Home / General / How the deck gets stacked against urban living

How the deck gets stacked against urban living


In the Silicon valley thread the other day, some commenters expressed a view that, while common, I think misdiagnoses the ills of our current situation with respect to housing. Newishlawyer:

As much as I am a supporter of dense living, it just seems to go against the American grain and the fact that the United States has a lot of damn space. Dense living is better for the environment and better for the American working and middle class. But something like half the U.S. (or more) wants single-family living.

When confronted with this view I pretty much always reach for Christopher Leinberger. According to his research, the American public, is roughly evenly divided between three groups–those who prefer dense, walkable environments, those who prefer autocentric suburban living, and those who don’t have a strong preference either way. Around 80% of the available housing stock is suburban, autocentric single family housing. Many millions of Americans live this way, at great expense to public health and the environment, despite an explicit desire to not to. I tend to focus a lot on the forces that prevent urban housing from being built, in particular, the pernicious, outsized political influence of incumbent property owners preserving the scarcity of urban living for their own selfish economic and aesthetic preferences. But the challenges to urban living extend well beyond that, as the chain of events in the last few years with Metro Transit demonstrate.

Through 2014, King County Metro avoids any serious cuts associated with the recession, despite serious revenue cuts, though spending down the rainy day fund, some emergency temporary funding, administrative cuts, and deferred maintenance and capital investment. By 2014 revenue has covered, but cuts appear to be necessary. A ballot measure to fund the gap through a .1% sales tax and MVET is hastily put together for an emergency Spring vote. It fails, but passes easily in Seattle. By November, the revenue forecasts have improved (along with a rule change allowing the agency to contribute less to rebuilding the rainy day fund). Meanwhile, a Seattle-only version of the failed initiative, which would fund Seattle’s purchase additional service hours, and increase service on Seattle-primary routes without the rest of the county’s permission, went to the ballot in November 2014. Last year I expressed some optimism about this model, on the grounds that it could allow us to retain the advantages of large, integrated agencies, while giving local communities the capacity to invest in greater service (and have some say in what that service looks like) without the costs, confusion, and inevitable competition/duplication of starting a competing local agency. (The Seattle-only version of Prop 1 passed easily, as did a huge, transit-centric transportation levy this year; between the two of them Seattle is making a major investment in more and better bus service it’s not clear the rest of the county is interested in making.)

News today about changes to Metro’s service revision guidelines dampens my enthusiasm. Background: one of the challenges of any transit agency that covers many jurisdictions is determining how to distribute service. The three most obvious principles here are fairness (the share of service an area gets is based on the amount that region pays through taxes to subsidize the agency), efficiency (put the buses where people use them most) or comprehensiveness (make sure as many people in the service area as possible have access to some route, even if infrequent).

How Metro has balanced those three principles would require several long and boring posts, but suffice it to say that at present the service allocation represents a mix of the three, and that the existing service revision guidelines, circa 2010, give slightly greater weight to efficiency, relative to the previous (ad hoc, highly political) approach to service revisions. Seattle Transit Blog has a characteristically detailed, wonky post on the service revision guideline changes. The upshot:

First, the shift of some (but not all) peak-only routes from the “serves Seattle core” category to the “suburban” category will tend to make those routes look more attractive in performance reporting, because thresholds for both top- and bottom-performing status are considerably higher in the current “serves Seattle core” and (almost certainly) new “urban” categories. Second, special peak-service protection will favor long, fast, but expensive-to-run peak express service from the farthest suburbs, which enjoys the greatest time and ridership advantages over local service — such as one-seat routes to Seattle from Duvall, North Bend, Black Diamond, Enumclaw, and Twin Lakes, all of which were fully or partly cut for low productivity under the current Service Guidelines. Finally, inclusion of park-and-rides as a ridership generator will result in higher target service levels on both peak and all-day routes that serve them, most of which are major suburban routes. The process behind the proposed changes helps to explain this tendency.

In short: the service revision guidelines enact a priority shift from relatively heavily used core Seattle routes to suburban locals and (especially) long distance peak commuter service.

