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Monday, May 19, 2008

What He Said

posted by on May 19 at 9:41 AM

Paul Krugman writing from Berlin in today’s NYT:

Any serious reduction in American driving will require more than this—it will mean changing how and where many of us live.

To see what I’m talking about, consider where I am at the moment: in a pleasant, middle-class neighborhood consisting mainly of four- or five-story apartment buildings, with easy access to public transit and plenty of local shopping.

It’s the kind of neighborhood in which people don’t have to drive a lot, but it’s also a kind of neighborhood that barely exists in America, even in big metropolitan areas. Greater Atlanta has roughly the same population as Greater Berlin—but Berlin is a city of trains, buses and bikes, while Atlanta is a city of cars, cars and cars.

And in the face of rising oil prices, which have left many Americans stranded in suburbia—utterly dependent on their cars, yet having a hard time affording gas—it’s starting to look as if Berlin had the better idea.

Starting to look? It’s been crystal clear to many of us, and for quite a long time, that Berlin had the better idea—and so did New York City, Chicago, Paris, London, Munich, etc., etc.

And Krugman makes another great point:

If Europe’s example is any guide, here are the two secrets of coping with expensive oil: own fuel-efficient cars, and don’t drive them too much.

Notice that I said that cars should be fuel-efficient—not that people should do without cars altogether. In Germany, as in the United States, the vast majority of families own cars (although German households are less likely than their U.S. counterparts to be multiple-car owners).

It’s possible to live in Berlin without owning a car, of course, and many people don’t. But all of Berlin’s trains, buses, and safe bike lanes make it possible to live in the city and use your car infrequently. Building a real rapid transit system in our region—rail, rail, rail—isn’t about forcing people out of their cars, which is how many anti-mass-transit activists like to frame it. It’s about giving people—including car owners—more options. That people here are forced to rely on cars isn’t proof that people prefer to drive everywhere they need to go.

RSS icon Comments


Seriously, you are deluded. Chicago's transit is horrible.

Posted by chicago??? | May 19, 2008 9:49 AM

Berlin mass transit rules. Options galore. And the local aspect of the retail cannot be beat.

The city living demands (for most) a simpler and somewhat less private experience but I'd trade being able to walk (or tram or u-bahn) everywhere and deal with local merchants for any ol' Belltown condo shithole that's bunkered off from it's environs (save for the kid-cams aimed at the alleyway junkies that bring a bit of the outdoors into the iMac monitor).


Posted by Jubilation T. Cornball | May 19, 2008 9:51 AM

Yah, all this crap about finding ways to "reduce our dependence on foreign oil" is a bunch of crap. The only way to solve global warming is to change the way we live, and I have yet to see any politician even go near this one. A massive public transportation project? Still a political loser. Unfortunate. I would much rather live in a place where I could not drive, or drive very rarely, then have to sit in traffic for hours every day.

Posted by Dianna | May 19, 2008 9:55 AM

Madrid, too. Layers of systems of rail and bus that carry you further and further afield.

Imagine if we had something remotely like Boston's Commuter Rail lines? (The T, the city subway lines are the non-purple ones, dead center in the map).

Posted by Lloyd Clydesdale | May 19, 2008 9:58 AM

I know Baltimore is far, far from a public transportation mecca, but from our new home we can walk to 2 full-service grocery stores, tons of restaurants, a farmers' market, work, liquor stores (key for me, yo) and, importantly, bus stops. Our street has bike lanes, and we're a short drive/mile walk to a light rail stop that can take us to the airport. Like I said, it's not perfect. But city living beats living in a exurb and having to drive everywhere.

Posted by Balt-O-Matt | May 19, 2008 10:01 AM

For Chicago: there are some bad things about it but at least you have some transit options in Chicago on the weekends and evenings UNLIKE FUCKING SEATTLE!!!

But frankly, I am looking forward to all those suburbanites who will have to choose between food and gas ending killing their kids for food since the Hummer just HAS to have gas!! LOL!!!!!!

