Diverse, Mixed Income Neighborhoods Maps

This page contains maps showing the nation’s most racially and ethnically diverse neighborhoods, and those with the highest levels of income mixing. for City Observatory’s Diverse, Inclusive Neighborhood report.  These web-based maps that let you zoom in to a particular metropolitan area, and observe racial/ethnic and income patterns, and inspect data for individual census tracts. Tracts shaded yellow have a racial and ethnic diversity index score in the top 20 percent of all urban census tracts nationally.  Tracts shaded blue have an income diversity index in the top 20 percent of all urban census tracts nationally.  Tracts shaded green are both racially and ethnically diverse and have a high level of income diversity; they score in the top 20 percent of all urban census tracts nationally on both indices.

America’s Most Diverse, Mixed Income Neighborhoods

Map Navigation Instructions

To search for a particular city, enter text in the search box.

To zoom to a location, click and drag to center the map and then click on “+”, to zoom to the desired scale.

To see data values for an individual neighborhood, click on that neighborhood, and then click on the name of the census tract in the pop-up box to see values for that tract.

Data are available for the 52 most populous metropolitan areas in the United States. Census tracts shown are those with a population density of at least one person per acre. Data are from the 2011-15 five-year American Community Survey.


Gentrification isn’t ending. We must rise to meet that challenge.

We’re pleased to publish another contribution from City Observatory friend and colleague Alex Baca. Alex has written about cities while living in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Cleveland, OH, and earlier this year authored a three-part review of Derek Hyra’s Cappuccino City. She’s back this month with more thoughts on how we talk about, think about and react to gentrification.

2017.10.11 DC Wharf, Washington, DC USA 9461
This is not likely to stop. Photo by Ted Eytan.

In this year’s Answers issue, Washington City Paper’s annual cover package devoted to sussing out reader-submitted queries about the District of Columbia, one totally over-it inquirer wrote—evidently, in all caps—”When will gentrification end?”

I worked for City Paper from 2010 to 2012, and copy editing fell under my duties as assistant editor. By the time I was a young twenty-something in D.C., the trajectory of the city’s bougiefication was older than I was. Still, many people—including, it should be said, journalists—were living in neighborhoods, like Park View and Bloomingdale, that they claimed they could never imagine looking like or costing what they did. This meant that stories of the friction of cultural change were fresh every day.

It’s easy to get lazy, and fall into tropes, when you feel like you’re perpetually writing about the same thing; when you’re writing about gentrification in a place where it, as most people take it to mean, is happening, there’s the doubly exhausting feature of feeling as if it invades every aspect of your existence—where you live, what you eat, what you do for fun, and how you get around. Still, the word itself, as City Observatoryother publications, and academic research has repeatedly made clear, carries plenty of connotations but does not singularly, definitively mean one thing.

Eventually, when proofing stories, I started circling “gentrification,” “gentrified,” or any other variation and kicking drafts back to writers or editors, asking them to rewrite the sentence, paragraph, or story without using the word. It forced us all to be more clear about what we were talking about—a good thing, because what we were talking about ranged expansively, and included not-so-gentrification-y topics like D.C.’s police chief to then-mayor Vince Gray’s shadow campaign. This exercise also, I think, made the City Paper stories that were explicitly about the particulars of gentrification more credible, more worthwhile, and more truly reflective of D.C. at that time.

It would be inappropriate, and absolutely not in the Answers issue’s spirit, to send—as I would have to a writer—this question back to its asker with a crude markup demanding clarity. We can also reasonably infer what they meant, anyway: “When will gentrification stop?” is as much a plea as an inquiry: When will rents stop rising? When will fancy restaurants, which I don’t want to go to, stop opening? When will D.C. stop the process of becoming something that doesn’t feel like home to me?

Unfortunately, though City Paper’s response takes the question seriously, it does not adequately address its concerns. It instead responds in the fashion of the “cappuccino lens,” my reappropriation of Derek Hyra’s terminology for cultural change. Like the City Paper take in question, Cappuccino City was a missed opportunity, as I wrote in my review of his book:

We cannot craft good policy without first establishing an ideological framework that appropriately considers what is going on in America’s Shaws, so that we can future-proof neighborhoods, cities, and regions for as many scenarios as possible. That necessitates admitting that both increased housing supply and strategies to mitigate physical and cultural displacement have a role in contemporary urban policy. Hyra had that opportunity. He squandered it to double-down on an out-of-date discourse.

The most powerful part of editor-in-chief Alexa Mills’ response is a tremendous statement from Harvard University’s Lily Song, who riffs beautifully on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ landmark “A Case For Reparations”:

“‘I would argue,’ says Song, ‘That we cannot begin to tackle gentrification without a reparations agenda of targeted spatial and social investment and deeper reckoning, reconciliation, and healing that not only takes seriously institutional racism but also the moral/ethical deficiency and complicity among Americans who do not know or choose to overlook our collective history of mass plunder and trauma. It would go beyond simply recognizing the profound injustice of politics, business, or urban development as-usual to actually begin unraveling the system from the core.”

Unfortunately, this is reduced greatly by the fact that it follows this, from Columbia University’s Saskia Sassen:

‘Gentrification might diminish a bit,’ she says, ‘But there is an even more negative force: the buying of properties by national and foreign individuals (who just want a luxury place), speculators who are cleansing their money by buying buildings, and financial firms who can make money off luxury buildings even when those buildings are empty.”

Mills’ response uplifts the argument that we must “begin unraveling the system”—the uniquely American system of which Coates writes in “A Case For Reparations”—”from the core,” but essentially chalks up widening income segregation and homelessness to global capital. It is easy to do this. The super-rich, and the developments that cater to them, are highly visible; that a cabal of luxury apartments stands empty when the majority of renters in the U.S. are cost-burdened can quickly slip to cast the necessary argument to add more housing as gauche and offensive. Moreover, shadowy foreign investors are vaporous things of which we can wash our hands, because they’re not ours. Unfortunately, investments in real estate in D.C. are not as great, or as insidious, as Sassen makes them out to be, as Payton Chung shows for Greater Greater Washington.

Sassen’s take, like Derek Hyra’s blaming of newcomers for rising rents, is a way of pointing to something removed enough from our own lives that we absolve ourselves of the responsibilities Song rightfully demands we undertake. Framing Sassen and Song as she does allows Mills to skate over an actual solution to “gentrification,” offered by The New School’s Mindy Fullilove: “Intervening in this trend involves substantial investments in affordable housing, she says. Many scholars and policymakers concur.” Centering the cultural anxieties of change conveniently glosses over the fact that lots of displacement happens without development; that “gentrification might not drive poor people out of neighborhoods, but gentrifying neighborhoods are where there’s a greater risk that when low-income households leave their apartments those spots will be taken up by wealthier people”; that building more housing for the rich can, in many cases, help the poor. In a 2017 paper called “Supply Skepticism,” Vicki Been, Ingrid Gould Ellen, and Katherine O’Regan explain that substantial investments in both affordable and market-rate housing are needed to bring down its cost. Been elaborates on that here.

Multi- and single-family projects produced or preserved by D.C.’s Housing Production Trust Fund, 2001-2016 (D.C. Auditor)

Substantial investments in affordable housing are barely possible and hardly popular. Neither is building new market-rate housing. While some renters understandably fear that market-rate construction will lead to displacement, a greater threat to affordability are the residents who have delayed new units in affluent, single-family neighborhoods. If D.C. were to pummel the spoils of its growing tax base into a social housing program, that housing would hardly penetrate large swaths of the city, as a report released this week by the D.C. Policy Center finds:

This mix of the housing structures that favors single-family units in the District is a major factor of exclusion. Even small changes in the mix of buildings can make meaningful improvements to the inclusiveness of the city. Consider the eight assessment neighborhoods in Northwest (Hawthorne, Colonial Village, Woodley, Foxhall, Burleith, Kent, Spring Valley and Berkley) with an average of one unit per building—all single-family homes. These eight neighborhoods, collectively, have 4,876 housing units in 4,748 buildings. Adding a single low-rise multifamily building with 100 units in each of these neighborhoods would increase their housing units by 16 percent while increasing the number of buildings by 0.2 percent.

In D.C., Wards 2 and 3 have evaded or preempted the responsibility of housing the city’s citizens by continuously fighting new construction or instituting regulations like historic districts that make it difficult to build more. As a result, neighborhoods like Shaw, NoMa, and the Southwest Waterfront, zoned for a greater variety of housing types and not so fully occupied by those with the luxury to protest change, are the only places that can realistically accommodate new buildings.

Those places look overwhelmingly different as a result, and the same physics work at a regional level. Because income mobility in the D.C. are is relatively high, people are not going to stop moving there; for many individuals and families, it may be more lucrative to stay. Expecting D.C. alone to shoulder the metro area’s burden for housing proximate to jobs, or transportation, will only exacerbate and accelerate the scarcity of affordable units.

Song’s call to unravel the system could easily begin with a reevaluation of what we deem as acceptable, what we permit, and where we permit it. We can begin that work today. We could choose to commit to radically inclusive fair-housing policies in our cities, especially as the federal government dismantles funding and protections for that work. We could institute a land-value tax. We could choose to pay out financial dividends to our residents, be more generous in our voucher systems, or legitimately institute reparations. We could cease funding roadways and funnel that money instead into public transportation. We could permit, in places zoned exclusively for single-family homes, denser housing. We could ban parking minimums. We could do all of these things, and more, quite swiftly.

I’ve argued such points since 2010. To be sure, in the intervening years, no American city has shown that it can successfully balance affordability and demand with existing policies. But we haven’t tried the things listed above, or more radical ideas beyond them, not because they are impossible, or because they don’t work. Rather, we’ve avoided them because they are unpopular to those with financial wealth or the wealth of time to protest. And they require a vastly different set of organizational goals than our municipal governments—which tend to fixate on growth and economic development—currently possess.

2017.10.11 DC Wharf, Washington, DC USA 9472

D.C.’s upscale “instant neighborhoods” are attributable to exclusionary zoning in the city’s whiter, wealthier wards. Photo by Ted Eytan.

My frustration with Mills’ answer stems from the fact that the media has a great responsibility to do right by this topic and by the many others, like education, health, and transportation, whose fundamental truths—for example, adding more housing to increase affordability—are often counterintuitive, nearly always unpopular, and require keeping politicians accountable. City Paper has in its lifespan done a masterful job covering the shifts, jabs, and discomforts of an in-demand region that’s hurtling toward an unfamiliar future; it answered a similar question in 2014 in a much more appropriate way. More and more stories nationally are explaining how and why where we live changes as it does—without falling back on gentrification as shorthand, and often alongside reporting on specific ways to make housing more affordable. 

Perhaps not coincidentally, more and more pro-housing policies are emerging nationally: California’s SB827Minneapolis’ citywide allowance of four-plexes, Buffalo’s elimination of parking minimums. These policies are not, and cannot be, panaceas, because there is no one reason that housing in America is inadequate. But they are a desperately needed start. D.C.’s own entreé, the amendments to its Comprehensive Plan, commanded a record thirteen-hour hearing last week that questioned fundamentally whether neighborhood stability or affordable housing is more important. The amendments to the Comp Plan that pass will guide the District’s land use in coming decades. If the Comp Plan does not provide for a citywide increase in new housing, D.C. will become even more expensive and exclusionary.

