Category: Urbanism

Local and Global Knowledge

Adonia Lugo has a post criticizing Vision Zero, an American movement that aims at reducing the number of pedestrian and cyclist deaths from car accidents to zero. Adonia makes a lot of criticisms regarding lack of diversity within US bike advocacy, which I’m not going to discuss because I’m only tangentially familiar with it, via the general urbanist connection to Streetsblog. Instead, I’m going to zoom on one criticism, in which Adonia also invokes transit: Vision Zero activists look to a slate of European countries for guidance on making streets safer, including Sweden (which, alongside Norway and Denmark, has nearly the lowest car accident death rates in the world), and Denmark and the Netherlands (which are famous for their urban cycling facilities). Adonia’s response is,

With my inclusion filter on, it sounded like another example of white bike advocates looking to Northern Europe for solutions instead of turning to urban communities in the U.S. to find out how they’ve managed to get by walking, biking, and using transit all these years.

This is where I lost sympathy. What Adonia is asking, essentially, is for more respect for her (and her peer group’s) local knowledge, which is based on American cities in which few people who can afford cars take other modes of transportation. In the entire US, the only city where significant numbers of people who can afford cars take public transportation is New York, and there is not a single city where significant numbers of people who can afford cars ride bikes to work. This means that any discussion of improving transit access must include at least some knowledge of what happens outside the US.

Local Knowledge and Denigration

The problem is that talking about what happens outside the US shifts the locus of expertise from people with local knowledge to people with global knowledge. If an American city talks about adopting ideas from one of its neighborhoods, or even from a nearby city, there’s a lot of local knowledge, in the form of people who live or have lived in that area, or know many people who live there, and can evaluate a policy as to its success or failure. Internationally, there isn’t any, outside specialized forums; even highly educated Americans are usually monolingual, have never lived outside the US, and aren’t really plugged into the political debates in other countries, except maybe Canada.

The result is denigration. I’m not very plugged into cycling advocacy, so I’m going to use public transit for concrete examples. I have accepted that whenever I propose that comes from another country, someone is going to say “that’s there, this is America.” I definitely got this response when I started proposing modernizing regional rail in New York: “you are not a real New Yorker.” New York is the worst in the US in that it resists any ideas from other cities, even domestically.

It’s ultimately a defense mechanism against something that’s literally foreign, which the activist cannot evaluate because they and the people they trust haven’t really seen this in action. Thus, many Americans choose to believe that US public transportation is not a failure, that it’s just in bad circumstances and has little to learn from Europe. I’ve seen New Yorkers make remarks such as “there is no history of underinvestment in Europe” (yes, there is – look at Berlin during the Cold War, or at the removal of streetcars in postwar France and West Germany).

For example, I’ve found that bringing up Stockholm as an example of good transit in the US gets me accused of trolling, repeatedly, more so than bringing up London or Paris. The reason is that, to New York-based readers, London and Paris are almost peer cities, and to other Americans, London and Paris are equivalent to New York; therefore, they match the perception that public transit works in old, huge cities, but not in smaller or newer ones. In some ways, I think Stockholm is a better example of what US cities should aspire to, precisely because it is a small city. It is also not as old as London or Paris; between 1950 and 2010, Stockholm County’s population grew by a factor of 1.9, whereas metro Philadelphia’s grew by a factor of about 1.6, Boston’s by a factor of 1.4, and Chicago’s by a factor of 1.7. Boston in particular had a very good public transit network in 1950, and it systematically dismantled it and bypassed the remains, so that the metro area public transit mode share is only 11%. Expressed differently, metro Boston has 55 annual rail trips per capita, whereas New York has 95 and Stockholm 200. Of course, the cities of the US Sunbelt have had far more postwar growth than Stockholm (though many are comparable to Vancouver) and even lower transit usage than Boston and Philadelphia, and there indeed wholesale imports of European ideas are less practical. But it says a lot that in the oldest US cities, with the street layout most similar to most of Europe’s cities’, transit usage is still very low.

