Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013
[ You've heard me tout the writings of transit consultant Jarrett Walker before and his web site Human Transit. Well he's well-versed in many things besides transit. His background in theater and the humanities I think informs a keen analytical eye he brings to the city generally and many other subjects. He attended the recent City Lab conference, and had the following thoughts in the wake of the discussion there. Think of it as additional commentary on local autonomy, in line with my debate a couple weeks ago - Aaron. ]
The "tea party" US House members who currently dominate the news are unlikely allies of urbanists. But on one core idea, a band of urbanist thinkers are starting to echo a key idea of the radical right: Big and active national government may not be the answer.
Last week, I was honored to be invited to Citylab, a two-day gathering in New York City sponsored by the Aspen Institute, the Atlantic magazine, and Bloomberg Philanthropies. The event featured mayors and civic policy leaders from both North America and overseas as well as leading academics, journalists, and consultants.
I expected the thrilling mix of new ideas, compelling stories, and quirky characters, but I got one thing I didn't expect: A full-throated demand, from several surprising voices, for an urbanist revolt against the power of national governments.
Al Gore said it with his trademark fusion of bluntness and erudition: "The nation-state," he said, "is becoming disintermediated." If you're not an academic at heart, that means: "National governments are becoming irrelevant to urban policy, and hence to the economy of an urban century."
On cue, the New York Times published an op-ed on "The End of the Nation-State," about how cities are leaving nations behind. Citylab also featured a terrific interview with political scientist Benjamin Barber, whose new book If Mayors Ruled the World argues for the irrelevance of nation-states in a world where cities are the real levers of economic power. (According to Barber, the full title of his book should have been: If Mayors Ruled the World: Why They Should and How They Already Do.) When I spoke with Barber later, looking for nuance, he was full-throated in ridiculing the US Federal role in urbanism. On this view, all the well-intentioned money that the Federal government doles out for urban goodies should be spent by cities as they see fit, or perhaps (gasp) never sent to Washington at all.
Follow this logic and you might arrive at a radical urban Federalism, perhaps even one that could meet tea-party demands to "Abolish the IRS!" Pay taxes to your city or state, and let them send a bit of it on to central government to do the few things that only a central government can do. Push power downward to the scale where problems can be solved.
You might even separate urban from rural governance in a way that enables both to thrive, each at its proper scale, replacing the eternal struggle between these necessary opposites that makes today's political discourse so inane. The "size of government" debate is just a pointless and eternal struggle between urban and rural experience, both of which are right. Living in cities means relying on government for many things that the rural resident provides for herself, so of course the attitude toward government is different. But what's really logically different is the role of local government. Both urban and rural experience provide good reason to be suspicious of big-yet-distant national government, which can be as unresponsive to big-city mayors as it is to a Wyoming county official who just needs to get a bridge fixed.
At most of the urbanist and transportation conferences that I attend, though, any shrinking the national government role is met with horror. And that's understandable.
In the US, the prevailing local response to declining federal spending is outrage and redoubled advocacy. In Australia or Canada, two countries I work in extensively, working urbanists and infrastructure advocates seem to agree that of course there must be a bigger central government role in everything, with the US often cited as the model. In the US itself, it's easy to see the current cuts in Federal spending as a disaster for urbanism and infrastructure. It is, but it could also be something else: an invitation to governments that are closer to the people to have their own conversations that lead to local consensus about funding and solutions.
If mayors do end up ruling the world, it will be because the city, unlike the state or nation, is where citizenship is mostly deeply felt. A nation's problems are abstract; if they show up in your life you're more likely to think of them as your community's or city's problems. And that, in short, is why the city may be best positioned to actually build consensus around solving problems, including consensus about raising and spending money.
And yet …
Before urbanists join the tea partiers in trying to shrink the national government, they have to grapple with the problem of inequality. As sites of concentrated opportunity, cities are attracting the poor as well as the rich, and are thus becoming the place where inequality is most painfully evident. But no mayor can be expected to solve a problem that exists on such a scale.
In small-c conservative terms, of course, the problem is not income inequality but rather the declining credibility of a "ladder of opportunity" that convinces everyone that reasonable effort will improve their circumstances. One reason to care about transit, walking, and cycling — for many points on the income spectrum — is that transportation can form such a formidable barrier to opportunity.
All through Citylab, hands were wrung about inequality and the need to Do Something about it, against the backdrop of a New York City mayoral election that is mostly about this issue. A rent control debate, featuring New York City Planning Director Amanda Burden and economist Paul Romer, found no middle ground on the question of whether city policy can usefully intervene to help low income people. Income inequality appeared to be one issue where cities can do little by themselves.
When I asked sociologist Richard Florida about this in the North American context, he pointed me to an article proposing that the US create a Department of Cities. He has good ideas about how to keep this from being just another bureaucracy, but if income inequality is the big issue that only national policy can address, it's not clear that it should be tagged as an urban issue at all. Cities are not where the problems are. Cities are just where people see their society's problems most intensely in daily life, because they get out of their cars.
The great city in the wealthy parts of the world cannot just be an enclave of success. It will deserve the self-government that the mayors seek only if it relentlessly inspires, supports, and gives back to its suburban and rural hinterland, creating its own "ladder of opportunity" for access to the riches of urban life. Only a few people can afford Manhattan or San Francsico, so those cities' money and expertise must focus not just on themselves but on making life in more affordable places incrementally more humane. Turning Newark into Manhattan would just make it unaffordable, so some of the urgency must lie in less photogenic intervention that works for each place's price-point. It lies in providing safe places to walk and cycle, and a safe way to cross the street at every bus stop, even in landscapes of drive-through everything that will be what many people can afford, and what some prefer.
That's why I'm happy to be working not just in San Francisco but also in Houston, where affordability is a leading selling point. It's why I'm suspicious of transit planning that defines an elite "choice rider" as the only important customer, including much of the transit-aestheticism that comes out of urbanist academia. Where are the prestigious awards for the best affordable, scalable, but nonsexy intervention that made low-income inner-ring suburbia more safe and functional? How do we build not just the shining city behind a moat (San Francisco, Manhattan, Singapore) but a chain of humane and functional places, at every price-point, that combine safety, civility and opportunity?
Where is the money in that? If mayors ruled the world, I hope that would be obvious. So let's hope they already do.
This post originally appeared in Human Transit on October 14, 2013.
Thursday, November 14th, 2013
My latest column is in the November issue of Governing Magazine. It’s called “Stopping the Civic Decline Cycle.” In it I urge cities to get a real grip on their problems and restructure for new realities rather than simply managing an endless, painful decline cycle year after year. Sadly, facing fiscal challenges right in the face rather than kicking the can down the road and trying to survive another year has proven to be quite rare. I don’t want to claim this is some preferred solution. But cities are where they are and have to respond to reality.
Here’s an excerpt.
The cycle of municipal decline looks the same in a lot of places. People and businesses leave, which causes tax revenues and quality of place to degrade. That, in turn, leads to tax increases and service cuts, which makes more people and businesses leave. This repeats in an endless cycle as a city slowly dies.
Rather than an endless stream of crisis management, cities should instead take a realistic forward look at their civic trajectory—medium-term revenue forecasting, demographic and economic forecasting, capital asset replacement cycles, and so on—and restructure the services delivered and revenues raised in order to create a sustainable baseline that can be defended over at least the medium term. This would enable cities to provide some degree of predictability to current and prospective residents and businesses about what their tax bills and services received will be. That right there will improve the business climate by reducing uncertainty and the, often correct, belief that most cities just don’t have a handle on their problems.
Tuesday, November 12th, 2013
[ Ramsin Canon is one of the most keen left political observers I know in Chicago. Among other things he's been the politics editor at Gapers Blocks, a union organizer, and is now a law student I believe. Needless to say, he's no fan of "neoliberalism", even when practiced by those on the left. Here he provides his frame and critique of the current reigning governance model in our various levels of government re:cities. I may revisit this topic with my own thoughts in the future, but I'd like to make a couple of observations here. 1) Canon sees the locus of the problems facing cities as being at the federal level or otherwise beyond their control such that the response he decries is at least somewhat rational (if not the right one in his view). I take this as similar to my view that "gentry liberalism" has a certain sort of logic to it. 2) His articulation of the background is one that even many with diametrically opposite policy views could endorse. They just might take different lessons away (e.g., that federal intervention in cities actually caused many of the problems, see:urban renewal, downtown freeways, war on poverty, etc). This provides potential touchpoints for debate. In any case, this definitely makes you think about where we are, how we got here, and what to do about it. - Aaron. ]
Jamelle Bouie, a moderate liberal writer for The American Prospect, tweeted this:
There’s nothing good for workers in places where cities scramble to give benefits to companies for a handful of shitty jobs.
— Jamelle Bouie (@jbouie) December 12, 2012
around the same time that Mick Dumke, a left-leaning Chicago Reader reporter, wrote this:
Desperate for money, state and local governments around the country have explored all sorts of privatization deals, or public-private partnerships, as advocates prefer to call them. Florida, Arizona, and other states have sent inmates to private prisons. Detroit has considered outsourcing management of its street lighting system…Chicago isn’t just part of the trend. For more than two decades, it’s been one of the privatization leaders. “You could say they’re at the head of the pack,” says Leonard Gilroy, director of government reform at the libertarian Reason Foundation. “Chicago is reflective of the outsourcing that’s been going on for years.”
