Randal O’Toole’s responds on “per passenger miles”

I’ve had my disagreements with Randal O’Toole, a libertarian defender of suburban sprawl, but to his credit, he’s done the most convincing accounting of subsidies (well, accounting costs, at least) that I’ve seen yet. And though he normally concentrates on federal costs, his write-up of an American Bus Association report includes this paragraph about mass transit:

What about state and local subsidies? A first approximation of such subsidies can be found by subtracting expenses from revenues in National Transportation Statistics. The results suggest that total subsidies to air travel are tiny, subsidies to highways are large (but tiny per passenger mile), and subsidies to transit are in between (but much larger per passenger mile). National Transportation Statistics doesn’t have state and local subsidies to Amtrak or intercity buses, but I suspect the former are much larger than the latter.

All of this is probably true, but I’ve criticized the use of “per passenger miles” in the past (as had Michael Lewyn, unbeknownst to me at the time) on the basis that trips in areas served by mass transit can be shorter than trips made with in the suburbs and the exurbs with a car. I emailed Randal O’Toole and asked him what he thought of this argument, and as always, he was kind enough to send me his response:

You make a valid point. But it is most valid in regions where transit is concentrated in dense areas and jobs are concentrated in those dense areas. In post-automobile regions, such as San Jose, Phoenix, and Houston, neither of those conditions apply. The same is true in pre-auto regions that have undergone massive decentralization, such as Cleveland and St. Louis. Even in Chicago and San Francisco, jobs have decentralized to the point where dense downtowns hold only a small share of the region’s jobs.

Wendell Cox has some great maps somewhere on one of his web sites, or at least in his slide shows, showing the portion of urban areas such as Portland that can be reached from a random starting point within so many minutes by transit and by auto. Unless the starting point is downtown, transit reaches only a tiny fraction of the area reached by autos.

In sum, outside of Manhattan, I suspect your point is valid only for people starting downtown — that is, at the hub of our hub-and-spoke transit systems. I am sure a detailed analysis could be done to prove whether or not this is true.

First of all, I’m not sure Wendell’s point is all that relevant here – the question is whether miles (in other words, the “tiny fraction of the area reached by autos” that he mentions) is even a useful measurement when comparing transit-oriented cities and car-oriented sprawl. But the point in his first paragraph is undoubtedly true: most regions do not have very many jobs downtown, and transit works most effectively when everyone commutes downtown, within neighborhood, or somewhere in between the two. But is the paucity of jobs in cities’ dense urban cores a natural free market outcome, or is it the result of anti-density limits like zoning and parking minimums?

Furthermore, are transit lines not located in dense places (like most new lines out west) because there is no demand for density, or is it because they’re “zoned out” – that is, infill development is essentially no longer allowed? I know that every neighborhood near a transit line I’ve ever lived in has been completely built up to the zoning envelope. And the fact that most transit authorities allocate prime TOD property – the parcels directly adjacent to the station – to parking lots, completely ruling out any development whatsoever, can’t help matters. The problem of land socialistically allocated to parking near stations is most acute out west, where all new stations are surrounded by a sea of parking, but it also happens with commuter rail lines in the Northeast.

Links: “At least they’re being honest” edition

1. NY Governor Cuomo promises the “most aggressive” strengthening of the state’s (read: NYC’s) rent laws.

2. Bronx <3 parking: “This community wants a moratorium on any more building until we get a parking lot.” “We don’t want any bigger buildings and we want parking space for everyone.”

3. Do people realize that “I don’t mind modernist architecture” and “All new buildings must have decorative cornices and intricate brickwork” are fundamentally incompatible statements?

4. Witold Rybczynski on density. Nothing you haven’t already heard a million times before, but, Witold Rybczynski!

5. DC’s zoning code finally allows building owners to enclose the once-encouraged outdoor arcades.


1. The fact that we even have to have a debate over whether residential development should be allowed in Midtown, where new residents will have perhaps a smaller impact on transportation infrastucture than anywhere else in the country (they can either walk to work or do a reverse train commute), is pretty pathetic.

2. The plan for San Jose’s Diridion Station is is so loaded down with boondoggles and bad ideas that it’s hard to keep track of them all. As if a stadium and HSR station weren’t bad enough it’s also getting a neo-Euclidean zoning plan (business and R&D park to the north, entertainment, retail, and office space by the station, and residential and retail to the south), “adequate parking,” and what looks to me like probably too much parkland. One panelist from the Greenbelt Alliance said it was necessary for the plan to include “parks, trails and public plazas.” But given that it looks like we’re only really talking about an area that’s a dozen or two blocks in size, is all that really necessary?

