Mass Transit: The Great Train Robbery

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Forbes.com

Last month promoters of the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s Los Angeles rail projects, both past and future, held a party to celebrate their “success.” Although this may well have been justified for transit-builders and urban land speculators, there may be far less call for celebration among L.A.’s beleaguered commuters.

Despite promises that the $8 billion invested in rail lines over the past two decades would lessen L.A.’s traffic congestion and reshape how Angelenos get to work, the sad reality is that there has been no increase in MTA transit ridership since before the rail expansion began in 1985.

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Singapore’s Demographic Winter

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Forbes.com

Over the past half century arguably no place on earth has progressed more than the tiny island state of Singapore. A once impoverished, tropical powder keg packed into 268 square miles at the foot of the Malay Peninsula, the Mandarin-led republic has ascended from its difficult founding in 1965 to one of the richest economies on the planet. Today, in terms of purchasing power, its per capita income stands higher than most European countries’ or Japan’s and is roughly equal to that of the U.S.

But a catastrophic plunge in the country’s birthrate–a problem plaguing many of the world’s affluent economies–could undermine Singapore’s success. In 1965 Singapore’s leaders feared it could not survive an unsustainable fertility rate above 3.5 and embarked on a campaign encouraging citizens to have smaller families. Today the country’s fertility rate–the number of children per female–has sunk to roughly 1.2 , a rate lower than all but a handful of countries and well below replacement level.

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The Myth of the Back-to-the-City Migration

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Wall Street Journal

Pundits, planners and urban visionaries—citing everything from changing demographics, soaring energy prices, the rise of the so-called “creative class,” and the need to battle global warming—have been predicting for years that America’s love affair with the suburbs will soon be over. Their voices have grown louder since the onset of the housing crisis. Suburban neighborhoods, as the Atlantic magazine put it in March 2008, would morph into “the new slums” as people trek back to dense urban spaces.

But the great migration back to the city hasn’t occurred. Over the past decade the percentage of Americans living in suburbs and single-family homes has increased. Meanwhile, demographer Wendell Cox’s analysis of census figures show that a much-celebrated rise in the percentage of multifamily housing peaked at 40% of all new housing permits in 2008, and it has since fallen to below 20% of the total, slightly lower than in 2000. Read more

L.A.’s Economy Is Not Dead Yet

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Forbes.com

“This is the city,” ran the famous introduction to the popular crime drama Dragnet. “Los Angeles, Calif. I work here.” Of course, unlike Det. Sgt. Joe Friday, who spoke those words every episode, I am not a cop, but Los Angeles has been my home for over 35 years.

To Sgt. Friday, L.A. was a place full of opportunities to solve crimes, but for me Los Angeles has been an ideal barometer for the city of the future. For the better part of the last century, Los Angeles has been, as one architect once put it, “the original in the Xerox machine.” It largely invented the blueprint of the modern American city: the car-oriented suburban way of life, the multi-polar metropolis around a largely unremarkable downtown, the sprawling jumble of ethnic and cultural enclaves of a Latin- and Asian-flavored mestizo society.

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The Future Of America’s Working Class

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Forbes.com

Watford, England, sits at the end of a spur on the London tube’s Metropolitan line, a somewhat dreary city of some 80,000 rising amid the pleasant green Hertfordshire countryside. Although not utterly destitute like parts of south or east London, its shabby High Street reflects a now-diminished British dream of class mobility. It also stands as a potential warning to the U.S., where working-class, blue-collar white Americans have been among the biggest losers in the country’s deep, persistent recession.

As you walk through Watford, midday drinkers linger outside the One Bell pub near the center of town. Many of these might be considered “yobs,” a term applied to youthful, largely white, working-class youths, many of whom work only occasionally or not at all. In the British press yobs are frequently linked to petty crime and violent behavior–including a recent stabbing outside another Watford pub, and soccer-related hooliganism.

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Houston: Model City

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Forbes.com

Do cities have a future? Pessimists point to industrial-era holdovers like Detroit and Cleveland. Urban boosters point to dense, expensive cities like New York, Boston and San Francisco. Yet if you want to see successful 21st-century urbanism, hop on down to Houston and the Lone Star State.

