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.
Successful transit cities are not alike. There are large differences in how the most expansive transit networks are laid out. It takes multiple series of posts across several blogs (not just mine but also Human Transit and others) covering just one of them, for example stop spacing or how construction contracts are let. With so much variation, it’s easy to get caught up in details that differentiate the best systems. After all, the deepest communities of railfans tend to sprout in the cities with the largest rail networks; arguing with railfans with experience with London, Tokyo, or Paris is difficult because they know intricate details of how their systems work that I am catching up on but only know in the same depth for New York. Add in the fact that London and Paris view each other as peer cities and from there the route to arguing minutiae about two cities that by most standards have good public transit is short.
But what if this is wrong? What if, instead of or in addition to figuring out differences among the top transit cities, it’s useful to also figure out what these transit cities have in common that differentiates them from auto-oriented cities? After all, in other aspects of development or best practices this is well-understood: for example, a developing country can choose to aim to be hyper-capitalist like Singapore or the US or social democratic like Sweden or France, but it had better develop the institutions that those four countries have in common that differentiate them from the third world.
Unfortunately, before discussing what the common institutions to transit cities are, it’s necessary to discuss things that may be common but don’t really matter.
The US as a confounding factor
The biggest problem with figuring out things all good transit cities have in common is that in the developed world, the US (and to some extent Canada and Australia) is unique in having bad transit. Frequent commenter Threestationsquare has a list of cities by annual rapid transit ridership (counting BRT but not infrequent commuter rail, which lowballs parts of the US); New York is near the top, but the second highest in the US, a near-tie between Boston, Chicago, and Washington, would rank #22 in Europe. As a result, some social, political, and technical features that appear to differentiate good and bad transit are not really about transit but about the US and must be discarded as confounding factors. Fortunately, most of these confounding factors are easy to dispose of since they also occur in New York.
The more difficult question concerns factors that are distantly related to the weakness of US transit but are not direct explanations. I wrote about racism as such a factor a few months ago, arguing that high US construction costs come from weak civil service, which in turn comes from the way American segregation works. The US is not uniquely racist or even uniquely segregated; the unique aspect is that it a) has a long-settled oppressed minority and not just immigrants who arrived after the characteristic of the state was established, and b) has segregation within metro areas (unlike Singapore, which has social but not spatial segregation) but not between them (unlike Israel, where the built-up area of Tel Aviv has very few Arabs). But while this can explain why institutions developed in a way that’s hostile to transit, it’s not a direct explanation for poor US transit except in Atlanta, where the white state underinvests in the black city. White people in Boston, Los Angeles, Houston, and other cities with little to no public transit do not avoid the bus or the train out of stereotypes that match typical American racial stereotypes, such as crime; they avoid the train because it doesn’t go where they’re going and the bus because it is slow and unreliable.
There are two ways to avoid confounding factors. The first is the sanity check, where available: if some feature of transit exists across major transit cities but is absent in auto-oriented cities not just in the US but also in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, and Italy, then it’s likely to be relevant. Unfortunately, clean examples are rare. The second and more difficult method is to have theoretical understanding of what matters.
London and Paris are transit cities. So are Prague and Stockholm. I’ve stressed the importance of scale-variance before: features that work in larger cities may fail in smaller ones and vice versa. Thus, it’s best to look at common features of successful transit cities within each size class separately.
In fact, one way cities can fail is by adopting transit features from cities of the wrong size class. China is making the mistake in one direction: Beijing and Shanghai have no express subway trains or frequent regional rail services acting as express urban rail, and as a result, all urban travel has to slow down to an average speed of about 35 km/h, whereas Tokyo has express regional lines averaging 60 km/h. China’s subway design standards worked well for how big its cities were when those standards were developed from the 1970s to the 1990s, but are too small for the country’s megacities today.
In contrast, in the developed world, the megacities with good public transit all have frequent express trains: Tokyo and Osaka have four-track (or even eight-track!) regional lines, Paris has the RER, New York has express subways (and the premium-price LIRR trains from Jamaica to Penn Station), London has fast regional rail lines and Thameslink and will soon have Crossrail, Seoul has a regional rail network with express trains on Subway Line 1, and Moscow stands alone with a strictly two-track system but has such wide stop spacing that the average speed on the Metro is 41 km/h. Smaller transit cities sometimes have frequent express trains (e.g. Zurich and Stockholm) and sometimes don’t (e.g. Prague), but it’s less important for them because their urban extent is such that a two-track subway line can connect the center with the edge of the built-up area in a reasonable amount of time.
And if China failed by adopting design standards fitting smaller cities than it has today, the US fails in the other direction, by adopting design standards fitting huge megacities, i.e. New York. Small cities cannot hope to have lines with the crowding levels of the Lexington Avenue Line. This has several implications. First, they need to scale their operating costs down, by using proof of payment ticketing and unstaffed stations, which features are common to most European transit cities below London and Paris’s size class. Second, they need to worry about train frequency, since it’s easy to get to the point where the frequency that matches some crowding guideline is so low that it discourages riders. And third, they need to maximize network effects, since there isn’t room for several competing operations, which means ensuring buses and trains work together and do not split the market between them.
The best example of an American city that fails in all three aspects above is Washington. While railfans in Washington lament the lack of express tracks like those of New York, the city’s problems are the exact opposite: it copied aspects of New York that only succeed in a dense megacity. With interlining and reverse-branching, Washington has low frequency on each service, down to 12 minutes off-peak. The stations are staffed and faregated, raising operating costs. And there is no fare integration between Metro and the buses, splitting the market in areas with price-sensitive riders (i.e. poor people) like Anacostia.
The political situation
While I’ve written before about what I think good metro design standards are, these standards themselves cannot separate the major transit cities from cities like Los Angeles (which has about two and a half rail trunks in a metro area larger than that of London or Paris) or Tel Aviv (which has no metro at all). Instead, it’s worth asking why these cities have no large subway systems to begin with.
In the case of Tel Aviv, Israel has had an official policy of population dispersal since independence. After independence the North and South of the country had Arab majorities, and the government wished to encourage Jews to settle there to weaken any Palestinian claims to these areas. As a result, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion rejected a plan to develop an urban rail network centered on Tel Aviv and instead encouraged low-income Jewish immigrants to move far away, either to depopulated Arab towns or to new towns (“development towns”) built at strategic points for national geopolitics. Decentralization was national policy, and with it came auto-oriented urbanism. A less harsh but equally politicized environment led to Malaysia’s auto-centric layout: Paul Barter’s thesis outlines how Malaysia choked informal transit and encouraged auto-oriented suburbanization in order to create an internal market for state-owned automakers.
