Here’s what climate change denial looks like

Pretending that climate change can be solved by widening roads to keep cars from idling in traffic is dishonest and reprehensible, yet that’s exactly what Portland’s regional government is doing.

A new poll in Portland is promoting the discredited myth that cars idling in traffic congestion are a principal cause of climate change.

Portland’s regional government, Metro, is putting together the outlines of a $3 billion transportation funding measure, and hired a survey research firm to conduct a poll, supposedly to assess public attitudes about transportation. But in reality, the poll isn’t so much about assessing attitudes as it is trying to develop, refine and market a false and misleading message about the causes of climate change and what it will take to solve them. The poll repeatedly makes the claim that reducing traffic congestion will lower carbon emissions by reducing idling.

What this amounts to is publicly funded messaging to support climate change denial. It’s cloaking arguments for more road construction with a big lie about the role of traffic idling on carbon emissions, and a disproved theory that wider roads will reduce congestion.

The debunked idling myth

One of the favorite myths of highway advocates is the notion that an important cause of climate change is the carbon emissions from cars idling in traffic. If we could just widen roads so that cars never had to idle (or ideally,even slow down), we’d clearly lessen greenhouse gas emissions, right?

As we’ve reported at City Observatory, that myth has been repeatedly debunked by careful scientific inquiry. Widening roads causes the well known problem of induced demand–greater road capacity produces even more driving, and higher levels of carbon emissions. Induced demand means that highway widening projects don’t reduce traffic congestion, and therefore the imagined emission reductions from less idling never occur. The definitive evidence on this point comes from Metro’s own backyard, from Alex Bigazzi and Miguel Figliozzi, two transportation researchers at Portland State University. Their research shows that savings in emissions from idling can be more than offset by increased driving prompted by lower levels of congestion.  When you reduce congestion by whatever means, people drive more, and the “more driving” more than cancels out any savings from reduced idling. As they conclude:

Induced or suppressed travel demand . . . are critical considerations when assessing the emissions effects of capacity-based congestion mitigation strategies. Capacity expansions that reduce marginal emissions rates by increasing travel speeds are likely to increase total emissions in the long run through induced demand.

And its a problem that grows steadily worse over time–a more car dependent transportation system induces the additional decentralization of jobs, stores and housing, leading to longer trips. The variation in emissions across US metro areas for example, has everything to do with sprawl and car dependence, and nothing whatsoever to do with variations in time spent idling in traffic.

Its therefore simply dishonest to claim that wider roads and greater traffic carrying capacity will lead to greenhouse gas reductions.  Its hardly surprising that die-hard driving advocates would populate social media with this lie. What’s appalling is when a planning professionals propagate this myth.

Yet that’s exactly what Portland’s regional government, Metro, has done in a new poll it fielded in support of a proposed tax levy to support transportation. While it’s nominally pitched as neutral opinion research, its anything but.  It’s more of  a push poll, which systematically repeats the discredited claim that idling is a big contributor to climate pollution.   This thinly disguised “framing” would be bad enough if it were limited only to those who were surveyed, but its being widely disseminated by Metro as proof of public attitudes, and now its driving media coverage.

Willamette Week summarized the poll results as showing Portland residents don’t care much about climate, and want to widen roads.


Willamette Week’s reporting on the poll results perfectly delivers the message that its marketing mavens crafted:  We want to widen roads as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Here’s the way that the project’s survey research consultants, FM3 summarized their findings in a presentation for Metro.


Do you favor or oppose “improvements”?

The question is based on an utterly false premise that reducing congestion by expanding capacity will result in lower emissions.  In addition, the choice of options is deeply biased:  one option is framed as “balanced” while the other is limited to “only” transit biking and walking.  One alternative is framed as providing improvements “roadway improvements” while the other alternative specifically rules out support for “improvements.”  (Characterizing one alternative as an “improvement” and the other alternative as ruling out an “improvement” is the very definition of a question bias).  As Charles Denison pointed out on twitter, the survey’s wording is an absurdly loaded choice.

Survey respondents were treated to a steady diet of repetition of this phony point in poll questions clearly designed to help fashion just the right rhetorical flourish to persuade voters.  Here are a couple examples of statements that respondents were presented (emphasis added):

In order to address the growing challenge of climate change and reduce carbon pollution, this measure would improve public transit to make it easier for people to choose not to drive; promote more use of zero-emission vehicles for transit; and reduce traffic and gridlock to cut back on carbon pollution from idling cars

A measure that protects clean air and reduces the pollution caused by idling cars and trucks, particularly along routes where people live and children go to school. Investments would help increase the availability of transportation options that preserve air quality and reduce the risk of lung disease and asthma.

It’s plain that what Metro is doing is market-testing the slogans, talking points and 30-second pitches that will be used to sell their bond measure. So what we’re seeing is just an advanced peek at a calculated plan designed to present this message about “widening roads to save the climate” as a way of convincing people to vote for a tax measure. And as Willamette Week’s coverage makes clear, this survey will serve nicely to propagate this myth to a wider audience.

What makes this especially bankrupt is that responsible analysts know that idling is not a major source of pollution or carbon emissions.  Metro’s 530-page Regional Transportation Plan which describes the region’s strategies for transportation and meeting greenhouse gas emission reduction goals contains no estimates of carbon emissions attributable to idling, no strategies for reducing idling as means to lower greenhouse gases, and in fact mentions the word “idling,” only once.

This kind of deceptive practice would come as no surprise if we were talking about marketing a fat- or sugar- laden snack as a healthy alternative. But in the face of an existential global crisis, the regional government is propagating a discredited myth to justify what are likely to be counterproductive investments in road widening. The first duty that any official owes the public is to tell the truth:  this polling is a dereliction of that duty and a subversion of the kind of frank and honest discussion we need to have if we’re going to tackle the climate crisis.

Bartik: The verdict on business tax incentives

Political rationalizations and exceptionalism will always be used to justify giveaway policies

With the possible exception of Greg LeRoy (who tracks state and local incentives for Good Jobs Now) and Amazon’s site location department, there’s no one in the nation who knows more about business incentives and their effectiveness than the Upjohn Institute’s Tim Bartik. Tim has written a bevy of careful academic studies of the impact of a range of tax incentives, most of which are a bit technical for a general audience. Thankfully, he’s distilled the key learnings into a thorough and clearly written non-technical summary of what the research shows. This new book–Making sense of incentives:  Taming Business Incentives to produce prosperity , available in print and also as a (free) downloadable PDF, is must reading for anyone involved in economic development.

Economic incentives are big business. Bartik estimates that state and local governments hand out roughly $50 billion in incentives annually.

While there’s considerable folk wisdom about their efficacy, Bartik’s book takes a hard look at whether they actually work.

The “But For” problem

There are a couple of aphorisms that neatly summarize the problems and challenges of assessing economic development incentives.

“In know that only half of all advertising works, I just don’t know which half.”

“Shoot everything that flies, claim everything that falls.”

The gnarliest question in evaluating economic development incentives is figuring out whether they actually made any difference to where a firm ended up locating or not. Economic development deal-makers will swear up-and-down (and may even believe) that the last dollar of tax incentives that they provided “sealed the deal” and that without them the company would have gone elsewhere. Critics note that the abundance of incentives and the obsequiousness of economic development officials has produced as system of cash prizes for bad corporate behavior which rewards companies for doing exactly what they would have done anyhow, provided that they simply engage in the appropriate corporate kabuki of pretending to look seriously at multiple locations. Here’s where Bartik’s research shines:  he’s used a range of economic techniques to assess whether and how much incentives actually matter to the location of business investment.  His conclusion:  roughly three-quarter of all incentives don’t matter; only about a quarter of the time do they tip the balance. Bartik explains:

For a new facility location or expansion decision, this means that the incentive tipped the location decision toward this state only 25 percent of the time or less. The other 75 percent of the time, the firm would have made the same new facility location decision, or same expansion decision, even if no incentive had been provided.

You’d think that would chasten economic development officials–and their bosses, Mayors and Governors. But it doesn’t. While Bartik is almost certainly right in the aggregate (three-quarters of incentives are wasted), its nearly impossible to tell whether any individual firm’s tax break was the “deal clincher” or simply a giveaway.  Economic development officials seem to always believe (and nearly always say) that their incentive program was essential to the result. Corporate beneficiaries also have strong incentives to play along (to make their government partners feel justified in making the deal).

What this means in practice its rare that anyone ever questions whether a tax break or subsidy was actually the decisive factor in tipping a location decision. Economic development officials and the companies that get the tax break always say that it was a driver in their deal. Confronted with studies like Bartik’s the seasoned economic development practitioner may even concede that other people give away the store, but that our agency (or this deal) is one of those 25 percent where it made a difference.

Two bits of evidence from the field:  Many economic development deals are composed of multiple incentives:  state tax breaks, local tax breaks, subsidies for land development or job training, road or sewer or water line extensions and so on.  It’s common for each of these programs to claim credit for all of the new jobs and investment associated with their particular incentive.  Shoot everything that flies, claim everything that falls.  Some decades ago, when I worked for the State of Oregon, I asked a state manager why her program had extended a subsidy to a firm after it had already announced its investment:  the manager explained that it was a sure-fire win; her program would be able to claim credit for job creation, and that would make its benefits look even larger.

Politics trumps economics

Most of Bartik’s book is informed by careful econometric research that tests whether incentives seem to have any correlation with increases in business investment (they mostly don’t), whether they actually tip business decisions toward particular locations (about three-quarters of the time they’re irrelevant) and whether they generate more benefits that costs (again, usually not).

If Governors and Mayors were cool, fact-driven analysts, Bartik’s work (and that of other scholars) would be game, set and match. But as Bartik acknowledges, a primary motivation for offering incentives is political. Elected leaders want to be perceived as doing something to benefit the local economy, whether it works or not is something that’s only likely to be of interest and accessible to scholars like Bartik. When it comes to economic development, Governors and Mayors are involved in the production of “symbolic goods.” The more drama and publicity (as exemplified by the media coverage of Amazon’s carefully staged “HQ2” competition, the more opportunity for these elected leaders to show they “care” about voter’s economic concerns.  Bartik understands this dynamic:

A political reason for incentives is that they are popular. Targeting the creation of particular identified jobs—which is what incentives do—is rewarded by voters. Voters are more likely to vote for politicians who offer incentives, even if the incentives are unsuccessful. Voters appreciate well-publicized efforts to attract jobs. If a governor or mayor can go after a prominent large corporation with an incentive offer, why not? At least he is trying; he cares. Better yet, the incentives may be long-term, paid for by the next governor or mayor. Political benefits now, budget costs later.

