Category: Urbanism

Transit-Oriented Suburbs

I did a Patreon poll last month with three options, all about development and transit: CBDs and job concentration in middle-income cities (e.g. auto-oriented Bangkok and Istanbul don’t have transit-oriented Shanghai’s CBD formation), dense auto-oriented city neighborhoods (e.g. North Tel Aviv), and transit-oriented low-density suburbia. This is the winning option.

In every (or almost every) city region, there’s a clear pattern to land use and transportation: the neighborhoods closer to the center have higher population density and lower car use than the ones farther away. Moreover, across city regions, there is such a strong negative correlation between weighted density and auto use that exceptions like Los Angeles are notable. That said, the extent of the dropoff in transit use as one moves outward into suburbia is not the same everywhere, and in particular there are suburbs with high transit use. This post will discuss which urban and transportation policies are likely to lead such suburbs to form, in lieu of the more typical auto-oriented suburbs.

What is a suburb?

Definitions of suburbia differ across regions. Here in Paris, anything outside the city’s 1860 limits is the suburbs. The stereotypical banlieue is in history, urban form, and distance from the center a regular city neighborhood that just happens to be outside the city proper for political reasons. It is hardly more appropriate to call any part of Seine-Saint-Denis a suburb than it is to call Cambridge, Massachusetts a suburb of Boston.

So if Seine-Saint-Denis is not a suburb, what is? When I think of suburbia, my prototype is postwar American white flight suburbs, but stripped of their socioeconomic context. The relevant characteristics are,

  • Suburbs developed at a time when mass motorization was widespread. In the US, this means from around 1920 onward in the middle class and slightly later in the working class; in the rest of the developed world, the boundary ranges from the 1920s to the 1960s depending on how late they developed. Note that many stereotypical suburbs were founded earlier, going back even to the 19th century, but grew in the period in question. Brookline is famous for refusing annexation to Boston in 1873, but its fastest development happened between 1910 and 1930, straddling the 1920 limit – and indeed in other respects it’s borderline between a rich suburb and rich urban neighborhood as well.
  • Suburbs have low population density, typical of single-family housing. Aulnay-sous-Bois, at 5,100 people per km^2, is too dense, but not by a large margin. Beverly Hills, which has mansions, has 2,300, and Levittown, New York, probably the single best-known prototype of a suburb, has 2,900. The urban typology can mix in apartments, but the headline density can’t be dominated by apartments, even missing middle.
  • Suburbs are predominantly residential. They can have distinguished town centers, but as broad regions, they have to have a significant number of commuters working in the city. This rules out low-density central cities like Houston and Dallas (although their individual neighborhoods would qualify as suburbs!). It also rules out Silicon Valley as a region, which represents job sprawl more than residential sprawl.

The three criteria above make no mention of whether the area is included in the central city. Most of Staten Island qualifies as suburban despite being part of New York, but Newark fails all three criteria, and Seine-Saint-Denis and most of Hudson County fail the first two.

Where are suburbs transit-oriented?

I do not know of any place where suburban transit usage is higher than city center transit usage. In theory, this suggests that the best place to look for transit-oriented suburbia is the cities with the highest transit mode shares, such as Tokyo, Singapore, and Hong Kong (or, in Europe, Paris). But in reality, Singapore and Hong Kong don’t have areas meeting the density definition of suburb, and Tokyo has few, mostly located away from its vast commuter rail network. Paris has more true suburbs, but like Tokyo’s, they are not what drives the region’s high rail ridership. All four cities are excellent examples of high-density suburban land use – that is, places that meet my first and third definitions of suburbia but fail the second.

Instead, it’s better to look at smaller, lower-density cities. Stockholm and Zurich are both good models here. Even the central cities are not very dense, at 5,100 and 4,700 people per km^2. Moreover, both are surrounded by large expanses of low-density, mostly postwar suburbia.

Winterthur, Zurich’s largest suburb, is a mix of early 20th century and postwar urban typology, but the other major cities in the canton mostly developed after WW2. At the time, Switzerland was already a very rich country, and car ownership was affordable to the middle class. The story of the Zurich S-Bahn is not one of maintaining mode share through a habit of riding transit, but of running frequent commuter rail to suburbs that did not develop around it from the 1950s to the 70s.

In Stockholm, there is a prominent density gradient as one leaves Central Stockholm. I lived in Roslagstull, at the northern end of Central Stockholm, where the density is 30,000 people per km^2 and the built-up form is the euroblock. Most of the rest of Central Stockholm is similar in urban form and not much less dense. But once one steps outside the city’s old prewar core, density nosedives. City districts to the west and south, like Bromma and Älvsjö, go down to 3,000 people per km^2 or even a little less. A coworker who used to live in Kista described the area as American-style suburban. Beyond these city districts lie the other municipalities, which together form a sizable majority of the county’s population. Of those, a few (Solna, Sundbyberg) are somewhat above the density cutoff, but most are far below it.

In both Zurich and Stockholm, the city is much more transit-oriented than the suburbs. Stockholm’s congestion pricing was a city initiative; the suburbs banded together to oppose it, and eventually forced a compromise in which congestion pricing remained in effect but the revenue would be deeded to urban freeways rather than to public transportation.

And yet, neither city has a big transit use gradient – at least, not so big as Paris, let alone London or New York. Stockholm is expecting 170,000 daily metro trips from its expansion program, which barely touches Central Stockholm. Existing T-bana ridership on the suburban tails is pretty high as well (source, PDF-p. 13), as is ridership on commuter rail, which, too, barely touches Central Stockholm.

The structure of density

In my previous post, I complained that Los Angeles’s density has no structure, and thus public transit ridership is very low and consists predominantly of people too poor to buy a car. The situation in Stockholm and Zurich is the reverse. Density has a clear structure: within each suburb, there is a town center near the commuter rail station.

The histories of Zurich and Stockholm are profoundly different. Each arrived in its structure from a different route. In Zurich, the suburbs come from historic town centers that existed long before cars, often long before industrialization. 20th-century urban sprawl arrived in the form of making these historic villages bigger and bigger until they became proper suburbs. The geography helps rail-oriented suburbanization as well: the ridge-and-valley topography is such that urban sprawl forms ribbons served by commuter rail lines, especially in the southerly direction.

Stockholm’s topography is nothing like Zurich’s. There are water boundaries limiting suburb-to-suburb travel, but the same is true of New York, and yet Long Island, New Jersey, and Westchester are thoroughly auto-oriented. Instead, the structure of density came about because of government planning. Sweden built public housing simultaneously with the Stockholm Metro, so the housing projects were sited near the train stations.