As Daniel Herriges writes in a series of posts for Strong Towns about how to address both gentrification and concentrated poverty, “The relevant fact is that marginalized people tend to be excluded from economic opportunity whether or not their neighborhoods are gentrifying in some particular sense.” Gentrification, as we understand it, is not going to stop. Additionally, the U.S. is sorting and segregating faster than ever, and so the gravity of what gentrification is has only grown weightier; we can sense it in a way that we could not decades ago. One of our many moral responsibilities as a society, I believe, is to ensure enough places to live, as well as wages high enough to make a reasonable fraction of those places to live within the reach of most people. But even in the best-case scenario, one in which as many people who choose to be housed are as safely and affordably sheltered as possible (perhaps by the kind of massive social housing program increasingly occupying the imagination of leftist commentators), the discomfiting nature and seeming unfairness of change is likely to persist. 

Mills writes that though many have dedicated their careers to understanding gentrification, “none can predict the future.” But predicting the future is not the point. No one is ever going to be able to foresee in clear-enough detail what comes next, so we instead must plan to be resilient enough to staunch blows that we won’t recognize until they hit. We have not yet truly committed to attempts to building cities that work for the many, not the few. It’s time to try.

An Open Letter on Housing Affordability to Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish

Our planning processes and land use decisions have a huge impact on housing affordability.

Editor’s Note:  Today we’re publishing an open letter from Ethan Seltzer to Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish. Portland is the midst of a serious debate about the economics of housing , and how blocking proposed market rate housing is likely to affect affordability and displacement.  City Commissioner Nick Fish has argued that a recent city council decision to veto a 275-unit market rate housing project in the city’s Pearl District won’t have any effect on affordability. City Observatory, and others, have pushed back on this point.

Ethan Seltzer is an Emeritus Professor in the Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State University. He previously served as the President of the City of Portland Planning Commission and as the Land Use Supervisor for Metro, the regional government. He has lived and worked in Oregon and the Portland region since 1980.

Dear Commissioner Fish:

I read your comments in Willamette Week .  Though I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt on the source, I am really surprised that you regard filtering or “trickle down” as something we either don’t have, haven’t had, or should try to avoid.  In actual fact, it’s all we ever had, and unless and until you fundamentally change what property ownership means and how the housing market works, it’s what we’ll depend on going forward.

Suggesting that housing in the Pearl is unrelated to housing at SE 158th street is simply wishful thinking on your part, and a rhetorical flourish that ignores the current state of the housing market in Portland. Fundamentally, people want to live close to the center, not all people but enough so that we’re seeing much more demand than we’ve seen in a long time. Not building in the Pearl means that households with means will look at the next best thing, not at SE 158th Street but perhaps at NE 47th Street. And what happens next is that folks who never had Pearl aspirations but only wanted to find a place at NE 47th Street are now looking at SE 72nd Street. And so forth. Shutting down construction in the Pearl does equal, in the end, seeking housing, on the part of those who never before thought of doing so before, at SE 158th.

Face it: new housing is the most expensive housing we’ll ever have, and building new affordable housing is kind of a faith-based, homeopathic approach to addressing the housing crisis.  Fundamentally, today and up until this very moment, we’ve depended on, as we used to say on TV, people “moving on up” to release less costly housing to the market. If you don’t want to depend on filtering or “trickle down”, you need to be a whole lot more specific about what you think we can depend on starting now.

In Oregon we have a long and cherished tradition of doing the planning in the planning process, not in the development process. We create certainty by enabling folks to know what they can do on their property, by right, and in exchange we, as a community, get to have something to say about what those rights entail. So far, you’ve been addressing the crisis a development at a time. You have no plan, only a willingness to react. You can get out in front of this, but it won’t always be pleasant.

We need more housing production in all neighborhoods, including mine.  I hope to see the you and the rest of the Council become advocates for making it easier and more predictable to build new housing everywhere, not just in the Pearl or at SE 158th. And if you’re really sincere about your commitment to those seeking housing, it will not be just expensive housing everywhere, but a range of housing types and prices everywhere. That means fundamentally revisiting what we mean by “single family zoning,” and confronting the history of zoning and the haziness of just what we mean by “family” when we put it into land use regulations.

It also means that the aggravated newcomers that you’re serving in the Pearl will be joined by aggravated old timers in Eastmoreland, Alameda, Foster Powell, and the West Hills. Again, if you’re sincere about addressing the needs of folks looking for housing, you’ll find the strength to advocate for more than a precious few inclusionary units in the Pearl or really expensive “affordable” units at SE 158th. You’ll advocate for an inclusionary city rather than an inclusionary zone, a mix of housing on every block rather than a block of mixed housing in every zipcode. This isn’t about empowering greedy developers, but about housing our neighbors and kids.  Keep in mind that if you don’t like height, then you have to like density.

If these ideas are intriguing or even maddening, I’d be glad to talk them over with you in person. Coffee?




Portland’s brouhaha over housing market economics 101

Understanding how housing markets really work is essential to crafting solutions to our affordability problems

Regular followers of City Observatory will know two things about us:  We’re keenly focused on the problem of housing affordability, and we like to treat Portland, Oregon (our local backyard) as a kind of laboratory for better understanding urban issues. Last week, we wrote about the city council’s decision to block Fremont Place, a proposed a 275-unit apartment building in the city’s fashionable Pearl District.  The council’s vote ostensibly turned on concerns as to whether the proposed building complied with the city’s greenway requirements, but also followed loud outcry from neighbors complaining about blocked views.

We thought the council’s decision to invoke its ability to override the city’s design review commission (which had ruled that the proposed development complied with city requirements) set a precedent that was likely to chill new development, and compound the city’s housing shortage (which the city council has, by vote, declared an emergency).

The isn’t yet fully resolved.  The council may reconsider the proposal, and is also facing other proposed large apartment projects. Some city council members are pushing back against the arguments that we and others have made about the likely adverse housing market effects of their decisions.

In comments at the city council, City Commissioner Nick Fish challenged our arguments

“There is a view that is getting some traction in the media,” says Fish. “I call it ‘trickle down housing,’ and the idea is that … if we continue to have 95 percent or more of our housing at the luxury level, that we will over time be a benefit to those people shut out of the market.  If you take the logic of what some economists have said,” Fish said. “what they’re really saying is the person who can’t find a luxury apartments to live in, is going to go out to 158th and Powell and displace someone who is a low-income unit run by Joe Weston. That is so preposterous on its face, that it is not worthy of our discussion.”

Essentially, Fish is arguing there’s essentially no connection between how many units we build for middle and upper income households, and the availability and price of housing for lower income households. We and other’s don’t share that view:  Willamette Week’s reporter, Rachel Monahan adjudged the the Commissioner’s claims as follows:

Fish, a consummate public speaker, is erecting a bit of a straw man here.

Willamette Week asked us to respond, and published our reply, which we’ve added here, in edited form.

The past five years wasn’t some random epidemic of greed; it was because we had a shortage of new housing, and in the face of rising demand, higher income people outbid lower income people for a slowly growing housing stock. We’ve lived through history that simply proves [Fish] wrong.

Also: Virtually everyone agrees that more market rate housing reduces rent increases and reduces displacement. Miriam Zuk and Karen Chapple run the Urban Displacement Project at the University of California, Berkeley: Their estimates show that adding two market rate apartments have about the same effect on displacement rates as building one unit of public housing.

Based on that estimate, to make up for the displacement effect of NOT building Fremont Place, Portland is going to have to come up with something like 130 units of affordable housing. Those are currently running in the range of $300K (and up), so that’s like $40 million worth of affordable housing you would have to build to offset the displacement from not building Fremont Place.

Rent increases in Portland have dropped from double digits a year and a half ago to negative today. The reason that has happened is because so much more market rate housing has become available in the past 12 months. And that’s producing vacancies all over town, and not just in high income properties, but in the existing older apartment housing stock.

In fact, the process of filtering in the housing market is how nearly all affordable housing gets built. Most housing gets built, at least initially, for middle and upper income households. As it ages, it becomes less desirable, and the original tenants move on, and the newer tenants typically are lower in the income spectrum.

In effect, the housing market works like a game of musical chairs: If there aren’t enough chairs, then some people get pushed out. In musical chairs, it’s the slow. In housing, it’s the poor. For a non-technical explanation of house this works, see this great infographic from Sightline Institute.

But this process of filtering doesn’t happen when you block the construction of new housing. If there aren’t enough new chairs added to the game, rich people end up in smaller, older chairs (houses) and the poor face shortages, rising rents and eviction. That’s why in some places the 1950s era ranch home is the affordable housing stock in a metro area, and why in other places (like the Bay Area and LA), tiny, aging ranch houses can command $1 million or more.

In the extreme case, when you can’t build expensive new housing in desirable areas, less expensive housing gets converted to more expensive housing. A recent example comes from Chicago’s North Center neighborhood, where an aging three-flat (a three story tri-plex apartment building) is being converted into a single family residence. If the family “deconverting” this house could buy a large, new home in the neighborhood, these three units would stay rentals. (Hat tip to Chicago Cityscape).

Filtering also works in weak market cities. When you build lots more new housing in cities that aren’t’ growing, the price of older homes falls so far that there’s no economic reason for their owners to invest in maintenance and repair. The older homes decay, and the lowest quality buildings in the least desirable neighborhoods are ultimately abandoned or demolished. That process is at work in the Cleveland metropolitan area, as Aaron Renn points out:

 If you keep building new homes but you aren’t adding households, then older homes at the bottom of the scale will be abandoned. And all up the stack homes are devalued. This helps explain why even many inner suburban neighborhoods are falling into serious decay.

So the process of filtering is really ubiquitous in housing markets. When there’s more housing supply than demand, housing filters down (as in Akron and Cleveland); when there’s more demand than supply (and you can’t build new high income units) housing filters up (as in Chicago’s North Center Neighborhood). The lesson for cities like Portland is that when you face a housing shortage, and if you care at all about affordability, you have to build all kinds of housing, including for upper income households. If you don’t, the ones who will pay the price will be the lower income households.

And one final editorial note: While some may ask why we inject ourselves into the middle of controversy, we’d stress this is exactly where City Observatory needs to be; bringing its analysis and the experience of a wide range of cities to bear in a timely and hopefully clear fashion and directly in the context of current policy debates We have great respect for the energy and leadership Nick Fish has brought to housing policy; but we will politely, but firmly speak out when our research points to a fundamentally different conclusion. This is an important debate to have, and we’re happy to participate. Our thanks to Willamette Week for putting the wonky details of housing econ 101 front and center as part of the public discussion.

Editor’s note: This post has been revised to correct the attribution of the quotation of Aaron Renn. Hat tip to Jason Segedy for sharing both the quote and its correct author.

Portland doesn’t really want to make housing affordable

Actions speak louder than words; blocking new housing will drive up rents

Nominally, at least, the Portland City Council is all about housing affordability.  They’ve declared a housing emergency. In the last general election, City voters approved a $258 million bond issue to build more affordable housing. The Council has made permanent a city ordinance requiring landlords to reimburse tenants for moving expenses if they pursue a no cause eviction, or if the tenant moves after a 10 percent rent increase.

