What City Observatory did this week

1. Don’t bank on it. Hillary Clinton, as part of her campaign for President, has proposed a National Infrastructure Bank to help local governments pay for crucial infrastructure maintenance and upgrades. But it’s not so clear that such a bank is the answer to America’s infrastructure problems. Rather, the bank would likely face a number of issues, including simply displacing other sources of borrowing for projects that would have been funded anyway and leaving localities without any additional revenues with which to pay loans back. But the fundamental issue is that America’s infrastructure problem has little to do with the ability to borrow capital, and more to do with mixed up priorities and the lack of revenue with which to repay borrowing and maintain existing infrastructure.

2. Homevoters v. the growth machine. There are two big theories about who controls urban development. One suggests it’s a coalition of business interests who run roughshod over regulations like zoning; the other is that a democratic group of homeowners uses zoning effectively to block development that might hurt their property values. A new study out of NYU tries to answer the question of which is right—and comes down firmly on the homevoter side. That’s the most plausible explanation, they say, for why neighborhoods near good schools, or with growing populations, actually see many more downzonings—or reductions in allowed density—even though developers and business interests would surely like to add more housing there.

3. Reducing congestion: Katy didn’t. Several years ago, Houston spent $2.8 billion to expand capacity on its Katy Freeway, making it—at 23 lanes—one of the widest in the world. Afterwards, the American Highway Users Alliance cited the Katy widening as a victory against congestion. But it turns out that in the years since then, travel times have actually increased dramatically—as any urbanist familiar with “induced demand” could have told them from the beginning.

4. Where did all the small apartment buildings go? We’ve written about the“missing middle” before: the fact that American cities build lots of single family homes and some large apartment buildings, but few of the smaller, lowrise apartment buildings that make up important parts of many walkable urban and suburban neighborhoods. Using data from the Census, we show that hasn’t always been the case: as late as the early 1980s, apartment buildings with fewer than 10 units made up nearly half of all new multifamily units. That’s now down to about seven percent.

The week’s must reads

1. At Planetizen, Todd Litman writes about what the Paris climate talks mean for urban planning. He connects the heavy influence of land use patterns and transportation systems on a city’s carbon emissions with the broader goals of reduced global temperature increases. He also links to a study he carried out earlier this year with powerful evidence of the link between smart urban policy and environmental benefits.

2. For cities like Detroit, where abundant vacant homes create public safety hazards and unsightly conditions in many neighborhoods, demolition has become a major anti-blight strategy. Reuters takes a look at Detroit’s post-bankruptcy plan to demolish 80,000 homes—and the question of exactly how much such a plan should cost. Beyond that issue, though, demolitions appear to be showing progress on at least some fronts: the city credits them with a massive decrease in arsons, and an independent report suggested that home prices near demolitions increased by an average of 4.2 percent.

3. At City Observatory, we’ve been proponents of pricing road use to make drivers internalize the external costs of their travel, including added congestion, environmental damage, and deaths and injuries from accidents. Governing looks at a growing trend of cities getting revenue from public rights of way. Most exciting is San Francisco’s parking initiative, which uses demand-dynamic pricing to regulate the number of parked cars and the length of time they stay in the style of Donald Shoup.

New knowledge

1. At the Brookings Institution, William Julius Wilson describes how economic segregation, layered on top of racial segregation, has put low-income black Americans at an extreme risk of being victimized by violent crime. The gap between higher-income and lower-income African Americans has grown especially rapidly since the 1970s.

2. The mortgage interest tax deduction: it’s a highly skewed policy that gives the biggest benefits to very wealthy homeowners and provides nothing to all to those who rent, or who don’t earn enough to itemize their deductions. Dylan Matthews at Vox is the latest to assail the tax deduction, showing that simple, common-sense reforms—including capping the home value that’s eligible for the deduction at $500,000, and turning the entire program into a 15 percent credit so it can be accessed by people who don’t itemize deductions—would make a huge difference in making the policy more progressive. (See the Tax Policy Center’s report that informed much of Matthews’ article here.)

3. The American Institute of Architects has released new survey data about what builders believe people are asking for in 2015. Notably, reinvestment in developed, walkable areas continues to gain ground: 65 percent more of the surveyed firms said infill development is gaining popularity than losing; 55 percent more said proximity to public transit is gaining popularity; and 48 percent more said walkable neighborhoods are gaining popularity. (Hat tip to Streetsblog USA.)

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.

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