What City Observatory did this week

1. Cars kill city neighborhoods.  Across the nation, America’s cities have been remade to accomodate the automobile.  Freeways have been widened through city neighborhoods, demolishing homes and businesses, but more than that, the sprawling, car-dependent transportation system which is now firmly rooted across the nation is simply toxic to urban neighborhoods.  A recent study from the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia shows that across metropolitan areas, population growth and decline is directly related to proximity to urban freeways:  urban neighborhoods close to freeways decline; suburban neighborhoods near freeways thrive.

In short, freeways are toxic to urban neighborhoods but a tonic to suburban sprawl.  In close-in urban neighborhoods, freeway construction was associated with an 80 to 100% decline in population within one mile of a freeway.  In and near city centers, the closer your neighborhood was to a freeway, the larger its population decline.  The reverse is true in the suburbs, where population growth was concentrated in those areas closest to freeways.  The evidence across six decades of freeway building shows us that freeways kill cities.

2.  The Bum’s Rush. The Oregon Department of Transportation’s $800 million I-5 Rose Quarter project has recently had a major shift in its plans. Just last fall, ODOT’s Director of Urban Mobility Brendan Finn stated that the project is only 15 percent designed and that there is “almost an amazing opportunity here to connect neighborhoods.” However, after this magical moment, ODOT claims that it is simply too late to think about doing anything differently than the original plan. This sudden change is completely different from the outlook expressed last fall. It disregards the community and their own consultants support for buildable covers. ODOT argues that it is too costly to consider buildable caps. Acquiring more land would be “necessary” to implement them, rather than narrowing the excessively oversized roadway it intends to build. The change from a work in progress plan to an unchangeable design showcases ODOT’s true desires once again. There is not a fight for “restorative justice” for the Albina neighborhood nor a push for the economically best model. ODOT is only interested in building a wider freeway.

Must read

1.  The case against freeway widening:  Milwaukee edition.  Around the country, urbanists, social justice activists and climate warriors are all challenging plans to squander billions of dollars widening urban freeways.  We’ve known for decades that wider freeways do not reduce traffic congestion, rather they simply increase traffic, air pollution and sprawl.  A battle rages in Milwaukee, where this coalition of local groups is fighting against state plans to spend upwards of billion dollars widening I-94. 

Writing at the local blog, The Recombobulation Area, Dan Shafer describes the multi-faceted community alliance that’s pushing back.  Their efforts are a template for freeway fighters across the nation.

2.   If it’s really a climate emergency, maybe we should start charging for parking.  Vancouver city planners are showing that they’re willing to take some serious steps toward fighting climate change.  They are proposing a $1,000 annual fee for residents parking high polluting vehicles on city streets.  The fee would be zero for non-polluting vehicles, like electric cars, and graduated based on vehicle emissions.  While this is definitely a second-best approach compared to a strong carbon tax or a congestion fee, such a measure sends a tangible economic signal to the region’s residents about the environmental consequences of high polluting vehicles. 

While the headline number of $1,000 sounds like a lot, it actually works out to about $2.75 a day (about $2.20 in US$), which is less than a single, one-way bus ticket in most US cities.  However, this measure is far from perfect, the fee only applies to newly purchased vehicles (model year 2022 or later). Grandfathering older vehicles may seem politically wise, but it would incentivize people to keep their old dirty cars for longer.  If the climate is really a crisis, maybe we should charge people more for polluting than for taking transit.

3.  Gentrification is not the real problem. Writing at Shelterforce, Brett McMillan argues that “we have a major problem with how we talk about gentrification in this country.” In this piece, he explains gentrification’s flawed theory and the greater problems that the term fails to cover. Neil Smith’s theory of gentrification was a hypothesis introduced in the 1970s to explain the demographic pattern of people moving from the suburbs back into the city. Numerous studies have found this theory to be insufficient. For example, scholars Lance Freeman and Tiacheng Cai found that the white “invasion” into areas with predominantly Black populations (50% or more of the population) has been a relatively infrequent phenomenon since 1980, despite a slight recent uptick.  McMillan is particularly critical of the failure of the gentrification literature to clearly define or document gentrification-driven displacement:

In 2020, a paper in the high-ranking academic journal Urban Studies criticized statistical analyses that showed limited displacement because their “progress in identifying [displacement’s] extent has been remarkably slow,” meaning, as I take it, that we ought to reverse the scientific method. Which is to say, rather than forming a hypothesis, rigorously testing it, and adjusting it in light of studies’ results in order to better understand problems motivating the analysis, such claims suggest we ought to make results conform to a pre-determined outcome.

McMillan supports his argument with links to a number of critical studies. He pushes to change the framework for discussion to address broader, structural issues. Neighborhood-level inequalities and housing shortages and the growth of concentrated poverty, it turns out are more serious issues masked by a too frequent focus on gentrification. McMillan states that wealthier people moving into and driving up costs in particular urban neighborhoods is merely a “symptom” of urban equality issues, not its cause. Solutions that address systemic roots like increasing housing supply and eliminating exclusionary zoning are necessary for greater housing equality. Controlling the conversation around the term “gentrification” fails to take into consideration the structural problems and the solutions which could alleviate the adverse effects of inequality.

New Knowledge

Inclusionary Zoning: Not a Cure for Exclusionary Zoning. A new research review from Bryan Graveline examines inclusionary zoning’s effect on housing affordability and residential segregation. It finds that inclusionary zoning is a poor tool to make progress on either of these issues. 

Both housing unaffordability and residential segregation are caused largely by exclusionary zoning, like single-family zoning and minimum lot sizes. However, despite its name, inclusionary zoning does not undo exclusionary zoning. Rather, it asks developers to set aside a percentage of units in each new development to be affordable to low-income renters.

While this policy may sound agreeable on first blush, the report finds that inclusionary zoning does not meaningfully address either of the problems it tries to solve and can actually worsen the housing affordability crisis. Graveline recommends that jurisdictions hoping to confront issues of housing affordability and residential segregation forgo inclusionary zoning and instead focus on repealing exclusionary zoning.

The report evaluates inclusionary zoning policies across four criteria:

  1. Effect on the housing market. Inclusionary zoning increases the price of new market-rate housing and decreases its supply. And because would-be tenants of new buildings live in older buildings when new construction is constrained, inclusionary zoning affects all segments of the housing market.
  2. Production of below-market rate housing. Most inclusionary zoning programs create less than 100 affordable units per year. This is a drop in the bucket compared to the need for affordable housing in most cities.
  3. Effect on residential segregation. This topic is understudied in the current literature, so it’s difficult to draw definitive conclusions. However, inclusionary zoning is only as effective at fighting segregation as the number of units it produces. Because it produces so few units, it likely does not have a meaningful effect on segregation.
  4. Effect on exclusionary zoning. Inclusionary zoning does not undo exclusionary zoning. In fact, it can entrench current exclusionary policies. Many inclusionary programs try to coax developers into creating affordable units by offering to reduce costly exclusionary policies (such as density limits). Some jurisdictions thus enact strict exclusionary policies just to give themselves leverage over developers. 

Graveline ultimately finds that inclusionary zoning does not accomplish its intended goals and can lead to perverse side effects. He recommends that rather than pursuing inclusionary zoning, jurisdictions address a more relevant cause of both housing unaffordability and residential segregation: exclusionary zoning.

In the News

In his Planetizen article explaining why many times “slower is better” for transportation systems (and for livable places) Todd Litman cites City Observatory’s analysis showing that residents of metro areas with higher average travel speeds are less happy with their transport experience.