I wrote years ago about the problems of so-called development-oriented transit – that is, transit built not to serve current demand but future development, often to be funded via land value capture and other opaque mechanisms. Today I want to talk not so much about the transit itself but the arguments people make for it.
The context is that I appeared on Kojo Nnamdi’s show last week discussing the plans for a ferry network in Washington DC, which I had heavily criticized in an article for the DC Policy Center. I was discussing the issue with guest host Marc Fisher and two locals involved in the ferry plan. I criticized the ferry plan over the poor land use on most of the waterfront on both sides of the Potomac, contrasting it with the Staten Island Ferry and Vancouver’s SeaBus (both of which have skyscrapers going almost to the water’s edge at the CBD end and decent secondary CBD development at the outlying end). My interlocutors answered, don’t worry, the area is undergoing redevelopment.
I heard something similar out of Boston, regarding the Seaport. People recurrently talk on Commonwealth about how to connect to the Seaport better, and at one point there was a plan to have the Fairmount Line reverse-branch to serve the Seaport (rather than going into the CBD proper at South Station). The crayonistas talk about how to connect the Green Line to the Seaport. Whenever I point out that the Seaport is at best a tertiary destination I’m told that it’s growing so it needs some transit.
In both cases, what’s missing is scale. Yes, waterfront redevelopment in former industrial cities is real. But the only place where it’s happened on sufficient scale to merit changing the entire transit system to fit the new development is London, around Canary Wharf. And even in London, the CBDs are unambiguously still the City and the West End; Canary Wharf is a distant third, deserving of a Crossrail line and some Tube lines but not of the dense mesh of transit that the City and West End have.
The important thing to understand is that TOD sites are practically never going to eclipse the CBD. La Defense, for all its glass-clad glory, is still smaller than the Paris CBD, stretching from west of Les Halles to east of Etoile. The peak job density at La Defense is higher, but westbound RER A trains are at their most crowded heading into Auber, not La Defense, and the CBD maintains its medium-high job density for several square kilometers while La Defense is geographically small. And your city’s waterfront redevelopment is not going to be La Defense or Canary Wharf.
If the TOD sites are not going to be primary CBDs, then they must be treated as secondary centers at best. One does not build transit exclusively for a secondary center, because people along the lines that serve it are going to be much more interested in traveling to the primary CBD. For example, people at the origin end of a ferry system (in Washington’s case this is Alexandria and suburbs to its south) are traveling to the entirety of city center, and not just to the redevelopment site near the waterfront. Thus the transit that they need has to connect to the CBD proper, which in Washington’s case is around Farragut and Metro Center. A ferry system that doesn’t connect to Metro well is of no use to them, and whatever redevelopment Washington puts up near the Navy Yard won’t be enough to prop up ridership.
The principle for redeveloped waterfronts has to be the same as for every secondary neighborhood destination: be on the way. If there is cause to build an entirely new metro line, or run more buses, and the new service can plausibly go through the redevelopment site, then it should. In Boston’s case, the 7 bus has high usage for how short it is, and so does the Silver Line going to the airport, so it’s worthwhile making sure they run more efficiently (right now the 7 and Silver Line run along the same inner alignment but peak in opposite directions without being able to share infrastructure or equipment) to serve the Seaport better. However, building a line from scratch just for the Seaport is a bad idea, and the same is true of the area around Waterfront and the Navy Yard in Washington.
In fact, the two closest things New York has to Canary Wharf – the Jersey City waterfront and Long Island City – both developed precisely because they were on the way. PATH was built to connect the railroad terminals at the then-industrial waterfront and the traditional center of Jersey City at Journal Square with Manhattan. Mainline trains began to be diverted from Jersey City to Manhattan when Penn Station opened, and with the general decline of rail traffic the waterfront was abandoned; subsequently, Exchange Place and Pavonia/Newport became major job and retail centers, since they had available land right on top of rapid transit stations minutes from Lower Manhattan. In Queens, something similar happened with Long Island City, once a ferry terminal on the LIRR, now a neighborhood with rapid residential and commercial growth since it sits on multiple subway lines just outside Midtown.
One exception to the be on the way rule is if there is a nearby stub-end line or a natural branch point. Some metro lines stub-end in city center rather than running through, such as the Blue Line in Boston, the 7 and L trains in New York, and Metro Line 11 here in Paris. If they can be plausibly extended to a new redevelopment site, then this is fine – in this case the CBD will be on the way to the new site. The 7 extension is one example of this principle; the extension is overall not a success, but this is exclusively due to high costs, while ridership per km is not terrible.
In London, the Jubilee line and Crossrail are both examples of this exception around Canary Wharf. Crossrail expects intense demand into Central London but less demand on the specific eastern branch used (the Great Eastern slow lines), making the City into a natural branch point with a separate branch to Canary Wharf and Southeast London. And the Jubilee line stub-ended at Charing Cross when it first opened in the 1970s; plans for an extension to the east are even older than the initial line, and once Canary Wharf became a major office building site, the plans were changed so as to serve the new center on the way to Stratford (itself an urban renewal site with extensive redevelopment, it’s just smaller than Canary Wharf).
The ultimate guideline here is be realistic. You may be staring at a place that’s doubled its job density in a decade, but it won’t be able to double its density every decade forever, and most likely you’ll end up with either high-density condo towers or a small job cluster. This means that you should plan transit to this site accordingly: worth a detour on a line to the CBD, but not worth an entire system (whether ferry or rail) by itself.
