Note: I am going to take some suggestions for post topics in the future. This post comes from a Twitter poll I ran the day before yesterday.
The Yamanote Line in Tokyo is a ring. Trains go around the ring as on any other circular rail line. However, the line is not truly circumferential, since it serves as a north-south trunk through Central Tokyo. In that way, it contrasts with fully circumferential rings, such as the Moscow Circle Line, Seoul Metro Line 2 (see update below), and the under-construction Paris Metro Line 15. It’s really a hybrid of radial and circumferential transit, despite the on-paper circular layout. In previous posts I’ve attacked one kind of mixed line and given criteria for when another kind of mixed line can work. In this post, I’m going to discuss the kind of mixed line Yamanote is: why it works, and in what circumstances other cities can replicate it.
Consider the following diagram:
The red and blue lines are radial. The other three are hybrids. The yellow line is radial, mostly, but skirts city center and acts as a circumferential to its west; this kind of hybrid is nearly always a bad idea. The pink line is radial, but at the eastern end bends to act as a circumferential at the eastern end; this kind of hybrid is uncommon but can work in special cases, for example if Second Avenue Subway in New York is extended west under 125th Street. The green line is a Yamanote-style ring, offering radial service through city center but also circumferential service to the south and west.
On this map, the green line ensures there is circumferential service connecting what are hopefully the major nodes just west and south of city center. It doesn’t do anything for areas north and east of it. This means that this line works better if there is inherently more demand to the west and south than to the east and north. In Tokyo, this is indeed the case: the Yamanote ring offers north-south circumferential service west of Central Tokyo, through what are now the high-density secondary business districts of Ikebukuro, Shinjuku, and Shibuya. East of Central Tokyo, the only really compelling destinations, judging by subway ridership, are Oshiage and Asakusa, and neither is as big as Ikebukuro, Shinjuku, or Shibuya. Toyosu has high subway ridership, but is close enough to the water that it’s hard to build a circumferential through it.
Such a mixed line also becomes more useful if the radial component is better. The radial line can’t extend very far out, since the line needs to form a ring, so it should connect to very high-density neighborhoods just a few stops outside city center, or else provide additional service on an overloaded radial trunk. The Yamanote Line benefits from looking less like a perfect circle and more like upside-down egg, with two elongated north-south legs and two short (one very short) east-west legs; it extends its radial segment slightly farther out than it would otherwise be. In Tokyo, of course, all rail lines serving the center are beyond capacity, so the Yamanote Line’s extra two tracks certainly help; in fact, the two radial lines going north and south of Tokyo Station on parallel tracks, the Tohoku and Tokaido Lines, are two of the three most overcrowded in the city. (The third is the Chuo Line.) There’s even a dedicated local line, Keihin-Tohoku, covering the inner segments of both lines, making the same stops as Yamanote where they are parallel, in addition to the more express, longer-distance Tokaido and Tohoku Main Line trains.
Finally, there should not be radials that miss the mixed line; this is always a danger with subway lines that are neither pure radials nor pure circumferentials. Yamanote avoids this problem because it’s so close to the water at Shimbashi that the north-south subway lines all curve to the west as they go south, intersecting the ring. It’s actually the east-west lines that cross the Yamanote Line without transfers, like Tozai and Hanzomon; the north-south lines intersect the line with transfers.
The obvious caveat here is that while the Yamanote Line functions very well today, historically it did not originate as a circumferential in an area that needed extra service. It was built as a bypass around Central Tokyo, connecting the Tokaido and Tohoku Line at a time when Tokaido still terminated at Shimbashi and Tohoku at Ueno. Tokyo Station only opened 30 years later, and the ring was only completed another 10 years after that. Shinjuku only grew in the first place as the junction between the Yamanote and Chuo Lines, and Ikebukuro and Shibuya grew as the terminals of interwar private suburban railways. When the line opened, in 1885, Tokyo had 1.1 million people; today, the city proper has 9.5 million and the metro area has 38 million. The early rail lines shaped the city as much as it shaped them.
Nonetheless, with the economic geography of Tokyo today, the Yamanote Line works. Even though the history is different, it’s a useful tool for mature cities seeking to build up their rail networks. Provided the principles that make for the Yamanote Line’s success apply – stronger demand for circumferential service on one side of city center than on the others, demand for supplemental inner radial service, and good connections to other lines – this layout can succeed elsewhere.
Waterfront cities should take especial note, since they naturally have one side that potentially has high travel demand and one side that has fish. In those cities, there may be value in running the radial closest to the shoreline in a ring with an inland line.
This does not mean that every waterfront city should consider such a line. On the contrary: non-examples outnumber examples.
In Toronto, using two mainline tracks and connecting them to a ring to provide subway relief could have worked, but there are no good north-south corridors for such a ring (especially on the west), and the only good east-west corridor is Eglinton, which is being built incompatible with mainline rail (and has too much independent value to be closed down and replaced with a mainline link).
In Chicago, the grid makes it hard to branch lines properly: for example, a ring leaving the Red Line heading west at Belmont would necessary have to branch before Belmont Station, cutting frequency to the busiest station in the area. Plans for a circle line from last decade also faced limited demand along individual segments, such as the north-south segment of the Pink Line parallel to Ashland; ultimately, the planned line had too small a radius, with a circumference of 16 km, compared with 34.5 for Yamanote.
In Tel Aviv, there just isn’t any compelling north-south corridor outside the center. There are some strong destinations just east of Ayalon, like the Diamond Exchange and HaTikva, but those are already served by mainline rail. Beyond that, the next batch of strong destinations, just past Highway 4, is so far from Central Tel Aviv that the line would really be two radials connected by a short circumferential, more the London Circle Line when it was a full circle than the Yamanote Line, which is just one radial.
So where would a Yamanote-style circle be useful outside Tokyo? There are semi-plausible examples in New York and Boston.
In New York, it’s at the very least plausible to cut the G off the South Brooklyn Line, and have it enter Manhattan via the Rutgers Street Tunnel, as a branch of the F, replacing the current M train. There is no track connection enabling such service, but it could be constructed just west of Hoyt-Schermerhorn; consult Vanshnookraggen’s new track map. This new G still shouldn’t form a perfect circle (there’s far too much radial demand along the Queens Boulevard Line), but there are plausible arguments why it should, with a short tunnel just west of Court Square: namely, it would provide a faster way into Midtown from Williamsburg and Greenpoint than the overcrowded L.
In Boston, there is a circumferential alignment, from Harvard to JFK-UMass via Brookline, that can get a subway, in what was called the Urban Ring project before it was downgraded to buses. Two of the busiest buses in the region, the 1 and 66, go along or near the route. An extension from Harvard east into Sullivan and Charlestown is pretty straightforward, too. Beyond Charlestown, there are three options, all with costs and benefits: keep the line a semicricle, complete the circle via East Boston and the airport, and complete the circle via the North End and Aquarium. The second option is a pure circumferential, in which South Boston, lying between East Boston and JFK-UMass, would get better service north and south than west to Downtown. The third option cuts off East Boston, the lowest-ridership of the radial legs of the subway, and offers a way into the center from South Boston and Charlestown.
Of note, neither New York nor Boston is a clear example of good use of the Yamanote-style ring. This style of mixed line is rare, depending on the existence of unusually strong circumferential demand on just one side (west in Boston, east in New York), and on the water making it hard to build regular circles. It’s an edge case; but good transit planning revolves around understanding when a city’s circumstances produce an edge case, in which the simplest principles of transit planning (“every subway line should be radial or circumferential”) do not apply.
Update 5/16: commenter Threestationsquare reminds me that Seoul Metro Line 2 is the same kind of ring as Yamanote. The north leg passes through City Hall, near the northern end of the Seoul CBD, providing radial east-west service. The south leg serves a busy secondary commercial core in Gangnam, Tehran Avenue; Gangnam Station itself is the busiest in Seoul, and has sprouted a large secondary CBD.
Vancouver is going to open the Evergreen Line at the end of the year, an 11-km SkyTrain branch to Coquitlam with a projected ridership of 70,000 per weekday; current ridership on the B-line bus paralleling the route, the 97, is 11,000, the 20th busiest citywide (see data here).
New York is going to open the first phase of Second Avenue Subway at the end of the year or early next year, a total of 4 km of new route with projected ridership of 200,000 per day (see pp. 2-3). The bus running down First and Second Avenues, the M15, has 46,000 weekday riders, trading places with two other routes for first citywide, but first phase only covers a quarter of the route, and the ridership projection in case the entire Second Avenue Subway is built is 560,000; nobody expects the other two top bus routes in New York, the B46 on Utica and the Bx12 on Fordham, to support such ridership if they’re ever replaced with subways.
In Boston, the Green Line Extension northwest in Somerville is projected to have 52,000 weekday riders by 2030. There is no single parallel bus, but a few buses serve the same area: the 101 with 4,800 weekday riders, the 89 with 4,200, the 88 with 4,100, and the 87 with 3,800 (all bus ridership data is from the Bluebook, PDF-pp. 48-54); the busiest of these ranks 28th regionwide.
In all three cases, I think the ridership estimates are reasonable. Vancouver especially has a good track record, with Canada Line ridership meeting projections; it’s harder to tell in New York and Boston, which have not opened a rail line recently (New York’s 7 extension was just one stop, and its predicted ridership explicitly depends on future development). Since in general I do think cities should plan their rail extensions around where the busiest buses are, I want to talk about the situations that create a disjunction.
I mentioned in two past posts that rapid transit that surface transit and rapid transit alignments obey different rules, with respect to street geometry. In the more recent post, I used it to argue that tramway corridors should follow buses. In the older post, I argued that subways can take minor detours or go under narrower, slower streets to reach major destinations, for example Century City in Los Angeles, which is near the Wilshire corridor but not on it. However, the latter case isn’t quite what’s happening in any of the three examples here: Second Avenue Subway follows Second Avenue (though phases 1-2 diverge west to serve Times Square, which is important), and the Green Line Extension and Evergreen Line’s routes are both straighter than any bus in the area.
