Process for the Sake of Process

A Patreon poll in April asked about political blogging, offering three options: policy certainty in housing, process for the sake of process, and lawsuits and corruption of process. The second option won.

The year is about 2008. A wee grad student and former political blogger in New York is getting interested in transportation policy, and through past connections to political bloggers gets acquainted with a progressive local thinktank called Drum Major Institute, which advocates for all the right priorities of the center-left. One of these priorities is densification and urban growth. The relevant DMI fellow talks about the need to upzone in the city to permit smart growth. The wee grad student asks, why even have zoning at all? Why not let developers build to any density they’d like? The DMI fellow says that zoning is necessary in order to permit planners to have control over where development goes, and doesn’t explain what this control is useful for in the first place.

Fast forward to this decade. Cities install infrastructure for livable streets. Bikeshare revolutionizes cycling, first via the docked systems of Paris, Wuhan, and Hangzhou, and subsequently via the dockless systems developed in the largest Chinese cities. Simultaneously, all over the developed world cities reallocate space away from cars, whether it’s via bus lanes, bike lanes, wider sidewalks, or freeway removal. This trend has generally earned the support of people who support livable streets or are generally progressive. There may be individual pieces of criticism: for example, East Harlem railed against New York’s original decision not to extend bike lanes on First and Second Avenues to its community, and thankfully the city listened after a few years and did extend them. But these criticisms tend to be specific to one issue and constructive.

But then there are the NIMBYs, whose rallying cry is “they didn’t ask us.” In San Francisco, the Mission left-wing community activist group Calle 24 attacked the city for extending bikeshare to the Mission, on grounds that include gentrification but also the process line: “we weren’t consulted.”

There are many defenses of process that do justify its importance. I interviewed Aaron Ritz and Waffiyah Murray at Indego, Philadelphia’s publicly-run docked bikeshare system, which has somewhat better reach to low-income and black residents than systems like Chicago’s Divvy and Washington’s Capital Bikeshare. They gave me concrete examples of how Indego’s community outreach was helpful: it gave the planners tips on the best station siting (e.g. where the community centers are) as well as on different ways different socioeconomic groups use bikeshare (e.g. black Philadelphians are likelier to think of cycling as fun rather than transportation and thus prefer station locations near recreational trails).

But simultaneously there are defenses of process for its own sake. Zoning is the biggest example: the actually useful aspects of urban zoning are so few and far between, and so disconnected from current practice, that there is no coherent defense of the existence of zoning boards. The common arguments used by neighborhood groups (overdevelopment, infrastructure, gentrification, etc.) range from manifestly false to manifestly selfish (property values).

On various YIMBY message boards, there has been a discussion of an alternative zoning code to standard low-density zoning. People discussed form-based codes or transit-oriented development regimes like that of SB 827 in California, and as a first stab I proposed the following at Open New York:

1. Land is residential, commercial, or industrial. Industrial gets set by regional or statewide commission taking into account manufacturing jobs, prevailing winds, etc., and is distinguished in having looser pollution controls. Residential is allowed in commercial zones by right; doctors’ offices, lawyers’ offices, and other independent personal services are allowed in residential areas, as are hotels.

2. Retail is allowed in all commercial zones. Office is allowed in commercial zones that are specifically for office.

3. Commercial zones are allowed to encroach on adjacent residential land: residential land within a certain distance from majority-commercial uses gets automatically reclassified as commercial, and if the commercial uses are mostly offices then the land gets reclassified as office and not just retail.

4. Density is regulated based on distance from high-quality transit, which for the purposes of this discussion does not include buses that run every 15 minutes. The lowest category is not single-family and doesn’t have parking minimums, but allows around floor area ratio 1. The highest one has residential FAR 12, the maximum allowed by New York State, and is within very short distance from rapid transit (say, 500 meters intra muros, 200 extra muros). Everything within a kilometer of a train station is at least FAR 4.

I got “but what about ___?” responses re parking and what New York calls a sky exposure plane. This is a YIMBY group, and even there some people were uncomfortable that a proposed code was not exact enough so as to say exactly who is allowed to do what, instead going for the principle that what’s not forbidden is permitted. Even this attempt at a compromise didn’t win much support (what I actually believe is that if urban land is developable based on scientific understanding of environmental protection it should be developable for any purpose and at any density its owner sees fit).

Outside the YIMBY world, the pushback against such a loose code would be severe, because it would not offer local activists the control over their neighbors’ lives that they crave. San Francisco’s affordable housing community was against SB 827, partly because of misguided fears of gentrification, but also partly because the byzantine process in the city allows community groups to extort benefits by threatening to withhold project approval. In comments on my post about free trade in rolling stock, Adam points out that the California Environmental Quality Act was so weaponized by unions, who demanded that a new plant be unionized as a condition for dropping an environmental lawsuit. When corrupt local groups benefit from the ad hoc nature of the process, they will defend it for its own sake, regardless of whether it achieves its stated purpose (affordable housing, environmental protection, etc.).

