One faction of urbanists that I’ve sometimes found myself clashing with is people who assume that a greener, less auto-centric future will look something like the traditional small towns of the past. Strong Towns is the best example I know of of this tendency, arguing against high-rise urban redevelopment and in favor of urbanism that looks like pre-freeway Midwestern main streets. But this retro attitude to the future happens everywhere, and recently I’ve had to argue about this with the generally pro-modern Cap’n Transit and his take about the future of vacations. Even the push for light rail in a number of cities has connections with nostalgia for old streetcars, to the point that some American cities build mixed-traffic streetcars, such as Portland.
The future was not retro in the 1950s
The best analogy for a zero-emissions future is ironically what it seeks to undo: the history of suburbanization. In retrospect, we can view midcentury suburbanization as a physical expansion of built-up areas at lower density, at automobile scale. But at the time, it was not always viewed this way. Socially, the suburbs were supposed to be a return to rural virtues. The American patrician reformers who advocated for them consciously wanted to get rid of ethnic urban neighborhoods and their alien cultures. The German Christian democratic push for regional road and rail connections has the same social origin, just without the ethnic dimension – cities were dens of iniquity and sin.
At the same time, the suburbs, that future of the middle of the 20th century, were completely different from the mythologized 19th century past, before cities like New York and Berlin had grown so big. Most obviously, they were linked to urban jobs; the social forces that pushed for them were aware of that in real time, and sought transportation links precisely in order to permit access to urban jobs in what they hoped would be rural living.
But a number of other key differences are visible – for one, those suburbs were near the big cities of the early 20th century, and not in areas with demographic decline. In the United States, the Great Plains and Appalachia kept depopulating and the Deep South except Atlanta kept demographically stagnating. The growth in that era of interregional convergence happened in suburbs around New York, Chicago, and other big then-industrial cities, and in parts of what would soon be called the Sunbelt, namely Southern California, Texas, and Florida. In Germany, this history is more complicated, as the stagnating region that traditionalists had hoped to repopulate was Prussia and Posen, which were given to Poland at the end of the war and ethnically cleansed of their German populations. However, we can still see postwar shifts within West Germany toward suburbs of big cities like Munich and Frankfurt, while the Ruhr stagnated.
The future of transit-oriented development is not retro
People who dislike the auto-oriented form of cities can easily romanticize how cities looked before mass motorization. They’d have uniform missing middle built form in most of the US and UK, or uniform mid-rise in New York and Continental Europe. American YIMBYs in particular easily slip into romanticizing missing middle density and asking to replace single-family housing with duplexes and triplexes rather than with anything more substantial.
If you want to see what 21st-century TOD looks like, go to the richer parts of East Asia, especially Tokyo, which builds much more housing than Hong Kong and Singapore. The density in Tokyo is anything but uniform. There are clusters of high-rise buildings next to train stations, and lower density further away, even small single-family houses fronting narrow streets far enough from train stations that it’s not economical to redevelop them. It offends nostalgic Westerners; the future often does.
In the context of a growing city like New York or London, what this means is that the suburbs can expect to look spiky. There’s no point in turning, say, everything within two kilometers of Cockfosters (or the Little Neck LIRR station) into mid-rise apartments or even rowhouses. What’s the point? There’s a lot more demand 100 meters from the station than two kilometers away, enough that people pay the construction cost premium for the 20th floor 100 meters from the stations in preference to the third floor two kilometers away. The same is true for Paris – there’s no solution for its growth needs other than high-rises near RER stations and key Metro stations in the city as well as the suburbs, like the existing social housing complexes but with less space between buildings. It may offend people who associate high-rises with either the poor or recent high-skill immigrants, but again, the future often offends traditionalists.
The future of transportation is not retro
In countries that do not rigidly prevent urban housing growth the way the US does, the trend toward reurbanization is clear. Germany’s big cities are growing while everything else is shrinking save some suburbs in the richest regions, such as around Munich. Rural France keeps depopulating.
In this context, the modes of transportation of the future are rapid transit and high-speed rail. Rapid transit is preferable to buses and surface trains in most cities, because it serves spiky development better – the stations are spaced farther apart, which is fine because population density is not isotropic and neither is job density, and larger cities need the longer range that comes with the higher average speed of the subway or regional train over that of the tramway.
High-speed rail is likewise preferable to an everywhere-to-everywhere low-speed rail network like that of Switzerland. In a country with very large metro areas spaced 500 km or so apart, like the US, France, or Germany, connecting those growing city centers is of crucial importance, while nearby cities of 100,000 are of diminishing importance. Moreover, very big cities can be connected by trains so frequent that untimed transfers are viable. Already under the Deutschlandtakt plan, there will be 2.5 trains between Berlin and Hanover every hour, and if average speeds between Berlin and the Rhine-Ruhr were increased to be in line with those of the TGVs, demand would fill 4-6 trains per hour, enough to facilitate untimed transfers from connecting lines going north and south of Hanover. The Northeast Corridor has even more latent demand, given the huge size of New York.
The future of travel is not retro
The transportation network both follows and shapes travel patterns. Rapid transit is symbiotic with spiky TOD, and high-speed rail is symbiotic with extensive intercity travel.
The implication is that the future of holidays, too, is not retro. Vacation trips between major cities will become easier if countries that are not France and Japan build a dense network of high-speed lines akin to what France has done over the last 40 years and what Japan has done over the last 60. Many of those cities have thriving tourism economies, and these can expect to expand if there are fast trains connecting them to other cities within 300-1,000 kilometers.
Sometimes, these high-speed lines could serve romanticized tourist destinations. Niagara Falls lies between New York and Toronto, and could see expansion of visits, including day trips from Toronto and Buffalo and overnight stays from New York. The Riviera will surely see more travel once the much-delayed LGV PACA puts Nice four hours away from Paris by train rather than five and a half. Even the Black Forest might see an expansion of travel if people connect from high-speed trains from the rest of Germany to regional trains at Freiburg, going from the Rhine Valley up to the mountains; but even then, I expect a future Germany’s domestic tourism to be increasingly urban, probably involving the Rhine waterfront as well as the historic cities along the river.
But for the most part, tourist destinations designed around driving, like most American national parks as well as state parks like the Catskills, will shrink in importance in a zero-carbon future. It does not matter if they used to have rail access, as Glacier National Park did; the tourism of the leisure class of the early 20th century is not the same as that of the middle class of the middle of the 21st. Grand Canyon and Yellowstone are not the only pretty places in the world or even in the United States; the Hudson Valley and the entire Pacific Coast are pretty too, and do not require either driving or taking a hypothetical train line that, on the list of the United States’ top transportation priorities, would not crack the top 100. This will offend people whose idea of environmentalism is based on the priorities of turn-of-the-century patrician conservationists, but environmental science has moved on and the nature of the biggest ecological crisis facing humanity has changed.
The non-retro future is pretty cool
The theme of the future is that, just as the Industrial Revolution involved urbanization and rural depopulation, urban development patterns this century involve growth in the big metro areas and decline elsewhere and in traditional small towns. This is fine. The status anxieties of Basil Fawlty types who either can’t or won’t adapt to a world that has little use for their prejudices are not a serious public concern.
Already, people lead full lives in big global cities like New York and London without any of the trappings of what passed for normality in the middle of the 20th century, like a detached house with a yard and no racial minorities or working-class people within sight. The rest will adapt to this reality, just as early 20th century urbanites adapted to the reality of suburbanization a generation later.
It’s not even an imposition. It’s opportunity. People can live in high-quality housing with access to extensive social as well as job networks, and travel to many different places with different languages, flora and fauna, vistas, architecture, food, and local retail. Even in the same language zone, Northern and Southern Germany look completely different from each other, as do Paris and Southern France, or New England and Washington. Then outside the cities there are enough places walking distance from a commuter rail line or on the way on a high-speed line between two cities that people can if they’d like go somewhere and spend time out of sight of other people. There’s so much to do in a regime of green prosperity; the world merely awaits the enactment of policies that encourage such a future in lieu of one dominated by small-minded local interests who define themselves by how much they can pollute.
Remember how ten years ago the American urbanist conversation was all about carving the country up into megaregions? The America 2050 project drew some lines connecting metro areas into regions, designed to imitate the Boston-Washington corridor in concept, and asserted that this would be the future of American growth. The concept seems to have dropped off the discourse, and for good reason, but it may be useful to have a second look. The Boston-Washington megalopolis is a genuine megaregion, and it’s useful to see which regions elsewhere in the world share its characteristics.
The key takeaway is that rich cities do not have to be in megaregions. The Northeast Corridor is a rich megaregion, and San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Chicago anchor smaller megaregions of their own; but in Europe, among the richest cities only Frankfurt and Amsterdam are in megaregions, while London, Paris, Hamburg, and Munich are not. Megaregions are areas of high population density and interlinked social networks. Their size may give them economic advantage, but it doesn’t have to; urbanists and urban geographers must avoid overselling their importance.
What is a megaregion?
The original Boston-Washington megalopolis was defined in the 1960s, as a linear region with continuous suburban sprawl. The core comes from New York and Philadelphia, which share some suburbs in Central Jersey, their regional rails meeting at Trenton. However, continuous sprawl goes north to New Haven, Hartford, and Springfield, with only a few tens of km of separation from Providence and Worcester on the way to Boston; and southwest to Baltimore and Washington, with suburbs spaced closely together along the I-95 corridor.
There are extensive academic connections. Academics are generally hypermobile, but form especially thick metropolitan connections. Living in Boston and reverse-commuting to Brown is normal, and people at Brown would sometimes go up to Harvard or MIT for seminars when sufficiently important or interesting people gave talks. Connections up and down the central part of the corridor are extensive as well, stretching from Yale down to Penn. There is a gap between New Haven and Providence, as Hartford and Springfield aren’t academic centers; perhaps for academics the megaregion only stretches from New Haven to Washington, but even so, at least two-thirds of the megaregion remains intact.
Socially, there are strong connections along the corridor as well. They’re rarely end-to-end, but people in fandom routinely go a state or two over for conventions, so conventions in Connecticut and Rhode Island draw from New York and Boston, conventions in New Jersey draw from Philadelphia and New Haven, and conventions in Maryland draw from Philadelphia and Northern Virginia. On some stretches, weekend trips are normal, like the Columbia students who’d go back to visit parents in suburban Philadelphia every weekend, or people in New York who dated people in New Haven and didn’t even really think of it as a long-distance relationship.
Which regions qualify as megaregions?
Outside the Northeast, it is difficult for me to judge the extent of social connections, with a few key exceptions. However, I can judge how continuous urbanization is and, using American survey data on commuting, whether two adjacent core urban areas share suburbs. In Europe, I do not have commuting data, but it is easy to look at regional rail maps and see when S-Bahn networks touch.
