Streetcars are built for development, not transportation

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In recent weeks, the proposed Downtown L.A. Streetcar has been in the news, owing to reports that the project’s backers would seek to fast-track funding. For those who aren’t aware of the project, the idea is to build a streetcar (of the “modern” variety) loop through Downtown Los Angeles’ historic core, between the civic center and the convention center area. A good run-down of the project, and its merits as a transit endeavor, can be read here.

It doesn’t take a lengthy analysis to see that the transportation value of this project (which is projected to cost nearly $200 million) is pretty questionable for the amount of money that will have to be spent. Downtown L.A. is already heavily served by transit service, with the Red/Purple subway lines passing literally under some of the very streets the streetcar would run along, and a second subway through the area currently under construction. Bus service is abundant, with a system of circulator shuttles already carrying people around Downtown for only 50¢ a ride. The streetcar’s route is a one-way loop, which has limited transportation utility, and would run in mixed traffic with cars, meaning it would be no faster—and likely even slower—than existing bus service.

But it would be a mistake to look at this—or any “modern streetcar” project for that matter—as a transportation endeavor. Moving people is a secondary objective to the actual goal of these projects, which is stimulating gentrification.

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Pearl District, Portland, Oregon — Source

Ever since Portland, Oregon built a modern streetcar line between its downtown and the Pearl Districttransforming it into a suddenly trendy neighborhood of pricey real estateurbanists, civic boosters, and developers have been trying to replicate this example in cities across the country. Since the Portland Streetcar began running, similar systems have opened in Tacoma, Seattle, Salt Lake City, Tucson, Atlanta, Dallas, Washington, D.C., Kansas City, Cincinnati, and Detroit. The results have been… mixed, to say the least. New lines in Detroit, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. experienced extended delays prior to opening, while the streetcars in Atlanta, Cincinnati, and Salt Lake City have seen very underwhelming ridership.

But those are just the cities that actually built new streetcar lines. I got to see a pitch for a Portland-style streetcar first-hand when I was living in Albuquerque, where the city leadership proposed a streetcar of their own in 2006. The system would have had two lines: one along Central Avenue, where it would have merely replaced existing local bus service, and one to the airport, where it may have presented some improvement over existing transit service, but not a lot. But it wasn’t sold on those terms, it was pitched on the basis of spurring development. And looking back on it, what strikes me is how bald-faced they were about that. I vividly recall a public meeting where the transit director excitedly talked about visiting Portland and showed off pictures of development in the Pearl District, only for the crowd to remain totally unmoved. They were quickly beginning to see that there was nothing here for them.

The Albuquerque streetcar proposal triggered a quick and heavy backlash. Supporters of the streetcar project kept trying to come up with reasons for people to back it, only to keep coming back to some variant of “it’ll help development,” probably because there were no other legitimate reasons to support it. At first, I was excited about it because I was a transit supporter and it was a lot of money going towards transit, so that’s good, right? (In my defense, I was a teenager at the time.) But no popular support for the streetcar proposal emerged and the opponents were successful in pushing it back for “more study”, where it died a quiet death. This has turned out for the best; now Albuquerque is constructing a bus rapid transit line along the same corridor, which, while controversial with locals in its own right, does present actual solid transit benefits over existing service.

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Real estate development has always been the raison d’être for most streetcar lines, and Los Angeles is a vivid example of this. Around the turn of the 20th century, streetcars were built by private developers as a way of connecting the city to their new development. All of the neighborhoods immediately surrounding Downtown Los Angeles were originally built as streetcar suburbs, as well as quite a few neighborhoods further beyond. Over time, operation of these disparate lines were consolidated into private monopolies, which is how in the 1900s all of the various streetcar enterprises in L.A. wound up being merged into just two companies, the Los Angeles Railway and the Pacific Electric, both of which were conceived by two men: Henry Huntington and Isaias Hellman.

Huntington’s name is well-known to Angelenos today, but Hellman has become fairly obscure. However, he was a significant figure in the development of Los Angeles as an American city following the Mexican-American War. Hellman was one of L.A.’s first bankers and became a major investor in the city’s utility and streetcar companies, as well as an advocate for bringing the Southern Pacific railroad to Los Angeles. He did business with much of the early city’s elite, including Harrison Gray Otis, the notoriously anti-union founder of the Los Angeles Times, and Edward Doheny, the first oilman to successfully drill for oil in Los Angeles (later he would become the inspiration for the oilman character in Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!, later adapted into the film There Will Be Blood).

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Isaias Hellman

In 1890, Hellman moved to San Francisco—then the financial center of the West Coast—and became one of that city’s most powerful bankers. But over the years he had amassed vast land holdings in the Los Angeles area, and he was looking for a way to develop them. In the 1890s, the easiest way to develop land was to build a railroad through it. In San Francisco, he met Henry Huntington, then a Vice President of the Southern Pacific railroad, and introduced him to Los Angeles. Together, the pair pooled their resources together to engineer a takeover of the city’s various streetcar enterprises, and then began building the Pacific Electric as a means to develop the land surrounding the city. Henry Huntington became extraordinarily wealthy for it.

Once in a while, you’ll hear someone remark that Los Angeles used to have “the greatest transit system in the world.” Usually this is stated by an environmentalist or a transit advocate (or Eddie Valiant in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) to suggest a city that lost its way in a frenzy of automania and freeway building. “Greatest” is an awfully questionable claim, but it is true that the Pacific Electric was once the world’s largest streetcar network, stretching all the way out to Riverside, San Bernardino, Santa Ana, and Newport Beach. However, Los Angeles didn’t have the world’s largest streetcar network because it was a super progressive city that loved public transit. It had the world’s largest streetcar network because it was a vast, sprawling area with a lot of land to develop, and some shrewd businessmen eager to make that happen.

