There’s en emerging concept within North American urbanism and planning called missing middle. This refers to housing density that’s higher than suburban single-family housing but lower than urban mid- and high-rise buildings. The context is that in some cities with rapid housing construction, especially Toronto, the zoning code is either single-family or high-density, with nothing in between. The idea of allowing more missing middle housing has become a mainstay of New Urbanism as well as most North American YIMBY movements, underpinning demands such as the abolition of single-family zoning in California and Seattle.
Unfortunately, it’s an overrated concept. It applies to Toronto, but not Vancouver or the most expensive American cities, which are replete with missing middle density. The most in-demand neighborhoods have far too many people who want to move in to make do with this density level. Moreover, missing middle density in its New Urbanist form is not even really transit-oriented: low-rise construction spread over a large area is unlikely to lead middle-class workers to take transit when cars are available. The density required to encourage transit ridership and reduce housing costs is much higher, including mid- and high-rise residences.
What’s missing middle density?
A website created by Opticos Design, an architecture firm specializing in this kind of housing, has a helpful graphical definition:
Many of the missing middle housing forms are part of the vernacular architecture of American cities. In New England, this is the triple-decker, a three-story building with an apartment per floor. In Chicago, this is the fourplex, a two-story building with two apartments per floor. In Los Angeles this is the dingbat, with two or three inhabited floors on top of ground floor parking. In Baltimore and Philadelphia (and in London) this is the rowhouse. This history makes it easier to accept such buildings as both part of the local culture and as affordable to the lower middle class.
The triple-deckers in the parts of Providence and Cambridge I am most familiar with have a floor area ratio of about 1-1.5: they have 2.5 to 3 floors (counting sloped roofs as half a floor) and build on one third to one half the lot. A quick look at some Philadelphia rowhouses suggests they, too, have a floor area ratio in that range. Somerville has a population density just short of 7,000 people per km^2, with little non-residential land and some mid-rise and single-family areas canceling out to missing middle density. Kew Gardens Hills has about 12,000 people per km^2, and has a mixture of missing middle and mid-rise housing.
In Continental Europe, the vernacular architecture is instead mid-rise. In Scandinavia and Central Europe the euroblock has 4-7 floors and a floor area ratio of 2.5-4; Urban Kchoze shows many examples with photos, mostly from Prague, and Old Urbanist finds a euroblock in Berlin with a floor area ratio of 4.3. Central Stockholm’s residential buildings are almost entirely euroblocks, and residential density is 17,000/km^2 in Södermalm, 21,000/km^2 in Vasastan, and 28,000/km^2 in Östermalm. Parisian density is even higher – the floor area ratio of the traditional buildings looks like 4-5, with about 30,000-40,000 people per km^2.
Is missing middle really missing?
In Europe the answer is obviously no: lower-density cities like London are largely missing middle in their inner areas, and higher-density ones like Paris have missing middle density in their outer areas. But even in North America, where the term is popular, the expensive cities where people call for abolishing single-family zoning have missing middle housing. In addition to the above-listed vernacular examples, New York has brownstones all over Brooklyn (the term Brownstone Brooklyn refers to the gentrified inner neighborhoods, but this density is also seen in outer neighborhoods like Bay Ridge and Sheepshead Bay).
Vancouver is an especially instructive example. English Canada’s big cities are fast-growing, and a zoning regime that’s historically been friendlier to developers than to local NIMBYs has encouraged high-rise growth. Moreover, the high-rises are built in the modern boxy style (earning the ire of people who hate modern architecture) and tend to target middle-class and high-skill immigrant buyers (earning the ire of people who blame high housing costs on new construction). In contrast, vast swaths of Toronto and Vancouver are zoned for single-family housing.
And yet, Vancouver has considerable missing middle housing, too. The population density in Mount Pleasant, Fairview, Kitsilano, and West Point Grey is similar to that of Somerville and Eastern Queens. Buildings there are in modern style, but the housing typologies are not modernist towers in a park, but rather mostly buildings with 2-4 floors with the medium lot coverage typical of missing middle. I lived in an eight-unit, three-story building. Across from me there was a high-rise, but it was atypical; for the most part, that part of Vancouver is low-rise.
Shaughnessy offends people in its extravagance and wealth. In one Twitter conversation, an interlocutor who blamed absent landlords and foreigners (read: Chinese people) for Vancouver’s high housing costs still agreed with me that Shaughnessy, a white Canadian-born single-family area, shares the blame with its low-density zoning and very high residential space per person. Legalizing accessory dwelling units (“granny flats”) and townhouses in such a neighborhood faces local political headwind from the neighbors (who are still nowhere near as empowered to block rezoning as they would south of the border), but not from citywide social movements.
And yet, the density in the inner Westside neighborhoods near Broadway and Fourth Avenue is insufficient, too. It’s of course much higher than in Shaughnessy – I never really missed not owning a car living in Kitsilano – but the price signal screams “build more housing in Kits and Point Grey.”