Adonia denigrates ideas she considers racist, but this denigration cuts across political and tribal lines in the US. I have seen considerable denigration from American urbanists that city centers could ever be family-friendly whenever I mention generations of families living in the central parts of Tel Aviv, or Vancouver, or Stockholm. There’s even a Twitter account dedicated to this denigration, The Suburbanist. Of course, what’s missing is the history of white flight and racism – not that Israel, Canada, and Sweden are less racist than the US, but their racism did not involve leaving inner cities to low-income minorities. But mentioning that cities aren’t bad places for families reminds certain people that they’re leaving the cities because they don’t like minorities, so they lash out. Nowadays, the Suburbanist engages in open racism, but this wasn’t the case a few years ago, nor is it the case with a large number of Americans who, in comments on various blogs (never here as far as I remember), yell at me for bringing up foreign cities.

Not Invented Here, Periphery Version

When planners and managers denigrate foreign ideas, this is called Not Invented Here syndrome. It is common in American transportation planning. I believe the reason Vision Zero sticks to “it works in Scandinavia” is to at least try to confront those planners with the fact that, by international standards, they have failed to promote road safety, especially for pedestrians and cyclists. Certainly this is the reason I bring up the failure of every US city except New York to maintain respectable public transit usage.

Now, the two centers of public transportation innovation in the world – Europe and Japan – brim with their own NIH problems, toward each other. Their rolling stock markets are almost entirely distinct, due to a combination of protectionism and regulations. Japan is outside the European Train Control System umbrella and keeps developing its own signal systems, while ETCS in turn is based on the features of older systems in the major European countries and not in Japan. Japan lags Europe in automation (driverless metros are less common there), track capacity in trains per hour, and small-city cost-cutting innovations such as proof of payment. Europe in turn has higher big-city operating costs, more accidents, less punctual trains, and usually heavier trains. Both of those centers would benefit from adopting each other’s ideas.

And yet, things work. There is enough indigenous transit expertise in Japan that despite missing out on European innovations, Japanese transit systems work well. There has to be; Tokyo has comfortably not only the highest rail ridership in the world, but also the highest rail ridership per capita, about 400 annual trips, versus 200-250 in the most transit-oriented European cities. Of course, Europe’s own indigenous expertise is nothing to scoff at, either.

The US is not in the center of public transportation. I am going to develop this center-periphery dynamic in a later post, tentatively called Unbroken Country: The Periphery’s Manifesto, which will also go specifically into Israel’s domestic problems with public services. But, in short, the US acts as if it is in the center, since it is one of the centers of the global economy, and is the undisputed center of global society and culture. This is what leads to NIH syndrome and denigration – Americans think they’re doing well because, in most aspects, they are. But when it comes to transportation, the US is a peripheral region (even road construction techniques lag Europe’s), and thus, its NIH problems deprive the public discourse of much-needed knowledge.

For a concrete example, let us consider rail signaling. ETCS Level 2 is designed around the needs of the biggest European countries, where the main lines are at least double-track, there is much more passenger traffic than freight traffic, freight trains are light because bulk freight goes by sea, and the population density near the main lines is high. Neither the US nor Sweden fits this. Most importantly, both countries have highly-trafficked freight lines passing through remote territory – Norrland in Sweden, the Interior West in the US. Sweden, which does not have NIH syndrome with respect to the rest of Europe, worked on developing a lower-cost version of ETCS, called ERTMS Regional; but in the US, the freight railroads as well as the commuter railroads (even in the Northeast, where ETCS Level 2 is appropriate) ignored ETCS entirely and developed their own incompatible systems, on the grounds that ETCS doesn’t meet unique American needs.

The Mystery of the Foreign

People who don’t know something often consider people who do know it to be mysterious, almost magical. It is a commonplace that, in low-literacy cultures, illiterates viewed the written word as magical; see this account of Early Modern Italy, but also a counterpoint from Ancient Greece. Of course, literacy in the first world today is universal, but two to three more modern examples persist, of relevance to US transit advocacy:

  1. Math, among people who are not mathematically- or technically-minded. I was asked recently whether my background as a mathematician influences my blogging, and explained that I use fairly basic math, but I am not afraid of numbers, which means I am not afraid of trying to compute cost figures, train speeds, and so on. I am also secure enough in my mathematical knowledge that I am not afraid of nitpicking technical points, or of being nitpicked.
  2. Foreign languages, among monolinguals. I do not know enough monolingual Hebrew speakers to confirm this in generality, but monolingual Anglophones seem to treat foreign-language information as somewhat magical. For example, the vibe I have been getting both here and on Twitter is that if I cite a foreign-language Wikipedia this gets more respect than if I cite English Wikipedia. The monolingual Anglophone can verify an English Wikipedia citation, and maybe notice small mistakes in the article, but not a foreign-language citation.
  3. This may be the same as 2, but, foreign experience. Relatively few native-born Americans have lived outside the US, so people who do are treated as having unique expertise about the country or continent they were in.

