America’s few modern subway systems are facing a mid-life crisis. In the past month, WMATA had to shutter the entire system for emergency inspections of the power supply system, while BART had to shut down one branch of the system due to a mysterious power surge problem disabling trains. Both systems are no longer the ‘new’ transit systems in the US, they find themselves in mid-life crises. Aging infrastructure requires repair, existing governance and funding systems haven’t had to deal with the costs of maintaining these systems as they age.
Route miles of modern US subway systems, by year of segment opening. From Christof Spieler via Twitter.
With that context, I came across this tweet from Christof Spieler, showing the length of “modern” grade-separated subway lines opened for service in the United States from 1965 to today. A few observations:
BART, the snake digesting the mouse: Until seeing the data presented this way, I never appreciated how much of the BART system (navy blue on the chart) was built in quick succession in the early 1970s. The system didn’t add any route miles until the first phases of the San Mateo-SFO Airport extension came online starting in 1995. Contrast that to the history of WMATA (gray bars on the chart) regularly opening smaller system segments over a span of 20 years. MARTA also expanded by adding segments over the course of two decades.
The implication for maintenance is that BART is kinda like a snake digesting a meal – the bulge of maintenance needs/life cycle costs now coming due. WMATA has a similar length of track to maintain, but won’t have to deal with such a large portion of the system reaching mid-life at the same time.
End of Federal (Capital) Role: It’s hard to overlook the long-term trend as well – cities aren’t opening new third-rail, fully grade-separated transit systems anymore. There are only seven of these systems, most of which received substantial capital funding from the predecessor to the Federal Transit Administration, the Urban Mass Transit Administration; and there have only been a handful of expansions of these systems (absent federal funding) since 2004. Of those recent expansions, two are airport connectors (Miami and Oakland – and the other is WMATA’s first phase of the Silver Line, eventually destined to reach Dulles International Airport).
Limited federal funding, rising costs, and limited flexibility of fully grade-separated systems meant that capital spending shifted away from subways and towards light rail systems. Even high capacity transit projects (such as Seattle’s light rail system) with substantial grade separation have opted for the flexibility of a light rail platform. Subway system expansion in the US is limited to regions locked into that technology.
End of Federal (Governing) Role:A diminished federal role doesn’t just impact capital spending. Writing about WMATA’s governance and maintenance struggles, Ryan Cooper makes the case for DC Statehood to help clarify WMATA’s convoluted regional governance. And while I share the desire for DC home rule and full federal representation, I’m not sure DC statehood alone would resolve WMATA’s governance issues.
Cooper correctly identifies several of WMATA’s key governance shortcomings: a lack of clear lines of authority and accountability and a short-term fiscal focus. He suggests that WMATA should address these issues by reconstituting itself under a fully empowered DC state, with the transit system “ideally under the primary responsibility of the D.C. mayor.”
However, statehood for DC won’t change the broad funding share (DC pays about 1/3 of WMATA’s subsidy) or the location of tracks and stations (the District is home to just 40 of the system’s 91 stations). Statehood for DC won’t assert authority over either Maryland or Virginia, nor would it redraw state lines (no matter how much it might make sense to do so).
WMATA’s original planning assumed a stronger federal role – both for federal transportation spending to direct and supersede state-level planning (with UMTA’s ambitions to fund and build subway systems in American cities), as well as for a stronger role for the feds acting as the local government for the national capital region. WMATA began as the federally chartered National Capital Transportation Agency, in the same era when the Federal Aviation Administration directly built and operated airports in the DC region.
The federal government is uniquely positioned to address some of these issues of both funding and governance, as it did in the Great Society. Since then, we’ve muddled through.
Fairfax County Ambulance. Image from Elvert Barnes.
The front page of Sunday’s Washington Post (below the fold) featured this article on the fiscal challenges facing Fairfax County, VA. No longer the bleeding edge of the suburban frontier in Northern Virginia, Fairfax County now must deal with the rising costs of maintaining the lifestyle it marketed to residents: good schools, good parks, low taxes and low density.
Antonio Olivo writes:
A population that is growing older, poorer and more diverse is sharpening the need for basic services in what is still the nation’s second-wealthiest county, even as a sluggish local economy maintains a chokehold on the revenue stream.