City Councilman José Huizar, a supporter of the proposed Downtown L.A. streetcar, said the following in a written statement:

Streetcars were once the pillar of Los Angeles’ transportation system. I talk to Angelenos all the time who are really excited to see a piece of our history and culture resurrected through our L.A. Streetcar project. Beyond the nostalgia factor, the L.A. Streetcar will be a boost to tourism and a major economic driver for businesses along the route, as well as a critical first-last mile transportation connector for multiple rail and bus lines in downtown.

He’s not entirely wrong on that first point: there is a historic precedent here, although it’s not quite as rosy as he makes it sound. (Also, freeways have also been the pillar of Los Angeles’ transportation system, but I don’t think that’s a good argument for building more of them.)

But there is a crucial difference between this project and the streetcars of old: civic leaders like Huizar are demanding that public money be devoted to what will ultimately only be private good. And that public money will come in the form of transportation dollars, at the expense of real transportation improvements.

If developers want to build a streetcar in Downtown Los Angeles, that’s fine. But let them pay for it.

Marketing the Freedom of Transit

In my last blog post, I wrote about how a well-functioning transit system can be liberating to its users and offer freedom in a way that owning a car doesn’t. Today, I came across an article which offers me the perfect opportunity to build off that point, namely in how to convey the freedom offered by transit to a mass audience. Let’s talk marketing.

The article in question is National advertising effort needed by local transit agencies, a piece published this week by Ethan Goffman in Mobility Lab. The argument put forth by Goffman is that transit could use a marketing push to convey the benefits of transit, and given the limited budgets of local transit agencies, what is needed is some way for transit agencies nationwide to pool their resources to do an advertising campaign they can all use. Goffman also compares some transit advertisements and points out what he likes and dislikes about each one.

Now, I think marketing is overrated just in general in today’s society. But it has its purpose, and I think transit could use any boost it can get. That being said, I disagree with Goffman on a few major points in the Mobility Lab piece, and I have my own examples of good transit advertising to point to.

Firstly, let’s start with what we can all agree on: most contemporary transit advertising in the U.S. sucks. A lot of it is very flat and bureaucratic, unimaginative, and oftentimes with a hokey gimmick. A lot of transit advertising is, well, like this:

Boy, now I’m really excited to take the bus.

Most contemporary transit promotion that I’ve seen falls into three general categories: 1) instructional videos like the one above, 2) ads that emphasize the benefits over driving, which often incorporate imagery of stressed drivers and high gas prices, or 3) ads that emphasize the societal benefits, such as environmental. Because it’s usually the transit agency itself that puts together the ad, the production values are usually very low.

But it didn’t always used to be this way. A long time ago, advertising for transit tended to emphasize the destinations you could reach by transit, or the nature of the service itself. A particularly notable example of this was Samuel Insull’s series of posters for Chicago’s rail system in the 1920s, but there are plenty of other examples. When transit companies advertised, they often did so much like the railroad companies of the time did, with artful representations of the wonderful places you could visit and the exciting things you could do.

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When automobiles became the dominant mode of transport for Americans, advertising for transit shifted its focus to emphasizing transit’s role as a potential alternative to driving. This is where we begin to see the selling points for transit familiar to us today: you avoid the stress of driving, you save money, you avoid wear and tear on your car, etc. A good (and artful) early example of this is a pair of animated commercials run by Metropolitan Coach Lines in Los Angeles in the 1950s:

With mass transit becoming an increasingly public endeavor, subject to limited budgets and operating under an intensely bureaucratic framework, advertising for transit took on a defensive posture, often taking to justifying its existence or framing itself only in terms as an alternative to driving. Needless to say, this doesn’t tend to inspire very exciting marketing. Transit advertising has been in quite a rut for a while.

Which is why I was so excited the first time I watched this video:

If any transit agency in America is nailing its marketing, it’s Metro in Los Angeles. Besides having a very savvy social media presence (their blog, The Source, is probably the snazziest agency-run transit blog out there right now), Metro produces videos that are splendidly made. The videos they put out to promote the opening of the Expo Line extension to Santa Monica are particularly superb, not just for their catchy music and snappy editing, but also because they accomplish something that American transit agencies have been failing to do for quite some time: they make transit look glamorous. They make it look exciting. They emphasize where you can go—in short, they illustrate an opportunity now afforded to you. There’s a sense of possibility evoked by these videos.

The previous video focuses on the route and the trains themselves, highlighting the Expo Line itself. This one (which uses a lot of the same imagery) emphasizes the things you can do along the route, highlighting the personal experiences you can have:

Something I want to highlight with these ads is how straightforward the message is. Besides the “More to Explore” brand, there’s very little of the gimmicks we’re accustomed to seeing from transit advertising. There’s no flat narration (in fact, there’s no narration at all), there’s no “punny” slogan that makes you groan, no terrible video toaster transition effects, none of that. Simple, straightforward, focused.

There’s also a powerful subconscious effect to these videos. The aesthetic of these ads is very clean, efficient and fast—three things that every transit agency should want to be associated with.

And hey, it’s not just rail lines that get the snazzy Metro treatment. How about this one, promoting enhanced bus service to Griffith Observatory? Take note of how much information is conveyed (hours, frequency, and locations) without relying on narration while keeping everything focused and engaging (and in under a minute, no less).