Not long after, we read about this:
Beginning January 1, Chicago’s parking meters will be the most expensive in North America. It’ll cost drivers $6.50 per hour to park in the Loop. Near downtown the rate will be $4 per hour. Other metered areas throughout the city will be $2 per hour.
For Skyway drivers, tolls are going up from $3.50 to $4.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration will explore the possibility of privatizing Midway Airport but will take a shorter-term, more tightly controlled approach than was employed by former Mayor Richard Daley’s team on the city’s first go-round.
All the while, Mayor Rahm Emanuel continues to be lauded by left-neoliberals and fellow travelers for his aggressively pro-business economic development policies, including mass privatization. Meanwhile labor unions and community organizations scrambled to find a critique of these policies that will resonate with a public increasingly incensed with a policy atmosphere that regressively taxes them while slashing jobs and services.
With the election over and no longer sucking all the air out of the room, and with President Obama comfortable ensconced in his second term but before the 2016 jockeying starts in earnest, now may be the time to step back and think about the big picture. What is this amorphous policy regime to which Mayor Emanuel, and mayors across the country hew? A policy regime that is comfortable enough for the wealthiest and most powerful Americans that they can comfortably donate both to Mayor Emanuel and Mitt Romney?
What we’re feeling viscerally, but seeing from too close to appreciate, is the logical end of decades of neoliberalization of government, which has transformed a managerial state into an entrepreneurial one. Our Mayors are now “entrepreneurs-in-chief,” and the result is that governance has been transformed from a participatory process of pooling resources and regulating behavior for the public good into one of government by private negotiation and enticement of capital through competition between states, cities, and even neighborhoods.
The neoliberalization process, broadly speaking, began in the 1970s. Neoliberalization impacted local governments in various ways, but the most directly relevant are, first, the shift in federal policy from direct spending to “pro-growth” policies and, second, the liberalization of trade and regulatory regimes that introduced international competitive pressures on localities, particularly cities. The abandonment of federal and state commitments to infrastructure and social welfare programs required localities to resort to debt (in the form of bonds) and the active pursuit of capital investment to make up attendant budgetary shortfalls. The introduction of international competitive pressures made this need more acute.
In the pre-neoliberal Keynesian context, cities behaved more managerially, responsible for administering programs like public housing and developing regimes like Euclidean zoning, as well as encouraging business development and protecting labor interests. When cities were “disciplined” by a loss of federal and state funds, they were expected to either shrink in size or find private sources for revenue–the antithesis of the Keynesian principles of recession response. Both to avoid capital flight and to attract new capital, therefore, cities must act entrepreneurially, engaging businesses and enticing them to develop new projects.
Enticing investment can take many forms, of course. Among these are tax incentives like tax-increment financing (“TIF”) overlay districts or sales tax rebates, direct subsidies, and “particularized” regulations that permit the government to be more flexible to the needs of development parties. Particularized regulations (for example, development agreements with developers that exempt them from the controls in a zoning statute) counter the unpredictability and vicissitudes of the administrative and legislative process and thus have inherent value to businesses; it reduces risk by vesting contractual rights, and thus ensuring predictability. The parking meter “lease” deal is a perfect example.
The story of the parking meter lease deal is the perfect neoliberal story. Throughout the late 90s and early 2000s, Chicago’s budget survived in large part on a particular tax, the real estate transfer tax. In the housing bubble years, there was no problem relying on this revenue to fund transportation, mental health clinics, and living wage city jobs. But as with the neoliberal bubbles of the past, it couldn’t last; between 2006 and 2009, revenues from the transfer tax cratered, from $242 million to $63 million. Between 2007 and 2008, the drop was over $80 million–representing nearly 40% of the budget deficit in the year the parking meter lease deal was made. It’s no secret now that Mayor Daley entered the deal to make up for a huge deficit without raising taxes.
Bubble that made some people very rich bursts. Revenues disappear. Working class families pay the price (see above, “most expensive parking.”) Only two options are available to the government of the New Model Entrepreneurial City: race to the bottom in terms of taxes and regulations to encourage “growth,” and thus boost revenues, and start selling off assets.
Why not raise property or luxury taxes, or institute a city income tax, to make up the deficit? Why not divert money from the TIF districts?
See above; Chicago is no longer a political community, it is an economic entity that is in competition with other cities in the region, in the state, across the world. In that mental framework, tax is cost, or price. You raise prices, you drive away your clients. In the case of the neoliberal city, the client is the developer, the investor, the employer. The federal government and the state are not going to give the city any real money; they are not investing in infrastructure, or education, or social welfare in any real way, the way they did up through the late 1970s and 1980s. The name of the game is “growth” through enticement of capital.
And capital plays the game perfectly. They condition “jobs” they’re supposedly creating on tax rebates, regulatory relief (i.e., from zoning codes), and more and more say in how the city is run–World Business Chicago being an example of that. Big business can always periodically threaten to leave the city, setting off the competition between cities and states that drive down standards, that abrogates regulations, that eliminates taxes.
This is our challenge in the coming era. Breaking this backward idea that the purpose of the city is to prostrate itself in pursuit of investment that is never really satisfied. Part of this will be a political solution: we need a Mayor unsatisfied with his pathetic role as an entrepreneur begging for investment, and willing to work politically to change the status quo. The other answer is a social one: alternative models to big business investment. Whether that means large-scale cooperatives, developing local sources of investment that can be pooled to provide employment, or some other method doesn’t matter. What matters is that cities begin to show that they can remove themselves from the uneven geographic development of capitalism that forces cities to regressively tax working class families and immiserate workers through wage depression and service elimination.
This post originally appeared in Same Subject, Continued on January 4, 2013.
Thursday, November 7th, 2013
My latest post is online over at New Geography and is called “To Rebuild, the Midwest Must Face Its Real and Severe Problems.” Lou Mazzucchelli said the other week that when you have systemic problems, you need systemic solutions, not just point solutions to point problems. Clearly, incremental or point improvements can be a good thing, but unless they snowball into a comprehensive solution, they’ll be limited in what they can achieve. In the Rust Belt, most of the strategies for turnaround have been of the point solution variety. They generally attempt to rebuild on the idea of creating “success bubbles” outside the existing broken system in the hopes that they eventually expand to create a new dynamic.
Not a bad theory, and I’d even endorse these in many cases as they’ve shown some positive results, but by failing to address systemic problems, they leave cancers eating away at these communities. In this piece I review some of these core issues, ones that defy easy solutions and that people do not like to talk about in most cases. These include racism, corruption, closed societies, paralysis from two-tier societies, infrastructure, obsolete regulatory systems, and fiscal trauma in many cases. Fortunately, the region does have many strengths, and these could provide a basis for a more broad based rebuilding if the core problems are mitigated.
Here’s an excerpt (click through for the full story):
Despite the plethora of high end companies, educated workers, and top quality universities, the Midwest economy was traditionally based on moderately skilled labor in agriculture and industry. This forged a work force that places too low value on education and which can even be suspicious of people with too much of it. Today’s agricultural and manufacturing concerns, at least the ones with jobs that pay more than subsistence wages, require much higher levels of skills and education than in the past. What’s more, with the global macro-economy favorable to larger cities and talent based industries, larger metros have comparatively done well while most smaller towns have struggled. As a result, their quality of life and services have so badly degraded they are no longer attractive to “discretionary residents” (those with the means and opportunity to leave), which perpetuates a downward spiral as the educated flock to bigger cities. That’s why manufacturers complain they can’t find workers with skills, even if those skills are just passing a drug test and showing up to work everyday. This produces massive inequities, resentment, and policy confusion.
Pete Saunders followed up, suggesting that the South had to over come similar problems. His take is at “Can the Rust Belt Learn From Dixie?“
Sunday, November 3rd, 2013
A couple weeks ago the Economist ran a leader and an article on the plight of smaller post-industrial cities, noting that these days the worst urban decay is found not in big cities but in small ones. They observe:
Partly, this reflects the extraordinary success of London and continuing deindustrialisation in the north of England. Areas such as Teesside have been struggling, on and off, since the first world war. But whereas over the past two decades England’s big cities have developed strong service-sector economies, its smaller industrial towns have continued their relative decline. Hartlepool is typical of Britain’s rust belt in that it has grown far more slowly than the region it is in. So too is Wolverhampton, a small city west of Birmingham, and Hull, a city in east Yorkshire.
And even with growth, the most ambitious and best-educated people will still tend to leave places like Hull. Their size, location and demographics means that they will never offer the sorts of restaurants or shops that the middle classes like.
Their editorial forthrightly embraces a policy of triage, saying “The fate of these once-confident places is sad. That so many well-intentioned people are trying so hard to save them suggests how much affection they still claim. The coalition is trying to help in its own way, by setting up ‘enterprise zones’ where taxes are low and broadband fast. But these kindly efforts are misguided. Governments should not try to rescue failing towns. Instead, they should support the people who live in them.”
