Where is private rapid transit? Private companies built the London Underground, the els in New York, the Chicago L, the first line of the Tokyo subway. Construction costs are up since then, but so are ridership (in the second half of 1905, London’s Central line carried 23 million people; today, its annual ridership is 289 million, a sixfold increase) and people’s ability to afford higher fares. In most cities transportation works as an interconnected complex system with little room for a private upstart, but this is not universal. In particular, in San Francisco, a subway under Geary wouldn’t need to interface much with BART or Muni. So how come none of the tech companies in California, which have invested in many different kinds of transportation and haven’t shied from reinventing the wheel, seems interested?
Only in the last week, talking to people at the ecomodernism conference I discussed last post, did I fully understand the answer. It’s sobering: investing in transit isn’t going to let a private company dominate the world. The companies that operate trains around the world by contract, like the MTR and Veolia, make money, but much of that is government subsidies for which they have to compete on level field, and even then their margins are low by the standards of Airbnb, let alone older tech firms like Facebook and Google. With good cost control it’s possible to get a positive return on investment, but it’s on the order of 3%*, which is not what a venture capital fund is looking for. It’s looking for ten different ideas, of which eight will flop, one will tread water, and one will make a windfall. Committing billions upfront to something for low returns with extensive regulatory risk is not really on its radar.
Instead of transit, the business world, by which I mean the constellation of VC, tech, tech media, business media, and new investors, is looking at things that can start small. Uber paved the way, making dirty travel by taxi much easier; more recently, companies have imitated the model for green transportation, first dockless bikes and now e-scooters. A tech press that in 2014 was replete with “Uber, but for ___” turned to dockless by 2017 and scooters this year.
The reaction of most of my green transportation Twitter feed to the newer trends is positive. To the extent people express skepticism, it’s almost always rooted in a leftist disdain for private businesses. The only other criticism I’ve heard, from Eric Goldwyn, is that transportation revolutions require dedicated right-of-way, such as car-dominated roads, grade-separated rapid transit, BRT lanes, separate bike lanes, or the extensive corrals of docked bikes. But even this line recognizes the synergy between dockless bikes or scooters and public transit.
However, synergy does not imply similarity. That rail networks can use bikes to extend their station access radii outside urban cores does not imply that transit is like other green transportation, and certainly does not imply that bikes (let alone scooters) are a substitute for transit. They work at completely different scales.
Transit works at a large scale. I know of a small handful of transit cities below 2 million people, like Karlsruhe, Geneva, and Strasbourg, none of which has the per capita rail ridership of Paris. In the 2 million area, transit cities exist, but rely on total systemwide integration, sometimes (e.g. in Zurich) extending to the open national railway network. There exist some edge cases where a single line can be profitable, like Geary in San Francisco, but the single line is not massively profitable. A 3% return is great for a government that sets its own regulations and can borrow at sovereign rates; for a private business facing regulatory risk, this return is too low to bother with.
Everything else works at a small scale. Cars are self-evidently like that: they’re great at getting people to places where few people want to go or at times when few people travel. At midnight, taxis will handily beat the RER on travel time. At midday, they are slower than a delayed Washington Metro train or a local New York City Subway line. The startup costs are low, too: grading and paving a two-lane road supporting 70-80 km/h (less in rough terrain) is cheap. It will have grade crossings, but outside urban areas, stop signs and road hierarchies are good enough.
However, this is equally true of bikes and scooters. This isn’t as obvious as with cars, since bikes are too slow to work in rural areas less dense than Holland. But the same speed limitation ensures bikes are only useful in relatively small cities. The Netherlands is somewhat unique in having compact cities with sharp boundaries, and even there, people mostly use bikes when they can live close to work (the average urban bike speed is 12.4 km/h). At intercity scale, the train and car dominate.
Bikes clearly scale up to dense cities; Amsterdam’s urban typology is mid-rise, dense enough for the purposes of this question. Scooters most likely are the same – their speeds and total amount of space consumed are similar to those of bikes. Their scaling problem is about distance more than capacity. 12.4 km/h is too slow. Buses in New York are almost as fast, and the average bus trip in the city is 3.5 km, with riders typically using the bus to transfer to the subway.
The problem with the American and Chinese business world’s convergence on dockless bikes and scooters as the next big thing is then that, like New York buses, their main use case is to extend a faster mode of transportation, that is, the train. Without the train, they are not worth much. Ofo is realizing this as it pulls out of the US, Israel, and Australia, focusing on its core market of large Chinese cities and only maintaining an international foothold in a few transit cities like Paris and Singapore.
In contrast, the train without the dockless bike or scooter works quite well. Paris had a perfectly functional transit system in 2017, before dockless came in, and even in 2006, before Velib. This means that the train needs to come first in a city that wishes to reduce its car use and shift trips to eco-friendly modes of transportation. Private businesses won’t build it, unless it’s to extend a preexisting system that they already own (as is the case for the private railroads in Japan).
There is no alternative to a functioning state. To a functioning state, a few billion dollars or euros for a metro line is a serious expense, but one that it can take if the ridership projections are adequate. To a functioning state, VCs that talk about changing the world through scooters are a nuisance to be ignored. The scooters can play a role and the regulations on them shouldn’t be too onerous, but their role is secondary, and the predominant effort in planning should go to fixed routes.
*Assume $2 billion to tunnel under Geary from Union Square to the VA Hospital. This is a little more than $200 million per km, which is normal for a developed country that’s not the United States; figure that better cost control than the average cancels out with abnormally high market wages in San Francisco. Operating costs cluster in the $4-7/car-km; BART is at $5.36 as of 2016 with long cars, and a driverless operation could do somewhat better, so figure 150-meter trains at $30/train-km, or $300 for a one-way run. At 18 base tph, 30 peak tph, annual operating costs are in the $80-90 million/year range. Bus ridership on and parallel to Geary is 110,000/weekday today; without making any assumptions on development, 250,000/weekday, or 75 million/year, is reasonable. Muni is full of transfers, so getting clean revenue/trip data is hard, but the subway in New York charges around $2 per trip, and the Richmond District could probably function without free transfers to Muni without taking too much of a hit to revenue, making $150 million/year in revenue reasonable. (150,000,000-90,000,000)/2,000,000,000 = 3%.