3. Second Avenue Subway on Bloomberg’s transit failures. Looks like my bike lane rabble-rousing is spreading…

4. More union shenanigans: Unsuck DC Metro uncovers with a FOIA request $2.4 million paid out in the last five years “in grievance back pay for work never done.” Some of it is paid out in petty seniority squabbles, some in more reprehensible cases, including to people who have literally killed, assaulted, and stolen on the job. Also, if you’re interested in how exactly unions suck the lifeblood out of American mass transit, Unsuck’s threepart series on the DC Metro’s escalator problems is an excellent case study.

5. Highway interchange transit-oriented development. Not a joke. Courtesy of the Overhead Wire.

“I’ve Walked Away From Projects Because of Parking Minimums”

Streetsblog NYC has been doing an excellent job of hounding the city on its lack of action on parking reforms, but this article with developer Alan Bell talking about his experience with parking minimums in the city is, I think, the best so far. Here’s an excerpt:

Hudson might have built more housing were it not for parking minimums, however. Bell said in an interview that he’s walked away from a number of projects because he couldn’t make the required parking fit or evade the parking minimums by subdividing the development into small pieces. “One comes to mind on Grand Street in East Williamsburg. You couldn’t get out with the waiver because you’re building too many units.”

Without the ability to claim an exemption from parking minimums, the economics of the development didn’t add up. “If you have a modest size building, it’s really prohibitive,” said Bell. In addition to the direct costs of building structured parking, which Bell said can range from $25,000 to $50,000 per space, making room for the parking can also reduce revenues. “If you’re up against other buildings on both sides, you’re going to have to reduce your perimeter retail frontage because you need an entrance for a garage.”

Other times, said Bell, he’s able to manipulate the structure of the development to ensure that he can avoid parking minimums. In East New York, he divided one project into four different five to six story buildings. “We just played around with the unit mixes so that we could get each of them under the waiver.” Had he not been trying to avoid the parking regulations, said Bell, “theoretically, we could have built more units.” (In practice, a different set of city regulations would have prevented that at this particular site, even without the parking requirements.)


1. Shocker: The federal government is too incompetent to even sell its own buildings. Eh, oh well – it’s not like it holds most of that property in the city with the most expensive office space in America or anything.

2. Two State Senators from Queens are calling plans to toll the East River Bridges in exchange for relieving Long Island and Hudson Valley counties of the need to pay the MTA pay roll tax “nothing more than another tax on Middle Class families and small businesses.” First of all, it’s not a tax, it’s a user fee, but secondly, how many Middle Class (in caps, for christsake!) families are we supposed to believe really have to drive into Manhattan?

3. The FHA is loaning money to people with “less than stellar credit” to buy condos in New York City with only a 3.5% downpayment. In December I blogged an article claiming the federal government is shifting its subprime portfolio back to the FHA from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, whose implosion has cost taxpayers $150 billion.

4. Green roofs: Is there anything they can’t do? This report lists a whole slew of financial benefits, but if they’re such a great deal, why do developers need “significant public policy support” to install them? All the talk of creating jobs without even attempting to make a cost/benefit analysis is also disconcerting, but is typical of boosters of government programs. And are we really to believe that green roofs “reduce crime”? And if they really “improve property values for nearby buildings by 11 percent,” then why aren’t landlords falling over themselves offering to pay neighbors to install green roofs on their buildings? Seems like for such a supposedly huge benefit and relatively small number of beneficiaries, the collective action problem could be overcome. If even a quarter of the claims in this article were true, roofs across America would be coated in rainforest by now.

5. Philadelphia’s Historical Commission has rejected one homeowner’s plans to restore his house near Rittenhouse Square, first built around 1850, to something he believes to be closer to its original form. The building was “substantially altered” in 1962 and given modernist features, and in 1995 was included in a historic district that was obviously not intended to protect modernist buildings or alterations. Here’s one testy exchange between the architect and a committee member:

The owner’s architect, Andrew Curtis, felt compelled to point out that his client’s personal taste leaned toward restoring the property back to the mid-19th century, and that indeed this was his intent when he bought the residence. “If we looked to demolish the [modernist] chimney, would that be opposed?” he asked.

Gutterman said that the architect would have to provide a “basis” for that decision, to which Evans retorted, “there’s a whole neighborhood of basis!”

