Rapid Transit in Low-Density Boomtowns

Most of my thinking about public transit comes from large, dense cities, especially New York. In those cities, transit ridership is not a problem; only cost is. When such cities have decent cost control, they can build massive expansion programs, as Paris is. But most of the developed world is not New York, Paris, London, Tokyo, or other transit cities. A large and (thanks to differential national population growth rates) growing share of the developed world lives in fast-growing, low-density city regions with no public transit to speak of, such as the American Sunbelt and its counterparts in Canada and Australia.

I’ve had to intellectually grapple with public transit in two American Sunbelt cities in which current transit usage is a rounding error and the built form is wholly auto-oriented: Orlando (which I was asked about by a Twitter mutual) and Nashville (which just voted against a flawed light rail plan by an overwhelming margin). In those areas, there is no chance for any public transit, provided the urban form stays as it is – but fortunately such cities can leverage their high growth rates to change their urban form, as Calgary did in the 1980s and 90s.

Density versus growth

A few months ago I made this chart:

The density and growth demand axes are not meant to come from a single quantitative metric; density is a subjective mix of residential and job density, whereas growth demand refers to either population growth or the demand for more housing as expressed by price signal. In San Francisco, most likely the richest metro area in the world, density is middling, and growth demand is higher than even in New York and London; in the American Rust Belt, density is fairly low and there is also little demand for more; in some cities on the margin of the first world there is little demand for more growth but high preexisting density. It goes without saying that it’s easier to build new rapid transit lines on the upper right corner than on the lower left one.

The situation of the American Sunbelt, most of which goes in the bubble of Texas and Georgia, is difficult. Residential density is extremely low, so the ridership base near potential rail lines is low. Moreover, streets are usually designed exclusively around auto use, so passengers are unlikely to walk a kilometer to the train station the way they routinely do in transit cities. At the destination end, things aren’t much better – American cities have high-rise CBDs, but few jobs locate there or in surrounding dense neighborhoods.

The Orlando CBD has about 80,000 jobs, in a metro area of 2.5 million people. Disney World adds another 37,000, but is not surrounded by any serviceable residential neighborhoods, and has to be at the end of any reasonable transit service coming from the CBD. Nashville, a metro area of nearly 2 million, has a CBD with 36,000 jobs. The medical center to the southwest adds another 33,000, and this time it could plausibly lie on a rail trunk, but most of the useful urban arterials converge on the CBD and not on the medical center. In contrast, Washington, with 5.5 million people, has 280,000 people working at the CBD (from the Green and Yellow Lines to just beyond Dupont Circle and Foggy Bottom), 77,000 in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, and 33,000 in Crystal City and at National Airport and the Pentagon. Both the percentages and the absolute numbers (including job density) count: there is a great mass of people who would be interested in taking rail to Washington CBD jobs but not to Orlando or Nashville CBD jobs.

Can regional rail work?


High-growth areas are likely to have been small a few decades ago. For the most part the metro areas in question were too small in the heyday of rail transportation to have inherited a large legacy rail network. Even the ones that did, including Atlanta and Perth, have less legacy rail than older cities of comparable size – compare Atlanta with Philadelphia, or Perth with Brisbane. And most North American boomtowns are not Atlanta. Miami has two north-south mainlines and a handful of east-west connections, none at the right place for commuter rail. Orlando has a north-south trunk with a branch to the north, and Nashville a few branches, but they’re surrounded by industrial land use and not by the sort of suburbs that developed around commuter rail in the Northeast.

A commuter rail-based network can still work, but only with extensive greenfield lines. Disney World is not on any legacy rail line, because it developed long after rail stopped being a relevant mode of transportation outside large urban areas. But even then, gaps in coverage are unavoidable, as the dense neighborhoods of such cities did not develop around legacy rail.

Can transit-oriented development work?

Sort of.

The big question about TOD is, who is it for? In Nashville specifically, the far left opposed the light rail plan, essentially because it would cannibalize funding that could go to public housing. Now, public housing could be used to beef up density along rail corridors. Stockholm built public housing simultaneously with the subway, placing housing projects on top of rail branches, and as a result has per capita ridership today that’s not much lower than the level of Paris, Berlin, or Munich.

The problem is that public housing is horrendously expensive. A house in low-cost American cities costs around $150,000, but apartments cost more, so $200,000 per household is more likely even with some economies about size. Most of this cost is impossible to recover through rent – if low-income households made enough money to pay market rent in nice apartments, they’d just rent these apartments on the open market. The American Sunbelt does not lack for developable suburban land.