This isn’t surprising, as the suburban and small town/rural parts of Metro’s service area are over-represented on the board, and they’re simply fighting for their interests. But the risk to the (high-performing, heavily used, high farebox-recovery*) core Seattle routes might be more palatable given that Seattle’s prop 1 funded service hours make Seattle seem flush with service, such that they can afford to give it up. To take Prop 1 money and use it to pay for non-Seattle routes would be flatly illegal, but to achieve the same allocation of service hours through a change to the service revision guidelines isn’t. If this has a significant impact on future service allocations, it’ll be in the direction of reducing frequency in Seattle, keeping the kind of frequency that might support car-free living out of reach, while subsidizing commuter bus service that makes autocentric (for all but commuting to work) sprawl more viable.

*Even when full, the long-distance peak commuter express buses from 20-30 miles out have terrible farebox recovery ratios, because of the massive amount of deadheading they require, and because virtually all riders are travelling 10X more miles than the average urban rider, while paying at most a 50 cent surcharge. The lack of a premium fare for these buses isn’t one of my five most urgent complaints about Metro, but it would probably crack the top 10.

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  • joe from Lowell

    Is this decision being made in conjunction with a plan to greatly increase densities in the “suburban” service areas – to promote walkable urbanism at both ends of those routes? Because that could be a perfectly legitimate policy decision.

    Also, strongly agree with the point that the deck has been stacked. If someone wants to insist on the greater popularity of sprawl living, fine; it’s more popular. The numbers are still horrifically skewed, and there is still vast unmet demand for urban living. Furthermore, since these preferences are partially learned behavior, we’d expect those preferences to shift towards urban living (as they have been) as urban living becomes more common, in a virtuous circle. So, really, noting that Preference Y > Preference X today isn’t really all that important.

    • djw

      On the long distance peak commuter routes? Hell no. Some of Eastside suburb/cities that might see a boost here are densifying somewhat–Kirkland, Bellevue and few others.

      • joe from Lowell

        This is my shocked face.

    • cackalacka

      Is this decision being made in conjunction with a plan to greatly increase densities in the “suburban” service areas – to promote walkable urbanism at both ends of those routes?

      Pre-mea-culpa, as I’m not familiar with Seattle’s transit in any form, but my county (Wake, home of Raleigh, NC) released its revised transit plan two weeks ago. The emphasis was on bus rapid transit (which given our sprawlspace is probably the best we can hope for.)

      The planners also included a commuter rail, which given the stratospheric increase in population, is probably a good idea, if not a bit overdue to help curtail the damage done by our ‘preferred’ patterns.

      The fascinating thing is, rather than channel it to the north-north-east part of the city (which is where there is a blend of socio-economic levels, as well as some semblance of business/commuter destinations) the planners have decided to take a hard-right from downtown and into the sticks. Presumably as a sop to the suburbs, and to dangle carrots towards the exurban base in the next county over (Johnston, whose population makes metro ATL’s Cobb county look like residents of Copenhagen in comparison. Those familiar with the story of MARTA can tell you just how appealing mass transit is to exurban southern nationalists.)

      Meanwhile, the NC DOT is debating about paving over a suburban community’s downtown or paving over a fragile wetland; again to accommodate exurban commuters from Johnston County.

      As long as the development and DOT communities are in collusion to ensure the preference that benefit developmentalists win, there can be no virtuous circle.

  • Dilan Esper

    There’s great evidence of your first point in LA. For years, Downtown LA was a rathole, and basically very few people wanted to live there. And the result is, you might very well look at the greater Los Angeles area and conclude that people prefer suburban living.

    But it’s not true. Over the past 20 years, efforts were made to develop downtown. And suddenly, it turns out that a whole bunch of people want to live there.

    (I’m not necessarily celebrating this as a universally good thing– there’s obviously real issues of gentrification and the like. But I am saying that a whole bunch of housing “choices” are a lot less voluntary than people think they are. Given real choices, plenty of people might want to live in denser environment.)

  • NewishLawyer

    Note. I didn’t say it was right or moral that people who have suburban housing preferences had the majority of the power. I will grant that roughly half of Americans prefer to live in dense and urban walking conditions but I think the factors that are going into this are tough.

