Saturday, April 24, 2010

Competition is about relative value

I find Yonah Freemark's blog The Transport Politic to be very informative, and his more thoughtful pieces at sites like Next American City to be frequently insightful. I feel similarly about Aaron Renn's Urbanophile blog. That's why it pains me to say that one of Yonah's recent columns, while intriguing, was seriously flawed, based on a limited view of transit in the world. In it, he linked to a recent post by Aaron Renn, which was flawed in its own way.

I should point out that the Urbanophile post was about whether density is necessary for a city to be competitive. Briefly, businesses depend on access, and they will go where access is cheap. I honestly don't give a shit about whether my city is competitive, because that just means that someone else's city is losing out. My priorities are up at the top of the page: pollution, efficiency, carnage, society, equity - and competitiveness works against equity. (I'm aware of the value of healthy competition, but it's got limits, that's all.) But in essence, he's arguing the following:

access = mobility / density
In physics, you can increase mass while holding volume constant by increasing density, or you can increase volume while holding mass constant by decreasing density. In urbanism you can increase access while holding mobility constant by increasing density, or you can increase mobility while holding access constant by decreasing density. So Columbus might be less dense than Indianapolis, but there's just as much access because the roads are less congested. Similarly for Houston and New York, to quote a commenter.

Well yay, equitable access! But uh - pollution, efficiency and carnage? Not so great. By relying more on driving, and on longer distance trips, less dense cities promote pollution, waste money and resources, and put more people at risk of being killed or injured by cars. If all you care about is your city's competitiveness, well, how competitive can you be if your air quality sucks, you're spending a huge chunk of your budget fixing roads, and your residents are being killed?

Yonah rightly observes that this equitable access may be great for businesspeople with private cars, but it leaves out "everyone else - the young, the old, the poor, the sick," so it's not very equitable after all. Those who can't use cars need walkable neighborhoods with transit. But if people with cars can do just fine without walkability and transit, they won't support them, and everybody else will suffer. Density acts as an equalizer here, forcing walkability and transit patronage, and ensuring that walkable stores and transit providers will have enough business to stay afloat.

That's where Yonah goes off course, following the illustrious trail of Simpson, Curtin and Olsen. Like them, he treats car use as a force of nature:
Unlike inner-city districts with their medium and high-rise buildings, streetcar suburbs are characterized by low densities, little neighborhood retail within walking distance, and very few accessible jobs, three significant factors that make them difficult to adapt to transit. In other words, while they may have been built with streetcars in mind, they transitioned to the automobile age naturally.

The fact of the matter is that the absolute access afforded by streetcar suburbs is irrelevant. As Michael Kemp wrote back in 1973, when we're talking about people switching from one mode to another, what matters is their relative access, and that means comparing the access afforded by transit to that afforded by cars.

Surprisingly, Yonah talks about "failure" without discussing what failure actually means for an enterprise: people get what they want from the competition. There is no mention of how the roads got to be such stiff competition for the streetcars. It's left to Stephen Smith of Market Urbanism in the first comment to point out "the widespread subsidization of the roads, which were at that time not mostly funded by user [f]ees, but rather out of general revenues (which, perhaps not coincidentally, were in large part paid by 'traction magnates')."

People in streetcar suburbs didn't abandon the streetcars because the density was too low. They switched to driving because they could get where they wanted quicker by road, and they could do that because the government built a bunch of big new roads for them to drive on. If there had been no cars, people in those suburbs would still be taking streetcars - or they would have moved back to the cities, if the streetcar suburbs were really as inefficient as Yonah claims.

It required a massive government intervention to build all those roads, and that intervention is proving unsustainable. The roads are crumbling, the bridges are falling down, and there's no money in the budget to repair them. Despite the hugely expensive oil wars, the price of oil rose a few years ago and popped the housing bubble. Everyone who knows what's going on expects the price of oil to rise again and stay high. Eventually it will become difficult for all but the richest to own cars, and that's the main reason we should live in walkable neighborhoods with transit.

But as it becomes more expensive to own a car, transit and walking become more attractive. Transit providers and local shops will flourish, and they will return to the streetcar suburbs. In other words, the viability of streetcar suburbs is inversely related to the expense of driving.

Above, I argued that even though you could function pretty well driving around Columbus, it was not so good for pollution, efficiency and carnage. You could make a similar counterargument to my own argument about streetcar suburbs. Walking to the streetcar and the local grocery may give you good access, and it doesn't generate a significant amount of pollution or carnage, but it's not that efficient. Much more efficient to have people living above the grocery store, etc. But won't that kind of efficiency sort itself out?


Yonah Freemark said...

Thanks for the criticism -- I think you're right that I should have included some mention of the use of major government subsidies to promote automobile use, and I agree that people in streetcar suburbs would be more likely to use transit today if there had not been decades of positive incentives to switch to cars.

That said, I'm not entirely convinced by your argument. You argue that people switch modes based on "relative access" -- in other words, if they're able to get to the store with equal ease using transit and automobiles, there's no reason that it's necessary, for instance, to have walkable urbanism to spur transit use.

The problem is that streetcar suburbs are usually not dense enough to make the car/transit comparison fair, whether or not you include the negative externalities caused by decades of government support for roads. If you have a neighborhood of only moderate density, you simply cannot provide all-day, very-frequent service -- the stuff that makes it feasible for most of the population to live without a car.