But corruption alone can’t explain why outside groups like DMI think zoning is valuable for its own sake. My suspicion is that this is ideological: every regulation must have some purpose, so while revising regulations is fine, getting rid of them entirely reeks of free market libertarianism. Since the right attacks the civil service as bloated and parasitic, the left and center-left reflexively defend the civil service no matter what and, by extension, justify its mission. This pattern flips when it comes to the police, but that’s a narrow issue of criminal justice equality, not even affecting the fire department, which is socially similar to the police but gets no hate from the left. A regulator who decides who gets to build what and where does not have the reputation of a brutal cop or border control agent, and can expect sympathy for the left even if the zoning mission serves no useful purpose and creates problems for left-wing goals of affordable housing.


  1. bensh

    I’d just like to say that Indego’s equity narrative has frankly been so exaggerated by them, without any substantial evidence to back it up, that I’m starting to cynically believe it exists solely to distract for bad compromises and scope failures not seen in Divvy or CaBi. (Are their diversity figures normalized by geographic diversity in the coverage areas?) By pushing this abstract narrative as a matter of optics, they have quietly fallen deficient on two fundamental aspects of the bikeshare process, namely coverage and pricing. 1) They chose to focus mainly on docks at community centers (and plazas) because early in the process they quickly acquiesced to demands that no dock should replace street parking, and had to find private owners willing to accept them; as a result areas of high demand that should have many dock spaces have comparatively few. 2) In contrast to Divvy or CaBi, there was never any long-term plan to go for a true citywide rollout; they only intended to cover a bit more than 50% of the city, and haven’t even reached that four years later. So even when touting claims of racial equity (which is not that hard to do with Philly’s good geographic racial diversity) there is a huge divide between served and unserved areas, which goes ignored by the company and the media. E.g. Southwest Philadelphia, which already has good bike lanes and significantly higher modal share than the rest of the city, gets zilch. 3) Their fare structure is pricier than the national average*, and egregiously so for the annual pass, which they had the gall to _raise_ beginning this year; absurd for the nation’s poorest big city. This is in contrast to host company Bicycle Transit Systems’ other large system, LA Metro Bike Share, which is considering fare reductions on par with transit fares. (Like best-practice Chinese systems, LA’s bikeshare is also integrated with the transit card, which Indego has refused to consider). Sure there are low-income fares for EBT residents, but Indego’s practice of using high fares to subsidize that program cuts out middle-income people who have no good reason to use it over SEPTA. One can only hope that the expected introduction of dockless bikeshare later this year will spur Indego to make changes in line with their peers. Otherwise, they are sustaining national popularity only through their narrative and not through the actual details of the process.


    • Alon Levy

      Your comment got eaten by the spamfilter – sorry. I just rescued it.

      The problem with normalizing Indego’s demographics by coverage area is that the decision about the coverage area is part of the political question. CaBi has shit coverage east of the river; no wonder its ridership base is so white. (Divvy does have coverage on the South Side, installed as part of Divvy for Everyone, but it’s too sparse, and user demographics did not diversify, at least not as of last year – all of my demographic data predates the entry of dockless into the US.)

  2. Eric

    Development has externalities.

    Some externalities are diffuse, like added traffic congestion. These are best addressed by communal changes, like adding bus service and bike lanes.

    Other externalities are specific to one property. Nobody likes it when their picturesque view is blocked and replaced by a perpetual shadow – a decrease in subjective quality which is reflected in real estate value. One of the main purposes of zoning is to prevent this from happening (too much, or at all). Is there an alternative way of avoiding this problem? Perhaps one should be able to build to any height, but neighbors should be able to sue (in an efficient arbitration system) to recover the damage to their property value? The existence of such a system would alleviate one of the major concerns about eliminating zoning.

    • Alon Levy

      …do people not like shadows? In hot summers, sidewalks get baked unless there’s some shade. At a Jane’s Walk in New York, Sandy Ikeda pointed out that on a street it’s often the side that gets more shade on summertime afternoons that sees more retail activity.

      Letting neighbors sue is the current US system and is a disaster, because it encourages frivolous lawsuits that the plaintiffs can promise to drop in exchange for amenities.

      • Eric

        Walkers in the summer like shade. People in their houses can just close the blinds and turn on the AC if it’s too hot/sunny. They appreciate sunlight the rest of the time.