Some years back, I wrote an analysis of state and local efforts to attract and build biotechnology industry clusters. One thing that I observed was that, in addition to the chances of success being extremely remote for any city, it was certain that it would take a decade or more for any imaginable biotechnology development strategy to bear fruit. Since that would be well beyond the political lifetime of any incumbent Mayor or Governor, it seemed to me at first glance that biotech would be an unattractive strategy, because you would never be in office to get credit for success. Yet nearly every state and large city was actively pursuing biotech. Then it dawned on me:  if success was at least a decade away, my city or state’s biotech efforts could never be judged a failure while I was in office. The critical takeaway:  it is the political calculus that drives business incentives, not any consideration of whether they actually work in practice or not.

This observation is confirmed by the extraordinary paucity of practitioner-driven evaluation. Few economic development departments anywhere engage in systematic monitoring of the results of their efforts. They’re very good at creating an echo chamber for announcements of new investment, but seldom, if ever talk about whether job creation promises are met. Instead, the only solid, objective evidence on what works, and what doesn’t comes from scholars like Bartik, which is a key reason why this book is so important.

Concrete Advice

We’ll almost certainly continue to have business incentives. Most of them will continue to be ineffective. One of the most valuable pieces of Bartik’s book is four simple points about how to structure incentives to maximize their economic benefits and decrease their costs. They are:

  1. Focus incentives on traded sector industries (i.e. businesses that sell goods and services in national and international markets), rather than subsidizing local firms who compete largely against other local firms. Target these incentives for distressed areas.
  2. Emphasize services over incentives. Spending money on services that make businesses more competitive, like employee training, do more to produce benefits.
  3. Avoid big long-term deals, they’re generally bad deals for local governments, and “out-year” incentives actually have little effect on current business decisions.
  4. Pay for incentives by raising overall business taxes rather than cutting public services.

Bartik’s work is as close as definitive answers get to shedding light on the game of business incentives. He gives a coherent analysis of the “but for” problem, and demonstrates that most of what is spent on economic development has little impact on patterns of investment. Unfortunately the compelling political calculus for offering incentives continues to trump analytics.The book clearly delivers on the first half of its title (making sense of incentives). Accomplishing the second half, (taming them) will continue to be a difficult task, even with this good advice.

Timothy J. Bartik, Making sense of incentives: Taming business incentives to promote prosperity, Upjohn Institute, WE Series, October 2019 (


Revealed: the secret of a successful urban economy

One factor trumps all others in determining economic success:  Educational attainment

Brookings researchers pile on more evidence of this key fact, and outline strategies for increasing skills.

But remember:  talented workers are mobile, so you also have to have a great urban environment to attract and retain smart workers.

Our friends at the Brookings Institution have a new report advising cities on economic development policy.  Entitled Talent-Driven Economic Development:   A new vision and agenda for regional and state economies, and written by Joseph Parilla and Sifan Liu, the report details a series of strategies that cities can pursue to adapt to the knowledge based economy. As the title suggest, the key to economic success in the 21st century is talent.

This strategic direction will come as no surprise to reader’s of City Observatory,  When we first launched our think tank five years ago, we published this commentary, highlighting the role of educational attainment.

The single most important factor driving urban economic success is the educational attainment of a city’s population.  Statistically, educational attainment–summarized by the fraction of the adult population with a four-year college degree–explains roughly 60 percent of the variation in per capita incomes among large U.S. metropolitan areas.  No other single factor comes close.

This chart is the first, most important thing to remember about urban economic development in the 21st century:  if you want high incomes, you need to have a high level of skills.  Cities with poorly educated populations will find it difficult to raise living standards in a world where productivity and pay depend increasingly on knowledge.

The new Brookings report features a strikingly similar chart — although it looks at the connection between a measure of economic productivity (Gross Domestic Product per capita) rather than our preferred measure of income per capita and provides data for the 100 largest metro areas, rather than just those with a million or more population. The data shows that regions with high levels of educational attainment generate more economic output per person:  better educated workers are more productive.

The results and the implications are almost exactly the same:  Statistically, one can explain about 60 percent of the variation in economic performance amount cities simply by knowing what fraction of the adult population has a four-year degree.  That relationship holds regardless of whether we measure economic success in the form of per capita personal income, or the value of output.

As we stressed in our explanation of this relationship, the four-year college attainment rate is a proxy for the overall skill level of the population, the data on college degree attainment are relatively easy to get, even if they are an imperfect and inexact representation of the talent and skills of a local population.  And clearly, it isn’t just a four-year degree that matters; cities with highly levels of four-year degree attainment also tend to have fewer high school dropouts, more people with associates degrees and more with graduate degrees. The point is that progress along this educational continuum fuels economic success.

And that’s chiefly where the Brookings report’s recommendations fall:  How to move local students further along that continuum.  Some of that revolves around continuing formal education (helping high school students reach college, and succeed once they’re there), and also helping and encouraging employers to provide additional training to their entire workforce (and not just those with the highest levels of skill, which tends to be the pattern).  These are all plausible elements of a human capital based economic strategy. Parillia and Liu also make the critically important point that there are social spillovers from education:  your personal economic prospects are better if you live in a community or region with a high level of educational attainment, regardless of how much education you personally have completed.

Cities have to compete for talented workers by offering great urbanism

The one thing that is conspicuously missing, in our view, is the acknowledgement that people, especially those with high levels of education and skills are highly mobile. It may be necessary and helpful for a city to do a better job of educating its population and promoting lifelong learning, but that will be of little value to the local or regional economy if, once equipped with higher skills, they move elsewhere.  As we’ve demonstrated in our studies on the Young and Restless, well-educated young adults are extremely likely to move, and are tending to move to cities with great urban neighborhoods.  The upshot is that in addition to fostering more education, cities also need to build the kinds of urban places that will attract and retain talented people.

Increased educational attainment and steadily improving talent should be the centerpiece of any local economic strategy.  That will require cities to improve formal learning, buttress lifelong learning and, importantly, build great places.

Does walkability promote economic mobility?

A new study shows a tantalizing connection between more walkable places and intergenerational economic mobility

City Observatory readers will be familiar with the findings of Raj Chetty and his colleagues in the Equality of Opportunity Project. In a revelatory use of big data, they used anonymized tax records to track the lifetime earnings of kids growing up across the United States.  The results show that the neighborhood and metro area one grows up in has a huge impact on your lifetime earning prospects. Strikingly, kids from low income families growing up in some neighborhoods, especially those with mixed incomes and lower levels of racial segregation fare better. The Equality of Opportunity Project’s research casts doubt on some traditional economic development nostrums (having more jobs nearby or faster job growth doesn’t seem to be associated with intergenerational economic mobility), and put more emphasis on a wide range of neighborhood effects (intergenerational mobility is positively correlated with the number of employed adults in a neighborhood and with measures of social capital), suggesting that successful mixed income neighborhoods play a key role in helping kids escape poverty.

To shift gears a bit, if you read City Observatory regularly, you’re also familiar with Walk Score, the ubiquitous easy-to-interpret index of walkability. We and other scholars have used Walk Score to show that walkability commands a premium in real estate markets (more walkable homes, all other factors held constant) tend to be much more valuable than homes that are more car-dependent.  A growing body of public health research also confirms that walkability has significant health benefits:  people who live in more walkable areas walk more and are healthier.

Now, let’s combine these two threads:  the geography of intergenerational economic mobility and walkability.  A new paper from psychologist Shigehero Oishi, Minkyung Koo and Nicholas Buttrick does just that, looking at the correlation between Walk Score and intergenerational economic mobility.

Oishi, Koo and Buttrick aggregate data from the Equality of Opportunity Project’s estimates of integenerational mobility for commuting zones and compare it to the overall level of walkability in the area.  “Commuting Zones” are a geographical unit that usually encompasses an entire metro area and surrounding rural areas.  The US is divided into 377 zones.

The study finds that, after controlling for the “big five” factors that Chetty, et al’s research showed tended to influence intergenerational economic mobility–—percentage of African Americans, degree of income inequality, quality of K–12 education, social capital, and percentage of children with single mothers–that a commuting area’s walk score added a statistically significant and positive effect on intergenerational economic mobility.  Including walkability in a model of intergenerational economic mobility explained an additional 10 percent of the variation in mobility rates among commuting zones. As the authors conclude:

Using tax data from almost nine million Americans born between 1980 and 1982, Study 1 demonstrates that upward social mobility is substantially higher in more walkable areas (r .390). The more walkable an area is (as indexed by, the more likely Americans whose parents were in the lowest income quintile are to have reached the highest income quintile by their 30s. This relationship holds above and beyond factors previously used to explain upward mobility, factors such as income inequality and social capital, and is robust to various political, economic, and demographic controls; to alternate specifications of upward mobility; and to potentially unspecified third variables.

This is encouraging evidence:  It suggests that regions that are more walkable tend to have better opportunities for kids from low income families to make connections.  (It may also be that walkability is correlated with other factors, like social capital, that maximize opportunities). Oishi, Koo and Buttrick explore these possible explanations by looking at other data on commuting and car ownership and on walkability and a self-reported sense of belonging.  Their data show that in more walkable areas, economic success is less correlated with car ownership (suggesting one way that economic mobility is enhanced by greater walkability). The findings on a sense of belonging and intergenerational mobility are less clear; the relationship, if anything is indirect:

 . . . although the direct association between walkability and upward social mobility was not significant, those living in a walkable neighborhood and those who walked more in their everyday lives felt a greater sense of belonging, which was in turn associated with upward social mobility

The data support the notion that walkability is correlated with intergenerational economic mobility. One limitation of the headline analysis of the Chetty et al data is that they are aggregated at the level of commuting zones. We know that that both walkability and intergenerational economic mobility vary substantially within metropolitan areas; different neighborhoods within a metro area can either be car-dependent or highly walkable.  It seems like the next logical step in this research is to look to see whether this same correlation holds for smaller areas. 

Oishi, S., Koo, M., & Buttrick, N. R. (2018, December 17). The Socioecological Psychology of Upward Social Mobility. American Psychologist. Advance online publication.  Full text available at:

Hat tip to Marginal Revolution‘s Tyler Cowen for flagging this research.

Note:  This post has been updated to correct editing errors. (October 22)

How homeownership as wealth is rigged against people of color

Timing is everything in real estate, and mortgage availability cycles mean that people of color buy high and sell low.

The Urban Institute has an informative new report charting the swings of home prices across the nation since 2000.  It shows a familiar boom-bust-recovery pattern.  Home prices surged through about 2006, and collapsed in the next few years, and since 2009, have been increasing–although as we’ve noted at City Observatory, real home prices (adjusted for inflation) have still failed to recover to their peak levels in most markets).