The conversation about YIMBY and zoning seems to be centered around San Francisco. Googling YIMBY Guardian gives me two articles about Northern California out of the top three results (the third is an op-ed about London). But the real origin of YIMBY is New York. The term started with New York YIMBY, which was always a real estate magazine rather than an activist movement. San Francisco YIMBY adopted it and intended to publish under the umbrella of New York YIMBY before eventually going its own way, buoyed by SF YIMBY founder Sonja Trauss’s strong political organizing skills, which are much better than those of the New York YIMBY founder. However, for the most part the goals and actions of YIMBY are still based on New York-centric assumptions, which may not apply elsewhere.
This does not mean that YIMBY is a New York imposition. On the contrary. But some of the specific details come from New York’s context. They port more easily to Paris, Tokyo, and London than to San Francisco, Boston, and other American cities.
Commercial versus residential upzoning
I’ve argued for commercialization before. Near-CBD residential neighborhoods are prime locations for high-end retail and office uses, leading to expansion or even migration of the CBD. Midtown historically arose this way, beginning with commercialization around Fifth Avenue, and so did the Paris CBD, which is well to the west of the historic core; in London the primary CBD is still the City, but the West End has many jobs as well.
However, in practice, New York needs residential development more than commercial development. There is demand for new office space, particularly from the tech industry, but this is a minority of the city’s employment. In contrast, residential rents are very high, and there is very little construction permitted; according to data from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the average over the last few years has been about 2.5 annual units permitted per 1,000 residents (in Tokyo the average is 10.7). As a result, New York’s activist YIMBY group, called Open New York, focuses on residential and mixed projects and not on purely commercial ones.
When a city does not allow the construction of office space in or near its center, jobs are displaced to sprawling suburbs. This is routine all over the US, where high-rise CBDs are surrounded immediately by residential neighborhoods with little political will for commercialization, and thus people work either in the CBD or in auto-centric suburban office parks. San Francisco is especially prone to this trend, since the origin of the tech industry is not in the city but in the office parks stretching from Redwood City to San Jose. If Uber, Airbnb, Slack, and Twitter don’t have room to grow in SoMa they will move to a suburb hungry for sales tax revenues. Nonetheless, SF YIMBY has opposed the plan to add office space to SoMa on the grounds that residential space is of prime importance.
The politics of rent stabilization
New York has rent control (which means the real rent is fixed) on a small number of apartments, all continuously occupied since 1971, mostly in rich Manhattan neighborhoods. It has wider rent stabilization in a large (though not overwhelming) fraction of rental units, which permits some real rent increases, determined politically every year but averaging about 1%. This status quo has many problems, chief of which is that the details of rent stabilization incentivize harassing tenants into leaving or looking for tenants who’d only stay for a short period of time. However, the status quo is politically stable.
The importance of this is that YIMBYs in New York don’t have to take a position on rent stabilization, or on related issues like inclusionary zoning (moreover, New York’s high real estate profits ensure that inclusionary zoning, which is a tax on revenue, has less impact than in cheaper cities like Portland, where the same tax on revenue represents a much higher tax on profits). SF YIMBY adopts this approach, but this comes into tension with California’s politics in which populists demand more rent control, even applying it to new buildings.
YIMBYs can’t honestly support rent control on new buildings and expect the private sector to keep providing housing. In New York it’s irrelevant because nobody calls for such policy, but San Francisco has a more active leftier-than-thou community (as does Paris, but this is expressed in museum exhibits about Che Guevara and not in rent control on new buildings).
The frontier of the Millennial middle class
When the middle class moves into a low-income area it’s called gentrification. However, the same trend can be observed in areas that are already well-off, including the neighborhood I grew up in, Tel Aviv’s Old North. The Old North was never poor: it was built in the 1930s and early 40s and the initial population was middle-class German immigrants fleeing Hitler. Nonetheless, by the 1980s the area was unfashionable, and the retail on the main commercial drag, Dizengoff Street, declined in favor of newer shopping malls. But since the late 1990s, younger people have moved in, making the area more in vogue, often renovating old buildings from the 1930s (which are a UNESCO heritage site, even though locally they’re viewed as dinghy). The demographic entering the neighborhood is the same as the one that gentrifies poorer neighborhoods (such as Florentin), so it’s worthwhile to view this as part of the same trend.
I bring this up because in New York this trend of a middle-class frontier includes a wide swath of neighborhoods, some poor and gentrifying (Harlem, Washington Heights, Bushwick, Lower East Side) but others already comfortable (Astoria, Upper West Side, Morningside Heights, South Brooklyn). Open New York has a policy of focusing on supporting construction in areas that are already rich and gentrified, to avoid the risk of gentrification in places like Washington Heights. As a strategy, it makes sense for New York, as well as for other city whose frontier of young middle-class urban transplants is mostly in well-off areas, like Chicago, Boston, and Paris. It’s weaker in San Francisco specifically, since there the frontier is largely the Mission, where gentrification is unavoidable.
The role of the suburbs
New York may be permitting only 2.5 housing units per 1,000 residents every year, but its in-state suburbs build even less. Westchester’s average between 2011 and 2017 is 0.9, Nassau County’s is 0.7, and Suffolk County’s is 0.8. Moreover, the dynamic of suburban white flight is well-understood around the region, and criticizing suburban-style exclusionary zoning is easy from within the city. There is animosity between the city and the suburbs, a feature shared with many areas in the American Rust Belt, and this makes it easier to demand more building in the city. (In the other direction, it’s easier to demand more construction in the city if there are no city-suburb social tensions at all.)
