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October 7, 2002

Elevated discourse: Seattle editor/columnist Dan Savage lays it on the line:
The Chicago Transit Authority’s elevated trains—or the El, as the entire system is collectively known—is everything fear-mongering critics claim Seattle’s monorail will be. The El is big, loud, and dirty. Streets that run under the El are dark and gloomy, and there’s no parking near any of Chicago’s El stations.

So does Chicago’s El prove that monorail critics are correct? Hardly. Despite the fact that Chicago’s El is big, loud, dirty, and dark, people in Chicago clamor to live near it, and streets that are served by El stops—even those dark and gloomy streets under the El—are vibrant and alive. […]

As I rode the Orange Line last week, I could see hip, expensive condos going up all along the route; apartments near El stations—apartments that abut the El tracks—rent for considerably more than other apartments. […]

Chicago has rapid transit—which is why someone who complained to Chicago’s mayor about how long it takes to drive downtown would NOT be told that the best minds at city hall were hard at work on the problem. What the driver would be told—once the mayor stopped laughing, of course—was where he could find a map of the El. Thanks to Chicago’s rapid transit system, the mayor of Chicago doesn’t have to pretend that congestion is a problem that he can fix. If you don’t like sitting in traffic, he’ll tell you, take rapid transit. If you don’t want to take rapid transit, don’t complain about sitting in traffic.

As Savage makes clear, buses, trolleys, and “light rail” are transit, but they’re not rapid transit. Rapid transit is faster than traffic. New Yorkers don’t take the subway out of public-spiritedness. Whaddya think, we’re nuts? We take the subway because it’s faster and cheaper than getting around the city by car.

Savage’s best line: “As a kid growing up in Chicago, there wasn’t anywhere I couldn’t go on my own.” That’s why Chicago is a real city—and places like Seattle aren’t. [08:29 AM]

Welcome to Electrolite's comments section.
Hard-Hitting Moderator: Teresa Nielsen Hayden.

Comments on Elevated discourse::

Scott Janssens ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2002, 09:24 AM:

The proposed route of the monorail, from the U-District to SeaTac, would do little, if anything, to aleviate car traffic from outside the city which is the source of the problem.

I wouldn't call myself an opponant, though. I plan on getting out of this nuthouse, non-city before any of the plans come to fruition.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2002, 09:32 AM:

You're missing the same point as the people Savage is arguing with.

The point of rapid-transit systems isn't to "alleviate car traffic." Car traffic will always expand to the limits of the car infrastructure. The point of rapid-transit systems is to give people a way to get around rapidly.

Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2002, 10:10 AM:

I'm not sure how I feel about this one.

One of the reasons Houston is a hard sell for rapid transit is that there are too many destination areas for locals (downtown, Museum District, Greenway Plaza, Westchase, Greenspoint, Clear Lake, etc.) to trivially set up rapid transit, or even usable mass transit other than buses. Another reason is Tom DeLay, but we won't go into that.

On the other hand, I live within a couple of miles of downtown, and I have a house with a lawn. And what I pay in mortgage a month could maybe get me an apartment half the size in a not particularly desirable neighborhood in New York, based on numbers quoted by a friend who just moved there. Ground, green grass, and trees are things you have to give up when you have a "real city", and it's not a price a lot of Houstonians, including me, are eager to pay.

We're already seeing some of the downside of the equation: townhomes with no lawns, high-rise apartment buildings, etc. But as things stand, those are choices people make; there are other options, even if they are getting more and more expensive.

When I bitch about how Houston shouldn't aspire to be New York (or Chicago), this is one of the issues I'm getting at. I hate my commute, but I think I'd hate having to pay what I pay to live in a teeny box even more.

Ulrika O'Brien ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2002, 12:19 PM:

My experience suggests that you don't have to make a choice between the possibility of lawns and the presence of real rapid transit. I've seen houses with lawns available within walking distance of a subway stop in London and Stockholm, and have it on good authority that this happens in Chicago, with respect to the El too. My experience of New York is limited (in the sense that it is non-existant) but I'd be surprised to find that there aren't some houses with lawns and access to the subway there, too.

The existence of rapid transit doesn't automatically stamp out all verdure within a thirty mile radius. The vision of urban environments as unrelieved concrete and asphalt dystopias I suspect may be a piece of propaganda sold to us by real estate interests. At any event it isn't true.

