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 But wherever technology or some important social aspect changes quickly, this problem can grow to the point that outdated governance looks ridiculous.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.
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.
It’s the first time in my life I’m eligible to vote in a national election. I thought it would be faster than it was; the line took 1:10, of which the first 10 minutes were taken standing in the wrong line – there were two precincts at the same physical location. It felt weird, feeling out of place and yet knowing, approximately for the first time in my life (unless one counts the European Parliament election), that I had a right to be there no matter what.
I voted Green, up and down the ballot, which is a vote for prioritizing public transportation over cars and climate protection over coal jobs and cheap Russian natural gas, but is not a YIMBY vote. And there’s the rub: a YIMBY political party does not exist here, and neither does even a YIMBY movement.
YIMBY is not exactly a movement about more development. It’s specifically about development in the most in-demand urban areas, through infill. It’s about aggressive transit-oriented development; when YIMBYs cite a success case, it’s the TOD of Tokyo and Seoul, and to a lesser extent what’s happening in Stockholm (where the term YIMBY originates) and the Paris suburbs, and not the equally fast but exclusively suburban and auto-oriented development in the Austin area.
And this does not exist here. SPD supports building housing in Tempelhofer Feld; the Greens are against it, treating it as common parkland, where in reality the treeless field makes a poor park and is adjacent to actual wooded parks in Kreuzberg and Neukölln. So in that sense SPD is the YIMBYer party – but SPD also built a freeway cutting through Neukölln last decade, going into coalition with CDU rather than with the Greens in order to build it. The Greens, in contrast, oppose freeways and support bike lanes and road diets – but they oppose new housing, want to downscope a proposed high-rise building in Alexanderplatz, and prefer bike lanes and city center tram expansion to extending the U- and S-Bahn.
And there’s the rub. The central tenet of YIMBYism is that cities are predominantly loci of production, and people choose where to move based on work more than anything else; building more housing is the central policy proposal, in recognition that economic production is done predominantly in city centers. And this does not exist, because every political faction that wants to build more housing pairs this with more roads and more peripheral locations for new development. The idea that post-car cities represent growth rather than stagnation does not exist in German politics, at least not yet. People still think of cars as the industrial future, rather than as what people thought the future would be 70 years ago, about as relevant to the world of tomorrow as what people thought of agriculture in the 19th century was in the middle of the 20th. The Greens just want to slow that industrial future down instead of building the information future – and nobody in German politics wants to build that future, the right preferring more cars and more gas.
I suspect there’s room for such YIMBY politics in Germany, cobbled together from the most left-wing fringes of FDP, the younger and less NIMBY Greens, and sundry SPD members. Already, most Green voters in Berlin support Tempelhof redevelopment, albeit at much narrower margins than SPD, FDP, and CDU voters. At the climate march two years ago, I saw a single anti-nuclear sign carried by two older people; new nuclear is out of the question here due to costs, but it matters that younger Greens aren’t animated by Green boomers’ anti-nuclear activism. There was a bigger sign carried by a few people opposing urban development, but it was one sign, not the thousands of generic signs about climate change and many hundreds opposing coal power, oil, and cars. Up the Elbe, younger G/EFA parties like the Czech Pirates are pro-digital.
It’s in the public interest for cities to convert the parking lanes of their major streets to outdoor seating, with chairs and tables. On the commercial avenue of the modern city, land use at street level is in large part restaurants, bars, and cafes, and some of the remainder of the storefronts could use outdoor seating as well, for example bakeries. In contrast, street parking is of little value – it creates more car traffic.
The main benefit here is that it turns the street into an open-air food court. This has the usual benefits of shopping centers, which at any rate were invented to simulate commercial streets, without the interference of cars. But it has an additional benefit that I have not seen mentioned by urbanists: it pools seating between different cafes and restaurants, in contrast with today’s outdoor seating, where each place has its own few tables according to the width of its storefront.
Pooling seats this way means that people who buy from in-demand establishments can take adjacent seats. I saw this, by chance, during the corona lockdown, in which outdoor dining was technically banned as well as indoor dining, but some restaurants in Mitte near Alexanderplatz had permanent outdoor seating, and people would go there with food from anywhere. Even before the lockdown, when one such place was closed, some people, including myself, would colonize its seating with food from elsewhere. In effect, it reduces the rental costs of the places that make the most in-demand food and drinks, or other products.
This system of pooled seating, at the expense of parking, also has other benefits. It means people can eat different foods together. It distributes demand, which may differ by time of day or day of week, with restaurants most popular at typical lunch and dinner times (and sometimes different restaurants have different peaks), bars at night, and cafes in between. These both increase efficiency, but even at a fixed peak, this has benefits, in letting restaurants compete on food quality.
