Between 1970 and 1990, the population of Philadelphia shrank by a quarter, dropping from 1.95 to 1.59 million. Like many American cities, it seemed caught in a downward spiral.
Since then – like many American cities – Philadelphia has stabilized. The population now appears to have bottomed out at the millennium, and has been regaining residents over the past decade. But as it rebounds, Philly is becoming a different kind of city.
In the two most recent decades, which comprise the bounce of the city’s population curve, owner-occupied housing dropped even more steeply than in the ’70s and ’80s. Between 2000 and 2012, the percentage of Philly houses and apartments inhabited by owners dropped from 59 to 52, the second-sharpest decline among big U.S. cities during that time.
Meanwhile, renter-occupied housing exploded. More units are rented today in Philadelphia than in 1970, despite 400,000 fewer residents. According to a report from Pew Charitable Trusts, the size of the Philadelphia rental stock has grown by 37,000 since the millennium — a gain of more than 10 percent.
Philadelphia is a concentrated case of a larger trend in American housing: We are increasingly renting instead of buying our homes. Rental household growth is rising at double the rate it has in previous decades. Developers are building more multi-family units than they have in years. Last month, the homeownership rate fell to a 19-year low, down to 64.7 percent from a peak of 69.2 percent in 2004.
It will shift consumer demand away from goods and services that complement large indoor space and a backyard toward goods and services more oriented toward living in an apartment. Similarly, the possible shift toward city living may dampen demand for automobiles, highways and gasoline but increase demand for restaurants, city parks and high-quality public transit.
For the moment, though, Americans are renting across the spectrum of the built environment, in cities (long skewed toward renters), suburbs (shifting in that direction) and exurbs. Wall Street has taken notice: The Blackstone Group, a private equity shop, now owns and rents some 45,000 homes. At one point, the firm’s housing division was spending $150 million a week buying houses to rent.
But academics, politicians and homeowners have long been suspicious of tenants. Increasing the homeownership rate has been a foundational goal of American politics at the federal level for most of the past century. In fact, it’s older than that: Most states had property restrictions on voting well into the 19th century.
“For a man who owns his home acquires with it a new dignity,” Sen. Charles Percy said in 1966. “He begins to take pride in what is his own, and pride in conserving and improving it for his children. He becomes a more steadfast and concerned citizen of his community. He becomes more self-confident and self-reliant. The mere act of becoming a homeowner transforms him. It gives him roots, a sense of belonging, a true stake in his community and well being.” The tax code is engineered to support that viewpoint, however off-key it may sound to the millions of Americans mired in foreclosure proceedings.
“Homeownership and Neighborhood Stability,” a 1996 paper by planning professor William M. Rohe from which the Percy quote comes, offers what might now be seen as the established academic perspective on renters. Rohe and co-author Leslie Stewart found that the homeownership rate does indeed have a positive correlation with various social and economic attributes of a “good” neighborhood. It wasn’t just that homeowners kept the paint fresh and the lawn mowed. Their status led “to greater social interaction within, and psychological identification with, the neighborhood.”
But a significant amount of doubt remains about cause and effect. The increase in “neighborhood stability” (which, per the authors, includes resident tenure, property values, and physical and social conditions) “may be the result of the types of households drawn to homeownership” rather than the experience itself. And since homeownership is closely tied to income, family size, marital status and age, it can be hard to separate those variables. Self-selection, the authors write, is “a confounding factor.”
How might things be changing today, with homeowners under duress and a whole new class of former and future owners thrust into the rental market?
Back in Philly, a recent survey of renters conducted by the city found unexpected levels of social engagement. Planners were surprised by how many renters knew their neighbors, participated in neighborhood events and helped maintain the physical environment through volunteer work.
Philadelphia, however, despite the recent shift toward a renter city, is still more than half homeowners. Of the country’s 10 largest cities, most (running across typical urban typologies) have higher percentages of renters: Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, San Diego and Dallas all have lower homeownership rates than Philly. Nearly seven in 10 New York City units are rented. How does NYC maintain any semblance of community with such a large population of “transient” neighbors? Rent control and stabilization, which cover 1 million New York City apartments.
