Americans, David Brooks, and “The Dutch Option”

denver_map.jpgDenver’s FasTracks transit expansion will add more than 100 miles of rail and BRT service.

Ben Fried got it exactly right about the errors that riddled Tuesday’s David Brooks column. Brooks was so far off the mark, though, that it’s worth another look at the ways he misled readers.

The core of his argument that Americans don’t like cities rested on this survey by Pew Research Center. The survey found that Americans, when asked where they would most like to move to, named Denver, San Diego, Seattle, San Francisco, Phoenix, Portland, Sacramento, Orlando, Tampa and San Antonio as their top ten, in that order of preference. Because these cities are mostly in the west and the south, Brooks concluded that Americans are interested in living in, well, the west and the south. But then he went further, citing it as general evidence of America’s anti-urban tastes.

What Brooks didn’t address — and which I have a hard time believing he didn’t know, given his usual informedness — was that most of the 10 cities in the poll are pursuing pro-urban agendas with a vengeance. They are building lots of light rail lines. They are re-configuring streets to make them more walkable and bikeable. They are steering clear of policies and projects that would encourage more driving.

Nowhere is that more true than Denver, the number one city in the poll, which supplied the headline to Brooks’ column, "I Dream of Denver." Well, a few years ago, this object of American aspirations voted to approve what is probably the largest new mass transit system in the United States. The city of Denver and a bunch of neighboring political jurisdictions managed to come together and agree to build a half dozen light rail and commuter rail lines at once. The metro area will end up with a complete rail-based transit system in one fell swoop, without having to proceed line-by-line over decades, like most cities.

Portland, of course, has been the most aggressively pro-urban city in the country for three decades, with its mix of pro-transit, pro-biking policies all set in a state that employs some of the most cohesive growth-management practices in the country. In Portland, as readers of Streetsblog know, you can now ride a bike and have priority over cars when you come to a red light, just like in Amsterdam, the place Brooks posits as the epitome of un-American living. If Americans don’t want to be urban, why are they putting Portland in their top ten list?

Essentially all the other cities on this list are pursuing pro-urban policies, even if they aren’t all urban yet. Hell, even Tampa, in the belly of a state that defined suburban sprawl, opened a downtown streetcar line a few years ago.

Before posting this piece, I went back and re-read Brooks’ column, just to see if I had gotten everything right or missed anything. Upon review, it’s actually astonishing how misleading it is. It’s such a textbook example of selectively using facts and figures to advance faulty logic that it’s worth doing a blow-by-blow here.

First Brooks starts with an arguably true statement, that many urban planners would like Americans to live in denser, more urban places. Then he condenses that into the hyperbole that urban planners want Americans to live in Amsterdam. This is not quite the case, but it’s okay to over-simplify to make a point and to make a column easier to understand.

But then, having set up this over-simple argument, Brooks goes about arguing that the places where Americans want to live are not Amsterdam. As I think I’ve demonstrated, even going by that absurd criteria, Brooks can’t prove his point. Because Denver, Portland, and other cities on America’s top ten list are moving in the direction of "Amsterdam." Plenty of Americans do “want the Dutch option,” or an American version of it.

Every columnist must at times simply pull one out of the air, using whatever is lying around on the desk. I wonder if this was one of those times with Brooks.

  • That’s also not to mention the cities in the south and west that are not in the top ten. Sprawled-out cities like Atlanta (hello, from Atlanta!), Houston, Dallas…

    So how would it look if this list were correlated with a sprawl index?

  • Mick

    If “nobody” wants to live in NYC why is it so goddamn expensive? You can buy a nice prewar brick house in a premier central Denver neighborhood for half as much as a one bedroom apt on the UPW.

  • I am moving from NYC to Denver this summer. From what I can tell FasTracks is not about urban development, but rather to allow people to live in the far out suburbs and work in Denver, similiar to metro north here. While this is obviously better than the current situation where people drive to work, it does not do a whole lot to develop the downtown urban environment. There will be transit orientated development, but that will still be spread out over miles of plains and desert. While billions are spent serving the suburbs with lightrail, downtown denver is going to face cuts in bus service and increasing fares. This money would be better spent bringing back the streetcar and replacing the acres of downtown parking lots with infill.

  • Chris in Sacramento

    In Denver and elsewhere, the inner suburbs are the key political battleground. They can be linked, politically and via transit infrastructure, to the denser core to form vibrant regions and Democratic strongholds.

    Brooks derides inner-city living but disengenuously fails to note that his beloved exurbans are losing the battle for the hearts, minds, votes and pocketbooks of the critical inner suburban swing voters.

