Cities Must, and Will, Take Care of Themselves (Election Notes)

It’s been a long night.  So just a few notes.

Nobody really knows what lies ahead for the US, but we are probably heading into a period when cities and metro areas must do even more to take care of themselves.  And there’s lots of evidence, from last night, that urban populations know that.

The sweep of victories on public transit measures is impressive.  Raleigh, Indianapolis, Atlanta, and the biggest transit plan of all this year, in greater Seattle.  In California, where revenue raising measures require 2/3, most of the Bay Area and Los Angeles area measures are on track to hit that very high bar.

This is becoming a common pattern.  There is a strong urban consensus about what it takes to make a great city, and the will is there, among urban populations, to do what needs to be done.

Some friends are despairing about federal funding for public transit, which is required to deliver the promised transit plans, and for other critical urban needs. I can’t predict what Federal policy may actually be like.  If you need reasons for hope, there are three:

  • This president-elect is from a big city, he famously likes to build things, and he campaigned on infrastructure spending.  It’s unlikely he will turn off the spigot on urban investments, or that a narrowly divided Senate would let him if he did.
  • I’ve also been through this moment — when one party appears to have won the White House and the Congress — several times.  Each time, it’s appeared that there’s now no impediment to the agenda, but it’s never been that simple.  When you can actually enact an agenda, you pause, especially when you have such a narrow majority in one chamber.
  • There’s simply no mandate here for an anti-urban agenda, or even for budget-cutting and fiscal austerity.  This election was just not about that.

But maybe the Federal role does shrink.  If so, cities and regions will have to do what needs to be done themselves.  Mayors and regional leaders may have to lead in larger and more courageous ways. Bruce Katz (The Metropolitan Revolution) and Benjamin Barber (If Mayors Ruled the World) have been charting this path for a while.   But if tonight’s transit measures are any indication, urban voters know what needs to be done, so the conditions for courageous urban leadership are there.

Personally, I have lots of other feelings about this election.  But when it comes to critical urban needs, one way or another, it can get done.


18 Responses to Cities Must, and Will, Take Care of Themselves (Election Notes)

  1. Bjorn Swenson November 9, 2016 at 7:30 am #

    Sandy Johnson put out the idea on Twitter that Trump’s strongest marginal support was in states that haven’t seen much of an urban renaissance. Given that Trump flipped Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania – all states that Obama won at least once – I’m inclined to agree with this line of thought. These states have strong urban ‘bones’ but shrinking ‘muscle,’ where largest cities to small towns have solid street grids, proper main streets, and walkable missing-middle neighborhoods, but also have high vacancy rates, abandoned buildings, and crumbling streets.

    Is it time for urbanists to refocus their efforts in favor of a Strong Towns-like revival of ‘Main Street, Anytown, USA’?

    • Bruce Nourish November 9, 2016 at 9:14 am #

      Serious question: do the people of Anytown, USA want such help? I’ve yet to hear anyone credibly tease out of Brexit any affirmative policies to make rural Engand more prosperous and happy, unless perhaps you count “not having to look at or hear people not like us” as happiness. Brexit was a two finger salute to London in just the same way that the Trump vote was a middle finger extended towards America’s big cities.

      • ararar November 10, 2016 at 10:37 am #

        sometimes they need lots of convincing but that’s what strong towns does.

        • Theo Winker November 13, 2016 at 4:14 am #

          Strong Towns somehow lose me when they started to concede space to a localist approach and a Luddite strain in terms of whining against anything that is complex. They also wrote some pretty bad stuff concerning bit cities (they have a series on Portland). They are ranting against TOD and actually complaining about TOD framework because it makes it more expensive to build mid-rises instead of mother-daughter duplexes.

          They are completely clueless about networks effects, they despise economies of scale as antithetical to the “local and fragmented is better” mantra. They oppose any big ticket project, missing the point of leapfrogging or just that linear incremental transportation doesn’t work in the domain of transit.

          Moreover, Strong Towns adopted over last year a more “cities will collapse” and “the US Southwest is bad and must depopulate” stance. They have contempt for Bay Area, for Seattle, for New York and a especial contempt for industries that rely on agglomeration effects more and more.

          That could still be just a local bias (if 80% of your writes come from Rust Belt or Great Plains backgrounds that just lost their prominence in the American economy), but now they started tinkering with more politically dangerous stuff, such its president entertaining the idea that racial self-segregation might not be such a bad thing by principle, or other writes longing in the lines for a time when nobody needed college to make a good living.

          I think sooner or later they will write something really bad, the kind of “whoa, what is that” statement that will be picked up by social media and tag some negative staple on them.

          I do not think they are bad people, just very oblivious to things outside their main core competence (which is to present the folly of municipal financial management and Pozni-esque infrastructure financing schemes).

