‘The Streetcar’ – 3 – The role of transportation in economic development

This is the third post in an 8 part series on “The Streetcar”.

  1. Conceptual Flaws: civic boosters lead the charge
  2. Errors of Geometry: split one-ways are dumb
  3. The role of transportation in economic development
  4. Symbolic Transit
  5. On the back of branding
  6. Separate and Unequal: on therails of division
  7. Chicken or Egg: Shaping the future or following the past?
  8. A New and Highly Sarcastic Plan for Economic Development

Summing up the last couple of posts, I’ve said that The Streetcar was motivated by a desire for economic development and that that driving goal shaped the project in such a way that it was less than ideal as an actual transportation improvement. I’ll argue here that if it isn’t a substantial transportation improvement, it won’t be an engine of real economic development either.

Transportation is a necessary foundation of any economy. Transportation is the intentional movement of people or things to other people or things that they want to be closer to. These things could be tractor trailers full of widgets or people bicycling to a holiday party. They could even, with a bit of a stretch be encoded data physically moving about on the internet or through the air in waves. In any case, things that have started in one place have found themselves in another.

In a really essential way, this lies at the root of all commerce. If we couldn’t move our bodies, our ideas, parcels, products, or whatever else, there could be no commerce at all because there’d be very few people to talk to or exchange things with. Each of us would exist in the space we were born into, unable to move from it and unable to do anything outside the reach of our limbs. Without transportation, we might as well be lichen. To the extent that we expand our physical reach, we expand our possibilities for commerce by increasing the number of people and things to which we have access.

This is actually the reason cities first formed thousands of years ago: because the more efficient transportation, and thus exchange, possible inside dense areas, even very small ones, allowed an irresistible growth of commerce that’s still drawing people from poorer rural areas all over the world. If there are 1,000,000 potential customers within ten miles of me(and there probably are right now as I sit at a coffee shop OTR), I have a lot more immediate economic opportunities than a farmer who has three neighbours within the same distance. With that increase in scope comes all of the benefits of economies of scale, economies of agglomeration, and the ability to specialize.

But most of us have lived most or all of our lives within a dense urban, highly developed state(I’m talking about you, Ohio!1) and we can easily take these basic facts for granted. Relatively speaking, transportation is pretty good where us city-folk live, and we take for granted that if we quit a job, we could find another one without having to move too far or at all. If we want to try a new restaurant there will be one we haven’t been to before, perhaps even within walking distance. Still, we find ourselves to some extent living within effective boundaries. Since moving to Pendelton, I hardly ever go out as far as Northside any more even though I can get there without too much trouble. It’s just easier to go to Shadeau even if I might feel like going to Take the Cake. If I could get to Take the Cake with as little trouble, I would go there more often and the contrary is probably true of Northsiders craving some fresh bread. Better transportation in this case could expand our options locally and allow both shops to specialize a bit more as they reach a broader base of customers. That’s “economic development”, or more etymologically, the development of “economy” or efficiency or thrift.

But like I said, we can forget this living in a place that already has a well developed2 economy. Often when we talk about “economic development”, we’re really talking about hyper-local competition for a supposedly limited number of things like jobs, shops, offices, and rented apartments. When we think of economic development in this way, we often come up with proposals for things that don’t develop broad efficiency or economy and that sometimes work against it. The use of massive tax breaks to lure businesses to a certain municipality has been well documented as a collective action problem. Cities, states and countries often find themselves competing for a corporation that’s looking to (re)locate an office or factory that will bring job opportunities to the community. First a few places will desperately offer to waive all taxes on the new factory for as much as a decade, an offer that’s hard for any company to refuse, then every other place has to offer the same or better(/worse) if they want to compete. Seeing this, other companies start making threats to relocate unless they get their taxes cut and before you know it, you have areas where the largest, richest corporations are the ones that pay the fewest taxes while those least able to bargain pay relatively more. It’s often a rapidly developing race to the bottom that’s hard for either companies or cities to extract themselves from without some sort of a binding “arms agreement” or tariffs.

Tax incentives like this are of the competitive model of ‘economic development’ that places municipal boundaries above the actual development of broadly shared economy. And I worry that to a large extent, this is the model the streetcar is relying on for it’s intended economic effects. As I argued, the streetcar is not a substantial addition to the transportation system, or perhaps more accurately, not as good a contribution to it as it could have been given the resources and even assuming the basic premise of a streetcar in that general area.

