Several commenters, both here and on Streetsblog, have raised a number of points about my proposal to eliminate above-ground Penn Station and reduce the station to a hole in the ground. A few of those points are things I’d already thought about when I wrote that post and didn’t want to clutter; others are new ideas that I’ve had to wrestle with.
On Streetsblog, Mark Walker says, “Getting on a train at Penn is not like using the subway. Instead of a train that runs every five minutes, you’re waiting for a train that runs once per hour (more or less),” implying nicer waiting areas and lounges are needed. My proposal, of course, does not have dedicated waiting areas. (That said, there’s an immense amount of space on the platforms under the escalators, which could be equipped with chairs, tables, and newsstands.)
However, I take exception to the notion that when the train runs every hour, passengers wait an hour. When I lived in Providence, a few trips to Boston, New Haven, and New York taught me the exact amount of time it’d take me to walk from my apartment to the train station: 21 minutes. I learned to time myself to get to the station 2 minutes before the train would leave, and as I recall, I missed the train twice out of maybe 30 trips, and one of those was when I had a lot of luggage and was in a taxi and couldn’t precisely gauge the extra travel time. Walking is that reliable. People who get to Penn Station by subway have to budget some extra time to account for missed subway trains, but from much of the city, including the parts of the CBD not within walking distance from Penn, the required spare time is less than 10 minutes. Moreover, Penn is at its most crowded at rush hour, which is precisely when subway frequency is the highest, and people can reliably time themselves to within less than 5 minutes.
Outlying train stations in Switzerland are deserted except a few minutes before a train shows up, because the connecting transit is all timed to meet the train. This is of course inapplicable at very large stations with many lines, but the modes of transportation that most Penn Station users take to the station are reliable and frequent, if you can even talk of frequency for walking. The result is that the amenities do not need to be extravagant on account of waiting passengers, and do not need to be more than those of a busy subway station in a busy area.
Several commenters raised the idea of shelter. One option, raised by James Sinclair, is an arched glass roof over the station, on the model of Milan. This involves above-ground infrastructure, but the arched structure is only supported at the margins of the compound, which means that the primary feature of a hole-in-the-ground station, the lack of anything that the track area must support the weight of, is still true. I do not think it’s a bad idea; I do, however, want to raise three additional options:
Do nothing. A large proportion of the usable area of the platforms would be located under the walkways above, or under the escalators and staircases. Having measured the depth more precisely, through Plate 14 here, I found it is 13 meters from street level to top of rail, or 12 from street level to platform level, translating to 21 meters of escalator length, plus 2.2-2.5 meters on each side for approach (see page 23 here). About 16 of those 21 (18.5 out of 25.7, counting approaches) meters offer enough space for passengers to stand below the escalators, leading to large areas that could be used for shelter, as noted in the waiting section above.
Build a simple shelter. Stockholm-area train stations have cheap corrugated metal roofs over most of the length of their platforms. These provide protection from rain. Of course those roofs require some structural support at the platform, but because they’re not supposed to hold anything except rainwater, those supports are narrow poles, easy to move around if the station is reconfigured.
Build a street-level glass pane. This may be structurally intricate, but if not, it would provide complete shelter from the elements on the track level, greatly improve passenger circulation, and create a new public plaza. But in summer, the station would be a greenhouse, requiring additional air conditioning.
Note that doing nothing or building a simple shelter would not protect any of the track level from heat or cold. This is fine: evidently, open-air stations are the norm both in cities with hotter summers than New York (Milan is one example, and Tokyo is another) and in cities with colder winters (for example, Stockholm). Passengers are usually dressed for the weather anyway, especially if they’re planning on walking to work from Penn or from the subway station they’re connecting to.
Multiple commenters have said that public art and architecture matter, and building spartan train stations is unaesthetic, representing public squalor. I agree! I don’t think a hole-in-the-wall Penn Station has to be drab or brutalist. It can showcase art, on the model of the mosaics on the subway, or the sculptures on the T-Bana. It can use color to create a more welcoming environment than the monotonous gray of many postwar creations, such as the Washington Metro. The natural sunlight would help a lot.
But more than that, the walkways themselves could be architectural signatures. The best way to build them without supporting them on the track level is some variant on the arch bridge – either the classical arch bridge (which would require three or four spans), or a through-arch. This gives a lot of room to turn the bridges into signature spans. The design work would raise their cost, but short pedestrian bridges tend not to display the same cost structure as massive vehicular ones; the Bridge of Strings, a Calatrava-designed light rail bridge on a line that cost far more to build than light rail should cost, was $70 million for 360 meters. The walkways would not carry light rail, and would be about 140 or 150 meters in span.
Commenters both here (Caelestor) and on Streetsblog (Bolwerk, Matthias, C2check) have brought up transit-oriented development as a reason to allow a tall building on top of the station. With respect, I think on top of a train station is exactly the wrong place to build a tower. Let’s Go LA has an explanation for why the engineering for air rights is so complicated, although he stresses that Penn Station and Grand Central, which were built with the expectation of future high-rise air rights, are exceptions. I’ll add that Penn Station track simplification would also remove many crossovers and switches, making it easier to build air rights. That said, the track spacing is not friendly to the column spacing he proposes.
In New York, the tallest and most expensive recent private-sector office tower on solid ground, the Bank of America Tower, cost around $6,000 per square meter of floor space, in today’s money. Some of the luxury residential towers are more expensive; so are the new World Trade Center buildings, e.g. One World Trade Center was $12,000 per m^2. But the office towers cluster in a specific band of cost, around $2,500 to $5,000 per square meter, with taller towers generally more expensive. The Hudson Yards air rights towers cost in the $10,000-14,000 per square meter range, as much as One World Trade Center. Contrary to Bloomberg’s promises of windfall property tax revenues as his justification for the 7 extension, the city has had to offer tax abatement to encourage developers to build at those prices. Amtrak’s plan for Penn Station South assumes the block immediately south of Penn Station would cost $769 million to $1.3 billion to acquire; when I roughly computed its floor area by counting floors per building, I got 100,000 m^2, which means the price of real estate in that area, $7,700-13,000/m^2, is no higher and may be lower than the construction cost of air rights towers.
In contrast, some sites on firm ground immediately surrounding Penn Station are ripe for redevelopment. The block south of Penn Station, as noted above, has about 100,000 m^2, for a block-wide floor area ratio of 6.7. The Empire State Building’s floor area ratio is 33, so replacing the block with closely spaced supertall towers would require developers to burn just 20% of their profit on acquiring preexisting buildings. To the north of Penn Station, the two sites at 7th and 8th Avenues, flanking One Penn Plaza, are flat; so is nearly all of the western part of the block northeast of Penn, between 33rd and 34th Streets and 6th and 7th Avenues. Eighth Avenue is not developed intensely at all in that latitude – it only becomes important near Times Square. Supertall buildings surrounding Penn Station could even be incorporated into the station complex: railroads using the station might decide to lease offices in some of them, and the exteriors of some of those buildings could incorporate large clocks, some signage, and even train departure boards.
TheEconomist, who has had some truly out-of-the-box ideas, raises a very good point: how to phase the deconstruction of Penn Station in ways that allow service to continue. I don’t have a complete answer to that. Arch bridges, in particular, require extensive falsework, which may complicate matters. However, a general phase plan could consist of knocking down the above-ground buildings, then removing the upper concourse (leaving only the lower), and then removing arms of the lower concourse one by one as the walkways above them are built.
In comments here, people have suggested several alternatives to my proposal to reconfigure Penn Station to have 12 tracks and 6 island platforms between them. There should be 6 approach tracks, as I outlined here: southern approach tracks, combining new Hudson tunnels with a link to Grand Central (which I call Line 2); central tracks, combining the preexisting Hudson tunnels with the southern East River Tunnels (Line 1); and northern tracks, combining the realigned Empire Connection and West Side Yard with the northern East River Tunnels (Line 3).
In my view, each approach track should split into two platform tracks, flanking the same platform. In this situation, there is no need to announce track numbers in advance, as long as the platform is known. Stockholm does this on the commuter lines at Stockholm Central: the northbound lines use tracks 15 and 16 and the southbound lines use tracks 13 and 14, with a platform between each of these track pairs, and until a few minutes before a train arrives, it’s signed on the board as “track 13/14” or “track 15/16.”
The compound looks 140 or 150 meters wide; the maps are unclear about to what extent Penn extends under 31st and 33rd, but according to a diagram Joey shared in comments, it extends quite far, giving 150 meters or even a bit more. Under my proposal, this is enough for 6 platforms of 17 or 18 meters. It sounds like a lot, but it isn’t, especially on Line 3, where Penn Station is the only CBD train station, which implies entire trains would empty at Penn in the morning rush hour. (Line 2, which I expect to be the busiest overall because it’d serve both Penn and Grand Central, is the one I expect to have the least platform crowding problems, precisely because it’d serve both Penn and Grand Central.)
Staircases should be 3 meters wide. Escalators with 1-meter steps have 1.6-meter pits; their capacity is theoretically 9,000 passengers per hour, but practically only 6,000-7,000. Clearing 30 entire trains per hour, filled to seating capacity with 4 standees per square meter of standing space, requires moving about 75,000 passengers per hour. (Per meter of train length, this is comparable to the 4/5 trains and the RER A at their peaks.) With 6 access points, this requires 2 up escalators per access point. The minimum is then 3 escalators, running 2-and-1 at the peak; 4 is better.
In comments, Ari Ofesvit proposes the Spanish solution, which I’ve discussed in previous posts. I’m now convinced it is not the right solution, simply because it compels platforms to be too narrow (about 8.6 meters), which has room for exactly half of what a standard platform twice the width would have, without the possibility of running 4 escalators 3-and-1 at the peak. My comment in that post has more detail, albeit with the assumption that the compound is 140 meters wide.
Fbfree proposes something else: more platforms for intercity trains. Giving intercity trains more platforms (as is done in Stockholm, which has just two approach tracks to the south) gives them more time to dwell; unfortunately, it also narrows the platforms for the regional trains, precisely the ones that can expect the most crowding. Even a single-track platform would take up space out of proportion to the number of passengers it would serve.
