A Patreon poll in April asked about political blogging, offering three options: policy certainty in housing, process for the sake of process, and lawsuits and corruption of process. The second option won.
The year is about 2008. A wee grad student and former political blogger in New York is getting interested in transportation policy, and through past connections to political bloggers gets acquainted with a progressive local thinktank called Drum Major Institute, which advocates for all the right priorities of the center-left. One of these priorities is densification and urban growth. The relevant DMI fellow talks about the need to upzone in the city to permit smart growth. The wee grad student asks, why even have zoning at all? Why not let developers build to any density they’d like? The DMI fellow says that zoning is necessary in order to permit planners to have control over where development goes, and doesn’t explain what this control is useful for in the first place.
Fast forward to this decade. Cities install infrastructure for livable streets. Bikeshare revolutionizes cycling, first via the docked systems of Paris, Wuhan, and Hangzhou, and subsequently via the dockless systems developed in the largest Chinese cities. Simultaneously, all over the developed world cities reallocate space away from cars, whether it’s via bus lanes, bike lanes, wider sidewalks, or freeway removal. This trend has generally earned the support of people who support livable streets or are generally progressive. There may be individual pieces of criticism: for example, East Harlem railed against New York’s original decision not to extend bike lanes on First and Second Avenues to its community, and thankfully the city listened after a few years and did extend them. But these criticisms tend to be specific to one issue and constructive.
But then there are the NIMBYs, whose rallying cry is “they didn’t ask us.” In San Francisco, the Mission left-wing community activist group Calle 24 attacked the city for extending bikeshare to the Mission, on grounds that include gentrification but also the process line: “we weren’t consulted.”
There are many defenses of process that do justify its importance. I interviewed Aaron Ritz and Waffiyah Murray at Indego, Philadelphia’s publicly-run docked bikeshare system, which has somewhat better reach to low-income and black residents than systems like Chicago’s Divvy and Washington’s Capital Bikeshare. They gave me concrete examples of how Indego’s community outreach was helpful: it gave the planners tips on the best station siting (e.g. where the community centers are) as well as on different ways different socioeconomic groups use bikeshare (e.g. black Philadelphians are likelier to think of cycling as fun rather than transportation and thus prefer station locations near recreational trails).
But simultaneously there are defenses of process for its own sake. Zoning is the biggest example: the actually useful aspects of urban zoning are so few and far between, and so disconnected from current practice, that there is no coherent defense of the existence of zoning boards. The common arguments used by neighborhood groups (overdevelopment, infrastructure, gentrification, etc.) range from manifestly false to manifestly selfish (property values).
On various YIMBY message boards, there has been a discussion of an alternative zoning code to standard low-density zoning. People discussed form-based codes or transit-oriented development regimes like that of SB 827 in California, and as a first stab I proposed the following at Open New York:
1. Land is residential, commercial, or industrial. Industrial gets set by regional or statewide commission taking into account manufacturing jobs, prevailing winds, etc., and is distinguished in having looser pollution controls. Residential is allowed in commercial zones by right; doctors’ offices, lawyers’ offices, and other independent personal services are allowed in residential areas, as are hotels.
2. Retail is allowed in all commercial zones. Office is allowed in commercial zones that are specifically for office.
3. Commercial zones are allowed to encroach on adjacent residential land: residential land within a certain distance from majority-commercial uses gets automatically reclassified as commercial, and if the commercial uses are mostly offices then the land gets reclassified as office and not just retail.
4. Density is regulated based on distance from high-quality transit, which for the purposes of this discussion does not include buses that run every 15 minutes. The lowest category is not single-family and doesn’t have parking minimums, but allows around floor area ratio 1. The highest one has residential FAR 12, the maximum allowed by New York State, and is within very short distance from rapid transit (say, 500 meters intra muros, 200 extra muros). Everything within a kilometer of a train station is at least FAR 4.
I got “but what about ___?” responses re parking and what New York calls a sky exposure plane. This is a YIMBY group, and even there some people were uncomfortable that a proposed code was not exact enough so as to say exactly who is allowed to do what, instead going for the principle that what’s not forbidden is permitted. Even this attempt at a compromise didn’t win much support (what I actually believe is that if urban land is developable based on scientific understanding of environmental protection it should be developable for any purpose and at any density its owner sees fit).
Outside the YIMBY world, the pushback against such a loose code would be severe, because it would not offer local activists the control over their neighbors’ lives that they crave. San Francisco’s affordable housing community was against SB 827, partly because of misguided fears of gentrification, but also partly because the byzantine process in the city allows community groups to extort benefits by threatening to withhold project approval. In comments on my post about free trade in rolling stock, Adam points out that the California Environmental Quality Act was so weaponized by unions, who demanded that a new plant be unionized as a condition for dropping an environmental lawsuit. When corrupt local groups benefit from the ad hoc nature of the process, they will defend it for its own sake, regardless of whether it achieves its stated purpose (affordable housing, environmental protection, etc.).
But corruption alone can’t explain why outside groups like DMI think zoning is valuable for its own sake. My suspicion is that this is ideological: every regulation must have some purpose, so while revising regulations is fine, getting rid of them entirely reeks of free market libertarianism. Since the right attacks the civil service as bloated and parasitic, the left and center-left reflexively defend the civil service no matter what and, by extension, justify its mission. This pattern flips when it comes to the police, but that’s a narrow issue of criminal justice equality, not even affecting the fire department, which is socially similar to the police but gets no hate from the left. A regulator who decides who gets to build what and where does not have the reputation of a brutal cop or border control agent, and can expect sympathy for the left even if the zoning mission serves no useful purpose and creates problems for left-wing goals of affordable housing.
YIMBY is a movement that calls for liberalizing land use in order to produce more housing. However, its take on non-residential development is more complicated. I’d always assumed that San Francisco YIMBY was not calling for more commercial development because the Bay Area already builds a lot of office space because of California’s tax incentives, which let municipalities raise taxes on sales but not residential property; however, as a check on this hypothesis I asked YIMBYs in New York, but they too said that office upzoning wasn’t really a priority and only cited mixed projects to me. This approach is usually harmless, but in a few places it creates serious long-term problems, and one of them is the center of SF YIMBY, the South of Market (“SoMa”) area, and the reason is commercialization of near-CBD neighborhoods.
A few months ago I wrote about job sprawl in the US vs. in Europe. In Europe, hostility to high-rise office buildings in most historic city centers has caused jobs to spread to neighborhoods near the CBD, often in the direction of the favored quarter; in the US, CBDs have office towers, but everything right outside them is usually strictly zoned, so jobs sprawl to suburban office parks. Both situations have a number of exceptions (e.g. Kista and La Defense are both examples of high-rise edge cities independent of the CBDs, while Kendall Square and Back Bay are contiguous extensions of the Boston CBD), but for the most part they apply in their respective areas.
In the same way that on a wider scale building more housing in New York and San Francisco would reduce the demand for housing in the places to which these cities’ working and lower middle classes have been pushed out, building more office space in city centers would reduce the demand for suburban office parks. Permitting jobs to move back from suburban edge and edgeless cities to city centers is a good thing, both for urbanism and for transit: for urbanism, the CBD is accessible from all directions (which is why it’s so valuable to begin with), and for transit, congested CBDs tend to maintain decent transit mode shares even in otherwise completely auto-dominated cities.
