Matthew Turner

Professor of Economics
Matthew Turner
Professor of Economics
Looking closely at data and analyzing patterns is one way economists can inform public policymaking and test the received wisdom. Do subway systems alleviate urban sprawl? Matthew Turner observes that lowering the cost of mobility might actually spread things out.

For Matthew Turner, making the leap from the woods of Northern California, where he’d often go on childhood hikes and ponder questions of resource conservation, to a career as an applied microeconomist specializing in urban and environmental policy, was a natural transition.

“Economics is all about how we manage things that are scarce,” Turner said. “This is also just what the conservation movement is about. If you want to think about how to manage scarce natural resources, then that’s exactly what economics is for, and so an economics department just seemed like a natural place for me to end up.”

Turner turned his love of those woods and desire to preserve them into a career focused primarily on issues of land conservation, infrastructure policy, and urban sprawl. He comes to Brown this fall as a professor of economics to continue that research.

While he admits to having his hand in a “gazillion” projects at various stages of completion, one project he is quick to talk about is a study of the effects of the California Global Warming Solutions Act. Passed in 2006, the bill calls for part of California’s targeted greenhouse emission reduction to be achieved through urban planning and public transportation growth to reduce emissions from vehicles.

The belief is that changing the structure of cities to allow for easier transportation can reduce the number of drivers on the road. However, Turner and his collaborators believe the bill, while well-intended, may be a case of legislators putting the cart before the proverbial horse.

“The idea that the way cities are built affects resource use is not new, but right now we don’t have a sufficiently detailed understanding of the relationship between how cities are configured and how people behave to be able to write policy around that,” Turner said.

Turner believes that a more careful examination of city transportation patterns and analyses of neighborhood structures could help determine if people’s behavior does, in fact, change when the areas around them change and, ultimately, provide more detailed guidance to policies like California’s emissions bill.

In a similar vein, Turner is also currently involved in a project to examine how subways affect the way cities develop. The project aims to better inform decisions to expand or build subway systems in cities around the world.

“Subway expansions are dizzyingly expensive and they are under consideration all over the world. This partly reflects the fact that proponents of subways and public transit make extravagant claims for what they can accomplish, things like turning cities into these places where everybody walks and there are no cars and fewer people have heart disease. We really don't have convincing evidence for these sorts of claims,” Turner said.

Turner and his collaborators are examining detailed data of every subway network in the world and creating maps of their surrounding cities for every year that the system has been open. If subways systems have the transformative powers their proponents claim, then people should be moving to be near them.

So far they’ve found little evidence that subway systems attract more residents to a city’s central area. In fact, “Subway systems appear to cause central cities to spread out into the area served by the subway. While this is probably good — subways lower the cost of mobility and so people spread out — it means that subways are probably not the sprawl killers they're sometime advertised to be,” Turner said.

Turner comes to Brown from the University of Toronto, where he has taught in the economics department for more than a decade.

College Hill is familiar territory to Turner, who earned his Ph.D. in economics from Brown and completed his thesis under J. Vern Henderson.

Turner, who will teach a graduate course in urban economics in the fall, said he’s looking forward to reconnecting with familiar faces and working with other faculty who share his research interests. “The economics department at Brown has a strong tradition of research and teaching in urban economics and I'm very excited to be a part of it.”