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ReadUrbanandPlanningWomen2014 entry #15: JoAnn Carmin

I’m sad this morning posting this, as today I am writing about the work of JoAnn Carmin, a professor at DUSP at MIT, who passed away recently after her second bout with cancer. JoAnn was a major scholar in environmental justice, and I admire her work tremendously. Her students thought very highly of her, and she will be greatly missed in the scholarly world. JoAnn’s work centered mostly on international and development perspectives on environmental justice. She has many papers, but I will refer us to her body of edited work and her own book contribution.

JoAnn Carmin and Julian Agyeman (editors). 2011. Environmental Inequalities Beyond Borders: Local Perspectives on Global Injustices. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Adam Fagan and JoAnn Carmin (editors). 2011. Green Activism in Post-Socialist Europe and the Former Soviet Union. London: Routledge.

JoAnn Carmin and Stacy D. VanDeveer (editors). 2005. EU Enlargement and the Environment: Institutional Change and Environmental Policy in Central and Eastern Europe, London: Routledge.

Tomas Koontz, Toddi A. Steelman, JoAnn Carmin, Katrina Smith Korfmacher, Cassandra Moseley, and Craig Thomas. 2004. Collaborative Environmental Management: What Roles for Government? Washington, DC: Resources for the Future.

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My hobby: saving neglected animals

In my free time, I rescue dogs with a lovely lady named Anna and my husband Andy. The rescue can be found here.NewImage


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Why you should read Peter Gordon’s blog

Peter has used his ‘retirement’ to get even smarter than he was before, and he’s an avid, wide-ranging reader. His reviews and reflections on books are always worth reading. Here’s his discussion of Webster and Lai’s Property Rights, Planning and Markets: Managing Spontaneous Cities for just one sample.

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#ReadUrbanandPlanningWomen2014 entry #14: Stephanie Frank

I’m a bit behind with ReadUrbanandPlanningWomen2014, but I will keep going. I’ve always been a slow worker. What are you going to do besides keep plugging away at it?

This week I discuss the work of Stephanie Frank, who is one of my students, which means the work is brilliant and perfect in every way and anybody who says otherwise gets a knuckle sandwich. Stephanie has left our beloved USC, and she is now an assistant professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

The paper of hers I am going to highlight is:

Frank, S. (2012). Claiming hollywood: Boosters, the film industry, and Metropolitan Los Angeles. Journal of Urban History, 38(1), 71-88. doi:10.1177/009614421142064

The year is 1937; the place is a then-small, but rapidly urbanizing, region in southern California. There is money being made in film industry, and by selling the idea of “Hollywood.” Culver City boosters get the smart idea to rename themselves from the prosaic–and, frankly, Midwestern-sounding, Culver City to Hollywood. (Not accidental: Culver City took its name from an early pioneer from Nebraska.) Even today, Hollywood is a district or a neighborhood. Despite multiple pushes for secession, Hollywood is part of the larger city of Los Angeles. Culver City, however, is not. My use of the present tense is a spoiler: boosters failed, and to this day, Culver City remains plain old Culver City, though it is a very nice place to live with lots of wonderful things to do.

I let you read the manuscript for the full story of how and why the boosters attempt failed; let’s just say it’s a story of big-fish elite of one type, and bigger-fish elites of another type, and one (of many ways) the movie industry made its spatial impact on the geography of Los Angeles.

Stephanie wrote her very fine dissertation on movie studios as land developers under the direction of David Sloane, Greg Hise, and Bill Deverell, and she should have a book coming out shortly. Keep your eyes peeled for it, and for future work. My auntie-like bias notwithstanding, she really is a fine young scholar.

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The Torrance Tornado has died

I am often hard on my beloved employer, USC, because I feel like we make mistakes in how we relate to students and neighbors. Since I also live in West Adams, even though I am not right by the university, I also feel the influence of the university as one of those neighbors. Nowhere is perfect; we at USC should be better than we are in multiple dimensions.

But I also love USC. They took a chance on me when I was a not-particulaly-accomplished young scholar, and they have continued to support me in my attempts to strike out into new and different dimensions with my career as a journeyman scholar. USC is wildly ambitious, but unlike most places that say they are going to move up those all-important rankings, one gets the sense that it might actually be possible here. It’s that striving that I love. It’s interesting.

