A country or region that is good at manufacturing cars can export them globally and earn hard cash. But what about public transportation? How can a city that has the ability to build good, low-cost public transport get rich off of it? There is an answer, but it is more complicated than “export this,” mirroring the fact that public transport itself is a more complex system to run than cars. This in turn relates to housing growth rates and urban economies of scale, making this the most useful in a large city with high housing production rates, of which the best example is Seoul. The good news is that the world’s largest and richest cities could gain tremendously if they had better public transport as well as high housing growth rates.
Infrastructure is not exportable
I wrote more than two years ago about the difference between dirty and clean infrastructure. Cars, car parts, and oil are exportable, so the majority of the cost of cars as a system are exportable, making dedicated regions like Bavaria, Texas, and the Gulf states rich. Green tech is not like that – the bulk of the cost is local labor. A large majority of the operating costs of a subway system are local wages and benefits; in New York, depreciation on rolling stock is less than 10% of overall operating costs. Construction costs are likewise almost entirely local labor and management, which is why they are determined by where the project takes place, rather than by which engineering firm builds the project.
The upshot is that Madrid and other low-cost cities can’t just get rich by building other cities’ infrastructure for them. They can’t build turnkey systems for New York and London at Spanish prices – the problems with New York and London come from local standards, management, and regulations, and while a Spanish engineering firm could give valuable advice on what high-cost cities need to change, it’s not going to reap more than a fraction of the construction cost saving in consulting fees.
Good transit as an amenity
What a city can do with low-cost construction is build a large subway network like Madrid, and use that as infrastructure to help local economic production. This works as both a consumption amenity and a production amenity. As a consumption amenity, it enables people to commute without needing to own a car, which reduces living costs and lets employers get away with paying less in nominal terms; this is a bigger influence on local firms, because international ones tend to use cost of living adjustments that make profligate lifestyle assumptions and factor in car costs even in cities where car ownership is low, like Singapore or New York.
As a production amenity, public transit also enables work concentration in city centers. This is separate from the observation that it allows workers to commute more cheaply – if a large city produces in a concentrated center, then without rapid transit, workers can’t get in at all. About 23% of people entering the Manhattan core on a weekday do so by car per the Hub Bound Report, but at the peak hour, 8-9 am, this falls to 9%, because the road capacity is capped around 55,000 cars an hour and a maximum number of parking spots for them. Auto-centric cities of New York’s approximate size exist, not by building massive road capacity to support comparable city centers, but by not having strong city centers to begin with. Los Angeles has maybe 400,000 people in the widest definition of its central business district, where in the same area New York has more than 2 million – and Los Angeles’s secondary centers, like Century City, top in the mid-5 figures before they get completely choked with traffic.
So what a city can do with cheap infrastructure is build a large subway network and support a large high-rise central business district and then use that to produce more efficiently. This is possible, but more complex than just exporting cars or oil, because to export cars one just needs to be good at making cars, and to export oil one just needs to have oil underground, whereas to produce out of public transit one also needs a solid economy in other sectors that can make use of the better infrastructure. I suspect that this is why Southern Europe keeps not growing economically despite building high-quality public transport – the Madrid Metro is great but there isn’t enough of a private economy to make use of it.
The connection with development
To maximize the use of a subway for its economy, a city needs to make sure development can follow it. This means that city center needs high job density, which includes high-rise office towers at the busiest intersections, and many mid-rise office buildings in a radius of a few kilometers. Neither the typical European pattern in which there are few skyscrapers nor the American pattern in which there are skyscrapers for a few blocks and then the rest of the city is subject to strict residential zoning is ideal for this. It’s better to have a city whose central few square kilometers look like Midtown and whose surrounding few tens of square kilometers look like Paris, with the occasional secondary cluster of skyscrapers at high-demand nodes; let’s call this city “Tokyo.”
Residential development has to keep up as well. A city region that has a strong private economy but doesn’t build enough housing for it will end up with capped production. Normally it’s the lowest-end jobs that get exported. However, two problems make it more than a marginal reduction in production. First, expensive cities have political pressure to allocate apartments by non-market processes like rent control, keeping less productive but politically favored people; a large gap between market rent and construction costs creates plenty of surplus to extract, and a mass exodus of firms from cities like San Francisco in such a situation starts from thee least profitable ones, and by the time it affects the most profitable on, the system is entrenched. And second, breaking a firm’s chain between high-end headquarters jobs in a rich city center and lower-end subsidiary jobs elsewhere reduces firmwide productivity, since many connections have to be remote; Google has problems with all-remote teams and tries to center teams in the Bay Area when it gets too unwieldy.
For one example of a city that does everything right, look at Seoul. It has low construction costs, around $150 million per kilometer for urban subways. Thanks to its low costs and huge size, it keeps building up its system even though it already has one of the largest systems in the world, probably third in ridership after Tokyo and Osaka when one includes all commuter lines. It also has high density, high-rise CBDs, and fast housing construction; in 2019 the Seoul region built around 10 units per 1,000 people, representing a decline since the mid-2010s, and the state has plans to accelerate construction, especially in the city, to curb rising prices. This is till a better situation than the weak economy and flagging construction in much of Europe, or the NIMBY growth rates of both much of the rest of Europe and the richest American cities.
No, not in the long run.
This has big implications for cities in the future, because it means firms will want to cluster more near production amenities – that is, other high-productivity firms. A city like New York manifestly has very weak consumption amenities, because in the spring it proved that its government is dangerously incompetent in a crisis – but its production amenities are likely to grow, because more firms will want to locate there and in other big, rich cities.
Remote work and the tech industry
The tech industry has long been familiar with remote work. The big multinationals have offices worldwide and some teams are remote, and some small firms are even all-remote. Much of this is an adaptation to the industry’s inability to bring everyone to San Francisco and Silicon Valley, where housing is too expensive and work visas are scarce. This has led to a big internal debate about the future of work; for decades now there have been predictions that the Internet would facilitate remote work and therefore reduce the need for cities to exist as office work centers.
The industry also reacted to corona slightly faster than the rest of the Western world. I’m not sure why – usually the American tech industry sneers at anything that comes out of Asia. But for whatever reason, Google sent its workers home in early March, and has been on work-from-home since, as have the other tech employers.
However, this was always intended to be a temporary arrangement. Workers were told to go back to the office when the crisis ended, at a date that keeps being pushed back and is now September 2021. Moreover, it appears that the industry wants to consolidate rather than disperse: Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple are all buying up office space in Manhattan, planning to add 22,000 jobs there. This is not San Francisco, but it’s the closest thing: New York is the United States’ second richest metropolitan region, and (I believe) the second biggest tech job center, with New York hosting the largest non-Bay Area Google office.
The problems with remote work
I have asked a number of people to talk to me about their experience with working from home. All are American professionals; this is far and away the easiest socioeconomic class to do an ethnography of. At no point did anyone ever tell me that everyone in their office is as productive working from home as they had been working as a team at the office. The work from home productivity loss is real; it does not affect everyone, but it affects enough people to be noticeable.
Specific problems I was told include,
- Corona specifically is a very stressful event, so everyone is on edge and less productive than the usual.
- Without continuous office work, it’s harder to onboard junior workers, even when senior workers are fine at home. Junior workers also lose the benefits of close mentoring.
- Parents with children have to take on additional care duties, and without a stay-at-home parent this is difficult.
- I believe in one case I was told the opposite of the above – that given that children are at home, it’s easier for parents than for non-parents.
