Getting people back to mass transit after COVID-19 – and a deck stacked against mass transit

Mass transit agencies across the United States are trying different strategies to try to get people back after COVID-19:

Photo by Jeffrey Czum on Pexels.com

Agencies in Boston, Cleveland, Las Vegas, the San Francisco Bay Area, and New Orleans are offering reduced fares or free rides, temporarily, to lure people back onto transit. Others are considering abolishing fares altogether. Los Angeles is exploring a 23-month pilot that would give students and low-income residents free rides. The Kansas City Area Transportation Authority scrapped fares in March 2020 and doesn’t plan to bring them back. “The return on investment for empathy, compassion, for social equity, far outweighs the return on investment for concrete and asphalt,” Robbie Makinen, the agency’s CEO, told Stateline last week.

Others are taking aim at an even more sacred cow: rush hour service…

Agencies are using the murky period of pandemic recovery to usher in schedule changes. In Los Angeles, officials for Metra, the local commuter rail, said this month they would test new schedules that “step away” from the pre-pandemic, rush hour norm, “in favor of a more balanced approach” that spaces trains more evenly throughout the day. In Boston, officials in April went ahead with pre-pandemic plans and began running more frequent commuter trains outside the schedules of the 9-to-5ers. It’s part of a bigger vision to transform the system into a more equitable regional rail network that serves more than the traditional office worker. Off-peak riders are more likely to be immigrants, women, people of color, and lower income. The pandemic, as the local advocacy group TransitMatters has observed, may have given the local agency the “political space” to make long-planned changes. There are fewer people now to complain that operators took away their specific train.

Just as the aftermath of COVID-19 offers an opportunity to think about housing, here is an opportunity to reconsider mass transit strategies. Why keep doing things the same old ways when the world has changed? If different cities and regions experiment with different tractics, they might find a few that work and that can be widely adopted.

At the same time, mass transit does not just face COVID-19 fallout. If given the choice, many Americans would prefer not to use mass transit. If needing to travel, they would prefer to drive unless this is really inconvenient. Driving offers more individual freedom to come and go and offers completely personal space (outside of seeing other drivers and passengers in nearby vehicles). American governments have spent a lot of money in the last century paying for roads and driving infrastructure while investments in mass transit have lagged or mass transit is often tied to driving (an emphasis on buses).

Additionally, if a post-COVID-19 world means that working from home is more of an option, more people simply will not need mass transit and/or will enjoy not having to use it. Mass transit could still be useful for going out but if it is not needed for work for as many people, this will mean losing a lot of regular riders.

More broadly, this gets at bigger questions in the United States about development, density, transportation, and thriving communities. An ongoing commitment to cars has consequences as would a shift toward a different kind of mass transit or constructing more dense places where mass transit makes more sense. If the best that can be done now is to prioritize transit-oriented development in denser pockets in urban areas, it will take a long time to swing trips toward mass transit compared to driving.

Would city residents rather live next to a 6,000 sq foot teardown McMansion or a fourplex?

With one proposal in San Francisco to tear down a 1,200 square foot older home and replace it with a 6,000 square foot home, the neighbors say they would rather have a fourplex in its place:

Photo by picjumbo.com on Pexels.com

The even crazier part? One super-rich family can live in 6,000 square feet, but the same-size box in Noe Valley and the majority of San Francisco could not include homes of 1,500 square feet apiece for four families. (This proposal would include an in-law unit, but the city doesn’t check whether they’re occupied, and it’s believed there are thousands of vacant units around the city.)…

“We would 100% support this if it was four families,” said Schwarz, who bought his own home in 2004.

So would his neighbor Steve Boeddeker, who said he’s irked developers are scooping up homes all over the neighborhood to turn them into McMansions and resell them for many millions…

The current rules for McMansions aren’t working. They’re allowed, though neighbors can file a discretionary review application, arguing there are “exceptional and extraordinary circumstances” that require more analysis. Five families have done that for the Noe Valley home, including Shannon Hughes and her husband, Schwarz.

This is an interesting case as San Francisco is often considered ground-zero for issues of overpriced housing, the need for affordable housing, and NIMBY responses to new development.

At least in public comment, few people would say they want to live next to a teardown McMansion. The extra-large size of the new home in comparison to the existing older homes plus the new and poorly regarded architectural design mean that plenty of neighbors do not like the new land use. The teardown is a threat to the existing character of the neighborhood.

At the same time, relatively few residents want to have a single-family neighborhood convert land into higher density residential units. Even as one fourplex is not that many more units, Americans often have negative ideas about renters in apartments or feel that increased density will threaten their property values and neighborhood feel.