I think instead it will rely on the perception of the area that the streetcar will create to pull people from other cities and other parts of Cincinnati to a neighborhood that they’ll see as more in line with their values. That’s a bit like a restaurant hiring an interior decorator and putting a neighboring restaurant out of business by attracting all of their former customers with modern lamps and Ikea cutlery. It hasn’t created new business and economy. Rather, the transactions would simply have moved a door or two over, and the successful restaurant will be out the not-insignificant cost of the interior decorator. From a disinterested perspective, very little will have changed.

Now, I don’t want to say that the City shouldn’t spend any money to make OTR and Downtown more attractive to potential residents. That would be silly. But to spend $100,000,000 or more on one aspect of that goal does seem a little inefficient. More than pointing out that inefficiency though, I want to make clear what kind of “economic development” this project is. It seems to be a lot more of the competitive model, than the holistic one. And that sucks because projects like this could do both models well at the same time. The wonderful thing about people flocking to areas with the perception of “urban” amenities like trains and subways and streetcars is that it affords another political justification for building them for their original purpose: transportation. An area that builds a subway because of popular or political demand has the opportunity to make it a major transportation improvement as well. The people who want “rails in the ground” without fully understanding why they would be needed will still get them, and the place where it’s built can actually substantially expand it’s access to other places. That would cause both holistic economic development for the whole regional economy and have the effect of increasing local competitiveness for business investments.

Our contemporary local political focus on the competitive model has made us miss the holistic model on this project, and our City planners, responding to strong political demands have failed to remind us of the lost opportunity. Instead, our streetcar literally spreads itself thin in an effort to spread it’s perception to as many streets as possible. In doing so, it minimizes it’s effect as transportation. It’s a clear tradeoff, and the clear winner is aesthetic competitiveness.

Watch out Portland, OR. We’re wearing Air Jordans now too, and we’re going to start flirting with all of your boyfriends.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. and Northern Kentucky…I didn’t forget you, babe.
  2. Compare Greater Cincinnati to Southeast Ohio.
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Posted in: Analysis | Back to Basics | Definitions | Logic | Mobility | Politics
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On the role of planners

I had a conversation with a friend a couple months ago that shed some light on what I think is probably a fairly common misunderstanding about the role of urban planners.

A city is a tremendously contentious, political being, one with millions of people and millions of ideas about what the city should be. Almost as many people are frustrated with some aspect of what the city actually is and hundreds or, more optimistically, thousands of people take it on themselves every day to be advocates for particular issues, like bicycling, businesses, street lighting, civil rights, transit etc. These people often become masters of their issues, knowing all there is to know about bicycling, for example, knowing all that goes on in the bicycling community, what people are saying and feeling about bicycling, what exactly they say they want from the city. These people quite naturally develop specific ideas about what the City should do about these issues, and they tell the City as much. These suggestions are heard by politicians and by planners. Politicians don’t generally have a specific area of expertise, but planners do. They’re really¬†systems administrators of a sort. But the system isn’t a computer network, it’s a polis, a city in the lowercase sense; the whole interconnected web of real relations between people and places and all of the ‘applications’ or various uses of a city. To be clear, they’re not the city manager(he manages the municipal entity of the City, the City that has a bank account in it’s name). Rather, planners might be closer to what could be called city administrators.

Planners at their best1 don’t give a community merely what it asks for just a sysadmin doesn’t install just any program a user requests. Indeed, any unchecked program could be malicious(possibly causing stress or compromise of the whole network), or simply erroneous and dysfunctional, no matter how useful it could be for that one user right now.

Instead, planners give a community what it needs, and indeed what it wants at a deep level, whether they have asked for it or not. They establish systems through which things can happen which they haven’t necessarily foreseen, systems that are adaptive to change, and resilient to challenge.

And that’s not patronizing. It’s like parenting. You don’t let your kids have everything they ask for and you don’t favour one child over another. Planners don’t do that for citizens either.

