No, not in the long run.
This has big implications for cities in the future, because it means firms will want to cluster more near production amenities – that is, other high-productivity firms. A city like New York manifestly has very weak consumption amenities, because in the spring it proved that its government is dangerously incompetent in a crisis – but its production amenities are likely to grow, because more firms will want to locate there and in other big, rich cities.
Remote work and the tech industry
The tech industry has long been familiar with remote work. The big multinationals have offices worldwide and some teams are remote, and some small firms are even all-remote. Much of this is an adaptation to the industry’s inability to bring everyone to San Francisco and Silicon Valley, where housing is too expensive and work visas are scarce. This has led to a big internal debate about the future of work; for decades now there have been predictions that the Internet would facilitate remote work and therefore reduce the need for cities to exist as office work centers.
The industry also reacted to corona slightly faster than the rest of the Western world. I’m not sure why – usually the American tech industry sneers at anything that comes out of Asia. But for whatever reason, Google sent its workers home in early March, and has been on work-from-home since, as have the other tech employers.
However, this was always intended to be a temporary arrangement. Workers were told to go back to the office when the crisis ended, at a date that keeps being pushed back and is now September 2021. Moreover, it appears that the industry wants to consolidate rather than disperse: Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple are all buying up office space in Manhattan, planning to add 22,000 jobs there. This is not San Francisco, but it’s the closest thing: New York is the United States’ second richest metropolitan region, and (I believe) the second biggest tech job center, with New York hosting the largest non-Bay Area Google office.
The problems with remote work
I have asked a number of people to talk to me about their experience with working from home. All are American professionals; this is far and away the easiest socioeconomic class to do an ethnography of. At no point did anyone ever tell me that everyone in their office is as productive working from home as they had been working as a team at the office. The work from home productivity loss is real; it does not affect everyone, but it affects enough people to be noticeable.
Specific problems I was told include,
- Corona specifically is a very stressful event, so everyone is on edge and less productive than the usual.
- Without continuous office work, it’s harder to onboard junior workers, even when senior workers are fine at home. Junior workers also lose the benefits of close mentoring.
- Parents with children have to take on additional care duties, and without a stay-at-home parent this is difficult.
- I believe in one case I was told the opposite of the above – that given that children are at home, it’s easier for parents than for non-parents.
- At least per the CEO of United, who is obviously biased on this, firms perceive in-person sales to be more successful than virtual ones. In general, I’ve been told that work facing clients is less productive when it’s virtual and law firms can work remotely in the short run with their existing client base but in the long run they need the office.
The standard production theory, articulated for example by Alain Bertaud, is that working from home is less productive because there are no spontaneous interactions, and this seems true although I don’t recall anyone telling me this exact thing literally, but very similar problems are apparent.
What does this mean for cities?
Before corona, it was not always clear whether advances in telecommunications would make remote work viable. It increasingly looks like the answer is no, and therefore the most productive firms are likely to center around their usual clusters, just as the tech firms are buying up Manhattan office space. The upshot, then, is that high-cost, high-productivity city centers are likely to see more commercial demand in the medium and long runs.
One model that I’ve heard from multiple sources is mixed, for example 2-4 days a week at the office, 1-3 days remote. If this happens, then it will mean that people commute fewer days. This has opposite effects on office and residential geography: fewer commutes mean it’s more acceptable to live farther out and have longer work trips on work-at-office days, which encourages either suburbanization or hopping over to the next city over; for the exact same reason, it’s also more acceptable to site offices in areas with more traffic congestion, that is city center.
What does this mean for public transportation?
More urban job concentration universally requires better public transportation, since rapid transit is far and away the most efficient mode of transportation measured in capacity provided per unit of right-of-way width. However, the details are subtle. Most importantly, the American upper middle class mostly does not work 9 to 5 at the most productive firms. The tech industry tends toward shifted hours, especially on the East Coast in order to overlap Silicon Valley better, and even for the same reason in Israel. So the impact of more tech employment in Midtown is not that New York desperately needs more subway capacity, but rather that it needs to broaden the peak to last until 10 in the morning rather than 9. This conclusion does not depend much on whether workers show up at the office every day or only 3-4 days a week, because 60-80% of rush hour traffic still requires peak or near-peak train throughput.
There were many Americans who, back when corona seemed to be first and foremost a New York problem, predicted the end of cities, or the conversion of cities to spaces of consumption. Joel Kotkin even blamed New York’s density for corona and praised Los Angeles’s sprawl; now that Los Angeles is running out of hospital beds, nobody in the US blames density anymore. (One could also point out Seoul and Tokyo’s density, but not even 460,000 deaths and counting will make Americans say “our country needs to be more like other countries.”)
But this is not looking to happen. The most productive firms in the US are urbanizing – and those are the most productive firms in the world; it averages out with horrific American public-sector inefficiency to about the same GDP per hour as in Germany. And this means that going forward, the richest, most productive, and most expensive cities will remain spaces of high-end production, and will need to build sufficient numbers of office towers and residences and improve public transportation infrastructure to accommodate.
I’ve periodically written about consumption and production theories of cities – that is, whether people mostly move to cities based on consumption or production amenities. The production theory is that what matters is mostly production amenities, that is, jobs, and this underlies YIMBYism. Consumption theory is that people move for consumption amenities, and, moreover, these amenities are not exactly consumption in the city, for example good health outcomes, but consuming the city itself, that is neighborhood-level amenities in which who lives in the city matters. The latter theory, for example promulgated by Richard Florida, is that jobs follow consumption amenities like gay bars, and not the other way around. It is wrong and production theory is right, and I’d like to give some personal examples from Berlin, because I feel like Berliners all believe in consumption theory.
The situation in Berlin
Berlin is an increasingly desirable city. After decades in which it was economically behind, the city is growing. Unemployment, which stood at 19% in 2005, was down to 7.8% last year. With higher incomes come higher rents, and because Berlin for years built little housing as there was little demand, rents rose, and it took time for housing growth to catch up; on the eve of corona, the city was permitting about 6 annual dwellings per 1,000 people, up from about 1 in the early 2000s.
This is generally attributed to tech industry growth. There are a lot of tech startups in the city. I don’t want to exaggerate this too much – Google’s biggest Germany office is by far Munich’s, and the Berlin office is mostly a sales office with a handful of engineers who are here because of a two-body problem. But the smaller firms are here and the accelerator spaces are very visible, in a way that simply didn’t exist in Paris, or even in Stockholm.
Berlin’s production amenities
I might not have thought that Berlin should attract so much tech investment. My vulgar guess would be that tech would go to cities with many preexisting engineers, like Munich and Stuttgart, or maybe to Frankfurt for the international flight connections. But Berlin does make sense in a number of ways.
The city is mostly fluent in English. Jakub Marian’s map has France 39% Anglophone and Germany 56%, which doesn’t seem too outlandish to me. But Paris seems in line with the rest of France, whereas in Berlin, service workers seem mostly Anglophone, which is not the case in (say) Mainz or Munich.
The global tech industry is Anglophone, and good command of English is a huge production amenity. Other English-dependent industries seem to favor Anglophone European cities as well, for example various firms fleeing Brexit moved their European headquarters not to Paris but to Amsterdam or maybe Dublin.
The federal government is here. This is not relevant to tech – the startups here don’t seem to be looking for lobbying opportunities, and at any case German lobbying works differently from American lobbying and firm-level proximity to the capital is unimportant. However, the government stimulates local spending, which has increased employment. The government’s move here has been gradual, with institutions that during division were spread all over West Germany slowly migrating to Berlin.
