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.
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.
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.
My post about the boundary zone between the transit-oriented city and its auto-oriented suburbs led to a lot of interesting discussions in comments, including my favorite thing to hear: “what you said describes my city too.” The city in question is Philadelphia, and the commenter, Charles Krueger, asked specifically about park-and-ride commuter rail stations. My post had mentioned Southeast on the Harlem Line as an interface between commuter rail and the Westchester motorway network, and the natural followup question is whether this is true in general.
The answer is that it’s complicated, because like the general concept of the cars/transit boundary zone, park-and-rides have to be rare enough. If they’re too common, the entire rail system is oriented around them and is not really a boundary but just an extension of the road network. This is the situation on every American commuter rail system today – even lines that mostly serve traditional town centers, like the New Haven Line, focus more on having a lot of parking at the station and less on transit-oriented development. Even some suburban rapid transit lines, such as the Washington Metro, BART, and the recent Boston subway extensions, overuse park-and-rides.
However, that American suburban rail systems overuse such stations does not mean that such stations must never be built. There are appropriate locations for them, provided they are used in moderation. Those locations should be near major highways, in suburbs where there is a wide swath of low-density housing located too far from the rail line for biking, and ideally close to a major urban station for maximum efficiency. The point is to use suburban rail to extend the transit city outward rather than the auto-oriented suburban zone inward, so the bulk of the system should not be car-oriented, but at specific points park-and-rides are acceptable, to catch drivers in suburbs that can’t otherwise be served or redeveloped.
Peakiness and park-and-rides
I’ve harped on the importance of off-peak service. The expensive part of rail service is fixed costs, including the infrastructure and rolling stock; even crew labor has higher marginal costs at the peak than off-peak, since a high peak-to-base ratio requires split shifts. This means that it’s best to design rail services that can get ridership at all times of day and in both directions.
The need for design that stimulates off-peak service involves supportive service, development, and infrastructure. Of these, service is the easiest: there should be bidirectional clockface schedule, ideally with as little variation between peak and off-peak as is practical. Development is politically harder, but thankfully in the main example case, the Northeastern United States, commuter rail agencies already have zoning preemption powers and can therefore redevelop parking lots as high-intensity residential and commercial buildings with walkable retail.
Infrastructure is the most subtle aspect of design for all-day service. Park-and-ride infrastructure tends to be peaky. Whereas the (peakier, more suburban) SNCF-run RER and Transilien lines have about 46% of their suburban boardings at rush hour, the LIRR has 67%, Metro-North 69%, and the MBTA 79%. My linked post explains this difference as coming from a combination of better off-peak service on the RER and more walkable development, but we can compare these two situations with the Washington Metro, where development is mostly low-density suburban but off-peak frequency is not terrible for regional rail. Per data from October 2014, this proportion is 56%, about midway between Transilien and the LIRR.
This goes beyond parking. For one, railyards should be sited at suburban ends of lines, where land is cheap, rather than in city center, where land is expensive and there is no need to park trains midday if they keep circulating. But this is mostly about what to put next to the train stations: walkable development generating a habit of riding transit all day, and not parking lots.
Where parking is nonetheless useful
In response to Charles’ comment, I named a few cases of park-and-rides that I think work well around New York, focusing on North White Plains and Jersey Avenue. There, the parking-oriented layout is defensible, on the following grounds:
- They are located in suburban sections where the reach of the highway network is considerable, as there is a large blob of low density, without much of the structure created by a single commuter line.
- They are near freeways, rather than arterials where timed connecting buses are plausible.
- They are immediately behind major stations in town centers with bidirectional service, namely White Plains and New Brunswick, respectively.
The importance of proximity is partly about TOD potential and partly about train operating efficiency. If the park-and-rides are well beyond the outer end of bidirectional demand, then the trains serving them will be inefficient, as they will get relatively few off-peak riders. A situation like that of Ronkonkoma, which is located just beyond low-ridership, low-intensity suburbs and tens of kilometers beyond Hicksville, encourages inefficient development. Thus, they should ideally be just beyond the outer end, or anywhere between the city and the outer end.
However, if they are far from the outer end, then they become attractive TOD locations. For example, every station between New York and White Plains is a potential TOD site. It’s only near White Plains that the desirability of TOD diminishes, as White Plains itself makes for a better site.
On rapid transit in American suburbia, one example of this principle is the Quincy Adams garage on the Red Line just outside Boston. While the station itself can and should be made pedestrian-friendlier, for one by reopening a gate from the station to a nearby residential neighborhood, there’s no denying the main access to the station will remain by car. Any TOD efforts in the area are better spent on Quincy Center and Braintree, which also have commuter rail service.
