Young and Restless

The Young and Restless—25 to 34 year-olds with a bachelor’s degree or higher level of education—are increasingly moving to the close-in neighborhoods of the nation’s large metropolitan areas.   This migration is fueling economic growth and urban revitalization.

Using data from the recently released American Community Survey, this report examines population change in the 51 metropolitan areas with 1 million or more population, and focuses on the change in population in close-in neighborhoods, those places within 3 miles of the center of each metropolitan area’s primary central business district.

Urban cores attracted increased numbers of young adults even in metropolitan areas that were losing population and hemorrhaging talented young workers.  Metropolitan Buffalo, Cleveland, New Orleans and Pittsburgh, all of which experienced population declines over the past decade, saw an increase in the number of young adults with a college degree in their close-in neighborhoods.  (In these cases, the numerical increases were from small bases, but show that the urban core is attractive even in these economically troubled regions).

Overall these close-in neighborhoods have higher levels of educational attainment among their young adult population than the overall metropolitan areas of which they are a part.  The college attainment rate of young adults living in close-in neighborhoods in the largest metropolitan areas increased to 55 percent from 43 percent in 2000.  Outside the three-mile urban core, educational attainment rates increased slightly from about 31 percent to about 35 percent.

Talented young workers are both economically important in their own right—playing especially important roles in meeting the labor needs of fast-growing knowledge-based firms—and also as a kind of indicator of the overall health and attractiveness of a metropolitan area.  And despite the decline in overall migration rates in the U.S., they remain highly mobile.  With a million young adults moving each year, the stakes are large.

To see how your city fares, peruse the tables and map below:


Cover Photo courtesy of Total Due and Flickr Creative Commons.

The four biggest myths about cities – #3: Crime is rising in cities

robocop watch

The Myth: Crime in cities is on the rise

The Reality: Cities are getting safer

For decades, the common perception about cities is that they were dangerous, dirty, and crowded. A look at the facts tells a different story: our cities are cleaner, safer, quicker, and healthier than ever. Today I’ll take a look at how urban neighborhoods have become safer despite public attitudes to the contrary.

On the whole, violent crime is declining in the Unites States. The overall murder rate has dropped by more than half since 1991 and property crimes like burglary have been on the decline. As a result, American concern about crime has ebbed: in 1994 a majority of Americans told Gallup crime was the nation’s most pressing issue; only 1 percent gave that answer in 2011. Even though we individually regard crime as less of a problem, people still tend to think of big cities as somehow dangerous. Consider the New York paradox: According to YouGov, Americans who have never been to the Big Apple are evenly divided on whether its safe or not, while those who have traveled their regard it as safe by a two-to-one margin.

This drop in crime has been greatest in the nation’s largest cities. Violent crimes of all kinds declined 29 percent in the central cities of the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas — a significantly steeper decline than in the nation’s suburbs (down 7 percent). Property crimes in central cities fell even more — down 46 percent, compared to a 31 percent decrease in suburbs.

Survey evidence demonstrates that the drop in crime is not widely understood by the general public. A September 2014 survey by YouGov found that most Americans believe crime rates have increased over the past two decades. Their data show that 50 percent of Americans think crime rates are up; 22 percent think they are down, 15 percent think crime rates are unchanged, and 13 percent don’t know.

Hollywood continues to peddle the storyline of cities of the future as savage, crime-ridden dystopias (see for example this year’s remake of Robocop). Meanwhile the good news about safer cities goes almost unnoticed. A 2011 study by the Brookings Institution pointing to significant declines in 80 of the nation’s 100 largest cities has gone practically unnoticed, garnering just seven citations in other work, according to Google Scholar. (Google Scholar, August 19, 2014).

While crime has dropped, it’s not the only factor making cities better places to live. Wednesday, I’ll conclude the series by showing how traffic jams aren’t actually as bad as they used to be.

Photo courtesy of Danni Naeil on Flickr.

The four biggest myths about cities – #1 Cities aren’t safe for children

If your impression of cities came entirely from watching the evening news, you might think that cities are saddled with ever-increasing traffic congestion and rising crime rates. From talking to your Great Aunt Ida at Thanksgiving, you’d think that New York was more dangerous for children than the suburbs and that Los Angeles was still covered in a cloud of smog.

But the truth is quite different. A look at the facts shows that cities are cleaner, safer, quicker, and healthier than ever.