This same dynamic is clearly evident in the United States as well. Bigger cities have tended to weather industrial decline far better than smaller ones. There seems to be some threshold size below which it is difficult to support the infrastructure, the amenities, and the thick labor markets that attract the people and businesses in 21st century growth industries. My “Urbanophile Conjecture” heuristic suggests that you need to be a state capital with a population greater than 500,000 to be thriving. But even larger places that aren’t capitals and conventionally viewed as failures like Detroit retain powerful metro area economies and large concentrations of educated workers, especially in the suburbs. Conversely, smaller places like Youngstown, Ohio and Flint, Michigan face much bleaker circumstances.
There are exceptions to the rule, including many delightful college towns or the occasional oddball like Columbus, Indiana, but for the most part smaller post-industrial cities have really struggled to reinvent themselves.
In part this is because a rising tide hasn’t lifted all boats, only some of them. As economist Michael Hicks noted, “Almost all our local economic policies target business investment, and masquerade as job creation efforts. We abate taxes, apply TIF’s and woo businesses all over the state, but then the employees who receive middle class wages (say $18 an hour or more) choose the nicest place to live within a 40-mile radius. So, we bring a nice factory to Muncie, and the employees all commute from Noblesville.”
In short, growth actually fuels divergence because a) the growth disproportionately accrues to the places that are doing well in the first place and b) even when struggling cities can attract jobs, people earning middle class wages frequently live elsewhere. Doug Masson likened this to Jesus’ statement that “For he that hath, to him shall be given: and he that hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he hath.” I think there’s a lot of evidence that for bigger cities a lot of activity is exhibiting a convergent or flattening effect. That’s why so many places today have decent startup scenes, quality food, agglomerations of talent, etc. But for smaller cities my observation is that it’s still a divergent world.
You see this on full display in central Illinois, where the town of Danville (population 33,000) and Champaign-Urbana (combined population 124,000) are only about half an hour’s drive apart on I-74. Danville is one of the bleakest towns I’ve ever visited in the Rust Belt. When your Main Street is a STROAD, you know you’re in trouble. Champaign-Urbana by contrast, is a fairly healthy community. It’s home to the main campus of the University of Illinois, seems to be reasonably thriving, has many high quality residential streets, a direct rail connection to Chicago, etc. As a college town, it’s one of those “exception” smaller places.
Anyone within reasonable driving distance with a choice would almost undoubtedly choose to live in Champaign over Danville, unless they had a family or personal connection to the latter. It’s an easy slam dunk decision. In effect, proximity to Champaign acts as kryptonite to Danville’s revitalization. Again, a rising tide only fuels this divergence.
This sort of divide between communities mirrors the divide in society as well. The question is, what approach should be taken to address these disparities? One approach is to focus on the people, and leave the places to rot. Jim Russell has noted that “people develop, not places” thus most place based economic strategies are destined to fail. This approach has also been advocated by economist Ed Glaeser, who in an article title, “Can Buffalo Ever Come Back?” answered his own question by saying, “probably not—and government should stop bribing people to stay there.”
This is obviously unpalatable to policy makers of either the left or the right, as no one has yet embraced it openly. How then have the left and right responded? The response of the left seems to be what Walter Russell Mead has labeled the “blue model” solution. His basic view is that the post-war economy was based around a policy consensus he labeled the blue social model (and which Urbanophile contributor Robert Munson has simply labeled the New Deal). This involved large corporations, powerful unions, extensive industrial regulation, and an expanding safety net. Those who wish to retain the model suggest allowing divergence to continue, but raising taxes on the wealthy and successful in order to redistribute them to sustain those at the bottom of the ladder (via an expanded welfare state), who are in effect seen as lost causes in the modern global knowledge economy, though few of them will openly say it. So the idea is to invest in success, and redistribute the harvest aggressively. That’s why you see lots of left advocacy in favor of tax increases on higher income earners and against food stamp and other benefit cuts, but a paucity of ideas for how to provide the left behinds with jobs and opportunity.
Mead suggests there’s no such thing as the red social model, and perhaps he’s right in that there’s never been a national policy consensus we could label as such, but there’s certainly a red model response to current conditions and it’s called the Tea Party, or what Mead has labeled a “Red Dawn” in many places like Kansas, North Carolina, and New Mexico. This is a type of single factor determinism model. In these kinds of models, a single factor like education, transportation infrastructure, climate, etc is treated as overwhelmingly determinant in driving the economic structure and outcomes. The factor posited by the Red Dawn model is government, therefore the red model response is to slash and burn government (with the potential exception of highway spending) to lower costs, taxes, and regulatory barriers that are perceived to be holding the economy back. In other words, government is the base, and the economy and everything else is the superstructure. Fix the base and the superstructure will correct itself. That’s the theory.
Broadly speaking, these are the paths that Illinois and Indiana have followed. Chicago’s size enables it and its values to political dominate the state in the modern era. With only a rump of a Republican Party, the Democrats are free to do what they like. Conversely, in Southern influenced Indiana it is the outstate areas that are numerically superior to the successful urban regions, thus the state follows their policy preference, and Republicans overwhelmingly dominate the state so there’s little real opposition to red model policies.
What have the results been? Most obviously, Illinois is nearly bankrupt while Indiana is sitting on a AAA credit rating and a $2 billion surplus in the bank. (It has a pension deficit, but it’s manageable and there’s a funding strategy in place). Clearly Indiana has a more functional political system than Illinois, which somehow manages to remain gridlocked despite a “four horseman” style legislative system and overwhelming Democratic dominance. So score two for Indiana.
Finances aside, what have the results been? Illinois has poured massive quantities of cash into building on success, with items like the O’Hare Modernization Program and Millennium Park. The successful side of the economy, epitomized by the global city portion of Chicago, has soared to incredible heights. This is a city that earned at seat at the table of the global elite. On the other hand, the overlooked areas like much of the south and west sides of Chicago and places like Danville, are in horrific shape. The goal of allowing divergence clearly worked. However, with the state’s finances in abysmal shape, the redistribution portion did not happen. Indeed, the social safety net and basic services depended on by the rest of Illinois are being shredded. Even if you believe that it’s viable to simply support a large lumpenproletariat in perpetuity on welfare – which is doubtful – financial extremis means Illinois isn’t even able to try.
Meanwhile in Indiana, pretty much the entire state policy has been reoriented towards making the left behind areas attractive to lower wage businesses. Policies that would cater to higher end businesses in successful urban areas have been less popular. That’s not to say there’s been nothing. Gov. Pence recently agreed to subsidize a non-stop flight between Indianapolis and San Francisco to help the local tech industry, for example. And he’s supported efforts to boost the life sciences sector. But I think think it’s fair to say low costs and low taxes are the watchword, with right to work, light touch environmental regulation, mass transit skepticism, etc.
However, most of Indiana’s left behind type places have not recovered. Overall the state has retained a stubbornly high unemployment rate significantly above the US average, and, even more worrying, incomes have been declining relative to the US. Metropolitan Indianapolis, Lafayette, Bloomington, and Columbus have done reasonably well. Much of the rest of the state has continued to struggle, particularly in adding jobs with middle class wages. As the recent commentary by Brian Howey, Michael Hicks, and Doug Masson shows, Indiana retains its “Noblesville-Muncie” divides mirroring Illinois’ “Champaign-Danville” ones.
In short, the blue and the red model produced some success, albeit in different modes (think San Francisco vs. Houston, Chicago vs. Indianapolis), for the “haves” side of the equation but haven’t yet proven equal to the “have nots.” The Economist makes it clear the totaly different policy configurations of the UK haven’t made a dent in it either. Post-industrial blight in much of Europe tells a similar tale. This suggests that there are powerful macro forces at work that are extremely difficult if not impossible to overcome. It’s no surprise then that the Economist suggests giving up.
Again, that’s not likely, so what should we do? I won’t pretend to have all the answers to a very difficult question. However, I’ll suggest a few possibilities:
- Seek to stop the civic death spiral. This means getting ahead of the decline curve by seeking to halt the cycle of people and businesses leaving, leading to revenue declines and degraded quality of place, leading in turn to to service cuts and tax increases and disinvestment, which leads to more people and businesses leaving. This involves getting ahead of decline and restructuring government to a place where you can hold a defensible position on services and taxes from which you can seek to rebuild.
- Integrate with metropolitan economies. Rather than Muncie trying to hold Noblesville/Metro Indy at bay, or Danville the same to Champaign, closer connectivity is the key. I’ve written on this before regarding Indiana. In the short term losing the highly paid employees to a nearby municipality is a good thing. Without those living options for the managers, etc. you’d never be in play for the plant in the first place. That connection expands your labor pool, provides trade opportunities, etc. Just the property taxes from the plant is valuable, and can be used in rebuilding. Fostering these connections would require decisions that seem counter-intuitive on the short run. For example, Ball State University in Muncie should clearly expand its downtown Indianapolis presence. That isn’t necessarily taking away from Muncie. It’s building new connections and opportunities for Muncie where they don’t exist today.
