Reading a bunch of people criticize green politics on the grounds that it imposes unreasonable reductions in living standards has clarified something for me. There’s extreme right criticism of Angela Merkel’s latest statement that climate protection is vital, accusing her of deindustrializing the country in the name of green-left ideology; from the left, Branko Milanovic, who has criticized the degrowth stream of environmentalism before, complained of people who “call for 50% reduction in income to combat climate change.” I think highly of Milanovic, both for his analysis of economic inequality and for his historical and social insights, but what he’s criticizing is actually a good example for why a high carbon tax does not actually mean a big reduction in income.
Take, as a starting point, the Stern Review‘s numbers. They were on the high side when the review was published in 2006, but a lot of the green consensus since then has converged toward them. As detailed on PDF-p. 20, the expected cost of unmitigated climate change is 20% of global GDP. The implication is that the optimal carbon tax today should be 20% of global GDP – we should be willing to reduce income by 20% now to avoid a permanent 20% reduction in income in the future. Global emissions intensity today is about PPP$2,400/t-CO2e ($127 trillion/53.5 billion t-CO2e), so the carbon tax should be $480/t, right?
But in reality, we should be willing to accept a much higher carbon tax. The reason is that the money raised by the carbon tax is not ejected into outer space. It circulates in the world economy. If a carbon tax is used to offset other taxes, or to pay for new government spending, then the same amount of money stimulates the economy. If it is used to reduce the deficit, then in the long run this stimulates some investment. The money is shifted rather than thrown away.
There is some cost to the carbon tax, but it is much lower than its face value. The cost is the economic loss from shifting consumption to carbon-free products, at the prices of a world in which greenhouse gases are not taxed at all. This is similar to the cost of a tax on cigarettes or alcohol or really any other product – the money is spent on less harmful activities.
The point is that the zero-carbon lifestyle that I advocate as the future is not one of penury. Evidently, so many people enjoy living in dense cities where cars are not necessary that those cities are very desirable. Cities like New York and London, which offer high-wage jobs and comfortable public transportation but aren’t building enough housing to accommodate the tens of millions of people who wish to take advantage of their opportunities, are very expensive to live in. The current zoning regimes in the US, and to some extent even in Europe, act as a negative carbon tax, making it harder to not emit greenhouse gases – this should be reversed, replaced with zoning liberalization and a positive carbon tax.
What’s more, the money saved by not having to drive goes to other forms of consumption. The proportion of income spent on transportation is lower in areas with good public transit than in ones without. Even taking subsidies into account, the operating and equipment costs of New York City Transit are about comparable to the depreciation cost of the cars that one would need to buy for New Yorkers to match the auto usage of the rest of the United States – and car purchases are just 40% of American auto spending, the rest going to fuel and spare parts. This saving is plugged into other kinds of local spending, such as going out to eat. In cities with more modern housing stock than New York this also includes better-accessorized housing. It may also include higher spending on consumer electronics.
What’s true is that not everyone wants to live that kind of future. Some people enjoy driving big cars and keeping the lights and temperature control in their large houses on even when they’re not at home. They will not be able to do so in any realistic green transition, and that’s a real cost. Some people even object to solar power and energy-efficient devices on culture war grounds, and they too will have to adapt to a culture they dislike, just as so many immigrants have. But the alternative lifestyle they will need to adapt to is one that so many comfortably middle-class people choose even at the current carbon cost of $0 that the imposition is not so onerous.
There are still remnants of people who define themselves by the environmental and health hazards of previous generations. Europeans and Japanese still smoke at pretty high rates, as do some subcultures in North America. We can expect that likewise, some people will keep driving at €2/liter fuel, at €3/liter, at €5/liter, and define themselves by not shifting to public transportation or even buying an electric car. But they will be marginal as the bulk of the population shifts to greener consumption, and if squeezing out the last remaining carbon emissions requires regulatory bans, not too many people will mind, just as people no longer mind restrictions on cigarette advertising.
So raise the fuel tax, early and often, and cut other taxes, and spend some of the difference on solar power and public transportation. And make it easy for people to move to big, dense cities by building more housing there. Maybe start worrying if the deadweight loss assuming there were no such thing as climate change grew beyond the cost of greenhouse gas emissions, but the carbon tax required to get there is such a large multiple of the cost of carbon emissions that by then the world would go zero-carbon. Do what you can to limit climate change to non-catastrophic levels, and keep raising carbon taxes and spending on alternatives to get there.
One faction of urbanists that I’ve sometimes found myself clashing with is people who assume that a greener, less auto-centric future will look something like the traditional small towns of the past. Strong Towns is the best example I know of of this tendency, arguing against high-rise urban redevelopment and in favor of urbanism that looks like pre-freeway Midwestern main streets. But this retro attitude to the future happens everywhere, and recently I’ve had to argue about this with the generally pro-modern Cap’n Transit and his take about the future of vacations. Even the push for light rail in a number of cities has connections with nostalgia for old streetcars, to the point that some American cities build mixed-traffic streetcars, such as Portland.
The future was not retro in the 1950s
The best analogy for a zero-emissions future is ironically what it seeks to undo: the history of suburbanization. In retrospect, we can view midcentury suburbanization as a physical expansion of built-up areas at lower density, at automobile scale. But at the time, it was not always viewed this way. Socially, the suburbs were supposed to be a return to rural virtues. The American patrician reformers who advocated for them consciously wanted to get rid of ethnic urban neighborhoods and their alien cultures. The German Christian democratic push for regional road and rail connections has the same social origin, just without the ethnic dimension – cities were dens of iniquity and sin.
At the same time, the suburbs, that future of the middle of the 20th century, were completely different from the mythologized 19th century past, before cities like New York and Berlin had grown so big. Most obviously, they were linked to urban jobs; the social forces that pushed for them were aware of that in real time, and sought transportation links precisely in order to permit access to urban jobs in what they hoped would be rural living.
But a number of other key differences are visible – for one, those suburbs were near the big cities of the early 20th century, and not in areas with demographic decline. In the United States, the Great Plains and Appalachia kept depopulating and the Deep South except Atlanta kept demographically stagnating. The growth in that era of interregional convergence happened in suburbs around New York, Chicago, and other big then-industrial cities, and in parts of what would soon be called the Sunbelt, namely Southern California, Texas, and Florida. In Germany, this history is more complicated, as the stagnating region that traditionalists had hoped to repopulate was Prussia and Posen, which were given to Poland at the end of the war and ethnically cleansed of their German populations. However, we can still see postwar shifts within West Germany toward suburbs of big cities like Munich and Frankfurt, while the Ruhr stagnated.
The future of transit-oriented development is not retro
People who dislike the auto-oriented form of cities can easily romanticize how cities looked before mass motorization. They’d have uniform missing middle built form in most of the US and UK, or uniform mid-rise in New York and Continental Europe. American YIMBYs in particular easily slip into romanticizing missing middle density and asking to replace single-family housing with duplexes and triplexes rather than with anything more substantial.
If you want to see what 21st-century TOD looks like, go to the richer parts of East Asia, especially Tokyo, which builds much more housing than Hong Kong and Singapore. The density in Tokyo is anything but uniform. There are clusters of high-rise buildings next to train stations, and lower density further away, even small single-family houses fronting narrow streets far enough from train stations that it’s not economical to redevelop them. It offends nostalgic Westerners; the future often does.
In the context of a growing city like New York or London, what this means is that the suburbs can expect to look spiky. There’s no point in turning, say, everything within two kilometers of Cockfosters (or the Little Neck LIRR station) into mid-rise apartments or even rowhouses. What’s the point? There’s a lot more demand 100 meters from the station than two kilometers away, enough that people pay the construction cost premium for the 20th floor 100 meters from the stations in preference to the third floor two kilometers away. The same is true for Paris – there’s no solution for its growth needs other than high-rises near RER stations and key Metro stations in the city as well as the suburbs, like the existing social housing complexes but with less space between buildings. It may offend people who associate high-rises with either the poor or recent high-skill immigrants, but again, the future often offends traditionalists.
The future of transportation is not retro
In countries that do not rigidly prevent urban housing growth the way the US does, the trend toward reurbanization is clear. Germany’s big cities are growing while everything else is shrinking save some suburbs in the richest regions, such as around Munich. Rural France keeps depopulating.
In this context, the modes of transportation of the future are rapid transit and high-speed rail. Rapid transit is preferable to buses and surface trains in most cities, because it serves spiky development better – the stations are spaced farther apart, which is fine because population density is not isotropic and neither is job density, and larger cities need the longer range that comes with the higher average speed of the subway or regional train over that of the tramway.
High-speed rail is likewise preferable to an everywhere-to-everywhere low-speed rail network like that of Switzerland. In a country with very large metro areas spaced 500 km or so apart, like the US, France, or Germany, connecting those growing city centers is of crucial importance, while nearby cities of 100,000 are of diminishing importance. Moreover, very big cities can be connected by trains so frequent that untimed transfers are viable. Already under the Deutschlandtakt plan, there will be 2.5 trains between Berlin and Hanover every hour, and if average speeds between Berlin and the Rhine-Ruhr were increased to be in line with those of the TGVs, demand would fill 4-6 trains per hour, enough to facilitate untimed transfers from connecting lines going north and south of Hanover. The Northeast Corridor has even more latent demand, given the huge size of New York.