In the American Sunbelt, the situation is different. There is less city-suburb animosity – often the boundaries of the city include de facto suburban areas while excluding dense areas. (This is to some extent true of New York but the examples are all on the New Jersey side, which New Yorkers ignore.) Just saying “we need more housing” doesn’t sound progressive. What’s more, even in places like Houston and Austin, the city proper votes liberal and wants internal political movements to align on the left, let alone in California; in these areas, upzoning sounds like a bad deregulation.
Counterexample: single-family zoning
In exactly one respect, YIMBY groups in North America have proposed something that departs from the movement’s New York origins: they call for replacing single-family zoning with what they call missing middle, such as townhouses with two to four apartments per building. Missing middle is in turn relevant mostly to Canada, where there are mid- and high-rise neighborhoods and single-family neighborhoods and not much in between. In the US, everything is missing except single-family and CBD high-rises.
In New York, of course, there is no missing middle – for one, there are rowhouses, which would count as missing middle elsewhere. But more to the point, these rowhouses and townhouses are on the outer margins of the subway’s coverage area (such as Southern Brooklyn) or even beyond it (such as Kew Gardens Hills), and aren’t where there is the most demand. The demand is for converting surviving low-rise buildings in inner neighborhoods to mid- and high-rise apartment buildings, so this is what Open New York and urbanists in general focus on.
Which cities are like New York when it comes to YIMBY?
New York’s situation is the same as in the European cities I’m familiar with. Missing middle density in Paris happens on the outer branches of the RER network, whereas the real demand is for more housing in the city and a handful of rich inner suburbs in Hauts-de-Seine, and the same is true in Stockholm, London, Zurich, and other expensive European cities, even though they’re less dense than Paris so they might have rowhouses (like London) or missing middle density that needs to be replaced with mid-rise (like Zurich).
The politics in New York, where it’s easier to sidestep concerns about gentrification by just focusing on upzoning rich areas, is also similar to that of cities that never experienced white flight. This includes nearly all major cities in the developed world outside the US; the biggest exception I know of is Brussels, where the politics is complicated by the fact that middle-class residents are often affiliated with the EU and many only stay temporarily.
Commercialization of near-CBD areas is also more common in Europe, so there is less need to argue about that specifically. Zoning is also looser in the sense of permitting small offices, such as those of doctors, lawyers, and accountants, in residential zones. Thus the focus is exclusively housing, especially in the largest cities, i.e. London and Paris, where traffic congestion is such that there is less risk of job sprawl than in (say) Stockholm.
Finally, London and Paris have no rent control. Both have political controversies around this – Paris passed rent control but it was stricken down by the courts on administrative grounds, and in London some people are calling for rent control – but the current status quo is market-rate. The European cities I’m familiar with that have rent control do not have vacancy decontrol, unlike in the US, but instead have long waitlists, measured in years and in some extreme Stockholm examples even decades, so YIMBYs can more readily point to long waitlists as evidence that more housing construction is needed.
New York’s specific social issues are much more American than European, but the way they interact with its urban layout and transportation network is unique, partly because it has decent public transit unlike anywhere else in North America and partly because it’s just bigger. This interaction in turn makes its housing politics look somewhat more European as far as YIMBY is concerned. This suggests that people interested in making housing affordable should be especially excited to implement the proposed program in big global first-world cities outside New York, led by London and Paris (and Tokyo, which is already sufficiently YIMBY).
Here and in London, the need for more housing is dire, as in New York. What’s more, it’s not possible to just propose missing middle density in single-family areas or even mid-rises like California’s SB 827 and say something about great cities, because Paris is already great. (In London this is easier – there are rowhouses in zone 2 of the Underground.) There are some unusually short buildings here and there, down to 3-4 floors, but usually replacements have to be much bigger, so they’d be perhaps 12-15 floors. And in the most desirable neighborhoods, around the 8th and 16th, full high-rises are warranted. The one point of light is that such a program is unlikely to run into California’s gentrification concerns, if only because the main target areas for upzoning are the richest city neighborhoods in France.
It’s hard to escape the conversation about the decline of the center-left. Whether it’s about non-populist US Democrats, the Israeli Labor Party, Nordic social democrats, German SPD, or French PS, there’s a pan-first world conversation about the crisis of social democracy. People give any number of reasons for it, some suggesting it can be reversed in some ways, but some more skeptical. Branko Milanovic brings up the change in the nature of work from manufacturing with interchangeable workers within one plant to services with fractionalized workers often working remotely as an economic cause of the decline of unions.
Public transportation is sufficiently close to social democracy that it’s important to ask where it’s going politically, if SPD is slipping to third in the polls, PS is irrelevant, the most exciting Democrats are left-populists, etc. YIMBYism can go anywhere politically, but in practice it’s an anti-populist neoliberal policy, affected by the same trends that hollow out social democracy. Fortunately, both issues have a strong likelihood of surviving the decline of the traditional party system with its bosses vs. workers divisions. My goal is to explain why I believe so, and where support for urbanism and public transit will end up politically in the remainder of the century in developed countries.
Patterns of Democracy
In college I read Patterns of Democracy, a study by comparativist Arend Lijphart classifying the world’s stable democracies (including some third-world ones like India and Botswana) along two dimensions: majoritarian (i.e. two-party) vs. consensus-based (i.e. multiparty), and federal vs. unitary. It’s a book-length overview of the elements that go into each dimension, culminating in some regressions showing that majoritarian democracies are not more politically stable and do not economically overperform multiparty ones.
