The South Shore Belongs Downtown in South Bend

I’ve written before about how the country’s last interurban, the South Shore Line, could play a larger role in the transportation network for Northwest Indiana and beyond. The City of South Bend apparently feels the same way, and recently commissioned a study from AECOM to examine the possibility of rescuing the South Shore’s eastern terminus from its 26-year purgatory at the South Bend Airport.

The South Shore, as befits its interurban heritage, once terminated on street trackage downtown, but has long since been cut back, first to the current site of the South Bend Amtrak station, and then via a circuitous route to the airport. A marginal Midwestern airport makes a kind of silly terminus for a reasonably frequent commuter line, and while downtown South Bend isn’t exactly booming, it’s not in the worst shape relative to many Midwestern cities. It’s also got a progressive, pro-business, ambitious mayor with a certain determination to make his name on a national scale. So it’s not surprising to see some kind of reexamination. The question is whether South Bend and the South Shore can get together to do the right thing–and at the right price, because South Bend is still a cash-strapped quasi-Rust Belt city.

And there is a need to get it right–because, to put it mildly, not all of the analyzed station locations are of equal quality.

south bend 1

Studied station locations, from the AECOM report

According to the study, none of the station alternatives offers a decisive upgrade over the others in terms of travel time or projected ridership at commencement of service. So the question comes down to cost/benefit ratios and core planning principles such as ability to promote development; walkability of the station area; and connections to other transit services. AECOM has laid out the projected costs in fairly neat form.

south bend 2

Table from AECOM showing costs and complications of each station alternative

“Property acquisition for approach” perhaps belies some of the difficulty of the Chocolate Factory location; it would require takings, which can be difficult politically. The Amtrak, and to a greater extent the Downtown locations, require negotiations with the freight railroads, but room exists on the shared right-of-way to extend the South Shore tracks. Presumably as a result of its relative complexity–construction in an active railroad environment is expensive, particularly when Class I extortion is involved–the Downtown alternative also has the highest associated costs.

Still, the costs associated with the Downtown alignment seem too high. The AECOM report estimates a total of $60.5 million for construction, with soft costs and contingency adding another more than $40 million. While the line would need to be electrified, we’re talking an extension of just under three miles, the first mile and a quarter of which, as far as the Amtrak station, already has track and electrical infrastructure in place, although it would need to be rehabbed or rebuilt as it hasn’t been used for passenger service in decades. While NS would presumably demand significant compensation for use of its right-of-way, at least one trackway is clear and available for use all the way from the Amtrak station to the old Union Station site; given the short distance and that NICTD service isn’t all that frequent, a single-track approach and a single-platform, two-track terminal is probably perfectly sufficient. Done cheaply, three route-miles of track and electrification, plus one platform, should probably cost $30-$40 million, not $60 million, much less $102 million.

south bend map jpeg 2

Overview of the core of the rail network in the South Bend area.

The “Downtown” location at the old South Bend Union Station, while not perfect, is pretty good. The “old” South Shore, as befits its interurban heritage, rolled right onto the streets and terminated downtown, around a mile from Union Station (which served the New York Central and Grand Trunk).

south shore in south bend.jpg

The old South Shore on the streets of downtown South Bend. Source: https://thetrolleydodger.com/2016/06/21/night-beat/ 

But the attractive Art Deco Union Station building is still there; a new minor league baseball stadium has been built across the street; and most importantly, the local transit system’s major bus hub is one short block away. Oh, and there’s lots of land to redevelop in the immediate vicinity; in a slow-growth but not hopeless case like South Bend, that’s a big deal (and, if we’re being honest, what makes the whole thing attractive in the first place).

south bend 3

As the graphic makes clear, the development potential of the Union Station/Downtown location blows every other alternative out of the water. And that’s not even counting its significantly greater potential for multimodal transportation connections. Put bluntly, South Bend has a choice between making the choice American cities have been making for decades along “commuter” rail lines–sticking stations in a quasi-suburban location on the cheap, with plenty of parking–or making a choice to anchor a truly urban redevelopment strategy that relies on multimodalism, TOD, and strategic redevelopment possibilities.

Luckily for South Bend, Mayor Buttigieg seems to be leaning toward supporting the Downtown option, but some powerful forces–such as the airport’s leadership–are trying to move the future station’s location in a more suburban direction. Given the economic potential–even exaggerated as such analyses almost always are–and transportation benefits, the Union Station site is almost certainly the correct one, even at a higher cost. But to get it done, cost control is key. The city has already authorized $25 million in spending, which would only get the entire project done if South Bend turned into Spain overnight, but given limited federal commitments–the South Shore’s double-tracking project is one of those whose grants the Trump FTA is inexplicably withholding–the more of the project local funds can pay for the more likely it is to get done. According to the South Bend Tribune article linked above, Buttigieg seems to believe for some reason that a Union Station location would “likely require vacating South Street along the south side of Four Winds Field,” which seems rather unnecessary to me. Presumably, someone has told the mayor that building a brand-new alignment over a city street would be easier than dealing with NS and CN and relocating some HVAC equipment that currently occupies the empty trackways behind the Union Station building; but this seems unlikely in the extreme.

zoom in try 3

Plenty of room on that viaduct for a few more trains.

The mayor should enlist some allies at the state and federal levels and play hardball with the Class 1s on the right-of-way issue. This could be a very promising project for South Bend and for the South Shore–but the way forward won’t be clear unless the whole thing can be competently managed and brought in at a reasonable price.

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Where Can Free Transit Work?

The question of whether public transit could be made free to ride has been gaining some considerable amount of media attention recently, driven in part by well-publicized (but uncertain) flirations in Paris and Germany. It is, of course, a sexy question, but one with very little track record and whose practicality is very much in question. There’s a reason that supporters of free transit point to the same few examples over and over again; there just aren’t that many cities that have experimented with fare-free transit. Even Communist countries have typically charged fares! But it’s a question that, quite reasonably in an age of increasing inequality, keeps coming up, whether from transportation writers in Chicago; lefty publications like Alternet (an article that, amusingly, comes to the standard bougie liberal conclusion that “people are just going to continue to drive, because they like it”); or extensively in the digital pages of Citylab.

Normally I’m kind of a killjoy on idealistic, speculative things like free transit. But I’m here to say that it’s something I’d actually like to see explored more–in very specific, limited circumstances. In an American context, someplace like Chicago–where tickets provide a significant chunk of the transit agency’s overall revenue picture–probably isn’t the place to start with free transit. By contrast, there are dozens if not hundreds of much smaller transit agencies in this country where farebox recovery (basically, and acknowledging that not every agency defines it the same way, the technical term for the percentage of overall operating expenses covered by ticket sales) is beyond low and in the “pathetic” (though understandably so) range. And I‘m interested in the topic of small-city transit. Luckily, Citylab has, in Eric Jaffe’s 2013 look at Chapel Hill Transit in North Carolina, already provided the beginnings of a blueprint for a situation where free transit might work:

The agency considered shifting to a fare-free system back in 2001 after recognizing that its farebox recovery rate was quite low — in the neighborhood of 10 percent. Most of its revenue was already coming from the University of North Carolina, in Chapel Hill, in the form of pre-paid passes and fares for employees and students. To go fare-free, the agency just needed a commitment from a few partners to make up that farebox difference. The university agreed to contribute a bit more, as did the taxpayers of Chapel Hill and Carrboro, and the idea became a reality…The original decision to go fare-free was part of a larger push by the community toward a transit-oriented lifestyle. In addition to eliminating bus fares, Chapel Hill Transit decided to expand service by about 20 percent. Meanwhile the university reduced parking on campus, Chapel Hill adjusted parking requirements in the downtown area, and the entire community made a push for denser development in the transit corridors. The ridership growth since 2002 can be seen as the result of all these efforts combined, says Litchfield.

