Cities for All

Intro

Should cities have room for people regardless of race, religion, or creed? Of course. Do you think we should design systems to allow people to age in place, to mingle young and old? Hardly disagreeable.

Should cities contain both people who think like you politically as well as people who are your political opponents? Now we’re getting controversial.

We live in an age where racism, sexism, and other discrimination is at an all-time low, yet politically we’re more divided than ever. That, in turn, gives us blind spots. So while I don’t think many people are consciously trying to prevent individuals of the opposite political persuasion from living in their area, I think a lot of the policies we agitate for end up doing exactly that. To illustrate, we’ll take a high-level, oversimplified view of the differences between our two discernible tribes, then we’ll look at the blind spots of two of my favorite writers on urban issues, Joel Kotkin and Matt Yglesias.

Terminology

Throughout this blog (both this post and future entries), I will use the terms “red tribe” and “blue tribe” as they were defined in this excellent post at the philosophy blog SlateStarCodex. To wit:

“I think these “tribes” will turn out to be even stronger categories than politics. Harvard might skew 80-20 in terms of Democrats vs. Republicans, 90-10 in terms of liberals vs. conservatives, but maybe 99-1 in terms of Blues vs. Reds.”

Demographics

What distinguishes the red tribe from the blue tribe? More specifically, what differences can we tease out that are relevant to discussions of city planning? One, in particular, stands out; the red tribe reproduces. Much is made of the “gender gap” between Republicans and Democrats, but this gender gap is eclipsed by a much large “marriage gap”. Married women in 2012 were more likely to vote Romney than men as a whole, while single men in 2012 were more likely to vote Obama than women as a whole.

Quintessentially blue cities like Seattle have 50% more dogs than children, while red cities like Salt Lake maintain a birthrate that is a solid 20% above the national average. In fact, of the nine U.S. states with total fertility rates above replacement (2.1), all but Hawaii have voted for the Republican in every presidential election since 1980.

If large families are a key indicator of red tribe membership, then perhaps tribal differences may underlie some of the disdain which so many urbanites feel toward the outer suburbs. For the outer suburbs are nothing if not laser-focused on the needs and desires of large families. Developers spend lavishly on playgrounds, waterparks, and other amenities geared toward the needs and desires of 2-12 years olds. School sites are given away. And chain restaurants offer a happy medium between more sophisticated adult palates and the simpler tastes of children. Indeed, studies show that preference for houses on large lots is directly correlated with self-reported political leanings.

Likewise, the cities’ status as a refuge for the blue tribe may explain some of the red tribe’s antipathy for mass transit, bike trails, and other urban concerns. Blue tribe members prefer to parse red tribe opposition to transit through a racist or classist lens, but this fails scrutiny. If anything, red tribe opposition to light rail ends up being pro-minority, since overextended LRT networks often lead to bus service cutbacks.

Blind Spots

Let’s discuss two of my favorite bloggers on urban topics, Joel Kotkin and Matt Yglesias.

Joel Kotkin has made a career pushing back against cities’ obsessive focus on the “creative class,” and amenities to lure them. Kotkin instead suggests we pursue economic development and a low cost of living, to support affordable family formation. While Kotkin identifies as a Truman Democrat, confirmed blue tribe members dislike him. And statements about California’s “continued domination … by public employee unions, environmental activists and their crony capitalist allies” would seem to suggest red tribe membership.

Matt Yglesias, by contrast, reads almost as a right-winger’s parody of a left-winger. Upon being mugged in DC, he took the opportunity to argue for more density and dryly remark that “the threaten/rob model of crime seems a lot more beneficial to both parties than the punch-and-run model.” He also has a head that quite literally looks like an egg.

Yet Yglesias, in his time writing Slate’s Moneybox, was the most vigorous and articulate proponent of the myriad ways in which urban zoning regulations drive up the price of housing in the inner cores, culminating in the ebook The Rent Is Too Damn High. Other columnists have derided Yglesias’s quest for inner-city density as a desire for us all to live in “Blade Runner” style apartment blocks, but the fact remains that there is already huge market demand for urban high-rise and mid-rise living; Yglesias’s policy prescriptions only seek to allow it.

