Category: Urban Design
The Origins of Los Angeles’s Car Culture and Weak Center
On Twitter, Armand Domalewski asks why Los Angeles is so much more auto-oriented than his city, San Francisco. Matt Yglesias responds that it’s because Los Angeles does not have a strong city center and San Francisco does. I am fairly certain that Matt is channeling a post I wrote about the subject 4.5 years ago (and insight by transit advocates that I don’t remember the source of, to the effect that the modal split for Downtown Los Angeles workers is a healthy 50%), looking at employment in these two cities’ central business districts as well as other comparison cases. In addition, Matt gives extra examples of how Los Angeles is unique in having prestige industries located outside city center: the movie studios are famously in Hollywood and not Downtown, and to that I’ll add that when I looked at high-end hotel locations in 2012, Los Angeles’s were all over the region and most concentrated on the Westside, which isn’t true of other big American coastal cities, even atypically job-sprawling Philadelphia. Because of my connection to this question, I’d like to inject some nuance.
The upshot is that Los Angeles’s car culture is clearly connected to its weak center. I wouldn’t even call it polycentric. Rather, employment there sprawls to small places, rarely even rising to the level of a recognizable edge city like Century City. It is weakly-centered, and this favors cars over public transit – public transit lives off of high-capacity, high-frequency connections, favoring places with high population density (which Los Angeles has) and high job density (which it does not), while cars prefer the opposite because excessive density with cars leads to traffic jams. However, historically, best I can tell, the weak center and the cars co-evolved – I don’t think Los Angeles was atypically weakly-centered on the eve of mass motorization, and in fact every city for which I can find such information, even model transit cities, has gotten steadily job-sprawlier in the last few generations.
How is Los Angeles weakly centered?
There are a number of ways of measuring city center dominance. My metric is the share of metro area employment that is in the central 100 km^2; some gerrymandering and water-hopping is permitted, but the 100 km^2 blob should still be a recognizable central blob rather than many disconnected islands. This is not because this is the best metric, but because my information about France and Canada is less granular than for the United States, and 100 km^2 lets me compare American cities with Vancouver and with the combination of Paris and La Défense; my data on Tokyo is of comparable granularity to Paris and this lets me pick out Central Tokyo plus some adjacent wards like Shinjuku.
As a warning, the fixed size of the central blob means that the proportion should be degressive in city size, which I notice when I compare auto-centric American metro areas of different sizes. It should also be higher all things considered in the United States, where I draw blobs on OnTheMap to capture as many jobs as possible without the blob looking like it has tendrils, than in the foreign comparisons.
I gave many examples in a Twitter thread from 2019, though not Los Angeles. Doing the same exercise for Los Angeles with 2019 data gives 1.6 million jobs in a 500 km^2 blob stretching as far as Culver City, UCLA, Downtown Burbank, and Downtown Pasadena; a 100 km^2 blob gerrymandered to just include Hollywood, West Hollywood, and Century City, none of which can reasonably be called city center, is already down to 820,000, where the roughly same-area city of San Francisco is 770,000, and more like 900,000 when taking its central 50 km^2 plus those of Oakland and Berkeley. A circle of area 100 km^2 centered on Vermont/Wilshire to include all of Downtown plus Hollywood is down to 620,000. This compares with a total of 6.5 million jobs in Los Angeles and Orange Counties, and 8.3 million including Ventura County and the Inland Empire.
The upshot is that Downtown Los Angeles is pretty big, but not relative to the size of the metro area it’s in. On an honest definition of the central business district, it is smaller in absolute job count than Downtown San Francisco, Boston (which has around 830,000), Washington (around 700,000), or Chicago (1 million), let alone New York (around 3 million) or Paris (2 million in the city and the communes comprising La Défense).
Nor are the secondary centers in Los Angeles substantial enough to make it polycentric. Downtown Burbank has around 20,000 jobs, Downtown Glendale around 50,000, Downtown Pasadena including Caltech 67,000, Century City (included in the less honest central 100 km^2) 54,000, UCLA 74,000, El Segundo 55,000, LAX 48,000, Culver City around 20,000, Downtown Long Beach around 35,000. New York, in contrast, has Downtown Newark around 60,000, the Jersey City and Hoboken waterfront around 80,000, Long Island City around 100,000, Downtown Brooklyn around 100,000 as well, Flushing 45,000. Morningside Heights has 42,000 jobs in 1 km^2, a job density that I don’t think any of Los Angeles’s secondary centers hits, and the neighborhood is not at all a pure job center. No: Los Angeles just has a weak center.
I bring up Paris as a comparison because there’s a myth on both sides of the Atlantic, peddled by European critical urbanists who think tall buildings are immoral and by American tourists whose experience of Europe is entirely within walking distance of their city center hotels, that European city centers are less dominant than American ones. But Paris has, within the same area, comfortably more jobs than the centers of Los Angeles and Chicago combined; its central-100-km^2 job share is somewhat higher than New York’s (though probably only by enough to countermand the degressivity of this measure).
Was Los Angeles always like this?
I don’t think so. My knowledge of Los Angeles history is imperfect; the closest connection I have with it is that my partner is developing a narrative video game set in 1920s Hollywood, intended to be a realistic depiction of that era. But Los Angeles as I understand it was not especially polycentric, historically.
Historically polycentric regions exist, and tend to have weaker public transit than similar-size monocentric ones. The Ruhr has several centers, each with decent urban rail within the core city and high car usage elsewhere; Upper Silesia is far more auto-oriented than similar-size metropolitan Warsaw; Randstad has rather low urban rail ridership as people bike (in the main cities) or drive (in the suburbs). All three are truly historically polycentric, having developed as different city cores merged into one metro area as mechanized transportation raised people’s commute range, and in the case of the first two, much of this history involves different coal mining sites, each its own city.
Los Angeles doesn’t really have this history. The city had a slight majority of the county’s population in 1920 (577,000/936,000) and 1930 (1,238,000/2,208,000), only falling below half in the 1940s – and in the 1920s the city was already notable for its high use of cars. The other four counties in the metro area were more or less irrelevant then – in 1920 they totaled 244,000 people, rising to 389,000 by 1930, actually less than the city. Glendale grew from 14,000 to 63,000, Long Beach from 56,000 to 142,000, Santa Ana from 15,000 to 30,000; other suburbs that are now among the largest in the country either were insignificant (Anaheim had 11,000 people in 1930) or didn’t exist (Irvine had 10,000 people in 1970).
Los Angeles did annex San Fernando Valley early, but there wasn’t much urban development there in the 1920s; Burbank, entirely contained within that region, had 17,000 people in 1930, and San Fernando had 8,000. There was a lot of suburbanization in this period, but it did not predate car culture.
This is not at all how a polycentric region’s demographic history looks – in the Rhine-Ruhr, in 1900, Dortmund and both cities that would later merge to form Wuppertal had 150,000 people, Essen had just over 100,000 and would annex to over 200,000 within five years, Duisburg and Bochum both had just less than 100,000 and would soon cross that mark, Cologne had 370,000 people.
The region had an oil-based economy at the time – in the early 20th century the center of the American oil industry was still California and not Texas – but evidently, development centered on Los Angeles and to a small extent Long Beach (in 1930 having about the same ratio of population to Los Angeles’s that the combination of Jersey City and Newark did to New York’s). The same can be said of the various beach resorts that were booming in that era – the largest, Santa Monica, had 37,000 people in 1930, 3% of the population of Los Angeles, at which point Yonkers had 2% of New York’s population.
While Los Angeles did not have a polycentric history in the 1920s, it did have a noted car culture. I believe that this is the result of boomtown dynamics, visible in many places that grow suddenly, like Detroit in the same era (in the 2010s, metro Detroit had a transit modal split of about 1%, the lowest among the largest American metro areas, even less than Dallas and Houston). Infrastructure takes time and coordination to build. In a growing region, infrastructure is always a little bit behind population growth, and in a boomtown, it is far behind – who knows if the boom will last? Texas is having this issue with flood control right now, and that’s with far less growth than that of Southern California in the first half of the 20th century.
