Ride-hailing is growing: We distill a new report into 5 key factors that explain its growth
A good reporter is always supposed to ask five questions: “who, what, when, where and why?” A new report on ride-hailing provides a range of keen insights about the demand for these services, and has important implications for predicting the future of autonomous vehicles.
There’s a new report from Shared Use Mobility Center, published by the Transportation Research Board, with a ponderous title: “Broadening Understanding of the Interplay Between Public Transit, Shared Mobility, and Personal Automobiles. The report is a over a hundred pages long, and filled with interesting and often arcane detail about who’s using services like Lyft and Uber, where and when they use them and how this is affecting demand for street space and transit. If you’re a real transportation geek, you’ll want to read the whole thing. But if you aren’t (or in the meantime, until you’ve had a chance to read it) we can boil the whole thing down to five words: drinking, parking, flying, peaking and pricing.
The heart of the work is an analysis of trip-making data supplied by ride hailing companies, similar data collected in San Francisco, and surveys of more than 10,000 customers of ride-haling services in five cities: Chicago, Los Angeles, Nashville, Seattle and Washington, DC. The study also explored the question of whether use of ride-hailing services had any impact on transit ridership in these cities.
The slightly longer narrative take on the report is this: Ride-hail demand is driven by drinking (people who want to avoid having drive their own vehicle on Friday and Saturday nights), by the cost of parking (ride-hailing is a more economical alternative to bringing your own car places where parking is expensive). People traveling by air seem to value their time more highly, and may have no access to a personal private vehicle at one end of their flight. Ride-hailing is highly peaked in those times (especially Friday and Saturday nights) and places (downtowns and airports) in which there is demand. Finally, ride hail trips tend to be short (just 2-4 miles), because customers pay for each additional mile and minute.
The report also tells us a lot about where these services aren’t valued. There’s little demand for ride-hailing when parking is cheap or free, when drivers expect to be sober, and for longer trips, and to destinations that don’t have a high density of people and destinations (or an airport).
As a result of these factors (especially pricing, parking and flying), most ride hail trips tend to take place in a small subset of a region’s neighborhoods (especially in and around downtown, where there’s a density of customers and destinations, and where parking tends to be pricey). Take Chicago for example:
There’s a strong economic implication here: The income and value of time of travelers, and the availability and price of alternatives figures prominently in when, where and whether people use ride-hailing services. The risks and penalties associated with drunk driving (legal, financial and moral) likely lead many people to choose ride-hailing when they consume alcohol; in addition unlike journey to work trips, social trips may be groups rather than individuals.
People use ride-hailing services “on an occasional basis” and for trips where speed and reliability are important. Few people use it for commuting on a regular basis.
What this suggests is that the markets for ride-hailed vehicles today–and for their successors, fleets of autonomous vehicles tomorrow–are likely to be shaped by many of these same factors. Demand will be highest where people, and trip origins and destinations are densest, where parking is expensive, where and among populations that have a high value of travel time savings (and the ability to pay). Ride-hailing and autonomous vehicles are going to affect some people, some trips, and some places much more than others.
The content of this report is an excellent addition to our knowledge about ride-hailing and its place in the urban transportation system. It’s a shame that much of the most salient content and its implications are buried in the report. (Just a thought: starting the title of your report with the words “broadening understanding of the interplay” is not an attention-grabber). More tangibly, while the report’s data implicate parking costs as a key factor in ride-hailing demand, that observation isn’t made in the report and the word parking appears on just 6 of the report’s more than 100 pages. We’ve tried to punch up the findings a bit so that the meat of this report gets the attention we think it deserves.
Feigon, S. and C. Murphy. 2018. Broadening Understanding of the Interplay Between Public Transit, Shared Mobility, and Personal Automobiles. Pre-publication draft of TCRP Research Report 195. Transportation Research Board, Washington, D.C.
Big data should be used for problem solving, not propaganda and promotion
Cue the extreme telephoto shots of freeways!
Wallow in the pity of commuters stuck in traffic because of all those other people!
Wail that congestion is getting worse and worse!
It’s that time of year again: The big traffic congestion report is out.
Yesterday, Inrix released its annual traffic scorecard for 2017. It’s based on some of the biggest of big data out there–more than 500 terabytes of records of vehicle movements in cities around the world. It purports to rank how bad traffic is in every large city on the planet, and offers a stupendous, but entirely fictional estimate that congestion is somehow “costing” travelers in the US, UK and Germany $467 billion per year.
Time and again, we and others have debunked these congestion cost claims. They’re based on the unrealistic assumption that there’s some way that one could build enough capacity so that every trip could travel at the same speed in peak hours as it does in off peak times. (Thanks to induced demand, that’s literally impossible). The congestion rankings completely overlook the differences in trip lengths among metropolitan areas, awarding low congestion rankings to sprawling places where people have to drive further.
This time, we’re not going to dignify the congestion report by echoing any of its rankings. Suffice to say, the current report is essentially indistinguishable from any of those that have gone before it. We’ve been down this road (sorry!) many times before, so we’ll just remind you of some of the points we’ve made about the flaws and absurdity of this and previous congestion reports.
We’ve tried humor and parody: witness our Cappuccino Congestion Index, which applies the “cost of delay” model to coffee shops, to show how ridiculous it is.
We’ve shown how longer commutes, not levels of traffic congestion, are the primary determinants of whether people are satisfied with their region’s transportation system. Going faster doesn’t make you happier, it just makes you sprawl more.
We’ve calculated how the sprawling development patterns (that are correlated with “good” congestion scores) impose a multi-billion dollar tax on travelers in metro areas around the country.
It’s a tragic waste of potentially useful data. Once upon a time, Inrix, the company that produced its report, made an honest effort to make its data transparent and regularly available, so that one could track progress. The Inrix data showed that nearly all cities made big progress in reducing traffic congestion between 2010 and 2012–when gasoline prices were considerable higher than they are today. That data has been deep-sixed, along with the insight that, if we making driving somewhat more expensive, we’ll experience less congestion.
Of course, alarmist congestion reports have been with us for decades. Inrix is carrying on in the tradition of the Texas Transportation Institute, which for years produced a similar report. At least the TTI showed a bit more of its work and revealed more about its methods, and made a rough stab at trying to say how we might tackle the problem. The Inrix report is all about generating heat, not shedding light, on the nature and solutions to urban transportation problems.
The good news is that many in the news media are wising up to the fable that’s being spun here. The Oregonian‘s Eliot Njus dutifully reported the Inrix headline claims, but then added the caveat that:
There are plenty of criticisms of these kinds of reports, chief among them is that they set a baseline of “free-flow” speeds. That can mean driving the posted speed limit is considered an effect congestion. Congestion studies also tend to understate the effects of shorter commutes in small and compact metro areas such as Portland’s.
We have more data about urban transportation system performance than we’ve ever had. But because it’s chiefly being used for propaganda (traffic is horrible!) and promotion (Inrix!), we actually know less than we used to. A really useful report would focus in on careful collection of time series data within a market, and would track travel distances, as well as speeds, recognizing that shorter trips are a boon to both travelers and cities. There is a small glimmer of hope here: in the blog post accompanying the report, Inrix economist Graham Cookson acknowledges that the congestion problem is about the imbalance between supply and demand, and that pricing roads can play a key role in bringing these in to balance:
But the fundamental reason is an imbalance between the demand and supply for roads. Managing demand for road space is critical. That includes smoothing demand through flexible working, avoiding peak hour trips through remote working, ride sharing and encouraging the efficient use of our roads through wider adoption of road user pricing. (Emphasis added).
Rather than being buried in a blog post, that should be the headline of any congestion report: The reason you’re sitting in traffic is because the price that’s being charged to road users doesn’t reflect either the cost of building and maintaining the roadway, nor the effects of your decision to travel at peak hours. If we want to eliminate or reduce congestion and its attendant costs, the only effective solution is to get the prices right.
Politics and the President’s wheeler-dealer background suggest the infrastructure plan is a mirage
If there’s been one shred of hope for bi-partisan progress in this politically polarized time, its been the idea that somehow the “populist” Trump Administration and congressional democrats and republicans might somehow see eye-to-eye on the subject of good, old-fashioned public works pork, what now goes by the term infrastructure. Trump endorsed big plans to beef up infrastructure spending in his campaign, and most democrats and not a few republicans would relish dispensing billions in federal funds for pet projects in their states or districts.
Given Donald Trump’s history–from steaks, to private colleges, to casinos–is it any surprise that his infrastructure “plan” is primarily a vehicle for personal self-promotion financed with “OPM” (other people’s money) that, if it goes ahead at all, will be a financial and economic failure?
It’s actually so unremarkable, that we really shouldn’t waste too much time thinking about it. But just to clarify that we’re not being flippant, have a look at what the experts are saying:
The normally staid Brookings Institution published Adie Tomer’s take: “too much cynicism, too little leadership.” In their view, the plan effectively asks state’s and cities to come up with the money, while the administration takes credit for the spending.