Pedestrian throughput is, at the maximum, 81 people per meter of walkway width per minute; this assumes two-way flow, but the numbers for one-way and multiway flow aren’t too different. This is a little less than 5,000 per meter-hour. An escalator bank with two up escalators then needs almost 3 meters of unobstructed platform width on one side (the other side can be used as overflow, but most passengers would use the side of the platform the train discharged them on). This is easy to supply with a 4-escalator bank on a 17-meter platform (there would be 3.8 meters); on an 8.6-meter Spanish platform, there’s only one up escalator per bank, so half the width is required, and is indeed obtainable. But if there are extra platforms for intercity trains, this becomes more strained.
For maximum throughput, it is necessary to minimize separation between escalators on the platform, down to about 6 meters plus approaches, in order to allow wider walkways, which in this case would make the walkways about 25 meters wide. The point here is that the walkways have to have very high pedestrian capacity, since each of them is fed by escalators from all platforms. At 25 meters, the capacity is about 15% less than that of two up escalators per access point (121,500 vs. 144,000), which is fine since some platforms (Line 2 in both directions, Line 3 eastbound in the morning and westbound in the afternoon) would not have so much traffic. But putting in elevators would disrupt this flow somewhat.
I see two ways to increase capacity in the future, if train traffic warrants it: first, build the glass floor/ceiling I outlined above, in the shelter section. This is the simplest possibility. Second, build three more walkways, midway between 7th and 8th Avenues and the two walkways already discussed, and have each walkway or avenue serve only half the platforms – one serving eastbound platforms, one serving westbound platforms. At this point the station would be half-covered by walkways, if they are all about 24 meters wide, but the walkways could be narrowed; as long as they are longer than 15 meters, any passenger arriving on a platform by any of the included access points would be sheltered by the walkway serving platforms in the opposite direction. Elevators should go from each walkway to each platform still, which would facilitate transfers, but the workhorse escalators would spread the load among different walkways.
I’d originally thought that the walkways could host retail and food concessions. The calculation in the preceding section suggests that this wouldn’t be possible, unless the walkways are widened beyond the escalators, with concessions on the outside. Every meter of walkway width would be required for passenger circulation. Even information pamphlets might be restricted to the very edges of the walkways; train departure boards would have to be mounted in the air, for example on the support cables if the through-arch option were chosen for the walkways.
However, there is ample room directly beneath the escalators, staircases, and walkways. With the caveat that escalators of such length need an extra midway support point, they would still have a lot of space underneath: 15-16 meters with sufficient clearance for people to stand comfortably (say, at least 2.5 meters of clearance above); with the upper approaches and the walkways, this is 60-62 meters of largely unobstructed space, for a 60*10 space that could be used in almost any way. Even in the 5-6 meters with less clearance above to the escalator, it’d be possible to use the space at least partly – for example, for sitting, or for bathrooms, the minimum clearance is reduced (I’m writing this post from my apartment, where the ceilings slope down, and the ceiling height above my couch is about 1.5 meters).
There would be two such 60*10 spaces per platform, plus two smaller spaces, near 7th and 8th Avenues, depending on exact placement of access points to the subway. This gives us twelve 60*10 spaces. I doubt that they could ever host high-end concessions, such as full-service restaurants: passengers would probably not go out of their way, to a platform that they weren’t planning on using. This means newsstands could succeed, but not much else; food would have to be shunted to the streets, and presumably restaurants would pay extra to locate right outside the compound. In lieu of concessions, those spaces could host sundry uses, including additional circulation space, information pamphlets, busker performance space, waiting areas for passengers, public art displays, and waiting areas for train crew and cleaners.
After weeks of fraught negotiation, House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) announced that both houses of Congress had reached agreement on passing the Homeowner’s Bill of Rights (HOBOR), which uses the preemption doctrine to abolish most local planning restrictions. President Obama announced that he would sign the bill, which includes several provisions pushed by urban environmentalists. While the majority of Republicans announced their intention to vote yes and the majority of Democrats announced they would vote no, HOBOR relies on cross-bench support, as several prominent Republican lawmakers identified with the Tea Party, including presidential hopefuls Senators Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), announced they would oppose the bill on the grounds of federal overreach.
Despite early environmentalist hopes that the bill would be narrowly targeted at suburban single-family zoning, HOBOR casts a wide net. It preempts any separation of residential, commercial, and industrial uses; maximum heights and floor area ratios; open space requirements; environmental restrictions including noise limits and endangered species protections; urban growth boundaries; parking minimums and maximums; single-family mandates; form-based codes; anti-McMansion ordinances and minimum lot sizes; affordable housing mandates; and setback requirements. It also requires the federal government to study privatizing federal land adjacent to urban areas and to consider the effects of growth controls on the housing market, a move that is expected to liberalize construction in the West. It does not preempt private deed restriction, despite an attempt by urban Democrats to ban it, but does ban cities from giving public incentives for it.
Boehner’s office released a statement, “The Homeowner’s Bill of Rights will prevent power grabs by special interests and by the federal government, and reduce the level of regulation in America’s cities.” Governor Greg Abbott (R-Texas), who recently proposed a similar law in Texas before Congress federalized the issue, credited Texas’s strong economy to loose zoning, and specifically praised Houston’s lack of zoning as an engine of economic growth.
On the Democratic side, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio offered tepid support for the bill, saying that he expected the increased pace of construction to create jobs and affordable housing in the city, but added that the city would maintain its rent stabilization program. New York housing advocates were involved in obtaining necessary bipartisan support for the bill, and the city’s all-Democratic Congressional delegation is planning to vote for it, with the exceptions of Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Joseph Crowley. Crowley said in a statement that “the city’s planning laws are a cornerstone of neighborhood protection, and it’s hypocritical that the Republican Party, which claims it supports states’ rights, uses the federal government’s power so blatantly when it suits its needs.”
In San Francisco, opponents took to the street, protesting in front of the office of Senator Dianne Feinstein, the most prominent Senate Democrat to support HOBOR, with signs saying “gentrification = violence” and “the developer’s bill of rights.” A group of protesters attacked a shuttle bus ready to leave for Silicon Valley; the leaders of the main group of the protesters disclaimed the attack, and blamed agents provocateurs, but added that destruction of property is different from violent crime and that to compare the two is itself a form of violence.
On the ideological right, reactions are mixed. National Review has written in favor of the bill, while Reason continues to reject it. Joel Kotkin has editorialized that the bill “paves the way toward high-rises that Americans continue to reject.” Tea Party support is split, but largely negative; several groups have vowed to sue, connecting Democratic support with Agenda 21, the UN position paper encouraging more urbanization and restrictions on suburban sprawl. Senator Ted Cruz threatened to filibuster the bill, and openly called for a constitutional challenge. In contrast, Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) plans to vote for the bill. In his statement, Rubio pointed to redevelopment in Miami as “affordable housing provided by the free market without government subsidies paid by tax money” and welcomed Democratic support.
All around the nation, municipalities, business groups, homeowners, landlords, and tenants are preparing for the entry of the bill into force, which is scheduled for this September 1st. New York, San Francisco, Houston, and Chicago have all already written draft planning laws designed to comply with HOBOR restrictions, but city planners are still debating how to adapt to a situation without zoning rules to shape urban growth.
Several real estate companies are planning new skyscrapers in central business districts of multiple cities. In Washington, The Related Companies is planning a 1,330 foot tall, 4.3 million square foot tower in Farragut. In New York, Harry Macklowe, Forest City Enterprises, and Durst Organization are all expected to race to develop the tallest skyscraper in the city, in the East Midtown area; real estate analysts speaking on background expect towers exceeding 2,000 feet in pinnacle height, to overtake One World Trade Center, but closer to 1,500 feet in roof height.
Outside city centers, development is slower, but analysts expect it to accelerate in the coming years. Facebook has already announced an expansion of its campus as well as the construction of apartment buildings in its home city of Menlo Park, California, as well as Atherton and Palo Alto, to house its growing workforce. However, when asked if this trend means less demand in San Francisco and less demand for tech shuttles, a senior Facebook human resources manager speaking on condition of anonymity said, “Most of our new hires still prefer to live in San Francisco, so we may end up seeing more commuters from the city, at the expense of the East Bay.”
Ultimately, analysts agree, it is difficult to gauge the long-term effect of HOBOR this early. However, as an early indication that there would be a move to established business districts, stocks of publicly-traded companies involved in purpose-made redevelopment districts, such as the Boston Seaport and New York’s Hudson Yards, are down by an average of 3% since Boehner announced that he had secured support for the bill, whereas those of other major developers have been sharply rising, by 2-15%. But when asked whether they will scale back their plans, officials in Boston have replied negatively, and have even suggested a $2 billion Silver Line expansion to serve the Seaport.
In a pair of recent articles on Strong Towns, Charles Marohn, best known in the urbanist community for introducing the term stroad (street+road) for a pedestrian-hostile arterial street, argues for height limits as a positive force for urbanism. He does not make the usual aesthetic argument that tall buildings are inherently unpleasant (“out of scale”), or the usual urbanist one that tall buildings lead to neighborhood decline; instead, he makes an economic argument that allowing tall buildings greatly raises land costs, and makes redevelopment of vacant lots less likely. He uses the following example:
Let’s say the local code allows [a] vacant lot to be developed as a one story strip mall, but nothing higher. If the strip mall is worth $500,000, then the vacant lot is going to be somewhere around $75,000.
Okay, but what if the development code allows that vacant lot to be developed as a sixteen story tower? If the tower is worth $20,000,000, then that vacant lot is going to fetch a much higher price, maybe as much $2.5 million.
You own that vacant lot. I come to you with an offer to buy it for $75,000. What are the odds you are going to sell it at that price when you look to the other side and see the same piece of property going for millions? Not very good.
In most cities, as Charles notes, there is not enough demand to redevelop every vacant lot as a high-rise, and therefore, if high-rises are permitted, a few vacant lots will be redeveloped as high-rises, while the rest remain vacant. This is not the case in large cities, which Charles specifically exempts in his article (see also Daniel Kay Hertz’s response), but part of the problem with the argument, as we will see, is that the boundary between large cities and small ones is fuzzy.
Let me now explain why this argument fails, like all the other arguments for zoning restrictions: it makes implicit assumptions on future uncertainty. The reason the vacant lot owners are not willing to sell for $75,000 is that they hope to get $2.5 million. In a stable market, with low enough population that most lots cannot fetch such a high price, the lot owners know that holding off on $75,000 offers is a gamble and that they are unlikely to ever get a higher offer. People have optimism bias and might overrate the probability that they’ll get the $2.5 million offer, but also have risk aversion; in most cases in economics, risk aversion dominates, so that safer assets cost more and have lower returns.
So when do we see holdouts? Risk aversion predicts that the probability of obtaining a $2.5 million offer should be higher than the total demand for new towers divided by the number of vacant lots. If we explicitly assume that the cost figures in Charles’ example, including land costs, are unchangeable, then this means vacant lot owners expect there to be more high-rise towers in the future, which comes out of growth regions. Charles’ example is based on Sarasota, which like most of Florida has high population growth.
The other possibility is regulatory uncertainty. In a competitive market, land costs are already as low as they can be while letting lot owners cash out on past investments. Developer profits are also as low as possible, and represent the developer’s wage for managerial work. However, zoning restrictions will greatly raise both figures, and a lot owner who expects future developments to brush up against the present zoning code can hold out until prices rise.
This is the danger of a system that is based on arbitrary rules (Charles proposes up to two floors or 1.5 times the average present height, whichever is higher), and arbitrary distinctions between small cities in which height restrictions are desirable and large cities in which they are not: these introduce political discretion in the details, which introduces additional uncertainty among lot owners. True windfalls usually involve the boundary between regulatory regimes, and this creates political incentive to game the system in order to be one of the few owners whose lots can be developed as high-rises. In contrast, once a ground rule is established that there is no zoning, such as in Houston, introducing zoning is difficult, even when there are rules that are zoning in all but name, such as parking minimums.
Once we get into the realm of cities with a large proportion of their lots developed, as Charles proposes, future development can only replace old development, and this introduces a key difference between new development and redevelopment: redevelopment requires buying out the preexisting property. If a two-floor building is replaced by a three-floor building, then the developer has to not only pay construction costs for three floors, but also buy out two floors, effectively paying for five floors. But the revenue is still only that of a three-floor building, which bids up effective costs by a factor of five thirds. The formula is that if it’s possible to multiply the total built-up area by a factor of then the buy-out factor will raise the cost of each housing unit by a factor of .
This effect is why, in major cities, we usually see buildings replaced by much larger buildings: for example, a three- or four-floor Manhattan building may be replaced by a fifteen- or twenty-story tower on a base. Charles laments that this is not small-scale or incremental, but even his example of good incremental development is similar: in Houston, single-family houses are replaced by low-rise apartment buildings, generating similarly high ratios of the floor areas of redevelopments with the buildings they replaced. Incrementalism in these cases consists of replacing small buildings by much larger ones, gradually, until a few decades later the entire neighborhood is tall.
One way around redevelopment’s need to buy out preexisting buildings is to mandate that future buildings be built to allow adding floors on top of them. Chicago’s Blue Cross Blue Shield Tower is an example. This is a regulation that increases the average cost of construction but reduces the marginal cost and thus the price. It’s also a regulation that only really matters in situations when it is difficult to have a high ratio of new to old floor area, such as in areas that are already high-rise, especially major city CBDs. (It is easy to quintuple floor area ratio when the preexisting buildings have three floors, but not so much when they have twelve.) The current styles of construction of most small buildings, for example sloping roofs common in American and European urban and suburban houses, tend to make adding floors impossible. Of course, the implication that such a regulation should only apply for buildings above a certain height introduces political discretion and hence uncertainty, but at least this is uncertainty that would apply equally to all buildings in an area, which is not always the case for zoning.
What Charles proposes, to develop all vacant lots first and only then start going taller, is then a recipe for high marginal costs, because of the buyout factor. In a small city uniformly developed up to one or two floors, it is difficult to spread the new development across many buildings up to three floors, precisely because there is no way to build single-family houses that are recognizable as such to Americans or Europeans from countries I’ve been to (It’s different in Canada, but this is considered a feature of the low quality of Vancouver’s housing) and that can have floors added to them. In such an environment, building tall is the only way to avoid high housing costs.
Usually, the barrier to new development in a neighborhood is NIMBYism: connected local community members do not want the project, saying “not in my backyard.” There’s a wealth of literature about NIMBYs’ role in restrictions on development; William Fischel’s work is a good start, and the short version is that opposition to development is local, based on fear of the risk of decline in property values. Urbanists take it for granted that decisions made with regard to regional rather than local concerns will be more pro-development: Let’s Go LA has examples from Los Angeles, and Stephen Smith explains Toronto and Tokyo’s lax rules on new development based on their high-level decisionmaking (at the provincial level in Ontario and national level in Japan). In this post, I would like to discuss the opposite problem, which I call NITBYism – “not in their backyard.”
In certain circumstances, opposition comes from people living in other areas, who are aghast that an area they don’t live in is getting so much investment. This is more likely to happen when there’s heavy public involvement in development, but, since upzoning an area is a public decision (as opposed to unthinkable across-the-board zoning abolition), opposition can sprout anytime. One common thread to NITBY opposition campaigns is that NITBYs view housing as a good thing, and want it redirected to their areas. Another is that they self-perceived as ignored by the urban elites; this is common to both right-wing populists and left-wing ones. Since the process is heavily public by assumption, the price signal telling developers to build in the center of the major city is irrelevant, and this encourages the government to build more low-value peripheral projects.
The first example of this is when the process actually is public: subsidized affordable housing. As discussed by Daniel Kay Hertz, in Chicago, affordable housing regulations require developers to pay a fee to a dedicated affordable housing fund, which then uses the money to develop or buy housing and rent it out at subsidized rates for moderate-income residents. To minimize the cost per affordable unit, the fund builds the units in the cheapest neighborhoods, i.e. the poorest ones, exacerbating housing segregation. As Payton Chung explains, the low-income housing community networks in Chicago support this arrangement, because they are based in the neighborhoods where this affordable housing is built. This is not as self-serving as the examples I will include below, since the community groups want to see the most number of housing units built at a given cost; but a common feature of NITBYism, namely that the NITBYs view housing as a good rather than as a burden imposed by outsiders, is present here.
In Israel, NITBYism does not have the cost defense that it does in Chicago. Zoning in Israel is prepared by municipalities but must get approved by the state. This means that it is geared not only toward providing services to Israelis (such as cheap and orderly housing) but also toward national goals of Judaization. The worst NITBYism is not affecting Tel Aviv, but Arab cities, where the state refuses to approve zoning plans; since independence, not a single new Arab city has been built, except to house Bedouins who the state expelled from their villages after independence, and plans to build the first new Arab city are controversial on segregation grounds. This is while the state has built many new Jewish cities from scratch, often in peripheral areas in order to ensure a Jewish majority.
However, NITBYism afflicts housing in Tel Aviv, too. Although the state could if it wanted declare a housing emergency and force upzoning in Tel Aviv, it does not. There are few permits for new apartments in the Tel Aviv District (though more new housing sales): only 5% of the national total (including settlements), as per the pie chart on page 17 of the Ministry of Construction and Housing’s report and the more complete (in English) data on page 49, compared with a national population share of 16%; the Center District, consisting of Tel Aviv suburbs (though not the richest and most expensive, such as Ramat HaSharon, which are in the Tel Aviv District), has 22% of national permits, about the same as its share of the national population. This is not just NIMBYism in Tel Aviv, although that exists in abundance. Local politicians from peripheral towns demand local construction, and view Tel Aviv construction as something useful only to outsiders, such as foreign speculators or the urban elite. During the housing protests of 2011, there was widespread debate on the left about what solutions to offer, and people representing the ethnic and geographic periphery were adamant that the state build and preserve public housing in peripheral towns and not concentrate on Tel Aviv, which they identified with the secular Ashkenazi elite. A common thread in housing and infrastructure debates to both working-class Jews from the periphery and Arabs is the demand for a policy that would create jobs and housing in their hometowns, rather than build infrastructure that would put them in the Tel Aviv orbit.
Of the above examples, in Chicago the NITBYs self-identify as leftists, and in Israel, the NITBYs who want local housing rather than Tel Aviv housing either identify as leftists or identify as economic leftists and support the right on security and ethnic identity issues. However, the populist right is not immune from this. Right-wing supporters of suburbs who oppose cities for what they represent (diversity, usually left-wing politics of the kind they associate with the liberal elite) may also oppose urban upzoning. The best example of this kind is Joel Kotkin’s opposition to upzoning in Hollywood, which sounds like a criticism of government projects until one realizes that upzoning simply means developers are permitted to build more densely if they’d like. Now, Kotkin is pro-immigration, setting him apart from the main of right-wing populism, but in all other aspects, his paranoid fear of urban liberal elites imposing behavioral controls on ordinary people would be right at home at the UK Independence Party and its mainland European equivalents. Kotkin is also just one person, but his views mirror those of Tea Party activists who equate dense urbanism with an Agenda 21 conspiracy, to the point of conflating a phrase that means building new suburbs with a plan to forcibly relocate suburbanites to central cities.
I do not know Japan’s regional patterns of politics well, but I know Ontario’s. In Ontario, there is not much us-and-them politics regarding Toronto. There is such politics regarding the inner parts of Toronto – Rob Ford was elected on the heels of an outer-urban populist backlash to David Miller’s urbanism, including the perception that Miller was fighting a war on cars. But there’s none of the hatred of the central city and all that it represents that typifies politics in both Israel and the US. Hatred of the city in the US is right-wing (though within the city, hatred of the gentrified core is often tied to left-wing anti-gentrification activism), and hatred of Tel Aviv in Israel is generically populist, but in both cases, the us-and-them aspect encourages NITBYism.
In the most expensive American cities, this is not a major problem. Anti-urban populism does not have enough votes to win in New York and California, so state control of zoning in those states would not produce these problems. The Tea Party disruption of zoning meeting I brought up above happened in San Francisco suburbs, but did not have an effect on planning; I brought this example up to show that this political force exists, even if in that specific locality it is powerlessly weak. In those areas, local NIMBYism is a much bigger problem: many New York neighborhoods were actually downzoned in the Bloomberg era by local request. The primary problems that would plague state-level decisionmaking are corruption and power brokering, in which politicians hold even straightforward rule revisions hostage to their local pet projects. The us-and-them politics of Upstate and Downstate New York contributes heavily to power brokering, but Downstate’s demographic dominance precludes ideological choking of development.
Within the US, the risks of NITBYism are different. First, in the cost tier just below that of New York and California there are city regions in more moderate states, for examples Philadelphia and the Virginia suburbs of Washington, or possibly Miami (where the county-made rules have allowed aggressive new construction, mostly urban, which Stephen Smith credits to the political power of Cuban immigrants). And second, zooming in on different neighborhoods within each expensive city, the Chicago example suggests that if New York and other expensive cities begin a major program of public housing construction, the community organizations and the populists will demand to spread construction across many neighborhoods, especially poor ones, and not in the neighborhoods where there is the most demand.
As I noted two posts ago, there is a political economy problem, coming from the fact that the politically palatable amounts of construction are not transformative enough to let the working class live in market-rate city-center apartments, not in high-income major cities. Israel could semi-plausibly double the Tel Aviv housing stock; even that requires housing forms that Israelis associate with poverty, such as buildings that touch, without side setbacks. This would allow many more people to live in Tel Aviv, but they’d be drawn from the middle class, which is being priced out to middle-class suburbs or to working-class suburbs that it gentrifies. The working class in the periphery would be able to move into these closer-in suburbs, but this cascading process is not obvious. Worse, from the point of view of community leaders, it disrupts the community: it involves a churn of people moving, which means they end up in a different municipal fief, one with leadership the current suburb’s leaders may be hostile to.
For essentially the same reasons, subsidized housing in the center produces the same problems. If Israel builds a massive number of subsidized or rent-regulated apartments in Tel Aviv, there will be immense nationwide demand for them. Few would serve the residents of a given peripheral suburb, and there is no guarantee anyone would get them. On the contrary, in such a plan, priority is likely to go to downwardly-mobile children of established residents. At the 2011 protests, the people who were most supportive of plans to lower rents in Tel Aviv specifically were people from Tel Aviv or high-income suburbs who wanted to be able to keep living in the area. The community disruption effect of offering people the ability to live where they’d want would still be there. Thus, all the incentives line up behind periphery community leader support for building public housing in the periphery, where there is little demand for it, and not in the center. Even when housing is universally seen as a benefit and there’s no NIMBYism, politics dictates that housing is built in rough proportion to current population (since that’s where political power comes from) and not future demand.
Abolishing zoning is one way to cut this Gordian knot; it is also completely unpalatable to nearly everyone who is enfranchised in a given area. Allowing more private construction is the more acceptable alternative, but leads to the same problems, only on a smaller scale. It really is easier for community leaders to twist arms to demand veto rights and local resident priority than to push for sufficient citywide upzoning to alleviate the price pressure. But in an environment with weak NIMBYs and few NITBYs, fast growth in urban housing is possible.
This is somewhat of an addendum to my post before about dispersal of urban networks toward cheaper cities. I addressed the question of dispersal from rich, expensive metro areas, especially San Francisco, to cheaper ones, as a way of dealing with high housing prices. But more common is dispersal within metro areas: gentrification spilling from a rebounding neighborhood to adjacent neighborhoods that remain cheaper, and office space spilling from the primary CBD to the edge cities. I am going to address the latter issue in this post.
CBDs are expensive. They have intense demand for office space, as well as high-end retail and hotels. In many cities, there’s demand for office space even at the construction costs of supertall skyscrapers, going up to about $5,000-6,000 per square meter in privately-built New York towers. Zoning regimes resist the height required to accommodate everyone, and this is worse in Europe than in North America and high-income East Asia. Paris proper has many towers just above the 100 meter mark, but only three above 120. On a list of the tallest buildings in Sweden, not a single one above 100 meters is in central Stockholm, and the tallest within the zone are not in the CBD but in Södermalm; compare this with Vancouver, a metro area of similar size. But in the US, too, expanding CBDs is difficult in the face of neighborhood opposition, even in Manhattan.
The solution many cities have adopted is to put the skyscrapers in edge cities. Paris famously built La Defense, which has far more skyscrapers than the city proper does; Stockholm is building skyscrapers in Kista; London built Canary Wharf; Washington, the major US city with the tightest CBD height limits, sprouted skyscraper clusters in several suburbs in Maryland and Virginia. Ryan Avent proposed this as one solution to NIMBYism: in new-build areas, there are few residents who could oppose the new development. In contrast, near zoning-constrained CBDs, not only are there many residents, but also the land is so desirable that they are typically high-income, which means they have the most political power to oppose new development.
The problem with this solution is that those secondary CBDs are not public transit hubs. In Paris, this has created an east-west disparity, in which people from (typically wealthy) western suburbs can easily reach La Defense, whereas people from poorer ones need to take long RER trips and often make multiple transfers. In every transit city, the CBD is unique in that it can be reached from anywhere. To give similar accessibility to a secondary center, massive investment is required; Paris is spending tens of billions of euros on circumferential regional rail lines to improve suburb-to-suburb connectivity, expand access in the eastern suburbs, and ameliorate the east-west imbalance (see for example isochrones on PDF-pp. 20-21 of the links here). Those lines are going to be well-patronized: the estimate is 2 million daily passengers. And yet, the east-west imbalance, if nothing else, would be a lesser problem if instead of building La Defense, Paris had built up Les Halles.
The situation in other cities is similar. Kista is on one branch of one subway line, two stops away from its outer terminus. Living in Central Stockholm, my coworkers and I can get to KTH on foot or by bike, but a coworker who teaches at KTH’s satellite campus in Kista has a long commute involving circumferential buses (taking the subway and changing at T-Central would be even longer because of the detour). While many individual sub-neighborhoods of Central Stockholm are quite dense, the overall density in the center is not particularly high, certainly not by the standards of Paris or New York. A similar problem happens in Washington, where the biggest edge city cluster, Tysons Corner, is traditionally auto-oriented and was only just connected to Metro, on a branch. This always affects poorer people the worst, as they can’t afford to live in the CBD, where there is easy access to all secondary destination, and often are pushed to suburbs with long commutes.
There is a political economy problem here, as is usually the case with zoning. (Although in the largest cities skyscraper heights are pushing beyond the point of constant marginal costs, purchase prices at least in New York are much higher than construction costs.) The people living near CBDs, as noted before, are usually rich. The displacement of office space to the suburbs affects them the least, for three reasons. First, if they desire work within walking distance or short subway distance, they can have it, since their firms typically make enough money to afford CBD office rents. Second, since they live in the transit hub, they can access suburban jobs in any direction. And third, if the transit options are lacking, they can afford cars, although of course traffic and parking remain problematic. Against their lack of incentive to support CBD office space, they have reasons to support the status quo: the high rents keep it exclusive and push poor people away, and often the traditional mid-rise buildings are genuinely more aesthetic than skyscrapers, especially ones built in modernist style.
These concerns are somewhat muted in the US, where rich people decamped for the suburbs throughout the 20th century, and have supported zoning that mandates single-family housing in the suburbs, instead of staying in the city and supporting zoning that keeps the city mid-rise. This may have a lot to do with the formation of high-rise downtowns in American cities of such size that in Europe they’d be essentially skyscraper-free.
However, what’s worse in the US is the possibility of short car-free commutes to the edge cities. Where La Defense is flanked by suburbs with high residential density, and Kista’s office blocks are adjacent to medium-density housing projects for working- and middle-class people, American edge cities are usually surrounded by low-density sprawl, where they are easily accessible by car but not by any other mode of transportation. This is because the American edge cities were usually not planned to be this way, but instead arose from intersections of freeways, and developed only after the residential suburbs did. As those edge cities are usually in rich areas, the residents again successfully resist new development; this is the point made in Edgeless Cities, which notes that, in major US metro areas, growth has been less in recognizable edge cities and more in lower-density edgeless cities.
As with the possibility of dispersing innovation clusters from rich, expensive metro areas to poorer and cheaper ones, the already-occurring dispersal from city centers to edge and subsequently edgeless cities has negative effects. It lengthens transit commutes. Although in Tokyo, long commutes first arose as a problem of a monocentric CBD, and the city developed secondary CBDs as a solution, the situation in European cities an order of magnitude smaller is very different. It worsens housing segregation: the development of an edge city tends to be in the direction of the favored quarter, since that’s where the senior managers live, and conversely, higher-income workers can choose to move nearby for the short commute. Although nearly all metro areas have favored quarters, decentralization of jobs thus tends to lengthen the commutes of poor people more than those of rich people.
This is not quite the same as what happens when entire metro areas are forced to disperse due to housing cost. The agglomerations generally stay intact, since an entire industry can move in the same direction: smaller cities have just one major favored quarter with edge cities, and larger ones still only have a few, so that industries can specialize, for example in New York, biotech and health care cluster in the Edison-Woodbridge-New Brunswick edge city. Moreover, the specialized workers are usually high-income enough that they can stay in the central city or migrate to the favored quarter. San Francisco’s programmers are not forced to move individually to faraway poor neighborhoods; they move in larger numbers to ones near already gentrifying ones, spurring a new wave of gentrification in the process; were they to move alone, they’d lose the access to the tech shuttles. The negative effects are predominantly not on richer people, but on poorer people.
The problem is that even among the poor, there is little short-term benefit from supporting upzoning. If Paris, London, and Stockholm liberalize housing and office construction, the first towers built of both kinds will be luxury, because of the large backlogs of people who would like to move in and are willing to pay far in excess of construction costs. I am going to develop this point further in two posts, on what is best called NITBYism – Not In Their Backyard – but this means that the incentive for poor and peripheral populations is not to care too much about development in rich centers. The marginal additional building in a rich city center is going to go to the upper middle class; sufficient construction would trickle to the middle class; only extensive construction would serve the working class, and then not all of it.
