The pros and cons of SEPTA’s King of Prussia Rail

SEPTA’s King of Prussia Rail project has finally selected a Locally Preferred Alternative, and much to my surprise, the winner was not the elevated alignment over US 202, but rather the alignment alongside the PECO transmission line and the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Screen Shot 2016-03-03 at 4.03.26 PM
I’m borrowing this map from the Philadelphia Inquirer under Fair Use.  I don’t know who actually made it, though.  They didn’t say.

There’s a lot to take in, so I’ll just hit the top five highlights on each side.

The Good:

  1. It’s short.  That’s an awfully weird thing to lead with, but it does mean that the amount of budget bloat due to scope creep has been kept to an absolute minimum.
  2. It has the backing of the KOP/VF business community.  The KOP Rail Coalition, which was started as an advocacy arm by the KOP Business Improvement District, was backing PECO/Turnpike.  That political support from deep-pocketed interests might be crucial if local funding needs to be found.
  3. It provides the opportunity for real, from-scratch TOD near the Henderson Road station.  The land south of the proposed station site is self-storage and other light industrial that can be easily redeveloped into a walkable core in notoriously car-dependent Upper Merion Township.
  4. Jason Laughlin reports that there may be a station “inside” the KoP mall.  This would be a new feature, since all of this round of proposals have previously been kept to the perimeter of the property, which was an unideal way to serve the biggest destination on the line.  However, details on this are waiting for the open houses to clear up.
  5. It provides the opportunity to gloat at Turnpike drivers.  Under most circumstances, having a highway and railway next to and parallel to each other is bad design, since the highway both siphons away ridership and blocks access to stations.  In this case, there are no stations proposed on the segment along the Turnpike, and the Turnpike is serving a different market than the train.  Which means that one can engage in one of my favorite pastimes, which is laughing at the occupants of cars stuck in self-inflicted traffic as one whizzes by in the comfort of a fast-moving train.  (I have never claimed to be a nice person.)

The Bad:

  1. The price tag.  As of the release of the Economy League of Philadelphia/Econsult Economic Impact Study last December, the projected budget of this project is $1.0-1.2 billion.  This would have been a disappointing-but-reasonable per-km budget for one of the longer alternatives, like US 202/North Gulph Road.  But at $150 million+/km, it shows a dangerous amount of flab for a purely elevated route.  Sources inside SEPTA claim that the underlying geology and topography are challenging, and that this is driving up the per-km cost.  I’m open to that explanation, but not yet convinced.  This is also blowing a giant hole in any case we might have had that we can keep costs under control in this town.  Not only is this a large number in absolute terms, it is a 100% increase over SEPTA’s estimates from two years ago.  The public is owed a deeper explanation of what happened here.
  2. No sprawl repair forthcoming on US 202.  Dekalb Pike (a/k/a US 202 through King of Prussia) is a concrete hellscape of a stroad, lined with strip malls, punctuated with hotels, and only consistently possessing a narrow, anxiety-inducing sidewalk on one side.  And yes, I have been there on foot before.  The strip malls have increasingly high vacancy for the area, and the hotels could use the boost from direct connections to the mall, the convention center, and other destinations along the KoP extension and the NHSL.  Redevelopment is called for.  So is a road diet.  Unfortunately for future taxpayers of Upper Merion Township, it doesn’t seem like either is in the cards.
  3. Still no Greater Philadelphia Wegman’s with good transit access.  This is mostly Wegmans’ fault for choosing such obnoxious locations, though.  (Their complete abandonment of urban Rochester, where they started, is still shameful.)  SEPTA had higher priorities and stuck to them.
  4. No commitment to frequent Manayunk/Norristown service.  It had better not even take that long; GM Jeff Kneuppel promised us 30 minute headways “soon” in September of 2014.  Without frequent connecting service in Norristown serving Conshohocken, Northwest Philadelphia, North Philadelphia, and Center City, the NHSL extension makes much less sense as a regional project, and also abandons those passengers who take the 124/125 today from Wissahickon.  30 minute headways need to happen Right Now.  There should be a plan in place for 20 minute headways by the time the NHSL extension opens.
  5. Unlikely to satisfy NIMBY opposition.  I lied.  This isn’t actually bad.  The loudest NIMBY opposition is more concerned with keeping out the poors and the blahs than it is with wise investments for the future of Upper Merion Township.  If they’re successful, they’re clearly intending to get out at the top of the market, or perhaps they’ll enjoy watching their children immiserated by spiraling tax burden as the bill for maintaining the infrastructure that underpins sprawl development comes due.  In any event, we should welcome their hatred, while taking care to address the more legitimate concerns of impacted neighbors.