- At least per the CEO of United, who is obviously biased on this, firms perceive in-person sales to be more successful than virtual ones. In general, I’ve been told that work facing clients is less productive when it’s virtual and law firms can work remotely in the short run with their existing client base but in the long run they need the office.
The standard production theory, articulated for example by Alain Bertaud, is that working from home is less productive because there are no spontaneous interactions, and this seems true although I don’t recall anyone telling me this exact thing literally, but very similar problems are apparent.
What does this mean for cities?
Before corona, it was not always clear whether advances in telecommunications would make remote work viable. It increasingly looks like the answer is no, and therefore the most productive firms are likely to center around their usual clusters, just as the tech firms are buying up Manhattan office space. The upshot, then, is that high-cost, high-productivity city centers are likely to see more commercial demand in the medium and long runs.
One model that I’ve heard from multiple sources is mixed, for example 2-4 days a week at the office, 1-3 days remote. If this happens, then it will mean that people commute fewer days. This has opposite effects on office and residential geography: fewer commutes mean it’s more acceptable to live farther out and have longer work trips on work-at-office days, which encourages either suburbanization or hopping over to the next city over; for the exact same reason, it’s also more acceptable to site offices in areas with more traffic congestion, that is city center.
What does this mean for public transportation?
More urban job concentration universally requires better public transportation, since rapid transit is far and away the most efficient mode of transportation measured in capacity provided per unit of right-of-way width. However, the details are subtle. Most importantly, the American upper middle class mostly does not work 9 to 5 at the most productive firms. The tech industry tends toward shifted hours, especially on the East Coast in order to overlap Silicon Valley better, and even for the same reason in Israel. So the impact of more tech employment in Midtown is not that New York desperately needs more subway capacity, but rather that it needs to broaden the peak to last until 10 in the morning rather than 9. This conclusion does not depend much on whether workers show up at the office every day or only 3-4 days a week, because 60-80% of rush hour traffic still requires peak or near-peak train throughput.
There were many Americans who, back when corona seemed to be first and foremost a New York problem, predicted the end of cities, or the conversion of cities to spaces of consumption. Joel Kotkin even blamed New York’s density for corona and praised Los Angeles’s sprawl; now that Los Angeles is running out of hospital beds, nobody in the US blames density anymore. (One could also point out Seoul and Tokyo’s density, but not even 460,000 deaths and counting will make Americans say “our country needs to be more like other countries.”)
But this is not looking to happen. The most productive firms in the US are urbanizing – and those are the most productive firms in the world; it averages out with horrific American public-sector inefficiency to about the same GDP per hour as in Germany. And this means that going forward, the richest, most productive, and most expensive cities will remain spaces of high-end production, and will need to build sufficient numbers of office towers and residences and improve public transportation infrastructure to accommodate.
I’ve periodically written about consumption and production theories of cities – that is, whether people mostly move to cities based on consumption or production amenities. The production theory is that what matters is mostly production amenities, that is, jobs, and this underlies YIMBYism. Consumption theory is that people move for consumption amenities, and, moreover, these amenities are not exactly consumption in the city, for example good health outcomes, but consuming the city itself, that is neighborhood-level amenities in which who lives in the city matters. The latter theory, for example promulgated by Richard Florida, is that jobs follow consumption amenities like gay bars, and not the other way around. It is wrong and production theory is right, and I’d like to give some personal examples from Berlin, because I feel like Berliners all believe in consumption theory.
The situation in Berlin
Berlin is an increasingly desirable city. After decades in which it was economically behind, the city is growing. Unemployment, which stood at 19% in 2005, was down to 7.8% last year. With higher incomes come higher rents, and because Berlin for years built little housing as there was little demand, rents rose, and it took time for housing growth to catch up; on the eve of corona, the city was permitting about 6 annual dwellings per 1,000 people, up from about 1 in the early 2000s.
This is generally attributed to tech industry growth. There are a lot of tech startups in the city. I don’t want to exaggerate this too much – Google’s biggest Germany office is by far Munich’s, and the Berlin office is mostly a sales office with a handful of engineers who are here because of a two-body problem. But the smaller firms are here and the accelerator spaces are very visible, in a way that simply didn’t exist in Paris, or even in Stockholm.
Berlin’s production amenities
I might not have thought that Berlin should attract so much tech investment. My vulgar guess would be that tech would go to cities with many preexisting engineers, like Munich and Stuttgart, or maybe to Frankfurt for the international flight connections. But Berlin does make sense in a number of ways.
The city is mostly fluent in English. Jakub Marian’s map has France 39% Anglophone and Germany 56%, which doesn’t seem too outlandish to me. But Paris seems in line with the rest of France, whereas in Berlin, service workers seem mostly Anglophone, which is not the case in (say) Mainz or Munich.
The global tech industry is Anglophone, and good command of English is a huge production amenity. Other English-dependent industries seem to favor Anglophone European cities as well, for example various firms fleeing Brexit moved their European headquarters not to Paris but to Amsterdam or maybe Dublin.
The federal government is here. This is not relevant to tech – the startups here don’t seem to be looking for lobbying opportunities, and at any case German lobbying works differently from American lobbying and firm-level proximity to the capital is unimportant. However, the government stimulates local spending, which has increased employment. The government’s move here has been gradual, with institutions that during division were spread all over West Germany slowly migrating to Berlin.
The quality of infrastructure in Berlin is very good. The urban rail network was built when Berlin was Western Europe’s third largest city, after London and Paris, and has even grown after the war because the West built U7 and U9 to bypass Mitte. This means that commute pain here is not serious, especially on any even vaguely middle-class income. Moreover, Berlin has benefited from post-reunification investment, including Hauptbahnhof and two high-speed rail lines.
Consumption theory and the counterculture
The queer counterculture that I am involved with in Berlin tells a different story. To hear them tell it, Berlin has a quirky, individualistic, nonconforming culture, unlike the stifling normality of Munich. Artists moved here, and then other people moved here to be near the artists, paying higher rents until the artists could no longer afford the city. This story is told at every scale, from Berlin as a city to individual neighborhoods like Prenzlauer Berg and Neukölln. A lot of the discourse about Berlin repeats this uncritically, for example Feargus O’Sullivan at CityLab/Bloomberg Cities writes about the cool factor and about gentrification of old buildings.
It is also a completely wrong story. This is really important to understand: nobody that I know in the sort of spaces that are being blamed for gentrification, that is the tech industry and its penumbra, has any interest in the counterculture. I go to board games meetups full of tech workers who are fluent in English and often don’t know any German, and they have no connections at all to the local counterculture. They interact with immigrant culture spaces, not with the 95%+ white counterculture as defined by queer spaces in Neukölln that complain about gentrification in a neighborhood undergoing white flight at the rate of postwar New York (compare 2019 data, PDF-pp. 25 and 28, with 2016, PDF-pp. 28 and 31). Occasionally there are crossovers, as when an American comedian hosted live standup in February and then there were tech workers and said American also interacts with the counterculture, but a standup comic is not why Berliners complain.
Nor do I find foreign tech workers especially interested in German minutiae comparing Berlin with Munich. By my non-German standards, Berliners already jaywalk at indescribably lower rates, and I gather that Munich is stuffier but that’s not why I’m here and not there, the rents and the language are.