Since the 2008 recession, local officials have whittled away at programs to the tune of $300 million. They now say that there is no fat left to trim.
Instead, they are searching for ways to raise taxes, draw new businesses and revitalize worn neighborhoods. Their effort mirrors the struggle of aging suburban communities nationwide, as a turn-of-the century economic boom settles into a sluggish post-recession status quo.
Few greenfield development opportunities remain; the county’s older facilities are at the end of their useful lifespans and must be replaced. Demographics are changing. Now the bill is coming due. Fairfax is coming to terms with what Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns termed the suburban growth ponzi scheme.
Olivo’s article highlights several anecdotes of the fiscal struggle:
- Shorter hours of operation for libraries
- Deferred maintenance for government vehicles
- Shrinking benefits for public school employees
- Growing backlog of park maintenance needs
The basic business model for suburban places like Fairfax relied on low costs to provide a high quality of services at low tax rates and with relatively low productivity from the land (e.g. low density development). As those once high-quality facilities need replacement, as operating costs rise, the business model previously fueled by growth on the suburban edge has no place left to go.
Some of those amenities seem wildly implausible today: eight different Fairfax high schools had planetariums built into the structures:
Fairfax built state-of-the-art planetariums at eight of its high schools decades ago, an embodiment of the county’s belief that the sky was the limit.
Now the equipment is out of date… Astronomy teacher Lee Ann Hennig has been promised a new digital projector for the planetarium at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, part of a $90 million renovation project that, among other things, is supposed to bring new labs for neuroscience and oceanography to the elite magnet school.
When part of the attraction of suburbia is getting more for your money – more square footage, a bigger yard, a bigger garage – it’s not hard to see that mentality of suburban excess creep into government spending. Installing a planetarium in each of eight (“the greatest concentration of planetaria in the United States except for Dallas, Texas”) high schools instead of funding one facility and send students on occasional field trips? It’s not only a large capital cost, but the indefinite obligation to maintain and operate those facilities.
In addition to those challenges on the cost side, Fairfax is facing revenue pressures as well. Homeowners are weary of property tax increases, and commercial property tax revenues have yet to fully recover from the Great Recession:
Cuts in federal spending — about $1.5 billion less in Fairfax than in 2010 — have emptied out office buildings, leading to a 16.5 percent vacancy rate that is the highest since the 1991 recession. Since 2013, commercial property taxes have dropped $23.2 million.
Much of that drop in commercial property value is tied to the massive shift in favor of Metro-accessible office locations and walkable places – away from suburban office parks. Fairfax is wisely focusing redevelopment of their metro-accessible places into a denser, more fiscally sustainable urban model, but this is big lift.
And demographics are changing: there’s more poverty, more diversity, and an older, grayer population. This mirrors national trends (for more, see this three part series from Amanda Kolson Hurley in Citylab; including an interview with Myron Orfield, a scholar who has long forecast the need for a change in the suburban business model).
Fairfax is left with three basic options:
- Urbanize: redevelop in a denser, more efficient pattern (both for tax revenues and for providing services)
- Raise taxes to continue providing high quality services, despite increasing costs
- Muddle through
The most likely path will involve bits from all three. Fairfax is lucky to have some assets to urbanize around and a stronger regional real estate market to fuel that transformation; other suburban jurisdictions around the US aren’t so lucky.
Morgantown WV PRT System, as seen from Google Streetview
Reading through the history of the personal rapid transit (PRT) on the Verge by Adi Robertson, I couldn’t help but think of the similarities with many familiar projects. Cost overruns, scope creep, politics, government red tape, all conspiring to erode the value of an otherwise promising concept.
First, you can’t write about PRT without acknowledging the inherent geometric flaw of the concept: it can’t scale. Jarrett Walker frequently talks about the fundamental geometry of transit, and succinctly explains the geometric flaw of PRT:
Bottom line: When “personal rapid transit” succeeds, it succeeds by turning into a conventional fixed route transit system. The fantasy of “personal” transit is that a vehicle will be there just for our party and take us directly to our destination, but in constrained infrastructure this only works if demand is low. But PRT was meant to the the primary transport system in a car-free city, so demand would be high. It was never going to work.
This is also true of the Morgantown, WV PRT system, which makes use of different operating modes. During times of high demand, it operates as a fixed route transit system between the busiest stations; during low demand periods, cars stop at every station, regardless of demand.