To boil it down, the Chapel Hill experience seems to consist of the following factors:

  • A low farebox recovery rate
  • A strong institutional partner or partners to provide a built-in ridership base
  • Increasing service to build ridership
  • Political will to push transit-friendly land use and parking policies
  • Dedicated funding to cover deficits

I’d add a few items of my own:

  • Strong heritage land use patterns that are conducive to transit use, such as one or two strong transit corridors
  • Must be large or strung-out (think river towns) enough that transit, rather than biking and walking, is the appropriate sustainable mode
  • A high percentage of workers both live and work locally

Aside from the first item, that’s a fairly foreboding list in most of the US. But it’s not an impossible one! It’s just not likely to be one that’s found in major cities. Rather, we might more profitably (heh) seek the future of experimentation with free transit in the smaller towns whose problems sometimes mimic those of big cities.

Let’s take a crack at identifying a few candidates. Given the criteria I’ve laid out–and my own geographic biases–my candidates will cluster in the Northeast US. I invite others to contribute other candidates!

Brattleboro, VT

Population: 11,765

Operating Agency: Southeast Vermont Transit (formerly Connecticut River Transit and Deerfield Valley Transit)

2016 NTD-reported fixed-route farebox recovery (fare revenue/operating expenses): 7.7% (note: reported number includes entire former Connecticut River Transit service area)

Percentage of town workers employed within town (2015 LODES): 52.7%

brattleboro

Brattleboro, via Bing Maps

Brattleboro’s a cute little town that’s a significant tourist and out-of-towner draw thanks to its hippie reputation, antiquing, its quaint and intact downtown, and the Brattleboro Retreat. The same intact downtown offers relatively limited parking and can get congested at busy times.

brattleboro parking_lots_Rev_11.16.12

Brattleboro downtown parking lots, via the town’s website. Hey, that’s not actually so many!

Most of the town’s major employment centers are either downtown or centered on one of 3-4 major arterials, an ideal situation for serving them with transit–and, by small city standards, a quite high percentage of Brattleboro workers also work in town. Residential development is a little more spread out but mostly centered on linear corridors as well. Service radiates from the downtown transit center serving communities up and down the Connecticut River Valley and also across the mountains to Wilmington and (with a transfer) to Bennington, albeit not with any great frequency. Amtrak’s Vermonter stops very near downtown once a day in each direction. Given the current atrocious rate of farebox recovery and the town’s liberal politics, it’s at least mildly plausible to imagine a future in which Brattleboro decides to make a major push on bringing people downtown by transit and fills in its remaining downtown parking lots to help pay for it (and provide a push).

Sandusky, OH (h/t Bryan Rodda)

Population: 25,793

Operating Agency: City of Sandusky

Farebox recovery: unclear (not reported to NTD but it seems to lose a lot of money)

Percentage of town workers employed within town (2015 LODES): 26.1%

sandusky

Sandusky, via Bing Maps

Sandusky is a touristy town on Lake Erie, home to the Cedar Point amusement park and a variety of other attractions. The downtown is somewhat disinvested but hasn’t been totally wiped out by urban renewal. Commercial development clusters along major corridors, but the percentage of locals who have managed to find work in town is, according to LODES, fairly low (though not terrible by the standards of a city this size). There seems to be a lot of room to grow–and perhaps free transit would be the way to make that happen.

Rutland, VT (h/t @peatonx)

Population: 16,495

Operating Agency: Marble Valley Regional Transit District

Farebox Recovery (NTD 2016): 3.8%

Percentage of town workers employed within town (2015 LODES): 45.4%

rutland

Rutland, via Bing Maps

Hometown of Boston-area urbanist journalist Matt Robare (support his Patreon!), Rutland is a down-on-its luck former quarrying town with some proximity to ski resorts. It’s a reasonably dense town with a few obvious transit corridors and some decent job concentrations, and a fairly high proportion of local workers work in town, while others surely would happily ride transit to ski resorts such as Killington. There’s room for infill, too, such as the giant strip mall that sits on top of the former railroad yards; but residential growth is anemic and locals have rejected plans to bring refugees to the area. Rutland is struggling economically, though, and lacks the kind of major anchor institutions that could typically provide funding, so despite the local transit system’s terrible farebox recovery finding more funds to make transit free may be a no-go.

Michigan City, IN

Population: 31,479

Operating Agency: Michigan City Transit

Farebox Recovery (NTD 2016): 7.8%

Percentage of town workers employed within town (2015 LODES): 38.7%

michigan city

Michigan City, via Bing Maps

A sometime muse of mine, Michigan City is an interesting place because by the standards of small Midwestern cities it’s quite transit-rich, offering both Amtrak and South Shore Line rail service to Chicago, even if the two operators don’t cooperate quite as much as they should. It is, otherwise, a quasi-Rust Belt town that has struggled to reinvent itself; urban renewal and a casino have, predictably, not yielded much in the way of results. Aside from good rail service, it has the transit advantage of having one very strong, identifiable north-south transit corridor along Franklin Street around which much of the city’s employment clusters and that connects to both the South Shore and Amtrak. Land use in that corridor is far from ideal, and residential demand is mediocre, but this is a classical “good bones” case.

Conclusions

I’ve offered, I think, a few plausible real-life cases where free transit could work. But the case studies here also demonstrate the difficulty of making such a dream reality. Some of these towns would almost certainly lack the ability to raise sufficient funds locally to make transit free; it’s hard to imagine, say, Rutland or Michigan City finding the money. You can’t tax the wealthy or major corporations to make transit work when capital–not to mention major corporations–has already abandoned your city. And local funding streams, even when feasible, are notoriously fickle; even Chapel Hill Transit has had to consider charging fares at at least one point. To  make free fares work while also increasing service to the point where it could make a real difference in the life of the city would probably require a substantial, long-term commitment from a higher level of government, but I would be very interested in seeing a wealthy state or the federal government take this on as an experiment. The money pouring in, of course, would have to be matched by local measures on land use, parking, and planning, which makes the entire exercise fraught. But it’s not hard to envision something potentially working. It’s certainly worth more experimentation.

 

Democratic Planning in the Age of Urban Freeways and Today

I finished reading two very different, but equally interesting and informative, recent urbanist-y books over Shabbat. The first is Akum Norder’s The History of Here, a fun and talented Albany writer’s look into the history of her family’s house, the people who have inhabited it, and the life of the neighborhood around it. The second is Karilyn Crockett’s People Before Highways, an ethnographic and historical look of the anti-freeway movement in the Boston area in the 1960s and ‘70s. Both books are worthy of a full-scale review that I may or may not be able to undertake at some point, but I wanted to pull out a common element that I think makes for an interesting, and very relevant, point of discussion: the question of how democratic planning should be, and how that should look.

Let’s start with People Before Highways. Crockett’s work is essentially an ode to the grassroots anti-highway backlash that transformed transportation policy in Massachusetts and led to the end of freeway building inside the Route 128 beltway and the ability to “flex” federal transportation spending from highways to transit. Boston’s anti-freeway coalition was a broad–and varying at different times–group of institutions, scholars, “radical” planners like future Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation Fred Salvucci, and community members. The last element is perhaps the most interesting; participants ranged from tenant activists in public housing to Black Panthers to patricians in Brookline and Cambridge to people we would now identify as first-wave gentrifiers in the South End and my own neighborhood of Jamaica Plain. This coalition demanded not just an end to highway building, but also to the heavy-handed way in which the freeways had been planned, and significant amounts of land taken, with virtually no opportunity for public input. Crockett wastes no opportunity to remind the reader that the demands of the Boston anti-highway movement were not just specifically anti-highway, but processually radical and progressive in their insistence on the distribution of power.