But ultimately housing affordability in the Rose City, as everywhere, hinges on whether enough supply gets built to accomodate the growing demand for urban living. And the city’s zoning code and project approval requirements are where the proverbial rubber meets the road in terms of expanding housing supply. And in a series of recent actions, the Portland City Council is effectively sabotaging the supply of new housing in a way that will ultimately worsen the city’s affordability problems.

DENIED: The hundreds of people who would have lived here will now be bidding up rents elsewhere in Portland. (Next Portland).

Last week, the council voted to deny a building permit for a proposed 17-story, 275-apartment tower in the city’s booming Pearl District. Neighbors opposed the tower because it blocks views (from their recently completed condominium towers) of one of the city’s iconic bridges. Because it abuts the city’s Willamette River greenway, the building is subject to the city’s design review process. And while commissioners said they weren’t caving in on heights or views, they claimed that the building was somehow at odds with the city’s greenway policies. Portland for Everyone’s Michael Anderson has an excellent in-depth review of the proceedings in a post a Medium: “Open Season for NIMBY Appeals:  Portland blocks 275 homes after Pearl District neighbors ask it to.” Briefly:

. . .  the council unanimously voted to give the anti-housing activists exactly what they had been asking for: no new homes on the site.

It’s ironic because one of the virtues of Oregon’s planning system is that, for the most part, new developments that are allowable under a land use plan must be approved using “clear and objective” approval standards.  The idea is that the city should be bound by what’s in its plan: so if an area is designated for apartments, the city is obligated to approve permits for an apartment in that area.

A loss of certainty kills off housing investment

Arbitrarily invoking a vague feeling of discomfort about whether a project is consistent with the greenway–and overturning a vote of the city’s design review commission in the process–sends a clear signal to developers that they can’t rely on what’s written in city plans and policies.  In this case, the developer may be forced to return to the drawing board, and submit an entirely new proposal–and again run the gantlet of public outcry, and again confront a largely subjective determination as to whether the development meets with Council approval. Other developers are likely to heed this lesson.

As we’ve written at City Observatory, the city’s recently adopted inclusionary zoning law adds yet another layer of uncertainty. The law imposes a wide range of conditions on new 20-unit and larger apartment buildings, generally requiring that 20 percent of units be affordable, and that affordability be guaranteed for 99 years, and that the apartments be comparable in size and finishes to market rate units. The added cost of subsidizing such units is supposed to be made up by some combination of tax abatements, height and density bonuses, and parking requirement waivers. But since virtually no one has yet made their way through this process, it’s difficult (if not impossible) for developers to accurately assess how much time and money compliance will require. Again, this increase in uncertainty has a decidedly chilling effect on prospective investment. (New apartment proposals have come to a near standstill since the inclusionary housing ordinance went into effect a year ago.)

There’s one more problem: no one sees the buildings that don’t get built as a result of these disincentives and uncertainties. In the case of the now denied Fremont Place, we can publish a an accurate rendering of what the building would have looked like, had it been approved, and tell you that 275 households will now be competing for other housing in Portland. But going forward, many potential housing projects won’t even advance to the stage of having drawings, or marching through the approval process, because of uncertainty. Like Conan-Doyle’s hound that didn’t bark, we won’t see the housing that doesn’t get built. But we will likely feel it, as the still growing demand for urban living presses up against a finite urban housing stock.


Barack Obama on Gentrification

. . . we want more economic activity in this community, because that’s what creates opportunity and with more economic opportunity it does mean that there’s going to be more demand for all kinds of amenities in the community. So you can’t have one without the other. You can’t say we want more jobs, more businesses and more opportunity for our kids but otherwise we want everything to stay exactly the same. It just doesn’t work that way. But what we do is make sure that we’re working with organizations and institutions in the community to preserve affordable housing, to make sure that it is residents that are benefiting.

On February 27, former President Barack Obama appeared at a community forum in Chicago to answer public questions about the proposed Presidential Center to be built in Jackson Park.  One part of the conversation dealt with gentrification.  You can watch the President’s answer here.  We’ve also transcribed his remarks for your reference.

Questioner: President Obama, I have a question how is the presidential center working to revitalize the South side without pushing out existing residents like myself.

Barack Obama:

Well, you know this is really an important issue. Some people have asked, by the way, why did we locate on a park? Part of the reason is, as I described earlier, when you look at the most vibrant parks in the world, whether it’s Central Park in New York, or Grant Park downtown or Lincoln Park , or Luxembourg Park in Paris, what characterizes great parks is activity and life and movement and people being around and people being outside and stuff going on.

Which isn’t to say you don’t want quiet spaces, contemplative spaces.

It’s a lived-in place. It’s not behind a glass case to look at. It’s something to be in—that’s the point.

But one of the things that we were also committed to is making sure that we weren’t displacing residents in the construction of the actual facility and we will not be.

Now, the issue that then gets raised is “Okay, that’s true but isn’t it true that once this gets built and all these visitors are coming and everybody sees how pretty Jackson Park is and how nice the lakefront is, won’t more people want to live down here.” And there is constantly a balance we’ve got to strike between making sure that existing residents are benefiting from increased economic development, benefitting from increases in home values and benefiting from more businesses being active and all that revenue, because that creates more wealth and more jobs and so forth,

We have to balance that with the fact that we want more economic activity in this community, because that’s what creates opportunity and with more economic opportunity it does mean that there’s going to be more demand for all kinds of amenities in the community. So you can’t have one without the other. You can’t say we want more jobs, more businesses and more opportunity for our kids but otherwise we want everything to stay exactly the same. It just doesn’t work that way. But what we do is make sure that we’re working with organizations and institutions in the community to preserve affordable housing, to make sure that it is residents that are benefiting. Those are the kinds of plans, activities, foresight that we have to have in order to get that perfect balance: revitalizing and renewing the community but also making sure that people who are already living there are benefiting from it.

I know that I heard a couple of people concerned about like, maybe rents might go up. Well, here’s the thing. If you go into some neighborhoods in Chicago where there are no jobs, no businesses and nothing’s going on, in some cases, the rents are pretty cheap, but our kids are also getting shot on that block. So what I want to do is make sure that people have jobs, kids have opportunity, the schools have a better tax base and if the rent goes up a little bit, people can pay it because they’ve got more money. And if they’re seniors, if they’re on fixed incomes, if they’re disabled, then we’ve got to make sure that there’s a process in place to encourage and plan for affordable housing units being constructed there.

But here’s the one thing I will say: I think a lot of times people get nervous about gentrification, and understandably so. But what I will also say is this: I first came to Chicago in 1985, and was on the South Side for – just doing the math real quick – twenty-some years, before moving to Washington because of the presidency. It is not my experience during that time that the big problem on the South Side has been too much development, too much economic activity, too many people being displaced because all these folks from Lincoln Park pouring into the South Side. That’s not what’s happened. I mean, it’s happened in some places along, you know, near like West Loop area; most of that has happened right around the city. There is so much room. Think about all the abandoned buildings and the vacant lots that are around here. We’ve got such a long way to go in terms of economic development before you’re even going to start seeing the prospect of significant gentrification. Malia’s kids might have to worry about that. Right now, what we’ve got to worry about is you have broken curbs, and trash and boarded up buildings, and that’s really what we need to work on.

Dallas: Diverse mobility, complete neighborhoods & placemaking

Carol Coletta’s Remarks to Downtown Dallas, Inc.

(Our friend and colleague Carol Coletta delivered the keynote address to the annual meeting of Downtown Dallas, Inc. on March 5. While her remarks are focused on Dallas, we think the themes presented (promoting diverse forms of mobility in cities, building complete neighborhoods, and encouraging placemaking) are of widespread interest. Her is an edited version of her remarks as prepared for delivery – ed.)

I never fully appreciated the Dallas you see from a car. It was only a when a colleague and I walked miles on your streets at all hours of the day and night a couple of years ago that I realized how much I like this downtown.

Klyde Warren Park, the Arts District, the Katy Trail… These places are all nationally noteworthy and a joy to experience. What an exciting place you are building.

And what a smart future you are planning.

A complete and connected city center. That’s the vision of the Dallas 360 Plan.

Your plan makes big bets on three transformative strategies:

  • Advancing urban mobility
  • Building complete neighborhoods
  • Promoting great placemaking

I like the bets you’ve made.

Advancing Urban Mobility

Making it pleasant to get in, out, and through Downtown Dallas is critically important. Every U.S. city seems to face a traffic problem. The sense is traffic is getting worse, not better. And the smart ones have figured out that building more lanes and parking will not solve the problem. That simply induces more demand. Plus, in a downtown area, it destroys the urban fabric that makes non-motorized modes of transportation – and downtown itself — appealing.

Creating a downtown that is the best place in the region for using a full range of transportation options and favoring walking, biking and transit is the smart play – both now and in the future.

I know you have big plans for transit, and I look forward to seeing those plans come to fruition. You’ve already made big gains.

Downtown Dallas is big, even for avid walkers like me, and a convenient assist from transit and cycling will be essential to achieve your vision of a connected city center.

When you consider that adjacent neighborhoods outside the expressway loop are now defined as part of Downtown Dallas, making convenient and pleasant travel options other than cars, especially for people living so close, is imperative.

And good for you for including these adjacent neighborhoods within your boundaries. It not only changes the mental map in important ways, but it also redefines what a downtown can be.

One more word about your vision of advanced mobility….

Some of you may have been at last Fall’s ULI meeting in Los Angeles. I was surprised to learn that even in LA, the city’s largest developers are making big bets that the need for parking will be dramatically reduced. and they are capitalizing on that to build a lot less parking and get a lot more value from the land they own in downtown LA.

Building Complete Neighborhoods

Your second transformative strategy to deliver a complete and connected city center is to build complete neighborhoods.

The days of downtowns being business centers that close at 6 o’clock are finally in the rearview mirror, growing more distant by the day. It’s hard to find a downtown in any city of any significant size that isn’t seeing the growth of its residential market. Even cities that aren’t experiencing overall growth are seeing their downtown population exploding. Increasingly, people want to live close to their daily destinations, and they’re willing to pay more for housing that lets them do that.

It’s clear there is premium for city living. Incomes of people living near Central Business Districts across America have been rising since 1980.

Young adults led the return to the city. College-educated 25-34 year-olds are now 126% more likely than other Americans to live within a 3-mile radius of the CBD. Because they are delaying marriage and children, they are staying longer. (In fact, a lot of parents are finding downtown to be a great place – even a preferred place – to raise children. I’ve raised three downtown.)

And now young adults are being followed downtown by their empty nester parents who no longer need all those rooms and all that yard to take care of.

Your embrace of adjacent neighborhoods as part of downtown Dallas gives your downtown residents a lot more choices about where and how to live downtown.

Along with housing, dining and entertainment options are growing in most downtowns. It’s easy to understand why when you realize that 2016 was the first year on record that out-of-home food consumption exceeded in-home food consumption. In other words, we are eating out more often, and downtown is in a good position to capture more than its fair share of that business.

What’s been most surprising, though, is the turnaround in the fortunes of downtown in its historic role as an employment center. Since the recession of 2008, essentially all the jobs growth in the nation’s largest cities has been in city centers. That is a complete reversal from prior to the recession.

Trends are moving strongly in favor of downtown. I’m glad to see you taking advantage of the moment.