Market-rate housing is much easier to construct – for one, developers make a profit on it, and so are eager to put up their own money. The problem is that in cities like Nashville and Orlando, the middle class has close to 100% car ownership, and a large majority of households have one car per adult. The real estate industry is not going to spontaneously build housing with less parking or pedestrian-oriented retail.

In San Diego, developers build more parking than the minimum at University Avenue and 30th Street, according to Duncan McFetridge of the Cleveland National Forest Foundation. University is a bus corridor and not a light rail corridor, but the bus frequency there isn’t terrible, and the area is pretty walkable for a low-density city. In Los Angeles, I’ve read analysis that blames the region’s falling transit ridership on gentrification, explaining that in gentrifying inner neighborhoods like Boyle Heights, the middle class drives whereas the working class takes transit. It’s not like here or in New York, where recent gentrifiers rarely own cars.

How did Calgary make it work?

Calgary is a metro area of somewhat more than a million people. Its economy is based on oil, and when oil prices were higher earlier this decade its average income was comparable to that of San Francisco; its politics is thoroughly conservative, which means there is no progressive impetus for walkability or green transit. Nonetheless, it built light rail lines that get about 100 million annual riders today. Its transit mode share is 16%, higher than that of any American metro area except New York (or, in the most restrictive definition, San Francisco). This is with no residential TOD to speak of: the vast majority of housing in Calgary is single-family and low-density, and from what I’ve seen there’s almost no dense residential development near the stations.

The big thing Calgary did was develop its CBD to be high-rise. In the early 1980s Calgary was a small, monocentric city, and since then it’s grown more monocentric, developing downtown parking lots as high-rise buildings. When I visited it had a more prominent high-rise downtown than Providence, a bigger and older metro area, and walking between the high-rises was reasonably pleasant.

In low-density cities with demand for more growth, the best opportunity appears to be centralizing jobs in the CBD. The straightforward application involves developing parking lots, as in Calgary, and relying on the private market to do the rest of the job. In both Nashville and Orlando, there are also more proactive approaches, specific to their urban layouts. In Nashville, the high job density at the medical center calls for developing a continuous corridor from the CBD, about 3 km long. This corridor could plausibly get an east-west subway, in contrast with the north-south subway in the rejected light rail plan. In Orlando, the Disney World cluster calls for some residential upzoning and sprawl repair around that area, which would strengthen the case for building a rail line between that area and the CBD.

Growing cities can use their growth to support more auto-oriented development (as the big American cities did in the postwar era) or to support more public transit. This is understood in cities that already have a transit-oriented core, but it’s equally true in cities that don’t really have any public transit, like the entire American Sunbelt. Calgary, starting with very low population, managed to build a decent if not great public transit network centered on its light rail system, and the same should be doable in American cities of comparable size and age.


    • Ikram

      Ottawa is switching to LRT this November. Its segregated BRT, the biggest in North America, will slowly be scrapped in the next five years, with only a few outyling or lower ridership segments remaining. End of an experiment.

      A current “what -if” debate in Ottawa is whether the 1978 decision to build grade separated BRT was a giant mistake and the city should have chosen LRT like Calgary (and Edmonton), or whether BRT was a cost effective transitional stage, allowing transit ridership and the city to grow before committing to the cost of rail. (Basically a scale variance question).

  1. Eric

    Calgary and other high-ridership Canadian cities have essentially no freeways to the CBD. While I can’t find job numbers for the Calgary CBD, I suspect it is quite small compared to other cities with similar light rail ridership. So I think the key is that they made driving to the CBD difficult.

    In Sunbelt cities, there are freeways to the CBD, but with further growth they will become massively overcrowded and there won’t be room to expand them. Transit could ease this crunch. In Atlanta it already has – I looked at the rush hour average congestion layer on Google Maps, and congestion stops where MARTA begins. Of course this system, and similar systems elsewhere, should be expanded. MARTA could really use a branch to Marietta, for example. However, I think racial politics are currently preventing that.

    • Alon Levy

      Calgary has grade-separated arterial roads to the CBD. To the untrained eye they look like freeways, even if they don’t have full access control.

    • Ikram

      Calgary has 21% of its total jobs in the CBD, same proportion as London or Paris (as of 2000, source:demographia).

      Driving to the CBD is not difficult but parking is very hard. For the 125k jobs in the CBD in 2011, there were only 40k parking spots (source: Calgary Herald, Jan 15 2011). This is a deliberate policy choice. It seems to work.

