(Unedited) Podcast Transcript 387: The Megaregion

June 16, 2022

This week we’re joined by University of Pennsylvania’s Fritz Steiner and Bob Yaro and University of Texas’ Ming Zhang to talk about their new book, Megaregions and America’s Future. We discuss the idea of Megaregions and why they are so important for the future of our society and the planet.

You can listen to the show at Streetsblog USA or at our hosting page.

Below is a full unedited transcript of the show:

Below is a full unedited transcript. My transcript program mislabeled Bob Yaro as Fritz Steiner and I haven’t been able to fix it yet. Just wanted to note that when you listen there are likely two different speakers under Fritz’s name below.

Jeff Wood (1m 32s):
Bob Yaro and Fritz Steiner. Welcome to the Talking Headways podcast. Before we get started. Can you tell us a little bit about yourselves?

Fritz Steiner (1m 50s):
So I referred cider and I’m the Dean of the Stuart Weitzman school of design at the university of Pennsylvania, where I’m also a passer. And before returning to Philadelphia, where I’d been a graduate student many years ago, I was Dean of the school of architecture at the university of Texas in Austin for 15 years,

Bob Yaro
Bob yarrow, professor emeritus of Penn. I spent 18 years on the faculty city and regional planning faculty at Penn, which is where I began doing this research on Megaregions and also president of emeritus at regional plan association in New York, which I led for 25 years until the 2014.

Jeff Wood (2m 30s):
Awesome. And Ming Zhang will also join us in a bit. He’s the program director and professor of community regional planning at the university of Texas at Austin. He was also my TransCAD professor when I was there. He’s also the director of the USDA university transportation center, cooperative mobility and competitive Megaregions CMT. So I want to ask you all, how did you get interested in cities, Bob? Maybe you can go first and then we’ll go with Fritz.

Bob Yaro (2m 50s):
Well, I grew up in New York city and by definition, you get interested in cities. If you grow up in a place like that. And then, you know, during my high school and undergraduate years, America cities were burning summer that were riots and cities. It just struck me that this was an issue that had to be addressed if this country was going to succeed. And I’ve through a series of connections as an undergraduate at Westland, I got involved, like I had an urban studies major, studied with an urban planning professor who helped get me focused on a career in city and regional planning. And I’ve been at it for more than 50 years. One of the things we do in the book by the way is all three of us include a reflection of how we got interested in cities and Megaregions as well.

Jeff Wood (3m 35s):
Yeah, it’s really great. I really liked that part at the end of the book. There’s three huge sections and it goes through all of your history. And it’s kind of funny because I asked this question of folks who come on the show. And part of the reason why is because everybody kind of has a meandering route as to why they became interested in cities and how they got to the positions they got. And I’ve had a lot of feedback from listeners, especially young listeners who are thinking about going into planning or transportation or whatever it is who appreciate all of the different ways that people get into cities and get into transportation. And so it was really great to read that at the end of the book, each of your stories about how you got really interested in cities and each of you all have a very different story, which is great as well.

Fritz Steiner (4m 9s):
Although, you know, the common theme of tonight is governance that we both, you know, help lead the birthday festivities. And the first year in 1970, I guess it was on our campuses. And, you know, we were early participants in the nation environmental movement. And I think there’s a very strong element of that through our careers, but also through the book. I mean, a lot of it is just about how we address climate and resilience and so forth. And what we think is the most appropriate scale and one that basically we’re not doing very well as a nation right now, or as a world right now.

Jeff Wood (4m 41s):
Why was 2020 the year of the Megaregion?

Fritz Steiner (4m 43s):
Well, I think, you know, one thing is that when the COVID pandemic hit and sections of the country started shutting down, locking down and so forth and then rare, and then later reopening, you know, and in a totally ad hoc basis and more than half of the us Megaregions governors and mayors started to collaborate at the Megaregion scale. And it was pretty clear that that was the most appropriate scale for dealing with a pandemic and dealing with both the pandemic itself and its aftermath and the business putting the economy back on its feet. So in some ways, you know, the pandemic really underscored the importance of addressing issues like this one at that scale. And Megaregion book became our pandemic project as well.

Fritz Steiner (5m 25s):
And we Kennedy each other, what are the subtitle, what we did on the one on lockdown. Now we both had some time to focus on it. And it was a really interesting collaborative process where we all had a little bit of extra time. We’re all very busy anyway, but to focus on the book. And I think that actually helped us keep focused.

Jeff Wood (5m 43s):
Was it something where you had this idea about the book and we’re starting to put it together ahead of time, and then the pandemic just kind of gave you a little bit more time to work on it, or was the pandemic some, what of an impetus for discussing Megaregions?

Fritz Steiner (5m 55s):
We were all in Manchester, England where puts in Iran, a pen studio and ran a UT studio that was focused on the precedent of the Northern powerhouse initiative in the UK and how they were dealing with the big natural resource systems in the north of England and principally the peak district national park, where proposal was to run a new high-speed rail line through the, of improve roadway, alignment and so forth. So we were all there and meeting with our peers from the UK who who’d been essentially working at the scale for a number of years. And I think it was Ming who took both me and Fritz aside and said, you know, we really ought to take the collective wisdom that has come out of, you know, at that point more than a dozen years of work on Megaregions now both of the international and national scale, but also with the Megaregion scale and the Northeast and the Texas triangle and so forth.