The Urban Institute’s map of changing home prices illustrates in detail how this has played out in different communities, and its a great resource. You can see, by metro area, and by year, where homebuyers of different racial and ethnic groups are concentrated, and how patterns change over time.  Here, for example, is a map showing the concentration of mortgage originations to African-American homeowners in the Washington DC area. The largest concentration of mortgages is in Prince Georges County, Maryland:

But it’s useful to step back and reflect on the big trends at work here, which Urban Institute neatly summarizes in this graphic:


Credit availability and home prices tend to move in sync; when credit availability is low, price growth tends to be subdued; when credit is easily available, prices

As the old investing adage goes “Buy low, sell high.”  To buy a home you need access to mortgage credit. But when its the best time to buy, credit is usually hard to get, and especially so for people of modest means, and disproportionately so for black and Hispanic households. And that’s exactly what Urban Institute’s data shows.  Black and Hispanic borrowers accounted for about 13 percent of home mortgages in 2000 (when prices were relatively low).  The black/Hispanic share of mortgages surged to 25 percent when the market was at its frenzied peak in 2006.  And the black/Hispanic share of mortgages fell back to 12 percent in 2009, when the market hit bottom (arguably the best time to buy).

What this means is that Black and Hispanic homebuyers disproportionately tended to buy homes at the very worst time–when home prices were at their peak, and were effectively shut out of the market when it was a good time to buy.

To get an idea of how big a deal this makes, let’s compare what happened to the typical home buyer who purchased a home and held it for 5 years.  We use data from the national Case-Shiller home price index to compute the price level and appreciation of the average home in each year.

Here’s a chart showing the percentage appreciation (or depreciation) that a typical homebuyer would experience based on having bought a home in 2000, 2005 and 2010.

If you’d bought a home in 2000, your five-year gross return would have been about 64 percent, almost ten percent per year. If you bought in 2005, your five-year return would have been negative, and you would have lost 14 percent of your investment.  If you bought in 2010, you saw about an 18 percent gross return; a little over 3 percent per year.

So clearly, when you buy makes a big difference. And the fact that lower income buyers, and especially black and Hispanic buyers tend to buy less when prices are low (2000 and 2010), and tend to buy more when prices are high (2005), means that housing turns out to be systematically a worse investment  them. These data show that borrowers of color were twice as likely  to take out mortgages when it was a bad time to buy (2006; 25 percent of borrowers), than when it was a good time to buy (12 to 13 percent of borrowers in 2000 and 2010).

What this means is that the “housing as wealth creation” idea is pretty systematically tilted against low income households and people of color. If you can’t buy when it’s a good time to buy, home ownership is likely to be a pretty poor way to accumulate more wealth. And this problem doesn’t seem to be susceptible to an easy fix:  expanding mortgage credit to marginally qualified borrowers (something that was the hallmark of the subprime lending that triggered the housing bubble and bust) tends to fuel the home price appreciation that rewards those who were able to buy when credit was tight, and drive up the price of housing for those who are new to the market.

Racial and ethnic gaps in income and wealth are real and persistent problem in the US, and are deeply reflected in patterns of homeownership. But simply expanding access to mortgage credit is unlikely to be a way to make these gaps smaller.



Reduced demand: Tolling or restricting cars reduces traffic

We have urban traffic congestion because we heavily subsidize people driving in cities.

Reducing subsidies and lowering road capacity reduces traffic and congestion.

Why are we building highway capacity for users who won’t pay its costs at 90 percent discount?

By now, we all know about “induced demand” the idea that when we build more road capacity (ostensibly to reduce congestion) we simply prompt more and more people to drive. Well, it turns out the reverse is also true:  If we price or take away capacity, by closing streets to some vehicles or imposing tolls, we actually reduce the level of traffic in an area. Time and again, real world experience shows slashing or pricing capacity reduces urban congestion.

New York’s  Miracle on 14th Street

Case in point:  The Miracle on 14th Street. A week ago, New York City effectively banned through-car traffic on 14th Street in Manhattan between Third and Eighth Avenues. This miracle comes in two parts: Part one is the much improved bus speeds on 14th Avenue; once the city’s slowest bus line, the M14 is now racing ahead of schedule, with the added benefit that freed from cars, 14th Street is now a far more pleasant place for people.

Buses are zooming on 14th Street in Manhattan (Streetsblog)

But the second, and in many ways less obvious part of this miracle is on the adjacent 13th and 15th Streets. If you assume that traffic is a kind of incompressible liquid, you’d expect that banning cars on one street would automatically produce gridlock on adjacent streets.  That actually hasn’t turned out to be the case. The adjacent streets are, if anything, less trafficked than before, as reported by the West 13th Street Alliance:

Traffic didn’t divert to nearby West 13th Street (Twitter: @W13StAlliance)

Seattle’s Alaskan Way: Carmaggedon Avoided

City Observatory readers will remember the predictions of “Carmageggdon” made for downtown Seattle when the City finally closed the since-demolished Alaskan Way Viaduct. Part of the viaduct had to be removed before traffic could use the new tunnel, with the result being for a period of weeks, a roadway that had carried about 90,000 cars a day through downtown Seattle was removed, with no replacement.

Instead of gridlock, traffic levels throughout downtown Seattle were reduced. The Seattle Times reported, with a note of incredulity and amazement, that “the cars just disappeared.” By shutting down the flow of traffic from the viaduct to Seattle streets, the closure reduced the demand on those streets and enabled traffic to flow more smoothly.

Things quickly went back to “normal” once the City opened the new SR 99 tunnel to replace the viaduct’s highway lanes.

Here’s the point:  road capacity doesn’t so much relieve traffic as it creates it.  When we reduce the capacity of a system to introduce cars into a city center, we get fewer cars.

But after months of getting a free ride, tunnel users will finally be asked in early November to make a modest contribution to the cost of the project.  The $1 to $2.25 toll that tunnel users will be asked to pay will cover less than 10 percent of the cost of the $3.3 billion in tunnel construction and related costs.

The toll, not surprisingly, is going to discourage some people from using the tunnel.  The Washington State Department of Transportation reportedly expects tunnel traffic to drop by 30 to 50 percent.

Why spend public money on capacity users don’t want?

Reflect for a moment what that means:  Today, as long as the trip is free, about 80,000 vehicles use the new multi-billion dollar tunnel.  When asked to pay less than 10 percent of what it cost to build the tunnel, something like a third to a half of all current users say “it’s not worth it to me.”  In effect, they’re saying, I’ll only use the tunnel if somebody else pays for it. And just for the record, that $2.25 tunnel toll is less than the $2.75 bus fare that King County Metro charges its bus and light rail riders.  That, in a nutshell, is the perverse value proposition that guides so much urban transportation investment in the US: we spend billions on highway capacity that is un- or under-priced, and that people only use because its heavily subsidized, and charge higher prices to those who use more socially and environmentally responsible options.

For the record, the same thing has happened elsewhere when highway users are asked to pay even a modest fraction of the cost of adding road capacity. As we’ve documented, in Louisville, Kentucky, tolls of just $1 each way for a new interstate bridge reduced traffic by almost 40 percent.

The big concern in Seattle again is that the cars that avoid the tolls will clog up other streets. Heather Marx of the city’s transportation department told local television station KOMO:

“During the peak time, there’s nowhere really to go, but we do expect to see more traffic on downtown streets”

But as the miracle on 14th Street in Manhattan, and Seattle’s own experience earlier this year shows is that traffic isn’t so much diverted as it is reduced.

Maybe we should think of highways and major arterials in cities as causes of traffic rather than their solution.  What an urban freeway does, in effect, is point a firehose of car traffic at a city street system. When we reduce the flow of traffic on the freeways in and near cities, we reduce the number of cars traveling to and on city streets.

One other point:  We’re often told that we can’t do anything to reduce car traffic until we dramatically beef up alternative ways of getting around, especially transit. But the lesson here is that car traffic can change quickly, and that reducing car traffic is the fastest and most effective way to improve transit service. Getting cars out of the way makes buses move faster, making them more attractive, and reducing their cost (drivers is more productive, and move more people, more miles if the bus can go faster). No transportation policy is more equitable than one that gets buses moving faster.



No youth exodus from cities: WSJ is detecting noise, not signal

There’s no statistically significant news on young adults in cities in the latest Census release

Pro-tip:  Ignore changes smaller than the margin of error: they’re noise, not signal 

It’s hard to underestimate the journalistic zeal to report a contrarian story. In the world of urbanism, a recent favorite has been “young adults are leaving cities.” We’ve repeatedly debunked previous iterations of this particular species of weed, but unsurprisingly, it’s back.

The Wall Street Journal’s Janet Adamy and Paul Overberg produced a provocative story last week:  Young adults, they claim, are leaving the nation’s cities in “large numbers.”  The on-line story is slugged: “Millennials Continue Their Exodus From Big U.S. Cities.” They write:

Large U.S. cities lost tens of thousands of millennial and younger Gen X residents last year, according to Census figures released Thursday that offer fresh signs of cooling urban growth.  Cities with more than a half million people collectively lost almost 27,000 residents age 25 to 39 in 2018, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of the figures.

The story drew on just-released data from the 2018 American Community Survey to compute the total number of 25 to 39 year-olds moving into and out of in cities with more than 500,000 residents in the past two years.  The main finding:  according to the WSJ analysis, the number of 25-39 year old residents declined by 27,000 in these cities between 2017 and 2018.

“Tens of thousands” sounds pretty impressive number, unless you understand that there are more than 10 million 25 to 39 year olds living in cities with a population of 500,000 or more. (This basic contextual statistic is not included in the WSJ article.) So a decline of 27,000 represents a decrease on the order of one-quarter of one percent.  That’s neither “large” nor “an exodus.”

More noise than signal:  Smaller change than the margin of error

There’s another reason to pay particular attention to the fraction of percent of change here:  It is so small that it’s statistically indistinguishable from zero.  Because the data are taken from a survey (the American Community Survey samples about 1-2 percent of all US households each year), it has a margin of error.  The margin of error for city-level estimates of age group population is on the order of 4 to 5 percent, meaning that any change of less than that amount is likely to be statistically insignificant.  A one-quarter of one percentage point decline is essentially indistinguishable from statistical noise.

Reporting a much smaller than margin of error change in a population subgroup as showing that young adults are leaving cities is the statistical equivalent of using a winter snowstorm as evidence that the global climate is not warming.

For at least one city, more straightforward Census data show increases

Inasmuch as we’re based in Portland, we follow Portland data closely.  We were surprised that the Wall Street Journal article claimed that Portland was a city that lost population in the 25 to 39 age group:

New York, Chicago, Houston, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Washington and Portland, Ore., were among those that lost large numbers of residents in this age group.

We double-checked the Portland data from the Census website, examining one-year American Community Survey estimates for each of the years 2014 through 2018..  You can download data for any large city in the US at  We got age-sex population estimates from Table B01001.  These data show that the total number of 25 to 39 year olds was 187,483 in 2017 and 188,322 in 2018.  This represents an increase of 839 persons in this age group; not a decrease as reported by the WSJ.  These one-year survey data show such a small change–about 0.4 percent–that it is not significantly different from zero.  This isn’t surprising–there’s a lot of variability due to random sampling in these figures. What this suggests is that the one-year data provide no basis for a claim that Portland is losing population in this demographic group.