The quality of infrastructure in Berlin is very good. The urban rail network was built when Berlin was Western Europe’s third largest city, after London and Paris, and has even grown after the war because the West built U7 and U9 to bypass Mitte. This means that commute pain here is not serious, especially on any even vaguely middle-class income. Moreover, Berlin has benefited from post-reunification investment, including Hauptbahnhof and two high-speed rail lines.
Consumption theory and the counterculture
The queer counterculture that I am involved with in Berlin tells a different story. To hear them tell it, Berlin has a quirky, individualistic, nonconforming culture, unlike the stifling normality of Munich. Artists moved here, and then other people moved here to be near the artists, paying higher rents until the artists could no longer afford the city. This story is told at every scale, from Berlin as a city to individual neighborhoods like Prenzlauer Berg and Neukölln. A lot of the discourse about Berlin repeats this uncritically, for example Feargus O’Sullivan at CityLab/Bloomberg Cities writes about the cool factor and about gentrification of old buildings.
It is also a completely wrong story. This is really important to understand: nobody that I know in the sort of spaces that are being blamed for gentrification, that is the tech industry and its penumbra, has any interest in the counterculture. I go to board games meetups full of tech workers who are fluent in English and often don’t know any German, and they have no connections at all to the local counterculture. They interact with immigrant culture spaces, not with the 95%+ white counterculture as defined by queer spaces in Neukölln that complain about gentrification in a neighborhood undergoing white flight at the rate of postwar New York (compare 2019 data, PDF-pp. 25 and 28, with 2016, PDF-pp. 28 and 31). Occasionally there are crossovers, as when an American comedian hosted live standup in February and then there were tech workers and said American also interacts with the counterculture, but a standup comic is not why Berliners complain.
Nor do I find foreign tech workers especially interested in German minutiae comparing Berlin with Munich. By my non-German standards, Berliners already jaywalk at indescribably lower rates, and I gather that Munich is stuffier but that’s not why I’m here and not there, the rents and the language are.
We’re not even particularly oppositional to the counterculture. I personally am because seeing queer space after queer space host indoor events during corona without masks was a horrifying experience; I went to a queer leftist meetup in late October in which people huddled together maskless and I was the only one with a mask on, except for one trans Australian physicist who drank a beer and then masked after finished. But the rest? They don’t care, nor should they. The counterculture is not the protagonist or the antagonist of Berlin’s story; it’s barely a bystander. Consumption theory is just what it promotes in order to convince itself that it’s important, that it spreads ideas and not viruses.
Myth: American cities have undergone inversion, in which poorer people are more suburban than richer people.
Reality: at least on the level of people commuting to city center, wages generally rise with commute distance. In particular, the phenomenon of supercommuters – people traveling very long distances to work – is a middle- and high-income experience more than a low-income one. This is true even in Los Angeles, a Sunbelt city with more of a drive-until-you-qualify history than the Northeastern cities. The only exception among the largest US cities is San Francisco, and there too, the poorest distance is 5-10 km out of the Financial District.
All data in this post comes from OnTheMap and is as of 2017, the latest year for which there is data. The methodology is to define a central business district, generally a looser one than in past post but still much smaller than the entirety of the city, and look at people who work in it and live within annuli of increasing radius from a specific central point within the CBD. OnTheMap puts jobs into three income buckets, the boundary points being $1,250 and $3,333 per month; we look at the proportion of jobs in the highest category.
I report the annuli in kilometers, but technically they’re in multiples of 3.11 miles, which is very close to 5 km.
|City||New York||Los Angeles||Chicago||Washington||San Francisco||Boston|
|CBD||3rd, 60th, 9th, 30th||I-10, I-110, river||Congress, I-90, Grand||6th, R, river, E||Broadway, Van Ness, 101, 16th||I-90, water, Arlington|
|Point||Grand Central||7th/Metro Center||State/Madison||Farragut||Market/2nd||Downtown Crossing|
In all six metro areas above except Los Angeles, the income in the innermost 5-km circle is higher than in the 5-10 km annulus. In Chicago that inner radius is in fact the wealthiest, but in Boston it’s below average, and in New York, Washington, and San Francisco it is poorer than wide swaths of suburbia. There is always a large region of poverty in an urban radius, which is roughly the inner 15 km in Los Angeles, the 5-20 km annulus in New York, the 10-15 km radius in Chicago, and so on.
This of course does not take directionality into account. In Chicago, it is especially important – to the north, there is wealth at all radii, and to the south, there is mostly poverty. In contrast, in New York directionality is less important, and it is in a way the purest example of the poverty donut model, in which the center is rich, the suburbs are rich, and the in-between neighborhoods are poor, without wedges that form favored quarters or wedges that form ill-favored quarters.
The importance of this is that because the inner and outer limits of the poverty donut are slowly moving outward, there is talk of suburbanization of poverty – or, rather, there was in the decade leading up to corona, but I suspect it will return once mass vaccination happens. However, even now, American cities are not Paris or Stockholm, where wealth mostly decreases as distance from the center increases, even though both cities have intense directionality (rich northeast, poor south and west in Stockholm, and the exact opposite in Paris). The poorest place remains the inner city, just beyond the near-downtown zone at what I would call biking range from city center jobs if any American city had even semi-decent biking infrastructure.
This contrasts with various schemes to subsidize suburbs that assume poverty has already suburbanized. Massachusetts, where even in the inner 5 km radius the $40,000+ share is below average, has a concept called Gateway Cities, defined to mean roughly “low- and lower-middle-income cities that aren’t Boston.” Of those, about one, Chelsea, is inner-urban, while the others include Springfield and various ex-industrial cities that are generally no poorer than Boston and lie amidst suburban wealth, like Lowell and Haverhill. Based on the idea that Massachusetts poverty is in the Gateway Cities and not in Boston itself, it justifies vast place-based subsidies that mostly go to people who are decently well-off while Dorchester has to beg for slightly better public transportation to Downtown Boston.
In New York, one likewise hears more about the poverty of Far Rockaway than about that of Harlem. There’s this widespread belief that Harlem is no longer poor, that it’s fully gentrified because there’s one bagel shop on 116th Street that caters to a mostly white middle-class clientele. This is related to the stereotype of the Real New Yorker, weaponized so that the cop or the construction worker who is a third-generation New Yorker and lives at the outermost edge of the city is an inherently more moral person than the Manhattanite or the immigrant and is the very definition of the working class while earning $90,000 a year. This goes double if this Real New Yorker lives on Long Island, usually with some catechism about how the city is too expensive even though the suburbs are about equally costly. The one place-based policy that would benefit the city, having the state integrate its schools with those of the generally better-resourced suburbs, is unthinkable.
It’s notable that this discourse that overrates how poor American suburbia is comes exclusively from people who tend to sympathize with the poor. People with Thatcherist attitudes toward the poor abound in the United States, and tend to correctly believe that the inner city is poorer than the suburbs, and if anything to overrate the extent of urban poverty. In either case, the conclusion groups of Americans reach is that the government must subsidize the suburbs further; all else is just motivated reasoning.
In reality, if one has the Thatcherist or Old Tory moralistic attitude that poverty is a personal failure then, with reservations, one should continue believing the large American city is inherently immoral. But if one has the attitude that poverty is a social failure that is solvable with social programs, then one must realize that there is more of this in central cities than in their suburbs, even faraway suburbs that are called drive-until-you-qualify because they are slightly poorer than some other suburbs, and therefore if anti-poverty programs must be place-based then they should be urban.
How much window space does an apartment need, relative to its area, and how does this affect building style? A fascinating post from about a year ago on Urban Kchoze makes the argument that modern North American buildings are too deep – Simon calls them obese. Simon contrasts the typical building style in major cities in Europe and Asia with modern North American imitators and argues that the North American versions have too much ratio of floor area to exterior window width, which only works with loft-style apartments, which are not fit for families.