Certainly, the righteousness of the Boston anti-highway, pro-public participation cause is not in dispute; it’s a difficult book to read for a professional planner. One thing that strikes me about Crockett’s work, though–and it’s a problem I’ve seen elsewhere in leftist planning thinking and writing–is that her narrative is shaped by a powerful nostalgia for the kind of grassroots planning and localist democracy that her subjects believed in, but doesn’t engage with some of the potential challenges of a highly democratic process. Indeed, some of the potential challenges with such a process show up even within her own research. In the sixth chapter of the book, Crockett profiles the planning process around the creation of the Southwest Corridor linear park, by all accounts pretty much a triumph of democratic planning that created a valuable community amenity and showpiece to this day. The cracks in the process of democratic planning, though, show through this account. Crockett shows how the South End community was able to demand that the Southwest Corridor trench through their area be roofed over to reduce noise, pollution, and vibration. This is, of course, not an unreasonable ask–but Crockett’s account makes it clear that the presence of educated, middle class people in the neighborhood, including some who we would clearly call gentrifiers today, was what got the deck built in that section, but not elsewhere in the Southwest Corridor. Why, one thinks today, is the trench not decked through Roxbury and Jamaica Plain? I lived a block from the trench for my first 10 months in Boston, and one can feel the vibrations and hear the roar from passing trains. A purely “democratic” planning process is already one that gives greater voice to those able to shout loudest–and Crockett’s account of the decking of the South End trench shows how this can lead to opportunities being available inequitably.

Crockett also narrates the process for planning the park that went on top of the South End trench, and if anything it reveals more of the cracks in the facade of democratic-planning-as-magical-cure. She writes:

By removing the railroad’s stone embankment and inserting decking along segments of each section of the Corridor, the Southwest Corridor planners knit together neighborhoods that had been physically separated for more than a century. Not every resident viewed this as social progress…The existing railroad right-of-way created a dividing line between the South End and St. Botolph neighborhoods. Though these two areas held only slightly different economic profiles, their racial and ethnic compositions could not have been more different. St. Botolph residents constituted a largely homogeneous block of white families and some professionals working in the city. Though they themselves were city dwellers, many St. Botolph residents looked askance at the idea that deck cover would allow other urban neighbors easy access to parts of their neighborhood previously blocked by the railroad. These residents used the Corridor’s public meetings to voice their opposition. (p. 187)

In other words, the residents of St. Botolph engaged in fairly standard-issue urban racism, classism, and (one would imagine, given the increasing gay population of the South End at the time) not a small amount of homophobia–and saw in the democratic Southwest Corridor planning process an opportunity to (very democratically!) write their oppressive agenda in concrete. Unfortunately, Crockett’s handling of this rather obvious challenge to the viability of democratic planning is less than inspiring. 

By listening and respecting the concerns of residents, [Southwest Corridor planners] were able to identify an architectural strategy that was responsive to the demands of St. Botolph’s residents but did not subvert the overall public planning agenda for the Corridor…[they developed] designs for a removable fence that could be unbolted at a later date should the neighborhood change its mind. Unfortunately, the design was compromised by another decision to lay granite at the base of the fencing, and when St. Botolph’s residents did, in fact, reverse their decision and requested direct access to the Corridor Park, it was no longer possible. (p. 188)

One must, I suppose, applaud the Corridor planners for their commitment to democracy, inasmuch as they were committed to listening to, to the point of acting to some extent on, an obviously bigoted agenda. To this day, many streets on the western side of the Southwest Corridor in this area dead-end at the Corridor Park with a wall or fence of some considerable height rising to prevent what should be an obvious pedestrian connection.

blackwood barrier

A democratically erected barrier preventing easy pedestrian access to the Southwest Corridor Park, Blackwood Street, Boston.

Crockett calls this “The seeming contradiction of a connective landscape needing to reconcile itself with existing race and class divisions and residents’ divergent opinions about what to do about them,” (p. 188) but–especially as one of the direct inheritors of the conflict around transportation planning in Boston–this feels like an unsatisfying resolution to me. Many of Crockett’s interviewees for the book talk about how they saw themselves as “advocacy planners,” adherents of a mid-’60s theory that planners should not be impartial experts, but advocates for the oppressed in society. It seems to me that there’s an obvious tension between this identification and engaging in a planning process that encodes racial and class injustice (literally building fences!) in the built environment in the name of “democracy.” While incredibly valuable for its documentation of the Boston anti-highway movement, and its repetition of the lesson that megalomaniacal centralized planning is generally abusive, People Before Highways would be more useful and convincing if it grappled honestly and openly with some of the shortcomings of the democratic, grassroots visions of planning that it advocates.

Akum Norder’s book, too, offers a lesson on this topic–and perhaps the juxtaposition of the two narratives can allow us to draw some conclusions about the intellectual and social milieu of participatory planning and its challenges. Norder’s book is an ode to her Pine Hills neighborhood, an absolutely lovely streetcar suburb-era area that reminds me strongly of the Westville section of New Haven where I grew up. Pine Hills originally and today is a strongly middle-class area with a strong communal identity; but it’s had its ups and downs, borders the “student ghetto,” and generally has some reasonable fear of tipping into neighborhood decline in the same way that most middle-class areas in cities that aren’t part of the overheated coastal housing markets do. As such (and seeing that many of the residents are educated, have money, or both), these neighborhoods are ripe for democratic, grassroots organizing around the issue of perceived problems–and using a democratic planning process to deal with them in a way that may work well for the neighborhood but not always for those pushed out as a result.

Norder profiles one such case (though without the slightly negative valence I’m attaching to it). She writes, on pages 204-205, of a property on the corner of North Allen and Lancaster that, at 5,921 square feet, held by the early 2000s twenty-six units. That is, of course, far more than current zoning would allow, but most of the neighborhood is nonconforming and grandfathered anyhow. Normally, such properties can continue unmolested unless the owner requests a change of use or makes major modifications; but city code allows for the property to be forced into conformance if it’s declared a nuisance property. And since the building in question does appear to have genuinely been a nuisance property, generating fights, noise, and an astonishing number of police calls, the local neighborhood association took the opportunity to force a zoning board hearing. They won, and the landlord had to empty the building to cut its units down to the allowed two.

So, on the one hand, this is a victory for a democratic planning process and for community concerns. The area residents took on a nuisance landlord, used the objective rule of law, and made their neighborhood a better place. Bully for them–we should encourage everyone to care about their neighborhoods like that. On the other hand, we’re talking about a process–a very democratic process–that led directly to the eviction of at least twenty-four people, with those who provoked it presumably taking no financial responsibility for their relocation. This being Albany, where rents are generally cheap, I think it’s reasonable to assume that few of those people were displaced from the area entirely; most were probably able to find housing relatively close, and quite possibly at not much increased rent. So the result isn’t necessarily the worst. But what if it weren’t Albany? What if this were a property in Boston, where rents are triple or quadruple what they are in Albany? Would we tolerate a neighborhood group getting together to democratically destroy what’s effectively an SRO, a vanishing resource for the very poor? How should a progressive advocacy planner react to this scenario?

I don’t have a coherent set of answers to these questions yet. But I think they’re crucially important to ask. And I think it’s important to recognize that the historical and socioeconomic context in which calls for grassroots, democratic planning came around has in many cases vanished. The type of democratic planning Kaitlyn Crockett profiles so well was a product of a city under siege, under threat of imminent literal physical destruction. Places like Albany may well still feel a lessened version of that threat. But in Boston, today, it’s gone. There is still a threat of displacement and destructive change, but it comes from the opposite end of the spectrum, from a hyperactive real estate market and the desire of many more people than the city has been willing to build housing for wanting to live here. Already in the time period that Crockett narrates privileged voices were figuring out how to use the democratic planning process to subvert planning aims of social justice and integration. We can’t, and we won’t, throw out the baby of democratic planning and extensive public outreach with the bathwater of urban renewal and highway building.  But we can, and must, recognize that there are tensions between promising all comers a democratic process and achieving egalitarian, democratic outcomes. Just this past week the Globe wrote about how Boston’s input-based sidewalk-repair system is failing poorer neighborhoods that are less likely to call in for repairs. Is it possible, one must ask, that planners again need to start putting our thumbs on the scales of justice–this time, to tip them back toward the right?

