What City Observatory did this week

1. Now we are six. We marked City Observatory’s sixth birthday this week, and took a few moments to reflect back on the journey, and to thank all those who helped us on our way, and to look forward to the vital role that cities will continue to play in tackling tough national problems.

2. The amazing disappearing urban exodus. The meme that the urban density causes or aggravates the Coronavirus, and is leading people to flee cities is every bit as persistent as the pandemic itself. New data on postal change-of-address filings shows that there’s been at best a minor blip in people moving—up just 2 percent since the virus first spread.  In fact, over the past three months for which data is available, the rate of permanent moves is actually lower than it was in the same three months in 2019. Despite the fact that the data show there’s no significant change in migration, press accounts insist on repeating myths out people leaving cities.

Must read

1. Elon Musk’s hyperloop vaporware. The Boring Company’s claims that its hyperloop technology is going to disrupt urban transit are evaporating even before its Las Vegas demonstration project is complete. What was pitched originally as a exciting new automated underground system, is now just Teslas in a tunnel, and probably with human drivers. Tech Crunch reports that not only will individual vehicles only carry 5 passengers maximum, but the logistics of loading passengers will likely slash the system’s actual capacity to as little as a quarter of what Musk’s team claimed.  As Human Transit’s Jarrett Walker always reminds us, these car-based solutions run up against barriers of fundamental geometry, that can’t be disrupted.

2. The urban interstate and the damage done (Indianapolis edition).  Across the nation in the 1950s and 1960s, highway engineers demolished vibrant, walkable urban neighborhoods, chiefly to speed suburban car commuters through an increasingly sprawling landscape. Daniel Bradley of WRxx-TV has a terrific essay relating the story of the construction of Interstates 65 and 70 through Indianapolis, and the destruction of the neighborhoods (and renting of the urban fabric they caused).  More than 8,000 buildings were demolished and 17,000 persons displaced by the freeways. And the freeways dealt a body-blow to what had been the kind of urban spaces cities are struggling today to re-create:

“They don’t really realize it was a huge network of neighborhoods,” said [Paula] Brooks, an environmental health senior associate with the Hoosier Environmental Council and a Ransom Place neighborhood advocate. “It was a truly mixed-use urban neighborhood, the kind of neighborhood these young urbanists are fantasizing about now. You could get everything you needed. There were grocery stores and dry cleaners. Restaurants and beauty shops. For recreation, people could go to the park, a bowling alley or a skating rink.

You can tell the same stories for scores of other US cities.  It was a monumentally expensive and unthinking commitment to reshaping the places we live for the convenience of those driving through, and we’re still struggling to overcome the damage today.

3. Traffic safety: Something is 94 percent wrong. Dan Kostelec, writing at StreetsblogNYC debunks the oft-repeated claim that 94 percent of traffic deaths are due to “human error.” This framing of the causes of “accidents” is a favorite both of highway engineers and autonomous vehicle advocates.  The latter imagine that eliminating human’s from driving will, automatically, eliminate nearly all crashes. The highway engineers rely on the claim to deflect responsibility for designing and building roads that create dangerous conditions and that are unforgiving of the likely “errors” that they cause. For example, wide straight roads, with few pedestrian crossings, prompt speeding and give those on foot few options.  The trouble, Kostelec, argues, is the 94 percent number is a fabrication:

Simply put: It’s not true. Crashes are more complex than that and we need to understand all those factors to stand a chance at reducing traffic deaths in the United States.

New Knowledge

Urban density an Covid-19. A recent paper on the timing and severity of the Covid-19 pandemic, and its connection to urban density dispels the key myths about the Coronavirus. Particularly in the early days of the pandemic, the highest number of cases were recorded in large metro areas, like New York City; that observation led many to conclude that urban density itself was a cause (or aggravator) of virus spread.

But this paper from economists at the London School of Economics, takes a more nuanced view of the spread of the virus.  The authors look not just at overall death rates from Covid-19, but also at the timing of outbreaks.  Their key insight is that more populous and denser metropolitan areas were more likely to be hit early in the pandemic, and that smaller, less dense, and less populated metro areas, and rural areas were more likely to be hit later.  The timing of the disease reflects the breadth and depth of connections that large metro areas have with the rest of the country and the world; the vector of the virus is contacts, and large metro areas have more, and more diverse contacts than smaller metros and rural areas.

Ultimately, though, we are all connected, and the virus—as we’ve noted at City Observatory—has spread virtually everywhere.  As this paper observes, the rate of deaths from the disease, once the virus has reached an area, is essentially no different in higher density areas than lower density ones.  The key chart from the paper is this one, which shows the death rate, per 100,000 population, 45 days after the first death from Covid-19.  Data are for counties, with the death rate shown on the vertical axis, and the county’s population density on the horizontal axis.

The slope of the regression line is almost perfectly flat, suggesting that there is no correlation between county density and death rates, 45 days after the instance of the first recorded Covid-19 death in a county.

This is a compelling analysis of the data because it offers a plausible explanation for the commonplace observation that the disease was worse first in several big cities, as well as the fact that the disease has, in the past several months, become increasingly prevalent and severe in smaller metros and rural areas.

Felipe Carozzi, Sandro Provenzano, Sefi Roth,
Urban Density and Covid-19,
CEP Discussion Paper No 1711 August 2020


In the News

Oregonian columnist Steve Duin cited our analysis of the proposed $5 billion Portland Metro bond measure in his commentary, “Your father’s transportation plan.”  Duin called our analysis “pointed and persuasive,” writing:

Cortright argues the wage tax “is unrelated to transportation, effectively taxing those who use the system least, and subsidizes those who drive and pollute the most.” It “cannibalizes the principle source of funding for transit operations” at a time when TriMet is in crisis.

And even though Metro trumpets its imperative to “reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prepare for a climate-changing future,” Measure 26-218 does virtually nothing, Cortright says, to reduce emissions.

Our analysis also figured prominently in the Oregonian’s coverage of the debate over the ballot measure.