Outreach and Gatekeeping

(my first blog post in over a year! Amazing!)
 
Last night LivableStreets Alliance, one of the Boston area’s leading transportation advocacy groups, hosted one of their ongoing series of Virtual StreetTalk events. While I wasn’t able to make the event, I did follow it a little bit through Twitter. One of the resources they shared is a document on Principles for Equitable Public Outreach & Engagement During COVID-19 and Beyond compiled by Naomi Doerner and Yanisa Techagumthorn of Nelson/Nygaard. I think it’s a really excellent document and set of principles that I expect to engage deeply with in my professional life, and I urge everyone to check it out. It also made me think…a lot.
 
Despite my well-known, and I think healthy, skepticism toward endless consultative process, I really do care about deep, meaningful, and equitable engagement. It’s an incredibly important thing to get right, precisely because a commitment to deep outreach runs the risk of raising project costs and lengthening timelines (which also raises costs), which is bad for everyone, especially vulnerable populations. In theory investment in outreach and relationship building now yields faster process and fewer roadblocks down the road, but to my knowledge there isn’t much if any serious research showing that things actually work out that way–and there’s an emerging body suggesting that adding process can be a serious risk factor both to project speed and outcomes (please tell me in the comments if there’s literature that I should be aware of!). 
 
In the spirit of getting it right, my concerns about this set of principles as a whole center on the tension between the “During COVID-19” part and the “and Beyond” part. In the long run, these principles likely require much greater commitment of planning resources to outreach than currently exists, which in turn requires political support for investment in planning. And that’s in the long run–it seems extremely unlikely to me that the priorities laid out here can be implemented at all in the short term, given the time these measures take to implement and the general environment of austerity toward outreach and engagement. The transportation/mobility world has, as a whole, struggled to achieve the urgency needed to respond to the COVID crisis, and we need to take seriously that there may be an inherent tension between ideal outreach process and the moral imperative to make rapid changes to roadway allocation, transit priority, and the like. Too many cities are only starting to consider such changes now, weeks if not months after there was a need, when (we can hope) the crisis is slowly starting to ramp down in many places. These changes should, of course, prioritize the needs of the most vulnerable communities–but long-term engagement may delay meeting those needs at a time when rapid change is necessary and slow change is close to useless. All of this being said, that’s more of a concern than a feeling that these principles are bad in any way–but it’s a challenge that I’d like to see addressed.
 
 
In addition to those general concerns, one of the listed principles jumped out at me as being idealistic, but perhaps overly optimistic given historical experience with planning outreach. It reads as follows:
 
 
Pay representative organizations and community leaders to provide focused input on methods and tools as well as test methods and tools before deploying. Allocate budget for community groups, leaders, and organizations from and serving vulnerable populations for their time and input on the design of outreach and engagement as well as their assessment of the tools to ensure key equity criteria before deploying.
 
In general, I’m a strong believer that people should be paid for their time. Civic contributions are work, especially when they come from people who might struggle to make time for such involvement. The intention behind this goal is absolutely admirable. There is no doubt that getting the input of numerous stakeholders serving vulnerable populations is critically important. That being said, formalizing the role of any non-governmental group in the planning process makes me queasy, because it runs the risk of creating a class of gatekeepers who will in fact interpose themselves between planners and the people. That can produce interference in planners’ ability to hear needs directly from normally unengaged citizens, as well as waste everyone’s time as various groups jostle to become “the” approved gatekeeping entity for a particular community.
 
 
As usual, my thinking on this question is informed by historical experience. A couple of months ago I finished Lizabeth Cohen’s Saving America’s Citiesa thorough documentation of master urban renewer Ed Logue’s experiences in New Haven, Boston, and New York City. Logue (to his credit) took criticism of his autocratic approach in New Haven to heart and engaged in public outreach more, if not exactly sufficiently, during his time as head of the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA). Part of the BRA’s approach relied on precisely this type of formalized relationship with community groups as representatives of the broader neighborhood, an approach that went unevenly at best. A typical passage reads thus:
 
In the end there were three organizations vying to represent Charlestown in negotiations with the BRA. First to emerge was the Self-Help Organization of Charlestown (SHOC), a grassroots citizens’ group that initially expressed great enthusiasm for renewing the neighborhood*, spurred by what had happened across the river in the West End…But after some early success with the SHOC, the BRA’s staff became concerned that the group was too volatile and not attracting a wide-enough cross section of the community…In its place, the BRA encouraged the creation of a broader umbrella organization, the Federation of Charlestown Organizations (FOCO), in which SHOC would be only one of many voices…After having failed with two negotiating partners, the BRA now cast its fate with a third, the Moderate Middle (MM), headed by a former, more temperate member of SHOC who hoped to thread a reasonable path between an increasingly radicalized SHOC and a discredited, ineffective FOCO. (Cohen, pp. 227-229)
*note that, contrary to the narrative that has since emerged, urban renewal projects often enjoyed some significant level of (misguided) public support!
 