My guess is that plenty of urban homeowners would prefer that neither option arrive next door: keep the teardowns and the conversions into multiple units somewhere else. But, if the choice is between the two, the McMansion may be the worst option.

Asking in San Francisco why a McMansion is allowed but a fourplex is not

McMansions may not just be undesirable on their own. If a McMansion is built, another kind of dwelling is not. One proposal in San Francisco aims to address this:

Photo by picjumbo.com on Pexels.com

He will introduce an ordinance making it much harder to build giant homes — the ones increasingly dotting the hillsides above Glen Park that many San Franciscans deride as monster homes or McMansions, but which are perfectly legal to build.

He will also ask the city attorney to draft legislation making it legal for any corner lot in the city that’s currently slated for one home to allow up to four units. And, most significantly, the legislation will allow any parcel within a half mile of a major transit stop like the Glen Park BART Station to be converted into a fourplex — corner property or not. The extra units could be rented or sold.

Yes, in large swaths of San Francisco — this supposedly progressive bastion — it’s currently legal to build an enormous, over-the-top house for one family, but illegal to build a small apartment building of the same size for four families.

This question plagues many desirable neighborhoods in big cities and suburbs: should anything that disturbs the existing character and/or property values be allowed? If this is the driving question, a McMansion might be a threat because it is a different kind of home – derided by critics as too big, architecturally incoherent – compared to what is already there. At the same time, the McMansion is still a single-family home. If that single-family home was replaced by a multi-family unit, residents then express concerns about increasing densities. They might also have concerns about renters moving into what was a neighborhood of homeowners as many Americans assume renters are less committed to their community.

And, as the article notes, making changes like this often means neighborhood by neighborhood conversations to consider the implications. Will a change have different impacts in different communities? What might be some of the unintended consequences? What will neighborhoods look like in a few decades with changes?

San Francisco may have a particular need for solutions but so do many other locations. The answers might come slowly on a case-by-case basis.

Population density as a factor in deciding suburban votes

An AP story highlights how “Democrats march deeper into suburbia” and discusses the role of density:

https://apnews.com/article/election-2020-virus-outbreak-phoenix-suburbs-health-care-reform-76dea954e5f5dc13b3ad65fd29ac678c

For decades, an area’s population per square mile has been a reliable indicator of its political tilt. Denser areas vote Democratic, less dense areas vote Republican. The correlation between density and voting has been getting stronger, as people began to sort themselves by ethnicity, education, personality, income and lifestyle.

The pattern is so reliable it can quantified, averaged and applied to most American cities. At around 800 households per square mile, the blue of Democratic areas starts to bleed into red Republican neighborhoods.

A purple ring — call it the flip zone — emerges through the suburbs…

In Dallas, the purple ring through the suburbs was 18.7 miles in 2016 out from city hall, at an average of 714 households per square mile. The border runs close to AT&T Stadium in Arlington, where the Dallas Cowboys play. Arlington is a so-called boomburb that morphed through new construction from a suburb to a city of 400,000.

A few thoughts on the potential role of density. First, an additional graphic (see below) works with the last paragraph cited above to draw concentric circles a city. This, however, suggests density is linear as one moves further out from the city. In general, this may be true but it would be interesting to see how pockets of higher density suburbs at different distances from the city affect these patterns.

https://apnews.com/article/election-2020-virus-outbreak-phoenix-suburbs-health-care-reform-76dea954e5f5dc13b3ad65fd29ac678c

Second, Is it density that predicts these outcomes or factors related to density? A third chart in the story looks at the population demographics at different densities and shows differences. Does the density come first or the population changes? The analysis here suggests a relationship or correlation but it is not clear whether this analysis accounts for other possible factors.

In the larger picture, what do Americans think about having these “flip zones” or middle suburbs be the current political battleground? For example, one current argument about getting rid of the electoral college suggests certain parts of the country should not a disproportionate sway over other more populous parts of the country. Right now, these middle suburbanites, particularly in swing states, have the influence and both parties want their votes. Are the interests of these suburban voters the interests of the entire country?

