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

December 31st, 2012

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.

2 responses to “‘The Streetcar’ – 3 – The role of transportation in economic development”

  1. Concerned Taxpayer says:

    It will be a boondoggle of epic proportions…Even by boondoggle standards