Is missing middle transit-oriented?
Not really. In Providence the answer is absolutely not: car ownership is expected of every person who can afford it. The nearby supermarket, East Side Market, has an enormous parking lot; I’d walk, but it was obvious to me that my mode choice was not the intended use case. Even some Brown grad students owned cars (though most didn’t); at Columbia, car ownership among people below tenure-track faculty rank approaches zero. Once they own cars, people use them to take trips they wouldn’t otherwise have made, reorienting their travel patterns accordingly.
In Cambridge, car use is lower, but still substantial. The same is true of Vancouver (where outside Downtown and the West End the entire region’s density is at most missing middle, even if the typology is towers in a park and not uniformly low-rise). In Kew Gardens Hills, people seem to mostly drive as well.
This is not a universal feature of the urban middle class. In Stockholm, my postdoc advisor as far as I can tell does not own a car, and commutes to work by bike. Both there and in Basel, biking and using transit are normal and expected even among people who earn tenured academic salaries. At 7,000 people per km^2, people can forgo driving if they really want to, but most people will not do so. Only at the higher mid-rise density will they do so.
Following up on my last post’s promise to tackle both cultural theory of risk and cultural cringe, here is my take on the latter issue.
It is normal for people to have some degree of national pride and fervor. Cultural cringe refers to the opposite trend: when, in some circumstances, people in certain countries feel national shame and develop an inferiority complex. The term cultural cringe itself was coined by A. A. Phillips in 1950, describing Australia’s inferiority complex toward Britain in literary fields: Australians thought their literature was too provincial and perhaps too incomprehensible to the British readers, and as a result many authors were uncomfortable making the local references celebrated in the literary canon of Britain, France, Russia, the US, etc. This notion has been generalized elsewhere. Amos Oz says he felt uncomfortable writing books in such a peripheral country as Israel until he read Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, showing how literature of and by the provinces can thrive.
From its origin in Australian literature, the idea of the cultural cringe has expanded to other fields, including the law, social relations, technology, and business. It seems endemic in former colonies, especially ones that are not rich. One writer in Nigeria argues how best practices thinking is cultural cringe by giving an example of a recent legal importation that turns out to already exist in traditional Yoruba law. In Australia itself, political scientist L. J. Hume pushed back against the notion that there is cultural cringe, arguing it is true of literature but not economics of other fields. But in mass culture, the vast majority of countries, both developed and developing, consider American film and television superior to their own and have domestic industries that focus on arthouse films or low-budget flicks.
Cultural cringe in legal, political, or technological fields remains endemic in many other developed countries. In one recent example, Emmanuel Macron said France is inherently resistant to change and (by implication) ungovernable, comparing it negatively with Denmark. In business, 1980s-era America was replete with books telling managers how to think like a Japanese or German, which trend ended when the Japanese lost decade and the economic crisis of German unification made these countries less fashionable.
Lying in the intersection of business, politics, and technology, urbanism and transportation are amenable to analysis using this concept. As in the Nigerian example, the third world tends to have too much cultural cringe and too much faith in the merits of importing first-world methods. Conversely, the United States (and to a large extent Canada) today is resistant to outside ideas and does not know how to be a periphery.
Urban layout: there’s a world outside Europe
During the SB 827 debate in California, supporters reassured restive city residents that the density the bill promoted – up to 7 floors right next to transit lines and up to 5 a little farther away – was gentle. “Paris density,” they said. Everyone likes Paris as a tourist. Everyone recognizes Paris as good urbanism.
There is very little cultural cringe in the United States – on the contrary, Americans are solipsistic in every field. However, one of very few exceptions is that the American middle class vacations in Europe and is familiar with how walkable European cities are. (It’s even referenced on Mad Men when a minor character goes on walks in their car-oriented New York suburb.) Paris is the largest and richest city Americans of a certain wealth and education level can be expected to be familiar with and like, but by the same token the YIMBYs could mention Barcelona, Amsterdam, and Rome.
But it’s useful to think of what was not mentioned. Certainly not Hong Kong or Dubai, which seem to be mentioned almost exclusively negatively in Western discourse. Not Tokyo, which Westerners are much less likely to visit to the point that the Western blogs talking about Japanese urbanism (like Urban Kchoze) are notable for it. Nothing in the middle-income world, including some old cities (like Mexico City and Istanbul) that have building height, street width, and stylistic variation that first-world urbanists would approve of (and do if they’ve been there).
In this situation, the invocation of famous European cities feels less like a dialogue and more like an attempt to induce cringe defensively, to make people feel less attached to their cities’ American auto-oriented character. In effect, it’s an attack on “it will change the character of our neighborhood,” a line that’s much less common in countries that are used to thinking of themselves as inferior to whatever they consider the metropolitan core (such as the first world writ large in Israel, or the former colonial master in ex-colonies).