The situation in Boston and Vancouver is not that there’s an arterial bus that misses key destinations. Rather, it’s that the street network is inhospitable to buses. Boston is infamous for its cowpaths: only a few streets, such as Massachusetts Avenue, are wide and long enough to be reasonable corridors for arterial buses, and as a result, the bus network only really works as a subway feeder, with very high rail to bus ridership ratio by US standards. The corridors that do support busier buses – in the Greater Cambridge sector, those are the 77, 71, and 73 buses – are defined by the presence of continuous arterials more than by high latent travel demand.
Vancouver, of course, is nothing like Boston. Its bus grid is Jarrett Walker‘s standard example of an efficient, frequent bus grid. But this is only true in Vancouver proper, and in parts of Burnaby. In the other suburbs, either there’s an arterial street grid but not enough density for a good bus grid (Richmond, Surrey), or there’s no grid at all (Coquitlam). There’s a bus map of the Port Moody-Coquitlam area, with the 97-B line in bright orange and the 5-roundtrips-per-day West Coast Express commuter rail line in purple; the Evergreen Line will run straight from Port Moody to Coquitlam along an alignment parallel to the railroad, whereas the 97-B has to take a detour. Overall, I would class Coquitlam and Somerville together, as places where the street network is so bad for buses that rail extensions can plausibly get a large multiple of the ridership of existing buses.
Second Avenue Subway phase 1 partly belongs in this category, due to the difficulty of going from Second Avenue to Times Square by road, but high projected ridership on phase 3 suggests something else is at play as well. While First and Second Avenues are wide, straight throughfares, functioning as a consistent one-way pair, two factors serve to suppress bus ridership. First, Manhattan traffic is exceedingly slow. The MTA is proud of its select bus service treatments, which boosted speed on the M15 between 125th and Houston Streets to an average of about 10 km/h; in contrast, the Bx12 averages 13-14 km/h west of Pelham Bay Parkway. And second, the Lexington Avenue Line is 360 meters, so riders can walk a few minutes and get on the 6 train, which averages 22 km/h. The Lexington trains are overcrowded, but they’re still preferable to slow buses.
Now, the closeness to the Lexington trains can be waved away for the purposes of the principle of this post: I am interested in where preexisting transit ridership is not a good guide to future transit ridership, and in this example, we see the demand via high ridership on the 4, 5, and 6 trains. However, the issue of slow Manhattan traffic can be folded generally into the issue of circuitous street networks in Boston and Coquitlam.
It makes intuitive sense that the higher the bus-to-rail trip time ratio is, the higher the rail line’s ridership is relative to that of the bus it replaces. But what I’m saying here goes further: the two mechanisms at hand – a street network that lacks continuous arterials in the desired direction, and extensive traffic congestion – reduce the effectiveness of any surface solution. Is it possible to build tramways in the Vancouver suburbs? Yes. But in Coquitlam (and in Richmond and Surrey, for different reasons), they would be circuitous just like the buses. This also limits the ability of bus upgrades to solve transportation problems in such areas.
Now, what of New York? In theory, a bus or tram with absolute signal priority could run down the Manhattan avenues or the major outer-borough throughfares at high speed. But in practice, there is no such thing as absolute signal priority on city streets. It’s possible to speed up surface vehicles via signal priority, but they’ll still have to stop if cross-traffic blocks the intersection. In Paris, the tramways are not fast, averaging around 17-18 km/h, even though they have dedicated lanes and run on wide boulevards in the outer parts of the city and in the inner suburbs; in contrast, Metro Line 14, passing through city center, averages almost 40 km/h.
The implication here is that when a city develops its subway network, it should pay attention not just to where its busiest surface lines are, but also to which areas have intense activity but have suppressed surface ridership because the roads are slow or circuitous. These are often old city centers, built up before there were cars and even before there was heavy horse wagon traffic. Other times, they are general areas where the road network is not geared toward the desired direction of travel.
In cities without subways at all, there is a danger of overrelying on surface traffic, because such cities often have old cores with narrow streets, with intense pressure for auto-oriented urban renewal as they get richer. This is less common in the developed world, but nearly every developed-world city of note either has a rapid transit network already or is completely auto-oriented and has no areas where the road network is weak. Israel supplies several exceptions, since its transportation network is underdeveloped for how rich it is; in past posts I have already voiced my criticism of the decision to center the Tel Aviv Subway around wide roads rather than the older, often denser parts of the city.
In cities with subways, it’s rarely a systemic problem. That is, there’s rarely a specific type of neighborhood that can support higher rapid transit ridership than preexisting transit ridership would indicate. It depends on local factors – for example, in Somerville, the railroads are oriented toward Downtown Boston, but the streets are not, nor are they oriented toward good transfer points to the subway. This means transit planners need to carefully look at the road network for gaps in the web of fast arterials, and consider whether those gaps justify transit investment, as the GLX and Evergreen Line do.
Small, dense developed countries should electrify their entire national rail networks. Usually, railroads think in terms of electrifying lines, but this hides the systemwide benefits of transitioning the entire network to run under electricity. I have previously written about this in the context of regionally funded commuter rail systems, as have Paul Druce and Clem Tillier. But some countries are so small and dense that the analysis for a single large metro area holds nationwide as well.
In this post I am going to focus on Israel, which is completely unelectrified, but also foray into mostly-electrified Belgium and the Netherlands, and currently-electrifying Denmark. Switzerland has already completed electrification; it is less dense than all of those countries except Denmark, but has cheap hydro power, which makes it cheaper to run trains under electricity, and key mainlines through mountainous terrain, where electrification is a major performance booster.
First, let us recall the performance benefits of electrification in flat terrain. The major rolling stock manufacturers sell DMUs with top speeds of 120-140 km/h, and EMUs with top speeds of 140-200 km/h; faster trains are generally more expensive, and with a few exceptions not of much use outside dedicated high-speed rail lines. The difference in acceleration performance is large: when the top speed is 100 km/h, an EMU such as the FLIRT takes less than 30 seconds to accelerate from standstill to top speed, corresponding to an acceleration time penalty of about 14 seconds, whereas the Stadler GTW DMU has a penalty of about 28 seconds (see data on PDF-p. 43); the GTW EMU version, a less powerful train than the FLIRT, loses 19 seconds. DMUs are also less comfortable than EMUs, because the diesel engines are right under passengers’ feet; longer-distance lines almost never use them, and instead use diesel locomotives, which accelerate even more slowly.
Because of this large difference in acceleration performance, electrification delivers the greatest performance benefits on lines with closely-spaced stops and high traffic. These are usually commuter rail lines rather than intercity lines. For example, suppose the top speed is 130 km/h, the stop spacing is 3 km, station dwell times are 30 seconds, and schedules are padded 7%. The FLIRT’s acceleration penalty is about 19 seconds, that of the diesel GTW (to 125 km/h) is 43 seconds; the deceleration penalties are both a bit lower than the acceleration penalties, but not too much lower, to avoid overheating. An EMU will average 68 km/h, a DMU 52 km/h. Independently of comparative energy and maintenance costs, this represents a 23% cut in the rolling stock requirement and in the on-board labor cost, and a larger cut in the required subsidy thanks to higher ridership. In contrast, if the stop spacing is 50 km, the difference in speed shrinks to 116 km/h vs. 113 km/h. Even if the EMU can do 160 km/h, its average speed is 140 km/h, still a smaller percentage difference than in the case of commuter rail, while the cost of providing this higher average speed is larger because tracks need to be upgraded to a higher top speed.
In small countries, short stop spacing is the normal state of affairs. In Israel, few segments of track have stops spaced more than 10 km apart, and those are mostly on the under-construction high-speed line from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which is planned to host 200 km/h electric trains. In the Tel Aviv and Haifa metro areas, stop spacing in the 3-4 km range is normal. Even intercity trains make all stops within Tel Aviv and Haifa proper, skipping the stations between those two cities. There are no major cities north of Haifa, only suburbs and small cities, and thus making many stops in and north of Haifa is justified for intercity trains – there aren’t many through-passengers who are being inconvenienced. South of Tel Aviv there are some moderate-size cities (as well as Jerusalem, but the legacy rail line to it is so curvy that the train from Tel Aviv takes twice as long as the bus), but because of high traffic, all trains make all four Tel Aviv stops.
With the exception of Belgium, all four countries under discussion also have dominant primate city regions, with about 40% of their respective national population; those city regions have dense rail networks, which are electrified in all countries except Israel. Denmark runs the Copenhagen commuter lines as a separate S-tog from the rest of the network, but in the Netherlands, Israel, and Belgium, there is no sharp difference. The result is that a large fraction of the overall rail network is urban commuter rail, which should be electrified, while additional chunks are regional rail with enough frequency to justify electrification even without a large city in the center.
Moreover, the service pattern makes it hard to electrify just a few lines in isolation, even if they’re the busiest. Regional rail networks frequently employ through-running. In small countries, this is common for the entire rail network, for different reasons: in Israel, the route through Tel Aviv is a new line from 20 years ago, without many platform tracks for terminating trains, whereas in the Netherlands and Belgium it’s the result of a highly nonlinear population distribution, which favors a mesh of lines, such that busy routes share tracks extensively with less busy ones. Compare these population distributions with that of the Northeastern US, where there is clear division into a trunk from Washington to Boston and branches heading inland.
Finally, these are all small countries. This is why I am not including South Korea in this proposal, even though it is denser, more mountainous, and more primate city-centric than all countries under discussion: South Korea is large enough that it’s plausible to run the Seoul-area commuter rail as an isolated electrified system, keeping the remainder of the legacy network unelectrified, with several maintenance shops for diesel trains around the country. In contrast, the unelectrified portion of the Dutch rail network consists of isolated branch lines, making it less economic to keep operating diesel trains. Israel has no electrification at all, but if it electrifies the Tel Aviv and Haifa commuter trains, the remainder of the network will be disjointed, requiring inefficient solutions such as considerable deadheading, or regular runs of diesel trains under long stretches of catenary.
One example I keep harping on, which I got from The LIRR Today before its blackout, is the LIRR’s diesel runs. The LIRR is almost completely electrified, and its diesel branches see little service, especially at the easternmost end of Long Island. Between this and work rules that separate diesel and electric train crew, the crew on one of the diesel trains work 2.5 hours per workday, running a train once in one direction and deadheading the way back; this and the bespoke nature of diesel trains on the LIRR lead to high operating costs.
