Thursday 17 January 2013

Bike lanes, livability and displacement

The fact that the Evening Standard's property section is now running features about "good-value homes within cycling distance of the office" is good news for cycling as a cause, but perhaps not so good if you're just a normal self-interested cyclist.

Back in the good old days when cycling in London was a freakishly unusual thing to do, whether some place was within cycling distance of the City or not didn't affect its valuation much because there weren't enough cyclists for it to matter. So if you happened to be one of that small number of cyclists you enjoyed a quick commute without having to pay a price premium for it.

But now that cycling has become popular enough in Inner London for even estate agents to notice, "within cycling distance" has become a saleable feature and accordingly comes with a price tag. Given enough cyclists, things like infrastructure quality will start affecting prices too: if someone builds a great bike lane from your flat to the City then more people will want to move there to avail of it, overall market demand will go up and so will the property value.

Now, if you use the bike lane enough you might think the higher price is still worth it. And if you already own a flat in the area you might be pleased too, even if you don't use the bike lane, because your property value just went up. But tenants who don't cycle will be worst off as they'll see their rent go up for no benefit.

This kind of concern is why people sometimes campaign against what others see as entirely benign neighbourhood improvements, and it's what motivates polemics like this one against "livability" defined in terms of supposedly ephemeral amenities like bike lanes rather than the more 'real' livability concerns of jobs, transport and housing.

Campaigns against bike lanes can seem fairly insane, and to be honest sometimes they are, but sometimes they are part of a wider struggle over processes of neighbourhood change, gentrification and displacement. Advocates of livability improvements generally don't intend to displace anyone, but in my view it is irresponsible to not at least consider these price effects and the likely social consequences.

Displacement is not inevitable, though. Higher housing demand can be offset by higher housing supply, moderating or even eliminating the price impact while enabling more people to enjoy these new amenities. Of course, people tend to be hostile to new housing supply in their area so campaigners usually choose to avoid the topic, but there's really no getting away from the market dynamics. If you make a place more attractive without making it possible for more people to live there, prices will go up and people will get displaced. Is that really what you want?


  1. It's all these high profile Tories cycling to work. Why can't they stick to their Bentleys while us normals shake our fists from our metal horses!

  2. "A rising tide lifts all boats" - it's not inevitable that prices will go up, if gentrification takes place across-the-board.

    That said, there appears to be an almost limitless supply of people willing to live in gentrified bits of Inner London (perhaps because getting in to or across town from further out is so time consuming and expensive!) so in that case pricing pressure is inevitable. The rich are queueing up to buy luxury flats in Elephant & Castle (unthinkable 20-30 years ago), so the poor get displaced to Erith.

    It's partly fashion, but the fact that a commuter season ticket from just outside the M25 costs £3500/year must have something to do with it. A professional couple can save £10k/year on transport, and weeks in travel time, by living in Southwark instead of Sevenoaks. That's just bound to push up prices in the center.

    Would increased subsidy for medium-distance commuter rail take some of the pressure off Inner London prices? Even if not, it'd at least make it easier for those who end up in Erith to get to work in the center of town... the real unfairness here is that the well-to-do can likely afford to take the hit on travel if they need to, whereas it's those on low incomes who benefit most from being near enough to work to walk/bus/bike.

  3. It's true that if you improve everywhere by the same amount then the relative price shouldnt't change, but for obvious reasons that's extremely hard to achieve.

    And yes, transport costs are certainly a very important factor. For many decades it got continuously cheaper to live further out, now that seems to have gone into reverse and so it's no surprise that demand is growing in the city centre. By that logic, making medium-distance train fares cheaper might help, as long as there's capacity there to deal with the increased passenger demand.

    1. Plenty of capacity off peak, IIRC the Greens have talked about both greater subsidies for trains outside the rush hour, and tax breaks to try and get companies to run office hours that fit in with that spare network capacity.

      Don't think you necessarily have to improve everywhere by the same amount, as long as the rankings (ordering) and supply/demand balance stay the same. But equally, if those are out of whack, price increases will actually precede and even cause gentrification, rather than the other way around. In fact, I think there's evidence for that.. people are being priced out of even completely unimproved areas, so while gentrification can make things worse, it does so mostly by reducing the stock of social housing and not so much by directly influencing prices - which are headed skywards in Inner London, with or without street trees and cycle lanes.

  4. "If you make a place more attractive without making it possible for more people to live there, prices will go up and people will get displaced."

    It seems to me, from my viewpoint in the outer suburbs, that a far larger problem is the reverse: the development of suddenly far higher housing densities than these areas have had before, without any improvement to the quality or style of public infrastructure provided: allowing developers to build at high density while the streets are still designed assuming general car-use, but with no additional capacity on any transport mode. I find it hard to see how the resulting environmental and transport poverty can be resolved, except by the developers pressuring councils into a change of policy, which has not happened so far.

  5. This all very well at the micro level. But the real reason Londons housing prices have risen so much is that a million extra people have moved here and I doubt we built 350,000 extra houses in London to compensate. Considering rail use has grown by 50% in a decade. All this hogwash about promoting off peak use and different working patterns, is not going to make a difference.


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