What City Observatory did this week

1. Last week’s big news was Brexit: the vote by the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. What does that have to do with urban policy on our side of the Atlantic? Well, it turns out that just as urban density predicts voting behavior in America, with denser neighborhoods strongly trending more liberal, the Brexit vote was also highly correlated with urban population patterns: the higher a district’s residential density, the higher the “Remain” vote.

2. A common knock on more compact metro areas is that the cost of living is higher—in particular, the cost of housing. But while it’s true that our policy-induced “shortage of cities” has led to higher housing prices than necessary in many sought-after urban communities, many analyses miss a big part of the cost-of-living picture: transportation costs. Using our own “sprawl tax” estimates of the extra time and money costs of longer commutes in more spread-out metropolitan areas, we show that places with higher housing costs tend also to have lower transportation costs.

3. We’ve previously argued that the difference in housing price growth in urban cores and suburban peripheries can act as a sort of “Dow of cities,” indicating shifting patterns of demand for different kinds of neighborhoods. Now we haveanother such indication that the demand for inner-city neighborhoods is increasing: new housing price data based on repeat-sales models by Zip code for cities across the country confirms that central city property values are growing faster than those on the periphery—especially in larger metro areas.

4. What are the next steps for the urbanist movement? At the “Act Urban” convening in Philadelphia last week, hosted by Gehl Institute, our own Joe Cortright spoke on three challenges for the civic commons moving forward: transitioning from “micro” to “macro” interventions in public spaces; understanding and responding to the market demand for space in urban centers, and its relationship to vibrant public spaces; and adopting metrics that can help drive policy around more than just vehicular traffic.

The week’s must reads

1. Two interesting pieces of Uber news this week: First, Bloomberg‘s Justin Fox looks at the ease with which Uber competitors are challenging the ride-hailing company’s dominance abroad, and notes that the idiosyncratic, city-by-city markets for its services leaves it vulnerable to competition in ways that other companies that depend on network effects to dominate their sectors aren’t. Meanwhile, Uber announced that it would be launching a trial monthly subscription service for just $2 per ride in Boston—an almost public transit-like service package.

2. The Chicago Sun-Times covers the results of perhaps the country’s greatest experiment in public housing reform, the Chicago Housing Authority’s Plan for Transformation. While the teardown of midcentury public housing towers have broken up some of the intentionally concentrated pockets of poverty, providing former residents with vouchers that gives them more of a choice of neighborhoods has not yet to as much desegregation as some proponents originally imagined.

3. Google’s Sidewalk Labs is attempting to leverage the technology company’s tools to improve urban life. The Guardian unearthed some of the documents developed for Columbus’ “Smart City” proposal that include a role for Google technology in transit, parking, and related payments, raising suspicions about the company’s objectives. At CityLab, Laura Bliss countered that there’s nothing nefarious in Google’s approach. In a column at Fast Company, the Labs’ CEO Daniel Doctoroffsheds some light on what they think of as their major problems to solve: understanding travel demand; managing parking supply; supplementing traditional fixed-route transit with ride-hailing services; and more. While many of these ideas hold some promise, we hope that all sides moving forward will keep in mind some of the pitfalls of treating cities simply as engines to be optimized—and that broader social or political questions are sometimes as or more important than technological innovations.

New knowledge

1. At the Washington Post, Emily Badger reviews even more research on the growing demand for inner-city living, but the results are more nuanced than you might think. While there has been a clear pattern of people with greater means moving to city center over the last few decades, these centers remain, on average, populated by people of lower socioeconomic status than residents of outlying suburbs. Badger also digs into the urban demographics of the 1880s to suggest some of the inherent advantages of more central living that may explain some of today’s shifting preferences.

2. There’s a treasure trove of gentrification-related research from this research symposium held by the Philadelphia Federal Reserve (mentioned in the Post story), ranging from whether falling crime triggers more in-moving of higher-income households (it appears so) to the effect of gentrification on small businesses (on average, there is no evidence of “business displacement,” though effects may vary by neighborhood). If you work on gentrification-related issues, this would be a good page to bookmark.

3. New York City has released new data on the performance of their “Select Bus Service” lines, which are given a basket of improvements designed to improve speed and reliability at a relatively low cost. On the Nostrand SBS in Brooklyn, travel times have fallen 15 to 31 percent. A breakdown of the improvement shows significant gains from bus-only lanes, with the amount of time spent stuck in traffic declining by 40 percent—but even bigger gains from “proof of purchase” fare payment, which allows buses to avoid long lines of people paying when the bus arrives by installing prepayment kiosks at stations.

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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