Free Public Transportation

Note: this may turn into a long series of posts about public transportation fare systems and payments.

From time to time, people propose free public transport. Supporters have a variety of motivations, including an attempt to mirror cars (“do state roads charge tolls?”), ideological socialism, positive externalities, and the efficiencies of getting rid of fare collection.

In reality, making service free at the point of use means spending money on subsidies from other sources – money that could be spent on other things than zeroing out the fares. There are opportunity costs, and robust public transportation networks do not gain much efficiency from being free. If there is money to make service free, there is money to spend on service improvements, including more metro lines, higher frequency, and wheelchair accessibility where it isn’t already present.

Literature review

A tweetstorm from two days ago includes references to a number of studies on this issue:

Proof of payment

One argument for free transit is that it simplifies operations because no fare collection is needed. Front-door boarding and paying the drivers slow down bus boarding – each passenger takes 2.6-3 seconds to board (source, PDF-p. 20). Rapid transit systems also suffer from the complexity of fare collection infrastructure: batteries of faregates create chokepoints and require maintenance, and usually rapid transit agencies also have to hire station agents to watch the gates.

However, proof-of-payment fare enforcement, or POP, gets around most of these issues. If passengers do not need to pay at entry, everything becomes much simpler: they can board buses from any door, and get onto the train without crossing faregates. Berlin has all-door boarding and open, unstaffed U-Bahn stations. There are fare-vending machines, which are not free, but they are cheap. There are fare inspectors working on consignment – they get paid by catching non-paying riders.

Better uses for money

New York City Transit has $9.1 billion in operating and maintenance expenses as of 2016, and $4.3 billion in fare revenue (source). Ile-de-France Mobilités has a total of about €10 billion in annual operating and capital expenses, with about 10% of this being capital and the rest operating, and €2.8 billion in fare revenue. As of 2015, BVG had a total transport income of €1.344 billion (PDF-p. 7) and an additional subsidy of €620 million (PDF-p. 21).

In all of these cities, if there is money for fare elimination, there is money for further improvements in service. A disability rights advocacy group in Paris estimates the cost of making the Metro accessible at €4-6 billion, or 1.5-2 years’ worth of fares. Parisian construction costs for further Metro extensions are such that the budget for free fares could instead be spent on adding around 14 annual kilometers of new tunnels. In Berlin, a third S-Bahn trunk line running northwest-southeast would require about a year and a half’s worth of present-day fares to construct; adding service to guarantee 5-minute frequency on all trunk lines even on weekends and evenings would require a small increase in operating expenses.

New York’s construction costs are much higher than those of Paris and Berlin, and even its operating costs are elevated, but then it also charges higher fares. If there is $4.3 billion a year for free fares, there is much less $4.3 billion a year for boosting off-peak frequency on every named route (2, 4, A, etc.) to at worst 6 minutes, with 2- and 3-minute off-peak frequencies on interlined trunk lines. As with Paris, there is also a dire need for wheelchair accessibility; thanks to very high costs, full installation would not cost just 1.5-2 years’ worth of fare revenue, but more like 3 years’ worth.

Cities with and without public transport

The above discussion centers where the vast majority of public transportation takes place – that is, in cities with serious public transportation systems. The argument changes completely in smaller cities, which run the occasional bus but not at the required speed, coverage, or frequency for it to count as a real public transport network.

In Germany, there is no free transit, but the difference between big-city and small-city fare enforcement is telling: only relatively big cities have POP systems. Small-town Germany makes bus passengers pay the fare to the driver, and runs trains with conductors checking tickets. The reason is that roving inspectors only work on systems with enough frequency and coverage, or else they can’t efficiently ride the buses and trains and check tickets.

If POP is not possible, then the cost of collecting fares rises: buses are slowed down by every additional passenger, and trains require a second crew member. Such systems often have very low farebox recovery in the first place, and a very low-income rider profile, since everyone who can afford to drive drives rather than waits 25 minutes for the bus. In Los Angeles, total fare revenue on Metro (which includes most buses) is $350 million a year and total operating and maintenance expenses amount to $1.57 billion, and the average public transport commuter has about half the average income of the average solo driver. In that specific use case, making public transport free may be justified.

The one caveat is that if the plan is to convert a city from one without public transportation to speak of to one with a good system, for example in Los Angeles, then in the future, revenue will become more important. Even if free public transport is a good idea in the conditions of 2019, it may not be such a good idea in those of 2035, at least if grandiose transit city plans materialize (and I don’t think they will – the state of American local governance just isn’t good enough for cities to follow through).


  1. Nilo

    I agree free transit is mostly a bad idea. Though to my understanding don’t the Japanese indirectly provide many people with free mass transit from the treasury via generous tax benefits for employer provided transit passes? (Its been awhile since I read the transit metropolis so forgive me if I misremember.

    I think Los Angeles enthusiasm for Mass transit shouldn’t be underestimated here. The past three metro referenda all garnered over 66% of the vote (one failed anyways, thanks Prop 13). These propositions were all in the tens or hundreds of billions of dollars. LA hasn’t discovered yet how to shovel money into a bottomless pit like the MTA has with East Side Access so I think even with mediocre American transit expertise a dedicated program of Rail Rapid Transit, and modernized commuter rail could succeed. Congestion is only going to get worse, so I can only expect that support will remain strong as long as ESA/CAHSR overruns are avoided, which means LA might just might be able to shovel enough money at the problem to build a competent civil service and learn from its own mistakes.

    I think LA would have a much better chance of succeeded though if 1. It stopped trying to build slow BRT and light rail extensions, and 2. Actually spent some money on modernized regional rail. Of course I think the subway program should be much more ambitious, and all of this would be helped immensely by some measures to rationalize Los Angeles land use paradigm and promote job concentration in Downtown LA. On the land use front Southern California seems even less enlightened then the Bay Area.

    • Alon Levy

      LA is even better than New York at shoveling money into bottomless pits. The Wilshire subway, the actually useful project on the list, is projected to cost around $60,000 per projected weekday boarding (Second Avenue Subway: ~$25,000). Then there are all the suburban and outer-urban light rail lines Metro is building at high cost for what they are and projected ridership that compares with that of a bus in actual transit cities. The entire value of all of these is predicated on very aggressive upzoning.

      And even as LA builds all these lines, it doesn’t really run much service. The subway gets a train every 12 minutes off-peak on each branch.

      • JJJJJ

        The only way to get 66% of the county to vote for the tax is to serve 66% of the county. And yes, that means building less than optimal lines going far out.

        It is not better to propose a tight urban system that gets voted down again and again because the people on the outside dont see the use.

        “Yeah I would take the train to a Lakers game” is a motivator that is needed when so much funding defends on referendums.

      • Nilo

        I admit I’m completely mystified by Metro’s inability to run any sort of decent service anywhere, but have hope that good metro projects might eventually prompt some set of the populace with money/political influence to demand more frequency.

        I think the regional connector is a very high value project as well. Do you disagree? Though I think we both agree the lack of investment in modernization of regional rail given how much of the track the public owns is mystifying.

    • Max Wyss

      Several Japanese Cities give free bus or transit passes to the elderly. To some extent, as an incentive to stop driving around (as there were some widely published car-caused accidents involving very old drivers.

  2. Benjamin Recchie

    My understanding is that the literature shows successful fare-free public transit only in cities of under 100,000 people (well, in America, at least). These transit systems have very low farebox recovery ratios, so a small local tax or a grant from a major employer is often enough to zero out fares. Even then, it seems mainly to be towns with universities or tourist destinations (like ski lifts); making the bus free for all is cheaper than building a new campus parking lot or dealing with tourist traffic.

    Still, it’s something that should be examined by small cities, particularly if the tradeoff is unlocking a central-area parking lot for redevelopment, or if the state reimburses the transit authority by the rider.

  3. michaelrjames

    (“do state roads charge tolls?”)

    I believe the metaphor du jour is “why they don’t charge for using elevators”.
    Except of course they do charge if your journey to the top has nothing to do with the business of the building.

    We have also much discussed the If there is money to make service free, there is money to spend on service improvements, argument. Budgets for different aspects of public transit aren’t always fungible, partly because the political pressure groups and their aims aren’t. Obviously, building that extra 14km of Metro each year does absolutely nothing to pacify those who demand the system be made accessible for the disabled.

    I agree on fares but the most obvious simplification that I have been advocating for ages, is flat fares. Lo, this seems to have happened in Paris across the RER system (though I am still a bit unclear on its exact operation). This is partly to simplify everything –both for software and hardware controls, and of course for passengers like me who are driven crazy by the British system of nitpicking nickel-and-dime fare structure. But perhaps more important, it is to not penalise those who we most want to encourage out of their cars: those who live in the outer suburbs etc. It never made sense to me to charge them a fortune to use public transit.

    • Nilo


      The reason to charge them for the distance is of course to encourage them to not live in the outer suburbs. Of course this really only works if you have a functioning housing market, which doesn’t really exist I think outside of Tokyo (certainly neither Paris nor London nor New York have one). In the case of Paris flat RER fares would seem to make up for the inequity caused by very stringent height limits in the core that lock more people out of it.