Even when Metro makes videos with narration, they know how to keep them focused and engaging. Take this one, which serves as a brief overview of the state of the agency and the projects that will be funded by the recently passed Measure M:

Now, I will acknowledge that Metro has some advantages that most American transit agencies don’t enjoy. For one, Metro obviously puts a lot of money into its marketing department, such that they can apparently afford to get the rights to cool songs, rent drones that take excellent footage of passing trains, and hire editors who know how to do cool slow-motion effects. Metro also enjoys the geographic oddity of having an exceptionally large pool of entertainment and marketing talent right in their own city, and thus a lot of very experienced and talented people eager to take on exactly this kind of work. It’s unrealistic to expect every transit agency to be able to produce marketing of this high quality.

But when it comes to something like this, money is overrated. What transit advertising needs is vision. It requires focus. It should convey the possibilities afforded by your transit system. And all of this can be done without lots of money, so long as a clear vision is adhered to. Take the Griffith Observatory bus video; nothing very fancy there, just some nice shots of a roadway and people enjoying the observatory, with some text added later. But it’s still effective.

To bring this back to Goffman’s article, I think the examples of transit advertising that he points to as “good” are still quite awful. They’re lengthy and resort to lame gimmicks like covering a popular song (but with lyrics praising transit) or list “5 Fabulous Ways to Take Charge of Your Transportation”. It’s tacky and feels too-clever by half. And in this media-saturated day and age, people are very good at smelling a marketing gimmick. At one point, Goffman argues:

I would have liked to see a more complete message of the benefits of transit snuck into this video. It does go beyond the basic “nobody moves like transit” by stressing the difficulties of driving, being “caught in traffic, stuck in a car.” However, numerous other transit benefits could be touted: not having to pay for gas and repairs, not needing one car per family member, and being able to read or play games on your commute. It may be unrealistic to ask for a short ad to also tout the environmental benefits of transit, but other videos stressing this could be part of a series.

On the contrary, I believe transit advertising should adopt a “less is more” approach. The benefits of transit versus driving are something that transit advertising has already been focused on for decades. It’s not just unrealistic to ask for a short ad to tout all these benefits, it’s counterproductive. Try to tout everything and you’re inevitably going to wind up with something cluttered, which is something you don’t want associated with your transit system.

To this end, I actually don’t think a national advertising campaign for transit would be very beneficial. Besides the basic question of who on the federal level would even fund such a campaign in this day and age (and who exactly would be making the money from this campaign? Will the ads even be good?), the kind of advertising I want to see transit adopt only works if it comes from the local level. Emphasizing the possibilities of your city’s transit agency isn’t something you can contract out to someone outside your city, it’s something that requires local knowledge.

Transit has been defending itself on someone else’s terms for long enough. It’s about time it learned how to sell itself.

The Freedom of Transit

This week’s episode of the Chapo Trap House podcast had a reading of an article by Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby, in which Jacoby makes the tired argument that driving is better than taking transit because having a car is more liberating/offers more freedom. You can listen to the Chapo guys discuss Jacoby’s piece here (starting at the 54:26 mark), which I recommend.

The basic thrust behind the column seems to be that Jacoby is furious that the Boston Globe moved their offices to a downtown location, which has made his commute by car too expensive to feasibly continue. Even though he has perhaps the easiest transit commute you could possibly hope for under the circumstances (a twenty-minute train ride in which home and work are only a five-minute walk from a subway station, without even the need to transfer to another transit line), Jacoby is so upset by the prospect of taking transit that it has led him to ruminate on the implications of the loss of his autonomy (read: his absolute fury that he has to share space with fellow human beings that he holds nothing but contempt towards and superiority over).

Over the course of his article, Jacoby makes a series of downright false assertions about the benefits of driving that the Chapo fellows tear into with relish. Early on, he claims that when you drive, “you travel where you choose and by the route you choose” and that “you can take your time and meander or put pedal to the metal.” Bear in mind, he’s talking about his commute to work, and in Boston no less, where traffic congestion is abysmal and you have about as much choice in your route as a lab rat does in a maze. At another point, he points to being able to listen to the radio or music in your car as a benefit of driving, as if no one has ever thought of bringing their headphones onto a train. He suggests that in our car-loving culture, no popular songs have ever been written about transit (apparently no one has ever told him where his own city’s transit pass got its name from). Jacoby also makes some classic conservative claims that every transportation guru is familiar with and tired of, like that users cover the cost of our roads (they don’t and never have, as every transportation professional will attest). He also mistakes the preponderance of drivers in America with a love for driving rather than the natural result of a built environment that practically forces everyone to drive.

But these are all fairly straightforward, silly points that can be easily refuted. The basic premise behind Jacoby’s piece, that owning a car denotes freedom and that the very act of driving is one of liberation, is something that demands a little more scrutiny. The Chapo hosts do a good job of breaking down this notion and tying it into a larger discussion about what passes for “freedom” in our society. But as someone deeply invested in the transportation field, I have a very specific interest in fighting against this idea that transit users are captive riders, while drivers are free.

In fact, the exact opposite is true.

Transit professionals, advocates, and marketers have been fighting this idea for ages, but they’ve tended to do so on car advocates’ terms. Their arguments for transit focus on the practical: you can leave the driving to someone else; you don’t have to pay so much on gas and parking; you avoid wear and tear on your car; etc. All of these are perfectly true and important, but by focusing on these they have conceded the larger question of freedom. Bicycle advocates have sometimes taken on this point more directly, but their arguments have tended towards the smug and self-serving; referring to drivers as “cagers”, for instance. But the question of freedom is still a matter that should be taken head-on.