Most economists don’t like rent-control programs, arguing that they harm the housing stock and drive up prices for newcomers. But a city with rents rising just as rapidly as the renter population risks becoming a kind of deck of cards, shuffled every 12 months when leases expire and landlords target a new stratum of the population. Unfortunately, that’s now a description that could apply to a number of American cities – not just San Francisco and Boston. Even in Houston, famous for its low cost of housing, rent is rising at a record rate. Evictions are up 43 percent in Milwaukee since 2010.
Cities like Philadelphia have already cut property taxes to help longtime homeowners (who, by the way, stand to make a windfall off gentrification) stay put in their neighborhoods. But help for renters remains politically charged, in part because renting is still seen as a transitory stage — a life-step to be tolerated but not encouraged.
But this is not a universal perspective. In Germany, for example, renting is the norm — and people are quite happy with the situation. France, Switzerland, Denmark, Austria and the Netherlands have similar renter-owner breakdowns.
Is America moving in that direction? If so, it’s worth asking ourselves why we’d rather not have renters for neighbors — and in the cases where there’s some truth to the stereotype, what we can do about it.
In March, when a cloud of particle pollution settled across Western Europe, Paris took a radical approach. The Ile-de-France region introduced alternate driving days (odd-number plates one day; evens the next) and eliminated fares on local trams, buses, trains and subways.
Traffic dropped by nearly 20 percent in Paris; congestion on the PÃ©riphÃ©rique ring road fell by 30 percent at rush hour; large-particle pollution fell by 6 percent. Measured by the impact on the roadways, the emergency measures worked as intended.
And on the rails? Unfortunately, the open-gate policy meant that the transportation authority didn’t count how many travelers boarded trains, subways, buses and trams during the fare-free days. The city performed a huge experiment in transportation policy, and nobody bothered to watch.
It doesn’t matter much in context. We can’t expect the traffic-choked French capital to make a habit of such initiatives. Alternate driving days are an intolerable hassle for car-dependent commuters; lost fares and the provision of supplementary service to the tune of 600,000 seats on the MÃ©tro, the tramway and suburban rail system cost the region nearly $3.5 million per day. Fares cover nearly half the operating costs of the RATP, the state-owned transit operator, so eliminating them would put a tremendous hole in the annual budget.
And yet, Paris would have been a valuable case study. The consequences of eliminating transit fares remain surprisingly obscure. Can a fare-free policy transform a regional transportation picture? Can it pay for itself? Or is it merely a publicity gimmick that inflicts needless financial woes on local transit agencies?
Many people reject the idea out of hand, saying free rides are a problem, not a solution. But “free” transit, of course, is only as free as public libraries, parks and highways, which is to say that the financial burden is merely transferred from individual riders to a municipal general fund, a sales tax or local businesses and property owners. A free ride policy represents the culmination of a long shift from thinking of transit as a business sector — one that was quite profitable in its heyday — to considering it an indispensable public service.
Today, nearly all public transport systems are heavily subsidized, and make only a fraction back from riders. Most mid-size American cities don’t clear a 30 percent “farebox recovery ratio”; several U.S. transit agencies recoup less than 5 percent of operating costs through ticket sales. At that point, a transit agency might well spend more money selling tickets (machines, printing, secure money boxes, employees) than it earns. The dozens of small American towns that have free transit service usually aren’t forfeiting much revenue by doing so.
For bigger cities, the principal motivation for scrapping fares is not to save money but to increase ridership, and harvest the associated positive externalities: less traffic and pollution, more parking and mobility. In the handful of American cities where such programs have been tried on a short-term basis, the ridership surges have been huge. When Topeka made transit free for May 1988, ridership rose 98 percent. When Austin made transit free for the fall of 1990, ridership increased by 75 percent. A similar experiment in Asheville, in 2006, recorded a passenger surge of 60 percent.