In the case of the US, the situation is more complex, since there were several distinct political trends in different eras favoring cars. In postwar suburbia (and in Los Angeles going back to the 1920s) it was the association of cars with middle-class normality, and in California also with freedom from hated railroads; it’s related to the fact that American suburbanization was led by the middle class rather than by the working class as with more recent exurbanization. In Israel suburbanization was led by the working class, but the deliberate government policy of decentralization meant that the urban middle class’s demands for better transportation were ignored until the 1990s.
Without enough of an urban middle class to advocate for more transit, US transit withered. New cities in the Sunbelt had little demand for public transit, and in the older cities the middle class cared little for any transit that wasn’t a peak-only commuter train from the suburbs to the CBD. Moreover, in existing transit cities the middle class demanded that the urban layout change to fit its suburban living situation, leading to extensive job sprawl into office parks that are difficult to serve on transit. This paralleled trends in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand; Sydney in particular saw middle-class suburbanization early, like Los Angeles.
The political situation changed in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, but by then high construction costs, NIMBYism constraining the extent of TOD (unlike in Canada), and indifference to leveraging regional rail for urban transit (as in Canada and until recently Israel but unlike in Australia) made it difficult to build more public transit lines.
Regional rail and TOD
The largest transit cities in the rich and middle-income world all make extensive use of regional rail, with the aforementioned exception of Chinese cities, where the lack of regional rail is creating serious travel pain, and New York, where the city itself is transit-oriented but its suburbs are not. Smaller transit cities usually make use of regional rail as well, but this isn’t universal, and to my understanding is uncommon in Eastern Europe (e.g. Kyiv has one semi-frequent ring line) even in cities with very high metro and tramway usage.
However, smaller transit cities that do not have much regional rail have full metro systems and not just tramways, let alone BRT. Curitiba and Bogota are famous for their BRT-only transit networks, but both instituted their systems in a context with low labor costs and both are building metro systems right now.
The other common element to transit cities is TOD. Here, we must distinguish old cities like London, Paris, Berlin, and Vienna, whose urban layout is TOD because it was laid out decades before mass motorization, and newer cities like Stockholm, Tokyo, and every city in Eastern Europe or the East Asian tiger states. The latter set of cities built housing on top of train stations, often public housing (as in the communist world or in Stockholm) but not always (as in Tokyo and to some extent Hong Kong), in an era when the global symbol of prosperity was still the American car-owning middle class.
The importance of TOD grows if we compare countries with relatively similar histories, namely, the US and Canada. Neither country does much regional rail, both have had extensive middle-class suburbanization (though Canada’s major cities have maintained bigger inner-urban middle classes than the US’s), and English Canada’s cities came into the 1970s with low urban density. The difference is that Canada has engaged in far more TOD. Calgary built up a large CBD for how small the city is, without much parking; Vancouver built up Downtown as well as transit-oriented centers such as Metrotown, New Westminster, Lougheed, and Whalley, all on top of the Expo Line. Nowhere in the US did such TOD happen. Moreover, American examples of partial TOD, including Arlington on top of the Washington Metro and this decade’s fast growth in Seattle, have led to somewhat less awful transit usage than in the rest of the country.
Most cities in the developed world are replete with legacy rail networks that can be leveraged for high-quality public transit. We see cities that aim at transit revival start with regional rail modernization, including Auckland and to some extent Tel Aviv (which is electrifying its rail network and building new commuter lines, but they run in freeway medians due to poor planning). Moreover, we see cities that are interested in transit build up high-rise CBDs in their centers and high- and mid-rise residential development near outlying train stations.
“Regional rail and TOD” is not a perfect formula; it elides a lot of details and a lot of historical factors that are hard to replicate. But both regional rail and TOD have been major elements in the construction of transit cities over the last 60 years, and while they both have exceptions, they don’t have many exceptions. In the other direction, I don’t know of examples of failed TOD – that is, of auto-oriented cities that aggressively built TOD on top of new or existing rail lines but didn’t manage to grow their transit ridership. I do know some examples of failed regional rail, but usually they make glaring mistakes in design standards, especially frequency but also station siting and fare integration.
At a closer in level of zoom, it’s worthwhile to talk about the unique features of each transit city. But when looking at the big picture, it’s better to talk about what all transit cities of a particular size class have in common that auto-oriented cities don’t. Only this way can an auto-oriented city figure out what it absolutely must do if it wants to have better public transit and what are just tools in its kit for achieving that goal.
A Patreon poll in April asked about political blogging, offering three options: policy certainty in housing, process for the sake of process, and lawsuits and corruption of process. The second option won.
The year is about 2008. A wee grad student and former political blogger in New York is getting interested in transportation policy, and through past connections to political bloggers gets acquainted with a progressive local thinktank called Drum Major Institute, which advocates for all the right priorities of the center-left. One of these priorities is densification and urban growth. The relevant DMI fellow talks about the need to upzone in the city to permit smart growth. The wee grad student asks, why even have zoning at all? Why not let developers build to any density they’d like? The DMI fellow says that zoning is necessary in order to permit planners to have control over where development goes, and doesn’t explain what this control is useful for in the first place.
Fast forward to this decade. Cities install infrastructure for livable streets. Bikeshare revolutionizes cycling, first via the docked systems of Paris, Wuhan, and Hangzhou, and subsequently via the dockless systems developed in the largest Chinese cities. Simultaneously, all over the developed world cities reallocate space away from cars, whether it’s via bus lanes, bike lanes, wider sidewalks, or freeway removal. This trend has generally earned the support of people who support livable streets or are generally progressive. There may be individual pieces of criticism: for example, East Harlem railed against New York’s original decision not to extend bike lanes on First and Second Avenues to its community, and thankfully the city listened after a few years and did extend them. But these criticisms tend to be specific to one issue and constructive.
But then there are the NIMBYs, whose rallying cry is “they didn’t ask us.” In San Francisco, the Mission left-wing community activist group Calle 24 attacked the city for extending bikeshare to the Mission, on grounds that include gentrification but also the process line: “we weren’t consulted.”
There are many defenses of process that do justify its importance. I interviewed Aaron Ritz and Waffiyah Murray at Indego, Philadelphia’s publicly-run docked bikeshare system, which has somewhat better reach to low-income and black residents than systems like Chicago’s Divvy and Washington’s Capital Bikeshare. They gave me concrete examples of how Indego’s community outreach was helpful: it gave the planners tips on the best station siting (e.g. where the community centers are) as well as on different ways different socioeconomic groups use bikeshare (e.g. black Philadelphians are likelier to think of cycling as fun rather than transportation and thus prefer station locations near recreational trails).
But simultaneously there are defenses of process for its own sake. Zoning is the biggest example: the actually useful aspects of urban zoning are so few and far between, and so disconnected from current practice, that there is no coherent defense of the existence of zoning boards. The common arguments used by neighborhood groups (overdevelopment, infrastructure, gentrification, etc.) range from manifestly false to manifestly selfish (property values).
On various YIMBY message boards, there has been a discussion of an alternative zoning code to standard low-density zoning. People discussed form-based codes or transit-oriented development regimes like that of SB 827 in California, and as a first stab I proposed the following at Open New York:
1. Land is residential, commercial, or industrial. Industrial gets set by regional or statewide commission taking into account manufacturing jobs, prevailing winds, etc., and is distinguished in having looser pollution controls. Residential is allowed in commercial zones by right; doctors’ offices, lawyers’ offices, and other independent personal services are allowed in residential areas, as are hotels.
2. Retail is allowed in all commercial zones. Office is allowed in commercial zones that are specifically for office.
3. Commercial zones are allowed to encroach on adjacent residential land: residential land within a certain distance from majority-commercial uses gets automatically reclassified as commercial, and if the commercial uses are mostly offices then the land gets reclassified as office and not just retail.
4. Density is regulated based on distance from high-quality transit, which for the purposes of this discussion does not include buses that run every 15 minutes. The lowest category is not single-family and doesn’t have parking minimums, but allows around floor area ratio 1. The highest one has residential FAR 12, the maximum allowed by New York State, and is within very short distance from rapid transit (say, 500 meters intra muros, 200 extra muros). Everything within a kilometer of a train station is at least FAR 4.
I got “but what about ___?” responses re parking and what New York calls a sky exposure plane. This is a YIMBY group, and even there some people were uncomfortable that a proposed code was not exact enough so as to say exactly who is allowed to do what, instead going for the principle that what’s not forbidden is permitted. Even this attempt at a compromise didn’t win much support (what I actually believe is that if urban land is developable based on scientific understanding of environmental protection it should be developable for any purpose and at any density its owner sees fit).
Outside the YIMBY world, the pushback against such a loose code would be severe, because it would not offer local activists the control over their neighbors’ lives that they crave. San Francisco’s affordable housing community was against SB 827, partly because of misguided fears of gentrification, but also partly because the byzantine process in the city allows community groups to extort benefits by threatening to withhold project approval. In comments on my post about free trade in rolling stock, Adam points out that the California Environmental Quality Act was so weaponized by unions, who demanded that a new plant be unionized as a condition for dropping an environmental lawsuit. When corrupt local groups benefit from the ad hoc nature of the process, they will defend it for its own sake, regardless of whether it achieves its stated purpose (affordable housing, environmental protection, etc.).
But corruption alone can’t explain why outside groups like DMI think zoning is valuable for its own sake. My suspicion is that this is ideological: every regulation must have some purpose, so while revising regulations is fine, getting rid of them entirely reeks of free market libertarianism. Since the right attacks the civil service as bloated and parasitic, the left and center-left reflexively defend the civil service no matter what and, by extension, justify its mission. This pattern flips when it comes to the police, but that’s a narrow issue of criminal justice equality, not even affecting the fire department, which is socially similar to the police but gets no hate from the left. A regulator who decides who gets to build what and where does not have the reputation of a brutal cop or border control agent, and can expect sympathy for the left even if the zoning mission serves no useful purpose and creates problems for left-wing goals of affordable housing.
YIMBY is a movement that calls for liberalizing land use in order to produce more housing. However, its take on non-residential development is more complicated. I’d always assumed that San Francisco YIMBY was not calling for more commercial development because the Bay Area already builds a lot of office space because of California’s tax incentives, which let municipalities raise taxes on sales but not residential property; however, as a check on this hypothesis I asked YIMBYs in New York, but they too said that office upzoning wasn’t really a priority and only cited mixed projects to me. This approach is usually harmless, but in a few places it creates serious long-term problems, and one of them is the center of SF YIMBY, the South of Market (“SoMa”) area, and the reason is commercialization of near-CBD neighborhoods.
A few months ago I wrote about job sprawl in the US vs. in Europe. In Europe, hostility to high-rise office buildings in most historic city centers has caused jobs to spread to neighborhoods near the CBD, often in the direction of the favored quarter; in the US, CBDs have office towers, but everything right outside them is usually strictly zoned, so jobs sprawl to suburban office parks. Both situations have a number of exceptions (e.g. Kista and La Defense are both examples of high-rise edge cities independent of the CBDs, while Kendall Square and Back Bay are contiguous extensions of the Boston CBD), but for the most part they apply in their respective areas.
In the same way that on a wider scale building more housing in New York and San Francisco would reduce the demand for housing in the places to which these cities’ working and lower middle classes have been pushed out, building more office space in city centers would reduce the demand for suburban office parks. Permitting jobs to move back from suburban edge and edgeless cities to city centers is a good thing, both for urbanism and for transit: for urbanism, the CBD is accessible from all directions (which is why it’s so valuable to begin with), and for transit, congested CBDs tend to maintain decent transit mode shares even in otherwise completely auto-dominated cities.
The political problem is that this requires replacing residential development with commercial development. It’s questionable but possible in European zoning regimes. In the US it’s harder, for several reasons:
- Near-CBD neighborhoods are as far as I can tell never middle or lower middle class. They’re either very poor (though by now they’ve all been urban-renewed) or rich. The greater extent of local empowerment in the US makes it harder to permit office development in rich areas over NIMBY objections.
- American residential zoning is stricter than at least German residential zoning, and as far as I can tell is also stricter than French residential zoning, in that it permits no commercial uses at all, except ground-floor retail on main streets. In particular, doctors, lawyers, and accountants’ offices must go in designated commercial zones in the US.
- American cities are more likely to have low-density neighborhoods in desirable near-downtown areas (for example, Georgetown) and defend their character fiercely through single-family zoning.
While all three factors seem important, the biggest examples of American near-CBD NIMBYism trigger only the first factor. In New York, the main example right now is the Meatpacking District, where there is extensive commercial demand (Google is located there and so do some other tech firms), which already has fairly high residential density, but the residents are rich homeowners who have successfully fought off attempts to build more office space. Historically, Midtown arose this way – rich areas around Fifth Avenue commercialized until the city’s 1916 zoning code put a stop to the practice.
And this brings me back to this post’s motivating example – SoMa. Located right next to the Financial District, with equally good access as the Financial District to the BART and Muni subway spine on Market Street, and better access to Caltrain’s 4th and King terminal, SoMa is a prime target for commercialization. Unfortunately, SF YIMBY opposes this process, saying the city’s zoning plan should add housing there and not office space. The argument is that permitting mostly office space in SoMa would create more demand for housing elsewhere in the Bay Area, exporting San Francisco’s high rents to Oakland and other East Bay cities. Unwittingly, SF YIMBY has turned into a NIMBY group when it comes to the highest and best use in the neighborhood in which it is the strongest.
To SF YIMBY’s credit, it recognizes the similarity between today’s tech workers (who form the vanguard of YIMBY) and last generation’s (who bought houses when they were cheaper than today and form one of several vanguards of area NIMBYism) and is pursuing preemption laws that reduce its own ability to object to growth. But, as preemption is not yet the law, SF YIMBY is opposed to commercialization in its own back yard.
The more specific argument SF YIMBY uses is about jobs-to-bedrooms ratio. Per YIMBY, zoning should have a maximum jobs-to-bedrooms ratio within a neighborhood or city, to prevent creating too much housing demand in other Bay Area cities. Right now, the Proposition 13 regime is such that municipalities derive tax revenues from commercial development but not so much residential development, and so they favor office space. But in reality, the only jobs-to-employed-residents ratio that’s sustainable this way is 1, a ratio that’s far too low for a city that has suburbs, let alone a central neighborhood such as SoMa. The consensus SF YIMBY proposes – an even balance between residential and commercial development everywhere, achieved through preference for housing in areas that are net recipients of inbound commuters – is thus untenable in a major metro area.
The proposed SF YIMBY consensus also does nothing to unseat the current consensus in favor of sprawl. Contrary to the narrative of selfish suburbs that add office space but no housing, the Silicon Valley suburbs are fiercely NIMBY toward high-density office development. Google could never hope to build a supertall skyscraper on top of Mountain View’s train station; it can’t even get permission to build a bridge to let the Googleplex expand to a nearby office park.
The selfish suburbs’ preference is not just office but also sprawl, and blocking commercial development in San Francisco increases sprawl in two distinct ways. First, the tech companies that would like to expand in SoMa – Uber, Slack, Airbnb, and so on – would, if not permitted to build more office space, open more back offices in sprawling areas, in or outside the Bay Area. And second, office development in the suburbs is only accessible to people from one wedge of the metro area, which encourages people to move to exurbs on the outer side, for example Gilroy for development in San Jose.
To counteract the tendency of hyperlocal planning to produce sprawl and replace the single-family housing consensus, the consensus YIMBY should seek is not about managing office-to-residential space ratios, but about letting places densify in whatever ways the market deems to have the highest and best use. In a high-demand place like San Francisco or New York, this means a consensus in favor of a bigger, faster-growing city, using its high productivity to add more people, offices, and apartments, rather than to increase the property values of the incumbents. Plan for long-term growth and long-term changes in zoning rules and don’t play the demand suppression game that NIMBYs love.
Most of my thinking about public transit comes from large, dense cities, especially New York. In those cities, transit ridership is not a problem; only cost is. When such cities have decent cost control, they can build massive expansion programs, as Paris is. But most of the developed world is not New York, Paris, London, Tokyo, or other transit cities. A large and (thanks to differential national population growth rates) growing share of the developed world lives in fast-growing, low-density city regions with no public transit to speak of, such as the American Sunbelt and its counterparts in Canada and Australia.
I’ve had to intellectually grapple with public transit in two American Sunbelt cities in which current transit usage is a rounding error and the built form is wholly auto-oriented: Orlando (which I was asked about by a Twitter mutual) and Nashville (which just voted against a flawed light rail plan by an overwhelming margin). In those areas, there is no chance for any public transit, provided the urban form stays as it is – but fortunately such cities can leverage their high growth rates to change their urban form, as Calgary did in the 1980s and 90s.
Density versus growth
A few months ago I made this chart:
The density and growth demand axes are not meant to come from a single quantitative metric; density is a subjective mix of residential and job density, whereas growth demand refers to either population growth or the demand for more housing as expressed by price signal. In San Francisco, most likely the richest metro area in the world, density is middling, and growth demand is higher than even in New York and London; in the American Rust Belt, density is fairly low and there is also little demand for more; in some cities on the margin of the first world there is little demand for more growth but high preexisting density. It goes without saying that it’s easier to build new rapid transit lines on the upper right corner than on the lower left one.
The situation of the American Sunbelt, most of which goes in the bubble of Texas and Georgia, is difficult. Residential density is extremely low, so the ridership base near potential rail lines is low. Moreover, streets are usually designed exclusively around auto use, so passengers are unlikely to walk a kilometer to the train station the way they routinely do in transit cities. At the destination end, things aren’t much better – American cities have high-rise CBDs, but few jobs locate there or in surrounding dense neighborhoods.
The Orlando CBD has about 80,000 jobs, in a metro area of 2.5 million people. Disney World adds another 37,000, but is not surrounded by any serviceable residential neighborhoods, and has to be at the end of any reasonable transit service coming from the CBD. Nashville, a metro area of nearly 2 million, has a CBD with 36,000 jobs. The medical center to the southwest adds another 33,000, and this time it could plausibly lie on a rail trunk, but most of the useful urban arterials converge on the CBD and not on the medical center. In contrast, Washington, with 5.5 million people, has 280,000 people working at the CBD (from the Green and Yellow Lines to just beyond Dupont Circle and Foggy Bottom), 77,000 in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, and 33,000 in Crystal City and at National Airport and the Pentagon. Both the percentages and the absolute numbers (including job density) count: there is a great mass of people who would be interested in taking rail to Washington CBD jobs but not to Orlando or Nashville CBD jobs.
Can regional rail work?
High-growth areas are likely to have been small a few decades ago. For the most part the metro areas in question were too small in the heyday of rail transportation to have inherited a large legacy rail network. Even the ones that did, including Atlanta and Perth, have less legacy rail than older cities of comparable size – compare Atlanta with Philadelphia, or Perth with Brisbane. And most North American boomtowns are not Atlanta. Miami has two north-south mainlines and a handful of east-west connections, none at the right place for commuter rail. Orlando has a north-south trunk with a branch to the north, and Nashville a few branches, but they’re surrounded by industrial land use and not by the sort of suburbs that developed around commuter rail in the Northeast.
A commuter rail-based network can still work, but only with extensive greenfield lines. Disney World is not on any legacy rail line, because it developed long after rail stopped being a relevant mode of transportation outside large urban areas. But even then, gaps in coverage are unavoidable, as the dense neighborhoods of such cities did not develop around legacy rail.
Can transit-oriented development work?
The big question about TOD is, who is it for? In Nashville specifically, the far left opposed the light rail plan, essentially because it would cannibalize funding that could go to public housing. Now, public housing could be used to beef up density along rail corridors. Stockholm built public housing simultaneously with the subway, placing housing projects on top of rail branches, and as a result has per capita ridership today that’s not much lower than the level of Paris, Berlin, or Munich.
The problem is that public housing is horrendously expensive. A house in low-cost American cities costs around $150,000, but apartments cost more, so $200,000 per household is more likely even with some economies about size. Most of this cost is impossible to recover through rent – if low-income households made enough money to pay market rent in nice apartments, they’d just rent these apartments on the open market. The American Sunbelt does not lack for developable suburban land.
