While visiting Europe, I missed most of the local debate on potential changes to DC’s federally imposed height limit (see – and contrast – the final recommendations from the NCPC and DC Office of Planning, as well as background materials and visual modelling, here). But I sure didn’t actually miss any tall buildings; I saw lots of them in just about every city I visited (several of which are documented in NCPC’s selected case studies).
Some thoughts on three of the cities I visited:
Tall buildings emerging out of the City of London. Photo by the author.
London’s appeal for height is obvious, with skyscrapers emerging within the City of London. London has a sophisticated plan for managing heights, as explained by Robert Tavenor (transcript – slides) at NCPC’s event on building heights in capital cities (video available here), balancing London’s interest in quality of life, history, and the desire to maintain London’s status as a primary capital of the global world.
All of this planning effort focuses on the City of London, building upon the already existing transportation infrastructure while preserving specific view corridors, and ensuring that tall buildings that do break the existing skyline include high quality design and are clustered together in designated districts. Other such clusters exist outside of London’s center, such as Canary Wharf – more akin to the kind of cluster of tall buildings along the city’s periphery, as seen in La Defense outside of Paris.
View towards La Defense, from the top of the Arc de Triomphe. Photo by the author.
View of the flat skyline of Paris from atop the Pompidou Center. Photo by the author.
Paris features a suburban cluster of skyscrapers, while the central city skyline remains almost uniformly flat. However, in recent years, the city has allowed taller buildings in the outer arrondissements. Socialist city officials pushed for additional height as part of a plan to increase housing supply and address housing affordability.
Comparing Paris to DC is superficially appealing. Paris’s almost absolute 37m limit (approx 120 feet) is similar to DC’s limit. NCPC’s summary of case studies highlight their lessons learned from Paris:
Paris demonstrates that restrictive building height controls can coexist with significant residential density. Among the case study cities, it has the greatest population density per square mile.
While this is true, it only highlights what is possible with a Parisian-style limit on height; it does not address what is required to achieve such residential densities. Payton Chung offered these comments on this blind spot in DC-Paris comparisons:
One oft-repeated line heard from the (small-c) conservative crowd is that height limits have worked to keep Paris beautiful. That comment ignores a lot of painful history: the mid-rise Paris that we know today was built not by a democracy, but by a mad emperor and his bulldozer-wielding prefect. As Office of Planning director Harriet Tregoning said in a recent WAMU interview, “Paris took their residential neighborhoods and made them essentially block after block of small apartment buildings… if we were to do that in our neighborhoods, we could accommodate easily 100 years’ worth of residential growth. But they would be very different neighborhoods.”
That path of destruction is why most other growing cities in this century (i.e., built-out but growing central cities, from London and Singapore to New York, Portland, Toronto, and San Francisco) have gone the Vancouver route and rezoned central industrial land for high-rises. This method allows them to simultaneously accommodate new housing, and new jobs, while keeping voters’ single family houses intact. By opposing higher buildings downtown, DC’s neighborhoods are opposing change now, but at the cost of demanding far more wrenching changes ahead: substantial redevelopment of low-rise neighborhoods, skyrocketing property prices (as in Paris), or increasing irrelevance within the regional economy as jobs, housing, and economic activity get pushed further into suburbs that welcome growth.
Another superficial point of comparison is in the effective height limit. While Parisian heights are capped at 120 feet and DC heights commonly max out at 130 feet, the exact mechanism for calculating those hieghts matters a great deal. The DC method, based on street width (height and street width in a 1:1 ratio, plus 20 feet), makes use of the extraordinarily wide streets provided by the L’Enfant Plan.
Paris has similarly broad avenues, but those avenues were carved through the existing cityscape (people often forget that the 1791 L”Enfant plan pre-dates the Haussmann renovations of Paris by half a century), and the absolute nature of the height limit allows for max-height buildings along the city’s narrow, medieval streets – with building height to street width ratios far in excess of DC’s 1:1 +20′.
Narrow streets on the Left Bank in Paris. Photo by the author.
Tall buildings emerging adjacent to the Utrecht Centraal rail station. Photo by the author.
Utrecht Centraal is the busiest rail station in the Netherlands. Thanks to the city’s location in the center of the country, frequent and fast rail connections are available to all points in the country. For pedestrians, the only connection to the medieval center of Utrecht is by walking through the 1970s-era Hoog Catharijne shopping mall. The entire station and adjacent areas are currently in redevelopment, upgrading the rail station to handle increased passenger volumes, restoring a historic canal, and providing room for new, tall development adjacent to the station.
Utrecht is not the only city in the Netherlands pursuing such a strategy. In Amsterdam, the Zuid and Bijlmer Arena stations feature substantial development and tall buildings; Rotterdam’s Centraal station is also a hub for a massive redevelopment project.
According to the Utrecht station area master plan, large areas around the station provide for a base height of 45 meters, with towers up to 90 meters (~300 feet), including the Stadskantoor pictured above. Even with that height, you rarely get a sense that such tall buildings exist. The city’s narrow streets (even with short buildings) constrain view corridors. Within the medieval city, the views you do see are mostly of the 368 foot tall Dom Tower, not of the buildings of similar height closer to the train station.
At some point in 2014, WMATA’s newest rail cars, the 7000 series, will enter service. These cars will depart from the same basic design of all of Metro’s current rolling stock in a couple of ways. However, despite the accolades of the new designs from Metro, the 7000 series design misses some key opportunities to squeeze extra capacity out of the system and run the trains more efficiently.
