Several commenters, both here and on Streetsblog, have raised a number of points about my proposal to eliminate above-ground Penn Station and reduce the station to a hole in the ground. A few of those points are things I’d already thought about when I wrote that post and didn’t want to clutter; others are new ideas that I’ve had to wrestle with.
On Streetsblog, Mark Walker says, “Getting on a train at Penn is not like using the subway. Instead of a train that runs every five minutes, you’re waiting for a train that runs once per hour (more or less),” implying nicer waiting areas and lounges are needed. My proposal, of course, does not have dedicated waiting areas. (That said, there’s an immense amount of space on the platforms under the escalators, which could be equipped with chairs, tables, and newsstands.)
However, I take exception to the notion that when the train runs every hour, passengers wait an hour. When I lived in Providence, a few trips to Boston, New Haven, and New York taught me the exact amount of time it’d take me to walk from my apartment to the train station: 21 minutes. I learned to time myself to get to the station 2 minutes before the train would leave, and as I recall, I missed the train twice out of maybe 30 trips, and one of those was when I had a lot of luggage and was in a taxi and couldn’t precisely gauge the extra travel time. Walking is that reliable. People who get to Penn Station by subway have to budget some extra time to account for missed subway trains, but from much of the city, including the parts of the CBD not within walking distance from Penn, the required spare time is less than 10 minutes. Moreover, Penn is at its most crowded at rush hour, which is precisely when subway frequency is the highest, and people can reliably time themselves to within less than 5 minutes.
Outlying train stations in Switzerland are deserted except a few minutes before a train shows up, because the connecting transit is all timed to meet the train. This is of course inapplicable at very large stations with many lines, but the modes of transportation that most Penn Station users take to the station are reliable and frequent, if you can even talk of frequency for walking. The result is that the amenities do not need to be extravagant on account of waiting passengers, and do not need to be more than those of a busy subway station in a busy area.
Several commenters raised the idea of shelter. One option, raised by James Sinclair, is an arched glass roof over the station, on the model of Milan. This involves above-ground infrastructure, but the arched structure is only supported at the margins of the compound, which means that the primary feature of a hole-in-the-ground station, the lack of anything that the track area must support the weight of, is still true. I do not think it’s a bad idea; I do, however, want to raise three additional options:
Do nothing. A large proportion of the usable area of the platforms would be located under the walkways above, or under the escalators and staircases. Having measured the depth more precisely, through Plate 14 here, I found it is 13 meters from street level to top of rail, or 12 from street level to platform level, translating to 21 meters of escalator length, plus 2.2-2.5 meters on each side for approach (see page 23 here). About 16 of those 21 (18.5 out of 25.7, counting approaches) meters offer enough space for passengers to stand below the escalators, leading to large areas that could be used for shelter, as noted in the waiting section above.
Build a simple shelter. Stockholm-area train stations have cheap corrugated metal roofs over most of the length of their platforms. These provide protection from rain. Of course those roofs require some structural support at the platform, but because they’re not supposed to hold anything except rainwater, those supports are narrow poles, easy to move around if the station is reconfigured.
Build a street-level glass pane. This may be structurally intricate, but if not, it would provide complete shelter from the elements on the track level, greatly improve passenger circulation, and create a new public plaza. But in summer, the station would be a greenhouse, requiring additional air conditioning.
Note that doing nothing or building a simple shelter would not protect any of the track level from heat or cold. This is fine: evidently, open-air stations are the norm both in cities with hotter summers than New York (Milan is one example, and Tokyo is another) and in cities with colder winters (for example, Stockholm). Passengers are usually dressed for the weather anyway, especially if they’re planning on walking to work from Penn or from the subway station they’re connecting to.
Multiple commenters have said that public art and architecture matter, and building spartan train stations is unaesthetic, representing public squalor. I agree! I don’t think a hole-in-the-wall Penn Station has to be drab or brutalist. It can showcase art, on the model of the mosaics on the subway, or the sculptures on the T-Bana. It can use color to create a more welcoming environment than the monotonous gray of many postwar creations, such as the Washington Metro. The natural sunlight would help a lot.
But more than that, the walkways themselves could be architectural signatures. The best way to build them without supporting them on the track level is some variant on the arch bridge – either the classical arch bridge (which would require three or four spans), or a through-arch. This gives a lot of room to turn the bridges into signature spans. The design work would raise their cost, but short pedestrian bridges tend not to display the same cost structure as massive vehicular ones; the Bridge of Strings, a Calatrava-designed light rail bridge on a line that cost far more to build than light rail should cost, was $70 million for 360 meters. The walkways would not carry light rail, and would be about 140 or 150 meters in span.
Commenters both here (Caelestor) and on Streetsblog (Bolwerk, Matthias, C2check) have brought up transit-oriented development as a reason to allow a tall building on top of the station. With respect, I think on top of a train station is exactly the wrong place to build a tower. Let’s Go LA has an explanation for why the engineering for air rights is so complicated, although he stresses that Penn Station and Grand Central, which were built with the expectation of future high-rise air rights, are exceptions. I’ll add that Penn Station track simplification would also remove many crossovers and switches, making it easier to build air rights. That said, the track spacing is not friendly to the column spacing he proposes.
In New York, the tallest and most expensive recent private-sector office tower on solid ground, the Bank of America Tower, cost around $6,000 per square meter of floor space, in today’s money. Some of the luxury residential towers are more expensive; so are the new World Trade Center buildings, e.g. One World Trade Center was $12,000 per m^2. But the office towers cluster in a specific band of cost, around $2,500 to $5,000 per square meter, with taller towers generally more expensive. The Hudson Yards air rights towers cost in the $10,000-14,000 per square meter range, as much as One World Trade Center. Contrary to Bloomberg’s promises of windfall property tax revenues as his justification for the 7 extension, the city has had to offer tax abatement to encourage developers to build at those prices. Amtrak’s plan for Penn Station South assumes the block immediately south of Penn Station would cost $769 million to $1.3 billion to acquire; when I roughly computed its floor area by counting floors per building, I got 100,000 m^2, which means the price of real estate in that area, $7,700-13,000/m^2, is no higher and may be lower than the construction cost of air rights towers.
In contrast, some sites on firm ground immediately surrounding Penn Station are ripe for redevelopment. The block south of Penn Station, as noted above, has about 100,000 m^2, for a block-wide floor area ratio of 6.7. The Empire State Building’s floor area ratio is 33, so replacing the block with closely spaced supertall towers would require developers to burn just 20% of their profit on acquiring preexisting buildings. To the north of Penn Station, the two sites at 7th and 8th Avenues, flanking One Penn Plaza, are flat; so is nearly all of the western part of the block northeast of Penn, between 33rd and 34th Streets and 6th and 7th Avenues. Eighth Avenue is not developed intensely at all in that latitude – it only becomes important near Times Square. Supertall buildings surrounding Penn Station could even be incorporated into the station complex: railroads using the station might decide to lease offices in some of them, and the exteriors of some of those buildings could incorporate large clocks, some signage, and even train departure boards.
TheEconomist, who has had some truly out-of-the-box ideas, raises a very good point: how to phase the deconstruction of Penn Station in ways that allow service to continue. I don’t have a complete answer to that. Arch bridges, in particular, require extensive falsework, which may complicate matters. However, a general phase plan could consist of knocking down the above-ground buildings, then removing the upper concourse (leaving only the lower), and then removing arms of the lower concourse one by one as the walkways above them are built.
In comments here, people have suggested several alternatives to my proposal to reconfigure Penn Station to have 12 tracks and 6 island platforms between them. There should be 6 approach tracks, as I outlined here: southern approach tracks, combining new Hudson tunnels with a link to Grand Central (which I call Line 2); central tracks, combining the preexisting Hudson tunnels with the southern East River Tunnels (Line 1); and northern tracks, combining the realigned Empire Connection and West Side Yard with the northern East River Tunnels (Line 3).
In my view, each approach track should split into two platform tracks, flanking the same platform. In this situation, there is no need to announce track numbers in advance, as long as the platform is known. Stockholm does this on the commuter lines at Stockholm Central: the northbound lines use tracks 15 and 16 and the southbound lines use tracks 13 and 14, with a platform between each of these track pairs, and until a few minutes before a train arrives, it’s signed on the board as “track 13/14″ or “track 15/16.”
The compound looks 140 or 150 meters wide; the maps are unclear about to what extent Penn extends under 31st and 33rd, but according to a diagram Joey shared in comments, it extends quite far, giving 150 meters or even a bit more. Under my proposal, this is enough for 6 platforms of 17 or 18 meters. It sounds like a lot, but it isn’t, especially on Line 3, where Penn Station is the only CBD train station, which implies entire trains would empty at Penn in the morning rush hour. (Line 2, which I expect to be the busiest overall because it’d serve both Penn and Grand Central, is the one I expect to have the least platform crowding problems, precisely because it’d serve both Penn and Grand Central.)
Staircases should be 3 meters wide. Escalators with 1-meter steps have 1.6-meter pits; their capacity is theoretically 9,000 passengers per hour, but practically only 6,000-7,000. Clearing 30 entire trains per hour, filled to seating capacity with 4 standees per square meter of standing space, requires moving about 75,000 passengers per hour. (Per meter of train length, this is comparable to the 4/5 trains and the RER A at their peaks.) With 6 access points, this requires 2 up escalators per access point. The minimum is then 3 escalators, running 2-and-1 at the peak; 4 is better.
In comments, Ari Ofesvit proposes the Spanish solution, which I’ve discussed in previous posts. I’m now convinced it is not the right solution, simply because it compels platforms to be too narrow (about 8.6 meters), which has room for exactly half of what a standard platform twice the width would have, without the possibility of running 4 escalators 3-and-1 at the peak. My comment in that post has more detail, albeit with the assumption that the compound is 140 meters wide.