Featured image source: https://www.jphs.org/transportation/people-before-highways.html

Sandy’s Life Through Census Tracts

I’ve been enjoying messing around with Neil Freeman‘s latest gift to Internet urbanism, planning and nerdery, density.website and its accompanying Twitter bot, @everytract (if you haven’t encountered Neil’s work before, check out his site and especially his family of everylot bots).  While I posted some of my musings on Twitter earlier, I thought it might be a fun exercise to take advantage of this new, fun tool to tell the story of my (itinerant, after all) life through the Census tracts where I’ve lived–and maybe observe some things about American land use and life along the way.

Before we begin, it’s worth noting that, while it’s not Neil’s fault, the data contained herein is subject to the vagaries of ACS margins of error at small geographic areas. Which is to say, some of it might be off–but the general story is probably largely reliable. Tract boundaries can also change over time; the tracts looked at here are those that exist today, not that necessarily existed when I lived there.

Tract 41051004200, census tract 42 in Portland, Oregon in the Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro, OR-WA metro area. Population density: 4,621 per square mile.

portland

My dad spent most of his childhood outside of Portland and wrote his dissertation and resulting book about the city; I was born while he was finishing up grad school and we lived in the St. Johns neighborhood of Portland (ironically on Chicago Ave.) from the time I was a month old until I was three. Having been very little I have virtually no memories of this time, but I’m told my mother used to take me for rides on Trimet’s then-new light rail system around the now-abolished free fare zone in downtown Portland. Of note in the definition of this tract is that the overall density number is lowered by the fact that the tract includes a significant amount of port and waterfront land; it’s not the last time we’ll see this phenomenon.

Tract 19021960400, tract 9604 in Storm Lake, Iowa in the Storm Lake, IA metro area. Population density: 341 per square mile.

storm lake 1.png

My dad’s first academic job was at Buena Vista College (now University) in Storm Lake, Iowa. Having left when I was 6, there’s not much to say other than that it’s a small town in Northwest Iowa that smells like pork a lot of the time. The census tract covering the east side of town is huge and covers a lot of farmland too.

Tract 19021960500, tract 9605 in Storm Lake, Iowa in the Storm Lake, IA metro area. Population density: 687 per square mile.

storm lake 2

Moved across town. Very similar to the adjacent tract; but I wonder why the Census doesn’t group all of town in one tract and encircle it with others that cover the farmland.

Tract 09009141300, Census tract 1413 in New HavenConnecticut in the New Haven-Milford, CT metro area. Population density: 4,552 per square mile (but that’s a little misleading). 

new haven census tract

My family lived in the Westville neighborhood of New Haven from 1994 through 2003.  This tract actually covers a huge diversity of ground, from the small business district of Westville Village to Southern Connecticut State University, the public housing developments that the city tucked behind West Rock in the 1960s, and of course West Rock State Park itself, a touchstone of my childhood and a looming presence over much of New Haven. Of course, the state park means the native density of Westville’s streetcar-suburb (really horsecar suburb) feel is diluted in the tract-level density measure…but who really cares, it’s not a competition, right?

Tract 17031020500, tract 205 in Chicago, Illinois in the Chicago-Naperville-Elgin, IL-IN-WI metro area. Population density: 19,893 per square mile.

chicago tract.png

I spent my high school years and a year after college living full-time in the West Rogers Park/West Ridge neighborhood of Chicago. In addition to being a lovely, diverse neighborhood, this tract is a testament to the power of density; despite being largely taken up by Warren Park, the close clustering of three-flats, courtyard buildings, and other small-to-moderate scale multifamily buildings allows overall tract density to fill out at nearly 20,000 per square mile. Adjacent tracts without equivalent massive amounts of green space reach almost 30,000 per square mile despite the presence of a decent sprinkling of bungalows and other single-family types.

Tract 36061020701, tract 207.01 in New York, New York in the New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA metro area. Population density: 185,128 per square mile.

Well, they say Manhattan is unlike anything else in this country…

nyc tract 1

For the first two years of college I lived in a dorm on 120th Street between Amsterdam and Morningside Drive. The census tract covering this area is geographically tiny, only covering a few blocks, and most of the buildings it includes aren’t monstrous towers, but hey, this is Manhattan. It’s dense. Also, the view from Morningside Drive looking east over Harlem is spectacular, especially the couple of times I managed to drag myself out of bed to be there for sunrise.

Tract 36061020300, tract 203 in New York, New York in the New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA metro area. Population density: 47,056 per square mile.

nyc tract 2

For the last two years of college I moved over to an apartment-style dorm at 121st and Broadway. It falls into a census tract that includes the main Columbia campus, so apparent density is much lower, but the built form of the residential buildings is essentially the same as in the previous tract.

Tract 36001002200,  census tract 22 in Albany, New York in the Albany-Schenectady-Troy, NY metro area. Population density: 26,047 per square mile

albany tract.png

My partner and I lived in this rowhouse neighborhood (on the border of areas known as Center Square and Hudson/Park) near downtown Albany for 3.5 years. It’s a delightful area that’s quite dense but also leafy, with lots of nearby open space. It’s one of the few parts of Albany (and therefore of all of Upstate NY) where living car-free or car-light is feasible; we did have a car, since G needed it to commute to work, but in theory, this neighborhood can provide everything one needs–the big parking lot visible at mid-left in this view is the local supermarket, part of Schenectady-based chain Market32 (formerly Price Chopper). Like many American urban areas, this one bears the scars of urban renewal; the Empire State Plaza is visible at right, and the open space with a tower at bottom right was cleared during the process of the Plaza’s construction as well (the tower is now very cheap cooperative housing with a long waiting list).

Tract 25025120400, tract 1204 in Boston, Massachusetts in the Boston-Cambridge-Newton, MA-NH metro area. Population density: 17,519 per square mile.

boston tract 1.png

This oddly shaped tract covers much of Jamaica Plain, the neighborhood in Boston we moved to a year ago. The eastern boundary is the Southwest Corridor, carrying Amtrak, commuter rail, and Orange Line trains. The demographic data is in accord with the perception that JP isn’t really that dense; despite having rapid transit service (unlike my parents’ neighborhood in Chicago) the density measure comes in well below 20,000 per square mile. Aside from density, other demographic data tell a story as well:

boston tract 1 demographics

JP is a largely wealthy neighborhood (and I bet the median income and especially the rent has gone up since the 2016 ACS data collection), that’s growing rapidly and not building much additional housing–in fact, since the era of urban renewal it’s gotten less dense in certain areas. Which, ultimately, leads to things like us getting gentrified out of our first Boston apartment so that it could be converted to condos (don’t worry, we got a nice settlement and found a very nice place). Which is how we ended up where we are now, in…

Tract 25025120600, tract 1206 in Boston, Massachusetts in the Boston-Cambridge-Newton, MA-NH metro area. Population density: 24,143 per square mile.

boston tract 2 demographics

This small tract covers a significantly denser part of JP, from Spring Park Ave. over to streets covered with old worker and artisan housing such as Boylston and Paul Gore. Despite the density–in the 96th percentile of US tracts–it’s an incredibly green and leafy part of the city.

backyard view

Seriously, how great is that? There’s just very little to complain about. Oh. Except the growth and rents issue, there is that:

boston tract 2 actual demos

 

So that’s Sandy’s life as told through census tracts. Thanks to Neil for putting the tool together, and I hope this has been a compelling (although perhaps unrepresentative!) tour of American built environment. It certainly lives up to the name of this blog (although to be truly comprehensive I’d have to examine data from Jerusalem as well!). I don’t have too many grand planning conclusions to draw, other than that very dense neighborhoods can be incredibly attractive and green (but we knew that). It is worth noting that the tracts presented here show that even that relatively small unit of measurement may be too big to yield accurate analysis at times. For transit planning, for example, street geometry and density immediately adjacent to the line may be more helpful than looking at tract-wide data. But that’s why even smaller data groupings exist! Or not.