The upshot is that in a very wealthy boomtown like 1920s Los Angeles (California ranking as the fourth richest state in 1929 and third richest in 1950), people have a lot of disposable income and not much public infrastructure. This leads to consumer spending – hence, cars. It takes long-term planning to convert such a city into a transit city, and this was not done in Los Angeles; plans to build a subway-surface tunnel for the Red Cars did not materialize, and the streetcars were not really competitive with cars on speed. Compounding the problems, the Red Cars were never profitable, in an era when public transit was expected to pay for itself; they were a loss leader for real estate development by owner Henry Huntington, and by the 1920s the land had already been sold at a profit.
Then came the war, and the same issue of private wealth without infrastructure loomed even more. California boomed during the war, thanks to war industries; there was new suburban development in areas with no streetcar service, with people carpooling to work or taking the bus as part of the national scheme to save fuel for the war effort. Transit maintenance was deferred throughout the country (as well as in Canada); after the war, Los Angeles had a massive population of people with very high disposable income, whose alternative to the car was either streetcars that were falling apart or buses that were even slower and had even worse ride quality.
Everywhere in the United States at the time, bustitution led to falling ridership per Ed Tennyson’s since-link-rotted TRB paper on the subject, even net of speed – Tennyson estimates based on postwar streetcar removal and later light rail construction that rail by itself gets 34-43% more ridership than bus service net of speed, and in both the bustitution and light rail eras the trains were also faster than the buses. But the older million-plus cities in the United States at the time had their subways to fall back on. Los Angeles had grown up too quickly and didn’t have one; neither did Detroit, which has a broadly Rust Belt economic and social history but a much more car-oriented transportation history.
The sort of long-term planning that produced transit revival did happen in the Western United States and Canada, elsewhere. In the 1970s, Western American and Canadian cities invented what is now standard light rail in both countries, often out of a deliberate desire not to be Los Angeles, at the time infamous for its smog; those cities have had more success with transit revival and transit-oriented development, especially Vancouver with its SkyTrain metro and aggressive high-rise residential and commercial transit-oriented development. But in the 1920s-40s, there was no such political counter to automobile dominance. Los Angeles did start building urban rail in the 1980s, but not at the necessary scale, and with ridiculously low levels of transit-oriented development: in the 2010s, after the economy recovered from the Great Recession, the 10 million strong county approved a hair more than 20,000 housing units annually, slightly less than the 2.5 million strong Metro Vancouver region.
Co-evolution of transportation and development
Los Angeles was not very decentralized in the first half of the 20th century. It had lower residential density, but none of today’s edge cities and smaller sub-centers really existed then, with only a handful of exceptions like Long Beach. By today’s standards, every American city was very centralized, with people generally working either in their home neighborhood or in city center. The city did have high car ownership for the era, and this encouraged freeway construction after the war, but the weak central business district came later.
Rather, what has happened since the war is a co-evolution of car-oriented transportation and weakly-centered job geography. Cars got stuck in traffic jams trying to get to city center, so business and local elites banded together to build an edge city closer to where management lived, first Miracle Mile and then Century City; Detroit similarly had New Center, where General Motors headquartered starting 1923. New York underwent the same process as businesses looked for excuses to move closer to the CEO’s home in the favored quarter (IBM in Armonk, General Electric in Fairfield), but the existence of the subway meant that there was still demand for ever more city center skyscrapers, even as city residents of means fled to the suburbs.
This story of co-evolution is not purely American. I keep going back to Paul Barter’s thesis, which portrays the urban layout in his example cities in East and Southeast Asia as starting from a similar point in the middle of the 20th century. Density was high throughout, and central sectors in Southeast Asia were ethnically segregated, with a Chinatown, an Indian area, a low-density Western colonial sector, and so on. The divergence happened in the second half of the 20th century, Singapore choosing to be a transit city and Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok choosing to be car-oriented cities. I don’t have job data for these cities, but my impression as a visitor (and former Singapore resident) is that Singapore has a clear central office district and Bangkok has a hodgepodge of skyscrapers with no real structure to where they go within the central areas.
So yes, Los Angeles’s weak center is making it difficult to expand public transportation there now and get high ridership out of it; boosting the region’s transit-oriented development rate to that of Vancouver would help, but Los Angeles is far more decentralized and auto-oriented than Vancouver was in the 1990s. But the historic sequence is not first polycentrism and then automobility, unlike in Upper Silesia or the Ruhr. Rather, a weak center (never true polycentricity) and automobility co-evolved, reinforcing each other to this day – it’s hard to get ridership out of urban rail expansions since city center is so weak, so people drive, so jobs locate where there’s less traffic and avoid Downtown Los Angeles.
Edge Cities With and Without Historic Cores
An edge city is a dense, auto-oriented job center arising from nearby suburban areas, usually without top-down planning. The office parks of Silicon Valley are one such example: the area had a surplus of land and gradually became the core of the American tech industry. In American urbanism, Tysons in Virginia is a common archetype: the area was a minor crossroads until the Capital Beltway made it unusually accessible by car, providing extensive auto-oriented density with little historic core.
But there’s a peculiarity, I think mainly in the suburbs of New York. Unlike archetypal edge cities like Silicon Valley, Tysons, Century City in Los Angeles, or Route 128 north of Boston, some of the edge cities of New York are based on historic cores. Those include White Plains and Stamford, which have had booms in high-end jobs in the last 50 years due to job sprawl, but also Mineola, Tarrytown, and even New Brunswick and Morristown.
The upshot is that it’s much easier to connect these edge cities to public transportation than is typical. In Boston, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out good last mile connections from commuter rail stations. Getting buses to connect outlying residential areas and shopping centers to town center stations is not too hard, but then Route 128 is completely unviable without some major redesign of its road network: the office parks front the freeway in a way that makes it impossible to run buses except dedicated shuttles from one office park to the station, which could never be frequent enough for all-day service. Tysons is investing enormous effort in sprawl repair, which only works because the Washington Metro could be extended there with multiple stations. Far and away, these edge cities are the most difficult case for transit revival for major employment centers.
And in New York, because so much edge city activity is close to historic cores, this is far easier. Stamford and White Plains already have nontrivial if very small transit usage among their workers, usually reverse-commuters who live in New York and take Metro-North. Mineola could too if the LIRR ran reverse-peak service, but it’s about to start doing so. Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow could be transit-accessible. The New Jersey edge cities are harder – Edison and Woodbridge have lower job density than Downtown Stamford and Downtown White Plains – but there are some office parks that could be made walkable from the train stations.
I don’t know what the history of this peculiar feature is. White Plains and Mineola are both county seats and accreted jobs based on their status as early urban centers in regions that boomed with suburban sprawl in the middle of the 20th century. Tarrytown happened to be the landfall of the Tappan Zee Bridge. Perhaps this is what let them develop into edge cities even while having a much older urban history than Tysons (a decidedly non-urban crossroads until the Beltway was built), Route 128, or Silicon Valley (where San Jose was a latecomer to the tech industry).
What’s true is that all of these edge cities, while fairly close to train stations, are auto-oriented. They’re transit-adjacent but not transit-oriented, in the following ways:
- The high-rise office buildings are within walking distance to the train station, but not with a neat density gradient in which the highest development intensity is nearest the station.
- The land use at the stations is parking garages for the use of commuters who drive to the station and use the train as a shuttle from a parking lot to Manhattan, rather than as public transportation the way subway riders do.
- The streets are fairly hostile to pedestrians, featuring fast car traffic and difficult crossing, without any of the walkability features that city centers have developed in the last 50 years.
The street changes required are fairly subtle. Let us compare White Plains with Metrotown, both image grabs taken from the same altitude:
These are both edge cities featuring a train station, big buildings, and wide roads. But in Metrotown, the big buildings are next to the train station, and the flat-looking building to its north is the third-largest shopping mall in Canada. The parking goes behind the buildings, with some lots adjoining Kingsway, which has a frequent trolleybus (line 19) but is secondary as a transportation artery to SkyTrain. Farther away, the residential density remains high, with many high-rises in the typical thin-and-tall style of Vancouver. In contrast, in White Plains, one side of the station is a freeway with low-density residential development behind it, and the other is parking garages with office buildings behind them instead of the reverse.
