What City Observatory did this week

1. Anti-social capital. You’re probably familiar with the term “social capital” which Robert Putnam popularized with his book Bowling Alone. In it Putnam devised a series of indicators that show the extent to which we associate with and trust one another, ranging from membership in clubs and civic organizations to regularly hosting our neighbors for dinner. We’ve taken the opposite tack and developed measure of anti-social capital, the number of security guards per capita in each of the nation’s large metro areas. The more people we pay to watch each other and our our stuff, the less trust we have in our communities. See where your city rates on this metric.

2. Are young adults moving less? Data presented by the Pew Research Center shows a significant reduction in migration by 25 to 35 year olds over the past two decades. But these results aren’t borne out by other survey data, which show that young adult migration rates actually went up during the housing bubble and then returned to pre-bubble levels in the past few years. These conflicting data mean the case for lower migration is less clear than it first appears.

3. Postcard from Louisville: Tolls Trump Traffic. We’ve been following the opening of the new tolled I-65 river crossing in Louisville. Indiana and Kentucky spent more than a billion dollars to widen the crossing to twelve lanes to reduce congestion, and the early traffic data show that they’ve succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams: vehicle counts have fallen by almost half, to just 66,000 cars per day. The new bridges are mostly empty, even at rush hour. Which raises the question: Why did they need to expand the bridges when simply tolling them would eliminate the congestion problem?

4. Let’s not demonize driving, just stop subsidizing it. A lot of the rhetoric about the problems with cars takes a pretty high moral tone. But in our view, the problem is not that cars (or the people who drive them) are evil, but that we use them too much, and in dangerous ways. And that’s because we’ve put in place incentives and infrastructure that encourage, or even require, us to do so. When we subsidize roads, socialize the costs of pollution, crashes and parking, and even legally require that our communities be built in ways that make it impossible to live without a car, we send people strong signals to buy and own cars and to drive—a lot. As a result, we drive too much, and frequently at unsafe speeds given the urban environment.

Must read

1. Rents are heading for a fall in Germany. Writing at CityLab, Feargus O’Sullivan tells of a new report looking at the housing market in leading German cities. The national landlords association is predicting a decline in rents in the year’s ahead. The City Lab story buries the lede in the fifth paragraph: the reason that the association is forecasting rent decreases is because of a big increase in supply (3000,000 new apartments and houses coming on line) coupled with weaker than expected immigration. While it takes time for supply to catch up with demand, when it does, there’s evidence that rent inflation eases.

Nikolaiviertel, Berlin (Flickr: oh_berlin).

2. More people are dying on the roads. The New York Times and other national news outlets report the grim news that for the second straight year the death toll from traffic crashes has increased. Last year, 40,200 Americans died on the roads, a six percent increase from 2015. While the article points to an improving economy, speeding and distracted driving at causes, At City Observatory, we’ve emphasized that much of the increase in deaths is related to the greater amount of driving associated with cheaper gas (since prices declined in 2014), and that there’s strong evidence that the added driving induced by cheaper gas is by riskier drivers traveling at more dangerous times.

3. Why declining migration may be good news. A recently published paper on interstate migration by Federal Reserve economists has a provocative theory as to why the rate at which Americans move across state boundaries has declined over the past several decades. Its a long and technical paper, but Lyman Stone has a lively and readable analysis. A key factor: as state economies have become more similar over time, there’s little need for people looking for jobs a in particular industry or occupation to move very far to find them. While we used to have big regional variations in wage levels and job opportunities, those differences are more muted now, and so people are less likely to have to move for career reasons.

New Research

1.  Keeping up with the Joneses is making homes bigger and driving up debt. American homes have become increasingly large as American families have gotten smaller. And the amount of debt we’ve collectively shouldered to pay for houses has increased as well. A new study from Clement Bellet of the London-based Centre for Economic Performance shows that a major part of the reason for these increases may be that we’re constantly trying to have houses as large as our neighbors. Using data from Zillow and the American Housing Survey, the authors find that suburban homeowners were are less happy with their homes if they live in a county where the new homes built since they purchased their home are much larger. These homeowners who experienced a relative “downscaling” because large homes were built nearby then disproportionately tended to expand their houses or move to new and larger homes–taking on more debt to finance larger houses. Bellet estimates that the US housing debt to income ratio would have been about 25 percentage points lower in 2008 absent this “keeping up with the Joneses” behavior.

2. Arts and Gentrification. One of the most durable creation myths about gentrification is story of how starving artists colonize once-poor neighborhoods, in the process making them attractive to others and triggering a wholesale transformation. A new paper published in Urban Studies “Gentrification, displacement and the arts: Untangling the relationship between arts industries and place change,” tries to test this theory looking at the concentration of arts related industries (think galleries and museums) and commercial arts  (like film, music and design firms) and subsequent gentrification. The study relies on the Census Bureau’s Zip Code Business patterns data, which only capture the location of firms with paid employees; so they don’t necessarily reflect the residential locations of artists, or the work-places of self-employed artists. The study finds only relatively weak associates between the arts businesses and gentrification; if anything gentrification (measured by rising income levels and home prices) seems to precede the growth of arts businesses. But these data may simply be confirming that larger scale arts activity (like galleries) come later in the gentrification process,.