In the United States, the three largest core metropolitan areas outside the Northeast – Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco – all anchor megaregions. However, in all three cases, the big core metro area dominates the broader region. Los Angeles has continuous sprawl down the coast to San Diego, and the two metro areas’ commuter rail networks touch; Chicago similarly has continuous sprawl up to Milwaukee, and if Milwaukee bothered to run regional trains then they would probably go down to Kenosha and connect to Metra; the Bay Area’s high housing costs have driven many people to the San Joaquin Delta, most of the way to Sacramento, and the Amtrak route connecting San Jose and Oakland with Sacramento is largely planned as regional rail nowadays.
New York is of course much larger than the other core regions of the megalopolis, but its metro area has at most half the population of the region, and even that requires making the broadest assumptions on what counts as part of the metro area and the narrowest ones on what counts as part of the megalopolis. If metro New York excludes mostly economically independent areas like New Haven and Central Jersey, and the megalopolis includes some inland areas like Albany and Harrisburg, then New York is only one third of the megalopolis. In contrast, the five-county Los Angeles metro area has three quarters of Southern California’s population, the Bay Area has about two thirds of its megaregion’s population, and metro Chicago has about 85% of the combined population of Chicago and Milwaukee.
Suburb sharing in smaller megaregions
High population density and suburban sprawl can lead some core urban areas to share suburbs, forming a megaregion with much lower population than the megalopolis. Florida supplies at least one such example: out of 237,000 employed residents in Polk County, 26,000 commute to Orlando’s Orange County and 29,000 commute to Tampa’s Hillsborough County and St. Petersburg’s Pinellas County; the western parts of Polk County have a higher density of Tampa-bound commuters and the eastern parts have a higher density of Orlando-bound commuters, but there is a fair amount of mixing, as well as anywhere-to-anywhere commuting within the county. By all accounts, Orlando and Tampa should be placed into one megaregion.
South Florida is arguably a megaregion as well. It is treated as a metro area stretching from Miami or even Key West north to West Palm Beach, but its northern, central, and southern areas have distinct urban cores. Miami-Dade County has 982,000 employed residents, of whom only 28,000 work in Palm Beach County; in the other direction, 29,000 workers from Palm Beach commute to Miami-Dade out of 513,000. This megaregion stretches even further north – St. Lucie County has 13,000 out of 100,000 workers commuting to Palm Beach County – but there is a gap in both population density and commuting zones between Port St. Lucie and Space Coast. Socially, too, the people I know on Space Coast don’t have ties to South Florida, and barely have any to Orlando. So the bulk of Florida is really two linear megaregions, one north-south and one southwest-northeast, which may be close but do not merge.
Finally, crossing the Pond, Northern England features a megaregion out of core metro areas of similar size to those of Central Florida. Liverpool and Manchester are two historic cores and are formally two distinct metro areas, but are so interlinked they are arguably a single metro area, and are certainly a single multicore megaregion. There is contiguous suburban sprawl connecting the two cities with small gaps, and were British regional rail services better, their frequent urban rail networks would have touched. There are even some ties crossing the Pennines to Leeds; Britain has attempted to improve infrastructure between historic Lancashire and Yorkshire, using the language of megaregions to argue that this would boost the area’s economic profile.
Leapfrog urban connections
Western Germany and the Netherlands do not have contiguous sprawl in the same way that most developed countries do. On a satellite photo, the commuting zone of New York, Paris, Madrid, Toronto, or any other major city in their respective countries looks largely as a single blob of gray. The population density of this gray blob is higher in France than in the United States, but in both countries, a metropolitan area is made out of a single contiguous built-up area plus a handful of surrounding low-density exurbs.
In contrast, in Germany and the Netherlands there are undeveloped areas between adjacent cities. Most definitions of metropolitan agglomeration in Europe recognize that Cologne and Bonn are one metro area, but the two cities’ built-up areas barely touch and have farmland in between. The metro area of Frankfurt similarly contains multiple core cities with recognizable centers and some rural gaps between them, such as Darmstadt and Mainz. Urban areas with slightly bigger gaps do not necessarily fall into one metro area, but certainly comprise a single megaregion, including Germany’s largest, the Rhine-Ruhr with its roughly 11 million people and extensive internal S-Bahn connections.
Randstad is likewise a megaregion. The Netherlands zealously protects its high-yield farmland from urban sprawl, so suburbs are usually not contiguous with the cities they serve as bedroom communities for. There are agricultural gaps between Amsterdam, the cities of Flevoland, Utrecht, Rotterdam, and the Hague, and not too much commuting between the southern and northern edges of the combined region, and yet intermediate commuting and tight economic links mean it must be viewed as more than two or three disparate metro areas.
More controversially, I claim that the lower reaches of the Upper Rhine, from Frankfurt and Mainz up to Karlsruhe, form a single megaregion, and may even stretch farther up all the way into Basel. The gaps in urbanization between Frankfurt and Mannheim are not large – there is a city every few kilometers on both rail lines connecting the two cities. Moreover, the Frankfurt and Rhine-Neckar regions’ S-Bahns touch at Mainz, the Mainz-Mannheim line having recently been designated as S-Bahn quality and appearing on the regional schedules. The Rhine-Neckar S-Bahn in turn serves Karlsruhe. South of Karlsruhe the population density is high but less so, and the gaps between the cities are larger. But even without Baden south of Karlsruhe, the combined region has nearly 10 million people, and certainly has the highest GDP in Germany, as it is much richer than the Rhine-Ruhr.
Remember the Blue Banana?
In 1989, a group of French geographers led by Roger Brunet coined the term blue banana for a European megalopolis. As defined, it stretched from London or even Liverpool and Manchester in the north, across the Channel to the Low Countries, up the Rhine to Switzerland, and then across the Alps to Milan. The original definition deliberately omitted Paris from this zone, arguing that French urban geography was dominated by internal national links centered around the capital rather than the polycentrism of the Low Countries, western Germany, Switzerland, and Italy.
The last 30 years have not been kind to the Blue Banana. Much of Continental Europe was beset by a period of slow growth in the 1990s, sometimes called eurosclerosis; parts of it have slowly recovered in the 2000s and 2010s, most notably Germany, while others have stagnated, most notably Italy. In the 1990s, it was plausible to view Milan as more like Northern Europe than like Southern Italy. Today, it is no longer tenable. Before the 2008 crisis, Lombardy was as rich as Hamburg and southern Hesse and much richer than Stockholm and Copenhagen; today it is slightly behind Stockholm and slightly ahead of Copenhagen, and well behind Hamburg and southern Hesse.
The story of growth in the last generation has mostly been one of states, not regions. Northern Italy is much richer than Southern Italy, just as it has always been, but the entire country has equally stagnated. French growth has not been spectacular over this period, but it’s been better than Italian growth. Belgium, within the Blue Banana, has done better than France in the last generation, but not by much. In this entire period, the most notable subnational per capita income changes have been that London has pulled ahead while Northern England has stagnated, and that East Germany has grown faster than West Germany.
Megaregions and wealth
In the United States, the big megaregions have been loci of wealth, particularly the megalopolis. This has intensified in the current century. According to BEA data, since 2000, economic growth in the four core Northeast combined metro areas has exceeded the national average, gaining about 4 percentage points relative to the rest of the country in terms of both per capita income (from all sources) and net earnings (i.e. income from work). But even there, this is not the whole story, since Seattle, which is not in any megaregion, has had even faster growth.
Moreover, in Europe, there is no real correlation between megaregions and growth. The largest single megaregion in Europe, the Rhine-Ruhr, has slower economic growth than both the surging cities of southern Germany and the converging ones of the East. Paris and London are doing just fine as independent metro areas, Munich is still the richest city region in the EU, and Berlin is steadily converging to West German income levels.
Of course, no correlation and negative correlation are two different things. Just as the Rhine-Ruhr is slowly stagnating, the Frankfurt-Mannheim megaregion is growing, and Randstad has managed to recover from the recession alongside the rest of the Netherlands.
To the extent that there’s a link between megaregions and wealth, it’s that in developing countries, or even in midcentury America, poorer regions are mostly rural, and their cities tend to be small and less likely to interlink to form large metro areas. Thus, Eastern China has three megaregions with tens of millions of people each – Beijing-Tianjin, the Yangtze Delta, and the Pearl River Delta – underlying the wealth and urbanization of these regions; in contrast, the Indo-Gangetic Plain’s lower level of economic development means that even though population density from Bangladesh up the Ganges toward Delhi is as high as in southern Jiangsu, the cities are too small and too separated to form a Bangladeshi or West Bengali or Doabi megaregion.
But in a first-world context, the urbanization rate is about 100%. Even on-paper rural areas are within city regions and just happen to be small municipalities whose residents can drive in half an hour to a larger number of people than any premodern village pedestrian could interact with over a lifetime.
What this suggests is that the right way to think of first-world megaregions is not in terms of economic output, but in terms of density. In dense areas like the Netherlands, western Germany, England, and the Northeastern US, megaregions are likely to form out of links between adjacent cities. Not for nothing, the only part of the American Sunbelt where I’m comfortable describing metro areas as linking to form megaregions, Florida, also has the highest population density. The economies of Atlanta, Dallas, and Houston are a lot stronger than that of Central Florida, which is frankly a basket case, but cities in Texas and the Deep South are too far apart to function as megaregions.
Does high background density lead to higher incomes? Maybe. Strong urban networks really do allow for more economic specialization. But then these networks can be global, untethered from where one can travel by regional rail or urban highways. It’s an interesting question of economic geography, but on the level of a sanity check, some of the richest cities in Europe are doing just fine without the polycentric megaregional links going up and down the Rhine.
Americans periodically talk about the stereotype that various large cities are not Real America. The standard explanations among American liberal for why this stereotype exists are a combination of partisanship (cities vote for Democrats by large margins) and racism (cities are racially diverse), but these have never sat well with me. Stereotypes that the major cities are a different world from the rest of the country are not uniquely American – they exist in England, France, and Israel just as in the US, and sociologists in Europe increasingly try to turn them into pan-European comparisons of urban middle-class globalists in tension with The Real Nation. This also exists historically: the best reference is Ernest Gellner’s Nations and Nationalism. This post is an explanation of Gellner’s theory and how it applies today.
Gellner’s theory of nationalism
To Gellner, modern nationalism is an inevitable byproduct of industrialization and modernization. Peasants live their entire lives within walking distance of where they were born. They have an intensely local culture with local customs, and politics revolving around jockeying for favors of the local notables, who are often entitled nobility. There is no social mobility to speak of in a traditional agrarian society, hence no need for compatibility between villages in different part of the same state. Moreover, the individual usually does not interact with the state directly, but rather through intermediaries, who again may be entitled nobles, but could equally well be powerful families in any of the premodern European republics.
