I know I’ve been on hiatus in the last few weeks; here is the continuation of my series on institutional factors in public transportation. I have harped for more than 10 years about the need to learn best practices from abroad, and today I’d like to discuss the issue of who gets to learn. Normally it should be a best practices office or various planners who are seconded to peer agencies or participate in exchange programs, but the United States does things differently, leading to inferior outcomes.
The American pattern is that senior officials revel in junket trips while ordinary civil servants are never sent abroad. Any connections they make are sporadic: if they go to Europe on vacation at their own expense then they are allowed to attend professional conferences. This is the exact opposite of how good learning happens. A few days of a junket trip teach nothing, while long-lasting connections at the junior and middle levels of the bureaucracy facilitate learning.
This is connected with the issue of downward trust. When I confront Americans with the above pattern and explain why it is problematic, the response I get is always the same: senior officials do not trust junior ones. This is often further elaborated in terms of low- versus high-trust societies, but it is not quite that. It’s not about whether people trust their leaders, but whether the leaders, that is the layer of political appointees and senior managers, trust the people who they have parachuted to oversee. If they see themselves as mentors and guides and their charges as competent people to be coordinated, the institutional results will be superior to if they see themselves as guards and scourges and their charges as competitors.
New York City Mayor-Elect Eric Adams, for example, spent much of the second half of this year flying over to Europe to experience urbanism outside the United States. He is not the only elected official to have done so. Mike Bloomberg reveled in his personal connections with Ken Livingstone in the 2000s, leading to his attempt to import London’s congestion pricing system into New York.
Below the mayoral level, senior officials engage in the same behavior. They fly to the Netherlands, France, Denmark, or any other country they seek to learn from for a few days, experience the system as a tourist, and come back with little more knowledge than when they left but a lot more self-assurance in their knowledge.
This is called the junket trip, because to the general public, it’s viewed as just a taxpayer-funded vacation. It isn’t quite that, because at least the ones who I’ve spoken to who engage in such behavior genuinely believe that they learn good practices out of it. But realistically, it has the same effects as a vacation. Spending a week in a city where you are an important person meeting with other important people who are trying to impress you will not teach you much.
My pedestrian observations
I would travel regularly before corona. Some of my early blog posts are literally called Pedestrian Observations from [City], describing my first impressions of a place; the name of this blog comes from a photo album I took in 2011 a few months before I started blogging, called Pedestrian Observations from Worcester.
Those observations were always a mixed bag, which I was always aware of. Overall, I think they’ve held up reasonably well – my pedestrian observations from Providence were mostly in accordance with how I would experience the city later after I moved there. But there were always big gaps; in my Providence post, note that in my first visit to the East Side I named Wickenden and South Main as the major commercial streets, missing the actual main drag, Thayer, which I only discovered during my next visit.
The same is true of transit observations. Shortly before corona, I spent a week in Taipei. I took the MRT everywhere, and was impressed with its cleanliness and frequency, but there isn’t too much more I could say about the system from personal experience. I could only tell you how it deep-cleaned the system in early 2020, when people thought corona was spread by fomites rather than aerosols, from a report sent to me by long-term resident Alex Garcia of Taipei Urbanism. I knew construction costs were high because I looked them up, but that’s not the same as personal experience, and I only have a vague understanding of why, coming from both Alex and papers I would later read on the subject.
In Berlin, at a queer meetup in 2019 on a Friday night, months into living here, I was expressing worry around midnight that I might miss the last train. One of the people there chided me. I was working in the transit industry, broadly speaking – how could I not know that trains here run overnight on weekends? I knew, but had forgotten, and I needed that person to remind me.
Secondment and exchange
The short junket trip reveals nothing. But this does not mean learning from abroad is impossible – quite to the contrary. The path forward is to take these trips but go for months rather than days. There are journalists who do this: Alec MacGillis, a Baltimore-based journalist, spent months in Germany to study how the country is dealing with economic and environmental issues, and when I met him toward the end of his stay, he could tell me things I did not know about the coal industry in Germany.
Within Europe and East Asia, there are exchange programs. DB sends its planners abroad on exchange missions for a few weeks to a few months at a time, not just within Western Europe but also to Japan and Russia – even in those countries enough people speak English that it’s possible to do this. The people who take these trips are ordinary middle-class civil servants and not a class of overlords; the locals who they interact with are their peers and will correct them on errors, just as my queer meetup friend corrected me when I forgot that Berlin trains run overnight on weekends.
This program must also include routine connections at conferences. These are short trips, but a planner who goes on one makes connections with planners abroad and hears about advances in the field, from a peer who will have a discussion as an equal about their own experience and expertise. Over many trips the attendees can then figure out patterns to travel, notice changes, and come up with their own suggestions. This is no different from the academic process, in which research groups across multiple continents would regularly meet to discuss their work, and form connections to produce joint papers.
This way, it’s possible to learn details. This includes consumer-level details, similar to how I learn a city by taking public transit there many times and finding out hidden gems like Berlin’s timed transfer stations at Mehringdamm and Wuhletal. But this also includes the back end of how planning is done, what assumptions everyone makes that may differ from one’s home country’s, and so on.