For the purposes of this post, the interesting part of the book is how it treats the various dimensions of partisan political debate within each country. The most popular analysis is one-dimensional left vs. right, followed by two-dimensional schemes separating economic and liberal vs. authoritarian issues (on the Internet, this is Political Compass). But Lijphart uses a seven-dimensional analysis (pp. 76-78), with each country only having at most three or four active at a time:
- Socioeconomic issues, by far the most common point of controversy within each democracy, including the usual left-right issues like tax rates, health, education, etc.
- Religious vs. secular issues, such as the role of religion in education, abortion rights in the US, or sectarian conflict in multisectarian states like Israel, India, and the Netherlands.
- Cultural-ethnic issues, which in most countries pit majority-group hegemony against multiculturalism, but can also include Belgian language politics or Ashkenazi-Mizrahi tensions in Israel.
- Urban vs. rural issues, such as farm aid.
- Regime support, historically the main cleave between social democratic and communist parties, and today the cleave between extreme right parties like the National Front and AfD (or individuals like Donald Trump) and hard right mainstream parties like Sarkozy and Wauquiez’s Republicans and CSU (or individuals like Ted Cruz and Scott Walker).
- Foreign policy, for examples decolonization in postwar France and Britain and the conflict with the Palestinians in Israel.
- Post-materialist issues, including the environmental issues that underlie the New Left, representing the cleave between social democratic and green parties.
The decline of class-based politics
The crisis of social democracy that Milanovic and others observe is about the decline of class-based politics, pitting workers versus bosses, or the working class versus the middle class. Economic differences between mainstream parties are decreasing, to the point that grand coalitions (as in Germany) or de facto grand coalitions (such as the cordon sanitaire agreement in Sweden excluding the far right) are normalized, joined by an elite consensus that’s for the most part neoliberal. In their stead, the growing issue in salience in Lijphart’s classification is cultural-ethnic, incorporating the sectarian aspects of the religious-secular dimension, including immigration, multiculturalism, and various forms of racism.
However, it’s better to divide socioeconomic issues into issues that are class-based and issues that are not. The most familiar issues across the developed world today pit the rich against the poor: tax rates, health care, education, welfare, unions, labor regulations.
But a large number of issues divide people in different industries, with a fair degree of agreement between labor and capital within each industry. One such issue is the environment, on which oil executives and oil rig workers tend to vote the same way while executives at green tech or low-energy intensity companies and their workers tend to vote the other way. Another issue is free trade, where the battle lines today separate import-competing industries from exporters and industries that rely on a global supply chain (including finance). Historically, the Populist movement in turn-of-the-century America was rooted in farmers’ grievances, demanding free silver, which had little appeal to either the bourgeoisie or the urban working class, which channeled its disaffection into socialism instead. Thus the set of non-class-based economic issues should take over Lijphart’s urban-rural and postmodern dimensions.
Transportation as a politically contentious issue has always had one leg in rich vs. poor politics and one leg outside it. On the one hand, the poor generally use public transit more than the rich, and historically suburbanization in the US as well as the UK was fueled by middle-class flight from the city. On the other hand, the issue intersects with environmentalism and with urban-rural politics. Within cities, the differences often revolve around one’s job descriptions: people who need to drive for a living, such as plumbers and generally people who work outside the CBD, are more hostile to road diets than people who do not, who include both professional downtown workers and downtown service workers.
Non-class-based economic issues are not in any decline. On the contrary, the parties designed around them, including green parties and left-liberal parties (such as D66 or the Danish Social Liberal Party), are for the most part doing fine, taking refugees from declining social democratic parties. In the Schröder cabinet, it was the Greens who pushed for an increase in fuel taxes; support for transit over cars will survive whatever happens to the center-left.
The new class divide
While labor vs. capital is increasingly not a big political cleave in the developed world, other class cleaves are rising to take its place. Non-class-based economic issues pit different industries against one another, and often there’s no consistent pattern to who is on what side, and the same is true on non-economic issues. However, in a large number of cases, there is a consistent pattern, which can be approximated as liberal versus conservative, in the 19th century British sense.
In the case of YIMBYism, the debate over housing is really a fight between two elite classes. The YIMBY side is represented by the professional middle class; the other side is represented by homeowners. Moreover, the professional middle class tends to specifically come from globalized industries, drawing workers from all over, most famously tech in the Bay Area. This class has high labor income and low capital income as well as local social capital, which explains both YIMBYs’ indifference to preserving property values and preference for preemption laws disempowering local notables. Homeowners are the exact opposite: they tend to have high local property values and local social capital relative to their labor income, which means they favor restrictions on housing construction economically and a hyperlocal process in which they’re privileged participants politically.
For the most part, other non-economic issues correlate with the same cleave between the two elites. Middle-class newcomers are overwhelmingly attracted to production amenities of specific global industries (again, Bay Area tech, but also New York and London finance, Paris conglomerates, etc.), which benefit from free trade and have such diverse worker bases that they fall on the liberal side of most debates over immigration. They also tend to cluster in specific job centers, which are at least in principle serviceable by public transportation, leading to high transit ridership relative to income. The urban jobs that are most likely to require driving are local services, which are overwhelmingly owned by people who either were born in the city or immigrated so long ago that they are politically and socially equivalent to natives.