A national culture may appeal to the more mobile elite, but not to the large majority of the population. In Aquitaine, the nobility transitioned from speaking Occitan to speaking French at the end of the Middle Ages, but the commoners didn’t even view themselves as part of France well into the Early Modern Era, and kept speaking Occitan until the 20th century. The standard Italian language is a creation of the Renaissance, and standard German is a creation of the Reformation, but neither was spoken widely before the modern era; standard German was only written, not spoken, until the 19th century.
Industrialization changes this situation. Workers from all over urbanize, and often urbanize far away from where they were born; people from Prussia moved west to the Ruhr to work in the factories, people from small American towns moved to the big industrial cities in the North, etc. A common language is essential. Common customs are useful as well: workers become interchangeable parts in a Fordist production system, so they need to have similar needs (for example, holidays) to be useful to the capitalist elite.
Even when minorities get some recognition, the state shoehorns them into a common culture for easier governance. Today we speak of Occitan and of the French state’s imposition of Parisian French on the South, but the term Occitania is only attested from the 16th century, and did not exist in Toulouse’s medieval heyday. In the communist world, state anthropologists grouped together people who had no conception of identity beyond their immediate village or tribe and labeled them as a particular ethnic group, such as the Uighurs or the Zhuang.
Gellner stresses that the promulgation of national culture is a top-down process, driven by the needs of the urban middle class. National education enforces a standard language and shames speakers of minority languages, such as Welsh, any minority language in France, immigrants in the US, or indigenous people in North America and Australia. Even when they lack a separate identity as the Welsh or Occitans do, the state teaches the peasants to speak correctly, that is, to speak as the elite does in and around the capital. Children are taught loyalty through rituals, national history, and irredentism, and in most of Europe this culminated in conscripted armies. In the era in question, education policy is decided entirely by political elites, be they local notables (as in the US) or urban-based national parties (as in Europe).
Even the socialist conception of workers with class consciousness only arises after industrialization and national homogenization. Factory workers can go on strike; Early Modern apprentices bound to a specific master cannot, and servants on a manor compete for favors from the lord and do not act in solidarity.
Nationalism and rural romanticism
A key aspect of nationalism is rural romanticism. As with national homogenization, Gellner stresses that this process is driven by the urban middle class, and not by rural dwellers themselves, who identify with their particular village or region more than with the nation.
The art of the Belle Epoque tells this story. Impressionist and postimpressionist painters in France might paint industrial scenes, such as train stations, but they were much likelier to paint rural ones, often in faraway regions. People in modern-day Provence have used Paul Cézanne’s paintings of the area’s rural idyll to argue against high-speed rail construction, saying it would despoil their historic culture – but Cézanne himself was educated in Aix and spent most of his life in Paris. Across the Pond, New York-based artists would paint romantic scenes in Upstate New York.
To Gellner, this romanticism is bundled with capital-centrism, as in France or England; he recognizes that polycentric models exist, such as that of Germany, but focuses on France as the purest example. In France, the middle class would not romanticize its own situation in Paris, which might be too special to generalize to the rest of the country. It would happily impose Parisian French in education, but could not romanticize the life of the Parisian worker. Instead, the object of romanticism had to be far away.
Stereotypes and familiarity
Gellner’s theory studies Europe in the Second Industrial Revolution, but we can look at applications at other times and places. In the United States, we can write a bunch of stereotypes that apply to the entire country and distinguish it culturally from the rest of the developed world:
- Cities are car-oriented and low-density, but still have a high-rise central business district, ringed by mostly single-family houses and suburban job centers. If people take public transport, it’s because they are too poor to afford a car, or possibly because they commute to a large central business district at rush hour.
- Cities are much poorer than their suburbs – the middle class prefers to live outside the city and drive in. If there are sections of central cities that are nice and attract the middle class, the people living therein are usually childless, and many end up moving to the suburbs and buying houses when they have children.
- Schools are governed at a very local level, down to the individual small town, and parents spend a lot of money on buying houses in favored school districts, leading to intense school segregation by race and parental education. But within each district there is no tracking into academic versus vocational schools.
- While there is no hierarchy of schools (except across districts), there is a rigid hierarchy of universities. Harvard is the best, but is unattainable to the vast majority of the public. Generally, private universities have higher prestige than public ones. Except at the lowest level of prestige, that of the community college, it’s normal to go far away for university, often out of state, and the university will moreover often be located in a small or medium-size town and not in a big city.
- Non-Hispanic whites are the dominant group demographically, politically, and economically. They may have sub-identities, such as Italian, Scotch-Irish, or Puritan, but they will usually identify with whites with other sub-identities more closely than with nonwhite Americans. Moreover, they do not feel threatened by neighboring countries, and view themselves as the globally dominant ethnicity rather than possessing a siege mentality the way Israeli Jews and Chinese-Singaporeans do. Finally, within the white majority, Protestants from Northern and Western Europe occupy a privileged position of being the default group, to the point of not even being viewed as ethnic.
All of the above stereotypes are broadly true of the United States, but all have exceptions in various regions. New York’s high density and broad use of public transportation are well-known, and in urbanist discourse this makes it a lightning rod for accusations that it is not Real America.
And yet, some of the other stereotypes are more Northern than Southern. The school segregation picture is specifically Northern: the South is less likely to have segregated districts, and the segregation it does have comes from private (often sectarian) schools. Children in Florida grow up going to schools with children of other races, unlike children in New England. The university hierarchy is not only Northern but specifically Northeastern – in several Midwestern states, the state flagships are their respective states’ most prestigious institutions; and whether the universities are in big cities or smaller towns is idiosyncratic.
There is probably a case that New York is more different from standard average America than other regions are, but there is no plausible case regarding a number of other American cities commonly stereotyped as not Real America, such as Boston, Washington, or even San Francisco.
However, those other cities are too familiar to the cultural elites. Some frustrated liberals do try to say that the Deep South is not Real America for its various special social and political characteristics, but they cannot say with a straight face that Boston is Real America, because they are familiar enough with Boston to know its idiosyncrasies, such as its high-by-American-standards public transport usage and its job centralization pattern.
In contrast, the rural Midwest is disconnected enough from cultural production centers that people can say with a straight face that a randomly-selected Midwestern town represents Real America. It will have plenty of idiosyncrasies, and may even play them up for tourism (as at state fairs), but it will portray them as “we are unique, just like everyone else.” The uniqueness is a claim to special knowledge, and thus power, on behalf of the local elites, rather than a claim to political separateness. A politician is supposed to visit such a town, eat whatever food the locals proclaim is a local delicacy, and do photo-ops with the mayor and richest business owners, rather than to actually change national spending priorities. It’s the politics of personal connections, rather than ideology. Politicians can proclaim it Real America precisely because it is nonthreatening. Rural areas that demand ideological concessions, as the South did on segregation in the 20th century, have a harder time being taken seriously as Real America.
Gellner does not get into the homogenization of minority identity, but it is a real issue within the theory of nationalism. The same principles of nationalism equally apply to minority groups, even ones that have had to politically fight to have cultural autonomy. On the level of identity, this means that groups that did not identify as a single ethnos begin to do so under the influence of a larger, more powerful culture; this includes not just top-down examples like the Uighurs and the Zhuang, but also more organic ones like the formation of a unified Muslim American identity including Middle Easterners, South Asians, and Africans.
The formation of sub-nationalism includes rural romanticism among sub-identities as well. It’s common enough on the level of the state or province, even if it’s a region that the nation writ large denigrates. Californians see the rest of America denigrate them as either ungovernable or elitist, depending on taste, and yet within the state they display the same romanticism for the state’s rural minority. In the interminable California High-Speed Rail alignment debates, people who supported routing the trains through Gilroy would talk up the area’s garlic festival as some kind of important marker of state culture.
In Europe, too, we see people specifically overrate the rural even in minority regions. French sociologists have spilled far too much ink about how modern social changes including globalization have hollowed out small towns, and multiple articles have specifically looked at Albi. They either directly say or imply that in the era of national unity, Occitania was great, but immigration and globalization have left it in decline. The reality is that Southern France has economically boomed in the last two generations – Toulouse is one of the fastest-growing cities in Europe thanks to the Airbus factory – but somehow, Toulouse and Bordeaux are not Real Midi whereas any small town where one may find extreme right voters is.
This romanticism goes even below the level of a state of province. Within cities, too, there are patterns to which neighborhoods are called Real New York and which are not, and as a rule, these neighborhoods are always the farthest-out ones. I have heard speculation that City Council Speaker Corey Johnson will face a major headwind in the 2021 mayoral election purely because he’s from Manhattan. I have spent years talking to New Yorkers and heard a lot of Real New York complaints and do not recall a single instance in which people accused Kew Gardens Hills and Midwood of being not-Real New York, never mind that their Orthodox Jewish populations behave in ways atypical of the city much more so than the upper middle class residents of the Upper West Side do.
Some regions, professions, or social classes end up having considerable charisma, in the sense that other people view them as national symbols. Often these specifically represent the past, since it’s had more time to insinuate itself into national culture than the future: all over the United States as well as Western Europe, there is more attention to declining industrial regions such as the Midwest or the Ruhr than to demographically growing regions even if they’re equally poor, such as ones with economies driven by tourism and retirement.
Usually what makes a group charismatic is that it makes no ideological demands on the state, only personal ones. And yet, there is ideology in personal demands, which leads to overspending on such groups, for example lush farm subsidies and agricultural protectionism.
This is a pitfall for urbanism specifically, since the biggest cities genuinely have different needs from small towns. Public transport can succeed in small cities (like Strasbourg, Geneva, Karlsruhe, or Brno) given supportive policies and fail in big ones (like Los Angeles) given hostile ones – but there is practically always a size gradient. New York will always have better public transport than the rest of the United States. The upshot is that the sort of investment that is designed to maximize transport usage intensity relative to spending will concentrate in a few big cities, especially New York – and much of the potential for success elsewhere in the United States involves models of transit-oriented development that in effect New Yorkize other cities.
Since the modes of transportation that move people the most efficiently – various flavors of rapid transit – are difficult to implement in most American cities other than New York, nationalists face a dilemma. They can abandon nationalism, and declare that if (say) Tampa and Grand Rapids cannot make urban rail work, they will receive less funding. But this will look insensitive, not just to locals of Tampa and Grand Rapids, but also to various New York elites that have turned small cities like Tampa and Grand Rapids into national bellwethers. Most instead choose to politicize transport decisions and argue for things that small cities can implement, no matter how poor the results are (“learn to love the bus”).
