San Francisco’s Most-Wanted (Nonexistent) Subway Lines (CityLab)

Hi and welcome back to Sunday Reading. Here are the media highlights from the past couple weeks. Drop your recommendation in the comments section. Happy Labour Day weekend!

New world cities must be kicking themselves for not building underground rapid transit when they had a chance. Here’s Seattle’s story when they were close to deciding on a comprehensive mass transit system in 1968, but instead decided to invest in “arterials and expressways”. Woops. Josh Cohen, “How Seattle blew its chance at a subway system“, Crosscut.

Foward Thrust vision for transit was a 47-mile, 30-station rail rapid transit system with four lines running out of downtown to the corners of the city and across the lake to Bellevue, to be built by 1985. The measure would’ve also funded 90 miles of express bus service, and over 500 miles of local bus service to feed the rail system.

All that rail came with a steep price tag: $1.15 billion. But the Forward Thrust committee was encouraged by the 1964 Urban Mass Transit Act, which authorized the federal government to pay for up to two-thirds of the capital costs of urban rail projects. Their plan asked for $385 million in property taxes from Seattle and King County voters. The feds would pick up roughly $800 million on top of that.

In a report to the Municipal League, Gould wrote, “The only way we can fail safe is with arterials, expressways, and a modern bus system … Let us not financially cripple ourselves for the next 40 years for a system that all experience proves to be a loser.”

Gibbs says General Motors also joined the opposition. “They brought in a lot of money,” he tells me. “And they brought in something called the Bus of the Future to demonstrate how buses would operate and what they could look like. They never built another one, they never intended to. It was strictly show to try and stop rail projects.”

The option to avoid congestion and access more destinations across a city seems a critical metric. Here’s a neat study mapping the coverage of rapid transit stations across several large cities. Andrew Small, “What Cities Have the Most People Living Near Rapid Transit?“, CityLab.

Using these benchmarks, the study compared rapid transit sheds in cities to density maps of metropolitan areas to determine how many people have access to speedy public transportation.

For the 13 cities studied in industrialized countries, the average share of the population near transit came in at 68.5 percent, while metropolitan areas came in at 37.3 percent. The top four cities with the largest populations near rapid transit were Paris, Barcelona, Madrid, and London, reaching more than 90 percent of their city populations. Rotterdam came in fifth, serving 84 percent of its city population. The dense population in these cities affords good transit coverage at their cores, but further transit development has not followed residents out into broader metropolitan areas.


There continues to be a wealth of content and debate about life and work of Jane Jacobs. Reading Life and Death in 1990 had a profound influence on my life and inspired an unshakable fascination with cities and urbanism. I look forward to reading these biographies and unpublished collections over the summer. Nathaniel Rich, “The Prophecies of Jane Jacobs“, The Atlantic.

Urban life was Jacobs’s great subject. But her great theme was the fragility of democracy—how difficult it is to maintain, how easily it can crumble. A city offered the perfect laboratory in which to study democracy’s intricate, interconnected gears and ballistics. “When we deal with cities,” she wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), “we are dealing with life at its most complex and intense.” When cities succeed, they represent the purest manifestation of democratic ideals: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” When cities fail, they fail for the same reasons democracies fail: corruption, tyranny, homogenization, overspecialization, cultural drift and atrophy.

Reduced to a word, Jacobs’s argument is that a city, or neighborhood, or block, cannot succeed without diversity: diversity of residential and commercial use, racial and socioeconomic diversity, diversity of governing bodies (from local wards to state agencies), diverse modes of transportation, diversity of public and private institutional support, diversity of architectural style. Great numbers of people concentrated in relatively small areas should not be considered a health or safety hazard; they are the foundation of a healthy community.

Jane Jacobs at the 1958 Rockefeller Conference on Urban Design Criticism via @PeterLaurence.

The California LAO has been a leader in the conversation about the affects of land use restrictions in growing cities. From growing inequality to lower economic productivity, California remains the ground zero for zoning/land use gong show. Brian Uhler, “Housing and Economic Mobility“, The California Legislative Analyst’s Office.

