Double Down on Density

President Barack Obama gives his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol, Jan. 27, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

“…we can put Americans to work today building the infrastructure of tomorrow. From the first railroads to the interstate highway system, our nation has always been built to compete. There’s no reason Europe or China should have the fastest trains…” –President Barack Obama, State of the Union Address, January 27, 2010.

It is a watershed moment when any President spares precious moments from a State of the Union address to utter such words. In 2007 candidate Obama had me at hello. Now the bar is higher, now he has me at hello, I want to build the Infrastructure of Tomorrow.

Yet as these pages have attempted to articulate, it is hard to bridge the gap between the President’s aspirations and the next sentence from his address: “Tomorrow, I’ll visit Tampa, Florida, where workers will soon break ground on a new high-speed railroad funded by the Recovery Act.” In referring to the $1.25 billion funding for the proposed 168mph train between Tampa and Orlando, one local politician told The New York Times “It’s the biggest thing since Walt Disney World for the I-4 Corridor.”

“We didn’t pick this based on politics. I mean this sincerely,” The Vice President stated unconvincingly at a Florida rally the next day. “We’re picking the places that make the most sense, have the highest density, are ready to go.” Yes, he was speaking of Tampa and Orlando, those high density places. Clearly in this instance, Tomorrowland took priority over Tomorrow.

Tampa, Florida. Photo by Flickr user <a href="" target="_blank" rel="noopener">J. Stephen Conn</a>.
Tampa, Florida. Photo by Flickr user J. Stephen Conn.

But perhaps it’s time to take a pause from the criticism.

Many progressive readers, in digesting my last entry here on Urban Omnibus, were upset by my intense criticism of the President’s health care initiative. To be sure, most agreed with the emphasis on infrastructure – they just want both. The money for both, they argued, could come from higher taxes or fewer wars. Some were shocked to read that I believe the “AFPAK” situation to be a true existential threat, and therefore support the President’s troop deployment.

But perhaps none of these arguments are pertinent. Perhaps what is pertinent is that we have a President who uses the word “infrastructure” in his State of the Union address. That we have a Vice President who uses the word “density.” (I think Dick Cheney used this word only in relation to his former boss.) Perhaps in the ever-maddening world of Washington D.C. – the clearinghouse for the representatives of exurban America – such baby steps are as good as it gets.

Yet it is still confounding that the best we can get is $8 billion towards high-speed rail when we need at least $150 billion for all of the major corridors including California, Chicago-St. Paul, Char-Lanta, the Northeast, and yes, Florida. It is confounding when the Vice President states that the $1.25 billion investment in the Tampa-Orlando corridor will generate more than 23,000 jobs over four years, and that by extension one hundred times that investment nationwide might create 2,300,000 jobs. Now that would be stimulus.

But perhaps we should take solace in the fact that the President refers to the $8 billion as a “down payment.” Perhaps he knows that a true victory would be to leverage California’s state bond issue to bring true high-speed rail — as defined by international standards rather than by Amtrak — to the West Coast cities. Perhaps in the subtle use of the words “down payment,” in a Presidency in which every word matters, Obama is signaling that he will get to it all someday, if he can just win Florida in 2012.

Yet to state that “there’s no reason Europe or China should have the fastest trains,” is, with all due respect, disingenuous. Of course there are reasons. Those societies revel in their urban density, and they have the ability to allocate resources efficiently toward that end. China may soon overtake America in automobile production, but it also just unveiled the world’s fastest passenger train. At a top speed of 217mph, the Harmony Train if operating here would propel us from New York to Charlotte in approximately three hours, eliminating an enormous amount of the nation’s regional air traffic.

Folks, when you read this stuff, doesn’t it just scare the bejesus out of you?

Harmony Express, China. Photo: AFP
Harmony Express, China. Photo: AFP

Recently I attended a terrific conference on vertical density in Hong Kong. Representatives from Hong Kong, Shanghai and New York were in attendance. An urban planning scholar explained that the construction underway in Shanghai for their rapid transit system will lead to 196km of new subway lines by 2020. By comparison, I sheepishly explained the joys of helping to extend the #7 line here in New York, which as a 2km extension now under construction is one of the first meaningful expansions of our century-old system in decades.

Of course critics will reply that China is authoritarian, and that it is an emerging economy going through a transformation mirroring our own industrial revolution. One conference attendee replied that “mature” economies don’t build infrastructure the way China or India must. Yet in his address the President rightly raised Europe as well as China. If one compares New York’s recent attempts to rebuild Penn Station versus London’s St. Pancras or Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof, if one looks at the expansion of rail lines in eastern London versus New York’s struggles to get a new Trans-Hudson tunnel built, one realizes that excuses of being too mature or too democratic to build infrastructure are simplistic expressions of complacency.