- Find a claim to fame around which to rebuild. Carl Wohlt says that every commercial district needs to be known for at least one sure thing. Similarly, what’s Danville’s sure thing? Some towns like Warsaw or Elkhart already have it and need to build on it. Others need to find one. That’s not to say one thing is the only thing you’ll ever need or that you aren’t opportunistic around potentials deals that come your way. But you have to start somewhere. Where do you put your limited available civic funds?
I’m not so naive as to think this it the complete answer. But if there’s to be a genuine attempt to rescue places, then new thinking is needed and a turnaround will take a long time. In the meantime in parallel, clearly people-centric solutions also need to be pursued, to give people the best opportunity to realize their potential and dreams in life, where ever that may take them. No city is a failure that does this for its citizens.
Tuesday, October 29th, 2013
Grand Central Terminal And Penn Station: Will The Beauty and The Beast Ever Get Married? by Robert Munson
This post is part of a series by Robert Munson called North America’s Train Stations: What Makes Them Sustainable – or Not? See the series introduction for more.
Photo by the author to celebrate GCT’s 100th anniversary
In today’s tale, Grand Central Terminal is The Beauty. Admired also for her goodness, she touches souls in ways most civic buildings cannot. Many souls, such as this author, find her exquisite. So when our mid-Century trend of destroying beautiful buildings put GCT on the demolition list, the public’s stored-up admiration stopped her assailants. And this inspired a preservation movement across the nation. Better yet, her Beauty also runs deep with a brilliant design that faithfully works 100 years later; distributing people better and seemingly with social graces that other hubs can only wonder how she does it.
However, our storyline has a dark side. For the past century, suburban passengers — who prefer her east-side location — have been forced to ride past her to the west-side Penn Station; often adding 30 minutes to the daily commute and congesting Midtown surface traffic further.
Who would conspire this denial? As in our tale, it is Beauty’s mean sisters who run the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Long Island Railroad. And like Beauty’s sisters, these bureaucracies seemingly are statues who — to have life again and solve this problem — merely had to admit their mistakes.
Photo of Penn’s main concourse, taken by the author while waiting for gate posting for his LIRR train
Of course, today’s Penn Station is The Beast. Its ugliness is visceral and personal; defying description. Most who enter its maw sense what true ugliness does; instinctually aware of the cramped quarters and negative energy generated by masses of irritated humans. To manage their discomfort, most learn how to get out as quickly as possible. It is hard to imagine how this guy can become Beauty’s Prince.
The fable’s richest lesson tells us that transformation only happens if one changes one’s ways. Today’s real life Beast cannot transform because the governments of New Jersey and New York have self-interested priorities; unconcerned with the collaboration required for the region to benefit from sustainable solutions. Yet, some agent of the public must have the authority to bring transit into the next era.The consequences of not creating suitable authority are immediate and darken the mid-term.
As an immediate (and recurring) problem, Midtown has hellish crosstown traffic. Because trains do not connect both stations, too many commuters surface and add unnecessary street congestion. While surface congestion was reduced by making subway trains interconnect six decades ago, that vital lesson still has not been applied to interconnect suburban service.
Similarly a result of ineffective regional authority, through-routing New York suburbanites to New Jersey (and vice versa) will benefit commuters and employers. Yet, this mid-term economic collaboration is a pipedream. Analyzing each station objectively gives us reasoned premises from which to shape solutions. Let’s start with Her, the fun one.
Poster artistically depicting the glamor of Grand Central, photo by the author while riding the subway
Grand Central Terminal: The Beauty As Secular Cement
Score: 81 (see full scorecard)
Category: Likely Sustainables
When GCT was threatened, prominent architect Phillip Johnson joined the civic movement to protect it with this statement: “Europe has its cathedrals and we have Grand Central.”
Also active in the movement to save GCT, the prestige lent by Jackie Kennedy Onassis helped revive the glamor of trains as GCT established a national standard that stations could be great again. After the nation’s Supreme Court decided in favor of GCT in 1977, the preservation movement had an icon and the law to grow its success.
More inspiring and exhilarating than the finest 21st Century airports (yet without the technological building advances of the past 80 years), it is hard to understand how GCT touches the human soul while smoothly handling its daily flurry of 1 million people hurriedly going places. As a museum piece, elegant shopping mall and transit’s single most efficient infrastructure piece, GCT’s magic is completed by generating constant fascination; serving as the sixth most visited tourist attraction with 21,600,000 visitors annually.
Grand Central sets this standard for every station: to serve as a complete destination, somewhere for tourist and commuter alike to benefit and enjoy travel again.
Now celebrating its 100th year, GCT’s excellent design remains an engineering marvel; flexible enough to accommodate ten times more people today than when it was completed at the start of World War One.
Track entrance, photo by author
Excellence starts in the basement with gates to the tracks that are welcoming, elegant and functional; all promising a pleasant commute. To accommodate rush hour traffic, platforms are wide; certainly the widest I’ve seen for a large terminus. Since platforms easily become choke-points as ridership grows, this shows GCT’s capacity to adapt.
Strolling down the ramp from the dining concourse to lower tracks, photo by author
Also adding to more fluid flow, ramps move people between the main, dining and lower concourses. The walk is far more spacious and pleasant than the usual cramped escalators… and wondrously less expensive to maintain or make handicap accessible.
Great design also helps GCT fulfill retail’s formula of location, location, location. Accommodating a variety of retail shops, GCT is unmatched perhaps anywhere; possibly except Tokyo hubs that have Macys-like department stores. But no where are shopping choices more elegantly arranged than GCT. Ranging from a cool Apple Store to upscale specialty boutiques to even a store for the New York Transit Museum to fascinate the inner subway rider of people like this author. And the shopping tour is not complete without a visit to the vast Grand Central Market (below) that ranks near the top of anyone’s list of gourmet cornucopias.
Grand Central Market, photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons
Unlike any station in the western world, GCT’s 40 stores for shopping exceeds the 36 for dining. GCT’s Dining Concourse and famed Oyster Bar plus the upper level lounges and dining rooms all combine to rival any station on the planet for quality. Also unlike the fast food dominance of other stations, GCT finds ways to offer a more healthful “grab ‘n go.” (GCT’s leasing decisions should be compared to Penn Station’s whose criteria seem to heavily favor impulse-buy foods that are fattening and, generally, lack intrinsic nutritional value; all consistent with the quality of Penn’s public service.)
Shifting from destination-making-made-easier to the general genius of Grand Central’s original design, its long-term value must be compared to today’s addition when the government builds stations. Here is the MTA’s schematic for the East Side Access project.
It will take a century to correct the obvious mistake of bringing all LIRR passengers to Penn Station and their surfacing and over-crowding Manhattan’s streets for the last leg of a commute. But, government finally is making progress. This MTA project will bring about 20% of weekday LIRR passengers into GCT. As the immediate area redevelops under new zoning laws, the influx of new pedestrians and taxi-users probably will compound today’s congestion; in some ways, defeating the purpose of the East Side Access… and causing its expense, in the judgment of history, to eventually appear as unproductive.
I offer two items as a half-time critique of the East Side Access.
First, ridiculous cost-overruns clearly make the MTA inappropriate to direct future improvements. This project to serve the public is starting to look more like a perversion of tax dollars. The 1999 federal budget had the price at $2.2 billion. Functioning as a slow motion lure that promises the public a solution, it took eight long eight years until ground-breaking; creating lots of opportunities for the politically connected to get their piece of the public’s treasury and for bureaucratic battles to work their woe.
By the time digging started, the project cost almost tripled to $6.4B and completion was projected to end this year. Now in 2013, completion has been bumped to 2019 and tagged at $8.4B, a 382% increase since politics got involved. With a performance like this, intuition tells me that we have not seen the end of this fiscal travesty.
There are acceptable explanations for some cost-overruns. But, there are no excuses as far as the taxpayers’ bottom-line is concerned. If the MTA cannot protect its funding source, the MTA should be replaced with an authority that has a core financial discipline.
If there is to be any accountability moving forward to complete the East Side Access or any current MTA project (or any future project such as remaking Penn Station), the accountability process should start this year with inspector generals of New York City, New York State, Connecticut and, possibly, the federal government making an expanded report. Better yet, a joint report will help taxpayers understand what has happened to their money and suggest ways to help restore the public’s trust.
It will be curious to see if reports indicate the lack of cooperation between MTA subsidiaries (LIRR and Metro-North) led to these ridiculous cost-over-runs. For example, why did the LIRR platforms have to go 91 feet under Metro-North’s?
As a separate item, how are these cost-overruns related to the shared tunnel on 63rd Street ? (See map below.) Didn’t that two decade construction project — starting in 1969 — also end in a fiasco in which it wasn’t useful until the 21st Century when subway connections were made ?
From this tunnel fiasco that so far spans half a century, what are the lessons from this overall lack of authority so that taxpayers can be protected in the future?
And in the Big Picture, would a through-routing strategy have made a lot of these costs unnecessary and still improve the chances to achieve the objective of reducing congestion?
But alas, all this money does not contribute to the strategic solution of through-routing. (Don’t forget, the “marriage” in this piece’s title refers, in part, to the sustainable benefits of through-routing.) Future capacity of Penn and Grand Central can be increased by trains running through it. Yet, the East Side Access project terminates these LIRR trains along with GCT’s 67+ other tracks. The future needs through-routes to contribute to sustainable regional solutions.