The situations in the countries in question are not as comical as on the LIRR, but there are bound to be inefficiencies in Belgium and the Netherlands, and soon to be Denmark, which is electrifying its main lines, which together with the S-tog are a majority of its network. In Israel, the situation is the worst, since its rail network is even smaller: 1,100 km, compared with 2,600 km in Denmark, 3,600 in Belgium, and 2,900 in the Netherlands; this means that a partially electrified situation involves even smaller train orders and higher operating costs, while an entirely unelectrified network involves poor service in the urban areas.
Israel also has no rail links with any of its neighbors, nor any plans to construct any. This means that its branch lines are truly isolated, unlike those of the Netherlands, Belgium, and Denmark, which sometimes connect to other unelectrified lines in neighboring countries.
The way out of high diesel operating costs is to spend the money on completing electrification. As the example of Denmark shows, the costs are not outrageous: about $1.1 million per kilometer (I do not know whether track- or route-km, but I believe this is track-km). In the case of Israel, whose rail network is almost entirely single-track, this is not much more than $1 billion either way; to put things in perspective, the projected cost of the first Tel Aviv subway line is now up to $4.2 billion, while the Ministry of Transportation’s overall budget is $3 billion per year (PDF-p. 10), mostly spent on roads, in a country with only 300 cars per 1,000 people.
All-diesel railroads resist electrifying their busiest lines because they prefer to be able to let every train substitute for any train, and, for smaller operations, maintain all trains in one yard. For the same reason, small railroads with high traffic, such as the national railroads of dense countries, should instead go all-electric, in order to retain the benefits of interchangeable trains and maintenance facilities while also capturing the benefits of electrification. It’s not terribly relevant to the countries I’ve recently lived in, but for the same reason Switzerland fully electrified, similar small, dense countries should do the same.
I have been thinking of alternatives to the current plan for a Tel Aviv Subway for several years now; last year I expounded on some principles for a better plan. As I mentioned last year, Tel Aviv’s subway system should be shaped roughly like the letter E, with a single north-south spine paralleling the rail mainline and three east-west lines intersecting the mainline at the city’s three main train stations. Today I would like to give more details about this system, with special focus on commuter rail. While thinking of how to create an optimal system serving the region’s secondary centers, I came upon an important principle used on the Paris RER and the Zurich S-Bahn, which past posts (including my own) on the subject downplayed in favor of city-center tunnels: namely, it is often correct to deviate from legacy alignments for a few kilometers in order to better serve a secondary center, even if it requires some greenfield tunneling.
Before I go on, I will note that this plan is intended to be politically neutral, in the sense of serving the dense primary and secondary urban centers of Gush Dan regardless of ethnicity, and with only weak regard for income. In my view, if there are anti-government riots in response to police shooting of a young minority, this is not a reason to deny service to the area; on the contrary, denial of social services is what creates the social alienation that contributes to rioting. But more than this, this plan assumes everyone travels to the same destinations, a reasonable approximation in a country with the level of social integration of the US or a monolingual European country, but a problematic one in Israel.
About 18% of Israel’s population is Arab, and another 12% is ultra-Orthodox; both groups are highly segregated, and have their own job centers. On 972Mag’s Hebrew-language sister site, Noam Sheizaf reports that MK Hanin Zoabi (the Knesset’s sole Arab woman), best-known for her incendiary rhetoric against the IDF, criticized the state’s emphasis on developing fast transportation to Tel Aviv on the grounds that Arabs, especially Arab women, typically work close to home. Incomes are much lower than those of mainline Jews as well: I have no ultra-Orthodox data, but making mild assumptions on income distribution within each decile from Central Bureau of Statistics data, per capita income from work is about $6,000 per year for Arabs, a bit higher than Romania excluding Bucharest, and $16,500 for Jews, a bit higher than Greece or Southern Italy. The best American analogy I can think of is the development of dedicated buses for Chinese immigrants in New York City proper and ultra-Orthodox Jews in the New York area, as both groups are very poor and have different centers bypassing Midtown and Lower Manhattan.
With this deliberate decision to ignore ethnic composition in mind, my plan is to build an E-shaped subway system, with the E’s southern leg turning north at its western end to provide a second north-south line in Central Tel Aviv. Here is a link to the map I currently think works the best. The brown lines are an electrified commuter rail system running at very high frequency between Tel Aviv HaHagana and Exhibition Center (currently called Tel Aviv University, though the station is quite far from the center of campus). Observe that the lines deviate from the current network in a few places:
* The circumferential service running along the Eastern Line loops to serve Elad better.
* There is a new branch into Kafr Qassem, passing much closer to Rosh HaAyin’s built-up area than the current Rosh HaAyin North station does.
* The Kfar Saba branch is completely redone. There are plans to connect it to the Coastal Railway concurrently with building a freeway along the same alignment, going due west from its current terminus alongside Route 531. The freeway should be scrapped – Israel is building too many of them, and insists of bundling every transit project with a freeway (even the currently proposed Red Line is planned to come together with a freeway tunnel through an alignment near Jaffa Road in South Tel Aviv, forcing the line to go deeper and raising its costs). Moreover, the connection west of Kfar Saba should be more direct. Conversely, east of Kfar Saba there is a right-of-way that can be used to send trains up to Tira, and perhaps farther into the Triangle, into Tayibe or Qalansawe.
* There is a new branch to Glilot and Herzliya Pituah, an edge city located a bit too far from the Herzliya train station to be a comfortable walk, especially along the wide, pedestrian-hostile access road.
* The line enters Netanya along a new alignment, with a short tunnel; the current Netanya station is at the edge of the built-up area.
* There is a reactivated branch serving Tsrifin.
* The route through Rishon LeZion avoids the current plans to connect Rishonim Station (Kiryat Simha on my map, to avoid confusing with Ramat HaSharon Rishonim) to the Ashdod Branch via Route 431, avoiding the Rishon LeZion built-up area. Rishon is a sprawling suburb, but has more than 200,000 people, and secondary centers; it is better to spend a bit more money, tunneling under the center of the city and going above-ground to its west to serve the College of Management Academic Studies, Israel’s largest independent (i.e. non-university) college.
These short tunnels are in line with construction in European cities: the Paris RER’s centerpiece is the connecting tunnels in central Paris, but as seen on this map, which includes chronology, the Charles-de-Gaulle branch opened in 1976, shortly before the RER B it connects to, and the Disneyland branch opened in 1977, concurrently with the RER A. The Zurich S-Bahn includes short greenfield tunnels to access the airport from both directions. The Stockholm commuter rail system includes a tunneled loop serving Arlanda, which was built for the Arlanda Express and then extended and used by the regular commuter trains. Usually these new tunnels serve airports or other new centers such as Disneyland, since the old secondary centers already have legacy lines, but in Israel, most towns’ train stations are located at the edge of the built-up area rather than in the center, and in the larger secondary cities, this justifies some additional tunneling.
On the same principle, the Jabotinsky subway line, which is otherwise elevated outside the Tel Aviv core, tunnels to reach central Petah Tikva, in lieu of the current plan to skirt the center of the city and go in tram mode to Petah Tikva Central Bus Station.
I expect most ridership, and by far most of the cost, to come from the subway lines, colored red, green, blue, and yellow; I call them subways, but out of the system’s 60 km, 27 are above ground and only 33 are underground, mainly in Tel Aviv proper and in the parts of Ramat Gan and Givatayim that do not have wide roads for a right-of-way. I chose names for political reasons: the north-south line is called the Jaffa Line since it passes through Jaffa, a low-income left-wing Arab area; the northern leg of the E is called the Jabotinsky Line since it runs largely along streets named after Zeev Jabotinsky, founder of Revisionist (right-wing) Zionism; the central leg of the E is called HaShalom Line since it intersects the mainline at HaShalom train station, and the peace process (shalom in Hebrew) is a cornerstone of the Zionist left; and the southern leg of the E is called HaTikva Line since it passes through HaTikva, a low-income right-wing Mizrahi neighborhood. I tried to steer clear of politics in the route choice: only the choice of names, constrained by the need to refer to features of the lines, is political.
In the remainder of the post, I will deal with possible objections to the proposal, and with various doubts and drawbacks.
1. Probably the biggest objection I expect is that the system skirts the proposed Tel Aviv CBD, which is District 6 on this map. Unlike the current plan, there are no tunnels under Namir Road, but rather the tunnels are farther west, in the city’s traditional center. This is deliberate. I do not have bus traffic data, but I do have frequency data for the most frequent buses, expressed in daily departures in both directions. It is in Hebrew on the Israeli Bike-to-Bus Rider blog; the key is that a gold medal denotes at least 4 buses per hour, a bronze one denotes at least 3, a silver one denotes at least 3 and at least 4 at and on the shoulders of the peak, and a V on the left column denotes at least 6 at rush hour. The bus route numbers are on the second column from the right. See also this frequent bus map to match route numbers to streets.
While I criticized the use of bus corridors for subway planning last year, noting that buses serve the wider Jerusalem Boulevard through Jaffa and not the narrower but more centrally-located Yefet Street, the map provides a rough guide to which regions and which directions of travel have the most demand. North-south travel along Ben Yehuda, Dizengoff, and Ibn Gabirol Streets and Namir Road is very popular. Ben Yehuda’s routes 4, 104, and 204, which HaTikva Line roughly parallels, have 642 buses per day. Dizengoff’s routes 5, 39, 72, 129, 172, and 239 have 1,071. Route 9, which runs along Ben Yehuda and Dizengoff in a one-way pair, has 162. Ibn Gabirol’s routes 24, 25, 125, 126, 189, and 289 have 986. And Namir Road’s routes 1, 40, 42, 51, 60, 71, 160, 171, 240, and 271 have 1,726. Despite the large number of buses on Namir, these buses closely parallel mainline rail, and moreover, there are 65% more buses on Ibn Gabirol and points west.
