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.
The last few weeks’ posts on Old Urbanist made me think about what urban forms people prefer, and how it’s affected by what they are familiar with. Rather than speculate on what people in my social circle prefer, I yield the stage to you. What type of urban environment did you grow up in, and/or influenced your thinking about cities the most? And what form of urban development do you find most desirable?
I’ll start: I grew up in the Old North of Tel Aviv, a dense (about 15,000/km^2) neighborhood whose residential stock is almost exclusively four-story Garden City apartment buildings. Buildings are not attached as rowhouses, but instead are set back a few meters from the edges of the lots; typical apartment size is 120 square meters. The neighborhood is upper middle class – indeed, North Tel Aviv is used as a metonym for latte liberalism – but is not uniformly so. Growing up, I knew plenty of people in the neighborhood who were middle middle class, a few who were working class, and a few who were outright rich. This somewhat distinguishes North Tel Aviv from some surrounding suburbs that are nominally equally rich but are more uniformly upper middle class. In the 1990s, it was also stable rather than gentrified; there were, and still are, people living in the same neighborhood, sometimes the same apartment, for multiple decades.
As a result, I never grew up with the association of detached houses with wealth. Hebrew even distinguishes words for houses in general (house/home) and words that denote wealth (villa, cottage) but has just one word normally for an apartment; English, which distinguishes an apartment or a tenement from a condo, is exactly the opposite. Having a car is important for social status in Israel, but the idea is to drive it a short distance to work, as my parents did. Driving 20 kilometers each way would be strange. At the same time, I took some measure of walkability for granted, making me uncomfortable with sections of the city that were built after the 1950s and were designed to automobile scale. I did not think of public transportation as a normal means of getting to work, unless one couldn’t afford a car, but it was nifty for getting to school.
The ideas about urbanism I’ve developed out of that experience, followed by Manhattan, are:
1. Street width should be close to building height; for the purposes of this discussion, street width is measured from building edge to building edge, and building height is the average height of the continuous street wall. A height:width ratio of about 1 or slightly higher is best. Below about 1/2, it’s too open; in Providence, where the ratio is about 0.6, measured from the top of buildings, I already walk in the middle of the roadway, as if the streets were naked. Above about 2, which exists on some streets in such pre-industrial cities as Florence, it feels like an alley. As a corollary, very narrow streets are suitable for low-traffic cities, whereas high-density places should look more like Manhattan.
2. Every normal neighborhood amenity should be reachable on foot, on streets that are designed to be used primarily by pedestrians. If you need to take mechanized transportation or cross a highway to get to the supermarket, there is something wrong with your neighborhood.
3. Bicycles are a form of private transportation.
5. The street network should be porous. The closer to a regular grid, the better. The Old North has a grid of arterial streets, but the local streets terminate in T-shaped intersections, like this, and it’s not always possible to tell a local from an arterial street on sight; in addition, the grid is not really continued into other neighborhoods, making walking there confusing. I found Manhattan much more walkable than the Old North for this reason.
I will now exit the stage and make this an open mic.
In both the US and Israel, the power of organized labor is in decline, and union membership is increasingly restricted to public sector and legacy manufacturing employees, who are usually well-compensated and have a middle- or even upper-middle class income, but are still under attack by right-wing politicians who hope to privatize public services. However, these two countries’ lefts react to those employees and their representatives in diametrically opposed manner. American leftists typically support the major unions, Israeli leftists disdain them as sellouts. Although in both cases the left supports insurgent unions over well-established ones in intra-union fights – for example, UNITE-HERE over SEIU’s leadership – the attitudes toward the established unions are very different.
The relevance of this is the role of Ofer Eini, the leader of the Histadrut, in the emerging housing protests. Although the protest is grassroots, he’s started to play a role as well, demanding that the government negotiate with the demonstrators. For a selection of English-language mainstream sources mentioning his role, see Globes, the Jerusalem Post, and Haaretz, as well as Daily Kos, which bases its reporting on mainstream Israeli media. The general tone is that the protest began as a grassroots effort, separate from any mainstream organization, but now has a powerful player by its side.
In contrast the reporting I see from Hebrew-language leftist sources is quite different. 972Mag contributors Rechavia Berman and Yossi Gurvitz react uniformly negatively toward Eini. Berman explicitly and Gurvitz implicitly complain about Eini’s representing an establishment union whose members are predominantly public-sector. Berman even wrote a post on the subject entitled “Don’t Let Ofer Eini Coopt the Struggle,” calling Eini the biggest danger to the protests.