      • michaelrjames

        to encourage them to not live in the outer suburbs

        That’s a bit of retrospective rationalisation. I don’t believe for a millisecond that steeply-rising fare structures based on distance from the centre are applied for that reason. It’s just old-fashioned thinking of ‘user pays’ and pays proportionately to distance travelled. It’s different parts of a city’s administration not interested in holistic joined-up thinking in government. Especially the bean-counters who should know better.

        Can’t agree on your other point either. Paris height limits still allows its core to have more residents at greater density than any equivalent area of any city, most of all Tokyo which is mostly a low-density sprawled mess. Only core Hong Kong and Manhattan match Paris (and much smaller cores of other old Euro cities). It is a completely false construct to think that hi-rise equals high density. If all of Tokyo’s 37.8m residents lived in 6-floor Parisian housing they would occupy 1,500 km2, instead of the 13,556 km2 they actually do, at av. density of 2,788/km2 (approx. one tenth of intramuros-Paris or still one third Paris + petite couronne.) However these cities are on too disparate scales to properly compare but to be clear, Japanese development policy (laissez faire as it is) does not result in higher density or shorter commutes but the opposite.

        • Alon Levy

          (The innermost 20% of the New York metro area have higher density measured in residential floor space per km^2 than Paris. Remember, New York averages 50 m^2 of residential space per capita and Paris only 31. That’s why the 11th is so dense – it’s poorer than most of the rest of the city, so there’s more crowding there.)

          That said, I’m willing to cut Paris a modicum of slack given that it’s actually building housing, even if it’s only around half as much as what it should be building.

          • michaelrjames

            That’s why the 11th is so dense – it’s poorer than most of the rest of the city, so there’s more crowding there.

            That might be a factor but the main reason is that it is the arrondissement with the most area devoted to residential, ie. few government buildings, no big hospitals, no big parks, no railway stations.

        • Ian

          The comparison of metro Tokyo to intramuros Paris or even Paris + petite couronne is ridiculous. Paris + petite couronne should be compared to the 23 wards. The 23 wards have a density of 15k/km^2, Paris + Petite couronne in comparable area has a density of 9k/km^2.

          Tokyo metropolis and the larger “greater Tokyo area” have huge swaths of empty mountainous land where nobody lives including a ton of basically unpopulated pacific islands

          • michaelrjames

            Read again my post and you’ll find I largely agree (that these cities are too different to be meaningfully compared) however my last statement still stands. If one considers the “greater Tokyo area” then outside Tokyo-to there are 24,932,000 on 11,356 km2 = 2,195/km2. Obviously this is where most of the growth has occurred and is occurring, and it is hardly a policy of densification.
            Incidentally, the convention is to exclude those empty mountains and pacific ocean etc. from such calculations. This is the only way that Manhattan ends up being denser than Paris, but not by much at all:
            Manhattan: 1.644m (est. 2015) on 59.1 km2 = 27,812/km2
            Paris: 2.24m (2014) on 87km2 = 25,757/km2

            Manhattan is nominally 8% denser than intramuros Paris.
            I don’t think those super-talls or for that matter Hudson Yards are going to change that much, especially as most of those super-expensive new apartments will be mostly empty.

            My concern is not actually about fine shadings of density but the aesthetic point that Paris achieves the highest density in the world (≈equal with Manhattan, HK, blah blah, ahead of Tokyo, Singapore etc) without resorting to high-rise. Paris is one of the few cities in the world that has resisted, largely, the desire of developers (no one else) to build high-rise even though there is zero evidence that (1) it creates denser residential development; (2) creates more affordable housing (the opposite: supertalls or any new-build in Manhattan is always more expensive, often a lot more expensive; (3) creates a nice urban environment.
            Those who throw the evidence under the bed and try to insist “if only they allowed building anywhere to any height” it would solve all the problems, are in denial. Not just the likes of Ed Glaeser and Matthew Yglesias (both of whom would do what Corbu failed to achieve: demolish Paris and turn it into an identikit “modern” city; ditto WashDC, on the risible notion it would bring affordability and accessibility to the masses!) but many commenters on this page, maybe even the proprietor of this page!

            The other myth/delusion is that Tokyo has “solved” the housing problem. No, it’s just allowed mega-sprawl that puts even LA, Houston and Atlanta to shame. While an interesting city to visit (I did a brief work stint there in the 90s) no way would I live there, especially outside 23-ku (old core) not only because of the horrendous commutes but because of the type of urbanism you’d be living in. Despite their protestations I doubt anyone reading these pages would either. And no, it is not the equivalent of living in leafy Connecticut because Tokyo “planning” really results in pretty dreary “urbanism” everywhere.

          • Ian

            IDK where you’re getting your numbers, but by wikipedia’s numbers Manhattan density is 28k/km^2, and Paris density is 20k/km^2. That’s denser by 40% and doesn’t ignore parks/uninhabited space at all. Manhattan is significantly denser than Paris, it’s not even close. My point was that the administrative divisions for Tokyo are poorly drawn and so you can’t compare tokyo-to to Paris at all because they’re different boundaries. The cities are absolutely comparable, as all cities are, and Tokyo is much much denser than Paris. The only metric by which Tokyo is less dense is if you compare the largest possible land mass, which includes area nobody would ever consider Tokyo proper, to a very limited are for Paris. According to the Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques, the density of the Paris aire urbane is 731.1 habitants/km^2. If you take the entire National Capital Region of Tokyo, an area double the INSEE’s aire urbane for Paris, you still get a higher density of 1178.4/km^2.

            Paris is dense. It’s not even close to Tokyo dense. High rises obviously make a difference.

          • michaelrjames

            No. Wikipedia often gets these calculations wrong. My figures are correct and you are welcome to point out where the errors are but you are not allowed to just claim Wiki as the be-all arbiter. The convention for density calculations excludes very big open space and water, thus for Paris it excludes the two big bois (combined they are 5.4 times Central Park), just as the area of Manhattan excludes the water and Central Park. It is correct.
            And have a look at the 20 arrondissements. As Alon pointed out earlier, the 11th is 41,600/km2. The only part of Manhattan (proper city not an isolated housing project) that is comparable is the Upper East Side: 219,920 (2010) on 5.23km2: 42,100/km2. Paris’ biggest arrondissement, the 15th: 232,000 (2005) in 8.5 km2 = 27,300/km2. The main reason why Paris’ average density is not higher than Manhattan is because of all the ceremonial space (Jardin Tuileries, Champs de Mars, Louvre, Pompidou centre), government (national, local, international), churches, schools, universities and hospitals, 6 mainline train stations, and medium-sized parks (Luxembourg, Monceau, Monsouris, Villette, Andre Citroen, Bercy, J des Plantes botanical gardens etc) that Manhattan doesn’t have and are not excluded from Paris’ area for these calcs. The reality is that the effective density that the vast majority of residents experience is closer to the 11th arrondissements, but diluted by all those non-residential things. Heck, even the ‘permanent Parisians’, in the 3 biggest cemeteries, have 74 Ha. The biggest hospital area is the sprawling Pitié-Salpêtrière of about 40 Ha and is claimed by some to be the most beautiful hospital site in the world. Cité Universitaire is 38 Ha; by comparison the combined Rockefeller + Cornell Med Ctr is 7.5 Ha.
            I only mention all that to point out what low-rise achieves. Not only is it very dense but it has an urbanity and beauty that is incomparable. Sure, you could demolish Salpêtrière to replace it with a much smaller Cornell type clinic but if you did that to Paris you would be destroying Paris. Again, the point is that this is as good density as any city planner could wish for, so what exactly is the objective in building high-rise?

            Other than your denial of the real densities of Manhattan v Paris, you’re playing tricks with Tokyo. The 23-ku representing the core is 15,146/km2; maybe there are sub-regions that are closer to Parisian density but you haven’t shown any (say, of 10 to 50km2) and I suspect there aren’t any at 26,000/km2 let alone 41,000/km2 like Paris. What I showed was that the majority of Tokyo residents live at much less density than Parisians or even Fancilienes. As to those INSEE calculations they are ridiculous because they are not removing the huge amount of undeveloped land in Ile de France; for example some 70% of Dpt 77 (Seine et Marne) is still farmland. Plus there are huge forests and national parks (eg. the Foret de Fontainbleau is 2.5x the size of intramuros Paris! 250km2). The figure of 731 and 1178/km2 are absurd and meaningless. One needs the ‘urbanised area’ of Ile de France but I’ve never found that. That’s why the most sensible comparison is with Paris + Petite Couronne: 6,695,233 (2011) on 761km2 = 8,786/km2 (because the area is a reasonable approximation to ‘urbanised area’ though this too is an underestimate of density because it doesn’t exclude anything). Note also, that even in the Grande Couronne much of it retains high density because a lot of the population resides in what were independent towns (like Melun, Cergy-Pontoise both at the end of the RER lines and the very limit of Ile de France/Paris urbane). Not to mention the 5 newtowns that were built dense, eg. Evry (25km from Paris) which Wiki lists as 6,700/km2 (but I’d bet that is an underestimate because it too is not using ‘urbanised area’; note that this town is the same density as San Francisco which is the second most dense urban area of the US after Manhattan). Melun, in the Grande Couronne, is 40+km from Paris and is 5,100/km2 and that will include a certain fraction of SFH. To pretend that even the outer edges of greater Paris are sprawled low-density is simple denial of reality.