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.
There’s a literary trope in which an ambitious young man goes to work in the mines for a few years to earn an income with which to go back home. In the US it’s bundled into narratives of the Wild West (where incomes were very high until well into the 20th century), but it also exists elsewhere. For example, in The House of the Spirits, the deuterotagonist (who owns an unprofitable hacienda) works in the mines for a few years to earn enough money to ask to marry a society woman. The tradeoff is that working in the mines is unpleasant and dangerous, which is why the owners have to pay workers more money.
More recently, the same trope has applied in the oil industry. People who work on oil rigs, which as a rule are placed in remote locations, get paid premiums. Remote locations with oil have high incomes and high costs in North America, but even the Soviet Union paid people who freely migrated to Siberia or the far north extra. The high wages in this industry are especially remarkable given that the workers are typically not university-educated or (in the US) unionized; they cover for poor living conditions, and a hostile environment especially for families.
I bring up this background because of conditions that I’ve heard second-hand in San Francisco. When I first heard of university-educated adults living several to a bedroom, I assumed that it was a result of extremely high rents and insufficient incomes. But no: I am told a reasonably transit-accessible two-bedroom in San Francisco proper is $5,500 a month at market rate, which is affordable to a mid-level programmer at a large tech firm living alone or to entry-level programmers (or non-tech professionals) living one to a bedroom.
And yet, I’ve heard of Google programmers living two to three to a bedroom in Bernal Heights, not even that close to BART. I’ve also heard a story of people near the Ashby BART stop in Berkeley renting out their front porch; the person sleeping the porch was not a coder, but some of the people living inside the house were.
I have not talked to the people in these situations, only to friends in Boston who live one person (or one couple) to a bedroom, even though they too can afford more. As I understand it, they treat the Bay Area as like working in the mines. They earn a multiple of the income they would in other industries with their education and skills, and have no particular ties to the region. (Some East Coasters have taken to use the expression “drain to the Bay,” complaining that friends in tech often end up leaving Boston for San Francisco.) The plan is to save money and then retire in their 30s, or take a lower-paying job in a lower-cost city and start a family there.
Overcrowding is not normal in San Francisco. The American Community Survey says that 6.7% of city housing units have more than one person per room (look up the table “percent of occupied housing units with 1.01 or more occupants per room”); it’s actually below state average, which is 8.3%. Some very poor people presumably have more overcrowding, especially illegal immigrants (who the census tends to undercount). Figuring out overcrowding by demographic from census data is hard: the ACS reports crowding levels by public use microdata area (PUMA), a unit of at least 100,000 people, and the highest crowding in San Francisco (13.7%) is in the SoMa and Potrero PUMA, which covers both the fully gentrified SoMa area and poorer but gentrifying areas of the Mission. But it’s conceivable that crowding levels among tech workers are comparable to those of the working-class residents of the Mission that they displace.
People endure this overcrowding only when they absolutely need to for work. In a situation of extremely high production amenities (that is, a tech cluster that formed in Silicon Valley and is progressively taking over the entire Bay Area), comfort is not a priority. Joel Garreau’s The Nine Nations of North America describes people in San Francisco viewing the city as utopian for its progressive lifestyle, temperate climate, and pretty landscape. Today, the middle class views the city as a dystopia of long commutes, openly antisocial behavior, human feces on sidewalks, poor schools, and car break-ins.
Moreover, the present housing situation makes sure the city’s comfort levels (that is, consumption amenities) will keep deteriorating. The tech industry so far keeps growing, adding more people to a city that’s not building enough housing to accommodate this growth. High incomes are paying for public services through increased sales tax receipts, but the money has to then be spent on extra services to people rendered homeless by rising rents and on ever higher salaries for teachers to keep up with living costs for families. Overall, a homogeneously rich place like some Silicon Valley suburbs has low public-sector costs, but during the decades long process of gentrification and replacement of the working class by the middle class costs can rise even amidst rising incomes.
The mines are not a stable community. They are not intended to be a community; they’re intended to extract resources from the ground, regardless of whether these resources are tangible like oil or intangible like tech. There may be some solidarity among people who’ve had that experience when it comes to specifics about the industry (which they tend to support, viewing it as the source of their income) or maybe the occasional issue of work conditions. But it’s not the same as loyalty to the city or the region.
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.
Following up on my last post’s promise to tackle both cultural theory of risk and cultural cringe, here is my take on the latter issue.
It is normal for people to have some degree of national pride and fervor. Cultural cringe refers to the opposite trend: when, in some circumstances, people in certain countries feel national shame and develop an inferiority complex. The term cultural cringe itself was coined by A. A. Phillips in 1950, describing Australia’s inferiority complex toward Britain in literary fields: Australians thought their literature was too provincial and perhaps too incomprehensible to the British readers, and as a result many authors were uncomfortable making the local references celebrated in the literary canon of Britain, France, Russia, the US, etc. This notion has been generalized elsewhere. Amos Oz says he felt uncomfortable writing books in such a peripheral country as Israel until he read Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, showing how literature of and by the provinces can thrive.
From its origin in Australian literature, the idea of the cultural cringe has expanded to other fields, including the law, social relations, technology, and business. It seems endemic in former colonies, especially ones that are not rich. One writer in Nigeria argues how best practices thinking is cultural cringe by giving an example of a recent legal importation that turns out to already exist in traditional Yoruba law. In Australia itself, political scientist L. J. Hume pushed back against the notion that there is cultural cringe, arguing it is true of literature but not economics of other fields. But in mass culture, the vast majority of countries, both developed and developing, consider American film and television superior to their own and have domestic industries that focus on arthouse films or low-budget flicks.