Posted by Cato the Younger Younger | May 19, 2008 10:05 AM

@1. I think Chicago's transit is good in theory, just not in practice. Meaning it was designed and laid out relatively well (though, I keep hoping for that Circle Line that was proposed a few years ago).

It's just, well, broken funding, endless construction, etc., etc., get in the way of the system actually being terribly convenient to use on a daily basis.

Posted by Julie | May 19, 2008 10:07 AM

If we had real mass transit in this city, I would use my car once a week, when I buy groceries. Sadly, currently it's not only faster, but it's cheaper for me to commute to work by car.

Posted by Gitai | May 19, 2008 10:11 AM

Discussions like this always leave out the hard part: how do you get a Berlin if you already have an Atlanta?

It's all very well and good to say, "well, if we lived in dense neighborhoods with rail transit, everything would be peachy" when that is never going to come to pass for 90% of Americans, not without a century of redevelopment. Berlin wasn't built in a day.

It's the "wave your hands" solution, and it accomplishes nothing.

Posted by Fnarf | May 19, 2008 10:12 AM
a pleasant, middle-class neighborhood consisting mainly of four- or five-story apartment buildings, with easy access to public transit and plenty of local shopping.

It’s the kind of neighborhood in which people don’t have to drive a lot, but it’s also a kind of neighborhood that barely exists in America, even in big metropolitan areas.

Summit Ave E. Best neighborhood ever.

Posted by w7ngman | May 19, 2008 10:24 AM

Bomb the crap out of Atlanta and start over?

Berlin is the most boring city in all of Europe, for what it's worth. Not really relevant, but it's true.

And what's with the Atlanta comparison in the first place? Isn't MARTA held up by envious Seattleites as an example of what federal funding can do for a transit system? Is it the ideal, or the opposite of ideal? It can't be both.

Posted by joykiller | May 19, 2008 10:26 AM

Marta in Atlanta is great and it could have been here. Isn't it true that those federal dollars for mass transit were 1st offered to Seattle, but because of moronic naysayers the money went to Atlanta instead.

Posted by Sad Comment | May 19, 2008 10:33 AM


"Berlin is the most boring city...."


Posted by Jubilation T. Cornball | May 19, 2008 10:33 AM

Sigh. Some of us don't want to live in piles. And you don't want to live in a pile with me, considering how noisy my dog can be sometimes.

Now, that said, I live in Columbus OH, in a small 1942 starter home (I think it's officially 800 square feet, though they don't count the basement, which is finished and has a fireplace) 2 bedrooms, 1 bath, with a sort-of 3rd bedroom in the basement. Little yard, big enough for the dogs. One-car garage. The neighborhood is walkable, and I could take public transportation to work, or bike there (about 6 miles away).

There are plenty of houses for sale in my neighborhood...

Posted by Nora | May 19, 2008 10:35 AM

The fact that we are Atlanta's and not Berlin's is exactly why we must reduce our dependence on foreign oil. We're a nation of cars and drivers and while we can alleviate some of it with other transportation options, it still only makes an impact on the cities.

It's a big dream, I realize, but we need to become the leaders in car technology. We need to make them the best for OUR needs. And that includes ending dependence on all oil (for fuel).

Posted by Bon Scott | May 19, 2008 10:36 AM

Um, I get around Seattle just fine on bus on the weekends. Cato@6, where the hell do you live in the city?

Posted by mackro mackro | May 19, 2008 10:42 AM

Otherwise, while kinda preaching to the choir, Dan and Paul are OTM

Posted by mackro mackro | May 19, 2008 10:43 AM

Just got back from Berlin, first time there, absolutely loved the mass trans options and overall relaxed, cool vibe of the city.

I think car ownership is ingrained in the American consciousness, and mass transit at least carries some sort of stigma(ie for the poor or underprivileged) or maybe seen as a socialist, un-American concept etc. I am not sure why, but I am from Europe and have used mass transit most of life. I don't fully understand why American cities don't invest in public mass transit... Even NYC, which has mass transit on par with most European capitals, has trailed and been derailing forever building the 2nd Ave. subway line...

