Amazon is one of the most urbanist employers in America

Who says Jeff Bezos doesn’t do corporate synergy? Amazon’s announcement that they’re looking for a second headquarters in North America has exploded the market for hot takes about cities, which is probably giving at least some benefit to the Bezos-owned Washington Post.

While I do think that Philadelphia would be a very good fit for Amazon, I’m also of the opinion that Amazon already has at most two or three candidates already in mind, and that this process will be a shakedown of the preselected winner, much like Tesla did when “considering” where to site the Gigafactory 1 facility. (My personal prediction is that Philly will lose in the final down-select round to either Chicago or Dallas.) So this post isn’t going to be about all that. Instead, it’s going to be about the specific cultural choices that Amazon has made that make it such a catch for a large, self-respecting city.

When one thinks of tech sector offices, specific images come to mind. Sprawling office park campuses laden down with all manner of creature-comfort amenities, from gourmet cafeterias, to on-site dry cleaning, to nerf guns in every open-plan cubicle. Those images come from the specific circumstances of a specific place: Silicon Valley. OK, the nerf guns actually are just pervasive whimsy, but the on-site, corporately-provided amenities are specific reactions to the fact that Silicon Valley’s office parks were built far away from the transit corridors along Caltrain or El Camino Real, so everyone who doesn’t take a tech shuttle bus drives to work, and leaving the office to run errands off-site would gridlock the roads, if a substantial proportion of workers did so. For that reason, many Silicon Valley companies have agreements with their host municipalities, that they will take extraordinary steps to make sure that as few of of their employees as possible will be driving out of their campuses each day. This means that Silicon Valley workers, the villains of terrible and wrong-headed gentrification takes throughout the Bay Area, are actually systemically under-paid, because so much of what would be their compensation is instead funding these amenities designed to keep them at the office for longer.

Amazon is not a creature of Silicon Valley. Amazon is based in Seattle, and has no appetite for this kind of nonsense. They would much rather give their employees more money, and let them out of the office to meet their needs in the city surrounding their campus, which extends to even eating lunch at the proliferating restaurants and food trucks in South Lake Union. Nor does Amazon want to spend much money on that most common of employee perks, the parking spot. They’ve already built garages, and that was expensive enough, thank you. While there are Amazon-operated tech shuttles in Seattle, most bus-riding employees at the South Lake Union campus are taking King County Metro, which has altered its service patterns to cope with the new demand, most recently to accommodate a wave of summer interns coming south from the UW campus.  Amazon has also covered the capital and operating costs of a fourth vehicle on the South Lake Union Streetcar, which enables that short local circulator route to run every 10 minutes instead of every 15.  According to Amazon’s own figures, 20% of Amazon’s employees in South Lake Union walk to work; something completely unimaginable in the stroad-ridden sprawl of suburban California.  A further 35% bike or take transit.

Here is what Amazon has to say for itself about its present headquarters campus:

Even professional urbanists and planners would have a difficult time assembling such a paean to urban living.

So if Amazon is so proud of its Seattle headquarters, why does it need a new one?  Short answer, at least assuming that the answer makes any sense at all, is that it has run out of room to expand the South Lake Union campus.  Amazon has the largest corporate campus in America, by both percentage of the city’s commercial office space and absolute number of square feet, by wide margins, and even with HQ2 it still expects to grow its physical presence in central Seattle by 50%.  But that growth comes with increasing costs, both directly to Amazon, and indirectly by the increasing difficulty in attracting new recruits to the increasingly expensive Seattle residential real estate market.  Amazon is looking to recreate that urban magic in a place where it won’t wind up costing itself billions of dollars through the sheer disruption of its own scale.  It has no plans to slow down its own growth, after all.  As compelling as Matt Yglesias’s case is that Seattle should compel Amazon to just double down on its present headquarters by abolishing single-family zoning and increasing density throughout King County — indeed, Seattle should do those things anyway — Amazon’s best option to stay concentrated in Puget Sound might be to simply send HQ2 35 miles down the road to Downtown Tacoma.  Seattle is not full, but it is filling up as far as Amazon is concerned.

So not only will the eventual winner of the HQ2 beauty contest win 50,000 high-paying jobs, and billions of dollars of construction, net the billions in tax incentives that Amazon is likely to extort, but there will be massive multiplier implications for neighboring businesses and the wider economy.  This will be especially true in the immediate area (i.e. walking range) of the campus. The tax base implications of that multiplier effect will be very large.  This is a far better deal for a host city than your average tech company, or your average corporate headquarters, assuming of course that the “winning” city doesn’t bankrupt itself by overbidding on the incentives.

But needless to say, there just aren’t that many walkable downtowns in big city metropolitan areas.  As much as I think the best site for Philadelphia for an HQ2 development would be the Uptown Business District surrounding North Philadelphia Station, the location that actually meets more of Amazon’s desires is the Schuylkill Yards and the 30th Street Station District.  The Navy Yard, though it may look tempting on the surface, is right out.  (Also, when I said this post wouldn’t be about a Philadelphia bid, I lied.)

For what it’s worth, we already have one tech company headquarters built along urbanist lines in Center City Philadelphia, and when the Comcast Technology Center opens up next year, that will officially become a campus.  Comcast has also been loathe to run too many of its own amenities; while the cafeteria on the top floor of Comcast 1 is legendary, Comcast doesn’t even run the leasing of the food court in its own basement, and the foot traffic to the Wawa across Arch Street necessitated a midblock crossing.  After Comcast 2 opens, there will be 2,000,000 square feet of Comcast offices between the two buildings, and only 157 accessory parking spaces total; the 70 in Comcast 2 coming after the 87 in Comcast 1 were found to be too many, for a building with a direct entrance to Suburban Station.  Even Amazon can’t beat that, at least not in Seattle.  It’s too bad that Comcast’s fundamental business model is “exploit infrastructural monopolies”, although as more people from the NBC-Universal side percolate into senior roles, maybe that will change.  I’ll believe it when TV shows start being produced here instead of at 30 Rockefeller Center.  Amazon at least has “exploit scale to defeat logistical inefficiencies”, which bodes much better for innovation, since logistics will always be improvable.

So, while I think it’s true that your city will lose the contest for HQ2, and unlike Henry Grabar, I think my own city is not exempt, I think that if Amazon’s philosophy of the relationship between company and polis spreads, it will be very good for large, very dense urban centers like Philadelphia.  It will be especially good for the ones (again, like Philadelphia) that are still relegated to second-tier status.

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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.