The work required to fix this situation is not extensive. Parking must be removed and replaced with tall buildings, which can be commercial or residential depending on demand. This can be done as part of a transit-first strategy at the municipal level, but can also be compelled top-down if the city objects, since the MTA (and other Northeastern state agencies) has preemption power over local zoning on land it owns, including parking lots and garages.
On the transit side, the usual reforms for improvements in suburban trains and buses would automatically make this viable: high local frequency, integrated bus-rail timetables (to replace the lost parking), integrated fares, etc. The primary target for such reforms is completely different – it’s urban and inner-suburban rail riders – but the beauty of the S-Bahn or RER concept is that it scales well for extending the same high quality of service to the suburbs.
The Four Quadrants of Cities for Transit Revival
Cities that wish to improve their public transportation access and usage are in a bind. Unless they’re already very transit-oriented, they have not only an entrenched economic elite that drives (for example, small business owners almost universally drive), but also have a physical layout that isn’t easy to retrofit even if there is political consensus for modal shift. Thus, to shift travel away from cars, new interventions are needed. Here, there is a distinction between old and new cities. Old cities usually have cores that can be made transit-oriented relatively easily; new cities have demand for new growth, which can be channeled into transit-oriented development. Thus, usually, in both kinds of cities, a considerably degree of modal shift is in fact possible.
However, it’s perhaps best to treat the features of old and new cities separately. The features of old cities that make transit revival possible, that is the presence of a historic core, and those of new cities, that is demand for future growth, are not in perfect negative correlation. In fact, I’m not sure they consistently have negative correlation at all. So this is really a two-by-two diagram, producing four quadrants of potential transit cities.
The history of public transportation is one of decline in the second half of the 20th century in places that were already rich then; newly-industrialized countries often have different histories. The upshot is that an old auto-oriented place must have been a sizable city before the decline of mass transit, giving it a large core to work from. This core is typically fairly walkable and dense, so transit revival would start from there.
The most successful examples I know of involve the restoration of historic railroads as modern regional lines. Germany is full of small towns that have done so; Hans-Joachim Zierke has some examples of low-cost restoration of regional lines. Overall, Germany writ large must be viewed as such an example: while German economic growth is healthy, population growth is anemic, and the gradual increase in the modal split for public transportation here must be viewed as more intensive reuse of a historic national rail network, anchored by tens of small city cores.
At the level of a metropolitan area, the best candidates for such a revival are similarly old places; in North America, the best I can think of for this are Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago. Americans don’t perceive any of the three as especially auto-oriented, but their modal splits are comparable to those of small French cities. But in a way, they show one way forward. If there’s a walkable, transit-oriented core, then it may be attractive for people to live near city center; in those three cities it’s also possible to live farther away and commute by subway, but in smaller ones (say, smaller New England cities), the subway is not available but conversely it’s usually affordable to live within walking distance of the historic city center. This creates a New Left-flavored transit revival in that it begins with the dense city center as a locus of consumption, and only then, as a critical mass of people lives there, as a place that it’s worth building new urban rail to.
Usually, if a city has a lot of recent growth from the era in which it has become taken for granted that mobility is by car, then it should have demand for further growth in the future. This demand can be planned around growth zones with a combination of higher residential density and higher job density near rail corridors. The best time to do transit-oriented development is before auto-oriented development patterns even set in.
There are multiple North American examples of how this works. The best is Vancouver, a metropolitan area that has gone from 560,000 people in the 1951 census to 2.6 million in the 2021 census. Ordinarily, one should expect such a region to be entirely auto-oriented, as most American cities with almost entirely postwar growth are; but in 2016, the last census before corona, it had a 20% work trip modal split, and that was before the Evergreen extension opened.
Vancouver has achieved this by using its strong demand for growth to build a high-rise city center, with office towers in the very center and residential ones ringing it, as well as high-density residential neighborhoods next to the Expo Line stations. The biggest suburbs of Vancouver have followed the same plan: Burnaby built an entirely new city center at Metrotown in conjunction with the Expo Line, and even more auto-oriented Surrey has built up Whalley, at the current outer terminal of the line, as one of its main city centers. Housing growth in the region is rapid; YIMBY advocacy calls for more, but the main focus isn’t on broad development (since this already happens) but on permitting more housing in recalcitrant rich areas, led by the West Side, which will soon have its Broadway extension of the Millennium Line.
Less certain but still interesting examples of the same principle are Calgary, Seattle, and Washington. Calgary, a low-density city, planned its growth around the C-Train, and built a high-rise city center, limiting job sprawl even as residential sprawl is extensive; Seattle and the Virginia-side suburbs of Washington have permitted extensive infill housing and this has helped their urban rail systems achieve high ridership by American standards, Seattle even overtaking Philadelphia’s modal split.
The four quadrants
The above contrast of old and new cities misses cities that have positive features of both – or neither. The cities with both positive features have the easiest time improving their public transportation systems, and many have never been truly auto-oriented, such as New York or Berlin, to the point that they’re not the best examples to use for how a more auto-oriented city can redevelop as a transit city.
In North America, the best example of both is San Francisco, which simultaneously is an old city with a high-density core and a place with immense demand for growth fueled by the tech industry. The third-generation tech firms – those founded from the mid-2000s onward (Facebook is in a way the last second-generation firm, which generation began with Apple and Microsoft) – have generally headquartered in the city and not in Silicon Valley. Twitter, Uber, Lyft, Airbnb, Dropbox, and Slack are all in the city, and the traditional central business district has expanded to South of Market to accommodate. This is really a combination of the consumption-oriented old-city model, as growing numbers of employees of older second-generation firms chose to live in the city and reverse-commute to Silicon Valley, and the growth-oriented new-city model. Not for nothing, the narrower metropolitan statistical area of San Francisco (without Silicon Valley) reached a modal split of 17% just before corona, the second highest in the United States, with healthy projections for growth.
But then there is the other quadrant, comprising cities that have neither the positive features of old cities nor those of new cities. To be in this quadrant, a city must not be so old as to have a large historic core or an extensive legacy rail network that can be revived, but also be too poor and stagnant to generate new growth demand. Such a city therefore must have grown in a fairly narrow period of time in the early- to mid-20th century. The best example I can think of is Detroit. The consumption-centric model of old city growth can work even there, but it can’t scale well, since there’s not enough of a core compared with the current extent of the population to build out of.
Stop Imitating the High Line
I streamed a longer version of this on Twitch on Tuesday, but the recording cut out, so instead of uploading to YouTube as a vlog, I’m summarizing it here
Manhattan has an attractive, amply-used park in the Meatpacking District, called the High Line. Here it is, just west of 10th Avenue:
It was originally a freight rail branch of the New York Central, running down the West Side of Manhattan to complement the railroad’s main line to Grand Central, currently the Harlem Line of Metro-North. As such, it was a narrow el with little direct interface with the neighborhood, unlike the rapid transit els like that on Ninth Avenue. The freight line was not useful for long: the twin inventions of trucking and electrification led to the deurbanization of manufacturing to land-intensive, single-story big box-style structures. Thus, for decades, it lay unused. As late as 2007, railfans were dreaming about reactivating it for passenger rail use, but it was already being converted to a park, opening in 2009. The High Line park is a successful addition to the neighborhood, and has spawned poor attempt at imitation, like the Low Line (an underground rapid transit terminal since bypassed by the subway), the Queensway (a similar disused line in Central Queens), and some plans in Jersey City. So what makes the High Line so good?
- The neighborhood, as can be seen above in the picture, has little park space. The tower-in-a-park housing visible to the east of the High Line, Chelsea-Elliott Houses, has some greenery but it’s not useful as a neighborhood park. The little greenery to the west is on the wrong side of 12th Avenue, a remnant of the West Side Highway that is not safe for pedestrians to cross, car traffic is so fast and heavy. Thus, it provides a service that the neighborhood previously did not have.