And as Henry Grabar reports at Slate, one estimate is that there are $281 billion in cuts to existing infrastructure programs, (including a $170 million reduction in revenue for the Highway Trust Fund) so that the Trump budget actually constitutes a net reduction in federal support for infrastructure investment.
The American Prospect thinks it’s either fictional, a scam, or both: “The plan’s not about building more. It’s about privatizing what’s already there.”
Transportation for America points out, that despite all the rhetoric about deteriorating roadways, the plan doesn’t prioritize repairs, and many of its financial mechanisms (requiring private participation) essentially skew spending toward big capital projects (many of which would had been built anyway), to the neglect of maintenance.
Matt Yglesias argues persuasively that there’s little reason to believe that there’s any likely political support for an infrastructure bill. Not only is there not actually a Trump Administration when it comes to advancing major policy initiatives (the President effectively cedes these details to congressional leaders), there are actually pretty strong fiscal and political reasons why infrastructure is going nowhere. Let’s check back in a few months to see if his political forecast isn’t exactly correct:
Now Trump has a thing that he can say is his plan, congressional conservatives can propose paying for it with safety net cuts that Democrats won’t agree to, and Republicans can try to pass the whole thing off as an example of gridlock or obstruction rather than reflecting the fact that conservatives don’t favor spending more money on federal infrastructure.
No one with a passing familiarity with Trump’s business record should be surprised that the the administration’s Infrastructure plan, such as it is, is a combination of hot air, self-promotion, and other people’s money.
Trump’s name is taken off the Trump Plaza Casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey (2014).
Opaque, debt-fueled, and Trump-branded, lots of up front-bluster, but lackluster real-world returns, as stockholders in Trump Entertainment and Resorts can attest. Here’s how Fortune described its track record in March, 2016:
From mid-1995 to early 2009, Trump served as chairman of Trump Hotels and Casino Resorts (renamed Trump Entertainment Resorts in 2004), and held the CEO title for five years (mid-2000 to mid-2005). During Trump’s 13 years as chairman, the casino empire lost a total of $1.1 billion, twice declared bankruptcy, and wrote down or restructured $1.8 billion in debt. Over the same period, the company paid Trump—essentially Trump paying himself—roughly $82 million by Fortune’s estimates, collected from a dizzying variety of sources spelled out in the company’s proxy filings, as varied as payments for use of Trump’s private plane to fees paid directly Trump for access to his name and marketing expertise.
From his casinos, to his hotels, to his steaks, to his for-profit college, Trump ventures have always been about building the Trump brand and enriching Donald Trump, and have been fiascos for either investors or customers or both. There’s no reason to think Trumpfrastrcture will be any different.
We like cities, but localism can only flourish with a competent, generous, fair federal government
As our name City Observatory suggests, we’re keen on cities. We believe they’re the right frame for tackling many of our most important problems, from concentrated poverty to housing affordability, from economic opportunity to more sustainable living. But enamored as we are of cities, we harbor no illusions that cities, by themselves, can solve our most pressing problems.
The localism chimera
In the past year, a growing chorus of voices, disillusioned by growing polarization, has called for cities to be our saviors.
“In a time of national dysfunction and, frankly, gloom, our best hope for our society lies in our cities and metropolitan areas. That’s the message of the newly released book The New Localism, by Bruce Katz, the noted urbanist at the Brookings Institution, and Jeremy Nowak . . .”
In one of the oddest of imaginable odd couples, Florida himself co-authored a Daily Beast op-ed with perennial sparring partner Joel Kotkin, that called for us “To reunite America, liberate cities to govern themselves.” The article effectively concedes that the divisions between the blue places and the red ones are irreconcilable, and each ought to be free to go its own way.
With control of the national government in the hands of a president of debatable competence and a Republican party seemingly intent on dismantling the federal government, it’s not surprising that many people are looking for reassuring alternatives. Hoping cities can save the day Is in many respects an effort to make a virtue of necessity. Katz and Nowak relate a litany of instances of Mayors and other civic leaders working above or across partisan and sectoral divides to tackle important problems their cities face. Their approaches are refreshingly innovative, direct and often productive.
The productivity of these cities is equally attributable to the pragmatism of their leaders and the solidly blue political compositions of their polities. Large US cities are overwhelmingly blue. And to the extent you find Republicans in cities, they tend to be the most moderate kind. If you’re a Democrat, you find yourself wishing that all Republicans were like Mick Cornett or Michael Bloomberg.
There’s an understandable impulse in the face of growing national divisions and what for many was the shocking and unpleasant outcome of the 2016 national elections to retreat to a comforting cocoon of the like-minded. Blue cities will do all the things that a solidly Republican national government won’t do: respect LGBTQ rights, provide sanctuary for immigrants, denounce climate change, and tax themselves to pay for needed investments and public services. But withdrawing to the safety of agreeable blue localities cedes the important national battle at just the time when it needs to be contested.
It is well and good to celebrate the successes that mayors and local leaders are having. But transforming these heartening but small successes into a sweeping call for a new localism is misplaced when the fundamental functions of the national government are being steadily undermined. None of this works in a world in which the federal government is not simply rending holes in the safety net but knocking down its foundations.
We should remember that the federal government took on the roles it did almost entirely as a last resort. As Churchill reputedly remarked, “America can always be counted on to do the right thing, but only after it has exhausted all the other alternatives.” While the rest of the world’s nation states adopted the trappings of modern social democracies, the U.S. was late to implement things like unemployment insurance, social security and universal health care. The New Deal, the Great Society and Obamacare were only enacted after various local and state programs to address these problems were simply overwhelmed.
What cities do badly or can’t do at all
Cities are not merely ill-equipped to tackle our major challenges on their own. Localism has an undeniable history of making many problems worse. Take two big issues of our time: climate change and surging inequality. Mayors and cities can strike a pose and demonstrate effective tactics, but they lack the policy throw-weight to solve these problems.
Bravo for mayoral pledges to adhere to the Paris accords, but there’s precious little substance and sufficient scale. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio can sue the oil companies but is an ardent opponent of congestion pricing, a tangible, effective market-oriented step that would reduce the number one source of greenhouse gases. It’s almost impossible to imagine that we’ll take effective action to address climate change unless it’s done at a national level in cooperation with the rest of the world. Without a federally imposed carbon tax or cap and trade, localized efforts are likely simply to relocate the dirtiest pollution to the most permissive states.
Similarly, inequality—which has been dramatically worsened by changes to the federal tax code—dwarfs anything cities can do. Cities are constitutionally incapable of redistributing income because the wealthy have the option of exit (which they have regularly done.) Witness the exodus to suburban enclaves, a trend Robert Reich has termed the secession of the successful. Similarly, states and cities have been largely powerless to take on large corporations. Not only has globalization moved a considerable part of corporate earnings beyond the reach of state and local tax collectors (note Apple’s relocation of its profits to Ireland thanks to U.S. tax laws), but look at the way states and cities are falling over one another to offer tax holidays and subsidies to Amazon for its proposed HQ2.
It’s also worth noting that a key aspect of localism that has been effectively exempt from federal control—local control of zoning and land use—has worsened the economic segregation of our nation’s metropolitan areas. In sprawling metros, separate suburban cities have used the power of land use regulation to exclude apartments, directly contributing to the problem of concentrated poverty that intensifies and perpetuates the worst aspects of income inequality. Cities have been implicated in the nation’s housing affordability and segregation problems, but that’s hardly mentioned in Katz & Nowak. The word “segregation” appears only once in the book (page 40). The word “zoning” occurs on 8 pages. Housing affordability is mentioned just once (page 28).
The root of the problem here is too much localism. The most localized governments have the strongest incentives to exclude neighborhood groups within cities lobby against density. Suburbs within metropolitan areas do the same. Only larger units of government have the incentives and ability to challenge this kind of parochialism. Notably, two initiatives of the Obama administration–HUD’s affirmatively furthering fair housing rule and the Council of Economic Adviser’s critique of local zoning–represented important national steps pushing local governments to confront this issue. Both are going nowhere under the current administration.
Assume we have a can-opener: Cities can’t do this without a strong federal government.
The danger here is that these calls to renewed localism effectively aid and abet the ongoing efforts to systematically dismantle federal programs. The clarion call to act locally diverts our political attention from the national stage and perhaps, unwittingly, becomes an excuse to stand by and watch these foundational programs be destroyed. Katz and Nowak briefly address this question of the federal role early in their book:
“. . . the devolution of power and problem solving to local levels is not an argument against the importance of federal and state governments. . . The federal government must do things that only it can do, including safeguarding national security, providing a stronger social safety net than it presently does, providing guarantees of constitutional protections and civil rights, making smart national infrastructure investments, protecting natural resources, protecting the integrity of markets and funding scientific research, innovation, and postsecondary education to keep the nation competitive.” (Katz & Nowak, page 10).
Oh, is that all? This caveat swallows the book’s premise. Localism will work brilliantly–provided we have an extraordinarily competent, generous, fair and functional federal government.