        I once visited NYC and saw ads with messages like “500 square feet is bigger in NY than anywhere else” and “Yes, my apartment faces a blank brick wall. But behind that wall is Manhattan.” Implying, as should really be obvious, that people much prefer having something other than a blank brick wall to look out at. Not to mention when buildings are built one against the other and you lose your window entirely…

        I think the “current US system” is zoning, in that zoning prevents much more development than lawsuits do. I think there should be recognition that one one hand people have a right to build what they want on their property, on the other hand this has real impacts on neighboring property values. The drop in property values due to a skyscraper next door should be relatively easy to measure. So there should be a quick standardized process by which you can recover this value. I think in many people’s minds, that would justify dropping zoning.

        • Alon Levy

          In California, lawsuits and lawsuit threats are more important; even the concept of by-right zoning, in which zoning-compliant projects get streamlined approval, is controversial.

          The example of the Manhattan view is a purely positional good. The total amount of view increases if the buildings get taller, it just gets redistributed. But then people bought in in a legal system in which development could happen (inc. through legal changes), so their property values already price in the possibility of change; there is no real reason to compensate them.

          • Eric

            “But then people bought in in a legal system in which development could happen (inc. through legal changes), so their property values already price in the possibility of change”

            Part of that system is that the NIMBYs are strong enough that zoning will never change. People buy based on that assumption. You need to change the incentives so that changing zoning becomes realistic.

          • Alon Levy

            I’d argue it the other way, actually: rich people buy property, and then they pass new regulations to protect their positional good. In the US it’s done through historic district designations, and in the UK it’s done through legally protected sight lines. In the poshest London neighborhoods, like Richmond, there are rules against development that would hide some monument from people’s views, even if the monument is several kilometers away and barely visible (which is typically the case, the monuments are in Central London and not in Richmond). In lieu of development in desirable areas with underfull trains, London is forced to find more difficult areas to develop; the impetus for the excessive tunneling on the northern part of Crossrail 2 is development in the Lea Valley, without which Crossrail 2 could just connect the slow tracks of the South West Main Line with those of the East Coast Main Line.

          • keaswaran

            “people bought in in a legal system in which development could happen (inc. through legal changes), so their property values already price in the possibility of change; there is no real reason to compensate them.”

            It seems to me that there are two fair ways to do this. One is to have prices that include discounts for the risk of future development blocking views (or other amenities), with no compensation for the loss. Another is to have prices where you pay for the full value of the view or other amenity, and then get compensated if it goes away. The former involves some lucky people getting the view for their entire time of residence in the location, at a discount because of the risk of loss, while other unlucky people get the view for only a short part of their time of residence, but paying the value of having it for a significant fraction of the time. The latter pricing system makes the lucky people pay full price and gives the unlucky people financial compensation.

            I suppose the transition from one pricing system to the other would perhaps unfairly penalize some people, but the second one does seem fairer, in addition to making the risks more targeted.

        • Alon Levy

          When a union sues for environmental remediation and agrees to drop the lawsuit in exchange for a pledge the plant be unionized, that’s so openly dishonest it can’t possibly be material.

    • Martin

      The point of a city is houses blocking the views of other houses. The alternative is a pretty sparse village. In any case, zoning based on building height, results in equal height of all buildings, and that every building gets their view blocked.

  3. Jacob Hensel

    Your proposed zoning policy is similar to the one used across Japan, where a brand-new detached home with a 20-minute commute to downtown TOKYO is $300k.

    Note Tokyo and San Francisco have nearly the same population growth rate for the past decade but Tokyo remains an affordable city to middle and upper class alike while SF has definitely not. Restrictive zoning and approval processes seem to be the only explanation for this undesireable outcome.

    Hail the all powerful incumebents, localized interests, and older & wealthier people who tend to have the time and interest in voluntary planning groups and advocacy!

    • Nicolas Centa

      Also in Japan mass transit can be quite expensive, but at least for most of the regular employees it is paid by the employer, because up to 100 000 JPY it is exempt from taxes.

      This way, the more expensive your commute, the more you get from your employer – it means it is often far cheaper to buy a cheap house far away and to commute, even if the train would be so expensive as to be equivalent to half of your loan paiements.

      It means sprawl of the commuter train kind of way : any place in the 1 hour commuting range with available space will get a train line and will be developed at some point. And train companies do make money.

      And I think it limits residential density in Tokyo proper (23 yards) : walk 15 minutes out of the station in an area that is not directly the CBD and you can see quiet residential areas with individual homes and parks (even in Shibuya or Shinjuku for example, though not in Otemachi / Marunouchi). For the very rich though.

      • Eric

        I was surprised by the low densities of central Tokyo on Google Earth – I guess that explains it.