While the ship has sailed for the 7000 series, all is not lost. WMATA will need to eventually expand the fleet and replace the remaining older rail cars; and will do so with the yet-to-be-designed 8000 series. (WMATA current has four cars with 8000-level numbers from the 1000-series, comprising the money train.) Depending on the source, design work on the 8000 series could start between 2018 and 2020; the lead time for developing a new rail car is long; note this article on the 7000 series (again, set to enter service in late 2014) dated from January, 2008.
The 7000 series has potential to improve reliability and operate efficiently: WMATA’s contract holds the builder to meet or exceed a standard of an average of 150,000 miles between failures (WMATA’s current fleet achieves just over 60,000 miles between failures; 150k represents an improvement, but still shy of NYC’s fleet average, yet alone the performance of NYC’s newest railcars).
Efficient and reliable systems will be an important improvement, but they don’t address some of the broader elements of a good rapid transit system. With an eye towards improving the 8000 series, and after riding modern rolling stock in other cities around the world, I’ll offer some suggestions for future railcars in DC.
Maximize the number of doors: While riding Line 1 of the Paris Metro under crush loads, one thing that amazed me was the consistently short station dwell times. As a train pulled into a station, large numbers of people would board and disembark within a matter of 10-15 seconds, and then the train was on its way. Contrast that against WMATA during peak hours at one of the key transfer stations (Metro Center, L’Enfant Plaza, or Gallery Place): I’ve often seen train operators start to close the doors after 20-30 seconds, but people were still getting off of the car, to say nothing of those waiting to get on.
Metro’s current rolling stock features only three doors on each side of a 75-foot long rail car (New York gets four doors to fit on a 60-foot long rail car; Toronto’s new cars feature four doors on a 76 foot long car) Increasing the number of doors on each train makes the exchange of passengers from train to platform easier and faster, particularly with large crowds. The added ease also improves the reliability and consistency of station dwell times. Wider doors are also an option; the MP-05 trains in Paris operating on Line 1 feature three sets of wide doors per side of each 50-foot long rail car.
Paris Metro MP-05 train with wide doors. Note the lack of a cab due to fully automatic operation. CC Image from Wiki.
Despite pleading from train operators, when the dwell times are not long enough for passengers to board/alight, they will hold doors open. This introduces the potential for delay, both by degrading WMATA’s schedule adherence, but also by risking a door malfunction that will take the train out of service. WMATA’s procurement documents for the 7000 series sought a “proven linear door drive system” to improve reliability; however, changing the system’s design (by adding more doors) has the opportunity to improve efficiency and reliability above and beyond the technical systems.
Open gangways: More doors improves passenger flow between the train and platform; removing the doors within the train allows passengers to move along the entire length of the train. This increases capacity and improves the passenger experience, allowing them to naturally balance the load and move along the train if one car is too crowded.
Looking through the open gangway of new S-stock in London, and at the floorplate in the gangway going around a curve. Photos by the author.
The most compelling reason is additional capacity. In Toronto, the new ‘Rocket’ subway cars increased capacity by 8-10 percent. London’s new Sub-surface rolling stock features open gangways between cars, as does the MP-05 stock in Paris. New York is considering open gangways for future railcar procurements.
When asked about why the 7000 series did not include open gangways, Metro cited vague concerns about safety where a suspect might roam throughout the entire train. Yet, in New York, politicians have cited the inability to move between cars as a threat to safety. Both arguments rest on dubious assumptions, but appeals to a vague sense of safety cannot trump the obvious boost of an additional 10% capacity.
Seating arrangements: During discussions about the 7000 series, WMATA opted to keep the current seating arrangement, dominated by forward/rear facing seats, rather than sideways-facing seats that maximize standing room. In WMATA’s own mock-ups, the loss of seated capacity is minimal (about 8 seats per married pair, or 4 seats per car on average). While bench-style seating is common in Europe, is is not used exclusively – though all of the newer railcars make a strong effort to increase standing room and improve passenger flow within the car.
Interior layout of MP-05. CC image from Wiki.
For example, consider the option of using forward/rear facing seats as singles instead of doubles. WMATA’s transverse seating is usually arranged 2+2, with a fairly narrow aisle. The MP-05 rolling stock in Paris uses a 2+1 combination, in addition to substantial center-facing seating. London’s S-Stock offers a variety of options, as does Toronto’s Rocket. Extensive use of flip-down seating adds flexibility for a variety of users, offering seats when necessary, but providing additional standing room during peak hours.
Passenger information: One of the most obvious improvements for passengers on WMATA’s 7000 series will be “next stop” displays (noted for the prototype’s typos), similar to the ‘FIND’ system in some of New York’s subway cars. These displays offer a strip map of the line, showing the next stations. However, more is possible. In Paris, the digital displays in the MP-05s not only display the upcoming stations, but the time to the end of the line, as well as major upcoming transfer points.
Above-the-door strip map for Line 8 in the Paris Metro. Photo by the author.
Digital displays offer flexibility to the operator to use trains on any line. However, many operators nonetheless use old-fashioned, route-specific strip maps.
Even though it’s not a subway or rapid transit application, the in-train displays from the Netherlands are impressive. The screens show the current route, next stops, scheduled arrival time and track. When arriving at a station, the in-train displays will show platform information for connection trains, allowing passengers to head directly to that platform. In the event of a delay or change in the schedule, the displays update immediately.
