What City Observatory did this week

1. Last week, we introduced the “Sprawl Tax”: the time and money American commuters spend just because their cities are more spread out than they might be. This week, we compare American sprawl to that of our international peers, and it’s not pretty. On average, in 17 European countries plus Canada, households spend 12.8 percent of their income on transportation; in the US, it’s 18 percent. Commuters in those countries spend, on average, about 39 minutes commuting roundtrip per day; the average American spends 51 minutes. We can do better.

2. Inclusionary zoning seems like a win-win, but…: Communities with new development get some affordable housing, and taxpayers don’t have to spend a dime. But as with most cases of free lunch, there’s less here than meets the eye: A meta-analysis of the literature on inclusionary zoning doesn’t find much evidence that one of the main fears about IZ, that it will significantly drive up market prices. But that seems to be because the scale of IZ programs is so small, delivering a relatively pittance of units: 280 per year in New York City, for example, a city of more than 8 million people. Solutions that actually deliver housing on the scale of the need are almost certain to require actual public resources.

3. How many carless workers are there, really? Often, we hear statistics about workers with “access to a car.” But that really just means that someone in their household has a car. If there are three adults and one vehicle, all of them nominally have “access,” but it’s likely that only one can really drive to work. So while, for example, 97.4 percent of all workers in the San Diego metro area have “access” to a car, more than one in ten lives in a household where there are more workers than cars. That’s a distinction worth making.

The week’s must reads

1. At City Observatory, we write a lot about economic segregation and the ways that disadvantaged neighborhoods reduce opportunity for the people who live in them. ButVox might have done us one better: instead of just writing about that, they drew about it, in a piece entitled “How living in a poor neighborhood changes everything about your life.” In an epic piece that combines cartoons and text, Alvin Chang breaks down the latest research about what we know about how segregation acts as a barrier to the American dream, how our cities came to be so segregated to begin with, and what we might do about it.

2. Nikole Hannah-Jones has become perhaps the nation’s foremost journalist on issues of segregation and education. In The New York Times Magazine, she writes an intensely personal and informative essay about her own struggles with choosing whether to send her child to a segregated New York City school—and what happened when the city decided to try to integrate that school with a nearby, much whiter school. For those of you who listened toher two-part report on school segregation in suburban St. Louis for This American Life (and if you haven’t, you should), the fallout is alarmingly similar to a similar situation there.

3. When it comes to transit, the difference between a line on the map and service you can depend on is vast. TransitCenter, using data compiled by the Center for Neighborhood Technology, measured how many people in various cities live close to any kind of transit service, and then how many live close (within half a mile) of high-frequency transit service: a bus or train that comes at least every 15 minutes. Those things turn out to be very different, in many cases: take a look at Detroit and Dallas on the chart below.

New knowledge

1. Sand Hill Road, the famous Silicon Valley venture capital district, is prototypical postwar suburbia. But new research from Richard Florida and Karen King finds that those important investments are happening more and more in urban areas. Today, more than half of all venture capital deals happen in urban neighborhoods, as defined by ZIP codes with more than 2,200 households per square mile. In top venture capital ZIP codes, the average bike-walk-transit commute share is nearly 26 percent, three times higher than the national average. Because venture investments are a leading indicator of future business growth, this is another data point signaling the growing economic importance of cities.

2. Pick two of three: Affordable housing, quality of life, and economic strength. That’s the message of Josh Lehner at the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis, who uses a set of metrics to place the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas on a Venn diagram of those three desirable policy outcomes. Just eight metro areas—mostly in the Great Plains—rank in the top half of all three categories. None are in the top 20 in all three. One takeaway: while metros that score well in economic strength and quality of life and build lots of housing do better on affordability than those that don’t build much housing, they still face affordability issues. There’s room to improve on construction, but making sure our below-market housing policies are actually working is also important. (See our post on inclusionary zoning above for more.)

3. We know that America is more urban—or perhaps metropolitan is the better word—than it has ever been. But Hamilton Lombard at the University of Virginia’s StatChat shows that it’s especially larger metropolitan areas that are coming to dominate the residential locations of Americans. In fact, all of the growth in the proportion of people living in metropolitan areas over the last 65 years has come from the growth of people living in metropolitan areas with over a million people. Now, that’s not just because people are all moving to New York or Houston or another huge city—many smaller metropolitan areas have grown to surpass the one million mark themselves. Still, by 2015, nearly six in ten Americans lived in such an area, versus less than three in ten in 1950.

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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