2. My plan ignores many active plans made by the state. This is on purpose: until such projects as combined freeway-rail lines are built, they should be opposed, since the road construction will ensure connectivity by road will be faster than by rail, frustrating any attempt to maintain a high public transit mode share. To my understanding, the most expensive portions of the planned subway, namely the underground parts, have not been built, and on the contrary there are constant schedule and budget slips; the current timetable calls for the completion of the Red Line in 2023, and the budget has slipped from 10.7 to 14 to 17 billion shekels; this is $200 million/km, accounting for PPP but not future inflation (if Israel holds to 2% inflation, it will be about $180 million/km), for a line that’s only 43% underground.
3. Four-tracking the mainline rail route through Tel Aviv is going to be expensive, since it requires building over or rerouting the Ayalon River. In the long run, rail growth makes such construction necessary: Israel’s economic geography forces all travel between the north and the south to go through or right next to Tel Aviv, which means potential travel demand is higher than through Stockholm, which is currently four-tracking its main route through T-Centralen to provide for both additional commuter rail and intercity rail service.
In the short run, there are two ways to cut initial costs. First, it may be the case that there is room for four tracks along the Ayalon right-of-way, as long as only two are served by station platforms. If that is true, then HaShalom should be reconfigured as a local station, with two nonstop tracks, while all trains should continue to stop at Tel Aviv Center and HaHagana, both of which already have more than 4 tracks. While HaShalom is Israel’s second busiest train station (see file here, shared by a forum member back in 2008: the leftmost column is total daily entries and exits), high-frequency local commuter rail service connecting it with Tel Aviv Center and HaHagana is an acceptable substitute if it saves a lot of money.
And second, Israel Railways runs very inefficiently, partly because of single-tracking and partly because of the use of slow-accelerating diesel locomotives. Peak traffic on the two-track mainline, excluding the third track (which is run as a captive single-track commuter line), is still in the single digits of trains per hour. While my plan calls for 10-minute peak frequencies on each of 5 branches, I believe that for a long while, several branches could make do with 20 minutes; with high-capacity signaling, and the use of the third track for emergencies if a train is late, 30 trains per hour are possible, permitting space for commuter trains as well as the four hourly intercity trains to Haifa, two to Beer Sheva, and future trains to Jerusalem.
4. Too much service to the north. The way the map is presented, without extra proposed extensions, the best-served part is District 6, which has almost no residential population: counting transfer stations twice and jurisdiction-boundary stations as belonging half to each jurisdiction, it has 1.5 stations for 4,600 residents, or 1 per 3,000. But the second best is District 3, the Old North, and even Herzliya is better-served than District 8, South Tel Aviv. It’s an unfortunate fact that Herzliya’s train station is located on a pedestrian-hostile road, between the two centers of Herzliya and Herzliya Pituah and beyond walking distance to both, requiring considerable additional construction; but it’s also possible to either eliminate the Herzliya Pituah commuter rail branch or cut the Jaffa Line to KKL Junction. The Old North needs this much service, because of the high demand for bus service along both Dizengoff/Ben Yehuda and Ibn Gabirol, as well as the presence of several major retail and entertainment centers, such as the Port, the Marina and waterfront hotels, and Dizengoff Center, making the neighborhood more than just residential.
5. Not enough service to the south, especially Holon. The official plan calls for building a second line going north-south from Tel Aviv University to Holon and Rishon LeZion, giving two north-south branches to the south (including the initial one to Bat Yam) versus one in my plan. I admit that the indirect service to Holon is problematic, but counter that the city is substantially less dense than Bat Yam, and moreover the east-west orientation of the Jaffa Line connects the two cities while giving Holon a transfer to a direct mainline rail connection to Tel Aviv. Rishon LeZion is completely cut from my subway plan, but gains a centrally-located commuter rail station.
South Tel Aviv has relatively little service, too, since the Jaffa Line and HaTikva Line have stops just outside it. The alternative I proposed within the map file, in which HaShalom Line is extended two more stops to Old Jaffa while the Jaffa Line is rerouted along the more southeasterly Shalma Road alignment, provides several more South Tel Aviv stations and makes Central Bus Station the Jaffa/HaTikva transfer point, at the cost of a detour that lengthens end-to-end trips as well as about 3 km of additional tunneling. In either case, the center of South Tel Aviv today is close enough to Central Bus Station to be serviceable, even if it’s only by one line rather than two.
6. Tight timed transfers. Unlike the simply-connected lines branching to the north, the lines to the south have multiple mergers, to be dealt with using timed transfers at Lod and Lod Junction. The plan is, using a 20-minute clockface schedule, to have Airport Branch trains leave 4 minutes before mainline Lod trains, be slowed down by the airport detour and the extra stops, and have a timed transfer with the Eastern Line at Lod Junction, which then has a timed transfer at Lod. This corresponds to a 4-minute slowdown as planned, but requires two successive transfers. I do not know to what extent this is robust, although given relatively low frequency per branch, I do not think it’s a trouble on a railroad with reliable trains and level boarding. Israel’s current diesel rolling stock is unreliable, but this can be fixed with EMUs, and there’s already level boarding.
7. Station locations. I tried keeping station spacing to one per kilometer, but ended up finding more good locations, so station spacing is slightly narrower. More fundamentally, at several spots, mainly east of Ayalon, I chose station locations based on destinations rather than street intersections. The tradeoff is that the destinations can provide better waiting spots than an intersection of two wide roads built for high car speeds, and by definition have something within walking distance, but street intersections make it easier to run connecting buses.
8. Quibbles on termini. These I am happy to be convinced about, including the eastern termini of HaTikva Line (on Twitter, Moshe Schorr proposes avoiding Kiryat Ono, and instead swerving southeast to serve Or Yehuda and Yehud), the southern terminus in Ashdod (it is possible for trains to enter the city on viaducts and serve it more centrally), and extensions or cutbacks to lines already mentioned.
9. Quibbles on routes. As with the termini, I am happy to make changes. These include the route through Ramat Aviv (the current map provides a stop on the south side of the Tel Aviv University campus, but it’s possible to instead take two sharp turns and serve Ramat Aviv Mall), and the routes of HaShalom and HaTikva lines through Ramat Gan and Givatayim, which could both be moved south. There are no compelling destinations west of the eastern anchors at Bar Ilan and the Bakum/Kiryat Ono and east of the neighborhoods abutting Ayalon such as HaTikva, which makes the routes more flexible.
The first two objections are the most fundamental, and the ones I feel the most strongly I am right again. The others are smaller changes, in descending order of importance, and do not conflict with the concept of an E-shaped rapid transit system supporting a single frequent S-Bahn spine.
Usually, the barrier to new development in a neighborhood is NIMBYism: connected local community members do not want the project, saying “not in my backyard.” There’s a wealth of literature about NIMBYs’ role in restrictions on development; William Fischel’s work is a good start, and the short version is that opposition to development is local, based on fear of the risk of decline in property values. Urbanists take it for granted that decisions made with regard to regional rather than local concerns will be more pro-development: Let’s Go LA has examples from Los Angeles, and Stephen Smith explains Toronto and Tokyo’s lax rules on new development based on their high-level decisionmaking (at the provincial level in Ontario and national level in Japan). In this post, I would like to discuss the opposite problem, which I call NITBYism – “not in their backyard.”
In certain circumstances, opposition comes from people living in other areas, who are aghast that an area they don’t live in is getting so much investment. This is more likely to happen when there’s heavy public involvement in development, but, since upzoning an area is a public decision (as opposed to unthinkable across-the-board zoning abolition), opposition can sprout anytime. One common thread to NITBY opposition campaigns is that NITBYs view housing as a good thing, and want it redirected to their areas. Another is that they self-perceived as ignored by the urban elites; this is common to both right-wing populists and left-wing ones. Since the process is heavily public by assumption, the price signal telling developers to build in the center of the major city is irrelevant, and this encourages the government to build more low-value peripheral projects.
The first example of this is when the process actually is public: subsidized affordable housing. As discussed by Daniel Kay Hertz, in Chicago, affordable housing regulations require developers to pay a fee to a dedicated affordable housing fund, which then uses the money to develop or buy housing and rent it out at subsidized rates for moderate-income residents. To minimize the cost per affordable unit, the fund builds the units in the cheapest neighborhoods, i.e. the poorest ones, exacerbating housing segregation. As Payton Chung explains, the low-income housing community networks in Chicago support this arrangement, because they are based in the neighborhoods where this affordable housing is built. This is not as self-serving as the examples I will include below, since the community groups want to see the most number of housing units built at a given cost; but a common feature of NITBYism, namely that the NITBYs view housing as a good rather than as a burden imposed by outsiders, is present here.
In Israel, NITBYism does not have the cost defense that it does in Chicago. Zoning in Israel is prepared by municipalities but must get approved by the state. This means that it is geared not only toward providing services to Israelis (such as cheap and orderly housing) but also toward national goals of Judaization. The worst NITBYism is not affecting Tel Aviv, but Arab cities, where the state refuses to approve zoning plans; since independence, not a single new Arab city has been built, except to house Bedouins who the state expelled from their villages after independence, and plans to build the first new Arab city are controversial on segregation grounds. This is while the state has built many new Jewish cities from scratch, often in peripheral areas in order to ensure a Jewish majority.
However, NITBYism afflicts housing in Tel Aviv, too. Although the state could if it wanted declare a housing emergency and force upzoning in Tel Aviv, it does not. There are few permits for new apartments in the Tel Aviv District (though more new housing sales): only 5% of the national total (including settlements), as per the pie chart on page 17 of the Ministry of Construction and Housing’s report and the more complete (in English) data on page 49, compared with a national population share of 16%; the Center District, consisting of Tel Aviv suburbs (though not the richest and most expensive, such as Ramat HaSharon, which are in the Tel Aviv District), has 22% of national permits, about the same as its share of the national population. This is not just NIMBYism in Tel Aviv, although that exists in abundance. Local politicians from peripheral towns demand local construction, and view Tel Aviv construction as something useful only to outsiders, such as foreign speculators or the urban elite. During the housing protests of 2011, there was widespread debate on the left about what solutions to offer, and people representing the ethnic and geographic periphery were adamant that the state build and preserve public housing in peripheral towns and not concentrate on Tel Aviv, which they identified with the secular Ashkenazi elite. A common thread in housing and infrastructure debates to both working-class Jews from the periphery and Arabs is the demand for a policy that would create jobs and housing in their hometowns, rather than build infrastructure that would put them in the Tel Aviv orbit.