Fritz Steiner (6m 42s):
So let’s say we can pull together the collective wisdom into a book, and that’s really where the idea came from, but we had all been working on this issue in various ways. I mean, going back to 2004, so what you see as a compilation codification of what we’ve learned over all that time, through all these projects,

Jeff Wood (7m 1s):
I’m also wondering what specifically is a Megaregion like what constitutes the geography that you all put together as defining what the Megaregion is and what it might be?

Fritz Steiner (7m 12s):
Well, the short answer it’s more than two metropolitan regions are growing together and the classic Megaregion in the United States, it’s the Northeast, Megaregion from Boston to south of Washington, DC, of course the French geographer Jean God-man Rhodes his classic 1961. And then Bob can pick up the story where he started to observe when he was teaching a studio here, looking at the future of the United state, that agglomeration of metropolitan areas with areas beside the Northeast and partnership with Armando carbon, Elliot Lincoln Institute, and John Barnett, who was a practice professor at Penn.

Fritz Steiner (7m 54s):
I convened a studio called the plan for America studio. And basically I’ve been doing some work at RPA at OACD in Paris, where I was rubbing elbows with our European counterparts, who were thinking at the scale. And there were a group of academics from several European countries who were working on an EU funded project to look at the big systems, transportation, economic, environmental, and other systems that were functioning at the continental scale in Europe. And, you know, we would now call the Megaregion scale and they identified several of these places in Europe and a few other things that just happened. I finished the third regional plan in 1996 at RPA.

Fritz Steiner (8m 35s):
And we were beginning to think about how, what we were doing could fit into a larger Northeastern scale and so forth. The census bureau in about 1997 or 98, came out with forecasts, suggested that the country was going to add something like 50% of its population by the middle of the century. And the question of, well, where are we going to put these people and how are we going to accommodate this growth? So we convene the studio and did some long range land use, changed population and economic forecast. And you know what we began to see when we looked at the maps, expanding metros across the country was the emergence of what we now call Megaregions. And first we called them super cities.

Fritz Steiner (9m 16s):
Maybe that’s what they were. They were networks of cities that were beginning to function together. Our motto carbon L felt that given the anti urban bias throughout American history, that we ought to come up with a term that wasn’t inflammatory. And so that’s where Armando suggested that Megaregion terminology, which has stuck. And it was interred. I described as a kind of an accident of my bad, my poor vision, that when I started looking at these maps, that the students who prepared we were in London with sir Peter Hall, who hosted the studio that year and with a group of address Faludi from the technical university of Delft and Vincent Good staff from the world town planning Institute and others experts. I started looking at these maps over time was that the suburbs of Philly really have really grown into the suburbs of New York in Mercer county, New Jersey, around Trenton, and similarly the suburbs of Raleigh Durham and Atlanta and Birmingham and the other Megaregions Texas triangle, same thing, Austin, Dallas, Fort worth Houston.

Fritz Steiner (10m 15s):
The suburbs were starting to grow together and it triggered, you know, our thinking that, well, there must be something more going on here. We started to do research on the interactions economically and in terms of natural systems and so forth in these places and found that in fact, there was a significant amount of interaction. There were real advantages to these places. We also did work. We did a series of studios at Penn and the UT joined us on a few of them where I think Princeton and men got involved and starting in 2005 or six, we started doing those, but also Kent Butler, Marty door from the university of Michigan, Ethan seltzer from Portland state, mark Rosano from Southern California association of governments and others, of course, Catherine Ross, who coined the term Piedmont Atlantic Megaregion region around Atlanta Southeast.

Fritz Steiner (11m 5s):
Anyway. So we started bringing together scholars who saw the same trends emerging in all of these places, started the economist terms, agglomeration economies that were starting to see serious economic benefits coming out of both potential and existing collaborations. The other thing we learned from the Europeans and the Asians was that the mode of choice in Megaregions around the world is high speed rail, particularly in a country where the interstate highway system has become very congested and has become increasingly inefficient as a means of moving passengers and goods. So we needed to create improved transportation links between these places and what we learned from research on European and Japanese and Chinese and Korean high speed rail, and others was that there was a sweet spot between something like 307 or 800 miles in which high speed rail.

Fritz Steiner (11m 53s):
This hands-down a winter compared with commercial aviation and with highway access and raise the question. Well, why was the U S you know, one of the few industrialized industrializing countries that didn’t have high speed rail. And so big part of the research program was in how high-speed rail could be advanced in this country. One other thing after the Penn studio, we convened a number of these scholars from around the country and around the world at a round table at the Rockefeller brothers conference center at mechanic New York. And out of that came a collaboration between regional plan and pan and Lincoln hold America 2050. That was a multi-year exercise to look at long-range population, economic land, use environmental trends in this country and how they could be managed.

Fritz Steiner (12m 35s):
And that furthered a lot of the research that we were doing at Penn and at the other institutions across the country, and a lot of the international collaborations, in addition to the transportation planning advantages of Megaregions, we also saw pretty quickly that there were an environmental advantages, which are really important given climate change. So air and water are big systems looking at the Megaregion scale, if you’re going to do something like climate reserves, because of the heating planet, the mega regional scale is very helpful in figuring that kind of thing out.

Jeff Wood (13m 9s):
Yeah. What I also liked is that you all were discussing Megaregions from that environmental standpoint, I’m looking at eco regions, river drainage basins. I’m curious why that’s just important as the economic connections, because there is something to be said about connecting a larger ecosystem. That’s not just a small park, it actually could be regional. It could be almost statewide, even larger. And, you know, we had Billy Fleming on to talk about design with nature now last year. And it was interesting to think about those projects and the ones in places like China and some of the flooding in Europe that they allow for big river systems. Why is the bigger region so important from an environmental standpoint?