In effect, it’s a reprise of the classic economics joke about the physicist, chemist and economist, trapped on a desert island with cases of canned food but no way to open them. The chemist proposes evaporating seawater into a potent brine and letting the salt solution rust the cans open. Too slow, says the physicist, who works out the exact angle from which to drop the cans onto sharp coral and cause them to split open. The economist waves them both away and says, “I have a simpler, much more elegant solution. Let me explain: First, assume we have a can-opener . . ”
A competent, generous, fair and functional federal government is the can-opener.
One more point should be made: Many of the innovative city strategies celebrated in this book are directly dependent on the ability of mayors and city institutions to tap into federal largesse. Take Pittsburgh, heralded as an exemplar of local innovation. Katz and Nowak acknowledge that Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh receive more than $1 billion in federal research funding annually (page 75). Cities looking to exploit an “eds and meds” strategy can’t do it without huge federal support in the form of research grants, student aid, Medicare, Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act. A federal government that defunds these programs—as seems likely because of the new tax reform law—will make it all but impossible for cities to innovate.
Laboratories, not factories
Katz and Nowak marshal an impressive list of inspiring local innovations from cities, such as Indianapolis, Chattanooga, Oklahoma City and St. Louis. Mayors and civic leaders in these places are generally pragmatic and entrepreneurial and are developing solutions that cut across partisan and ideological lines. Cities are, as the saying goes, the laboratories of democracy. But for the most part, they are the small-scale, bench-test laboratories for incubating ideas and showing that they can work at a municipal scale. Implementing these ideas at a national scale is essential to their success.
The key lesson of policy experimentation is that while ideas can be tested and refined at the state or local level, they ultimately need to be national in scope. States experimented with minimum wage laws, unemployment insurance, and old age pensions, but none of these were began to address our problems until extended nationwide in the New Deal.
For a long time, we could take the federal government more or less for granted. There was no hope that it would ride to the rescue, but at least it would keep doing what it had always done: cashing social security checks, bankrolling medical care for the poor and aged, enforcing a minimum of civil rights everywhere, engaging seriously with the rest of the world on global issues. Now, every one of those fundamental roles is very much in jeopardy. If the poor lose health care, are turned out of subsidized housing, see their education prospects dim, that will directly add to the costs burdening states and cities. The pressure to fill in for a diminished federal presence will greatly handicap local innovation.
Like Localism? Time to fight for an effective national government
If you care about cities and believe local initiative can lead to solutions, you need to be marching on Washington and fighting for a federal government that does its job well. The hollowing out of the federal government now underway is the clearest threat to creative, effective localism. Ultimately, the magic of our federal system is that both national and local government have important and complementary roles to play. It’s not either/or. It is both/and. Innovative cities require a supportive federal government.
Rather than turning their backs on the federal government and national debates, cities and civic leaders ought to be pooling their energy and efforts to kindle a new dialog about how we appropriately divide responsibilities between national and local governments. We must insist that the national government do its job well and that it provide the room and in some cases some of the resources to help cities tackle problems at a more local level. We need a 21st century federalism that envisions strong and mutually supporting actions at both the national and local levels, not a retreat to homogenous but balkanized localities.
City Observatory has long challenged the popular narrative about the nature and effects of gentrification. This is the second installment of a three-part commentary by our friend and colleague Alex Baca. You can read parts one and three as well. Alex has worked in journalism, bike advocacy, architecture, construction, and transportation in D.C., San Francisco, and Cleveland. She’s written about all of the above for Washington City Paper, CityLab, Slate, The American Conservative, Cleveland Magazine, Strong Towns, and Greater Greater Washington.
This week, City Observatory is addressing, in a series of posts, how Derek Hyra’s Race, Class, and Politics in the Cappuccino City doesn’t stick its landing. This second installment critiques Hyra’s ethnographic process and his references to other scholars who have addressed through their work the effects of upscaling neighborhoods on longtime residents. Part one appears here.
Ethnography In the Gentrification Canon
Shaw is a relatively dense, transit-rich neighborhood within walking distance of D.C.’s downtown, and it has been upscalingfor overtwo decades. Hyra began his work there in 2010, though he did not release his book until last year. Of his intent with Cappuccino City, he writes:
“This book sets out to answer four questions. First, what broader political and economic dynamics relate to the transformation of the dark ghetto into the gilded ghetto? Second, what attracts some White residents to historic yet low-income urban African American neighborhoods? Third, what happens when people who have been segregated for so long come together in a diverse neighborhood? Lastly, how are low-income people benefiting when more affluent people move near them?”
Cappuccino City is not unlike The New Urban Renewal, Hyra’s first book. In each, he uses an ethnographic approach to frame the exploitation of black culture, in notable black neighborhoods, for the purposes of creating a marketable identity that appeals to newcomers; heavily references Saskia Sassen’s work to illustrate the impact of global forces on individual neighborhoods; and extensively documents community-meeting minutiae to illustrate the push and pull of neighborhood factions. In each, his hall pass into key non-white spaces is a black friend that brings him, most often, onto a neighborhood basketball court—or, as Hyra calls these acquaintances, “Docs,” in reference to William F. Whyte’s Street Corner Society (15).
And in each, Hyra writes about gentrification without actually writing about the structural reasons why housing in neighborhoods like Shaw has become so expensive. Peel back Cappuccino City’s conspicuous-consumption arguments—that affluent white people are so attracted to black culture that they’ll move for even a contrived facsimile of it, and will do so in great enough volumes to shift neighborhood demographics—and there’s no discussion of supply and demand, zoning, geography, or transportation. Further, despite Hyra’s talk of global influences, his Shaw functions in a vacuum: He does not address how whiter, more affluent neighborhoods in D.C. and the region have hoarded their wealth, and perpetuated gentrification in other neighborhoods, by attempting to block nearly any new development. Falls Church, Hyra’s place of residence, is an apt example of a place with policies that reinforce regional unaffordability over time: There, multi-family housing over three stories requires a special-use permit, which excludes people who can’t or don’t want to live in single-family homes and restricts supply in a relatively transit-rich municipality. Falls Church is more expensive than it could be because of policies like this; as a result of multiple Falls Churches choosing to be more expensive than they could be through their zoning codes, the D.C. region is constricted and pricier, too.
Hyra’s second claim, after creating a new academic framework for gentrification, is that he is posing questions that have been heretofore unexamined: “While the gentrification literature importantly examines whether residential displacement occurs alongside redevelopment, this book redirects the focus to whether low-income people who are able to stay benefit in meaningful ways.” However, he cites a number of authors whose work is concerned with the effects of upscaling neighborhoods on residents who have lived in those neighborhoods for some time. His notes show a great debt to Japonica K. Brown-Saracino, Brett Williams, and Gabriella Modan, who in A Neighborhood That Never Changes, Upscaling Downtown, and Turf Wars execute exactly what Hyra calls a new paradigm. Each are explicitly clear that what their subjects tell them is site-specific, often inconclusive, and not to be taken as a broad referendum on gentrification.
Hyra makes no such distinction. He orients his conclusions about Shaw as far-reaching, writing in his first chapter, “This pattern of central city redevelopment, driven largely by a White influx, and increasing minority and poverty presence in the inner suburbs is not unique to D.C. The cappuccino lens provides an urban account that not only helps to understand Washington, D.C., and its Shaw/U Street neighborhood but highlights community processes and outcomes likely occurring in other advanced service-sector cities, such as New York City, Atlanta, New Orleans, and Houston” (20). Similarly, The New Urban Renewal is billed on Hyra’s website as “offer[ing] an unparalleled analysis of the nation’s most difficult and complex issues.”
In service of this extrapolation, Cappuccino City blares statements such as, “Some newcomers to redeveloping ghettos who might be inspired by and appreciate elements of Black culture do not truly engage in the ghettos’ complexity. The younger newcomers, the tourists in place, seem more concerned with consuming ghetto-inspired culture than connecting and identifying with those struggling with the ills of racism and structural inequality” (101). The commodification of black culture—the undercurrent of nearly all of what we consume—is absolutely relevant to an academic consideration of Shaw. “Living the wire” and “black branding” clearly convey the frustrating-at-best, harmful-at-worst appropriation that’s been noticeable in D.C. and elsewhere for years.
But Hyra hews to these theses despite his white-newcomer subjects tell him directly that they’ve chosen to live in Shaw because of its close proximity to where they need to go: “Paul, a recent arrival, explains, ‘A large part of the reason I moved to Shaw and pay D.C.’s higher taxes was because of the ability to bike or walk to work” (129). That people will move as close to the things that matter to them as they can reasonably afford, that those with relative financial or social capital will have an easier time of this, and that those with relative financial or social capital are often white is not as interesting as “living the wire.” It is, however, the more likely culprit of neighborhood change.
