Category: Development

Meme Weeding: Land Value Capture

Last month’s Patreon poll was about meme weeding – that is, which popular meme in public transit I should take apart. The options were fare caps on the model of London, popular among some US reformers; wait assessment, a schedule adherence metric for trains I briefly complained about on Vox as used in New York; and land value capture/tax increment financing/the Hong Kong model. The last option won.

Good public transit creates substantial value to its users, who get better commutes. It’s an amenity, much like good schools, access to good health care, and clean air. As such, it creates value in the surrounding community, even for non-users: store owners who get better sales when there’s better transportation access to their business, workers who can take local jobs created by commuters to city center, and landowners who can sell real estate at a higher price. All of these positive externalities give reason to subsidize public transit. But in the last case, the positive impact on property values, it’s tempting to directly use the higher land values to fund transit operations; in some cases, this is bundled into a deal creating transit-oriented development to boost ridership. In either case, this is a bad way of funding transit, offering easy opportunities for corruption.

Value capture comes in several flavors:

  • In Japan, most urban private railroads develop the areas they serve, with department stores at the city end and housing at the suburban end.
  • In Hong Kong, the government sells undeveloped land to the now-privatized subway operator, the MTR, for high-density redevelopment.
  • In the US and increasingly Canada, local governments use tax increment funding (TIF), in which they build value-enhancing public infrastructure either by levying impact fees on development that benefits from it or by programming bonds against expected growth in property taxes.

In both Hong Kong and the major cities of Japan, urban rail operations are profitable. It is not the case that value capture subsidizes otherwise-money losing transit in either country, nor anywhere I know of; this did not prevent Jay Walder, then the head of New York’s MTA, from plugging the MTR model as a way of funding transit in New York. What’s true is that the real estate schemes have higher margins than rail operations, which is why JR East, the most urban of the remnants of Japan National Railways, aims to get into the game as well and develop shopping centers near its main stations. However, rail operations alone in these countries are profitable, due to a combination of high crowding levels and low operating costs.

The Japanese use case is entirely private, and does not to my knowledge involve corruption. But the Hong Kong use case is public, and does. For all the crowing about it in Anglo-American media (the Atlantic called it a “unique genius” and the Guardian said it supported subsidy-free operations), it’s a hidden subsidy. The state sells the land to the MTR, and the MTR alone, at the rate of undeveloped outlying land. Then the MTR develops it, raising its value. Other developers would be willing to pay much better, since they can expect to build high-density housing and have the MTR connect it to Central. This way, the government would pocket the profits coming from higher value on its land. Instead, it surreptitiously hands over these profits to the MTR.

While Western media crows about Hong Kong as an example of success, local media excoriates the corruption involves. Here’s the South China Morning Post on the MTR model:

The rail and property model was never anything but a delusion to which only Hong Kong bureaucrats could be subject. It traded on the odd notion that you cannot assign a value to property until you actually dispose of it.

Thus if you give the MTR the land above its stations, these sites suddenly and magically acquire value and the proceeds cover the cost of building the railway lines. Ain’t magic wonderful? We got the MTR for free.

Stephen Smith dealt with this issue in 2013, when he was still writing for NextCity. He explained the local corruption angle, the fact that MTR rail operations are profitable on their own, and the lack of undeveloped land for the state to sell in most first-world cities. (Conversely, one of his arguments, about construction costs, doesn’t seem too relevant: Hong Kong’s construction costs are probably similar to London’s and certainly higher than Paris’s, and doing value capture in Paris would be an urban renewal disaster.)

Stephen also tackles American examples of value capture. With no state-owned land to sell to the public transit agency at below-market prices, American cities instead rely on expected property taxes, or sometimes levy special fees on developers for letting them build TOD. Stephen talks about scale issues with the TIF-funded 7 extension in New York, but there are multiple other problems. For one, the 7 extension’s Hudson Yards terminus turned out to be less desirable than initially thought, requiring the city to give tax breaks. See for examples stories here, here, and here.

But there are more fundamental problems with the approach. The biggest one is the quality of governance. TIF is an attractive-looking option in American jurisdictions that recoil at raising direct taxes to pay for service. This means that as happened in New York, it is tempting for cities to promise property tax windfall, issue bonds, and then let successor governments raise taxes or cut services to pay interest. This opaqueness makes it easier to build bad projects. When the government promises especially high benefit-cost ratios, it can also keep issuing new bonds if there are budget overruns, which means there is no incentive for cost control.

TIF also requires the city to use zoning to create a shortage of land in order to entice developers to pay extra to build where it wants them to. Stephen complains that New York reamed problems on upzoning in Midtown East, one of the few locations in Manhattan where developers are willing to build supertall office towers without any tax breaks; the new zoning plan, in the works since he was writing for NextCity in 2013, only just passed. Another such location is probably the Meatpacking District, near the Google building at 14th and 8th, now the city’s tech hub – there is no tall office construction there due to the power of high-income residential NIMBYs. Were the city to loosen zoning in these areas and permit companies that need a prime location to set up offices in these areas, it would find it even harder to entice developers to build in a lower-demand area like Hudson Yards. Midtown East and the Meatpacking District are replete with subway lines, but there are no new plans for construction there, so the city wouldn’t do a TIF there.

The same problem, of TOD-reliant funding requiring the city to restrict development away from targeted investment areas, also works in reverse: it encourages development-oriented transit. In 2007, Dan Doctoroff, then a deputy mayor and now head of Google’s Sidewalk Labs, opposed Second Avenue Subway, on the grounds that the area is already developed. Second Avenue Subway was eventually built, but the 7 extension omitted a stop in an already-developed area amidst cost overruns, as Bloomberg prioritized Hudson Yards. This is not restricted to New York: San Francisco is more interested in a subway to Parkmerced than in a subway under Geary, the busiest bus route, busier than the subway-surface light rail branch serving Parkmerced today. Smaller American cities propose core connectors, aiming promoting redevelopment in and around city center. This in turn means ignoring low-income neighborhoods, where there is no developer interest in new buildings except as part of a gentrification process.

These problems are for targeted investments. But when there is more widespread TOD, TIF ends up being a tax on transit users. Cities build roads without levying special taxes on sprawling development, whether it sprawls by virtue of being near the highway or by virtue of being far from public transit. When they build transit, they sometimes tax TOD, which means they are giving developers and residents tax incentives to locate away from public transit.

Hong Kong is not the right model for any TOD scheme; its corruption problems are immense. It’s a shiny object for Americans (and other Anglophone Westerners), who are attracted to the allure of the exotic foreigner, like a premodern illiterate attributing magic to the written word. Instead of replicating its most questionable aspect, it’s better to look at models that are attractive even to local corruption watchdogs.

This means funding public transit and other services out of transparent, broad-based taxes. Paris uses a payroll tax, varying the rate so as to be higher in the city (2.95%) than in the outer suburbs (1.6%). Everyone will hate them, especially people who don’t use transit and don’t view it as directly necessary for their lives. This is why they work. They compel the transit agency to run efficient service, to stave off opposition from aggrieved center-right middle-class voters, and to run it well, to stave off opposition from populists (“why am I being taxed for trains that break down?”). They leave no room for waste, for cronyism, or for slush funds for favored causes, precisely because they’re hard to pass.

It’s easy to see why politicians avoid such funding sources. The democratic deficit of local governance in the US is immense, and that of Canada is only somewhat better. Nobody wants to lose an election over raising taxes, even in cities where the political spectrum runs from the center leftward. Value capture sounds like a good, innovative idea to fund government without hated taxation, and its abuses are hidden from sight. Even as it forces city residents to endure opaque fees (never call them taxes!), it wins accolades to politicians who propose it. No wonder it continues despite its failures.

Climate Apartheid

There are floods in Houston, thanks to Hurricane Harvey‘s making landfall close to the city, dumping about a meter of rain within just a few days. So far, the best explanation I’ve seen about the city’s drainage system is Matt Corbett’s tweetstorm, about how the city keeps building flood control systems but due to population growth they are perpetually five years behind current development. The confirmed death toll so far is 30. There is a connection to climate change: warmer ocean temperatures make tropical storms more likely, and also make it likelier that they will move slowly and dump more rain onto one area; as a result, Harvey is the Houston region’s third 500-year flood in three years, while one neighborhood was hit by three such floods in a decade.

There are floods all over South Asia, thanks to unusually strong summer monsoon rains. Mumbai got about 200 mm of rain in 12 hours yesterday. The worst impact is in more rural areas and smaller cities in the north, including Bangladesh, West Bengal, Nepal, Bihar, and Uttar Pradesh. The confirmed death toll so far is 1,200, of whom only 6 are in Mumbai – Bihar and Nepal seem like the worst-hit areas. There is once again a connection to climate change: the seasonal monsoon rainfall in South Asia is fairly stable, but extreme events dumping more than 100 or 150 mm of rain on one day are happening at increasing frequency, and climate models predict an increase in extreme rainfall events.

It is not my intention to attack American media for undercovering India. Rather, it is my intention to attack American public intellectuals and wonks for proposing adaptation to climate change. This means building flood walls to protect low-lying cities at risk of storm surges like New York, using zoning and public investments to steer development toward higher ground, and building infrastructure to deal with higher future flood risk. This contrasts with reducing the extent of climate change in the first place, called mitigation in environmentalist parlance, by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Examples of calls for adaptation, in lieu of or in addition to mitigation, abound:

  • The Obama administration passed a directive requiring flood control standards for federally-funded projects in areas vulnerable to climate change. The Trump administration rescinded this directive, to widespread criticism from liberals in the media, for example in the Guardian.
  • ThinkProgress just published an article calling for both adaptation and mitigation.
  • ProPublica’s investigative reporting about Houston mentions that Fort Lauderdale and Boulder are both addressing adaptation in their long-term city plans, and compares Houston negatively with them.
  • CNN negatively compared US flood control efforts with the Dutch Delta Works. The article does mention American climate change denial, but talks about the Netherlands’ flood control and not about its pro-bike transportation policy, doing its part to mitigate catastrophic climate change.
  • In a personal conversation with ReThinkNYC‘s Jim Venturi about transit-oriented development near Secaucus Station, he said that the area is vulnerable to climate change, at only 2 meters above sea level. I don’t want to blame him, because he might have been channeling the Regional Plan Association or statewide plans, but one of those three (ReThink, RPA, the state) is giving up the United States’ best TOD spot on climate adaptation grounds.