I bring up 19th-century Britain and not the US because Britain had an alignment between free trade, urban over rural interests, and internationalism in the Liberal Party, whereas in the US the Democrats were also the white supremacist party and (outside the Northeast) the agrarian party. But 19th century Europe fits the situation in the first world today between than the 19th century United States, which had free land (courtesy of the Indian Wars) and no real landed gentry apart from the antebellum Southern planter class.
So where are the poor?
If both sides of the debate over zoning and urban housing production are middle-class elites, then where is the working class? The answer is, nowhere. There are working-class organizations on the NIMBY side, such as tenant unions and community groups that try to extract maximum value from developers. There are also poor people on the YIMBY side: in the Houston zoning referendum the poor voted against zoning and the middle class voted for, with poor blacks voting the most strongly against zoning, and at a recent hearing in Brooklyn for a mixed high-rise project most whites spoke against the project and most nonwhites spoke in favor.
To the extent there’s a pattern, organized local groups of poor people and/or minorities are NIMBY and generally unreliable about public transit, but when it goes to ballot there is not much difference between how the poor and middle class vote. Organized local groups of the middle class aren’t any less NIMBY than organized low-income groups, but the middle class more readily dismisses local activists as crackpots and nincompoops. It matters that political activists with more talent and ambition than the typical king of a hill can advance to higher levels of government if they come from favored socioeconomic strata.
The situation with public transit remains profoundly different, because it really does maintain some class-based content. But in general transit cities, even flawed ones like New York, tend to have alignment between working- and middle-class organizations in favor of more investment, and then questions like congestion pricing, bus lanes, bike lanes, and pedestrian plazas cut across class lines and cleave people based on where they work and how they get there. In my Brooklyn bus redesign project, I expect allies to include the bus drivers’ union (the drivers are strong supporters of reforms speeding up buses, since they’d make their work safer and more comfortable) and middle-class reformers and opponents to include working- as well as middle-class drivers (since we’re going to propose stronger bus lane enforcement and street redesigns that prioritize buses). Overall drivers outearn transit riders, but the difference tends to be smaller in cities with even semi-decent public transportation than in places like Los Angeles, where transit is so bad that most riders are people too poor to afford a car.
The result is that it’s very easy on both sides to dismiss the other side as an elite fighting the working class, even in public transit (since a substantial segment of the working class really does drive, even though it’s a smaller segment than in the middle class). In reality, on non-class-based issues it’s hard for the poor to truly be relevant as political actors. In the bus redesign project the union has a voice, but the premise of this post is that the political power of unions is in decline; public transit just happens to be an industry that, owing to its Fordist layout, is unusually friendly to unionization, at least until driverless buses are deployed at scale.
In this context, people should avoid dismissing their opponents as rich. Both sides have vanguards that are mostly middle-class, with some rich people sprinkled around. It’s a fight between two elites, and the YIMBY elite has grounds to portray itself as superior to the NIMBY elite, as it’s defined by skilled professions rather than passive property income, but it’s still a privileged elite and not the poor.
Whither transit and urbanism?
I already see some evidence that support for mass transit and urban growth (which mostly, but not exclusively, means YIMBY) is concentrated in the segments that are underlying where left-liberalism is going. New Left parties, including center-left ones (i.e. D66 and the Danish Social Liberals), are fans of transit. Greens tend to have a small-is-beautiful mentality toward cities, but I believe that this will change soon as green parties become vehicles for more internationalist voters, just as these parties flipped last decade from euroskeptical to europhilic.
What this means is that transit and urbanism as politics are likely to remain important political issues and if anything grow in salience, as they play well to growing cleaves between urban and rural, or between international and local. Whatever happens to specific political parties, these issues will survive.
I’ve mentioned on Twitter that I’m visiting London. I’m taking a lot of railfan trips, one of which was on Tramlink, London’s circumferential light rail service. Tramlink runs in South London, from Wimbledon in the west to Croydon in the east and thence along several branches to southeastern outer neighborhoods. Much of the route uses former mainline rail rights-of-way that were only partly grade-separated. The trains satisfy all of TransitCenter’s principles for good light rail operating practices, but their ridership is lackluster by the standards of Paris, TransitCenter’s comparison city. Tramlink has 30 million annual riders on 28 km of route, or about 3,500 per km per weekday; Ile-de-France’s system had 900,000 daily riders in 2015 on about 100 km route, or 9,000 per km. My goal is to explain why. One reason involves route choice, but the main reason is lack of development; this problem is very common in other cities, and must be added to the other pitfalls that TransitCenter mentions.
The operating practices on Tramlink are not bad. The frequency is high: every 5 minute off-peak. There’s no fare integration with the proper rail network (including the Underground), but the buses in London have no fare integration with the trains either and still have high ridership. The connections with radial train lines are decent, though there’s one big miss (with the Northern line) and one smaller one (with West Croydon, which points to train stations that are served by other lines that do get interchanges); the two most important transfers, Wimbledon and East Croydon, require relatively little walking between platforms. The right-of-way quality is high by light rail standards, mostly in a private right-of-way with only a small extent of street running within Croydon; the average speed is 21 km/h (higher than the Parisian tramways – T3 averages 18 km/h). And yet, ridership is not so strong. London is a big city with high rail ridership, so it’s not a matter of a small city underperforming Paris on raw ridership; something deeper is wrong with Tramlink.