        • Michael James

          Some odd ahistorical views on this thread.
          Everyone appears to have forgotten the world’s biggest property bubble and its collapse that led to Japan’s “lost decade” (the 90s but really close to three decades now). Tokyo was the epicentre. Remember that at the peak the Imperial Palace grounds in central Tokyo was nominally worth more than all USA real estate combined. It was the time of multi-generational mortgages (when your descendants had to inherit the mortgage obligations).
          As it happens the bubble coincided with the last of Tokyo’s population spurt: Tokyo (classic; 23-ku “special ward”) grew fastest in the period 1945-1975 after which most of the growth occurred in Tokyo-to prefecture and Greater Tokyo (Metropolis). It reflects the fact that Japan has entered population decline even if migration from village and towns to the big metropolises. But not to the cores: Growth in central Tokyo (ku) has been flat ever since, and not much more in the next ring (Tokyo-to), see:

          Thus clearly zoning cannot explain the outcome, except perhaps in the contrary sense: in whatever way it works (and no one should assume the same logic works in Japan as elsewhere) it didn’t encourage densification on the scale you might expect. Contrary to some perceptions (and mainstream journo plain wrong reporting) most of Tokyo is not very dense, nothing compared to Paris, Barcelona or Manhattan (though none of these are really like-for-like comparisons however central Tokyo is 15,146/km2 about half that of Paris or Manhattan. Greater Tokyo with 38m is 2,788/km2, depending on definitions about half that of Greater Paris). Note, that a lot of density is achieved by tiny houses (one of the lowest floor areas per person in the world) and multi-generational households.

          So, it seems a combination of factors such as a stabilization of central Tokyo’s population and a “freezing” of its status due to the property bubble and its bursting, plus most growth occurring in the outer areas which was possible/feasible via the expansion of the mass transit system. Important too is the fact that modern regulations make high-rise residential buildings more expensive. Though cultural factors figure too. For example the medium rise apartment blocks called “danchi” of about 14-15 floors, that were built post-war are at the end of their lives, being demolished and not replaced. Not just because they are old but because they have emptied over time:

          Danchi construction started in the late ‘50s, as part of Japan’s postwar boom. They were intended to represent a new era in Japan: they were created in a Western style, foregoing traditional, multi-generational Japanese homes made of wood for concrete towers built for nuclear families. With their refrigerators, televisions, and washing machines, danchi were seen as a way for Japanese families to become part of the nation’s upward trajectory towards modernity.
          But times changed. Families wanted homes instead of apartments, the economy stagnated, and Japan’s birth rate declined. As a result, the communities within these Modernist complexes shrank as the buildings themselves stood still.
          “The fate of most danchi is sealed,” Ellingham wrote. “Earthquake regulations and development costs mean whole sections are being torn down.

          The Slow Decay of Japan’s Modernist Dreams
          Teresa Mathew, 25 April 2018.

          Final point is that the metropolis is so vast that even its excellent transit is not good enough. When I did a work stint in Tokyo in 1990 (just before the bubble burst), in Otsuka just on the northern limit of the Yamanote (circle) Line, there were about 4-5 people in my lab who chose to sleep in the lab Monday to Thursday, returning home for Fri-Sun (I knew because I too was working about 18h a day; this was a star lab and so particularly competitive but even so …). Others had commutes of 90-120 min (each way) or longer (again some of this was cultural; one girl commuted from east of Narita so as to remain with her parents). Of the perhaps 25 people in that lab I think I and one other foreign post-doc were the only ones who lived locally.

          • Alon Levy

            1. The land underneath the Imperial Palace was never worth more than all US land combined. It was worth more than all California land at the peak of the bubble.

            2. Noah Smith tells me that the proportion of adult singles who live with their parents is steadily declining, thanks to continued economic growth and falling housing costs. The housing costs didn’t just nosedive after the bubble burst and then recovered; they’ve been declining for 20 years thanks to rapid housing construction, and as a result, a growing share of Tokyo apartments don’t demand key money and headline rents are falling in real terms, let alone in GDP-adjusted terms.

            3. Japanese salaried working hours remain brutal by Western standards, but they too are decreasing, according to various articles I’ve been reading by American techies about working in Japan. If I remember correctly, they used to give you a day off every two weeks whereas now they give you Sundays off and every other Saturday, and hours per day may be in decline as well.

            4. You’re right that nothing in Tokyo is as dense as Eastern Paris or Uptown Manhattan, but here, too, apartments are small – look at all the 10 m^2 studettes. But Tokyo’s population is growing pretty quickly – maybe not in Minato, where Roppongi is commercializing (same story as the 8th: wealthy residential areas tend to pull the CBD in their direction, while the wealthy themselves move elsewhere, i.e. to the 16th), but definitely in Shinjuku, Shibuya, etc. Technically that’s not Central Tokyo, but not technically, the area around Shinjuku Station is way busier at street level than Les Halles or the Opera.