Promoting Great Placemaking

Great placemaking manifests in hundreds of obvious ways. Walking and cycling around downtown this weekend, I’ve seen so many examples of that, especially with the introduction of downtown parks, lighting, and some of the really fine street crossings and signalization.

Yesterday, I was on the Katy Trail when I saw a young man and woman enter the trail. It was clear it was her first time there, and he was excited to show it to her. She stepped onto the trail, looked left and broke into the biggest smile.

I love seeing people respond to places that deliver delight.

But great placemaking is not just what what can be seen. It’s also about the who, the how and the why.

As impressive as Downtown Dallas is today and as smart as your plans are for the future, I want to challenge you to ask yourselves:

  • Who are we building downtown for?
  • And to what end?

You know this: We are living in angry times. Everyone, it seems, has a grievance and every grievance will be aired on Facebook, on Twitter, on cable news.

We are living in a time of great economic dislocation and growing inequality.

We are living in communities with more economic segregation. Almost a third of us live in neighborhoods where either everyone is rich or everyone is poor. No wonder we’ve lost our ability to understand and empathize with others. The number of urban poor people living in neighborhoods where the poverty level is greater than 40% has doubled – doubled! – since 2000.

We are living at a time when trust is in freefall. People don’t trust government, they don’t trust the church, they don’t trust the media, they don’t trust each other.

Only a third of Americans believe “Most people can be trusted.”  Sixty-two percent of us believe, “You can’t be too careful in dealing with people.”

Think about that. You are trying to build a place – a downtown — where people happily encounter a whole lot of other people, most of whom are strangers, at the same time general distrust of people is rising.

One of the reasons for that distrust is that we barely know our neighbors. Only 20% of Americans report spending time regularly with neighbors. And a third of us say we spend no time at all with neighbors.

But we need that loose web of social connections and the trust it enables to combat rising rates of isolation, political polarization, and increasing economic segregation in our cities.

If we want to tackle the big challenges our communities face – resilience, smart growth, equity, poverty, drug addiction – pick an issue! – we have to begin with simple acts of bringing strangers together, not online, not digitally, but in place.

That’s what a great downtown can do. Especially now, we need great downtowns that become the entire city’s neighborhood.

The research is clear:

  • We are becoming more, not less, economically segregated.
  • Economic segregation kills opportunity for upward mobility.
  • Segregation of every kind contributes to a lack of trust.
  • A lack of trust undercuts our ability to build happy, strong and equitable communities.
  • And the best way to build trust is to have places – and lots of them – where people of different economic status, different political views, different ages, different ethnicity will, in the course of their normal day, encounter each other, gain familiarity and then interact in some way.

 Promoting great placemaking means sidewalk cafes and beautiful parks and fun pop-ups and dogs. But don’t stop there! Be intentional about who uses these places and why.

Mix it up. Go high/low. Tolerate the unexpected. With your design, management and programming, invite strangers to mix with one another. Create safe space where people can conveniently and pleasantly be in the company of strangers… space that does not require us as individuals to be well intentioned or “progressive” to be with people unlike ourselves.

Architect David Adjaye calls it “beauty without the tyranny of elitism”.

As you consider how to pursue your third transformative strategy — promoting great placemaking – I challenge you to think of Downtown Dallas as your city’s civic commons where trust is actively being rebuilt and economic opportunity is intentionally created by bringing people together across social and economic divides.

There is a reason trust is plunging. It’s not just a “fake news” problem. It’s not just a Russia problem. It’s not just a social media problem, or a cable news problem. Those are amplifiers.

But trust starts in community. It starts with making places all of us want to occupy.

In his book, Triumph of the City, Ed Glaeser wrote:

“Our ability to connect with each other is the defining characteristic of our species. It is through these connections that regions prosper. Internal connections among residents and firms and connections with the global economy are essential for a city’s prosperity and vitality.”

That is fundamentally what the 360 Plan attempts to deliver with advanced mobility, complete neighborhoods and great placemaking. It’s all about connecting people, a connected downtown and a connected city.

Downtowns are meant to have special powers. They are meant to matter to entire cities, to entire regions. Clearly, Downtown Dallas Inc. intends to claim those powers for this downtown. With your commitment here today — and every day — you are making this a very special place. Thank you for setting an example for us all.



City Women

Jane Jacobs was just one of the first of many

It’s International Women’s Day, and today, we’d like to acknowledge just a few of the really sharp women urbanists we rely on, every day, at City Observatory, to understand and make sense of the world. We read their research, study their commentaries, and follow them on twitter. You should, too.

Too often, sexism, in either its blatant or latent forms rears its ugly head in social media. A couple of weeks back, we read a commentary from an exasperated Lisa Schweitzer, challenging a condescending twitter reply to her reactions of California’s Senate Bill 827. Schweitzer researches and teaches urban planning at the Universty of Southern California, and has a very trenchant blog on urban affairs. (Schweitzer argued that the initial draft of the bill, which would liberalize zoning near transit, would likely need some amendments to minimize windfalls to some property owners). In her view, she was being challenged not so much on the merits of her arguments, but because she was being treated as “a misguided girl speaking when she should be spoken to.” Dr. Schweitzer hardly needs our endorsement of her bonafides in talking seriously about this subject, and the strength of her argument illustrates her depth of knowledge here.

Admittedly, this is only a very truncated list of the women who have smart, relevant things to say about cities. So consider it just a start.

Alex Baca, @alexbaca, Journalist, activist, Author of City Observatory commentaries on gentrification in Washington.

Alison Arieff, @aarieff, author of the definitive study of technology campuses; NY Times &  SPUR

Amy Liu, @amyliuw, Director of Brooking Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program.

Angela Glover Blackwell, ‪@agb4equity‪, Founder and Director of Policy LInk, a data-driven voice for equity in urban policy

Angie Schmidt, @schmangee, Urban journalist extraordinaire for Streetsblog,

Ann Markusen, Emeritus Professor of Urban Affairs, University of Minnesota, expert on the cultural economy

Beth Osborne, T4A, ‪Leader of Transportation for America, @BethOsborneTA

Carol Coletta, @ccoletta, Leading American Cities Practice for Kresge Foundation (and Godmother of City Observatory)

Cecilia Machado, Co-Author, Bright Minds, Big Rent: Gentrification And The Rising Returns To Skill https://sites.google.com/site/machadoc/research

Eileen Divringi, Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank, Co-author of study of neighborhood change in Philadelphia, Philly Fed, https://www.philadelphiafed.org/community-development/bios/divringi

Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, https://elizabethcurridhalkett.com/, Scholar researcher of creative and cultural industries, authorof the’The sum of Small things”

Elizabeth Kneebone, ‪@ekneebone‪, Formerly of Brookings Urban Center, now research director of Berkeley’s Terner Center on housing, expert on suburbanization of poverty.

Elly Blue, @ellyblue, Author of Bikeconomics

Emily Badger, @emilymbadger, Urban affairs reporter for  NYT Upshot,

Emily Hamilton, @ebwhamilton, Contributor to the Market Urbanism blog), researcher on walkability and home values

Erica Poethig, @Erika_Poethig, Urban Institute, research on inclusive development.

Harriet Tregoning, @htinwdc, Former director of planning for the District of Columbia,

Ingrid Gould Ellen, Director of the Furman Center for Real Estate at NYU, gentrification scholar, https://wagner.nyu.edu/community/faculty/ingrid-gould-ellen

Jackelyn Hwang, Harvard, Co-author, study of gentrification in Philadelphia. https://scholar.harvard.edu/jackelynhwang/publications

Jeannette Sadik Kahn, @JSadikKhan, pioneering transportation director for New York City.

Jennifer Dill, @JenniferDillPSU, Portland Statue University, researching active transportation.

Jenny Schuetz, @jenny_schuetz, Brookings Institution, Urban economics from affordable housing to creative industries to inclusionary zoning.

Jesse Handbury, Wharton, http://www.jessiehandbury.com/, Co-author “Urban Revival in America”

Katherine O’Reagan, https://wagner.nyu.edu/community/faculty/katherine-m-oregan, former assistant secretary at Housing and Urban Development for Policy and Research.

Kendra Bischoff, https://www.soc.cornell.edu/people/faculty/bischoff/, Sociologist, Cornell, Co-author of detailed analysis of income segregation in US cities.

Kim Mai Cutler, @kimmaicutler. Author of epic urban planning essay “Burrowing Owls lead to Vomiting Anarchists.”

Kristen Jeffers, @blackurbanist, blogger at Black Urbanist

Laura Wolf-Powers, @wolf_powers, Hunter College, co-author, study of the maker economy

Leah Platt Boustan,‪@leah_boustan Economist, Princeton, expert in the black migration and suburbanization.

Lena Edlund, Columbia, Co-Author, Bright Minds, Big Rent: Gentrification And The Rising Returns To Skill http://www.columbia.edu/~le93/

Lisa Schweitzer, @drschweitzer, USC Urban planner, focusing on transit and social justice

Margery Turner, @maturner, Urban Institute, long-time analyst of poverty and place.

Maria Micaela Sviatschi, Co-Author, Bright Minds, Big Rent: Gentrification And The Rising Returns To Skill, http://www.micaelasviatschi.com/research/

Marisa Novara, @marisa_novara, Staff for Chicago’s Metropolitan Planning

Maryann Feldman, http://maryannfeldman.web.unc.edu/, Expert on innovation policy and local economic development, University of North Carolina.

Nela Richardson, Chief economist for Redfin

Rachel Cohen, Urbanism journalist, has written insightfully about school integration. ‪@rmc031

Rachel Meltzer, ‪@ProfRachelM , New School, New York, Urban economist, research on neighborhoods and housing.

Rebecca Diamond, Stanford, https://web.stanford.edu/~diamondr/ . Provocative research on rent control, food deserts and skill gaps in cities.

Robin Chase, @rmchase, co-founder and CEO of ZipCar; expert on mobility as a service.

Skylar Olsen, https://www.zillow.com/research/about-us/skylar-olsen/

Sonja Trauss, Founder of the Bay Area Renters Federation, Candidate for Supervisor in San Francisco, @sonjatrauss

Susan Shaheen, @susanshaheen1, leading researcher on shared mobility, UC Berkeley

Svenja Gudell, Economist for Zillow. @svenjagudell

Cloaking a weak argument in big—but phony—numbers

Journalists: Stop repeating phony congestion cost estimates. They’re just weak arguments disguised with big numbers.

This month The Economist has an excellent special report exploring the prospects for autonomous vehicles. They seem to be coming faster than many people anticipated, and they pose some big challenges and opportunities for cities. This otherwise very useful contribution to the conversation is marred, unfortunately, by The Economist also posting as fact the congestion cost estimates produced by traffic monitoring firm Inrix.

As regular readers of City Observatory know, we’ve pointed out serious problems with the Inrix congestion cost estimates.

It’s painful to watch an otherwise intelligent journal like The Economist uncritically reproduce the demonstrably fictitious congestion cost estimates. Carrying on the in the tradition of the Texas Transportation Institute, Inrix now annually produces some VERY SCARY NUMBERS about how much congestion supposedly costs travelers in cities around the world.

Congestion cost estimates are the horror fiction sub-genre of what we’ve called “Hagiometry.” Hagiography is flattery in prose form; hagiometry is flattery with numbers; and congestion cost estimates are designed solely to use big numbers to scare people into believing that a problem is somehow worse than it really is.

