YIMBY is a movement that calls for liberalizing land use in order to produce more housing. However, its take on non-residential development is more complicated. I’d always assumed that San Francisco YIMBY was not calling for more commercial development because the Bay Area already builds a lot of office space because of California’s tax incentives, which let municipalities raise taxes on sales but not residential property; however, as a check on this hypothesis I asked YIMBYs in New York, but they too said that office upzoning wasn’t really a priority and only cited mixed projects to me. This approach is usually harmless, but in a few places it creates serious long-term problems, and one of them is the center of SF YIMBY, the South of Market (“SoMa”) area, and the reason is commercialization of near-CBD neighborhoods.
A few months ago I wrote about job sprawl in the US vs. in Europe. In Europe, hostility to high-rise office buildings in most historic city centers has caused jobs to spread to neighborhoods near the CBD, often in the direction of the favored quarter; in the US, CBDs have office towers, but everything right outside them is usually strictly zoned, so jobs sprawl to suburban office parks. Both situations have a number of exceptions (e.g. Kista and La Defense are both examples of high-rise edge cities independent of the CBDs, while Kendall Square and Back Bay are contiguous extensions of the Boston CBD), but for the most part they apply in their respective areas.
In the same way that on a wider scale building more housing in New York and San Francisco would reduce the demand for housing in the places to which these cities’ working and lower middle classes have been pushed out, building more office space in city centers would reduce the demand for suburban office parks. Permitting jobs to move back from suburban edge and edgeless cities to city centers is a good thing, both for urbanism and for transit: for urbanism, the CBD is accessible from all directions (which is why it’s so valuable to begin with), and for transit, congested CBDs tend to maintain decent transit mode shares even in otherwise completely auto-dominated cities.
The political problem is that this requires replacing residential development with commercial development. It’s questionable but possible in European zoning regimes. In the US it’s harder, for several reasons:
- Near-CBD neighborhoods are as far as I can tell never middle or lower middle class. They’re either very poor (though by now they’ve all been urban-renewed) or rich. The greater extent of local empowerment in the US makes it harder to permit office development in rich areas over NIMBY objections.
- American residential zoning is stricter than at least German residential zoning, and as far as I can tell is also stricter than French residential zoning, in that it permits no commercial uses at all, except ground-floor retail on main streets. In particular, doctors, lawyers, and accountants’ offices must go in designated commercial zones in the US.
- American cities are more likely to have low-density neighborhoods in desirable near-downtown areas (for example, Georgetown) and defend their character fiercely through single-family zoning.
While all three factors seem important, the biggest examples of American near-CBD NIMBYism trigger only the first factor. In New York, the main example right now is the Meatpacking District, where there is extensive commercial demand (Google is located there and so do some other tech firms), which already has fairly high residential density, but the residents are rich homeowners who have successfully fought off attempts to build more office space. Historically, Midtown arose this way – rich areas around Fifth Avenue commercialized until the city’s 1916 zoning code put a stop to the practice.
And this brings me back to this post’s motivating example – SoMa. Located right next to the Financial District, with equally good access as the Financial District to the BART and Muni subway spine on Market Street, and better access to Caltrain’s 4th and King terminal, SoMa is a prime target for commercialization. Unfortunately, SF YIMBY opposes this process, saying the city’s zoning plan should add housing there and not office space. The argument is that permitting mostly office space in SoMa would create more demand for housing elsewhere in the Bay Area, exporting San Francisco’s high rents to Oakland and other East Bay cities. Unwittingly, SF YIMBY has turned into a NIMBY group when it comes to the highest and best use in the neighborhood in which it is the strongest.
To SF YIMBY’s credit, it recognizes the similarity between today’s tech workers (who form the vanguard of YIMBY) and last generation’s (who bought houses when they were cheaper than today and form one of several vanguards of area NIMBYism) and is pursuing preemption laws that reduce its own ability to object to growth. But, as preemption is not yet the law, SF YIMBY is opposed to commercialization in its own back yard.
The more specific argument SF YIMBY uses is about jobs-to-bedrooms ratio. Per YIMBY, zoning should have a maximum jobs-to-bedrooms ratio within a neighborhood or city, to prevent creating too much housing demand in other Bay Area cities. Right now, the Proposition 13 regime is such that municipalities derive tax revenues from commercial development but not so much residential development, and so they favor office space. But in reality, the only jobs-to-employed-residents ratio that’s sustainable this way is 1, a ratio that’s far too low for a city that has suburbs, let alone a central neighborhood such as SoMa. The consensus SF YIMBY proposes – an even balance between residential and commercial development everywhere, achieved through preference for housing in areas that are net recipients of inbound commuters – is thus untenable in a major metro area.
The proposed SF YIMBY consensus also does nothing to unseat the current consensus in favor of sprawl. Contrary to the narrative of selfish suburbs that add office space but no housing, the Silicon Valley suburbs are fiercely NIMBY toward high-density office development. Google could never hope to build a supertall skyscraper on top of Mountain View’s train station; it can’t even get permission to build a bridge to let the Googleplex expand to a nearby office park.
The selfish suburbs’ preference is not just office but also sprawl, and blocking commercial development in San Francisco increases sprawl in two distinct ways. First, the tech companies that would like to expand in SoMa – Uber, Slack, Airbnb, and so on – would, if not permitted to build more office space, open more back offices in sprawling areas, in or outside the Bay Area. And second, office development in the suburbs is only accessible to people from one wedge of the metro area, which encourages people to move to exurbs on the outer side, for example Gilroy for development in San Jose.
To counteract the tendency of hyperlocal planning to produce sprawl and replace the single-family housing consensus, the consensus YIMBY should seek is not about managing office-to-residential space ratios, but about letting places densify in whatever ways the market deems to have the highest and best use. In a high-demand place like San Francisco or New York, this means a consensus in favor of a bigger, faster-growing city, using its high productivity to add more people, offices, and apartments, rather than to increase the property values of the incumbents. Plan for long-term growth and long-term changes in zoning rules and don’t play the demand suppression game that NIMBYs love.
I ran a Patreon poll about theory-oriented posts, and this option won over the concepts of skin in the game and of cities and assimilation. It came to me when I tried understanding why on several distinct measures of good governance related to urbanism and public transportation, the US is unusually weak by developed-country standards. I was reminded of something regular commenter Max Wyss once said: in French and in German, there’s a word that means “the state” and has positive connotation, whereas in native English use it usually refers to a sinister external imposition.
My main theory is that the US has problems with governance that ultimately stem from its racist history, and these have unrelated implications today that lead to poor urban governance and low transit usage. This is not a straightforward claim about white flight leading to high car use, or even a general claim about racism-poor transit correlation. (I don’t think the US is currently more racist than the average Western European country, and the costs in Europe don’t seem to correlate with my perception of racism levels.) In particular, fixing racism is not by itself going to lead to better transit or better urbanism, only to improvements in quality of government that in the future could prevent similar problems with other aspects of public policy that are yet unforeseen today.
This is a three-step argument. First, I am going to go over the weakness of US civil service and its consequences. Second, I am going to step back and describe the political mentality that leads to weak civil service, which centers the local community at the expense of the state. And third, I am going to relate this and similar examples of excessive localism in the US to the country’s unique history of racism. In effect, I am going to go backward, describing the effect and then looking at its causes.
Effect: Weak State Capacity
The argument is as follows: the US has a weak civil service. There’s relatively little in-house expertise, and weak planning departments. The rapid transit extensions of London and Paris are driven mostly by professional planning departments (Transport for London is especially powerful), with the budgets debated within their respective national parliaments. In contrast, in New York, while Second Avenue Subway was similarly driven by an internal process, other rail extensions were not: the 7 extension is Bloomberg’s project, the ongoing plans for BQX and the LaGuardia AirTrain are de Blasio and Cuomo’s projects respectively, and Gateway in its various incarnations is political football among several agencies and governments. Similarly, while the TGV was developed internally at SNCF with political approval of the overall budget, American plans for high-speed rail involve a melange of players, including consultants.
The more obvious effect of the weakness of the American civil service is that, with political control of planning and not just of the budget, it’s easy to build low-performance infrastructure such as the 7 extension. However, there are three ways in which this problem can increase costs, rather than just lead to poor priorities.