 

 

The College and Resort-Town Housing Crisis: a YIMBY Laboratory?

Featured image: Looking over Hood River and towards Mt. Hood, just because. Source.

With media attention to urban issues often focused obsessively on the coasts and major cities, there’s a crying need for a little bit more varied texture in our discussions of planning and urbanism. People like Pete Saunders and Jason Segedy have done important work showing how needs and paradigms differ in a Midwestern/Rust Belt context. And indeed, it’s important to learn from the Rust Belt, since the geography of demand and capital in most American cities looks far more like its cities than those of the coasts. But there’s another, underappreciated set of towns whose experience of housing policy and planning may actually more closely parallel that of the coasts: those towns that are smaller, but are closely associated with a college or resort, and consequently experience a high level of demand and high prices–and as such need solutions similar to those of the much larger cities.

If you follow me on Twitter you know I’ve been thinking about this for a while, but I was inspired to finally write about it by the appearance of two items in close proximity. The first was posted by my dad’s cousin Lisa Perry, who with her mom runs Cody Orchards in Oregon’s Hood River Valley (my dad’s family’s ancestral homeland, a gorgeous place to visit, and some of the most fertile fruit-growing land in the world). Titled “The Next Aspen” and posted by a local activist group, this flyer calls citizens to action over increasing housing prices driven in part by the increasing presence of second homes and AirBnB-style part-time rentals in the Hood River Valley. The flyer cites a median listed home price of $533,000, which–to my admittedly-not-a-realtor eye–seems shockingly high for a rural area.

hood river market

The track of Hood River’s housing market, from an article in The Oregonian

The other article is from the current Aspen, the high-end ski resort in Colorado. Written by Aspen Ski Co. VP of Sustainability Auden Schendler, it takes a fairly standard YIMBY approach to ameliorating Aspen’s notoriously severe housing crunch–a situation so bad that the local transit agency recently initiated a 43-mile BRT-lite service to move commuters around. It’s worth quoting at length:

This worldview is widespread. Mountain communities are often run by environmentalists from 40 years ago whose thinking has not kept abreast of the development in their hometowns. They champion stasis over change, open space over density, and consider development evil. They hate crowds—even though crowds are the foundation of the entire resort economy. “The only thing they hate more than sprawl,” an architect told me, “is density.”

Parts of Aspen look like they did decades ago, with Victorian houses and big, lovely parks. There are, however, no people in those houses (often second, third, or fourth homes), and a long line of traffic every morning and evening as people forced to live downvalley, where real estate is cheaper, end up commuting 20, 30, and even 50 miles to work.

There’s nothing environmental-friendly about any of this. The long commute creates pollution. It blocks guests from the ski hill. It wears out the road. It’s the exact antithesis of all the ideas Aspen was founded on—about renewal and escaping from the world.

Aspen is perhaps the single most extreme example, but we can see here the ways in which towns that are small in terms of population, but have high demand for housing, can mirror the problems of big cities in a way that most of the nation’s midsize cities don’t. Indeed, as Aspen shows the problems in small towns can often be, though on a smaller absolute scale, even more severe on a per-person basis, as poorer citizens are displaced to entirely different towns, which in rural areas may be miles away and entirely lack suitable housing or transit.

The same is often true in college towns. The blog Walkable Princeton and the (sadly silent right now) Twitter account Central NJ YIMBY by one of its authors have chronicled the dearth of affordable housing and walkability in that Ivy League town. I’ve spent a lot of time in Massachusetts’ college-heavy Pioneer Valley, and particularly Northampton and Amherst, both of which are fairly expensive by rural/small-town standards–and lack sufficient housing for their student and young-adult populations.

As with resort towns, college towns are often dominated politically by aging ex-hippies and Boomers who consider themselves environmentalists, but feel ambivalently at best about the popular demand that underlies their town’s economic success. David Roberts’ recent piece in Vox about the difference between environmentalists and climate hawks is perhaps one of the best–although not the only–lenses onto the political dynamic that drives (non)-development decisions in both resort and college towns. College towns suffer from the additional complication of much housing demand being driven by students, who are (with perhaps some justification) generally considered an undesirable class to live near and preemptively zoned out. It was, after all, conflict between “townies” and students that yielded Belle Terre v. Boraas, one of the Supreme Court cases that allows towns to most restrict housing flexibility. College-town homeowners have even been known to speak about student housing with language reminiscent of racial blockbusting:

Smaller towns do present YIMBYs with the challenge of accepting that certain things we (correctly, in my opinion) dismiss as distractions from the housing debate in larger cities do in fact have outsize impacts in some smaller towns. Part-time occupation and the outsize presence of second (and third, and fourth) homes in high-demand small towns and rural areas really do have a huge impact on the local market. I’d argue that you do have to be more careful with development than I’d argue for a big-city context. For some of these towns–particularly resort towns–it’s the existing built environment and character that form a large part of their appeal, and therefore their economic bottom line. There’s no shortage of potentially cute small towns out there in America; there’s always going to be stiff competition for success, and it’s reasonable for leaders to be wary of ceding their core competencies in the face of stiff competition.  

Those items aside, the high-demand small-town dynamic in some ways parallels–and can learn from, and inform–the big-city experience more than that of most of Middle America. As such, the solutions to the crisis confronting some of these towns probably parallel big-city solutions as well: a simple willingness to grow and include the people who want to be there as well as old-timers, an emphasis on walkability and a few select transit corridors so that growth can scale without corresponding increases in traffic, and selective application of regulation and mandates like incentive zoning and social housing. Indeed, given the very manageable scale of need in smaller towns, it’s probably not unfair to think of these towns as laboratories for proving the efficacy of YIMBY policies that can then be scaled to apply to larger areas.

The core principles of a growth-accepting worldview still apply. There are almost always corridors where growth can happen without impacting the touristy areas. For Northampton-Amherst, those would be the Route 9 corridor connecting the two towns, with its relatively robust transit and high-quality rail trail:

northampton amherst route 9

And the north-south Route 5 corridor in Northampton, much of which was previously railyards and has been developed not as the dense housing that’s needed but as pedestrian-hostile big-box retail.

route 5

Smaller towns also present the possibility of the strong alliance between farming/conservation interests and YIMBYs/Smart Growthers that should exist nationally. Dense development close to the core of town ought to absorb sufficient demand to slow or stop the farmland-eating process of sprawl–a process that, as in Hood River, not only threatens the environment but drives up costs for farmers, making a difficult business even harder. This alliance can’t function, though, if core development priorities continue to be set by people with a no-growth agenda; and the result is that farmland continues to be eaten up by sprawl (the same goes, to a lesser extent, for conservation of open land in non-farming areas). Technical tools like a regional Transfer of Development Rights program could help facilitate this alliance, but face several challenges: they are highly complex and unintuitive; are often only legally authorized to follow municipal boundaries, when a rural environment demands a regional strategy (this is true in New York State, where the Hudson Valley would really benefit from such a program); and above all require a willingness for somewhere in the core to accept actual growth.

Northampton isn’t Boston and Hood River isn’t Portland (duh). But if the goal is creating sustainable policy that can meet the needs of today while also nurturing future generations (a particular concern in college towns, I suppose), these smaller towns have in some ways failed nearly as badly as our big cities have. And it’s important not only to recognize those failures as an opportunity (which they are!) but to understand that they are the product of particular choices made by particular people at particular times. The core insight of YIMBYism–its simple power–is the insight that none of this was inevitable. Big-city activists can learn from smaller towns confronting similar issues–and the smaller towns from their big siblings.  

