What City Observatory did this week

1.  City Beat:  We push back on a New York Times story claiming that people are decamping New York City on account of pandemic fears. You can always find an anecdote about someone leaving New York (or any city, for that matter) because people are always moving out of and moving in to cities. In New York’s case, there’s been a net inflow over the past decade, something that isn’t shown when looking at figures on domestic net migration (which leave out the key role that international immigrants play in gateway cities like New York. Plus, the premise of the story is wrong:  the prevalence of Covid-19 is higher in New York’s suburbs than in the city proper; in suburban Westchester and Rockland counties, cases per capita are 50 percent higher than in the city.

2. Thank you, Google! We’re all trying to get a better handle on the pandemic, and how it is affecting our communities and the economy. In an effort to provide a better picture of how our behavior had changed, Google tapped its vast trove of location data to see where we were spending our time.  They published “Community Mobility Reports”–global and local estimates of the change in time spent at home, at work and at common destinations.  While we appreciated the information, we and others, were disappointed that Google provided only a set of PDF files, rather than machine-readable data. To their credit, Google’s fixed that, and now makes CSV files with its estimates available.  As we noted, these are aggregated to a large enough geographic level (counties) that there’s no danger that any individual’s privacy is at risk.  Get the data.

Must read

1. Density and Covid:  The evidence from Chinese cities. There’s a widespread belief that density is somehow either a cause or principal contributor to the spread of the Covid virus. But a new study from the World Bank looks at the data on prevalence rates in Chinese cities and finds that density played little or no role in the pandemic.  Indeed, some of the densest cities, such as Shanghai, Shenzen, and Beijing have among the lowest rates of reported cases.  The authors conclude that statistically there is essentially no correlation between density and incidence of Covid.  They also note that density provides some significant advantages in supporting anti-pandemic strategies:

Higher densities, in some cases, can even be a blessing rather than a curse in fighting epidemics.  Due to economies of scale, cities often need to meet a certain threshold of population density to offer higher-grade facilities and services to their residents.  For instance, in dense urban areas where the coverage of high-speed internet and door-to-door delivery services are conveniently available at competitive prices, it is easier for residents to stay at home and avoid unnecessary contact with others.

2.  New York Times editorial on the essential cities.  The Times has a strong editorial reminding us in the midst of this national emergency, that now is not the time to walk away from cities, but rather to rededicate ourselves to making them the engines of widely shared opportunity. Its widely understood that the effects of the pandemic have fallen most heavily on the poor and people of color. In large part, that aspect of the virus reveals some critical shortcomings in urban America.  In “The Cities We Need,” the Times’ editors make a case that will be familiar to City Observatory readers:

Our cities are broken because affluent Americans have been segregating themselves from the poor, and our best hope for building a fairer, stronger nation is to break down those barriers.

Even in good times, the economic segregation of our large cities cuts many people off from the American dream, and intensifies many of our key national problems, from crime, to traffic, to environmental degradation.  In bad times, these fault lines are magnified. The editorial calls for a strong re-dedication to building truly integrated cities, where people of all backgrounds have the ability to live in any part of a metropolitan area. Perhaps the only area where we might part company with the editorial is on this claim, that there is just one way to reduce segregation:

There can be no equality of opportunity in the United States so long as poor children are segregated in poor neighborhoods. And there is only one viable solution: building affordable housing in affluent neighborhoods.

It’s true that opening up exclusive residential enclaves to affordable housing is one step, but another is recognizing that the movement of at least some higher income people into low income areas, which is often tarred with the brush of gentrification, also mostly has the effect of promoting greater racial as well as economic integration. While people should be free to move to other places, simply abandoning low income neighborhoods is not an option that will help many cities, and especially their remaining residents. In the end, though, its hard not to agree with their conclusion:

Reducing segregation requires affluent Americans to share, but not necessarily to sacrifice. Building more diverse neighborhoods, and disconnecting public institutions from private wealth, will ultimately enrich the lives of all Americans — and make the cities in which they live and work a model again for the world.

3. Business closures due to Covid-19. As everyone knows, Yelp is many consumer’s indispensable guide to shopping, dining and personal services. Yelp’s business listings are updated on a regular basis to accurately reflect opening hours, and as many businesses shut down (either due to a decline in consumers, or ultimately, stay-at-home orders, this showed up in Yelp’s data,  That’s all helpfully tabulated and shown in an animated map:

New Knowledge

People started staying-at-home well before stay at home orders. The Opportunity Insight’s team, led by Raj Chetty, have compiled an array of private sector data to track the our behavior during the Covid-19 pandemic.  They have an impressive user-friendly dashboard that lets you quickly find data on changes in sales, employment and traffic in states and metro areas, as well as showing key indicators of the Corona virus, such as reported cases and deaths.  And they have an important finding:  People started commuting less, eating out less, and staying at home more, well before local and state governments started issuing formal stay-at-home orders.
Raj Chetty, John N. Friedman, Nathaniel Hendren, Michael Stepner, and the Opportunity Insights Team, Real-Time Economics: A New Platform to Track the Impacts of COVID-19 on People, Businesses, and Communities Using Private Sector Data, May 2020

In the News

GreenBiz republished our analysis of what we can learn about transportation demand management from the Covid pandemic.