Hi and welcome back to Sunday Reading. Here are the media highlights from the past couple weeks. Drop your recommendation in the comments section. Happy Labour Day weekend!
New world cities must be kicking themselves for not building underground rapid transit when they had a chance. Here’s Seattle’s story when they were close to deciding on a comprehensive mass transit system in 1968, but instead decided to invest in “arterials and expressways”. Woops. Josh Cohen, “How Seattle blew its chance at a subway system“, Crosscut.
Foward Thrust vision for transit was a 47-mile, 30-station rail rapid transit system with four lines running out of downtown to the corners of the city and across the lake to Bellevue, to be built by 1985. The measure would’ve also funded 90 miles of express bus service, and over 500 miles of local bus service to feed the rail system.
All that rail came with a steep price tag: $1.15 billion. But the Forward Thrust committee was encouraged by the 1964 Urban Mass Transit Act, which authorized the federal government to pay for up to two-thirds of the capital costs of urban rail projects. Their plan asked for $385 million in property taxes from Seattle and King County voters. The feds would pick up roughly $800 million on top of that.
In a report to the Municipal League, Gould wrote, “The only way we can fail safe is with arterials, expressways, and a modern bus system … Let us not financially cripple ourselves for the next 40 years for a system that all experience proves to be a loser.”
Gibbs says General Motors also joined the opposition. “They brought in a lot of money,” he tells me. “And they brought in something called the Bus of the Future to demonstrate how buses would operate and what they could look like. They never built another one, they never intended to. It was strictly show to try and stop rail projects.”
The option to avoid congestion and access more destinations across a city seems a critical metric. Here’s a neat study mapping the coverage of rapid transit stations across several large cities. Andrew Small, “What Cities Have the Most People Living Near Rapid Transit?“, CityLab.
Using these benchmarks, the study compared rapid transit sheds in cities to density maps of metropolitan areas to determine how many people have access to speedy public transportation.
For the 13 cities studied in industrialized countries, the average share of the population near transit came in at 68.5 percent, while metropolitan areas came in at 37.3 percent. The top four cities with the largest populations near rapid transit were Paris, Barcelona, Madrid, and London, reaching more than 90 percent of their city populations. Rotterdam came in fifth, serving 84 percent of its city population. The dense population in these cities affords good transit coverage at their cores, but further transit development has not followed residents out into broader metropolitan areas.
There continues to be a wealth of content and debate about life and work of Jane Jacobs. Reading Life and Death in 1990 had a profound influence on my life and inspired an unshakable fascination with cities and urbanism. I look forward to reading these biographies and unpublished collections over the summer. Nathaniel Rich, “The Prophecies of Jane Jacobs“, The Atlantic.
Urban life was Jacobs’s great subject. But her great theme was the fragility of democracy—how difficult it is to maintain, how easily it can crumble. A city offered the perfect laboratory in which to study democracy’s intricate, interconnected gears and ballistics. “When we deal with cities,” she wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), “we are dealing with life at its most complex and intense.” When cities succeed, they represent the purest manifestation of democratic ideals: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” When cities fail, they fail for the same reasons democracies fail: corruption, tyranny, homogenization, overspecialization, cultural drift and atrophy.
Reduced to a word, Jacobs’s argument is that a city, or neighborhood, or block, cannot succeed without diversity: diversity of residential and commercial use, racial and socioeconomic diversity, diversity of governing bodies (from local wards to state agencies), diverse modes of transportation, diversity of public and private institutional support, diversity of architectural style. Great numbers of people concentrated in relatively small areas should not be considered a health or safety hazard; they are the foundation of a healthy community.
The California LAO has been a leader in the conversation about the affects of land use restrictions in growing cities. From growing inequality to lower economic productivity, California remains the ground zero for zoning/land use gong show. Brian Uhler, “Housing and Economic Mobility“, The California Legislative Analyst’s Office.
Our office has written extensively about how California’s housing crisis—largely a result of too little building in coastal urban areas—has made it hard for many Californians to find housing that both meets their needs and is affordable. One perhaps underappreciated consequence of lackluster homebuilding in coastal California is that many workers are denied access to California’s high-wage job markets because they are unable to find housing. These workers are pushed to other parts of California or beyond where their wages tend to be lower.