Part of the problem has to involve route layout. East of East Croydon, the route has three branches. Two, heading to Elmers End and Beckenham Junction, keep the route’s circumferential character; in theory it should be faster to take mainline rail and change trains than to ride Tramlink, but in reality the mainline routes that would be used have missed connections and therefore are not useful for diagonal trips. Each of these two branches runs every ten minutes, interlining to a train every five minutes between East Croydon and Wimbledon. However, a third route connects East Croydon and New Addington, a radial line, running every 7.5 minutes. This route does not run through to Wimbledon (which would be a radial-circumferential mix) and exists as an orphaned feeder line, sharing tracks with the two main branches just east of East Croydon (thus, creating schedule conflict due to the uneven frequency on the shared trunk).
But the main difference between Tramlink and the Parisian tramways is adjacent density. London is generally a less dense city than Paris. London has two- and three-story rowhouses with back gardens where Paris has five- to nine-story buildings with high lot coverage. The Tramlink route itself is even less dense, passing through suburbia, industrial sites, and golf courses. The Parisian tramways are all in the suburbs (except for T3), but serve high-density clusters, surrounded by a mixture of mid-rise buildings and social housing towers. This is especially true on the workhorse Parisian routes – T1, T2, and T3, which collectively have about three quarters of the system’s total ridership – but even the other routes, while much weaker than the main three, serve denser areas than Tramlink and get higher ridership per kilometer.
Here is a randomly-selected station on T2, Meudon-sur-Seine:
Compare it with Mitcham, one of the more populated stations on Tramlink between Wimbledon and Croydon:
Also compare both with the site of the missed connection with the Northern line, Morden Road:
I want to make it very clear that the two satellite maps of Mitcham and Morden Road are not representative of all of South London, certainly not when weighting by population. East Croydon is full of mid- and high-rise TOD, and to some extent so is Wimbledon; the two stations rank fifth and sixth in ridership in London excluding the Central London terminals. The problem is that a circumferential line is rarely used over a long stretch. The longer the angle subtended on a circumferential line, the more favorable it is to take the radials and transfer.
London in particular has four-track mainlines on most rail routes, including the London and South Western Main (serving Wimbledon) and the Brighton Main (serving East Croydon), making it easy to run express routes. Every hour, there are 9 trains running nonstop between East Croydon and Clapham Junction, and 16 trains running between Wimbledon and Clapham Junction with two intermediate stops. The diagonal commuter rail trip is faster than Tramlink, even counting transfer time at Clapham Junction.
Paris is full of express trains, represented by the RER. But T3 misses nearly all of the RER connections, which weakens the route but also means that there is no express alternative on the outer margin of Paris; but one would still not take it all the way, especially since there is a forced transfer at Porte de Vincennes. But T1 and T2 have better RER and Transilien connections. The high density all along these routes, and not just at widely-separated key junctions, ensures that there is high demand even on short segments.
In fact, there is circumstantial evidence that T1, T2, and T3 have extensive short-range ridership: their ridership levels per kilometer are very high (respectively 11,000, 12,000, and 15,000 per weekday), and if they had low turnover they would not have capacity for such high ridership. New York has 15,000 weekday subway riders per route-km, and this is with long trains, extensive four-tracking, and higher peak frequency than on the Parisian tramways. It’s hard to imagine comparable ridership levels on a surface tramway without very high turnover, which I have in fact observed riding T3.
In contrast, I saw relatively little turnover between Wimbledon and East Croydon on Tramlink. I saw some, generally involving a small net decrease in passengers on the tram at the first few stations past Wimbledon, but a large proportion of passengers who got on at Wimbledon stayed on until Croydon. To them, the tram is perhaps a slower but cheaper alternative to mainline rail. Some would also ride until one or two stations before East Croydon, within the built-up cluster of Croydon; perhaps their exact destination was closer to one of these tram stations than to East Croydon, where the tram loses a lot of time due to circuitous street running.
Reinforcing the importance of turnover, the tram was crowded. I took it at 4:30 in the afternoon, on the shoulders of rush hour, and it was standing-room only for my entire trip, with considerable crowding among the standees for the first few stations. And yet, despite the crowding, ridership per kilometer is a fraction of that achieved by Paris’s top three tramways, which do not appear more crowded.
I wrote about turnover in the context of Vancouver buses, talking about patterns of development along north-south arterials (Main, Fraser, and Commercial) versus east-west ones (King Edward and 49th). Here we see how it interacts with development on a circumferential tramway within the context of a rapid transit network with fast radial lines. It’s common in a large city to have strong demand for circumferential transit but not so much that full rapid transit is justifiable, leading to tramway networks such as Tramlink and the tramways of Ile-de-France. In this context, it’s important to attract short-hop ridership and not just end-to-end ridership, where the tramway would struggle with the radial rapid transit network. This in turn requires the region to ensure that the intermediate stops generate ample ridership, which requires either uniformly high density (as is the case in and around Paris) or a deliberate effort at TOD in the middle.
This is true for more than just tramways. The fundamental fact about Tramlink and the Ile-de-France tramways is that they are slower than their respective cities’ radial rail networks. The same fundamental fact is true of circumferential buses, even in cities where the radial rail network is light rail rather than rapid transit. In theory this could even happen in an all-bus city, provided the buses’ right-of-way quality were such that the radials were faster than the circumferentials; but in reality this is hard to arrange, since buses get stuck in traffic even when they’re BRT, and there’s more traffic near city center than outside.