Mass transit might be an out of fashion descriptor, but it helps illustrate transit’s scalability. Good transit doesn’t just move large masses of people, it requires mass to succeed. ‘Personal’ transit rejects the masses; it also requires expensive infrastructure to inefficiently move people.
Robertson skirts around the geometric limitations of PRT as a concept, but never appropriately douses the concept with cold water. Any history of PRT must focus on the Morgantown, WV system. Any article about PRT will inevitably draw comparisons to current research on driverless cars. Comparing the two exposes the conceptual flaw:
Self-driving vehicles, he points out, wouldn’t have taken cars off Morgantown’s crowded roads — at least, not in the same volume. As long as they’re intermingled with human-driven cars, they can’t run with the same centralized efficiency. And once you start thinking about the obvious solution — a dedicated lane for self-driving cars — you might start running into the same problems as PRT.
Leaving aside PRT’s conceptual flaws, Robertson’s history of the concept echoes common challenges in the American history of infrastructure projects: shifting government mandates, political interference, procurement regulations, and so on. Some highlights:
Goals for transit: Robertson documents the history of federal funding for PRT, with the Urban Mass Transit Administration providing research grants to explore the concept.
The focus on new technology in transit often meant unnecessarily reinventing the wheel (see BART’s broad gauge track), but also exploring new concepts like PRT. New concepts are sexy, even attracting the direct interests of President Nixon:
His mantra, as Alden puts it, was that if “Kennedy can get a man on the Moon, I can get a man across Manhattan.”
Lack of clarity about the UMTA’s goals for the program help add to the confusion. Is the goal to provide effective transit, or to prove a new technology/concept? Crosstown transit is a practical goal, but it doesn’t require big technological innovations. Landing on the Moon is an impractical goal that wasn’t possible without new technologies – and the moonshot analogy makes it easy to conflate two different goals.
From the start, there’s tension between researching new technologies and practical, proven, cost-effective projects. Many PRT boosters in West Virginia were approaching this a big experiment; the government bureaucrats wanted a functioning system. Once the system proved more conventional than revolutionary, Robertson notes, “the age of experimentation was over.”
Politics: Robertson also shows the competing interests of the various parties involved in funding and executing the Morgantown project. West Virginia University approached PRT as an experiment, while UMTA wanted a more practical proof of concept – something that could be built elsewhere if successful. On top of these turf battles, President Nixon wanted a completed project to include in his re-election campaign materials, pressuring the team to complete things before they were ready.
Procurement and red tape: As WVU championed the PRT project, they looked for federal funds to offset the cost. Then, as now, those dollars had strings attached. UMTA required a NASA JPL redesign of the vehicles; one of the independent engineers took patents to established defense contractor Boeing in order to better compete in project bidding.
Right of way: The single most important element of the Morgantown PRT system is the elevated guideway. Complete grade separation from the traffic at street level and the interference from cars, bikes, and pedestrians not only speeds travel, but made PRT’s automated operation possible (note: this remains true, it should be far easier to automate a subway system than to create a fleet of driverless cars).
Despite the inherent geometric challenges of personal transit as a service, the system nevertheless demonstrated the value of guideways; and also the reasons why we don’t have more of them: local opposition and cost. One PRT booster:
To Kornhauser, the issue is less that the technology was inherently inadequate than that it was expensive and inconvenient. “You didn’t need that much intelligence in the vehicle to be able to do all this stuff,” he says. “The problem was that nobody really wanted to invest the money to build the exclusive guideway. That’s the short and the long of it.”
And Robertson on the local opposition to erecting concrete guideways all over the city:
Even the most time-tested (and desperately needed) public transit systems have trouble securing space and laying track; New York City’s history is littered with unbuilt subway lines that were killed by local protests and a lack of money. PRT guideways had some advantages over trains, like their near-silence, but they would still require cities to build miles of concrete chutes. And unlike a subway line extension, there would be no guarantee that people would accept the new system. Or, as one former transportation commissioner told NPR when asked about personal rapid transit last year: “The last thing you want to do is put up some track all over the place and have it just there.”
Also, unlike a more traditional elevated line (something I’ve defended here previously), the ideal of PRT means offering door to door transit, which in turn requires a guideway of some kind from door to door.
