Friday, September 13, 2019

Attack of the Vertical Suburb



Recently we've seen a rash of articles that talk about "suburbs in the city," or "suburbanizing the city." Some articles refer to certain tall buildings as "vertical suburbs." The claim is either that faceless greedy developers are building buildings with suburban features, or that new migrants from the suburbs just don't appreciate the city and are intent on imposing their suburban values. Sometimes the allegation is that the developers are responding to demand from suburban migrants, sometimes that they are creating it.

I've written before about how people mean different things when they say "suburb." So what do these authors mean when they talk about "suburbs in the city"? Why do they care? Should we care?

We can dispense with some of the critiques pretty quickly. Some of these articles observe that the new apartment buildings and shops have gates, doormen and security systems, as though these things don't already exist in cities. As though they haven't existed for as long as cities have existed.

They observe that some of the new shops are in malls on private property, as though cities haven't had malls on private property for as long as suburbs. That many of these shops and restaurants are chains, as though every neighborhood in the city isn't full of chains, As though people from every social class and ethnicity don't flock to malls and chains, no matter how long they've lived in the city.

A much more legitimate concern involves different standards for peace, quiet and respect for the law. In many suburbs, the law is an instrument of racist discrimination and segregation, often a brutal and violent one. The simple presence of people who aren't white, or who look poor, or who are simply walking by themselves, can be enough to prompt a call to 911 and a police response. Some people bring racist attitudes with them from the suburbs.

The police have a history of protecting wealthy white people and harassing poor nonwhite people, which means that a stereotypical suburban definition of safety includes a police presence that would make a lot of city dwellers feel less safe. I've heard of suburbanites migrating to more urban areas and then reporting technically illegal but victimless violations like sidewalk drinking, with no concern for or awareness of the potential impact on their neighbors.

People who grow up in suburbs and more urban neighborhoods can also have different standards for what counts as "quiet." Some of this is simply a consequence of the built environment: in denser settings it's easier to hear your neighbors. On the one hand, people in more urban neighborhoods tend to be more tolerant of noises coming from other homes, businesses and public areas. On the other hand, people coming from less dense areas are not always aware of how much they can disturb their neighbors.

I've sometimes seen noise tolerance framed as a matter of pure cultural heritage. I think this is total horseshit. Sure, there are particular communities that outlaw dancing on religious grounds, but otherwise, every culture has noisy parties, every culture stays up late sometimes, and every culture has some people who have to get up early the next morning.

These conflicts over "quiet" and "safety" are legitimate matters for concern. We should be on the lookout for potential instances where they may unfairly affect existing residents, or compound unfair effects of race, class and ethnicity. Preventing migration from suburbs to cities is grossly out of proportion to any risks posed by these conflicts alone.

So yes, there are legitimate concerns about people moving from the suburbs to the city, and a lot of illegitimate fearmongering. Would these migrations affect our goals of reducing carnage and pollution, and increasing efficiency and fairness?

The two features of suburbia that affect our goals the most are density and car-orientation. New migrants can make a city less dense or more car-oriented by buying larger apartments or by bringing cars with them from the suburbs. Some of these articles claim that the practice of buying pied-á-terre apartments is a major factor in "turning the city into a ghost town," but pieds-á-terre are a tiny fraction of any city's housing stock.

In practice, when they move to the city ex-suburbanites typically get small apartments and ditch their cars - if the city government doesn't encourage them to do differently. If apartments are cheap they'll get a big one. If there's free parking available, they may keep their cars. But lifelong city dwellers will get big apartments and cars too, if they're affordable. So these are also largely myths.

As far as access for all, there is a concern that when people (typically characterized as wealthy white people) move from the suburbs to the city, they will necessarily displace previous residents of the city (typically characterized as poor nonwhite people). These former urbanites will have nowhere to go but the suburbs vacated by the people who displaced them, but will have less ability to afford the resources (particularly cars) that make the suburbs bearable. The grim game of musical chairs will improve access for the wealthy ex-suburbanites, but make it worse for the displaced urbanites.

It is in fact not clear how much the increased demand from ex-suburbanites actually contributes to rising rents, and even whether urban residents are being displaced, as opposed to moving out at the same rates they have historically, and simply not being replaced by people with similar ethnic and class backgrounds. But as I and many others have written, the way to address displacement concerns is simply to build enough urban housing that there is room in the city for the urban dwellers to stay and the ex-suburbanites to join them. This includes upzoning suburban areas and selling off public parking lots and garages, to create the kind of walkable, lively places that can satisfy at least some of the people who want to leave the suburbs.