Taxes, in general, are progressive: the rich pay more than the poor as a proportion of their income. But trying to apply the same logic to small and medium enterprise regulations is wrong. It doesn’t produce any income redistribution to speak of – the redistribution occurs only among the class of business owners, who already skew wealthy, to the detriment of the customers. In the case of storefronts, letting restaurant and cafe patrons sit outside wherever they’d like means not forcing the most desirable businesses to pay more in rent to acquire more seating space; the redistribution involved in the implicit rental tax under the present-day situation is entirely among owners, and to some extent from business owners to landlords. It’s not the same as when I pay higher taxes than a minimum-wage Aldi cashier and lower taxes than a CEO who doesn’t receive lower-taxed stock options.
And then there’s the positive impact on urban transport. City boulevards as a rule have too much car traffic and this includes ones in Berlin or Paris that Americans hold up as positive examples that they compare with noisier American arterial roads. The abundance of parking especially encourages people to drive to errands rather than walking, biking, or using public transportation; the present-day situation is that restaurants sometimes put out seats, reducing sidewalk width and with it the available space for cyclists to use the streets.
So instead, public seating, in lieu of on-street car storage, has the positive effects of distributing seats better as outlined above, while also reducing the space available for people to use cars in a city that needs more quiet and cleaner air.
Here is a table of New York community boards, with their employed resident and job counts, broken down by how many people live and work in the same community board and how many in the same borough:
|Borough||CB||Emp. res.||In same borough||%||In CB||%||Jobs||From same borough||%||From CB %|
- The data uses the all-jobs filter on OnTheMap, which assigns a lot of public-sector jobs in the city to City Hall or Brooklyn Borough Hall. The actual number of workers in Brooklyn CB 2 is lower than stated, by perhaps 60,000. The definition of CBs also excludes a few parts of the city with jobs, including the airports. Finally, Marble Hill is in Manhattan but is in the Bronx CB 8; it is counted in Manhattan throughout in same-borough job counts but as part of the Bronx CB 8 in CB job and resident counts.
- Very few people work in the same community board they live in. Citywide, it’s 7.8%. The numbers are only high in Manhattan CB 5, which consists of Midtown and is so expensive to live in that people live there if they’re high-income commuters choosing a short walking commute. And yet, local politics is dominated by those 7.8%, who think owning a business near where they live makes them more moral than the rest of the city.
- Even working and living in the same borough is not that common, only 38.7% citywide. It’s only a majority in Manhattan and a bare majority in two Outer Borough CBs, Brooklyn 7 and 12 (Sunset Park and Borough Park).
- Staten Island, which has a strong not-the-rest-of-the-city political identity, relies on the rest of the city’s economy. Only 25.8% of employed residents work within the borough, and 55.6% work in the other four boroughs, the remaining working in the suburbs. Slightly more Staten Island residents work in Manhattan than on Staten Island.
- The majority of people working in New York live outside the borough they work in, and this is true even excluding Manhattan, only 45.7% of outer-borough workers living in the borough they work in.
- The Bronx CB 2 is on net a job center and not a bedroom community, due to industrial jobs in Hunts Point.
Europe has a number of strong national high-speed rail networks, providing much inspiration internally as well as abroad, including in the United States. With Americans looking at an infrastructure bill including high-speed rail funding, there’s a lot of discussion about what can port, hence my proposal map. That said, caution is required when doing naive comparisons with Europe. European urbanism doesn’t work the same as American urbanism, in two ways. First, European cities are more compact and transit-oriented than most American cities, which is why I somewhat discount American lines unless at least one city connected has public transit. And second, Europe has more, smaller cities than the rest of the urbanized world. This post concerns the second issue.
French and American urbanism: an example
A few months ago I poked around European and East Asian metro area lists. The upshot is that whereas in the three East Asian democracies 70% of the population lives in metropolitan areas larger than 1 million, in France only 33% does, and the median resident sorted by metro area size lives in a metro region of 350,000.
We can apply the same analysis to the United States. At the CSA level, the median American lives in Sacramento, population 2.6 million, and 68% live in metro areas of at least 1 million; at the MSA level, the median is Milwaukee, population 1.6 million, and 56% live in metro areas of at least 1 million. American metropolitan areas are unusually weakly-centered, especially at the CSA level, but otherwise they’re pretty typical of the urbanized world; it’s Europe that’s unusual in having such small cities.
The upshot is that people who are not used to this peculiarity of Europe who look at a map of European cities focus on million-plus metro areas, which are not the whole story here, especially not in France. This makes Europe look emptier than it is, which can lead people to overrate how much ridership a high-speed rail network would have at a fixed population.
France and the Midwest
Scott Hand posted a map on Twitter superimposing France on the Midwest with Chicago taking the place of Paris, arguing that they are similar in population and area:
This is a good sanity check: your Midwestern network should be of comparable magnitude to the TGV network, rather than much larger. It’s easy to say, Lyon has 2.5 million people, Detroit has 5 million people, so clearly a line to Detroit is twice as good as one to Lyon, right? But no: French urbanism supplies many more small cities, which must be accounted for as well. At the end of the day, the populations are similar, even though, in addition to Chicago, the map has three cities (Detroit, St. Louis, Cleveland) with larger metro areas than Lyon and six more larger than Marseille (Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Nashville, Cincinnati, Columbus, Pittsburgh).