    I am a city guy. I like living in dense and walkable urban environments. I like walking or taking public transit to do my chores and to restaurants and other entertainment.

    I am also 35 and starting to appreciate the need for peace and quiet. Listening to young 22 year olds in the apartment next door blast music at 3 AM because they are still partying strong is not so fun anymore. So the suburbs do get to be more appealing for various reasons.

    • Malaclypse

      But note that even then, the older suburbs are largely walkable, with the possible exception of to work. But you can’t build those sorts of suburbs any more. You can have dense single-family development, but not with minimum lot sizes.

      • joe from Lowell

        Or you get those places in Florida and LA county where you can put a single family home on a 4000-6000 square foot lot, and you end up with dozens of square miles of them on cul de sacs, without a store or office in sight.

    • Thirtyish

      I am a city guy. I like living in dense and walkable urban environments. I like walking or taking public transit to do my chores and to restaurants and other entertainment.

      Same. I live in Manhattan, and the lifestyle suits me perfectly for now.

      I am also 35 and starting to appreciate the need for peace and quiet. Listening to young 22 year olds in the apartment next door blast music at 3 AM because they are still partying strong is not so fun anymore. So the suburbs do get to be more appealing for various reasons.

      I am 31, and while I get you about the noise, I don’t know if I would ever say that the suburbs sound appealing.I guess it depends on what one considers “suburbs.” Older, ethnically diverse, inner-ring suburbs that are very close to urban centers have some appeal to me in the long run (once I’ve lived in NYC for at least a few years, maybe). Certain areas of, say, Queens might fit the bill, or suburbs of Chicago such as Skokie, Cicero, etc. But I despise the sprawled-out, car-dependent, entirely family-oriented models of suburbs of cities in the west and south.

      • Crusty

        I lived in Manhattan and eventually moved to Queens and found it much more quiet, yet still pretty urban, i.e., I took the subway to work. Point being that there probably are quieter, more adult areas of big cities. YMMV.

        • joe from Lowell

          I’m sure nobody wants to hear another pitch for medium-sized cities, so I’ll just ask:

          Are there any medium-sized cities in Ghana?

    • djw

      I didn’t mean to imply you erroneously moralized that preference. I think your oft-stated view about the preferences of most Americans is at odds with empirical evidence on that subject.

      • Thirtyish

        I would agree that there is a strong cultural tendency among Americans to presume that the cities/urban living are inherently undesirable, dangerous, dirty, etc., while suburbs and small towns are wholesome, safe for families, “morally uplifting,” etc. You see this belief spanning the political spectrum, although it is a classic tenet of right-wing populism, with strong racialist and xenophobic undertones as well.

    • Joe Bob the III

      To me, there is a false dichotomy, or simplistic comparison, in your comment: noisy apartment vs. quiet suburban lot.

      I live in what 100 years ago was a streetcar suburb. It’s predominantly single-family detached houses with lot sizes around 6000sf, 40-50ft of street frontage per house, and 1000-1500sf of finished living space. Perfectly pleasant place to live and dense enough to have neighborhood retail and restaurants. Nor is this a precious old city neighborhood; it’s affordable.

      You could certainly get more for your money in terms of purchase price vs. square footage if you went outside city limits…but there is absolutely no reason to decamp to the suburbs if you just don’t want to share a wall with anyone anymore.

      • ColBatGuano

        We live in a similar neighborhood in North Seattle that has passed the affordable range. Still plenty of yard for kids to play in, but we can walk to the local bar. Unfortunately, the current trend is to tear down the smaller homes and build as close to the setback as possible for more square footage. A particularly ugly trend.

    • Out here in the suburbs you get Harleys with loud pipes driving up and down the street on any halfway decent day.

      Plus lawnmowers and that most infernal of all inventions, the gas powered leaf blower.

      Because leaves are so freakin’ heavy that you need an internal combustion engine to move them.