But where do the benefits of free ridership accrue, if not to riders themselves? To drivers, who enjoy less congested roads and free parking spaces? To local businesses, which reap the benefits of increased mobility and local spending power? To everyone, in the form of clean air? It’s not an abstract question when the bill comes due, and answering it has proven a formidable obstacle to cities, like San Francisco and Portland, that have studied the possibility of making transit free.
Across the pond, where state support for transit is more forthcoming, the experiments have been more ambitious. The French town of ChÃ¢teauroux (pop. 49,000) eliminated transit fares in 2001 — and ridership increased more than 200 percent during the following decade. In the five years after the Belgian city of Hasselt (pop. 70,000) made buses free in 1997, ridership increased by 1,200 percent! This allowed the city to convert a nearby ring road into a pedestrian corridor (saving the cost of renovating the obsolete roadway), and restrict parking in town to elderly and disabled residents. Last year, Hasselt’s project became a victim of its own success. As annual ridership continued to grow, the cost of free service became intolerably high. The city now charges a small fare of 60 euro cents. But ridership remains high.
The biggest free transit experiment in the world is in Tallinn, Estonia, which eliminated bus fares for residents in 2013. Results have been mixed. On the one hand, taking a free ride in Tallinn requires residency, and that, as Sulev Vedler reported on Cityscope, has encouraged people to officially become Tallinners:
More than 10,000 people registered as Tallinn residents in 2013, nearly three times more than registered in 2012. They contribute new annual revenues of about €10 million — almost as much as the lost farebox revenue of €12 million. ‘If all the registrants were taxpayers,’ says Deputy Mayor Aas, ‘then the project costs of free transportation would be covered.’
On the other hand, Swedish researchers determined that ridership increased by only 1 percent as a result of the policy. This is a curious development. Free transit initiatives have been universally popular, almost to a fault. (Complaints about crowded buses often dog trial periods.) Why not in Tallinn?
One possible answer is that commuters in large cities are less sensitive to fare changes; in the language of economics, they exhibit low fare elasticity. There are two reasons for this. First, big cities have a large number of wealthy straphangers who don’t care how much a ticket costs. Second, most cities also have a large number of transit-dependent residents – citizens, likely poor, who can’t walk to work or hop in the car when the fare goes up.
That decreases the transformative potential of a free transit system, but it doesn’t mean cities can’t deploy free rides as an effective tool. On the contrary, evidence has shown that by tailoring fare holidays to particular times or places, cities can influence the way citizens travel. San Francisco, for example, opens up the Muni network every New Year’s Eve to discourage drinking and driving.
More interesting is Singapore’s pre-peak program, which demonstrates how responsive commuters can be to “free.” In June of last year, in an effort to relieve crowding during the morning rush, Singapore eliminated fares for riders who got off the train in the city center before 7:45am (anyone exiting between 7:45 and 8am got a reduced fare).
The ratio of peak to off-peak riders, as Eric Jaffe reports in Citylab, fell from nearly 3:1 to closer to 2:1. Seventeen percent of riders abandoned their peak commute in favor of a free ride. Those who didn’t opt for a free early morning ride got something nearly as good: a little breathing room on the train.
Just as “free” can target a particular time, like New Year’s or rush hour, it can target a particular place. The Chinese city of Chengdu, confronted with a massive construction project sure to snarl traffic in certain neighborhoods, enacted license plate restrictions and made 44 nearby bus lines free starting in October 2012. Monthly bus ridership doubled, from 5,000,000 trips to more than 10,000,000.
Properly attuned for place or time, it seems, a free ride is a tempting offer.
The host collects phones at the door of the dinner party. At a law firm, partners maintain a no-device policy at meetings. Each day, a fleet of vans assembles outside New York’s high schools, offering, for a small price, to store students’ contraband during the day. In situations where politeness and concentration are expected, backlash is mounting against our smartphones.
