. There are lots of connections between buildings, and between buildings and the subway.

          That doesn’t work so well outside of downtown. But there are certainly ways of combining walkability and routinely bad weather.

        • Matt M says:

          Agreed. I lived close to downtown Houston. I could catch a bus from a few blocks from my apartment to right near by office building for a $1.25 fare, and a total round commute time of about 20 minutes.

          Problem is, it turns out that for about half a year, walking “a few blocks” to get to the bus stop is enough to drench you in sweat, such that you might as well have biked to work or whatever. It simply wasn’t a realistic way to commute in the mornings, so I typically ended up taking a $5 Uber instead (which also reduced the 20 minutes to about 10 minutes)

        • peopleneedaplacetogo says:

          This sounds like an argument not to live in Texas; what’s your point?

          • eqdw says:

            The point is that “everyone in Texas should walk everywhere” is naieve at best.

          • poipoipoi says:

            Well, unfortunately, Texas is the one place in this country that builds.

            /NYC is really pushing it, Texas strikes me as risking death.

      • Squirrel of Doom says:

        According to what I heard, US cities/suburbs are often deliberately unwalkable in order to make it harder for the nearby ghetto people to enter.

        • poipoipoi says:

          That’s true of say… Oak Park, but I’m not sure how you’d make suburban Detroit walkable. The distances are too long.

          /Heck, I’ve got some friends moving into Outer Detroit these days, and I think THAT’s too far from downtown to ever be walkable or even transit-able.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Are you sure that’s a fair conclusion to drawn from the study?

      I’m sure a study would find Americans were willing to pay a significant premium for neighborhoods with lower crime, and suburban areas have lower crime, but does that necessarily mean US housing is undersupplying suburbs relative to cities?

      But isn’t the same argument as “a study shows Americans are willing to pay a significant premium for walkability, and urban areas have higher walkability, so this proves the US housing is undersupplying cities relative to suburbs”?

      I’m not saying you might not be right, just confused about whether your conclusion follows from the premise.

      • alyssavance says:

        Lowering crime generally requires raising taxes, whether it’s for more police, better social services, or what have you. Since people aren’t willing to spend infinite money, the desire for lower crime can never be fully satisfied, and will equilibrate at a point where the marginal pain of crime equals the marginal pain of taxes.

        On the other hand, creating walkable neighborhoods costs nothing. You just repeal the laws banning them, and the private sector will take care of the rest. In fact, at least up to a certain density level, walkable neighborhoods cost *negative* money because they require fewer tax dollars to service. If houses are very far apart, they require more road asphalt, more water and sewer pipes, more electrical substations, more police stations, more fire stations, etc. to serve a neighborhood of constant population. So providing walkability is actually cheaper. (Urban neighborhoods in poorer countries are always walkable, because they can’t afford anything else.)

        • HeelBearCub says:

          This is not quite right.

          Walkability is a networking problem, with a layer of “and drivability networking problem is already solved by making it a completely public good” on top.

          Some private enterprise solve this by creating entire walkable subdivisions, which are insulated from all others, but that isn’t very generalizable.

        • S_J says:

          Lowering crime generally requires raising taxes, whether it’s for more police, better social services, or what have you.

          In contrast to this: I live in a Metro Area in which the core City has both higher tax rates, and higher crime, than any of the surrounding suburban cities.

          The core City is in a bind, financially: lowering tax rates won’t bring enough people back to cover the shortfall, and raising tax rates will probably encourage more people to move from City to suburbs.

          There is a history to this, and the history makes the equation look much more complicated than “higher taxes, and spend it on social services and Police”.

          But then, I suspect that every city has some factor which makes the equation more complicated than that.

        • Mark Atwood says:

          Lowering crime generally requires raising taxes

          Or living someplace more high-trust.

          Until the vibrancy is thrust on the region for being racist and un-diverse, of course.

      • peopleneedaplacetogo says:

        Low-density suburbs are not inherently lower crime. Actually in the US I doubt they’re even lower-crime than dense cities after controlling for income. (And remember NYC has a significantly lower murder rate than the US average; seems like higher density holding income constant might actually decrease crime because you can afford a higher density of police?) But low-density suburbs are inherently unwalkable, because low density necessarily means things are far apart.

        • A Definite Beta Guy says:

          Low-density suburbs are not inherently lower crime. Actually in the US I doubt they’re even lower-crime than dense cities after controlling for income

          A low-density suburb with good schools and good amenities, close to jobs, will have a high cost per household, so lower income people would not be able to come into the neighborhood. So, yeah, they would be inherently lower crime.

          • peopleneedaplacetogo says:

            Proximity to jobs and amenities is generally worse at lower density, it’s not reasonable to assume those. There are plenty of high-poverty, high-crime, low-density suburbs.

          • CatCube says:


            You’re assuming your conclusion. If you don’t consider a 20-30 minute drive a problem, then access to jobs is very good for many suburbs. If you do have a problem with that, then they don’t.

          • A Definite Beta Guy says:

            Proximity to jobs and amenities is generally worse at lower density, it’s not reasonable to assume those. There are plenty of high-poverty, high-crime, low-density suburbs.

            High poverty, high crime suburbs are out of scope as far as I know. We’re not talking about the need for up-zoning there, because they are crappy areas. When it comes to NIMBY, those are the places that are probably going to get the new sewer treatement facility or whatever.

          • Anthony says:

            Most of East Oakland is single-family houses and duplexes on small lots. So not a “low-density suburb”, but a lot lower density than the clusters of apartment buildings around downtown Oakland, or the belt of 5-story apartment buildings west of downtown SF. It’s not terribly walkable unless you’re in good health and have time on your hands.

