Yonah Freemark

Dissertation Project

Mobility Politics: Local Ideologies in the Multi-Jurisdictional Metropolis

Dissertation Committee

  • Lawrence J. Vale, Ford Professor of Urban Design and Planning, MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning (Chair)
  • Justin Steil, Assistant Professor of Law and Urban Planning, MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning
  • Kathleen Thelen, Ford Professor of Political Science, MIT Department of Political Science
  • Jinhua Zhao, Edward H. and Joyce Linde Associate Professor of Transportation and City Planning, MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning

Proposal summary (passed colloquium in December 2018)

This dissertation explores the interplay between local politics and urban design in the context of the complex, multi-unit governance of contemporary city-regions. I ask how politics influences political officials’ decision making and ultimately the designs of new transportation projects and adjacent development such as housing, office space, and community amenities. Moreover, I interrogate how cities make policy when many different governmental organizations, with varied political affiliations, are involved in investments related to city planning.

I will consider how partisanship, public officials’ political worldviews, and the ideologies of local residents direct such policy. To do so, I will examine six transit infrastructure projects in France and the U.S. through on-the-ground interviews, archival research, and a survey. I will offer a new theory of the relationship between politics and urban design in the face of two obstacles that scholars argue constrain local governments: first, competing power from officials representing other levels of the public sector, and second, the depoliticizing pressures of interlocal competition and the global economy. I will thus fill gaps in the scholarship on local governments, until now too neglectful of political contestation and too focused on central cities alone, as opposed to regional, multi-jurisdictional spaces.

Context for this research

The field of urban politics is structured by the expectation that local governments are legally and fiscally constrained, and therefore that political differences between them—variations in residents’ partisan preferences or their leadership’s ideological worldviews—are not significant factors in local governance. This dissertation revisits that expectation.

One reason why cities would be limited in their power is because they are created by higher levels of government, which circumscribe municipalities’ ability to act independently. In France, the national government defines which policies cities can undertake. In the U.S., municipalities cannot exert autonomous powers vis-à-vis states (Frug, 1999). Limitations imposed from above extend to policies related to transportation, even though this is an area often considered to be the prerogative of local governments. Altshuler and Luberoff (2003) argue that only supra-local entities (e.g., port authorities) can pursue projects that require interventions beyond a municipal boundary. In those contexts, it becomes hard to imagine that a single city is capable of executing the complicated process of building infrastructure.

Scholars argue that growth is the primary motivator for localities. Peterson (1981) contends that in countries with free movement of people and goods, cities cannot undertake redistributive activities, as these will encourage the wealthy to leave; cities therefore must prioritize attracting investment. Scholars applying this framework point to development projects designed around increasing regional attractivity (Brenner, 2004; Enright, 2016; Swyngedouw et al., 2002). Others conclude that regional fragmentation forces cities to double-down to compete for residents and industry (Tiebout, 1956; Weir, 2000),

But this framework does not do sufficient justice to important aspects of urban politics; it does not explain why cities pursue policies that appear contrary to growth generation. Cities are sites of political contestation and ideological cleavages that help explain why cities pursue multiple approaches. I use Gerring’s interpretation (1997: 966-968) of ideology as a “set of beliefs, values, principles, attitudes, and/or ideals” that “direct, or at least influence, political behavior.” Ideological conflicts are often under-stood within the left-to-right spectrum, in which—to generalize—the left supports redistributive policies and the right supports policies that encourage private entrepreneurship.

While the dominant paradigm I described above might lead one to be skeptical of the impact that ideological conflict has on urban outcomes, mounting evidence suggests otherwise. Tausanovitch and Warshaw (2014) show that cities promote policies reflecting inhabitant views. More Democratic resident populations induce more city spending (Einstein and Kogan, 2016; Palus, 2010). Democratic mayors are more focused on redistributive policies (Benedictis-Kessner and Warshaw, 2016). In part, this reflects the fact that mayors associate their partisanship with policies on the ideological spectrum (Einstein and Glick, 2018). But such research has not yet focused on decisions made on matters relating to urban planning—for instance, transportation infrastructure—which are especially prone to being viewed as tangential to political disagreements, and which are the subject of this dissertation.

We cannot evaluate how cities invest without understanding ideology and partisanship. This dissertation probes this intersection, extending what political scientists have established into questions of how planning choices are made in the context of multi-level, multi-jurisdictional governance. There is a horizontal “nesting” of cities within metropolitan areas (Kübler and Pagano, 2012). Large regions are constituted of hundreds of municipalities, each with elected politicians, that interact with higher-level governments and special districts. If political differences shape decisions on infrastructure planning, then what does that mean for cooperation between cities of different political and ideological hues?

Research questions and hypotheses

This dissertation considers how urban design politics (Vale, 2013) works in complex metropolitan environments. I study this from a cross-national perspective, taking advantage of similarities in structures of metropolitan organization in France and the U.S. In each, regional fragmentation is endemic; the primary city houses a small share of the population. This is opposed to conditions in other developed countries, where cities like Berlin or London account for the majority of regional populations.

I conduct case studies of transportation projects and surrounding land-use changes. I consider the range of alternatives available to decisionmakers when determining how infrastructure is planned and de-signed to explain why they make choices about projects. I will specifically evaluate these aspects of infra-structure design: (a) who is prioritized; (b) what neighborhoods are chosen for station placement; and (c) what types of developments are targeted for redevelopment sites around stations. I will use these features (the project outcomes, thus the primary dependent variables)—to identify the influence of politics and multi-jurisdictional/multi-level governance (the primary independent variables).

