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.

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Don’t let anyone tell you we’re not winning

Key passage from Jared Brey’s writeup of the City Planning Commission blessing the plans for Comcast II:

[Liberty Property Trust’s John] Gattuso said that Liberty’s “biggest miss” in building the first Comcast tower—the soon-to-be second-tallest building in the city—was not including enough bicycle parking. The new tower will include spaces for approximately 175 bikes, Gattuso said.

“It’s the biggest thing we missed in the first building, because we just didn’t have the prototype or the history,” Gattuso said. “And almost from the first day of operation, the 25 bike racks we had were overwhelmed, and we added another one, and we added another one, so what we’re trying to do is be more anticipatory of that as we move forward.”

By contrast, Gattuso said, the automobile parking facility at the existing Comcast tower is underused; only around 60 percent of its 87 parking spaces are occupied on a given day. The new tower will have 58 underground parking spaces, with room for six NBC10 news vans.

4,000 office jobs, 58 parking spaces.  People are voting with their feet, and the private sector is taking notice.  Put that in your Google Bus tailpipe and smoke it, San Francisco.

Council looking to raise PPA permit fees from negligible to trifling

After three years of never needing one because I lived in Point Breeze, last week I trekked down the Broad Ridge Spur to the Philadelphia Parking Authority’s new Customer Service Center, to apply for a Residential Parking Permit. The lady behind the window was very confused; my block doesn’t actually have permit parking, but Girard Avenue around the corner does, and also has available parking spots nearly 24/7, which my block very much does not. After a few minutes of back and forth, I paid my $35 and came away knowing I’ll never have to park more than a block away from my apartment, at least for the next 12 months.

Shut up and take my money!
I didn’t have to say these exact words to the PPA, but it came close.

In a remarkable coincidence, this week City Council’s Streets Committee took up the issue of raising the cost of parking permits. Today, an RPP costs $35 for the first year, and $20 in every subsequent year. This new bill would raise that cost to a flat $35 for the first car registered at a household. A second car registered to the same unit will be $50, a third car $75, and any additional cars after that would be $100. PPA asked for the hikes because it says the revenue collected from permits now does not cover the cost of administering the permit program.

Now, that may seem like a fairly dramatic hike, but again, those numbers are all annual fees. Even at the $100 level, that works out to $0.27/day, which would not even get you 10 minutes in a typical Center City metered spot. Also, that $100 is for four or more cars at one residence. If you are keeping more than three cars on the streets of your neighborhood, and those cars are not somehow generating revenue (out of which you can pay your pennies for a permit), then You. Are. An. Asshole. And the extra $65/year you pay, over what those of us with only one car pay, is your Asshole Tax, which you are paying to our broke city (and stingy Commonwealth) for the privilege of being an asshole. It sure as heck isn’t a lot of money, either for you individually, or in aggregate for the PPA. It’s sure as heck not market price for the 300 square feet of land your car occupies. It’s rarely a Shoupian market-clearing price for parking; it might be in Francisville, but it’s definitely not in Fishtown. If $35/year, or $100/year is really the difference between your car being financially viable or not, then you are close enough to the edge that you probably shouldn’t be driving in the first place. In any event, please don’t waste my time or yours by asking me to have sympathy for you.

As it happens, not even the limited benefits of $35/year parking are coming to my block anytime soon; too many of the households on my block are Temple students with their cars registered elsewhere, and because of that it’s unlikely that I could get the 51% needed to sign the petition to instate permit parking. Cars registered elsewhere are completely ineligible for permits at any price, a stance which I’m sympathetic to, but seems to create perverse incentives in cases like mine. After all, the owners of those cars unquestionably live on this block, with leases that are legally identical to mine. Also, there are plenty of cars that park here that I suspect are parking here for fast, frequent transit access to Center City. There should be a way to balance the desire to have cars properly registered with the desire to have students buy into expanding the permit regime. But one fight at a time. I’ll take this round of permit hikes, and more beyond that if the city ever so desires.

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.

Ride-and-park Reverse Commuting

A bleary-eyed man staggers, coffee mug in hand, into the depths of Market East Station. In the pre-dawn gloom, he makes his way to Track 2, and boards a train.

Fifty nine minutes and twenty ounces of coffee later, the train pulls in to West Trenton station. The man, fully awake and caffeinated, has caught up on his morning e-mail on his smartphone, and makes his way to the parking lot, which is rapidly filling up at this hour. He jumps in his car, and against the main flow of traffic, drives towards I-95. His office, in a Mercer County office park unserved by New Jersey Transit buses, is less than 15 minutes away.

