Building Urbanism and Transit in Small Cities

I’ve been following updates from the APTA conference in the Twin Cities this past week via Twitter and a friend who works in the area. A couple of the tweets I saw really caught my eye and helped to crystallize some thoughts I’ve been having for a while, since thinking about the role of transit in smaller cities during my time in Albany.

The state of transit in the US is, generally, pretty damn poor, and this is especially true of smaller cities and towns. I’ve written a lot about cities in the size class of Albany, New Haven, or Providence, say in the 100,000-500,000 range, but I’m talking here about somewhat smaller cities, places like–to use near-Albany examples–Utica or Kingston. Generally, transit in those places is, shall we say, not particularly useful; generally it’s conceived of as a last resort, welfare transit, the kind of thing that only people with no other options use. That’s a product of mentality, but also of lack of resources.

But here’s the thing I’ve learned from exploring Upstate New York, much of New England, and a few choice parts of the Midwest: a lot of the older cities, even (in some cases especially) the smaller ones, really do have “good bones.” They are potentially salvageable as places of good, safe, walkable mixed-use urbanism. But there’s a catch–often, in my experience and observation, this is true only in one or two choice corridors. A city like Albany or New Haven might have several or numerous corridors appropriate for high-frequency transit and dense urbanism, but smaller towns may only have one. In both cases, the most urban corridor is likely underserved, because of the general terribleness of American transit; but in the smaller cities, this likely means that the city has lost any chance at transit-based urbanism at all.

In transit-planning terms, small-city transit leans quite heavily toward the coverage side of the coverage vs. ridership debate. That’s not a criticism, per se; it’s how the incentives–including funding incentives–are biased, as well as how local leadership generally directs transit agencies to operate. This is, of course, in direct conflict with the first point that Erik Landfried made in the tweets presented above–that the best practice in the transit world is to get your best corridors right first. So this post is, in part, a thought exercise about how small-city transit might look if more funding–or different funding–were available, enough to let agencies focus on intensive service on the best corridors.

It’s also a musing on the future of smaller cities. It’s not news that many of these places are struggling, facing economic marginalization and brain drain. In part–though only in part–those struggles derive from a lack of good urbanism; with terrible transit and general unwalkability, those who want or need an urban lifestyle often literally cannot find it in smaller cities. As Cap’n Transit has pointed out, these “small city exiles”–people who would have been able to stay if the good bones of smaller cities had better flesh built upon them–make up one of the gentrifying flows to larger cities. Note that this isn’t just a Creative Class follow-the-talent kind of a thing; it seems clear that smaller, fully car-dependent cities are simply inaccessible to many.

Whether Small City Exiles follow the jobs, or the jobs follow them, is of course a little bit of a chicken/egg problem, but it seems unlikely that many will return without the option of urbanism. The implication is that to have a shot at revival struggling smaller cities would do well to try to build at least one corridor where life can be conducted in a car-free (or, more realistically, car-lite) manner. Typically, discussions of urbanism, revival and/or gentrification occur at the neighborhood level, but one of the things that I think this typology of city can teach us is that the relevant unit may in fact be corridors. Not all efforts at revival have to be focused in one area; but there should be an emphasis on creating the ability to live urban daily life–with all of the uses that entails–along at least one given corridor in any city. That means frequent transit service; it means reviving or allowing mixed-use development; it means locating hospitals and schools and shops along that corridor to the extent possible. It’s the preservation, revival, or creation of these corridors that will make a small-city revival through urbanism possible. And it means that the identification and intentional development of these one or two possible transit/urbanist corridors is extremely important to the future of these cities.

What I’m aiming for here, then, is somewhere between descriptive and prescriptive; I don’t have specific infrastructural, financial, or operational ideas in mind, but I have, to illustrate, picked out a number of cities and corridors that I think fit this paradigm.

Utica’s a big enough city to have multiple viable transit corridors at some minimal frequency, but it has one that’s absolutely perfect for frequent transit and good urbanism. Genesee Street is Utica’s main commercial drag, is lined by fairly dense housing already, and is anchored on one end by Union Station–offering transfers to Amtrak and intercity buses–and on the other by a major mall. Current service is decent by small-city standards but the schedule is–typically of Centro, the operator–nearly incomprehensible.

Like Utica, the Binghamton area is big enough to support more than one transit corridor, but there’s one that really ties everything together. Stretching from Binghamton through the downtowns of the area’s several other decaying industrial cities, this corridor could, potentially, link a wide variety of different uses–although a strong system would need a link to Binghamton University too.

Kingston’s a relatively small place, but it still offers a strong corridor for building out an urban revival. Broadway links the Rondout–the somewhat touristy old port area–with the Stockade District, one of Upstate’s best remaining examples of the colonial era (and its urbanism), running in between through the good-bones Midtown area. It’s a short corridor, under 3 miles, but hey, that just means it only takes a few buses to operate frequent transit service on it!