Point 3 applies even to knowledge obtained by other means than living in a country. In 2005, when progressive pundits were talking about how to implement universal health care, there was so little knowledge about how universal health care systems worked that Ezra Klein became an A-list pundit out of a few short profiles of various countries’ health care systems, The Health of Nations (see 2007 version here). I, of course, have gotten a lot of mileage out of Googling various cities’ subway construction costs and putting them together.

The problem with viewing the foreign as mysterious is that it leads to wholesale import of ideas that may not work, or may require significant tweaks before working. Bus rapid transit, an efficient mode of travel in middle-income Bogota and Curitiba, does not port to high-income cities well: paying six bus drivers rather than one train driver to avoid spending money on rail construction is a bigger problem in a country with a GDP per capita of $40,000 than in a country with a GDP per capita of $13,000. There are successful tweaks, such as open BRT (see description here), but Jaime Lerner and ITDP have pushed Curitiba-style closed BRT. Here, the lack of detailed knowledge about what exactly makes BRT work leads American cities – and no European or Japanese cities – to propose ill-thought closed BRT.

Another example of a bad import caused by this kind of magical thinking is the mixed-traffic streetcar. Here, American transit advocates don’t just think in terms of “Europe has trams” but also in terms of “the US used to have trams but we ripped them all up in the 1950s.” Here, US cities import a mode of transportation that exists as a legacy around Europe, but is uncommon on new-build lines, and is used mainly as a compromise when the streets are so narrow it’s impossible to give streetcars dedicated lanes without closing the streets to car traffic. As the US does not have cities with such narrow streets, outside a few old neighborhoods in Boston and New York with good subway service, its import of mixed-traffic streetcars is bad transit.

This relates to the point I made above, about local knowledge and bullshit. I know that many people view me as somewhat mysterious for having such a different knowledge base from Americans. It means I can comfortably bullshit about many points. I don’t bullshit, but it’s likely I’m making some mistakes, and I try to encourage my commenters to check me on them. But this requires commenters who are also very technically-minded and don’t think that just because I say something, it must be true.


In a sociopolitical environment in which the public and the activists have very little knowledge about imported ideas, whether they support them (usually viewing them as magical) or oppose them (usually denigrating them) is based on whether they identify with and trust the people proposing the import. Adonia does not trust the people who promote Vision Zero, since she views them as too white and male and too insensitive to the concerns of nonwhites, for example regarding police enforcement of speed limits. Conservatives, in turn, do not trust those people because they view them as cosmopolitan liberal urbanites, whence Tea Party opposition to various commuter and intercity rail expansions.

Consider high-speed rail, which is entirely a foreign import. The political coalitions for and against HSR in the US are based entirely on cultural identification with the proposition that Europe is better at something than the US. In particular, business-class small-government conservatives, who tend to be big fans of HSR in the countries where it exists, hate it in the US; George Will claimed it would make Americans more amenable to collectivism, and in Texas, right-wing populists have tried blocking an entirely private HSR scheme and possibly connecting it to the Democrats. In contrast, the populist left in the US (for example, Robert Cruickshank) supports public transportation infrastructure because of the environmentalist tie-in; in contrast, in the UK, Jeremy Corbyn, who Robert is otherwise a big fan of, is at best lukewarm toward HS2. In Europe, the left is more pro-rail than the right, but the populists on both sides are more anti-rail, and the overall left-right gradient is small; in the US, the left-right gradient is large, and this comes from the issue of trusting the transportation program of countries that Americans associate with welfare-state social democracy.