In the US, the marginal additional building may actually displace poor people, if no new construction is allowed, simply by removing low-income apartments. It may even create local demand for high-income housing, for example by signaling that the neighborhood has improved. In San Francisco, this is compounded by the tech shuttles, as a critical mass of Silicon Valley-bound residents can justify running shuttles, creating demand for more high-income housing.
The amount of construction required to benefit the bottom half of the national income distribution is likely to be massive. This is especially true in France and the UK, which have sharp income differences between the capital and the rest of the country; their backlogs of people who would like to move to the capital are likely in the millions, possibly the high millions. Such massive construction is beyond the pale of political reality: the current high-income resident population is simply not going to allow it – when forced to share a building with the working class, it pushes for poor doors, so why would it want zoning that would reduce the market-rate rent to what the working class would afford? The only political possibility in the short run is partial plans, but these are not going to be of partial use to the working class, but of no use to it, benefiting the middle class instead. As a result, there is no push by the working class and its social democratic political organs to liberalize construction, nor by the small-is-beautiful green movement.
Ultimately, the attempt to bypass restrictions on urban CBD formation by building edge cities, like every other kludge, is doomed to failure. The fundamental problem of rich people making it illegal to build housing nearby is not solved, and is often made even worse. The commutes get worse, and the inequality in commutes between the rich and the poor grows. Office space gets built, where otherwise it would spread along a larger share of the medium-rise CBD, but for most workers, this is not an improvement, and the environmental effects of more driving have negative consequences globally. And once city center is abandoned to the rich, there is no significant political force that can rectify the situation. What seems like a workaround and an acceptable compromise only makes the situation worse.
The question of the effects of the supply restrictions in zoning on housing prices has erupted among leftist urbanist bloggers again. On the side saying that US urban housing prices are rising because of zoning, see anything by Daniel Kay Hertz, but most recently his article in the Washington Post on the subject. On the side saying that zoning doesn’t matter and the problem is demand (and by implication demand needs to be curbed), see the article Daniel is responding to in Gawker, and anything recent by Jim Russell of Burgh Diaspora, e.g. this link set and his Pacific Standard article on the subject.
This is not a post about why rising prices really are a matter of supply. I will briefly explain why they are, but the bulk of this post is about why, given that this is the case, cities need to apportion the bulk of their housing via market pricing and not rent controls, as a matter of good political economy. Few do, which is also explainable in terms of political economy.
But first, let us look at the anti-supply articles. Gawker claims that San Francisco prices are rising despite a building boom. We’ll come back to this point later, but let me note that in reality, growth in housing supply has been sluggish: Gawker links to a SPUR article about San Francisco’s housing growth, which shows there was high growth in 2012, but anemic growth in previous years. The Census put the city’s annual housing unit growth last decade at 0.8%. In New York, annual growth was 0.5%, as per a London study comparing London, Paris, New York, and Tokyo. In contrast, Tokyo, where zoning is relatively lax, growth was 2%, and rents have sharply fallen. The myth that there is a building boom in cities with very low housing unit growth is an important aspect of the non-market-priced system.
Jim’s arguments are more interesting. He quotes a Fed study showing that housing vacancies in the most expensive US cities have not fallen, as we’d expect if price hikes came from lack of supply. (In San Francisco, vacancies went up last decade, at least if you believe that the Census did not miss anyone.) This is too not completely right, because in Los Angeles County, as noted on PDF-page 18 here, vacancies did recently fall. But broadly, it’s correct that e.g. New York’s vacancy rate has been 3% since the late 1990s, as per its housing surveys. But I do not think it’s devastating to the supply position at all. The best way to think about it is in analogy with natural rates of unemployment.
Briefly: it’s understood in both Keynesian and neo-classical macroeconomics that an economy with zero employment will have high and rising inflation, because to get new workers, employers have to hire them away from existing jobs by offering higher wages. There is a minimum rate of unemployment consistent with stable inflation, below which even stable unemployment will trigger accelerating inflation. In the US, this is to my understanding about 4%; whether the recession caused structural changes that raised it is of course a critical question for macroeconomic policy. A similar concept can be borrowed into the more microeconomic concept of the housing market.
There’s also the issue of friction, again borrowed from unemployment. There’s a minimum frictional vacancy, in which all vacant apartments are briefly between tenants, and if people move between apartments more, it rises. For what it’s worth, the breakdown of 2011 New York vacancies on pages 3-4 by borough and type of apartment suggests friction is at play. First, the lowest vacancy by borough is 2.61%, in Brooklyn, not far below city average. Second, the only type of apartment with much lower vacancy than the city average is the public housing sector, with 1.4% vacancy, where presumably people stay for decades so that friction is very low; rent-stabilized units have lower vacancy than market-rate units, 2.6% vs. 4.4%, which accords with what I would guess about how often people move.
So if high rents are the result of supply restrictions, and it appears that they are, the way to reduce them should be to relax zoning restrictions. If this is done, then this allows living even in currently expensive areas without spending much on rent. Urban construction costs are lower than people think: New York’s condo average is $2,300 per square meter, and London’s is not much higher, entirely eaten by PPP conversions; Payton Chung notes the much higher cost of high-rises than that of low-rises, but the cost of high-rise apartment buildings is still only about $2,650/m^2 in Washington, and (using the same tool) about $3,100 in New York, and at least based on the same tool, mid-rises are barely any cheaper. For US-wide single-family houses, construction costs are 61.7% of sale prices, but the $3,100 figure already includes overheads and profit. Excluding land costs, which are someone else’s profit, construction, profit, and overheads are 92.5%; so let’s take our $3,100/m^2 New York high-rise and add the rest to get about $3,300, which is already more than most non-supertall office skyscrapers I have found data for in other major cities. The metro area appears to have a price-to-rent ratio of about 25, and with the caveat that this may go down slightly if the city gets more affordable, this corresponds to a monthly rent of $11 per square meter, at which point, a 100-m^2 apartment, sized for a middle-class family of four, becomes affordable, without subsidies, to families making about $44,000 a year and up, about twice the poverty line and well below the median for a family of that size. If we allow some compromises on construction costs – perhaps slightly smaller apartments, perhaps somewhat lower-end construction – we could cover most of the gap between this and the poverty line.
But given that demand for housing at prices that match construction costs, there has to be a way of allocating apartments. Under market pricing, they’re allocated to the highest bidder. If there is a perfectly rigid supply of 2 million housing units and a demand for 4 million at construction costs, the top 2 million bidders get housing, at the rent that the 2 millionth bidder is willing to pay.
I do not know of any expensive city with low home ownership that uses market pricing: too many existing residents would lose their homes. High home ownership has the opposite effect, of course – Tel Aviv may have rising rents, and high price-to-income ratios, but since home ownership is high, the local middle class is profiting rather than being squeezed, or at least its older and slightly richer members are.
Instead, cities give preference to people who have lived in them for the longest time. Rent control, which limits the increase in annual rent, is one way to do this. City-states, i.e. Singapore and Monaco, have citizenship preference for public housing to keep rents down for their citizens. Other cities use regulations, including rent control but also assorted protections for tenants from eviction, to establish this preference. Instead of market pricing allocation, there is allocation based on a social hierarchy, depending on political connections and how long one has lived in the city. People who moved to San Francisco eight years ago, at age 23, organize to make it harder for other people to move to the city at this age today.
Going to market pricing, which means weakening rent controls over the next few years until they’re dead letter, is the only way to also ensure there is upzoning. Although rent control and upzoning both seem to be different policies aimed at affordability, they’re diametrically opposed to each other: one makes it easy for people to move in, one makes it hard. As I mentioned years ago, rent-controlled cities tend to have parallel markets: one is protected for long-timers, and for the rest there is a market that’s unregulated and, because so much of the city’s housing supply is taken off it, very expensive. In exchange-rate dollars, I pay $1,000 for a studio of 30 square meters, of which maybe 20 are usable, the rest having low sloped ceilings. In PPP dollars it’s $730, still very high for the size of the unit. If I put my name on a waiting list, I could get a similar apartment for a fraction of the price; to nearly all residents, rents are far lower than what I pay, because of tight rent controls. Stockholm at least has a relatively short waiting list for rent-controlled apartments, 1.5 years, for international visitors at my university; American cities (or perhaps American universities) never do foreigners such favors.
The problem here is entirely political. Cities have the power to zone. Thus, supply depends entirely on whether local community leaders accept more housing. This housing, almost invariably, goes to outsiders, who would dilute the community’s politics, forming alternative social networks and possibly caring about different political issues. It’s somewhat telling that ultra-Orthodox Jews in the New York areas support aggressive upzoning, since the new residents are their children and not outsiders; Stephen Smith has written before about the Brooklyn Satmars’ support for upzoning, and the resulting relatively low prices. In the vast majority of the first world, with its at- or below-replacement birth rates, this is not the case, and communities tend to oppose making it easier to build more housing.
There is a certain privilege to being organized here. We see the pattern when we compare how US minorities vote on zoning to what minority community leaders say. In San Francisco specifically, activists who oppose additional development have made appeals to white gentrification in nonwhite neighborhoods, primarily the Mission District. Actual votes on the subject reveal the exact opposite: see the discussion on PDF-pp. 13-15 of this history of Houston land use controls, which notes that low-income blacks voted against zoning by an overwhelming margin because of scare tactics employed by the zoning opponents. (Middle-income blacks voted for zoning, by a fairly large margin.) Polling can provide us with additional data, less dependent on voter turnout and mobilization, and in Santa Monica, Hispanics again favor new hotel development more than whites. In areas where being low-income or nonwhite means one is not organized, low-income minorities are not going to support restrictions that benefit community leaders.
The result is that organized communities are going to instead favor zoning, because it gives them more power, as long as they are insulated from the effect of rising prices. In suburbs with high home ownership, they actually want higher prices: my rents are their property values. In cities with low home ownership, rent controls provide the crucial insulation, ensuring that established factions do not have to pay higher rents. Zoning also ensures that, since the developers who do get variances can make great profits, community groups can extort them into providing amenities. This is of course the worst in high-income areas: every abuse of power is worse when committed by people who are already powerful. But the poor can learn to do it just the same, and this is what happens in San Francisco; TechCrunch has a comprehensive article about various abuses, by San Franciscans of all social classes, culminating in the violent protests against the Google shuttles, and in many cases, the key to the abuse was the community’s ability to veto private developments.