The Inrix figures are an argument—and a remarkably flimsy one at that—masquerading as economic statistics.  The implicit argument is that there is some state of the world in which people could travel just as fast at peak hours than they do when there’s no traffic on the roads. The cost estimates are constructed based on adding up how many more minutes it takes to travel when there’s traffic compared to when there are no traffic delays, and then multiplying that by some value of time. The math may be right, but the assumption imbedded in that argument, that there’s some way to build enough lanes to accomodate all that traffic, is just wrong.

In the words of Raising Arizona’s Nathan Arizona:  Yeah, if a frog had wings, it wouldn’t bump its ass a- hoppin’.

A clever quantitative biologist using the Inrix methodology could easily compute the number of excess derriere contusions the world’s frogs suffer every day because of their unfortunate decision to choose jumping rather than flying as a means of travel.  And that would provide exactly as much insight into transportation policy as does the Inrix report.

There’s no way to build enough roads to eliminate congestion, at any price

The essence of the Inrix calculation is this: if there were no other cars on the road when you wanted to drive to work each morning, and also when you drove home each evening, here’s how much time you’d save, and what it would be worth to you? But would it be fiscally or even physically possible to build enough roadway space to give everyone the same level of service at 5pm every day as you get when you’re driving at say 2am?  Of course not.

One could just as easily add up and value the total amount of time people in the world spend traveling between any two sets of points, and count that as the cost of not having “Star Trek” style matter-transporters. But, you would argue, that can’t realistically be regarded as a “cost” because such transporters don’t exist. And that’s precisely the point, there’s no way to build a road system that allows peak hour travelers to travel at the same speeds

And even if you did build a stupendous amount of additional roadway capacity (and could repeal the fundamental law of road congestion, in which the increment of additional capacity generates more peak hour travel thus replicating congestion), there’s absolutely no doubt that the cost of constructing that roadway would greatly outstrip the supposed “benefits” of eliminating congestion. We don’t have to speculate about this: when road users are asked to pay even a fraction of the of cost of building additional road capacity, in the form of tolls, they readily indicate by voting with their feet (or wheels), that they attach very little value to travel time savings. Notice, for example the case of the I-65 Ohio river crossing in Louisville. The state highway department doubled the size of the bridge from 6-lanes to 12-lanes, and then started charging a toll. Almost immediately traffic on the bridges fell from 120,000 vehicles daily, to about 70,000.

Make it stop!

Here’s the point:  Anyone who claims that congestion has a cost–meaning a real, net social cost–has to propose some transportation system that would (a) eliminate all of the delays that they’ve counted, and (b) do it for less cost than the value of supposed value of time lost to congestion. If they can’t do that they haven’t shown that congestion has any real costs at all.

Credulous reporters need to start looking past the dizzying array of numbers and ask some hard questions about the assumptions behind them. Repeating fictitious claims about the supposed cost of congestion isn’t helping their readers understand, much less solve, the world’s urban transportation problems.

Junk food America elected its president

The states with the worst diets voted disproportionately for Donald Trump

A powerful new study from  uses big data to shine a powerful light on our eating habits. Using data from grocery store scanner records, Hunt Allcott, Rebecca Diamond, and Jean-Pierre Dube (researchers from the New York University, Stanford and the University of Chicago, respectively) developed a detailed profile of what consumers buy in different parts of the country. Linking this information with the nutritional labeling of products, they were able to characterize the variations in the fat, calories and protein of the various products we buy.

The purpose of their work was to examine the food desert hypothesis–to see whether proximity to full-line grocery stores shapes purchasing habits and actual diets. (It doesn’t; personal characteristics, like income and education are much more important in determining diet than distance to healthy food outlets; opening more full-line grocery stores has almost no impact on shopping and diets in so-called food desert neighborhoods.).

Their data allow us to paint a very detailed picture of the geography of nutrition in the US.  Here’s their county level map, with the healthiest eaters shown in the light colors and the least healthy in the darker colors. It shows that the most healthy eaters are concentrated on the East and West Coasts, and that those in the interior states, and especially in the south, eat the least healthy diets. Just as with many things, it looks like our nation is highly polarized.

It struck us that we’ve seen this pattern before: in county-level election maps. Here are the results of the 2016 presidential election, coded with the familiar red/blue republican/democrat shading. Darker colors signify relatively larger margins for the dominant party.  As you can see, there’s a strong similarity between this map and the one on nutrition.

We don’t want to place too much reliance on visual evidence; so we’ve done a quick bit of statistical analysis. We don’t have access to the county level data, but Alcott, Diamond and Dube did publish a color-coded map showing state-level nutritional scores.  We took the values indicated on this map and compared them with Donald Trump’s electoral margin in each of the 48 contiguous states (positive values indicate a victory for Trump). The following scatter chart show’s Trump’s victory margin (on the horizontal axis) and the state’s relative nutritional score on the vertical axis).  Higher scores on the nutritional axis correspond to a healthier diet.

Overall, there’s a pretty strong correlation between the two data series. Statistically, the coefficient of determination (r-squared) between the two data series is .51, suggesting that nutrition alone explains about half the variation in state voter margin. The healthier a state’s eating habits (at least as evidenced by the shopping data) the more likely they were to vote for Clinton. Conversely, the least healthy states (we’re looking at you Alabama, Oklahoma and Louisiana) had the largest margin of victory for Trump.  There’s a clear pattern here:  16 of the 18 healthiest states voted for Clinton; 24 of the 25 least healthy states voted for Trump.

The usual caveat, that correlation doesn’t mean causation, definitely applies here. You might be tempted to assume that voters in states with less healthy diets feel a special affinity for a candidate with a well-documented weakness for junk food. But it’s just as likely, as in the case of Alcott, Diamond and Dube’s study, that there are other factors–notably education and income–that influence both one’s dietary choices and one’s presidential preference.  That said, there’s a certain symmetry between recent reports about the President’s eating habits and the dietary patterns of his electoral support.

Story from The Daily Kos


It’s food for thought.


Road pricing for all vehicles, not just ride-hailed ones

The problem isn’t the ride-hailed vehicles, it’s the under-priced street

It really looks like we’re on the cusp of a major change in transportation finance. Cities around the country are actively studying real time road pricing. And no where is the conversation more advanced than in New York, where Governor Cuomo has endorsed the FixNYC concept of charging cars entering Manhattan South of 59th Street.

Recent reports from the City’s former transportation director, Bruce Schaller have shown that the growth of traffic–recently accelerated by the expansion of ride-hailing services like Lyft and Uber–is slowly strangling city traffic. Street speeds in Manhattan have fallen by a full mile per hour, which is bad enough, but what’s worse is that slower speeds have reduced the productivity of the city’s buses, driving more passengers to choose the already over-crowded subway. A system of road pricing would make a world of difference, reducing traffic in Manhattan, speeding buses, and easing the strain on the subways.

A key feature of the Move NYC plan is that it would subject all private vehicles (taxis, ride-hailed vehicles, commercial vehicles and privately owned cars) to the congestion charge.

In a recent commentary at Wired, the financial journalist Felix Salmon, suggests that we might get away with a plan that tried to pin the road pricing bill just on ride-hailed vehicles. A key part of his argument is that somehow the proposed congestion charge wouldn’t affect the number of ride-shared vehicles in Manhattan, because ride-hailing supply is inelastic (drivers are going to drive anyhow). Salmon argues “While charging them to drive into a crowded zone can certainly raise tax revenues, it’s not going to reduce congestion, because drivers-for-hire are almost entirely price-inelastic. They’re effectively forced to pay whatever the fee is.”

This is a rare instance in which we’ll disagree with Salmon:  That argument strikes us as both wrong and factually incorrect.  The factually incorrect part is that drivers will somehow have to pay the fee.  They don’t:  tolls and charges are passed directly on to customers. For example, Uber’s policy is:

Additional charges may apply to your trip, including tolls, surcharges, or other fees. These charges are automatically added to your trip fare.

The wrong part is the argument about inelasticity of supply (and for that matter demand). If in fact, Uber drivers did have to pay the fee, they’d find driving in Manhattan less profitable, and would either serve other boroughs, or stop driving for ride-hailing services. (Or if the fee were flat, look to maximize the number of within Manhattan trips among which to amortize a fixed fee).  But, inasmuch as the fee is likely to be passed on to passengers, it raises the cost of Uber to them (just like surge pricing) and prompts some users, at the margin, to not use Uber (so that demand is price elastic). The takeaway here is that congestion pricing will tend to reduce the use ride-hailed vehicles.

Salmon’s suggestion provoked an immediate, and spirited reply from Charles Komanoff, one of the authors of the FIxNYC plan, who argued that an Uber tax in place of a cordon toll would sacrifice a majority of the traffic relieving benefits of road pricing.

Without a cordon toll to reduce 15-20 percent of car trips into the Manhattan CBD, we can kiss most of the time savings goodbye, not to mention the political support of players in the for-hire vehicle industry who will be left holding the bag.

His estimates suggest that eliminating the cordon pricing portion of the plan would reduce its traffic easing effects by 60 percent (and consequently reduce revenues, which would be used to subsidize transit, by a like amount). Another key problem: as the Uber tax drove ride-hailed vehicles out of lower Manhattan, lessened congestion would attract other private vehicles, offsetting the congestion benefit.

Salmon responded to Komanoff’s concerns, in a blog post calling “Taxing Uber is Easy” arguing that taxing ride-hailing is more politically palatable than charging all vehicles. “I think my idea is something which is eminently politically possible, in contrast to congestion pricing, which has been implemented exactly nowhere in the USA.”  In his view, we can start by taxing Uber, and then someday later expand the tax into a full-fledged congestion charge.

There are at least two key problems with this argument:  First, if Komanoff is correct, the Uber-only tax won’t do much to reduce congestion, and will be used as an argument by pricing opponents that the system doesn’t work. Second, it feeds a narrative that congestion is somehow the fault solely of the ride-hailing companies, which though politically convenient, isn’t accurate.  Moreover, it’s likely that FixNYC is one of those rare chances to make a big change in transportation pricing–so getting it wrong now could saddle us with a second best system for a long time.

First generation road pricing systems that rely on exclusively cordon charges (as in London, Milan and Stockholm) create perverse incentives for ride-hailing vehicles to stay in the cordoned area once they paid the toll, which as Felix points out, can actually make congestion worse. But Komanoff’s preferred FixNYC proposal would include a combination of a cordon charge plus a $3-$5 charge on ride-hail trips South of 59th street, and so has at least some elements Salmon should support.

It strikes us that there’s little reason to single out ride-hailed vehicles for congestion pricing. Each incremental vehicle (taxi, Uber/Lyft, delivery truck or private car) makes essentially the same contribution to congestion as it travels city streets at the rush hour. Confronting all of these vehicles with a charge that reflects the costs they’re imposing on the road system and other travelers is the optimal way to make the system run efficiently and sort how higher value, more productive uses from lower value ones.

Chances to fundamentally rethink the way we pay for road systems come along about once every century or so.  In the horse and buggy era, we didn’t finance roads with a hay tax. The gasoline tax was invented in the nineteen-teens, but clearly its days are numbered.  As we’ve argued, even a “dumb” vehicle miles tax is a half-step in the direction of a road pricing system that embraces readily available technology and achieve maximum results.