Regarding housing costs, I suspect they reflect something more complex than just the presence or absence of rapid transit. I expect that the rent on a house in Houston is likely to be comparable to that on a much smaller apartment in many parts of Los Angeles, and significantly cheaper than an apartment in really desirable parts of Los Angeles. L.A., despite titanic efforts, still doesn't have effective rapid transit.

For myself, after a long exile in car-commuter suburban hell, where the lawns are all about warm, welcoming, and human-scaled as the designs of Albert Speer, I would be ecstatic to trade it all in for a bit of city living and real rapid transit. But I'd settle for Seattle.

etc. ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2002, 01:03 PM:

Scott is mistaken about the route of the proposed Seattle Monorail, which would extend from Ballard (NW Seattle) to West Seattle (SW Seattle), via downtown. What he describes is the corridor for Link light rail, a separate system.

Neel Krishnaswami ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2002, 02:31 PM:

Actually, the price of housing is pretty close to completely determined by a single variable: how strict are the zoning regulations? For example, Boston and Houston are pretty much comparable in terms of population and land area, but housing costs in Houston are around 1/3 the level of Boston's.

That's not a typo: you need to pay three times as much for comparable housing in Boston as in Houston. And that difference is almost entirely explained by the fact that Boston has much stricter zoning than Houston does. It's basically impossible to convert existing housing stock into high-density housing in Boston, and as a result rents go through the roof and the poor and the working class can't afford to live in the city. If someone educated housing advocates for the poor about how markets work, I would ne willing to beat up God to make that person a saint. There's one hell of a lot of negatively productive effort when it comes to housing politics. :(

See Glaeser and Gyourko's paper, "The Impact of Zoning on Housing Affordability".

Mass transit (or the lack thereof) is very much a second-order effect when it comes to housing costs. The argument there should basically be about whether it's worthwhile to subsidize kids being able to go wherever, as Patrick notes. Unlike him, I'd just say no to subsidies, but that's why the political process exists.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2002, 02:38 PM:

Ginger is right that not every place should aspire to the condition of New York or Chicago. I could personally be quite happy in some "car culture" places -- Tucson, Arizona, for instance. I don't think the Crowded Big City is necessarily the ne plus ultra of all civilized life. (Notwithstanding the root of the word "civilized.") Ginger is also correct that many people reasonably choose More Space For Less Money over the attractions of life at the white-hot center.

Ulrika, however, is right that plenty of places have both lawns and rapid transit. Such places include but are not limited to London, New York, Toronto, and Chicago. First-time visitors to Brooklyn and Queens are often surprised to find that vast swatches of those boroughs consist of free-standing houses with lawns and gardens and huge old trees. With subway stations in easy walking distance.

A big part of Savage's piece is devoted to arguing for the idea that what cities need is rapid transit, i.e., a system that runs faster than surface traffic, not more half-measures like trolleys or buses or "light rail." Yes, subways and elevateds are generally big and noisy, and ya know what, when they're reliable and frequent and cheap, people love them and use them and thrive thereby.

Vicki ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2002, 03:06 PM:

Just for the record, I grew up on a tree-lined street, in a house with front and back yards, two short blocks from the New York City subway.

Avram ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2002, 03:42 PM:

I live in Brooklyn, within a block or two of:

A station on a major subway line,
Houses with lawns, and
A park with more grass and trees than even a Texas lawn could possibly have, and
A botanical garden.

Not stand-alone houses, though. I have to walk four or five blocks to find those.

jennie ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2002, 04:16 PM:

"Mass transit (or the lack thereof) is very much a second-order effect when it comes to housing costs. The argument there should basically be about whether it's worthwhile to subsidize kids being able to go wherever, as Patrick notes."

I don't believe Patrick noted any such thing (and he is welcome to correct me if I'm mistaken). I believe Patrick noted that the presence of rapid transit, which provides a *useful* alternative to driving (and is, incidentally available to kids, who, among others, *can't* drive) makes Chicago a "real city", and Seattle something like an overgrown town.

In Toronto, kids are not the sole regular users of the subway. They don't even comprise the majority of regular subway passengers. They do *use* the subway. So do senior citizens. So do people of just about every age group in between. They take the subway because it's faster, cheaper, and generally more convenient than driving downtown. That subway passes with equal frequency under King Street's glass and steel bank towers, Rosedale's manicured lawns and aristocratic trees, and Yorkville's subsidized concrete housing projects. It hasn't seemed to affect the cost of either Rosedale's mansions, or the Project's tenement houses.