All of these adaptation plans should be prohibited on grounds of climate apartheid. The term climate apartheid is not my own: it comes from Desmond Tutu, who says,

[Link, PDF-p. 181] For most people in rich countries adaptation has so far been a relatively painfree process. Cushioned by heating and cooling systems, they can adapt to extreme weather with the flick of a thermostat. Confronted with the threat of floods, governments can protect the residents of London, Los Angeles and Tokyo with elaborate climate defence systems. In some countries, climate change has even brought benign effects, such as longer growing seasons for farmers.

Now consider what adaptation means for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people—the 2.6 billion living on less than US$2 a day. How does an impoverished woman farmer in Malawi adapt when more frequent droughts and less rainfall cut production? Perhaps by cutting already inadequate household nutrition, or by taking her children out of school. How does a slum dweller living beneath plastic sheets and corrugated tin in a slum in Manila or Port-au-Prince adapt to the threat posed by more intense cyclones? And how are people living in the great deltas of the Ganges and the Mekong supposed to adapt to the inundation of their homes and lands?

There’s a lot of nuance to add on top of Tutu’s admonition. The most important is that Mumbai is not Port-au-Prince or Malawi; it’s not even Bihar. But it’s not New York or the Netherlands either. Catastrophic flooding is still a serious risk, and its urban policy gives the poor a choice between substandard slum housing in flood-prone areas and housing projects in suburbs far from any jobs. And this is the richest city in India, while India is richer than practically every African state between South Africa and the Sahara. The poorest countries in the world, in turn, have very low emissions, even relative to their low GDPs – Bangladesh emits the equivalent of 1 metric ton of CO2 in greenhouse gases per capita annually.

Moreover, we can already know what climate adaptation will really mean. A 1-meter rise in sea level is projected to flood 17.5% of Bangladesh, corresponding at today’s population level to about 25 million people. Now, add the effects of crop failures: David Roberts quotes a paywalled Nature Climate Change article saying that rice yields go down by 10% per degree of nighttime temperature above 26. The minimal scenario would dwarf the Syrian refugee crisis, affecting 5 million people, by an order of magnitude. A more catastrophic scenario, involving flooding in Nigeria and increased droughts in the interior of Africa, could dwarf the Syrian crisis by two orders of magnitude.

The reaction to migration crises has been to militarize the border, to push the refugees away before they can get close and attract local sympathy. The US built a wall along much of the border with Mexico, long before Trump; Europe is stepping up patrols in the Mediterranean, and as we speak France is trying to open detention camps in Libya. This is not just a first-world reaction: India is fencing its border with Bangladesh. Climate adaptation means a little bit of money for flood control schemes, and a lot of money for pushing away refugees on threat of gunning them down, and building an entire apparatus of intermediate detention camps to be able to pretend that it’s not the fault of the US or Europe or Japan that the refugees are dying.

The implication is that, in parallel with the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in the Cold War, adaptation should be banned throughout the developed world. A country that spends money on trying to avoid the consequences of climate change is unlikely to be interested in avoiding it in the first place – just as a country with ABM protections is unlikely to be interested in avoiding nuclear war. Tackling a global problem like climate change requires ensuring that no single high-emissions country or economic bloc can insulate itself from its consequences.

Far from discouraging development in floodplains, first-world governments should prohibit any consideration of post-2000 temperature rise. If Secaucus is terra firma today, New Jersey should be compelled to treat it as terra firma forever and develop it as the TOD site that it is. If sea levels rise, none of the residents will be as negatively affected as the median Bangladeshi, but the residents might still agitate for future mitigation.

Infrastructure for Mature Cities

A post by Aaron Renn just made me remember something I said in the Straphangers Campaign forum ten years ago. I complained that New York was building too little subway infrastructure – where were Second Avenue Subway, Utica, Nostrand, various outer extensions in Queens and the Bronx that we crayonistas liked? Shanghai, I told people in the forum, was building a lot of subway lines at once, so why couldn’t New York? The answer is not about construction costs. Ten years ago, China’s construction costs relative to local incomes were about the same as those of New York; even today, the difference is small. Rather, it is that China is a fast-growing economy that’s spending a lot of its resources on managing this growth, whereas the US is a mature economy without infrastructure problems as urgent as those of developing countries.

Aaron posits that American cities are too conservative, in the sense of being timid rather than in the sense of being on the political right. He gives examples of forward-looking infrastructure projects that New York engaged in from the early 19th century to the middle of the 20th century: the Manhattan grid, the Erie Canal, the Croton Aqueduct, the subway, the Robert Moses-era highways and parks. Today, nothing of the sort happens. Aaron of course recognizes that “New, rapidly growing cities need lots of new infrastructure and plans. Mature cities need less new infrastructure.” The difference is that for me, this is where this line of questioning ends. New York is a mature city, and doesn’t need grand plans; it needs to invest in infrastructure based on the assumption that it will never again grow quickly.

If not grand plans like building the Manhattan grid far beyond the city’s then-built up area, then what should a mature city do? Aaron talks about dreaming big, and there is something to that, but it would take a profoundly different approach from what New York did when its population grew by 50% every decade. I stress that, as with my last post critiquing another blog post, I agree with a substantial part of what Aaron says and imagine that Aaron will treat many of the solutions I posit here as positive examples of thinking big.

Rationalization of Government

Mature societies have accumulated a great deal of kludge at all levels, coming from social structures and government programs that served the needs of previous generations, often with political compromises that are hard to understand today. Welfare programs are usually a kludge of different social security programs (for the disabled, for retirees, for various classes of unemployed people, sometimes even for students), housing benefits, reduced tax rates for staple goods like food, child credit, and in the US food stamps. A good deal of the impetus for basic income is specifically about consolidating the kludge into a single cash benefit with a consistent effective marginal tax rate.

In transportation, bus networks have often evolved incrementally, with each change making sense in local context. When a new housing development opened, the nearest bus would be extended to serve it. In Israel, which grew late enough to grow around buses and not rail, this was also true of dedicated industrial zones. In cities that used to have streetcar networks, some buses just follow the old streetcar routes; the Washington bus system even today distinguishes between former streetcars (which have numbers) and routes that were never streetcars (which use letters). Jarrett Walker‘s bus network redesigns are partly about reorganizing such systems around modern needs, based on modern understanding of the principles behind transit ridership.

Governance often needs to be rationalized as well. In the early 20th century, it was important to connect outlying neighborhoods to city center, and connections between lines were less important. This led to excessively radial surface transit (rapid transit is always radial), but also to rail lines that don’t always connect to one another well. Sometimes due to historical contingency the lines are run by separate agencies and have uncoordinated schedules and different fare systems charging extra for transfers. Occasionally even the same agency charges for bus-rail transfers, often because of a history of separate private operators before the public takeover. In the US and Canada, the special status of commuter rail, with different unions, fares, schedules, and management is of particular concern, because several cities could use commuter rail to supplement the rest of the transit network.

In New York, this points toward the following agenda:

  • Modernization of commuter rail, with full fare integration with the subway and buses, proof-of-payment fare collection to reduce operating costs, high off-peak frequency on the local lines, and through-running where there is infrastructure for it (i.e. Penn Station).
  • Some bus service reorganization. New York already has extensive frequent buses, but some of its network is still questionable, for example some branches of the Third/Lexington and Madison/Fifth one-way pairs in Harlem.
  • Subway reorganization. The subway branches too much, and at several places it could have higher capacity if it reduced the extent of reverse-branching; see discussion here and in comments here. Some elevated lines could also see their stops change to support better transfers, including the J/M/Z at Broadway and Manhattan to transfer to the G, and maybe even the 7 at 108th Street to enable a transfer to a straightened Q23 bus.
  • Fare integration with PATH, and demolition of the false walls between the PATH and the F/M trains on Sixth Avenue, to enable cross-platform transfers.

Serve, Don’t Shape

There are two models for building new infrastructure: serve, and shape. Serve means focusing on present-day economic and demographic patterns. Shape means expecting the project to change these patterns, the “build it and they will come” approach. When New York built the 7 train to Flushing, Flushing already existed as a town center but much of the area between Long Island City and Flushing was open farmland. I’ve argued before that third-world cities should use the shape model. In contrast, mature cities, including the entire developed world except a few American Sunbelt cities and analogs in Canada and Australia, should use the serve model.

The serve model flies in the face of the belief that public transit can induce profound changes in urban layout. In reality, some local transit-oriented development is possible, but the main center of New York will remain Midtown; so far Hudson Yards seems like a flop. In the suburbs, more extensive redevelopment is possible, with apartment buildings and mixed uses near train stations. But these suburbs, built after WW2, are less mature than the city proper. In fast-growing cities in North America outside the traditional manufacturing belt the shape model still has validity – Vancouver, still a relatively new city region in the 1980s, got to shape itself using SkyTrain. But in New York, there is no chance.

This also has some ethnic implications. Jarrett likes to plan routes without much regard for social circumstances, except perhaps to give more bus service to a lower-income area with lower car ownership. But in reality, it is possible to see ethnic ties in origin-and-destination transit trips. This is why there are internal Chinatown buses connecting Chinatown, Flushing, and Sunset Park, and a bus connecting two different ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in Brooklyn. In Washington, there is origin and destination data, and there are noticeable ties between black neighborhoods, such as Anacostia and Columbia Heights.

In a mature city with stable ethnic boundaries (Harlem has been black for ninety years), it is possible to plan infrastructure around ethnic travel patterns. This means that as New York disentangles subway lines to reduce branching, it should try choosing one-seat rides that facilitate known social ties, such as between Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant. While New York’s ethnic groups are generally integrated, this has special significance in areas with a mixture of linguistic or religious groups with very little intermarriage, such as Israel, which has two large unassimilated minorities (Arabs, and ultra-Orthodox Jews); Israeli transportation planning should whenever possible take into account special ultra-Orthodox travel needs (e.g. large families) and intra-ethnic connections such as between Bnei Brak and Jerusalem or between Jaffa and Nazareth.

Integrated Planning

A few years ago, I wrote a post I can no longer find talking about building the minimum rail infrastructure required for a given service plan. In comments, Keep Houston Houston replied that no, this makes it really difficult to add future capacity if demand grows. For example, a single-track line with meets optimized for half-hourly service requires total redesign if demand grows to justify 20-minute frequency. In a growing city, this means infrastructure should be planned for future-proofing, with double track everywhere, no reliance on timed overtakes, and so on. In a mature city, this isn’t a problem – growth is usually predictable.