The result is that any dialog based on foreign transit has to involve a certain amount of mystery and trust in the planners. I have no trust in the planners, because of various wheel reinventions proposed even by reformists, but I know enough to discuss technical items and not just the people. Generally, other people with this technical background come from a similar social background: educated, geographically mobile, white, male. The result is that, as with HSR, people’s opinions on these projects track their opinions of the tribe in the US that can talk at this level of technical detail. Usually it’s not even racial, not when it comes to transit – it’s mostly suburbanites looking for ways to screw the urbanites. If anything, nonwhite neighborhoods in the US are underserved relative to best practices, and agencies sometimes sandbag the idea of more service there. Adonia just weaponizes this in a different direction from the usual.

Local and Global Knowledge

I’m not going to rule out the possibility that there is valuable local knowledge in the US about cycling, but I know that there is very little such knowledge about transit, and given where the high cycling use is, I doubt cycling is much different. This means that American knowledge alone is worth approximately nothing. Jarrett Walker is of course American and has a lot to contribute, but as a consultant, he has extensive Australian and Canadian experience and some East Asian experience. The bus grid as an idea predates Jarrett – Jarrett attributes it to (at least) 1980s-era reforms in Portland – but by itself it’s not a game changer.

The problem here is that to implement something successfully, the people who run it need both local knowledge and knowledge about places that work, i.e. global knowledge. If there aren’t enough people with both, the solutions will not work, because people who can’t contradict what the planners are saying can’t exercise democratic accountability over them. One of the reasons Europe does transit better is that there’s more foreign knowledge here; see above for the contrast between how the US and Sweden handle rail signaling.

In fact, if you look at the examples above in the Mystery of the Foreign section, they both come from failure to adapt a successful foreign system to local conditions – namely, high wages in the case of BRT, and wide streets in the case of trams. I presume that the people who build mixed-traffic streetcars and BRT lines in the US have plenty of local knowledge, but they lack the global knowledge to appreciate what exactly makes those systems successes abroad. Conversely, international consultants don’t have the local knowledge to say “no, this is not a good fit for your needs” (besides, usually that’s not what they’re paid to say). This problem is especially acute with innovations in developing countries, such as BRT, since the large gap in incomes leads to different situations requiring major changes in adaptation, much more so than the relatively minor differences within the developed world.

Now, consultants can pick up local knowledge. Their trade is not just to possess global knowledge, but also to know how to acquire local knowledge rapidly when they’re working in a city. They run surveys, look at detailed breakdowns of costs and ridership to tease out patterns, quiz the in-house planners, and travel all over the city to gain ground-level impressions. The problem is that if the consultants are the only people who have both local and global knowledge, then there is no democratic accountability, and they have an incentive to bullshit. Of course, Jarrett specifically does not bullshit, but he has occasionally made mistakes (the main one, anchoring, I’ve been meaning to write about for two years), and of course my personal trust in one consultant is no substitute to systemic, institutional trust in the ability of the technocrats to response to what is essentially peer-review practiced by the community of local advocates.

It means the only way forward is for activists in US cities to pick up global knowledge and engage with such plans on the details. In the case of cycling, I could think of any number of reasons why US cities cannot emulate the success of Amsterdam and Copenhagen; but then again, it’s possible these reasons are all irrelevant, in the same manner many reasons Americans offer for why they cannot have the same per capita transit usage of Sweden are irrelevant.

I am also suspicious of the fact that, per Adonia, bike advocates look to Northern Europe as a source of examples of success. The biggest bike share systems in the world are all in China, and in Japan, bikes have largely replaced buses as the preferred mode of access to the train station in the suburbs. US bike advocates owe it to themselves and to their cities to be informed about Chinese and Japanese practices, and, if they clash with Dutch and Scandinavian practices, then to have opinions about which ones to pick and how to synthesize them in a local context. The only way forward for people in the periphery, by which I mean all of the US when it comes to any non-car transportation, is to know how the core works well enough that they can adapt its innovation without being so reliant on outside experts.