One of the two options in the dilemma is politically correct, but keeps American transportation and urbanism frozen in amber in the 1950s; nationalism always romanticizes the past more than the future. The other moves forward, but is not so politically correct. Who wants to openly argue in favor of more investment in a two-thirds nonwhite and two-fifths foreign-born city, with enough minority prosperity that its most elite school is two-thirds Asian? Who wants to euthanize the national industry that played such a big role in the mythology of postwar prosperity, at least for those who could afford it and had the correct skin color? Who wants to openly argue for greater adoption of a vernacular architecture that a large majority of America emotionally associates with the living standards of a hundred years ago, never mind that individuals like it enough that developers build it on their own at market rate wherever they are allowed to?
The future of nationalism
Nationalism was the ideology that suited the Second Industrial Revolution, and globalism is what suits the information technology era. The extent of economic specialization of 1900 lent itself well to nation-states. Those nation-states did not have to be very big – Sweden wasn’t – but if they were small they needed to have open economies and institutions allowing extensive trade even in the absence of mass migration.
The extent of economic specialization of 2020 in the developed world is not the same as that of 1900. Industrial specialization, as when each industrial Northern American city produced a different good, is in decline, but instead there are hyper-specialized clusters of academic and industrial research, drawing on international talent. This requires stepping up from nationalism toward globalism. Linguistically this means English, stripped of a few Americanisms and Anglicisms like non-metric units; in literature this means reading a selection of many different cultures’ great authors, usually in translation, and not just one linguistic canon; in science this means an academia that trends toward international exchanges and often nation-hopping in training. It’s too vast a world for cultural Fordism, which encourages post-Fordist specialization – think Starbucks and its many different options for coffee and not the McDonald’s of 20 years ago with its limited menu.
The United States happens to be very well-suited for some aspects of globalization: most importantly, it is already Anglophone. It is ill-suited for others: Americans’ sense of national pride is bound in industries and consumption patterns that are destroying the planet. Any green transition, and really any improvement in infrastructure beyond the 1950s and 60s, will offend Americans’ sense of nationhood and elevate subcultures they are used to denigrating. This is not partisan and this is not even mostly racial. Nationalism romanticizes the nation’s imagined past, and in the United States more than anywhere else the past in question must be discarded as an era of wanton pollution.
I recently saw that San Francisco is considering fast-tracking residential development dedicated to teacher housing. There are quibbles between the moderate mayor and the progressives on city council (“Board of Supervisors”) over the exact structure of the housing subsidies, but both sides agree at least in theory that it should be easier to build housing for teachers; for more background, see article here and Twitter back-and-forth here. I bring this up because it’s an example of bad governance at the local level in the US, one that sends everyone the message, “you should get more clout to bribe politicians.”
The basic problem is that market-rate housing in San Francisco is extremely expensive; in the Mission, a two-bedroom apartment rents for about $5,000 or $5,500 a month. There’s rent control, but it requires one to have lived in the city for a very long time – friends who have lived in the city since the mid-2000s pay around $2,700, which is borderline on a teacher’s salary. Usually the city’s local notables don’t have to care about whether housing is affordable to people in intermediate professions, since our rent is their property values, but “teachers can’t afford housing here” could be a rallying cry for more housing. Thus, they feel like making an exception.
Making an exception is the hallmark of populist governance. In a system with not much rule of law and no trust that there will ever be rule of law, people don’t ask for better rules but to benefit from exceptions. That various exporters threatened to leave Britain over Brexit did not faze Theresa May – every time a company people didn’t hate made such a threat, she offered special subsidies to stay no matter what would happen with the trade agreement with the rump-EU.
The problem with populism is that it sends the message, invest in political marketing and not in productivity. A company that sees that San Francisco is subsidizing housing for teachers in preference to other workers with similar pay and skill level – clerical workers, social workers, lab techs – gets a clear incentive to give its workers more political prestige through political contributions, sponsorships of events the local politicians are interested in, etc. It faces less pressure to invest in its productivity and pay its workers better, since housing is not allocated by market pricing but by political whims.
Under liberal governance, if San Francisco wishes to give its teachers perks, it can pay them better. Programmers get paid $110,000 a year plus benefits (stock options, good health insurance, free food), and the city can if it wants raise taxes and pay teachers similarly; if it can commit to maintaining such high pay indefinitely it can ensure the profession will get more prestige and attract people who otherwise would be writing code for how to sell user data to advertisers slightly more efficiently.
However, a tax hike might fall on the local homeowners and on other rich people who have invested a lot of time and money in obtaining political influence. To avoid burdening the powerful, the city can’t do this – it has to come up with some one-off bespoke deal for teacher housing, rather than permitting more housing across the board and also raising salaries to be competitive with those of the private sector.
Improving the quality of governance requires making it harder for politicians to create such deals. The original YIMBY praxis of state preemption laws is one way to do this: it completely takes local notables out of the loop. While the YIMBY groups on the ground in California don’t go further with this, their favorite state politician, Scott Wiener, who represents San Francisco in the State Senate, is consciously trying to form an informal state party with some ideological coherence based on relevant state issues, led by the question of housing.
It may be prudent to refine this preemption doctrine by interfering with local rules that favor some groups over others in housing. Thus the state should pass a preemption law that forbids dedicated housing for teachers, cops, or other charismatic professions, and requires all housing to be allocated by market pricing, or, failing that, by a clear process of rent control, such as waitlists or income limits. Private actors may continue to buy and sell housing based on their wishes, subject to the usual anti-discrimination law, but municipalities may not use incentives such as subsidies, tax breaks, access to public land, or special fast-tracking of approvals. Such a law may well succeed in the state legislature – unlike the SB 50 process preempting zoning restrictions, this law would not be nakedly offensive to the privileged group of suburban homeowners who managed to scuttle SB 50.
It is not really possible to develop rule of law in an environment in which powerful people can easily circumvent the rules. A city that can offer a way out of an onerous permitting regime to people who make it attractive offers – that is, bribery – has no incentive to make the permitting regime easier, and a powerful incentive to keep it as it is. If building housing becomes easier, politicians lose the ability to extort community benefits by threatening to withhold permits. And if there is a way out for socioeconomic classes that demagogues can’t dismiss as gentrifiers, transients, and rootless cosmopolitans, then politicians gain the ability to threaten everyone else, while employers as well as nonprofits get a powerful message that they should pay more bribes. It’s a win-win for everyone except the hapless residents governed by such corruption.
The question is whether area YIMBYs are willing to leverage the one point of power they do have – namely, their connection to nationwide ideological networks that the local notables of these cities pay lip service to. Out of four New York Times op-ed writers who online liberals like, two (Paul Krugman, Jamelle Bouie) have openly called for more housing in cities, and two (Charles Blow, Michelle Goldberg) have never opined on this issue; NIMBYs have ample local power but little national clout. YIMBYs have this advantage and need to press it to completely sideline machine politics and personality politics – that is, to form a coherent, identifiable political party in California (or New York, or Massachusetts) contesting state and local elections, and if winning local elections without assimilating to the local rot is not possible then work to delegitimize government below the state level as irredeemably corrupt.
The table below collates job centralization not by CBD as in this post but by central city. Parisian data comes from INSEE, here and here; American data comes from Wikipedia for population and OnTheMap for job counts. In general, I tried making the central city definition about 18% of the metro area to be comparable with Paris, but there is still a lot of variation, so this table should absolutely not be read as a ranking of metro areas by job centralization.
|Metro area||Population||Jobs||Central city||Central pop’n||Central jobs||Central job share|
|New York||19,979,477||8,364,410||Manhattan, Brooklyn||4,313,498||2,905,675||34.7%|
|Los Angeles||13,291,486||5,372,008||Downtown LA to Santa Monica||~1,500,000||1,051,648||19.6%|
|Houston||6,997,384||2,791,647||Inside 610 + Uptown||~650,000||749,661||26.9%|
|Washington||6,249,950||2,717,790||District, Arlington, Alexandria||1,100,496||859,751||31.6%|
|Miami||6,198,782||2,308,048||Miami, Miami Beach||563,221||324,260||14%|
|Bay Area||4,729,484||2,121,580||San Francisco||883,305||642,375||30.3%|
There appears to be a fair amount of job centralization in the Sunbelt cities, right? In Metro Atlanta, Fulton County has a slightly higher proportion of regional jobs than Paris with a slightly lower share of residential population.
But actually, no. Absolute densities matter in addition to relative centralization of jobs versus residences. In Houston and Los Angeles the central areas are drawn to encircle the downtown and near-downtown job centers – both cities preferentially annex suburban job sites so using municipal boundaries is not useful. A hefty share of area jobs are in these centers, especially in Houston. But ultimately it’s still not a lot of jobs in a very large land area, around 300 square kilometers for both, compared with 100 for the city of Paris or for San Francisco. Fulton County is vast, and the jobs are distributed all over Atlanta and its northern suburbs within the county.
Houston is a particularly good example of monocentrism with a weak center. There are not a lot of strong suburban job centers in Houston – nothing like Silicon Valley, Downtown Newark, the Route 128 corridor, La Defense, Burbank, or Tysons Corner. The city itself has about two thirds of area jobs, thanks to selective annexations. But the share of the CBD in area jobs is low, just 150,000 jobs in the 45/69/10 beltway, or 5.3% of area jobs. Outside the CBD job density plummets, as the outlying job centers making the difference between 5.3% and 26.9% are located at haphazard locations all over 610.
Older American cities
The extent of centralization in the Northeast, Chicago, and San Francisco is greater. New York in particular is a lot like Paris, with about a third of area jobs in a high-density contiguous blob consisting of less than one fifth of regional population. It has nothing like La Defense in the suburbs, but its suburban job centers, while much smaller, include some recognizably dense ones, especially Newark and the Jersey City waterfront. One needs to go well into suburbia to see the difference between Paris, where the suburbs have a structure of density with mid- and high-rise residential development as well as offices next to train stations, and New York, where the job centers in farther-out suburbia, like Central Jersey, have no such structure and are located exclusively based on auto access.
Boston, Washington, and San Francisco all have varying degrees of centralization. I mentioned last year that Boston is increasingly an example of European-style job sprawl, in which jobs spill over from the CBD to nearby areas rather than to faraway office parks. New York has long had such spillover – Long Island City is such a job center, and may at this point have more jobs than Downtown Brooklyn; the Jersey City waterfront is another such example, as is the growth of the Meatpacking District around Google. In Boston the equivalents are Kendall Square and the Seaport; in San Francisco it’s SoMa; in Washington it’s jobs in Arlington around the Orange Line, where older TOD was residential.
