The Week Observed recently celebrated its first birthday! At the end of June 2015, we sent our first roundup of the most important urbanist news to about 700 people; since then, we’ve faithfully published a new issue every Friday, and we’re proud that today’s message will reach over 1,600 subscribers in every part of the country and beyond, from City Hall planners to university researchers to neighborhood organizers.
Whether you’ve been with us since the beginning or just signed up this week, thanks for being a part of this community!
What City Observatory did this week
1. Each year, Harvard’s Joint Center on Housing Studies publishes a huge “State of the Nation’s Housing” report. Some of it ought not to be a surprise, especially if you’ve been reading City Observatory: Rents continue to outpace incomes, thanks in part to a zoning-induced shortage in many parts of the country; single-family home production is up, but remains far, far below its pre-recession peak, and the occasional reports about the return of “McMansions” are really a statistical glitch: Large new single-family home construction is drastically below its 2006 peak, but moderate-sized single-family home construction is doing even worse. But JCHS’s report is odd in how it manages to compartmentalize housing-related spending: It laments that federal housing subsidies are “dwindling,” but the truth is that total outlays have climbed by tens of billions of dollars—in the form of money given to mostly wealthy homeowners. If we’re going to be serious about finding funds for the kinds of subsidies that will tackle affordability problems, we can’t just ignore that spending.
2. Ask a random person on the street why public transit is good, and they’ll probably be able to name at least three things: It’s environmentally friendly; it’s a cheap option for the poor; and new transit might provide a boost to economic development. But Uber Pool appears to be encroaching on all of those points: Theoretically, electric, autonomous carpool vehicles could emit fewer emissions per passenger; a new Uber pilot in Boston would give monthly passes for less money per ride than public transit; and Uber has sold itself to more than one city on the grounds that it provides a big economic boost. So is there any reason left to use transit? Yes: space efficiency. Even packed carpool vehicles will take up drastically more space per person than trains or buses, making travel impractical or impossible in many dense, walkable areas. This advantage of transit needs to become a part of the broad debate as services like Uber Pool become more common.
3. Blogs like Copenhagenize have helped transform many American cities’ attitudes towards biking in the last decade. What would it mean to make a similar transformation with respect to the workhorse of urban transit: city buses? In this post, we call for American cities to Londonize: commit to common-sense, comprehensive, and mostly low-cost policies that make getting around without a car convenient and reliable. Some of the pillars of London’s excellent bus service, which serves more people than the famous Tube, and nearly half as much as every bus service in the United States put together: Frequent service (no more than 12 minute gaps); simple routes and wayfinding; and prioritizing speed with bus lanes and all-door boarding.
The week’s must reads
1. When we suggested that housing vouchers could be made universal to those whose income qualifies, just like food stamps, we were hardly the first to make such a proposal. Now, Jake Blumgart at Slate has picked up the argument, drawing on data on evictions and the broader problem of housing affordability to make the case that housing vouchers—which currently reach just 17 percent of low-income households—ought to be for everyone. Blumgart also gets into some of the weeds of implementation, like the small-area Fair Market Rent pilot that attempts to make vouchers usable even in high-cost neighborhoods.
2. The US Department of Transportation is planning to overhaul the way it measures traffic congestion—a shift with big implications for the evaluation of future transportation projects. We’ve written that the measures fail on several fronts: Measuring travel by vehicle, not by people, and not taking into account the length of trips in addition to travel speed. Now Transportation for America, which has its own critical take on the proposed rules, is asking people to contact USDOT to comment on its shortfalls, and holding a seminar on the 13th to discuss what a better congestion measure might look like. If you’re interested in better transportation policy for your city, this is a cause you should be concerned with.
3. Many urbanists are highly concerned about road safety. At The Transportist,David Levinson argues that police violence at traffic stops ought to be included in that category. In the wake of another police shooting of a black man during a traffic stop for a broken tail light, Levinson points out that fear of this sort of arbitrary violence during traffic enforcement is a serious issue, especially for people of color, and should be taken into account when urbanists think about how to enforce traffic safety laws. (Similarly, for urbanist advocates of food trucks, street vending, and quasi-legal entrepreneurship like Airbnb and Uber, Emily Badger points out that two high-profile victims of police violence were initially stopped for illegal street vending.)
1. America is aging—but not in the same way all over the country. Governing has put together a report on the shrinkage of the prime working-age population by county, highlighting where demographics are squeezing an important source of economic vitality and tax fiscal health for many cities.
2. The materials that make up a city’s built environment contribute significantly to a neighborhood’s character. Now, Kate Rabinowitz has made a map that shows the building materials of every building in Washington, DC. (Hat tip to Greater Greater Washington.) In this city, the overwhelming majority of buildings are made of brick—but you can see little pockets of other materials, mostly on the outskirts.
3. At The Transport Politic, Yonah Freemark has another entry into the ongoing conversation about whether, and how, population growth is changing in urban areas. He has two main contributions: the first is to show how populations have changed within the footprint of built-up areas in 1960. That reveals that many “fast-growing” cities have grown almost exclusively thanks to annexations and outward growth, rather than infill, with 1960-era neighborhoods losing population. The other is to measure population change both in a broad core—three miles from City Hall, the same measure we’ve used—as well as in a smaller core, 1.5 miles from City Hall.
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.
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