What City Observatory did this week

1. The Katy isn’t ready for its closeup. When the Texas Department of Transportation tried to sell the public on its Katy Freeway expansion project, part of the story was that it would ease congestion. We covered how that worked out last week. (Not well, is the answer.) Another part involved renderings of the final product. Amazingly, given that they’re depicting a 23-lane superhighway, there are almost as many people and trees in their renderings as cars. Using distorted images of major, disruptive infrastructure projects is a time-honored tradition—but one that ought to end.

2. About that “consensus” on zoning. Earlier this month, in the Washington Post, the economist Ilya Somin argued that we’re reaching a cross-ideological consensus that strict zoning is doing more harm than good in American cities by driving up housing prices and promoting sprawl. But look beyond the community of national policy wonks—by, say, going to a neighborhood development meeting—and it looks like there’s something like a consensus in the other direction. The political path forward on zoning reform is going to be more complicated than that, but we’ve got a few ideas.

3. Who’s really rent-burdened? In light of all the recent discussions of rising rents, we reprise a post from earlier this year, showing that by far the most commonly used metric of housing affordability—the 30 percent ratio of housing costs to income—misses a lot of other important factors. A big one is how much income a household has left over after paying housing costs for other necessities; others include the cost of transportation inherent a home’s location—less if it’s transit-accessible, more if it’s not. Getting a better handle on what affordability really means, and who is most affected, is crucial for moving towards solutions.

The week’s must reads

1. In almost every city in the country, new buildings are required to provide off-street parking—and lots of it. Those parking requirements end up encouraging sprawl by creating large surface parking lots, making homes and businesses more expensive thanks to costly-to-build garages, and subsidizing car ownership and driving. On top of that, most parking requirements are based on one-size-fits-all estimates of how much traffic a given building will generate—and those estimates are usually far too high. (See Strong Towns’ “Black Friday parking” campaign.) Fortunately, a growing number of cities are recognizing those issues, and are reducing, or even eliminating entirely, their requirements. Next City reports on a Strong Towns effort to track all those efforts across the country.

2. Good Jobs First, whose reports on economic development subsidies we’ve covered in The Week Observed before, has a new tool that allows you to look up business subsidies by company, subsidy value, level of government, and more. Previously, they’ve shown that many states give the vast majority of their general-purpose economic development subsidies—as much as 96 percent—to large companies, which they argue shortchanges smaller businesses that provide the most benefit to local communities.

3. A new lawsuit from a coalition of civil rights groups in Maryland argues that that state’s governor, Larry Hogan, violated the Civil Rights Act when he canceled a planned rail line in favor of more spending on roads and highways. As Emily Badger writes at the Washington Post, the group alleges that the move was a transfer of resources that will disproportionately harm black residents, who are more likely to rely on public transit. Transportation policy has a long history of being a focus in civil rights, from highway displacement to the Montgomery bus boycott, but this lawsuit aims to reinvigorate that connection at a time when civil rights issues in housing and policing are gaining a higher national profile.

New knowledge

1. We’re a little late on this, but Zillow’s November report has a glimmer of good news for the rental housing market: price increases are significantly slower than in 2014, possibly as a result of the steady increase in new apartments being completed. Interestingly, single family rents are growing faster than multifamily rents. Also notably, for-sale housing price growth is picking up steam.

2. What’s the connection between slavery and present-day economic inequality and innovation? A study from the Washington Center for Equitable Growth tackles this perhaps unexpected question, and argues that the particular kind of inequality fostered in many Southern states during and after the period of slavery has left an institutional legacy lasting to the present day. They write that slave societies developed fewer advanced educational institutions, focusing instead on low-cost, low-skill labor for economic development. In part as a result, they have under-developed institutions and business cultures for promoting innovation and knowledge-based industries. A key bit of evidence: patent rates in the 19th century were much lower in the South—and remain much lower today.

3. Who lives near rail? A new Census report looks at the Washington, DC area, andhow demographics near rapid transit stations have changed over the last several years. It finds that young adults and people with high levels of education are particularly likely to live near rail stations—yet another piece of evidence confirming the growing demand for urban, transit-accessible neighborhoods, especially among the “Young and Restless.” As long as neighborhoods with great transit remain in short supply, we can expect them to command premium prices that put them beyond the reach of many households.

The Week Observed is City Observatory’s weekly newsletter. Every Friday, we give you a quick review of the most important articles, blog posts, and scholarly research on American cities.

Our goal is to help you keep up with—and participate in—the ongoing debate about how to create prosperous, equitable, and livable cities, without having to wade through the hundreds of thousands of words produced on the subject every week by yourself.

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