Last week, our partners and supporters at the Knight Foundation announced a new round of the Knight Cities Challenge, which gives grants to people and organizations around the country for projects that make their cities more livable. The deadline to apply is October 27—check it out!

What City Observatory did this week

1. What’s behind the debate over American streets. Going off an excellent postfrom the Quebec-based traffic engineer and blogger Simon Vallée, we investigate the idea that many of the clashes about “complete streets” come from two incompatible visions of transportation policy: the “engineering approach” and the “economic or behavioral approach.” The engineering approach, which has been dominant for decades, takes a certain number of vehicle trips as an unchangeable given, and then asks how to redesign streets to allow those vehicles to move through as quickly as possible. The economic or behavioral approach, on the other hand, takes a step back, and asks how we might get the people in those vehicles to their destinations—without assuming that the answer will involve cars.

2. The end of peak driving? After a decade of decline, vehicle miles per person in the U.S. have started to creep up again. Is this a sign of the resurgence of car-dependent living? Hardly. Rather, it’s likely an effect of the steep decline in gas prices, which have fallen by more than a dollar in many places since a year ago. While the effect of gas prices on driving isn’t instantaneous—many factors, including the kinds of cars people buy and the home locations they choose, make driving levels sticky—it does have an impact. And unless gas prices continue to fall, we’re unlikely to see a sustained increase in vehicle miles per person.

Credit: Advisor Perspectives
Credit: Advisor Perspectives

3. Talent, opportunity, and engagement are essential to successful cities. To mark the beginning of Knight’s Cities Challenge, we wrote about what it means to be a “successful city” by imagining a successful neighborhood. From a park for people to gather and meet at, to local shops where people can conveniently run errands, to easy, affordable, and safe transportation, to abundant access to jobs, we have a good idea of what makes a place attractive and livable. Unfortunately, too often we throw up impediments—from making “illegal neighborhoods” to creating a “shortage of cities”—to meeting that vision.

4. The danger of taking policy lessons from extreme cases. Two recent media reports have lauded Ogden, Utah, as an unlikely beacon of hope in the battle against inequality. It turns out that Ogden has the lowest Gini coefficient—the most commonly used index of inequality—in the country. But is studying Ogden actually helpful? Mostly not. It turns out that its “success” is largely about being in the orbit of another, larger metro area (thus benefitting from the dynamic of relatively poor and wealthy people living in the city center), and by having the third-highest concentration of federal jobs in the country, which tend to support a strong middle class. Neither of those are scalable solutions to other cities—not to mention that we’ve questioned the premise that low inequality at the local level is usually a good thing.

The week’s must reads

1. Media representations of “urban” neighborhoods often make it seem like you need to go to the coasts, or at least Chicago, to find dense, walkable communities. But Granola Shotgun’s photo essay of urban Louisville, Kentucky, proves that’s just not true. In fact, walkable urbanism is a tradition all across the country—it’s just that sometime around the middle of the 20th century, many localities in the South, Midwest, and on the coasts adopted zoning codes and other regulations that created “illegal neighborhoods.”

Credit: Granola Shotgun
Credit: Granola Shotgun

2. At Planetizen, Todd Litman dismantles a paper from the Center for Opportunity Urbanism that claims sprawl and low-density neighborhoods are best for low-income households. Litman shows that the index of affordability used by the COU is actually meant to describe the typical expenditures of a relatively wealthy worker, and its assumptions categorically exclude savings inherent to urban areas. For example, while it includes the cost of gasoline, it does not include the likelihood of owning fewer or no cars, or changes in average distance driven. It also measures housing costs using only single family homes—eliminating the cost savings of multifamily housing in urban areas. (Litman published this piece back in August, but we missed it, and thought some of you might have, too!)

3. Also via Planetizen, the news that we have a traffic safety crisis because of the way we design infrastructure, and not because of the individual faults of drivers or pedestrians, has reached—of all places—Dallas, Texas. The Dallas Morning Newsreports on a charged debate in the City Council sparked by a report from the police and Department of Street Services, which claimed that the 32 pedestrian fatalities suffered so far in 2015 in Dallas are mostly the result of “pedestrian error.” Council member Philip Kingston, however, challenged that idea, arguing that the real problem is “infrastructure that places the pedestrian in harm’s way”: narrow or nonexistent sidewalks, excessively wide roadways, high speeds, and few crosswalks. Once again, the movement to reform our cities shows that it’s about much more than the big coastal cities.

New knowledge

1. The Urban Institute released its Q3 2015 Detroit Housing Tracker, with updates on the state of that city’s ongoing transformation. With summaries of key Detroit housing programs, a rundown of major market news, and more, it’s a must-read for anyone with an interest in Detroit, the broader industrial Midwest, or the future of American cities. One of the takeaways is the very different paths of the riverfront areas, especially east of downtown, and the Woodward corridor, which continue on a robust recovery, and much of the rest of the city, which is still struggling.

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2. Richard Benton, a professor at the University of Illinois, has published research showing that civic participation in groups like churches or neighborhood associations can play a key role in “reducing social capital deficits and fostering the ties that bridge the divide between upper- and lower-class status lines.” These ties, in turn, can be extremely valuable for an individual’s capacity to, say, find jobs or make other important connections to improve their lives. Unfortunately, opportunities for these sorts of face-to-face interactions may be diminishing, as we recorded in “Less in Common.”

3. Gizmodo reports on a new study from McGill University researchers about howdifferent types of commuting produce different levels of stress. This may not come as a surprise to many of you, but it turns out that driving is by far the most stressful way to get to work. The least? Walking, followed by transit—though part of what makes transit less stressful is the walk to and from the train or bus. Given what we know about the effects of chronic stress, we’d put this on the growing pile of research suggesting that neighborhoods that force everyone to drive to almost everything are a serious hazard to your health.

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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