Ada Palmer posts rarely, but when she does, it’s always worth reading. She alternates between writing about her science fiction and writing about academic history; her most recent post is the latter, covering the historiography of the Renaissance. She notes that the idea of a three-age system, in which great Ancient knowledge was lost in the Middle Ages and rediscovered in the Renaissance, was first promoted in the Renaissance itself, even if the word renaissance was only used starting in the 19th century, and traces why this idea was accepted then and why it’s remained popular since. In short: it provided political legitimacy to the coterie of thugs (“aristocracy”) who launched coups and counter-coups in the Italian states, who could hire historians to portray them as harbingers of a new era of revival of ancient glory.
This is a paragraph-long summary of a 13,000-word post that summarizes an in-progress book, so I’m glossing over a lot of detail and I recommend that people read the post if they want to talk about Renaissance historiography. I bring this up because this is relevant to transportation, and to some extent urbanism in general, in a number of ways.
The three-age schema
Ada notes that medieval Europeans divided the world into two ages: before and after Jesus. The Renaissance began a trend of a three-age system: Antiquity, a medieval dark age, and the Renaissance or modernity. She further traces the intellectual history of this not just in the Italian Renaissance but also in more recent times, going over the use of the language of renaissance in Johan Burkhardt’s work to argue for a new modernity replacing medieval superstition.
Stepping away from professional historians, I do not know to what extent the average educated Westerner thinks in terms of three ages. The answer is clearly “a great deal,” but I do not know to what extent it is universal. I was taught this schema uncritically in primary and middle school, but what I see in the online discourse is less consistent – for example, Paul Krugman’s writings on Malthusianism back a two-age model, before and after the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. But even with the caveat that economic historians don’t view things this way, the Nike swoosh model of Roman greatness, medieval decline, and modern resurgence still exercises enormous cultural influence.
The relevance of this is that people who propose a change to something often default to the three-age model, transplanted into a specific context. The emergent view of most American and European advocates for rail transport is that rail had a golden age from its invention until the middle of the 20th century, declined subsequently, and is supposed to enter a renaissance now. This is usually connected with urbanism, with a model of the growth of traditional cities, decline through suburban sprawl, and renaissance; variants depend on politics, but Strong Towns, myriads of consultants telling cities how to attract talent, most YIMBYs, and most of the left agree on this picture.
Revival of ancient learning
Renaissance Italy had a MIGA obsession. In an era of the Avignon Papacy and intensifying warfare between different factions and city-states, the appeal of Roman unity and peace is not hard to understand; it’s not as if 14th- and 15th-century Italians had better models. Here’s Ada again:
The solution Petrarch proposed to what he saw as the fallen state of “my Italy” was to reconstruct the education of the ancient Romans. If the next generation of Florentine and, more broadly, Italian leaders grew up reading Cicero and Caesar, the Roman blood within them might become noble again, and they too might be more loyal to the people than to their families, love Truth more than power, and in short love their cities as the Romans loved Rome. Such men would, he hoped, be brave and loyal in strengthening and defending their homelands. Rome started as one city, and did not make itself master of the world without citizens willing to die for it.
“Petrarch says we can become as great as the ancients by studying their ways! Let’s do it!” Petrarch’s call went out and, with amazing speed, Italy listened. Desperate, war-torn city states like Florence who hungered for stability poured money into assembling the libraries which might make the next generation more reliable. Wealthy families who wanted their sons to be princely and charismatic like Caesar had them read what Caesar read. Italy’s numerous tyrants and newly-risen, not-at-all-legitimate dukes and counts filled their courts and houses and public self-presentation with Roman objects and images, to equate themselves with the authority, stability, competence and legitimacy of the Emperors. No one took this plan more to heart than Petrarch’s beloved Florentine republic, and, within it, the Medici, who crammed their palaces with classical and neoclassical art, and with the education of Lorenzo succeeded in producing a classically-educated scion who was more princely than princes.
This provided the template for every Western narrative of decline that I’m familiar with, and a good number of non-Western ones: we were great, we’ve gone into decline, we will reverse the decline by restoring our ancient values. It’s unavoidable in every narrative of American decline; it’s there in the Brexit conception of British nationalism; it’s there in cross-national narratives of the decline of the left since the 1970s. In non-Western countries, it was there in a lot of early colonial rebellions (the Indian Rebellion of 1857 tried to restore the Mughal Empire). Even Japan went through a restorationist phase in the wake of its forced opening, though it famously went in a very different direction once the Meiji restoration happened.
This schema is used at a subnational level extensively. Regions that view themselves as declining, like the American Rust Belt, Northern England, or East Germany, cling fiercely to distinctive local institutions. This includes extensive study of local history and local affairs. It’s unavoidable in, say, Belt Publishing. Sometimes, this history is studied critically; in the broad public, it usually isn’t. The number of times I’ve heard New Yorkers contrast how the First Subway was built in four years (and not, say, 40) with how long subways take today is beyond mortals’ ability to count.
With rail transport specifically, advocacy is usually bundled into railfan interests. This, as per the usual paradigm, dovetails into very deep, usually uncritical, study of the history of the technology back when it was supposedly great. Go on Railroad.net and you will see people talk about the minutiae of historical steam and diesel engines and also brush off every piece of knowledge that was not generated in American mainline railroading. Interest in rail technology as a solution for the future gets bundled into romanticism for steam locomotives and for the particulars of how private railroads chose to operate service in the early 20th century.
The Renaissance Man as the innovator
Finally, Ada’s insight about why the idea of the Renaissance was accepted so quickly matters when looking at modern technology. Here, the three-age model is less relevant. The same emphasis on the innovator bringing the company/city/nation/world into a golden age is produced by other models. The accelerating growth model of the technological singularity produces the same effect even without the need to learn history, and is therefore widely popular among rationalists.
In transportation, the best recent example of this is the idea of the Hyperloop. What it is, underlyingly, is a new technology for running rail service, like maglev but capable of running at higher speed. All aspects of rail service planning with the exception of propulsion remain mostly the same (mostly, because the higher speeds do have special implications, though I don’t think they’re any different from what one can extrapolate from existing high-speed rail). This means that what it takes to build Hyperloop is similar to what it takes to build ordinary rail plus more money. I think Hyperloop One and Virgin understand that, but Elon Musk does not.
The importance of history as legitimacy cannot be discounted here. Court historians were hired to write hagiographies, just as artists were hired to paint and sculpt the likenesses of the biggest thugs (“royalty”). This does not usually apply to modern academic history – historians have political biases but there are layers insulating high-prestige academic historians from donors. But it does apply to a lot of popular writing, especially business journalism. I forget where I’ve read – I think it was in the context of New York real estate – that 2010s journalism is alive and well in trade media, but writing critical investigative pieces about powerful players is not always expected or rewarded in publications that make money as internal trade papers.
The upshot is that analyzing history, whether general or specific, as an abrupt positive change serves to empower people who can claim that they are the new world, and that any and all criticism is just the old way of thinking. It’s a form of epistemic narrowing that blocks off knowledge those people don’t have or can’t easily control.
Two years ago, at a Breakthrough Institute conference, I met Tory Gattis in real life for the first time, having known him on the Internet for maybe ten years. He was doing a debate with Kim-Mai Cutler, except they mostly agreed, and I think the reason for the agreement is their conception of production theory.