Two sets of questions form the basis of my research. First, I consider how political ideology and partisanship relate to decision-making rationales used to design infrastructure. I ask how public investments—in this case, transit line routes, station locations, and surrounding development programming—result from metropolitan politics. Will the projects serve redistribution or development, and is that a response to ideological or other motivations? How do circumstances differ in France and the U.S.? Second, I clarify how multi-jurisdictional planning works. How do leaders working in regions with overlapping jurisdictions and special authorities make decisions, and who ultimately holds the most sway?

I form several hypotheses for what I will find in the field. Though economic development serves as a major motivator for decisionmakers, there is considerable room for them to promote other goals, such as equity or sustainability, through design. Local officials do not see growth as necessarily contradicting other goals. Given an expectation of higher levels of partisanship among French officials (Fainstein, 1994), I expect to find more interest in promoting affordable housing and social services among left-leaning politicians. But I expect this difference can be attributed to French institutions, which offer more national sup-port for local needs.

Project methods and locations

My dissertation examines six transit projects through a case-study approach useful for understanding local choices through thick description (Geertz, 1973). My focus on transit reflects a current trend in metropolitan planning, which increasingly involves constructing expensive rail projects and surrounding development. Projects explored here allow the generation of new theories about how local politics interact with policymaking; this framework is relevant to all matters concerning political officials and multiple public bodies that involve competition and cooperation to establish policy. Issues such as pollution, distribution of housing, and provision of cultural resources all clearly fall into that category.
My consideration of projects in France and the U.S. builds on prior research in urban politics that makes similar comparisons (Hirt, 2014; Kantor et al., 2012; Sassen, 1991; Savitch, 1988). To select projects, I assembled a database of all new transit lines underway in both countries, identifying the number of municipalities each will pass through and recent election results along lines. I consider projects under construction because these are more likely to be at the top of minds of officials I interview.

Of the 80 transit projects underway, I selected six that cross boundaries of at least four municipalities and whose recent electoral results indicate a diverse range of local politics. In France, I selected (a) Paris Métro 15 Sud, a circumferential subway; (b) Toulouse Aerospace Express, a metro running between suburbs and city; and (c) T9 light-rail line planned south of Paris. In the U.S., I selected (a) Washington Purple Line, a suburban light-rail project; (b) Los Angeles Gold Line extension to the east; and (c) Minne-apolis Green Line, which will run southwest from the city. Each project is at least 10 km, will cost at least €400 million, and will carry at least 30,000 daily riders, according to current estimates.\

I adapt Mukhija’s (2010) “N of One plus Some” method. Rather than consider all projects to exhaustion, I focus on the “primary cases” of one project in each country, using the others as “secondary cases.” The primary cases are the Paris Métro 15 Sud and the Minneapolis Green Line, which have the largest variation in political views among residents and elected officials along their routes. As Mukhija (2010: 417) notes, “the secondary cases can help in achieving sufficient depth and detail in the primary case study… [and] assist in corroborating the veracity of its data and information collected.” My analysis of debates over projects in Toulouse and Los Angeles, for example, will inform my understanding of why projects in Paris and Minneapolis look as they do, and whether political actions there are unique or reflective of broader trends. No single case will ever be representative of generalized conditions (Small, 2009), but the product will provide “depth, detail, and richness” (Mukhija, 2010: 419).

For each case, I will assess ideologies and rationales of decisionmakers. This requires understand-ing how officials see themselves on the left-right spectrum, and also how they relate those views to their feelings about transit. An individual with a self-described ideology on the left might believe that government should redistribute wealth and thus fund projects that maximize low-income mobility. An individual on the right might be more interested in expanding investment opportunities. I will evaluate relationships between actors in the context of a multi-jurisdictional, multi-level environment.

Interviews are a primary element of this research. I focus on officials who currently or previously engaged with project design. I will also interview representatives of special districts and civil servants. For each, the goal is acquiring the rationales this stakeholder uses when discussing the project. To contact elected officials, I will use the connections I have established, then undertake snowball sampling to connect with others, and adjust for missingness (geographical, ethnic, political, or age variation) by sampling for range (Small, 2009). The ultimate goal is to achieve saturation for each project; it should be clear by the last interview that I have little more to learn.

To supplement interviews, I will review public documents, news reports, and hearings archives. How have project routes, designs, and associated development changed since first conceived? In addition, I will distribute a survey to officials to collect quantifiable data. The survey will ask respondents questions on ideology, relationships with other officials and municipalities, and feelings about project design. The aim here, again, is to understand the contending rationales officials use to plan investments.

As Shamsuddin and Vale (2017) show, urban development plans embed within themselves important ideas about what the goals of public intervention are. I extend this further by hypothesizing that there are rationales related to how projects should be undertaken (a) held by stakeholders from across the multi-jurisdictional environment; (b) developed after interaction occurs between stakeholders; and (c) ex-pressed by the design of the projects themselves. At the conclusion of my research I will have detailed knowledge of my cases and transcripts from hundreds of interviews. Together, these will form the empirical element of my dissertation, and allow me to develop a compelling and innovative theory for how urban politics works today in the context of multi-jurisdictional metropolitan governance.


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S. Shamduddin and L. Vale (2017). “Lease it or lose it? The implications of New York’s Land Lease Initiative for public housing preservation.” Urban Studies 54(1). 137-157.

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L. Vale (2013). Purging the Poorest: Public Housing and the Design Politics of Twice-Cleared Communities. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Research support

This research is supported by grants provided by the Lynne Sagalyn and Gary Hack Fund Research Award, the Harold Horowitz (1951) Student Research Award, and the MIT Center for International Studies Summer Study Fellowship.