Alon Levy on Downtown Brooklyn

In my last post about the geometry of cities and the importance of downtowns, it looks like I understated the extent to which Downtown Brooklyn was built up during New York’s market-driven boom during the turn-of-the-century. Quoteth commenter Alon Levy:

I think you are essentially correct, but there’s one historical fact you get wrong: when the NYC subway was built, Downtown Brooklyn was a very large CBD, in fact larger than today relative to Manhattan. Nobody seriously expected people to live in the Bronx and work in Brooklyn, but people did expect Brooklynites to work in Downtown Brooklyn, taking advantage of the large network of trolleys and els.

The subway was built around Downtown Brooklyn and not just Manhattan. The lines all go through Downtown Brooklyn, with the exception of the L. In addition, the BRT built a few loops going from Downtown Brooklyn to Lower Manhattan and then back to Brooklyn, which have since been rerouted as Midtown eclipsed Brooklyn as a job center.

Nowadays, the problem of traveling from a community to one side of the primary CBD to one on the opposite side is acute, on both transit and highways. As a result, the poorest slice of suburbs will usually be the one on the opposite side of the favored quarter and the dominant edge cities; in Washington, this means PG County, which is opposite Tyson’s Corner and poorer than the white-majority DC suburbs.

My guess about Downtown Brooklyn – both then and now – is that its jobs were probably not as prestigious or high-paying as those in Lower and Midtown Manhattan, and probably contained a lot of department stores. The reason for the “lesser” jobs would be that if you were trying to attract the best talent, you’d want to pull from the widest range of people – presumably why you located in New York City to begin with – which would include lots of people from Westchester, New Jersey, and the Bronx. This will apply equally to places like Tysons Corner outside of DC: It will always be more desirable to be located within the District, where you can pick the best of the entire metro area, and not just the Virginia half.

Downtown and the geometry of cities

Matt Yglesias and Lydia DePillis have been having an interesting discussion about the DC commercial real estate market that I have some thoughts on, so I thought I’d weigh in. I apologize for the length of this post, but I think it’s a really important point that shouldn’t be underestimated.

Matt started by stating the following:

Downtown DC is full. There’s basically no land left to build on, and you’re not allowed to build higher. If you make it a more attractive place to locate jobs, no additional jobs will be created because there’s noplace to put the jobs. The improved quality will show up as higher rent for landlords, and our rents are already the highest in the nation. If you relaxed the height limit, the high rents would spur new construction (=jobs) which would lead to lower rent per square foot which would make downtown, DC a more attractive employment destination.

Lydia agreed that the height restriction should be lifted (I don’t want anyone to think that Lydia is an apologist for this – she’s definitely not, and if given total discretion over DC land use, I think all three of us would implement very similar policies), but argued that Matt is downplaying growth possibilities outside the core of DC’s downtown:

But to say that “there’s noplace left to put jobs” is simplistic. Although many office projects stalled during the recession, they’re starting up again in a big way around the city, from Mount Vernon Square to Anacostia. On the longer term horizon, massive office capacity is planned for McMillan, L’Enfant Plaza, and the Capitol Riverfront. Recent changes in who gets what at Walter Reed – the District may now get all of the Georgia Avenue frontage – has Office of Planning director Harriet Tregoning thinking about “more ambitious uses” like a “major employment center.” The list goes on. So yes, rents are high, but jobs are still coming, and there’s plenty of space to put them–in places that could really use the lift.

I think I’d come down more on Matt’s side. While there is definitely room for growth near the core (for example, L’Enfant Plaza and Mt. Vernon Square, or NoMa), there isn’t that much more room. DC’s office rents have already surpassed New York City’s to be the highest in the nation – clearly DC has a very, very serious problem when it comes to commercial real estate affordability, which has a huge impact on job creation.

Which brings me to my main point: All those outlying districts. The DC metro area has put a lot of stock in density in neighborhoods far from downtown. Lydia cites a few within the District – McMillan, Anacostia, the Capitol Riverfront, Walter Reed – and then there are huge projects in Northern Virginia like Tysons Corner and the Orange Line corridor. But frankly, I’m not convinced that it’s these sorts of “edge downtowns” are realistic long-term solutions.

