The Four Quadrants of Cities for Transit Revival

Cities that wish to improve their public transportation access and usage are in a bind. Unless they’re already very transit-oriented, they have not only an entrenched economic elite that drives (for example, small business owners almost universally drive), but also have a physical layout that isn’t easy to retrofit even if there is political consensus for modal shift. Thus, to shift travel away from cars, new interventions are needed. Here, there is a distinction between old and new cities. Old cities usually have cores that can be made transit-oriented relatively easily; new cities have demand for new growth, which can be channeled into transit-oriented development. Thus, usually, in both kinds of cities, a considerably degree of modal shift is in fact possible.

However, it’s perhaps best to treat the features of old and new cities separately. The features of old cities that make transit revival possible, that is the presence of a historic core, and those of new cities, that is demand for future growth, are not in perfect negative correlation. In fact, I’m not sure they consistently have negative correlation at all. So this is really a two-by-two diagram, producing four quadrants of potential transit cities.

Old cities

The history of public transportation is one of decline in the second half of the 20th century in places that were already rich then; newly-industrialized countries often have different histories. The upshot is that an old auto-oriented place must have been a sizable city before the decline of mass transit, giving it a large core to work from. This core is typically fairly walkable and dense, so transit revival would start from there.

The most successful examples I know of involve the restoration of historic railroads as modern regional lines. Germany is full of small towns that have done so; Hans-Joachim Zierke has some examples of low-cost restoration of regional lines. Overall, Germany writ large must be viewed as such an example: while German economic growth is healthy, population growth is anemic, and the gradual increase in the modal split for public transportation here must be viewed as more intensive reuse of a historic national rail network, anchored by tens of small city cores.

At the level of a metropolitan area, the best candidates for such a revival are similarly old places; in North America, the best I can think of for this are Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago. Americans don’t perceive any of the three as especially auto-oriented, but their modal splits are comparable to those of small French cities. But in a way, they show one way forward. If there’s a walkable, transit-oriented core, then it may be attractive for people to live near city center; in those three cities it’s also possible to live farther away and commute by subway, but in smaller ones (say, smaller New England cities), the subway is not available but conversely it’s usually affordable to live within walking distance of the historic city center. This creates a New Left-flavored transit revival in that it begins with the dense city center as a locus of consumption, and only then, as a critical mass of people lives there, as a place that it’s worth building new urban rail to.

New cities

Usually, if a city has a lot of recent growth from the era in which it has become taken for granted that mobility is by car, then it should have demand for further growth in the future. This demand can be planned around growth zones with a combination of higher residential density and higher job density near rail corridors. The best time to do transit-oriented development is before auto-oriented development patterns even set in.

There are multiple North American examples of how this works. The best is Vancouver, a metropolitan area that has gone from 560,000 people in the 1951 census to 2.6 million in the 2021 census. Ordinarily, one should expect such a region to be entirely auto-oriented, as most American cities with almost entirely postwar growth are; but in 2016, the last census before corona, it had a 20% work trip modal split, and that was before the Evergreen extension opened.

Vancouver has achieved this by using its strong demand for growth to build a high-rise city center, with office towers in the very center and residential ones ringing it, as well as high-density residential neighborhoods next to the Expo Line stations. The biggest suburbs of Vancouver have followed the same plan: Burnaby built an entirely new city center at Metrotown in conjunction with the Expo Line, and even more auto-oriented Surrey has built up Whalley, at the current outer terminal of the line, as one of its main city centers. Housing growth in the region is rapid; YIMBY advocacy calls for more, but the main focus isn’t on broad development (since this already happens) but on permitting more housing in recalcitrant rich areas, led by the West Side, which will soon have its Broadway extension of the Millennium Line.

Less certain but still interesting examples of the same principle are Calgary, Seattle, and Washington. Calgary, a low-density city, planned its growth around the C-Train, and built a high-rise city center, limiting job sprawl even as residential sprawl is extensive; Seattle and the Virginia-side suburbs of Washington have permitted extensive infill housing and this has helped their urban rail systems achieve high ridership by American standards, Seattle even overtaking Philadelphia’s modal split.

The four quadrants

The above contrast of old and new cities misses cities that have positive features of both – or neither. The cities with both positive features have the easiest time improving their public transportation systems, and many have never been truly auto-oriented, such as New York or Berlin, to the point that they’re not the best examples to use for how a more auto-oriented city can redevelop as a transit city.

In North America, the best example of both is San Francisco, which simultaneously is an old city with a high-density core and a place with immense demand for growth fueled by the tech industry. The third-generation tech firms – those founded from the mid-2000s onward (Facebook is in a way the last second-generation firm, which generation began with Apple and Microsoft) – have generally headquartered in the city and not in Silicon Valley. Twitter, Uber, Lyft, Airbnb, Dropbox, and Slack are all in the city, and the traditional central business district has expanded to South of Market to accommodate. This is really a combination of the consumption-oriented old-city model, as growing numbers of employees of older second-generation firms chose to live in the city and reverse-commute to Silicon Valley, and the growth-oriented new-city model. Not for nothing, the narrower metropolitan statistical area of San Francisco (without Silicon Valley) reached a modal split of 17% just before corona, the second highest in the United States, with healthy projections for growth.

