“Where Are You From?” vs. “Where Did You Go to School?” Cities

This week I sat down with Michael Hendrix, recently arrived Director of State and Local Policy for the Manhattan Institute, for a podcast on cities. We talk about how the questions people ask when they meet you say a lot about cities. We also talk about tech scenes, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, and Northeast and Columbus, Ohio.

If the audio player doesn’t display for you, click over to listen on Soundcloud.

Subscribe to podcast via  iTunes | Soundcloud.

Cover image of Salt Lake City by Pasteur, CC BY-SA 3.0

from Aaron M. Renn


Seattle Keeps Posting Strong Transit Gains

Streetsblog pointed me at a study out of Seattle showing very strong transit growth in the central core. Since 2010, the number of jobs in central Seattle has grown by 60,000, but the number of people driving alone to work fell by 4,500. Transit mode share grew by 6 percentage points and is now at 48.4%.

One thing you’ll notice is the preponderance of bus utilization. Historically Seattle has had a bus oriented transit system. The fact that it’s grown not just central city but regional mode share for transit with bus makes Seattle a real candidate city for rail investments. I haven’t analyzed the current proposals in any details, but Seattle has proven itself with transit.

from Aaron M. Renn

Gentrification and the Rust Belt

Following up on my podcast with Akron’s Jason Segedy, I want to highlight this excellent piece of his from December on gentrification and the Rust Belt. Segedy observes the same thing I do, the rise of an anti-gentrification movement in cities where the real problem is continued neighborhood decline.

While it can be unclear whether the return of middle class and affluent residents to a neighborhood will really do anything to improve economic conditions for the poor, it is an ironclad certainty that a continued lack of socioeconomic diversity, and its concomitant concentrated poverty, will improve nothing and help no one in these cities – the poor most of all.

For 50 years now, people, jobs, and economic opportunities have steadily left our cities for the suburbs. The status-quo in our region is, indisputably, one of widespread, entrenched urban poverty, geographically separated from (predominately suburban) economic opportunity.

Yet, even the earliest signs of neighborhood revitalization, and nascent attempts at building new housing and opening small businesses in these cities are frequently opposed by people who are convinced that they are acting in the name of social justice.

Sincere as these anti-gentrification sentiments might be, I believe that they are harmful, and, if allowed to derail incipient efforts to reinvest in urban neighborhoods, simply serve to ensure that the existing dynamic of socioeconomic segregation will remain unchanged.

In many cases, the very people who claim to be fighting the current unjust system are inadvertently perpetuating it. Gentrification alarmists have yet to come to grips with the fact that their position usually serves to reinforce the existing, highly inequitable, situation.

Many critics of Rust Belt gentrification are holding cities to an unreasonable standard, and placing them in an impossible situation.

If much of the city remains poor and run-down, this is proof that the city does not care, and is not trying hard enough.

If, on the other hand, parts of the city begin to attract new residents and investment, this is proof that the city does not care, and is not trying hard enough.

Heads I win. Tails you lose.

Sometimes, it seems that the only thing that people dislike more than the status-quo, is doing anything substantive to change it.

Click through to read the whole thing.

from Aaron M. Renn

Inclusionary Zoning Flops in Portland

Photo Credit: Cacophony, GFDL

As the price of housing continues to rise in many cities, one popular progressive policy idea to address it is inclusionary zoning. Inclusionary zoning requires that a certain percentage of units in a building be priced at below market, targeted at people who earn some fraction of the area median income. Often this set aside is required in exchange for density bonuses or other things the developer might want.

Portland passed one of these, and according to a report in the Portland Mercury, construction fell off a cliff:

A year ago, Portland City Council enacted “Inclusionary Housing” (IH), a new policy requiring any apartment building of 20 units or more to rent a portion of them below market rates—from 30 to 80 percent of the city’s median family income, depending on the option a developer selects.

When the city implemented the policy, detractors warned the new rules would simply ensure developers stopped building here. City officials argued IH would force the private market to create much-needed affordable units in Portland’s building boom.

A year into the policy, the detractors seem to be winning. Apartment construction in Portland has fallen off a cliff, though there’s still ambiguity as to whether IH or other market forces are the key reason. Meanwhile, Mayor Ted Wheeler is planning to sweeten the deals that the city offers developers to convince them to build.

So far, IH’s results are underwhelming. According to the city’s Bureau of Development Services, 12 qualifying buildings with a total of 682 units have applied for permits since the IH policy went into effect on February 1, 2017. Under IH, those projects could bring in anywhere from 55 to 170 below-market units, depending on the options their owners select (not all developers have decided, so an actual number of affordable units isn’t clear).

