El Gridlock?

October 30th, 2008

Traffic in Mexico City

For a little international perspective, last week I was traveling in Mexico City and got to experience firsthand the joys and challenges of navigating that city’s roadways. Having done some thinking about how cities can regulate their traffic problems in my home town of New York, I was interested to see the effects of “Hoy No Circula” a program implemented by the government in Mexico City in late 1989 to limit the number of cars on the road. The goal of the program was both to address traffic issues but also primarily an effort to improve the city’s air quality. Though there are a handful of exemptions, the basic idea of the program is that one day each week from Monday-Friday there is a prohibition on driving in the city depending on the last digit of each car’s license plate. For example, if the last digit of your license plate is 5 or 6, you are not allowed to drive on Mondays.

Though an interesting concept, and one that has been replicated in Sao Paolo, Bogota and Santiago, I must say that experientially it was hard for me to believe that there were 20% fewer cars on the road as I sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the way from the airport. And as it turns out, my experience may not have been all that far off from the truth. According to an article published in the February Journal of Political Economy by University of Michigan Asst. Professor of Economics Lucas W. Davis, air quality tests have shown no improvement in the city as a result of the driving restriction program. The study shows that there has been no demonstrated increase in ridership of the public transit system on either subways or buses. Additionally, evidence from vehicle registrations and automobile sales have shown that the program has actually lead to an increase in the total number of cars in circulation as residents buy additional cars so they may continue to drive everyday without concern of their license plate number. For more on the study, see http://www-personal.umich.edu/~lwdavis/df.pdf.

This article raises interesting questions about a local government’s ability to change drivers’ behaviors and preferences in selecting their methods of transportation. Would such a driving restriction program see the same effects if implemented here? Would drivers just find a way around the regulations to continue driving in much the same way? And could perhaps the fight against congestion pricing in New York last year be seen as the same type of rejection of a local government imposition of restrictions on the free movement of its citizen drivers? This study, and the seemingly unresolved fate of congestion pricing in New York, remind us of the uphill barrier that cities face in trying to get their citizens to move away from a life built around “el coche” (the car).

Metropolitan President?

October 27th, 2008

There’s a great article in the Washington Post today about Brarack Obama as a “metropolitan candidate.”


Surely  Obama does have more of a connection to cities than any other presidential candidate in a long time. What’s interesting though is how the Post paints him as more interested in the appealing to metropolitan regions broadly as opposed to the urban core, both because swing voters live in suburbs and because the distinction between suburbs and cities is quickly evaporating, as evident by the dramatic increase in suburban poverty. Obama’s regional policies involve an emphasis on infrastructure development a white house office of urban policy that will “goad cities within a metropolitan region into working together,” and the creation of more public-private partnerships. 

These policy proposals seem fairly broad at this point, but what’s interesting is that it seems like some mayors are finding hope in them. I found the most interesting part of the article to be this quote from the Minneapolis mayor:

“Mayors like this package partly because, aside from infrastructure spending, it doesn’t cost much in a time of low budgets. Cities need a president who understands that they “are no longer the basket case they are often described as from Washington,” said Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak (D). “The skills we need in a president aren’t the old skills of putting together a benevolent program for communities that will always be disempowered. We need someone who’s done what Obama has done, to go into communities that have been hard hit and understand their assets, mobilize people to help them solve their problems.”

It appears that big city mayors like Obama not only for his commitment to cities but also for his recognition of region-wide problems and his demonstrated commitment to community empowerment. If the election does turn out the way many our predicting it will, it will be interesting to see whether these two interests an be pursued from the White House, which has been in the habit of either ignoring cities or providing them with grants and subsidies that do not recognize their need for empowerment within a region-wide setting. 

More on Term Limits. . . .

October 7th, 2008

The FLoG Blog had some technical problems but is up and running again. I thought we’d take a closer look at the term limits issue in New York. Here is a little bit of research I did this morning (comments welcome!):

It seems like the claim that the City Council can override the voter-passed term limit referendums is more legally problematic than some have made it out to be. In most cases there is no reason that a City Council local law cannot override a voter-passed referendum (see Caruso v. City of New York), but the City Charter and the New York State Municipal Home Rule law provide an exception to this rule: Any law that seeks to “change the term of an elective officer” must be passed-by New York City voters (Chapter 2 § 38(4) of the NYC Charter). On its face, this would seem to preclude the possibility of passing the Bloomberg-law without a referendum, but it seems like the Mayor must be basing his judgment that a City Council-passed law would be sufficient on a 2003 New York State Appellate Division ruling that the City Council could pass a law allowing City Councilmembers who had served a four year term and a two year term (during the transition from four-year to two-year terms) to serve another two-year term even though it would be their third term, otherwise in violation of the city’s term limits (Golden v. New York City Council) (the Court of Appeals denied cert). The court in that case based its opinion on the fact that the local law “amended the term limit provisions” without “changing the term of office.”

The law at issue in this case is different from what the Mayor wants to pass because though it allows certain Councilmembers to serve an extra term, it does not necessarily enable them to serve more than eight years. If the purpose of term limits is to prevent politicians from spending too much time in office, then this difference would seem to be a hugely important one. Nonetheless, the language the court uses may apply equally to the mayor’s proposed law. By “term of office” the court seems to be referring to the length of a single term – something that the Mayor’s proposed law would not address – and it contrasts this with “amend[ing] the term limit provisions,” which is what the Bloomberg law would do. The language here is likely sufficient to allow the City Council to pass the Bloomberg-law, but it is important to note that the issue is much closer than the media seems to be presenting it.

First post!

October 2nd, 2008

Welcome to the Forum on Local Government Law Blog (or the FLoG Blog!). This will be a space where law students interested in local government issues can post thoughts. 

So, the big news in local government law today is Mayor Bloomberg’s announcement that he would run for a third term if the City Council changed term limits:


From the legal perspective, one interesting thing going on here is the City Council’s ability to amend its own charter with a majority vote even in the face contradictory voter-passed referendums. 

More interesting, I think, is the question about what this says about politics in New York City. New York City is a place that has been constantly torn between the sometimes competing norms of getting things done  and maintaining democratic accountability (see Robert Moses). Given this history, are voters more or less likely to elect Bloomberg again?

Some have seen this move as enhancing democratic choice  http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/01/opinio…). Is this how voters will see it?


October 2nd, 2008

Welcome to the Forum on Local Government. We’re very excited to start sharing our ideas and thoughts with you. Question or comment? Let us know by leaving a comment below. Also, you can follow what’s happening on this blog by visiting our main site here. Thanks and come back soon!