Where parking should urgently be replaced by TOD
American suburban rail lines overuse park-and-rides, but there are specific sites where this type of development is especially bad. Often these are very large park-and-ride structures built in the postwar era for the explicit purpose of encouraging suburban drivers to use mainline rail for commuter and intercity trips. With our modern knowledge of the importance of all-day demand, we can see that this thinking is wrong for regional trips – it encourages people to take rail where it is the most expensive to provide and discourages ridership where it is free revenue.
The most important mistake is Metropark. The station looks well-developed from the train, but this is parking structures, not TOD. Worse, the area is located in the biggest edge city in the Northeast, possibly in the United States, possibly in the world. Middlesex County has 393,000 jobs and 367,000 employed residents, and moreover these jobs are often high-end, so that what the Bureau of Economic Analysis calls adjustment for residence, that is total money earned by county residents minus total money earned in the county, is negative (Manhattan has by far the largest negative adjustment in the US, while the outer boroughs have the largest positive one). The immediate area around Metropark and Woodbridge has 46,000 jobs, including some frustratingly close to the station and yet not oriented toward it; it’s a huge missed opportunity for commercial TOD.
In general, edge cities and edgeless cities should be prime locations for sprawl repair and TOD whenever a suburban rail line passes nearby. Tysons, Virginia is currently undertaking this process, using the Silver Line extension of the Metro. However, preexisting lines do not do so: Newton is not making an effort at TOD on the existing Green Line infrastructure, it’s only considering doing so in a part of town to be served by a potential branch toward Needham; and the less said about commuter rail, the better. Mineola and Garden City on Long Island, Tarrytown in Westchester, and every MBTA station intersecting Route 128 are prime locations for redevelopment.
Commuter rail for whomst?
I believe it’s Ant6n who first came up with the distinction between commuter rail extending the transit city into the suburbs and commuter rail extending the suburbs into the city. If the trains are frequent and the stations well-developed, then people from the city can use them for trips into suburbia without a car, and their world becomes larger. If they are not, then they merely exist to ferry suburban drivers into city center at rush hour, the one use case that cars are absolutely infeasible for, and they hem car-less city residents while extending the world of motorists.
Park-and-rides do have a role to play, in moderation. Small parking lots at many stations are acceptable, provided the station itself faces retail, housing, and offices. Larger parking structures are acceptable in a handful of specific circumstances where there is genuinely no alternative to driving, even if the rest of the rail service interfaces with walkable town centers. What is not acceptable is having little development except parking at the majority of suburban train stations.
Seven years ago, I wrote a pair of posts about Sunnyside Yards. The first recommends the construction of a transfer station through Sunnyside Yards, in order to facilitate transfers between Penn Station- and Grand Central-bound trains. The second recommends redeveloping the yards via a deck, creating high-density residential and commercial space on a deck on top of the yard. Recent news, both about an official plan to deck the yards and about leaks that Amazon is likely to move half of its second headquarters (HQ2) to Long Island City, make a Sunnyside Junction so much more urgent.
Here is how service would look:
The color scheme is inherited from my regional rail maps (see e.g. here) but for the purposes of this post, all it means is that green and blue correspond to the inner and outer tracks of the Park Avenue, purple is East Side Access, orange corresponds to LIRR trains going to the northern pair of East River Tunnels, and red corresponds to LIRR, Metro-North Penn Station Access, and Amtrak trains going to the southern pair of East River Tunnels. No track infrastructure is assumed except what’s already in service or funded (i.e. ESA and Penn Station Access), and only two infill stations are mapped: Astoria, which would be a strong location for a stop were fares integrated with the subway and frequency high, and Sunnyside Junction.
The infill stations that are not planned
An Astoria station was studied for PSA, but was dropped from consideration for two reasons. First, the location is legitimately constrained due to grades, though a station is still feasible. And second, under the operating assumptions of high fares and low off-peak frequency, few people would use it. It would be like Wakefield and Far Rockaway, two edge-of-city neighborhoods where commuter rail ridership is a footnote compared with slower but cheaper and more frequency subway service.
A Sunnyside Junction station was in contrast never considered. There are unfunded plan for an infill station to the west of the junction, served only by Penn Station-bound trains. Such a station would hit Long Island City’s job center well, but the walk from the platform to the office towers would still be on pedestrian-hostile roads, and if there’s political will to make that area more walkable, the city might as well just redevelop Sunnyside Yards (as already planned).
The reason there was never any plan for a station can be seen by zooming in on the area I drew as a station. It’s a railyard, without streets (yet). At today’s development pattern, nobody would use it as an O&D station, even if fares and schedules were integrated with the subway. The importance of the station is as a transfer point between Grand Central- and Penn Station-bound trains. The planned developments (both HQ2 and independent city plans) makes it more urgent, since the area is relatively far from the subway, but the main purpose of the station is a better transit network, rather than encouraging development.