The future of travel is not retro
The transportation network both follows and shapes travel patterns. Rapid transit is symbiotic with spiky TOD, and high-speed rail is symbiotic with extensive intercity travel.
The implication is that the future of holidays, too, is not retro. Vacation trips between major cities will become easier if countries that are not France and Japan build a dense network of high-speed lines akin to what France has done over the last 40 years and what Japan has done over the last 60. Many of those cities have thriving tourism economies, and these can expect to expand if there are fast trains connecting them to other cities within 300-1,000 kilometers.
Sometimes, these high-speed lines could serve romanticized tourist destinations. Niagara Falls lies between New York and Toronto, and could see expansion of visits, including day trips from Toronto and Buffalo and overnight stays from New York. The Riviera will surely see more travel once the much-delayed LGV PACA puts Nice four hours away from Paris by train rather than five and a half. Even the Black Forest might see an expansion of travel if people connect from high-speed trains from the rest of Germany to regional trains at Freiburg, going from the Rhine Valley up to the mountains; but even then, I expect a future Germany’s domestic tourism to be increasingly urban, probably involving the Rhine waterfront as well as the historic cities along the river.
But for the most part, tourist destinations designed around driving, like most American national parks as well as state parks like the Catskills, will shrink in importance in a zero-carbon future. It does not matter if they used to have rail access, as Glacier National Park did; the tourism of the leisure class of the early 20th century is not the same as that of the middle class of the middle of the 21st. Grand Canyon and Yellowstone are not the only pretty places in the world or even in the United States; the Hudson Valley and the entire Pacific Coast are pretty too, and do not require either driving or taking a hypothetical train line that, on the list of the United States’ top transportation priorities, would not crack the top 100. This will offend people whose idea of environmentalism is based on the priorities of turn-of-the-century patrician conservationists, but environmental science has moved on and the nature of the biggest ecological crisis facing humanity has changed.
The non-retro future is pretty cool
The theme of the future is that, just as the Industrial Revolution involved urbanization and rural depopulation, urban development patterns this century involve growth in the big metro areas and decline elsewhere and in traditional small towns. This is fine. The status anxieties of Basil Fawlty types who either can’t or won’t adapt to a world that has little use for their prejudices are not a serious public concern.
Already, people lead full lives in big global cities like New York and London without any of the trappings of what passed for normality in the middle of the 20th century, like a detached house with a yard and no racial minorities or working-class people within sight. The rest will adapt to this reality, just as early 20th century urbanites adapted to the reality of suburbanization a generation later.
It’s not even an imposition. It’s opportunity. People can live in high-quality housing with access to extensive social as well as job networks, and travel to many different places with different languages, flora and fauna, vistas, architecture, food, and local retail. Even in the same language zone, Northern and Southern Germany look completely different from each other, as do Paris and Southern France, or New England and Washington. Then outside the cities there are enough places walking distance from a commuter rail line or on the way on a high-speed line between two cities that people can if they’d like go somewhere and spend time out of sight of other people. There’s so much to do in a regime of green prosperity; the world merely awaits the enactment of policies that encourage such a future in lieu of one dominated by small-minded local interests who define themselves by how much they can pollute.
Every year that passes, climate change becomes a more urgent problem to solve: every year that emissions do not fall means that future emissions will have to fall even faster to avoid catastrophic global warming and ocean level rise. This aspect makes climate change different as an issue from air pollution, health care, education, etc., all of which can be solved tomorrow in approximately the same way as today.
Transportation is an increasingly important aspect of climate change. In the 1990s activists could focus on electricity generation, due to the prevalence of coal power in developed countries. Today, when coal has terminally declined in most of the developed world, and is controversial in China and India because of its severe air pollution emissions, the share of transportation in greenhouse gas emissions is higher, and still rising (see e.g. US data on PDF-p. 32 and UK data).
As the biggest challenge of urbanism and transportation shifts from local public health to global climate change, the need for mechanisms that enable rapid demotorization and reurbanization becomes more urgent. I wrote a lot about consensus urbanism in 2011, and a lot of what I said still works if the aim is long-term improvement of democratic decisionmaking through inclusion; in essence, the consensus process spends time on buying goodwill from various groups instead of money (through open or de facto bribes) or political capital (through controversial coercion). But if the goal is to prevent catastrophic climate change, then the value of time is high and will grow as the years go by and no action is taken, and thus the consensus process loses a lot of its appeal.
In lieu of slow attempts at consensus, there are two ways to implement policy fast: market pricing, and top-down coercion. In cultural theory terms, consensus is egalitarian, market pricing individualist, and coercion hierarchical; the fourth cultural bias, fatalism, is not really associated with any system, but rather with the government by exception that characterizes populism, and does not proceed in a particular direction.
The upshot is that governments should aim to spend money and political capital instead of time, and use governing mechanisms that facilitate rapid change. In areas where the market supports green decisions, for example urban real estate construction, it is necessary to remove restrictions on market activity. Where it cannot, for example any question of infrastructure, it is necessary to reduce delays, for example by removing the ability of individuals to sue over environmental reviews – decisions about environmental impact should be taken internally through a civil service.
Learn to say no
One of the biggest loci of opposition to the green transition is a culture war by an old guard that clings to a postwar vision of the good life that centers car ownership and either the suburbs (in the US and parts of Europe) or a small town that turned into a suburb (in the other parts of Europe). Waiting for the old guard to die off or otherwise slowing down the process of change to make it more palatable may work for other goals, such as reducing urban housing costs, curbing air pollution, and providing better mobility for people who already don’t drive. It does not work for climate change.
The upshot is that there are two valid strategies to deal with literally hundreds of millions of first-world citizens who stand to lose income, wealth, or social or cultural status from the green transition. The first is to buy them off, or at least buy off those who can be bought off without bankrupting the state. The second is to tell them no. No, we are not going to accommodate you: saving the planet is too important a goal, and turning your 20-minute car commute into a one-hour three-seat ride by a bus because you kept voting against trains is a price we are willing to pay, and even if you’re not willing to pay it, we don’t need you to vote for us.
This is easier in Europe than in the United States; Canada is somewhere in between. If NATO-Europe gets into a war with Russia tomorrow and bans personal car use the next day to conserve fuel for tanks, people will for the most part be able to adapt; the trains will get more crowded, but outside Paris and London, the main constraint on train capacity is rolling stock, which is cheap to make more of even in an environment of total mobilization. If the United States gets into a shooting war, it will not be able to do so – at most it may be able to organize car-sharing clubs as in World War Two, but even then, many weak-centered cities would cease to function.
Climate change is urgent but less urgent than a total war starting tomorrow, which gives some time for expansion of transit. There’s about a generation’s worth of time; in the same timeframe, Vancouver has turned itself from a postwar suburban hellscape into something resembling a transit city. However, two important caveats make a public works-only green transition impossible. First, there is political opposition to transit, especially cost-effective transit (for example, buses taking freeway lanes from cars rather than adding lanes to freeways). And second, without some combination of transit-oriented development and coercive taxes on fuel, public transport remains underutilized – a number of American cities have built ample urban rail but have far lower ridership than comparable European and Canadian examples. Rail expansion makes confrontational green politics more palatable; it does not remove the need for confrontation.
The one saving grace of this need for confrontational, risk-taking politics is that the status-anxious opposition is the same to everything: to urban redevelopment, to public transportation, to raising taxes on cars, and often even to a consensus-based process if this process empowers the wrong social classes or ethnic groups. Quite often this opposition is exceptionally loud and connected, but running against it, while risky, is not political suicide. California voted against expansion of rent control last year, congestion pricing proved popular in London and Stockholm after the initial controversy of implementation, carbon taxes in Sweden keep going up and emissions keep going down, the German Christian Democrats’ road warrior tendency is conservative rather than reactionary. The green movement should expect to lose battles; it should not expect to lose the war.
How France builds high-speed rail and how Spain builds subways
France and Spain have opposite approaches to cost containment. France spends time rather than money: informal political opposition in rural areas is hard to break – what the state will let the police do to suburban Arabs and blacks who protest brutality it won’t dare let it do to rural whites who protest trains despoiling their romantic Provence views – so the state painstakingly negotiates with the landowners. The resulting construction costs are reasonable: the 106 km LGV Est phase 2, with 4 km in tunnel, cost €2.01 billion euros in 2008 prices. However, the process takes a long time: in Provence, where placating the NIMBYs proved impossible, the resulting alignment is tunnel-heavy and expensive, and even though public debate goes back to 2005, the line will likely open well into the 2030s.
Spain takes the opposite approach. In the view of Manuel Melis Maynar, time is money, and the faster a project is completed, the cheaper it will be, as there will be less time for problems to accumulate. Madrid Metro awards contracts based on how fast construction can be completed as well as on the budget, and its internal planning process is designed around fast decisionmaking.
Spain builds infrastructure more cheaply than France, but that by itself is not enough to argue in favor of the Spanish approach. Spain does many things to curb costs that France does not, and the question of whether time and money are substitutes or complements occurs in many industries with different answers. In tech, there may well arise situations in which code can be written cheaply or quickly and ones in which delays add costs within the same project.
That the time or money question is delicate means that infrastructure builders need to cultivate enough expertise to be able to know when it’s one or the other and when it’s both or neither. However, that, by itself, has nothing to do with urgency; “work on building infrastructure more cheaply” is a good principle regardless of whether everything needs to be in place in 10 years or in 100.
