Bryan Caplan

Tyler on Tyson's

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Some pretty reasonable remarks by Tyler about the future of Tyson's Corner provoked a remarkably angry set of comments. When I first moved to Virginia ten years ago, I lived across the street from Tyson's II, and Tyler lived in a townhouse ten minutes away. A few observations:

1. As far as I could tell, the city built millions of dollars of sidewalks for my personal use. I walked every day of the week at all hours of the day, and rarely saw another pedestrian.

2. All the complaining about traffic and excessive growth was pure cheap talk. Real estate prices, not whining, are the real barometer of overall quality of life.

3. Tyler is entirely right to remark that:

Have I mentioned they will build elevated rail service to Dulles Airport? This sounds quaint and European but there is already a dedicated, virtually traffic-free road to that airport, in addition to three or four totally usable back routes.

4. If you use hourly wages to value time wasted in years of traffic delays at, it's pretty clear that the Tyson's Tunnel "under, not over" proposal passes the cost-benefit test relative to elevated rail. However, it is even clearer that extending the metro at all fails the cost-benefit test. Indeed, as Clifford Winston's exhaustive survey of the public transit literature concludes:

[W]ith the single exception of BART in the San Francisco area, every U.S. transit system actually reduced social welfare. Moreover, they [Winston and co-authors] could not identify an efficient pricing policy or physical restructuring of the rail network that would enhance any system's social desirability without effectively eliminating its service.

Bottom line: If the Tyson's metro extension passed the cost-benefit test, it would raise real estate prices so much that it could be funded out of property tax revenue. But without tons of external subsidies, metro expansion wouldn't stand a chance.

P.S. I'm baffled by comments that call Tyson's "ugly." It's Beverly Hills in Virginia, as far as I'm concerned. But then again, I was baffled when Alex Tabarrok told me he missed Oakland, California. That's what I call "ugly." When a big developer builds an area from scratch, it wants to maximize real estate values by making residents happy. What's the result? Clean, convenient, corporate living, Big Box stores, and McMansions - not Oakland.


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TrackBack URL: http://econlog.econlib.org/mt/mt-tb.cgi/729
The author at City Comforts in a related article titled Stating the problem is not the same as stating the answer writes:
    I've been thinking more about Tyler Cowan's concern for The destruction of Tysons Corner? (I kid you not.) and Bryan Caplan's even more boldly stated suggestion that Tysons Corner is Beverly Hills in Virginia. Here's my take/problem: they are assuming ... [Tracked on July 7, 2007 8:20 PM]
COMMENTS (9 to date)

I thought real-estate prices are a barometer of how much competition is restrained by zoning laws.

Bill Conerly writes:

link to "real barometer of quality of life" seems to be broken

Kyle writes:

Tyson's is ugly, if only for it's sterile feel and a feeling that it exists absent the real world.

I know it's contradictory for a libertarian to want to live in DC, but I much prefer it to the burbclaves of Northern Virginia, even if DC seems headed for a Tyson's like existence as property values have skyrocketed over the last few years.

Constantine writes:

Clean, convenient, corporate living, Big Box stores, and McMansions - not Oakland.
Right on! People prefer sprawling Le Corbusier-like towers linked by highways in the style of Tyson's Corner. That's why real estate prices for single family homes in so called "urbanist" communities like Bethesda and Chevy Chase, with their sidewalks and pedestrians and down-town mainstreets where people walk are so cheap. No one wants to live in a place like that.

Steven Vickers writes:

Right on! People prefer sprawling Le Corbusier-like towers linked by highways in the style of Tyson's Corner. That's why real estate prices for single family homes in so called "urbanist" communities like Bethesda and Chevy Chase, with their sidewalks and pedestrians and down-town mainstreets where people walk are so cheap. No one wants to live in a place like that.

Not a particularly good comparison. Tyson's is a good bit farther out from the city center than Bethesda and Chevy Chase (particularly in terms of time, with I-66 shrinking inside the Beltway and having to cross a bridge to get into DC). No amount of urbanist planning would drain the Potomac or move K Street into Arlington, which is what you would need to do to make Tysons vs. Chevy Chase an apples-to-apples comparison.

asiequana writes:

Public transportation doesn't work in most areas of the US because of population density. Also it is not profitable in the US because the way we structure it much of the benefits of the network they create are captured by real estate developers rather than the rail operator itself.

The study cited adjusts for NYC as an outlier but I would argue that NYC is not an outlier but the only true example of an effective public transportation system in the US.

Additionally the study excludes suburan to urban rail systems.

There are so many problems with this study that a comment section isn't big enough.

But the best example of how a rail system is effective is to look at Japan, specifically East Japan Railway, or MRT Corp in HK. Again the affectiveness of these systems is the fact that they are in areas of high population density and the fact that the companies have control of the real estate surrounding the stations. This highlights another problem with the study is that it is US-centric which is predominately a low population density country.

bsci writes:

[Comment deleted for supplying false email address. To restore this comment email the webmaster@econlib.org with your request.--Econlib Ed.]

greg claxton writes:

When a big developer builds an area from scratch, it wants to maximize real estate values by making residents happy. What's the result? Clean, convenient, corporate living, Big Box stores, and McMansions - not Oakland.

You realize that those developers are working in one of the most regulated sectors of the economy, right? That zoning and building codes drive that "clean, convenient, corporate living," and that in the majority of the country it's not legal to build Oakland?

It's also not clear to what extent home prices reflect preferences for urban form versus preferences for other parts of the suburban bundle, such as good schools or low crime.

David Sucher writes:

Vickers:

"Not a particularly good comparison."

In fact I'd suggest it's quite a good one as the issue is whether people value walkable, urbane neighborhoods. I can tell you that in Seattle it is conventional wisdom that people want the detached house within walking distance of a "Main Street." That is among the most valuable real estate in the whole region.

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