A Modest Proposal: Transportation Enterprise Zones

It’s a quiet week here at NYU and the Rudin Center, with the students still out on break and many of my colleagues in Washington, DC for the annual Transportation Research Board conference. I skipped the conference, but did make it to George Mason University’s School of Public Policy on Saturday morning for Transportation Camp DC, an un-conference organized by Frank Hebbert of NYC-based Open Plans.

Like all unconferences, Transportation Camp’s sessions were hit-or-miss. But I managed to end up in three that were quite interesting.

The first was on crowdsourcing strategies for mapping bike travel, organized by Kari Watkins and Alex Poznanski of Georgia Tech. They have been updating the CycleTracks app first launched by the city of San Francisco (which has received tens of thousands of trip logs from bikers) to map bike trips in Atlanta. This is a topic that’s dear to my heart, and I’m thinking actively about how Rudin can advance similar strategies here in New York to lay a baseline understanding of how bikes are used before the CitiBike launch this spring.

The second was about tactical urbanism and its meaning for transportation (I missed the organizer’s name unfortunately). Most of the discussion was about how tactical or informal and formal urban interests can interact. One participant suggested the need for a national organization like Project for Public Spaces to step up and develop a toolkit for helping community activists cross the bridge from tactical intervention to pilot, and how to connect with organizations like arts councils, business improvement districts, etc. that can inter-mediate their relations with authorities to get needed permissions and funds to evolve beyond one-offs.

The final conversation was about what session leader Andrew Jawitz of Car Free Maine called “civic hardware” – using cheap DIY technologies like Arduino and Raspberry Pi to build automated vehicle trackers for under $200. (Perhaps the best example was the Transit Appliance  that turned the beloved Chumby into an ambient next bus display for your desk or night stand)

• • •

The real epiphany of the day for me popped into my head during the tactical urbanism session, and really gelled during the civic hardware chat. Just like the old American maxim that “states are the laboratories of democracy”, by corollary “blocks are the laboratories of a city”, someone said.

Well then, why don’t we change the rules for transportation in the places that are really problematic?

What if we designated “transportation enterprise zones” and encourage experimentation and innovation by loosening some of the regulations that stifle mobility innovation? Immediately, a bunch of recent examples where this approach might have helped came to mind. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, huge swaths of New Jersey’s Hudson County were cut off from Manhattan due to the months-long knockout of PATH commuter rail (service to Hoboken, where I live, has still not been fully restored nearly three months after the storm). While buses, ferries and licensed taxis filled many of the gaps, and informal vans (so-called “dollar vans”) already carry many passengers across the river to New York each day (because as interstate commerce they cannot be regulated by the Port Authority or either state), I wondered if there might have been other rules that could be relaxed – parking, pickup and dropoff locations, even labor and safety regulations – that might have spurred additional providers to pick up the considerable slack left by the PATH’s destruction.

More prosaically, I wondered if a transportation enterprise zone might have been a way to steer a course through this fall’s squabble between San Francisco-based electronic taxi hailing app Uber and the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission. The conflict arose over the app’s end-run around the city’s decades-old separation of taxi fleets, designed to ensure a steady supply for street hails by prohibiting yellow cabs from making pre-arranged pickups. A citywide rule change, spurred by a left coast startup’s complaint, seemed premature. But why not pilot it for rides originating in a limited zone, perhaps one that by luck of the geographical draw (say Lower Manhattan south of City Hall) has suffered from a chronic shortage of empty trolling cabs?

Other potential test beds come to mind – Detroit’s buses are an endangered species. Could more lax rules entice some budding entrepreneurs to fill the gaps? New York’s airport taxi dispatching schemes are an over-regulated mess, with numerous shady operators operating at the margins – why not de-criminalize them and work on improving the flow of vehicles through the terminals instead of punishing drivers and passengers alike with archaic queues?

Where else might this work? The enterprise zone idea originated in the 1970s, when British geographer and urbanist Peter Hall proposed that the model of Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan might be re-imported to the United Kingdom to spur investment. He argued that “fairly shameless free enterprise” might be used as an “extremely last-ditch solution… only on a very small scale.” (1) People like Paul Romer (here at NYU’s Urbanization Project) have more recently argued, in the developing world at least, for the opposite – that they are a high priority strategy to be implemented expeditiously and on a massive scale. The result is the so-called “charter city”.

I object to charter cities. In the name of anti-corruption they throw the baby out with the bath water. As Rudin Center visiting scholar Greg Lindsay has argued, they work great on paper but are destined to failure when they get entangled in the messy land struggles of developing nations. But targeted deregulation is something worth trying when nothing else works. And enterprize zones are a viable pragmatic response to stagnation and partisan paralysis. As one analysis conducted for the Minnesota state legislature noted “…enterprise zones have received support from both ends of the political spectrum. Professor Hall was a Fabian Socialist. The Thatcher government, on the other end of the political spectrum, enacted legislation adopting the zone program in Britain. Both the Reagan and Clinton administrations proposed zones with the latter succeeding in enacting them. Congressmen Jack Kemp (a conservative Republican) and Robert Garcia (a liberal Democrat) were coauthors of the initial federal proposals.”(2)

Why not give it a shot? What would you propose for a transportation enterprise zone?


  1. Stuart M. Butler, “Enterprise Zones: Pioneering in the Inner City,” Economic Development Tools (1981): 25-41.
  2. “Enterprise Zones: A Review of the Economic Theory and Empirical Evidence”, Don Hirasuna and Joel Michael (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Minnesota House of Representatives Research Department), January 2005, http://www.house.leg.state.mn.us/hrd/pubs/entzones.pdf.

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