It is relatively easy to integrate infrastructure planning and scheduling based on today’s travel patterns, and impossible to integrate them based on the future travel patterns of a fast-growing city such as Lagos or Nairobi. But in a slow-growing city like New York, future integration isn’t much harder than present-day integration. Alone among North American cities, New York has high transit mode share, making such integration even easier – transit usage could double with Herculean effort, but there is no chance that a real transit revival would quadruple it or more, unlike in cities that are relatively clean slates like Los Angeles.

Since the mature city does not need too much new infrastructure, it is useful to build infrastructure to primarily use existing infrastructure more efficiently. One example of this is S-Bahn tunnels connecting two stub-end lines; these are also useful in growing cities (Berlin built the Stadtbahn in the 1880s), but in mature cities their relative usefulness is higher, because they use preexisting infrastructure. This is not restricted to commuter rail: there is a perennial plan in New York to build a short tunnel between PATH at World Trade Center and the 6 train at City Hall and run through-service, using the fact that PATH’s loading gauge is similar to that of the numbered subway lines.

In New York, this suggests the following transit priorities:

  • Open commuter rail lines and stations based on the quality of transfers to the subway and the key bus routes. For example, Penn Station Access for Metro-North should include a stop at Pelham Parkway for easy transfer to the Bx12 bus, and a stop at Astoria for easy transfer to the subway.
  • Investigate whether a PATH-6 connection is feasible; it would require no new stations, but there would be construction difficulties since the existing World Trade Center PATH station platforms are in a loop.
  • Change subway construction priorities to emphasize lines that reduce rather than add branching. In particular, Nostrand may be a higher priority than Utica, and both may be higher priorities than phases 3 and 4 of Second Avenue Subway. A subway line under Northern Boulevard in Queens may not be feasible without an entirely new Manhattan trunk line.
  • Build commuter rail tunnels for through-running. The Gateway project should include a connection to Grand Central rather than Penn Station South, and should already bake in a choice of which commuter lines on each side match to which commuter lines on the other side. Plan for commuter rail lines through Lower Manhattan, connecting the LIRR in Brooklyn with New Jersey Transit’s Erie Lines, and, accordingly, do not connect any of the lines planned for this system to Penn Station (such as with the circuitous Secaucus Loop in the Gateway project).


New York still needs infrastructure investment, like every other city. Such investment requires thinking outside the box, and may look radical if it forces different agencies to cooperate or even amalgamate. But in reality the amount of construction required is not extensive. More deeply, New York will not look radically different in the future from how it looks today. Technological fantasies of driverless flying cars aside, New York’s future growth is necessarily slow and predictable, and cities in that situation need to invest in infrastructure accordingly.

In my post about third-world transit, I posited an epistemological principle that if the presence of a certain trait makes a certain solution more useful, then the absence of the trait should make the solution less useful. The shape vs. serve argument comes from this principle. The same is true of the emphasis on consolidating the kludge into a coherent whole and then building strategically to support this consolidation. A fast-growing city has no time to consolidate, and who’s to say that today’s consolidation won’t be a kludge in thirty years? A mature city has time, and has little to worry about rapid change obsoleting present-day methods.

But at the same time, the same epistemology means that these changes are less critical in a mature city. In the third world, everything is terrible; in the first world, most things are fine. New York’s transportation problems are painful for commuters, but ultimately, they will not paralyze the city. It will do well even if it doesn’t build a single kilometer of subway in the future. Nothing is indispensable; this means that, in the face of high costs, often the correct alternative may be No Build. This illustrates the importance of improving cost-effectiveness (equally important in the third world, but there the problem is the opposite – too many things are indispensable and there isn’t enough money for all of them).

I emphasize that this does not mean transportation is unimportant. That New York will not be destroyed if it stops building new infrastructure does not mean that new infrastructure is of no use for the city. The city needs to be able to facilitate future economic and demographic growth and solve lingering social problems, and better infrastructure, done right, can play a role in that. New York will most likely look similar in 2067 to how it looks in 2017, but it can still use better infrastructure to be a better and more developed city by then.

Greenbelts Help Cars

A number of major cities, most notably London, have designated areas around their built-up areas as green belts, in which development is restricted, in an attempt to curb urban sprawl. The towns within the green belt are not permitted to grow as much as they would in an unrestricted setting, where the built-up areas would merge into a large contiguous urban area. Seeking access to jobs in the urban core, many commuters instead live beyond the greenbelt and commute over long distances. There has been some this policy’s effect on housing prices, for example in Ottawa and in London by YIMBY. In the US, this policy is less common than in Britain and Canada, but exists in Oregon in the form of the urban growth boundaries (UGBs), especially around Portland. The effect has been the same, replacing a continuous sprawling of the urban area with discontinuous suburbanization into many towns; the discontinuous form is also common in Israel and the Netherlands. In this post, I would like to explain how, independently of issues regarding sprawl, such policies are friendlier to drivers than to rail users.

Let us start by considering what affects the average speed of cars and what affects that of public transit. On a well-maintained freeway without traffic, a car can easily maintain 130 km/h, and good cars can do 160 or more on some stretches. In urban areas, these speeds are rarely achievable during the day; even moderate traffic makes it hard to go much beyond 110 or 120. Peak-direction commutes are invariably slower. Moreover, when the car gets off the freeway and onto at-grade arterial roads, the speed drops further, to perhaps 50 or less, depending on density and congestion.

Trains are less affected by congestion. On a well-maintained, straight line, a regional train can go at 160 km/h, or even 200 km/h for some rolling stock, even if headways are short. The busiest lines are typically much slower, but for different reasons: high regional and local traffic usually comes from high population density, which encourages short stop spacing, such that there may not be much opportunity for the train to go quickly. If the route is curvy, then high density also makes it more difficult to straighten the line by acquiring land on the inside of the curves. But by and large, slowdowns on trains come from the need to make station stops, rather than from additional traffic.

Let us now look at greenbelts of two kinds. In the first kind, there is legacy development within the greenbelt, as is common around London. See this example:



The greenbelt is naturally in green, the cities are the light blue circles with the large central one representing the big city, and the major transportation arteries (rail + freeway) are in black. The towns within the greenbelt are all small, because they formed along rail stops before mass motorization; the freeways were built along the preexisting transportation corridors. With mass motorization and suburbanization, more development formed right outside the greenbelt, this time consisting of towns of a variety of sizes, typically clustering near the freeways and railways for best access to the center.

The freeways in this example metro area are unlikely to be very congested. Their congestion comes from commuters into the city, and those are clustered outside the greenbelt, where development is less restricted. Freeways are widened based on the need to maintain a certain level of congestion, and in this case, this means relatively unimpeded traffic from the outside of the green belt right up until the road enters the big city. Under free development, there would be more suburbs closer to the city, and the freeway would be more congested there; travel times from outside the greenbelt would be longer, but more people would live closer to the center, so it would be a wash.

In contrast, the trains are still going to be slowed down by the intermediate stops. The small grandfathered suburbs have no chance of generating the rail traffic of larger suburbs or of in-city stops, but they still typically generate enough that shutting them down to speed traffic is unjustified, to say nothing of politically impossible. (House prices in the greenbelt are likely to be very high because of the tight restrictions, so the commuters there are rich people with clout.) What’s more, frequency is unlikely to be high, since demand from within the greenbelt is so weak. Under free development, there might still be more stops, but not very many – the additional traffic generated by more development in those suburbs would just lead to more ridership per stop, supporting higher frequency and thus making the service better rather than worse.

Let us now look at another greenbelt, without grandfathered suburbs, which is more common in Canada. This is the same map as before, with the in-greenbelt suburbs removed:


In theory, this suburban paradigm lets both trains and cars cruise through the unbuilt area. Overall commutes are longer because of the considerable extra distance traveled, but this distance is traversed at high speed by any mode; 120 km/h is eminently achievable.

In practice, why would there be a modern commuter line on any of these arteries? Commuter rail modernization is historically a piecemeal program, proceeding line by line, prioritizing the highest-trafficked corridors. In Paris, the first commuter line to be turned over to the Metro for operation compatible with city transit, the Ligne de Sceaux, has continuous urban development for nearly its entire length; a lightly-trafficked outer edge was abandoned shortly after the rest of the line was electrified in 1938. If the greenbelt was set up before there was significant suburbanization in the restricted area, it is unlikely that there would have been any reason to invest in a regional rail line; at most there may be a strong intercity line, but then retrofitting it to include slower regional traffic is expensive. Nor is there any case for extending a high-performing urban transit line to or beyond a greenbelt. Parts of Grand Paris Express, namely Lines 14 and 11, are extended from city center outward. In contrast, in London, where the greenbelt reduces density in the suburbs, high investment into regional rail focuses on constructing city-center tunnels in Crossrail and Crossrail 2 and connecting legacy lines to them. In cities that do not even have the amount of suburban development of the counties surrounding London, there is even less justification for constructing new transit.

Now, you may ask, if there’s no demand for new urban transit lines, why is there demand for new highways? After all, if there was not much regional travel into these suburbs historically, why would there be enough car traffic to justify high investment into roads? The answer is that at low levels of traffic, it’s much cheaper to build a road than to build and operate a railway. This example city has no traffic generators in the greenbelt, except perhaps parks, so roads are cheap to build and have few to no grade crossings to begin with, making it easier to turn them into full freeways. The now-dead blog Keep Houston Houston made this point regarding a freeway in Portland, which was originally built as an arterial road in a narrow valley and had few at-grade intersections to be removed. At high levels of demand, the ability to move the same number of people on two tracks as on fourteen lanes of freeway makes transit much more efficient, but at low demand levels, rail still needs two tracks or at least one with passing sidings, and high-speed roads need four lanes and in some cases only two.

The overall picture in which transit has an advantage over cars at high levels of density is why high levels of low-density sprawl are correlated with low transit usage. But I stress that even independently of sprawl, greenbelts are good for cars and bad for transit. A greenbelt with legacy railway suburbs is going to feature trains going at the normal speed of a major metro area, and cars going at the speed of a more spread out and less populated region. Even a greenbelt without development is good urban geography for cars and bad one for transit.

As a single exception, consider what happens when a greenbelt is reserved between two major nodes. In that specific case, an intercity line can more easily be repurposed for commuting purposes. The Providence Line is a good example: while there’s no formal greenbelt, tight zoning restrictions in New England even in the suburbs lead to very low density between Boston and Providence, which is nonetheless served by good infrastructure thanks to the strength of intercity rail travel. The MBTA does not make good use of this infrastructure, but that’s beside the point: there’s already a high-speed electrified commuter line between the two cities, with widely spaced intermediate stops allowing for high average speeds even on stopping trains and overtakes that are not too onerous; see posts of mine here and here. What’s more, intercity trains can be and are used for commutes from Providence to Boston. For an analogous example with a true greenbelt, Milton Keynes plays a role similar to Providence to London’s Boston.