First, it is easier to have agency turf battles. The US has no transport association coordinating planning like STIF in Ile-de-France or any number of German-speaking Verkehrsverbünde (Berlin’s VBB, Zurich’s ZVV, etc.). Even when one agency controls all transit in an area, like SEPTA in Philadelphia or the MBTA in Boston, powerful internal cultures inhibit reforms aiming at treating mainline rail like regular public transit. An instructive example of better civil service is Canada: while Canadian civil service is also weak by Continental European or Japanese standards, it is strong enough that Metrolinx plans to raise off-peak frequency and at least in theory aims at fare integration, over the objections of the traditional railroaders who, like their American counterparts, like the situation as it is today.
Without any structure that gets different agencies to coordinate plans, overbuilding is routine. I blogged about it a few months ago, giving the examples of Gateway and East Side Access in New York and San Jose Diridon Station. A second Bay Area example, not mentioned in the post, concerns Millbrae, where BART holds on to turf it does not need, leading California High-Speed Rail to propose a gratuitous $1.9 billion tunnel: see posts on Caltrain-HSR Compatibility here and here.
Second, there is less in-house supervision of contracting. Brian Rosenthal’s article about Second Avenue Subway’s construction costs talks, among other things, about the lack of internal expertise at the MTA about running large projects. This is consistent with Manuel Melis Maynar’s admonition that project management should be done in-house rather than by consultants; Melis managed to build subways in Madrid for around $60 million per km. It’s also consistent with what I’ve heard from MBTA insiders as an explanation for the cost blowout for Boston’s Green Line Extension, an open-cut light rail so expensive it was misclassified as a subway in a Spanish comparison; as I mention in CityLab, once the MBTA found a good project manager it managed to substantially reduce costs.
Weaker in-house supervision has knock-on effects on procurement practices. An agency that can’t easily oversee the work it pays for has difficulty weeding out dishonest or incompetent contractors. One way around it is strict lowest-bid rules, but these offer dishonest contractors an opportunity to lowball costs; California has a particular problem with change orders. In New York, I’ve heard from several second-hand sources that to prevent contractors from doing shoddy work, the specs micromanage the contractors, leading to more expensive work and discouraging good builders, who can get private-sector work, from bidding. If fewer contractors bid, then there is less competition, increasing cost further. In contrast, Melis Maynar’s prescription is to offer contracts based primarily on the technical score and only secondarily on cost, to ensure quality work. But this requires objective judgment of technical merit, which American bureaucrats are not good at.
And third, the US’s weaker state capacity leads to problems with NIMBY opposition to infrastructure. This does not means the US can’t engage in eminent domain (on the contrary, its eminent domain laws favor the state). But it means that agencies feel like they’re politically at the mercy of powerful local interests, and can’t propose projects with high community impact that they can negotiate with local landowners. The impetus for the SECoast’s hiring me to analyze high-speed rail in Fairfield County is that the NEC Future plan was vague about that area; an insider at one of the NEC Future consultants told me that this was specifically because the consultant was worried about NIMBYism in that part of the state, so an “unspoken assumption” was that the area should not be disturbed.
This kind of preemptive surrender to NIMBYism leads to inferior projects, like agency turf battles: cost-effective solutions are not pursued if consultants are worried about political pushback. But, like agency turf battles, it also leads to higher costs, if the reports propose expensive remediation such as tunnels.
Any attempt to build a strong bureaucracy in the United States runs into entrenched interests, most of which are local. These interests are empowered politically rather than legally. The NIMBYism example is the cleanest case study. The United States does not have a legal regime that empowers NIMBY opposition in eminent domain cases. On the contrary, the state can condemn property with relative ease, and the arguments are over price. Under Kelo, the state can even expropriate land and to give to a private developer.
In contrast, in Japan the process is more difficult: in a 1994 Transportation Research Board paper, Walter Hook says that urban landowners in Japan enjoy strong legal protections, which requires the state to pay a high price for property takings. About 75-80% of the cost of urban highway construction in Japan is land acquisition, versus only 25% in the US (both figures are lower for rail, which is more space-efficient; the paper argues that Japan’s difficult land acquisition led it to favor the more space-efficient mode for its urban transportation network).
Moreover, in Japan as well as in France, property owners have extralegal means of fighting infrastructure: they can take to the streets. The construction of Narita Airport faced riots by landowners, encouraged by leftists who opposed the airport’s use by the US military; and in France, blocking roads is a standard way of protesting, and there is little the state can do against it. SNCF resolves this issue in building high-speed lines for TGVs by spending years negotiating with landowners and coming up with win-wins in which it pays extra to make the owners go away quietly.
With a legally stronger state, the US needs to come up with different ways to protect powerful property owners from arbitrary expropriation. The mechanism the country settled on is political empowerment of local interests. If rich individuals in Fairfield County or on the San Francisco Peninsula can interfere with the construction process, then they can rest assured the state will not be able to build a rail alignment that wrecks their real or imagined quality of life. The point I made repeatedly in my writeup about high-speed rail in Fairfield County (funded by those rich individuals) is that there is some real visual and noise impact, but it’s possible to mitigate it in most cities using noise barriers and trees, and as compensation use the faster tracks to offer faster commuter rail service; only Darien has unmitigable impact.
The same localism encourages agency turf battles. The LIRR, Metro-North, and New Jersey Transit could provide much better rail service in their respective service areas by integrating planning, but this would compel local interests to give up control. Long Islanders would have to interact directly with the Tri-State Area’s transport association, in which they’d be only 12% of the population and 5% of transit ridership; today they interact with planning via their powerful elected representatives, who can block any change that is unfavorable to incumbent riders.
The main losers here are potential riders. It is possible to come up with a win-win (there’s so much schedule padding a local train could be as fast as today’s super-express trains), but it is not possible for any coordinated planning department to credibly promise that the suburbs would retain the priority they have today. For the same reason, even vertically integrated SEPTA and the MBTA find it difficult to engage in integration – the suburbs would lose their special status.
In contrast, planning in France and Britain is more centralized, and the local communities were never so empowered. The two main players in STIF are RATP and SNCF. RATP serves Paris, and SNCF is the national railroad and does not view itself as catering to the suburbs even if those suburbs are the overwhelming majority of SNCF’s ridership. The rich can exercise direct political influence: thus, the state just committed to building the entire Grand Paris Express, despite cost overruns, without pruning the unnecessary airport connector that is Line 17 or the low-ridership favored-quarter suburban circumferential that is Line 18. But they can’t block projects as easily as in the US.
The US achieves democratic checks and balances by having many veto points on every law. In Congress, a law needs majorities in both houses and a presidential signature, or supermajorities in both houses. Moreover, achieving a majority in each house requires not only the support of the majority of legislators, but also the support of the majority of legislators in the majority party (the Hastert Rule). In each state legislature, the process is largely similar. In nonpartisan or effectively single-party legislatures, such as the New York City Council, votes on such local issues as rezoning informally require the approval of the legislator representing the district in question; David Schleicher, who has elsewhere investigated high US subway construction costs, has a paper on this local representative privilege explaining why upzoning is difficult in large cities.
This localism is absent from other democracies. Westminster systems just don’t have checks and balances, only traditions, occasionally supplemented by narrow civil liberties-oriented constitutions like the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. As a result, Ontario could pass a rent control law overnight; with this regulatory uncertainty, it’s no wonder that for years, even before the law, fearful developers built mostly condos rather than rental units.
In most other democracies, checks and balances instead rely on proportional representation and a multiparty system: laws in Germany or Scandinavia require a parliamentary majority, and restrictions on the government’s ability to pass big changes overnight with no debate come from the ability of class-based and ideological interests to activate entire political parties. Coalition agreements still specify the agenda, roughly equivalent to the Hastert Rule, but parties can freely campaign for changes in elections, reducing the ability of a minority to block change. In some systems, most notably Switzerland, it’s also possible to use referendums to direct spending. This way, local magnates opposed to the expansion of civil service are disempowered, while at the same time the civil service cannot easily use its powers to create internal slush funds, because it is still overseen by a political majority that cares little for corruption.
Ultimate Cause: Democratic Deficit and Racism
The superficial reason why the US prefers localism to civil service is that it is historically localist. New England had powerful town halls from early white settlement, and Americans like to tell themselves that they have a lively tradition of self-government and individualism. But this is incorrect. Israelis in the United States often comment that far from individualist or self-governing, Americans are unusually rule-bound and obedient, compared with not just Israelis but also Europeans.