 
Not super surprisingly given the almost satirical level of fragmentation, ultimately  “BRA shifted strategy, seeking new ways of connecting directly to Charlestown residents and not relying on any one organization in this politically fragmented community.” And, in Cohen’s telling, that shift ultimately resulted in a better outcome for Charlestown residents–although it’s worth remembering that “better” in their minds largely equated to “keeping outsiders (read: black people) out.”
 
 
A similar process played out in the more diverse South End neighborhood. There, BRA was eventually convinced that the groups it initially worked with were not representative of the neighborhood, and froze out renters and poor people in favor of gentrifying homeowners–but then had to contend with tensions between tenant and resident activist groups of different stripes and varieties of radicalism. Cohen (p. 240) names no fewer than nine different groups contending in the field just within the South End. Certainly, the existence of all of these groups represents a motivated citizenry, but it also raises a fundamental question about about whether “representative organizations,” as this statement of principles lays out, can actually exist in any meaningful way.
 
 
We have recently seen a trend of some cities, perhaps most notably Seattle, dismantling the formal structures that have linked their outreach processes to neighborhood groups. While the primary motivation for these changes is to dismantle the hegemony of largely wealthy, white NIMBY homeowners–a goal that is certainly compatible with this statement of principles for equitable outreach–we should not buy into the illusion that just because some groups have admirable goals, they are incapable of breaking bad and beginning to play a stubbornly negative role in the planning process. Indeed, Cohen chronicles how some of the groups contending or working with the BRA in both Charlestown and the South End went through a series of remarkably rapid ideological and tactical transformations over a brief period of time. Finally, while it’s a touchy subject, it seems fairly clear that, then as now, the activist organizations that step forward to play a representative role are often significantly more radical than the populations of poor or vulnerable neighborhoods. That’s not necessarily a bad thing–lord knows we need radical change–but it still complicates the concept of representation.
 
 
For all of these reasons–and I’m not confident that I’m in the right on this, but I fear I may be–I’m skeptical about formalizing the roles of specific groups that could be or turn into counterproductive gatekeepers in the planning process. In the spirit of not offering critique without realistic alternatives, here are a couple of alternative structures that may get at some of the same values without taking the risk of formalizing gatekeeping:
  • Pay regular people, rather than group leaders and high-profile activists, for their involvement. People, especially in marginalized communities, should be paid for time they spend on project advisory committees, public meetings, etc. In the community spirit, this could take the form of handing out gift cards for local retail and grocery stores.
  • Create a Red Team for major projects, composed of a mix of professionals and thoughtful community members, and charged with challenging designs and concepts and providing realistic alternatives. Group leaders and activists could be part of this entity, since it’s a forum that would force them to grapple with tradeoffs and competing interests, rather than simply pushing their own vision. Even if staffing this group is expensive in the short term, in the long run this practice can save money by holding designers accountable for scope creep and giving technically minded activists (who should have a prominent role) an opportunity to point out waste.

Those are just the first couple of things that come to mind. I’m sure others can contribute other thoughtful concepts in the spirit of going directly to the people in an unmediated fashion.

Again, my intention here is not to indict the entire statement of principles; I think it’s a really strong document with significant promise as a framework. But it’s important for principles and frameworks to be informed by historical experience, and not to be overly optimistic about human or group intentions or tendencies. Maybe I’m just overly cynical, but I want to go directly to the people.

Featured Image: sign protesting urban renewal in the South End, via Boston City Archives on Flickr.
 
 
 

Transportation Ideas for a Green New Deal

The idea of a Green New Deal (GND) has been generating a lot of political excitement in progressive circles of late. It’s also generated a lot of capital-D Discourse online, with transportation and land use wonks (myself among them) noting that one of the draft GND documents floating around is notably weak on those issues, and that the movement in general has seemed reluctant to be bold on transportation and land use topics. Unsurprisingly, some more libertarian-leaning urbanists types are skeptical that transportation and land use are a good fit for a GND structure; while I think that position is worth some consideration, I am of the opinion that there is plenty enough work to do to spend multiple hundreds of billions of federal dollars on transportation and land use, should we have the desire to do so.