Of the above examples, in Chicago the NITBYs self-identify as leftists, and in Israel, the NITBYs who want local housing rather than Tel Aviv housing either identify as leftists or identify as economic leftists and support the right on security and ethnic identity issues. However, the populist right is not immune from this. Right-wing supporters of suburbs who oppose cities for what they represent (diversity, usually left-wing politics of the kind they associate with the liberal elite) may also oppose urban upzoning. The best example of this kind is Joel Kotkin’s opposition to upzoning in Hollywood, which sounds like a criticism of government projects until one realizes that upzoning simply means developers are permitted to build more densely if they’d like. Now, Kotkin is pro-immigration, setting him apart from the main of right-wing populism, but in all other aspects, his paranoid fear of urban liberal elites imposing behavioral controls on ordinary people would be right at home at the UK Independence Party and its mainland European equivalents. Kotkin is also just one person, but his views mirror those of Tea Party activists who equate dense urbanism with an Agenda 21 conspiracy, to the point of conflating a phrase that means building new suburbs with a plan to forcibly relocate suburbanites to central cities.
I do not know Japan’s regional patterns of politics well, but I know Ontario’s. In Ontario, there is not much us-and-them politics regarding Toronto. There is such politics regarding the inner parts of Toronto – Rob Ford was elected on the heels of an outer-urban populist backlash to David Miller’s urbanism, including the perception that Miller was fighting a war on cars. But there’s none of the hatred of the central city and all that it represents that typifies politics in both Israel and the US. Hatred of the city in the US is right-wing (though within the city, hatred of the gentrified core is often tied to left-wing anti-gentrification activism), and hatred of Tel Aviv in Israel is generically populist, but in both cases, the us-and-them aspect encourages NITBYism.
In the most expensive American cities, this is not a major problem. Anti-urban populism does not have enough votes to win in New York and California, so state control of zoning in those states would not produce these problems. The Tea Party disruption of zoning meeting I brought up above happened in San Francisco suburbs, but did not have an effect on planning; I brought this example up to show that this political force exists, even if in that specific locality it is powerlessly weak. In those areas, local NIMBYism is a much bigger problem: many New York neighborhoods were actually downzoned in the Bloomberg era by local request. The primary problems that would plague state-level decisionmaking are corruption and power brokering, in which politicians hold even straightforward rule revisions hostage to their local pet projects. The us-and-them politics of Upstate and Downstate New York contributes heavily to power brokering, but Downstate’s demographic dominance precludes ideological choking of development.
Within the US, the risks of NITBYism are different. First, in the cost tier just below that of New York and California there are city regions in more moderate states, for examples Philadelphia and the Virginia suburbs of Washington, or possibly Miami (where the county-made rules have allowed aggressive new construction, mostly urban, which Stephen Smith credits to the political power of Cuban immigrants). And second, zooming in on different neighborhoods within each expensive city, the Chicago example suggests that if New York and other expensive cities begin a major program of public housing construction, the community organizations and the populists will demand to spread construction across many neighborhoods, especially poor ones, and not in the neighborhoods where there is the most demand.
As I noted two posts ago, there is a political economy problem, coming from the fact that the politically palatable amounts of construction are not transformative enough to let the working class live in market-rate city-center apartments, not in high-income major cities. Israel could semi-plausibly double the Tel Aviv housing stock; even that requires housing forms that Israelis associate with poverty, such as buildings that touch, without side setbacks. This would allow many more people to live in Tel Aviv, but they’d be drawn from the middle class, which is being priced out to middle-class suburbs or to working-class suburbs that it gentrifies. The working class in the periphery would be able to move into these closer-in suburbs, but this cascading process is not obvious. Worse, from the point of view of community leaders, it disrupts the community: it involves a churn of people moving, which means they end up in a different municipal fief, one with leadership the current suburb’s leaders may be hostile to.
For essentially the same reasons, subsidized housing in the center produces the same problems. If Israel builds a massive number of subsidized or rent-regulated apartments in Tel Aviv, there will be immense nationwide demand for them. Few would serve the residents of a given peripheral suburb, and there is no guarantee anyone would get them. On the contrary, in such a plan, priority is likely to go to downwardly-mobile children of established residents. At the 2011 protests, the people who were most supportive of plans to lower rents in Tel Aviv specifically were people from Tel Aviv or high-income suburbs who wanted to be able to keep living in the area. The community disruption effect of offering people the ability to live where they’d want would still be there. Thus, all the incentives line up behind periphery community leader support for building public housing in the periphery, where there is little demand for it, and not in the center. Even when housing is universally seen as a benefit and there’s no NIMBYism, politics dictates that housing is built in rough proportion to current population (since that’s where political power comes from) and not future demand.
Abolishing zoning is one way to cut this Gordian knot; it is also completely unpalatable to nearly everyone who is enfranchised in a given area. Allowing more private construction is the more acceptable alternative, but leads to the same problems, only on a smaller scale. It really is easier for community leaders to twist arms to demand veto rights and local resident priority than to push for sufficient citywide upzoning to alleviate the price pressure. But in an environment with weak NIMBYs and few NITBYs, fast growth in urban housing is possible.
Reading design guidelines for bus routes reminds me of how different surface transit is from rapid transit. Buses need to follow straight, wide, two-way roads. Subway trains do not: those roads make construction easier, but it’s normal for train lines to detour and turn, even in rigidly gridded cities like New York. The upshot is that sometimes the optimal route for a bus is different from that of a subway, and this limits the usefulness of preexisting bus routes for subway planning.
For a relatively simple example of this, consider the plans for a subway under Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. The buses follow Wilshire all the way from Downtown to Santa Monica. The trains were never intended to: there’s a short stretch where Wilshire isn’t as important while somewhat off the street lies Century City, and all alignments studied for the Wilshire subway have involved some deviation. The chosen alignment is the one that deviates more than the other, to serve Century City more centrally.
This is relevant specifically to the example of Tel Aviv. When I criticized the Tel Aviv subway route choice for being politically motivated to avoid certain neighborhoods, Alan of Tel Aviv Bus Mappa said,
To minimise cost, the planners looked at what works today (the existing high-demand bus routes) and decided that connecting Petah Tikva and Bat Yam to Tel Aviv was the highest demand corridor. They also looked at what was wide (boulevards and arterials), as their aim was to maximise segregated on-street running. This is also the reason that the plan makes use of the ‘Turkish line’ alignment connecting Jaffa and Allenby rather than the more direct, but narrow, Derech Yafo and Eilat Street.
Central Bus Station would have been a huge diversion for the route and is not a particularly in-demand destination. However, the planned Green line will serve that location.
The problem with this line of thought is that subways are not buses. Subways can use the more direct but narrower alignments if they need to: it may be somewhat more expensive to construct, but there’s no disutility to passengers. A bus running on a narrow street is slowed down, especially if the street is twisty. A subway that can go under private property is not.
Even in New York there are some twists – for examples, the route of the L through Brooklyn, and the route of the 2/3 from the Upper West Side to Harlem. But those twists are not critical, and the city doesn’t really need them. The Wilshire deviation in Los Angeles is also in this category.
It’s ungridded cities where the ability of trains to cut under the street network becomes critical to providing service to major destinations, which may not be anywhere near the wide streets. A look at the inner network of the London Underground will confirm that the lines bear little relationship to the street network, which was built incrementally over the centuries and would not be good at serving the major destinations in the desired directions. In Paris the older lines were built subsurface and do follow streets (which at any case are more rationalized than in London due to heavyhanded central planning), but the newer ones were built deeper and do not.
In Tel Aviv, the problem is that many of the neighborhoods that need public transportation service the most do not have wide streets for buses, or have wide streets configured in the wrong directions. The oldest parts of the city, the Old City of Jaffa and Ajami, have very narrow streets since they predate modern boulevard design by a few centuries. The next oldest – the Jewish neighborhoods of Jaffa, South Tel Aviv, the western parts of Central Tel Aviv, and the Old North – do have wide streets, but often pointing in the wrong direction, for examples nothing serves the Port or the Basel Heights compound, and the east-west streets going through the Old North are very narrow. They have no reason to form a coherent rapid transit network, since they were built as interurban streets or as neighborhood main streets, not as subway alignments. They barely even form a coherent bus network, but the hacks made over the decades to create bus trunk lines are different from the optimal route a subway would follow.
In fact, the recently-reelected Huldai administration has plans to upzone around the central parts of the route to build a new CBD. The area in question, around Begin Road, is unwalkable and almost unfixable to be made pedestrian-friendly, the road is so wide and fast. This is not service to an existing destination that follows a linear corridor as in New York and other strongly gridded cities.
In a city like Tel Aviv – or any other city without a strong grid that influences development – subway planning should start from a list of major destinations and dense residential neighborhoods and their locations on a map. The subway routes should form somewhat straight lines connecting them, with the first line chosen in a way that connects to the most and the most important ones. It’s fine to have somewhat kinked routes – nobody likes riding a C-shaped route, but it’s okay to have small deviations such as the ones proposed for Wilshire or even larger ones such as the one Shanghai’s Line 1 takes to reach People’s Square. The junctions should be the most important destinations, or the ones with the most potential for CBD formation; in Tel Aviv those are generally to the west of the planned CBD, because of the potential for waterfront upzoning and the preexisting density in the neighborhoods south of the Yarkon and west of the Ayalon Freeway.
Buses are of course not planned like this. A city that wants a vigorous bus network needs to do what Los Angeles and Vancouver have done: put the buses on a grid as much as possible, and have them go straight along major roads, with as few deviations as possible. Vancouver’s north-south buses deviate a little bit to serve Downtown, and even those deviations are sometimes questionable since people transfer from the buses to SkyTrain before the buses reach Downtown. The grid allows for an efficient network of transfers, with the transfer penalty reduced by high frequency on the trunk lines. It’s nothing like subway lines, which form a tight bus-like mesh in about one city in the world (Mexico City) and everywhere else have a mesh-like core surrounded by what is an essentially hub-and-spoke system.
