The Density Debate: Infrastructure (Part 2)

Find Part 1 here.

If I am understanding the anti-density advocates arguments about the sewage system (and infrastructure) in general, then they predict that, if San Francisco’s population increases, either the degradation of our sewage system will accelerate, or if more resources are put into maintaining/upgrading the sewage system to accommodate the increase in population, diseconomies of scale will cause sewage bills to go up (i.e. the costs will be so high that, even with a larger base of ratepayers, the SFPUC will still have to charge more PER PERSON).

But what do I know? While more people means more stress on the sewage system, it also seems like a lot of the costs of the sewage system are fixed, not dependent on population. Even if San Francisco’s population does not increase, having a bunch of 100-year old sewers failing would still be a problem. Maybe having a larger base of ratepayers to cover the fixed costs will help even out the marginal costs incurred by a larger population. I’m definitely not enough of an expert on sewage systems to judge this one.

And then there is transportation. Traffic is bad in downtown San Francisco, and the streetcars / buses going to downtown are quite crowded during rush hour. I think the problem of crowded streetcars and buses could be solved by hiring more drivers and buying more vehicles and increasing frequency, but I know that is expensive, and that there are also logistical obstacles to buying more vehicles (even when the public transit agency tries to buy more vehicles, they sometimes fail, and have to repair the old vehicles instead – it’s complicated). The pro-density people say that increasing density would help alleviate congestion because more people could live close to their workplaces, and the anti-density people say that more people means more congestion and overloaded public transit.

Does population density increase or decrease congestion? Methinks the devil is in the details. It is true that there is a correlation between population density and congestion within San Francisco. Chinatown, which is densely populated, is also one of the most congested neighborhoods, the buses tend to be full, and I don’t even want to think about parking in Chinatown. In Forest Knolls, one of San Francisco’s least densely populated neighborhoods, I do not recall ever seeing a traffic jam, the buses tend to be less than half full, and parking is not so hard to find (by San Francisco standards). But that does not mean I think transportation is better in Forest Knolls than in Chinatown. In Chinatown, the buses are frequent, whereas the buses are not frequent in Forest Knolls. Also, Chinatown has a lot of grocery stores and restaurants, whereas I cannot think of a single convenience store, let alone a grocery or restaurant, in Forest Knolls, so one basically has to leave the neighborhood to buy food, and that is a transportation problem (and one of the main reasons I would rather live in Chinatown than Forest Knolls). I’ve seen some people from Forest Knolls protest against building more housing (i.e. increase population density), and while I think some of their concerns are valid, I do not think their concern about how it would impact public transit is valid. I actually would like to have more people living in Forest Knolls because then there would be more an incentive to increase the frequency of the bus lines there (and the buses going through Forest Knolls almost always have plenty of seats anyway) (and if you’re wondering how I know so much about buses in Forest Knolls, it’s because I used to use those buses to get to school).

I’m not talking about gas or electricity because I know even less about electrical grids and gas delivery than I do about water and sewage and transportation.

I do agree with the broader point of the anti-density activists that at some point the diseconomies of scale outweigh the economies of scale, and that increasing population density beyond that point means either paying a lot more for infrastructure or living with crappier infrastructure. And maybe San Francisco is at that inflection point, at least for some infrastructure systems.

I have lived in Taoyuan, a city in Taiwan. Just about any city in Taiwan with a population > 150,000 people is much more densely populated than San Francisco, and infrastructure in Taiwan, including Taoyuan, is generally crappier than the infrastructure in San Francisco (is the infrastructure crappy BECAUSE the population density is so high? I don’t know – I’m just saying that the population was much higher AND the infrastructure was crappier). I’ll be more specific – I drink water straight from the tap in San Francisco, whereas I did not dare do that in Taoyuan (I did not even take showers in the tap water in Taoyuan, I used a shower filter, the water is that bad). After hearing all of the horror stories about how crowded BART (a transit system in the San Francisco region) is during rush hour, I tend to be pleasantly surprised when I do end up riding BART during rush hour, because it is not as packed as the trains going in and out of Taoyuan. I can only recall one occasion when I took a bus within Taoyuan city (as opposed to an intercity bus) because the bus system in Taoyuan is much more limited than the bus system in San Francisco. And during all my decades of living in San Francisco, I have never encountered awful traffic like the awful traffic of Taoyuan (to be fair, Taoyuan appeared on a list of five Taiwanese cities with the worst traffic, so it may not be representative of Taiwanese cities). Sewage – well, the sewage system in Taoyuan could not handle toilet paper. Garbage? In San Francisco, garbage gets sent to a landfill outside the city. In Taoyuan, because Taiwan has a much higher population density than California, there is no space for landfills, so garbage is incinerated, which reduces air quality. Electricity – actually, in my experience, electricity was more reliable in Taoyuan than San Francisco, so I guess maybe Taoyuan did not ~always~ have inferior infrastructure.

Taoyuan was also lacking in some of the less obvious types of infrastructure. For example, San Francisco has a system to limit the number of stray cats, and the few stray cats who live in San Francisco tend to be relatively healthy. If Taoyuan had any kind of system to limit the number of stray cats, it was failing badly, and while I generally enjoyed watching the stray cats of Taoyuan, I could see that some of them were suffering.

Heck, the sidewalks of Taoyuan were so thoroughly awful that, even as an able-bodied person, I sometimes felt they were an obstacle course (and it is worse for people who are not able-bodied). I now have a much better appreciation of San Francisco’s sidewalks, and the local ordinances which require that sidewalks not be obstructed. I am also aware of the cost of such ordinances, since when the sidewalk outside our home was in such bad condition that it violated ordinances, my mother, as the property owner, had to pay for the repair.

And yet, the crappier level of infrastructure in Taoyuan did not ruin my life. Though it definitely helped that I lived in downtown Taoyuan, which meant that groceries, restaurants, my workplace, the library, and the train station were all within walking distance of my apartment – that allowed me to ignore most of the traffic congestion (though I still got tripped up – sometimes literally – by the crappy sidewalks). I was just as capable of attaining happiness and fulfilment in Taoyuan city as in San Francisco. I do not consider relatively crappy infrastructure to be as unspeakably awful as some of the anti-density activists imply. At the same time, I think it is something which needs to be considered, and something which the pro-density activists tend to not pay enough attention to.

In short, I agree with the anti-density people that increasing population density may lead to a crapification of at least some types of infrastructure. If increasing the population density of San Francisco brings enough benefits, I would be willing to accept a crapification of infrastructure – but the question of whether or not increasing population density brings substantial benefits is beyond the scope of this post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.