“Moneyball” for Cities

Chuck Marohn is an engineer and planner who spent years dispensing the conventional wisdom to cities and towns before arriving at the conclusion that it was fundamentally, disastrously wrong.

Charles Marohn was a transportation engineer. Now he argues for a radically new approach to thinking about urban development. Image: Flickr
Chuck Marohn argues for upending the conventional approach to transportation and development. Photo: John Connelly Photography/Flickr

At his Strong Towns blog today, Marohn shares an excerpt from his new book that draws on Michael Lewis’s Moneyball, the bestseller about how Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane upended the way baseball teams evaluate players and allocate resources. Marohn draws an analogy between the pre-Moneyball era in baseball and the age of sprawling development in America, with its financially ruinous consequences.

We need to overhaul the way we think about transportation and development the way the A’s overhauled the way people think about baseball, Marohn writes. The stakes are very high:

Today’s local officials must contend with the enormous liabilities brought about by decades of horizontal expansion. They are asked to provide high levels of service to a widely dispersed population with a tax base that is in no way up to the task.

The federal and state assistance that helped induce this mess has now dwindled to a trickle. Transportation departments — for decades the primary funders of quick and cheap local growth — are vastly overcommitted financially. The mandates and limitations local governments assumed in exchange for their “investments” have yet to be unwound.

Cities, already encumbered with overwhelming debts, are pressured to take on more liabilities in order to avoid raising taxes, a move that only delays — and worsens — the ultimate financial reckoning. New growth, the magic solution for decades, is hard to come by without ruinous subsidy or expensive build-it-and-they-will-come efforts, approaches that amount to little more than gambling…

Conventional thinking is getting it wrong for cities. Using that conventional thinking in advising local governments, I got it wrong. That insight is my edge.

America’s local governments are being bankrupted by today’s conventional wisdom. Billions of taxpayer dollars are spent annually on roads, bridges, sewer and water systems, business subsidies, stadiums and other “investments” that have little or no payback.

Unlike baseball, municipal governance is not a game. When our cities lose, our people lose. Our nation is weakened. Many suffer in tragic and profound ways.

Bill James brought advanced statistical analysis to baseball and it changed the game. Our local governments need a similar revolution in how they understand and manage their finances.

Elsewhere on the Network today: BikeWalkLee explains why drastically reducing impact fees for new, sprawling growth will haunt the Fort Myers, Florida, region. WashCycle explains a bill in the Maryland House of Representatives that seeks to amend the law so cyclists can’t be blamed for collisions in which they were following the rules of the road. And City Block uses Honolulu’s transit expansion plans to discuss the benefits and drawbacks of building new elevated rail systems in cities.

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