The LGV Sud-Est
It’s tempting to compare Paris-Lyon to Chicago-St. Louis. Yonah Freemark did this in 2009, and Jarrett Walker already pointed out in comments that the LGV Sud-Est was always about much more than this. On hindsight, I’ll add that even that sells the LGV Sud-Est short. High-speed rail between Paris and Lyon unlocked fast service from Paris to not just Lyon but also the following metro areas, all with 2016 populations:
- Dijon (385,000), demoted from the PLM mainline to a branch but still served
- Grenoble (688,000)
- Saint-Etienne (520,000)
- Chambéry (225,000)
- Annecy (236,000)
- Valence (187,000)
- Vienne (115,000)
- Bourg-en-Bresse (128,000), not on any direct train but still close enough by regional connection or car
What’s more, TGVs would branch from Part-Dieu along legacy lines to serve these smaller cities, albeit at low frequency. Now, with the LGV extending as far south as Marseille, Valence has a through-station on an LGV just outside the built-up area. There’s also Lyria service to thee major Swiss cities; Geneva, a metro area of 1 million, lies on a low-speed extension of the LGV Sud-Est, 3:11 from Paris.
Other than Geneva, which is invisible on the map because it is farther away, the other cities listed are all very small. In the United States, people don’t usually think of metropolitan areas of such size as urban, because they are extremely dispersed and socially identify as not-urban, and because metropolitan America operates at much larger size classes. But they have recognizable urban cores and their populations must be put into any ridership model trying to train data on TGV ridership. In fact, a gravity model with exponent 0.8 predicts that the combined TGV ridership from Paris to all the above cities, excluding Lyon, is nearly twice the ridership on Paris-Lyon.
And in this context, Chicago-St. Louis simply doesn’t compare. St. Louis is somewhat larger than Lyon, yes, but within 60 km, within which radius Lyon has independent Saint-Etienne, Vienne, Bourg, and Mâcon, St. Louis only has its own exurbs. To find a proper Midwestern comparison for the LGV Sud-Est and its extensions toward Marseille, one must go east of Chicago, toward Detroit and Cleveland. Within 60 km Detroit too only has its own CSA plus Windsor, but that CSA has 5 million people, and the same line also reaches Cleveland (CSA population 3.5 million), Toledo (900,000), and Pittsburgh (2.6 million) and points east.
What this means
Having fewer, larger cities doesn’t make it harder to build high-speed rail. On the contrary – it’s easier to serve such a geography. Asia lives off of such geography; Japan and Taiwan serve nearly their entire populations on just a single line, and Korea does on one mainline with a branch. An Asianized France would be able to serve nearly its entire population on the LGV network as-is without needing low-frequency branches to Chambéry- and Valence-scale cities, and an Asianized Germany would be able to just build an all-high-speed network and connect nearly everyone and not just half the population.
There are small cities that happen to lie on convenient corridors between larger cities, the way Valence is between Lyon and Marseille, or Augsburg and Ulm are between Stuttgart and Munich. Other small cities are close enough to large cities that they’re decently-served by a large city-focused rail network, like Saint-Etienne. Those cities are compact, so a large share of the population has access to the train – this is the explanation for the 0.8 exponent in the gravity model of ridership. But overall, most cities of that scale are strewn haphazardly around the country: examples include Limoges, Amiens, and Caen in France, and Osnabrück, Chemnitz, and Rostock here.
However, this doesn’t mean that, in analyzing the impact of population on ridership, we should just pretend the small cities don’t exist. They do, and they supply extra ridership that isn’t visible if one thinks city = metro area of 1 million or more. It’s an understandable way of thinking, but Europe has a lot of ridership generated from intermediate cities and from cities that have a regional rail connection to a big city or a less frequent direct intercity train, and the models have to account for it.
So yes, that the US has so many large-by-European-standards cities means high-speed rail would work well there. However, it equally means that a naive model that just says “this looks like the LGV Sud-Est” would underperform. A better model has to account for specific city pairs. American city pairs still look okay, even with extreme levels of sprawl at the outer ends, but ultimately this means the US can have a network of approximately the same scope of the LGV network, rather than one that is much denser.
I’ve written before about how planning public transport differs from planning cars, and how the macroeconomics of producing good public transport differ from that of exporting cars. Another difference between the two modes is marketing. I don’t usually like talking about marketing – I prefer making things to selling them – but it’s relevant, because private-sector marketing is a huge industry, and sometimes marketers end up making decisions about public transportation, and some of those lead to counterproductive planning.