Urban crime has fallen sharply over the past two decades, and many of the nation’s biggest cities, like New York, are statistically the safest.

And while the thought of raising kids in the city makes some parents quake with fear for the personal safety of their children, there’s growing evidence that city living is safer and healthier for kids than growing up in the suburbs. This week and next, I’ll be taking a look at some of the most common, and most mistaken views about cities.

Up first: Safety.


The Myth: Cities are dangerous places to live, especially for children

The Reality: Cities are actually quite safe while suburbs and rural areas are more dangerous

For decades, the common perception about cities is that they were dangerous, dirty, and crowded. A look at the facts tells a different story: our cities are cleaner, safer, quicker, and healthier than ever. Urban neighborhoods are some of the safest places to raise a family.

For an entire generation of Americans, safety and serenity meant living on a quiet, wide suburban street, where trips by car were a necessity to avoid the vulnerability of pedestrian travel.

Most of us still feel pretty safe getting into our cars, but traffic crashes are actually the leading cause of “non-intentional” death (i.e. not from disease) in the United States – and people who live in suburbs and rural areas are much more likely to die in car crashes. For those under 25, car crashes are the leading cause of death.

A University of Pennsylvania study looked at the geographic location of nearly 1.3 million injury deaths in the United States over two decades. It found that, on average, death rates from injuries were about 22 percent higher in the least dense counties than in the most dense counties.

Not surprisingly, there is a strong correlation between sprawling metropolitan areas, where people have to drive further on an everyday basis, and death rates from car crashes. Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System, shows that each additional mile driven per capita daily in a metropolitan area was associated with five additional car crash deaths per million in population. Comparing two metropolitan areas with populations of 2 million, a metro area where people drove 30 miles per person per day would be expected to have 100 more car crash fatalities annually than a metro area where people drove only 20 miles per person per day.

OK, so cities have fewer car crashes than the suburbs, but won’t we all die of lung cancer from all the smog? Next week, I’ll take on the myth that urban neighborhoods are choked by air pollution.

Photo courtesy of Wolfy (Pete) Hanson on Flickr

The four biggest myths about cities – #2: Cities are dirty

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The Myth: Cities are polluted and have dirty air

The Reality: Urban air quality has improved dramatically since 1990

For decades, the common perception about cities is that they were dangerous, dirty, and crowded. A look at the facts tells a different story: our cities are cleaner, safer, quicker, and healthier than ever. Today I’ll take look at the story of smog and how smart policy has cleaned the urban air we breathe.

Over the past two decades, the United States has made significant progress in reducing air pollution. Emissions of the six major air pollutants—including nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons and particulates–are collectively down 56 percent since 1990. We’ve also made tremendous progress in reducing toxic air pollutants: lead levels in ambient air have been reduced 84 percent; benzene levels are down 66 percent. This progress has been widespread in the nation’s cities. The number of days in which air quality failed to meet health standards has declined in all 35 of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas.

While we often perceive that cities are dirtier and produce more pollution than the suburbs, cities actually generate significantly less air pollution than suburbs on a per person basis. Urban residents drive fewer miles, are more likely to use public transit, consume less electricity, and have smaller heating bills than their suburban counterparts.

Every day, the storyline of American cities is changing. We’re hearing more about the social and economic opportunities that cities provide, but it’s important to recognize that urban neighborhoods become some of the best places to raise a family.

On Wednesday Thursday, I’ll take on the myth that criminals are running rampant in the streets of the country’s major cities. Spoiler alert: Robocop isn’t coming to a city near you.

Photo courtesy of Holly Clark on Flickr

Boo! The annual Carmaggedon scare is upon us.

A new report detailing the “costs” of congestion twists the data to become little more than talking points for the highway lobby.


For transportation geeks, Halloween came early this year.

A new report claims that traffic congestion is costing us $124 billion a year and is “draining” our economy.  But just as those ghoul and zombie trick-or-treaters are actually the annoying but harmless kids from the neighborhood, the claimed cost of congestion is just an annual prank aimed chiefly at scaring the bejeezus out of the gullible.