Blurry photo of info screen inside an NS InterCity train, with arrival and connection information. Photo by the author.
Overall: I’ll note that none of these are new or unique ideas; Matt Johnson (open gangways; more doors) and David Alpert (transverse seating) both suggested similar changes for the 7000 series. I’ve offered suggestions in the past, as well.
Toronto Rocket technical drawing. Image from Bombardier.
You don’t even need to look overseas to see many of these ideas in action. As mentioned above, Toronto’s new Rocket subway cars incorporate most of these ideas. WMATA has the same opportunities. Toronto’s Rockets feature permanently married 6-car trainsets (the maximum length for Toronto’s system), four doors per 76-foot long car, and lots of standing room without removing all transverse seating – something to aspire to for WMATA’s next railcar procurement.
Paris, 7th Arrondissement. Photo by the author.
Over the past two weeks, my fiancee I had the opportunity to visit friends and family in Europe – my first trip in far too long. Our itinerary included London, Paris, Amsterdam, and Utrecht. I hope to include photos and observations on the cities and their transportation systems in several posts over the long Thanksgiving weekend. I’ll start with some general and quick observations here.
On public transit: As you might expect, this trip included lots of transit. In London, we made extensive use of the Underground, as well as the Gatwick Express upon departure. In the Netherlands, we made extensive use of the Nederlandse Spoorwegen rail system, mostly using the InterCity trains between our home base in Utrecht to Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and Schipol. In Paris, we used both Metro and RER, as well as RATP’s modern tramways – a chance to see the lessons of modern streetcars applied in person.
The networks are all impressive, as were the levels of service and efficiency. It’s difficult to get a true sense of how the systems work for regular riders on a day-to-day basis when you’re just visiting. For example, a local laughed at my admiration for the NS rail system (admittedly based on a small sample size), complaining about frequent delays and never-ending construction. The grass might always seem greener on the other side, but complaints from the locals aside – I’m pretty sure it actually is greener in this case.
On high-speed rail: We traveled to Paris via the Thalys high speed train, using NS to meet the Thalys in Rotterdam. This was my first experience on true high-speed rail (sorry, Amtrak). While our return journey was delayed in departing due to a previous malfunction fouling the schedule, the overall experience was excellent – easy integration with public transit on both ends of the journey, no hassles in boarding the train or accessing the platforms - just check the display for your track, and check on the platform for where exactly on the platform to stand:
On-platform display at Rotterdam Central, showing platform locations (letters) for first class and second class coaches for the Thalys high speed service to Paris. Photo by the author.
On walking: Of all the places we visited, Paris was by far the most pedestrian-friendly. Between the ample pedestrian infrastructure (not necessarily at the expense of the cars, given the wide Hausmann streets) and the excellent, ped-friendly city-scape, travel via foot was easy. While London’s urban design is extraordinarily ped-friendly, far more of the street right-of-way is devoted to car uses. Addtionally, the traffic culture (perhaps some combination of legal and cultural reasons – or maybe just my failure to adjust to looking the other way when crossing the street) clearly prioritizes vehicular movements.
In the Netherlands, particularly in Utrecht, the threat to peaceful pedestrian strolling is not from cars, but from bikes. With narrow cartways along canals and amid old, medieval street grids, the mixing between cars, bikes, and pedestrians is amazing – but it doesn’t necessarily allow for the Parisian-kind of urban strolling.
On tall buildings: There were lots of them. Didn’t seem to be a big deal.
More to come…
Suburban Apartments and Estates – Now Renting. CC image from moominsean.
Call it gentrification, call it renewal, call it anything you like. Intense demand for city living is putting tremendous pressure on urban housing markets. Meeting that demand with new development reshapes the physical fabric of the city, but preserving the physical status quo in the face of that demand leads to rising prices in the existing housing stock.
David Byrne issued an ultimatum to New York: if gentrification from the 1% stifles the city’s creativity, he’s “out of here.” At the same time, Ed Glaeser remarks that New York should celebrate it’s ability to attract the rich – this kind of agglomeration of skills and talent is what makes cities special places. It’s not the fact that the rich are coming back to the city that’s problematic, but that the city isn’t still able to provide opportunities at all price points. David Madden notes that gentrification’s current pace is not trickling down to the middle and lower classes.
All the demand for urban living presents the ‘good problem to have.’ But good problems still represent problems.
Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of San Francisco based non-profit SPUR, stepped into the fray with an essay for Atlantic Cities on the failure to relieve the demand-side pressure and the resulting consequences: his friends keep moving to Oakland because they can no longer afford San Francisco:
A great quality of life and a lot of high-paying professional jobs meant that a lot of people wanted to live here. And they still do.
But the city did not allow its housing supply to keep up with demand. San Francisco was down-zoned (that is, the density of housing or permitted expansion of construction was reduced) to protect the “character” that people loved…
Whatever the merits of this strategy might be in terms of preserving the historic fabric of the city, it very clearly accelerated the rise in housing prices. As more people move to the Bay Area, the demand for housing continues to increase far faster than supply.
Metcalf expanded on the idea in an interview with SFGate.com:
Now, should there be places for middle-income folks to live? Absolutely. But it can’t be done with the existing housing stock. Smart new places will have to be built.
That includes high-density buildings, micro-units and new construction. It also means getting a grip on the incredibly complex and restricting planning process that stalls every development. The whoa-on-growth movement began in the early ’70s, and there’s a direct corelation between that and higher prices.
