The Most Dangerous Myth

In the world of housing advocacy, a dangerous myth has taken hold, one that is now being manifested in the form of legislation. That myth goes as follows: If you just build more housing, housing will get cheaper.

Were it so easy. And yet for some reason this simplistic notion keeps getting accepted at face value by a lot of people who should really know better. This myth is more or less the fundamental belief of self-proclaimed YIMBYs, who are really feeling their oats in California right now with the introduction of Scott Weiner’s SB 827. If passed by the California State Legislature, SB 827 would basically exempt any housing project within 1/2 mile of a major transit stop from most zoning regulations, particularly height and density restrictions and parking requirements.

Predictably, YIMBYs were eager to jump on board, praising Weiner as some sort of urbanist visionary. But they seem to have been taken by surprise by a diverse coalition that has formed in opposition to the bill, which includes some members with pretty serious cred: tenants and immigrant rights organizations, housing and homeless advocacy groups, and even transportation advocacy groups like Move LA and the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition. These weren’t the usual Beverly Hills suspects that could be so casually dismissed as “NIMBYs” (not that this has stopped some YIMBYs from trying).

In short, what we’re seeing is the inevitable shattering of the broad coalition that overwhelmingly defeated Measure S less than a year ago. The urbanists who prematurely declared that victory as a sign that Los Angeles was uniting around an urban vision for its future overlooked something crucial: this fight was never just about what gets built in this city; it’s about who gets to live in this city.

I’ve briefly touched on the problems with YIMBYism before, but they basically boil down to an absurd faith that left to its own devices, the real estate market will sort itself out. Build more housing units, the thinking goes, and the price for each individual unit will go down. Basic supply and demand, right? The obvious problem with this reasoning is that housing as a commodity doesn’t function like the simple models you studied in your microeconomics class. Supply is just one of numerous factors that affect the cost of housing in a speculative real estate market. In pricey cities like Los Angeles, the cost of your housing unit probably has more to do with how old it is and how much speculative capital is flowing into new construction in your neighborhood. After all, the old real estate mantra is “location, location, location,” not “supply, supply, supply.”

To once again quote Karen Narefsky’s marvelous article on YIMBYism:

The YIMBY narrative rests on an idea called filtering, which maintains that even luxury construction increases affordability: as new luxury units are built, wealthier residents move into the new housing stock instead of competing for existing lower-quality housing. Apart from the condescension — should low-income people really have to wait for housing to “filter” down to them? — this framework ignores the reality of today’s housing market. Existing housing is more likely to be turned into short-term rentals through Airbnb, flipped to a condo developer, or turned into a high-end rental than it is to be occupied by a low-income family. There is also strong evidence that rents in existing housing near new luxury housing rise more than rents in apartments that are not close to new luxury housing.

What’s more, just because new housing units get built doesn’t necessarily mean that people will live in those housing units. As Narefsky writes, “The idea of filtering, as well as the premise that new construction will bring down rents, means little when housing can be, and often is, used as an investment.

Given all this, it’s no wonder that SB 827 has many housing advocates in South L.A. and East L.A. worried. “Local control” is a term that has been tainted in Southern California by its association with Beverly Hills or Santa Monica homeowners who wielded it to keep out low-income residents and people of color. But in South L.A. and Boyle Heights, residents have struggled for years to gain some degree of control over their futures, and their efforts have finally begun to bear fruit with accomplishments like the People’s Plan and Metro’s revised plans for Mariachi Plaza. City-wide, there has been a greater push to require developers to provide affordable housing and incentivize transit-oriented affordable housing through initiatives like the voter-approved Measure JJJ—an incentive that would be completely disregarded should SB 827 pass in its current form, undoing years of hard work.

Even for transit advocates, the prospect of what SB 827 could wrought has given pause for thought. On the face of it, more density around transit is good. But there’s a healthy difference between development that’s transit-oriented and development that’s merely transit-adjacent, and SB 827 makes no delineation between the two. What’s more, market-rate housing is going to cater to the wealthy, who are the least likely to use transit no matter what. Density does transit little good if all the people who use transit get displaced.