Drawing courtesy of Foster + Partners prepared for MAS competition and its website
Easier to grasp than this mind-boggling waste of tax dollars, my second criticism starts more micro. The East Side addition is too far below the standard of GCT’s elegant design; largely resulting from an inability to reconcile differing systems. While more passengers will be able to enjoy GCT (an improvement over Penn’s discomfort), they first get pinched (as in the red pressure points above.) There appears to be a poorly designed exit from the the East Side Access into GCT’s lower level concourse.
There is an even more serious constriction of customers seeking to transfer to the subway, the primary solution to Midtown’s street congestion. MTA also supposedly has authority to manage the subways. (On page 51 of the Foster proposal’s link above, a solution is offered; but, of course, the MTA has no money given its cost-overruns.)
So, we see yet again the weakness of MTA’s authority upon entering the subway system. Lines 4 and 5 (in the lower right corner) already are the nation’s most over-burdened. The ESA will bring some 12,000 more riders from the LIRR. And if the MTA plans to relieve this congestion by finishing the 2nd Avenue subway one long block away, I remind everyone that the Elevated was torn down and used as scrap in the war against facism… and east-side Manhattan riders have been waiting ever since.
Back to belief in today, these problematic transit connections are reviewed starting on page 31 of a study released for GCT’s 100th anniversary, A Bold Vision for Midtown. Prepared by the Municipal Arts Society, MAS has served as the primary civic organization and Guardian Angel throughout Beauty’s life. Opening yet another chapter of great public service, this excellent 65-page publication analyzes GCT. Particular attention is paid to public spaces and mobility within its original surrounds that sprung up in the 1920s. Known as the Terminal City, it remains NYC’s best contribution to the City Beautiful movement. Terminal City also is the original application of the “value capture” concept being talked about by cities today. For a relevant primer on value capture, refer to this 2012 post in “Urbanophile.” And for a longer discussion, see this recent post.
Using the rezoning of GCT’s surrounds, “Bold Vision” turns the coming redevelopment into an opportunity to evolve East Midtown. (The booklet also is a bit of a pre-emptive strike to prevent the surrounds from further reducing Beauty’s prominence.) I certainly hope MAS successfully guides and monitors deals between developers and City planning agencies to improve public spaces, streets and sidewalks to cope better with Midtown’s congestion.
But, all of these real estate updates beg several questions. First of all, why focus municipal attention on a center that, on a relative basis, works pretty well now? Instead, shouldn’t all these plans of increasing density be preceded by solving the congestion caused when commuters surface to get to their destinations?
And given that the MTA will be ridiculously over-budget and decades late in getting the LIRR to stop at GCT, should it be the agency to through-route GCT’s trains? Through-routing makes several contributions to regional sustainability. For GCT to advance in that direction, some lines need to go through.
Photo taken by author while riding the Lexington Ave subway
It is not my intent to challenge MTA’s competence. Per the photo above as an example of many improved efforts to serve the public, MTA is trying. (And relative to Chicagoland’s agencies, MTA gets an “A”.) But, here is the real question: is MTA the correct agent to solve problems economically?
Here also follow bigger questions for the sustainable era; most are so far beyond MTA’s purview that a true authority will be needed if the future is to look better than today.
But….. As beautiful as GCT is and as positive as the MAS influence on land use agencies and developers seems to be, how does remaking a 21st Century Terminal City fit into a strategy for regional redevelopment? Offering the more objective perspective of someone who lives in the nation’s second densest city, I ask: isn’t Manhattan’s problem really that it has too many people? Don’t Midtown’s insanely high land costs drive even more density that we currently cannot afford infrastructure for?
Let’s face the Big Picture. Manhattan bound trains serve its CBDs, but also congest these districts. Terminating commuter lines merely compounds connections to other transit and, thereby, raises the cost for everyone.
If our governments cannot follow a de-congestion strategy such as through-routing that European cities solve almost as a matter of course, then how can current agencies ever guide something as complex as the much talked-about goal of economically rational regional redevelopment? Fundamental to our economic competitiveness, this topic is explored in later articles. But for now, truly sustainable stations — of which GCT could lead the way — must also contribute to systems that guide rational redevelopment.
To end where we began our story….. In my personal opinion, The Beauty is doing just fine. She can age more gracefully with better streets and sidewalks. But giving her implants in the form of bigger buildings will just make her sag… or at least cause her to lose her shape… if you don’t mind my metaphor.
As for marrying her off to a Beast… we have to believe in miracles. Specifically, New York must try through-routing and other transit connection methods to relieve congestion… or else the marriage fails to improve the household’s economics. These methods are explored in the remake of Penn Station… the next article in this series on how stations can support truly sustainable transit.
Sunday, September 29th, 2013
[ I've always been a skeptic of industrial policy, and the travails of the various federal green programs and such make me feel justified my thinking in that regard. Yet, for struggling communities, clearly something needs to be done, even if not trying to pick specific winners and losers. In 1983 Rhode Island had an opportunity to have implemented an economic turnaround plan dismissed by critics as industrial policy, but voted it down. I recently took a look back and that, and the results of that decision that I think are relevant to other places trying to figure out what to do or not do. ]
I’m a relative newcomer to Rhode Island, but you don’t to be here long to hear about the infamous “Greenhouse Compact,” a state economic development strategy developed at the end of the Volcker recession in 1983 and voted down by the public in 1984. It is certainly one of the most remarkable economic development analyses ever performed. I have not seen a full copy, but the internet tells me it exists in at least two volumes with a length of at least 976 pages. There was a 47-page executive summary – not much shorter than many full reports these days – that I did manage to get ahold of and read, however. If the full report is as robust as that suggests, then I’ve never seen anything that appears to be so thorough and in-depth.
The Greenhouse Compact vs. Laissez-Faire
The Greenhouse Compact was the brainchild of Ira Magaziner, who went on to design Hillarycare, apparently not learning his lessons as that plan was developed and failed in a similar fashion. Though perhaps not the reason the Greenhouse Compact was voted down, it was roundly criticized by economists like Brown’s Allan Feldman, who strongly attacked it as industrial policy.
Magaziner and Feldman lay out starkly contrasting views of the matter. The Greenhouse Compact says:
Today, Rhode Island is in an economic crisis….When an economy has a vibrant private sector which can clearly provide the growth opportunities in investment that the economy needs to employ its people fully and raise its living standards then one can speak of a laissez-faire attitude as being appropriate. Rhode Island is currently far from that. It has many industries which are becoming subject to low wage competition; it has many others which are mature low wage rate industries with very little growth prospect but a need to modernize and develop new products; it has very few companies that have the prospect for significant growth and these are often being wooed by other states with particularly attractive incentive packages; and it has only a smattering of activities in new technology areas. Under these circumstances, a concerted economic development effort is the only way to create the momentum to build economic prosperity.
In the run-up to the vote, Feldman told the New York Times:
“I think this is not an appropriate thing for government to do, but that’s not my basis for opposition,” said Allan Feldman, an economics professor at Brown who is co-chairman of a group, Common Sense, formed to oppose the Greenhouse Compact. ”Beyond the ideological question, I think the economic analysis is terrible and the plan won’t work. It favors bankers, venture capitalists and high technology, and while it might be great for Terry Murray’s bank, it won’t help the average Rhode Islander.”
After it was voted down, he said in the Christian Science Monitor, “It was not economically sound, and would ‘offer very little to taxpayers.’” He also wrote an article in which he gloated that “industrial policy is dead.”
A bit later, as Rhode Island’s economy was looking up, Feldman appeared vindicated, telling the Washington Post in an article titled “Rhode Island: Rags to Riches”, “Governors delude themselves. They like to think they’re responsible for everything.” In the same piece Magaziner stuck to his guns, saying, “We should be fixing the roof when the sun is shining. We really should have invested more than we have.”
The Greenhouse Compact Vindicated
Fast forward 30 years and what has history shown? The predictions of the Greenhouse Compact have been entirely vindicated and the approach of Feldman and company has perpetuated the economic ruination of the state. Rhode Island’s post-recession bump wasn’t a real recovery; it was a dead cat bounce.
The Greenhouse Compact had said, “Overall, prospects are bleak. Industries which are likely to lose employment or at best stay stable far outweigh those with growth prospects. Those companies with growth prospects often plan to expand out of state….Given the current structure of Rhode Island’s economy, these jobs are unlikely to emerge.” This report included a sector by sector analysis in which it concluded that with the exception of eds and meds, the future didn’t look bright. And while it may have been off in some details, clearly history has borne out the Compact’s central claims.
It certainly possible that the Greenhouse Compact’s recommendations would have failed to stem the tide. But it’s hard to see how they could have made things much worse, thus pursuing the strategy likely made sense on option value alone.
What Feldman and the ultra-purists on the right fail to fully recognize is that creative destruction is real. Just as in the commercial marketplace where almost all firms ultimately fail, the vast majority of places will end up failing as well. Once they reach the top of their maturity curve, they’re done, and unless they reinvent themselves and begin a new growth curve again, they sicken and enjoy a long stagnating decline. Rhode Island reinvented itself three times from agriculture to seaborne merchant trading to industry, but failed to pull-off a fourth reinvention. Any CEO of a company facing a similar need to reinvent itself certainly would not take the attitude that he should let the market sort it out and do nothing but manage costs. But that’s the prescription too many give to public sector leaders.