          • Michael James

            Alon Levy 2018/06/17 – 09:14

            1. “It was worth more than all California land at the peak of the bubble.” Damn, I could have afforded it after all!

            2. All a consequence of the declining population and fewer women deciding to marry etc.

            3. “Japanese salaried working hours remain brutal by Western standards, …” Yes, but as we now know, a lot of that attendance at work is for show and is unproductive, in fact counter-productive. In that lab I worked in, it was rather disturbing. No one left work before the boss (no earlier than 6pm) and the habit at the end of the day was that most turned to their laptops–itself this was painful to watch because they used to type up reports or whatever in Kanji which looked horribly inefficient (then again I’m a touch typist so almost everyone looks horribly inefficient to me). Many of them would be sleeping on their arms, while I suspect many of the others were asleep eyes-wide-open. It was ridiculous and it would have been better for everyone to leave and get some R&R at home. And this was in a workplace with a boss who had worked in the US for years. Also, most desks and workbenches were “hot-desked”, sometimes with a dayshift and a nightshift (and overnight shift). A guy who came in late afternoon to take over a position next to me and who I initially thought was a junior post-doc or maybe pre-doc (and was treated like that) turned out to be a oncology surgeon at the hospital (it was a cancer institute inside a big cancer hospital)! (But actually space is so tight at UCSF–because of a community agreement in the 70s not to expand the campus after the battle to build the ≈20 storey Health Sciences twin buildings–that the lab I worked in there also had a bit of that, plus big planks that were placed over sinks to turn them into lab-bench!).
            I too have often worked fairly crazy hours and eventually realized it wasn’t necessarily productive. In my game there are times when you really need to do it, but as they say about quite a few “intellectual” professions the most valuable commodity is time, and especially quiet time to think. In this the Japanese system is counterproductive, not only in their hierarchical top-down command structures but in the massive wastage of time and hence absence of physical “downtime” (especially any that is not in a semi-exhausted state) plus cultural dissuasion of truly non-standard thinking.

            4. More or less what I wrote. The link to the graph (showing growth in the 3 regions) seems dead, and I can’t find the equivalent, but it was more dramatic than I imagined, ie. the core showing almost flat after ≈1980, and even the second ring with little growth and most growth in the outer region.
            BTW, I implied it but failed to explicitly mention that another factor in the low-level sprawl of Tokyo is of course the earthquake proneness that makes building high(er) expensive combined with perhaps an aversion in living in them for the same reason (sensible). Of course low height is no protection which I saw firsthand when I did that work stint at UCSF only a few months after the Loma Preto quake: amazingly the 20-storey HS buildings were untouched despite being glass curtain-wall and halfway up Mt Sutro; while the 2-3 storey buildings built on sand next to the harbour pancaked or collapsed sideways.

          • Nicolas Centa

            Thank you for your reminder of the cliches on Japan.

            However, I would like to try for a moment not to fall back on culturalist explanations, and look at the economic incentives.

            If you are to buy a place to live right now, what is cheaper for you?

            Is it to buy a house where land is comparatively cheap but commute from far away, or buy close to the CBD where land is comparatively more expensive but from where you can be at your job in no time?

            It depends on the following 3 factors: – land price – train fare – family situation.

            And the family situation also depend on economic factors: a Japanese wife will often work odd jobs part time because there is not enough institutions to look after the kids, meaning she will not need to commute, therefore avoiding a second train fare in the household.

            Even the decision to live in the family house is tied to the fact there are not enough institutions to look after aged people after they cannot work anymore.

            Therefore, I think does not matter if the land price is cheaper than it was, or if it is cheaper than California: what matters is its price compared to other land that is accessible, and the cost to commute to them.

            2018-06-18 11:58 GMT+09:00 Pedestrian Observations :

            > Michael James commented: “Alon Levy 2018/06/17 – 09:14 1. “It was worth > more than all California land at the peak of the bubble.” Damn, I could > have afforded it after all! 2. All a consequence of the declining > population and fewer women deciding to marry etc. 3. “Japane” >

          • Michael James

            Nicolas Centa 2018/06/17 – 22:46

            I don’t believe what you have written is at all inconsistent with what I wrote. As I said, newbies to Tokyo could live so far away in their interminable sprawl because of the rail transit; even if it takes a big daily toll (I suppose that has to vary a lot but it seemed very high in the specific niche I worked in/observed at Otsuka.) Naturally land prices are cheaper further out in the sprawl (did anyone claim otherwise). But in your three factors you have omitted availability: apparently there is little new residential building in the core (and the 15-storey danchi are being demolished and not replaced with like; probably being replaced with commercial), and even more, there is less turnover of residents in the core (because of long-term affordable mortgages, multi-generational mortgages and multi-generational households, so even death doesn’t liberate a property).