The main difference is that public transportation does not have competition the way private industry does. In many travel markets, for example rush hour travel to city center, it is a monopoly. In others, it isn’t, but it remains fundamentally different from the competition, whereas private-sector marketing generally involves competition between fairly similar products, such as different brands of cars or computers or supermarkets. This also means that trying to turn public transit into a competition between similar providers is overrated: it is bad from the perspective of good planning, but it turns the industry into something private-sector marketers are more familiar with, and is therefore at risk of being adopted (for example, with EU competition mandates) despite being counterproductive.
Companies that make products that are very similar to their competition engage in extensive marketing. Coke vs. Pepsi is the most cliché example, but different brands of cookies, fast food, cars, computers, and smartphones do the same. The differences between these brands are never zero: I can generally tell different brands of bottled water by taste, Samsung- and Sony-made Androids have some differences (let alone iPhones), and so on. But it’s not large either.
Objectively, the cost of switching firms is small, so marketers first of all spend enormous amounts of money on advertising, and second of all aim to create identity markers to impose an emotional cost on customers who switch: “I am a Mac.” If the small differences involve differences in price point, then this can include a marker of class identity; even if they don’t, there’s no shortage of ways to tell people what brand of alcohol or food or video game best fits their microidentity. Establishing brand identity also involves loyalty programs, like airline miles and hotel points: why compete when you can lock passengers into your airline alliance?
This can even bleed into product development to some extent. Microsoft’s embrace, extend, exterminate strategy was designed around getting people to switch to Microsoft products from competitors. This was not a marketing gimmick – the people who developed Excel made sure everything that Lotus 1-2-3 users were used to would also feature in Excel in order to reduce the cost of switching to Microsoft, before using Windows’ power to lock people into Office.
Mass transit is not like this
Public transportation competes with cars as a system. It has a monopoly in certain travel markets, namely rush hour travel to city center, but the existence of those markets itself comes from real estate competition, in which it is necessary to entice companies to choose to locate in city center rather than in a suburban office park. Of note, the following features, all unusual for private-sector competition, apply:
- Competition is for the most part binary: public transportation versus cars. (Bikes complement transit.)
- The public transit side of the competition has economies of scale because of the importance of frequency of arrival, and thus is harmed by any internal competition, whereas the car industry has different automakers and works just fine that way.
- The service has very little customization – everyone rides the same trains. Attempts to introduce product differentiation are harmful because of the frequency effect.
- The product is completely different from the competition – useful at different times of day, in different neighborhoods, for different destinations. Switching incurs costs of similar magnitude to those of migration.
- Much of the competition is not for customers, but for development – city center development is good for public transit, sprawl is good for cars.
- There is competition over public resources, which cannot be divorced from the mode even in an environment of privatization – someone still has to build roads and finance subways.
The consequences of mass transit Fordism
Public transportation is and remains a Fordist product – no product differentiation, highly regimented worker timetables, one-size-fits-all construction, vertical integration. The vertical integration aspects go even farther than early-20th century industry, covering infrastructure, timetables, the equipment, and development. User choice is extensive regarding where to go within the system – I have access to far more variety of products as a consumer and jobs as a worker in Berlin (and had even more in Paris) than I would have driving in a sprawl environment, but I can’t choose what brand of train to use.
This is particularly important when preferences are heterogeneous. Different users have different walking speeds, transfer penalties, idiosyncrasies about access to wifi on board, etc. Planning has to use averages, and for the most part this works without too many seams, but it means that the standard way private businesses use product differentiation doesn’t work.
Of note, this Fordism also exists for the road network, if not for the cars themselves. It’s just far less visible. Drivers may have different preferences that translate to different costs and benefits for a cloverleaf versus a four-level interchange, but engineers can’t have two sets of interchanges, they just build one based on criteria of traffic density. However, the experience of driving on the interchange is not visible as part of the system to the drivers, who occasionally grumble about traffic at a particular intersection but don’t see it as clearly as transit riders see specific transfer stations or modal questions like streetcar vs. subway.
How private-sector marketing can harm transit
Because mass transit is a single system for everyone, standard private-sector marketing schemes involve changes to service that harm the overall system.
Creating brand identification with a specific subgroup of users, such as when some private buses market themselves to tech workers with wifi and USB chargers and charge higher fares, and still can’t make money. Public transportation has to work on an any vehicle, any place, any time principle. Only a handful of hyper-frequent routes can take multiple brands without losing passengers due to the lower frequency of each brand, but on those routes the only reliable way to timetable service is to run on headway management in which case any vehicle can substitute for any vehicle, which means you can’t brand.
This is especially bad when the brands are different modes: bus, bike, streetcar, subway, commuter train. When some modes are marketed to the rich and others are to the poor, capacity is wasted and frequency within each class is lower. Moreover, infrastructure planning is weaker with such differentiation, because often a region or subclass will be close to the wrong mode, forcing expensive additional construction. The United States fails by running commuter rail just for the rich while subways are for the rest, while India fails by doing the exact opposite; both countries build unnecessary infrastructure and underinvest in intermodal integration as a result.