            I wonder at why you persist. You must know that a lot of Tokyo is sprawled low-rise, and while the houses are smaller than in the west, that type of SFH cannot achieve anything like the density of what one sees in most of Ile de France, even Grande Couronne like Evry, Melun etc. And look, even if I were to grant you some of your incorrect assumptions/calculations (which I don’t) you are continuing to miss my point. Why do you want to endorse building high-rise which simply cannot compete in terms of urbanity as incontestably in intramuros-Paris? Especially when it isn’t the advantage of significantly higher density which even it were 2x Paris (which it isn’t), still wouldn’t win the contest. Why?

            I would also point out that, finally, some Anglosphere planners are realising that high-rise is a complete distraction for a city trying to relieve its housing problems. San Francisco doesn’t need to go high-rise to fit in a lot more people and retain its essential character. As it happens SF (124km2) is broadly comparable to intramuros Paris so in principle could hold 2+ million, but certainly another half or full million. It could achieve this by the measures in SB827 (now SB50?) which allows upzoning in transit zones to 5 floor residential.

          • Ian

            You say that INSEE is ridiculous because it doesn’t remove the undeveloped land in Ile de France, but turn around and claim that the Tokyo numbers prove Tokyo is less dense even though it doesn’t remove the undeveloped land in the konto region. As I showed, the 23-ku are comparable in area to Paris+petite couronne and are denser. Your broader point seems to be that low rise is prettier and high rise is uglier, but that seems to me to be an entirely subjective point of view. I happen to love high rises and actually think Paris is rather bland looking. Beauty is subjective.

            I have no clue why you think that density measures for cities should exclude anything other than unbuildable water. If a city decides not to use space for a park or a train station or “the most beautiful hospital site in the world” then that’s a decision that decreases the density of a city. Even still I used your density methodology and excluded les bois from Paris and Central Park from Manhattan and used official government population data and got 29245/km^2 for Manhattan and 25,412/km^2 for intramuros Paris, which is a difference of 15%, which I’d consider significant. The only reason Manhattan isn’t denser is because most of the borough is limited to at most 6 stories. If the entire borough allowed high rises, Manhattan would be even more dense. If you look at the R-10 zoned parts of the city, they’re all significantly denser than Paris.

            It’s a minor point, but you claim that San Francisco is the second densest place in the us, but that isn’t even close to true. All of the boroughs except for Staten Island are denser than San Francisco, as well as denser than Evry or Melun. As are many cities in Northern New Jersey, Somerville, Mass, and several Los Angeles Suburbs.

            Anyways, showing that cities with high-rises also have low density areas does absolutely nothing to disprove the obvious fact that a neighborhood of high-rises will always be denser than a neighborhood of 6-story buildings.

          • michaelrjames

            Ian, 2019/07/20 – 14:00

            So, you have changed your tune on calculation of density, and now the difference is much, much less than your earlier 40%, now to 15%. While actually it is 8% (obviously I’ve been examining this issue a lot longer than you). But ok, let’s say it is 15%. It proves my point, not yours or any fanboi of high-rise. Compare those figures for Upper East Side and 11th arrondissement. It’s even surprising to me that there is so little in it, and the UES has plenty of actual high-rise residential (ie. beyond the ‘low rise’ of say UWS of about 8 to 12 floors), yet it only marginally fits in more residents.

            As I showed, the 23-ku are comparable in area to Paris+petite couronne and are denser.

            No, I showed that in an early post! But it is not as dense as Paris itself! No part of Tokyo is.

            I have no clue why you think that density measures for cities should exclude anything other than unbuildable water.

            It’s a convention and for the reasons you actually give. These areas are excluded because they are unbuildable but also functionally exclude themselves. From a functional point of view they are excluded from the city’s day-to-day business. It would be heroic blindness to include Paris’ two big bois because, well look at the map, geographically they aren’t (and historically, weren’t) part of the fabric of the (intramuros) city. Many don’t even realise they are legally part of the city of Paris (Boulogne is part of the 16th and Vincennes is part of the 12th; go to the Wiki page on arrondissements and you will find they provide density with and without the bois for these two arrondissements (Paris_arrondissements); and both are on the ‘wrong’ side of the Peripherique. However, even if they weren’t at the city’s edge (like two hernias) it would still be true. Beyond a certain size this is what big open space does (there’s plenty of urbanist theory and data on it). No one cuts across, say Central Park, like the way, say Ernest Hemingway did cut across Jardin du Luxembourg (the second biggest park at 22.5 Ha) from his home near rue Mouffetarde to visit Gertrude Stein at rue Fleurus on the west side of the park (oh to be such a trust-fundie and be able to afford such a spot!). (BTW, as an aside, this is why in general I don’t favour big parks within cities. Luxembourg, one fortieth of Bois de Boulogne, is as big as they should be, and even smaller ones like Monceau, 8.2 Ha, are more loved by Parisians. Like Washington Sq Pk at 4Ha.)

            On another technical note, I compared cities (eg. SF) while you are cherrypicking suburbs. My statements were correct; try reading them again.

            the obvious fact that a neighborhood of high-rises will always be denser than a neighborhood of 6-story buildings.

            Nice bit of denialism you have there! Nothing will change your mind. The original observation–that Paris is the densest ‘city’ in the world remains true. Manhattan is very similar but of course is not a city. You haven’t, and I believe would not be able to, prove even a district of a Japanese city exceed the Parisian density (which is averaged over a 87km2 zone; cherrypicking 1 or 5km2 zones doesn’t cut it). Hong Kong is a likely contender but even that is not clear. However let’s not nitpick. Let’s say that both Manhattan and HK are denser. And let’s say it is due to high-rise (in fact, it would be interesting to see the breakdown for Manhattan because, as you yourself point out, a lot of residential is low-rise, ie. 8 to 12 floors), it still doesn’t prove what you seem to be trying for, which is a version of Glaeser and other econocrats go on about: solve housing scarcity and affordability by demolishing all the old low rise of much-cherished cities (like Paris, Washington DC, much of Manhattan). It is rather cack-handed of Glaeser since he is an economist, not a urban planner, and should know it fails on both econometric counts.
            Of course it is the same simple-minded approach you are using. Naturally, if you build enough high-rise you can surpass Paris’ density; however it is very rarely achieved and only by successively casting aside all the building regs and design principles (light and air etc) accepted in earlier times. (Or like much of Asia where those rules never existed.) I’d argue that most New Yorkers don’t want it. What is their opinion on Hudson Yards?

            And Paris still provides its urbanist ‘paradise’ to 2.4 million residents who all have amazing access to all the things people love about Paris (and it’s not the Eiffel Tower or any given icon). (And actually another 6m in the Petite Couronne). There is really nothing like it –other Euro cities have much smaller cores. It is the ultimate walkable city. Manhattan not nearly as much; being stretched linearly it is quite a bore to span its various districts by walking, and you simply aren’t going to do it from, say, Washington Heights where I usually stay. You’ve missed the point of why I mentioned those things (hospitals, cemeteries! etc) that are rather extravagant in their use of land surface of Paris. It’s that one can have that, and yet still achieve the highest density (or nearly) of any city in the world! It is a total delusion that one needs to build high-rise, a delusion that is widely believed partly because it is “obvious” and that it is the sole model promoted by the property speculators and their political proxies. It was once believed by planners in Paris (eg. President Pompidou) but luckily disproven by Tour Montparnasse and, for the same era, the hideous 31-storey blocks in the 13th. In SF one can only hope the abominable Millennial Tower is that city’s Tour Montparnasse!

            By all means you can have your preference for high-rise, though I have to question your sincerity: if you really had the choice … Just don’t try to make the specious, disproven case that building high-rise–in the real world as opposed to an economist’s fantasy world model in a computer–would either significantly provide more housing or more affordable housing. Hong Kong which has little choice, and undoubtedly does build extreme height for residential, has a housing crisis of shocking proportions and the most unaffordable housing in the world. I’m claiming that the Parisian (Haussmannian) model is an alternative for many cities (perhaps not HK, though ….) in providing density without sacrificing the characteristic urban dwellers value.

          • Jason


            You are cherrypicking tiny Arrondissements (1-5km^2) and comparing them to much bigger NY boroughs or Tokyo’s ku’s. It’s not a fair comparison at all. If you want to cherrypick small areas, there are lots of examples around the world, like this one is a lot denser than all except the 11th Arrondissement, and it’s got more park land and lower building height

            Your low rise Paris streets may be nice to look at, but I would rather live in a more spacious high rise modern neighborhood any day, even if overall density is the same.

          • michaelrjames

            Give it a rest. Those comparisons were purely to respond to those in this thread who are doing the cherrypicking. My very first post on this thread:

            Manhattan: 1.644m (est. 2015) on 59.1 km2 = 27,812/km2
            Paris: 2.24m (2014) on 87km2 = 25,757/km2

            This a very comparable set of urban circumstances, on both area and on city type (mix of residential, business and cultural). It is the most valid of any other examples given on this page. I stand by it.
            And someone who for indecipherable reasons wants to remove even more “espaces verts” (green space) from the Paris calculations, actually produces a higher density for Paris: 27,667/km2.