Fbfree proposes something else: more platforms for intercity trains. Giving intercity trains more platforms (as is done in Stockholm, which has just two approach tracks to the south) gives them more time to dwell; unfortunately, it also narrows the platforms for the regional trains, precisely the ones that can expect the most crowding. Even a single-track platform would take up space out of proportion to the number of passengers it would serve.
Pedestrian throughput is, at the maximum, 81 people per meter of walkway width per minute; this assumes two-way flow, but the numbers for one-way and multiway flow aren’t too different. This is a little less than 5,000 per meter-hour. An escalator bank with two up escalators then needs almost 3 meters of unobstructed platform width on one side (the other side can be used as overflow, but most passengers would use the side of the platform the train discharged them on). This is easy to supply with a 4-escalator bank on a 17-meter platform (there would be 3.8 meters); on an 8.6-meter Spanish platform, there’s only one up escalator per bank, so half the width is required, and is indeed obtainable. But if there are extra platforms for intercity trains, this becomes more strained.
For maximum throughput, it is necessary to minimize separation between escalators on the platform, down to about 6 meters plus approaches, in order to allow wider walkways, which in this case would make the walkways about 25 meters wide. The point here is that the walkways have to have very high pedestrian capacity, since each of them is fed by escalators from all platforms. At 25 meters, the capacity is about 15% less than that of two up escalators per access point (121,500 vs. 144,000), which is fine since some platforms (Line 2 in both directions, Line 3 eastbound in the morning and westbound in the afternoon) would not have so much traffic. But putting in elevators would disrupt this flow somewhat.
I see two ways to increase capacity in the future, if train traffic warrants it: first, build the glass floor/ceiling I outlined above, in the shelter section. This is the simplest possibility. Second, build three more walkways, midway between 7th and 8th Avenues and the two walkways already discussed, and have each walkway or avenue serve only half the platforms – one serving eastbound platforms, one serving westbound platforms. At this point the station would be half-covered by walkways, if they are all about 24 meters wide, but the walkways could be narrowed; as long as they are longer than 15 meters, any passenger arriving on a platform by any of the included access points would be sheltered by the walkway serving platforms in the opposite direction. Elevators should go from each walkway to each platform still, which would facilitate transfers, but the workhorse escalators would spread the load among different walkways.
I’d originally thought that the walkways could host retail and food concessions. The calculation in the preceding section suggests that this wouldn’t be possible, unless the walkways are widened beyond the escalators, with concessions on the outside. Every meter of walkway width would be required for passenger circulation. Even information pamphlets might be restricted to the very edges of the walkways; train departure boards would have to be mounted in the air, for example on the support cables if the through-arch option were chosen for the walkways.
However, there is ample room directly beneath the escalators, staircases, and walkways. With the caveat that escalators of such length need an extra midway support point, they would still have a lot of space underneath: 15-16 meters with sufficient clearance for people to stand comfortably (say, at least 2.5 meters of clearance above); with the upper approaches and the walkways, this is 60-62 meters of largely unobstructed space, for a 60*10 space that could be used in almost any way. Even in the 5-6 meters with less clearance above to the escalator, it’d be possible to use the space at least partly – for example, for sitting, or for bathrooms, the minimum clearance is reduced (I’m writing this post from my apartment, where the ceilings slope down, and the ceiling height above my couch is about 1.5 meters).
There would be two such 60*10 spaces per platform, plus two smaller spaces, near 7th and 8th Avenues, depending on exact placement of access points to the subway. This gives us twelve 60*10 spaces. I doubt that they could ever host high-end concessions, such as full-service restaurants: passengers would probably not go out of their way, to a platform that they weren’t planning on using. This means newsstands could succeed, but not much else; food would have to be shunted to the streets, and presumably restaurants would pay extra to locate right outside the compound. In lieu of concessions, those spaces could host sundry uses, including additional circulation space, information pamphlets, busker performance space, waiting areas for passengers, public art displays, and waiting areas for train crew and cleaners.
After weeks of fraught negotiation, House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) announced that both houses of Congress had reached agreement on passing the Homeowner’s Bill of Rights (HOBOR), which uses the preemption doctrine to abolish most local planning restrictions. President Obama announced that he would sign the bill, which includes several provisions pushed by urban environmentalists. While the majority of Republicans announced their intention to vote yes and the majority of Democrats announced they would vote no, HOBOR relies on cross-bench support, as several prominent Republican lawmakers identified with the Tea Party, including presidential hopefuls Senators Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), announced they would oppose the bill on the grounds of federal overreach.
Despite early environmentalist hopes that the bill would be narrowly targeted at suburban single-family zoning, HOBOR casts a wide net. It preempts any separation of residential, commercial, and industrial uses; maximum heights and floor area ratios; open space requirements; environmental restrictions including noise limits and endangered species protections; urban growth boundaries; parking minimums and maximums; single-family mandates; form-based codes; anti-McMansion ordinances and minimum lot sizes; affordable housing mandates; and setback requirements. It also requires the federal government to study privatizing federal land adjacent to urban areas and to consider the effects of growth controls on the housing market, a move that is expected to liberalize construction in the West. It does not preempt private deed restriction, despite an attempt by urban Democrats to ban it, but does ban cities from giving public incentives for it.
Boehner’s office released a statement, “The Homeowner’s Bill of Rights will prevent power grabs by special interests and by the federal government, and reduce the level of regulation in America’s cities.” Governor Greg Abbott (R-Texas), who recently proposed a similar law in Texas before Congress federalized the issue, credited Texas’s strong economy to loose zoning, and specifically praised Houston’s lack of zoning as an engine of economic growth.
On the Democratic side, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio offered tepid support for the bill, saying that he expected the increased pace of construction to create jobs and affordable housing in the city, but added that the city would maintain its rent stabilization program. New York housing advocates were involved in obtaining necessary bipartisan support for the bill, and the city’s all-Democratic Congressional delegation is planning to vote for it, with the exceptions of Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Joseph Crowley. Crowley said in a statement that “the city’s planning laws are a cornerstone of neighborhood protection, and it’s hypocritical that the Republican Party, which claims it supports states’ rights, uses the federal government’s power so blatantly when it suits its needs.”
In San Francisco, opponents took to the street, protesting in front of the office of Senator Dianne Feinstein, the most prominent Senate Democrat to support HOBOR, with signs saying “gentrification = violence” and “the developer’s bill of rights.” A group of protesters attacked a shuttle bus ready to leave for Silicon Valley; the leaders of the main group of the protesters disclaimed the attack, and blamed agents provocateurs, but added that destruction of property is different from violent crime and that to compare the two is itself a form of violence.
On the ideological right, reactions are mixed. National Review has written in favor of the bill, while Reason continues to reject it. Joel Kotkin has editorialized that the bill “paves the way toward high-rises that Americans continue to reject.” Tea Party support is split, but largely negative; several groups have vowed to sue, connecting Democratic support with Agenda 21, the UN position paper encouraging more urbanization and restrictions on suburban sprawl. Senator Ted Cruz threatened to filibuster the bill, and openly called for a constitutional challenge. In contrast, Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) plans to vote for the bill. In his statement, Rubio pointed to redevelopment in Miami as “affordable housing provided by the free market without government subsidies paid by tax money” and welcomed Democratic support.
All around the nation, municipalities, business groups, homeowners, landlords, and tenants are preparing for the entry of the bill into force, which is scheduled for this September 1st. New York, San Francisco, Houston, and Chicago have all already written draft planning laws designed to comply with HOBOR restrictions, but city planners are still debating how to adapt to a situation without zoning rules to shape urban growth.
Several real estate companies are planning new skyscrapers in central business districts of multiple cities. In Washington, The Related Companies is planning a 1,330 foot tall, 4.3 million square foot tower in Farragut. In New York, Harry Macklowe, Forest City Enterprises, and Durst Organization are all expected to race to develop the tallest skyscraper in the city, in the East Midtown area; real estate analysts speaking on background expect towers exceeding 2,000 feet in pinnacle height, to overtake One World Trade Center, but closer to 1,500 feet in roof height.
Outside city centers, development is slower, but analysts expect it to accelerate in the coming years. Facebook has already announced an expansion of its campus as well as the construction of apartment buildings in its home city of Menlo Park, California, as well as Atherton and Palo Alto, to house its growing workforce. However, when asked if this trend means less demand in San Francisco and less demand for tech shuttles, a senior Facebook human resources manager speaking on condition of anonymity said, “Most of our new hires still prefer to live in San Francisco, so we may end up seeing more commuters from the city, at the expense of the East Bay.”
Ultimately, analysts agree, it is difficult to gauge the long-term effect of HOBOR this early. However, as an early indication that there would be a move to established business districts, stocks of publicly-traded companies involved in purpose-made redevelopment districts, such as the Boston Seaport and New York’s Hudson Yards, are down by an average of 3% since Boehner announced that he had secured support for the bill, whereas those of other major developers have been sharply rising, by 2-15%. But when asked whether they will scale back their plans, officials in Boston have replied negatively, and have even suggested a $2 billion Silver Line expansion to serve the Seaport.
Cairo is a dense megacity, without the infrastructure such cities require for high living standards. The city proper, according to Wikipedia, has 10 million people, living at a density approaching 20,000 per km^2, and the metro area has 20 million. With a subway system fit for a city a tenth its size, Cairo is heavily motorized for its income level, congested, and polluted. Despite high construction costs, urgent investment in public transportation is required. Ignoring this need, the current military government has just announced plans to build a new capital outside the city, eventually to house 7 million people, with all the public monuments of a planned city, at a cost of $300 billion (exchange rate dollars, not PPP), about the same as Egypt’s annual GDP. The first phase alone will be $45 billion.