  2. Benjamin Turon

    “Miami has two north-south mainlines and a handful of east-west connections, none at the right place for commuter rail.”

    And yet MiamiCentral station in downtown will be soon served by both ‘Brightline’ and Tri-Rail, connecting to both MetroRail and MetroMover. It seems that both those main lines are in the right place for commuter rail after all — or else they’re making a big mistake! South Florida may be limited to having commuter/regional rail in one north-south coastal corridor, but that corridor includes historic downtowns (Ft Lauderdale and West Palm Beach) and a lot of dense development including now TOD around the new Brightline stations.

    From what I have been told by people who have visited and rode ‘Brightline’ is that the traffic is bad that people can’t wait till the service opens full to Miami.

      • Eric

        Generally mass transit is *more* useful for regular commuters than for occasional users. That’s why they call it “commuter rail”.

  3. Michael James

    Stockholm built public housing simultaneously with the subway, placing housing projects on top of rail branches, and as a result has per capita ridership today that’s not much lower than the level of Paris, Berlin, or Munich. ….
    The problem is that public housing is horrendously expensive.

    There is a serious inconsistency in these statements. The second statement should perhaps have a Churchillian twist: “public housing is horrendously expensive …. except for any other alternative”. And really it reflects a particular econometric mindset that is short-termist and focussed on ROI or commercial returns, blah blah. You can say TINA (There Is No Alternative) but obviously it is not true, and if we want to avoid calamity (for everyone including the 1%, or especially the 1% given they have the most to lose) we better put our minds to it.

    And Australia, in particular Sydney, is a good case of this kind of ostrich behaviour: no significant mass transit built for 50 years with only massively expensive private road-tunnels (all owned by foreign companies who are making unheard of margins on the back of endless toll increases) and a profoundly corrupt financial industry* that has put a debt bomb under our exploding property prices such that none of the genY-millenials + genZ can contemplate owning (or even renting) any place anyone would choose to live (unless of course they lend from the bank of mom&dad if they are boomers who got obscenely rich off the same property boom; yes, we’re apparently trying to re-establish a neo-feudal society where your parents are what counts the most).

    In short, the Stockholm model–like democracy–is not perfect but it is the only solution: build that regional rail and metro, and develop TOD around them which should include some affordable + public housing to get it going. Time will do the rest–ie. density will occur naturally once the model is set. Trying to say it can’t be done because a developer can’t make huge profits, or they simply don’t prefer that mode of development, needs to be thrown in the bin of failed experiments. For one alternative there is the value-capture model of Hong Kong MTRC (a government majority owned entity) which acts as its own developer for TOD and commercial developments above its own new stations (though HK does not have a good record in providing affordable accommodation but that is a separate political issue).
    *There is a current Royal Commission (government enquiry with the greatest judicial powers that compels testimony) into the Australian banks and the findings are shocking everyone. Well, except that it has been an open secret for decades now. We have the most concentrated retail bank sector (4 major banks control 80+%) with the highest profit margins (40+%) in the world. (These 4 banks made more profits (≈$30bn) than WalMart does in a country with 15x the population.)
    Yet it has all been built on rampant debt, mostly mortgages, such that Australia has one of the world’s highest personal debt per capita, most unaffordable housing etc etc.
    My point is that we have got to stop using existing economic models, and especially those built around developer’s “needs”, to design our cities, and to solve their mounting problems. Australia and California and parts of the Sunbelt (Texas, Florida, Georgia) are extremely wealthy and can easily afford to build the appropriate infrastructure but are choosing not to. Based on entirely disproven econo-models.

    • Alon Levy

      Stockholm housing is so, so expensive, though. The place I lived in in Stockholm was, counting size and amenities (stairs, laundry, natural light), half as good as my current place in Paris or even worse. The rent after I left was around 20% less than what I pay here. The Social Democrats constructed a system in which it was not possible to build private housing without subsidies, and once those subsidies went away after the early 1990s’ financial crisis, homebuilding cratered. It’s only increased in the last few years as the crisis has reached such massive proportions that developers can profitably build, and most new housing is not social. Housing construction in Sweden, having peaked last year at 6.4/1,000 people (expected to fall to 4.6 next year), still lags NSW and Victoria, in a country that has about the same net migration rate as Australia.