More to the point, traditions of localism exist in much of Europe. Switzerland is famous for this, and yet it’s managed to develop civil service planning transportation; referendums exert a powerful check on the ability of the state to spend money, but do not micromanage planning, and as a result the state makes cost-effective plans rather than retreating and letting local suburbs decide what to build.
Moreover, most European countries have undergone rounds of municipal consolidation, converting formerly independent suburbs or villages into parts of larger cities or townships. France has uniquely not done so, and is therefore extremely fractionalized, with 30,000 communes, about the same as the number of municipalities in five times more populous America; but in France the communes are for the most part weak, and most subnational government is done by departments and regions. The US, in contrast, maintained its suburbs’ autonomy.
The answer to the question of why the US has done so is simple: racism. Suburban consolidation came to a hard stop once the cities became more diverse than the suburbs. Relying on prior town lines could offer suburban whites something they craved: protection from integration, especially school integration.
It would be difficult to consolidate education policy, even at the state level, and maintain the white middle and working classes’ desired segregation levels. Thus, the US prefers the second-best policy of maintaining localism. The same principle also underlies much election disenfranchisement (giving white poll workers authority to reject black voters’ credentials), today and even more so before the Voting Rights Act.
Transit faces the same issue. The traditional American transit cities’ suburbs have fast expensive trains for middle-class, mostly white suburban commuters to city center, and slow, cheap suburban buses for poor minorities working service jobs in the suburbs. Stephen Smith, who spent some time on the NICE buses on Long Island and compared their demographics with those of the LIRR, calls this “separate and unequal.” This segregation would not survive any coordinated planning; even ignoring racial equality, it’s inefficient.
The underlying cause is that it is very difficult to have a clean herrenvolk democracy. Neither of the two main examples of herrenvolk democracies, the American South in the eras of slavery and Jim Crow and South Africa in the apartheid era, had good government. On the contrary, the antebellum South opposed public infrastructure investment (“internal improvements” in the era’s language), and the Jim Crow South was a single-party state ruled by corrupt political machines. Apartheid South Africa, too, was effectively a single-party state with totalitarian characteristics trying to stamp out communism. The ability of the state to respond to even the white population’s economic and social needs was constrained by the overwhelming need to credibly promise to maintain apartheid. Ta-Nehisi Coates notes this of George Wallace:
I frequently reference the story of George Wallace’s evolution. Wallace was once a sensible politician who generally was seen as fair-minded by black leaders in Alabama. But he lost the gubernatorial election after being tarred by John Patterson as too friendly to black people. Wallace subsequently vowed to never be “out-niggered” again and thus began his long dark march into history.
You know, I tried to talk about good roads and good schools and all these things that have been part of my career, and nobody listened. And then I began talking about niggers, and they stomped the floor.
The only way to maintain racism is to weaken institutions. It’s hard to have a clean system of apartheid justice, because then the oppressed minority can simply demand the state treat it the way it treats the herrenvolk. A state that attempted to impose apartheid with clean government would not be able to credibly promise to the racists that the system would stay as is. Instead, it would need to engage in arbitrary justice, giving individual cops, judges, and juries broad latitude to make decisions, which could survive the end of formal apartheid to some extent.
The Impact of Racism on Property Rights
The US built roads in the 1950s and 60s by running them through low-income black urban neighborhoods. The book The Big Roads says that road planners figured that those areas were already declining and had low property values, so it was cheap to build there; in one tone-deaf example, planners in Washington tried surveying roads after a race riot, figuring that it was the best time to demolish buildings, until outraged civil rights groups put a stop to the process. The problem is that black neighborhoods were cheap because of redlining. The federal government spent 30 years wrecking the property values of black neighborhoods and then acquired property for cheap to build infrastructure for then-white suburban drivers.
For the same reason, there is much less tolerance toward protest in the US than in other democracies. If Americans tried reacting to adverse changes the way the French react, the police would shoot them. If the US engaged in a process to reduce its police brutality rates to levels that Europeans tolerate, black people would be able to free to roam the streets and make racist whites uncomfortable.
Thus, the US refrains from giving property owners any formal legal or extralegal protections from expropriation. Instead, it promises security of property to the middle class by underinvesting in institutions that could come up with bureaucratic rules for expropriation. Legally excluding minorities is difficult; politically excluding them is easy. The natural end of this system is to ensure the locus of protection from expropriation is political rather than legal.
When the US protects individuals from the predations of the state, it does so by letting people sue the government; this contrasts with regulatory protections, such as the Nordic ombudsman system. While suing the government is in theory a legal protection, in practice it depends on familiarity with the court system, which privileges people with connections and legal knowledge. When the state does spend political capital on getting what it wants, some rich individuals can sue indefinitely to delay projects; the poor have no such recourse. While this is partly a legacy of the common law system, indefinite delay by lawsuit is rare in the rest of the common law world, leading to British stereotypes that Americans are overly litigious.
The US is not uniquely racist. Its levels of economic discrimination against minorities seem fairly average to me by developed-country standards. Moreover, the extent of political exclusion of black Americans is arguably the smallest among all large groups of nonwhite minorities in white-majority countries. Barack Obama faced considerably racism as president, but he did win by a fair margin, and for years beforehand the media normalized the idea of a black president (as in the TV show 24 or the film Deep Impact). In contrast, a Muslim French president would be unthinkable. Even the Trump cabinet is more diverse than the Macron cabinet, which has one black member (the minister of sport) and one part-Algerian member (the minister of public accounts); the Clinton, Bush, and Obama cabinets all had minorities in far more senior positions.
However, the US is unique in that it was racially diverse early, requiring its political system to adapt to a state of slavery and subsequently apartheid. Europe, in contrast, formally applies the rules of liberal democratic participation, developed when there were few minorities, to an increasingly diverse electorate. To the extent that European racists are dissatisfied with this arrangement, they try to push for localism as well: British xenophobia borrows rhetoric from American local racism, substituting neo-Confederate dislike for the US federal government for anti-EU sentiments. Similarly, Swiss racists push for rules putting every naturalization to a referendum, ensuring that long-settled white Germans and Italians could naturalize while nonwhites could not.
Conclusion: the Origins and Future of Poor Governance
With the need to maintain apartheid embedded into the American legal and political systems, it had to underinvest in state capacity. A uniform civil service with clear rules would have to treat everyone equally, and if it didn’t, it would be so obvious that civil rights advocates would be able to easily push for change.
For the same reason, the US didn’t design rules that would guarantee security of property to all citizens while allowing the government to function in those cases where expropriation was required. Such rules would equally protect whites and blacks, and allow the black middle class to build wealth on the same terms as whites. Instead, its legal system empowers the state in eminent domain cases and requires individuals to either use their political pull to protect themselves or to attempt to sue the government for just compensation, neither of which option protects unorganized or disempowered communities.
With planning done by ad hoc arrangements and excessive empowerment of local interests, it is difficult to engage in any regional coordination. Even when none of the actors is a racist, or when all relevant communities are white, parochial local interests are stronger than the civil service and have many levers with which they can block change. With a change-averse political system, planning is run by autopilot, keeping traditional arrangements as they are.
Aversion to change, poor coordination, and ad hoc planning all lead to bad government, but are especially deleterious for public transit. Two road agencies that work independently in neighboring jurisdiction could build a single continuous road. Two public transit agencies in the same situation could build a railroad but not operate it. Moreover, with the bulk of spending on roads coming from individual consumers buying cars and fuel, a car-based transportation system is more resilient to bad government than a transit-based one, in which all spending is directed by a transit agency.
It’s hard to have an organization-before-electronics-before-concrete mentality when organization is stymied by the overarching need to maintain white middle-class local autocephaly. The end result is that transit planning departments are too weak to prioritize projects the right way and even to control costs of spending that benefits the white middle class.
None of this was intentional. Racism was of course intentional, but the political compromises between racist and nonracist whites that created American governance as it is today were not intended to wreck American state capacity. They just did so as a side product of guaranteeing the desired levels of political and economic exclusion.