The Census Bureau’s five-year American Community Survey also contains estimates of the number of 25-39 year olds living in the City of Portland.  The aggregated five-year data are preferred because the larger sample size produces estimates that have a smaller margin of error, although they have a noticeable lag. The latest estimates run through 2017; the 5-year data through 2018 will be released later this fall.  These data show a steady increase in the 20-39 year old population in Portland.

Hard to see the exodus here

We spoke with the Wall Street Journal reporter responsible for the data analysis in this story. The WSJ used a different method for computing population change by age group. They combined data from two different tables (one dealing with in-migration and a second covering out-migration–Tables B07001 and B07041).  By comparing the differences in the two tables (i.e. looking to see whether the number of migrants into a city exceeded the number of migrants out of a city) they computed population change.

The difficulty with this approach is two-fold.  First, because the Census is applied only to current residents of the US, those who move out of the country in a given year aren’t surveyed.  Second, the margin of error of the estimate for in-migrants and out-migrants is much larger because there are fewer than 10 percent of the US population moves each year.  For example, for Portland, Census reports that the margin of error for estimates of in- and out-migrants is between 30 and 40 percent and exceed 100 percent for migrants from other countries.  These very large margins of error make it much more likely that computed changes in point estimates are the result of statistical noise rather than some underlying trend.

Average Margin of Error, 5-year age groups, 20-39
City of Portland
American Community Survey, 2018

Table Variable Margin of Error
B01001 Total Population 4.5%
B07001 Total Population 4.0%
B07001 Moved from a different Oregon County 39.5%
B07001 Moved from a different State 30.9%
B07001 Moved from abroad 117.6%
B07401 Total Population 5.3%
B07401 Moved to different Oregon County 36.1%
B07401 Moved to Different State 29.3%

Given the much smaller error margins associated with aggregate population estimates, and the simplicity of working with total population figures from year to year, we believe that this is a much more accurate way to portray population change for a particular city.  The Wall Street Journal did not publish data for particular cities (other than New York), nor did it post its data tabulations, so we don’t know if similar differences between the net migration method used by WSJ and the year-over-year total change method we prefer hold for other cities as well.

Mixed signals:  Some cities up, other cities down

While the story headlines a so-called exodus, there is an admission–in its very last paragraph–that several cities are continuing to see an increase in 25 to 39 year olds:

Among the big cities that gained large numbers of young adults were Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Antonio, San Diego, Austin, Seattle, Denver and Columbus.

So apparently, the pattern isn’t so pronounced that eight of America’s largest cities aren’t still gaining young adult residents.  The Wall Street Journal story lists just seven cities that experienced declines in 25 to 39 year-olds by their calculations, so its difficult to argue from what’s presented here that the most common pattern is out-migration. Because the story doesn’t show city level statistics–it contains specific  for only one city (New York)–it’s impossible to tell whether the number of large cities gaining 25 to 39 year olds is more or less than the number that are losing them (again, for the moment, ignoring the fact that many, if not all of these year-over-year changes in the Census point estimates are likely to be statistically insignificant, and may be an artifact of relying on the net migration estimates, rather than the more reliable year-over-year total population change).

If anything, the very limited data on individual cities contradicts the thesis of the article.  Note that nationally, the aggregate net decline in big city 25-39 year old population was 27,000; The authors report that New York City alone lost 38,000.  This implies that outside of New York City, big cities as a whole actually gained population in the 25-39 age group. (If New York lost 38,000, and big cities collectively lost 27,000, then big cities other than New York gained a net of 11,000 residents).

This fact underscores two important points:  First, that contrary to the impression generated by the Wall Street Journal article, there doesn’t appear to be any generalized trend–their main result, if it is accurate, is driven in large part by New York City.  It also appears that by the WSJ’s own analysis, the “trend” has dissipated sharply in the past year, they say net outmigration from this group of large cities has declined by about half from the previous year, from 54,000 in 2017 to 27,000 this year.  If this were an emerging trend, we’d expect it to accelerate, not fall by half.

Second, we’re talking about really small, and certainly statistically insignificant changes:  outside of New York City, the aggregate change of 10,000 persons is just one-tenth of one percent of the nearly 10 million 20-39 year olds living in those cities; well beyond the statistical precision of the American Community Survey.

These very tiny changes and this kind of noisy, uneven data pattern is exactly what one would expect from sample data.  Point estimates of individual variables fluctuate from year to year, and don’t necessarily represent real changes.  It’s particularly unfortunate that the article repeatedly refers to changes as “large” even though there’s no evidence that they are statistically significant, i.e. not discernible from zero. If the population of a particular subgroup were actually un-changed from year to year in all cities, statistically you would expect a survey like the ACS to report higher point estimates for half of cities and lower point estimates for the other half solely because of sampling variability.  Not allowing for the possibility of this high level of statistical noise leads to a conclusion that simply isn’t supported by the data.

In sum, when your survey-based estimates don’t reach a threshold level of statistical significance, when they’re contradicted by other, more straightforward ways of making a similar calculation (ones with a lower margin of error), when even by your own calculations at least eight major cities are recording increases in the young adult population, and when the trend you claim to have spotted has declined by 50 percent in the past year, it’s probably not valid evidence for claiming that there’s an exodus of young adults from the nation’s cities. We understand the journalistic temptation to want to be the first (or among the first) to make a provocative contrarian call about some well-known trend, but in this case the evidence is just too thin to be believable.

In addition, despite the desire in some quarters to treat any tapering off or decline in young adult migration to cities as evidence of dis-enchantment with urban living, or a renewed desire for living in the suburbs, it’s worth noting that the evidence of market prices shows a strong and growing demand to live in cities. Rents have risen fastest and most in the centers of large cities, and the fact that the urban migration of young adults has continued apace, even in the most expensive markets, shows that the chief limit on movement of young adults to cities is a lack of supply of housing, not any diminution of the demand for urbanity. So far from signaling a rekindling of the supposed suburban romance, a slowing (or decline) in the number of young adults in cities most likely indicates that we’re bumping up against the limits of housing supply in great urban neighborhoods; rather than writing off cities, we need to be building more housing in them.

Editor’s Note (October 10):  This post has been revised to correct a typographical error in the paragraph describing the net aggregate increase in young adults in large cities other than New York.


Won’t be fooled again: Transportation for America

Too often, progressive transportation advocates have been rolled by the highway crowd; No more, says Transportation for America

Three principles for reform: Fix it First, Safety before Speed, Accessibility, not Mobility.

There’s been a kind of Kabuki theatre around federal transportation funding legislation over the past two decades. Advocates for transit, biking and walking form a loose coalition with the traditional highway interests to browbeat the Congress in to putting more money into transportation.  Every few years, we get an omnibus piece of legislation with an inscrutable acronym (SAFTEA-LU and MAP-21), and a few more odd billion dollars. And for the past 25 years, all of the increased funding has been on the back of taxpayers, it’s been regarded as politically impossible to raise the so-called “user fees”–in the form of the federal gasoline tax.  The result has been more than $100 billion used to subsidize transportation, chiefly car transportation.

While they’ve been reliable allies to the highway lobby, progressive transportation forces have essentially gotten crumbs. In the face of growing evidence of climate change and a strong demand for urban living, all of the key indicators of transportation system performance are telling us the current approach is failing.  Vehicle miles traveled and carbon emissions are rising.  More pedestrians are being killed in the US. Transit ridership is falling.

Given our social and environmental challenges, and the great opportunity to meet an unrequited demand for car-free and car-lite urban living, we need a different approach to national transportation policy.

Finally, Transportation for America has said “Enough.” It has announced that it won’t support more federal funding for transportation until there’s been some fundamental reform of the policy that guides the the use of these funds.

New principles for federal transportation policy

Transportation for American has laid out three key principles that they say should govern federal policy:

Fix it first. The case more more transportation spending is always pitched as the need to patch potholes and repair bridges, but state highway departments routinely use added funding not to address these backlogs, but instead increase highway capacity. Advocates have seen this kind of bait and switch often-enough to know that without requiring maintenance to be prioritized, additional money just means more lanes of traffic, and thanks to induced demand, even more congestion. (As we’ve pointed out at City Observatory, to many highway engineers, induced demand is more of a feature than a bug–it just continually generates a “need” for ever more road construction.  Transportation for America wants a real priority for maintenance.

Safety before speed. Transportation for America highlights recent findings from the National  Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) confirming what we’ve long known:  excessive speed is in principal cause of roadway crashes and fatalities.  Despite the lip service many state’s play to safety–routinely blaming vulnerable road users and trying to achieve safety largely with gimmicky ad-campaigns, the real priority of most transportation programs is “making cars go faster.” Criteria like level-of-service and the 85th percentile rule for setting speed limits are so deeply imbedded in the thought processes and design standards of the transportation system that its impossible to challenge.  Transportation for America is calling for putting a priority on projects that increase safety–which in many cases will mean reducing speeds.

Accessibility not mobility. As David Levinson and others have pointed out, transportation policy prioritizes “going faster” (mobility) over “getting somewhere” accessibility. The unfortunate by-product of massive expansion of car infrastructure is sprawl:  all of our common destinations are now more spread-out, forcing us to travel further, and making walking, cycling and transit, less efficient and more dangerous. A good transportation system is one where we don’t have to travel so much, or travel so far to meet basic needs.  And yet the metrics that are routinely used to measure transportation system performance invariably obsess about speed and ignore accessibility. Transportation for America is calling for this to be redressed.

A good start. Let’s also get the prices right

We agree with all of these principles. If adopted, they’d definitely push federal transportation investments in a more socially and environmentally sensible direction. But we’d go even further.

At its root, our transportation problems stem from the rampant mis-pricing of transportation, in particular our subsidies to car travel and car storage. Federal transportation policy should make “user pays” and “cost responsibility” key parts of its spending decisions. There’s no reason transportation should be subsidized from general funds; higher gasoline taxes, and widespread implementation of value pricing (to reflect back to users the high cost of providing peak our travel), would help promote more efficient use of the nation’s expensive investment in transportation, and meaningfully encourage transit, cycling and walking.

More money for a badly broken system will only lead to greater car dependence.  It’s time for advocates of biking, walking and transit to insist on a new approach to federal transportation policy. Transportation for America has laid out a clear set of principles to guide that effort.


A modest proposal: An EIS for the DMV

Many states subject housing approval to environmental reporting requirements; what if we extended this same principle to car registrations.