The next round of public meetings starts next Monday, March 7th.

 

New Year / New Mayor Resolutions for 2016

It’s a time of new beginnings, and hopes for a better future!  Or at least, trying to be better than we are now, in ways that will fade along with our newly-renewed gym memberships. In no particular order:

  1. No more “SEPTA Key is Late” complaints.   It’s very late.  We all know it’s very late.  We know, very approximately, why it’s late.  But we’re now being promised a rollout date by April, which is not actually far enough away to be the indefinite future anymore, even under the worst circumstances imaginable.  I’m not saying now is the time to get hype.  I’m not even saying we shouldn’t all still be pissed at the accumulated delays.  I’m just saying I’m tired of rehashing the “it’s late” narrative every week or so.  Unless you are actually doing a longform deep dive on the dysfunctional relationship between the public sector and software development (i.e., you are Jim Saksa last month, or trying to one-up him), you are engaged in weaksauce, populist, pseudojournalistic pablum, and you should be ashamed of yourself.
  2. One Loading Zone per Block.  Now.
    Both bike lanes blocked (and traffic lanes fouled) by trucks facing west, 1900 block of Fairmount Ave.
    Both bike lanes blocked (and traffic lanes fouled) by trucks facing west, 1900 block of Fairmount Ave.

    So much of the unsafe or even inconvenient conditions on our streets comes from delivery vehicles who, in fairness, have few better options.  And delivery vehicles are only going to proliferate as delivery services get cheaper and more widespread, and our neighborhood commercial corridors fill back in.  It’s all well and good to swap door-zone bike lanes with parking-protected bike lanes, (and we should get on that, pronto), but that’s not going to fix the root cause of these problems, and it’s not going to do anything at all on the vast majority of streets that lack bike lanes.