What the urgency of climate change does mean is that there should be a bias against delays. In situations in which it is certain that time and money are substitutes, agencies should prefer to spend money, for example by buying off property owners and paying above market rates. In situations in which it is unclear, agencies should act as if time is money and aim to complete projects quickly even at the cost of budget overruns, rather than to complete them on a prescribed budget even at the cost of schedule slips.
That Spain has lower construction costs than France suggests that acting as if Spain is right and France is wrong is not likely to have too many drawbacks. It may require some internal cultural changes in how infrastructure builders think, and possibly regulatory changes streamlining environmental reviews, but it’s likely to either save money in the long run or only cost a little more.
I’ve been asked to write about the issue of growth versus no growth. This is in the context of planning, so broader questions of degrowth are not within this post’s main scope. Rather, it’s about whether planning for more growth is useful in combating pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. The answer is yes, though the reasoning is subtle. Smart growth is the key, and yet it’s not a straightforward question of transit construction and transit-oriented development helping the environment; it’s important to figure out what the baseline is, since a large urban apartment still emits more CO2 than the closets people end up living in in parts of San Francisco and New York.
The argument for growth specifically is that a high baseline level of growth is what enables smart growth and TOD policies. Vancouver’s secular increase in transit usage, and to a lesser extent the ongoing revival in Seattle and that of Washington in the 2000s, could not happen in a region with Midwestern population growth.
Smart growth vs. no growth
VTPI has many references to studies about smart growth here. The idea of smart growth is that through policies that encourage infill development and discourage sprawl, it’s possible to redirect the shape of urban areas in a greener direction. Here’s one specific VTPI paper making this comparison directly on PDF-p. 3.
Unfortunately, the reality is that there are at least three poles: in addition to sprawl and smart growth, there is no growth. And moreover, many of the bureaucratic rules intended to encourage smart growth, such as comprehensive zoning plans, in fact lead to no growth. The following table is a convenient summary of housing permitting rate vs. my qualitative impression of how smart the growth is.
The permitting rate is absolute, rather than relative to birth rates, immigration, and internal migration pressure as seen in average incomes. Tokyo’s permitting rate is similar to Vancouver’s – Tokyo Prefecture’s rate of 10 annual units per 1,000 people and so is Metro Vancouver’s, but Japan’s population is falling whereas Canada’s is rising. See also European rates linked here and American rates here.
The infill vs. sprawl dimension is qualitative, and combines how transit-oriented the construction is with whether the development is mostly in the city or in the suburbs. Berlin’s suburbs are shrinking due to the depopulation of East Germany, and growth in the suburbs of Tokyo and West Germany is weak as well, but city growth is going strong. Paris is building a lot of public transit and is very dense, but there’s more development per capita in the suburbs, and likewise in California most development is in exurbs rather than in central cities; Seattle is penalized for having bad transit, and Atlanta for having no transit, but in both there’s a lot more development in the city than in the suburbs. Stockholm and Vienna have growth all over and excellent public transit.
The significance of the diagram is that by the standards of European transit cities, California is not an example of smart growth, but of no growth.
In the high-growth area of the diagram, the most interesting case is not Tokyo, but Vancouver and Seattle. In these cities, there is a transit revival. Metro Vancouver’s mode share went up from 13% in 1996 to 20% on the eve of the Evergreen extension’s opening. Moreover, for most of this period Vancouver saw car traffic decrease, despite high population growth. Metro Seattle’s transit revival is more recent but real, with the mode share rising from the “no transit” to “bad transit” category (it is 10% now).
Both cities invested heavily in transit, Vancouver much more so than Seattle, but it was specifically transit aimed at shaping growth. Before the Expo Line opened, Downtown had few skyscrapers, Metrotown did not yet exist, New Westminster had a low-rise city center, and the areas around Main Street-Science World, Joyce-Collingwood, and Edmonds were nonresidential and low-density. The combination of fast growth and rapid transit ensured that new development would add to transit ridership rather than to road traffic. Moreover, the strong transit spine and growing employment at transit-oriented centers meant existing residents could make use of the new network as well.
The same situation also exists in Europe, though not on the same transformative scale as in Vancouver, since the cities in question came into the new millennium with already high transit usage. Stockholm just opened a regional rail tunnel doubling cross-city capacity and is expanding its metro network in three directions. This program is not available to lower-growth cities. Berlin has grandiose plans for U-Bahn expansion and has even safeguarded routes, but it has no active plans to build anything beyond the U5-U55 connection and S21 – the city just isn’t growing enough.
Public transit without growth
By itself, growth is not necessary for the existence of a robust transit network. Vienna proper had more people on the eve of WW1 than it has today, though in the intervening generations there has been extensive housing construction, often publicly subsidized (“Red Vienna”), increasing the working class’s standard of living. However, in a modern auto-oriented city – say, anything in North America other than New York – it is essential.
This becomes clear if we look at the next tier of American cities in transit usage after New York, that is Chicago, San Francisco, Washington, and Boston. Washington is the odd one – it had a transit revival before the Metro collapse of this decade, and got there through TOD in choice locations like Arlington. The others inherited a prewar transit network and made some improvements (like the Transbay Tube replacing the Key System), but froze urban development in time. Essentially all postwar development in those cities has been sprawl. Chicago had big enough a core to maintain a strong city center, but outside the Loop the job geography is very sprawled out. Boston and the Bay Area sprouted suburban edge cities that became metonyms for their dominant industries, with a transit modal share of about 0%.
Chicago’s transportation situation is difficult. The city is losing population; some specific neighborhoods are desirable and some around them are gentrifying, but the most optimistic prognosis is that it’s akin to New York in the 1970s. If there’s no population to justify a public transit investment today, there won’t be the population to justify it tomorrow. Any investment has to rely on leveraging the city’s considerable legacy mainline network, potentially with strategic cut-and-cover tunneling to connect Metra lines to each other.
And if Chicago’s situation is difficult, that of poorer, smaller cities is most likely terminal. Detroit’s grandiose plans are for urban shrinkage, and even then they run into the problem that the most economically intact parts of the region are in low-density suburbs in Oakland County, where nobody is going to agree to abandonment; the shrinkage then intensifies sprawl by weakening the urban core. Even in European cities where the shrinkage is from the outside in, there’s no real hope for any kind of green revival. Chemnitz will never have rapid transit; its tram-train has 2.6 million annual passengers.
Idyll and environmentalism
The environmental movement has from the start had a strong sense of idyll. The conservationism that motivated John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt was about preserving exurban wilderness for rich adventurers to travel in. The green left of the 1960s dropped the explicit classism but substituted it for new prejudices, like the racism embedded in population control programs proposed by Westerners for the third world. Moreover, the romantic ideals of Roosevelt-era environmentalism transformed into small-is-beautiful romanticism. Even Jane Jacobs’ love for cities was tempered by a romanticism for old low-rise neighborhoods; she predicted the Upper West Side with its elevator buildings would never be attractive to the middle class.
But what’s idealized and what’s green are not always the same. Lord of the Rings has a strong WW1 allegory in which the hobbits (Tolkien) leave the Shire (the English Midlands) to go to war and come back to find it scoured by industrialization. But on the eve of WW1, Britain was already a coal-polluted hellscape. Per capita carbon emissions would remain the same until the 1970s and thence fall by half – and in the first three quarters of the 20th century the fuel source shifted from coal to oil, which is less polluting for the same carbon emissions. The era that Tolkien romanticized was one of periodic mass deaths from smog. The era in which he wrote was one in which public health efforts were undertaken to clean up the air.
Likewise, what passes for environmentalism in communities that openly oppose growth freezes the idyll of postwar America, where suburban roads were still uncongested and the middle class had midsize houses on large lots. But American greenhouse gas emissions per capita were the same in 1960 as today, and had been the same in good economic times going back to the eve of the Great Depression. Only centenarians remember any time in which Americans damaged the planet less than they do today, and “less” means 14 tons of CO2 per capita rather than 16.5.
The upshot is that in the developed world, environmentalism and conservation are opposing forces. Conservation means looking back to an era that had the same environmental problems as today, except often worse, and managed to be poorer on top of it all.
Growth and environmentalism
Strictly speaking, growth is not necessary to reduce emissions. The low-growth city could just as well close its road network, ban cars, and forbid people to use electricity or heating generated by fossil fuels – if they’re cold, they can put on sweaters. But in practice, low-emission developed countries got to be where they are today by channeling bouts of economic growth toward clean consumption of electricity as well as transportation. Regulatory coercion and taxes that inconvenience the middle class are both absolutely necessary to reduce emissions, and yet both are easier to swallow in areas that have new development that they can channel toward green consumption.
The environmentalist in the Parises and Stockholms has the easiest time. Those cities have functioning green economies. There are recalcitrant mostly right-wing voters who like driving and need to be forced to stop, but a lifestyle with essentially no greenhouse gas emissions except for air travel is normal across all socioeconomic classes. The Vancouvers are not there but could get there in a generation by ensuring future development reinforces high local density of jobs and residences. The pro-development policies of the Pacific Northwest are not in opposition to the region’s environmentalism but rather reinforce it, by giving green movements a future to look forward to.