This does not mean that the suburbs of Zurich and Stockholm are actually high-density. Far from it: the housing projects in the Stockholm suburbs are surrounded by a lot of parking and greenery, and the suburbs have extensive single-family housing tracts. However, the density is arranged to grade down from the train station, and there are small clusters of walkable apartment buildings in a small radius around each station. In Zurich the same structure came about with private construction and topography.

To the extent this structure exists elsewhere, it leads to higher low-density transit ridership too, for example in London and the Northeastern United States. Various West Coast American transit bloggers, like Jarrett Walker and Let’s Go LA, keep plugging the West Coast grid over the Northeastern hierarchy of density. But this hierarchy of suburbs that formed around commuter rail to the CBD produces transit ridership that, while awful by Continental European standards, is very good by American ones. Many of the suburbs in question, such as in Westchester, have 15-20% of their commuters choose transit to get to work.

Getting to higher numbers means reinforcing the structure of density and the transit that works in the suburbs, that is, regional rail (or a metro network that goes far out, like the T-bana, if that’s an option). Stations must be surrounded by development rather than parking, and this development should facilitate a somewhat transit-oriented lifestyle, including retail and not just housing. Jobs should be accessible from as many directions as possible, forming CBDs rather than haphazard town centers accessible only by road. Only this way can suburbia be transit-oriented.

Meme Weeding: Los Angeles Density

If you’re the kind of total nerd that looks up tables on Wikipedia for fun, you may notice a peculiarity: the American built-up area with the highest population density is Los Angeles, followed by the Bay Area and New York. This is not what anyone experiences from even a slight familiarity with the two cities. Some people leave it at that and begin to make “well, actually Los Angeles is dense” arguments; this is especially common among supporters of cars and suburbs, like Randall O’Toole, perhaps because they advocate for positions the urbanist mainstream opposes and enjoy the ability to bring up an unintuitive fact. Others instead try to be more analytic about it and understand how Los Angeles’ higher headline density than New York coexists with its actual auto-centric form.

The answer that the urbanist Internet (blogs, then the Census Bureau, then Twitter) standardized on is that the built-up area of New York has some really low-density outer margins, where auto use is high, but the dense core is larger than that of Los Angeles. Here’s a log graph made by longtime Twitter follower Neil Patel:

New York’s 70th percentile of density (shown as 30 on the graph’s y-axis) is far denser than that of the comparison cities. The term the urbanist blogosphere defaulted to is “weighted density,” which is the average density of census tracts weighted by their population rather than area; see original post by the Austin Contrarian, in 2008.

But one problem remains: Los Angeles is by any metric still dense. Neil’s chart above shows its density curve Lorenz-dominating those of Chicago and Washington, both of which have far higher transit usage. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen too much analysis of why. Jarrett Walker talks about Los Angeles’s polycentrism, comparing it with Paris, and boosting it as a positive for public transit. The reality is the opposite, and it’s worth delving more into it to understand why whatever density Los Angeles has fails to make it have even rudimentary public transit.

Yes, Los Angeles is auto-oriented

The “well, actually Los Angeles is not autopia” line faces a sobering fact: Los Angeles has practically no transit ridership. In this section, I’m going to make some comparisons among American metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs); these exclude many suburbs, including the Inland Empire for Los Angeles and Silicon Valley for San Francisco, but Neil’s graph above excludes them as well, because of how the US defines urbanized areas. In the following table, income refers to median income among people driving alone or taking public transit, and all data is from the 2017 American Community Survey (ACS).

Place Workers Drive share Drive income Transit share Transit income
US 152,802,672 76.4% $38,689 5% $37,530
New York 9,821,147 50% $48,812 31% $44,978
San Francisco 2,371,803 57% $54,923 17.4% $62,500
Washington 3,320,895 66.4% $53,390 12.8% $60,420
Chicago 4,653,591 70% $41,817 12.2% $46,796
Los Angeles 6,434,177 75.4% $39,627 4.8% $21,153

The income numbers are not typos. In San Francisco, Washington, and Chicago, transit users outearn drivers. In New York the incomes are close, and US-wide they are almost even. But in Los Angeles, drivers outearn the few transit users almost 2:1. It’s not because Los Angeles has better transit in poor neighborhoods than in rich ones: this may have been true for a long while, but with the Expo Line open to Santa Monica, the Westside has bare bones coverage just like the rest of the city. Even with the coverage that exists, public transit in Los Angeles is so bad that people only use it if they are desperately poor.

When public transportation is a backstop service for the indigent, ridership doesn’t follow the same trends seen elsewhere. Transit ridership in Los Angeles rises and falls based on fares; new rail extensions, which have led to big gains in ridership in Seattle and Vancouver, are swamped by the impact of fare changes in Los Angeles. Gentrification, which in New York has steadily raised subway usage in hotspots like Williamsburg and which does the same in San Francisco, has instead (slightly) contributed to falling transit usage in Los Angeles (p. 53).

Job density and CBD job share

Los Angeles has high residential density by American standards – lower than in New York counted properly, but comparable to San Francisco, and higher than Chicago and Washington. However, job density tells a completely different story. New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington all have prominent central business districts. Without a consistent definition of the CBD, I am drawing what look like the peak employment density sites from OnTheMap, all as of 2015:

Place CBD boundaries Area Jobs MSA share Density
New York 33rd, 3rd, 60th, 9th 3.85 825,476 8.4% 214,336
San Francisco Washington, Powell, 5th, Howard, Embarcadero 1.81 224,010 9.4% 123,558
Washington Rock Creek, P, Mass., 7th, Cons., 14th, H 3.26 240,505 7.2% 73,775
Chicago River, Congress, Michigan, Randolph, Columbus 1.61 368,910 7.9% 228,998
Los Angeles US 110, US 101, Alameda, 1st, Main, 7th 2.11 189,767 2.9% 89,937

The two main indicators to look for are the rightmost two columns: the percentage of jobs that are in the CBD, and the job density within the CBD. These indicators are highly not robust to changing the CBD’s definition, but expanding the definition moves them in opposite direction. Washington and San Francisco can be boosted to about 400,000 jobs each if the CBD is expanded to include near-CBD job centers such as Gallery Place, L’Enfant Plaza, SoMa, and Civic Center. Manhattan south of 60th has 1.9 million jobs in 22.2 km^2. Even in Chicago, where job density craters outside the Loop, the 9 km^2 bounded by Chicago, Halsted, and Roosevelt have 567,000 jobs. In making the tradeoff between job density and MSA share, I tried to use smaller CBD definitions, maximizing density at the expense of MSA share.

But even with this choice, the unusually low CBD share in Los Angeles is visible. This is what Jarrett and others mean when they say Los Angeles is polycentric: it is less dominated by its central business district than New York, Chicago, Washington, and San Francisco.