Tory’s opening was the most illuminating part, and only then, in 2018, did I understand why in 2008-9 I was so interested in reading him even though he was always pro-car, an unabashed Houston booster, and a fan of Joel Kotkin. He opened by defining himself in opposition to three ideas from the 2000s: smart growth, New Urbanism, and Richard Florida’s conception of the creative class. And there is clicked: these three ideas are all about cities as loci of consumption. Before YIMBYism, when Market Urbanism was an obscure libertarian blog, there wasn’t a lot in there for people who think in terms of urban job and residential growth, who think that consumption follows production and not the reverse.
New Urbanism and Richard Florida’s theory both hold, in different ways, that if cities make themselves nice to specific (different) classes of people, they will attract people who are morally and economically better to have as residents, stimulating further growth. In New Urbanism, this is about designing cities based on principles that are held to be objectively nicer for residents; this quickly boils down to the “when we’re expensive this proves we’re desirable, when you’re expensive this proves you’re unaffordable” principle. Ironically, the blog Old Urbanist holds something similar, it just posits a different (generally better) set of design principles. Richard Florida is less about physical design and more about community amenities for groups that in the 2000s he held were more creative, like gay people, for whom he prescribed more gay bars.
The irony is that even as he has increasingly repudiated the creative class theory, Florida maintains his attachment to consumption theory of cities. The difference is that 18 years ago he thought that building New Left-coded amenities like bike lanes and gay bars would attract creatives and increase social and economic outcomes and now he believes the same except that the final outcome is to raise rents. Tory was critiquing the idea already in the late 2000s, pointing out the anemic outcomes of cities whose development policy was consumption-based – it’s not that they were creating jobs but their rents was rising, but rather that they kept having low job growth and net emigration.
Smart growth is somewhat different, in that it is not explicitly an endorsement of consumption theory. However, in practice its effect is always to make development harder, not easier. The contrast is with transit-oriented development, which in theory means the same thing but in practice counts dwellings build near train stations and not dwellings prevented from being built far from train stations. California celebrates smart growth and smart growth celebrates California, and in practice the effect of California’s housing policy for the last 50 or so years has been to make all housing hard to build, creating a supply shortage.
In comes YIMBY. The central policy proposal of YIMBYism is to build more housing in rich, expensive cities. But the central tenet of YIMBYism is that people’s decisions about where to move to are driven by production rather than by consumption – that is, that people move for work rather than for the sort of consumption amenities that urban policymakers focus on.
This does not mean consumption amenities do not exist. They clearly do, but they operate at different levels from that of neighborhood activism. Albouy-Ehrlich-Liu find extensive consumption effects on urban desirability, but these are almost all geographic, like mild weather and proximity to the coast; only one is affected by policy, air quality, and that is a regional rather than local variable. Other policy-relevant consumption variables may be crime and education, neither of which is that responsive to local-level policy, especially when it pertains to development. People like New York and London and Paris, and maybe they’ll like them more if they provide public services like clean air better, but they’ll certainly not like them less if they replace 150-year-old 4-story buildings with 50-story ones. What people like about New York and London and Paris is not the architecture or the size of the buildings, but the dense job networks.
There’s a quote bouncing around urbanist media, attributed to Fiorello LaGuardia, that there is no Republican or Democratic way of taking out the garbage; see for examples CityLab and Governing. The idea of this quote is, there is no ideology in urban governance, only pragmatism. In this framework, important questions about how to govern a city are assumed away, as is any conflict between different class-based, ethnic, or industry-based interests.
The object-level political questions
There are key political questions about how to provide city services as delegated to the local government by the state. Berlin is a city as well as a state of Germany and thus has especially high levels of autonomy, with lively political debate about housing, education, and transportation. But even cities with less autonomy, like Paris, still have debates regarding land use, public housing, and street usage. These can be any of the following:
- Is this service worth spending more money on, or should the city prioritize other services?
- Should this service be provided directly by the city government, or by the private sector? If the latter, what kind of regulations are appropriate, if any?
- Where should the city prioritize service? For example, in education, should the city prioritize class integration or build segregated schools (“Gymnasien”)? In garbage, which neighborhoods should the city make sure to prioritize in collection?
- Should the workers be unionized? Should the city side more with the unions or with management in industrial disputes?
- How should the service be run? For example, in education, what should the curriculum focus on, how should assessment work, what is the priority for investment, and how big should schools be? In policing, which crimes should get the most resources, should the city side with the police more or with civil rights activists, and which theories of policing should be implemented (broken windows, community policing, etc.)?
The earlier questions on the above list tend to be the same regardless of service, and generally people who like privatizing one service also like privatizing others. But shouldn’t this be an open ideological debate? A multiparty governing coalition might compromise on which services should be municipal and which private, and political parties would have to put their ideas to the test by either crafting a workable privatization contract or competently running service publicly.
The later questions on the list depend more on the service in question, and usually the biggest ideological load is on bigger issues than sanitation, like education or policing, the former of which especially animates the New Right in Germany and white flighters in the United States. However, even with sanitation, there are questions of priorities like what frequency to collect, how much to prioritize low-income neighborhoods, and how much space to make for dumpsters on the streets. New York infamously has open trash on the sidewalks because dumpsters would have to take up space that is currently devoted to street parking, which the most powerful mass groups of voters in the city consider sacrosanct.
The meta questions
Beyond questions of how to run various services, there are even broader questions about what is appropriate to be decided at what level. For examples:
- How big should the city be? That is, should it annex its suburbs for a greater regional government, as in London, Berlin, and Toronto, or remain more local, as in Paris and most American cities? Should local governments outside the city be very fractionalized as in France and the Northeastern United States, or should there be amalgamations of regional municipalities as in most of non-France Europe?
- Which issues are appropriate to be decided at what level? Should local governments have taxing power at all, or should they only have to make do with the budgets given to them by state taxes? Should education, policing, sanitation, transport, parks, electricity, and water be responsibilities of the state, a regional government, or the city?
- What role, if any, should referendums have in budgetary and other political questions?
- Regardless of what services are provided at what level, how should the bodies providing them be overseen? Should there be an elected board, a ministerial appointment, a civil service, or any combination of those three?
These questions sometimes do and sometimes don’t carry ideological load, but even when they don’t, they deserve to be debated and voted on in the open. In France, Sweden, and Japan, questions regarding zoning and housing production are decided at the national level, so in the 2014 election campaign, political parties in Sweden had posters all over Stockholm promising to build more housing to alleviate the country’s severe shortage. In the United States and in Germany these decisions are more local, but it’s completely legitimate for a political movement to demand that decisions be transferred upward to the state level, and to a large extent the YIMBY movement in California argues openly for state-level mandates and against local control.
This is especially important when there is consistent ideological load. Questions of annexation and boundaries between local or regional governments frequently intersect with inequality. In Israel, there are revenue-generating industrial zones in non-urban regional councils adjacent to low-income cities, where local interests agitate for the right to annex these zones to enhance those cities’ tax bases; conversely, the kibbutzes within those regional councils agitate for keeping borders as they are, and have so far succeeded in forestalling any change.
Interaction between different questions
The various object-level and meta questions about how to run city government – or whether to even have much local empowerment in the first place – interact in ways that make the answers to some questions depend on others.
The issue of pragmatism and apolitical government is especially instructive, because if the idea is to reduce the role of ideology in answering object-level questions, then certain meta elements follow. Specifically, if there is no ideological conflict, then there is no need for elected government. Consensus can be formed entirely at the elite civil service level, and in particular the number of political appointments should be kept to a minimum, ideally zero except for the minister.