Stealing a page from the Texas Transportation Institute, which has been flogging this same scare tactic for the past thirty years, a new report entitled “The future economic and environmental costs of gridlock in 2030,” claims that congestion will impose huge economic costs on the world’s cities.  Sponsored by Inrix and written by British economic consultancy Cebr, the report says traffic congestion now costs the US $124 billion and that this will grow to $186 billion by 2030.  And in case those numbers aren’t big and scary enough for you, the press release announcing the study adds together twenty years of estimates for the US and other countries in order to be able to push the total cost into the trillions.

The report has had its predictable impact on the media:

Money magazine shouted:  Traffic Costs You Even More Than You Think—and It’s Getting Worse

MSN chimed in with “Car-maggedon-the $4.4 trillion traffic problem”

Forbes uncritically echoed the study’s headline claim: “Traffic congestion costs Americans $124 billion a year”

These traffic horror stories are of course hardy perennials. Prompted by a similar report five years ago, Time wrote “America:  Still Stuck in Traffic” warning that traffic problems would only get worse.

But the truth is that there’s little evidence that congestion is costly, and if anything, traffic and congestion-related time losses are declining.

Congestion cost claims are based on a discredited methodology that takes some useful data and twists in in ways that produce seriously misleading conclusions. The Inrix/Cber report uses a “travel time index” to compute how much longer trips take in peak hours than non-busy times, and then claims that the number of additional hours that those trips take—valued at a certain number of dollars—represent a “drain” on the nation’s economy.

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But this study is flimsier than a cardboard tombstone. Like earlier scare stories, it is riddled with flaws. The details are spelled out in a new CitySubjects card deck at City  Here are the highlights:

  • The travel time index used to compute costs treats the inability to drive faster than the speed limit due to congestion as a “cost” to commuters.
  • The report predicts a trivial increase in congestion between now and 2030—delay in the average daily commute will be about 25 seconds longer than it is today.
  • Predictions of increases in driving and congestion have repeatedly been proven wrong.
  • Driving is down: the US experienced “peak car” in 2005, and the average number of miles driven per American has fallen seven percent since then from 27.6 miles to 25.6 miles per day.
  • Inrix’s own data shows that time lost to congestion in the United States has fallen 40 percent since 2010.
  • Time lost to traffic congestion is so small for most travelers that it isn’t noticed and has little economic value.
  • Building enough capacity to eliminate rush hour congestion would be virtually impossible and cost many times more than the supposed value of time lost to congestion.

Sadly, while the Inrix report generates plenty of heat, it sheds very little light on the true nature of our transportation system’s performance and how it contributes to—or detracts from—our economy.

But we know how the Inrix/Cber report will be used: as talking points for the highway lobby to plead for additional public subsidies for expanding road capacity.  Decades of experience have shown us that investments in additional roadway simply trigger more demand—and no matter how fast we run on the highway construction treadmill, we still end up with congestion, plus more expensive roads to maintain, and generally, greater levels of sprawl.  The result is so well understood that its come to be called “The fundamental law of road congestion.”

One of the ironies here is that this year’s report is sponsored by the company Inrix, which operates the technology to track traffic speeds in real time, providing everyone who owns a mobile device with clever, helpful maps showing current traffic levels color-coded for delay. These maps helps us cope with congestion; and the data they’ve gathered show we’ve actually made huge progress in reducing it in the past few years.  It’s a shame they aren’t sharing that good news, instead of trying to scare us.



Top photo courtesy of Jackie at Flickr Creative Commons

And the Talent Dividend Prize Winner is . . .

Akron, Ohio!  With a 20.2 percent increase in post-secondary degrees awarded over the past three years, Akron outpaced the 56 other metro areas entered in the Talent Dividend Prize contest.  As the winner of the Talent Dividend Prize, Akron will receive one million dollars to promote further efforts to raise college attainment in Northeast Ohio.  For more details about the prize winners, visit Living Cities.

The prize contest was launched four years ago with the support of the Kresge and Lumina Foundations.

The competition was built on the observation that education is the single most important factor in driving metropolitan economic success.  Research shows that about 60 percent of the variation in per capita personal income among large U.S. metropolitan areas is the fraction of the adult population that has earned a four-year college degree.

As Bill Moses of the Kresge Foundation noted at the prize announcement ceremony, one of the hallmarks of the Talent Dividend prize is cross-sector collaboration.  The competition recognized from the beginning that increasing educational attainment was not just an issue of interest or importance to colleges and universities, but in order to be successful has to engage the business community local government and others and to tie education directly to the economic development agenda.  By offering the award for a collective, community-wide performance, the prize competition catalyzed broader partnerships in participating communities.