            Even the decision to live in the family house is tied to the fact there are not enough institutions to look after aged people after they cannot work anymore.

            Exactly the case of my Otsuka colleague who commuted from Chiba or somewhere near Narita. Probably true for others in that lab who had horrendous commutes. (I should also add that the research lab may be a bit different to many workplaces in that many will intend a work stint of 3-4 years before moving elsewhere so they may just put up with terrible commutes and living conditions for that period.)

            And the family situation also depend on economic factors: a Japanese wife will often work odd jobs part time because there is not enough institutions to look after the kids, meaning she will not need to commute, therefore avoiding a second train fare in the household.

            Quite. And don’t forget working mothers for whom the grandmother does the daycare.
            Anyway, if the status and pressures on women in Japan is a cliche, it is a true cliche. More and more professional women remain unmarried by choice, save a lot and spend on luxuries (LV handbags etc) and o/s travel (it’s a big niche travel market). The rest of the world hasn’t solved the same issue but Japan is way behind.

            what matters is its price compared to other land that is accessible, and the cost to commute to them.

            That goes without saying. It is a mixture of factors including cultural (you include several yourself despite your denial). Personally I think the cost of the commute (ie. the real cost, not monetary) is always worse than the “savings” by choosing the outer edges of sprawl. Americans have the same cultural handicap (if different cultural conditioning, similar outcome; the US city that Tokyo most resembles is LA, and LA with building its transit is converging). It’s why neither Tokyo or LA (or USA cities) are close to my ideal, and Paris is my model for urban development: density without awful hi-rise and truly efficient transit. I was just looking at a property for sale way out in the banlieus (actually a liveaboard peniche on the Seine just east of Orly airport; 220m2 interiors and 50m2 terraces!) yet it has two nearby RER stations with one being 4 stops to St Michel and the other 3 stops to Gare de Lyon. This involves the choice of house size (and outdoor space) versus commute (pretty good, especially with Paris lower costs of travel cards) and poorer urban environment (though its French so probably a lot better than the equivalent in any American city and maybe Tokyo, even if no heritage listed stuff nearby:-).

          • Nicolas Centa

            OK so the big question is: what is the relation between mass transit and density?

            Doesn’t Tokyo shows that you can have even less density with even more mass transit?

            Isn’t the real problem about how to finance this mass transit in fact?

            From what I read from Wikipedia, the LIRR has less daily ridership than the Tsukuba Express, which is still a quarter of the most busy lines.

            Are cities in the US really not dense enough? Or maybe if you did build the big capacity fast train lines people would use them?

          • Michael James

            Nicolas Centa, 2018/06/18 – 17:38

            OK so the big question is: what is the relation between mass transit and density?
            Doesn’t Tokyo shows that you can have even less density with even more mass transit?
            Isn’t the real problem about how to finance this mass transit in fact?

            Good questions. Without a really clear answer.
            I don’t believe you can properly answer them using the Tokyo system as a model, largely because of cultural issues. At least two main things: 1. horrendous commutes (which must involve at least 2-seat rides); 2. crowding in the core (which must be difficult to avoid for many given those 2-seat rides involving transfers in the centre). A third might be (according to other posters here) cost; remember there has been a strenuous attempt to make the system “user pays” (which Alon claims it does but which I claim is false given the humungous debt still carried by the government directly or indirectly). In Tokyo almost no one can drive so they have little alternative and (cliche warning) they are a compliant population–very few other (western) commuters will tolerate the crush and the oshiva manhandling (another cliche warning: not to mention the groping problem that necessitates gender segregated carriages).

            I’d say that what Tokyo is most useful for planners is to set upper bounds on these factors. A mega-city cannot work optimally at Tokyo’s average density; instead one needs TOD at certain intervals (5km?) so that a RER service has widely spaced stations and can use it speed capabilities. So that transit time and moving large numbers of people is efficient. For this the TOD needs to be of high-density and obviously the stations will shape this development over time as people choose to live close. But local transport (buses or surface trams) should act as feeders to the points (and not attempt long-distance routes which is the bane of the Anglosphere world–a result of pure bean-counting and not transit planning by experts). I am less keen of “park and ride” because it encourages car use (and there is an iron law of behaviour: for a lot of people, once in their car they tend to keep going to their destination so it reinforces bad behaviour).