The analog here is the military, which is depoliticized in every democracy, to the point that a politicized military generally means a country is not fully democratic. The military appoints its own officers, and even when the elected government must sign off on officer commissions, it is a pure rubber stamp, as the decisions are made internally. Only at the highest levels do politicians decide on appointment to provide civilian oversight, such as the IDF chief of staff. The role of the political system is to make decisions on war and peace and allocate the budget, and even then the military gets considerable latitude in internal allocation of funding. What is more, this arrangement is not a cloak-and-dagger affair – the public fully knows what is going on and is supportive, because the public has high levels of trust in the military as an institution, even in times and places with low public support for war.
Pragmatism and excuses
In practice, self-identified pragmatism in politics tends to mean treating certain positions as so obvious that they do not require any further defense. But then the question of what is obvious depends on time and place; for example, in the late 20th century through today, English-speaking governments have assumed that public-private partnerships with multi-decade contracts are obviously the superior way to provide services, whereas the Nordic countries prefer regionwide governance with more ubiquitous but shorter-term contracting and France and Germany keep most services in the public sector.
Most people do not stop to ask whether a foreign way works better. This has nothing to do with pragmatism – people who identify differently do it just as much. However, the lack of political pluralism means that it is not possible for an opposition movement to point out that other places do things differently and use this to come up with concrete proposals for change. This problem occurs often where there is no regular change in government; multiparty elections can ameliorate it by giving people the option of voting for a different coalition members, for example voting Green in Berlin within the dominant red-red-green coalition to express a wish to stop building highways, but even that works less well than the threat of the opposition actually taking over. In cities with no real ideological choice, it becomes completely impossible to adopt new practices, and this should be viewed as a primary reason why local governance in the United States is so bad by European standards.
Democratic consensus as mediation
In contrast with the idea of a leader who stands about mere politics, democratic consensus governance permits debate on different urban questions, including meta-discussions of which questions are most important. The key here is multiparty elections that force coalition governments. This has three benefits.
- It reduces the ability of an executive to engage in an authoritarian takeover, since junior coalition members in nearly all cases have an incentive to defect – if the opposition is destroyed, they are next on the chopping block.
- It widens the space of permissible ideas, since niche groups can take over smaller parties; environmentalism made the jump from street protests to serious politics through green parties in multiparty states. In cases of extremism it’s still possible to form a cordon sanitaire against unwanted parties like AfD, and this puts pressure on parties to behave in socially acceptable ways to avoid being treated as illegitimate.
- It allows junior members to advocate on a specific issue and get the relevant ministerial portfolio to make changes that can succeed or fail in the real world.
This is a set of answers to meta-questions, much more so than to object-level questions. As always, there is interaction between answers: if political parties are the vessel that mediates between individual voters and the state, then the polity size must be large enough to maintain ideological vote and ideological diversity, which argues in favor of more extensive annexation and against very small, homogeneous municipalities like Eastern and Midwestern American suburbs.
There is extensive room for pragmatism here, since this is a governance method that lives on political compromise, denying any single faction a majority. But it’s a pragmatism layered on ideological questions, because different parties will have different ideas about how to run the police, provide sanitation, allocate street space, etc., and this is fine. Different parties will have different ideas about whether to side with workers or management more, and this too is fine. And different parties will have different ideas about how to prioritize the budget and which services to provide in the first place, and that, like the previous points of contention, is also fine.
There’s a tendency among a number of important American YIMBYs that bothers me – they speak of development as a bad thing, a great burden that must be shared equally across neighborhoods. I’ve even seen this take regarding immigration, portraying it as such a terrible burden that Germany must undertake to redeem itself after the Holocaust. The underlying assumption is that growth is bad, and the ideal world is static and has people living in small communities.
But what if growth is good? What if more urban development is good? What if immigration is good, and immigrants are good people individually and collectively?
Growth is good
There’s a “growth for its own sake is the ideology of the cancer cell” meme out there. Well, no. Growth is not for its own sake. It’s for the sake of the things you can do in a society that produces more stuff: live longer, own refrigerators and other appliances, travel beyond walking range, communicate with people beyond travel range, get your own room, eat more interesting food than whatever scraps concentration camp prisoners fight over, wear more interesting clothes than concentration camp prisoner uniform, play interesting games, etc.
What is true is that no single element of these is in perfect correlation with wealth. You can even devise a large subset of these that aren’t, and focus on places that are exceptional relative to their income levels; Kerala is popular for its high literacy and life expectancy relative to its wealth. But usually these early investments then pay off in growth – this was the case in 1960s and 70s’ Korea, which was approaching universal literacy at the start of this period with astonishingly low incomes, and then used its advantage in relatively skilled, low-wage work to industrialize.
Urban development is good
The ability to access more stuff easily is a good thing and there’s a reason both employers and residents pay extra to have it. More and bigger buildings stimulate this kind of access. On the production side, this means thicker social networks for people who work in related industries and can come up with new innovations – this is why the tech industry sticks in San Francisco and environs, and not the bay view or the state of California’s public services. This, in turn, raises wages. On the consumption side, this means more variety in what to buy.
Moreover, this is true down to the neighborhood level. A denser neighborhood has more amenities, because more people is a good thing, because new people stimulate new social events, new consumption, and new opportunities for job access. If more people move to your neighborhood, that means first of all that employers are more likely to site jobs where convenient for you, and second of all that the city is likelier to want to build more subway lines in your direction.
A corollary of this is that private developers, as a class, are good, because they convert factors of production like labor and capital into finished, habitable apartments and offices. Yes, they can individually be terrible people. But collectively as a class their effect is good and the state needs to stop treating them as a source of loot to be doled to sympathetic neighborhood groups.
The most frustrating thing about it is that New York specifically likes to extol its own size as a reason for its supposed greatness. But then the idea that an even bigger city is a better city makes the political system there wince, and therefore the city permitted not many more than 20,000 housing units per year at the peak of the pre-virus economy, about one quarter the per capita rate of the Seoul metropolitan region or Tokyo (the city proper, but I think the suburbs have similar housing growth), and one third that of Ile-de-France.
Immigrants are good
Vancouver is a racist city, and I say this having lived in Israel. I somehow found myself in a room at a meetup where an all-white group of people were talking about black men’s penis size. Anti-Semitism, anti-black racism, Sinophobia, hate for indigenous people: you name it, I saw it there, used casually, by people who didn’t even think they were saying something controversial. The representatives of the people of that city have come across the realization that there is extensive immigration to their city and therefore it may be prudent to choke housing development because it’s all for immigrants anyway.
There’s a weird kind of defensiveness about immigration, even in societies where it’s fairly popular. Germany and Sweden both think they’re shouldering a great burden by taking in refugees, and even Germans who identify as left-wing and antiracist seem scared of diverse neighborhoods that immigrants of all social classes don’t find anything wrong with. But Germans at least have the excuse of not being used to diversity, and I think they’re slowly learning to be more tolerant. Vancouverites are used to diversity and decided they prefer racial purity to growth. Housing growth in Vancouver was healthy before the crisis but a lot of political forces in the city seem intent on making sure this doesn’t happen again, and with the transit-oriented development sites filling fast, the region will soon have to make tough decisions on upzoning single-family neighborhoods 600 meters from the train rather than 100 meters.