Transportation: a little cringe is good, but not too much
In the developing world, there is extensive cringe. Without using that term, I suggested it as a reason behind high construction costs in the third world, which are similar to the costs of the first world today and several times as high as those of the first world from back when its income levels were comparable to those of subway-building third-world countries, in the early 1900s. In Latin America and China, development is more inward-looking, and China in particular learned to build subways from the USSR in the 1950s, not a rich country. In former colonies, there seems to be a greater willingness to import methods from either the former colonizer or from countries that aggressively invest in third-world infrastructure, like Japan and China; the result is very high construction costs for projects for which I have data in India and other countries of that development level.
In some cases, like India’s high-speed rail program, the country imports technology wholesale, and Japan (or China) may insist on an exact copy of its methods. As it is, Japan refuses to call Taiwan High-Speed Rail a Shinkansen system even though it runs Shinkansen rolling stock: construction methods were European, so Japan only calls THSR a high-speed rail system using Shinkansen-based technology.
However, decisions like India’s standard-gauge metro lines happen even in indigenous systems. Delhi Metro uses standard gauge not for some turnkey technological import, but purely because it feels more modern whereas Indian mainline trains feel dinghy and dangerous. Evidently, Delhi Metro electrification is 25 kV, which is standard on mainline trains but unheard of on first-world metros; modifying subways for high-voltage electrification requires expensive concrete pouring, since high-voltage catenary requires more generous clearances to avoid arcing, whereas modifying rail gauge is routine since the European vendors are used to selling to broad-gauge Finland and Spain and the Japanese ones are used to their country’s multitude of gauges.
And if India errs on the side of too much shiny adoption of foreign technology, the US errs on the side of adopting too little. Americans do not think their country is inferior. American authors do not think they need to experience another country or speak another language before they write. There was a time when the American business community felt outcompeted, but today it feels like it’s at the top of the world, Silicon Valley having long left Japanese corporations in the dust; I stopped seeing complaints that American cars were inferior to German and Japanese ones not long after Obama’s auto industry bailout.
The American policy sphere seems especially constrained. There is some cultural cringe toward London, leading thinktanks like the Regional Plan Association and TransitCenter to overlearn from London’s peculiarities (like the Oyster fare cap and contactless credit card payment), but not much toward Continental Europe and practically none toward Japan. Instead, the attitude toward non-English-speaking countries is one of dismissal. When Richard Mlynarik pointed out to a Caltrain official that Japanese trains turned much faster at terminals than Caltrain thought possible, the official replied, “Asians don’t value life the way we do.”
If India fails to understand where its own methods could be superior despite being a peripheral country, the United States fails to understand that it’s a peripheral country in the first place. Transportation innovation rarely happens in North America. It happens in Western Europe and Japan, and to some extent in developing countries that have less cultural cringe than former colonies, such as Brazil and Colombia and their invention of BRT or Colombia, Bolivia, and Mexico’s use of aerial gondolas in mountainous suburban areas.
Urban development: you are not New York
I’ve been reading Aaron Renn’s blog, the Urbanophile, since maybe 2008. At the time he was still in Indianapolis, in (I believe) management consulting, writing about how his city was trying to become culturally and economically bigger than it was, and sometimes but not always succeeding. A recurrent theme in his writings has been that Midwestern American cities are desperate for development. They keep saying they need more creative people, more venture capital, or whatever else is in vogue. (In contrast, he says, Rhode Island, where he lived later, doesn’t even understand how peripheral it is.)
However, the way the Midwestern cities he focuses on try to attract this elusive development is through cheap copying. An old post of his I can no longer find contrasts world-class Indianapolis with world class in Indianapolis. The former involves investing in some city institution to make it world-class, or more realistically notable enough that boosters can call it world-class with a straight face. The latter involves inviting a starchitect or another person with international cachet (such as Richard Florida) to build something in Indianapolis that’s notable and is exactly as notable as what this person might build in any other city of that size, with no particular connection to the city itself.
In the transportation field, many American cities build mixed-traffic downtown streetcars and beam with pride if they get 4,000 riders per weekday. Often this mentality overrides any attempt to provide services to city residents: thus, the streetcar in Detroit is not integrated with the city’s bus network, and in fact a bus runs on the same street, on different lanes from the streetcar. This isn’t about some mythical preference for rail over bus: these cities build whatever they hear is in vogue and will get them noticed by New York media, whether it’s peak-only commuter rail, a downtown streetcar, a limited bus that calls itself BRT, or now a bus network redesign around untimed 15-minute frequencies.