We’re not even particularly oppositional to the counterculture. I personally am because seeing queer space after queer space host indoor events during corona without masks was a horrifying experience; I went to a queer leftist meetup in late October in which people huddled together maskless and I was the only one with a mask on, except for one trans Australian physicist who drank a beer and then masked after finished. But the rest? They don’t care, nor should they. The counterculture is not the protagonist or the antagonist of Berlin’s story; it’s barely a bystander. Consumption theory is just what it promotes in order to convince itself that it’s important, that it spreads ideas and not viruses.
A few years ago, Aaron Renn was writing, I think about the General Electric headquarters’ move from suburban New York to Downtown Boston in 2016, that in the future, city center jobs would go to high-value industries like corporate HQs and professional services, and then lower-end stuff like call centers would go in suburban office parks. At the time I didn’t understand the full meaning of this – I was still thinking of employment in a narrow city center of a few blocks rather than a broader region, like the 100 km^2 zone I use to compare the US with Canada and France because that’s the most granular data I have in the latter two countries. But in retrospect, Aaron was getting at a dangerous trend in which job markets deurbanize. This is not a new trend – office park sprawl goes back to the 1970s, and industrial sprawl even earlier – and to some extent it’s less about deurbanization and more about the urban job market reaching maximum size. But whatever the history of it, it’s a serious threat to economic performance – and the solution to it requires better public transportation.
Cities as job markets
I’ve written before about production theory. The only thing I have to add on the theory side is that since I wrote that post, I was at a talk that Alain Bertaud gave at Marron, about urbanization. The main topic of the talk was about urban growth and sprawl in the developing world, but at the beginning of the presentation, he gave some remarks about cities and corona. Zoom meetings like the one we had, he warned, were fine, but cities are fundamentally job markets that succeed through spontaneous interaction, and this spontaneity does not exist with remote work. This is to a large extent the new urban geography thesis of Paul Krugman or the work of Ed Glaeser – cities exist as places of production first, and this production requires close proximity.
Now, close proximity depends on technology. In a city with the transport technology of London circa 1800, close proximity means the scope of the City of London, and even 5 km is uncomfortably far. In a city with cars and highways, the distance is much greater – but it is not the same as commute distance. A half-hour drive is not spontaneous. When I asked American friends and coworkers about their productivity through the spring corona lockdowns, a Boston lawyer told me that lawyers wouldn’t even travel midday for clients for 20-30 minutes, since their time was too valuable – they’d schedule conference calls.
This does not mean that the entire work market has to be within such a short distance. It certainly helps, but different industries can cluster in different parts of the city. But there is a maximum distance within which the city is recognizably a single job market.
Aaron Renn’s bifurcation
Aaron talks about bifurcation a lot, between winners and losers. He relates the move of large corporate HQs to city centers to this bifurcation: city centers win by having higher-value added, higher-paying jobs, everyone else gets saddled with lower-end jobs. Moreover, these lower-end jobs are commodities – a call center can be anywhere – and therefore they compete on price and not quality, frustrating the attempt of any region on the margins of the US to climb up the value chain.
That said, even the sort of job sprawl of the 1970s, spearheaded by big companies’ move out of city centers to rich suburbs like GE to Fairfield and IBM to Armonk, represents the same threat to urban productivity. That was driven by snobbishness – the elite suburbanized, and then dragged jobs outside the city with it, for example GE did partly on spurious grounds of resilience in face of nuclear war destroying city centers. Today, the city gains higher-end jobs at the expense of the suburbs, the opposite of the situation in the 1970s. But the same situation of jobs outside one major core persists.
Is this polycentricity?
No. It’s become fashionable to speak of polycentric cities as the next evolution, to decongest old cores. But doing so requires the urban geography to have centers. I pointed out previously that Los Angeles may claim to be polycentric but is just weak-centered – the secondary centers have a few tens of thousands of jobs each at most. This is not like the big city centers one finds in Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe, or even in the Rhine-Ruhr or Randstad.
Keihanshin, the Rhine-Ruhr, and Randstad are all agglomerations of historic cities. It is possible to also form polycentric regions out of new development – for example, Yokohama was founded as a 19th-century treaty port and then grew as a Tokyo suburb. Both New York and Paris have moved their central business districts by a few kilometers gradually, New York from Lower Manhattan to Midtown and Paris from Les Halles to around the Opera; both also have near-center business centers, like Long Island City or La Défense. Even then there’s likely to be some efficiency loss in decentralizing city center jobs this way, but it’s still easier to shuttle between Times Square and World Trade Center than between either and New Brunswick.
The public transit solution
In the 1970s, the abandonment of city centers was motivated by a desire to escape their poverty and a belief that the suburbs were the future. Urban poverty still exists but inner-urban wealth is considerable and increasing, and the belief that the suburbs were the future turned out to be incorrect – one cannot be a suburb of nowhere.
The model of suburbanization that can be sustained is one built from the late 19th century to about the 1950s and early 60s: jobs stay in the city, people go wherever.
Doing so requires three things: offices, dwellings, and a way of getting between them.
Offices mean commercial upzoning – some American cities are good about it, but the ones with the most demand, like New York, aren’t. In general there’s little appetite for commercializing near-center neighborhoods in the US, whereas Europe is looser about it and therefore new firms can sprout a few subway stops outside the primary center, for example Spotify two stops outside T-Centralen. Residences likewise require upzoning, especially for mid- and high-rise apartment buildings near subway stations where they exist and have capacity.
But in many cases, it’s required to also build up public transportation. Big central business districts feature hundreds of thousands of people converging on a small area at the peak, and the biggest go up into the millions. The highest-capacity form of transportation is required, which is rapid transit, never cars or surface transit.
Rapid transit and city centers are symbiotic, now as in 1910. An expansive rapid transit system, with high service quality, is required to serve city centers from multiple directions; and city centers are required to give people something to take the trains to, or else they’ll just drive everywhere and only take the train to the sports stadium or the airport.
And ultimately, city centers are required for economic efficiency, because of the importance of proximity for spontaneous economic and social interactions. Rapid transit also benefits from high efficiency – it’s very cheap to operate compared with the cost of car ownership. The alternative is a kind of deurbanization, in which people may live at high density relative to travel speeds but don’t form large clusters enabling the highest productivity.
I’ve been talking so much lately about integrated timed transfer in the context of Boston that people started asking me if it’s also applicable to New York. The answer is that the basic principles are not scale-dependent, but the implementation is, so in very large cities, public transport planning should not look like in Switzerland, a country whose largest metro area is staring at 2 million people from the bottom.
The one caveat here is that most cities are not huge. The developed world has seven megacities: Tokyo, Seoul, New York, Los Angeles, Osaka, London, Paris. And Los Angeles doesn’t really have public transportation, so we’re down to six. The middle-income world has a bunch more for sanity checking – Mexico City, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Johannesburg, Moscow, Istanbul, Tehran, Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Bangkok – but all are either still in convergence mode building up their networks or (mostly in Latin America) have given up. So much of this comes down to the idiosyncrasies of six cities, of which the largest three networks are substantially in the same planning tradition.
Demand is huge
Big cities have big centers, which can’t really be served by any mode except rapid transit. Even in Los Angeles, what passes for a central business district has around a 50% public transport modal split. This means that the transport network has to deliver high throughput to a relatively small city center. Even in a low-kurtosis city like Paris, most Métro lines converge on a narrow area ranging from Les Halles to Saint-Lazare; in a high-kurtosis one like New York or Tokyo, there are a few square kilometers with 200,000 jobs per km^2, which require an exceptionally dense network of rapid transit lines.
