What City Observatory did this week

1.  The suburbs: where the rich ride transit.  In many cities, transit ridership is dominated by a transit dependent population:  people who can afford to own private cars don’t use the transit system.  But in some places transit is a mode of choice for higher income commuters. Daniel Kay Hertz mines Census data to identify and map high income neighborhoods where transit use rates exceed the regional average.

2. The Edifice Complex & Our Infrastructure Problems.  Joe Cortright looks at the political incentives that lead to the pursuit of mega-projects and their implications for transportation finance.  Around the country, leaders are dusting off the Robert Moses playbook for build now, pay later highway projects that shortchange other priorities, including transit and maintenance.

3.  A War of Words. Belt magazine editor Anne Trubek is tired of a number of words in the common vocabulary of urbanism, and has called for banning, among others “walkability, “livability” and “placemaking.”  Joe Cortright disagrees, and points out these terms have a powerful impact and can be illustrated and measured in ways that helps change the conversation about cities.

4.  The Dow of Cities. If there were a financial-market style indicator of the health of cities, it would be something very much like the ratio of city to suburban house prices that’s been constructed by Fitch, the investment rating firm.  Joe Cortright examines why the big run-up in city home values compared to the suburbs since 2000 is the most powerful evidence yet that the market is turning decisively to city centers.  The high and rising price of city centers clearly signals the “shortage of cities” that needs a new policy response.

The week’s must reads

1. Race Wealth Gap not solved by education–at least not when you’re late to the housing market and there’s an epic bust.  Monday’s New York Times describes the results of a new St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank study of wealth disparities among racial and ethnic groups.    Black and Hispanic college degree holders saw their wealth decline between 1992 and 2013, according to the study, while white and Asian college graduates saw increases.  A key factor seems to be the housing market, which accounts for a bigger share of wealth for Hispanics and blacks; these two groups also saw proportionately larger declines in their housing wealth.

2.  Housing Vouchers are the subject of two great posts.  At the Brookings Institution, Elizabeth Kneebone and Natalie Holmes look at the neighborhood patterns of housing voucher use.  They find that while voucher users tend to live in relatively poor neighborhoods, they are less likely than residents of public housing to live in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty.  The Urban Institute has constructed a terrific visualization of the distribution of housing vouchers by income level, and compares it to the distribution of benefits from the home mortgage interest and property tax deductions.  Voucher benefits go disproportionately to the lowest 15 percent of the income distribution, and have a measurable, if quite modest effect of ameliorating income inequality.

New knowledge

1.  In a study of migration patterns in the  UK published in Urban Studies, Lance Freeman and his colleagues find little  evidence that gentrification is associated with increased rates of out-migration from poor neighborhoods.  In our opinion, in describing this piece CityLab downplayed the import of this research:  they emphasized the difficulty of measuring gentrification and said that the new Freeman study provided “mixed” evidence.  What this study shows is that–as in other published research–there’s actually no data to support the commonly held belief that increased displacement is a regular occurrence in gentrifying neighborhoods.  Freeman and his co-authors conclude “The results presented here are for the most part inconsistent with the notion that gentrification leads to widespread direct displacement that manifests itself in higher mobility rates among residents of gentrifying neighborhoods.”

2.  A new study published by the journal Nature shows that an abundance of street trees has strong positive effects on measures of self-reported health and well-being. Survey evidence from Toronto indicates that having 10 more trees in a city block, on average, improves health perception in ways comparable to an increase in annual personal income of $10,000 and moving to a neighborhood with $10,000 higher median income or being 7 years younger.Bonus kudos to Nature for publishing the article under a Creative Commons license.

3.  The Census Bureau has released detailed geographic data for 2013 on the location of jobs and workers.  Its Local Employment and Housing Dynamics (LEHD) is available through its “On-the-Map” mapping application.