The environmentalist in the Clevelands and Detroits has the hardest time. It’s even worse than in the Chemnitzes – Saxony may be a post-industrial wasteland with 10% fewer people now than it had in 1905, but it’s coming into the 21st century with German emissions rather than American ones. These are cities with American emissions and economies based substantially on producing polluting cars, propped by special government attention thanks to the American mythology of the Big Three.
But whereas the Rust Belt has genuine problems, NIMBYvilles’ low growth is entirely self-imposed. New York and Los Angeles have the same per capita metro housing growth as Detroit, but only because they choose stasis; where the price signal in Detroit screams at people to run away, that in New York and California screams to build more housing. Their political institutions decided to make it harder to build any green future not only for their current residents but also for tens of millions who’d like to move there.
New York’s high construction costs are not just a problem for public transit. Roads exhibit the exact same problem. Case in point: replacing 2.5 km of the deteriorating Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE) in Brooklyn Heights is slated to cost $3-4 billion, take 6-8 years, and require temporarily closing the pedestrian promenade supported on top of the highway. This is not even a tunnel – some local NIMBYs have proposed one in order to reduce the impact of construction, but the cost would then be even higher. No: the projected cost, around $1.5 billion per kilometer, is for an above-ground highway replacement.
The section in question is between the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel and the Brooklyn Bridge; the Promenade is the northern half of this section.
Is it worth it?
There exist infrastructure projects that are worth it even at elevated cost. Second Avenue Subway Phase 1 cost $4.6 billion where it should have cost $700 million, but the expected ridership was very high, 200,000 per day, and so far ridership is on track to meet projections: the three new stations had a total of 138,000 boardings and alightings between them in 2017, and the revamped 63rd Street station went up by another 8,000. The BQE replacement is not such a project. Current traffic on the highway is stated as 153,000 vehicles per day, so on a per-vehicle basis it’s similar to Second Avenue Subway’s per-rider projection, around $23,000. But cars are not transit and cities need to understand that.
The construction of a subway creates noise and traffic disruption, but once the subway is up, all of that is done. Even elevated trains cause limited problems if built properly from materials that minimize noise – the trains on the viaducts on the Paris Metro are less noisy than the cars on the street below. There are operating costs involved with subways, but fixed costs are so dominant that even in New York a busy line like Second Avenue Subway should be at worst revenue-neutral net of costs; for reference, in Vancouver the projection for the Broadway subway extension’s operating costs is well below the revenue from the projected extra ridership.
Cars are not like that. They are noisy and polluting, and greenwashing them with a handful of expensive electric cars won’t change that. There are benefits to automobility, but the health hazards cancel out a lot of that. The Stern Review estimates the cost of unmitigated climate change at 20% of global GDP (e.g. PDF-p. 38), which in current terms approaches $500 per metric ton of CO2. The US has almost the same emissions intensity per dollar of production as the rest of the world; the negative impact of cars coming from climate change alone is comparable to the total private cost of transportation in the US, including buying the car, maintenance, fuel, etc. Now add car accidents, noise, and local air pollution.
In a region where cars are an absolute lifeline, there’s a case for building connections. The costs are low since grading a road for medium speed with level crossings is not expensive. In cities, the situation is different. Drivers will grumble if the BQE is removed. They will not lose access to critical services.
Is anyone proposing removing the BQE?
Yes, there are some proposals to that effect, but they’re so far only made haltingly. Council Speaker and 2021 mayoral frontrunner Corey Johnson’s report on municipal control of the subway includes the following line: “Before spending $4 billion to reconstruct a 1.5 mile stretch of highway, the City should study alternatives to the reconstruction of this Robert Moses-era six lane road, including the removal of the BQE in its entirety.” The halting part here is that to study does not mean to enact; Johnson himself opposes repurposing car lanes for bus service in his own district.
City Comptroller Scott Stringer, who has relied on a lot of the information I have brought up in this space in his reports, proposes to keep the BQE but only allow access to trucks. Bloomberg’s transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan agrees with the idea and even pitches it as a brave alternative to the car. In other words, per the comptroller and former commissioner, billions of dollars are to be spent on the reconstruction of a somewhat narrower structure for 14,000 trucks per day. Stringer’s report even says that the comparable urban freeways that have been removed did not allow trucks in, which is incorrect for the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco and for the Voie Georges Pompidou in Paris (look for “camions” here). In reality, if closing the BQE means adding just 14,000 vehicles to surface streets, then it’s an almost unmitigated success of road dieting, since it means much less pollution and noise.
The Regional Plan Association proposes its usual quarter-measures as well, sold under the guise of “reimagining.” It does not mention closure at all – it proposes rebuilding the structure with four lanes, down from the current six, and even dares to cite the closure in Paris as precedent. Everything in its analysis points out to the benefits of full closure and yet the RPA feels too institutional to propose that. Presumably if the RPA had opined on lynchings in the midcentury American South it would have proposed a plan to cut total lynchings by 25% and if it had opined on Fourth Republic-era colonialism in Algeria it would have proposed to cut the incidence of torture by a third while referencing the positive precedent of British decolonization in India.
What should replace the BQE?
The BQE should be removed all the way from the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel to the Williamsburg Bridge. Its curves in Downtown Brooklyn with the loops to the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges consume valuable real estate, and farther east they divide neighborhoods. The new Navy Yard developments are disconnected from the rest of Brooklyn because of the BQE.
Going east through Fort Greene, the BQE is flanked on both sides by Park Avenue. Buildings face the street, though many of the lots are empty or low-value. Thus, the surface streets have to stay. Selling what is now Park Avenue as parcels for residential and commercial development and mapping a street on the BQE’s 30-meter footprint is probably not viable. Instead, most of the footprint of the expressway should be parceled into lots and sold, converting Park Avenue into a one-way pair with streets about 12-15 meters in width each. East-west buses will continue running on Flushing and Myrtle, and north-south buses should probably not make stops at Park.
In contrast, going south through South Brooklyn, buildings do not face the abutting surface street, Hicks. They present blank walls, as if it was midblock. This is a prime opportunity to narrow the street as if the highway has never been there, creating an avenue perhaps 20 or 30 meters in width. The wider figure is more appropriate if there are plans for bus lanes and bike lanes; otherwise, if buses stay on Columbia, 20 is better.
In South Williamsburg, the road is nearly block-wide. The neighborhood is pro-development due to high birthrates among the Haredi population. Thus the footprint of the freeway must be used for private housing development. The area next to the Marcy Avenue subway station on the J/M/Z is especially desirable for the non-Haredi population, due to the proximity to Manhattan jobs. The city should retain an avenue-width roadway for Williamsburg Bridge access from the south, but beyond that it should restore the blocks of the neighborhood as they were before the BQE was built.
Heal, don’t placemake
If there’s a common thread to the various proposals by local politicians and shadow agencies (that is, the RPA), it’s an attempt at placemaking, defined to be any project that they can point to and say “I built that!”. A BQE rebuilt slightly narrower, or restricted to trucks, achieves that goal, with some greenwashing for what remains a waste of billions of dollars for motorist convenience.
But the same can be said of a park, as in one architect’s proposal for the BQE. I can see a case for this in Brooklyn Heights, where the Promenade is an important neighborhood destination, but elsewhere, the case is extraordinarily weak. In South Brooklyn, the most important benefit of removing the BQE is easier pedestrian access to the waterfront; recreation space should go there. Fort Greene and the Navy Yard are both rich in parks; BQE removal makes the large parks on both sides of the motorway easier to access. And Williamsburg is hungry for private development, whether near the subway for Manhattan workers or elsewhere for Haredi families.
Thirty years from now, nobody is going to walk on the remade street grid of South Williamsburg or the narrowed Hicks Street and wonder which politician set this up. But people may well notice the lower rents – and they may well notice them within a few years of the deconstruction of the road and the sale of the land for housing development. Ultimately city residents do notice if things are improving or deteriorating. It’s on the city to nudge infrastructure development in the direction of less pollution and fewer boondoggles.
In advance of next month’s European Parliament election, several sources at the major mainstream parties have said that there are plans to coordinate a carbon tax, paired with investment in green infrastructure. Representatives of the European People’s Party (EPP), the Socialists and Democrats group (S&D), the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), and the Greens-European Free Alliance group (G/EFA) have agreed on an outline, to be passed after the election. The unaffiliated La Republique En Marche, which is expected to be the largest party in France in the coming election, is in on the agreement as well, and has been a key driver of the deal under the leadership of President Emmanuel Macron. As the four parties as well as LREM are expected to have a large majority of the seats among them, the deal should not have difficulties passing.
At heart is an attempt to unify different national approaches to climate change. One source specifies that after frustration with the slow pace of decarbonization in France, in large part due to the Gilets Jaunes’ street riots against higher fuel taxes, Macron sought a Europe-wide approach. While the left in France was skeptical, green and social-democratic parties in the rest of Europe were supportive. Italy’s Democratic Party (S&D) was especially interested, citing worries that France’s lower fuel taxes were causing motorists in western Liguria to drive over the border to fill up in the nearby French Riviera. The Social Democrats in Sweden, under the leadership of Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, have been supportive as well, and several sources agree that they played a role in persuading the entire S&D group to support a strong carbon tax law.
Obtaining the consent of EPP was more difficult due to its skepticism over tax increases. There is no first-hand on-the-record reporting for how this was achieved, but a large number of second-hand sources agree that Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed in order to appeal to German Green Party voters, as the party is rising in the polls in the European as well as German elections and has popular state-level leadership.