As more of WMATA’s new 7000 series railcars enter service, more riders get a chance to experience the new cars in regular service, under the demands of everyday use. The same is true for me – after several chances to ride the new cars in regular service, I have a few observations – particularly relating to passenger information.
I’ve written previously about the big-picture issues for WMATA’s next railcar design: maximizing the usefulness of the existing system means changing railcars to more efficiently move people through the system – and that means more doors, wider doors, open gangways, different seating arrangements, etc.
There’s also room for improving the passenger information systems. The 7000 series include lots of new features, including real-time displays and automated station announcements. Each car has two types of LED displays – a screen that can scroll any kind of text near the end of each car, easily visible from anywhere onboard, and a variable display showing the next stops the train will serve.
7000 series information displays circled in red – photo by the author.
The ‘next stop’ displays above the windows (modeled after the FIND system on several NYC subway car types) contain useful information, but the actual LEDs do not read well at the angles available for most passengers in the car. Even moving closer to the sign doesn’t help much, particularly when compared to the sign at the end of the car:
Comparison of visibility of LED signage in WMATA 7000 series railcars. Photo by the author.
None of the next few stops are nearly as visible from this vantage point as “Franc-Springd” at the end of the car. Reading the display more or less requires standing directly in front of it; a challenge compounded by the seating layout, placing 2×2 seating directly under the ‘next stop’ displays.
WMATA 7000 series next stop displays. Riders must be in front of the displays to read the LEDs. Photo by the author.
By contrast, New York’s FIND displays are located above center-facing seating. This both puts the displays in a line of sight for people sitting on the opposite side of the railcar, but also takes advantage of the additional standing room in New York’s subway car design.
Completely re-arranging seating layouts or changing the location of these signs is a big change. But there are other opportunities to improve passenger information for users. In addition to the LED signs, each 7000 series car includes four video-capable monitors per car, located adjacent to the doors:
WMATA 7000 series video screen. Photo by the author.
Currently, the screens display a strip map (updated in real time) in the top half of the screen, rudimentary information about the station services (for example, a note that you can transfer to Metrobus – but not any particular route information) in the lower left, and a rotating ad space in the lower right corner (in this photo, listing WMATA’s website).
The above photo illustrates one of the biggest problem with these displays – they do not read well at a distance. Discerning any of the information requires moving closer to the display.
Photo by the author.
Consider another example of a similar technology from a bus in New Zealand, using larger text that can be easily read at a distance; displaying the travel time (in minutes, not number of stops) to the next few stops, as well as the end of the line; and putting less important information in a smaller typeface.
Displays within railcars in Paris use a similar approach (image from Transitized) with large text (easily visible), focusing just on the next two or three stations, along with the estimated travel time to key transfer points as well as the end of the line.
Information about the current stop and next stop should be available for riders to consume instantaneously. Editing the amount of information and using large type reduces the time required for riders to process that information – to say nothing about the need to move through the car to take a closer look.
The nice thing about software is you can change it. WMATA and the District DOT recently installed real-time arrival displays at numerous bus shelters in the city. At first, the displays took too long to cycle and scroll through extraneous information. After some initial testing, the displays now show more useful information to riders at a glance – no need for scrolling or displaying the arrival times for buses scheduled to arrive in the distant future.
New software and a different approach to displaying information on these screens could make them more useful – and potentially help cover for the visibility issues with the above-the-window next stop displays.
On the heels of the recent announcement from the US Census Bureau about DC’s continued growth, it’s worth asking how exceptional this growth is. Ask around, and you’ll find commentary about DC’s unprecedented building boom – or about how this growth isn’t particularly exceptional. So, which is true?
DC’s Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development released their economic intelligence dashboard, compiling various economic indicators for the District. The population data from the US Census Bureau is displayed both in absolute terms, but also showing year over year change:
A few observations:
DC’s current trend hasn’t been seen since the 1920s and 30s. While there have been a few years of growth here and there post-WWII, there hasn’t been a decade of sustained population growth like we’ve seen in the past ten years. The longest streak of years with consecutive population growth was over a period of 5-6 years in the early 1960s. In the lifetime of a resident, chances are they haven’t seen a boom like this – only 11% are 65+ years old.
Does that make this growth truly unprecedented? Not in terms of magnitude. Even with that sustained growth, DC’s current boom pales in comparison to the rate of growth seen before WWII. The current growth of ~2% seems paltry compared to 5% or 10% annual growth.