- The area has very high density, both residential and commercial. Chelsea is a dense residential neighborhood, but at both ends of the line there is extensive commercial development. Off-screen just to the south, bounded by Eighth, Ninth, 15th, and 16th, is Google’s building in New York, with more floor area than the Empire State Building and almost as much as One World Trade Center. Off-screen just to the north is the Hudson Yards development, which was conceived simultaneously with the High Line. This guarantees extensive foot traffic through the park.
- The linear park is embedded in a transit-rich street grid. Getting on at one end and off at the other is not much of a detour to the pedestrian tourist, or to anyone with access to the subway near both ends, making it a convenient urban trail.
These three conditions are not common, and trying to replicate the same linear park in their absence is unlikely to produce good results. For example, consider the Rockaway Cutoff, or Rockaway Beach Branch:
The Cutoff has two competing proposals for what to do with this disused LIRR branch: the Queenslink, aiming to convert it to a rapid transit branch (connecting to the subway, not the LIRR), and the Queensway, aiming to convert it to a linear park. The Queenslink proposal is somewhat awkward (which doesn’t mean it’s bad), but the Queensway one is completely drunk. Look at the satellite photo above and compare to that of the High Line:
- The area is full of greenery and recreation already, easily accessible from adjoining areas. Moreover, many residents live in houses with backyards.
- The density is moderate at the ends (Forest Hills and Woodhaven) and fairly low in between, with all these parks, cemeteries, and neighborhoods of single-family houses and missing middle density. Thus, local usage is unlikely to be high. Nor is this area anyone’s destination – there are some jobs at the northern margin of the area along Queens Boulevard (the wide road signed as Route 25 just north of the LIRR) but even then the main job concentrations in Queens are elsewhere.
- There is no real reason someone should use this as a hiking trail unless they want to hike it twice, one way and then back. The nearest viable parallel transit route, Woodhaven, is a bus rather than a subway.
The idea of a park is always enticing to local neighborhood NIMBYs. It’s land use that only they get to have, designed to be useless to outsiders; it is also at most marginally useful to neighborhood residents, but neighborhood politics is petty and centers exclusion of others rather than the actual benefits to residents, most of whom either don’t know their self-appointed neighborhood advocates or quietly loathe them and think of them as Karens and Beckies. Moreover, the neighborhood residents don’t pay for this – it’s a city project, a great opportunity to hog at the trough of other people’s money. Not for nothing, the Queensway website talks about how this is a community-supported solution, a good indication that it is a total waste of money.
But in reality, this is not going to be a useful park. The first park in a neighborhood is nice. The second can be, too. The fifth is just fallow land that should be used for something more productive, which can be housing, retail, or in this case a transportation artery for other people (since there aren’t enough people within walking distance of a trail to justify purely local use). The city should push back against neighborhood boosters who think that what worked in the Manhattan core will work in their explicitly anti-Manhattan areas, and preserve the right-of-way for future subway or commuter rail expansion.
Quick Note on Los Angeles and Chicago Density and Modal Split
A long-running conundrum in American urbanism is that the urban area with the highest population density is Los Angeles, rather than New York. Los Angeles is extremely auto-oriented, with a commute modal split that’s only 5% public transit, same as the US average, and doesn’t feel dense the way New York or even Washington or Chicago or Boston is. In the last 15 years there have been some attempts to get around this, chiefly the notion of weighted or perceived density, which divides the region into small cells (such as census tracts) and averaged their density weighted by population and not area. However, even then, Los Angeles near-ties San Francisco for second densest in the US, New York being by far the densest; curiously, already in 2008, Chris Bradford pointed out that for American metro areas, the transit modal split was more strongly correlated with the ratio of weighted to standard density than with absolute weighted density.
DW Rowlands at Brookings steps into this debate by talking more explicitly about where the density is. She uses slightly different definitions of density, so that by the standard measure Los Angeles is second to New York, but this doesn’t change the independent variable enough to matter: Los Angeles’s non-car commute modal split still underperforms any measure of density. Instead of looking at population density, she looks at the question of activity centers. Those centers are a way to formalize what I tried to do informally by trying to define central business districts, or perhaps my attempts to draw 100 km^2 city centers and count the job share there (100 km^2 is because my French data is so coarse it’s the most convenient for comparisons to Paris and La Défense).
By Rowlands’ more formal definition, Los Angeles is notably weaker-centered than comparanda like Boston and Washington. Conversely, while I think of Los Angeles as not having any mass transit because I compare it with other large cities, even just large American cities, Brookings compares the region with all American metropolitan areas, and there, Los Angeles overperforms the median – the US-wide 5% modal split includes New York in the average so right off the bat the non-New York average is around 3%, and this falls further when one throws away secondary transit cities like Washington as well. So Los Angeles performs fairly close to what one would expect from activity center density.
But curiously, Chicago registers as weaker-centered than Los Angeles. I suspect this is an issue of different definitions of activity centers. Chicago’s urban layout is such that a majority of Loop-bound commutes are done by rail and a supermajority of all other commutes are done by car; the overall activity center density matters less than the raw share of jobs that are in a narrow city center. Normally, the two measures – activity center density and central business district share of jobs – correlate: Los Angeles has by all accounts a weak center – the central 100 km^2, which include decidedly residential Westside areas, have around 700,000 jobs, and this weakness exists at all levels. Chicago is different: its 100 km^2 blob is uninspiring, but at the scale of the Loop, the job density is very high – it’s just that outside the Loop, there’s very little centralization.
Meme Weeding: Rich West, Poor East
There’s a common line in global history – I think it’s popularized through Eric Hobsbawm – that there is a universal east-west divide in temperate latitude cities. The idea is that the west side of those cities is consistently richer than the east side and has been continuously since industrialization, because prevailing winds are westerly and so rich people moved west to be upwind of industrial pollution. I saw this repeated on Twitter just now and would like to push back. Some cities have this pattern, some don’t, some even have the opposite pattern. Among cities the casual urbanist reader is likely to be familiar with, about the only one where this is true is Paris.
London famously has a rich west and poor east. I think this is why the line positing this directional pattern as universal is so common. Unfortunately, the origin of this pattern is too recent to be about prevailing winds.
In an early example of data visualization, Charles Booth made a block by block map of London in 1889, colored by social class, with a narrative description of each neighborhood. The maps indeed show the expected directionality, but with far more nuance. The major streets were middle-class even on the East End: Mile End Road was lined with middle-class homes, hardly what one would expect based on pollution. The poverty was on back alleys. South London exhibited the same pattern: middle-class major throughfares, back alleys with exactly the kind of poverty Victorian England was infamous for. West London was different – most of it was well-off, either middle-class or wealthier than that – but even there one can find the occasional slum.
East London in truth had a lot of working poor because it had a lot of working-class jobs, thanks to its proximity to the docks, which were east of the City because ports have been moving downriver for centuries with the increase in ship size. Those working poor did not always have consistent work and therefore some slipped into non-working poverty. The rich clustered in enclaves away from the poverty and those happened to be in the west, some predating any kind of industrialization. Over time the horizontal segregation intensified, as slums were likelier to be redeveloped (i.e. evicted) in higher-property value areas near wealth, and the pattern diffused to the broader east-west one of today.
Berlin has a rich west and poor east – but this is a Cold War artifact of when West Berlin was richer than East Berlin, and the easternmost neighborhoods of the West were poor because they were near the Wall (thus, half their walk radius was behind the Iron Curtain) and far from City West jobs.
Before WW2, the pattern was different. West of city center, Charlottenburg was pretty well-off – but so was Friedrichshain, to the east. The sharpest division in Berlin was as in London, often within the same apartment building, which would house tens of apartments: well-off people lived facing the street, while the poor lived in apartments facing internal courtyards, with worse lighting and no vegetation in sight.
Tokyo has a similar east-west directionality as London, but with its own set of nuances. This should not be too surprising – it’s at 35 degrees north, too far south for the westerlies of Northern Europe; the winds change and are most commonly southerly there. The directionality in Tokyo is more about the opposition between uphill Yamanote and sea-level Shitamachi (the Yamanote Line is so named because the neighborhoods it passes through – Ikebukuro, Shinjuku, and Shibuya – formed the old core of Yamanote).