The importance of intent is that reducing the extent of racism in the US in the future, while obviously desirable, is independent of fixing public transit. Some individual bad decisions today, such as Larry Hogan’s cancellation of the Red Line in Baltimore, are directly racist, but a lot of agency turf (such as between different commuter rail agencies) is not, and neither are high construction costs. Fixing the problems of US transit planning requires improving the relevant planning departments, but this is so narrowly-focused as to neither require nor be a natural consequence of fighting racism.
However, there is an entire world out there beyond public transit. When the US built its current racist system, during the midcentury transition period from apartheid to more-or-less equal democracy, probably the most obvious racially charged issue was school integration; the effect on transportation policy was a byproduct. Likewise, if the US makes a concerted effort to move toward racial equality, or if any European country with high immigration rates makes a concerted effort to avoid falling into an American racist trap, the improvements in governance will have far-reaching unforeseen benefits in the future.
Twenty-five billion dollars. The New York region’s political heavyweights – Andrew Cuomo, Chris Christie, Chuck Schumer, Cory Booker, Bill de Blasio – all want new Hudson tunnels, without any state funding for them; Schumer is proposing federal funding and a new interstate agency, parallel to the existing Port Authority, and a total budget of $25 billion. This is the highest figure I have seen so far; Amtrak still says $16 billion and Cuomo says $14 billion, and it’s likely the Gateway tunnels are indeed about $16 billion, while the remainder is for associated projects, such as fully four-tracking the line from Newark to the tunnel portal, a distance of about 11 kilometers. It is not my intention to criticize the cost; I’ve done that before.
Instead, I would like to point out that each time Gateway is the news, there usually seems to be a fresh cost escalation. Is it a $10 billion project? A $14 billion project? A $16 billion project? Or a $25 billion project? And what is included exactly? Amtrak does not make it clear what the various items are and how much they cost; I have not seen a single cost estimate that attempts to establish a baseline for new Hudson tunnels without the Penn Station South component, which would provide a moderate short-term boost to capacity but is not necessary for the project. The articles I’ve seen do not explain the origin of the $25 billion figure, either; it may include the tunnel and full four-tracking of Newark-New York, or it may include additional scope, for example Amtrak’s planned vertical circulation for a future (unnecessary) deep cavern for high-speed rail (see picture here).
The main issue here, the way I see it, is the interaction between public trust and political self-aggrandizement. It is common in all aspects of Israeli governance for new ministers to announce sweeping changes and reorganizations, just to remind the country that they exist and are doing something; this generally makes it harder to implement gradual reforms, and makes it completely impossible to do anything by consensus. Implementing a plan that was developed by consensus over many years makes one a bureaucrat; leaders change everything. In the US, this is the case not everywhere in government, but at least within public transportation infrastructure.
As we see in the case of Schumer’s call for a new interstate authority, the changes a heavyweight politician makes in order to appear as a leader have nothing to do with real problems that the project may have. Solving those problems requires detailed knowledge of the project at hand, which is the domain of bureaucrats and technocrats, and not of heavyweight politicians. Even a heavyweight who understands that there is a problem may not know or care about how to fix it: for example, Christie used the expression “tunnel to Macy’s basement,” invoking the deep cavern, to explain why ARC was wasteful, but chose to cancel the project rather than to remove the cavern and restore a track connection from the tunnel to Penn Station, which was in the official ARC Alt P plan until it was cut to limit the cost overruns. Managing a project is hard, and is, again, the domain of technocrats. The heavyweight will grandstand instead, regardless of whether it means canceling the project, or proposing an entirely new layer of government to build it.
As for trust, let us look at the benefits of new Hudson tunnels. The traditional, and least objectionable, is added capacity: the existing tunnels are currently at capacity during rush hour, and there’s much more demand for rail travel from New Jersey to Manhattan than they can accommodate. We can measure this benefit in terms of the combination of increased ridership from more service from more suburban areas, reduced crowding, and possibly slightly higher speeds. As a crude estimate of this benefit, current New Jersey Transit ridership at Penn Station is 87,000 per weekday in each direction. Doubling capacity means roughly doubling ridership, which would come from a combination of induced demand and diversion of traffic from cars, Port Authority buses, and commuter rail-PATH connections. This means the new tunnel can expect about 175,000 new commuter rail trips per weekday. At $10,000 per weekday trip, which is about average for very large non-US cities’ subway extensions, this justifies $1.75 billion. At $20,000, about the same as the projection for Grand Paris Express, Crossrail, and Second Avenue Subway Phase 1, all of which are justified on grounds of ridership and capacity on parallel lines, this is $3.5 billion. At $40,000, about the same as old projections for Second Avenue Subway Phase 2, which I used to analyze de Blasio’s Utica subway proposal, this is $7 billion. A $25 billion budget corresponds to a cost per rider well into the range of airport connectors.
Now, I’d like to think that informed citizens can look at these costs and benefits. At least, the fact that public transit projects only cost as much per rider as Gateway if they’re airport connectors (thus, of especial interest to the elites) or if something very wrong happened with the ridership projections, suggests that there is, normally, a ceiling to what the political system will fund. Even at $14-16 billion, the two states involved and the federal government groaned at funding Gateway, speaking to the fact that it’s not, in fact, worth this much money. In contrast, a bigger project, with bigger benefits, would be funded enthusiastically if it cost this much – for example, California already has almost this much money for high-speed rail, counting Prop 1A funds that are yet inaccessible due to the requirement of a 50/50 match from other sources.
Against this background, we see scare stories that Gateway must be built for reasons other than capacity and ridership. The old tunnels are falling apart, and Amtrak would like to shut them down one track at the time for long-term repairs. The more mundane reality is that the tunnels have higher maintenance costs than Amtrak would like since each track can only be shut down for short periods, on weekends and at night. This is buried in technical documents that don’t give the full picture, and don’t give differential costs for continuing the present regime of weekend single-tracking versus the recommended long-term closures. The given cost for Sandy-related North River Tunnel repairs is $350 million, assuming long-term closures, and it’s unlikely the present regime is billions of dollars more expensive.
I am reminded of the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement: the existing bridge has high maintenance costs due to its age and poor state, but the net present value of the maintenance cost is $2.5 billion and that of the excess maintenance cost is less, both figures well below the replacement cost. The bridge itself is structurally sound, but in popular media it is portrayed as structurally deficient. This relates to the problem of heavyweight politicians, for the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement is Cuomo’s pet project.
More fundamentally, who can trust any claim Amtrak makes about the structural soundness of tunnels? It says a lot that, when I asked on Twitter why transportation authorities do not immediately shut down unsafe pieces of infrastructure, various commenters answered “politics,” and on one (I believe James Sinclair) suggested that Amtrak order an emergency closure of one of the Hudson tunnel tracks just to drive home the point that new tunnels are necessary. I would like to stress that this is not Amtrak or a heavyweight proposing that, but the mere fact that commenters can seriously talk about it is telling. Most of the writers and commenters on the US transit blogosphere are very progressive and hate the Republicans; I have not seen a single comment recommending that the Democrats steal elections, fudge official statistics to make the party look more successful, or arrest Republican politicians on trumped-up charges, because in the US (and other first-world democracies), this is simply not done, and everyone except conspiracy theorists recognizes it. But politicizing the process of deciding which infrastructure projects are necessary for safety purposes and which are simply service expansions is normal enough that people can propose it half-seriously.
This brings me back to the issue of what I want the politicians to do, and what I expect them to do. What I want them to do is to be honest about costs and benefits, mediate between opposing interests (including different agencies that fight turf battles), and make decisions based on the best available information. This would necessarily limit costs, since, from the point of view of a member of Congress, if they get $25 billion for a piece of infrastructure then they cannot get $25 billion for another priority of theirs. They don’t do that, not in the US, and I’ve learned not to expect any better, as have the voters. Instead of working to make $25 billion go a longer way (to put things in perspective, I expect my regional rail tunnel proposal to cost $15-20 billion, at Crossrail 2 costs), Schumer is working to make $25 billion to sound like it’s going to a bigger deal than the new Hudson tunnels actually are.
