Over the past 60 years, cities have been hit by a painful policy trifecta: subsidization of highways, subsidization of homeownership, and a school system that creates strong incentives for many parents to leave city borders. Nathaniel Baum-Snow, an economist at Brown University, has documented that each new federally-funded “highway passing through a central city reduces its population by about 18 percent.’’
Subsidizing transportation decreases the advantage of living close together in cities, which should make every urbanite worry about the Senate’s fondness for using highway spending to fight recession. The current Senate jobs bill calls for a more than $30 billion increase for transportation over the next two years.
It is a mistake to think that spending on trains balances the scales. Cities will always benefit far less than exurbs from transportation because dense areas already have good means of getting around, like walking. Urban advocates would do better to either reduce highway subsidies or to balance that spending with more funding for urban schools.
Political leaders have long championed homeownership, but subsidizing homeownership is also anti-urban. Sixty-two percent of Boston homes are rented; 78 percent of Wellesley homes are owner-occupied. Cities are defined by apartments, and more than 85 percent of homes in multi-unit structures are rented. Suburbs are known for their single-family detached houses, and more than 85 percent of such homes are owner-occupied. Subsidizing homeownership, through Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the home mortgage interest deduction, lures people out of cities.
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