A robust, well-functioning transit system is far more liberating than driving not just because of the cost to the individual (although that is a crucial point) but also because of who and what you are beholden to. When you buy a car, you have to make payments to the dealer. You have to purchase insurance, which brings in a whole other set of people you have to regularly send money to. You have to routinely buy gas, putting you at the mercy of an abstract market that fluctuates constantly. Sometimes you have to pay for parking. You have to obey the rules of the road and constantly be alert every time you drive, lest you draw the eye of a cop. Not only that, but you become beholden to the object itself; you have to keep it in good working condition, you have to find a place to store it wherever you travel, and when it breaks down (which it inevitably will) you have to take it to a specialist to fix it for a boatload of money. Not only is all of this a drain on your wallet, it exerts tremendous stress and is a huge set of responsibilities that you’ve taken on. You become beholden to a wide set of people, corporations, and institutions who are each taking a cut, all for an object you probably never even get to have any fun with.

Transit, by comparison, demands very little of you. All it asks is that you show up at a certain time (and the more frequent the transit service, the more freedom you have on this point, as Jarrett Walker of Human Transit has noted), you pay a small fare, and you behave yourself while on board. You don’t need special training to ride transit. You don’t have to take out an insurance policy to get on a bus. But not only is the barrier to entry very low, the barrier to exit is almost non-existent. Once you get off the vehicle, you are not beholden in any way to the transit agency or your fellow riders. Your responsibility to the transit system begins and ends with the trip you take.

Disentangling yourself from car ownership is a time-consuming and laborious process, given how many lines of responsibility you have to sever (completing payments to the dealership, cutting off ties to your insurance company, selling your car/paying someone to tow it away/letting it rot in the front yard, changing your commute patterns, etc). But transit doesn’t demand anything of you once you get off. You’re not obliged to get back on tomorrow. Personal circumstances vary, but if you want to try a different mode—walking, bicycling, carpooling, driving—your local transit agency isn’t going to be the one holding you back.

Transit doesn’t demand your loyalty, but if it’s working properly, it will be there when you need it. And that’s much closer to true freedom.

History Written in Flame

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On the sidewalk lay heaps of broken bodies. A policeman later went about with tags, which he fastened with wires to the wrists of the dead girls, numbering each with a lead pencil, and I saw him fasten tag no. 54 to the wrist of a girl who wore an engagement ring. A fireman who came downstairs from the building told me that there were at least fifty bodies in the big room on the seventh floor. Another fireman told me that more girls had jumped down an air shaft in the rear of the building. I went back there, into the narrow court, and saw a heap of dead girls. . . .

This quote is from an eyewitness to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of March 25, 1911, in which a Manhattan garment factory went up in flames. The vivid accounts from that day tell of desperate young women leaning out of windows and crying for help; of people hurling themselves out of the building; of victim’s families studying bodies charred beyond recognition. In all, 146 people met their deaths from the fire.

But as grisly and tragic as the fire itself was, it was the political impact of the Triangle fire that would sear its place in our history. The negligence of the factory owners who allowed (and even encouraged) the unsafe conditions that resulted in so much loss of life were suddenly subject to widespread attention. There had been other industrial disasters in the United States, some with death tolls nearly as high as the Triangle fire. But what made this one unique was both its visibility—the sight of dead bodies littering a Manhattan sidewalk shocked New York society—and its timing, occurring at a moment when an ascendant labor movement had already been doing battle against capitalists, police, and Pinkertons on the streets of New York. In the ensuing grief and outrage, the Triangle fire would prove to be a defining event for the left and labor in America.

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Bodies of workers who jumped from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on March 25, 1911

Something very similar appears to be developing in London, as the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire unfolds. It’s not just that a massive and completely unnecessary loss of life—79 lives at last count—has occurred. Nor is it simply that the fault lies with negligent officials and decades of bad government policy. It’s that this fire has forced a city accustomed to stark inequality to seriously consider the implications of that societal divide. And it’s the timing of this disaster, coming at a moment when leftist politics are on the rise in Britain for the first time in decades.

High-rise public housing—both in the U.K. and the U.S.—has a troubled history, with many notorious examples of Le Corbusier-inspired projects with shoddy construction and even worse upkeep. Far from lifting the masses, as had been the hope of their designers, these projects tended to segment and isolate the poor, marking their residents as targets of contempt. Rather than promoting a more integrated society, their clean lines and simple forms only seemed to throw our divisions into starker relief.

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But while previous failures of public housing led people to write off their worthiness, something very different is materializing in the wake of Grenfell. Where projects like Pruitt–Igoe and Cabrini–Green were held up by the political right as examples of failed left policy and government waste, Grenfell is becoming a case study in the neglect of the right. Instead of calls to get rid of public housing, we’re seeing public outcry for better public housing, more public housing, and for the British government to go much further to provide for its citizens. When Jeremy Corbyn suggested requisitioning empty luxury homes to house Grenfell Tower victims—a practice that has precedence in British history—the proposal was mocked by Tories and the mainstream media. But then a poll found that a majority of Brits surveyed responded favorably to the idea. Something has shifted, and it is a hopeful sign.

High-rise public housing hasn’t been in vogue for a long time; the failures of so many mid-century designs led public housing advocates to adopt different strategies that avoided the concentrated poverty that marked high-rise projects. Projects nowadays tend to be smaller and mixed-income, and housing developers are often required to set aside a certain percentage of units as affordable. Today it was announced that an example of the latter is going to be used to house Grenfell survivors. But there’s widespread recognition that it’s not enough to incentivize developers to set aside a handful of apartments; a whole lot more needs to be done.

The Grenfell Tower fire could prove to have a huge impact on British society, beyond just the matter of public housing. Coming at the moment that it has, with an ascendant left led by Corbyn that seems to be on the verge of taking power, the reverberations of this event may be felt for a long time. The smoldering ruin now towering over Kensington has become a terrifying and apt symbol of the indifferent machinery governing our society. But it may also herald much that has yet to come.