With the decreased flow of workers from low-wage areas to high-wage areas, incomes levels across California’s counties have stopped converging in recent decades. Whereas the downward sloping pattern in the graph above for county income growth between 1940 and 1960 indicated converging incomes, the lack of such a pattern in the graph below for the period 1990 and 2010 suggests that convergence has stalled. (In fact, if anything there is a slight upward slope.)
A major takeaway from this data is that many of those who are affected by California’s coastal communities’ decisions to limit home building do not live in these communities. They are the workers who have been pushed to other parts of the state where their incomes are lower.
Laura Kusisto, “As Land-Use Rules Rise, Economic Mobility Slows, Research Says“, Wall Street Journal.
According to research by Daniel Shoag, an associate professor of public policy at Harvard University, and Peter Ganong, a postdoctoral fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research, a decadeslong trend in which the income gap between the poorest and richest states steadily closed has been upended by growth in land-use regulations.
Moving to a wealthier area in search of job opportunities has historically been a way to promote economic equality, allowing workers to pursue higher-paying jobs elsewhere. But those wage gains lose their appeal if they are eaten up by higher housing costs. The result: More people stay put and lose out on potential higher incomes.
Here’s a fascinating thesis about how class structures are being dismantled due to the housing boom/crisis. Via Bendon Harre. Ilan Wiesel, “How the housing boom is remaking Australia’s social class structure“, The Conversation.
The housing boom has blurred existing boundaries between upper, middle and lower classes that applied to the baby boomers and previous generations. New social class boundaries and formations are being produced.
This does not mean younger generations, as a collective, are disadvantaged compared to their parents. Rather, these younger generations will be subdivided differently and more unequally.
The Renting Class
In the industrial city, the term “working class” was defined by the experiences of low-income workers in manufacturing jobs. Yet in a post-industrial Australian city it makes more sense to talk about the “renting class”.
Not all renters are poor, and not all poor households are private renters. However, the correlation between the two is significant and strengthening.
Marina Benjamin, “Chabuduo! Close enough: How China became the land of disastrous corner-cutting“, Aeon.
Instead, the prevailing attitude is chabuduo, or ‘close enough’. It’s a phrase you’ll hear with grating regularity, one that speaks to a job 70 per cent done, a plan sketched out but never completed, a gauge unchecked or a socket put in the wrong size. Chabuduo is the corrosive opposite of the impulse towards craftmanship, the desire, as the sociologist Richard Sennett writes in The Craftsman (2008), ‘to reject muddling through, to reject the job just good enough’. Chabuduo implies that to put any more time or effort into a piece of work would be the act of a fool. China is the land of the cut corner, of ‘good enough for government work’. …
Why is China caught in this trap? In most industries here, vital feedback loops are severed. To understand how to make things, you have to use them. Ford’s workers in the US drove their own cars, and Western builders dwelt, or hoped to dwell, in homes like the ones they made. But the migrants lining factory belts in Guangdong make knick-knacks for US households thousands of miles away. The men and women who build China’s houses will never live in them.
The average price of a one-bedroom apartment in a Chinese second-tier city – a provincial town of a few million people, straining at its own geographical and environmental limits – is around $100,000; the average yearly salary for a migrant construction worker is around $3,500. Their future is shabby pre-fabricated workers’ dorms and old country shacks, not air conditioning and modern bathrooms. If what you’re making represents a world utterly out of reach to you, why bother to do it well?
Here’s some interesting research with some unsurprising conclusions. As cities increase the price of parking transit use increases. Joe Cortright, “Cities and the price of parking“, City Observatory.
It’s worth asking why more people don’t drive: after all the cost of car ownership is essentially the same everywhere in the US. The short answer is that in cities, parking isn’t free. And when parking isn’t free, more people take transit or other modes of transportation.
To see just how strong an explanation that parking prices provide for transit use, we’ve plotted the number of transit trips per capita in each of the largest metropolitan areas against the typical price of a month of parking in the city center. Each data point represents a single metropolitan area. There’s a very strong positive correlation between transit rides per capita and parking rates. Cities with higher parking rates have more transit rides per capita than cities with lower parking rates.