Our office has written extensively about how California’s housing crisis—largely a result of too little building in coastal urban areas—has made it hard for many Californians to find housing that both meets their needs and is affordable. One perhaps underappreciated consequence of lackluster homebuilding in coastal California is that many workers are denied access to California’s high-wage job markets because they are unable to find housing. These workers are pushed to other parts of California or beyond where their wages tend to be lower.

With the decreased flow of workers from low-wage areas to high-wage areas, incomes levels across California’s counties have stopped converging in recent decades. Whereas the downward sloping pattern in the graph above for county income growth between 1940 and 1960 indicated converging incomes, the lack of such a pattern in the graph below for the period 1990 and 2010 suggests that convergence has stalled. (In fact, if anything there is a slight upward slope.)

A major takeaway from this data is that many of those who are affected by California’s coastal communities’ decisions to limit home building do not live in these communities. They are the workers who have been pushed to other parts of the state where their incomes are lower.

Laura Kusisto, “As Land-Use Rules Rise, Economic Mobility Slows, Research Says“, Wall Street Journal.

According to research by Daniel Shoag, an associate professor of public policy at Harvard University, and Peter Ganong, a postdoctoral fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research, a decadeslong trend in which the income gap between the poorest and richest states steadily closed has been upended by growth in land-use regulations.

Moving to a wealthier area in search of job opportunities has historically been a way to promote economic equality, allowing workers to pursue higher-paying jobs elsewhere. But those wage gains lose their appeal if they are eaten up by higher housing costs. The result: More people stay put and lose out on potential higher incomes.

Here’s a fascinating thesis about how class structures are being dismantled due to the housing boom/crisis. Via Bendon Harre. Ilan Wiesel, “How the housing boom is remaking Australia’s social class structure“, The Conversation.

The housing boom has blurred existing boundaries between upper, middle and lower classes that applied to the baby boomers and previous generations. New social class boundaries and formations are being produced.

This does not mean younger generations, as a collective, are disadvantaged compared to their parents. Rather, these younger generations will be subdivided differently and more unequally.

The Renting Class

In the industrial city, the term “working class” was defined by the experiences of low-income workers in manufacturing jobs. Yet in a post-industrial Australian city it makes more sense to talk about the “renting class”.

Not all renters are poor, and not all poor households are private renters. However, the correlation between the two is significant and strengthening.

Marina Benjamin, “Chabuduo! Close enough: How China became the land of disastrous corner-cutting“, Aeon.

Instead, the prevailing attitude is chabuduo, or ‘close enough’. It’s a phrase you’ll hear with grating regularity, one that speaks to a job 70 per cent done, a plan sketched out but never completed, a gauge unchecked or a socket put in the wrong size. Chabuduo is the corrosive opposite of the impulse towards craftmanship, the desire, as the sociologist Richard Sennett writes in The Craftsman (2008), ‘to reject muddling through, to reject the job just good enough’. Chabuduo implies that to put any more time or effort into a piece of work would be the act of a fool. China is the land of the cut corner, of ‘good enough for government work’. …

Why is China caught in this trap? In most industries here, vital feedback loops are severed. To understand how to make things, you have to use them. Ford’s workers in the US drove their own cars, and Western builders dwelt, or hoped to dwell, in homes like the ones they made. But the migrants lining factory belts in Guangdong make knick-knacks for US households thousands of miles away. The men and women who build China’s houses will never live in them.

The average price of a one-bedroom apartment in a Chinese second-tier city – a provincial town of a few million people, straining at its own geographical and environmental limits – is around $100,000; the average yearly salary for a migrant construction worker is around $3,500. Their future is shabby pre-fabricated workers’ dorms and old country shacks, not air conditioning and modern bathrooms. If what you’re making represents a world utterly out of reach to you, why bother to do it well?

Here’s some interesting research with some unsurprising conclusions. As cities increase the price of parking transit use increases.  Joe Cortright, “Cities and the price of parking“, City Observatory.