Back in the early days of the environmental movement–the late sixties and early seventies, one lawyerly idea that was in vogue was the notion of requiring government policy decisions to be undertaken only after fair consideration of the environmental impacts they might have. The idea was that a lot of pollution and environmental degradation was the product of a failure to consider impacts and alternatives in advance, and that by requiring disclosure, governments would make better, greener decisions. The principle is codified in the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires Environmental Impact Statements for major federal decisions likely to influence the environment.

States like California and Washington are famous for their state-level environmental impact statement requirements, which are routinely applied to city and state development approvals for everything from new apartments to the construction of bike- and bus-lanes.

The essence of these requirements is that before undertaking a policy decision, the state and local governments should evaluate the environmental consequences of their actions. California’s CEQA (the California Environmental Quality Act), has been used to block  housing developments around the state. Critics say that CEQA has become “the tool of choice for preventing cities from approving high-density housing . . .. with a quarter of lawsuits against CEQA-reviewed projects targeting housing.” Similarly, in Washington State, the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) has routinely been used to challenge higher density housing. The act was even used to object to an environmental foundation’s zero net energy building, because it didn’t include parking spaces. And while actual court victories under these laws are rare, the threat of a CEQA or SEPA lawsuit is often a powerful bargaining chip in negotiations to force developer concessions.

The premise for these environmental disclosure laws is, for the most part, a good one: government decisions ought to be undertaken with a clear understanding and careful weighing of the environmental consequences. So, if we’re going to have such policies, maybe we should consider applying them to particularly environmentally damaging activities licensed by the government.

That got us thinking:  Why not apply these same policies at the Department of Motor Vehicles?  Before the DMV issues a license for a new vehicle, it really ought to be required to consider the environmental impact of doing so. Each additional car on the road will add to road congestion, air pollution, and greenhouse gases, and will likely pose a safety risk for other road users, especially persons on foot and bicycle.  For example, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the average car generates 4.6 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year, so each 2-year car registration should acknowledge the impact of 9 tons of CO2 emissions.  Just as cities now limit the construction of new housing when they think neighborhoods are getting overcrowded, maybe cities could set numerical limits on the issuance of new car licenses:  that would certainly attack the problem of congestion and pollution more directly than is done now.

The DMV should ask you for an EIS for that car registration

A DMV granting a vehicle license is functionally no different than a city planning department granting a building permit, so in theory it seems like the environmental review laws could apply.

Setting tough requirements for vehicle registration to protect the environment isn’t unusual. Other countries take an entirely different approach to vehicle registration. In Japan, car owners are required to show that they have their own private off-street parking space in order to register a motor vehicle.

It seems to us like a modest proposal:  if impact statements make sense for houses, why not apply them to cars–which seem to be a much more serious environmental threat, in light of recent evidence about the growth in greenhouse gas emissions. The fact that we haven’t done this already in the decades of experience with environmental impact statement requirements speaks volumes about the built-in pro-automobile bias in our current legal structure (which has been cataloged in detail in a superb article by Greg Shill).

You can add this to our earlier modest proposal that we extend the Americans with Disabilities Act to freeways, and insist that state highway departments provide accessible bus service on limited access roadways–places that are now effectively unavailable to those who are too young, too infirm or too old to drive. It’s another example of how we might take some fundamental and established provision of law and apply it in a way that is more supportive of our stated social and environmental values.

In the end, it may well be outlandish to require such individual impact statements for car registrations. Alternatively, we might just do the reverse: make getting a apartment building permit as easy and automatic as getting a car registration? Just a thought.

Why its important for your city to be unequal

If your city isn’t unequal, it’s either poor or exclusionary

Measured income equality, which is sensible goal nationally, is a perversely misleading indicator of which cities are the most just and and inclusive

Income and wealth inequality in the United States are large and growing problems. In the past several decades most of the increased economic output has gone to a tiny fraction of the wealthiest Americans. A long overdue debate about the merits of a wealth tax is finally starting to play out on the national stage.

With the mindset of “thinking globally and acting locally” many people have sought to apply the same kind of metrics used to gauge national income inequality to measure local inequality. Its a seductive analogy:  If we should strive to get greater economic equality nationally, then the first step–particularly if you’re frustrated with the federal government or national politics–is to try to achieve equality in your community.

The trouble is that the usual measures of inequality–the 90/10 ratio, the Gini index and others–produce a kind of “fun-house mirror” effect when applied to small geographies.  In fact, measuring inequality at the local level gets the identification of which places are inclusive and which are exclusive exactly backwards.

Inequality statistics present a distorted image of which communities are equitable.

In a nation of widespread and deep inequality, places become economically equal in one of two ways:  either by being so undesirable that very few people with the means to live elsewhere will stay, making a community equal in its poverty, or by being so expensive (and usually thanks to land use restrictions) so exclusive that only people of means can live there. Rankings of cities based on inequality measures produce anomalous and inexplicable results:  central cities generally show up as “more unequal” than their surrounding suburbs, and the places with the highest levels of equality are often rich suburban enclaves (Bethesda, Maryland or Flower Mound Texas, or economically distressed cities (Detroit, Milwaukee).

The trouble with ranking measured levels of city income inequality

A fairly standard exercise in urban wonkdom is to choose some standard social or economic performance statistic that is available for every city in the US, and then to rank cities, top-to-bottom based on their score on that statistic. (We do this regularly ourselves at City Observatory). If you get the data and concepts right, a ranking tells you who’s doing well, and who’s doing poorly, and by understanding the policies and context of the highly ranked places, you may get some insights one what it takes to improve performance.

In an effort to shed light on inequality, several analysts have ranked US cities or metropolitan areas by their measured levels of inequality.  The latest of these comes from Richard Florida and his colleagues at CityLab.

Florida and his team used data from the American Community Survey to rank the nation’s 50 most populous cities according to their Gini Index (a statistical measure of income inequality).  By Florida’s reckoning, the City of Atlanta has the highest level of income inequality in the nation and the City of Arlington Texas has the lowest.

It’s worth reflecting for a moment what a statistic like the Gini Index tells us about income levels and income distribution within a city.  The Gini Index is a statistical measure of dispersion, it tells us whether all of the observations in a group are very similar or are very different. The Gini statistic varies from 0 to 1, with 0 representing no dispersion (every observation has the same value, in this case, all households have the same level of income) to 1 (complete concentration, in the case of income, one household has all the income).  Another way to think about the Gini index (and other measures of inequality) is they are measuring homogeneity:  is everyone the same?

It’s also worth noting that the Gini Index makes no distinction between levels of income:  If everyone in a city has a very high level of income, it has a low Gini Index; similarly if everyone in a city has avery low level of income, that city, too, has a low Gini Index.  So while a Gini index may tell us that a city has homogenous incomes, it really doesn’t tell us whether a city is inclusive or not.  In fact, a city that is open to a mix of residents (because it is both attractive to high income households and provides affordable housing options for low income households) will have a higher Gini score (i.e. greater measured inequality) than a city that consists of mostly of households from a single income strata.

As a result, in practice, and especially at the geography of cities, inequality metrics like the Gini Index are misleading measures of social justice and inclusion.  If anything, high levels of measured income inequality in small geographies (cities, neighborhoods) are a sign of inclusiveness and income mixing.

The geography of inequality is not fractal

Florida describes urban inequality having a “fractal” nature.

The New Urban Crisis is fractal, recurring at every scale and level of geography, across metros and within them as well. Take the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area for example: Dallas ranks among the cities experiencing the worst of the New Urban Crisis, but two other nearby communities, Arlington and Fort Worth, rank as some of the least unequal cities.

As applied to inequality, this isn’t just incorrect, it’s backwards.  “Fractal” means that the pattern repeats itself regardless of scale. If that were true, local inequality would be just a microcosm of metropolitan or national inequality.  If anything, the geography of inequality is anti-fractal:  high levels of measured inequality at small geographies mean exactly the opposite of what they mean at large geographies.  (Also, the fact that there’s so little correlation between metro and city inequality measures on its face indicates that the phenomenon is decidedly not fractal).

This problem also affects Florida’s “New Urban Crisis” Index, which also heavily weights these misleading measures of local inequality and implicitly treats higher levels of measured inequality as indicative of worse performance.  The Urban Crisis index consists of four measures, wage inequality, income inequality, economic segregation and housing costs, so half of the index is inequality.

Florida and CityLab are not the first analysts to fall into this trap.  Previously, we’ve pointed out similar problems with inequality rankings published by the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program (in 2015) and more recently in a series of posts challenging a ranking of cities published by the Urban Institute (2018).

The real problem: Economic segregation and concentrated poverty

The weakness of city or metro inequality rankings doesn’t mean that the spatial patterns of wealth and poverty aren’t important.  It just means that we need to take a more nuanced view of the problem, and regard communities with a robust mix of incomes as inclusive, rather than unequal.  And as we and others such Alan Mallach and David Rusk have suggested, our focus ought to be on economic segregation within cities and metros.  Concentrated poverty has been repeatedly shown to magnify all of the negative effects of living in poverty, and to transmit these effects to the next generation. Raj Chetty’s research shows that kids from low income families that grow up in mixed income neighborhoods have better lifetime outcomes. And contrary to popular belief, low income households living in mixed income neighborhoods are happier than low income households who live in low income neighborhoods. New experimental evidence from Seattle shows that low income households moving to mixed income areas are more satisfied with their neighborhoods.

Mixed income neighborhoods are a key to promoting more widespread opportunity, and improving the well-being of low income households. As a result, at the local level our first priority should be breaking down patterns of economic segregation–which is the aspect of inequality over which local governments have the most control. It’s ironic and to many, counterintuitive, but if your city is going to be inclusive, it has to have a high level of measured inequality.

Appendix:  City Observatory analyses of city inequality

Ranking cities and metro areas by inequality is, unfortunately, a recurring meme in urbanism. We hope it goes away.  We’ve repeatedly pointed out the problems with this methodology and its interpretations, and will, if necessary, continue to do so.  For reference here are the previous commentaries we’ve published on the subject:

The key points  in these posts are summarized as follows:

  • Cities don’t generate income distributions among their populations, so much as they include (or exclude) different income groups. City inequality is not a linear microcosm of national income inequality.
  • Highly equal cities are almost always either exclusive suburban enclaves (that achieve homogeneity by rigid zoning limits that exclude the poor) or impoverished cities that have been abandoned by upper and middle income households, leaving them homogeneous but poor. (For example, 8 of Urban’s Institute’s ten “most inclusive cities” are suburbs like Bellevue, Naperville and Santa Clara–among the wealthiest 20 cities in the US; while Detroit and Cleveland are also highly ranked for inclusiveness.
  • Small geographies, neighborhoods/cities that have high levels of measured income inequality (90/10 ratio, Gini Index) are generally much more inclusive than comparable geographies that with lower levels of measured inequality.  Rich and poor are living closer together.
  • Even ignoring annexation issues, municipal boundaries are so varied as to make city rankings of such economic variables meaningless. The City of Atlanta is roughly 10% of its metro area; San Antonio and Jacksonville are nearly coterminous with their MSAs. A ranking that compares the densest one-tenth of one metro area to ninety-percent of another metropolitan area tells us almost nothing.



