What City Observatory did this week

1. Handicapping the city vs. suburb horse race. The latest round of Census population estimates for municipalities has led some observers to claim that city growth has faltered. We take a close look at these claims, and identify the critical weakness of using data for city boundaries to trace the demand for urban living. We also note that the data show that, even with these limitations, city growth continues to be substantially faster now than in the 1990s and the first decade of the millenium, with more than twice as many cities outpacing their suburbs now as compared to these earlier decades. And, as we always note, the key limit on city growth now is not a lack of demand, but a lack of housing supply in the dense, urban neighborhoods that command an increasingly large price premium. It’s not a demand for suburbs, it’s a shortage of cities.

2. Sisyphus meets Bob the builder. There’s irrefutable evidence of “induced demand”–that building more un-priced road capacity in urban settings simply stimulates more travel and ultimately greater traffic congestion. On the surface, you might think that this would be depressing news for the traffic engineering profession, engaged as they are in the labors of Sisyphus, pushing the rock up hill one day, only to have it come rolling down again. In reality, engineers are indifferent to induced demand: it actually turns out to be great job security, and congestion is a perpetually renewing rationale for asking the public for more money to build stuff. What we have is a bunch of childish “Bob the builder” types who really don’t care about reducing congestion, just about getting to operate heavy equipment, pour concrete and spread asphalt.

3.  Why integration matters. In just the past few years, a growing body of research has shown the high stakes associated with continuing racial and economic segregation in American cities. Study after study shows that those who live and grow up in segregated neighborhoods experience higher rates of crime and social disorder, have fewer educational and economic opportunities, and have their life chances permanently dimmed. We offer a review of some of the most salient studies from this literature, which taken together show the substantial advantages to be gained by promoting greater socioeconomic mixing.

Must read

1. Jason Segedy’s review of Allan Mallach’s “Divided Cities.” Akron’s planning director, Jason Segedy has high praise for Mallach’s new book, which looks at the challenges facing the American city through the lens of struggling rust-belt cities. The book (and review) emphasize a fundamental point: urban neighborhoods are always in a state of change, and if they’re not improving, it generally means that they are declining. Yet, especially in the Rust Belt, because urban revitalization is so striking (and rare), concerns about gentrification divert attention from the steady decline that affects most poor neighborhoods. As Segedy points out:

. . . the changes that are occurring in a handful of gentrifying neighborhoods in cities like Cleveland, Detroit, and Milwaukee, are on balance, good for these places, and also makes the point that these positive changes are dwarfed by the economic and social decline that is happening elsewhere in these cities.

2.  “Walk-Don’t Walk Signals are car infrastructure, not pedestrian infrastructure. Writing at The Conversation, David Levinson makes the case that traffic signals are strongly biased in favor of cars and against pedestrians. The needs of cars automatically prioritized: induction loops detect cars as they approach signals, while pedestrians have to walk up to “beg buttons,” and often wait a full cycle to get a “walk” sign.  As Levinson notes:

Pedestrians once crossed the street whenever and wherever they wanted. The introduction of signals prioritised the movement of motor vehicles at the expense of pedestrians, which slowed effective walking speed through the city. Pedestrians now spend roughly 20% of their time waiting at intersections. The consequences of making it easier to drive and harder to walk are consistent with the rise of vehicle-dominated cities.

3. You can’t fix public transit by destroying it. Jarrett Walker puts paid to the absurd suggestion published in an article in The Atlantic that New York can fix its subway problem by removing trains and tearing out tracks and replacing them with pavement for autonomous vehicles. There’s simply no way the numbers work: no system of small automated vehicles could ever match the capacity of subway trains, even those operated as badly as New York’s. This idea is so bad that it hardly merits the serious (and convincing) de-bunk from Walker, but it captures, in full-flower, the techno-dilettante perspective on disrupting transportation. Much of what’s going on, Walker argues, is “elite projection,” coupled with willful obliviousness to some pretty basic mathematics. 

4. Scooters aren’t a Scourge, so argues the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times. While there’s a wealth of alarmist, hand-wringing stories about scooters cluttering the urban streetscape, the Times editors have a more clear-eyed view: expanding the range of non-automobile travel choices in cities is the key to addressing many urban problems. There are some growing pains, to be sure, but clean, space-efficient and cheap on demand urban transportation options that don’t increase car traffic are worth exploring and refining. They tell city leaders to keep their eyes on the big picture:

More people using bikes and scooters means fewer car trips, less traffic and less pollution. Scooters are not a scourge; they’re a solution.”

New Ideas

Many Americans are rooted in place. A new survey published by the Federal Reserve has a number of interesting insights about American behavior. One finding caught our eye: A majority of Americans live near the place they attended High School. The study asked respondents to share the zip code of their current residence and of the place they completed high school.

According to the Fed study, moving long distances was correlated both with education and income; those who went further geographically, went further economically. As the study concludes:  “A major predictor of whether individuals move away from their hometown is their level of education. Three-fifths of adults with a bachelor’s degree live more than 10 miles away from where they grew up, versus two-fifths of those who have a high school degree or less.”

There are a lot of other survey insights into other issues, including community satisfaction, the reach of the opioid epidemic, whether workers have irregular work schedules, and the extent to which young adults depend on friends and families for financial support.

In the news

CityLab republished Joe Cortright’s analysis of recent city-suburb growth trends as “Are American’s fleeing cities for suburbs:  Not so fast.”