            As I say, you are welcome to your preference, though I strongly suspect you haven’t tried the Parisian experience (and a tourist hotel or even AirBnB for a week doesn’t count). Chacun ses gouts. Though it should be based on evidence and actual experience not just a supposition, or least of all ideology.

        • Nilo


          I totally agree that’s probably not the reason its done. But I’m saying its a reason to regard it as good practice. Tokyo has good land use, and expensive road pricing, and even has distance based fares, however the way commuting works involves employers covering the cost of train tickets, and those fares having generous treatment under the federal tax code. Thus there is no monetary incentive to live closer to Tokyo as the cost of commuting is not necessarily greater.

          On Paris and density. 1. Paris achieves very high densities through very low floor area consumption per person, in contrast to Tokyo which has doubled the amount of of floor area consumed per person, while maintaining very high transit mode shares. Taller buildings are denser than shorter ones if you let them be after all Manhattan is significantly denser than Paris and is somewhat taller (though not tall enough). Taller buildings allow for greater floor area consumption per person, while increasing density. Vancouver IMO seems a good rebuttal that densification is best pursued with mid rise construction. Though in general I think Japan is the only country that’s allowed sufficient construction of housing stock so examples are tough to find.

          • michaelrjames

            I’ve answered this above. “after all Manhattan is significantly denser than Paris”, only if you think 8% is “significant”. I don’t.
            “Taller buildings allow for greater floor area consumption per person, while increasing density.”
            Actually they don’t, because the cost per sq metre of any of those new tall residential buildings in Manhattan is always a lot higher than older buildings, such that it excludes the vast majority of New Yorkers. It is merely attracting footloose international capital that leaves some of these buildings ghost shells. (The arguments about existing New Yorkers moving up the ladder to these buildings thus freeing older apartments is b.s.)

            And by the way, what is happening in Manhattan that has so many wringing their hands in regret–ie. gentrification–is not actually happening in Paris. This is partly because gentrification (though at a different level) happened in the Haussmannian era. The only way it could really happen in Paris is if they allow developers laissez-faire, a bit like they have done (as an experiment?) in the Batignolles-Martin Luther King park area of the 17th; but all over. That is, essentially the Ed Glaeser brainless “solution”: demolishing old Paris to build hi-rise. I haven’t visited those new buildings (several by starchitects) in Batignolles but I strongly suspect the general urbanism around them will be dead zones; the only thing that will save them is that they are right next to old Paris; and I’d place a big bet that any residents there will continue to frequent the small but delightful Square des Batignolles park, and adjoining food market, rather than the much bigger MLK park (1.6 Ha versus 10.8 Ha; the modern planning obsession with unnecessarily large parks–I think they like the look of green expanse on those plans! Developers love CGI of the parkviews! Tellingly MLK parc’s major promenade leads directly to Sq. des Batignolles …) Oh, and I doubt very much that allowing these higher buildings (50m versus Haussmannian 30m) will produce higher density for the same reason everywhere else in the world it is done: they are adopting a quasi “towers-in-a-park” design aesthetic. Doh! Like it hasn’t been proven over and over and over again to be a failed concept. And in the city which is usually considered the most beautiful and functional urbanisme in the world. Luckily there is very little opportunity for this kind of hare-brained, ill-conceived planning in Paris.

            But footloose international capital doesn’t chase property in Paris, like they do in London and NYC, for several reasons. One is that France hits you with a CGT including on your primary property so no big profits and not a liquid “investment”, not to mention that the market is not “on fire” like these other bubbles. Second, there is a restricted stock that appeals to this “demographic” and very little of that (on avenue Montaigne, avenue Foch etc) is ever up for sale. Even the grand apartments on my old home, Ile St Louis, don’t really appeal, especially to the younger international monied class because they don’t meet their expectations of jacuzzis, pools, gyms or of course private parking, sometimes even no elevators; and heritage protection means they cannot do as they wish (though the new Qatari owner of Hotel Lambert has ripped its guts out and put in a huge underground garage!). As Alon, and you, point out, much of Parisian residential is a bit on the tight side, space-wise and is simply not in the sights of this market. Good. In fact, excellent. Because it means, even though Paris is fairly BoBo this middle class actually lives there and it makes the city alive, with all those tens of thousands of owner-run businesses at street level. Exactly the stuff that is disappearing from Manhattan that everyone laments (and which landlords of those new residential buildings apparently would rather leave empty than rent to small owner-operators; they want banks and McDonalds etc who are willing to pay outrageous rents for the long-haul). In other words, Paris is sustainable.

          • Nilo

            I’d begin by pointing out that Alon has provided extensive data on this blog that high rise office space produces greater density than low rise. Thus your contention that it doesn’t must be due to something else. I’ve attempted to address some of your claims below.

            Your eight percent is not honest IMO. So let us calculate an actual good one. To start with the UN and some other sources have done some good work on this question. When you subtract streets and parks you find that 51% of Manhattan is buildable area for home or commercial. Similarly for Paris the UN reports 29% of the Parisian center is designated for streets. Wikipedia reports that 3k hectares are devoted to public parks inside the city of Paris. This seems to make sense as the Bois de Vincennes and the Bois de Boulogne combined are 1841 hectares. After some simple math this tells us the buildable area of Paris is 42.5%. We use this to determine Paris has a density of 48354 people/km^2 and Manhattan has one of 55231 people/km^2. Manhattan is about 1.14 times as dense as Paris. Is this as massive as advocates normally claim? No. But a 14% difference is still significant. This is not so far from the difference in GDP per capita in PPP terms between Sweden and the United States. Massive? No, but certainly still significant and worthwhile to understand. I can cite other more obscure examples of where greater height leads to greater density.

            There are neighborhoods the in the Rio metro area for example that achieve greater densities via height than others. Take two examples Leblon and Copacabana. Leblon is Parisian in height everything is in that sub ten story category most of it around four to five. The price of floor area there is the highest in the city. Copacabana is much more high rise. These numbers include all streets and unbuilt area— in this case both mountainous rain forest and beach. Leblon achieves a density of 21,385 people/km^2 even as the richest neighborhood in the entire city. Copacabana on the other hand, despite including far more unbuilt mountainside 35,698 people/km^2. Why? Because of its greater height. Also remember that Copacabana of course houses far more hotels and tourism based activity than primarily residential Leblon. And this is a calculation that’s basically maximally bad for Copacabana it’s geographic definition includes far more areas that are unbuilt than Leblon! (Originally I hoped to do this calculation with Ipanema given its similarity in placement and geography to Leblon, but the inclusion of several uninhabited coastal islands in the definition of the neighborhood rendered that impossible.) I will end by pointing out both these areas are highly walkable and highly desirable.

            I’d call your “footloose international capital” concerns scaremongering. Of course new construction is more expensive than old construction. New cars are more expensive than old ones as well. If your primary fear is international capital (one that I’d point out seems to be borne out most prominently in incredibly low rise London) despite what appear to be successful attempts from the US Treasury to clamp down on money laundering and other misadventures, I’d point out your high rises could be all rental. In fact we have a major global city where almost all new high rise construction has been all rental in Chicago. For example the New NEMA Tower, which was just completed is 76 stories with 800 rental luxury apartments. Presumably people will live in them as “footloose international capital” has no interest in rentals.

            If Paris has not gentrified it is only because of its ability to provide incredibly small spaces, even at incredibly high Parisian floor area prices for both rentals and owner occupied buildings,17.9k dollars per meter for a sixth floor no elevator walk up 11 sq meter apartment in the the sixth arrondissement; a rental price of 1000 dollars per year per meter for a rental in the ninth (figures from Alain Bertaud’s new book). I’m sure most Parisians wished they had some more space in their dwellings would it be so bad for newer construction to provide that via height?

            As to the rest of your posts claims. 1. Glaeser in fact doesn’t call for razing Paris in Triumph of the City because he recognizes it as an aesthetic accomplishment and points out that La Defense is a good compromise. 2. Glaeser and a huge variety of other writers have pointed out the price per area of housing in Paris has climbed in real terms quite a bit since the start of the 20th century. 3. Some types of building design with tall buildings are bad, but multiple places (Chicago, Rio, parts of Manhattan) do it just fine without your hated Tower in the Park troupe. You can have a 30 story building that abuts the street with no set back and causes a lot of street traffic during the day. You can also have it with a 15 or 5 story building.




          • Nilo

            Also an addendum I had not seen your most recent posts. Paris is by no means the world’s densest city to claim so is pure Eurocentrism. Alain Bertaud has an excellent graphic that shows average built up density around the world. I suppose he uses the whole metro area, but I sincerely doubt that whatever choice you make for Paris will somehow leave Seoul or Hong Kong as less dense.

            This I could point out sort of gets to the whole problem with your argument your ignorance of the Parisian suburbs ignores one of Paris’ great weaknesses compared to Tokyo. Tokyo’s transportation is much less car dependent than Paris. The dominant suburban commute mode in Tokyo is the train. The dominant suburban commute mode in Paris is the car, where 70%!!!! of commute trips but originate and end!


