What City Observatory did this week

1. Another round on the Washington Post‘s housing roundtable. On Friday, we took part in a roundtable at the Washington Post‘s Wonkblog on what it would take to solve the housing affordability crises in places like San Francisco. On Monday, we followed up on some of the ideas of our fellow roundtablers, highlighting the surprising number of agreements before narrowing in on the biggest dispute: what is the role of market-rate housing construction, especially high-end construction? We argue that the role of housing filtering—of high-end construction taking pressure off of low-price housing—is a key and underappreciated part of the affordability picture.

2. Undercounting the transit constituency. The most common way we talk about how many people use public transit—or biking or walking—is “commute mode share,” or the percentage of commuters who take a particular form of transportation to work. But more than four out of five trips aren’t commutes—not just for workers who also have to pick up their kids from school and go grocery shopping, but for students, retirees, and other non-workers whose lives don’t include any commutes at all. Those are people who are disproportionately likely to use transit, and so commute mode share will tend to overstate a place’s car reliance. In the Philadelphia metro area, for example, only about 10 percent of people commute to work on transit—but 21 percent of households use it to get to school or work, and 42 percent of households use transit for some purpose.

3. What I learned playing SimCity. The education of a City Observatory writer included lots and lots of SimCity. But a return to city-building video games also revealed a whole host of built-in assumptions about how cities and urban planning work: from mandatory US-style zoning to the invisibility of parking and the total absence of neighborhoods and politics. It turns out there’s a lot you can learn about modern urban planning’s blind spots and biases from a game.

4. Designed to fail. A recent New York Times article covered the work of a design team hired by Ford to reimagine the future of urban transportation. But they missed an insight that, ironically, they had already acted on: although the designers tested Chicago’s transportation system by going to a restaurant four miles away, their downtown offices were located within a quick walk of dozens of restaurants. The design of neighborhoods matters just as much as the details of its public transit or a ride-hailing app when it comes to connecting people to the amenities and resources that they need.

The week’s must reads

1. The National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices has one of the most snooze-inducing names imaginable—but that doesn’t mean it’s not important, as it helps set guidelines for what streets look like from coast to coast. And asStreetsblog USA reports, NCUCTCD is responding to changes on the ground, like green paint for bike lanes and innovative, multimodal-friendly traffic signals, by adopting national standards that will help spread those progressive changes to other cities, and encourage local leaders to embrace consistency from place to place.

2. Marisa Novara at Chicago’s Metropolitan Planning Council writes about the challenges of housing policy in a city where some neighborhoods are heating up, but overall population isn’t increasing—a situation that many cities in the Midwest and Northeast find themselves in. She makes the important point that on-the-ground changes people see in their neighborhoods, like rising home prices, need to be thought of as the outcomes of many different interacting factors, including changing demand, transportation networks, and housing supply—rather than as acause by themselves. Novara also points out that while below-market subsidized housing is important, no realistic amount of funding will produce enough for that to be a solution on its own: market prices also need to be kept under control.

3. As the presidential primaries heat up, Gabrielle Gurley at The American Prospect takes a look at the infrastructure plans of the Democratic candidates, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. The topline numbers: Clinton proposes $275 billion over five years (compared to Obama’s $500 billion proposal in 2015), while Sanders goes for $1 trillion. But neither of those figures seems likely to get by Congress. Both candidates also includes a national infrastructure bank (which we’ve been skeptical of). Gurley ultimately concludes that there’s little to be excited about.

New knowledge

1. How affordable is affordable housing? Affordability is a function not just of rents, but of the embedded costs of transportation attributable to a house’s location. As reported by the Dallas Morning News, a new study by Shima Hamidi of the University of Texas – Arlington and Reid Ewing of the University of Utah shows that by failing to take into account transportation costs, the total location costs of HUD-funded affordable housing are beyond what low-income households can afford. In particular, homes in sprawling areas are likely to require transportation spending that is more than 15 percent of total household income, the threshold above which transportation costs are considered “unaffordable.”

2. CityLab‘s Eric Jaffe has an excellent writeup of a paper looking at why, exactly, American cities have seen an influx of young, highly educated people since 2000. The study, by Victor Couture of UC – Berkeley and Jessie Handbury of the University of Pennsylvania, tests various hypotheses about the location-choice decisions of college graduates between 25 and 44. They find that a desire to be close to sought-after amenities, like restaurants, bars, gyms, and retail stores, provides the strongest explanation. Interestingly, proximity to jobs was a relatively minor factor, as people with jobs in the suburbs were not much less likely to choose a downtown home than those with center city jobs.

3. A new report from SSTI tracks venture capital funding by metropolitan area for 2015. The topline findings shouldn’t be surprising: the San Francisco area got the most funding, with $21 billion, or about $4,500 per person; the San Jose region was next, with $3,200 in VC funding per resident. Columbus, Ohio and Tampa, Florida posted the most rapid growth, with total VC funding increasing by over 80 percent.

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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