This post has been revised to correct a broken hyperlink.

Gentrification & integration in DC

Gentrification is producing more diverse schools and growing enrollment

In Washington DC, gentrification is producing higher levels of integration and increasing the total number of kids–black and white–attending schools in changing neighborhoods. DC’s gentrifying neighborhoods have both more white residents, more total residents, and more kids attending local schools. These facts discredit the folk wisdom that neighborhood change is an irreversible, zero sum game that inevitably replaces one kind of segregation (low income people of color) with another (rich white enclaves). It suggests how we manage change–and particularly how we organize urban public education–can have a huge impact on creating neighborhoods that are both more diverse and inclusive.

The dominant narrative of gentrification is displacement:  As neighborhoods change, long-time residents are forced out by newcomers.  The caricature goes something like this:  Young, well-educated white people are moving in to lower income urban neighborhoods, populated primarily by people of color. As these wealthier, whiter, younger singles move in, families of color are displaced, and long time cultural institutions that served the previous population suffer as well.

If there’s a place where this narrative ought to be playing out, it seems like it ought to be Washington, DC. The District has experienced a fairly major demographic shift in the past three decades. Whereas as recently as 2000 the city was 61 percent African-American, today it is much more diverse, and no longer majority African-American.  In addition, the growth of the white population in the District has been concentrated in a number of close-in neighborhoods.

Students at lunch, Bruce-Monroe Elementary School, Washington (USDA)

A recent study from the University of California, Los Angeles, looks at enrollment trends in schools in Washington DC in the neighborhoods most affected by gentrification, and discovers a surprising result: these schools have not only become more integrated, but the number of students enrolled in local K-12 schools, including African-American students has actually increased substantially.

Gentrification is actually boosting diversity in DC’s public schools, a new study suggests. While many white parents are still sending their kids away to schools outside of their neighborhood or enrolling them in private institutions, the study shows an increasing number are choosing public schools over charters. However, care must be taken to ensure that traditionally disadvantaged students benefit from the increased diversity.

The full paper, White Growth, Persistent Segregation: Could Gentrification Become Integration? By Kfir Mordechay and Jennifer Ayscue  December 2017, is available on line.  But let’s take a look at a couple of its key findings.

Declining Segregation in Schools

The study’s headline finding is that school segregation is decreasing in Washington, albeit slowly. The District of Columbia’s schools have long been profoundly segregated, more than 90 percent of students were black in 1990. Then, roughly 3 in 5 of  the district’s schools were classified as “hyper-segregated,” with more than 99 percent non-white students.

The study focuses on 11 census tracts in the center of the district that have experienced the greatest gentrification in the past two decades, and tracks enrollment changes at all of the schools within a mile of those census tracts. White enrollment in schools in this area increased from 1 percent of all students to 8 percent from 2000 to 2014.  Although the increase was significant, it’s still the case that many white parents don’t seem to be enrolling their children in their local DC schools; the DC schools in these areas are 8 percent white, but the school age population in these census tracts is 17 percent white, implying that many white parents are sending their children to private schools.

Source: Mordechay & Ayscue

Growing urban enrollments

The buried lede in the story is the increase in school enrollments in most gentrifying neighborhoods of Washington. As these neighborhoods have rebounded, school enrollment has increased sharply. In these neighborhoods, between 2007 and 2014, the number of students enrolled in public schools–including both traditional public schools (TPS) and publicly supported charters–increased from about 15,600 to more than 24,000, an increase of roughly 70 percent.

The study doesn’t explore the reasons behind the increase in school enrollments. Some of it is likely due to the increased population in these neighborhoods, associated with the new development in recent years. In addition, its apparent that the number of schools in this geographic area has increased, with 20 additional charter schools and 7 additional traditional public schools in 2014, compared to 2007.

The district clearly has a long way to go in achieving integrated schools. But these data show that an increase in white students in these neighborhoods hasn’t been accompanied by a decline in the number of black students. Contrary to the usual view that gentrification inevitably leads to fewer kids, and fewer kids of color, this shows that neighborhood change is not a kind of zero sum game, where new residents invariably displace, one-for-one previous residents.

Part of the story has to be an expansion of urban education options. Over the past decade, Washington’s public schools have been implementing a program of universal pre-kindergarten education for children living in the District. The availability of publicly provided pre-K for all three- and four-year olds is a major inducement for families to remain in the District, and can serve as a “gateway drug” for enrollment in the public school system for higher income families who might otherwise choose private schools or move to the suburbs. Once enrolled in a public pre-K, a parent may find it more convenient (and less uncertain) to have their children continue into public grade schools. In addition, parents with children in pre-K may network with other parents in their neighborhoods and become support groups for one another and advocates for quality in their local schools.

The myth of the child-less city

For years, city skeptics like Joel Kotkin have been decrying the family-unfriendliness of cities, and points to declines in the number of children and falling enrollments in many urban school districts.

. . . we have embarked on an experiment to rid our cities of children. . . .The much-ballyhooed and self-celebrating “creative class”—a demographic group that includes not only single professionals but also well-heeled childless couples, empty nesters, and college students—occupies much of the urban space once filled by families. Increasingly, our great American cities, from New York and Chicago to Los Angeles and Seattle, are evolving into playgrounds for the rich, traps for the poor, and way stations for the ambitious young en route eventually to less congested places. The middle-class family has been pushed to the margins, breaking dramatically with urban history.

The experience of DC in the past decade suggests that Kotkin is wrong. The urban revival isn’t a zero sum game: cities can attract new residents, especially young adults, and also retain them as they age and have children, and at the same time increase both the diversity and total school enrollments. And much of white flight and what Robert Reich has called the secession of the successful, has been caused by (and has in turn amplified) the weakness of urban schools. Strengthening city schools can be a key means of promoting greater demographic diversity, and hanging on to families of means who might otherwise take their energy, attention and tax payments to some suburban area.

One of the big unanswered questions about urban revival is whether the young adults who have increasingly concentrated in urban centers in the past couple of decades will continue to live there once they have children. We know that as their children get older, families are less likely to live in central cities. The quality of local public education no doubt plays a critical role in determining the location choices of many families. So, too, does the quantity of education; in Washington’s changing neighborhoods there have been more schools and more school choices, as well as Pre-K.  Initiatives that improve education, and particularly interventions like universal early childhood education, that engage all families in the local schools at a time when the educational stakes may seem lower, could be the key to more diverse, family friendly cities.


The Week Observed, March 9, 2018

What City Observatory did this week

1. The correlation between bad diets and vote for President. A new research paper has distilled mounds of data on consumer shopping behavior gleaned from supermarket scanners, and combined it with nutritional information to estimate how healthy or unhealthy average dietary patterns are in different parts of the country. The county-level map of poor nutrition shows some strong similarities to the familiar red/blue electoral maps. We looked at the correlation between state level vote for President in the 2016 election and state nutritional scores and found that diet is a statistically significant explanation of who voted for President.


2. Barack Obama on gentrification. Former President Obama has committed to building his Presidential Center in Chicago’s Jackson Park. Last month, he spoke to a community meeting about the possible impacts the center would have on the neighborhood, and tackled head-on questions of gentrification.

3. Stranger than fiction: airbags for pedestrians. A couple of years back, we poked fun at Google’s patented idea to embed super-adhesive in the surface of car hoods and fenders so that any pedestrian they struck would stick to the car, rather than flying away. Instead, we proposed remotely activated pedestrian airbags and vehicles could trigger if anyone got in their way. Truth is, we weren’t far off the very crazy mark:  GM and other car manufacturers have patented external airbags on cars to cushion pedestrians. All the fascination with these technical fixes distracts us from the bigger question: why do we build cities where pedestrians have to contend with fast-moving cars?

4. City women: In observance of International Women’s Day, we’re taking a moment to thank the dozens and dozens of women urbanists whose research and analysis improves our understanding of urban issues. We’ve got links to their twitter accounts and web pages. If you aren’t following these women, take a look.

Must read

1. Possible solutions for California’s housing shortage. Gabriel Metcalf, the director of San Francisco’s SPUR has a comprehensive essay in the Journal of Economic Perspectives addressing the causes and possible solutions for California’s housing problems. In expensive cities, policy makers struggle to address affordability by subsidizing low income housing, and sometimes imposing rent control. But the structure of housing market regulation–and the dominance of local zoning–inherently restricts the supply of housing in ways that overwhelm these affordability policies. Zoning choices are rooted deeply in the local political and institutional structure, and it’s likely that only fundamental reforms to this regime will make a meaningful difference to affordability.

2. Dubious housing cost comparisons. Todd Litman, the tireless leader of the Victoria Transportation Policy Institute, once again trains a skeptical eye on claims in the International Housing Affordability Survey (IHAS) about which cities have the lowest living costs. The IHAS looks at the sales price of owner-occupied single family homes in different areas to establish its rankings, and generally finds that houses sell for less in sprawling, auto-dependent metros and economically declining regions. LItman points out that the ranking is biased for a number of reasons; chiefly because it ignores the higher transportation costs associated with sprawling development, and ignores the presence of many lower cost housing alternatives.

“The Survey only considers a limited set of housing types, geographic areas and impacts, which exaggerates the affordability of detached, urban-fringe housing and the unaffordability of compact housing in walkable urban neighborhoods. It blames housing unaffordability on urban containment regulations, although they are actually uncommon and less costly than regulations which limit affordable infill. It ignores many sprawl costs and Smart Growth benefits.”

3. The Guardian no doubt got a lot of clicks last week with a story claiming that the average Uber driver made just $3.37 an hour and that as many as 40 percent of Uber drivers were losing money. The trouble–the numbers, from a study released by MIT’s Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research, were simply wrong. Uber and several independent scholars pointed out some serious flaws with the study’s survey methodology and calculations. The study’s author’s quickly admitted their mistakes, and revised their calculations, now conceding that their figures show median driver earnings are something on the order of $8.55 to $10.00 per hour–not great, but not below the minimum wage. The story points up two conclusions: First, researchers and journalists shouldn’t jump to publish (or repeat) implausible findings (the errors were pretty much in plain sight if either had seriously solicited independent views). Second, if ride-hailing companies were required to report hours worked and compensation paid like other employers, this would be a non-issue. The Bureau of Labor Statistics routinely publishes detailed hourly earnings data for workers in virtually every common industry and occupation. This shouldn’t be a trade secret that can only inaccurately be judged by arduous and frequently irreproducible methods.

In the news

Planetizen highlighted our recent commentary arguing that road pricing shouldn’t be applied just to ride-hailed vehicles.


The Week Observed, March 30, 2018

What City Observatory did this week

1. Gentrification and integration in DC schools and neighborhoods. A recent study looks at changes in school enrollment in the most gentrified neighborhoods in Washington DC over the past 15 years. Historically, DC schools have been hyper-segregated, but that’s started to change; the number of white children enrolled in public schools is up sharply (though its clear not all white families in gentrifying neighborhoods are sending their kids to public schools). But overall, enrollments have increased substantially, and the number of black students in K-12 schools has also risen, even as these neighborhoods have gentrified. These developments signal that, contrary to stereotype, gentrification has not led to a childless city. We look at the roles that the district’s system of universal pre-kindergarten and charter schools are playing in these trends.