The deal will impose a minimum carbon tax starting at €50 per metric ton of CO2-equivalent in 2020, rising gradually to €200 per ton in 2035. The tax will include border adjustments for the carbon content of imported goods, a clause that is said to have come at the insistence of union-affiliated S&D leaders who worried about competition from outside the EU. Controversially, the language of the draft deal permits individual member states to give industries credit toward exports.
The tax will be collected entirely at the member state level, like existing taxes on fuel and tobacco and VAT, where the EU mandates minimum floors (such as 15% for VAT) and monitors compliance but does not collect the taxes itself or redistribute the proceeds. Sweden’s existing carbon tax, currently €120 per ton, will therefore stay where it is. The EU will ensure member states collect the tax and do not give undue exceptions to industrial users; only exports and fuel for extra-EU flights and shipping may be exempted from the tax.
Simultaneously, the parties agreed to accelerate spending on EU-wide green infrastructure. As with the tax, member states will have considerable latitude, in order to mollify concerns among some Greens that the EU will stealthily mandate the construction of new nuclear power plants, as well as concerns among most EPP and ALDE parties that government spending would rise too much. Germany, in particular, has plans to reduce taxes on businesses: the Merkel cabinet has had to resist the business community’s demands for tax cuts, arguing that it is in growth times like this year that is is most tempting to engage in fiscal profligacy. There will also be additional spending on urban rail, motivated by the projected mode shift away from cars as a result of the new tax, but people close to the key decisionmakers say that massive federal spending in Germany is unlikely.
In France, the plan is to use the proceeds to invest in transportation alternatives, including a roster of new urban rail lines in Paris as well as most secondary cities. Macron is said to be in favor of accelerating the construction of new TGV lines connecting the entire country to Paris within at most 4 hours, as well as orbital lines connecting provincial cities to one another.
The timing of the leak is unusual. One source speculated that it is timed for the eve of Brexit, to nudge Britain to revoke Article 50 and stay in the EU to avoid finding itself fighting another EU bureaucracy if it left without a deal. While the spokespeople for the British Conservative Party who were contacted for this story oppose the climate agreement, the agreement can pass the European Parliament even over the party’s objections.
Nonetheless, euroskeptical forces have used the leak as an opportunity to portray the EU in conspiratorial terms, particularly ones affiliated with the far-right Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) and Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) groups. The Italian Lega (ENF), expected to emerge as the single largest national party after the election, attacked the EU for dictating to member states. France’s National Rally (ENF), the party of the Le Pen family, said that Macron is immiserating France, that carbon emissions are caused by corporate shipping and not by driving, and that Europe would not have any environmental problems if it did not have population growth due to immigration. The UK Independence Party (EFDD) added that it’s not even clear if climate change is real, and said that this is why it always backed Brexit.
Nonetheless, the polls are stable enough that all observers expect ENF and EFDD, and even the UK Conservatives’ European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group, to lack the power to defeat or even weaken the proposed legislation. In response to threats by the Gilets Jaunes to call a massive nationwide rally next Saturday, the leader of the opposition Republicans (EPP) threatened that perhaps France should declare martial law to forestall riots.
Both Macron and Löfven have since taken political ownership of the agreement, calling it an example of pan-European cooperation to solve global problems. After the agreement leaked, Macron touted the plan as a way forward for France as Europe’s leader in high-speed rail, and promised that French industry would manufacture the trains, wind turbines, and solar cells while combating the country’s Western Europe-leading air pollution levels at the same time. He referenced the slogan from the 1970s’ oil crisis leading to the construction of the TGV and nuclear plants: “in France we have ideas.”
In Sweden, sources close to the Löfven cabinet point out that the country’s long-time moral leadership is paying off, as there is an extensive clean industry in Sweden, including rolling stock as well as engineering professional services. A spokesperson for the Swedish Greens added that this was also an example of European moral leadership, which would exercise soft power in order to convince other big countries and blocs to follow suit, such as Japan and South Korea. But when pressed on the issue of the US and China specifically, sources demurred.
As this article goes to press, no national politicians in the United States from either party have commented, despite multiple attempts to reach out and ask if they were willing to implement a similar policy in America.
The main way to judge how good public transportation is for the environment is to measure how many car trips it displaces. But in reality, it’s better, and I’d like to explain why. As a warning, this is a theoretical rather than empirical post. My main empirical evidence for it is that European car usage is lower relative to American levels than one might expect given public transit mode shares; in a way, it’s an explanation for why this is the case.
While the explanation relies on changes in land use, it is not purely a story of zoning. The population density in much of my example case of auto-oriented density – Southern California – is well below the maximum permitted by zoning, thanks to the lack of good transit alternatives. Thus, even keeping zoning regimes mostly as they are, public transportation has an impact on land use and therefore on car pollution.
Transit always displaces the longest car commutes
In an auto-oriented city, the limiting factor to the metro area’s density is car traffic. Adding density with cars alone leads to extra congestion. Devin Bunten’s paper entitled Is the Rent Too High? finds that, assuming no changes in travel behavior (including no change in the option of public transit), zoning abolition would actually reduce American welfare by 6%, even while increasing GDP by 6%, because of much worse congestion; optimal upzoning would increase GDP by 2.1% and welfare by 1.4%, which figures are lower than in the Hsieh-Moretti model.
The upshot is that if there is no public transportation, people live at low density just because the alternative is the traffic jams of dense car-oriented cities; Los Angeles is the most familiar American example, but middle-income examples like Bangkok are denser and worse for it. Low density means people travel longer to reach their jobs, by car, increasing total vehicle travel.
In the presence of mass transit, people don’t have to sprawl so far out. Los Angeles’s “drive until you qualify” mentality is such that, if there were room for a million transit users in the inner parts of the region, then no matter which exact group of million people from the five-county area started taking transit, ultimately the shuffle would be such that there would be a million fewer people driving in from Antelope Valley, Victor Valley, and the Inland Empire.
Consider a city that comprises concentric rings, as in the following diagram:
The average density of the city region is 1,660 people per square kilometer, and the weighted density is about 3,400; both figures are typical for the denser American Sunbelt cities, like Los Angeles, San Diego, Miami, and Las Vegas (see table as of 2000 here).
Let us assume that the amount of v-km per inhabitant within each concentric circle is proportional to the outer radius of the circle, so people in the outermost ring drive 5 times as long as those in the inner circle. For concrete numbers, let us assume these figures are 5,000, 10,000, 15,000, 20,000, and 25,000 v-km per year; they average about 13,550 v-km/capita, which is somewhat less than the US average, just below 16,000 per FRED. Note that the outermost ring has 10.8% of the city’s population and 20% of its v-km.
If the modeled density is close to optimal for congestion management given the current state of public transit, then adding transit means subtracting people from the outer ring, not from the inner rings. Say the city builds rapid transit reaching the inner two rings, allowing these areas to densify by exactly 22.5%, which is the ratio of the outer ring’s population to the inner two’s total’s. The total non-auto mode share will rise by 10.8 percentage points, divided between public transit and walking because people in dense, walkable neighborhoods have the option of non-motorized transport; but v-km and the attending greenhouse gas emissions will fall 20%.
If the city keeps growing, the situation is even more extreme. We can add a sixth ring, on the same model, with a density of 250 people per km^2, 30,000 annual v-km per capita, and population equal to 6.6% of the total of the five existing rings or 6.2% of the six-ring total. This 6.6% increase in population raises v-km by 14.7%; in contrast, a transit system capable of supporting this population increase would show an increase of 6.2 points in the non-auto mode share even while avoiding a 14.7% increase in car traffic.
European car usage
We can obtain total v-km per capita by country from a table of traffic accident fatalities: the OECD reports numbers per capita and per v-km, so if we go to PDF-p. 60 of its report, divide the per-capita figure by the per-v-km figure, and multiply by a scaling factor of 10,000, we get v-km per capita. In the US, this figure is just short of 16,000, just as in the FRED graph. The US’s transit mode share for work trips is 5%, so this is about as close as possible to a purely auto-oriented country.
In the Western European countries for which there’s data, including France and Germany, the figure is just short of 10,000. This is close to INSEE’s figure of 756 billion passenger-km in 2016, the difference accounted for by the fact that sometimes multiple people ride in the same car.
The reason people here travel 40% less by car than in the US is not that they instead travel the same distance by public transit. INSEE reports 132 billion passenger-km in buses, trams, and trains excluding TGVs in 2016, and this includes a fair amount of intercity bus and rail travel (9 billion p-km on intercity rail as of 2010 per p. 53 here). Overall, the French modal split is 70% car, 15% transit, 6.7% walk, 4.3% work from home, 4% bike and motorcycle. The American one is 85% car, 5% transit, 2.7% walk, 5.2% work from home. Even relative to the volume of car commuters, the Americans drive 40% further than the French.
Much of my understanding of how provincial France works comes from the Riviera. The Riviera is not the best representative: Alpes-Maritimes is among the richest departments outside Ile-de-France, is among the most conservative, and near-ties Toulouse’s Haute-Garonne and Strasbourg’s Bas-Rhin for third highest provincial transit mode share (13%, behind Rhone’s 23% and Bouches-du-Rhone’s 14%). But it’s a good representative nonetheless of a major provincial city region. There, the coastal towns as well as some interior ones are filled with sprawl, even going up the mountains. There is density in Monaco and Nice, and public transit ridership mostly consists primarily of people who live in Nice and secondarily of people who commute to Monaco. It’s the tramway, the buses, and the general walkability that permit Nice to be what it is, coexisting alongside the offices parks of Sophia-Antipolis and the low-density sprawl up the mountains.
