The only thing worse than listening to suburbanites bitch about being stuck in traffic? Listening to local politicians pretend they can actually do something to Make Commutes
Great Fast Again.
Way, way back in the '50s and '60s, people got it into their heads that they had a constitutional right to live in the suburbs and drive in or through the center of a city—to jobs, to stores, to stadiums, to hookers, to suburbs on the other side of the city—going seventy miles an hour. Our local politicians can't bring themselves to tell these entitled shits the truth: It's never going to be the 1960s around here again, when expressways were expressways, not parking lots. We can't build our way out of this. We can only build alternatives to cars, aka mass transit. (Preferably rapid transit, which is grade-separated transit. Without taking lanes away from cars, which we aren't going to do, BRT is not rapid transit. It's an oxymoron.) Mayors and city council members and county council members in cities with with functioning mass transit systems don't have to make serious faces and reassure entitled drivers that they're gonna do something to speed up their commutes.
This is how a conversation between an elected official and an entitled suburbanite might go in New York or Chicago:
"My commute is awful! I sit in traffic for hours!"
"Then take the train."
"I don't want take the train."
"Then sit in traffic, asshole."
Sit in traffic or take rapid transit: those are your options, when you live, work, or play in or near a big, thriving urban center with a functional rapid transit system. New York, Chicago, Portland, D.C., London, Paris, Vienna. Complain about your commute and you'll be told to pick one: traffic (that you and your car help create) or transit (that you and your taxes help subsidize). Politicians in cities with functional (that's functional, not perfect) mass transit systems—where they still spend a lot of money maintaining roads—don't have to waste billions of dollars on bullshit tunnels supposedly designed to "preserve capacity" but really intended to assuage the irrational anger of entitled drivers whose votes they need.
And now, a song...
Urbanites complaining about gentrification have a lot in common with suburbanites complaining about commutes.
Backing way the hell up: At roughly same time suburbanites got it into their heads that they're entitled to drive through the center of the city at 70 MPH, urbanites got it into their heads that the center of the city is cheapest place to live. ("Downtown, where the folks are broke!") And for a while the center of the city was the cheapest place to live. But that's no longer the case. Before we get to why downtown and inner-city neighborhoods are no longer the cheapest places to live, let's pause to reflect on what made them the cheapest place to live for a good/depressing chunk of the 20th Century.
Downtown, the city center, close-in neighborhoods—for decades residential and commercial rents were low and you could find a giant loft space where you could make art (or drink about making art) or a cheap storefront where you could start a theater or a bar or a cult. But this was an historical anomaly driven by two things lefties hate: racism and the automobile. Shitty people abandoned the city: racist whites fled the city and expressways and cars made it possible for urbanophobes to exploit everything a city had to offer without having to actually live (and pay taxes) in the city. Once upon a time urbanites regarded this as a crisis. Today we rarely acknowledge the two social forces that made city centers the most affordable places to live: the evils of racism and the catastrophe of the automobile—hate, fear, and the internal combustion engine.
That was then. This is now:
We are in the middle of a once in a lifetime tectonic shift in consumer preferences regarding urban living. Throughout much of the 20th century, American households reported a preference for suburban living. Not everyone was able to afford to move to the suburbs (and many were racially excluded) but even central city residents commonly told survey researchers that they would rather be living in the suburbs. The result was that, as people sorted within regions, the people with the most economic (and racial) power chose the most desirable locations (at the edges) while the less powerful were left with the less desirable center. There has been a shift, and now a growing share of the powerful prefer the center.
People are choosing to move back into the city. We can't build a wall around our city, we can't keep people out, and we haven't built enough housing to accommodate demand. Scarcity is driving up the value of the housing stock that already exists and people are being priced out and displaced:
The population of a region is largely determined by the number of jobs available. When we add jobs, we create new demand for housing. If we build housing at the same rate that we create jobs, housing prices remain relatively constant. When we occasionally build more housing than we need, prices fall, and when we build too little housing, prices rise. Across the country we have been systematically building too little housing for a very long time now and high housing prices and rents are the utterly predictable result.