      • djw

        I have a good friend who moved in with his brother, which took him from from near the center of Ballard (a core Seattle neighborhood), but not in the core downtown Ballard with the bars, to a new subdivision Mill Creek (Eastside exurb). On his telling, in addition to everything else wrong with this, the disruptive street noise at night is considerably worse in Mill Creek, due to more intentionally loud vehicles, more barking dogs, more loud motorized lawn care, and most of all way more teenagers.

        • shah8

          I have a friend who is seriously adversely affected by loud lawncare workers and their equipment… Can be a real problem in the suburbs… The major issue being that they are unpredictable at normally quieter parts of the day.

      • Schadenboner

        Try living in Milwaukee, home of Harley, during summer.
        Try having an 18 month-old who’s a light sleeper.

        Loud pipes may save lives but, sadly, most of the saved lives are Harley riders.

        • sonamib

          Loud pipes may save lives but, sadly, most of the saved lives are Harley riders.

          God, I hate that line so much. I want to tell those self-centered Harley riders : “Hey asshole, there are a lot of people riding two-wheeled vehicles in mixed traffic who make almost no noise and still manage to get killed at lower rates than you : cyclists. Maybe stop driving so recklessly instead of annoying your entire neighborhood?”

          Actually, now that I think about it, loud pipes statistically kill some people since noise pollution is a real health concern that may aggravate heart diseases.

    • Yankee

      So much for the famous diversity of The City.

    • LeeEsq

      There are too many layers of government in the United States. A three layer system of government with federal, state, and one level of local government is enough. Having counties themselves being divided into numerous amounts of municipalities and unincorporated areas causes a lot of inefficiency and mischief as Radley Balko demonstrated in his articles on St. Louis County in Missouri. I like the system that exists in Hawaii or Maryland where the county is the local area of government or in the New England states where counties have been abolished or reduced in importance and the entire states are divided into incorporated municipalities.

  • NewishLawyer

    I will also add that I find it odd when cities are placed into counties with suburbs as well. I prefer the City and County of SF model or the NYC model.

    • joe from Lowell

      Respectable liberal opinion goes back and forth on regional government every couple of decades.

      • Manju

        At BurningMan they love the Governor…

        • joe from Lowell

          This is one of those “I actually get to use this line!” situations, isn’t it?

          • Ahuitzotl

            how often is that opportunity going to arise?

            • joe from Lowell

              One of these days, there will be a conversation about monetary policy that will set up my “Austrian corporal” line.

              I’m a patient man.

    • Counties go back before most of the cities. The history of consolidated city/county government is a fraught one that–sit down before you faint from the next phrase–has largely been an issue of race, particularly over integrated schools and fears of black people coming into white towns on public transportation.

      • djw

        I have a colleague who studies the politics of more recent city-county consolidation schemes–Indianapolis, Louisville, Lexington, Nashville, etc. It’s a far more interesting topic that I would have expected

    • djw

      San Francisco is a real anomaly in the West, where most cities are in much larger counties (counties in general are much larger). Even LA is a minority of LA county.

      • DrS

        The counties in California, and really all of the west, are yooooge compared to the east. CA has 58 counties, while OH has 88 on a land area roughly 1/4 the size.

        Texas is crazy with its 246 counties. Personal favorite “Deaf Smith”

        • meelar

          What’s even crazier is that Georgia has 159 (while being only 22% of the size).

          • Georgia makes my goal of visiting every county in the United States much more difficult.

            This is by the way a real goal. I haven’t added up the total percentage, but I’m pretty sure I’ve been to more than half. Settling for visiting every state is for the weak.

      • SIS1

        Is that just a Western thing though? That construct seems to be the case for most cities in the whole country, with only a few exemptions for the really old cities (those predating 1800), and NYC being the real oddball as it encompasses five counties.

      • Colin Day

        Denver, CO is its own county.

    • Scott Lemieux

      For all but the wealthiest cities, not including suburbs in county government seems like a horrible idea (cf. Connecticut.)

  • Sue.K.Mabels

    On the other hand, Seattle is an expensive city and poorer folk are being driven out more and more to the suburbs by housing costs. I don’t know how the map of this new plan is going to shake out as overlaid with a map of household income, but access to transit to the suburban poor is by no means a bad thing.