          • michaelrjames

            Nilo, 2019/07/21 – 21:41

            Alon has provided extensive data on this blog that high rise office space produces greater density than low rise. Thus your contention that it doesn’t …

            Unfortunate start to your post. I don’t know if Alon has done that or not, but we hardly need Alon to show it. Again, there are some things not in contention and that could be one of them. But of course it is irrelevant as it concerns office space. Having said that, the argument for hi-rise for offices relates to proximity, nothing more (ie. the agglomeration argument, which I don’t dispute and never have). I also remember in earlier discussions here (ie. on previous articles) I was surprised at the density achieved by those Haussmannian offices in Paris’ historic CBD. I compared (IIRC, can’t locate it) the Credit Lyonnais bank building in the 2nd to its hi-rise they built (aka Credit Agricole) in Manhattan and it was surprising that the difference was not nearly as great as one might have predicted; however the Credit Lyonnais building in Paris-9 is huge, possibly the largest commercial building in Paris other than Tour Montparnasse. It is famous for it extravagant foyer and amazing double staircase that is reminiscent of the one in Chateau Chambord (often attributed to da Vinci). The NY building, one of those non-descript international-style (if by the starchitects du jour), of 45 floors has ≈ten times the floor area of the Paris building, however normalised to the land area/footprint the difference reduces to 2.5x!

            But anyway, all that is irrelevant, and I think it was brilliant of the French to build a new hi-rise business district at La Defense (now the biggest financial district in Europe,so successful they are expanding it westwards, building a TGV station etc). So there are two things: one is that I wouldn’t want to see the old CL building destroyed to be replaced with a 45 storey tower like Montparnasse (which I believe Alon may have been proposing? of course it’s moot because it is rightly heritage listed, more impressive than any bank in NYC!); and while it may compete with residential (Alon’s argument IIRC) that is not clear; the old CBD is alive and well and clearly brings plenty of other peripheral activity to the district, and btw it is linked by the RER-A to La Defense with a single stop en route–a heck of lot quicker than traversing Manhattan sprawl of CBD say from mid-town to down-town). In fact the 9th has 26,847/km2 so hardly compromised!

            Calculations: your final calc.: “Manhattan is about 1.14 times as dense as Paris.” which is the 15% previously suggested and which, for the sake of argument I was willing to cede (I don’t accept it as accurate but it simply doesn’t matter IMO). But your calculation is silly and is not what an urbanist would do because it creates all kinds of unresolvable questions. I don’t know what part of “central Paris” your UN data refers to (possibly the old area of 1 thru 6?) but 29% streets is assuredly not true for all of intra-muros Paris and I’m not convinced it is even true for the 1st which actually has very few Haussmannised (big wide) streets (the Place de la Concorde is in the adjoining 8th; rue de Rivoli predate Haussmann and is not especially wide in any case, and the main Haussmann creation here is Bvld Sebastopol which is the eastern border. The reason the 1st has so low residential density is, as I presented earlier, it contains large parks (just the Tuileries + Carrousel is 32 Ha = 17.5%; Les Halles is ≈5.6 Ha), huge official buildings (Louvre incl. courtyards ≈13 Ha; Conciergerie ≈4.8 Ha; Palais Royal ≈4.5 Ha; the Banque de France is almost the same size! etc). Just there ( (very incomplete accounting) it is >30% without counting streets. Perhaps you/UN are counting some or all of this as “street”?
            Parks & gardens: “3k hectares are devoted to public parks inside the city of Paris”. Not sure what this means because I can tell you it doesn’t correspond to anything I calculate. Just counting the bigger parks and open public areas (ie. Champs de Mars, Les Invalides, Tuileries etc, the three big cemeteries) it comes to 352 Ha (ie. 3.5 km2) or with the two big bois, at least 22 km2. And let’s be clear: I haven’t included the hundreds of smaller parks and squares or the Salpêtrière or Cité U (both are public most of the time; the CU is a parkland and I recommend it to view several Corbu buildings and others of that epoch; it’s a modernista museum!).

            So, first, those figures are simply incorrect. But second the concept is wrong. I explained earlier why one excludes the big parks and water–because in a very real sense they don’t form a used (or developed or developable) part of a city, so they would distort what the density measure is intended to convey. These other spaces do, though to varying degrees but the difference between them and the big parks is stark; people use these smaller spaces all the time; they are truly part of the functional city. That is to see what provision for residential is made within the buildable area. If you exclude all this other stuff, especially streets and plazas, then it becomes meaningless. And here’s the thing that proves it: if you really went that way you would have to exclude Salpêtrière, Cité U, Conciergerie, Louvre, 6 gares, and one heck of a lot more in Paris, which surely you must agree has a lot more of this stuff than Manhattan does? This would then push up the residential density even higher. No, the whole point is that Paris manages a world-leading residential density despite having all this other fabulous stuff, the stuff that in fact makes Paris. In short, my original figures stand.

            In any case, I am not arguing that, under certain conditions, hi-rise residential cannot be more dense than low-rise residential (meaning Haussmannian ≈30m; pre-modern this is 6 to 8 floors; modern low-ceilings it is up to ten floors). The point is that it is very rarely achieved in the actual world, and especially over an area the size of intramuros Paris. You’ve cherrypicked parts of Rio. In these discussions I often mention the Eixample district of Barcelona for achieving 36,000/km2 but you’ve got to realise that it is only 7.48km2 about twice the size of the 11th arrondissement (41,000/km2). I also mention Manhattan’s Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village at 78,000/km2! In both cases they are small subsections of a city and in Stuy-Cooper is effectively a walled estate that is an unsustainable unit without the city around it. (Yes, it shows the density that can be achieved with 15 storey buildings but … not really because it is not possible to build a whole city, or even a significant part of a city like that (and who would want to? the now-demolished Kowloon Walled city was greater than 200,000/km2 and was closer to a functioning city…).
            You see the point, yet?

            You, and the others here, have got to get away from the simplistic arguments you are making about hi-rise. Why would you promote such things when nowhere in the world, except in small pockets, do they exceed Paris in density? Unless they were “better”? And one should note that none of your examples come close to Paris for urbanity. Certainly not Copacabana or even Eixample (which is creating superblocks to ameliorate traffic impact and to create more open pedestrian friendly space since it is bereft of this, ie. missing what Paris has in spades). This is why people are willing to live in those tiny studios (though note that the price/m2 is much higher for smaller spaces; people buying these are using them as pied-a-terres for when they visit Paris and like to stay overnight, or in fact for their children when they attend university–this is exactly what happened to my tiny studio on Ile St Louis, as it’s very handy for the Jussieu campus, ie. rich provincials parents).

            As to global capital, you have disproven your own attempt to reverse this argument. They may dominate in “incredibly low rise London” but they dominate, sometimes 100%, only in high-rise London! And those buildings (Chicago or wherever, Hudson Yards?) to rent to rich foreigners is exactly what is not needed. Incidentally Chicago-Gold Coast: 0.54km2, 18,836 to 25,114/km2 so it perhaps achieves Parisian density but again it is not a sustainable unit (it’s “towers in a park” for rich people).
            I give thanks for the peculiar legacy of all those tiny chambre-de-bonne because they allow a lot of low-income or no-income people to live in Paris. (Not permitted with modern building regs.) You have agreed that this is what keeps the city less of a rich (and foreign) ghetto than London & Manhattan!

            I have just received your latest comment by email: “Alain Bertaud has an excellent graphic that shows average built up density around the world.” In fact I bought his book and was immediately disappointed (and IIRC it is expensive!); like many such books I have put it to one side because it seemed to be arguing a very strange case, and yes, I found his calculations very dodgy. But I am not at home so I might have to address this later (I remember making notes to some of those data tables or graphs); but please don’t attempt to persuade me of a case, any case, by appealing to “authority”. They all have their agendas, like Glaeser whose book I was enthusiastically looking forward to reading then got progressively depressed as I worked thru it, until I now think it is quite absurd and can only be explained by blind ideology, and typical of a “pure” economist (ie. ignore the real world). I don’t know what the UN data was aimed at explaining but it didn’t work when you used it here. And BTW, on these pages Alon has argued, whether just to get a rise I can’t be sure, that the 9th (CBD) should be demolished and replaced with high-rise for both business and residential. Of course that is what Pompidou wanted to do (not just around Montparnasse) in a silly notion of how to “modernise”! La Defense was a vastly better solution, both functionally and aesthetically.

            Of course I am not ignorant of the Paris suburbs, I’ve lived there! And commuted there (M7 was extended to Villejuif in my first year in Paris when I worked at the Villejuif Cancer hospital & research complex; looking up Credit Lyonnais I was shocked to see they have actually moved their global HQ there, which seems quite bizarre!). Most of it was developed in the modern car era so yes it is too car dominant, but at least they built the RER to get around quickly and cheaply. But it still is relatively dense and obviously with GPX it is going to be quite different in the near future. That Villejuif cancer complex is getting a major interchange station on M15! Of course in Japan and especially Tokyo, there are just so many people that you are not allowed to own a car unless you can prove you have off-street parking!