      As for value capture: whatever its merits in Hong Kong, it is not a reliable source of profits in Orlando, Nashville, Charlotte, or other American sprawlburbs. The MTR gets its land directly from the state; in the US land would need to be acquired from private owners at full market value taking future transit into account. It is illegal for the government to seize private property at the prices it has without infrastructure, build infrastructure, and sell it (or rent it) at a profit; FDR wanted to fund highways this way in the New Deal and the courts struck it down as unconstitutional (“excess takings”).

      Moreover, even if it were somehow legal for the state to do this, perhaps using rezoning, it would be hard to realize high profits in cities with low housing costs like nearly the entire American Sunbelt. The intersection of “high enough housing costs that development is a serious profit center” and “auto-oriented US city” is Los Angeles; the parts of LA where development would be the most profitable are wealthy NIMBYburbs like Beverly Hills and Santa Monica. You can realize some profit out of market-rate housing, but nothing like what the MTR gets in Hong Kong.

      Then there’s the fact that the transit mode share in the cities in question is extremely low. Nashville’s is 0.9%, Orlando’s is 1.7%. So even the lower middle class has universal car ownership. Unless you create opportunities for people to live their entire lives without a car, as is routine here or in Hong Kong but is completely lolzy in the American Sunbelt, they will keep buying cars. If they buy cars, they’ll drive them to off-CBD jobs and errands and demand parking, and there goes your TOD.

      This is why I’m saying social housing is so expensive. You can only guarantee your low-parking TOD will fill if you price it such that people who would consider not buying cars would move in. In the American Sunbelt, such people are so poor they can pay rent to cover maintenance costs. The working-class Floridians I know are paying $200-300 a month in rent, sharing a house, and they drive everywhere because there’s no public transit. And you can go well below their current living standards in Florida; there are parts of the state where the market value of a house is less than $100,000, which at TOD construction costs gets you maybe 50 square meters.

      What’s more, if only 5% of area jobs are in the CBD, then people who worry about unemployment aren’t going to tether themselves to the CBD by forgoing cars. This is why job centralization is so important – you need to make sure people can trust that if they lose their job they’ll find another that’s still reachable by transit. This doesn’t even have to be a high-rise CBD – over here, if you lose your job near the Opera you can get one at Les Halles, Etoile, La Defense, Bercy, the Latin Quarter, etc., and you’ll need to change trains but your commute will still be reasonable by Metro or RER.

      • Michael James

        It is illegal for the government to seize private property at the prices it has without infrastructure, build infrastructure, and sell it (or rent it) at a profit; FDR wanted to fund highways this way in the New Deal and the courts struck it down as unconstitutional (“excess takings”).

        Yikes, that is a seriously toxic policy. Clearly designed by big-business and the one-percent. But I suppose it is no surprise in the US. FDR was right and it is obviously proper justice that if the government is the reason for the uplift in value then it should be the one to benefit. Naturally it was designed to kill government playing any role in development (except of course in roads, as per Moses) and give all the profits to the big-monied property interests, and of course starve transit of money.

        Incidentally you are not quite correct about Hong Kong. It is true that all land is crown land and is owned privately by long leasehold from the crown, which to almost all purposes is no different to freehold land ownership. So in any reasonably established area the land will already be privately owned and HK MTRC will have to buy it at market rates. If anything HK developers are even more red in tooth & claw than their western counterparts. As it happens quite a bit of the value capture has been done where nothing existed prior to building the new infrastructure, namely the Airport line. And in fact I am fairly sure I remember that MTRC pays a premium to the government so that a bit of the eventual uplift is returned directly to the government (though it probably doesn’t compare to the enormous uplift from such developments if successful; such as the Airport line has been, including the phenomenal Union Square in West Kowloon and built on land reclaimed by the government from the harbour! [Note: this is what I keep proposing for SF’s problem.] Of course that is about as central as it gets, but Tung Chung new town at the other end of the same line (≈30km from Central, 24 minutes by MTR) is always extremely successful and was a tiny fishing village prior to government building the airport and the transit lines (though much of Tung Chung was built by private developers). I’d guess, though haven’t checked, that the newly opened South Island Line (to Aberdeen and its little island with exclusive housing South Horizons etc) would cause quite an uplift (from very expensive to even more expensive) because previously you would have had to either catch a bus or drive.

        Re Stockholm, isn’t where you lived right in the hipster centre and thus not relevant to this story? Were you not describing them building public housing TOD in an outer area to be newly served by rapid transit? Which surely cannot be as expensive as inner already-developed areas? (But sure, I assume everything everywhere in Sweden will be expensive.)