None of this is a secret. American voters have learned to expect some kind of machine-greasing and politicking, to the point of losing the ability to trust either the politicians or the agencies, even in those cases when they are right. The result is that it’s possible to stretch the truth about how necessary a piece of infrastructure is, since people would believe or disbelieve it based on prior political beliefs anyway, and there is no expectation that the politicians or public authorities making those claims will have to justify them to the public in any detail. Lying to the public becomes trivially easy in this circumstance, and thus, costs can rise indefinitely, since everyone involved can pretend the benefits will rise to match them.
For the first time since 2006, I went to Netroots Nation, as it’s held in Providence. There was one panel about public transportation, entitled “Saving Public Transportation,” whose speakers included Larry Hanley, who dominated the discussion; a moderator; and three political activists: including a local union leader, a Sierra Club representative, and a state legislative candidate who Greater City is supporting. The discussion focused on preserving bus operations rather than on expansion – in fact Hanley made the point that agencies expand capital while cutting back service because the federal government only pays for capital rather than operating funds.
Since the panel was entirely political, and dealt mostly with funding issues, when it was time for questions I asked about the saddling of transit agencies with highway debt; I specifically mentioned Massachusetts’ putting Big Dig mitigation debt on the MBTA. I wanted to see if the panelists would say anything about mode shifting or about the relative power of highways and transit.
Instead, Hanley, who took the question, ignored what I said about highway debt, and instead answered about refinancing debt at lower interest rates, as issue his union is harping about. In reality, according to his union’s own figures, the MBTA could save $26 million a year by refinancing debt; for comparison, its deficit this year, which it plugged with service cuts and a large fare hike, was $163 million, and its total debt payments in 2006 were $351 million, of which $117 million came from the Big Dig. Although the parts of this debt that are not from the Big Dig come from true transit projects, those were voted on by the state legislature, rather than by the MBTA; transit’s low position in the transportation funding food chain is thus responsible for 13.5 times as much money as could be extracted from the banks.
So at first pass, Hanley was pivoting to an issue he was more comfortable talking about, which happens to involve a fraction of the amount of money in question. But at second pass, something more insidious happened. Instead of answering a question about transportation priorities and getting state governments to assume debt they’d unfairly loaded onto transit agencies, which would require clashing with other departments with their own agendas, Hanley preferred to shift blame onto banks. He did not include figures during the panel and so I could not know he was talking about such a small amount of money; his explanation for focusing on the banks is that the MTA renegotiated deals with contractors to get lower prices, so it should do the same with the banks.
And after thinking about this, I realized how it shows exactly how despite appearances, the “We are the 99%” slogan is the exact opposite of any sort of democratic consensus. It silences any notion that there are different interests among the 99%. The auto workers and Providence’s carless residents are both members of the 99%; they have diametrically different interests when it comes to transportation. But in the Grand Struggle, the 99% must be united, and thus the leaders shift any discussion to the common enemy, no matter the relative proportions of the amounts of money in question.
After Scott Walker’s win, Matt Yglesias wrote that different industries have clashing interests just as much as labor and business do. But even within the framework of fighting big business’s influence, two of the most influential opposing interest groups, the union movement and small business, have different interests and are hostile to each other. Dean Baker wrote in The Conservative Nanny State that small businesses are being coddled because they pay lower wages and benefits on average; in general, the American union movement has not organized small businesses and supports the businesses it has already organized, and is hostile toward new companies, which are usually non-union. Small business in turn is hostile toward regulations on wages, starting a business, and so on.
The 99% framing papers over all of that. The voices that dominate the protests believe themselves to be the true representatives of 99% of the population, and by implication their own issues to be the most important. Other issues are subsidiary, or outright distractions from the primary needs. Any movement that claims to represent everyone is not consensual but nationalistic, and just as nationalism requires the elites to declare a certain archetype to be Real Americans (or Britons, or French) and everyone else to be one of many negative stereotypes, so does this 99% framing require movement leaders to coopt or downplay other groups’ issues.
Consensus comes from clashing points of view. The Swiss Socialists are farther left than what is considered serious liberal opinion in the US, and the Swiss People’s Party is about as far right as the Tea Party; they and the centrist parties are more or less in a grand coalition. The consensus comes from the realization that no single faction will ever dominate, and thus the best it can do is distill how it can advance its stated goals (poverty reduction, smaller government, greater national cohesion, etc., depending on the party). The Occupy protesters have very high supermajority requirements at their general assemblies, but they do not have this clash, this diversity in either viewpoints or demographics. They have procedural near-unanimity but not actual consensus governance, leading to a system that excludes most interest groups that comprise the 99%; unsurprisingly, the movement has severe problems with race, since its center is white and thinks it speaks for everyone.
Of course, within the union movement something similar is happening, with the dominant group being the older members. This is what New York-area transit commenter Larry Littlefield calls Generation Greed, spanning people of all political classes.
The end result is that no matter how much rhetoric is thrown around about new politics, forward-looking progressives, and so on, what ends up is a repetition of an old hierarchy, one with Real Working People and with fake ones. It has to; when it has no capability of dealing with tensions between transit users and other groups, or between whites and blacks, or between labor and small business, it cannot project any unity of the 99% otherwise. And without unity, it’s a movement without any clear policy agenda.
Anthony Flint’s article in The Atlantic Cities, which compares Jane Jacobs’ protesting to current Tea Party protests against urban planning, inadvertently unmasks a serious issue in any consensus society. In drawing parallels between the near-riots of the 1960s and those of today, he invites us to look at what giving communities more power has wrought. Although his description of the Tea Party is clearly unsympathetic, he leaves two issues incompletely treated – grassroots activism versus astroturf, and starting versus shutting down discussions – and this gives a feeling of a meander, or at worst a late defense of top-down planning with no civic engagement.
Part of the issue of the attitude toward public debate has already been covered elsewhere. Emily Washington does a good job at demolishing the pretense that the Tea Party is consistently against government intervention, in favor of a view that it supports intervention as long as it’s in favor of what its members consider their kind of people. And far from trying to explain to people why its preference for intervention is better, as Jacobs did in The Death and Life, it prefers to yell: see, for example, how it acts in the East Bay.
But the issue of fake grassroots campaigns is as important. Although liberals should be wary of carelessly dismissing the Tea Party as merely a brand for the Koch brothers’ lobbying, it is a general fact that people who perceive themselves as the normals tend to think they speak for everyone when they do not. The Lower Manhattan Expressway really was unpopular in most of the West Village. How could it be otherwise in a neighborhood where a large majority of households did not even own cars? Jacobs, in other words, really was speaking for the community. The same is not true of people who think themselves the silent majority; going back to the East Bay example, after the local Tea Party leader had her tantrum, people informally voted on their priorities in urban planning, and urban priorities like controlling pollution came out on top whereas big houses with big yards came out at the bottom.
Fortunately, formal democratic governance can also reduce the influence of a pernicious majority. For example, the referendum process could be made binding, and more long-term. It’s unthinkable that a governor elected by a bare majority of voters can unilaterally cancel a long-term infrastructure investment without a referendum. In Germany, when the Stuttgart21 disaster led to a state government led by the anti-Stuttgart21 Greens, the new coalition did not act as Rick Scott did. Not only was the Greens’ approach more responsible – they put forth a counter-plan and hired Swiss railroad experts to help – but also they put the cancellation to a referendum, and when the cancellation lost, they accepted the result. And in Switzerland, the referendum process tends to lead to continuity of policy, rather than to the situation in the US, in which the referendum process means that groups will put their preferred policy on the ballot every two years until it passes, and then lock it in so that it cannot be repealed. Although in principle the California governance system looks like direct democracy, in practice it has as much to do with it as Putin’s managed democracy has to do with actual democracy. But insofar as consensus democracy was attempted in the East Bay, the Tea Party disruptors lost.
Of course, merely dismissing the Tea Party as a noisy minority is not enough. The importance of this episode is that consensus governance is vulnerable to this kind of astroturf, or even an independent community of true believers who think they represent many more people than they actually do. On issues that have a clear expert consensus, you won’t find many defenders of consensus governance. Voting on science education means that some school boards will support creationism (not for consensus reasons, but for religious ones). There is an entire movement dedicated to restoring top-down social control, whose leaders come from a background in science popularization that really does boil down to transmitting the experts’ conclusions to the masses.