Gutterman then responded that part of the district’s charm “is that all the buildings are not the same.” And yet, does anyone seriously think that if someone wanted to build a modernist building there today, it would be allowed?

6. On parking reform in PlaNYC 1.0 and 2.0:

The parking stuff [in the update] is a little bit anemic. But in PlaNYC 1.0 we couldn’t even touch it, it was considered untouchable. It was our judgment that congestion pricing had more legs than taking on the parking question. That’s telling.

Since we tried to break open that barrier, there’s been maybe a gestation period for the city to start coming around to thinking, “Okay, here’s an area of public policy that we can and should address.” … Now we’re on the threshold of being able to look at it in a robust kind of way. Now let’s do it.

What does that second paragraph even mean??

Yet another non-bike-related NYC transit reform bites the dust

Well that was quick:

Mr. Bloomberg made the so-called “five-borough taxi plan” a centerpiece of his State of the City address in January. The proposal called for creating a new class of livery cabs, with meters and, perhaps, a single color, that would be allowed to pick up passengers on the street outside of Manhattan who hadn’t arranged a ride ahead of time. Currently, such pickups are illegal but widespread. Only yellow taxis—whose numbers are limited to the 13,237 medallions in circulation—can pick up passengers who hail them.

But now talks between the Taxi and Limousine Commission and the taxi industry are focusing on a series of plans that would use yellow cabs—not livery cars—to expand taxi service outside of Manhattan.

“I believe we are completely off the mayor’s original plan,” said one person familiar with the talks. “I would go as far as calling it dead.”

As it stands now, the vast, vast majority of yellow cab pick-ups are in Manhattan or at airports, and it’s pretty much impossible to get a cab in Brooklyn, Queens, or the Bronx to take you anywhere but Manhattan. The silver lining is that the number of medallions might be increased, but it’s not clear by how much.

I’d also like to point out that this is yet another transit failure for the Bloomberg administration, which only seems to be willing to go to the mat for bike lanes in wealthy, white neighborhoods. (To say nothing of transit advocates – I could be wrong, but I don’t think Streetsblog ever found time amidst its daily barrage of bike agitprop to come out in favor of outer borough taxi deregulation.) The private van plan was poorly thought-out and from what I can tell has been forgotten, the physically separated 34th St. Transitway was defeated, and who knows if anyone other than me and Cap’n Transit even realizes that dollar vans exist.

But oh well. At least the transit-starved residents of the outer boroughs can ride the PPW bike lane to their hearts’ content…if they ever manage to get there.

Affordable housing for the rich and the failure of zoning bonuses

In the past I have not been kind to affordable housing programs. I have a lot of deeper problems with them that I’ll get to in a minute, but I think the extraordinarily high upper income limits on some of the projects are indicative of the broader problem of the essentially arbitrary and random (literally – they’re usually decided by lottery!) nature in which they’re doled out. In a way, even when the beneficiaries are blatantly undeserving, everybody wins – politicians get votes, and affordable housing advocates get paid. Everybody, that is, except market-rate renters, but when’s the last time they ever voted somebody out of power for sabotaging their interests?

Even with an upper income limit of $192k for the affordable units, they still can't sell 'em

Anyway, your latest affordable housing outrage story comes from New York City (where else?) – specifically 138th Street in Harlem, where the 73 units at Beacon Towers are almost all under contract, and Curbed claims that most of the remaining units are income-restricted “up to $192,000”!!! Oh yeah, and they can’t even find enough people who qualify.

Which brings me to another point: the Beacon Towers are not towers, and are certainly not any kind of beacon. They’re eight stories tall, and considering we’re talking about new construction in Manhattan, I’m going to take a wild guess and say they built right up to the zoning envelope. The immediate neighborhood is a mix of turn-of-the-century five- and six-story walkups (but little in the way of even cornice lines), some post-war towers-in-a-park-style buildings that reach up to 15 (!!) stories, along with a smattering of parking lots and other woefully underused lots. As Robert Fogelson wrote in Downtown, the New Yorkers of 1900 fully expected that by 2000, the whole island of Manhattan would be a river-to-river block of commercial skyscrapers. Perhaps that was unrealistic even if there had been no zoning code, but I bet they’d be shocked to know that a hundred years into the future and we’re still building 8-story buildings in Manhattan.

To be sure, bad zoning laws and not affordable housing mandates are to blame for the fact that taller buildings aren’t allowed in America’s most desirable city. But wasn’t this something that affordable housing was supposed to alleviate? Urbanist boosters of the mandates often tout “density bonuses,” or allowing developers to build a little more in exchange for subsidized units, as a way of eking out a little more density from the zoning code. Clearly that didn’t work in this case.