“Up until the mid-’70s,” Metcalf says, “our housing prices tracked right at the national average.”
Over the past 20 years, Metcalf says San Francisco has produced an average of 1,500 new housing units a year. Compare that with Seattle, which is averaging 3,000 units a year with a smaller population. And even that wouldn’t be enough.
Increasing density and allowing the market to meet the demand for new space is part of the solution. In a high-demand place like San Francisco, it’s probably best characterized as a necessary-but-not-sufficient condition. Part of the challenge is that center cities can liberalize their zoning regulations a great deal and still not seem to make much headway in affordability. The regional nature of housing markets, spanning across multiple jurisdictions with multiple regulatory structures, makes it difficult for any one jurisdiction alone to make a dent in the supply.
Consider the case of Long Island: a September New York Times article on Long Island’s lack of available apartments looks to a recent report from the Regional Plan Association to underscore the challenge:
According to a new report from the Regional Plan Association, an urban research and policy group, 55 percent of all 20- to 34-year-olds on Long Island still live with their parents, which is up 11 percent in a decade and appears to be one of the highest rates in the country.
But while some may actively choose to sleep in full view of their teenage posters and trophies, most are there because there are few other places they can go.
The article closes with an anecdote that illustrates the assymetry of demand in the housing market and the regional impacts it can have:
Peter Ottaviano, 24, who graduated from college two years ago, has been living at his parents’ home in Cold Spring Harbor and working for a public relations firm in Great Neck. He looked at some Long Island apartments, but said he wasn’t impressed by the offerings. He signed a lease this month on a two-bedroom in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, where he and a friend will live for about $2,000 a month, and reverse-commute.
For Mr. Ottaviano, it came down to a paradox: young people aren’t likely to put down roots on Long Island until there are more young people on Long Island. “I want to be where my friends are, where there’s a lot going on, in the middle of everything,” he said. “That’s why I’m moving to New York.”
Long Island – home to the kind of mass produced suburban housing that provided the market-rate affordability for American cities in their suburban booms is now facing the same kinds of challenges that older places encounter.
As the 24-year-old Ottaviano’s housing decision shows, part of the question is if the suburbs can develop the kind of quality places that will attract a broader demographic, rather than just a release valve for housing demand. Outside of DC, Montogmery County is explicity looking to attract younger residents – and while reform of the county’s liquor laws alone won’t likely do it (or help the County chase the nebulous “hip” demographics), it can’t hurt.
But still need to build the additional density. Proposals for efficiency apartments in Fairfax County face strong opposition (including an elected official insinuating that affordable housing will bring gang violence and sexual predators); a transit-oriented, mixed-use apartment project was recommended for rejection by staff due to (among other things) having too little parking (a still-generous 161 spaces for 141 units) for the County’s taste – despite sitting a stone’s throw away from the Huntington station.
At the same time, we have substantial evidence of the benefits that affordable suburban apartments can bring. David Kirp in the New York Times celebrates the ten year anniversary of suburban New Jersey apartments built under the Mount Laurel doctrine:
“I wish other places could learn from our example,” says Mr. McCaffrey, the former mayor, but that hasn’t happened. Affordable housing is still too rare in suburbia, as zoning laws continue to segregate poor and working-class families. Despite the track record in Mount Laurel and the promise it holds for neighborhoods around the country, it’s hard to imagine that the suburban drawbridge will be lowered anytime soon.
Another element of WMATA’s stainless steel future has emerged from behind the plywood: part of the newly renovated Metro Center sales office.
Unlike Metro’s new entrance to the Rosslyn station (now open to the public, with some pictures from Dan Malouff), the sales office is located within the shell of the existing Harry Weese station vault, showing what we might expect from future large-scale interventions to stations. In line with Metro’s stated intentions, the new sales office is heavy on the use of stainless steel:
New Metro Center sales office. Photo by author.
Currently, only the portion of the structure outside of the fare gates is open, featuring four ticket windows. The remaining windows, inside the paid fare area, are still under construction. The design of the sales office mirrors the design of Metro’s smaller sales office at the Anacostia station, which opened in 2009.
New stainless steel of the ticket office contrasted against the system’s standard ‘Metro Brown’ pylon.
The gap between the two banks of ticket windows not only divides the office between the two sides of fare control, but also to wrap around one of the pre-existing ventilation pylons. The juxtaposition shows the contrast between the original palate of Metro Brown against the new look of stainless steel.
Old Metro Center sales office, 2006. CC image from Wayan Vota
Replacing the sales office was one of Metro’s ‘shovel ready’ stimulus projects, upgrading the booth to include a number of new features, including beefed up security complete with armor plating. (!)
At the same time, SmarTrip cards are now available at a wide range of retail locations as well as vending machines in each station. These machines are a stopgap until WMATA’s next-gen fare payment system (dubbed NEPP) is up and running. New fare vending machines like those in use in other systems around the world will combine the roles of the current SmarTrip vending machines and the existing farecard machines. More and more transactions are automated, including automatic loading of SmartBenefits and automatic replenishment of card value when your balance gets too low. Some older paper passes and fare products are now available on SmarTrip, the NEPP promises more opportunities for this. All of these developments bode for increased automation and less of a role for the old-fashioned sales office.
Nevertheless, you never know what kind of circumstances might emerge to beef up the need for all those ticket windows; perhaps the 2017 Presidential Inauguration will produce the same ‘insane lines’ for commemorative cards as 2009. Maybe.