To be fair, those years were the last of greenfield development inside the District; but it’s not a surprise that about half of DC’s housing stock dates back to this era. Those kind of large-scale development sites are few and far between, as the frontier for Washington’s urban area pushes deeper into the suburbs.
DC’s current growth is largely based on the center city and redevelopment of low-density industrial and commercial areas. Without actively planning for additional development and incremental land use change, it’s not clear if that pattern alone can continue to sustain this kind of population growth.
One chart to note in discussions of urban housing affordability, from Vancouver, BC.
The chart is from The Globe and Mail, looking at the changes in housing prices by the type of unit in Greater Vancouver. While condo prices have increased substantially, that increase is nothing compared to the boom in single-family detached house values.
“It’s really the value of the land that is driving prices higher for detached properties and widening that gap,” said Darcy McLeod, president of the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver.
Emphasis is mine. This demonstrates a few things:
- In high-demand areas, new dense construction can and does improve affordability by making more productive use of expensive land. As the adage goes, a skyscraper is a machine to make the land pay.
- Defining affordability in big cities solely in terms of single family home prices is misleading. Focusing on those prices also might skew potential policy solutions, which could focus on making housing units more affordable instead of making scarce land more affordable.
- Given the scarcity of land, it’s hard to imagine a set of policies (barring a regional economic decline) that would ever make single-family detached homes affordable. Most developable land would be a candidate for denser development.
- Skyrocketing values for single-family detached homes in Vancouver’s core indicates they would be good candidates for more intense development; if such evolution were allowed by zoning.
Beware nostalgia for the old Penn Station. While the railroad station’s current iteration neither functions well nor provides an inspiring space, addressing these problems requires addressing the underlying issues of railroad governance, finance, and operations.
Writing in the New York Times, David Dunlap aims to demolish the myth of Penn Station’s demise as solely an act of civic vandalism. Penn Station’s decline was a symptom of major shifts in transportation finance, travel patterns, and urban development. Railroads were accustomed to their monopoly position and regulated accordingly.
With the rise of direct competitors for both intercity and commuter traffic from airlines and cars (both subsidized by the government), change was inevitable:
In “The Late, Great Pennsylvania Station,” Lorraine B. Diehl said the death knell first sounded in 1944, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law a bill to provide $1.5 billion in federal financing for new highways, including an interstate system.
It sounded again in 1947, when the Pennsy reported an operating loss for the first time in its long existence. One month later, in March, a United Air Lines DC-6 reached La Guardia Airport only 6 hours 47 minutes after it left Los Angeles.
It sounded again in 1949, when the railroads’ share of intercity passenger traffic fell below 50 percent. And again in 1956, when construction of the interstates began in earnest. And again in 1958, when National Airlines inaugurated domestic jet travel with a run between New York and Miami that took just 2 hours 15 minutes.
Intercity travel and freight were the most profitable business lines for railroads. Commuter trains provided some feed for longer distance trains, but were an otherwise marginal business. In reality, the business was in decline well before 1944; Ridership for transit of all forms declined during the Great Depression (along with the rapid expansion of suburbs and proliferation of the automobile), only propped up by travel restrictions during WWII.
Penn Station’s edifice was torn down because the economic model of American railroads, predicated on their monopoly on metropolitan mobility, collapsed. Looking to monetize their assets, developing their lucrative real estate seemed obvious. For Penn Central, it wasn’t enough to save the company. Still, the loss of the building draws most of our attention.
Even today, we tend to focus mostly on Penn Station as a place, rather than on the underlying tunnels, tracks, and organizations that operate them. Last week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo unveiled his reboot of the longstanding plans (with a throwback to Gov. Pataki and Pres. Bill Clinton) to redevelop Penn Station, complete with a rebranding.
The full presentation slide deck includes lots of flashy renderings of what’s possible, building off of the same basic concepts as before: relocating Amtrak functions to a new facility within the Farley Post Office building; removal of Madison Square Garden’s theater and a complete redevelopment of Penn Station’s concourses below.
There’s a lot to be said in marshaling the political will to get something done. Cuomo’s presentation doesn’t shy away from that ambition. But ambition alone isn’t enough. Given the challenges in executing complex projects, it’s not surprising to see figures like Robert Moses viewed favorably. But are you executing the right projects?