Anyone on a local listserv, NextDoor, or Facebook group knows how easy it is to find someone willing to bemoan changes in their neighborhood. Likewise, it’s just as easy to find a character whose opinions about existing residents are irritating at best, and bigoted at worst. But drawing conclusions from bombastic stories, like the lurid retelling of a “hood party”, is not randomly selected or representative. Cappuccino City doesn’t consider a control group, selection bias, or comparative analysis. Hyra does not examine other neighborhoods within D.C. or outside of it, much less ask long-term residents in neighborhoods other than Shaw how they view change. If he had, he may have found that in some places, there are few “oldtimers” left behind to interrogate: Very poor neighborhoods that don’t rebound, or “gentrify,” are much more common than gentrifying neighborhoods, and essentially hemorrhage residents. As City Observatory’s Lost In Place report found in 2014:
“While media attention often focuses on those few places that are witnessing a transformation, there are two more potent and less mentioned storylines. The first is the persistence of chronic poverty. Three-quarters of 1970 high-poverty urban neighborhoods in the U.S. are still poor today. The second is the spread of concentrated poverty: Three times as many urban neighborhoods have poverty rates exceeding 30 percent as was true in 1970 and the number of poor people living in these neighborhoods has doubled.
The result of these trends is that the poor in the nation’s metropolitan areas are increasingly segregated into neighborhoods of concentrated poverty. In 1970, 28 percent of the urban poor lived in a neighborhood with a poverty rate of 30 percent or more; by 2010, 39 percent of the urban poor lived in such high-poverty neighborhoods.”
Cappuccino City’s exclusion of such findings could be unremarkable. The D.C. region is one of a handful in America facing an across-the-board housing crunch, so the idea that Hyra should conduct research in neighborhood that “hasn’t gentrified” so as to compare to Shaw might be laughable to some. But despite spending a great deal of his introduction extolling that D.C. is exceptional, Hyra ultimately claims that his theories, terminologies, and frameworks have far-reaching application. In addition to this misguided claim, Hyra retreads well-laid lines of academic thought, with faulty steps, rather than providing new insights: His fetishization of “living the wire” and “black branding” ignores what his subjects tell him to present a marketable narrative about gentrification.
City Observatory has long challenged the popular narrative about the nature and effects of gentrification. This is the first installment of a three-part commentary by our friend and colleague Alex Baca. Parts two and three are available as well. Alex Baca has worked in journalism, bike advocacy, architecture, construction, and transportation in D.C., San Francisco, and Cleveland. She’s written about all of the above for Washington City Paper, CityLab, Slate, The American Conservative, Cleveland Magazine, Strong Towns, and Greater Greater Washington.
In Race, Class, and Politics In the Cappuccino City, Derek Hyra claims to invent a new lens through which to assess gentrification in rapidly upscaling cities, using Washington, D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood as the ground for his ethnographic research. But his conclusions are substandard repackagings of existing scholarship, and mislead those interested in housing policy—at a time when we desperately need clarity.
In the next few days, City Observatory will address how Derek Hyra’s Race, Class, and Politics in the Cappuccino City doesn’t stick its landing. This first installment discusses the conflicts within the structure of Hyra’s arguments, which reappropriate longstanding academic terms to culminate in his coinage of the sensationalist term “living the wire.”
Part I: A New Premise?
Discussing gentrification, a term affixed to so many things that its intrinsic meaning is nearly meaningless, does not often result in cohesive and objective narratives. So it’s remarkable that the April 2017 release of Derek Hyra’s Race, Class, and Politics In the Cappuccino City spurred something of a thematically unified discussion around neighborhood change both locally within Washington, D.C., and at a national level.
In both Cappuccino City and The New Urban Renewal, his 2008 book on gentrification in Bronzeville and Harlem, Hyra favors ethnography, a qualitative research method designed to explicate social and cultural interactions. The strongest ethnography is longitudinal, allowing researchers to deeply and seriously engage with their subjects repeatedly over time to draw out personal stories—in all their complications and contradictions—that may not be so richly illustrated through data analysis alone. Ethnography, from Tally’s Corner and All Our Kin to Gang Leader For a Day and On the Run to, yes, even Second Life, has long been deployed by academics to understand the nuances of human interaction.
Cappuccino City opens with a literature review. In it, Hyra purports to operate on a different level than typical gentrification texts, which often settle into two camps: production (which, in his words, “tend[s] to assume that public policies and economic circumstances encourage investments and attract newcomers to once economically neglected communities”) and consumption (wherein those identified as gentrifiers drive the process through their tastes as consumers). Because, in Hyra’s assertion, “we know much less about how global and federal forces interact to explain urban redevelopment patterns, and why upper-income Whites are now attracted to formerly low-income African American communities,” he attempts to create his own scholastic space midway between consumption and production theory. Hyra’s work is based nearly entirely, with the exception of some data tables in Cappuccino City’s appendix, on his recorded interactions with Shaw residents in restaurants, community centers, and on basketball courts.
Hyra uses two structural devices to draw out his argument. The first is the illustration of the “gilded ghetto,” a term initially used by Kenneth B. Clark in Dark Ghetto to equate pathologies ascribed to “inner-city Black spaces” to those “of the affluent in the segregated White suburbs,” such as “an emptiness reflecting a futile struggle to find substance and worth through the concretes of things and possessions.” Hyra warps Clark’s original intent of the “gilded ghetto” for his thesis, using it “not as a reference to suburban challenges or pathologies but rather to indicate the intricate social and economic redevelopment processes, and outcomes, associated with the twenty-first-century transformation of second ghettos”:
“Once places where poverty, drugs, and violence proliferated, these areas have become spaces where farmers’ markets, coffee shops, dog parks, wine bars, and luxury condominiums now concentrate. The transition of American urban ‘no-go’ Black zones to hip cool places filled with chic restaurants, trendy bars, and high-priced apartment buildings defines the gilded ghetto. My contemporary use and redefinition of the gilded ghetto both references and explains what happens when those who, in the past, would have settled in the suburbs instead choose to reside in the dark ghetto” (7).
This has, in Hyra’s telling, happened as a result of consistent, calculated efforts of “black branding” on the part of privileged neighborhood stakeholders. He argues that those efforts, such as Cultural Tourism DC’s development of the Shaw Heritage Trail signage, occurring in concert with relatively wealthier, whiter, better-educated individuals choosing “to reside in an ‘authentic’ urban community whose energy and edge are based on preexisting stereotypes of the iconic Black ghetto, where Blackness, poverty, and crime are associated with one another” (19), results in “living the wire.” Hyra’s pairing of “living the wire” with “black branding” is Cappuccino City’s second structural device, and the book’s primary explanation for why white people choose black neighborhoods.
If production scholarship—once again, in Hyra’s definition—“tend[s] to assume that public policies and economic circumstances encourage investments and attract newcomers to once economically neglected communities,” then the reappropriation of “gilded ghetto,” alongside his twin justifications of “black branding” and “living the wire,” looks straightforwardly consumptive, resting on the theory that “cultural tastes and preferences shape gentrification patterns.” Despite Hyra’s claims to create a new paradigm, Cappuccino City operates firmly within the boundaries of the consumption premise of gentrification, conforming to the popular notion that cocktail bars, restaurants of a particular caliber, boutique shops, and the people who frequent them are drivers of gentrification.
City Observatory has long challenged the popular narrative about the nature and effects of gentrification. Today, we are pleased to offer the final installment of a three-part commentary by our friend and colleague Alex Baca. (You can read part 1 and part 2 as well). Alex has worked in journalism, bike advocacy, architecture, construction, and transportation in D.C., San Francisco, and Cleveland. She’s written about all of the above for Washington City Paper, CityLab, Slate, The American Conservative, Cleveland Magazine, Strong Towns, and Greater Greater Washington.
This week, City Observatory is addressing, in a series of posts, how Derek Hyra’s Race, Class, and Politics in the Cappuccino City doesn’t stick its landing. This third installment explains that though Hyra’s theories, ”black branding” and “living the wire,” are not inaccurate descriptors for what is happening in Shaw, Hyra’s work is not likely to dismantle the structures he purports to critique. Parts one and two were appear here.
Cultural Displacement In the Cappuccino City
Hyra began interviewing Shaw residents, attending ANC 2C and 2F meetings, and integrating himself with Organizing Neighborhood Equity D.C.—whose staffer, in this agreeable recap, does not disclose that Hyra was closely affiliated with her employer—eight years ago. At that time, I was assistant editor of Washington City Paper, another oft-cited source in Cappuccino City. Hyra references dog parks and bike lanes as signifiers of new, whiter residents in Shaw; we covered the ins and outs of these D.C.-specific memes so extensively that I wrote a cover story about the symbolism of bike-facility implementation, in 2011.
There is an enormous responsibility that comes with having an amplified voice on local issues, and that pressure has only been sharpened over the past half-decade by a constrained housing supply in cities where economic mobility is greatest. Everyone is scrambling for justification as to why housing is so expensive, because nearlyallAmericans are rent-burdened, regardless of where they live.