Even when the busiest bus routes do indicate something about subway demand, there are exceptions. In New York, the busiest bus lines today are the M15, on First and Second Avenues, and the B46, on Utica Avenue: they are almost even in ridership and have traded places for first place citywide recently. But nobody expects a Utica subway to get the ridership of Second Avenue Subway, even people like myself who believe such a subway is underrated and should be considered in medium-term transit planning. The third busiest route in New York is the Bx12, on Fordham, and I do not know a single transit activist who believes it should be railstituted, even ones who believe other routes with somewhat lower ridership should be railstituted (such as Nostrand, whose bus, the B44, ranks fifth). The issue here is that First and Second are in Manhattan, where bus speeds are so low that ridership is suppressed, as people walk longer distances to the parallel subway or don’t take the trip; if both Second and Utica get subways, the lower amount of congestion in outer Brooklyn is irrelevant and the trains will travel at the same speed, whereas today there are factors working against Second that make the rail bias there higher than on Utica.
Something similar is the case in Tel Aviv. The widest boulevards have the largest concentrations of bus trunk lines, but that’s because they are the only streets on which buses are even remotely feasible as modes of transportation. In Jaffa, Jerusalem Boulevard is wide enough for fast surface transit but Yefet Street is not. Based on Jerusalem’s width, the planners chose to keep trains at-grade on Jerusalem, which they could not do on Yefet. But if trains were underground, Jerusalem’s current advantage would evaporate, leaving Yefet with the advantages of proximity to the Old City and the Flea Market and of higher density.
It is wrong to plan buses as if they were subways or early-20th century streetcars, where frequent twists were not a problem since there were few cars on the road, and where the dominance of the traditional downtown favored a hub-and-spoke network. Recent bus successes in North America have involved discarding those ideas and planning buses based on modern travel needs and modern traffic levels. By the same token, it is wrong to plan subways as if they were buses when they are capable of following alignments that buses cannot.
After decades of false starts, Tel Aviv is finally building a subway-surface line. The political opinions of activists and urban planners in Israel are divided between supporters, who believe the line is long overdue, and opponents, who instead believe buses remain the solution and also oppose the Jerusalem light rail. I on the contrary think that on the one hand Tel Aviv needs a subway, but on the other hand the current plan has deep flaws, both political and technical, and is learning the wrong lessons from recent first-world greenfield subways.
In some ways, the Tel Aviv subway resembles New York’s Second Avenue Subway. It passes through neighborhoods that are very dense – the line under construction connects some of the densest cities in Israel, albeit poorly. Nobody believes it will be built because of all the false starts. Real incompetence in construction leading to cost overruns has led to speculation about much greater cost overruns.
For nearly a hundred years, the conurbation around Tel Aviv and Jaffa has been the largest metro area in what is now Israel; it is also the largest first-world metro area outside the US that has no urban rail. There were preliminary plans for a Tel Aviv subway in the 1930s, followed by repeated plans since independence, all of which were shelved. A proposal from just after independence for developing coastal Israel around rail and rapid transit trunks was rejected by Prime Minister David Ben Gurion because it conflicted with the political goal of Jewish population dispersal; to further its political goals, the state concentrated on building roads instead. In the late 1950s there was a new integrated national rail plan that was not implemented. Haifa got a six-station, one-line funicular, but Tel Aviv and Jerusalem remained bus-only. In the 1960s a skyscraper in Central Tel Aviv was built with a subway station, but there were no tunnels built; a subsequent 1971 plan was abandoned in 1973 due to the Yom Kippur War. The current subway plan dates to the 1990s, and has suffered from repeated delays, and construction only began recently, with opening expected for 2016.
Unlike in the North American debate, in Israel the left is pro-BRT and anti-rail, due to a long tradition of mistrust in mainstream (center-right to right-wing) politics. The same is true of urban planners who follow the Jacobsian tradition, such as Yoav
Lerner Lerman (Heb.). The article I translated two years ago about Jerusalem’s light rail is in that tradition: it attacks genuine problems with cost overruns and a politicized route choice process, but then concludes that BRT is the solution because it’s been implemented in Curitiba and Bogota successfully. The result is that people whose ideas about trade, energy, health care, education, and housing are well to the left of what is considered acceptable in the US end up channeling the Reason Foundation on bus versus rail issues.
In reality, Tel Aviv’s urban form is quite dense. The city itself has 8,000 people per square kilometer, much lower than Paris and Barcelona, but higher than most other European central cities (say, every single German city). Like Los Angeles, its municipal borders do not conform to the informal borders of the inner-urban area, since it contains lower-density modernist neighborhoods north of the Yarkon, while dense Ramat Gan, Giv’atayim, Bnei Brak, and Bat Yam are separate municipalities. The inner ring of suburbs, including the above-named four, has 7,400 people per square kilometer; excluding the more affluent but emptier northern suburbs, this approaches 10,000/km^2.
However, the urban form is quite old, in the sense that the density is fairly constant, without the concentrations of density near nodes that typify modern transit cities. Tel Aviv’s residential high-rise construction is not very dense because it still follows the modernist paradigm of a tower in a park, leading to low lot coverage and a density that’s not much higher than that of the old four-story apartment blocks. The Old North achieves about 15,000 people per square kilometer with a floor area ratio of 2: the setbacks are such that only about half of each lot is buildable, and there are four floors per building. The Akirov Towers complex averages about 2.5.
Although this density pattern favors surface transit rather than rapid transit, Tel Aviv doesn’t have the street network for efficient surface transit. Paris, a poster child for efficient recent construction of light rail (see costs and ridership estimates on The Transport Politic), is a city of wide boulevards. Central Tel Aviv has about two such streets – Ibn Gabirol and Rothschild – and one auto-oriented arterial, Namir Road, which the subway line under construction will go under. The street network is too haphazard to leverage those two for surface BRT or light rail, and the major destinations of the central areas are often on narrower streets, for example Dizengoff. On top of that, light rail speeds in Paris are lower than 20 km/h, whereas newly built subways are much faster, approaching 40 km/h in Vancouver and Copenhagen. Outside Central Tel Aviv, the roads become wider, but not nearly as wide as those used for BRT in Bogota, and there is nothing for surface transit on those streets to connect to on the surface. A surface implementation of Route 66, following Jabotinsky Street (the eastern leg of the subway line under construction) in Ramat Gan, Bnei Brak, and Petah Tikva, wouldn’t be very fast on the surface to begin with, but would come to a crawl once crossing the freeway into Tel Aviv.
Tel Aviv also has two more important reasons to imitate Vancouver and Copenhagen, besides speed: religious politics, and economic and demographic comparability. Public transportation in Israel operates six days a week, with few exceptions, to avoid running on the Sabbath. A driverless train, built to be quiet even on elevated sections, with no turnstiles and free fares on the Sabbath, could circumvent religious opposition to seven-days-a-week operation.
Even without the religious question, Copenhagen and especially Vancouver are good models for Tel Aviv to follow, more so than middle-income Curitiba or Bogota. Israel is a high-construction cost country, but Canada is not very cheap, and Vancouver has cut construction costs by making elevated trains more palatable and reducing station lengths. Greater Tel Aviv has 2.5-3.5 million people depending on who you ask, not much higher than the range for Copenhagen and Vancouver. Tel Aviv is about as dense as Copenhagen and Vancouver, though Vancouver’s density is spikier. Tel Aviv expects fast population growth, like Vancouver, though in Tel Aviv’s case it’s a matter of high birth rates whereas in Vancouver it’s only immigration.
One way in which Vancouver is not a good model is the role of regional rail. Israel has no equivalent of Transport Canada or FRA regulations. It even connected Tel Aviv’s northern and southern rail networks and through-routes nearly all commuter and intercity trains. However, the network has real limitations, coming from its poor urban station locations, often in highway medians; the through-running project was completed simultaneously with the construction of the freeway. For example, the Tel Aviv University station is located far downhill from the actual university. As a result, even when there is development near the train stations, it is usually not walkable. This compels new rail service with stations in more central locations as well as east-west service, complementing the north-south mainline.
However, for service to the less dense suburbs, the construction of new lines, and electrification of the entire national network (so far only the Haifa commuter network is scheduled for electrification), should provide the backbone. There is no integrated planning between regional rail and shorter-distance urban rail, the first failing of the current plan.
More broadly, the plan fails not just because of the wrong mode choice – subway-surface rather than driverless metro with a regional rail complement – but also because of how it treats urban geography. The proposed network – on which the red line is under construction and the green line is intended to be the second built – is too sparse in the center, and ignores the older urban centers. The phasing ignores preexisting transportation centers, and often the choice of who to serve and how to serve them is political.
The worst political decision concerns Jaffa, the old core of the metro area. (Tel Aviv was founded as a nominally independent city, but really as a Jewish suburb of Jaffa.) The most activity is in the Old City and the Flea Market, going down along Yefet Street to Ajami, since 1948 the only majority-Arabic speaking neighborhood in the municipality, and the only neighborhood that is completely unplanned. The streets are narrow, favoring a subway, and the residents are poor and have low car ownership rates. Instead, the route through Jaffa is on the surface and follows Jerusalem Boulevard, a less busy road built by the city’s then-mayor out of envy of then-separate Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard. This serves the more gentrified Jewish parts. Ajami is gentrifying – it’s close to Central Tel Aviv, is right next to the coast, and has stunning architecture – but is still majority-Arab.
The other neighborhood that due to ethnic differences is viewed separately from Tel Aviv, Hatikva, is also underserved. In this case, the residents are Jewish, but are predominantly Mizrahi and traditional-to-religious, with high poverty levels. The plan does serve Hatikva, but much later than it should given the neighborhood’s density, intensity of low-end commercial activity, and proximity to Central Tel Aviv. A northwest-southeast line, following Dizengoff and then serving Central Bus Station (a larger transportation center still than any mainline rail station) and Hatikva before continuing east into the inner suburbs, should be a high priority, but isn’t. The Central Bus Station area is also a concentration of refugees, another low-income, low-car ownership population, though since this concentration is more recent than the plans for the subway, the lack of priority service to the bus station is not a result of racism.