I think a lot of people approach planners with very specific suggestions, thinking they’ll be duly considered, and possibly completely implemented, that their suggestion might be something the planner had never thought of. Typically the suggestions only address the concerns of the community that the suggester represents. “Why don’t you build a streetcar between my neighborhood and my office” is a typical if highly exaggerated example. Or perhaps “High meter rates are bad for my business and they shouldn’t be raised!”.2

Right. Got it. We’ll just not raise the meter rates then. Glad you chimed in with that insight. I wouldn’t want to unthinkingly impinge on your business as I blunder about.3

Planners hear these pleas for specific things and try to pick broader themes from them.

You can see this selection of broader themes and desires at work really clearly in Cincinnati’s new master plan. The plan actually makes surprisingly few concrete suggestions, but rather lays a nuanced framework of common desire on which specific plans can be firmly based. Really, the master planning process was just an elaborate exercise walking the general public through the process of saying and understanding what they really want. And the document reflects that. It makes no mandates, but serves as a justification for proposals that are in line with it, a point of contention for proposals discordant with it. It states some extraordinarily broad goals like “preserve or create a pedestrian-scaled city”, “strengthen community organizations” and “build on our assets”. These represent the consensus of the city.

Everyone has some specific ideas about what each of these mean, and almost every one of them will be in at least indirect conflict with almost every other idea, often even within the same person’s head. The broad goals having been established, it’s the job of planners to devise a means of achieving the goals with efficiency and fairness and balance. This is where the technical knowledge of the sysadmin is important. We have to know how to achieve the goal in reality. We all want a secure computer, but we don’t all know the best encryption protocol. We also don’t all know the best way to amend a complex transportation system, or help entrepreneurs have a flourishing environment at the same time that we’re collectively working to systemically reduce poverty and crime on shrinking budgets through incremental changes to the built environment.

And I think this is where the misconception starts. People live in cities. We all use transportation and encounter poverty every single day. We’ve each lived in our own city, our own neighborhood, our own community for what feels like ages. And we each know it damn well. We(the advocate citizens) know the details of our issues better than anyone, just as I know the arrangement of files on my hard drive like the back of my hand. But what we don’t generally know is that context that each of our experiences sits in, and the acute essential conflicts we have with some others in the city, and even with ourselves. Unless, you’re computer scientist, you probably don’t have the faintest idea how a computer4,the context of most of today’s communication, actually does anything.

One of the general goals from the master plan is to encourage the use of non-automotive transportation. Another goal is to promote and encourage local businesses. Most people you ask will agree with these goals generally, but if you present them with any possible discouragement to using a car, they’ll attack the idea on the grounds that it will hurt business. They’ll attack a plan to help business with a claim of necessary fiscal responsibility, and they’ll attack an attempt at fiscal responsibility with an insistence that not a single police officer can be laid off. People don’t collectively know how to manage city, and don’t individually know how to balance their own desires with the ambition of others. Enter the planner.

The sysadmin doesn’t want to reorganise your home folder, but she does want to make sure you’re accessing some sites with SHTTP from now on and that you have limited access to the network drive. Similarly, the good planner will want to cause a minimum of disturbance to any one person or group of people, while at the same time advancing everyone toward their stated or implicit goals. Where those goals are in conflict with one another, as they almost always are, the planner must mediate the conceptual conflict and decide which path advances the greater good.

So this is why I’m sometimes accused of succinctly dismissing people’s well thought out urban planning suggestions(they should put a shuttle at X and a parking garage at Y because Z). It’s not because that doesn’t make perfect sense inside the relatively narrow context of that person’s experiences, rather that it doesn’t make sense in light of the conflicting implicit desires of others, and reasonable ways of achieving those consensual common ends. You should trust an expert to know you how a computer network functions and you should trust a planner(again, at their best) to know you how a city functions. Not what you should do with it, but how it actually works and thus how you and the other 2,000,000 users can get the most of what ya’ll really want out of it.

Show 4 footnotes

  1. I’m going to speak from here on out of planners-at-their-best or ideal planners. We’ll leave that messy planners-as-they-actually-are stuff for another and more depressing post.
  2. Or to keep with our analogy, “Why don’t you just let me plug my home computer into the office network so I can get my work done in a more comfortable setting?”¬† — because you could introduce malicious stuff into the system, perhaps intentionally, compromising security and a stable computing environment for dozens, or thousands of other people!
  3. This is sarcasm.
  4. Start with this link and see how deep into wikipedia you can dive before your brain hurts.
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Posted in: Back to Basics | Definitions | Misconceptions | Plans
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