Some other network design principles follow from the need to amply serve city center. Specifically, high frequency is rarely a worry, because there’s so much demand even off-peak that usually megacity subway systems do not venture into the frequency range where long waits deter traffic; New York’s 10-minute midday gaps are bad, but that’s unusual and it comes from a combination of the legacy of postwar fear of subway crime suppressing demand and excessive branching.
But other principles require careful planning still.
Electronics before concrete, megacity version
The driverless lines in Paris support peak throughput of 42 trains per hour – a train every 85 seconds. CBTC on Line 13 without driverless operation supports 38 tph, and London’s CBTC-equipped lines support 36 tph when the branching isn’t too complex. It is imperative for other cities to learn from this and do whatever they can to reach similar headways. The difference between 21 tph, as in Shanghai, and Paris’s 42, is equivalent to building a brand new subway line. And what’s more, in a city in the size class we’re talking about, the primary concern is capacity – coverage is already good, so there really is no reason to build two 21 tph lines instead of one 42 tph one.
The situation in Paris is in a context with self-contained lines. That said, extremely busy self-contained lines do exist in other megacities – London has a bunch with near-Parisian levels of throughput, New York has some, Tokyo has a few, Seoul and Osaka are both more self-contained than Tokyo is.
Throughput and organization
The primacy of throughput means that it’s worthwhile to build small infrastructure upgrades, even with concrete, if they help with capacity. Right now the Northern line reverse-branches with the branches to the north recombining with those in the center, and Transport for London would like to split the line in two, reducing branching complexity, which would increase capacity. But doing so requires improving pedestrian circulation in the corridors of the branch point, Camden Town, where TfL expects very large transfer volumes if there’s a split and already there are circulation problems today without a split. Hence the plan in the medium term is to upgrade Camden Town and then split.
If there are bumper tracks at the end of a line, as at 8th Avenue on the L or Flushing-Main Street on the 7, then it’s useful to dig up the street for another block just to add some tail tracks. That way, trains could enter the station at full speed. This increases throughput, because the terminal interlocking has trains heading in opposite directions crossing each other at-grade, which imposes schedule constraints; it’s best if trains can go through the interlocking as fast as possible to reduce the time they’re in a constrained environment, but that in turn requires short tail tracks so that an overrun of a few meters is not catastrophic. Ideally the tail tracks should even extend a full train length past the platform to place the interlocking on the other side of it, as is done in Paris and Moscow; in that case, trains cross the interlocking out of service, when it’s easier to control their exact timings.
Such projects are disruptive, but the disruption is very localized, to just one transfer station for a deinterlining project as in London or one terminal as in New York, and the impact on capacity is very large, if not quite as large as the full suite of signaling and track upgrades that make the difference between a train every 3 minutes and a train every 1.5 minutes.
The ideal metro network is radial. Megacities already support that just because so many lines have to serve city center. However, it’s important to make sure every pair of lines intersects, with a transfer. No large metro network in the world achieves this ideal – Mexico City’s network is the largest without missed connections, but it is not radial and its only three radial lines are overburdened while the other lines have light ridership. Paris has just a single missed connection on the Métro proper, not counting the RER, but it has many pairs of lines that do not intersect at all, such as M1 and M3. London is more or less a pure radial, but there are a handful of misses, including one without any transfer between the two lines anywhere, namely the Metropolian line (including Hammersmith and City) and the Charing Cross branch of the Northern line.
Big cities that plan out a metro network have to make sure they do better. Missed connections reduce passenger ridership and lead riders to overload the lines that do get connections; for example, in Tokyo one reason cited for the high ridership of the Tozai Line is that until Fukutoshin opened it was the only one with a transfer to every other subway line, and in Shanghai, Line 1 was extremely congested as long as the alternatives going north either had critical missed connections (like Line 8) or avoided city center (like Line 3).
The role of regional rail
Regional rail as a basic concept is mostly scale-invariant. However, the design principles for trains that come every half hour are not the same as those for trains that come every 5 minutes. If trains come every half hour, they had better connect cities in a roundtrip time equal to an integer number of half hours minus turnaround times, so that they don’t have to loiter 25 minutes at a terminal collecting dust and depreciating. If they come every 5 minutes, they’re not going to loiter 25 minutes anyway, and the difference between a 5-minute turnaround and a 7-minute turnaround is not really relevant.
The design principles are then mostly about throughput, again. The most important thing is to build independent trunk lines for trains to serve city center. Even in a huge city, the finances of building a purely greenfield subway deep into suburbia are poor; Tokyo has done it with the Tsukuba Express but it’s mostly above-ground, and for the most part regional lines there and elsewhere come from taking existing suburban lines and linking them with city center tunnels.
Tokyo’s insistence on making these city center tunnels also form a coherent metro network is important. Only one non-Tokyo example is worth mentioning to add to all of this: this is Berlin, which is not a megacity but has three independent S-Bahn trunk lines. Berlin, unlike London and Paris, painstakingly made sure the S-Bahn lines would have transfers with the U-Bahn; its network has only one U-Bahn/S-Bahn missed connection, which is better than the situation in Tokyo, Paris, or (with Thameslink and Crossrail) London.
The role of development
All first-world megacities, and I believe also all megacities elsewhere, have high housing demand by domestic standards. All are very wealthy by domestic standards except Los Angeles, and Los Angeles is still incredibly expensive, it just doesn’t have the high wages to compensate that London and New York and Paris have. In such an environment, there’s no need to try to be clever with steering development to transit-oriented sites. Anywhere development is legal, developers will build, and the public transport system has a role to play in opening more land for more intense development through fast trips to the center.
A laissez-faire approach to zoning is useful in such an environment. This contrasts with smaller cities’ reliance on finger plans, like the original one in Copenhagen or the growing one in and around Berlin. No limits on development anywhere are required. The state’s planning role remains strong through transportation planning, and the suburbs may well form natural finger plans if developers are permitted to replace single-family houses with apartment buildings anywhere, since the highest-value land is near train stations. But state planning of where housing goes is counterproductive – high transit ridership comes from the impossibility of serving a large central business district by cars, and the risk of politicization and policy capture by homeowners is too great.
The advantage of this approach is also that because in a high-demand city public transport can to some extent shape and not just serve development, it’s okay to build lines that are good from the perspective of network coherence, even if the areas they serve are a bit light. This principle does not extend indefinitely – subway and regional rail lines should still go where people are – but for example building key transfer points in near-center neighborhoods that are not in high demand is fine, because demand will follow, as is building lines whose main purpose is to close some gap in the network.
The larger the city, the more important cost control is. This may sound counterintuitive, since larger cities have more demand – only in Manhattan could a $1.7 billion/km extension like Second Avenue Subway pencil out – but larger cities also have a bigger risk of cost blowouts. Already Tokyo has stopped building new rapid transit in the core despite very high crowding levels on the existing network, and London builds next to nothing as well. New York’s poor cost control led Philip Plotch to entitle his book about Second Avenue Subway The Last Subway. Even Paris builds mostly in the suburbs. Extensive city center and near-center construction continues in Seoul, in the context of very low construction costs.
The flip side is that a New York (or even London) that can build subways at the cost of Paris, let alone Seoul, is one that can rapidly solve all of its transport problems. My Assume Nordic Costs map fixates on a region of the world with small cities, but the construction costs in South Korea are if anything lower than in the Nordic countries. And even that map, given free reins for developers, is underbuilt – some lines would look ridiculous at current costs and zoning but reasonable given low costs and liberal zoning, for example something meandering through currently industrial parts of New Jersey.
