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Each year, more and more people spend more and more time in cars and on trains and buses, to get from places where they can afford a bit of land to live on to jobs in places that pay wages sufficient to support their families. Does it have to be this way? Does it have to get worse year by year? Should we be proud of, or even satisfied with, a system under which people can't afford to buy homes in the towns in which they grew up? Who benefits from this state of affairs, anyway?

Is there a better way? Yup! To understand why and what, spend some time with the "essential documents

H.G. Brown: Significant Paragraphs from Henry George's Progress & Poverty, Chapter 4: Land Speculation Causes Reduced Wages

In communities like the United States, where the user of land generally prefers, if he can, to own it, and where there is a great extent of land to overrun, this cause operated with enormous power.

The immense area over which the population of the United States is scattered shows this. The man who sets out from the Eastern Seaboard in search of the margin of cultivation, where he may obtain land without paying rent, must, like the man who swam the river to get a drink, pass for long distances through half-tilled farms, and traverse vast areas of virgin soil, before he reaches the point where land can be had free of rent i.e., by homestead entry or pre-emption. He (and, with him, the margin of cultivation) is forced so much farther than he otherwise need have gone, by the speculation which is holding these unused lands in expectation of increased value in the future. And when he settles, he will, in his turn, take up, if he can, more land than he can use, in the belief that it will soon become valuable; and so those who follow him are again forced farther on than the necessities of production require, carrying the margin of cultivation to still less productive, because still more remote points. ... read the whole chapter

Karl Williams:  Land Value Taxation: The Overlooked But Vital Eco-Tax

I. Historical overview
II. The problem of sprawl
III. Affordable and efficient public transport
IV. Agricultural benefits
V. Financial concerns
VI. Conclusion: A greater perspective
Appendix: "Natural Capitalism" -- A Case Study in Blindness to Land Value Taxation

While, at first sight, the prospect of sprawling cities with lots of open space and possible greenery might be appealing from an environmental perspective, a closer examination should lead to a different conclusion. The inducement to collect windfall profits (resulting from the failure of society to apply LVT) encourages some landholders to withhold vacant land from the market and forces new development to "leapfrog" this land and move further out. Hence there is an unnecessary outlay in roads, pipelines, power supplies and other infrastructure which must service a greater area. Commuting journeys, similarly, must now consume greater resources. Financially inducing land to be put to its optimal use is not "flogging" the land, but is rather ensuring land is carefully used and that we only exploit as much as we properly need.  read the entire article

Bill Batt: Stemming Sprawl: The Fiscal Approach

We do an awful lot of driving just to do what we need to do. This is because transportation engineers and land use planners have confused two fundamental concepts: access and mobility.

By confusing these two principles, we spend an inordinate amount of money on transportation services, most of it on roads and highways. One 1993 study calculated that the total costs of motor vehicle transportation to our society equal approximately a fourth of our gross domestic product (GDP).[3] The study concluded that "when the full range of costs of transportation are tallied, passenger ground transportation costs the American public a total of $1.2 to $1.6 trillion each year. Just the costs of automobile crashes represents a figure equal to 8 percent of the American GDP.[4] Japan, by way of comparison, spends an estimated 10.4 percent to satisfy all its transportation requirements, although the figure might be a bit low because not all externalities are included in the calculation.[5] Road user fees in 1991 totaled only about $33 billion, whereas the true costs to society were ten times that;[6] put another way, drivers pay only 10 percent of the true costs of their motor vehicle use.[7] The balance is paid by society, effectively subsidizing highway use by paying for all but the marginal out-of-pocket operating costs.

The relationship between transportation costs and land values can be made even clearer by empirical study of how land values increase as one moves toward the center of the city. In an investigation for the Urban Land Institute, the author concluded that, for Portland, Oregon, each additional mile [traveled] translated into slightly more than $5,000 in housing costs; closer-in locations command a premium, those farther out save money. A ten-mile difference, all other things being equal, would amount to about $56,000 in new home value.

For a household in which one worker drives downtown (or at least to a more central location) to work, that ten-mile difference may amount to 4,600 miles annually, assuming 230 days of commuting and a round-trip of 20 miles each day. Moreover, if non-work trips to the central area and elsewhere doubled that amount, the tradeoff would be about 9,000 miles annually, which could mean a higher/lower driving cost of $3,000 annually, not counting the time saved/spent.[8] ...