Is Simon correct? Not really. There’s an important feature of the block style in Europe that he’s missing. And this leads to an interesting observation by itself about area-to-window-width ratios.
The issue of building depth
Simon shows a bunch of satellite photos of buildings in a style called the euroblock. Here’s one example from Stockholm, in Södermalm:
The block has a width that looks like 14.6 meters. Midblock buildings have front windows overlooking the street and back windows overlooking a central courtyard; corner buildings overlook two streets. Either way, the area-to-frontage ratio is 7.3 meters. In general, buildings in Central Stockholm, urban Berlin, and Paris in average a depth of 13-14 meters, so the above typology would generate a ratio of 6.5-7 meters.
Simon contrasts this with American buildings. The euroblock typology is very uncommon in the US – New York’s typology is much less neat and liberally uses windows that overlook very narrow spaces. But it does exist, generally in higher-end recent developments. For example, here’s the Avalon East Norwalk, a condo project wedged between I-95 and the Northeast Corridor.
It has essentially the same built form as the euroblock. Its development history is of course different: there are no streets on the exterior, only parking lots, and it is a single project surrounding a big plaza with a swimming pool rather than many small buildings that together enclose a courtyard that comprises several separate gardens. But in terms of how the building looks from space, it’s similar. The width is 20 meters, for an area-to-frontage ratio of 10 meters, well above 6.5-7 meters.
Euroblocks are complicated
The above Stockholm pic is a pretty simple building, conceptually: a linear building outlining the edge of a rectangle. This is not the typical euroblock; I had to look around Central Stockholm to find a fitting example. I could equally well use Hamburg or another such city of the same size class.
But in Paris, this form is almost unheard of, and in Berlin it is uncommon, I think mostly denoting postwar reconstruction. Paris and Berlin are larger cities, especially historically – in the Belle Epoque/Wilhelmine era, when this typology flourished, they were two of the largest few cities in the world, Berlin stagnating after World War Two and Paris growing exclusively in the suburbs. So they’d build up more of each lot and leave less unbuilt space between buildings. Instead, here is what a traditional Berlin block looks like, in this case in Neukölln:
These buildings enclose a central courtyard, as in Stockholm, but there the similarity ends. The courtyard is small, and there are several to a block. All these wings have internal corners with limited window space. Moreover, the wings that do not make it all the way to enclosing the courtyard, like the ones on the buildings north of Laubestrasse, have blank walls facing northeast, because they were built expecting the wing of another building to directly abut them. The wing of the building at the Laubestrasse/Elbestrasse eastern corner likewise has blank northeast-facing walls, and from space looks awkward, like a half-building. All of this was designed for more buildings, but some were never built or were knocked down.
If the euroblock has one big courtyard for the entire block as in the Stockholm and Norwalk examples, then the area-to-frontage ratio equals exactly half the building depth. But as soon as there are multiple courtyards, the ratio grows. The dimensions of the C-shaped building on Sonnenallee (one block south of Laubestrasse) just west of the corner building with which it shares the courtyard are 18 meters of street frontage by 38 of lot depth minus a half-courtyard of 11.5*12. This works out to 546 m^2/71 m, for a total ratio of 7.7 m, even though technically the building is never deeper than 13 m.
The blocks can get even more fractured. Here’s Prenzlauer Berg, in an area wedged between the former Wall and the Ringbahn:
The dimensions of the buildings fronting Korsörer Strasse on the north are pretty consistent. They all have an overall lot depth of about 32 meters, consisting of 14 meters of building, 11 meters of courtyard, and 7 meters of half-building with blank north-facing walls. The side wings are pretty consistently 7 meters deep each as half-buildings. Taking the pair of buildings flanking the second courtyard from the east as an example, they together are 35*32 minus 21*11, for 889 m^2/99 m = 9 m.
In Paris, building forms vary. But here is an example with wings, in the 17th:
The courtyards are smaller than in Berlin. Taking the second building from the west, we get 35*25 – 11*13, or 732 m^2/98 m = 7.5 m. When the courtyard is only about as wide as the building is deep, the above typology, similar to the image from Neukölln, generates a ratio equal to 5/8 the building depth, and not 1/2 as in the Stockholm example. The Prenzlauer Berg typology generates an even higher ratio, a full 2/3 of building depth if the courtyard is a square of side equal to the building depth.
And this matters. Buildings with simpler sides do get deeper in Paris. For example, this building in the 16th, wedged between two streets:
The depth of these buildings is 18 meters, so the area-to-frontage ratio is 9 m.
What does this mean?
My choice of the 16th and 17th in Paris for my examples is not random. Western Paris has been rich from the moment it urbanized – families of means choose to live this way. In general, within the family of euroblocks, the more desirable areas seem to have buildings with a slightly larger depth – the more working-class parts, such as Eastern Paris, have shallower buildings. Rich people would all else being equal prefer more window frontage space, but all else is not equal, and they prefer bigger apartments.
There is a definite limit on how deep buildings can be and how large the ratio of area to window frontage can be, but it is not as low as Simon posits. Ratios in the 8-9 region are not unheard of in old European buildings, and it stands to reason that euroblocks built in an environment of more prosperity, such as that of the early 21st century, could go slightly higher.
Moreover, the Norwalk example of a deeper building without wings is generally preferable to the traditional Berlin and Paris form of shallower buildings with wings. In Berlin, the apartments with street-facing windows are the most desirable. Historically, the wings were for the working class, which had to make do with narrow courtyards – sometimes narrower than today, the original statutory limit being less than 6 m wide due to 19th-century fire regulations. So the evolution of the euroblock is likely to be toward its American condo form.
I recently covered the Stadtbahn, a mode of rail transportation running as rapid transit (almost always a subway) in city center and as a tramway farther out. The tram-train is the opposite kind of system: it runs as a tramway within the city, but as rapid transit farther out. There’s a Human Transit blog post about this from 2009, describing how it works in Karlsruhe, which invented this kind of service pattern. Jarrett is bearish on the tram-train in most contexts, giving a list of required patterns that he says is uncommon elsewhere. It’s worth revising this question, because while the tram-train is not very useful in an American context, it is in countries with discontinuous built-up areas, including Germany and the Netherlands but also Israel. Israeli readers may be especially interested in how this technology fits the rail network away from the Tel Aviv region.
What is a tram-train?
Let’s dredge the 2*2 table from the Stadtbahn post:
|Slow in center||Fast in center|
|Slow in outlying areas||Tramway||Stadtbahn|
|Fast in outlying areas||Tram-train||Rapid transit|
The terms fast and slow are again relative to general traffic. The Paris Métro averages 25 km/h, less than some mixed-traffic buses in small cities, but it still counts as fast because the speed in destinations accessed per hour is very high.
Be aware that I am using the terms Stadtbahn and tram-train to denote two different things, but in Karlsruhe the system is locally called Stadtbahn. German cities use the term Stadtbahn to mean “a tramway that doesn’t suck,” much as American cities call a dazzling variety of distinct things light rail, including lines in all four cells of the above table. Nonetheless, in this post I am keeping my terminology distinct, using the advantage of switching between different languages and dialects.
Tram-trains and regional rail
The Karlsruhe model involves trains running on mainline track alongside mainline trains, diverging to dedicated tramway tracks in the city, to connect Karlsruhe Hauptbahnhof with city center around Marktplatz. This also includes lines that do not touch the mainline, like S2, but still run with higher-quality right-of-way separation outside city center; but most lines run on mainline rail part of the way.