Slide #6 from Gov. Cuomo’s presentation, complete with Robert Moses.
Not only does the focus on the building itself miss the real capacity challenges for Penn Station’s infrastructure, it also elides over the very real challenges for operations and governance. Adrian Untermyer reminds us of the key governance challenges to success for any plan:
In 1970, one railroad controlled the transportation hub. After it went bankrupt, New York State took over trains to Long Island, New Jersey took over trains to the Garden State, and the Feds took on the rest…
Even with a reinvented station complex overhead, the Long Island Rail Road, New Jersey Transit, and Amtrak will still share the mostly same tracks, cramped platforms, and underwater tunnels. It’s unlikely that decades of dysfunction will disappear after the ribbons are cut.
Finding effective governance solutions for both the physical station as well as the underlying railroads that use it is a much bigger challenge. During the monopoly era, before the creation of either the MTA or Amtrak out of the remnants of Penn Central, that kind of vertical integration clarified things. Current governance is muddled.
Lack of integration and coordination among various stakeholders isn’t a new problem. When New Jersey Governor Chris Christie killed the ARC project, some advocates celebrated the demise of a flawed project with the hope for a better one. ARC’s primary flaws stemmed from an inability for the key stakeholders to effectively coordinate investments. Instead of one railroad forcing coordination, Penn Station was a battle between three entities (Amtrak, NJ Transit, and NY’s MTA – each with different priorities and different leadership).
The unwillingness to share turf isn’t just a challenge for Penn Station, coordinating between two states and Amtrak; but even within the MTA. East Side Access, connecting the Long Island Railroad to Grand Central Terminal is an extraordinarily expensive project, opting for a deep cavern terminal station under Manhattan instead of a potentially cheaper and more useful option that would’ve required better coordination and integration between the MTA’s own commuter railroads. Instead of tackling this issues, the MTA opted for the more expensive solution.
Integration isn’t easy. The MTA’s split personality for regional rail dates back to the differences between the PRR and NY Central railroads. The merged Penn Central couldn’t integrate; it’s not a surprise integration hasn’t happened without some larger outside incentive to do so. The past decade of airline industry consolidation in the US shows how hard this can be, even with incentives.
The real challenge isn’t in finding the right design for a new Penn Station, but in reforming the institutions that operate and govern our transit systems.
Just before the end of the year, the US Census Bureau releases their state-level population estimates. Thanks to DC’s city-state status, we get an early view of the District’s population trends before other major cities. DC’s 2015 estimate clocks in at 672,228 people – an 1.9% increase over 2014.
In 2009 and early 2010, I had a chance to help coordinate the District’s local outreach for the decennial census, emphasizing the importance of getting an accurate count of the city’s population. Back then, we were hoping to see a number above 600,000. Five years later, we’ve blown past that, climbing back to the city’s population in 1977:
DC (and Baltimore) population estimates, hovered over 1977. Screenshot from a Google search for DC Population; data from the US Census Bureau.
(There’s also a great deal of uncertainty to contend with. Census estimates are often revised as better data is collected.)
DC’s press release about the data documents the elements of the recent population growth. Of DC’s increased population, about 1/3 was a natural increase, 1/3 from net new domestic migrants, and 1/3 from new international migrants:
According to the US Census Bureau, the main driver of the increase was domestic and international migration—people moving to the District from other parts of the United States, and from abroad. Between July 2014 and July 2015, in addition to the natural increase (births minus deaths) of 4,375 residents, a total of 8,282 more people moved into the District than moved out. Of these 8,282 net new residents to the city, 3,731 more people moved from other U.S. states than moved out and 4,551 more moved to the District from other countries than the number of residents that left the District for other countries. While net international migration made a greater contribution to the District’s population growth than net domestic migration, net domestic migration has grown four times its previous year total and demonstrates that the District continues to attract residents from other U.S. states.
Back in 2013, DC’s Chief Financial Officer forecast a slowdown in the District’s growth, citing slower economic growth in the region (thanks to decreased Congressional spending) as well as a slowdown in new housing starts. Part of the CFO’s job is to be appropriately conservative in these forecasts, but the Census Bureau’s estimates bucked the CFO’s forecast.