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No, cities won’t save us.

The election of Donald Trump has understandably rattled urbanists. Beyond the obvious factor that urban regions overwhelmingly voted for his opponent in the election, the actual policies of the Trump administration are undoubtedly going to strip away federal resources to cities and metropolitan regions. Housing and development grants, infrastructure spending, transit funding, institutional support programs; it’s all on the chopping block. Cities are increasingly having to go it alone to maintain the services their citizens rely on.

There are some urbanists, however, who seem to think that this could be a positive development. Grant more power to the cities, they say, and they will lead us to prosperity. This was the premise behind ‘The Case for a National Metropolitan Party‘, an editorial published by CityLab a couple of weeks ago which was dizzyingly disconnected from any sense of how politics actually functions in the United States. Last week, our old friend Dick Florida joined the chorus with his editorial, ‘The Case for Devolution‘, casting his long and ever-present shadow over this conversation.

So without further ado, let’s see what he has to say.

“Saturday Night Live” captured it best in its skit, “The Bubble.” The satirical planned city-state promises progressive Americans a place (other than Canada) to get away from the unthinkable election of Trump. Billed as a “like-minded community for free thinkers—and no one else,” the sketch skewers the idea of urban space as an echo chamber full of affluent young creatives.

Harsh as this portrait may be in its critique of the naiveté of the post-Trump cocoon, for many urbanists, cities really are the bubble—the last refuge for opposition and resistance to Trumpism. (Lucky me, I get to live in Toronto, an urban bubble nested inside the bigger bubble of Canada.)

True, cities may be the best safeguard against Trump and Trumpism, but there are more numerous and better reasons to press for the devolution of power away from the nation-state and the shifting of greater authority to cities, metro areas, and other forms of local control.

It’s bad enough that you’re going to start off by citing popular comedy just to demonstrate that you’re somehow a savvy guy who’s “with it”, but it’s unforgivable to cite said comedy and then proceed to completely ignore the actual point it was trying to make.

Also, I love how after saying that many urbanists see cities as the last refuge for opposition to Trump, he then states “True, cities may be the best safeguard against Trump” as if this was somehow factually proven between paragraphs.

Localism = innovation

Urbanists have long argued that the local level is more innovative. Years ago, when many American analysts were extolling the virtues of Japanese and Korean economic and industrial policy, one of my students from South Korea remarked at the time: “That sort of industrial policy works great when you make the right call, but when you don’t, it fails. In the U.S., you have the ability to have hundreds if not thousands of local economic policies.” Our states and cities have long been the so-called laboratories of democracy, where new initiatives and approaches are tried out and honed.

The local level is not only more innovative, it is a more effective form of governance. Economist Alice Rivlin long ago said that economic policy aimed at innovation and productivity works best at the local level and should be decentralized to local leaders and organizations who have the best handle on their economies. Corporations long ago realized that huge productivity gains can come from decentralizing decision-making to work groups on the factory floor. A massive amount of research from the OECD shows that decentralized local government is more effective and efficient than centralized control.

There’s a lot to unpack here, but I’ll start by noting this: it’s telling that all of Dick’s examples have to do with economic policy, even while he’s saying that leaders at the local level are just more innovative, period. Of course, neoliberals like Richard Florida have a habit of elevating economic policy above all other considerations. What exactly does the OECD mean by “more effective and efficient”? Beats me, but I’m guessing it has more to do with an economist’s concerns than those of an ordinary citizen.

I agree that there are plenty of policies—including a fair amount of economic policy—that is best handled at the local level. But translating that into the blanket statement that cities are more innovative is misleading at best. Yes, it’s comforting for urbanists to believe that they’re just inherently more innovative, and the most progressive policies have indeed been coming out of the local level lately. But I’d argue it’s not because cities are inherently inclined to be more innovative; rather, it’s because cities have been forced to adapt to an increasingly indifferent federal government. In this case, necessity has been the mother of invention.

And this isn’t a phenomenon that began with Trump, by the way. This is part of a larger trend in the United States that goes all the back to the 1970s (“Ford to City: Drop Dead“). While Democrats have tended to be more generous to urban areas than their Republican counterparts, the overall trend has definitely been towards less federal assistance. This is exactly why local option sales taxes have become such a common means of funding infrastructural improvements, social programs, and transportation maintenance on the local level; the uncertainty of relying on federal dollars has gotten to the point that cities would rather ask voters to raise their own taxes in order to fix potholes. This is hardly an ideal situation for local governments, yet it evidently fits into Richard Florida’s view of how things should be run.

Local governance is also more democratic and gives citizens more choice. Decades ago, the economist Charles Tiebout argued that we vote with our feet, essentially selecting the community which best serves our wants and needs. Single people may prefer lower taxes. Families want better schools. But the diversity at the local level recognizes our differences and allows us to choose the kind of community that best fits us.

Local governance is more democratic, eh? Interesting. I’d love to hear you tell that to the residents of Ferguson, Missouri. Or the South Side of Chicago. Or the Bronx. Or any number of rural communities that sit downstream from horribly polluting industries. When it works well, local governance does tend to be more accessible; after all, there are fewer participants, so it’s often easier to make your voice heard. But local governance can also be corrupted by a local elite who will shut out (or simply ignore) other voices in the community, or be run by a majority who will shift their burdens onto a minority. This is hardly abstract speculation; it happens quite regularly in our country. In many (but certainly not all) cases, recourse is only possible at the state or federal level. Many a victory for civil rights and environmental protection in the U.S. has come by appealing to a higher power.