I’ve highlighted two potential corridors in the Glens Falls area: one running north-south from the village of South Glens Falls up through the city proper to a suburban commercial strip, and the other running east-west from Glens Falls through even-more-depressed Hudson Falls to the Amtrak station and Champlain Canal trail in Fort Edward. Neither is a slam-dunk corridor for decent urbanism, but the east-west corridor especially takes advantage of the historic clustering of good-bones development along the Hudson.

Montpelier is notorious for being the smallest state capital in the country, but the area has a proud tradition of Sewer Socialism and is located in a river valley, which has the natural effect of concentrating development. There is, in fact, a little-used rail line linking the towns of the Winooski River valley, and while it’s potentially usable for transit service, it doesn’t hit some of the newer, road-based commercial development. The choice of a hilltop outside the river corridor for the area’s hospital and a major commercial development also illustrates the danger of poor planning that removes key functions from an area’s one viable transit corridor.

Cheating a tad maybe by looping in two towns and a major university, but I’ve spent a lot of time in the Pioneer Valley and have a lot of…feelings about its transit potential. The Route 9 corridor connecting Amherst and Northampton is the key transportation corridor in the area; both towns have strong downtowns, there’s a lot of travel between them, and there’s been significant commercial development along Route 9 in Hadley. As it is, though, the area remains quite expensive to live in due to limited housing supply in the historic cores of Northampton and Amherst, and Route 9 between them remains a horrid stroad. A previous study called for development of a BRT service on the corridor; while PVTA has (understandably, in my opinion) prioritized development of BRT on State Street in Springfield instead, this corridor seems ripe for some kind of consistently high-end transit, and while we’re making the investment, why not try to fill in the empty/stroadish parts with dense development and relieve the housing crunch in the process?

Michigan City has one major corridor, stretching from the waterfront through the thoroughly urbanly renewed downtown to a big suburban commercial strip on the outskirts. What sets this corridor apart from the others highlighted here is that it would actually offer connections to not one but two somewhat frequent rail services, the South Shore running literally in 11th Street and Amtrak’s Michigan corridor on the waterfront.

Many Great Plains cities and towns grew up around railroads and still cluster around their historic rights-of-way; such is the case in DeKalb and Sycamore, IL, west of Chicago. What’s added to the mix here is the presence of a midsize public university (Northern Illinois) and the fact that the commercial strip in the area has grown up along one road connecting the two downtowns. What it adds up to is quite a reasonable transit corridor, in an area that’s otherwise very auto-oriented.

There are lessons here, then, on both the transit level and the “regional priorities” level. Regions centered on a small city should seek to ensure that living an urban lifestyle is at least an option somewhere, ideally centered on a functional transit-centric corridor. And small-city operational and funding patterns should adapt to facilitate this. Perhaps it’s time to split rural and small-city transit funding into two pots: one with a coverage/welfare goal, where routes are expected to reach all those who need, but not to return huge ridership or hit specific financial goals; and another with a goal of maximizing ridership, connections to jobs, and economic benefit to the region. That would require a paradigm shift at multiple levels of government–never easy–but it’s worth thinking about. Rural and small-city transit agencies rely heavily on federal funding, but I imagine states have a role here too; would not, say, New York State have an interest in developing corridors like this in its decaying Upstate cities? With a need for both up-front capital and ongoing operational investment, there are numerous options on the table. As numerous, one might say, as the cities that could benefit from building out their transit corridors.

 

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The Bible and Neighborhood Memory

Earlier today Lisa Schweitzer posted a short piece pointing out what she labels as the anti-NIMBY politics of a particular Biblical verse, Isaiah 5:8. You can go over to her place for a range of translations, but for my purposes I like the Hebrew text and translation offered by the essential Sefaria:

ה֗וֹי מַגִּיעֵ֥י בַ֙יִת֙ בְּבַ֔יִת שָׂדֶ֥ה בְשָׂדֶ֖ה יַקְרִ֑יבוּ עַ֚ד אֶ֣פֶס מָק֔וֹם וְהֽוּשַׁבְתֶּ֥ם לְבַדְּכֶ֖ם בְּקֶ֥רֶב הָאָֽרֶץ׃

Ah, Those who add house to house And join field to field, Till there is room for

none but you to dwell in the land

The verse is part of an extended analogy involving a vineyard and the iniquity of the people Israel (both, of course, common themes in Biblical literature, and unsurprisingly often found in close juxtaposition), but its point comes quite close to some contemporary concerns. Isaiah’s critique might easily be read as a criticism of the ancient equivalent of large-lot exclusionary zoning. His concern is essentially that the rich will enlarge their own estates–both urban and rural–at the expense of the poor. Or at least that is the understanding of Rashi:

מגיעי בית בבית. מקרבים בתיהם זה אצל זה ומתוך כך גוזלים קרקע העניים החלשים שבין ב’ הבתים וכן שדה בשדה:

Those who add house to house: They bring their houses one next to the other and in the process steal the land of the weak poor who are between the two houses; and thus also field by field. (translation mine)

The prophet’s concern is not idle; see for example the process of enclosure by which  British elites consolidated their control over the countryside. But one senses in the Isaiah passage, even as it is probably most accurately read to reflect pro-housing policies, also the roots of some of today’s most tenacious anti-housing themes: concerns of “overdevelopment” and even, absurd as it might be to retroject this idea 2,600 years into history, gentrification. So, I think, it’s worth looking a little further afield for some other Biblical texts on the topic.