Another iteration of the series on elevated rail – for more, read the prologue, part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4 and part 5…
Hong Kong: Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway sets the gold standard for efficient rail operations. The system operates at a profit, the governing corporation makes money not just on transportation, but on the associated real estate development. Developing areas around stations both ensures a critical mass of riders to support the line, but also provides MTR with the long-term financial benefit of owning the assets that benefit from the rail system they operate.
All of these factors make Hong Kong an interesting subject for study. Many of the newer additions to the transit system are largely elevated; and many of those lines run through urban environments with street geometries and traffic volumes not dissimilar to suburban arterial streets elsewhere.
Large portions of Hong Kong violate many of the principles for great pedestrian streets, yet still manage to serve large volumes of city dwellers. Many MTR stations include pedestrian bridges and full grade separation for adjacent roads, rails, and pedestrians:
View near Ma On Shan MTR station in Hong Kong. Image from Google Maps.
Or, consider the massive pedestrian overpasses that traverse this large roundabout at the intersection of two highway-like arterial streets near the Tai Wai station:
Aerial of pedestrian overpasses near the Tai Wai station (top of image). Image from Google Maps.
The physical viaduct structures themselves make little effort to shrink into the landscape. The combination of large pre-cast concrete viaducts with high sound walls make for a fairly bulky aerial structure. This example is part of the Ma On Shan line near the Sha Tin Wai station in the Sha Tin district of Hong Kong’s New Territories.
Elevated MTR rail near Sha Tin Wai Station, Hong Kong. Image from Google Maps.
The rail line runs alongside the roadway. The roadways themselves are hemmed in by numerous fences and barriers; in this case, a median fence prevents jaywalking while fences along the road edge protect bike parking, with a bike trail and sidewalk beyond.
Pedestrian access to Sha Tin Wai station. Image from Google Maps.
Not all stations are surrounded with the wide roadways, but even on lower volume streets, fencing restricts ped movements to the crosswalks. In the distance, you can see a pedestrian bridge to provide ped access away from the intersection in the foreground. The pedestrian bridge ties directly into the station’s mezzanine level.
Street-facing retail spaces beneath the station mezzanine. Image from Google Maps.
Towards the other end of the station, you find street-facing retail within the station building, tucked beneath the station’s mezzanine. The concept is similar to the re-use of such spaces in older systems, showing that you can make it work without the charming brick and stone viaducts. Also worth noting: the global reach of 7-Eleven knows no bounds.
This kind of in-station retail not only breaks up the facade of the station (compare it to the blank walls of a similarly designed station without the retail), but the retail revenue helps fund the system operations. Retail is not limited to street-level exterior storefronts, but also includes in-station retail.
Mezzanine level retail spaces in MTR’s Kowloon Bay station. CC image from Wiki.
WMATA’s Silver Line stations in Tysons Corner might have similar opportunities. “Sand Box John” Cambron’s photos from the Silver Line construction shows the size of the Tyson’s Corner stations. In particular, the two stations aligned to the side of the roadway (McLean and Tysons Corner) feature massive station structures with lots of potential space for these kinds of retail uses; however, such uses will now be retrofits rather than actively planned opportunities.
The curb lanes adjacent to the station are devoted to bus operations. Bus shelters on the near side of the street (just out of the image) provide riders with a quick transfer to the rail system by ascending to the overpass and walking directly into the station mezzanine.
Stations aren’t the only opportunities for multiple uses of infrastructure; Hong Kong features several examples of development in the air rights above rail yards, such as this development above the rail yard near the Kowloon Bay station.
Air rights development above rail yard adjacent to Kowloon Bay MTR station. Image from Google Maps.
Air rights development over Kowloon Bay depot. CC image from Wiki.
Scarcity of land and open space forces some creative uses for available space. The Chai Wan station, terminus for the MTR’s Island line, includes rooftop recreational space with a park and tennis courts:
Tennis courts built on the roof of the Chai Wan MTR station. Image from Google Maps.
The station includes ground level entrances and street-fronting retail (level 0), a mezzanine level with retail and ticketing (+1), the platform (+2) and rooftop recreational space (+3).
View towards Chai Wan station. Image from Google Maps.
Chai Wan station. Image from Google Maps.
The station’s tail tracks weave under and through buildings and over narrow streets:
Chai Wan station tail tracks. Image from Google Maps.
Table of contents:
Hong Kong at night. CC image from Diliff via Wikimedia Commons.
If you were to pick a rail transit system to envy, it would be hard to pick one better than Hong Kong’s MTR. The system is known for extraordinary operating efficiency; both in terms of on-time performance (99.9%) and farebox recovery (186%). Intense development around rapid transit stations both provides a market of potential rail users and an investment opportunity for the MTR’s parent corporation.
The MTR corporation, in turn, is looking to export their expertise in efficient transit operations around the world. An article in the Wall Street Journal profiles MTR’s ambitions:
Hong Kong’s MTR Corp. 0066.HK -1.15% is taking its high standards abroad, bidding to run subways in Europe, Asia and Australia. If it wins just a few of the bids, it will become the biggest operator of metro systems in the world. Led by a New Yorker, the company is also considering other projects, including in Germany, another place that puts a high value on efficiency.
“MTR in Hong Kong is probably the best-run metro in the world, and that brand is what they bring with them,” said Nigel Harris, managing director at the Railway Consultancy Ltd., a U.K.-based firm.