Now, some people have defended SB 827 by pointing out that it could potentially be amended to include more provisions for affordable housing. But this just speaks to the limitations of relying on the speculative real estate market to address our housing crisis. The reality is that nothing short of forceful interventions into that market are going to bring costs down. Mandating affordable housing in new developments is a baby step, and one that doesn’t go far enough because the market is never going to produce enough housing to meet the huge demand for affordable housing, even if you throw all zoning regulations to the winds. What is needed is an ambitious project to construct enough affordable housing units to meet this huge need—something most easily accomplished through a massive public housing initiative—coupled with tenant protections and rent controls to ensure that these new units remain affordable for years to come. Only by taking housing outside of the parameters of the market will you make it accessible to the masses.

These are the battle lines now being drawn in the housing debate, and the fight over SB 827 is just the first of many to come. YIMBYs are hardwired to think of every single one of their opponents as a NIMBY, but this is not going to be a battle between those who think development is bad and those who think it’s good. This is to be a battle between those who are fighting for their right to remain in their homes, and those who are merely content to watch developers toss out a few scraps for the rest of us.


Learning all the Wrong Lessons from the Great Streetcar Conspiracy

“I bought the Red Car so that I could dismantle it.” — A work of fiction.

As someone who has studied in the field of transportation planning, I have had more than my fair share of exposure to what is usually called the General Motors streetcar conspiracy. It’s one of the most widely known urban myths of our time, and judging by its spread, probably one of the most compelling too. And it’s not hard to see why: the story is a simple one, with a clear villain, obvious outcomes, and just enough hints of truth scattered throughout to paint a convincing picture. Here in Los Angeles, the General Motors streetcar conspiracy has been elevated to the status of a grim origin story, about how once upon a time we had a utopian realm of electric streetcars before the birth of our horrendous traffic jams and toxic air.

If you haven’t heard the story, let me briefly go over the facts. Beginning in 1938 and continuing through the 1940s, a consortium of automobile and oil companies (most notably General Motors, but also including Firestone Tire, Standard Oil of California, and Phillips Petroleum) formed a bus company called National City Lines (NCL). Along with its subsidiaries, American City Lines and Pacific City Lines, NCL bought up dozens of urban transit companies across the country. Where they bought streetcar systems, they usually replaced those streetcars with buses.

Those are the facts. However, the actual importance of this event has always been in dispute. Those who enthusiastically repeat this story have elevated it to the defining event for American transit in the 20th century, with the implication being that General Motors killed off the streetcar as part of a grand and sinister plot to kill off mass transportation altogether in order to make Americans utterly dependent on their cars. Ascribing a world-shaping event to a small group of shadowy, all-powerful and (somehow) all-knowing actors is a hallmark of all conspiracy theory thinking, but I understand the appeal here: it’s not exactly difficult to believe that a bunch of giant corporations have deliberately made life miserable for you in order to boost their own profits.

But I’m afraid I’m here to burst your bubble. I, the lifelong transit fanatic, would like to inform you that what you’ve heard is (mostly) wrong. Yes, General Motors did tear up some streetcars. No, they did not kill mass transit. The auto industry certainly hasn’t done transit many favors, but as the tired saying goes, it’s more complicated than that.

We’re going to do a little history lesson today. And to start with, let’s talk about what streetcars actually were…


It’s worth pointing out that mass transportation in the first half of the 20th century was fundamentally different from mass transit today. That fundamental difference isn’t that streetcars were the norm instead of buses, or even that a larger portion of the population relied on transit back then. The crucial difference was that mass transit was typically a private endeavor rather than a public enterprise. Transit, whether it came in the form of buses or streetcars, was almost exclusively provided by private companies rather than local governments.

To understand how this relationship came about, you have to start by understanding what transit was built for. Streetcars were usually built first and foremost as a means of developing land. Where before the size of cities was limited by how far one could walk or ride a horse, the invention of the streetcar enabled the expansion of the urban landscape along these new rail lines. Real estate speculators and developers often funded the construction of streetcars, even though they weren’t likely to see profits from the streetcar operation itself. The streetcars were merely a means of giving the masses access to the land, which could be subdivided and sold off for a tidy sum.