But not only does Dick overlook this, he also tries to feed us the absurd notion that the answer to one’s concerns is to move to whatever community suits you, as if moving is a simple act that everyone has the resources to do. Even ignoring basic factors like an individual’s emotional or familial connections to a specific place, we live in an era where the most desirable cities to live are also the most unaffordable. Even in the coldest of pragmatic terms, suggesting that the answer is for you to move to whatever community matches your politics is ludicrous.

It’s also strange that Dick cites “the diversity at the local level”. The local level is literally where you’re the least likely to experience diversity! In racial, economic, or political terms, we have a very well-documented tendency to self-segregate, even in large cities. Cities may be more diverse than rural areas, but suburbs and small towns count as the “local level” too, and I doubt you would consider many of those to be particularly diverse. After all, any of our overwhelmingly white suburbs were designed to be that way; what is redlining if not a local practice?

One reason we are so scared of Trump is that he has taken control of the most powerful office on earth; the fear he instills is a product of the vast over-concentration of power in the nation-state and the imperial presidency. It’s high time we take steps to limit and counter-balance that power by shifting more of it to states and localities. In Canada, for example, the federal government has far less power and the provinces have far more.

I am in absolute agreement that the American presidency holds far too much power. But you are aware that there are also two other branches of the federal government that power can be shifted to, right?

Not only do the American presidency and nation-state have too much power, it is increasingly an economic anachronism—out of sync with an economy powered by cities and metro areas. The uber-powerful nation-state may have made sense in the era of economically concentrated industrial capitalism, but it’s extremely ill-suited to the demands of geographically concentrated, clustered and spiky knowledge capitalism.

Our economy is in the midst of two powerful nested transformations. The first is the shift from natural resources and physical power/labor to knowledge—where the mind has become the means of production. The second shift is toward clustering as the source of innovation and economic advantage, massively concentrating talent and economic assets in a handful of superstar cities and tech hubs.

Trumpism represents a backlash not just against women, immigrants and minorities, but against this very basic and fundamental and disruptive economic force. As the world becomes spikier and spikier—across nations, across regions, and within cities—the clustering of talent and economic assets makes the city and metro the new economic and social organizing unit.

One of the more common (and annoying) traits of neoliberals is to describe our current economic system not as the result of a complex series of societal, economic and political factors and deliberate decisions that led us to this point, but as an inevitability. For many neoliberals, this is a convenient excuse for justifying the power they hold. But for Richard Florida, I think there’s a simpler reason: he lacks the imagination to picture a world different than the one he inhabits.

Dick is absolutely right that economic activity is becoming increasingly concentrated in cities, and that Trumpism is in part a backlash to this trend. But he never stops to ask if that’s how it should be; he simply accepts it as is. The irony is that the same powerful nation-state he critiques is a big part of the reason why our cities attract as much economic activity as they do. The flows of capital operate on a global level, and cities are the conduits—but the trade they engage in is negotiated on the national level. Being part of the most powerful nation on Earth has its economic advantages, after all.

Right after the election, a smart reporter asked me a good question: What do we do to overcome America’s stark red-blue divide? Without even thinking, I shot back immediately: It’s not possible.

Our divides are not just about politics and political difference; they reflect a fundamental economic and geographic fissure that is baked in the deep structures of the knowledge economy. The biggest challenge facing America right now is not Trump; it’s the underlying divides that produced him. It’s time to recognize that those divides are unbridgeable, that we are in effect a divided nation.

And we’re going to have to learn to live with our differences. We need a mutual coexistence strategy that acknowledges the gap between our two distinct and separate nations.

Again, Dick illustrates his lack of imagination here. Now, I don’t want to sound naive here: obviously there are intractable political differences within our country. I’m not going to pretend that liberals and conservatives would be able to get along if only we could get them into a room and have them hash out their differences. There are going to be many bitterly-fought battles in the years to come.

But with Dick, I get the sense that he doesn’t speak of this inability to bridge gaps from experience or pragmatism, but because he couldn’t be bothered to try in the first place. There are plenty of areas where Americans will never see eye-to-eye with each other, but when it comes to economics, there actually is a whole lot we could be doing to deconcentrate capital and spread our wealth around.

No top-down, one-size-fits-all strategy can address the very different needs and desires of those who live in the dense, expensive blue-state cities and urban areas and those who live in more sprawling, car-oriented red-state suburbs and exurbs. Every place has its own set of unique needs, and these are very different kinds of places. Dense regions need transit, spread-out ones need better roads and bridges. Just as the minimum wage should be geographically indexed to local costs and conditions, urban policies are best tailored to local conditions and local needs. Empowering cities, suburbs, and communities respects both our differences in values and our very different needs.

I agree on the basic point that cities and rural areas have different needs, but the examples Dick offers are a little odd. Cities rely on good roads and bridges just as much as rural areas, and rural areas deserve—even if they don’t have—transit. That transit will take different forms than it does in cities, but alternatives to automobiles should be more widely available everywhere. There are certain policies that should absolutely be tailored to local conditions and needs, but stating that as a blanket rule for greater local power is putting a bit too much faith in local actors.

A few years ago, devolution and local empowerment may have seemed like a pipe-dream, but several forces (not the least of which is Trump) have conspired to bring a wide range of strange bedfellows from the left and right together on this issue. Localism is a big tent—one that actually looks politically feasible.

Yes, the left has begun to jump on board for devolution. But this is an incredibly risky strategy that stands to lose them the country at large. The stakes are huge: in the past, liberals won significant victories for Americans at large—protections for poor and minority communities in urban and rural areas alike—that Republicans are threatening to strip away. Liberals have already retreated to the bubbles of urban areas, and in embracing devolution of power to the local level, they would be asking to be relieved of any responsibility of improving the well-being of rural Americans. If they somehow got their way, this would essentially ensure that their power will never extend beyond cities again.