To clarify matters, neither Berman nor Gurvitz is an economic rightist, or even centrist. Both bloggers’ views on economic matters would place them in the middle of a group of Daily Kos contributors. Berman also took a hardline stance against Scott Walker’s anti-union law. But their view toward the mainline Israeli unions is hostile: they view them as representing the status quo, not the change that’s needed.
Put another way, the Israeli left is viewing its predicament and demanding wholesale changes in the economy, backed by grassroots activism. The American left is instead trying to cling to what the unions still have left; it welcomes struggles to unionize more workers, but views the mainstream unions as a succor of the working class rather than as part of the establishment.
I bring this up for several reasons. First, general interest. Second, more precisely, it shows that political stances come from not just ideology, but also political alliances, with all the implications it has. Third, specifically about good transit, it connects to what I said in my post about politicals vs. technicals, that the politicals are usually mainstream or moderate left while the technicals are all over, from the center-right to the radical left. Transit advocates with views similar to those of US labor liberals are just glad that they have APTA and Brookings on board and often want to expand from there. It’s advocates with views similar to those of the Israeli left – usually technicals, but not just politicals – who view those organizations as industry sops, with interests different from those of riders. It of course does not mean the latter kind of advocates are themselves left-wing – just that they view transit agencies the same way the grassroots left in Israel views the Histadrut.
Even on pure politics, it’s the latter approach that wins over non-leftists. The current housing protests in Israel attract everyone, even political groups that traditionally vote right-wing. The ultra-Orthodox and the settlers are fielding protest tents alongside anarchists and other people who demonstrate in front of the West Bank security fence. They argue heatedly about politics all day, and in the process build a new political arena that excludes the present-day establishment, but are united in their opposition to the status quo. The establishment right is doing its best to smother the protests, but its divide-and-rule tactics are no longer working. This couldn’t have happened if the protests had been started by the usual center-left organizations, with all their cultural baggage. People who want better services but are culturally indisposed toward joining with petrified organizations respond much better to grassroots efforts, even more radical ones, than to the same old.
A new post on Old Urbanist linking to prior posts about housing affordability, both on his own blog and on New World Economics. The theme is that various design standards – the two sites’ main scourge is streets wider than about 5-10 meters and in general excessive room for parking and front lawns – force the cost of construction up, making housing less affordable.
In reality, the first thing to note about high housing prices is that they exist everywhere: not just in new urbanist towns in the US, the type of development under discussion on the above blogs, but also in New York, and Paris, and Tokyo, and Tel Aviv, and Hong Kong, and London. In my matrix of different types of city planning, every row contains cities whose housing prices stretch the middle class to its limits. Often there’s significant homelessness, but most people have just enough to scrape by. The cities where housing prices are low compensate by either having very poor populations (inner-city Detroit) or requiring people to spend large quantities of money on driving (the Sunbelt): note how across US metro area, the total percentage of household income spent on housing and transportation is essentially constant.
Thus, as a first filter, the cities whose housing prices are low relative to incomes are very spread out and auto-oriented, exactly the opposite of any kind of urbanism other than suburbanism. As a second filter, Ed Glaeser notes that the high cost of housing in coastal cities comes from supply restrictions in the form of zoning, writing about Boston and about Manhattan as case studies.
First, what is clear about situations with unaffordable housing (really, barely-affordable) is that it is not due to high construction costs. Glaeser himself notes that construction of luxury apartments in Manhattan costs about $300 per ft^2, while the sales price per ft^2 is on average $600. In particular, parking requirements and other restrictions that effectively raise construction costs are not the primary agent to blame for high housing costs in general. An extra $20,000 for a parking spot is not going to make housing unaffordable, though it may influence developers’ decisions of what and where to build to maximize profits, in particular by making them abandon urban construction in favor of the suburbs. Glaeser blames persistently high housing prices on a regulatory tax, which forces developers to spend extra money on lobbying and preparing paperwork for permits.
Second, the primary determinant of housing prices is not capital costs, but the cost of the land underneath. An older post on Old Urbanist asks why real housing prices have increased since 1920; the answer is that a house is not a manufactured good, but primarily land, as is especially clear when one considers expensive, desirable cities.
