Cars Are Expensive

The high cost of car-related expenses as a household budget item is a major equity blindspot for many Democratic city politicians. For some, the political imagination spans from low-income car owners to high-income car owners, and so the “equitable” policy agenda is all about lowering the costs of car ownership as a bankshot way to help low-income folks.

Wrong. Most real life poor people don’t own cars. The actual equitable position favors making it easier for more people not to own a car by

1) putting more of the external and accessory costs of driving (parking, pollution, congestion, etc) directly on motorists; and

2) allowing more dense multifamily housing to get built in walkable neighborhoods with good pedestrian and transit connections to job centers

My wife and I don’t currently own a car (we use Zipcar) and neither do a whole lot of people, most of whom make substantially less money than us, and have to live a lot further from center city than we do.

Don’t make us pay for other people’s parking via un(der)priced curb parking and forced bundling of parking with housing and commercial buildings. Don’t make buses and trolleys (who carry many people) wait behind single-occupancy vehicles where it’s possible to paint Bus Only lanes.

Those are the real equity positions, and city Democratic politicians who claim to care about low-income people should take them.

Why We Need Even-Year a Municipal Elections

There’s no real problem with this senior fairs idea, but I have yet to hear John Callahan offer anything interesting policy-wise to us youngs and it’s much the same with the other NorCo Dems (Deb Hunter being the exception).

And that’s probably because we don’t vote in odd-year municipal elections. Of course we should – and I do – but most don’t, and there’s really a ton at stake for young people’s quality of life in local level elections. We should hold them on the years when more young people actually vote so politicians have to pander to us too.

Affordability Should Focus on People, Not Buildings

The first thing to note about these new “affordable” apartments planned for Southside Bethlehem is that they look horrible:


Where are the active ground-floor uses, people? They’re creating a blank wall facing the sidewalk in a neighborhood they want to be more walkable. This is working against walkability. Lynn Olanoff reports Andrew Twiggar saw this problem and voted for it anyway:

Planning commission members today said they largely liked the plans for the East Fifth Street apartments, though member Andrew Twiggar said he wished the complex’s entrances were on East Fifth Street instead of an interior courtyard. The entrances of existing homes on East Fifth Street all face the street, and Twiggar said he thought the apartments should model their style.

“There’s a feeling we’re creating a wall,” he said.

Though Twiggar voiced objections, he decided not to require any architectural changes as part of the commission’s approval. Housing Development Corp. architect Bruce Weinsteiger said the company may be able to make some minor design alterations but that they want to keep the entrances off the street for both layout and safety.

The other problem with this is the idea of affordable *apartments* rather than affordable *people*. Bethlehem’s apartment rents have been going up on Southside because there aren’t as many apartments as people want. The area has been getting more amenities that people like, but there’s been very little new apartment construction.

You can make apartments more affordable by building more total apartments. They don’t have to be specially designated “affordable apartments” there just need to be more plentiful apartments in general. The affordability definition can’t be in contrast with market rents. The market rents need to be affordable. They should be one and the same. If people can’t afford the rents, then you need to find a way to bring the market rents down citywide, and also get the highest-need people some more money to pay their rent with.

Bruce Sigmon Couldn’t Be More Wrong About Population Growth

There’s no real point to engaging with Bruce Sigmon, the unaffiliated candidate for Bethlehem Mayor, from the standpoint of electoral politics – in a city with hugely lopsided Democratic Party registration, he’s sure to lose.

But I do think it’s worth confronting his ideas about population growth head on, because this is really the lodestar of ideological divisions in municipal-level politics. The old saw says “there’s no Democrat or Republican way to fix a pothole” and that’s true, but there are major ideological issues at stake in other areas of municipal policy, like taxes and zoning and planning, and the thing that animates most of these disagreements is a larger political disagreement about growth.

I wish this issue had been debated more explicitly in the Democratic primary for Bethlehem Mayor, because this was really the major difference between the candidates. Willie Reynolds was the more unabashedly pro-growth candidate, and Bob Donchez signaled that he’d be cautiously supportive of more growth, unless of course a handful of NIMBYs were to complain about that. I kid, but that was the major difference between the Democrats and it didn’t really get discussed that much.

So I’m thankful that Bruce Sigmon has been willing to lay out his strong and nutty views against population growth so explicitly, providing a useful foil for me to polarize the issue space.

Let’s look at the Issues section of the Bruce Sigmon for Mayor website, and see what the case against growth is supposed to be:

Urban squalor is spreading rapidly in the Valley, and Bethlehem is not excluded! The Valley’s three major cities are projected to increase in population by more than 40,000 over the next 25 years. Bethlehem alone is expected to balloon from 75,000 to 90,000 during that same period. We are adopting all of the characteristics of a typical metropolitan inner city […]

Abraham Lincoln said, “We cannot escape history.” History tells us that no city, nation, or civilization ever became greater by becoming overpopulated. On the contrary, overpopulation has always led the way to unmanageable problems, immorality, urban decay, and eventual failure.

Lincoln warned that the greatest problem facing America in the future would be overpopulation. Apparently, our current leaders believe they know better. The mayors of Allentown, Bethlehem, and Easton all see the projected population explosion as good news.