In fact, back during the 2005 Chelsea rezoning, affordable housing advocates were actually successful in getting the district’s allowed density reduced, “in order to provide more incentives for developers to apply for higher density under the inclusionary housing program.” In other wards, completely subverting the original voluntary “density bonus” idea. I suppose it was inevitable – the “density bonus” concept was forged by planners as a way of achieving their goals by enlisting the support of affordable housing activists, but they failed to recognize that the whole scheme is really just an incentive for affordable housing activists to push for downzonings. After all, they are ideologically disinclined to trust in market mechanisms, and certainly don’t care about increasing the market-rate housing supply, which often comes in the form of new luxury construction.

Anyone else know of other instances of this happening? Is it systemic, or are most affordable housing advocates not that cynical? (…or do the zoning committees stop them?)

The little-known history of “light and air”

“Light and air” is a very common excuse that people give for why we must have basic zoning laws, and while nowadays a lot of people mean it simply in an aesthetic sense – another way of saying “I like to be able to look out a window and not see another skyscraper 50 feet away” (though for some reason when said interaction happens on the second or third floor, it’s okay?) – the origins of it are very interesting, and I believe crucial to understanding today’s urban plans. Of course, the ideas that turn-of-the-century planners had about disease and density turned out to be totally incorrect – privacy and being able to look out a window is nice, but the lack thereof is not a great health risk. As Robert Fogelson writes on pages 125-26 of Downtown

Skyscrapers were also a serious menace to public health, advocates of height limits charged. As early as the mid 1880s, they said that tall office buildings were turning the streets below into dark, damp, and gloomy canyons. During the winter they blocked the sun, leaving the cold streets even colder. During the summer, wrote American Architect and Building News, they acted as “storehouses of heat,” driving up the temperature after sunset, making the once cool and refreshing nights unbearable. The skyscrapers also shrouded the nearby buildings in darkness, forcing the office workers to rely on artificial light – which, it was believed, put a strain on the eyes. Worst of all, the skyscrapers deprived both the streets below and the adjacent buildings of fresh air and sunlight. To Americans who still held that disease was a product of the “miasma,” the noxious vapors that permeated the cities, the lack of fresh air was bad enough. To Americans who believed in the new germ theory of disease, the lack of sunlight was even worse. For it was sunlight, described by doctors as “the best disinfectant,” “the best bacteriacide,” and “our greatest sterilizer,” that killed the microbes that caused disease. Sunlight and wind were as vital to public health as pure water, argued a representative of the Chicago Medical Society in 1891; without them “life would be almost impossible in crowded communities.”

From a sanitary viewpoint, skyscrapers were “an outrage,” declared George B. Post, a prominent New York architect. By creating the conditions “in which bacteria and microbes flourish best,” skyscrapers turned the streets into what a Chicago doctor called “the breeding ground for germs.” “To shut off the sunbeams from the earth,” a Chicago businessman added, “Is to encourage the bacteria, to breed fevers, to sap vitality, to make men and women pale cellar plants.” A few skyscrapers here and there would not pose much of a problem, critics conceded. But “if the down-town area were covered with twenty-story buildings,” the Chicago doctor claimed,” There would hardly be enough sunlight and air to support life.” There would be a sharp rise in the incidence of bronchitis, pneumonia, and consumption (or tuberculosis), the so-called white plague. The business district would become as unhealthy as the tenement districts, a grim prospect indeed. Writing at the turn of the century, another opponent of the skyscraper pointed out that some New Yorkers were planning to build a hospital for consumptives at the same time that others were planning to build a thirty-story skyscraper. This made no sense, he declared. “We build hospitals for the poor consumptive, and then we turn around and erect skyscraping structures where consumption may breed.” “We shall not lack for patients,” he said.

This isn’t just a quirky factoid – it’s an integral part of the modern antipathy towards density, as much as the consequences of the intellectually bankrupt racial eugenics of the era still reverberate today. Now, of course today’s planners don’t oppose forests of skyscrapers because they believe in the miasma theory of disease, but it is striking that the profession still accepts its turn-of-the-century health-based reforms as dogma. Nowadays we have a slightly different justifications for why the laws were a good idea, but the planning outcomes remain stubbornly similar. Then again, given that planners have never really faced up to their pre-war history (the rot only started after the war, they always say), I guess this shouldn’t come as a surprise.