            Cost is politically tricky but still bleedin’ obvious. Operationally, at least in the west, the bullshit about “subsidies” needs to be euthanised. The cost of using mass transit must be kept low and not run as if it is a stand-alone commercial business, instead of a vital piece of infrastructure that serves the entire economy. (There is a lot of blather in the Anglosphere press at the moment about the “hugely indebted SNCF” whereas it is almost certainly more efficient as any Anglo service who simply don’t apply the same transfer of capital-costs-into-debt carried by the transit authority; just like we don’t do for public roads but perhaps should.) Recently Paris has been experimenting in relaxing their zoning system, eg. weekends/public holidays are zone free. I have always thought it is a bizarre disincentive for those who live/work in the outer reaches of a transit system and who we most need to encourage out of their cars, yet who get charged the most for their long commutes. If not outright removal of zoning, a reward system can make it substantially more affordable for loyal commuters (say, that trips above 3 weekdays per week become free for those in zones 3-5).

            I don’t give much hope for sense in America, except perhaps for LA over time (painfully slowly). It’s too much of a multi-dimensional problem needing attitudinal changes (dense TOD versus tacky exurban sprawl), properly financed and planned long-range public transit, appropriate (yuk, “subsidised”) ticket prices. But there are a large number of candidate cities that will morph into mega-cities over the next few decades (Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, Phoenix, Seattle, SF-BA) where it would be perfect to apply this strategy; ie. today before they become truly mega. Widely-spaced RER-type service with explicit policy on dense TODs. Paris is the best model I know of, but perhaps the Moscow system (as it is being built for its future: to serve a mega-region of >20m)? (though I don’t approve of their hi-rise apartment strategy which is not at all necessary and will not create the best urbanity). London is in perpetual catch-up mode and too resistant to long-range planning (CrossRail was delayed by 50+ years!). And perhaps some Chinese cities like the Shanghai and Pearl River Delta mega-regions (where HSR is really a part of city transit), at least in relation to mega-regions like Houston-DFW-Austin, SF-BA, SoCal, and PacNW (Vancouver, Seattle, Portland).

          • Nicolas Centa

            Long commutes and groping that are similar to what people riding the RER from impoverished suburbs have to bear in France.

            Cultural differences are just an excuse to avoid foreign comparisons, just as US planners often do.

          • Michael James

            Nicolas Centa, 2018/06/19 – 05:05

            Long commutes and groping that are similar to what people riding the RER from impoverished suburbs have to bear in France.
            Cultural differences are just an excuse to avoid foreign comparisons, just as US planners often do.

            Sheesh. I’d forgotten what you’re like. I wouldn’t have given a serious considered reply if you are just going to be so dismissive without any explanation.
            I am sure there is some sexual assault on every single metro on the planet but are you really denying that it is a well-documented, systematic problem in Japan? On such a scale that they created female-only cars? (I could also mention the very common reading of pornographic manga on the Tokyo metro.)

            Do you know the French designers and engineers visited Tokyo in 1970 specifically to study it for their project that evolved into RER line A:

            So they certainly learnt things and I would say probably some important things; ie. they certainly did not use any cultural difference as an excuse not to learn … (which I would claim for myself too). OTOH that is 40+ years ago and RER-A has gone thru several design iterations since then, which I reckon are very good (though Alon has a different take).
            Finally, do you believe the RER only serves “impoverished suburbs”? Hmm, like St Germain-en-Laye at the end of RER-A(4)?

          • Nicolas Centa

            The fact it is well documented in Japan and that there is a big reaction such as creating women-only cars does not mean at all that there is no problem in France.


            On the opposite the reaction is often not big enough in old Mediterranean countries where it often was considered as “just” some touching.

            I think your shock about my comments just shows you tend to be a bit naive when discussing cultural differences.

            But we’re not going to change each other so let’s stop here.

  4. wanderer

    Alon, I generally like your blog, but you’re bobbing and weaving on shadows. Yes, in a place that gets significantly cold in winter, being cast into shadow is a problem. It may or may not be enough of a problem to justify preventing or downsizing a building (I’m generally on the developers’ side) but it should be acknowledged as a problem. Sometimes it doesn’t take very much change to a building design to deal with things like that. One issue is the extent to which land use regulation should protect in place residents vs. citywide interests for more housing. The current system is way overbalanced in favor of in-place residents, but I don’t think it’s reasonable that they have no voice.

    The issue is how much change in their surroundings should people expect. I think this is a complex question, and folks like Lisa Schweitzer argue that the threshold should be lower in poor neighborhoods since they generally have less control over their environment to begin with. My immediate reaction is that people should expect (and probably be warned about, a la “right to farm” ordinances) the change that zoning would allow when they move in. I certainly think plenty of urban places deserving upzoning, especially modest upzoning like allowing fourplexes in single family zoned neighborhoods. But there is a legitimate issue here.