To see why, you have to understand why downtowns developed in the center of metropolitan areas to begin with. Geometrically, the center of a circle will always be the point that’s closest to the average of all other points within the circle. As a city sprawls outwards, the average difficulty of going from one random point to another grows exponentially, while the difficulty of commuting directly to the center increases linearly. (I’m not the best at explaining mathematical concepts, so if someone could formalize this in the comments, it might help others understand.) Transit entrepreneurs during America’s huge urban boom around the turn of the last century understood this well, as every elevated line or streetcar route was designed to funnel people in and out of downtown. In fact, as I learned from Robert Fogelson’s aptly-titled Downtown, early 20th century city dwellers fully understood and accepted the need for commercial space to be in the center and residential on the outskirts – many people in 1910 believed (and accepted) that by the year 2000, Manhattan would be largely devoid of residential neighborhoods. To use the example of New York City, while many (most?) of the private transit lines, for efficiency reasons, started in one outer borough and ended in another, they all (/almost all?) made a beeline straight for Lower and Midtown Manhattan. Nobody was seriously expected to ride, for example, the 4 train from the Bronx to downtown Brooklyn. Yes, there was a downtown Brooklyn (and a downtown Queens, and a downtown Bronx), but it was a secondary job center at best, and I doubt anybody believed it would ever host the variety of jobs that Lower and Midtown Manhattan did (and still do).

While mass transit technology has improved (though not nearly as much as it would have had we not regulated the private companies out of existence and replaced them with sclerotic publicly-managed shitholes), I doubt it will ever get to the point where extra density downtown is not the market equilibrium. For example, in DC, even when the Silver and Purple Lines are completely built out, it would be very difficult, if not impossible, for someone living in Maryland on the Purple Line to commute to work every day in Tysons Corner. The trip, like one to the already built-up Orange Line corridor, would involve transferring to the overcrowded Red Line, which you’d then have to taken into the city and change at Metro Center for the Silver or Orange Line, and then ride that a few stops into Virginia. Without even counting the time it would take to walk to the station from your house or to work from the station, the travel time could easily reach an hour each way – and that’s for peak trips when the trains are running with short headways. For those of you outside the DC bubble, imagine commuting by rail from Bryn Mawr to Cherry Hill in the Philly region, or from North Jersey to Long Island City in the NYC metro area, or from Oakland to San Jose in the Bay Area (California geography isn’t my strong suit – maybe that one’s more doable?).

Now some might respond by saying that such commutes are not necessary because people can work closer to home. Those in Jersey ‘burbs can work in Jersey City, those in Maryland can work in New Carrollton, etc. But then that makes you wonder, what’s the point of everyone living in one metropolitan area anyway? Conservatives and pro-sprawl libertarians might point to the relatively small amount of people who commute to city cores every day – even in very transit-accessible places like Philadelphia and New York – but I think they’re discounting the impact of the people who do. They tend to be very high wage-earners who support a lot of commerce in their local communities. Without access to lucrative jobs in Midtown and Lower Manhattan, would Scarsdale still be able to support all its local jobs? Without the R5 bringing people from Philadelphia’s Main Line into Center City, would all those local jobs still exist? Probably not.

I think it’s also worth pointing out that the vast majority, if not all, cities in capitalist countries have a wedding-cake style design. The ones that don’t are largely cities built by communist dictatorships – cities like Moscow, Beijing, and Pyongyang. For more on this, see this post, which excerpts from an interesting article about land use in socialist economies. Even Paris has a very high core density, which it achieves through large amounts of six-story structures, few parking lots, and narrow streets – all things that DC lacks in key close-in neighborhoods. (Looking out the window from Reason’s office a couple blocks north of Dupont Circle – one of the busiest Metro stops in the region – I don’t see a single building that rises to six stories.)

Now, this isn’t to say that Lydia and DC’s planners are wrong to argue for density where they can – after all, it’s hard to imagine DC actually lifting its height restriction in the near future. Having rail-based edge cities along the Anacostia waterfront or Tysons Corner is definitely better than the status quo – I have no doubt about that. But I don’t think they’ll ever be a very good replacement for extremely high-density, easily-accessible downtowns at the exact center of metro areas.

(…by the way, this post is way too long for me to thoroughly proofread. Apologies for the inevitable typos and bad writing.)

Even a HUD project in a high-density Bronx neighborhood can’t escape the parking minimum

This should come as no surprise to anyone who’s taken a look at America’s absurdly restrictive minimum parking requirements, but Streetsblog has come up with a really great example of really bad parking policy in action:

The HUD-sponsored project, located on Bathgate Avenue between 183rd and 184th Streets, was originally slated to be an 18-unit building. Under the zoning that used to govern the site, the parking minimums were low enough that fewer than five spaces were required, said Ferrara. With such a small number of required spaces, the project was eligible for a waiver, meaning it didn’t need to build any parking at all.