However, this exception is uncommon. There aren’t enough Milton Keyneses on the main intercity lines to London, or Providences on the MBTA, to make it possible for enough transit users to suburbanize. In cities with contiguous urban development, such as Paris, it’s easier. The result of a greenbelt is that people who do not live in the constrained urban core are compelled to drive and have poor public transportation options. Once they drive, they have an incentive to use the car for more trips, creating more sprawl. This way, the greenbelt, a policy that is intended to curb sprawl and protect the environment, produces the exact opposite results: more driving, more long-distance commuting, a larger urban footprint far from the core.

A Theory of Zoning and Local Decisionmaking

This weekend there’s a conference in the US, YIMBY 2016, by a national network of activists calling for more housing. I am not there, but I see various points raised there via social media. One is a presentation slide that says “NIMBYism is a collective action problem: no single neighborhood can lower prices by upzoning; might still be in everyone’s interest to upzone at city/state level.” I think this analysis is incorrect, and in explaining why, I’d like to talk about a theory of how homeowners use zoning to create a housing shortage to boost their own property values, and more generally how long-time residents of a city use zoning to keep out people who are not like them. In this view,zoning is the combination of a housing cartel, and a barrier to internal migration.

For years, I’ve had trouble with the housing cartel theory, because of a pair of observations. The first is that, contra the presentation at YIMBY, zoning is driven by homeowners rather than by renters; for an overview, see the work of William Fischel. The second is that restrictive zoning typically correlates with local decisionmaking, such as in a neighborhood or small city, while lax zoning typically correlates with higher-level decisionmaking, such as in a city with expansive municipal boundaries or in an entire province or country; see below for more on this correlation. These two observations together clash with the housing cartel theory, for the inverse of the reason in the above quote from the YIMBY presentation: it’s more effective to create a housing shortage in a large area than in a small one.

To a good approximation, land value equals (housing price – housing construction cost)*allowed density. If a small municipality upzones, then as in the quote, housing price doesn’t change much, but allowed density grows, raising the price a homeowner can get by selling their house to developers who’d build an apartment building. In contrast, if a large municipality upzones then housing prices will fall quite a bit as supply grows, and depending on the price elasticity, land value might well go down. If x = housing price/housing construction cost and e = price elasticity for housing, i.e. price is proportional to density^(-1/e), then maximum land value occurs when x = e/(e-1), provided e > 1; if e < 1 then maximum value occurs when x is arbitrarily large. Price elasticity is much higher in a small municipality, since even a large increase in local housing supply has a small effect on regional supply, limiting its ability to reduce prices. This implies that, to maximize homeowner value, small municipalities have an incentive to set density limits at a higher level than large municipalities, which will be seen in faster housing growth relative to population growth.

What we see is the exact opposite. Consider the following cases, none a perfect natural experiment, but all suggestive:

1. In the Bay Area, we can contrast San Francisco (a medium-size urban municipality), San Jose and generally Santa Clara County (San Jose is medium-size for a central city and very large for a suburb), and San Mateo County (comprising small and medium-size suburbs). San Mateo County is by far the stingiest of the three about permitting housing: over the last three years it’s averaged 1,000 new housing units per year (see here); in 2013, the corresponding figures elsewhere in the Bay Area were 2,277 new housing units in San Francisco and 5,245 in Santa Clara County. Per thousand people (not per housing unit), this is 2.63 in San Francisco, 2.73 in Santa Clara, and 1.31 in San Mateo. In Alameda County, comprising medium-size cities and suburbs, with a less hot housing market because of the distance from Silicon Valley jobs, growth was 2,474 units, 1.51 per 1,000 people. In small rich Silicon Valley municipalities like Palo Alto and Menlo Park, NIMBYs have effectively blocked apartment construction; in much larger and still rich San Jose, the city has a more pro-growth outlook.

2. Among the most important global cities – New York, Paris, London, and Tokyo – Tokyo has by far the fastest housing stock growth, nearly 2% a year; see article by Stephen Smith. In Japan, key land use decisions are made by the national government, whereas in Paris, London, and New York, decision is at a lower level. London builds more than New York and Paris; its municipal limit is much looser than Paris’s, with 8.5 million people to Paris’s 2.2 million even though their metro areas have similar populations. New York has a fairly loose limit as well, but the development process empowers lower-level community boards, even though the city has final authority.

3. Canada has a relatively permissive upzoning process, and in Ontario, the planning decisions are made at the provincial level, resulting in about 1.3% annual housing growth in Toronto in the previous decade; in the same period, San Jose’s annual housing growth was about 1% and San Francisco’s was 0.9%.

4. France has recently made a national-level effort to produce more housing in the Paris region, especially social housing, due to very high housing prices there. Last decade, housing production in Ile-de-France was down to about 30,000-35,000 per year, averaging to 2.6 per 1,000 people, similar to San Francisco; see PDF-pp. 4-5 here and the discussion here. With the new national and regional effort at producing more social housing, plans appear to be on track to produce 30,000 annual units of social housing alone in the next few years; see PDF-p. 6 here. With 7,000 annual units within city limits, Paris expects to build somewhat more per capita than the rest of the region.

In France, the combination of a national focus on reducing housing burden and the observation that higher-level decisionmaking produces more housing makes sense. But elsewhere, we need to ask how come homeowners aren’t able to more effectively block construction.

My theory is that the answer involves internal migration. Consider the situation of Palo Alto: with Stanford and many tech jobs, it is prime location, and many people want to move there. The homeowners are choosing the zoning rule that maximizes their ability to extract rents from those people, in both the conventional sense of the word rent and the economic sense. Now consider decisionmaking at the level of the entire state of California. California can raise housing prices even more effectively than Palo Alto can by restricting development, but unlike Palo Alto, California consists not just of residents of rich cities, but also of residents of other cities, who would like to move to Palo Alto. In the poorer parts of the state, there’s not much point in restrictive zoning, because there isn’t that much demand for new housing, except perhaps from people who cannot afford San Francisco or Los Angeles and are willing to endure long commutes. On the contrary, thanks to the strength of internal migration, a large fraction of prospective residents of Palo Alto live elsewhere in California. Nor do people in poor areas, where houses aren’t worth much as investments, gain much from raising house prices for themselves; the ability to move to where the good jobs are is worth more than raising housing prices by a few tens of thousands of dollars. This means that the general interest in California is to make Palo Alto cheaper rather than more expensive. The same is true of Japan and Tokyo, or France and Paris, or Ontario and Toronto.

While superficially similar to the point made in the presentation quoted at the beginning of this post, my theory asserts the opposite. The issue is not that individual municipalities see no benefit in upzoning since it wouldn’t reduce rents by much. It’s that they see net harm from upzoning precisely because it would reduce rents. It is not a collective action problem: it is a problem of disenfranchisement, in which the people who benefit from more development do not live in the neighborhoods where the development would be taking place. High-level decisionmaking means that people who would like to move to a rich area get as much of a vote in its development policy as people who already live there and have access to its amenities, chief of which is access to work. It disempowers the people who already have the privilege of living in these areas, and empowers the people who don’t but would like to.

Individual rich people can be virtuous. Rich communities never are. They are greedy, and write rules that keep others out and ruthlessly eliminate any local effort to give up their political power. They will erect borders and fences, exclude outsiders, and demagogue against revenue sharing, school integration, and upzoning. They will engage in limited charity – propping up their local poor (as San Francisco protects low-income lifelong San Franciscans via rent control), and engaging in symbolic, high-prestige giving, but avoid any challenge to their political power. Upzoning is not a collective action problem; it is a struggle for equal rights and equal access to jobs regardless of which neighborhood, city, or region one grew up in.

Modeling Anchoring

Jarrett Walker has repeatedly called transit agencies and city zoning commissions to engage in anchoring: this means designing the city so that transit routes connect two dense centers, with less intense activity between them. For example, he gives Vancouver’s core east-west buses, which connect UBC with dense transit-oriented development on the Expo Line, with some extra activity at the Canada Line and less intense development in between; Vancouver has adopted his ideas, as seen on PDF-page 15 of a network design primer by Translink. In 2013, I criticized this in two posts, making an empirical argument comparing Vancouver’s east-west buses with its north-south buses, which are not so anchored. Jarrett considers the idea that anchoring is more efficient to be a geometric fact, and compared my empirical argument to trying to empirically compute the decimal expansion pi to be something other than 3.1415629… I promised that I would explain my criticism in more formal mathematical terms. Somewhat belatedly, I would like to explain.

First, as a general note, mathematics proves theorems about mathematics, and not about the world. My papers, and those of the other people in the field, have proven results about mathematical structures. For example, we can prove that an equation has solutions, or does not have any solutions. As soon as we try to talk about the real world, we stop doing pure math, and begin doing modeling. In some cases, the models use advanced math, and not just experiments: for example, superstring theory involves research-level math, with theorems of similar complexity to those of pure math. In other cases, the models use simpler math, and the chief difficulty is in empirical calibration: for example, transit ridership models involve relatively simple formulas (for example, the transfer penalty is a pair of numbers, as I explain here), but figuring out the numbers takes a lot of work.

With that in mind, let us model anchoring. Let us also be completely explicit about all the assumptions in our model. The city we will build will be much simpler than a real city, but it will still contain residences, jobs, and commuters. We will not deal with transfers; neither does the mental model Jarrett and TransLink use in arguing for anchoring (see PDF-p. 15 in the primer above again to see the thinking). For us, the city consists of a single line, going from west to east. The west is labeled 0, the east is labeled 1, and everything in between is labeled by numbers between 0 and 1. The city’s total population density is 1: this means that when we graph population density on the y-axis in terms of location on the x-axis, the total area under the curve is 1. Don’t worry too much about scaling – the units are all relative anyway.

Let us now graph three possible distributions of population density: uniform (A), center-dominant (B), and anchored (C).

cityA cityBcityC

Let us make one further assumption, for now: the distributions of residences and jobs are the same, and independent. In city (A), this means that jobs are uniformly distributed from 0 to 1, like residences, and a person who lives at any point x is equally likely to work at any point from 0 to 1, and is no more likely to work near x than anyone else. In city (B), this means that people are most likely to work at point 0.5, both if they live there and if they live near 0 or 1; in city (C), this means that people are most likely to work at 0 or 1, and that people who live at 0 are equally likely to work near 0 and near 1.