Mostly though, I am wildly fond of my students and colleagues, and the terrific people who are associated with the university. It is not a university of spoiled rich kids, any more than any other university is, and perhaps nothing speaks to that better than the story of Louis Zamperini, who died this week in Los Angeles at the age of 97. His wear service was chronicled in the book Unbroken. The son of Italian immigrants in Torrance, CA, he found his way through athletics to USC, where he graduated in 1940 after setting a record for the mile that stood for 15 years.

Here is the write up from the University with the quote from Coach Allice:

“Today is a sad day at USC, knowing that the wonderful life of Louis Zamperini has ended after 97 remarkable years. I can think of no more famous Trojan than Louie, with his combination of athletic exploits and war heroics,” said former USC track and field Coach Ron Allice. “The fact that he still is the only Trojan to win the NCAA outdoor mile championship, which he did twice some 75 years ago, speaks volumes of his athletic ability. I know I will miss him, as will so many others. He was a great man.”

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Bedrosian Center Book Club: Thomas Piketty’s Capital

I had the pleasant task of reading Thomas Piketty’s Capital with the motivation that I was going to part of a faculty discussion of the book through USC’s Bedrosian Center. In addition to your blogger, the discussion includes Richard Green, Raphael Bostic, and Anthony Bertelli. It can be found here.

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David Levinson responds to my responses, and I respond some more

Ok, so while the World Cup is going on, David Levinson and I are arguing about transit policy, which proves two things: 1) transit policy is very complicated and people of genuine good will (and very similar academic training) are likely to disagree on some points even when they agree on many things, as I believe David and I do and 2) David and I are nerds. Nerds!

Anyhoozily, here are David’s responses

Ultimately, our differences are pretty small and come down to, I think, differences on how much weight we place on politics and how politics might influence the outcomes of Levinson’s prescription. I think politics influence how the prescriptions would be shaped in ways that are likely to blunt the possibilities Levinson lays out for transit companies as public utilities. So what, really? Politics always has that effect to some degree. As I have said throughout, Levinson’s short piece is really a huge contribution to transit policy that I hope policymakers take seriously.

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Part 6. David Levinson’s CityLab discussion on transit: Local funding (mic drop II)

This is last one of my reflections on David Levinson’s important contribution via CityLab on How to Make Mass Transit Funding Sustainable Once and For All.

My responses so far:

Part 1: Institutional Structure
Part 2: Competitive Tendering
Part 3: Farecards
Part 4: Capital Cost Recovery Mic Drop
Part 5: Private equity

Today we take up point 7 in his list on his list:

7. Since transit benefits local areas, it should be primarily locally funded and managed. Federal funding for transit has distorted investment to be capital intensive — favoring ribbon-cuttings for politicians — while resulting in neglect for local operations. While the rational local transit organization will take advantage of federal largesse, there is no good reason for federal involvement. Over the next few transportation legislative cycles, it is likely that federal grant programs (funding) will be transformed into loans (financing). Mass transit utilities would be better adapted to this new environment.

Ok, so I’m torn here because I am usually the only urban scholar who says openly that walking, biking, and transit advocates have overstated their claims to global benefits in trying to make a case for their slice of federal dollars, and I applaud Levinson for even saying so. Being brilliant is easy for somebody like Levinson. Being brave enough to say something this politically unpopular with the vast majority of scholars in your field? That’s a lot harder, and I’m grateful for his not leaving me to be the only one critical of my field’s claims about our entitlement to crawl into the federal taxpayers’ pockets.

That said, I’m not sure I am on board. I seriously do not know what I think here.

I ruffled everybody’s feathers with this discussion awhile ago on this blog, and I’ve published discussions on what the changes in federal pots of money mean for local transit, so I don’t feel the need to repeat myself. Here are some:

Now, why do I waffle? Well, first, many problems are local problems if you really come down to it.

