The Agenda

Catching Up: On Density

As some of you, one of my gut instincts is that increasing the density of U.S. metropolitan areas would make us richer. This strong suspicion flows from a few core ideas:

(1) Knowledge-intensive services represent an increasingly large share of GDP in the most advanced economies, and higher density seems to translate into higher productivity in this sector. This isn’t an iron law, but it does look like a pretty strong tendency, as Ed Glaeser and others have argued. 

(2) Impersonal services, including most knowledge-intensive services, can be offshored. Personal services, by definition, can’t. It is easy to imagine a continuing bifurcation of the U.S. economy into jobs in impersonal services and personal services. As Alan Blinder suggested when he first introduced this distinction, personal service work can be skilled or less-skilled, and the same is true for impersonal services. Yet it is also true that less-skilled workers, or rather non-college-educated workers, are somewhat more likely to cluster in personal services in the future. Personal services are more likely to flourish in dense environments, and in particular in dense cities that also contain large numbers of more affluent workers, i.e., potential clients. This suggests that improving intrametropolitan connectivity is crucial to improving the employment prospects of non-college-educated workers.

(3) Yonah Freemark has written extensively about the virtues of transit-friendly urban development, and I think he makes a compelling case. But I disagree strongly with Freemark’s advocacy of HSR. As the left-of-center journalist Ben Adler has argued, investing scare public resources in intrametropolitan transit is a better bet that investing them int in intermetropolitan rail, not least because doing so tends to benefit the less affluent. 

 While making the trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco by high-speed rail instead of by flying would save some CO2 emissions, the bigger problem is not that you can’t get from L.A. to San Francisco fast enough by train, it’s that you can’t get around L.A. or San Diego, the nation’s second and eighth largest cities, respectively, without a car.

The rail project will cost substantially more than the $10 billion that the bond invests. Architects of the project estimate that it’s a $42 billion endeavor, with various government agencies kicking in money. That is a large investment, and there might be better ways for California to invest in more locally focused transit and get more environmental bang for its buck.

Of course, mass transit is for more than just the environment: It’s a tool for social justice and mobility. But the idea of long-distance high-speed rail is primarily of interest to business travelers and the relatively wealthy. The people who need subways, trolleys, and buses to get around the fringes of L.A. are poor and working class. Sure, when the Google gang comes down to L.A. they can take the high-speed train instead of flying, but the housekeepers who commute from East L.A. to Westwood by bus or car won’t see their lives change at all.

Even if you’re considering the middle class who might make trips between cities fairly often, high speed rail does little to combat the fact that one cannot get around L.A. or San Diego without a car upon arrival. If people plan to take the train for shorter trips between cities, they may end up needing a car on the other end. For mass transit to really remove auto-dependence it has to connect walkable urban areas.

Adler offers a very useful framework for thinking about these issues. The liberal blogger Atrios recently wrote a post along similar lines:

A reader writes in to ask just why I’m a fan of intercity rail. Well, the truth is if I had an extra $50 billion of other peoples’ money to blow on big transit projects I would prioritize intra-city transit systems instead of inter-city ones, especially if I could use the powers of my benevolent dictatorship to fix stupid land use laws around stations and corridors. We’ve spent and continue to spend a lot of money to build a world where mobility requires that individuals spend a hell of a lot of money to surround themselves with a few thousand pounds of metal. And, no, roads don’t pay for themselves. Then we require them to spend more money on insurance because there’s a decent chance they’re going to maim someone. I think this state of affairs is especially bad for teenagers, the elderly, and the poor, all of whom are incredibly disadvantaged by lack of mobility options.

I’m always pleased to see writers of any political stripe acknowledge that we can’t assume that public resources are unlimited. 

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