Small cities designed their public transportation philosophy around scarcity: Switzerland really can’t just draw crayon and build it, because housing and transport demand there are finite and limited. Cities like New York and London, in contrast, should think in terms of abundance of infrastructure and housing, provided their regulations are set up in a way that permits the state to build infrastructure at low costs and private homebuilders to redevelop large swaths as they become easily accessible to city center.
Transit-oriented development, or TOD, means building more stuff in places with good access to public transportation, typically the immediate vicinity of a train station. This way people have more convenient access to transit and are encouraged to take it because they live or work near the train, or ideally both. In practice, American implementations heavily focus on residential TOD, and secondarily on commercial TOD, the latter focusing more on office than retail. I covered some retail issues here; in this post, I’m going to look at a completely different form of TOD, namely public-sector institutions that government at various levels can choose the location of by fiat. These includes schools, government offices, and cultural institutions like museums. Of these, the most important are schools, since a huge share of the population consists of schoolchildren, who need convenient transportation to class.
This principle here is that the state or the city can site public schools where it wants, whether it’s by diktat or by inducements through funding for school construction. This occurs even in situations with a great deal of autonomy: American suburban schools are autocephalous, but still receive state funding for school construction, and if anything that incentivizes moving to new suburban campuses inaccessible by public transit. Other cultural institutes are usually less autonomous and more strapped for cash, and getting them to move to where it’s easier for people to access them without a car should be easier.
School siting: central cities
Urban schools tend to spread all over the city. There are more schools in denser and younger neighborhoods; there also are more high-end schools (Gymnasiums, etc.) in richer neighborhoods. But overall, there isn’t much clustering. For example, here is what I get when Googling both Gymnasiums in Berlin:
There are many Gymnasiums in rich areas like Wilmersdorf and few in poor areas (the map shows one in Neukölln and none in Gesundbrunnen and Wedding, although a few that aren’t shown at this zoom level do exist). But overall, the school locations are not especially rail-oriented. They’re strewn all over the middle-class parts of the city, even though most students do not live close enough to walk. Only the most specialized of the elite schools is in city center, the French school.
The situation in New York is similar to that of Berlin – the schools in the city are all over. This is despite the fact that there’s extensive school choice at the high school level, so that students typically take the subway and bus network over long distances. New York’s school stratification is not the same as Berlin’s – its Specialized High Schools serve the top 3% of city population, Germany’s Gymnasiums serve maybe 30% – but there, too, schools that explicitly aim to draw from all over the city are located all over the city. Only the most elite of New York’s schools, Stuyvesant, is in the central business district, namely in Lower Manhattan; the second and third most elite, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech, are just outside Downtown Brooklyn and in the North Bronx, respectively. A huge fraction of Bronx Science’s student population commutes from feeder neighborhoods like Flushing, Sunset Park, Chinatown, Jackson Heights, and the Upper West Side, and has to wake up early in the morning for an hour-long commute.
If schools are not just for very local neighborhood children, then they should not be isotropic, or even middle-class-isotropic as in Berlin. They should be in areas that are easily accessible by the city’s rapid transit network, on the theory that the time of children, too, is valuable, and replacing an hour-long commute with a half-hour one has noticeable benefits to child welfare and educational outcomes.
Urban school nodes
So to improve transit access to school in transit cities, it’s useful to get schools to move to be closer to key nodes on the rail network. City center may be too expensive – the highest and best use of land around Times Square or Pariser Platz is not a school. But there are other useful nodes.
The first class of good locations is central and near-center areas that don’t have huge business demand. In New York, Lower Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn both qualify – business prefers Midtown. In Berlin, there are a lot of areas in Mitte that don’t have the development intensity of Potsdamer Platz, and to some extent the French school picked such an area, on the margin of Mitte.
The second is key connection points on the rail network that are not in the center. Berlin is rich in such connections thanks to the Ring. To some extent there are a bunch of schools close to Ringbahn stations, but this isn’t perfect, and for example the Europasportspark shown on the map is between two Ringbahn stations, at one of the few arterial roads through the Ring that doesn’t have an S-Bahn station. In New York, there is no ring, so connections are more sporadic; desirable nodes may include Queensborough Plaza, Metropolitan/Lorimer in Williamsburg, and East New York.
East New York supplies an example of the third class: an area that is rich in transit connections but is commercially undesirable because the population is poor. (The Berlin equivalent is Gesundbrunnen – non-German readers would be astounded by the bile Germans I know, even leftists who vote for anti-racist politicians, heap on U8 and on Gesundbrunnen and Neukölln.) Since everyone goes to school, even working-class children, it is valuable to site schools and other cultural amenities in such areas for easy accessibility.
One important caveat is that freeways, which make office and retail more attractive, have the opposite effect on schools. Air pollution makes learning more difficult, and children do not own cars and thus do not benefit from the convenience offered by the car. If rail lines are near freeways, then schools should be set somewhat away, on the principle that the extra 5-minute walk is worth the gain in health from not sitting hours in a polluted environment.
Outside the cities, the place for schools is the same as that for local retail and offices: the town center, with a regional rail station offering frequent access by train and timed connections by bus. Even when the student population is local, as it is in American suburbs, the density is too low for people to walk, forcing some kind of mechanized transportation. For this, the school bus is a poor option – it is capital-intensive, requiring what is in effect a second bus system, one that is as useless for non-students as the regular buses are for students if the school is far away from the local transit network.
Instead, a central school location means that the suburban bus network, oriented around city center, is useful for students. It increases transportation efficiency rather than decreasing it – there is no duplication of service, and the school peaks don’t usually coincide with other travel peaks, like the office worker peak and the retail worker peak. The bus network, designed around a 15- or 30-minute clockface schedule, also means that students can stay in longer, if they have on-campus club activity or if they have things to do in the town center, such as going shopping.
In some distant suburbs the school peak, arriving around 8 in the morning, may be the same as the peak for office workers who take the bus to the train to go to the central city. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – for parents who insist on driving, this makes it easier to drop off children on the way to work. If this turns out to create real congestion on the bus, then the solution is to move school start time later, to 9 or so.
It’s crucial to use state power to effect this change when possible. For example, Massachusetts funds school construction through state funds but not renovation, which has encouraged schools to move to new campuses, generally in harder-to-reach areas. Fitchburg’s high school used to be in city center but recently moved to a suburban location close to nothing. Even in environments with a lot of local autonomy, the state should fund school construction in more central areas.
Two years ago, at a Breakthrough Institute conference, I met Tory Gattis in real life for the first time, having known him on the Internet for maybe ten years. He was doing a debate with Kim-Mai Cutler, except they mostly agreed, and I think the reason for the agreement is their conception of production theory.
Tory’s opening was the most illuminating part, and only then, in 2018, did I understand why in 2008-9 I was so interested in reading him even though he was always pro-car, an unabashed Houston booster, and a fan of Joel Kotkin. He opened by defining himself in opposition to three ideas from the 2000s: smart growth, New Urbanism, and Richard Florida’s conception of the creative class. And there is clicked: these three ideas are all about cities as loci of consumption. Before YIMBYism, when Market Urbanism was an obscure libertarian blog, there wasn’t a lot in there for people who think in terms of urban job and residential growth, who think that consumption follows production and not the reverse.