It’s not only about class reasons, or racial ones: Tel Aviv had to fight to get the Ministry of Transportation to agree to build the second line underground under Ibn Gabirol, and that’s to an upper middle-class Ashkenazi neighborhoods. The common thread within the city proper is a preference for new modernist luxury towers over serving existing walkable density, even when that density is hardly lower than what the towers are providing. (The towers can be built more densely, with less open space; by the same token, the low-rise buildings could be upzoned from one half the lot and four story to three-quarters and six stories.)
Another example of bad politics is the way military bases are served. The very center of Tel Aviv is home to the Ministry of Defense and the main military headquarters, the Kirya. The inner urban area is ringed with much larger military bases, including Tsrifin to the south, Glilot to the north, and the Bakum to the east. But the officer corps is concentrated in the Kirya, while Tsrifin is a more general base, Bakum is dedicated to new draftees so that they can be told what unit they’re to be sent to, and Glilot is somewhat higher-end than Tsrifin due to its role in military intelligence but still lacks the Kirya’s concentration of high-ranking officers. Since draftees almost never own cars and often ride buses for hours, the three outlying bases are all natural outer anchors for lines, and Glilot and Tsrifin both lie on easy spurs from the mainline rail network. Despite this, there are no plans for regular service, while the Kirya is part of the subway line under construction and is the intersection point with the second line to be built.
Even on pure geography, the plan makes critical mistakes. The eastern leg of the line under construction is much better than its southern leg: it goes straight from the train station through Ramat Gan and Bnei Brak to a secondary anchor in Petah Tikva. And yet, the station spacing in Bnei Brak, the densest city in Israel, is the widest, even though higher density allows shorter station spacing. In contrast, the surface segment in less dense Petah Tikva is intended to have denser stop spacing. Moreover, despite the advantages subway-surface operation has in terms of branching, the branching is meant to be really a short-turn, with half of all trains going straight to the depot still in the underground section and half continuing to Petah Tikva. Central Petah Tikva is well to the south of the line, which is intended to terminate at Petah Tikva’s peripherally located central bus station, but there is no branch serving that center, despite high intended frequencies (3 minutes on the surface, 1.5 minutes underground).
I believe that in addition to an electrified mainline rail trunk, Tel Aviv needs a driverless subway network that looks roughly like an E: one or two north-south lines (west of the freeway if one, one on each side if two), three east-west lines intersecting the mainline rail at the three main Tel Aviv stations. The east-west lines should be anchored at the eastern ends at Petah Tikva, Bar Ilan University, and the Bakum or Kiryat Ono; the north-south lines should go about as far north and south as required to serve the center, letting mainline rail take care of destinations roughly from Glilot or Herzliya north and from Tsrifin south. Such a network would not serve political goals of making Tel Aviv a luxury city; it would just serve the transportation goals of the urban area’s residents.
There was a series of hate marches and anti-immigrant riots in Israel last week, continuing intermittently to today; at heart was incitement against Sudanese and Eritrean refugees, who the government labels infiltrators and work migrants. Politicians from the center rightward have variably said the country belongs to white men, the refugees are cancer, and leftists should be thrown into prison camps.
I am not going to discuss the violence or the moral bankruptcy of the center and the right, not because it’s not important, but because I have nothing to add that the team on 972Mag hasn’t. What I am going to talk about is the saddening reaction of the left and center-left, which are reproducing all the urban renewal mistakes the patrician elite made in American cities.
First, some background: in both Eritrea (which Israel maintains diplomatic ties with and has sold weapons to) and Sudan, state terror has produced large numbers of refugees, of whom some fled to Israel. They do not have legal status in Israel, which categorically refuses to even check who is entitled to refugee protections, and instead labels them illegal work migrants, and occasionally deports them. The magnet neighborhood for refugees is Shapira/Levinsky, in working-class South Tel Aviv. The hate marches are not based in Shapira, but rather in Hatikva, a socially conservative working-class neighborhood separated from Shapira (and the rest of the city) by a freeway and a secondary neighborhood for the refugees. In one such march, the police did not protect black people within Hatikva, but did block the overpasses to prevent rioters from going to where the immigrants are.
Shortly after a major hate march in South Tel Aviv, leftist Meretz reacted with its own five-point program proposal for solving the crisis. It included general social programs, including social spending to alleviate poverty, and giving the refugees legal status and letting them take the jobs that currently go to temporary guest workers. This is par for the course on the left.
But the third point of the program was to spread the refugees around. It’s not fair that they all cluster in one or two neighborhoods, say both some longtime neighborhood residents and people who do not live anywhere nearby but sympathize selectively. The call for spreading the refugees around was echoed in some left-wing blogs and comments, for example in an article by Larry Derfner, who grew up in the US and should know better.
If we strip away the recent violence and the refugee versus economic migrant question, we can piece together the following story: people from the third-world moved to a developed country, mostly to a relatively low-rent urban neighborhood. They start their own businesses there (reports from the riot note broken windows at Eritrean stores). Crime rates are lower than the national average as the police indicates when pressed, but the media and leading politicians pretend the opposite is true and sensationalize real and imagined crimes. There are some clashes with older residents, but the worst comes from people who do live elsewhere: MK Michael Ben Ari, who started the first recent hate march, lives in a settlement 46 km from the city. The patrician elites then decide that the immigrants are a problem and propose to force them out of the neighborhood they have settled in and scatter them around the country.
It’s been done with poor Jewish immigrants before, for both anti-urbanist and nationalistic reasons of settling the periphery, where Arabs or Bedouins used to be the majority. (Even today, the center receives far fewer national housing funds than its proportion of the population.) Some of the towns those immigrants were settled in are now infamous for their poverty, and the rest are hardly any better. The only things that changed from the previous situation were that the physical stock of housing improved, and that those immigrants were put out of sight and out of mind.
It’s a story that’s played itself time and time again, in cities all over the world. When the patricians fail to uproot the newcomers, the newcomers often thrive and become upwardly mobile. Sometimes this is in perfect integration with patrician ideals, as was eventually the case for Jews and Italians in the US; sometimes it’s in neighborhoods that resist formal assimilation, such as the Brazilian favelas. When the patricians succeed, the newcomers remain segregated, even if they’re physically close to other groups. Singapore has racial quotas in HDB blocks, to prevent the formation of ethnic enclaves; despite this, segregation remains social fact, and the Malays and Indians remain poorer than the Chinese.
Although in most cases the patricians have won at least partial victory, in many it was a Pyrrhic one. In American cities, beginning in the 1930s, redlining pushed Italians and Jews out of their neighborhoods and into the suburbs, accelerating in the 1950s and 60s. Urban renewal programs destroyed what was left. Italian East Harlem exists only in a few landmarks serving people from outside the neighborhood. But by then ethnic whites had already attained middle-class status; they suburbanized because they had enough money to buy houses, and the role of redlining was to make sure they bought in the suburbs and not in the neighborhoods they grew up in.
It’s with blacks that the American patricians attained total victory. Blacks were always more discriminated against than ethnic whites, and so it was easier to destroy their neighborhoods, and suffered more police violence; but they also moved to the industrial cities fifty years later than most ethnic whites, in an era when urban renewal had the full backing of the federal government.
The heart of the problem is that Meretz does not think of the refugees as people it should serve. It doesn’t even think of them as potential future citizens and voters. It thinks of them as a problem to be solved so that it can show that it cares about a working class that persistently thinks it’s an elitist party and votes for the right.
As I keep stressing whenever I write about racial issues, the way to solve them is to treat people as people, and instead treat racism as the problem. This is not done by spreading population around, because that destroys the minority social networks that are crucial for upward mobility. It’s done by enforcing those anti-discrimination laws that are on the books but are never taken seriously. There are rabbis, on municipal payrolls, who issue no-Arab-workers certificates to business owners; they’ve never been prosecuted for this, and pressing the issue would do far more to help anyone in Israel who isn’t Jewish than urban renewal proposals.
Urban policy is marked by a host of government failures. It’s not that government abstractly can’t make cities better, but outside bounded infrastructure issues, with sanitation, transportation, and so on, it hasn’t. Elite planning can’t make functional neighborhoods, even when it employs the best design principles. And current Israeli zoning codes do not employ good design principles. In contrast, haphazard development has produced functional neighborhoods. Shadow Cities mentions a jewelry store owner in Rio who moved her operation from a rich neighborhood to a favela, because the favela was safer.
Meretz’s own history is not very pro-urban. Of the two traditional geographical elites in Israel – the kibbutz movement, and the urban favored quarters (including my own Old North) – Meretz tilts toward the former. That said, the patrician elites of early-20th century New York lived on the Upper East Side and not just in Westchester and Long Island. People in North Tel Aviv keep voting for politicians who engage in destructive urban renewal in Ajami; I doubt that any of the succession of centrist liberal parties that appealed to urban professionals would come up with a less bad program than Meretz.
The problem then is distribution of power. The entire discussion of immigrants in Israel has ignored activism by the immigrants themselves. For all I know, there hasn’t been much of it; the protests against racism were run by Jews, some from within Shapira but most from outside of it. Moreover, just as the Real American stereotype excludes people who live in the big coastal cities or who aren’t white, the stereotype of the ordinary Israeli, as opposed to the elite, is invariably Jewish. As a result, even in the eyes of the mainstream left, the refugees are an Other, a problem to be solved rather than people whose problems the government must solve.
It’s not my role to tell Meretz and other Israeli leftist parties how to conduct their internal affairs or how to construct their ideologies. There are enough people on the Palestinian and international left inching to declare Zionist parties morally bankrupt, and it’s not my intention to do the same here. For what it’s worth, any scenario involving the replacement of Zionist Israel with an Arab state would probably involve large-scale urban destruction in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem (due to domestic policy, not war). It’s a problem of relations between political elites and newcomers, and of how people are to be thought of.
The only advice I can give here is that naturalized citizens can vote. Political parties that treat immigrants as future citizens and as a source of votes, as the Democrats do in most of the US and the Republicans do in Florida and Texas, are less racist and also cause more political integration than parties that treat them as a source of problems.
This is initially hard, because the political elite can’t create neighborhood political organization from scratch, and the existing organizations are run for older residents rather than for refugees. The human rights organizations are busy alleviating absolute poverty and protecting refugees’ civil rights; they cannot be expected to create immigrant social networks. However, a Do No Harm approach, focusing on keeping refugees safe from violence and letting them conduct their own affairs in the neighborhood they’ve chosen to stay in, could eventually lead to such organization.