So what would an urbanist/transportation wonk’s GND look like? I start from the principle that a GND should in fact be all of the things it promises:

  1. Truly green
  2. New, changing systems and institutions to fit a new reality
  3. A deal in all senses of the word: a fair shake for the people; a set of compromises between potentially competing interests; and an efficient set of spending priorities that doesn’t waste money

One implication of 3)–and something that has been disputed in the online discourse as of late–is that everyone is going to have to give something up. We can’t produce a true GND simply by going after “corporations” or “the rich”–while higher levels of taxation and redistribution are almost certainly necessary, they are equally certainly insufficient to achieve an environmentally sustainable society all on their own. Specific problems require specific policy solutions, not just an overall progressive orientation that skips over the details. It’s not going to be green unless it reaches virtually every American.

That being said, I would imagine that to gain sufficient ground in its core political constituencies (and, you know, to do its job of righting historical wrongs), any GND will have to fulfill the core missions of redistribution and desegregation. Redistribution, because American society is highly unequal, and that was most of the point of the original New Deal; desegregation, because we need to correct the mistakes of the original New Deal in failing to see that ideal through, and because infrastructure and planning–the particular topics of this post–have traditionally in the US enshrined segregation rather than fighting it, and we need to do better now.

But enough with the serious aspects and amateur political analysis! The fun part of trying to influence a grand political idea that’s still in the early stages of formation is what transit geeks call crayoning: throwing creative and potentially infeasible, but often highly specific, ideas out there to see what sticks. So here are, in no particular order, a few ideas. Not all are mine, originally, and I try to give credit where due.

  1. Federal R&D investment into battery technology. Better batteries are clearly key to any lower-carbon future. They are essential to electric vehicles of any sort that use road infrastructure, and as much as us transit purists might object, we will need a ton of electric cars if we have any hope of fighting climate change in the coming decades. I’m not sure the battery technology is up to the challenge for larger vehicles, though; electric buses have an uneven track record in the US thus far, and while I’m fairly confident they’ll get where they need to be eventually, perhaps some targeted federal help can speed up the process. We also need to build out a network of charging stations for electric cars, scooters, and bikes, some of which will need to be quite high-capacity. On the rails, batteries offer a potential partial replacement for expensive traditional electrification, but are highly unproven. Matt Rose of BNSF, the best-run of the Class I freight railroads (especially as regards infrastructure investment), brought up the idea of battery locomotives in a recent interview, so the industry–traditionally a conservative one–is at least thinking about it. Perhaps there’s an opportunity for public-private cooperation on a grand scale. Finally, batteries are often constructed from quite dirty materials obtained under ethically questionable (at best) circumstances, meaning that a progressive vision of how to obtain the materials under a progressive foreign policy is incredibly important.
  2. Ban (or enforce the ban on) requirements that applicants for jobs have a vehicle, except where having a vehicle is actually necessary for the job (and in that circumstance employers should help or entirely pay for the vehicle). This question is probably already illegal but I just heard someone mention it at a party and it comes up not infrequently on Ask A Manager (where the comments are sometimes respectful, sometimes vile). Making a big deal out of banning this question won’t make everything better or, probably, make a huge impact on carbon, but perhaps it can kickstart a sympathetic PR campaign.
  3. A national high speed rail network. This is, obviously, the biggest of all the bigs in terms of actual infrastructure, but it’s absolutely a federal priority, and should be; it could be the green equivalent of the Interstate Highway System. Shifting a ton of trips to HSR would also reduce flying, lowering carbon emissions immediately while also decongesting a whole bunch of airports. An HSR network isn’t going to touch all corners of the country but has the potential to spread wealth and economic activity away from major coastal centers; the classic example I like to give on this is the potential for an Empire HSR system linking New York City with cities like Albany, Utica, Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo, not to mention Toronto on the other end. Workers and companies would have the choice of being able to relocate to cheaper, but still urban and potentially very pleasant, areas while retaining easy access to major centers.
  4. Make the entire US transit system accessible to wheelchair and other mobility devices.  H/t on this to Ellen. Yes, this is something have been taken care of by local authorities years ago, and the failure of systems like New York to provide basic accessibility is nothing short of shameful, but if we’re going to be spending tons of money on infrastructure, with an equity lens, let’s just get it done while we’ve got the chance. I think it’s the perfect chance for technical transit activists and disability activists to unite on influencing a GND:  it involves manufacturing and skilled labor (both for platforms+track work that would be needed in some places); it solves a technical problem; it uplifts a highly marginalized population (disabled people) AND makes transit more efficient; and it has little existing constituency.
  5. Process and planning reform. I can’t touch on this in a ton of detail given my day job as a cog in the federal transportation planning machine, but let’s just say there’s a lot of room to improve the process by effectively regionalizing planning; coordinating transportation and land use planning; and emphasizing equitable representation and outcomes. These two threads from Will Stancil and his respondents are worth your time:
  6. Subsidize transit fares and passes for the lowest-income individuals. Much attention is being given right now to New York City’s messy attempt to roll out lowered fares for low-income folks (the program was supposed to roll out today and…didn’t), but there’s a lot of room to use federal money to help out here. Systems across the country are hiking fares to patch financial holes, which lowers ridership from price-sensitive riders; one way to fix that is to use the federal government’s financial muscle creatively. 
  7. Transform commuter rail into regional rail. This is, obviously, my hobby horse, and I’ve written about it more than perhaps anything else; but suffice it to say that in the US we spend a ton of money operating trains on a paradigm of highly niche peak service for white-collar commuters that exists basically nowhere else in the world. Federal leadership–perhaps making it clear that running trains that way is not acceptable as suburban demographic change accelerates–is sorely needed. 
  8. Expanded federal operating support in smaller metros. As I understand it, the federal government once provided more operating funding to transit agencies in smaller metro areas, but it was cut under Reagan, with the excuse that locals were using it to substitute for providing their own funds. Which may have been true, but it’s not an excuse for the poor service that current funding levels allow in many American cities. This could take any number of potential paths, but as part of a GND the federal government should provide massively expanded operating grants to many transit agencies, in return for: no reduction, or even an increase in, state and local commitment; zoning laws, parking regulations, and other policies, changing to support transit; and a commitment to maintaining minimum levels of service much higher than they are today. 
  9. Figure out the future of driving pricing. This one has easily been the most controversial online; a lot of left-leaning people are quite resistant to the idea that driving should cost more. And indeed, a progressive GND should rebate the proceeds of any road/driving pricing scheme in a redistributive way (perhaps indirectly, through massively better transit, land use, and affordable housing). But a GND just isn’t green without taking on driving directly–even electric vehicles generate considerable pollution from the tire-roadway interface, not to mention the danger they pose to pedestrians, cyclists, etc. We can’t escape that. And there’s a lot to figure out, what with EVs, AVs, TNCs, and all the other acronyms.

