Ryan Avent

Ryan Avent is a writer on economic and urban issues living in Washington, D.C. He blogs at The Bellows.

Recent Articles


by Ryan Avent Yesterday's New York Times featured a look at the wave of American cities considering investments in streetcars. Once upon a time, streetcars rambled along the avenues of many American cities, but most systems were dismantled as planners did their best to accommodate the automobile during the 1950s and 60s. Too late did they realize that making it difficult to get around within town and easy to get into town from the suburbs would encourage everyone who could afford a car and a home to leave. These days, buoyed by urban renewal, cities are increasingly seeing the value in working to serve and attract central city residents, rather than catering to suburban commuters and hoping employers stay put. This policy has paid marvelous dividends in some cases. In Washington, rezoning for dense, transit-oriented development around Metro stations has led to tens of thousands of new residents and billions of dollars of new property on tax rolls. In Portland, one of the capitals of...


by Ryan Avent I often have critical words for Amtrak CEO Alex Kummant. Where a normal CEO might approach something like bold proposals for high-speed rail networks by tempering pessimism with an explanation of what the potential benefits might be, Kummant simply acts like he doesn't much care whether it happens or not. Granted, that's an understandable attitude for a guy running an organization whose $1 billion or so in federal money has been threatened annually by the president (he needed it for two days of the Iraq War). Still, would it hurt to put the investment in some kind of context?


by Ryan Avent Health care isn't really my specialty, but I can't help mentioning an email posted by Megan McArdle, who's been recounting unhappy experiences with various motor vehicle departments. After railing against the District Department of Motor Vehicles for several paragraphs (which everyone complains about but where I always, inexplicably, get good service), the emailer concludes: I can't wait for the government to take over our healthcare system. Me neither! Because then we can look forward to occasional bureaucratic errors, as opposed to deliberate maleficence. Seriously, has this person never filed a claim before?


by Ryan Avent Conveniently for me, the fellows at Freakonomics have published a roundtable on the future of the suburbs, which has itself prompted some good commentary . I think there are three things worth emphasizing. The first is that gas prices aren't the only force shaping development, so we shouldn't over-concentrate on that. There are also demographic changes--the population is growing and getting older, family sizes and structures are changing, and so on. There are technological changes--communications technologies will make it more important for some jobs to concentrate together and less important for others to do so, while transit and automobile and energy technologies will influence the shape of future growth. There will be changes in tastes. And the policy environment will also change. Human geography is constantly in flux, and we should not expect development in future decades to look like it did in past decades. Point two is that people will respond to changing economics...


by Ryan Avent Let's move on to the next question: have gas prices caused devastation in suburbs, and/or will they in the future? As with resurgence of center cities, gas prices have only exacerbated a pre-existing condition--in this case, the housing bubble collapse. There are non-gas reasons the collapse has been focused more heavily on exurban areas than on center cities. One is that the boom manifested differently in different places. In center cities, where regulation and NIMBYism make it more difficult to build, supply never came close to keeping up with the price signals in the market, so prices shot up. In outlying areas, there were few such constraints, so every increase in price resulted in heaps of new construction. Since prices were speculatively driven and everyone was building at once, supply significantly overshot in many places. So when the bubble evaporated, center cities had to work off a lot of over-pricing. They've had advantages in doing this, however. One is the...