Cairo itself is already suffering from neglect and disinvestment. There are 2 million cars in the city. This is enough to cause so much traffic congestion it costs Egypt 4% of its GDP. Cairo’s air pollution is legendary: pollution levels are akin to smoking a pack of cigarettes per day. At least as of 1997, lead pollution caused by cars using leaded gasoline reduced Cairene children’s IQ by 4 points. The poor transportation options have led to a housing crunch, forcing half a million people to live in a historic necropolis as squatters.
The Cairo Metro would be a solution to these problems to a large extent, but is very small relative to Cairo’s size: it has 3 lines, totaling 78 route-km. Other cities of comparable size have many hundreds of route-km of urban rail, with a handful of exceptions infamous for their sprawl (such as Los Angeles) or pollution (such as Sao Paulo). Despite its small size, the Cairo Metro gets about 1.6 billion passengers per year, by far the highest number of passengers per route-km in the world, nearly twice as high as on the legendarily overcrowded Tokyo subway. Cairo has high construction costs, but in exchange rate dollars they only amount to about $130 million per km; a fully underground expansion of the subway to 400 km, somewhat more than the length of New York’s subway lines and less than that of Beijing and Shanghai’s, would cost about $40 billion, less than the cost of the new capital’s first phase alone. This is on top of all other possible infrastructure investments Egypt should consider: sanitation, sewage, water treatment, electrification, hospitals, schools, the Suez Canal. I bring up the Metro since so many of Cairo’s pressing problems would be substantially reduced if it had the capacity to transport a large share of the city’s population.
The problem is that the Egyptian government’s first priority is not to serve the needs of the Egyptian population. It is an authoritarian military government; it is not accountable to the broad public. I bring this up, because it’s a necessary check on things I have said in the past, attacking local American governance as authoritarian. Andrew Cuomo and Chris Christie have the power to overrule useful spending bills and cause traffic jams in cities run by political opponents. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has the power to jail political opponents without trial, and execute them by the hundreds after show trials.
Autocrats love planned cities, for two reasons. First, planned cities are monuments to their greatness, lasting long into the future. The people the autocrats trample will be forgotten. Tourists visit the Taj Mahal, and not museums commemorating the churches and temples Shah Jahan destroyed. They visit the Great Wall of China, and not any commemoration of the million-odd people who died in its construction. They visit the Old City of Jerusalem, while nobody commemorates any of the locals Herod taxed to build its monuments – even Judaism only commemorates the destruction of the Temple and the beginning of the Diaspora, generations later. Autocrats know this. Even in antiquity, they knew monuments would make them more famous. And even in modern democratic regimes, politicians like signature initiatives that have their names on them; going back to Andrew Cuomo, his proposed Queens convention center is a typical example. But Cuomo still faces some democratic checks and balances. Sisi does not.
And second, planned cities can be built in ways that enhance social control. City Metric compares the new planned capital with Naypyidaw, Burma’s capital, built in the era of military rule to replace Yangon. Purpose-built capitals can be (and are) built around the needs of the national elite, keeping the poor out of sight. They have street and building design plans that make it easy to bring in the military to quell riots: wide streets, buildings that do not touch, no central square where protests could happen. They also disallow squatters, without going through the difficult and controversial move of evicting squatters from the preexisting city. One rhetorical question I have seen on Twitter is, where will this city’s Tahrir be? An article on Cairobserver doesn’t make this exact argument, but does note that this plan disinvests in what will still remain Egypt’s largest city, and could only come about as a result of Egypt’s complete lack of democracy.
One of the bigger influences on my views of democracy is Brad DeLong and Andrei Shleifer’s paper from 1993, Princes and Merchants. I do not fully agree with the point they make, but one of the key components of it, on the spending priorities of an absolute ruler, is crucial to understanding the benefits of democracy. Per DeLong and Shleifer, absolutism chokes economic growth, since the absolute ruler will overtax the economy to maximize revenue. One may ask if actually, hereditary rulers would want to stimulate more economic growth in order to bequeath a stronger kingdom to their heirs. DeLong and Shleifer answer that no: even with clear rules of inheritance, succession wars are so common that kings have to constantly be on the guard against rebellion to make sure their heirs get to inherit anything.
For Sisi, it is perfectly rational to spend so much money building a capital city that would make an uprising against him less likely. The money is not going to come from his pocket, but from the pockets of people he need not care about too much – the Egyptian people. The personal benefits to Sisi are invaluable: Sisi’s two predecessors, Mohamed Morsi and Hosni Mubarak, were both overthrown and immediately charged with crimes, for which they were guilty (under Sisi’s influence, Mubarak was exonerated from most). Why not remove himself and the apparatus of the Egyptian state from the city where they were overthrown?
When I talk of infrastructure democracy in democratic first-world countries, I complain about (much) smaller versions of this exercise. One could reason with a democratic Egyptian government that there are better uses of the money in Cairo itself. One cannot reason this way with a military government. The same is true of the soft authoritarianism found in governments with a democratic deficit, from the European Commission to local American governments. Their power is ultimately limited by other layers of government, which are more transparent, and they are incapable of killing off political opponents, but they still do not have to listen to the people they impact, leading to decisions that are at times obviously ridiculous. Egypt’s new capital is this autocracy, taken to its logical end. A dictator, of the kind who the infrastructurists might praise as someone who can cut through the red tape and gets things done, is spending the country’s annual GDP on a plan to disinvest in the capital and build a monument to himself and his regime from scratch.
In a pair of recent articles on Strong Towns, Charles Marohn, best known in the urbanist community for introducing the term stroad (street+road) for a pedestrian-hostile arterial street, argues for height limits as a positive force for urbanism. He does not make the usual aesthetic argument that tall buildings are inherently unpleasant (“out of scale”), or the usual urbanist one that tall buildings lead to neighborhood decline; instead, he makes an economic argument that allowing tall buildings greatly raises land costs, and makes redevelopment of vacant lots less likely. He uses the following example:
Let’s say the local code allows [a] vacant lot to be developed as a one story strip mall, but nothing higher. If the strip mall is worth $500,000, then the vacant lot is going to be somewhere around $75,000.
Okay, but what if the development code allows that vacant lot to be developed as a sixteen story tower? If the tower is worth $20,000,000, then that vacant lot is going to fetch a much higher price, maybe as much $2.5 million.
You own that vacant lot. I come to you with an offer to buy it for $75,000. What are the odds you are going to sell it at that price when you look to the other side and see the same piece of property going for millions? Not very good.
In most cities, as Charles notes, there is not enough demand to redevelop every vacant lot as a high-rise, and therefore, if high-rises are permitted, a few vacant lots will be redeveloped as high-rises, while the rest remain vacant. This is not the case in large cities, which Charles specifically exempts in his article (see also Daniel Kay Hertz’s response), but part of the problem with the argument, as we will see, is that the boundary between large cities and small ones is fuzzy.
Let me now explain why this argument fails, like all the other arguments for zoning restrictions: it makes implicit assumptions on future uncertainty. The reason the vacant lot owners are not willing to sell for $75,000 is that they hope to get $2.5 million. In a stable market, with low enough population that most lots cannot fetch such a high price, the lot owners know that holding off on $75,000 offers is a gamble and that they are unlikely to ever get a higher offer. People have optimism bias and might overrate the probability that they’ll get the $2.5 million offer, but also have risk aversion; in most cases in economics, risk aversion dominates, so that safer assets cost more and have lower returns.
So when do we see holdouts? Risk aversion predicts that the probability of obtaining a $2.5 million offer should be higher than the total demand for new towers divided by the number of vacant lots. If we explicitly assume that the cost figures in Charles’ example, including land costs, are unchangeable, then this means vacant lot owners expect there to be more high-rise towers in the future, which comes out of growth regions. Charles’ example is based on Sarasota, which like most of Florida has high population growth.
The other possibility is regulatory uncertainty. In a competitive market, land costs are already as low as they can be while letting lot owners cash out on past investments. Developer profits are also as low as possible, and represent the developer’s wage for managerial work. However, zoning restrictions will greatly raise both figures, and a lot owner who expects future developments to brush up against the present zoning code can hold out until prices rise.
This is the danger of a system that is based on arbitrary rules (Charles proposes up to two floors or 1.5 times the average present height, whichever is higher), and arbitrary distinctions between small cities in which height restrictions are desirable and large cities in which they are not: these introduce political discretion in the details, which introduces additional uncertainty among lot owners. True windfalls usually involve the boundary between regulatory regimes, and this creates political incentive to game the system in order to be one of the few owners whose lots can be developed as high-rises. In contrast, once a ground rule is established that there is no zoning, such as in Houston, introducing zoning is difficult, even when there are rules that are zoning in all but name, such as parking minimums.
Once we get into the realm of cities with a large proportion of their lots developed, as Charles proposes, future development can only replace old development, and this introduces a key difference between new development and redevelopment: redevelopment requires buying out the preexisting property. If a two-floor building is replaced by a three-floor building, then the developer has to not only pay construction costs for three floors, but also buy out two floors, effectively paying for five floors. But the revenue is still only that of a three-floor building, which bids up effective costs by a factor of five thirds. The formula is that if it’s possible to multiply the total built-up area by a factor of then the buy-out factor will raise the cost of each housing unit by a factor of .