This is where I’d like to touch on a side myth, one that often gets presented hand-in-hand with the General Motors streetcar conspiracy: the claim that Los Angeles once had “the best public transit system in the world.” This claim has shown up in a number of places, such as a 1993 Frontline documentary, the 2015 documentary Bikes vs Cars, and even in our esteemed natural history museum, where a placard in the “Becoming Los Angeles” exhibition makes this claim. (Actually, the most notable example of the “best transit system in the world” claim is from the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, but we can at least give that one a pass for being a work of fiction.) Usually this claim is presented to suggest that ours is a city that has lost its way, a paradise lost in a frenzy of automania.

I’m not sure where this claim comes from, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some boisterous streetcar executive in the 1920s stated that the Pacific Electric was the greatest streetcar system in the world—”greatest” here meaning largest. Indeed, the Pacific Electric was the world’s largest interurban streetcar system at its peak, with lines radiating out from Downtown Los Angeles all the way to Riverside, San Bernardino, Santa Ana, Newport Beach, San Fernando, and Santa Monica. But Los Angeles didn’t have this vast streetcar network because it was some super progressive city that loved public transit. It had this vast network because it had a lot of land that could be developed, and some businessmen who were eager to make that happen when building streetcars was the easiest means of doing so. Over time, streetcar magnates consolidated their rail lines until vast transit monopolies were created. In this way, calling the Pacific Electric the “greatest” streetcar system ever built would be like calling American Airlines the “greatest” airline today.

Building a streetcar network is one thing. Maintaining an adequate transit system is something else altogether. And on this point, the Pacific Electric was widely hated. Service was slow, cars were routinely overcrowded, and conditions only worsened as automobiles became increasingly popular through the 1910s and ’20s—more cars on the road meant more traffic that streetcars were stuck in. Streetcar companies were also no friend of the little guy, developing a reputation as union busters, and the Pacific Electric—overseen by the notoriously anti-union Henry Huntington—was certainly no exception. This didn’t exactly endear them to progressives of the era.

What’s more, there really wasn’t much incentive for the Pacific Electric to improve its service. Following the “Great Merger” of 1911, in which all the various interurban streetcar companies were consolidated under the Pacific Electric banner, the Pacific Electric had a virtual monopoly on transit between the various cities of the Los Angeles region. Expansion of the system virtually stopped after the Great Merger, with a line to San Bernardino (already in the works before the merger) being the only major addition to the network after 1911. This is particularly significant when one considers that the population of Los Angeles County more than quadrupled between 1910 and 1930, putting huge pressure on a system that was inadequate for the needs of the growing metropolis. Necessary improvements to service weren’t made by the Pacific Electric until their nose hairs were pulled; for instance, a downtown tunnel for their Hollywood-bound cars was constructed only because state regulators wouldn’t allow the Pacific Electric to raise fares otherwise.

In fact, so hated was the Pacific Electric that several independent transit systems were created specifically as alternatives to it. In 1927, the Pacific Electric tried to acquire a franchise for all bus service within Long Beach, but were rebuffed by the city council there, who cited the company’s “heavy-handed methods and monopolistic goals.” The franchise was instead awarded to the Lang Transportation Company, an early precursor to today’s Long Beach Transit. That same year, the Pacific Electric put forward a proposal to raise fares for Westside service by seven cents—the equivalent of nearly an entire dollar today—which led to Culver City and Santa Monica forming their own municipal-run bus systems as more affordable options for their citizens. Those systems are still with us today; you may know them as Culver CityBus and Big Blue Bus.

Simply put, streetcar companies were like the cable internet companies of their time: almost no one liked them and almost everyone had to deal with them. When you actually look at what Angelenos at the time had to say about their transit system, the “best transit system in the world” claim rings particularly hollow.