        Re the Sunbelt, I think you are wrong to focus on the seriously poor, even the so-called “working poor” because that is very much a political problem. I am talking about the broad middle classes who, just like in Sydney and Melbourne, are getting forced out of the housing market, especially in convenient places in these mega-sprawled cities. Buying out in the boondocks (“drive until you qualify”) just means a slow kind of living-death due to absurd commutes and long drives to do anything. As you say there is no rapid transit. But my point is that if they built such rapid transit and encourage TOD at high-density around the stations, then yes they would become popular (even without a city-wide transit network), esp. for those who want to work in the CBDs (Sydney has three CBDs), and they could reduce to a single-car family etc. do more stuff locally etc. This is going to be the story of LA and SFBA in the next few decades. Isn’t it the plan for Atlanta’s Beltline (though I suppose it might be too-expensive housing–because it is “inner” fringe and hence convenient–and the public housing component will get squeezed out as the plans progress, just as happens to all such re-devo projects in London). (But as far as the US goes, most of us have lost interest. It seems only a full-blooded, and bloody, revolution will change things. Unfortunately, as Macron said, there is no Planet B and we share Planet A with them.)

        Most importantly, it clearly will take government to get this ball rolling. And in that case, serious value-capture by the government or its transit entity, should be part of the funding arrangements.

      • Joseph

        “It is illegal for the government to seize private property at the prices it has without infrastructure, build infrastructure, and sell it (or rent it) at a profit; FDR wanted to fund highways this way in the New Deal and the courts struck it down as unconstitutional (“excess takings”).”

        I’m not sure if this is still true since 2005. “In a five-to-four ruling, the high court held in Kelo v. City of New London, 125 S. Ct. 2655 (2005), that New London, Connecticut could properly exercise eminent domain power in furtherance of an economic development plan.” http://www.sgrlaw.com/ttl-articles/837/

        The limiting factor is that politicians generally work very hard to avoid using eminent domain, because it is politically unpopular and results in expensive lawsuits, which delay the project and cause more cost escalation. It looks like a city could buy or condemn large areas around new transit stations, build, then resell… but why would the mayor and city council or the transit board members want to deal with all that hassle? They wouldn’t personally profit, but they would hear all the complaints from the people and businesses who were displaced.

        • Alon Levy

          Kelo means the government can seize your land if you’re not using it for highest and best purpose; it’s not saying it can engage in excess takings while it’s increasing land values through infrastructure development.

          • Eric

            Isn’t high-rise housing a higher (no pun intended) and better purpose than low-rise housing?

          • Alon Levy

            If you’re not using maximum zoned capacity, then sure. But it’s not been tested in court whether the government can seize your property at the land value of low-density zoning and then build high-rises on it. Broad upzoning should reduce land values, but if every block except yours retains low-density zoning and yours is upzoned, your land value will rise.

            The government can definitely do this, especially if it builds affordable housing, but it might need to pay full market rate rather than using dodgy preemption powers to undercompensate homeowners.

        • Connor Harris

          Most states passed laws or constitutional amendments after Kelo to prohibit the uses of eminent domain that Kelo enabled; if memory serves, New York and New Jersey are two notable exceptions.

          • Michael James

            Terrific. So instead of public money spent on public infrastructure to benefit the public, it goes to make the 1% or the 0.001%, like the Trump & Kushner clans, even richer. Plus, even worse, handing them the power to plan your habitats.

          • Alon Levy

            Huh? Kelo says that it’s legal for the state to seize your property and hand it to a private developer if it believes the private developer will use it more intensively (generating more property tax revenue) than you are.

            The mentality that you think is Anglospheric and designed for the 0.0000000001% is not especially Anglospheric, actually. It’s a lot easier for the state to seize your property in the US than here. In the US it’s legal for the state to downzone or redline your property and then seize it at deflated price. Here it isn’t, and moreover there is more toleration for extralegal actions on your part (e.g. blocking roads during protests). In Japan the rules are even more pro-private property, which is why the urban freeways in Tokyo are all narrow and elevated over existing streets rather than slicing through neighborhoods as in the US. The excess takings ban is one of the few recourses available to American property owners in case the state wants to extract money from them.

          • Michael James

            Alon, you are being over-dramatic in all that. “Sieze” private property? Without the ability to resume land hardly any modern infrastructure could be built. What we are talking about here is the state not being allowed to do it and profit (or as in HK, share in the profit) from the uplift in values it has created. Your version is not mentioned by the OP: “FDR wanted to fund highways this way in the New Deal” and:

            “In a five-to-four ruling, the high court held in Kelo v. City of New London, 125 S. Ct. 2655 (2005), that New London, Connecticut could properly exercise eminent domain power in furtherance of an economic development plan.”

