What City Observatory did this week

1. Finding nuance in the housing supply arguments. A new article from Rick Jacobus at Shelterforce helps resolve some of the tensions in the growing debate about whether and how housing supply is behind the affordability crisis—and the answer hinges on understanding how demand and supply can change at local and regional levels. But zooming out also allows us to explain our skepticism some of the claims about new luxury housing creating its own high-end demand where it wouldn’t otherwise exist.

2. Super long commutes: a non-big, non-growing, non-problem. A slew of articles have told readers that “mega commuters”—people who travel at least 90 minutes in each direction—are a growing, and troubling, indicator of problems with our transportation systems. But in fact, the number of these extreme commutes have not been growing, and make up less than three percent of all commuters. Moreover, many of these commuters may actually be doing something more akin to telecommuting than actually physically going into the office each day.

3. Like Uber, but for redistribution. Last year, two researchers suggested that cities might soon begin subsidizing Uber trips—and this month, an Orlando suburb became the first municipality to make good on that prediction. What’s in it for cities? The authors argue that Uber can produce “public goods” by intensifying the agglomeration benefits that cities exist for to begin with—and improve efficiency by using a smaller number of vehicles (and parking spaces) more intensively. But there are also questions, like whether subsidizing trips is the most cost-effective way to reach those goals, and the fact that Uber cars face the same problems of geometry as regular cars—in short, they take up way more space per person than buses or trains—and so can’t help, and may even hurt, road congestion.

4. Why the new Inrix Traffic Scorecard deserves a “D.” We’ve criticized Inrix and the Texas Transportation Institute’s traffic reports before; unfortunately, a new report—issued by Inrix without TTI—takes several steps back even from that low bar. The new “traffic scorecard” is stripped of context from previous years, and it’s not clear if this report’s numbers are comparable to past statistics, making trends impossible to discern. Inrix has some amazing data, with great potential for analysis—but it needs to be open, consistent and transparent if it’s going to help us better understand and address our transportation problems.

The week’s must reads

1. In some good news, Baltimore County and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development have come to an agreement to help reduce segregation in that region. It took half a decade to negotiate, but the deal, which was spurred by a legal complaint from the NAACP and local groups, will result in more low-income family housing being constructed in primarily white, high-income areas in the county. The complaint indicated that these places were using their federal low-income housing money disproportionately for age-restricted buildings that tended to house elderly white residents.

2. The Bay Area transit agency BART’s Twitter account got real this week, tweeting in the wake of an electrical malfunction that “much of our system has reached the end of its useful life.” Vox suggests that this problem is bigger than just BART, pointing to the DC Metro’s decision to shut down entirely for 29 hours to take care of potentially fatal equipment problems and a 2010 FTA study that found that 26 percent of the country’s rail mass transit was in “poor or marginal” condition.

3. We’re a little late on this, but if you missed it, you owe it to yourself (and maybe your grandkids) to read it: The New Yorker goes deep on how global warming is flooding Miami—not in 2100, or 2050, but today. Though the Army Corps of Engineers predicts sea levels could rise five feet in the next century, waters are already inundating Miami Beach with such frequency and severity that the city has spent $100 million in mitigation. As one of the world’s most vulnerable urban areas to climate change-related flooding, the region is on the front lines of figuring out what can be done for coastal cities in the coming years.

New knowledge

1. What’s the effect of technology on mode choice decisions? A report from University of Minnesota professor Yingling Fan uses data from the American Time Use Survey to identify behaviors that might be done during commutes as self-driving car technology improves and becomes more common. One big takeaway is that if the “cost” of travel time is reduced because more activities can be undertaken during a trip, people may take many more, and longer, trips.

2. Though it has so far produced few headlines, in some areas, financial firms are creating securities backed by the rental income of large bundles of single-family homes. The Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco scrutinizes the geography of these homes, and find that they largely, though not perfectly, map those neighborhoods that were hardest hit by the foreclosure crisis. They also raise the question of the relationship to these securitized rental homes and access for Section 8 voucher holders, and the effect of securitization on the broader market, including non-securitized homes. They conclude that available data is insufficient for understanding the impact of this trend on US cities, and much further research and transparency is needed.

3. Demolition of vacant properties has become a common tactic for cities that have seen significant depopulation of some of their neighborhoods. A study from researchers at Harvard and the Federal Reserve Board of Governors looks at these teardowns in three cities—Cleveland, Chicago, and Denver—and measures outcomes like crime and rehab investments. They find that demolitions were associated with a small but statistically significant reduction in local property crimes (burglaries and thefts), but found no impact for rehabilitation projects. Their data suggest the reductions were highly localized (within 250 feet of the demolished property), and may be temporary.

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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