Sooner than Americans are likely to bear the real burden of global warming's environmental consequences, they are likely to experience the onset of price rises for petroleum. Experts are divided, but among those best insulated from the pressures of bias, there is increasing consensus that the peak of oil extraction worldwide will come sometime around 2010 if not sooner.[11] Rising prices will not induce greater supply; it will not change the fact that the world will have passed the point of most easily extracted oil and will enter a long and increasingly steep period of declining availability. It is rather a matter of physics: When it costs more in energy to bring oil from deep in the earth than what can be extracted, it is not worth the investment. Even the greater wealth of American society will not insulate it from world competition over what is a limited and fungible commodity. How this alters the calculations Americans make about where to live and work will increasingly depend on the price they are willing to pay for transportation service. ...

Stemming Sprawl: Pricing Measures for Transportation

From the foregoing, it is clear that insofar as the causes of sprawl development are economic, the solution needs to be economic as well. The equilibrium of forces can be restored in two ways:

1) by charging the true marginal costs of motor vehicle transportation to users and
2) by recovering the economic rent from urban site owners that is really the socially created value.

It is easy to distinguish five elements of transportation service cost: capital investment, maintenance costs, regulation costs, environmental externalities, and congestion costs. Each of these calls for a different treatment with respect to revenue design. Capital costs are best recovered by recapturing the land rent proximate to the highway corridors. This is socially created value, which is better used to honor debt service of infrastructure investment than allowing it to be retained as windfall gains by titleholders to property close by. User fees, most aptly linked to the purchase of motor fuel and tire wear, serve as a proxy for the use of the roads and can be designed to be commensurate with use. As the wear and tear of roads as well as police patrol, snow and ice control, and signaling all involve operating and maintenance costs, such charges are easily linked with benefits received. In the future, still more accurate systems of service charges are likely to appear: Singapore, Hong Kong, and New Zealand are already reliant on electronic devices that record road use by time, place, and vehicle weight.

Ensuring the safety of drivers and vehicles through licenses, registrations, and inspections is most appropriately financed by fees commensurate with the costs of their administration. This way, if a vehicle is used but seldom, it is charged on the basis of its identification rather than assuming any projected level of use. Environmental externalities such as pollution costs can be linked to the polluting source, such as diesel fuel and gasoline consumption, to the full extent necessary to equilibrate air quality and other environmental ambiences. Congestion costs, the last of the major components of a pricing design for highway use, are partially paid for by the time loss of those caught in traffic. The costs of time lost due to highway congestion are enormous: In 2000, the average driver spent 62 hours sitting in traffic at a nationwide cost of $68 billion in gas and time lost In Los Angeles, the average driver spent 136 hours stalled in traffic at an average cost of $2,510.[33] Commuting times were also 20 percent longer than they were a decade ago, about 22 minutes one way nationally on average but as high as 32 minutes on average in New York.[34] But not all people's time is valued equally, and people themselves value their time differently at different times, and it is unfair to require people to impose their congestion on others. Therefore, congestion pricing, being explored in several urban regions, provides a rationing of limited highway space. In a sense, that payment for space usage, in time or money, is a form of land rent. ... read the whole article

Herbert J. G. Bab:  Property Tax -- Cause of Unemployment  (circa 1964)

Property taxes shape the pattern of our cities.
  • If taxes on improvements are low or non-existing and taxes on land are high, the cities are bound to grow vertically and at a fast rate.
  • If taxes on improvements are high and taxes on land are low, our cities will spread over larger and larger areas. They will become metropolitan areas and they will grow at a much slower rate.
Relatively low taxes on land and high taxes on improvements will discourage the owners of vacant lots or underdeveloped land, such as that used for parking lots, gas stations, hamburger stands, etc., from improving their land. It will encourage them to keep the land out of use and to sell later at a profit. This will create an artificial shortage of land, which in turn will lead to urban blight and irregular, leapfrog city growth.

This urban sprawl makes our cities look ugly, but it has many disadvantages besides:
  • It gobbles up a tremendous amount of farm land;
  • the farmers have to give up their land before it is really needed;
  • the building developer has to go far out to find available land;
  • the prospective home-owner has to travel farther;
  • traffic on congested roads will increase and
  • new roads and schools will have to be built.

It is generally believed that zoning laws are a very effective tool to control the growth of our cities. Zoning laws determine the best possible use of urban land. Yet nobody can be forced to improve his land and to build unless there is an incentive. This can be achieved by taxing land at a rate that will make it unprofitable to hold it without improving it.

The city planner needs land taxation just as he needs zoning laws. With both these tools the orderly growth of our cities will be assured, but -- as experience has shown -- without land taxation rational and efficient land usage becomes impossible. Read the whole article

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Wealth and Want
... because democracy alone hasn't yet led to a society in which all can prosper