The risk, of course, is displacement. As the gap between the regulated and market rent grows, landlords have a greater incentive to harass regulated tenants into leaving. This is routine in New York and San Francisco. Community groups respond by attacking such harassment individually, which amounts to supporting additional tenant protections. In California, this is the debate over the Ellis Act. The present housing shortages are such that supporting measures that would lower the market rent has no visible short-term benefits, and may even backfire, if a small rent-controlled building is replaced by a large unregulated building.
So with rent controls, community groups have every incentive to support restrictive zoning, and none to support additional development. With market pricing, the opposite is the case. What of low-income city residents’ access to housing, then? Daniel mentions housing subsidies as a necessity for the poor. To be honest, I don’t see the purpose, outside land-constrained cities like Hong Kong and Singapore. If it is possible through supply saturation to cut rents to levels that are affordable to families making not much more than the poverty line, say 133% of the US poverty line, the Medicaid threshold, then direct cash benefits are better. In the ongoing debate over a guaranteed minimum income, the minimum should be slightly higher than the US poverty line, which is lower as a proportion of GDP per capita than most other developed countries’ poverty lines, as seen in the government programs with slightly higher limits, led by Medicaid.
Leftists have spent decades arguing for state involvement in health care and education – not just cash benefits, but either state provision, or state subsidies combined with some measure of cost control. There are many arguments, but the way I understand them, none applies to housing:
1. Positive externalities: Ed Glaeser has noted that if some people in a metro area get more education then there is higher income growth even for other people in the area. In health care, there are issues like herd immunity.
2. Very long-term benefits: if college is as expensive as it is in the US today, it takes many years for graduates’ extra incomes to be worth the debt. With health care, the equivalent is preventive care. When benefits take so much time to accrue, first some people face poverty traps and don’t have the disposable income today to invest in their own health and education, and second, the assumptions of rational behavior in classical economics are less true.
3. Natural monopolies outside large cities: hospitals, schools, and universities have high fixed capital costs, so there can only be sufficient competition in very large cities. The same is of course true of rail transit.
4. Asymmetric information: students and parents can’t know easily whether a school is effective, and patients face the same problem with doctors; short-term satisfaction surveys, such as student evaluations, may miss long-term benefits, and are as a result very unpopular in academia.
With housing, we instead have competitive builder markets everywhere, no appreciable benefits to having your neighbor get a bigger or better apartment, and properties that can be evaluated by viewing them.
The only question is what to do in the transition from the present situation to market pricing. This is where a limited amount of protection can be useful. For example, rent controls could be relaxed into a steady annual gain in the maximum allowed real rent. While market-rate housing remains expensive, public housing is a stopgap solution, and although it should be awarded primarily based on need rather than how long one has lived in the city, a small proportion should be set aside to people in rent-controlled small buildings that were replaced by new towers. None of this should be a long-term solution, but in the short run, this may guarantee the most vulnerable tenants a soft landing.
What this is not, however, is a workable compromise. Community organizations are not going to accept any zoning reform that lets in people who are members of out-groups. They have no real reason to negotiate in good faith; they can negotiate in bad faith as a delaying tactic, which has much the same effect as present zoning regimes. What they want is not just specific amenities, but also the power to demand more in the future; it’s precisely this power that ensures the neighborhoods that are desirable to outsiders are unaffordable to them. What they want is a system in which their political connections and social networks are real resources. A city that welcomes newcomers is the exact opposite. Expensive housing is ultimately not a market failure; it’s a political failure.
A post on Let’s Go LA from last year, about different suburban development patterns in different regions of the US, praises Los Angeles’s suburbs for having an arterial grid that allows some density and permits frequent bus service. The Northeast, in contrast, has a hierarchical system, of town centers surrounded by fractured streets and cul-de-sacs, at much lower density. This is how Los Angeles’s urban area has the highest standard density in the US, and one of the highest weighted densities, nearly tying San Francisco for second place after New York. It sounds like a point in favor of Los Angeles, but missing from the post is an analysis of how Rust Belt suburban development patterns reinforce prewar transit. Briefly, Western US grids are ideal for arterial buses, Northeastern town centers are ideal for commuter rail, which used to serve every town.
For a Northeastern example, the post brings up Attleboro as a historic town center. Look at the image and notice the walkable grid and development near the train station, although one quadrant of the station radius is taken up by parking. Attleboro is in fact the town with the oldest development on the Northeast Corridor between Boston and the Providence conurbation, and the only one that, when taking the train between Boston and Providence, I’d be able to see development in from the train. Sharon and Mansfield, both developed decades later, do not have as strong town centers. But conversely, many town centers similar to Attleboro’s exist in the Northeast: Framingham, Norwalk, Tarrytown/Sleepy Hollow, Huntington, Morristown, Paoli.
Now, a careful look at the specific examples of Norwalk and Huntington will show that the most walkable development is not necessarily at the train station. In both suburbs, the old town center is where the original road goes – Northern Boulevard and its eastern extensions in Long Island, the Boston Post Road in Connecticut. Huntington has a second center around the LIRR station; Norwalk has a much smaller second center around the South Norwalk Metro-North station. For the most part, the railroads went close enough to the older roads that the town center is the same, as is the case especially in Attleboro, Tarrytown, and Paoli, and in those cases, commuter rail can at least in principle serve jobs at the suburban town center.
This boils down to the difference between optimal bus and rail networks. Buses love grids: they typically serve the scale of a single city and its inner suburbs, and there it’s feasible to provide everywhere-to-everywhere service, which grids are optimal for. For the suburbs, this breaks down. Buses on uncongested arterial roads are still surface transit; an average speed of 30 km/h is aspirational, and that is for suburbs, not dense urban neighborhoods. On a road where the bus can average 30, cars can average 50, and cars can also use expressways without splitting frequency between different suburban destinations, speeding their journeys up greatly. Meanwhile, commuter rail can, depending on stop spacing, average 50-60 km/h easily, and an aggressive timetable can cross 80 if the stop spacing is relatively express.
There is no such thing as a rapid transit grid. Subway networks almost invariably look like a central mesh, often containing a circumferential line, with spokes radiating out of it in all directions. Mexico City has a larger mesh, approximating a subway grid, but its outer ends again look hub-and-spoke. Counting commuter rail, the hub-and-spoke system is as far as I can tell universal, with the exception of highly polycentric metro areas like the Ruhr. The spokes are rarely clean: they often cross each other (see for example the London Underground to scale). But looking at a city’s rail transit map, you’ll almost always be able to tell where the CBD is, where the inner-urban neighborhoods are, and where the outer-urban and suburban areas are.
At this distance, then, having a bus-friendly grid doesn’t matter much. What matters is having a good network of historical rights-of-way that can be used for regional rail, and a preexisting pattern of development following these lines and their junctions. In the US, the older cities have this, whereas the newer ones do not. In a suburb like Attleboro, good transit means good regional rail, with high all-day frequency, and a network of feeder buses timed to meet the trains. Grids aren’t especially useful for that.
And this is why, despite being so dense, Los Angeles has so little transit usage. Its street network is set up for bare-bones public transit, usable by people who can commute two hours in each direction and will never get cars. Because it was a medium-size city when its car ownership exploded, it doesn’t have as many town centers; its density is uniform. It has a higher weighted density than the Rust Belt outside New York, but its weighted-to-standard density ratio is much lower than those of Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago. (It barely trails Washington, which has fewer town-center suburbs than the Rust Belt, but made an effort to actually build them around Metro; its Tarrytowns have Metro service rather than infrequent commuter rail.)
The optimal urban geography for urban transit is not the same as that for suburban transit, and the optimal street network for surface transit is not the same as that for rapid transit. Los Angeles could potentially excel at surface urban transit, but there’s only so much surface transit can provide the backbone of public transportation in a city. It has a handful of strong lines for rapid transit, and that’s a serious problem, which a grid won’t really solve.
Via Human Transit, I learn that Translink has a bus service performance summary with an infographic on PDF-page 16 contrasting high- and low-performing routes. As usual, Translink claims that the high-performing routes have strong anchors at their ends as one of the reasons for their success. Unfortunately, the claim is not completely correct, and on top of that the definition of “high-performing” is stretched to make anchored routes look better. In particular, this implicates Vancouver’s strategy of upzoning the most intensely at its southern rim while ignoring its center.
To paraphrase my second comment on Human Transit, the summary rates routes on three metrics: boardings per hour, capacity utilization, and cost per boarding; a high-performing route is one that is in the metro area’s top 25 on all three, and a low-performing one is one that is in the bottom 25 on all three. However, only the first and the third are actually useful for the passenger. The second is a measure of pain – it’s the product of turnover with crowding, and although it can be raised by raising turnover, it can also be raised by making the bus more crowded.
An updated list of Vancouver buses and their productivity measures is available here. Measured by cost per rider and boardings per hour, the unanchored 8 is more productive than the 49, which has anchors but nothing in between. But the 8 ranks 29th in capacity utilization, so it’s penalized. The 5 and the 6, which are very short routes serving the West End, are also penalized solely because of their low crowding levels and their short length, which makes turnover more difficult. The 8 has high turnover (like the 3 and 20, which did make the infographic), so it achieves more passenger boardings per hour but fewer passenger-km despite its weak outer-end anchor, and the 5 and 6 are so short that even passengers riding all the way through provide many boardings per hour relative to capacity utilization.
Translink unfortunately does not break down capacity utilization into its two components, and only cites the crowding level at the most crowded point of the average trip. But we can still construct a table of some routes with their performance on the three metrics as well as their crowding level:
|Route||Boardings/hr||Capacity use||Peak Crowding||Cost/boarding|
The 3, 9, 20, 41, 49, and 99 are in the infographic on the list of most productive routes; the 25 narrowly misses on cost per passenger and boardings per hour but is second systemwide in capacity utilization, and the 5, 6, and 8 miss only on capacity utilization. The 25 and 49 have strong anchors at their outer ends, a single strong central anchor at the Canada Line, and nothing else; On the metrics relevant to the passenger who’s expected to ride the bus and fund it by paying a fare, they are somewhat lower-performing than the short 5 and 6 and the short-trip-encouraging 3, 8, and 20, but have far more crowding. The 9 and 41, both in the infographic, are about on a par with the 3, 5, 6, 8, and 20, and have more turnover due to additional destinations on Broadway and 9th that don’t exist on King Edward and 49th, but are still much more crowded than the unanchored routes. The 99 beats all others in performance, but the cost in terms of crowding is even higher.