It’s worth asking why more people don’t drive: after all the cost of car ownership is essentially the same everywhere in the US. The short answer is that in cities, parking isn’t free. And when parking isn’t free, more people take transit or other modes of transportation.

To see just how strong an explanation that parking prices provide for transit use, we’ve plotted the number of transit trips per capita in each of the largest metropolitan areas against the typical price of a month of parking in the city center. Each data point represents a single metropolitan area. There’s a very strong positive correlation between transit rides per capita and parking rates. Cities with higher parking rates have more transit rides per capita than cities with lower parking rates.

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  1. Good reading thanks.
    I must say, I’ve always found Jacobs an interesting read, but also a deeply frustrating one. I find some of her thinking quite contradictory at times.

      1. Oh, where do I start.
        She promotes density, but then shows a very protectionist streak to heritage. Of course, the two can co-exist at times, but often they can’t.

        And yes, as you say re: Glaeser’s critique, she’s against bigger buildings. But then, she is against sprawl. But truly effective intensification requires a combination of the low rise density that she favours, and mid/high rise.

        Many other contradictions abound. She will talk about ‘cutting red tape’, and comes over as anti-authoritarian, then the next minute she’s talking up the need for interventions and control. Of course, these things are not always in conflict, and she is not always contradictory on these matters. But sometimes she is.
        As I say, I find her work somewhat frustrating. Her book, ‘Dark Age Ahead’, which I recently read, was especially flawed.

        Having said that, ‘Life and Death’ is a classic, and that work’s strengths far outweigh it’s flaws. It also speaks to its time, when a fairly radical view was required to push back against the things that Moses etc. were doing. I would argue that somewhere between Moses and Jacobs is what many large, growing cities need, and that is where many/most have landed.

        1. Matt it is a mistake to evaluate historical figures out of their context. In the Brave New World of postwar modernism the ‘tower in the park ‘ typology was absolutely the enemy.

          She is a great figure but certainly time-bound as we all are. There’s a really good short Adam Gopnik New Yorker article on her that describes this. Will look for a link. ‘Life and Death…’ remains one of the absolute pillars of urban understanding.

          Here you go:

          “It was against this background of established notoriety that Jacobs published, very much under the guidance of the editor Jason Epstein, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” The book is still astonishing to read, a masterpiece not of prose—the writing is workmanlike, lucid—but of American maverick philosophizing, in an empirical style that descends from her beloved Franklin. It makes connections among things which are like sudden illuminations, so that you exclaim in delight at not having noticed what was always there to see.”

          1. Yep exactly. As I said it speaks to the context of its time.
            I have more problem with some of her later wrirings

  2. Auckland is a beautiful city.
    But on some of the recent grey rainy days the view from the windows of the train to the city are not the best. Too much concrete to me is not attractive. But our beautiful trees are a big asset to Auckland.
    Alongside the tracks in some places there has been the same rubbish lying there for a year or 2 and the rocks do nothing.
    Can I recommend, as a low lying fruit story, that many more thousands of plants, eg Manuka, wild flowers etc be planted beside the rail lines. Mayor Goff wants a million more trees planted in Auckland and this would be an easy, cheap and very effective project to undertake.

  3. The Seattle story is heart breaking, and chimes strongly with our own ‘Robbie’s Rail’ one. In this I guess we need to accept a certain quality of zeitgeist to it: It was the spirit of the times. No doubt in both cases had they won approval they would have struggled through the high inflation in the civil works of the period and soft ridership immediately thereafter, but wouldn’t we be so grateful for them now, in both cities, had they happened? They would have ameliorated the monotonic sprawling urban form and diversified and add urban culture to both cities. But equally importantly, would have given their host cities core rail transit Right of Ways that we would now be upgrading and expanding.

    Right of Ways that could have be secured so cheaply and be so valuable now. Sigh.