Cities and Immigration

There are various observations I would like to make about the urban geography of immigrants: where immigrants often land, what neighborhoods they prefer, how they differ both from the preference of natives, and how they differ from the policies that governments, run by enfranchised voters, implement. Many of the points I’m about to make I’ve made in comments before, on the Urbanophile and other urbanist blogs. I was compelled to write this by the news stories of the migration wave of Syrian refugees into Europe, but I would like to stress that I am writing about both labor migration and humanitarian migration, and that this post has been on my to-do list for years. The points here are often true of nearly all classes of immigrants: refugees, low-skill work migrants, high-skill work migrants; only family reunification is outside the scope of this post, but even family reunification usually consists of the family of a migrant immigrating as well.

The dominance of rich regions

Eurostat has regional per capita income figures for most of Europe. After subtracting rent and interest payments, incomes in London are 46% higher than in the United Kingdom as a whole, and twice as high as in depressed regions such as Birmingham and Sheffield. In Ile-de-France, the incomes are 38% higher than in France as a whole and 65% higher than in depressed regions such as Nord-Pas-de-Calais. In Northern Italy, the incomes are 80% higher than in Southern Italy, while if we compare the richer parts of the North (e.g. Lombardy) with the poorer parts of the South (e.g. Sicily and Naples), the gap grows to a factor of two, as in the UK. In all three countries, the rich regions have far more immigrants per capita than the poor regions. As of the 2011 census, 13.4% of the population of England and Wales is foreign-born, but in London, this rises to 36.7%. In France, 8% of the population consists of immigrants, but in Ile-de-France it rises to 17%: see PDF-p. 24 of an INSEE factsheet, and note also the table at the top of the page, showing far fewer immigrants live in rural areas than natives. In Italy, a breakdown per region shows 8-11% of the people in the Northern and Central regions are immigrants compared with 2-4% in the Southern ones.

Let us go over the reasons why. After all, in principle, both immigrants and natives are more interested in earning high incomes than in earning low incomes. So to see this, let us look at the situation from the point of view of someone who grew up in a poor region of such a country. The Brummie, the Sheffielder, and the Liverpudlian know that the Londoner makes more money than they do. But they can’t just move to London and expect to earn the same income a native Londoner earns. Their local social networks are precisely the ones they can rely on for job search tips, and after they’ve begun working they acquire local bosses who can give them reference letters, and neither group lives in London; this means that they’d make far less money than an equally qualified Londoner if they moved. This is on top of the personal disutility one suffers when moving, independently of the wage. This is less true of highly educated workers, who move in national and even international networks, whence the brain drain problem in rural and depressed areas.

Of course, immigrants short-circuit this, because immigrants usually come into the country without a social network in either its rich core or its depressed periphery. Logically, they go to where there are jobs, and to where the jobs pay more.

Immigrant networks

The situation I described above is true for first entrants. Once a community establishes itself in a city, the situation for the new immigrant changes. An Indian who wishes to emigrate to Canada can often rely on networks of Indian-Canadians, both first- and second-generation. This Indian’s situation is the exact opposite of that of the native of a depressed region: the native of Atlantic Canada, the poorest region of English Canada, has a social and professional network in their home area but not in Toronto or the other major cities; the Indian has a social network in Toronto and Vancouver but not in Atlantic Canada. This means that even when the income advantage of the traditionally rich cities disappears, immigrants will keep moving to them.

For three examples of this principle, let us look at the UK, Canada, and finally the US. In the UK, look at the table above again, and observe that, after London and the Southeast, the part of Britain with the highest foreign-born percentage is the West Midlands (the region, not the county), with 11.2%. This is because Birmingham used to be a rich city: Jane Jacobs compares it favorably with Manchester in The Economy of Cities, published in 1970. It declined in the 1970s, but by then the South Asian migration wave to Britain was already well underway. In Canada, Vancouver and Toronto remain rich, but Calgary has far surpassed them in incomes due to the oil boom, and is only now receiving comparable numbers of immigrants; 26% of its population is foreign-born, versus 40% of Metro Vancouver and 46% of the Greater Toronto Area (see data here). Finally, in the US, Los Angeles has remained one of the top destinations for immigrants, even though its incomes have slipped far below those of not only New York and San Francisco, but also Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis, Denver, and other cities that are only beginning to see the same immigration numbers Los Angeles has had for decades. In general, the states bordering Mexico have long had elevated numbers of Mexican immigrants, going back to the braceros and even before, ultimately tracing to the large Mexican presence in those states after the US conquered them in the Mexican War.