What’s more, the old Yamanote-Shitamachi pattern is also layered with a rich-center-poor-outskirts pattern. Chuo, historically in Shitamachi, is one of the wealthiest wards of Tokyo, thanks to its proximity to CBD jobs and the high rents commanded in an area where businesses build office towers.
The American pattern
The most common American pattern is that rich people live in the suburbs and poor people live in the inner city; the very center of an American city tends to be gentrified, creating a poverty donut surrounding near-center gentrification and in turn surrounded by suburban wealth. Bill Rankin of Radical Cartography has some maps, all as of 2000, and yet indicative of longer-term patterns.
New York is perhaps the best example of the poverty donut model: going outside the wealthy core consisting of Manhattan south of Harlem, inner Brooklyn, and a handful of gentrified areas in Jersey City and Hoboken near Manhattan, one always encounters poor areas before eventually emerging into middle-class suburbia. Directionality is weak, and usually localized – for example, the North Shore of Long Island is much wealthier than the South Shore, but both are east of the city.
Many American cities tend to have strong directionality in lieu of or in addition to the poverty donut. In Chicago, the North Side is rich, the West Side is working-class, and the South Side is poor. Many cities have favored quarters, such as the Main Line of Philadelphia, but that’s in addition to a poverty donut: it’s silly to speak of rich people moving west of Center City when West Philadelphia is one of the poorest areas in the region.
Where east-west directionality exists as in the meme, it’s often in cities without westerly winds. Los Angeles is at 34 degrees north and famously has a rich Westside and a poor Eastside – but those cannot possibly emerge from a prevailing wind pattern that isn’t consistent until one travels thousands of kilometers north. Houston is at 30 degrees north. More likely, the pattern in Los Angeles emerges from the fact that beachfront communities have always been recreational and the rich preferred to live nearby, and only the far south near the mouth of the river, in San Pedro and Long Beach, had an active industrial waterfront.
Sometimes, the directionality is the opposite of that of the meme. Providence has a rich east and poorer west. This is partly a longstanding pattern: the rivers flow west to east and north to south, and normally you’d expect rich people to prefer to live upriver, but in Providence the rivers are so small that only at their falls was there enough water power for early mills, producing industrial jobs and attracting working-class residents. However, the pattern is also reinforced with recent gentrification, which has built itself out of Brown’s campus on College Hill, spreading from there to historically less-well off East Side neighborhoods like Fox Point; industrial areas have no reason to gentrify in a city the size of Providence, and, due to the generations-long deindustrialization of New England, every reason to decline.
How Tunneling in New York is Easier Than Elsewhere
I hate the term “apples-to-apples.” I’ve heard those exact three words from so many senior people at or near New York subway construction in response to any cost comparison. Per those people, it’s inconceivable that if New York builds subways for $2 billion/km, other cities could do it for $200 million/km. Or, once they’ve been convinced that those are the right costs, there must be some justifiable reason – New York must be a uniquely difficult tunneling environment, or its size must mean it needs to build bigger stations and tunnels, or it must have more complex utilities than other cities, or it must be harder to tunnel in an old, dense industrial metropolis. Sometimes the excuses are more institutional but always drawn to exculpate the political appointees and senior management – health benefits are a popular excuse and so is a line like “we care about worker rights/disability rights in America.” The excuses vary but there’s always something. All of these excuses can be individually disposed of fairly easily – for example, the line about worker and disability rights is painful when one looks at the construction costs in the Nordic countries. But instead of rehashing this, it’s valuable to look at some ways in which New York is an easier tunneling environment than many comparison cases.
New York does not have active seismology. The earthquake-proofing required in such cities as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Tokyo, Istanbul, and Naples can be skipped; this means that simpler construction techniques are viable.
Nor is New York in an alluvial floodplain. The hard schist of Manhattan is not the best rock to tunnel in (not because it’s hard – gneiss is hard and great to tunnel in – but because it’s brittle), but cut-and-cover is viable. The ground is not going to sink 30 cm from subway construction as it did in Amsterdam – the hard rock can hold with limited building subsidence.
The underwater crossings are unusually long, but they are not unusually deep. Marmaray and the Transbay Tube both had to go under deep channels; no proposed East River or Hudson crossing has to be nearly so deep, and conventional tunnel boring is unproblematic.
History and archeology
In the United Kingdom, 200 miles is a long way. In the United States, 200 years is a long time. New York is an old historic city by American standards and by industrial standards, but it is not an old historic city by any European or Asian standard, unless the standard in question is that of Dubai. There are no priceless monuments in its underground, unlike those uncovered during tunneling in Mexico City, Istanbul, Rome, or Athens; the last three have tunneled through areas with urban history going back to Classical Antiquity.
In addition to past archeological artifacts, very old cities also run into the issue of priceless ruins. Rome Metro Line C’s ongoing expansion is unusually expensive for Italy – segment T3 is $490 million per km in PPP 2022 dollars – because it passes by the Imperial Forum and the Colosseum, where no expense can be spared in protecting monuments from destruction by building subsidence, limited by law to 3 mm; the stations are deep-mined because cut-and-cover is too destructive and so is the Barcelona method of large-diameter bores. More typical recent tunnels in Rome and Milan, even with the extra costs of archeology and earthquake-proofing, are $150-300 million/km (Rome costing more than Milan).
In New York, in contrast, buildings are valued for commercial purposes, not historic purposes. Moreover, in the neighborhoods where subways are built or should be, there is extensive transit-oriented development opportunity near the stations, where the subsidence risk is the greatest. It’s possible to be more tolerant of risk to buildings in such an environment; in contrast, New York spent effort shoring up a building on Second Avenue that is now being replaced with a bigger building for TOD anyway.
New York is a city of straight, wide streets. A 25-meter avenue is considered narrow; 30 is more typical. This is sufficient for cut-and-cover without complications – indeed, it was sufficient for four-track cut-and-cover in the 1900s. Bored tunnels can go underneath those same streets without running into building foundations and therefore do not need to be very deep unless they undercross older subway lines.
Moreover, the city’s grid makes it easier to shut down traffic on a street during construction. If Second Avenue is not viable as a through-route during construction, the city can make First Avenue two-way for the duration. Few streets are truly irreplaceable, even outside Manhattan, where the grid has more interruptions. For example, if an eastward extension of the F train under Hillside is desired, Jamaica can substitute for Hillside during construction and this makes the cut-and-cover pain (even if just at stations) more manageable.
The straightforward grid also makes station construction easier. There is no need to find staging grounds for stations such as public parks when there’s a wide street that can be shut down for construction. It’s also simple to build exits onto sidewalks or street medians to provide rapid egress in all directions from the platform.
Older infrastructure, in isolation, makes it difficult to build new tunnels, and New York has it in droves. But things are rarely isolated. It matters what older infrastructure is available, and sometimes it’s a boon more than a bane.
One way it can be a boon is if older construction made provisions for future expansion. This is the most common in cities with long histories of unrealized plans, or else the future expansion would have been done already; worldwide, the top two cities in such are New York and Berlin. The track map of the subway is full of little bellmouths and provisions for crossing stations, many at locations that are not at all useful today but many others at locations that are. Want to extend the subway to Kings Plaza under Utica? You’re in luck, there’s already a bellmouth leading from the station on the 3/4 trains. How about going to Sheepshead Bay on Nostrand? You’re in luck again, trackways leading past the current 2/5 terminus at Flatbush Avenue exist as the station was intended to be only a temporary terminal.
Second Avenue Subway Phase 2 also benefits from such older infrastructure – cut-and-cover tunnels between the stations preexist and will be reused, so only the stations need to be built and the harder segment curving under 125th Street crossing under the 4/5/6.