  3. Fix the CMX-2 and CMX-2.5 zoning categories.  Speaking of our neighborhood commercial corridors coming back, it would sure be nice if we had mixed use zoning categories for those corridors that were usable by-right.  If you have an example of by-right new construction in either of these zones since the new zoning code came into effect, leave it in the comments, because that will be the first I hear of it ever happening.
  4. Signatures on the dotted line for University SEPTA.  Bundling deeply discounted SEPTA (and Indego?) into tuition at colleges and universities is a win for everybody, we just need to finalize the details in time for the new SEPTA tariff scheduled to go into effect this July, and the next academic year starting in August.  Even if, gods forbid, we miss that deadline, placeholder language should go into the tariff so that the program can kick off next winter instead of waiting an entire year.  The time to move is now.
  5. An Open Streets PHL debut to do everyone proud.  Ever since the Pope’s car-free security perimeter (peri-miter?) got everyone interested, a lot of people have been working to bring Open Streets to Philadelphia on a more regular (and better-planned, less disruptive) basis, starting sometime when the weather warms up.  You might even recognize some of the names.  Mayor Kenney is very much on board.  So let’s do this.
  6. Street sweeping.  Can we take the most basic step necessary to shed our “Filthadelphia” image?  Even if it means people have to move their cars every once in a while?  If New York (more crowded) and Baltimore (poorer) can figure out how, we can.  Candidate Jim Kenney suggested an opt-out as political cover; I hope Mayor Jim Kenney doesn’t stick with that, but if he does, it should be the most restrictive opt-out possible, i.e. by-block, by supermajority petition, with an automatic sunset unless renewed by the same supermajority.
  7. Move the ball forward on badly-needed project planning.  SEPTA trolley replacement.  King of Prussia Rail.  Broad Street Line to the Navy Yard.  City Branch Transit.  The Rail Park (going north, not west, and yes I will fight you, FOTRP).  The 30th Street Station District.  Reconfiguring the Northeast Corridor through North Philadelphia.  None of them are getting done this year, but we can do more to make sure they get done as soon (and as inexpensively) as possible.
  8. Restripe Washington Ave already.  The amount of gridlock and lack of leadership on this one is appalling.  The PCPC-led design process resulted in a good plan for restriping.  Follow-through on that plan didn’t happen largely due to lack of political leadership.  So anarchy continues to reign on South Philadelphia’s emerging main street.  If anybody dies on this street in the new year, you’re going to read some very unkind words here.
  9. Exclusive bus lanes on Roosevelt Boulevard, Market Street, and JFK.  Super-wide streets with frequent bus service need bus lanes.  Full stop.
  10. Hourly SEPTA service to Wilmington, already.  The addition of one more train in each direction each weeknight serving Delaware’s largest city (and Philadelphia’s largest transit-accessible suburban job center) was a highlight of our December, but it was marred by the lack of a counterpart train on Saturdays that had been previously announced.  Delaware needs to cut it out with this piecemeal nonsense and actually approve funding for hourly (or better) SEPTA service to Wilmington en bloc, as it’s the most cost-efficient transit in the First State, and will only attract more riders if those riders can rely on there actually being a convenient train when they need it, in both directions.  I’m not terribly optimistic for anything more than incremental improvements, but I haven’t entirely run out of hope for more.
  11. Half-hourly service to Norristown and Chestnut Hill East.  Jeff Kneuppel floated this in September 2014, as SEPTA’s deputy GM.  He’s now in the big chair, and we’re still shivering with antici– (say it!)  –pation.  Or maybe just with the cold, waiting for trains that are still hourly.
  12. Light the Manayunk Bridge.  Yes, I’m fully on board that the highest and best use of this iconic viaduct is as a multi-use trail.  But multi-use involves being, er useful, and the Manayunk Bridge won’t be until we put lights on it (and the Cynwyd Heritage Trail) so that it can open early enough for commuters and stay open into the evening.  Half a bridge (i.e. what we have now) is better than no bridge, but let’s not lose sight this project with the finish line tantalizingly in sight.

Visualizing parking is the first step to resolving parking politics

A new map shows exactly which block faces in Philadelphia require the pittance of $35/year to keep a car on them. The terms of parking politics in this city may never be the same.

Permit blocks in Spring Garden and Fairmount
Permit blocks in Spring Garden and Fairmount

Lauren Ancona’s previous magnum opus was a map showing the boundaries of the PPA parking permit districts, a work that landed her a job with the city’s Open Data Office. She’s now followed that up with the next level of detail, a block-by-block accounting of where permits are actually required. Permits aren’t the only tool of parking management in use, of course. Ancona’s map does not (yet?) show which blocks are metered or otherwise have limited parking, so that results in odd blank spaces where those are in use, including most of Center City and Old City.

But the main thing that jumps out at the viewer, as Friend of the Blog Jon Geeting writes pointedly in his analysis at PlanPhilly, is that many neighborhoods that are the most obsessed with parking supply are doing Jack Squat about managing parking demand. In many cases, only a small minority of blocks require permits; some neighborhoods can count their permit blocks on the fingers of one hand.

