I am extraordinarily well-lubricated tonight, having been to both an author interview with Fortune‘s Leigh Gallagher and the Inquirer‘s Inga Saffron, and then Philly Nerd Nite with presentations by SEPTA and MOTU. I have been up many hours, so I won’t be writing things up tonight, but I did want to leave one thought before passing out:
There are two types of people: those who can read a book like Gallagher’s The End Of The Suburbs, and be either cheered or untroubled by it, and those who react strongly negatively because they see an existential threat to their way of life. I and, there’s a strong assumption here, you, are in the first group, as was virtually everyone in the room. The second group has shut down the Federal Government and is threatening default on its financial obligations.
That is way more political than I would like to be with this blog, but there is a cultural-political gap here, the other side of which is poorly represented in these circles. Something to think about tomorrow, anyway.
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.
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.
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.
As noted already by David Alpert and Ben Kabak, the agreement passed yesterday to avert the so-called “fiscal cliff” restores a tax benefit to transit commuters that had expired at the beginning of 2012. Transit riders will be able to pay $240 per month in pre-tax dollars, saving them and their employers money. This is up from the $125 per month that was the maximum throughout 2012, after Congress failed to renew the benefit, and the $230 per month maximum that was in place 2009-2011; it restores parity with the parking benefit, which went up from $230 to $240 at the beginning of 2012. Unfortunately, the restoration is only in place for 2013, and extending it further is the responsibility of the 113th Congress; a dismaying prospect given the record of the 112th.
The new benefit is a huge benefit for SEPTA Regional Rail riders, virtually all of whom have been forced by their benefit managers to pay the first $125 with their benefit cards and the rest out of pocket for the last year. $240 is enough to pay for any monthly pass SEPTA offers. It will also cover NJT’s Atlantic City Line out to Hammonton, or an NJT River Line + PATCO or PATCO + SEPTA City Transit daily commute, or a monthly pass on Amtrak’s Keystone Service from Downingtown to Center City. Basically, this is a huge win for responsible suburban commuters to Center City, and a good foot forward to start 2013.
And one last note: if you’re interested in signing up for this benefit, as a commuter or as an employer, DVRPC’s program has changed its name from TransitChek to RideECO.