What City Observatory did this week

1. Bending the carbon curve in the wrong direction. After years in which Americans were driving less, cheap gas is helping to push those numbers back up—erasing a full sixth of the progress we had made against transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions. Unfortunately, we can’t expect that this backsliding will entirely disappear if and when gas prices go back up, either, as Americans are buying less fuel-efficient cars that will continue to be on the road for years to come.

2. Pulling it all together. We write a lot at City Observatory—nearly a post every weekday. We thought the new year was a good opportunity to pull back and ask what all this adds up to—in other words, what have we learned? We put together an outline of our work under four big headings: The growing economic importance of city centers; The shortage of cities; The need to rethink transportation policy; and The challenge of segregation, integration, and neighborhood change.

3. Why can’t cheaply-built houses be an affordability solution in expensive cities? Noted urban skeptic Joel Kotkin and his colleagues at Chapman University recently released a report arguing that, because per-unit construction costs rise rapidly in buildings above four or five stories, the real route to affordable housing must be through smaller single-family homes. We rejoin that this would only be true if homes weren’t built on land. But where land is involved, it is also a cost—and it explains why low-cost single-family homes in very expensive cities are basically an impossibility.

4. The many faces of exclusionary zoning. A new study, which we flagged in last week’s The Week Observed, looks at the relationship between particular kinds of land use regulation and economic segregation. They confirm that there is a connection, though they raise some questions about exactly what the mechanism is for the exclusion of the poor: traditional low-density zoning or arduous approval processes. (We argue both are almost certainly at play.) They also confirm something like the “prisoner’s dilemma of local planning” issue: the more land use is locally controlled, and the less state-level involvement, the worse the segregation.

The week’s must reads

1. The Knight Foundation has announced the 158 finalists for its Knight Cities Challenge, a competition to fund ideas that “help Knight cities to attract and retain talent, expand economic opportunity, and create and strengthen a culture of civic engagement. The finalists include turning neighborhood free libraries into wifi hotspots, creating “urban glens” in vacant lots, and “permit corps”: connecting city residents with student navigators of city regulations and codes.

2. For all the talk of growing suburban poverty, urban centers are still much poorer than the metropolitan periphery. But for those people who do find themselves in car-dependent suburbs with very low incomes, the consequences are serious. The Washington Post has a piece on what it’s like trying simply to live, apply for jobs, and work in a place where the cost of participating in society is the thousands of dollars needed to buy a car, insure it, maintain it, and keep it fueled. It’s a reminder that transit and walkable communities aren’t just environmentally friendly and (often) more pleasant: they’re crucial for low-income people, people with disabilities, or the elderly, who can’t or don’t drive.

3. We don’t generally include stories in The Week Observed as examples of whatnot to do, but this was so egregious we’re making an exception. Wake County, North Carolina’s Triangle Business Journal covers a proposed bus rapid transit project in that region—and then declares that “It’s a system that only works if [planning director] Maloney and team can get executives out of their BMWs and into the bus terminals.” To do that, they need “shiny, newer” buses that “look and feel different from what they perceive [transit] to be right now.” Allow us to say: pish posh, and wrong on both counts. A transit system can be highly successful without necessarily attracting the very wealthiest people; and plenty of transit systems have attracted executives, not with fancier buses but with service that rivals cars for travel time and reliability. No one ever added an hour to their commute each way because the bus got shinier.

New knowledge

1. CityLab flags a new neighborhood change study from Elizabeth Delmelle at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Delmelle looks at LA and Chicago in 1970, assigning every Census tract to one of five neighborhood typologies, and then checking back again in 2010 to see whether, and how, they’ve changed. The results dovetail in many ways with our own work, including Lost in Place, in that the study finds that “struggling” areas were much more likely to remain low-income than to transition up in a way that might be considered gentrification.

2. It can be hard explaining to non-urbanists why adding more parking is a bad thing. But Eric Jaffe at CityLab reports on a new study that provides a very good answer: because it causes people to drive more to use up the available parking. Researchers from the State Smart Transportation Initiative and the University of Connecticut provide the strongest evidence yet that lots of parking and lots of driving aren’t just related—the relationship is actually causal. Take, for example, the two charts below: the first one shows how increased parking supply predicts increased driving; the second tries to see how increased driving predicts increased parking supply. As you can see, the first correlation is much stronger than the second.

3. A new poll from Time Magazine looks at the true size of the “gig economy.”They find that 45 million people, or about 22 percent of the working age US population, have offered some kind of “gig” service—from driving, to handyman fixes, to food delivery, and so on. These Americans are also disproportionately male, non-white, young, and urban. About a third of those 45 million people rely on gigs for over 40 percent of their income. Time points out that the implications of these findings aren’t totally clear: while workers in this sector may enjoy more independence or schedule flexibility, they also lack many of the protections and benefits of full-time workers.

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.

If you have ideas for making The Week Observed better, we’d love to hear them! Let us know at jcortright@cityobservatory.org, dkhertz@cityobservatory.org, or on Twitter at @cityobs.