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Defining Clear Standards for Transit-Oriented Development


» A new report attempts to quantify the relative merits of development near transit. What value can this tool bring for planners?

Transportation and land use are inextricably linked. Building a new rail line may expand development; new development may expand use of a rail line. The direct connection between the two makes differentiating between cause and effect difficult to measure. Transportation planners frequently make the argument that a new investment will produce new riders, for example, but whether those riders would have come anyway is not a simple question to answer. There is no counter-factual.

Nevertheless, planners have invested decades of considerable work in the pursuit of transit-oriented development (TOD), under the presumption that clustering new housing, offices, and retail will result in rising transit use and, in turn, reduce pollution, cut down on congestion, and improve quality of life. There remains some controversy about the effectiveness of TOD investments in actually increasing transit ridership, but, at least in my mind, the success of certain areas over others has as much to do with the manner in which developments are designed as the mere fact that there is construction adjacent to a rail or bus station.

For example, the considerable success of Arlington, Virginia in attracting riders to the Washington Metro, as compared to Rosemont, Illinois’ interaction with the Chicago L, is likely due to the fact that the former prioritized walkable construction immediately adjacent to subway stations while the latter put the rail line in the median of a highway, separated buildings from the station by hundreds of feet, and minimized pedestrian amenities. Getting the design of new development around transit right is often just as important as the transit itself in terms of attracting ridership.

If design matters, what has been missing has been a tool that offers empirical insight into the benefits of specific development interventions in terms of their effect on growing transit use. To fill the gap, a new tool for measuring TOD quality has recently been introduced by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP). It holds potential value in terms of defining the appropriate measures for creating effective TOD, but it needs further development to be useful in aiding the creation of best-practice development designs.

The TOD Standard

ITDP’s TOD Standard replicates the BRT Standard the organization finalized this year. Like the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED, both are scoring systems meant to offer a quick measurement that allows projects to be compared with one another on a variety of relevant criteria.

ITDP argues that this tool allows planners, developers, and the public to assess proposed or existing projects on a wide number of measures. The report aims to identify “what constitutes urban development best practice in promoting sustainable urban transport.” In other words, the goal of the tool is to determine which development projects would do the most to positively expand public transportation usage.

From the perspective of planners who should be actively promoting urban design that increases transit use, the Standard’s recognition of “development that is pro-actively oriented toward, rather than simply adjacent to, public transport” is encouraging. If the system works, it could be an potent way to make the connection between transit and development more explicit and, if used by municipalities or developers to design projects, it could eventually result in expanded ridership.

Best practices are identified across eight design categories — walking, cycling, the transportation network, accessibility to transit, a mix of uses, density, connections to existing employment centers, and changes in parking and road use. Within those categories, 24 criteria can be analyzed individually and then combined into an overall score in which developments rate from -50 (terrible) to +100 (excellent). The tool could be used to determine how well a completed development compares to best practice, or to identify areas for potential improvement.

Vienna Town Center Plan

Testing the Standard’s Effectiveness

ITDP’s tool is designed for large-scale projects within 800 meters (one half mile) of transit stations that implement at least 20,000 square feet of new construction on an area of four or more square blocks. The tool is not meant to measure the TOD effectiveness of existing districts (which are supposed to be included in a future revision of the Standard).

To evaluate just how the tool works, I chose three large TOD projects in East-Coast cities to compare their relative advantages, and inputted project data into the Standard for comparison. The three projects I selected are the Lindbergh Town Center project in Atlanta, which is fully completed (photograph at the top of this post); the NorthPoint project in Cambridge, just outside of Boston, which is partially completed; and the Vienna MetroWest (aka Metro Town Center), outside of Washington, D.C., which is in planning (the plan is just above this section). The latter project is the now down-scaled version of the Vienna plan.* Each constitutes a major development program located immediately adjacent to a transit corridor.

The data that I inputted into into the tool produced the results seen in the following table. As the last row indicates, the MetroWest project scored most poorly, with a rating of 3 out of 100.** Lindbergh did much better, with a score of 39, and NorthPoint best, with a score of 56. It should be emphasized that neither NorthPoint nor MetroWest are completed, so upon actual construction, the final TOD scores could be significantly different.