Posted by pesky_chicken | May 19, 2008 10:59 AM

Dan, mass transit is NOT the answer. If we let market forces take their course, eventually gas will get so expensive that people will have to bike from the suburbs, and then we will reduce our dependency on foreign oil AND solve the nation's obesity problem. Don't you see it?!

Posted by Mary F | May 19, 2008 11:01 AM

You know, the pathetic thing is my super market is a 10 minute walk from my house, and I *still* almost always drive there. Yes, I am as pathetic as I am representative of the American populace.

Posted by Providence | May 19, 2008 11:01 AM

From what I understand certain European countries tax you by the weight of your car. The more your car weighs the more you pay. This encourages the use of small lightweight cars like the SMART Car.

Posted by Cato | May 19, 2008 11:07 AM

Seattle could have Berlin's transit system.

If it were on 60 square miles of flat land, and was bombed to a fine dust.

Until then, we'll have to deal with hills, and homes and buildings on all the good right-of-ways.

Posted by NapoleonXIV | May 19, 2008 11:12 AM

@11, you've never been to Berlin.

Posted by Eric F | May 19, 2008 11:14 AM

"Building a real rapid transit system in our region—rail, rail, rail—isn’t about forcing people out of their cars, which is how many anti-mass-transit activists like to frame it. It’s about giving people—including car owners—more options."

Those'd be the benefits. Let's talk costs for a minute.

No more federal funding will be available, as it was for other metro regions. So local families would have to pay for Dan's "rail, rail, rail." We don't have income tax, so it'd be regressive "sales tax, sales tax, and more sales tax."

Let's leave aside the cost of paying Sound Transit additional taxes, just for a second. Let's focus on what ST is doing now, with the taxes it has. Rail may be good, but is ST?

I'd really like Dan to respond to this, but everyone else should feel free to give their views as well. Given what ST is doing now, what is an appropriate amount of tax for every family in the region to be paying to it?

See, this is the inverse of the question ST asks ("is $___ worth it to you for more transit"). The question above puts the finances of families first. Again, the question: Given what ST is doing now, what is an appropriate amount of tax for every family in the region to be paying to it?

Posted by yin AND yang | May 19, 2008 11:17 AM

@23, I was in Berlin two years ago, just before the World Cup. It pales in comparison to almost anywhere else in Western Europe because almost every single structure is post-1945. There is no natural beauty, and outside of what remains of the Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, etc., no surviving structures of historical significance. It's an important city, no doubt, just not particularly interesting from a tourist's perspective.

Posted by joykiller | May 19, 2008 11:20 AM

And sometimes the Berlin trains have those little TVs with news headlines on them. It made me feel like I was praciticing my German.

Also, the plainclothes fare-checkers that both scared and attracted me. I had more than one daydream about becoming one, dressing as a new character every morning and riding the U-bahn all day...

Posted by Abby | May 19, 2008 11:22 AM

Beware the slippery slope of Enviro-Marxism.

Posted by raindrop | May 19, 2008 11:30 AM

@24: I don't use the ST trains or buses, but I think every family should pay $100 per year in taxes to ST. Some people should have transportation alternatives.

Posted by rising sap | May 19, 2008 11:32 AM

Berlin still has quite a few historic structures--it's just that it's heyday came rather late (mid-to-late 1800s) so they're not really, really, really historic.

Posted by NapoleonXIV | May 19, 2008 11:34 AM

perhaps you visited hiroshima not berlin. both original and restored old buildings are all over the city -

Posted by McG | May 19, 2008 11:36 AM

@23, Berlin might not be very touristy, but it seems like one of the best places to live in Europe if you are on the cheap, like public trans, and want to be surrounded by young, liberal, hedonistic folks. I lived in London, Brussels, and Bucharest, and perhaps with the exception of the latter, Berlin is the best choice for the aforementioned reasons.