The argument is not whether it's worthwhile to subsidize kids' mobility. That kids use the subway is a bonus. It's about which option is more cost-effective and potentially successful for a city: to invest in a real (i.e. fast-as-driving) alternative to driving for its residents, or to find another means of reducing / controlling urban traffic, without providing anyone a good alternative to driving. I'd be interested to hear whether any cities that have pursued the latter and not the former have done so successfully.

Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2002, 05:16 PM:

I'm willing to believe there are actual lawns and stuff in New York (I know there are in London), but that's certainly not what those of us who don't live there are led to believe. But there are, as I mentioned, patches of Houston where trees are becoming less common.

FWIW, Houston does not have less strict zoning than Boston. Houston has no zoning at all. All limits to what you can do with your property are embodied in deed restrictions, and occasionally in how the city, county, or flood control district issues permits. That last is key, since overdevelopment on the far west side--by not leaving enough flood plain or including enough drainage--is one of the things that made the floods after Tropical Storm Allison so bad.

To bring this back around to mass transit: there's currently a move to expand the Katy Freeway (I-10 west) to 22 lanes, including toll and HOV. I personally think the 22-lane plan is nuts, and for exactly the reason Patrick cites: the car traffic will expand to fill the lanes allotted, and then some. And I am not sympathetic to my coworkers who think they ought to be able to drive 30 miles in 30 minutes to get downtown in rush hour. That's what you get for living in the suburbs, where you can get a huge house for no money by Houston standards.

The problem with Houston isn't moving people faster than the prevailing traffic speed. It's getting the infrastructure into place to move people at speed not only from A to B, but from and to all the other letters of the alphabet at the same time. Given how spread out the city is, I'm convinced that it's pretty much impossible, even without the anti-mass-transit folks like Tom DeLay cutting off anything more than buses at the knees.

Bob Webber ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2002, 06:16 PM:

As a resident of Greater Boston, I was very interested by Neel Krishnaswami's comments and went off and read the paper at the other end of the included link. Unfortunately, I have to disagree with Neel's conclusions as stated.

Glaeser and Gyourko do in fact point to zoning regulations as a factor which artificially restricts the available supply of housing in a classical supply-and-demand model, and as such zoning laws, so I agree with Neel that far. However, what is relevant to this discussion and what Neel seems to have missed is that the demand side of the Law of Supply and Demand also plays a part. More people are motivated to live close to the urban centers of Boston, or New York, or Chicago, than in the Houston sprawl.

Ginger is to some extent correct when she says that the existence of rapid transit lines can increase housing costs and (per Glaeser and Gyourko) lead to subdivision of lots, development of apartment buildings, and elimination of green space in residential areas: having rapid transit in or near a residential area can increase the demand for housing in that area.

This increased demand presents an economic incentive to subdivide lots and increase housing density. Bringing this back to Neel's (and Glaeser's and Gyourko's) point, an increase in supply could allow land and housing owners to supply that increased demand at a fixed, or moderately increased, cost. Zoning laws then enter the picture (as noted) by preventing an increase in supply, which leads to an increase in price.

Note, however, that human irrationality, physical limitations, cost of money, and individual legal actions can also prevent supply from rising in response to increased demand and that increased demand (because more people want to live near MIT and Harvard than Rice), so it is not correct to Libertarianesquely assign the entire burden of higher housing costs to public laws.

In short, zoning limits the available supply, but providing high-speed transit does increase demand (and potentially increases direct taxes), which will lead to higher-density construction (viz new construction along the Spadina subway line in Toronto) or to increases in housing cost, depending on the regulatory and other limits to density increase.

Jerry Kindall ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2002, 07:12 PM:

If I were a parent, I'd probably consider the fact that the rapid transit system lets my kids roam all over town a bug, not a feature. And depending on my kids' temperament, the rest of the city might feel the same way.

Erik V. Olson ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2002, 07:30 PM:

That's fine. I go to London, and *then* you start talking about the L.

Useful lesson. Parts of the L system are way old. One part, now known as "The Green Line" -- except to locals, of course, who keep bandying about the "Ashmont" and "Oak Park" names, but I digress. The Oak Par, excuse, Green Line was in such bad shape that the decision was made to not try to fix it piecemeal, but simply to shut it down for, oh, 18 months, and rebuild it as fast as possible.

Good Idea, right?

No. Traffic on the Green Line obviously dropped to 0 -- but traffic, systemwide, dropped as well. A rapid transit system that stops going to large hunks of the City becomes much less useful -- and Chicago doesn't have the density of lines that New York or London does, that would let them get away with it.