The main benefit of the station is transfers between the LIRR and Metro-North. While nominally parts of the MTA, the two agencies are run as separate fiefs, both of which resisted an attempt at a merger. The LIRR opposed PSA on the grounds that it had a right to any empty slots in the East River Tunnels (of which there are around 8 per hour at the peak). Governor Cuomo intervened to protect PSA from Long Island’s opposition, but in such an environment, coordinated planning across the two railroads is unlikely, and the governor would not intervene to improve the details of the ESA and PSA projects.
East Side Access means that in a few years, LIRR trains will split between two Manhattan destinations. Conceptually, this is a reverse-branch: trains that run on the same route in the suburbs, such as the LIRR Main Line, would split into separate routes in the city core. In contrast, conventional branching has trains running together in the core and splitting farther out, e.g. to Oyster Bay, Port Jefferson, and Ronkonkoma. Reverse-branching is extremely common in New York on the subway, but is rare elsewhere, and leads to operational problems. London’s Northern line, one of the few examples of reverse-branching on an urban subway outside New York, is limited to 26 trains per hour through its busiest trunk at the peak, and long-term plans to segregate its two city trunks and eliminate reverse-branching would raise this to 36.
To ensure LIRR trains run with maximum efficiency, it’s necessary to prevent reverse-branching. This means that each trunk, such as the Main Line and the Hempstead Branch, should only ever go to one Manhattan terminal. Passengers who wish to go to the other Manhattan terminal should transfer cross-platform. Jamaica is very well-equipped for cross-platform transfers, but it’s at a branch point going to either Manhattan or Downtown Brooklyn, without a good Penn Station/Grand Central transfer. Without a good transfer, passengers would be stuck going to a terminal they may not work near, or else be forced into a long interchange. In London the reason the Northern line is not already segregated is that the branch point in the north, Camden Town, has constrained passageways, so eliminating reverse-branching requires spending money on improving circulation.
Unlike Camden Town, Sunnyside Junction is roomy enough for cross-platform transfers. The tracks should be set up in a way that LIRR trains going to East Side Access should interchange cross-platform with PSA and Port Washington Branch trains (which should go to Penn Station, not ESA), as they do not stop at Jamaica. Penn Station-bound LIRR trains not using the Port Washington Branch, colored orange on the map, should stop at Sunnyside too, but it’s less important to give them a cross-platform transfer.
This assignment would be good not just for LIRR passengers but also for PSA passengers. Unlike on the LIRR, on the New Haven Line, reverse-branching is unavoidable. However, passengers would still benefit from being able to get on a Penn Station-bound train and connecting to Grand Central at Sunnyside. Not least, passengers on the PSA infill stations in the city would have faster access to Grand Central than they have today via long walks or bus connections to the 6 train. But even in the suburbs, the interchange would provide higher effective frequency.
The connection with development
I don’t know to what extent decking Sunnyside Yards could attract Amazon. I wrote an article last year, which died in editing back-and-forth, lamenting that New York was unlikely to be the HQ2 site because there was no regional rail access to any of the plausible sites thanks to low frequency and no through-running. Long Island City’s sole regional rail access today consists of LIRR stations on a reverse-branch that does not even go into Manhattan (or Downtown Brooklyn) and only sees a few trains per day. It has better subway access and excellent airport access, though.
However, since Sunnyside Junction is so useful without any reference to new development, the plans for decking make it so much more urgent. Sunnyside Yards are in the open air today, and there is space for moving tracks and constructing the necessary platforms. The cost is likely to be in the nine figures because New York’s construction costs are high and American mainline rail construction costs are even higher, but it’s still a fraction of what it would take to do all of this under a deck.
Moreover, the yards are not easy to deck. Let’s Go LA discussed the problem of decking in 2014: columns for high-rise construction are optimally placed at intervals that don’t jive well with railyard clearances, and as a result, construction costs are a multiple of what they are on firma. Hudson Yards towers cost around $12,000/square meter to build, whereas non-WTC commercial skyscrapers in the city are $3,000-6,000 on firma. The connection with Sunnyside Junction is that preparing the site for the deck requires extensive reconfiguration of tracks and periodic shutdowns, so it’s most efficient to kill two birds with one stone and bundle the reconfiguration required for the station with that required for the deck.
In the other direction, the station would make the deck more economically feasible. The high construction costs of buildings on top of railyards makes decking unprofitable except in the most desirable areas. Even Hudson Yards, adjacent to Midtown Manhattan on top of a new subway station, is only treading water: the city had to give developers tax breaks to get them to build there. In Downtown Brooklyn, Atlantic Yards lost the developer money. Sunnyside Yards today are surrounded by auto shops, big box retail, and missing middle residential density, none of which screams “market rents are high enough to justify high construction costs.” A train station would at least offer very fast rail access to Midtown.
If the decking goes through despite unfavorable economics, making sure it’s bundled with a train station becomes urgent, then. Such a bundling would reduce the incremental cost of the station, which has substantial benefits for riders even independently of any development it might stimulate in Sunnyside.