            So perhaps, we have our wires crossed. I am now unclear (about Kelo) but I think you know my position. But which is not to say that private developers have to be completely excluded from such developments–that doesn’t happen with those HK-MTRC projects. But the public funder must start to recover some of the value uplift, to help finance that project and future projects. Instead of almost all the increase in value being captured exclusively by private interests who didn’t in fact make any contribution to the critical infrastructure. Obviously property resumption (by government) is very unpopular and it is this that has driven road-tunnels (and now Metro tunnels) here in Oz (largely necessary because of lack of planning over the decades).

            Incidentally I suppose Thatcher’s PFI’s in some cases were pretty outrageous and blatant attempts to shift everything, including the profits, to the private sector, even if majority state funding was involved.

          • Alon Levy

            The economic development plan in question in Kelo involved a private developer. Previously, eminent domain in the US had been used for public goods, like public housing, hospitals, schools, and infrastructure; separately, private railroads in the US have eminent domain power, and governments below the federal level may not use eminent domain against railroad property.

        • Michael James

          Ian Mitchell, that New Dallas plan is positively Haussmannian: the yellow-shaded bits! All low-rise, human-scale buildings in a tight formation with treed-avenues, small block-sized squares & parks, no hi-rise and no large “green” spaces or giant plazas that turn into wind-swept deserts devoid of people or activity. And no surface car-parks! I don’t think I’ve seen that in an American (or Anglosphere) plan before, though it has a lot in common with CA’s SB827 intent (now DOA). It would be terrific.
          But it would be truly revolutionary for the US not to mention Texas, not to mention Dallas (you sure this isn’t Austin!). So it seems nearly totally impossible. However, that someone somewhere has such a vision is a start. Worse, even some its supporters will come to undermine it–by height creep. I see this:

          Vox’s Matthew Yglesias called SB 827 “one of the most important ideas in American politics today,”

          But Yglesias is the very person (along with Ed Glaeser & others) who advocates that Washington DC’s neo-Haussmannian limits to be removed so hi-rise can be built next to the Whitehouse and can overshadow the Mall and doubtless make the Washington monument look like a toothpick.

      • Untangled

        Speaking of housing and Sydney, there’s a mini punch up over giving powers to the Sydney Metro to build housing along the new metro line. This, of course, is part of a wider debate about building housing. The Sydney Metro will mainly be in charge of building and operating (in partnership with relevant contracted parties of course, like MTR for operations) the new metro but they’re also getting powers to be a property developer.

        This isn’t the government’s first foray into building developments (Landcom, UrbanGrowth) but Sydney Metro seems to be controversial among some because as one so-called Greens MP (the most left-wing party in Australia) has put it, it means the Sydney Metro will be a “developer that happens to run trains” and apparently the authority will have also powers to acquire existing property along the line to do this (but as I understand it, not forcibly unless it’s needed to build rail infrastructure but they have that now anyway). This Greens MP even said that this couldn’t be called value capture but it was highway robbery (they obviously haven’t been to Hong Kong).

        I find it ironic given that the left-wingers, who are generally all about doing acquiring stuff for the common good, are somehow opposing this but a right-wing government is implementing this, who are generally more pro-homeowners. What is happening? Oh wait, they’re just protecting their constitutes who are ostensibly left wing but are wealthy and more like right-wingers when they want to protect their home from the guberment.

  4. Joseph

    Alon, you probably were giving only a rough idea with the circles on the chart. But it is imprecise to lump all of “Texas” in with Atlanta. While Fort Worth and San Antonio are sprawling and low-density, they are growing more slowly than Austin and Houston. Dallas is in between, and still has a fairly strong downtown. Houston, which lacks most zoning controls (though building codes require parking minimums, among other things), is growing denser and is one of the few USA cities to show stable transit ridership the past few years while transit ridership has fallen in most metropolitan areas.

    Looking back at the 2010 census by population-weighted (residential) density, Houston is in the second tier with around 4000 to 5000 people per square mile. (https://www.citylab.com/equity/2012/10/americas-truly-densest-metros/3450/) This is lower than the old Northeast cities, Chicago, Honolulu, SF and LA, but similar to Portland, Seattle, Salt Lake, Denver, Providence and New Orleans. And it’s higher than all other Texan cities. Houston could certainly growth transit ridership, if it stops building new exurban freeways and subsidizing downtown parking.