    • Alon Levy

      If the shadow concern reflected a real problem, we’d see a lot more of it in cold cities and a lot less in warm ones. And yet, we see a lot of concern over shadow in US cities, including ones with brutal summers, whereas London, which has mild enough summers that shade is not a big positive, has no such concern, and instead people complain about sight lines.

      (Likewise, we know that historic landmarking is bullshit because it’s rife in cities that are not historic, in neighborhoods that developed in the 20th century and are often not architecturally loved; Paris somehow landmarked the urban renewal disaster that is Jussieu while at the same time demolishing the historic Les Halles food market.)

      Another way of thinking of whether something is a real concern or just status quo bias is to ask about change in the opposite direction. If taller buildings equal more shadows and worse quality of life, would the people complaining about them endorse demolitions of buildings? I know of one person who has, and that was a suburbanite proposing demolition of a Midtown skyscraper to provide more parkland.

      • Michael James

        Alon Levy 2018/06/11 – 18:43

        If the shadow concern reflected a real problem, we’d see a lot more of it in cold cities and a lot less in warm ones. And yet, we see a lot of concern over shadow in US cities, including ones with brutal summers, whereas London, which has mild enough summers that shade is not a big positive, has no such concern, and instead people complain about sight lines.

        True. But such logic seems to be thrown out the window with hi-rise construction, possibly because it was too inconvenient and air-con came to the rescue. In the Anglosphere it is particularly counter-logical. In Australia they continue to adopt London-speak for the absurd glass curtainwall hi-rise apartments, such as “sun drenched” as a selling point! In all Australia cities with the possible exception of Hobart, the last thing in the world you need is more sun or direct sun entry into living space! Even in so-called “winter”. Likewise, unlike the rest of the Pacific or India and SE-Asia (or even Paris!), we put louvres and plantation shutters inside the glass!

        Re heritage, I think it is the knowledge that so much was lost by earlier failures to value what was built, that today they over-protect. Re Paris,we’ve had this discussion before. While everyone agrees that the Jussieu campus is uniquely ugly, OTOH it is one of the few examples of concrete brutalism inside Paris (along with ironically the UNESCO building and a few others). And despite its hideousness it remains functional, I suppose. Les-Halles simply wasn’t feasible to retain (the food markets desperately needed to be relocated, and it is unimaginable not to have the metro +RER station). I suppose one could argue for rebuilding the pavillions on top of it all but I’m pretty satisfied with what resulted, despite the rather shallow popular criticisms of it.

        • Michael James

          I suppose Jussieu or the UNESCO building are not concrete brutalism, but rather the International style via Corbusian Modernism.

          Andrew Ayers (in The Architecture of Paris, 2004) tells me that the outcome at Jussieu was worse than the original plans by Edouard Albert (appointed by André Malraux) who died in 1968 (hah, another 50th anniversary) before it was complete:

          Of the 22 courtyards originally planned, only 13 were completed; the site’s integration into the surrounding city, as Albert had proposed, was never carried out (indeed, if anything it was deliberately segregated), and the administrative tower was built to a mediocre design entirely lacking the subtlety of Albert’s original.
          … But for all its rationalist integrity and elegant economy of means that have gained it the praise of Modernist sympathisers, Jussieu has a relentless, inhuman side in its infinitely extendable monotony (nothing more monotonous or frightening than infinity) and wind-swept micro-climate, seemingly always several degrees colder than the surrounding city. No relief from the elements, green or otherwise, is provided on the 20,000m2 marble platform, and consequently few linger in the inhospitable courtyards which were nonetheless supposed to provide places of public interaction and animation.

          [asbestos history is described]
          Given this state of affairs, calls have been heard for the campus’s demolition, essentially from those who find its architecture ugly and heartless. Contrarily, Modernist sympathisers have asked that this “chef-d’oeuvre des sixties” be listed as a historic monument.

          I always felt that it could be updated (eg. fill in the ground floor with glass, with retail and cafes etc), but that is all now impossible because of its listing which preserves it as is. Or perhaps a way around this is to fully implement Albert’s original design?

  5. grendelkhan

    If you haven’t seen it yet, check out the historic-laundromat guy in San Francisco–he’s entitled by law to develop a property he owns, but he refuses to play nice with the local functionaries, and he’s been blocked for years on end. And the main complaint he’s getting is that he’s not respecting the process, which essentialy means he’s not kissing the rings of the local movers and shakers.

    • Alon Levy

      I wrote a post about this 2 years ago, courtesy of Julia Carrie-Wong saying the quiet part (“we don’t want more people in our neighborhood”) out loud. But then I didn’t publish it.

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