But then there is the other quadrant, comprising cities that have neither the positive features of old cities nor those of new cities. To be in this quadrant, a city must not be so old as to have a large historic core or an extensive legacy rail network that can be revived, but also be too poor and stagnant to generate new growth demand. Such a city therefore must have grown in a fairly narrow period of time in the early- to mid-20th century. The best example I can think of is Detroit. The consumption-centric model of old city growth can work even there, but it can’t scale well, since there’s not enough of a core compared with the current extent of the population to build out of.

78 comments

  1. Lee Ratner

    In North America, the Old Cities could be what I call the Pre-Car Car Cities. That is cities who were big enough before cars came along but tore up their transit for a good chunk of the mid to late 20th century. Oakland, Berkeley, St. Louis, Minneapolis, and Cincinnati are good examples. St. Louis and Cincinnati even planed to build subways during the early 20th century but did not. Yes, I’m aware that Oakland and Berkeley have BART and St. Louis and Minneapolis have built light rail systems. The car still dominates for transportation.

    • Tony

      Cincinnati has had its share of transit misses over the years, from the subway that was used as a bomb shelter and a water line, to the underutilized riverside transit center, the failure to pass major moves, and a one way figure 8 streetcar line

      • Lee Ratner

        Even if they built the subway, Cincinnati was probably going to suffer mid-century decline like other Rust Belt cities as the Sun Belt exploded. Seeing what a hollowing out city would do with a developed transit system would be interesting but not pretty.

  2. The Frequency Guy 🚰 (@LowHeadways)

    Interested in how you might categorize LA – there are some pre-car walkable cores (downtown, Santa Monica, etc.) while the rest is definitely along car-centric lines. Is the problem one of building sufficient additional transit that can be densified next to? Or is it unfixable?

    • Paul

      LA is a mixed bag. There are many dense, walkable neighborhoods that can support transit, and some very congested corridors where transit could easily be competitive with driving (e.g. Sepulveda Pass). But the SoCal region is so huge that it’s hard to effectively serve with transit. Trips from one low-density area to another low-density area 20 miles away would likely require 2-3 transfers if the coverage exists at all, and that’s never going to be competitive with driving. So I think the transit mode share could definitely go up with some good investments, but there’s probably an upper bound unless the land use changes dramatically.

      • Lee Ratner

        How much of LA’s transit woes are because of it’s polycentric nature rather than its sprawl. LA County and Orange County are pretty dense but they don’t have one center and that makes transit hard.

        • John D.

          If the base levels of density are there, polycentricity has more bearing on the structure of transit systems than their fundamental existence. Some of the most successful transit cities in the world are polycentric to a fair extent, including Tokyo and Seoul.

          Rather, Alon’s November 2018 analysis of Los Angeles highlights the distance between pockets of density – in other words, sprawl – as a key source of transit woes:

          “With no coherent structure, Los Angeles is stuck. Its dense areas are too far away from one another and from job centers to be a plausible urban zone where driving is not necessary for a respectable middle-class lifestyle.” – https://pedestrianobservations.com/2018/11/11/meme-weeding-los-angeles-density/

          • Eric2

            “Distance between pockets of density” is polycentrism, not sprawl. Sprawl is when you don’t have density at all.

          • John D.

            From the linked article: “A polycentric city needs to have multiple actual centers. Does Los Angeles have such centers? Not really.” Which leads into the discussion I cited earlier, of the relatively high-density areas that Los Angeles does have being too spatially dispersed and disconnected in a sea of comparatively low density – sprawl.

          • Eric2

            That’s what I said, LA has no areas dense enough to be called a “center”.

          • John D.

            Yet your initial comment spoke of “[LA’s] polycentric nature”. A polycentric city, by definition, has multiple identifiable centers.

            The absence of any clear centre rules out polycentrism, and if anything, is more often associated with sprawl.

          • バニートルーパー (@archie4oz)

            What’s the requirement to be dense enough to be a center?

            For me DTLA is fine, as is Westwood, and maybe Hollywood. Downtown Long Beach and Ktown would a slightly lower tier. A third tier would be Burbank, Glendale, Pasadena, and Santa Monica.

            Tier 1 is quite human-scale walkable, you can live just fine without a car, has a lot of transit access. Westwood is a bit weird though because it doesn’t have rail access (yet), but it’s a major bus nexus.

            Tier 2 is fine. Similar to 1, just a smaller core (LBC) or more spread out (Ktown), but still has rail access, commercial core is walkable, and you can get around without a car most of the time.

            Tier 3 still has busy commercial cores you can walk around, but you really wouldn’t want to (a bicycle would be preferable) and you’re more apt to need a bus or call an Uber, to do the most basic things within the neighborhood.