However, the comparisons between Los Angeles and Paris are wildly off-base. I am not including Paris in my above table, because INSEE only reports job numbers at the arrondissement level, and the city’s CBD straddles portions of the 1st, 2nd, 8th, and 9th arrondissements. Those four arrondissements total 405,189 jobs in 8.88 km^2, but in practice few of these jobs are in the outer quartiers, so a large majority of these jobs are in the central 4.64 km^2. The overall job density is then comparable to that of the Los Angeles CBD, but the similarity stops there: CBD employment is 7.1% of the total for Ile-de-France. If there is a US city that’s similar to Paris on the two CBD metrics of density and employment share, it’s Washington, not coincidentally the only big American city with a height-limited city center.

Secondary centers

In all of the American cities I’m comparing in this post except New York, the share of the population using public transit to get to work is not much higher than the share working in the CBD, especially if we add in near-CBD job centers served by public transit like Civic Center and L’Enfant Plaza (and all of the Manhattan core outside Midtown). This is not a coincidence. Outside a few distinguished locations with high job density, it’s easy enough to drive, and hard to take the train (if it even exists) except from one or two directions.

American cities are distinguished from European ones in that their non-CBD employment is likely to be in sprawling office parks and not in dense secondary centers. Paris is polycentric in the sense of having multiple actual centers: La Defense is the most conspicuous outside the CBD, but the city is full of smaller, lower-rise clusters: the Latin Quarter, Bercy, the Asian Quarter, Gare du Nord, the Marais. The 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 10th, and 12th all have around 20,000-25,000 jobs per square kilometer, not much less than the Upper East Side (which has about 120,000 jobs between 60th and 96th Streets).

A polycentric city needs to have multiple actual centers. Does Los Angeles have such centers? Not really. Century City has 33,000 jobs in about 1.1 km^2. Here is the city’s second downtown, with a job density that only matches that of central Parisian neighborhoods that nobody would mistake with the CBD. The UCLA campus has around 15,000 jobs. Downtown Santa Monica has 24,000 in 2 km^2. El Segundo, which Let’s Go LA plugs as a good site for CBD formation, has 52,000 jobs in 5.2 km^2. Downtown Burbank has about 13,000 in 0.6 km^2. The dropoff in commercial development intensity from the primary CBD is steep in Los Angeles.

What Los Angeles has is not polycentric development. Paris is polycentric. New York is fairly polycentric, with the growth of near-CBD clusters like Long Island City, in addition to older ones like Downtown Brooklyn and Downtown Newark. Los Angeles is just weak-centered.

The structure of density

In his original posts about weighted density from 2008, Chris noted not just the overall weighted density of an American urban area but also the ratio of the weighted to standard density. This ratio is highest in New York, but after New York the highest ratios are in other old industrial cities like Boston and Chicago. This ratio is in stronger correlation with the public transit modal share than weighted density. Much of this fact is driven by the fact that Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia have high-for-America transit usage and Los Angeles doesn’t, but it still suggests that there is something there regarding the structure of density.

In Chicago and Washington, the population density is low, but it follows a certain structure, with higher density in central areas and in distinguished zones near train stations. These structures are not identical. Chicago has fairly uniform density within each city neighborhood, and only sees this structure in the suburbs, which are oriented around commuter rail stations, where people take Metra to the city at rush hour (and drive for all other purposes). In contrast, in Washington commuter rail is barely a footnote, whereas Metro drives transit-oriented development in clusters like Arlington, Alexandria, Silver Spring, and Bethesda. In these islands of density, the transit-oriented lifestyle is at least semi-plausible.

Paris has fairly uniform density within the city, but it has strong TOD structure in the suburbs: high density within walking distance of RER stations, lower density elsewhere. Some RER stations are also surrounded by job clusters oriented toward the train station: La Defense is by far the biggest and best-known, but Cergy, Val d’Europe and Marne la Vallee, Issy, Noisy, and Saint-Denis are all walkable to job centers and not just housing. Within the city there is no obvious structure, but the density is so high and the Metro so ubiquitous that transit serves the secondary nodes well.

In Los Angeles, there is no structure to density. There are some missing middle and mid-rise neighborhoods, but few form contiguous blobs of high density that can be served by a rapid transit line. Koreatown is in a near-tie with Little Osaka for highest population density in the United States outside New York, but immediately to its west, on the Purple Line Extension, lie kilometers of single-family sprawl, and only farther west on Wilshire can one see any density (in contrast, behind Little Osaka on Geary lies continuous density all the way to the Richmond). With the exception of Century City, UCLA, and Santa Monica, the secondary centers don’t lie on any obvious existing or current transit line.

With no coherent structure, Los Angeles is stuck. Its dense areas are too far away from one another and from job centers to be a plausible urban zone where driving is not necessary for a respectable middle-class lifestyle. Buses are far too slow, and trains don’t exist except in a handful of neighborhoods. Worse, because the density is so haphazard, the rail extensions can’t get any ridership. The ridership projection for the Purple Line Extension is an embarrassing 78,000 per weekday for nearly 15 km and $8.2 billion. The construction cost is bad, but in a large, dense city should be offset by high ridership (as it is in London); but it isn’t, so the projected ridership per kilometer is on a par with some New York City Transit buses and the projected cost per rider is so high that it is usually reserved for airport connectors.

The way out

In a smaller, cheaper auto-centric city, like Nashville or Orlando, I would be entirely pessimistic. In Los Angeles there is exactly one way out: fix the urban design, and reinforce it with a strong rail network.

The fact that this solution exists does not mean it is politically easy. In particular, the region needs to get over two hangups, each of which is separately nearly insurmountable. The first is NIMBYism. Los Angeles is so expensive that if it abolishes its zoning code, or passes a TOD ordinance that comes close to it, it could see explosive growth in population, which would be concentrated on the Westside, creating a large zone of high density in which people could ride the trains. However, the Westside is rich and very NIMBY. Metro isn’t even trying to upzone there: the Purple Line Extension has a 3.2-km nonstop segment from Western to La Brea, since the single-family houses in between are too hard to replace with density. Redeveloping the golf courses that hem Century City so that it could grow to a real second downtown is attractive as well, but even the YIMBYs think it’s unrealistic.

The second obstacle is the hesitation about spending large amounts of money all at once. American politicians are risk-averse and treat all spending as risk, and this is true even of politicians who boldly proclaim themselves forward-thinking and progressive. Even when large amounts of money are at stake, their instincts are to spread them across so many competing goals that nothing gets funded properly. The amount of money Los Angeles voters have approved to spend on transportation would build many rapid transit lines, even without big decreases in construction costs, but instead the money is wasted on showcasing bus lanes (this is Metro’s official blog’s excuse for putting bus lanes on Vermont and not rapid transit) or fixing roads or the black hole of Metro operating costs.