Green Line ridership only just returned to pre-rebuild levels.

Now, they're rebuilding the Cermak L, I mean, the Cermak branch of the Blue Line. Are they shutting that down? Not on your too tiny to find fast CTA token horde.

There's *lots* of lessons here. And I wouldn't give up the L -- or even the dinky one-line Metrolink system in St. Louis, for love or money.

Vast historical detail at http://www.chicago-l.org/

Neel Krishnaswami ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2002, 07:38 PM:

Jennie: I am a fan of public transit -- I live in Boston and own no car. But the MBTA is a perpetual money-loser, and I'm not sure that it's a good idea for the government to be subsidizing the transportation choices of an upper-middle-class computer programmer.

And "not sure it's a good idea" isn't a fancy way of saying "I think the idea stinks", either. The problem is that no one can tell whether publicly-financed roads or publicly-financed mass transit is more cost-efficient, because there is no effective mechanism to reveal how much people are willing to trade off the freedom of the car for the freedom of not having to worry about maintaining a car. (And anyone who claims to be sure is either a fool, or lying with an ulterior motive.)

The basic problem with free roads is that they always fill up to congestion levels, because it costs nothing to drive on them. An economist would note that the time penalty that congestion imposes is functionally a tariff on road use, but that's not real helpful to a city planner, because you can't put a price on congestion, and you can't change it to shift usage patterns. If I were dictator of the world, I'd impose a time-of-day and lane-based pricing scheme (with at least one very-expensive lane to let me soak the impatient rich and let ambulances and fire trucks use the main thoroughfares reliably). Then, because both roads and mass transit cost money, you could trade off prices until you found the appropriate mix.

Yeah, this sounds like a market-based libertarian scheme and a left-wing high modernist social planning scheme, simultaneously. Which I guess explains why almost no one is considering it. :( Only London, under Red Ken, has road pricing on the table. I really hope he doesn't screw it up, because this is basically our only hope of learning how to create a sane transportation policy, and a failure there will set the idea back decades.

Bob: Glaeser's paper does test the hypothesis that it's the demand side that controls prices -- in a demand-driven market lot size will drop as land prices rise, but the regulation hypothesis implies that lots will be large and high-priced. Since the latter is what is seen in practice, and there are plenty of laws against subdividing properties, I think it's fair to ascribe most of the increased cost to regulation.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2002, 07:41 PM:

Jerry Kindall: sorry to hear that.

This is a hard issue to write about, because I don't want to tell any parent that I know better than they do what their kids need. But it seems to me that, overall, parents and educators have grown far more anxious and protective, determined to monitor their kids every minute of the day, than they were when I was a kid in the 1960s and early 1970s.

I walked or bicycled miles to school in the Phoenix area in the late 1960s, and took myself--alone!--miles from home into university campuses, public libraries, and downtowns. In Portland, Oregon in 1970-71, age 11 and 12, I rode the bus all over downtown and some grungy industrial areas, and Portland was by no means the pleasant and orderly city it has since become. Today, most of my friends who have kids display a level of fretful anxiety about letting their kids do anything unscheduled and out of their sight that leaves me thoroughly nonplussed. The actual level of crime against kids is the same as, or lower than, what it was when I was these kid's ages.

Repeat: I'm not telling anyone how to raise their kids, and I'm not claiming that I'd behave differently if I had kids of my own. I'm just sayin'. I may be wrong. But it's clear that cultures swing back and forth, in attitudes about childrearing, between well-meaning overprotectiveness and benign neglect. As someone whose basic outlook is that of the self-starter, I'm inexpressibly thankful that I grew up in an era of benign neglect.

Avram ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2002, 07:53 PM:

I'm sure my parents were pretty damn glad that mass transit was available to allow me to attend an advanced high school without their having to take time away from their own jobs to drive me around. I'm also pretty sure that my quality-of-life would not have been improved by my having to pester my parents to play chauffeur every time I wanted to visit the gaming and comics stores downtown.

Kate Nepveu ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2002, 08:23 PM:

Neel Krishnaswami said: "I am a fan of public transit -- I live in Boston and own no car. But the MBTA is a perpetual money-loser, and I'm not sure that it's a good idea for the government to be subsidizing the transportation choices of an upper-middle-class computer programmer."

(I wonder if it's possible to have a discussion of mass transit without getting into class? If this was going to be that discussion, sorry, but I must point out--)

Upper-middle-class adults may be able to choose whether or not to buy/drive a car, but many people don't have that choice. If you have neither a car (or a reliable car) nor mass transit, your options for getting to and from jobs, or school, or whatever, are really limited.

Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2002, 08:54 PM:

Everyone's an expert, oy.

Ok, here's what I think I know about the matter:

1. Low-density car-oriented city forms are heavily subsidized.

2. Neel's theory of real-estate prices is, so far as I can tell, partial at best.

3. "Light rail" traffic, by virtue of having its own rights of way, is often faster than automobile traffic. Streetcars mix with automative traffic and move as fast (or as slowly) as buses.

4. Generally speaking, cities where rail transit works best are cities which have been built around it; in New York, for instance, the shopping streets are organized around the transit lines. Central Seattle, because of its linear geography, is a special case; rail transit would probably work there (I have not, however, studied the matter in depth.) The older parts of Seattle were organized around a streetcar system; they could probably be made to work well with one.

5. Car-oriented urban spaces sprawl out in two dimensions; this is likely to make retrofitting them for rail systems difficult. But see Safdie, The City After the Automobile.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2002, 08:57 PM:

"[I]n New York, for instance, the shopping streets are organized around the transit lines."

What on earth does this mean? New York's street grid, and a great deal of its retail patterns, both predate the subway system by a good bit.

Neel Krishnaswami ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2002, 09:33 PM:

Kate: All I mean by "upper-middle class" is that I can earn substantially more than the median wage, and that the subsidies that prop up the MBTA represent a transfer of wealth from the rest of the tax base to me. Now, tax dollars are finite, and all else being equal I'd prefer that instead of subsidizing me there was some way of directing those resources to the needy. For example, one can imagine pricing the T at its market price, and then paying subsidies to poor people to buy T passes. (I am not proposing this scheme as a real alternative, mind; just as an illustration of the issues.)

Randolph: You can create rapid transit using road pricing. You just charge a higher price to travel on some lanes than on others, and those will naturally tend to have less traffic and congestion. It's a naturally progressive tariff scheme, too, because wealthier individuals will presumably use the faster and more expensive lanes more frequently, and thus will end up paying more for the roads than poor users. You can also give buses the right to use the fast lanes, and bam!, you get rapid transit without a huge extra capital investment that rail requires.

Also, I want to re-emphasize your observation that the zoning reference I pointed out doesn't settle anything about mass transit. All it shows is that housing prices aren't either a positive or a negative argument wrt mass transit. I brought it up mostly because I thought it drives home that this is a question that really should be decided on the basis of quality-of-life issues.

Avram ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2002, 10:03 PM:

In defense of Seattle's bus system, I'd like to say that I found it pretty handy during my visit there a couple of years ago. That underground tunnel downtown makes it about as quick as a subway for that one part of its route. Still, an actual rail link to the U. District would have been even faster.

Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2002, 11:59 PM:

"[I]n New York, for instance, the shopping streets are organized around the transit lines."

What on earth does this mean? New York's street grid, and a great deal of its retail patterns, both predate the subway system by a good bit.

The street grid, yes, the placement of transit lines (streetcars and elevated railways predated subways) and the Beaux-Arts buildings with ground-floor shops, no. Generally speaking in Manhattan north of 42nd street, the shops line the transit lines and cluster around the stations; this is especially so along Broadway.

etc. ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2002, 02:09 AM:

OK, I live in Seattle, and I am a transit nerd. This is my attempt at an evenhanded discussion of Seattle's current struggle with busses and two separate large transit construction projects.

Seattle's current bus only transit system has some problems. Many of the in city bus routes run along routes formerly traveled by streetcars. They serve neighborhoods built to former ideas of spaciousness, and single family homes are often on 3000 ft2 lots. That adds up to a pretty good number of households per mile. On many Metro bus routes in the core of Seattle, the number of busses is at the limit of the number of busses that can rumble down the street in an hour. That is to say that more busses cannot fit on the street. Still, the demand for seats and standing room exceeds what the available busses provide. Also, the busses are part of a countywide system, and new bus service is allocated only in part in response to demand, and part in response to political considerations.

As a remedy to transportation problems, the state formed a regional transit authority, and it passed a referendum for light rail to serve the region. Basicly, voters in the city itself provided the votes to overcome suburban oposition. For a lot of reasons, this measure proved inadequate to build the entirity of its promised system. This left the transit authority in bad odor. What is being built is the cheaper portion of the proposed system, and presumably their will be a call for more money to expand the system at a later date. This system is slated for the busiest transit markets in the city, and may one day extend from Everett to Tacoma, some 60 to 80 miles.

