American progressive media is talking about the possibility of a Green New Deal, which involves spending money in a way that reduces greenhouse gas emissions. So far details are scant, and most likely no real plan is likely to emerge for a number of years, since the proposal is pushed by the Democratic base, which is no more supportive of cooperation with President Trump than I am. Because the plan is so early, people are opining about what should go in it. My purpose in this post is to explain what I think the main priorities should be, and to leave to others the politics of how to package them.
The primacy of transportation
The main sources of greenhouse gas emissions are transportation, electricity generation, and industry. In the US this is in descending order, transportation having just overtaken power generation; the reduction in coal burning and the collapse in solar power production costs are such that in the long term, electricity generation should be viewed as a solved problem in the long term. Lingering issues with storage and base load are real, but the speed of progress is such that ordinary taxes on carbon should be enough to fix whatever is left of the problem.
Transportation is the exact opposite. American transportation emissions fell in the 2007-8 oil price spike and ensuing economic crisis but are now increasing again. Newer cars have higher fuel efficiency, but Americans are buying bigger cars and driving more. Electric cars, the favored solution of people who think spending $50,000 on a new car is reasonable, are still a niche luxury market and have trouble scaling up. Scratch an American futurist who looks exclusively at electric cars and denigrates mass transit and you’ll wound a solipsist who looks for excuses to avoid the humiliation of having to support something where other countries lead and the US lags.
The upshot is that the primary (but not the only) focus of any green push has to be expansion of public transportation. This includes ancillary policies for urban redevelopment and livable streets, which have the dual effects of buttressing public transit and reducing residential emissions through higher-density living. Overall, this turns any such program into a large public works project.
Spend money right
It’s paramount to make sure to avoid wasting money. A large infrastructure program would run into an appreciable fraction of federal spending; money is always a constraint, even when the goal is to spend funds on economic stimulus. The first lesson here is to keep construction costs under control. But an equally fundamental lesson is to make sure to spend money on transit expansion and not other things:
Don’t spend money on roads
A large majority of American public spending on transportation is on roads. Adding in subsidies for cars makes the proportion go even higher. It reflects current travel patterns, but if the goal is to reduce the environmental footprint of driving, the government can’t keep pumping money into road infrastructure. Accept that in developed countries the generally useful roads have already been built, and future construction just induces people to suburbanize further and drive longer distances.
Congress spends transportation money in multi-year chunks. The most recent bill passed in 2015 for five years, totaling $300 billion, of which $50 billion went to public transit and $200 billion went to highways. Raiding the road fund should be the primary source of additional transit funding: most of the line workers and engineers can build either, and even the physical act of building a freeway is not too different from that of building a high-speed railway. In contrast, outside of a deep recession, increasing total spending on transportation infrastructure requires hiring more workers, leading to large increases in costs as the program runs up against the limit of the available construction labor in the country.
$60 billion a year on public transit is a decent chunk of money for a long-term program, especially with expected state matches. Over the next decade it would be $600 billion, and around a trillion with state and local matches, if they are forthcoming (which they may not be because of how political incentives are lined up). That is, it’d a decent chunk of money if the federal government understands the following rule:
Fund expansion, not maintenance or operations
The sole legitimate source of regular budgeting for public transit is regular spending at the relevant level of government, which is state or local in the United States. Outside infusions of money like federal spending are bad government, because they incentivize deferring maintenance when the federal government is stingy and then crying poverty when it is generous. Amtrak did just that in the 2000s: faced with pressure from the Bush administration to look profitable for future privatization, Amtrak fired David Gunn, who wouldn’t defer maintenance, and replaced him with the more pliable Joe Boardman; then in the economic crisis and the stimulus, it discovered a multi-billion dollar backlog of deferred maintenance, permitting it to ask for money without having to show any visible results.
If the federal government credibly commits to not funding state of good repair backlogs or normal replacement, and to penalizing agencies that defer maintenance and giving them less money for expansion, it can encourage better behavior. Unlike ongoing maintenance, capital expansion is not necessary for continued operations, and thus if funding dries up and a transit agency stops expanding, there will not be problems with service cancellation, slow zones, frequency-ridership spirals, and other issues familiar to New Yorkers in the 1970s or Washingtonians today.
One potential way to change things is to federally fund expansion without expecting much if any local match, provided the agency commits to spending the required operating funds on running the service in question. This separation of federal and local responsibility also reduces the political incentives to grandstand by rejecting federal money in order to make the president look bad.
Build the rail lines that are appropriate
Each region in the US should be getting transit expansion money in rough proportion to its population. However, the meaning of transit depends on the local and regional geography:
- In big cities it means rapid transit expansion: new lines for the New York City Subway, the Chicago L, etc. In somewhat smaller cities with light rail-based systems it means light rail expansion, which may also involve upgrading at-grade light rail to full rapid transit: Dallas is considering a downtown tunnel for its light rail network and Los Angeles is already building one, and those could lead to upgrading capacity elsewhere on the system to permit longer trains.
- In suburbs and some smaller cities with large mainline rail networks, it means commuter rail. It’s especially valuable in the Northeast and secondarily in the Midwest and the odd older Southern city: cities like Milwaukee and Cincinnati don’t really have compelling corridors for greenfield urban rail, but do have interesting S-Bahn corridors.
- In periurban and rural areas, it means longer-range regional rail, transitioning to intercity rail in lower-density areas. In some smaller metro areas, it means actual intercity rail to bigger cities. Examples include Colorado Springs and Fort Collins, both of which can be connected with Denver, and Hans-Joachim Zierke’s proposed regional rail line for Medford, Oregon.
I focus on rail and not buses for two simple reasons: rail has higher capital and lower operating costs, so it’s more relevant for a capital program, and rail gets higher ridership for reasons including better right-of-way quality and better ride quality.
Transmit knowledge of best practices
The federal government has the ability to assimilate best practices for both limiting construction costs and designing good transit networks. Local governments can learn the same, but for the most part they don’t care. Instead they run their transit systems in manage-the-decline mode, only occasionally hearing about something done in London, hardly the best-run European transit city.
The best practices for network design are especially important given the magnitude of the program. The US is not spending $60 billion nationwide a year on transit expansion. The NTD says annual spending on capital among the top 50 American transit agencies was $14.6 billion as of 2016 (source, PDF-p. 11), and a lot of that (e.g. most of the MTA’s $3.5 billion capital expenditure) is the black holes that are state of good repair and normal replacement. $60 billion a year apportioned by population is on the order of $2 billion for New York City annually, which is $20 billion over 10 years, and the city doesn’t necessarily know how to spend that money even at today’s construction costs, let alone rational construction costs.
At least New York has an internal bank of enthusiasts at the MTA and at shadow agencies like the RPA who have ideas for how to spend this money. Smaller cities for the most part don’t. Does Cleveland have any idea what it would do with $5 billion over ten years for regionwide transit expansion? Does Tampa? The federal government has to play an educational role in giving regions sample zoning codes for TOD, network design guidelines, and procurement guidelines that help reduce costs.
Start planning now
A large infrastructure bill planned for 2021 has to be planned now. Its proponents do not intend for it to be a regular jobs program based on existing local wishlists: they intend for it to represent a shift in national priorities, which means that each item of spending has to be planned in advance, mostly from scratch. It means the political work of aligning various interest groups toward the same goal has to start early, which seems to be what the proponents are doing; even the name Green New Deal evokes progressive nostalgia for olden days before neoliberalism.
But alongside the political work, there must be good technical work. Regional planning agencies have to be aware this may be coming and have to have solid ideas for how they’d like to spend a few billion dollars over the decade. Simultaneously, organs including federal offices like the GAO, transit agencies, shadow agencies, and thinktanks have to learn and transmit a culture of good operating and capital practices. A government that plays a bigger role in the economy or in society has to become more competent; managerial competence is required for any program that allocates money with any precision, and very good cost control is a must to make sure the available budget goes to a green transition and isn’t wasted on red tape.
After the midterm election 2.5 weeks ago, there began calls for an infrastructure deal. The details, as always, were always vague, but the idea is that congressional Democrats and President Trump will agree on a bill to spend about a trillion dollars on infrastructure. What infrastructure is at stake is not specified, except that some New York-based commentators (and Senator Schumer) are calling for federal funding of the Gateway project; whether to pay for the program with deficit spending, tax hikes, or cutting other spending is not specified either. The good news is that such a deal isn’t likely to happen, for roughly the same reasons such a deal would be a bad idea in the first place. However, just in case some people reading this blog might like the idea of such a grand bargain, I’d like to spell the reasons why such a deal would be a waste of money.
What is the purpose of an infrastructure deal, anyway?
Given around a year of something approaching full-time work, I could identify a trillion dollars’ worth of useful public transportation investment in the United States. Given that I’d also look for ways to cut construction costs (which I’m almost certain Congress has not seriously tried), and given that there are other infrastructure priorities than transit, it should not be hard to come up with a long-term 13-figure program.