This effect is why, in major cities, we usually see buildings replaced by much larger buildings: for example, a three- or four-floor Manhattan building may be replaced by a fifteen- or twenty-story tower on a base. Charles laments that this is not small-scale or incremental, but even his example of good incremental development is similar: in Houston, single-family houses are replaced by low-rise apartment buildings, generating similarly high ratios of the floor areas of redevelopments with the buildings they replaced. Incrementalism in these cases consists of replacing small buildings by much larger ones, gradually, until a few decades later the entire neighborhood is tall.
One way around redevelopment’s need to buy out preexisting buildings is to mandate that future buildings be built to allow adding floors on top of them. Chicago’s Blue Cross Blue Shield Tower is an example. This is a regulation that increases the average cost of construction but reduces the marginal cost and thus the price. It’s also a regulation that only really matters in situations when it is difficult to have a high ratio of new to old floor area, such as in areas that are already high-rise, especially major city CBDs. (It is easy to quintuple floor area ratio when the preexisting buildings have three floors, but not so much when they have twelve.) The current styles of construction of most small buildings, for example sloping roofs common in American and European urban and suburban houses, tend to make adding floors impossible. Of course, the implication that such a regulation should only apply for buildings above a certain height introduces political discretion and hence uncertainty, but at least this is uncertainty that would apply equally to all buildings in an area, which is not always the case for zoning.
What Charles proposes, to develop all vacant lots first and only then start going taller, is then a recipe for high marginal costs, because of the buyout factor. In a small city uniformly developed up to one or two floors, it is difficult to spread the new development across many buildings up to three floors, precisely because there is no way to build single-family houses that are recognizable as such to Americans or Europeans from countries I’ve been to (It’s different in Canada, but this is considered a feature of the low quality of Vancouver’s housing) and that can have floors added to them. In such an environment, building tall is the only way to avoid high housing costs.
Usually, the barrier to new development in a neighborhood is NIMBYism: connected local community members do not want the project, saying “not in my backyard.” There’s a wealth of literature about NIMBYs’ role in restrictions on development; William Fischel’s work is a good start, and the short version is that opposition to development is local, based on fear of the risk of decline in property values. Urbanists take it for granted that decisions made with regard to regional rather than local concerns will be more pro-development: Let’s Go LA has examples from Los Angeles, and Stephen Smith explains Toronto and Tokyo’s lax rules on new development based on their high-level decisionmaking (at the provincial level in Ontario and national level in Japan). In this post, I would like to discuss the opposite problem, which I call NITBYism – “not in their backyard.”
In certain circumstances, opposition comes from people living in other areas, who are aghast that an area they don’t live in is getting so much investment. This is more likely to happen when there’s heavy public involvement in development, but, since upzoning an area is a public decision (as opposed to unthinkable across-the-board zoning abolition), opposition can sprout anytime. One common thread to NITBY opposition campaigns is that NITBYs view housing as a good thing, and want it redirected to their areas. Another is that they self-perceived as ignored by the urban elites; this is common to both right-wing populists and left-wing ones. Since the process is heavily public by assumption, the price signal telling developers to build in the center of the major city is irrelevant, and this encourages the government to build more low-value peripheral projects.
The first example of this is when the process actually is public: subsidized affordable housing. As discussed by Daniel Kay Hertz, in Chicago, affordable housing regulations require developers to pay a fee to a dedicated affordable housing fund, which then uses the money to develop or buy housing and rent it out at subsidized rates for moderate-income residents. To minimize the cost per affordable unit, the fund builds the units in the cheapest neighborhoods, i.e. the poorest ones, exacerbating housing segregation. As Payton Chung explains, the low-income housing community networks in Chicago support this arrangement, because they are based in the neighborhoods where this affordable housing is built. This is not as self-serving as the examples I will include below, since the community groups want to see the most number of housing units built at a given cost; but a common feature of NITBYism, namely that the NITBYs view housing as a good rather than as a burden imposed by outsiders, is present here.
In Israel, NITBYism does not have the cost defense that it does in Chicago. Zoning in Israel is prepared by municipalities but must get approved by the state. This means that it is geared not only toward providing services to Israelis (such as cheap and orderly housing) but also toward national goals of Judaization. The worst NITBYism is not affecting Tel Aviv, but Arab cities, where the state refuses to approve zoning plans; since independence, not a single new Arab city has been built, except to house Bedouins who the state expelled from their villages after independence, and plans to build the first new Arab city are controversial on segregation grounds. This is while the state has built many new Jewish cities from scratch, often in peripheral areas in order to ensure a Jewish majority.
However, NITBYism afflicts housing in Tel Aviv, too. Although the state could if it wanted declare a housing emergency and force upzoning in Tel Aviv, it does not. There are few permits for new apartments in the Tel Aviv District (though more new housing sales): only 5% of the national total (including settlements), as per the pie chart on page 17 of the Ministry of Construction and Housing’s report and the more complete (in English) data on page 49, compared with a national population share of 16%; the Center District, consisting of Tel Aviv suburbs (though not the richest and most expensive, such as Ramat HaSharon, which are in the Tel Aviv District), has 22% of national permits, about the same as its share of the national population. This is not just NIMBYism in Tel Aviv, although that exists in abundance. Local politicians from peripheral towns demand local construction, and view Tel Aviv construction as something useful only to outsiders, such as foreign speculators or the urban elite. During the housing protests of 2011, there was widespread debate on the left about what solutions to offer, and people representing the ethnic and geographic periphery were adamant that the state build and preserve public housing in peripheral towns and not concentrate on Tel Aviv, which they identified with the secular Ashkenazi elite. A common thread in housing and infrastructure debates to both working-class Jews from the periphery and Arabs is the demand for a policy that would create jobs and housing in their hometowns, rather than build infrastructure that would put them in the Tel Aviv orbit.
Of the above examples, in Chicago the NITBYs self-identify as leftists, and in Israel, the NITBYs who want local housing rather than Tel Aviv housing either identify as leftists or identify as economic leftists and support the right on security and ethnic identity issues. However, the populist right is not immune from this. Right-wing supporters of suburbs who oppose cities for what they represent (diversity, usually left-wing politics of the kind they associate with the liberal elite) may also oppose urban upzoning. The best example of this kind is Joel Kotkin’s opposition to upzoning in Hollywood, which sounds like a criticism of government projects until one realizes that upzoning simply means developers are permitted to build more densely if they’d like. Now, Kotkin is pro-immigration, setting him apart from the main of right-wing populism, but in all other aspects, his paranoid fear of urban liberal elites imposing behavioral controls on ordinary people would be right at home at the UK Independence Party and its mainland European equivalents. Kotkin is also just one person, but his views mirror those of Tea Party activists who equate dense urbanism with an Agenda 21 conspiracy, to the point of conflating a phrase that means building new suburbs with a plan to forcibly relocate suburbanites to central cities.
I do not know Japan’s regional patterns of politics well, but I know Ontario’s. In Ontario, there is not much us-and-them politics regarding Toronto. There is such politics regarding the inner parts of Toronto – Rob Ford was elected on the heels of an outer-urban populist backlash to David Miller’s urbanism, including the perception that Miller was fighting a war on cars. But there’s none of the hatred of the central city and all that it represents that typifies politics in both Israel and the US. Hatred of the city in the US is right-wing (though within the city, hatred of the gentrified core is often tied to left-wing anti-gentrification activism), and hatred of Tel Aviv in Israel is generically populist, but in both cases, the us-and-them aspect encourages NITBYism.
In the most expensive American cities, this is not a major problem. Anti-urban populism does not have enough votes to win in New York and California, so state control of zoning in those states would not produce these problems. The Tea Party disruption of zoning meeting I brought up above happened in San Francisco suburbs, but did not have an effect on planning; I brought this example up to show that this political force exists, even if in that specific locality it is powerlessly weak. In those areas, local NIMBYism is a much bigger problem: many New York neighborhoods were actually downzoned in the Bloomberg era by local request. The primary problems that would plague state-level decisionmaking are corruption and power brokering, in which politicians hold even straightforward rule revisions hostage to their local pet projects. The us-and-them politics of Upstate and Downstate New York contributes heavily to power brokering, but Downstate’s demographic dominance precludes ideological choking of development.
Within the US, the risks of NITBYism are different. First, in the cost tier just below that of New York and California there are city regions in more moderate states, for examples Philadelphia and the Virginia suburbs of Washington, or possibly Miami (where the county-made rules have allowed aggressive new construction, mostly urban, which Stephen Smith credits to the political power of Cuban immigrants). And second, zooming in on different neighborhoods within each expensive city, the Chicago example suggests that if New York and other expensive cities begin a major program of public housing construction, the community organizations and the populists will demand to spread construction across many neighborhoods, especially poor ones, and not in the neighborhoods where there is the most demand.
As I noted two posts ago, there is a political economy problem, coming from the fact that the politically palatable amounts of construction are not transformative enough to let the working class live in market-rate city-center apartments, not in high-income major cities. Israel could semi-plausibly double the Tel Aviv housing stock; even that requires housing forms that Israelis associate with poverty, such as buildings that touch, without side setbacks. This would allow many more people to live in Tel Aviv, but they’d be drawn from the middle class, which is being priced out to middle-class suburbs or to working-class suburbs that it gentrifies. The working class in the periphery would be able to move into these closer-in suburbs, but this cascading process is not obvious. Worse, from the point of view of community leaders, it disrupts the community: it involves a churn of people moving, which means they end up in a different municipal fief, one with leadership the current suburb’s leaders may be hostile to.