The train operator, which exports even its trademark door chimes and train-service announcements, already runs lines in the Chinese cities of Beijing, Shenzhen and Hangzhou, as well as in Melbourne, London and Stockholm. It has been shortlisted to run a train line in Sydney and three more lines in London, including Crossrail, one of the biggest rail projects in the city in decades.
Just how exportable is MTR’s success? Purely operational measures (on-time performance) seem to present the strongest case, particularly with such inefficient operations elsewhere in the world. Financial measures (whether simple metrics like farebox recovery or broader measures of profitability of the entire corporation) depend on the context of the system – not all cities have Hong Kong’s kind of density to support efficient transit. Planning metrics depend on key governance and financial attributes; legal matters complicate things further.
Operations: There is clearly a case for MTR’s ability to make existing operations improve efficiency; the Wall Street Journal article notes that London’s Overground went from 88.4% on-time to 96.7% after a few years of MTR-led operations. Clearly, you can export the expertise to make the trains run on time.
The rail network itself is not particularly expansive – 108 miles of heavy rail, 84 stations, first operating in 1979; not all that different in scope from DC’s Metrorail system of 106 miles and 86 stations (prior to the opening of the Silver Line) first operating in 1976. Yet the MTR sees 4.5 million daily riders, compared to Metro’s modest 780,000.
The Checkerboard Hill blog (named for the old visual marker on the nasty approach to the old Kai Tak airport) provides a nice overview of the MTR system, complete with a link to a track diagram.
Finances: MTR Corporation operates the rail system, owns and develops real estate around stations, and contracts with other entities to build and operate transit systems around the world. The corporation is 76% owned by the Hong Kong government, with shareholders owning an increased share of the company since an IPO in 2000.
Popular myth holds that MTR is only profitable due to real estate investment, but that is easily dispatched with a quick glance at a financial statement shows operating profits on transit operations (the aforementioned 186% farebox recovery ratio) as well as real estate.
An exported version of MTR can directly control operations and make the trains run on time, but they won’t always have direct control over adjacent development. Nonetheless, it’s worthwhile to look at their success. Even without profits from real estate development, MTR’s development plans serve the key role of ensuring transportation investments are paired with supportive land uses. The Atlantic puts it this way:
Like no other system in the world, the MTR understands the monetary value of urban density—in other words, what economists call “agglomeration.” Hong Kong is one of the world’s densest cities, and businesses depend on the metro to ferry customers from one side of the territory to another. As a result, the MTR strikes a bargain with shop owners: In exchange for transporting customers, the transit agency receives a cut of the mall’s profit, signs a co-ownership agreement, or accepts a percentage of property development fees. In many cases, the MTR owns the entire mall itself. The Hong Kong metro essentially functions as part of a vertically integrated business that, through a “rail plus property” model, controls both the means of transit and the places passengers visit upon departure. Two of the tallest skyscrapers in Hong Kong are MTR properties, as are many of the offices, malls, and residences next to every transit station (some of which even have direct underground connections to the train). Not to mention, all of the retail within subway stations, which themselves double as large shopping complexes, is leased from MTR.
Payton Chung digs into the numbers on MTR’s retail-heavy revenues:
55.4% of MTR’s total 2012 profits stemmed from property and in-station commerce: 36.1% from rents and management income and 19.3% in for-sale development. Profit margins on the property businesses are certainly healthy: 81.6% on investment property and 89.2% on in-station commercial, vs. 46.1% on Hong Kong transport and just 4.7% on the emerging international transport businesses. A near-90% margin practically qualifies as minting money. (In fact, it’s much better than minting money: the U.S. Mint cleared only 21% seigniorage on circulating currency in 2012.)
Note that in-station commercial offers the richest margins; over half of this business unit’s revenues come from in-station retail, with the rest from advertising and telecom fees within stations. MTR collected US$276.4 million on 608,729 square feet of in-station retail, for an unbelievable-for-the-US (but not for HK) average rental rate of $454/foot, well over twice the rents garnered per foot of investment property above the stations. Averaged across MTR’s 84 heavy-rail stations, that’s 7,247 square feet of retail per station.
This kind of in-station retail isn’t dependent on the kind of development rights seen elsewhere in the MTR system (though other cities might will certainly struggle to meet that ‘unbelievable for the US’ rent without Hong Kong-like density). Some in-station retail isn’t that different from examples around the world; making better use of empty spaces fronting streets in stations and under viaducts.
Street-facing retail spaces beneath the station mezzanine. Image from Google Maps.
Other examples are internal to the station, and not different in concept from small-scale retail you’ll find in a shopping mall or at an airport:
Mezzanine level retail spaces in MTR’s Kowloon Bay station. CC image from Wiki.
MTR’s practice of intense and extensive development around stations ensures maximum linkage between the investment in high-capacity transit and the land use to support that investment. Land is leased to MTR at pre-rail values (all land is owned by the government). This extends beyond just TOD; it represents the full integration of transit planning and development. The corporation both captures value created by the transit system, but also earns a long-term source of revenue to augment the system’s operational revenues.
Current US practice for TOD and joint development is barely integrated by comparison. Too often, the transportation-only focus (and a healthy dose of auto bias) leads to extensive park and ride lots rather than dense development around stations. Where dense development does happen, the transit agency isn’t always a direct beneficiary. Speaking to an audience at Harvard’s Kennedy School (as reported by Capital New York), MTR CEO Jay Walder put it in terms of financial sustainability:
“If the infrastructure is not self-sustaining, then the reality is that it cannot rely on public funding always being there,” Walder said Thursday, at Harvard’s Kennedy School. “At some point politics simply diverts the money elsewhere. And you might say it doesn’t have to be that way, but that’s just the reality of the case.”
