More links!

Why didn’t I catch onto this whole linking thing earlier? Are these link lists boring for you guys?

1. Human Transit has a great post on “density” and all the different ways to measure it, with a cool picture of sprawling apartment buildings that illustrates why transit use in the Las Vegas metro area is so low, despite the fact that it’s actually slightly denser than the Vancouver metro area (?!).

2. Rich old white Manhattanites against BRT lanes.

3. Privately-paid rent-a-cops gaining traction in Oakland.

4. Longtime Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov has been fired, which some hope will make things easier on property developers in one of the world’s most expensive real estate markets (“[Current] city policy practically rules out private land ownership and forces developers to lease plots under “investment contracts” that often give a share to the city”). Most, however, are girded for a multi-year transition while new palms are greased.

5. Damon Root at Reason magazine explains why Columbia’s Manhattanville eminent domain takings are illegal even post-Kelo.

The folly of measuring transportation costs per passenger-mile

When comparing costs of various modes of transit, units measured “per passenger-mile” are very common. It makes sense intuitively – people take trips of varying length, and longer trips are more expensive than shorter trips, so the desire to standardize and compare makes us want to simply divide the trips by their length and call it even. Both supporters and opponents of light rail use per passenger-mile costs and subsidies to justify their positions, the government keeps tabs on them, and Randal O’Toole at the Cato Institute has even used carbon emissions per passenger-mile to claim that cars are more environmentally friendly than rail.

The problem with measure at the rate of distance traveled is that the purpose of transit is not to travel long distances – these are not pleasure travelers trying to get as far from home as possible, but rather commuters trying to get to wherever their jobs and schools are located. But the distance to this “somewhere” is not a variable to be held constant – it actually varies with population and job density, which is highly correlated with mode of transit. Places with train lines generally have and allow for denser development and thus less distance between your house and your workplace or school – the difference in average commute distance between urban and exurban areas could be as much as an order of magnitude.

Measuring costs in terms of total costs per person and not per passenger-mile makes intuitive sense when you think about it in terms of personal finances. If you lived in Brooklyn and your office moved from Manhattan to somewhere out in suburban Long Island and your transit expenses rose from $89/month for a Metrocard to $300/month for the cost of the car plus insurance, gas, and upkeep, it would be hard to trick yourself into thinking you’re saving money. Your cost of commuting per-mile might have fallen, but you have to travel more miles to do the same task. This would obviously apply to your carbon footprint as well – emitting two pounds of CO2 to travel four miles by car is still more polluting than emitting one pound to travel one mile by bus.

Walking is also possible in high- to medium-density, transit-accessible areas, which reduces some numbers in the denominator of the cost per passenger-mile equation to 0, further heightening the disparity between total cost and cost per mile. And while walking is rarely an option for high-income earners commuting to work in cities, it is often an option for both quick shopping trips and low-wage local employment. The short car rides to the store to buy some milk and short car commutes to the local fast food restaurant to work that take place in the suburbs are within easy walking distance for most urbanites, the use of wheeled transportation being eliminated entirely from some trips while still retaining the same basic utility.

Of course commuting by car and by transit are not perfect substitutes. Cars can be more comfortable, walking gives you more exercise, and riding a train or bus allows you to devote more of your attention to other things. Some people have scenic drives to work, but some people enjoy the vibrancy and people-watching of walking to and then taking the train to work. People enjoy these activities in different proportions, but financial costs are a huge component of most people’s decision-making calculus, and if individuals aren’t going to be making decisions with their own money, then the government and commentators should at least be accounting for these subsidies and environmental costs properly.

Environmentalism vs. density

Doug from Weeds uses the endangered dirt shrew to prevent a church from being built

Recently I was reading an article about the death-by-delay of an upzoning proposal near a train station in Boston because the property might have been “considered ‘priority habitat’ for rare species, including the eastern box turtle,” and I thought about all the times I’ve heard of opponents of density hiding behind environmentalism. Ed Glaeser has written about how Bay Area environmentalists’ opposition to development and California courts’ institution of onerous environmental reviews have encouraged sprawl, and last year we learned that the Northeast Corridor was denied HSR stimulus money because of the lengthy multi-state environmental review necessary.

A few minutes of Googling reveals that stormwater mitigation rules, intended to minimize the amount of polluted runoff entering the watershed, have also been accused of favoring sprawling, greenfield development over infill and denser redevelopment. Existing structures are generally grandfathered in, but any redevelopment apparently must meet the new rules, even if it has no more impervious surface than the building it seeks to replace. Density bonuses for “green” building techniques also strike me as a bit backwards, considering that density is “green” in its own right.

I can’t find any quantitative research on how much of a problem these supposedly pro-environment rules really are, and I don’t have the practical experience of a developer or a planner, but perhaps some commenters will chime in with their knowledge or come up with other instances of environmentalism taking precedence over density.