For the same reason a bigger city is a better city, the movement of immigrants into a country is an unalloyed good for the recipient country, unless perhaps that country is extremely dependent on primary resources, which Germany isn’t and even British Columbia isn’t.
Developers may be individually bad people but collectively good as a class; with immigrants, the good is both individual and collective. Immigrants as individuals are good, and it’s better for a country to have more of them (us, really): if anyone wants me to babble about all the statistics about employment (even for refugees in Germany), lower crime rates, cultural emphasis on skills and education, etc., I’ll be happy to do so in comments. Immigrants as a collective are likewise good, through introducing more cultural variety to a place and promoting cultural and social ties to parts of the world this place may not have thought to learn much from.
There’s a meme going around the American discourse saying that the Covid-19 outbreak is proving that dense cities are bad. Most of this is bullshit from politicians, like Andrew Cuomo. But now there’s serious research on the subject, by a team at Marron led by the excellent Solly Angel. Solly’s paper looks at confirmed infection rates in American metropolitan areas as of late March and finds a significant correlation with density, but no significant correlation between deaths and density. In this post, I’m going to look at Germany. Here, big or dense cities are not disproportionately affected by the virus.
Germany has pretty reliable data on infections because testing is fairly widespread, so far covering 1.6% of the population. Moreover, testing is this high throughout the country, whereas in the US, there are vast differences in testing as well as in other aspects of response by state, e.g. New York has tested 2% of state population, Louisiana 1.9%, Florida 0.8%, California and Texas 0.4%.
I also have granular data on infection rates in Germany, thanks to Zeit. The data I’m using is synchronic rather than diachronic, i.e. I’m looking at current infection rates rather than growth. Growth rates aren’t the same everywhere – in particular, they’re lower in North Rhine-Westphalia, which was the epicenter of the German outbreak weeks ago, than in southern Germany – but they’re low enough that I don’t think the situation will change in short order.
Size and density
Within Germany, there aren’t huge gradients in density between cities. More central neighborhoods have taller buildings than less central ones and higher ratios of building to courtyard, but there are no huge differences in residential built form the way there are between American cities.
For example, look at densities by neighborhood in Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, Frankfurt, Cologne, Stuttgart. There aren’t big differences in the pattern: the densest inner neighborhoods have about 15,000 people per square kilometer, and density falls to 3,000-5,000 in outer neighborhoods. Hamburg has a few areas with no residents, since they include the city’s immense port. Stuttgart’s densest districts are in the 5,000-6,000/km^2 range, but that’s because the districts are not very granular and the dense ring of inner-city neighborhoods just outside the commercial center is not congruent to district boundaries.
The upshot is that the big question about density and the risk of epidemics cannot be answered by comparing German cities to one another, but only to the surrounding rural areas. So the real question should be, are the major German cities more afflicted by the virus than the rest of the country?
Infection rates by city
As of the end of 2020-04-09, Zeit reports 118,215 confirmed coronavirus cases, which is 14.2 per 10,000 people. The six states of former East Germany, counting the entirety of Berlin and not just East Berlin, total only 12,873 cases, or 7.9 per 10,000. The Robert Koch Institute’s definitive numbers are slightly lower, but are also slightly outdated, as states sometimes take 1-2 days to report new cases. Going by Zeit data, we have the following infection rates by major city:
*Zeit reports Hanover data for the entire region; the city itself only has 538,000 people
The sum total of the fifteen largest cities in Germany, with 15.1 million people, is 21,552 cases, which is 14.3 cases per 10,000 people. This is the same as in the rest of the country to within measurement error of total population, let alone to within measurement error of Covid-19 cases.
Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg both have high confirmed case counts, averaging 23.6 and 21.7 per 10,000 people respectively. Munich’s rate is somewhat higher than the Bavarian average, but its suburbs are on a par with the city, as are some entirely rural areas all over the state. Oddly, the second and third largest cities in the state, Nuremberg and Augsburg, have lower rates – though both Fürth and the rural areas around Nuremberg and Fürth have very high rates as well.
The pattern around Stuttgart is perhaps similar to that around Nuremberg. The city’s infection rate is not much higher than the national average, but the infection rates in counties and cities around it are: Esslingen (24.8/10,000), Reutlingen (29.3), Tübingen (47.9), Böblingen (28.4), Ludwigsburg (22.9).
NRW’s rate is 13.9/10,000, i.e. essentially the same as the national average. The worst is in areas right on the Belgian border, like Heinsberg. Cologne has a noticeably higher rate, but Dusseldorf has a lower rate, and the cities of the Ruhr area a yet lower one. Don’t let the fact that these cities only have around 600,000 people each fool you – they’re major city centers, with the density and transportation network to boot. Dortmund alone has three independent subway-surface trunks, meeting in a Soviet triangle; total public transportation ridership in Dortmund across all modes is 130 million per year. Essen has two subway-surface trunks, one technically light rail and one technically a streetcar tunnel; total ridership there and in Mülheim, population 170,000, is 140 million per year.
What’s going on in Frankfurt?
There is some correlation between wealth and a high infection rate, since Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg have high rates of confirmed cases and the East German states have low ones. However, Frankfurt’s rate is fairly low as well, as are the rates of surrounding suburbs like Offenbach and Darmstadt. Frankfurt is not as rich as Munich, but like Hamburg and Stuttgart, it is fairly close, all three metro regions surpassing Ile-de-France and roughly matching London per Eurostat’s per capita market income net of rent and interest table.
In particular, it is unlikely that the greater international connections of rich cities like Munich explain why they have higher rates. Frankfurt Airport is the primary international hub in Germany, with many passengers standing in line at the terminal and coughing on other people. It would have been the easiest for imported infections to arise there rather than in the Rhineland, and yet it doesn’t have a major cluster.
Frankfurt also has extensive O&D business travel; Wikipedia puts it third after Berlin and Munich, but Frankfurt’s visitors are most likely disproportionately business travelers rather than tourists. This is important, since February and March are low season for tourism, whereas business travelers are if anything more likely to be going to Frankfurt during low season because during the summer high season they go on vacation in more interesting places.
So, is urban density more vulnerable to infectious diseases?
Probably not. Rural Germany has some areas with Korean levels of confirmed cases per capita, and some where 1% of the population and counting has tested positive. Overall, there isn’t much of an urban-rural difference – the 15 largest cities in Germany collectively have the same rate as the rest of the country, and moreover, where there are notable state-level patterns, they also hold for the states’ big cities. If Munich’s high infection rate is caused by its high rate of U- and S-Bahn usage, then the suburbs should have lower infection rates (they’re more auto-oriented) and the rest of Bavaria should be much lower; in reality, nearly the entirety of Bavaria has high rates.
The highest density in the developed world does not exist in Germany. German neighborhoods top at 15,000/km^2, with individual sections scratching 20,000; Paris tops at 40,000 in the 11th Arrondissement, New York scratches 50,000 on the Upper East Side, and Hong Kong has entire districts in the 50s. So the “density doesn’t matter” null hypothesis, while amply supported on German data, requires some extrapolation for the handful of world cities with the highest density.
Nonetheless, these are not huge caveats. German data is pretty reliable in the density range for which it exists; if cities today had the infection rates they did before modern plumbing, when a noticeable fraction of a city’s population might die in a single epidemic, it would be noticeable today. But there is no mass death, nor are urban hospitals here collapsing under the strain. On both the level of a basic sanity check and that of looking at the data, cities do not appear to be vulnerable to disease.