  • >If “nobody” wants to live in NYC why is it so goddamn expensive?

    And if so many people want to live in Tampa, there are plenty of abandoned houses around the edges of the city to choose from.

  • Shemp

    I actually find the fact that 52% of American urban dwellers rate their communities very highly impressive when you consider where American cities were 10-15 years ago and how lame as cities many of them still are.

  • Streetsman

    Seriously. There are near-beach properties for $50K there. If Americans are dissatisfied with where they live, and Tampa is #9 on the list of places they would want to be, why don’t they just move there?

    It’s also interesting that 65% want “many different racial and ethnic groups,” 63% want “a mix of different political views,” 61% percent want “a mix of the upper, middle and lower classes,” 59 % want “many different religious groups,” and yet 56% want “only a small immigrant population.”

    I think this survey says more about Americas schizophrenic values than anything else. They want diversity, but they don’t want immigration. They want a slower pace, but they want fast food instead of coffee shops. More than half want to live somewhere else, but while most of the places they want to live are affordable, more than half have no intention of moving anytime soon.

    Very shaky data to use to defend the argument that Americans want to “move outward” and “go west.

  • Maybe Americans just want to live in that list of cities because they (mostly) have much nicer weather than NYC and Boston and DC and Chicago and other places that Brooks would categorize as “urban”?

  • d

    “Seriously. There are near-beach properties for $50K there. If Americans are dissatisfied with where they live, and Tampa is #9 on the list of places they would want to be, why don’t they just move there?”

    That’s a woefully simplistic statement to make when anyone knows that it takes more than just housing prices to motivate people move. How many people truly get to pick where they live based simply on the fact that housing is cheap? There are plenty of people in New York who might lament the price of housing but have to live here because of their jobs, proximity to family, or other reasons. I’d love a $50K house, but working in media means that I mostly have to choose between New York and Los Angeles.

  • Glenn

    In market research, there are two different metrics that yield very different results. If you just ask people what they want, you hear mostly about situations in which you can eat your cake and have it too, like…”I want a big house, with lots of yard space for a garden, close to everything including my job, kid schools and good restaurants/retail shops…and I want it cheap”.

    You can even ask them to rank them and a list of “Stated Importance” of various attributes.

    In the real world you cannot really disaggregate all of these components and therefore you need to trade these different attributes of a neighborhood and your employment/commuting possibilities. Based on actual choices that people make between these bundles of attributes, you get “Derived Importance”.

    One of the main ways to see which attributes people really value is to see which ones they are willing to pay more for. Thus, while it is hard to really judge people’s true satisfaction with different living environments, what people are willing to pay for them is a pretty good measure.

    Ultimately, many people are driven by one singular factor: Proximity to the best paying job they can find.

    Employers that have the best jobs want to have access to the largest labor pool possible. Consider for a moment that with NYC’s mass transit system, an employer near one of the major regional hubs could have a potential labor pool of tens of millions, while Tampa might have only one-tenth that number in reasonable commuting distance.

  • Streetsman

    That’s a woefully simplistic statement to make when anyone knows that it takes more than just housing prices to motivate people move. How many people truly get to pick where they live based simply on the fact that housing is cheap? There are plenty of people in New York who might lament the price of housing but have to live here because of their jobs, proximity to family, or other reasons. I’d love a $50K house, but working in media means that I mostly have to choose between New York and Los Angeles.

    Just to clarify – my point isn’t that anybody who wants to should pick up and move to Tampa and if they don’t they’re an idiot. The point is, just as you said, there’s a lot more to where a person chooses to live than what they can afford or what they say they want. Just because people say they want to move to a suburb doesn’t mean they’re going to do it, and just because they say they are unhappy in a city doesn’t mean they’d be happier in a suburb. The way you should measure a popularity trend is what people are actually doing, not what they say they want. And more people who are moving from one density zone to another are choosing the more urban zones.

  • rex

    “Every columnist must at times simply pull one out of the air….

    I don’t think the air is where Brooks pulled that column out of….

    It the same yet different category check out Geroge Will’s column from Sunday’s WaPo. In reaction the column, here is the quote from the source he cited to demonstrate that the climate change is no big deal:

    In an opinion piece by George Will published on February 15, 2009 in the Washington Post, George Will states “According to the University of Illinois’ Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979.”

    We do not know where George Will is getting his information, but our data shows that on February 15, 1979, global sea ice area was 16.79 million sq. km and on February 15, 2009, global sea ice area was 15.45 million sq. km. Therefore, global sea ice levels are 1.34 million sq. km less in February 2009 than in February 1979. This decrease in sea ice area is roughly equal to the area of Texas, California, and Oklahoma combined.