Third, the worth of land is dependent on demand. Land on which a developer can build three apartments is worth three times as much as land on which a developer can build one apartment. That’s why on the level of the individual building, building higher does not reduce rents. Land supply only forms the limiting factor when there’s a regionwide desire to be in an area with a fixed land constraint, such as the national borders of Singapore or Monaco, or the physical extent of the New York City Subway or the walkable radius of Central Tel Aviv. In such cases, it could reduce prices to expand the available space for housing within the fixed constraint, via either increasing density or expanding the desirable area through transportation infrastructure or landfill. But otherwise, there’s not much point.
When high housing prices are genuinely the result of high capital cost, the result is different from that of high demand or a shortage of land. Consider North Tel Aviv, which mandates expensive whitewash on its traditional garden city buildings. When those buildings were first constructed in the 1930s, they were priced too steeply for the working class, leading the rising middle class to move in instead. Since the whitewash is also high-maintenance, apartments deteriorated, and the only buildings that maintain an aesthetic exterior cost much more to maintain and are only affordable to the rich. In effect, the result of high capital cost is worse physical stock, the opposite of what normally happens in Tokyo, New York, and other expensive cities.
Anti-gentrification activists often fight policies that make their areas more desirable; the above three points help explain why. Affordable housing to them is a bargain to richer people, and if they want to move in, they’ll be priced out. The only way to depress housing prices is to depress demand. One activist, a Harlem preacher with extreme right sympathies, even calls for a general economic boycott of his own neighborhood in order to cause an economic collapse and lower rents.
The inevitable conclusion, namely that it’s impossible to make housing persistently cheap without raising other costs or impoverishing people, does not mean that affordable housing issues are moot. First, the equity issue remains; although on average housing is just marginally affordable, to many people it is not affordable, and as a result, expensive cities engage in government intervention to prevent mass homelessness, even ultra-capitalist Singapore.
In addition, although expanding housing supply makes land more valuable and normally prevents prices from falling, it also create better housing in the process. Auto-oriented sprawl in the US has caused dwelling size to increase; upzoning and the construction of better transportation infrastructure in expensive cities would enable people to move from the periphery to the core – or, more precisely, people could stay where they are, but public transit could redefine regions from periphery to core.
For a toy model, suppose there are two kinds of development: regular suburbia and new urbanism, where new urbanism is more expensive. Constructing more new urbanism is going to reduce the price for both kinds of housing (new urbanism has an increase in supply, regular suburbia suffers from a subsequent decline in demand), while also shifting people from regular suburbia to new urbanism. Overall the average price of housing shouldn’t change, but the quality will increase.
In other words, on a national or regional level, affordable housing is never a problem; it may be a problem for poor people, but not in general, on average. Supply restrictions should show in low-quality housing, measured in terms of size, local walkability, aesthetics, and other factors that on the local level determine price.
The protesters on the ground in Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities are often disorganized, and lack coherent goals; many have claimed that the very presence of bottom-up protest is good enough on its own (which Israeli blogger Idan Landau notes is evidence for how low the public’s expectations of politics are). However, many organizations for affordable housing have banded together to form a more normal political front, and are calling for concrete reforms. A website can be found here; it is in Hebrew, but has the occasional English article.
While the leftist bloggers are still demanding rent stabilization, it is only one of several demands (Landau proposes it together with public housing and an end to land privatization), and the new Coalition for Affordable Housing has released a nine-point plan that is considerably broader. Their main demands, amendments to a national housing law under discussion, are as follows (translated from a summary article on Ynet and a blog post on the coalition’s site):
1. Every high-rise national housing plan with at least 200 units must include at least 20% affordable rental units and at least 30% units with at most 75 square meters.
2. No plan will be approved if it includes only housing for welfare recipients, in order to avoid creating concentrated poverty.
3. Public housing will have priority, and the state will spend the 2 million shekels (about $580 million in exchange rate value, or $670 million in PPP) it has from previous sales of public housing on new construction.
4. Affordable units will be rented for at most 25% of the maximum income ceiling for eligibility, and the rent could only be increased at a fixed rate, whose value the coalition does not mention.
Separately, the student groups are issuing their own demands, which, in addition to small and affordable apartments, include removal of legal barriers to municipally approved development, taxation of apartment buying for investment rather than for renting, 400 million shekels for construction of student housing, and opening 5,000 500-square-meter lots in the Negev and Galilee for construction of subsidized units.
