What City Observatory did this week

The exodus that never happened. You’ve probably seen stories bouncing around the media for the past few months claiming that fears that density makes people more susceptible to the pandemic are prompting people to leave cities in droves. While and enterprising reporter can always find an anecdote to build such a story upon, the data don’t support that thesis. The latest bit of evidence comes from ApartmentList.com, which has done a detailed analysis of where people are searching for new apartments. Contrary to the media hype, interest in cities is actually up, with the market share of searches for cities outpacing suburbs and rural areas.

Even in the New York City metro area, the center of the pandemic (until recently), search activity in the five boroughs was up, while searches in surrounding cities and suburbs declined. ApartmentList has detailed data for the top 50 metro areas; all but a handful follow the national trend—toward, and not away from, dense cities.

Must read

1. Are Big Oil’s days as a political force numbered? The decline in oil prices, the stock market, and growing adoption of renewable energy sources have dealt a significant economic blow to the fossil fuel industry. Coal is mostly dying, and oil and gas companies are troubled. Sightline Institute’s Alan Durning speculates that this economic decline likely presages a parallel decline in political power—but with a lag.  As he explains:

. . . politics lags economics. Political change lags because beliefs solidify early in politicians’ careers. It lags because enduring relationships among power players outlast the realities in which they form. It lags because institutional advantages persist in law, policy, and custom.

For cities, the political power of the fossil fuel industry has largely been a negative. Cheap gasoline has fueled sprawl, and many of the costs and externalities of car dependence have been borne largely by cities and their residents. While Durning’s thesis seems fundamentally correct, dying or even declining industries can often double down on political strategies in an effort to stave of the inevitable, so we shouldn’t look for the political influence of this industry to disappear any time soon.

2. Challenging the “out-of-scale” myth. Listen to a controversy about virtually any new building or development, and you’re virtually certain to hear this objection, what’s proposed is “out-of-scale” with the surrounding community. It’s a coded way of objecting to more density (and more neighbors, and often, a more integrated neighborhood).  The implication is that all new development has to resemble what went before.  StrongTowns Daniel Herriges challenges both the aesthetics and logic of the “out-of-scale argument, and points out that the variation we observe is a natural part of cities:

Buildings are developed at different times, and in a rapidly changing city with permissive zoning rules, eclecticism will be the natural result of simple randomness. A place with rising land values will see some plots of land redeveloped at a higher density, while others—maybe right next door—are not, perhaps for no other reason than the owner has not wished to sell.

Perhaps the reason we hear this argument so much is that its an inevitable truism:  When houses or stores were first built on a previously vacant site, they were, by defnition, “out-of-scale” with their surroundings.  The process of development is always about some buildings having a different scale than others.

Out of scale! (Strong Towns)

3. As the cars come back, the buses slow down. As America gradually, and fitfully, reopens in the wake of the pandemic, auto traffic, which had fallen by more than half in nearly all US cities, is growing again. And in New York, where the virus hit hardest, rebounding traffic has had a measurable effect on bus travel speeds.  Streetsblog NYC reports bus speeds are down citywide:

Manhattan buses fared the worst in the slowdown, going from 7.6 miles per hour in May down to 6.8 miles per hour in June, a 10.5-percent drop in bus speeds. Brooklyn and Queens buses also faced steep percentage declines in the same time period, going from 8.5 miles per hour to 7.7 miles per hour (down 9.4 percent) and 10.8 miles per hour to 9.8 miles per hour (down 9.2 percent), respectively.

Its worth noting that slower bus speeds penalize the transit dependent, and lower the attractiveness and increase the cost of public transit. As we’ve pointed out before at City Observatory, slower bus speeds are inherently inequitable, given the lower incomes and more limited choices of transit dependent persons. In all of the brouhaha over whether we’re adequately applying an “equity” lens to transportation policy, there’s never been an opportunity for anyone to question the equity of how infinite and essentially free use of streets by cars results in inequitable outcomes for bus riders.  As with so many things, the pandemic revealed the costs that our auto-dependent transportation system imposed on everyone; it’s an opportunity to learn and fix things, if we choose.

4.  More highway to hell.  The road lobby is in complete denial about climate change. Latest case in point: a new report from TRIP, a highway lobby group, calling for hundreds of billions of dollars of additional spending on highways. No acknowledgement that highways have produced pollution and sprawl, eviscerated cities, and produced a car-dependent transportation system that is fundamentally inequitable. And no mention at all of climate change; the word “greenhouse” doesn’t appear anywhere in its report; “climate” appears exactly once: in reference to the impact of moisture on roadwear.

Pavement deterioration is caused by a combination of traffic, moisture and climate. Moisture often works its way into road surfaces and the materials that form the road’s foundation.

The fact that transportation accounts for 40 percent of US greenhouse gases, and is increasing:  not TRIP’s problem. And tragically, as we’ve pointed out before, the Transportation Research Board, an arm of the National Academies of Science, is being used as a shill by the highway lobby to promote more road spending, more car dependence, and more greenhouse gas emissions, putting us all on the highway to hell.

New Knowledge

Slow streets are safe streets. The National Asscoiation of City Transportation Officials has a new guide to creating safer city streets:  City Limits: Setting Safe Speed Limits on Urban Streets. For decades, car-oriented highway departments have used the pseudo-scientific 85 percent rule to allow speeding drivers to set the legal limit of speeds on urban streets, with predictable results for traffic safety, especially pedestrian deaths. While the rest of the industrialized world has made steady progress in reducing traffic deaths, the US has not.

In addition to making the case that slower city streets are safer for everyone, the NACTO manual lays out clear how-to guidelines for implementing slower speeds, with methods and results drawn from member cities. In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, there’s a new appreciation of how car-dominated the urban realm has become.  This manual provides practical advice on how to change that, and make our streets safer.