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If there is no compelling need for federal transit policy, there is similarly no compelling need for housing, education, or urban development policies, either. IOW, do we want to have national urban policy in place, or do we just let 1,000 flowers bloom and say to hell with it? Most places where transit is really truly financially viable in the manner Levinson envisions are places that can, in fact, leverage the funding to build and run their own systems, and as I speculated in previous articles, might be better off so doing.

In addition, Levinson is right; passing along the capital costs to others is a recipe for an overcapitalized system.

The real pain comes in thinking about those places that don’t have deep pockets. Without difficult-to-justify federal capital subsidies, there is no Portland as it exists now, and while I die inside every time one of my starry-eyed students/philosopher-kings advocates for yet another slow light rail in Los Angeles “because Portland!”, federal subsidies have given the US truly important social experiments with transit, given how the feds shoveled out for BART, Portland, and DC’s metro. Nope it wasn’t particularly just or rational, but it sure has been interesting and transformative, and for the better. In concert with transit experiments in Europe, Asia, and South America, it’s mattered a lot to urban scholarship.

This type of risk-taking strikes me as infinitely reasonable, and while we could try to shove all that money into an “urban experimentation lab fund” and let the folks at DARPA take their whack, I’m not sure social experimentation really works like that. I think it’s a good deal messier, more incremental, and grounded in the serendipities of real life than rational planning for experimentation might be. If one of the principles of social intervention is a law unintended consequences, then some of those unintended consequences are likely to be good just like some are troubling.

It’s wasteful to some degree, and that’s irritating, but I guess I’m not that bothered by it all. I think inquiry and experimentation matters, and what happened with Portland isn’t stupid or wasteful, even if many of the people trying to copy it out of context are doing stupid things: the fact they see something real and worth replicating strikes me as valuable.

Which leads me to my point: the feds can and probably should intervene in strategic ways in cities, particularly when cities are at Portland’s scale. If we really do believe that there are normatively better ways for cities to be, then there is a role for federal governments to play in setting standards and incentives. Either that, or the nation-state is nothing but a military and monetary policy entity. Is that what we want? Or do we want federal leadership? (I think we want both metropolitan and federal leadership, and it means a rather messy trading back-and-forth, but I’ve not got an actual argument to support that inkling.)

Well, that’s all I got. My best to Levinson and the folks at CityLab for producing something interesting. The field needs more of it, and I had a great deal of fun reflecting on the piece.

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Part 5. David Levinson’s CityLab discussion on transit: Asset values

I’m almost done with my responses to David Levinson’s important contribution via CityLab on How to Make Mass Transit Funding Sustainable Once and For All.

My responses so far:

Today we take up point 6 in his list of seven points, even though I’m only part 5, as I skipped some, because I FELT LIKE IT, OK?

Point 6:

6. Utilities and transportation services can use private equity and bond markets to unlock value. If Uber is valued at $17 billion (or even one-tenth that), how much capital would a well-governed mass transit utility with actual users be able to raise?

Wheee! Money!!!

First, Uber is probably over-valued, but Levinson admits that. Second, yes, we know we have a lot of assets wrapped up in transit, but not all of them are useful. If it’s true that US operators overcapitalize, that means that while we certainly have a lot of productive assets in transit, some of them are not particularly productive and will just go to the great depreciation bin in the sky rather than make anybody any serious coin. This is why some of us get so shouty about bad public investments.

For somebody like Levinson, retiring those assets or redeploying them elsewhere is what should happen because continuing to operate unproductive assets is throwing good money after bad, as people with more sense about money than me say.

However, I’m going to say something that is going to make errrbody unhappy: transit’s assets are worth more as assets because we all know the taxpayer will buy them back if private sector managers allow things to go pear-shaped. If there is something that, over the course of its history, has been ‘too big to fail’, it is transit. From the municipal bail-outs of holding companies in the mid 20th century to the devastating strikes that occurred before then, disrupting transit service in the pre-auto world paid out well for both capital and labor. It was textbook Ralph Miliband. So we should think Uber-level values with a bail-out and buy-out guarantee–which is basically what just about all major infrastructure transfers to the private sector turn out to be given enough time, save for some examples in Asia.