In October, however, the area was classified as a “neighborhood preservation area” by the Department of City Planning in its Third Avenue/Tremont Avenue rezoning. The new zoning, known as R6A, carries slightly higher parking requirements for affordable projects [PDF]. “When we went down to an R6A,” said Ferrara, “it put us in a position where we couldn’t get the parking waived.” In effect, the rezoning added parking requirements where there hadn’t been any before.

I’ve praised Bloomberg’s rezoning in the past while also worrying that the lack of parking minimum reform would hold back growth. It looks like I was too generous—in some cases, the rezoning has actually made the parking minimum problem worse.

And just for the record, I looked up the location on a map, and the specific location is about a 10 minute walk to the closest B/D local station on the Grand Concourse. Its zipcode is pretty poor – 10458′s average adjusted gross income has been in decline since 2000 when adjusted for inflation, and currently stands at only $23,781. And obviously it’s a HUD project.

There’s also this interesting bit:

Even though he reported that it’s “not uncommon” to subdivide a project into smaller buildings in order to receive a waiver for each half, Ferrara said even that “is a cost item.” If you subdivided a taller project to avoid parking requirements, you’d have to spend twice the money and space on elevators, he offered as an example.

I’m not exactly sure why New York hasn’t tackled this yet. Bloomberg seems like a reasonably effective mayor, and clearly he’s very pro-development, so why hasn’t he done this? Normally I’d chalk it up to community opposition, but as Streetsblog has pointed out before, Washington, Philadelphia, and Boston have all started to tackle the problem of parking minimums – surely New York can’t have that many more NIMBYs than those cities, right? How is it that the mayor who built Brooklyn’s waterfront, hired Janette Sadik-Khan, and is on his second street pricing push hasn’t kept up with his peers in parking reform? Anyone have any idea?

Not Marshmallows, but a Really, REALLY Big Lollipop

In the last post, commenter AWP helped me realize that the marshmallow mountain analogy could be improved upon, since one person eating a marshmallow prevented another person from eating that same marshmallow.  But the road cannot be subdivided as simply.  Yes, a nit-picky implication of the vagueness of the term “good”, but I want to communicate as well as I can.

So, I plan to revise the article to use the analogy of a really, really big lollipop.  It’s a significant enough revision that I think it deserves mentioning.  Let me know if you think of a better analogy.

Government built the interstate highway system, they could build a BIGGER lollipop than this...

Urban[ism] Legend: Transportation is a Public Good

In a recent post, commenter Jeremy H. helped point out that the use of the term “public good” is grossly abused in the case of transportation.  Even Nobel economists refer to roads as ”important examples of production of public goods,” ( Samuelson and Nordhaus 1985: 48-49).  I’d like to spend a little more time dispensing of this myth, or as I label it, an “Urban[ism] Legend.”

As Tyler Cowen wrote the entry on Public Goods at The Concise Library of Economics:

Public goods have two distinct aspects: nonexcludability and nonrivalrous consumption. “Nonexcludability” means that the cost of keeping nonpayers from enjoying the benefits of the good or service is prohibitive.

And nonrivalrous consumption means that one consumer’s use does not inhibit the consumption by others.  A clear example being that when I look at a star, it doesn’t prevent others from seeing the same star.

Back when I took Microeconomics at a respectable university in preparation for grad school, I was taught that in some cases roads are public goods.  We used Greg Mankiw’s book, “Principles of Economics” which states the following on page 234:

If a road is not congested, then one person’s use does not effect anyone else. In this case, use is not rival in consumption, and the road is a public good. Yet if a road is congested, then use of that road yields a negative externality. When one person drives on the road, it becomes more crowded, and other people must drive more slowly. In this case, the road is a common resource.

This explanation made sense, but I was skeptical – something didn’t sit right with me.  Let’s take a closer look.

First, Mankiw uses his assertion as an example of rivalrous vs nonrivalrous consumption, while not addressing the question of excludability.  Roads are easily excludable through gates or any other mechanism that could restrict access.

Furthermore, Mankiw’s assertion that an uncongested road is nonrivalrous is simply confusing rivalrousness with the fact that the road is under-utilized and/or over-supplied at certain times.

For a silly example: if the government literally manufactured mountains of marshmallows free for the taking, Mankiw would have to consider marshmallows equally as non-rivalrous and non-excludable as uncongested roads in the US.  Would he then call marshmallows a public good?

Thus we can clearly see that all roads (when done right) are neither nonrival nor non-excludable.   We can use the diagram below (from Living Economics) to see that a congested (or tolled to prevent congestion) road is a private good, and in the case that a roadway is oversupplied, it is simply a “low-congestion good”, often called a “club good.”