At the same time, cities in the region other than Seattle grew and began to flex their newfound political muscle. This prompted a breakdown of sorts in regionalism. An initiative to expand the 1962 World's Fair monorail to serve the entire city, and the suburbs be damned, was floated, and it passed. The elected officials sat on it, and a second initiative was passed, reaffirming the first.

The monorail comes up for a vote in November. It will likely pass. By agreement with the transit agency that is building light rail, the monorail will serve the second tier of prime transit routes. The first monorail line to be built would go from the NW of town, to the SW, through the downtown center (the center west is salt water).

The regionalists are afraid that the monorail will suck all the air out of the room when it comes time to ask for more money for light rail. They need the Seattle voters, and they feel that a regional approach is in everyone's long term best interest.

Transit users I have spoken with also feel that the city dwellers who support transit should get transit, without having to compromise it away to nothing to placate a bunch of SUV driving suburbanites who won't ride the doggone thing anyway, or words to that effect. Many heartily support the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax (a tax based upon the value of one's car), in part because they drive nearly worthless vehicles (they also are likely to have no off street parking, and their vehicles are exposed to a string of petty dings and other indignaties that would reduce an automobile afficianado to tears).

Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2002, 09:19 AM:

I don't know if what Randolph is saying is true of New York, but it's true of London and Montreal -- away from immediate downtown areas, where you have a metro station, yea, there will you also have a little cluster of shops.

There are two possible reasons for this -- either people cleverly put the metro station where the "village" already was for that bit of city or, alternatively, people cleverly built their shops where there would be a density of users coming out of the metro and spreading out. Both of these assume that people are going to be using the rapid transit and walking. Look at where shops are in cities without them -- stuck off in malls you have to drive to. It's just a different way of imagining how people live. This is about people, not cars and subways.

In Montreal the metro stations are also mini bus-stations for their areas. I think this is so incredibly clever I want to hug the person who thought of it. I like it so much because I lived in London for two years and almost never took a bus because I couldn't understand where they were going.

The thing with rapidf transit is that it's fast and reliable and there for everyone all the time. I'm beginning to think that it makes sense to think of the British railway system as rapid transit for the whole country -- it's faster than driving, it's cheaper than driving, and it used to have the flexibility of just being able to turn up and be fairly sure there'd be a train in a reasonable amount of time.

Melissa Ann Singer ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2002, 10:00 AM:

A couple of points which may or may not be contributions . . . .

Like Avram, my parents were grateful for NYC's public transit which allowed me to commute safely from my neighborhood in Queens to a specialized jr.high/high school in Manhattan starting in 7th grade, when I was barely 12. I began by taking the express bus back and forth, for which we paid a premium, but by the time I was 13 or so, I went everywhere by subway, which, was basically free because NY subsidizes school-age riders. Otherwise, vast number of children could not afford to get to school. It is routine for parents and children in parts of the city to ride subways and/or buses to and from school, both neighborhood schools and specialized (but still public and therefore free) schools of all sorts. Children and, in larger numbers, teens, are a regular part of the transit system. If you live or work near a school, and are uncomfortable around kids, you quickly learn to stay out of the way for the half-hour or so around dismissal time, after which everyone has pretty much scattered for home.

More to the point, the transit system allows NYers the opportunity to easily reach all parts of the city. My 6-yo and I can get just about anywhere, from Coney Island to the best of Manhattan's museums, for one fare. Our "local" zoo is 10 minutes away by bus. We even hit the "mall" by subway. I don't own a car and cannot drive (common in Native New Yorkers), but rarely feel the lack. Just as people who are accustomed to driving think nothing of spending an hour or more behind the wheel to get to a desired destination, I have no problem with spending a similar amount of time on the subway for the same reason.

Another contributing factor to housing costs is the school system, at least in NY. In NYC, to live in a district or cachement which is known to have good public schools can add 25% or more to the cost of housing. In my neighborhood, which is among the top for public elementary schools, even one bedroom apartments can go for six figures, and houses start at half a million. It is not at all uncommon to find that housing prices are significantly impacted by schools.

It's a mixed-use neighborhood--shopping of various kinds, including a couple of national chains, apartment buildings, mostly post-WWII, and private homes. The neighborhood definitely arose in response to transit, and the area around the Long Island Rail Road station, now known as Forest Hills Gardens, was one of the first planned communities in the city. The later extension of the subway lines into this part of Queens facilitated the further development of the area. There's no question that this area would not look the way it does without the subway. It would be more like Long Island--strip malls and private homes.

