Politics is Social Engineering

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I’ve been working on a long-form piece for a couple months that should be out in January, and I wanted to share this snippet of an interview that I’m not using.

This is from Ian Lockwood, an engineer and principal at the design firm AECOM, and he’s talking about what happened in Copenhagen in the 70’s, as an example of why land use policy matters. Even if you don’t care much about land use and transportation issues, it’s an inspiring example of why politics matters, and how commitment to the right policies can turn things around relatively quickly. I think it’s also a lesson about how we could all stand to be a little more radical.

In Denmark they were building by-passes and highways just like we were, but it got too expensive, and in the 70’s they had to make a policy decision between things like health care and education and highways. They picked health care and public education; we picked highways. We kept doing conventional stuff, but they systematically altered the built environment to make walking and cycling and transit popular.

You can make huge changes to quality of life and health and so forth through policy. People here don’t like that idea because they think of it as social engineering, and anything with the word social in it is anti-American. However, the same thing happened here. We were socially engineered to give up our transit and our walkable cities. Our cities were as walkable as any European city in 1920. We had some of the most fantastic trolley and train systems in the world.

But public policy was changed purposefully to dismantle that system and to create a car-based system not just because it was profitable for the people involved, but because there was this idea that it was a better way of life. And we all bought into it and it’s still the prevailing idea.

This entry was posted in Environment, Land Use, Transportation.

5 Responses to Politics is Social Engineering

  1. Gdub says:

    Surely Mr. Lockwood is aware that Denmark in recent years has (partially built) the Oresund Bridge, one of the most ambitious road/rail bridges in recent memory. They also have nice highways and neighborhoods with detached houses, albeit not as large.

    It is hard to compare countries like the US and Denmark. Denmark is a relatively small country, mostly on islands, with a mostly agricultural mainland. It has a few industries that bring a lot of national income to spread around a few people. It is undoubtedly a great place to live, but the lack of space and the islands concentrates a lot of the population on the islands of Copehagen. The US is a huge country that has lots of space–totally different dynamic.

    A historical perspective could add something to his argument. Trolley systems notwithstanding–cities were often pretty crappy places to live for middle class and poor people in the 1920s. The somewhat passive word choice is a bit strange–folks didn’t want to live in lousy, small, high-density housing, with crappy, small shops and the chance to have nicer, detached housing with access to good shopping was pretty attractive in the postwar years. Seems like now we’re trying to figure out how to combine the best of both.

    • Jon Geeting says:

      I don’t think any of that diminishes the point though. The issue is what the stance of federal (and state and local) policy has been, and should be. Normally, we have a pretty good mechanism to use for figuring out what people want and what they are willing to pay for. It is called a market. And the benefit is that the federal government doesn’t have to try to figure out what people want from 30,000 feet. If Americans wanted more detached houses than Danes, that would’ve happened with a neutral federal policy. But federal policy was not and is not neutral. It is very very prescriptive.

  2. Gdub says:

    I think you are ignoring historical externalities. Namely–the creation of the VA mortgage and the creation of federally-backed mortgage insurance–both of which created/unleashed market demand for a certain kind of housing, although the policies themselves were neutral. Further, you are ignoring decades of progressive political thought which connected the typical urban life of the early 20th century with a lot of social evils–which could be corrected by planned communities.

    Clearly, people in the 1950s could have used the GI Bill to buy apartments in urban areas. Perhaps the overall low quality of housing stock (which prompted, among other things, urban redevelopment and public housing) moved people in a certain direction.

    My point is–don’t buy garbage generalizations about Europe. Europe definitely builds highways and interchanges–the vast majority of goods in Europe move by truck. The availability of land drives perceptions of the possible. And public policy uprooted from historical experience and trapped by rose-colored views of the past is bad policy.

    • Jon Geeting says:

      I’m not denying any of that. I’m just pointing out that the way America’s been built out, and the way more transit and pedestrian-friendly cities have been built out, are the result of explicit, active, political, even ideological policy choices. That includes the supposedly “neutral” tax credits and financial instruments that people use to buy certain types of housing. The mortgage interest deduction can’t be used for income-producing residential properties, for example. That’s an explicit political choice to favor construction of owner-occupied homes over multi-family apartments. It’s the biggest housing subsidy the federal government has!

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