Cringe vs. dialogue
It’s important to distinguish dialogue with a foreign culture and cultural cringe toward it. One difference is that cringe implies infatuation; however, infatuation can also develop among immigrants who are steeped in the metropole’s culture after having lived there even while maintaining ties to the old country. A bigger difference is the extent of two-way dialogue. Israelis use the expression “unbroken country” to refer to the mythical average first-world country in which you can get things done without having to tell government bureaucrats that you served in the military with their bosses; however, few have lived abroad long enough to know the details of what makes these countries tick better.
With limited knowledge of the core, the periphery can worship at the feet of the few people who do know, which leads to political bias. This is where moral panics of no-go zones come from: there is an Israeli television show purporting to portray how things are in Europe, but any connection between Belleville (or other racially diverse Paris neighborhoods) and what they depict is completely incidental. In that case, the bias is right-wing. In the opposite direction, left-wing bias can occur when American liberals and socialists are enamored by European health care and education systems and elide a thousand details that distinguish them from American renditions of single-payer health care or free college tuition.
But the biased reaction is only common in places that care little about how to govern. “Well, actually Tower Hamlets is a no-go zone” is not a blueprint for reducing nonwhite immigration to the United States or Israel. Instead, in the policy sphere a more common reaction is a shrug. Dialogue is threatening: the people capable of it are typically not the top pundits on this issue. Instead, it’s more common to aggressively dismiss knowledge that’s hard to access, even among people who at the same time invoke the cringe. In Israel it takes the form of self-denigrating lines like “this is Israel, not Finland.” Cultural cringe leads to lower expectations this way.
When Phillips criticized Australian authors who deracinated their writing to appeal to British taste, he was implicitly saying that Australians couldn’t root their literature in British experience. Oz, similarly, felt constrained about writing when he was young because living in Israel, he could not root his books in Paris, Milan, and other flashy cities whose books he devoured. The economic (or legal, or technological) analogue of this observation is that the reason there is cultural cringe is that people in peripheral areas (which in transportation include the United States) are too unfamiliar with the core and cannot dialogue with it the way people in different parts of the core can.
Urbanism is not literature. One doesn’t need extraordinary sensitivity and a lifetime (short as it may be) in a culture to produce very good insights about transportation, housing, or municipal governance. It’s possible to break out of the cringe by acquiring detailed knowledge of how the core operates. In the case of the third world and subway construction, it means learning enough about current and historical construction methods to be able to propose ways to build infrastructure at low costs commensurate with these cities’ low wages; in the case of the United States, it means learning enough about what makes European, Japanese, Latin American, etc. urbanism tick that it can be adopted domestically.
Urbanism is not literature in a far more important sense: there really are better and worse traditions there. It’s not enough to have pride in what you have when what you have is a third-world city where the poor don’t have running water, or for that matter an American city that would shut down instantly were gas prices to rise to levels necessary to stop global warming. Learning from the core is crucial. It’s just equally important to do so through dialogue and not through the ignorant self-denigration that is cultural cringe.
I ran a Patreon poll about sociological theories as applied to urbanism, offering two options: cultural theory of risk, and cultural cringe. The poll was tied, so I feel compelled to do one post on each (when cultural theory was ahead I was outlining two separate posts on it, one about transit and one about housing).
Psychologists and sociologists have long known that people’s perceptions of risk can vary widely from actual risks (e.g. people are more afraid of flying than of driving even though planes are safer), and, moreover, different people have different evaluations of risk. Early theories analyzed differences in risk perception along lines of class, race, or gender, but subsequently a group of social scientists, many (though not all) libertarians, argued for an ideology-based cultural identity. In 1982, the anthropologist Mary Douglas and the political scientist Aaron Wildavksy published Risk and Culture, arguing for three different identities (later expanded to four). Douglas used her past insights from analyzing premodern societies’ social taboos to analyzing risk perception within industrialized societies, especially the rise of the environmental movement during a time of falling pollution levels.
Urbanism and public transit are intimately connected with environmentalism. A large fraction of transit advocacy is environmental in nature, and both early NIMBYs and present-day YIMBYs come from green progressivism. Even when the arguments are not explicitly ecological, the parallels are unavoidable: Jane Jacobs’ critique of urban renewal has strong similarities with Rachel Carson’s critique of DDT. Legally, the mechanisms that exist to protect both endangered species and neighborhoods are often the same (e.g. the American environmental impact report process). Thus, understanding a sociological theory developed originally to analyze environmentalism should have straightforward applications to cities and urban transportation.
Cultural theory begins with the distinction between markets and hierarchies. These are two distinct ways of organizing society, leading to different institutions and different social views. Douglas and Wildavsky’s innovation is to distinguish two different axes of separation between markets and hierarchies, which they call group and grid, leading to a 2*2 chart:
Group measures group solidarity among members of the system; grid measures the restrictions placed on the individual’s ability to exit the system. While individualism and hierarchy are politically stronger than the other two cultural identities, group and grid are fairly independent on the level of personal politics and there are numerous examples of egalitarianism and fatalism.
