Saturday, October 31, 2015

It's time to stop saying "gentrification"

Gentrification is a bad word, because it blames the wrong people. Don't talk about "gentrification" or "gentrifiers." Talk about what the problem actually is: high rents, high prices, displaced residents, displaced businesses, losing old buildings, ugly new buildings, or not enough trains, buses, classrooms or parks.

Everyone knows that gentrification is the biggest problem facing our cities, and that it's the fault of the hipsters and techbros and greedy developers. The rents and prices jump sky-high, displacing poor people and small businesses. Historic structures are torn down and replaced with out-of-scale apartments. This strains the already burdened infrastructure serving the neighborhood, resulting in crowded buses, schools and parks. Everyone knows that, but everyone is wrong.

It is true that the rent is too damn high in some neighborhoods, and prices are pretty high too. Some people are getting priced out of neighborhoods where they've lived. Some good-looking old buildings get torn down, and some ugly new buildings get built. The government isn't always quick to increase transit, school or park capacity to meet demand.

What is not true is that these high rents, high prices, displacements, ugly buildings and strained infrastructure are somehow caused by hipsters (whatever they are), techbros, or greedy developers (or even non-greedy developers). In fact, we know the cause: we've turned our suburbs, small cities and countryside into hellish car-scapes, and severely limited the growth of places where you can get around on foot or by train. People try to move to those places anyway, driving up the rents and prices. Developers respond to that by building where they can.

The solution is to stop subsidizing car-oriented development and legalize more walkable, transit-oriented development. It has nothing to do with developers, hipsters or techbros. They are the symptom that will go away when the disease is cured.

The word "gentrification" automatically places the blame on the "gentrifiers." There is no way to hear the word without assigning the blame to them. If you know that they are not to blame, you have to make your mind do extra work to remove the blame from them each time you use the word. The people who hear you will not always do that work.

That's why I've stopped using the word "gentrification." Maybe you haven't noticed, but it's been absent from my blog and Twitter feed for over a year, except when I'm challenging the concept. But I still hear a lot of my friends and comrades-in-arms using it, even the ones who should know better.

So please, don't say "gentrification" unless you're attacking the concept. Think about what your focus really is - high rents, high prices, displaced residents, displaced businesses, losing old buildings, ugly new buildings, or not enough trains, buses, classrooms or parks. And then say that. And tell your friends!

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Private or public what?

Recently with Uber, Lyft and even Leap, here has been a lot of discussion of public versus private transit. The stark opposition that some people draw between public and private obscures several important points. If we look at the history of transportation, nothing has ever been completely private or completely public. There are in fact three different ways that the public can be connected to a transportation project: money, control and accountability. These operate in many different areas, to different degrees.

Funding for capital construction, maintenance, procurement, or operations can come from general taxes, taxes on specific activities, fees and tolls on other kinds of transportation, or from fares. Fees, tolls and fares can be levied on transportation services and spent on things not directly related to transportation, including kickbacks, bribes, padding and profits. Money can be borrowed from private individuals, private companies, private nonprofits or government agencies.

Land, water and airspace can be owned by the government or private entities, as can the buildings, tracks, paths, roads, bridges and tunnels on, over, under and through them. The owners can grant access equally to all parties or reserve it for specific parties or classes of parties. Owners can charge money for access, and limit length and times of access.

Publicly elected officials or their employees can regulate scheduling and routing of the transportation services, and the policing of passengers. They can grant licenses to transport passengers and goods, and impose rules. They can regulate access to transportation facilities and services. The rules and regulations can be reasonable or arbitrary, or somewhere in between.

Publicly elected officials or their employees can regulate the way that a transportation provider interacts with its workers. The workers can form unions, and the transportation providers can form syndicates. These unions and syndicates can in turn form agreements with the governments and private transportation providers, with some degree of control over scheduling, routing and access, and over the hours that the employees work and the wages they are paid.

No transportation provider can provide everything, so transit providers need to purchase goods and services from other entities. Some of these services must be purchased from government entities. Publicly elected officials or their employees can regulate any aspects of this.

Funding, resources, operations, labor, procurement - all these things are some mix of public and private. The government itself can be more or less democratic, and more or less corrupt. Some entities look private but are wholly controlled by the government, and vice versa. This is all I can think of right now, but I'm sure I'm missing some things, and that's why I get frustrated when people present "public vs. private transit" as some clear binary opposition.

Don't get me wrong, I know why "privatization" has such a bad name. Often, from British Rail down to New York's "Group Ride Vehicle Program," what passes for privatization is some weird sandbox thing where the "private" operators are subject to so many conditions, regulations and oversight that you have to wonder why they're private. It's almost always an excuse for either reducing a useful government service, or looting publicly held resources, or both. The other reason the private operators are brought in is to do something that elected officials are worried will alienate voters, like raising fares.

As I wrote almost six years ago, we need to move beyond simplistic fears of privatization - or of government control - and recognize that every transportation service is a mixture of private and public funding, private and public control, private and public accountability. We need to lay out specifically how it fits our goals, and how it falls short. Some of you are doing that. More of you need to.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Which should we fight harder, job sprawl or housing sprawl?

Eric Jaffe had a good review of a University of Denver study about job sprawl. The study shows, basically, that if you make transit more convenient to people's jobs (or vice versa), they're less likely to drive to work than if you make it more convenient to their homes.