We tend to think of auto-oriented suburbs as being an invention of the 1950s, but they actually date back quite a bit further, especially in Los Angeles. As early as as the 1910s, developers were laying out subdivisions with the cars of wealthier homeowners in mind, a pattern which became the norm with the real estate boom of the 1920s. With new urban development no longer tied to the construction of streetcar lines, streetcar companies stopped expanding their service—and this was when things began to fall apart.

The auto craze of the 1920s was bad enough for streetcar companies, who began to salvage their bottom line by replacing less profitable streetcar lines with bus service. In many cities—including Los Angeles—this process was hastened by increasing competition with new bus companies, some of which were bought out by railroad and streetcar companies (the rapid spread of Greyhound in the 1920s came about in large part through collaboration with railroad companies). But it was the Great Depression that dealt the harshest blow to streetcars, as many people who had relied on the streetcar service now found themselves out of work.

As fare revenues plummeted, many streetcar companies slashed service, and the Pacific Electric was no exception. Between 1935 and the outbreak of World War II, passenger rail service on the Pacific Electric went from this (rail lines are in solid red):


To this (passenger rail lines are in solid red, added by me for ease of reading):


By the end of the Depression, buses were picking up much of the slack as streetcar service was cut, reducing the Pacific Electric to a skeleton of its former self. The high employment and the gasoline rationing of the war years elevated transit ridership to levels not reached before or since, but this only took a greater toll on the Pacific Electric’s aging equipment, which couldn’t be replaced owing to the scarcity of supplies needed for the war effort.

And mind you, this all happened before General Motors ever entered the picture, as far as Los Angeles transit goes. National City Lines bought out the Los Angeles Railway—the local streetcar system that served the neighborhoods around Downtown Los Angeles, better known as the “Yellow Cars”—in 1945 and began converting many of its streetcar lines into bus lines. But NCL—and by extension, General Motors—never acquired the Pacific Electric. This bears repeating, given how common a misconception this is: the Pacific Electric was never acquired by General Motors. The company that did the most to dismantle the streetcars of the Pacific Electric was… the Pacific Electric.


A 1949 Pacific Electric pamphlet


But there was a conspiracy, right? That much has been proven, correct?

Yes, but it’s worth laying out exactly what that conspiracy entailed, because it may not be as grand as you’re expecting.

As I mentioned earlier, mass transit during the 1930s was mostly a private endeavor. Municipal-run transit—that is, public transit—was very rare in the United States at this time, limited to just a few examples. Many streetcar companies had already invested in buses since they were more economical; not only were they cheaper to operate for lightly used lines, but local and state governments were increasingly getting involved in the building of roads, and it was a lot cheaper to run a bus on a public road than to run a streetcar on a privately-owned rail line that you were responsible for maintaining. Plus, buses were seen as new and sleek; many streetcar companies couldn’t afford to replace their aging rail fleets.

By this point, General Motors had been making buses for a while. Transit was an obvious business for them to get into, given the increasing popularity of buses. But while selling buses to transit companies was all well and good, what would really sweeten the pot would be if they could guarantee that transit companies would buy their buses. And the easiest way to accomplish that would be to own them outright. Enter National City Lines.

Incidentally, the acquisition of streetcar companies was made easier by the passage of the Public Utility Holding Company Act a few years earlier, a trust-busting bit of New Deal-era legislation aimed at electric utility companies. Many streetcar companies across the country had been owned by electric companies, a handy loophole which basically allowed utility companies to sell electricity back to themselves and post more profits on their books. When the electric companies were forced to divest from any activities unrelated to the production of energy, the streetcar companies had to be sold off.

General Motors basically adopted the same model as the electric companies, only for buses. And this was the true conspiracy: by helping form a holding company to buy up a bunch of transit companies, GM set up a situation where they could be both the producer and consumer of their own product and monopolize the bus market. This was what General Motors, Firestone Tires, Standard Oil, and the other companies involved were found guilty of.