While D.C.’s economy, thanks to the entrenched presence of the federal government, had not tanked as significantly as the rest of the country’s, the city was most visibly bounding upward by the aughts. Around 2010, dog parks, bike lanes, and snowball fights were convenient shorthands for change in general—and no one likes change. I quickly learned that my peers (white; college-educated; rarely native to D.C. proper; and in possession of a certain cultural capital, if not financially stable personally) preferred to blame, say, restaurants serving truffled mac-and-cheese for undermining their neighborhood’s “authenticity.” This, of course, is a more accessible and more fun conversation than ones about D.C.’s housing production trust fund, municipal bonding capacity, or, trickier still, one’s own role in perpetuating a process they might regard as unilaterally culturally destructive.
To that end, Hyra is not wrong in concluding that amenities drive gentrification. As Jackelyn Hwang and Jeffrey Lin conclude in this working paper, people do move to be close to things they enjoy. But Hyra’s hyper-focus on luxury signifiers misses the basic things that people in general, regardless of income, want to be proximate to, like where they work, where their family and friends are, or religious and cultural institutions in which they are invested. Shaw offers proximity to these things to many people, and so it is a popular place to live. That it is perceived to be safer, cleaner, and more marketable than in previous decades stems from this popularity; that it is expensive speaks to the fact its supply—of legally affordable housing, of missing-middle housing, and of luxury housing—is not meeting demand.
Further, what a particular person values enough to pay a certain price to be close to will have infinite variations. A condo-owning white resident of Shaw may like that the neighborhood is just a few Metro stops from downtown D.C., may enjoy consuming pricey dinners, and may feel self-satisfied in their social-justice priors while touring by bike the murals that grace the buildings identified on the Heritage Trail. This, I gather, is Hyra’s prototypical “tourist in place.” But this isn’t the only persona contained within Shaw, or within any neighborhood. “Amenities” are not solely luxury; Giant, public libraries, corner stores, and bus stops are amenities, just as Whole Foods, WeWorks, third-wave coffee shops, and bikeshare stations are amenities. It is perhaps comforting to assign Whole Foods as “for” newcomers, and Giant “for” oldtimers. But the incalculable array of personal affinities that are inherent to each of us means that those assignations are often reductive. From there, the next logical step is to believe that taste is pathological, which completely misses how and why things like safe streets, which should be fundamental to all places, have become harbingers of the gentrification bogeyman.
Shaw is expensive to the point that newcomers and oldtimers alike may not be able to afford to stay in the neighborhood. And its current retail and resident mix is likely discomfiting to those who preferred the Shaw they thought they knew to the one they think they don’t. But the rent is too damn high for far-reaching, multitudinous, and sometimes counterintuitive reasons that are much greater than preferences alone. Depressed wages, supply and demand, exclusionary zoning, ill-fitting regulations, inadequate public transit networks, and the stubborn spatial mismatch between where jobs are and where people live are inextricably linked to why Shaw is what it is today. Given that our neighborhoods are ongoing referendums on the complexities of urban policy, history, and regional governance, Hyra’s satisfaction in taxonomizing $14 cocktails is frustrating.
There is a intersection of these points. It echoes the cultural-studies discourse of appropriation of the subaltern—what non-academics can instantly identify as the co-opting and subsequent commodification of everything from music, to food, to transportation (see: tech titans attempting to reinvent the bus). Writing in The New York Times Magazine, Willy Staley discusses how gentrification has become less about housing, and more about the bougie-fication of things associated with the poor, like ”raw water,” tiny homes, and kale:
“Unlike housing, poverty is a potentially endless resource: Jeff Bezos could Hoover up all the wealth that exists in the world, then do nothing but drink rainwater collected from the roof of his ‘70 Vanagon, and it wouldn’t stop the other seven billion of us from being poor. What this metaphorical gentrification points to instead is dishonesty, carelessness and cluelessness on the part of the privileged when they clomp into unfamiliar territory. When they actually profit from their ‘discovery’ and repackaging of other people’s lifestyles, it’s a dispiriting re-enactment of long-running inequalities. But what seems most galling isn’t that they’re taking dollars off the table. It’s that they’re annoying.”
The professor could argue that Cappuccino City is a monument to exactly that. He could also argue that parsing cultural and physical displacement, and whether they are actually triggered by gentrification, is not the point of his work. To be sure, no text is a panacea. But it is irresponsible to imply, as Hyra does in his conclusion, that Shaw-like housing crises, increasing segregation, and social discomfort are solvable primarily by more integrated third spaces and the continued preservation of—to say nothing of the addition of—affordable housing. That might work if the goal is to simply convey a veneer of social mixing, so that all existing oldtimers and newcomers feel better about the authenticity of their neighborhood. But authentic-feeling neighborhoods mean very little on a practical level if people, regardless of when they arrived, can afford to live in them.
Hyra, I think, would agree. After all, his book about the negative effects of “neighborhoods, but fancy,” was the the buzziest in a year of buzzy books on the topic. While I find that his text treats existing scholarship glibly, Hyra is clearly reacting to something powerful: the aggressive pace of change that leads people to feel displaced in their own neighborhoods, if they can afford, and choose, to stay. That he centers his book around that, and elevates the voices of those who are bearing the negative externalities of Shaw’s growth, should not be dismissed. As Staley puts it, “The poor are still gentrification’s victims, but in this new meaning, the harm is not rent increases and displacement—it’s something psychic, a theft of pride.”
And yet, this is why the case of Cappuccino City is so unfortunate. “Living the wire” and “black branding” are tantalizing terms. They have been treated by a number of outlets as legitimate discursive frameworks. The book itself is a quick and easy entry point into urban studies, and deals with the real, true upscaling of neighborhoods that many residents of formerly distressed cities are experiencing. But Hyra’s analysis of Shaw’s particulars—his “cappuccino lens”—rests on flawed premises of originality, and does not provide meaningful policy blueprints. Rather, it reinforces the popular, yet surface-level, notion that newcomers’ tastes and preferences are the primary drivers of unaffordability and displacement, and treats neighborhoods as closed loops rather than components of regional ecosystems.
If the “cappuccino lens” is anything at all, it’s a definitive claim that the consumptive preferences of new residents are what drive neighborhood change. This is primarily a disservice to Hyra’s subjects. But it’s also is a mindset that leads people in expensive, gentrifying, and distressed neighborhoods to—understandably—protest new housing. At its worst, it’s an axis that pays lip service to cultural appropriation while lazily lumping together social discomfort and physical displacement. It’s the idea that bike lanes, or dog parks, or new restaurants cause rents to rise in isolation. It’s a view that conveniently dismisses America’s legacy of constitutionally implemented, segregationist housing policies, and is one that’s unwilling to imagine what truly equitable, regionwide investment might look like. It’s one that is too cowardly to take to task the massive levels of exclusion perpetuated by relatively wealthy neighborhoods and suburbs, which have, in turn, resulted in heretofore unimagined pressures on walkable, inner-city neighborhoods.
In castigating newcomers, the “cappuccino lens” sets an impossible bar for authenticity and belonging while tokenizing long-term residents. It mocks in its ignorance the ways that federal actions introduced segregation where there was none, as well as the country’s legacy of fair housing and integration efforts. It wrings its hands, but is not likely to testify in support of housing and transit development that so often meets death by a thousand public-comment cuts. It elevates the threat of displacement without examining it.
The “cappuccino lens” is a way of viewing neighborhood change that allows us as individuals to avoid interrogating—and thus, changing—the structures and systems from which we’ve benefited. It’s an explanation that always points the finger at someone newer, someone fancier, someone richer, someone with even more precious taste.
These are commonly held beliefs that have guided local-level politics for decades, ones that have directly contributed to the pain and loss of community that Hyra extracts through his interviews. These are the entrenched views against which we must organize to demand better, more fair, and more just investment in basic goods, services, and human needs at local, state, regional, and federal levels. It’s time this disastrous ideology had a proper name. Fortunately, the frothy and whitewashed “cappuccino lens” fits the aesthetic splendidly.
Editors note: This post has been revised to add references to the earlier commentaries in this series.
A picture of metropolitan growth: Sprawl then, stagnation now.
We’re in awe of Issi Romem’s prodigious data skills. Romem is the economist and big data guru BuildZoom, the web-based marketplace for construction professionals. His latest report is a multi-decade look at the growth (and non-growth) of housing at the neighborhood level in the nation’s largest metro areas. What Romem has done is gathered data from 1940 through 2016 on the number of housing units built in each census tract in large metro areas. Then, for each of a series of multi-decade periods (1940 to 1960, 1960 to 1980, 1980 to 2000 and 2000 to 2016), he’s classified those census tracts depending on the number and kind of housing units built in that tract. His coding system shows which neighborhoods built primarily single-family homes, which built smaller multi-family buildings, and which built large (50-unit plus) multi-family buildings. In addition, he also flags census tracts where little or no new housing was built. (It’s this latter category that’s a real eye-opener, as we’ll see shortly.)