Before we proceed, it is worth a caution that the Biblical corpus (and I refer to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, which is my area of familiarity; I claim no expertise in the New Testament) is of course composed of a huge variety of different voices, all with their own perspectives. One of my longer-term projects is a more comprehensive look at planning and development in Genesis in particular, and maybe someday the Bible generally. But, as it happens, in the Jewish calendar we just this past Shabbat read one of the many passages that has something to say  about housing policy and politics, Deuteronomy 6:8-11:

וְהָיָ֞ה כִּ֥י יְבִיאֲךָ֣ ׀ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֗יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֜רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֨ר נִשְׁבַּ֧ע לַאֲבֹתֶ֛יךָ לְאַבְרָהָ֛ם לְיִצְחָ֥ק וּֽלְיַעֲקֹ֖ב לָ֣תֶת לָ֑ךְ עָרִ֛ים גְּדֹלֹ֥ת וְטֹבֹ֖ת אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹא־בָנִֽיתָ׃ וּבָ֨תִּ֜ים מְלֵאִ֣ים כָּל־טוּב֮ אֲשֶׁ֣ר לֹא־מִלֵּאתָ֒ וּבֹרֹ֤ת חֲצוּבִים֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר לֹא־חָצַ֔בְתָּ כְּרָמִ֥ים וְזֵיתִ֖ים אֲשֶׁ֣ר לֹא־נָטָ֑עְתָּ וְאָכַלְתָּ֖ וְשָׂבָֽעְתָּ׃ הִשָּׁ֣מֶר לְךָ֔ פֶּן־תִּשְׁכַּ֖ח אֶת־יְהוָ֑ה אֲשֶׁ֧ר הוֹצִֽיאֲךָ֛ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם מִבֵּ֥ית עֲבָדִֽים׃

When the LORD your God brings you into the land that He swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to assign to you—great and flourishing cities that you did not build, houses full of all good things that you did not fill, hewn cisterns that you did not hew, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant—and you eat your fill, take heed that you do not forget the LORD who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.

On the one hand, this is the admonishment of a conquering people, about to take possession of the cities and infrastructure built by their vanquished enemies. On the other hand, this passage offers, like President Obama, a reminder that you didn’t build that, that structural forces of time, history, and economics exist. And it’s a reminder that the housing policy debate sorely needs.

To a certain extent, Moses’ admonishment to “remember where you and your neighborhood came from!” is a warning against the development of what Daniel Hertz has called the “immaculate conception theory of neighborhood origins,” the idea that homes and neighborhoods just magically appear and it’s only new development that’s greedy and not community-oriented. I’ve labeled a related, but somewhat different phenomenon by which neighborhood activists claim all credit for a neighborhood’s success, therefore ignoring structural factors and spatial economics, the “Bootstrap theory of urban development”; fundamentally the two concepts share roots in a deep denial of history.  

As Daniel says:

The problem with the immaculate conception theory is that, like parents swearing that they would never have behaved the way their kids do, it is conveniently forgetful about what actually happened in the past. Taking, just as an example, the kind of housing that Berger romanticizes—the early 20th century bungalow boom—a closer look reveals that it was defined not by mass affordability, efficiency, and respect for traditional communities, but something very nearly the opposite.

This, then, is Deuteronomy’s critique (although, admittedly, it is glorifying as much as remembering with regret a violent, colonialist history): to forget the history, the predominant factors, that got your built environment to where it is today is to become deeply corrupted. Indeed, a couple of chapters later Deuteronomy sharpens this point to include an explicit critique of the idea that כֹּחִי֙ וְעֹ֣צֶם יָדִ֔י עָ֥שָׂה לִ֖י אֶת־הַחַ֥יִל הַזֶּֽה׃,  “My power and the strength of my hand have made this glory for me” (Deut. 8:17, my translation). It would not, I think, be out of line to suggest that somewhere in the ancient tangle of texts and morals interacting with each other Isaiah’s admonishment of the wealthy who use housing and fields to squeeze out the vulnerable is explicitly directed at those who had, indeed, forgotten this exact point.  An ancient lesson, perhaps, but what is the Bible if not a timeless text? Neighborhoods: remember where they came from, always.

Illustration source: http://biblicalwatersystem.weebly.com/cisterns.html. Picked because it’s an example of a cistern in a famous Israelite site that, most likely, the Israelites did not build.