          • Nilo

            We are far afield, but I’ll try to address some errors you seem to make.

            Michael the number is for the city of Paris proper. I hate to make an argument from authority, but I struggle to understand why we should trust you over all the very well qualified and knowledgable people putting together these reports at the UN. Do you think they aren’t capable of accurately counting the area of land devoted to streets?

            French wikipedia lists all the area of parks in the below link. If you dispute there are parks not included please let me know, and fix wikipedia but it lists 1,841 for the two woods and 556.67 hectares of other public parks in the city. That comfortably leaves several hundred hectares of margin in my calculation. A quick check shows French Wikipedia includes all the spaces you list. You wish to count two things the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital and the Cité Internationale Universitaire de Paris that do not seem particularly remarkable in terms of area of Paris or function. Manhattan of course has Columbia which seems to be roughly the size of either of the two areas you mentioned. So I’m really not sure how your argument stands.


            >if you exclude all this other stuff, especially streets and plazas, then it becomes meaningless. And here’s the thing that proves it: if you really went that way you would have to exclude Salpêtrière, Cité U, Conciergerie, Louvre, 6 gares, and one heck of a lot more in Paris, which surely you must agree has a lot more of this stuff than Manhattan does?

            I confess I’ve been to Paris only once, and Manhattan quite a few more times, and have lived in neither of them, but there seems something erroneous about the argument that Paris has a ton more cultural stuff to do than Manhattan. You list all these things but it’s not like Manhattan is without its many museums, theaters, comedy clubs, music venues and other cultural attractions that eat up floor space.

            > The point is that it is very rarely achieved in the actual world, and especially over an area the size of intramuros Paris. You’ve cherrypicked parts of Rio.

            I picked one neighborhood of Rio that I thought would be easy to analyze for two reasons 1. the area has only some minor informal settlement 2. The area I wanted to choose has off shore islands included in it. But I promise I was not cherry picking. Go up and down the coast of Rio and you see high density settlement. Go across the bay to a place where the best transit is the mixed traffic bus, where my grandmother lives and they manage to fit almost 80k people into 1.3 km^2 using primarily apartment buildings between 10 and 15 stories. Actual larger comparison are tricky due to Rio’s mountainous geography but having actually lived there trust me the wealthier parts have a high rise construction crowded near the coast. In fact the poorer parts towards the interior of the city are assuredly only more crowded due to smaller apartment size, larger family size, and slums.

            > And one should note that none of your examples come close to Paris for urbanity. Certainly not Copacabana or even Eixample

            The higher rise parts of Rio have just as good an urbanism as what I experienced in Paris. Highly walkable to everything one could need in a day within a couple of minutes, excellent access to leisure, restaurants, and jobs. The streets tend to be narrow the sidewalks are universally wide. There’s bike share, cycle paths, a beach! What exactly do you think Paris does better that isn’t a result of being just much much richer? Like you need to defend these assertions.

            >And those buildings (Chicago or wherever, Hudson Yards?) to rent to rich foreigners is exactly what is not needed.

            No rich foreigners are renting these high rise buildings in Chicago, unless by foreigners you mean young professionals who moved to the city from out of state, who may or may not be US citizens. A one bedroom in NEMA costs less than 2/3rds what the average one bedroom rents for in San Francisco. There’s no evidence that there’s any significant amount of renting going on from people who haven’t moved to the city full time because their employment sent them there. You really shouldn’t make assertions like that without evidence. What type of housing does a city need anyway? Surely any housing that allows more residents is good since they bring tax revenues and economic benefits to the community?

            >Incidentally Chicago-Gold Coast: 0.54km2, 18,836 to 25,114/km2 so it perhaps achieves Parisian density but again it is not a sustainable unit (it’s “towers in a park” for rich people).

            Either you don’t know what towers in the a park is or have never been to Chicago if you think the Gold Coast has even an inkling of that design style. Yes the gold coast is one of the richest areas of the city, but it’s also one of the few areas that allows high rise construction away from the immediate Lakefront.

            You can download the UN report here. Considering it was basically a report counting up how much street space there was in the


            Anyways I think that’s all for me. It’s difficult to have a discussion with someone who substitutes assertion and anecdote for fact, while also seemingly denigrating and dismissing contrary data without any actual counter argument.The Japanese must be doing something right considering how much higher the rail mode share is compared to the car.

          • michaelrjames

            Nilo, 2019/07/21 – 21:41

            The Wiki entry which gives Espaces Verts (hors bois) as 557 Ha. I gave 352 Ha but as I said I only counted the major spaces ie. missing lots of smaller ones. (I specifically did not include Salpêtrière & CU.) You seem to believe this favours your interpretation but it doesn’t, it favours mine. It leaves the area of intramuros Paris excluding espaces-verts (including the two bois) as somewhat less than what I used in my very first post: 105 km2 minus (18.4 + 5.57) = 81.0 km2 I use 87km2.
            It is lower because I didn’t eliminate even these bigger parks and for the purposes of an urbanist examining residential density I still take that position. So using this figure (81.4 km2) then the residential density is 27,667/km2. Much closer to the Manhattan figure! Now seriously, I rest my case. I was correct.(However I am not sure we are comparing like-with-like; not clear all the smaller parks are excluded from the Manhattan figure. But as I have said over and over, the differences here are trivial. Call Manhattan a bit more dense than Paris if you want … makes zip diff to the arguments.)

            As to comparing cities, I agree (and have agreed earlier) that these things can be subjective, however Copacabana, while the best part of Rio, is not anywhere equal to Paris; also false comparison, it is much smaller so we’re not comparing like-with-like but then the comparison would be worse since you’d have to include lots of parts of Rio that definitely don’t measure up! I could possibly live happily in Copacabana or Leblon but it wouldn’t be Paris! Other than all the things in Paris I’d miss, I did find the height in Copa to be a bit too much and rather oppressive; to me it proves the original logic behind the Parisian rules (formalised by Haussmann but actually dating to the 17th century–relating height to street width, for air and light). This doesn’t mean I am dogmatic about it, but just that one doesn’t need to go higher to achieve a high residential density, which just happens (no accident) to achieve the near-perfect urbanity.

            seems something erroneous about the argument that Paris has a ton more cultural stuff to do than Manhattan

            I did not say that. My point was the use of land. There is nothing like Salpêtrière, or Cité U, or Cimetiere de Pere Lachaise (44 Ha for dead people!) in Manhattan though across the East River … No, Columbia is not the same thing as Cité U which is a purely residential campus and built in the modern era, but Columbia (and Rockefeller & NYU) is more comparable to the Jussieu campus in the 5th of about 12 Ha, or the Sorbonne and other scattered bits of the U de Paris (throughout 5th and 6th). Esp. the medical centre up in Washington Heights that I know better.

            And yes, the Gold Coast is “towers in a park”, but you may be getting confused that there isn’t too much “park” other than the leafy wide streets. The concept doesn’t necessarily mean a lot of parkland per se, but rather that the towers are spaced apart by more or less open space between them. The very fact that its density is no more than Paris average tells you that that has to be the case (other than any glance at aerial pics). The famous hi-rises there are the epitome of this concept. Very different to, say, Manhattan Upper East Side (rough equiv. demographic).

            The UN report “was basically a report counting up how much street space there was in the (city)” but my issue is, to what point? I repeat that it makes no sense to do such a thing (to subtract it from developed land area) if one wants an idea of residential density. Anyway, glancing at that report, I see that it is making the case that cities like Paris, Barcelona etc that were designed (redesigned) in the 19th century are better than later ones, including the suburbs of those same 19th century cities. I assume you are referring to “FIGURE 3.1 LAND ALLOCATED TO STREET (LAS) IN CITIES, EUROPE, NORTH AMERICA & OCEANIA” on page 66, which is a histogram showing that (inner) Paris, London and Barcelona are in the upper range (30-36%) and modern cities are lower, as are these city’s suburbs. While I think he’s a bit obsessed with Paris’ “wide boulevardes” (which don’t dominate the land use quite the way he seems to believe; they are not the dominant typology in inner-Paris) the point really seems to be how inefficient new cities and new suburbs use space.

            In Western Europe, similar patterns can be observed in the city core of Paris, where 30 per cent of land is allocated to streets in the city core versus 13 per cent in suburbs. The sufficient land allocated to streets in the city centre can be associated to the city’s history of urban transformation that was geared to cutting a unique image for the city, with wide boulevards and public spaces around historical monuments.9


            This can be due to the preponderance of boulevards and avenues, as observed in
            the city core of Paris, or a regular pattern of wide streets, as observed in Manhattan. However, there is less variation in the street system of Manhattan than in the street network of the city core of Paris where the width of streets varies from 10m in local neighborhoods to 60m in the widest boulevards.

            Yeah, but those boulevardes are a rather sparse skeleton while the dominant form are the quite narrow, mostly original pre-Haussmannian streets and even narrower streets that elsewhere would be called lanes.