Instinctively, we know that the footprint of metro America has expanded greatly in the automobile era. This report paints a vivid picture of that process. The secret sauce in this data exercise is animation: Romem has crafted maps that show how, decade after decade, development proceeds in each of the nation’s largest metro areas. Here, for example, is the Los Angeles map:
There are similar maps of each of the nation’s largest metro areas on the BuildZoom website. Helpfully, you can also download metro summary data as well. A note on the color coding: Red and orange areas are those census tracts where most new housing was in the form of multi-family units. Light blue is tracts where single family housing predominates. And dark blue are those tracts that had no significant housing construction during the time period in question, using a definition of a net increase of less than one-tenth of a housing unit per acre per decade. There are maps for all the nation’s largest metro areas, and they show similar patterns. During the two earlier periods, (1940 to 1960, and 1960 to 1980) metro areas are expanding, hugely you might say. The expansion continues after 1980 in most metros, though at a generally slower pace. Since 2000, outward expansion has become more muted. The really big change over this nearly eight decade period is the increase in the area in nearly all metros that has seen little or no new housing construction. This widespread stagnation of residential development is really the signal finding of this report.
Two suspects: NIMBYISM and economic stagnation
There are two different forces at work behind the dark blue areas where little or no housing is being built. In some cases, its the lack of supply: there’s little vacant land in a neighborhood, and zoning restrictions make it costly or impossible to build new, denser housing. In tracts where most of the land is designated for single family homes, once a home has been built, it’s not possible to replace it with apartments, and there may be little reason to tear down one single-family home and replace it with another. In large parts of Los Angeles, NIMBY land use restrictions explain the dark blue. Between 1960 and 1990, according to Greg Morrow of UCLA, Los Angeles downzoned most of its residential areas, lowering its population capacity by 60 percent from 10 million to about 4 million.
The other competing explanation is a lack of demand. Some struggling industrial cities (Cleveland, Detroit) also have large swaths of dark blue neighborhoods, but not because of NIMBY restrictions. Instead, the problem in these places is declining demand for housing. Little or no new housing is being built because so few people live there (and want to live there) and prices are low.
For both of these reasons (a limited supply in growing metro areas; limited demand in shrinking ones), a bigger share of the US metro area consists of these dark blue neighborhoods where little development is happening. Over time, more and more of US metropolitan areas consist of neighborhoods (Census Tracts) where little if any new housing is being built. In our Los Angeles example, the area with little or no new housing construction increased from less than one percent between 1940 and 1960, to 5.8 percent between 1960 and 1980, to 24.1 percent from 1980 to 2000, and fully 52.3 percent in the most recent period, through 2016.
Which cities have the most land area with little or no new housing?
Let’s focus in on the big increase in “no new housing” neighborhoods in the past 16 years. There’s considerable variation across metropolitan areas in the amount of land that’s experienced little or no residential development since 2000. The chart below shows Romem’s estimates of the percentage of the land area in developed census tracts in each of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas. (In contrast to the data we usually present at City Observatory, Romem’s work uses “consolidated statistical areas” to define most large metropolitan areas. These areas are slightly larger that the metropolitan areas we routinely use; they generally include adjacent metropolitan and micropolitan areas just beyond metro area boundaries).
The areas with the highest levels of land with little new housing construction include Hartford, Buffalo and Boston. In these cities, more than three-fourths of all developed neighborhoods have seen little or no new housing construction since 2000. Unsurprisingly fast-growing and sprawling sunbelt metros, like Las Vegas and Austin have the smallest amount of land area that not seen new residential development in the past couple of decades. In these places, few neighborhoods are untouched by development; in Austin for example, fewer than a fifth of all neighborhoods are classified has having had little or no new housing built.
One of the biggest factors driving housing growth at the metropolitan level is overall population growth. Fast growing metros have a higher demand for housing, and are both adding more housing at the fringe, and seeing more infill housing in close in neighborhoods. We’ve plotted each metro area’s 2000 to 2016 population growth against the percentage of land area that experienced little or no housing construction. The vertical axis of this chart shows the percentage of each metro areas land that had little or no housing development and the horizontal axis shows the percentage growth in population. Each dot corresponds to a metropolitan area (mouse-over dots to see metro area names and data values). As expected, there’s a strong negative correlation, places with less growth had larger shares of the metro area unaffected by development; fast growing areas had a proportionately smaller area untouched by residential construction.
The regression line in this chart shows the typical relationship between metropolitan growth and areas with limited or no new housing construction. You can think of communities that are above the regression line as being communities where even less area was touched by development, and communities below the line as ones where a larger portion of the area was affected by development, in both cases, controlling for the level of growth in the metropolitan area. In a sense, the deviation from this line reflects in part the stringency of local land use controls in the metropolitan area. A likely reason that some areas are above the line is that local zoning or NIMBYISM more greatly limits the extent of new residential development. Conversely, areas that are below the line seem to have land use regimes that allow more widespread development than is typical. These data show that the Portland area, famous for its urban growth boundary, has a much higher fraction of neighborhoods affected by residential development than is typical for a metro growing as rapidly as it is. Portland grew by 21 percent between 2000 and 2016, but only 31 percent of its area was classified as having little or no new housing development, which is about 10 percentage points less than one would expect given the typical relationship between growth and area affected by housing. Washington, DC, which grew at about the same rate as Portland, had more than half of its land area unaffected by development.
A very useful resource
BuildZoom’s mapping of long term development trends in US metro areas is a huge resource for planners, and those looking to get a handle on sprawl and housing development. You should definitely take a look at your metro area to see how its changed, and compare its development patterns with those of other metro areas. The data analysis here provides a rich picture of the extent and pace of urban expansion, especially during the 1960s and 1970s, and, in sharp contrast, the relative paucity of change in the housing stock in most neighborhoods since then. As we think about how America might change in the decades ahead, this is indispensable framing for understanding the path that’s brought us to where we are today.
1. City Limits: Some qualms about the new localism. The nation is deeply divided along political lines and it’s depressingly unlikely that we’ll generate national consensus on many issues soon. That, coupled with some palpable excitement about the positive steps being taken to pioneer better approaches to some problems at the city level has led to a growing chorus for a new localism. A new book from Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowack makes just that case. In our view, localism can’t work without a strong, competent and relatively generous federal government. Cities can be the laboratories of democracy, but full scale implementation almost invariably has to be done nationally. While no one expects the feds to ride to the policy rescue, we’re complacently assuming that the federal government will continue doing what its always done (cashing social security checks, underwriting food and medical care for the aged and poor, and protecting a wide range of civil rights. All of those functions are endangered now, and even the most ambitious localism will be overwhelmed if the federal foundation is eroded.
2. Yet another misleading congestion report. It happens every year: this time its big traffic data company Inrix with a report claiming–erroneously, in our view–that congestion is costing people in the US, UK and Germany hundreds of billions of dollars a year. This and other work (like the now-apparently-defunct Texas Transportation Institute Urban Mobility Report, are based on the demonstrably false proposition that we could somehow build enough roads so that everyone could drive just as fast at peak hours as they do when there’s no traffic at all. Not only could you not build (or pay for) that many roads, as we’ve learned from the fundamental law of road congestion, building more capacity would simply generate more travel, and we’d have even more traffic and congestion. We have a bullet-point digest of the key reasons why this congestion study is, like its predecessors, wrong. It’s sad that this arsenal of big data is being used primarily for propaganda and publicity, rather than actual problem solving.
1. Is inclusionary zoning backfiring in Portland? It’s not often that an alt-weekly newspaper does the heavily economic lifting, but this time, the Portland Mercury has a pretty thorough statistical analysis of inclusionary zoning (IZ). Portland’s IZ requirements went into effect just a year ago, on February 1, 2017, and since then, according to the Mercury’s tabulations and interviews with local architects and developers, apartment construction has almost ground to a halt. The number of new apartments seeking permits has fallen to fewer than 700, from between 3,000 and 6,000 per year in the last few years. The buildings being proposed subject to the IZ ordinance may result in somewhere between 55 and 170 affordable units, far too few to make a measurable impact on housing affordability. The danger here is that by discouraging additional private construction, the IZ ordinance will actually make the housing supply situation worse, just as the market has seemed to be responding.
2. One city already has a completely electric bus-fleet. Shenzen, the city of more than 11 million, just north of Hong Kong, has deployed more than 16,000 electric buses, and has scrapped the last of its fossil fueled fleet. Switching to electricity is expected to reduce carbon emissions from the transit system by 1.3 million tons per year. To support the system, the city has installed more than 500 charging stations city-wide. If the Chinese can do it, why couldn’t an American bus operator? (Hat tip: Stan Curtis)
3. Did a lack of transit sink Detroit’s candidacy for HQ2? Surprisingly, to some observers, Detroit didn’t make the list of 20 second-round contenders for Amazon’s much desired Headquarters2, in spite of a technical and creative workforce measurably larger than many of the metros that did advance. Why? One of the reasons offered, we’re told is that the region’s transit system wasn’t up to snuff, and wouldn’t be the kind of asset Amazon needed to attract and transport its prospective workforce (presumably to an urban location). The subject came up in the continuing battle over how to pay for an expansion of transit in Metro Detroit (Its suburbs are balking). Wayne County Executive Wayne Evans told Crain’s Business News: “”Amazon told us unequivocally we didn’t have the transit, or even a plan for transit, to attract the talent they need.”