I strongly recommend reading the original book, but this review does it and the theory’s subsequent developments justice.
Individualism arises in institutions that are atomized and like it. The free market is the best example, but professions with mostly independent workers (like academia and the law, especially historically) also fit. Individualists view nature as resilient, returning to a stable equilibrium no matter what happens, and thus business control of the environment is to be celebrated as development; I had this aspect of cultural theory in mind when I wrote one of my early posts critiquing the idea that cities have a single equilibrium. Rejecting systemic or environmental risks, individualists focus on risks that disrupt the market’s operation, like war or recession.
Hierarchy arises in institutions where everyone has a predetermined role to play. Examples include the military, premodern feudalism, and modern bureaucracies. Hierarchists view nature as perverse or tolerant, capable of adapting to change to an extent but not beyond circumscribed limits, and therefore employ what their society considers expert opinion (e.g. scripture, bureaucratic process, big science, etc.) to figure these limits. Hierarchists focus on risks that indicate social deviance, like crime.
Douglas and Wildavsky call the above two tendencies the center, distinguished from what they call the border, whose growth they ascribe to the erosion of trust in institution in the 1960s and 70s (coming in the US from the Vietnam War and Watergate, in France from the reaction to the social protests of 1968, etc.).
Egalitarianism was the border tendency studied in Risk and Culture, which polemically called it sectarianism. It occurs in groups that rely on intensive solidarity among members but cannot enforce their collective will on the individual, and thus require other mechanisms to encourage people not to leave. These include internal equality, to stave off discontentment, and the precautionary principle, to prevent change from inducing disaffected members to exit. Thus they view nature as fragile, prone to collapse at any moment if the system endures any change in direction, and focus on low-probability, high-impact risks (such as environmental collapse), which enhance the group’s internal solidarity against outside enemies.
One of the key oppositions Douglas and Wildavsky point out is between the Hutterites and the Amish. Both denominations are high-group, socializing almost exclusively among their own kind, adhering to strict religious principles. But despite their common Anabaptist origin, they differ in one crucial aspect: the Hutterites have communal ownership of property, the Amish don’t. This makes the Hutterites high-grid, since members who leave start from zero, whereas Amish who leave get to keep their land. The Amish openly adhere to the precautionary principle, which they famously interpret extremely conservatively; the Hutterites have formal rules for group size and adopt modern farming technology easily.
Fatalism is the last tendency, so politically weak that it was ignored in the original book and only discussed in subsequent refinements of the theory. It arises in institutions whose lower-ranked members (whether by market poverty or low rank in the hierarchy) are disaffected, unable to leave and yet not sharing any of the group’s purported values. They tend to view nature as capricious, moving without clear direction, and do not have any particular risk focus, but tend to be especially concerned about things they do not understand (such as unfamiliar or complex technology). Transgressive fiction like The Wire tends to depict fatalist institutions; geekier readers may also recognize H. P. Lovecraft’s mythos as fatalist, portraying a universe so far beyond human understanding that any who begins to figure any of it out goes insane or slowly becomes a monster.
Some political movements have obvious cultural identities. Libertarianism is individualist. The New Left is egalitarian. The far right is hierarchist: Cas Mudde calls it pathological normalcy, and its issue focus (crime, immigration as genetic pollution, terrorism) is hierarchical, even as it rejects traditional hierarchical institutions. However, the broader left vs. right distinction does not neatly map to any of the four cultural biases. About the only generalization that can be made is that activists are usually not fatalists.
Cultural theory and transportation
Transportation planning is an inherently hierarchical industry. The technologies involved are old and continuously tweaked within well-understood parameters. With so much accumulated knowledge, work experience matters, requiring companies in the industry to adopt a hierarchical setup. Moreover, the transportation network itself is complex and interconnected, with changes in one region cascading to others. Changes to the bus network, the train schedule, etc. are possible but only if the people implementing them know what they’re doing, creating a picture of the network much like the hierarchical view of nature as tolerant up to a limit.
The individualist ethos of tech companies – move fast and break things – works for fast-growing industries. Individualism is by far the fastest of the four biases in reacting to sudden changes. The tech industry’s denigration of public transit as an old hat has to be understood as individualists reacting poorly to an industry that has to be run by a business culture they find alien.
Readers who have been following me closely may ask, well, what about me? I’m an individualist. I evidently talk more to startups than to transportation consulting megacorps. One reader notes that I’ve called for people in positions of authority to be fired for incompetence so many times that a post like this one may read as hesitant purely because I only call for removing the governor of Massachusetts and the secretary of transportation and not also for firing planners.