The prize was awarded to Akron because it was the city which achieved the largest population-weighted increase in 2-year, 4-year and advanced degrees awarded between 2009-10 and 2012-13.  (Four-year and advanced degrees are double-weighted in this calculation, reflecting their greater economic impact).  Over the past three years, the 57 competing cities have increased the number of 2-year degrees by 69,000 and the number of 4-year degrees by 55,000.  In the aggregate, the competing cities increased the number of degrees awarded by 7.6 percent more than their growth in population.

So the great thing about the Talent Dividend Prize is that every community is a winner.  Increasing educational attainment pays a big dividend to communities.  On average, every one percentage point improvement in educational attainment is associated with a $835 dollar increase in per capita personal income.  The participating cities also have strengthened their capability for local collaboration around these issues, which will likely pay additional dividends going forward.

(Updated October 30, to reflect the announcement of the winner).


Young and Restless: How is your city doing?

We just released our first CityReport looking at the “Young and Restless,” detailing where young talent is going in the U.S.- and why it matters. (Download the report here.) Here we show how the nation’s largest cities do with this important demographic.

The Young and Restless–25 to 34 year-olds with a 4-year degree or higher–play a critical role driving local economic development. “The most successful economic development policy is to attract and retain smart people and then get out of their way,” Edward Glaeser, Harvard economist, recently told the New York Times.

So how is your metro doing? Our data show how the nation’s largest metro’s are performing in three dimensions:

1. How well educated are your young adults?

2. How large is the Young and Restless cohort in your city?

3. How well are your urban core neighborhoods doing in attracting young adults?

The interactive data presented below provides the answers to all these questions.  The first tab shows the four-year attainment rate of 25 to 34 year-olds in each of the nation’s 51 largest metro areas (those with one million or more in population). You can sort by columns to see the differences among the metros. For example, Boston, Washington D.C., and San Francisco have the highest rates of college attainment in both 2000 and 2012, but Riverside, Buffalo, LA and Pittsburgh all had the greatest change in educational attainment over the time period.

The Young and Restless make up a much larger fraction of the adult population and workforce in some cities than in others.  The second tab shows the percentage of the adult population between 25 and 34 years of age with a four-year or higher degree, which is a good indicator of the economic impact of this group in your metro area. Washington D.C., Boston, and San Francisco top the 2012 list, as expected, but up and coming cities like Austin, Denver, Minneapolis and Seattle make the top 10.

Our third tab drills down to the city center and looks at how well urban core neighborhoods attracting young adults. Over the last several decades, well-educated young adults have become increasingly likely to locate in the urban cores of cities–those places within 3 miles of the center of each metropolitan area’s primary central business district. It has also been clear that much of this migration has been by young people. So how many of these talented young adults are moving to urban cores—and where are they going? The number of young adults in the core shows how strong the ‘critical mass’ of young adults is—and overall measures how well the core itself is doing. Some cities like St. Louis and Miami have more than doubled the number of these talented young adults in their urban cores in just the last decade, with L.A., Baltimore and San Diego very close to doing the same.

Finally, the fourth tab presents a map showing for each metro area, the number of 25 to 34 year olds with a 4-year degree or more living in close-in neighborhoods in 2010, as the percentage increase from 2000-2010. (Hover over any city to see how well it did in attracting talented young adults!)

So what does this all mean? We know that talented young workers are a strong indicator of strong urban economies. Because young workers are highly mobile, and become less so as they age, attracting young workers today is one key to increasing metro educational attainment. To see more information on how talent drives development, see our Talent & Prosperity card deck.

Finding your way around City Observatory

The City Observatory homepage is designed to provide you with access to the latest in urban policy analysis and research, and the background to make sense of it all.

At the top of the site, you will find navigation links that will take you to the all of the content that we post on City Observatory: Subjects, Reports, and Commentary. Below, you’ll see the most recent CityCommentary posts in orange, our CityReports in green, and our constantly updated CitySubjects in blue.


CityCommentary is the voice of the site – it’s where you’ll find explanations of complex policy topics, thoughtful opinions, and insightful responses to urban analysis from across the world. CityCommentary posts will come from a variety of authors, including Joe Cortright, Carol Coletta, and guest writers.


