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Market Urbanism: Another Panacea
A guest post by SolarxPvP
The Twitter personality known as SolarxPvP sent me a thoughtful email on market urbanism. I may reply when I return from Europe. Reprinted with his permission.
I found this tweet you made recently, and I'm happy to see that market urbanism is on your radar.
It needs far more attention from libertarians. To show you why, I will introduce you to Not Just Bikes, a fantastic YouTube channel I found earlier this year that opened my eyes to the problems of the modern city. He convinced me that poor urban design is the cause of countless problems and that good urban design is more than just YIMBYism. But before that, let me give you a brief primer on urbanism in case you are not aware.
The primary problem with current cities is that they are extremely car-centric. We don't realize this because it's just everyday life and we assume that cars make transportation easier and more convenient, but this is false. Car-centric designs are so bad that they make driving worse. The Netherlands, the model country on the YouTube channel, is one of the best places to drive in the world despite its walkable urban design as he has persuasively argued.
Remember this fact: cities and their infrastructure are government funded and planned. The car-centric model was developed because the government mass-funded roads to be built for cars; and the government, as it does for everything, has terrible incentives. So it did not do this because it was more efficient to be car-centric and respond to market demand but because of public choice incentives.
Like YIMBYism, there are many modern social problems that walkable cities provide at least partial solutions. Here are a few:
1. Fewer car crashes. Less need for cars every day means fewer cars. Therefore, a car-independent city has fewer crashes. Driving is one of the most dangerous activities we do every day, and more people will live longer and more prosperous lives without crashes in car-independent cities. Also, better road design means fewer crashes for the cars that are still on the road.
2. Fewer people will need to pay for cars. Aside from housing, cars are the most expensive things most people pay for. You no longer will need a car for Mom and Dad and all the teenagers in the house. Many people will just use bikes or public transport. In the Netherlands, bikes are specially designed for commuting and comfort unlike the sports bikes in the U.S. There are also specialized bikes, such as cargo bikes, to carry groceries and children. They can be expensive but are much less expensive than cars. Public transportation is also far more reliable and more comfortable (especially in Switzerland, a country that outdoes even the Netherlands on this point). Imagine the extra disposable income from not having to pay NIMBY prices or pay for a car! Being poor would be much easier.
3. Obesity. Walking and biking are more exercise-friendly than cars. I don't think this needs much explanation.
4. Socialization. Many people reminisce about college. College campuses are much more walkable than normal towns and cities, so people are walking around and seeing their friends every day. In car-centric cities, people are trapped in a box on asphalt. You can easily walk to your friends' dorm rooms or run into your friend outside of the cafe. You can smile and wave at people on your commute. Little things like that brighten people's day. Want to see your friends in a walkable city? Just walk down the street to the corner bar or cafe in a minute. Make new friends.
5. Childhood and disability independence. In The Netherlands, it's common for kids to bike or walk everywhere on their own. The lack of cars and the presence of watching eyes everywhere of people they trust and see every day likely makes parents feel safer letting their children bike to school and the park. This gives children good memories. People are watching other people instead of other cars.
The older and disabled are also given more independence. They don't have to be driven everywhere by family, rely on their sight not getting them in a car accident, or rely on their sight to not accidentally walk in front of a car.
6. Traffic and noise pollution. "Traffic. So. Much. Traffic," they say. In walkable cities, it's all gone! Streets are full of people and bikes moving along at a nice pace and can transport as many people as an interstate or multilane road without the congestion. In one of his videos (I don't remember which one specifically), he shows a poll comparing how much people missed commuting during COVID when everyone was stuck in their houses. Walkers missed their commute the most, drivers missed their commute the least, and people who took trains were somewhere in between. Also, car-free is shorter overall. My guess is this is part of the reason Europeans are happier than Americans: they can walk more.
In a Not Just Bikes video, he shows how quiet Amsterdam can get compared to other cities. At one point, he measured the decibel levels as being the level of a library! People and bikes are much quieter than wheel friction and horns. Some studies show that noise pollution makes people much less happy.
7. Aesthetics. People often complain that American cities and suburbs are bland, boring, and samey. Cities in the Netherlands are not and are pretty. American cities are ugly asphalt oceans that people ignore when driving to work and looking at the road, but people in the Netherlands are walking everywhere and looking at the scenery around them, so things are better designed.
8. Crime. This is one I thought of myself. Instead of having to worry about enforcing traffic laws as much, police could patrol communities looking for violent and property crimes. In the U.S. where gun laws are laxer, people would be carrying while walking around as well, so if something happens, an armed person would be available for quick assistance. They could also defend themselves easily. Also, if more developed areas have less crime as you argued in your panacea lecture on YIMBYism, I imagine prettier neighborhoods would have the same effect!
9. The Environment. Although Alex Epstein has convinced me that carbon emissions are overhated, it is another way to convince people of it. There will be fewer cars and therefore fewer emissions.
The videos Not Just Bikes makes describe many of these benefits. I encourage you to watch many of his videos, but here's a sampling of them to get an idea of the arguments for urbanism.
An excellently produced channel trailer that accurately depicts how different you will see the world.
"There's Something Wrong With Suburbia (The Orange Pill)"
A video about "stroads," the basis of American road design that makes it awful.
"Stroads are Ugly, Expensive, and Dangerous (and they're everywhere) [ST05]"
For this next one, the title explains itself.
"Cities Aren't Loud: Cars Are Loud"
The independence that kids get in The Netherlands, and how that makes it better.
"Why We Won't Raise Our Kids in Suburbia"
A car-free area in Toronto that is in high demand. I think it provides evidence that neighborhoods would become walkable if left to the free market due to their higher demand. Car-centric infrastructure is incredibly expensive and wasteful too, and I believe the market would not build wasteful infrastructure as much.
I recommend going through his most popular videos (click the dropdown menu and select the most popular option) and watching a lot of them. You'll learn much more than what I have shared here and you'll see much of the great city design in action - including some YIMBY videos. I haven't watched all of his videos, but I've watched a good bit of them, and they have significantly changed my perspective. I highly suggest doing so.
The main problem with most urbanists - including Not Just Bikes who I am sure is on the left - is that they are not libertarians. As you have noted, there is the market urbanist movement. But it gets little attention. Scott Beyer of the Market Urbanism Report is the name I see most often, and market urbanists such as him have been featured in Reason videos. Nevertheless, if you search for Beyer on YouTube, his videos have very few views. There are two decent-sized Twitter accounts about market urbanism, one run by Beyer's website at marketurbanismreport.com and the other run by marketurbanism.com. That's it. The movement deserves more attention from libertarians and urbanists. It's important we prove we don't need the government, even the Dutch one, to make cities beautiful. Public choice must get out of the way.
Beyer's book "Market Urbanism: A Vision for Free-Market Cities" is the main book on the movement from what I am aware. He is on a journey traveling around the United States and the world to see how cities work to inform his arguments. There is also the book "The Voluntary City" edited by Alex Tabarrok, David T. Beito, and Peter Gordon, but I don't know if it tackles the same issues much. Both of the websites I've listed (marketurbanism.com and marketurbanismreport.com) have more information about market urbanism.
I think a review of Beyer's book on your blog would be more than worth it to promote the movement. I also want to see if you think urbanism under an anarcho-capitalist society would be practical, and I'd like to see how much your views have changed on society. If you like his book and believe it to be sufficient, perhaps you could one day write another graphic novel on urbanism. If you think you can do better, perhaps you could write a book on Market Urbanism one day. I can't wait to see what you think!