In Hong Kong, the independently run MTR Corp. buys the land adjacent to future rail lines from the government at pre-development prices and then, once the line is built and the land alongside developed, captures the growth in value of that land and uses it to fund rail operations.
“In that way, the increase in the value of the property becomes a proxy for the broader public benefit and aligns the financial basis with the societal benefit that is being created,” said Walder. “And it also ensures that subject to normal business risk … that the corporation has the proper resources not just to be able to build a rail line, but also to be able to operate it, maintain it and renew the systems and equipment over time.”
Speaking of New York’s Second Ave Subway, Walder has no doubt it “will create a tremendous amount of value,” but that within the current financing scheme “we don’t have any mechanism to capture that back.”
Proxies for such integrated transit and development might include models we see in the US already, such as TIF or other special assessments to finance new infrastructure with development revenues. Yonah Freemark argues there might be a “residual fear” of urban renewal in allowing a public agency to directly develop real estate. Likewise, backlash against the use of eminent domain for economic development might torpedo integrated TOD before it gets started. It’s one thing to re-develop existing parking lots or air rights above key rail yards and other infrastructure, but the politics of land development and property rights will be difficult in the US.
Governance: Other elements of the MTR model (transit plus development) aren’t anything new to the US. Plenty of transit operators in the US also historically developed land to provide riders to their systems (or, on the other side of the coin, built transit to improve the access to their land). Privatized transit operations isn’t a new idea either. However, the current US system of public agencies and authorities operating transit isn’t set up to take advantage of land development around stations.
There are plenty of examples of successful land use intensification around stations; Metro’s Orange Line in Arlington, VA stands out. However, Metro did not develop any of that land. Joint development agreements for private sector developers to make use of WMATA land returns marginal rent to the system, despite huge increases in value from the presence of the system.
MTR’s corporate structure allows the company the autonomy to build a development team capable of delivering world-class real estate projects; current transit authorities would not have the expertise to develop real estate. While the government owns a majority of the corporation, it is publicly traded and has access to capital markets for both real estate and transit projects often unavailable to existing authorities.
As noted in the discussion of finances and land use, none of this is new for transit in the US. However, associating that kind of development with government agencies or public authorities would be new ground.
Planning: Emulating MTR’s operations is one thing; it still doesn’t guarantee the kind of ridership success seen on the MTR system. Hong Kong’s geography is well suited to efficient transit; high-density, compact development built among a series of geographic choke points (mountains, water bodies) that offer an opportunity for transit to gain an edge on other transport modes. These same principles apply elsewhere, but likely to a lesser degree.
DC Construction that comes up on a Flickr search for Inclusionary Zoning – CC image from Adam Fagen.
I’ve got far too many tabs sitting open in my browser, awaiting some form of linkage in the blog (the dates of publication might show how long they’ve been sitting). But, I want to put some of these out there rather than hog my browser’s memory.
I’ve attempted to cluster them together topically – a whole host on affordable housing policies and market-rate development.
“Winning upzoning in the bay” – from PriceRoads.com. The paralysis of urban development is part of a procedural tragedy of the commons, a side-effect of the decision-making architecture that we’ve adopted over time.
I now believe that California is not especially resistant to change, but rather that we’re seeing the tragedy of the commons that results when unified housing market is divided into dozens of cities. In short: when each city constitutes a tiny fraction of the habitable part of the metro area, no city can individually change housing prices much by allowing more development, but it can control the crowding within its borders.
So, what’s a potential solution to this impasse? Just buy people off.
Maybe the best dollar-for-dollar policy initiative of our time was Race to the Top. For $5 billion, the Obama administration bribed hundreds of thousands of charter-school students into existence. Race to the Top gave a lot of firepower to charter school proponents, allowing them to accuse teachers of turning down money for students…reversing the normal debate in which charter schools are accused of sapping money from traditional public schools.
The best way to deregulate cities would be to bribe key constituencies in a way that gives easy fodder for debate. I propose the following: California should triple the solar tax credit for seniors in communities that substantially ease zoning regulations. Any deregulation policy has to neutralize the most ardent opponents of development: seniors and environmentalists. This one would not funnel money through bureaucrats and would show up in anyone’s pocketbook as soon as they asked for the solar panels.
“NIMBYism will lead to economic stagnation” – an Op-Ed in the SF Examiner
Instead of fostering policies that discourage job formation, real estate development and economic growth, policymakers should be encouraging greater densities, and greater heights for new housing, especially along BART and Muni lines. If we are to get more people to live and work in San Francisco, then we must reject NIMBYism as a selfish luxury we cannot afford. The City badly needs an expanding tax base to fund financial promises it has made to public employees and to pay for its essential municipal services. New developments add mightily to the public’s well-being through contributions to The City’s funds for affordable housing, parks, transportation and the like. All of this comes from economic growth and a sensible balance between what we are now and what we need to be moving forward.
“Report finds a city incentive is not producing enough affordable housing” - New York Times
The report… found that the optional program known as inclusionary zoning had generated about 2,700 permanently affordable units since 2005, or less than 2 percent of all apartments developed in the city during the same period.