Market-rate housing is much easier to construct – for one, developers make a profit on it, and so are eager to put up their own money. The problem is that in cities like Nashville and Orlando, the middle class has close to 100% car ownership, and a large majority of households have one car per adult. The real estate industry is not going to spontaneously build housing with less parking or pedestrian-oriented retail.
In San Diego, developers build more parking than the minimum at University Avenue and 30th Street, according to Duncan McFetridge of the Cleveland National Forest Foundation. University is a bus corridor and not a light rail corridor, but the bus frequency there isn’t terrible, and the area is pretty walkable for a low-density city. In Los Angeles, I’ve read analysis that blames the region’s falling transit ridership on gentrification, explaining that in gentrifying inner neighborhoods like Boyle Heights, the middle class drives whereas the working class takes transit. It’s not like here or in New York, where recent gentrifiers rarely own cars.
How did Calgary make it work?
Calgary is a metro area of somewhat more than a million people. Its economy is based on oil, and when oil prices were higher earlier this decade its average income was comparable to that of San Francisco; its politics is thoroughly conservative, which means there is no progressive impetus for walkability or green transit. Nonetheless, it built light rail lines that get about 100 million annual riders today. Its transit mode share is 16%, higher than that of any American metro area except New York (or, in the most restrictive definition, San Francisco). This is with no residential TOD to speak of: the vast majority of housing in Calgary is single-family and low-density, and from what I’ve seen there’s almost no dense residential development near the stations.
The big thing Calgary did was develop its CBD to be high-rise. In the early 1980s Calgary was a small, monocentric city, and since then it’s grown more monocentric, developing downtown parking lots as high-rise buildings. When I visited it had a more prominent high-rise downtown than Providence, a bigger and older metro area, and walking between the high-rises was reasonably pleasant.
In low-density cities with demand for more growth, the best opportunity appears to be centralizing jobs in the CBD. The straightforward application involves developing parking lots, as in Calgary, and relying on the private market to do the rest of the job. In both Nashville and Orlando, there are also more proactive approaches, specific to their urban layouts. In Nashville, the high job density at the medical center calls for developing a continuous corridor from the CBD, about 3 km long. This corridor could plausibly get an east-west subway, in contrast with the north-south subway in the rejected light rail plan. In Orlando, the Disney World cluster calls for some residential upzoning and sprawl repair around that area, which would strengthen the case for building a rail line between that area and the CBD.
Growing cities can use their growth to support more auto-oriented development (as the big American cities did in the postwar era) or to support more public transit. This is understood in cities that already have a transit-oriented core, but it’s equally true in cities that don’t really have any public transit, like the entire American Sunbelt. Calgary, starting with very low population, managed to build a decent if not great public transit network centered on its light rail system, and the same should be doable in American cities of comparable size and age.
Alex Baca wrote a thread on Twitter a week ago, talking about cities and normativity. The key tweet is,
The discourse about ~cities~ is, to me, a big fight against a normative, hegemonic, mostly white, mostly straight dominant culture, which has very clearly not made physical space for people who don’t fit that profile. It sucks, and we’re seeing the effects.
A few days later, I saw an unrelated meme, attacking Scott Wiener, the state senator representing San Francisco, who supports the YIMBY movement and introduced a zoning preemption bill that would permit mid-rise construction and abolish parking minimums near public transit. The meme consisted of two photoshops:
My first reaction to seeing the first picture was “I live in a building just like this.” I lived adjacent to buildings like the ones in the second picture in Singapore (where they’re actually taller) and the French Riviera. I’d already been thinking of different standards of middle-class respectability, in large part thanks to Alex’s thread, but the memes crystallized this so perfectly.
There’s a certain American standard of middle-class normality. A detached house for a nuclear family, with a backyard for the children to play in, and a garage that fits a car per adult. A school that has as few black students as possible without making the white middle class feel too guilty. Social engagements and hobbies that are so common, like a knitting circle, that a suburb of 10,000 can support a group. Everything else is deviant and embarrassing.
This is not the only middle-class respectability standard out there. There’s a competing standard, common in countries without a history of white flight. In cities with good transit, like Stockholm and Paris, generations can grow up and live in the city in apartment buildings and not own cars. Car ownership is still higher in richer areas – transit ridership is very far from universal in Paris, even intra muros – but it’s not mandatory. Detached housing is also less common even among the most comfortable segments of the middle class. The Singaporean dream is to own a car and live in a condo. The Israeli dream always includes a car but runs the gamut on density, from detached houses through mid-rises to high-rise condos in Tel Aviv.
Academia has lower car ownership than other professions of equivalent income, but still exhibits the same difference in mentality. My former postdoc advisor at KTH, a tenured professor, biked to work. At my last math conference, in Basel, one professor complained that when they tried biking to work when on sabbatical at the University of Michigan they got strange looks from the rest of the department. “Ann Arbor is a left-wing city and they still drive,” the professor said. In the United States, math postdocs usually don’t own cars but tenured professors do and often live in the suburbs, even at Columbia.
New York is supposed to have good transit and urban amenities, but for the most part the middle class treats it as part of a life cycle in which families live in the suburbs, rather than as a stable place. The city’s poverty rate is 20.3% per the 2012-6 American Community Survey, but among children age 5-17 it’s 29.3% (and among under-5 children it’s 27.7%). In my largely middle-class American social circle there are a number of New Yorkers, but also a number of people whose parents moved from New York to segregated suburbs when they were born or when they were about to start school. Even on the level of urban layout, there’s a stereotype that the city is not a good place to raise a family, e.g. because the apartments are too small (in fact they’re larger than Parisian ones).
It’s not just a matter of different tastes – some people think respectability means the Mad Men lifestyle, some think it means living in a walkable city. The walkable city is capable of containing more than one standard of respectability, because it arranges itself to let people access more potential friends, who could form different social networks. In theory it’s possible to drive an hour in some suburbs and meet many people, but in practice it’s uncommon, for two reasons. First, it requires one car per adult, which is expensive and produces class stratification even in social groups that could be cross-class. And second, in practice the social identity of suburbs in the Northern US is local more than regional – for example, they tend to have smaller, more local schools.
In theory, conservative lifestyles could also be more supported in cities. Haredi Jews are very urban: they need certain community amenities like a kosher supermarket and a mikveh and have to live within walking distance of synagogue; when they suburbanize, it’s en bloc, like the Satmar move to Kiryas Joel or master-planned Haredi cities in Israel, often in the settlements.
In practice, this doesn’t happen. Haredi Jews are notable in being an oppressed minority in Israel as well as around New York. But traditional groups that view themselves as part of the majority end up wanting everyone to live like they do. When the Progressive Movement created the idea of suburbia around 1900, it came out of an explicit desire to assimilate immigrants into what it viewed as proper American values. The Historic American Engineering Record gives background about the politics of the subway both before and after construction. The point of suburbia from the start was to make it impossible to form any culture except the dominant WASP culture.