Public Transportation in the Southeastern Margin of Brooklyn
Geographic Long Island’s north and south shores consist of series of coves, creeks, peninsulas, and barrier islands. Brooklyn and Queens, lying on the same island, are the same, and owing to the density of New York, those peninsulas are fully urbanized. In Southeastern Brooklyn, moreover, those peninsulas are residential and commercial rather than industrial, with extensive mid-20th century development. Going northeast along the water, those are the neighborhoods of Manhattan Beach, Gerritsen Beach, Mill Basin, Bergen Beach, Canarsie, Starrett City, and Spring Creek. The connections between them are weak, with no bridges over the creeks, and this affects their urbanism. What kind of public transportation solution is appropriate?
The current situation
The neighborhoods in the southeastern margin of Brooklyn and the southern margin of Queens (like Howard Beach) are disconnected from one another by creeks and bays; transportation arteries, all of which are currently streets rather than subway lines, go north and northwest toward city center. At the outermost margin, those neighborhoods are connected by car along the Shore Parkway, but there is no access by any other mode of transportation, and retrofitting such access would be difficult as the land use near the parkway is parkland and some auto-oriented malls with little to no opportunity for sprawl repair. The outermost street that connects these neighborhoods to one another is Flatlands, hosting the B6 and B82 buses, and if a connection onward to Howard Beach is desired, then one must go one major street farther from the water to Linden, hosting the B15.
For the purposes of this post, the study area will be in Brooklyn, bounded by Linden, the Triboro/IBX corridor, and Utica:
This is on net a bedroom community. In 2019, it had 85,427 employed residents and 39,382 jobs. Very few people both live and work in this area – only 4,005. This is an even smaller proportion than is typical in the city, where 8% of employed city residents work in the same community board they live in – the study zone is slightly smaller than Brooklyn Community Board 18, but CB 18 writ large also has a lower than average share of in-board workers.
In contrast with the limited extent of in-zone work travel, nearly all employed zone residents, 76,534, work in the city as opposed to its suburbs (and 31,685 of the zone’s 39,382 jobs are held by city residents). Where they work looks like where city workers work in general, since the transportation system other than the Shore Parkway is so radial:
Within the zone, the southwestern areas, that is Mill Basin and Bergen Beach, are vaguely near Utica Avenue, hosting the B46 and hopefully in the future a subway line, first as an extension of the 4 train and later as an independent trunk line.
To the northeast, Canarsie, Starrett City, and Spring Creek are all far from the subway, and connect to it by dedicated buses to an outer subway station – see more details on the borough’s bus map. Canarsie is connected to the L subway station named after it by the B42, a short but high-productivity bus route, and to the 3 and 4 trains at Utica by the B17, also a high-productivity route. Starrett City does not have such strong dedicated buses: it is the outer terminus of the circumferential B82 (which is very strong), but its dedicated radial route, the B83 to Broadway Junction, is meandering and has slightly below-average ridership for its length. Spring Creek is the worst: it is a commercial rather than residential area, anchored by the Gateway Center mall, but the mall is served by buses entering it from the south and not the north, including the B83, the B84 to New Lots on the 3 (a half-hourly bus with practically no ridership), the rather weak B13 to Crescent Street and Ridgewood, and the Q8 to Jamaica.
The implications for bus design
The paucity of east-west throughfares in this area deeply impacts how bus redesign in Brooklyn ought to be done, and this proved important when Eric and I wrote our bus redesign proposal.
First, there are so few crossings between Brooklyn and Queens that the routes crossing between the two boroughs are constrained and can be handled separately. This means that it’s plausible to design separate bus networks for Brooklyn and Queens. In 2018 it was unclear whether they’d be designed separately or together; the MTA has since done them separately, which is the correct decision. The difficulty of crossings argues in favor of separation, and so does the difference in density pattern between the two boroughs: Brooklyn has fairly isotropic density thanks to high-density construction in Coney Island, which argues in favor of high uniform frequency borough-wide, whereas Queens grades to lower density toward the east, which argues in favor of more and less frequent routes depending on neighborhood details.
Second, the situation in Starrett City is unacceptable. This is an extremely poor, transit-dependent neighborhood, and right now its bus connections to the rest of the world are lacking. The B82 is a strong bus route but many rush hour buses only run from the L train west; at Starrett City, the frequency is a local bus every 10-12 minutes and another SBS bus every 10-12 minutes, never overlying to produce high base frequency. The B83 meanders and has low ridership accordingly; it should be combined with the B20 to produce a straight bus route going direct on Pennsylvania Avenue between Starrett City and Broadway Junction, offering neighborhood residents a more convenient connection to the subway.
Third, the situation in Spring Creek is unacceptable as well. Gateway Center is a recent development, dating only to 2002, long after the last major revision of Brooklyn buses. The bus network grew haphazardly to serve it, and does so from the wrong direction, forcing riders into a circuitous route. Only residents of Starrett City have any direct route to the mall, but whereas Starrett City has 5,724 employed residents (south of Flatlands), and Spring Creek has 4,980 workers, only 26 people commute from Starrett City to Spring Creek. It’s far more important to connect Spring Creek with the rest of the city, which means buses entering it from the north, not the south. Our bus redesign proposal does that with two routes: a B6/B82 extension making this and not Starrett City the eastern anchor, and a completely redone B13 going directly north from the mall to New Lots and thence hitting Euclid Avenue on the A/C and Crescent Street on the J/Z.
What about rail expansion?
New York should be looking at subway expansion, and not just Second Avenue Subway. Is subway expansion a good solution for the travel needs of this study zone?
For our purposes, we should start with the map of the existing subway system; the colors indicate deinterlining, but otherwise the system is exactly as it is today, save for a one-stop extension of the Eastern Parkway Line from New Lots to the existing railyard.
Starrett City does not lie on or near any obvious subway expansion; any rail there has to be a tram. But Canarsie is where any L extension would go – in fact, the Canarsie Line used to go there until it was curtailed to its current terminus in 1917, as the trains ran at-grade and grade-separating them in order to run third rail was considered impractically expensive. Likewise, extending the Eastern Parkway Line through the yard to Gateway Center is a natural expansion, running on Elton Street.
Both potential extensions should be considered on a cost per rider basis. In both cases, a big question is whether they can be built elevated – neither Rockaway Parkway nor Elton is an especially wide street most of the way, about 24 or 27 meters wide with 20-meter narrows. The Gateway extension would be around 1.3 km and the Canarsie one 1.8 km to Seaview Avenue or 2.3 km to the waterfront. These should cost around $250 million and $500 million respectively underground, and somewhat less elevated – I’m tempted to say elevated extensions are half as expensive, but this far out of city center, the underground premium should be lower, especially if cut-and-cover construction is viable, which it should be; let’s call it two-thirds as expensive above-ground.
Is there enough ridership to justify such expansion?
Let’s start with Canarsie, which has 28,515 employed residents between Flatlands and the water. Those workers mostly don’t work along the L, which manages to miss all of the city’s main job centers, but the L does have good connections to lines connecting to Downtown Brooklyn (A/C), Lower Manhattan (A/C again), and Midtown (4/5/6, N/Q/R/W, F/M, A/C/E). Moreover, the density within the neighborhood is uniform, and so many of the 28,515 are not really near where the subway would go – Rockaway/Flatlands, Rockaway/Avenue L, Rockaway/Seaview, and perhaps Belt Parkway for the waterfront. Within 500 meters of Rockaway/L and Rockaway/Seaview there are only 9,602 employed residents, but then it can be expected that nearly all would use the subway.
The B42 an B17 provide a lower limit to the potential ridership of a subway extension. The subway would literally replace the B42 and its roughly 4,000 weekday riders; nearly all of the 10,000 riders of the B17 would likely switch as well. What’s more, those buses were seeing decreases in ridership even before corona due to traffic and higher wages inducing people to switch away from buses – and in 2011, despite high unemployment, those two routes combined to 18,000 weekday riders.
If that’s the market, then $500 million/18,000 weekday riders is great and should be built.
Let’s look at Gateway now. Spring Creek has 4,980 workers, but first of all, only 3,513 live in the city. Their incomes are very low – of the 3,513, only 1,030, or 29%, earned as much as $40,000/year in 2019 – which makes even circuitous mass transit more competitive with cars. There’s a notable concentration of Spring Creek workers among people living vaguely near the 3/4 trains in Brooklyn, which may be explained by the bus connections; fortunately, there’s also a concentration among people living near the proposed IBX route in both Brooklyn and Queens.