New Urbanism and Richard Florida’s theory both hold, in different ways, that if cities make themselves nice to specific (different) classes of people, they will attract people who are morally and economically better to have as residents, stimulating further growth. In New Urbanism, this is about designing cities based on principles that are held to be objectively nicer for residents; this quickly boils down to the “when we’re expensive this proves we’re desirable, when you’re expensive this proves you’re unaffordable” principle. Ironically, the blog Old Urbanist holds something similar, it just posits a different (generally better) set of design principles. Richard Florida is less about physical design and more about community amenities for groups that in the 2000s he held were more creative, like gay people, for whom he prescribed more gay bars.
The irony is that even as he has increasingly repudiated the creative class theory, Florida maintains his attachment to consumption theory of cities. The difference is that 18 years ago he thought that building New Left-coded amenities like bike lanes and gay bars would attract creatives and increase social and economic outcomes and now he believes the same except that the final outcome is to raise rents. Tory was critiquing the idea already in the late 2000s, pointing out the anemic outcomes of cities whose development policy was consumption-based – it’s not that they were creating jobs but their rents was rising, but rather that they kept having low job growth and net emigration.
Smart growth is somewhat different, in that it is not explicitly an endorsement of consumption theory. However, in practice its effect is always to make development harder, not easier. The contrast is with transit-oriented development, which in theory means the same thing but in practice counts dwellings build near train stations and not dwellings prevented from being built far from train stations. California celebrates smart growth and smart growth celebrates California, and in practice the effect of California’s housing policy for the last 50 or so years has been to make all housing hard to build, creating a supply shortage.
In comes YIMBY. The central policy proposal of YIMBYism is to build more housing in rich, expensive cities. But the central tenet of YIMBYism is that people’s decisions about where to move to are driven by production rather than by consumption – that is, that people move for work rather than for the sort of consumption amenities that urban policymakers focus on.
This does not mean consumption amenities do not exist. They clearly do, but they operate at different levels from that of neighborhood activism. Albouy-Ehrlich-Liu find extensive consumption effects on urban desirability, but these are almost all geographic, like mild weather and proximity to the coast; only one is affected by policy, air quality, and that is a regional rather than local variable. Other policy-relevant consumption variables may be crime and education, neither of which is that responsive to local-level policy, especially when it pertains to development. People like New York and London and Paris, and maybe they’ll like them more if they provide public services like clean air better, but they’ll certainly not like them less if they replace 150-year-old 4-story buildings with 50-story ones. What people like about New York and London and Paris is not the architecture or the size of the buildings, but the dense job networks.
There’s a tendency among a number of important American YIMBYs that bothers me – they speak of development as a bad thing, a great burden that must be shared equally across neighborhoods. I’ve even seen this take regarding immigration, portraying it as such a terrible burden that Germany must undertake to redeem itself after the Holocaust. The underlying assumption is that growth is bad, and the ideal world is static and has people living in small communities.
But what if growth is good? What if more urban development is good? What if immigration is good, and immigrants are good people individually and collectively?
Growth is good
There’s a “growth for its own sake is the ideology of the cancer cell” meme out there. Well, no. Growth is not for its own sake. It’s for the sake of the things you can do in a society that produces more stuff: live longer, own refrigerators and other appliances, travel beyond walking range, communicate with people beyond travel range, get your own room, eat more interesting food than whatever scraps concentration camp prisoners fight over, wear more interesting clothes than concentration camp prisoner uniform, play interesting games, etc.
What is true is that no single element of these is in perfect correlation with wealth. You can even devise a large subset of these that aren’t, and focus on places that are exceptional relative to their income levels; Kerala is popular for its high literacy and life expectancy relative to its wealth. But usually these early investments then pay off in growth – this was the case in 1960s and 70s’ Korea, which was approaching universal literacy at the start of this period with astonishingly low incomes, and then used its advantage in relatively skilled, low-wage work to industrialize.
Urban development is good
The ability to access more stuff easily is a good thing and there’s a reason both employers and residents pay extra to have it. More and bigger buildings stimulate this kind of access. On the production side, this means thicker social networks for people who work in related industries and can come up with new innovations – this is why the tech industry sticks in San Francisco and environs, and not the bay view or the state of California’s public services. This, in turn, raises wages. On the consumption side, this means more variety in what to buy.
Moreover, this is true down to the neighborhood level. A denser neighborhood has more amenities, because more people is a good thing, because new people stimulate new social events, new consumption, and new opportunities for job access. If more people move to your neighborhood, that means first of all that employers are more likely to site jobs where convenient for you, and second of all that the city is likelier to want to build more subway lines in your direction.
A corollary of this is that private developers, as a class, are good, because they convert factors of production like labor and capital into finished, habitable apartments and offices. Yes, they can individually be terrible people. But collectively as a class their effect is good and the state needs to stop treating them as a source of loot to be doled to sympathetic neighborhood groups.
The most frustrating thing about it is that New York specifically likes to extol its own size as a reason for its supposed greatness. But then the idea that an even bigger city is a better city makes the political system there wince, and therefore the city permitted not many more than 20,000 housing units per year at the peak of the pre-virus economy, about one quarter the per capita rate of the Seoul metropolitan region or Tokyo (the city proper, but I think the suburbs have similar housing growth), and one third that of Ile-de-France.
Immigrants are good
Vancouver is a racist city, and I say this having lived in Israel. I somehow found myself in a room at a meetup where an all-white group of people were talking about black men’s penis size. Anti-Semitism, anti-black racism, Sinophobia, hate for indigenous people: you name it, I saw it there, used casually, by people who didn’t even think they were saying something controversial. The representatives of the people of that city have come across the realization that there is extensive immigration to their city and therefore it may be prudent to choke housing development because it’s all for immigrants anyway.
There’s a weird kind of defensiveness about immigration, even in societies where it’s fairly popular. Germany and Sweden both think they’re shouldering a great burden by taking in refugees, and even Germans who identify as left-wing and antiracist seem scared of diverse neighborhoods that immigrants of all social classes don’t find anything wrong with. But Germans at least have the excuse of not being used to diversity, and I think they’re slowly learning to be more tolerant. Vancouverites are used to diversity and decided they prefer racial purity to growth. Housing growth in Vancouver was healthy before the crisis but a lot of political forces in the city seem intent on making sure this doesn’t happen again, and with the transit-oriented development sites filling fast, the region will soon have to make tough decisions on upzoning single-family neighborhoods 600 meters from the train rather than 100 meters.
For the same reason a bigger city is a better city, the movement of immigrants into a country is an unalloyed good for the recipient country, unless perhaps that country is extremely dependent on primary resources, which Germany isn’t and even British Columbia isn’t.
Developers may be individually bad people but collectively good as a class; with immigrants, the good is both individual and collective. Immigrants as individuals are good, and it’s better for a country to have more of them (us, really): if anyone wants me to babble about all the statistics about employment (even for refugees in Germany), lower crime rates, cultural emphasis on skills and education, etc., I’ll be happy to do so in comments. Immigrants as a collective are likewise good, through introducing more cultural variety to a place and promoting cultural and social ties to parts of the world this place may not have thought to learn much from.
The US Census Bureau has just released 2019 population estimates by county. Metro New York, after slowly rising for decades more than making up the 1970s losses, went down by 60,000 people, or 0.3% of the population. The city is down 53,000 people.