However, I’m fairly certain there hasn’t been any serious attempt to list infrastructure projects that should be covered under this plan. The main clue is that if there were any, the people trying to sell the public on such a deal would mention them as concrete benefits. This has happened with Gateway: people around the New York area are desperate for federal funding to cover the project’s extreme cost, and do not shy from mentioning it as a beneficiary of a grand bargain. But with anything else, there’s nothing.
For example, nobody in California has said anything about federal funds for the state’s flagging high-speed rail project, even though it would be a natural candidate for a bipartisan deal between Trump and congressional Democrats (the state’s Republican delegation opposed the project, but much of it was wiped out in the midterm). Elsewhere, there are both road and transit projects in red state cities that are hungry for funding, some of which were on the Trump administration’s list of projects to fund last year, in one of the interminable Infrastructure Week pushes that went nowhere. Nothing comparable has surfaced this month.
The lack of detail about the plan suggests it’s not really serious policy. It’s a trial balloon – one that’s failing because of the political situation. But in the event anything comes out of it, it will be a half-thought plan, created for the purpose of spending money and doing something that gives the appearance of bipartisan consensus.
The US economy is not in a recession
The point of a Keynesian stimulus is to prop up the economy during recessions. The American economy right now has 3.7% unemployment, which is more or less full employment, and 2.5% inflation, which is a hair above target. Additional spending would be great for me – it would strengthen the dollar, personally helping me as someone who earns dollars and spends euros. But for the putative target of the bill – the American people – the only effect would be fiscal constraints. The country needs to think about reducing the deficit, not about increasing it in a show of bipartisan unity.
Worse, the stimulus effect of new government spending comes from the net change in annual spending, whereas the deficit effect comes from overall annual spending. A big infrastructure bill would only act as economic stimulus in the earliest phases, when the spending rate would ramp up. Subsequently, it would have no effect on growth or on employment. David Dayen made this point regarding the 2009 stimulus: it had a big effect on American economic growth in 2009, but as the spending rate reached its maximum in 2010, the net effect of federal spending on growth turned negative in the third quarter of 2010, even before the Republican victory in the midterm, long before most stimulus funds were actually spent.
This does not mean that infrastructure funding is out of the question. A serious bill that is crafted to be deficit-neutral in the short as well as long term could do good; it is also close to impossible. Some Democratic pundits have trolled the conversation by proposing pairing it with repealing Trump’s tax cuts, but the probability of a grand bargain that raises taxes to pay for extra spending is approximately zero. Cutting other spending is extremely unlikely as well – unlike state and local governments, domestic federal spending doesn’t have enough waste to fund a trillion-dollar infrastructure bill, and what waste does exist is locked up in Medicare, which is politically untouchable.
The state of the American economy is such that it’s a great idea to design an infrastructure bill, to be deployed at the next recession. There could be a list of priority projects for public transportation (or other forms of infrastructure) chosen for a combination of cost-effectiveness and nationwide spread. While designing this plan, the federal government would make the process open, to let local and state governments know what is happening and offer them the opportunity to submit their choice projects for consideration. The federal government should also insist that they not defer maintenance now hoping to score state of good repair money later – for example, I would propose to credibly commit to only funding expansion but not maintenance, and to defund projects run by agencies that defer maintenance (such as Boardman-era Amtrak). The plan would be funded, with deficit spending, at the next recession, which analysts expect to start in the next few years.
The federal government is unusually corrupt
If the above plan of coming up with a measured infrastructure plan, with incentives to encourage good behavior among state and local governments, sounds like science fiction, it’s because the federal government today doesn’t have the capability of carrying out such a program. Part of it is generic public-sector weakness within the United States, making it hard to make long-term plans; the civil service is weak, and politicians make capricious decisions, so nothing like the TGV, Grand Paris Express, High Speed 2, and Crossrail – all bipartisan projects within their respective countries – can happen.
But there’s a bigger problem now: Trump. Trump himself is corrupt in ways that go far beyond the affairs of scandal-ridden past presidents like Clinton and George W. Bush, and this affects how people think of infrastructure. The US has a public transportation cost premium of nearly a full order of magnitude over comparable countries. Such a premium must have multiple causes, but one cause is corruption: we’ve already seen how political interference by Schumer helped double the cost of Amtrak’s rolling stock procurement. Trump’s scandals easily surpass Schumer’s.
This goes beyond partisanship. Atrios has been a partisan Democrat since his blog’s early days, and yet he’s called for SUPERTRAINS (always in caps) since mid-2008, when the idea of stimulus became part of the American public conversation. At the time Obama was ahead in the polls, but he was not guaranteed to win, and years of Bush had gotten the Democratic base used to opposing anything a Republican president did; and yet, center-left writers like Atrios and Matt Yglesias (at the time transitioning from the Republican bloggers’ favorite Democrat to a conventional partisan liberal Democrat) were fine endorsing an infrastructure program in an uncertain partisan climate.
In theory, the extent of Trump’s corruption is small compared with the magnitude of the program. It’s billions of dollars at worst versus a trillion. In practice, the presence of the current president at the helm of any program screams at contractors, “make an effort to stay at Trump hotels and Mar-a-Lago, not to make a cheap and technically sound bid.” The extra cost coming from contractors slouching in the bidding and construction phases can easily soak up hundreds of billions of dollars out of the trillion: in Brian Rosenthal’s article about high New York costs, contractors quoted a premium of about 25% just from MTA red tape, and Trump’s personal corruption is probably on the same order of magnitude.
Ultimately, it’s fine to wait
In late 2008 and early 2009, the American economy was spiraling into the deepest recession since 1946; in that climate, rushing the stimulus was desirable. The situation today is not like that at all. There’s time to develop an infrastructure plan based on one’s combination of political preference and belief about the future (e.g. will Trump be reelected?, and who will control Congress after 2020?). There’s no point in passing a plan that exists purely to spend money and to show that Congress can enact big policies.
Since there’s no rush, and no need to deficit-spend right now, there’s grounds for demanding better of the government. Any infrastructure plan should be based on clear needs: that is, a national blueprint (such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions, or spreading infrastructure funding to poor states, or a similar political goal), a list of items designed to maximize cost-effectiveness within the blueprint’s parameters, and a federal civil service that can implement the construction of these items with maximum efficiency.
The incompetent and the corrupt should have no role to play in this program, and this begins with the current president. If it’s not possible to remove deadwood from the federal government, it’s fine to indefinitely postpone any big federal infrastructure plan. Nothing there would be indispensable; if Congress wants to deficit-spend money to create jobs, it can choose policies that are less sensitive to public-sector competence, such as tax cuts, unemployment benefits (not a big factor today but by definition a big one in a recession), and aid to states. With infrastructure that most of the developed world laughs at the US still manages to be one of the richest countries in the world; filling in the gap in public transportation is desirable, but the country won’t collapse if the gap persists.
The public transit conversation is full of statements like “passengers don’t like to transfer,” or, in quantified terms, “passengers perceive a minute transferring to be equivalent to 1.75 minutes on a moving vehicle.” But what does this exactly mean? It’s not a statement that literally every passenger has a transfer penalty factor of 1.75. Different passengers behave differently. At best, it’s a statement that the average passenger on the current system has a transfer penalty factor of 1.75, or alternatively that the aggregate behavior of current passengers can be approximated by a model in which everyone has a transfer penalty factor of 1.75. Understanding that different people have different preferences is critical to both the technical and political aspects of transportation planning.
I talked about the heterogeneity of transfer penalties three years ago, and don’t want to rewrite that post. Instead, I want to talk more broadly about this issue, and how it affects various transit reforms. In many cases, bad American transit practices are the result not of agency incompetence (although that happens in droves) but of preferential treatment for specific groups that have markedly different preferences from the average.
The universal symbol of disability is the wheelchair. Based on this standard, every discussion of accessible to people with disabilities centers people in wheelchairs, or alternatively retirees in walkers (who tend to make sure of the same infrastructure for step-free access).
However, disabilities are far broader, and different conditions lead to dramatically different travel preferences. One paper by the CDC estimates that 20% of US adults have chronic pain, and 8% have high-impact chronic pain, limiting their life in some way. People with chronic pain are disproportionately poor, uneducated, and unemployed, which should not be a surprise as chronic pain makes it hard to work or go to school (in contrast, the one unambiguously inborn socioeconomic factor in the study, race, actually goes the other way – whites have somewhat higher chronic pain rates than blacks and Hispanics). Another paper published by BMJ is a meta-analysis, finding that depending on the study 35-51% of the UK population has chronic pain and 10-14% has moderately to severely disabling chronic pain.