Fritz Steiner (13m 45s):
Well, notably ELL Wilson and Bob’s good friend, Tony hiss, both have advocated the half earth idea that we should be setting aside. Half of the planet for conservation are we’re going to lose more and more species. So in order to have areas that are big enough, you have to think big. And it’s also has to do with the connectivity that especially river systems and stream systems. They’re not only transportation systems for us, but they’re also highways for other species as well. And also just looking at climate. And for example, if you get on a train in Philadelphia and go to Baltimore and you look out the window on one side, you’ve got .

Fritz Steiner (14m 31s):
And on the other side of the way there is water and, you know, a two meter rise, it doesn’t take much of a scientist to realize that that Amtrak line is going to be under water in many places. And so is the highway at the Philadelphia airport. So finding places for transportation that also values wildlife and other species is, again, something that needs to be done at a larger scale.

Jeff Wood (14m 58s):
You also talk about how you can actually implement to Megaregion and the structures that are needed to actually put something like this together. I’m wondering, you know, you discuss governance structures in the book, and there are existing structures like MPOs NSA’s counties, states that actually have existing structures, but are those geographic units helpful, or do they actually get in the way of this thinking about a larger region connected by economics and the environment?

Fritz Steiner (15m 23s):
Well, some ways they get in the way and, you know, the federal system has become sclerotic and most of this country, and, you know, we think that the federal government can play a really important role in incentivizing collaborations between the states and leading on Megaregion scale initiatives, around all of these systems, to high-speed and other transportation investments, the big climate initiatives and so forth. And it’s a little like what we did with the interstate highway system. And the three years prior to the adoption of the interstate national defense highway system act in 1956, the Republican governors association adopted resolutions calling for the abolition of bureau of public roads and elimination of the federal gas tax. And it was only one, but Eisenhower appointed the clay committee that recommended moving ahead with the interstate system.

Fritz Steiner (16m 6s):
And I think it was originally a 4 cent, a gallon federal gasoline tax to pay for it. And then with the white house, putting some muscle behind the proposal that the governor has kind of got on board, and they did a series of demonstration projects across the country. And then the rest of the governor said we want in, you know, I find a thing that probably needs to happen. I know we, you know, we’re coming out of a period in which the federal government has provided a lot of leadership on issues like this one, but that’s probably needed. We also, you know, described projects like the Reggie regional greenhouse gas initiative in the Northeast, and some others that are collaborative efforts between states. And so, and that’s about leadership at the gubernatorial level, Phil weld in Massachusetts, George Pataki in New York and others, Republican governors, you know, led the creation of this voluntary initiative to cap power plants generated greenhouse gases.

Fritz Steiner (16m 53s):
And that’s been a very effective approach. So that kind of thing we think has the potential to move at as well. But it’s going to require that we kind of get out of our own way. There’s a Lincoln quote that we put in the head of one of the chapters about how we have to distance ourselves from the client dog most of the past. So we really do have to get out of our own way and to start to think like we’re in this new Anthropocene, epic we’re in this new, you know, competitive ethics that president Biden characterizes as a global competition between democracies and the autocracies and so forth and compete successfully to address climate, the other big issues that we face. We’ve got to start thinking at this new scale in a much more ambitious way.

Fritz Steiner (17m 34s):
And the book outlines three strategies for getting there. Also some of the Megaregions have an advantage if they want to use it. And that is there, they’re within one state. So the Northeast and the Piedmont Atlantic is very complicated and the Gulf coast, but the Texas triangle with the right leadership in Texas. And they would be in a really leadership role, Northern California and Southern California, both within one state, Florida, the sun corridor and Arizona, all of those have the advantage of being within a single state and one doesn’t have to work with a lot of different states and a lot of small municipalities.

Jeff Wood (18m 13s):
Is it hard to focus on a couple of geographic areas while others might feel a little bit left out of the discussion in the book, you specifically mentioned that rural areas disconnected from these Megaregions generally suffer a bit more. I’m wondering, you know, how there’s a connection to everywhere in the country and kind of keeping everybody involved when there are these Megaregions and these places that are kind of excelling over others around the country.

Fritz Steiner (18m 36s):
We identified, we call them hinterlands around each of the Megaregions large rural areas that would benefit from strengthened connections to the heart of each of their Megaregions. And when you add those all up, they encompass 90 or 95% of the population of the country. Again, you don’t leave out only a handful of very isolated, rural regions. So these strategies really ought to be benefiting virtually the entire country. And, you know, one of the things we did in the book was to look at some of the places I think we either to Megaregions that we really hadn’t focused on before in the Heartland and the center of the country, around Kansas city and the city and so forth. And then the Megaregion around a great patient.

Fritz Steiner (19m 16s):
We call it patient and range and Boise, Idaho city, and other smaller places. They don’t have the same population base as the others, but they are growing like gangbusters and have the potential to achieve the same kinds of advantages that the other major regions have. And there’s a big focus of the book on the left behind areas, cities and regions that have been left out of the prosperity of the country of the last four decades. And we think it’s critically important that those places be brought back into the mainstream of population and economic growth and their strategies that we describe in the book that achieved, that it all falls together fairly neatly. And, you know, it’s also what to do about how do you involve Alaska and oh, why?