But the fact that Los Angeles could be a transit city with drastic changes to its outlook on development and transportation investment priorities does not mean that it is a transit city now. Nor does it mean that the ongoing program of wasting money on low-ridership subway lines is likely to increase transit usage by the required amount. Los Angeles does not have public transportation today in the sense that the term is understood here or in New York or even in Chicago. It should consider itself lucky that it can have transit in the future if it implements politically painful changes, but until it does, it will remain the autopia everyone outside urbanism thinks it is.

Sunnyside Junction, Redux

Seven years ago, I wrote a pair of posts about Sunnyside Yards. The first recommends the construction of a transfer station through Sunnyside Yards, in order to facilitate transfers between Penn Station- and Grand Central-bound trains. The second recommends redeveloping the yards via a deck, creating high-density residential and commercial space on a deck on top of the yard. Recent news, both about an official plan to deck the yards and about leaks that Amazon is likely to move half of its second headquarters (HQ2) to Long Island City, make a Sunnyside Junction so much more urgent.

Here is how service would look:

The color scheme is inherited from my regional rail maps (see e.g. here) but for the purposes of this post, all it means is that green and blue correspond to the inner and outer tracks of the Park Avenue, purple is East Side Access, orange corresponds to LIRR trains going to the northern pair of East River Tunnels, and red corresponds to LIRR, Metro-North Penn Station Access, and Amtrak trains going to the southern pair of East River Tunnels. No track infrastructure is assumed except what’s already in service or funded (i.e. ESA and Penn Station Access), and only two infill stations are mapped: Astoria, which would be a strong location for a stop were fares integrated with the subway and frequency high, and Sunnyside Junction.

The infill stations that are not planned

An Astoria station was studied for PSA, but was dropped from consideration for two reasons. First, the location is legitimately constrained due to grades, though a station is still feasible. And second, under the operating assumptions of high fares and low off-peak frequency, few people would use it. It would be like Wakefield and Far Rockaway, two edge-of-city neighborhoods where commuter rail ridership is a footnote compared with slower but cheaper and more frequency subway service.

A Sunnyside Junction station was in contrast never considered. There are unfunded plan for an infill station to the west of the junction, served only by Penn Station-bound trains. Such a station would hit Long Island City’s job center well, but the walk from the platform to the office towers would still be on pedestrian-hostile roads, and if there’s political will to make that area more walkable, the city might as well just redevelop Sunnyside Yards (as already planned).

The reason there was never any plan for a station can be seen by zooming in on the area I drew as a station. It’s a railyard, without streets (yet). At today’s development pattern, nobody would use it as an O&D station, even if fares and schedules were integrated with the subway. The importance of the station is as a transfer point between Grand Central- and Penn Station-bound trains. The planned developments (both HQ2 and independent city plans) makes it more urgent, since the area is relatively far from the subway, but the main purpose of the station is a better transit network, rather than encouraging development.

The main benefit of the station is transfers between the LIRR and Metro-North. While nominally parts of the MTA, the two agencies are run as separate fiefs, both of which resisted an attempt at a merger. The LIRR opposed PSA on the grounds that it had a right to any empty slots in the East River Tunnels (of which there are around 8 per hour at the peak). Governor Cuomo intervened to protect PSA from Long Island’s opposition, but in such an environment, coordinated planning across the two railroads is unlikely, and the governor would not intervene to improve the details of the ESA and PSA projects.

Network improvements

East Side Access means that in a few years, LIRR trains will split between two Manhattan destinations. Conceptually, this is a reverse-branch: trains that run on the same route in the suburbs, such as the LIRR Main Line, would split into separate routes in the city core. In contrast, conventional branching has trains running together in the core and splitting farther out, e.g. to Oyster Bay, Port Jefferson, and Ronkonkoma. Reverse-branching is extremely common in New York on the subway, but is rare elsewhere, and leads to operational problems. London’s Northern line, one of the few examples of reverse-branching on an urban subway outside New York, is limited to 26 trains per hour through its busiest trunk at the peak, and long-term plans to segregate its two city trunks and eliminate reverse-branching would raise this to 36.

To ensure LIRR trains run with maximum efficiency, it’s necessary to prevent reverse-branching. This means that each trunk, such as the Main Line and the Hempstead Branch, should only ever go to one Manhattan terminal. Passengers who wish to go to the other Manhattan terminal should transfer cross-platform. Jamaica is very well-equipped for cross-platform transfers, but it’s at a branch point going to either Manhattan or Downtown Brooklyn, without a good Penn Station/Grand Central transfer. Without a good transfer, passengers would be stuck going to a terminal they may not work near, or else be forced into a long interchange. In London the reason the Northern line is not already segregated is that the branch point in the north, Camden Town, has constrained passageways, so eliminating reverse-branching requires spending money on improving circulation.

Unlike Camden Town, Sunnyside Junction is roomy enough for cross-platform transfers. The tracks should be set up in a way that LIRR trains going to East Side Access should interchange cross-platform with PSA and Port Washington Branch trains (which should go to Penn Station, not ESA), as they do not stop at Jamaica. Penn Station-bound LIRR trains not using the Port Washington Branch, colored orange on the map, should stop at Sunnyside too, but it’s less important to give them a cross-platform transfer.

This assignment would be good not just for LIRR passengers but also for PSA passengers. Unlike on the LIRR, on the New Haven Line, reverse-branching is unavoidable. However, passengers would still benefit from being able to get on a Penn Station-bound train and connecting to Grand Central at Sunnyside. Not least, passengers on the PSA infill stations in the city would have faster access to Grand Central than they have today via long walks or bus connections to the 6 train. But even in the suburbs, the interchange would provide higher effective frequency.

The connection with development

I don’t know to what extent decking Sunnyside Yards could attract Amazon. I wrote an article last year, which died in editing back-and-forth, lamenting that New York was unlikely to be the HQ2 site because there was no regional rail access to any of the plausible sites thanks to low frequency and no through-running. Long Island City’s sole regional rail access today consists of LIRR stations on a reverse-branch that does not even go into Manhattan (or Downtown Brooklyn) and only sees a few trains per day. It has better subway access and excellent airport access, though.

However, since Sunnyside Junction is so useful without any reference to new development, the plans for decking make it so much more urgent. Sunnyside Yards are in the open air today, and there is space for moving tracks and constructing the necessary platforms. The cost is likely to be in the nine figures because New York’s construction costs are high and American mainline rail construction costs are even higher, but it’s still a fraction of what it would take to do all of this under a deck.