Suburban opposition to apartments has a long exclusionary history

When the McCloskeys of St. Louis spoke at the Republican National Convention about their fears that suburbs would be abolished, what they said specifically would change in suburbs continues a long-standing argument:

They want to abolish the suburbs altogether by ending single-family home zoning. This forced rezoning would bring crime, lawlessness and low-quality apartments into now thriving suburban neighborhoods.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QIL4dft8VNw&feature=youtu.be

What is so important about single-family homes and keeping out apartments? Here are at least three reasons why wealthier suburbs look to avoid most apartments:

  1. A change in aesthetics and character. Single-family homes are emblematic of people who have made it or successful suburbanites. The bigger and nicer the homes, the better off or the higher status the community. Single-family homes are also more spread out while apartments lend themselves to more density. Bigger lots equals higher status.
  2. The contrast between homeowners and apartment dwellers is thought to be stark. Homeowners care about their property and their community. Because their property values are at stake, they will put effort and money into their home and land. In contrast, apartment residents are thought to transient, not interested in the community, and less invested in their property.
  3. Exclusion. Apartments are not just an eyesore and problems for building community; they attract different kinds of residents than wealthy homeowners. In particular, they are connected to lower-income residents, non-white residents, and/or criminal elements. And if a suburb avoids building apartments (or only ends up with more expensive apartments or rental units), certain groups of people are excluded.

Two quick historical examples come to mind.

-My research on the suburban development of Naperville, West Chicago, and Wheaton showed that the subject of apartments was an important one. In my 2013 article “Not All Suburbs are the Same,” I provide some details of fights over apartments in Naperville and Wheaton. In both well-off suburbs, the communities decided not to pursue apartment growth.

The Mount Laurel case in suburban New Jersey involved efforts by long-time black residents to relocate to apartments. The denial of the apartments from the municipality led to a long court battle.

In sum, the argument from the McCloskeys is not just about a change in density; it is also about local control and the ability to keep (stereotyped) apartment dwellers out.

(Update: I have read other commentary that analyzes the coded language used by the McCloskeys. My primary focus in this post is about the mention of apartments: this is a common form of development that wealthier communities often look to limit because they view them as gateways to particular people in a community.)

Argument: COVID-19 cases not necessarily because of density but denser housing and work arrangements

Cities may not be the issue when it comes to COVID-19; rather, the larger issue might be density of homes, work, and travel experienced by some.

The inequalities of cities intersect in the rooms where people live and work. “The densest blocks in New York are in Manhattan, and that is not where cases of coronavirus are most frequent. They’re most frequent in Brooklyn and Queens, and in poorer neighborhoods,” says McDonald, lead scientist at the Nature Conservancy and author of the Nature of Cities analysis. “In Manhattan you might have only two people in a studio apartment, and in parts of Brooklyn or Queens you might have a family of five or six people in a room that size.”

An analysis from the housing-focused Furman Center at New York University lays out this answer more starkly: Mortality rates were higher in neighborhoods with lower incomes and less density across the geographic space but more density in a given home. That is, more people sharing a room or an apartment. Parts of the city with more renters living in overcrowded conditions had higher levels of infection, even though they had lower population density. And where more people had college degrees, fewer people got sick—possibly because people without college degrees are less likely to be able to work from home, and more likely to be riding public transit and working with other people, all potential points of exposure to the disease.

Class and race differences manifest in differing risk. “For some people who have been exposed, or are experiencing symptoms, staying home is not always the obvious course of action,” says Molly Franke, an epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School. People who don’t have sick leave, who might lose their wages or jobs if they don’t show up, don’t have the option of sheltering in place. They’re out in the world, with more chances to encounter the disease and bring it home to the people they live with. And then, Franke says, things get even worse: “For a patient with Covid-19 to successfully isolate, there must be a separate bedroom and at least two weeks worth of supplies.” Who can afford all that?

On May 18, statistics finally confirmed what the Furman Center analysis had implied. The New York City Department of Health released numbers on deaths from Covid-19 by zip code, and the accompanying map is clarifying: The death rate has been higher in poorer neighborhoods where more people of color live. When Covid-19 came to New York City, rich people threw their Rimowa rolling bags into their Audi Q8s and decamped. But people who are less likely to have access to health care, less likely to have jobs they can do from home, more likely to share housing—as usual, they’re the ones who bear the brunt of the disease. Population density hasn’t been the issue, except on the spatial scale where it’s a proxy for inequality.

The logical next question to me is whether these patterns hold across other cities and communities. Are the unequal outcomes among blacks in Chicago and Latinos in the Chicago suburbs due to the same factors? Do the same patterns hold in Los Angeles where car travel is more common? Would the spread of cases in food processing plants also fit within this explanation (denser working conditions, lower-wage workers living in different conditions)? And if people have resources, they have more space and ability to avoid other people. It would be worth seeing if this applies across the board as well or if working in certain jobs or settings would limit the advantages.

Thinking long-term, I am sure there is more to come on the differential effects of COVID-19.