People who bring up the GM streetcar conspiracy often like to point out that the companies involved were indicted in federal court (with the infamous detail that one of the executives involved was only fined $1), but this is always brought up with the implication that they were convicted of destroying streetcars. In truth, no one at the trial cared about the streetcars. The auto and oil companies involved were found guilty of “conspiring to monopolize sales of buses and supplies to companies owned by National City Lines,” which was a blatant violation of antitrust law. But that was it. There was nothing illegal about tearing out streetcars and replacing them with buses; hell, the streetcar companies themselves had been doing that for years.
Pacific Electric cars awaiting destruction, 1956 (again, not at the hands of General Motors)


Okay, but so what? Why does this all matter? The streetcars are gone regardless, so why exactly should we care who or what’s to blame?

The problem I have with the General Motors conspiracy theory isn’t just that it’s lazy history. The problem is that people take all the wrong lessons from it. From what I’ve seen, people generally take one of two morals from this story, the first being that auto and gas companies are evil. While I’m not exactly going to defend auto companies, there are far more nefarious things that the auto and oil industries have done than dismantle a few railroads. And besides, laying all the blame for the death of streetcars at General Motors’ feet ignores all the other actors involved, not least of which were streetcar companies themselves.

The other lesson that people seem to take from this is that buses are inherently bad. Even if this isn’t always explicitly stated, there is definitely an underlying disdain for buses at play here. When you build this conspiracy up as the defining event in mass transit, as the thing that made transit suck, what you’re implicitly saying is that the problem is with the vehicle, not with the entity operating it. And believing that the problem was switching from streetcars to buses often leads to people believing that the solution is just to bring back the streetcars, which is… usually not a great idea.

Truthfully, I think there are some valuable lessons to take away from this whole affair. I think it’s messed up that a private corporation could come into your city and, without any input from the public whatsoever, tear out and replace an existing transit network just for their own profit. But I also think it’s messed up that transit was ever a private endeavor to begin with. What General Motors did to transit was no more than what streetcar companies did: they monopolized transit for their own gain and operated their systems not on the basis of public need but on the basis of making as much money as possible. They kept a necessary public service out of the hands of the people who relied on it. They kept transit undemocratic.

When you get down to it, it’s absurd how long it took to get transit into public control. But it did eventually happen. From the 1940s on, there was a growing recognition that mass transit was no longer tenable as a private operation. Cars were simply too popular with the people, and state and federal governments were investing heavily in new freeways and the development of suburbs, unfriendly to mass transit. Yet you couldn’t get rid of transit altogether, because there were still many people who relied on it. So municipalization of transit became the norm. In Los Angeles, transit finally went public in 1958. Public subsidies for transit from the State of California and the federal government were established in the 1960s.

If you ask me, this is the most important event in mass transit in the 20th century. Not the switch from streetcars to buses, but the switch from private company to public agency, because this is what changed our relationship with our transit. We might not exactly see our public transit agencies as responsive to our needs, but they still operate in a much more democratic and transparent fashion than the private corporations of yesteryear. And they lend themselves to far more stability; we can be reasonably assured that no one is going to buy the Expo Line tomorrow and replace it with a Hyperloop test track.

Our transit systems need a whole lot of improvement, it’s true, but they should also be cherished and protected as the necessary public utilities that they are. And so, I leave you with a warning: there are those who wish to privatize our public services, to take what is rightfully ours and exploit it for their own gain. Don’t shed any tears for the streetcar, but remember what happens when you leave transit in the wrong hands.

Elon Musk just released his mental map of L.A.

At some point in your life, you may have been asked to create a mental map of your hometown. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, a mental map is a diagram of your town or city drawn from your own memory. The idea isn’t necessarily to be accurate, but to illustrate what matters to the map maker. So mental maps usually focus on the places the map maker most frequently inhabits, such as their home, their workplace, where they shop, anywhere they go for fun, and the routes they take between. It’s a fun exercise, because you get to illustrate your life while also learning the limitations of your understanding of your hometown. It’s especially informative if you do it as part of a group, because you can see how your understanding of the same town or city is different from someone else’s.

But while mental mapping is a valuable exercise that I would encourage anyone to try, your mental map shouldn’t be used to formulate policy or dictate major decisions like where to build new infrastructure. After all, one of the points of mental mapping is to demonstrate the limitations of your knowledge. Important decisions with city-wide consequences need to take into consideration the views and needs of the many, not the individual. Fortunately, none of our mental maps are likely to ever have any effect on such important matters.