Less harmful but still likely to suck oxygen out of the planning room are various gimmicks, especially at the political level. For example, a program in the mold of cash-for-clunkers to pay people to sell their car and ride public transportation is a waste of money – the main cost of switching from cars to transit or vice versa is that in either case the set of destinations one can easily travel to changes.
Finally, because public transportation is a complex system, trading the need for inter-organization and interdepartmental organization for much lower overall provision costs, people who come into it from consumer product markets may miss some of the required connections. This is especially true of development – people who sell consumer products, including cars, don’t need to think how urban design has to look for their product to succeed. Even people who have heard of transit-oriented development may get it wrong; in the United States, it is common to build some apartment buildings next to a train station but neglect retail and local services, and YIMBY as a movement is at best indifferent to city center office towers.
A country or region that is good at manufacturing cars can export them globally and earn hard cash. But what about public transportation? How can a city that has the ability to build good, low-cost public transport get rich off of it? There is an answer, but it is more complicated than “export this,” mirroring the fact that public transport itself is a more complex system to run than cars. This in turn relates to housing growth rates and urban economies of scale, making this the most useful in a large city with high housing production rates, of which the best example is Seoul. The good news is that the world’s largest and richest cities could gain tremendously if they had better public transport as well as high housing growth rates.
Infrastructure is not exportable
I wrote more than two years ago about the difference between dirty and clean infrastructure. Cars, car parts, and oil are exportable, so the majority of the cost of cars as a system are exportable, making dedicated regions like Bavaria, Texas, and the Gulf states rich. Green tech is not like that – the bulk of the cost is local labor. A large majority of the operating costs of a subway system are local wages and benefits; in New York, depreciation on rolling stock is less than 10% of overall operating costs. Construction costs are likewise almost entirely local labor and management, which is why they are determined by where the project takes place, rather than by which engineering firm builds the project.
The upshot is that Madrid and other low-cost cities can’t just get rich by building other cities’ infrastructure for them. They can’t build turnkey systems for New York and London at Spanish prices – the problems with New York and London come from local standards, management, and regulations, and while a Spanish engineering firm could give valuable advice on what high-cost cities need to change, it’s not going to reap more than a fraction of the construction cost saving in consulting fees.
Good transit as an amenity
What a city can do with low-cost construction is build a large subway network like Madrid, and use that as infrastructure to help local economic production. This works as both a consumption amenity and a production amenity. As a consumption amenity, it enables people to commute without needing to own a car, which reduces living costs and lets employers get away with paying less in nominal terms; this is a bigger influence on local firms, because international ones tend to use cost of living adjustments that make profligate lifestyle assumptions and factor in car costs even in cities where car ownership is low, like Singapore or New York.
As a production amenity, public transit also enables work concentration in city centers. This is separate from the observation that it allows workers to commute more cheaply – if a large city produces in a concentrated center, then without rapid transit, workers can’t get in at all. About 23% of people entering the Manhattan core on a weekday do so by car per the Hub Bound Report, but at the peak hour, 8-9 am, this falls to 9%, because the road capacity is capped around 55,000 cars an hour and a maximum number of parking spots for them. Auto-centric cities of New York’s approximate size exist, not by building massive road capacity to support comparable city centers, but by not having strong city centers to begin with. Los Angeles has maybe 400,000 people in the widest definition of its central business district, where in the same area New York has more than 2 million – and Los Angeles’s secondary centers, like Century City, top in the mid-5 figures before they get completely choked with traffic.
So what a city can do with cheap infrastructure is build a large subway network and support a large high-rise central business district and then use that to produce more efficiently. This is possible, but more complex than just exporting cars or oil, because to export cars one just needs to be good at making cars, and to export oil one just needs to have oil underground, whereas to produce out of public transit one also needs a solid economy in other sectors that can make use of the better infrastructure. I suspect that this is why Southern Europe keeps not growing economically despite building high-quality public transport – the Madrid Metro is great but there isn’t enough of a private economy to make use of it.
The connection with development
To maximize the use of a subway for its economy, a city needs to make sure development can follow it. This means that city center needs high job density, which includes high-rise office towers at the busiest intersections, and many mid-rise office buildings in a radius of a few kilometers. Neither the typical European pattern in which there are few skyscrapers nor the American pattern in which there are skyscrapers for a few blocks and then the rest of the city is subject to strict residential zoning is ideal for this. It’s better to have a city whose central few square kilometers look like Midtown and whose surrounding few tens of square kilometers look like Paris, with the occasional secondary cluster of skyscrapers at high-demand nodes; let’s call this city “Tokyo.”
Residential development has to keep up as well. A city region that has a strong private economy but doesn’t build enough housing for it will end up with capped production. Normally it’s the lowest-end jobs that get exported. However, two problems make it more than a marginal reduction in production. First, expensive cities have political pressure to allocate apartments by non-market processes like rent control, keeping less productive but politically favored people; a large gap between market rent and construction costs creates plenty of surplus to extract, and a mass exodus of firms from cities like San Francisco in such a situation starts from thee least profitable ones, and by the time it affects the most profitable on, the system is entrenched. And second, breaking a firm’s chain between high-end headquarters jobs in a rich city center and lower-end subsidiary jobs elsewhere reduces firmwide productivity, since many connections have to be remote; Google has problems with all-remote teams and tries to center teams in the Bay Area when it gets too unwieldy.