Not for nothing, urbanism in the United States tends to disproportionately feature people who have other reasons to be dissatisfied with traditional culture. Foremost among these are queers, who led gentrification in the 1970s and 80s, when they weren’t safe in most suburbs and small cities; even this decade, a genderqueer Canadian acquaintance told me that there are parts of the US that they’re scared to be in. Without outing people, I believe that between one third and one half of the people who write online about public transportation or urbanism in the US are queer.
In order to reinforce the notion that only single-family suburbs are the respectable way to live, American society has to denigrate everything else as ridiculous. Parisian apartment buildings feature a hammer and sickle and defenestration; Mediterranean apartment buildings feature gay flamboyance. Were the US more willing to admit that there are educated professionals in some countries that do not need a car, it would need to find ways to accommodate professionals with the same preferences domestically, and that would lead to accidentally accommodating people who are not in the social or cultural mainstream.
Here’s a Google Maps image of Southport, a section of Fairfield, Connecticut with its own Metro-North commuter rail station:
Here’s an image at the same scale of Bourg-la-Reine, an inner suburb of Paris on the RER B, at the junction between the line’s two southern branches:
At Bourg-la-Reine, the buildings just east of the station are high-rise. There are local community amenities, including walkable schools, supermarkets, and pharmacies, and people can comfortably live in this suburb without a car. This generates significant RER traffic at all hours of day: outbound trains are often standing-room only until they reach this station even in midday, outside rush hour.
At Southport, there are a few townhouses near the station. But the roads are wide and hostile to pedestrians, and the nearest supermarket closes at 6 pm, too late for commuters returning from the city. Car ownership approaches 100%, and nobody rides the trains except to get to office jobs at the traditional peak hour in Manhattan (or perhaps Stamford).
The difference between the two places is so stark that they can barely be compared. Southport has 317 inbound boardings per weekday. Of those, 263, or 83%, are in the morning rush hour; the Metro-North-wide average is 63%, and the average on the SNCF-operated parts of the RER and Transilien is about 46%. Bourg-la-Reine has 4.5 million annual riders, about 16,000 on an ordinary working day.
A huge part of the difference is about service provision – Bourg-la-Reine has a train every five minutes midday, Southport a train every hour. But it’s not just about service. The RER has stations farther out, with somewhat less intense service, such as a train every 15 minutes, with comparable ridership. And the LIRR and Metro-North have little off-peak ridership even at stations with more frequent service, such as Mineola and Hicksville. Transit-oriented development (TOD) is as important as good service in such cases.
I bring up Southport because the RPA just dropped a study about suburban TOD that grades every New York commuter rail station between 0 and 3, and gives Southport the highest mark, 3. The RPA study looks at zoning within 800 meters of each station and considers whether there’s a parcel of land that permits multifamily housing with a floor are ratio higher than 1.25. Southport has such lots, supporting some townhouses, so according to the RPA it gets full marks, even though, by RER standards, it is like every other American car-oriented suburb.
Based on this methodology, the RPA identifies a number of good suburbs, and even comes to policy conclusions. It proposes more TOD in the mold of existing exurban New York examples, such as Patchogue. The model for the program is the real reason the RPA study is so weak: rather than calling into attention the big differences between land use at suburban stations in New York versus in Paris (or any number of big European cities with suburban rapid transit), it overfocuses on small differences within auto-oriented suburbia.
Some of the ultimate conclusions are not terrible. For example, the RPA is proposing linking federal infrastructure development to permitting more multifamily housing. This would improve things. However, the problem with this is twofold. First, it is unrealistic – the federal government gave up decades ago on enforcing fair housing laws, and has no interest in attempting to make exclusionary suburbs behave. Were I to propose this, hordes of American commenters would yell at me for not understanding American politics. And second, it misunderstands the nature of the problem, and ends up proposing something that, while unrealistic, is still low-impact.
The best way to understand the problem with the study is what author Moses Gates told me on Twitter when I started attacking it. He said that the RPA was looking at zoning rather than actual development. Since there is zoning permitting multifamily development within the prescribed radius at Southport, it gets full marks. With my understanding of what good TOD looks like, I would be able to say that this is clearly so bad the methodology must be changed; on Twitter I suggested looking at zoning within 300 meters of the station rather than 800, since the highest-intensity development should be right next to the station. I also suggested looking at supportive nonresidential uses, especially supermarkets. A development that isn’t walkable to retail at reasonable hours is not TOD.
The RPA does not think in this language. It thinks in terms of internal differences within the US. Occasionally it deigns to learn from London, but London’s suburban development is auto-oriented by European standards (transit mode share in the London commuter belt is at best in the teens, often in the single digits). Learning from anywhere else in the world, especially places that don’t speak English, is too difficult. This means that the RPA could not reach the correct conclusion, namely, that there is no such thing as an American suburb with TOD. The only exception I can come up with in the United States involves Arlington, on the Washington Metro, and Arlington is no longer considered a suburb, but really a full-fledged city in a different state, like Jersey City.
The other thing the RPA missed is that it drew too large a radius. TOD at a train station should include townhouses 800 meters out – but it’s more important to include high-rise residential construction next to the train station and mid-rise apartment buildings 500 meters out. Giving American suburbs latitude to place TOD so far from the station means they will act like Southport and allow small amounts of multifamily housing out of the way, while surrounding the station itself with parking, a tennis court, and large single-family houses with private swimming pools. This is not hypothetical: suburbs in New Jersey have reacted to court rulings mandating affordable housing by permitting apartments at the edge of town, far from supporting retail and jobs, and keeping the town core single-family.
Because the RPA missed the vast differences in outcomes between the US and France, it missed some useful lessons:
- States should centralize land use decisionmaking rather than give every small suburb full autonomy.
- TOD doesn’t need to be fully mixed-use, but there should be some local retail right next to housing.
- Housing should be high-density right next to the station. A floor area ratio of 1.25 is not enough.
- Publicly-funded social housing should be next to train stations, in the city as well as in the suburbs, and this is especially important in expensive suburbs, which aren’t building enough affordable housing.
Without suburban TOD, any regional rail system is incomplete. I wish I could have covered it at my talk, but I didn’t have time. Good service needs to run to dense suburbs, or at least suburbs with dense development within walking distance of the station. It needs to extend the transit city deep into suburbia, rather than using peak-only commuter rail to extend the auto-oriented suburbs into the city.