The theme of winners and losers has been on my mind for the last few months, due to the politics of the Brooklyn bus redesign. In a rich country, practically every social or political decisions is win-lose, even if the winners greatly outnumber the losers. It’s possible to guarantee a soft landing to some of the losers, but sometime even the soft landing is disruptive, and it’s crucial that backers of social change be honest with themselves and with the public about this. Overall, a shift from an auto-oriented society to a transit-oriented one and from dirty energy to clean energy is positive and must be pursued everywhere, but it does have downsides. In short, it changes economic geography in ways that make certain regions (like Detroit or the Gulf Cooperation Council states) redundant; it reorients economies toward more local consumption, so oil, gas, and heavy industry jobs would not be replaced with similar manufacturing or mining clusters but with slightly more work everywhere else in the world.
Dirty production is exportable
The United States has the dirtiest economy among the large developed countries, so it’s convenient to look at average American behavior to see where the money that is spent on polluting products goes.
Nationally, about 15.9% of consumer spending is on transportation. The vast majority of that is on cars, 93.1% (that is, 14.7% of total consumer spending). The actual purchase of the car is 42% of transportation spending, or 6.7% of household spending. This goes to an industry that, while including local dealerships (for both new and used cars), mostly consists of auto plants, making cars in suburban Detroit or in low-wage Southern states and exporting them nationwide.
In addition to this 6% of consumer spending on cars, there’s fuel. Around 3% of American household spending is on fuel for cars. Overall US oil consumption in 2017 was 7.28 billion barrels, which at $52/barrel is 5% of household spending; the difference between 5 and 3 consists of oil consumed not by households. This is a total of about 2% of American GDP, which includes, in addition to household spending, capital goods and government purchases. This tranche of the American economy, too, is not local, but rather goes to the oil industry domestically (such as to Texas or Alaska) or internationally (such as to Alberta or Saudi Arabia).
Historically, when coal was more economically significant, it was exportable too. Money flowed from consumers, such as in New York and London, to producers in the Lackawanna Valley or Northeast England; today, it still flows to remaining mines, such as in Wyoming.
The same is true of much of the supply chain for carbon-intensive products. Heavy industry in general has very high carbon content for its economic value, which explains how the Soviet Union had high greenhouse gas emissions even with low car usage (15.7 metric tons per capita in the late 1980s) – it had heavy industry just as the capital bloc did, but lagged in relatively low-carbon consumer goods and services. The economic geography of steel, cement, and other dirty products is again concentrated in industrial areas. In the US, Pittsburgh is famous for its historical steel production, and in general heavy manufacturing clusters in the Midwestern parts of the Rust Belt and in transplants in specific Southern sites.
All of these production zones support local economies. The top executives may well live elsewhere – for example, David Koch lives in New York and Charles Koch in Wichita (whose economy is based on airplane manufacturing and agriculture, neither of which the Kochs are involved in). But the working managers live in city regions dedicated to servicing the industry, the way office workers in the oil industry tend to live in Houston or Calgary, and of course the line workers live near the plants and mines.
Clean alternatives are more local
The direct alternatives to oil, gas, and cars are renewable energy and public transportation. These, too, have some components that can be made centrally and exported, such as solar panel and rolling stock manufacturing. However, these components are a small fraction of total spending.
How small? Let’s look at New York City Transit. Its operating costs are about $9.1 billion a year as of 2016, counting both the subway and buses. Nearly all of this is wages, salaries, and benefits: $7.3 billion, compared with only $500 million for materials and supplies. This specifically excludes vehicle purchases, which in American transit accounting are lumped as capital costs. The total NYCT fleet is about 6,400 subway cars, which cost around $2.3 million each and last 40+ years, and 5,700 buses, which cost around $500,000 each and last 12 years, for a total depreciation charge of around $600 million a year combined.
Compare this with cars: New York has about 2 million registered cars, but at the same average car ownership rate as the rest of the US, 845 per 1,000 people, it would have 7.3 million cars. These 5.3 million extra cars would cost $36,500 each today, and last around 20 years, for a total annual depreciation charge of $9.7 billion.
Put another way, total spending on vehicles at NYCT is one sixteenth what it would take to raise the city’s car ownership rate to match the national average. Even lumping in materials and supplies that are not equipment, such as spare parts and fuel for buses, the total, $1.1 billion, is one ninth as high as buying New Yorkers cars so that they can behave like Americans outside the city, and that’s without counting the cost of fuel. In particular, there is no hope of maintaining auto plant employment by retraining auto workers to make trains, as Michael Moore proposed in 2009.
The vast majority of transit spending is then local: bus and train operations, maintenance, and local management. The same is true of capital spending, which goes to local workers, contractors, and consultants, and even when it is outsourced to international firms, the bulk of the value of the contract does not accrue to Dragados or Parsons Brinckerhoff.