Weekend links

Links, links, links!

1. The Washington City Paper has a great expose on street food in DC called “Inside D.C.’s Food-Truck Wars” with the subtitle “How some of Washington’s most powerful interests are trying to curb the city’s most popular new cuisine.”

2. Mary Newsom at the Charlotte Observer thinks it’s a bad thing that Charlotte allowed so much density around its wildly popular new light rail line because it’s driving up property values. The Overhead Wire says that this is natural when land is scarce, and that “if you built all the [proposed] lines at once, that pressure gets relieved five or six ways instead of one way.” This is to some extent true, but another solution to the scarcity of transit-oriented property is to allow more even development around the existing line by loosening zoning and parking rules.

3. Ryan Avent finds research that finds that congestion pricing in Stockholm, where citizens voted on the plan after a seven-month test period, became more popular after they experienced it. Then again, congestion pricing in New York and elsewhere depends not only on people living in the city, but also people living outside of it, who are much less likely to warm up to it. Also, it looks like Stockholm expanded transit (mostly bus) service along with congestion pricing.

4. The pilot private van initiative in NYC that we discussed earlier has been floundering, and Cap’n Transit has been all over it. Literally every post on the front page of his blog is about it. There seem to be many reasons for the vans’ failure, and I might write something on it in the future, but in the meantime read Cap’n Transit if you’re interested.

5. Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron praises recently-fired Philadelphia Housing Authority boss Carl Greene’s successes in razing decrepit high-rise housing projects and replacing them with low-rises, and boasts that “PHA houses cost about the same to build as private houses.” But if that’s true, then what’s the point in owning buildings directly in the first place? If you’re not going to produce at lower prices than the market and you’re tearing down your properties anyway, then why not just sell them off to developers and give the displaced residents vouchers to live where they want?

The Great American Streetcar Myth

by Stephen Smith


Among liberals in the planning profession today, the story of the Great American Streetcar Conspiracy is widely known. There are more nuanced variants, but it goes something like this: Streetcars were once plentiful and efficient, but then along came a bunch of car and oil companies like General Motors and Standard Oil, and they bought up all the streetcar companies, tore out their tracks and replaced the routes with buses, and ultimately set America on its present path to motorized suburban hell. Although the story dates back to a 1950 court conviction and was retold by academics and government employees throughout the ’60s and ’70s, the theory leapt into the public consciousness in 1988 with both a 60 Minutes piece and a fictionalized account in the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. Even today it resonates with liberals – The Atlantic casually mentions it as the reason America abandoned mass transit, The Nation wrote a whole article about it a few years ago, Fast Food Nation discusses it, and in the last week I’ve seen two references to the theory in the planning blogosphere.

Though the story has embedded itself in the liberal worldview, it has little basis in reality. A cursory look at transportation history shows that motorization was already well underway by the time National City Lines – the holding company backed by GM, Firestone Tire, and Standard Oil, among others – started buying up transit companies in 1938. Other factors, often championed by progressives, had already driven the industry into decline and it was really only a matter of time before buses took over. Although General Motors and other car-centric companies were certainly lobbying the government in their favor, the progressive tendency to vilify private transit companies had already turned the public against streetcars, and local governments were already heavily predisposed towards motorization by the late ’30s. It is perhaps because of this progressive complicity in streetcars’ demise, along with continued loyalty to state ownership and regulatory power, that the modern liberal narrative omits the true reasons for the decline of streetcars in America.

By the time the automobile really hit the scene, the streetcar had been around for about as long as the car’s been around today. First powered by horses in the 1830s, later by steam-powered cable systems, and finally by electricity, it’s fair to say that the streetcar was a deeply entrenched mode of transit by the beginning of the 20th century. But while the streetcar gained in popularity, the industry also attracted a cruft of regulation and corruption that dogged it till its dying day. Bribery was endemic in the awarding of service franchises, and their exclusive monopolies (often granted by the government) didn’t do much to endear them to the public, either. Ironically, though, it was these exclusive contracts that eventually brought streetcars down. Eager to receive guarantees on their large up-front investments, streetcar operators agreed to contract provisions that held fares constant at five cents and mandated that rail line owners maintain the pavement around their tracks. These rules made sense in the 19th century – inflation was a relatively minor phenomenon until World War I, and horses were rather destructive to the cobblestone streets – but as the next century dawned, these provisions grew increasingly anachronistic and would soon lead to the streetcar’s downfall.