Evaluating TOD Based on the ITDP TOD Standard
Note: These figures offer a “sketch” computation of each project’s TOD score; the score should be treated as a general figure, not a fully accurate measure of each project’s characteristics.
CriterionPotential PointsMetroWest, Vienna, VANorthPoint, Cambridge, MALindbergh, Atlanta, GA
Sidewalk access0-1000
Complete crosswalks0-500
Driveway interference1010
Active frontage101105
Permeable frontage2011
Cycle network0-10-3
Cycle parking at stations2200
Cycle parking in buildings2???
Cycle access in buildings1???
Intersection density2-1021
Small blocks5030
Prioritized pedestrian connectivity3111
Max walk distance to transit00-20
Avg walk distance to transit5555
Mix of uses10101010
Access to food1100
Affordable housing4022
Residential density10497
Non-residential density5000
Connections to existing urbanism10044
Distance to existing jobs5555
Off-street parking15050
On-street parking5???

Assessing the Standard’s Value

The tool was simple to use and its results make sense intuitively: Whereas the MetroWest project is poor urban design from the perspective of encouraging transit use, the other two are far more oriented toward the nearby rail stations. Hypothetically, if the projects were all proposed for the same site, the tool would allow decision makers to make a quick quantitative comparison between the designs and identify the best project for public transportation riders. This could offer a clear benefit in terms of, for example, choosing a winning team for the contract to develop a publicly owned site. Rather than rely on “subjective” comparisons of the aesthetics of site designs (a comparison that too often devolves into a question of individual architectural taste), the tool quantifies the physical.

The Standard could also play a useful role in improving the ability of developers to design their new transit-adjacent buildings most effectively by highlighting where plans fall short in comparison with best practices.

Yet, as beneficial as it could be, the Standard does not appear to have been developed with a clear research methodology to back its scoring system. Why is the active frontage criterion worth 10 points, but the amount of shade on nearby streets only worth 2? Perhaps I am wrong, but my sense is that residential and commercial density are the overwhelming influencers of transit use, yet those criteria only account for a quarter of the score. ITDP does not appear to have conducted a real-world analysis to demonstrate whether certain elements are more beneficial in terms of attracting transit use. Rather, the tool seems to have been created using a common sense approach, which is not as good as one might hope for a “Standard” that is explicitly designed to provide an empirical scoring system for measuring TOD effectiveness.

ITDP’s TOD Standard, though, remains a draft; it will be revised over the next year based on public and expert input. It would be beneficial if those revisions attempted to incorporate evidence about the relative effectiveness of the various criteria in terms of growing transit ridership.

Even so, for those who are already familiar with the basic principles of transit-oriented development, ITDP’s scoring system will do little more than reinforce already-acquired knowledge. Every urbanist knows quite well that good TOD requires pedestrian connectivity, a mix of uses, and bike parking — those goals might as well be imprinted on the foreheads of most people trained in planning. At most, ITDP’s guidelines may highlight slight differences between individual projects, but a quick comparison of the site plans of Vienna’s MetroWest and Cambridge’s NorthPoint is enough for most even unexperienced planners to make out which one is designed for transit, and which one isn’t.

So what added value does the Standard bring? Like WalkScore, it provides an “objective” number that can be used by non-planner decision makers to help them determine which projects would best fulfill the policy objective of maximizing transit use. The Standard must be refined, however, to focus on making that number into something that’s genuinely reflective of best practices.


* I recognize that the Vienna project profiled here may not be the project that is built; the original plan for the site envisioned much higher densities just next to the station. For this comparison, though, I wanted to pick a project that I hypothesized would score poorly using the ITDP tool, and this revision fit the bill.

** Because I could not locate data on bike access to buildings or the area devoted to on-street parking, the documented scores were really out of a total possible score of 93.

Image at top: Lindbergh City Center in Atlanta, from Cooper Carry Architects; below: Revised Vienna Metro Town Center Plan, from Paraclete Realty

Portland St. Louis Streetcar Urbanism

Don’t Forget the Zoning

» Streetcar projects promise new development along their rights-of-way. But cities must allow new transit-oriented buildings to be built nearby. A look at St. Louis and Portland.

In the United States, streetcars have assumed a dramatic new prominence, in part because of increasing federal support. In dozens of cities, new lines are under construction, funded, or in planning thanks to local political leadership that recognizes the benefits of such investments in relatively cheap new rail lines. While streetcars are typically not the most efficient mobility providers — compared to light rail lines and often even buses, they are slower and more likely to be caught in traffic — they are promoted as development tools. Streetcars, it is said, will bring new construction and the densification of districts that are served by the new rail lines.