You won’t be alone: Last year Houston added 141,000 residents, more than any region in the U.S. save the city’s similarly sprawling rival, Dallas-Fort Worth. Over the past decade Houston’s population has grown by 24%–five times the rate of San Francisco, Boston and New York. In that time it has attracted 244,000 new residents from other parts of the U.S., while older cities experienced high rates of out-migration.
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The Best Cities For Jobs

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Forbes.com

This year’s “best places for jobs” list is easily the most depressing since we began compiling our annual rankings almost a decade ago. In the past–even in bad years–there were always stalwart areas creating lots of new jobs. In 2007’s survey 283 out of 393 metros areas showed job growth, and those at the top were often growing employment by at least 5% to 6%. Last year the number dropped to 63. This year’s survey, measuring growth from January 2009 to January 2010, found only 13 metros with any growth.

Mike Shires at the Pepperdine School of Public Policy, who develops the survey, calls it “an awful year.” Making it even worse, the source of new jobs in almost all areas were either government employment or highly tax payer-funded sectors like education and health. This year’s best-performing regions were those that suffered the smallest losses in the private economy while bulking up on government steroids.

So far the recovery has favored the government-dominated apparat and those places where public workers congregate.After all, besides Wall Street, public-financed workers have been the big beneficiaries of the stimulus, with state and local governments receiving more than one-third of all funds. Public employment grew by nearly 2% over the past three years, while private employment has dropped by 7%.

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Don’t Mess With Texas

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Forbes.com

One of the most ironic aspects of our putative “Age of Obama” is how little impact it has had on the nation’s urban geography. Although the administration remains dominated by boosters from traditional blue state cities–particularly the president’s political base of Chicago–the nation’s metropolitan growth continues to shift mostly toward a handful of Sunbelt red state metropolitan areas.

Our Urbanist in Chief may sit in the Oval Office, but Americans continue to vote with their feet for the adopted hometown of widely disdained former President George W. Bush. According to the most recent Census estimates, the Dallas and Ft. Worth, Texas, region added 146,000 people between 2008 and 2009–the most of any region in the country–a healthy 2.3% increase.

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Forced March To The Cities

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Forbes.com

California is in trouble: Unemployment is over 13%, the state is broke and hundreds of thousands of people, many of them middle-class families, are streaming for the exits. But to some politicians, like Sen. Alan Lowenthal, the real challenge for California “progressives” is not to fix the economy but to reengineer the way people live.

In Lowenthal’s case the clarion call is to take steps to ban free parking. This way, the Long Beach Democrat reasons, Californians would have to give up their cars and either take the bus or walk to their local shops. “Free parking has significant social, economic and environmental costs,” Lowenthal told the Los Angeles Times. “It increases congestion and greenhouse gas emissions.”

Scarily, his proposal actually passed the State Senate.

One would hope that the mania for changing how people live and work could be dismissed as just local Californian lunacy. Yet across the country, and within the Obama Administration, there is a growing predilection to endorse policies that steer the bulk of new development into our already most-crowded urban areas.

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Welcome to Ecotopia

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Forbes.com

In this era of tea-partying revolutionary-era dress-ups, one usually associates secessionism with the far right. But if things turn sour for the present majority in Washington, you should expect a whole new wave of separatism to emerge on the greenish left coast.

In 1975 Ernest Callenbach, an author based in Berkeley, Calif., published a sci-fi novel about enviro-secessionists called Ecotopia; a prequel, Ecotopia Rising, came out in 1981. These two books, which have acquired something of a cult following, chronicle–largely approvingly–the emergence of a future green nation along the country’s northwest coast.

Aptly described by Callenbach as “an empire apart,” this region is, in real life, among the world’s most scenic and blessed by nature. Many in this part of America have long been more enthusiastic about their ties to Asia than those with the rest of the country. It is also home to many fervent ecological, cultural and political activists, who often feel at odds with the less enlightened country that lies beyond their soaring mountains.

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