You’re out of your element! This Leninist is not the issue.

Good morning, and for those who are observing it, may you have an easy Shutdown. Out-of-town tourists who were really counting on seeing Valley Forge and Independence Hall might want to stop in at attractions that aren’t National Parks, which is most everything that isn’t either on 5th Street or a Revolutionary Battlefield. Since I happen to be blogging hungry, I’ll put in a good word for Reading Terminal Market; all of the attractions along Ben Franklin Parkway should be open today as well.

As State and Local Authorities, transit services will be running normally today. (As of 3:00a, I have already gotten an inbound referral from a search engine user asking “will septa still run now that government is shut down”. It’s not a silly question.) Amtrak is technically a corporation that merely happens to have the Federal government as the owner of all its preferred stock, so it will also be operating normally. At some point in an extended shutdown scenario, the inability of the Federal Government to write checks will become a problem, but by the time it does, I assure you that we will be so far down that rabbit hole, that any reduction in train and bus service will be the least of our worries.

Congress Hall, 6th and Chestnut Streets.  Image by tim eschaton on Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA
Even when Congress met here, it was pretty awful. It does occasionally find novel ways of sucking, though.

In completely non-Shutdown related news, Richard Florida reports in the Atlantic Cities that there is basically no correlation between population growth and economic growth in American metropolitan areas:

Taken together, these top ten leaders in productivity growth averaged population growth of 0.88 percent per year, beneath the metro average of around 1 percent per year. These metros were able to substantially increase their productivity without substantially growing their populations. Boulder, for example, which has been lauded as a center for innovation and start-up companies, was able to substantially increase its productivity while seeing its population decline.

As these maps and tables indicate, population and productivity growth are very different animals. Not a single metro overlaps the two top ten lists. The high population growth metros were mainly in the Sunbelt, while the high productivity growth metros are a combination of knowledge-based regions and energy-belt metros.

Matt Yglesias, blogging at Slate, is alarmed:

Florida’s takeaway from this is basically just that this debunks the notion of “booming” cities in Texas and elsewhere in the Sun Belt. The fast-growing cities aren’t really the cities that are prospering, and “population growth, in fact, creates a troubling fake illusion of prosperity” rather than laying the foundations for real income growth.

I would put my point of emphasis on the other side of it. If you want to understand the long-term prospects for prosperity and growth in the United States, the fact that we aren’t seeing population growth in the cities where we’re seeing productivity growth is a disaster. It’s of course fine for people to move to Memphis, Tenn., or Houston when all things considered they decide they want to move to Memphis or Houston. But one of the main “things considered” that makes Memphis and Houston look more attractive than Boston or Seattle is that houses are much cheaper in Memphis and Houston. If there were nothing Boston and Seattle could do to increase their ability to add population, that would just be one of those things in life. But there’s plenty that Boston and Seattle (recalling, again, that we’re talking metro areas here, so “Boston” includes Somerville and Newton and Wellesley and so forth) could do to reduce the cost of housing—they could upzone. They could let three-deckers be replaced by tall apartment buildings, and they could let single-family detached homes be replaced by rowhouses. Not that the whole metro area would become apartment towers in either case, but somewhat more of both would.

The basic issue is that in the modern economy most people work providing face-to-face services to other people. So access to a prosperous local market is key to economic opportunity. It’s the 21st-century equivalent of getting a piece of fertile land to farm. And right now we’re not giving enough people that opportunity.

This starts as basically a restatement of the Strong Towns manifesto, identifying the traditionally laid-out streets of Boston, New York, San Francisco, and Seattle as generators of value, and the sprawl development of the Sunbelt as a Ponzi Scheme. So much, so familiar.

Of course, here in Philadelphia, we have in relative abundance what these highly productive cities lack: developable land close in to the urban core. We don’t necessarily need to upzone (although in some places, like along Broad Street, I think we should) in order to give many more people access to economic opportunity. Our bloated cost of construction keeps rents and purchase prices high, but we don’t see the runaway unaffordability that’s chasing the middle class out of Manhattan, Brownstone Brooklyn, and San Francisco. The task in Philadelphia has to be maintaining and expanding the zone where new middle-class residents can comfortably build their lives. That means 1) fixing the public schools, 2) building more new housing, and 3) improving transit access to Center City from the neighborhoods.

Zone 1: Girard to Federal, river to river, plus Penn, Drexel, and Temple.  Zone 2: South of Lehigh, east of 52nd.
Philadelphia’s bikeshare map: the new hotness.

While the litany of despair form the schools is rightly demoralizing, I take great hope from the ambitious geographic scope laid out for the 2014-15 rollout of the city’s new bikeshare program, whose map I include above. Bikeshare is by far the cheapest and most cost-effective investment available in mobility today, and can pull a lot of pressure off of crowded buses in Greater Center City. The decision to spread the system all the way north to Lehigh Ave by 2015, an ambitious service territory for a fledgling system, serves two purposes. It makes the system available to current residents of neighborhoods beyond Greater Center City, who are, if anything, even more in need of bikeshare as inexpensive transit. And it lays out a marker for newcomers and the developers who want to build for them, saying “we’re going to do whatever we can to expand the desirable area of this city to be as inclusive, geographically and demographically, as we can”. In a city that’s still, in many ways, struggling for its own soul, that’s a big commitment. We’ll see if, and how, it sticks.

If you are a property owner interested in having the convenience and foot traffic of a bikeshare station at your address, you have until Monday to register your interest with the City.

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One thought on “You’re out of your element! This Leninist is not the issue.”

  1. “Bikeshare is by far the cheapest and most cost-effective investment available in mobility today, and can pull a lot of pressure off of crowded buses in Greater Center City. ”

    You’ve got a good point, but I think you oversimplify a little bit–bikeshares are a good start, but don’t reach: 1. people with mobility disabilities, 2. people with vision problems, 3. people towing around kids, 4. people who are really interested in not getting hit by cars and dying because you haven’t upgraded the rest of the infrastructure (ie, most women). Unfortunately, these people make up a significant part of the bus riding population, because a lot of the people outside these groups have enough money to avoid the bus anyway.

    I’d source the #4 to studies of who commutes and women bikers as a bellwether of safety and convenience, but you’ve seen them and I’m lazy.

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