Paradise Paved

The vast material displacements the machine has made in our physical environment are perhaps in the long run less important than its spiritual contributions to our culture. — Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization

There are now a great many young adults who have no memory of a time before social media and other technologies killed broadcasting. In startlingly rapid fashion, media outlets that succeeded by reaching a broad cross-section of society have been supplanted by niche outlets that succeed through extreme specificity.

This fragmentation of media and culture has its benefits. Off-beat, independent artists and writers can much more readily find their audience, and their audience can find them. More importantly, perhaps, groups and individuals who were historically either depicted as caricatures or entirely invisible in the mass media now routinely and more faithfully see themselves represented on mainstream platforms.

Of course the new media landscape is not without serious drawbacks. The boundaries around ideological and cultural bubbles seem increasingly calcified. Complex issues are flattened and reduced to cartoonish extremes, all the better to appeal to the emotions of the target audience. When communication does cross tribal lines, it tends, as often as not, to take the form of bad-faith provocations. On a more granular level, mental health scholars and professionals document a creeping epidemic of depression and alienation associated with living very online.

But rest assured, this essay is not yet another think piece about society going to hell in new media’s handcart. Instead, the brief survey above is meant to help illustrate the way in which technological tools that are initially viewed as novel and disruptive come to be seen as cost-free or even inevitable. I observe our current condition in order to facilitate a bit of conceptual time travel. If we could transport ourselves a few generations into the future, we would likely find nearly complete acceptance of the fragmented new media landscape we now find so problematic. But what if we traveled about the same amount of time backwards into history? Is there a deeply disruptive technology that was widely adopted only a few generations ago that is now seen as entirely unremarkable? Are the impacts of this technology on civilization — both physical and spiritual — seen as being as inevitable as gravity? I offer for your consideration the automobile.

Photo: Standard-Examiner

The worst thing about cars is that they are like castles or villas by the sea: luxury goods invented for the exclusive pleasure of a very rich minority, and which in conception and nature were never intended for the people. Unlike the vacuum cleaner, the radio, or the bicycle, which retain their use value when everyone has one, the car, like a villa by the sea, is only desirable and useful insofar as the masses don’t have one. That is how in both conception and original purpose the car is a luxury good. And the essence of luxury is that it cannot be democratised. If everyone can have luxury, no one gets any advantages from it. On the contrary, everyone diddles, cheats, and frustrates everyone else, and is diddled, cheated, and frustrated in return. — André Gorz, The Social Ideology of the Motorcar

Given the preponderance of our actual driving experience, it’s a bit incredible that car marketing works at all. What is sold as both a status object and a tool of liberation is experienced almost entirely as a cage. One of the more obvious ways in which the experience of car travel falls well short of its promise takes the form of the traffic jams that occur every day in cities of every size and in every region of the country. Motorists in vehicles that can easily reach speeds of 100+ MPH creep along at paces comfortably achieved on a bicycle. So we build more roads and widen the ones we already have, which is a response that can never work.

Adding car lanes to deal with traffic congestion is like loosening your belt to deal with obesity. — Lewis Mumford

This pithy aphorism is actually quite an accurate and concise expression of the concept of induced demand: highway expansion framed as a solution to traffic congestion is doomed to fail, because adding capacity simply invites more traffic. A classic example is the expansion of the Katy Freeway in Houston. Texas spent $2.8 billion to expand the freeway to a whopping 26 lanes, making it the widest freeway in the world. After the project was completed, commute times briefly dipped, only to rebound and then some.

Photo: Houston Chronicle

The concept of induced demand also maps quite neatly onto the phenomenon known as the Marchetti Constant, which is the name for the truism that human beings have always tolerated a roughly half-hour one-way commute. This explains a good deal about the form that cities take. For most of history, cities were compact as a direct function of the distance a pedestrian comfortably covers in a half-hour.

As transportation technology has improved, whether by replacing feet with cars or by adding road capacity, the consequence has not been that commute times have gotten shorter, but that the city has spread ever wider. Nationwide, about 31 million acres of farmland were lost to development in the 20 years between 1992 and 2012, according to the American Farmland Trust.

One way to place in context the magnitude of this shift is to isolate the transportation variable from population growth. An excellent example is Buffalo, New York where net metro-area population growth was zero between 1950-2010 while the urban footprint of the city more than tripled.

