What City Observatory did this week

1. Cities can’t solve all our problems. Like other people who think and work about cities and urban issues, we’re often focused on how ground-level changes can make cities better—things neighborhood groups or local government can do. But though local actors are important, we can’t lose sight of the fact that cities don’t exist in a vacuum—they very much depend on state and federal policy for everything from the condition of the macro economy to climate change. We’re fast reaching the point where if they are to succeed, cities need to federal government to step up.

2. Explore national transportation change trends by age group. As we’ve written before, even with the move of young  highly-educated people and jobs to cities, moving the needle on transportation use is incredibly hard, because it depends in large part on the slowly-changing built environment. In this post, we built an interactive tool to look at exactly how much transportation behavior has changed (at least in commutes) by age over the last decade or so. In a future post, we’ll break it down by metropolitan area—where the news is a bit rosier.

3. The problem with how we measure housing affordability. By far the most common benchmark for whether housing is “affordable” is whether a household spends more than 30 percent of its income in rent or mortgage payments. But there are some problems: 30 percent is a very different burden for someone on a very low income compared to higher incomes; it doesn’t include other location-based costs, like transportation; and it doesn’t take into account what people get for that housing: a substandard apartment in a neighborhood with few amenities, or a better unit with access to good jobs and amenities?

4. CBO on highway finance: The price is wrong. A new report from the Congressional Budget Office confirms something we’ve known for a while: drivers don’t pay the full price of their use of roads, and as a result, drive much more than if they weren’t being shielded from the true costs of driving. Other financial arrangements that took into account the costs of congestion and maintenance—not to mention environmental and human costs—might lead to more efficient use of our car transportation system. The report also warns that the stimulative impact of new highways appears to be waning.

The week’s must reads

1. We’ve expressed reservations about inclusionary zoning as an affordable housing strategy for a variety of reasons, including its effect on the market and its limited scale. At streets.mn, University of Minnesota Professor Evan Roberts offers a cogent synthesis the skepticism, breaking his arguments into four parts: 1) IZ puts all the funding burden for affordable housing on a very small number of people—developers and purchasers of new housing; 2) IZ makes the financing of affordable housing opaque; 3) IZ is a passive response to the problem of affordability that makes no affirmative commitment to provide a certain amount of housing; 4) and IZ discourages new market-rate housing.

2. Donald Shoup’s The High Cost of Free Parking is one of the most influential urban policy books of the last ten years, forcefully arguing that city residents suffer for the sake of plentiful, ostensibly free parking supply. In the Washington Post, he updates his arguments about how parking requirements hurt the poor by driving up housing construction costs. He points out that a single parking space can cost $24,000—several times the median net household worth among Hispanics ($7,700) and black Americans ($6,300). Forcing all residents, whether or not they own a car, to help subsidize required parking spaces at their homes, businesses, and shops is an unnecessary burden. It’s counterintuitive, but free is a bad price if you’re concerned about the poor.

3. The New Yorker covers the growing number of “micro-unit” apartment developments in its hometown, interviewing Brookings’ Alan Berube and the Furman Center’s Ingrid Gould Ellen. While these newly-built homes aren’t affordable to lower-income renters—something that shouldn’t be a surprise, as we’ve written—they do help meet the growing demand for housing for single-person households, including young people and the elderly, making for more flexible neighborhoods that allow people to “age in place” and allow larger units to filter to younger families.

New knowledge

1. The debate over streetcars often focuses on their perceived shortcomings, including whether their added expense is worth the limited time and capacity savings over bus routes, or their usefulness as instigators of infill development. A newly published study from two Florida State researchers looks at the issue from another perspective: whether, and how, the kinds of people who ride streetcars are different from people who ride light rail, another popular form of rail that tends to run in its own right-of-way, as opposed to on the same roadbed as cars, like streetcars. They find that ridership sources are different for each type: light rail tends to attract more “utilitarian” riders going to, for example, jobs, while streetcars appear to attract riders motivated by “tourism and special activity” centers.

2. Though transportation conversations often pit different modes against one another—”bicyclists” and “drivers” and “bus riders” and so on—most people depend on multiple modes over the course of a typical week, if not a typical day. A new survey of BART riders in the San Francisco Bay Area has a lot of interesting information, but perhaps the most interesting is the breakdown of how people arrive to BART stations: over a third walk, about 6 percent bike, a little under a tenth take the bus, and just under 40 percent either drive themselves or get dropped off. It’s a good reminder that most transportation environments depend on the interplay of multiple modes.

3. Governments make sure to measure how many people use major pieces of road infrastructure, like highways, and transit agencies are able to release detailed ridership information, but we hear far less often about “walkership” (feel free to insert your own made-up word there). But new sensors installed in Chicago’s Loop have an estimate for us: over the course of the last week of February, more than 1.61 million trips were taken on foot on a 4,000-ft. stretch of State Street. While we don’t think of walking as “mass transportation,” that represents 230,000 trips per day—more than all but one of Chicago’s eight heavy rail lines.

This week, The Direct Transfer, Jeff Wood’s daily roundup of all the urbanism news that’s fit to print—from Brookings Institution reports to updates about local zoning and transportation debates—went to a “premium” model, worth $15 a month or $150 a year for the full daily email. We’ve always seen The Week Observed as a complement, rather than a competitor, to The Direct Transfer—a digest from a particular perspective, rather than a comprehensive link rundown—this newsletter offers great value for money if you need to stay on top of the country’s urbanist news.

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.

If you have ideas for making The Week Observed better, we’d love to hear them! Let us know at jcortright@cityobservatory.org, dkhertz@cityobservatory.org, or on Twitter at @cityobs.