Moreover, the yards are not easy to deck. Let’s Go LA discussed the problem of decking in 2014: columns for high-rise construction are optimally placed at intervals that don’t jive well with railyard clearances, and as a result, construction costs are a multiple of what they are on firma. Hudson Yards towers cost around $12,000/square meter to build, whereas non-WTC commercial skyscrapers in the city are $3,000-6,000 on firma. The connection with Sunnyside Junction is that preparing the site for the deck requires extensive reconfiguration of tracks and periodic shutdowns, so it’s most efficient to kill two birds with one stone and bundle the reconfiguration required for the station with that required for the deck.

In the other direction, the station would make the deck more economically feasible. The high construction costs of buildings on top of railyards makes decking unprofitable except in the most desirable areas. Even Hudson Yards, adjacent to Midtown Manhattan on top of a new subway station, is only treading water: the city had to give developers tax breaks to get them to build there. In Downtown Brooklyn, Atlantic Yards lost the developer money. Sunnyside Yards today are surrounded by auto shops, big box retail, and missing middle residential density, none of which screams “market rents are high enough to justify high construction costs.” A train station would at least offer very fast rail access to Midtown.

If the decking goes through despite unfavorable economics, making sure it’s bundled with a train station becomes urgent, then. Such a bundling would reduce the incremental cost of the station, which has substantial benefits for riders even independently of any development it might stimulate in Sunnyside.

How Transit and Green Tech Make Economic Geography More Local

The theme of winners and losers has been on my mind for the last few months, due to the politics of the Brooklyn bus redesign. In a rich country, practically every social or political decisions is win-lose, even if the winners greatly outnumber the losers. It’s possible to guarantee a soft landing to some of the losers, but sometime even the soft landing is disruptive, and it’s crucial that backers of social change be honest with themselves and with the public about this. Overall, a shift from an auto-oriented society to a transit-oriented one and from dirty energy to clean energy is positive and must be pursued everywhere, but it does have downsides. In short, it changes economic geography in ways that make certain regions (like Detroit or the Gulf Cooperation Council states) redundant; it reorients economies toward more local consumption, so oil, gas, and heavy industry jobs would not be replaced with similar manufacturing or mining clusters but with slightly more work everywhere else in the world.

Dirty production is exportable

The United States has the dirtiest economy among the large developed countries, so it’s convenient to look at average American behavior to see where the money that is spent on polluting products goes.

Nationally, about 15.9% of consumer spending is on transportation. The vast majority of that is on cars, 93.1% (that is, 14.7% of total consumer spending). The actual purchase of the car is 42% of transportation spending, or 6.7% of household spending. This goes to an industry that, while including local dealerships (for both new and used cars), mostly consists of auto plants, making cars in suburban Detroit or in low-wage Southern states and exporting them nationwide.

In addition to this 6% of consumer spending on cars, there’s fuel. Around 3% of American household spending is on fuel for cars. Overall US oil consumption in 2017 was 7.28 billion barrels, which at $52/barrel is 5% of household spending; the difference between 5 and 3 consists of oil consumed not by households. This is a total of about 2% of American GDP, which includes, in addition to household spending, capital goods and government purchases. This tranche of the American economy, too, is not local, but rather goes to the oil industry domestically (such as to Texas or Alaska) or internationally (such as to Alberta or Saudi Arabia).

Historically, when coal was more economically significant, it was exportable too. Money flowed from consumers, such as in New York and London, to producers in the Lackawanna Valley or Northeast England; today, it still flows to remaining mines, such as in Wyoming.

The same is true of much of the supply chain for carbon-intensive products. Heavy industry in general has very high carbon content for its economic value, which explains how the Soviet Union had high greenhouse gas emissions even with low car usage (15.7 metric tons per capita in the late 1980s) – it had heavy industry just as the capital bloc did, but lagged in relatively low-carbon consumer goods and services. The economic geography of steel, cement, and other dirty products is again concentrated in industrial areas. In the US, Pittsburgh is famous for its historical steel production, and in general heavy manufacturing clusters in the Midwestern parts of the Rust Belt and in transplants in specific Southern sites.

All of these production zones support local economies. The top executives may well live elsewhere – for example, David Koch lives in New York and Charles Koch in Wichita (whose economy is based on airplane manufacturing and agriculture, neither of which the Kochs are involved in). But the working managers live in city regions dedicated to servicing the industry, the way office workers in the oil industry tend to live in Houston or Calgary, and of course the line workers live near the plants and mines.

Clean alternatives are more local

The direct alternatives to oil, gas, and cars are renewable energy and public transportation. These, too, have some components that can be made centrally and exported, such as solar panel and rolling stock manufacturing. However, these components are a small fraction of total spending.

How small? Let’s look at New York City Transit. Its operating costs are about $9.1 billion a year as of 2016, counting both the subway and buses. Nearly all of this is wages, salaries, and benefits: $7.3 billion, compared with only $500 million for materials and supplies. This specifically excludes vehicle purchases, which in American transit accounting are lumped as capital costs. The total NYCT fleet is about 6,400 subway cars, which cost around $2.3 million each and last 40+ years, and 5,700 buses, which cost around $500,000 each and last 12 years, for a total depreciation charge of around $600 million a year combined.

Compare this with cars: New York has about 2 million registered cars, but at the same average car ownership rate as the rest of the US, 845 per 1,000 people, it would have 7.3 million cars. These 5.3 million extra cars would cost $36,500 each today, and last around 20 years, for a total annual depreciation charge of $9.7 billion.

Put another way, total spending on vehicles at NYCT is one sixteenth what it would take to raise the city’s car ownership rate to match the national average. Even lumping in materials and supplies that are not equipment, such as spare parts and fuel for buses, the total, $1.1 billion, is one ninth as high as buying New Yorkers cars so that they can behave like Americans outside the city, and that’s without counting the cost of fuel. In particular, there is no hope of maintaining auto plant employment by retraining auto workers to make trains, as Michael Moore proposed in 2009.

The vast majority of transit spending is then local: bus and train operations, maintenance, and local management. The same is true of capital spending, which goes to local workers, contractors, and consultants, and even when it is outsourced to international firms, the bulk of the value of the contract does not accrue to Dragados or Parsons Brinckerhoff.

Clean energy is similarly local. Solar panels can be manufactured centrally, but installing them on rooftops is done locally. Moreover, the elimination of carbon emissions coming from buildings has to come not just from cleaner electricity but also from reducing electricity consumption through passive solar construction. Retrofitting houses to be more energy-efficient is a labor-intensive task comprising local builders sealing gaps in the walls, windows, and ceilings.