Clean energy is similarly local. Solar panels can be manufactured centrally, but installing them on rooftops is done locally. Moreover, the elimination of carbon emissions coming from buildings has to come not just from cleaner electricity but also from reducing electricity consumption through passive solar construction. Retrofitting houses to be more energy-efficient is a labor-intensive task comprising local builders sealing gaps in the walls, windows, and ceilings.
Low-carbon economic production can be exported, but not necessarily from Detroit
A global shift away from greenhouse gas emissions does not mean just replacing cars and oil with transit and solar power. Transit is cheaper to operate than cars: in metro New York, 80.5% of personal transportation expenditure is still on cars, and the rest is (as in the rest of the country) partly on air travel and not transit fare, whereas work trip mode shares in the metropolitan statistical area are 56% car, 31% transit. With its relatively high (for North America) transit usage, metro New York has the lowest share of household spending going to transportation, just 11.4%. This missing consumption goes elsewhere. Where does it go?
The answer is low-carbon industries. Consuming less oil, steel, and concrete means not just consuming more local labor for making buildings more efficient and running public transit, but also shifting consumption to less carbon-intensive industries. This low-carbon consumption includes local purchases, for example going out to eat, or hiring a babysitter to look after the kids, neither of which involves any carbon emissions. But it also includes some goods that can be made centrally. What are they, and can they be made in the same areas that make cars and steel or drill for oil and gas?
The answer is no. First, in supply regions like the Athabascan Basin, Dammam, and the North Slope of Alaksa, there’s no real infrastructure for any economic production other than oil production. The infrastructure (in the case of North America) and the institutions (in the case of the Persian Gulf) are not suited for any kind of manufacturing. Second, in real cities geared around a single industry, like Detroit or Houston, there are still lingering problems with workforce quality, business culture, infrastructure, and other necessities for economic diversification.
Take the tech industry as an example. The industry itself is very low-carbon, in the sense that software is practically zero-carbon and even hardware has low carbon content relative to its market value. Some individual tech products are dirty, such as Uber, but the industry overall is clean. A high carbon tax is likely to lead to a consumption shift toward tech. And tech as an industry has little to look for in Detroit and Houston. Austin has booming tech employment, but Houston does not, despite having an extensive engineering sector courtesy of the oil industry as well as NASA. The business culture in the space industry (which is wedded to military contracting) is alien to that of tech and vice versa; the way workers are interviewed, hired, and promoted is completely different. I doubt the engineers oil and auto industries are any more amenable to career change to software.
On the level of line workers rather than engineers, the situation is even worse. A manufacturing worker in heavy industry can retrain to work in light industry, or in a non-exportable industry like construction, but light industry has little need for the massive factories that churn out cars and steel. And non-manufacturing exports like tech don’t employ armies of manufacturing workers.
In Germany the situation is better, in that Munich and Stuttgart may have little software, but they do have less dirty manufacturing in addition to their auto industries. It’s likely that if global demand for cars shifts to a global demand for trains then Munich will likely keep thriving – it’s the home of not just BMW and Man but also Siemens. However, the institutions and worker training that have turned southern Germany into an economically diverse powerhouse have not really replicated outside Germany. Ultimately, in a decarbonizing world, southern Germany will be the winner among many heavy industrial regions, most of which won’t do so well.
There’s no alternative to shrinkage in some cities
A shift away from fossil fuel and cars toward green energy and public transit does not have to be harsh. It can aim to give individual workers in those industries a relatively soft landing. However, two snags remain, and are unavoidable.
The first is that some line workers have deliberately chosen poor working conditions in exchange for high wages; the linked example is about oil rig workers in Alaska, but the same issue occurs in some unionized manufacturing and services, for example electricians get high wages but all suffer hearing loss by their 50s. It’s possible to retrain workers and find them work that’s at the same place on the average person’s indifference curve between pay and work conditions, but since those workers evidently chose higher-pay, more dangerous jobs, their personal preference is likely to weight money more than work conditions and thus they’re likely to be unhappy with any alternative.
The second and more important snag is the effect of retraining on entire regions. Areas that specialize to oil, gas, cars, and to some extent other heavy industry today are going to suffer economic decline, as the rest of the world shifts its consumption to either local goods (such as transit operations) or different economic sectors that have no reason to locate in these areas (such as software).
Nobody will be sad to see Saudi Arabia crash except people who are directly paid by its government. But the leaders of Texas and Michigan are not Mohammad bin Salman; nonetheless, it is necessary to proceed with decarbonization. It’s not really possible to guarantee the communities a soft landing. Governments all over the world have wasted vast amounts of money trying and failing to diversify from one sector (e.g. oil in the GCC states) or attract an industry in vogue (e.g. tech anywhere in the world). If engineering in Detroit and Houston can’t diversify on its own, there’s nothing the government can do to improve it, and thus these city regions are destined to become much smaller than they are today.