But streetcars alone aren’t enough to spur construction of residential and commercial buildings in neighborhoods with transit service. Just as important are the municipal regulations guiding new development. If zoning prevents large buildings around streetcar corridors, how exactly will streetcars lead to new construction?

A comparison of two streetcar projects — one soon to enter construction in St. Louis and the other about to open for service in Portland — shows that there are very different rules guiding what can be built in the two cities. The result may be that one city sees significant new growth along its corridor and the other sees very little, despite both projects being new streetcar lines. Other cities looking to extract value from their transportation investments should consider how their land use regulations may affect new construction.

St. Louis

Unlike most cities building new streetcar lines, St. Louis’ federally funded project will be constructed outside of downtown, in the Loop District four miles from the city center. The Loop Trolley will extend two miles from the Missouri History Museum at Forest Park, along DeBaliviere Avenue, and west along Delmar Boulevard into the independent municipality of University City. The route, which will be partially double tracked, will serve ten stops and is expected to attract about 800 riders per weekday (and 2,000 per weekend day) in the opening year, rising eventually to 2,600 riders a day by 2025.

The project suffers from many of the flaws of other streetcar lines throughout the country — it will have limited frequencies, a non-exclusive right-of-way, and a route that doesn’t directly serve the biggest destination in the area: Washington University.

More important, however, is the fact that zoning in both St. Louis and University City is not adequate to produce “urban infill and transit-oriented development along the route,” as project proponents claim the Trolley will encourage.

In the City of St. Louis, the blocks directly facing the streetcar route are mostly zoned for neighborhood commercial, commercial district, and multiple family dwelling areas. In these districts, buildings cannot exceed three stories or 45 to 50 feet. Non-residential buildings are limited to a floor area ratio (FAR) of just 1.5*. Meanwhile, non-pedestrian-oriented uses, such as drive-through restaurants, are allowed to be constructed. For residential buildings, developers are required to provide parking for one car per unit, and commercial structures over a size limit must provide parking as well.

In University City on the western section of the route, zoning is similarly restrictive. Half a block off the Delmar Loop, where the line runs, “core commercial” zoning is used. In these areas, residential units, bars, hotels, and more are allowed, but they require a conditional use permit from city hall to be installed — a needless complication for uses that are more than appropriate for this kind of area. Buildings are limited to just 35 feet in height, with the exception of certain buildings with large setbacks. But in a walkable area like this, it is more than appropriate to build taller structures right up to the sidewalk line. North of the streetcar corridor, high density residential zoning is in effect, but there no mixing of uses is allowed at all, and FAR is limited to 1 unless buildings are built on one acre or larger lots.

Just a block or two south of the route, in both St. Louis and University City, surrounding land is mostly zoned for single-family homes in “neighborhood preservation areas” that make a mix of land uses and increased building sizes almost impossible to construct.

In sum, even if developers are intrigued by the idea of building along the streetcar corridor, St. Louis’ project is likely to attract little actual construction because of city regulations that limit new construction. Developers wanting to build large structures will be limited by low height limits and requirements to get special permits to provide a mix of land uses. That should put a big question mark over how valuable the project will be from a land use perspective.


Portland’s streetcar, which has been in operation since 2001, has been the national model for such projects; combined with the city’s large MAX light rail network, it has offered this region a transit-friendly image. Thanks to an infusion of $75 million in federal funds, the city has built a $148 million, 3.3-mile extension that will open for service on September 22. The project is expected to roughly double existing ridership (now about 12,000 on a weekday) and attract 2.4 million square feet of development by serving the Lloyd District and Central Eastside neighborhoods, which are across the Willamette river from downtown. In these areas, there is currently a paucity of urban development and plenty of space for new construction. The project connects to the north end of the existing streetcar, runs across the river, runs south on Grand Avenue and Martin Luther King Boulevard to the Oregon Museum of Science and Indutry, and will eventually form a loop around the city center when it is connected with the south end of the existing streetcar in 2015.