Once there is an established community of immigrants from a particular country or ethnic group, they of course encourage further migration, in addition to shaping the migration to reach the same regions and city neighborhoods. This can take the form of social networks for community support and for finding work, but also the form of knowledge of migration routes. See, for example, a Guardian article from yesterday explaining the Syrian migration wave as a result of years of social learning in Syria of the best routes for trekking into Western Europe. Conceivably this could also include legal knowledge of how to apply to asylum and which countries have the most favorable policies.

At the same time, as the national or ethnic community in the target country gets larger, it begins to exhibit domestic ethnic dynamics more than immigrant dynamics. Part of it is that the immigrants eventually naturalize and acquire voting rights and enough informal political power to have some influence over how their city is run. Part of it is that after a few decades there’s a rising cadre of well-assimilated second-generation immigrants. Part of it is that between the presence of a community and a natural trend of drift in which the relative incomes of cities in the target country change, immigrants eventually behave more like native Brummies and Sheffielders. As a result, most of what I say is true largely of recent immigrants, and gradually becomes less true of people who immigrated decades ago.

The primacy of work

Nearly all immigrants intend to work for a living. This is obviously true of work migrants, of all classes, but it’s also true of refugees, which leads many nativists to mock them for not really seeking asylum but taking jobs from natives. One particularly cruel article that appeared in my Twitter feed from multiple sources, proposing to detain asylum seekers and confine those who meet the criteria for refugees to restricted areas far from the job-rich core, makes the point that people who try to move to where there are jobs are (illegal) work migrants.

The reality is that one of people’s basic needs is work. Idleness is not a normal state of affairs for a person; when as many as a quarter of the people in the workforce are unemployed, it’s a depression and a national crisis. In developing countries there is a lot of covert unemployment, in the sense that (especially in rural areas) a large majority of workers may be redundant if first-world technology is imported, but people still work for a living and earn a wage. In India, to take an example of a third-world country in a state of peace, the unemployment rate was 2.7% as of 2013. To say that a migrant who wants work is necessarily a work migrant is equivalent to saying that a migrant who wants shelter is moving to the first world for its higher housing quality and that a migrant who wants their children to be able to go to school is moving to the first world for its better schools. This need for work drives everything: immigrants from poor countries will work under the table, take jobs far below their skill level, and scab, and they’ll make sure they stay employed, as they would at home, except that these compromises wouldn’t really be necessary, since the third world has much more unskilled work to do.

That said, the need to work in an environment where the migrant has no local social network is the primary determinant of where the migrant lives. Given free choice, immigrants tend to cluster where there is easy access to jobs, ideally on foot in order to avoid paying exorbitant sums of money for a car. A rapid transit network makes it easier for people to disperse; in its absence, as in Tel Aviv, the migrants will cluster in a few cheap central neighborhoods, but even when it exists, migrants will try living where they can get to work easily. The greatest concentration of immigrants in Ile-de-France is in Seine-Saint-Denis, an inner-suburban department that in most other countries would be an outer neighborhood of Paris.

Finally, I wish I didn’t have to explain this, but given that it’s a politically charged issue right now, we see a lot of nativist complaints that immigrants are not seeking work, but welfare. The above article is one example of the genre, ultimately defining every social service immigrants use, such as schools, as welfare. Another example is a report by the anti-immigration Center for Immigration Studies, which finds that under a definition of welfare that excludes programs used by retirees (i.e. a large majority of US social spending), immigrants to the US use welfare more than native-born Americans.

The “work or welfare?” question can be answered directly by looking at where immigrants go when they get the chance. And the answer is decisively work. Welfare is to a first-order approximation the same throughout England or France; and yet, immigrants don’t choose to live in cheap areas of those countries to stretch the pounds and euros longer, but instead cluster in the cities where the jobs are. Scotland has a more generous welfare state than England, but it actually has fewer immigrants, about 6.5%. Singapore, with no welfare state whatsoever, tops the list of countries that people in a global Gallup poll expressed a desire to move to relative to its population; it’s followed by Saudi Arabia, New Zealand, Canada, and Australia (all five have already taken in many immigrants, making this a global version of the point I made about established communities). New York and San Francisco, whose biggest government interventions in the market, their rent control and public housing schemes, only benefit natives and people who immigrated decades ago, keep getting new immigrants of all social classes who are willing to pay exorbitant rents to have access to their strong local job markets. In contrast, rich suburban school districts in the Northeastern US only get upwardly-mobile professional immigrants.