            NOTE: I’m ignoring Beverly Hills at the moment because even though they’re a perfect tier 1 because they hate transit and fight it tooth and nail, also not paying attention to OC as well.

          • John D.

            Alon’s argument is based on job density (link with elaboration and statistics above). Downtown LA significantly trails other major US city centres in both jobs per square kilometre and share of metropolitan area employment; the same goes for LA’s other candidate ‘centres’ in comparison to other cities’ secondary districts.

  3. Henry

    Two other things also help in Seattle:

    1. Concentration of job density. Most of the job growth in recent decades, particularly tech, has also been funneled into extremely dense neighborhoods; Microsoft has a large mid-rise campus in the suburb of Redmond, Amazon started building 40+ story towers in a previously low-rise district just north of downtown, etc. The regional buses that connect these centers with express service are already very busy, and (now in 2025) Redmond will be the last stop anchoring the new East Link light rail extension.

    2. Under WA law employers with over 100+ full time employees are required to commit to reducing driving alone to work. There’s no strict guidance on how to do this, but in practice a lot of employers either partially or totally pay for the cost of transit passes.

    Of course, both of these would be disrupted by the post-pandemic embrace of WFH, particularly in tech. But it seems like Seattle is at least doing better in its Downtown than SF.

    • Jj

      Retaining downtown job share has been important for transit ridership most certainly. Connections to places like Microsoft HQ which in itself is urbanizing quite quickly will hopefully make transit more useful for the same reason

      From what I understand it isn’t uncommon for larger factories in Germany to be connected by some sort of rail service for workers coming from the city center.

      I do wonder how successfully this can be adapted in the US however when factories are often quite car oriented. The example I’m thinking of is the Everett extension that aims to put a station next to the Boeing Everett plant. Whatever the merits of the Everett extension in and of itself the Paine field connection while aiming to connect to the states largest factory and counties largest employer does still find itself in a very spread out environment with incredibly large aerospace manufacture buildings that take a long time to walk around. This area also unfortunately does not benefit from a surrounding greenfield environment that could be leveraged for low land acquisition ROW. For this reason I am hesitant about the potential success of this juxtaposed to the Microsoft HQ rail connection

  4. adirondacker12800

    small business owners almost universally drive
    They work long weird hours. And six or seven days a week.

    • Will Fedder

      It depends on the business, but the long weird hours also mean you get the convenience of being able to get a convenient street parking spot in the morning, so even if transit service were better off peak.

      But even on peak, having a vehicle with a trunk so you can leave on a dime if you need something from another store that isn’t close by. Even more so if you have multiple store locations.

      In that light, It’s interesting that cities don’t seem to treat this category of parking demand any differently than customer or employee parking.

      t’s no small factor in land use and transportation. Small businesses are a potent and popular political force at the hyperlocal level.

    • Alon Levy

      But they always have time to go to a 3 pm community meeting to object to anything that would ruin the bucolic character of their Brooklyn neighborhood.

      • Henry Miller

        There are a lot of small business owners. Most do not have that time, but it only takes a few to make it appear like they all have that kind of time. Most don’t really care about such things even if they do have time, but those who do care will show up. That is the problem with community meetings: they have no way to get a representative sample.

  5. Reedman Bassoon

    Old transit works well, but with some ‘baggage’.

    Any comments about all the transit strikes in London?
    In order to get a “no-strike clause” in the labor contract,
    SF MUNI had to guarantee wages that were always
    within the top-three in the USA

    • Alon Levy

      Workers go on strike and that’s okay. We have strikes in Germany. We had strikes in Sweden when I lived there. The American obsession with labor peace over productivity has been a disaster for all involved – evidently, Muni’s entry-level salaries for bus drivers, around $54,000 a year in the late 2010s, were so low they couldn’t even find workers, leading to dropped shifts.

      • Borners

        1. UK government was trying to cut wages and found its not 1983 anymore. Cutting wages to the extent they are trying leads to strikes or worker exit from the industry. Especially when their hope the railways would re-enter genteel decline turned out not to be true despite their best efforts.
        2. UK non-TFL rail unions are committed to maintaining very expensive operational labour intensive systems. None of the English operators except Northern should receiving operation subsidies. There is no universe where Thameslink should be getting any subsidies for operations.
        3. The interaction between a Civil Service that doesn’t understand anything, an elected-to-misgovern-ruling-party and the crappy Anglo-saxon Craft-union structure is going to be always. TFL is the exception because the Tube inherited a pay-for-operations culture from its foundation and institutional heft plus expertise.

        Put crudely everybody is rubbish and they should all be fired for gross incompetence.

  6. SB

    How does this apply in developing and middle income countries with are going through rapid urbanization?

    • Luke

      Minimize the amount of money that goes to auto-oriented infrastructure, as it’s far and away the most expensive per trip to provide travel by car, and ensure that extensive and efficient ped/cycling/rail infrastructure is build. The alternative is gridlock like you see in places like Jakarta and Manila, and economic diffusion like you see in places like LA, Atlanta, and the big Texan cities.