The five-cent fare became a birthright to early 20th century voters and was a third-rail to politicians, not unlike toll-free roads today. Even when wartime inflation eroded the value of the nickel to half its prewar value, local governments would not release streetcar operators from their obligations to charge the uniform fare for all trips, no matter the distance. (Some have argued that this absence of zone pricing, which was so common in Europe, was itself sprawl-inducing, as it made living in far-off suburbs no more expensive than living closer to the city center.) The paving requirements, too, turned out to be poisonous to the industry. When automobiles started arriving in cities, their roads were literally being paid for by the competition, despite the fact that horses had long been phased out, and electric streetcars ran on dedicated tracks and didn’t touch the pavement. Organized labor also took its toll on the streetcar, driving up wages in a heavily labor-intensive industry where the competition – jitneys, municipal buses, and automobiles – had much fewer labor restrictions (not to mention lower or nonexistent tax burdens). In San Francisco, unions managed to convince the city government to forbid the operation of streetcars by just one person, ostensibly on safety grounds, but more likely to encourage employment of union members. Companies were also required to continue to provide service on all the routes they owned, and in many cases were actually required to modernize them, regardless of profitability. In addition to draining the corporations of funds, this also explains why they opted for cheaper buses on routes that were no longer profitable, but had to be maintained by law.

As the century wore on, “traction magnates,” as the titans of the streetcar industry were known, became the Wall Street bankers of their day. Progressive Era and New Deal reformers reacted against the Gilded Age elites, and the owners of streetcar networks were some of the wealthiest people around. The Nation was, by 1920, editorializing against density and subways (they “make a slum out of a suburb”), and the progressive New Dealer mayor of New York Fiorello La Guardia deemed trolleys to be “as dead as sailing ships” in 1935. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s own Works Progress Administration was tearing up streetcar tracks in Manhattan years before National City Lines began doing the same in far less transit-worthy places.

Beyond local governments’ direct attacks on private transit companies, all levels of government contributed to rail’s demise by offering the vast majority of roads to consumers free of charge. While the status quo’s more libertarian-minded backers will point to the gas tax as a user fee, the highway funds are hardly adequate to cover the true costs. Though state and federal governments do now cover most of the capital and operating costs of the highways, local roads are still paid for almost entirely out of general revenues. And when you consider the forgone taxes and opportunity costs, roads start to look severely under-priced – to say nothing of the last hundred years of subsidized road building (the mainstay of FDR’s WPA), eminent domain, anti-urban federal home tax breaks and lending programs, positive feedback loops, and density-limiting zoning and parking policies. Private streetcar companies didn’t get the benefit of government-financed, tax-free tracks in their day, and in fact they paid the automobile’s subsidies directly in some cases, as with the aforementioned paving requirements, and indirectly in others, through local property taxes.

But if the suburban bug had infected America long before 1938 and failures of government were the real culprit, then why is the narrative of the Great American Streetcar Conspiracy so pervasive? Martha Bianco has pointed to the universal desire for a clear villain/victim dichotomy in her study of the myth, but I think the real reason is that politicians and progressive academics have too much at stake in the status quo explanations. American politicians have hitched their wagons too tightly to suburban homeowners to admit that it was a mistake. Progressive economists, historians, and planners, on the other hand, have invested so much intellectual capital into the idea of state regulation and control that they cannot admit that the urban planning profession in America is rotten to the core, and that the mere granting of these powers to government was the original sin. With car-borne constituents and an economic ideology to defend, modern day liberals have apparently found their own culpability in the rise of the suburbs too tough a pill to swallow, and so they’ve settled on General Motors, Standard Oil, and Firestone Tire as scapegoats. But just because they can’t face their history doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t.

Academic references

  1. Bianco, Martha. “Kennedy, 60 Minutes, and Roger Rabbit: Understanding conspiracy-theory explanations of the decline of urban mass transit.” [source]
  2. Bond, Winstan. “The flawed economics and morality of the American uniform five-cent fare.” [source]
  3. Lurie, Melvin. “The effect of unionization on wages in the transit industry.” [source]
  4. Schrag, Zachary. ” ‘The bus is young and honest’: Transportation politics, technical choice, and the motorization of Manhattan surface transit, 1919-1936.” [source]

Building what you can

by Stephen Smith

BLDG blog has a cool post about a book by two architects about “minor development,” or small construction projects that don’t require planning permission – things like sheds, garages, and extensions. It talks about recent legal changes in Europe that have encouraged this sort of development, and has some neat pictures of the sort of small changes that can add a room or just extra space to existing houses.

The article doesn’t mention it, but this immediately brings to mind laneway housing – basically converting garages into inhabitable buildings and sometimes building in existing parking spaces. Vancouver legalized laneway housing last year, and though you still need a $899 permit, you don’t have to file for a variance and the process seems streamlined (although curiously, the article says the units can “only [be] used as rental units”…does that mean you’re not allowed to tear down your garage and build extra space for yourself?).