I found this diagram at a very helpful site:

Roads are the more commonly misused example of a public good, but we can apply the same logic to transit.  First, most transit operations in the US already use a method of exclusions: the turnstyle.  Second, we can see that non-rivalrousness is simply a function of over-supply in the case of the subway car that isn’t full to capacity.

As economist, Don Boudreaux puts it :

So I’m more than sympathetic to the claim that government provision of roads, bridges, and highways distorted Americans’ decisions over the years to drive and live in suburbs.  But my sympathy for this claim comes from my rejection of the classic, naive case for government provision of public goods — and once that case is rejected, it cannot then be used to argue for government provision of, say, light-rail transport.

Does this alone prove that roads should be privatized? No, but the fact roads are either private goods or grossly oversupplied help weaken anyone’s case that transportation is government’s business in the first place.

I should warn you, if your Microeconomics professor teaches you this misconception unchallenged (perhaps using the Mankiw book), and gives you a true/false exam question of whether an uncongested road is a Public Good, you may want to answer “true”, or else be prepared to dispute your grade.  (And feel free to send your professor a link to this post.)

Next time you catch a commenter repeating this Urban[ism] Legend (like Jeremy H. did), refer them to this post.  Here are a few other links to back you up:

Are Roads Public Goods, Club Goods, Private Goods, or Common Pools? by Bruce Benson, Floria State University

Privatizing Roads by Tim Haab, “Environmental Economics” (blog)

Public Goods and Externalities: The Case of Roads by Walter Block, Loyola University

Highways Are Not (Economic) Public Goods by Rob Pitingolo, “Extraordinary Observations” (blog)

Public Goods from an Austrian Economics perspective


1. An excellent Wikipedia article about the old DC streetcars. I wish there were more economics, and I’d also like to know about the state-mandated consolidation that they talk about in the mid-1890s. Also note that streetcar use reached its peak in the mid 1910s – when people talk about interstate highways and the Great American Streetcar Conspiracy, they’re starting the story decades too late.

2. A dissenting (heh) view of Ed Glaeser’s book. My criticism of Glaeser would be that sometimes he starts speaking very generally and starts sounding a little whacky (which I think is what the reviewer here is picking up on). Perhaps his work wouldn’t be so popular if not for this tendency to paint in broad strokes, but I would like to see more specific analysis of land use laws and how Glaeser would like to change them. I haven’t read the book, though – does it get more nuanced than the excerpt in the Atlantic?

3. Human Transit publishes a reader comment and gives some great analysis of transit agency’s staffing and frequency. Apparently labor is the biggest constraint on frequency outside of peak hours, but many systems have labor and safety regulations that force transit agencies to overstaff trains. The efforts of unions to keep the unnecessary second man on transit vehicles are almost a century old, despite massive advances in transportation technology that have long since obviated the need.

4. This is cool.

5. DC’s gas stations are not long for this world as the condo onslaught continues. Urban gas stations rarely seem to me to be efficient uses of space (the gas station on Houston Street in Manhattan is the prime example) – does anybody know how rigid the zoning guidelines they fall under generally are? Are they zoned only for gas stations, necessitating a lobbying effort to develop?


1. China’s high-speed rail scandal. So much for Obama’s State of the Union shout-out.

2. Boston, Philadelphia, and DC are all moving towards parking reform – both of minimum off-street requirements (unfortunately to be replaced with maximums in most cases) and of underpriced curb parking – but NYC’s the laggard. Like I noted a few weeks ago, this could be sabotaging its recent upzonings.

3. One Democratic Assemblyman wants to hamstring the NYC subway with yet another ridiculously overbearing safety rule – literally forcing trains to come to a complete halt right before entering a station – adding significant time to existing commutes.

4. NYC’s FRESH initiative gives money to a politically-connected supermarket for a parking lot. Wait, isn’t car-owning food desert victim an oxymoron?

5. Downtown San Jose’s Diridon station – the most transit-accessible place in San Jose – is getting $10 billion worth of new rail. Zoning consultants were paid for a year, and came up with the following recommendation: “no proposed changes to current code.” Got that? $10 billion in rail investment in one of the most progressive places in America and there will be no new TOD allowed.

Ed Glaeser on New York City, development as preservation, and more

Ed Glaeser has a sprawling feature story in The Atlantic about skyscrapers that’s full of urbanist history and themes that I’ve been meaning to blog about for a few days now. It’s a great article, with a lot of New York history in it, but I wanted to highlight a few bits.