Cultural cringe in legal, political, or technological fields remains endemic in many other developed countries. In one recent example, Emmanuel Macron said France is inherently resistant to change and (by implication) ungovernable, comparing it negatively with Denmark. In business, 1980s-era America was replete with books telling managers how to think like a Japanese or German, which trend ended when the Japanese lost decade and the economic crisis of German unification made these countries less fashionable.
Lying in the intersection of business, politics, and technology, urbanism and transportation are amenable to analysis using this concept. As in the Nigerian example, the third world tends to have too much cultural cringe and too much faith in the merits of importing first-world methods. Conversely, the United States (and to a large extent Canada) today is resistant to outside ideas and does not know how to be a periphery.
Urban layout: there’s a world outside Europe
During the SB 827 debate in California, supporters reassured restive city residents that the density the bill promoted – up to 7 floors right next to transit lines and up to 5 a little farther away – was gentle. “Paris density,” they said. Everyone likes Paris as a tourist. Everyone recognizes Paris as good urbanism.
There is very little cultural cringe in the United States – on the contrary, Americans are solipsistic in every field. However, one of very few exceptions is that the American middle class vacations in Europe and is familiar with how walkable European cities are. (It’s even referenced on Mad Men when a minor character goes on walks in their car-oriented New York suburb.) Paris is the largest and richest city Americans of a certain wealth and education level can be expected to be familiar with and like, but by the same token the YIMBYs could mention Barcelona, Amsterdam, and Rome.
But it’s useful to think of what was not mentioned. Certainly not Hong Kong or Dubai, which seem to be mentioned almost exclusively negatively in Western discourse. Not Tokyo, which Westerners are much less likely to visit to the point that the Western blogs talking about Japanese urbanism (like Urban Kchoze) are notable for it. Nothing in the middle-income world, including some old cities (like Mexico City and Istanbul) that have building height, street width, and stylistic variation that first-world urbanists would approve of (and do if they’ve been there).
In this situation, the invocation of famous European cities feels less like a dialogue and more like an attempt to induce cringe defensively, to make people feel less attached to their cities’ American auto-oriented character. In effect, it’s an attack on “it will change the character of our neighborhood,” a line that’s much less common in countries that are used to thinking of themselves as inferior to whatever they consider the metropolitan core (such as the first world writ large in Israel, or the former colonial master in ex-colonies).
Transportation: a little cringe is good, but not too much
In the developing world, there is extensive cringe. Without using that term, I suggested it as a reason behind high construction costs in the third world, which are similar to the costs of the first world today and several times as high as those of the first world from back when its income levels were comparable to those of subway-building third-world countries, in the early 1900s. In Latin America and China, development is more inward-looking, and China in particular learned to build subways from the USSR in the 1950s, not a rich country. In former colonies, there seems to be a greater willingness to import methods from either the former colonizer or from countries that aggressively invest in third-world infrastructure, like Japan and China; the result is very high construction costs for projects for which I have data in India and other countries of that development level.
In some cases, like India’s high-speed rail program, the country imports technology wholesale, and Japan (or China) may insist on an exact copy of its methods. As it is, Japan refuses to call Taiwan High-Speed Rail a Shinkansen system even though it runs Shinkansen rolling stock: construction methods were European, so Japan only calls THSR a high-speed rail system using Shinkansen-based technology.
However, decisions like India’s standard-gauge metro lines happen even in indigenous systems. Delhi Metro uses standard gauge not for some turnkey technological import, but purely because it feels more modern whereas Indian mainline trains feel dinghy and dangerous. Evidently, Delhi Metro electrification is 25 kV, which is standard on mainline trains but unheard of on first-world metros; modifying subways for high-voltage electrification requires expensive concrete pouring, since high-voltage catenary requires more generous clearances to avoid arcing, whereas modifying rail gauge is routine since the European vendors are used to selling to broad-gauge Finland and Spain and the Japanese ones are used to their country’s multitude of gauges.
And if India errs on the side of too much shiny adoption of foreign technology, the US errs on the side of adopting too little. Americans do not think their country is inferior. American authors do not think they need to experience another country or speak another language before they write. There was a time when the American business community felt outcompeted, but today it feels like it’s at the top of the world, Silicon Valley having long left Japanese corporations in the dust; I stopped seeing complaints that American cars were inferior to German and Japanese ones not long after Obama’s auto industry bailout.
The American policy sphere seems especially constrained. There is some cultural cringe toward London, leading thinktanks like the Regional Plan Association and TransitCenter to overlearn from London’s peculiarities (like the Oyster fare cap and contactless credit card payment), but not much toward Continental Europe and practically none toward Japan. Instead, the attitude toward non-English-speaking countries is one of dismissal. When Richard Mlynarik pointed out to a Caltrain official that Japanese trains turned much faster at terminals than Caltrain thought possible, the official replied, “Asians don’t value life the way we do.”
If India fails to understand where its own methods could be superior despite being a peripheral country, the United States fails to understand that it’s a peripheral country in the first place. Transportation innovation rarely happens in North America. It happens in Western Europe and Japan, and to some extent in developing countries that have less cultural cringe than former colonies, such as Brazil and Colombia and their invention of BRT or Colombia, Bolivia, and Mexico’s use of aerial gondolas in mountainous suburban areas.
Urban development: you are not New York
I’ve been reading Aaron Renn’s blog, the Urbanophile, since maybe 2008. At the time he was still in Indianapolis, in (I believe) management consulting, writing about how his city was trying to become culturally and economically bigger than it was, and sometimes but not always succeeding. A recurrent theme in his writings has been that Midwestern American cities are desperate for development. They keep saying they need more creative people, more venture capital, or whatever else is in vogue. (In contrast, he says, Rhode Island, where he lived later, doesn’t even understand how peripheral it is.)