To be in Hong Kong illustrates this vividly. I hadn’t visited in over a decade, and in that time more density has been built, a few more skyscrapers dot the stunning skyline, but the advances one really notices are on the ground. The new airport. The 20-minute train from the airport to downtown. The gleaming subways that glide under Victoria Harbor from Kowloon to Central. The stunning new bridges and tunnels. The lush country parks.

Returning to the chaos of JFK, opting for the creaky cab over the Mickey-monorail to Jamaica, rumbling over the BQE, one is forced to ponder the distance between now and the President’s tomorrow.

Political arguments aside, the most popular concept generated from my last piece was “ASIA” (The American Smart Infrastructure Act), a proposed Federal bill that could – through the promotion of density and infrastructure – act as a silver bullet by simultaneously addressing climate change, our dependence on foreign oil, and health care costs.  In essence, it is proposed legislation to get us to the Infrastructure of Tomorrow for all of our truly dense places. Given the current political climate, this silver bullet could happen.

Consider that with the Brown victory in Massachusetts, the Commonwealth that voted for Reagan in 1984 and has had multiple Republican governors since has largely sealed the fate of large-scale health care reform. (Side question: Shouldn’t Rahm, for all of our sakes, spend much more time with his family?)

Consider that improvements in the economy are yielding little new employment, causing economists to worry about the fading impact of last year’s stimulus bill.

Consider that with the private sector still ducking for cover, the Federal government remains the spender of last resort, remains the only entity able to infuse much-needed liquidity.

And consider that with a President who understands that he has only made a down payment on the Infrastructure of Tomorrow, he and we have an opportunity to double down on density.

The President has an opportunity to use repaid bank bailout funds and yes, taxation on outsized bonuses, to pave a path towards a second stimulus package, a package that combines a jobs bill, a Cap and Trade bill, and a Federal transportation bill. This White House is too smart to put the word “infrastructure” in the limelight without knowing that it polls well. Americans know our physical environment is crumbling. Americans are traveling more. From “Weeds” to “The Wire,” they know in their hearts we have a predicament. To be sure, the deficit will be the issue. For good or bad, the deficit is an abstraction that to date has never won or lost an election. But more importantly, the right investments can be argued as a means to reduce the deficit.

So three cheers for Tampa. It is a start. Tampa and Orlando could be much denser, much more transit rich, and much more sustainable, but they are cities after all. And as we build them, perhaps we can make a bigger bet and double down on density nationwide. Perhaps the odds are with us. Perhaps we can build A Country of Cities.

Vishaan Chakrabarti, AIA, is the Marc Holliday Professor of Real Estate and the Director of the Real Estate Development program in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University. He is also the founding principal of Vishaan Chakrabarti Design Collaborative (VCDC, llc), an urban design, planning, and strategic advisory firm based in Manhattan. Formerly an Executive Vice President of Related Companies, Chakrabarti ran the design and planning operations for the firm’s extensive development portfolio. Through VCDC, Chakrabarti continues to advance the Moynihan Station project, as well as consult on the urban design effort for the Hudson Rail Yards.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


A Country of Cities

A series of opinion pieces in which Vishaan Chakrabarti casts key current events as rallying cries in his evolving argument for urban density, for a Country of Cities.


The Overhead Wire January 31, 2010

I don’t really understand why you need to have density to have HSR? Ultimately it mimics airplanes more than it does urban transit which actually doesn’t need dense housing as much as it needs dense employment centers to operate successfully. Jeff Zupan made that clear in his 1977 book Public Transportation and Land Use Policy.

Ultimately this is a one way train. You don’t need density if people are going to use it more like airplanes, and HSR is competitive at distances under 500 miles for such trips (Like New York to Charlotte), but in my opinion it will induce transit trips and more thinking about greater density at its destinations as more people realize that there mobility is enhanced by greater urban transit systems and their cost of living goes down when a family diches two cars for one. It will then make HSR even more beneficial with density, but it shouldn’t preclude its success.

Amy February 1, 2010

Well put. What I’m still waiting to see is a good explanation of how infrastructure spending seems to have developed this aura of wastefulness in the U.S. rather than seen as an investment in our future. Obama drove the point home that building the infrastructure of tomorrow is a competitiveness issue as much as economic stimulus – if he can keep that rhetoric going it could do much to change the perception of infrastructure spending as more than just debt and pork.