      • adirondacker12800

        The Houstonians will use the Katy Freeway to go to the protest meeting about HSR to screech about how the wires over it will be ugly.

        • Luke

          Well, at whatever point in time in the future the world stops using petroleum and natural gas (almost certainly not in the lifetime of anyone currently alive, I admit), they’ll have to hope that the freeway doesn’t collapse under them because the state can’t afford to build and maintain hilariously inefficient infrastructure.

          • adirondacker12800

            Sooner than you think. The price of renewables and batteries to store the electricity keeps dropping. Once it’s cheaper to use renewable electricity, no one will want to burn things. It’s why automobile makers are building battery plants as fast as they can.

          • Tony

            A lot of the new expressway construction in Texas has been toll toads. In theory, the revenue should come from tolls. Though any attempt to increase tolls or the costs of driving are invariably seen as social engineering schemes to “force people on trains and buses” and gas prices are a big election issue

    • Alon Levy

      In developing countries, it’s important to establish top-down coordination to ensure the state can clear space for mass transit and break local elites who universally drive or are driven. Southeast Asia (except Singapore) has been bad at that, leading to gridlock in megacities like Jakarta and Manila, while similar-size Seoul and Tokyo have majorities of mass transit commuters. In South Korea, the suppression of consumption in order to ensure enough domestic capital for investment was a big boon, since cars are consumer products.

      • Borners

        Inherting the best zoning culture in the world from their ex-Imperial masters helped.

        Unlike all the British colonies who inherited “planning” as designed by British socialists, who hated cities and economic change.

          • Borners

            Its more they are willing to let you suffer “Capitalist oppression” if that’s the price that has to be paid to they can keep their legacy dream of having a unitary British nation state with the Victorian economy and the right people always in charge (this is often called nationalisation). They cannot accept being a mere English big tent centre left party governing a service oriented economy whose dominant social group is a large ethnically diverse formally educated professional class.

            Labour believes in equality for everyone except those who live in English big cities. Which is quite silly given that’s their main support base. Celts and people living in decrepit industrial towns are morally superior beings who deserve superior political and economic rights.

            And yes I am resentful of having to chose between two political parties who think I am an inferior existence who exists only to serve dreams of the dead and dying.

          • Borners

            Equality and Equity are inconvenient and difficult, not just for the people at the top. The British Labour party like much of the Global left discovered the future wasn’t everybody becoming a unionised industrial worker working under a purified socialist super government. It hasn’t forgiven the universe for that. That’s why they had to invent an ideology called “Neoliberalism” and pretend conservatism isn’t a central phenomenon of human society.

          • Matthew Hutton

            Labour has to focus on the marginal seats. And the towns and outer suburbs are the marginal seats.

          • Borners

            If Labour cared about those as much its self-image and mythos they would dismantle the West Lothian constitutional settlement, the electoral system and the Barnett formula so England is no longer Scotland’s colony. Instead they put the Scot who created this system in charge of bisecting England into “regions”*.They have continually lost elections since the 1970’s by refusing to treat the English as human beings deserving equality and recognition. (Yes I am aware of the irony). Because it was inconvenient for Labour’s self-image. This is why the Tories get away with misgovernment so much.

            *Simple test that I’m right, imagine how Scotland would react to being treated like England and carved up into Highland and Lowland.

          • Matthew Hutton

            I’m pretty sure the north-south (or the everywhere-south east) divide comes up a lot more on the doorstep than Scotland does to be fair. Difficult to know as I live in the wrong region for that to come up, but still.

            And the elections in the 1980s and 2017/19 were lost because Labour was too left wing for the electorate. So there’s not many beyond that that Labour probably should have won.

          • Matthew Hutton

            2015 was probably won by Cameron because he kept the cuts targeted away from swing voters, kept mortgage rates low and given middle income voters a big tax cut by significantly raising the personal allowance by £4k.

      • Frederick

        @Alon

        At least in the olden days, Japan and South Korea would build expressways over canals and creeks, reserving the major thoroughfares for subway development. For example, the Osaka loop route was built over the Higashi Yokobori canal and the filled Nishi Yokobori canal.

        • Sassy

          In Japan, afaik, that was a result of being unable to acquire land, because eminent domain didn’t exist, and the government wasn’t able to convince enough land owners to participate in land readjustment. Not just expressways either, but even transit projects like Tokyo Monorail were sometimes built over water.

          Considering South Korea inherited a lot of institutions from Japan, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s the same over there.

          • バニートルーパー (@archie4oz)

            Eminent domain is still pretty weak in Japan, and the brouhaha over the construction Narita Airport has pretty much left a permanent bad taste in everybody’s mouth. Also see Shizuoka prefecture stalling out the Chuo Shinkansen.

      • Lee Ratner

        Many developing countries seem attracted to car oriented transportation as a sign of wealth and the fact that it was cheaper.