This is bound to have knock-on regional effects. Entire regions don’t die quietly. Firms specializing in professional services to the relevant industries (such as Halliburton) will have to retool. Small business owners who’ve dedicated their lives to selling food or insurance or hardware to Houstonians and suburban Detroit white flighters will need to leave, just as their counterparts in now-dead mining towns or in Detroit proper did. Some will succeed elsewhere, just as many people in New Orleans who were displaced by Katrina found success in Houston. But not all will. And it’s not possible to guarantee all of them a soft landing, because it’s not possible to guarantee that every new small business will succeed.
All policy, even very good policy, has human costs. There are ways to reduce these costs, through worker retraining and expansion of alternative employment (such as retrofitting older houses to be more energy-efficient). But there is no way to eliminate these costs. Some people who are comfortable today will be made precarious by any serious decarbonization program; put another way, these people’s entire livelihood depends on continuing to destroy the planet, and most of them are not executives at oil and gas companies. It does not mean that decarbonization should be abandoned or even that it should be pursued more hesitantly; but it does mean climate activists, including transit activists, have to be honest about how it affects people in and around polluting industries.
There’s a literary trope in which an ambitious young man goes to work in the mines for a few years to earn an income with which to go back home. In the US it’s bundled into narratives of the Wild West (where incomes were very high until well into the 20th century), but it also exists elsewhere. For example, in The House of the Spirits, the deuterotagonist (who owns an unprofitable hacienda) works in the mines for a few years to earn enough money to ask to marry a society woman. The tradeoff is that working in the mines is unpleasant and dangerous, which is why the owners have to pay workers more money.
More recently, the same trope has applied in the oil industry. People who work on oil rigs, which as a rule are placed in remote locations, get paid premiums. Remote locations with oil have high incomes and high costs in North America, but even the Soviet Union paid people who freely migrated to Siberia or the far north extra. The high wages in this industry are especially remarkable given that the workers are typically not university-educated or (in the US) unionized; they cover for poor living conditions, and a hostile environment especially for families.
I bring up this background because of conditions that I’ve heard second-hand in San Francisco. When I first heard of university-educated adults living several to a bedroom, I assumed that it was a result of extremely high rents and insufficient incomes. But no: I am told a reasonably transit-accessible two-bedroom in San Francisco proper is $5,500 a month at market rate, which is affordable to a mid-level programmer at a large tech firm living alone or to entry-level programmers (or non-tech professionals) living one to a bedroom.
And yet, I’ve heard of Google programmers living two to three to a bedroom in Bernal Heights, not even that close to BART. I’ve also heard a story of people near the Ashby BART stop in Berkeley renting out their front porch; the person sleeping the porch was not a coder, but some of the people living inside the house were.
I have not talked to the people in these situations, only to friends in Boston who live one person (or one couple) to a bedroom, even though they too can afford more. As I understand it, they treat the Bay Area as like working in the mines. They earn a multiple of the income they would in other industries with their education and skills, and have no particular ties to the region. (Some East Coasters have taken to use the expression “drain to the Bay,” complaining that friends in tech often end up leaving Boston for San Francisco.) The plan is to save money and then retire in their 30s, or take a lower-paying job in a lower-cost city and start a family there.
Overcrowding is not normal in San Francisco. The American Community Survey says that 6.7% of city housing units have more than one person per room (look up the table “percent of occupied housing units with 1.01 or more occupants per room”); it’s actually below state average, which is 8.3%. Some very poor people presumably have more overcrowding, especially illegal immigrants (who the census tends to undercount). Figuring out overcrowding by demographic from census data is hard: the ACS reports crowding levels by public use microdata area (PUMA), a unit of at least 100,000 people, and the highest crowding in San Francisco (13.7%) is in the SoMa and Potrero PUMA, which covers both the fully gentrified SoMa area and poorer but gentrifying areas of the Mission. But it’s conceivable that crowding levels among tech workers are comparable to those of the working-class residents of the Mission that they displace.
People endure this overcrowding only when they absolutely need to for work. In a situation of extremely high production amenities (that is, a tech cluster that formed in Silicon Valley and is progressively taking over the entire Bay Area), comfort is not a priority. Joel Garreau’s The Nine Nations of North America describes people in San Francisco viewing the city as utopian for its progressive lifestyle, temperate climate, and pretty landscape. Today, the middle class views the city as a dystopia of long commutes, openly antisocial behavior, human feces on sidewalks, poor schools, and car break-ins.
Moreover, the present housing situation makes sure the city’s comfort levels (that is, consumption amenities) will keep deteriorating. The tech industry so far keeps growing, adding more people to a city that’s not building enough housing to accommodate this growth. High incomes are paying for public services through increased sales tax receipts, but the money has to then be spent on extra services to people rendered homeless by rising rents and on ever higher salaries for teachers to keep up with living costs for families. Overall, a homogeneously rich place like some Silicon Valley suburbs has low public-sector costs, but during the decades long process of gentrification and replacement of the working class by the middle class costs can rise even amidst rising incomes.