Portland Streetcar Loop map, from Portland Streetcar

Like St. Louis’ line, Portland’s also has some transportation deficiencies. Rather than offering direct access into downtown, the route requires riders to take a circuitous journey to get there. Trains will run in a right-of-way shared with automobiles. Based on the schedule, trains will run through the area at just 7 mph, an absurdly slow pace even for a streetcar. Compounding the problem is that the service will only be provided into the Eastside at headways of 18 minutes (which is far worse than the 12-minute headways promised in 2008 for the project). If you miss a train, there is little point in waiting for the next one at those frequencies.

Nevertheless, Portland’s project offers far more opportunity for new development around the line than the St. Louis program. As shown in the images below, very high densities — up to an FAR of 12 in the Lloyd District but at least 5 everywhere — are allowed in the blocks directly surrounding the new streetcar extension, and very little has been built there so far, so there are many opportunities for growth. The top image should make us question whether some areas along the existing streetcar loop, such as the Pearl District, deserve to see a serious up-zoning to allow for increasing new development.

Above: The degree to which blocks surrounding Portland Streetcar and extension have been developed. Below: Allowed floor-area ratios by block. Source: City of Portland

With the densities allowed in Portland, significant new construction in the Eastside areas will be possible. Based on previous trends in the city, such development seems likely. In downtown Census tracts (on the west side of the river), the total population has increased massively since 1980, going from 8,671 then to 17,789 in 2010; about half of that increase was between 2000 and 2010 alone. That kind of growth would have been impossible without the increase in transportation options made possible through the construction of the city’s streetcar and light rail systems.

Meanwhile, though the percentage of people living in those areas using private cars to get to work has increased since 1980, when just 26% did (following the national trend), it has declined from 38.3% in 1990 to 36.9% in 2010, indicating that the new development is attracting people who want to live without cars on a daily basis. That’s a success that seems likely to be continued with the streetcar extension.


Transportation engineers are loath to support new streetcar lines because they cannot understand why it makes sense to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in a rail line when a far cheaper bus service would provide similar, or even more, mobility benefits. From the pure perspective of moving people from one place to another, streetcars are irrational investments.

Some Portland residents have expressed concerns that the streetcar has been excessively subsidized even as bus routes have faced service cuts and increasing fares because of declining revenue. If transportation spending were simply about helping people move around, these would be entirely legitimate claims.

But we can overlook the technical deficiencies of these two streetcar projects by emphasizing their development impacts. The point of the St. Louis and Portland projects is not necessarily to attract many users (though the latter line likely will), but rather to develop a culture of transit use in dense neighborhoods where dependence upon the automobile is not a necessity. Portland has demonstrated that a fixed-route streetcar can encourage development around stops quite effectively, and thus if it is the goal of a city to increase the density of its core areas, streetcars can be a useful tool.

Without appropriate zoning, however, the value of a streetcar project declines tremendously. In places where regulations make building large, mixed-use buildings difficult, transportation projects that will not do much to improve mobility will be incapable of encouraging much construction either.

* A FAR of 2, for example, means if you have a lot of 10,000 square feet, you can build 20,000 square feet of building on site. In an urban district, a building with a FAR of 2 might have 3 to 4 stories, depending on setbacks and surrounding yard areas.

Image at top: Portland Streetcar and MAX light rail line cross path, from Portland Streetcar


In New Census Data, An Improved Outlook For Core Counties

» A review of twenty one metropolitan areas shows that most are seeing an increasing percentage of their population growth — or a decreasing percentage of their loss — in their core counties.

Last week, the U.S. Census Bureau released its annual population estimates for counties as of July 2011. These data provide significant insight into changing population trends in the United States, and the results offer considerable support for the argument that the country’s growth is moving back into its cities, at least to some degree.

National coverage of the data release focused on the fact that the data showed a significant drop in residents moving to exurban counties at the edge of metropolitan areas. The massive creation of housing at the far reaches of regions appears to have slowed to a trickle, and even the movement of the population from Northeastern and Midwest metropolitan areas to Southern and Western areas has decreased. The fastest-growing counties by numeric population change between April 2010 (when Census 2010 was completed) and July 2011 were counties that contain large central cities — Harris, Los Angeles, Maricopa, New York City (if the five boroughs are combined), and Miami-Dade.

Of 21 metropolitan areas reviewed (chosen based on their size and presence of a central city), just five saw decreases in the population of their core counties between 2010 and 2011 (Cleveland, Baltimore, Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Detroit), while two of those also saw declines for the metropolitan area as a whole (Cleveland and Detroit). Many cities that have historically had declining populations, including Philadelphia and Washington, grew quite strongly over the  year-long period.