New York City, Los Angeles on different COVID-19 trajectories

To this point, COVID-19 has had different effects in the two most populous cities in the United States:

Public health officials are keeping a wary eye and warning that LA could end up being as hard hit as New York in coming weeks, in part because a planned increase in testing may uncover a dramatic surge in cases. Testing in Los Angeles County is expected to increase from 500 per day to 5,000 by the end of the week…

In both cities, schools have been canceled, many businesses shuttered and employees who can have been ordered to work from home. New York City, with roughly 8.5 million residents, had nearly 45,000 cases and at least 366 deaths as of Friday, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. Los Angeles County, which contains its namesake city of 4 million people plus an additional 6 million residents, had nearly 1,500 cases and 26 deaths.

Health experts don’t know why there is such a big difference in the number of cases, but believe several things could be at play, such as urban density, differences in the use of mass transportation and slightly earlier moves by authorities to enact social distancing policies. A difference in the speed and amount of tests could also be factors, as officials warn that many people who get COVID-19 don’t necessarily have symptoms…

While a shortage of tests in California during the early weeks of the crisis is one reason for a much lower number of cases, it doesn’t alone explain the difference. New York has tested about three times as many patients, but it has 10 times as many cases as all of California.

There are a lot of possible moving parts (and combinations of these) that could explain the differences. I’m guessing there will be a lot of interesting research that comes out eventually that examines the interaction between place (and all the factors associated with that) and both the spread and consequences of COVID-19. The virus may spread to all areas eventually but the early stages suggest some differences across places.

Let’s say future research finds some differences between locations not just related to policies but to fundamental features of physical space such as density, mass transit use, and levels of social interaction. Will places be willing to change their behavior for the potential of a pandemic? In a world where locations brand themselves and look to attract residents and businesses (recent example), could traits that mean less exposure to infectious diseases represent a selling point?

One factor that I do not see mentioned in this article is the rate of travel in and out of each of these cities. Both are very important places located on coasts that experience a lot of travel in and out as well as much mobility across the region. But, does New York’s location in the the Northeast corridor matter and does New York City have significantly higher rates of global interaction and trade?

Imagine the American suburbs shrunk by a factor of five

A comparison of suburbs in Germany and the United States hints at places built on two different scales:

The fact is, my wife’s parents didn’t drive her anywhere because they didn’t need to. Her German suburb looks like an American suburb – shrunk by a factor of about five. The houses are smaller, the lots are smaller, the gardens are smaller, and around most corners are buildings with multiple housing units. It’s denser. That means friends and volleyball practices and first jobs at pizza shops are all closer, and parents can tell their kids to walk or take a bicycle.

For the younger generations in America, that is an increasingly pleasing prospect. Car buying is dropping and a growing share of millennials and Gen Zers is putting off getting a driver’s license or eschewing it entirely. They want to take the bicycle. Add in concerns about climate change among many young Americans (and wanting to limit car emissions), and you get a scenario where density becomes desirable.

Yet most American neighborhoods have been designed with the exact opposite in mind. The expression “your home is your castle” gives some indication of the prevailing mindset since the 1920s, when modern single-family zoning first took hold. Who wants the smallest castle on the block?

So what is happening now, from the D.C. suburbs to California, is a recalibration of what American homeownership should look like. There are other important factors, too. The single-family mentality and its lower density mean fewer places to live – and therefore more upward pressure on home prices. That has meant many people of color have been locked out of the most common way for individuals and families to build wealth. Many young Americans say equity demands greater density.

The argument for denser suburbs is a common one in recent years. Packing in more buildings and housing units in the same amount of land has the potential to allow suburbanites to keep single-family homes (just with smaller yards and multi-family housing would not look as out of place). New suburban development would shift from new homes on the the edges of metropolitan regions and focus instead on filling in existing communities.

I could see this happening in at least three kinds of suburbs:

1. Mature suburbs with little greenfield land for development but there is still demand/interest in more housing. The only way is go denser or up and denser at least preserves the vertical scale.

2. Communities built around significant mass transit options. Transit-oriented development promotes density and less car use.

3. Suburbs with larger populations. More density is likely to be resisted in smaller communities because they can still claim to be a small town. In contrast, large suburbs are already past that point so more density already fits the size of the community.

Then, we might see in a decade or two an altered suburban landscape where certain communities are quite dense and nearby suburbs are in the older mode of single-family homes and bigger yards. Imagine “surban” pockets with sprawling neighborhoods next door. This will provide options for homebuyers but also means mass transportation options in the suburbs will remain uneven.

The spread of upzoning and metropolitan regions

A number of cities and states in the United States have changed zoning guidelines or are considering changes to allow multiple housing units in what used to be areas just for single-family homes:

Minneapolis and Seattle are among cities that have effectively abolished zoning that restricts neighborhoods to owner-occupied, single-family dwellings. Oregon has done so in its largest municipalities, and Californians, like residents of Salt Lake City, are now free to build small cottages, sometimes called “granny flats,” for use as rentals in neighborhoods that were previously single-family only…

Before World War II, only about 13% of Americans lived in a suburb; now more than half of us do, and as the New York Times reported, in many American cities, more than 75% of residential land is zoned for single family use only.