The area is the opposite of a bedroom community, unlike the other areas within the study zone – only 1,114 employed people live in it. Going one block north of Flatlands boosts this to 1,923, but a block north of Flatlands it’s plausible to walk to a station at Linden at the existing railyard. 51% of the 1,114 and 54% of the 1,923 earn at least $40,000 a year. Beyond that, it’s hard to see where neighborhood residents work – nearly 40% work in the public sector and OnTheMap’s limitations are such that many of those are deemed to be working at Brooklyn Borough Hall regardless of their actual commute destination.
There’s non-work travel to such a big shopping center, but there are grounds to discount it. It’s grown around the Shore Parkway, and it’s likely that every shopper in the area who can afford a car drives in; in Germany, with generally good off-peak frequency and colocation of retail at train stations, the modal split for public transit is lower for shopping trips than for commutes to work or school. Such trips can boost a Gateway Center subway extension but they’re likely secondary, at least in the medium run.
The work travel to the mall is thankfully on the margin of good enough to justify a subway at $50,000/daily trip, itself a marginal cost. Much depends on IBX, which would help deliver passengers to nearby subway nodes, permitting such radial extensions to get more ridership.
Institutional Issues: Dealing with Technological and Social Change
I’ve covered issues of procurement, professional oversight, transparency, and proactive regulations so far. Today I’m going to cover a related institutional issue, regarding sensitivity to change. It’s imperative for the state to solve the problems of tomorrow using the tools that it expects to have, rather than wallowing in the world of yesterday. To do this, the civil service and the political system both have to be sensitive to ongoing social, economic, and technological changes and change their focus accordingly.
Most of this is not directly relevant to construction costs, except when changes favor or disfavor certain engineering methods. Rather, sensitivity to change is useful for making better projects, running public transit on the alignments where demand is or will soon be high using tools that make it work optimally for the travel of today and tomorrow. Sometimes, it’s the same as what would have worked for the world of the middle of the 20th century; other times, it’s not, and then it’s important not to get too attached to nostalgia.
Bad institutions often produce governments that, through slowness and stasis, focus on solving yesterday’s problems. Good institutions do the opposite. This problem is muted on issues that do not change much from decade to decade, like the political debate over overall government spending levels on socioeconomic programs. But wherever technology or some important social aspect changes quickly, this problem can grow to the point that outdated governance looks ridiculous.
Climate change is a good example, because the relative magnitudes of its various components have shifted in the last 20 years. Across the developed world, transportation emissions are rising while electricity generation emissions are falling. In electricity generation, the costs of renewable energy have cratered to the point of being competitive from scratch with just the operating costs of fossil and nuclear power. Within renewable energy, the revolution has been in wind (more onshore than offshore) and utility-scale solar, not the rooftop panels beloved by the greens of last generation; compare Northern Europe’s wind installation rates with what seemed obvious just 10 years ago.
I bring this up because in the United States today, the left’s greatest effort is spent on the Build Back Better Act, which they portray as making the difference between climate catastrophe and a green future, and which focuses on the largely solved problem of electricity. Transportation, which overtook electricity as the United States’ largest source of emissions in the late 2010s, is shrugged off in the BBB, because the political system of 2021 relitigates the battles of 2009.
This slowness cascades to smaller technical issues and to the civil service. A slow civil service may mandate equity analyses that assume that the needs of discriminated-against groups are geographic – more transit service to black or working-class neighborhoods – because they were generations ago. Today, the situation is different, and the needs are non-geographic, but not all civil service systems are good at recognizing this.
The issue of TOD
Even when the problem is static, for example how to improve public transit, the solutions may change based on social and technological changes.
The most important today is the need to integrate transportation planning with land use planning better. Historically, this wasn’t done much – Metro-land is an important counterexample, but in general, before mass motorization, developers built apartments wherever the trains went and there was no need for public supervision. The situation changed in the middle of the 20th century with mass competition with the automobile, and thence the biggest successes involved some kind of transit-oriented development (TOD), built by the state like the Swedish Million Program projects in Stockholm County or by private developer-railroads like those of Japan. Today, the default system is TOD built by private developers on land released for high-density redevelopment near publicly-built subways.
Some of the details of TOD are themselves subject to technological and social change:
- Deindustrialization means that city centers are nice, and waterfronts are desirable residential areas. There is little difference between working- and middle-class destinations, except that city center jobs are somewhat disproportionately middle-class.
- Secondary centers have slowly been erased; in New York, examples of declining job centers include Newark, Downtown Brooklyn, and Jamaica.
- Conversely, there is job spillover from city center to near-center areas, which means that it’s important to allow for commercialization of near-center residential neighborhoods; Europe does this better than the United States, which is why at scale larger than a few blocks, European cities are more centralized than American ones, despite the prominent lack of supertall office towers. Positive New York examples include Long Island City and the Jersey City waterfront, both among the most pro-development parts of the region.
- Residential TOD tends to be spiky: very tall buildings near subway stations, shorter ones farther away. Historic construction was more uniformly mid-rise. I encourage the reader to go on some Google Earth or Streetview tourism of a late-20th century city like Tokyo or Taipei and compare its central residential areas with those of an early-20th century one like Paris or Berlin.
The ideal civil service on this issue is an amalgamation of things seen in democratic East Asia, much of Western and Central Europe, and even Canada. Paris and Stockholm are both pretty good about integrating development with public transit, but only in the suburbs, where they build tens of thousands of housing units near subway stations. In their central areas, they are too nostalgic to redevelop buildings or build high-rises even on undeveloped land. Tokyo, Seoul, and Taipei are better and more forward-looking.
Public transit for the future
Besides the issue of TOD, there are details of how public transportation is built and operated that change with the times. The changes are necessarily subtle – this is mature technology, and VC-funded businesspeople who think they’re going to disrupt the industry invariably fail. This makes the technology ideal for treatment by a civil service that evolves toward the future – but it has to evolve. The following failures are regrettably common:
- Overfocus on lines that were promised long ago. Some of those lines remain useful today, and some are underrated (like Berlin’s U8 extension to Märkisches Viertel, constantly put behind higher cost-per-rider extensions in the city’s priorities). But some exist out of pure inertia, like Second Avenue Subway phases 3-4, which violates two principles of good network design.
- Proposals that are pure nostalgia, like Amtrak-style intercity trains running 1-3 times per day at average speeds that would shame most of Eastern Europe. Such proposals try to fit to the urban geography of the world of yesterday. In Germany, the coalition’s opposition to investment in high-speed rail misses how in the 21st century, German urban geography is majority-big city, where a high-speed rail network would go.
- Indifference to recent news relevant to the technology. Much of the BART to San Jose cost blowout can still be avoided if the agency throws away the large-diameter single-bore solution, proposed years ago by people who had heard of its implementation in Barcelona on L9 but perhaps not of L9’s cost overruns, making it by far Spain’s most expensive subway. In Germany, the design of intercity rail around the capabilities of the trains of 25 years ago falls in this category as well; technology moves on and the ongoing investments here work much better if new trains are acquired based on the technology of the 2020s.
- Delay in implementation of easy technological fixes that have been demonstrated elsewhere. In a world with automatic train-mounted gap fillers, there is no excuse anywhere for gaps between trains and platforms that do not permit a wheelchair user to board the train unaided.
- Slow reaction time to academic research on best practices, which can cover issues from timetabling to construction methods to pricing to bus shelter.
Probably the most fundamental issue of sensitivity to social change is that of bus versus rail modal choice. Buses are labor-intensive and therefore lose value as the economy grows; the high-frequency grid of 1960s Toronto could not work at modern wages, hence the need to shift public transit from bus to rail as soon as possible. This in turn intersects with TOD, because TOD for short-stop surface transit looks uniformly mid-rise rather than spiky. The state needs to recognize this and think about bus-to-rail modal shift as a long-term goal based on the wages of the 21st century.