In the rest of this post, I will expound on what the primacy of work means for housing policy.

Housing choice, overcrowding, and prejudice

Within a given city, immigrants do not choose where to live on the same criteria as natives. First, and this applies to immigrants of all categories and even to some domestic migrants, they lack the prejudices of locals. New Yorkers know which neighborhoods of the city are good and which are bad, whatever good and bad mean. New York is globally famous due to the influence of American media; in Israel, all that’s penetrated the cultural barrier is that Manhattan is the center, Brooklyn exists and has a lot of Jews (I remember being puzzled at why Super Mario isn’t Jewish when I was 10), and Harlem is a poor black neighborhood. In 2006, a few weeks after I moved to New York, I was in Bedford-Stuyvesant for an event, and nothing about the neighborhood looked poor to me. With my American cultural knowledge today I’d be able to tell that project towers, certain kinds of bodegas, and large concentrations of black people in that part of Brooklyn all correlate with poverty, but at the time, I couldn’t. I’m not the only one: a white Canadian blogger I know who moved to New York a few years before I did walked around Bed-Stuy looking for an apartment and found it nice, and when they reported where they were on a forum, people’s reactions were a mix of horror and outrage: “you’re crazy, you could have been killed” and “you evil gentrifier.”

Second, as a subset of the principle that new immigrants are more likely to move to the rich core cities than to poorer peripheral cities, new immigrants tend to be in the center of the city than in the suburbs (and again, this also somewhat applies to domestic migrants). Suburban jobs often pay less – the highest-earners in the favored-quarter suburbs in the US commute to the primary CBD, whence for example Daniel Kay Hertz’s observation that in suburban Chicago and Philadelphia, transit riders (CBD-bound commuter rail riders) outearn drivers. Here, there is a split between skilled and unskilled migrants. Skilled migrants often move to a city because, in the specialized global economy, their skills are a good fit for its primary industry; this means that if they’re moving to the Bay Area, it’s usually to work in the software industry or at one of the universities, rather than to be lawyers or accountants, which means their housing choice is disproportionately oriented toward where those industries cluster. Unskilled migrants have to consider transportation costs, making it hard to live in the suburbs, and on top of that, unless they’ve already been matched to a suburban employer to get a work visa (for example, to work as a maid in a particular house), it’s easier for them to find work in the central city.

For migrants from developing countries, there is one more consideration, which leads to the most glaring feature of low-income immigrant neighborhoods: people in the third world make more compromises on housing space to have access to jobs, leading to overcrowding. It’s often a step up from where they’re from anyway. New York has a profile of each of its community boards, based on the most recent census; before the move from the long-form 2000 census to the short-form 2010 census, there was detailed data about income, education, and crowding in each census tract, and the most overcrowding in Manhattan was not in the poorest neighborhood (East Harlem) but in Chinatown.

The basic issue here is that low-income immigrants from developing countries are unlikely to make enough money to cover rent at what first-world natives consider a respectable living standard. There’s a certain minimum housing quality in the developed world: minimum unit size, insulation, indoor plumbing, electricity, construction materials. It’s hard to violate these regulations, because buildings are conspicuous – for the same reason, there’s no equivalent of Uber or Airbnb for housing that bypasses zoning laws. But as the Airbnb example shows, it’s easy enough to subvert or outright ignore regulations about who occupies a residential unit. Hence, immigrants economize on space, either living multiple unrelated adults to a room (as black refugees do in South Tel Aviv) or housing a large extended family in a suburban house meant for a nuclear family (as Hispanics do in various American suburbs, raising the ire of the local natives).