        • Luke

          Yes, this retrograde line of thought still seems pretty apparent in most of South Korea’s conservatives and roadway construction habits. Witness the various generations of New Town developments that feature a number of 6-lane roads, and the idiotic Inno Cities project from the Lee Myung Bak era that are nowhere near newly built railway stations

        • Henry

          Cars are a way to bootstrap local industrialization, because

          * the potential consumer market of cars in a developing country’s middle class is very large
          * cars are complicated and have lots of subcontractors and suppliers, so they employ a lot of people

          And so in that sense, governments often incentivize them, as a source of manufacturing jobs.

          • Luke

            Sure, but I don’t think that applies to South Korea post-industrialization. If it’s intended as essentially a make-work style of development, it seems like it’s not serving its purpose well once the major days of economic growth and catch-up are behind you. That’s kind of my ultimate objection to car-oriented infrastructure. I’m not a degrowther by any means, but it’s such an incredibly resource-intensive way of developing that even in periods of high growth and catch-up, it’s a poor use of industrialization and development capital, never mind if you’re starting to decline demographically. There’s also the fact that EVs promise to generate far fewer jobs at every point in a car’s lifecycle than ICE cars, save perhaps roadway maintenance.

          • Alon Levy

            Yeah, this. South Korea (and Japan before it) practiced a policy of suppression of consumer demand; the heavy industry was geared for export. The countries that tried to import-substitute their way into having an auto industry, like Malaysia, became big consumers of cars but not producers, because the quality sucked and the vendors were shielded from competition by better foreign versions until it was too late.

  7. David S.

    > Hans-Joachim Zierke has some examples of low-cost restoration of regional lines

    FYI: Both the Ammertalbahn (since a few weeks ago) and the Schönbuchbahn have been electrified now.

    The Schönbuchbahn now also features 4tph most of the day to Holzgerlingen and the Ammertalbahn should soon feature 4tph at peak ’till Entringen in the peak, both with some further infrastructure upgrades. Unfortunately there is no freight service anymore on the Schönbuchbahn.

    Both have surpassed ridership expectations by far and are great examples to show how formerly decrepit lines can be revived.

      • David S.

        The Ammertalbahn had around 8600 passengers per day in 2019 (https://www.ammertalbahn.de/sk_dok/3_Nachfrageentwicklung.pdf), but I *think* they had some construction that year. After that we had Covid and it was closed for long periods the last two years due to the electrification and support for partial 4tph.

        The Schönbuchbahn got 4tph and the full electrification only in Dezember 2019, so there aren’t “real” numbers available yet. According to their website (https://www.schoenbuchbahn.de/start/schoenbuchbahn+im+ueberblick/Zahlen_+Fakten.html) they had 8,200 passengers per weekday in 2015 and they expect 14,000 passengers in 2025 (which I think is realistic due to the improvements).

        The few times I used the Schönbuchbahn in the last year it was pretty full, even with 4 tph.

      • Mark N.

        To expand upon the remarks of David S., the Ammertalbahn only just reopened in December as an electrified line after several long periods of construction over the past couple of years. It, in addition to the line from Tübingen to Bad Urach in the other direction, forms a part of the first phase in the development of a regional Tram-Train system on the Karlsruhe model (called the Regional-Stadtbahn Neckar-Alb), which required electrification and expansion of double tracks for both the Ammertalbahn and the Ermstalbahn on the other end. Until more of the phases have been completed (for which new Stadler Tram-Trains have been ordered), second-hand EMUs borrowed from other systems are currently being used.

        Plagued for many years by frequent technical problems and insufficient capacity, which often made the timely transfer to the popular S1 in Herrenberg unreliable, the hope was that the electrification and improvements to capacity would bring riders back in larger numbers than before COVID, but that’s still to be seen. The bugs in the new signaling system and illness of personnel since the restart haven’t helped, but if trust can be regained by truly achieving the promised reliability, the ridership levels are sure to go up a lot since the 8000+ ridership levels from before COVID were consistently achieved despite all the problems the line had back then.

    • Richard Mlynarik

      Perhaps more impressive and a somewhat more recent rural examples are the ongoing revivial of rail service in the Alto Adige.
      Your search terms include “Südtiroler Autobus Dienst” (SAD), “Vinschgaubahn” and “Pustertal”.
      (Or maybe just ask super-knowledgeable Marco Chitti.)

      Watching the Vinschgaubahn go from abandoned rusted track to Stadler GTWs in Taktverkehr and with Stadler FLIRTs coming soon with 25kv electrification (because, let’s face it, most good things inevitably involve FLIRTs) was really gratifying to witness over years of occasional visits. (The contrast with my local rail operator, Caltrain, which has accomplished less than nothing in the last 20 years, couldn’t be more depressing.)

  8. Onux

    Is Calgary a city where “sprawl is extensive”? One thing that always struck me looking at a map of Calgary is how the entire urban area is basically confined within the city, with a sharp urban divide right a city limits. Look for example at how subdivisions come right up to Hwy 201 but do not go east of it (city limits are 500m east of the freeway) or at where subdivisions stop in the Oakridge neighborhood near Glenmore Reservoir in the south west.

