Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Venture Cities

One of my old hobbyhorses is the failure to build transit-oriented cities in the U.S. The few transit-oriented cities we have grew during a time when cars were expensive or nonexistent, and their density made them especially suitable for things like subways. Today there is a chicken-and-egg problem, though, because a small city will pretty much never be a good candidate for grade-separated transit, and by the time it is a big city its car-driven pattern of development will likely have pushed it to develop in a way that is still unsuitable for grade-separated transit. Furthermore, tunneling through developed areas is very expensive relative to digging tunnels in the open countryside.

It seems as though you could build a planned city from scratch that would avoid these problems. You would do something like this: Dig a bunch of subway tunnels, but only lay track in one of them. Build a modest "downtown" area at one end and brownstone/row-house type neighborhoods along the rest of the line. Alternatively, don't install any track, just run bus lines on the roads where the subway lines will eventually go. You can also leave certain empty lots near future train stations, or build temporary, cheap, easy-to-tear-down buildings there.

The point is that as the city grows, you can start "turning on" subway lines and allowing the construction of tall/dense buildings near the stations. Eventually you would have one of the most walkable, dense cities in the country, which would create a type of real estate for which demand is high and competition is virtually nonexistent (in the U.S.). And your subway system would be far better and cheaper than New York's.

Where I'm going with this is that it seems strange to me that private equity or venture capital or whatever hasn't funded such a thing. I think the answer is simply that politics are hard. A big investment is subject to expropriation, which is a dirty word, but could refer to something as simple as the residents of the city or state voting to change the zoning laws. Democracy has a tense relationship with large-scale private-sector development.

I hope this is a problem that can be solved, though. A state with a sufficiently motivated legislature could presumably write laws and sign contracts that would bind it pretty strongly to support the venture. Of course that's only likely in a blue state, which means we would be building another dense, walkable city in a place where its (likely Democratic-leaning) residents would have relatively little effect on the Electoral College. So it's not an idea that is free from problems. But I hope that it is tried by someone with the capital and the ability to pull it off.


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