The Agenda

Stephen Smith on the Missing Driverless Trains

At Atlantic Cities, Stephen Smith of Market Urbanism has an article on why U.S. transit systems have been so reluctant to embrace driverless trains. The section on New York city was of course of parochial interest to me:

Upgrades to Paris’s Métro have proven that retrofitting century-old subways for driverless operation is possible (and arguably safety-enhancing, with platform screen doors installed at stations that restrict access to the tracks until a train is safely docked and aligned), and Glasgow’s subway, which predates New York’s by almost a decade, is only five years away from driverless capabilities.

New York’s subway, on the other hand, hasn’t even advanced to the 20th century in terms of labor-saving efficiencies, never mind the 21st. Almost all of the subway’s trains have two paid employees on board at all times, long after other rapid transit systems around the country folded driving and door operation into one job. The city has slowly been winning concessions from its drivers union toward so-called “one-person train operation” and other efficiency measures, but it’s starting from a low base.

New York is an outlier in labor intransigence, but public sector transit unions are a potent force in setting transit agendas in American cities – more so than in Europe and Asia, where high ridership creates a large and wealthy rider constituency to demand efficiency and counteract the political power of transit unions. [Emphasis added]

Stephen’s conclusion is a reminder that local land use reforms designed to allow developers to meet growing demand for walkable urbanism could have a number of beneficial knock-on effects, e.g., by increasing the number of middle-income and affluent residents in dense cities with an existing transit structure, we could improve the economic prospects of poor residents (by increasing the number of potential consumers for in-person services who are accessible via transit) and we’d strengthen the constituency for high-quality public services, which would presumably have spillover benefits.

Two objections that immediately come to mind are that (a) gentrification or embourgeoisement will result in displacement that will exacerbate the isolation of the poor rather than reduce it. I’d argue that this depends on the policy mix. Residential churn tends to be high in violent neighborhoods with limited amenities, for obvious reasons; it tends to decrease as conditions improve, but this is mitigated by rising rents, which are a natural consequence of increased desirability and constrained supply. Relaxing constraints on supply are an obvious strategy to mitigate this dynamic. Another objection is that (b) any improvement in public services will be captured by gentrifiers, e.g., magnet schools and tracking will benefit the savvy and well-connected. This neglects the benefits of density in reducing crime (once we’ve passed the urban threshold, that is), the role of middle-class and affluent residents in strengthening the local tax base, and the possibility that the skills involved in navigating a school choice system will tend to diffuse over time. 

The view I’m describing, I should stress, has been sharply criticized. The Mike Konczal essay we recently discussed references the work of Neil Smith:

The anthropologist Neil Smith argues that gentrification has created a “revanchist city,” where the goal is to reclaim the lost frontier of urban spaces from undesirables. This is a mix of creating good economic incentives for developers and desirable citizens while also creating heavily policed zones against undesirables. Public spaces are quasi-privatized through funding and maintenance when they aren’t private spaces with public access obligations. Benches are designed so people can’t sleep on them, public restrooms disappear from public spaces, and privatized parking meters require credit cards to park. Numerous other design choices shift the public sphere away from those at the margins, while extensive police presence claims the remaining spaces.

It is interesting to consider Smith’s arguments — which I’ve encountered in secondary sources, but haven’t familiarized myself with as much as I should — in the context of Christopher Jencks’s landmark 1994 study, The Homeless. Jencks focuses in particular on the role of slum clearance, and specifically regulatory efforts to combat low-cost “cage hotels,” as a driver of the expansion of the homeless population in U.S. cities. That is, an intervention designed to improve the lot of socially Stephanie Goldberg of the Chicago Tribune summarized this aspect of Jencks’s argument:

Jencks also argues for bringing back Skid Row districts in urban areas, because razing them, he said, is what put many people on the street in the first place. He advocates bringing back “cage” type hotels to house residents in 5-by-7-foot cubicles-an idea that’s unlikely to win him many fans among real estate developers who make greater profits by gentrifying such areas.

Shelters, he’s convinced, are not the answer, because they’re often unsafe and lack privacy. “We need some way of giving people that tiny bit of space for themselves and some way of allowing them to work for it,” he said, sitting in the Barnes & Noble bookstore cafe in Evanston recently sipping his nightly cappuccino.

How do you like that ironic juxtaposition? Journalistic conventions haven’t changed much in the past two decades. I’d also suggest that real estate developers, not to mention many if not most city-dwellers, would presumably prefer the reemergence of cage hotels to the persistence of pervasive homelessness.

I see that this post has ranged far beyond driverless trains. 


The Latest