    Virtually all of Calgary’s metro population is inside of city limits and inside the associated urban area (Edmonton and Winnipeg share this feature more or less, which is almost unheard of in the US, even in NYC less than half the metro or urban population is in the 5 boroughs, let alone the 70-80% of the Canadian prairie cities). I’m not sure the reason for this (urban growth boundary like Portland, strong history of annexation backed by provincial law, there is just nothing else out there so everything collects at the city proper?) but the effect is striking compared to the US.

    Calgary’s metro population density (753/sqmi) would rank 18th in the US, just behind Hartford, and it’s urban pop density (5,439/sqmi) would be 9th in the US And 12th in Canada. According to one website, Edmonton, Calgary and Toronto are the only urban areas in Canada where population density went up from 2001 to 2021. Calgary’s density isn’t huge, it may be low-density as Alon notes even if it isn’t sprawl, but it isn’t super low like Atlanta or Raleigh.

    The two general points I make may not be connected – you could arbitrarily put all of metro Atlanta inside the city limits but that wouldn’t change the urban geography. This, of course, all of this raises the question of what is sprawl. Is it metro density, urban density, the ratio between them, something else? I note that the density of metro Calgary while right behind that of Hartford (not considered sprawl) is also right in front of Dallas (for some the epitome of sprawl). Is Copenhagen’s finger plan high sprawl because it encourages development in Stenlose dozens of km from Copenhagen (instead of building out the forest north of Klampenborg less than 10)? Or is it low sprawl because development is confined to continuous corridors with reasonable spot density? Does any of this relate to density (if you drew a circle that included Kastrup, Koge and Hillerod I’m guessing Copenhagen’s density wouldn’t be great)?

    • Mark

      1: Yes, Calgary & Edmonton have grown their borders through constant annexation. This is a function of Canadian provinces being much stronger than American states, and having no interest in dealing with a bunch of different municipalities scrapping it out all the time (British Columbia being the exception that proves the rule).
      2: If you moved all of Atlanta into the city limits, it would cease to be sprawly, I’d say. It would still be poorly laid-out, but the problem would no longer be the sprawl.
      3: Hartford is pretty sprawly.
      4: There’s an objective measure of this: population-weighted density, which finds the density at which the mean (or median – both work) resident of an area lives. This has been been presented nicely by Mountain Math – the guy who also made the incredibly valuable Census Mapper. Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver are a definite cut above all the rest; Calgary is still on par with the densest non-New York American cities, but is not really dense by any other standard.

      • R. W. Rynerson

        From a practical, day to day factor, the greenbelt around Edmonton avoided some of the issues that come up in bus routing for places where municipal boundaries zig-zag. I assumed that Calgary had a similar blessing.

    • Alon Levy

      Share of housing units by type:

      Metro Vancouver:
      Single-family detached: 28%
      Other single-family: 12%
      Apartment: 59%

      Calgary:
      Single-family detached: 55%
      Other single-family: 16%
      Apartment: 29%

      (Source for Canadian data)

      Chicago MSA (Cook County, Illinois):
      Single-family detached: 52% (40%)
      Mobile home: 1% (0%)
      Other single-family: 7.5% (5.5%)
      Apartment: 39% (54%)

      Atlanta MSA:
      Single-family detached: 68%
      Mobile home: 3%
      Other single-family: 5.5%
      Apartment: 24%

      Dallas MSA:
      Single-family detached: 63%
      Mobile home: 3%
      Other single-family: 4%
      Apartment: 30%

      Houston MSA:
      Single-family detached: 63%
      Mobile home: 4.5%
      Other single-family: 3%
      Apartment: 29%

      (Source for US data: census factfinder, table CP04: comparative housing statistics)

      So, Calgary has a lot of single-family sprawl, a lot more than Chicago, a metro area that in 2016 it comfortably beat on transit modal split, 15.6% vs. around 12%. It has a comparable single-family share to Dallas and Houston, and almost as high a share of detached single-family.

      Copenhagen is a good example of structure of density: the actual population density isn’t high, but it’s higher near the train station and this leads to better train use than you’d expect. Stockholm does this even better, and has a modal split in the 40s thanks to the rail orientation of the county’s Million Program housing (unlike rest-of-Sweden Million Program housing, which is auto-oriented).

    • CJ

      Edmonton and Calgary have a fascinating development history: they essentially grew out of nowhere in the late 1880s, had a land boom between 1895 and 1915 with streetcar suburbs and annexing neighbouring towns (e.g. Edmonton amalgamating with its cross-river rival Strathcona in 1912) and swaths of farmland anticipating expansion … and then the bubble popped. Both cities shrank significantly (e.g. Edmonton from 72,000 in 1914 to 54,00 in 1916) due to the war and people returning to the farms. Urban development more or less froze in place for 30 years until oil was discovered in 1947. Calgary’s got a map showing the history of its annexations (https://www.calgary.ca/planning/annexation.html): there’s a 40 year period between 1911 and 1951 where they didn’t annex anything, and in fact de-annexed land.