North American light rail lines, with the exception of the Boston, Philadelphia, and San Francisco Stadtbahn systems, tend to run as tram-trains, but never have this regional rail tie-in. They run on entirely dedicated tracks, which has two important effects, both negative. First, it increases construction costs. And second, it means that the shape of the network is much more a skeletal tramway map than the more complicated combination of an S-Bahn and a tramway that one sees in Karlsruhe. San Diego has a short segment sharing tracks with freight with time separation, but the shape of the network isn’t any different from that of other American post-1970s light rail systems, and there’s an ongoing extension parallel to a mainline railroad that nonetheless constructs a new right-of-way.
In this sense, the Karlsruhe model can be likened to a cheaper S-Bahn. S-Bahn systems carve new right-of-way under city center to provide through-service whenever the historic city station is a terminus, such as in Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Munich, or German-inspired Philadelphia. They can also build new lines for more expansive service, higher capacity, or a better connection to city center, like the second S-Bahn trunk in Hamburg; Karlsruhe itself is building a combined road and rail tunnel, the Kombilösung, after a generation of at-grade operation. The tram-train is then a way to achieve some of the same desirable attributes but without spending money on a tunnel.
It follows that the tram-train is best when it can run on actual regional rail tracks, with good integration with the mainline system. It is a lower-speed, lower-cost version of a regional rail tunnel, whereas the North American version running on dedicated tracks is a lower-cost version of a subway. Note also that regional rail can be run at different scales, the shorter and higher-frequency end deserving the moniker S-Bahn; the Karlsruhe version is long-range, with S1 and S11 reaching 30 km south of city center and S5 reaching 70 km east.
Where is a tram-train appropriate?
Jarrett’s 2009 post lays down three criteria for when tram-trains work:
- The travel market must be small enough that an S-Bahn tunnel is not justified.
- The destination to be served isn’t right next to the rail mainline.
- The destination to be served away from the mainline is so dominant that it’s worthwhile running at tramway speeds just to get there and there aren’t too many people riding the line beyond it.
The center of Karlsruhe satisfies the second and third criteria. It is borderline for the first – the region has maybe a million people, depending on definitions, and the city proper has 312,000 people; the Kombilösung is only under-construction now and was not built generations ago, unlike S-Bahn tunnels in larger cities like Munich.
Jarrett points out that in the urban world he’s most familiar with, consisting of the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, it is not common for cities to satisfy these criteria. He does list exceptions, for example Long Beach, where the Blue Line runs in tramway mode before heading into Los Angeles on a mostly grade-separated right-of-way, whereupon it goes back into the surface in Downtown LA before heading into an under-construction tunnel. But overall, this is not common. City centers tend to be near the train station, and in the United States there’s such job sprawl that just serving one downtown destination is not good enough.
That said, the Long Beach example is instructive, because it is not the primary city in its region – Los Angeles is. I went over the issue of outlying S-Bahn tunnels a year ago, specifying some places where they are appropriate in Israel. The tram-train must be a key tool in the planner’s box as a cheaper, lower-capacity, lower-speed version of the same concept, diverging from the mainline in tramway mode in order to serve a secondary center. Karlsruhe itself is a primary urban center – the only time it’s the secondary node is when it connects to Mannheim, and that train doesn’t use the tramway tracks – but a secondary tram-train connection is being built in outlying areas there, namely Heilbronn.
Different models of urban geography
In the American model of urban geography, cities are contiguous blobs. Stare at, for example, Chicago – you’ll see an enormous blob of gray stretching in all directions. Parkland is mostly patches of green in between the gray, or sometimes wedges of green alternating with wedges of gray, the gray following commuter railroads and the green lying in between. Boundaries between municipalities look completely arbitrary on a satellite map.
In the German model of urban geography, it’s different. Look at Cologne, Frankfurt, Mannheim, or Stuttgart – the built-up area is surrounded by green, and then there are various suburban towns with parkland or farmland in between. This goes even beyond the greenbelt around London – there’s real effort at keeping all these municipalities distinct.
I don’t want to give the impression that the United States is the weird one. The contiguous model in the United States is also common in France – Ile-de-France is one contiguous built-up area. That’s how despite being clearly a smaller metropolitan region than London, Paris has the larger contiguous population – see here, WUP 2007, and see also how small the German and Dutch urban areas look on that table. Urban agglomeration in democratic East Asia is contiguous as in the US and France. Canada looks rather American to me too, especially Vancouver, the city both Jarrett and I are the most familiar with, while Toronto has a greenbelt.
This distinction moreover has to be viewed as a spectrum rather than as absolutes. Boston, for example, has some of the German model in it – there’s continuous urbanization with inner suburbs like Cambridge and Newton, but beyond Route 128, there are many small secondary cities with low density between them and the primary center. Conversely, Berlin is mostly American or French; the few suburbs it has outside city limits are mostly contiguous with the city’s built-up area, with the major exception of Potsdam.
The relevance of this distinction is that in the German or Dutch model of urban geography, it’s likely that a railway will pass through a small city rather far from its center, fulfilling the second criterion in Jarrett’s post. Moreover, this model of independent podlike cities means that there is likely to be a significant core, which fulfills the third criterion. The first criterion is fulfilled whenever this is not the center of a large metropolitan area.
It’s not surprising, then, that the Karlsruhe model has spread to the Netherlands. This is not a matter of similarity in transport models: the Netherlands differs from the German-speaking world, for examples it does not have monocentric S-Bahns or S-Bahn tunnels and it builds train stations with bike parking where Germany lets people bring bikes on trains. Nonetheless, the shared model of distinct municipalities makes tram-train technology attractive in South Holland.
Israel and tram-trains
In Israel, there are very few historic railways. A large share of construction is new, and therefore has to either swerve around cities or tunnel to enter them, or in a handful of cases run on elevated alignments. Israel Railways and local NIMBYs have generally preferred swerving.
Moreover, the urban layout in Israel is very podlike. There do exist contiguous areas of adjacent cities; Tel Aviv in particular forms a single blob of gray with Ramat Gan, Givatayim, Bni Brak, Petah Tikva, Bat Yam, and Holon, with a total population of 1.5 million. But for the most part, adjacent cities are buffered with undeveloped areas, and the cities jealously fight to stay this way despite extensive developer pressure.
The final important piece in Israel’s situation is that despite considerable population growth, there is very little rail-adjacent transit-oriented development. The railway was an afterthought until the Ayalon Railway opened in 1993, and even then it took until last decade for mainline rail to be a significant regional mode of transport. The state aggressively builds new pod-towns without any attempt to expand existing towns toward the railway.
The upshot is that all three of Jarrett’s criteria for tram-trains are satisfied in Israel, everywhere except in and around Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv is large enough for a fully grade-separated route, i.e. the already-existing Ayalon Railway. Moreover, because Tel Aviv needs full-size trains, anything that is planned to run through to Tel Aviv, even as far as Netanya and Ashdod, has to be rapid transit, using short tunnels and els to reach city centers where needed. A tram-train through Ashdod may look like a prudent investment, but if the result is that it feeds a 45 meter long light rail vehicle through the Ayalon Railway then it’s a waste of precious capacity.
But Outside Tel Aviv, the case for tram-trains is strong. One of my mutuals on Twitter brings up the Beer Sheva region as an example. The mainline going north has a station called Lehavim-Rahat, vaguely tangent to Lehavim, a ways away from Rahat. It could get two tramway branches, one diverging to the built-up area of Lehavim, a small suburb that is one of Israel’s richest municipalities, and the other to Rahat, one of Israel’s poorest. There are also interesting options of divergence going south and east, but they suffer from being so far from the mainline the network would look scarcely different from an ordinary tramway.