Suburban Phoenix

As it has worked out under the impact of the present religion and myth of the machine, mass Suburbia has done away with most of the freedoms and delights that the original disciples of Rousseau sought to find through their exodus from the city. Instead of centering attention on the child in the garden, we now have the image of ‘Families in Space.’ For the wider the scattering of the population, the greater the isolation of the individual household, and the more effort it takes to do privately, even with the aid of many machines and automatic devices, what used to be done in company often with conversation, song, and the enjoyment of the physical presence of others. — Lewis Mumford, The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects

This shift in the urban form has not only remade our built environment, but has radically reoriented our social and spiritual lives. In fact, some of the negative effects of the post-car development pattern are similar to the apparent ills of new media. We have used the car in concert with Euclidean zoning to sort ourselves into suburban “neighborhoods” that are limited to tightly defined demographic and socioeconomic profiles. These physical bubbles in turn tightly define both the quantity and the range of personal interaction we experience on a regular basis. If you think this type of sorting has had no effect on personal empathy or community solidarity, I encourage you to attend any public hearing in which your local government is considering a proposal to build multifamily homes next to a typical suburban housing development.

A man on foot, on horseback or on a bicycle will see more, feel more, enjoy more in one mile than the motorized tourists can in a hundred miles. — Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

Cactus Ed might have added that the benefits that accrue to the non-motorized traveler are not only spiritual but material. In Walden, Thoreau considered the economics of “taking the cars to Fitchburg.” By his math, train fare to Fitchburg was about equal to a day’s wage, which was about how long he figured it would take him to walk there. So, he reckoned, not only would the trip be a fuller and more pleasant experience on foot, it would also be quicker. The modern math isn’t much better: AAA reports that the average annual cost of a medium-sized SUV is over $10,000. How many days do we work each year simply to support our mechanical dependents?

Imagine what would happen if all the countries on earth ever achieve the same vehicle-ownership rate as the U.S. in 2000: there would be 4.7 billion vehicles even if the human population does not increase. … If there are four parking spaces per car (one at home, and three more at other destinations), 4.7 billion cars would require 19 billion parking spaces, which amounts to a parking lot about the size of France or Spain. More cars would also require more land for roads, gas stations, used car dealers, automobile graveyards, and tire dumps. — Donald Shoup, The High Cost of Free Parking

Disneyland Paris

All transportation systems consist of three elements: vehicles, rights-of-way, and terminals. Trains, tracks, and train stations, for example. The freedom promised by car travel is predicated on dedicating an incredible amount of real estate to all three elements.

Photo: 9gag.com

In particular, the amount of land dedicated to parking spaces — the terminal in the automotive transportation system — is staggering. Each parking space is around 160 square feet and multiple spaces are provided for each car, usually as a condition of development imposed by municipal government. Estimates of the total number of parking spaces in America are as high as 2 billion for roughly 250 million cars. Another bit of trivia that highlights the car’s privileged place: America now builds more 3-car garages than 1-bedroom apartments.

One justification for our national supply of parking is the holiday shopping season. Just as many retailers count on the window between Thanksgiving and Christmas to reach profitability for the year, defenders of Big Parking point to the holiday shopping season as justification for the massive parking lots that sit nearly empty nearly all year. But the reality is that even on Black Friday, most parking lots aren’t full.

Photo: Strong Towns

A few years ago, the urbanist organization Strong Towns started a clever crowdsourced campaign to illustrate this. Every year, they invite people to post pictures on social media of their local parking lots with the hashtag #blackfridayparking. The results are as entertaining as they are horrifying. This holiday season, consider making your own observations on the state of parking where you are. As you go about your holiday business, note how full the parking lots are. If where you are is typical, it will only be the spots around the more popular shopping destinations that approach capacity. Even then, what we perceive as a completely full parking lot often only seems so because we have become accustomed to abundant empty asphalt.

Photo: Canyon Country Zephyr

The problem of cars, and in particular the problem of parking them, is not limited to large cities. In particular, small cities and towns based on an amenities economy are severely afflicted with the problem. This makes intuitive sense, since one of the main features of such towns is the constant churn of one wave of motorized visitors following another into and then back out of town. It is yet one more way in which such places resemble a large amusement park.

A thorough study published last year surveyed in detail the parking situation in five cities of different sizes and from different regions of the country. One of the things that made the study particularly interesting to me is that it included the New West darling of Jackson, Wyoming, which allows for ready comparison with ordinary locales.