    But I guess being too early is indistinguishable from being wrong, in effect. And if I am correct, that there is a strong zeitgeist force at work in major infrastructure provision, then this is encouraging for those of us who have always believed in the importance of this kit for cities: For now it is our time!

    1. The counciler will eventually regret the short slightness of such as k-road train entrance and building a single storey manukau interchange.

      Maybe it could be the influence and corruption from other self-interested lobbyist. Like how other cities lost its democracy and eventually gets corrupted and falls apart.

  4. My Sunday reading was that Phil Goff is considering a waterfront stadium. Not this again. If we’re suddenly awash with money can we get our rail projects built first? Phil didn’t campaign for this.
    Also I’m not sure so many sports fans in the middle of the cbd is such a good idea. Prepare for alchohol fuelled incidents to increase.

    1. Agreed,
      We don’t want to finally rid ourselves of one ugly severance causing weeping sore on the waterfront in the form of POAL.
      To then turn around and replace it with a larger, even less attractive terminal disease dressed up as a waterfront stadium.

      And one that invariably sucks tons of money out of council coffers [and therefore ratepayers pockets] – instead of contributing to the councils coffers as the port operations do now.

      If given a choice of ports staying put or a waterfront stadium, I’ll take keeping the ports where it is.
      But I’d prefer that ports goes elsewhere and the land they use is returned back to Auckland for public use.
      And not as a stadium.

        1. Why doesn’t he focus on the things he campaigned on like accelerating rollout of light rail. Forget about the stadium, if we need one build it out at Westfield where there’s plenty of land and a train station. It also fits the bill of being next to a harbour. But this one is getting wrecked by more urban motorways so why not another place destroying item like a stadium there too. Leave the central city for better more diverse uses.

          1. Agree. He’s talked so much sense in his campaign so it’s really disappointing to hear this one.
            Eden Park is an ugly stadium, but it’s reasonably functional. Much bigger priorities to focus on, Phil.

        2. The Ngati Whatua city land location is good but constrained, especially height wise. If the plan can accommodate improvements to port access and place, especially if it can redeem the old railway station, ie convert to the stadium entrance from its current debased use as student flats, it does offer great opportunities for rationalisation of the approach to Britomart and new inline Stadium station on the Eastern line [which of course becomes the Southern and Eastern post CRL].

          But it will be a challenge to get all those ducks in a row….But maybe it’s possible:

          A road tunnel under the whole thing from the motorway to the port funded from the NLTF (ie by NZTA), private sector funding for the stadium itself plus sale of Eden Park for urban redevelopment… some gov source for rail works, AT for the new Stadium and Strand Station….?

          If Goff can pull that off, and placate the NIMBYs in both Parnell and Sandringham… would be very impressive.

          1. …but ultimately pointless. If we’re dropping Eden Park then a height-constrained 40,000 seat stadium won’t be sanctioned to host any major final of a major event. It also raises the issue of what it’s going to be used for – if it’s just football, then where’s the cricket going to be going – at a venue that can handle something like the ODIs against Australia or the CWC Semi Final? Is it going to be on a railway line like Eden Park? And is it going to be address the baffling complaint that there’s apparently no nightlife on Eden Park’s door step (despite Kingsland being within spitting distance).

            A smaller stadium only causes more problems and it’s incredibly disappointing to see Goff going rogue so quickly.

          2. I see this as a discovery process for both the city wide Stadia problem, which is still unresolved, and the Nagti Whatua old railway land, which also has huge potential/problems and is currently unresolved.

            Jumping to a Stadium outcome is certainly a way to get things moving. There are an awful lot of moving parts for both issues and a huge amount of energy and vision will be needed to solve them.

            I do like the Cricket at Western Springs idea… sorting out a Great North Road/ SH16 Busway/LRT would be good for that too…

          3. And what do Ngati Whatua want for their land? Has anyone thought to ask them, after all it was given to them to use for treaty settlements and I think that they might want better outcomes than a sodding stadium on it?

            Also reminds me that the last mayor we had, got into hot water for f**king in the Ngati Whatua Room – not that long after he was elected.