Finally, let us assume that there is no modal splitting and no induced demand: every employed person in the city rides the bus, exactly once a day in each direction, once going to work and once going back home, regardless of where they live and work. Nor do people shift their choice of when to work based on the network: everyone goes to work in the morning peak and comes back in the afternoon peak.

With these assumptions in mind, let us compute how crowded the buses will be. Because all three cities are symmetric, I am only going to show morning peak buses, and only in the eastbound direction. I will derive an exact formula in city (A), and simply state what the formulas are in the other two cities.

In city (A), at point x, the number of people who ride the eastbound morning buses equals the number of people who live to the west of x and work to the right of x. Because the population and job distributions are uniform, the proportion of people who live west of x is x, and the proportion of people who work east of x is 1-x. The population and job distributions are assumed independent, so the total crowding is x(1-x). Don’t worry too much about scaling again – it’s in relative units, where 1 means every single person in the city is riding the bus in that direction at that time. The formula y = x(1-x) has a peak when x = 0.5, and then y = 0.25. In cities (B) and (C), the formulas are:

(B): y = \begin{cases}2x^2(1 - 2x^2) & \mbox{ if } x \leq 1/2\\ 2(1-x)^2(1 - 2(1-x)^2) & \mbox{ if } x > 1/2\end{cases}

(C): y = \begin{cases}(2x-2x^2)(1 - 2x + 2x^2) & \mbox{ if } x \leq 1/2\\ (2(1-x)-2(1-x)^2)(1 - 2(1-x) + 2(1-x)^2) & \mbox{ if } x > 1/2\end{cases}

Here are their graphs:

cityAcrowd cityBcrowd cityCcrowd

Now, city B’s buses are almost completely empty when x < 0.25 or x > 0.75, and city C’s buses fill up faster than city A’s, so in that sense, the anchored city has more uniform bus crowding. But the point is that at equal total population and equal total transit usage, all three cities produce the exact same peak crowding: at the midpoint of the population distribution, which in our three cases is always x = 0.5, exactly a quarter of the employed population lives to the west and works to the east, and will pass through this point on public transit. Anchoring just makes the peak last longer, since people work farther from where they live and travel longer to get there. In a limiting case, in which the population density at 0 and 1 is infinite, with half the population living at 0 and half at 1, we will still get the exact same peak crowding, but it will last the entire way from 0 to 1, rather than just in the middle.

Note that there is no way to play with the population distribution to produce any different peak. As soon as we assume that jobs and residences are distributed identically, and the mode share is 100%, we will get a quarter of the population taking transit through the midpoint of the distribution.

If anything, the most efficient of the three distributions is B. This is because there’s so little ridership at the ends that it’s possible to run transit at lower frequency at the ends, overlaying a route that runs the entire way from 0 to 1 to a short-turn route from 0.25 to 0.75. Of course, cutting frequency makes service worse, but at the peak, the base frequency is sufficient. Imagine a 10-minute bus going all the way, with short-turning overlays beefing frequency to 5 minutes in the middle half. Since the same resources can more easily be distributed to providing more service in the center, city B can provide more service through the peak crowding point at the same cost, so it will actually be less crowded. This is the exact opposite of what TransLink claims, which is that city B would be overcrowded in the middle whereas city C would have full but not overcrowded buses the entire way (again, PDF-p. 15 of the primer).

In my empirical critique of anchoring, I noted that the unanchored routes actually perform better than the anchored ones in Vancouver, in the sense that they cost less per rider but also are less crowded at the peak, thanks to higher turnover. This is not an observation of the model. I will note that the differences in cost per rider are not large. The concept of turnover is not really within the model’s scope – the empirical claim is that the land use on the unanchored routes lends itself to short trips throughout the day, whereas on the anchored ones it lends itself to peak-only work trips, which produce more crowding for the same total number of riders. In my model, I’m explicitly ignoring the effect of land use on trips: there are no induced trips, just work trips at set times, with 100% mode share.

Let us now drop the assumption that jobs and residences are identically distributed. Realistically, cities have residential and commercial areas, and the model should be able to account for this. As one might expect, separation of residential and commercial uses makes the system more crowded, because travel is no longer symmetric. In fact, whereas under the assumption the peak crowding is always exactly a quarter of the population, if we drop the assumption the peak crowding is at a minimum a quarter, but can grow up to the entire population.

Consider the following cities, (D), (E), and (F). I am going to choose units so that the total residential density is 1/2 and so is the total job density, so combined they equal 1. City (D) has a CBD on one side and residences on the other, city (E) has a CBD in the center and residences on both sides, and city (F) is partially mixed-use, with a CBD in the center and residences both in the center and outside of it. Residences are in white, jobs are in dark gray, and the overlap between residences and jobs in city (F) is in light gray.

cityD cityE cityF

We again measure crowding on eastbound morning transit. We need to do some rescaling here, again letting 1 represent all workers in the city passing through the same point in the same direction. Without computing, we can tell that in city (D), at the point where the residential area meets the commercial area, which in this case is x = 0.75, the crowding level is 1: everyone lives to the west of this point and works to its east and must commute past it. Westbound morning traffic, in contrast, is zero. City (E) is symmetric, with peak crowding at 0.5, at the entry to the CBD from the west, in this case x = 0.375. City (F) has crowding linearly growing to 0.375 at the entry to the CBD, and then decreasing as passengers start to get off. The formula for eastbound crowding is,

(F): y = \begin{cases}x & \mbox{ if } x < 3/8\\ x(5/2 - 4x) & \mbox{ if } 3/8 \leq x \leq 5/8\\ 0 & \mbox{ if } x > 5/8\end{cases}

cityDcrowd cityEcrowd cityFcrowd

In city (F), the quarter of the population that lives in the CBD simply does not count for transit crowding. The reason is that, with the CBD occupying the central quarter of the city, at any point from x = 0.375 east, there are more people who live to the west of the CBD getting off than people living within the CBD getting on. This observation remains true down to when (for a symmetric city) a third of the population lives inside the CBD.

In city (B), it’s possible to use the fact that transit runs empty near the edges to run less service near the edges than in the center. Unfortunately, it is not possible to use the same trick in cities (E) and (F), not with conventional urban transit. The eastbound morning service is empty east of the CBD, but the westbound morning service fills up; east of the CBD, the westbound service is empty and the eastbound service fills up. If service has to be symmetric, for example if buses and trains run back and forth and make many trips during a single peak period, then it is not possible to short-turn eastbound service at the eastern edge of the CBD. In contrast, if it is possible to park service in the center, then it is possible to short-turn service and economize: examples include highway capacity for cars, since bridges can have peak-direction lanes, but also some peaky commuter buses and trains, which make a single trip into the CBD per vehicle in the morning, park there, and then make a single trip back in the afternoon. Transit cities relies on services that go back and forth rather than parking in the CBD, so such economies do not work well for them.

A corollary of the last observation is that mixed uses are better for transit than for cars. Cars can park in the CBD, so for them, it’s fine if the travel demand graph looks like that of city (E). Roads and bridges are designed to be narrower in the outskirts of the region and wider near the CBD, and peak-direction lanes can ensure efficient utilization of capacity. In contrast, buses and rapid transit trains have to circulate; to achieve comparable peak crowding, city (E) requires twice as much service as perfect mixed-use cities.

The upshot of this model is that the land use that best supports efficient use of public transit is mixed use. Since all rich cities have CBDs, they should work on encouraging more residential land uses in the center and more commercial uses outside the center, and not worry about the underlying distribution of combined residential and job density. Since CBDs are usually almost exclusively commercial, any additional people living in the center will not add to transit crowding, even as they ride transit to work and pay fares. In contrast, anchoring does not have any effect on peak crowding, and on the margins makes it worse in the sense that the maximum crowding level lasts longer. This implies that the current planning strategy in Vancouver should be changed from encouraging anchoring to fill trains and buses for longer to encouraging more residential growth Downtown and in other commercial centers and more commercial growth at suitable nodes outside the center.

Penn Station Elimination Followup

Several commenters, both here and on Streetsblog, have raised a number of points about my proposal to eliminate above-ground Penn Station and reduce the station to a hole in the ground. A few of those points are things I’d already thought about when I wrote that post and didn’t want to clutter; others are new ideas that I’ve had to wrestle with.


On Streetsblog, Mark Walker says, “Getting on a train at Penn is not like using the subway. Instead of a train that runs every five minutes, you’re waiting for a train that runs once per hour (more or less),” implying nicer waiting areas and lounges are needed. My proposal, of course, does not have dedicated waiting areas. (That said, there’s an immense amount of space on the platforms under the escalators, which could be equipped with chairs, tables, and newsstands.)

However, I take exception to the notion that when the train runs every hour, passengers wait an hour. When I lived in Providence, a few trips to Boston, New Haven, and New York taught me the exact amount of time it’d take me to walk from my apartment to the train station: 21 minutes. I learned to time myself to get to the station 2 minutes before the train would leave, and as I recall, I missed the train twice out of maybe 30 trips, and one of those was when I had a lot of luggage and was in a taxi and couldn’t precisely gauge the extra travel time. Walking is that reliable. People who get to Penn Station by subway have to budget some extra time to account for missed subway trains, but from much of the city, including the parts of the CBD not within walking distance from Penn, the required spare time is less than 10 minutes. Moreover, Penn is at its most crowded at rush hour, which is precisely when subway frequency is the highest, and people can reliably time themselves to within less than 5 minutes.

Outlying train stations in Switzerland are deserted except a few minutes before a train shows up, because the connecting transit is all timed to meet the train. This is of course inapplicable at very large stations with many lines, but the modes of transportation that most Penn Station users take to the station are reliable and frequent, if you can even talk of frequency for walking. The result is that the amenities do not need to be extravagant on account of waiting passengers, and do not need to be more than those of a busy subway station in a busy area.