I have my suspicions that at least some of the authors of these articles are not really concerned with segregation, malls, neighborhood conflict, rising rents or displacement. Maybe they've simplistically decided that everything suburban is automatically bad. Maybe they've decided that the populations that lived in the city when they were in their twenties are the true indigenous population, eternal and unchanging. Maybe they think the way they moved from the suburbs in 1992 is the only way to do it, and they resent everyone else for Doing It Wrong.

Actually, I don't really care why they're writing these articles. I just want them to stop. Whatever their goals, these authors clearly don't care about the economically and physically oppressive situation that is driving people to leave the suburbs, and they don't care that dense living with less car use is the only thing that will save our grandchildren from global warming.

The stereotypical suburbs are not bad because they have malls, or because some rich white people live there, or because they're relatively quiet. They're bad because they're racist, exclusionary and car-oriented. White people, and malls, and quiet, are not inherently anti-urban. We can call out racism, exclusion and car orientation in urban settings without getting irrelevant issues caught up in the mix.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

There is no neutral transportation budget arbiter



Recently I had another Twitter argument with a transit budget hawk. You know, about how slow and expensive the MTA has been at delivering new subway infrastructure, and how some fantasy busway would not be slow or expensive to build at all, and would magically deliver results comparable to a train line.

(Some other advocates, like Alon Levy, have brought up high construction costs not as an argument for busways, but to argue that we can build more trains if we can build them cheaper. I disagree with this argument in part, but it's a different argument, and deserves a separate post.)

Over the years I've given different counterarguments to this. The biggest is that it's not about how much total transit capacity we can roll out. Our goals depend on rolling out transit infrastructure that can be sustained and used equitably for long after we run out of cheap fossil fuel, and on getting people out of cars, and both of those in turn depend on the Cycle.

Busways are never as cheap or quick to roll out as their advocates claim, and they can drain budget dollars and political energy away from trains. In this recent argument, as usual, a busway was raised as an explicit alternative to a rail proposal. Busways can also interfere with rail by occupying valuable corridors, as we see with the Orange Line in Los Angeles.

I finally figured out another big thing that's wrong with these arguments: they're not aimed at convincing me that a busway is better than a train. They're entirely based on political feasibility. I know the political system, says the busway advocate. They will never approve this expensive rail project. But they will approve this cheaper busway. You should abandon your quixotic campaign for rail and throw your lot in with my busway.

The problem is that these busway advocates do not necessarily know the political system, not any better than you or I do. They're typically either repeating something they heard from someone else, or they're responding unthinkingly to a high cost figure. They have no special knowledge as to whether the politicians will fund the rail project, and they have no special knowledge as to whether the politicians would fund the busway, or allocate road space for it.

Instead, their appeal is based on an idea of legislatures and political executives as neutral budget arbiters, dispassionately weighing the relative costs and benefits of proposals. Their only concern is the return on investment for each project, as expressed by its ability to support ridership numbers.

This vision is laughable if you've read even one day of my Twitter feed. Every day I get examples of politicians deciding whether or not to support transportation projects, and costs and ROI are the bottom criteria. The top predictor of whether a politician supports a project is the prospect of a glamorous ribbon cutting. The next is whether it would ease a frustration in a trip they regularly take, or that of someone who they listen to. The third is probably whether it would get them a lot of angry calls from powerful people who have some idea, however loony, that the project might bring, crime, gentrification, congestion or historical desecration. Then some of them might be interested in the possibility of getting credit for Bringing Down Spending.

The typical American politician drives and doesn't know or care about any transit riders. This is something we're trying to change, and we're making headway here in New York, but we've still got a long way to go. They will be biased against any transit project, and they will be further biased against any project that would take road space from drivers.

The politicians are also making their decisions based on biased information provided by bureaucrats, who drive at a higher rate than the general public. Allocation of funding and land is dominated by transportation and planning departments, which tend to be focused on building roads and parking, and swayed by fads like diverging diamonds, rail trails and "BRT." Many of them will have a vested interest in the money and land going to roads.

All of this is to say that there is no guarantee that anyone in the process will be neutral, honest or focused on moving the largest number of people for the lowest amount of money. They're focused on ribbon cuttings, or their friends' commutes, or avoiding angering the Community Leaders, or getting their road project funded.

My top two strategies to get transit built are to focus on the potential for glamorous ribbon cuttings, and to get people elected who commute by transit, and who care about transit commutes. Decision makers are not interested in cost figures for their own sake, and neither am I.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Transit should be controlled by transit riders


I was listening to City Council Speaker Corey Johnson on Ben Kabak's new podcast, promoting his proposal to transfer control of the New York City subways from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which is controlled by the Governor, to a new board controlled by the Mayor (a post that Johnson plans to run for in 2021). Johnson's thoughtfulness and his desire for real solutions were refreshing in our political scene, and I appreciated his request for feedback on his proposal. And I have some!