Successful transit cities are not alike. There are large differences in how the most expansive transit networks are laid out. It takes multiple series of posts across several blogs (not just mine but also Human Transit and others) covering just one of them, for example stop spacing or how construction contracts are let. With so much variation, it’s easy to get caught up in details that differentiate the best systems. After all, the deepest communities of railfans tend to sprout in the cities with the largest rail networks; arguing with railfans with experience with London, Tokyo, or Paris is difficult because they know intricate details of how their systems work that I am catching up on but only know in the same depth for New York. Add in the fact that London and Paris view each other as peer cities and from there the route to arguing minutiae about two cities that by most standards have good public transit is short.
But what if this is wrong? What if, instead of or in addition to figuring out differences among the top transit cities, it’s useful to also figure out what these transit cities have in common that differentiates them from auto-oriented cities? After all, in other aspects of development or best practices this is well-understood: for example, a developing country can choose to aim to be hyper-capitalist like Singapore or the US or social democratic like Sweden or France, but it had better develop the institutions that those four countries have in common that differentiate them from the third world.
Unfortunately, before discussing what the common institutions to transit cities are, it’s necessary to discuss things that may be common but don’t really matter.
The US as a confounding factor
The biggest problem with figuring out things all good transit cities have in common is that in the developed world, the US (and to some extent Canada and Australia) is unique in having bad transit. Frequent commenter Threestationsquare has a list of cities by annual rapid transit ridership (counting BRT but not infrequent commuter rail, which lowballs parts of the US); New York is near the top, but the second highest in the US, a near-tie between Boston, Chicago, and Washington, would rank #22 in Europe. As a result, some social, political, and technical features that appear to differentiate good and bad transit are not really about transit but about the US and must be discarded as confounding factors. Fortunately, most of these confounding factors are easy to dispose of since they also occur in New York.
The more difficult question concerns factors that are distantly related to the weakness of US transit but are not direct explanations. I wrote about racism as such a factor a few months ago, arguing that high US construction costs come from weak civil service, which in turn comes from the way American segregation works. The US is not uniquely racist or even uniquely segregated; the unique aspect is that it a) has a long-settled oppressed minority and not just immigrants who arrived after the characteristic of the state was established, and b) has segregation within metro areas (unlike Singapore, which has social but not spatial segregation) but not between them (unlike Israel, where the built-up area of Tel Aviv has very few Arabs). But while this can explain why institutions developed in a way that’s hostile to transit, it’s not a direct explanation for poor US transit except in Atlanta, where the white state underinvests in the black city. White people in Boston, Los Angeles, Houston, and other cities with little to no public transit do not avoid the bus or the train out of stereotypes that match typical American racial stereotypes, such as crime; they avoid the train because it doesn’t go where they’re going and the bus because it is slow and unreliable.
There are two ways to avoid confounding factors. The first is the sanity check, where available: if some feature of transit exists across major transit cities but is absent in auto-oriented cities not just in the US but also in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, and Italy, then it’s likely to be relevant. Unfortunately, clean examples are rare. The second and more difficult method is to have theoretical understanding of what matters.
London and Paris are transit cities. So are Prague and Stockholm. I’ve stressed the importance of scale-variance before: features that work in larger cities may fail in smaller ones and vice versa. Thus, it’s best to look at common features of successful transit cities within each size class separately.
In fact, one way cities can fail is by adopting transit features from cities of the wrong size class. China is making the mistake in one direction: Beijing and Shanghai have no express subway trains or frequent regional rail services acting as express urban rail, and as a result, all urban travel has to slow down to an average speed of about 35 km/h, whereas Tokyo has express regional lines averaging 60 km/h. China’s subway design standards worked well for how big its cities were when those standards were developed from the 1970s to the 1990s, but are too small for the country’s megacities today.
In contrast, in the developed world, the megacities with good public transit all have frequent express trains: Tokyo and Osaka have four-track (or even eight-track!) regional lines, Paris has the RER, New York has express subways (and the premium-price LIRR trains from Jamaica to Penn Station), London has fast regional rail lines and Thameslink and will soon have Crossrail, Seoul has a regional rail network with express trains on Subway Line 1, and Moscow stands alone with a strictly two-track system but has such wide stop spacing that the average speed on the Metro is 41 km/h. Smaller transit cities sometimes have frequent express trains (e.g. Zurich and Stockholm) and sometimes don’t (e.g. Prague), but it’s less important for them because their urban extent is such that a two-track subway line can connect the center with the edge of the built-up area in a reasonable amount of time.
And if China failed by adopting design standards fitting smaller cities than it has today, the US fails in the other direction, by adopting design standards fitting huge megacities, i.e. New York. Small cities cannot hope to have lines with the crowding levels of the Lexington Avenue Line. This has several implications. First, they need to scale their operating costs down, by using proof of payment ticketing and unstaffed stations, which features are common to most European transit cities below London and Paris’s size class. Second, they need to worry about train frequency, since it’s easy to get to the point where the frequency that matches some crowding guideline is so low that it discourages riders. And third, they need to maximize network effects, since there isn’t room for several competing operations, which means ensuring buses and trains work together and do not split the market between them.
The best example of an American city that fails in all three aspects above is Washington. While railfans in Washington lament the lack of express tracks like those of New York, the city’s problems are the exact opposite: it copied aspects of New York that only succeed in a dense megacity. With interlining and reverse-branching, Washington has low frequency on each service, down to 12 minutes off-peak. The stations are staffed and faregated, raising operating costs. And there is no fare integration between Metro and the buses, splitting the market in areas with price-sensitive riders (i.e. poor people) like Anacostia.
