Yonah is bringing up neoliberalism as one reason American cities, in his case study Detroit, are building new showcase light rail lines while at the same time neglecting bus service. Quoting a study showing the same in Chicago, he explains that this creates an uneasy tension between transit advocacy and development for the sake of the elite.
Actually, I am not surprised, not because of neoliberalism, but because of the trend toward new urban romanticism in gentrification. The best way to understand gentrification today – and the construction of greenfield light rail lines is every bit as connected to gentrification as highway construction was to suburbanization – as the mirror image of suburbanization from the middle of the 19th century onward. The political forces at play can be summarized in the following table:
|1. Initial trends||Industrialization, rapid urbanization||Globalization, suburbanization|
|2. Social problems||Overcrowding, slums, industrial pollution||Sprawl, fractured communities, car pollution|
|3. Romanticized past||Preindustrial rural life||Traditional (19th-early 20th century) urbanism|
|4. Proposed elite solution||Suburbs, cars, home ownership, separation of uses||Urban neighborhoods, transit, condos, mixed uses|
|5. Solution for the existing urban form||Urban renewal: the city is turned into modernist towers and playgrounds for the suburbs||None yet identified, but proposals include demolition and ruralization, and redevelopment|
The best reference for the political forces – as opposed to the urban forces – is Nations and Nationalism, by Ernst Gellner. Gellner argues that modern nationalist culture, including urban romanticism for rural life, is an inevitable byproduct of industrialization. Industrialization leads to unprecedented mobility and a large increase in the size of the economic unit, from the village to the entire nation. This requires some measure of cultural uniformity, which the core imposes on the provinces often with great violence: in the 19th and early 20th century, France imposed Parisian French on provinces that spoke different languages, spanking schoolchildren who said a word in Occitan or Breton.
Although the resulting national culture is made in the cities, it has to romanticize peasants, who live in the vast majority of the nation’s territory. Gellner does not mention this, but in Israel, one can see even more: the most romanticized people are those living in or near disputed territories (for example, Sderot), since they form the basis for territorial claims.
The result of this romanticism is that although the elites live in the cities, most people living in the cities are ignored in favor of ruralism; this is still present today but in weaker form, in “Real America” epithets used by small towns against the cities.
Going back to transportation, this interacted with the real problems in rapidly industrializing cities, such as slums; those slums not only were and looked polluted, but also were hotbeds of cultures other than the national culture, for example immigrant enclaves in the US and cockney culture in London. The decision to build the subway in New York was not just about transportation, but also about transforming urbanites into proper Americans. Indeed, suburbanization happened in every developed country except Singapore and Hong Kong, which escaped this trend not because they are dense or incompatible with cars (as noted in Paul Barter’s thesis, Singapore wasn’t very dense in the 1960s and 70s), but because they are city-states and never had this rural nationalism.
Later, national highway systems (initially only for rural and intercity roads, not urban roads) built the nation, and helped people escape the cities for suburbs that were nothing like traditional rural areas. Part of this difference was fully intended: the urban reformers of the 19th century knew damn well that the rural areas had poor access to jobs, and wanted the suburbs to combine the best of both. But the larger part was not: the suburbs were never truly bucolic, could not offer truly bucolic life except to the very rich, and suffer from the same problems of traffic and social dependence (on homeowners’ associations rather than landlords) as the cities.
I contend that the exact same social trends are happening today, but with cities instead of rural areas. Urbanization happened sufficiently long ago that there’s an entire movement idealizing traditional cities. Real America is no longer just Hope and Crawford, but also Chicago’s South Side.
Under the new paradigm, People who railed against urban renewal, such as Jane Jacobs, become objects of romanticism by disaffected suburbanites, As Sharon Zukin notes in The Naked City, the authentic working-class culture of the West Village that Jacobs loved so much is long gone, but people still cling to its urban design and therefore the neighborhood is still in demand. The now-old working class is every bit an object of admiration today as the peasant class was in 1900.
The current trend for urban revitalization is easy to miss, since it’s only starting. It’s comparable to suburbanization in 1910, not 1955. But New York has had a building boom in the last 10 years, and has been growing faster than its suburbs since 1990 (see ACS data for 2009 here, and census data for 1990 and 2000 here). Since 2000 San Francisco has outgrown its suburbs as well, and in many less gentrified cities, such as Philadelphia, the core has had a population explosion even if the surrounding areas declined. What is more, the growing cores tend to be high-income, fueled by condos rather than low-income housing; this has happened in tandem with the suburbanization of poverty.
Since the current trend is as based on elite needs (in this case, globalization) as the previous trend of suburbanization, it’s not surprising that the infrastructure that comes with it is based on serving the elite: expensive airport connectors, development-oriented transit, bike lanes only for the rich, high-speed rail connecting revitalized urban centers, and generally deprecation of urban infrastructure used by existing residents who aren’t elite. Of course, it does not mean greenfield transit, airport connectors, bike lanes, and high-speed rail are not useful; transit advocates often support them independently of development potential. But it means that the elites like those projects independently of public benefits, and are thus likely to build boondoggles. Yonah himself has noted that,
Those who engage in [transit promotion] simultaneously argue for the social welfare benefits of providing affordable mobility for as many people as possible while also suggesting that good public transportation can play an essential role in city-building — essentially for the elite. After all, one of the primary arguments made for investing in new transit capital projects is that their long-term benefits include raising the property values of the land parcels near stations.
This creates an uneasy pro-transit coalition in many places where development and real estate interests align their lobbying with that of representatives of the poor to argue for the construction of new transit lines (usually rail), under the assumption that projects will benefit each group.
This produces an identity crisis for transit. For whom is it developed? Can its social mobility goals be reconciled with the interests of capitalists in the urban space?
There is not much to do about the trend for gentrification – like the trend for suburbanization, it can be partially managed, but not attacked. However, in the realm of transit, transit activists should be vigilant and prevent becoming useful idiots for developers and urban boosters. The elites can be powerful allies for change if they support the right kind, but it’s imperative to make sure they work for us instead of the reverse.