But then, none of us are overhyped Silicon Valley billionaires.

Most of you have certainly heard of Elon Musk’s “Boring Company” by now. The vaguely defined point of this company is to find cheaper and faster ways of digging tunnels for the purpose of solving traffic. Transportation experts have expressed healthy skepticism of Musk’s claims; Laura Nelson of the Los Angeles Times noted that digging a tunnel is usually the fastest part; it’s the permitting and environmental reviews that take the most time. And then there’s the problem that digging tunnels for cars isn’t fundamentally different from what we’ve already been doing; however sleek they may look, this is just building a freeway underground, and building freeways doesn’t solve traffic congestion. In order to keep access points to the tunnel system from getting congested themselves, you’d have to control entry somehow (probably by charging a lot of money to use the system).

But I’ll leave those detailed arguments to others. Right now, I want to talk about this map, just released by the Boring Company:

Los Angeles Tunnel Alignment

What you’re looking at is a conceptual map of Elon Musk’s tunnel system. The red part is the section that Musk is trying to get approval to build right now, while the blue parts are meant to be possible expansions. While the Boring Company wants to make clear that this is only meant as a concept, I just want to take a moment to marvel at how blatantly this map diagrams Musk’s mental view of Los Angeles.

Plenty of writers have already noted that this project seems to be designed first and foremost as a way for Musk—who reportedly lives in Bel-Air and commutes along the 405 to Hawthorne—to shorten his own commute. That’s gross enough as it is, when you have the kind of money and influence (and potential to do real good) that Musk does. But what I find incredible about this map is that it shows a entire system designed solely with one man’s desires in mind.

Beyond Musk’s commute (with an extension to the Valley should he ever need to go there), the tunnels continue to LAX, because obviously Mr. Musk is a very busy man who often needs to get on a plane to fly elsewhere. The tunnels continue down the 405 to… another airport, which I’m guessing is Musk’s backup option for those days when LAX is too crowded. Then there are branch tunnels to all the places where he would want to take his friends out for a good time. There are tunnels to the beaches, to Downtown, to trendy neighborhoods like Silver Lake and Leimert Park (but not Hollywood of course, because that’s for all those lame tourists), with stops at The Getty, the football and baseball stadiums, and the convention center (where I’m sure he has to give the occasional TED talk)

But Musk is not without generosity, citizens! He has included a solitary stop for the not-yet gentrified masses of South L.A., conveniently labeled “South LA.” You’re welcome.

Really, I’m just a little in shock right now. I’ve seen a lot of hypothetical transit maps, and I’ve never seen such pure self-projection on one since eight-year old me drew a map of his neighborhood with all the train lines redirected to stop next to his house. The complete and utter disregard for the needs of anyone who isn’t Elon Musk is nothing short of breathtaking.

To further illustrate, compare the above map to this 1980 diagram, showing the proposed rail system that we are still building today:

Or this 1925 plan, illustrating a rapid transit system that was never realized:

These are the kind of maps that get made when you have to take the masses into account. They’re not devoid of elitist demands—plenty of business and political interests are reflected by what’s depicted in them—but they at least reflect the consideration of a populace beyond one solitary individual.

Even on a strictly aesthetic level, I cherish maps as a tool and an art form and am deeply offended by what Musk has drawn. That someone could be so shameless as to literally redraw a city in their own image and present it to the world as a glorious and far-reaching vision is gross and ought to be mocked, not celebrated.

Stop Saying ‘NIMBY’

I’ll be honest: I’ve been working up to this one. I practically started this blog just so that I could eventually write this. When it comes to the politics of urbanists and city planners, few things strike a nerve like how we use the term ‘NIMBY’. It’s urbanism’s favorite word, and like an alcoholic clutching a bottle, those in the field have a tendency to lash out at anyone who suggests we might want to put it down.