Beer Sheva itself would benefit from tramways with train through-service as well. The commercial center of the city is close to the train station, but the university and the hospital aren’t, and are not even that close to the subsidiary Beer Sheva North station. The station is also awkwardly off-center, lying southeast of the city’s geographic center, which means that feeding buses into it with timed transfers screws internal connections. So tramway tracks on Rager Boulevard, cutting off Beer Sheva North for regional trains, would do a lot to improve regional connectivity in Beer Sheva; intercity trains should naturally keep using the existing line.
In the North, there are similar examples. Haifa is not going to need the capacity of full-size trains anytime soon, which makes the case for various branches diverging into smaller cities to provide closer service in tramway mode strong. Unlike in Beer Sheva, the case for doing so in the primary center is weak. Haifa’s topography is the stuff of nightmares, up a steep hill with switchback streets. The mainline already serves the Lower City well, and climbing the hill is not possible.
This creates an interesting situation, in which the technology of the tram-train in the North can be used to serve secondary cities like Kiryat Ata and Tirat Carmel and maybe enter the Old City of Acre, but the operational pattern is really that of a Stadtbahn – fast through Haifa and up most of the Krayot, slow through smaller suburbs.
A few years ago, Aaron Renn was writing, I think about the General Electric headquarters’ move from suburban New York to Downtown Boston in 2016, that in the future, city center jobs would go to high-value industries like corporate HQs and professional services, and then lower-end stuff like call centers would go in suburban office parks. At the time I didn’t understand the full meaning of this – I was still thinking of employment in a narrow city center of a few blocks rather than a broader region, like the 100 km^2 zone I use to compare the US with Canada and France because that’s the most granular data I have in the latter two countries. But in retrospect, Aaron was getting at a dangerous trend in which job markets deurbanize. This is not a new trend – office park sprawl goes back to the 1970s, and industrial sprawl even earlier – and to some extent it’s less about deurbanization and more about the urban job market reaching maximum size. But whatever the history of it, it’s a serious threat to economic performance – and the solution to it requires better public transportation.
Cities as job markets
I’ve written before about production theory. The only thing I have to add on the theory side is that since I wrote that post, I was at a talk that Alain Bertaud gave at Marron, about urbanization. The main topic of the talk was about urban growth and sprawl in the developing world, but at the beginning of the presentation, he gave some remarks about cities and corona. Zoom meetings like the one we had, he warned, were fine, but cities are fundamentally job markets that succeed through spontaneous interaction, and this spontaneity does not exist with remote work. This is to a large extent the new urban geography thesis of Paul Krugman or the work of Ed Glaeser – cities exist as places of production first, and this production requires close proximity.
Now, close proximity depends on technology. In a city with the transport technology of London circa 1800, close proximity means the scope of the City of London, and even 5 km is uncomfortably far. In a city with cars and highways, the distance is much greater – but it is not the same as commute distance. A half-hour drive is not spontaneous. When I asked American friends and coworkers about their productivity through the spring corona lockdowns, a Boston lawyer told me that lawyers wouldn’t even travel midday for clients for 20-30 minutes, since their time was too valuable – they’d schedule conference calls.
This does not mean that the entire work market has to be within such a short distance. It certainly helps, but different industries can cluster in different parts of the city. But there is a maximum distance within which the city is recognizably a single job market.
Aaron Renn’s bifurcation
Aaron talks about bifurcation a lot, between winners and losers. He relates the move of large corporate HQs to city centers to this bifurcation: city centers win by having higher-value added, higher-paying jobs, everyone else gets saddled with lower-end jobs. Moreover, these lower-end jobs are commodities – a call center can be anywhere – and therefore they compete on price and not quality, frustrating the attempt of any region on the margins of the US to climb up the value chain.
That said, even the sort of job sprawl of the 1970s, spearheaded by big companies’ move out of city centers to rich suburbs like GE to Fairfield and IBM to Armonk, represents the same threat to urban productivity. That was driven by snobbishness – the elite suburbanized, and then dragged jobs outside the city with it, for example GE did partly on spurious grounds of resilience in face of nuclear war destroying city centers. Today, the city gains higher-end jobs at the expense of the suburbs, the opposite of the situation in the 1970s. But the same situation of jobs outside one major core persists.
Is this polycentricity?
No. It’s become fashionable to speak of polycentric cities as the next evolution, to decongest old cores. But doing so requires the urban geography to have centers. I pointed out previously that Los Angeles may claim to be polycentric but is just weak-centered – the secondary centers have a few tens of thousands of jobs each at most. This is not like the big city centers one finds in Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe, or even in the Rhine-Ruhr or Randstad.
Keihanshin, the Rhine-Ruhr, and Randstad are all agglomerations of historic cities. It is possible to also form polycentric regions out of new development – for example, Yokohama was founded as a 19th-century treaty port and then grew as a Tokyo suburb. Both New York and Paris have moved their central business districts by a few kilometers gradually, New York from Lower Manhattan to Midtown and Paris from Les Halles to around the Opera; both also have near-center business centers, like Long Island City or La Défense. Even then there’s likely to be some efficiency loss in decentralizing city center jobs this way, but it’s still easier to shuttle between Times Square and World Trade Center than between either and New Brunswick.
The public transit solution
In the 1970s, the abandonment of city centers was motivated by a desire to escape their poverty and a belief that the suburbs were the future. Urban poverty still exists but inner-urban wealth is considerable and increasing, and the belief that the suburbs were the future turned out to be incorrect – one cannot be a suburb of nowhere.
The model of suburbanization that can be sustained is one built from the late 19th century to about the 1950s and early 60s: jobs stay in the city, people go wherever.
Doing so requires three things: offices, dwellings, and a way of getting between them.
Offices mean commercial upzoning – some American cities are good about it, but the ones with the most demand, like New York, aren’t. In general there’s little appetite for commercializing near-center neighborhoods in the US, whereas Europe is looser about it and therefore new firms can sprout a few subway stops outside the primary center, for example Spotify two stops outside T-Centralen. Residences likewise require upzoning, especially for mid- and high-rise apartment buildings near subway stations where they exist and have capacity.
But in many cases, it’s required to also build up public transportation. Big central business districts feature hundreds of thousands of people converging on a small area at the peak, and the biggest go up into the millions. The highest-capacity form of transportation is required, which is rapid transit, never cars or surface transit.
Rapid transit and city centers are symbiotic, now as in 1910. An expansive rapid transit system, with high service quality, is required to serve city centers from multiple directions; and city centers are required to give people something to take the trains to, or else they’ll just drive everywhere and only take the train to the sports stadium or the airport.
And ultimately, city centers are required for economic efficiency, because of the importance of proximity for spontaneous economic and social interactions. Rapid transit also benefits from high efficiency – it’s very cheap to operate compared with the cost of car ownership. The alternative is a kind of deurbanization, in which people may live at high density relative to travel speeds but don’t form large clusters enabling the highest productivity.
After writing this post about the urban layout of Germany and high-speed rail, I got interested in city size in Europe and Asia more generally. East Asians live in much larger cities than Europeans, and I’m not just talking about Tokyo and Seoul. I was vaguely aware this was the case, but underestimated the size of this effect. By modern definitions of metropolitan areas as those with at least 1 million people, Europe is not majority-urban.
The definitions are hard to harmonize – there are international lists but I don’t fully trust them, many just collating national statistics (like the UN’s) and others making some judgments I am uncertain about, like CityPopulation. I believe the effect I’m discussing is robust to changes in definitions, but its magnitude may be different. I use the following definitions:
- In Japan, I’m using the major metropolitan area. This is the part I’m least certain about, hence a subsidiary definition based on smaller metropolitan employment areas (MEAs).
- In South Korea, there are no definitions of a metro area. Seoul is defined as Seoul + Gyeonggi + Incheon, the other cities use city limits.