 

Refocusing the Urban Renewal Conversation

Urban renewal remains a rhetorical and contextual constant in today’s discussions about planning and policy, even though 60 years have passed since the apex of the idea’s power in American life. The term is invoked by a wide variety of people to make a wide variety of points carrying a wide variety of intellectual consistency and honesty; indeed, at times it seems near-ubiquitous in urbanist or planning discourse. Perhaps unsurprisingly, talk about urban renewal and its legacy often focuses on the Robert Moses vs. Jane Jacobs paradigm and the lessons about community control and out-of-control bureaucracy. With perhaps somewhat less frequency, renewal is used as a weapon in the never-ending online wars about whether capitalism or socialism is worse (it is perhaps testament to how uniquely terrible an idea urban renewal was that it allows both sides of that debate to use it with a truly straight face). And of course, discussion of renewal often veers off in a hyperbolic and/or totally non-factual direction. This, then, represents my attempt to reset the urban renewal discourse a little and re-focus it on what renewal was really, consistently about: cars and autocentricity.

It’s worth taking a moment to define our terms. Strictly applied, the term “urban renewal” originated with the  Housing Act of 1954, but the concept of “slum clearance” became popular  with Title I of the Housing Act of 1949. In general discourse, it has become customary–and I think useful–to bundle these federal housing programs with the mass demolition of urban neighborhoods for freeways, most associated with the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. While these federal programs mostly wound down in the face of opposition and lack of success by the 1970s, in some cities the robust powers granted to government to facilitate them still exist, even if they now receive less frequent usage.  I use the term to refer to the entire assemblage of programs at all levels of government that pushed hard for the destruction and redevelopment of neighborhoods through a philosophy of built-environment determinism and a conception of determinedly auto-centric mobility.

Many on the left (but not just those on the left!) understand renewal  as a joint conspiracy of capital and government. An example: this quotation from former Cleveland planning director Norman Krumholz, the originator of the “equity” or “advocacy” school of planning, in this NextCity article about Boston’s recent fights over whether to extend the city’s renewal powers:

“You know the story of urban renewal: low-income people driven away from choice locations that developers selected for redevelopment.”

And although there’s certainly truth in the idea that capital and corporations drove renewal , this analysis is at best incomplete. For one thing, the massive reshaping of cities to accommodate megablock development and autocentricity was a worldwide phenomenon at the time, hardly limited to capitalist economies (indeed, if anything it was notoriously worse in socialist or Communist countries).

The narrative that renewal happened because “developers” or “capital” demanded it  exists in some tension with the idea that it was the fault of authoritarian planners and bureaucrats. It also happens to elide the fact that the physical effects of renewal were popular with large swaths of the growing white upper and middle classes in the postwar period; indeed, of all people Robert Moses saw himself as responding to the demands and interests of this powerful class (while of course also being an egomaniac). Douglas Rae’s City: Urbanism and its End gives a glimpse into this process in the city that took more federal urban renewal money per capita than any other; while New Haven’s business and institutional communities provided substantial support to urban renewal, renewal was also a downright popular policy with the suburbanizing middle classes (which benefited from easy auto access to downtown) and with urban liberals (who saw it as a positive government intervention). I grew up in New Haven in a community that frequently discussed the trauma of urban renewal–but many of the same people who mourned the loss of the old Jewish Oak Street neighborhood are perfectly capable of complaining in the same breath about the (perceived) difficulty of parking downtown. I’m sure many people who think critically about land use and transportation issues have similar stories: it’s a useful reminder that at least some of the tenets of urban renewal remain popular to this day.    

Reminding the public of the centrality of auto dependency to renewal has become necessary in large part because of the emergence of a particular dynamic where certain people (in good faith or bad) claim the mantle of fighting urban renewal specifically to preserve faux-populist autocentric practices in planning. Their narrative typically adopts aspects of the leftist story about renewal, whereby the core legacy of the fundamental trauma associated with renewal  is the lesson that community control of planning processes is an absolute obligation and an inherently positive way of doing policy. The result is an inherently contradictory, and often toxic, dynamic that instead of striving to discuss the potential conflicts in the legacy of urban renewal instead clouds history and obstructs any attempts to undo renewal’s physical legacy in the present day.

One genre of attempts to twist renewal’s admittedly highly undemocratic processual legacy into preserving its physical legacy is the preservation of open space at the expense of the potential to restore the dense development that in many northeastern cities existed before the era of renewal. One of my favorite hangouts in Albany was Hudson-Jay Park, a small green space carved out of the junction of the dense brownstones of Center Square and the Modernist marble wall of the Empire State Plaza, and a legacy of land cleared for a never-built planned freeway tunnel entrance.

hudson jay

Hudson-Jay Park in Albany, looking east toward the Empire State Plaza. Author’s photo.

Or take the example of Meriden, Connecticut, which I wrote about in 2014. In the core of downtown, right across the street from the railroad station, a giant, autocentric mall had torn down several square blocks of dense urban development decades ago. With the coming initiation of more frequent rail service on the Hartford Line, Meriden engaged in a generally positive community process designed to revitalize downtown with TOD….but instead of restoring dense development on the former mall site, built a giant transit-oriented park.

meriden

Meriden is, though, an economically depressed city where the demand side of the development equation is unclear and where community members may be less conscious of exactly how they’re handling the legacy of urban renewal, so let’s take a look at an example closer to my current home.  Last year MassDOT sold off a number of small plots of land along the Southwest Corridor in Jamaica Plain (JP). The plots are a direct legacy of the era of urban renewal and freeway construction; the state had seized them decades earlier in order to build a freeway on what’s now, after a civic revolt, the Amtrak/MBTA line known as the Southwest Corridor. Since rail lines, even with an accompanying greenway, take up much less room than a freeway, the state was left with a number of leftover lots, some of them of irregular size or shape, but many of them potentially suited to restoration of the dense pattern of development that existed before the massive use of eminent domain and land clearance in the area. Since the construction of the Southwest Corridor, some of these lots have become open space or part of the greenway; others serve as community gardens. Indeed, one of the lots was taken off the auction block in order to formalize its use as a garden. An anonymous Twitter user took the time to argue with me, contending that my desire to see public land used for a purpose higher than community gardening was, in fact, insensitive to the memory of the struggle against urban renewal:

Similar thoughts appeared elsewhere during the discussion. I think it’s worth diving into that a little bit. In the mind of this Twitterer–and numerous other JPers–fighting urban renewal has nothing to do with restoring the dense development that characterized pre-renewal JP, or fighting autocentricity per se, but relates exclusively to honoring the wishes of the self-defined “community” that once fought renewal–and no one else. Fighting to preserve open space–open space that had not always been that way!–in an area truly rich in it when Boston is suffering from a housing crisis induced in large part by the era of urban renewal seems, in contextual reality, not only quite far from honoring the fight against renewal but indeed supportive of the very ideas that drove renewal in the first place. What better honors the JP that existed before renewal: a community garden or moving toward rebuilding, for example, the vibrant commercial area that once existed around what is now Green Street station on the Orange Line?

Jamaica_Plain_station_postcard_(2)

Jamaica Plain railroad station, on the current site of Green Street MBTA station, around 1910. Note the significant commercial and industrial development around the station. Source: By Unknown – Scanned postcard from eBay auction: “JAMAICA PLAIN MASSACHUSETTS MASS. RAILROAD DEPOT TRAIN STATION VINTAGE POSTCARD”, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45952810

31931813192_72db4a59e6_o (1)

Jamaica Plain station in the middle of disinvestment and urban renewal, in 1951. Source: City of Boston on Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/cityofbostonarchives/31931813192/in/photostream/

green street today

Green Street station today, looking south from the corner of Green and Amory. Note removal of all commercial buildings (although there is one behind the camera) and empty lot at the southeast corner of Green and Amory; I’m told local residents have opposed new construction on this lot.

It’s worth thinking about the implications of an ideology (although it’s hardly theorized enough to be called that, the feeling seems common enough) of open space-as-antidote-to-renewal. I would, bluntly, posit that this ideology is in no way an antidote to renewal and in fact in many ways accepts and cements the Corbusian principles underlying the entire concept of urban renewal. It’s towers in the park, minus the towers, but with some (but not too many) handy restorable brownstones or triple-deckers.