The subject cards are the backbone of City Observatory – they are the topics the site follows most closely. Each subject has a series of cards that will be updated with the latest information and data – each card starts with a common question and addresses a different facet of that topic. For example, the cards for the subject “Kids in Cities” answer questions like “Are young people with children actually staying in cities?” and “What can cities to do accommodate families with children?” Check back to these subjects at any time for a primer about the issues that matter to the success of cities.


A hallmark of City Observatory will be our CityReports—in-depth explorations blending data analysis, survey research, and policy narratives to explain the ways our cities are changing. CityReports will cover topics like resurgence of core economies, the shifting demand for travel, neighborhood change, and migration. City Observatory will publish the first report, The Young and Restless and the Nation’s Cities, on October 20. This report will examine the attitudes and location preferences of the nation’s mobile young workers, and how they are shaping, and re-shaping city economies.

Is Portland really where young people go to retire?

Forget the quirky, slacker stereotype, the data show people are coming to Portland to start businesses.


A recent New York Times magazine article “Keep Portland Broke,” echoed a meme made popular by the satirical television show “Portlandia” asking whether the city will always be a retirement community for the young.

Far from being a retirement venue for the precocious indolent, the city is in fact a beehive of social and cultural innovation and entrepreneurship.

Critics are to be forgiven if they mistake a different set of interests and sometimes values for a disinterest in “traditional” work.

And we’re not talking individually pedigreed free-range chickens or artisanal pickles (although you’ll find those, too).

The truth is the young adults in Portland are disproportionately entrepreneurial. Among college educated 25 to 34 year olds, fully nine percent are self-employed, a rate half again greater than that of other large metropolitan areas—and ranking Portland third for self-employment among metros with a million or more population.

Among the nation’s 51 largest metro areas—all those with a million or more population, Portland ranks fourth in small businesses per capita, fourth in self-employment, seventh in patents per capita and fourteenth in venture capital per capita. And true to form, the city shines when it comes to edgy and creative: according to Forbes, Portland ranked seventh in Bandcamp, third in Kickstarter, and third in Indie-Go-Go among US cities.

And the city is alive with creative endeavors of all kinds. The city has more than 600 food carts, the largest concentration of microbreweries of any large city in the US.

Portland is home to the nation’s leading cluster of athletic and outdoor gear and apparel firms, including the world headquarters of Nike and Columbia Sportswear and the North American headquarters of adidas. And there are more than 400 other firms in the industry cluster—most of them started locally, and making Portland one of the hottest places on the planet for designers.

Arts and culture. Indy bands. A prolific, inventive food scene. Strong and innovative clusters of software and semiconductor firms. A robust, world-class athletic gear and apparel cluster.

And, at the end of the day, the claims of indolent retirement fall in the face of simple and compelling data about the region’s unemployment rate. In 2012, the unemployment rate for 25 to 34 year olds with a four-year degree or higher level of education in Portland was 4.8 percent—a bit higher than the average for large metropolitan areas (4.0%), but the same as Houston, and lower than Atlanta and Chicago (5.2%), Los Angeles (8.3%) Las Vegas (7.2%) and—attention New York Times—New York (5.7%).

This new generation is doing new and different things. It is keeping Portland weird. And some of what is happening will seem bizarre or disconcerting to those who’ve grown settled in their ways. But Oregonians are pretty much oblivious to this kind of derision from outsiders: we’re content to do what we want because it makes sense to us, not because it passes muster with critics from somewhere else.

There’s actually a long history of that here in Portland. Back in the 1960s, at a time when adult Americans generally didn’t sweat in public if they could avoid it, people in this area started running and jogging for health. What was originally odd behavior—grown men and women in shorts and t-shirts out running along public streets—presaged a national and global trend in fitness. And one guy started a business selling Japanese sneakers to these joggers out of the back of his 1964 Plymouth Valiant station wagon. The company Phil Knight started—Nike–is today one of the world’s most recognized brands and the global leader in sports apparel. Not every weird little habit ultimately leads a Fortune 500 company, but a surprising number of successes emerge people were weren’t afraid to be different.

Joe Cortright’s earlier rejoinder to the New York Times article on Portland appears on CityLab.

Photo courtesy of Frank Fujimoto at Flickr Creative Commons