Fritz Steiner (20m 1s):
Because they’re not connected with the other states. And of course, Alaska is very tied to the Pacific Northwest. And you start to think in terms of British Columbia, Vancouver, the connection between Portland, Seattle, and Anchorage is actually quite strong. And it has been historically, and Hawaii has very strong connections with California in particular, even though there are some places that aren’t part of the Megaregions and selves, that doesn’t mean they’re not connected and benefit from mega regional thinking as well.

Jeff Wood (20m 37s):
One of the other things that got me when I was reading the book was the generational trends in the population change. And I’m curious why those matters so much for this discussion about Megaregions and for agglomeration, conurbations more generally in the future.

Fritz Steiner (20m 50s):
It’s important also just because that’s where the growth is occurring. That’s where people are moving. So it’s the phenomena of growth that especially young people are moving and significant numbers to the Megaregions. That’s why they’re growing as fast as they are. And one of the things that we did that there’s a chapter in the book that describes the growing racial and social divisions in the Megaregions and Megaregion scale, obviously it’s a concern for the whole country. Then what you see in the book, Gini coefficient is measures of growing inequity are increasing everywhere in the country. So Megaregion so in others. And you know, it’s another argument for thinking at the scale to address what we think is one of the fundamental issues facing the country, which is how to address the growing racial and social divisions.

Jeff Wood (21m 39s):
I’m curious if there’s a question that folks don’t ask you about when you’re talking about Megaregions. I think that there’s a lot of discussion about kind of the construct of them, probably the high-speed rail aspect of them, you know, and the connections and those types of things. But is there something that you don’t get asked a lot when you’re talking about the book?

Fritz Steiner (21m 56s):
I mean, I think the climate issues that haven’t been in the foreground, you know, people haven’t been probing on that, what are your thoughts? I think the climate is one that is the climate and social justice became even more important during the period. We are writing a book. So we, couldn’t not that we would have ignored them anyway, but it, I think became more present. Maybe there’s two things that one Bob usually points out is there is a heritage of national scale planning in the United States that most Americans aren’t familiar with.

Fritz Steiner (22m 36s):
And it was really during those periods, which the United States put an emphasis on building railroad or building three ways that are the periods of great army growth and prosperity in the country. And so I think that that’s something that is often maybe not as well appreciated as it should be. The other is there’s a cultural heritage to these places. And if you live in Texas, you, you identify with Texas and the Texas triangle is a real thing. It’s not something that we kind of made up. It’s something that, and the Pacific Northwest is also similar. It’s an identity to, you know, sometimes call it the Topia.

Fritz Steiner (23m 18s):
That is our Cascadia is awareness of cultural history there. And if you go back even further, many of these places, indigenous people in Philadelphia, the people basically to use originally Philadelphia and New York for their highway 95 in the future. So I think we should, it’d be much more pleasant, a way of getting to New York along the high ground. There’s deep geological, biological and cultural histories to these regions that I think would make them really fascinating and the great lakes Megaregions when we started working out there, the locals started calling it the kill Bozar spelt, you know, because it’s basically the, the large Polish Eastern European population stretching from Buffalo, New York to Milwaukee.

Fritz Steiner (24m 11s):
So there really is a culinary, but there’s also a kind of a cultural heritage and a number of The Megaregion half of those characteristics, you know, going back to Chris’s point about the need for federal leadership in the history of national scale planning at this scale is a rich one. Bob fishermen at the university of Michigan, his Quip is that Americans think that national scale planning is something best left to the French. He says, and then he goes on to say, oh, contraire. And it turns out that there’s this, you know, 230 year history going back to Jefferson and Lincoln and both Roosevelts and Eisenhower that really created the national economy, the national infrastructure system.

Fritz Steiner (24m 52s):
And that much of this happened during periods of social and economic strife. Everybody knows that Lincoln advanced the transcontinental railroad, but they don’t know as well as he also advocated for a whole national network of Western railways, the moral act, creating that land grant university system, that the homestead act the controller of the currency and the greenback and the modern currency in this country and financial controls, the national academy of sciences came out of the Lincoln administration during the civil war. They had a few other things to worry about, you know, and if we think that we’re in one of those periods, when you look at this global competition that we’re in, you know, with the autocracies climate emergency, that racial and social justice, you know, we’ve got a series of emergencies here that require bold leadership at the federal level.

Fritz Steiner (25m 37s):
And we haven’t seen it in awhile. Obviously Joe Biden is trying to do some of these things with a bipartisan infrastructure bill as a down payment on infrastructure needs at high speed rail, but it’s only a down payment, you know, and that’s something that we hope that discussion and the book can help popularize a broader examination of the federal role in the need for federal leadership.

Jeff Wood (25m 57s):
Yeah. I liked the anecdote in the book about somebody asking you why we don’t have a national planning department. And I’m wondering if he ever thought that that would be a possibility to have a national planning department.

Fritz Steiner (26m 6s):
Well, you know, it’s funny and the Franklin Roosevelt administration, the new deal, national planning, I guess finding words in some circles, they had a couple of names of national resources planning administration that was led by Frederick Delano that president’s uncle conveniently. And it was created by executive order of the precedent and was in the white house. And they did the kind of large, you know, thinking about the new deal and WPA and PWA and all the big regional development projects, the TVA, you know, the Bonneville power administration, the Colorado river project and others. And those projects really created the modern geography and economy of the United States and things.