Kris Scheerlinck February 4, 2010

Dear Mr. Chakrabarti,
It is indeed very difficult to compare Chinese or European infrastructure networks, because of the emergent character and the speed of investment in the Chinese case or because of the small distances in between European cities. Living and working in Europe, using frequently the Urban as well as the High Speed Regional Networks, I agree density is a condition for its success: density simply pays for it. All sustainable and urbanistic arguments aside, it is common sense to double down on density. However, the success of big scale infrastructures does of course not exclusively depend on critical mass, it is as well related to the complexity of the regional configuration, that is the specific relation between different cities. This matrix-like tension takes into account models of proximity and mobility, territorial specialization and economic growth. In other words, there is more than high density in between London, Brussels or Lille. Thanks for the critical note, looking forward to the next one.
PS: do you guys feel like trading Mr. Obama for Mr. Van Rompuy, our new president? There is no harm trying.

Nathan Glazer February 4, 2010

I am surprised not to see a reference to the Boston-NYC-Washington corridor, where HSR (especially between Boston and NYC) is still a joke, despite fumbling and in total expensive efforts since the early sixties, and where HSR has the best chance of getting the number of passengers that would make sense. Twenty years ago, on the 25th anniversary of the opening of the Shinkansen, I noted in the NY Times the apparent advantages a Boston-Washington line would have over a Tokyo-Osaka line–level ground, the major traffic generator in the middle rather than the ends, etc. But it needs a a new track, through Southern New England, and if we haven’t been able to even think of that in the last 4 or 5 decades, one must despair of any action in the future.

BruceMcF February 4, 2010

Don’t forget that complementary to any densely populated large city is its transactions – in both material and services – with its hinterland. A monoculture is not a sustainable development model, even if a densely populated inner urban monoculture is in many respects relatively more sustainable than a deliberately de-densified settlement system resting on subsidizing sprawl development.

And what is more important than where the sufficiently dense neighborhoods are located are that there are sufficiently dense neighborhoods located somewhere.

What makes “HSR” at all three levels as defined by the Department of Transport important (even if the first tier would just be “good express rail service” in most parts of the world) is that it does not have any given density as a pre-requisite. High speed between stations thirty to sixty miles apart, after all, works as an effective density multiplier.

Yet it encourages density, by providing a traffic anchor to allow sub-marginal potential dedicated transport corridors to become viable dedicated transport corridors, providing the opportunity to locate transport focal points all along the route, including inner urban, suburban, and rural areas. And that, of course, permits the development of higher density neighborhoods than are presently feasible under our current sprawl-subsidy policy regime.

Vishaan Chakrabarti February 4, 2010

Thanks to all of you for your many comments – I hope they continue to come in and keep the discussion going. Professor Glazer, thank you for joining the conversation. In terms of your comment, the whole point of the piece, perhaps too subtly drawn, is that it is astounding that areas like Tampa get funding for HSR before areas of clear need like the Boston-Washington, San Francisco-San Diego, or even the Dallas-Houston Corridor. In past postings, I have been critical of the Administration for such discrepancies, but the point here is that perhaps we need to give the President time by nodding to the political realities of the swing states. After spending the last five years of my life trying to remake New York’s Penn Station, one of our great national embarrassments, it is not easy for me to recommend compromise on this front, but such seems to be our reality as a nation. Personally, I am crazy enough to believe that we should solve the Northeast Corridor issue by reclaiming highway lanes for Mag Lev HSR, which would solve the right-of-way issues in many areas.

I am taken by Amy’s comment about the means by which infrastructure spending became refashioned as debt and pork. I believe this transformation occurred in the Reagan era, when all government spending was recast as waste. This was not the case with Eisenhower, who passed the Federal Highway Act, or Nixon, who created the EPA. It is ironic that Reagan’s simplistic calculation is now hurting all of us, left and right, individuals and business. But ultimately, we have to examine the fact that over 70% of the US population lives in “mega-regions”, yet Congress is tilted to represent states with very little population, thus we get infrastructure as pork like the “bridge to nowhere.”

Finally, as to the relationship between density and HSR, the two should reinforce each other. HSR is an enormous financial commitment, and should generate significant ridership between city centers. If we accept the transit-oriented development premise that village like density should surround light rail, and more significant urban density should surround subways, it stands to reason that maximum density should surround HSR. Part of the environmental goal here is to eliminate the shuttle and regional flights that clog our skies. New York’s three airports handle a third of the nation’s air traffic, so the entire nation benefits when HSR shuttles passengers from dense city center to dense city center. This is why to Kris’ comment I can only reply that I think in the big “mega-regions” of the US, the city centers are about as close as European cities (Washington to NY is a similar distance of Paris to London), and to close, no, I don’t want to change Presidents! Best regards.