    I just wish there was more funding overall.

    • djw

      The routes that serve the most poor people tend to be core Seattle routes that serve the south side and areas just south of Seattle. These routes already get the short shrift in service improvements due to a lack of political power (the West Seattle route that should have been first in line for the BRT-light improvements was the 120 to White Center, not the junction service we get from the C. That line had 2X the ridership.) The areas most likely to benefit are suburban areas with a similar economic profile as Seattle. In terms of the peak commuter routes, those serve some relatively poor towns, but the only meaningful bus service they have is for 9-5ers working in downtown Seattle, who are among the least likely in those towns to be poor.

  • pzerzan

    Yeah! Finally a piece talking about how suburban types are far worse than NIMBYs in cities instead of just leaving it to a few sentences in the comments! Never let it be said I don’t give credit where credit is due!

    • Thirtyish

      We’re glad you enjoy it.

      • pzerzan

        Considering we had to put up with 10+ paragraphs on the problems of NIMBYs in the Mission but only a few lines in the comments about NIMBYs in the Peninsula, even though NIMBYs in the Peninsula cause far more damage than their counterparts in the Mission, I really am enjoying it!

        • joe from Lowell

          Yes, the biggest cause of sprawl is still sprawl. Not people who live in cities.

          Most cities in this country – by number if not by population – would love to have more people move in. How do we get people to move in and fix up houses in Gary, Detroit, Lawrence, and Buffalo?

          I agree with djw on the Mission, but it’s a small-potatoes issue in the greater scheme of sprawl and urban policy.

          • pzerzan

            Agreed. What I just told djw.

          • Linnaeus

            How do we get people to move in and fix up houses in Gary, Detroit, Lawrence, and Buffalo?

            I think it’s gotta start with jobs. That certainly wouldn’t be the whole of the solution, but it’s a significant part of it.

          • Joe Bob the III

            How do we get people to move to places like Gary, Detroit, Lawrence and Buffalo?

            Easy. Reduce the unemployment rate by 50% or 75%.

            Cheap land and housing is no reason to move somewhere if you can’t sustain a basic livelihood once you get there.

            Create some economic opportunity and people will come in droves. Need an example? People flocked to North Dakota in recent years for oil sector jobs. And as destinations, Detroit and Buffalo have a hell of a lot more to offer than any burg in ND.

            • Linnaeus

              Although the idea that we should try to get people to move to these places, instead of out of them, is contested. So if you can’t establish that as a principle, it’s harder to develop a policy to realize that principle.

            • djw

              It’s not just jobs, though. I live in one of those places (Dayton) that’s not doing *that* bad on the jobs front; the air force base, universities, and hospitals bring in a lot of middle class college educated people, who absorb the region’s appalling anti-urban bias fairly quickly. (I’ve talked to several colleagues at UD who hired real estate agents when they were first planning to move to the area who refused to show them anything in Dayton proper, despite requests.)

              Obviously, waiving the magic jobs wand would be great, but short of that the best policy I can imagine for Dayton’s population growth is more immigration. They’re less easily sucked into the (mostly white) anti-urbanism of the region, and they’re fantastic for the city. Send the Syrians here, please.

            • joe from Lowell

              Easy. Reduce the unemployment rate by 50% or 75%.

              I’ve been using the word “easy” my whole life. I never knew it meant that.


              • Hogan

                Yet another reminder that “simple” and “easy” are completely different things.

        • Sebastian_h

          Hmmmm, no.

          The reason why San Francisco is down about 100,000 rental units from where they should be is fully because of the NIMBYs in San Francisco. Now that certainly isn’t ALL of the problem of high rents in the area, but it is a huge portion of it.

          The NIMBYs in the Peninsula are causing all sorts of additional problems by being even more greedy than the super nasty NIMBYs in the Mission, but at that point you’re talking Trump vs. Romney–i.e. the distinction you are trying to make doesn’t make enough of a difference.