The political problem is that this requires replacing residential development with commercial development. It’s questionable but possible in European zoning regimes. In the US it’s harder, for several reasons:
- Near-CBD neighborhoods are as far as I can tell never middle or lower middle class. They’re either very poor (though by now they’ve all been urban-renewed) or rich. The greater extent of local empowerment in the US makes it harder to permit office development in rich areas over NIMBY objections.
- American residential zoning is stricter than at least German residential zoning, and as far as I can tell is also stricter than French residential zoning, in that it permits no commercial uses at all, except ground-floor retail on main streets. In particular, doctors, lawyers, and accountants’ offices must go in designated commercial zones in the US.
- American cities are more likely to have low-density neighborhoods in desirable near-downtown areas (for example, Georgetown) and defend their character fiercely through single-family zoning.
While all three factors seem important, the biggest examples of American near-CBD NIMBYism trigger only the first factor. In New York, the main example right now is the Meatpacking District, where there is extensive commercial demand (Google is located there and so do some other tech firms), which already has fairly high residential density, but the residents are rich homeowners who have successfully fought off attempts to build more office space. Historically, Midtown arose this way – rich areas around Fifth Avenue commercialized until the city’s 1916 zoning code put a stop to the practice.
And this brings me back to this post’s motivating example – SoMa. Located right next to the Financial District, with equally good access as the Financial District to the BART and Muni subway spine on Market Street, and better access to Caltrain’s 4th and King terminal, SoMa is a prime target for commercialization. Unfortunately, SF YIMBY opposes this process, saying the city’s zoning plan should add housing there and not office space. The argument is that permitting mostly office space in SoMa would create more demand for housing elsewhere in the Bay Area, exporting San Francisco’s high rents to Oakland and other East Bay cities. Unwittingly, SF YIMBY has turned into a NIMBY group when it comes to the highest and best use in the neighborhood in which it is the strongest.
To SF YIMBY’s credit, it recognizes the similarity between today’s tech workers (who form the vanguard of YIMBY) and last generation’s (who bought houses when they were cheaper than today and form one of several vanguards of area NIMBYism) and is pursuing preemption laws that reduce its own ability to object to growth. But, as preemption is not yet the law, SF YIMBY is opposed to commercialization in its own back yard.
The more specific argument SF YIMBY uses is about jobs-to-bedrooms ratio. Per YIMBY, zoning should have a maximum jobs-to-bedrooms ratio within a neighborhood or city, to prevent creating too much housing demand in other Bay Area cities. Right now, the Proposition 13 regime is such that municipalities derive tax revenues from commercial development but not so much residential development, and so they favor office space. But in reality, the only jobs-to-employed-residents ratio that’s sustainable this way is 1, a ratio that’s far too low for a city that has suburbs, let alone a central neighborhood such as SoMa. The consensus SF YIMBY proposes – an even balance between residential and commercial development everywhere, achieved through preference for housing in areas that are net recipients of inbound commuters – is thus untenable in a major metro area.
The proposed SF YIMBY consensus also does nothing to unseat the current consensus in favor of sprawl. Contrary to the narrative of selfish suburbs that add office space but no housing, the Silicon Valley suburbs are fiercely NIMBY toward high-density office development. Google could never hope to build a supertall skyscraper on top of Mountain View’s train station; it can’t even get permission to build a bridge to let the Googleplex expand to a nearby office park.
The selfish suburbs’ preference is not just office but also sprawl, and blocking commercial development in San Francisco increases sprawl in two distinct ways. First, the tech companies that would like to expand in SoMa – Uber, Slack, Airbnb, and so on – would, if not permitted to build more office space, open more back offices in sprawling areas, in or outside the Bay Area. And second, office development in the suburbs is only accessible to people from one wedge of the metro area, which encourages people to move to exurbs on the outer side, for example Gilroy for development in San Jose.
To counteract the tendency of hyperlocal planning to produce sprawl and replace the single-family housing consensus, the consensus YIMBY should seek is not about managing office-to-residential space ratios, but about letting places densify in whatever ways the market deems to have the highest and best use. In a high-demand place like San Francisco or New York, this means a consensus in favor of a bigger, faster-growing city, using its high productivity to add more people, offices, and apartments, rather than to increase the property values of the incumbents. Plan for long-term growth and long-term changes in zoning rules and don’t play the demand suppression game that NIMBYs love.
I recently saw an article about location decisions by education in the Netherlands. The article discusses the impact of rail investment on different social classes, and claims that,
A recent study by Teulings et al. (2018) uses microdata to quantify the differences in the willingness to pay for particular locations between the high and low educated (omitting the medium education level) (Figure 2). It shows willingness to pay for the job availability (based on the locally available transport infrastructure to commute to these jobs) and urban amenities such as parks and historic scenery at the location. The highly educated (right panel) are very sensitive to the quality of a location.
The claim is that educated people prefer central cities, in this case Amsterdam, because of their consumption amenities. This is the consumption theory of gentrification, which holds that the process of gentrification is caused by a middle-class taste for urban amenities. However, this theory appears incorrect, on several levels. The references cited in the paper for location decisions do not really bear out consumption theory. Moreover, the history of gentrification strongly suggests that, if consumption amenities are at all involved, then they have been stable for at least a hundred years.
Instead of consumption theory, the best explanation is that location decisions are about jobs. Certain cities have higher production amenities, especially for the middle class, leading the middle class to preferentially move to them to obtain higher-income jobs. The choice of neighborhood is then driven by access to skilled jobs, usually in the CBD but sometimes also in new job clusters. If there’s gentrification, the cause is insufficient housing in closer-in areas, leading to spillover to adjacent neighborhoods.
The internal reference cited for it in the paper, the work of Coen Teulings, Ioulia Ossokina, and Henri de Groot, breaks down willingness to pay higher rents in expensive cities (i.e. Amsterdam) based on job access and several consumption amenities. The paper’s headline numbers superficially bear out consumption theory: table 7 on page 23 says that job availability is only responsible for 38% of low-education people’s variance in willingness to live in expensive cities and 28% of high-education people’s variance; the rest comes from amenities. However, a closer reading suggests that this is not really about consumption amenities.
First, that 28% of middle-class location choice comes from job access does not mean 72% comes from amenities. Observed consumption amenities are only 18% (and only 14% for low-education workers); the rest is unobserved amenities (30%), which are a residual rather than any identified amenities, and covariances between jobs and amenities.
Moreover, the consumption amenities listed are proximity to restaurants, monuments, parks, and a university. Is a university really a consumption amenity for the middle class? This is unlikely. Graduates don’t really have the same consumption basket as students. Instead, what’s more likely is that universities provide skilled employment for a particular set of high-education workers (namely, academics and other researchers), who are willing to pay extra to be near work; academic job markets are so specialized that access to non-academic high-education work isn’t as important. Of course, universities also have extensive working-class employment, but a university janitor can get a similar job at a non-academic environment, and therefore has no reason to locate specifically near a university rather than another source of work, such as a hospital or office building.
Finally, there is a second reference in the article, reinforcing its claims about location decisions with American data. This is a paper by David Albouy, Gabriel Ehrlich, and Yingyi Liu. Albouy, Ehrlich, and Liu’s text does not endorse consumption theory – on the contrary, their discussion blames “policies and regulations that raise rents by creating artificial shortages in housing supply” (pp. 28-29). On the question of consumption theory, the results of the study are inconclusive. They do not look directly at amenities that critics of gentrification typically implicate in causing the middle class to displace the poor; the amenities they consider include mild climate, clean air, and a sea view.