    On the other hand, mid-size southern cities like Little Rock, Birmingham, Jackson, Charlotte and Raleigh are much lower density than even Atlanta and Orlando (which ; no metro in the Carolinas, Albama, Mississippi or Arkansas is above 2000 per square mile. Nashville is also in this category: small to mid-size metros with very low density.

    • adirondacker12800

      Nashville consolidated with it’s suburbs in the 60s. The core is trolley ‘burb.

    • Ian Mitchell

      Houston is also the third-largest foreign-born population in the US (behind LA and NY, ahead of Chicago), is the most popular city in the country for recent immigrants, and offers a balance of diversity, opportunity, and affordability that is rare in the US.

      The bus redesign was a good move, but I think Houston will need to make some real infrastructural investments soon to continue growing.

  5. Wanderer

    I get the idea of creating a concentrated CBD/Downtown as a transit destination in low density neighborhoods. But in the U.S. at least it seems unlikely that a city could do this where there isn’t a strong transit supportive constiuency. The folks who don’t want trains or BRT probably don’t want highrises either.

    • Michael James

      Wanderer 2018/05/06 – 18:44

      The folks who don’t want trains or BRT probably don’t want highrises either.

      Then they could be twin-cities with Paris … except for the trains bit .

      You are just buying into the nonsense spread by property developers, that high density must equal high rise, but it ain’t true. Have a look at this (fascinating pics):

      Lessons From Europe’s Densest Neighborhoods
      Feargus O’Sullivan, 27 March 2018.

      Top 30 of densest sq km in Europe and some of the most desirable places to live in Europe. At number 20 on the list is a slice of Helsinki at 15,000/km2 (twice as dense as anything in the US outside Manhattan; SF city, at US #2, is exactly half this density). Not a single high-rise to be seen in any of these 30 photos/30x1km2. Of course one doesn’t need anything like these densities to make an impact, or have a functional TOD.
      And such terrible places to live ….

      Oh, and Alon too exaggerates the problem of ownership and compulsion to use a car. Other than transient foreign trash such as myself, I can’t think of any Parisian friend of mine who doesn’t own a car (when I think about it, this is a surprise; I did own a car for one year.). It’s just that they don’t use them much. There’s nothing that strictly requires a car. If you purchase a big fridge, washing machine or double-bed it will be delivered to you, gratis (at least by the big department stores or bigger stores) even if there is a 5 floor walk-up. In Paris you can leave old whitegoods or mattresses etc on the pavement (at certain times) and they’ll be collected before you know it (half the time by professional scavengers who rehabilitate/resell it …).

    • adirondacker12800

      That’s because the stereotype is that high rises turn into dystopian nightmares. Like Chicago’s Magnificent Mile or Manhattan’s Upper East Side. And you are right. I spent most of my life in what seemed to us to be green leafy suburbs that are more densely populated than most American cities.

      • Alon Levy

        At the talk I gave in Mountain View, someone asked me a question about elevated grade separations overtly calling New York and Chicago ugly and negatively comparing them with Silicon Valley. (My response was that rail grade separations using berms and concrete viaducts, rather than steel els, are way quieter than the steel structures of New York and Chicago.)

      • Michael James

        Eric 2018/05/08 – 02:58

        That’s what happens when you use flammable cladding. Nothing with height per se.

        Not exactly true. That cladding is allowable on low-rise. It only turns into a big risk on hi-rise. The reality is that the regulations all over the world do exclude it (in Australia I believe on buildings above 4 floors), just that the rules were ignored largely due to today’s absurd outsourced certification methods. The same company makes similar alu cladding of much lower fire-risk but the flammable stuff is cheaper (not by very much) … No doubt the same certification process that allowed no water sprinklers and removal of one of the two stairwells in the Grenfell Building! But then, Trump Tower (54 floors?) was allowed to be built without water sprinklers too!

        • Alon Levy

          The cladding isn’t necessary, though. The tower was built without it. The cladding was a later addition to make the building look prettier from the outside.

          • Michael James

            That is mostly true for the Grenfell Tower–though the cladding adds insulation to those poorly built hi-rises.
            But the Melbourne Lacrosse building with the same cladding that caught fire in 2014 was new. And each state has done an audit though are typically cagey in releasing the data, but the word is that there are hundreds if not thousands of buildings with such cladding. Many of these will be hi-rise apartments which have become a big slice of the housing segment in Oz in the past decade.