    It is disturbing that the Washington Post would publish such information without first checking the facts.

    Let’s face it nationally syndicated columnists are no more credible than some jerkwad writing comments on a blog.

  • Justin

    wooDave, you’re right. I lived in Denver for 3 years, and the FasTracks program, while it has great intentions, is suburban transit. 90% of those stations will probably have huge parking garages, as do most of the stations on the existing light rail lines there. MOST people who take light rail drive to the train. The existing lines run along the freight rail corridor, which is not close to where the core of the downtown population lives, and is in fact not at all convenient unless you are going to the ‘burbs.

    Transportation within the city of Denver itself is pretty abysmal. My house near Washington park, a fairly dense area 4 miles from downtown, was served by a bus that ran at most every half hour and service stopped at 8pm on the weekends. Essentially everyone drives everywhere, the roads through downtown are highways, and drivers are hostile to bicyclists, to say the least.

    I hate to be cynical about the pro-urban tokens that are happening there, but Denver is a land use nightmare. I never knew anyone else there that didn’t own a car, and most everyone I knew didn’t leave the house without getting in their car.

  • Paul

    I would love to live in Amsterdam. It’s damn near a perfect city to live in for my needs. Until I can figure out a business to start there that I can live off of, I’ll keep on living in Portland. It’s great as far as American cities go, but there’s a hell of a long way to go before I would be truly satisfied with it.

  • garyg

    The city of Denver and a bunch of neighboring political jurisdictions managed to come together and agree to build a half dozen light rail and commuter rail lines at once. The metro area will end up with a complete rail-based transit system in one fell swoop

    The overwhelming majority of transit in the Denver metro area, as in almost all other metro areas, is buses. Rail is only a small part of it. And the planned light-rail expansion will mainly serve suburban commuters who come into the city during the day to work and leave at night. It will do little or nothing to foster dense development and urbanist lifestyles.

    And the light rail system is incredibly inefficient. Each light rail vehicle has a capacity of about 185 passengers. About 64 seated, and about 120 standing. But in 2007, each vehicle carried on average only about 14 passengers. 14 passengers, in a vehicle with 64 seats, and room for another 120 standing! It’s an incredible waste of money.

  • Mogi

    I live in Portland. I love it here because of all the bikers and light rail users. However, you talk to most progressive people supportive of sustainable living and they all want big houses with big garages for all the toys (like Brooks noted), the space; I think we are still living a bit of a lie here, but at least we’re making an effort.

    I think wanting your space and your things is American, which is Brook’s point. I’ve lived in Europe and Japan and the American use of space is oh so unique and really unsustainable – but few people admit that or even recognize that. The residents in the city core’s condos are single people and young couples. No families, and THAT is what makes us in the West really different than true urban living.

  • Very interesting observation, Mogi. Here in NYC, there are still plenty of people who will trot out the bullshit that “families need cars,” but in general there are millions of families here who do just fine without them.

    If you’re right, I’d be interested to hear from families in Portland who do live without cars: what are the challenges? Anyone committed to enabling carfree lifestyles, in Portland or elsewhere, needs to hear about that.

  • To follow up, on my last visit to Paris I visited a friend who just had a baby. He and his wife had gotten a car, because they said it was very difficult to take a baby around Paris without one. In particular, they pointed to the fact that the Paris Metro is full of stairs and impossible to push a stroller around. I’d add that babywearing was almost unheard of in France when I was there, so the concept of carrying the baby up and down the stairs was off the radar. I did see some babies in the Metro, but not all that many, come to think of it.

    With the Metro mostly off-limits, that cuts out a major transportation staple in the city, leaving walking, the bus, the commuter rail and the RER. Vélib’ doesn’t have any accomodation for small children as far as I know, so potential cyclists would have to buy their own. The only recent transportation improvements that could really benefit families with small children are the busways and the tramway.

  • Justin,

    I live in Denver, not far from Wash Park (I am in the University Hills neighborhood). I bicycle 17 miles, round trip, to work every day (379 days in a row, so far), and do 90% of my errands by bike. In fact, I do own a car, but I put only 1340 miles on it in 2008.

    I don’t find the bicycling life near as hard as you seemed to. I stay off of the major arterial roads, and take parallel routes through quiet neighbieighborhoods, for the most part. And, while I find Denver drivers mostly oblivious, I don’t notice that they are particularly aggressive toward cyclists.

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