From ‘Industrial Policy’ to ‘Conventional Wisdom’
Not all of the Greenhouse Compact’s recommendations make sense. The $138 million (a lot more than that now when you factor in inflation) in incentives to existing industries seems more like a fillip to interest groups to secure their buy in than a real strategy, for example. But a lot of it, including the eponymous “greenhouse” component, were ahead of their time and indeed have become almost conventional wisdom.
The Greenhouse idea was to basically have some public sector support to nurture emerging industries that were research and technology related in areas where Rhode Island was perceived to have some potential to play. These would include a marketing and civic booster program, as well as a venture capital fund, including some unique components such as allowing the state’s pension fund to invest in startups.
Pretty much every state has adopted a similar model in the last decade. Even Tea Party friendly politicians like Indiana Governors Mitch Daniels and Mike Pence invested heavily in Biocrossroads, which is the umbrella organization for that state’s “greenhouse” in life sciences, for example. They may be fiscal conservatives, but they’re not dumb. Pretty much every single city and state has variations on these. Another example: one of the plan’s suggestions was to create a Rhode Island Academy of Science and Engineering to boost the supply of talent into those industries. This idea was recently implemented – by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is opening a new technical and engineering college on Roosevelt Island in conjunction with Cornell and Israel’s Technion backed up by significant public investment. Look at any city or state, and you’ll see them trying some variation on the greenhouse theme, though with different terminology. Many of these programs are ‘me too’ initiatives that aren’t likely to be effective. But where the approach is applied to areas where a state or metro area has a potential advantage, it makes a lot of sense.
It’s interesting that the Greenhouse Compact even specifically warned against 38 Studios style cross-border raiding, saying, “To some states, economic development has meant trying to convince industries in other states to close down and move. This will not be Rhode Island’s approach. We are not interested in ‘stealing’ another state’s companies.”
Now plans aren’t implementation, and obviously the reality would have involved a lot of politicization. I’m not so naïve to believe that poaching attempts would have been eliminated just because this report said so. But the bottom line is that Rhode Island had an opportunity to be 20 years ahead of its time, and took a pass. Free market types might argue that their preferred policies were never implemented either, but that’s the right-wing equivalent of “true communism’s never been tried.” The results are in and the Rhode Island experience makes it very clear that while some of these approaches that might have had aspects of industrial policy (though certainly nothing like the botched federal green subsidies and such that rightly give industrial policy a black eye) may not have been the right idea, doing nothing certainly didn’t work.
In a lesson to Tea Partiers everywhere, the Greenhouse Report summed it up, “If Rhode Island is to undergo an economic renaissance, investors must have significant positive reasons for investing in this state rather than any other. The absence of negatives will not be enough.” A Tea Party style focus on nothing other than taxes and costs – removing the negatives – is insufficient and history has borne that out (just as is now being repeated in many Midwestern states that are becoming Rhode Islands despite their nominally attractive business climates). Want to oppose plans like the Greenhouse Compact? Fine, but show us your plan and give us a reason to actually believe it will work.
Based on what I read in the executive summary, though there area a number of anachronisms and areas I didn’t agree with, the Greenhouse Compact actually stands up quite well today. If it were simply implemented as is, it would still probably be an improvement over the status quo, but now that everybody and their brother has piled on, the big returns have, sadly, already been harvested elsewhere.
This article originally appeared in GoLocalProv on September 23, 2013.
Monday, September 23rd, 2013
Philadelphia Market East Station. Photo Credit: Flickr/acetonic
This post is part of a series called North America’s Train Stations: What Makes Them Sustainable – or Not? See the series introduction for more.
In the series introduction, I divided America’s stations into four categories based on how they are evolving to sustainability. The first was “The Likely Sustainables.” While most cities have plans to reutilize their central station, these cities are doing it best. These stations serve compact cities and are using these economic advantages to help their transit system achieve fiscal sustainability over time.
How we define “fiscal sustainability” ultimately depends on taxpayers; since it is their subsidy that makes it possible for the systems to run. But for the purposes of this series on train stations, fiscal sustainability means that a particular central station has led its transit system on to a path that can reverse the four decade trend of rails requiring ever more public subsidy.
According to this series’ current scorecards and analyses, there are five to seven stations in this category and most will be described during the balance of 2013. For today, The Sustainables are represented in this post by an analysis of how through-routing connects Philadelphia’s three downtown stations.
Philadelphia’s Through-routing Triumvirate: 30th Street (Penn), Suburban & Market East Stations Help To Approach Europe’s Standard For Commuters
Score: 84 (see full scorecard)
Category: Likely Sustainable
Summary: For transit towns struggling to improve their network, Philadelphia teaches them that through-routing helps make most things better. Connecting the legacy lines of Philly’s two main commuter rail companies has increased ridership and helped improve downtown real estate. If boosters of other cities cry “unfair advantage” because Philly gets evaluated with three connected stations instead of just one, my response is: connectivity is the key to sustainable stations and its subtleties create special rewards.
What Transit Is Supposed To Create: The Synergy of Passenger Convenience and Higher Real Estate Values
Three commuter rail stations connected by the dashed horizontal black line that runs one block above the main subway, the blue line.
A useful theory to test is whether Philly’s transit innovation has been fostered by good urban bones. Starting with the 18th Century walkable grid laid out by William Penn, this narrow land between two rivers — called Center City — prospered using boats, the young nation’s first mode of transportation.
The grid also helped the next mode as it helped Philly develop more densely around rail stations. Eager to spread this new mode to outlying areas, Center City annexed the rest of Philadelphia County before the Civil War. Philly’s foresight gave it a three decade lead before annexation sprees in New York and Chicago caught up. Also, Philly’s suburban rail consolidation seems pioneering: with the Pennsylvania RR (Pennsy) and its rival Reading RR overtaking their competitors before other cities’ rails did. With only two spheres to consolidate in the 1980s, SEPTA’s takeover emerged better.
But Philly’s lead truly widened with the first through-routing of a major U.S. metropolitan commuter system. In October 1984, the Center City Connection opened, a commuter tunnel connecting the Reading stub terminal to the Pennsy system. Simultaneously, the new system converted from dirty diesel to quiet electric, though at the loss of some diesel lines. As recognition of this strategic investment, The American Society of Civil Engineers could barely wait for early results and, in 1985, gave this tunnel its top infrastructure award.
Since making this investment to integrate into one system, the tunnel’s impact clearly is positive. Center City’s residential population has grown by over 50%: making it the third most populous downtown in the U.S. (Most residential is not shown on the model below because it is on the left of this westward view of the model.) Also, Center City employment numbers have rebounded and compete better with suburban job creation.
This model looking straight up Philly’s transit corridor shows centuries of integrated planning. From Market East station in the middle foreground (next to SEPTA’s red-blue logo); then carry your eye up the street to the next logo (on Love Park in front of Suburban Station); then cross the river to the monumental 30th Street Station. Completing this tight transit corridor, the main street running just to the left is Market and has street cars and a subway.
And what are the economics of this corridor?
Philadelphia Suburban Station. Photo Credit: Flickr/ireneillee
Real estate values around Suburban terminal have improved consistently since it became a through station. Tied together with underground passages to the station, there are 11 buildings of Penn Center, plus Comcast Center. Together, they average 33 stories. Since the 1980s, 86 stories have been fully renovated equalling those un-renovated stories built in the 1960s (50 years is a normal life-cycle before a major renovation.) Over 164 stories have been built anew in Penn Center. In 2006, the redesign of the centerpiece Suburban Station was completed; improving HVAC, waiting areas, retail, passenger flow and the 20 commercial stories above (called 1 Penn Center)… all earning it an Energy Star rating.
Only one-half mile from Suburban Station (but a world away from office work), the former Reading Terminal has been redeveloped as the main Exhibition Hall of the Pennsylvania Convention Center. A touristy, mid-scale mall of almost 120 stores, called The Gallery, adjoins the new Market East Station at the end of the commuter tunnel.
After suffering decades of disinvestment, this area also has benefitted greatly from the 1984 through-routing. The Convention Center successfully got through most of its second phase expansion despite a deep real estate recession. The Gallery has stabilized through the upheavals in retail anchors and the station’s overall success has given Amtrak reason to consider it as its preferred stop for high-speed rail.
Making greater passenger convenience, the Commuter Tunnel integrates the former Reading (5 lines) and Pennsy (8 lines) to bring customers directly to each others’ stations without the hassle and cost of transferring. Through-routing clearly contributes to sustainable downtown redevelopment around these three stations.
Rounding-out the trio… One mile west of Suburban is the model of how to honor rail’s past and invent the future. Unlike many other cities, Philly kept its jewel, Penn Station. Finished in 1933 by Burnham’s successor firm, Penn Station’s grand neoclassical exterior blends well with an exquisite art moderne interior with aesthetics reflecting Philly’s transit innovations. Owned by Amtrak, it was renamed as 30th Street Station. But its owner has kept every bit of the original grandeur; making it a joy to visit and even relax.