In particular I was struck by Johnson's claim that a board that represents the diversity of the transit riding public would do a better job of serving that public. Now, don't get me wrong: I'm definitely not going to repeat the bullshit that a board needs people with technical or business expertise; that's what staff is for. The subways and buses should be managed in a way that benefits their riders, and riders deserve a say in how they're managed.

The thing is that the system doesn't just serve riders; it serves everyone who lives and works anywhere in the whole metro area. A bank executive who is driven to work isn't going to perform well if their employees can't get in on the train. An antiques merchant in Great Barrington is going to sell less if the weekend visitors from the city have less disposable income. Taxpayers need to know that our money is being spent well. Bondholders won't lend the MTA money unless they can make sure it won't default.

I wouldn't want the Kosciuszko or Tappan Zee bridge replacement projects to be managed by and for the exclusive benefit of drivers. In fact, the problem with these projects is that they actually are being managed by and for drivers. And you know, the problem with the MTA is that it is also being managed largely for drivers.

Johnson is right that the MTA is controlled by a group of people who don't ride transit, but he fingered the wrong group. The Governor clearly doesn't ride transit, but a lot of transit policy is not set by him, but by the State Legislature. As I've written in numerous posts, the State Assembly and Senate are almost completely dominated by drivers and people who are driven everywhere.

Under Johnson's proposal the State Legislature would have almost as much control as they do now, because under our constitution they are the only entity in the state with the power to tax. State laws also have the power to overrule city laws. Even if Johnson can persuade them to implement his plan, they can change it at any time.

To the extent the city government would have control, the City Council would have more power than this "BAT Board," because they have to pass the budget, and can pass certain laws constraining what the Mayor can do. The Council has gotten much better over just the past twelve years, thanks in part to Johnson's leadership, but as Streetsblog documented recently, they still cannot be counted on to reliably prioritize transit riders.

Today the MTA Board today is at worst a fig leaf covering the Governor's management and the Legislature's budget priorities, and at best an advisory panel. On top of that we have another panel, the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee, which is appointed by elected officials based on patronage, and elects representatives to the MTA Board who have no voting rights. Johnson's proposal does not give this "BAT Board" the power to tax, so the real power would remain with the power brokers in the State Legislature.

Having the State Legislature or the City Council control the transit system would not actually be a problem if we had a truly representative system. Even the State Legislature is dominated by representatives of districts with heavy transit ridership. Unfortunately, the system is corrupt and favors elite homeowners who drive. They also subscribe to an ideology of driving as emancipation, and make deals to favor "upstate" that ignore the sizable population of current and potential transit riders outside of New York City.

The focus some advocates place on the non-representativeness of the MTA Board, in particular on the predominance of white men, winds up distracting us from the non-representativeness of the State Legislature, where some of the loudest opposition to transit funding and fair pricing for road use comes from nonwhite and female legislators like Charles Barron, Kevin Parker, Toby Stavisky and Deborah Glick. Last week when first term Senator Jessica Ramos said not only that she doesn't have a driver's license but that "car culture is something that we need to start rethinking as a society as a whole," that statement was notable for how unusual and brave it was.

So yes, we should transfer control of New York City Transit's subways and buses back to the City government. But no, we should not create a whole new authority to run them, or a "mobility czar" to oversee buses, trains, ferries, bridges and streets. We should just make them all part of the Department of Transportation. If we need to borrow money for them, we should use the City's bonding ability.

And no, we should not create a whole new board with no real power. If people want to transfer the New York City Transit Riders Council from the MTA to the city, fine. We don't need another one.

Similarly, if for some reason the City can't borrow enough money using its own bonds, I could see us setting up a temporary authority to issue bonds. Those of you who have read The Power Broker know that the authorities that issued bonds to build projects like the Manhattan Bridge were set up to dissolve once they paid off the bonds. The genius idea that allowed Bob Moses to wield power for decades without ever winning an election was to insert a clause in the law that created the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority allowing it to issue new bonds. Removing that unjustified power from the Transit Authority is an essential step in restoring democratic control to our subway system.

The bottom line: municipal control is a good idea, but a new authority is not the way to do it. It should be done by direct executive power. Representation is a good idea, but an unelected board is not the way to do it. It should be done through our elected representatives to the City Council and State Legislature.