The city chooses stagnation and ignorance. In the 1970s, the city was losing an average of 80,000 people per year, but the situation now is profoundly different. Incomes are up: the metro area’s per capita income as a proportion of the US average went from 126% in 1970 to 118% in 1980; but more recently it went from 135% in 2010-5 to 141% in 2018, the last year for which the BEA has data. Crime is down, the murder rate falling below the national average starting in 2013. Rent is up, sending a strong signal: more people want to live here.
But the entire political constellation of the city chooses not to grow. Housing growth is anemic, permits averaging around 21,000 per year in 2010-9, maybe 2.6 per 1,000 New York residents. It accelerated over the decade but not by much, reaching 26,500 in 2019, or 3.2/1,000. In the in-state suburbs, growth is even lower, less than 1 unit per 1,000 in each of Nassau, Suffolk, and Westchester Counties. New Jersey has somewhat higher growth rate, around 4/1,000, thanks to the Mount Laurel doctrine requiring high-cost municipalities to approve some affordable housing, which they typically do in the most out-of-the-way place they can find. The metro area overall approves about the same amount of housing as the city proper, around 2.5/1,000.
The most recent data I have for Korea is from the first half of 2019. In six months, Seoul, a shrinking city of 9.5 million, approved 38,000 dwellings, and the metro area writ large approved 129,000 on a population of about 26 million, an annualized rate of 10/1,000 (less in the city, more in the suburbs). This is a suburbanizing region, but suburbanization often means moving to a planned new town built on top of a subway or commuter rail line, like Ilsan, Bundang, and Anyang.
It’s not Tokyo that has high housing growth. It’s Tokyo, and Seoul, and to a lesser extent the metro area of Taipei (more suburbs than city proper), and Paris. In the presence of a strong economy and a state that doesn’t choose stagnation the way rich American regions choose with local empowerment, housing growth in a large city should be high, as more people want to move there to take advantage of its higher incomes and opportunities.
But New York chose differently. It chose stagnation and eventually decline. It chose to be expensive.
Why are they like this?
The US has an unusual system of governance, in which not only is there a separation of federal and state governments, as in Germany or Canada or Australia or Switzerland, but also the states delegate unusual powers to local governments. Education, policing, and housing are largely local responsibilities. Even when states do get involved, there is usually no partisan competition (most states are safe), leading to empowerment of local representatives on what are considered local issues, and even when there is people vote based on national issues.
But even that raises questions. For example, why do locals consider new development bad? Even YIMBY activists let NIMBYs whip them into thinking this way – they talk about sharing the burden, as if new buildings and new people are a burden that everyone must endure for some grand moral reason.
What if the reason people take it for granted that growth is bad is that the people who are most locally empowered are a specific anti-growth lobby? People who work for a living don’t have time to go to a citizen engagement meeting at 3 in the afternoon. They work and socialize with people from other neighborhoods, so they have little interest in neighborhood rags that report individual counts of parking spaces lost to a bus lane. They are far more interested in job growth than in hobby community gardens. A political system that requires very high levels of local social capital for one’s opinions to count will naturally undervalue their opinions and overvalue those of idle people and professional intermediaries.
The high levels of Covid-19 infection in New York are part of this system. The specific cause is not hyperlocalism, but rather the murky authority of the state. The city is plagued by the feud between Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo. Both enjoy unlimited executive power, I think Cuomo more so than de Blasio. Both need it for their higher political aspirations. But neither can have it while the other exists as an independent political entity, nor is there a clear delineation of state and local authority. Thus, they are obligated to sabotage each other’s ideas, to the detriment of the city that has the misfortune to be governed by them. The entire West delayed its reaction to the virus, but New York especially so, as Cuomo and de Blasio tried denying each other credit.
I’ve been writing a lot about the role of incuriosity in high construction costs in the English-speaking world in general, and New York in particular – see for example this recent coronavirus-tainted piece, or this more random piece about Metro-North’s executives’ ignorance.
But this can apply more generally, as it did to the virus. Americans are quite provincial when it comes to the rest of the world, and New Yorkers especially so – go ahead, try telling a New Yorker that some other city does something better than New York. The out-of-town comparison, a powerful tool that places that view themselves as more peripheral (like Israel) use to correct errors, dos not work in a place like New York. New York literally made the collective decision to die and not to learn from the rest of the world. Mass death is not making New Yorkers demand the immediate removal of their mass manslaughterers who are their governor and mayor; why would a dip in population?
Part of it is related to local empowerment. Acquiring local social capital comes at the expense of worldliness; those years one spends learning foreign languages, living abroad, and socializing with foreigners are dead years for most political ambitions, including all ambitions that start locally.
But an even greater part of it is that New York self-perceives as the center of the world, which is not true elsewhere. Korea self-flagellates all the time: about its legal system (it adopted a limited jury system in 2009), about its engineering (see e.g. here), about its elevated air pollution levels (it’s adopting EU standards). The United States instead views all variations with the rest of the world as evidence of America’s unique greatness, and New York does the same both internationally and domestically. The city brims with immigrants, and yet it tells them, your home country is deficient and you must become a real New Yorker, that is someone whose world does not extend past city limits, to be a whole person. Until that changes, the government of New York will remain managed by dregs and incompetents and housing, transportation, and as we see health care will earn the mockery of other big first-world cities.
In England and Wales, 15.9% of workers get to work on public transport, and in France, 14.9% do. In Canada, the figure is close: 12.4%, and this is without a London or Paris to run up the score in. Vancouver is a metro region of 2.5 million people and 1.2 million workers, comparable in size to the metropolitan counties in England and to the metro area of Lyon; at 20.4%, it has a higher public transport modal share than all of them, though it is barely higher than Lyon with its 19.9% share. Calgary, Ottawa, Edmonton, and Winnipeg are likewise collectively respectable by the standards of similar-size French regions, such as the departments of Bouches-du-Rhône (Marseille), Alpes-Maritimes (Nice), Gironde (Bordeaux), Haute-Garonne (Toulouse), and Bas-Rhin (Strasbourg).
As a result, Jarrett Walker likes telling American cities and transit agencies to stop envying Europe and start envying Canada instead. Canada is nearby, speaks the same language, and has similar street layout, all of which contribute to its familiarity to Americans. If Europe has the exotic mystique of the foreign, let alone East Asia, Canada is familiar enough to Americans that the noticeable differences are a cultural uncanny valley.
And yet, I am of two minds on this. The most consistent transit revival in Canada has been in Vancouver, whose modal share went from 14.3% in 1996 to 20.4% in 2016 – and the 2016 census was taken before the Evergreen extension of the Millennium Line opened. TransLink has certainly been doing a lot of good things to get to this point. And yet, there’s a serious risk to Canadian public transport in the future: construction costs have exploded, going from Continental European 15 years ago to American today.
The five legs of good transit
I was asked earlier today what a good political agenda for public transportation would be. I gave four answers, like the four legs of a chair, and later realized that I missed a fifth point.
- Fuel taxes and other traffic suppression measures (such as Singapore and Israel’s car taxes). Petrol costs about €1.40/liter in Germany and France; diesel is cheaper but being phased out because of its outsize impact on pollution.
- Investment in new urban and intercity lines, such as the Madrid Metro expansion program since the 1990s or Grand Paris Express. This is measured in kilometers and not euros, so lower construction costs generally translate to more investment, hence Madrid’s huge metro network.
- Interagency cooperation within metropolitan regions and on intercity rail lines where appropriate. This includes fare integration, schedule integration, and timetable-infrastructure integration.
- Urban upzoning, including both residential densification in urban neighborhoods and commercialization in and around city center.