Philadelphia 30th St. Station. Photo Credit: Flickr/afagen
As grand and gorgeous as this station is, real estate redevelopment along the Center City mile between 30th and Suburban stations has improved dramatically since through-routing. Looking on this model from 30th Street towards the CBD, south of the tracks now has 60% more floor space than 30 years ago and nearly all of it is updated or new. North of the tracks, more than half of the buildings have been renovated. An urban wasteland also has been transformed on 30th Street side of the river. The sleek, glass tower to the Station’s right (in the photo) is The Cira Centre — also designed by a star architect’s firm (albeit 100 years later than Burnham). The 29 story tower now serves as commercial anchor to the area; built above an ugly railyard that many earlier proposals had failed to conquer. A more sprawled anchor is nearby University City; hosting campuses for Drexel and Pennsylvania universities and Philly’s largest medical center. This area was in particularly bad shape thirty years ago.
Fit all this into the big picture and Philly is relatively more transit-friendly than its larger rival, Chicago, which has similar per capita transit usage but no commuter through-routing.
Suburban Station borders Love Park, where young and old lovers come to encourage their relationship and be photographed under the iconic LOVE sign. Since Suburban is has the greatest traffic, the Park also has a Visitor Center that looks up the diagonal of the Ben Franklin Pedestrian Mall and museum campus; somehow capturing urbanity’s best. As I walked through at lunch hour, a rapper in the Visitor Center bandshell was singing about his struggles with and love for his father. When I absorbed all this and entered the best commuter station I have ever seen, the uplift was too multiple and I wiped my watery eye.
How Philly’s Transit Could Improve: Reinvent SEPTA; Find New Funding
I agree with Aaron Renn’s 2012 post: “Philly’s commuter system has the greatest potential in the US to create a system on a par with the European standard; without major investments.”
SEPTA has been better than most region’s agencies at integrating commuter rail well with subway, light rail and busses. SEPTA even has revived trolley lines. A key example for the entire system is these modes integrate tightly within a block of these three stations.
Despite accolades from me and others, SEPTA still can improve on the road to fiscal sustainability by increasing ridership and lowering costs. Criticized in this “Transport Politic” post, SEPTA is not doing the simple, inexpensive innovations such as clearer map and signage that highlights the advantages of through-service. Also in SEPTA’s takeover from Reading and Pennsy over three decades ago, a bruising strike derailed an opportunity to bring commuter-rail up to rapid-transit labor efficiency standards. Instead, SEPTA has adjusted to fiscal realties by reducing services; and in other ways, doing little to contain the cost side of the equation.
As for Philly’s future transit improvements, refer to this “TP” post. While the proposed innovations focus on Center City and giving the public the most bang-for-their-bucks, some proposals seem suitable as Public-Private Partnerships. But PPPs still will require new public dollars. As a funding innovation, targeted special transit assessments in Center City might be worth a try for specific projects that show quick results.
I conclude with a telling anecdote about how SEPTA runs an integrated system and has flattened the rail hierarchy. At 30th Street Station, I was told to use my Amtrak ticket to get to the other two downtown hubs. After I expressed amazement that one rail system would not take advantage of an opportunity to collect again, the suburban conductor clued me in on a key to SEPTA’s success: “You have come into our system and our job is to get you where you need to go.”
I was so simultaneously startled and refreshed, I had to take a deep breath to recover before I could say to the conductor “Thank you.”
Photo Credit: Flickr/ddyates
Sunday, September 22nd, 2013
[ Today and Tuesday I'm kicking off a series by Robert Munson that reviews North America's train stations. Entries will be posted periodically as Robert writes them. Today is the set up followed by Philadelphia, and many more analyses that should surely get people arguing - Aaron.]
Before cities waste more time and money fumbling, let’s first describe how train stations should serve the 21st Century.
Symbolizing how America would lead in the 20th Century, Penn Station outdid Europe’s best. Then sixty years later, Penn Station became a metaphor for American transportation mistakes. In 1964, short-term economics demolished it. Ever since, the substitute has aggravated New Yorkers daily. They repeatedly have planned to make another station worthy of the world’s greatest metropolis. But, these civic campaigns lurch from one unnecessary obstacle to the next as the entropy of our government demoralizes all but the most stout of heart.
This series will shows how economics and politics can merge to make central stations into centerpieces of sustainable transit in major North American cities.
Of course, we have to start with the politics we’ve got. This is not encouraging… at least on the surface. But despite today’s low points, we should recall how civic movements preserved stations nationwide. Fearing Penn-like debacles in hometowns across America, stout hearts now have preserved 32% of Amtrak stations by putting them on the National Register of Historic Places. This great success repurposed many rail stations as community institutions. While many are barely kept alive as reminders of the prospering people we used to be, many stations today also could help our nation benefit from good transportation economics again. Stations should signal our national intent, much as they did early in the 20th Century; called by some as the American Century.
But, face the facts: our politics restrain the benefits of transit. Civic efforts to save a building are no match to change the outdated transportation agencies we keep alive despite their strategic failures to serve citizens, businesses and taxpayers alike. In analyzing Penn Station, we see its biggest flaw is faulty governance. This series explores how this problem is common to other cities and, then, prescribes how each locale can redevelop its station into its centerpiece for sustainable transit.
Today’s flurry of plans to improve central stations are either insufficient for the future or, worse, will repeat past failures. If efforts in transit towns such as New York, Chicago and San Francisco are fumbling, then car-dominated cities have a slimmer chance of success. But, their chances improve when they take steps — even modest ones — to remake the rules for land use and transportation so transit systems can compete on a level playing field with the car.
What Makes A Station Sustainable?
In this series, I review several central stations in North America to start defining a sustainability for transit that goes beyond helping the environment – one that also aids economic growth and helps achieve fiscal balance. In addition to a narrative, the analysis of each station details a scorecard that I adapted from an article titled “History and Prospects of the Rail Station” by Chris Hale from the February 2013 “Journal of Urbanism.” My adaptation is structured on Professor Hale’s three integrating principles; although the most heavily weighted principle also borrows from the concluding lessons of the seminal book The Transit Metropolis.
For “Functionality & Flow”, 18 of 100 points can be awarded for two internal station criterion: platform protection, safety and passenger flow; and secondly, concourse flow to shops and exits, or waiting areas … and, generally, trying to make the station somewhat pleasant amidst the rush hour crush of humanity.
For “Effective Connection”, 32 points can be awarded. This includes good design such as how welcoming entrances are. But over half these points are given for efficient transfers with buses, light rail, metro, taxis and cars. Bike facilities are nice. (To disclose my biases, surface lots are not nice and get zero points.)
For “Station Synergies”, 50 points can be awarded for a variety of criteria including vision, leadership, proximity and integration to pedestrian sheds of the CBD, transit agency competence, station business strategy, integrating transit cards, reasonable transfer fees, and trying to level the rules by correcting the underpricing of automobile travel.
If you’d like to see the detailed scorecard, here is one as completed for Philadelphia.
To organize the individuality of America’s diverse train stations and learn the similarities in their evolution toward sustainability, I propose four main categories. After the below introductory paragraphs, each category will have an example analyzed in a subsequent article that will be accompanied by its detailed scorecard.
A. The Likely Sustainables. While most cities plan to reutilize their central station, these places are actually doing it well. These stations serve compact cities and these economic advantages will help their transit system achieve fiscal sustainability in, let’s be realistic, the next two decades. Example: Philadelphia’s Center City stations.
B. The In-Excusables. Some stations should be leaders in Category A, but they have a fatal flaw. While serving relatively good transit metropolises (by American standards), these stations have one obstacle (often lousy politics) that blocks them from fiscal sustainability. Example: Chicago Union Station.
C. The Economic Engines. These stations are leading their systems to boost downtown economic growth; but, they must overcome long-term obstacles before their transit systems can get on a path of fiscal sustainability. These are usually neighborhood problems such as poverty. These regions (or often sub-regions) have long-term plans to coordinate their land use and mobility practices, but realistically they lack the tax revenue to attract private capital on good terms for the public. So if economic growth generates greater farebox revenue (instead of more cars), then this creates capital for public investment. Example: Newark Penn Station.
D. The Environmentals Only. These stations are not expected to do more than help their region meet federal clean air standards, a low standard for environmental sustainability. To reach higher levels of sustainability, these stations need another path because two strategic obstacles block them. First, Category D stations usually have a very small chance of contributing significantly to their sub-region’s economic growth; basically, too few people use transit to reap real economic benefits. Second, Category D stations have virtually no chance of leading their transit systems to fiscal sustainability; typically because there is too much sprawl and too much subsidy for autos and too little political will to change any of this. These stations appear to constitute about half of the 50 noteworthy stations being considered for this project. Because that is such a large number and because they are mostly Sunbelt cities that I have not studied in sufficient depth, these will be covered in the future.
Why Analyze Stations? Because They Symbolize The Public’s Deal For Transportation
The Golden Era of rails created many of America’s most inspired civic buildings; symbolizing the public-private partnerships that built the key transportation technology of the world’s leading manufacturing economy. Their deal was simple: Uncle Sam gives corporations the land to build the world’s best railroads to move the materials and people. The deal stuck: we became history’s fastest prospering nation. That smartly-incentivized deal trumpeted its success by building the last generation of great stations, most designed between 1905 and 1929.
