This is the first half of a two-part series of posts. It summarises a few ideas that have been banging around the back of my head for a while – basically, an attempt to answer the question: “What can economics do for cities?” In this part, I discuss a couple of important concepts: agglomeration economies, which underpin cities’ existence and ongoing success, and the potential role of pricing mechanisms for managing urban ills.
What do cities do?
Cities mean different things to different people. They are places to work, places to play, places to invest, places to consume, places to conduct politics, places to realise one’s individuality, places to blend into the crowd. (And many, many more things beside.)
In fact, one of the features of a successful city is that it can mean different things to different people, and attract and retain them for different reasons. Cities exist because they are efficient and diverse.
Economists use the term agglomeration economies to describe the advantages of urban scale and density. If you operate a business, locating in a city will allow you to access more workers, more customers, and more new ideas. But even if not, an urban location still offers advantages – more restaurants and retailers, a larger dating pool, better access to education and healthcare, and more choices about how to work, live, and get around.
New research from the Netherlands finds that agglomeration economies in both production and consumption are important, albeit to a different extent in different cities. Furthermore, ignoring agglomeration economies is a risky proposition for cities:
As history has shown (see, for example, what happened to Detroit or the decline in the population of Amsterdam and Rotterdam referred to above), current successes provide no guarantees for the future. This is what Gibrat’s law tells us, growth is independent of current size. Future growth is therefore largely independent of past success. The chances for policymakers that try to row against the tide are small. A successful policy requires to ‘go with the flow’. Large investments in infrastructure in a declining city do not satisfy any real demand but lead to large financial burdens for the local population, making these cities even less attractive. However, policy can make a difference in growing cities. In order to remain on the short list of hot spots, policymakers in these cities have two margins to work on.
- First, the city has to be attractive for innovative entrepreneurs and enterprises to locate their business.
- Second, the city has to be an attractive choice for high-educated top talent as a place to live in.
In other words, urban success is a dynamic process. Cities can’t stand still – they must be capable of attracting new people and generating new ideas and opportunities. Simply identifying some things that people like about a city and then freezing them in amber is a recipe for long-term urban failure.
1. Incentives and prices matter, so it’s important to get them right
We need change, but we don’t necessarily need change at all cost. Most development is good, but some has deleterious side-effects. A new factory may contaminate local air and water quality. A coal-fired power plant will damage our climate. A new subdivision may pump traffic onto congested roads. A new retailer may attract more people to park on already-crowded streets.
Policy responses to these challenges can heavy-handed and inefficient. While negative (and positive!) spillovers are abundant in cities, some cures may be worse than the disease. A good example is minimum parking requirements, or MPRs, which require new developments to provide a defined minimum amount of parking. The aim of this policy is to prevent parking from spilling over onto neighbouring streets and properties.
Unfortunately, MPRs tend to be both inefficient and ineffective. They are inefficient because (a) there is usually poor evidence for choosing minimum ratios, meaning that many businesses and households are compelled to purchase more parking than they need and (b) they tend to be more costly than alternative approaches to parking management. Furthermore, they are often ineffective, as people continue to complain about a lack of parking even in places where MPRs have led to a major oversupply.
Better pricing is often a better alternative to blunt policy instruments. As any economist will tell you, if you want less of something, put up the price! This approach is applicable to a wide range of policy areas, especially in cities. For example:
- If we’re worried about congestion, rather than spending megabucks to expand motorways that will simply get clogged up again, implement congestion pricing.
- If we’re worried about parking spillover, we should accept that MPRs are a costly policy that doesn’t really work, and price on-street parking to ensure that one in seven spaces is always available for people to use. Auckland Transport’s new parking strategy commits to implementing efficient pricing where it is needed – an excellent step forward that more cities should follow.
- If we’re worried about climate change, rather than implementing case-by-case controls, we should implement a carbon tax to ensure that people pay the full cost of their emissions. This will encourage people to find ways to grow their businesses and consumption without growing emissions – as it’s done in British Columbia.
There are several important advantages to using prices, rather than regulations or construction, to discourage negative spillovers. First, pricing respects people’s ability to make good choices. If we had a carbon tax, it wouldn’t prevent someone from burning petrol or farming cows. But it would make them pay the full social cost of those choices.
Second, prices can change in response to new information. AT’s new parking policy is a good example of this – they will monitor demand for on-street parking and tweak the prices up if occupancy is too high. This reduces the risk of screwing things up due to forecasting errors.
Third, and most importantly, prices provide governments, businesses, and households better information, which can enable them to make better decisions. Over time, this will result in significant dynamic efficiencies. For example, congestion pricing will help transport agencies plan infrastructure upgrades. Rather than having to guess whether people will value expanded roads – which frequently leads to errors – they will be able to measure the actual value that people place on travel.
Tomorrow: Part 2.