What City Observatory did this week

1. How safe will the autonomous cars of the future be? The first-ever fatal collision involving a Tesla running on autopilot mode has prompted a debate on that subject. On the one hand, hand-wringing over an uncertain threat may seem somewhat out of place given the normalization of the over 30,000 real people who die on the roads every year in America. On the other, assurances that self-driving cars will surely be a massive improvement are so far still just theoretical: Until this new technology has logged far more miles, on far more types of roadways—and especially urban streets with lots of intersections, crosswalks, jaywalking, and potential obstacles—we shouldn’t take for granted that it offers a solution to the problem of road safety.

2. The elevator pitch for “value capture” makes a lot of sense: Public transit creates value, so why shouldn’t some of that value be funneled back into transit agencies to pay for expansion and maintenance? But as Chicago has landed on the verge of creating one of the largest value capture programs in US history, there are also reasons for pause. Politically, value capture is more fragile than funding campaigns that require building a coalition explicitly in favor of using tax revenue for funding, like LA’s Measure R; logistically, value capture seems to benefit capital construction more than ongoing operations, which in many cases are the more crucial aspect for valuable transit service.

3. What is the future of urban transportation? For many, especially those in the tech community, the answer is autonomous vehicles. But one such advocate wrote in the Wall Street Journal that autonomous vehicles won’t operate at their peak efficiency without serious public policy concessions, including designating certain streets off-limits to all other types of vehicles. This inadvertently reveals what much discussion of the inevitability of self-driving cars elides, which is that public regulation fundamentally shapes evolution and adoption of technology as well as the choices that private individuals make about their transportation. We should not be suckered into the idea that an optimal future transportation system will simply emerge from the private marketplace.

4. In Westchester County, just north of New York City, the results of a seven-year of litigation over fair housing are getting mixed reviews from activists. The Justice Department accused local governments of using various policies, including low-density single-family zoning, to promote racial segregation, but the county government has been openly critical of the case and resistant to some of its recommendations. Evaluating this legal strategy versus state-based legislative tactics—like Oregon requiring minimum amounts of multi-family housing zoning, or Massachusetts allowing developers to sue to overturn low-density zoning in particularly unaffordable municipalities—is important for the future of anti-segregation work.

The week’s must reads

1. In the New Yorker, Kelefa Sanneh reviews a new book about “ghetto” segregation as a lens on current debates about gentrification. Connecting the long history of segregation in America to the relatively shorter history of integration as “gentrification” complicates a lot of the questions about what kind of demographics would hold in a “just” neighborhood. Sanneh also refers to some of the academic literature by writers like Lance Freeman who find that residents of gentrifying neighborhoods often have more conflicted feelings about the process than sometimes assumed. One of the main effects of gentrification, Sanneh concludes, may be that by bring different groups in into closer contact, gentrification makes it harder to ignore inequalities that have been around for a long time.

2. What happens to neighborhoods with housing built for families as their residents age? That’s a challenge investigated by South Carolina’s The Herald, which notes that the proportion of suburban residents 65 and older has doubled since 1950. The problems are numerous, including housing stock dominated by multi-story single-family homes difficult or expensive to retrofit for people with difficulty climbing stairs, and bad public transit access that means limited mobility for people who can’t drive.

3. Interpreting ongoing academic research for a non-academic audience poses serious challenges. In a Twitter essay, FiveThirtyEight’s Ben Casselman reflects on some of those challenges—and on potential best practices—in the wake of an article in the New York Times that highlighted a working paper on police shootings that some argued was less definitive than the Times’ reporting suggested. One takeaway: To the extent possible, it’s better to summarize the entire body of literature on a subject than to present a single paper without that context.

New knowledge

1. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has released a new “Chart Book” on the effects of rental assistance programs. The treasure trove of data includes who gets rental assistance (mostly adults with children and the elderly), their effect on homelessness (assistance reduces it), food insecurity (also reduced), and even domestic violence (also reduced). It also shows that when families use rental assistance to live in low-poverty neighborhoods, the benefits are even greater.

2. A new study by Neil Metz and Mariya Burdina of the University of Central Oklahoma suggests that increasing income inequality between adjacent neighborhoods is associated with higher rates of property crime. Importantly, however, increasing levels of income inequality within a neighborhood do not predict higher rates of property crime. At least at first glance, this is evidence thatspatial inequality—that is, income segregation—is associated with greater crime levels.

3. The Transit Center has released a new edition of transit rider surveys. Among the findings: nearly three-quarters of regular transit users walk to their stations, and even occasional riders (once a month) walk more often than they drive. Another interesting finding: Despite the emphasis on transit as a commuting tool, The Transit Center finds that most riders fall into one of two buckets: “Occasional” users who generally don’t use transit to get to work, or “All-purpose” users who commute by transit because they use transit for all sorts of trips. Those who use it mainly for regular commutes make up a relatively small proportion of those who use transit in cities around the country.

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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