Basically: a lot of people, in a lot of neighborhoods, who have used parking as a rallying cry for NIMBYism of all stripes, have just been called on their bullshit. If you can’t be bothered to get the actual resident-parkers of your block to agree to pay the PPA $35/year to chase away the people who don’t live on your block, then you shouldn’t get to cry “Parking!” to prevent new residents from coming to your neighborhood.

Geeting specifically calls out Pennsport and its four blocks of permitted parking, which is entirely fair given that neighborhood’s reputation as being full of parking zombies. But Manayunk, and Fishtown north of Columbia, are no better.

Lower Northwest permit parking map
All of the permit blocks in the Lower Northwest. You’d think that keeping Main Street barcrawlers off the neighborhood side streets would be a popular rallying cry.
Fishtown permit parking map
A tale of two Fishtowns: for once, not lifers and newcomers, but split by Columbia Ave.

Given the high rate of car ownership and easy access to the El in Northern Liberties, one might expect more permitting there than not, but no.

Northern Liberties permit parking map
Two errors on this map: 1) “Olde Kensington” is labeled on the wrong side of Girard, and 2) Not enough permits

Now, there are neighborhoods that are doing a good job at requiring permits. They should be encouraged, even if that means, in the case of Graduate Hospital, splitting its parking district off from Center City West’s.

And there are other neighborhoods where a high concentration of people with cars registered out of state (i.e. students) makes the current process for establishing a permit block politically impossible. But for once, our system of Councilmanic Prerogative offers an opportunity for good progressive urbanism. A progressive District Councillor can short-circuit the process by creating permit blocks, by legislation, where they will do the most good: immediately adjacent to commercial streets with temporary parking only, and within a block of Subway and El stations to reduce the amount of parking arbitrage available in those areas. While I would like to see entire neighborhoods with some type or another of curb parking control, I am willing to take this one step at a time, and push the higher priority locations first.

Map of permit parking near Broad and Girard
This is an express stop on the subway. This is not OK. And thanks to Temple students and their landlords, it will never fix itself.

This is not just a one-way street, politically. With more permitting comes more data; if those who today we can easily dismiss as parking zombies who only have anecdotes backing them up, could instead show up to RCO zoning presentations and show data that more cars have permits than there are curb parking spots in the district, that is powerful evidence that new development should include off-street parking (unbundled and market-rate, of course), which can be used to convince parking supply skeptics like me. This actually just happened this week with the story about Graduate Hospital’s permits, which brought me around to support of structured parking at new development along Washington Avenue, where previously I was hardline against. Hopefully this can open up wider discussions of car ownership, land use, and parking arbitrage. (As a hypothetical, land-poor Manayunk may want to build its structured parking at Ivy Ridge, or in an auto-oriented location in Upper Roxborough. If MDC can acquire properly-zoned land for it, why shouldn’t that happen?) But the first step to resolving a deep political difference, is to establish a common reality that all parties agree exists.

Jobs, job access, and building a strong, solvent city

I went to Young Involved Philadelphia’s City Council Candidate Convention last night.  As I talked directly with many of the candidates, there was a common refrain among many of them: “The city needs to rebuild its tax base by bringing more jobs back into the city.”  (The policy conclusions each candidates drew from that premise varied, of course.)  And that’s true!  But I think it focuses attention and energy in the wrong place, in part because I think that accomplishing that task as a first-order goal is hard, while the task “rebuild the city’s tax base by attracting new residents” is much easier, in part because it’s building on an already existing, successful, trend.

The issue is that our extensively decentralized job market isn’t going anywhere in the short term, but that alone doesn’t actually draw people to live in the suburbs.  We live in an economy that is very, very short on job security, or any other form of loyalty between an employer and and employee.  This cultural shift seems like it’s permanent, and it’s arguably a good thing for an economy trying to create wealth.  A generation ago, a family might base a decision on where to live on minimizing commute time to the one or two specific jobs they already had.  Today, they must base their decision on minimizing commute time to the entire set of possible jobs throughout the region.  Even if most of those jobs are out in the suburbs, that pressure is going to bring a lot of educated, skilled workers into Greater Center City, and neighborhoods with fast and frequent transit access to Center City.  Center City’s importance is not only as a job center in its own right, but as a transportation hub with direct connections throughout the region.