Low-carbon economic production can be exported, but not necessarily from Detroit

A global shift away from greenhouse gas emissions does not mean just replacing cars and oil with transit and solar power. Transit is cheaper to operate than cars: in metro New York, 80.5% of personal transportation expenditure is still on cars, and the rest is (as in the rest of the country) partly on air travel and not transit fare, whereas work trip mode shares in the metropolitan statistical area are 56% car, 31% transit. With its relatively high (for North America) transit usage, metro New York has the lowest share of household spending going to transportation, just 11.4%. This missing consumption goes elsewhere. Where does it go?

The answer is low-carbon industries. Consuming less oil, steel, and concrete means not just consuming more local labor for making buildings more efficient and running public transit, but also shifting consumption to less carbon-intensive industries. This low-carbon consumption includes local purchases, for example going out to eat, or hiring a babysitter to look after the kids, neither of which involves any carbon emissions. But it also includes some goods that can be made centrally. What are they, and can they be made in the same areas that make cars and steel or drill for oil and gas?

The answer is no. First, in supply regions like the Athabascan Basin, Dammam, and the North Slope of Alaksa, there’s no real infrastructure for any economic production other than oil production. The infrastructure (in the case of North America) and the institutions (in the case of the Persian Gulf) are not suited for any kind of manufacturing. Second, in real cities geared around a single industry, like Detroit or Houston, there are still lingering problems with workforce quality, business culture, infrastructure, and other necessities for economic diversification.

Take the tech industry as an example. The industry itself is very low-carbon, in the sense that software is practically zero-carbon and even hardware has low carbon content relative to its market value. Some individual tech products are dirty, such as Uber, but the industry overall is clean. A high carbon tax is likely to lead to a consumption shift toward tech. And tech as an industry has little to look for in Detroit and Houston. Austin has booming tech employment, but Houston does not, despite having an extensive engineering sector courtesy of the oil industry as well as NASA. The business culture in the space industry (which is wedded to military contracting) is alien to that of tech and vice versa; the way workers are interviewed, hired, and promoted is completely different. I doubt the engineers oil and auto industries are any more amenable to career change to software.

On the level of line workers rather than engineers, the situation is even worse. A manufacturing worker in heavy industry can retrain to work in light industry, or in a non-exportable industry like construction, but light industry has little need for the massive factories that churn out cars and steel. And non-manufacturing exports like tech don’t employ armies of manufacturing workers.

In Germany the situation is better, in that Munich and Stuttgart may have little software, but they do have less dirty manufacturing in addition to their auto industries. It’s likely that if global demand for cars shifts to a global demand for trains then Munich will likely keep thriving – it’s the home of not just BMW and Man but also Siemens. However, the institutions and worker training that have turned southern Germany into an economically diverse powerhouse have not really replicated outside Germany. Ultimately, in a decarbonizing world, southern Germany will be the winner among many heavy industrial regions, most of which won’t do so well.

There’s no alternative to shrinkage in some cities

A shift away from fossil fuel and cars toward green energy and public transit does not have to be harsh. It can aim to give individual workers in those industries a relatively soft landing. However, two snags remain, and are unavoidable.

The first is that some line workers have deliberately chosen poor working conditions in exchange for high wages; the linked example is about oil rig workers in Alaska, but the same issue occurs in some unionized manufacturing and services, for example electricians get high wages but all suffer hearing loss by their 50s. It’s possible to retrain workers and find them work that’s at the same place on the average person’s indifference curve between pay and work conditions, but since those workers evidently chose higher-pay, more dangerous jobs, their personal preference is likely to weight money more than work conditions and thus they’re likely to be unhappy with any alternative.

The second and more important snag is the effect of retraining on entire regions. Areas that specialize to oil, gas, cars, and to some extent other heavy industry today are going to suffer economic decline, as the rest of the world shifts its consumption to either local goods (such as transit operations) or different economic sectors that have no reason to locate in these areas (such as software).

Nobody will be sad to see Saudi Arabia crash except people who are directly paid by its government. But the leaders of Texas and Michigan are not Mohammad bin Salman; nonetheless, it is necessary to proceed with decarbonization. It’s not really possible to guarantee the communities a soft landing. Governments all over the world have wasted vast amounts of money trying and failing to diversify from one sector (e.g. oil in the GCC states) or attract an industry in vogue (e.g. tech anywhere in the world). If engineering in Detroit and Houston can’t diversify on its own, there’s nothing the government can do to improve it, and thus these city regions are destined to become much smaller than they are today.

This is bound to have knock-on regional effects. Entire regions don’t die quietly. Firms specializing in professional services to the relevant industries (such as Halliburton) will have to retool. Small business owners who’ve dedicated their lives to selling food or insurance or hardware to Houstonians and suburban Detroit white flighters will need to leave, just as their counterparts in now-dead mining towns or in Detroit proper did. Some will succeed elsewhere, just as many people in New Orleans who were displaced by Katrina found success in Houston. But not all will. And it’s not possible to guarantee all of them a soft landing, because it’s not possible to guarantee that every new small business will succeed.

All policy, even very good policy, has human costs. There are ways to reduce these costs, through worker retraining and expansion of alternative employment (such as retrofitting older houses to be more energy-efficient). But there is no way to eliminate these costs. Some people who are comfortable today will be made precarious by any serious decarbonization program; put another way, these people’s entire livelihood depends on continuing to destroy the planet, and most of them are not executives at oil and gas companies. It does not mean that decarbonization should be abandoned or even that it should be pursued more hesitantly; but it does mean climate activists, including transit activists, have to be honest about how it affects people in and around polluting industries.

How to Design Rail Service to Connect to Buses Better

Usually, integrated transit planning means designing bus networks to feed rail trunks better. Buses are mobile: their routes can move based on long-term changes in the city’s physical and economic layout. Railroads in contrast have high installation costs. Between the relative ease of moving buses and the fact that there’s a hierarchy in which trains are more central than buses, buses normally should be feeding the trains. However, there are some cases in which the opposite happens: that is, cases in which it’s valuable to design rail infrastructure based on expected bus corridors. Moreover, in developed and middle-income countries these situations are getting more rather than less frequent, due to the increasing use of deep tunneling and large station complexes.

In nearly every circumstance, the hierarchy of bus and rail remains as it is; the exceptions (like Ottawa, at least until the light rail subway opens) are so rare as to be notable. What I posit is that in some situations, rail infrastructure should be designed better to allow buses to feed the trains more efficiently. This mostly affects station infrastructure, but there are also reasons to choose routes based on bus feeding.