The part I liked most was where Glaeser talks about what I’ve called development as preservation and others have called adaptive reuse – the idea that making use of existing developed land is the best way to preserve historic buildings, although Glaeser also points out that it’s useful for preserving open land like parks, too:

Yes, you can have your cake and eat it too!

In 2006, the developer Aby Rosen proposed putting a glass tower of more than 20 stories atop the old Sotheby Parke-Bernet building at 980 Madison Avenue, in the Upper East Side Historic District. Rosen and his Pritzker Prize–winning architect, Lord Norman Foster, wanted to erect the tower above the original building, much as the MetLife Building (formerly the Pan Am Building) rises above Grand Central Terminal. The building was not itself landmarked, but well-connected neighbors didn’t like the idea of more height, and they complained to the commission. Tom Wolfe, who has written brilliantly about the caprices of both New York City and the real-estate industry, wrote a 3,500-word op-ed in The New York Times warning the landmarks commission against approving the project. Wolfe & Company won. In response to his critics in the 980 Madison Avenue case, of whom I was one, Wolfe was quoted in The Village Voice as saying:

To take [Glaeser’s] theory to its logical conclusion would be to develop Central Park … When you consider the thousands and thousands of people who could be housed in Central Park if they would only allow them to build it up, boy, the problem is on the way to being solved!

But one of the advantages of building up in already dense neighborhoods is that you don’t have to build in green areas, whether in Central Park or somewhere far from an urban center. From the preservationist perspective, building up in one area reduces the pressure to take down other, older buildings. One could quite plausibly argue that if members of the landmarks commission have decided that a building can be razed, then they should demand that its replacement be as tall as possible.

There’re also some great parts where he talks about the economics of skyscrapers. Apparently the marginal cost per square foot of space between about the 10th and 50th floor is less than $400 (!), meaning that average construction costs can be dramatically lowered by adding stories. He also has nice things to say about building in Chicago (which I know have been echoed by Adam). He pays due respect to Jane Jacob, but takes issue with her ideas about skyscrapers, and I agree with him. The end of the article is dedicated to India’s urbanism woes, which are apparently pretty bad. In 1991, Mumbai fixed an FAR of 1.33 throughout most of the city, which means that the average density of non-street space in these areas is, at most, 1.33 stories – a shockingly low number for a poor city of 20 million. He mentions Singapore favorably, and notes that when it implemented its congestion charge in 1975, it was not a wealthy country.

One thing that I couldn’t get on board with, though, is the part where he sounds like he almost wishes that the anti-density restrictions were reversed. In the last sentence of the blockquote it looks like he’s just using it for rhetorical effect, but here he sounds like he actually believes it:

If Mumbai wants to promote affordability and ease congestion, it should make developers use their land area to the fullest, requiring any new downtown building to have at least 40 stories. By requiring developers to create more, not less, floor space, the government would encourage more housing, less sprawl, and lower prices.

If density is really regulated out of existence and pent-up demand is as huge as Glaeser says it is, then why would we need to require people to build skyscrapers? Ed Glaeser is very much a libertarian-leaning economist, so I doubt that he really means that we should do this, but the language he’s using is giving ammo to the war-on-cars crowd who hang on every sprawl-forbidding regulation as evidence that they are the norm, when I obviously do not believe this to be the case. I understand that The Atlantic is not putting this story out there to convince libertarians, but this is the kind of thing they like to jump on as evidence of a vast liberal conspiracy to herd freedom-loving suburbanites into 800 sq. ft. apartments and force them to ride bikes to the light rail station in the freezing cold.

Another part that I wasn’t so sure of was this one, where he gives his third recommendation for land use policy going forward:

Finally, individual neighborhoods should have more power to protect their special character. Some blocks might want to exclude bars. Others might want to encourage them. Rather than regulate neighborhoods entirely from the top down, let individual neighborhoods enforce their own, limited rules that are adopted only with the approval of a large share of residents. In this way, ordinary citizens, rather than the planners in City Hall, would get a say over what happens around them.

I know that Glaeser probably really meant the “limited” part of “limited rules,” but I fear that people will instead focus on the “individually neighborhoods should have more power” part. While a lot of libertarians support governing at the lowest level possible, I think experience has shown that giving localities more zoning power often results in more restrictive anti-density zoning. As much as libertarians deride regional planning efforts, such efforts seem to result in more complete property rights those wishing to do high-density development.

But beyond those two things, it was a great piece, and I’m glad The Atlantic is giving urbanism the space it deserves.