The GOP has long argued for smaller government, for shrinking federal control and shifting power to the states and local governments. It is time to hold them to their word. Devolution not only fits the fear of Trump on the left, it fits the GOP’s professed desire to shrink the national government.

I can’t tell if Dick is actually this naive or not, but this needs some addressing. The GOP has only argued for smaller government when it suits their desires. But the small government rhetoric has always been a farce: the GOP would be perfectly happy to wield a powerful federal government for certain uses: denying the right to an abortion, enabling massive corporate power over individuals, and maintaining a needlessly huge military. Republicans don’t actually believe in shrinking the power of the federal government, and taking them at their word on that is the height of foolishness. Arguing that we ought to “hold them to their word” on that is downright absurd.

A broad bipartisan movement of mayors calling for devolving and shifting power toward greater local control might well find many allies in Washington, on both sides of the aisle. America has a huge institutional advantage in its historically flexible system of federalism, which can balance and rebalance power among the federal government, states, and cities. During the New Deal, Franklin D. Roosevelt forged a new kind of partnership between the federal government and the cities. It’s time to do so again, this time putting more resources, power, and control in the hands of local government.

FDR also did more than any other president in modern times to establish a partnership between the federal government and rural areas. The effects of the Great Depression were particularly harsh in rural communities, and the New Deal included many programs to not only aid rural areas, but connect them with the rest of the world. Agricultural assistance to recover from the Dust Bowl, road building programs, modernization of the national parks system that created new tourist economies, and rural electrification. That last one is a huge deal: right now, all but the very most remote communities in our nation can take the availability of electricity for granted, and it’s thanks to that program.

The New Deal years were part of a federalism that went much further than anything before (and much since) in creating a truly United States of America. If you think we’re divided now, consider the view from 1920s America.

Instead of using the arbitrary political boundaries, the nature of federalism has to change to a more dynamic federalism, as Jenna Bednar described, where political power mirrors the economic power that cities provide.

Where do you think the resources that keep our cities running come from? Where do you think the electricity that keeps the lights on is generated? Where do you think the water Los Angeles and San Francisco depend on is stored? Where do you think the food city dwellers eat is grown?

If mayors and local leaders seize the initiative and push hard for greater autonomy, they will be in an even stronger position when the pendulum swings back in the other direction and our nation is once again ready to re-invest to rebuild our cities and suburbs. Maybe a 21st century economic strategy cannot be central or national, but it can be local.

Why in the world would that be the case? If you devolve power and responsibility down to the local level, why would cities be in a better position to ask for things from the federal government down the road? You’ve transferred resources from the feds to cities, right? So what resources are going to be left at the federal level to re-invest in local communities? It took decades to build the various federal programs and apparatuses that invest money into local efforts, and if we strip it away it will take ages to build it up again.

This 21st economic strategy sounds more akin to recreating the Italian merchant city-states of the 15th century. Then again, neoliberals have never had a problem with the concept of the city-state; Singapore’s economic freedoms have long been praised by neoliberals, who conveniently downplayed the city’s more authoritarian elements.

To close off, here’s the unfortunate thing: American cities have increasingly had to fend for themselves and, with the way things are looking, they’re going to have to do so even more in the years to come. But to say that this is a good thing is foolhardy and reckless. In an age of Trump, it’s comforting for liberals to retreat to the cities, but to turn our backs on our fellow Americans would be selfish and invite disaster. It’s oddly telling that Richard Florida began this piece by citing a comedy skit about cities that have enclosed themselves in bubbles. The joke is lost on him: that is exactly what he wants.

When “kind” design is anything but

Today I came across an article from NextCity, “San Francisco Is Redesigning City Hall Into a Space for All“, which proved both frustrating and fascinating. Frustrating because it demonstrates some rather depraved technocratic and neoliberal tendencies cloaked in the language of kindness, and fascinating because it inadvertently reveals a lot about the worldview of neoliberals in the place where design and policy intersect.

So with that said, let’s take this article bit-by-bit, starting with the first paragraph:

San Francisco’s Civic Center neighborhood serves as the city’s front porch, both its seat of government and a microcosm for the booms and busts of a city in the throes of an identity crisis. Here is City Hall, the opera house, the main public library, Twitter’s headquarters and a weekly farmer’s market on United Nations Plaza.

The very first sentence of the article invoked my skepticism, and granted, I realize this has everything to do with the writer of the article and not with the actual design effort related to the Civic Center. But if you’re going to talk about the importance of said design effort, let’s start here: can we really consider the Civic Center to be San Francisco’s “front porch”? A front porch acts as a portal into the home, the transition from the street life outside to the home life inside, very much part of the home but visible and open to the outside world. Civic Center doesn’t fit that description; it doesn’t serve as an entry point to the city, nor is it visible to those approaching San Francisco. If anything serves as the city’s “front porch”, I would say the airport, or the landing of the Bay Bridge, or the Ferry Building. (Actually, let’s go with the Ferry Building. In many homes, the front porch isn’t the primary point of entry—the garage serves that purpose—but rather is a stylized entrance that sees much less traffic, but looks very attractive from the outside and does a lot to sell the idea of engaging with the outside world, even if only a small portion of the populace actually uses it for that purpose.)

Not to say that the Civic Center isn’t important. But I’d compare it to a nerve center of some sort, given its role as the center of city government from where policies which affect the rest of the city originate. But as is typical with these design readings of the importance of space, the best analogy that anyone can come up with is simply another design feature, even when it makes little sense.