For one example of a city that does everything right, look at Seoul. It has low construction costs, around $150 million per kilometer for urban subways. Thanks to its low costs and huge size, it keeps building up its system even though it already has one of the largest systems in the world, probably third in ridership after Tokyo and Osaka when one includes all commuter lines. It also has high density, high-rise CBDs, and fast housing construction; in 2019 the Seoul region built around 10 units per 1,000 people, representing a decline since the mid-2010s, and the state has plans to accelerate construction, especially in the city, to curb rising prices. This is till a better situation than the weak economy and flagging construction in much of Europe, or the NIMBY growth rates of both much of the rest of Europe and the richest American cities.
KWCIMBY, or Kowloon Walled City in My Backyard, is a refrain used by some YIMBYs to make it clear that we favor high density and not the missing middle self-compromise. This is not about the literal KWC, which was poor and hideously overcrowded – the floor area ratio from photos looks like it averaged around 8 counting open space, so the density meant it had maybe 6.5 square meters of built-up space per capita. Rather, it’s about the concept of going as high as possible, using higher floor area ratios (the Upper East and West Sides of New York have 12 residential FAR on the avenues) and generous first-world urban living arrangements to create high urban density. This post is about how it might look.
One possible built form is this:
This is 100*100 meter blocks, with 20-meter wide streets; this is not intended to be a city for cars, but at high residential density it’s useful to widen the streets somewhat to provide ample walking and cycling space and to allow very tall buildings while keeping the building height-to-street width ratio reasonable. The buildings are in dark gray, in euroblock form with the courtyards denoted in green.
Internal building layout
The building is 20-meter thick, which is wider than normal for Berlin euroblocks but compensates by not having internal wings, so that the apartments’ area-to-window frontage ratio is about 9 meters, which figure exists in Berlin and Paris. The inner corners feature elevator lobbies, depicted as 10*10 meters, but they can safely be made smaller. Let’s Go LA’s post about high-rise floorplates in Los Angeles, Seattle, and Vancouver shows some examples of elevator lobbies with scissor stairs and some extra corridor space at 63 m^2, and here scissor stairs aren’t needed for fire safety because each of the corners is redundant with the other three.
The footprint of the built-up area is 4,800 m^2. Of that, 722 are circulation space, or 15%; this is not amazing, and it’s possible to do better by having somewhat narrower corridors than 2 meters and somewhat smaller elevator lobbies, reaching about 90% efficiency instead of 85%. If the lobbies remain 10*10, they may include additional functions, such as trash rooms with chutes, or maybe laundry rooms in cities where it’s not normal for people to own washing machines.
The apartment floor plates are forced to be rectangular and not terribly interesting, with rooms opening to windows. My presumption is that each window space is 2.5 meters wide, so a bedroom or an office occupies one window, a living room one to two windows, and unusually large bedroom two. Kitchens can take a full window or be in an open plan with the living room. Bathrooms don’t normally get window space, and the depth of the apartment is such that every bedroom can have an attached bathroom.
An austere apartment is around one window per person, or around 22.5 m^2 per person; a spacious one is around two per person if it’s a family, or 45 m^2 per person, or even three for a single person who wants a guestroom. 45 is normal by Northern European standards and if anything on the low side by American ones, but it’s in practice degressive in household size and American NIMBYism is such that families rarely live in big cities, a household in which half the people are children and therefore do not work not really being able to compete for scarce urban land with a household in which all members work. If there’s abundant space, then middle-class families will take 8-window, 180 m^2 apartments in such buildings, and working-class ones will take 4-window apartments.
So what’s the density?
The courtyard is fully enclosed, so the limit to how much sunlight the bottom apartments get is the ratio of the building’s height to the courtyard width, which is 40 m. In Berlin and Paris one finds many euroblocks with wings such that the ratio of the height to the courtyard width is around 1.8, and a fair number in the 2-2.5 range. Our building can have 25-30 floors, or a height of 75-90 meters, while respecting this ratio. This is a building height-to-street width ratio of about 4, which is not common in Paris and Berlin (I see a bunch of 2 but not 4), but does exist in central residential areas in Tokyo and I think also Taipei, and in commercial ones in New York and London.
25 floors times a little more than 4,000 net m^2 per floor is 102,000 net m^2. If it’s 30 floors, make it 122,000. Figure exactly 45 net m^2 per person, with the more austere floor plans canceling out with vacant apartments, with empty nester apartments, and with three-window, 67.5 m^2 singles. This is 2,265 people per hectare at 25 floors, or 2,718 at 30 floors. Per km^2, this is 226,500, or 271,800 at 30 floors.