Several commenters raised the idea of shelter. One option, raised by James Sinclair, is an arched glass roof over the station, on the model of Milan. This involves above-ground infrastructure, but the arched structure is only supported at the margins of the compound, which means that the primary feature of a hole-in-the-ground station, the lack of anything that the track area must support the weight of, is still true. I do not think it’s a bad idea; I do, however, want to raise three additional options:

Do nothing. A large proportion of the usable area of the platforms would be located under the walkways above, or under the escalators and staircases. Having measured the depth more precisely, through Plate 14 here, I found it is 13 meters from street level to top of rail, or 12 from street level to platform level, translating to 21 meters of escalator length, plus 2.2-2.5 meters on each side for approach (see page 23 here). About 16 of those 21 (18.5 out of 25.7, counting approaches) meters offer enough space for passengers to stand below the escalators, leading to large areas that could be used for shelter, as noted in the waiting section above.

Build a simple shelter. Stockholm-area train stations have cheap corrugated metal roofs over most of the length of their platforms. These provide protection from rain. Of course those roofs require some structural support at the platform, but because they’re not supposed to hold anything except rainwater, those supports are narrow poles, easy to move around if the station is reconfigured.

Build a street-level glass pane. This may be structurally intricate, but if not, it would provide complete shelter from the elements on the track level, greatly improve passenger circulation, and create a new public plaza. But in summer, the station would be a greenhouse, requiring additional air conditioning.

Note that doing nothing or building a simple shelter would not protect any of the track level from heat or cold. This is fine: evidently, open-air stations are the norm both in cities with hotter summers than New York (Milan is one example, and Tokyo is another) and in cities with colder winters (for example, Stockholm). Passengers are usually dressed for the weather anyway, especially if they’re planning on walking to work from Penn or from the subway station they’re connecting to.


Multiple commenters have said that public art and architecture matter, and building spartan train stations is unaesthetic, representing public squalor. I agree! I don’t think a hole-in-the-wall Penn Station has to be drab or brutalist. It can showcase art, on the model of the mosaics on the subway, or the sculptures on the T-Bana. It can use color to create a more welcoming environment than the monotonous gray of many postwar creations, such as the Washington Metro. The natural sunlight would help a lot.

But more than that, the walkways themselves could be architectural signatures. The best way to build them without supporting them on the track level is some variant on the arch bridge – either the classical arch bridge (which would require three or four spans), or a through-arch. This gives a lot of room to turn the bridges into signature spans. The design work would raise their cost, but short pedestrian bridges tend not to display the same cost structure as massive vehicular ones; the Bridge of Strings, a Calatrava-designed light rail bridge on a line that cost far more to build than light rail should cost, was $70 million for 360 meters. The walkways would not carry light rail, and would be about 140 or 150 meters in span.


Commenters both here (Caelestor) and on Streetsblog (Bolwerk, Matthias, C2check) have brought up transit-oriented development as a reason to allow a tall building on top of the station. With respect, I think on top of a train station is exactly the wrong place to build a tower. Let’s Go LA has an explanation for why the engineering for air rights is so complicated, although he stresses that Penn Station and Grand Central, which were built with the expectation of future high-rise air rights, are exceptions. I’ll add that Penn Station track simplification would also remove many crossovers and switches, making it easier to build air rights. That said, the track spacing is not friendly to the column spacing he proposes.

In New York, the tallest and most expensive recent private-sector office tower on solid ground, the Bank of America Tower, cost around $6,000 per square meter of floor space, in today’s money. Some of the luxury residential towers are more expensive; so are the new World Trade Center buildings, e.g. One World Trade Center was $12,000 per m^2. But the office towers cluster in a specific band of cost, around $2,500 to $5,000 per square meter, with taller towers generally more expensive. The Hudson Yards air rights towers cost in the $10,000-14,000 per square meter range, as much as One World Trade Center. Contrary to Bloomberg’s promises of windfall property tax revenues as his justification for the 7 extension, the city has had to offer tax abatement to encourage developers to build at those prices. Amtrak’s plan for Penn Station South assumes the block immediately south of Penn Station would cost $769 million to $1.3 billion to acquire; when I roughly computed its floor area by counting floors per building, I got 100,000 m^2, which means the price of real estate in that area, $7,700-13,000/m^2, is no higher and may be lower than the construction cost of air rights towers.

In contrast, some sites on firm ground immediately surrounding Penn Station are ripe for redevelopment. The block south of Penn Station, as noted above, has about 100,000 m^2, for a block-wide floor area ratio of 6.7. The Empire State Building’s floor area ratio is 33, so replacing the block with closely spaced supertall towers would require developers to burn just 20% of their profit on acquiring preexisting buildings. To the north of Penn Station, the two sites at 7th and 8th Avenues, flanking One Penn Plaza, are flat; so is nearly all of the western part of the block northeast of Penn, between 33rd and 34th Streets and 6th and 7th Avenues. Eighth Avenue is not developed intensely at all in that latitude – it only becomes important near Times Square. Supertall buildings surrounding Penn Station could even be incorporated into the station complex: railroads using the station might decide to lease offices in some of them, and the exteriors of some of those buildings could incorporate large clocks, some signage, and even train departure boards.


TheEconomist, who has had some truly out-of-the-box ideas, raises a very good point: how to phase the deconstruction of Penn Station in ways that allow service to continue. I don’t have a complete answer to that. Arch bridges, in particular, require extensive falsework, which may complicate matters. However, a general phase plan could consist of knocking down the above-ground buildings, then removing the upper concourse (leaving only the lower), and then removing arms of the lower concourse one by one as the walkways above them are built.

Passenger Throughput

In comments here, people have suggested several alternatives to my proposal to reconfigure Penn Station to have 12 tracks and 6 island platforms between them. There should be 6 approach tracks, as I outlined here: southern approach tracks, combining new Hudson tunnels with a link to Grand Central (which I call Line 2); central tracks, combining the preexisting Hudson tunnels with the southern East River Tunnels (Line 1); and northern tracks, combining the realigned Empire Connection and West Side Yard with the northern East River Tunnels (Line 3).

In my view, each approach track should split into two platform tracks, flanking the same platform. In this situation, there is no need to announce track numbers in advance, as long as the platform is known. Stockholm does this on the commuter lines at Stockholm Central: the northbound lines use tracks 15 and 16 and the southbound lines use tracks 13 and 14, with a platform between each of these track pairs, and until a few minutes before a train arrives, it’s signed on the board as “track 13/14” or “track 15/16.”

The compound looks 140 or 150 meters wide; the maps are unclear about to what extent Penn extends under 31st and 33rd, but according to a diagram Joey shared in comments, it extends quite far, giving 150 meters or even a bit more. Under my proposal, this is enough for 6 platforms of 17 or 18 meters. It sounds like a lot, but it isn’t, especially on Line 3, where Penn Station is the only CBD train station, which implies entire trains would empty at Penn in the morning rush hour. (Line 2, which I expect to be the busiest overall because it’d serve both Penn and Grand Central, is the one I expect to have the least platform crowding problems, precisely because it’d serve both Penn and Grand Central.)

Staircases should be 3 meters wide. Escalators with 1-meter steps have 1.6-meter pits; their capacity is theoretically 9,000 passengers per hour, but practically only 6,000-7,000. Clearing 30 entire trains per hour, filled to seating capacity with 4 standees per square meter of standing space, requires moving about 75,000 passengers per hour. (Per meter of train length, this is comparable to the 4/5 trains and the RER A at their peaks.) With 6 access points, this requires 2 up escalators per access point. The minimum is then 3 escalators, running 2-and-1 at the peak; 4 is better.

In comments, Ari Ofesvit proposes the Spanish solution, which I’ve discussed in previous posts. I’m now convinced it is not the right solution, simply because it compels platforms to be too narrow (about 8.6 meters), which has room for exactly half of what a standard platform twice the width would have, without the possibility of running 4 escalators 3-and-1 at the peak. My comment in that post has more detail, albeit with the assumption that the compound is 140 meters wide.

Fbfree proposes something else: more platforms for intercity trains. Giving intercity trains more platforms (as is done in Stockholm, which has just two approach tracks to the south) gives them more time to dwell; unfortunately, it also narrows the platforms for the regional trains, precisely the ones that can expect the most crowding. Even a single-track platform would take up space out of proportion to the number of passengers it would serve.

Pedestrian throughput is, at the maximum, 81 people per meter of walkway width per minute; this assumes two-way flow, but the numbers for one-way and multiway flow aren’t too different. This is a little less than 5,000 per meter-hour. An escalator bank with two up escalators then needs almost 3 meters of unobstructed platform width on one side (the other side can be used as overflow, but most passengers would use the side of the platform the train discharged them on). This is easy to supply with a 4-escalator bank on a 17-meter platform (there would be 3.8 meters); on an 8.6-meter Spanish platform, there’s only one up escalator per bank, so half the width is required, and is indeed obtainable. But if there are extra platforms for intercity trains, this becomes more strained.

For maximum throughput, it is necessary to minimize separation between escalators on the platform, down to about 6 meters plus approaches, in order to allow wider walkways, which in this case would make the walkways about 25 meters wide. The point here is that the walkways have to have very high pedestrian capacity, since each of them is fed by escalators from all platforms. At 25 meters, the capacity is about 15% less than that of two up escalators per access point (121,500 vs. 144,000), which is fine since some platforms (Line 2 in both directions, Line 3 eastbound in the morning and westbound in the afternoon) would not have so much traffic. But putting in elevators would disrupt this flow somewhat.

I see two ways to increase capacity in the future, if train traffic warrants it: first, build the glass floor/ceiling I outlined above, in the shelter section. This is the simplest possibility. Second, build three more walkways, midway between 7th and 8th Avenues and the two walkways already discussed, and have each walkway or avenue serve only half the platforms – one serving eastbound platforms, one serving westbound platforms. At this point the station would be half-covered by walkways, if they are all about 24 meters wide, but the walkways could be narrowed; as long as they are longer than 15 meters, any passenger arriving on a platform by any of the included access points would be sheltered by the walkway serving platforms in the opposite direction. Elevators should go from each walkway to each platform still, which would facilitate transfers, but the workhorse escalators would spread the load among different walkways.


I’d originally thought that the walkways could host retail and food concessions. The calculation in the preceding section suggests that this wouldn’t be possible, unless the walkways are widened beyond the escalators, with concessions on the outside. Every meter of walkway width would be required for passenger circulation. Even information pamphlets might be restricted to the very edges of the walkways; train departure boards would have to be mounted in the air, for example on the support cables if the through-arch option were chosen for the walkways.