If you’d like a visual representation of what places this kind of job-access pressure is going to bring new residents to, look no further than this map produced by the University of Minnesota Accessibility Observatory.  (The project landing page, with links to their full 2014 report, methodology, and maps for other cities, is here.)  Maps like this one, which measure the absolute number of jobs accessible by transit and walking in 30 minutes, can help policymakers understand where residential development pressure is likely to spread to, and which neighborhoods are likely to remain affordable indefinitely.  It can also help transportation planners understand which areas are being poorly served by the existing transit network.  That can boost the priority given to projects like City Branch BRT, which will give better, faster access to underserved Strawberry Mansion; or to projects that connect peripheral job centers to the regional network, like BSL-Navy Yard or NHSL-King of Prussia; or to initiatives that boost frequencies on Regional Rail lines and reduce waiting times for neighborhoods like Germantown and Manayunk, like the city did during the PSIC era in the 1960s and 1970s.

Overview Screenshot of UMN's transit accessibility map of Philadelphia
Overview Screenshot of UMN’s transit accessibility map of Philadelphia

Bringing residents back is obviously not a panacea for what ails the City of Philadelphia, but it’s a good, necessary start.  (Fixing the schools so that people don’t have to flee to the suburbs when their kids turn 5 is an obvious next step.)  But in addition to directly restoring the income and property tax bases of the city, more new residents will bring new jobs with them as a trailing indicator.  As I said, I don’t think the peripheral job centers are going anywhere anytime soon, but people generally eat, shop, and use services in the places that they live.  Residents are customers for city-based businesses, old and new.

Not only will a continuation of the residential renaissance create new retail-level businesses and jobs, but there’s another, slightly more cynical mechanism that will cause jobs to follow people into the city: our old friends, the 1%ers.  As Chester County native and proto-urbanist William H. Whyte (The Organization Man) noted in his 1989 book City, when corporate headquarters fled New York City to southwestern Connecticut in the mid-20th Century, there was no evidence to support the popular claim that businesses were fleeing onerous taxes in New York to lower taxes in Connecticut.  Even then, taxes in Connecticut were substantially similar to those in the City.  But there was a very strong relationship between the locations of the new suburban headquarters and where the CEOs of the companies lived; the average distance was eight miles.  The development of ultra-high-end housing (like the $17.6M penthouse that was the subject of false rumors involving Jay-Z and Beyoncé) in the Center City core might look a bit unseemly at times, but if those apartments get bought up by C-suite executives, we can expect more corporate office towers (and their associated jobs) to follow them into our most accessible location.  Maybe that process might involve a bit of promotion for our insanely competitive private schools, while we’re still working on the public ones.  It’s not an equitable solution in the short term, but the potential upside in the medium term is awfully hard to argue with.

All this matters because many of our longstanding civic problems, like funding our public schools, counteracting the effects of poverty and income inequality, reducing violent crime, improving our public transportation system, and even picking up trash and litter from the streets, are primarily issues of funding.  We simply can’t afford to do the basic tasks of city government with our current tax base in the long term.  We can keep trying to paper over the difference with state and federal aid, but that’s not a good strategy in the long term.  Making Philadelphia an attractive place to live makes all these problems tractable.  Attempting to lock out newcomers, which is as likely to displace longtime residents as it is to actually dissuade New Philadelphians, will keep real solutions out of reach, for all time.

Pittsburgh is the competition. Let’s steal their best idea: free student and faculty transit

Last spring, I waxed rhapsodic on the similarities between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, while calling for strengthening the transportation ties between the two cities. But today, I want to recast the Steel City as villain, not hero. Let’s take the Yinzers, for the moment, as our municipal rivals for our most precious resource: human capital. Because they’re doing it right, and we’re not.