The history of gentrification
The word “gentrification” was coined in 1964 to describe the process in Islington. However, Stephen Smith has argued from looking at historical rents that the process goes much further back. He finds evidence of gentrification in Greenwich Village in the 1910s and 20s. Already then, the middle class was beginning to move into the Village, previously a working-class district. Jane Jacobs moved in in 1935. She was income-poor, as were many other people in the Depression, but on any marker of class, she was solidly comfortable: her father was a doctor, she herself was a high school graduate and had some college education at a time when most Americans had never gone to high school, and her job was in journalism, at the time a middle-class career path.
In the 1950s and 60s, this process continued in full swing, in the Village and other inner neighborhoods of New York, such as the Upper West Side, which unlike the Upper East Side was originally rowdy (West Side Story is set there). Developers were building taller buildings, to Jacobs’ consternation, to house the growing middle-class demand.
I focus on early gentrification in New York and not London, because in this era, the American middle class was fleeing cities. In the 1950s New York was poorer than its suburbs. The wealthiest strata of the city had decamped to Westchester and Fairfield Counties starting in the 1910s and 20s (in 1930 Westchester had 520,000 people, more than half of today’s level, and more than Long Island). Then in the 1950s and 60s this process spread to the entire white middle class, causing a population surge on Long Island, in New Jersey, and in the parts of Westchester and Fairfield that the rich hadn’t already settled in. Moreover, companies were moving out of city centers, often to be closer to the CEO’s home, including General Electric (which moved to the town of Fairfield in 1974) and IBM (which moved to Armonk in 1964). Middle-class taste at the time was firmly suburban.
A better explanation for the early history of gentrification in New York concerns the subway. Before the subway opened, the working class had to live right next to the Lower Manhattan CBD and commute on foot. The els did provide some options for living farther uptown, but they were slow and noisy (they were only electrified around the time the subway opened) and until the early 20th century the working class could not afford the 5-cent fare. This led to extreme levels of overcrowding just outside the CBD, most infamously on the Lower East Side. In 1900, most of Manhattan was open to the middle class but only the Lower East and West Sides were open to the working class. By 1920, the fast subway and the 5-cent fare (held down despite post-WW1 inflation) made all of Manhattan open to everyone, making it easier for the middle class to outbid the poor for housing in the Village.
The paper cited at the beginning of this post does not profess consumption theory; it claims that both production and consumption amenities explain gentrification. However, the actual work within the paper leans heavily toward production. It looks at the effect of opening a new rail line from the suburbs to Amsterdam, and finds that this leads to middle-class displacement of lower-education residents, who have less use for the train service. This is also consistent with what working-class residents of some Parisian banlieues think: a newspaper article I can no longer find cites people within Seine-Saint-Denis complaining that all Grand Paris Express will do is raise their rents.
In addition to being more consistent with Dutch and American evidence and American history, production theory benefits from not relying on special local explanations for a global trend. A process that began at similar development levels in the US and Western Europe is unlikely to be about American race relations. Even Tokyo is seeing gentrification in the sense that industrial waterfront areas are redeveloped, if not in the sense of mass displacement seen in New York, London, and other cities with stricter zoning.
There is no burning middle-class desire to live near poor people – quite the opposite, in fact. When the middle class does begin gentrifying a neighborhood, it’s because it offers convenient access to jobs. The same is true on the level of an entire city: San Francisco did not magically become a nicer place to live in when the current tech boom began – if anything, rising rents have led to a homelessness problem, which makes professional workers uncomfortable. A city that wishes to forestall gentrification will make it easy to build housing in the areas with the best job access, in order to encourage people to have short commutes rather than seeking increasingly marginal neighborhoods to move to.
Most of my thinking about public transit comes from large, dense cities, especially New York. In those cities, transit ridership is not a problem; only cost is. When such cities have decent cost control, they can build massive expansion programs, as Paris is. But most of the developed world is not New York, Paris, London, Tokyo, or other transit cities. A large and (thanks to differential national population growth rates) growing share of the developed world lives in fast-growing, low-density city regions with no public transit to speak of, such as the American Sunbelt and its counterparts in Canada and Australia.
I’ve had to intellectually grapple with public transit in two American Sunbelt cities in which current transit usage is a rounding error and the built form is wholly auto-oriented: Orlando (which I was asked about by a Twitter mutual) and Nashville (which just voted against a flawed light rail plan by an overwhelming margin). In those areas, there is no chance for any public transit, provided the urban form stays as it is – but fortunately such cities can leverage their high growth rates to change their urban form, as Calgary did in the 1980s and 90s.
Density versus growth
A few months ago I made this chart:
The density and growth demand axes are not meant to come from a single quantitative metric; density is a subjective mix of residential and job density, whereas growth demand refers to either population growth or the demand for more housing as expressed by price signal. In San Francisco, most likely the richest metro area in the world, density is middling, and growth demand is higher than even in New York and London; in the American Rust Belt, density is fairly low and there is also little demand for more; in some cities on the margin of the first world there is little demand for more growth but high preexisting density. It goes without saying that it’s easier to build new rapid transit lines on the upper right corner than on the lower left one.
The situation of the American Sunbelt, most of which goes in the bubble of Texas and Georgia, is difficult. Residential density is extremely low, so the ridership base near potential rail lines is low. Moreover, streets are usually designed exclusively around auto use, so passengers are unlikely to walk a kilometer to the train station the way they routinely do in transit cities. At the destination end, things aren’t much better – American cities have high-rise CBDs, but few jobs locate there or in surrounding dense neighborhoods.
The Orlando CBD has about 80,000 jobs, in a metro area of 2.5 million people. Disney World adds another 37,000, but is not surrounded by any serviceable residential neighborhoods, and has to be at the end of any reasonable transit service coming from the CBD. Nashville, a metro area of nearly 2 million, has a CBD with 36,000 jobs. The medical center to the southwest adds another 33,000, and this time it could plausibly lie on a rail trunk, but most of the useful urban arterials converge on the CBD and not on the medical center. In contrast, Washington, with 5.5 million people, has 280,000 people working at the CBD (from the Green and Yellow Lines to just beyond Dupont Circle and Foggy Bottom), 77,000 in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, and 33,000 in Crystal City and at National Airport and the Pentagon. Both the percentages and the absolute numbers (including job density) count: there is a great mass of people who would be interested in taking rail to Washington CBD jobs but not to Orlando or Nashville CBD jobs.
Can regional rail work?
High-growth areas are likely to have been small a few decades ago. For the most part the metro areas in question were too small in the heyday of rail transportation to have inherited a large legacy rail network. Even the ones that did, including Atlanta and Perth, have less legacy rail than older cities of comparable size – compare Atlanta with Philadelphia, or Perth with Brisbane. And most North American boomtowns are not Atlanta. Miami has two north-south mainlines and a handful of east-west connections, none at the right place for commuter rail. Orlando has a north-south trunk with a branch to the north, and Nashville a few branches, but they’re surrounded by industrial land use and not by the sort of suburbs that developed around commuter rail in the Northeast.
A commuter rail-based network can still work, but only with extensive greenfield lines. Disney World is not on any legacy rail line, because it developed long after rail stopped being a relevant mode of transportation outside large urban areas. But even then, gaps in coverage are unavoidable, as the dense neighborhoods of such cities did not develop around legacy rail.
Can transit-oriented development work?