For essentially the same reasons, subsidized housing in the center produces the same problems. If Israel builds a massive number of subsidized or rent-regulated apartments in Tel Aviv, there will be immense nationwide demand for them. Few would serve the residents of a given peripheral suburb, and there is no guarantee anyone would get them. On the contrary, in such a plan, priority is likely to go to downwardly-mobile children of established residents. At the 2011 protests, the people who were most supportive of plans to lower rents in Tel Aviv specifically were people from Tel Aviv or high-income suburbs who wanted to be able to keep living in the area. The community disruption effect of offering people the ability to live where they’d want would still be there. Thus, all the incentives line up behind periphery community leader support for building public housing in the periphery, where there is little demand for it, and not in the center. Even when housing is universally seen as a benefit and there’s no NIMBYism, politics dictates that housing is built in rough proportion to current population (since that’s where political power comes from) and not future demand.
Abolishing zoning is one way to cut this Gordian knot; it is also completely unpalatable to nearly everyone who is enfranchised in a given area. Allowing more private construction is the more acceptable alternative, but leads to the same problems, only on a smaller scale. It really is easier for community leaders to twist arms to demand veto rights and local resident priority than to push for sufficient citywide upzoning to alleviate the price pressure. But in an environment with weak NIMBYs and few NITBYs, fast growth in urban housing is possible.
I like Stockholm. There’s something reassuringly familiar about it, despite the language barrier, which I think comes from the fact that the Central Stockholm housing stock is of similar vintage as the residential parts of Manhattan. It even avoids New York’s most annoying (to me) architectural tic, the exposed brick. The buildings here are similar in style to the ones in New York (and more generally northern Europe), but most have smooth exterior, with enough variation of colors between buildings to make it interesting.
The streets here vary a lot in width, but outside the older sections of the city, they are never very narrow. In Gamla Stan (“the old town”), the medieval core of the city that is now a tourist ghetto, complete with stores selling Swedish flags or English-language books, there are some pedestrianized streets with single-digit building-to-building width. But in my part of the city – Roslagstull, near the outer end of what’s considered Central Stockholm – the street width ranges are almost identical to those of Manhattan. My street, Birger Jarlsgatan, is about 30 meters wide, while less important parallel streets are about 15 or 20. Like the rest of city center, it’s lined with almost uniformly mid-rise buildings, six to seven stories tall. See photos here, from Södermalm, and here, from Regeringsgatan, a street that for a portion of its length is elevated over intersecting streets.
A feature of Stockholm streets that I have not seen in other cities is that on-sidewalk bike lanes. While the overall sidewalk width on Birger Jarlsgatan is generous, the sidewalk is broken by the bike lane. The inner side of the bike lane is interrupted by trees, and the outer side by sidewalk cafes, and as a result, sometimes walking in the bike lane is unavoidable if one wishes to avoid walking in zigzags. In any case, cyclist traffic does not seem to be heavy; there is much more pedestrian traffic.
Crossing the street is rarely difficult. There are beg buttons at intersections, but the pedestrian light will turn green even without pressing them. The stoplight phasing is simple: most of Central Stockholm is on one of several grids, and even at intersections of two-way streets (one-way streets are uncommon, at least around Roslagstull), there are only two phases per stoplight cycle. Without grade-separated freeways in the city core, the worst streets for the pedestrians are the occasional freeway-like structure, or one of several excessively wide roads. I walk to work on one of those roads, Valhallavägen, and during the daytime, the cars’ noise and air pollution are uncomfortable unless I walk through the parking lots behind the street or the bus bay in its median.
The transit system is useful, though I almost never take it. This is a combination of very high fares (with my pay-per-ride smartcard, I pay 25 kronor per ride, about PPP$2.70) and a city core that’s small enough and pedestrian-friendly enough that I can get around most of it on foot. The pedestrian orientation of the streets matters: my apartment is 2.3 km from the CBD mall and 1.7 km from Stockholm University; but I will walk to the mall, whereas to get to and from a conference at SU, I didn’t walk on Roslagsvägen (which is almost a full freeway) but instead took the subway from my university, KTH, which is more centrally located within the city.
Of course, most people in the region don’t live in Central Stockholm, and for them the T-bana is a lifeline. Subway ridership here, excluding commuter rail, is about 900,000 per day (not weekday), not much lower than on the U-Bahns of much larger Berlin and Munich. As a curiosity, there are many light rail lines that connect outlying suburbs to a T-bana station, requiring a transfer to get to the CBD; the busiest, Roslagsbanan, is a narrow-gauge commuter rail system terminating next to KTH, with one T-bana branch, the T14, running parallel to it for a few stops before terminating. This is in addition to a mainline commuter rail system, with 267,000 daily passengers; this ratio of about one commuter rail rider to three subway riders is higher than
anything most (see first two comments) in North America, but is much lower than in major European transit cities like Paris and London, where commuter rail and the metro have roughly equal ridership levels. Among the transit projects under construction in Stockholm is a new rail tunnel, which will increase the capacity of commuter rail.
This is somewhat of an addendum to my post before about dispersal of urban networks toward cheaper cities. I addressed the question of dispersal from rich, expensive metro areas, especially San Francisco, to cheaper ones, as a way of dealing with high housing prices. But more common is dispersal within metro areas: gentrification spilling from a rebounding neighborhood to adjacent neighborhoods that remain cheaper, and office space spilling from the primary CBD to the edge cities. I am going to address the latter issue in this post.
CBDs are expensive. They have intense demand for office space, as well as high-end retail and hotels. In many cities, there’s demand for office space even at the construction costs of supertall skyscrapers, going up to about $5,000-6,000 per square meter in privately-built New York towers. Zoning regimes resist the height required to accommodate everyone, and this is worse in Europe than in North America and high-income East Asia. Paris proper has many towers just above the 100 meter mark, but only three above 120. On a list of the tallest buildings in Sweden, not a single one above 100 meters is in central Stockholm, and the tallest within the zone are not in the CBD but in Södermalm; compare this with Vancouver, a metro area of similar size. But in the US, too, expanding CBDs is difficult in the face of neighborhood opposition, even in Manhattan.
The solution many cities have adopted is to put the skyscrapers in edge cities. Paris famously built La Defense, which has far more skyscrapers than the city proper does; Stockholm is building skyscrapers in Kista; London built Canary Wharf; Washington, the major US city with the tightest CBD height limits, sprouted skyscraper clusters in several suburbs in Maryland and Virginia. Ryan Avent proposed this as one solution to NIMBYism: in new-build areas, there are few residents who could oppose the new development. In contrast, near zoning-constrained CBDs, not only are there many residents, but also the land is so desirable that they are typically high-income, which means they have the most political power to oppose new development.
The problem with this solution is that those secondary CBDs are not public transit hubs. In Paris, this has created an east-west disparity, in which people from (typically wealthy) western suburbs can easily reach La Defense, whereas people from poorer ones need to take long RER trips and often make multiple transfers. In every transit city, the CBD is unique in that it can be reached from anywhere. To give similar accessibility to a secondary center, massive investment is required; Paris is spending tens of billions of euros on circumferential regional rail lines to improve suburb-to-suburb connectivity, expand access in the eastern suburbs, and ameliorate the east-west imbalance (see for example isochrones on PDF-pp. 20-21 of the links here). Those lines are going to be well-patronized: the estimate is 2 million daily passengers. And yet, the east-west imbalance, if nothing else, would be a lesser problem if instead of building La Defense, Paris had built up Les Halles.
The situation in other cities is similar. Kista is on one branch of one subway line, two stops away from its outer terminus. Living in Central Stockholm, my coworkers and I can get to KTH on foot or by bike, but a coworker who teaches at KTH’s satellite campus in Kista has a long commute involving circumferential buses (taking the subway and changing at T-Central would be even longer because of the detour). While many individual sub-neighborhoods of Central Stockholm are quite dense, the overall density in the center is not particularly high, certainly not by the standards of Paris or New York. A similar problem happens in Washington, where the biggest edge city cluster, Tysons Corner, is traditionally auto-oriented and was only just connected to Metro, on a branch. This always affects poorer people the worst, as they can’t afford to live in the CBD, where there is easy access to all secondary destination, and often are pushed to suburbs with long commutes.
There is a political economy problem here, as is usually the case with zoning. (Although in the largest cities skyscraper heights are pushing beyond the point of constant marginal costs, purchase prices at least in New York are much higher than construction costs.) The people living near CBDs, as noted before, are usually rich. The displacement of office space to the suburbs affects them the least, for three reasons. First, if they desire work within walking distance or short subway distance, they can have it, since their firms typically make enough money to afford CBD office rents. Second, since they live in the transit hub, they can access suburban jobs in any direction. And third, if the transit options are lacking, they can afford cars, although of course traffic and parking remain problematic. Against their lack of incentive to support CBD office space, they have reasons to support the status quo: the high rents keep it exclusive and push poor people away, and often the traditional mid-rise buildings are genuinely more aesthetic than skyscrapers, especially ones built in modernist style.
These concerns are somewhat muted in the US, where rich people decamped for the suburbs throughout the 20th century, and have supported zoning that mandates single-family housing in the suburbs, instead of staying in the city and supporting zoning that keeps the city mid-rise. This may have a lot to do with the formation of high-rise downtowns in American cities of such size that in Europe they’d be essentially skyscraper-free.
However, what’s worse in the US is the possibility of short car-free commutes to the edge cities. Where La Defense is flanked by suburbs with high residential density, and Kista’s office blocks are adjacent to medium-density housing projects for working- and middle-class people, American edge cities are usually surrounded by low-density sprawl, where they are easily accessible by car but not by any other mode of transportation. This is because the American edge cities were usually not planned to be this way, but instead arose from intersections of freeways, and developed only after the residential suburbs did. As those edge cities are usually in rich areas, the residents again successfully resist new development; this is the point made in Edgeless Cities, which notes that, in major US metro areas, growth has been less in recognizable edge cities and more in lower-density edgeless cities.