I’ve only talked to a handful of people with chronic pain – all of working age – and the best generalization that I can make is that it is impossible to generalize. The conditions vary too much. Some find it more painful to drive than to take transit, some are the opposite. Some have conditions that make it hard for them to walk, some are fine with walking but can’t stand for very long. To the extent the people I’ve talked to have common features, they a) have a strong preference for rail over bus, and b) require a seat and can’t stand on a moving vehicle for very long.
The best use case for rapid transit is getting people to work in a congested city center at a busy time of day, ideally rush hour. Off-peak ridership is generally cheaper to serve than peak ridership, but this is true for all modes of transportation, and public transit tends to be relatively better at the peak than cars. Per table 2 of the Hub Bound report, as of 2016, 19% of public transit riders entering the Manhattan core do so between 8 and 9 am and 43% do so between 7 and 10 am, whereas the corresponding proportions for drivers are 6% and 18% respectively.
The upshot is that people are more likely to ride public transit if they work a salaried job. This is especially true in the middle class, which can afford to drive, and whose alternative is to work at some suburban office park where car ownership is mandatory. In the working class, the distribution of jobs is less CBD-centric, but the ability to afford a car is more constrained.
The social groups most likely to drive are then neither the working class (which doesn’t own cars anywhere with even semi-reasonable public transit) nor the professional working class, but other social classes. The petite bourgeoisie is the biggest one: small business owners tend to drive, since they earn enough for it, tend to have jobs that either virtually require driving (e.g. plumbers) or involve storefronts that are rarely located at optimal locations for transit, and need to go in and out at various times of day.
Another group that’s disproportionately likely to drive is retirees. They don’t work, so they don’t use transit for its most important role. They take trips to the hospital (which is bundled with issues of disability), which can be served by buses given that hospitals are major job centers and non-work travel destinations, but their other trips tend to be based on decades of socialization that have evolved haphazardly. The urban transit network isn’t likely to be set up for their particular social use cases.
Consensus for whomst?
I bring up small business owners and retirees because these two groups are especially empowered in local politics. When I lived in Sweden, I could vote in the local and regional elections, where I had no idea what the main issues were and who the candidates were; I voted Green based on the party’s national platform, but for all I know it’s not great on Stockholm-specific issues. Figuring out the national politics is not hard even for a newcomer who doesn’t speak the language – there are enough English-language news sources, there’s social media, there are friends and coworkers. But local politics is a mystery, full of insider information that’s never spelled out explicitly.
What this means is that the groups most empowered in local politics – that is, with the highest turnouts, the most ability to influence others in the same constituency, and the greatest ability to make consistent decisions – are ones that have local social networks and have lived in one place for a long time. This privileges older voters over younger voters, and if anything underprivileges people with disabilities, whose ability to form social and political connections is constrained by where they can go. This also privileges people with less mobile jobs – that is, shopkeepers rather than either the professional middle class or the working class.
With their greater local influence, the most empowered groups ensure the transportation that exists is what is good for them: cars. Public transit is an afterthought, so of course there is no systemwide reorganization – that would require politicians to care about it, which interferes with their ability to satisfy the politically strongest classes. But even individual decisions of how to run transit suffer from the same problem when there is no higher political force (such as a strong civil service or a national political force): bus stops are very close together, transfers are discouraged (“we oppose the principle of interchange” said one left-wing group opposed to Jarrett Walker’s bus redesign in Dublin), rail service is viewed more as a construction nuisance than a critical mobility service, etc.
Models for transportation usage take into account the behavior of the average user – at least the average current user, excluding ones discouraged by poor service. However, the political system takes into account the behavior of the average empowered voter. In the case of local politics, this average voter rarely rides public transit. When city political machines run themselves, the result is exactly what you’d think.
I’m at Ecomodernism 2018, a conference by the Breakthrough Institute in exurban Northern Virginia. It’s not much of an infrastructure or transportation conference (although Breakthrough tells me they are getting interested in these subjects), so I instead went to a breakout session about nuclear power. The session was better than other parts of the conference, but was still not great in the sense that what I saw of it made me less sympathetic to nuclear power than I was before. I want to describe my thought process here, not because nuclear power is a relevant subject to this blog (whatever opinion on it I hold is tepid) but because it showcases how trust works and how people in power need to listen to critics.
Before I go further, I want to make it clear that I did not go to the entire session. It was a two-hour discussion in a circle; an hour in I had to run to the bathroom, and while there I discovered that my flight back to Paris got canceled due to airline bankruptcy and had to run to my room to look for alternatives. So it’s entirely possible my concerns were addressed in the second hour, although judging by where the discussion was going when I left, I doubt it.
What I saw at the discussion concerned technical issues regarding costs and regulations. As far as I remember, everyone at the 19-person discussion other than me had some ties to nuclear advocacy or the industry, except possibly one law professor who was involved in the debate over nuclear regulations. People with background in the industry talked about how American regulations are excessively cautious about safety zones (and in response to my question told me the rest of the world mostly follows American regulations). The law professor asked if modernizing the regulations would always mean loosening controls or if there were places where tightening was required; two people gave convoluted replies that basically said they were only talking about loosening rules without explicitly saying so.
Missing from the entire discussion as far as I could see was the issue of trust. Nuclear power requires immense personal trust in the firms building the plants and in the state. Nuclear advocates keep explaining that first-world regulatory regimes are a lot stronger than whatever the Soviet Union had during Chernobyl. But it’s hard to understand to what extent this is true without very deep ties to the conversation. On a car or a train, it’s easy for a passenger to feel that something is wrong – that there is a lot of sway, that the train driver is overrunning platforms, that the road is visibly in poor condition, etc. There’s no need to trust that the system is safe because passengers can readily see that it is safe. A nuclear plant is different: one minute it’s working, the next minute it’s blowing up.
In cultural theory, trust is mostly an egalitarian issue. To the egalitarian, the exact details of the regulations don’t matter nearly as much as the population’s ability to trust that the regulators are honest. Producing this kind of honesty is hard.
Even hierarchical institutions are full of folklore about people in power being stupid or dishonest. World War Two, the epitome of hierarchy, still produced Catch-22 and copious enlisted folklore about obstructive officers. Even my grandfather at one point asked if the anonymous commander of his resistance group in the ghetto was helping dig shelters or whether he was just telling grunts to do so (later he learned that the person he was asking this question of, while they dug the shelters together, was the anonymous commander). Even at their best, hierarchical organizations are necessarily compartmentalized and secret, and never immune to the occasional social climber, narcissist, or asshole (in fact the word “asshole” came out of WW2 lexicon referring to obstructive officers).
To the extent there is a direct connection to transportation, the mode of transportation that elicits the biggest trust concerns is the self-driving car. The airplane elicits a similar fear, but the airline industry has spent the last few decades ruthlessly prioritizing safety over anything else – cost, comfort, flexibility, speed, fuel efficiency. In contrast, the tech industry’s “move fast and break things” ethos not only causes visible accidents (such as Tesla’s occasional crashes or Uber’s fatal AV crash) but also reminds the public that to the industry, safety is a secondary concern to world domination.
This problem gets worse when the industry or the state does not understand it has a trust deficit. In France, I’m pro-nuclear. In the US, I’m more skeptical, because of the morass of conflicting federal and state regulations, local NIMBYism, and industry efforts; at the discussion, when someone brought up financing, I explicitly asked about the state-built plants of South Korea, which the moderator had brought up in a report about nuclear plant costs, and was told that this is not on the agenda for the US.
French regulators have proven themselves more trustworthy to me than American ones, so when Macron calls for expanding nuclear energy I react more positively than when third way American thinktanks do. Similarly, France simultaneously implements or at least tries to implement parallel green policies, such as building more public transit, which helps convince me that Macron’s vision of the future treats decarbonization as a priority. In contrast, Ecomodernism 2018 saw fit to treat “is climate change a serious problem?” as a debate that reasonable people may disagree about, and treats oil and gas expansion as a respectable minority opinion within the movement, which helps convince me its support of nuclear is about pissing off the mainstream green movement and not about providing an extra tool for base load power to avoid the intermittency problem of renewable energy.
If the people who are responsible for implementing such technology misunderstand that they have a trust deficit, they will not do anything about it. At worst, they will talk about how to market the technology, as if the problem is about convincing the public that they’re trustworthy and not about actually putting safety first.
In rationalism, there is something called “steelmanning.” To steelman a position is to find the strongest possible argument for it, even if it is not what one’s interlocutor exactly said. This contrasts with strawmanning, i.e. finding the weakest possible argument and attacking it as unreasonable. Ecomodernism 2018’s first proper session, a discussion with people who changed their minds on environmental issues, brought this term up as a positive, contrasting it with partisan polarization.
As far as I saw at the discussion, the discussion of nuclear power did not steelman the anti-nuclear movement and its emphasis on trust and (in Germany and Japan) the issue of American military involvement.