The United States has done this before, by accident. Veteran and planner R. W. Rynerson has long pointed out that first-generation light rail in North America, covering such systems as Edmonton, Calgary, San Diego, and Portland, was planned by veterans who’d served in Germany during the Cold War and were familiar with ongoing trends here. Army tours of duty abroad last years, and soldiers are often happy to extend them to offer their families stability.
This way, American light rail bears striking similarities to the German Stadtbahn concept. It exhibits convergent evolution with tram-trains, modified to avoid track-sharing with mainline rail. The vehicles used were developed for German Stadtbahn systems, and the concept of having a streetcar system that runs faster than a traditional streetcar came out of this history as well. However, the generation of vets has retired, and today American planners no longer keep up with European advances in the field. Civilian connections through conferences, secondments, and exchange programs do not really exist, and the militarization levels of the 1960s and 70s are a thing of the past.
When I confront Americans with the distinction between valuable but uncommon long-term, routine international links for ordinary engineers and planners and worthless but all too common executive junket trips, the excuses for the pattern all fall into the same family: executives just do not trust their workers. Senior management in this industry in the United States views the people they oversee as little devils to be constantly disciplined, and never supported.
Based on this pattern, the peons do not get professional development – only the executives do. If tabloid media criticizes European conferences as vacation trips then it is used as an excuse to prohibit civil servants from going, but somehow the executives still go on junket trips, figuring that someone at Eric Adams’ level can just ride out the media criticism.
Likewise, the civil servants do not get to develop any knowledge that the executives don’t have. If they come with prior knowledge – say, Hispanic immigrants who work in New York and keep abreast of developments in their country of origin – then they must be broken down. They are peons, not advisors, and the layer of political appointees parachuting to oversee them are scourges and not mentors.
I focus on mentorship because good advisors understand that their advisees’ success reflects positively on them. In academia, professors who successfully place their students at tenure-track research positions are recognized as such behind the scenes and the rumor mill will inform new students that they should seek them out as advisors; there is a separate whisper network for women to discuss which advisors are abusive to them.
And this mentorship requires a minimum level of downward trust. Academia, for all of its toxicity and drama, has it, but somehow the American public-sector planning field does not. This is especially bad considering that the American public sector has set up its benefits system to ensure that people stay at the same workplace for life, which environment is perfect for investing in the junior employees. And yet, senior management does not deem $60,000/year planners with lush pensions important enough to pay $1,500 to send them to a conference abroad.
A high-trust environment is not one where the broad public trusts the elite. Germany has a culture of incessant complaints about everything; every middle-class German is certain they can do better than the state in many fields, and regrettably, many are correct. No: a high-trust environment is one where the elite trusts both the broad public and its own subordinates. This is what European public transit agencies have to varying extents, the ones that are more trusting of the riders generally having better outcomes than the ones that are less trusting, and what American ones lack.
It’s in the public interest for cities to convert the parking lanes of their major streets to outdoor seating, with chairs and tables. On the commercial avenue of the modern city, land use at street level is in large part restaurants, bars, and cafes, and some of the remainder of the storefronts could use outdoor seating as well, for example bakeries. In contrast, street parking is of little value – it creates more car traffic.
The main benefit here is that it turns the street into an open-air food court. This has the usual benefits of shopping centers, which at any rate were invented to simulate commercial streets, without the interference of cars. But it has an additional benefit that I have not seen mentioned by urbanists: it pools seating between different cafes and restaurants, in contrast with today’s outdoor seating, where each place has its own few tables according to the width of its storefront.
Pooling seats this way means that people who buy from in-demand establishments can take adjacent seats. I saw this, by chance, during the corona lockdown, in which outdoor dining was technically banned as well as indoor dining, but some restaurants in Mitte near Alexanderplatz had permanent outdoor seating, and people would go there with food from anywhere. Even before the lockdown, when one such place was closed, some people, including myself, would colonize its seating with food from elsewhere. In effect, it reduces the rental costs of the places that make the most in-demand food and drinks, or other products.
This system of pooled seating, at the expense of parking, also has other benefits. It means people can eat different foods together. It distributes demand, which may differ by time of day or day of week, with restaurants most popular at typical lunch and dinner times (and sometimes different restaurants have different peaks), bars at night, and cafes in between. These both increase efficiency, but even at a fixed peak, this has benefits, in letting restaurants compete on food quality.
Taxes, in general, are progressive: the rich pay more than the poor as a proportion of their income. But trying to apply the same logic to small and medium enterprise regulations is wrong. It doesn’t produce any income redistribution to speak of – the redistribution occurs only among the class of business owners, who already skew wealthy, to the detriment of the customers. In the case of storefronts, letting restaurant and cafe patrons sit outside wherever they’d like means not forcing the most desirable businesses to pay more in rent to acquire more seating space; the redistribution involved in the implicit rental tax under the present-day situation is entirely among owners, and to some extent from business owners to landlords. It’s not the same as when I pay higher taxes than a minimum-wage Aldi cashier and lower taxes than a CEO who doesn’t receive lower-taxed stock options.
And then there’s the positive impact on urban transport. City boulevards as a rule have too much car traffic and this includes ones in Berlin or Paris that Americans hold up as positive examples that they compare with noisier American arterial roads. The abundance of parking especially encourages people to drive to errands rather than walking, biking, or using public transportation; the present-day situation is that restaurants sometimes put out seats, reducing sidewalk width and with it the available space for cyclists to use the streets.