- In Taiwan, as in Korea, cities are defined by city limits, except that the capital region consists of Taipei + New Taipei + Taoyuan.
- In France, a metropolitan area is an aire urbaine.
- In Germany, a metropolitan area is either the Rhine-Ruhr region, or a Verkehrsverbund.
- In Italy and Spain, a metropolitan area is cobbled from NUTS-3 regions in 2021 definitions; this can also be used in Germany as a secondary check, but not in France, as French NUTS-3 regions are departments, which aren’t granular enough. Population figures can be found here.
Using the MMA definition, slightly more than half the population lives in the metro areas of Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya. Nagoya goes barely over the 50% mark, so the median resident lives either in Nagoya (9.4 million people) or Fukuoka (5.5 million). 56% of the population lives in these four metropolitan areas, 64% lives in metro areas of at least 2 million, 70% lives in metro areas of at least 1 million.
The MEA definition splits polycentric regions like Osaka-Kyoto-Kobe and Fukuoka-Kitakyushu, and also thinks Nagoya is much smaller. On that definition, the median Japanese resident lives in Sapporo (2.4 million), and overall 51% live in metro areas of at least 2 million and 61% in metro area of at least 1 million.
The metropolitan area of Seoul has 26.2 million people, which is just a hair over half the population of the country. But it’s so close it’s obligatory to also include the next largest region, which is Busan, population 3.4 million. Together, they have 57% of total population. Daegu adds 2.5 million, and with it 62% of the country’s population lives in cities of at least 2 million. Down to 1 million, the share rises to 70%.
Taipei, New Taipei, and Taoyuan collectively have 8.9 million people, or 38% of total population; Taoyuan is somewhat independent, but Taipei and New Taipei are very closely integrated. The median Taiwanese lives in one of the two second cities, Kaohsiung and Taichung, each with around 2.8 million people; together, 61% live in one of these five municipalities. The next city, Tainan, has 1.8 million people, and including it raises the proportion to 69%.
The Paris region has 20% of the country’s population, and the urbanity of the population craters afterward. Only one more metro area has more than 2 million, Lyon; together, the two regions have 23% of national population. Five more metro areas have between 1 and 2 million people; together, these seven regions have 33% of total population. Even allowing metro areas down to 500,000 only increases the metropolitan share to 44%. The median is either Valenciennes or Le Mans, populations 369,000 and 347,000 respectively.
By any definition, we lump the Rhine-Ruhr into one region of 11,430,361 people, based on the Metropolregion definition (see data here) – usually the German Metropolregionen are way too loose, but in this polycentric region the definition agrees with regional rail extent and with a number of other metro area population lists. In theory this is Germany’s only megacity, but because there are at least 7 independent centers, it doesn’t feel like it’s another London or Paris. Still, it’s 14% of total population.
Using the rather loose Verkehrsverbund limits (still tighter than the Metropolregionen!), we add Frankfurt (6.7 million), Berlin-Brandenburg (6.2 million), Hamburg (3.5 million), Rhine-Neckar (3 million), Munich (2.9 million), Nuremberg (2.8 million), Stuttgart (2.4 million), Bremen (2.2 million), Leipzig-Halle (1.7 million), Karlsruhe (1.4 million), Hanover (1.2 million), Dresden (0.8 million). As a note of caution, some of these regions are drawn very loosely, like Nuremberg, Bremen, and Frankfurt; Hanover and Munich are a lot tighter, Hanover corresponding to a county and Munich to the S-Bahn extent.
On these very loose definitions, the 2+ million regions still only sum up to 49% of the population, and the 1+ million regions to 55%, the median German living in Leipzig-Halle.
Italy has many distinct definitions of metro area, some disagreeing on Milan by factors approaching 2. Eurostat, using provinces as its level of analysis, has metropolitan area for Milan (4.4 million), Rome (4.3 million), Naples (3.1 million), Turin (2.3 million), Brescia (1.3 million), Palermo (1.3 million), Bari (1.3 million), Bergamo (1.1 million), Catania (1.1 million), Bologna (1 million), Florence (1 million), Padua (0.9 million), Verona (0.9 million), Venice (0.9 million), Genoa (0.8 million), Perugia (0.7 million), Messina (0.6 million), Taranto (0.6 million), Reggio Emilia (0.5 million), Parma (0.5 million), Cagliari (0.4 million), Prato (0.3 million).
The four main metro areas comprise 23% of Italy’s population. Going down to 1 million raises the proportion to 37%. These regions combined have only 48% of Italy’s population. This does not mean Italy is majority-rural – the remaining provinces are full of cities in their own right, some larger than Prato or Cagliari – but it’s hard to detect that level of granularity.
In Spain, as in Italy, the division isn’t too granular, at the level of a province. We have metro areas for Madrid (6.7 million), Barcelona (5.6 million), Valencia (2.5 million), Seville (2 million), Alicante (1.8 million), Málaga (1.7 million), Murcia (1.4 million), Cádiz (1.2 million), Biscay (1.1 million), A Coruña (1.1 million), Asturias (1 million), Zaragoza (1 million), Vigo (0.9 million), Tenerife (0.9 million), Granada (0.9 million), Mallorca (0.9 million), Gran Canaria (0.9 million), Córdoba (0.8 million), Gipuzkoa (0.7 million), Navarre (0.6 million), Cantabria (0.6 million), Valladolid (0.5 million), Álava (0.3 million).
The two main metro areas are together 26% of Spain’s population; the next two, down to 2 million people, add up to 35%; the next ones going down to 1 million go up to 55%, the median Spaniard living in a metropolitan province of 1.1 million.
I’ve been talking so much lately about integrated timed transfer in the context of Boston that people started asking me if it’s also applicable to New York. The answer is that the basic principles are not scale-dependent, but the implementation is, so in very large cities, public transport planning should not look like in Switzerland, a country whose largest metro area is staring at 2 million people from the bottom.
The one caveat here is that most cities are not huge. The developed world has seven megacities: Tokyo, Seoul, New York, Los Angeles, Osaka, London, Paris. And Los Angeles doesn’t really have public transportation, so we’re down to six. The middle-income world has a bunch more for sanity checking – Mexico City, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Johannesburg, Moscow, Istanbul, Tehran, Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Bangkok – but all are either still in convergence mode building up their networks or (mostly in Latin America) have given up. So much of this comes down to the idiosyncrasies of six cities, of which the largest three networks are substantially in the same planning tradition.
Demand is huge
Big cities have big centers, which can’t really be served by any mode except rapid transit. Even in Los Angeles, what passes for a central business district has around a 50% public transport modal split. This means that the transport network has to deliver high throughput to a relatively small city center. Even in a low-kurtosis city like Paris, most Métro lines converge on a narrow area ranging from Les Halles to Saint-Lazare; in a high-kurtosis one like New York or Tokyo, there are a few square kilometers with 200,000 jobs per km^2, which require an exceptionally dense network of rapid transit lines.
Some other network design principles follow from the need to amply serve city center. Specifically, high frequency is rarely a worry, because there’s so much demand even off-peak that usually megacity subway systems do not venture into the frequency range where long waits deter traffic; New York’s 10-minute midday gaps are bad, but that’s unusual and it comes from a combination of the legacy of postwar fear of subway crime suppressing demand and excessive branching.
But other principles require careful planning still.
Electronics before concrete, megacity version
The driverless lines in Paris support peak throughput of 42 trains per hour – a train every 85 seconds. CBTC on Line 13 without driverless operation supports 38 tph, and London’s CBTC-equipped lines support 36 tph when the branching isn’t too complex. It is imperative for other cities to learn from this and do whatever they can to reach similar headways. The difference between 21 tph, as in Shanghai, and Paris’s 42, is equivalent to building a brand new subway line. And what’s more, in a city in the size class we’re talking about, the primary concern is capacity – coverage is already good, so there really is no reason to build two 21 tph lines instead of one 42 tph one.