Kevin J. Maroney ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2002, 02:12 PM:

Randolph says:
Generally speaking in Manhattan north of 42nd street, the shops line the transit lines and cluster around the stations; this is especially so along Broadway.

This is astoundingly incorrect. You *might* be correct if you limit your comments to "Manhattan north of 110th Street", but from 42nd to 110th Street, the avenues from 1st Avenue to 12th Avenue are door-to-door commerical establishments.

The further you get from lower Manhattan, the more the shops cluster around transit hubs (in all of the boroughs and the surrounding countines of New York and New Jersey). But you don't make your case stronger by saying things which are flagrantly wrong.

Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2002, 03:11 PM:

from 42nd to 110th Street, the avenues from 1st Avenue to 12th Avenue are door-to-door commerical establishments.

Well, I grew up on the upper west side (102nd street) and I haven't forgotten the streets, so I don't know what to make of this response. Yes, it's true that there are shops along many parts of the avenues, though not all of them--I don't know that Central Park West has any, for instance, or Park Avenue north of 59th. But the larger ones are focused around the transit lines, and the largest are generally around "special" nodes like the intersections of Broadway with the avenues. The east side has no pattern-breaking street like Broadway and therefore, as I recall, fewer focal nodes north of 59th--the focii tend to be linear, along the major cross streets, or related to places in central park.

Gary Farber ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2002, 07:15 PM:

"Ground, green grass, and trees are things you have to give up when you have a 'real city', and it's not a price a lot of Houstonians, including me, are eager to pay."

Yikes. I'm so glad to learn that Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, the Bronx, and much of Manhattan don't exist. I don't recall, in all four boroughs I've lived in, ever having lived without being in walking distance of a tree. Or lots of trees. Or racoons and fields, and forests. I kinda have the idea that Ginger has never lived in any of the boroughs, and on this, has no clue what she's talking about. Alas.

Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2002, 07:19 PM:

Credit to Fredrick Law Olmstead, there. The original Manhattan grid plan did not have Central Park; had it been built out as planned, and then built up, it would have been stultifying.

Gary Farber ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2002, 07:31 PM:

"I'd be surprised to find that there aren't some houses with lawns and access to the subway there, too."

I grew up there. It's called "most of NYC." Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, Washington Heights, etc.

Gary Farber ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2002, 07:45 PM:

"If I were a parent, I'd probably consider the fact that the rapid transit system lets my kids roam all over town a bug, not a feature."

I guess it was a terrible thing I was able to bus down to the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library at the age of eight, and read up on Asimov collections, and the first few Advent:Publishers books. I guess it was a bug that I read Sam Moskowitz in book form then, in the Sixties. I guess it was a bug I took the B60 down Coney Island Avenue to Coney Island, at age eight, to buy used books for ten and twenty and twenty five cents a piece, and play games at Astroland, as well.

I guess it was a bug I rode to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, at age nine, and viewed the knights in armor, and the vast canvas' and that I spent weekends after weekends at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, on my own, having ridden there on the Franklin Avenue Shuttle, shitty a train as it is, at age eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, and fourteen.

I guess all this, and so much more, was just a bug.

I'll go to resign being me, now, because if it weren't for the NYC Transit system, and for my parents having let me "roam it," when I was eight and older, I wouldn't be me. It's all just a bug.

Avram ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2002, 01:06 AM:

Gary: the Franklin Avenue Shuttle, shitty a train as it is

It's improved. The MTA rebuilt the northern terminal station (maybe the south one too, but I've never needed to take the line below Eastern Parkway), and it's pretty nice now. Not that rickety old wooden contraption.

Eloise Beltz-Decker ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2002, 12:58 PM:

A clarification: what does Patrick mean when he says 'light rail,' and then apposes it to Chicago's El trains? Light Rail is a term of art in the trainhead community, and means things what run on steel rails with steel wheels, whose tracks are a certain distance apart (gauge) or less, and a certain weight-per-car or less. The El is light rail. So is Toronto's Scarborough line on the TTC (their CTA, approximately). The rest of Toronto's subway is not: their cars are approximately twice as wide and twice as long as CTA cars (four doors per side, and big couch things for seats - it was most disconcerting for me the first time I rode it!).

If by 'light rail' you meant 'streetcars that go down the middle of streets and have to contend with traffic,' your statements make much more sense. However, the difference between San Francisco's streetcars and Chicago's El is merely a matter of track segregation, not 'light rail' vs. 'real trains'.

