What City Observatory did this week

1. In previous installments of our “Sprawl Tax” series, we’ve calculated the billions of dollars that longer distances between homes and workplaces cost American commuters, and shown that US workers pay more for transportation, and spend more time getting to and from their jobs, than peers in other rich countries. This week, we dove into how sprawl affects our quality of life, showing that self-reported satisfaction with local transportation systems is negatively correlated with longer commutes—but actually weakly positively correlated with “traffic congestion” as measured by the Texas Transportation Institute.

2. What happens when cities change? At a gathering of the Congress for New Urbanism in Detroit, the Kresge Foundation’s Carol Coletta argued that cities need to embrace the ever-changing urban environment—even as they work to make sure that transforming job and housing markets offer opportunity to everyone. While rising housing prices are a key issue in many places, deepening poverty is a much more common issue—and one that needs to change.

3. Somerville, Massachusetts is a town of nearly 80,000 people. Recently, its planning department issued a report revealing that its zoning code would outlaw all but 22 of its residential buildings from being built again as they exist today. While discussions about land use law and housing economics can get wonky and laden with seemingly obscure details, these big-picture facts need to be kept in mind: When regulations say that over 99 percent of a pleasant, diverse, and thriving city is “nonconforming,” the issue is with the rules, and not the buildings.

4. A few weeks ago, we wrote about the ways that Houston manages to write sprawling, car-dependent development into its laws without a formal zoning code. This week, we look at the other side: What Houston’s more lax rules allow that other cities’ don’t. The story is more recent than you might think, but still worth telling: Since 1999, Houston has become one of the only cities in the country to allow wholesale redevelopment of single-family home neighborhoods to “missing middle” type density, largely in the form of townhomes.

The week’s must reads

1. For many housing reform advocates, the politics of local government seem too stacked against efforts to reduce the growth of housing prices—a suspicion confirmed by a paper by Lens and Monkkonen that found greater state-level involvement in planning is associated with lower levels of residential segregation. Now, the state of Massachusetts (which already has one of the nation’s marquee state interventions, the “anti-snob zoning law”) is taking a further step, with the state senate approving a bill that would aim to increase housing production in a state with high housing prices by requiring local governments to designate an area where developers can build multifamily housing as of right, and allow “accessory dwelling units,” or backyard cottages. The bill faces steep local resistance, however.

2. For 33 years, St. Louis city and county have had a program to transfer public school students between them, with the goal of fostering integration between the disproportionately black city and disproportionately white county. Now, the governing board that manages those transfers is considering ending the program. These sorts of programs are rare in major metropolitan areas, despite extensive evidence about the benefits of racial integration—and economic integration, which is much more difficult without the former in a region where, like most of the country, racial identity and economic outcomes are correlated. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch lays out the case for continuing the program.

3. Access Magazine, from the University of California Transportation Center, gives a great primer on what’s wrong with parking requirements. From the more-than-inexact science of determining how many spaces every bar, hardware store, and barbershop needs, to the high cost paid to build and maintain each space, and the effects on people, especially low-income people. It’s a rigorous introduction to one of the more important reform efforts in modern urban planning.

New knowledge

1. Since 1979, power plants have been a bigger contributor to carbon dioxide production in America than transportation. But as reported in Vox, the University of Chicago’s Sam Ori, the amount of CO2 produced by power plants has fallen so sharply over the last decade or so—while production by transportation has continued to rise after dropping during the Great Recession. Today, for the first time in over a generation, transportation is the leading cause of climate emissions in America. In light of that, the potential for urban form to reduce transportation emissions becomes even more important.

2. Smart Growth America has released “Foot Traffic Ahead 2016,” their latest analysis of “walkable urban places,” or WalkUPs. They find continuing price premiums for these places over less-walkable places: 90 percent for office, 71 percent for retail, and 66 percent for multi-family rental residences. They also find that based on spending for housing and transportation for a somewhat below-average-earning household, these areas offer better social equity than car-dependent neighborhoods.

3. In the Washington Post, Columbia professor Lance Freeman takes on “five myths about gentrification.” He tries to complicate widespread ideas about a simple and direct relationship between gentrification and reductions in crime, displacement, and race, among other things. In the context of media coverage that frequently asserts the very connections that Freeman says evidence doesn’t support, this is an important corrective.