The purpose of anchoring is explicitly to keep buses full all the way; the 25 and 49 are great at that, since people ride them longer distances, not having much to go to between their major destinations. However, it’s not a measure of passenger satisfaction or of transit agency finances, but of passenger-km. The surreptitious focus on passenger-km is dubious as a performance metric for urban transit, since transit-using city dwellers usually prefer shorter commutes and do most non-work trips on foot.
And if it’s dubious as a transit proposition, then as an urbanist proposition it’s destructive. As discussed in my previous post on the subject, Vancouver is upzoning Marine Drive (slightly) more intensely than the area south of Broadway and near the stations on the Canada Line between Broadway and Marine Drive – see PDF-pp. 26-27 of the draft plan. Despite the hysteria about urban planners using social engineering to make people live close to city center and take transit instead of driving, here we have a city with an otherwise well-deserved reputation for greenness using social engineering to make people live farther out.
This focus on anchors is making Vancouver build itself to be on a regional scale like how the 25 and 49 look on the local scale. The famous high-rise Vancouverism is really about looking like the 5 and 6 – i.e. upzoning near Downtown so that people will walk or take short trips – but future development is not intended to occur near Downtown but rather in strategically chosen secondary CBDs farther away. And what is really needed is continuous corridor development, as is practiced on the corridors hosting the 3, the 8, and the 20.
A major idea due to Jarrett Walker, adopted with gusto by Vancouver’s Translink, is that transit should be anchored at both ends. That is, transit lines should have busy destinations at both ends, and should strive to reorient development such that the maximum intensity is near the ends. I was skeptical about this from the start, but now that I live in Vancouver and see the practice every time I go to UBC, I realize it’s much worse.
The Translink document justifying the layout has a figure, Figure 10 on PDF-page 15, showing that if development intensity peaks in the middle, then the bus will be overcrowded in the middle and empty at the ends. In contrast, if development intensity peaks at the ends, then the bus will be crowded but not overcrowded the entire way. Or, as Jarrett says, “If a transit line is operating through an area of uniform density, about 50% of its capacity goes to waste.”
Both in theory and in practice, this argument fails to note that a bus with development at the ends will be overcrowded the entire way, because people will travel longer. If UBC were located around Central Broadway instead of at the very west end of the metro area, people would just have shorter travel time; at no point would there be more westbound a.m. crowding because at no point would there be more westbound passengers traveling at the peak. There would be more eastbound a.m. crowding, but that’s not the Broadway buses’ limiting factor. Of the top four routes for passups, which have far more than the fifth route, three are east-west with strong anchors at both end (UBC at the west, the Expo Line at the east) and one, the third worst, is a C-shaped amalgamation of two north-south routes, with peak development downtown, in the middle of the C.
On a theoretical level, development intensity is a result of high land prices justifying high density, and in an urban area high land prices come from proximity to other urban land. In cities without topographic or political constraints on development, the CBD is always near the center of the metro area, and in coastal cities the CBD is usually near the shore but near the center along the axis parallel to the shore. Major secondary nodes usually arise in areas close to many suburbs, often the richer ones, and there’s travel demand to them from all directions: see for examples La Defense near Paris and Shinjuku and the other secondary CBDs in Tokyo. Some of those nodes happen to be near the shore (UBC, Santa Monica and Long Beach, Coney Island) but most aren’t. Any newly-built anchor will sprout further development around it unless there’s very strong local resistance. To connect all those neighborhoods that lie beyond the secondary CBD, unanchored transit lines are then unavoidable.
We’re left then with anchors that are at geographic edges, such as on shores. Those raise travel distances, because people can only live at one direction from them, so for a given residential density they will have to travel longer on average. They look attractive to transit managers because they also make the buses more uniformly full, but they’re worse for passengers who have to travel longer, often standing the entire way because of overcrowding. They’re not even good for transit agency finance, because urban transit invariably has either flat fare (as is the case within Vancouver proper) or fare that depends on distance fairly weakly. Short trips generate as much or almost as much money for the agency while requiring less effort to run because of lower crowding levels. Trips in which most passengers ride end to end are the least efficient, unless they can overcome this with very high crowding levels all day.
Now, what does help finances as well as the passenger experience is bidirectional demand. Anchors are good at that. However, what’s just as useful in cases of asymmetric peak demand is destinations that are short of the most crowded points. For example, in Manhattan the north-south subways fill as they go southward in the a.m. peak. This means that commercial buildings north of Midtown, generating passenger traffic that either is northbound (hence, reverse-peak) or gets off the train before it gets the most crowded within Midtown, add ridership without requiring running more trains. The MTA’s guidelines explicitly call for matching frequency to demand at the most crowded point of each line based on uniform sets of peak and off-peak crowding guidelines. This favors not outlying anchors, but development sprinkled uniformly along transit lines outside the CBD. The same development in the North Bronx would have low transit mode share (UBC has high transit mode share, but it’s at a geographic edge, and on top of that it has a huge body of students), while on the Upper East Side and Upper West Side it would have high transit mode share. The only outer ends where heavy upzoning is appropriate are those that aren’t really ends, such as Flushing and Jamaica, preexisting secondary centers in their own right to which people take the subway from the west and drive from the east.
De facto, Translink makes cost figures available for each bus route, and we can compare costs per boarded passenger on the east-west routes and on the north-south ones. The east-west routes have an initial advantage because they have bidirectional peak demand, whereas the north-south and C-shaped ones do not, and have few destinations short of the CBD, mainly just on Central Broadway or Commercial Drive. Despite this inherent east-west advantage, cost per rider is not lower on the east-west lines. Of the top ten route numbers, there are five balanced east-west routes: 99, 9, 41, 49, 25; and four north-south or C-shaped ones serving downtown: 20, 16, 8, 3. (The 135 is east-west connecting downtown with SFU, and could be included in either category.) Going in the same order as above, the east-west routes cost $0.61, $1.21, $1.10, $1.31, $1.47 per passenger, while the north-south ones cost $1.02, $1.29, $1.09, $1.06. (The 135 costs $1.32.) The three routes that interline to UBC on 4th Avenue – the 4, 84, and 44 – cost $1.62, $1.30, and $0.78 respectively, averaging to $1.30; the 84 is anchored at the Millennium Line, the 44 is anchored downtown, and the 4 is anchored downtown but also continues farther east.
The 99 is much cheaper to run than the other routes despite its high proportion of end-to-end ridership, but it is also critically crowded and benefits from multiple peaks as it serves both a secondary CBD and a university; it is also express, which among the other routes under discussion is only true of the 44, the 84, and the 135. Among the local routes, the north-south routes are actually a bit cheaper to run than the east-west routes even if we exclude the 4 as a not fully anchored exception. The 20, the 8, and the 3 all have their maximum development intensity at the downtown end with some extra development in their inner areas, near SkyTrain and Broadway, and a lot of medium-intensity development at the tail. This provides suitable short-of-CBD destinations adding passengers at low cost.
For one measure of productivity, we can divide the number of boardings per hour by the average load. The result is the reciprocal of the average number of hours spent by each passenger on the bus; a higher number means each passenger spends less time on the bus, indicating higher turnover, or equivalently more revenue relative to crowding. The 99, 9, 41, 49, and 25 have ratios of 2.79, 3.13, 2.65, 1.93, 2.13; the 20, 16, 8, and 3 have ratios of 3.26, 2.73, 3.57, 3.24. The 20, 8, and 3 again look very good here, helping explain their low operating costs and also their low crowding (they rank 12th, 27th, and 20th respectively in passups but 2nd, 6th, and 7th in weekday ridership). The 49 and 25, both highly anchored routes, do not look as good, and indeed have many passups relative to ridership (they rank 1st and 4th in passups but 8th and 10th in weekday ridership); they have the redeeming feature that they protrude slightly into Burnaby, where zonal fares are higher, but judging by a map of the passups, the 25 seems to get a large majority of its ridership strictly within Vancouver, with Nanaimo Station as the eastern anchor rather than Brentwood.
We can extend this analysis further by looking at New York’s bus operating costs. Cap’n Transit laboriously compiled a spreadsheet of operating cost per New York City Transit bus route. Within Manhattan, the pattern is that east-west routes have much lower operating costs per passenger than north-south routes. The M15, the busiest route in Manhattan with ridership comparable to that of the 99 in Vancouver and with the best finances among the north-south routes, almost breaks even on direct operating costs; most of the major east-east routes are outright profitable counting only direct operating costs. The key difference is that the east-west routes are much shorter, so passengers are paying the same amount of money for less distance. In his own analysis, the Cap’n notes that the express bus with the best finances is also one of the shortest, and that in general the profitable-after-direct-operating-costs buses have many transfer points to the subway, which suggests short trips as well.
Having seen more evidence for the theory that good bus finances require short trips rather than endpoint anchors, we can go back to Vancouver and compare more routes. The busiest north-south route not on the above list, the 2/22, works more like the 16 than like the 20, 8, and 3: not only is the 22 C-shaped rather than terminating downtown, but also it serves corridors that are less busy than Commercial and inner Main, reducing the availability of short trips. The shorter 2, overlying the longer 22, has 3.42 boardings per hour per load, but still costs $1.43 per rider; the 22 has only 2.15 boardings per hour per load and costs $1.61 per rider, and also ranks 3rd citywide in passups versus 11th in weekday ridership. On both the 16 and the 22, the north-south legs (Arbutus and Renfrew for the 16, Macdonald and Clark/Knight for the 22) are streets that aren’t very busy by themselves, but instead act as important cross-streets for Broadway and other east-west streets. Here are Knight, Renfrew, Arbutus, and Macdonald, and here are, by contrast, Commercial, Fraser, and Main, all around the same cross avenue (near but not at 16th).