However, the way the Midwestern cities he focuses on try to attract this elusive development is through cheap copying. An old post of his I can no longer find contrasts world-class Indianapolis with world class in Indianapolis. The former involves investing in some city institution to make it world-class, or more realistically notable enough that boosters can call it world-class with a straight face. The latter involves inviting a starchitect or another person with international cachet (such as Richard Florida) to build something in Indianapolis that’s notable and is exactly as notable as what this person might build in any other city of that size, with no particular connection to the city itself.
In the transportation field, many American cities build mixed-traffic downtown streetcars and beam with pride if they get 4,000 riders per weekday. Often this mentality overrides any attempt to provide services to city residents: thus, the streetcar in Detroit is not integrated with the city’s bus network, and in fact a bus runs on the same street, on different lanes from the streetcar. This isn’t about some mythical preference for rail over bus: these cities build whatever they hear is in vogue and will get them noticed by New York media, whether it’s peak-only commuter rail, a downtown streetcar, a limited bus that calls itself BRT, or now a bus network redesign around untimed 15-minute frequencies.
Cringe vs. dialogue
It’s important to distinguish dialogue with a foreign culture and cultural cringe toward it. One difference is that cringe implies infatuation; however, infatuation can also develop among immigrants who are steeped in the metropole’s culture after having lived there even while maintaining ties to the old country. A bigger difference is the extent of two-way dialogue. Israelis use the expression “unbroken country” to refer to the mythical average first-world country in which you can get things done without having to tell government bureaucrats that you served in the military with their bosses; however, few have lived abroad long enough to know the details of what makes these countries tick better.
With limited knowledge of the core, the periphery can worship at the feet of the few people who do know, which leads to political bias. This is where moral panics of no-go zones come from: there is an Israeli television show purporting to portray how things are in Europe, but any connection between Belleville (or other racially diverse Paris neighborhoods) and what they depict is completely incidental. In that case, the bias is right-wing. In the opposite direction, left-wing bias can occur when American liberals and socialists are enamored by European health care and education systems and elide a thousand details that distinguish them from American renditions of single-payer health care or free college tuition.
But the biased reaction is only common in places that care little about how to govern. “Well, actually Tower Hamlets is a no-go zone” is not a blueprint for reducing nonwhite immigration to the United States or Israel. Instead, in the policy sphere a more common reaction is a shrug. Dialogue is threatening: the people capable of it are typically not the top pundits on this issue. Instead, it’s more common to aggressively dismiss knowledge that’s hard to access, even among people who at the same time invoke the cringe. In Israel it takes the form of self-denigrating lines like “this is Israel, not Finland.” Cultural cringe leads to lower expectations this way.
When Phillips criticized Australian authors who deracinated their writing to appeal to British taste, he was implicitly saying that Australians couldn’t root their literature in British experience. Oz, similarly, felt constrained about writing when he was young because living in Israel, he could not root his books in Paris, Milan, and other flashy cities whose books he devoured. The economic (or legal, or technological) analogue of this observation is that the reason there is cultural cringe is that people in peripheral areas (which in transportation include the United States) are too unfamiliar with the core and cannot dialogue with it the way people in different parts of the core can.
Urbanism is not literature. One doesn’t need extraordinary sensitivity and a lifetime (short as it may be) in a culture to produce very good insights about transportation, housing, or municipal governance. It’s possible to break out of the cringe by acquiring detailed knowledge of how the core operates. In the case of the third world and subway construction, it means learning enough about current and historical construction methods to be able to propose ways to build infrastructure at low costs commensurate with these cities’ low wages; in the case of the United States, it means learning enough about what makes European, Japanese, Latin American, etc. urbanism tick that it can be adopted domestically.
Urbanism is not literature in a far more important sense: there really are better and worse traditions there. It’s not enough to have pride in what you have when what you have is a third-world city where the poor don’t have running water, or for that matter an American city that would shut down instantly were gas prices to rise to levels necessary to stop global warming. Learning from the core is crucial. It’s just equally important to do so through dialogue and not through the ignorant self-denigration that is cultural cringe.
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.
Last year, I saw a tip by the Metropolitan Police: if you witness any crime on a London bus and wish to report it later, you should tell the police the number on your Oyster card and then they’ll already be able to use the number to track which bus you rode and then get the names and bank accounts of all other passengers on that bus. Londoners seem to accept this surveillance as a fact of life; closed-circuit TV cameras are everywhere, even in front of the house where Orwell lived and wrote. Across the Pond, transit agencies salivate over the ability to track passenger movements through smartcards and contactless credit cards, which is framed either as the need for data or as a nebulous anti-crime measure. Fortunately, free countries have some alternative models.
In Germany, the population is more concerned about privacy. Despite being targeted by a string of communist terrorist attacks in the 1970s and 80s, it maintained an open system, without any faregates at any train station (including subways); fare enforcement in German cities relies on proof of payment with roving inspectors. Ultimately, this indicates the first step in a transit fare payment system that ensures people pay their fares without turning the payment cards into tracking devices. While Germany resists contactless payment, there are ways to achieve its positive features even with the use of more modern technology than paper tickets.
The desired features
A transit fare payment system should have all of the following features:
- Integration: free transfers between different transit vehicles and different modes should be built into the system, including buses, urban rail, and regional rail.
- Scalability: the system should scale to large metro areas with variable fares, and not just to compact cities with flat fares, which are easier to implement. It should also permit peak surcharges if the transit agency wishes to implement them.
- No vendor lock: switching to a different equipment manufacturer should be easy, without locking to favored contractors.
- Security: it should be difficult to forge a ticket.
- Privacy: it should not be possible to use the tickets to track passengers in most circumstances.