Posted by pesky_chicken | May 19, 2008 11:48 AM

One thing these cities have that most American cities do not are comprehensive renter protection laws and stronger laws that protect buyers of apartments in cases of faulty construction. Fifty year leases are common in Europe and unheard of here. Since costs in cities are higher and wages do not always rise in sync with property-value bubbles, there have to be protections or people get forced into living farther afield by price structures.

Posted by inkweary | May 19, 2008 11:52 AM

"Any serious reduction in American driving will require more than this — it will mean changing how and where many of us live."

I see a lot of talk on Slog about how dense European cities, rail, etc. are the way to reduce congestion and get people out of their cars. But it also takes a serious individual and collective will do make this work. I just spent a week in Buenos Aires, one of the most densely populated cities I've been to. They have a subway (four lines plus more under construction), a gazillion buses that cover the city and which run many routes 24/7, and suburban commuter rail. There are shops galore everywhere you go, and since most people live in apartments, the nearest grocery, laundry, pharmacy, etc. is usually on the first floor of your building, or within a couple blocks. They also, much to my surprise, have more cars than I've ever seen, ever. Cars, cars, cars, cars, cars. Traffic is a nightmare, there's barely any parking, they've got all the density they can handle. Yet millions of people there are still driving, driving, driving. Berlin is a great example of a dense city with transit, but there is something at work that makes a person choose other options than a car. That something is definitely missing in BsAs, and needs to be factored into the dense city/transit equation. It seems like infrastructure alone isn't enough. People in BsAs don't have to rely on cars, but they still make the decision to do so.

Posted by Berlin or Buenos Aires? | May 19, 2008 12:13 PM

The reason public transport hasn't worked as well here as in Europe is because we aren't really serious about it. The serious money and planning for transportation are for roads and cars.

And our urban/suburban/exurban planning actively works against meaningful public transportation systems.

Posted by gex | May 19, 2008 12:19 PM

If people just started - as they are in the process of doing - to buy higher MPG vehicles, and switch over to electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles that get 80 to 100 mpg, this would become less of an issue.

That said, you need to increase transit - both QUANTITY and FREQUENCY - and reduce parking spots for low-mpg type vehicles - carrot AND stick.

Make the 13 mpg SUV driver walk half a block to the store while the 80 mpg hybrid driver parks at the entrance - reserve half the street parking for plug-in/electric only.

Then you'll see change.

That said, Tata is working on their $2500 60 mpg diesel car right now ...

Posted by Will in Seattle | May 19, 2008 12:21 PM

@24 - I'd say every family in the ST region should be paying ST $150 per year now in taxes. And if voters approve the new measure, obviously each family would pay more.

So how much is each family in the taxing area paying ST now in taxes?

Posted by fried butter balls | May 19, 2008 12:26 PM

I just add one of Will's gas mileage posts to my tank every fill up and it gives me 60 to 100 mpg. They're great for growing big tomatoes, too.

Posted by elenchos | May 19, 2008 12:30 PM

@33, Excellent point, I have been wondering the same thing as well. I didn't notice that many cars in Berlin, or any other northern European countries, though as soon as you go south, paradoxically you get nightmarish traffic jams; Bucharest for instance has the the most complete, almost redundant, public transit system of any city I have seen, with trams, buses, and subways running on the same routes, yet car sales are soaring, and the traffic jams are worse than in SoCal.

Posted by pesky_chicken | May 19, 2008 12:37 PM

@36: $150 per year is too high for the AVERAGE family. The average family should pay ST about $75 per year in taxes, and the upper middle class families that buy a lot should pay more (that's the way sales taxes work).

Posted by cold clear light of reason | May 19, 2008 12:50 PM

Well who told the short-bus driver to offload in Slog today, hm? The agency's taxes have been inflation-adjusted constant for years. There are approx. 2.6 million of us in households of varying sizes in the region, and it's been common knowledge about the extent of the agency's taxes. You can see for yourself:

If any of you would just look you'd see that the annual household tax (inflation adjusted) is about $63. Buy more cheap plastic Chinese crap, pay more . . . that's how it works, and that's how it has always worked.