The same is true of the east-west buses. The 99, 9, and 41 have better finances than the 49 and the 25. They also do better on passups, ranking 2nd, 11th, and 10th versus 1st, 3rd, and 4th in ridership. The 99 has much better finances than all other buses, which can be chalked to its overcrowding, but ultimately comes from continuous intense development all over Broadway making it a prime corridor. 41st has some of this development as well: here is how a strip of it looks close to the cross street I live on. Compare this with 49th and King Edward around the same cross street. This is not cherry-picked: 49th and King Edward just aren’t commercial streets, and even where they act as important cross streets such as at Cambie there’s not much development there. Of course 4th does have this commercial development and is almost as expensive as 49th and King Edward, but its commercial development is discontinuous, and the relatively intense section between Granville and Balsam is short enough that people can walk it.
So what this means for transit-friendly development is that it should not worry about anchoring, but instead try to encourage short trips on local transit. In his original post about Vancouver’s anchoring, Jarrett says of Marine Drive, at the southern edge of Vancouver proper, “From a transit efficiency standpoint, it would be a good place for some towers.” This is not good transit: from the perspective of both costs and ridership any residential development south of Broadway in which people take the bus downtown is equivalent, so might as well put it immediately south of Broadway or at King Edward, 41st, or 49th to connect with the east-west bus routes and let people live closer to work. Commercial development, too, is best placed short of downtown, because if it’s on Marine Drive people will drive to it whereas if it’s along the blocks immediately south of Broadway many won’t.
Better would be to do what Vancouver hasn’t done, and encourage medium-intensity development all over the major corridors, of the kind that exists on Commercial, Fraser, Main, and 41st and allows their respective bus routes to serve productive short trips, generating low costs without excessive crowding. Towers on Marine Drive, to the extent that their inhabitants would even use transit instead of driving, would clog all the north-south buses. Mixed-use medium-rise development running continuously along Arbutus (which already has an abandoned rail corridor that could make a relief light rail line if the Canada Line gets too crowded) and the major east-west corridors would have the opposite effect, encouraging local trips that wouldn’t even show up at the most crowded point of the line. I’ve argued before that this urban layout is good for walkability, but it appears to also be good for surface transit productivity.
This is also relevant to upzoning around SkyTrain stations. There has not been so far any upzoning around Cambie, even though the Canada Line has been in operation for 3.5 years and was approved for construction over 8 years ago, but there will be some very soon. Vancouver’s draft plan, as shown on PDF-pages 26-27, permits 4 floors of residential development on the cross streets with the stations, 6 on Cambie itself, and between 6 and 12 with mixed use near the stations themselves. Continuous commercial development will be permitted only on Cambie between 41st and 49th. This will be of some use to the east-west buses because there will be more destinations at Cambie, but it will not create the same variety of small destinations available on Main, Fraser, 41st, Commercial, and Broadway, not without further upzoning near intersections that are nowhere near SkyTrain. It’s better than the towers of the Burnaby stations, but it’s still not very good. There is commercial upzoning near Marine Drive, but that can’t be very transit-oriented given the location, and it can’t do much for north-south bus productivity since in the nearby neighborhoods car ownership is high.
It’s too late to change the rezoning plan to permit more linear commercial development on the cross streets, but it’s possible to do better when Vancouver gets around to building Broadway SkyTrain. On Broadway itself, general intensification, allowing more residential density and replacing residential-only zoning with mixed-use zoning, should suffice. There is continuous commercial development from east of Cambie to west of Arbutus, with a two-block gap to Macdonald, and a one-block gap between Macdonald and Alma; both gaps are within a few hundred meters of the cross streets and can be closed easily. The Alma-Sasamat gap on 10th is probably too hard, though. The Arbutus-Macdonald gap on 4th can also be closed, though those blocks are nearly a kilometer from where the stations would be. But it’s as important to allow commercial zoning extending as far south as possible on the major north-south streets, especially Arbutus. Continuous mixed-use zoning should extend at least as far as 16th, and maximum residential density should be at a minimum 4 floors and ideally 6, as Arbutus, Macdonald, and 16th are very wide and the intersections feel out of scale to the current 1-story development.
Of course, this principle of design is true only of urban transit, both surface and rapid. Once the stop spacing increases to regional rail levels, it is no longer feasible to have continuous commercial development, and usually the street networks of the different suburbs are separate anyway without continuous arterials. In all cases it’s important to allow commercial zoning around stations, but the spiky development characteristic of the Expo and Millennium Lines becomes a better idea the longer the stop spacing is. Endpoint anchoring also becomes more justifiable at near-intercity scales, such as New York-New Haven or Boston-Providence: the fares are closer to proportional to distance, and also neither New Haven nor Providence is sprouting suburbs at such scale and distance that it’s justifiable to extend Metro-North or the MBTA with their usual stop spacing past those cities. But at the scale of urban transit, or even inner regional rail, the natural endpoint of a line is not a secondary anchor, and transit agencies should control peak-to-base ratios by commercial upzoning along corridors and near many stations outside the CBD rather than by making people ride transit kilometers longer than would be necessary if the zoning were different.
There is a large class of transit supporters who think that every right-of-way that can be used for transit should be preserved for this purpose, even if it is not very useful. A few overzealous railfans on the message boards opposed the opening of the High Line park and wanted the viaducts to be used for an extension of the 7 train. This is extreme and nowadays the transit activists I know support the High Line while opposing schemes to recreate it in an inferior context. But even serious bloggers like Cap’n Transit, Ben Kabak, and John Morris are opposing plans to create a Low Line out of the abandoned trolley terminal at the Essex/Delancey subway stop, on the grounds that it could be useful for transit one day.
Now, it’s possible that the Low Line idea is bad because people would not want to go to an underground park. But it’s not a problem for transit; the Williamsburg Bridge doesn’t need trolleys since it has a subway running on (and because the bridge is high there is no way a bus could cross it without passing within two blocks of Marcy, the subway stop at the Brooklyn end of the bridge). The lines running on it are in fact underused: as can be seen on PDF-pages 65-73 of the latest Hub Bound Travel Data report, peak-hour traffic on the J/M/Z entering the Manhattan core was one of the lower in the system as of 2010 – higher than the bottom two track pairs (8th Avenue local and Montague) but in a near-tie for third lowest with several others. So there’s not much use for the trolley terminal as a modern Williamsburg Bridge bus (or trolley) terminal.
But what is more important than just the Low Line is place. To succeed, transit needs not only to exist, which it already does in the area in question, but also to have places to connect to. If for some reason the trolley terminal would need to be demolished to build room for foundations for several skyscrapers, it would be an unambiguous win for transit, since it would create more destinations for people to take the existing J/M/Z and F trains to. The surrounding neighborhood might disagree regarding the implications for urbanism, though I’d argue that Midtown-like skyscrapers would be better-integrated into the streetscape than the projects east and south of the station. If the Low Line succeeds as a park, it will be similar: not in the sense of providing jobs for tens of thousands of people, but in the sense of creating a place for people to go to. (In fact, a park has less peaky demand than offices, so it could be better for subway finances even at relatively low levels of usage.)
Last year, I brought up the question of the infrastructure’s highest value mainly as a way of deciding which kind of service (regional, intercity, etc.) should get first priority on any given rail line, but the same is true about transit versus place. In an area with enough transit and not enough place, it’s more important to create more development, for both good urbanism and more successful transit.
This does not mean every proposal to turn a rail right-of-way into a park is good. Despite my skepticism that the Rockaway Cutoff can be a successful rail line, I’m even more skeptical about its value as a park; it’s not in an area that can ever draw many people, since the density (of both residences and jobs) is not high by New York standards and it is far from other destinations that could draw people from outside the nearby neighborhoods. However, in areas that are lacking in good parks, or could use new development, it is better to concentrate on creating place.
For examples of this elsewhere, consider the railyards in Long Island City, Hoboken, and Sunnyside. Two of my earliest posts proposed to build a regional rail station in Sunnyside and then develop the area around it with air rights over the railyard; this is what should be done in an area that needs both transit and place. But in Hoboken and Long Island City, there’s ample transit, and the only use of the railyards is to park trains that can’t do to Manhattan because of lack of electrification or lack of capacity in the approach tunnels. Since parking trains is an inefficient use of space, and both areas have good connections to Manhattan by subway or PATH, there should be plans to remove the railyards and redevelop them to create more place, leaving just enough rail infrastructure to run through-trains, to be parked in lower-value areas. This development can be either parkland or buildings, depending on what is in demand in the area. Based purely on Google Earth tourism, I believe Hoboken does not need additional parks and so development there should be just a new secondary CBD on top of the PATH station, while Sunnyside and Long Island do, and so development there should include parks as well as high-density office and residential construction.
Instead of worrying about turning unused and for the most part unusable transit infrastructure into place, good transit activists should focus on preserving infrastructure that could potentially be used. In the New York area, probably the most useful piece of infrastructure that isn’t currently used is the Bergen Arches, allowing the Erie lines to enter Jersey City at Pavonia/Newport, a more central location than Hoboken; this is one of four options for a location for a new regional rail tunnel from New Jersey to Lower Manhattan, and is arguably the best option for an integrated regional rail network.
In the 1990s there were plans to reuse the Bergen Arches for a roadway, since modified to include both a road option and a rail option, and in 2011 the Christie administration allocated some money to further studies; an analysis from 2004 scored various road and transit options, not including a regional rail network, and gave the highest score to a roadway with a single high-occupancy vehicle and bus lane per direction. (A trail got the second lowest score, after no-build.) Since Jersey City (and the entire region) needs more transit from the north and west, while further formation of place will and should cluster around the waterfront, it’s important to fight any plan to give the Bergen Arches to a non-railroad use unless and until a regional rail plan is formulated that places the New Jersy-Lower Manhattan tunnel at another location.
In contrast, the Low Line should not be a priority. On the contrary, if the park plan is even partially sound, or the place could be reused as another place if the park idea fails, then good transit advocates should support the idea, since it’d be good urbanism. With a few exceptions, good transit requires good urbanism and vice versa.