- Hospitality: visitors and occasional riders should be able to use the system with ease, with flexible options for stored value (including easy top-up options) and daily, weekly, and monthly passes, and no excessive surcharges.
Smartcard and magnetic card systems are very easy to integrate across operators; all that it takes is political will, or else there may be integrated fare media without integrated fares themselves, as in the Bay Area (Clipper can store value but there are no free transfers between agencies). Scalability is easy on the level of software; the hardest part about it is that if there are faregates then every station must have entry and exit gates, and those may be hard to retrofit. Existing smartcard technologies vary in vendor lock, but the system the US and Britain are standardizing on, contactless credit cards, is open. The real problem is in protecting privacy, which is simply not a goal in tracking-obsessed Anglo-American agencies.
The need for hospitality
Hospitality may seem like a trivial concern, but it is important in places with many visitors, which large transit cities are. Moreover, universal design for hospitality, such as easily recognizable locations for topping up stored value, is also of use to regular riders who run out of money and need to top up. Making it easy to buy tickets without a local bank account is of use to both visitors and low-income locals without full-service bank accounts. In the US, 7% of households are unbanked and another 20% are underbanked; I have no statistics for other countries, but in Sweden banks will not even give debit cards to people with outstanding debts, which suggests to me that some low-income Swedes may not have active banking cards.
New York’s MetroCard has many faults, but it succeeds on hospitality better than any other farecard system I know of: it is easy to get the cards from machines, there is only a $1 surcharge per card, and season tickets are for 7 or 30 days from activation rather than a calendar week or month. At the other end of the hospitality scale, Navigo requires users to bring a passport photo and can only load weekly and monthly passes (both on the calendar); flexible 5-day passes cost more than a calendar weekly pass.
In fact, the main reason not to use paper tickets is that hospitality is difficult with monthly passes printed on paper. Before the Compass Card debacle, Vancouver had paper tickets with calendar monthly passes, each in a different color to make it easy for the driver to see if a passenger was flashing a current or expired pass. The tickets could be purchased at pharmacies and convenience stores but not at SkyTrain stations, which only sold single-ride tickets.
ID cards and privacy
The Anglosphere resists ID cards. The Blair cabinet’s attempt to introduce national ID cards was a flop, and the Britons I was reading at the time (such as the Yorkshire Ranter) were livid. And yet, ID cards provide security and privacy. Passports are extremely difficult to forge. Israel’s internal ID cards are quite difficult to forge as well; there are occasional concerns about voter fraud, but nothing like the routine use of fake drivers’ licenses to buy drinks so common in American college culture.
At the same time, in countries that are not ruled by people who think 1984 was an uplifting look at the future, ID cards protect privacy. The Yorkshire Ranter is talking about the evils of biometric databases, and Israeli civil liberties advocates have mounted the same attack against the government’s attempt at a database. But German passports, while biometric, store data exclusively on the passport, not in any centralized database. ID cards designed around proving that you paid your fare don’t even have to use biometrics; the security level is lower than with biometrics, but the failure mode is that the occasional forger can ride without paying $100 a month (which is much less than the cost of the forgery), not that a ring of terrorists can enter the country.
Navigo’s ID cards are not hospitable, but allowing passengers to ride with any valid state-issued ID would be. Visitors either came in from another country and therefore have passports, drove in and therefore have drivers’ licenses, or flew in domestically and therefore still have ID cards. Traveling between cities without ID is still possible here and in other free European countries, but everyone has national ID cards anyway; the ID problem is mainly in the US with its low passport penetration (and secondarily Canada and Australia), and the US has no intercity public transit network to speak of outside the Northeast Corridor.
What this means is that the best way to prevent duplication of transit passes is to require ID cards. Any ID card must be acceptable, including a passport (best option), a national ID card (second best), or an American driver’s license (worst).
Getting rid of the faregates
There are approximately three first-world Western cities that have any business having faregates on their urban rail networks: London, Paris, New York. Even there, I am skeptical that the faregates are truly necessary. The Metro’s crowd control during the World Cup victory celebration was not great. New York’s faregates sometimes cause backups to the point that passengers just push the emergency doors open to exit, and then rely on an informal honor system so that passengers don’t use the open emergency doors to sneak in without payment.
Evidently, the Munich S-Bahn funnels all traffic through a single two-track city center tunnel and has 840,000 weekday users, without faregates. Only one or two trunk lines are busier in Paris, the RER A with about a million, and possibly the RER B and D if one considers them part of the same trunk (they share a tunnel but no platforms); in London, only the Central, Victoria, and Jubilee lines are busier, none by very much; in New York, none of the two-track trunks is as busy. Only the overcrowded lines in Tokyo (and a handful in Osaka, Beijing, and Shanghai) are clearly so busy that barrier-free proof-of-payment fare enforcement is infeasible.
The main reason not to use faregates is that they are maintenance-intensive and interfere with free passenger flow. But they also require passengers to insert fare media, such as a paper ticket or a contactless card, at every station. With contactless cards the system goes well beyond exact numbers of users by station, which can be obtained with good accuracy even on barrier-free systems like Transilien using occasional counts, and can track individual users’ movements. This is especially bad on systems that do not have flat fares (because then passengers tag on and off) and on systems that involve transferring with buses or regional trains and not just the subway (because then passengers have to tag on and off at the transfer points too).
Best industry practice here is then barrier-free systems. To discourage fare evasion, the agency should set up regular inspections (on moving vehicles, with unarmed civilian inspectors), but at the same time incentivize season passes. Season passes are also good for individual privacy, since all the system registers is that the passenger loaded up a monthly pass at a certain point, but beyond that can’t track where the passenger goes. All cities that have faregates except for the largest few should get rid of them and institute POP, no matter the politics.