Major bus corridors

Surface transit likes following major streets. Years ago, I blogged about this here and here. Major streets have two relevant features: they are wide, permitting buses (or streetcars) to run in generous dedicated lanes without having to deal with too much traffic; and they have continuous linear development, suitable for frequent bus stops (about every half kilometer).

These two features are likely to remain important for surface transit for the foreseeable future. The guidelines for good surface transit service depend on empirical parameters like the transfer penalty (in particular, grids are not the universal optimum for bus networks), but major corridors are relatively insensitive to them. The walk penalty can change the optimal bus stop spacing, but not in a way that changes the basic picture of corridor-based planning. Which streets have the most development is subject to change as city economic and social geography evolves, but which streets are the widest doesn’t. What’s more, a train station at a street intersection is likely to cement the cross-street’s value, making adverse future change less likely.

Note that we don’t have to be certain which major streets will host the most important buses in the future. We just need to know that major buses will follow major streets.

The conclusion is that good locations for rail infrastructure are major intersecting streets. On a commuter line, this means stations should ideally be placed at intersections with roads that can carry connecting buses. On a subway line, this means the same at a more local scale.

Stations and accessibility

When possible, train stations should locate at intersections with through-streets, to permit efficient transfers. This also carries over to station exits, an important consideration given the complexity of many recently-built stations in major rich and middle-income cities.

It goes without saying that a Manhattan subway line should have stations with exits at 72nd, 79th, 86th, 96th, etc. streets. Here, Second Avenue Subway does better than the Lexington Avenue Line, whose stations are chosen based on a 9-block stop spacing and miss the intersecting buses.

However, it’s equally important to make sure that the accessible exits are located at major streets as well. One bad example in New York is the Prospect Park B/Q station: it has two exits, one inaccessible on Flatbush Avenue and one accessible on Empire Boulevard. In theory both are major corridors, but Flatbush is far and away the more important ones, one of the busiest surface transit corridors in the city, while Empire competes for east-west buses with Kings County Hospital, the borough’s biggest job center outside Downtown Brooklyn. Eric Goldwyn’s and my Brooklyn bus redesign breaks the B41 bus on Flatbush and loops it and the Washington Avenue routes around the station complex to reach the accessible exit.

The Prospect Park case is one example of an almost-right decision. The full-time, accessible exit is close to Flatbush, but not quite there. Another example is Fields Corner: the eastern end of the platform is 80 meters from Dorchester Avenue, a major throughfare, and 180 meters from Adams Avenue, another major street, which unlike Dot Ave diverges from the direction the Red Line takes on its way south and is a useful feeder bus route.

Commuter rail and feeder buses

The station placement problem appears especially acute on mainline rail. This is not just an American problem: suburban RER stations are built without regard for major crossing roads (see, for example, the RER B airport branch and the RER A Marne-la-Vallee branch, both built in the 1970s). Railroads historically didn’t think much in terms of systemwide integration, but even when they were turned into modern rapid transit, questionable stop locations persisted; the Ashmont branch of the Red Line in Boston was taken over from mainline rail in the 1920s, but Fields Corner was not realigned to have exits at Dot and Adams.

Today, the importance of feeder buses is better-understood, at least by competent metropolitan transportation planners. This means that some stations need to be realigned, and in some places infill stops at major roads are desirable.

This is good for integration not just with buses but also with cars, the preferred station access mode for American commuter rail. The LIRR’s stations are poorly located within the Long Island road network; Patrick O’Hara argues that Hicksville is the second busiest suburban station (after Ronkonkoma) not because it preferentially gets express service on the Main Line, but because it has by far the best north-south access by road, as it has one arterial heading north and two heading south, while most stations miss the north-south arterials entirely.

Instead of through-access by bus (or by car), some stations have bus bays for terminating buses. This is acceptable, provided the headways are such that the entire local bus network can be configured to pulse at the train station. If trains arrive every half hour (or even every 20 minutes), then timed transfers are extremely valuable. In that case, allowing buses to stop at a bay with fast access to the platforms greatly extends the train station’s effective radius. However, this is of far less value on a dense network with multiple parallel lines, or on a railroad so busy that trains arrive every 10 minutes or less, such as the RER A branches or the trunks of the other RER lines.

Within New York, we see this mistake of ignoring local transit in commuter rail planning with Penn Station Access. The project is supposed to add four stations in the Bronx, but there will not be a station at Pelham Parkway, the eastern extension of Fordham Road carrying the city’s busiest bus, the Bx12. This is bad planning: the MTA should be encouraging people to connect between the bus and the future commuter train and site stations accordingly.

Street networks and route choice

On a grid, this principle is on the surface easy: rapid transit routes should follow the most important routes, with stops at cross streets. This is well understood in New York (where proposals for subway extensions generally follow busy bus routes, like Second Avenue, Nostrand, and Utica) and in Vancouver (where the next SkyTrain extension will follow Broadway).

However, there remains one subtlety: sometimes, the grid makes travel in one direction easier than in another. In Manhattan, north-south travel is easier than east-west travel, so in isolation, east-west subways connecting to north-south buses would work better. (In reality, Manhattan’s north-south orientation means north-south subways are indispensable, and once the subways exist, crossing subways should aim to connect to them first and to surface transit second.) In West Los Angeles, there is a multitude of east-west arterials and a paucity of north-south ones, which means that a north-south subway is of great value, connecting not just to the Expo Line and upcoming Wilshire subway but also other east-west arterials carrying major bus routes like Olympic.

Moreover, some cities don’t have intact grids at all. They have haphazard street networks, with some routes suitable for arterial buses and some not. This is less of an issue in mature cities, which may have such street networks but also have older subway lines for newer route to connect to, and more in newer cities, typically in the third world.

The tension is that very wide arterials are easier to build on, using elevated construction or cut-and-cover. If such a technique is feasible, then constructibility should trump connections to buses (especially since such cities are fast-changing, so there is less certainty over what the major future bus routes are). However, if deep boring is required, for examples because the arterials aren’t that wide, or the subway must cross underwater, or merchant opposition to cut-and-cover is too entrenched, then it’s useful to select routes that hit the arterials orthogonally, for the best surface transit connections.


In a working transit city, rail should be the primary mode of travel and buses should be designed to optimally feed the trains. However, this does not mean rail should be planned without regard to the buses. Train stations should be sited based not just on walk sheds and major destinations but also planned bus connections; on an urban rapid transit system, including S-Bahn trunks, this means crossing arterial streets, where buses typically run. Moreover, these stations’ exits should facilitate easy transfers between buses and trains, including for people with disabilities, who face more constrained mobility choices if they require elevator access. In some edge cases, it may even be prudent to select entire route construction priorities based on bus connections.