In public, of course, it’s a free country. It’s hard to think of a place beyond the sublime darkness of the movie theater where phone use is shunned, let alone regulated. (Even the cinematic exception is up for debate.) At restaurants, phones occupy that choice tablecloth real estate once reserved for a pack of cigarettes. In truly public space — on sidewalks, in parks, on buses and on trains — we move face down, our phones cradled like amulets.
No observer can fail to notice how deeply this development has changed urban life. A deft user can digitally enhance her experience of the city. She can study a map; discover an out-of-the-way restaurant; identify the trees that line the block and the architect who designed the building at the corner. She can photograph that building, share it with friends, and in doing so contribute her observations to a digital community. On her way to the bus (knowing just when it will arrive) she can report the existence of a pothole and check a local news blog.
It would be unfair to say this person isn’t engaged in the city; on the contrary, she may be more finely attuned to neighborhood history and happenings than her companions. But her awareness is secondhand: She misses the quirks and cues of the sidewalk ballet, fails to make eye contact, and limits her perception to a claustrophobic one-fifth of normal. Engrossed in the virtual, she really isn’t here with the rest of us.
Consider the case of a recent murder on a San Francisco train. On Sept. 23, in a crowded car, a man pulls a pistol from his jacket. In Vivian Ho’s words: “He raises the gun, pointing it across the aisle, before tucking it back against his side. He draws it out several more times, once using the hand holding the gun to wipe his nose. Dozens of passengers stand and sit just feet away — but none reacts. Their eyes, focused on smartphones and tablets, don’t lift until the gunman fires a bullet into the back of a San Francisco State student getting off the train.”
The incident is a powerful example of the sea change that public space has suffered in the age of hand-held computing. There are thousands of similar stories, less tragic, more common, that together sound the alarm for a new understanding of public space – one that accounts for the pervasiveness of glowing rectangles.
The glut of information technology separating us from our surroundings extends well beyond our pocket computers. “Never has distraction had such capacity to become total,” writes the urban theorist Malcolm McCullough in “Ambient Commons: Attention in the Age of Embodied Information.” “Enclosed in cars, often in headphones, seldom in places where encounters are left to chance, often opting out of face-to-face meetings, and ever pursuing and being pursued by designed experiences, post-modern post urban city dwellers don’t become dulled into retreat from public life; they grow up that way. The challenge is to reconnect.”
McCullough sees ambient information, from advertisements to the music in shops to Taxi TV, as an assault on our attention. But he’s no Luddite, and he’s not oblivious to the powerful ideas that spring from the shared ground of technology and urbanism, like Citizen Science, SeeClickFix or “Smart Cities.” What he’s calling for, in Ambient Commons, is “information environmentalism,” the idea that the proliferation of embedded information deserves attention and study, from planners, architects, politicians and especially from you and me.
Personal technology may be only a small part of McCullough’s interpretation of “peak distraction,” but for most people, the computer, tablet and phone are a focal point. What permanent connectivity does to our minds is the subject of great debate. What it does to public space is less often acknowledged. Essentially, smartphone users in public operate under the illusion that they are in private. They exist, in the words of two Israeli researchers, in “portable, private, personal territories.” Their memories of visited places are much worse than those of control subjects.
Our current strategy is to wire everything, everywhere — Wi-Fi in parks and subway tunnels; chargers in the squares bubbling with free electrical current like Roman drinking fountains. McCullough believes this freedom is irreversible. “To restrict information would be unacceptable,” he writes. “The communications rights of individuals and communities must be inalienable, insuppressible, and not for sale.” The tasks of filtering and decorum, he believes, fall to us as individuals.
Not everyone is so sure. Evgeny Morozov, reviewing McCullough’s book in the New Yorker, approvingly cites the Dutch writer Christoph Lindner’s argument for “slow spots” in cities. Morozov points out that the candy bar Kit Kat (“give me a break!”) has set up benches with Wi-Fi blockers in Amsterdam. Would we like to see such a thing occur on a larger scale, in a museum, park or in a neighborhood?