      As a result, neither really developed an inner ring of large suburbs, though there were small villages and towns like Beverly, Bowness, and Jasper Place; they got swallowed up in the 1950s and 1960s as both cities resumed annexations as the population grew, forming the middle ring of suburbs. But beyond them, there was a lot of empty space to the next-closest sizeable neighbours (e.g. Airdrie, St. Albert, and Sherwood Park) well into the 1980s. There were significant efforts by the provincial government to rationalize and streamline local governance in the 1950s and early 1960s by encouraging annexation, making boundaries for various agencies coterminous, etc. In Winnipeg’s case, the provincial government mandated amalgamation of what had been 12 different municipalities plus a regional government into one city, in 1972; Alberta’s didn’t go quite so far, but went further than most American states did.

      Since then, the pace of annexation in Edmonton and Calgary slowed drastically as adjacent municipalities started resisting it (in some cases, to retain industrial taxbases for themselves; in others, to prevent development) and more recently, the city governments realized that urban sprawl is extremely costly due to building roads, sewers, etc — as well as having to place recreation facilities at the edge of the city (this is a live topic in Edmonton right now).

      Calgary’s subdivisions largely end at Hwy 201 because it’s part of a provincially-reserved ring road & utility corridor (https://www.alberta.ca/calgary-ring-road-overview.aspx) and Rocky View County’s got a population that’s invested in keeping the county rural; the province also denied the county’s application to change from a rural municipality to a specialized municipality (like Strathcona County, next to Edmonton, did because of Sherwood Park), which has funding consequences that make development less attractive than if it had been approved. On the west, the Tsuu T’ina Nation’s reserve stops Calgary from growing in that direction.

      • R. W. Rynerson

        Relative to topics of interest in this blog, the annexation by Edmonton of the suburbs of Jasper Place and Beverly is what led to the transit system’s interest in timed transfer focal point networks. The city leadership promised the new communities that they would get the same level of service as the rest of Edmonton. They were served by the typical haywire suburban bus companies of that era, using second-hand equipment.

        The problems facing D. L. MacDonald, the superintendent of Edmonton’s transit system, were that these areas were a long run to the city centre and that the negotiators had required that Edmonton take in the junk fleets. I was told that in the case of Jasper Place, there were buses that the Edmonton system had sold for scrap and were thus forced to take back. So the commitment had been made without consulting the transit system, which was a city-owned utility.

        A Dutch immigrant, John (Jaap) Bakker, who was a professor in the U of A engineering department convinced the desperate superintendent that instead of serving these areas with infrequent radial lines to the city centre, they could be given more frequent service with fewer buses by feeding existing trolley coach lines at a focal point, which would also meet to expedite non-CBD trips. Although there was a howl from those who wanted frequent service AND a one-seat ride, the numbers showed that the concept was a success and it was adopted over the entire system in a gradual process completed in September 1976. I started as a service planner for Edmonton in December of that year, and my first assignment was to review and update the Jasper Place service plan.

        Originally, this was done by the transit system, with a lot of skepticism from other city departments. There were top level people who didn’t believe that we could get the ridership that developed. By the 1980’s, however, transit centres were being included in plans for new districts. In 1978 the Beverly service was refocused to the new Coliseum LRT station.

  9. Diego

    I’m impressed by the quality of local transit in many relatively remote German regions. But there’s only so much they can do, realistically bus and train frequencies will max out at 2 per hour in a town of 20k or 40k people. Even with timed connections, this sucks for trips of ~20 min.

    Further reductions in auto mode share have to come from better cycling infrastructure (poor or non-existent in many places) and promotion of e-bikes (especially important in those narrow valley towns in NRW or BW with their steep hills).

    Land use is also important. Steer development close to the historical core or the main railway station, rather than near the bypass road. But this is I think the most politically difficult part, in a region with universal car ownership, everyone wants easy car access to the new stores and workplaces…

    • Alon Levy

      This is where city center and train station shopping malls are so valuable. But usually they’re not a great investment proposition in a genuinely declining place (Roger and Me is partly about the failure of such an attempt in Flint).

      • Diego

        But BW as a whole looks quite strong economically, even the relatively rural parts of it. When visiting, it didn’t give me at all the postindustrial decay vibes of Wallonia or Northern France. The downtowns are vibrant, but there’s a lot more going on in the nearby sprawl.

        • Alon Levy

          Yeah, Southern Germany specifically is strong, and evidently even Kaiserslautern has what looked to me four years ago like a thriving city center mall. But then there’s the disaster zone that’s East Germany outside East Berlin, Leipzig, and Dresden.

          • Nathanael

            Huh. I thought Mecklenburg was finally reviving on the basis of tourism (Rostock, Schwerin). It seems that the “investment in the city center” would be viable here in the way it wasn’t in Flint (which will probably never have a tourism industry).

  10. R. W. Rynerson

    Some notes about Edmonton and Calgary… (I worked for the City of Edmonton 1976-1985.)