Under the program, the city allows developers of market-rate housing to build more units than would normally be allowed when neighborhoods are rezoned for new development, as long as they make 20 percent of the new homes affordable.
But Bill de Blasio, the city’s public advocate, argues in his housing platform for “converting incentives to hard-and-fast rules,” saying that 50,000 additional affordable units could be built over 10 years with a mandatory program.
Mandatory IZ might not be the fix New York is looking for. DC has it, yet we’re still looking elsewhere for inspiration.
“In New York, the rent doesn’t have to be ‘too damn high’ “ – Reihan Salam in Reuters
A century later, neighborhoods like the one I grew up in seem frozen in amber. The faces are different, to be sure, and so are the languages spoken by the locals. Crime has gone down and property values have gone up, and New York City is as desirable as it’s ever been. Yet we’ve had nothing like the building boom of the 1910s and 1920s that transformed the face of the city. Millions of low- and middle-income New Yorkers thus find themselves squeezed by skyrocketing rents, and hundreds of thousands of others who want to make their home in New York can’t afford to do so.
The first and most obvious thing to do is to broaden area in which housing can be built. For example, Schleicher and Roderick Hills Jr. of New York University Law School observe that cities like New York use “non-cumulative zoning” to dedicate desirable locations to low-value industrial uses. They propose allowing developers to replace empty warehouses, barely-used shipping facilities, and heavily subsidized factories with housing. Historical preservation districts severely restrict new housing development in many of New York City’s most desirable residential neighborhoods, which has contributed to rising housing prices. Though hardly anyone proposes getting rid of historical preservation districts entirely, the Harvard economist Edward Glaeser has made a strong case for limiting their growth.
Is NYC “Landmarking Away” Its Future? - ArchDaily
A recent study by the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) concluded that by preserving 27.7% of buildings in Manhattan, “the city is landmarking away its economic future.” REBNY is challenging the Landmarks Preservation Commission, arguing it has too much power when it comes to planning decisions, and that by making business so difficult for developers it is stifling the growth of the city.
Preservation, on the other hand, limits new supply and also creates a ‘cultural commodity’ of preserved buildings, both of which would increase the cost of living. How is it, then, that Francis Morrone cites new development as part of the problem, rather than the solution to rising costs?
Quite simply, the members of REBNY are building the wrong type of development: where developers do get the opportunity to build without restriction, they are too often building luxury apartments that are only an option for the super-rich. This may be good for their short-term profit margins, but it is bad for the long-term vitality of the city, as those who are not astoundingly wealthy are forced to leave – and the city becomes less diverse and less productive as a result.
Both sides overplay their hand a bit here. Landmarking alone isn’t what constrains New York real estate development (nor is it the case in other cities), and other constraints are also what push market-clearing prices so high (hence why all new apartments seem to be luxury ones). Affordability over time also involves filtering – yesterday’s luxury apartments have filtered down to more affordable price points. If you don’t build enough housing, you’ll see those older buildings filter up.
“In Defense Of The ‘Poor Door’: Why It’s Fine For A Luxury Condo Developer To Keep Its Low-Income Units Separate” – from Josh Barro at Business Insider, where he goes through a thought experiment about applying the same logic of IZ to that of SNAP benefits.
We require and incent developers who build market-rate housing to also sell or rent some units in the same developments at cut-rate prices. The idea is that affordable housing shouldn’t just be affordable and livable; it should be substantially similar in location and character to new luxury housing. If rich people are getting brand new apartments overlooking the Hudson River, so should some lucky winners of affordable housing lotteries.
Hence the outrage over the “poor door” at a planned luxury condo project that Extell will build on Manhattan’s Upper West Side: market-rate buyers will use one entrance, while tenants in the project’s affordable housing component will use another. Affordable apartments will also be on low floors and, unlike many of the market-rate units, they won’t face the Hudson River.
Getting mad about the “poor door” is absurd. The only real outrage is that Extell had to build affordable units at all.
New York’s housing advocates are right about one very important thing: upzonings are a windfall for landowners and the city should be asking for something in exchange for allowing more development. But what it should be asking for isn’t luxury apartments with river views to give out by lottery. It should be asking for cash.
Now, the reason for IZ isn’t solely about affordable housing, but about preserving and providing for mixed-income communities and for permanently affordable housing. All worthy goals, but the can come with a great deal of procedural headaches.
The world is urbanizing. But is it doing so in a truly urban fashion, or is it merely a way of noting that ‘urban’ can be defined as ‘not rural?’
This is one of the concerns Vishaan Chakrabarti brings up in his discussions of ‘hyperdensity’ and his book making the case for a truly urban future: market-driven, transit-supportive, and more dense and urban than what we have today. Chakrabarti notes that this isn’t meant to denigrate suburbanism, but to merely level the competitive playing field and to stop direct subsidy of suburbanization.
ArchDaily links to a video of Chakrabarti speaking before a panel of big names in architecture and academia at Columbia University. They summarize as follows:
Through the compelling representation of statistics, Chakrabarti makes a concise case for the benefits of investing efforts in a development strategy that is based on dense cities. By identifying issues in modern infrastructures, current city planning policies, and paradigms within the design and construction fields, he paints a new urban landscape.
And the video:
In the panel discussion, Bernard Tschumi notes that the ideas Chakrabarti presents are not new; to which Chakrabarti asks rhetorically, “then why are we in this mess?”
Riding through the system, looking out the back window of a Metro train: