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.


Reclaiming Sewer Reformism

Anyone who reads this blog knows I think that the approach many American leftists take toward urban policy is fundamentally broken.  It’s easier to come up with a critique than to propose a positive agenda, though, and it’s taken me a while to come up with the beginnings of one. Things started to crystallize a bit after the kind of remarkably random interaction that really only Twitter can enable:

I’m sure y’all can look it up yourselves, but for the record Emil Seidel was one of several Socialist mayors of Milwaukee between 1900 and 1960, serving from 1910-1912–indeed, the first elected Socialist mayor of a major city in the US (and no, I don’t know who runs the account, but they’re very thoughtful!).

As I mentioned on Twitter, Milwaukee’s Socialist tradition is indeed extraordinary, in part because the concerns of the city’s Socialist mayors seemed excessively mundane to many more ideologically inclined leftists. Indeed, ideologues gave the Milwaukee tradition the sobriquet “Sewer Socialism,” an intended insult that the Milwaukee crew adopted as a compliment.

Let’s take a look at some of the tenets of Sewer Socialism. The Wikipedia article linked above is pretty good, but I found this 2009 Journal-Sentinel article by John Gurda particularly accessible and informative; not by accident given what I will argue, the title is “Here, Socialism meant honest, frugal government.” Here’s what Gurda has to say:

The key to understanding Milwaukee’s Socialists is the idea of public enterprise. They didn’t just manage, and they didn’t just enforce laws and regulations. They pushed a program of public necessities that had a tangible impact on the average citizen’s quality of life: public parks, public libraries, public schools, public health, public works (including sewers), public port facilities, public housing, public vocational education and even public natatoria.

Underlying their notion of public enterprise was an abiding faith – curiously antique by today’s standards – in the goodness of government, especially local government. The Socialists believed that government was the locus of our common wealth – the resources that belong to all of us and each of us – and they worked to build a community of interest around a deeply shared belief in the common good…

The Socialists governed well, and they did so without breaking the bank. Contrary to another popular myth, these were not tax-and-spend radicals intent on emptying the public coffers. They were, in fact, every bit as frugal as the most penny-pinching German hausfrau. The Socialists managed civic affairs on a pay-as-you-go basis, and in 1943, Milwaukee became the only big city in America whose amortization fund exceeded its outstanding bond obligations. It was, in other words, debt-free.

Milwaukee’s Sewer Socialism placed good government–including good fiscal management–at the forefront of its public-facing persona. Not just something you had to pay homage to on the campaign trail, this ideology recognized that for government to win the confidence of the people and further an agenda of the common good, it had to prove its competence and earn that confidence. Placing something as “boring” as goo-gooism at the center of a political and governing ideology may indeed be “curiously antique by today’s standards,” as Gurda says–but perhaps it is a heritage that we should pay attention to.

Though socialist governance of any kind was rare in American cities, it was not limited to Milwaukee alone. Barre, Vermont also elected a pair of Socialist mayors in the early 20th century, as Robert Weir details for the Vermont Historical Society. As Weir argued, “municipal socialism” in Barre took on a very similar tinge to Milwaukee’s Sewer Socialism.

both Gordon and Suitor brought Barre into the modern age with relative efficiency. In the decades following the Civil War, American cities faced the challenge of transforming themselves from merchant hubs into industrial, commercial, and retail centers. Rapid urban growth quickly revealed the utter inadequacy of antiquated city infrastructure, often with disastrous results (epidemics, floods, poverty, class conflict). Every upgrade that cities needed—from tenements and streetcars to sewers and sidewalks—entailed enormous expense, hence opportunities for graft. The same was true of the incidentals associated with technological change, including the paving of roads to accommodate automobiles, the building of airports, the issuance of radio licenses, and the location of electrical and telephone poles. That Gordon and his protégé Fred Suitor helped Barre make these transitions without a whiff of scandal and with the interests of the citizenry in mind should not be remarkable, but it was.

As in Milwaukee, Barre’s leftists recognized that competence, honesty, and good government were essential to place at the center of any viable agenda.

Nor would I want to leave the impression that this emphasis on good, competent government was limited to the socialist or radical fringe. Not to keep it in the family too much, but I’ll refer to my dad’s book about Portland, OR, and specifically to the chapter about Harry Lane, mayor of Portland from 1905 through 1909 and later a Senator. A doctor by training, Lane was generally identified with the capital-P Progressive wing of the Democratic Party.

An interviewer asked Lane in 1914 to name the major problem with American municipal government. “Decentralized power,” Lane replied without hesitation. Lane went on to state, “A benevolent despot, if he is honest and capable, can manage a city better than can 50 men filling a dozen different offices…I would run a big city or a little city with one, two, or three men at the most.”

Unsurprisingly, Lane’s critics accused him–and other Progressives–of being technocratic elitists, but we can see the commonality with Sewer Socialism in the emphasis on efficiency and honesty. And indeed, my father–inclined as he is to be sympathetic to the petite bourgeoisie–defends Lane as a champion of the principles of small business rather than organized capitalism, and as a trenchant critic of technocracy who championed centralization because he thought it would be easier to hold a centralized government accountable.

To be sure, there were then and are now a wide variety of ideological differences among urban leftists. Weir analyzes some of the differences in the first few decades of the 20th century:

Gordon and Suitor, like most goo-goos and Progressives, believed in efficiency, industrial progress, and the material improvement of society, but they sought to expand democracy, not contract it. Barre’s socialist mayors were not revolutionaries, but neither were they seduced by the blind belief in experts, a hallmark of Progressive thinking. As Bruce Stave observed, “socialists generally opposed . . . attempts to institute city manager or commission forms of government,” staples of top-down Progressive urban reform. Gordon and Suitor encountered and resisted calls for commission-style government. As their battles with public service boards, power authorities, banks, and traction companies reveal, Barre’s socialist mayors were suspicious of the “experts” that Progressives thought should manage cities. The socialist perspective was the difference between trusting the masses to make bottom-up changes, and the Progressives’ paternalistic belief that meaningful reform should be imposed from the top, often by unelected policymakers….

There were other stylistic differences between Progressives and municipal socialists. The first group longed for consensus politics and sought order; the latter averred that political change was inherently chaotic. Progressive reformers sought centralized programs; socialists demanded grassroots local control. Socialists favored public enterprises often deemed unrealistic by Progressive reformers who believed (romantically) in the benevolence, efficiency, and civic pride of the private sector.

Emphasis mine. (Note: I’m sure my dad is going to comment here and say Weir’s view of Progressivism lacks nuance)

But I’m interested in looking at the emergent commonalities, not the differences. Whether against capitalism or for regulating it, what can the Left of the early 20th century share with the new urban age?

  • Milwaukee, Barre, and Portland all adopted competence-based leftist governance at a time of rapid growth. It’s hard to imagine today given the prevalence of NIMBYism from both limousine liberals and concerned poor communities, but there was a time when dealing positively with growth was recognized–properly, in my mind–as a Left issue, precisely because the newcomers were often vulnerable. Perhaps there is, after all, a Left ideology that can be recovered to help guide growth instead of resisting it.
  • Both Sewer Socialists and Progressives placed “taking on entrenched interests” (primarily, of course, corporate interests) at the center of their agenda. One challenge the Left has been slow to adapt to in contemporary high-demand American cities is the need to recognize that “entrenched interests” are not solely corporate, but sometimes come in the form of “the people”–and most specifically, homeowners who follow perceived self-interest at the expense of others.
  • Though some Progressive reformers sought an elegant urban model, most urban leftists seem to have understood–as in the bolded passage from Weir above–that change is both necessary and chaotic. In a sense, this understanding is a key counterpoint to the Modernist planning ideology that has captivated the US public mind–the idea that “order” is important and there’s a right amount of tinkering that can be done to produce an optimal city. (in an earlier post, I called the dissemination of this idea in homeowner circles the Bootstrap Theory of Urban Development) Rather, the Sewer Socialist/Progressive idea stresses getting the fundamentals right, probably but not necessarily under public ownership, and allowing democratic society to flourish and provide the rest. In that sense, it seems to share a lot with Jane Jacobs’ fear of too much government involvement and quasi-libertarian ideas about urban business; but that’s a much longer paper.
  • This really shouldn’t need saying, but reform is not neoliberal. There’s been a tendency on the Left of late, I think, to present all attempts at reform or making government more efficient as corporate raids intended to weaken government and privatize services. Some certainly are–cough, “education reform,” cough–but we should remember that there’s a proud, though perhaps neglected, Left tradition of prizing competence and efficiency precisely as a Left value . One wonders what impact such an agenda might have on relations with some civil service unions…

I’ll end this here, because it’s already been a very long post. Still kind of short on details, I think, but perhaps I have made some progress in recovering an intellectual tradition that can, with modifications, be of use in 2016 and beyond. I certainly think we could do a lot worse.