What the researchers found is that Jackson has a parking density of almost 54 parking spaces per acre, which is over five times greater than New York City’s parking density and nearly twice the parking density of even a normal, car-friendly city like Des Moines. Even more startling, Jackson’s parking density equates to a mind boggling 27 parking spaces per household with a total replacement value of $711 million. This means that Jackson has nearly $200,000-worth of parking for every one of its households.

Moab is, as you might expect, another interesting case. A recent study of Moab’s downtown parking supply found that even during peak visitation, there is ample parking. In fact, the report found that at the peak of the period studied, only 53% of the spaces were occupied.

So why does it feel like there are always too many cars and never enough parking in Moab? It’s probably a combination of a few factors. One, there are indeed many times more people in Moab on a typically busy weekend than there are permanent residents, and virtually all of those visitors arrive by automobile. There is a real and challenging gap between the car infrastructure needed by an ordinary city the size of Moab and one that is a popular tourist destination. It poses a challenge somewhat analogous to sizing parking lots for both the holiday shopping season and also for the other 11 months of the year.

A second likely reason is similar to what I noted above about our perception of parking space utilization: we have become so conditioned to expect extremely vacant parking lots that even occupancy levels well below capacity feel crowded. A third, related reason is that we perceive a parking shortage if we can’t park directly adjacent to our destination. A walk of even a block seems to us an unbearable hardship. As the authors of the Moab report write: “People seem unwilling to walk greater than 300 feet from their vehicle to their destination as witnessed by the available parking in the highest demand hours.” A knock-on effect of this compulsion is that a significant part of traffic congestion consists of cars circling the block as their drivers search desperately for a spot right next to their destination. We’ve come a long way since Walden.

In a further irony, it appears that the study has not curbed the desire to add still more “free” public parking to Moab’s downtown core, including a $7.8 million parking structure. For a bit of perspective, the 60-unit Cinema Court housing project developed in 2012 cost $8.79 million. So, for about the same expenditure as it would take to provide affordable housing for around 50 rent-paying, working families, which Moab desperately needs, the city is instead adding large chunks of toll-free parking, which it doesn’t need at all. As Gandhi succinctly said, “Action expresses priorities.”

Cataclysmic Money and the Illusion of Prosperity

Zephyr readers consistently demonstrate a high degree of insight and engagement. Last issue, for example, Doug Meyer left a response to my column that steered me to a selection of smart essays and other writing about the meaning of big words like nature and wilderness. Reading from his list has in turn led me down further related paths. I expect I’ll be writing more about that cluster of topics in the near future.

For this issue, however, I want to address a different smart comment that was left by another reader in response to something else I wrote for the Zephyr about a year ago:

“Interesting and well-researched article, and I essentially agree with it. But, the table of county economic data is misleading in that the “Typical household income” and “Typical home price” for San Juan County are (as stated in the footnotes) only “typical” for Monticello and (and likely as you state in the text) Blanding—not for most of the county. Income and home prices in White Mesa, Montezuma Creek, Aneth, Monument Valley, and other parts of the Rez are way below those values. This Anglo-centric economic analysis would mislead anyone who has not lived in the county or has integrated with only the Anglo community (likely the bulk of your readership). The Dine and Ute in the county are a major difference between San Juan and the predominantly Anglo Grand, Garfield, and Wayne Counties; and they will play a larger and dominant role in the political and economic future of San Juan County (a good thing) and likely overwhelm the Anglo establishment in ways the other counties will never experience—maybe in better (or less destructive) ways than those of “normal” Anglo Industrial Tourism. I don’t see the Indians having the elitism or greed of either the in-migrants (as you say) or the current and historic Anglo occupiers.”Bob Phillips, December 30, 2018

There are (at least) two distinct parts to this comment: 1) a questioning of my choice to use median home values in Moab and Monticello to stand for “typical home prices” in Grand and San Juan counties, and 2) an assertion that the impact of “Anglo Industrial Tourism” in San Juan may be tempered thanks to the influence of Native American residents on the local economy and government. As interesting and provocative as the second part of the comment is, I’m mostly going to limit my response here to the first.

Housing on the Navajo Reservation. Source: Getty via WBUR.org.