The mines are not a stable community. They are not intended to be a community; they’re intended to extract resources from the ground, regardless of whether these resources are tangible like oil or intangible like tech. There may be some solidarity among people who’ve had that experience when it comes to specifics about the industry (which they tend to support, viewing it as the source of their income) or maybe the occasional issue of work conditions. But it’s not the same as loyalty to the city or the region.
I was in New York last week presenting my and Eric Goldwyn’s bus redesign (see post here, with revisions coming soon). YIMBYTown happened just afterward, this weekend in Boston, so I hopped on the train up to go to the conference. I went to the plenary sessions and a selection of the breakout sessions, and, in between the sessions, had a lot of not-especially-heated conversations with various YIMBYs I’d long known online. For the most part I did not have a good time, and I want to explain why, because it’s relevant to the future of YIMBY in general and to any synergy between transportation and development.
I livetweeted two of the plenary sessions, by Ed Glaeser and Kristen Jeffers. My general impression of Ed Glaeser’s talk is that the first half was boilerplate and the second half included references to various studies, most (all?) by his grad students, regarding zoning, US migration patterns, and other relevant issues. Kristen‘s speech was extremely personal, and built up Kristen’s life story toward the climax of insisting planners must viscerally love the cities they work in. I felt weird about that, since I have the exact opposite visceral reaction to Boston, which gets stronger every time I visit.
The breakout sessions ran the gamut. I went to three on the schedule proper on Friday and two on the unconference schedule on Saturday. The first three were Jarred Johnson and Ted Pyne‘s session on equity and transit-oriented development, Emily Hamilton‘s presentation of her and Eli Dourado’s paper finding that more walkable places in the US have higher property values, and John Myers‘ proposal to encourage more homebuilding by empowering individual blocks (of, say, 20 homeowners or 20 tenants) to upzone. They all had slides and a fair bit of structure (as a moderated discussion in the first one and as economics or policy talks in the second two).
The unconference had four session slots, but I was discussing things individually with other people in the first and last, and only went to the middle two. These were Where New Housing is Being Built, which turned out to be a paper talk by Mercatus’s Salim Furth, with similar structure to Emily’s talk, and an inclusionary housing session, in theory run by Eric Herot and in practice run by Alex Baca and SF YIMBY’s Laura Foote.
My general impressions
The conference was heavily geared toward political marketing. There was very little discussion of policy as is. There are extensive disagreements among people who identify as YIMBY on actual policy issues:
- Government interventions for housing affordability, including rent control, inclusionary zoning, and public housing; the first and third weren’t discussed at any panel I attended or looked at (judging by the description), and even the IZ discussion was more about discussing IZ than about IZ itself. Some people brought up rent control as a solution to displacement, but for the most part in the context of politically appealing to the poor rather than in the context of asking whether it’s good policy.
- The relative importance of residential and commercial upzoning; there was just one talk about that subject, which conflicted with another talk I wanted to go to.
- The typology of housing that’s most useful at scale. Practices differ greatly between cities (e.g. high-rise, mid-rise, missing middle), and to some extent so do YIMBY beliefs about what is most important to encourage. And yet, I didn’t see any discussion of this, in particular the missing middle vs. mid-rise question.
- Whether demand for urban housing is driven by consumption amenities (like nice sidewalks, cafes, good schools, etc.) or production amenities (proximity to jobs, which cluster for reasons like strong institutions, geography, or preexisting industrial clusters). Ed Glaeser’s talk brought up a few correlates with consumption but did not probe further.
Likewise, the interests of the attendees were different from what I was used to from transit discussions. Many were officials (e.g. city council members) of high-income NIMBY suburbs of Boston, with several coming from Newton. Many were organizers; the conference seemed to be geared toward them. Few were analysts, writers, or the sort of nerds who nitpick everything I say about subway planning and disturbingly often find serious holes in my proposals.
Despite the dominance of organizers, there were some serious organizational gaps, most importantly the unconference structure. It was poorly announced; there was no central space within which one could suggest ideas for unconference talk topics, and instead everything had to be done through the website, which was difficult to access since we were expected to network with other YIMBYs for about twelve hours a day. I only learned how I could either suggest or vote on a topic on Saturday morning after the list had been finalized; I wanted to suggest a discussion of TOD best practices, especially in light of the problem of market-rate housing inherently not being TOD in auto-oriented cities.
The two libertarian talks I went to – Emily’s presentation, and Salim’s unconference talk – were both good. I call them libertarian talks but what Emily showed is that housing is more expensive in American zipcodes with high walk scores, and what Salim showed is that more housing is built in US census tracts in density deciles 1-4 and 9-10 than deciles 5-8 (while an analysis of market pricing shows demand growing monotonically with density, so deciles 5-10 all have shortages). Market urbanism is the philosophy they’re informed by, but not the main focus.