So instead, public seating, in lieu of on-street car storage, has the positive effects of distributing seats better as outlined above, while also reducing the space available for people to use cars in a city that needs more quiet and cleaner air.
I’d like to compare three cities: Paris, New York, Boston. They’re about equally wealthy, and I’ve lived years in two and spent a lot of time in the third. Americans dismiss New York and Boston too often as Not Real America, but they’re both excellent examples of how the US differs from Europe.
Private affluence and squalor at home
Visit the home of a middle-class person in the city. (I mean “middle-class” in the European sense of “reasonably educated professional,” not the American one of “not homeless.”) If you’re used to a certain suburban American standard of normality then the New York apartment will look small to you, but the one in Boston will not, and a few years seeing how Europeans live will disabuse you of any notion that New York apartments are small.
Parisian apartments are tiny. I had 40 square meters near Nation, but the citywide average is 31 per person; in New York, it’s 50 if I understand the Census Factfinder correctly. There are studios in Paris well below 20 m^2 – even Stockholm tends to stick to micro-units in the 20-25 m^2 area. There is something called studettes going down to 9 m^2 in the most extreme cases, many inherited from servant attic units built in the Second Empire and Belle Epoque. In New York it’s more or less prohibited by regulation, with the attendant high rents, but the regulations are about bedrooms, not unit size, hence the common experience of living 3 or 4 people to a large apartment, one that in Continental Europe is largely restricted to lower-income cities like Lisbon or Berlin.
In the 1950s, when John Galbraith coined the expression private affluence and public squalor, the American home had amenities unheard of in Europe, like universal ownership of appliances. This is not as stark a distinction today. Europeans have televisions and fast Internet connections for cheaper prices than in the US. But Europeans don’t have driers or air conditioning and don’t have dishwashers as commonly as Americans. I don’t want to exaggerate the difference in housing quality – for one, insulation is a lot better in Paris (and Berlin) than in New York and Boston, so the experience of living on the 3rd floor facing a city street is a lot noisier west of the Pond than east of it. For another difference, American air conditioning is window units in all but the highest-end apartments, which would have central air in Europe too. But the difference exists, and is noticeable.
Public affluence and squalor on the street
Let’s leave the inside of our houses now. How does the public sphere look?
The recent reporting of New York as trash city can make people think that this is literally about the street. To some extent, this is – but it’s not just about trash. For one, the street lighting is better in Paris, and better in Manhattan than in Cambridge, in what I think is an artifact of high density and not just wealth. For two, I don’t remember having to dodge puddles in the rain in Paris; in New York and Boston it’s a common occurrence whenever there’s heavier rain than a drizzle. For three, in the snow, Cambridge becomes mostly impassable to pedestrians, and while Paris does not get serious enough snow for shoveling to ever be a big issue, Stockholm does and the sidewalks in Central Stockholm are shoveled just fine.
The importance of Paris’s wealth and density is that Berlin is not this nice. The street lighting in Berlin is not great by Parisian standards (or, as I recall, by Stockholm ones?). Walking around Bernauer Strasse (let alone Neukölln, one of inner Berlin’s poorest neighborhoods), one never gets the feeling the area is as well-off as Nation, which is itself lower middle-class by Parisian standards. I’m saying this knowing the comparative income levels of Berlin and Paris, and perhaps it’s unfair, but from what I’ve seen, it’s fairly easy to compare France and Germany, their relative levels of public and private affluence are similar.
Most Americans know, on some level, that various public services are better in Western Europe. Life expectancy in France is higher than in the US by 3-4.5 years depending on source, and life expectancy in Germany is higher by 2-3 years. New York and Massachusetts are wealthy states and outlive the rest of the country by a margin, but they’re still not French, let alone Parisian.
Public health is there in various statistics, but the same is true of transportation. This is not even just public transportation – my recollection of the handful of times I’ve found myself in a taxi in Paris is that it’s a much more pleasant experience than the potholed American streets I’ve taken taxis or ridden with other people on. But it’s much more glaring in public transit than on roads, because public transit inherently requires more public competence. Parisians do not think the RER is particularly good, but it’s a marvel compared with any American commuter rail network, and involves a level of interagency coordination in fares, schedules, and services that is unheard of in the United States.
Worse, public transit in the United States has the reputation of a social service. In metro New York the incomes of transit and car commuters are very close, and in metro Boston transit commuters slightly outearn car commuters, but in both areas, anything that is not a segregated suburban middle-class commuter line is treated as a social service, run by managers who do not use their own system and do not consider use cases beyond their own 9-to-5 work travel.
Squalor and incompetence
Squalor and incompetence feed each other. This does not mean poverty is a moral failing or a result of weakness or stupidity. But it does mean that someone who is denied access to good work will, over a lifetime, learn to do lower-value things and, even if the job denial at 18 was entirely random or a matter of discrimination, be worse at high-value jobs by 50. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that countries with more income mobility and less persistent poverty – for examples, Canada, Australia, and the Nordic countries – do not determine people’s careers by how they did at 18 at the university admissions the way the US, UK, and France do. Talented Canadians who get worse grades in high school because of obstructive teachers will have opportunities to shine at 23 that their French or American counterparts, denied the ability to go to the most prestigious universities, will simply not get.