As with the possibility of dispersing innovation clusters from rich, expensive metro areas to poorer and cheaper ones, the already-occurring dispersal from city centers to edge and subsequently edgeless cities has negative effects. It lengthens transit commutes. Although in Tokyo, long commutes first arose as a problem of a monocentric CBD, and the city developed secondary CBDs as a solution, the situation in European cities an order of magnitude smaller is very different. It worsens housing segregation: the development of an edge city tends to be in the direction of the favored quarter, since that’s where the senior managers live, and conversely, higher-income workers can choose to move nearby for the short commute. Although nearly all metro areas have favored quarters, decentralization of jobs thus tends to lengthen the commutes of poor people more than those of rich people.
This is not quite the same as what happens when entire metro areas are forced to disperse due to housing cost. The agglomerations generally stay intact, since an entire industry can move in the same direction: smaller cities have just one major favored quarter with edge cities, and larger ones still only have a few, so that industries can specialize, for example in New York, biotech and health care cluster in the Edison-Woodbridge-New Brunswick edge city. Moreover, the specialized workers are usually high-income enough that they can stay in the central city or migrate to the favored quarter. San Francisco’s programmers are not forced to move individually to faraway poor neighborhoods; they move in larger numbers to ones near already gentrifying ones, spurring a new wave of gentrification in the process; were they to move alone, they’d lose the access to the tech shuttles. The negative effects are predominantly not on richer people, but on poorer people.
The problem is that even among the poor, there is little short-term benefit from supporting upzoning. If Paris, London, and Stockholm liberalize housing and office construction, the first towers built of both kinds will be luxury, because of the large backlogs of people who would like to move in and are willing to pay far in excess of construction costs. I am going to develop this point further in two posts, on what is best called NITBYism – Not In Their Backyard – but this means that the incentive for poor and peripheral populations is not to care too much about development in rich centers. The marginal additional building in a rich city center is going to go to the upper middle class; sufficient construction would trickle to the middle class; only extensive construction would serve the working class, and then not all of it.
In the US, the marginal additional building may actually displace poor people, if no new construction is allowed, simply by removing low-income apartments. It may even create local demand for high-income housing, for example by signaling that the neighborhood has improved. In San Francisco, this is compounded by the tech shuttles, as a critical mass of Silicon Valley-bound residents can justify running shuttles, creating demand for more high-income housing.
The amount of construction required to benefit the bottom half of the national income distribution is likely to be massive. This is especially true in France and the UK, which have sharp income differences between the capital and the rest of the country; their backlogs of people who would like to move to the capital are likely in the millions, possibly the high millions. Such massive construction is beyond the pale of political reality: the current high-income resident population is simply not going to allow it – when forced to share a building with the working class, it pushes for poor doors, so why would it want zoning that would reduce the market-rate rent to what the working class would afford? The only political possibility in the short run is partial plans, but these are not going to be of partial use to the working class, but of no use to it, benefiting the middle class instead. As a result, there is no push by the working class and its social democratic political organs to liberalize construction, nor by the small-is-beautiful green movement.
Ultimately, the attempt to bypass restrictions on urban CBD formation by building edge cities, like every other kludge, is doomed to failure. The fundamental problem of rich people making it illegal to build housing nearby is not solved, and is often made even worse. The commutes get worse, and the inequality in commutes between the rich and the poor grows. Office space gets built, where otherwise it would spread along a larger share of the medium-rise CBD, but for most workers, this is not an improvement, and the environmental effects of more driving have negative consequences globally. And once city center is abandoned to the rich, there is no significant political force that can rectify the situation. What seems like a workaround and an acceptable compromise only makes the situation worse.
The debate over upzoning has reached Paul Krugman, who is a strong supporter of liberalization (and an opponent of rent control), on the grounds that rich cities like New York and San Francisco are hotbeds of productivity and people should be allowed to move to them in greater numbers. Per Krugman, zoning rules in rich cities force people out, so instead they live in environments where they are less productive and thus earn lower wages, such as the Southern US. Dietrich Vollrath, an economist studying economic growth, makes a different suggestion:
Of course, there is an equivalent solution – move everyone in San Francisco to Houston or Atlanta. The reason SF is the most productive city is not because of some fixed, inherent quality of the location at 37.78 degrees North, 122.41 degrees West. It’s certainly not because of it’s fantastic summer climate. San Fran is the most productive city because it so happened that a unique collection of nerds coalesced there starting in the 1960’s. More nerds were attracted to the bright, shiny things that the original nerds were making, and now I have an iPhone. But here’s the thing about nerds – they are easy to move. You can easily strap one to a dolly and wheel them anywhere you want.
This is the economic equivalent of proposals for population dispersal used in discussions of poverty: urban renewal tends to involve such dispersal, with negative effects on community life, social support networks, and crime. (See for example what I wrote of proposals on the Israel left to disperse black refugees away from South Tel Aviv; while I fingered just one political party, the others seem to believe the same today.) Of course, the people Dietrich characterizes as nerds are not oppressed and are not going to turn to crime because of lack of opportunity, but they will not be as productive in Houston as they are in San Francisco, for similar reasons.
The key to the Bay Area’s success in the tech sector is not that it has people who came from all over the world, who could equally congregate elsewhere. On the contrary, as per a Wired infographic, tech giants tend to hire locally: the top universities feeding Silicon Valley firms are in the Bay Area (including San Jose State, and not just Stanford and Berkeley), and the top university feeding Microsoft is the University of Washington. The Bay Area, and to a lesser extent Boston and Seattle, has a culture that propels people with interests in science and engineering toward programming. New York’s culture is different, and propels them to finance. In addition to different regional cultures, there are also university cultures: Harvard may be in Cambridge, but is far less important as a tech feeder than MIT, with fewer than half as many grads per capita going to Silicon Valley.
Dispersing people away from the Bay Area means dispersing them toward regions in which the business and social networks do not favor the same activities, and do not reward them as much. Houston has a core of nerds working for NASA, who may be interested in working for private tech firms that find themselves priced out of Boston and San Francisco. But those nerds are used to what is presumably a totally different business culture. If these private tech firms are started by local Houstonians, then they will have a business culture familiar to Houstonians, and alien to any San Franciscan they hire.
People in the software sector have specific ideas about how to do things, reinforced by what works in their industry; as a result, their ideas regarding public transit, a mature industry in which immense capital requirements and routinized tasks make the modern startup model inapplicable, are often painful and wrong, as I’ve ranted here, here, and here, and as Jarrett Walker has ranted here, here, here, and here. This also goes in the other direction – a corporate culture built around mature technology is unlikely to create innovative smartphone apps. If Uber were a Washington firm, it would be better at lobbying for regulations that would retroactively legalize it and give it favorable insurance requirements, but then it wouldn’t have invented a new way of hailing cabs in the first place. This is historically related to the growth of the Bay Area as a tech hub in the first place, as explained in Regional Advantage: Boston got there first, but its traditional corporate hierarchies couldn’t innovate at the same rate as the flatter networks of the Bay Area. One of the candidate US Sunbelt cities for poaching the tech cluster in Dietrich’s proposal, Dallas, is the home of Texas Instruments, where the integrated circuit was invented, but it is today a tertiary tech cluster because of this problem of corporate culture.
But all this assumes the tech cluster would even exist in whichever low-cost city it moved to. There is no real reason for it to do so. If high prices lead to an exodus of tech firms from the Bay Area, the community will dissipate rather than relocate. The richest members of it – Google, Apple, Facebook, the major venture capital firms – have the money to stay in the Bay Area, and to pay employees extra to cover rent in San Francisco. It’s the weaker members, typically startups, who are in danger of being priced out, and they are probably going to move to many different cities, depending on personal ties.
Once away from the Bay Area, they’d have to not only contend with a new urban culture, but also deal with it as a small minority. The same factors that cause unassimilated minorities to stay in their ethnic enclaves, even when discrimination is not a factor (ultra-Orthodox Jews own much of the housing in Brooklyn even outside their enclaves), favor clustering of industries. A hundred thousand Bay Area nerds could possibly remake parts of Houston in a way that’s favorable for their economic production; ten thousand could not. They’d have to rely on local venture capital firms, which are almost certainly looking for different business models. They’d have to recruit new workers from universities with student populations with different interests, expectations, and summer internships. In analogy with forced assimilation of ethnic whites in early- and mid-20th century America, they’d assimilate, to a nationwide economy with much lower per capita income than is normal in their sector.
The second assumption is that, if Houston became the next San Francisco, it would eventually accommodate a larger pool of tech workers. This is not necessarily true: Houston has a liberal process for permitting new construction, including of apartments, but only subject to onerous parking minimums and setbacks, which it doesn’t call zoning but which appear on the zoning codes of cities that do have zoning. It makes it easy to build new sprawl, but not so much new density, and eventually, the sprawl is going to lead to long commutes, producing the same rising prices in the deed-restricted and de facto zoned center that are seen in San Francisco and other coastal US cities. Fast-growing exurbs exist at the edge of metro areas everywhere in the US; the reason there’s not much growth in the expensive metro areas is that these exurbs are so far from the center that the commutes are too long for people to bother.
This is worse outside the US. The exact same problems of high costs coming from high rents exist in most other developed countries, only they don’t have fast-growing cities as large as Dallas, Atlanta, or Houston. Stockholm is rent-controlled and, judging by the almost complete absence of high-rises, tightly zoned; there are likely many people who’d move here if market-rate rents were in line with construction costs, but instead they have to live in Norrland, Malmö, and other peripheral areas. Houston’s metro area is not much smaller than the Bay Area’s, but in Europe, the cheaper cities are far smaller than their respective countries’ more expensive cities (often the capitals). The business networks formed in those cities would have to be smaller and less specialized. This is similar to the situation in the US involving New York’s great size, except that smaller Boston, San Francisco, and Washington achieve equivalent or higher incomes, so Houston should not be penalized for not being a hypercity.