- Street space reallocation from cars toward pedestrians, bikes, and buses.
We can rate how Canada (by which I really mean Vancouver) does on this rubric:
- The fuel tax in Canada is much lower than in Europe, contributing to high driving rates. In Toronto, gasoline currently costs $1.19/liter, which is about €0.85/l. But Vancouver fuel taxes are higher, raising the price to about $1.53/l, around €1.06/l.
- Canadian construction costs are so high that investment in new lines is limited. Vancouver has been procrastinating building the Broadway subway to UBC until costs rose to the point that the budget is only enough to build the line halfway there.
- Vancouver and Toronto both have good bus-rapid transit integration, but there is no integration with commuter rail; Montreal even severed a key commuter line to build a private driverless rapid transit line. In Vancouver, bus and SkyTrain fares have decoupled due to political fallout from the botched smartcard implementation.
- Vancouver is arguably the YIMBYest Western city, building around 10 housing units per 1,000 people every year in the last few years. Toronto’s housing construction rate is lower but still respectable by European standards, let alone American ones.
- There are bike lanes but not on the major streets. If there are bus lanes, I didn’t see any of them when I lived in Vancouver, and I traveled a lot in the city as well as the suburbs.
Vancouver’s transit past and future
Looking at the above legs of what makes for good public transport, there is only one thing about Canada that truly shines: urban redevelopment. Toronto, a metro area of 6 million people, has two subway mainlines, and Montreal, with 4 million people, has 2.5. Vancouver has 1.5 lines – its three SkyTrain mainlines are one-tailed. By the same calculation, Berlin has 6.5 U- and 3 S-Bahn mainlines, and Madrid has 2 Cercanías lines and 7 metro lines. Moreover, high construction costs and political resistance from various GO Transit interests make it difficult for Canadian cities to add more rapid transit.
To the extent Vancouver has a sizable SkyTrain network, it’s that it was able to build elevated and cut-and-cover lines in the past. This is no longer possible for future expansion, except possibly toward Langley. The merchant lawsuits over the Canada Line’s construction impacts have ensured that the Broadway subway will be bored. Furthermore, the region’s politics make it impossible to just build Broadway all the way to the end: Surrey has insisted on some construction within its municipal area, so the region has had to pair half the Broadway subway with a SkyTrain extension to the Langley sprawl.
Put in other words, the growth in Vancouver transit ridership is not so much about building more of a network, but about adding housing and jobs around the network that has been around since the 1980s. The ridership on the Millennium and Canada Lines is growing but remains far below that on the Expo Line. There is potential for further increase in ridership as the neighborhoods along the Canada Line have finally been rezoned, but even that will hit a limit pretty quickly – the Canada Line was built with low capacity, and the Millennium Line doesn’t enter Downtown and will only serve near-Downtown job centers.
Potemkin bus networks
When Jarrett tells American cities to envy Canada, he generally talks about the urban bus networks. Toronto and Vancouver have strong bus grids, with buses coming at worst every 8 minutes during the daytime off-peak. Both cities have grids of major streets, as is normal for so many North American cities, and copying the apparent features of these grids is attractive to American transit managers.
And yet, trying to just set up a bus grid in your average American city yields Potemkin buses. Vancouver and Toronto have bus grids that rely on connections to rapid transit lines. In both cities, transit usage is disproportionately about commutes either to or from a city core defined by a 5 kilometer radius from city hall. Moreover, the growth in public transport commuting in both cities since 1996 has been almost exclusively about such commutes, and not about everywhere-to-everywhere commutes from outside this radius. Within this radius, public transportation is dominated by rail, not buses.
The buses in Toronto and Vancouver have several key roles to play. First, as noted above, they connect to rapid transit nodes or to SeaBus in North Vancouver. Second, they connect to job centers that exist because of rapid transit, for example Metrotown at the eastern end of Vancouver’s 49. And third, there is the sui generis case of UBC. All of these roles create strong ridership, supporting high enough frequency that people make untimed transfers.
But even then, there are problems common to all North American buses. The stop spacing is too tight – 200 meters rather than 400-500, with frequency-splitting rapid buses on a handful of very strong routes like 4th Avenue and Broadway. There is no all-door boarding except on a handful of specially-branded B-line buses. There are no bus lanes.
One American city has similar characteristics to Toronto and Vancouver when it comes to buses: Chicago. Elsewhere, just copying the bus grid of Vancouver will yield nothing, because ultimately nobody is going to connect between two mixed-traffic buses that run every 15 minutes, untimed, if they can afford any better. In Chicago, the situation is different, but what the city most needs is integration between Metra and CTA services, which requires looking at European rather than Canadian models.
Is Canada hopeless?
I don’t know. The meteoric rise in Canadian subway construction costs in the last 15 years has ensured expansion will soon grind to a halt. Much of this rise comes from reforms that the Anglosphere has convinced itself improve outcomes, like design-build and reliance on outside consultants; in that sense, the US hasn’t been copying Canada, but instead Canada has been copying the US and getting American results.
That said, two positive aspects are notable. The first is very high housing and commercial growth in the most desirable cities, if not in their most exclusive neighborhoods. Vancouver probably has another 10-20 years before its developable housing reserves near existing SkyTrain run out and it is forced to figure out how to affordably expand the network. Nowhere in Europe is housing growth as fast as in Metro Vancouver; among the cities for which I have data, only Stockholm comes close, growing at 7-8 net units per 1,000 people annually.
Moreover, with Downtown Vancouver increasingly built out, Vancouver seems to be successfully expanding the CBD outward: Central Broadway already has many jobs and will most likely have further commercial growth as the Millennium Line is extended there. Thus, employers that don’t fit into the Downtown Vancouver peninsula should find a home close enough for SkyTrain, rather than hopping to suburban office parks as in the US. Right now, the central blob of 100 km^2 – a metric I use purely because of limitations on French and Canadian data granularity – has a little more than 30% of area jobs in Vancouver, comparable to Paris, Lyon, New York, Boston, and San Francisco, and ahead of other American cities.
The second aspect is that Canadians are collectively a somewhat more internationally curious nation than Americans. They are more American than European, but the experience of living in a different country from the United States makes it easier for them to absorb foreign knowledge. The reaction to my and Jonathan English’s August article about Canadian costs has been sympathetic, with serious people with some power in Toronto contacting Jonathan to figure out how Canada can improve. The reaction I have received within the United States runs the gamut – some agencies are genuinely helpful and realize that they’ll be better off if we can come up with a recipe for reducing costs, others prefer to obstruct and stonewall.
My perception of Canadian politics is that even right-populists like Doug Ford are more serious about this than most American electeds. In that sense, Ford is much like Boris Johnson, who could move to Massachusetts to be viceroy and far improve governance in both Britain and Massachusetts. My suspicion is that this is linked to Canada’s relatively transit-oriented past and present: broad swaths of the Ontarian middle class ride trains, as is the case in Outer London and the suburbs of Paris. A large bloc of present-day swing voters who use public transport is a good political guarantee of positive attention to public transport in the future. American cities don’t have that – there are no competitive partisan elections anywhere with some semblance of public transportation.
These two points of hope are solid but still run against powerful currents. Toronto really is botching the RER project because of insider obstruction and timidity, and without a strong RER project there is no way to extend public transportation to the suburbs. Vancouver is incapable of concentrating resources where they do the most good. And all Canadian cities have seen an explosion in costs. Canadians increasingly understand the cost problem, but it remains to be seen whether they can fix it.