How effective are speed cameras? We know that excessive speed is a key contributor to traffic crashes, injuries and deaths. If we’re to achieve Vision Zero, reducing speeding would help. A new study from Britain looks at the impact of speed enforcement camera’s on crashes and casualties. It finds some significant positive effects, and estimates that the addition of 1,000 cameras reduce around 1130 collisions, 330 serious injuries, and save 190 lives annually, producing societal benefits in excess of the costs of about 21 million pounds (more than $35 million US). The study also finds that the effects of speed cameras tend to be highly localized, and there’s the possibility that they may lead to somewhat more collisions in other locations. Mobile camera locations, rather than fixed, permanent ones may be more effective.
Tang, Cheng Keat (2017) Do speed cameras save lives? SERC Discussion Papers, SERCDP221. Spatial Economics Research Centre, London School of Economics and Political Science, London, UK.
1. Cappucino City. Our friend and colleague Alex Baca offers the first of her three-part review of Derek Hyra’s book “The Cappucino City.” Baca, a former Washington DC journalist takes a close and critical look at Hyra’s claim that the gentrification of Shaw and other Washington neighborhoods is propelled by a desire of many young whites to “live the wire.”
2. The Limits of Ethnography: Cappuccino City Review, Part 2. In the second part of her review, Alex takes a close look at the methodology that Hyra (and many others) have used to characterize the dynamics and effects of gentrification “ethnography.” While interviewing long-time neighborhood residents and newcomers sheds light on the motivations and consequences of change for individuals, it’s not a particularly useful means of identifying the larger market trends and policy forces driving neighborhood change. In addition, the ethnographic approach lacks the kind of control group or counter-factual examination that would allow us to discern what is exceptional and what is commonplace about this neighborhood.
3. Cultural Displacement: Cappuccino City Review, Part 3. Derek Hyra’s view puts cultural conflict between mostly white newcomers and mostly black long-time residents at the heart of his story of gentrification in DC’s Shaw neighborhood. But this emphasis on culture discounts the critical role that policies (segregation in the past, single family zoning in the present) have played in warping housing markets, concentrating poverty, and driving up housing costs for everyone. Plus, as Alex argues, in castigating newcomers, the “cappuccino lens” sets an impossible bar for authenticity.
1. Is Sidewalk Labs really anti-walking? What’s the best way to lay out city streets? Is it still the classic grid pattern, or does the advent of a smart city or autonomous vehicles mean that some other arrangement makes more sense. Paris Marx asks some perceptive questions about the wisdom of Sidewalk Labs plans to implement a non-grid street system at its proposed Quayside development in Toronto. The Google subsidiary ahs drawn its plan to optimize the street system for shared vehicles (ride-hailed and human-driven today, perhaps autonomous tomorrow). While it might make it more attractive to use ride-hailing (and Marx questions that), there seems little argument that it will make the neighborhood less amenable for walking, biking and transit.
2. How single family zoning subsidizes mansion ownership. Jap Weel, who blogs at Tech for Housing, explores the counter-intuitive finding that San Francisco Bay area mansions are artificially cheap. It seems implausible at first, but Weel shows how two similarly sized pieces of land in one of the most expensive parts of the the bay area are priced very differently, because of zoning. A newly completed xxx unit condominium project sits on just 1.x acre of land; while a nearby $6 million mansion in Atherton occupies 1.x acres. If there Atherton property could be used for multi-family housing (which it can’t thanks to restrictive zoning) there’s no way the prospective home-owner of the mansion could afford to out-bid a condo-builder for the property. Because so few places in the desirable parts of the Bay area are open to multi-family construction, the price of land is bid up even higher than it would be otherwise, and drive up prices regionwide.
3. Lead, crime and New York City. The big, but often unacknowledged news about cities is the big decline in crime over the past two decades. Roughly speaking crime has fallen by half in big American cities. That’s the easy part. Explaining why crime has gone down is hard. Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum offers a critical review of Patrick Sharkey’s new book offering up some explanations, questioning why Sharkey (and some favorable reviewers) have discounted the now widely reported lead hypothesis (the decline in lead in adolescent blood levels after it was banned as a gasoline additive is strongly correlated with the decline in crime rates, in the US and other countries). We may never know the exact causes of the decline in crime, but this is a reminder that no one pat theory can give us a complete answer.
Walkability and Health. A new study from Britain looks at the connection between the walkability of the built environment and key measures of cardio-vascular health. We know that for individuals, more walking is associated with better health outcomes, But one of the lingering bugaboos of studies of walking and health is that its difficult to know whether walkable environments generate more walking. This study uses a massive database of the health records of more than 400,000 adults and correlates this with measures of their immediate built environment. The key finding: statistically significant differences in blood pressure in more walkable places.
Drinking, Parking, Flying, Peaking, Pricing: The five drivers of ride-hailing demand. The Transportation Research Board has published a dense, 100 page study of ride-hailing demand, drawing on survey and trip-making data from five cities around the country. There’s a lot to digest here, but fear not: City Observatory has distilled the report down into five key findings.
The emperor’s new infrastructure plan. Very few people seem to think that the Trump Administration’s infrastructure plan is a good idea, with various reviewers labeling it a fiction, a scam, or worse. Even the usually quite reserved Brookings Institution writes that it has “too much cynicism and too little leadership.” While there’s a lot not to like here, the one thing it shouldn’t be is a surprise: Coming from a real-estate wheeler-dealer with a very checkered business record, its hardly surprising that the plan consists mostly of boosting the Trump brand, financing deals with other people’s money, and–copious use of adjectives aside–being opaque about the likelihood and timing of any actual return on investment. Trumpfrastructure has an uncanny resemblance to Trump steaks, Trump University and Trump’s Atlantic City Casino: good promotion for him, and bad deal for almost everyone else involved. The best that can be said at this point is that it’s unlikely to move forward.
Does “microtransit” make sense? Jarrett Walker, never shy about asking hard questions about the sensibility of supposedly transformational technology solutions to urban transportation problems (witness his epic twitter duel with Elon Musk), now challenges those who are calling microtransit a new thing to put their cards on the table. In Walker’s view, microtransit consists of three elements, smaller vehicles, dispatched on varying routes to individual rider-selected origins and destinations, and some sort of web-enabled dispatching, routing and payment. The first two elements are well understood, Walker argues, noting that the economics have never proven out (services seldom manage to generate more than one rider per driver hour). As to wrapping dial-a-ride services in “app” clothing, he points out that’s something that good transit agencies are already working on. Even with automation, microtransit is inherently less efficient than fixed route transit (measured by rides per service hour), and subsidizing it, in Walker’s view, tends to promote inequality, because those who stand to benefit most from micro-transit have higher incomes.
Growing evidence that Portland’s inclusionary zoning law is choking off new apartment construction. The Oregonian’s Eliot Njus takes a close look at the dwindling pipeline of new apartment projects over the past year. Since the city’s inclusionary zoning requirements kicked in last February, the number of new apartment permits filed has dropped from around 4,000 to 6,000 annually to about 650. The law is likely to produce just 89 new “inclusionary” apartments as a result of permits filed this year. Portland’s recent apartment growth has been fueled by an influx of out-of-state capital, but given the uncertainty and costs associated with the IZ program, these investors are looking elsewhere: if institutional investors can’t get their desired return in Portland, they can build in other growing cities where they can. One ominous sign: no new apartment proposals is the city’s (until recently) booming downtown. The big danger here is that housing, especially apartments, tend to get built in boom periods; if Portland’s IZ law causes us to miss this boom, it likely means tighter supply and less affordability in the future.
While most transit service is operated by public entities, there are a growing number of private transit operators. Colleges and employers frequently operate transit systems to make their locations more accessible to students and/or employees. Private carriers often also provide transit services to and from airports. A growing number of private firms are attempting to compete in the urban line-haul market, like Chariot (a subsidiary of Ford) which provides transit services in San Francisco.
A new report from the Transportation Research Board catalogs the various kinds of private transit operations, and sketches out the policy issues likely to influence the industry’s growth in the years ahead. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Private Transit: Existing Services and Emerging Directions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/25020.
In the news
Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak responded to our critical review of their book the New Localism. We urge you to read their essay at CityLab and also have a look at our original take on their book. Bottom line: in ordinary times, cities are well-advised to simply ignore the federal government at go their own way. But these aren’t ordinary times, and the ongoing evisceration of the federal government is going to make cities jobs much, much more difficult.
American’s say they love diversity: They live it, too. Bloomberg View’s Noah Smith presented the findings of a study by Kwan Ok Lee, looking at the persistence of integrated neighborhoods. He references our article on the study, broadly agreeing with Lee’s point showing that once integrated, neighborhoods tend to stay that way. The US is not only more diverse, but more integrated. White flight has declined sharply, and its a hopeful sign, says Smith, that once Americans move to a mixed-race neighborhood, they tend to either stay there, or move to another mixed neighborhood.
