What City Observatory did this week

1. What super-commuters really mean.  Media coverage of super-commuters–people who travel more than 90 minutes each way to and from work–is invariably sympathetic, treating these folks as hapless victims, and lamenting the congestion on the highway system. But despite all the attention they get, these long-distance commuters are remarkably rare: fewer than 3 percent of US commuters qualify, and while car-commuting is often the focus of media attention, transit riders are far more likely to have super-long commutes.

It’s also important to recognize that super-commuting isn’t so much about the inadequacy of the transportation system as it is an indication that we’ve simply failed to build enough housing, and in particular a range of affordable housing choices close to urban job centers. Finally, for some workers, a long commute represents “sweat equity” to enable them to afford more space by working several additional hours a week traveling to and from their jobs.

2.  Portland’s climate fail.  Portland has long prided itself in being one of the first cities in the US to adopt a legislated goal of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions. The city’s latest carbon emission inventory report shows that the city is failing to meet these goals. Not is the city far from the glide slope needed to reach its target, carbon emissions are actually increasing–primarily due to more driving.  Transportation is now the largest source of Portland’s greenhouse gas emissions, and have risen more than 6 percent in the past year–mostly offsetting gains in other sectors.

The city’s climate report seems to be in denial about the causes and the seriousness of the rise in transportation emissions.  The report fails to mention that all of the increase in transportation emissions came after 2014–when gas prices fell by more than a third, prompting more driving.  On Friday, along with other cities, young Portlanders will participate in a national climate strike–this report shows that their concerns are justified, and that the city needs to do much more if it is to achieve its lofty goals.

Must read

Why electric cars are not enough. Smart Growth America hosted a Tweet Chat on Wednesday September 18 to discuss the limits of vehicle electrification as a solution to the growing problem of carbon emissions from transportation. SGA argues that while electric vehicles are a necessary step in the right direction, they’re hardly sufficient to blunt the continuing increase in transportation related greenhouse gas emissions. We need changes to state and federal policies that will lead to less driving if we’re going to reduce carbon pollution. The key message: responding to climate change is about making fundamental changes to land use to shorten and eliminate trips, and to make walking, cycling and transit viable alternatives for more of our daily travel.

Bike lanes are good for business.  Eric Jaffe thumbnails a new study looking at the results of swapping bike lanes for parking spaces in Toronto. It’s widely assumed by merchants that less parking will mean lower sales, but that’s not what this research shows. In 2016, the City of Toronto added a bike lane on a 1.5 mile stretch of Bloor Street, and in the process removed 136 parking spaces. Researchers surveyed shoppers and merchants on the street before and after installation of the bike lane to track changes, and to find out out often they shopped, how much they spent and whether stores were opening or closing; researchers also surveyed a nearby street that didn’t get the bike lane treatment, as a control group. In general, the study showed positive results:  customers reported more frequent visits to Bloor Street shops, and higher rates of spending, with the spending strongly associated with more spending by bike-riding shoppers. While not definitive–and while there were some mixed results, the study is suggestive that converting on-street parking to bike lanes is a benefit to local business districts.

New Knowledge

Clustering of invention. Being around other smart people makes you smarter–that’s the genius of cities, as Ed Glaeser argues. University of California economist Enrico Moretti has statistical evidence for this effect on his latest paper looking at the productivity of inventors. Using data on patent activity, Moretti is able to measure the output of inventors based on their location, and their proximity to other inventors.

Using a number of different tests, Moretti finds that controlling for other observable aspects of an inventors productivity (such as their industry), that inventors are more prolific when they are near concentrations of other inventors in related fields. A key finding of this work is that the US is more innovative because it concentrates inventors in a few locations–if they were more widely spread out, they’d be less productive.  While a more even distribution of inventors would lead smaller places to be more productive, it would lead larger places to be less productive, and the magnitude of the declines in larger clusters would more than offset the gains in smaller ones.  As a result, Moretti concludes that de-concentrating talent away from clusters and making it more geographically–as in the so-called “Rise of the Rest”–would likely decrease total US invention output:

The total number of patents created in the US in Computer Science would be 13.18% lower in 2007 if computer scientists were uniformly distributed across cities. The corresponding losses in biology and chemistry, semiconductors, other engineering, and other sciences would be -9.92%, -14.68%, -7.62%, and -9.64%, respectively. The change in the total number of patents in the US would be -11.07%. Thus while the spatial clustering of high-tech industries may exacerbate earning inequality across US communities, it is also important for overall production of innovation in the US.

Enrico Moretti, The effect of high-tech clusters on the productivity of top inventors.  NBER Working Paper No. 26270.  September 2019

In the news

Next City quotes Daniel Kay Hertz’s essay pointing out the inherent contradiction promoting homeownership as a wealth-building strategy and our desire to improve housing affordability.