Tickets and ID cards
In theory, the ID card can literally be the ticket. The system can store in a central database that Alon Levy, passport number [redacted], loaded a monthly pass valid for all of Ile-de-France on 2018-08-16, and the inspector can verify it by swiping my machine-readable passport. But in practice, this requires making sure the ticket machine or validator can instantly communicate this to all roving fare inspectors.
An alternative approach is to combine paper tickets with ID cards. The paper ticket would just say “I am Alon Levy, passport number [redacted], and I have a pass valid for all of Ile-de-France until 2018-09-14,” digitally signed with the code of the machine where I validated the ticket. This machine could even be a home printer, via online purchase, or a QR code displayed on a phone. Designing such a system to be cryptographically secure is easy; the real problem is preventing duplication, which is where the ID card comes into play. Without an ID card, it’s still possible to prevent duplication, but only via a cumbersome system requiring the passenger to validate the ticket again on every vehicle (perhaps even every rail car) when getting on or off.
The same system could handle stored value. However, without printing a new ticket every time a passenger validates, which would be cumbersome, it would have to fall back on communication between the validator and the handheld readers used by the inspectors. But fortunately, such communication need not be instant. Since passengers prepay with stored value, the ticket itself, saying “I am Alon Levy, passport number [redacted], and I loaded 10 trips,” is already valid, and the only communication required is when passengers run out of money; moreover, single-use tickets have a validity period of 1-2 hours, so any validator-to-inspector communication lag time of less than the validity period will be enough to ensure not to validate expired tickets. The same system can also be used to have a daily cap as in Oyster, peak surcharges, and even generally-undesirable station-to-station rather than zonal fares.
It’s even possible to design a system without single-use tickets at all. Zurich comes close, in that a 24-hour pass costs twice as much as a single-use ticket (valid for just an hour), so passengers never have any reason to get a single-use ticket. In this system there would not be any stored value, just passes for a day or more, valid in prescribed zones, with printable tickets if regular riders in one zone occasionally travel elsewhere.
The upshot here is that advanced technology is only required for printing and reading QR codes. The machines do not need to be any more complicated than ATMs or Bitcoin ATMs (insert money, receive a Bitcoin slip of paper); I don’t know how much Bitcoin ATMs cost, but regular ATMs are typically $2,000-3,000, and the most expensive are $8,000, unlike the $75,000 ticket machines used at New York SBS stations. The moving parts are software and not hardware, and can use multi-vendor cryptographic protocols. In effect, the difficult part of verifying that there is no duplication or forgery is offloaded to the state ID system.
When I first looked at construction costs, I looked exclusively at developed countries. Eventually I realized that the difference in average costs between rich and poor countries is small. But then I noticed a different pattern in the third world: some places, like India, Bangladesh, Nigeria, and Indonesia, spend much more than China does. Why is that? While I’ve had a bunch of different explanations over the years, I believe today that the difference concerns local expertise versus reliance on first-world consultants.
The facts, as far as I can tell, are as follows:
- Construction costs in China are about $250 million per km, a little more than the average for Continental Europe.
- Construction costs in post-communist Europe are all over, but are the same range as in Western Europe. Bulgaria is pretty cheap; in this post I bring up a line that costs around $200 million/km in today’s money but other extensions built this decade are cheaper, including one outer one at $50 million/km. In contrast, Warsaw’s Line 2 is quite expensive.
- Latin American construction costs have the same range as Europe, but it seems more compressed – I can’t find either $50 million/km lines or $500 million/km ones.
- Africa and the parts of Asia that used to be colonies have high construction costs: India and Egypt are expensive, and here I give two expensive examples from Bangladesh and Indonesia. The Lagos Metro is spending subway money on an el in the middle of a wide road and is reminiscent of American costs.
- When the first world had comparable income levels to those of the third world today, in the early 20th century, its construction costs were far lower, around $30-50 million per underground km. First-world cost growth in the last 100 years has mostly tracked income growth – it’s been somewhat faster in New York and somewhat slower in Paris, but on average it’s been similar.
For a while, I had to contend with the possibility that Chinese autocracy is just better at infrastructure than Indian (or Bangladeshi, or Indonesian, or Nigerian) democracy. The nepotism and corruption in India are globally infamous, and it’s still well-governed compared with Indonesia and Nigeria, which have personality-based politics. But then, in the developed world, authoritarian states aren’t more efficient at construction (Singapore’s construction costs are high); moreover, post-communist democracies like Bulgaria and Romania manage low construction costs.
What I instead think the issue is is where the state’s infrastructure planning comes from. China learned from the USSR and subsequently added a lot of domestic content (such as the use of cut-and-cover in some situations) fitting its particular needs; as a result, its construction costs are reasonable. The post-communist world learned from the USSR in general. There’s a wide range, with Romania near one end and Poland near the other, but the range is comparable to that of Western Europe today. Overall it seems that Eastern Europe can competently execute methods geared to the middle-income world (as the second world was in the Cold War) as well as, thanks to assistance from the EU, the high-income world.
Latin America, too, uses domestically-developed methods. The entire region is infamous in the economic development literature for having begun an inward economic turn in the Great Depression, cutting itself off from global markets and generally stagnating. Government functions are likewise done domestically or maybe outsourced to domestic contractors (and if international ones are involved, it’s in construction, not planning). Evidently, Latin America developed bus rapid transit, a mode of transportation optimally designed for countries with low incomes (so paying armies of bus drivers is cheaper than building rail tracks) and relatively strong currencies (so importing buses from richer countries isn’t ruinously expensive).
The situation in the ex-colonies is completely different. Even relatively protectionist ones outsource much of their planning to the developed world or increasingly to China, out of a combination of cultural cringe and shortage of domestic capital. The metro lines I have data for in India, Bangladesh, and Indonesia all involve Japanese technology and planning, with no attempt to adapt the technology to local conditions. So insistent is Japan on following its domestic recipe exactly that India’s high-speed rail construction is using standard gauge rather than broad gauge and Shinaknsen-size trains rather than larger Indian trains (which are 3.7 meters wide and can fit people 6-abreast). Elsewhere, China contributes capital and planning as part of the Belt and Road Initiative, and then its methods are geared toward middle income and not low income.