The answer is that while there is extensive accumulated knowledge about good public transit in Western Europe, Japan, and South Korea, there is very little in the area I’m most involved in, North America. This is especially true when it comes to regional rail: the existing mainline rail in the US should be treated as more or less tabula rasa. Adopting best practices requires extensive expert knowledge, but the methods in which they should be implemented have little to do with the internal bureaucracy of hierarchical organizations, since the railroads that would ordinarily be in charge (like the LIRR or the MBTA) are the problem and not the solution.
But if the actual process of running a transportation network is hierarchical, the politics are completely different. As with left-right politics, the politics of public transit don’t neatly fit into any of the four tendencies. Center-right hierarchists tend to support extensions of the status quo, which means more urban transit in New York, London, Paris, and other large cities, as well as high-speed rail on strong corridors (High Speed 2 in the UK is bipartisan), but more roads everywhere else. Individualists on the right tend to be anti-rail, partly because it looks so hierarchical, partly because of peculiarities like Koch funding of American libertarianism (which has been exported to Israel, at least).
Egalitarian environmentalists tend to be pro-transit, but their discomfort with hierarchy sometimes shows up as mistrust of big infrastructure projects. The radical environmentalist Chris Clarke, opposed early attempts to fast-track California High-Speed Rail and called Robert Cruickshank of California HSR Blog a shill for developer interests. Jane Jacobs herself ended up arguing late in her life that mass transit was at the wrong scale and instead cities should encourage community jitney services.
The process itself has issues of trust that activate egalitarians and fatalists, the latter often reflexively opposing reforms since they assume things must always get worse. It leads to tension between community outreach, which helps defuse this opposition, and speed of implementation.
Cultural theory and housing development
Whereas transportation politics isn’t neatly slotted into the grid-group paradigm, the politics of urban development is: YIMBY is an individualist movement, with near-universal support from people who identify with that cultural bias. The other three tendencies are split. The market urbanist proposition of abolition or near-abolition of zoning doesn’t appeal to hierarchists (who want to be able to control where housing goes) or egalitarians (who worry about the consequences of empowering market actors); but there are egalitarian left-YIMBYs and hierarchical city leaders who favor transit-oriented development.
In fact, when analyzing NIMBYism, it’s useful to slot it not by class or political opinion, but by cultural identity. There is much less difference between working-class and middle-class NIMBYs than leftists posit, and in some cases anti-gentrification politics and racist opposition to fair housing blend together (as in South Tel Aviv, where the local far right has argued black refugees are part of a gentrification ploy).
The key is that egalitarianism really consists of two distinct concepts, both necessary to maintain high group solidarity without grid: internal equality, and strong boundedness (which refers to sharp distinctions between insiders and outsiders). The cultural geographer Stentor Danielson argued once that surveys consistently show people approve of internal equality but not of strong boundedness, which is why egalitarian communities are so rare even though many people agree with most of their tenets.
Thus, when NIMBYs argue that more development would bring outsiders or change the character of the neighborhood, this is as compatible with egalitarianism as with hierarchy. Gentrification is just the name for when these outsiders are not begging for scraps. The real difference is in where this is taken. Egalitarian NIMBYism emphasizes irrevocable change, high-impact risks (e.g. that a new development would induce runaway gentrification), and trust. Hierarchical NIMBYism instead talks about behavioral norms, usually referring to middle-class moral panics about crime, but occasionally flipping to black American fears that white people would call the police more often.
The fatalists, too, have their own criticism of redevelopment – namely, that it represents another sudden change involving forces they have no control over. “Nobody asked us” has to be understood as a fatalist and not egalitarian cry, even though egalitarians often try to organize fatalists.
It’s not really possible to promise any of the other groups what it really wants: protection from change for egalitarians, a more concrete relationship between development and their actual lives for fatalists, or ethnic or other kinds of homogeneity for hierarchists. Nonetheless, alliances are possible with some egalitarians and hierarchists. SF YIMBY has to be viewed as an attempt at an individualist-egalitarian alliance for more housing, ceding ground on rent control to curry favor with ideological socialists (and its East Bay offshoot is run by actual socialists). In the other direction, Theresa May’s making noises about releasing more land for housing to get young people on the “housing ladder,” invoking a hierarchical sense of normality regarding when it’s appropriate to buy a house.
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.
France won the World Cup. Once the final ended, people all over Paris went out to the streets to celebrate. At Nation I saw impromptu dancing, drivers waving tricolore flags, and car passengers climbing out of their cars to wave their own flags. But the real celebration was elsewhere, on Champs-Elysees in the central business district. This was well covered in the media; the Guardian cites an estimate of one million people going to Champs-Elysees to celebrate, and ESPN reports riots (which I didn’t witness but can easily believe happened given the general conduct I did see) and 110,000 police and gendarmerie officers.
The sidewalks were crowded and it was difficult to move; there were too few street closures, so pedestrians were confined to narrow zones for the most part. But the crowding was worst at the Metro stations, and RATP should learn from this example and do better next time there are large celebrations, perhaps next Bastille Day.