Part of the question is if this growth in DC represents a flash in the pan, or a real long-term shift in migration patterns. Last week saw some hearty twitter debate over this piece by Lyman Stone, questioning the narratives about a major shift away from suburbs and towards more urban locations (examples: here, here and a counter-example here). Stone argues that the data doesn’t support the conclusion of a major shift towards urban living. And given the macro-trends, it’s hard to argue against his broad conclusion.
Consider the analogue of driving, where a sustained period of high gas prices and a weak economy put a serious dent in US vehicle miles traveled, spawning all sorts of theories about how we’ve passed ‘peak car.’ But as soon as oil prices dropped, we’ve seen a massive increase in VMT (never mind the negative consequences of cheap gas). The broad narratives about a paradigm shift against car usage seemed hung up on anecdotes about Millennials using smartphones instead of cars, rather than looking at the broader trends of where people live and work (which hadn’t changed much). Beware reading too much into the data; or missing the outside factor.
However, the smaller-scale evidence is also hard to dismiss. Apartments in DC are sprouting like mushrooms (where they are allowed by zoning), and DC’s population can only increase as fast the city’s housing stock can expand. And even with the District’s sustained growth, rents and home prices continue to rise, indicating demand for urban living greater than the available supply.
Those peak-car arguments might accurately assess our desires to drive less, but the driving data is based on the reality of housing and transportation options available, rather than the options we might wish were available. Likewise, urban migration patterns are based on available housing, not what migrants might wish were available.
Pacific Southwest Airlines post-deregulation ad (1985), showing their expansion beyond California. Image from Airbus777 on flickr.
Last week, Ilya Somin published a piece in the Washington Post’s Volokh Conspiracy blog entitled “the emerging cross-ideological consensus on zoning.” The lede:
In recent years, and especially over the last few months, economists and other public policy experts across the political spectrum have come to realize that zoning rules are a major obstacle to affordable housing and economic opportunity for the poor and lower middle class. By artificially restricting new construction, zoning and other similar land-use restrictions greatly increase the price of housing, and prevents the market from adjusting to increasing demand. This emerging consensus is a good sign, though it may be difficult to translate it into effective policy initiatives.
The issue isn’t zoning per se, but zoning (in practice) as a constraint against matching housing supply with demand. Somin notes that arguments about negative impacts from overly strict zoning come from across the political spectrum, ranging from the kinds of libertarian, free-market scholars you might expect, to Paul Krugman (noted previously here), writing “this is an issue on which you don’t have to be a conservative to believe that we have too much regulation.”
Somin draws the parallel to a past cross-ideological consensus in favor of deregulation: Airlines.
Airline deregulation is a bit of a misnomer. The Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 only removed government regulation of the airline business model; air travel is still highly regulated, particularly for safety purposes. Here, the parallel with zoning is useful: zoning is just one set of regulations that govern development in cities. Building codes still apply; just as airlines are still subject to safety regulations.
Before deregulation, the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) controlled all of the key elements of the airline business: what routes could be flown (and by which airlines), the schedules of those services, and the fares airlines could charge. The market for air travel was completely controlled by the regulators.
Airlines couldn’t compete based on price, nor could they easily add new routes or serve new markets. With this tremendous constraint on capacity, they had no choice but to compete by offering luxurious service. Perhaps this sounds familiar to anyone who’s recently apartment-shopped in a tight housing market.
However, despite the conceptual similarities, there is one key difference: airline regulation was centralized in the federal government. Reforming things was relatively simple. Zoning is ubiquitous in American cities, but control over zoning is decentralized. There’s no national zoning office, no obvious equivalent of the Civil Aeronautics Board.
Because the Federal government can only regulate interstate commerce, the controls of the CAB did not apply within states. In big states that could support commercial air traffic wholly within their boundaries, there was already a preview of deregulation: Pacific Southwest Airlines (within California) and Southwest (within Texas). However, this intra-state experimentation in airline business models didn’t have the large impact on the industry until taken to scale nationwide. Likewise, because of the regional nature of housing markets, there’s not sure to be a benefit to a single city in a region to be the first mover on looser zoning.
Because of the decentralized nature of legal control over zoning, even an emerging consensus among legislators and policy-makers would have to be much deeper than the kind of consensus that deregulated the airlines. And even with a broad and deep consensus, the sheer number of jurisdictions that would need to take action is enormous.