I bring this up because the US has a cycle of public squalor. Public-sector wages are uncompetitive, so workers are either nerds with particular personal or social interest in the field (sanitation, public transit, etc.), or people who couldn’t get better private-sector work – and this is particularly acute at the management level, especially senior management, since the best managers can leak to the private sector and get better pay there. Weak civil service in turns reduces the political will to pay civil servants high salaries, especially among politicians, who encounter senior managers much more often than they do hard-working train drivers, sanitation workers, and individual teachers.
There’s perhaps an analog of private affluence and public squalor, in which Americans are individually diligent and collectively lazy. Some of this has to be political: ambitious politicians get ahead by doing nothing and packaging it as bravery. I can name multiple national Republicans who became nationally famous by saying no to spending, and not a single Democrat who became nationally famous by successfully pushing through a major government program, such statewide universal health care or a green transition. But it’s not just politicians and their political appointees – there’s punch-clock behavior and agency turf battles below that level.
Is there a solution?
Unambiguously, yes. It’s not evident from just reading about the history of the Anglosphere, since Britain took forever to develop its civil service and thus assumes the process would be equally long in South Korea or Finland (“first 500 years are hardest“). It requires political will, and often a good model – I suspect Finland was able to develop good government so quickly because it consciously imitated Swedish governance. It doesn’t even require setting everything on fire first – South Korea and Taiwan engaged in land reform but did not kill the entire middle class the way some communist countries did.
The good news is that most public-sector workers in the US are not incompetent political appointees. The people I talk to in New York and Boston are sharp and informed and often difficult to keep up with because of how much they understand that I don’t, and for the most part I get the impression that they don’t think their colleagues are morons. The competence level on average decreases as one goes upward, partly because of negative selection of management, but it’s possible and desirable to internally promote people and raise wages to retain talent.
Fundamentally, the US needs to let go of the idea that the public is inferior to the private. But this isn’t just about what’s in Americans’ heads. They need to treat the public commons well, and I don’t just mean building monuments that look nice now and will rust in 10 years. I mean investing in public services, and paying the people who provide them competitively. Public squalor is a choice the US makes every day that it can stop making.
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.
I like Stockholm. There’s something reassuringly familiar about it, despite the language barrier, which I think comes from the fact that the Central Stockholm housing stock is of similar vintage as the residential parts of Manhattan. It even avoids New York’s most annoying (to me) architectural tic, the exposed brick. The buildings here are similar in style to the ones in New York (and more generally northern Europe), but most have smooth exterior, with enough variation of colors between buildings to make it interesting.
The streets here vary a lot in width, but outside the older sections of the city, they are never very narrow. In Gamla Stan (“the old town”), the medieval core of the city that is now a tourist ghetto, complete with stores selling Swedish flags or English-language books, there are some pedestrianized streets with single-digit building-to-building width. But in my part of the city – Roslagstull, near the outer end of what’s considered Central Stockholm – the street width ranges are almost identical to those of Manhattan. My street, Birger Jarlsgatan, is about 30 meters wide, while less important parallel streets are about 15 or 20. Like the rest of city center, it’s lined with almost uniformly mid-rise buildings, six to seven stories tall. See photos here, from Södermalm, and here, from Regeringsgatan, a street that for a portion of its length is elevated over intersecting streets.
A feature of Stockholm streets that I have not seen in other cities is that on-sidewalk bike lanes. While the overall sidewalk width on Birger Jarlsgatan is generous, the sidewalk is broken by the bike lane. The inner side of the bike lane is interrupted by trees, and the outer side by sidewalk cafes, and as a result, sometimes walking in the bike lane is unavoidable if one wishes to avoid walking in zigzags. In any case, cyclist traffic does not seem to be heavy; there is much more pedestrian traffic.
Crossing the street is rarely difficult. There are beg buttons at intersections, but the pedestrian light will turn green even without pressing them. The stoplight phasing is simple: most of Central Stockholm is on one of several grids, and even at intersections of two-way streets (one-way streets are uncommon, at least around Roslagstull), there are only two phases per stoplight cycle. Without grade-separated freeways in the city core, the worst streets for the pedestrians are the occasional freeway-like structure, or one of several excessively wide roads. I walk to work on one of those roads, Valhallavägen, and during the daytime, the cars’ noise and air pollution are uncomfortable unless I walk through the parking lots behind the street or the bus bay in its median.
The transit system is useful, though I almost never take it. This is a combination of very high fares (with my pay-per-ride smartcard, I pay 25 kronor per ride, about PPP$2.70) and a city core that’s small enough and pedestrian-friendly enough that I can get around most of it on foot. The pedestrian orientation of the streets matters: my apartment is 2.3 km from the CBD mall and 1.7 km from Stockholm University; but I will walk to the mall, whereas to get to and from a conference at SU, I didn’t walk on Roslagsvägen (which is almost a full freeway) but instead took the subway from my university, KTH, which is more centrally located within the city.
Of course, most people in the region don’t live in Central Stockholm, and for them the T-bana is a lifeline. Subway ridership here, excluding commuter rail, is about 900,000 per day (not weekday), not much lower than on the U-Bahns of much larger Berlin and Munich. As a curiosity, there are many light rail lines that connect outlying suburbs to a T-bana station, requiring a transfer to get to the CBD; the busiest, Roslagsbanan, is a narrow-gauge commuter rail system terminating next to KTH, with one T-bana branch, the T14, running parallel to it for a few stops before terminating. This is in addition to a mainline commuter rail system, with 267,000 daily passengers; this ratio of about one commuter rail rider to three subway riders is higher than
anything most (see first two comments) in North America, but is much lower than in major European transit cities like Paris and London, where commuter rail and the metro have roughly equal ridership levels. Among the transit projects under construction in Stockholm is a new rail tunnel, which will increase the capacity of commuter rail.
I was in Philadelphia last summer for about five days. I have few observations as a pedestrian: I stayed in West Philadelphia, in the gentrifying zone radiating out of University City, and traveled to Center City, and both neighborhoods seemed intimately familiar to me as a (former) New Yorker. The street widths and setbacks looked very much like those of New York; West Philadelphia could easily be an area of Brooklyn. The difference to me was in the public transit rather than the pedestrian experience.
In New York, the subway is for everyone. The same is true of Singapore and Vancouver. In Philadelphia, it is not the case. The city is about 40% white and 40% black. On the trains I took, the Market Street subway and the Subway-Surface Trolleys, nearly everyone was black. A friend who lived in Philadelphia for ten years has observed the same on the buses, and adds that white people on buses tend to be college students.
But there’s more to the story. I think it’s a commonplace that in American cities other than New York, blacks ride public transit more than whites. What I think is more important is that whites tend to ride transit at rush hour. When I rode the trains in Philadelphia at rush hour, there was still a clear black majority on the streetcar or the subway car, but there were a fair number of whites. In the off-peak, I was at times the only white person on a streetcar that was filled to its seated capacity. The aforementioned friend says she thinks she saw the same, but as she rarely rode at rush hour, she is not sure.
It is not hard to come up with explanations for the difference. In Philadelphia, as in the typical Rust Belt city, the white population is quite suburbanized, much more so than the black population. It is also substantially richer. Both contribute to car ownership, and to driving in whenever traffic allows; since traffic is worst at rush hour, that’s when we see the most white people on public transit. The people who ride the trains and the buses outside rush hour tend to be urban residents who do not own a car, and in a city with the income distribution and racial dynamics of Philadelphia, they are predominantly black.
This injects a racial element into a lot of transit planning, especially for commuter rail. North American commuter rail is designed exclusively for suburban residents, who in Philadelphia and similar cities are usually white and at least middle-class. This is why it gets away with such poor off-peak service: hourly on most SEPTA Regional Rail lines, hourly or even every two hours on the MBTA, hourly on most branches of the New York commuter rail network. Although New York itself doesn’t have the typical Rust Belt city demographics, its suburbs have typical Rust Belt suburb demographics, so the situation is the same. The same is true of Boston, when one remembers that a huge fraction of its urban white population is in Cambridge and Somerville. Philadelphia is only where this racial division is the most obvious even on the subway.
Everything about North American commuter rail screams “you’re better than the hoi polloi who ride the subway”: the seating arrangement maximizing seating rather than standing space, the park-and-rides, the fares, the lack of fare integration with local transit, the schedules. Since peak-only suburban transit serves precisely the niche that the traditional white suburban middle class is comfortable riding transit in, it is necessarily segregated. Its riders even fight to keep it that way: witness for example the opposition in Stamford to developing the Metro-North station and moving the parking 400 meters away. This article complaining about parking lot waits is typical of the species; these complaints persist despite very high spending on commuter rail parking lots, for example in Hicksville.
The same transit agencies that fudge or make up numbers to avoid serving minority neighborhoods also ignore the possibility of improving off-peak service. Although off-peak service is cheaper to provide than peak service – it requires no new vehicles or infrastructure and fewer split-shift crews – the plans for service expansion typically focus on more peak capacity, despite often high crowding levels on off-peak trains. This is worst on commuter rail, but also affects subway and bus systems. In New York, the MTA’s crowding guidelines call for setting off-peak frequency such that the average train on each line will have 25% more riders than seats at the most crowded point of its journey. As anyone who’s ridden trains in Manhattan in the evening knows, trains are quite often much more crowded than this average. The MTA needs to keep its losses to a reasonable minimum, and on the core lines the off-peak frequency is not bad; but why keep claiming that trains only have 25% more riders than cars? The MTA is by comparison more honest about its capacity problems on the Lexington express trains, for example in the Second Avenue Subway environmental impact statement.
Many of the problems of American transit systems are directly traceable to the fact that the managers don’t often ride the trains, and their peer group is not the same as the average transit user. This is why we see little concern for off-peak service, and practically none with off-peak service on the whitest and more suburban form of transit, commuter rail. None of these managers of course intends to be racist or classist, but they unwittingly are.
Two weeks ago, I found a board game store in Vancouver, and through it a variety of gaming events. The store is located about five blocks from my apartment, and I first saw it from a bus nearly two months after moving to Vancouver. It’s in the same neighborhood; to get from my apartment to the store requires walking on ordinary city streets with sufficient sidewalks and room to cross. However, those streets are residential, and so I have no reason to walk in that direction. It creates a split in what is formally the same neighborhood.
In my section of Vancouver, the two major throughfares are 4th Avenue and Broadway (9th). There is some retail elsewhere (e.g. on Cornwall, which is -1st, and even more so on Granville Island), but it’s not the continuous commercial development on the two major avenues. Even if it’s as big as Granville Island, it requires me to go specifically to it, whereas on 4th I can go until I see something I am interested in. Before I had wi-fi installed in my apartment, which is on 1st but which I got to by taking a 4th Avenue bus, I walked on 4th until I saw a cafe with free wi-fi and sat there.
This continuous retail ends roughly at the cross street I live on. It extends far east: on Broadway it’s to and beyond Cambie, but to the west it ends just west of Arbutus; on 4th, it extends east to about the Granville Bridge. As I said in my first post about Vancouver, the development on Broadway is fairly spiky, with peaks around Cambie, Granville, and Arbutus, but there’s also a base of 1- to 2-story retail. On 4th, the development is just continuous 1- to 2-story retail. The next major street west of Arbutus, Macdonald, has retail clusters at both Broadway and 4th, but on both avenues there’s a two-block residential gap between the Arbutus side and the Macdonald side. Living on the Arbutus side, I learned early that if I walk east there are cafes, stores, and restaurants immediately, and if I walk west there aren’t. The result is that even though in principle Macdonald is in my neighborhood whereas anything more than three blocks east of Arbutus isn’t, I go this far east of Arbutus much more than I go to Macdonald.
The main advantage of grid street networks over the gridless network of e.g. Providence is that they can provide continuous development, making it easy for people to spontaneously walk in all directions. In Providence spontaneity was provided only by the fact that I knew where the various retail clusters on the East Side were; in reality I would almost always go to Thayer rather than Wickenden or Wayland Square. In gridded cities neighborhoods are less formally defined around one center, but instead evolve more organically, since the center can shift over time and the street network doesn’t distinguish it from the boundary with the next neighborhood over.
On a broader level, this spontaneity is a good way to promote more access. If I can walk to interesting retail in more directions, there’s a higher chance I’ll find something that suits my interests, just as the gaming store does. It provides the same benefits as an increase in density or in travel speed, in this case specialization of retail.
I moved to Vancouver last weekend. The slow pace of posting will probably continue for another week, but I do have multiple posts in the pipeline. I am currently at a downtown hotel, commuting to Kitsilano to look at apartments and to UBC to deal with early paperwork.
My appreciation of Translink dropped within a day, after I discovered that discounted books of multiple tickets and monthly passes are only available at 7-11 and other convenience stores, rather than at stations. (The ticket machines offer what appeared to be multiple-ride tickets but turned out to be single-ride tickets, perhaps usable by multiple people at once.) I still think it’s better-run than the other transit agencies of North America, but it has a lot to learn from New York regarding how to make fare media usable by passengers.
The most surprising pedestrian experience I’ve had is about the street width. The streets are wide, which is what I expected, based on Jarrett’s paean to the grid at Human Transit (which is necessarily wide in North America). What I did not expect was that the buildings would be so short away from downtown. Jarrett’s description of Central Broadway, around the Canada Line stop, as the second downtown, made me think Broadway was a continuous corridor of high-intensity development. It is not; it feels more like a secondary retail strip. The commercial buildings are usually one- or two-story, with some clusters of higher density at major street intersections, especially Cambie but also Granville, MacDonald, and others. This development is more spiky than linear, as if there’s already rapid transit on the route, rather than just interlined high-frequency buses.
Away from Broadway, Kitsilano feels very suburban – at least, the part of 11th Avenue I walked on does. The density looks higher than in Providence because a few of the buildings are tall, but most of the buildings have ornamental front lawns, and the sidewalks are narrow paths through the grass, more like a suburb than like the very old New England neighborhoods I had gotten used to over the past year.
There’s a point I made early on in this blog – I can’t remember where – about the relationship between street width and building height. To be pedestrian-friendly, a street needs to have a certain proportion between the height of the street wall – for example, the height of the buildings flanking it if they do not taper toward the top – and the width of the street. The ratio I initially proposed is 1:1, with a favorable range of 1:2 to 2:1; nowadays I’d propose higher ratios – Providence’s East Side’s 1:2 feels a bit too low, while the 2:1-3:1 on old streets in Boston and Providence feels fine – but the principle is similar.
Downtown Vancouver has what feels to me like correct proportions. With the setbacks and the tapering buildings, the height-to-width ratio is kept to average levels, with modernist skyscrapers balancing wide streets. Because there is high density in the core, the streets do not feel desolate, and the major streets are flush with ground-level retail. Buildings that look very similar to Akirov Towers do not make me feel the same revulsion toward their design; Akirov Towers are built like any housing project, but the towers of Downtown Vancouver feel like New York’s towers on a base. Although many of those buildings do not actually have any street wall, enough of them do that I feel like I’m walking in a human city.
Broadway does not have the same feel. From the bus, the trees frame the street, making it feel less like a highway. On foot, it’s different, and it feels more open and less dense. It works well enough for transit – the bus lines on it have extremely high traffic, much of it due to the pull of UBC – but the pedestrian experience is less than perfect. The street is 30 meters wide, the same as a Manhattan avenue or two-way street, and it needs to be framed by buildings about that tall.