However, there is ample room directly beneath the escalators, staircases, and walkways. With the caveat that escalators of such length need an extra midway support point, they would still have a lot of space underneath: 15-16 meters with sufficient clearance for people to stand comfortably (say, at least 2.5 meters of clearance above); with the upper approaches and the walkways, this is 60-62 meters of largely unobstructed space, for a 60*10 space that could be used in almost any way. Even in the 5-6 meters with less clearance above to the escalator, it’d be possible to use the space at least partly – for example, for sitting, or for bathrooms, the minimum clearance is reduced (I’m writing this post from my apartment, where the ceilings slope down, and the ceiling height above my couch is about 1.5 meters).

There would be two such 60*10 spaces per platform, plus two smaller spaces, near 7th and 8th Avenues, depending on exact placement of access points to the subway. This gives us twelve 60*10 spaces. I doubt that they could ever host high-end concessions, such as full-service restaurants: passengers would probably not go out of their way, to a platform that they weren’t planning on using. This means newsstands could succeed, but not much else; food would have to be shunted to the streets, and presumably restaurants would pay extra to locate right outside the compound. In lieu of concessions, those spaces could host sundry uses, including additional circulation space, information pamphlets, busker performance space, waiting areas for passengers, public art displays, and waiting areas for train crew and cleaners.

Homeowner’s Bill of Rights to Preempt State and Local Zoning Laws

After weeks of fraught negotiation, House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) announced that both houses of Congress had reached agreement on passing the Homeowner’s Bill of Rights (HOBOR), which uses the preemption doctrine to abolish most local planning restrictions. President Obama announced that he would sign the bill, which includes several provisions pushed by urban environmentalists. While the majority of Republicans announced their intention to vote yes and the majority of Democrats announced they would vote no, HOBOR relies on cross-bench support, as several prominent Republican lawmakers identified with the Tea Party, including presidential hopefuls Senators Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), announced they would oppose the bill on the grounds of federal overreach.

Despite early environmentalist hopes that the bill would be narrowly targeted at suburban single-family zoning, HOBOR casts a wide net. It preempts any separation of residential, commercial, and industrial uses; maximum heights and floor area ratios; open space requirements; environmental restrictions including noise limits and endangered species protections; urban growth boundaries; parking minimums and maximums; single-family mandates; form-based codes; anti-McMansion ordinances and minimum lot sizes; affordable housing mandates; and setback requirements. It also requires the federal government to study privatizing federal land adjacent to urban areas and to consider the effects of growth controls on the housing market, a move that is expected to liberalize construction in the West. It does not preempt private deed restriction, despite an attempt by urban Democrats to ban it, but does ban cities from giving public incentives for it.

Boehner’s office released a statement, “The Homeowner’s Bill of Rights will prevent power grabs by special interests and by the federal government, and reduce the level of regulation in America’s cities.” Governor Greg Abbott (R-Texas), who recently proposed a similar law in Texas before Congress federalized the issue, credited Texas’s strong economy to loose zoning, and specifically praised Houston’s lack of zoning as an engine of economic growth.

On the Democratic side, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio offered tepid support for the bill, saying that he expected the increased pace of construction to create jobs and affordable housing in the city, but added that the city would maintain its rent stabilization program. New York housing advocates were involved in obtaining necessary bipartisan support for the bill, and the city’s all-Democratic Congressional delegation is planning to vote for it, with the exceptions of Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Joseph Crowley. Crowley said in a statement that “the city’s planning laws are a cornerstone of neighborhood protection, and it’s hypocritical that the Republican Party, which claims it supports states’ rights, uses the federal government’s power so blatantly when it suits its needs.”

In San Francisco, opponents took to the street, protesting in front of the office of Senator Dianne Feinstein, the most prominent Senate Democrat to support HOBOR, with signs saying “gentrification = violence” and “the developer’s bill of rights.” A group of protesters attacked a shuttle bus ready to leave for Silicon Valley; the leaders of the main group of the protesters disclaimed the attack, and blamed agents provocateurs, but added that destruction of property is different from violent crime and that to compare the two is itself a form of violence.

On the ideological right, reactions are mixed. National Review has written in favor of the bill, while Reason continues to reject it. Joel Kotkin has editorialized that the bill “paves the way toward high-rises that Americans continue to reject.” Tea Party support is split, but largely negative; several groups have vowed to sue, connecting Democratic support with Agenda 21, the UN position paper encouraging more urbanization and restrictions on suburban sprawl. Senator Ted Cruz threatened to filibuster the bill, and openly called for a constitutional challenge. In contrast, Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) plans to vote for the bill. In his statement, Rubio pointed to redevelopment in Miami as “affordable housing provided by the free market without government subsidies paid by tax money” and welcomed Democratic support.

All around the nation, municipalities, business groups, homeowners, landlords, and tenants are preparing for the entry of the bill into force, which is scheduled for this September 1st. New York, San Francisco, Houston, and Chicago have all already written draft planning laws designed to comply with HOBOR restrictions, but city planners are still debating how to adapt to a situation without zoning rules to shape urban growth.

Several real estate companies are planning new skyscrapers in central business districts of multiple cities. In Washington, The Related Companies is planning a 1,330 foot tall, 4.3 million square foot tower in Farragut. In New York, Harry Macklowe, Forest City Enterprises, and Durst Organization are all expected to race to develop the tallest skyscraper in the city, in the East Midtown area; real estate analysts speaking on background expect towers exceeding 2,000 feet in pinnacle height, to overtake One World Trade Center, but closer to 1,500 feet in roof height.

Outside city centers, development is slower, but analysts expect it to accelerate in the coming years. Facebook has already announced an expansion of its campus as well as the construction of apartment buildings in its home city of Menlo Park, California, as well as Atherton and Palo Alto, to house its growing workforce. However, when asked if this trend means less demand in San Francisco and less demand for tech shuttles, a senior Facebook human resources manager speaking on condition of anonymity said, “Most of our new hires still prefer to live in San Francisco, so we may end up seeing more commuters from the city, at the expense of the East Bay.”

Ultimately, analysts agree, it is difficult to gauge the long-term effect of HOBOR this early. However, as an early indication that there would be a move to established business districts, stocks of publicly-traded companies involved in purpose-made redevelopment districts, such as the Boston Seaport and New York’s Hudson Yards, are down by an average of 3% since Boehner announced that he had secured support for the bill, whereas those of other major developers have been sharply rising, by 2-15%. But when asked whether they will scale back their plans, officials in Boston have replied negatively, and have even suggested a $2 billion Silver Line expansion to serve the Seaport.

Height Limits: Still a Bad Idea

In a pair of recent articles on Strong Towns, Charles Marohn, best known in the urbanist community for introducing the term stroad (street+road) for a pedestrian-hostile arterial street, argues for height limits as a positive force for urbanism. He does not make the usual aesthetic argument that tall buildings are inherently unpleasant (“out of scale”), or the usual urbanist one that tall buildings lead to neighborhood decline; instead, he makes an economic argument that allowing tall buildings greatly raises land costs, and makes redevelopment of vacant lots less likely. He uses the following example:

Let’s say the local code allows [a] vacant lot to be developed as a one story strip mall, but nothing higher. If the strip mall is worth $500,000, then the vacant lot is going to be somewhere around $75,000.

Okay, but what if the development code allows that vacant lot to be developed as a sixteen story tower? If the tower is worth $20,000,000, then that vacant lot is going to fetch a much higher price, maybe as much $2.5 million.

You own that vacant lot. I come to you with an offer to buy it for $75,000. What are the odds you are going to sell it at that price when you look to the other side and see the same piece of property going for millions? Not very good.

In most cities, as Charles notes, there is not enough demand to redevelop every vacant lot as a high-rise, and therefore, if high-rises are permitted, a few vacant lots will be redeveloped as high-rises, while the rest remain vacant. This is not the case in large cities, which Charles specifically exempts in his article (see also Daniel Kay Hertz’s response), but part of the problem with the argument, as we will see, is that the boundary between large cities and small ones is fuzzy.

Let me now explain why this argument fails, like all the other arguments for zoning restrictions: it makes implicit assumptions on future uncertainty. The reason the vacant lot owners are not willing to sell for $75,000 is that they hope to get $2.5 million. In a stable market, with low enough population that most lots cannot fetch such a high price, the lot owners know that holding off on $75,000 offers is a gamble and that they are unlikely to ever get a higher offer. People have optimism bias and might overrate the probability that they’ll get the $2.5 million offer, but also have risk aversion; in most cases in economics, risk aversion dominates, so that safer assets cost more and have lower returns.

So when do we see holdouts? Risk aversion predicts that the probability of obtaining a $2.5 million offer should be higher than the total demand for new towers divided by the number of vacant lots. If we explicitly assume that the cost figures in Charles’ example, including land costs, are unchangeable, then this means vacant lot owners expect there to be more high-rise towers in the future, which comes out of growth regions. Charles’ example is based on Sarasota, which like most of Florida has high population growth.

The other possibility is regulatory uncertainty. In a competitive market, land costs are already as low as they can be while letting lot owners cash out on past investments. Developer profits are also as low as possible, and represent the developer’s wage for managerial work. However, zoning restrictions will greatly raise both figures, and a lot owner who expects future developments to brush up against the present zoning code can hold out until prices rise.

This is the danger of a system that is based on arbitrary rules (Charles proposes up to two floors or 1.5 times the average present height, whichever is higher), and arbitrary distinctions between small cities in which height restrictions are desirable and large cities in which they are not: these introduce political discretion in the details, which introduces additional uncertainty among lot owners. True windfalls usually involve the boundary between regulatory regimes, and this creates political incentive to game the system in order to be one of the few owners whose lots can be developed as high-rises. In contrast, once a ground rule is established that there is no zoning, such as in Houston, introducing zoning is difficult, even when there are rules that are zoning in all but name, such as parking minimums.

Once we get into the realm of cities with a large proportion of their lots developed, as Charles proposes, future development can only replace old development, and this introduces a key difference between new development and redevelopment: redevelopment requires buying out the preexisting property. If a two-floor building is replaced by a three-floor building, then the developer has to not only pay construction costs for three floors, but also buy out two floors, effectively paying for five floors. But the revenue is still only that of a three-floor building, which bids up effective costs by a factor of five thirds. The formula is that if it’s possible to multiply the total built-up area by a factor of x then the buy-out factor will raise the cost of each housing unit by a factor of 1 + 1/x.

This effect is why, in major cities, we usually see buildings replaced by much larger buildings: for example, a three- or four-floor Manhattan building may be replaced by a fifteen- or twenty-story tower on a base. Charles laments that this is not small-scale or incremental, but even his example of good incremental development is similar: in Houston, single-family houses are replaced by low-rise apartment buildings, generating similarly high ratios of the floor areas of redevelopments with the buildings they replaced. Incrementalism in these cases consists of replacing small buildings by much larger ones, gradually, until a few decades later the entire neighborhood is tall.