Of the three interwoven motivations for such regulations — danger, civility and health — the first has been the most effective. Just as 41 states rapidly banned texting while driving, there are rumblings of “texting while walking” bans in reaction to pedestrian fatalities. Last year, Fort Lee, N.J., made international news when it began issuing jaywalking tickets to errant, phone-in-hand pedestrians who had veered into traffic. Distracted walking bans have been proposed (with little success, so far) in Arkansas, Illinois, Utah, New York and Nevada. New York City paints “LOOK!” in its crosswalks.
In Japan, more than a dozen people fall off railway platforms while looking at their phones each year. Some pundits there have called for bans on texting while walking modeled after successful “smoking while walking” campaigns. Train station announcements remind commuters to look where they’re going, and even mobile phone companies have begun to educate users about the dangers of looking at a phone while walking.
But for all the talk of danger, it’s clear that the more frequent problem with “distracted walking” is that it’s annoying – and one of several uncivil side effects of smartphone growth. Thus we have the “phone stack” game, where participants compete not to use their phones, and the Guardian columnist who has pledged to almost bump into smartphone walkers, to teach ‘em a lesson. Blind people in Japan say they are being jostled like never before; a man in a Seattle restaurant took a break from his three companions to watch “Homeland” on his iPad. Some restaurants, bars and coffee shops have banned smartphones and computers for their corrosive social effects.
“Whether you’re on the road or just cruising around town, your favorite McDonald’s menu items are never far away.” So boasts the McDonald’s Restaurant Locator, and a glance at a distribution map of franchises in the United States proves the point. Population centers burn brightly with the Golden Arches; even the sparsely populated Western states are adequately supplied by the nation’s 14,000-plus fleet of McDonald’s.
That reach is astounding, but not exceptional. Four out of five Americans live within 20 miles of our 11,000 Starbucks; 30 percent of American grocery shopping occurs at our 4,500 Wal-Marts. The most familiar element of the American landscape — excepting green highway signs and certain brands of automobiles — might be Subway, which has over 25,000 U.S. locations.
You could be forgiven for thinking, as Simon and Garfunkel sang, “Each town looks the same to me.” From Juneau to Jacksonville, we Americans share, as much as anything, a common commercial experience, a fractal pattern of retail at once comforting and mind-numbing. It stretches the powers of the imagination to think that eating and shopping options in the American city were once as distinct as fingerprints. The shift from mom-and-pops to chains has been one of the defining shifts in American cultural life, and counter-protests have been largely futile, with opponents pegged as sentimentalists standing in the way of progress and low prices.
That is changing. Dozens of American municipalities, mostly small towns with tourism in mind, have passed laws restricting the entry of chain stores. The biggest city to do so is San Francisco: in incremental steps punctuated by a ballot initiative in 2006, the California city famous for liberal activism has enacted the most influential anti-chain legislation in the United States.
You might not realize, walking the streets of Nob Hill, that you are experiencing an urban economy governed by the tightest big-city regulations on “formula retail” in the country. That’s because the San Francisco’s anti-chain net, while unique among large cities, is fairly permeable: three out of four chains that apply for permission to operate in one of the city’s protected zones are approved. Sure, San Francisco is quirky and diverse, true to its reputation, and bursting with independent bookstores, cafes, restaurants and boutiques. But the city isn’t an oasis: as in any other large U.S. city, there are dozens of Starbucks and Subway shops here too.
Supporters say the 75 percent approval rate does not do justice to the system’s efficacy. Seeking authorization forces chains to make concessions to neighborhood interests, and the deterrent effect — Qdoba might not even attempt to open across from a favorite local burrito joint — is impossible to quantify. Two recent high-profile cases – the rejection of Starbucks and Chipotle earlier this year – have fueled the sense that neighborhoods wield real power. In the case of Starbucks, 453 signatures were submitted in support; 4,200 signatures in opposition.
The impact of the law has grown over time. When first adopted in 2004 by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the ordinance offered neighborhoods options ranging from “notifications” — letters mailed to nearby residents upon a chain’s arrival — to an outright ban. In 2006, voters chose to implement a more widespread solution: “conditional use authorizations,” in all of the city’s 17 NCDs. Every Gap, CVS, and AMC that wants to move into one of the city’s small-scale commercial streets must be approved by the Planning Commission. In total, hundreds of blocks require formula retail to obtain authorization, while dozens more operate under a categorical ban.