But first, let me start with a disclaimer. There are some people who use the term ‘NIMBYism’ to refer to long-standing racist, classist, and xenophobic attitudes that manifest themselves into opposition against social welfare projects. And I am not arguing that those don’t exist. There are plenty of horrible and selfish people out there who have organized against worthwhile and necessary endeavors, such as affordable housing or transit infrastructure, not for any legitimate concern but out of a deep-seated resentment that a perceived “other” may benefit from their mild inconvenience.

What I am arguing is that ‘NIMBYism’ is a terrible word to describe this phenomenon, that its usage by social progressives and urban planners is doomed to backfire on us, and that the emphasis placed on it distracts us from much more fundamental structural issues.

Nobody identifies as a ‘NIMBY’; it exists solely as a pejorative. It’s understandable why planners readily adopted the term; most urban development or community plan efforts in this day and age involve a lengthy, laborious process that is often subject to some degree of public scrutiny. When you’ve been working on something for months only to see it savaged by residents accusing you of trying to turn their peaceful neighborhood into a crime-ridden hellscape of traffic and “those” people, a little vitriol in return only seems warranted.

The problem is that ‘NIMBY’ has no concrete definition, although people use the term as though it does. It merely stands for ‘Not In My Back Yard’, whatever that may entail. The wealthy suburban landowner who doesn’t want poor people living in his neighborhood or the impoverished resident who doesn’t want a power plant to be built behind their house can both fall under the dictionary definition of ‘NIMBYists’.

Even Jane Jacobs, the beloved hero of contemporary urban planning, could be classified as a NIMBY based on her opposition to Robert Moses’ proposed freeway through Jacobs’ home neighborhood of Greenwich Village. Likewise, there’s nothing in the definition of ‘NIMBY’ that excludes those who took part in the freeway revolts and the fights against so-called ‘urban renewal’ and ‘slum-clearance’ efforts in the United States during the 1960s and ’70s.

1960s anti-freeway poster. Is it NIMBYism? — Source

I’m hardly the first person to note this. Last year, a land-use lawyer named Chris Bradford started a blog called Club NIMBY, with the ostensible purpose of working towards a more specific definition for the term as a means of combating ‘NIMBYs’. “Developing a sound theory of NIMBYism will, of course, enable us to define NIMBYism,” he wrote. (The Club NIMBY blog has since been locked and is currently unviewable, so I’ll have to link to this CityLab article as proof that I’m not just making this up.)

But there was a critical flaw behind the logic of Club NIMBY, and that was that a more specific definition of ‘NIMBY’ is even possible. The term exists solely as political rhetoric to be wielded against those you see as less open-minded than yourself; its vagueness is inherent. By design, it’s an epithet to be hurled in the arena of politics. To try and make the word mean something more specific is a fruitless endeavor, no matter how much you might wish it so.

Some urbanists have attempted to draw a distinction from ‘NIMBYists’ by labeling themselves ‘YIMBYists’ (Yes In My Back Yard), people who welcome development in their communities. But this approach is dangerous in its own right. In an excellent piece on Jacobin, Karen Narefsky argues that YIMBY/NIMBY is a false dichotomy, and one that fails to get at any real solution to inequality and housing affordability. By reflexively defending new developments, YIMBYism has a tendency to paint any critique of new development as narrow-minded.

YIMBYism also lends itself to free-market arguments that benefit those who are already privileged; this was particularly visible in the recent fight over Measure S in Los Angeles, where some opponents to Measure S argued that the best thing to do was allow developers to build market-rate housing and then wait for those new units to “trickle down” to the non-wealthy. But the housing market doesn’t function as a simple matter of supply-and-demand. As Narefsky points out:

The YIMBY narrative rests on an idea called filtering, which maintains that even luxury construction increases affordability: as new luxury units are built, wealthier residents move into the new housing stock instead of competing for existing lower-quality housing. Apart from the condescension — should low-income people really have to wait for housing to “filter” down to them? — this framework ignores the reality of today’s housing market. Existing housing is more likely to be turned into short-term rentals through Airbnb, flipped to a condo developer, or turned into a high-end rental than it is to be occupied by a low-income family. There is also strong evidence that rents in existing housing near new luxury housing rise more than rents in apartments that are not close to new luxury housing.

