According to Plan?
The interview with Peter Gordon ("Plan Obsolescence," June) contains much I agree with. His choice of markets over planning is without flaw. In the interests of furthering market choices by home buyers, however, I would emphasize the cost of land as a big reason for the spread of suburbs.
Is it not mainly the high cost of land in urban centers that pushes folks to the suburbs? Is there not a significant cost difference for building a given house? Good schools, clean air, and desire for space are surely factors. But in my view, the cost factor dominates.
As for the claim that commute times have hardly changed over the past 15 years, Professor Gordon may wish to check out I-80 and I-680 in my neck of the woods.
El Cerrito, CA
While thought-provoking, "Plan Obsolescence" was disappointing in its handling of statistics. The article states that Los Angeles "has the highest population density of any major metropolitan area" without identifying the source of that assertion. By whose measure is the population density of Los Angeles greater than that of New York City? Indeed, it is not clear whether that is Mr. Gordon's assessment or was one your interviewers took from an independent source.
More egregiously, the "calculation" determining that over the past decade the Los Angeles transit system has incurred a cost of "$7.00 for every transit rider eliminated" went unchallenged. The absurdity of that pseudo-statistic is easily demonstrated: If ridership had fallen by one-tenth that amount, the cost would have been $70 per rider lost; if ridership had fallen by only one, the cost would have been $7 billion per rider lost. The problem, of course, is that money is being spent not to lose riders, but to retain them; the salient statistic is an estimate of how many riders would have been lost if no additional money had been spent, spreading the costs incurred over that number. (Even then, that statistic would ignore the fact that retaining riders may not be the only purpose for making the expenditures.)
Should we take the cost of an immunization program, divide by the number of cases that occur nonetheless, and decry the huge cost per case not prevented? Should we divide the cost of highway improvements and maintenance (tens if not hundreds of billions per year) by the number of highway fatalities, and decry the high cost per fatality (probably in excess of $1 million per fatality)?
To the categories of lies, damn lies, and statistics, perhaps we should add pseudo-statistics.
Kenneth B. Povodator
Peter Gordon replies: George Amberg is correct. Supply and demand surely matter in the determination of land prices. As the costs of traversing distances fall, and as more sites become accessible, we have more supply and lower prices. Office space rents in central Mumbai (Bombay) are quite high because the supply is low and new sites do not come easily available where infrastructure is poor and where development is hampered. U.S. cities also have their supply-side problems but the effects of new communications technologies in opening up new sites, making more industry "footloose," are dramatic. More firms and more households now can choose cheaper sites without paying an access penalty.
With respect to Kenneth Povadator's concerns, the population densities alluded to are from the Census Bureau's Urbanized Area statistics (1990): 5,800 people per square mile in L.A.; 5,408 people per square mile for New York. This is not Manhattan vs. downtown L.A.; rather, it is a comparison of functional urbanized areas (when you fly in at night, where the lights start).
With respect to transit, causation is of course always tricky but I will stick to my story. While the population of L.A. County grew by 12 percent over the past decade, with many of these new arrivals immigrants, public transit lost about 1 billion boardings as it spent $7 billion on new capacity--which was sold as a way to more than triple ridership! What went wrong? The bus system was bled to pay for rail. More rail, fewer buses, less transit use.
In "Thanks for the Memories" (June), Walter Olson mocks two passages from an affidavit I filed in asbestos litigation in Corpus Christi, supporting the propriety of the Baron & Budd law firm's use of detailed work history sheets to prepare their plaintiff clients to testify. Since Olson and I agree that it is morally and legally wrong for a lawyer to counsel or assist a witness to testify falsely, our disagreement must lie either in our understanding of what really happened, or in our interpretation of what I wrote.