And yet, urban planning is not evolutionary biology. The need for consensus comes from the fact that planners have a history of getting things wrong in a disastrous fashion, and often of being upended by laypeople like Jacobs. Authoritarian planning will treat entire classes of people as problems to be solved, and house them in a series of projects modeled after the modern prison system: project towers, group homes, low-rise projects, supervised releases to suburbia. Giving people this power over others and hoping that the people in power will be wise is wishful thinking; one might as well support absolute monarchy.
Thus, there is no way to both have a good governance mechanism and prevent people from staging revolts for wrong reasons. A democracy will sometimes vote the wrong people into power; democratic urban planning will let itself be disrupted by a group of organized radicals. In both cases, the change in power should not spell the end of democracy; the ousted side routinely regroups and wins later in national bipartisan politics, and regularly has some input about government in national multiparty politics. Maybe all cities need is to treat their planning process with the same respect that countries treat their legislative process.
The recent spate of mass arrests and brutality at various Occupy demonstrations is not a matter of bad cops like John Pike or even bad politicians like Michael Bloomberg. Tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets have occurred throughout the US over the last ten years, as a result of a new theory of crowd control, coming from the broken windows approach toward ordinary crime.
The interest for consensus urbanism is that although the approach seems geared toward protecting consensus values, in reality the values the police is protecting are manufactured from scratch, and are only shared by a minority that treats itself as normal. There is no social consensus leading to the police approach toward public protest – indeed, public sympathy toward Occupy Wall Street soared after the first mass arrest. The new authoritarian approach is the result of an internal development within law enforcement. Just as a truly consensual urban space needs to have ample opportunities for individuality (as opposed to just individualism), community policing needs to treat communication with the people as a two-way avenue.
Although there are sporadic media reports of protester violence, in reality both my and my friends’ observations of nonviolence at the encampments and the history of the past ten years suggest otherwise. In brief: on the heels of the anti-globalization protest in Seattle in 1999, police departments decided that their previous strategy of good-faith negotiations with protesters had failed, and switched to a strategy of surveillance, free speech zones, and selective use of arrests and non-lethal violence, including pepper spray. Under this strategy, communication is one-way, and negotiations with authority are pointless, as anti-war protesters discovered in 2003 when they were denied permits despite months of negotiation. As with broken-windows policing, the police treats protests as disorderly conduct that must be punished in order to promote middle-class values.
The part about middle-class values is where consensus versus authoritarianism comes into play. Although middle-class values seem like consensus, they really are not in this case. In contrast with the broken-windows policing of turnstile jumping and similar petty quality-of-life crimes, in which much of the impetus came from community requests, in the case of protesting the violence comes entirely top-down.
The creation of a fictitious middle-class mentality that considers all protest distasteful masks how much of a minority interest it is. The Progressive movement needed to create a middle-class American identity from scratch and impose it on immigrants and other tenement dwellers (to the point of opposing tenement improvement efforts, which would distract from the need to suburbanize); French nationalists needed to impose Parisian French on a country that did not speak it; modern-day police departments impose conformity and distaste for protest on a population that dreads unemployment and has rock-bottom approval for such major institutions as Congress. Everyone is a deviant in one way or another. At best, what society can do short of recognizing this fact is to list special personal interests and weird habits that are more acceptable, and relegate the others to people’s private homes.
The importance of solving the problem of police authoritarianism by consensus is that doing it any other way will just replace one master with another. To me, nonviolence, consensus, and democracy are not just abstract values. They come from the impossibility of improving things by force. Any political force powerful enough to control the police is by definition more powerful than the police, which means it will be able to exercise even more control over people; this is why communist revolutions always result in repression. The only way to improve the situation is to make the political force one that is comprised of ordinary people rather than an elite vanguard, and one that works by persuasion and communication rather than by raw power.
Update: I forgot to talk about this, but one way to see that the cops really do see themselves as values enforcers is their behavior toward cyclists. Anyone who occasionally reads Streetsblog will be able to cite multiple examples in which cops were lenient toward drivers who blocked bike lanes or even ran over pedestrians or doored or hit cyclists (and in one case ran over a pedestrian themselves), and multiple other examples in which they were treated lawful cyclist behavior as illegal or clipped bikes for trumped-up reasons and harassed their owners. All of these examples are from New York except the cop who ran over a pedestrian, who’s from Jersey City. This is a city in which drivers are a minority, and yet they’re considered Us, whereas cyclists are Them: hipsters, radicals, immigrants, Europeans. Not only are cops upholding a set of values rather than the law, but also those aren’t even consensus values.
Robert Cruickshank’s much-anticipated reply to my posts about political versus technical transit supporters and their activism says that high-speed rail is a political issue, and therefore what’s important is to just get it done.
To me, the problem comes from my unfortunate choice of the terms political and technical. The main difference is not about technical concerns; it’s about whether one trusts American transit agencies. Thus I don’t really see the point when Robert complains about neo-liberalism and the evils of financial cost-benefit calculations. The terminology I picked may have reinforced the image of technicals as heartless engineers and technocrats, but in reality the opposite is true. Technicals have a much bigger standard deviation in their political attitudes than politicals; they range from Rothbardian libertarians to free speech advocates and people who make fun of the phrase “undisclosed location” in the context of US-sponsored torture. The common thread is mistrust of agency officials; the technical arguments are there because when we disagree with officials rather than just report what they say, we need to actually rebut their claims.
In contrast with Robert’s picture of the technical as a technocrat, my technical activism comes from the opposite end: it’s a rejection of a self-justifying bureaucracy that equates “build nothing” with “continue to build highways” and that thinks progress equals megaprojects. It’s a matter of supporting consensus politics and informed citizenry rather than subservience to agency officials. US government officials spend 2-10 times more on infrastructure projects as they have to. They have agency turf battles that make transit less user-friendly, and to cover up those turf battles they propose to spend billions of dollars on gratuitous viaducts, caverns, tunnels, and what have you. They write passenger rail-hostile regulations. And when called on it, they defraud the public and even tell outright lies. Trust in government agencies is so low that when the California HSR Authority admitted to the cost overruns, the LA Times treated it as a moment of honesty.
It’s precisely this trust that people care about, and it’s eroding when HSR becomes the equivalent of $600 toilet seats. Of course there is money for transit, but it’s either wasted or not given to transit because people can’t trust that it can be used wisely. I view it as part of my goal to showcase how good transit can be done, so that it doesn’t look so expensive for the benefit provided.
A fundamental tenet of risk perception theory is that people are most concerned about risks they find morally reprehensible – and this collusion between government and government contractors offends me. Just because it’s greenwashed doesn’t mean it’s any better than subsidizing oil drilling, paying military contractors $1,000 per day, or bailing out financial companies that then use the money to pay the executives who caused the financial crisis multi-million dollar bonuses. No wonder that when Republicans talk about the ingenuity of individual business leaders, they talk about Mark Zuckerberg, the Google guys, and Steve Jobs; they have to go that far out of the industries that give money to the GOP, such as oil, to find people who’ve actually innovated rather than just sucked public money. In fact one of the impetuses for the spread of neo-liberal boosterism in popular culture is the perception that entrepreneurs who are untainted by the public sector are good, while government is inherently incompetent and corrupt. When the government doesn’t do a good job, people stop believing it’s even possible for good government to exist.
Yonah Freemark writes that it doesn’t matter if costs are high because HSR costs are a small part of the transportation budget, which is itself a tiny part of GDP. But transportation is also not the biggest priority in spending. Most of the GDP, even most government spending, is and should be things that aren’t transportation; and most transportation funding isn’t and shouldn’t be intercity.
For an order of magnitude of what other issues are involved, Robert is proposing $1 trillion in student loan forgiveness as economic stimulus. My point is not to impugn him; I agree with him there. It’s that the big-ticket items are not transportation, but instead transportation is one of many small-ticket items of spending. But pool many small expenses – a hundred billion here, a hundred billion there – and you’re starting to talk about real money.
And this is true politically, not just economically. The Democratic Party has been advocating for universal health care since the Truman administration. After early successes with Medicare and Medicaid, its efforts stalled; its empathy-based appeals went nowhere. In Politics Lost, Joe Klein writes about how Bob Shrum would insert the phrase “health care is a right, not a privilege” into the speeches of every Presidential candidate he worked for – and how every candidate he worked for lost. Meanwhile, US health care costs were ballooning faster than those of other first-world countries. By 2005-6 it was impossible to miss, and liberal pundits seized and owned the issue, portraying American health care as not only inequitable but also inefficient. Five years later, they got their universal health care bill, flawed as it is. Nowadays the people who are pooh-poohing the idea of health care cost control are Greg Mankiw and the Tea Party.