The Week Observed, October 18, 2019

What City Observatory did this week

1. Our 5th Anniversary.  October 17 marked 5 years since we started publishing our research and commentary at City Observatory. We reflect back on five years of work, and thank all those who made it possible, and especially you, our readers.

2. Rites of Way. A complex set of laws and customs, some legislated and enforced, but many unwritten, govern the way we use public space. For a century, we’ve progressively warped these rules to favor car movement. But there’s a lot we can do to redefine the priorities and informal rules that govern public spaces, notably urban roads. Simply erasing the center lines on urban streets, for example, effectively forces drivers to negotiate the use of space with other road users, rather than assuming they have unfettered rights on their side of a line. Experience in other countries shows that there are many possible regimes to guide how we make use of shared spaces; putting greater responsibility on individuals to look out for others, rather than commandeer the “right of way” could make the urban realm safer and more pleasant.

3. More capacity just creates more traffic. The engineering profession proffers the naive belief that car traffic is like a kind of incompressible liquid:  If you constrain it in one place, it will flow out elsewhere. That incorrect analogy is regularly used to argue against projects that reduce car capacity. But time and again, when we reduce the road space dedicated to cars, traffic mostly goes away. That’s happened again in New York where the “Miracle on 14th Street” (eliminating through car movements has sped buses, without any impact on adjacent streets), and is likely to happen again when Seattle finally starts charging tolls on its new $3 billion deep bore tunnel under downtown. It’s time we thought of urban freeways and arterials as creating congestion, rather than relieving it.

Must read

1. More on the the Miracle on 14th Street:  No gridlock on 13th and 15th Streets.  We (like others) are celebrating the success of New York City’s speeding bus service on 14th Street by dedicating more right of way to buses. Critics fretted that banning cars on 14th would produce gridlock on parallel streets like 13th and 15th. With the experiment in place, the verdict is now in. The critics were wrong.
Travel monitoring firm Inrix checked its records before and after implementation of the “bus only policy” on 14th Street and found trivially small changes in traffic speeds, with declines ranging from 0.1 to 0.4 miles per hour, which Inrix regards as statistically insignificant. They conclude:
. . . initial congestion fears appear misplaced. According to INRIX data, the 14th St busway had no discernible performance changes to neighboring roads.
Can we just say what a big deal this is?  One of America’s leading traffic monitoring firms (one which we’ve occasionally excoriated for exaggerating congestion costs) says that closing a major urban thoroughfare to private car traffic had no negative effect on traffic congestion.  If you want less congestion in cities, you should be restricting car capacity, not building more.
2. Speed Cameras save lives. New York’s Legislature has authorized a big increase in the number of school zone speed cameras, and importantly extended their hours of operation. The effect has been fast and dramatic: The number of crashes and injuries in the first week of school in New York City is down by roughly one-quarter from the previous two years. StreetsblogNY quotes State Senator Andrew Gounardes:
“Speed cameras work. Period. They change driver behavior and cause people to slow down, protecting New Yorkers from injury and death in traffic collisions.”
3.  Steve Higashide: Demand more from the transportation bill. Transit Center’s Steve Higashide has a no holds barred take on proposed congressional transportation legislation. In the face of a growing climate crisis, it’s essentially business-as-usual and highway widening as usual. The $287 billion bill has a $10 billion sop for those concerned about the fact that transportation is now the largest source of greenhouse gases (and is growing), but as Higashide points out:
The new bill “acknowledges” climate change in the same way that sending a pallet of bottled water to Flint, Michigan, “acknowledges the lead crisis.”
While the bill nominally earmarks $10 billion to deal with climate change, a significant share of that will be used to protect existing infrastructure from ongoing climate change (i.e. flood proofing roads) rather than reducing vehicle miles traveled and carbon emissions.  The bulk of the bill, which is as yet un-funded, represents a continuing subsidy for more road-building, more driving, and more climate destruction. Higashide has a new book:, “Better Buses, Better Cities.” It should be on the congressional required reading list.

New Knowledge

Redlining’s fading relevance.  In the 1930s, the federal government codified the existing widespread racialized attitudes about local housing markets when the federal Home Owners Loan Corporation  published maps delineating desirable and undesirable neighborhoods.  (While the Feds appropriately get the rap for this, its important to note that the maps were largely compiled by local real estate professionals hired under the New Deal, and reflected established local biases). The legacy of redlining cast a long shadow over those neighborhoods, and led to systematic disinvestment for decades.  But today, eight decades later, are these redlined areas relevant to policy.  Several presidential candidates have proposed targeting federal investment into areas redlined in the 1930s.

Brookings Institution’s Andre Perry and David Harshberger question the relevance of 1930s redlining to 2020 policy-making. They analyze the location and demographics of these redlined areas today, using the most recent available Census data. When they were drawn, redlined areas closely mirrored neighborhoods with high levels of black residents.  But that’s no longer true today, as Perry and Harsberger’s analysis shows:

More generally, the redlined areas are no longer a good match with the hardest hit neighborhoods in US metro areas. Many formerly redlined areas have changed so dramatically–either been depopulated, or revitalized, and no longer hold many poor families. Conversely, areas that weren’t poor in the 1930s (think the first-tier suburbs developed in the 1940s and 1950s) hold a significant number of low income households. As a result, using old-timey redlining maps to define today’s target areas doesn’t make much sense.  And there are other issues as well: American population was very differently distributed across metro areas eight decades ago; while rustbelt cities have large redlined areas, Western and Sunbelt cities have very few.  While redlining was a real factor contributing to urban disinvestment then, those old maps are a poor guide to where we need to invest now.

Andre Perry and David Harshberger, America’s formerly redlined neighborhoods have changed, and so must solutions to rectify them, Brookings Institution, Metropolitan Policy Program, October 14, 2019.

In the news

Treehugger highlighted our critique of the Transportation Research Board’s report calling for even more spending on highway widening, which will lead to more driving and increased greenhouse gas emissions.

The Week Observed, October 11, 2019

What City Observatory did this week

1. Transportation for America won’t be fooled again..  After years of getting rolled by the freeway lobby, it appears that T4America has finally said “Enough.”  Transit and active transportation activists have been roped into an unholy alliance with highway advocates, pressing the federal government for more money for “multi-modal” transportation, with the vain hope that if more money goes to transportation, some additional crumbs will come their way.  In practice that’s meant tons of money for new freeways, and mostly token amounts for “alternative” modes of transportation.  Last week, Transportation for America finally pulled the plug on this strategy, they write:

We’ve been going down the wrong road on transportation long enough:  Transportation needs a change in priorities and policies, not just more funding for the same failed approaches of the past.

To its credit, T4America has laid out three guiding principles that can set us on the right course:  Fix it first, Safety before speed, and Accessibility not mobility. These are a solid foundation, to which we might append:  No free ride–getting serious about pricing road transportation is the key to getting value for our expensive investments in infrastructure.

2. Trouble in Ecotopia. The upper left hand corner of North America has long regarded itself as the bastion of ecological passion; Ernest Callenbach coined the moniker “Ecotopia” to describe the region in the 1970s. And to be sure, the region, stretching from San Francisco north to British Columbia is the home of many innovative pro-environmental policies. And the region’s leader uniformly talk a good game about their concern for global warming and their fealty to the Paris Climate Accords.

But as we take a close look at their greenhouse gas inventories, every part of Ecotopia is chalking up big increases in carbon emissions, in spite of adopted commitments to bring them down. The main reason: people are driving more in the region, not because of a growing economy but because of cheap gas. And here’s where action falls short of rhetoric: Ecotopian political leaders, including for example, Governor Jay Inslee, are supporting major freeway construction projects and other efforts that subsidize more driving, and more greenhouse gas emissions. If Ecotopia is ever going to live up to its stated values, its got a lot of work to do.

Must read

1. Cars are death machines, whether automated or not.  Alison Arieff challenges the idea that autonomous vehicles will do anything to address the inherent dangers of cities full of cars.  Autonomous vehicles seem to have a blind spot when it comes to, some things, specifically cyclists and pedestrians.  That’s led the industry, unsurprisingly to propose to equip people with technology so that they can be “seen” by machines.  As Arieff argues, this is perverse:

Among the safety measures proposed by car companies are encouraging pedestrians and bicyclists to use R.F.I.D. tags, which emit signals that cars can detect. This means it’s becoming the pedestrian’s responsibility to avoid getting hit. But if keeping people safe means putting the responsibility on them (or worse, criminalizing walking and biking), we need to think twice about the technology we’re developing.  This may be the worst outcome of the automobile-centered 20th century: the assumption that it’s people who need to get out of the way of these lethal machines, instead of the other way around.

If we want to reduce the growing number of road deaths, the best solution is to encourage fewer people to drive.  Traffic deaths are directly related to the number of cars on the road and the number of miles they are driven.  Reducing car travel is a key to achieving many important objectives, with pedestrian safety, promoting livable urban spaces and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

2. Want affordable housing? End parking requirements.  Sightline Institute’s Michael Andersen has an insightful look at the economic implications of Portland’s Residential Infill Policy, which is part of city’s implementation of Oregon’s new “missing middle” legalization of duplex, triplex and four-plex housing in single family zones. A critical feature, as Andersen points out, is whether the city code requires the provision of off-street parking.  If parking is required, the economics of development suggest that the city will see fewer and more expensive housing built; with parking requirements relaxed, a similar site is more likely to be developed with more housing units at lower price points.  As Andersen says:

More broadly, there’s an issue of principle here that could apply in any city: Mandating off-street parking, even when we’re fully aware that it makes more and cheaper homes impossible, requires a judgment that housing cars is more important than housing people.

Nowhere in Portland—nowhere on the planet—is that true.

3. The racial divide between baseball and soccer in Atlanta.  Comedian George Carlin has a classic monologue contrasting the pastoral character of baseball with the militaristic vibe of football–in baseball, the object is to get home; in football, its to reach the “end zone.”  Sports Illustrated has a fascinating essay exploring a somewhat different schism in Atlanta.  The baseball Braves have moved out of their central city location into taxpayer subsidized stadium in suburban (and still, relative to Atlanta, disproportionately white) Cobb County.  Meanwhile the city’s new Major League Soccer franchise, Atlanta United, has set up shop in the downtown Mercedes Benz stadium.  As Sports Illustrated points out, the differences between the locations and the teams respective fan bases is striking. With baseball in the suburbs and soccer in the city, there’s a huge missed opportunity for these different groups to interact:

Had the Braves not left downtown, supporters in red-and-black United jerseys might have been packed in tight on nights like this with baseball fans in navy Braves T-shirts, at bustling bars and on sweaty train rides home. They might have traded smiles and congratulations. Maybe raised glasses. Maybe shared a fleeting moment of commonality with someone who looked different or believed in something else.