The big question about TOD is, who is it for? In Nashville specifically, the far left opposed the light rail plan, essentially because it would cannibalize funding that could go to public housing. Now, public housing could be used to beef up density along rail corridors. Stockholm built public housing simultaneously with the subway, placing housing projects on top of rail branches, and as a result has per capita ridership today that’s not much lower than the level of Paris, Berlin, or Munich.
The problem is that public housing is horrendously expensive. A house in low-cost American cities costs around $150,000, but apartments cost more, so $200,000 per household is more likely even with some economies about size. Most of this cost is impossible to recover through rent – if low-income households made enough money to pay market rent in nice apartments, they’d just rent these apartments on the open market. The American Sunbelt does not lack for developable suburban land.
Market-rate housing is much easier to construct – for one, developers make a profit on it, and so are eager to put up their own money. The problem is that in cities like Nashville and Orlando, the middle class has close to 100% car ownership, and a large majority of households have one car per adult. The real estate industry is not going to spontaneously build housing with less parking or pedestrian-oriented retail.
In San Diego, developers build more parking than the minimum at University Avenue and 30th Street, according to Duncan McFetridge of the Cleveland National Forest Foundation. University is a bus corridor and not a light rail corridor, but the bus frequency there isn’t terrible, and the area is pretty walkable for a low-density city. In Los Angeles, I’ve read analysis that blames the region’s falling transit ridership on gentrification, explaining that in gentrifying inner neighborhoods like Boyle Heights, the middle class drives whereas the working class takes transit. It’s not like here or in New York, where recent gentrifiers rarely own cars.
How did Calgary make it work?
Calgary is a metro area of somewhat more than a million people. Its economy is based on oil, and when oil prices were higher earlier this decade its average income was comparable to that of San Francisco; its politics is thoroughly conservative, which means there is no progressive impetus for walkability or green transit. Nonetheless, it built light rail lines that get about 100 million annual riders today. Its transit mode share is 16%, higher than that of any American metro area except New York (or, in the most restrictive definition, San Francisco). This is with no residential TOD to speak of: the vast majority of housing in Calgary is single-family and low-density, and from what I’ve seen there’s almost no dense residential development near the stations.
The big thing Calgary did was develop its CBD to be high-rise. In the early 1980s Calgary was a small, monocentric city, and since then it’s grown more monocentric, developing downtown parking lots as high-rise buildings. When I visited it had a more prominent high-rise downtown than Providence, a bigger and older metro area, and walking between the high-rises was reasonably pleasant.
In low-density cities with demand for more growth, the best opportunity appears to be centralizing jobs in the CBD. The straightforward application involves developing parking lots, as in Calgary, and relying on the private market to do the rest of the job. In both Nashville and Orlando, there are also more proactive approaches, specific to their urban layouts. In Nashville, the high job density at the medical center calls for developing a continuous corridor from the CBD, about 3 km long. This corridor could plausibly get an east-west subway, in contrast with the north-south subway in the rejected light rail plan. In Orlando, the Disney World cluster calls for some residential upzoning and sprawl repair around that area, which would strengthen the case for building a rail line between that area and the CBD.
Growing cities can use their growth to support more auto-oriented development (as the big American cities did in the postwar era) or to support more public transit. This is understood in cities that already have a transit-oriented core, but it’s equally true in cities that don’t really have any public transit, like the entire American Sunbelt. Calgary, starting with very low population, managed to build a decent if not great public transit network centered on its light rail system, and the same should be doable in American cities of comparable size and age.
There are workplaces where most employees are high-income, for example office towers (or office parks) hosting tech firms, law firms, or banks. There are workplaces where most employees are working-class, for example factories, warehouses, and farms. Does this lead to a difference in commuting patterns by class? I fired up OnTheMap two days ago and investigated. This is American data, so it stratifies workers by income, education, industry, or race rather than by job class. I generated maps for New York and saw the following:
There are three income classes available, and I looked at the bottom and top ones, but the middle one, still skewed toward the working class, looks the same as the bottom class. The biggest observation is that Midtown is dominant regardless of income, but is more dominant for middle-class workers (more than $40,000 a year) than for low-income ones (up to $15,000, or for that matter $15,000-40,000).
The colors are relative, and the deepest shade of blue represents much more density for middle-class workers, even taking into account the fact that they outnumber under-$15,000 workers almost four to one. Among the lowest-income workers we see more work on Queens Boulevard and in Williamsburg, Flushing, and the Hub, but these remain tertiary workplaces at most. The only place outside Midtown, Lower Manhattan, or Downtown Brooklyn (which includes all city workers in Brooklyn due to how the tool works, so it looks denser than it is) that has even the third out of five colors for low-income workers is Columbia, where the low-income job density is one-third that of Midtown, and where there is also a concentration of middle-class workers.
The same pattern – job centers are basically the same, but there’s more concentration within the CBD for the rich – also appears if we look at individual neighborhoods. Here is the Upper East Side versus East Harlem:
I chose these two neighborhoods to compare because they exhibit very large differences in average income and are on the same subway line. Potentially there could be a difference between where East Siders and West Siders work due to the difficulty of crosstown commuting, so I thought it would be best to compare different socioeconomic classes of people on the same line. With the East Side-only restriction, we see two Uptown job centers eclipse Columbia: Weill-Cornell Medical Center in Lenox Hill at the southeast corner of the Upper East Side, and Mount Sinai Hospital at the northwest corner.
One place where there is a bigger difference is the definition of Midtown. Looking at the general job distribution I’d always defined Midtown to range between 34th and 59th Street. However, there are noticeable differences by income:
For the middle class, Midtown ranges from 34th to 57th Street and peaks around 47th. For the lowest-income workers, it ranges from 28th to 49th and peaks in the high 30s. My best explanation for this is that Midtown South and Union Square are more retail hubs than office hubs, featuring department stores and shopping centers, where the rich spend money rather than earning it.
In a deindustrialized country like the US or France, the working class no longer works in manufacturing or logistics. There are a lot of truck drivers today – 3.5 million in the US – but in 1920 the American railroad industry peaked at 2.1 million employees (source, PDF-p. 15), nine times today’s total, in a country with one third the population it has today and much less mobility. Manufacturing has plummeted as a share of employment, and is decreasing even in industrial exporters like Germany and Sweden. Instead, most poor people work at places that also employ many high-skill, high-income workers, such as hospitals and universities, or at places where they serve high-income consumption, such as retail and airports.
Since the working class works right next to the middle class, the nature of bosses’ demands of workers has also changed. Low-skill works now involves far more emotional labor; in Singapore, which makes the modern-day boss-worker relationships more explicit than the Anglosphere proper, there are signs all over the airport reminding workers to smile more. Nobody cares if auto workers smile, but they’re no longer a large fraction of the working class.
With the working class employed right next to the middle class, there is also less difference in commuting. For the most part, the same transportation services that serve middle-class jobs also serve working-class jobs and vice versa. This remains true even across racially segregated communities. The patterns of white New York employment are similar to those of middle-class New York employment, and those of black, Hispanic, and Asian employment are similar to those of the working class, with small differences (Asians are somewhat more concentrated in Flushing, and blacks in Downtown Brooklyn, reflecting the fact that blacks are overrepresented in public employment in the US and all city workers in Brooklyn are counted at Court Square).
