Slate’s Matt Yglesias responds!

I’ll give Matt Yglesias this: He responds to his e-mail extremely quickly.  He got back to me in just over half an hour this afternoon with a gracious note:

This “externalities” analysis is a common but fundamentally wrongheaded misconception.

Suppose some brilliant Chinese chef wants to open up a restaurant in Rockville and the owner of Sichuan Jin River gets worried that the new establishment will poach his customers and cost him business. The city council wouldn’t step in and say “hey wait a minute, your proposal for a new restaurant has too many externalities we won’t let you open.” It’s true that it would be more convenient for incumbent businesses to not face competition, but that’s not a public policy problem.

By the same token, some incumbent business owners may be deriving benefit from existing availability of street parking (or other municipally owned parking) and may not want to share that parking with new people. But this isn’t externalities in the sense of pollution.

At any rate, I apologize if you feel that I was picking on Rockville. This is actually something I’ve written about with reference to quite a few cities all across America in a whole variety of contexts and isn’t any particular knock on [you] or on Rockville. If you’re at all interested in a real expert analysis of parking regulations, I’d strongly recommend UCLA professor Donald Shoup and his book The High Cost of Free Parking.

Matthew Yglesias

I responded tonight:
Mr. Yglesias,
Thank you for your thoughtful and extremely quick response!   The high cost of free parking has been on my mind since I’ve been in office, and I’ve been trying to move Rockville in the right direction on it.  I’ll nab the book and let it illuminate my further movements on this.
I’m going to have to disagree with your Sichuan Jin River analogy. I would totally step in to crush that other guy.  The free market goes out the window when a local treasure like Jin River’s garlic eggplant is endangered.  
Pollution’s not the only kind of externality — with parking in urban areas, we have a “tragedy of the commons” variety when cars spill over into other types of neighborhoods that can’t absorb them.  It’s not quite as tragic as cities used to think it was, and modern public policy has changed to reflect this.  But urban parking is certainly not an area where regulating it is tantamount to Stalinism.
Thank you as well for your gracious apology; it did indeed feel like you were picking on us, even if it did delight my parents.  
Your good taste in Chinese restaurants has partially restored my faith in your analytical powers. (You live nearby, do you?)
All the best,
Tom Moore


Rockville’s Mayor and Council were body-slammed – by name – in Slate for having the temerity to discuss the City’s development laws regarding parking during a recent meeting:

Are members of the Rockville, Md., town council experts in real-estate development? In parking management? Are they putting their own money on the line in the success or failure of projects in the center of their town? Of course not!

As a friend wrote on Facebook, “This reads like 25% of an article. And not the 25% with a point.” The entire thread of comments is quite witty and worth a look.

I wrote back to the author, Matt Yglesias, a writer I’ve admired for some time:

Mr. Yglesias,

Greetings! I’m not sure how we on the Rockville City Council so irritated you with our entirely routine discussion of the parking element of our development laws with a developer who came before us to ask whether it could add a significant number of residential units to its long-approved building.

You’re right — none of us on the Council are experts in real-estate development or parking management. But we have a staff of urban planners who are, and we were elected to, with the help of our expert staffs, make policy choices and apply the laws of the government we’re running.

You’re also right — no member of the City Council has personal money invested in downtown projects. But that’s a good thing, because those who did have such a conflict of interest would have to recuse themselves from discussions of and decisions on such matters.

I was surprised that your analysis of the parking market failed to recognize that there are serious externality problems with urban parking — if you don’t build sufficient parking with a building, whether office or residential, the users of that building are not limited to the number of cars that match the parking spaces. They will park their cars on the street elsewhere, affecting neighboring businesses and residential areas.

I happen to believe that with transit-oriented development, as we were discussing, the number of spaces actually required by the buildings users is fairly low, but there’s no question that a given building requires a certain number of spaces. The trend in regulation used to be to set parking-space minimums for projects; it has shifted to setting maximums. Rockville has been progressive in this, though we can do better, IMHO.

I recommend to you the recording of the Council’s full discussion, found here:

It’s item 12 on the agenda.

You likely don’t have the time to do so — you’re a prolific guy. But the full recording might give you a better understanding of the business we were engaged in. It might also better inform you about my own role in the discussion, which was to ask the staff for more information about how well the parking market had operated elsewhere in the City.

It might also, hopefully, cause you to pause a sec before you call a bunch of hardworking public officials Communists, basically. C’mon, man!

I’ll note that my parents liked the article: “Comrade: We are so proud of you. Nobody else has children who have been slammed by national media.” But most of my friends wondered if I’d kicked your dog sometime in the past. (I didn’t, did I?)

I will continue to look forward to reading your work. I’ll admit that this experience will make me pause before I accept your sources and analysis at face value, which is probably for the best.

If you’re interested in corrections, we serve on the Rockville *City* Council, not “town council,” though I can see why referring to us in that manner better fit your narrative.

Take care.

Tom Moore
City of Rockville