Chicago and Philadelphia are the least centralized. Chicago has a well-defined supertall skyline with about 500,000 people working in or near the Loop. But outside that central area, job density craters. Chicago’s share of metro area jobs is about 1.5% higher than its share of metro population, and if we remove the airport, surrounded by suburbia, this difference drops to 0.5%. Philadelphia’s share of metro area jobs is actually lower than its share of metro area population by 1.5%. In these regions, if you’re not working in city center, you’re working at an office park in a middle-class-to-rich suburb built without regard for the area’s vast legacy mainline rail network.
There’s been an ongoing conversation about how public transport can be used for non-work trips (and what it means for women) that makes me go back to something I wrote in 2012 about trip chaining. In that post I asserted a distinction between long and short trips, but I didn’t make it very clear. The importance of this distinction is that even though a large majority of trips are not work trips, the sort of urban layout that makes long trips (including work trips) usable by train tends to also make other trips doable on foot.
Trip length and purpose
Mobilität in Deutschland periodically reports on national travel patterns. The 2017 MiD report includes mode shares, trip lengths, and purposes, some broken down by state. Unlike in the Anglosphere or in France, the headline modal share is for all trips, not just work or school trips, and therefore the numbers for public transit look lower and those for walking and cycling look higher.
The important statistic for trip-chaining comes from a table on p. 19. There were 42 million work trips and 41 million shopping trips nationwide in 2017, but the work trips were on average more than three times as long, 16 vs. 5.3 kilometers. The only trip category longer than work was business trips, on average 19 km, including an extensive number of intercity trips, and the only category close to work trips was recreational trips, averaging 15.5 km, also including extensive intercity travel; the median work trip was by a fair margin the longest, 8 km, whereas the median shopping trip was 2 km. Likewise, errand trips were 10.2 km on average with a median of 3.6.
MiD doesn’t break down this data by region, unfortunately. So I can only speculate that if the median trip that people talk about when they talk about trip chaining is 2 km long, then the median trip in the parts of Germany with good public transit is short enough to be done on foot, probably shorter than a kilometer.
Short and long trips
I think it’s useful to collapse the distinction between trips into a binary one: short versus long. Trip length is of course a continuous variable, but a good classification scheme is “can it be done internally to a neighborhood or town?”. If the answer is yes then the trip is short, otherwise it is long.
The commute is an example of a long trip. Commuting to school is usually a long trip as well; even in an environment with school zoning and no selection or choice, a secondary school draws from too large an area to be a single neighborhood except in an extremely large and dense city. Social trips can be long as well – if I go to a gaming convention or a performance in Berlin, or if someone who cares about sports goes to see a football match, it’s a long trip.
Short trips include shopping, errands, eating out, and daycare. The common aspect to them is that they involve common activities with small draws. The supermarket draws from a community of a few thousand, as does the neighborhood restaurant. In contrast, the performance is unique – while many people go to concerts, different people are fans of different artists, so a single band may need to visit a city of millions to fill an auditorium.
Making transit useful for non-work long trips
I bring up the example of going to a sports game as a long trip because American transit agencies deal with that routinely even if they otherwise only care about work trips. Commute trips tend to happen at specific times of day, especially if you’re from the same middle class that transit managers are drawn from. Other long trips have different peaks. Leisure trips tend to happen in the evening and on weekends. Business trips within metropolitan areas tend to happen in the middle of the day during work hours. Trips to the airport depend on time zones – in New York the ones to JFK are concentrated in the afternoon peak, but it’s hard to make generalizations.
Like work trips, non-work long trips are not isotropic – people travel to specific places. A few are as a rule outside city center, such as sports stadiums and airports. Others are within city center to appeal to a wide cross-section of residents, such as event spaces for performances; conventions run the gamut, but richer and more important conventions are likelier to shell out money for city center real estate. Universities may be in or outside city center, depending on the city. Museums are usually city center or in neighborhoods just outside it, such as the Upper East and West Sides in New York or Balboa Park in San Diego.
The length means that the optimal transit network for all non-work trips is largely the same. If trains arrive at a reasonable frequency all day, every day, and form a coherent radial network, then passengers will able to use them for all long trips, even ones that are not for work. The major destinations that are outside city center should whenever possible be junctions between different branches, or get circumferential and not just radial service.
Moreover, there is little point in trying to vary modes for work and non-work trips. Surface transit that averages 15 km/h but saves you a 1-minute trip down to the subway is no more useful for going to a concert than for going to work. If poor urban planning has resulted in an airport that’s nowhere on the rail network or in regional convention centers that are impossible to serve, then buses can fill in the gap, but that’s not optimizing for non-work trips but rather fixing past design mistakes, no different from doing the same when suburban office parks are built far from the train.
The one serious change one needs to make is that the definition of city center needs to be broader than the few square blocks that comprise most American cities’ downtowns. The London Underground’s conception of Central London is not just the City, and likewise cities need to ensure that their West Ends (like, again, San Diego’s Balboa Park) are served as if they were central rather than peripheral areas.
It is wrong for cities to try optimizing public transportation for short trips. Most short trips can be done by foot; if they can’t, something is wrong with the city’s urban design. The minimum density required for people to be able to walk to retail is not high – I have a choice of supermarkets within walking distance, and Berlin is not an especially dense city. In Paris, which unlike Berlin is especially dense, I walked to the hypermarket.
Occasionally, when a short trip needs to be done on mechanized transportation, if the city has good transit-oriented commercial development then it is doable by riding the trains a few stops. I recently bought a mattress at Hermannplatz, 3 stops away on U7, longer than most people inside the Ring have to go to such a store, and mattresses are a special case in that dragging them on the streets for a kilometer isn’t fun.
Suppression of auto use is especially valuable for short trips. The reason is that in auto-oriented areas, short as well as long trips are done by car, and if businesses locate based on automobile scale, then only transit can compete – walking and cycling take too long. A hefty proportion of the urban upper middle class prefers to own cars and drive them for short trips, which may induce short trip destinations to locate based on automobile scale even in a walkable city; when I lived in Providence, I walked to the supermarket, but it was located right next to a freeway exit and had ample parking.
The concept of trip chaining – going directly between destinations in a row rather than just going back and forth between home and a destination – works best with the mode of transportation with the highest frequency and lowest access time: walking. Buying different items at different stores is so ubiquitous that shopping malls were invented specifically to make that experience more pleasant than that of chaining car trips.
Transit cities should not design themselves around trip chaining on transit, destinations for short trips are too difficult to serve. Many cluster on major corridors, but some don’t and stay on residential streets or at street corners. In walkable cities they tend to be fairly isotropic. With short average trips and no discernable centers, the optimal stop spacing on transit is extremely short, to the point of uselessness for all other purposes. If there’s trip chaining, the required frequency is so high that operating costs become unaffordable; a 5-minute wait for a bus may well be unconscionable.
Outside dense cities, suburbs should have a structure of density in which all the plausible destinations are within walking distance of the train station, permitting chaining walking trips with a transit trip. With such structure, the minimum viable density is lower, because buses can connect to the train with a timed transfer and have longer stop spacing as the destinations are all at the town center. In effect, such a structure gives the town center most of the convenience benefits of a shopping mall even without other features such as enclosure and single ownership of the real estate.
Infrastructure is scale-dependent. Public transportation makes this a lot clearer than cars – different modes are used at different scales, and the shape of the network can look visibly different as well. At the scale of short trips, the correct choice of public transportation mode is none – people can and should walk. If the city has generally viable public transit, its urban layout will equally well permit trip chaining on foot. If it doesn’t, then the priority should be to establish a transit city and not to try dragging buses every block.
The expression democratic deficit is most commonly used to refer to the European Union and its behind-the-scenes style of lawmaking. I’ve long held it is equally applicable to local politics, especially in the United States. With the EU election taking place later today, I am going to take this opportunity to zoom in one a key aspect: who gets to vote informedly? This is a critical component of the local democratic deficit. After all, there is universal franchise at the local level in modern democracies, same as at the national level, and when election dates coincide the turnout rates coincide as well. EU elections have had low turnout, but this has to be understood as a consequence rather than a cause of the democratic deficit.
This does not exist on the national level anywhere that I know of. In federal states it may not exist on the state level, either: as far as I can tell, Canada and Germany offer voters clear choices on the province/state level, and it’s only in the United States that the democratic deficit exists in the states.
On the EU level, the problem is slowly solving itself, since a highly salient issue is growing, namely, the legitimacy of the EU itself. People can clearly vote for parties that hold that the EU as it currently exists is illegitimate, such as right-populist parties under the ENF umbrella; for parties that offer continuity with the EU as it is, that is Christian-democratic, social-democratic, and liberal parties; and for various reform parties, that is greens and the far left on the left, or whatever remains of the Tories on the right. For what it’s worth, turnout so far has inched up from 2014 levels.
But on the local level, the problem remains as strong as ever. The main consequence is that local elections empower NIMBYs, simply because they have the ability to make an informed choice based on their ideology and other groups lack that power. The interest groups that benefit from housing shortages naturally get more political powers than those that benefit from abundant housing. In transportation, too, transit users tend to be politically weaker than drivers relative to their share of the electorate, but the problem is nowhere near as acute as that of general NIMBYism.
What is informed voting?
Informed voting does not mean voting the right way. A voter may be able to make an informed choice even for an uninformed position; for example, people who think cutting taxes reduces the deficit have an economically uninformed belief, but still count as informed voters if they recognize which parties they can vote for in order to prioritize tax cuts. Informed voting, at least to me, means being able to answer the following questions correctly:
- What are the political issues at stake?
- Which positions on these issues can plausibly be enacted, and how difficult would such enactment be?
- Which organs of state undertake the relevant decisions? Is it the entire legislature, a specific standing committee, the courts, the civil service, etc.?
- Which political groups have which positions on these issues, and how much they’re going to prioritize each issue? Which political groups may not have strong positions but are nonetheless potential allies?
National elections exhibit the most informed voting. For example, in the United States, most voters can identify that the key issues differentiating the Democrats and Republicans are abortion rights, tax rates (especially on higher incomes), and health care, and moreover, the abortion issue is decided through Supreme Court nominations whereas the others are in Congress with the consent of the president. Additional issues like foreign policy, environmental protection, and labor may not be as salient nationwide, but people who care about them usually know which party has what positions, where decisions are made (e.g. foreign policy is decided by the president and appointed advisors, not Congress), and which factions within each party prioritize these issues and which have other priorities.
