What City Observatory did this week

1. The illegal city of Somerville. Just outside of Cambridge, Massachusetts, Somerville is one of the most sought after suburbs in the Boston area. It has a combination of attractive neighborhoods and dense housing, nearly all of it the legacy of the city’s 19th and early 20th century roots. But a recent analysis by city planners shows that current planning requirements and zoning restrictions (including height limits, building set-back requirements and similar regulations) would make it simply illegal to rebuild about 99 percent of the city’s current building stock. Just 22 extant residential buildings in a city of 80,000 fully comply with existing requirements. The mismatch between what people increasingly desire and what the law allows suggests some very deep-seated problems with our approach to zoning.

2. Reducing congestion: Katy didn’t. Houston’s Katy freeway is the nation’s (and possibly the world’s) largest, measuring 23 lanes wide. It was recently expanded with an eye to easing road congestion. But it turns out that even 23 lanes isn’t enough: travel times on major stretches of the freeway are even longer now than they were before it was widened. And here’s the kicker: highway advocates like the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) actually tout the Katy as a congestion-fighting success story.

3.  For whom the bridge tolls. Louisville is opening up a pair of new bridges across the Ohio River, and to pay for them, it has devised a novel tolling scheme. Unfortunately, the convoluted discount system that they’ve implemented creates some peculiar incentives, effectively paying drivers to take more trips. While road pricing ought to be a way to align private incentives with social goods, both helping to pay for transport infrastructure and encouraging people to use it wisely, this system does the opposite.

4. Our ten most popular posts of 2016. To wrap up the old year, we provide a top ten list of the City Observatory commentaries that generated the most interest in 2016.  We described how most American cities are burdened with a sprawl tax costing in the billions; we observed the inherent contradiction between our widely accepted policy goals that housing ought to be affordable and also provide terrific investment returns. We reflected on the deep urban planning lessons (and biases) built into “Sim City.”

Happy New Year

Our regular features–Must Read and New Research–will return next week.  Until then, we wish you a Happy New Year.