Spending is a zero sum game, but economically and politically. The Great Recession won’t last forever. Any infrastructure building plan is going to outlast the recession, triggering real tax hikes, spending cuts, or interest rate hikes in the future. It’s fine if the infrastructure is cost-effective; it’s not fine if it isn’t. (In comments on CAHSR Blog, I was told that the example of Japan shows that the recession can last forever; if it does, the US will have bigger problems than transportation.)
And this is equally true politically. The amount of government spending is controlled tightly by the political acceptability of deficits. Some deficits are more politically acceptable than others – for example, military waste is acceptable to many right-wingers – but in this political climate, HSR is at least as controversial on the right as extending jobless benefits, and far less useful as stimulus per dollar spent. The unemployed tend not to fork over much of their benefits to international consultants. If a few billion dollars are enough to showcase workable HSR then by all means the administration should spend them, but if they’d eat $20 billion out of a $50 billion jobs bill that Obama’s going to run for reelection on, there’s no point.
I think that both on transportation and on health care, there’s a political not-invented-here reasons among the partisans. Liberals owned health care cost control, so Greg Mankiw started arguing that it wouldn’t help society much and that high costs are a good thing and Sarah Palin referred to cost control as death panels. The issue with transportation is a little different; while many technicals are leftists, it’s anti-urban conservatives and Koch-libertarians who cancel transit projects, use phrases like “the money tree,” and demagogue about how no rail project is ever affordable. My instinct is to point out that those conservatives have no trouble overspending on road projects and rationalizing highway cost overruns; but if you think in terms of spending, and treat transportation as one program of many stimulus projects, there’s a real not-invented-here issue here.
Ironically, despite Robert’s claim that costs don’t matter and benefits do, much of what I rail against is exactly benefits. I personally am reminded by how awful the turf battles are every time I have to buy an MBTA ticket at the cafe since Amtrak bullied the MBTA out of the Providence station booths, and every time I take the subway to Penn Station and need to change concourses to get my Amtrak ticket. The key for me is to make transit cheap enough that it can be deployed on a large scale, and to make it convenient and pedestrian-friendly, which park-and-ride-oriented commuter rail is not.
A growing idea among emergent urbanists is that there’s a natural form to the city, one that maximizes activity and that thrives in the absence of regulation. In this view, any sort of urban planning, from postwar suburbia to the Manhattan grid, is just a constraint that makes cities less livable, and in contrast, there is an urban form that people have a near-universal taste for, and all others are some response to bad regulations. Social problems are caused by bad urban form, and the reason American reformers wanted to move everyone to the suburbs was just that the cities failed to look like European cities.
There is an implicit ideology in this view, which is only occasionally hinted at: the ideology of single equilibrium. It holds that there’s just one stable state of nature, and all attempts to change it will just lead to an eventual return to equilibrium, and the greater the change, the more violent the return will be. If there’s a persistent situation away from the equilibrium, it’s a result of pernicious regulations. In economics, it’s the neo-classical school, shaken only by the Great Depression and by the Keynesian argument that depression is every bit an equilibrium as full employment. In every environmental controversy, it’s the individualist cultural bias holding that nature will always return to equilibrium, contrasting with the egalitarian view that nature is inherently fragile, the hierarchical view that it tolerates change within some boundaries to be determined by the experts, and the fatalist view that it is capricious.
Reality is of course more complicated than that. Cities can have multiple equilibria. Unplanned Tokyo and London are happy just the way they are; so are New York, Atlanta, Singapore, Paris, Tel Aviv, and Moscow, each planned in its own way. If people in those cities dislike the current situation, it’s not out of dislike of the present urban form but out of discontent with unemployment, living costs, economic inequality, and other social ills. And if people in mature cities dislike situations that are caused explicitly by their urban layout, then it comes from narrow urban and transportation issues, e.g. California’s air pollution problem.
Historically, this view was more associated with suburbanization and urban renewal. Of course those involved a hefty amount of zoning, but the same could be said of e.g. Christopher Alexander’s support of height limits. In both cases, problems that are really about social relations and poverty are associated with urban design and are used as an excuse to heavily modify cities; that, and not the tenement urban form, was what drove New York’s elite to want suburbanization. Indeed, suburbanization happened in almost all developed countries; the romanticism for the countryside by residents of the rich cities is part of 19th century nationalism, and happened across the first world, regardless of how cities actually looked like.
Nearly every combination of urban form and social class exists somewhere in the world. Just because Americans like some unplanned urban neighborhoods and are gentrifying the cities does not mean that there’s a universal desire for anything, or that people in suburbs are just repressed about how bad their social environment is.
To deal with the fact that people like urban environments that are very different, and that there are persistent cultural tastes determined by a few decades of policy, people who believe in single equilibria have to stretch reality more and more to get the achieved picture. James Howard Kunstler is an especially egregious example: since people don’t mind sprawl and city development that he doesn’t like (he views Manhattan as “despotically mechanistic” and sympathizes with Lewis Mumford for hating cities based on his experience on the Upper West Side), he’s spun a fantasy in which peak oil is going to create ruralization and destroy the suburbs, while also doing so in peaceful enough a way that he’ll survive to see the resulting utopia. But he’s really not doing anything Mumford didn’t do. Mumford couldn’t stand cities and thought their inhabitants just didn’t know they needed urban renewal; Kunstler thinks the same about post-1830 urban development.
Conversely, development that’s generally considered good but violates the rules needs to be shoehorned into the rules. That’s where you get people claiming that Paris is traditional urbanism, where in reality its wide boulevards are every bit as planned as Manhattan’s, just along a radial plan rather than a grid.
Because of the association between this view of nature and political libertarianism, we see defenses framed in terms of nature very frequently. It’s not only individualists or libertarians who do this (read most environmentalist tracts), and there are emergent urbanists who hint at desirability more (for example, Charlie Gardner), but this view and the insistence on natural law are still correlated. The idea inherent in this view is that what’s desirable is what the market wants, and what the market wants should be divined by looking at cases in which there is no government intervention.
The problem is that it’s very hard to really disentangle the economy from politics. It’s easy enough when it comes to consumer goods and other cases in which markets clearly work, but when it comes to infrastructure and collective decisions, it’s much harder – hard enough that Randall O’Toole can pretend that government regulations of parking and subsidies for roads are trivial and call himself a libertarian. The obvious response is to point out the opposite, how government subsidies permeate the opposing view, which is easy enough with a person as dishonest as O’Toole. But in reality it’s often impossible to distinguish political from economic actions, and the cases where there is a clear-cut difference are rare enough that they can be shoehorned into a single theory ad hoc; most urbanist theories have more serious proponents than the people who’ve become the spokespeople of suburbanism.
The reason I insist on consensus as a decision-making tool is that it avoids this assumption that all cities have to look essentially the same. And the reason I did a mini-experiment asking commenters where they grew up and what kind of urbanism they’re comfortable with is precisely that people are different. Formal community structures of course privilege some people and ignore others – most importantly, they elevate existing long-term residents and ignore transients and people who are priced out of the neighborhood. They also lead to unpredictable results, depending on hyper-local issues of culture and history or on charismatic local leaders. But the idea of having different people come together and talk about how they’d like their city to look like is much more powerful than trying to derive a natural order from first principles and treating all other orders as deviations.
The death of Steve Jobs has led to impromptu discussions about the nature of his genius, causing some to call for a Steve Jobs of transit. Human Transit quotes such calls in comments and tries to strike a balance between good organization and singular vision; Market Urbanism tweets that it’s impossible only because of public control.
Instead of this fantasy for someone who will have enough power to make transit great, let us step back and ask what makes transit cities work. It’s not really vision – the inventions that have made transit more useful in the last few decades (for example, the takt and the integrated timetable) are so distributed that it’s impossible to assign them a single inventor or even agency. And in the US, the last true visionary of urban transportation, Robert Moses, had about the same effect on the city he ruled that such visionaries as Stalin and Mao had over their countries.