This does not mean all voters are informed. This does not even mean most swing voters are informed. In the United States it’s a commonplace among partisans that swing voters are exceedingly uninformed. For example, here is Chris Hayes reporting on the 2004 election:
Often, once I would engage undecided voters, they would list concerns, such as the rising cost of health care; but when I would tell them that Kerry had a plan to lower health-care premiums, they would respond in disbelief–not in disbelief that he had a plan, but that the cost of health care was a political issue. It was as if you were telling them that Kerry was promising to extend summer into December.
But the low levels of information among undecided voters, while important on the margins, come from a context in which a large majority of American voters consistently support one party or another, and over the generations the parties have perfected a coalition of interests ensuring each will get about half the vote.
This situation is not US-specific. Israeli voters are highly informed about the relevant issues, led by the control over the Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. They know which parties are prepared to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority, withdraw from the settlements, and recognize an independent Palestinian state, and which will do no such thing, and vote accordingly. Parties for the most part announce in advance which bloc they are to be part of; even parties that would be fine cooperating with either side in order to get money for their special interests, such as the ultra-Orthodox parties, are compelled to announce in advance which side they’ll back (the right), and so far they have not deviated from it. Every single party in Israel’s most recent election had an obvious bloc, left or right; in 2015, every single party did but one, Kulanu, which was a member of the right bloc but at the time pretended to be undecided.
The European democratic deficit
The democratic deficit occurs when it is not possible for a large majority of voters to know in advance what the issues are and how to vote on them.
The European Parliament suffers from a democratic deficit, despite having strong, coherent political parties, because of its tradition of behind-the-scenes government by consensus of EPP and S&D. It is difficult for a voter to know what exactly the difference would be if S&D were somewhat stronger and EPP somewhat weaker. Europe Elects’ latest projection has a tight race for whether ALDE and the parties to its left will have a majority, making ALDE the median party on the left-right scale, or whether they will come just short, making EPP the median. And yet, I have no idea what it would mean, despite the fact that there are important issues, including climate change and immigration, on which there is a cleave between ALDE-and-leftward parties and EPP-and-rightward parties.
I am planning to vote for the Green Party rather than for the Social Democrats, since the Greens here opposed Article 13 whereas the Social Democrats expressed concern but mostly voted for it. But I genuinely do not know whether a stronger G/EFA and weaker S&D would matter much for digital freedom, nor do I know whether behind the scenes a stronger S&D and a weaker EPP would’ve resulted in a different law.
I found myself in a similar situation in the previous (and first) time I was enfranchised, in the Swedish local and regional elections of 2014. Thanks to EU reciprocity laws, I could vote in the local and regional elections but not the coincident national election. I had some knowledge of the salient political issues at the national level from reading the news, looking at slogans on street signs, and browsing party platforms, but had no idea what this would mean within the context of Stockholm County; lacking much of a local social network, I listened to my postdoc advisor’s advice to read the national platforms and vote based on the one I liked most, and voted Green (which, judging by my advisor’s reaction, was not what he would have preferred). Put another way, EU laws let me vote for a mayor and city council whose name I did not even know, but not for the Riksdag, where I had a decent idea of what the difference between the Greens and Social Democrats was.
The extreme right in Europe has ironically improved democracy, because it has given people something to vote against. I may not know how the EU would look different if EPP lost a few percentage points of its vote share and S&D and the Greens gained a few each, but I definitely know how it will look if ENF and parties that aren’t part of ENF but should be, like Hungary’s Fidesz, gain power. When the very existence of a multiracial EU is at stake, it is easier to figure out which parties are firmly committed (G/EFA, S&D, ALDE, and to a large extent EPP) and which aren’t, and on what grounds (GUE/NGL from the left, the Tories from the mainline right, ENF from the extreme right). That the pro-European parties will certainly win a huge majority of the vote among them is less relevant – the point is not to get more votes than ENF but to completely delegitimize ENF, so the margin of defeat counts.
The American democratic deficit
If in Europe the problem is the disconnect between voting for a party at the non-national (or non-state) level and seeing policy results, in the United States local government has no parties at all. Cities of primaries like New York, and cities with nonpartisan elections like San Francisco, make it exceedingly difficult for voters to know which politicians are likely to enact their local ideological agenda.
Knowing what the salient issues are is the easy part in the United States – education, crime, and housing tend to be the main issues across a variety of cities. The hard part is knowing which politicians will take which positions and have which priorities. Occasionally, one-party cities and one-party states have consistent factions, one moderate and more progressive or more conservative, but even then the factional identification is fluid.
David Schleicher has proposed to resolve this problem by forming state parties aiming at capturing about half the voters, on a similar model to that of Canada, where most provincial parties are distinct from federal parties, with ideological cleaves decided by provincial rather than federal voter preferences. Cities like New York and San Francisco would not have informal factions under this system but formal party institutions, one progressive and one moderate with perhaps some cross-party appeal to Republicans, and the parties could even compete in federal Democratic primaries for Congress.
Without parties, collegial institutions can create feudal results. Schleicher gives the example of councilmanic privilege, in which single-party city councils defer on local issues, such as housing, to the member representing the locality in question. Another possibility is standing committees with powerful chairs, as is the case in California today and as was the case in Congress before Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution of 1994. Despite widespread support, the YIMBY political priority SB 50 was recently frozen by fiat of one committee chair, Anthony Portantino, who represents a NIMBY suburb of Los Angeles; SB 50 passed two committees by majority vote but needed a pro forma vote from Portantino’s appropriations committee before the final vote in the entire State Senate. At the federal level, powerful postwar committee chairs tended to be Southern Democrats, who blocked civil rights law that enjoyed widespread support in Congress.
Empowerment for whomst?
Without political parties, the people who can make informed voting in local elections – that is, the people who know the salient issues, the reasonable positions, and who will prioritize what – are from specific demographics. They must have very strong social ties within the locality – they may well know the candidates personally, or know people who know them personally. They must have lived in the locality for a long time to have had these ties. There is no way I could have these ties in Berlin – I moved here three months ago, and socialize largely with foreigners.
Even though there is universal vote among citizens (and even among EU citizens here), people who lack these ties may not be able to vote informedly. Thus, their (our) vote may be completely random; in Berlin I have enough of an idea of what the difference between the left-wing parties and CDU is on transportation, but the Green-SPD difference is still subtle and unless I see more in the next few years in advance of the election I’m likely to vote based on other cues, such as which party has a more diverse slate of candidates.
With people like me not really having much political power even when enfranchised, local politics becomes the domain of the specific socioeconomic classes that do have access to information. These are typically retirees and small business owners. If you own a store, you almost certainly know all the little details of your neighborhood because that’s where your clients are located. If you work for a big business, your social network is much wider, as your coworkers are likely to commute from a wide variety of places, so even though your income is similar to that of the shopkeeper you are much weaker in local elections.
With much more power than the rest of the electorate, retirees and the petite bourgeoisie can create a political culture in which their situation is considered more moral than that of the rest – hence the use of the word transient as a pejorative.
The relevance to housing and transportation is that people with mostly local ties tend to be consistently NIMBY. They usually own housing rather than rent – if you live in one place for a long time you benefit from owning more than the average person. They have real local political power, which redevelopment may disrupt by introducing a large cohort of new people into the neighborhood. They have the ability to extort developers into providing community amenities in exchange for getting a building permit. Not for nothing, the vanguard class for YIMBY is working-age people who work for other people and have national social ties rather than local ones.
In transportation, too, the favored classes in local politics with a democratic deficit tend to be pro-car. Part of it is that enfranchised voters drive more than the disenfranchised – in the United States (per census data) and the Netherlands, immigrants drive less and use transit more than natives. Even within the electorate, the groups that have higher turnouts, such as comfortable retirees, drive more than groups that have lower turnouts, such as students. The petite bourgeoisie in particular drives a lot – if you own a store you probably drive to it because your store is on a local main street with a single bus line, whereas salaried workers are likelier to work in city center and take transit. The latter are less empowered in local politics, especially American politics, so their preferences count less than those of people who can show up to meetings during business hours and complain about bus lanes.
Democratic consensus, not democratic deficit
Tories like to use the real problem of democratic deficit at the EU level as well as the local level to argue in favor of strong unitary nations. But there are better democratic mechanisms than voting for a party once every four or five years and letting an internal party hierarchy decide everything in the interim.
Germany and Canada have strong democratic institutions at the state/province level as far as I can tell, Germany through a multiparty system and Canada through provincial parties. Canadian leftists like to complain about Rob Ford and Doug Ford, but the voters of both Toronto and Ontario knew what they were voting for. It’s not like when Donald Trump ran on promises about immigration and trade that he couldn’t keep and then cut corporate taxes.
There are glimpses of real democracy in the largest cities, at least the mayoral level: Rob Ford, Bill de Blasio, Sadiq Khan, Anne Hidalgo. This is not every city of that size class (Chicago has no such institutions), but mayors of large enough cities can at least be familiar to large enough swaths of the electorate that more than just retirees, retail landlords, and small business owners can express an opinion. In smaller cities, it may be completely impossible to have such democracy – too many residents work outside the city, or work in the city alongside suburban commuters.
Forced amalgamations of cities are likely required in the US as well as France, on the model of Britain, Sweden, the Netherlands, or any other European country with postwar municipal consolidation. Below a certain size class, moreover, it is not possible to have a professional full-time legislature; smaller US states have very small districts (New Hampshire has 400 Representatives for 1.3 million people, paid $100 a year each), leading to hobbyist legislators and bills written by lobbyists.
Referendums are an important component of democracy as well, provided precautions are undertaken to ensure they are more like Swiss ones and less like Californian ones. It is appropriate to vote on individual spending packages, such as a high-speed rail project or a subway, by a simple majority; it is not appropriate to vote on part of a project, as California did for high-speed rail, and put the remaining funding sources in a magic asterisk.
Democracy and housing
Even when homeowners are the majority, as in nearly every first-world country, there is no general interest in a housing shortage. Only homeowners in the most expensive and constrained areas as well as homeowners who look down on people who move frequently have this interest. These two groups can win thanks to a sustained democratic deficit on the local level.
This is why higher-level decisionmaking is consistently more YIMBY than local decisionmaking. At the national or even state level, homeowners can easily form a housing cartel and restrict construction – and yet, higher-level decisionmaking, such as in Japan (national) or Canada (provincial) is associated with higher construction rates. At the state level, interest groups like that of NIMBY homeowners have to share power with other interest groups, including middle-class renters, organized labor, and real estate; in California the NIMBYs just scored a win thanks to control of a legislative committee, but a full legislative vote might well go the other way. But at the local level, the NIMBYs have stronger local ties than the rest and can keep outsiders out, and even manipulate local interest groups, offering them scraps of the extortion money from developers in exchange for loyalty.