The government’s own proposals have not gotten popular support, as the protesters consider them to be mere bones or actively counterproductive. Two members of the Knesset – Labor’s Shelly Yachimovich (who is currently running for the top position in the party’s primary) and Likud’s Karmel Shama, have offered a rent stabilization law limiting increases in rent to 5% a year; the protesters rejected it. More cynically, PM Netanyahu tried to buy the students out with a 50% discount in public transportation fare; he was met with the same scorn he got in the 1990s, when he tried to deliver pizzas to students who were on hunger strike.
So far, ideas meant to increase central city housing supply have not been seriously raised by any group. Netanyahu’s plan to accelerate construction must be viewed as an attempt to reward developers rather than as a housing solution; owing to the high land prices, new construction tends toward luxury, just like in New York and other expensive cities. This led to general opposition to any supply-side solution, at least among the bloggers I read; for example, Shalom Boguslavsky, whose article about the Jerusalem light rail I ran six weeks ago, blamed the problem on inflated demand coming from speculation. Note, however, that the student proposals do include some supply increases, though not within central cities.
I still maintain the most effective solution should be to avoid rent controls at all costs, and instead pursue the following set of policies:
1. Subdividing apartments must be legal, as must new construction of small apartments.
2. Zoning should preference contextual housing over towers in a park, and allow 6-story buildings as of right, with 8-story zones on wider streets and in more desirable neighborhoods. Setbacks should be eliminated for future construction, and for front yards this should be retroactive, legalizing enclosed balconies as long as the materials are more permanent and aesthetic than plastic. These two points together should roughly double the allowable intensity of development, while also incentivizing small improvements by building owners over large-scale redevelopment.
3. Low-income people should receive subsidized or public housing. Even if the housing is owned outright by the government, it should be done voucher-style, and buildings should not clearly advertise that they are public. For example, a new public housing company could be empowered and given a budget to purchase small buildings anywhere it wishes, even in expensive neighborhood.
4. Speculation should be deterred by, as the students propose, a tax on buying housing as an investment. I do not have the details of the students’ proposal, but I would propose a capital gains tax. A tax on imputed rents for owner-occupied housing, as in Switzerland, should not be necessary here; the problem is at the upper end of the market, not in the middle.
5. The government should invest in public transportation, including a subway for the inner Tel Aviv region and an upgrade of the rail network to modern S-Bahn standards. Israel is already pouring concrete, i.e. building extra lines to unserved cities, but the organization is still substandard, with mediocre frequency and no ticket or schedule integration with local transit.
Tel Aviv’s housing protest grows, and Saturday night tens of thousands of protesters descended on HaBima Square, demanding rent control. Although I have yet to see media heavyweights on the left echo those demands – instead, they view it in abstract terms of people power versus the state – they are clearly too important to ignore right now. There is already a response from the right and from (classical) liberals saying that it’s government’s fault and that the correct solution is deregulation of new construction.
However, since government intervention is ubiquitous in expensive cities, including several famous ones I have lived in, I’d like to talk about case studies of world cities. In most of the last ten and a half years, I lived in Singapore and New York. Both have extensive government regulation, despite the capitalist orientation of Singapore. However, this government involvement takes different forms, though some of consequences are similar.
In New York, there’s rent control, precisely what the Tel Aviv protesters are demanding. More precisely, there are two forms of rent regulation: rent control, and rent stabilization. Rent control is far stronger, requires the tenant to have continuously occupied the apartment since 1971, and only applies to 2% of rental units, mostly in Manhattan. Rent stabilization allows higher rents and merely limits the increase in rent every year to a few percent, and is far more common, applying to about half of rental units. Both figures come from the most recent housing survey, in 2008. There are also public housing programs, some for the poor and some for the middle class. In addition, the Inclusionary Housing Program encourages developers to set aside 20% of the units as affordable housing, by offering them a bonus in floor area ratio.
In Singapore, the main form of government involvement takes the form of subsidized public housing, called HDB estates after the housing development board. These are rented and sold to Singaporean citizens at a discount, and are home to 85% of Singaporeans. The mandatory savings accounts, which function similarly to social security programs except that people only get back what they paid in, with no redistribution of wealth, encourages home ownership by allowing people to use their accounts to buy housing. Thus home ownership is high, in contrast to the situation in other expensive cities, such as New York.