While choosing rail routes based on bus connections seems to only be a real issue in rare circumstances (such as the West LA street network), bus-dependent station siting is common. Commuter train services in general are bad at placing stations for optimal suburban bus connections, and may require extensive realignment and infill. On urban subways, station placement is important for both accessibility retrofits and new projects. Outside city centers, where dense subway networks can entirely replace surface transit, it’s critical to select station sites based on maximum connectivity to orthogonal surface lines.

The Mines

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.

YIMBYTown 2018

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.

The talks

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 libertarians

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.

White guilt

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.

Inclusionary zoning

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.

Is Missing Middle Really Missing?

There’s en emerging concept within North American urbanism and planning called missing middle. This refers to housing density that’s higher than suburban single-family housing but lower than urban mid- and high-rise buildings. The context is that in some cities with rapid housing construction, especially Toronto, the zoning code is either single-family or high-density, with nothing in between. The idea of allowing more missing middle housing has become a mainstay of New Urbanism as well as most North American YIMBY movements, underpinning demands such as the abolition of single-family zoning in California and Seattle.

Unfortunately, it’s an overrated concept. It applies to Toronto, but not Vancouver or the most expensive American cities, which are replete with missing middle density. The most in-demand neighborhoods have far too many people who want to move in to make do with this density level. Moreover, missing middle density in its New Urbanist form is not even really transit-oriented: low-rise construction spread over a large area is unlikely to lead middle-class workers to take transit when cars are available. The density required to encourage transit ridership and reduce housing costs is much higher, including mid- and high-rise residences.

What’s missing middle density?

A website created by Opticos Design, an architecture firm specializing in this kind of housing, has a helpful graphical definition:

Many of the missing middle housing forms are part of the vernacular architecture of American cities. In New England, this is the triple-decker, a three-story building with an apartment per floor. In Chicago, this is the fourplex, a two-story building with two apartments per floor. In Los Angeles this is the dingbat, with two or three inhabited floors on top of ground floor parking. In Baltimore and Philadelphia (and in London) this is the rowhouse. This history makes it easier to accept such buildings as both part of the local culture and as affordable to the lower middle class.

The triple-deckers in the parts of Providence and Cambridge I am most familiar with have a floor area ratio of about 1-1.5: they have 2.5 to 3 floors (counting sloped roofs as half a floor) and build on one third to one half the lot. A quick look at some Philadelphia rowhouses suggests they, too, have a floor area ratio in that range. Somerville has a population density just short of 7,000 people per km^2, with little non-residential land and some mid-rise and single-family areas canceling out to missing middle density. Kew Gardens Hills has about 12,000 people per km^2, and has a mixture of missing middle and mid-rise housing.

In Continental Europe, the vernacular architecture is instead mid-rise. In Scandinavia and Central Europe the euroblock has 4-7 floors and a floor area ratio of 2.5-4; Urban Kchoze shows many examples with photos, mostly from Prague, and Old Urbanist finds a euroblock in Berlin with a floor area ratio of 4.3. Central Stockholm’s residential buildings are almost entirely euroblocks, and residential density is 17,000/km^2 in Södermalm, 21,000/km^2 in Vasastan, and 28,000/km^2 in Östermalm. Parisian density is even higher – the floor area ratio of the traditional buildings looks like 4-5, with about 30,000-40,000 people per km^2.

Is missing middle really missing?

In Europe the answer is obviously no: lower-density cities like London are largely missing middle in their inner areas, and higher-density ones like Paris have missing middle density in their outer areas. But even in North America, where the term is popular, the expensive cities where people call for abolishing single-family zoning have missing middle housing. In addition to the above-listed vernacular examples, New York has brownstones all over Brooklyn (the term Brownstone Brooklyn refers to the gentrified inner neighborhoods, but this density is also seen in outer neighborhoods like Bay Ridge and Sheepshead Bay).

Vancouver is an especially instructive example. English Canada’s big cities are fast-growing, and a zoning regime that’s historically been friendlier to developers than to local NIMBYs has encouraged high-rise growth. Moreover, the high-rises are built in the modern boxy style (earning the ire of people who hate modern architecture) and tend to target middle-class and high-skill immigrant buyers (earning the ire of people who blame high housing costs on new construction). In contrast, vast swaths of Toronto and Vancouver are zoned for single-family housing.

And yet, Vancouver has considerable missing middle housing, too. The population density in Mount Pleasant, Fairview, Kitsilano, and West Point Grey is similar to that of Somerville and Eastern Queens. Buildings there are in modern style, but the housing typologies are not modernist towers in a park, but rather mostly buildings with 2-4 floors with the medium lot coverage typical of missing middle. I lived in an eight-unit, three-story building. Across from me there was a high-rise, but it was atypical; for the most part, that part of Vancouver is low-rise.

Shaughnessy offends people in its extravagance and wealth. In one Twitter conversation, an interlocutor who blamed absent landlords and foreigners (read: Chinese people) for Vancouver’s high housing costs still agreed with me that Shaughnessy, a white Canadian-born single-family area, shares the blame with its low-density zoning and very high residential space per person. Legalizing accessory dwelling units (“granny flats”) and townhouses in such a neighborhood faces local political headwind from the neighbors (who are still nowhere near as empowered to block rezoning as they would south of the border), but not from citywide social movements.

And yet, the density in the inner Westside neighborhoods near Broadway and Fourth Avenue is insufficient, too. It’s of course much higher than in Shaughnessy – I never really missed not owning a car living in Kitsilano – but the price signal screams “build more housing in Kits and Point Grey.”

Is missing middle transit-oriented?

Not really. In Providence the answer is absolutely not: car ownership is expected of every person who can afford it. The nearby supermarket, East Side Market, has an enormous parking lot; I’d walk, but it was obvious to me that my mode choice was not the intended use case. Even some Brown grad students owned cars (though most didn’t); at Columbia, car ownership among people below tenure-track faculty rank approaches zero. Once they own cars, people use them to take trips they wouldn’t otherwise have made, reorienting their travel patterns accordingly.

In Cambridge, car use is lower, but still substantial. The same is true of Vancouver (where outside Downtown and the West End the entire region’s density is at most missing middle, even if the typology is towers in a park and not uniformly low-rise). In Kew Gardens Hills, people seem to mostly drive as well.

This is not a universal feature of the urban middle class. In Stockholm, my postdoc advisor as far as I can tell does not own a car, and commutes to work by bike. Both there and in Basel, biking and using transit are normal and expected even among people who earn tenured academic salaries. At 7,000 people per km^2, people can forgo driving if they really want to, but most people will not do so. Only at the higher mid-rise density will they do so.

Cities and Cultural Cringe

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.

Cities and Cultural Theory

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.

Grid-group typology

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.