Many immigrants return to their countries of origin, or move elsewhere, after a few years. This fact is deemphasized in the public discourse, shaped by the US narrative of people from all over the world coming to live the American dream. But in reality, migration is often seasonal, and a significant fraction of immigrants return; see, for example, a write-up of Italian-American history. More recently, we see this with illegal Mexican workers in the US, who would move back and forth across the borders seasonally, until the tighter border controls built after 1986 made this so difficult they moved to the US permanently (this is the work of Douglas Massey, Jorge Durand, and Nolan Malone, summarized here and here). Many refugees return to their home countries after the war or crisis ends. Skilled migrants often move between countries, as I do.

This creates a situation in which many recent immigrants do not know where they will live in five years, not even on what continent, even excluding the possibility of deportation. This does not mean immigrants do not care about the areas they live in. On the contrary. But they lack the deep social ties that local neighborhood activists have, and this makes it harder to engage politically on a level that appeals to the local notables. It takes years just to learn who the local notables are!

Hence, the immigrant really is a transient. “Transient” is just a dysphemism for someone who does not have enough social capital in an area to know definitively that they’re going to stay there permanently. Unsurprisingly, since community decisions are made by people who know the local notables and their networks, those decisions do not have recent migrants in mind. Even domestic migrants, who unlike international ones have the right to vote, are excluded. This is where community hostility to more housing comes from: why worry about how high the rent is for people you look down on as transients?

As far as housing goes, YIMBY groups have begun to build a national US network for more construction, with some international reach, so that recent domestic migrants to New York, San Francisco, and other expensive cities can rely on their national social capital to compensate for their lack of local social capital. But this is necessarily going to address primarily the needs of the people who participate in YIMBY networks, who tend to be white, educated, and American. I happen to think more housing in a region will benefit all recent and prospective immigrants to it, but there’s a wealth of other local political issues that are not covered in the YIMBY umbrella (for example, policing), and there, the community’s ability to abuse residents who got here more recently than it would like is not limited.

Public housing

Finally, let me discuss the difference between how immigrants think and how governments elected by natives think immigrants ought to think. As I’ve established above, immigrants’ decisions are driven largely by the need for a job, even when the original purpose for the move was not work-related. This means that they will make compromises and live in a way that the native public deems substandard, as in various outrages of immigrant overcrowding.

The question is what to do about it. In capitalist countries (i.e. pretty much everywhere, except Cuba and a few other communist holdouts), the government professes to believe that people are economically rational. There are large sectors in which this is not true – for examples, health and education are mostly public in most developed countries – but in housing, most first-world countries use a free-market approach. Central cities often do provide extensive public housing, and zone tightly to prevent new construction that offends community sensibilities, but people can still buy and sell houses and move, and advocate for themselves politically so that they wouldn’t be stuck with housing that is by regional standards deficient.

Except, well, that people who lack voting rights can’t act politically except through their ties to enfranchised voters, and new migration waves lack these ties. The worst example of this is in Sweden, which provides refugees with public housing, but only where it’s cheap. Thus, instead of having a liberalized enough urban housing market so that refugees could live in overcrowded conditions in Stockholm, it either disperses them to peripheral towns where they know nobody and can’t work, or concentrates them in low-income ghettos. Malmö, which like Birmingham used to be a bustling city but deindustrialized and has high unemployment, is one of the prime locations for immigrants to Sweden; so is Södertälje, a Stockholm suburb infamous for its high unemployment.

One of the most salient features of being an immigrant is being a social problem. Every difference between the immigrant and the native will be used politically, in either direction, even if it is the result of normal variation between groups and economic sectors. And here, governments that refuse to consider immigrants’ own housing decisions are creating social problems for the future by creating new ghettos from scratch. For its own working class, Sweden built the Million Program; for immigrants, not a chance. Between overcrowding and joblessness, immigrants choose overcrowding, when they can. When they can’t, the government is choosing joblessness for them.

Penn Station Elimination Followup

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.

Passenger Throughput

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.

Homeowner’s Bill of Rights to Preempt State and Local Zoning Laws

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.

The Ultimate Authoritarian Anti-Urbanism

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.

Height Limits: Still a Bad Idea

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 x then the buy-out factor will raise the cost of each housing unit by a factor of 1 + 1/x.

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.

The NITBY Problem

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.

Pedestrian Observations from Central Stockholm

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.

Dispersing Expensive Centers: Edge City Version

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.

Dispersal of Urban Networks is Bad

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.