What about zoning?
Devin’s paper is about the economic cost of zoning. Even with the assumption of no change in built form or in transportation modal choice, it does find welfare gains from upzoning, saying that high-demand areas would gain 10-15% in population. This implies that realizing the full environmental gains from public transit requires upzoning areas near stations, to permit the inner two rings in my model city to gain residents who would have otherwise populated a sixth ring.
And yet, the appropriate zoning to some extent already exists. California abolished single-family zoning in 2016 and 2017: accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, are permitted anywhere that residential development is permitted, and homeowners are free to build ADUs in their backyards or carve out ADUs out of their existing buildings. Moreover, in select zones, cities have encouraged transit-oriented development through upzoning or relaxing parking minimums: San Francisco’s TDM process abolished parking minimums anywhere that buildings with at least 10 apartments are permitted, and San Diego slashed parking minimums in an attempt to encourage TOD in North Park along the University Avenue corridor.
The results of TDM in San Francisco are still unclear – the program passed too recently. The same is true of ADUs – existing homeowners react slowly, and new developers may build more two-family houses and fewer single-family houses, but new tract housing would go in the exurbs, not in the coastal cities. But in San Diego the results are clear: developers build more parking than the required minimum at University and 30th, because the public transit option there is a north-south bus that comes every 15 minutes and an east-west bus that comes every 10, which is not actually enough to persuade people who can afford a car not to drive one.
It is difficult to build TOD without public transport. The urban middle class of the 21st century expects travel convenience, which can come in the form of a large rapid transit network or in that of cars and freeways. Thus, even when development sites are available, even in expensive cities, developers sometimes build less than they are allowed to, or insist on more parking than is required, if alternative transportation is inadequate.
The upshot is that adding the layer of transit is likely to stimulate development in the affected urban neighborhoods. The people who would live in this development would not otherwise drive to the outer margin of the city to save on rent, but they would still drive, displacing people would then drive further. The exact details of the churn matter less than the net impact, which is that absent urban transit, cities end up sprawling farther out, forcing people to drive ever-longer distances to work and to other destinations.
A city that succeeds in replacing half of its car trips by public transit, such as Paris, will end up replacing far more than just half of its vehicle-km by transit. Even if the trains are densest within the city core, as is the case even in Paris and other cities with expansive regional rail, the net impact of the transit network is reduction in car travel in the outer parts of the built-up area, where distances are the longest. Planetoscope’s figures for car travel and average distance in Ile-de-France point to a total of just 2,900 v-km/capita in this region – less than one third the national average, and barely one half the national average per car commuter.
The benefit of transit thus goes well beyond the people who use it. The car trips it displaces, even if indirectly, are the ones that cause the worst problems – congestion, pollution, car accidents, greenhouse gas emissions – because they are the longest. Building urban rapid transit can have twice the direct mitigating effect on the harms of car travel as might appear based purely on counting mode choice. With twice the apparent positive environmental impact, mass transit must become a higher priority: nearly every new rapid transit line that’s judged as good must be a top priority for public investment, and many projects that appear marginal must be reevaluated and constructed as planned.
American progressive media is talking about the possibility of a Green New Deal, which involves spending money in a way that reduces greenhouse gas emissions. So far details are scant, and most likely no real plan is likely to emerge for a number of years, since the proposal is pushed by the Democratic base, which is no more supportive of cooperation with President Trump than I am. Because the plan is so early, people are opining about what should go in it. My purpose in this post is to explain what I think the main priorities should be, and to leave to others the politics of how to package them.
The primacy of transportation
The main sources of greenhouse gas emissions are transportation, electricity generation, and industry. In the US this is in descending order, transportation having just overtaken power generation; the reduction in coal burning and the collapse in solar power production costs are such that in the long term, electricity generation should be viewed as a solved problem in the long term. Lingering issues with storage and base load are real, but the speed of progress is such that ordinary taxes on carbon should be enough to fix whatever is left of the problem.
Transportation is the exact opposite. American transportation emissions fell in the 2007-8 oil price spike and ensuing economic crisis but are now increasing again. Newer cars have higher fuel efficiency, but Americans are buying bigger cars and driving more. Electric cars, the favored solution of people who think spending $50,000 on a new car is reasonable, are still a niche luxury market and have trouble scaling up. Scratch an American futurist who looks exclusively at electric cars and denigrates mass transit and you’ll wound a solipsist who looks for excuses to avoid the humiliation of having to support something where other countries lead and the US lags.
The upshot is that the primary (but not the only) focus of any green push has to be expansion of public transportation. This includes ancillary policies for urban redevelopment and livable streets, which have the dual effects of buttressing public transit and reducing residential emissions through higher-density living. Overall, this turns any such program into a large public works project.
Spend money right
It’s paramount to make sure to avoid wasting money. A large infrastructure program would run into an appreciable fraction of federal spending; money is always a constraint, even when the goal is to spend funds on economic stimulus. The first lesson here is to keep construction costs under control. But an equally fundamental lesson is to make sure to spend money on transit expansion and not other things:
Don’t spend money on roads
A large majority of American public spending on transportation is on roads. Adding in subsidies for cars makes the proportion go even higher. It reflects current travel patterns, but if the goal is to reduce the environmental footprint of driving, the government can’t keep pumping money into road infrastructure. Accept that in developed countries the generally useful roads have already been built, and future construction just induces people to suburbanize further and drive longer distances.
Congress spends transportation money in multi-year chunks. The most recent bill passed in 2015 for five years, totaling $300 billion, of which $50 billion went to public transit and $200 billion went to highways. Raiding the road fund should be the primary source of additional transit funding: most of the line workers and engineers can build either, and even the physical act of building a freeway is not too different from that of building a high-speed railway. In contrast, outside of a deep recession, increasing total spending on transportation infrastructure requires hiring more workers, leading to large increases in costs as the program runs up against the limit of the available construction labor in the country.
$60 billion a year on public transit is a decent chunk of money for a long-term program, especially with expected state matches. Over the next decade it would be $600 billion, and around a trillion with state and local matches, if they are forthcoming (which they may not be because of how political incentives are lined up). That is, it’d a decent chunk of money if the federal government understands the following rule:
Fund expansion, not maintenance or operations
The sole legitimate source of regular budgeting for public transit is regular spending at the relevant level of government, which is state or local in the United States. Outside infusions of money like federal spending are bad government, because they incentivize deferring maintenance when the federal government is stingy and then crying poverty when it is generous. Amtrak did just that in the 2000s: faced with pressure from the Bush administration to look profitable for future privatization, Amtrak fired David Gunn, who wouldn’t defer maintenance, and replaced him with the more pliable Joe Boardman; then in the economic crisis and the stimulus, it discovered a multi-billion dollar backlog of deferred maintenance, permitting it to ask for money without having to show any visible results.
If the federal government credibly commits to not funding state of good repair backlogs or normal replacement, and to penalizing agencies that defer maintenance and giving them less money for expansion, it can encourage better behavior. Unlike ongoing maintenance, capital expansion is not necessary for continued operations, and thus if funding dries up and a transit agency stops expanding, there will not be problems with service cancellation, slow zones, frequency-ridership spirals, and other issues familiar to New Yorkers in the 1970s or Washingtonians today.
One potential way to change things is to federally fund expansion without expecting much if any local match, provided the agency commits to spending the required operating funds on running the service in question. This separation of federal and local responsibility also reduces the political incentives to grandstand by rejecting federal money in order to make the president look bad.
Build the rail lines that are appropriate
Each region in the US should be getting transit expansion money in rough proportion to its population. However, the meaning of transit depends on the local and regional geography:
- In big cities it means rapid transit expansion: new lines for the New York City Subway, the Chicago L, etc. In somewhat smaller cities with light rail-based systems it means light rail expansion, which may also involve upgrading at-grade light rail to full rapid transit: Dallas is considering a downtown tunnel for its light rail network and Los Angeles is already building one, and those could lead to upgrading capacity elsewhere on the system to permit longer trains.
- In suburbs and some smaller cities with large mainline rail networks, it means commuter rail. It’s especially valuable in the Northeast and secondarily in the Midwest and the odd older Southern city: cities like Milwaukee and Cincinnati don’t really have compelling corridors for greenfield urban rail, but do have interesting S-Bahn corridors.
- In periurban and rural areas, it means longer-range regional rail, transitioning to intercity rail in lower-density areas. In some smaller metro areas, it means actual intercity rail to bigger cities. Examples include Colorado Springs and Fort Collins, both of which can be connected with Denver, and Hans-Joachim Zierke’s proposed regional rail line for Medford, Oregon.
I focus on rail and not buses for two simple reasons: rail has higher capital and lower operating costs, so it’s more relevant for a capital program, and rail gets higher ridership for reasons including better right-of-way quality and better ride quality.
Transmit knowledge of best practices
The federal government has the ability to assimilate best practices for both limiting construction costs and designing good transit networks. Local governments can learn the same, but for the most part they don’t care. Instead they run their transit systems in manage-the-decline mode, only occasionally hearing about something done in London, hardly the best-run European transit city.