So just as competitive bidding has worked well for London, their public-private partnership on the rail side didn’t go all that well. The Metronet-London Underground deal came about in 1998 in part because the transit provider, Transport for London, was financially stretched and their capital stock decayed. This is a big deal: taking over large capital stocks is risky, let alone doing so because you have to bail somebody out. It means you probably have crumbling assets with an uncertain price tag to fix. We aren’t talking about water or electricity infrastructure nobody sees, and you can let everything look a bit shabby even if you do draw the line at serious threats to service. A big part of what we envision with private transit companies are clean, well-maintained stations and vehicles, and that costs.

Private companies seek to shift the risk of acquiring those assets back onto the public sector to protect themselves from default during construction and reinvestment. Those guarantees can effectively shift the risks of cost overruns and poor management right back onto taxpayers. Metronet ran into similar capital cost over-runs that plague public agencies. On a 30 year contract, they came back to the agency just a few years into the contract arguing that the scope of the renovation work had to be reduced for them to stay solvent. The result is that in 2009, the company went into insolvency administration, and in time the Mayor of London ordered the buyout of Metronet’s contract, which placed the debt back onto the English public and cost taxpayers an additional 100 to 410 million pounds. While newspapers blamed the public sector partner for failing to manage the contracts properly, the public audit on the deal cited Metronet’s own corporate governance and poor management as the primary reason for the failed partnership.

Just to argue the point about how hard it is to predict how these deals can go, another private member of the original 1998 partnership, Tube Lines, experienced none of the cost over-runs, delivered on its agreements, and maintained its contract until 2010 when it, too, was purchased back by the public agency after a dispute over the contract.

So for all practical purposes, the public-private-partnership shimmy–sell off assets for a quick cash infusion, take them back when the company doesn’t want ‘em–already allows governments to draw on equity. Governments really are the lowest rate borrowers, due to their ability to fall back on taxpayers, and there are costs to transferring ownership from public agencies to private entities, let alone maintaining the relationships. As a result I’m not sure that private sector equity makes a huge difference here.

Finally, would it kill us to have some transit space remain public space? Penn Station is a valuable building, but some of its value comes from its location and use, and some comes from knowing we own it and some dickweed Frank McCourt/Donald Sterling landlord isn’t going to put the squeeze on us. I value that knowledge, don’t you?

Edited to add: David Levisnon notes in his response that Penn Station was privately owned and destroyed, and, that Grand Central Station is still privately owned. We can’t be anywhere, apparently, where a landlord can’t kick us out unless it’s in a home we own!

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Part 4. David Levinson’s CityLab discussion on transit: Capital Cost Recovery Mic Drop and the 490 Burger Kings Problem

Ok, continuing on with my responses to David Levinson’s important contribution via CityLab on How to Make Mass Transit Funding Sustainable Once and For All. The series so far:

Part 1: Institutional Structure
Part 2: Competitive Tendering
Part 3: Farecards

and today, Part 4, is the capital cost recovery mic drop:

4. Capital costs for new or rebuilt transit systems should be recovered from land value capture. Transit services create value they cannot fully capture themselves through the farebox (though they would capture more of this with higher fares). That value spills over to nearby land owners, whose property value increases due to the accessibility transit provides and thus the higher rents they can charge. The amount of value captured by the system signals whether the investment is worth making. If some of that value were captured, more revenue would be available to make investments. Transit utilities should have the authority to develop land at stops and stations, and to develop air rights over their tracks, and to contract with private developers to coordinate station locations. Local units of government desiring routes and stations should have the authority to implement local taxes to subsidize the transit utility for the cost of building the line. But the line should only be built if it can at least break even operationally. If the route cannot be funded from land value capture and farebox revenues, it should not be built (emphasis mine).

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Yeah, that’s a mic drop. Levinson here is a getting pretty emphatic, so much so that he contradicts himself a bit, but not intentionally, I don’t think. Levinson is arguing from the vantage point of the utility. Throughout the rest of the piece, he says that if jurisdictions want to contract for negative-revenue lines, then fine. If taxpayers have a democratic preference for transit, then so be it. His last statement here is a bit of an overstatement based on what he says elsewhere. That’s not as clear as it might be here because he uses general language for what I think is actually a mode-specific set of problems that are easily fixed with good risk assessment on the part of bond issuers and developers.