The political situation
While I’ve written before about what I think good metro design standards are, these standards themselves cannot separate the major transit cities from cities like Los Angeles (which has about two and a half rail trunks in a metro area larger than that of London or Paris) or Tel Aviv (which has no metro at all). Instead, it’s worth asking why these cities have no large subway systems to begin with.
In the case of Tel Aviv, Israel has had an official policy of population dispersal since independence. After independence the North and South of the country had Arab majorities, and the government wished to encourage Jews to settle there to weaken any Palestinian claims to these areas. As a result, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion rejected a plan to develop an urban rail network centered on Tel Aviv and instead encouraged low-income Jewish immigrants to move far away, either to depopulated Arab towns or to new towns (“development towns”) built at strategic points for national geopolitics. Decentralization was national policy, and with it came auto-oriented urbanism. A less harsh but equally politicized environment led to Malaysia’s auto-centric layout: Paul Barter’s thesis outlines how Malaysia choked informal transit and encouraged auto-oriented suburbanization in order to create an internal market for state-owned automakers.
In the case of the US, the situation is more complex, since there were several distinct political trends in different eras favoring cars. In postwar suburbia (and in Los Angeles going back to the 1920s) it was the association of cars with middle-class normality, and in California also with freedom from hated railroads; it’s related to the fact that American suburbanization was led by the middle class rather than by the working class as with more recent exurbanization. In Israel suburbanization was led by the working class, but the deliberate government policy of decentralization meant that the urban middle class’s demands for better transportation were ignored until the 1990s.
Without enough of an urban middle class to advocate for more transit, US transit withered. New cities in the Sunbelt had little demand for public transit, and in the older cities the middle class cared little for any transit that wasn’t a peak-only commuter train from the suburbs to the CBD. Moreover, in existing transit cities the middle class demanded that the urban layout change to fit its suburban living situation, leading to extensive job sprawl into office parks that are difficult to serve on transit. This paralleled trends in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand; Sydney in particular saw middle-class suburbanization early, like Los Angeles.
The political situation changed in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, but by then high construction costs, NIMBYism constraining the extent of TOD (unlike in Canada), and indifference to leveraging regional rail for urban transit (as in Canada and until recently Israel but unlike in Australia) made it difficult to build more public transit lines.
Regional rail and TOD
The largest transit cities in the rich and middle-income world all make extensive use of regional rail, with the aforementioned exception of Chinese cities, where the lack of regional rail is creating serious travel pain, and New York, where the city itself is transit-oriented but its suburbs are not. Smaller transit cities usually make use of regional rail as well, but this isn’t universal, and to my understanding is uncommon in Eastern Europe (e.g. Kyiv has one semi-frequent ring line) even in cities with very high metro and tramway usage.
However, smaller transit cities that do not have much regional rail have full metro systems and not just tramways, let alone BRT. Curitiba and Bogota are famous for their BRT-only transit networks, but both instituted their systems in a context with low labor costs and both are building metro systems right now.
The other common element to transit cities is TOD. Here, we must distinguish old cities like London, Paris, Berlin, and Vienna, whose urban layout is TOD because it was laid out decades before mass motorization, and newer cities like Stockholm, Tokyo, and every city in Eastern Europe or the East Asian tiger states. The latter set of cities built housing on top of train stations, often public housing (as in the communist world or in Stockholm) but not always (as in Tokyo and to some extent Hong Kong), in an era when the global symbol of prosperity was still the American car-owning middle class.
The importance of TOD grows if we compare countries with relatively similar histories, namely, the US and Canada. Neither country does much regional rail, both have had extensive middle-class suburbanization (though Canada’s major cities have maintained bigger inner-urban middle classes than the US’s), and English Canada’s cities came into the 1970s with low urban density. The difference is that Canada has engaged in far more TOD. Calgary built up a large CBD for how small the city is, without much parking; Vancouver built up Downtown as well as transit-oriented centers such as Metrotown, New Westminster, Lougheed, and Whalley, all on top of the Expo Line. Nowhere in the US did such TOD happen. Moreover, American examples of partial TOD, including Arlington on top of the Washington Metro and this decade’s fast growth in Seattle, have led to somewhat less awful transit usage than in the rest of the country.
Most cities in the developed world are replete with legacy rail networks that can be leveraged for high-quality public transit. We see cities that aim at transit revival start with regional rail modernization, including Auckland and to some extent Tel Aviv (which is electrifying its rail network and building new commuter lines, but they run in freeway medians due to poor planning). Moreover, we see cities that are interested in transit build up high-rise CBDs in their centers and high- and mid-rise residential development near outlying train stations.
“Regional rail and TOD” is not a perfect formula; it elides a lot of details and a lot of historical factors that are hard to replicate. But both regional rail and TOD have been major elements in the construction of transit cities over the last 60 years, and while they both have exceptions, they don’t have many exceptions. In the other direction, I don’t know of examples of failed TOD – that is, of auto-oriented cities that aggressively built TOD on top of new or existing rail lines but didn’t manage to grow their transit ridership. I do know some examples of failed regional rail, but usually they make glaring mistakes in design standards, especially frequency but also station siting and fare integration.
At a closer in level of zoom, it’s worthwhile to talk about the unique features of each transit city. But when looking at the big picture, it’s better to talk about what all transit cities of a particular size class have in common that auto-oriented cities don’t. Only this way can an auto-oriented city figure out what it absolutely must do if it wants to have better public transit and what are just tools in its kit for achieving that goal.
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).