Vishaan Chakrabarti
New York, New York

Leni Schwendinger February 4, 2010

Vishaan, thanks for another thought provoking article. I reposted this one on all of my social media outlets, as well as “Country of Cities” – which is a wonderfully evocative phrase that we might use more often.

I am a total fan of HSR in Asia and Europe – having been a passenger on the Japan “Hikari” [LIGHT] and TGV numerous times. I would trade train transpo for air any day.

A thought in regards to Amy’s comment – as an infrastructure lover from way back, I am sad to announce that working in the environment of ARRA-funded infrastructure projects right now (our company is involved in two of them) is truly to be in the maelstrom of waste. The projects are so fast tracked that perversely design is an unwanted side effect. And relationships between professional peers are severely strained.

It will be interesting to look back at the Stimulus projects and see just what was created.

Kris Scheerlinck February 5, 2010

I totally agree about the relatively short distances within US mega regions, however being coherent with that, we could consider Europe one big mega region, as the small-distance relationships do not end with regional clusters but spread out in a rather homogeneous way all over the continent: Paris-London is very close to Amsterdam-Brussels, Frankfurt-Stuttgart-Strasbourgh, etc. The NY-Washington model might not be really representative for the US. At the contrary, Europe is so petite we complain about having to take the luxury HS line even if it’s only for 45 minutes.
It is interesting to see how the image of using the hightech infrastructure gains importance. In Europe it is not only a matter of efficiency, density and distances, but in an increasing way of image. Lately, it is frowned upon to take plains or go by car. The best deals are now made on the HS train. Someone even told me it became the best way of finding the love of your life. Talking about the infrastructure of tomorrow.

Makabusi February 7, 2010

This is not off topic, but HIGH SPEED RAIL is not the correct choice of technology for building wealth in cities in the USA. The above vision is fatally flawed. It doesn’t take youth more than a few seconds to view the map of where these lines are to be laid to recognize the fact that there are no connections between Florida and California.

One cannot pursue this technology for future mobility of both people and goods. Wake up America. American transportation history has produced the way to travel into a better future.We cannot persist in attempting to move forward by looking in the rear view mirror.

A valid new transportation future vision would at least consider the following.
Transportation futures explore the relationship of the past and the present, memories and experiences with expectations.
The story of mobility indicates that events are continuous. Remembering what has worked in transportation rests between the power of knowing and the futility of the past.
How much and how little mobility has changed in cities needs to be viewed as a prologue to what it reveals.
Viewing the future advance of your leadership will be colored by unsettling use of three words “High-Speed Rail”. High Speed Rail should be given a kind eulogy.
Americans have turned cities into endless turmoil by continually accommodating an infrastructure supporting fossil fuels that consumes more than 40 percent of our cities land surface. We are making our living areas subservient to the collective movement of people and goods ultimately harming the health of our citizens.
To make sense of American Transportation requires your leadership toward the true meaning of reducing the infrastructure “footprint”. The cost of mobility on infrastructure stands on establishing a transition from
fossil fuel energy consumption to renewable energy resources.
Creation of the triad of policy, design and cost estimation is not easy.
However there is a practical solution available that will cast America into a better place in which to live and get around swiftly,economically in service of its citizens that is completely benign to the environment.
There is one transportation system you might want to consider. A fresh and realistic approach for the way we need ultimately to move people and goods is to carefully evaluate Evacuated Tube Transportation.
The most important result is to weigh the opportunity of this
transportation systems capability for less infrastructure footprint, less cost, less energy consumption, greater carrying capacities, greater safety and security based upon incremental American ingenuity,entrepreneurship and invention that began in the mid 1970’s.
The number of future jobs is most hard to estimate accurately as Americans as a whole will all benefit due to the fact we all need to design and participate in building wealth starting with a new and practical transportation system.

It would be reasonable for the author and the commentators understanding found in this new mobility system. Visit for a view of realistic transformation.

These integrated and proven technologies bring forward an opportunity to take the next generation of Americans into an exciting transportation future with your new clarity of understanding of what “vision” means.


Antonia Martinelli June 2, 2010

There may be a silver lining to the downfall of the US car industry. They could eventually become less influential in our government policy, perhaps leading to a less car-centric infrastructure.