In some cities, the share is even higher: in Charlotte, North Carolina, for example, 84% of residential land is zoned single-family; in San Jose, California, 94% is, according to a Times analysis in collaboration with UrbanFootprint…

Other states with single-family zoning in the legislative crosshairs in 2020 include Virginia and Maryland, where House Delegate Vaughn Stewart says upzoning can correct social-justice issues, as well as housing problems. “For too long, local governments have weaponized zoning codes to block people of color and the working class from high-opportunity neighborhoods,” Stewart told Kriston Capps of CityLab.

Sonia Hirt, quoted in this article, argues that single-family homes drive zoning in the United States as the goal is to protect homes and homeowners from uses they find less desirable, threatening to a residential character, and negatively impact property values.

As someone who studies suburbs, zoning, and housing, here are a few thoughts about the future of these changes:

  1. Making changes at the city or municipal level will be easier or more palatable to more voters who tend to like local control over land use decisions. If zoning changes are made at the state level, it will be harder to enforce the guidelines or penalize communities that do not comply.
  2. Wealthier communities will fight hard to avoid these zoning changes. Part of the appeal for some to move to wealthier suburbs is to keep others out and have a particular aesthetic (and these homeowners usually are not looking for more density).
  3. Adding some accessory dwellings throughout single-family home neighborhoods may not change the character of communities much but asking for bigger changes – multi-family housing, apartments, condos, turning large single-family homes into multiple units – on a bigger scale will be a tough sell in many communities.

These difficulties suggest progress in providing more affordable housing or more housing units could be slow. If change and enforcement primarily happens at the local level, this limits the ability of regions to address affordable housing issues because the problem simply becomes one that other communities should address. Housing, like transportation or water, is an issue that benefits greatly from the cooperation of all actors in a region. While it is a difficult topic to address at this level, let alone a national level, significant progress requires broader cooperation and efforts.

Considering regional transit in the suburbs of Detroit

Suburban voters and leaders regularly resist efforts to bring mass transit to the suburbs (see examples like Nashville). The tide might be changing in parts of suburban Detroit:

In contrast, Coulter has declared that he will be a “champion” of regional transit—and given how narrow the initial defeat was, that could make all the difference. In November, he appeared with other regional leaders to announce legislation that would give Wayne, Oakland, and Washtenaw counties the power to negotiate a transit plan among themselves—a first step toward putting a revised plan before voters in 2020.

Like his predecessor once argued of sprawl, Coulter touts better regional transit as an economic development tool: “If we’re going to try to keep our young talent here, we’re going to have to compete with other regions in the country.”

The change in leadership has Detroit’s transit boosters thinking positively. “I am pretty optimistic,” says Megan Owens, executive director of Transportation Riders United, a local advocacy group. “When Brooks Patterson passed away and Dave Coulter was appointed executive, that was a watershed moment and a huge opportunity for regional transit. Dave Coulter understands what regional transit could mean—not only for urbanized communities, but for the county as a whole.”

In that way, she says, Coulter is more in-step with changing suburban demographics and preferences in a region where immigrant communities are growing, populations are aging, and young professionals are more likely to want to live in walkable communities. “We look back 20 years ago, and there was much more of an attitude of, ‘Transit? Who cares! We’re the Motor City!’” Owens says. “Now, the conversation is more about, ‘What kind of transit?’”

Suburbanites have resisted mass transit for multiple reasons: they do not want tax money going to transportation forms they do not plan to use or going to bureaucrats they do not control; the kinds of people who might ride mass transit (particularly from the city to the suburbs); the kind of denser development that might accompany mass transit corridors or hubs; and concerns about having enough money to pay for roads since many suburbanites would prefer to drive.It is then interesting to put these reasons next to the logic expressed above: what if mass transit is an economic development tool for suburbs? If suburbs are regularly competing with other suburbs and a big city within their own metropolitan region (let alone competing with other metropolitan regions), what if they need mass transit to keep up? Putting in significant mass transit will not be easy and I assume there will always be limits on how much density suburbs will accept but it will be worth watching to see how many wealthier suburban areas go in this direction in the next decade or two.

(On a more cynical note, perhaps the demographic change in the suburbs with more non-white and lower- or working-class residents means that suburbanites can no longer easily dismiss mass transit because they are worried about city residenst accessing the suburbs.)