While Atlanta United’s location is more urban and its supporters more diverse, the franchise is still not fully a model of inclusion. As we’ve reported at City Observatory, the teams practice field was built on a site where the suburban city of Marietta used tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to acquire and demolish low income housing, mostly occupied by people of color.

New Knowledge

A decline in international immigration. The Trump Administration has vilified immigrants and erected barriers to people moving to the US, and now immigration to the US has fallen to its lowest level in a decade, according to Census data compiled by the Brookings Institution’s Bill Frey.  In just the past year, data from the latest American Community Survey suggest that the number of foreign born residents of the US increased by just over 200,000, down almost 75 percent from the level of the previous year.

The irony is that the biggest declines in immigration have been in blue states, while the number of foreign-born persons living in red states continues to increase. As Frey observes:

 . . . over the last year, Clinton states, as a group, registered declines in their foreign-born populations—including substantial declines in New York and Illinois—and more modest declines in California, New Jersey, and Maryland, among other states. Meanwhile, Florida and Texas exhibited significant gains, as did other Trump states including Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.

Foreign immigration has been an important driver of the US economy; many of those who work for, and who start the nation’s most innovative companies have chosen to move to the US; a decline in immigration is a potential threat to future economic prosperity.

In the news

An editorial–“Back to basics: Walkability in Chapel Hill”–in the the Daily Tar Heel quoted our research on the value premium commanded walkable homes.

The Week Observed, October 4, 2019

What City Observatory did this week

1. We debunk the Wall Street Journal’s claim of an exodus of young adults from cities.  Last week, the Wall Street Journal trumpeted an “exodus” of 25 to 39 year old adults from cities. Upon closer inspection, the data cited by the Journal simply don’t support this conclusion.  When your survey-based estimates don’t reach a threshold level of statistical significance, when they’re contradicted by other, more straightforward ways of making a similar calculation (ones with a lower margin of error), when even by your own calculations at least eight major cities are recording increases in the young adult population, and when the trend you claim to have spotted has declined by 50 percent in the past year, it’s probably not valid evidence for claiming that there’s an exodus of young adults from the nation’s cities. We understand the journalistic temptation to want to be the first (or among the first) to make a provocative contrarian call about some well-known trend, but in this case the evidence is just too thin to be believable.

These Census data show Portland’s 20-39 year old population increasing, not decreasing as claimed by the Wall Street Journal.

2. A modest proposal:  EIS for DMV. Many states have environmental impact review requirements which apply to government regulatory decisions.  In California and Washington State, anti-housing activists have used these state EIS-requirements to delay or block apartment development, ostensibly because of the negative environmental consequences associated with new buildings. That gave us a thought: if we’re worried about the negative environmental effect of government granting permission for something, why shouldn’t we be applying this standard to the biggest single source of greenhouse gas emissions: cars.  Suppose that in order to get a new car registered, you had to file an environmental impact statement disclosing its effects on air pollution and traffic congestion. It’s not so far-fetched–in Japan, in order to register your car, you must show that you have a private-off-street parking spot for it. If the EIS for new housing is a good idea, we really ought to be applying it to cars as well.

Must read

1. Your definitive guide to road safety. David Levinson, aka The Transportist, is an invaluable resource for those interested in transportation policy. Levinson writes with the scholarly knowledge (and careful footnoting) of an academic, but with a clear and accessible voice.  He has a new explainer on road safety that lays out in a balanced way all of the various strategies for reducing the carnage on the world’s roadways. Levinson catalogs, explains and quickly appraises 21 different strategies for reducing road crashes and associated injuries and deaths, ranging from roundabouts and road maintenance, to vehicle automation and urban density. It’s a quick tour of the horizon, but serves as a useful and balanced framing for thinking about safety. In the end. Levinson regards the continued (and growing) death toll on roads as an indication that we lack resolve, more than we lack knowledge:

Like congestion and global warming, the road death toll can be significantly reduced, but there is little evidence that the United States, in particular, is collectively interested in solving it. While there are obviously advocates, they do not have the upper hand, otherwise deaths would not be rising in recent years off its 2014 lows.

2. America’s most vegan/vegetarian cities. A growing proportion of the American population is either reducing or eliminating meat in their diets. Going vegan is easier in some cities than others. WalletHub has compiled an array of data about the presence and cost of vegan and vegetarian options to create a ranked list of cities nationally. By their reckoning–which is based on a complex weighted formula involving 17 different variables ranging from the number of farmer’s markets to the proportion of restaurants with vegan options–Portland is the most vegan friendly city in the nation.  Here’s their list of the top 10:

Rank City Score
1 Portland, OR 66.55
2 Los Angeles, CA 62.72
3 Orlando, FL 59.74
4 Seattle, WA 57.86
5 Austin, TX 57.69
6 Atlanta, GA 57.52
7 New York, NY 57.3
8 San Francisco, CA 57.1
9 San Diego, CA 56.81
10 Tampa, FL 56.31

At the other end of the spectrum, among the 50 largest metro areas, Memphis, Tennessee has the lowest ranking for vegetarian options–apparently barbecue still dominates. There’s inherent subjectivity in choosing which weights to use for the ranking; if we ignore the affordability measures, for example, then San Francisco would edge out Portland as the #1 city for vegan and vegetarian living.

3. The biggest contributor to microplastic pollution of the oceans?  Car tires. There’s been something of a fetish lately to ban the use of plastic straws as a way to reduce the amount of plastic that ends up in ocean ecosystems. While straws and six-pack rings make for gut-wrenching photos of affected wildlife, the more serious and insidious threat may be microplastics–tiny beads of plastic that are washed into rivers and streams and end up in the oceans–and their sensitive ecosystems. A new study reported in the Los Angeles Times indicates that the vast bulk of these microplastics come from car tires. Every mile you drive, a small portion of the tire is worn away in the form of tiny particles, which rain then washes into the streams and rivers. The particles get distributed throughout the food chain, and are ultimately ingested by humans. The study suggests that the volume of microplastics from tires is an amount 300 times greater than what comes from microfibers washing off polyester clothes, microbeads from beauty products and the many other plastics washing down our sinks and sewers.

4. Hacking electronic road signs.  Just this, from @sugarpond on Twitter:

Apparently, if you don’t reset the default password, its relatively easy for anyone to reprogram the message on these electronic road signs. This particular warning deserves a broader audience.

New Knowledge

Household size is increasing for the first time more than a century and a half.  One of the most persistent trends in US housing, the steady decline in average household sizes, has reversed since 2010, according to Census data compiled the the Pew Research Center. In this decade, the average size of a household has blipped upward, from 2.58 persons per home to 2.63 persons per home.

For as long as anyone can remember, we’ve been building more housing faster than population has been increasing, and the combined effect of lower fertility, longer lifespans, and social preferences for living alone have pushed down the average number of persons living in a house or apartment. One of the ways to ameliorate the housing shortage is to fit more people into each dwelling unit.  This reversal of the historic downward trend in household sizes suggest thats starting to happen.


Buses, Bike Lanes, Crosswalks: Reclaiming public space

Renegotiating the right of way in public space

They erased the lines on 24th Avenue.  Just a few blocks from my house is NE 24th Avenue in Portland, a principal North-South route through the Irvington neighborhood.  For the decades I’ve lived here, there’s been a painted yellow double stripe down the middle of the road.  Some years ago, the city added traffic diverters at a few key intersections to force cars to slow down.  A few weeks ago, city traffic crews erased the lines in the middle of NE 24th Avenue.  Now there’s just a broad unmarked swath of black asphalt from curb to curb.

Where the center line ends: Portland’s NE 24th Avenue

What was once a road that was neatly divided into “mine” and “yours” is not an ambiguous negotiable terrain.  Where does my half end and your half begin?  You can’t be exactly sure.  So as a result, now, motorists (and other travelers in the roadway) will need to look out for one another and make allowances for the fact that the person traveling in the opposite direction may have their own ideas about where that dividing line is. Instead of being partitioned into space “owned” by persons traveling in one direction or another, the roadway is now more of a shared space.  Why do this?  Because in effect, it forces people using the roadway to pay more attention to one another, and in all likelihood to drive cars more slowly than they otherwise would.

Fundamentally, what’s happening here is a subtle but purposeful re-writing of the informal rules about how we use public space. While at City Observatory we’re big on the standard fare of national and state policies, investments and pricing, its worth thinking about just how much progress we could make with this kind of thoughtful redefinition of how we use public spaces; and roads are good place to start.

It might seem like rules of the road and customs are either too small or too immutable to make much difference.  But if you look around, you can see big differences:  For example, if you are a North American, and you’ve ever driven in Italy, traffic will at first seem chaotic and indecipherable. The lines when–there are any–seem to chiefly be advisory, if not simply decorative. Cars overtake with what seems to be reckless abandon on narrow curving roads.

But if you stick it out long enough and drive for many hours, you begin to understand that it isn’t that there are no “rules of the road” it’s just that the rules are different than they are in the US. In contrast to the US system, where the right of way is clearly spelled out, defined by lines and traffic signals and subject to enforcement (in California there’s a $234 penalty for crossing a double yellow line), in Italy, it’s much more about cooperation and responsibility. It’s more of a dance of accomodation, with cars sliding in and out, acknowledging others, and being acknowledged in return. The system relies more on mutual respect and accommodation than following legal rules.  And it works: even though far more people walk in Italy, and the roads are famously narrow and separate sidewalks are few, the pedestrian death rate per million is half that of the United States (9.4 per million in Italy, compared to 18 per million in the US.)

It’s a different set of socially constructed and observed rules about how we use public space, in the case, the roadway. We seldom give much thought to these informal rules and customs, but they are a consciously created and ultimately malleable set of practices that we can, and should, change to promote our collective interests.

It’s worth noting that the system that we have in the US today was intentionally re–written to favor the automobile about 100 years ago. We made up new rules of the road which privileged private motor vehicles over pedestrians and other road users.

One small example:  If you want to use a chunk of public space to store your vehicle–usually for free, but almost always at a price lower than its market value–go right ahead.  If you want to that same bit of curbside space on a specially designated “parking day” for public amusement and enjoyment:  fill out this form, subject to bureaucratic approval, and make sure that no part of the street-side portion of your use exceeds 3 feet in height (and restriction that doesn’t apply to car storage).  This is a system that unquestioningly privileges cars above people.