Thinking about it, that makes sense. If you own a car, you're much more likely to want to keep it at your end of the transit line than at the work end. Is there even anyone who lives in the city, keeps a car overnight in, say, North White Plains, and drives it to work in the sprawl every morning? I tried to think of actual economic or legal disincentives to this, but the real answer seems to be more primal: a car is a big expensive thing that you paid for, and you want it at the home end of the train line.

What I'm a bit less sold on is where the study authors, Gregory Kwoka, Eric Boschmann and Andrew Goetz, go from here. As Sandy Johnston highlights in a blog post, they also look at "non-work related personal trips" and conclude that working near a transit station is a bigger factor for determining whether you drive for those trips than living near a transit station is.

I can kind of see it. If you work in Manhattan, or even in downtown Denver, you're more likely to walk over to Walgreens or the Gap to pick up some necessities before you hop on the train home. You might meet friends or a date in the city after work. You might even buy groceries. On the weekend you might take the train into the city to go to a museum.

On the other hand, if you take transit out to the sprawl, you're probably just going to take transit right back rather than trying to walk around. But what I have a hard time with is the idea that when you get off the train from the sprawl and walk to your house, then you're going to get right in your car and drive to the supermarket or your kid's school or your AA meeting. I can't really see any of the New York drivers I know doing this. I know some who live in walkable communities, take the train to work in Manhattan, and then drive around on the weekends, but any car owners who live someplace walkable and work someplace not so walkable pretty much drive to work.

My guess is that this part of the study is a quirk of Denver geography. When I was last in Denver, they had only built part of the first light rail line, and there were some stations that didn't have much around them besides housing. Maybe there are a lot of stations where there isn't a supermarket or even a deli on the walk home from the train. Maybe these people live a short walk from the station but drive there anyway because there's a huge "free" park-and-ride.

I'm also not sure how this affects the land use and public investment cycles. In my experience, transit riders who don't own cars tend to be relatively strong advocates for dense development patterns as well as investment in transit and pedestrian infrastructure. People who take the train to work but drive evenings and weekends tend to identify as drivers and support sprawl zoning and investments in highways and parking lots. And sadly, even people who take transit or walk most of the time, but keep a car in the garage to drive to their country house in Vermont every few weeks, tend to identify as drivers and vote like drivers.

I think the best conclusion is that job sprawl is a slightly bigger problem than housing sprawl, but housing sprawl matters too. And even vacation sprawl matters.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Expanding transit and taxis

I wrote recently that by making taxi service more convenient and flexible, electronic taxi hailing services like Uber and Lyft have the potential to replace private car trips and even some car ownership. But some argue (or worry) that they can go further and replace public transit. I've already pointed out that even in this unlikely event, it would not necessarily be a bad thing.

The main value of transit is that it gets people out of cars, and the main challenge of transit in the 2010s (in large, walkable US cities at least) is that it doesn't have enough capacity to accommodate all the people who want to get out of their cars. The main goal for transit advocates right now should be to grow that capacity.

Since the days of Red Mike Hylan, transit advocates have focused on funding capacity expansion through government contracts, and big business has been a dirty word. But it's not at all clear that Hylan was right: the fact that the new 7 line extension was the first real rapid transit expansion in New York City since 1989 shows that we can't just forbid private investment in transit and expect the public sector to step in.

Some subway and commuter rail expansions are massively over-engineered and take forever (the Second Avenue Subway, East Side Access). Others are loaded down with park-and-rides (the Northern Branch), and eventually deep-sixed by ambitious politicians (the Rockland-Westchester corridor). Politicians have shut down many promising subway (Astoria extension), commuter rail (LIRR Third Track) and bus (Main Street bus lanes) proposals at the behest of NIMBYs or even cycling advocates (the Rockaway Beach Line).

The most shameful smothering of transit expansion was where ostensibly left-wing, pro-transit Manhattanites and their ostensibly left-wing, transit-loving representatives tightened constraints on the capacity for bus movement and storage, and blocked attempts to expand them, without a peep out of supposed bus advocates.

If we can’t count on government to expand transit fast enough to meet demand, or to even allow private buses to meet that demand, we have to see if someone else is willing to meet it. And that’s where Uber and Lyft, and less well known services like Via, come in.

These electronic taxi hailing services have essentially used venture capital to finance a massive expansion and upgrade of New York's taxi fleet. Hundreds of late-model Priuses and Suburbans have begun cruising the streets of New York, replacing Lincoln Town Cars and Ford Tauruses.

This is happening not because The People demanded an expansion and upgrade of the taxi fleet. (The bourgeois poseurs who claim to speak on behalf of The People would never demand such a thing, because it sounds too bourgeois.) It is not happening because the Sensible Bureaucrats conducted a study and decided to spend the money. (The Sensible Bureaucrats made some headway, but their colleagues were too busy cowering in pathetic fear of the power of the taxi medallion owners.) It is happening because Uber and others are making a profit on the financing of these vehicles, and the venture capitalists pouring money into Uber and Lyft are expecting to eventually make a profit themselves.

Of course, that's just taxis, and as I wrote earlier, by itself it won't get us to our goals. But is it a sign of a potential way forward for transit expansion?