That partnership crashed into the Great Depression. Think of its replacement as the New Deal. Passenger rails and their stations were not included as this mid-Century deal evolved in the 1950s to foster a consumer economy that heavily sold cars. Our car culture is still fervently loved by Middle America.
Today’s efforts to revitalize stations are stumbling badly and costing more than we seem to have. To succeed, efforts must be accompanied with new rules for a deal that allow stations and transit to serve as tools to promote economic growth for households and communities.
Clearly, the rules for a 21st Century transportation deal will be far more complex. Unlike the 19th Century, the land already has been given away. Nor can today’s governments who are perpetuating the car culture be trusted to institute new transit taxes. Nor should we trust them; having become broke and, now, probably lost the consent of the governed… or, at least for now, taxpayers.
Because stations can serve as symbols for transit to help supplant the auto addiction, redeveloping stations are important testing grounds for transportation’s 21st Century deal. How stations evolve and get applied to individual cities and metropolises certainly makes for interesting challenges. But developed well and using inspired placemaking, these stations might even win back enough of that love from America’s middle class.
Use Analysis To Overcome Obstacles Strategically
To varying degrees, most stations reviewed in this series have a common obstacle: the experience outside of the rail car is, let’s say, uninviting. There is no need to repeat here the litany of how the bankruptcy of commuter service and Amtrak’s lack of imagination has reduced rail station quality to sad, low levels over the last five decades.
However, there is a Simple Solution: Design stations so they are great places.
But, here’s the rub: we cannot afford the greatness of Grand Central anymore. Yet, each station can still be great for their town by contributing to its economic growth. To get beyond pretty places, our notion of Sustainable Design must prove how stations and transit serve Americans better than cars. Since cars are fast becoming unaffordable to more and more households and cities, transit advocates have our key economic opportunity to leverage.
Elevating stations as a priority results only when public and private investment increases in the central station, its network and their surrounds. This goal must out-smart the persisting tendency for city centers to move from stations and toward non-transit suburbs. While there are many causes, most relate to government’s outdated laws discouraging real estate entrepreneurs from arresting decline by using the economic advantages of compact redevelopment near transit.
My proposal for more Sustainable Stations is a synthesized consensus more than it is anything new: compact and mixed developments multiply the types, times and volume of passengers that use the station’s network. While “Urbanophile” readers and planners largely agree that Transit Oriented Development is necessary, doing it sufficiently cannot happen when governments are broke and our laws remain lousy… or, at least, our institutions still work against redevelopment.
When not on its track to sustainability, each city needs to develop new leverage — its specific deals — to make transit into a priority that can start to supplant our costly dependency on cars.
Having achieved its goal of saving stations but not achieving their economic viability in many cities, the national movement to save stations can use this series to re-strategize its participation in helping create vibrant central stations that maximize the growth of its surrounds and transportation networks. Preservationists can integrate more fully with the broader civic movement that needs to advocate for and protect the huge public investment needed to update transit and put it on paths to fiscal sustainability.
In developing this paradigm, the next article will introduce you to “The Sustainables” by analyzing one of North America’s great success stories: how through-routing has helped Philadelphia use transit significantly better.
Sunday, September 15th, 2013
What do you do when you’re a post-industrial city fallen on hard times? There’s a sort of default answer in the marketplace that I’ll call for want of a better term the “Standard Model.” The Standard Model more or less tells cities to try to be more like Portland. That is, focus on things like local food, bicycles, public transit, the arts, New Urbanist type real estate development, upscale shopping, microbreweries, coffee shops, etc., etc. The idea seems to be that the Rust Belt city model is a failure and should be chucked in favor of something better. In this model the publicly subsidized real estate project is the preferred economic development strategy. We’ve seen city after city work to create downtown and near-downtown “Green Zones” resembling miniature Chicagos. While these have generated excitement and even attracted some residents (upwards of 4,000 in Cleveland and 3,000 in St. Louis, though these are the high end), they have not fundamentally changed the civic trajectory other than in the largest Tier One type cities. And they likely never will. People who want Standard Model urbanism can find superior versions in many cities that generally boast more robust economies to boot.
Enter Rust Belt Chic. This approach in theory solves two of the issues plaguing Standard Model urbanism, authenticity and uniqueness. I haven’t seen a crisp definition of what Rust Belt Chic actually is according to its boosters, but Pete Saunders summed up some of the salient points. The three key elements I see, which build upon each other:
1. Do the Fail. Giving up on the idea of the factories coming back or large scale re-population.
2. Reject Growth as a Success Marker. This actually aligns it somewhat with the standard model. Traditional signs of civic success such as population and job growth are rejected in favor of items like per capita income, brain gain, etc.
3. Brashly Embrace the “Rust” in Rust Belt. This extends Do the Fail to actually embrace the civic characteristics failure produced, as well as various quirky legacies of the industrial past such as Pittsburgh potties.
The best part of Rust Belt Chic is that it understands that you have to be who you are, not who you aren’t. Someone once described a brand as “a promise delivered.” When cities decide that what they are is of no worth or that it can’t succeed in the marketplace, the temptation can then be to try to pretend like they are Portland or some such. Almost invariably in such cases cities end up building towards a false promise they can never deliver. That’s not to say any of the elements of Standard Model urbanism are bad in an of themselves. The problem is that they are basically “best practices” types of things. Just as no company can succeed as nothing but an agglomeration of best practices, no city can either.
The tendency in Rust Belt cities has been to try to downplay their authentic characteristics in order to try to portray themselves as hip and with it. As I’ve noted before, the one thing most clearly associated with Indianapolis is the Indianapolis 500, yet auto racing plays a fairly small role in how the city tries to sell itself these days.
Rust Belt Chic is a first attempt at a region deciding no longer to be a passive importer of ideas about what cities should be, but instead trying to chart a path that is rooted in a unique, local history, culture, geography, etc. To the extent that it steers cities away from a purely “me too” strategy towards creating something that has a unique market positioning that’s real to the place and has at least some competitive advantage in the marketplace, Rust Belt Chic is a big win.
However, as currently constituted, Rust Belt Chic would appear to be limited. In effect, it is really a marketing and to some extent a talent attraction program. Looking at the ironically appropriated trappings of the working man that characterize so much of hipsterdom, Rust Belt Chic says “Hey, we’ve got the real thing.” So rather than drinking PBR ironically, you drink I.C. Light with a more subtle degree of irony (i.e., by pretending that you’re actually drinking it authentically). The term “chic” itself is suggestive of fashion, and thus of artifice.
What Rust Belt Chic does not do is address any of the core problems of the cities in question, ranging from fiscal crises to corruption to poor business climates to segregation, to say nothing of safe streets, better schools, etc. Maybe that isn’t its aim. But if not, then it would appear to be only one small component of an overall civic strategy, and not an alternative to the Standard Model in its own right. The theory of change it embodies would appear to be that authenticity of place and culture will attract people looking for the real, thus restarting the demographic engine through more population dynamism and ultimately that will percolate into the economy. That’s fine as far as it goes, but it’s insufficient.
The elevation of authenticity also poses the danger of imprisoning the community in a straitjacket from the past. With “do the fail” and the embrace of decline as part of the culture, Rust Belt Chic deftly side steps some of the worst dangers of the corrosive force of nostalgia. However, the problem with authenticity is that is has to be, well, authentic. And the way that’s normally accomplished is by encasing something in amber, stunting its evolution.
What Rust Belt Chic needs to be able to do is inform real, substantive change, and to not only unearth the authentic civic character, but updates it for 21st century realities.
A city I think has done this quite well is Nashville. It would have been tempting for them to see their country music legacy as déclassé, and try to basically pitch themselves as the Portland of the South or some such. Instead, while they have embraced a number of Standard Model approaches – as I said, there’s nothing per se wrong with them – they kept country music as core to their identity. But it isn’t yesterday’s country music or culture. People in Nashville today aren’t sitting around watching Hee Haw reruns. Country music today is as much Hollywood as Hank Williams.
That’s not to say Nashville disparages its past. Far from it. The old classic country performers are still honored, and their music still respected and listened to. And they see today’s country as linked across time to that of previous generations. So there’s evolution, but with continuity. They very much value their traditions. But they haven’t become imprisoned by them. Also, Nashville happens to have a stellar business climate, far less corruption than your average Rust Belt city, an openness to outsiders, an increasingly diverse population base, and an aggressiveness towards growth missing in most of the Rust Belt. That’s not to say Nashville’s perfect, but they’ve done a pretty good job of updating their authentic culture while backing it up with an actual product that’s functional demographically and economically.
If Rust Belt Chic wants to reach its potential, it has to be able to do more than unearth and embrace the authentic culture of a place – though that’s important – it needs to be able to inform cultural evolution and also the very real changes in the product (such as Atlanta’s striving to shuck itself of the stigma of racism in the South by becoming the “city too busy to hate” and in the process becoming America’s premier city for blacks) needed to make these cities competitive again.