What City Observatory did this week

1. More than half of commuters to jobs in classically suburban DuPage County, outside Chicago, say they’d like to walk, bike, or take transit—but nearly 90 percent of them drive anyway. What’s going on? A closer look finds that decades of avowedly auto-centric planning has led to a situation in which nearly all housing and employment growth has been directed to highways, and prohibited near one of the county’s 26 rail stations. As a result, not driving is usually time-consuming, uncomfortable, and dangerous, so even people who would rather not get in their car every day are forced to do so.

2. We’ve sounded this alarm before, but if you’ve read an article about how rents in your city have changed dramatically in just a month or two, it may have been bogus. Another round of pieces about apartment listing service Abodo’s “rent reports” ignore obvious absurdities, including the fact that Abodo claims rents in Portland, OR, grew 14 percent in February in a single month, and then declined seven percent the very next month. These “reports” are in fact just averages of the listing companies’ databases, which are heavily skewed to higher-end apartments and make no effort to correct for random noise in availabilities from month to month. Readers should ignore them, and reporters should know better than to quote them.

3. Place matters for your economic opportunities—and also for your life expectancy. A new study from Raj Chetty et al, whose previous groundbreaking research linked local conditions to intergenerational economic mobility, finds correlations between life expectancy, especially for the low income, and a range of local variables. It ties longer life to greater population density, higher home values, more immigrants, more local government spending, and more college graduates—all indicators of high-quality urban spaces. These findings are exploratory, and don’t yet control for other factors, but point towards further research into how where we live affects our life chances.

4. The growth of upwardly mobile college graduates in many urban centers around the country has led, in some cases, to an overcorrection of the old conventional wisdom: after decades in which cities were synonyms for neighborhoods with disproportionate numbers of lower-income people, people of color, and immigrants, cities are increasingly associated with people who are wealthier and whiter. But it’s important not to confuse the direction of change with actual levels: as a new Pew study underscores, whites and people with higher incomes remainunder-represented in cities and urban behaviors like public transit ridership. It’s important to keep that in mind when evaluating the equity impacts of urban policy.

The week’s must reads

1. America’s GDP is more than 13 percent below where it could be if not for the exclusionary effects of high housing prices in our most productive cities. The Economist considers what might be done to remedy that, and rounds up policy ideas like TILTs (essentially impact fees paid directly to neighbors of new development), moving development decisions from hyper-local neighborhoods (where everyone wants new development “somewhere else”) to the broader city, where neighborhoods can negotiate over their fair share; or even state or federal override of exclusionary, anti-density local laws.

2. Despite its reputation as a world-class melting pot, New York is by some measures one of the most segregated cities in the US. The New York Times considers what that means for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s big housing reforms, including a policy—already the subject of a lawsuit—that gives preference for low-income inclusionary zoning units to local residents, which critics say perpetuates segregation in neighborhoods with a large majority of white residents.

3. Eighty percent of the energy in every gallon of gas is wasted. More than 50,000 Americans die prematurely every year because of vehicle pollution, and more than 3,000 die every month from traffic accidents. The average car owner pays $12,544 a year in loan payments, gas, insurance, and maintenance—for a machine that sits idle 92 percent of the time. Cars and trucks are responsible for more than 80 percent of transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions, playing a key role in global climate change. At The Atlantic, Edward Humes argues these and other issues make our reliance on cars insane.

New knowledge

1. Housing policy has been implicated in everything from climate change to intergenerational mobility to longevity, and now an Urban Institute paper links it to school attendance. Surveying the research literature, as well as doing their own analysis, they find that housing conditions like high levels of lead, as well as housing instability and frequent moving, were highly correlated with chronic absenteeism among students, which in turn is correlated with poor academic outcomes. Concentrated poverty, and its associated problems, are also implicated.

2. They paved over paradise, but they didn’t stop there. New satellite imagery shows how much hard pavement has been added to the DC metro area at Greater Greater Washington. GGW‘s David Alpert points out that more hardscape isn’t always a bad thing—sometimes, it means more density in places that desperately need it, especially in a rapidly growing city. But much of the new pavement represents parking lots and roads far away from the homes and jobs of the central city.

3. A bill has been introduced in Illinois to tax drivers per mile driven—but even if you live elsewhere, this primer from Chicago’s Metropolitan Planning Council is worth reading for a rundown of why and how such a tax might work. A big issue for the state is that the growing vehicle fuel efficiency means declining revenue, without any corresponding decline in infrastructure needs. The plan would offer a few options to drivers, including flat fees and GPS trackers that would precisely measure travel distances. Potentially, these trackers could be used to price congestion, charging more for driving at peak times and locations, and helping to keep roads relatively open. Social equity issues, as well as administration costs, are also challenges. (Oregon already has a pilot VMT tax program—read more here.)

The Week Observed is City Observatory’s weekly newsletter. Every Friday, we give you a quick review of the most important articles, blog posts, and scholarly research on American cities.

Our goal is to help you keep up with—and participate in—the ongoing debate about how to create prosperous, equitable, and livable cities, without having to wade through the hundreds of thousands of words produced on the subject every week by yourself.

If you have ideas for making The Week Observed better, we’d love to hear them! Let us know at jcortright@cityobservatory.org, dkhertz@cityobservatory.org, or on Twitter at @cityobs.