This ideology of garden-as-preservation-from-renewal is, whether consciously in the minds of its proponents or not, inseparable from the same kinds of (mainly white) middle-class consumer desires that actually drove renewal as an ideology. In his highly original and significant The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn, Suleiman Osman lays out how 1960s South Brooklyn gentrifiers created narratives of saving their “middle ground” (that is, between Manhattan and suburbia) areas from the twin threats of Robert Moses-style Modernist renewal and the uncaring natives who were allowing the area to decline. These narratives, obviously, were self serving, and in them we can see the seeds of some of the more obnoxious aspects of gentrification today. But we see arguably the same logic at play in JP and elsewhere today, as some defend de-densifying the neighborhood and preventing the restoration of transit-oriented development as fighting renewal. Like Osman’s South Brooklyn gentrifiers, the people who fought fiercely for their neighborhood in the face of the assault of Corbusian, autocentric renewal deserve credit for preserving an ideology of urbanism of sorts in decades past–and critique when they end up doing the work of autocentrism.  

Understanding the fetishization of open space in the wake of renewal as a middle-class consumer ideology largely invented by gentrifiers makes the second, and far more challenging, common genre of slightly-off references to urban renewal somewhat jarring. This is the tendency of leftist anti-gentrification activists and some within communities of color to refer to densification and transit-oriented development efforts as a variation on urban renewal. On the one hand, where community consultation is lacking–or even where it is done well, but displacement is accelerating because of strong market demand–it’s reasonable for fearful people to interpret pretty much any action policymakers take as not reflecting the wishes of the community and therefore bringing up the spectre of renewal (and in a situation with limited good options, policymakers should be ready to be accused of not being consultative enough no matter their choices). On the other hand, this accusation completely erases the aspects of urban renewal that had to do with autocentricity and the consumer desires of the white middle class for easy car access throughout the city and easily available parking–which is to say, most of the core of the renewal ideology.

A typical example is this from  Erick Trickey’s reasonably good article on the Green Line light rail project connecting Minneapolis and St. Paul in Politico:

And many poorer communities along the route simply didn’t believe the Green Line would benefit them. They saw light rail as a threat that would disrupt their neighborhoods and bring gentrification—a sequel to the urban-renewal projects of the mid-20th-century that bulldozed poor communities for the sake of suburban commuters…Another reason for opposition—which surprised transit planners and city leaders—was the long memory of St. Paul’s older African-American residents, who’d been victimized by racist highway policy a half-century before. Rondo Avenue, the main business strip in St. Paul’s largest black neighborhood was bulldozed to make way for the I-94 freeway in 1960. That destruction of more than 600 black families’ homes and dozens of black businesses—a tragedy the federal government replicated in black neighborhoods across the country—ripped apart the city’s African-American middle-class economy, inflicting lasting damage to black families’ wealth and homeownership. (A play about Rondo, The Highwaymen, played this February at St. Paul’s History Theatre.) So for some black residents south of University Avenue, another transportation project in their neighborhood felt like war….Nathaniel Khaliq, who was president of the St. Paul NAACP at the time, lost his childhood home on Rondo Avenue to I-94. To avoid any repeat of the disruption the freeway had caused, he preferred an earlier proposal to place the train tracks down the center of I-94. When transit planners chose University Avenue as the route instead, the NAACP sued.

There’s a lot to unpack here. There should be no doubt that community concerns about displacement and racist policy were, as they often are in other cities, valid; while the vulnerability of poor people of color to displacement is a symptom not of transportation policy but of much larger structural forces in American life, it is in many ways felt most acutely in areas with new high-quality transit, given the overall scarcity of such systems in this country. But there’s no escaping the contradiction inherent in the rhetoric and suggestions here. Put simply, the way to protect the black community from a second wave of urban renewal was to replicate the physical planning practices of the original urban renewal programs. Putting rail transit in a freeway right-of-way was for decades, and in some places remains, a common practice, but it’s a really crappy idea that exposes passengers to pollution and minimizes walking access to stations–and cements (literally) the autocentricity of the built environment.

Damien Goodmon of the Crenshaw Subway Coalition provides a somewhat more hyperbolic example of this train of thought in last week’s post in response to Scott Wiener’s ambitious attempt to solve California’s housing crisis by taking the revolutionary step of … building housing.  In response to the idea that dense development should accompany transit, Goodmon declares,

Not since the “Urban Renewal” projects of the 1960s (most appropriately characterized as “Negro removal” by James Baldwin) has something so radical and detrimental to the stability of urban communities of color in California been proposed.

Certainly, Wiener’s bill as proposed would markedly transform many California communities. But Goodmon’s attitude points to a tension in the concept of what’s “good for” disadvantaged communities. It is, in today’s immediate context, somewhat reasonable for communities of color and poorer communities to understand some transit projects and the project of restoring transit-centric urbanity as not being primarily “for” them. In many cities, transit lines generally run radially, connecting outlying neighborhoods to downtowns; as downtown employment has in many cities become increasingly white-collar, low-wage/low-skill employment has fled to the suburbs–often to areas impossible to serve well with transit because of terribly hostile land use. In polycentric Los Angeles, jobs and other trip attractions are spread widely across the metropolis, a development pattern that can be equally hard to serve with transit. Car usage, then, becomes an apparent necessity for low-wage workers, even as it represents a massive financial burden.

However, as I’ve written about New Haven, we should understand this dynamic as being a product only of today’s immediate context, not as inevitable but as a consequence of a series of autocentric policy choices beginning with the era of urban renewal and pushed over the course of decades by the car- and parking-obsessed white and white-collar classes. Thinking of restoring transit-centric development patterns as a follow-on to urban renewal, rather than a refutation of it, only makes sense if one cannot envision a future where disadvantaged people gaine equal access to the world of mobility by transit–a world that should logically be far more hospitable to them than the literally poisonous world of autocentrism. It is possible that if Scott Wiener’s SB 827 were to be enacted as written, it would lead to a traumatic change in specific black and Hispanic communities in LA (though smarter people than I have expressed doubts about that, expecting most new construction to occur on LA’s rich, NIMBY Westside). Yet it is virtually inevitable that in the long run life for the poor and vulnerable in California would be greatly improved by greater housing availability, more transit, and the restoration of the ability to live a life without car ownership, now effectively government-mandated in much of the state.

There’s a lesson there for policymakers, and it doesn’t consist exclusively of “consultative planning is the way to make up for urban renewal.” Rather, it’s that undoing the damage wrought by renewal is a long-term process that we must consistently center on strong principles relating to  mobility, design, safety, and equality. Taking once more  the example of New Haven, which has hollowed out its downtown for parking at the demand of white-collar professionals, only to see increasing numbers of  jobs taken up not by city residents but by suburban commuters. It is those demands for parking, and those worries about the speed of traffic that lead to widening of streets, marginalization of transit, and increasing hostility to pedestrians, that represent the true core of the anti-humane and inegalitarian legacy of urban renewal.

To some extent, I think urban renewal discourse has become so toxic and counterproductive precisely because we find ourselves at a moment of transition and crisis. Urban renewal and freeways destroyed the spatial/economic logic of transportation and land use that had prevailed since the beginning of urbanity, a logic that values physical access and proximity. With the end of construction of new urban freeways (with some horrific exceptions) and growing congestion strangling suburban highways, that logic–one that rewards compactness and punishes spawliness–is reasserting itself rather strongly. It is, perhaps, a testament to the lasting autocentric effects of urban renewal that many people, including advocates from the very communities that have suffered most from renewal, are struggling so hard to adapt to the new/old reality.