Both have blind spots, which lead both to bad policy proposals. Kotkin, for example, opposes upzoning in Hollywood, one of the most desirable parts of LA. Yglesias, meanwhile, thinks Baltimore should rip out I-83.

Holly-could

Kotkin, as a red tribe member, thinks low-rise is great and we should all buy it. In fact he’s explicitly predicted that my generation will eventually move out to the suburbs just as previous ones did. He may even be right.

But what this overlooks is that even if we turn 35, get married, settle down and go searching for a yard and a school district, we still need a place to stay in the intervening 10-15 years between college and colic. Yards are hassles, outer-suburban neighborhoods aren’t as interesting as the inner core, and the price premium for a good school is irrelevant to the childless. But while later age of first marriage is an increasing American trend, it’s also a cultural signifier of blue tribe membership – and thus a potential blind spot.

I think if you got Kotkin off the record, he’d probably be likely to opine that the extended period of childlessness that characterizes modern American adult life is a negative, and we’d be better off if we followed the work-then-kids script of the 60’s and 70’s. Yet the increasing number of singles living and working in the city are a result of cultural and economic forces which dwarf localized concerns such as the price of housing. Even as late marriage and childbirth remains a blue tribe signifier, it is explicitly promoted by and to the red tribe. See, for instance, this report from the conservative American Enterprise Institute, which promotes this lifestyle track as the “success sequence.”

Even if policymakers ensure a limitless supply of affordable ranchers in the hinterlands, there will still exist a large chunk of the population that would prefer to live cheek-by-jowl in desirable areas such as Hollywood, Westwood, Dupont Circle or Montrose. By restricting these individuals from living in the core, where they’d prefer, density limitations force them to disperse further outward into the metro. This leads to such dreary housing typologies as the Seattle Four-Pack (an excellent analysis; open it in a new tab). This also leads the childless to consume more land than they would otherwise desire to.

Seattle now has a large number of single-family neighborhoods that aren’t really that close in (e.g. Lake City, Ballard above 85th) but are nevertheless too expensive for most families. If Seattle had instead over the last 30 years allowed much higher-intensity development in Capitol Hill, Fremont, and other desirable urban locales, those houses on Northeast 135th would be comparatively less desirable, less expensive, and as a result would have more children running around their backyards.

Kotkin’s blindness to the desires and lifestyles of the blue tribe leads him towards policies that ultimately work against his stated policy aim of affordable family formation.

83 And Me

Route 83 is a great road. The path around York and through the northern Maryland counties is pleasingly serpentine, and after a ridiculously short weaving segment with the Baltimore Beltway, one is sent hurtling towards the 300-year-old harbor through an ever-tightening series of reverse curves culminating in an absurd 35mph right-hander. This fun-to-drive road is useless to Matt Yglesias, however, so he suggests we ought to tear it out. But what would we use in its place?

A Jarrett Walker-style frequent transit grid is sufficient to allow any single person to conduct most of her errands. With one child, this becomes difficult, but doable. With two children, the logistics approach impossibility. If you’ve ridden the bus enough, you’ve seen it firsthand; the rider is forced to leave her stroller and bags on the curb, carry in her kids, then leave her kids in the bus while she grabs the other items. No one puts themselves through that sort of thing unless they have no other options.

So, too, with recreational trips. The cost of gas and parking tends to remain constant even as you pack your vehicle full of people, but transit fares increase with each additional rider. As a single person, you’d be nuts to pay for parking at Wrigley Field when you could just take the “L”; as a parent of three elementary-school aged children, you’d be nuts to try to corral the kids onto the CTA*.

In fact, the Chicago model – in which working parents take the train into the city, while non-working parents and caregivers ferry the kids about in largely auto-centric suburbs – probably represents the outer bound for mass transit usage given red tribe patterns of family formation.