Michigan Future’s Lou Glazer thinks there’s an important message in Amazon’s decision to leave both Detroit and Grand Rapids off its list of finalists for HQ2: building communities that attract and retain smart workers is the key to success, and Amazon doesn’t think Michigan is competitive yet. Glazer’s Grand Rapids Business Journal op-ed cites our City Observatory calculations on the talent dividend, showing the strong relationship between four-year degree attainment and per capita income, as well as our work studying the migration of the young and restless.
A year later, and we’re still stuck with the same hypocrisy on climate change
The 1993 movie, Groundhog’s day has been a cultural touchstone for the endless do-loop of futility. Bill Murray finds himself waking up every morning to discover that its still February 2, and that he’s done nothing to change any of the behaviors that have messed up his life. Unfortunately, Groundhog’s Day is a metaphor for our approach to climate change: February 2nd rolls around again, and we find we’re in exactly the same mess we were in a year ago. Case in point: Oregon.
Last year, we noted the release of Oregon’s Global Warming Commission report, which showed that after making some furtive progress after 2000, nearly all the gains in reducing greenhouse gas emissions had been wiped out by increased driving. At the time, we asked, why, if the state was serious about its legislatively adopted goals to dramatically reduce these emissions, it was largely ignoring its own report, and planning to spend several billion dollars widening highways.
It’s a year later, and nothing has changed; if anything the situation is worse. Transportation related emissions are still increasing, and the state Legislature has approved a plan that could lead to spending more than a billion dollars widening three Portland area freeways.
Like many states and cities, Oregon has set its own local goals for reducing greenhouse gases. In a law adopted in 2007, the state committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 10 percent from 1990 levels by the year 2020, and the further goal of reducing them by 75 percent by 2050. In light of the Trump Administration’s denial of the scientific evidence on global warming, and its withdrawal from the Paris accords, many environmental activists are pinning their hopes for progress on this kind of local effort.
Sadly, there’s a deep flaw in this approach. Despite the high-minded and quantitative nature of these goals, the actual date for their achievement is set far in the future, typically beyond the expected political lifetime of any of the public officials adopting these goals. And there’s little if any mechanism, aside from moral suasion, to require accomplishment of these goals. So in practice, what they may do is simply give politicians cover for expressing concern about climate change, without actually having to do anything substantive or difficult to attain it.
That fear was brought home by the release of the Oregon Global Warming Commission’s biennial report to the state Legislature. In addition to its goal, Oregon has a tiny citizen commission charged with riding herd on the state’s emissions inventory, and looking to see what, if any progress the state is making in reducing greenhouse gases. The news is not good. Oregon’s emissions are rising. The commission warns:
Key Takeaway: Rising transportation emissions are driving increases in statewide emissions.
As the updated greenhouse gas inventory data clearly indicate, Oregon’s emissions had been declining or holding relatively steady through 2014 but recorded a non-trivial increase between 2014 and 2015. The majority of this increase (60%) was due to increased emissions from the transportation sector, specifically the use of gasoline and diesel. The reversal of the recent trend in emissions declines, both in the transportation sector and statewide, likely means that Oregon will not meet its 2020 emission reduction goal. More action is needed, particularly in the transportation sector, if the state is to meet our longer-term GHG reduction goals.
This finding confirms exactly what we’ve pointed out at City Observatory: the decline in gasoline prices in mid-2014 prompted an increasing in driving and with it, an increase in crashes and carbon pollution. Oregon’s vehicle miles traveled, which had been declining steadily, ticked up in 2015 and 2016, as did its fatality rate.
As a result of the growth in driving and related emissions, and slower than expected progress in reducing emissions from other sources, it looks like there’s no way the state is anywhere close to the path it needs to be on to reach its 2050 goal. (The blue line shows progress to date, the yellow line is the glide slope to achieving the state’s adopted 2050 goal, and the red line is the commission’s estimate of where the state is headed).
In the best of all possible worlds, this warning would prompt the Governor and legislators–ever mindful of their legally enacted commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions–to redouble their efforts and figure out ways to discourage carbon pollution, especially from transportation.
In the real world, legislators did pretty much the opposite, approving a transportation bill that promises as much as $1.5 billion to widen three Portland area freeways. They also postponed consideration of an actual climate change bill until the 2018 session.
Last year, we reported that climate data showed that 2016 was the warmest year on record. That record was nearly equalled by 2017, which was the warmest year ever recorded in which we didn’t have an El Nino event, and was among the three warmest years ever. Global warming is an increasingly obvious reality. We’re going to need something more than soothing rhetoric and distant goals to avoid dramatically altering our planet. We’ll check in again next Groundhog’s day to see if anything’s different.
Minneapolis is considering inclusionary zoning (IZ), but has qualms based on Portland’s experience. Ironically, a non-existent Minneapolis IZ program was a key part of the argument for adopting Portland’s IZ law in December 2016.
Parts of this commentary are going to seem like a major-league distortion in the space-time continuum, so let’s start with a simple fact: the City of Minneapolis doesn’t have an inclusionary housing requirement–it never has.
Regular readers of City Observatory will know inclusionary housing requirements are a favored policy of many housing advocates: when developers build new housing, they ought to be required to set-aside some portion of the units–say 10 or 20 percent–for low or moderate income families. Dozens of cities around the country have adopted some variant of the inclusionary idea.
There’s a terrific story in MinnPost, the Twin Cities on-line public policy journalism enterprise, describing the upcoming deliberations of the Minneapolis City Council, which is considering adopting some version of IZ. According to MinnPost, the decision is very much informed by recent reports on the struggles surrounding Portland’s new IZ program.
In December 2016, Portland’s City Council enacted a citywide inclusionary housing requirement that would that is among the nation’s most stringent: beginning in February 2017, it required all multi-family developments of 20 or more units to set aside 20 percent of newly constructed apartments for families earning no more than 80 percent of the region’s median household income. A new city staff report and several press reports (here and here) suggest that the inclusionary zoning program has brought new apartment proposals in Portland to a near standstill. Wisely, the city leaders of Minneapolis want to understand what’s happening in Portland so they avoid a similar problem if they move forward.
And here’s the irony: back in 2016, advocates for Portland’s IZ program argued specifically that IZ was up and running in Minneapolis, proving that it had few, if any adverse effects. You might call it the policy wonk version of the “all the other kids are doing it,” refrain well known to parents everywhere. For example, in testimony to the Portland City Council on December 13, Professor George Galster assured the city council that inclusionary zoning was a well-established practice, in use widely around the country for more than forty years, concluding:
. . . they are in operation in hundreds of cities and counties across the United States, including fast-growing Portland-sized places like Denver and Minneapolis.
(Portland City Council Video, December 13, 2016 (at 56:30)
In a narrow statistical sense, that statement is mostly true, it simply wrong in the case of both of the cities specifically mentioned: Neither Denver nor Minneapolis had an IZ program in December 2016. Lots of places have adopted something they call “inclusionary zoning” or “inclusionary housing.” But that appellation is applied to a wide range of programs, most of them tiny or toothless. As we’ve reported at City Observatory, there’s less to most inclusionary zoning programs than meets the eye: While impressive sounding on paper (and perhaps in the press) they tend to produce very few units of new housing, typically due to the limited scope and discretionary application.
As a legal and policy matter, a wide variety of ordinances and programs clothe themselves in the appealing term “inclusionary housing.” But here especially, the devil is in the details. Even Mayor Bill de Blasio’s vaunted “Mandatory Inclusionary Housing” requirements apply only if developers seek up-zoning.
Here’s why this matters: Advocates are arguing that the experience of all these other places shows that inclusionary requirements have no negative effects on new privately financed housing construction. But if the programs in New York, Chicago, Denver and Minneapolis are so much smaller, are voluntary, have been repealed or simply don’t exist, then they provide no evidence that the program Portland enacted would not greatly reduce new housing construction–and thereby exacerbate the city’s housing shortage, which is what it appears to be doing.
When advocates sweep these substantive policy differences under the rug, and don’t acknowledge the limited scope of real-world inclusionary programs–as well as significant back-sliding from inclusionary zoning, as in Denver, they’re mis-informing policy makers. As we pointed out earlier, the scope of the Portland program is much broader than virtually every other extant inclusionary zoning program and is highly likely to have a devastating effect on new housing construction. Ultimately, details matter, and sweeping claims that elide the great variation in policies that carry the appellation “inclusionary” is misleading; no better than an eight year-old claiming that “all the other kids do”–when in fact they don’t.
Portland didn’t (and of course couldn’t) learn anything from Minneapolis’ non-existent inclusionary zoning program. (It’s not apparent that city leaders even bothered to verify the accuracy of Galster’s claim). Today, though, Minneapolis is fortunate to be in the position to learn from Portland’s mistakes. Thanks to MinnPost for following this story so closely.