UBC is the worst. Granted, it is summertime, so it’s more deserted than it is during the year. But Harvard Square, Kendall Square, College Hill, Morningside Heights, and even Yale are teeming with people at all times of year. UBC clearly has people – they fill the buses to the rest of the city – but the campus is so spread out there aren’t that many of them at one spot (or if there are, I haven’t found it). There is one cluster of restaurants at University Village, and a few cafes and other retail outlets sporadically located elsewhere, but nothing truly mixed-use the way any of the aforementioned Northeastern college neighborhoods are. There is a grid of major campus boulevards, built with landscaped lawns, but they end up feeling like a large urban renewal project. Columbia has some of those, but they have more people using them; the only Northeastern school I know that has similarly lonely throughfares is MIT, but MIT has its livelier parts at the main administration building and near its subway stop.
Somewhat away from the grid is UBC’s bus loop terminal. My first experience at UBC was stepping off the 99-B express bus to a terminal with a few bays for buses, surrounded by parking, and landscaped lawns that are far prettier from a moving vehicle than on foot. According to a presentation about the proposed subway under Broadway, UBC’s mode split among non-Vancouver residents is 71-27 in favor of cars. (Central Broadway’s is 77-21, which surprised me since it looks not particularly dense but not really auto-oriented the way UBC is). For Downtown, the comparable figure is 49-49.
Despite all this, Vancouver is by North American standards a reasonably successful transit city. Its transit usage is okay, and unlike in most North American cities, it is growing, if not as fast as I’d like. Translink believes that a Broadway subway would get 146,000 daily riders, up from 60,000 on the 99-B plus about 50,000 on local buses today; intuitively this feels low to me, though achieving high enough transit mode share to UBC and Central Broadway would probably require more fundamental changes to their urban design than is politically acceptable. For one, local activists would have to stop referring to the few mid-rises amidst the two-story retail at Broadway and Cambie as high-rise or high-intensity development. It’s nothing upzoning won’t fix, but upzoning this intense is unlikely. It’s really too bad, because walking on Broadway I feel insufficient height is the only problem on the street.
I don’t normally pedestrian-observe cities that I’ve been to so many times, and New Haven is the US city I’ve spent the most time in other than the two I’ve lived in. But my last visit, in which I looked at the closing time of each store and found it compares more favorably with Providence than I’d thought, led me to think why I have such a visceral response to New Haven’s urbanism.
The parking. It hurts. Providence’s Downcity has parking garages and surface lots, but it has nothing on New Haven there. New Haven’s Route 34 stubway is only an actual road for two and a half blocks west of State Street – 800 meters of actual freeway. Beyond that the full width of the block is occupied by a multistory parking deck for 250 meters, passing over York Street and making walking between downtown or most of Yale and Yale-New Haven Hospital unpleasant. Farther out there are two full blocks, or 600 linear meters, of surface lots. On both sides, the parts of Route 34 used for moving cars are also flanked by surface lots.
Although Union Station is located outside city center, and the area immediately to its east is either empty or low-value, the station’s overflow parking lots are located between the station and downtown, on the downtown side of Route 34. There are special shuttles between the train station and the parking lots, and other shuttles between the train station and Yale. It makes Providence Station and Providence Place look like models of megaproject-city integration. To solve that particular problem, New Haven is proposing a circulator streetcar with practically no use other than a parking lot shuttle on rails.
Even inhabited buildings are often surrounded by immense amounts of surface parking. Immediately north of the elevated parking garage over York, there are several towers in parking lots. Even lower-rise housing is frequently surrounded by continuous parking; this is true of most blocks flanking State Street within walking distance of the State Street train station. What’s jarring is not just the percentage of space devoted to parking, but also the size of continuous parking lots; the more intact residential neighborhoods of both New Haven and Providence have small lots behind or between houses, rather than multiple continuous hectares of parking. It’s this preponderance of unlit parking that gives the city a post-apocalyptic feel.
Discounting the parking, the city is surprisingly monocentric. Most of the university and the secondary urban destinations cluster near downtown. Generally they’re west of the office towers – just far enough to avoid creating a true mixed-use neighborhood anywhere – but they’re theoretically within walking distance of everything. It’s not like the multiple cores of Providence and Cambridge. The upside is that Chapel Street doesn’t depopulate at 7 pm the way Downcity does; the downside is that it’s still nowhere as nice as Thayer or Wickenden Street and completely lacks their small cosiness.
It’s too bad, because there is a lot of usable space in New Haven that would make for great development, and also make the rest of the city more livable if built up. The individual buildings that aren’t recent urban renewal projects are fine; there just need to be more of them. Some, though by no means all or even most, of the pedestrian-hostility will go if Route 34 is removed as planned. But the current plans call for the first block removed to be 50% replaced with a parking garage. Moreover, there do not seem to be plans to tear the elevated parking garage over York, even though it’s York and not the streets intersecting the freeway proper that connects to the hospital.
The problem, I believe, comes from viewing freeway removal as yet another urban renewal program, on a par with one-way streetcar loops, sterile cultural centers, and other universal failures. It’s a preference for the iconic over the mundane that leads New Haven to spurn the idea of removing the freeway and the garage, not mandating any parking, and selling the land in small lots to allow for independent businesses.