The vast majority of built-up space is residential, but with buildings this tall, the ground floor is presumably retail. One trick that can be done is to have retail, such as a supermarket, occupy the entire 80*80 block not including the street, and then put the courtyard on the roof of the supermarket, allowing one or two more residential floors.
A percentage of the buildings is entirely non-residential, such as schools, hospitals, office buildings, and emergency services. Schools are, in British standards, 5.13 m^2/primary student (p. 9), 7.81 m^2/secondary student (p. 10), and 9.28 m^2/16+ student (p. 11), all assuming maximum school size. Schools can be bigger than the maximum assumed in the UK – New York’s Specialized High Schools are each around 1,000 students per grade, and Singapore’s secondary schools and junior colleges have around 700-800 per grade. A 12-story euroblock will fit 6 grades generously at 1,000 students per grade, which is compatible with a base population of around 80,000 at equilibrium, so a square kilometer with 200,000 people needs 2.5 primary and 2.5 secondary schools, or 5 out of 100 blocks used for non-residential purposes. This is the biggest nonresidential, noncommercial use, I believe – everything else is probably 1 building out of 100 each, and maybe a handful of blocks can be parks, with a total of 10 blocks in 100 neither residential nor commercial.
Instead of euroblocks, it’s possible to use building forms without internal courtyards. For example, one can break each 100*100 block into 50*50 blocks, still with 20 m street width, giving 30*30 buildings:
Instead of 4,800 m^2 of built-up area per hectare one gets 3,600, but the floor plate efficiency, again stolen from the standards in the Let’s Go LA post (this time, with scissor stairs), is more than 90%, and the building sizes are completely standard for high-rises in Tel Aviv or Vancouver. With no internal courtyards, one can get 30 floors or so, which at 45 m^2/person is 222,900 people/residential km^2, or maybe a little less because of ground floor retail.
There’s also the modernist form of linear buildings, typical of communist-era blocks in Eastern Europe, and some postwar public housing projects in the Western Bloc, especially France (but the United States preferred cruciform buildings).
The street width in the direction parallel to the building widens, which in cities that retrofit such forms can be seen as generous setbacks, allowing the same amount of light to reach the lower floors with taller buildings. The overall built up area is 3,200 m^2 per floor, of which 2,864 is net. If we keep to a 4-to-1 height-to-street width ratio we can reach 40 floors now, which is 254,600 people per residential km^2.
The streets in this case can be set up to create long parallel blocks, or to do the opposite, alternating the orientation of the buildings to break the wind. And of course, all building forms can be mixed, so one block is a euroblock, the next is four 30*30 buildings, the one after is two linear blocks, and perhaps the one next to that is two 30*30s and a linear block.
Where is this appropriate?
Construction costs for buildings are not entirely linear in building height. The reason one would build 30-story buildings one after the other rather than single-story houses is that the area has high demand. So your town of 200,000 people has no chance of fitting in one km^2 with such buildings – nobody needs such a built form, even if there are no cars, because if there are no cars then every street is automatically a bike lane and then the town’s range is maybe 10 kilometers and it doesn’t really need multistory apartments except maybe right near the center.
So this is a way of organizing large cities. The use of buildings that are not just tall but also big reinforces the size of the city as well – a city of 100 buildings is a city with severe monopoly problems among developers and landlords, whereas one with 5,000 is one where people are upset at large developers but there is meaningful competition for tenants. Cities that are large but not hug would presumably use the 30*30 building form in preference to the euroblock just because it can be done by smaller developers.
In practice, it’s also a way of organizing large, growing cities, or cities that will grow if development is liberalized. One doesn’t easily replace heterogeneous blocks with big buildings without a lot of demand. Tel Aviv and Vancouver have 30*30 skyscrapers because they are medium-size, high-demand cities, so any site near city center with a few small buildings can be redeveloped; of note, neither uses this building form much outside city center, except perhaps at transit-oriented development sites around designated town centers like Metrotown.
So the isotropic picture at the beginning of the post is an abstraction. In practice, there are always gradients in density, and that’s fine. Some areas get 40-story buildings, other gets smaller ones, or no redevelopment at all; that’s why, even in environments with liberalized zoning like Tokyo and Seoul, neighborhood-scale zones do not reach 200,000/km^2 at developed-world crowding levels. KWC was a unique situation, a tiny no man’s land, and even though Hong Kong is the developed world’s overcrowding capital and has tall buildings to boot, its built-up density has not recurred.
That said, KWCIMBY building forms remain valuable for urban design. City centers genuinely need more development, and while the very center of the city should mostly have offices, one doesn’t need to go too far to get to areas that are mostly residential and mostly very desirable. Tall, densely spaced buildings reaching 200,000 people/km^2 would facilitate comfortable living in the post-car city, and it’s useful to plan for them in the near future.
Myth: American cities have undergone inversion, in which poorer people are more suburban than richer people.