In overheated markets (read: every major city in the nation), it’s real estate speculation fueled by global capital that has created our housing affordability crisis. Much of the development that takes place in our cities happens in response to the whims of far-flung investors, not the material needs of local residents. Gentrification is ultimately about power. The YIMBYism narrative not only fails to recognize this, it’s asking that we look the other way and not ask too many questions.

And by reflexively lashing out at any criticism of new development—legitimate or otherwise—YIMBYs have also put in the most work to make ‘NIMBY’ a meaningless term. When I was attending college in Albuquerque, I saw members of the local business community refer to anyone criticizing new development as NIMBYs, even when the development in question promoted unsustainable sprawl on the edge of a city where water is a very significant concern. In Los Angeles, the residents of the Historic South Central neighborhood who fear displacement from a massive new luxury housing development have been labeled NIMBYs by local urbanists. Recently, I’ve been hearing from affordable housing advocates in Seattle who say they’ve been called ‘NIMBYs’ for voicing their displeasure with gentrification.

This is why it’s fruitless to work towards some kind of narrower definition of ‘NIMBY’. You’re not going to get anywhere by telling people that your usage of the term ‘NIMBY’ is legitimate while someone else’s isn’t. Political rhetoric doesn’t obey your nice rules of civil discourse once it gets out in the wild. Look how quickly the term “fake news”, initially used by liberals after Trump’s election to refer to dubious online stories, got embraced by the right wing to attack the mainstream media instead. The vaguer your terminology, the easier it will be for someone to twist it into a weapon against you.

In the case of ‘NIMBY’, the cat’s already out of the bag. A lot of friends, colleagues, and would-be allies who are putting in the important work of trying to improve their communities are already being labeled NIMBYs, and no one should expect this to stop anytime soon. No one is going to make things better by continuing to insist on their definition of NIMBY, or insisting that there’s a difference between “real NIMBYs” and reasonable people like yourself. It’s far too late for that now. The best thing to do is to just drop the damn word altogether.

But before you bemoan the idea of relinquishing every urbanist’s favorite word, consider the possibility that ‘NIMBY’ was actually a pretty weak insult to begin with. For all that planners and urbanists speak of it, ‘NIMBYism’ can’t be anything more than a symptom of deeper societal attitudes and structural issues, no matter how narrow your definition is. Accusing someone of being a NIMBY doesn’t get you any closer to understanding their motivations, or how they’re able to do what they do. If your only argument to obstructionists is that they’re obstructing, then you’re not cutting to the heart of why or how they’re obstructing.

Politics is ultimately about power. Understanding any political situation requires understanding who holds the power in the room. ‘NIMBY’ doesn’t help you here, because it doesn’t distinguish between the powerful and the powerless. It’s merely a label to attach to whatever local resident is getting in the way of your plans, with no regard to what those plans entail or who the locals are.

None of this is to say that we all need to start being more polite, use our indoor voices and stop calling people names (as lovely as that might be, I have little hope of that happening anytime soon). Fierce political battles beget fierce political rhetoric. But ‘NIMBY’ has become a crutch for us, and we need to be smarter in our battles. In place of ‘NIMBY’, social progressives and urban planners should adopt rhetoric that is sharper and clearer. The more specific your argument, the harder it will be for someone to turn it against you. Taking the time to seriously examine why people are opposed to a specific plan or project will either lead you to the realization that there are reasonable concerns to be found, or it will reveal darker, more selfish motivations—which you can use to formulate more pointed critiques.

There are serious matters of structural inequality that planners and progressives across the country are working to address. The forces arrayed against them are massive and daunting. And if all you can muster in this fight is calling people NIMBYs, you’re not helping; you’re merely contributing to the noise that could be turned against you in an instant. You may think yourself above such petty ‘NIMBYist’ concerns today, but tomorrow you might be fighting like hell to keep G.E. Smith out of your town. We all have our breaking point, and the question isn’t whether you have one or not; the question is whether your’s will be morally defensible.

Streetcars are built for development, not transportation


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.

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.


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).

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.


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.