What does this mean?
There is no need to redesign the world to be less urban or dense in the wake of the coronavirus. Nor is there any need to let go of collective public transportation. The Rhine-Ruhr and Frankfurt are not Tokyo or Hong Kong in their public transportation usage, or even Paris or Berlin, but they have extensive urban and regional connections by train. And yet, the Heinsberg disaster zone and the high infection rate of Cologne have not been exported to the Ruhr, nor is southern Hesse particularly affected by German standards.
The virus has exposed serious issues with cleanliness. But even given Germany’s current levels of urban cleanliness, those issues are not enough to turn Berlin, Frankfurt, Hanover, or the Ruhr cities into hotspots. There is no danger to public health coming from urbanization, density, development, or public transportation. Cities should keep investing in all four in order to reduce the costs of transportation and environmental damage, even if the occasional failed politician blames the virus on density to deflect attention from his own incompetence.
The US Census Bureau has just released 2019 population estimates by county. Metro New York, after slowly rising for decades more than making up the 1970s losses, went down by 60,000 people, or 0.3% of the population. The city is down 53,000 people.
The city chooses stagnation and ignorance. In the 1970s, the city was losing an average of 80,000 people per year, but the situation now is profoundly different. Incomes are up: the metro area’s per capita income as a proportion of the US average went from 126% in 1970 to 118% in 1980; but more recently it went from 135% in 2010-5 to 141% in 2018, the last year for which the BEA has data. Crime is down, the murder rate falling below the national average starting in 2013. Rent is up, sending a strong signal: more people want to live here.
But the entire political constellation of the city chooses not to grow. Housing growth is anemic, permits averaging around 21,000 per year in 2010-9, maybe 2.6 per 1,000 New York residents. It accelerated over the decade but not by much, reaching 26,500 in 2019, or 3.2/1,000. In the in-state suburbs, growth is even lower, less than 1 unit per 1,000 in each of Nassau, Suffolk, and Westchester Counties. New Jersey has somewhat higher growth rate, around 4/1,000, thanks to the Mount Laurel doctrine requiring high-cost municipalities to approve some affordable housing, which they typically do in the most out-of-the-way place they can find. The metro area overall approves about the same amount of housing as the city proper, around 2.5/1,000.
The most recent data I have for Korea is from the first half of 2019. In six months, Seoul, a shrinking city of 9.5 million, approved 38,000 dwellings, and the metro area writ large approved 129,000 on a population of about 26 million, an annualized rate of 10/1,000 (less in the city, more in the suburbs). This is a suburbanizing region, but suburbanization often means moving to a planned new town built on top of a subway or commuter rail line, like Ilsan, Bundang, and Anyang.
It’s not Tokyo that has high housing growth. It’s Tokyo, and Seoul, and to a lesser extent the metro area of Taipei (more suburbs than city proper), and Paris. In the presence of a strong economy and a state that doesn’t choose stagnation the way rich American regions choose with local empowerment, housing growth in a large city should be high, as more people want to move there to take advantage of its higher incomes and opportunities.
But New York chose differently. It chose stagnation and eventually decline. It chose to be expensive.
Why are they like this?
The US has an unusual system of governance, in which not only is there a separation of federal and state governments, as in Germany or Canada or Australia or Switzerland, but also the states delegate unusual powers to local governments. Education, policing, and housing are largely local responsibilities. Even when states do get involved, there is usually no partisan competition (most states are safe), leading to empowerment of local representatives on what are considered local issues, and even when there is people vote based on national issues.
But even that raises questions. For example, why do locals consider new development bad? Even YIMBY activists let NIMBYs whip them into thinking this way – they talk about sharing the burden, as if new buildings and new people are a burden that everyone must endure for some grand moral reason.
What if the reason people take it for granted that growth is bad is that the people who are most locally empowered are a specific anti-growth lobby? People who work for a living don’t have time to go to a citizen engagement meeting at 3 in the afternoon. They work and socialize with people from other neighborhoods, so they have little interest in neighborhood rags that report individual counts of parking spaces lost to a bus lane. They are far more interested in job growth than in hobby community gardens. A political system that requires very high levels of local social capital for one’s opinions to count will naturally undervalue their opinions and overvalue those of idle people and professional intermediaries.
The high levels of Covid-19 infection in New York are part of this system. The specific cause is not hyperlocalism, but rather the murky authority of the state. The city is plagued by the feud between Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo. Both enjoy unlimited executive power, I think Cuomo more so than de Blasio. Both need it for their higher political aspirations. But neither can have it while the other exists as an independent political entity, nor is there a clear delineation of state and local authority. Thus, they are obligated to sabotage each other’s ideas, to the detriment of the city that has the misfortune to be governed by them. The entire West delayed its reaction to the virus, but New York especially so, as Cuomo and de Blasio tried denying each other credit.
I’ve been writing a lot about the role of incuriosity in high construction costs in the English-speaking world in general, and New York in particular – see for example this recent coronavirus-tainted piece, or this more random piece about Metro-North’s executives’ ignorance.
But this can apply more generally, as it did to the virus. Americans are quite provincial when it comes to the rest of the world, and New Yorkers especially so – go ahead, try telling a New Yorker that some other city does something better than New York. The out-of-town comparison, a powerful tool that places that view themselves as more peripheral (like Israel) use to correct errors, dos not work in a place like New York. New York literally made the collective decision to die and not to learn from the rest of the world. Mass death is not making New Yorkers demand the immediate removal of their mass manslaughterers who are their governor and mayor; why would a dip in population?
Part of it is related to local empowerment. Acquiring local social capital comes at the expense of worldliness; those years one spends learning foreign languages, living abroad, and socializing with foreigners are dead years for most political ambitions, including all ambitions that start locally.
But an even greater part of it is that New York self-perceives as the center of the world, which is not true elsewhere. Korea self-flagellates all the time: about its legal system (it adopted a limited jury system in 2009), about its engineering (see e.g. here), about its elevated air pollution levels (it’s adopting EU standards). The United States instead views all variations with the rest of the world as evidence of America’s unique greatness, and New York does the same both internationally and domestically. The city brims with immigrants, and yet it tells them, your home country is deficient and you must become a real New Yorker, that is someone whose world does not extend past city limits, to be a whole person. Until that changes, the government of New York will remain managed by dregs and incompetents and housing, transportation, and as we see health care will earn the mockery of other big first-world cities.
I came out on Twitter the other night. I bring this up here because I was asked something I didn’t, and still don’t, have a really good answer for: how come there are so many queer people, especially ones who are trans or genderqueer, in rail advocacy? This may be just an American question – my impression of German rail advocacy is that it’s much straighter.
On Twitter, there were a few explanations, none of which too satisfying:
- Autism correlates with queerness (see e.g. here for autism-LGB spectrum correlation and here and here for dysphoria) and also with interest in trains. But then even if one only looks at allistic people, a pretty hefty share of people at (say) TransitMatters are LGBT.
- Urbanism. The visible queer community is more urban than the general population, for reasons that I don’t want to get into because serious urbanists and Richard Florida have discussed them for decades. Even conditioned on living in a big city with public transportation, the advocacy community is disproportionately queer (again, TransitMatters), but it’s plausible that the same factors making the queer community more urban also make its travel patterns more transit-oriented.
- Something about American liberal politics mostly drawing from a few groups: queers, Jews, and black people (and maybe other nonwhites). But that is clearly not true of every single political issue, for example the people I can think of in American health care advocacy are straight, and queer activism on health care is often about queer-specific topics like AIDS and trans health care.