In accordance with the observation that higher-level decisionmaking yields YIMBYer results, France and Sweden have recently accelerated housing construction in their expensive capitals, both by force of national power. In the 2014 election, party posters on Stockholm pledged to build more housing, and after winning the election, the Social Democrats set a target for national housing production. Local NIMBYs still maintain some power in that housing production in Sweden has come from finding new brownfield sites to redevelop rather than from replacing smaller buildings with bigger ones, but construction rates in the last few years have been high, especially in Stockholm County; The Local describes the overall rental situation in Sweden as “cooling.” In France there has been acceleration in housing production as well, powered by both national and regional concerns, over the objections of rich NIMBY suburbs over social housing mandates.
The United States has continued devolving housing decisions to hyperlocal organs, with predictable results. YIMBYs in California may not have fully theorized this, but they understand the implications enough to focus on getting the state to override local control to permit mid-rise transit-oriented development. Whatever reasoning has led to this, the praxis of state preemption is solid, and activists in the United States should work to weaken local governments until and unless they begin solving their democratic deficit problems.
I’ve been asked to write about the issue of growth versus no growth. This is in the context of planning, so broader questions of degrowth are not within this post’s main scope. Rather, it’s about whether planning for more growth is useful in combating pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. The answer is yes, though the reasoning is subtle. Smart growth is the key, and yet it’s not a straightforward question of transit construction and transit-oriented development helping the environment; it’s important to figure out what the baseline is, since a large urban apartment still emits more CO2 than the closets people end up living in in parts of San Francisco and New York.
The argument for growth specifically is that a high baseline level of growth is what enables smart growth and TOD policies. Vancouver’s secular increase in transit usage, and to a lesser extent the ongoing revival in Seattle and that of Washington in the 2000s, could not happen in a region with Midwestern population growth.
Smart growth vs. no growth
VTPI has many references to studies about smart growth here. The idea of smart growth is that through policies that encourage infill development and discourage sprawl, it’s possible to redirect the shape of urban areas in a greener direction. Here’s one specific VTPI paper making this comparison directly on PDF-p. 3.
Unfortunately, the reality is that there are at least three poles: in addition to sprawl and smart growth, there is no growth. And moreover, many of the bureaucratic rules intended to encourage smart growth, such as comprehensive zoning plans, in fact lead to no growth. The following table is a convenient summary of housing permitting rate vs. my qualitative impression of how smart the growth is.
The permitting rate is absolute, rather than relative to birth rates, immigration, and internal migration pressure as seen in average incomes. Tokyo’s permitting rate is similar to Vancouver’s – Tokyo Prefecture’s rate of 10 annual units per 1,000 people and so is Metro Vancouver’s, but Japan’s population is falling whereas Canada’s is rising. See also European rates linked here and American rates here.
The infill vs. sprawl dimension is qualitative, and combines how transit-oriented the construction is with whether the development is mostly in the city or in the suburbs. Berlin’s suburbs are shrinking due to the depopulation of East Germany, and growth in the suburbs of Tokyo and West Germany is weak as well, but city growth is going strong. Paris is building a lot of public transit and is very dense, but there’s more development per capita in the suburbs, and likewise in California most development is in exurbs rather than in central cities; Seattle is penalized for having bad transit, and Atlanta for having no transit, but in both there’s a lot more development in the city than in the suburbs. Stockholm and Vienna have growth all over and excellent public transit.
The significance of the diagram is that by the standards of European transit cities, California is not an example of smart growth, but of no growth.
In the high-growth area of the diagram, the most interesting case is not Tokyo, but Vancouver and Seattle. In these cities, there is a transit revival. Metro Vancouver’s mode share went up from 13% in 1996 to 20% on the eve of the Evergreen extension’s opening. Moreover, for most of this period Vancouver saw car traffic decrease, despite high population growth. Metro Seattle’s transit revival is more recent but real, with the mode share rising from the “no transit” to “bad transit” category (it is 10% now).
Both cities invested heavily in transit, Vancouver much more so than Seattle, but it was specifically transit aimed at shaping growth. Before the Expo Line opened, Downtown had few skyscrapers, Metrotown did not yet exist, New Westminster had a low-rise city center, and the areas around Main Street-Science World, Joyce-Collingwood, and Edmonds were nonresidential and low-density. The combination of fast growth and rapid transit ensured that new development would add to transit ridership rather than to road traffic. Moreover, the strong transit spine and growing employment at transit-oriented centers meant existing residents could make use of the new network as well.
The same situation also exists in Europe, though not on the same transformative scale as in Vancouver, since the cities in question came into the new millennium with already high transit usage. Stockholm just opened a regional rail tunnel doubling cross-city capacity and is expanding its metro network in three directions. This program is not available to lower-growth cities. Berlin has grandiose plans for U-Bahn expansion and has even safeguarded routes, but it has no active plans to build anything beyond the U5-U55 connection and S21 – the city just isn’t growing enough.
Public transit without growth
By itself, growth is not necessary for the existence of a robust transit network. Vienna proper had more people on the eve of WW1 than it has today, though in the intervening generations there has been extensive housing construction, often publicly subsidized (“Red Vienna”), increasing the working class’s standard of living. However, in a modern auto-oriented city – say, anything in North America other than New York – it is essential.
This becomes clear if we look at the next tier of American cities in transit usage after New York, that is Chicago, San Francisco, Washington, and Boston. Washington is the odd one – it had a transit revival before the Metro collapse of this decade, and got there through TOD in choice locations like Arlington. The others inherited a prewar transit network and made some improvements (like the Transbay Tube replacing the Key System), but froze urban development in time. Essentially all postwar development in those cities has been sprawl. Chicago had big enough a core to maintain a strong city center, but outside the Loop the job geography is very sprawled out. Boston and the Bay Area sprouted suburban edge cities that became metonyms for their dominant industries, with a transit modal share of about 0%.
Chicago’s transportation situation is difficult. The city is losing population; some specific neighborhoods are desirable and some around them are gentrifying, but the most optimistic prognosis is that it’s akin to New York in the 1970s. If there’s no population to justify a public transit investment today, there won’t be the population to justify it tomorrow. Any investment has to rely on leveraging the city’s considerable legacy mainline network, potentially with strategic cut-and-cover tunneling to connect Metra lines to each other.
And if Chicago’s situation is difficult, that of poorer, smaller cities is most likely terminal. Detroit’s grandiose plans are for urban shrinkage, and even then they run into the problem that the most economically intact parts of the region are in low-density suburbs in Oakland County, where nobody is going to agree to abandonment; the shrinkage then intensifies sprawl by weakening the urban core. Even in European cities where the shrinkage is from the outside in, there’s no real hope for any kind of green revival. Chemnitz will never have rapid transit; its tram-train has 2.6 million annual passengers.
Idyll and environmentalism
The environmental movement has from the start had a strong sense of idyll. The conservationism that motivated John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt was about preserving exurban wilderness for rich adventurers to travel in. The green left of the 1960s dropped the explicit classism but substituted it for new prejudices, like the racism embedded in population control programs proposed by Westerners for the third world. Moreover, the romantic ideals of Roosevelt-era environmentalism transformed into small-is-beautiful romanticism. Even Jane Jacobs’ love for cities was tempered by a romanticism for old low-rise neighborhoods; she predicted the Upper West Side with its elevator buildings would never be attractive to the middle class.
But what’s idealized and what’s green are not always the same. Lord of the Rings has a strong WW1 allegory in which the hobbits (Tolkien) leave the Shire (the English Midlands) to go to war and come back to find it scoured by industrialization. But on the eve of WW1, Britain was already a coal-polluted hellscape. Per capita carbon emissions would remain the same until the 1970s and thence fall by half – and in the first three quarters of the 20th century the fuel source shifted from coal to oil, which is less polluting for the same carbon emissions. The era that Tolkien romanticized was one of periodic mass deaths from smog. The era in which he wrote was one in which public health efforts were undertaken to clean up the air.
Likewise, what passes for environmentalism in communities that openly oppose growth freezes the idyll of postwar America, where suburban roads were still uncongested and the middle class had midsize houses on large lots. But American greenhouse gas emissions per capita were the same in 1960 as today, and had been the same in good economic times going back to the eve of the Great Depression. Only centenarians remember any time in which Americans damaged the planet less than they do today, and “less” means 14 tons of CO2 per capita rather than 16.5.
The upshot is that in the developed world, environmentalism and conservation are opposing forces. Conservation means looking back to an era that had the same environmental problems as today, except often worse, and managed to be poorer on top of it all.
Growth and environmentalism
Strictly speaking, growth is not necessary to reduce emissions. The low-growth city could just as well close its road network, ban cars, and forbid people to use electricity or heating generated by fossil fuels – if they’re cold, they can put on sweaters. But in practice, low-emission developed countries got to be where they are today by channeling bouts of economic growth toward clean consumption of electricity as well as transportation. Regulatory coercion and taxes that inconvenience the middle class are both absolutely necessary to reduce emissions, and yet both are easier to swallow in areas that have new development that they can channel toward green consumption.
The environmentalist in the Parises and Stockholms has the easiest time. Those cities have functioning green economies. There are recalcitrant mostly right-wing voters who like driving and need to be forced to stop, but a lifestyle with essentially no greenhouse gas emissions except for air travel is normal across all socioeconomic classes. The Vancouvers are not there but could get there in a generation by ensuring future development reinforces high local density of jobs and residences. The pro-development policies of the Pacific Northwest are not in opposition to the region’s environmentalism but rather reinforce it, by giving green movements a future to look forward to.
The environmentalist in the Clevelands and Detroits has the hardest time. It’s even worse than in the Chemnitzes – Saxony may be a post-industrial wasteland with 10% fewer people now than it had in 1905, but it’s coming into the 21st century with German emissions rather than American ones. These are cities with American emissions and economies based substantially on producing polluting cars, propped by special government attention thanks to the American mythology of the Big Three.
But whereas the Rust Belt has genuine problems, NIMBYvilles’ low growth is entirely self-imposed. New York and Los Angeles have the same per capita metro housing growth as Detroit, but only because they choose stasis; where the price signal in Detroit screams at people to run away, that in New York and California screams to build more housing. Their political institutions decided to make it harder to build any green future not only for their current residents but also for tens of millions who’d like to move there.
New York’s high construction costs are not just a problem for public transit. Roads exhibit the exact same problem. Case in point: replacing 2.5 km of the deteriorating Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE) in Brooklyn Heights is slated to cost $3-4 billion, take 6-8 years, and require temporarily closing the pedestrian promenade supported on top of the highway. This is not even a tunnel – some local NIMBYs have proposed one in order to reduce the impact of construction, but the cost would then be even higher. No: the projected cost, around $1.5 billion per kilometer, is for an above-ground highway replacement.