Fritz Steiner (26m 46s):
Things don’t just happen. You know, it was part of a national scale planning effort, a product of leadership from the president of the United States and a dozen years time to do it again, we’re kind of resting on our laurels in this country. We’ve got, you know, 150 year old infrastructure systems that are all out of date. Many of them know well beyond their use by date, the bipartisan infrastructure bill basically allows us to patch up some 50, a hundred year old infrastructure systems, but the most part doesn’t create the systems that we’re going to need for the next hundred years. And as you know, Fritz said, you know, we kind of have to redesign all of these systems to deal with climate change and sea level rise. You know, all of the other manifestations of climate change, you know, other countries are way ahead of us with this.

Fritz Steiner (27m 31s):
So certainly China, certainly with high-speed rail, as well as what they’re doing in the environment, but also countries like South Korea and Japan, which are more democratic and managed to move ahead. And then in the EU and the United Kingdom also there’s, you know, movement clearly the sad situation and Ukraine is also moving closer together and speaking together on things and cooperating. And so I think it’s a real challenge for us. I think we need to get our act together. We did a studio pen studio five, six years ago, Beijing with one of our colleagues, Richard Weller, Marilyn Taylor, former Dean.

Fritz Steiner (28m 14s):
And, and it was looking at the, the Jinja and G that region around Beijing and tangent and so forth. And one of the discussions was at the China academy of planning and urban design, where I was presented with this bound set of America, 2050 documents that had been, you know, translate all translated into Mandarin and then beautifully published in a way that we know we never could afford to publish them, you know, the fancy findings and so forth. And you know, that these concepts have been taken to heart by China, Korea by the European union, by a number of other places that are now thinking and operating at the Megaregion scale. They’re investing at that scale. They’re organizing national economic development and national climate strategies, no at that scale and so forth.

Fritz Steiner (28m 57s):
And so, you know, it’s an idea that originated at Penn and UT and the others that is now been adopted by our global competitors in many ways. And it’s time to catch up. You know, I know I’m a big fan of American exceptionalism, but this is one place where, you know, we probably don’t want to be that exceptional. It’s interesting to see the China’s national development strategies to build around high-speed rail, but it’s also been built around the idea that they could bring interior regions and the central part of the country into the economic orbit of the big coastal Megaregions. And they’ve started to think of Jinja and G around Beijing and the, and the pro river Delta and the Yangtze river Delta around Shanghai.

Fritz Steiner (29m 41s):
They’ve been planning at that scale now for 15 or 20 years and investing at that scale with high-speed rail and other, you know, water projects and so forth that are, that are designed at that scale. And it’s really about spreading the wealth. It’s it goes back to your question earlier about, you know, how, how to bring the hinterlands in, on this deal. And the Chinese has been doing that. Koreans have been doing the same thing. They’ve been, they’ve organized a national economic development strategy around the Korea high-speed rail system. That includes decanting government agencies and universities and research institutions out of. So into other underperforming areas of Korea. You know, the rest of the world is thinking and acting at this scale.

Fritz Steiner (30m 22s):
And we haven’t been up until now. And we hope that we start to do that, or, you know, we really are putting ourselves at a disadvantage in this global economic and security competition. That’s emerging. You know, my mentor here at penny bark twice proposed national ecological plans for the United States and they, they weren’t enacted, but China has under Kim Jong. You I’m a faculty member at Peking university has developed a national ecological security plan for China, looking at the natural resources that are necessary for them to achieve clean water, clean air and food into the future.

Fritz Steiner (31m 4s):
And pretty remarkable.

Jeff Wood (31m 6s):
We’re joined now by me. I see you in the bottom corner there. Hey man, how’s it going?

Fritz Steiner (31m 12s):
Hi.

Ming Zhang (31m 12s):
Hi, Jeff. How are you

Jeff Wood (31m 13s):
Doing good to see you,

Fritz Steiner (31m 14s):
Bob. Hey, how are you, man?

Ming Zhang (31m 15s):
Good to see you again.

Fritz Steiner (31m 17s):
And there was a question before about why it’s important to understand the demographic changes going on in each Megaregion and particularly w which ones are aging more rapidly, and which ones have the greater growing social and racial divisions and so forth. Maybe you could comment on that.

Ming Zhang (31m 34s):
Sure. In terms of the aging trend, the observation I had from looking at the data that spatially aging population is increasingly concentrated in the outskirts of metropolitan area and also the non-metropolitan counties area. So challenges facing aging population and given their location of these advantages must take it a Megaregion in a sense, a broader spatial perspective, a geographical perspective than just a metropolitan area or even city that’s basically then aware are living out those population groups that are facing increasing challenges due to aging, due to their housing locations, and then their are mobility limitations.

Ming Zhang (32m 32s):
And then in terms of the ethnic minority population, I guess, a different cities, different regions have different histories. And then a dear friend dynamics in terms of neighborhood changes and demographic shifts in Austin, as you know, Jeff, the east Austin, right, has been traditionally ethnic and monarchy African-American nowadays Hispanic population. It was lower income. So they are facing increasing risk of being displaced due to gentrification, the expansion of downtown Austin functions, for example, to the EAs.

Ming Zhang (33m 14s):
So looking at the changes of those demographic population and neighborhood changes can provide us with an updated picture, updated image of where and who are facing great challenges, whether it’s access changes or services or others education and health challenges. So to put it in a simple way, as I add spatial dimension to your demographic changes with particularly focusing on the vulnerable population, the elderly, and then the low income ethnic minority.