Posted by superior fact checker | May 19, 2008 1:12 PM

@37 - I pay more for car insurance than I do for gas, and I've got the max safe driver discount ...

Let's face it, you're paying more for gas than I am ... period.

Posted by Will in Seattle | May 19, 2008 1:53 PM

I am? What are you talking about, Will?

Posted by elenchos | May 19, 2008 2:09 PM

joykiller @11:

I'm writing this comment from gate D3 at Washington Dulles, actually on my way to Berlin for my 3rd time since last May. It's been a kick in the pants every time.

Fnarf @9:

Ever been to Switzerland? You know, the global paragon of economic conservativism, privacy & property-rights? Somehow they manage to have both the lowest tax rate on the European continent *and* the best public transit in the entire world, bar none -- at the same time!

And, I think one place to start, as far as getting beyond hand-waving, might be by reframing the debate to get away from this false dichotomy of "big government projects versus individual freedom" because it really isn't about compromise. The Swiss example demonstrates that you can have your cake and eat it to, and another substantive step might be to study their situation for lessons we could apply here at home.

And as an aside, Berlin's train system is almost as nice as Switzerland's, but it doesn't make as good an example. It's set against the miserable backdrop of Berlin's broken economy, still strains under the weight of reintegration and the costs of decades of economic dysfunction inherited from the eastern regime.

Posted by Eric Arrr | May 19, 2008 2:14 PM

Given what little ST actually delivers, the average household should not be paying more than $35 per year of taxes to it. And b/t/w, nothing at "" says how much the average household pays in taxes every year.

Posted by voter | May 19, 2008 2:24 PM

Eric, I didn't say anything about "big government projects versus individual freedom". I said "how to you get a Berlin if you already have an Atlanta?" I'm sorry if you can't grasp the implications of that question.

American cities are not capable of being served by mass transit. Talk about MARTA all you want, but it is FAR from a Berlin-style U-Bahn. I haven't looked it up, but I'll bet it gets about 1/100th the traffic that the U-Bahn does. Hardly anyone in Atlanta lives within walking distance of a station; most do not work within it either. In Seattle, even a train with stations 100 yards apart couldn't ever realistically serve even a tenth of the population. We just weren't built that way.

Myabe we can be, over the next century. We're doing part of what we need to do -- we're building the beginnings of a rail system, and we're building higher-density housing (which more often than not raises howls of protests of "ooh, it's so ugly" here, from the same people who wish Seattle was Berlin.

But it's not going to happen overnight. And ultimately, people who want to live in Berlin are going to have to move to Berlin; Berlin is never coming here, no matter how badly you want it.

Posted by Fnarf | May 19, 2008 2:33 PM

eric arr, using switzerland as a representative sample of euro and american possibilities is really laughable. it's like using dubai as a textbook for how we should build architecture.

Posted by Bellevue Ave | May 19, 2008 5:21 PM

the biggest problem I have with living in a dense urban environment for the rest of my life is that i want to do things that are impossible in a condo or apartment;

1. garden both flowers and veggies
2. bbq all the time

Posted by Bellevue Ave | May 19, 2008 5:26 PM

1. Berlin is not boring. joykiller must've kept to the touristy bits.

2. European city =/= blueprint for better American cities. We've burnt those bridges. We need other solutions, as Fnarf noted.

(But what is with all the high-rises, Seattle? JESUS CHRIST, those things are ugly, and expensive as hell)

3. Bellevue Ave: Container gardening. And cycling your plants tightly. I planted dandelion bulbs last fall, once they were done blooming I put them back into storage and brought out the strawberries. My tomatoes are starting on my kitchen windowsill. Herbs, bamboo and ornamental grasses I have year round, and my roommates and I throw barbecue parties anytime the weather's good.

All on one tiny, tiny balcony.

Posted by k | May 20, 2008 10:43 AM

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