            The next mayor seems to be aiming one better, even though he is yet to be sworn in and is skipping the room, and is simply hellbent on just f**king Ngati public..

          4. Ngati Whatua want to develop their land and increase their revenue. Their last major scheme was a convention centre bid, many moons ago it was for the casino. I reckon they’d be happy with a stadium precinct.

          5. Realistically bowling the whole precinct and building a massive stadium would be the best option, rather than shoe-horning a small one in a space that clearly won’t fit something fit for purpose.

  5. Eden Park is privately owned and is going to need a shed load of ratepayer and taxpayer $$$$ to keep going. We need to have a reasoned discussion about what (if any) more stadia or venues will be needed out into the future. Eden Park also has considerable constraints on its operation because of the residential location. We either re-zone all around it, or look for alternatives.

    1. What I dont understand is why stadia are a council service to be provided. Modern sports thst are played at these stadiums are essentially commercial operations. I see no reason for the council to subsidise these activities.

      Goff talks about pouring more money into Eden Park as a counterfactual to a new stadium. For the love of god why?

  6. I wonder if Phil’s thinking of his legacy project? Find him another. Heavy rail to the airport would do. Not as sexy, though.

  7. I think building the stadium where Goff suggested is a good idea if it means the other stadiums are re-developed. Closing North Harbour, Eden Park, and Mt. Smart and consolidate all “football” games to one place is a good idea. By selling that land or developing it we would re-coup a significant portion of the costs of building a new stadium. In addition, other stadiums in the world combine hotels and shopping malls into the facility which means there is a lot going on all the time and again the costs kept down.
    I know some people here seem to be anti sport. But a good number of Aucklanders (probably a majority) like sport and see a quality stadium as part of a city’s amenities. What’s the point of living in a city if we don’t have these amenities?

    1. I have nothing against professional sport, just like I have nothing against pop music. Just don’t see why local government is subsidising it. What is the rationale? It’s not like it is hard to charge those that benefit from stadiums – you sell tickets to get in. If you can’t make enough money from ticket sales to cover the cost of the stadium, then people don’t value the stadium enough to justify its existence. Entertainment is generally speaking a user pays business.

        1. You may be right, I wouldn’t be surprised if it continued to do so for the rest of my lifetime, just pointing out that it is arbitrary.

      1. Only if we’re going to wind back funding for other arts and cultural activities and charge market rates for them to use public spaces. Fair is fair, unless you’re just more interested in arbitrarily deciding what is and isn’t a valid form of cultural expression.

        1. I’m not familiar with funding for other cultural infrastructure but agree as a rule for commercial entertainment facilities.

          1. Why just commercial facilities? By that logic, shouldn’t there be no public assistance for anything at all?

          2. Instead of trying to make a strawman, why not explain why all the people going to stadium events should be subsidised by people who dont go?

            I am not in favour of fencing off parks and charging admission, but we already do charge admission to stadiums – the benefits are already being commercially captured. What is the point in building something that costs more than people are willing to pay to attend entertainment events? What is the external benefit the subsidy is addressing?

          3. So apparently those people who turn up for major events at a stadium don’t also book accommodation, eat at restaurants/cafes, use local transport services, and check out a few tourist attractions while they’re in town? Yes, many of those things are also commercial activities, but Councils are generally in the business of encouraging success in the various economic activities in their district. That’s why they assist with stadiums, conference centres, and the like – for the spin-off effects.

          4. Indeed, my work with Humphreys finds that the professional sports environment—which includes the presence of franchises in multiple sports, the arrival or departure of teams, and stadium construction—may actually reduce local incomes. For example, we found that the overall sports environment reduced per capita personal income, a finding that was new in the economic literature at the time we published it (1999). We also found that, in many local economies, wages and employment in the retail and services sectors have dropped because of professional sports.