When the wide-eyed college froshling matriculates at Carnegie Mellon, Pitt, or Chatham, they receive a student ID that acts as a free pass onto any Port Authority Transit bus or LRV. It’s not actually free; there is a small fee attached to their tuition bill that funds it to the tune of $180 per year. The same froshling’s twin, going to Penn, Temple, Drexel, St. Joe’s, or USciences? Gets a 5% discount on a SEPTA Transpass, which at $91/month is a terrible deal for the average college student taking occasional rides.

Now, not many students are going to pick Pitt over Temple, or CMU over Drexel, just for free transit alone. But being able to live in the neighborhood of your choice (or, at least, within one’s budget), and being able to access all that the city has to offer? The prospect of easy, painless navigation of the entire city without needing to keep a car on hand can be very attractive. Put another way, when Temple doesn’t have free transit and Pitt does, Philadelphia isn’t in competition with Pittsburgh, Lower North Philadelphia plus a tiny sliver of Center City is in competition with Pittsburgh. That’s a much more lopsided comparison, and not one in Philadelphia’s, or Temple’s, favor.

Now, granted, some of this state of affairs is because the Port Authority of Allegheny County is ahead of the technological curve, and has smartcard readers that are compatible with the student IDs, and SEPTA does not. But SEPTA will have closed that gap by the end of this calendar year.

Philadelphia’s new Urbanist PAC The 5th Square, which I wrote about in January, and whose Advisory Board I just joined, has made implementing this idea part of their political platform, and it’s right to make it a priority. That being said, it really shouldn’t have to become a political issue. It should just be a series of bilateral agreements between the universities and SEPTA.  However, it’s increasingly clear that somebody needs to give the universities a good hard shove, in order to get the ball rolling, and that role can easily be filled by a Mayor (or a City Council) looking for an opportunity to exercise their leadership in managing the sometimes-fractious relations between the universities and the neighborhoods surrounding them.  Free transit for students and faculty would radically change the incentives for housing and land use in West Philadelphia and North Philadelphia, where the first few blocks beyond the campuses are increasingly an academic monoculture, rendering them unaffordable even as entire neighborhoods suffer through disinvestment and neglect a mere half-mile away.  While not many students or faculty are specifically looking to move to Kingsessing or Carroll Park, a handful willing to try could do wonders for the stability of those neighborhoods, encouraging investment and slowing the displacement that is actually occurring in our city, which is driven much more by blight than by gentrification.  City Hall might be skeptical, in its traditional habit of being afraid of all change, but blurring the geographic boundary between town and gown can only benefit a strapped city government that needs to rebuild a tax base to fund schools, infrastructure, and services, with 500,000 fewer people than the city was designed for.

A lot rides on SEPTA’s willingness to play ball, but SEPTA officials speaking on background have expressed readiness to come to a reasonable accommodation with any university or major employer.  SEPTA may have its plate full with the ongoing rollout of SEPTA Key, the technological substrate on which any agreement would rest, so it would take a minor miracle (or a particularly open checkbook) to get an agreement in place for Fiscal Year 2016, but the timeline for Fiscal Year 2017, a/k/a/ the 2016-2017 academic year, should have plenty of room in it to come to a deal.  (That timing would also have the advantage of being simultaneous with the next scheduled triennial fare increase, which requires a review and rewrite of the operating tariff anyway.)

SEPTA has many of its own reasons to want college students to take transit.  The most obvious is to create the habit of riding in younger adults who may be new to city living, so that they carry on that practice for the rest of their lives.  Another is simply that residential student populations are inexpensive for SEPTA to serve.  They generally don’t travel all the way into the Center City core, which is good for managing crowding, and they tend to travel in off-peak hours, which renders many concerns about crowding moot.  There is a concern about commuter students, who make up most of SEPTA’s existing University Pass user base, but the anemic uptake of that program indicates there just aren’t all that many commuters; of the big three schools, the highest number of commuters are at Temple, where SEPTA is best situated to absorb them, with the enormous untapped capacity of the Broad Street Line.