The only problem is that Europe has no Houston. Its cheap larger cities, such as Naples and Berlin, have high unemployment and low incomes. Browse per capita income net of rent (see definitions here) by regions of European countries here, and per capita income by US metro area or county here. Houston and Dallas are both richer than the US average, and Atlanta is about 10% poorer. Berlin is 20% poorer than the German average, and 40% poorer than Munich’s region, Upper Bavaria, part of a general pattern of East-West inequality, driving a flight from the former East Germany to the West. In Italy, with its north-south divide, the southern regions, including Naples’ Campania, are about half as rich as Milan’s Lombardy, leading to a similar pattern of more immigration to the north. To tell people to move there and start their own social networks is, in American terms, like to tell people to move to Mississippi. In the smaller European countries we do not see such large income gaps, but we also do not see large metro areas with affordable housing.
Now, those rich capital cities (or non-capital ones, in the case of Milan) usually have rent control, which is how they achieve such high levels of per capita income even after subtracting rents. The people from the provinces who might have moved to them if they were cheaper do not benefit from this rent control, and have to either wait years for an apartment to open up or pay exorbitant rents. This reduces interregional mobility, and is a predictable side effect of a system in which housing is allocated to people based on how long they’ve lived in the city.
The idea of making do with tight zoning restrictions in some cities by bypassing them and developing alternative networks around the Houstons of the world is attractive, but fatally flawed. San Francisco – and Munich, and Stockholm, and Paris, and the major cities of Switzerland – is productive for reasons that go beyond individual denizens, who can be moved elsewhere freely. This, ironically, goes against the grain of San Francisco’s tech culture, which uses technology to overcome regulatory failures: NextBus and similar apps try to overcome byzantine bus schedules, Uber and Lyft try to avoid taxi medallion restrictions, AirBnB tries to overcome hotel regulations. The tech sector’s thinking is often that bad regulations should be subverted rather than reformed. It works in some cases and fails in others; in the case of zoning, it’s doomed to failure, on every level, from trying to shrink dwelling sizes to fit more people in, to recreating business clusters in cities with less awful zoning rules, as Dietrich proposes. Like Dietrich, I am pessimistic about the ability of the US and most European countries to reform their zoning rules to allow more intense urban development (or about Japan’s ability to allow more immigration), but on the other hand I also don’t think there’s any workaround avoiding a massive political fight about it.
The question of the effects of the supply restrictions in zoning on housing prices has erupted among leftist urbanist bloggers again. On the side saying that US urban housing prices are rising because of zoning, see anything by Daniel Kay Hertz, but most recently his article in the Washington Post on the subject. On the side saying that zoning doesn’t matter and the problem is demand (and by implication demand needs to be curbed), see the article Daniel is responding to in Gawker, and anything recent by Jim Russell of Burgh Diaspora, e.g. this link set and his Pacific Standard article on the subject.
This is not a post about why rising prices really are a matter of supply. I will briefly explain why they are, but the bulk of this post is about why, given that this is the case, cities need to apportion the bulk of their housing via market pricing and not rent controls, as a matter of good political economy. Few do, which is also explainable in terms of political economy.
But first, let us look at the anti-supply articles. Gawker claims that San Francisco prices are rising despite a building boom. We’ll come back to this point later, but let me note that in reality, growth in housing supply has been sluggish: Gawker links to a SPUR article about San Francisco’s housing growth, which shows there was high growth in 2012, but anemic growth in previous years. The Census put the city’s annual housing unit growth last decade at 0.8%. In New York, annual growth was 0.5%, as per a London study comparing London, Paris, New York, and Tokyo. In contrast, Tokyo, where zoning is relatively lax, growth was 2%, and rents have sharply fallen. The myth that there is a building boom in cities with very low housing unit growth is an important aspect of the non-market-priced system.
Jim’s arguments are more interesting. He quotes a Fed study showing that housing vacancies in the most expensive US cities have not fallen, as we’d expect if price hikes came from lack of supply. (In San Francisco, vacancies went up last decade, at least if you believe that the Census did not miss anyone.) This is too not completely right, because in Los Angeles County, as noted on PDF-page 18 here, vacancies did recently fall. But broadly, it’s correct that e.g. New York’s vacancy rate has been 3% since the late 1990s, as per its housing surveys. But I do not think it’s devastating to the supply position at all. The best way to think about it is in analogy with natural rates of unemployment.
Briefly: it’s understood in both Keynesian and neo-classical macroeconomics that an economy with zero employment will have high and rising inflation, because to get new workers, employers have to hire them away from existing jobs by offering higher wages. There is a minimum rate of unemployment consistent with stable inflation, below which even stable unemployment will trigger accelerating inflation. In the US, this is to my understanding about 4%; whether the recession caused structural changes that raised it is of course a critical question for macroeconomic policy. A similar concept can be borrowed into the more microeconomic concept of the housing market.
There’s also the issue of friction, again borrowed from unemployment. There’s a minimum frictional vacancy, in which all vacant apartments are briefly between tenants, and if people move between apartments more, it rises. For what it’s worth, the breakdown of 2011 New York vacancies on pages 3-4 by borough and type of apartment suggests friction is at play. First, the lowest vacancy by borough is 2.61%, in Brooklyn, not far below city average. Second, the only type of apartment with much lower vacancy than the city average is the public housing sector, with 1.4% vacancy, where presumably people stay for decades so that friction is very low; rent-stabilized units have lower vacancy than market-rate units, 2.6% vs. 4.4%, which accords with what I would guess about how often people move.
So if high rents are the result of supply restrictions, and it appears that they are, the way to reduce them should be to relax zoning restrictions. If this is done, then this allows living even in currently expensive areas without spending much on rent. Urban construction costs are lower than people think: New York’s condo average is $2,300 per square meter, and London’s is not much higher, entirely eaten by PPP conversions; Payton Chung notes the much higher cost of high-rises than that of low-rises, but the cost of high-rise apartment buildings is still only about $2,650/m^2 in Washington, and (using the same tool) about $3,100 in New York, and at least based on the same tool, mid-rises are barely any cheaper. For US-wide single-family houses, construction costs are 61.7% of sale prices, but the $3,100 figure already includes overheads and profit. Excluding land costs, which are someone else’s profit, construction, profit, and overheads are 92.5%; so let’s take our $3,100/m^2 New York high-rise and add the rest to get about $3,300, which is already more than most non-supertall office skyscrapers I have found data for in other major cities. The metro area appears to have a price-to-rent ratio of about 25, and with the caveat that this may go down slightly if the city gets more affordable, this corresponds to a monthly rent of $11 per square meter, at which point, a 100-m^2 apartment, sized for a middle-class family of four, becomes affordable, without subsidies, to families making about $44,000 a year and up, about twice the poverty line and well below the median for a family of that size. If we allow some compromises on construction costs – perhaps slightly smaller apartments, perhaps somewhat lower-end construction – we could cover most of the gap between this and the poverty line.
But given that demand for housing at prices that match construction costs, there has to be a way of allocating apartments. Under market pricing, they’re allocated to the highest bidder. If there is a perfectly rigid supply of 2 million housing units and a demand for 4 million at construction costs, the top 2 million bidders get housing, at the rent that the 2 millionth bidder is willing to pay.
I do not know of any expensive city with low home ownership that uses market pricing: too many existing residents would lose their homes. High home ownership has the opposite effect, of course – Tel Aviv may have rising rents, and high price-to-income ratios, but since home ownership is high, the local middle class is profiting rather than being squeezed, or at least its older and slightly richer members are.
Instead, cities give preference to people who have lived in them for the longest time. Rent control, which limits the increase in annual rent, is one way to do this. City-states, i.e. Singapore and Monaco, have citizenship preference for public housing to keep rents down for their citizens. Other cities use regulations, including rent control but also assorted protections for tenants from eviction, to establish this preference. Instead of market pricing allocation, there is allocation based on a social hierarchy, depending on political connections and how long one has lived in the city. People who moved to San Francisco eight years ago, at age 23, organize to make it harder for other people to move to the city at this age today.
Going to market pricing, which means weakening rent controls over the next few years until they’re dead letter, is the only way to also ensure there is upzoning. Although rent control and upzoning both seem to be different policies aimed at affordability, they’re diametrically opposed to each other: one makes it easy for people to move in, one makes it hard. As I mentioned years ago, rent-controlled cities tend to have parallel markets: one is protected for long-timers, and for the rest there is a market that’s unregulated and, because so much of the city’s housing supply is taken off it, very expensive. In exchange-rate dollars, I pay $1,000 for a studio of 30 square meters, of which maybe 20 are usable, the rest having low sloped ceilings. In PPP dollars it’s $730, still very high for the size of the unit. If I put my name on a waiting list, I could get a similar apartment for a fraction of the price; to nearly all residents, rents are far lower than what I pay, because of tight rent controls. Stockholm at least has a relatively short waiting list for rent-controlled apartments, 1.5 years, for international visitors at my university; American cities (or perhaps American universities) never do foreigners such favors.
The problem here is entirely political. Cities have the power to zone. Thus, supply depends entirely on whether local community leaders accept more housing. This housing, almost invariably, goes to outsiders, who would dilute the community’s politics, forming alternative social networks and possibly caring about different political issues. It’s somewhat telling that ultra-Orthodox Jews in the New York areas support aggressive upzoning, since the new residents are their children and not outsiders; Stephen Smith has written before about the Brooklyn Satmars’ support for upzoning, and the resulting relatively low prices. In the vast majority of the first world, with its at- or below-replacement birth rates, this is not the case, and communities tend to oppose making it easier to build more housing.
