What City Observatory did this week

The Opposite of Planning:  Why Portland’s Metro government needs to turn down the highway department request for more money to plan future freeway widenings.  On paper, and to admirers, Portland has a pretty potent regional government.  Metro is directly elected, and empowered to make important regional transportation decisions.  It’s being asked by the Oregon Department of Transportation to bless spending a tranche of $36 million (out of an anticipated bill of $200 million) just to plan a revival of the failed I-5 Columbia River Crossing project (which will ultimately cost upwards of $5 billion).  We outline the reasons Metro should say “No!;” all of them are core to Metro’s professed commitment to planning.

Just a portion of the plan to Super-Size I-5 at a cost of $5 billion.

The project is based on 15-year old traffic data used to create obsolete models, it fails to incorporate what we no about induced demand, and how larger freeways simply generate more traffic and increased greenhouse gas emissions.  Despite the fact that the state and region have said they’re going to use road pricing, the project’s planning has failed completely to consider how pricing will affect road use, and how it may reduce or eliminate the need for added capacity.  All this spending on roads flies in the face of supposed commitments (Hello, Glasgow!) to address climate change.  Finally, the Oregon and Washington DOT’s don’t actually have a serious financial plan for the $5 billion cost, and to add insult to injury, they’re asking Metro to divert money from maintaining existing roads to subsidizing the planning for this expansion.  It’s the opposite of planning.

Must read

1. The problem with minimum bike parking requirements.  The hegemony of the automobile in urban transportation leads some to assume that, logically, promoting other modes requires somehow repeating for bikes or walking or transit the preferential policies that have favored cars. One case in point:  bike parking requirements.  Some communities now look to stimulate bike use by mandating bike parking as a condition of land use approvals. While superficially that may seem fair, New American Planning argues that the trouble is the connection between biking and particular land uses varies substantially from place to place, and we don’t have a really valid baseline for judging how much parking is really needed or useful.

2. A detailed picture of segregation in Philadelphia.  Last month, we ranked the nation’s 50 large metropolitan areas based on 2020 data on their racial segregation.  Philadelphia is one of the ten most segregated metro areas by that measure. The Philadelphia Inquirer has an impressive and detailed by of data journalism exploring the geography of segregation in the City of Brotherly Love.  The article has copious maps showing concentrations of different racial and ethnic groups.
It also has a lucid and well-illustrated explanation of the “dissimilarity index” commonly used to measure segregation, and compare levels of segregation over time, and across cities.  The Inquirer piece is a model exploration of segregation at the city level.
3. Our self-imposed scarcity of nice places.  Writing at Strong Towns, Daniel Herriges takes a close look at how the commonplace workaday neighborhoods of the 19th Century have become some of the most desirable and expensive places to live in any American city.  He notes that when they were built, streets like Milwaukee Avenue in Minneapolis were solidly working class.  Today, with their density, walkability and assortment of mixed use buildings, they now command top dollar in the real estate market.  It isn’t just the historic quality or quaintness of these neighborhoods that gives them their high value:  it is that they are in short supply.  For decades, all we’ve built is sprawling, low density auto-dependent places, with the result that the few remaining walkable places have a scarcity value.  In part, as we’ve argued at City Observatory, that’s because we’ve made it illegal, via zoning codes and parking requirements, to build this kind of neighborhood.
Herriges also makes an important point about recent “New Urbanist” efforts to replicate these design principles in purpose-built new communities like Seaside Florida.  Critics have observed, correctly that such communities have become expensive and elite.  But has Herriges points out, that’s not inherent to their design, its again, because such places are in short supply.  Developers of new urbanist places actually find that the public infrastructure is less expensive, largely because development is more compact.  The fact that dense, walkable places–whether old or new–command high prices isn’t a signal that their somehow elitist, but rather a clear market sign that we need much more aggressively increase the supply to meet an unrequited demand.

New Knowledge

Cities grew and and became more diverse over the past decade.  Brookings Institution demographer Bill Frey has a look at the trends population growth and in the racial and ethnic composition of large US cities based on the latest 2020 Census data.  In general, over the past decade, large US cities added more residents, and also became more diverse.  Of the 50 largest cities, 46 gained population in the decade between 2010 and 2020; and population growth in these cities was collectively faster in the past ten years (8.5 percent) than in the ten years from 2000 to 2010 (5.6 percent).  In addition to accelerating population growth, large cities led the nation in increased diversity.

Over the past two decades, the share of the population that is Non-Hispanic white in large cities has declined from about 42 percent to 36 percent.  In the aggregate the 50 largest cities are now a little more than one-third Non-Hispanic White, a little less than one-third Hispanic, about 20 percent Black and about 10 percent Asian. While the trend of increasing diversity is playing out nationally, these large cities are considerably more diverse than the nation as a whole.

Not surprisingly, increasing racial and ethnic diversity shows up most in the younger residents of cities.  Among younger age cohorts, the fraction of the population that is Black, Hispanic or Asian is higher than it is for older age cohorts.

It is important to emphasize that these are data for the population inside the city limits of the largest cities.  As we’ve frequently noted at City Observatory, municipal boundaries capture widely varied portions of their metro areas; some large cities encompass much of their region, including lower density suburban style development; while in other places, the largest city is just the higher density, older urban core.

William H. Frey, 2020 Census: Big cities grew and became more diverse, especially among their youth,
Brookings Institution Report, October 28, 2021

In the News

Streetsblog republished our essay calling out the one place where socialism flourishes in America:  in parking.

Strong Towns republished our commentary “Ten reasons not to trust your state DOT claims about highway widening.”