The situation in Paris is in a context with self-contained lines. That said, extremely busy self-contained lines do exist in other megacities – London has a bunch with near-Parisian levels of throughput, New York has some, Tokyo has a few, Seoul and Osaka are both more self-contained than Tokyo is.
Throughput and organization
The primacy of throughput means that it’s worthwhile to build small infrastructure upgrades, even with concrete, if they help with capacity. Right now the Northern line reverse-branches with the branches to the north recombining with those in the center, and Transport for London would like to split the line in two, reducing branching complexity, which would increase capacity. But doing so requires improving pedestrian circulation in the corridors of the branch point, Camden Town, where TfL expects very large transfer volumes if there’s a split and already there are circulation problems today without a split. Hence the plan in the medium term is to upgrade Camden Town and then split.
If there are bumper tracks at the end of a line, as at 8th Avenue on the L or Flushing-Main Street on the 7, then it’s useful to dig up the street for another block just to add some tail tracks. That way, trains could enter the station at full speed. This increases throughput, because the terminal interlocking has trains heading in opposite directions crossing each other at-grade, which imposes schedule constraints; it’s best if trains can go through the interlocking as fast as possible to reduce the time they’re in a constrained environment, but that in turn requires short tail tracks so that an overrun of a few meters is not catastrophic. Ideally the tail tracks should even extend a full train length past the platform to place the interlocking on the other side of it, as is done in Paris and Moscow; in that case, trains cross the interlocking out of service, when it’s easier to control their exact timings.
Such projects are disruptive, but the disruption is very localized, to just one transfer station for a deinterlining project as in London or one terminal as in New York, and the impact on capacity is very large, if not quite as large as the full suite of signaling and track upgrades that make the difference between a train every 3 minutes and a train every 1.5 minutes.
The ideal metro network is radial. Megacities already support that just because so many lines have to serve city center. However, it’s important to make sure every pair of lines intersects, with a transfer. No large metro network in the world achieves this ideal – Mexico City’s network is the largest without missed connections, but it is not radial and its only three radial lines are overburdened while the other lines have light ridership. Paris has just a single missed connection on the Métro proper, not counting the RER, but it has many pairs of lines that do not intersect at all, such as M1 and M3. London is more or less a pure radial, but there are a handful of misses, including one without any transfer between the two lines anywhere, namely the Metropolian line (including Hammersmith and City) and the Charing Cross branch of the Northern line.
Big cities that plan out a metro network have to make sure they do better. Missed connections reduce passenger ridership and lead riders to overload the lines that do get connections; for example, in Tokyo one reason cited for the high ridership of the Tozai Line is that until Fukutoshin opened it was the only one with a transfer to every other subway line, and in Shanghai, Line 1 was extremely congested as long as the alternatives going north either had critical missed connections (like Line 8) or avoided city center (like Line 3).
The role of regional rail
Regional rail as a basic concept is mostly scale-invariant. However, the design principles for trains that come every half hour are not the same as those for trains that come every 5 minutes. If trains come every half hour, they had better connect cities in a roundtrip time equal to an integer number of half hours minus turnaround times, so that they don’t have to loiter 25 minutes at a terminal collecting dust and depreciating. If they come every 5 minutes, they’re not going to loiter 25 minutes anyway, and the difference between a 5-minute turnaround and a 7-minute turnaround is not really relevant.
The design principles are then mostly about throughput, again. The most important thing is to build independent trunk lines for trains to serve city center. Even in a huge city, the finances of building a purely greenfield subway deep into suburbia are poor; Tokyo has done it with the Tsukuba Express but it’s mostly above-ground, and for the most part regional lines there and elsewhere come from taking existing suburban lines and linking them with city center tunnels.
Tokyo’s insistence on making these city center tunnels also form a coherent metro network is important. Only one non-Tokyo example is worth mentioning to add to all of this: this is Berlin, which is not a megacity but has three independent S-Bahn trunk lines. Berlin, unlike London and Paris, painstakingly made sure the S-Bahn lines would have transfers with the U-Bahn; its network has only one U-Bahn/S-Bahn missed connection, which is better than the situation in Tokyo, Paris, or (with Thameslink and Crossrail) London.
The role of development
All first-world megacities, and I believe also all megacities elsewhere, have high housing demand by domestic standards. All are very wealthy by domestic standards except Los Angeles, and Los Angeles is still incredibly expensive, it just doesn’t have the high wages to compensate that London and New York and Paris have. In such an environment, there’s no need to try to be clever with steering development to transit-oriented sites. Anywhere development is legal, developers will build, and the public transport system has a role to play in opening more land for more intense development through fast trips to the center.
A laissez-faire approach to zoning is useful in such an environment. This contrasts with smaller cities’ reliance on finger plans, like the original one in Copenhagen or the growing one in and around Berlin. No limits on development anywhere are required. The state’s planning role remains strong through transportation planning, and the suburbs may well form natural finger plans if developers are permitted to replace single-family houses with apartment buildings anywhere, since the highest-value land is near train stations. But state planning of where housing goes is counterproductive – high transit ridership comes from the impossibility of serving a large central business district by cars, and the risk of politicization and policy capture by homeowners is too great.
The advantage of this approach is also that because in a high-demand city public transport can to some extent shape and not just serve development, it’s okay to build lines that are good from the perspective of network coherence, even if the areas they serve are a bit light. This principle does not extend indefinitely – subway and regional rail lines should still go where people are – but for example building key transfer points in near-center neighborhoods that are not in high demand is fine, because demand will follow, as is building lines whose main purpose is to close some gap in the network.
The larger the city, the more important cost control is. This may sound counterintuitive, since larger cities have more demand – only in Manhattan could a $1.7 billion/km extension like Second Avenue Subway pencil out – but larger cities also have a bigger risk of cost blowouts. Already Tokyo has stopped building new rapid transit in the core despite very high crowding levels on the existing network, and London builds next to nothing as well. New York’s poor cost control led Philip Plotch to entitle his book about Second Avenue Subway The Last Subway. Even Paris builds mostly in the suburbs. Extensive city center and near-center construction continues in Seoul, in the context of very low construction costs.
The flip side is that a New York (or even London) that can build subways at the cost of Paris, let alone Seoul, is one that can rapidly solve all of its transport problems. My Assume Nordic Costs map fixates on a region of the world with small cities, but the construction costs in South Korea are if anything lower than in the Nordic countries. And even that map, given free reins for developers, is underbuilt – some lines would look ridiculous at current costs and zoning but reasonable given low costs and liberal zoning, for example something meandering through currently industrial parts of New Jersey.
Small cities designed their public transportation philosophy around scarcity: Switzerland really can’t just draw crayon and build it, because housing and transport demand there are finite and limited. Cities like New York and London, in contrast, should think in terms of abundance of infrastructure and housing, provided their regulations are set up in a way that permits the state to build infrastructure at low costs and private homebuilders to redevelop large swaths as they become easily accessible to city center.
New York real estate media is speculating that people may want to leave the city after the total failures of the city, state, and federal governments to protect public health at the peak of corona in March and April. I do not know if this is actually happening and if people actually are moving out, as opposed to just writing about moving out and complaining that bankrupt retail and restaurant chains are closing. But a number of busybodies, including Mayor Bill de Blasio, have already complained that it is somehow immoral to leave. And the only reasonable reaction to this exhortation is, what?
It’s 100% reasonable to leave a city that cannot provide basic services. The problem with white flight is not that it’s immoral to leave; it’s that it’s stupid to treat segregation as a service the city must provide, rather than education, health care, electricity, transportation, affordable housing, and so on.
