Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Security Consequences of Urban Planning

Modern urban planning in the U.S., as it has been conceived and implemented in the urban sprawl since WWII, poses serious security concerns that arise from its economic vulnerabilities. The vulnerabilities are both explicit, in terms of direct transaction costs such as transportation to work, and more implicit, in terms of aggregate and individual worker productivity. Thus, did The Economist ("In a Jam," May 5, 2007, p. 38) describe the situation in the area where I live:

[The] Bay Area is not set up like a European metropolis. Most suburbanites have quite a drive just to get to an underground station, and must then win a vicious struggle for parking to make it onto a train.

The description fits well with my family's experience here.

In major American cities, workers have to drive long distances (of the order of 80 - 200 km / day) from home to work and back, and a significant increase in gas prices, without a similar increase in better communications technologies (that allow people to reduce trips to work to compensate for other losses) or a similar increase in energy efficiency of automobiles (at the same unit price) can cause perturbations towards lower growth rates.

Lack of adequate and efficient public transportation is not limited to major cities. One in eight who live in the U.S. live in California, just as I do. The state by itself has consistently accounted for one of the top 10 largest GDPs in the world for multiple decades, and it drives the U.S. economy with its vast consumption, tax base, farming and real estate, not to mention high technology. And yet, there are no super fast trains connecting any of its major metropolitan areas together: Los Angeles, Orange County, San Francisco Bay Area, Sacramento Valley, etc.

The economic inflexibility of urban sprawl leads not only to higher overall transaction costs throughout the economy but also to instabilities in various sectors. For example, The Wall Street Journal recently reported that 51 leading retail store chains have reported a collective 2.3% decline in same-store sales. Michael Niemira, chief economist of the New York-based International Council of Shopping Centers says this is the weakest showing since he began tracking the closely watched industry measure of performance in 1970. People have blamed this on a soft housing market, bad wheather in March, a fast Easter or fuel prices. Fuel prices and a soft housing market seem to be the most likely explanations for why this drop has been as large as it has been. While the real estate industry benefits from generally cheap gas prices (which lead to better possibilities for greater urban sprawl) and may be willing to go to war for it (observe how the representatives of American economic power offered almost universal support, in 2002-2003, for aggression against and occupation of Iraq), the spending for war might come back to bite the real-estate and other industries in the form of rampant deficits and inflation, higher interest rates, higher fuel prices and general asset attrition. One would expect that the economic elites and political leaders of a super power to comprehend that peace, justice, stability and truly open commerce (of course, not in commerce of aggressive war machinary) remain the solid base and the best guarantors of mutual understanding and development, economic vitality and growth. However, "stability" is often confused with the extension of imperial rule. In the meantime, a rampant political jargon and an infected moral language equates mass aggression with liberation, injustice with natural rights, murder with "collatoral damange," etc. Such infection of moral language, publicly spread, will always fog people's minds and provide a kind of self-belief among the elites to perpetuate the rule of what becomes a militaristic economy unashamedly pursuing its ends until it exhausts all resources at its disposal (and reaches its own end) at a huge toll in human life and well-being.

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