That said, I don’t believe in steelmanning, because if a movement recurrently fails to make what I think the strongest arguments for its position is, I reserve the right to use it to judge what it considers important. This way I dismiss movement libertarians’ opposition to public transit, because they seem indifferent to cost comparisons; those are a free shot at many US transit projects, but make transit look like a reasonable proposition in some circumstances and suggest improvements that would make it cost-effective, conflicting with Wendell Cox’s maximalist attitude that cars are always superior.
But by the same token, I am compelled to dismiss the ecomodernist line about nuclear energy, which I was sympathetic to until the conference began. There are strong arguments in favor of nuclear power: its safety record in developed countries in the last few decades has been positive, it is less intermittent than solar power, and Germany’s decommissioning of nuclear plants without adequate renewable replacement has not been great for its carbon footprint. On the bus shuttle from Washington to the conference I sat next to someone who convincingly made some of these arguments, explaining that solar costs per watt are understated due to intermittency. But at least the first half of the discussion I attended today neither brought them up (except in the context of the desirability of loosening regulations) nor adequately wrestled with the opposition.
In public transit and urbanism, the same issue sometimes occurs. It’s not as stark as with nuclear plants because people can see changes more readily, but getting people to trust public transit authorities that have recurrently proven themselves incompetent or dishonest is not a trivial task. It is imperative that people who support good transit make it clear that everything has tradeoffs: cost-effective subway lines involve surface disruption (which can be reduced but not eliminated), regional rail modernization means people at some suburban stations will no longer be guaranteed a seat and will definitely not be guaranteed first-class status elevated over the urban working class, fare integration usually comes with an increase in base fares for people who don’t transfer, bus network redesigns make some people’s trips longer and are net negative for passengers with especially high transfer and walking penalties.
Transit is a world of heterogeneous preferences. An optimal network is necessarily a compromise between many different people’s personal weights on reliability, walking time, in-vehicle travel time, etc. As a compromise, it will piss some people off, and it’s necessary to make it very clear what is happening, as agencies reform themselves from the swamp of most American operators to proper transport associations. Trust is critical: just as passengers’ trust in the schedule is crucial to ensure they wait for the bus or train rather than driving or forgoing the trip, people’s trust in the authority to make good decisions is crucial to ensure they participate in and respect the process rather than checking out and treating transportation as an imposition to be avoided whenever possible.
I was in New York last week presenting my and Eric Goldwyn’s bus redesign (see post here, with revisions coming soon). YIMBYTown happened just afterward, this weekend in Boston, so I hopped on the train up to go to the conference. I went to the plenary sessions and a selection of the breakout sessions, and, in between the sessions, had a lot of not-especially-heated conversations with various YIMBYs I’d long known online. For the most part I did not have a good time, and I want to explain why, because it’s relevant to the future of YIMBY in general and to any synergy between transportation and development.
I livetweeted two of the plenary sessions, by Ed Glaeser and Kristen Jeffers. My general impression of Ed Glaeser’s talk is that the first half was boilerplate and the second half included references to various studies, most (all?) by his grad students, regarding zoning, US migration patterns, and other relevant issues. Kristen‘s speech was extremely personal, and built up Kristen’s life story toward the climax of insisting planners must viscerally love the cities they work in. I felt weird about that, since I have the exact opposite visceral reaction to Boston, which gets stronger every time I visit.
The breakout sessions ran the gamut. I went to three on the schedule proper on Friday and two on the unconference schedule on Saturday. The first three were Jarred Johnson and Ted Pyne‘s session on equity and transit-oriented development, Emily Hamilton‘s presentation of her and Eli Dourado’s paper finding that more walkable places in the US have higher property values, and John Myers‘ proposal to encourage more homebuilding by empowering individual blocks (of, say, 20 homeowners or 20 tenants) to upzone. They all had slides and a fair bit of structure (as a moderated discussion in the first one and as economics or policy talks in the second two).
The unconference had four session slots, but I was discussing things individually with other people in the first and last, and only went to the middle two. These were Where New Housing is Being Built, which turned out to be a paper talk by Mercatus’s Salim Furth, with similar structure to Emily’s talk, and an inclusionary housing session, in theory run by Eric Herot and in practice run by Alex Baca and SF YIMBY’s Laura Foote.
My general impressions
The conference was heavily geared toward political marketing. There was very little discussion of policy as is. There are extensive disagreements among people who identify as YIMBY on actual policy issues:
- Government interventions for housing affordability, including rent control, inclusionary zoning, and public housing; the first and third weren’t discussed at any panel I attended or looked at (judging by the description), and even the IZ discussion was more about discussing IZ than about IZ itself. Some people brought up rent control as a solution to displacement, but for the most part in the context of politically appealing to the poor rather than in the context of asking whether it’s good policy.
- The relative importance of residential and commercial upzoning; there was just one talk about that subject, which conflicted with another talk I wanted to go to.
- The typology of housing that’s most useful at scale. Practices differ greatly between cities (e.g. high-rise, mid-rise, missing middle), and to some extent so do YIMBY beliefs about what is most important to encourage. And yet, I didn’t see any discussion of this, in particular the missing middle vs. mid-rise question.
- Whether demand for urban housing is driven by consumption amenities (like nice sidewalks, cafes, good schools, etc.) or production amenities (proximity to jobs, which cluster for reasons like strong institutions, geography, or preexisting industrial clusters). Ed Glaeser’s talk brought up a few correlates with consumption but did not probe further.
Likewise, the interests of the attendees were different from what I was used to from transit discussions. Many were officials (e.g. city council members) of high-income NIMBY suburbs of Boston, with several coming from Newton. Many were organizers; the conference seemed to be geared toward them. Few were analysts, writers, or the sort of nerds who nitpick everything I say about subway planning and disturbingly often find serious holes in my proposals.
Despite the dominance of organizers, there were some serious organizational gaps, most importantly the unconference structure. It was poorly announced; there was no central space within which one could suggest ideas for unconference talk topics, and instead everything had to be done through the website, which was difficult to access since we were expected to network with other YIMBYs for about twelve hours a day. I only learned how I could either suggest or vote on a topic on Saturday morning after the list had been finalized; I wanted to suggest a discussion of TOD best practices, especially in light of the problem of market-rate housing inherently not being TOD in auto-oriented cities.
The two libertarian talks I went to – Emily’s presentation, and Salim’s unconference talk – were both good. I call them libertarian talks but what Emily showed is that housing is more expensive in American zipcodes with high walk scores, and what Salim showed is that more housing is built in US census tracts in density deciles 1-4 and 9-10 than deciles 5-8 (while an analysis of market pricing shows demand growing monotonically with density, so deciles 5-10 all have shortages). Market urbanism is the philosophy they’re informed by, but not the main focus.
The difference between their talks and the others is that they were presenting academic papers. I had many questions for both regarding definitions and robustness checks, and they engaged on that level; Emily in particular had already done all the robustness checks I was asking about (about definitions of zip code center, housing prices vs. rents, etc.), and her results held up.
Leftists like to complain about the ideological line of the Mercatus Center, and they’re right, but in housing economics, the Mercatus Center’s line is more or less the same as that of a broad spectrum of experts. So to them, talking about housing economics is the same as presenting results to a lay audience, same way I might have talked about dynamical systems to an audience with no more than undergrad math education.
The conference was 85-90% white; this covers both the attendees and the speakers. The plenary speakers included multiple black urbanists (not just Kristen but also a panel for one of the closing plenary talks); clearly, there was some attempt at diversity. And yet, the entire way the conference presented diversity reminded me of what I hate most about Boston: 90% white groups talk about diversity and how to be welcoming and yet remain 90% year after year.
People who follow my Twitter rants know I constantly harangue Americans about their hostility to immigrants. Here, there was a pub crawl, which on its face is neutral, but when people congregated at a bar that checked IDs, and wouldn’t accept my Swedish ID card as valid because foreigners are required to show a passport, I could not talk to people who I’d made plans with. Nobody who I mentioned this to thought much of it; to the Americans it was a mistake, not an injustice. I doubt that nonwhite Americans who came with similar complaints would be treated any better.
There was a group of about 150 protesters who interrupted one of the talk, ironically by the National Low-Income Housing Coalition. They were about 50% white, 50% black, in a neighborhood that’s almost 100% black. They, too, seemed not to think too much about their own representation (and to be fair, Boston is extremely segregated).
The London talk
The London housing talk was strange. The PowerPoint projector failed, requiring John Myers to use printed slides, which had poor color contrast for many key charts. John argued that there’s a U-shaped curve in housing construction: a lot built with individual decisionmaking (e.g. regimes before zoning), some built with nationwide decisionmaking (e.g. England), little built with local decisionmaking (e.g. individual suburbs, San Francisco). Based on the U-curve, he proposed empowering very small groups, down to the block level, to move to the left of the U curve and not the right.