But most important was the change in growth dynamic within each of the metropolitan areas (MSAs). 14 of 21 central counties experienced an increasing percentage of their respective region’s growth compared with the period from 2000 to 2010. This means that new growth in most regions studied was more concentrated in the central county than it had been in the 2000s. For example, whereas just 3.8% of the Washington region’s population growth between 2000 and 2010 occurred in the District of Columbia itself, 13.4% of the same region’s growth between 2010 and 2011 occurred in the central city. Most extreme, perhaps, was the situation in Cook County (the central county for the Chicago region), which took in 51.3% of the region’s population growth between 2010 and 2011, while the county had declined significantly in population between 2000 and 2010.

Three of the central counties reviewed saw declines in population but as a percentage of the region’s growth, those decreases were lower than those seen in the 2000 to 2010 period, indicating improved conditions there (Baltimore, Cleveland, and Cincinnati).

The exceptions were St. Louis and Detroit, whose central counties continued to shrink faster than the surrounding metropolitan areas, and Los Angeles and Boston, whose central counties continue to grow but not as fast compared to their respective regions as they did in the 2000s.

Changes in U.S. County Population, 2000-2010 and 2010-2011 (21 metropolitan areas)
StateMSACentral County(ies)Central County # Pop Change '10-'11% of '00-'10 MSA Pop Change in Central County% of '10-'11 MSA Pop Change in Central CountyCentral County as % of MSA Pop (2010)Center City as a % of County Pop (2010)
TexasDallas-Fort WorthDallas + Tarrant8865142.3%57.3%65.6%42.1%
CaliforniaLos AngelesLos Angeles7045164.6%60.8%76.5%38.6%
New YorkNew YorkNew York City (5 counties)6977729.1%58.7%43.3%100.0%
GeorgiaAtlantaFulton + DeKalb3701612.8%41.0%30.6%26.0%
LouisianaNew OrleansOrleans*16911(-)94.7%72.5%29.4%100.0%
District of ColumbiaWashingtonDistrict of Columbia162733.8%13.4%10.8%100.0%
CaliforniaSan FranciscoSan Francisco759113.5%13.6%18.6%100.0%
MissouriSt. LouisSt. Louis City-1225-25.3%-27.5%11.4%100.0%
MarylandBaltimoreBaltimore City-1468-19.2%-1.6%22.9%100.0%
Above in sixth column, blue numbers means central county(ies) with an increasing share of the total regional population; red numbers mean central county(ies) with a declining share of the total regional population. Source: U.S. Census Bureau.

These data reinforce statistical and anecdotal evidence from cities around the country about growth patterns. The 2010 Census demonstrated that in cities across the country, downtowns experienced dramatic growth in the 2000s, even in cities that suffered from overall population losses. With county-level data now available for the period from 2010 to 2011, it appears that that growth has extended throughout many of those surrounding cities — or at least been strong enough to dilute the effects of losses elsewhere.

In addition, the apartment market, which is heavily concentrated in central cities, is experiencing record vacancies and rising prices, demonstrating increasing demand for that housing product. In the Puget Sound region, for example, three-quarters of apartments are being built in the City of Seattle and half are being constructed in or near downtown.

Finally, a study released last week by U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group shows that all these people moving into American cities are doing so in part for transportation reasons. Per capita vehicle miles traveled peaked in the United States in 2004 (and in fact, total vehicle miles peaked in 2007), showing that people are traveling less by private automobile. The report documented that the decline between 2000 and 2010 was especially steep among young people, who are moving quite dramatically towards bike, transit, and walking modes. The share of 14- to 34-year-olds with no drivers licence increased from 21% in 2000 to 26% in 2010. These young people are moving away from cars for both economic and non-economic reasons — the high price of gas is of course an issue, but so is the instant communication made possible through advanced mobile phones, for instance. These changes in transportation preferences support the notion that central cities are coming back.

It is hard to know to what degree these trends are reflective of a still-recovering economy. High gas prices, mass foreclosures, and difficulty acquiring loans certainly are likely to encourage people to stay put, decreasing what is called domestic migration, or movement from one U.S. city to another. The nation’s largest cities, which generally have high rates of domestic out-migration, are mostly reliant on international immigration to grow. So if the economic situation improves, the trends affected U.S. demographics between 2010 and 2011 may no longer apply.