This is true provided that opportunities for transportation are available without class segregation. This is not the situation in New York today. Commuter rail actually serves working-class jobs better than middle-class jobs, since Penn Station is closer to the department stores of 34th Street than to the office towers in the 50s. However, it’s priced for the middle class, forcing the working class to take slower buses and subway trains.
When I posted the above maps on Twitter, Stephen Smith chimed in saying that, look, the poor are less likely to work in the CBD than the middle class, so everywhere-to-everywhere public transportation is especially useful for them. While Stephen’s conclusion is correct, it is not supported by this specific data. In the $40,000 and up category, 57% of city jobs are in Manhattan south of 60th Street, compared with 37% in the $15,000-40,000 and under-$15,000 categories. It’s a noticeable difference, but not an enormous one. The reason Stephen is correct about how rides crosstown transit is different: people who can afford cars are very likely to drive if the transit option is not good (which it isn’t today), whereas people who can’t are stuck riding slow crosstown buses; in contrast, for CBD-bound commutes, the subway and commuter rail work reasonably well (especially at rush hour) and driving is awful.
Instead of trying to look specifically at low-income and middle- and high-income job centers, it’s better to just plan transit based on general commute patterns, and let anyone take any train or bus. This doesn’t mean business as usual, since it requires transitioning to full fare integration. Nor does this mean ignoring residential segregation by income, which in some cases can lead to transit segregation even in the face of fare integration (for example, the crosstown buses between the Upper East Side and Upper West Side have mostly white, mostly middle-class riders). Finally, this doesn’t mean relying on middle-class transit use patterns as a universal use case, since the middle class drives in the off-hours or to off-CBD locations; it means that relying on middle-class transportation needs could be reasonable. It just means that the rich and poor have substantially the same destinations.
An even bigger implication relates to questions of redevelopment. There have been periodic complaints from the left about gentrification of jobs, in which working-class job sites are turned over to high-end office and retail complexes. For example, Canary Wharf used to be the West India Docks. In New York, Jane Jacobs’ last piece of writing before she died was a criticism of Greenpoint rezoning, in which she specifically talked up the importance of keeping industrial jobs for the working class. But since the big deindustrialization wave, developments brought about by urban renewal, gentrification, and industrial redevelopment have not had any bias against providing employment for the poor. It’s not the factory jobs that the unionized working class still culturally defines itself by, but it’s industries that are hungry for low-skill work, and in many cases are serious target of unionization drives (such as universities).
Both American and European cities have prominent central business districts with high job density. But when jobs sprawl beyond the CBDs, they do so in very different manners on the two sides of the Pond, which is both a cause and an effect of higher US automobile usage. Much of this job sprawl happens in places that people on the other side of the Pond would not recognize as part of The City. Besides the obvious misunderstandings, this can compromise the quality of analysis of urbanism and the transportation required to serve it. In short, the European model, for which my models are Stockholm and Paris, is that jobs sprawl contiguously from the CBD, enlarging its physical area, whereas the North American model, for which my models are New York and Washington, is that jobs leap large swaths of residential neighborhoods into auto-oriented suburbia.
CBDs and job density
Office towers are rare in European CBDs. Paris is largely built up to 6 to 9 stories, and the higher end is more common in residential areas like Nation than in the CBD, which stretches from Les Halles to Saint-Lazare and Etoile. Stockholm has a total of five towers in its center, none especially tall. Contrary to the common European belief that high-rises don’t add density, the mid-rise character of most European CBDs leads to a real limit on their ability to agglomerate. The job-densest arrondissement of Paris, the 2nd, has 60,000 jobs in a square kilometer (look for table EMP T6 here); Midtown Manhattan has about 800,000 jobs in 4 square kilometers.
Not all jobs are in the CBD. Some are local community facilities, such as schools, supermarkets, and hospitals. But even more exportable jobs are not all in the CBD. Some industries cluster in sections of the CBD (such as advertising on Madison Avenue in New York or, traditionally, the media on Fleet Street in London), and similarly some cluster in off-CBD locations, perhaps near one firm that located idiosyncratically. In the other direction, not even the job density of Midtown can contain every workplace that wants a central location, and this pushes out firms that can’t compete for CBD office rents. The difference between the North American and European models is where these firms are likely to locate.
In both Paris and Stockholm, the solution to the restricted job density of their city centers is, superficially, high-rise clusters in a particular suburban place: La Defense in Paris, Kista in Stockholm. The job density at the center of La Defense is actually higher than in the 2nd arrondissement, though it drops drastically outside the very center, whereas the Paris CBD maintains a density of about 50,000 jobs per km^2 over 4 or 5 square kilometers. In both cases, this leads to spatial inequality: in Paris, the richest suburbs are in the west and southwest, and La Defense is west of the city; in Stockholm, Kista itself is surrounded by working- and middle-class areas, and the favored quarter is separated from it by a lake, but the ill-favored quarter to the south is the farthest away.
However, there is much more to Paris employment than the CBD and suburban office towers. Paris has a total of 1.8 million jobs, with only around one eighth to one sixth of them in the CBD. There are corporate headquarters in La Defense and a number of other suburbs on the RER, but there are job clusters all over the city. My arrondissement, the 12th, has 120,000 jobs in a little more than 6 square kilometers, giving it the same job density as is average for the city. According to OnTheMap, Upper Manhattan, defined to be north of East 96th and West 110th Streets, has 150,000 jobs in 19 square kilometers, and the Upper East and West Sides, defined to be north of 62nd Street so as to exclude Columbus Circle jobs, have a total of 175,000 jobs in 9 square kilometers. While the Upper East and West Sides hold their own, in large part thanks to the hospital cluster around Weill-Cornell, Upper Manhattan does not.
These clusters in Paris are everywhere. In my arrondissement the cluster in question is Bercy, home to the Ministry of Finance; there’s also the university cluster in the Latin Quarter, an under-construction judicial cluster around Clichy-Batignolles, and high-end professional services spillover west of the CBD in the 16th and 17th arrondissements. In effect, office uses are sprawling into otherwise-residential neighborhoods.
In Stockholm, the same situation occurs. Spotify is headquartered two T-Bana stops north of T-Centralen, a short walk from where I used to live in Roslagstull (in fact, one of the people viewing my apartment as I was leaving it worked there). There’s also a prominent peak travel flow of students heading to KTH and the University on the trains from points south. In the south, Södermalm has its own secondary CBD around Slussen, the second busiest T-Bana station after T-Centralen.
Office park sprawl
North American cities do not have high overall job density in the core when one counts both the CBD and surrounding inner neighborhoods, which are typically entirely bedroom communities like Upper Manhattan. Instead, there is discontinuous job sprawl: jobs hop over residential areas into farther-away places, typically suburban office parks. The most famous in American urbanist discourse is Tysons Corner in Northern Virginia, but the Washington metropolitan area is generally replete with edge cities, including Reston, Bethesda, and Silver Spring, all located in the northern and western favored quarters of the region. Kista is really a high-rise version of these edge cities.
Washington is the purest example of office job sprawl. However, even there, there is a complication: there are some nearer job clusters like the Pentagon. New York and other large American cities are the same, with even more complications like this. In New York, the in-state side of the metro area has large suburban job clusters such as White Plains and Stamford, but the New Jersey side includes the formerly independent Downtown Newark, contiguous job sprawl in Jersey City directly facing Lower Manhattan, and very decentralized job sprawl in Middlesex County, contrasting with the centralized office sprawl of White Plains.