The absolute worst quote one can invoke in the field is Henry Ford’s apocryphal claim that if he’d asked customers what they’d wanted, they’d have said faster horses; Ford may never have said that, but he believed something along these lines, and as a result lost the market to General Motors in the 1920s. People tend to project the same attitude, with far more success, to Steve Jobs: he saved Apple from ruin when he came back, he saw potential in Xerox’s computers that nobody else did, he focused on great design above all. Some of this is due to the cult of personality Jobs created around himself, unparalleled in the industry; a better assessment of Apple’s early growth comes from Malcolm Gladwell, who dispenses with Great Man histories and talks about innovation as an incremental process requiring multiple different business cultures to get anywhere.
In cities, there really is a need for consensus rather than autocratic vision. The reason Moses was so bad for New York is not just that he happened to be wrong about how cities should look. Roads were not his only sin, and on one account, the use of tolls, he was better than the national road builders. No; he reigned over a city that to him existed only on maps and in models, routing expressways through blocks with the wrong ethnic mix and depriving neighborhoods of amenities in retribution for not being able to complete his plans. Because he was insulated from anyone who could tell him what the effect of his policies was, and had no effective opposition, he could steamroll over just anyone.
The reality is that any Steve Jobs-like autocrat is going to act the same. Moses did it; Janette Sadik-Khan is doing it, delaying even popular projects in Upper Manhattan because of the perception that it’s against livability; Jaime Lerner did it, moving pollution from Curitiba to its suburbs and slowing but not preventing the spread of cars. In contrast, Jane Jacobs’ own observations of her struggle are the opposite, focusing on consensus and participation and crediting “hundreds of people” with saving the West Village. Everything I said about consensus and cities and about democratic consensus applies here.
The same is by and large true of transit. Although the subject is more technical, the role of experts is similar to their role in urbanism: answering narrow technical questions (“does the soil allow this building type to be built?”, “how much will it cost to run trains faster?”), helping people see tradeoffs and make their own choices, bringing up foreign examples that local activists may not be familiar with. They’re just one of several interest groups that have to be heard.
I think people who ascribe invention to great individuals finding things consumers didn’t even know they wanted are projecting the history of the 19th century to present times. At the time, invention was done individually, often by people without formal education. It was already fairly incremental, but much less so than today, and was portrayed as even less incremental since to get a patent approved the inventor had to play up his own role and denigrate previous innovations. Since it was not done in the context of large companies or universities, the corporate culture issue that Gladwell focuses on didn’t apply. The economy, too, was understood as a process involving discrete inventions, rather than a constant rate of growth, as Andrew Odlyzko’s monograph on the Railway Mania discusses in chapter 15.
We no longer live in such a world. Fixed-route public transportation has existed since the 1820s. Practically all innovations within transit since have been slow, continuous improvements, done by large groups of people or by many individuals working independently. Even implementations of previous ideas that became wildly successful are rarely the heroic fit of a mastermind. The few cases that are, such as Jaime Lerner’s dirt-cheap BRT, indeed spawn rants about democratic consensus and raves about vision and fast decisions.
In contrast, I do not see any mention in mainstream US media of the role of Swiss consensus politics in the backing of the Gotthard Base Tunnel or in SBB’s 50% over-the-decade growth in passenger rail traffic. If there’s a story about Tokyo or Hong Kong, it’ll be about skyscrapers and development, not about their collective decisions to restrain car traffic while rapid transit was still in development. And while China’s rapid expansion of transit and high-speed rail, at much lower cost than in the US, has gotten much media coverage, scant attention has been paid to Spain even though its costs are lower and its expansion is nearly as rapid.
What’s happening is that people imagine single heroes to do what is really the work of many. Alternatively, they romanticize autocrats, even ones who were unmitigated disasters, such as Moses. Even stories about consensus and social movements get rewritten as stories about great people, for example Jane Jacobs, or more broadly Martin Luther King. It’s an aesthetic that treats everything as a story, and in the 19th century, it often was: in other words, it’s steampunk. The difference is that steampunk artists don’t wish to return to a world in which women have to wear corsets. And in similar vein, people who imagine benevolent, visionary dictators should not try to confuse their fiction with reality.
David Levinson’s post saying that transit should strive to restructure and be profitable stirred much discussion on neighboring blogs, including Human Transit (which broadly agrees with the idea if not the libertarian tone) and The Transport Politic (which does not), as well as multiple commenters who chimed in noting that it’s ridiculous to require transit to break even when cars get so many subsidies. While I agree with Levinson and Jarrett’s sentiments about core versus welfare services in principle, in practice the causes of transit losses are orthogonal to the subjects under discussion; the actual issues are somewhat related to what the commenters mention, but those commenters don’t go nearly far enough.
In the original post, Levinson proposes the following distinction:
Mass transit systems in the United States are collectively losing money hand over fist. Yet many individual routes (including bus routes) earn enough to pay their own operating (and even capital costs). But like bad mortgages contaminating the good, money-losing transit routes are bogging down the system.
We can divide individual systems into three sets of routes:
1. Those routes break-even or profit financially (at a given fare). This is the “core”.
2. Those lines which are necessary for the core routes to break-even, and collectively help the set of routes break-even. These are the “feeders”.
3. Those lines which lose money, and whose absence would not eliminate profitability on other routes. These money-losers are a welfare program. We might politely call them “equity” routes.
Jarrett, whose work has focused on priorities, not only agrees with the distinction but also downplays the importance of routes in category #2, and has often advocated that agencies let go of low-performing routes and concentrate on trunk frequency. While Jarrett is right and this distinction is critical when an agency needs to reduce its expenditure, it’s not going to make any agency profitable.
The number of routes in the US that break even financially is minimal. It’s easy enough to come up with routes that cover their avoidable costs, but transit has enough fixed costs that retreating to them is not going to be enough. For a New York example, see this spreadsheet, due to Cap’n Transit: although multiple bus routes are portrayed as profitable, once one checks the more detailed spreadsheet the Cap’n links to, it turns out that when including both direct and indirect operating costs, the best-performing route, the M86, drops from an operating ratio of 172% to one of 91%. Moreover, the best-performing routes do not form a trunk system, but are for the most part short-hop crosstown buses, with very high ridership per kilometer of route length. Most networks that actually are profitable consist of buses feeding into the Lincoln Tunnel, a choke point that has an exclusive bus lane in the morning rush hour.
Since in some other parts of the world urban transit is in fact profitable, we need to address causes other than the existence of lesser-used routes. I propose that instead of classifying American lines into profitable and unprofitable ones, a division in which one category is going to be very lonely, we classify whole networks according to what makes them lose so much money. I believe the following list of causes is relatively uncontroversial for good transit advocates:
1. High labor costs, predominantly overstaffing, but at some agencies (for example, Muni) also very high salaries.
2. Poor design, e.g. of intermodal transfers.
3. Low fares on some networks, which exist predominantly to provide minimal mobility of last resort rather than core transportation.
5. An auto-oriented policy.
Cause #5 is the elephant in the room. It’s not just ongoing auto subsidies and such mandates as Euclidean zoning and free parking. It’s also a decades-long history promoting auto-centric development, as a result of which uses are too widespread and low-intensity for transit to be of much use on most trips. Even edge cities are too dense sometimes; if you can find Robert Lang and Jennifer LeFurgy’s sadly now behind paywall article Edgeless Cities, read it for a quick explanation of the limitations of the relatively intense but auto-centric development form of Tysons Corner or White Plains.
The best analogy I can give here is a growing industry or industrial zone. Early on in a country’s development, it will want industrial policy: subsidies, tax breaks, protectionism. The US railroads got it, most Japanese exporters got it, Samsung and Hyundai got it. As a country becomes richer and its economy becomes more mature, those industries become profitable and suddenly start advocating free trade and free markets, even for themselves, and whine loudly at the suggestion that rich regions or industries should subsidize poor ones.
There are plenty of routes in the US that, while unprofitable now, could be made profitable with better management and operating practices. This is usually what I write about. Those are causes #1, 2, and 4. Cause #3 applies to some but not the most relevant agencies; fares in large US cities tend to be average or high by international standards, though perhaps lower than the revenue-maximizing fares. Altogether, fixing what are essentially issues of competence is going to raise transit use, possibly to acceptable levels. But it will not turn New York into Tokyo, Boston into Taipei, or Providence into Zurich.