My intent in using median home values for Moab and Monticello to represent local housing costs was certainly not to sugarcoat economic conditions in San Juan County, nor in particular to deflect from the existence of deep poverty on the reservation. The goal was to compare, to the extent possible, apples to apples. Including reservation housing data would run counter to this goal given the entirely different system of property rights on the reservation (among other relevant differences). So to the extent that my essay and the table of economic data was “Anglo-centric,” it was entirely intentional. And I stand by that choice, not because living conditions on the reservation don’t matter, but because they do. In fact, it’s my opinion that they matter so much that to try to shoehorn them into a discussion of dissimilar circumstances can only lead to a crabbed, reductive consideration of the important questions. Such issues deserve their own discussion on their own unique terms.

With this said, I think it may be worth returning to some of the issues initially raised in the original essay of mine and highlighted by the first part of Bob’s comment.

The New West As Prosperity Gospel

It has been my experience during the years of the Bears Ears controversy that one very common rhetorical strategy of monument proponents is to include economic indicators unique to the reservation to make the case that San Juan County as a whole is desperately poor and in dire need of the sort of fixing Industrial Tourism is good at. The reasons for doing this are simple enough. To start with, it is the steadfast belief of elitists everywhere that they come not to condemn a place and its people but to save them. And many Bears Ears maximalists certainly live up to this axiom. Indeed, the standard sales pitch — for the New West in general and Bears Ears in particular — amounts to a sort of secular prosperity gospel in which economic prosperity inevitably follows from the proper, enlightened appreciation of nature. One form or another of this argument is made time and time and time again.

Another reason for this strategy, I think, is that it feels intuitively right. Moab just looks more wealthy than Monticello.

At the core of my essay was the counterargument that there is in fact a considerable gap between what the New West promises in terms of socioeconomic salvation and what it actually delivers. Boasts about the size of the outdoor recreation industry and rustic-twee architecture tell one story, but the stories from an expanding precariat class across the New West tell another.

Moab-Area Vacation Home. Source: VRBO.
Monticello-Area Vacation Home. Source: VRBO.

In more narrow terms, a comparison of the real cost of living between Moab and Monticello reveals that Moab’s prosperity is largely illusory. Recall that Moab’s median home price is nearly 50% higher than in Monticello while Moab’s median household income is much lower. When chronic housing insecurity is the norm for a considerable majority of your town, that is not affluence. It just isn’t. If Moab appears wealthy, maybe it’s because we don’t distinguish anymore (if we ever did) between the consumption of wealth and its accumulation. And if Monticello appears poor through our windshield, maybe it’s also because we have increasingly few opportunities to see what the middle class actually looks like, especially in America’s rural places.

Moab’s Affordability Gap. Source: 2017 Moab Area Affordable Housing Plan.

We can say more about how places like Moab come to give the illusion of wealth while creating precious little shared prosperity. In Order Without Design: How Markets Shape Cities, Alain Bertaud observes that the typical city, at bottom, functions as a labor market: 

Sometimes when I read the papers of my fellow urban planners, I get the sense that they think cities are Disneyland or Club Med. Cities are labor markets. People go to cities to find a good job. Firms move to cities, which are expensive, because they are more likely to find the staff and specialists that they need. If a city’s attractive, that’s a bonus. But basically, they come to get a job. (Source: CityLab.)

It seems to me that this insight is fundamentally correct. It also lays bare a significant distinction between unusual cities like Moab that are defined by their dependence on an amenities economy and the boring kind of place that Bertaud is describing and which has been the prevailing model nearly everywhere for nearly all of human history. Namely, the organizing logic of an amenities economy isn’t production but consumption. Sure, an amenities economy requires considerable hard work by locals either permanent or itinerant  — visitors always need someone on the ground to provide food, shelter, and carefully curated performative and experential goods — but that work is incidental not foundational to the existence of the city. In essence, a town dependent on an amenities economy really is more like Disneyland or Club Med than not.

Moab Main Street. Source: Discover Moab.