The important feature in both cases is that not everyone is eligible for reduced rent. In New York, rent stabilization disappears in certain cases if the tenant leaves (vacancy decontrol); in Singapore, HDB is not available to non-resident immigrants, who form 25% of the country’s population. This is also seen in other expensive cities, including Monaco, where the minority of residents who are citizens have access to highly subsidized public housing, and Hong Kong, where half the population receives housing subsidies.
The result is parallel markets. There’s an affordable market, and an unregulated market, which is much more expensive than it would be without government involvement since there is a restricted supply of market-rate housing. Effectively, in order to prevent mass homelessness, the government increases rent for unfavored groups – expats in Singapore, relative newcomers in New York – in order to reduce that of favored groups. Rich members of the unfavored groups, for example executive expats, can easily pay the higher rent. Poor members, for example recent immigrants from developing countries, pay the rent by living in overcrowded housing.
A more pernicious result, common in New York, is landlords’ recurrent attempts to move rental units from the controlled or stabilized market to the unregulated one; although rent control is rare, it is concentrated in desirable neighborhoods that once hosted many working-class artists, such as SoHo and the West Village. Since the path of least resistance is vacancy decontrol, landlords harass such tenants in any way possible.
Immigrants who speak little English are a favored target of harassment, since they often don’t know their rights, and since many of their neighborhoods, for examples Washington Heights and Alphabet City, are desirable for college students. In contrast, students are often a standard replacement, since they have more money due to parental support, and are transient and therefore don’t complain as much about maintenance. However, everyone who is stabilized or controlled can be at risk; many of the stories I have heard come out of the Village rather than Washington Heights. Community board members know countless instances of landlords who defer maintenance, install noisy or inefficient heating and refuse tenants’ suggestions for better options, turn off the electricity or the water at inopportune times, and even engage in outright fraud. An anti-gentrification activist from West Harlem told a Columbia student group of landlords who pretend not to have received rent checks from their tenants, and then use this as an excuse to evict them.
I do not know whether the same results exist in other expensive cities with extensive rent control, for example Paris; I would appreciate help from any reader who knows the situation there. However, I posit that at least some degree of the two above issues are universal to a regime in which part of the market is regulated and part is not.
Based on admittedly partial information, I’d recommend against rent control in Tel Aviv, and for other forms of reform, including some government intervention when necessary. The differences with other land-constrained cities, in which intervention is universal, can be summed as follows:
1. Tel Aviv, while dense, is not as land-constrained as Singapore, which is limited by national borders, or New York, which is limited by the available subway infrastructure; therefore, there’s less inherent market pressure on land prices.
2. Tel Aviv’s zoning code allows much less development, and can be reformed accordingly. The 1920s-era Geddes Plan, good for its time but now in need of change, mandates setbacks of 4 meters front and back and 3 meters of each side, roughly halving the buildable area of the 20*25 lots typical of the city, and limits height to 4 stories. In addition, the city makes dividing apartments into smaller units so difficult landlords have taken to doing it illegally
3. A big portion of the problem is low purchasing power among specific groups, namely students, who do not have access to free tuition as in many progressive European countries or loans as in the US. Thus it’s not just a housing problem, as already noted by some protesters.
In general, there’s a distinction between socialism and bureaucracy. Social-democratic programs can be delivered with remarkably little bureaucracy. The Soviet Union was both socialist and bureaucratic, but Scandinavia’s quality of government is much better, as seen in its stellar rankings on corruption indices. In contrast, many developing countries impose many hurdles on starting a business without appreciable socialism, for example India’s license raj. The difficulty of building affordable market-rate housing in many cities can be traced to bureaucracy in the form of an onerous permit process, a zoning code that requires so many variations that developers are at the mercy of politicians, and similar questions that boil down to political power.
The consequence is that the process of reform must target regulations that empower kvetching community board and city leaders to make landlords’ lives miserable. Good deregulation would make it easier to build and easier to build densely, and streamline the permit process. It would not try to inflict maximum damage on tenants. The reason I’d mistrust any deregulation coming out of the present government is that its recent record – for example, cutting funding to fire services in the years leading up to the Mount Carmel fire – is not one of trying to make government better, but of trying to make government so small and inefficient it can be drowned in a bathtub. It’s exactly this attempt to destroy public services and give handouts to politically connected entrepreneurs that people in Tel Aviv are really protesting.