What City Observatory did this week

1. Cities’ role in growing our nation’s economy. New data from the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis builds on our “Dow of Cities” post and Surging City Center Job Growth report to show that urban centers are at the heart of the country’s recovery. Large metropolitan areas—those with over a million residents—are growing faster than smaller metros, and central cities are growing jobs faster than their suburbs. Recognizing, encouraging, and taking advantage of this trend is important both for urban areas and the country as a whole.

2. The high cost of affordable housing and the shortage of cities: notes from a panel. Our own Joe Cortright took part in a panel at Oregon’s Metro regional government on whether San Francisco’s housing woes are in Portland’s future. Along with Tech Crunch’s Kim-Mai Cutler, Elissa Harrigan of the Meyer Memorial Trust, and developer Eli Spivak, Joe argued that a “shortage of cities” is driving rapidly rising home prices in places around the country. Cutler also brought up the shockingly large sums spent on affordable housing projects—often the better part of a million dollars per unit—and pointed out that at such prices, building those units on its own isn’t a scalable, sustainable strategy to getting out of the housing crisis.

3. When it comes to transit use, destination density matters more than where you live. While we often imagine that the decision to drive or take transit depends on where you live, it turns out that where you’re going is even more important. Using data from the American Community Survey, we show how much more concentrated transit use is by job location than home location. The lesson: land use should prioritize getting jobs and other important destinations (like schools and shops) near transit, especially central transit stations. That way, everyone in the region stands to gain from improved access.

The week’s must reads

1. The University of North Carolina – Charlotte’s Plan Charlotte blog takes a look at how their city zones land, and it fits the “illegal neighborhood” problem to a T. Just 9 percent of Charlotte’s land area is zoned for any kind of mixed-use buildings, making neighborhood corner stores, hardware stores, or cafes much, much more difficult to open. Moreover, fully 61 percent of Charlotte is zoned for single-family homes only—while just 7 percent is zoned for multifamily residential. Laws like these help explain why development has yet to catch up with demand for mixed-use, walkable urban neighborhoods, creating our “shortage of cities.”

2. Streetsblog New York City covers the case for a bus rapid transit line in Queens—from a public safety perspective. Woodhaven Boulevard, one of the main corridors for the proposed BRT line, is been one of the most dangerous streets in the city, with car crashes causing hundreds of injuries and several fatalities in just the last few years. Dedicated bus lanes and new pedestrian islands would help calm traffic and create a safer street for people in cars, buses, bikes, and on foot.

3. The Urban Institute has a new paper, “Housing Policy Levers to Promote Economic Mobility,” that’s a must-read handbook for anyone who cares about promoting long-term economic and social justice in America’s cities. The report’s authors go through the major governmental housing programs one by one, picking out ways they could be used to improve opportunity for the low income, and especially those living in high-poverty neighborhoods. Among the recommendations: incentivize Low Income Housing Tax Credits projects to be located in communities with good schools, transportation access, and employment opportunities; create a “renter’s tax credit”; and end exclusionary zoning laws that keep home values artificially high in desirable neighborhoods.

New knowledge

1. Via Streetsblog, a new study by the Transportation Research Board finds thatwithout public transit networks, American cities would have to be 37 percent larger. That’s because transit allows for more compact land use, by reducing the need for sprawling surface parking lots and encouraging development to be done within walking distance of stops. In fact, the TRB finds that the land use effects of transit are dramatically larger than simply the substitution of car travel for other modes: If everyone who takes the bus or train drove tomorrow, that would increase vehicle miles traveled by 2 percent. But if the land use effects of transit disappeared, that would increase vehicle miles traveled by 8 percent.

2. Researchers from Texas A&M University tested the hypothesis that improving walkability really creates economic value, and they found that it does. Moreover, the benefits may rise faster as the neighborhood becomes more and more walkable: In the most walkable neighborhoods, a one percent improvement in walkability leads to $1,329 in additional property values, while in moderately walkable neighborhoods, the same-sized improvement creates somewhat less new property value.

3. Katie Fitzpatrick of Seattle University writes about her new paper on the effects of “food deserts”—neighborhoods with little to no access to grocery stores—on food purchasing and consumption. The results contradict much of the conventional wisdom: holding other factors constant, residents of “food deserts” actually did not have significantly different outcomes on most measures than other people. What did matter, however, was transportation: people in food deserts who did not own a car had much worse outcomes, suggesting the importance of accessible transportation to destinations like grocery stores.

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. You can sign up to get it in your inbox by clicking “Subscribe” at the top of the page!

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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