The schools, in addition to the additional feature for recruitment, would also have a major benefit accruing to them; the ability to reduce the considerable money and land they have to sink into parking.  With most campuses landlocked by force or by choice, expanding outward to accommodate new academic buildings — and new parking garages — is no longer an option.  Nor are parking garages a good use of scarce capital dollars, with average construction costs running well north of $30,000 per space.  Better to renew campuses by removing existing parking, but that can only happen if people have an alternative to keeping a car on campus, or driving to work.  The schools may also choose to get out of the business of running their own duplicative transit services, which have their own non-trivial costs associated.

Finally, free-at-point-of-use transit for students and faculty can serve as a showcase for other large employers, who might want to negotiate their own deals with SEPTA for transit. Pittsburgh’s PAT does not charge riders on its light rail system between Downtown and the stations on the North Shore. Major North Shore institutions, like Rivers Casino and the Sports and Exhibition Authority, pay a relatively small sponsorship fee every year to keep it free. In Philadelphia, where major employers are building new office towers and competitively recruiting new employees, the ability to draw top talent can rest on providing good reasons to come to Philadelphia, instead of Silicon Valley or New York. While some would characterize a system where Comcast, Aramark, and FMC are paying for their employees to ride SEPTA for free as creating a privileged class of riders, I would say instead that reducing the number of cars on our streets benefits all Philadelphians, and undermine a much more damaging and insidious privilege given to those who are wealthy enough to own a car, and misincentivized enough to drive it.

Why TOD is superior to park-and-ride

Devin Turner, Friend of the Blog, is up with an article on this old city about the promise of transit-oriented development (TOD) along the Haddon Avenue corridor in South Jersey, and why DRPA should be looking to redevelop its massive parking lots along the PATCO line. But something Devin glossed over (because it’s old hat for urbanist audiences but still new to public officials), is why that’s a good deal, even if trading parking spots for apartments doesn’t generate any net new ridership.

When people have to drive to transit, and just use it as parking arbitrage, they still have to own cars. That means, as an empirically-observed rule, they go about their lives acting like drivers, thinking like drivers, and voting like drivers. For any individual trip where the marginal hassle of transit is too high, they will defect back to their cars in an instant, since the costs of car ownership are fixed or hidden. Now, that’s not to say that parking arbitrage is worthless . Ask any random Philadelphian what they think of over 30,000 more New Jersey drivers on the streets of Center City every weekday, and watch the reaction! Not to mention the need to waste additional real estate to park all those cars. But the value created is a very fragile kind of value.

Meanwhile, when people can walk to high-quality transit, they can organize their lives around the existence of that access. Their understanding of local geography ceases to be the same as that of a car-driver. They can stop paying between $7,000 and $10,000 per year TCO to own a car, and the rest of us can pay less to subsidize the infrastructure necessary. Maybe that’s a second car, maybe that’s a first, but it’s a big payraise for anyone, from the minimum wage earner to the upper-middle class. That money can go to better housing, paying down debt, consumer spending, or anything else in this world that requires money. But to be clear, once that car is gone, there is a major cultural, political, and economic shift that happens in the newly car-free. There’s a strong virtuous cycle reinforcing those changes. And once people have really started thinking of themselves as non-drivers, the massive expenditures of public wealth that go to supporting the automobile ecosystem become untenable and repugnant.

Now, as it so happens, you will always be able to replace surface parking with housing at a favorable ratio, so long as it’s politically acceptable to build densely. That’s not always the case, but Collingswood has already come close with The Collings at the Lumberyard, which ultimately fell short of the density needed (it’s a low-rise development, by my jaded New York-trained standards), but served as an excellent demonstration project that the introduction of multifamily residences would not bring about the End of the World as South Jersey Knew It. Which is good, because with the End of the Suburbs arriving in full throttle, dense midrise TOD may be the only star South Jersey has left to hitch its wagon to.

