New York City shouldn't be covered in sidewalk sheds
My hometown needs less solipsism
New episode of Bad Takes on both-sidesism and its enemies is out today.
Walking around New York City, it’s hard not to be struck by the incredible quantity of sidewalk sheds — that’s what you’re supposed to call them, though growing up in the city, our vernacular was “scaffolding.” These sheds aren’t unique to New York — you see at least some broadly similar infrastructure in any urban environment with tall buildings and sidewalks.
But in NYC, they are quasi-ubiquitous in a way that’s unlike any other place I’ve been. And in interacting with New Yorkers over the years, I’ve noticed something interesting — when I notice something weird about the city, my default assumption is that some bad policy in place in NYC is driving the problem. Many New Yorkers, though, have the opposite instinct — if they see some apparently inexplicable New York phenomenon, they’ll assume there’s a good reason for it. And I do kind of get where those divergent intuitions come from.
New York really is an outlier among American cities, both dramatically larger and dramatically denser than any other city in the U.S.
And there truly are aspects of its reality that can only be explained with reference to that outlier status. We know, for example, that places with high population density tend to be more left-wing politically than low-density places. But Staten Island is a moderately Republican area despite being denser than Detroit, Denver, Las Vegas, Columbus, or Portland. In the context of a super-large and super-dense city, Staten Island plays the sociological role of a white-flight suburb, even though in a literal sense it has the population geography typical of a mid-sized American central city.
But for many issues, “this is bad policy” is a very underrated explanation for NYC weirdness, which in turn is a result of NYC’s outlier status. New York is such an extremely unusual global center of commerce and culture that a significant minority of people are willing to pay a huge premium in order to live and do business there. That manifests most obviously in the high price of New York rent. But for all the same reasons that it’s possible for landlords to extract high literal rent, NYC offers a unique bonanza of metaphorical rent-seeking behavior. Tolerating this has historically been bad for residents of the city, which is a non-trivial problem for the national economy because it’s so large — 2.5 percent of the national population lives in the city proper and 7 percent in the metro area. But what makes it especially problematic today is that remote work has delivered a structural shock to the economies of all central cities, meaning that putting up with malgovernment is less survivable than it was before.
The origins of ubiquitous sidewalk sheds
When I tweeted about the sidewalk sheds, a lot of people recommended (along with various pseudo-explanations) this video from Half as Interesting, which I think highlights the problems with NYC solipsism precisely because it’s a good video that also fails to ask some pretty obvious comparative questions.
The basic story is this:
After a tragic accident in which a young woman was killed by a piece of a falling facade, New York City adopted a local law (later strengthened by a subsequent law) requiring frequent facade inspections.
If a facade is found defective, owners must install a sidewalk shed pending repair.
Owners are then supposed to repair the facade, but there is no specific timeline mandated for doing the repair.
In many cases, building owners find it more economical to leave the sheds up for very long periods of time rather than do mandatory repairs.
The video does mention at the end that lobbying by the sidewalk shed industry plays a role, but the fundamental focus remains on building owners who rely on sheds because they’ve cheaped out on repairs.
Nothing about this account is wrong, exactly, but if you’ve lived in other cities, you might be inspired to ask some basic questions.
The law only applies to buildings that are over six stories tall, which are obviously more common in New York than in other cities, so in a kind of aggregate sense, there are more sidewalk sheds in New York than in other cities because there are more tall buildings. That said, it’s not just that sidewalk sheds are more common in New York than they are in Chicago or Philadelphia or Boston — the downtowns of these cities full of tall buildings still don’t have nearly the volume of sheds that you see in New York.
What you’re really seeing here is the intersection of three separate regulatory issues.
First, and most boring, is the fact that New York rules require sheds as a safety measure while many other jurisdictions around the world allow the use of nets, which are cheaper and have less visual impact.
Second, as Connor Harris wrote in January, NYC’s facade rules are unusually strict:
Unlike many other cities’ façade-maintenance requirements, New York’s regulation makes no allowances for building age or materials—even though newer buildings have far lower risk of façade disintegration, and particular materials such as terra cotta pose a much worse danger than others. Chicago’s façade ordinance, for instance, divides buildings into four classes based on their materials: those in the safest class must be inspected only every twelve years. Building owners in Chicago who conduct briefer examinations every two years, which can be carried out at a distance, can also skip the more expensive up-close inspections. Some other cities also require façade inspections only for older buildings: for instance, Cincinnati mandates façade inspections only for buildings over 15 years old.
Finally, and somewhat confusingly, the sidewalk sheds (or scaffolding) stay up so long in part because facade repairs are unusually expensive in New York due to a state law known as the Scaffold Law, even though it’s mostly not about scaffolding. This is a broadly worded 1885 statute directing employers of construction workers to create safe working conditions that’s been construed by state courts over the past 100+ years as creating essentially unlimited liability for employers of construction workers, and thus very high insurance costs. A lot of broadly worded statutes were passed back in the late 19th century. But in the modern world, construction workers in 49 states plus all non-construction workers in New York are protected by OSHA regulations and the workers’ compensation system.
You could make the case that these rules are worth the benefits.
But I don’t think New Yorkers fear for their lives walking around downtown Chicago. Nor do they appear to believe that the workers in non-construction industries in their state are laboring under intolerably unsafe conditions. A report by two Cornell scholars from 2014 actually found that the decision to assign strict legal liability to employers has made New York construction sites less safe because it leads workers to be sloppier.