2.  How segregation limits opportunity. We take a close look at two academic studies that examine the connections between segregation and economic outcomes. One study examines educational differences between segregated and non-segregated cities. It finds children of color do better academically in less segregated places and that white children do no worse in such cities. Another study looks at the factors driving increased income segregation in cities, and finds that it is largely the movement of higher income households-the secession of the successful-that is behind income segregation.

3. Gentrification isn’t ending; it’s a continuing challenge we need to address. We feature another guest post from Alex Baca. A recent post in Washington’s City Paper posed the question “will gentrification ever end?” Too often, Baca argues, we frame gentrification as somehow the fault of others, whether it’s neighborhood newcomers, rapacious developers or international investors. That diverts our attention from the role that zoning and other land use constraints have in constricting the supply of housing and in driving up rents. Short of more comprehensively pro-housing policies, which are well within a city’s control, we’re unlikely to see much relief.

Must read

1. Washington DC’s housing mismatch. A new study from the DC Policy Center takes a highly nuanced view of the local housing market. Rather than focusing just on aggregate supply and demand (and there’s little question that the District faces an overall shortage), the policy center examines the mismatch between the sizes, locations and amenities of different parts of the housing stock and the households that occupy them. A key challenge is that more affluent households, including childless couples (often older) and singles are in a position to outbid lower income households, especially families, for housing. The district suffers from a lack of starter housing (affordable to young families) and this has intensified segregation. The least and most affordable housing units in the District are located in neighborhoods that are completely separated from each other, at opposite ends of the city.  A short summary as well as the full report are available on line. This kind of detailed, market-wide analysis of trends is a powerful way to understand the nature of urban housing problems.

2. The gnarly problem of siting low income housing in Houston. Houston is soon expected to receive a large dose of federal support to help rebuild housing in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. It’s an opportunity, as the city’s mayor has said, to rethink the city’s future. The challenge: the city still hasn’t been able to figure out how to spend similar aid it got in the wake of Hurricane Ike, a decade ago. The city has run into opposition in low income neighborhoods (where the new construction will simply reinforce segregation) and in higher income neighborhoods (where current residents fear that subsidized housing will lead to greater crime and lower property values). It’s a graphic reminder of how even in reputedly market-oriented and zoning-free Houston, that it’s hard to undo housing segregation.


In the news

Alan Ehrenhalt, writing at Governing, quotes City Observatory’s debunking on the “Peak Millennial” claims, in an article entitled: “Cities or Suburbs? What do Millennials really want?”

The editors of the Oregonian cited City Observatory Director Joe Cortright’s analysis of  housing supply and demand in their editorial “Portland City Council needs to reset its compass.”


The Week Observed, March 16, 2018

What City Observatory did this week

1. Portland doesn’t really want to make housing affordable. Portland’s City Council has officially declared a housing crisis, and has passed strong renter protection measured and an ill-advised (and most mostly counter-productive) inclusionary housing ordinance. But despite its statements to the contrary, it showed that it really isn’t all that concerned about housing affordability when it vetoed the city’s design review approval of a building that would have provided 275 new apartments in one of the city’s most in-demand neighborhoods.

2. Carol Coletta to Dallas. Our colleague Carol Coletta recently spoke to Downtown Dallas Inc, and offered her thoughts on the city’s progress. Her speech outlines three topics the city needs to focus on to be successful: promoting smart mobility in the city’s core, building complete neighborhoods, and investing in placemaking. Here’s a key takeaway:

If we want to tackle the big challenges our communities face – resilience, smart growth, equity, poverty, drug addiction – pick an issue! – we have to begin with simple acts of bringing strangers together, not online, not digitally, but in place. That’s what a great downtown can do. Especially now, we need great downtowns that become the entire city’s neighborhood.

3. A plea to journalists to stop repeating phony congestion cost estimates. Journalists–even the serious, data-driven ones at places like The Economist–uncritically repeat estimates that congestion costs urban residents billions and billions of dollars each year. Never mind that these estimates are flawed and exaggerated. And they’re implicitly based on the phony premise that there’s some way you could build enough capacity that everyone could travel just as fast at the peak hour (say 5pm) as they do at 2pm. That’s neither physically or fiscally possible, which means that these supposed “costs” could be eliminated only by spending an unimaginably larger sum building roads.

Must read

1. PlanPhilly:  A look at gentrification in Philadelphia. “How Philadelphia became cleaner, safer and more unequal.”   Plan Philly has a multi-part series describing urban renewal and subsequent gentrification in Philadelphia over the past several decades. It’s a balanced look at the gains and costs of neighborhood change. It’s well worth the read, but it left us asking one question: What’s  the counterfactual?  If all those higher income people who moved into these gentrifying urban neighborhoods had instead headed to the mainline suburbs or some other metro area, the City of Philadelphia would be statistically more “equal,” but it’s not clear than any low income person living in the city would be would be better off.  If we acknowledge that we want poor neighborhoods to change, then the question is about how we manage that change, not so much whether it happens. The University of Pennsylvania’s Ken Steif makes a good point in the story:

“We want these neighborhoods to change,” says Steif. “We want neighborhoods to have safer streets, to have better schools, to be true neighborhoods of opportunity, and we want folks of all races and classes to be able to take advantage of those amenities.”

2. The Mean Musical Chairs of the Housing Market. You’ve watched the video, now see the infographic. The Sightline Institute has developed a clever and compelling metaphor for explaining how housing markets work, and particularly, why increasing the supply of housing (of all kinds) is critical to addressing affordability and minimizing displacement in growing cities. Just as in a game of musical chairs, if their are more households than houses, competition is going to be more intense, and those with limited resources are going to find themselves at a disadvantage. Adding more chairs–houses–relieves the pressure.

3. Detroit: Pleading poverty on road maintenance while spending billions to expand the freeway system. Streetsblog’s Angie Schmidt flags the contradiction in the Motor City’s transportation priorities. The region’s planning agency says that 80 percent of the region’s roads are in fair or poor condition and that the region needs an additional $1.2 billion annually to redress its repair and maintenance backlog. Meanwhile, the state is getting ready to plunk $4 billion into widening the I-75 and I-94 freeways. Angie argues that this will actually make the region’s transportation problems worse:

Those highway expansions will generate more traffic, adding to the strain on other roads, while the region squanders billions that could have gone into maintaining existing infrastructure.

4. Minneapolis considers legalizing four-plexes in all single-family zones. California State Senator Scott Wiener has gotten national attention for his proposal to pre-empt local zoning to allow apartments near transit stops. Out of the Mid-West comes another out-of-the-box idea for reforming zoning. This one is targeted squarely on the notion of “missing middle” housing (something between single family zoning and multi-story apartment complexes). Minneapolis is considering a plan to legalize four-plexes in its single family zones. As in California, there are many details to be worked out, but this proposal is pushing the discussion in a very fruitful direction.

New knowledge

Historical Maps of US City Population. The Alperin-Sheriff/Wikipedia population dataset. The data is painstakingly assembled from a combination of Wikipedia entries, an historical dataset of Census city population estimates compiled by Stanford University, and the author’s own manual data entry. The page offers a wealth of maps showing the historical patterns of population growth, such as this one, showing the period of fastest growth.

There’s a GitHub repository with the underlying data and a longer explanation of how it was assembled. Schmidt, Benjamin. Creating Data: The Invention of Information in the nineteenth century American State.http://creatingdata.us

In the news

Writing at CityLab, Richard Florida charts the rise and geography of “guard labor,” and quotes our City Observatory research on the number of security guards per capita as an indicator of “anti-social capital.”

Strongtowns published our commentary on housing affordability in Portland.

Willamette Week quoted Joe Cortright’s concerns about the chilling effect of using discretionary design review approvals to block new housing in Portland.


The Week Observed, March 23, 2018

What City Observatory did this week

1. Portland’s teachable moment: time for a little housing economics 101. There’s a big debate going on in Portland right now about whether using discretionary land use approvals to block some market rate housing will worsen the city’s affordability problems. Long-time readers of City Observatory will know our position: in the face of a housing shortage, increasing supply at every level of the marketplace helps ease the pressure on housing costs. There are unfortunately still some who are in denial about this basic fact of housing market economics. We marshall the evidence from Portland, from cities around the country, and from Sightline Institute’s terrific “musical chairs” infographic to explain why every bit of supply helps.

2. Parking meters and opportunity costs. One of the unseen effects of “free” parking is that it leads us to overlook the value that we could gain if the street space now dedicated to car storage could be used for other purposes. Whether it’s parklets, or bike lanes, or even just additional clear space at intersections to improve visibility, parking spaces impose a cost. Dedicating public space for one use always incurs the opportunity cost of not using it for something else, and our decisions about what to dedicate public space to ought to take those opportunity costs into account. Pricing parking acknowledges and values these tradeoffs in a straightforward way.

3. An open letter to Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish. Our colleague Ethan Seltzer, emeritus professor of Urban Studies at Portland State University has an open letter on housing policy. Drawing on his extensive knowledge of the region’s land use planning system and local housing markets, Seltzer urges Commissioner Fish and his colleagues to much more aggressively expand the housing opportunities citywide, if they’re looking to make a dent in the affordability problem while promoting social justice.

Must read

1. The devastating evidence on racial discrimination’s effects on black men.  For the past several years, Raj Chetty, Nate Hendren and their colleagues at the Equality of Opportunity Project have been mining big data in a thoughtful and systematic way to shed a blinding light on who is, and who isn’t sharing in the American Dream.  Their latest work, brilliantly summarized by a team from New York Times Upshot, shows just how potent discrimination continues to be. Regardless of how well off their parents are economically, black men have consistently lower earnings than white men from similarly prosperous households. These same gaps don’t hold for black women, pointing to a serious and persistent problem.

2. The war on cars myth. One of the most tiresome tropes of the media world is the “War on . . . ” framing, which is invariably a one-sided and inflammatory exaggeration of an otherwise reasonably debatable proposition. Casually, and almost in passing, The New York Times’ Conor Sen invokes the derivative form of this argument claiming that the objective of California’s SB 827 (upzoning near transit stops) is to “force people out of their cars. Matt Yglesias of Vox takes strong exception:

Personal liberty and the concept of freedom are, rightly, important to Americans and to American political culture. And in the case of proposals for high-density zoning, nobody is trying to force anyone to do anything. . . .  It’s the status quo that forces a particular form of land use — detached houses with plenty of parking — on the vast majority of the developed land in America.

3. Death by autonomous vehicle. If there were actually a war with cars, it ought to be apparent to all that the cars are winning. Our hearts go out to the family of Elaine Herzberg, of Tempe Arizona who was killed this week when she was struck by one of Uber’s self-driving cars.  There’s been a lot of naive optimism that autonomous vehicles will somehow neatly eliminate all the errors that human drivers commit that lead to crashes. But the roadway is a complex social space, and not an abstract engineering problem in which all the variables are known and well-behaved. Autonomous vehicles are well on their way to adopting one of the best known attributes of conventional automobiles: blaming their pedestrian victims. As Streetsblog’s Angie Schmidt points out, just as with many fatal “accidents,” initial police accounts excused the car, saying Herzberg appeared “in the roadway ‘out of the shadows’ ‘like a flash’ and emphasized that she was not in a crosswalk. And a little bonus math fact: human drivers kill about 1 person per 86 million miles driven. With this crash, Uber’s self-driving cars have killed 1 human in a little over 2 million miles of autonomous operation. While the sample is admittedly small, if this is a plausible indication of the AV fatality rate, it means that autonomous technology will have to get about 30 times better than it currently is just to match the safety of human drivers.