            There are several possible explanations for why development does not occur. First, consumer spending on sports may simply substitute for spending on other types of entertainment—and on other goods and services generally—so there is very little new income or employment generated. Sports fans that attend a game may reduce their visits to the movies or to restaurants to free up finances for game tickets and concessions. Patrons of local restaurants and bars who come to watch the games on television also are likely to cut back on their other entertainment spending.


    2. I’m not anti-, I enjoy my sports. I guess it could say something about our national psyche that Sydney has an opera house as its most prominent building on its waterfront and we could have a sports stadium.

  8. I like sport, especially football (Soccer) and cricket. In an ideal world I’d quite like Auckland to have a world class sports stadium, it’s just my view that it’s far down the pecking order of importance given Auckland’s vast infrastructure issues . As much as I think Eden Park is ugly, I don’t think it’s too bad as a place to watch sport, and plus it has a lot of sporting history which has something going for it.

  9. Some comments on San Francisco.

    As a tourist you might find comments on the city of San Francisco interesting but the whole San Francisco Bay complex needs to be understood before the transport needs can be understood. The Bay Area consists of 9 different counties with a population of about 7.6 million people. Like Auckland the residential centre is mostly surrounded by water and is connected to the north by a Bridge – the Golden Gate in this case.

    San Francisco has an extensive network of bus, tram, cable car and dedicated light rail/underground tracks. The map above shows where San Franciscans would most like their existing system to be up-graded to underground rail.

    The BART rail system involves underground service from San Fransisco to Oakland with lines radiating out to the north and south of the east side of the bay, The lines reach out towards (but do not get to any of) San Jose in the south, Vellejo to the north or Livermore in the east. There is a short elevated cable car train connecting Oakland International Airport to the Fremont line. San Francisco International Airport is the southern end of the BART line on the San Francisco peninsula.

    Caltrain runs a train about once an hour out of San Francisco about once an hour to San Jose.

    Amtrak has about four trains day from San Jose through Oakland to Sacramento.

    Public transport is otherwise by bus, with a few ferries.

    Although the Clipper card allows use on different systems, they are not fully integrated, and you have to log on and log off each service separately. Also the clipper card can’t be used on the vintage tram and cable-car routes. There is no single public transport authority, with separate bus companies and you have to work hard to find the public transport stations and make connections across the Bay area. BART stations may be in your neighbourhood but they don’t jump out from the commercial advertising with their discrete signage.
    Road (Caltrans) is king in supplying transport to San Francisco. Two freeways run up the San Francisco Peninsula and the 10 lane wide Oakland Bay Bridge connects to a Freeway networks running on the east side of the Bay. Further connections over the north of the Bay are by the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge and to the south by the San Mateo- Hayward Bridge and the shorter Dumbarton Bridge.

    From experience San Francisco is scattered with parking buildings. These are not cheap but are well frequented. Travel on the road system during peak hours can be chaotic, with delays on the freeways. For example from experience I know travel north of the Golden Gate Bridge after 5 can turn from a twenty minute trip to a one and a half hour trip, just because of roads being overloaded – sound familiar?

    What the Bay area needs is a unitary public transport authority. It needs a BART line running right around the top and bottom of the bay. It needs integration and a map that shows how all the parts connect, with the London Underground map as an example. To get these things it probably needs a single Bay Area political organisation.

  10. I noticed in the photo of Jane Jacobs 1958 Rockefeller Conference attendees the picture of Louis Kahn directly facing the camera. He was an avid user of brick, with one of his most notable brick buildings being the library at the Philips Academy, one of America’s leading private schools in the small town of Exeter, New Hampshire.
    Kahn was somewhat given to poetic outpourings and recently, I found this Louis Kahn quotation while visiting Harvard and visually taking in the very beautiful brick buildings. It is worth sharing if you value “quality of place”.

    “You say to a brick, ‘What do you want brick?’ And brick says to you, ‘I like an arch’. And you say to brick, ‘Look I want one, too, but arches are expensive and I can use a concrete lintel’. And then you say ‘What do think of that brick?’ Brick says ‘I like an arch”


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