The context of Devin’s article is the PATCO reconstruction project this summer, which will seriously degrade the quality of service for the duration, and is projected to drive away 3% of PATCO’s annual ridership. Since PATCO is reliant on its park-and-ride customers, it has to worry about getting those riders back. If its riders lived near its stations, it wouldn’t have to worry nearly so much. A crass surface gloss might be that that’s because TOD would create a captive market. A more accurate reading is that TOD would create converts.

Longform Sunday: Freedom vs. the Opposite of Freedom

Good morning everyone. I’ve got this post set to go up early this morning, because I have two really big, really important asks on your time today that really need to go together. So I’m setting the timer early so you have plenty of time to watch, read, and process.

The first is this video of a presentation by transit guru Jarrett Walker, given earlier this year in Toronto. Walker’s basic philosophies have been informing this blog since its beginning, and I am ecstatic to see so many of his best concepts distilled into such a relatively short span (27 minutes and 30ish seconds), and posted online in a free-to-watch format.

Jarrett Walker Presentation “Abundant Access” from DeepCITY Project on Vimeo.

The key moment:

“What exactly is it that we do?” “‘Abundant Access’ means:

  • As many people as possible,
  • Able to reach as many destinations as possible,
  • As quickly as possible,
  • So that they have as many real choices and opportunities as possible,
  • And are, therefore… free.

The bedrock foundations of a small-l liberal society, as it turns out, demand very specific things from us, in the built realm, and in the way we operate our transportation systems (of all things!) At least, they demand those things of us if our rhetoric about the rights and responsibilities of the citizen actually means anything at all.

Now, compare that philosophy to the nightmare scenario of suburbia gone septic, as illustrated in this ~10,000-word excerpt from danah boyd’s It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. The teenagers of boyd’s research turn to social networking sites as their last and only outlet for ordinary socialization. It is their only choice because, in large part, their parents live in a state of constant moral panic and have architected away any possibility that they might be allowed to have any personal contact whatsoever with other actual humans. A paragraph from the most illustrative section:

When I arrived at Sabrina’s house at the edge of a picture-perfect cul-de-sac in this idyllic community, I casually remarked how odd it was that no one was outside. She looked at me strangely and asked me where they would go. I knew that, at fourteen, she didn’t have a driver’s license, so I asked her if she ever biked around the neighborhood. She told me that doing so was futile because all her friends lived at least ten miles away. Because of how the community assigned students to schools, she said, she knew no one who lived in walking or biking distance. She had once walked home from school just to see if she could, but it had taken her over two hours so she didn’t try it again. She told me that there was a shopping mall in walking distance but that it required crossing a major road, which was scary.

(boyd closes her excerpt with a citation to The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in case the point was at all unclear.)

Much as I despise Facebook as software (I do not have WordPress automatically post links to this blog there on principle, despite knowing that it would bring at least twice the traffic of Twitter, where I do autopost), thank goodness for Mark Zuckerberg and his predecessors. Without them, suburban America might have been producing an entire generation of unsocialized neurotics. Instead, Facebook becomes the main provider of city streets in the online world; to crib from Strong Towns’ definition of a street: a platform for creating and capturing value within a place. That the people coming together may be united in their love of Doctor Who instead of geographic accident is not a particularly interesting distinction to me.

But it all points to an enormous cultural gulf between people who believe that their children are best served and protected by maximizing their physical isolation, and people who believe that their children are best served and protected by living in, and among, a watchful society that allows them to become full participants as soon as possible. My own children are strictly Hypothetical and Future at this point in time, but I do know that if I can’t trust them with an unlimited transit pass on or before their 14th birthdays, then I will consider myself to have abjectly failed as a parent. If there’s a culture war on, I know what side I’m fighting for, and for whom.