When you can't jump on a train or bus every ten minutes at all times of the day, driving a car simply is more convenient -- even if you face parking and congestion problems on the way. Remember that streetcars had lost much of their ridership before strip shopping centers took the majority of the market.

(The fact that streetcar suburbs declined in density significantly as the number of people per house shrunk, as a commenter pointed out on NAC, made the problem even worse.)

This is why I'm such a proponent of neighborhood retail. The ability to walk to the store and other services will always be more convenient than driving. More than that, though, it allows inhabitants of a neighborhood to only really need to leave their communities to get to work. And we all know that it's much easier for transit providers to offer very good services at peak hours than throughout the day.

I postulate that because most streetcar suburbs didn't offer more such walkable urbanism, peoples' interest in even taking transit to work declined, simply because they had already realized the advantages of using their automobiles to get to non-neighborhood retail.

Alon Levy said...

The problem with the "Let's make driving worse" idea is that it's already been tested: all European countries and all developed Asian countries have significant taxes on gas and often toll their highways. The result is that in urban and some suburban areas in those countries transit use is high. But in rural and exurban areas, most people still drive where transit options are poor.

Even in Denmark, with its $20,000 car taxes, the cities may make New York look like Houston but the rural areas are car-dominated, leading to the same city/suburb friction in local government transportation funding as in American states.

You need more than car taxes to make people drive less. Part of it is transit planner competence, which is sorely lacking in the US. But that's not all, or else Switzerland would have 200 vehicles per 1,000 people instead of 500. Urban areas are just better transit markets than rural areas. Change FRA regulations and invest money in regional rail in Fresno and you'll get decent transit use there, but it will never be Tokyo. Getting it above where Chicago is today may be feasible, but one has a 15% transit commute mode share and the other has a 60% share.

Cap'n Transit said...

I'm sorry, Yonah, I wasn't clear in my argument. I do believe you have to have walkability and neighborhood retail; I just don't believe that you need urban densities everywhere. In other words, as Alon wrote in the comments to your column, the density necessary to support transit and neighborhood retail is actually pretty low if that transit is not competing with heavily subsidized roads that lead to big-box stores.

You don't point to any specific examples of streetcar suburbs without neighborhood retail, but here in NYC we've got several with real supermarkets, and a number of others with small grocery stores and enough other retail to serve most needs. Most of them had supermarkets at one point; in fact, I know of at least three that have closed in the past ten years.

Cap'n Transit said...

Alon, I agree that there are densities below which it would always be convenient to drive. I just don't think that very many people would live in them if the government didn't keep building more and wider roads.

I also think that if the roads weren't so heavily subsidized, people in rural areas would live on small plots in villages (with at least hourly transit access) rather than in houses an acre apart.

BruceMcF said...

There's a lurking assumption here of uniform density ... but if there is uniform density in a streetcar or train station suburb, that is not a "natural outcome" ... its an outcome imposed by zoning restriction.

If there is an easement ensuring the right to develop three story multi-use buildings within a quarter mile of a streetcar line or train station, then a streetcar suburb would "naturally" develop in the direction of a more efficient clustered density, combining ease of walkability at urban density around the dedicated transport corridor and ease of access from the surrounding lower density bike / NEV suburban zone.

And of course, since it would involve permitting people to make choices that are presently forbidden - the choice to live in a suburban village - it would not only be more effective in terms of achieving the goals of a more sustainable, less deadly transport system, but would also be more "efficient" under the narrow and blinkered confines of the conventional economic modeling.

Cap'n Transit said...

Good point, Bruce. I wanted to say something along those lines but couldn't figure out how to word it.

The streetcar suburbs I know all have 4-6 story mixed use buildings clustered around the train station (or former site thereof), some 2-3 story buildings nearby, and so on until you get single-story houses a few blocks away. It would really help if someone was willing to point to even one streetcar suburb we can all use as a reference. How about Bronxville?

Yonah Freemark said...

I agree -- we may be thinking about very different things here. When I discussed the "streetcar suburb," I wasn't referring to places like Bronxville at all. Rather, from my point of reference, I meant neighborhoods like Edgewood or East Rock in New Haven.

Unlike Bronxville, these are places not founded around a commuter rail station but instead they were early suburbs connected to the downtown via streetcar. These neighborhoods are almost entirely residential, sometimes with minor commercial strips but definitely with none of the mixed-use centers you find in Bronxville.

I don't disagree that these places could have evolved differently, as Bruce argued, but the fact is that from the beginning they were low-rise residential.

Bronxville is a totally different matter.

Cap'n Transit said...

Ah, okay. Took a quick Google Street View fly-through of those neighborhoods, and I see what you mean.

Yes, it seems clear that you need some nodes of density along these routes to make the transit and neighborhood retail profitable. It's the kind of thing that would most likely have happened eventually if car culture hadn't come along and messed it all up. But it could have been facilitated with express transit service and some kind of incentives to build the dense nodes.

Alon Levy said...

Cap'n: I should make it clear that when I talk about low densities, I'm not talking about Northeastern suburbia. I'm talking about rural areas, or towns that are in principle contained in metro areas but are in practice barely even exurban.

Those areas are severely subsidized, and played an instrumental role in the early good roads movement, but they're not like suburban strip malls, which only exist because of suburbia. The causation goes the other way in rural areas: first they found roads useful, and then they got the government to subsidize them.