Nevertheless, high gas prices appear to be a fact of the future, and the growth of downtowns, which occurred in the 2000s despite the mostly good economic conditions, both indicate that more popular cities may be a future fact of life. Even so, there is still work to be done: In only about half of the metropolitan areas did growth in the core counties as a percentage of regional growth match or rise above the existing population of those core counties as a percentage of the region’s population. In places like Dallas and Houston, for example, high growth rates in the core counties were not large enough compared to those counties’ share of existing population, meaning that effectively population continues to be distributed on the whole outside of the core. This was less true in cities like New York, Minneapolis, and Philadelphia, where the core county absorbed a higher percentage of regional growth than their existing population.

It should be noted that changes in populations of core counties do not always directly correspond with the performance of core cities — which is why I have included the rightmost column in the table above, showing the percentage of the core county’s population that lives in the central city (as of 2010). In some cases, county borders correspond directly with those of the central city (as in the case of New York City, New Orleans, and Baltimore, among others). In other cases, the central city is a relatively small percentage of the county population (as in the case of Miami, Atlanta, and Cleveland). Thus, while these data allow us to examine population dynamics of certain cities directly, it is inconclusive for others. Nevertheless, it is likely that the demographic situation experienced in core counties is similar to that seen in core cities. (And indeed, the trends recorded here appear to be just as valid for counties that are 100% central cities as those whose populations are primarily outside of the central city.)

The Census Bureau will release data for 2011 on central cities and neighborhood areas later in the year.

I should also say that the Census Bureau has previously released annual population estimates that diverge dramatically from the official decennial Census figures used for Congressional redistricting, which were last released for 2010 and which will next be counted for 2020. In 2009, for instance, the Bureau announced that Chicago’s population had declined by 44,000 since 2000; in 2010, it said the city had lost almost 200,000 in the previous ten years. Similarly, in 2009, the Bureau claimed that Atlanta had a population of 540,921; a year later, the city’s population had magically shrunk to 420,003. So we need to remember that these estimates are estimates.

 * Both Cleveland and Detroit had both their central counties and MSAs lose population in both periods studied, and New Orleans had population loss for both central county and MSA in the 2000-2010 period. Thus, for example, Cleveland’s -86.0% from 2010 to 2011 was a relative improvement over -160.6% from 2000 to 2010, since this means that Cuyahoga County accounted for more than the region’s total loss of population in the earlier period but less than the total from 2010 to 2011 — which means population loss is spreading from the core county to the suburbs. St. Louis, Baltimore, and Cincinnati core counties all saw population loss in both periods while their respective regions grew, though each lost less as a percentage in the more recent period.


Dismantling Democracy to Fight NIMBYism

» Ryan Avent’s The Gated City provides insight into the workings of the urban economy, but its proposals to increase the supply of housing in the country’s biggest cities are unreasonable.

Ryan Avent’s new book, The Gated City, provides one of the most readable summaries of urban economics available; for that alone, the book is more than worth its low price. In highlighting the work of Edward Glaeser among others, this author shows how the density of metropolitan regions can play an essential role in increasing the productivity of workers and expand the economy in general. It is Avent’s quite plausible thesis that the great American suburbanization of the past fifty years contributed to the economic circumstances in which we now find ourselves — with an economy seemingly incapable of growth — because of an inability (or unwillingness) to cash in on the benefits of urban density, which encourages higher incomes and increased productivity.*

The book’s logic suggests that those who care about improving the American economy must take a stand in favor of densification both of suburbs and inner cities — and against the NIMBYs who would do anything to prevent new projects of virtually any kind from being built anywhere near them, and who are systematically increasing housing costs by limiting supply. The market, the author suggests, is being artificially limited by significant constraints imposed by local groups. “When places like Boston and San Francisco make it hard to build new homes and offices,” Avent writes, “they reduce opportunities and productivity across the country… Our inability to accommodate people in high wage cities… has made America poorer, less innovative, dirtier, and more dependent on scarce fossil fuels than it ought to be. that’s a terrible price to pay for the right to keep neighborhoods from changing with the times.

These are compelling words, but Avent’s prognosis of a disease that afflicts American cities and perhaps the economy as a whole is followed by a series of potential cures that come across as dogmatic and sometimes even downright undemocratic.