The problem is cascading closures. In London, where the Underground platforms are narrower and have fewer cross-passageways than the Metro platforms here, closures are routine at Bank because often the passageways get dangerously overcrowded. These closures cascade: once Bank is closed to limit crowding, passengers swarm the adjacent stations, such as Moorgate and London Bridge, which are not built to handle the typical Bank crowds, forcing TfL to close them as well.
France won the game around 7 in the evening Paris time. By 8, some stations on Champs-Elysees were closed, and as I sat on my severely delayed Metro Line 1 train, with passengers banging on the train’s walls and ceiling, I heard that they were closing more, ultimately going express from Palais-Royal to Argentine and skipping all the CBD stations, including Etoile. I got off at Argentine, as did practically the entire train. Not designed to handle the crowds of the entire CBD at once, Argentine’s platform was jammed. I spent maybe ten minutes trying to make my way from where I got off to the front end of the platform, where the only exits were, and failed, and at a few points the mass of passengers was such that I thought a stampede was likely. The only reason nobody fell onto the tracks was the platform edge doors, installed during the automation of Line 1.
Trains kept serving the station, dumping more and more people. The only mechanism preventing more passengers from getting on was that the crowding was so intolerable that some people started getting back onto the trains, including eventually me. I couldn’t even get off at the next stop, Porte Maillot – the platform was fine but the train was too crowded – so I got off in the suburbs, at Les Sablons, and walked back east.
Perhaps RATP did eventually close Argentine. But both RATP and the city made crucial mistakes that evening, which they should fix in the future.
First, they should have made the trains free to improve passenger circulation. Paying at the turnstiles takes time. This is especially bad in Paris, where there are separate gates for entry (which are turnstiles) and exit (which are one-way doors), unlike the two-way turnstiles of New York. Moreover, unlike New York, Paris has no large emergency doors that can be opened. All passengers were going in one direction – out – so RATP should have propped the exit doors open to let passengers out more smoothly.
Free transit for special events is routine in Paris. The trains are free around New Year’s, in order to encourage people to take the train rather than add to car traffic and pollution (and perhaps drunk driving). Bastille Day celebrations and any future victory at the World Cup or Euro Cup should be added to the list of free transit events, not to discourage people from driving but to prevent stampedes.
And second, the city should have closed the surrounding area to non-emergency car traffic. Champs-Elysees was closed, but there wasn’t much place to spill over; the side street I took once I tried leaving had a narrow sidewalk, and police cars were parked in a way to restrict people to a constrained exit path. There is no parallel street that can act as a spillover route, and between the Rond-Point and Etoile there is only one crossing street wider than about 25 meters, Avenue George V on the south side (whereas almost all rail alternatives to the Metro Line 1 are on the north side). With narrow side streets, it’s especially important to dedicate space to pedestrians and emergency vehicles and not to cars. This was as far as I can tell not done, making it hard for people to leave the most crowded areas. In contrast, Etoile itself, with twelve avenues radiating from its circle, was not so crowded, as people had escape routes.
World Cup victories are rare enough that cities understandably don’t design their entire layout based on them. But when they do happen, it’s critical to have a plan, and the same is true of other big celebrations, which often occur annually on national days. If passengers are overwhelming the subway, it’s critical to quickly do whatever the agency can to increase throughput at station passageways as well as on the tracks. And if pedestrians are overwhelming the streets above ground, it’s critical to give them more street space, including for entry and exit.
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.
The American discourse about gentrification is full of stereotypes that the participants don’t recognize as such. For example, a widely-shared Buzzfeed article created an entire theory out of a single busybody who was responsible for half of the police complaints on their West Harlem block. The main check on stereotypes – “that’s racist” – only works when the stereotypes resemble the forms of racism society is most familiar with. The history of white racism against black people in the US is so different that it colors what Americans perceive as racial stereotypes and what they don’t. So as public service, I’d like to give some examples to draw commonalities between stereotypes in other cities I’ve lived in (Tel Aviv, Vancouver, Paris) and familiar anti-gentrification rhetoric.
Last decade, there was an influx of black refugees into working-class areas of South Tel Aviv, centered on Levinsky Park. The area is underpriced relative to its job access, courtesy of Central Bus Station, a failed urban renewal project that attracted crime; already in the 1990s it was nicknamed Central Stench (tsaḥana merkazit; Central Station is taḥana merkazit) and lampooned in a popular comic as a literal gateway to hell. The neighborhood’s response was violent, and the discourse within Israel is divided into people who wish the refugees imprisoned and deported from the country and people who wish them forcibly dispersed around the country.