Big things almost invariably present a blank street wall. It’s not impossible for big entities to coexist with reasonable urbanism – Brown’s own buildings aren’t the best, but they don’t prevent Thayer Street from more or less working – but big buildings in low-traffic areas do not. A skyscraper in a downtown area with enough demand for it will work – it can have retail in its first floor facing the street, as the Empire State Building does, and the adjacent blocks will also be able to supply urban amenities. A skyscraper surrounded by nothing will not. Neither, for that matter, will a four-story facility occupying half a block; those need to be somewhere, but New Haven has enough space for them already and has no reason to prefer them to blocks with multiple separate buildings owned by different entities.
The end result is that New Haven is likely to stay bad. The suburbanites think it has a shortage of parking; thus, the city builds more for them, instead of realizing that a city will always have a shortage of parking and if it is accused of something it might as well do it and cater to people who it can satisfy. It’s great for cars – even more of the region will be open to them to the exclusion of anyone who uses other modes of transportation. It’s just bad for people.
As I got off the Underground, I was greeted by a fenced roadway without easy crossings. I found the way around a roundabout and started to walk toward the hotel where I was to meet my family, on the wrong side of the street. Although traffic was relatively light and the street was not very wide by New York standards, a fenced median required me to cross at one crosswalk, a Z-crossing with beg buttons and different pedestrian signal phasing for the two halves of the road. About five minutes after I first emerged above ground in London on foot, I realized: this city hates pedestrians.
Of course, the 20 mph zones, the naked streets, and the streets that are officially neither 20 mph nor naked but so narrow they might as well be are not, by themselves, hateful toward pedestrians. They’re rather pleasant. Even when they have beg buttons, which is often, those buttons can be ignored, as they routinely are in Providence. Beyond them, there’s a class of streets of about the same width as Manhattan streets, for example Portobello, which are busy and pedestrian-scaled. The issue is that the wider ones, the main streets, have completely abandoned any attempt at catering to pedestrians; they’re run by road engineers rather than by urban designers.
The failure of London is not a matter of preferring cars to cities, as is the case in American cities. The London Underground is quite nice, though it’s more because it charges exorbitant fares (see page 45 here, and realize that the graph seems to use a depreciated pound:Euro exchange rate) than because it’s particularly well-run. The commuter rail system is treated like modern rapid transit and is treated with lavish investment. There is an extensive bike share system, but with substandard bike lanes that tend to disappear into bus stops. None of this comes from a deliberate attempt to destroy alternative transportation; it’s just an unintended consequence of modernist planning.
In the view of the modernist planner, pedestrians and cars should always be strictly separated with fences if necessary, all crosswalks must be signalized, and it should be impossible to have any spontaneous crossings, or spontaneous anything for that matter. Ideally, crossings should be in pedestrian underpasses or overpasses, to eliminate all conflict. There can be delineated zones for pedestrians – side streets or some busy pedestrian malls, such as Covent Garden – but those should be placed away from the main streets.
In contrast, New York and Paris do things differently. Streets are wider both on average and at the minimum. Parking is done on the street, providing a buffer from traffic that’s wide enough to make me feel protected but porous enough that I can cross when I want to. Sidewalks are wide, crosswalks are frequent and let pedestrians cross in just one cycle, and increasingly protected bike lanes are cannibalizing road space that used to belong to cars. Of course, London’s main streets are wide enough that they could look like the delightful mess that is First Avenue if TfL wanted to. At a few places, they do look like New York streets, such as the aforementioned Portobello Road, with parked cars on one side. But for the most part, London treats its main streets, where most activity is, as arterial roads for cars.
This contrast between New York and London’s style of planning is jarring. New York’s grids are meticulously planned, without much variation except in the parts of Brooklyn and Queens where two separate grids meet. London is nothing like that – its street network is famously labyrinthine, and walking there with one’s roaming function turned off in order to save money requires hopping from one public map to another. But on the level of the individual street, this situation is reversed: London’s streets are meticulously traffic-engineered, while New York’s avenues are chaotic. It’s true even on the level of stereotypical cabbie behavior: for one, London’s cab drivers tend to obey traffic laws.
More fundamentally, it shows just why car-centric planning is so incompatible with urbanism: it tries to impose order on something that resists it. According to Christopher Alexander and the rest of the traditional urbanists, I’m supposed to shun the mechanistic design of New York (or Paris, which is as planned) and gravitate toward the traditionalism of London. In reality, my reaction is the exact opposite – on the micro level, New York is much more emergent and chaotic, and, at the level that is relevant to a local who doesn’t feel the need to constantly look up, vastly more human-scaled. London may appear to succeed on grand urban design principles on a map and in diagrams, but on little things that matter, it fails. It may have little pockets of success, and enough activity on the streets that I’m willing to spend 3 minutes crossing them when necessary, but it has nothing on its peer Western megacities.
That is not to say I avoided walking around London. On the contrary, I explored Central London during what little time I had to ditch my family. But the streets were not particularly inviting, and at some points it felt more like an adventure than like an ordinary walking trip. This never happened to me in New York or Paris or the (very few) other cities I’ve found to be walkable.