    – in the 1960’s and 1970’s, Edmonton was the more progressive city on transport development. That included the obvious things and the less obvious change to development requirements to favor walk distance access to schools and transit. Calgary favored an extra fare express bus service for commuters and an infrequent grid system, remarkably similar to Denver at the time. That changed when Edmonton gained provincial support for the first LRT line. Politically, provincial funding has to be offered to both major cities. Calgary quickly caught up. During the energy crash in the mid-80’s, Calgary borrowed to keep construction going. Edmonton reverted to its pre-WWII budget philosophy (keep the money under the mattress) and suspended numerous projects. To avoid having to find engineers after the energy crash, the city staff was reorganized in several ways, putting engineers with no experience into operations, planning and marketing positions, for example. Edmonton fell behind. Some city staff left for other places, including Calgary.

    – Edmonton has more substantial suburbs than Calgary, with their own ideas and own bus systems. A large annexation was proposed by Edmonton in about 1982, very carefully planned and engineered. The provincial government adopted the least economic elements in order to protect the tax revenues of the County of Strathcona. They tossed in some areas that Edmonton had not included because engineering studies showed they would be costly to develop.

    – During the energy boom in Edmonton it became an article of faith in the business community that downtown was suffering due to a lack of parking. This eventually led to a large parking reservoir replacing the railyards. Later, the community college was moved there to help downtown, but it is surrounded by parking.

    • Borners

      How much of that was possible because the Progressive Conservative Party was a Big Tent Dynasty party which controlled the cities? (I would note the best urban development in postwar Canada in Vancouver skytrain-TOD system was done under the Social Credit party).

      • R. W. Rynerson

        The big change on the provincial level was in 1971 when Social Credit (right wing populist) was defeated by the Conservatives (right wing big tent). The provincial minister of commerce, Hugh Horner, supported urban rail transit. Paralleling Oregon Republicans in that era, the party leadership saw planning for urban growth as a way of conserving land and resources, protecting farm communities, and resisting sprawl expenses for roads, utilities, etc.

        I think that Calgary’s government was dominated by the Conservatives and business interests. Edmonton’s government in the 70’s and 80’s changed party labels multiple times but was characterized by stereotypical Scottish thrift and Central European peasant practicality.

        British Columbia Social Credit had a willingness to take on Big Projects, unlike Alberta’s tight-fisted SC. When W.A.C. (“”Wackie”) Bennett got control of BC Electric the big projects were hydroelectric. The Vancouver and Victoria transit systems and Pacific Stage Lines (regional coaches) were an unwelcome sideline that came with that. They went through a period of trying to unload the bus systems. For a period Vancouver had its own transit authority, which was going to build an LRT system. That was nixed by the provincial government, which mandated the UTDC automated system. The automated system was a Big Project and it had to work or else.

        What did continue through the craziness was the TOD planning. I don’t know much about that in BC, except to note that there was a lot of interchange of ideas throughout Cascadia. Scholars, planners, technicians attended joint conferences, made personal trips, etc. Oregon, Washington and British Columbia all face similar physical limitations.

        For American readers who may be bewildered by this, the main thing to remember is that the Canadian federal government was not involved in those decades. There was no 90-92% Interstate highway money. It also was more difficult in both provinces to form special taxing districts to create suburbs without municipal governments.

        • R. W. Rynerson

          Excuse me, I should have specified that the first paragraph about the SC party refers to Alberta, which that party ruled from 1935 to 1971. In keeping with their *image* of thriftiness, there is a provincial office building in Edmonton where they paid the contractor extra in order to use a cheaper looking cladding.

        • Borners

          Later era BC Social Credits and classic Alberta PCs were always more Bavarian than Texan in urban policy. It helps not having an “urban” underclass to punish too.

      • CJ

        > How much of that was possible because the Progressive Conservative Party was a Big Tent Dynasty party which controlled the cities?

        That’s a significant contributor; the PCs were very much a party of the emerging bloc of educated, younger urban / suburban voters (Lougheed was in his early 40s when he became premier), in contrast to the tired, older, and rural Socred base. At that point, though, they weren’t yet a dynasty — they’d only just taken office, never having held power before; the best comparison is maybe to the Notley’s NDP government.

        The Lougheed government was explicitly trying to embrace modernity and engage in province-building, catching up after what they perceived as decades of stagnation, which showed not only in their willingness to fund what was then cutting-edge transit, but also in environmental protection (to a point), industrial policy (even buying an airline and a port in the process), etc. Some of those initiatives worked out better than others, but the “Progressive” in the name was by no means merely there for decoration, unlike with later governments….

        • Borners

          The thing a I respect about Canadian Federalism is the distinct party systems of the provinces. It makes for more functional local politics than the UK or the US.

          The tumult with the Wildrose party and the Saskatchewan party destroying their respective PCs suggests it wasn’t decoration till the end. Heck Ford’s move to the political centre since 2019 shows the PC title still has some meaning even in Ontario.

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