This Land is Not for You and Me

And again, the clearest, most pesky evidence for the fundamental dysfunction of an amenities-based economy is the significant, observable bust between the (high) cost of housing in places like Moab and the (low) wages in the same places. In ordinary cities with an ordinary economy, the ability to charge for the development of residential real estate is tethered to the local labor market. (In older industrial times, the geographic realities of the local labor market also constrained the physical footprint of residential development, since living far from work would have meant an impossible commute.) Not so in the New West, where the automobile enables easy access to previously hard-to-reach corners of the landscape and where affluent buyers whose income is earned in labor markets hundreds or thousands of miles away bid up the price of real estate to levels well beyond what is affordable at local prevailing wages. The effect is that the supply of shelter in places like Moab is dominated by structures built for people who do not depend on local wages to rent or buy them. New West real estate is simply not for locals. They are interlopers in their own hometown.

Worker Housing in Moab. Source: Deseret News.

(As an aside, I hope it has become even more obvious by this point that including reservation property in this sort of discussion would do more to confuse the issue than to clarify it. The uniquely byzantine legal obstacle course that defines property rights on reservations means there can be no remotely similar process of amenity-driven migration or land speculation there. Indeed, the lack of a functional land use framework has been one of numerous impediments contributing to the utter failure to provide even basic housing for tribal members across the Navajo reservation.)

In her landmark book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs introduced the concept of “gradual money” versus “cataclysmic money.” The essence of the distinction is that there is an important, categorical difference between a place growing incrementally over time as returns on local economic gains are reinvested, in the former instance, and a place being subjected to wrenching social and economic change due to an overwhelming rush of money from sources outside the place itself, in the latter.

Source: Medium.

While Jacobs was talking about the effect of these different forms of investment on the fate of urban neighborhoods, it should be immediately apparent that this is also a useful framework for making sense of change across the New West. It should be equally apparent that only cataclysmic money can remake a place as rapidly and thoroughly as has happened in Moab.

Another set of concepts from the study of urban gentrification can help us deepen our understanding of cataclysmic money and the forces that typically unleash its torrent.

Neither Supply nor Demand Cares About Your Good Intentions

Generally speaking, there are both demand- and supply-side theories about the causes of gentrification. Demand-side theories focus on the way a shift in consumer preferences can turn a previously undesirable place into a trendy destination suitable for attracting the patronage of the bourgeoisie. This shift in the demand curve leads to a rapid increase in the price of real estate and transforms both the social fabric and built form of the place. In extreme cases, the result may be the dispossession and displacement of prior occupants. This explanation is essentially a description of the manufacture of demand for a luxury good.

A different way of thinking about gentrification is offered by rent-gap theory, which is a leading supply-side theory of the process. In this framework, the focus is shifted from the movement of people to the movement of capital. Note that demand-side and supply-side theories are not always in conflict, but they do offer different ways of thinking about the problem. For the graphically inclined, this what rent-gap theory looks like on the blackboard:

Source: StrongTowns.

The basic rent-gap explanation for the gentrification of a place like Moab goes something like the following. During the uranium boom of the 50s, Moab’s workforce multiplied several times over. The vast majority of the housing stock and commercial structures that count as “Moab” were built during this relatively short period. These buildings then depreciated over time, first gradually through ordinary wear and tear, then rapidly as the Cold War ended and the town experienced a prolonged period of disinvestment and depopulation. This was the state of Moab real estate when it was discovered by yuppies in the late 80s and transitioned in earnest to an amenities economy. A “rent gap” was created almost overnight. That is, there quickly emerged a significant gap between the existing (low) rent property could command, which was based on what existing Moab residents were able and willing to pay for shelter given the realities of the local labor market, and the potential rent the same property could command, which was based on what second home buyers and land speculators were able and willing to pay, which obviously had nothing at all to do with the Moab labor market. Capital, we know, is adept at sniffing out such “arbitrage opportunities.” And of course, the bigger the rent gap and the more quickly it forms, the more likely it is that the investment that follows is of the cataclysmic sort. And so it was with Moab.

When these factors come together in a way that creates an especially perfect storm, the complete impotence of good intentions to meaningfully affect outcomes should be apparent. This impotence includes, by the way, the good intentions that are typically expressed through local planning and zoning, in affordable housing initiatives, and anti- or smart-growth political campaigns. They are simply no match for the bloodless inevitability of supply and demand. And so it also was with Moab.

It is this set of concerns, in part, that leads some (like me) to wonder about the wisdom of more fully restructuring San Juan County around an amenities economy, as Bears Ears proponents prescribe. As it stands today, the relevant factors in SJC probably do not add up yet to a cataclysmic storm of New West money, but it’s likely to be a pretty good squall all the same.