The swift state
In my Niskanen piece from earlier this year, I used the expression building back, quickly, and made references to acting swiftly and the swift state. I brought up the issue of speeding up the planning lead time, such as the environmental reviews, as a necessary component for improving infrastructure. This is one component of the swift state, alongside others:
- Fast reaction to new trends, in technology, where people travel, etc. Even in deeply NIMBY areas like most of the United States, change in urban geography is rapid: job centers shift, new cities that are less NIMBY grow (Nashville’s growth rates should matter to high-speed rail planning), and connections change over time.
- Fast rulemaking to solve problems as they emerge. This means that there should be fewer layers of review; a civil servant should be empowered to make small decisions, and even the largest decisions should be delegated to a small expert team, intersecting with my previous posts about civil service empowerment.
- Fast response time to civil complaints. It’s fine to ignore a nag who thinks their property values deserve state protection, but if people complain about noise, delays, slow service, poor UI, crime, or sexism or racism, take them seriously. Look for solutions immediately instead of expecting them to engage in complex nonprofit proof-of-work schemes to show that they are serious. The state works for the people, and not the other way around.
- Constant amendment of priorities based on changes in the rest of society. A state that wishes to fight climate change must be sensitive to what the most pressing sources of emissions are and deal with them. If you’re in a mature urban or national economy, and you’re not frustrating nostalgics who show you plans from the 1950s, you’re probably doing something wrong.
In all cases, it is critical to build using the methods of the world of today, aiming to serve the needs of the world of tomorrow. Those needs are fairly predictable, because public transit is not biotech and changes therein are nowhere near as revolutionary as mRNA and viral vector vaccines. But they are not the same as the needs of 60 years ago, and good institutions recognize this and base their budgetary and regulatory focus on what is relevant now and not what was relevant when color TVs were new.
Microapartments for Students
Charlie Munger’s deservedly mocked plan for a university dorm with windowless bedrooms got me thinking about small studios for students. The size of the proposed Munger Hall – 156,000 m^2 for 4,500 students – is pretty reasonable for a large building housing students, provided the students get their own rooms with windows. But this raises interesting questions about building depths and apartment plans.
This post is best read as a companion for my posts about building depth and a high-density euroblock design. In the post on building depths, I argued that the higher ratio of apartment area to window frontage ought to be understood as an adaptation to larger apartments for wealthier people than those who lived in the cities of 100 years ago. This post can be seen as a practical demonstration, illustrating the limits of deep buildings in the use case of microapartments for students.
The parameters of student housing
Student housing has specific needs:
- Students have little disposable income, so space per capita is likely to be limited. Microapartments of 20-30 m^2 are reasonable, and in some cases they can even be smaller.
- University is a deracinating, equalizing institution, so a high level of uniformity of design is desirable, making modernist forms more palatable than for middle-class families. Nor is there much worry about intrusion and criminality, since the students form a community. In this sense, university is akin to the military.
- Unlike the military, university as an institution promotes individualism, and has no need for communal barracks. Social spaces are desirable, but the priority should be on individual living space.
- Students are young and sexually active, and in recognition of that, high levels of privacy are desirable. Not only should students get individual rooms (which is also useful for minimizing respiratory infections), but also they should have their own bathrooms, showers, and kitchen facilities.
Those requirements interact well with the high-density euroblock (or courtyard building) form I’ve pushed before. Munger speaks of fixing the mistakes made by modernist housing, name-checking Le Corbusier – but the social problems of modernist towers were specific to deracinated working-class families, and not students. When people criticize modernist design of universities, it’s not about the modernist style of student housing but about hostile architecture for class and administrative buildings designed to quell student riots.
The euroblock is a form of housing common in Central and Northern Europe, in which residential buildings enclose an internal courtyard. Bigger cities, like Berlin, traditionally had many interior courtyards to a block, overlooked by interior wings with a view of the courtyard but not the street; smaller and richer cities tend to have bigger courtyards and no wings, and much of Berlin has demolished the wings in the postwar era as well. Here’s a wingless example from Stockholm:
The width of the building in this case is exactly twice the ratio of apartment size to window frontage, ignoring internal corridors. This building has a width of 14.6 meters, which is pretty typical for the wingless forms; winged ones are shallower, since the corners of the wings are windowless, in all cases producing a ratio of about 7.5 m. Some higher-end buildings, including some newer North American condos using the courtyard design, go up to a width of 20 m, for a ratio of 10 m.
Populating the euroblock with student housing
The proposed Munger Hall at UCSB is to sit on a site of about 120*120 meters, so let’s start with that. Munger Hall is to be solid with no interior courtyard because the dorm rooms are windowless; to have the same floor area, we need to go taller, but that’s no obstacle for our purposes. Let’s consider both a 20 meters deep design and a winged 15 meters deep one.
The light gray at the outer corners represents social spaces with corner windows; the windowless inner corners are four elevator lobbies, the high capacity necessary due to the high density of the design and the synchronized class times. If units are 2.5*10 in theory, and closer to 2.4*9 in practice, then we get a unit per 2.5 m of window frontage, which is 288 per floor (interior sides are 80 m long, exterior ones 100 m); a total of 81% of floor area is student apartments, which is low by high-rise standards, but we’re deliberately giving the outer corners to social spaces, and with the corners added back in it’s a healthy 86%.
Note that the courtyard in the middle is massive. Any larger and half of it would be a regulation football pitch. So let’s add wings, and also add function spaces in the interior corners created by the wings, possibly sacrificing some adjacent units for windows for the function spaces.
Still at one apartment per 2.5 m of window frontage, we now have 352 units per floor, but also our efficiency has dramatically fallen – only 73%, and if we add the four exterior corners back it’s still only 77%. This is only desirable if massive function spaces are important – and those can then cannibalize the near-corner apartments for window space. This is very much an upper limit to the building depth – it averages a ratio of 11.25 m.
Let’s now look at a 15 m deep design with even more wings:
Everything is scaled down for the shallower building, but that’s okay – 7.5*7.5 still makes for a staircase with some elevators, and the four interior areas can have as big elevator banks as needed. Let’s say that, ignoring corridors, apartments are 3 1/3 m by 7.5, and in practice more like 3.2*6.7. We have three apartments per 10 m of window frontage, so a total of 340 per floor. We can even squeeze more apartments this way, by offsetting the courtyard-facing apartments by one, so that there are not six to a 20 m courtyard frontage but seven, with the outer two only having half the window space, giving 376 units, at 78% efficiency. As we will see below, window width is not the constraining factor – historically, masonry buildings had small windows. Nonetheless, the courtyards are small enough that a building of about 15 floors would have a high ratio of height to courtyard size, without much direct sunlight.
To be very clear, this is austere student housing. People who are not students would only live in such conditions in situations of very high housing prices, such as what I experienced in Stockholm. Here is what I might mock up of 2.5 by 9 or 3 1/3 by 6 2/3:
The elongated floor plan turns the studio’s left side into a kind of corridor, and the longer the unit, the more space is wasted on said corridor. The version on the right can fit a mini-fridge doubling as a bedside table next to the bed; the version on the left can too but a foot-side table is less convenient (this is how my grad school dorm room was set up due to lack of alternatives). Both apartments can set up a stove and kitchen sink; the natural location is below the table (to the right from the perspective of someone sitting in the chair). But the version on the left can only do so by eating into free space to move around in, where the version on the right doesn’t.
This is a matter of length-width ratios and the long corridor forcing the door to be on the short side. This is why high-end apartments can maintain the depth on the left without a problem – a middle-class one-person apartment is 40-50 m^2, so around double the micro-unit depicted above. A building designed around such studios would have the floor plate of the wingless 20 m euroblock but with half as many apartments, and then there’s ample room for everything with enough left to move around. Such a larger unit can even be set up as a one-bedroom, with the bedroom taking half the window frontage.
Note also that this problem of elongated microapartments doesn’t affect bedrooms in family dwellings. A family dwelling can be set up with rooms fronting 2.5 m of window space but with doors on the long side coming in via a central living room, which means there’s no need for a long corridor for access to the bathroom and the bed.