One way around redevelopment’s need to buy out preexisting buildings is to mandate that future buildings be built to allow adding floors on top of them. Chicago’s Blue Cross Blue Shield Tower is an example. This is a regulation that increases the average cost of construction but reduces the marginal cost and thus the price. It’s also a regulation that only really matters in situations when it is difficult to have a high ratio of new to old floor area, such as in areas that are already high-rise, especially major city CBDs. (It is easy to quintuple floor area ratio when the preexisting buildings have three floors, but not so much when they have twelve.) The current styles of construction of most small buildings, for example sloping roofs common in American and European urban and suburban houses, tend to make adding floors impossible. Of course, the implication that such a regulation should only apply for buildings above a certain height introduces political discretion and hence uncertainty, but at least this is uncertainty that would apply equally to all buildings in an area, which is not always the case for zoning.

What Charles proposes, to develop all vacant lots first and only then start going taller, is then a recipe for high marginal costs, because of the buyout factor. In a small city uniformly developed up to one or two floors, it is difficult to spread the new development across many buildings up to three floors, precisely because there is no way to build single-family houses that are recognizable as such to Americans or Europeans from countries I’ve been to (It’s different in Canada, but this is considered a feature of the low quality of Vancouver’s housing) and that can have floors added to them. In such an environment, building tall is the only way to avoid high housing costs.

The NITBY Problem

Usually, the barrier to new development in a neighborhood is NIMBYism: connected local community members do not want the project, saying “not in my backyard.” There’s a wealth of literature about NIMBYs’ role in restrictions on development; William Fischel’s work is a good start, and the short version is that opposition to development is local, based on fear of the risk of decline in property values. Urbanists take it for granted that decisions made with regard to regional rather than local concerns will be more pro-development: Let’s Go LA has examples from Los Angeles, and Stephen Smith explains Toronto and Tokyo’s lax rules on new development based on their high-level decisionmaking (at the provincial level in Ontario and national level in Japan). In this post, I would like to discuss the opposite problem, which I call NITBYism – “not in their backyard.”

In certain circumstances, opposition comes from people living in other areas, who are aghast that an area they don’t live in is getting so much investment. This is more likely to happen when there’s heavy public involvement in development, but, since upzoning an area is a public decision (as opposed to unthinkable across-the-board zoning abolition), opposition can sprout anytime. One common thread to NITBY opposition campaigns is that NITBYs view housing as a good thing, and want it redirected to their areas. Another is that they self-perceived as ignored by the urban elites; this is common to both right-wing populists and left-wing ones. Since the process is heavily public by assumption, the price signal telling developers to build in the center of the major city is irrelevant, and this encourages the government to build more low-value peripheral projects.

The first example of this is when the process actually is public: subsidized affordable housing. As discussed by Daniel Kay Hertz, in Chicago, affordable housing regulations require developers to pay a fee to a dedicated affordable housing fund, which then uses the money to develop or buy housing and rent it out at subsidized rates for moderate-income residents. To minimize the cost per affordable unit, the fund builds the units in the cheapest neighborhoods, i.e. the poorest ones, exacerbating housing segregation. As Payton Chung explains, the low-income housing community networks in Chicago support this arrangement, because they are based in the neighborhoods where this affordable housing is built. This is not as self-serving as the examples I will include below, since the community groups want to see the most number of housing units built at a given cost; but a common feature of NITBYism, namely that the NITBYs view housing as a good rather than as a burden imposed by outsiders, is present here.

In Israel, NITBYism does not have the cost defense that it does in Chicago. Zoning in Israel is prepared by municipalities but must get approved by the state. This means that it is geared not only toward providing services to Israelis (such as cheap and orderly housing) but also toward national goals of Judaization. The worst NITBYism is not affecting Tel Aviv, but Arab cities, where the state refuses to approve zoning plans; since independence, not a single new Arab city has been built, except to house Bedouins who the state expelled from their villages after independence, and plans to build the first new Arab city are controversial on segregation grounds. This is while the state has built many new Jewish cities from scratch, often in peripheral areas in order to ensure a Jewish majority.

However, NITBYism afflicts housing in Tel Aviv, too. Although the state could if it wanted declare a housing emergency and force upzoning in Tel Aviv, it does not. There are few permits for new apartments in the Tel Aviv District (though more new housing sales): only 5% of the national total (including settlements), as per the pie chart on page 17 of the Ministry of Construction and Housing’s report and the more complete (in English) data on page 49, compared with a national population share of 16%; the Center District, consisting of Tel Aviv suburbs (though not the richest and most expensive, such as Ramat HaSharon, which are in the Tel Aviv District), has 22% of national permits, about the same as its share of the national population. This is not just NIMBYism in Tel Aviv, although that exists in abundance. Local politicians from peripheral towns demand local construction, and view Tel Aviv construction as something useful only to outsiders, such as foreign speculators or the urban elite. During the housing protests of 2011, there was widespread debate on the left about what solutions to offer, and people representing the ethnic and geographic periphery were adamant that the state build and preserve public housing in peripheral towns and not concentrate on Tel Aviv, which they identified with the secular Ashkenazi elite. A common thread in housing and infrastructure debates to both working-class Jews from the periphery and Arabs is the demand for a policy that would create jobs and housing in their hometowns, rather than build infrastructure that would put them in the Tel Aviv orbit.

Of the above examples, in Chicago the NITBYs self-identify as leftists, and in Israel, the NITBYs who want local housing rather than Tel Aviv housing either identify as leftists or identify as economic leftists and support the right on security and ethnic identity issues. However, the populist right is not immune from this. Right-wing supporters of suburbs who oppose cities for what they represent (diversity, usually left-wing politics of the kind they associate with the liberal elite) may also oppose urban upzoning. The best example of this kind is Joel Kotkin’s opposition to upzoning in Hollywood, which sounds like a criticism of government projects until one realizes that upzoning simply means developers are permitted to build more densely if they’d like. Now, Kotkin is pro-immigration, setting him apart from the main of right-wing populism, but in all other aspects, his paranoid fear of urban liberal elites imposing behavioral controls on ordinary people would be right at home at the UK Independence Party and its mainland European equivalents. Kotkin is also just one person, but his views mirror those of Tea Party activists who equate dense urbanism with an Agenda 21 conspiracy, to the point of conflating a phrase that means building new suburbs with a plan to forcibly relocate suburbanites to central cities.

I do not know Japan’s regional patterns of politics well, but I know Ontario’s. In Ontario, there is not much us-and-them politics regarding Toronto. There is such politics regarding the inner parts of Toronto – Rob Ford was elected on the heels of an outer-urban populist backlash to David Miller’s urbanism, including the perception that Miller was fighting a war on cars. But there’s none of the hatred of the central city and all that it represents that typifies politics in both Israel and the US. Hatred of the city in the US is right-wing (though within the city, hatred of the gentrified core is often tied to left-wing anti-gentrification activism), and hatred of Tel Aviv in Israel is generically populist, but in both cases, the us-and-them aspect encourages NITBYism.

In the most expensive American cities, this is not a major problem. Anti-urban populism does not have enough votes to win in New York and California, so state control of zoning in those states would not produce these problems. The Tea Party disruption of zoning meeting I brought up above happened in San Francisco suburbs, but did not have an effect on planning; I brought this example up to show that this political force exists, even if in that specific locality it is powerlessly weak. In those areas, local NIMBYism is a much bigger problem: many New York neighborhoods were actually downzoned in the Bloomberg era by local request. The primary problems that would plague state-level decisionmaking are corruption and power brokering, in which politicians hold even straightforward rule revisions hostage to their local pet projects. The us-and-them politics of Upstate and Downstate New York contributes heavily to power brokering, but Downstate’s demographic dominance precludes ideological choking of development.

Within the US, the risks of NITBYism are different. First, in the cost tier just below that of New York and California there are city regions in more moderate states, for examples Philadelphia and the Virginia suburbs of Washington, or possibly Miami (where the county-made rules have allowed aggressive new construction, mostly urban, which Stephen Smith credits to the political power of Cuban immigrants). And second, zooming in on different neighborhoods within each expensive city, the Chicago example suggests that if New York and other expensive cities begin a major program of public housing construction, the community organizations and the populists will demand to spread construction across many neighborhoods, especially poor ones, and not in the neighborhoods where there is the most demand.

As I noted two posts ago, there is a political economy problem, coming from the fact that the politically palatable amounts of construction are not transformative enough to let the working class live in market-rate city-center apartments, not in high-income major cities. Israel could semi-plausibly double the Tel Aviv housing stock; even that requires housing forms that Israelis associate with poverty, such as buildings that touch, without side setbacks. This would allow many more people to live in Tel Aviv, but they’d be drawn from the middle class, which is being priced out to middle-class suburbs or to working-class suburbs that it gentrifies. The working class in the periphery would be able to move into these closer-in suburbs, but this cascading process is not obvious. Worse, from the point of view of community leaders, it disrupts the community: it involves a churn of people moving, which means they end up in a different municipal fief, one with leadership the current suburb’s leaders may be hostile to.

For essentially the same reasons, subsidized housing in the center produces the same problems. If Israel builds a massive number of subsidized or rent-regulated apartments in Tel Aviv, there will be immense nationwide demand for them. Few would serve the residents of a given peripheral suburb, and there is no guarantee anyone would get them. On the contrary, in such a plan, priority is likely to go to downwardly-mobile children of established residents. At the 2011 protests, the people who were most supportive of plans to lower rents in Tel Aviv specifically were people from Tel Aviv or high-income suburbs who wanted to be able to keep living in the area. The community disruption effect of offering people the ability to live where they’d want would still be there. Thus, all the incentives line up behind periphery community leader support for building public housing in the periphery, where there is little demand for it, and not in the center. Even when housing is universally seen as a benefit and there’s no NIMBYism, politics dictates that housing is built in rough proportion to current population (since that’s where political power comes from) and not future demand.

Abolishing zoning is one way to cut this Gordian knot; it is also completely unpalatable to nearly everyone who is enfranchised in a given area. Allowing more private construction is the more acceptable alternative, but leads to the same problems, only on a smaller scale. It really is easier for community leaders to twist arms to demand veto rights and local resident priority than to push for sufficient citywide upzoning to alleviate the price pressure. But in an environment with weak NIMBYs and few NITBYs, fast growth in urban housing is possible.