The correct way for countries in the per capita income range of Nigeria, India, and Bangladesh to build subways is to open up their main roads, which are often very wide, and put in four tracks in a cut-and-cover scheme similar to that of early-20th century New York. If they can elevate the tracks instead, they should use the same methods used to build Lines 2 and 6 in Paris in the early 20th century, which use concrete columns and are quiet enough that, unlike in New York, people can carry a conversation under the viaduct while a train passes. If the line needs to deviate from roads, then the city should buy property and carve up a new street (as New York did with Seventh Avenue South and Sixth Avenue in the Village) or else learn to implement late Victorian and Edwardian London’s techniques of deep boring.
However, actually implementing Belle Epoque construction methods requires particular knowledge that international consultants don’t have. Most of these consultants’ income comes from the first world, where wages are so high that the optimal construction methods involve extensive automation, using machinery rather than battalions of navvies with shovels. The technical support required for a tunnel boring machine is relatively easy in a rich country with a deep pool of qualified engineers and mechanics and a nightmare in a poor one where all such expertise has to be imported or trained from scratch. Thus, the consultants are likely to recommend the first-world methods they are familiar with, and if they do try to adapt to low wages, they may make mistakes since they have to reinvent ideas or read historical sources (which they are typically not trained to do – they’re consultants, not historians).
The result is that even though open economies tend to grow faster overall, economies with a history of closure tend to do better on this specific topic, where international consultants are not very useful for the needs of the developing world. India in particular needs to get better at indigenizing its construction and avoid mindlessly copying the first world out of cultural cringe, because even though it is almost a middle-income country by now, its wages remain a fraction of those of North America, Western Europe, and Japan, and its future growth trajectory is very different, requiring extensive adaptations. Both the overall extent of planning and the specific construction methods must be tailored to local conditions, and so far India seems bad at both (hence the undersized, expensive high-speed trains).
The conversation about YIMBY and zoning seems to be centered around San Francisco. Googling YIMBY Guardian gives me two articles about Northern California out of the top three results (the third is an op-ed about London). But the real origin of YIMBY is New York. The term started with New York YIMBY, which was always a real estate magazine rather than an activist movement. San Francisco YIMBY adopted it and intended to publish under the umbrella of New York YIMBY before eventually going its own way, buoyed by SF YIMBY founder Sonja Trauss’s strong political organizing skills, which are much better than those of the New York YIMBY founder. However, for the most part the goals and actions of YIMBY are still based on New York-centric assumptions, which may not apply elsewhere.
This does not mean that YIMBY is a New York imposition. On the contrary. But some of the specific details come from New York’s context. They port more easily to Paris, Tokyo, and London than to San Francisco, Boston, and other American cities.
Commercial versus residential upzoning
I’ve argued for commercialization before. Near-CBD residential neighborhoods are prime locations for high-end retail and office uses, leading to expansion or even migration of the CBD. Midtown historically arose this way, beginning with commercialization around Fifth Avenue, and so did the Paris CBD, which is well to the west of the historic core; in London the primary CBD is still the City, but the West End has many jobs as well.
However, in practice, New York needs residential development more than commercial development. There is demand for new office space, particularly from the tech industry, but this is a minority of the city’s employment. In contrast, residential rents are very high, and there is very little construction permitted; according to data from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the average over the last few years has been about 2.5 annual units permitted per 1,000 residents (in Tokyo the average is 10.7). As a result, New York’s activist YIMBY group, called Open New York, focuses on residential and mixed projects and not on purely commercial ones.
When a city does not allow the construction of office space in or near its center, jobs are displaced to sprawling suburbs. This is routine all over the US, where high-rise CBDs are surrounded immediately by residential neighborhoods with little political will for commercialization, and thus people work either in the CBD or in auto-centric suburban office parks. San Francisco is especially prone to this trend, since the origin of the tech industry is not in the city but in the office parks stretching from Redwood City to San Jose. If Uber, Airbnb, Slack, and Twitter don’t have room to grow in SoMa they will move to a suburb hungry for sales tax revenues. Nonetheless, SF YIMBY has opposed the plan to add office space to SoMa on the grounds that residential space is of prime importance.
The politics of rent stabilization
New York has rent control (which means the real rent is fixed) on a small number of apartments, all continuously occupied since 1971, mostly in rich Manhattan neighborhoods. It has wider rent stabilization in a large (though not overwhelming) fraction of rental units, which permits some real rent increases, determined politically every year but averaging about 1%. This status quo has many problems, chief of which is that the details of rent stabilization incentivize harassing tenants into leaving or looking for tenants who’d only stay for a short period of time. However, the status quo is politically stable.
The importance of this is that YIMBYs in New York don’t have to take a position on rent stabilization, or on related issues like inclusionary zoning (moreover, New York’s high real estate profits ensure that inclusionary zoning, which is a tax on revenue, has less impact than in cheaper cities like Portland, where the same tax on revenue represents a much higher tax on profits). SF YIMBY adopts this approach, but this comes into tension with California’s politics in which populists demand more rent control, even applying it to new buildings.
YIMBYs can’t honestly support rent control on new buildings and expect the private sector to keep providing housing. In New York it’s irrelevant because nobody calls for such policy, but San Francisco has a more active leftier-than-thou community (as does Paris, but this is expressed in museum exhibits about Che Guevara and not in rent control on new buildings).