As some American cities are attempting to reduce the number of car accident fatalities, under the umbrella of Vision Zero, the growing topic is one of traffic enforcement. Streetsblog has long documented many instances in which the police treats any case in which a car runs over a pedestrian as a no-fault accident, even when the driver was committing such traffic violations as driving on the sidewalk. In addition to enforcement, there’s emphasis on reducing the speed limit in urban areas, from 30 to 20 miles per hour, based on past campaigns in Europe, where speeds were reduced from 50 km/h to 30. Unfortunately, street design for lower speeds and greater traffic safety has taken a back seat. This is not the best way to improve street safety, and is not the standard practice in the countries that have reduced car accident rates the most successfully, namely the UK and the Scandinavian countries.
On high-speed roads, one of the most important causes of fatal accidents is the combination of driver fatigue and sleepiness. For some studies on this problem, see here, here, and here. The second link in particular brings up the problem of monotony: if a road presents fewer stimuli to the driver, the driver is more likely to become less vigilant, increasing the probability of an accident. One study goes on and shows that higher speed actually increases monotony, since drivers have less time to register such stimuli as other cars on the road, but this was obtained in controlled conditions, and its literature review says that most studies find no effect of speed. I emphasize that this does not mean that lower speed limits are ineffective: there’s evidence that reducing highway speed limit does reduce accident rates, with multiple studies collected in a Guardian article, and lower accident rates in France since the state installed an extensive system of speed cameras.
But while speed limit reductions offer useful safety benefits, it is important to design the roads to be slower, and not just tell drivers to go slower. Road monotony is especially common in the United States; per the second study again,
While comparing self-reported driving fatigue in the US and Norway, Sagberg (1999) suggests that the higher prevalence of self reported drowsy driving found in the US may be due to differences in road geometry, design and environment, as well as exposure. He argues that the risk of falling asleep is higher on straight, monotonous roads in situations of low traffic, where boredom is likely to occur. This type of roads is more common in the US than in Norway.
The studies I have consulted look primarily at highways and rural roads; I have not found comparable literature on urban roads, except one study that, in a controlled simulation, shows that drivers are better at gauging their own alertness levels on urban arterials than on rural roads. That said, urban arterials share many design traits that lead to monotony, especially in the United States and Canada:
- They are usually straight, forming a grid rather than taking haphazard routes originating from premodern or early-industrial roads.
- They are wide: 4-6 lanes at a minimum, often with a median. Lanes are likely to be wide, closer to 3.7 meters than the more typical urban 3 meters.
- Development on them usually does not form a strong enclosure, but instead commercial developments are only 1-2 stories, with setbacks and front and side parking lots.
Such roads are called stroads in the language of Charles Marohn, who focuses on issues of their auto-centric, pedestrian-hostile nature. Based on the studies about monotony, I would add that even ignoring pedestrians entirely, they are less safe than slower roads, which prime drivers to be more alert and to speed less. It is better to design roads to have more frequent stimuli: trees, sidewalks with pedestrians, commercial development, residential development to the extent people are willing to live on top of a busy road.
Regarding lane width, one study finds that roads are the safest when lanes are 3-3.2 meters wide, because of the effects of wider lanes on driver speeds. A CityLab article on the same subject from two years ago includes references to several studies that argue that wide lanes offer no safety benefit for drivers, but are hostile to pedestrians and cyclists.
This approach, of reducing speed via road design rather than enforcement, is common in Scandinavia. Stockholm has a few urban freeways, but few arterials in the center, and many of those arterials have seen changes giving away space from cars to public transit and pedestrians. Thus, Götgatan is partly pedestrianized, and Odengatan has center bus lanes and only one moving car lane in each direction; the most important of Stockholm’s streets, Sveavägen, has several moving car lanes in each direction, but is flanked on both sides by medium-rise buildings without setbacks, and speeds are rarely high.
When enforcement happens, the great successes, for example in France under the Sarkozy administration, involve automation. Red light cameras have a long history and are controversial, and in France, Sarkozy lowered the speed limits on many roads and stepped up speed camera enforcement. The UK has extensive camera enforcement as well. Human enforcement exists, but is less common than speed cameras. Thus, the two main policy planks Vision Zero should fight for in the US are,
- Road redesign: narrower lanes, wider sidewalks, trees, and dedicated bus and bike lanes in order to reduce the number of car lanes as well as provide more room for alternatives. Zoning laws that mandate front setbacks should be repealed, and ideally so should commercial height limits on arterials. In central cities, some road segments should be closed off to cars, if the intensity of urban activities can fill the space with pedestrians.
- Lower speed limits in the cities, enforced by cameras; fines should be high enough to have some deterrent effect, but not so high that they will drive low-income drivers bankrupt.
It is especially important to come up with solutions that do not rely on extensive human enforcement in the US, because of its longstanding problem with police brutality and racism. The expression “driving while black” is common in the US, due to bias the police in the US (and Canada) exhibits against black people. In Europe, even when bias against certain minorities is as bad as in the US, overall police brutality levels are lower in the US by factors ranging from 20 to 100 (see for example data here). In my Twitter feed, black American urbanists express reluctance to so much as call the police on nonviolent crime, fearing that cops would treat them as suspects even if they are the victims. When it comes to urban traffic safety – and so far, Vision Zero in the US is an urban movement – this is compounded by the fact that blacks and other minorities are overrepresented in the cities.
This means that, in the special conditions of US policing, it’s crucial to prevent Vision Zero from becoming yet another pretext for Driving While Black arrests. As it happens, it does not require large changes from best practices in Europe, because those best practices do not involve extensive contact between traffic police and drivers.
Recall last year’s post by Adonia Lugo, accusing Vision Zero of copying policy from Northern Europe and not from low-income American minority communities. As I said a year ago, Adonia is wrong – first in her belief that foreign knowledge is less important than local US knowledge, and second in her accusation that US Vision Zero advocates copy European solutions too much. To the contrary, what I see is that the tone among US street safety advocates overfocuses on punitive enforcement of drivers who violate the speed limit or break other law. Adapting a problem that in Europe is solved predominantly with street design and technology (speed cameras don’t notice the driver’s skin color), they instead call for more policing, perhaps because mainstream (i.e. white) American culture is used to accepting excessive police presence.
A number of major cities, most notably London, have designated areas around their built-up areas as green belts, in which development is restricted, in an attempt to curb urban sprawl. The towns within the green belt are not permitted to grow as much as they would in an unrestricted setting, where the built-up areas would merge into a large contiguous urban area. Seeking access to jobs in the urban core, many commuters instead live beyond the greenbelt and commute over long distances. There has been some this policy’s effect on housing prices, for example in Ottawa and in London by YIMBY. In the US, this policy is less common than in Britain and Canada, but exists in Oregon in the form of the urban growth boundaries (UGBs), especially around Portland. The effect has been the same, replacing a continuous sprawling of the urban area with discontinuous suburbanization into many towns; the discontinuous form is also common in Israel and the Netherlands. In this post, I would like to explain how, independently of issues regarding sprawl, such policies are friendlier to drivers than to rail users.
