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An Interview With Matthew Yglesias

Conor Friedersdorf

Mr. Yglesias is one of the foremost progressive bloggers in the United States, and regularly comments on urban affairs. See his work daily here.

Q. Asked to allocate a billion dollars in funds on anything that falls under the rubric of urban affairs, what would you prioritize?

Better buses! It's rare that you have a policy issue that can be solved by throwing more money at the problem, but the technology to make bus service more frequent and equip buses with GPS systems that provide real-time schedule updates to bus stops exists and operates in many parts of the world. We should be installing it in our major cities.

Q. You're a regular critic of what you consider to be excessive parking in cities, especially when spots are mandated by law or take up land near subway stops. Is there more to this than a desire to disincentive driving? Were you to write the development code for a major city, how would you handle the issue of parking? Why?

To be clear, I'm not against parking. I'm against government-subsidized parking and government-mandated parking. I'm a liberal -- I believe in subsidies for public goods and in regulations to curb harmful externalities, but neither of those things exist when it comes to parking. If anything, it's the reverse -- cheap parking causes environmental hazards and traffic jams. I would let people build as much or as little parking as they feel they can profitably sell to people.

Q. You're a committed progressive. Am I right in thinking that you're also a supporter of a lot of very market friendly urban affairs policies? Why is it that there isn't a stronger alliance between the market friendly right and left on these issues?

I think the biggest issue here is simply that American cities are so overwhelmingly populated by liberals. Consequently folks on the right don't think much about cities and when they do it tends to get lazy and slipshod. Ask a conservative about rent control, and he'll give you chapter and verse on how it distorts things, likely blissfully unaware that rent control is largely non-existent these days. Ask about parking mandates or FAR limits or whatever and you draw a blank stare. I also want to specifically call out Randall O'Toole of the Cato Institute and the Reason Foundation. I'd like those outfits to be my allies on these topics, but O'Toole is a pawn of the sprawl lobby who's willfully blind to the ways in which current government regulations are anti-urban.

Q. You've observed before that Americans are curiously averse to seeing what policy solutions have succeeded in foreign countries. Is this true in urban affairs? What innovations have you seen abroad that are worth considering here in the United States?

Definitely. Many foreign countries don't have the "only left-wing people live in the city" phenomenon discussed above. Consequently, places like Oslo and Stockholm have implemented congestion pricing schemes that many American metro areas could learn from. The Bush administration actually deserves credit for pushing this idea to a degree, which Michael Bloomberg tried to implement in NYC only to be stymied by the state legislature.

Q. In your view, what is the appropriate role of the federal government in urban affairs? What matters should be left to the discretion of locals?

I'm not sure I have a clear rule here. The federal government is an important source of fiscal transfers across the country, so it's important to apply some standard to how those funds are spent. To make sure, e.g., that schools are actually doing something useful. It'd also be nice to see the federal government encourage better regional planning. Getting things right in greater New York requires coordination by a bunch of different municipalities across three states -- lines drawn on a map 100-200 years ago aren't always appropriate to today's issues.

Q. We all have policy ideas that we'd love to see implemented, but that are so politically unrealistic that it's almost certain they'll never happen. Would you share one of your ideas about urban affairs that fits this description?

Uncontrolled streets. Scrap the traffic lights and stop signs and paint, scrap the sidewalks and the bike lanes, just let people pay attention and try to pilot themselves or their vehicles safely. Check out this amazing video from Cambodia.

Q. We've seen all kinds of interesting trends in urban affairs over the last few decades. The rise of the Sun Belt and the decline of violent crime in many municipalities are two examples. Any predictions about what trends journalists will be writing about a few decades hence, looking back on the 2010s, 20s and 30s?

If I really knew, I would write it. But I think we're going to see that the sharp decline in the proportion of households that have kids at home has bigger implications and more consequences than we yet realize. An awful lot of the postwar built environment is structured around particular ideas about raising children, which doesn't make a ton of sense if most people aren't actually engaged in childrearing.
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