The difference between their talks and the others is that they were presenting academic papers. I had many questions for both regarding definitions and robustness checks, and they engaged on that level; Emily in particular had already done all the robustness checks I was asking about (about definitions of zip code center, housing prices vs. rents, etc.), and her results held up.
Leftists like to complain about the ideological line of the Mercatus Center, and they’re right, but in housing economics, the Mercatus Center’s line is more or less the same as that of a broad spectrum of experts. So to them, talking about housing economics is the same as presenting results to a lay audience, same way I might have talked about dynamical systems to an audience with no more than undergrad math education.
The conference was 85-90% white; this covers both the attendees and the speakers. The plenary speakers included multiple black urbanists (not just Kristen but also a panel for one of the closing plenary talks); clearly, there was some attempt at diversity. And yet, the entire way the conference presented diversity reminded me of what I hate most about Boston: 90% white groups talk about diversity and how to be welcoming and yet remain 90% year after year.
People who follow my Twitter rants know I constantly harangue Americans about their hostility to immigrants. Here, there was a pub crawl, which on its face is neutral, but when people congregated at a bar that checked IDs, and wouldn’t accept my Swedish ID card as valid because foreigners are required to show a passport, I could not talk to people who I’d made plans with. Nobody who I mentioned this to thought much of it; to the Americans it was a mistake, not an injustice. I doubt that nonwhite Americans who came with similar complaints would be treated any better.
There was a group of about 150 protesters who interrupted one of the talk, ironically by the National Low-Income Housing Coalition. They were about 50% white, 50% black, in a neighborhood that’s almost 100% black. They, too, seemed not to think too much about their own representation (and to be fair, Boston is extremely segregated).
The London talk
The London housing talk was strange. The PowerPoint projector failed, requiring John Myers to use printed slides, which had poor color contrast for many key charts. John argued that there’s a U-shaped curve in housing construction: a lot built with individual decisionmaking (e.g. regimes before zoning), some built with nationwide decisionmaking (e.g. England), little built with local decisionmaking (e.g. individual suburbs, San Francisco). Based on the U-curve, he proposed empowering very small groups, down to the block level, to move to the left of the U curve and not the right.
I had a lot of criticism even within the talk, as did frequent commenter ThreeStationSquare. San Francisco builds more housing per capita than England, which is toward the low end of unitary states (Sweden, France, and the growing parts of Japan all build more). John said that rent-controlled tenants are NIMBY because they’re insulated from the consequences of a housing shortage; in reality, a paper studying NIMBYism among renters finds no difference between market-rate and rent-controlled tenants in San Francisco, and Becca Baird-Remba‘s reporting in New York also sees no such difference within the city.
More fundamentally, empowering a group of (say) 20 people enhances group solidarity to the point of not being so willing to (in effect) take a buyout from developers to permit more housing. In Israel, even empowering groups of 6-8 owners in an Old North apartment building generally leads to hostility to developers and reluctance to make deals.
There was an unconference discussion about inclusionary zoning. Unfortunately, the discussion broke down early, with many more people than expected, around 30 or 40, more than the other events in the same time slot. Alex Baca and Laura Foote had to salvage it, running it the way they’re used to running group discussions.
But even with their management, making sure people talked one at a time, the discussion was too meta and too unfocused. We were talking about how to talk about IZ rather than about IZ itself. I wanted to bring up non-IZ models of affordability like the social housing so common in France or Sweden, but there was no time beyond my saying “there’s social housing in France and Sweden.” With nobody in attendance from Baltimore, there was no discussion of the city’s own recently-passed plan, focusing on very low-income people – nor any agreement to follow up on it with people more familiar than we were.
In effect, the way the discussion evolved seemed like the first hour of a six-hour conversation, and not like the one-hour conversation it really was.
Will I go again?
If it’s in a city I happen to actually be in, then probably. But it’s all organized by local groups, even though politically the entire point of American YIMBY is to leverage national social and political networks to make the professional middle class a stronger force in local politics relative to the local homeowner class (anchored by retirees, heirs to houses in the top wealth decide or two short of the top 1-2%, and shopkeepers). There’s no national attempt to site YIMBYTown in cities that are easy to get to domestically, let alone internationally. The next conference is likely to be somewhere where I have no reason to go except YIMBYTown, rather than in New York.
And in that case, I’m not likely to make it again. The productive conversations I’ve had are with people I’d have good conversations with anyway on Twitter and by email. It’s not a conducive environment for exchanging ideas with people I don’t already know; the panels are too much about how to pretend to be nice to the local working class (and I guarantee that the conference won’t get any less white or any less middle-class), and not enough about policy or analysis.