The urbanist proposal isn't "hey, jerks, why don't you all move to dense downtowns." Rather, the proposal is something like "why don't we impose carbon taxes so that things like driving long distances and heating or cooling large detached structures are priced in accordance with their social cost? Why don't we stop having the federal government heavily subsidize driving cars as the preferred mode of transportation? Why don't we have more areas that allow for high-density zoning, thus reducing the cost of urban housing?" It's not that we urbanists are unaware that many people live in low density areas because its cheaper, it's precisely that we are aware of this fact that makes us believe that the "traditional unipolar downtown" could make a comeback.
I have been without a car for the past 6 months, and have been using public transit for commuting. I get discounted monthly transit passes through my employer, for $40 a month. If I commute 20 times a month, that works out to a little more than a dollar a ride. But St. Louis Metro is subsidized at $2.46 per rider, and are bragging about how low this is! So I'm paying less than a third of the total cost of my transportation. And we think drivers are getting a bad deal?
It's not about cost anyway; it's about control. Metro could offer universal free service, and gas could be $4.00 a gallon, and the buses would still be empty and the highways would be jammed. As my post about airlines vs. interstate driving mentioned, that's a big difference maker. If I'm driving and I run 5 minutes late getting out the door, I get to work 5 minutes later. If I'm taking the bus, I get to work half an hour later.
In the six months I have been commuting the following have ocurred:
- I have been in a quite frightening accident caused by a driver falling asleep.
- On separate occasions, I lost a wallet of 40 CDs and an MP3 player.
- A bus took an incorrect route; I missed it and had to wait for the next one a half hour later.
- That same week, the bus apparently never came, again pushing me back half an hour.
- I had started doing this when there was an express bus service serving my office every 10 minutes on three differnt routes. One, then another of these routes was re-routed, so not it is only a 30 minute service.
I'm not trying to point fingers at Metro, and some of these things are my own damn fault. But it's a consequence of surrending control of part of my life to an organization that has other priorities ahead of my personal convenience. I leave my lunch in the car, and I have to walk out and go get it. I leave it on a bus or train, and I either go hungry or have to shell out for a meal.
So if Yglesias and others think they're going to get people to abandon their cars and move to the cities by making them pay carbon taxes, they're dreaming.
And that's just one aspect -- in city living there are a lot more spheres of life that are impacted by others than in the suburbs. If my suburban neighbor throws a party, I might need to weave around some extra parked cars on my way home. If an urban neighbor throws a party, I might not sleep that night. Et cetera.
There's got to be a carrot to go with the stick. There's reasons people moved to the suburbs, and not all of them are bad. Shaming and taxing us into moving back to the cities, rather than addressing those reasons, isn't going to get the job done.