            Likewise Dubai’s The Torch, a 79-storey/330 metres; fire broke out on the 50th floor on New Year’s Eve 2015, and then again last year (IIRC)!
            Ditto the Dubai AjmanOne tower in March 2016.

            The Grenfell report: In the 10 weeks following the Grenfell disaster, 262 tall residential towers across England were found to have the same or similar combustible cladding panels, including 161 social housing blocks and 26 student halls of residence.

            Apparently a fire in a China hi-rise that killed 59 people was known to the industry for years even as they continued to use the product in Australia.

            Reports are saying another problem with them on hi-rise is that if they are not fixed very carefully (or maybe this happens from the greater wind stress?) the panel can have an air gap between the building inner panel (it is the inner part that is flammable) and this is why the fire spreads so fast up the building, ie. a chimney affect. However, as plausible as that may be, I am suspicious that this is a strategy to push liability away from certifiers (and ultimately local councils who are supposed to ensure all this goes as it is supposed to), designers, suppliers, importers etc who all throwing their hands in the air and saying “it weren’t me guv”, and on to those no-good bludging workers. Also many construction & development companies for these big buildings are set up as a separate entity and can disappear overnight or claim zero funds etc etc. to insulate their parent companies from liabilities or ongoing issues.

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  7. Bgriff

    Late to the party because I was recently on vacation in South Africa and I was thinking about this very topic while taking the Gautrain in Johannesburg. There are all sorts of debates to be had about whether it was a good use of money, but having been to Joburg 10 years ago and again now, it is profound how big of an effect the Gautrain has had on urban design and on spurring (what looks like, anyway) job density of the sort you describe in Calgary around a handful of rail stations, in what was previously (and is still primarily) a car-oriented, suburban-sprawl-heavy metropolis.

    One thing I found particularly interesting about Gautrain relative to the prevailing trend for light rail systems in US cities is that Gautrain’s value proposition to riders definitely includes avoiding road congestion, as rail systems in US cities also theoretically do, but outside of NY/DC and maybe a couple of others, even “bad” traffic isn’t actually so bad to spur that many people onto transit.

    But Gautrain is also a heavy rail system and goes fast, 160km/h or so, meaning it’s actually still faster than driving even when there isn’t traffic, if you’re going along its route anyway. Between Joburg’s de facto modern CBD of Sandton and the airport, the train is much, much faster than driving, helped by the lack of a particularly direct highway connection (since Joburg’s very good highways were mostly built before Sandton developed). And people seem to be using it, and large office buildings are sprouting like weeds around its main stations, particularly in Sandton and Rosebank.

    I don’t know how cost competitive Gautrain ultimately was, and how much of that may have been helped by lower labor costs than in the US and Europe, but it’s still an interesting case study, especially since South Africa offers some relatively unique examples of sprawling, largely car-oriented cities outside the usual suspects of the US, Canada and Australia. (The relationship of Gautrain with the older flailing MetroRail system, which is used mainly by the poor and working classes, is also a separate complex topic, but any transit-oriented development MetroRail might have been able to spur dried up some time ago when the well-off ceased to pay it any attention.)

    So anyway — all of that to say, Gautrain might be an alternative-world example worth keeping an eye on, and is looking like a lot more successful of a case study than most of what is built in North America.

  8. Sergio

    This is all crap.

    We just need to get our
    Infrastructure costs under control.

    And build cheap transit infrastructure in dense central walkable neighborhoods.

    Even if they are surrounded by seas of suburban subdivisions are far as the eye can see.

    As long as we concentrate new development along new transit corridors, we can move toward a new future.

    We can’t keep the charade thinking there’s always going to be cheap individual transportation fueled by massive federal subsidy and cheap fossil fuels.

    If we don’t find new reserves, we’re going to run out of them in our grandkids lifetime. Completely out. ZERO.

    We need to have figured out a better way by then.

    Maybe baby steps toward density and transit seem small. But anything is better than resignation. And adding to the unsustainable sprawl.

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  10. IAN Mitchell

    “The big thing Calgary did was develop its CBD to be high-rise. In the early 1980s Calgary was a small, monocentric city, and since then it’s grown more monocentric, developing downtown parking lots as high-rise buildings”

    Isn’t this essentially what Austin has done? Sure, Austin has a secondary center at the Domain and downtown steadily creeps north toward UT, but it’s more high-rise than many cities of its size, even though this seems to be happening without any meaningful high-capacity transit and freeways that are about the size they were when the city had half as many people.

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