What City Observatory did this week

Dominos falling on Portland’s Rose Quarter freeway widening project. In the space of just a few hours two weeks ago, local political support for an $800 million freeway widening project collapsed, after local African-American groups pulled out of the project’s steering committee. We trace the rapid-fire chronology of local leaders bailing on the project, and then dig deeper into the reasons why support for this massive project evaporated so quickly.

Portland’s Mayor and Metro President were clinging to the Albina Vision to justify the I-5 Rose Quarter Freeway widening–no more. (Concept: Jonathan Maus/ Bike Portland – Illustration & Copyright: Cloe Ashton, May 2019).

There are a host of environmental, financial and social reasons to oppose this flawed project, but its apparent death-knell was the continuation of a decades-long cavalier attitude of the Oregon highway department to community concerns. While the project is yet completely dead, it is so out-of-touch with our understanding of urban transportation, our needs to seriously combat climate change, and the long-delayed effort to make meaningful reparations for the damage done to the historically Black neighborhood, than one can only hope it expires soon.

Must read

1. Why reducing car travel and prioritizing buses is inherently equitable. Our experience with the Coronvirus-induced Stay-at-Home orders has shown how “less-car” cities work better for everyone. Some of the best evidence comes from New York City, where lessened car traffic has accelerated bus speeds. Streetsblog NYC points out:

The decrease in car traffic during the coronavirus pandemic shows exactly what the mayor could do to help bus riders. For example, the M22 — which stops at the corner of Worth and Centre streets — inched along at just 4.8 miles-per-hour in June, 2018, according to data from the MTA. But during the height of the city’s lockdown, when car use dropped by 78 percent, bus speeds on that same route went up to 7.4 miles-per-hour — yet the city has made no moves to ensure that fewer private cars block MTA buses, whose riders are mostly people of color with an average income of $28,455 a year.

If we’re looking to have a fairer and more sustainable transportation system, one of the best things we can do is discourage private car use in cities.

2. Covid-19 Trends and Foot Traffic by city. The American Enterprise Institute’s Housing Center has assembled a very clever visualization showing the trends in foot traffic at stores, restaurants and other destinations (gathered from anonymized cell location data) and the rate of reported cases of Covid-19 in the nation’s 40 largest metro areas.  The data show the disparate patterns of the disease in different places, and how our collective willingness to Stay-at-Home blunted the spread of the virus—for a while. This chart shows foot traffic (blue) normed to pre-pandemic levels and new cases per 100,000 population per week (red), from mid-March to early July,

New York City, as well known, bore the brunt of the pandemic early on, but has brought new case counts down sharply.  Meanwhile, in other cities, notably Miami and Phoenix, reopening in mid-to-late May triggered a dramatic rise in cases.  Strikingly, in the past two weeks, foot traffic has tapered off almost everywhere, in part due to the July 4 holiday, but also, apparently due to increased reticence to venture forth as the pandemic’s second wave hits.

3.  Death to the Park and Ride.  For a long time, transit projects have been conceived as ways to lure commuters out of their private cars, for a portion of their journeys, anyway. That’s why many new and expanded high capacity transit projects feature expensive, publicly subsidized parking garages. It’s increasingly clear that this approach is counterproductive to environmental and equity goals.

A bleak Toronto park and ride lot. (Matt Pinder)

Matt Pinder, blogging at Beyond the Automobile, writes that now is the time to close the book on this auto centered strategy. It’s led us to build stations in the wrong places, turned station areas into desolate car-dominated spaces, and is fundamentally inequitable:

The park-and-ride is also a problematic public asset because it privileges the wealthy. A commuter on the [Toronto’s] GO Train whose household makes more than $125,000 per year is nearly twice as likely to drive to the station compared to someone with a household income of less than $40,000 per year. When parking is free, the cost to build, operate, and maintain it is bundled into the cost of the transit fare. In other words, when park-and-ride is free, the poorer riders subsidize the wealthier ones.

Pinder argues that the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic is a good time to think about repurposing park-and-ride lots as dense, mixed use areas. Rather than catering to a twice-a-weekday flood of commuters, transit ought to enable walkable places and car-free living. The result would be more sustainable and more equitable.

New Knowledge

Housing shortages are behind gentrification pressures.  The Urban Institute has a new study looking at the connection between housing supply and gentrification.  The study uses data from home mortgages to look at the income levels of home buyers, and compares them to the income level of the neighborhood in which they’re purchasing homes. The study operationalizes “gentrification” as higher income buyers representing a disproportionately large share of home buyers in a neighborhood relative to its current income. The author’s find a strong relationship between expensive housing markets (attributable to a shortage of housing) and the degree to which high income mortgage borrowers buy homes disproportionately in low- or moderate income neighborhoods.

This chart summarizes the data for the 74 large metro areas included in the analysis and finds that using this metric, gentrification is higher in markets with a shortage of housing.

Our examination reveals that, in many MSAs, high housing costs—resulting from a lack of available housing—cause affluent buyers to look for homes in low- and moderate-income (LMI) neighborhoods. That means cities’ housing supply can determine how fast gentrification may occur. Boosting the supply of housing can slow the pace of new buyers moving into lower-income neighborhoods.

The implication of this study will seem counter-intuitive to many.Its commonplace to argue that new market-rate housing is a cause of gentrification, but its actually the case that the reverse is true:  The way to lessen gentrification pressure is to build more housing.

It’s also worth noting that the usual caveats about eliding the difference between “gentrifying” and “gentrified” apply here. This study, like many others, describes a neighborhood as “gentrifying” if the proportion of high income purchasers exceeds the current high income share in the neighborhood. These “gentrifying” neighborhoods can remain much more income-diverse than the typical neighborhood in a metropolitan area.

Laurie Goodman, Ellen Seidman & Jun Zhu, To Understand a City’s Pace of Gentrification, Look At Its Housing Supply, Urban Institute, June 24, 2020

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