That’s far from an exhaustive list of my GND ideas, but I’ve written plenty, and the road pricing question leads into perhaps the most important discussion at the moment: why bother with the discussion. Isn’t any GND a good GND? My thoughts on this are derived from part of my very long thread on this topic from a few days ago.

Like, I suspect, most of the people I talk to online, I think the GND is a very exciting concept. But it could go screwy in a number of ways, one of which is not listening to the right people about the scope and/or the details. Generalist activist/wonk types, much less “normal people,” often don’t realize, or like to confront, the tradeoffs inherent in very technical topics.

There’s a strong element of the American left (at least online, and probably not a majority, but they’re certainly loud) that likes to project the idea that we can make progress on climate and sustainability while only impacting villains–corporations, richy-rich people, industrial farmers, etc. This is not true! Projecting that image certainly makes the GND an easier sell. But talking about a cleaner future in which a strong majority of *all* Americans have not had to radically revise some aspects of their daily lives is a lie. I would also argue that it’s bad Left politics, because we *should* be organizing around the concept and action of solidarity. But that’s something of an aside. 

Data for Progress‘s version of the GND is only one vision; much remains to be fleshed out; and they have a good track record of listening. But I already see in the document and the surrounding discourse tendencies toward the idea that the GND can be executed solely on the backs of convenient villains. And it’s from us, from the technocrats and the policy specialists and the geeks, that those shaping the GND are going to have to realize that that cannot be the case, and develop alternatives. It would be easy to fall into the trap of ideological purity and not listen.

And to those activists and politicos and elected officials running the show I say: please don’t go down that path. Instead: illuminate tradeoffs. Work on solidarity. Don’t BS your way through a difficult, wrenching process. Remember you need specialists to help frame that process, in the same way we need activists to help reach the public. Only working together can we make this happen in a productive way.

 

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.

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.