For that reason, it’s hard to imagine action to change zoning on a scale akin to airline deregulation without some kind of intervention from the courts. Charlie Gardner covers the history of the jurisprudence of single-family-only zones and notes how long it’s been since these issues have been before the court – and how some of these issues have never been directly addressed:
Ninety years after the Euclid decision, land use debates in the United States continue to be distorted by this same dichotomy between “single-family zoning” and “multifamily” areas. Rather than talking about housing in terms of units/acre, or total floor area, or some other similar metric, we tend to use purported building types — whether single-family, duplex, triplex, ADU or other such classification. Yet these classifications are in a sense illusory. Whether a builder puts up three detached homes on a lot, three stacked units in a triplex, or three side-by-side units in rowhouse form really shouldn’t matter a great deal to the regulator.
The court’s confusion on this point may have stemmed in part from the lack of a concrete controversy. The respondent, Ambler Realty, was seeking to use its property for industrial purposes, and had no intention of constructing any residential buildings, much less apartments. The dispute was an abstract one which only pertained to the value of the land. Had the court been confronted with a scenario in which an individual builder sought to construct a two-unit building conforming to height and bulk regulations within a single-family zone, it could not have evaded the question so easily.
Charlie also cites Sonia Hirt’s excellent book Zoned in the USA, which documents America’s unique and ubiquitous single-family only zoning and how much of an outlier these regulations are in the world. In other words, outside of the consensus.
Would a challenge in the courts bring the US in alignment with the kinds of regulations used elsewhere in the world? Would posing the question to the courts embrace decades of regulatory momentum – or look to academics and policymakers for a new emerging consensus?
In case you were wondering, the White House grounds are technically unzoned – as is a lot of federal property in DC. Screenshot from the DC online zoning map.
Zoning has been on the national stage in the past few weeks, starting with this paper (just hovering on a link to whitehouse.gov is good to see) based on remarks delivered to the Urban Institute on Nov 20 from Jason Furman, chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisors:
In today’s remarks, I will focus on how excessive or unnecessary land use or zoning regulations have consequences that go beyond the housing market to impede mobility and thus contribute to rising inequality and declining productivity growth.
For more in-depth commentary, I’d recommend the following:
- Joe Cortright at City Observatory: “these observations show the pervasive and powerful effects of what we’ve called the nation’s shortage of cities.”
- Matt Yglesias at Vox: “for younger people, for renters, and for the overall cause of social and geographical mobility it’s a disaster.”
- Gillian White at the Atlantic: Rent seeking “often means that changing zoning laws or other supply-constricting regulations is in the hands of those who stand to collect on those economic rents in the first place, which can make change slow and difficult, if it happens at all.”
- Paul Krugman at the New York Times: “Rising demand for urban living by the elite could be met largely by increasing supply. There’s still room to build, even in New York, especially upward.”
I had two immediate reactions to the paper: first, it’s great to see the White House recognize the importance of issues like this. Getting an issue like this on the national stage, linking it to a salient national political issue such as inequality is important. Getting someone like Paul Krugman to devote his NYT column to the subject is great to see (note that Paul Krugman is no stranger to urban economics: he won the Nobel Prize for his work on economic geography and agglomeration economies).
Second, given the scale and importance of the issue, the list of administration actions is underwhelming. Affirmatively working towards fair housing, offering incentives to localities to loosen zoning, and HUD’s program to lessen lending risk for multifamily housing development are all good ideas, but seem small in comparison to the scale of the issue.
It’s hard to say if there’s more that could be done administratively at the Federal level. In the absence of additional legislation, it’s hard to make the case for federal interference in an ostensibly local issue like zoning (no matter the national interest). Perhaps there are additional tools available that build on new rulemaking enabled by existing fair housing laws (perhaps involving litigation in the courts as well) in the same vein as New Jersey’s Mount Laurel doctrine.
Even with the national scope of housing supply constraints and their clear impact on the national economy, Pete Saunders at Corner Side Yard is quick to point out that housing demand is far more varied across the US. This presents yet another issue in raising housing supply as a national issue – it’s not a uniformly national issue. Relaxing the restrictions on housing supply only matter in the face of demand pressure – and many markets in the US don’t have the kind of demand to drive up housing costs in the first place.