I had a lot of criticism even within the talk, as did frequent commenter ThreeStationSquare. San Francisco builds more housing per capita than England, which is toward the low end of unitary states (Sweden, France, and the growing parts of Japan all build more). John said that rent-controlled tenants are NIMBY because they’re insulated from the consequences of a housing shortage; in reality, a paper studying NIMBYism among renters finds no difference between market-rate and rent-controlled tenants in San Francisco, and Becca Baird-Remba‘s reporting in New York also sees no such difference within the city.
More fundamentally, empowering a group of (say) 20 people enhances group solidarity to the point of not being so willing to (in effect) take a buyout from developers to permit more housing. In Israel, even empowering groups of 6-8 owners in an Old North apartment building generally leads to hostility to developers and reluctance to make deals.
There was an unconference discussion about inclusionary zoning. Unfortunately, the discussion broke down early, with many more people than expected, around 30 or 40, more than the other events in the same time slot. Alex Baca and Laura Foote had to salvage it, running it the way they’re used to running group discussions.
But even with their management, making sure people talked one at a time, the discussion was too meta and too unfocused. We were talking about how to talk about IZ rather than about IZ itself. I wanted to bring up non-IZ models of affordability like the social housing so common in France or Sweden, but there was no time beyond my saying “there’s social housing in France and Sweden.” With nobody in attendance from Baltimore, there was no discussion of the city’s own recently-passed plan, focusing on very low-income people – nor any agreement to follow up on it with people more familiar than we were.
In effect, the way the discussion evolved seemed like the first hour of a six-hour conversation, and not like the one-hour conversation it really was.
Will I go again?
If it’s in a city I happen to actually be in, then probably. But it’s all organized by local groups, even though politically the entire point of American YIMBY is to leverage national social and political networks to make the professional middle class a stronger force in local politics relative to the local homeowner class (anchored by retirees, heirs to houses in the top wealth decide or two short of the top 1-2%, and shopkeepers). There’s no national attempt to site YIMBYTown in cities that are easy to get to domestically, let alone internationally. The next conference is likely to be somewhere where I have no reason to go except YIMBYTown, rather than in New York.
And in that case, I’m not likely to make it again. The productive conversations I’ve had are with people I’d have good conversations with anyway on Twitter and by email. It’s not a conducive environment for exchanging ideas with people I don’t already know; the panels are too much about how to pretend to be nice to the local working class (and I guarantee that the conference won’t get any less white or any less middle-class), and not enough about policy or analysis.
Eric Goldwyn and I spent about six months working on a Brooklyn bus redesign. I mentioned some aspects of it before here, on social media, and in blog comments, but not the overall shape. Eric and I gave a pair of presentations about our plan, one two days ago at the MTA in front of senior MTA planners and NYC DOT people and one today at TransitCenter in front of activists and mid-level MTA planners. We have a still-unreleased writeup explaining everything we’re doing with references to both public reports from various cities and peer-reviewed literature. Here I’m going to condense the 8,000-word writeup into a blog post length, going over the main points, including of course the proposed map.
The map, in brief
The depicted version is 1.1. You can see a lower-resolution version 1.0 on Streetsblog, albeit with a different color code (the map we made for the presentation, reproduced on Streetsblog, uses red for the highest-frequency routes and blue for the lowest-frequency ones whereas the Google Earth version linked above is the opposite). It has 353 route-km, down from about 550 today, not including Grand and Metropolitan Avenues, which are Queens bus routes, shown on the map for completeness’s sake, without stopping pattern.
Some tails are cut due to low ridership or duplication of rail:
- The B25 on Fulton goes.
- The B37 on Third Avenue is consolidated into the B63 on Fifth.
- The B45 and B65 are merged into one compromise route.
- The B15 is cut east of the Long-Term Parking JFK AirTrain station (where service is free); ideally it would be cut east of City Line with passengers taking the subway to the AirTrain (as was the case in version 1.0), but I do not expect Port Authority to integrate AirTrain fares with the subway.
- The B41 is cut north of Parkside Avenue, at the transfer to the B/Q.
- Instead of two routes in Bed-Stuy between Nostrand (i.e. B44) and Malcolm X (i.e. B46), today’s B15 and B43, there’s just one route.
- The B57 segment on Court and Smith Streets in South Brooklyn goes, as the subway serves the area in several directions.
- The B39 over the Williamsburg Bridge goes.
- The B32 and B62, providing north-south service through Williamsburg up to Long Island City, are merged into one compromise route.
- The East New York bus network is circuitous (buses go to Gateway Center the long way around) and is straightened here.
- In version 1.0, the B26 on Halsey was cut west of Franklin with a forced transfer to the subway, but the short distance to Downtown Brooklyn argues in favor of continuing to at least Flatbush.
Overall, this is a cut from 54 routes (including the separately-managed MTA Bus routes B100 and B103) to 37. The smaller network is far more frequent. The minimum frequency is,
- Every 6 minutes between 6 am and 10 pm every day.
- Every 10 minutes between 5 and 6 am and between 10 pm and midnight.
- Every 30 minutes between midnight and 5 am; every 20 minutes with timed transfers to the subway is aspirational, but the subway doesn’t run reliably on a timetable overnight for such a system to be viable. The 30-minute night network could potentially involve mini-pulses in Downtown Brooklyn and smaller hubs (like East New York and Bay Ridge).
Routes depicted in red on the Google Maps link, or in blue on the map in the Streetsblog link, have exactly the minimum frequency. Routes depicted in green have higher frequency at the peak; routes depicted in blue on Google Maps or red on Streetsblog have higher frequency peak and off-peak. Higher frequency than the minimum is depicted as “Utica [2/4]” (buses on Utica run every 2 minutes peak, 4 off-peak) or “Avenue U [5/6]” (buses on Avenue U run every 5 minutes peak, 6 off-peak). Peak means 7-9 am and 5-7 pm on weekdays, in both directions; the morning peak is a little earlier and the afternoon peak a little later than the subway peak, but as buses are still mostly subway feeders, an earlier morning peak and a later afternoon peak are justifiable.
Pruning the network is not the only or even most important part of bus reform. Buses have to be sped up to be useful for people except as last-resort transit. In interviews about unrelated topics, people have volunteered to me that they do not take trips they used to take due to the degradation in bus speed and reliability. New York City Transit bus ridership peaked in 2002; the fare hike in 2003 led to a small dip in ridership that the mid-2000s oil crisis didn’t quite erase, and then in the recession and subsequent recovery bus ridership crashed. In Manhattan it’s 30% below the 2007 level; in Brooklyn it’s 20% below the 2007 level, with buses extending the subway or letting people connect to a better line (like the B41 and B35) particularly hit.
The current average speed in Brooklyn is about 11 km/h. Excluding limited-stop buses, it’s 10.8. We’re proposing to increase it to 15, even though the redesign is pruning buses in faster areas more than in slower ones. This is using four speedup treatments.
Today, New York prefers to treat off-board fare collection as a special product available only on select buses (i.e. SBS). This should be changed to citywide prepayment, with all-door boarding. German-speaking cities do it; so does San Francisco. Data from San Francisco and from the TRB (PDF-p. 20) suggests a gain of about 2.5-3 seconds per passenger boarding, counting both boarding and alighting time. At Brooklyn’s bus ridership level, this suggests a saving of around 400-450 revenue-hours, or about 4% of total service-hours. This is not a big change, but it helps stabilize the schedule by slowing down the mechanism by which buses bunch.
How to get passengers to pay if not on-board remains an open question; there are several approaches. The Zurich model involves placing a ticket-vending machine (TVM) at every bus stop. While New York severely pays for TVMs on SBS (the RPA says $75,000 per stop), an ATM costs $3,000, so installing the required infrastructure need not cost a lot. But more commonly, passengers can board freely if they have transfers or unlimited monthlies and pay the driver (potentially after the bus has begun moving) otherwise.
Of note, the bus drivers are particularly interested in prepayment. Eric and I explained the issue in a CityLab article a few months back: the drivers are worried about being assaulted by riders who don’t want to pay.
About 60% of the time saving in our plan relative to current practices comes from stop consolidation. I discussed the issue here, and our forthcoming report has references to many studies in the literature optimizing stop spacing for minimum door-to-door travel time. With each deleted stop saving 20-30 seconds (say 25 seconds on average), our proposed stop consolidation, from an average of 220 meters to 490 excluding long tails (i.e. the B15’s long nonstop segment toward JFK) saves around a minute per km, cutting travel time from 5.5 minutes per km to 4.5.
Conceptually, stop spacing should be longer when trips are longer, or when relative density is less uniform. New York City Transit bus trips are short, as many are subway extenders, but relative density is extremely spiky, as a large number of people get off at a few dominant stops at the subway connection points. If the on/off density on a route is uniform, then lengthening the stop spacing means passengers have to walk longer at both ends; but if passengers are guaranteed a connection at one end (because of transfer points with the subway or other buses) then they only have to walk longer at the other end. Based on this principle, Utica and Nostrand get particularly long stop spacing. Conversely, routes with extremely short trips, like the Mermaid route inherited from the B74, have shorter stop spacing.
To improve network legibility, we have tried as far as possible to have buses stop on consistent streets. For example, south of Fulton Street (where it’s awkwardly between Nostrand and Franklin), Bedford Avenue gets a stop on every intersecting bus, including east-west routes but also the diagonal B41.
Every bus stop should have shelter. In Central Florida, North Florida, and London, this costs $10,000 per stop, give or take. Our 707-stop plan (700 in version 1.0) would cost $14 million at this cost. Even at Santa Ana’s higher cost of $35,000, it’s $50 million. NIMBYs who oppose stop consolidation argue that having many stops is necessary for people with disabilities, but people with disabilities would benefit from benches and shelter, without needing to stand for 15 minutes waiting for bunched buses.
Every bus in an area with congestion should get dedicated lanes. SBS implementations so far, imperfect as they are, have saved around 30 seconds per km in traffic. Physically-separated median lanes should do better; the MTA and NYCDOT have so far avoided them on the theory that local and limited bus routes should coexist on the same route and limiteds should pass locals, but in reality, a single stopping pattern is better, and then there are no drawbacks to physical separation.
On wide streets, this is not a problem. On narrow ones, it is. The real headache is Nostrand, about 25 meters wide building to building, enough for just four lanes. The correct thing to do is a moving lane and a bus lane in each direction, with merchants told to park on side streets. If parking is unavoidable, then a contraflow bus lane, with parking on one side, is also feasible, but less safe for pedestrians (Boulevard Saint-Michel has this configuration and has to remind pedestrians crossing the street to look left).
Two-way buses are essential whenever streets are widely separated, as on avenues, in Brooklyn as well as Manhattan. Nostrand is just more important than Rogers and New York Avenue, where northbound B44s go today; today’s configuration forces east-west buses to make too many stops (the B35 limited makes 4 stops in a kilometer).
Buses should get priority at intersections and not just on the street. The studies we’ve seen find a 4-7% gain, bus only on individual bus routes, not gridded networks. In our proposed trip times we are not assuming any speedup from signal priority, just better timekeeping as more delayed buses get priority to stabilize the schedule. This is a counter-bunching mechanism more than a straight speedup.
A process, not an immutable product
Jarrett Walker’s bus network redesigns tend to come as complete products, changed rapidly from radial low-frequency networks. What we’re proposing is a longer process. Nova Xarxa began implementation in 2012 and is wrapping up now, installing a few routes at a time by cannibalizing parallel routes. The map we’re showing is what we estimate would be a good fit for 2022-3. Beyond that, more subway stops are going to be wheelchair-accessible, making it easier to prune more subway-parallel buses (like the B63).
Gradual implementation means starting from the easier parts of the network. East New York’s current network is so circuitous that straightening it should not be too controversial. Our proposed redesign there is also better at connecting to the 2, 3, 4, and 5 trains and not just the L, which should prove valuable during the L shutdown. In Southern Brooklyn, we are proposing more service, but this could be paired with stop consolidation. Central Brooklyn and Bed-Stuy require the most street redesigns and the most robust frequency network-wide (as they are already transfer-based grids, and nobody transfers at 12-15 minute off-peak frequency) and could be done later; the B25 itself should probably not be eliminated until Broadway Junction is made accessible on the A and C lines.
We are not even wedded to the map as a proposal for 2022. Some variations are always possible, as already seen in the differences between versions 1.0 and 1.1. The biggest addition we can think of is adding a second north-south route through Bed-Stuy: the existing one would be moved from Marcus Garvey to Throop (hitting the subway better), while the B17 could be extended up Troy and Lewis.
Overall, Brooklyn has 10,800 service-hours today. Our redesign uses just 10,000, with a 1% gain in efficiency from location relative to bus depots on top of that. There is room for service increases, or restoration of marginal routes required for political reasons, or slowdowns imposed by political unwillingness to install bus lanes.
In a modern developed country, it’s rare to find win-win situations. The US is blessed with these in transit (i.e. it’s so inefficient at construction it might as well be third-world), but not in urban bus networks. Stop consolidation is a net benefit to the average user of the route, but a few people would still see longer trips, e.g. those living at the exact midpoint between two widely-spaced stops. Route consolidation (as in Ocean Hill) is the same thing.
There are sociopolitical groups that would win out: labor would see higher ridership, reducing the pressure to cut jobs; regular commuters (who generally have low transfer penalties) would see faster trips; people with disabilities that make it difficult for them to stand (as is true of some people with chronic pain) would be able to sit at bus stops and wouldn’t need to sit for long. In contrast, small business owners would sometimes lose the ability to park in front of their stores, and occasional users who usually drive would see longer perceived trips because of stiff transfer penalties.
This is equally true on the level of neighborhoods. Southern Brooklyn generally gains, and Borough Park in general gains an extra north-south route (though this is canceled out by high transfer and access penalty among Haredis: in Israel they just won’t walk longer to better service). East New York sees much more direct routes. Flatbush and East Flatbush don’t see much change in network structure but do gain off-peak frequency. Red Hook gains a direct connection to Manhattan. But then Bed-Stuy loses north-south routes, South Brooklyn’s buses are completely gutted, and Williamsburg loses north-south routes.
A political system based on citywide (or nationwide) ideological groups could find the will to build the network we’re proposing or something like it. Could a system based on local representation, treating retirees and small business owners as a vanguard class, deliver the same? We will see in the next year or two.
I ran a Patreon poll about sociological theories as applied to urbanism, offering two options: cultural theory of risk, and cultural cringe. The poll was tied, so I feel compelled to do one post on each (when cultural theory was ahead I was outlining two separate posts on it, one about transit and one about housing).
Psychologists and sociologists have long known that people’s perceptions of risk can vary widely from actual risks (e.g. people are more afraid of flying than of driving even though planes are safer), and, moreover, different people have different evaluations of risk. Early theories analyzed differences in risk perception along lines of class, race, or gender, but subsequently a group of social scientists, many (though not all) libertarians, argued for an ideology-based cultural identity. In 1982, the anthropologist Mary Douglas and the political scientist Aaron Wildavksy published Risk and Culture, arguing for three different identities (later expanded to four). Douglas used her past insights from analyzing premodern societies’ social taboos to analyzing risk perception within industrialized societies, especially the rise of the environmental movement during a time of falling pollution levels.
Urbanism and public transit are intimately connected with environmentalism. A large fraction of transit advocacy is environmental in nature, and both early NIMBYs and present-day YIMBYs come from green progressivism. Even when the arguments are not explicitly ecological, the parallels are unavoidable: Jane Jacobs’ critique of urban renewal has strong similarities with Rachel Carson’s critique of DDT. Legally, the mechanisms that exist to protect both endangered species and neighborhoods are often the same (e.g. the American environmental impact report process). Thus, understanding a sociological theory developed originally to analyze environmentalism should have straightforward applications to cities and urban transportation.
Cultural theory begins with the distinction between markets and hierarchies. These are two distinct ways of organizing society, leading to different institutions and different social views. Douglas and Wildavsky’s innovation is to distinguish two different axes of separation between markets and hierarchies, which they call group and grid, leading to a 2*2 chart:
Group measures group solidarity among members of the system; grid measures the restrictions placed on the individual’s ability to exit the system. While individualism and hierarchy are politically stronger than the other two cultural identities, group and grid are fairly independent on the level of personal politics and there are numerous examples of egalitarianism and fatalism.
I strongly recommend reading the original book, but this review does it and the theory’s subsequent developments justice.
Individualism arises in institutions that are atomized and like it. The free market is the best example, but professions with mostly independent workers (like academia and the law, especially historically) also fit. Individualists view nature as resilient, returning to a stable equilibrium no matter what happens, and thus business control of the environment is to be celebrated as development; I had this aspect of cultural theory in mind when I wrote one of my early posts critiquing the idea that cities have a single equilibrium. Rejecting systemic or environmental risks, individualists focus on risks that disrupt the market’s operation, like war or recession.
Hierarchy arises in institutions where everyone has a predetermined role to play. Examples include the military, premodern feudalism, and modern bureaucracies. Hierarchists view nature as perverse or tolerant, capable of adapting to change to an extent but not beyond circumscribed limits, and therefore employ what their society considers expert opinion (e.g. scripture, bureaucratic process, big science, etc.) to figure these limits. Hierarchists focus on risks that indicate social deviance, like crime.
Douglas and Wildavsky call the above two tendencies the center, distinguished from what they call the border, whose growth they ascribe to the erosion of trust in institution in the 1960s and 70s (coming in the US from the Vietnam War and Watergate, in France from the reaction to the social protests of 1968, etc.).
Egalitarianism was the border tendency studied in Risk and Culture, which polemically called it sectarianism. It occurs in groups that rely on intensive solidarity among members but cannot enforce their collective will on the individual, and thus require other mechanisms to encourage people not to leave. These include internal equality, to stave off discontentment, and the precautionary principle, to prevent change from inducing disaffected members to exit. Thus they view nature as fragile, prone to collapse at any moment if the system endures any change in direction, and focus on low-probability, high-impact risks (such as environmental collapse), which enhance the group’s internal solidarity against outside enemies.
One of the key oppositions Douglas and Wildavsky point out is between the Hutterites and the Amish. Both denominations are high-group, socializing almost exclusively among their own kind, adhering to strict religious principles. But despite their common Anabaptist origin, they differ in one crucial aspect: the Hutterites have communal ownership of property, the Amish don’t. This makes the Hutterites high-grid, since members who leave start from zero, whereas Amish who leave get to keep their land. The Amish openly adhere to the precautionary principle, which they famously interpret extremely conservatively; the Hutterites have formal rules for group size and adopt modern farming technology easily.
Fatalism is the last tendency, so politically weak that it was ignored in the original book and only discussed in subsequent refinements of the theory. It arises in institutions whose lower-ranked members (whether by market poverty or low rank in the hierarchy) are disaffected, unable to leave and yet not sharing any of the group’s purported values. They tend to view nature as capricious, moving without clear direction, and do not have any particular risk focus, but tend to be especially concerned about things they do not understand (such as unfamiliar or complex technology). Transgressive fiction like The Wire tends to depict fatalist institutions; geekier readers may also recognize H. P. Lovecraft’s mythos as fatalist, portraying a universe so far beyond human understanding that any who begins to figure any of it out goes insane or slowly becomes a monster.
Some political movements have obvious cultural identities. Libertarianism is individualist. The New Left is egalitarian. The far right is hierarchist: Cas Mudde calls it pathological normalcy, and its issue focus (crime, immigration as genetic pollution, terrorism) is hierarchical, even as it rejects traditional hierarchical institutions. However, the broader left vs. right distinction does not neatly map to any of the four cultural biases. About the only generalization that can be made is that activists are usually not fatalists.
Cultural theory and transportation
Transportation planning is an inherently hierarchical industry. The technologies involved are old and continuously tweaked within well-understood parameters. With so much accumulated knowledge, work experience matters, requiring companies in the industry to adopt a hierarchical setup. Moreover, the transportation network itself is complex and interconnected, with changes in one region cascading to others. Changes to the bus network, the train schedule, etc. are possible but only if the people implementing them know what they’re doing, creating a picture of the network much like the hierarchical view of nature as tolerant up to a limit.
The individualist ethos of tech companies – move fast and break things – works for fast-growing industries. Individualism is by far the fastest of the four biases in reacting to sudden changes. The tech industry’s denigration of public transit as an old hat has to be understood as individualists reacting poorly to an industry that has to be run by a business culture they find alien.
Readers who have been following me closely may ask, well, what about me? I’m an individualist. I evidently talk more to startups than to transportation consulting megacorps. One reader notes that I’ve called for people in positions of authority to be fired for incompetence so many times that a post like this one may read as hesitant purely because I only call for removing the governor of Massachusetts and the secretary of transportation and not also for firing planners.
The answer is that while there is extensive accumulated knowledge about good public transit in Western Europe, Japan, and South Korea, there is very little in the area I’m most involved in, North America. This is especially true when it comes to regional rail: the existing mainline rail in the US should be treated as more or less tabula rasa. Adopting best practices requires extensive expert knowledge, but the methods in which they should be implemented have little to do with the internal bureaucracy of hierarchical organizations, since the railroads that would ordinarily be in charge (like the LIRR or the MBTA) are the problem and not the solution.
But if the actual process of running a transportation network is hierarchical, the politics are completely different. As with left-right politics, the politics of public transit don’t neatly fit into any of the four tendencies. Center-right hierarchists tend to support extensions of the status quo, which means more urban transit in New York, London, Paris, and other large cities, as well as high-speed rail on strong corridors (High Speed 2 in the UK is bipartisan), but more roads everywhere else. Individualists on the right tend to be anti-rail, partly because it looks so hierarchical, partly because of peculiarities like Koch funding of American libertarianism (which has been exported to Israel, at least).
Egalitarian environmentalists tend to be pro-transit, but their discomfort with hierarchy sometimes shows up as mistrust of big infrastructure projects. The radical environmentalist Chris Clarke, opposed early attempts to fast-track California High-Speed Rail and called Robert Cruickshank of California HSR Blog a shill for developer interests. Jane Jacobs herself ended up arguing late in her life that mass transit was at the wrong scale and instead cities should encourage community jitney services.
The process itself has issues of trust that activate egalitarians and fatalists, the latter often reflexively opposing reforms since they assume things must always get worse. It leads to tension between community outreach, which helps defuse this opposition, and speed of implementation.
Cultural theory and housing development
Whereas transportation politics isn’t neatly slotted into the grid-group paradigm, the politics of urban development is: YIMBY is an individualist movement, with near-universal support from people who identify with that cultural bias. The other three tendencies are split. The market urbanist proposition of abolition or near-abolition of zoning doesn’t appeal to hierarchists (who want to be able to control where housing goes) or egalitarians (who worry about the consequences of empowering market actors); but there are egalitarian left-YIMBYs and hierarchical city leaders who favor transit-oriented development.
In fact, when analyzing NIMBYism, it’s useful to slot it not by class or political opinion, but by cultural identity. There is much less difference between working-class and middle-class NIMBYs than leftists posit, and in some cases anti-gentrification politics and racist opposition to fair housing blend together (as in South Tel Aviv, where the local far right has argued black refugees are part of a gentrification ploy).
The key is that egalitarianism really consists of two distinct concepts, both necessary to maintain high group solidarity without grid: internal equality, and strong boundedness (which refers to sharp distinctions between insiders and outsiders). The cultural geographer Stentor Danielson argued once that surveys consistently show people approve of internal equality but not of strong boundedness, which is why egalitarian communities are so rare even though many people agree with most of their tenets.
Thus, when NIMBYs argue that more development would bring outsiders or change the character of the neighborhood, this is as compatible with egalitarianism as with hierarchy. Gentrification is just the name for when these outsiders are not begging for scraps. The real difference is in where this is taken. Egalitarian NIMBYism emphasizes irrevocable change, high-impact risks (e.g. that a new development would induce runaway gentrification), and trust. Hierarchical NIMBYism instead talks about behavioral norms, usually referring to middle-class moral panics about crime, but occasionally flipping to black American fears that white people would call the police more often.
The fatalists, too, have their own criticism of redevelopment – namely, that it represents another sudden change involving forces they have no control over. “Nobody asked us” has to be understood as a fatalist and not egalitarian cry, even though egalitarians often try to organize fatalists.
It’s not really possible to promise any of the other groups what it really wants: protection from change for egalitarians, a more concrete relationship between development and their actual lives for fatalists, or ethnic or other kinds of homogeneity for hierarchists. Nonetheless, alliances are possible with some egalitarians and hierarchists. SF YIMBY has to be viewed as an attempt at an individualist-egalitarian alliance for more housing, ceding ground on rent control to curry favor with ideological socialists (and its East Bay offshoot is run by actual socialists). In the other direction, Theresa May’s making noises about releasing more land for housing to get young people on the “housing ladder,” invoking a hierarchical sense of normality regarding when it’s appropriate to buy a house.
It’s hard to escape the conversation about the decline of the center-left. Whether it’s about non-populist US Democrats, the Israeli Labor Party, Nordic social democrats, German SPD, or French PS, there’s a pan-first world conversation about the crisis of social democracy. People give any number of reasons for it, some suggesting it can be reversed in some ways, but some more skeptical. Branko Milanovic brings up the change in the nature of work from manufacturing with interchangeable workers within one plant to services with fractionalized workers often working remotely as an economic cause of the decline of unions.
Public transportation is sufficiently close to social democracy that it’s important to ask where it’s going politically, if SPD is slipping to third in the polls, PS is irrelevant, the most exciting Democrats are left-populists, etc. YIMBYism can go anywhere politically, but in practice it’s an anti-populist neoliberal policy, affected by the same trends that hollow out social democracy. Fortunately, both issues have a strong likelihood of surviving the decline of the traditional party system with its bosses vs. workers divisions. My goal is to explain why I believe so, and where support for urbanism and public transit will end up politically in the remainder of the century in developed countries.
Patterns of Democracy
In college I read Patterns of Democracy, a study by comparativist Arend Lijphart classifying the world’s stable democracies (including some third-world ones like India and Botswana) along two dimensions: majoritarian (i.e. two-party) vs. consensus-based (i.e. multiparty), and federal vs. unitary. It’s a book-length overview of the elements that go into each dimension, culminating in some regressions showing that majoritarian democracies are not more politically stable and do not economically overperform multiparty ones.