These are small sorts of infill allowances that aren’t going to radically alter a city like parking, zoning, or road reform could. But although we’d prefer complete property rights with the ability to build on (or not build on, or sell) as much of your land as you’d like, this is at least a step in the right direction.

A comment on rolling stock protectionism

by Stephen Smith

In response to an article I posted yesterday about protectionism in public transit procurement, frequent commenter Alon Levy left this great comment about the history of rolling stock procurement in the US:

What happened in the 1970s was that the rolling stock market shrank, leaving American transit agencies with just a few US vendors. St. Louis and Pullman were fully protected by Buy American. As such, New York City Transit had no choice but to buy trains from them; the trains turned out to be defective, leading to breach of contract lawsuits that bankrupted both companies. Since then, NYCT has bought from foreign companies, following Buy America to the letter but not to the spirit. The first order after the St. Louis and Pullman disasters was imported from Kobe, as Reagan cut all federal funding, and went without a hitch. Subsequent orders required the vendors to establish US plants, but often only the final assembly is done in the US. In the most recent order, the car shells were made in Brazil.

Buy America does the opposite of leveling the playing field for foreign firms. It favors big players, which can land big contracts and establish US plants. The same is true for the regulatory structure: the various globally unique [Federal Railroad Administration] rules benefit companies that are big enough to be able to modify trains for the American market. Just recently, Caltrain’s request for an FRA waiver involved consultation with just the largest companies in the industry. There are a lot of smaller manufacturers that are shut out of the US market; they don’t have the capital to establish new overseas factories or pay lobbyists to write rules in their favor. Those include Switzerland’s Stadler, Spain’s CAF, the Czech Republic’s Skoda, all Chinese firms, and all Japanese firms other than Kawasaki. Those can occasionally land a US contract, but are usually unable to compete with Kawasaki, Alstom, Siemens, and Bombardier, whose US market shares far exceed their global market shares.

I should add that although I didn’t excerpt this part in the other post, the investigation that eventually revoked CAF’s contract in Houston started with a complaint by Siemens, which fits perfectly into Alon’s narrative. Like he says, even companies that aren’t domiciled in the US can take advantage of American protectionism by establishing plants here and then using that to restrict smaller firms that don’t have the resources to waste on Potemkin factories.

Thanks to Alon Levy for this great comment, and thanks to all the other commenters for your contributions – I very much enjoy reading the comments, and find them to be of much higher quality than the comments on most other blogs I read.

North Jersey jitneys take off

by Stephen Smith

In the past few years, a relatively new phenomenon seems to be taking hold in cities across North Jersey: the jitney. Similar to the dollar vans that ply the streets of Brooklyn and Queens, jitneys carry more than a taxi but less than a full-sized bus, and run semi-regular routes that often shadow city bus routes. But unlike the dollar vans of New York, the jitneys in North Jersey are legal and regulated (albeit lightly), and so in addition to local feeder service and circuits around New Jersey, they also run routes directly into Manhattan.

In terms of quality, the jitneys appear quite advanced – customers report that jitneys come more frequently than NJ Transit buses, and the price is lower (at least for individual tickets). The small bus size guarantees everybody a seat, and buses display stickers to indicate the presence of air conditioning.

The complaints about the jitneys are familiar: they drive erratically trying to pick up fares, they’re poorly maintained, they don’t follow traffic rules. Recent random inspections have led to the impounding of more than half of the vehicles inspected, with violations ranging from missing fire extinguishers to gas leaks. The jitney drivers have countered that the inspectors are biased against them and don’t subject NJ Transit buses to such stringent checks, and they’ve also downplayed the nature of some of the violations against them.

In any case, the dangerous driving that the jitneys engage in to poach fares from each other is a problem that needs to be solved, lest it take the whole system down. Because the roadway and curbs are provided as public goods to all comers, we encounter a tragedy of the commons, whereby the competition between drivers ultimately becomes counterproductive and harmful of overall welfare. While our ideal solution would be a no-strings-attached total privatization of the street, quasi-market fixes like dedicated bus lanes and curb rights are more feasible short-run options. Along with stricter traffic enforcement, dedicated lanes for private and public buses would keep the jitneys from tying up regular traffic, and some variation on curb rights as proposed by Dan Klein would make for more orderly pick-ups. The allocation of curb rights should be generous, though, so that new firms have the opportunity to enter; incumbent drivers should not be allowed to become a public cartel by regulating the competition out of existence.

Hudson County – the densely-populated home to Jersey City, Hoboken, and Union City among others – has recognized the need for a more concrete jitney policy, and has commissioned a study that began in June. Increased regulation is on the table, as is “parking and curbside access,” but we’ll have to wait until the recommendations are made and the government acts to find out how Hudson County will deal with this nascent transit market.