Reality: at least on the level of people commuting to city center, wages generally rise with commute distance. In particular, the phenomenon of supercommuters – people traveling very long distances to work – is a middle- and high-income experience more than a low-income one. This is true even in Los Angeles, a Sunbelt city with more of a drive-until-you-qualify history than the Northeastern cities. The only exception among the largest US cities is San Francisco, and there too, the poorest distance is 5-10 km out of the Financial District.
All data in this post comes from OnTheMap and is as of 2017, the latest year for which there is data. The methodology is to define a central business district, generally a looser one than in past post but still much smaller than the entirety of the city, and look at people who work in it and live within annuli of increasing radius from a specific central point within the CBD. OnTheMap puts jobs into three income buckets, the boundary points being $1,250 and $3,333 per month; we look at the proportion of jobs in the highest category.
I report the annuli in kilometers, but technically they’re in multiples of 3.11 miles, which is very close to 5 km.
|City||New York||Los Angeles||Chicago||Washington||San Francisco||Boston|
|CBD||3rd, 60th, 9th, 30th||I-10, I-110, river||Congress, I-90, Grand||6th, R, river, E||Broadway, Van Ness, 101, 16th||I-90, water, Arlington|
|Point||Grand Central||7th/Metro Center||State/Madison||Farragut||Market/2nd||Downtown Crossing|
In all six metro areas above except Los Angeles, the income in the innermost 5-km circle is higher than in the 5-10 km annulus. In Chicago that inner radius is in fact the wealthiest, but in Boston it’s below average, and in New York, Washington, and San Francisco it is poorer than wide swaths of suburbia. There is always a large region of poverty in an urban radius, which is roughly the inner 15 km in Los Angeles, the 5-20 km annulus in New York, the 10-15 km radius in Chicago, and so on.
This of course does not take directionality into account. In Chicago, it is especially important – to the north, there is wealth at all radii, and to the south, there is mostly poverty. In contrast, in New York directionality is less important, and it is in a way the purest example of the poverty donut model, in which the center is rich, the suburbs are rich, and the in-between neighborhoods are poor, without wedges that form favored quarters or wedges that form ill-favored quarters.
The importance of this is that because the inner and outer limits of the poverty donut are slowly moving outward, there is talk of suburbanization of poverty – or, rather, there was in the decade leading up to corona, but I suspect it will return once mass vaccination happens. However, even now, American cities are not Paris or Stockholm, where wealth mostly decreases as distance from the center increases, even though both cities have intense directionality (rich northeast, poor south and west in Stockholm, and the exact opposite in Paris). The poorest place remains the inner city, just beyond the near-downtown zone at what I would call biking range from city center jobs if any American city had even semi-decent biking infrastructure.
This contrasts with various schemes to subsidize suburbs that assume poverty has already suburbanized. Massachusetts, where even in the inner 5 km radius the $40,000+ share is below average, has a concept called Gateway Cities, defined to mean roughly “low- and lower-middle-income cities that aren’t Boston.” Of those, about one, Chelsea, is inner-urban, while the others include Springfield and various ex-industrial cities that are generally no poorer than Boston and lie amidst suburban wealth, like Lowell and Haverhill. Based on the idea that Massachusetts poverty is in the Gateway Cities and not in Boston itself, it justifies vast place-based subsidies that mostly go to people who are decently well-off while Dorchester has to beg for slightly better public transportation to Downtown Boston.
In New York, one likewise hears more about the poverty of Far Rockaway than about that of Harlem. There’s this widespread belief that Harlem is no longer poor, that it’s fully gentrified because there’s one bagel shop on 116th Street that caters to a mostly white middle-class clientele. This is related to the stereotype of the Real New Yorker, weaponized so that the cop or the construction worker who is a third-generation New Yorker and lives at the outermost edge of the city is an inherently more moral person than the Manhattanite or the immigrant and is the very definition of the working class while earning $90,000 a year. This goes double if this Real New Yorker lives on Long Island, usually with some catechism about how the city is too expensive even though the suburbs are about equally costly. The one place-based policy that would benefit the city, having the state integrate its schools with those of the generally better-resourced suburbs, is unthinkable.
It’s notable that this discourse that overrates how poor American suburbia is comes exclusively from people who tend to sympathize with the poor. People with Thatcherist attitudes toward the poor abound in the United States, and tend to correctly believe that the inner city is poorer than the suburbs, and if anything to overrate the extent of urban poverty. In either case, the conclusion groups of Americans reach is that the government must subsidize the suburbs further; all else is just motivated reasoning.
In reality, if one has the Thatcherist or Old Tory moralistic attitude that poverty is a personal failure then, with reservations, one should continue believing the large American city is inherently immoral. But if one has the attitude that poverty is a social failure that is solvable with social programs, then one must realize that there is more of this in central cities than in their suburbs, even faraway suburbs that are called drive-until-you-qualify because they are slightly poorer than some other suburbs, and therefore if anti-poverty programs must be place-based then they should be urban.