What City Observatory did this week

1. The limits of design thinking. Really good design can frequently improve the utility and performance of everyday objects, and there’s little question that the attentiveness to software design and user experience has made smart phones indispensable adjuncts to our lifestyle. But while design thinking can improve many things, not all problems are susceptible to solution by design tinkering. For example, Ford hired design firm Ideo to reconceptualize the transport experience, leading them to do a side-by-side test of ride-hailing, transit and bike-share, to better understand user experience en route. What that misses is the way the density and layout of the urban environment determines how many trips we have to take, and what our options are. Too narrow a focus on optimizing the experience of getting from A to B often blinds to the importance of making sure that the As and Bs in our world are laid out in a way that minimizes the need to travel.

2. Why road pricing is inherently fair: It makes buses run faster. One of the most widespread myths in transportation policy is that pricing roads is harmful to the poor.  That argument ignores the fact that high income households are far more likely to be peak hour car drivers who might pay a toll, but more importantly, road pricing is the one fast-acting, sure fire way we have to make buses run faster–which disproportionately benefits low income riders.  The latest evidence for this come from Atlanta, where the implementation of priced lanes on Interstate 75 is enabling the state to shave 15 minutes off the scheduled travel time of buses. That has the added benefit of making bus travel more attractive and cheaper to deliver (a driver can carry more passengers per hour worked), potentially enabling transit dollars to provide more service.

Must read

1. Noah Smith on gentrification: Yes, some black neighborhoods in most US metro areas are seeing new white neighbors, as reported in the New York Times last month, while the reverse of the much noted white flight of previous decades, it’s still a tiny trickle.  And strikingly as Bloomberg’s Noah Smith reports, its not causing places to “tip” into majority white neighborhoods–neighborhoods that become more diverse tend to stay more diverse. Concentrated poverty is a much larger, and more pernicious problem than gentrification, yet as Smith argues:

This is dangerous, because excessive worry about the potential harms from gentrification might cause some policy makers to discourage investment in poor minority communities, out of fear of displacement. But discouraging that investment would cause many more problems than it would prevent.

2. The Frog Ferry Fantasy.  There’s a glib and glitzy proposal to initiate a ferry service between Vancouver Washington and Portland Oregon. The main roadways between the two cities are frequently congested at the rush hour, and the hope is that ferry boats can avoid crowded highways. Human Transit’s Jarrett Walker painstakingly describes the needed ingredients for successful urban ferry service: population and job density at ferry terminals, short, direct water routes, limited competition, and great interconnections with existing transit service. The proposed “Frog Ferry” would ply a circuitous 13-mile route along the Columbia and Willamette Rivers, would take as long, or longer than current car trips, and have terminals distant from population and job concentrations and weak transit connections. (At 5.30 pm, this past Monday, Google Maps reported a car trip would take about 40 minutes, and transit less than 50 to travel between Portland’s waterfront park and downtown Vancouver; the Frog Ferry would need to make an improbable 20 knots or more just to equal that travel time dock-to-dock).  A careful reading of Walker’s analysis could save the City of Portland $200,000 the Mayor’s budget has proposed to chip in for a feasibility study.

3. The Highway Trust Fund is going broke even faster than we thought.  The Congressional Budget Office released new financial projections for the next decade, and now forecasts that the Highway Trust Fund will have a deficit of about 176 billion by Fiscal Year 2029.  The Eno Foundation’s Jeff Davis has a detailed examination of the forecasts. Overall, it is it clear that the claim that roads are paid for by users is a fiction–the Highway Trust Fund has been bailed out by more than $100 billion in the past, and looks on path to continue to need similar infusions into the indefinite future.  And of course, this is just the direct cost of building and maintaining roads, to say nothing of the prodigious external costs they create in injuries and deaths, pollution traffic congestion and the destruction of urban space.

4. Induced demand, yet another chapter. In Los Angeles, the state Department of Transportation spent five years and a billion dollars to add an additional travel lane to I-405 over the Sepulveda Pass, in yet another vain attempt to reduce traffic congestion by increasing freeway capacity. Just as with every other urban freeway expansion, it failed. Travel times on the wider I-405 are now even longer than they were before the project was built–the only thing that has increased is vehicle miles traveled and carbon emissions.  Curbed Los Angeles reports:

For four years, from 2015 to 2019, Inrix measured the length of commutes along the widened stretch of the 405 during a four-week period between January and February. In that time, average commutes in both the north and southbound directions worsened or stayed the same during all hours of the day. Average vehicle speeds also dropped or stayed the same during both peak- and non-peak-hour periods

New Knowledge

A Rosetta Stone for gentrification studies.  Rachel Bogardus Drew of Enterprise Community Partners has delivered a major boon to everyone who studies or tries to understand neighborhood change. While there are a host of studies of gentrification, and various statistical schemes for discerning which census tracts have gentrified, based on a look at changes in incomes, home prices, education levels and racial/ethnic composition, each author (it seems) has chosen their own data sources, time periods and–critically–definitions, to classify places as gentrifying or not.  Another frustration of many (though not all) such studies is that while they present their summary metro or national level conclusions, it’s hard to discern whether any particular neighborhood is classified as “gentrifying” or not.  The Babel surrounding gentrification makes it difficult to interpret the findings of individual studies, and almost impossible to sort out the varying claims made by different studies.

What Drew has done is take three major published studies on gentrification (one from Columbia’s Lance Freeman, a second from Ingrid Gould Ellen of NYU and a third from McKinnish, Walsh and White, and using a common data set (one stretching from 1970 through 2010) to show how the different schemes classify city neighborhoods. Drew’s on-line comparison tool lets you select a metropolitan area, and see, side-by-side, how each of the three different definitions classify city census tracts, whether they’re eligible to gentrify (this definition varies by author, too) and whether in fact, they gentrified in a particular neighborhood.  A table integrated into the tool tells you how much agreement or overlap there is in the three definitions for the city and time period you’ve chosen.  In the graphic below, the darker colored tracts represented Washington DC neighborhoods that gentrified, according to each author, between 2000 and 2010; while lighter colored tracs are the areas “eligible” to gentrify.  It’s apparent that each definition produces a different set of places subject to gentrification.

There’s little doubt that the term gentrification is one of the most fractious and elastic terms in the social science.  A lack of clarity about how it is defined has contaminated the policy debate for decades.  Drew’s comparison tool is a terrific first step in sorting out the various assumptions, theories and claims that are often concealed by the technical workings of many academic studies.  As Drew takes pains to point out, her work doesn’t resolve the question of what constitutes the “right” definition of gentrification (good luck with that, everyone), but instead brings a degree of clarity to the debate that simply hasn’t existed before.  This is a genuinely useful bit of statistical work:  Going forward, anyone who offers up their own definition of gentrification and a statistical analysis of the phenomenon ought to figure out how to add their data and rubrics to this comparison tool.  Famously, the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, with its parallel translations in Greek, Demotic and Hieroglyphics was a key to deciphering previously opaque Egyptian symbol-writing.  Maybe this will serve the same purpose for gentrification research.

In the News

Archinect News summarized City Observatory’s commentary on all the things we blame for causing gentrification in an article entitled: “ABC’s of Gentrification.”

Correction:  The original version of this note incorrectly identified Rachel Bogardus Drew–our apologies for this error.