What City Observatory did this week

1. A new study from Stanford Business School claims that society reaps the greatest benefits from low-income housing when that housing is built in the lowest-income neighborhoods—as opposed to integrating it within higher-income neighborhoods. But there are a number of caveats and concerns we have with the study. For one, it looks at a very specific form of low-income housing, LIHTC, with income targets 50 percent or more greater than the median income in the neighborhoods where the Stanford study finds benefits. Second, the “costs” to higher-income neighborhoods appear to mostly be the result of discrimination—which we wouldn’t give much weight in policymaking. And finally, the benefits to integration go far beyond what was measured by the study.

2. One of those benefits of integration: It can create its own positive feedback loops that reduce the tendency to re-segregation. Research from the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity shows that in metropolitan areas with regional school desegregation initiatives, mixed-race neighborhoods are much less likely to re-segregate than in areas without school desegregation initiatives. In other words, if white households aren’t as able to find segregated schools, they’re less likely to want segregated neighborhoods, and less likely to take part in destructive cycles of flight and reconcentration. Intentional housing desegregation—by, in part, putting low-income housing in higher-income neighborhoods that lack it—might be able to pull the same trick.

3. On Tuesday, Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx announced that he was considering shutting down the Washington, DC Metro because of safety concerns. On Wednesday, Foxx announced that, having reviewed the numbers, it turns out that road fatality rates in virtually every metropolitan area in the country exceed fatality rates on Metro—in many cases, by factors of 25 or more—and the USDOT would look into shutting down all roads to private motor vehicles until he could guarantee drivers and pedestrians that they would be as safe on a typical American street as they are on the most dysfunctional heavy rail system in country. Unfortunately, that appears to be unrealistic—most cities would need to reduce road fatalities by 90 to 95 percent—so motor traffic may be kept out of American cities indefinitely.

4. Last week, we explored four different ways of measuring income segregation, and the implications of each one for broad-based economic opportunity. This week, we take a look at how each kind of income segregation has changed, both over the long term and just the last few years. In both cases, the answer is: it’s up. But there are some important nuances: since 2007, nearly the entire rise in income segregation appears to come from increased sorting among people in the “middle,” between the 10th and 90th percentile of income, according to researchers Kendra Bischoff and Sean Reardon. We also created an interactive tool for you to look up how income segregation has changed in your region since 1970.

The week’s must reads

1. The nation’s most successful public transit system, the New York City Subway, has old, often less-than-attractive stations, crowded trains, plain plastic seats, spotty cell service, and none of the frills that civic leaders often claim are necessary to get people—especially middle-class people—out of their cars. So why do people use it? Because it’s fast, convenient, and reliable. At The Transport Politic, Yonah Freemark uses the example of the NYC Subway to commend Boston’s plan to save a rail extension by cutting costs on everything that won’t affect the qualities that riders actually care about: the frequency, speed, or reliability of service. It’s a great case study for anyone thinking about how to prioritize transit change in their city.

2. Many people believe that the purpose of zoning is to preserve neighborhood character. But Seattle’s The Urbanist blog points out that there are actually hundreds, if not thousands, of multi-family buildings in that city’s “single-family” zones—that is, places where multi-family buildings have been outlawed as “incompatible.” How can that be? These apartments and condo buildings were mostly constructed before the advent of zoning turned many already-existing communities into “illegal neighborhoods.” Many of these neighborhoods—especially closer to downtown—are among the city’s most popular, reaffirming yet again that the lack of housing diversity that zoning codes often prescribe is neither necessary nor desirable.

3. In a similar vein, modern American cities often take for granted that businesses and residences need to be kept apart. But CityLab highlights a blog that captures ghosts of Washington, DC’s mixed-use past: old storefronts that have been converted to residential buildings because they ran afoul of zoning laws that found them “incompatible.”

New knowledge

1. The Century Foundation has released a new report laying out principles for national transportation policy. The paper identifies four key challenges, from a lack of a national vision to structural problems with the political system, and proposes four major changes to transportation policy. They include: federal funds should take care of capital maintenance needs before supporting new construction; policy should focus on moving people and goods rather than cars and trucks; a renewed focus on performance management; and use an increased gas tax, vehicle miles traveled tax, congestion pricing, or other transportation-related sources to fund transportation programs.

2. While American urbanists often think of European cities as the kind of walking, biking, and transit paradises we might strive to emulate, in fact, many European cities have made significant progress in the last several decades to become more accessible to non-car travel themselves. A new study investigates these changes in Munich, Berlin, Hamburg, Vienna, and Zurich, showing how coordinated strategies of land use and transportation policy have significantly decreased car travel. The tactics will sound familiar: Parking management, dense mixed-use development, and high-quality transit and biking infrastructure.

3. The consulting firm Urban Spatial and Allan Mallach of the Center for Community Progress have published a massive trove of visualizations of neighborhood change in cities across the country. Among the indicators captured: residents with college degrees, median income, and housing prices. They also look at indicators that correlate with neighborhood change, and say they’re looking to build a predictive model of change.

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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