What the Regional Planning Association’s Gateway Plan May Be Getting Wrong
What if commuting comes to be considered unsustainable?
The long-awaited Regional Planning Association’s Gateway Plan has been released, and it does a good job in making its cse for the crucial role that the Plan will play in the tri-state region’s transportation system for the coming decades.
I just want to zoom in on one facet of the Plan that may be off.
The plan is based an assessment of the status quo – the damaged and aging tunnels and bridges in the NYC area that support train transit under the Hudson river – and various scenarios of future job and population growth paired with various degrees of Working From Home (WFH).
The lower left quadrant is also called scenario C in the report, and one that I will focus on because I feel it is a highly likely turn of events, although it does not go far enough with regard to the degree of WFH we might be seeing in the future.
As the RPA report puts it:
Scenario C describes a future in which more dramatic increases in working from home coincide with rapid job growth.
In more detail:
Scenario C: High Work-From-Home with High Growth
As people return to the office throughout 2022, organizations work out the bugs in coordinating schedules for hybrid work, aided by continuing improvements in technologies that facilitate collaboration between multiple locations. Fully remote jobs grow rapidly, and the most common arrangement for hybrid work is three days in the office and two days at home. Midtown is busy on Tuesdays through Thursdays, while tourists and residents take advantage of less crowded streets and restaurants on Mondays and Fridays. The economy has fully recovered by 2023, but on average office employees spend half their time working from home, or four times as much as it was before the pandemic. Non-office workers still work mostly at the worksite, but technology has enabled more to be done from home even for these occupations.
As in Scenario A, the region benefits from robust national growth and favorable immigration policies. Even though remote work is now firmly entrenched in many industries, many remote workers choose to stay in the New York area to be close to family, cultural amenities, and New York’s unique energy and diversity. Reduced crowding on streets and transit is one way in which the region is a more attractive place to live and do business than it used to be. Midtown struggles for several years, and the transition is particularly hard on low-wage workers and small businesses that depend on the daily influx of commuters. But eventually the district emerges better than ever with more residents, tourists, and a different mix of industries.
Population decentralizes more than in the scenarios with a smaller increase in working from home, but New York City still grows by more than 700,000 people by 2040. The rest of the region, however, adds nearly 3 million new residents. Northern New Jersey remains the fastest growing part of the region and adds almost 1.8 million new residents. Long Island, the Hudson Valley, and Connecticut increase their rate of multifamily housing and population growth and add 1 million new residents.
This scenario is most dependent on more rapid growth in housing supply outside of New York City. Towns in Long Island, Connecticut, and the lower Hudson Valley in particular would need to greatly loosen restrictive zoning for multi-family housing. The region as a whole and urban areas in particular would need to maintain their attractiveness, although falling rents could attract many who were previously priced out.
Energy infrastructure and greenhouse gas reduction may require the most attention under this scenario. Not only would there be more demand and energy use from a growing population, but a more decentralized population will mean more people driving and pose the greatest risk of sprawling land use patterns. Transit investments will be vital not only to keep up with growth in trips of all kinds, but to extend to underserved areas and provide better transportation alternatives to private automobiles.
Here we see timid thinking. The notion that ‘three days a week in the office’ will be the new baseline is not borne out by recent research like Nicholas Bloom and his colleagues, which suggests two days a week in the office is what is trending, today. This trend is bound up with the future of superstar cities, where more knowledge workers are moving farther away from the city core, out past the historical commuting limit of 30min-60min one-way: The Donut Effect.
I propose that the RPA guestimate of 3 days a week in the office is a floor for WFH, not a ceiling.
Here’s the real wild card: Imagine a future political and cultural context in which commuting is seen as unsustainable in the face of the climate crisis, a thread basically left out of this report.
And the report claims that more decentralization – the Donut Effect – would mean more driving, not less. Huh? My starting point for a better scenario C is a maximum of commuting to the office two days a week, and a minimum of zero. This obviously means less driving, since commuting is the largest portion of people’s driving, in general. So with people commuting much, much less the remaining travel will be local transportation, like walking, bikes, bus, and trains, and for shorter distances.
While the authors of the report make statements like the following, they do not look to the second-order effects of realizing we are in a climate crisis now, not one coming in some distant future. In such a cultural milieu commuting may become indefensible, like heating homes with wood-burning stoves, or carcinogens in foods. The authors position climate change as an external force, not discussing the impacts of policy.
Pace and impacts of climate change
While hotter cities, rising seas, and more frequent storms are a virtual certainty, it is impossible to confidently predict how quickly the climate will change, much less the timing and severity of storms, heat waves and flooding. How these will affect the region’s economy, population growth and development, how damaging they are, the effectiveness of resilience measures that are taken in advance, and how climate change affects this region relative to other parts of the nation and world are all unknown.
Their discussion of climate change in the region is focused on the impacts of global warming, but not the region’s shifting awareness of local contributions to carbon emissions, which will make commuting unpopular if not outright illegal.
While I fully support the Gateway Project, the premises about where people will be working in the future simply fall short. I am reminded of science fiction stories written in the 50s and 60s about the near future, where humans traveling in distant galaxies would relax by smoking cigarettes, and women were still not allowed to join the military space force except as nurses.
In a similar way, the RPA report doesn’t challenge today’s conventions, most specifically that commuting is here to stay, when in fact it contributes to something on the order of 15% of all US carbon emissions. In that light, commuting should be illegal, not acceptable, at least until zero-emission commuting is rolled out.