- YIMBY is specifically a fairly queer movement, and the most successful American one, that of San Francisco, is extremely queer; good public transportation advocacy in the US is very YIMBY. But that correlation raises separate questions regarding why good transit advocacy is so YIMBY and why YIMBY has so many LGBT members.
I genuinely don’t know how much of this even holds outside the US. It’s plausible that in countries where passenger rail planning is a career that the average voter of the mainline right party approves of, people with the sexual orientation that the average voter of the mainline right party approves of are more likely to pursue rail advocacy. I don’t have enough knowledge of the political landscape in enough cities to be able to speak comparatively across countries, and if you know more, I urge you to share in comments.
In England and Wales, 15.9% of workers get to work on public transport, and in France, 14.9% do. In Canada, the figure is close: 12.4%, and this is without a London or Paris to run up the score in. Vancouver is a metro region of 2.5 million people and 1.2 million workers, comparable in size to the metropolitan counties in England and to the metro area of Lyon; at 20.4%, it has a higher public transport modal share than all of them, though it is barely higher than Lyon with its 19.9% share. Calgary, Ottawa, Edmonton, and Winnipeg are likewise collectively respectable by the standards of similar-size French regions, such as the departments of Bouches-du-Rhône (Marseille), Alpes-Maritimes (Nice), Gironde (Bordeaux), Haute-Garonne (Toulouse), and Bas-Rhin (Strasbourg).
As a result, Jarrett Walker likes telling American cities and transit agencies to stop envying Europe and start envying Canada instead. Canada is nearby, speaks the same language, and has similar street layout, all of which contribute to its familiarity to Americans. If Europe has the exotic mystique of the foreign, let alone East Asia, Canada is familiar enough to Americans that the noticeable differences are a cultural uncanny valley.
And yet, I am of two minds on this. The most consistent transit revival in Canada has been in Vancouver, whose modal share went from 14.3% in 1996 to 20.4% in 2016 – and the 2016 census was taken before the Evergreen extension of the Millennium Line opened. TransLink has certainly been doing a lot of good things to get to this point. And yet, there’s a serious risk to Canadian public transport in the future: construction costs have exploded, going from Continental European 15 years ago to American today.
The five legs of good transit
I was asked earlier today what a good political agenda for public transportation would be. I gave four answers, like the four legs of a chair, and later realized that I missed a fifth point.
- Fuel taxes and other traffic suppression measures (such as Singapore and Israel’s car taxes). Petrol costs about €1.40/liter in Germany and France; diesel is cheaper but being phased out because of its outsize impact on pollution.
- Investment in new urban and intercity lines, such as the Madrid Metro expansion program since the 1990s or Grand Paris Express. This is measured in kilometers and not euros, so lower construction costs generally translate to more investment, hence Madrid’s huge metro network.
- Interagency cooperation within metropolitan regions and on intercity rail lines where appropriate. This includes fare integration, schedule integration, and timetable-infrastructure integration.
- Urban upzoning, including both residential densification in urban neighborhoods and commercialization in and around city center.
- Street space reallocation from cars toward pedestrians, bikes, and buses.
We can rate how Canada (by which I really mean Vancouver) does on this rubric:
- The fuel tax in Canada is much lower than in Europe, contributing to high driving rates. In Toronto, gasoline currently costs $1.19/liter, which is about €0.85/l. But Vancouver fuel taxes are higher, raising the price to about $1.53/l, around €1.06/l.
- Canadian construction costs are so high that investment in new lines is limited. Vancouver has been procrastinating building the Broadway subway to UBC until costs rose to the point that the budget is only enough to build the line halfway there.
- Vancouver and Toronto both have good bus-rapid transit integration, but there is no integration with commuter rail; Montreal even severed a key commuter line to build a private driverless rapid transit line. In Vancouver, bus and SkyTrain fares have decoupled due to political fallout from the botched smartcard implementation.
- Vancouver is arguably the YIMBYest Western city, building around 10 housing units per 1,000 people every year in the last few years. Toronto’s housing construction rate is lower but still respectable by European standards, let alone American ones.
- There are bike lanes but not on the major streets. If there are bus lanes, I didn’t see any of them when I lived in Vancouver, and I traveled a lot in the city as well as the suburbs.
Vancouver’s transit past and future
Looking at the above legs of what makes for good public transport, there is only one thing about Canada that truly shines: urban redevelopment. Toronto, a metro area of 6 million people, has two subway mainlines, and Montreal, with 4 million people, has 2.5. Vancouver has 1.5 lines – its three SkyTrain mainlines are one-tailed. By the same calculation, Berlin has 6.5 U- and 3 S-Bahn mainlines, and Madrid has 2 Cercanías lines and 7 metro lines. Moreover, high construction costs and political resistance from various GO Transit interests make it difficult for Canadian cities to add more rapid transit.
To the extent Vancouver has a sizable SkyTrain network, it’s that it was able to build elevated and cut-and-cover lines in the past. This is no longer possible for future expansion, except possibly toward Langley. The merchant lawsuits over the Canada Line’s construction impacts have ensured that the Broadway subway will be bored. Furthermore, the region’s politics make it impossible to just build Broadway all the way to the end: Surrey has insisted on some construction within its municipal area, so the region has had to pair half the Broadway subway with a SkyTrain extension to the Langley sprawl.
Put in other words, the growth in Vancouver transit ridership is not so much about building more of a network, but about adding housing and jobs around the network that has been around since the 1980s. The ridership on the Millennium and Canada Lines is growing but remains far below that on the Expo Line. There is potential for further increase in ridership as the neighborhoods along the Canada Line have finally been rezoned, but even that will hit a limit pretty quickly – the Canada Line was built with low capacity, and the Millennium Line doesn’t enter Downtown and will only serve near-Downtown job centers.
Potemkin bus networks
When Jarrett tells American cities to envy Canada, he generally talks about the urban bus networks. Toronto and Vancouver have strong bus grids, with buses coming at worst every 8 minutes during the daytime off-peak. Both cities have grids of major streets, as is normal for so many North American cities, and copying the apparent features of these grids is attractive to American transit managers.
And yet, trying to just set up a bus grid in your average American city yields Potemkin buses. Vancouver and Toronto have bus grids that rely on connections to rapid transit lines. In both cities, transit usage is disproportionately about commutes either to or from a city core defined by a 5 kilometer radius from city hall. Moreover, the growth in public transport commuting in both cities since 1996 has been almost exclusively about such commutes, and not about everywhere-to-everywhere commutes from outside this radius. Within this radius, public transportation is dominated by rail, not buses.
The buses in Toronto and Vancouver have several key roles to play. First, as noted above, they connect to rapid transit nodes or to SeaBus in North Vancouver. Second, they connect to job centers that exist because of rapid transit, for example Metrotown at the eastern end of Vancouver’s 49. And third, there is the sui generis case of UBC. All of these roles create strong ridership, supporting high enough frequency that people make untimed transfers.
But even then, there are problems common to all North American buses. The stop spacing is too tight – 200 meters rather than 400-500, with frequency-splitting rapid buses on a handful of very strong routes like 4th Avenue and Broadway. There is no all-door boarding except on a handful of specially-branded B-line buses. There are no bus lanes.