Robert Lang and Jennifer Lefurgy call Central Jersey edgeless cities and White Plains and Tysons edge cities. While edge cities exist in Europe, edgeless cities do not. Exurban retail in France resembles American exurban retail, with Carrefour inventing the hypermarket at the same time Wal-Mart did, but there is almost no equivalent of the small American office park. The closest I am aware of, Sophia-Antipolis, is an edge city with a large concentration of jobs, just built at automobile scale without any walkability.
New York is large enough to have an intermediate form: namely, a secondary CBD that’s not contiguous with the main city center. Downtown Brooklyn arose as such a CBD, serving Brooklyn, even though it’s contiguous with Lower Manhattan across the water. Jamaica is the best example, as it is quite far from Manhattan. La Defense should be put in this category as well – it is contiguous with the dense built-up area, if not with the CBD itself, and it is closer to Les Halles than Jamaica is to Midtown.
There are multiple instances of large American firms moving their entire headquarters to be close to where the CEO lives. IBM moved to Armonk and General Electric moved to Fairfield, both leaving New York, to avoid making executives drive in Manhattan traffic. In Europe, too, the edge cities tend to be in rich areas. The corporate headquarters around Paris cluster in La Defense and to a lesser extent northwestern and southern suburbs, and not in Seine-Saint-Denis.
This is a straightforward consequence of the fact that rich Americans left city centers starting in the early 20th century, culminating in middle-class white flight in the 1950s, whereas Paris and Stockholm remain richer than their suburbs. The inhabitants of the 16th arrondissement of Paris are unlikely to be interested in job sprawl. Instead, the Paris CBD is slowly migrating westward, as retail and office rents at the western end (Etoile) are higher than in the center (the Opera) and eastern end (just west of Les Halles).
One would suspect that in American cities that are richer than their suburbs, the phenomenon of job sprawl would not occur. The problem is that there is no clean example today. Boston is still poorer than its suburbs; Cambridge is quite rich, but is functionally one favored-quarter wedge. San Francisco is overall richer than most of its suburbs, but really the entire strip of land from San Francisco down to San Jose is rich, and at any rate Silicon Valley formed in a then-independent metro region, rather than sprawling out of the center the way White Plains and Tysons Corner did.
However, as white flight is giving way to gentrification, and American cities are economically outgrowing their suburbs, this theory would predict that job sprawl should decrease, with more corporate jobs shifting back to the cities. This seems to indeed be happening: General Electric moved from Fairfield to Downtown Boston, and United-Continental moved its headquarters to the Sears Tower in the Chicago Loop; Aaron Renn periodically talks about the resorting of the American economy, in which the highest-end jobs are back to city centers whereas lower-end jobs are in the suburbs and smaller cities.
Is the US Europeanizing?
There is some evidence to suggest that American cities not only are reducing the extent of job sprawl in the highest pay categories, but also adopting the European pattern of contiguous CBD sprawl. This process is haphazard, and many urban boosters overrate the extent to which near-CBD locations like the West Loop in Chicago or the Seaport in Boston are attracting jobs, but these areas are nonetheless growing.
Boston is perhaps the best example of this trend. Locally, urban boosters anxiously talk about transportation connections to the Seaport, but the biggest action is happening in the other direction. Kendall Square is growing as the Cambridge CBD, with a cluster of tech firms, two stops out on the subway from the central transfer points. Boston is unique that Back Bay is a nearly-contiguous secondary CBD as well, based on extensive postwar urban renewal next to a rich residential neighborhood. This situation is especially notable given that both Cambridge and the Seaport are separated from the CBD by water, with unpleasant walking environments on the bridges, making the organic process of CBD extension more difficult.
Outside Boston, several more examples are notable. In San Francisco, tech jobs within the city cluster not in the Financial District but in the adjacent South of Market (“SoMa”) area. In Chicago, in addition to some growth in the West Loop, there is some job growth on the Near North Side. In New York, the tech jobs cluster in the Meatpacking District: the Google building, which I believe is the second largest Google office after the Googleplex, occupies the block between 8th and 9th Avenues and 15th and 16th Streets. But even before Google, there was growth in adjacent secondary CBDs across the water: Jersey City and Long Island City. Lang and Lefurgy’s writeup on edgeless cities classifies Jersey City as a secondary CBD rather than an edge city because “its context is old”: it’s built out of a near-CBD residential and industrial area, rather than developed from scratch near a road or rail intersection.
Starting last decade, urbanist writers in the United States noted that the US was Europeanizing in its pattern of rich cities and poor suburbs. Brookings was writing about suburbanization of poverty in 2010, describing a 2000-8 trend. The growth of near-CBD office clusters in Boston, New York, San Francisco, and Chicago suggests that the US is also Europeanizing in its pattern of how jobs spill over from the center. Instead of the traditional auto-oriented office park near the CEO’s residence, the highest-income, highest-prestige jobs in the US are decamping to the same near-CBD locations where they can be found in Paris or Stockholm, leaving the sprawl for the poor.
It seems to be common wisdom that the subway in New York is at capacity. Last year, the New York Times ran an article that repeated the MTA’s claims that growing delays come from overcrowding (which they don’t). A few weeks ago the NY Times quoted Riders Alliance campaign manager Rebecca Bailin saying “Our system is at capacity” and “subways are delayed when people can’t fit in them.” So far so good: some parts of the subway have serious capacity issues, which require investment in organization and electronics (but not concrete) to fix. But then some people make a stronger claim saying that the entire system is at capacity and not just parts of it, and that’s just wrong.
A few days ago there was an argument on Twitter involving the Manhattan Institute’s Nicole Gelinas and Alex Armlovich on one side and Stephen Smith on the other. Stephen made the usual YIMBY point that New York can expect more population growth in the near future. Nicole argued instead that no, there’s no room for population growth, because the subway is at capacity. Alex chimed in,
People are not going to be willing to pay market rents for places they can’t commute from. A large number of folks underestimate the self-regulation of NYC housing–it just can’t get that bad, because people can always just move to Philly
Like, if upzone Williamsburg, people who move into new housing aren’t going to try to ride the L–they’ll only come if they can walk/bike or ride in off-peak direction. Just like people are leaving in response to the shutdown. Neighborhoods and cities are in spatial equilibrium!
I responded by talking about rents, but in a way my response conceded too much, by focusing on Williamsburg. The L train has serious crowding problems, coming from lack of electrical capacity to run more than 20 trains per hour per direction (the tracks and signals can handle 26 trains, and could handle more if the L train had tail tracks at its 8th Avenue terminal). However, the L train is atypical of New York. The Hub Bound Report has data on peak crowding into the Manhattan core, on table 20 in appendix II. The three most crowded lines entering the Manhattan core, measured in passengers per floor area of train, are the 2/3, 4/5, and L. Those have 3.6-3.8 square feet per passenger, or about 3 passengers per m^2, counting both seated and standing passengers; actual crowding among standees is higher, around 4 passengers per m^2. Using a study of seating and standing capacity, we can get exact figures for average space per standee, assuming all seats are occupied:
|Line||Peak tph||Seats||Standee area||Passengers||Passengers/m^2|
|B/D/N/Q (4 tracks)||38||18,612||10,008||43,550||2.49|
Three additional snags are notable: crowding in 53rd Street Tunnel looks low, but it averages high crowding levels on the E with low crowding levels on the M (see review), and the 1 and 7 achieve peak crowding well outside Midtown (the 1 at 96th at the transfer to the 2/3 and the 7 at Jackson Heights at the transfer to the E/F) whereas the table above only counts crowding entering Manhattan south of 59th Street. But even with these snags in mind, there is a lot of spare capacity on the Upper West Side away from 72nd and Broadway, and in Queens in Long Island City, where passengers can take the undercrowded 7 or M. Crowding in Brooklyn is also low, except on the L. In both Brooklyn and on the West Side locals there’s also track capacity for more trains if they are needed, but New York City Transit doesn’t run more trains since peak crowding levels are well below design guidelines.