          • Spencer November 14, 2016 at 11:10 am #

            Whoa. That’s a pretty superficial and largely unfair characterization of Strong Towns. For someone who claims to despise oversimplification you’ve completely eliminated any nuance from their positions. Not to mention that a lot of what you ascribe to them is flat out wrong. I’ve never once read ST claiming the Southwest is bad and should depopulate. If anything, ST speaks out emphatically against that kind of simplistic thinking.

          • ararar November 15, 2016 at 3:00 pm #

            I’m not a diligent follower of anything except this blog as it’s not my field of work, but the issues you allege (that doesn’t mean I distrust you, I just haven’t read any ST stuff in like a year) don’t take away from their core message, which could help the left-behind areas to find a better modus vivendi.

          • J December 13, 2016 at 4:59 pm #

            So your critique of Strong Towns is that they veer too close to a Jane Jacobs approach…? They must be doing something right.

            (Weird to mention agglomeration of economies as good on a post about the industrial Midwest, which was hugely destroyed by monoeconomies…)

      • J December 13, 2016 at 5:01 pm #

        They will when you actually have good policy instead of treating them as racist knobs from the start. Classy.


  2. Bruce Nourish November 9, 2016 at 9:05 am #

    I’m less freaked out, and less surprised, than most of my left-coast friends. Still, I’m not sure I can be as sanguine as Jarrett. Mr. Trump has betrayed no substantive thoughts on policy issues outside of trade, immigration and maybe energy. That void will be filled by advisers and operatives drawn from the smouldering hulk of the Republican party, which has suddenly, and somewhat involuntarily, finished its transformation into being the party of rural and exurban grievance. There’s very little reason to believe that the people who have Trump’s ear will understand or care about transit, walkablility, or any of the things that make cities great.

    I don’t expect a complete shutdown in federal aid, although I do expect a reduction. The dollars, however, may prove to be one of the easier things to replace. Terrible tax, transportation, and environmental policies at the federal level can’t be fixed in city elections.

  3. Isaac Rabinovitch November 9, 2016 at 9:42 am #

    I think you place too much emphasis on “He likes to build things.” Trump’s history as a businessman is more about ego than creation.

    But yeah, all these local referenda saying “we want more transit” are encouraging.

    • Linda C November 11, 2016 at 7:15 am #

      Aha! Promise to name every road and bridge the Trump whatever and the spigot will open!

  4. Dan Ryan November 9, 2016 at 10:09 am #

    Last night’s results, control of Congress as much as the Presidency, will empower the anti-urban element of the GOP.

    But their ‘war on cities’ isn’t new. It’s 40 or 50 years old. In that time, cities have vastly outperformed the rest of the country on any measure of social or economic performance.

    At least on that dimension, if not on others, the next four years may be ok.

  5. Eric Goodman November 9, 2016 at 11:30 am #

    I agree the US election is a repudiation of federal and international power. People want more state and local control.

    This is not in itself bad, but expectations in the general public are often unrealistic and based on misconceptions of how government actually works.

    Clearer conversations are most certainly in great need. Thank you for everything you do to inform our fellows, Jarrett. I deeply appreciate it.

    P.S. I voted for a slightly flawed but decent ST3 plan on your general advice… get the money and then argue about spending it, eh? !

  6. P November 9, 2016 at 12:42 pm #

    Looking forward to TRUMP Transit!

  7. Rod Stevens November 9, 2016 at 7:22 pm #

    Urban problems won’t wait for improvement in federal urban policy Cities are going to have to become more effective at solving their own problems. it’s a question of survival and competition against better-managed places.

  8. Mikko November 10, 2016 at 4:26 am #

    When was the last time Trump took the subway in New York City, I wonder…

  9. Alison Wiley November 10, 2016 at 9:01 am #

    Thanks for this post, Jarrett, cogent as always. I’ve shared it with the staff of the Public Transit Division at Oregon Dept of Transportation, where I work (and where your name is deeply respected). I’m wishing I could feel similar grounded optimism about transit in rural areas, where it’s often lifeline-type services for folks who are seniors/low-income/differently abled. Funding for rural transit, at least here in Oregon, is roughly 2/3 federal, 1/3 state, with little if any local money available. Hopefully this federal funding will stay intact. If not, it will be ironic that rural populations voted overwhelmingly for the president-elect.

    • R. W. Rynerson November 16, 2016 at 12:10 am #

      We went through this learning process before when the attempt was made to cut out Federal operating assistance. Rural members of Congress learned that service in their districts would vanish. The plan was amended to keep them running. This had some bizarre side effects, such as Greeley, CO sweating the 2010 census for fear that it had grown too big and would lose Federal operating funds.