    • djw

      Well, if you’re correct that resource-sucking suburbanites are the main problem, that’s another reason to loathe urban NIMBYism–by restricting the urban housing supply during a period of regional population growth, they turn more people into resource-sucking suburbanites, making it more difficult for the city to get the numbers to win regional political fights.

      Seattle’s probably going to pick up 1 leg district in the post-2020 census redistricting. That’s good, but if they picked up 2-3 it would be a hell of a lot more difficult for the Republicans to gain control the State Senate.

      • pzerzan

        I never said that I don’t oppose NIMBYs in the Mission. I just view them as an ulcer. Peninsula NIMBYs are a cancer. It’s a matter of priorities. I sure know if I was going to write 10+ paragraphs on NIMBYs, I’d focus on parking requirements and zoning laws in the suburbs, not about one luxury condo project getting blocked in a city neighborhood.

        • djw

          Fair enough.

        • Sebastian_h

          The problem in the cities is that the NIMBYs have won so completely that we are reduced to talking about the squabbling over one small project here or one medium sized project there. The problem isn’t that one more gets stopped, it is that we have a multi-decade experience of making it nearly impossible to build on the scale that is needed.

  • Vance Maverick

    Couple minor edits — this needs a verb:

    Meanwhile, a Seattle-only version of the failed initiative, which would fund Seattle’s purchase additional service hours, and increase service on Seattle-primary routes, without the rest of the county’s permission.

    also, “priority shit” is possibly stronger condemnation than you meant.

    • Vance Maverick

      Not to mention the title — either “gets” or “got”, I think.

    • djw

      Thanks, fixed. Was tempted to leave the latter alone.

  • LeeEsq

    How is dense walkable environment defined? The Long Island suburb I grew up in was less dense than nearby New York City but denser and more city like than a lot of Sun Belt cities. Saying that one-third of Americans prefer dense walkable living seems useless because it covers a lot of ground from a suburb built on a grid and with actual sidewalks to Manhattan. Auto centric suburbia is also vague. Do the suburbs of north eastern cities count or are they too walkable to count? It still seems more concrete a term.

    I’d also argue that the one-third of the population that doesn’t care effectively gives the auto centric suburb faction a two thirds majority. The dense, walkable faction is divided and the suburban faction more politically active and united. This gives them the power of the apathetic faction by default.

  • Bill Murray

    What were the splits in views when the decisions to build and the building of the primarily autocentric suburban housing?

  • Crusty

    I like walkability, but there’s an inherent problem, albeit one that has solutions. An area can only be so big before it is no longer walkable. Therefore, space, be it residential or commercial, in a walkable area will be scarce, and therefore in demand, and its price will increase. And then, a walkable area will become a luxury, only available to the wealthy.

    • sonamib

      It’s certainly possible to have a huge city that’s entirely walkable. If all the neighborhoods are dense enough to support a few local stores, and the transit network is decent, you can do anything you want by either walking or taking transit. Easy access to transit also counts as “walkable”, of course.

      In short, you don’t need to be able to walk everywhere for an area to be walkable. I mean, I can’t walk to the university where I work as a grad student but that doesn’t make my neighborhood any less walkable.

      • Crusty

        Yes, but as a walkable area gets larger, transit needs to constantly get larger and that is costly. Also, the transit ride gets longer, so instead of jumping on the subway for twenty minutes to get to a completely different area, that ride turns into an hour and 15 minutes, at which point you feel like a commuter.

    • djw

      This is bizarre. Expanses or urban contiguous walkability is thing that actually exists in the world, and isn’t conceptually difficult to imagine.

      • Crusty

        Yes it exists. I live in New York, so I’m aware of that. But if you just keep making more of it in the same spot, it doesn’t work. Douglaston, Queens is not nearly as walkable as Manhattan. Now, you could make Douglaston itself a little more walkable itself, but as far as getting to the major economic center, employment, that requires transit, which you can walk to, but then you need to sit on it for a while, at which point you start to wonder hmm, I’m already sitting on the train for quite a while, if I’m going to have to do this, perhaps I might like a little more greenery in my life, perhaps a bigger backyard. What is so bizarre?

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