We can only imagine the problems our Valley will have in the year 2040, when it is estimated that the greater Lehigh Valley will be home to over 200,000 more people than we have here today. We need a mayor who understands what all of this means. We need a mayor who has an appropriate vision for the future of our community. We need a mayor who realizes that growth is positive only when it is within certain parameters. I will be that mayor if you, the citizens of Bethlehem, give me the opportunity.

So I would submit that not only is there no such thing as “overpopulation” at the regional Lehigh Valley level, there is actually only one problem associated with population growth – more road congestion for private cars.

On every other margin, population growth is a net benefit for Bethlehem and the Lehigh Valley more broadly.

Population growth equals economic growth. More people means a larger market for businesses to sell into. It means more demand for all kinds of goods and services, and it means more specialization is possible. A city with 10,000 people can support a McDonald’s and a Wendy’s. A city with 100,000 people can support a McDonald’s, a Wendy’s, a Five Guys, an In and Out Burger, a Cheeburger Cheeburger, etc.

I’m using a low-brow example, but you get the idea: the larger the population is, the larger the market is for different types of specialized businesses in every sector, and the more choices there will be for consumers to pick from. The same is true of specialization in the labor market, where more people increases successful matching of people with jobs. Want a Chipotle or a Whole Foods in Bethlehem? You need more people!

Think about how this works during Musikfest every year. When Bethlehem gets a large temporary increase in its population during Musikfest week each year, there’s enough new demand to support hundreds of new pop-up businesses, food-sellers, and craft retailers, and most of the existing businesses downtown see substantial increases in sales that week too.

The temporary population increase downtown also temporarily raises property values, as evidenced by the rent income people who live around the Northside business district are able to earn by renting out their spare land for parking.

If Bethlehem’s population was always as large as its population during Musikfest, you’d see both of these trends on a permanent basis: increased demand to support new small businesses, and increased land values.

The temporary nature of the festival (combined with relaxed open container laws..) makes this one-time surge in population more disruptive to life in Bethlehem than a natural, gradual increase in the growth rate. But take out the public drunkenness issue, and the only real “problem” you see is a tighter market for parking for private cars.

But people respond to the road congestion and a tighter parking market by parking further away and walking, or by parking outside of downtown Bethlehem and taking the shuttle bus into the city. In droves. Public transportation becomes very popular that week, in part because the road congestion creates organic demand for transit, and in part because the transit authority responds by increasing the frequency of bus trips.

The city stupidly responds to the increased demand for parking by lowering the price of curb meters to zero – the opposite of what a business seeing greater demand for its products would do – so part of the parking shortage during Musikfest is caused by political self-derp.

But even so, a tighter parking market and lower convenience for private car drivers is a very very small price to pay as a trade-off for so much more economic activity downtown. No one would say that it’s not worth hosting Musikfest because drivers have to pay more for parking or sit in traffic a bit longer. And by the same token, it would be completely ridiculous to say that more economic growth and population growth in Bethlehem wouldn’t be worth the additional road congestion.

Congestion can be managed with better, more frequent transit, market prices for parking, better bike and pedestrian connections, and more infill housing and mixed uses downtown to reduce the need for intra-city car trips.


I’m in Salt Lake City for a week because I write on the Internet and people like it. Maybe you should blog?

Rendell Supporting Callahan and Reynolds

Ed Rendell knows what’s up – if you want progressive leadership that takes local governance and economic growth to the next level instead of sitting on its butt, then you need to support John Callahan for Northampton Exec and Willie Reynolds for Bethlehem Mayor.

Rendell showed up as a special guest at a recent fundraiser for Willie in Philadelphia. He knows Willie’s not a wuss like Bob Donchez who wants to coast on John Callahan’s accomplishments:


Donchez’s “Citizen’s Group” is Handful of Old Conservative Guys

Everybody’s talking about the Bob Donchez mailer’s smarmy use of a 10-year-old picture of Willie Reynolds (although in fairness it looks like he might be using a 10-year-old photo of himself in his own press materials…) but let’s not overlook how funny it is that Mr. Donchez is touting his favorable rating from the “Citizens Group” that monitors City Council.

The “Citizens Group” the mailer’s referring to is a very small group of mostly older conservative white guys, including failed 2011 Republican Council candidates Tony Simao, Tom Carroll and Al Bernotas, and NIMBY busybodies Dana Grubb, Stephen Antalics and a couple other old guys. They’ve got a pessimistic NIMBY attitude about most city issues, much as you’d expect conservative older white guys to have.

But recall that when Simao, Carroll and Bernotas took their views on city issues to the voters in the 2011 City Council elections, the voters rejected them by a large margin.

The high “score” Bob’s bragging about is the result of a highly objective and scientific process. Stephen Antalics gives cards to the handful of old guys, who then assign Council members ratings from 1-4. They can also include comments.

That’s it. That’s how they came up with these ratings:

The flyer includes an old photograph of Reynolds in a backwards baseball cap. It mentions the low rating he received from a small group of residents in 2010 who regularly attend city council meetings, which was a 1.4 out of four, or a D.

Donchez got a 2.8 from the group, which includes some Republicans who ran against both Donchez and Reynolds in 2011 and some residents who don’t like Mayor John Callahan.

So if you place a high value on what the conservative dudes who lost the last Council election and their friends think about the Mayoral candidates, you should know that they love the job Bob Donchez has been doing on City Council. Personally if I were Willie, I’d wear that low score like a badge of honor.