Whatever the case, 682 is a huge drop off for a housing market that from 2013 to 2017 typically built between 3,000 and 6,000 new units per year. And the number doesn’t give the complete picture.


“We’ve seen the spigot turned off so completely, so fast,” says Kurt Schultz, a principal at SERA Architects, who notes that his clients who’ve worked with similar policies in other cities often blanch when told of Portland’s strict IH rules. “I’ve never seen it turned off so fast before, and I’ve been doing this for 30 years.”

I don’t have any real analysis to give on this, but the reporting is pretty stark. Click through to read the whole thing.


from Aaron M. Renn

We Need to Be Honest About the Negatives of Transit

Elon Musk created a stir, when he pooh-poohed the rider experience of transit. As quoted in the Guardian:

The billionaire entrepreneur had expressed disdain for the inconvenience and cramped confines of mass transit – along with the potential proximity to “serial killers” – in response to an audience member’s question about public transport and urban sprawl at the Neural Information Processing Systems conference in Long Beach, California, last week.

“I think public transport is painful. It sucks,” he said. “Why do you want to get on something with a lot of other people, that doesn’t leave where you want it to leave, doesn’t start where you want it to start, doesn’t end where you want it to end? And it doesn’t go all the time …

“It’s a pain in the ass,” Musk concluded. “That’s why everyone doesn’t like it. And there’s like a bunch of random strangers, one of who might be a serial killer – OK, great. And so that’s why people like individualised transport, that goes where you want, when you want.”

This prompted people on twitter to respond with reports of all the great things that happen on transit.  For example:

The response prompted Brent Toderian, a Vancouver-based city planner and urbanist, to appeal for people’s stories of “great things that happened on transit” on Twitter – and Twitter came to transit’s defence.

“I expected a response, but the size and inspirational power of the response blew away my expectations,” Toderian told Guardian Cities.

People from around the world shared their stories of births and marriages, surprise reconnections, strangers’ kindnesses, and appropriately festive cheer that had occurred on public transport.

It’s understandable that people want to push back against Musk’s overwrought portrayal of transit. Transit does in fact have many great qualities, and you don’t get threatened by serial killers. For me, it gets me where I want to go quickly and cheaply in most cases. It’s great to not have to own a car in the city.

However, those of us who do like transit need to be honest with ourselves that there are many negative experiential aspects of transit ridership, and that a lot of people put a greater weight on them than we do.

A while back Copenhagenize pushed back against this car company ad from Portugal:

The thing is, anybody who has ridden subways any period of time has probably run into most of those scenarios. While to someone like me, these “life in the big city” moments are just part of deal you make to live here, that’s not true for everybody. I know women even here in New York who have felt threatened and unsafe on the train because of mentally ill people accosting them.

While Musk is off the rails here, there are a lot of negative quality of experience points on transit (just as there are for cars). These need to be admitted, not least of which so that there can be a focus on mitigating them.

from Aaron M. Renn

A Quick Look at Trump’s Infrastructure Proposal

President Trump is out today with his awaited infrastructure proposal. I have an initial overview and analysis over at City Journal.

President Trump’s proposed $1.5 trillion infrastructure program takes a page out of his playbook as a real estate developer, leveraging other people’s money to build things. Trump is proposing a $200 billion federal contribution, about 13 percent of his hoped-for investment total; the idea is that the initial federal investment will encourage states, localities, and private investors to contribute the remaining 87 percent.

The program’s centerpiece is a $100 billion federal matching fund that will provide up to 20 percent of the cost of a project—a ratio that reverses historical practice. Often, Washington puts up as much as 80 percent of the cost of highway projects, with localities contributing the rest. Trump’s plan makes “new revenue”—for example, tolls on currently free interstates—the biggest determinant of which projects will qualify for the federal match. A big question mark is whether a 20 percent federal contribution will be enough of a carrot to induce states to invest. And while the plan is billed as empowering states, the federal government will determine which projects get funded through the match program—so Washington will maintain control, perhaps even more so than today.

Click through to read the whole thing.

from Aaron M. Renn

Akron and the Mid-Sized Post-Industrial City

I was in Akron last week and got to record a podcast with Jason Segedy, planning director of the city. In addition to talking about mid-sized post-industrial cities like Akron, we also briefly mentioned Generation X urbanism in these places. If you haven’t read it, but sure to check out his article on the topic called “Confessions of a Rust Belt Orphan.”

If the audio player doesn’t display for you, click over to listen on Soundcloud.

Follow Jason on Twitter or read his blog Notes from the Underground.

Subscribe to podcast via iTunes | Soundcloud.

from Aaron M. Renn