This week, Planetizen named City Observatory one of its 10 best urban websites of 2015, adding that “every single post is essential reading.” We’re extremely grateful for the recognition, and are excited about continuing our work into 2016! (Check out the other great websites Planetizen highlighted at the link, too!)

What City Observatory did this week

1. Make housing vouchers an entitlement—we can afford it. Unlike food stamps, which are available to everyone whose income qualifies them, there are 20 million Americans who qualify for direct federal housing assistance but don’t get it, largely because there simply isn’t enough funding. A new CBO report shows that we could give a housing voucher to every eligible family for about $41 billion a year—far less than the amount we spend subsidizing housing to households earning more than $100,000 through the mortgage interest tax deduction.

2. Houston has something to teach you about public transit. In 2015, Houston made two big transit moves: opening two new light rail lines and completely reorganizing its bus network to offer more reliable and useful lines. As of November, the most recent data available, the light rail lines had 185,000 rides—and the bus system had added 199,000. That’s all the more remarkable because the light rail extensions cost $1.4 billion and took the better part of a decade; the bus reorganization cost a tiny fraction of that to plan, is budget-neutral going forward, and took about a year to put in place. But this isn’t a bus v. rail story. So what is it?

3. The economic strength of American cities in four charts. American cities are increasingly central to the nation’s economy. How do we know? There’s a lot of evidence, but we pick out four big indicators: rising real estate values (“the Dow of cities”); the rent gradient; the walkability premium; and job growth. Below is a chart showing how the rent gradient—that is, the change in housing prices as you move from city centers to more outlying areas—has become dramatically steeper from 1980 to today, indicating increasing demand for inner-city housing.

The week’s must reads

1. Why don’t American cities build more public transit infrastructure? Part of the answer is that we get less bang for our buck than any other country in the world—and it’s not even close. John Ricco at Greater Greater Washington digs into the numbers a bit and runs through some of the theories about what makes American rail projects so expensive, from land acquisition costs to over-engineering. Below is a chart by Ricco, showing the per-kilometer cost of building subways in wealthy countries; the red bars are American projects.

2. Every year, Yonah Freemark at The Transport Politic previews the coming year’s transit projects. In 2016, American cities will see 245 miles of new fixed-guideway systems—more than triple the mileage of 2015. Also, be sure to check out Freemark’s “Transit Explorer” page, with interactive maps of all the new projects in his database.

3. CityLab makes a list of the urbanist terms it hopes are left in 2015. There are some obvious ones—”Uber for [x]”—and a few tweaks at the culture of trendy urban neighborhoods, and their love of everything “artisanal.” But there are some serious entries too: We found ourselves agreeing that the “tale of two cities” cliche often obscures more in conversations about inequality than it illuminates, hiding the many different kinds of people and neighborhoods represented by the terms “rich” and “poor” in every city. Another highlight: Time to end “wider roads = less traffic.”

New knowledge

1. A paper from Michael Lens and Paavo Monkkonen of UCLA adds to evidence thatland use regulations contribute to urban segregation. Lens and Monkkonen find a direct link between restrictive land use policies and higher levels of income segregation—in particular, the isolation of high-income households. In addition, more involvement in land use planning by states is associated with less segregation, and more fragmentation of land use planning by smaller municipalities is associated with more segregation—more evidence that shrinking the pool of people with a say in housing policy leads to more exclusionary policies.

2. Tony Dutzik of the Frontier Group analyzes newly released data on how much Americans are driving. In short: more. Vehicle miles traveled per capita increased by 0.5 percent in 2014 for the first time in a decade, and total VMT has nearly reached its all-time high from 2007. In slightly more encouraging news, the FTA’s numbers represent a downward revision from the first estimates, suggesting we might be able to expect a similar downward change to the initial 2015 numbers. But as we’ve written, as long as gas remains historically cheap, we should expect an increase in driving.

3. Evidence from Europe of the importance of neighborhood stigma: Researchers from Université-Paris Est and the Université de Bourgogne look at nearly 3,000 job applications for positions as cooks or waiters in the Paris area, and compare response rates to the residential location reported by the applicants. They find that holding other factors constant, “a good address can triple the chances of being invited to a job interview.”

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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