Interestingly, light rail can go faster, accelerate more quickly, and make more radical corners than heavy (which is one reason the El is light rail - well, that and the fact that when they started it they just took the existing streetcar rolling stock and ran it up onto the high tracks).

Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2002, 09:14 PM:


OK, to begin with, I realized that what I was thinking of in the clustering of shops applies to Manhattan west of Central Park; east of Central Park the pattern is more linear. I'm pretty sure that was largely a response to elevated railways that no longer exist, but it would take quite a bit of research for me to be sure of that.

Jo, rail suburbs were deliberately developed around railroad stations. In some cases, I'm pretty sure--but would have to check references to be absolutely sure & don't want to spend the time--that the developer of the railway also participated in the development of the rail suburb.

For the comparison of streecars and buses, Jo hit one problem--people don't mostly know where the bus routes are, whereas people are pretty sure of where the streetcars go. Streetcars can also be made--usually are made--far more comfortable than buses.

Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2002, 08:59 AM:

Randolph -- I was going to say I didn't mean "rail suburbs" because in my mind "rail suburbs" are something else, not places you can get to on the subway. I could name rail suburbs, Watford and Amersham and bloody Woking and West Byfleet in London, Pointe Claire and St Annes here. (Sorry I don't know any cities you know well enough to be helpful.)

As I was formulating this thought, I realised that the very thing that makes the distinction in my mind is what we're talking about. A "rail suburb" is out of the city precisely because it isn't part of the city's net of rapid transport. In London, somewhere you can get to on the Underground is psychologically nearer than somewhere you have to take a train to, or a bus, because trains and buses run on a timetable and subways *psychologically* run all the time, constantly, even though you have to wait a few minutes for one you don't go to catch any specific one, they are beads on a string. Where they run is city, not suburb.

As for streetcars, I've never really had much experience with them. But the bus problem is solved in Montreal and I'd urge city planners to look at how they've done it.

Jo, using Barfy old Netscape 4 but struggling on nevertheless.

CHip ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2002, 07:02 PM:

Neel writes

in a demand-driven market lot size will drop as land prices rise, but the regulation hypothesis implies that lots will be large and high-priced

This suggests the regulation hypothesis does not
apply to Boston, where lots are small and high-priced. Boston is an incredibly dense city by US standards. (Adjacent Cambridge is said to be the densest city in the US; I have no solid data either way.) The density is one of the reasons people get upset when developers try to make their neighborhood even denser, as in the recent decision to (simplified) put an apartment/office complex around an antique reservoir pumping station to provide money to preserve it.

I would also ask when the 3x figure between Boston and Houston was established; after a few sluggish years, the Boston market has exploded, such that our house was estimated by a realtor to be sellable at well over twice what we paid. (Yes, realtors try to make sales. OTOH, I've seen ordinary-living condos go from X in 1988 to

Gary Farber ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2002, 09:13 PM:

Jo: Why use Netscape 4 instead of downloading a later version, or Mozilla or Opera? They're, like, free, you know? And they don't require a better machine, either. I'm kinda at a loss at imagining a reason to use a crap obsolete browswer when better ones are free and work on the same machine and you are connected t the Internet. Que?

Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2002, 11:15 PM:

Jo Walton:

I was going to say I didn't mean "rail suburbs" because in my mind "rail suburbs" are something else, not places you can get to on the subway.

Right. I didn't mention that when these places were developed they were outside the city--they have since been swallowed up. It's strange to me to read that there were farms within the Portland Oregon city limits in living memory; no more, alas--the effort to preserve the farms in Oregon have led to policies which concentrate development in existing cities, preserving farm and timber land outside.

My last comment in this rather old thread, I think.
Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2002, 02:19 PM:

Okay, yeah, it's an old thread. But I was gone for 3 weeks and now my computer has died. (I'm using Jordin's while he naps.)

Patrick: The phenomenon you cite about parents being overprotective of their children is, imho, directly down to the media. It used to 15 minutes of national news in the evening and some local news (on tv) and whatever your local rag saw fit to print. Now there are multiple 24 hr/day news channels, the internet and ghod knows what other news outlets. Most run with eyes fixed on the bottom line. As we all know, sensational sells and what's more sensational than a kid in jeopardy? Gag, bletch.

And the perception of children's danger has become so skewed that even if you are a preceptive enough parent to recognize the falsity of the prescription, not monitoring your child 24 hrs/day can get you accused of child neglect and endangerment.

This is one of my favorite rants. How *could* you tell.