One American city has similar characteristics to Toronto and Vancouver when it comes to buses: Chicago. Elsewhere, just copying the bus grid of Vancouver will yield nothing, because ultimately nobody is going to connect between two mixed-traffic buses that run every 15 minutes, untimed, if they can afford any better. In Chicago, the situation is different, but what the city most needs is integration between Metra and CTA services, which requires looking at European rather than Canadian models.
Is Canada hopeless?
I don’t know. The meteoric rise in Canadian subway construction costs in the last 15 years has ensured expansion will soon grind to a halt. Much of this rise comes from reforms that the Anglosphere has convinced itself improve outcomes, like design-build and reliance on outside consultants; in that sense, the US hasn’t been copying Canada, but instead Canada has been copying the US and getting American results.
That said, two positive aspects are notable. The first is very high housing and commercial growth in the most desirable cities, if not in their most exclusive neighborhoods. Vancouver probably has another 10-20 years before its developable housing reserves near existing SkyTrain run out and it is forced to figure out how to affordably expand the network. Nowhere in Europe is housing growth as fast as in Metro Vancouver; among the cities for which I have data, only Stockholm comes close, growing at 7-8 net units per 1,000 people annually.
Moreover, with Downtown Vancouver increasingly built out, Vancouver seems to be successfully expanding the CBD outward: Central Broadway already has many jobs and will most likely have further commercial growth as the Millennium Line is extended there. Thus, employers that don’t fit into the Downtown Vancouver peninsula should find a home close enough for SkyTrain, rather than hopping to suburban office parks as in the US. Right now, the central blob of 100 km^2 – a metric I use purely because of limitations on French and Canadian data granularity – has a little more than 30% of area jobs in Vancouver, comparable to Paris, Lyon, New York, Boston, and San Francisco, and ahead of other American cities.
The second aspect is that Canadians are collectively a somewhat more internationally curious nation than Americans. They are more American than European, but the experience of living in a different country from the United States makes it easier for them to absorb foreign knowledge. The reaction to my and Jonathan English’s August article about Canadian costs has been sympathetic, with serious people with some power in Toronto contacting Jonathan to figure out how Canada can improve. The reaction I have received within the United States runs the gamut – some agencies are genuinely helpful and realize that they’ll be better off if we can come up with a recipe for reducing costs, others prefer to obstruct and stonewall.
My perception of Canadian politics is that even right-populists like Doug Ford are more serious about this than most American electeds. In that sense, Ford is much like Boris Johnson, who could move to Massachusetts to be viceroy and far improve governance in both Britain and Massachusetts. My suspicion is that this is linked to Canada’s relatively transit-oriented past and present: broad swaths of the Ontarian middle class ride trains, as is the case in Outer London and the suburbs of Paris. A large bloc of present-day swing voters who use public transport is a good political guarantee of positive attention to public transport in the future. American cities don’t have that – there are no competitive partisan elections anywhere with some semblance of public transportation.
These two points of hope are solid but still run against powerful currents. Toronto really is botching the RER project because of insider obstruction and timidity, and without a strong RER project there is no way to extend public transportation to the suburbs. Vancouver is incapable of concentrating resources where they do the most good. And all Canadian cities have seen an explosion in costs. Canadians increasingly understand the cost problem, but it remains to be seen whether they can fix it.
I’d like to compare three cities: Paris, New York, Boston. They’re about equally wealthy, and I’ve lived years in two and spent a lot of time in the third. Americans dismiss New York and Boston too often as Not Real America, but they’re both excellent examples of how the US differs from Europe.
Private affluence and squalor at home
Visit the home of a middle-class person in the city. (I mean “middle-class” in the European sense of “reasonably educated professional,” not the American one of “not homeless.”) If you’re used to a certain suburban American standard of normality then the New York apartment will look small to you, but the one in Boston will not, and a few years seeing how Europeans live will disabuse you of any notion that New York apartments are small.
Parisian apartments are tiny. I had 40 square meters near Nation, but the citywide average is 31 per person; in New York, it’s 50 if I understand the Census Factfinder correctly. There are studios in Paris well below 20 m^2 – even Stockholm tends to stick to micro-units in the 20-25 m^2 area. There is something called studettes going down to 9 m^2 in the most extreme cases, many inherited from servant attic units built in the Second Empire and Belle Epoque. In New York it’s more or less prohibited by regulation, with the attendant high rents, but the regulations are about bedrooms, not unit size, hence the common experience of living 3 or 4 people to a large apartment, one that in Continental Europe is largely restricted to lower-income cities like Lisbon or Berlin.
In the 1950s, when John Galbraith coined the expression private affluence and public squalor, the American home had amenities unheard of in Europe, like universal ownership of appliances. This is not as stark a distinction today. Europeans have televisions and fast Internet connections for cheaper prices than in the US. But Europeans don’t have driers or air conditioning and don’t have dishwashers as commonly as Americans. I don’t want to exaggerate the difference in housing quality – for one, insulation is a lot better in Paris (and Berlin) than in New York and Boston, so the experience of living on the 3rd floor facing a city street is a lot noisier west of the Pond than east of it. For another difference, American air conditioning is window units in all but the highest-end apartments, which would have central air in Europe too. But the difference exists, and is noticeable.
Public affluence and squalor on the street
Let’s leave the inside of our houses now. How does the public sphere look?
The recent reporting of New York as trash city can make people think that this is literally about the street. To some extent, this is – but it’s not just about trash. For one, the street lighting is better in Paris, and better in Manhattan than in Cambridge, in what I think is an artifact of high density and not just wealth. For two, I don’t remember having to dodge puddles in the rain in Paris; in New York and Boston it’s a common occurrence whenever there’s heavier rain than a drizzle. For three, in the snow, Cambridge becomes mostly impassable to pedestrians, and while Paris does not get serious enough snow for shoveling to ever be a big issue, Stockholm does and the sidewalks in Central Stockholm are shoveled just fine.
The importance of Paris’s wealth and density is that Berlin is not this nice. The street lighting in Berlin is not great by Parisian standards (or, as I recall, by Stockholm ones?). Walking around Bernauer Strasse (let alone Neukölln, one of inner Berlin’s poorest neighborhoods), one never gets the feeling the area is as well-off as Nation, which is itself lower middle-class by Parisian standards. I’m saying this knowing the comparative income levels of Berlin and Paris, and perhaps it’s unfair, but from what I’ve seen, it’s fairly easy to compare France and Germany, their relative levels of public and private affluence are similar.
Most Americans know, on some level, that various public services are better in Western Europe. Life expectancy in France is higher than in the US by 3-4.5 years depending on source, and life expectancy in Germany is higher by 2-3 years. New York and Massachusetts are wealthy states and outlive the rest of the country by a margin, but they’re still not French, let alone Parisian.
Public health is there in various statistics, but the same is true of transportation. This is not even just public transportation – my recollection of the handful of times I’ve found myself in a taxi in Paris is that it’s a much more pleasant experience than the potholed American streets I’ve taken taxis or ridden with other people on. But it’s much more glaring in public transit than on roads, because public transit inherently requires more public competence. Parisians do not think the RER is particularly good, but it’s a marvel compared with any American commuter rail network, and involves a level of interagency coordination in fares, schedules, and services that is unheard of in the United States.
Worse, public transit in the United States has the reputation of a social service. In metro New York the incomes of transit and car commuters are very close, and in metro Boston transit commuters slightly outearn car commuters, but in both areas, anything that is not a segregated suburban middle-class commuter line is treated as a social service, run by managers who do not use their own system and do not consider use cases beyond their own 9-to-5 work travel.