Housing scarcity—exacerbated by the ridiculous amount of this city zoned for single-family housing—deserves as much blame for the displacement crisis as gentrification. More. And unlike gentrification ("a once in a lifetime tectonic shift in consumer preferences"), scarcity and single-family zoning are two things we can actually do something about. Rezone huge swaths of the city. Build more units of affordable housing, borrow the social housing model discussed in the Rick Jacobus' piece I quote from above ("Why We Must Build"), do away with parking requirements, and—yes—let developers develop. (This is the point where someone jumps into comments to point out that I live in a big house on Capitol Hill. It's true! And my house is worth a lot of money—a lot more than what we paid for it a dozen years ago. But the value of my house is tied to its scarcity. Want to cut the value of my property in half? Great! Join me in calling for a radical rezone of all of Capitol Hill—every single block—for multi-family housing, apartment blocks and towers. That'll show me!)
We're electing a new mayor and a few new city and county council members this fall. So we're gonna be hearing from politicians pretending they can do something about something they can't really do anything about. (The pandering has already begun.) Like politicians telling suburbanites they're gonna do something to shorten their commutes, they're telling urbanites they're gonna do something to halt gentrification. Not because they can, but because they need the votes of people who are angry about gentrification and displacement. (In some cases angry and complicit. If I meet one more anti-gentrification activist who moved to Seattle ten minutes ago, I shall scream.)
I'm going to contradict myself now because what are the odds anyone is still reading this screed?
There actually is something we can do about gentrification and displacement. We can't stop it. Snark can't halt tectonic shifts. The thing we can do? It's the same thing we can do about about traffic: build a truly regional, truly rapid transit system. A comprehensive regional rapid transit system will make displacement—being forced to move from one neighborhood to another by economic forces beyond the control of our local elected officials—less devastating and less isolating for those who will inevitably be impacted.
Enough with the snarky posters, enough with the inane, masturbatory, self-congratulatory stunts, enough with the attacks on a single pot shop. Let's stop wasting time and political energy demanding something that local elected officials can't do—stop gentrification—and instead demand some things they can do, things that would actually mitigate some of the harms of gentrification and displacement. Things like...
• Build out our fixed-rail rapid transit system as quickly as possible. We've just passed ST3. More fixed-rail, rapid-transit lines are coming. But it's going to take 20+ years to build out and it looks like we're going to have to fight a never-ending rearguard action to protect the plan we approved. (How dare these assholes call themselves Democrats.) Fast-track whatever can be fast-tracked.
• Immediately create true BRT lines along the coming light rail lines and beyond—and take roads away from cars to do it. Reserve those routes for buses. Will that make driving through the city harder? Sure it will. And good. Drivers will want light rail completed just as quickly as rail commuters and it'll create an incentive for drivers to leave their cars at home and take the bus instead. And people who've been forced out of the center of the city and into the suburbs won't have to wait 20 years or longer for rapid transit to reach them.
• Massive subsidies for riders of mass transit. Demand an annual pass that costs $365 dollars for unlimited rides. And a $40 monthly pass. As more people are pushed out of the center of the city by changing preferences/tectonic shifts, more people will be relying on transit to get to jobs, schools, doctors, recreation, etc. Subsidize transit to bring down the costs of commuting for all. A citation for "karmic infraction" may put a smile on the face someone being displaced—or on the face of the person who displaced them—but cheaper, subsidized transit would actually do something much useful: it would put money in displaced people's pockets—the pockets of people who have already been displaced—and help them get where they need to go.
People are choosing to move back into the cities. We can't restrict free choice, freedom of movement, build a wall around the city, or declare certain sections of the city off-limits to newcomers. We can build more units of affordable housing (which we're doing), adopt that social housing model Jacobus writes about (which sounds like what Capitol Hill Housing already does, but let's scale it way the fuck up), and we should take steps to prevent the housing market from being distorted by speculators and people parking their money in real estate (which they're doing in Vancouver and we need to do here). But there's only so much we can do. People are going to be displaced. We can shake our fists and put up posters—and refuse to make any actionable demands—but that's not going to change anything or help anyone. Snark and pranks masquerading as activism aren't going stop people from moving back into the cities. It's time to do something that might actually make a difference.
Traffic and displacement—two different, if intertwined problems. One solution: rapid transit.