Fighting autocentrism remains an uphill battle in the US. As I hope I have made clear here, despite the reassertion of basic spatial logic in recent decades, the principles of autocentricity, car mobility, and easy parking introduced by the era of urban renewal have proven extremely durable and remain in practice remarkably popular, no matter the consensus on Urbanist Twitter. It’s important to keep in mind, then, that those principles ultimately reflect a spatial, economic, and social ethic not of equality and egalitarianism, but of segregation and geographic injustice–an ethic that has done enormous damage to vulnerable communities across 60 years of car-centric American living. The lesson here is, to say the least, not to liberate vulnerable communities, or preserve “authentic” urban neighborhoods like JP, by cementing autocentricity, but to smash the wheel entirely, taking our inspiration from a renewed understanding of the core meaning of renewal–and from aspects of the neighborhoods and networks that existed before it, modified with the lessons we have learned about democracy, privilege, racism, and egalitarianism in the meantime. Onwards.

What We Know About Amtrak 501

Earlier today, we saw the latest in a series of crashes that have plagued Amtrak and other US passenger rail providers over the last few years. This is, first and foremost, a human tragedy; but it is also an urgent concern of public policy. While trains–and all public transit–are on a population level much safer than driving, there is no need to accept any casualties at all, ever. While others–primarily the NTSB–will provide a full analysis in the weeks and years ahead, this is my attempt to reckon with what we know about this incident as of the same evening. I had intended this to be a series of bullet points but WordPress doesn’t like the formatting, so I’ve bolded every topic heading. 

Let’s keep in mind that the victims of this tragedy should be in our minds; I haven’t seen a casualty count since the morning, but we know there are fatalities and serious injuries. That shouldn’t have happened, and in addition to wishing their families comfort, this post is inspired by a sense that we–myself as a transportation professional and those who read this blog–should do all we can to prevent such things from happening.

Amtrak 501 was operating over–was, in fact, and somewhat remarkably, the very first revenue train over– the Point Defiance Bypass, a state/federal-funded project that moves passenger trains from a mudslide-prone, curvy waterfront route around Tacoma to a more direct, faster route.

 

wsdot project map

Source: WSDOT

While the tracks for the bypass have been in service, they have not carried passenger trains along their whole length until now. Trains have been running to test the line for months, but this was the first one to carry passengers.

As befits its purpose, the Point Defiance Bypass is mostly straight, easy 79-mph running, but the area where the train derailed is much trickier. Toward the southern end of the bypass, not far from rejoining the freight main at Nisqually Junction, the tracks flow into an S-curve with a bridge over I-5 in the middle.

 

derailment 3d

Looking south, in the direction of train travel.

Going into the curve southbound, the speed limit drops from the standard track speed of 79 mph to 30 mph, as confirmed by an Amtrak employee timetable I’ve been sent. 

amtrak timetableAccording to one report, there should have been an indicator sign two miles before the speed restriction indicating the drop in speed; certainly, there was a sign indicating the 30 mph restriction immediately before the curve.

The train was probably going too fast. Amtrak’s train tracking system doesn’t report train speed or location completely continuously (at least not publicly) but in this case it appears to have pinged the train immediately before the crash, reporting a speed of 81.1 mph at a position just 1400 feet east of the crash site. The system isn’t 100% reliable, so don’t worry about the report that the train was going two mph above the speed limit (which wouldn’t have made a difference in any case). transitdocs detail The same Seattle Times report quoted a motorist who said he was driving in the 60 mph range and the train was going faster. And the positioning of the crashed train–the lead locomotive taking a nearly straight route out of the curve, as if it didn’t follow the tracks at all–indicates a speeding train whose inertia carried it (or rather, part of it) forward. Remember, the train should have been going 30 mph going into that curve. There is no way for a passenger train to shed 50 mph in the space of 1400 feet.

If the reporting system data and eyewitness reports are at all accurate, this is pretty clearly a case of a train exceeding the speed it should have been operating at. Overspeed (as it is technically known) is, however, more a descriptor than an explanation; beyond that I strongly discourage speculation. There are too many causes to count: operator error; signal failure; equipment problems (the lead locomotive was a brand-new Siemens Charger); track problems (remember, this is new, or at least recently refreshed, infrastructure); or any number of other possibilities.

Though I discourage speculation about root causes, it’s impossible not to note the scary parallels between this crash and two other recent overspeed crashes, Amtrak 188 at Frankford Junction, Philadelphia in 2015 and Metro-North at Spuyten Duyvil in the Bronx in 2013.

 

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Diagram of the Amtrak 188 crash at Frankford Junction. Source: http://www.businessinsider.com/here-everything-we-know-about-amtrak-188-train-wreck-in-philadelphia-2015-5

 

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Metro-North crash at Spuyten Duyvil. Source: https://twitter.com/NTSB/status/407329136735027200/photo/1

Amtrak 188 entered a 50 mph curve at 106 mph; in a situation eerily similar to today’s the Metro-North train entered a 30 mph curve at 82 mph. We still don’t really know the root cause of the Frankford Junction crash, though most theories have centered around the engineer (who is suffering from amnesia from the accident) losing attention somehow, without his recollections it’s impossible to know for sure. At Spuyten Duyvil the engineer suffered from sleep apnea and was apparently asleep as the train went around the curve (the same issue has come up in several other, more minor commuter rail incidents recently, including at Hoboken and Atlantic Terminal). Whatever the cause, overspeed incidents are all too common on American railroads.

Discussions about these kinds of things always come back to Positive Train Control. Originally mandated by Congress after the 2008 Chatsworth crashnot an overspeed incident, for what it’s worth–PTC implementation was an unfunded mandate, has suffered extreme resistance from the railroad industry, and has been painfully slow. As at Frankford Junction and Spuyten Duyvil, PTC was not in operation on the Point Defiance Bypass today; as far as I can tell, it is intended for operational status later this year (as indeed it was at Frankford Junction…ouch). Yes, barring some kind of drastic equipment failure, PTC likely would have stopped this crash. But it’s worth noting that it’s not the only technology available to stop a speeding train headed into a slow zone; various forms of Automatic Train Stop have been able to do so for almost 100 years. So while the increasing series of crashes is absolutely making a cumulative case for cracking down on the rail industry’s PTC slowness, we should keep in mind that failures like this implicate not only the PTC mandate, but the entire safety culture of American railroading.

Let’s talk about safety culture. Jason Laughlin of the Philadelphia Inquirer just published a piece yesterday (literally not kidding) building off of the NTSB’s scathing assessment of Amtrak’s “safety culture,” stemming from yet another fatal crash, this one at Chester, PA in 2016. Let’s just take a moment to appreciate that the two maintenance-of-way workers killed in the crash and the train engineer involved all tested positive for drugs, and yet that was not found to be a necessary contributing factor to the crash. Similar assessments of commuter railroads have been, while perhaps not as bad, not encouraging either. American railroading has a lot of pathologies–a reactionary culture; toxic labor-management relations; an inability to accept innovation or new ideas–but few have the potential to affect riders as directly as the dysfunctional attitude that it sometimes seems everyone from the top down takes toward safety. It’s a problem that pervades both management and labor, and no one should escape the recriminations, when they come, unscathed. Alex Forrest has a good thread about the cultural contrasts between American and Japanese attitudes toward rail safety; but let’s just say the challenge of 21st century American railroading will be to change a culture where the idea that a train will go on the ground every so often is acceptable rather than unimaginable.

The train’s equipment–a new Siemens Charger locomotive and articulated, lightweight Talgo coaches–is fairly unusual by US standards, but there’s no indication it played any role in the crash. Here, you can see the Charger sitting on the freeway south of the bridge, the 12 Talgo coaches in various geometric arrangements across the crash site, and the trailing P42 (presumably included as insurance for the new locomotive) still sitting on the tracks. 

Don’t freak out. Train crashes get a lot of attention because they’re unusual, visually spectacular, good media content, and a grand American tradition going back to the 19th century. That doesn’t mean they’re actually common. You’re still a lot safer on the train than in a car. I’m obviously mad at American railroad safety culture–and you should be too–but that shouldn’t get in the way of data-oriented reality, even in moments where it’s tempting. Because ultimately, this is all about getting our casualties from mobility down to precisely zero–and we have a lot more work to do on the car side than the transit side.  

Featured Image source: https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/photos-from-amtrak-train-derailment-near-olympia/