This isn’t a small deal. Williamsburg is where there is the most gentrification pressure, but the Upper West Side is hardly a slum – it’s practically a byword for a rich urban neighborhood. The trains serving Brooklyn pass through some tony areas (Park Slope) and gentrified ones (South Brooklyn), as well as more affordable middle-class areas further south. From NYCT’s perspective, developing South Brooklyn and Southern Brooklyn is especially desirable, since these areas are served by trains that run through to Queens, Uptown Manhattan, and the Bronx, and with the exception of the B are all much more crowded at the other end; in effect, lower subway demand in Brooklyn means that NYCT is dragging unused capacity because of how its through-service is set up.
Actual perceived crowding is always higher than the average. The reason is that if there is any variation in crowding, then more passengers see the crowded trains. For example, if half the trains have 120 passengers and half have 40, then the average number of passengers per train is 80 but the average perceived number is 100, since passengers are three times likelier to be on a 120-person train than on a 40-person train.
Subway in New York has high variation in crowding, probably unusually high by international standards, on account of the extensive branching among the lines. The E/M example is instructive: not only are the E trains more crowded than the M trains, but also they come more often, so instead of a perfect E-M alternation through 53rd Street, there are many instances of E-E-M, in which an E train following the M is more crowded than an E train following another E train. I criticized NYCT’s planning guidelines on this account in 2015, and believe it contributes to higher crowding levels on some lettered lines than the table shows. However, the difference cannot be huge. Evidently, in the extreme example of trains with 40 or 120 passengers, the perceived crowding is only 25% higher than the actual average, and even the maximum crowding is only 50% higher. Add 50% to the crowding level of every branching train in Brooklyn and you will still be below the 2/3 and 4/5 in Uptown Manhattan.
So on the Upper West Side and in Long Island City and most of Brooklyn, there is spare capacity. But there’s more: since the report was released, Second Avenue Subway opened, reducing crowding levels on the Upper East Side. Second Avenue Subway itself only has the Q, and could squeeze additional trains per hour by shuffling them around from other parts of the system. In addition, the 4/5 and 6 have reportedly become much more tolerable in the last year, which suggests there is spare capacity not only on the Upper East Side but also in the Bronx.
Moreover, because the local trains on Queens Boulevard aren’t crowded, additional development between Jackson Heights and Queens Plaza wouldn’t crowd the E or F trains, but the underfull M and R trains. This creates a swath of the borough, starting from Long Island City, in which new commuters would not have a reason to use the parts of the system that are near capacity. It’s especially valuable since Long Island City has a lot of new development, which could plausibly spill over to the east as the neighborhood fills; in contrast, new development on the Upper West Side runs into NIMBY problems.
Finally, the residential neighborhoods within the Manhattan core, like the Village, are extremely desirable. They also have active NIMBY groups, fighting tall buildings in the guise of preservation. But nowhere else is it guaranteed that new residential development wouldn’t crowd peak trains: inbound trains from Brooklyn except the 4/5 are at their peak crowding entering Lower Manhattan rather than Midtown, so picking up passengers in between is free, and of course inbound trains from Uptown and Queens drop off most of their peak morning load in Midtown.
It’s not just a handful of city neighborhoods where the infrastructure has room. It’s the most desirable residential parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn, and large swaths of middle-class areas in Brooklyn and parts of Queens. In those areas, the subway is not at capacity or even close to it, and there is room to accommodate new commuters at all hours of day. To the extent there isn’t new development there, the reason is, in one word, NIMBYism.
Here’s a Google Maps image of Southport, a section of Fairfield, Connecticut with its own Metro-North commuter rail station:
Here’s an image at the same scale of Bourg-la-Reine, an inner suburb of Paris on the RER B, at the junction between the line’s two southern branches:
At Bourg-la-Reine, the buildings just east of the station are high-rise. There are local community amenities, including walkable schools, supermarkets, and pharmacies, and people can comfortably live in this suburb without a car. This generates significant RER traffic at all hours of day: outbound trains are often standing-room only until they reach this station even in midday, outside rush hour.
At Southport, there are a few townhouses near the station. But the roads are wide and hostile to pedestrians, and the nearest supermarket closes at 6 pm, too late for commuters returning from the city. Car ownership approaches 100%, and nobody rides the trains except to get to office jobs at the traditional peak hour in Manhattan (or perhaps Stamford).
The difference between the two places is so stark that they can barely be compared. Southport has 317 inbound boardings per weekday. Of those, 263, or 83%, are in the morning rush hour; the Metro-North-wide average is 63%, and the average on the SNCF-operated parts of the RER and Transilien is about 46%. Bourg-la-Reine has 4.5 million annual riders, about 16,000 on an ordinary working day.
A huge part of the difference is about service provision – Bourg-la-Reine has a train every five minutes midday, Southport a train every hour. But it’s not just about service. The RER has stations farther out, with somewhat less intense service, such as a train every 15 minutes, with comparable ridership. And the LIRR and Metro-North have little off-peak ridership even at stations with more frequent service, such as Mineola and Hicksville. Transit-oriented development (TOD) is as important as good service in such cases.
I bring up Southport because the RPA just dropped a study about suburban TOD that grades every New York commuter rail station between 0 and 3, and gives Southport the highest mark, 3. The RPA study looks at zoning within 800 meters of each station and considers whether there’s a parcel of land that permits multifamily housing with a floor are ratio higher than 1.25. Southport has such lots, supporting some townhouses, so according to the RPA it gets full marks, even though, by RER standards, it is like every other American car-oriented suburb.
Based on this methodology, the RPA identifies a number of good suburbs, and even comes to policy conclusions. It proposes more TOD in the mold of existing exurban New York examples, such as Patchogue. The model for the program is the real reason the RPA study is so weak: rather than calling into attention the big differences between land use at suburban stations in New York versus in Paris (or any number of big European cities with suburban rapid transit), it overfocuses on small differences within auto-oriented suburbia.
Some of the ultimate conclusions are not terrible. For example, the RPA is proposing linking federal infrastructure development to permitting more multifamily housing. This would improve things. However, the problem with this is twofold. First, it is unrealistic – the federal government gave up decades ago on enforcing fair housing laws, and has no interest in attempting to make exclusionary suburbs behave. Were I to propose this, hordes of American commenters would yell at me for not understanding American politics. And second, it misunderstands the nature of the problem, and ends up proposing something that, while unrealistic, is still low-impact.
The best way to understand the problem with the study is what author Moses Gates told me on Twitter when I started attacking it. He said that the RPA was looking at zoning rather than actual development. Since there is zoning permitting multifamily development within the prescribed radius at Southport, it gets full marks. With my understanding of what good TOD looks like, I would be able to say that this is clearly so bad the methodology must be changed; on Twitter I suggested looking at zoning within 300 meters of the station rather than 800, since the highest-intensity development should be right next to the station. I also suggested looking at supportive nonresidential uses, especially supermarkets. A development that isn’t walkable to retail at reasonable hours is not TOD.
