Next week, we’ll be releasing our latest City Report, which maps the location of consumer-facing businesses around the nation to provide a new, quantitative measure of a city’s street-level vitality—one facet of Jane Jacobs’ famed “sidewalk ballet.” Look for the full report, as well as detailed maps and breakdowns for each of the 51 largest US metropolitan areas, on our website.
What City Observatory did this week
1. More driving means more dying. Traffic-related deaths increased more than 11 percent over the first nine months of 2015. The cause isn’t hard to detect: cheap gas prices and a recovering economy have more people driving, and just as traffic deaths fell when driving fell in the late 2000s, they’re rising as Americans drive more. While some organizations try to blame the increase on driver behavior—on cell phones, for example, which is hard to square with the declines in traffic deaths from 2006 to 2014—the reality is that our transportation system is designed in a way that nearly guarantees huge human costs.
2. With highways, be careful what you wish for. A new plan to widen I-55 in Chicago is based on a commonly-held idea: more highways means less traffic. But a Google-assisted trip to cities with double or even triple the highway capacity per capita of Chicago reveals that even places like Atlanta or Houston that have gone to extreme lengths to avoid traffic congestion, spending billions of dollars to push highways through neighborhoods, still have lots of traffic congestion. The problem is that cars take up a lot of space—too much space for them to always be an efficient way to get around big cities.
3. Urban myth busting: New rental housing and median-income households. It’s a common argument: new high-end housing is a cause of our housing crisis. But it doesn’t fit the evidence. In fact, new housing has historically been too expensive for low- or moderate-income households—just as new cars (average price today: $34,000) are. Most housing becomes affordable the same way that cars do: it ages, and the relatively affluent owners move on to newer, trendier offerings. But in places where there is little new housing but strong demand, that process has been interrupted, leading the affluent to hold onto their old housing, keeping its prices high.
4. Costly misses on convention centers. University of Texas – San Antonio professor Heywood Sanders writes a guest post on the problem of systemically over-optimistic projections about the utilization and positive economic benefits of new publicly funded convention centers. Focusing on a new proposal in Austin, Sanders shows that the new projection mimics one made two decades ago, even though the first fell woefully short of reality: while it projected nearly 100 trade shows a year, the center hosted just 40 in 2013.
The week’s must reads
1. We often use economic arguments and studies to inveigh against the problems created by cities’ minimum parking requirements. But sometimes it’s best to just look at a single example on the ground. That’s what the blog Urban Cincy does, highlighting how the redevelopment of a historic building in that city’s Over the Rhine neighborhood is threatened by parking requirements that did not exist when it was built. While developers have found a 175-space lot a few blocks from the building, it’s not clear whether the city will give a variance to allow those spaces to be used for the building’s requirement. As you can see below in the image from Urban Cincy, the building and its streetscape would clearly be improved by a giant parking lot.
2. At CityLab, Amanda Kolson Hurley has written a three–part series on the amazing demographic changes in the Minneapolis-St. Paul suburbs—changes that reflect, and perhaps predict, broader shifts around the country. Hurley shows how once-90 percent white suburbs have significantly diversified, with immigrants from Asia, Africa, and Latin America, as well as people of color moving out from the central Twin Cities. But as they have diversified, they are also facing increasing problems of poverty and resegregation in the suburbs. Hurley dives deep into the debate over exactly how much establishing diverse, stable, opportunity-rich suburbs depends on battling racial segregation.
3. At Planetizen, Joshua Drucker raises concerns about economic impact statements in a piece that makes good joint reading with our own guest post about convention center projections. Drucker points out that economic impact statements often depend on the assumption that previous trends can continue indefinitely, ignoring issues like capacity constraints that may make that untrue. He argues that while economic impact studies are important, both practitioners and community members need to be educated about their shortcomings and take steps to minimize them, including ending false claims of precision, using multiple methods, and building different scenarios.
1. At CityLab, Richard Florida covers a new study from Trulia on the continued rise of renting. The proportion of American households that rent their housing has continued to rise during the recovery from the recession, reaching 41.1 percent in 2014, compared to 36.1 percent in 2006. The rise has been especially pronounced among younger people, with 71.6 percent of 18-to-34-year-olds renting in 2014, up from 62.5 percent in 2006. While some of the increase may be due to economic issues, even high-income households are seeing a rapid increase in renting.
2. How many people actually use those huge parking lots in front of so many suburban—and many urban—retail stores? Jennifer Evans-Cowley of The Ohio State University led a team that used aerial imagery to measure parking use around the Columbus, Ohio metropolitan area. It probably won’t shock you to hear that Evans-Cowley’s team found massive underuse everywhere they looked: on average, parking lots were just 28 percent occupied (or nearly 300 percent oversupply), with the highest utilization rate being 69 percent (or about 45 percent oversupply). Meanwhile, the massive, largely empty parking lots—which may be required by local zoning codes—force buildings to be more spread out, making it more difficult for people to walk or use transit to run errands.
3. CityLab covers a new study from Elliot Anenberg of the Federal Reserve and Edward Kung of UCLA on how food trucks decide where to set up shop. The researchers underline the importance of mobile technology in connecting consumers with food trucks, and the ways that these mobile shops can benefit from consumers’ preference for variety in their food. Interestingly, New York City is a major outlier in having relatively few online searches for food truck locations—perhaps, as CityLab‘s Richard Florida speculates, because the city’s dense land use patterns mean there are so many options within a short walking distance that searching is unnecessary. (Surprisingly, Portland Oregon—which has one of the nation’s largest concentrations of free-standing food vendors—ranks very low on the “food trucks” Google Search list, possibly because in Portland they are called “food carts.”)
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, or on Twitter at @cityobs.