A lot of New York’s problems have been well-known for a while. It can’t provide affordable housing to anyone – middle-class renters pay $3,000 a month for an apartment that should be renting for $1,000; everyone in New York knows this, even if many (e.g. homeowners) like this arrangement and some others don’t but have the wrong explanation as for why (e.g. left-NIMBYs). Trash on the street has always been a problem, but only recently have New Yorkers begun realizing it doesn’t have to be this way. Crime was at a historic low on the eve of corona, and even with the recent spike is at sub-2000s levels. Schools in New York are as I understand it good by inner-city American standards.
But the health issue is looming. Six months ago, New York seemed like a place with genuinely good public health. Some of it was cultural (e.g. the city is anti-smoking even by American standards, let alone European or East Asian ones); some of it is selective migration of healthy workers; some of it is high physical activity levels in a city where the majority of people do not own cars, which is a policy issue but one coming from investments made in 1900-1940 and not today. But the hospitals enjoyed good reputation and there is a fair bit of public health care in the city.
And then came corona, and it turned out that the city, the state, and the country all failed at providing basic public health. De Blasio told people to go have fun at bars one last time on the day he announced forced closures in March; Governor Andrew Cuomo outdid him by sending elderly corona patients back to nursing homes, prohibiting subway employees from wearing masks early on, and taking a long time to even acknowledge that masks were useful; and the less said of Donald Trump’s response from when Taiwan first warned the world about the new virus around New Year’s to the present, the better.
The issue isn’t even so much that in the future the city is likelier to have a big second wave. The experience of having heard ambulance sirens all night made New Yorkers take the crisis more seriously than people elsewhere; daily infections are flat and higher than in Europe (36/million people, the EU average is around 23), but so much lower than in the rest of the US. But rather, the total failure of government at all levels to deal with this crisis means it will likely fail to deal with other crises in the future. The US doesn’t have the state capacity to deal with a crisis that democratic East Asia or even Western Europe has, and New York is run as a bunch of fiefdoms at both the city and state level in which the person in charge is selected for political loyalty rather than competence.
The criminal justice angle in New York is even more frustrating. It’s not even that there is crime, or police brutality. Politicians are free to run as pro-police, as Rudy Giuliani and Mike Bloomberg did. But de Blasio ran explicitly on a platform of reducing police brutality, in which capacity he failed – NYPD has killed around 10 people a year every year since the early 2000s. Losing an election is understandable, and even winning the election but then losing in negotiations is understandable and politicians often find themselves having to explain a certain compromise. But de Blasio’s response made no acknowledgment of such compromise – he has no ability to exercise civilian control of the police.
You do not owe anything to a place. Places don’t have feelings, and people who base their entire personal identity on emotional attachment to a place are not worth bothering with. If the city works for you, then great! Move there if you can, stay if you’re already there. There are a lot of great things about New York – New Yorkers are curious and diligent people, even if the people governing them are neither of these things. But if it doesn’t, just leave. It’s okay. I’ll help you with some information about how to move to Germany if you want.
I was asked a few months ago about priorities for street pedestrianization in New York. This issue grew in importance during the peak of the corona lockdown, when New Yorkers believed the incorrect theory of subway contagion and asked for more bike and pedestrian support on the street. But it’s now flared again as Mayor de Blasio announced the cancellation of Summer Streets, a program that cordons off a few streets, such a the roads around Grand Central, for pedestrian and bike traffic. Even though the routes are outdoors, the city is canceling them, citing the virus as the reason even though there is very little outdoor infection.
But more broadly, the question of pedestrianization is not about Summer Streets, which is an annual event that happens once and then for the rest of the year the streets revert to car usage. It’s about something bigger, like the permanent Times Square and Herald Square pedestrianization.
In general, pedestrianization of city centers is a good thing. This can be done light, as when cities take lanes off of roadways to expand bike lanes and sidewalks, or heavy, as when an entire street loses car access and becomes exclusive to pedestrians and bikes. The light approach should ideally be done everywhere, to reduce car traffic and make it viable to bike; cycling in New York is more dangerous than in Paris and Berlin (let alone Amsterdam and Copenhagen) since there are too few separated bike lanes and they are not contiguous and since there is heavy car traffic.
The heavy approach should be used when feasible, but short of banning cars cannot be done everywhere. The main obstacle is that in some places a critical mass of consumers access retail by car, so that pedestrianization means drivers will go elsewhere and the region will suffer; this happened with 1970s-era efforts in smaller American cities like Buffalo, and led to skepticism about the Bloomberg-era Times Square pedestrianization until it was completed and showcased success. Of course, Midtown Manhattan is rich in people who access retail by non-auto modes, but it’s not the only such place.
Another potential problem is delivery access. This is in flux, because drone delivery and automation stand to simplify local deliveries, using sidewalk robots at pedestrian scale. If delivery is automated then large trucks no longer offer much benefit (they’re not any faster than a bicycle in a congested city). But under current technology, some delivery access is needed. In cities with alleys the main street can be pedestrianized with bollards while the alleys can be preserved for vehicular access, but New York has about three alleys, which are used in film production more than anything because they connote urban grit.
Taking all of this together, the best places for pedestrianization are,
- City centers and near-center areas. In New York, this is the entirety of Manhattan south of Central Park plus Downtown Brooklyn and Long Island City. There, the car mode share is so low that there is no risk of mass abandonment of destinations that are too hard to reach by car.
- Non-residential areas. The reason is that it’s easier to permit truck deliveries at night if there are no neighbors who would object to the noise.
- Narrow streets with plenty of commerce. They’re not very useful for drivers anyway, because they get congested easily. If there are deliveries, they can be done in off-hours. Of note, traffic calming on wider streets is still useful for reducing pollution and other ills of mass automobile use, but it’s usually better to use light rather than heavy traffic reduction, that is road diets rather than full pedestrianization.
- Streets with easy alternatives for cars, for example if the street spacing is dense. In Manhattan, this means it’s better to pedestrianize streets than avenues.
- Streets that are not useful for buses. Pedestrianized city center streets in Europe are almost never transit malls, and the ones I’m familiar with have trams and not buses, e.g. in Nice.
Taking this all together, some useful examples of where to pedestrianize in New York would be,
- Most of Lower Manhattan. There are no residents, there is heavy commerce, there is very heavy foot traffic at rush hour, and there are enough alternatives that 24/7 pedestrianization is plausible on many streets and nighttime deliveries are on the rest.
- Some of the side streets of Downtown Brooklyn and Long Island City. This is dicier than Manhattan – the mode share in those areas as job centers is far below Manhattan’s. A mid-2000s report I can no longer find claimed 50% for Downtown Brooklyn and 30% for LIC, but I suspect both numbers are up, especially LIC’s; Manhattan’s is 67%, with only 15% car. So there’s some risk, and it’s important to pick streets with easy alternatives. Fulton Mall seems like a success, so presumably expansions can start there and look at good connections.
- St. Mark’s. It’s useless for any through-driving; there’s a bus but its ridership is 1,616 per weekday as of 2018, i.e. a rounding error and a prime candidate for elimination in a bus redesign. There’s so much commerce most buildings have two floors of retail, and the sidewalk gets crowded.
- Certain Midtown side streets with a lot of commerce (that’s most of them) and no buses or buses with trivial ridership (also most of them). One-way streets that have subway stations, like 50th and 53rd, are especially attractive for pedestrianization. Two-way streets, again, are valuable targets for road diets or even transit malls (though probably not in Midtown – the only east-west Manhattan-south-of-59th-Street bus route that screams “turn me into a transit mall” is 14th Street).