To fight the problems associated with NIMBYism, Avent proposes a number of ideas: Allowing neighborhoods to “limit development… so long as it’s willing to either buy the land in question or pay the land’s owner to comply;” or providing cities a limited “zoning budget” or “historical preservation budget” that would force political leaders to pick only the most important battles to fight; or requiring developers to throw out offset fees for the “supposed costs of the redevelopment.”

These, however, are solutions that only an economist — whose vision of society is shaped by monetary costs and benefits — would appreciate. Note Avent’s dismissal of the efforts of the people he berates as NIMBYs, arguing that their efforts require low private costs, which he minimizes as “Just the time to circulate petitions and attend council meetings.” The only thing that would make NIMBYs understand their actions, he seems to suggest, would be forcing neighbors “to buy a property in order to limit development.” In these cynical statements, Avent not only implies that community organizers get their way easily (compared to their hard-working real estate foes) but falls back on a solution that allows no role for actual democracy, in which public contestation or conflict plays a role in the decision-making discourse at the political level.

Ironically, this effort in favor of more density is admirable, as is the author’s sense that much of the battles NIMBYs fight are grounded in the fact that “the haves are reluctant to share with the have-nots.” It is hard to fault Avent for developing clever approaches to a difficulty that has probably only gotten worse over the past few decades.

Avent’s argument in favor of the value of increasing densities is solid; he demonstrates that there are significant productivity and income gains that flow from metropolitan areas with people in more concentrated living conditions. And there are significant progressive values that are lost without that density: “When Americans ration access to economically dynamic places with high housing costs, it isn’t the rich that suffer most. It’s the middle- and low-income households who must accept long, costly commutes or move elsewhere.”

But are the people who live in gentrifying neighborhoods simply expected to accept that a market logic suggests that their neighborhood needs to change and that they can prevent a new project only by putting up millions of dollars they do not have to buy the land? Is the market the right decision-maker when it comes to the shape, structure, and economic composition of a city neighborhood? The Gated City asks us to assent.

It is this unsentimental approach that bedevils the urban planning profession in general, so frequently incapable of being able to relate to community members, despite claiming to represent their interests. Avent argues in favor of increasing density,** a reasonable campaign, but can only propose being able to do so through methods that subvert non-economic claims to the city.

Ultimately, though experts like Avent or myself or our readers may know that densification can bring significant benefits and that many of those gains can only come after a reduction in neighborhood opposition, attempting to work out these problems through market-based means is a non-starter. How can we as urbanists both promote more density and do so in a manner that does not disenfranchise the people who have the biggest stake in the matter? It is this dilemma that Avent’s book does not resolve, but it is the question that remains a fundamental difficulty for the urban planning profession in general.

All this said, Avent’s pinpointing of the opportunity possible through the development of new zones is right-headed. His examples of Canary Wharf in London and La Défense outside of Paris (two huge business districts outside of the traditional downtowns) are indeed excellent examples of places where very significant growth can be concentrated around a variety transportation options and yet far enough from existing zones of activity that NIMBYism as a concern will be limited. It is perhaps unsurprising that the largest efforts to bring middle-income housing to New York, Chicago, and San Francisco are being pursued on brownfields, not within existing neighborhoods.

* For transportation, the externality benefits of agglomeration are particularly relevant since they can be used to support the business case for a project. Famously, the high costs of the London Crossrail project were in part justified through the use of a cost-benefit analysis that showed significant personal income benefits from, in short, bringing people closer together to one another.

** Avent’s comparisons between cities that show that more dense ones generally perform better in terms of income are illustrated at a metropolitan-wide scale, not a local one. Low regional densities may be cause for increasing densities in individual neighborhoods, but Avent’s book does not show that local-scale density affects regional productivity or income. So the argument has its limitations.

Chicago Detroit Social Justice Urbanism

Local Neoliberalism’s Role in Defining Transit’s Purpose

» Must transit capital projects be construed either as for capitalist development or social welfare? Can the two goals be reconciled?

Detroit has staked its development hopes on the creation of a light rail line down Woodward Avenue in the heart of the city. For the past few years, public and private groups there have banded together to suggest that this project, more than any other, would provide the kind of spark necessary to spur economic growth in this city that is losing population so quickly. Thanks to government grants and private donations, the project is mostly financed and may enter construction this year.