A fictional narrative about a hypothetical Philadelphia commuter? Hardly fictional, and hardly hypothetical. Ride-and-park reverse commutes (park-and-ride in reverse) are an increasingly popular lifehack in the Delaware Valley, and it’s not hard to understand why. As much as car-free urban living has grown popular, greater Center City has grown even faster, and parking is as difficult and as expensive as ever. Gasoline prices have been mostly level since the Great Recession, modulo seasonal variance, but they remain non-trivially high. And the time involved in driving long distances is seen as especially wasteful in an era of constant internet access, when that time can be devoted to any number of work-related or social tasks, so spending an hour on a train to save 40 minutes in a car makes sense.

The catch is that the small brigade of ride-and-park commuters have evolved in a fragile environment that does not anticipate their presence and may inflict sharp penalties at any moment. While SEPTA and PATCO do run reverse-commute trips, the scheduling is subject to change for the benefit of the peak-direction crowd. The real pitfall is parking. Not all SEPTA parking lots allow overnight parking at all, and most of the ones that do make it difficult to prepay for subsequent days of parking. That means that any parking enforcement before 8:00a might sweep them up in the dragnet. Despite the fact that the lots are nowhere near full, except during working hours, SEPTA does not offer a parking permit for ride-and-parkers. In addition to leaving money on the table, this prevents useful communication. For example, SEPTA cannot create protocols for where to park in the event of snow, which might lead to snowplows burying a reverse commuter’s car under an eight foot high plowed snowdrift.

And the bad consequences of leaving reverse commuters out in the cold reverberate in more places than SEPTA Headquarters. Brandywine Realty Trust is seeking to build a residential tower at 1919 Market Street, a/k/a the embarrassingly empty lot on the northeast corner of 20th and Market. The latest version of their proposal includes a 223 space parking garage attached to a 278 residential unit tower. Building so much parking is an expensive proposition, but even right on top of the densest transit corridor in the city, Brandywine does not feel it can market upper-end housing without building parking. I submit that it would have been far cheaper for Brandywine to build a parking garage for the future residents of 1919 Market Street in Fort Washington, Claymont, or Fern Rock, than on-site. Not only does that option save money, it preserves economically useful land, in a city that badly wants Center City residential real estate and could do without more parking. Sadly, while the city’s new zoning code does not require any accessory parking in Center City’s CMX-4 and CMX-5 districts, the zoning code makes no provision for locating parking away from developments in greater Center City, regardless of whether minimum parking requirements apply. Given that PPA is plunging at least $15 million of public money into renovating its garage at 8th and Filbert amid calls for the state-controlled agency to sell off its surface parking lots, finding ways to move cars and parking out of Center City seems like it ought to be a higher priority.

As I ranted about last week, transit outside the city is charitably described as sparse, and as suburban employment centers were built, they tended to have very little regard for proximity to Regional Rail stations, thanks to the precepts of the sprawl development Ponzi scheme. There are some places that are lucky enough to have connecting bus routes or 200-series bus shuttles, but they are more the exception than the rule, nor do they provide connections to all trains at a station. Much as an all-transit commute might be ideal, sprawl suburbs were built for cars. Ride-and-park acknowledges that some places are just not ready for transit primetime, while minimizing the economic, environmental, and societal effects of previous bad development choices. Keep the cars in places built for cars, and the people in places built for people.

As of now, I know (mostly thanks to the internet) of ride-and-parkers who use Claymont, Cornwells Heights, West Trenton, Fort Washington, Paoli, Exton, Woodcrest, and Lindenwold stations, confirming anecdotally that the best park-and-ride lots also make for the best ride-and-park locations. Where else do you know or suspect that someone is using transit to keep their car out of the city and their sanity intact? Sound off in the comments.

May the odds be ever in your favor: Philadelphia’s Second Casino

Two nights ago, I went to an open house hosted by the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, showcasing the six proposals for the second Philadelphia casino license. That license has been up for grabs since the collapse of the South Philadelphia Foxwoods proposal slated for the Delaware waterfront at Reed Street. Casinos in Pennsylvania, especially in Philadelphia neighborhoods, are a controversial subject, but one I have a personal and professional interest in. But since this is not my personal blog, things like which casino operator would be best for me, or the relative merits of legalized gambling regimes, are far off topic.  Fortunately, this process is providing ample grist for transportation nerds and urbanist advocates as well as professional gamblers.

