Editor’s note: This post comes from contributor Lewis Lehe, and contains his trademark blend of straightforward economics and quirky humor. -KG
A question for the ages
Today I posed a seemingly obvious question to myself: Why do we care about saving the cities we live in?
Some of us care about carbon emissions, but people were concerned about cities before we knew about climate change. I like living in the city because I would rather spend an hour reading my Kindle on a bus than sit twenty minutes in stop-and-go traffic, but that doesn’t explain why I want other people to live in Pittsburgh with me. In fact, the more people, the more traffic.
One obvious answer is that cities are full of people, and people care about people. But the death of a city often means people simply moving to other cities. Why do I care about tipping people’s decisions towards living in Pittsburgh, where I happen to want to live? (The exception is when a city dies because Godzilla attacks it.)
A blinding insight
The real reason we care about dying cities, I believe, resembles the reason our coworkers ‘huphs’ if Kate or I skips happy hour. Partly, it’s because Kate and I are interesting, smartly-dressed, and fabulously wealthy; and to be seen with us confers a kind of status…a discerned worldliness typically obtained only by the possession of a rare violin or Oscar invitation. You could say our presence is “de rigueur.” But mainly it’s because happy hour is only happy with lots of people. If you see someone downing five beers alone at happy hour, they’re unhappy no matter how cheap the Iron City (or Great Lakes Elliot Ness) is.
Just like how happy hour requires a group to be fun, businesses require a critical mass of customers to earn profits. Try finding a gay bar in rural California, and you’ll have a hard time, not because it lacks gays or because the place is stiflingly intolerant, but rather because the population is so sparse that there are not enough gay people near any one spot to sustain a gay bar. That’s why there might be more (underground) gay bars in homophobic Tehran (population 7.8 million) than in San Francisco (population 815,000).
Living in a dense, populous place means there are critical masses for more types of businesses. I only eat Ethiopian food like once per year. I doubt most Pittsburghers eat it even one third that often. But there are enough of us that our occasional trips make the restaurant Abay viable year round. This gives me a really neat experience occasionally, and it’s a godsend for those who eat Ethiopian weekly. It’s usually the people, not the specific buildings, that make a place. This is why, time and time again, residents of Tokyo have rebuilt their tiny cardboard skyscrapers in the wake of a Godzilla attack.
The idea of the critical mass is related to an economy of scale. Restaurants, bars, museums, and even concerts have high fixed costs, and, to a point, low variable costs, so they need enough customers that the average revenue per customer exceeds the average cost per customer.
Usually we hear about economies of scale with giant factories, and that’s a useful analogy in a way: just like economies of scale make more experiences available, they can also make our experiences into better values. Bus fares would be way cheaper if more people lived in the areas where my bus runs. My commute from Shadyside to South Side Works is a pretty fixed cost–one bus, one driver, one insurance policy, etc. So if twenty people rode the bus with me, we could each pay one dollar instead of two. Some buses, such as those on the East Busway, run at capacity in the morning, so it might seem like adding more riders would not lower costs, since the cost can’t be diluted any further. But more riders would mean more buses running, and more buses running means more frequent trips…or even express buses that make fewer stops but go faster.
To summarize, living next to other people gives us more options and makes some of our options cheaper. That is why we want people to live in cities with us. When they move away, they erode the critical masses, and it’s as if we ourselves moved a little farther out into the country.
A bold vision
I think it’s important to define why we want people to live in cities with us in selfish terms like I have above, because young urbanists are sometimes characterized as do-gooders…as though we want people to live in cities because (a) we know what’s good for them or (b) we hate the crass materialism of suburbia. But actually, deep down, I think some of us want other people to live next to us because (a) we know what’s good for us and (b) we want to have more nice things for less money. In the American political landscape, you are much more likely to be taken seriously if you’re fighting openly for your own interest. (I also think that, in the climate change debate, an underrated argument is “I bought all this beachfront property and I don’t care about those coal miners if it means I lose money.”)
A new moral code
Finally, considering the scale economies behind the curtain of urban living casts many supposedly community-spirited actions in a different light. If you organize to stop a condo development in Squirrel Hill, then you’ve made my life in Shadyside worse: those condo-dwellers might have given the East End the critical mass needed for a sorely needed cheap southern restaurant…or an extra bus route. When people rally to stop new development, they presume a new building is the only thing we’re missing out on. They should actually feel they are snatching newer and cheaper experiences from residents citywide.