For the purposes of this post, the interesting part of the book is how it treats the various dimensions of partisan political debate within each country. The most popular analysis is one-dimensional left vs. right, followed by two-dimensional schemes separating economic and liberal vs. authoritarian issues (on the Internet, this is Political Compass). But Lijphart uses a seven-dimensional analysis (pp. 76-78), with each country only having at most three or four active at a time:
- Socioeconomic issues, by far the most common point of controversy within each democracy, including the usual left-right issues like tax rates, health, education, etc.
- Religious vs. secular issues, such as the role of religion in education, abortion rights in the US, or sectarian conflict in multisectarian states like Israel, India, and the Netherlands.
- Cultural-ethnic issues, which in most countries pit majority-group hegemony against multiculturalism, but can also include Belgian language politics or Ashkenazi-Mizrahi tensions in Israel.
- Urban vs. rural issues, such as farm aid.
- Regime support, historically the main cleave between social democratic and communist parties, and today the cleave between extreme right parties like the National Front and AfD (or individuals like Donald Trump) and hard right mainstream parties like Sarkozy and Wauquiez’s Republicans and CSU (or individuals like Ted Cruz and Scott Walker).
- Foreign policy, for examples decolonization in postwar France and Britain and the conflict with the Palestinians in Israel.
- Post-materialist issues, including the environmental issues that underlie the New Left, representing the cleave between social democratic and green parties.
The decline of class-based politics
The crisis of social democracy that Milanovic and others observe is about the decline of class-based politics, pitting workers versus bosses, or the working class versus the middle class. Economic differences between mainstream parties are decreasing, to the point that grand coalitions (as in Germany) or de facto grand coalitions (such as the cordon sanitaire agreement in Sweden excluding the far right) are normalized, joined by an elite consensus that’s for the most part neoliberal. In their stead, the growing issue in salience in Lijphart’s classification is cultural-ethnic, incorporating the sectarian aspects of the religious-secular dimension, including immigration, multiculturalism, and various forms of racism.
However, it’s better to divide socioeconomic issues into issues that are class-based and issues that are not. The most familiar issues across the developed world today pit the rich against the poor: tax rates, health care, education, welfare, unions, labor regulations.
But a large number of issues divide people in different industries, with a fair degree of agreement between labor and capital within each industry. One such issue is the environment, on which oil executives and oil rig workers tend to vote the same way while executives at green tech or low-energy intensity companies and their workers tend to vote the other way. Another issue is free trade, where the battle lines today separate import-competing industries from exporters and industries that rely on a global supply chain (including finance). Historically, the Populist movement in turn-of-the-century America was rooted in farmers’ grievances, demanding free silver, which had little appeal to either the bourgeoisie or the urban working class, which channeled its disaffection into socialism instead. Thus the set of non-class-based economic issues should take over Lijphart’s urban-rural and postmodern dimensions.
Transportation as a politically contentious issue has always had one leg in rich vs. poor politics and one leg outside it. On the one hand, the poor generally use public transit more than the rich, and historically suburbanization in the US as well as the UK was fueled by middle-class flight from the city. On the other hand, the issue intersects with environmentalism and with urban-rural politics. Within cities, the differences often revolve around one’s job descriptions: people who need to drive for a living, such as plumbers and generally people who work outside the CBD, are more hostile to road diets than people who do not, who include both professional downtown workers and downtown service workers.
Non-class-based economic issues are not in any decline. On the contrary, the parties designed around them, including green parties and left-liberal parties (such as D66 or the Danish Social Liberal Party), are for the most part doing fine, taking refugees from declining social democratic parties. In the Schröder cabinet, it was the Greens who pushed for an increase in fuel taxes; support for transit over cars will survive whatever happens to the center-left.
The new class divide
While labor vs. capital is increasingly not a big political cleave in the developed world, other class cleaves are rising to take its place. Non-class-based economic issues pit different industries against one another, and often there’s no consistent pattern to who is on what side, and the same is true on non-economic issues. However, in a large number of cases, there is a consistent pattern, which can be approximated as liberal versus conservative, in the 19th century British sense.
In the case of YIMBYism, the debate over housing is really a fight between two elite classes. The YIMBY side is represented by the professional middle class; the other side is represented by homeowners. Moreover, the professional middle class tends to specifically come from globalized industries, drawing workers from all over, most famously tech in the Bay Area. This class has high labor income and low capital income as well as local social capital, which explains both YIMBYs’ indifference to preserving property values and preference for preemption laws disempowering local notables. Homeowners are the exact opposite: they tend to have high local property values and local social capital relative to their labor income, which means they favor restrictions on housing construction economically and a hyperlocal process in which they’re privileged participants politically.
For the most part, other non-economic issues correlate with the same cleave between the two elites. Middle-class newcomers are overwhelmingly attracted to production amenities of specific global industries (again, Bay Area tech, but also New York and London finance, Paris conglomerates, etc.), which benefit from free trade and have such diverse worker bases that they fall on the liberal side of most debates over immigration. They also tend to cluster in specific job centers, which are at least in principle serviceable by public transportation, leading to high transit ridership relative to income. The urban jobs that are most likely to require driving are local services, which are overwhelmingly owned by people who either were born in the city or immigrated so long ago that they are politically and socially equivalent to natives.
I bring up 19th-century Britain and not the US because Britain had an alignment between free trade, urban over rural interests, and internationalism in the Liberal Party, whereas in the US the Democrats were also the white supremacist party and (outside the Northeast) the agrarian party. But 19th century Europe fits the situation in the first world today between than the 19th century United States, which had free land (courtesy of the Indian Wars) and no real landed gentry apart from the antebellum Southern planter class.
So where are the poor?
If both sides of the debate over zoning and urban housing production are middle-class elites, then where is the working class? The answer is, nowhere. There are working-class organizations on the NIMBY side, such as tenant unions and community groups that try to extract maximum value from developers. There are also poor people on the YIMBY side: in the Houston zoning referendum the poor voted against zoning and the middle class voted for, with poor blacks voting the most strongly against zoning, and at a recent hearing in Brooklyn for a mixed high-rise project most whites spoke against the project and most nonwhites spoke in favor.
To the extent there’s a pattern, organized local groups of poor people and/or minorities are NIMBY and generally unreliable about public transit, but when it goes to ballot there is not much difference between how the poor and middle class vote. Organized local groups of the middle class aren’t any less NIMBY than organized low-income groups, but the middle class more readily dismisses local activists as crackpots and nincompoops. It matters that political activists with more talent and ambition than the typical king of a hill can advance to higher levels of government if they come from favored socioeconomic strata.
The situation with public transit remains profoundly different, because it really does maintain some class-based content. But in general transit cities, even flawed ones like New York, tend to have alignment between working- and middle-class organizations in favor of more investment, and then questions like congestion pricing, bus lanes, bike lanes, and pedestrian plazas cut across class lines and cleave people based on where they work and how they get there. In my Brooklyn bus redesign project, I expect allies to include the bus drivers’ union (the drivers are strong supporters of reforms speeding up buses, since they’d make their work safer and more comfortable) and middle-class reformers and opponents to include working- as well as middle-class drivers (since we’re going to propose stronger bus lane enforcement and street redesigns that prioritize buses). Overall drivers outearn transit riders, but the difference tends to be smaller in cities with even semi-decent public transportation than in places like Los Angeles, where transit is so bad that most riders are people too poor to afford a car.
The result is that it’s very easy on both sides to dismiss the other side as an elite fighting the working class, even in public transit (since a substantial segment of the working class really does drive, even though it’s a smaller segment than in the middle class). In reality, on non-class-based issues it’s hard for the poor to truly be relevant as political actors. In the bus redesign project the union has a voice, but the premise of this post is that the political power of unions is in decline; public transit just happens to be an industry that, owing to its Fordist layout, is unusually friendly to unionization, at least until driverless buses are deployed at scale.
In this context, people should avoid dismissing their opponents as rich. Both sides have vanguards that are mostly middle-class, with some rich people sprinkled around. It’s a fight between two elites, and the YIMBY elite has grounds to portray itself as superior to the NIMBY elite, as it’s defined by skilled professions rather than passive property income, but it’s still a privileged elite and not the poor.
Whither transit and urbanism?
I already see some evidence that support for mass transit and urban growth (which mostly, but not exclusively, means YIMBY) is concentrated in the segments that are underlying where left-liberalism is going. New Left parties, including center-left ones (i.e. D66 and the Danish Social Liberals), are fans of transit. Greens tend to have a small-is-beautiful mentality toward cities, but I believe that this will change soon as green parties become vehicles for more internationalist voters, just as these parties flipped last decade from euroskeptical to europhilic.
What this means is that transit and urbanism as politics are likely to remain important political issues and if anything grow in salience, as they play well to growing cleaves between urban and rural, or between international and local. Whatever happens to specific political parties, these issues will survive.
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.