            It talks about reclaiming street space, which is what I described for the Eixample in Barcelona. Perhaps the point here is that Paris doesn’t have to because Haussmann already did it (esp. clearing space around monuments etc) which is true. The relevant feature about American cities, including cores, is that all their streets are wide with a subset that are even wider, and actually this is a feature, and the problem, of the Eixample. But so far I think the report is using street space as a proxy for its correlate in these cities: density. Suburbs don’t have as many streets because with such big (SFH) block size, they aren’t needed. It’s the building typology rather than the streets per se that is the more relevant factor. I can’t see the report’s focus on this is relevant to my comparison of dense cities (cores). Otherwise, until I spend a lot more time on that 168 page report, I can’t really comment as relates to our discussion.

          • michaelrjames

            I can’t help but point out to readers here who support the notion that hi-rise brings all kinds of benefits to a city (even the clearly false one of “higher density” least of all affordability), this repeat lament at what is happening to NYC small retail:

            Can a ‘Storefront Tracker’ Save New York City From its Vacancy Crisis?
            John Surico, 01 Aug 2019.

            A study released in May by the city’s own Department of Small Business Services (SBS) found that the average rate of empty storefronts citywide is 8.9 percent; other numbers indicate that at least 20 percent of spaces in Manhattan are vacant or about to be, with higher figures on particular avenues. In some parts of town, such as Greenwich Village or the Upper East Side, the hollowing-out of the retail landscape seems far more severe. Long-time institutions are being gobbled up by condos or chain outlets like Starbucks and Duane Reade drugstores. … Vacancy now seems like a part of the cityscape itself, a fixture of New York’s curious existence as a booming “rich ghost town”: Walk down practically any traffic- and pedestrian-jammed commercial corridor and a “For Rent” sign awaits.

            The fact that this is happening to the UES is peculiar, and one wonders what is going on. Is everyone ordering in UberEats (which probably comes from an industrial kitchen somewhere in Jersey …). At any rate, it refutes any notion that the hi-rise residential and the gentrification that accompanies it, supports any of the classic urbanity even New Yorkers historically value. Those who want to introduce this kind of thing into Paris should surely be given pause. As I wrote (earlier comment, above):

            Because it means, even though Paris is fairly BoBo this middle class actually lives there and it makes the city alive, with all those tens of thousands of owner-run businesses at street level. Exactly the stuff that is disappearing from Manhattan that everyone laments (and which landlords of those new residential buildings apparently would rather leave empty than rent to small owner-operators; they want banks and McDonalds etc who are willing to pay outrageous rents for the long-haul). In other words, Paris is sustainable.

          • Eric

            “In some parts of town, such as Greenwich Village or the Upper East Side, the hollowing-out of the retail landscape seems far more severe.”

            So it’s worst in low rise Greenwich Village and mid-rise Upper East Side. High-rise Midtown and Lower Manhattan seem to be doing fine… Seems to prove the opposite of what you intended.

    • Martin

      Messy transport systems are indeed a giant mess, but with automatic electronic cards that calculate the payment automatically, this should not be an issue for a consumer. In East Asia, all prices are distance adjusted, but this is done automatically, and the customer does typically not even know the price of the trip they take, but trust that the price is fair according to a reasonable formula.

      Efficient solutions are always eventually more fair than non-efficient solutions, this is particularly true when there is a resources shortage and less than full capacity transit is provided. If you want to benefit for example poor individuals or people in certain areas this should be done directly (like rich sub-urban car owners in your example, if that is the group you care about…), and not through inefficient pricing. Flat fairs mean that the link between the cost of the service and usage becomes very weak which is unfortunate and should be avoided always. For trips that are typically quite short without entering and exit fair-gates such as busses flat fairs may be reasonable (but even then you should be able to get a lower fare for a very short trip, by swiping your electronic card on exit).

    • Alon Levy

      Yeah, so fare simplification is good, as are POP (though Paris itself may – may – have too much crowding for that to be viable) and generously discounted season passes. But none of that is the same as free fares.

      Paris obviously can’t build 14 km of underground Metro and make 300 stations accessible in one year, but it can, for example, spend a ~€30 billion package over the next 10 years consisting of 100% systemwide accessibility and a GPX-size expansion, consisting of more RER trunks, outward extensions of Metro lines not in the GPX network, systemwide automation to increase speed and precision, an intermediate Metro ring following T3 between M2/6 and M15, etc. Paris is still full of potential €10-15,000/rider extensions, this isn’t New York with its lolzy construction costs or London with its “gentlemen don’t live on shelves” density.

    • RossB

      Agencies tend to charge more per distance because it tends to be more expensive for them. Not only does it cost more to send a bus or train farther away from the core, but there tend to fewer riders. Thus the cost per rider goes up.

      Of course one of the big reasons they charge more is because they can. They are charging closer to what the market will bear. Riders have alternatives, but the longer the trip, the costlier those alternatives are. Taxi cabs tend to charge per mile. Private automobile use also goes up the farther you go (which is why it is routine for businesses to compensate employees on a per mile basis).

      Thus charging a flat rate is similar to not charging a fare at all. They may get extra riders by charging less for a long distance ride, but they lose money. On the other hand, it keeps it simpler. A flat fare and no fare are just variations of the same trade-offs.

      • michaelrjames

        Yes, yes, we all know all that. It is the econocratic way of looking at things. That is the way a commercial entity would assess it, and the way any beancounter wearing blinkers that their vision so narrowly focussed on “cost” of a single aspect of a city-wide transport problem, that they manage to make all the wrong decisions.
        Big city mass transit almost always ‘loses money’, in an operational sense. Yet in reality the cities cannot function without it. So is it really losing money? No, of course not, it is saving the city unassessable amounts of actual money but also it is existential. Cities beyond a certain size simply can’t exist without their mass transit. The issue, that Alon addresses in this article, is whether it might do its job more efficiently with free travel. I think flat fares are a good thing for this thing we are talking about. Naturally those who can’t get their head out of the ‘cost efficiency’ cul de sac won’t agree.

        You know the other things in your life that always ‘lose’ money? Government-funded research and development (things like penicillin, the moonshot, CERN, ITER, the internet, ….), defence and education and healthcare ….

          • michaelrjames

            Eric, the only people who are blind are those bean-counters who believe “charging as much as the market will bear” doesn’t have a much bigger cost, elsewhere, to the city and nation. That’s the real ‘math’ not the narrow focus of making public transit “pay for itself” which no one has really done.

            The UK is the perfect example of this mentality, especially from Thatcher on. Also, curious how the places that have these regressive attitudes are the same places which have absurd infrastructure cost explosions. Did you see just this past few days that UK’s HS2 is going to cost an extra £30 billion? Not to mention that CrossRail is delayed 2 full years beyond its recent completion date, at a cost of an extra ≈£3bn (about 19%).
            One ultimate cost, of Brexit, is going to send those same bean-counters and austerians totally crazeeee.

  4. marvin gruza

    This posting seems to addressing fare-free mass transit on a system wide level
    I wonder if there are “sweet spots” – for example:
    **crosstown bus (someday light rail) service in manhattan NY – most users will stay be paying their fares to get to these crosstown street, so i wonder how much in fares would be lost vs the $ savings to the city of not having to provide/maintain SBS/pop sidewalk infrastructure (to say nothing of limited sidewalk space) and the time savings of the users by not having this added step (the sbs sidewalk interface) before boarding
    **feeder lines to/from major subway stations where most users would have to pay for the subway portion anyway
    **the bus connection between the subway and LGA airport.

    Additionally “induced demand” sounds like a wasteful (socialist!) thing, but a city/locality has a mission of servicing/providing happiness to its residents/taxpayers. For this reason free parks, libraries and sometimes even fireworks and concerts are provided.

    Valid questions that should be asked:
    *Is the enjoyment from the “induced demand” worth the cost
    *what is the real cost given the benefits to the locality of the induced demand including: increased employment, increased sales to local merchants and related sales tax collections, increased property values and related r/e tax collections etc

    Additionally, in cases where the mass transit clearly benefits the non “optors in”/those who will drive, how much should they be required to pay/subsidize those who are giving up their cars to take mass transit.

    Said differently, despite the cost of gas, tolls and parking, those who drive into the central business (of manhattan NY and other major cities) benefit from the fact that not everyone does. The streets of manhattan and other cities would be a standstill if not for the subways/buses diverting many/most drivers and would be a nightmare if subway/bus service was not subsidized (by mta tolls) as many subway users would shift to driving if the fare subsidy was removed.

    Thus the questions include:
    ****Under what conditions should car drivers subsidize mass transit users?
    ****to what extent/how much should such a subsidy be?
    ****how do we factor in fare collection costs vs the amounts collected – are there points that fare collection is not worth the cost (factoring both $’s and inconvenience to users)

    Marvin Gruza CPA
    Adjunct professor at CUNY
    with courses in accounting, cost accounting,
    managerial accounting

    • sarang

      Yes it seems like subway feeder buses (in a system with faregates) are a good candidate for being made free, since you capture the fare in any case. This seems strictly preferable to POP/SBS: the system where you have to stick your metrocard into a vending machine and then carry around a receipt (for $0 since it’s a free transfer) is both stressful and a waste of time (probably adds 5 mins on average to the trip to LGA).

      • Alon Levy

        SBS just does POP really bad. Over here most people have season passes and can just walk onto any vehicle without doing anything; the rest can validate a ticket on the vehicle or on a phone app – there are no SBS-style stations.