One of Jane Jacobs’ prescient observations about bus service in The Death and Life is that one-way pairs, as practiced on the avenues in Manhattan, are bad for riders. Her argument was that one-way pairs require people to walk too long to the bus line, and this cancels out any gains in speed. (This is truer today, when signal priority is an option, than it was fifty years ago.) Jarrett Walker has formalized this in two posts using station radius as an argument; the issue is that passengers need to be within a short walking distance of both halves of the line, and this reduces coverage.
However, not all one-way pairs are created equal. An underrated reason to keep bus services on one line is simplicity: it’s easier to remember that a route follows one street than that it follows two, and also service to specific destinations can become easier. Taking a cue from proper rapid transit, ITDP’s magnum opus BRT standard treats it as a given that buses should run in the median of a street and only even lists one-way pairs as an option on very narrow streets, and even then as an inferior one. The argument revolves around service identity.
In particular, one-way pairs that preserve a semblance of service identity and simplicity are not as bad as one-way pairs that do not. For the original walk-distance reason, it’s also better to have the one-way pair closer together. Jarrett specifically praises Portland’s light rail one-way pair, located a short block apart, as an example of a good couplet. Manhattan’s one-way pairs are located a long block apart, so the walking distance is worse.
But even Manhattan’s one-way pairs are at least coherent. The First/Second Avenue bus follows First and Second Avenues for the entire length of the avenues; south of Houston, it follows Allen, the continuation of First. This is the advantage of the grid. In Providence, things are not as nice, though still somewhat coherent, if one remembers, for example, that Angell and Waterman Streets form a one-way pair (they’re treated as such for car travel, too, so anyone in the neighborhood would know, though people from outside would not).
In contrast, this is how Tel Aviv’s one-way pairs work. They’re getting worse amidst the various bus reform. The post is in Hebrew, but look at the map at the bottom of bus #5, the city’s busiest (and most frequently bombed back in the 1990s and early 2000s). The travesty is that none of those streets on which the line runs in one direction only is even one-way. East of Ibn Gabirol, the street hosting lines 25, 26, and 189 on the map, the streets are wide and two-way. The reason for the complication is lack of left turns. In order to make car traffic flow a little more smoothly, Tel Aviv has completely eviscerated its bus service.
In principle, Tel Aviv has infrastructure for consistent one-way pairs when necessary and regular two-way service elsewhere. For example, Dizengoff and Ben Yehuda, the two north-south streets hosting buses to the west, function as such for cars. They both have contraflow lanes for buses, allowing buses to use them as two-way streets; some do (for example, #5 on Dizengoff), while others still go one-way (for examples, #9 and #55). Likewise, Jabotinsky, the east-west street feeding into the big circuit, is one-way and narrow west of Ibn Gabirol, and could be a one-way pair with Arlozorov to its south; but Arlozorov is kept two-way, and so #66 is two-way, and #22 uses the two as a one-way pair. (By the way, those are fan-made maps; the official maps don’t use color to distinguish routes, and are thus completely unusable.)
The results of the mess coming from ending any service coherence are predictable. Israeli car ownership, low by first-world standards, is rising rapidly, and the social justice and affordable housing protesters are now complaining about high fuel prices. None of them is anti-transit on principle, and all who I confront tell me they’d ride transit if it were usable. I live without a car in a city with worse transit than Tel Aviv, but to me car ownership is not aspirational. When the only transit people know in their country is unusable, people this generation will get cars. The next bus reform will then take into account more left turn restrictions coming from the need to accommodate more vehicles. The next generation of people will grow up with the expectation of even worse bus service and not conceive of any alternative to automobility.
This is part 2 of my series on consensus, following Consensus and Cities.
Early-20th century America was a nation with remarkable consensus about cities. The progressive reformers, the populists, and the environmental movement all agreed that cities were bad, and the only solution to their problem was widespread destruction of slums. It’s this general agreement that gave autocrats like Robert Moses their power. Obviously, this consensus missed one key piece of the puzzle – namely, the consent of the urban dwellers who were being discussed as objects rather than as participants. Thus, a good consensus has to involve everyone, and not just the elites, or else it at best degenerates into elite vs. populist politics, and at worst leads to virtual colonialism.
The distinction between democratic or popular consensus and elite consensus is important, because in places that have only had the latter, including the US, people can form their views of consensus around features that are really special to elite consensus, as represented by insider publications such as the Washington Post, most of the New York Times, and a horde of Washington-area trade journals. For one, elite speech is very measured, and phrased in reasonable-sounding ways: concerned but understanding of limits, haughty-sounding and wonky but still reducible to soundbites for the lay reader, and always phrased in an understated way. Those are Krugman’s Very Serious People, and the National Review’s liberal elite. The US has come a long way since the 1950s and enough people see this elite as a distinct faction rather than as a real national consensus, but many of the elite’s values have percolated and taint the notion of consensus.
In contrast, democratic consensus is a messy affair. What’s happening right now in the Israeli J14 housing protests – or, even more so, what happened a month ago, before the protest became an institution by itself – is exactly the process of consensus-formation. Tents representing all social and ethnic groups in the country are present. The protest began with culturally liberal Tel Avivis, but has Haredi tents; it’s majority-Jewish, but has had Arab speakers in Jewish towns and spread to Arab towns. On the ground, the dialogue is the exact opposite of that of the Washington Post: people yell and argue until the small hours of the night, debating different views of how to improve the housing situation, and listening to one another. They tolerate trolls who maliciously propose settlement expansion as the solution but do not feed them; they have more important things to discuss. The consensus ideas they’ve formed for how to deal with the housing situation involve concerns of all groups – two of the protesters’ demands are specific to Arab and Bedouin minorities, and, unlike the mishmash of demands one sees in the US at ANSWER protests, those demands are relevant to the issue at hand.
In the US, any attempt to discuss things in the manner of J14 rather than in the manner of the Washington Post is immediately lumped together with unserious partisanship. Even people who know how rotten elite consensus is have gotten used to its discourse: thus, Michael Lind exalts the attitudes of what he calls post-consensus America in a hippie-punching piece against public transportation and environmentalism.
Ironically, calls for technocracy are sometimes a reaction against this elite domination, when the elites put themselves on the other side of expert consensus, as they do on climate issues (see Lind’s other piece on the matter, or anything on the subject by George Will), and prefer to talk in terms of platitudes about unpredictability and how scientists may be wrong. There are sizable and growing organizations and pundits criticizing consensus from this technocratic point of view – for one, anything involved in the new atheist movement.
The properties of consensus are orthogonal to those of elitism, and are different from the properties of the combination of both. The most important is listening to people with different points of view without sneering. How messy or orderly the discussions are is not relevant – it speaks only to how different the parties involved are from one another and how much they initially disagree. It’s the process of listening, of forming conversation, that makes for productive and consensus-building debate. How nice people are to one another is only tangentially important. I submit that if you compare a Room for Debate piece on transportation with a thread of the same length on a transportation blog – even a repetitive fight over Altamont vs. Pacheco Pass on the California High-Speed Rail Blog, let alone the ideological arguments about financing on The Transport Politic – you’ll find that the blog is going to be more informative. Lay people talking to each other will beat thinktank fellows and professional pundits talking at each other any day.
The problem with extending this to urbanism is that cities’ power structure makes it very hard to give ordinary people the voice they deserve. People who are not part of the elite, by definition, are less powerful. And being elite by itself changes how one thinks, leading to factional interests different from those of ordinary people, independently of questions such as which social and ethnic groups the elites are drawn from. (Communist Party elites, high-income elites, and racial elites are equally unconcerned with the average person.)
Only in a city with a completely gated establishment can major media organizations refer to slum dwellers as “a city within a city” when they outnumber people living in formal neighborhoods, and quote researchers as saying crime is a big problem in the slums when it in fact isn’t. Unfortunately, as Robert Neuwirth‘s experience in Mumbai shows, such cities exist.
As mentioned in Part 1 of this series, democratic consensus is possible, by slowly persuading all stakeholders in a community that one’s solution is good and in line with community values. Usually, within a small enough community, the problem of democratic vs. elite consensus is less acute. Some groups are privileged over others – for example, long-term residents versus recent immigrants – but arguably no more so than in citywide politics. Where localism is oppressive is in treatments of minorities in situations with a defined majority group, but when it comes to participatory inclusion, it’s no worse than appealing to the power brokers and hoping for good. In a diverse neighborhood with multiple factions of which none can dominate, this problem is usually quite small. The local elites are not so powerful that one can’t approach them on more or less equal footing.
However, the only way to systematically unleash the power of democratic consensus is via populism, as the example of J14 shows us. It by itself is not purely consensus-based – it comes from a partisan fight between the people and those in power in which the people are acting as one bloc – but the result usually involves a fair amount of consensus, since anything else would lead to divide-and-rule politics. In the US – as well as Israel, and other developed countries I’m somewhat familiar with the discourse of – such populism can come off as polarizing and anti-consensual, because of the misidentification of what are really features of elitism with consensus.
Of course, to many people, populism is not a dirty word. The Tea Party, and its right-wing populist equivalents around Europe, has had many successes precisely because there’s a segment of the US that wants neither consensus nor the current elite. The same can be said of any proto-populism on the left. But there are plenty of people who do want government to work, and do like dialogue, and they can be turned off by what they perceive as unserious attitudes.
The way to create a situation in which both the relatively secure middle class and more radical factions – both ideological and socioeconomic – are willing to cast aside elite values is then to wait until things get bad enough. But it’s easier to imagine such consensus happening today than in 1965, and not just because of reduced racial animosities. It’s as if Marx was right except that, instead of a violent revolution, the dispossessed fight for social reforms that make their economic situation more secure.
The time could already be right. And the process of replacing elite bipartisanship – or hyper-partisan fights between parties that are unconcerned with actually governing – can be pursued on the local level, in parallel, to allow for time to create bottom-up institutions to take a more prominent role in the future. It could be that the US is waiting for its own tents in New York and Washington to lead to nationwide demonstrations.