Jeff Wood (33m 50s):
That’s interesting from a housing perspective and thinking about housing generally in the context of today, which is getting more and more expensive. And especially as spatially, how the United States is laid out where urban cores are more walkable, generally better served by transit versus suburban areas, which, which are not, it’s an interesting discussion about how the Megaregion can impact that discussion about housing, but also vulnerable populations and how ethnic minorities are situated. So I’m curious how you all think about housing in terms of the Megaregion context and what the benefits are of thinking from this larger scale versus maybe at a smaller scale of a city here in California, and here in the bay area, specifically, we have so many little jurisdictions and fiefdoms that it’s hard to get everybody on the same page on the housing discussion, and to think a bit larger, say from an, from that Northern California, Megaregion geography,

Fritz Steiner (34m 45s):
There’s a section of the book that looks at how we need to reconfigure urban, regional mega regional transportation systems to address this issue and, and the other, you know, demographic issues that mango was talking about. And, you know, this idea of redesigning urban rail networks, commuter rail networks, where they exist to become regional rail networks. The rest of the world, the high-speed rail lines are, you know, essentially large scale mass transit systems and with pricing policies that are designed to allow workers to commute from often distant places into center cities, Tokyo, and Paris, and London and so forth.

Fritz Steiner (35m 31s):
And, you know, we used to think of that scale in this country. You know, when we, when we created the urban rail systems around mostly the Eastern cities in Chicago and a few others haven’t quite gotten there, you know, the Bart systems never really designed it in a mass transit system or to cover the whole region. And it was never coordinated with land use strategies. There were never any incentives for, you know, or requirements for communities to start to plan for and zone around around transit. It was almost like zoning out development around transit and the suburban, you know, the east bay region around San Francisco and so forth. So there’s a section of the book that discusses, you know, innovations in other parts of the world, you know, Crossrail opened in London this week and, you know, articles in the British papers about the, about how it’s being heavily used even in the post COVID era.

Fritz Steiner (36m 26s):
And it is transforming mobility patterns and transforming housing markets across the greater London region. And Crossrail was designed as, you know, to be the down payment on a network of, of large regional rail projects in London, Crossrail two in Crossrail, three on the boards being planned and so forth. And that’s the scale we ought to be thinking about here. I’m always reminded, I, you know, through my 25 years at regional plan in New York that, you know, 1929 plan, we proposed the creation of the ind subway system. That that was, you know, the double, the size of the rapid transit system around New York city. And that the goal and the proposal was also there to have to build its counterpart in New Jersey and up into Hudson valley and Connecticut and so forth.

Fritz Steiner (37m 12s):
Only, only the IMD system happened, really, although some of it’s come along since then, but, but the goal was to deal with the, the over congestion and over, and the big run-up in housing prices in the core of the New York region and the 1920s. And, and it worked, you know, the, the, the places that have been farmland and Queens and Brooklyn and the Bronx, you know, turned into Brooklyn, Queens in the Bronx. And, you know, with two thirds of the population of city in the service area, Landy subway system, you know, and it’s this notion that every half century or so you have to think at this larger scale about how to address, you know, seemingly insoluble problems.

Fritz Steiner (37m 52s):
And we just, aren’t thinking at that scale, and, you know, we’ve been dumbed down by 40 or 50 years of thinking that we can’t do big things anymore in this country that, you know, we have to just cut taxes and, and hope that things turn out for the better and not good enough anymore. So, so I think that the answer is that thinking of this larger scale investing at this larger scale can help us address all of these issues, including the issue of rapidly escalating housing prices, you know, growing racial and social divisions.

Ming Zhang (38m 23s):
I totally agree with what Bob just describe or characterize the high speed rail offers kind of like a space and the time is shrinking technology, that grains opportunities for housing and for jobs and services closer, even though it’s at a mega regional scale, it’s happening in many European cities in Asian cities, in China, for example, as well, people can live in one city and working in another, and then the commute, even daily commute, they can achieve through high school, right on. I like to add kind of a similar integration between transportation and housing choices at the local scale as well.

Ming Zhang (39m 10s):
Jeff, you may have heard the news or read the news that Austin has approved voters approved a $7.1 billion investments, right? For two new night rail transit, one, a committer rail, and then several MES Metro rapid bus. Now we’re thinking integrating transportation services in particular public transportation services, always housing supply and affordable housing supply can offer broader solutions to say housing, displacement challenges, or gentrification challenges. Then just looking at the housing sector itself.

Ming Zhang (39m 53s):
People can access downtown Austin jobs without leaving there. If there is reliable high quality public transportation network, connecting downtown with whatever the neighborhood is that people live in. Jeff, I guess you may have a work on this, right? This X plus T index X plus T approach consider us affordability, not just about housing, but kind of a housing plus transportation costs together.

Fritz Steiner (40m 24s):
Oh, the main that we were writing this book during the depths of the pandemic and the emergence of the hybrid work patterns that we’re now seeing across around the world. And we think that, you know, the advent of Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, you know, work week and people who are now commuting, you know, 1, 2, 3 days a week into a center city office, then in fact, the new rail networks that we’re proposing in the book really support that and really enable people to live in more isolated and usually lower cost locations and still have access to center city jobs. Particularly if they’re commuting only a few days a week, 1, 2, 3 days a week, a longer distance commute, particularly if it’s on a high performance or high speed, you know, line, you know, what it allows us to do is to dramatically expand labor markets and housing markets across this larger mega region scale geography.