Let us start by considering what affects the average speed of cars and what affects that of public transit. On a well-maintained freeway without traffic, a car can easily maintain 130 km/h, and good cars can do 160 or more on some stretches. In urban areas, these speeds are rarely achievable during the day; even moderate traffic makes it hard to go much beyond 110 or 120. Peak-direction commutes are invariably slower. Moreover, when the car gets off the freeway and onto at-grade arterial roads, the speed drops further, to perhaps 50 or less, depending on density and congestion.
Trains are less affected by congestion. On a well-maintained, straight line, a regional train can go at 160 km/h, or even 200 km/h for some rolling stock, even if headways are short. The busiest lines are typically much slower, but for different reasons: high regional and local traffic usually comes from high population density, which encourages short stop spacing, such that there may not be much opportunity for the train to go quickly. If the route is curvy, then high density also makes it more difficult to straighten the line by acquiring land on the inside of the curves. But by and large, slowdowns on trains come from the need to make station stops, rather than from additional traffic.
Let us now look at greenbelts of two kinds. In the first kind, there is legacy development within the greenbelt, as is common around London. See this example:
The greenbelt is naturally in green, the cities are the light blue circles with the large central one representing the big city, and the major transportation arteries (rail + freeway) are in black. The towns within the greenbelt are all small, because they formed along rail stops before mass motorization; the freeways were built along the preexisting transportation corridors. With mass motorization and suburbanization, more development formed right outside the greenbelt, this time consisting of towns of a variety of sizes, typically clustering near the freeways and railways for best access to the center.
The freeways in this example metro area are unlikely to be very congested. Their congestion comes from commuters into the city, and those are clustered outside the greenbelt, where development is less restricted. Freeways are widened based on the need to maintain a certain level of congestion, and in this case, this means relatively unimpeded traffic from the outside of the green belt right up until the road enters the big city. Under free development, there would be more suburbs closer to the city, and the freeway would be more congested there; travel times from outside the greenbelt would be longer, but more people would live closer to the center, so it would be a wash.
In contrast, the trains are still going to be slowed down by the intermediate stops. The small grandfathered suburbs have no chance of generating the rail traffic of larger suburbs or of in-city stops, but they still typically generate enough that shutting them down to speed traffic is unjustified, to say nothing of politically impossible. (House prices in the greenbelt are likely to be very high because of the tight restrictions, so the commuters there are rich people with clout.) What’s more, frequency is unlikely to be high, since demand from within the greenbelt is so weak. Under free development, there might still be more stops, but not very many – the additional traffic generated by more development in those suburbs would just lead to more ridership per stop, supporting higher frequency and thus making the service better rather than worse.
Let us now look at another greenbelt, without grandfathered suburbs, which is more common in Canada. This is the same map as before, with the in-greenbelt suburbs removed:
In theory, this suburban paradigm lets both trains and cars cruise through the unbuilt area. Overall commutes are longer because of the considerable extra distance traveled, but this distance is traversed at high speed by any mode; 120 km/h is eminently achievable.
In practice, why would there be a modern commuter line on any of these arteries? Commuter rail modernization is historically a piecemeal program, proceeding line by line, prioritizing the highest-trafficked corridors. In Paris, the first commuter line to be turned over to the Metro for operation compatible with city transit, the Ligne de Sceaux, has continuous urban development for nearly its entire length; a lightly-trafficked outer edge was abandoned shortly after the rest of the line was electrified in 1938. If the greenbelt was set up before there was significant suburbanization in the restricted area, it is unlikely that there would have been any reason to invest in a regional rail line; at most there may be a strong intercity line, but then retrofitting it to include slower regional traffic is expensive. Nor is there any case for extending a high-performing urban transit line to or beyond a greenbelt. Parts of Grand Paris Express, namely Lines 14 and 11, are extended from city center outward. In contrast, in London, where the greenbelt reduces density in the suburbs, high investment into regional rail focuses on constructing city-center tunnels in Crossrail and Crossrail 2 and connecting legacy lines to them. In cities that do not even have the amount of suburban development of the counties surrounding London, there is even less justification for constructing new transit.
Now, you may ask, if there’s no demand for new urban transit lines, why is there demand for new highways? After all, if there was not much regional travel into these suburbs historically, why would there be enough car traffic to justify high investment into roads? The answer is that at low levels of traffic, it’s much cheaper to build a road than to build and operate a railway. This example city has no traffic generators in the greenbelt, except perhaps parks, so roads are cheap to build and have few to no grade crossings to begin with, making it easier to turn them into full freeways. The now-dead blog Keep Houston Houston made this point regarding a freeway in Portland, which was originally built as an arterial road in a narrow valley and had few at-grade intersections to be removed. At high levels of demand, the ability to move the same number of people on two tracks as on fourteen lanes of freeway makes transit much more efficient, but at low demand levels, rail still needs two tracks or at least one with passing sidings, and high-speed roads need four lanes and in some cases only two.
The overall picture in which transit has an advantage over cars at high levels of density is why high levels of low-density sprawl are correlated with low transit usage. But I stress that even independently of sprawl, greenbelts are good for cars and bad for transit. A greenbelt with legacy railway suburbs is going to feature trains going at the normal speed of a major metro area, and cars going at the speed of a more spread out and less populated region. Even a greenbelt without development is good urban geography for cars and bad one for transit.
As a single exception, consider what happens when a greenbelt is reserved between two major nodes. In that specific case, an intercity line can more easily be repurposed for commuting purposes. The Providence Line is a good example: while there’s no formal greenbelt, tight zoning restrictions in New England even in the suburbs lead to very low density between Boston and Providence, which is nonetheless served by good infrastructure thanks to the strength of intercity rail travel. The MBTA does not make good use of this infrastructure, but that’s beside the point: there’s already a high-speed electrified commuter line between the two cities, with widely spaced intermediate stops allowing for high average speeds even on stopping trains and overtakes that are not too onerous; see posts of mine here and here. What’s more, intercity trains can be and are used for commutes from Providence to Boston. For an analogous example with a true greenbelt, Milton Keynes plays a role similar to Providence to London’s Boston.
However, this exception is uncommon. There aren’t enough Milton Keyneses on the main intercity lines to London, or Providences on the MBTA, to make it possible for enough transit users to suburbanize. In cities with contiguous urban development, such as Paris, it’s easier. The result of a greenbelt is that people who do not live in the constrained urban core are compelled to drive and have poor public transportation options. Once they drive, they have an incentive to use the car for more trips, creating more sprawl. This way, the greenbelt, a policy that is intended to curb sprawl and protect the environment, produces the exact opposite results: more driving, more long-distance commuting, a larger urban footprint far from the core.