The RPA does not think in this language. It thinks in terms of internal differences within the US. Occasionally it deigns to learn from London, but London’s suburban development is auto-oriented by European standards (transit mode share in the London commuter belt is at best in the teens, often in the single digits). Learning from anywhere else in the world, especially places that don’t speak English, is too difficult. This means that the RPA could not reach the correct conclusion, namely, that there is no such thing as an American suburb with TOD. The only exception I can come up with in the United States involves Arlington, on the Washington Metro, and Arlington is no longer considered a suburb, but really a full-fledged city in a different state, like Jersey City.
The other thing the RPA missed is that it drew too large a radius. TOD at a train station should include townhouses 800 meters out – but it’s more important to include high-rise residential construction next to the train station and mid-rise apartment buildings 500 meters out. Giving American suburbs latitude to place TOD so far from the station means they will act like Southport and allow small amounts of multifamily housing out of the way, while surrounding the station itself with parking, a tennis court, and large single-family houses with private swimming pools. This is not hypothetical: suburbs in New Jersey have reacted to court rulings mandating affordable housing by permitting apartments at the edge of town, far from supporting retail and jobs, and keeping the town core single-family.
Because the RPA missed the vast differences in outcomes between the US and France, it missed some useful lessons:
- States should centralize land use decisionmaking rather than give every small suburb full autonomy.
- TOD doesn’t need to be fully mixed-use, but there should be some local retail right next to housing.
- Housing should be high-density right next to the station. A floor area ratio of 1.25 is not enough.
- Publicly-funded social housing should be next to train stations, in the city as well as in the suburbs, and this is especially important in expensive suburbs, which aren’t building enough affordable housing.
Without suburban TOD, any regional rail system is incomplete. I wish I could have covered it at my talk, but I didn’t have time. Good service needs to run to dense suburbs, or at least suburbs with dense development within walking distance of the station. It needs to extend the transit city deep into suburbia, rather than using peak-only commuter rail to extend the auto-oriented suburbs into the city.
In New York, the tech industry has clustered in the Meatpacking District, around 14th Street and 8th Avenue. Google’s building (the company’s largest office outside the Googleplex) is there, Samsung’s New York offices are there, startup incubators are there with co-working spaces. Stephen Smith has called for commercial upzoning there (on YIMBY three years ago, and on Twitter just now), despite NIMBY objections. He argues not only that there is pent-up demand for office space, but also that there is excess subway capacity there: “the L train’s capacity west of Union Square is essentially unlimited, after the hordes from Brooklyn headed to destinations east of Broadway change for the 4/5/6 and N/Q/R.” While his other arguments for upzoning are solid, this one is incorrect, and I’d like to explain which areas have excess capacity and which don’t.
Two years ago, I wrote this post about modeling transit crowding. The model is primitive – it assumes a one-dimensional city, 100% mode share, and independent job and residence distributions. For the purposes of this post, cities A, B, and C from the model are not relevant (they have perfect mixture of jobs and residences); cities D, E, and F, with separation of residences and jobs, are more relevant, with city F, with partial mixture, the most useful.
The results of the model are fairly predictable. In the morning peak, transit vehicles (or roads!) fill up toward the center as they pass through residential areas, and then empty in the commercial core. This means that more residences outward of the point of greatest congestion, and more jobs inward of it, add more crowding; more jobs outward of the point, and more residences inward of it, do not. More jobs on the other side of city center add to crowding, because people still ride through the point of greatest crowding.
On the L, the point of greatest crowding is between Bedford Avenue (the last stop in Brooklyn) and First Avenue (the first in Manhattan). This means that more residential development on the L in Brooklyn and more commercial development in Manhattan would add crowding – even commercial development on the West Side would attract riders living in Brooklyn, who would ride through the overcrowded segment under the East River. The other subway lines serving the Meatpacking District suffer from the same problem: those are the 2 and 3 at 7th Avenue and 14th Street, and the A, C, and E at 8th Avenue. With Second Avenue Subway having taken some crowds off the 4 and 5 on the East Side, it’s likely the 2, 3, and E are the most crowded subway lines in New York today (the A has more room). Yes, most riders on those lines get off in Midtown, but it doesn’t matter, because riders from the Upper West Side and Queens, attracted to new jobs in the Meatpacking District, would still ride through the most crowded point, at the entry to Midtown.
So if not the Meatpacking District, where is it better to add jobs, purely from the perspective of subway crowding? Superficially, the answer is to mix them across the residential parts of the city. But here, my model runs into problems with mode share. The model says that adding jobs in (say) Downtown Brooklyn increases subway crowding, because of riders from Uptown Manhattan riding to the south. Per the model, it’s best to add jobs on the side with more crowding, which is the north and Queens sectors, not the Brooklyn sector, where only the L is very crowded. This means, more jobs on the Upper East and West Sides, and maybe also in Long Island City, near Queensboro Plaza.
But in reality, there is some travel segmentation in New York. People who work on the Upper East and West Sides probably live in those neighborhoods or in Harlem and the Bronx, and people who work in Downtown Brooklyn probably live elsewhere in Brooklyn. Yes, it’s possible to commute between the Upper East Side and Downtown Brooklyn, but people would not ordinarily choose to do so – the commute is long and crowded (because of all the Midtown-bound workers), and there isn’t much saving on rent. People might still do it for various reasons, like a two-body problem or moving frequently between jobs – this is why through-running is important – but it’s much less common than living and working on the same side of city center.
So most likely, office development in Downtown Brooklyn would mainly attract ridership from within Brooklyn. Extra ridership from Uptown Manhattan and the Bronx is likely to be small. The upshot is that locations outside the most crowded point on each inbound subway line are likely to lead to large gains in subway ridership without much additional crowding.
I bring up Downtown Brooklyn and not just the Upper West and East Sides because it is better-connected to more bedroom communities by subway. These include the Lower East Side and Chinatown, Long Island City, and nearly all of Brooklyn. Long Island City is also highly accessible, from much of Queens and the parts of Brooklyn on the G train. But the Upper West and East Sides aren’t so accessible because of the lack of good east-west subway options.
Of course, the situation on the ground is different. New York is desperate to add tech jobs in Downtown Brooklyn, but the tech industry insists on clustering in the Meatpacking District. There’s only so much a city can force developers to site themselves in the areas most convenient for infrastructure. But from a long-term capacity standpoint, it’s in New York’s interest to encourage commercial development outside the Manhattan core, especially in areas that get decent subway service from multiple directions, like Long Island City, Downtown Brooklyn, and maybe Jamaica.
It would be easier if there were more service targeted at off-core destinations. This is part of why I harp on regional rail all the time – the LIRR would be able to serve Downtown Brooklyn and Jamaica better if it didn’t exist just for the benefit of suburban salarymen working in Midtown. But this also includes Triboro, which would give multidirectional service to nodes including Jackson Heights, the Bronx Hub, and Brooklyn College. This would encourage developers to build commercial at these nodes, which suffer from poor access to workers today.
Note that opening circumferential transit, in this model, has the opposite of the expected effect on radial lines. Normally, a new transit line reduces demand on parallel lines and increases demand on intersecting lines, which runs the risk of overloading them. But if a circumferential line encourages office development at intersection points with radials, it will still encourage more ridership on the radials, but this ridership will completely miss the congested inner portions of the radials.
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.