            There are some industrial jobs in the neighborhood, and good proximity (including decent bus service) to lots of jobs in downtown Oakland and not much worse to downtown SF or to Berkeley – certainly easier a commute to those places than commuting from Concord.

            It’s also one of the highest crime areas in the entire Bay Area.

      • Nate the Albatross says:

        Both suburbs and urban areas have an under supply of housing. So both demands likely exist. They might involve trade offs, but safety and walkability are both desirable. Like salary and vacation time. Everyone wants both, different people prioritize differently, and the demand isn’t met for either one.

      • Hendi says:

        I feel like suburb preferring people are weirdly resistant to looking at the most obvious evidence of people’s revealed preferences in this regard: home price differences within metro areas. I work in midtown Manhattan, within about an hour I can be in safe, upscale areas that are either leafy suburbs (e.g. Dobbs Ferry) or fairly dense parts of Brooklyn (e.g. Fort Green). Basically any way you slice it (price per square foot, price per bedroom), housing is much more expensive in the denser neighborhood.

        The clearest place to see this is at the high end of the market, where the fanciest condos in NYC (think an enormous penthouse with views of central park) sell at prices that are an order of magnitude higher than what the grandest estates (think ten acres and multiple buildings with views of the Hudson or the Long Island Sound) in the suburbs sell for.

        The price dynamics at most levels make it look pretty clear to me that there’s a lot of pent up demand for housing in dense areas and a lot less for suburban areas. So let’s take a few suburban neighborhoods (not all of them!) and make them denser so things balance out.

        • hls2003 says:

          If I’m understanding your statement, it seems wrong.

          There is not a lot of pent-up demand for generic “housing in dense areas.” There is a lot of pent-up demand for “housing in specific areas which are already built up to high density.” People don’t want to live in Manhattan because it is crowded. They want to live there because it is in Manhattan. Making a suburb more dense will not increase demand there to Manhattan levels, because it is still not in Manhattan.

          Perhaps I am misunderstanding.

          • John Schilling says:

            He’s talking about two different places, neither of which is in Manhattan, and saying people appear to be paying a huge premium to live in the dense city an hour’s travel from Manhattan rather than the leafy suburb an hour’s travel from Manhattan.

            If true, this does suggest a strong revealed preference for dense urban areas in general. Or perhaps for Brooklyn specifically, which seems less plausible. However, I note that Google Maps puts Ft. Green at only half an hour’s drive or public transit from Midtown Manhattan, compared to an hour from Dobbs Ferry, so some of that is probably people just paying more to have an extra hour to themselves every day.

          • idontknow131647093 says:

            Brooklyn is a city itself in many ways. I don’t understand how this scenario is a viable comparison. People who want to live in Brooklyn to commute to Manhattan are competing with people who want to live & work in Brooklyn for housing.

            In Chicago I could give an opposite example. Gary and Hammond to the Southeast are much denser than Des Plaines and Evanston to the Northwest, yet the prices are higher in the northwest.

          • hls2003 says:

            I tried to edit but apparently missed the window. John Schilling cleared up my confusion above. Not knowing NY, I hadn’t caught the two separate areas. I thus retract the above criticism.

        • arbitraryvalue says:

          One thing to keep in mind about places like Dobbs Ferry is that their property tax rates are through the roof. One house I just looked up pays 3.6%. Property taxes inside New York City are much lower, so a condo in Fort Greene which costs as much as that house will be a lot smaller, but even with condo fees, the yearly cost of owning it will be about half that of owning the house. (And that’s before you take into account that condo fees cover maintenance but the house owner has to pay maintenance himself).

          I don’t know if this is an issue specific to the NYC suburbs or not, but I looked into buying a suburban house and with taxes like that, it just isn’t a good investment.

          P.S. Fort Greene is also a lot closer to midtown than Dobbs Ferry is. It would be fairer to compare to a neighborhood like Sheepshead Bay.

          • Hendi says:

            But if you live in NYC you have to pay the city income tax, I’ve never done the math, but I’d imagine that balances things out a fair bit, though it depends on your income of course.

            And point taken on the difference in distance, I work near Grand Central, and looked at a house in Dobbs Ferry a few years ago because there’s a train that goes there (google tells me it takes 50 minutes). My commute to a different brownstone-y neighborhood in Brooklyn takes about 45 minutes, so while they’re not identical it’s as close to a ballpark-similar place as I could think of without actually doing research.

    • The Nybbler says:

      On the subject of differing preferences, this paper finds that across the US as a whole people are willing to pay a significant premium for housing in walkable neighborhoods.

      It shows a significant correlation between “walkscore” at a zip code level and housing prices per square foot. There are a ton of problems with this analysis, some of which they mention

      This specification has the obvious problem of not controlling for job market
      opportunities and other location-specific amenities and disamenities that
      are capitalized into the median home prices of zip codes, including labor market
      opportunities, cost of living, geography, public policy, etc.

      For instance, in my strongly-NYC-commute-oriented area, walk scores are strongly correlated with distance to transit.

      Also, zip codes vary in area significantly — from .003 square miles to 5496 square miles in the study. I suspect this will result in a “regional scatterplot” effect which overly weights to the small zip codes.

    • whateverthisistupd says:

      There’s evidence that all things being equal, cities are worse for mental health. As someone who has an auto-immune disease that is disabling and makes walking very difficult and deals with co-morbid depression and anxiety, living in a city like New York is nightmarish.


  39. idontknow131647093 says:

    I am supremely disappointed that my post on late night walks getting rained out didn’t make this list.