4. How SB 827 is dividing some unlikely bedfellows. Ben Ross has some insightful analysis of the political fissures opened up by California’s proposed SB 827 zoning liberalization. Writing in Dissent, Ross notes that many land use controversy’s have been won by the unlikely alliance of anti-development leftists and homeowner’s groups. One sees developers as exploiters, the other is looking to protect their “quality of life” and their property values.

Zoning controversies have long made strange bedfellows. But the ease with which Beverly Hills and Marin County residents can adopt anticapitalist rhetoric points to an affinity that goes beyond mere electoral convenience. Whether out of ideological conviction, political opportunism, or love of the hip cachet of urban neighborhoods, left activists identify gentrification as the essence of the housing problem and resistance to new building as the cure. Progressive organizing thus evolves stealthily into a defense of the residential status quo. It is a status quo that Beverly Hills is happy to preserve.

New knowledge

How religious tolerance influences economic development. Here’s another study that exploits the historic variation in cultural practices to measure long term effects. This distant mirror buttresses Richard Florida’s arguments about “technology and tolerance” using data on religious diversity in Prussian cities in the late 19th Century.  The study finds that innovation is strongly and positively correlated with religious tolerance as measured by a city’s  religious diversity, diversity of churches, and diversity of preachers and religious teachers.


Religious Tolerance as Engine of InnovationFrancesco Cinnirella, Jochen Streb, CESifo Working Paper No. 6797, December 2017

Parking meters and opportunity costs

What if we could make parking spaces in high-demand areas more widely available, while also making better use of under-used parking spaces elsewhere?

Think of it as Uber’s “surge pricing,” but for parking. (Though it elicits some grumbles from a consumer perspective, we think surge pricing can make lots of sense: it encourages more efficient choices by riders, and brings out more drivers when they’re most in demand).  

The old model of parking. Credit: Jim Ellwinger, Flickr
The old model of parking. Credit: Jim Ellwinger, Flickr


One of the arenas that “smart city” proponents are most excited about is managing the supply of public parking spaces using dynamic prices. In prior decades, cities had very limited options with respect to pricing: they might be able to vary prices by time of day and neighborhood, but they had limited information and resources to really tailor prices to demand, and couldn’t respond to unusual events or changes.

But new technology allows cities to respond to real-time demand, raising prices where there are no available spots to encourage turnover and make sure that people who really need to park have a space to do so, and lowering prices on blocks with lots of extra capacity to encourage more use of the public resource. On both ends, by better reflecting the real value of public parking spots, cities can more efficiently use one of their most precious resources: space.

What New Haven, and San Francisco and other cities are doing is working to operationalize the insights from Don Shoup’s masterwork, The High Cost of Free Parking. One of Shoup’s precepts is that the price of on-street parking ought to be set at a level where there are about one or two free parking spaces on every block (or about 85 percent occupancy). This assures that there are always spaces available for those who want them (and are willing to pay) and cuts down on “cruising” to find free spaces. Since the value of parking varies significantly by time of day, and from block to block, ideally rates ought to change according to those variables as well. But common practice is to charge the same price almost everywhere in the city, and to change prices by time only very crudely. These policies do precious little to reflect demand, and therefore assure adequate supply.

That said, this is one of those instances where getting the right answer depends on asking the right questions. In this case, “What should the price of parking be here?” shouldn’t be allowed to entirely eclipse the bigger question: “What is the best use of this public space?”

A slide from the New York City Planning Department shows where eliminating parking could improve public safety.
A slide from the New York City Planning Department shows where eliminating parking could improve public safety.


In some ways, in fact, the rich new data on parking demand and dynamic prices might help cities decide that larger question. If, for example, parking on one street remains under-utilized even when prices are pushed down below a certain level, maybe that space would be better used in some other way: space for street vending carts, or additional sidewalk, or green space, or a bike or bus lane.

But even where prices are high, other uses might beat out the value created by parking. On a downtown street with lots of pedestrian traffic, would a food cart or newsstand owner be willing to pay more for the right to a prime location than potential parkers? Would the benefits to public safety of extra sidewalk space or a bike lane outweigh the revenue of the parking meters? What about creating a bus lane that eliminates a bottleneck for thousands of riders a day, dramatically increasing the road’s efficiency, by getting rid of 20 or 100 parking spaces?

In other words, dedicating public space for one use always incurs the opportunity cost of not using it for something else, and our decisions about what to dedicate public space to ought to take those opportunity costs into account. Pricing parking acknowledges and values these tradeoffs in a straightforward way.

But that’s not all that’s missing here. Proponents of “smart parking” say that one of their goals is to increase the usage of “underutilized” parking spaces. Often, that may mean increasing the total amount of driving. But, of course, driving incurs all sorts of extra social costs: pollution, wear and tear on public roads, injuries and deaths from crashes. When calibrating the appropriate price of parking on public space, should cities take those costs into account?

The technological fix for our pedestrian problem

What the obsession with technological fixes says about how we fail to prioritize people in cities

In the best traditions of engineering, clever minds are working on new technologies that can prevent or reduce the carnage on our nation’s roadways. A couple of years ago, we note that Google had patented a technology to coat self-driving cars with a special adhesive that would cause any pedestrians the vehicles struck to adhere to the car rather than being thrown by the impact.

Appalled, and with tongue firmly in cheek, we offered up three of our own equally absurd technological fixes for the pedestrian “problem,” including vehicle-activated shock bracelets that would paralyze pedestrians before they could jay-walk, rocket packs that could lift errant pedestrians out of a vehicle’s path, and perhaps most fancifully, pedestrian mounted air-bags, that could cushion pedestrians struck by vehicles.


google car diagrams-02

But, as is often said, truth is stranger than fiction.  Because its now apparently the case that General Motors (and several other automobile manufacturers) are patenting passenger airbags, although their concept is that the airbags be mounted on the outside of vehicles, rather than on the pedestrian.  Here’s the drawing for GM’s idea, from the Automotive News:

Ultimately, the purpose of such technologies is not to make cities safer for people, but to make them more universally available to cars and car travel. It acknowledges that we’re going to design our urban space around stroads that inherently put fast-moving cars in conflict with people on foot. It has long been the case with private vehicle travel that we’ve demoted walking to a second class form of transportation. The advent of cars led us to literally re-write the laws around the “right of way” in public streets, facilitating car traffic, and discouraging and in some cases criminalizing walking. We’ve widened roads, installed beg buttons, and banned “jaywalking,” to move cars faster, but in the process making the most common and human way of travel more difficult and burdensome, and make cities less functional.

Everywhere we’ve optimized the environment and systems for the functioning of vehicle traffic, we’ve made places less safe and less desirable for humans who are not encapsulated in vehicles. A similar danger exists with this kind of thinking when it comes to autonomous vehicles; a world that works well for them may not be a place that works well for people. As CityLab’s Eric Jaffe pointed out, “it would be a huge mistake for cities to undo all the progress being made on human-scale street design just to accommodate a perfect algorithm of car movement.”

Not all of our problems can be solved with better technology. At some point, we need to make better choices and design better places, even if it means not remaking our environment and our communities to accommodate the more efficient functioning of technology.

Thanks to Matt Cortright for providing the diagrams for our proposed pedestrian protection devices.

How segregation limits opportunity

The more segregated an metro area is, the worse the economic prospects of the poor and people of color

Our City Observatory report, Lost in Place, closely tracks the growth of concentrated poverty in the nation’s cities; this is particularly important because of the widespread evidence of the permanent damage high-poverty neighborhoods do to children of poor families.

Two recent studies shed additional light on the importance of economic and racial integration to the life chances of students from low income families and children of color.

Writing in the journal Social Problems, Lincoln Quillan explores the question “Does Segregation Create Winners and Losers?” Quillian uses data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, a federal survey program that gathers longitudinal data on a representative group of Americans over several decades.

Quillian shows that increases in segregation at the metropolitan level are associated with lower rates of high school completion for poor and black students. Poor and black students that live in more segregated metropolitan areas are less likely to graduate from high school after controlling for other observable factors that influence individual success, such as the level of their parents’ education. Significantly, higher rates of segregation do not appear to have any statistically significant effects on the high school completion rates of whites or the non-poor. Taken together, these findings suggest that increasing racial and economic integration improves the educational outcomes for black and poor students without any negative effect on the educational outcomes of white and non-poor students.

This is important. If increased economic integration does not affect educational prospects for higher-income students, then the myth that having more integrated neighborhoods will “drag down” the potential success for the current residents is just that: a false myth. The implication of this research for housing policy is particularly salient.

In another article, published in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Sean Reardon, Lindsay Fox, and Joseph Townsend look at the trends in income segregation. Using data from the American Community Survey, they look at the trends behind the growing overall levels of income segregation in most metropolitan areas.

Their analysis finds that aggregate household income segregation has increased mostly because of the increasing isolation of the highest income households from low- and moderate-income households. This is what Robert Reich famously labeled “the secession of the successful.” Higher-income households are more likely to live in neighborhoods with other high-income households than was true two three decades ago. The authors also estimate changes in income segregation for each of the 50 largest metropolitan areas in the nation. They point out wide variations across the country.

Differences in income levels and residential segregation patterns among metropolitan areas produce very different experiences for the urban poor in different metros. In some higher income metro areas with less segregation, the poorest residents live in neighborhoods with noticeably higher incomes than the poorest residents of poorer, more segregated metros. For example, those in the tenth percentile of household income in Washington D.C. and Minneapolis live in neighborhoods that have average household incomes equal to the levels experienced by the median-income households in Atlanta and Los Angeles. You can see these differences in the figure below, excerpted from the paper:

Reardon Figure 4

This plots household income against neighborhood income. Most metros are similar, with the typical low-income family living in a neighborhood with a median income of $45K. Washington and Minneapolis have higher average incomes and are more economically integrated than other large metropolitan areas. Families in the lowest 25th percentile in these cities live in neighborhoods with median incomes of $60,000 (Minneapolis) and $70,000 (Washington). In the typical large metro area, you have to have an income of $75,000 (or more) to have such well-to-do neighbors.

Finally, this paper also presents major findings on racial integration and associated effects on economic integration. Black and Hispanic households tend to be highly concentrated into black and Hispanic neighborhoods, which has implications for poverty and economic mobility that we outline in our report here and blog post here. Most importantly, households with the same yearly income live in very different neighborhoods depending on their race:

“Black middle-class households (with incomes of roughly $55-$60,000), for example, typically live in neighborhoods with median incomes similar to those of very poor white households (those with incomes of roughly $12,000). For Hispanic households the disparity is only slightly smaller. Moreover, even high-income black and Hispanic households do not achieve neighborhood income parity with similar-income white households.”

While the growing gap between rich and poor is capturing greater policy attention, these two studies remind us that the spatial patterns of integration within metropolitan areas have a big impact on the quality of life and life prospects, especially of low-income households. It also indicates that how we build and inhabit our cities influences educational attainment and economic success, have an important role in ameliorating the effects of income inequality, which can have long-lasting impacts on city-wide educational attainment and economic success.

A hat tip to City Observatory’s friend Bridget Marquis for flagging these articles.