Anyway, moving on from my pedantic reading of the opening sentence, the article continues on to explain some of the context for this recent effort to redesign Civic Center. The area has long been the gathering point for many of the city’s homeless, and with that plenty of failed efforts to push San Francisco’s chronic homelessness problem out of sight of those most capable of doing something about it.

“Design alone cannot be expected to solve social problems, but thoughtful design can be a part of the solution,” reads the proposal. Regarding the removal of benches from both plazas in the 1990s and early 2000s, the document acknowledges, “The result of this stripped environment is spaces that are unwelcoming to everyone, and have achieved minimal reduction in illicit or undesirable behaviors.”

There’s nothing here I disagree with. I think design can accomplish a lot, that it has a powerful effect on the way we behave, and that the extent to which it does probably can’t be fully understood. But there are some systemic societal problems which design cannot address; for these, policy must be considered.

While larger transformations are still a few years away, pop-up exhibitions by the Exploratorium aim to enliven the space today, and partnerships with nonprofits are demonstrating how diverse populations might share the space in peace. In UN Plaza, the Exploratorium has installed four large interactive pieces called the Sound Commons. One challenges visitors to walk across a bed of gravel as quietly as possible. Giant chimes and xylophones let anyone make music, or at least noise.

But what’s really unique about the installations are the monitors minding them. Staff from the nonprofit Hunters Point Family have been hired by the city to talk to visitors, guide them through the installations, and keep the area safe and clean. Nearly all of them were formerly incarcerated, serving life sentences, and are now living in a halfway house.

“They have been really an ideal population to staff these areas because of their emotional intelligence that people usually have to develop if you’re on the prison yard for twenty plus years and you’re not sure that you’re getting out,” says Lena Miller, co-executive director of Hunters Point Family. “You really need to know how to deal with all kinds of people.”

Okay, design elements to appeal to different groups of people is fine. But does it bother anyone else that they hired former convicts to supervise the plaza? Mind you, this isn’t to argue that former convicts are animals who don’t deserve second chances—they aren’t and they do—but recently released convicts are an incredibly vulnerable population who are desperate to show that they can function in society, which makes them a conveniently exploitable workforce.

I am also deeply disturbed by that last paragraph, where the act of being in prison is being presented as some sort of job qualification. I suppose it is preferable to the standard alternative of presenting prisoners as irredeemable savages who will shank the nearest moving thing at the drop of a hat. But presenting someone who managed to negotiate the social dynamics of a prison yard as some sort of set of marketable job skills for the purpose of customer service work—and reducing them to that—is incredibly troubling. But it fits perfectly into the neoliberal framework of the world, where every individual is reduced to their economic function.

Monitors at UN Plaza are also asked to track many data points for the city: which exhibits are being used and which aren’t, the genders and ages of visitors, reports of graffiti or feces, how many hypodermic needles are collected a day.

Right now they’re keeping notes on a paper spreadsheet, but the nonprofit is collaborating with Public Works to make an app. Like a McDonald’s register, says Miller, but instead of pressing buttons for Big Macs and French fries, they’ll tap feces and needles.

…Yes, thank you, I understand how a register works. I’m so glad we have these Silicon Valley solutions to problems I wouldn’t be able to comprehend otherwise.

(By the way, feces and needles is what a Big Mac and fries turns into when you eat McDonald’s too much, am I right??)

The Hunters Point Family monitors are clustered around the Exploratorium exhibits. In the rest of the space, team members from the Downtown Streets Team are keeping the space clean and reaching out to the unhoused. Another nonprofit, Downtown Streets Team engages homeless people to volunteer their time on janitorial and hospitality projects in exchange for case management and a stipend toward basic needs like groceries and rent.

Reaching out to the homeless and providing them with economic opportunities is great, particularly in a location where homelessness is a chronic problem. But—and maybe I’m talking crazy here—what if instead of doing some complicated exchange of case management or groceries or rent in exchange for their service, what if you just… paid them? As in, employed them and provided a fare living wage in exchange for their labor? I know everyone is afraid that some vagrant is going to take your offered money and spend it all on heroin, but that’s not the employer’s call to make. Call it “volunteering” all you want, but if you’re offering the equivalent monetary value of groceries and rent, it’s a job. At least grant it the dignity of that much.

The 11-year-old nonprofit only began operating in San Francisco last year, and the Civic Center was its first site. They’d considered the Mission, the Castro and the Tenderloin, neighborhoods more notoriously associated with homelessness in the public imagination, “but it really felt like being in Civic Center/UN Plaza was a good idea for us because there was an extreme need from an unhoused population there, but there was also a need to change the face of homelessness in the community,” says Brandon Davis, project director for the San Francisco team. “Because tech exists there, government exists there, because small business exists there, and then a very large unsheltered population lives there as well.”

That quote says so much; more than was probably intended. We “need to change the face of homelessness” in this particular location, not because of the particular need present in this space, but because the powerful inhabit this space. For the powerful, we must put a happy spin and a friendly face on the homeless so that they may be deemed something approaching human beings.

I see the logic, I really do. But there’s a darker implication to all of this. These groups are putting a nice face on the homeless not to address any root causes of homelessness, but to redesign Civic Center into a place where the elite of the city can comfortably ignore the plight of the homeless. Even better for them, the homeless have been repurposed into a role that renders them invisible, save for another piece of machinery to serve San Francisco’s tourism and service economy.

Whatever good intentions may lie behind this program, design can’t house the homeless (unless it involves designing affordable homes). But apparently, it can put a friendly spin on it and pretend it’s doing something meaningful to help.