What City Observatory did this week

1. Looking at housing injustice requires a broad lens. A new research project on Bay Area neighborhood change defines “displacement” as any reduction in the number of low-income people in a given community. Daniel Kay Hertz argues that this way of thinking leads us down the wrong path in thinking about what a just neighborhood looks like, chaining us to the results of past (and present) wrongs related to segregation.

2. Is traffic worse now? The “congestion report” can’t tell us. Joe Cortright picks apart last week’s Texas Transportation Institute “Urban Mobility Report,” pointing out that frequent claims that congestion is worse than it’s been since 1982 are invalid because of a major methodological change in 2009, rendering figures from before and after that date incomparable.

3. Contradictory conclusions and disappearing data. Joe Cortright takes one last look at the problems with the “Urban Mobility Report.” This time, the focus is on what might be causing TTI to reach dramatically different conclusions about both trends and levels of congestion than traffic information collector Inrix—which is TTI’s data source. He also notes that the day after TTI released this year’s report, Inrix took down the contradictory data on its own website.

4. Who’s really rent-burdened? Daniel Kay Hertz follows up on our earlier series about how to measure housing affordability with a reader-inspired graph comparing the most common metric—the rent-to-income ratio—and an alternative we support, the “residual income” approach. A very simple comparison shows how the rent-to-income ratio can skew our understanding of a household’s ability to afford non-housing necessities given certain rental costs.

5. On Monday, Daniel Kay Hertz spoke with Texas Standard at NPR affiliate KUT in Austin about what a more balanced view of urban mobility might look like.

The week’s must reads

1. There’s nothing new in Trulia’s breakdown of rent control laws in New York and San Francisco, but it’s one of the clearest and most readable explanations we’ve seen of policies that are both extremely complex and a crucial part of the housing debate in two of the most high-profile cities in the country. One big takeaway: while SF’s rent control law applies to far more units—as many as 82 percent of all multifamily homes—because rent is decontrolled between tenants, controlled units may be much more expensive than in New York.

2. At The Century Foundation’s blog, Jacob Anbinder writes about the state of New Orleans’ public transit ten years after Hurricane Katrina. He describes federal policies that are seriously hampering the city’s ability to build the kind of network that it needs: first, the general policy of funding capital projects but not operations, which encourages cities across the country to build more infrastructure than they might otherwise, but doesn’t give them help to actually run frequent service. New Orleans is in an even more perverse quandary: as long as they run a very small number of buses, the city does qualify for some operations funding; but it can’t increase service significantly without losing that funding eligibility.

3. The Washington Post has a longread about the decline of U.S. car culture as Americans drive fewer miles, take more alternative modes of transportation, and now the prospect of self-driving cars. One of the most striking numbers: the percentage of 20-to-24-year-olds with a driver’s license has dropped from 91.8 percent in 1983 to 77.5 percent in 2013. Although it appears that both are in play, exactly how much of this trend is about economics and how much is about shifting preferences is debated by experts in the piece.

New knowledge

1. Last week, the Manhattan Institute’s Aaron Renn released a study arguing that far from suffering “brain drain,” most Rust Belt cities are actually increasing their college-educated populations—and about half are growing faster than the nation as a whole. In response, Alex Ihnen at NextSTL performed his own analysis, benchmarking his hometown not against the nation as a whole, but the 50 largest metropolitan areas and the top ten in college attainment. By those metrics, St. Louis’ progress is less conclusive. An important facet of both metrics is to what extent these shifts are driven by changing age cohorts—in particular, the growth of “young and restless” and a decline in older age groups with much lower college attainment levels.

2. Via Richard Florida at CityLab, a team of researchers from UC-Berkeley and UCLA have conducted a review of the literature on public investment and gentrification. The study reinforces findings that show investments in public transit can increase demand for housing nearby, especially where it provides an escape from costly or slow car commutes. Investments in local schools, parks, and highways also produce gentrification effects.

3. Joanna Ganning of the University of Utah and J. Rosie Tighe of Cleveland State University investigate the effectiveness of side-lot sale programs as a vacant land solution in American cities. They find that the programs are far less useful than they might be—less because potential buyers can’t afford to buy empty lots abutting their own than because of sale regulations and restrictions.

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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