Today, we’re in the midst of a re-negotiation of how we use this part of the public realm

Cyclists, whose use of the roadway predates automobiles (at least in historical/technological terms) are seeking more access to this right of way. As any cyclists knows, there’s more variation among cars based on the attitude and behavior of drivers than is dictated by the variations in law or pavement markings.  Some drivers (often those who themselves are also cyclists) are attentive and respectful to cyclists and road users, while others are indifferent, and still others outright hostile–challenging the right of a person on a cycle to even be in the roadway at all.

Over time, we can modify the explicit rules of the road. For example, Oregon has recently adopted what is called the “Idaho Stop” law:  allowing cyclists to treat stop signs as a “yield” sign, rather than having to come to a complete (and energy-sapping) stop.  A similar change is in the offing with the “right turn on red” rule, which traffic engineers increasingly recognize poses an inherent danger to pedestrians.

While the law can shape these attitudes over time, the big challenge is the renegotiation of the social contract about the allowable and appropriate uses of these public spaces. Psychologists have established that we have subtle rules about who passes whom on the sidewalk, with pace, eye contact and posture signalling who will go where and who will give way. The rules are so ingrained that we’re unaware of them.

A renegotiation that’s long been underway between cycling and private car driving is now starting to come to bus riders. The disparity between the priority given to a busload of people or a group of cyclists compared to a single occupancy vehicle has long been noted in photos like these:

It’s well established that growing traffic, the combination of private single occupancy vehicles and the growing numbers of ride-hailed vehicles is slowing traffic, and especially cutting into bus speeds. In Manhattan, as we’ve noted, bus speeds have fallen 20 percent.  A new study from Philadelphia shows a similar pattern and that bus riders have been disproportionately affected.  Unlike cars, buses can’t re-route themselves dynamically to avoid congestion, and bus travel times in the peak hour in the center city are nearly twice as long as in free-flow conditions.

The results for the cost, efficiency, effectiveness and attractiveness of bus transit are devastating:  Slower buses cost more, because a driver and bus carry fewer passengers per hour; transit agencies have to pay more, and riders get worse service.  As bus speeds decline, transit becomes less attractive to riders.

It’s monumentally inequitable that our rules of the road are based on “every vehicle is equal.”  That system of value incentivizes and rewards those who choose to (and who can afford to own their own vehicle over those who choose to share rides with others (in carpools, to be sure, but especially in buses.  Those who can’t afford cars are at best second-class citizens, but in many respects are non-citizens–they can’t make any constructive, independent use of parking spaces or freeways.

The renegotiation that is at hand is giving more of the right of way to buses.  Experiments in Boston and other cities are showing that dedicating a larger portion of the right of way to buses–or giving buses preferential treatment at traffic lights and intersections, speeds bus service, both increasing its efficiency and improving ridership. Recent dedicated bus lane projects in Boston have shaved five to ten minutes off of travel times, and improved schedule reliability, and done so at very modest cost.  The newly opened 14th Street bus lanes in New York, which reallocate street space away from a relative handful of motorists to hundreds of bus riders, in the process saving untold person hours, and making public transit more efficient are another example.

As we’ve suggested, improving bus travel times is an inherently equitable strategy.  Bus riders tend to be disproportionately lower income, and many who live in households that don’t own cars simply don’t have other alternatives. Exclusive bus lanes re-allocate scarce public space from the few (solo car drivers) to the many (bus riders), and reward those who make more socially and environmentally responsible travel choices.

From an economic perspective, we thing there’s still a strong need to adjust the way we price transportation to reflect back to users the costs their choices impose on the transportation system, on others, and on the environment.  If we had a system of charging road users for the congestion their trips create for others, we’d have a much more efficient system. And we should definitely move ahead as rapidly as possible with road pricing. But travel is about more than just pricing transactions, it’s about improving the customs, behaviors and expectations that informally govern the use of public space. For too long, the automobile has enjoyed unquestioned primacy in the public realm. The impending advent of autonomous vehicles is creating a competing demand to give priority to them in public space. Much of what we have to do in the years ahead is generate a new social compact that governs the right of way.



City Observatory turns five

We observe our fifth birthday

On October 17, 2014, we launched City Observatory, with the aim of providing solid, data-driven research on cities, and offering a timely and informed voice on urban policy issues. Five years–and a thousand posts later–we want to reflect on the journey we’ve taken and those who’ve helped, and spend a few minutes highlighting the key issues that we think will occupy us in the days ahead.

A profound thank you to our friends, sponsors and partners

Many thanks to all those who’ve made this endeavor possible over these past four years. This project simply wouldn’t have been possible without the efforts of our contributors and co-authors–including Daniel Kay Hertz, Dillon Mahmoudi, Michael Andersen, Alex Baca and Patty Stubel.

We’re grateful to the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation for its founding support fo City Observatory.  Along the way we also got a helping hand from the the Quicken Loans Community Fund.

There’s been a great crew that helped create and build City Observatory, and we wanted to spend a moment to acknowledge their roles, and letting you know what they’re up to now:

Daniel Kay Hertz was a Senior Fellow at City Observatory, and is now Policy Director for the City of Chicago’s Department of Housing, and is also author of the acclaimed book, “The Battle of Lincoln Park.”

Dillon Mahmoudi served as City Observatory’s data analyst and GIS wizard.  He’s now an Assistant Professor of Geography and Environmental Systems at University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Alex Baca has contributed a series of provocative essays on gentrification to City Observatory, as well as serving as an editor and advisor.  When she isn’t writing for the Atlantic, Medium, Slate or any of host other publications, Alex is at her day job as housing organizer at Greater Greater Washington.

Michael Andersen helped edit City Observatory. He’s now a Senior Researcher at the Sightline Institute, where he’s regularly connecting the dots between transportation, housing and sustainability issues in the Pacific Northwest.

In the early days of the site, Patty Stubel did yeoman work, and was our Tableau guru. The team at OCD design created a critically acclaimed look and feel for our website. Leslie Carlson and Mike Westling, the marketing mavens at Brink Communication helped us get our message out to national and local media. Bridget Marquis has been an insightful advisor to all of our efforts.

Our occasional contributors, including Todd Swanstrom, Heywood Sanders, Naomi FastRobert Liberty, Ethan Seltzer, Mike Eliason, and Jason Segedy have enlivened City Observatory with keen observations from around the country.

None of this would have been possible without the support and encouragement of Carol Coletta.  City Observatory was her brain-child, and she’s continued to give us unerringly good advice.

It’s been an exciting time to be in the thick of national discussions about cities. If you’re a regular follower of City Observatory, you’ll be familiar with many of the key themes and lessons we’ve been emphasizing.

Much of what’s written about cities is pigeon-holed into narrow policy categories:  transportation, housing, economic development, equity, sustainability. But to us all of these seemingly unrelated issues are facets of a single underlying urban challenge. How do we build great cities for all?

Our shortage of cities

Our view is the the problems we face, from housing affordability, to traffic congestion, to poverty, and to staving off climate change all relate to our inability to build the kind of great urban places that people increasingly want to live in.  In an important sense, we are experiencing a shortage of cities–we have a huge demand for great urban living that is only partly being met. For example, what manifests as shortage of housing is fundamentally the imbalance between the kinds of places people want to live and where housing has been built.

The economic evidence for this thesis is strong.  Our “Dow of Cities” measurement emphasizes  there’s been an increasing demand for central urban locations, and a relative decline for peripheral suburban ones. Home prices in central, and especially in walkable urban neighborhoods has gone up because these places are highly valued, and because, in many cases, a combination of density limits, apartment bans, parking requirements and arbitrary, NIMBY-dominated approval processes have essentially made it illegal to build more of these kinds of neighborhoods.

The harbinger of this urban shift has been the locational preferences of young adults. We’ve shown that the “young and restless“–25 to 34 year olds with a four-year degree, are increasingly choosing to live in the close-in urban neighborhoods of the nation’s largest cities. We’ve spent a fair amount of time debunking popular accounts that we’ve somehow hit peak millennial (we haven’t), and that cities are losing young adults (they aren’t). But to the extent the flow of young people to cities has slowed, that’s mostly an indication that we’re bumping up against the limits of housing supply in urban areas. The remarkable trend of the past decade is that more people have moved to cities even as they have become relatively more expensive.

The growing desirability of cities has profoundly changed the rules of the economic development game. Corporate location decisions are increasingly dictated by the H.R. department:  which communities have strong concentrations of skilled young workers and are these places attractive to others we might recruit? The result has been an unprecedented resurgence in job growth in urban centers. It also turns out that the agglomeration benefits of cities, sketched out long ago by Jane Jacobs, and documented by a wave of recent economic studies, are powering national economic growth.

Embracing change

The shift back to cities hasn’t come without controversy. What’s been most evident, in the leading cities, has been the revival of many formerly struggling neighborhoods: new population growth, new housing and new businesses. One popular critique is to decry gentrification as displacing long time residents. But while these changes are striking where they occur, they are still rare.

Better understanding these process of change continues to be a principal interest of ours at City Observatory. Our own analyses have shown that gentrification is extraordinarily rare. Of the 1,100 high poverty neighborhoods in the US in 1970, more than 90 percent are still high poverty areas today, with fewer than a tenth seeing reductions in poverty rates to less than the national average. Far more common–but much less remarked upon–has been the steady decline of formerly healthy neighborhoods into places of concentrated poverty. The number of such neighborhoods has tripled in the past four decades.

Far more common, especially in areas outside the most successful metropolitan areas has been “displacement by decline” as Akron’s Jason Segedy has described. In most metropolitan areas the more common and less remarked upon pattern of change is the steady decline of “middle neighborhoods”–places that were once stable and middle class, but which are increasingly abandoned. Urban policy debates spend too much time worrying about a small problem that afflicts few places, and too little time thinking about how to overcome a far more pernicious and persistent one. And the alarm about gentrification often impedes opportunities to harness new investment happening in in cities.

The most common reaction to concerns about gentrification–simply trying to block all change–simply makes the problem worse. Blocking new housing development aggravates the shortage of housing in neighborhoods experiencing change, and guarantees that wealthier, newer residents will outbid lower income occupants for housing. To some, it’s a seeming paradox, but if you want to minimize displacement, you need to build as much housing as you can, of all types. New market rate housing, even for high income households, leads to less bidding by higher income households for existing housing, and seems to help hold down rental price increases. A compelling and extremely detailed “big data” study by the Upjohn Institute’s Evan Mast shows that new market rate housing sets off a chain of household moves that quickly produces housing availability in low and moderate income neighborhoods.

Our national challenge in the years ahead is to capitalize on the growing demand for urban living to create greater opportunity for all. For decades, economic opportunity and wealth were decentralizing, moving from the center to the suburbs, and leaving the poor and people of color cut off from upward mobility.  The movement back to the center creates a situation in which we can use new investment and added economic activity to revitalize urban neighborhoods, improve public services and increase opportunities for those who’ve often been left behind.

These first five years have been an exciting time for America’s cities. We look forward to tracking their progress in the years ahead.  Cheers!