Fritz Steiner (41m 17s):
There’s a profile in the, in the, in the book on the north Atlantic region, which is the, the Northern half of the Northeast New York to Boston and new England, you know, which describes how this, how these commuting patterns are emerging and how the transportation system really needs to catch, but enable that to really work. And, you know, right now we’ve got this, we got this big run up in housing prices in urban areas and the core of metropolitan areas across the country in large part, because you have to live in the core in order to have access to the economy in the core and the close in suburbs, you know, you can’t count on highways over congested highways to move over longer distances, you know, and this is one of the arguments for, for high-speed and high-performance rail and things like the California high-speed rail project.

Fritz Steiner (42m 4s):
And certainly north Atlantic rail.

Jeff Wood (42m 6s):
It’s really interesting in California specifically, I know that there was a lot of calls to skip over, you know, the Mercedes and the Bakersfield’s and the Fresnos, and just go down I five and connect Los Angeles and San Francisco. I do think that there’s a folly to that in that you’re disconnecting those, you know, those areas which have a huge population. I mean, I think the central valley is 3.5 million or plus people probably even more now, since I last did the math, but there’s a whole host of areas that can be connected to the larger economic centers. That makes a really good, you know, a good point. And if we’re thinking about the H plus T that Domingo was talking about, you know, I worked with CNT and strategic economics and, and my organization reconnecting America when we were at the center for Tod and a lot of our work focused on looking at transit lines and housing related.

Jeff Wood (42m 54s):
And one of the things that we found was when you’re building lines one at a time like Charlotte, or like Minneapolis or other places, you actually put a lot more housing pressure on those corridors than you would if you had a network built all over all across the region. And I think that one of the things that we also saw was some of the legacy regions that Philadelphia is and the new York’s and the Chicago’s where transit was already a network and what was already there, the pressure wasn’t as, as profound. So if you can expand that to high-speed rail and to a more regional slash mega regional context, I think that that actually has been shown already from a, from a lower, you know, a lower geographical size that, that actually will work to alleviate some of the pressure that regions are feeling.

Fritz Steiner (43m 35s):
Yeah, it’s interesting that if you look at the profile on the north Atlantic region and the proposal to create a, you know, a network of, we call them high performance, you know, these are 110 mile per hour services connecting all of the mid sized cities across new England and downstate New York. And these are the places it goes back to the earlier discussion that had been left out of the prosperity of the last 40 years. They haven’t, haven’t recovered from the loss of manufacturing activities in the 1970s and eighties. And, you know, we think that by connecting these places into, you know, in a network with each other and with the, and the engines of the, you know, the north Atlantic region economy in Boston and New York, that in fact, we have the opportunity to revitalize these places, to integrate housing markets into, into a larger kind of Megaregions scale, you know, housing market.

Fritz Steiner (44m 27s):
And, you know, and yes, there’ll be a modest uptick in housing prices, those places, but there will be at the same time, a significant increase in job opportunities and other, you know, other economic advantages to the residential, those places. A lot of them have been losing population for 40 or 50 years. A lot of gap sites, a lot of potential for redevelopment and infill and so forth opportunities for higher density development around Penn station areas or urban centers. You know, I think as part of that profile, we looked at Hartford, Connecticut, which is, you know, I’ve got several hundred acres of surface parking, unused surface parking. I mean, they’re not even a market for surface parking. It’s just the lowest rung on the economic ladder.

Fritz Steiner (45m 8s):
All of which could be infilled and redeveloped with new housing and some commercial development around a high-speed rail stop, you know, a network of high-performance rail connections to other midsize cities across new England. So those are big opportunities for us, but they only happen if in fact, we start to think and act at this larger scale,

Jeff Wood (45m 27s):
What’s been the response to the book so far.

Fritz Steiner (45m 30s):
Oh, we know the first printing sold out. And the first month of which we were pleased to hear and Lincoln and Columbia ordered a second printing, that’s three times the size. So it’s a good sign. So there’s been a buzz around it. You know, we’ve been invited to be a morning show that these things go through well-received.

Ming Zhang (45m 50s):
Yeah. I heard from NCT ACOG, the north central Texas council of government, they order 100 copies of a book one or two weeks after it’s a little more

Jeff Wood (46m 1s):
Release. That’s awesome.

Fritz Steiner (46m 2s):
I spoke to one high-level official by the ministration main center, a copy. And then I asked her how she liked the book. And she said, I haven’t gotten it because my husband insisted on reading. At first, he runs it. He runs a think tank in New York. And so I said, okay, that’s a good sign. So I think there’s been a fair amount of interest in it. We were just starting to really beat the bushes on it. And, you know, we’ll be hitting the conference circuit in the fall and next spring, and hopefully it’ll get a fair amount of attention then.

Jeff Wood (46m 34s):
Well, I think the value in the book is, is getting people to think a little bit bigger. And lately I think many people, including myself have been kind of bogged down in the minutia of things, watching the BBB too closely, or the infrastructure bill what’s actually in it versus what we wish would be in it. And actually in reading the book myself, I actually had a lot of ideas, many bad ideas, but it still helps me get kind of some ideas flowing. You know, I’m curious though, do you all feel a little bit more, more hopeful after writing the book, even given the political realities you, you see out there that might be pushing back on the idea of a Megaregion,

Fritz Steiner (47m 10s):
You know, look, I think all of us have been careers that have been about putting big ideas out there that RPA, we always talked about, you know, advancing ideas whose time has not yet come. And in my experiences, if you put big ideas out there at popularizes that eventually, you know, people rise to the, you know, we had this experience in January where governor, we had a bunch of multi-billion dollar transportation projects in the third regional plan, 1996, hadn’t gone anywhere to get a governor of New York to raise their hand and say, that’s that’s worth doing. And then governor hall included three of them in her state of the state address in January and with serious proposals for funding and the state budget.