On the verge of the ordinance’s tenth anniversary, with nearly a dozen pending modifications proposed by city supervisors, the San Francisco Planning Commission has undertaken an economic study to evaluate the effects of its formula retail controls. In discussing the goals and shortcomings of the law, the city has gotten right to the heart of America’s love-hate relationship with the chain.
What separates San Francisco’s political achievement from griping in Greenwich Village or Venice Beach is the employment of economic data to prop up the power of the plebiscite. That data comes largely from one firm, Civic Economics, which is responsible for more than half of the studies listed in the appendix of the San Francisco Planning Commission memo [PDF] that addresses formula retail controls.
Dan Houston, one of the founders of Civic Economics, stumbled into this niche in 2002 as he watched two independent Austin businesses, Waterloo Records and Book People, threatened by a city-subsidized Borders set to move in across the street. Houston’s young firm agreed to analyze the effects of then-powerful Borders sapping the market share of two local businesses.
The results were striking: for every $100 spent at a chain, approximately $13 remained in the local economy, largely through wages. For every $100 spent at the local outfit, $45 would recirculate locally, thanks to wages, corporate profits, locally oriented procurement, and potential future investment in the community, ranging from sponsorship of a Little League team to opening a second branch. The cost of a book or CD might be marginally higher, but the return for the city was nearly three times better at Waterloo Records and Book People. Borders didn’t move in.
Since then, Civic Economics has performed parallel analyses for other cities, including San Francisco, and obtained similar results. “The numbers were undeniable,” Houston said. “Nobody ever offers subsidies to the local bookstores — it’s crazy to think you’re giving subsidies to these non-local restaurants.”
The numbers may be sound, but the implication — one type of commerce is better than another — strikes detractors as unfairly proscriptive. I spoke with Bob Linscheid, the president and CEO of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, and Dee Dee Workman, the SFCC’s Director of Public Policy. Both said the thought San Francisco’s “authorization” process was fair and effective, but they are wary of the potential expansion of the ordinance.
The scope of San Francisco’s control over chains like Radio Shack and Walgreens, for example, has grown each year. “When we start adding in all these uses, it just feels like a war on national retailers,” Workman warned. “National retailers can come in and do a lot of good in a neighborhood.”
“Not much focus is on the consumer, and giving the consumer the right to choose between companies that are located in proximity to each other,” Linscheid added. “We need to remember that this is America, and that a certain amount of competition is good for the consumer.”
Supporters of formula retail restrictions caution against invoking the “free market” argument. Stacy Mitchell, a senior researcher at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance who has written extensively about formula retail controls, pointed out that there are numerous hidden biases in favor of chains beyond the government subsidy. Suburban road design creates the perfect environment for big box stores; landlords prefer national chains for reasons — credit, accountability, longer leases — that have little to do with consumer preference.
It’s a debate that other cities may soon be having, as chain stores continue their march from fading suburban malls into resurgent city centers. In New York, the city’s trademark bodegas are dropping like flies and 7-Eleven is on the move. The City Council recently changed Upper West Side zoning to limit storefront size — a tacit attempt to decrease the street frontage of banks and chain drugstores. Washington, D.C., has kept Wal-Mart at bay with a bill, passed in July, that requires very large retailers to pay wages 50 percent over the District’s minimum wage. San Diego enacted ordinances in 2007 and 2010 requiring community impact reviews for large retailers — only to repeal them with Wal-Mart at the gates.
In San Francisco, meanwhile, the city will be examining its definition of formula retail. Should chains that got their start in the Bay Area, like Philz Coffee, be exempt? What about fixtures of neighborhood health like grocery stores and pharmacies? Why is 11 the magic number to define what constitutes “formula retail?”
Both cities and national retailers will be closely following what happens in San Francisco. It might just set a precedent.