Squalor and incompetence
Squalor and incompetence feed each other. This does not mean poverty is a moral failing or a result of weakness or stupidity. But it does mean that someone who is denied access to good work will, over a lifetime, learn to do lower-value things and, even if the job denial at 18 was entirely random or a matter of discrimination, be worse at high-value jobs by 50. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that countries with more income mobility and less persistent poverty – for examples, Canada, Australia, and the Nordic countries – do not determine people’s careers by how they did at 18 at the university admissions the way the US, UK, and France do. Talented Canadians who get worse grades in high school because of obstructive teachers will have opportunities to shine at 23 that their French or American counterparts, denied the ability to go to the most prestigious universities, will simply not get.
I bring this up because the US has a cycle of public squalor. Public-sector wages are uncompetitive, so workers are either nerds with particular personal or social interest in the field (sanitation, public transit, etc.), or people who couldn’t get better private-sector work – and this is particularly acute at the management level, especially senior management, since the best managers can leak to the private sector and get better pay there. Weak civil service in turns reduces the political will to pay civil servants high salaries, especially among politicians, who encounter senior managers much more often than they do hard-working train drivers, sanitation workers, and individual teachers.
There’s perhaps an analog of private affluence and public squalor, in which Americans are individually diligent and collectively lazy. Some of this has to be political: ambitious politicians get ahead by doing nothing and packaging it as bravery. I can name multiple national Republicans who became nationally famous by saying no to spending, and not a single Democrat who became nationally famous by successfully pushing through a major government program, such statewide universal health care or a green transition. But it’s not just politicians and their political appointees – there’s punch-clock behavior and agency turf battles below that level.
Is there a solution?
Unambiguously, yes. It’s not evident from just reading about the history of the Anglosphere, since Britain took forever to develop its civil service and thus assumes the process would be equally long in South Korea or Finland (“first 500 years are hardest“). It requires political will, and often a good model – I suspect Finland was able to develop good government so quickly because it consciously imitated Swedish governance. It doesn’t even require setting everything on fire first – South Korea and Taiwan engaged in land reform but did not kill the entire middle class the way some communist countries did.
The good news is that most public-sector workers in the US are not incompetent political appointees. The people I talk to in New York and Boston are sharp and informed and often difficult to keep up with because of how much they understand that I don’t, and for the most part I get the impression that they don’t think their colleagues are morons. The competence level on average decreases as one goes upward, partly because of negative selection of management, but it’s possible and desirable to internally promote people and raise wages to retain talent.
Fundamentally, the US needs to let go of the idea that the public is inferior to the private. But this isn’t just about what’s in Americans’ heads. They need to treat the public commons well, and I don’t just mean building monuments that look nice now and will rust in 10 years. I mean investing in public services, and paying the people who provide them competitively. Public squalor is a choice the US makes every day that it can stop making.
A ride-hailing trip today reminded me of something about freeway travel in cities – namely, it is untethered from the surface street network. Oddly enough, for a different reason this is equally true of rapid transit. The commonality to these two ways of travel is that they change the geography of the city, rather than just extending the range of walking along the usual paths as surface arterial streets and surface transit do.
Rapid transit compression
Rapid transit networks compress distances along the lines, and by the same token magnify distances in orthogonal directions. Manhattan is a good example of how this works: north of Midtown the subway only runs north-south, not east-west, so there are separate East Side and West Side cultures. Moreover, as middle-class gentrifiers are displaced by rising rents coming from even richer gentrifiers, they tend to move along subway lines, and thus people from the Upper West Side and Columbia end up in Washington Heights and Inwood.
The contrast here is with surface transit. Bus networks are far too dense to have the same effect. A citywide bus grid would offer 15 km/h transit in all directions in New York, and a tramway grid like what parts of Berlin have (and what big Eastern European cities like Prague and Budapest have) offers 15-20 km/h transit in all directions. It extends walking, in the sense that the most important throughfares probably get their own routes, or if they don’t they are closely parallel with roads with surface transit.
This is not how rapid transit works. A handful of very strong orthogonal routes can and should get rapid transit, hence the Ringbahn, M2/M6 in Paris, and the under-construction M15 – and by the same token, 125th Street in New York should get a subway extension off of Second Avenue. But that still leaves the city with a wealth of major routes that have no reason to get rapid transit, ever. Most of these are crosstown routes, for example the east-west streets of Manhattan, but in less gridded cities they can just be major streets that don’t quite fit into a regionwide radial metro network.
Rapid transit spikiness
I get a lot of pushback when I talk about this, but rapid transit encourages spiky density. This does not mean that every transit city is spiky and every spiky city is a transit city. Density in Paris within the city is fairly uniform, aided by zoning rules that prohibit high-rises even though many could succeed commercially on top of Métro transfer points or RER stations. In the other direction, some American auto-oriented cities have spiky density near transit, like San Diego’s Mission Valley or Atlanta’s Buckhead, but it’s not big enough a development to permit people to comfortably walk and take transit to all destinations.
Nonetheless, for the most part, rapid transit tends to be associated with spiky development forms, especially if it’s been built more recently and if the interstation is long (as in Vancouver, Singapore, Hong Kong, or Stockholm). This isn’t really how a pedestrian city works: pedestrians have no need for spikiness because they don’t have particular distinguished stations – at most, the corner nodes are distinguished, but that includes all corners, which are placed at far shorter intervals than subway stops.
Freeways as street bypasses
Surface transit promotes urban forms that look like an extended pedestrian city. This is equally true of surface roads designed around car access. The car was originally not supposed to take over the entire city, but merely provide convenient intra-urban transportation at a faster speed than walking. It was originally just a faster, more private, more segregated streetcar. The effect on urbanism was to reduce overall density (as did the streetcars and rapid transit in New York, which used to have inhuman overcrowding levels on the Lower East Side), but not to change the urban form beyond that.
Freeways, like rapid transit, are completely different. This does not mean that they change the city in the same way as rapid transit, just that both operate independently of the usual street grid. Freeways, like rapid transit, compress travel distances along the freeway, and simultaneously lengthen them in all other directions because of the effect of traffic congestion.
Moreover, freeways are different from rapid transit in typical alignments. They are far more land-intensive, which is why they tend to be placed in formerly marginal parts of the city. This can include the waterfront if it is originally industrial and low-value, as it was in midcentury America, rather than a place of high-end residential consumption because of the views.
Interface with the street
How does a surface street transit network interface with either rapid transit or freeways?
With rapid transit, the answer is that surface transit is slow, so it should feed rapid transit using transfers, which may be timed if the trains are not so frequent (say, 15 minutes or worse, as is common on suburban rail branches). Rapid transit should then be constructed to connect with surface transit this way, that is the stations should be at intersections with arterial corridors for bus connections.
With freeways, the answer is that often interface is impossible. San Diego provides a convenient example: there is an arterial road that’s great for buses running northward from city center toward the beachfront neighborhood of Pacific Beach. But there’s also a parallel freeway inland, so drivers mostly use the freeway, and commerce on the north-south arterial is neglected. In contrast, the main east-west arterials feeding the freeway are bustling, and one of them has of the city’s strongest buses. Buses can make stops on these arterials and then express to city center on the freeway, but on the freeway itself the buses are not very efficient since there’s minimal turnover, and chaining a few neighborhoods together on one frequent route is usually not possible.