The section in question is between the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel and the Brooklyn Bridge; the Promenade is the northern half of this section.
Is it worth it?
There exist infrastructure projects that are worth it even at elevated cost. Second Avenue Subway Phase 1 cost $4.6 billion where it should have cost $700 million, but the expected ridership was very high, 200,000 per day, and so far ridership is on track to meet projections: the three new stations had a total of 138,000 boardings and alightings between them in 2017, and the revamped 63rd Street station went up by another 8,000. The BQE replacement is not such a project. Current traffic on the highway is stated as 153,000 vehicles per day, so on a per-vehicle basis it’s similar to Second Avenue Subway’s per-rider projection, around $23,000. But cars are not transit and cities need to understand that.
The construction of a subway creates noise and traffic disruption, but once the subway is up, all of that is done. Even elevated trains cause limited problems if built properly from materials that minimize noise – the trains on the viaducts on the Paris Metro are less noisy than the cars on the street below. There are operating costs involved with subways, but fixed costs are so dominant that even in New York a busy line like Second Avenue Subway should be at worst revenue-neutral net of costs; for reference, in Vancouver the projection for the Broadway subway extension’s operating costs is well below the revenue from the projected extra ridership.
Cars are not like that. They are noisy and polluting, and greenwashing them with a handful of expensive electric cars won’t change that. There are benefits to automobility, but the health hazards cancel out a lot of that. The Stern Review estimates the cost of unmitigated climate change at 20% of global GDP (e.g. PDF-p. 38), which in current terms approaches $500 per metric ton of CO2. The US has almost the same emissions intensity per dollar of production as the rest of the world; the negative impact of cars coming from climate change alone is comparable to the total private cost of transportation in the US, including buying the car, maintenance, fuel, etc. Now add car accidents, noise, and local air pollution.
In a region where cars are an absolute lifeline, there’s a case for building connections. The costs are low since grading a road for medium speed with level crossings is not expensive. In cities, the situation is different. Drivers will grumble if the BQE is removed. They will not lose access to critical services.
Is anyone proposing removing the BQE?
Yes, there are some proposals to that effect, but they’re so far only made haltingly. Council Speaker and 2021 mayoral frontrunner Corey Johnson’s report on municipal control of the subway includes the following line: “Before spending $4 billion to reconstruct a 1.5 mile stretch of highway, the City should study alternatives to the reconstruction of this Robert Moses-era six lane road, including the removal of the BQE in its entirety.” The halting part here is that to study does not mean to enact; Johnson himself opposes repurposing car lanes for bus service in his own district.
City Comptroller Scott Stringer, who has relied on a lot of the information I have brought up in this space in his reports, proposes to keep the BQE but only allow access to trucks. Bloomberg’s transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan agrees with the idea and even pitches it as a brave alternative to the car. In other words, per the comptroller and former commissioner, billions of dollars are to be spent on the reconstruction of a somewhat narrower structure for 14,000 trucks per day. Stringer’s report even says that the comparable urban freeways that have been removed did not allow trucks in, which is incorrect for the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco and for the Voie Georges Pompidou in Paris (look for “camions” here). In reality, if closing the BQE means adding just 14,000 vehicles to surface streets, then it’s an almost unmitigated success of road dieting, since it means much less pollution and noise.
The Regional Plan Association proposes its usual quarter-measures as well, sold under the guise of “reimagining.” It does not mention closure at all – it proposes rebuilding the structure with four lanes, down from the current six, and even dares to cite the closure in Paris as precedent. Everything in its analysis points out to the benefits of full closure and yet the RPA feels too institutional to propose that. Presumably if the RPA had opined on lynchings in the midcentury American South it would have proposed a plan to cut total lynchings by 25% and if it had opined on Fourth Republic-era colonialism in Algeria it would have proposed to cut the incidence of torture by a third while referencing the positive precedent of British decolonization in India.
What should replace the BQE?
The BQE should be removed all the way from the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel to the Williamsburg Bridge. Its curves in Downtown Brooklyn with the loops to the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges consume valuable real estate, and farther east they divide neighborhoods. The new Navy Yard developments are disconnected from the rest of Brooklyn because of the BQE.
Going east through Fort Greene, the BQE is flanked on both sides by Park Avenue. Buildings face the street, though many of the lots are empty or low-value. Thus, the surface streets have to stay. Selling what is now Park Avenue as parcels for residential and commercial development and mapping a street on the BQE’s 30-meter footprint is probably not viable. Instead, most of the footprint of the expressway should be parceled into lots and sold, converting Park Avenue into a one-way pair with streets about 12-15 meters in width each. East-west buses will continue running on Flushing and Myrtle, and north-south buses should probably not make stops at Park.
In contrast, going south through South Brooklyn, buildings do not face the abutting surface street, Hicks. They present blank walls, as if it was midblock. This is a prime opportunity to narrow the street as if the highway has never been there, creating an avenue perhaps 20 or 30 meters in width. The wider figure is more appropriate if there are plans for bus lanes and bike lanes; otherwise, if buses stay on Columbia, 20 is better.
In South Williamsburg, the road is nearly block-wide. The neighborhood is pro-development due to high birthrates among the Haredi population. Thus the footprint of the freeway must be used for private housing development. The area next to the Marcy Avenue subway station on the J/M/Z is especially desirable for the non-Haredi population, due to the proximity to Manhattan jobs. The city should retain an avenue-width roadway for Williamsburg Bridge access from the south, but beyond that it should restore the blocks of the neighborhood as they were before the BQE was built.
Heal, don’t placemake
If there’s a common thread to the various proposals by local politicians and shadow agencies (that is, the RPA), it’s an attempt at placemaking, defined to be any project that they can point to and say “I built that!”. A BQE rebuilt slightly narrower, or restricted to trucks, achieves that goal, with some greenwashing for what remains a waste of billions of dollars for motorist convenience.
But the same can be said of a park, as in one architect’s proposal for the BQE. I can see a case for this in Brooklyn Heights, where the Promenade is an important neighborhood destination, but elsewhere, the case is extraordinarily weak. In South Brooklyn, the most important benefit of removing the BQE is easier pedestrian access to the waterfront; recreation space should go there. Fort Greene and the Navy Yard are both rich in parks; BQE removal makes the large parks on both sides of the motorway easier to access. And Williamsburg is hungry for private development, whether near the subway for Manhattan workers or elsewhere for Haredi families.
Thirty years from now, nobody is going to walk on the remade street grid of South Williamsburg or the narrowed Hicks Street and wonder which politician set this up. But people may well notice the lower rents – and they may well notice them within a few years of the deconstruction of the road and the sale of the land for housing development. Ultimately city residents do notice if things are improving or deteriorating. It’s on the city to nudge infrastructure development in the direction of less pollution and fewer boondoggles.
Last week, Strong Towns ran a piece complaining about what it calls “go big or go home” transit. Per Strong Towns’ Daniel Herriges, rail expansion takes 20 years and reflects an obsession with megaprojects, so it’s better to look at small things. Strong Towns’ take is as follows:
“After 20 years of planning, the North Carolina Research Triangle’s signature transit project is fighting for its life.”
Boy. If this sentence doesn’t perfectly capture the folly of our megaproject-obsessed transit paradigm, we don’t know what does.
Here’s a better idea: Ask transit riders in Durham and Chapel Hill what’s the next, small step you could take that would improve their commutes *this* year. Then do it. Then next year, ask the same question. There are so many pressing needs going unmet while our cities focus on shaky silver-bullet efforts like this one; what do we have to lose?
It’s a perfect encapsulation of what is wrong with more traditionalist attitudes toward urbanism and green transport, and I want to explain why.
Short-term thinking – “what could improve this year” – does not scale. The Strong Towns article talks about scalability as a reason to improve bus service and add sidewalks rather than adding urban rail, but the reality is the exact opposite. Incrementalism works in cities that have 35% transit mode share and want to go up to 50% – and since, in the first world, all of these cities have rapid transit systems, getting to 50% means building more lines, as is happening in Paris and Berlin and London and Stockholm and Vienna and Copenhagen, and the last three don’t even have that many more people than the Research Triangle, where the rail link in question is to be built.
The Research Triangle does not have 35% transit mode share. For work trips the share in the Durham-Raleigh combined statistical area is 1.4%. All the things that year-by-year incremental progress does do not work, because improving the bus network increases ridership in relative numbers to current traffic.
Strong Towns understands this, in a way. It uses the “what do we have to lose?” language. And yet, it recommends not doing anything of importance, because building big things means megaprojects. Megaprojects involve doing something that visibly involves the government, requires central planning, and is new to the region. They empower planners whose expertise comes from elsewhere, because the local knowledge in a 1.4% transit share region is 100% useless for offering transportation alternatives.
It’s a mentality that seems endemic to groups that romanticize midcentury small towns. Strong Towns literally names itself after the idea of the old small-town main street, in which cars exist but do not dominate, back before hypermarkets and motorway bypasses and office parks changed it all. It’s an idea that evokes nostalgia among people who grew up in cities like that or in suburbs that imitated them and dread among people who didn’t. And it’s completely dead, because it’s too small-scale for transit to work and too spread out for a developer to have any interest in reproducing it today.
Transit revival doesn’t look like the 1950s, and planning for it doesn’t involve the same social groups that dominated then. That era between World War Two and the counterculture was dominated by an elite consensus that built megaprojects, but the middle-class elements of said consensus were precisely the one that bolted to the anti-state New Right, with its ethos of mocking the idea of “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”
In a metro area that wants to get from 1.4% transit share to a transit share that’s not a rounding error, a few things need to happen, and none of them will make nostalgists happy. First, planning has to be for the long term. “What can be done this year?” means nothing. Second, extensive redevelopment is required, and it can’t be incremental. If you want transit-oriented development, look at what Calgary did in city center and what Vancouver did around suburban stations like Metrotown and Edmonds and do it in your Sunbelt American city. Third, wider sidewalks are cool and so is more bus service, but in a spread-out region, interurban rail is a must, and this means big projects with an obtrusive government and a public planning process. And fourth, people will complain because not everything is a win-win, and the government will need to either ignore those people (if they’re committee meeting whiners) or break them (if they’re Duke, which is opposing the light rail line on NIMBY grounds).
American transit reformers tend not to know much about good practices, but many are interested in learning. But then there are the ones who cling to traditional railroading, mixed-traffic heritage streetcars, village main streets, or really anything that lets them portray the car as an outside enemy of Real America rather than its apex with which it annihilated groups it deemed too deviant. It’s an attractive mythology, playing to a lot of powerful notions of community. It’s also how American cities got to be the car-choked horrors that they are today, rather than how they will turn into something better.