For the blue tribe, it’s different. Many will never have children, and can remain choice transit riders their whole lives. Many more will have a single child, which can be easily carried or walked. Few will have the 2+ kids under which car ownership becomes necessary. (Those that do will probably move to The Heights.) So why bother maintaining a highway for those unenlightened suburbanites to get into town? After all, the office workers already have a parallel light rail line to ride.

But this also overlooks the extent to which jobs are located in the suburbs. Yglesias’s resume shows he has little experience with a reverse commute, but for members of my generation outside the lefty media sphere it’s as common as dirt. In Baltimore specifically, there are large clusters of offices in the Hunt Valley area and a smaller grouping in nearby Towson.

On a long enough time scale, the argument can be made that suburban office development is negative and should be restricted in favor of more centralized locations. But this ignores the red tribe’s preference for space and family; indeed, suburban office parks didn’t show up on the scene until well after the suburbanization of residential development was well underway. And since married men work longer hours and earn more money, we can expect that office locations will continue to accommodate red tribe preferences.

It’s possible to serve suburban office clusters with good transit. Crystal City, VA was designed around the Metro, while auto-centric Tysons is having multiple stations added later at great expense. But this takes time and money. Tysons Corner, for example, is over 45 years old.

For most people, a transit reverse commute entails at least three trips: Local bus from hip urban neighborhood to transit node, rail or express bus out to the ‘burbs, and another local bus to the office. Mileages vary, but in general this arrangement yields a door-to-door trip time of 75-90 minutes. Given this option, most young urbanites will drive. Take away the roads that enable that reverse commute, and they may just decide to move out to the ‘burbs a decade early.

Yglesias’s blindness to the realities of desires and lifestyles of the red tribe leads him towards policies that ultimately work against his stated policy aim of making housing in the urban core accessible to all who want it.

Synthesis

“If a person is not a liberal when he is twenty, he has no heart; if he is not a conservative when he is forty, he has no head.”

—Often falsely attributed to Winston Churchill; likely originated with John Adams.

People change. They grow, evolve, regress, leap, and reboot. A city that doesn’t make room for people of different political ideals is a city that will expel people should they ever switch sides. Many of our older, larger cities are hostile to the red tribe. Many of our younger, inland cities make little room for the blue. Ideally, there should be room for all. In a transportation and planning sense, this includes (at a minimum) the following policies:

Support and allow high-density development in the core(s)

Most young people and many older blues prefer high-density living. We gain nothing from forcing them to spread out more. Land is a scarce resource; there’s only so much of it available within a given walking, cycling, driving or train-riding distance. Let those who desire to cluster, cluster, and reserve the wide open spaces for those who prefer them.

Support and allow continued development at the periphery

The monoculture of new suburban development provides a supportive environment to people who want to raise larger families, and provides an opportunity to put down roots for a generation or more. Over time, as these neighborhoods age, they may be colonized by young people, blues, or both. Almost every hip inner-ring neighborhood was outer-ring “sprawl” at one point.

Extend mass transit out into the hinterlands

Transit helps support a healthy downtown, providing the means for outer-rim workers to get from their homes to their jobs. It also links regions together, providing a means for the bored or the curious to explore their metropolis with a minimum of investment. The all-day express buses and HOV network of Houston, Texas represent the absolute bare minimum investment; a wide swath of radial rapid rail lines is optimal.

Extend highways into the heart of the core

Radial highways further knit regions together, by enabling outer-rim residents access to the core’s educational and recreational amenities, and by allowing those who prefer the inner core access to the myriad of employment opportunities available in the suburbs.

Equalize Amenities

Hard-core red tribe members may protest spending on things like bicycle trails, but bike trails are good for everyone. Likewise, while some faction of the blue tribe may resent the existence of large-scale retail, I can personally attest that the Heights Wal-Mart is the nicest hypermarket I’ve ever set foot in. Don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it.

Updated 12/29/2014: Added link to Pew study.