Other parts of South Tel Aviv have been gentrifying since the 1990s, centered on Florentin. South Tel Aviv’s right-wing Jewish working class began connecting the two trends. A few years ago I saw a widely-shared Facebook post claiming that the influx of black refugees is deliberately engineered by developers as a ploy to gentrify the neighborhood. The theory, as I recall, is that black people are so odious that developers are using them to engineer white flight, after which they’ll evict the refugees, demolish the neighborhood’s mid-rise housing stock, and erect luxury towers.
In the last decade or so Vancouver has seen rising rents and even faster-rising housing prices, and the region’s white population is blaming Chinese people. In 2016, British Columbia passed a 15% tax on residential buyers who are not Canadian citizens or permanent residents; the tax was phrased neutrally, but the target was predominantly Chinese, and 21% of correspondence from citizens to the government on the issue was explicitly Sinophobic. In a city with rapid immigration, it should not be a surprise that new buyers tend to be immigrants, often on work or investor visas, but the region has a moral panic about Chinese people buying condos and houses as investments and leaving them empty.
The specific stereotypes of Chinese people in Vancouver vary. When I lived in Vancouver I encountered some light generic stereotyping (“people in Richmond are aggressive drivers”), but nothing connoting poverty, even though Richmond is poorer than Surrey, which some people I met compared with Camden, New Jersey. The language I see in the media concerning housing goes the other way: Chinese immigrants are stereotyped as oligarchs laundering ill-begotten wealth.
Like people in every other highly-toured region, Parisians hate the tourists. Seeing small declines in city population over the 2009-14 period, city electeds decided to blame Airbnb, and not, say, low housing construction rates (raising rents), a falling birth rate, or commercialization in city center. The mayor of the 1st arrondissement, Jean-Francois Legaret, called Airbnb “a true catastrophe for Central Paris.” The 1st arrondissement has high residential incomes; the lower-income parts of the city are the 10th, 11th, 13th, 18th, 19th, and 20th.
Rich and poor stereotypes
An ethnic or national group can stereotype another group as rich, poor, or both. White stereotypes of black people in the US and Europe are, within each ethnic group, associated with poverty: crime, aggressive physicality, laziness, indifference to education, proclivity for certain kinds of music and sport. Anti-Semitism today invokes stereotypes of the rich: greed, political subversion, disloyalty to the nation, corruption, success with money. Islamophobic stereotypes tend toward stereotypes of poverty, but are sometimes also bundled with stereotypes of Gulf money. In the last few decades Sinophobic stereotypes transitioned from ones of poverty (treating the Chinese as a faceless horde) to ones of wealth, similar to anti-Semitic stereotypes, to the point that people in Vancouver forget Richmond’s low incomes and people in New York forget the high poverty rates of Asian-New Yorkers and the overcrowding in Chinatown.
But as in the case of South Tel Aviv, the stereotypes can merge. The racists in South Tel Aviv blend two groups they hate – middle-class leftists and poor non-Jews – into one mass, blaming them for a trend that is usually blamed on the rich and the middle class. Historically, anti-Semitism was fully blended: the Jew was simultaneously poor and rich, wretched and exploitative, communist and capitalist, overly studious and overly physical. This blending of stereotypes was overt in Nazi propaganda, but also in the softer anti-Semitism directed against immigrants to the US.
The urban as a foreigner
Nationalists and populists stereotype cities like prewar anti-Semites stereotype Jews. The urban poor are lazy criminals, the rural poor are honest workers; the urban rich are exploitative capitalists sucking life out of the country, the rural rich are successful small business leaders; the urban middle class are bo-bo globalists, the rural middle class is the very definition of normality. This mentality is hard to miss in anti-urbanist writers like Joel Kotkin, and more recently in articles trying to portray an opposition between the Real Country (in the US but also in Israel and France) and the Urban Elites.
The definition of what is rural and what is urban is fractal. In the South, Long Island is part of New York; on Long Island, Long Island is Real America, distinct from the city that Long Island’s residents fled in the 1950s and 60s. Within cities the Real Country vs. Urban Elite opposition can involve the outer city vs. the inner city, as in Toronto, where Rob Ford won the mayoral election by appealing to outer-urban resentment of David Miller’s attempt to redistribute street space from cars to public transit. But it is in many cases demographic rather than geographic: the newcomer is the new rootless cosmopolitan.
In this mentality, the newcomer can be a rich gentrifier displacing honest salt-of-the-earth third-generation residents by paying higher rents or a refugee doing the same through living multiple people to a bedroom (or even both, in the case of some San Francisco programmers). In either case, the newcomer is a foreigner who doesn’t belong to the city’s culture and does not deserve the same access to city resources. People who build housing for this foreigner are inherently suspect, as are businesses that cater to the foreigner’s tastes. The demands – removal of access to housing – are the same regardless of whether the foreigners so stereotyped are poor or rich, and the stereotypes of wealth and poverty mix easily. That anti-gentrification activism looks so similar regardless of which social class it targets suggests that ultimately, any argument made is an excuse justifying not liking outsiders very much.
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.