Yet the city’s budget situation is so bad that the mayor has suggested that if the city council moves ahead with cuts it approved this week, he will have to shut off bus service at nights and on Sundays — and eliminate service on the People Mover, a semi-functional one-way automated rail loop. This is in a city where a third of people are impoverished.

Detroit’s example is only the most extreme of what is becoming a meme in the American transport discussion, that we continue to engage in the construction of expensive new projects even as we are incapable of paying for the appropriate service on and maintenance of the system we already have. Why is this? And how can we fight the pernicious effects of these policies?

Writing recently in Environment and Planning A, Sociologist Stephanie Farmer argues that the rise of neoliberal ideology in local and national politics has encouraged a “retreat from social redistribution and integrated social welfare policies in favor of bolstering business activity.”* This, she writes in reference to Chicago, has specifically affected public transportation, which “is increasingly deployed as a means to attract global capital as well as enhance affluent residents’ and tourists’ rights to the city.”

This trend, she states, stands in opposition to the mid-century “Fordist strategy of territorial redistribution mobilizing public transportation to enhance economically disadvantaged groups’ access to the city.”**

Farmer’s approach provides something of an explanation for Detroit’s experience: Rather than concentrate on the needs of its most impoverished denizens through the assurance of basic bus service, the city’s business and political elite has instead put its resources into the construction of a light rail line whose primary purpose is to stimulate economic development by creating “place-based advantages for capital.”

Similarly, Farmer is very critical of Chicago’s approach, arguing that that city’s investments have repeatedly favored “business elites over everyday users by excluding public transit investment in areas outside of Chicago’s global city downtown showcase zone.” Her evidence for this trend is primary in former Mayor Richard Daley’s obsession in constructing a premium-fare, limited-stop express rail link to the airport (including his willingness to construct a station for said service without providing the funds to actually operate the trains) and the transit authority’s Circle Line plan, which she argued would “effectively redraw [and expand] the downtown boundary,” with little benefit for the city’s most transit dependent.

The repeated delays in extending the Red Line south of 95th Street into some of Chicago’s least prosperous neighborhoods suggest that there is no political will to invest outside of the wealthiest areas.

Farmer’s argument is revealing of the one of the peculiarities of transit promotion: Those who engage in it simultaneously argue for the social welfare benefits of providing affordable mobility for as many people as possible while also suggesting that good public transportation can play an essential role in city-building — essentially for the elite. After all, one of the primary arguments made for investing in new transit capital projects is that their long-term benefits include raising the property values of the land parcels near stations.

This creates an uneasy pro-transit coalition in many places where development and real estate interests align their lobbying with that of representatives of the poor to argue for the construction of new transit lines (usually rail), under the assumption that projects will benefit each group.

This produces an identity crisis for transit. For whom is it developed? Can its social mobility goals be reconciled with the interests of capitalists in the urban space?

Identifying the value of a transportation project is an essential element of the planning process, so asking these questions is essential, since there are limited resources. When it comes to transit, this seems particularly relevant, since most funds invested in bus or rail projects are provided by the public sector.

Ultimately, this means that the promotion of almost every transit project is defined by political ideology. Do we invest our funds in a project to connect downtown with the airport, under the assumption that economic benefits will flow down from the top, as conservatives might suggest? Is spending government money on ensuring the efficient transportation of the elite effective because it grows the economy as a whole and eventually aids the poor? Or should public dollars be reserved for redistributive causes, focusing on the needs of those who are least able to provide for themselves?

Of course there are many examples in which these questions appear to have been resolved. Even in Chicago, it would be difficult to argue that the subway and elevated lines that run into to the Loop are unhelpful for the poor, since many of the city’s greatest resources even for the impoverished are located in Farmer’s “downtown showcase zone.” Nonetheless, ponder this question next time a transit project is proposed: For whom is it being built, and why?

* Farmer, Stephanie. “Uneven public transportation development in neoliberalizing Chicago.” Environment and Planning A. Volume 43. 2011. 1154-1172.

** I should note that in terms of transit, the Fordist conception of the use of public resources for the benefit of social redistribution itself replaced an entrepreneurial approach towards the provision of transportation. Many, though certainly not all, transit systems in the U.S. were funded and developed by private groups. Were these investments able to straddle the competing goals of expanded mobility and economic development?