What City Observatory did this week

1. In real life, somehow, Google patented sticky cars so that when their autonomous vehicles hit pedestrians, they won’t get thrown into the air, but will rather be pinned to the vehicle’s hood. In the spirit of helpfulness, we have diagrammed some other solutions Google might want to investigate, including pedestrian airbags that would inflate upon impact. Or, more seriously, we might want to consider how to build cities and prioritize human safety such that all vehicles, including autonomous ones, don’t hit pedestrians at dangerous speeds (or at all) to begin with.

2. A new report from the Urban Institute shows that Washington, DC public schools’ test scores are rising. Even more, the rising scores are much greater than what the changing demographics of the city might predict by themselves. Given the literature on the positive effects of racial and economic integration on education, one possibility is that we are seeing some dividends from the growing middle class presence in the District. More research at the school level is needed to parse whether this is in fact happening.

3. You’ve heard of “congestion costs”—the economic drag of snarled traffic and longer driving times. But what about the costs of land use patterns and transportation policies that require people to live farther from work and use cars to begin with? To help answer that question, we’re introducing the “Sprawl Tax.” In the first post in the series, we calculate that the average commuter in America’s 50 largest metro areas pays nearly $1,400 a year in time and money as a result of urban sprawl—ranging from just $166 in New Orleans to nearly $3,300 in Atlanta.

The week’s must reads

1. Governing looks at what will happen to suburbia in a world where housing demand and jobs are increasingly drawn to cities. Columnist Will Fulton reports on a panel of suburban developers talking about the market case for relatively dense, urban-like master planned communities with apartments and townhomes. But there’s a difference between an urban appearance and urban functionality: Even to the extent these types of developments are allowed outside of cities, will they just be isolated pockets of “drive-to-walk” urbanism?

2. Why are “complete streets” and “traffic calming” a big deal? ProPublica helps make the case with an interactive tool that shows your chance of surviving an impact with a car as a pedestrian at various vehicle speeds. At 20 mph, an average of seven percent of collisions will be fatal; at 40 mph, that number climbs to 45%.

3. There continues to be a lot of excitement about the ways that new technologies might help us solve longstanding urban issues—and not without some justification. But in an interview at Civic Hall, longtime Chicago “civic tech” leader Daniel X. O’Neil lays out why he thinks the movement has failed to deliver on its promises. Rather than developer-led hack nights or hackathons, O’Neil makes the case for bringing people with technological expertise to civic meetings and organizations that already exist, beginning with what they’re working on, and figuring out how to help. One example: the Smart Chicago “Documenters” program, which sends people to record and document public meetings for those who can’t be there.

New knowledge

1. At Planetizen, Todd Litman digs into a claim by New Geography writer Fanis Grammenos that data show that more compact neighborhoods are more expensive in terms of housing and transportation costs than more low-density areas. But Litman points out that the study conflates rental costs with the cost of mortgages—some of which may be based on loans taken out years or decades ago, reflecting outdated prices very different from those a contemporary buyer would be facing. Moreover, judging on a regional level misses that most of the difference between compact and non-compact living depends on neighborhood-level characteristics.

2. We have a new indication that transit is an important component of economic development. A study by Dagney Faulk and Michael Hicks of Ball State University finds a correlation between the existence and extent of fixed-route bus systems in counties in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin and employee turnover rates: the more extensive the bus system, the less turnover. And that, they point out, has economic consequences for both workers and businesses, who save money on finding and training new employees.

3. This paper isn’t new, but it’s new to us, and fun and revealing: Leah Brooks of McGill University and Byron Lutz of the Federal Reserve find that dense development in LA is clustered around long-gone streetcar lines. But that’s not mostly because the city built so much housing when the streetcar lines still existed: It’s because neighborhoods near streetcars became zoned for high-density development, and remained zoned that way after the streetcars disappeared, while other areas remained zoned for low-density development.

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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