The best practices for network design are especially important given the magnitude of the program. The US is not spending $60 billion nationwide a year on transit expansion. The NTD says annual spending on capital among the top 50 American transit agencies was $14.6 billion as of 2016 (source, PDF-p. 11), and a lot of that (e.g. most of the MTA’s $3.5 billion capital expenditure) is the black holes that are state of good repair and normal replacement. $60 billion a year apportioned by population is on the order of $2 billion for New York City annually, which is $20 billion over 10 years, and the city doesn’t necessarily know how to spend that money even at today’s construction costs, let alone rational construction costs.
At least New York has an internal bank of enthusiasts at the MTA and at shadow agencies like the RPA who have ideas for how to spend this money. Smaller cities for the most part don’t. Does Cleveland have any idea what it would do with $5 billion over ten years for regionwide transit expansion? Does Tampa? The federal government has to play an educational role in giving regions sample zoning codes for TOD, network design guidelines, and procurement guidelines that help reduce costs.
Start planning now
A large infrastructure bill planned for 2021 has to be planned now. Its proponents do not intend for it to be a regular jobs program based on existing local wishlists: they intend for it to represent a shift in national priorities, which means that each item of spending has to be planned in advance, mostly from scratch. It means the political work of aligning various interest groups toward the same goal has to start early, which seems to be what the proponents are doing; even the name Green New Deal evokes progressive nostalgia for olden days before neoliberalism.
But alongside the political work, there must be good technical work. Regional planning agencies have to be aware this may be coming and have to have solid ideas for how they’d like to spend a few billion dollars over the decade. Simultaneously, organs including federal offices like the GAO, transit agencies, shadow agencies, and thinktanks have to learn and transmit a culture of good operating and capital practices. A government that plays a bigger role in the economy or in society has to become more competent; managerial competence is required for any program that allocates money with any precision, and very good cost control is a must to make sure the available budget goes to a green transition and isn’t wasted on red tape.
The theme of winners and losers has been on my mind for the last few months, due to the politics of the Brooklyn bus redesign. In a rich country, practically every social or political decisions is win-lose, even if the winners greatly outnumber the losers. It’s possible to guarantee a soft landing to some of the losers, but sometime even the soft landing is disruptive, and it’s crucial that backers of social change be honest with themselves and with the public about this. Overall, a shift from an auto-oriented society to a transit-oriented one and from dirty energy to clean energy is positive and must be pursued everywhere, but it does have downsides. In short, it changes economic geography in ways that make certain regions (like Detroit or the Gulf Cooperation Council states) redundant; it reorients economies toward more local consumption, so oil, gas, and heavy industry jobs would not be replaced with similar manufacturing or mining clusters but with slightly more work everywhere else in the world.
Dirty production is exportable
The United States has the dirtiest economy among the large developed countries, so it’s convenient to look at average American behavior to see where the money that is spent on polluting products goes.
Nationally, about 15.9% of consumer spending is on transportation. The vast majority of that is on cars, 93.1% (that is, 14.7% of total consumer spending). The actual purchase of the car is 42% of transportation spending, or 6.7% of household spending. This goes to an industry that, while including local dealerships (for both new and used cars), mostly consists of auto plants, making cars in suburban Detroit or in low-wage Southern states and exporting them nationwide.
In addition to this 6% of consumer spending on cars, there’s fuel. Around 3% of American household spending is on fuel for cars. Overall US oil consumption in 2017 was 7.28 billion barrels, which at $52/barrel is 5% of household spending; the difference between 5 and 3 consists of oil consumed not by households. This is a total of about 2% of American GDP, which includes, in addition to household spending, capital goods and government purchases. This tranche of the American economy, too, is not local, but rather goes to the oil industry domestically (such as to Texas or Alaska) or internationally (such as to Alberta or Saudi Arabia).
Historically, when coal was more economically significant, it was exportable too. Money flowed from consumers, such as in New York and London, to producers in the Lackawanna Valley or Northeast England; today, it still flows to remaining mines, such as in Wyoming.
The same is true of much of the supply chain for carbon-intensive products. Heavy industry in general has very high carbon content for its economic value, which explains how the Soviet Union had high greenhouse gas emissions even with low car usage (15.7 metric tons per capita in the late 1980s) – it had heavy industry just as the capital bloc did, but lagged in relatively low-carbon consumer goods and services. The economic geography of steel, cement, and other dirty products is again concentrated in industrial areas. In the US, Pittsburgh is famous for its historical steel production, and in general heavy manufacturing clusters in the Midwestern parts of the Rust Belt and in transplants in specific Southern sites.
All of these production zones support local economies. The top executives may well live elsewhere – for example, David Koch lives in New York and Charles Koch in Wichita (whose economy is based on airplane manufacturing and agriculture, neither of which the Kochs are involved in). But the working managers live in city regions dedicated to servicing the industry, the way office workers in the oil industry tend to live in Houston or Calgary, and of course the line workers live near the plants and mines.
Clean alternatives are more local
The direct alternatives to oil, gas, and cars are renewable energy and public transportation. These, too, have some components that can be made centrally and exported, such as solar panel and rolling stock manufacturing. However, these components are a small fraction of total spending.
How small? Let’s look at New York City Transit. Its operating costs are about $9.1 billion a year as of 2016, counting both the subway and buses. Nearly all of this is wages, salaries, and benefits: $7.3 billion, compared with only $500 million for materials and supplies. This specifically excludes vehicle purchases, which in American transit accounting are lumped as capital costs. The total NYCT fleet is about 6,400 subway cars, which cost around $2.3 million each and last 40+ years, and 5,700 buses, which cost around $500,000 each and last 12 years, for a total depreciation charge of around $600 million a year combined.
Compare this with cars: New York has about 2 million registered cars, but at the same average car ownership rate as the rest of the US, 845 per 1,000 people, it would have 7.3 million cars. These 5.3 million extra cars would cost $36,500 each today, and last around 20 years, for a total annual depreciation charge of $9.7 billion.
Put another way, total spending on vehicles at NYCT is one sixteenth what it would take to raise the city’s car ownership rate to match the national average. Even lumping in materials and supplies that are not equipment, such as spare parts and fuel for buses, the total, $1.1 billion, is one ninth as high as buying New Yorkers cars so that they can behave like Americans outside the city, and that’s without counting the cost of fuel. In particular, there is no hope of maintaining auto plant employment by retraining auto workers to make trains, as Michael Moore proposed in 2009.
The vast majority of transit spending is then local: bus and train operations, maintenance, and local management. The same is true of capital spending, which goes to local workers, contractors, and consultants, and even when it is outsourced to international firms, the bulk of the value of the contract does not accrue to Dragados or Parsons Brinckerhoff.
Clean energy is similarly local. Solar panels can be manufactured centrally, but installing them on rooftops is done locally. Moreover, the elimination of carbon emissions coming from buildings has to come not just from cleaner electricity but also from reducing electricity consumption through passive solar construction. Retrofitting houses to be more energy-efficient is a labor-intensive task comprising local builders sealing gaps in the walls, windows, and ceilings.
Low-carbon economic production can be exported, but not necessarily from Detroit
A global shift away from greenhouse gas emissions does not mean just replacing cars and oil with transit and solar power. Transit is cheaper to operate than cars: in metro New York, 80.5% of personal transportation expenditure is still on cars, and the rest is (as in the rest of the country) partly on air travel and not transit fare, whereas work trip mode shares in the metropolitan statistical area are 56% car, 31% transit. With its relatively high (for North America) transit usage, metro New York has the lowest share of household spending going to transportation, just 11.4%. This missing consumption goes elsewhere. Where does it go?
The answer is low-carbon industries. Consuming less oil, steel, and concrete means not just consuming more local labor for making buildings more efficient and running public transit, but also shifting consumption to less carbon-intensive industries. This low-carbon consumption includes local purchases, for example going out to eat, or hiring a babysitter to look after the kids, neither of which involves any carbon emissions. But it also includes some goods that can be made centrally. What are they, and can they be made in the same areas that make cars and steel or drill for oil and gas?
The answer is no. First, in supply regions like the Athabascan Basin, Dammam, and the North Slope of Alaksa, there’s no real infrastructure for any economic production other than oil production. The infrastructure (in the case of North America) and the institutions (in the case of the Persian Gulf) are not suited for any kind of manufacturing. Second, in real cities geared around a single industry, like Detroit or Houston, there are still lingering problems with workforce quality, business culture, infrastructure, and other necessities for economic diversification.
Take the tech industry as an example. The industry itself is very low-carbon, in the sense that software is practically zero-carbon and even hardware has low carbon content relative to its market value. Some individual tech products are dirty, such as Uber, but the industry overall is clean. A high carbon tax is likely to lead to a consumption shift toward tech. And tech as an industry has little to look for in Detroit and Houston. Austin has booming tech employment, but Houston does not, despite having an extensive engineering sector courtesy of the oil industry as well as NASA. The business culture in the space industry (which is wedded to military contracting) is alien to that of tech and vice versa; the way workers are interviewed, hired, and promoted is completely different. I doubt the engineers oil and auto industries are any more amenable to career change to software.
On the level of line workers rather than engineers, the situation is even worse. A manufacturing worker in heavy industry can retrain to work in light industry, or in a non-exportable industry like construction, but light industry has little need for the massive factories that churn out cars and steel. And non-manufacturing exports like tech don’t employ armies of manufacturing workers.