  5. threestationsquare

    “In reality, making service free at the point of use means spending money on subsidies from other sources” Not really, because making service free will lead to higher rents (since the marginal resident will be able to afford more rent), which can be captured by property or land value taxes.

    I agree the efficiency argument is weak for systems where POP is viable, but what about systems that are too busy for POP inspectors to circulate at peak and which therefore require faregates for fare enforcement?

    • Alon Levy

      Wait, why does making service free raise rents? Or is the idea here that it will flatten the rent gradient, lowering rent in city center and raising it in neighborhoods with subway connections to the center?

      The three Western systems that have any business using faregates have, respectively, breakeven fares (London) and fares that cover multiple billions a year in operating costs (NY, Paris – and the NY subway would break even if operating expenses per car-km were more normal). The stuff that Paris could do with an extra €2.8 billion a year in subsidy going to stuff other than free fares is amazing.

      • threestationsquare

        There are about 3.3 million habitable housing units in New York City. Many millions of households would like to live in New York City; rent rises until only 3.3 million of them can afford to. If transit is free, the cost of living in New York City drops by about $127 (currently monthly Metrocard rate) per worker per month. This would mean that a lot of households who currently can’t afford to live in New York City would become able to afford it, perhaps increasing the total who could afford it to 3.6 million or something. But there would still only be 3.3 million housing units, so rent would have to rise until only again 3.3 million households could afford it. While estimating the exact impact would require a much more complicated model, the total increase in rent (including imputed homeowner rent) should be in the same ballpark as the lost fare revenue.

        (The above assumes totally price-inelastic supply, which may not be true in Tokyo or in Cleveland but is true in most major Western transit cities. Even in cities (like Paris?) that allow a lot more new housing than New York, the rate of new housing construction seems to be up against legal, inelastic-supply-of-construction-labour, or other constraints, so a 5% increase in rents wouldn’t increase the rate of construction even if you let landlords keep it rather than recapturing it via property tax.)

        Even if you don’t buy the land value argument, just funding transit with a poll tax would be an improvement over the tremendous deadweight costs of faregates. In a major transit city fares are basically already a kind of poll tax, just with an extremely high-overhead enforcement mechanism.

        • Eric

          “But there would still only be 3.3 million housing units, so rent would have to rise until only again 3.3 million households could afford it.”

          I agree.

          On a related note, I used to crayon transit maps, but I no longer bother much because everything depends on the zoning details. Many areas should be zoned for an order of magnitude more people, but who knows when (if ever) that will be the case. And of course that change in population requires a completely different transit network. Basically all transit decisions are second order effects of zoning decisions.

  6. Martin

    I think there are many good reasons against completely free transit, as you stated above. I think very strong price differentiation between off-hours and rush hour makes much sense though. A very cheap monthly pass (say 15-25 USD for only off-our trips) I think is quite reasonable though). This would greatly help very poor individuals, while having reasonable system level outcomes. All retirement discounts should be modelled on such solutions also.

    In high wage countries all rail should be self-driving in any case. Then frequency improvement is very cheap at all times, but then price differentiation makes even more sense for capacity reasons.

  7. Adam

    one thing to consider, metros enjoy spending a billion or two dollars on their unique “modern” cashless payment mechanisms. in Los Angeles the Tap Card. The money given to private contractors for this probably results in lots of nice dinners, vacations, and sporting events for the metro board, but may have been better spent making fares cheaper and not developing a novel system.

    I understand there’s an equity issue, in that they can’t assume people have smartphones and so many riders are unbanked, but if you didn’t create your pseudo currency and relied on people to use the normal monetary methods they use for all other transactions, People that aren’t using them would adopt normal monetary methods of payment, just as they adopted TAP cards, and non riders would be able to enter the transit system without having to first navigate the gateway obstacles of accessing the metro pseudo currency before being allowed on board.

    Basically, paying fares with pseudo currency unique to the transit system is good for consultants making billions, and bad for everyone else.

  8. Reedman Bassoon

    Even with fares, public transit in Northern California is a homeless shelter at night. San Jose has bus route 22 (East San Jose to Palo Alto, 90 minute ride) which is the only 24 hour transit service. It is so popular with the homeless, it is known as Hotel 22. SFO (an end-of the line station for BART, which shuts down for maintenance in the middle of the night) has a policy that when the last BART train of the day arrives, security people screen every person on the train, and if you don’t have an airline ticket, you are escorted out the door, and given a bus token to leave the airport.

  9. Martin

    One area not mentioned is crime. BART in SF does have its share of cell phone theft, etc, but most of the theft comes from people who jump the gates.

    BART isn’t cheapest, but risk/reward ratio might increase criminal behavior.

    • threestationsquare

      I don’t think the $5.90 fare to ride around all day is likely to deter many thieves (it’s, what, one cell phone a month?) or even homeless passengers (it’s still far cheaper than rent). Fare enforcement is not actually a substitute for law enforcement, and certainly not a substitute for homeless services, shelters, and housing.

      • Martin

        Your statement contradicts the observation by BART that most petty crime on trains is from fare evaders.

  10. Jim Shilliday

    There’s a decades-long experiment in free transit happening in Pennsylvania; I’m surprised no one has mentioned it. Everyone over 65 rides free on SEPTA. Free rides were limited to buses and trolleys until very recently; train rides cost 85 cents. Now that card-swipe fare collection has been extended to the rail system, those rides are free as well. The subsidy was originally a political maneuver to obtain enough votes to get a state lottery through the legislature in the early 1970’s. Using some of the lottery proceeds to benefit senior citizens overcame resistance to state-supported gambling. The plan is silly (I’m speaking as a beneficiary) — if you’re going to subsidize transit, start with those who can least afford it and who need it to commute to work. But it would be interesting to know how it affects ridership.

  11. df1982

    There might be a scenario where free fares could be feasible for a large(ish) city. I’m thinking of a city that is wealthy, has a low (or zero) rate of population growth and already has superb transit infrastructure, such that there is little call for major investments in new lines. Is there anywhere like this? Vienna? Zurich? Cities in Japan?

    More broadly, what you don’t take into account with your argument is that if fares are eliminated, then the population as a whole has more disposable income, which means that they would collectively be in a position to pay a higher tax rate to make up the shortfall. The change would just mean going from pay-per-use to pay-per-income, which is a more socially just method of covering the costs of providing transit, and marginally cheaper overall given the cut in the expense of fare provision and monitoring. If there are added costs due to a rise in ridership, this is actually a good thing, as it means people are getting more use out of the system than they otherwise would (and hence not driving).

    You could argue that wealthier citizens lumped with higher taxes would just leave for a lower-tax jurisdiction, but that’s rat-race economics (and rarely applies in practice: higher local taxes don’t seem to be affecting the desirability of New York City among the wealthy, for instance).

    The cost of providing new infrastructure is a different type of cost: it’s an investment in the future rather than a decision as to how ongoing expenses should be shouldered (fares, taxes or a mixture of the two), and so should really be considered separately.

    I’m not necessarily advocating this for anywhere in the near term (there are plenty of issues that need fixing before eliminating fares can be thought about), just outlining the general principle.

    • Alon Levy

      Tokyo has severely overcrowded trains and needs more lines, even without population growth. Osaka and Nagoya have extensive crowding as well. Zurich and Vienna are building new rapid transit lines. The Ruhr is depopulating and slowly cutting rail service, often in really silly ways, but that means that the infusion of cash that would have been involved in free transit had better been spent on running higher-frequency trains.

      • df1982

        There could feasibly come a time when, if it ceases to have population growth, a city can reach saturation point with transport infrastructure though, right? For instance if Paris intra muros were cut off from the rest of the Île-de-France, there would be little need for it to build new metro lines, as pretty much everywhere is already well-covered. Perhaps places like Vienna and Zurich can get there in the near- to mid-term future. And given the long-term population prognostications for Japan, overcrowded lines may soon be much less of a problem than it is now. At that point free fares can start being thought about.

        • Eric

          Tokyo’s population is still growing though – people are migrating from rural areas.

          Even if Tokyo’s population were slowly dropping like Japan’s overall population, the travel demand is still vastly higher than the capacity and will be for many decades, so construction is still justified.

          I think there are a few places where transit is saturated – mostly smaller cities in northern or central Europe. For example, M3 in Copenhagen seems totally superfluous. But just from the crowding level of Tokyo transit it’s clear that it’s not saturated.

    • Ian

      That just says that you need it to be civilian ticket inspectors, which is the right way to do it anyways

  12. michael

    I would love to get rid of fare-on-board. My county – Milwaukee – is given very limited transit funding options from the state of Wisconsin. Our transit agency has a budget of about $140M of which $30M is from fares.

    One lever that we are given is a vehicle registration surcharge, which is currently $25 & provides about $15M in local support to the transit operating budget. I would support ratcheting that fee up to $75, with the caveat that an annual adult transit pass would be included with each registration fee. Then, any remaining regular users would be able to buy a $75/annual pass a la carte.

    Any day or weekly users would need to buy the passes on the app or at the grocery store as is the current process. There would be no one way fares.

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