There is a certain privilege to being organized here. We see the pattern when we compare how US minorities vote on zoning to what minority community leaders say. In San Francisco specifically, activists who oppose additional development have made appeals to white gentrification in nonwhite neighborhoods, primarily the Mission District. Actual votes on the subject reveal the exact opposite: see the discussion on PDF-pp. 13-15 of this history of Houston land use controls, which notes that low-income blacks voted against zoning by an overwhelming margin because of scare tactics employed by the zoning opponents. (Middle-income blacks voted for zoning, by a fairly large margin.) Polling can provide us with additional data, less dependent on voter turnout and mobilization, and in Santa Monica, Hispanics again favor new hotel development more than whites. In areas where being low-income or nonwhite means one is not organized, low-income minorities are not going to support restrictions that benefit community leaders.
The result is that organized communities are going to instead favor zoning, because it gives them more power, as long as they are insulated from the effect of rising prices. In suburbs with high home ownership, they actually want higher prices: my rents are their property values. In cities with low home ownership, rent controls provide the crucial insulation, ensuring that established factions do not have to pay higher rents. Zoning also ensures that, since the developers who do get variances can make great profits, community groups can extort them into providing amenities. This is of course the worst in high-income areas: every abuse of power is worse when committed by people who are already powerful. But the poor can learn to do it just the same, and this is what happens in San Francisco; TechCrunch has a comprehensive article about various abuses, by San Franciscans of all social classes, culminating in the violent protests against the Google shuttles, and in many cases, the key to the abuse was the community’s ability to veto private developments.
The risk, of course, is displacement. As the gap between the regulated and market rent grows, landlords have a greater incentive to harass regulated tenants into leaving. This is routine in New York and San Francisco. Community groups respond by attacking such harassment individually, which amounts to supporting additional tenant protections. In California, this is the debate over the Ellis Act. The present housing shortages are such that supporting measures that would lower the market rent has no visible short-term benefits, and may even backfire, if a small rent-controlled building is replaced by a large unregulated building.
So with rent controls, community groups have every incentive to support restrictive zoning, and none to support additional development. With market pricing, the opposite is the case. What of low-income city residents’ access to housing, then? Daniel mentions housing subsidies as a necessity for the poor. To be honest, I don’t see the purpose, outside land-constrained cities like Hong Kong and Singapore. If it is possible through supply saturation to cut rents to levels that are affordable to families making not much more than the poverty line, say 133% of the US poverty line, the Medicaid threshold, then direct cash benefits are better. In the ongoing debate over a guaranteed minimum income, the minimum should be slightly higher than the US poverty line, which is lower as a proportion of GDP per capita than most other developed countries’ poverty lines, as seen in the government programs with slightly higher limits, led by Medicaid.
Leftists have spent decades arguing for state involvement in health care and education – not just cash benefits, but either state provision, or state subsidies combined with some measure of cost control. There are many arguments, but the way I understand them, none applies to housing:
1. Positive externalities: Ed Glaeser has noted that if some people in a metro area get more education then there is higher income growth even for other people in the area. In health care, there are issues like herd immunity.
2. Very long-term benefits: if college is as expensive as it is in the US today, it takes many years for graduates’ extra incomes to be worth the debt. With health care, the equivalent is preventive care. When benefits take so much time to accrue, first some people face poverty traps and don’t have the disposable income today to invest in their own health and education, and second, the assumptions of rational behavior in classical economics are less true.
3. Natural monopolies outside large cities: hospitals, schools, and universities have high fixed capital costs, so there can only be sufficient competition in very large cities. The same is of course true of rail transit.
4. Asymmetric information: students and parents can’t know easily whether a school is effective, and patients face the same problem with doctors; short-term satisfaction surveys, such as student evaluations, may miss long-term benefits, and are as a result very unpopular in academia.
With housing, we instead have competitive builder markets everywhere, no appreciable benefits to having your neighbor get a bigger or better apartment, and properties that can be evaluated by viewing them.
The only question is what to do in the transition from the present situation to market pricing. This is where a limited amount of protection can be useful. For example, rent controls could be relaxed into a steady annual gain in the maximum allowed real rent. While market-rate housing remains expensive, public housing is a stopgap solution, and although it should be awarded primarily based on need rather than how long one has lived in the city, a small proportion should be set aside to people in rent-controlled small buildings that were replaced by new towers. None of this should be a long-term solution, but in the short run, this may guarantee the most vulnerable tenants a soft landing.
What this is not, however, is a workable compromise. Community organizations are not going to accept any zoning reform that lets in people who are members of out-groups. They have no real reason to negotiate in good faith; they can negotiate in bad faith as a delaying tactic, which has much the same effect as present zoning regimes. What they want is not just specific amenities, but also the power to demand more in the future; it’s precisely this power that ensures the neighborhoods that are desirable to outsiders are unaffordable to them. What they want is a system in which their political connections and social networks are real resources. A city that welcomes newcomers is the exact opposite. Expensive housing is ultimately not a market failure; it’s a political failure.
A post on Let’s Go LA from last year, about different suburban development patterns in different regions of the US, praises Los Angeles’s suburbs for having an arterial grid that allows some density and permits frequent bus service. The Northeast, in contrast, has a hierarchical system, of town centers surrounded by fractured streets and cul-de-sacs, at much lower density. This is how Los Angeles’s urban area has the highest standard density in the US, and one of the highest weighted densities, nearly tying San Francisco for second place after New York. It sounds like a point in favor of Los Angeles, but missing from the post is an analysis of how Rust Belt suburban development patterns reinforce prewar transit. Briefly, Western US grids are ideal for arterial buses, Northeastern town centers are ideal for commuter rail, which used to serve every town.
For a Northeastern example, the post brings up Attleboro as a historic town center. Look at the image and notice the walkable grid and development near the train station, although one quadrant of the station radius is taken up by parking. Attleboro is in fact the town with the oldest development on the Northeast Corridor between Boston and the Providence conurbation, and the only one that, when taking the train between Boston and Providence, I’d be able to see development in from the train. Sharon and Mansfield, both developed decades later, do not have as strong town centers. But conversely, many town centers similar to Attleboro’s exist in the Northeast: Framingham, Norwalk, Tarrytown/Sleepy Hollow, Huntington, Morristown, Paoli.
Now, a careful look at the specific examples of Norwalk and Huntington will show that the most walkable development is not necessarily at the train station. In both suburbs, the old town center is where the original road goes – Northern Boulevard and its eastern extensions in Long Island, the Boston Post Road in Connecticut. Huntington has a second center around the LIRR station; Norwalk has a much smaller second center around the South Norwalk Metro-North station. For the most part, the railroads went close enough to the older roads that the town center is the same, as is the case especially in Attleboro, Tarrytown, and Paoli, and in those cases, commuter rail can at least in principle serve jobs at the suburban town center.
This boils down to the difference between optimal bus and rail networks. Buses love grids: they typically serve the scale of a single city and its inner suburbs, and there it’s feasible to provide everywhere-to-everywhere service, which grids are optimal for. For the suburbs, this breaks down. Buses on uncongested arterial roads are still surface transit; an average speed of 30 km/h is aspirational, and that is for suburbs, not dense urban neighborhoods. On a road where the bus can average 30, cars can average 50, and cars can also use expressways without splitting frequency between different suburban destinations, speeding their journeys up greatly. Meanwhile, commuter rail can, depending on stop spacing, average 50-60 km/h easily, and an aggressive timetable can cross 80 if the stop spacing is relatively express.
There is no such thing as a rapid transit grid. Subway networks almost invariably look like a central mesh, often containing a circumferential line, with spokes radiating out of it in all directions. Mexico City has a larger mesh, approximating a subway grid, but its outer ends again look hub-and-spoke. Counting commuter rail, the hub-and-spoke system is as far as I can tell universal, with the exception of highly polycentric metro areas like the Ruhr. The spokes are rarely clean: they often cross each other (see for example the London Underground to scale). But looking at a city’s rail transit map, you’ll almost always be able to tell where the CBD is, where the inner-urban neighborhoods are, and where the outer-urban and suburban areas are.
At this distance, then, having a bus-friendly grid doesn’t matter much. What matters is having a good network of historical rights-of-way that can be used for regional rail, and a preexisting pattern of development following these lines and their junctions. In the US, the older cities have this, whereas the newer ones do not. In a suburb like Attleboro, good transit means good regional rail, with high all-day frequency, and a network of feeder buses timed to meet the trains. Grids aren’t especially useful for that.
And this is why, despite being so dense, Los Angeles has so little transit usage. Its street network is set up for bare-bones public transit, usable by people who can commute two hours in each direction and will never get cars. Because it was a medium-size city when its car ownership exploded, it doesn’t have as many town centers; its density is uniform. It has a higher weighted density than the Rust Belt outside New York, but its weighted-to-standard density ratio is much lower than those of Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago. (It barely trails Washington, which has fewer town-center suburbs than the Rust Belt, but made an effort to actually build them around Metro; its Tarrytowns have Metro service rather than infrequent commuter rail.)
The optimal urban geography for urban transit is not the same as that for suburban transit, and the optimal street network for surface transit is not the same as that for rapid transit. Los Angeles could potentially excel at surface urban transit, but there’s only so much surface transit can provide the backbone of public transportation in a city. It has a handful of strong lines for rapid transit, and that’s a serious problem, which a grid won’t really solve.