In Germany the situation is better, in that Munich and Stuttgart may have little software, but they do have less dirty manufacturing in addition to their auto industries. It’s likely that if global demand for cars shifts to a global demand for trains then Munich will likely keep thriving – it’s the home of not just BMW and Man but also Siemens. However, the institutions and worker training that have turned southern Germany into an economically diverse powerhouse have not really replicated outside Germany. Ultimately, in a decarbonizing world, southern Germany will be the winner among many heavy industrial regions, most of which won’t do so well.
There’s no alternative to shrinkage in some cities
A shift away from fossil fuel and cars toward green energy and public transit does not have to be harsh. It can aim to give individual workers in those industries a relatively soft landing. However, two snags remain, and are unavoidable.
The first is that some line workers have deliberately chosen poor working conditions in exchange for high wages; the linked example is about oil rig workers in Alaska, but the same issue occurs in some unionized manufacturing and services, for example electricians get high wages but all suffer hearing loss by their 50s. It’s possible to retrain workers and find them work that’s at the same place on the average person’s indifference curve between pay and work conditions, but since those workers evidently chose higher-pay, more dangerous jobs, their personal preference is likely to weight money more than work conditions and thus they’re likely to be unhappy with any alternative.
The second and more important snag is the effect of retraining on entire regions. Areas that specialize to oil, gas, cars, and to some extent other heavy industry today are going to suffer economic decline, as the rest of the world shifts its consumption to either local goods (such as transit operations) or different economic sectors that have no reason to locate in these areas (such as software).
Nobody will be sad to see Saudi Arabia crash except people who are directly paid by its government. But the leaders of Texas and Michigan are not Mohammad bin Salman; nonetheless, it is necessary to proceed with decarbonization. It’s not really possible to guarantee the communities a soft landing. Governments all over the world have wasted vast amounts of money trying and failing to diversify from one sector (e.g. oil in the GCC states) or attract an industry in vogue (e.g. tech anywhere in the world). If engineering in Detroit and Houston can’t diversify on its own, there’s nothing the government can do to improve it, and thus these city regions are destined to become much smaller than they are today.
This is bound to have knock-on regional effects. Entire regions don’t die quietly. Firms specializing in professional services to the relevant industries (such as Halliburton) will have to retool. Small business owners who’ve dedicated their lives to selling food or insurance or hardware to Houstonians and suburban Detroit white flighters will need to leave, just as their counterparts in now-dead mining towns or in Detroit proper did. Some will succeed elsewhere, just as many people in New Orleans who were displaced by Katrina found success in Houston. But not all will. And it’s not possible to guarantee all of them a soft landing, because it’s not possible to guarantee that every new small business will succeed.
All policy, even very good policy, has human costs. There are ways to reduce these costs, through worker retraining and expansion of alternative employment (such as retrofitting older houses to be more energy-efficient). But there is no way to eliminate these costs. Some people who are comfortable today will be made precarious by any serious decarbonization program; put another way, these people’s entire livelihood depends on continuing to destroy the planet, and most of them are not executives at oil and gas companies. It does not mean that decarbonization should be abandoned or even that it should be pursued more hesitantly; but it does mean climate activists, including transit activists, have to be honest about how it affects people in and around polluting industries.
Where is private rapid transit? Private companies built the London Underground, the els in New York, the Chicago L, the first line of the Tokyo subway. Construction costs are up since then, but so are ridership (in the second half of 1905, London’s Central line carried 23 million people; today, its annual ridership is 289 million, a sixfold increase) and people’s ability to afford higher fares. In most cities transportation works as an interconnected complex system with little room for a private upstart, but this is not universal. In particular, in San Francisco, a subway under Geary wouldn’t need to interface much with BART or Muni. So how come none of the tech companies in California, which have invested in many different kinds of transportation and haven’t shied from reinventing the wheel, seems interested?
Only in the last week, talking to people at the ecomodernism conference I discussed last post, did I fully understand the answer. It’s sobering: investing in transit isn’t going to let a private company dominate the world. The companies that operate trains around the world by contract, like the MTR and Veolia, make money, but much of that is government subsidies for which they have to compete on level field, and even then their margins are low by the standards of Airbnb, let alone older tech firms like Facebook and Google. With good cost control it’s possible to get a positive return on investment, but it’s on the order of 3%*, which is not what a venture capital fund is looking for. It’s looking for ten different ideas, of which eight will flop, one will tread water, and one will make a windfall. Committing billions upfront to something for low returns with extensive regulatory risk is not really on its radar.
Instead of transit, the business world, by which I mean the constellation of VC, tech, tech media, business media, and new investors, is looking at things that can start small. Uber paved the way, making dirty travel by taxi much easier; more recently, companies have imitated the model for green transportation, first dockless bikes and now e-scooters. A tech press that in 2014 was replete with “Uber, but for ___” turned to dockless by 2017 and scooters this year.
The reaction of most of my green transportation Twitter feed to the newer trends is positive. To the extent people express skepticism, it’s almost always rooted in a leftist disdain for private businesses. The only other criticism I’ve heard, from Eric Goldwyn, is that transportation revolutions require dedicated right-of-way, such as car-dominated roads, grade-separated rapid transit, BRT lanes, separate bike lanes, or the extensive corrals of docked bikes. But even this line recognizes the synergy between dockless bikes or scooters and public transit.
However, synergy does not imply similarity. That rail networks can use bikes to extend their station access radii outside urban cores does not imply that transit is like other green transportation, and certainly does not imply that bikes (let alone scooters) are a substitute for transit. They work at completely different scales.
Transit works at a large scale. I know of a small handful of transit cities below 2 million people, like Karlsruhe, Geneva, and Strasbourg, none of which has the per capita rail ridership of Paris. In the 2 million area, transit cities exist, but rely on total systemwide integration, sometimes (e.g. in Zurich) extending to the open national railway network. There exist some edge cases where a single line can be profitable, like Geary in San Francisco, but the single line is not massively profitable. A 3% return is great for a government that sets its own regulations and can borrow at sovereign rates; for a private business facing regulatory risk, this return is too low to bother with.
Everything else works at a small scale. Cars are self-evidently like that: they’re great at getting people to places where few people want to go or at times when few people travel. At midnight, taxis will handily beat the RER on travel time. At midday, they are slower than a delayed Washington Metro train or a local New York City Subway line. The startup costs are low, too: grading and paving a two-lane road supporting 70-80 km/h (less in rough terrain) is cheap. It will have grade crossings, but outside urban areas, stop signs and road hierarchies are good enough.
However, this is equally true of bikes and scooters. This isn’t as obvious as with cars, since bikes are too slow to work in rural areas less dense than Holland. But the same speed limitation ensures bikes are only useful in relatively small cities. The Netherlands is somewhat unique in having compact cities with sharp boundaries, and even there, people mostly use bikes when they can live close to work (the average urban bike speed is 12.4 km/h). At intercity scale, the train and car dominate.
Bikes clearly scale up to dense cities; Amsterdam’s urban typology is mid-rise, dense enough for the purposes of this question. Scooters most likely are the same – their speeds and total amount of space consumed are similar to those of bikes. Their scaling problem is about distance more than capacity. 12.4 km/h is too slow. Buses in New York are almost as fast, and the average bus trip in the city is 3.5 km, with riders typically using the bus to transfer to the subway.
The problem with the American and Chinese business world’s convergence on dockless bikes and scooters as the next big thing is then that, like New York buses, their main use case is to extend a faster mode of transportation, that is, the train. Without the train, they are not worth much. Ofo is realizing this as it pulls out of the US, Israel, and Australia, focusing on its core market of large Chinese cities and only maintaining an international foothold in a few transit cities like Paris and Singapore.
In contrast, the train without the dockless bike or scooter works quite well. Paris had a perfectly functional transit system in 2017, before dockless came in, and even in 2006, before Velib. This means that the train needs to come first in a city that wishes to reduce its car use and shift trips to eco-friendly modes of transportation. Private businesses won’t build it, unless it’s to extend a preexisting system that they already own (as is the case for the private railroads in Japan).
There is no alternative to a functioning state. To a functioning state, a few billion dollars or euros for a metro line is a serious expense, but one that it can take if the ridership projections are adequate. To a functioning state, VCs that talk about changing the world through scooters are a nuisance to be ignored. The scooters can play a role and the regulations on them shouldn’t be too onerous, but their role is secondary, and the predominant effort in planning should go to fixed routes.
*Assume $2 billion to tunnel under Geary from Union Square to the VA Hospital. This is a little more than $200 million per km, which is normal for a developed country that’s not the United States; figure that better cost control than the average cancels out with abnormally high market wages in San Francisco. Operating costs cluster in the $4-7/car-km; BART is at $5.36 as of 2016 with long cars, and a driverless operation could do somewhat better, so figure 150-meter trains at $30/train-km, or $300 for a one-way run. At 18 base tph, 30 peak tph, annual operating costs are in the $80-90 million/year range. Bus ridership on and parallel to Geary is 110,000/weekday today; without making any assumptions on development, 250,000/weekday, or 75 million/year, is reasonable. Muni is full of transfers, so getting clean revenue/trip data is hard, but the subway in New York charges around $2 per trip, and the Richmond District could probably function without free transfers to Muni without taking too much of a hit to revenue, making $150 million/year in revenue reasonable. (150,000,000-90,000,000)/2,000,000,000 = 3%.