To wit: so let’s say that Jurisdiction A wants service. This is likely to be a money loser, given the people who live in Jurisdiction A. Jurisdiction A pays for bus service. If, eventually, Jurisdiction A decides they just don’t want service anymore, Transit Utility takes its buses and employs them elsewhere: no blood, no foul. If Transit Utility has been sucked into a big, immovable capital investment in Jurisdiction A and suddenly it doesn’t want to sponsor service anymore, then that is a problem, although some of the rolling stock can certainly go elsewhere.

What Levinson is trying to get at here simply concerns the “eyes bigger than market” problem that plenty of cities get into over things like stadium deals. If you actually live in a world where land taxes aren’t distorted (which I don’t, so there’s that), letting utilities buy and develop around train stations makes abundant sense. Here’s the part of the equation that I think really matters: if you require local jurisdictions to provide a portion of the capital and operating subsidies for service, they then have every incentive (instead of the incentive they have now), to alter their local zoning and approvals process ahead of time so that development around station areas can actually occur.

Right now, you have jurisdictions with people who are very avid about wanting rail transit. We must have rail now. We also have the people who wind up living next to the rail line, and some of them are much less avid. They, too, have influence on city hall. So it’s entirely too possible right at the moment, in many American cities, for suburban districts to demand very expensive investments and then only allow park-and-ride facilities by them because our residents are both pro-transit and anti-development. Well, screw that. (That? That’s a technical policy prescription). You want a train? Fine. Either let us build 70 100-story apartment complexes next to the station (if it pencils for us) or you pay whatever portion of the capital and operating costs that apartment complex would have covered for the utility. Your choice. Again, rich districts can have their single-acre lots if they want, and they can have their trains if they want them–even if nobody wants to take the train and they just use it as decoration. They just can’t stick the rest of us with the bills for those trains. That is what Levinson wants to get here. It’s not out of the question that some jurisdictions would be happier paying for negative revenue lines than they would be allowing development. I don’t think they should be allowed to get away with that, but zoning is still a local jurisdictional power and it should be. But if they want to pull that crap, it should be their financial problem to grapple with, not everybody else’s. Most jurisdictions would see the writing on the wall, stop playing games, and get the zoning and approvals done fast. Faster development near stations means more ridership faster.

In my example, you can see the implicit assumptions about cross-subsidies that Levinson is making here. Even if your train station gets 5 customers a day, a public utility with land development rights might actually be willing to operate service there if they can get real estate development to pencil out.

One last point he doesn’t discuss concerns “coordinating development” at stops. This point slips by, and it’s unfortunate because I like it very much because I think it’s the answer to what I call the “490 Burger Kings” problem. I’m not sure what he means here, but I do know that I would prefer to see far more coordinated land use planning and real estate development at the regional scale. Why? It’s complicated, which is why Levinson doesn’t get into it, but it’s important. So one way for a variety of land uses to be transit-accessible is to just have everywhere be accessible. Lots of transit advocates would love that, and I would, too, but it’s an expensive idea. One thing I have my undergrads do in class is that I ask them about their junior high and high school after school activities, and they range from tae kwon do, horseback riding, cello lessons, yoga, rock-climbing, etc. Then I ask them to route those activities via public transit. It’s illustrative: it’s really hard to do most of those trips on public transit. I can get you to 490 Burger Kings on LA’s transit, but I’ll be damned if I can get you to a geriatrician in anything less than 2.5 hours and three transfers (How families work through these questions are interesting: I suspect in some places, if a kid can’t take himself to activity on transit, he doesn’t do the activity.)

I’m getting to the idea that while some land uses and businesses are things that really flourish at all station areas, we could increase the usefulness of TOD if we could include a diversity of activities and businesses throughout the system. Nope, not every TOD needs a zumba studio, but it would be nice if a few did have them. Yep, cafes, Famima-type grabby-food stores? Those you probably want at all stations. Tae kwon do? Nah. But at some stations, yes. Because people spend a lot of time in leisure and entertainment activities, and if you could suss that, you’d increase the value of the transit system without having to extend the system everywhere it currently is not.

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