First, a brief aside about who should care about casino transportation. There are, broadly speaking, three categories of people in a casino: workers, casual visitors, and frequent visitors. Casinos are traditionally designed around catering to the needs of the frequent visitors, and while I can attest to that bias being flattering on occasion, it’s not remotely optimal when it comes to transportation planning. Workers and casual visitors will make up the vast majority of the people who will arrive and leave on any given day, and the more prosocial the casino is designed to be, the more overwhelmingly true this will be. In response to this, the industry norm is to oversupply a casino with parking, and to treat parking as a loss leader. Needless to say, such an approach is potentially disastrous in a dense urban environment like Philadelphia. Context is not merely important; context is everything.
Continue reading May the odds be ever in your favor: Philadelphia’s Second Casino

A Brief Aside: the Kenyatta Johnson Land Grab Bill

I live at approximately Ground Zero of one of the most vitriolic debates over urban gentrification in America: Point Breeze, Philadelphia.  I hope to not write very much about it here, because I want this to be a blog primarily focussed on transportation.  But of course, transportation and land use are two sides of the same coin; how our society and economy arrange themselves in the physical world.  So I can’t ignore what’s going on outside my own door completely without being guilty of cowardice.  Speaking of cowardice, allow me to introduce you to my District Councillor, Kenyatta Johnson, and his Land Grab Bill that passed the City Council yesterday on a vote of 14-0.

You see, Councillor Johnson sees the rapid influx of middle-class professionals to Point Breeze as a political threat, as they are not likely to respect the rules of the Philadelphia political establishment that he has known all his life.  He’s in his freshman term, winning his primary to succeed longtime Council fixture Anna Verna by 68 votes.  (In the City of Philadelphia, which is >80% Democratic, the primary is more important in local elections than the General Election.)  So, in addition to getting his District immediately regerrymandered in his favor, he has decided to attack the political problem of gentrification at the source: blight preservation.

More background: Philadelphia is a huge city, and quite a lot of business comes before Council.  One mechanism its leaders have evolved to handle this is Councilmanic Privilege.  In general, any bill that affects only one district that has the support of its Councillor will be passed without opposition, on the assumption that the District Councillor is most familiar with the area and knows what’s best for it.  The result of this practice is that each of the ten District Councillors wields vast power, like a mini-mayor, or more accurately, a liege-lord over a fiefdom.  Much of the petty corruption that surrounds the City Council involves  Councilmanic Privilege being invoked for a political quid pro quo

So Councilman Johnson has passed his bill issued his decree, which deals with the rising home values of Point Breeze by seizing privately-owned vacant lots by eminent domain.  In practice, these will join the 311 lots the City already owns in the neighborhood, and will remain empty while continuing to be a blighting, degrading influence, while at the same time restricting private development.  Of course, housing prices are going up precisely because the housing supply is so restricted, by zoning laws that restrict density and practices that create endless legal challenges and delays.  Those restrictions are citywide, and mean that, for instance, the middle class can no longer find developable land in Graduate Hospital, the previously-blighted-now-gentrified neighborhood to our north, because there is no more room to build on.  So people priced out of Graduate Hospital are now looking to Point Breeze north of Wharton Street, where Councilman Johnson is now trying to keep them out (and butter up his most radical constituents, who would prefer the neighborhood remain poor, blighted and violent) by taking land off the market.

At least, the scope of this bill has been greatly reduced, in part because some landowners scrambled to break ground (to irrefutably prove their intention to build), instead of waiting for the spring construction season.  Those property owners are now out increased costs, a tax imposed by the government through extortion, not law.  But that leaves the 17 remaining parcel owners to fight it out with the City and the PRA over what price they will be forced to sell for, and the rest of us to watch our rents rise.

For a more comprehensive look at the Kenyatta Johnson Land Grab Bill of 2012, I suggest perusing the archives over at our friend Philadelinquency.

To bring this back around to transportation, I mentioned that one factor driving the influx of newcomers and rise in property values is the shortage of housing available in other neighborhoods in Greater Center City and South Philadelphia.  The imbalance between where the housing demand is (unevenly distributed, mostly based on commutes to Center City or University City) and where the supply is (outside of Center City, mostly evenly distributed across endless expanses of 2-story and 3-story rowhouse neighborhoods) causes a lot of economic imbalance, social injustice, and deadweight loss.   So, I propose the following change:

  • The zoning code should be amended to remove all restrictions on building height on blocks that lie in whole or in part within 750 feet of a Broad Street Line or Market Frankford Line entrance.

A radical change, but it would allow the majority of most neighborhoods to retain their single-family lowrise form, while focusing development where the existing infrastructure can best support it, and letting the market set the pace of redevelopment.  And obviously the precise distance in feet is subject to debate, but I tried to size it just longer than one average block.

There are subjects where I’m a conservative, like individual property rights, and subjects where I’m a radical, like zoning.  Today’s post is a good mix of both.

One last thing: not everything that happened at yesterday’s Council meeting was terrible.  Councillor Mark Squilla‘s Complete Streets legislation, which is shaping up to be some of the best of its kind in the nation, passed a procedural vote and is likely to sail through next month.