The frontier of the Millennial middle class
When the middle class moves into a low-income area it’s called gentrification. However, the same trend can be observed in areas that are already well-off, including the neighborhood I grew up in, Tel Aviv’s Old North. The Old North was never poor: it was built in the 1930s and early 40s and the initial population was middle-class German immigrants fleeing Hitler. Nonetheless, by the 1980s the area was unfashionable, and the retail on the main commercial drag, Dizengoff Street, declined in favor of newer shopping malls. But since the late 1990s, younger people have moved in, making the area more in vogue, often renovating old buildings from the 1930s (which are a UNESCO heritage site, even though locally they’re viewed as dinghy). The demographic entering the neighborhood is the same as the one that gentrifies poorer neighborhoods (such as Florentin), so it’s worthwhile to view this as part of the same trend.
I bring this up because in New York this trend of a middle-class frontier includes a wide swath of neighborhoods, some poor and gentrifying (Harlem, Washington Heights, Bushwick, Lower East Side) but others already comfortable (Astoria, Upper West Side, Morningside Heights, South Brooklyn). Open New York has a policy of focusing on supporting construction in areas that are already rich and gentrified, to avoid the risk of gentrification in places like Washington Heights. As a strategy, it makes sense for New York, as well as for other city whose frontier of young middle-class urban transplants is mostly in well-off areas, like Chicago, Boston, and Paris. It’s weaker in San Francisco specifically, since there the frontier is largely the Mission, where gentrification is unavoidable.
The role of the suburbs
New York may be permitting only 2.5 housing units per 1,000 residents every year, but its in-state suburbs build even less. Westchester’s average between 2011 and 2017 is 0.9, Nassau County’s is 0.7, and Suffolk County’s is 0.8. Moreover, the dynamic of suburban white flight is well-understood around the region, and criticizing suburban-style exclusionary zoning is easy from within the city. There is animosity between the city and the suburbs, a feature shared with many areas in the American Rust Belt, and this makes it easier to demand more building in the city. (In the other direction, it’s easier to demand more construction in the city if there are no city-suburb social tensions at all.)
In the American Sunbelt, the situation is different. There is less city-suburb animosity – often the boundaries of the city include de facto suburban areas while excluding dense areas. (This is to some extent true of New York but the examples are all on the New Jersey side, which New Yorkers ignore.) Just saying “we need more housing” doesn’t sound progressive. What’s more, even in places like Houston and Austin, the city proper votes liberal and wants internal political movements to align on the left, let alone in California; in these areas, upzoning sounds like a bad deregulation.
Counterexample: single-family zoning
In exactly one respect, YIMBY groups in North America have proposed something that departs from the movement’s New York origins: they call for replacing single-family zoning with what they call missing middle, such as townhouses with two to four apartments per building. Missing middle is in turn relevant mostly to Canada, where there are mid- and high-rise neighborhoods and single-family neighborhoods and not much in between. In the US, everything is missing except single-family and CBD high-rises.
In New York, of course, there is no missing middle – for one, there are rowhouses, which would count as missing middle elsewhere. But more to the point, these rowhouses and townhouses are on the outer margins of the subway’s coverage area (such as Southern Brooklyn) or even beyond it (such as Kew Gardens Hills), and aren’t where there is the most demand. The demand is for converting surviving low-rise buildings in inner neighborhoods to mid- and high-rise apartment buildings, so this is what Open New York and urbanists in general focus on.
Which cities are like New York when it comes to YIMBY?
New York’s situation is the same as in the European cities I’m familiar with. Missing middle density in Paris happens on the outer branches of the RER network, whereas the real demand is for more housing in the city and a handful of rich inner suburbs in Hauts-de-Seine, and the same is true in Stockholm, London, Zurich, and other expensive European cities, even though they’re less dense than Paris so they might have rowhouses (like London) or missing middle density that needs to be replaced with mid-rise (like Zurich).
The politics in New York, where it’s easier to sidestep concerns about gentrification by just focusing on upzoning rich areas, is also similar to that of cities that never experienced white flight. This includes nearly all major cities in the developed world outside the US; the biggest exception I know of is Brussels, where the politics is complicated by the fact that middle-class residents are often affiliated with the EU and many only stay temporarily.
Commercialization of near-CBD areas is also more common in Europe, so there is less need to argue about that specifically. Zoning is also looser in the sense of permitting small offices, such as those of doctors, lawyers, and accountants, in residential zones. Thus the focus is exclusively housing, especially in the largest cities, i.e. London and Paris, where traffic congestion is such that there is less risk of job sprawl than in (say) Stockholm.
Finally, London and Paris have no rent control. Both have political controversies around this – Paris passed rent control but it was stricken down by the courts on administrative grounds, and in London some people are calling for rent control – but the current status quo is market-rate. The European cities I’m familiar with that have rent control do not have vacancy decontrol, unlike in the US, but instead have long waitlists, measured in years and in some extreme Stockholm examples even decades, so YIMBYs can more readily point to long waitlists as evidence that more housing construction is needed.
New York’s specific social issues are much more American than European, but the way they interact with its urban layout and transportation network is unique, partly because it has decent public transit unlike anywhere else in North America and partly because it’s just bigger. This interaction in turn makes its housing politics look somewhat more European as far as YIMBY is concerned. This suggests that people interested in making housing affordable should be especially excited to implement the proposed program in big global first-world cities outside New York, led by London and Paris (and Tokyo, which is already sufficiently YIMBY).
Here and in London, the need for more housing is dire, as in New York. What’s more, it’s not possible to just propose missing middle density in single-family areas or even mid-rises like California’s SB 827 and say something about great cities, because Paris is already great. (In London this is easier – there are rowhouses in zone 2 of the Underground.) There are some unusually short buildings here and there, down to 3-4 floors, but usually replacements have to be much bigger, so they’d be perhaps 12-15 floors. And in the most desirable neighborhoods, around the 8th and 16th, full high-rises are warranted. The one point of light is that such a program is unlikely to run into California’s gentrification concerns, if only because the main target areas for upzoning are the richest city neighborhoods in France.