Fritz Steiner (47m 53s):
Second phase, the second avenue subway, a new, we call the Triborough RX. It’s one that we did a studio on at Penn where we kind of embellished the idea of a new surface transportation and line linking Brooklyn Queens. And the Bronx is very analogous to the London overground. And, you know, we ran a studio where we took students to London just to understand the overground and how it could be applied. And then a third one was, was the Penn access project bringing, bringing a Metro-North service Chester and Connecticut commuters into, directly into Penn station grand central. And, you know, so look, you know, it took 25 years for a governor to come along and salute, but the ideas were out there and we’re all getting too old the way 25 years to do these things any longer.

Fritz Steiner (48m 39s):
But, you know, I’m hopeful that, that in fact, we’re going to see some prominent elected officials and leaders and others kept behind these ideas because we have to do it, this global competition that we’re in this climate issue, that racial and social justice issue, even the national defense issues and how we sustain a defense establishment to compete against the autocracies. We can’t win those competitions unless we start to think and think, and act at this scale

Ming Zhang (49m 11s):
From my kind of interactions with pupil, including my colleagues here, CRP program Jeff, and also some public officials from the city and DOD. I feel that those who are skeptical about Megaregions mainly think about the institutional gap currently at the Megaregion level, there is no such an institutional setting for mega regional actions to take place because it’s a beast between state and local municipalities, local governments, of course, assignment across different states.

Ming Zhang (49m 55s):
But it’s not like an NPO, for example, responsible for designate areas, long range, transportation plan. They have institution arrangement for that, but for Megaregions and the people say, well, it’s a good idea, but there’s no such an entity to implement, or there’s no such a kind of a mechanism for different players, different Megaregion constituencies to work together. I think that that that’s the one topic or one issue that, and Megaregion research showed explore one important aspect. Well, the first one is, of course it’s a mega the term means, right?

Ming Zhang (50m 38s):
A big, huge, a larger reason. Another one I think is more widespread is the issues across multiple jurisdictions, whether it is transportation issues, environmental issues, and health services and others with that many agencies like DLT, state DOTC textile, and then cities, they are aware of the cross jurisdictional challenges they are facing, but they don’t have the manpower legal power and financial power to work with them with stove. I feel that that’s why many people are kind of suspicious about this mega regional framework, but it’s because of the lack of such an institutional setting, then we need to come up with some creative way for inter agency, inter municipality cooperation to address those challenges, problems outside the boundaries of their jurisdiction.

Fritz Steiner (51m 42s):
Well, man, you know, we didn’t have MPOs until the 1960s when the Johnson administration decided that we needed. And you know, it goes back to my notion that every 50 or so years, you have to start thinking, you know, you to start innovating. You know, I’m also reminded that, you know, when the experience of the interstate highway system, Republican governors, so they didn’t want him wonderful testimony with Senator Thurman on the proposed beltway. Who’s going to use the belt whys, why these are just boondoggles, no one got to use these beltway. And boy, a funny thing happened on the way to 90 10 funding. You know, when the federal government said to those states, here’s 90% of the cost of these things, what do you think?

Fritz Steiner (52m 22s):
And the answer and the answer then was as 48 states signed up for the program and, you know, but it required that somebody lean over a railing in the white house and say, God damn it, we’re doing this. And you know, and that was a moderate Republican governor. So in theory, you know, we’re capable of doing these things, but again, it comes back to vision and then leadership. And then I think yes, threats. I mean, they it’s the national defense and under state highway system, it was about, you know, competing in the cold war economically as well as militarily and in terms of transportation capacity. So that’s what has to happen. You know, I hope that at some point we’re going to find select group of mayors, hopefully somebody at the white house who will sign onto these ideas, that’s what it takes.

Fritz Steiner (53m 10s):
And again, it’s always an American issue, always been in a period of crisis that we’ve acted on big ideas like this one. And I would argue that we’re in a period of crisis that requires that we think in bold, innovative, new ways. Well,

Jeff Wood (53m 24s):
There’s lots of bold and innovative ideas in the book. The book is Megaregions and America’s future. You can imagine find it at your bookstores of choice. We always ask people to go to their local bookstores. So you can go to bookshop that Oregon D bound, et cetera, probably to get this Lincoln Institute of land policy, Columbia university press being in Bob and Fritz, who was here earlier. Thanks so much for joining us. We really appreciate your time.

Fritz Steiner (53m 44s):
Thank you. Appreciate your interest. Thank you

Jeff Wood (53m 53s):
And thanks for joining us. The Talking Headways podcast is a project of The Overhead Wire and posted first at Streetsblog USA. Thanks to our wonderful patron supporters for sponsoring this show and Mondays at The Overhead Wire, you can support the show by going to patrion.com/ The Overhead Wire. You can sign up for our 15 year old newsletter at The Overhead Wire dot com and you can listen to the show on your pod, catcher of choice, including Spotify, Stitcher, SoundCloud, I heart radio, and apple podcasts. And if you can’t find it there, you can always find it. Its original home. Hey, USA dot Streetsblog dot org. We’ll see you next time at Talking Headways.


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