The relationship between gasoline prices and taxes and sprawl

The Infrastructurist discusses  a recent study that suggests that an increase in gas prices leads to a reduction in sprawl. Here is a summary of the study:

Georges Tanguay and Ian Gingras analyzed data from the 12 largest metropolitan region in Canada for the period of 1986 to 2006 and found that higher gas prices “contributed significantly” to less sprawl:

On average, a 1% increase in gas prices has caused: i) a .32% increase in the population living in the inner city and ii) a 1.28% decrease in low-density housing units…

Tanguay and Gingras addressed this shortcoming by expanding their observations over a 20-year window. The researchers found the aforementioned link between higher gas prices and reductions in sprawl. They also report that a 1 percent increase in gas taxes led to a .2 percent reduction in commuting distance (though the effect is small, amounting to just 14 fewer meters of travel, on average).

The researchers did notice a potential mitigating factor: income. Every 1 percent rise in median income led to a .23 percent decrease in city center living. That means any reduction in sprawl that occurred as a result of rising gas prices could be offset by rising income.

So if gas prices went up more than $2 on average in the US between late 2008 and today (roughly a 140% increase), then we would expect the inner city population to grow by 44.8% (.32% increase in population*140) over the same time period? Perhaps this is extrapolating beyond the scope of this data but this would be quite a population shift. Even a smaller increase in gas prices, say 10%, would lead to a predicted increase of 3.2% in inner city population, still a sizable increase.

It would be helpful to take the same kind of analysis and apply it to American metropolitan areas. Does the same relationship hold? I suspect it might not as some big central cities have not really gained much population in the last decade (see the case of Chicago or New York City). Could some of this observation come from how the Canadian government measures city centers or from a higher proportion of Canadians living in the “city center” (the study suggests the proportion of the population living in city centers is “the average for Canadian CMAs is 55%” – the American population is at least 50% suburban)? Does Canadian culture have less emphasis on sprawl (and single-family homes with yards, driving, etc.) compared to American culture?

This is an interesting finding but I would be interested in seeing more research on this. A 2004 American study cited in the discussion reached this conclusion: “The results show that every penny increase in the state gasoline
tax in the late 1980s is associated with nearly a five square-mile reduction in the size of an average urbanized area.” Additionally, I would be curious to hear more about why this study used the “average-sized” urban area in a state as the dependent variable:

The dependent variable, the average-sized urban area in the state, ranges from a high of337.8 square miles (Arizona, given the large size of the Phoenix metropolitan area) to a low of29.34 square miles (West Virginia). The mean of the dependent variable is just over 120 square miles, which, for point of reference, is slightly more than double the size of the urban area contained in the Burlington, Vermont metropolitan area, or just under the size of the urbanized land area in the Anchorage, Alaska metropolitan area.

I see that the gas tax measure of interest is at the state level but using state level data for cities seems strange as urbanized areas can vary quite a bit (think of the comparison between Chicago, IL and Springfield, IL – both urban areas but quite different in scale and urbanization). Additionally, a measure like the percentage of state residents who use public transportation to get to work would seem to be related to the size of urban areas. Why not simply use each urbanized area as a case?

An argument for moving beyond cities/suburbs to walkable/unwalkable areas

A demographer makes an argument for moving beyond comparing cities and suburbs to looking at walkable and unwalkable areas which are not necessarily concentrated in either cities or suburbs:

Unfortunately, the census shines the light on the terms “city” and “suburb”–neither of which are the keys to understanding today’s built environment.

Core cities are comprised of pedestrian-oriented urban places, how Jerry Seinfeld lived, but they also include auto-centric suburban places, like the San Fernando Valley in the city of Los Angeles or the Palisades in the District of Columbia. Likewise, the suburbs of those core cities include classic subdivisions and McMansions, like the home of Tony Soprano, but they also include booming places like Old Town Pasadena, Reston Town Center near Dulles Airport outside D.C., and revitalized Jersey City and Hoboken, NJ, on the other side of the Hudson River from Manhattan.

The issue is where are walkable urban places being built, and they are being built in both central cities and the suburbs surrounding them. My 2007 survey of the walkable urban places in the top 30 metros showed 50 percent of them were in central cities and 50 percent were in the suburbs. In the metro area with the most walkable urban places, the Washington region, 70 percent of the walkable urban places were in the suburbs. These included Bethesda and Silver Spring in suburban Montgomery County, nine places in suburban Arlington County (like Ballston and Crystal City), and the newly built Washington Harbor in suburban Prince George’s County.

I haven’t looked at this 2007 survey data but it sounds interesting. Is there an easy way to demarcate walkable vs. unwalkable areas through publicly available data? While the Census definitions of and boundaries between cities and suburbs might be frustrating, the data is easy to understand and available to all.

At the same time, this argument is broader: it is about comparing denser versus less dense areas. Walkable areas work because residents can easily walk to or access essential needs like grocery stores, public spaces, eateries, and more. At stake here is whether less dense urban areas, like the north side of Chicago with its many single-family homes, are more similar to suburban areas (which range from inner-ring suburbs to very sparse communities on the suburban fringe) or to more central districts like the Chicago Loop.

I would think that suburban areas are more similar to each other in design and culture than to large portions of large cities. But if more suburban areas become more dense (and this may be what Americans want) and the importance of the core of metropolitan areas decline, perhaps this will change.

Venkatesh argues Anderson’s recent book highlights sociology’s identity problem

Sudhir Venkatesh reviews Elijah Anderson’s new book The Cosmopolitan Canopy (earlier review here) and argues that the text is emblematic of a larger identity crisis within sociology:

Anderson’s struggle to make sense of the current multicultural situation is not only a function of his own intellectual uncertainty. It is also a symptom of the field in which he is working, which is confused about its direction. Where sociology once gravitated to the most pressing problems, especially the contentious issues that drove Americans apart, it no longer seems so sure of its mission. With no obvious crisis, disaster, or glaring source of inequity as a backdrop demanding public action, a great American intellectual tradition gives every sign of weathering a troubled transition…

Anderson’s fascinating foray and his inability to tie together the seemingly contradictory threads highlight the new challenges that face our field. On the one hand, sociology has moved far away from its origins in thoughtful feet-on-the ground analysis, using whatever means necessary. A crippling debate now pits the “quants,” who believe in prediction and a hard-nosed mathematical approach, against a less powerful, motley crew—historians, interviewers, cultural analysts— who must defend the scientific rigor and objectivity of any deviation from the strictly quantitative path. In practice, this means everyone retreats to his or her comfort zone. Just as the survey researcher isn’t about to take up with a street gang to gather data, it is tough for an observer to roam free, moving from one place to another as she sees fit, without risking the insult: “She’s just a journalist!” (The use of an impenetrable language doesn’t help: A common refrain paralyzing our field is, “The more people who can understand your writing, the less scientific it must be.”)

For Anderson to give up “fly on the wall” observation, his métier, and put his corporate interviews closer to center-stage would risk the “street cred” he now regularly receives. This is sad because Anderson is on to the fact that we have to re-jigger our sociological methods to keep up with the changes taking place around us. Understanding race, to cite just one example, means no longer simply watching people riding the subway and playing chess in parks. The conflicts are in back rooms, away from the eavesdropper. They are not just interpersonal, but lie within large institutions that employ, police, educate, and govern us. A smart, nimble approach would be to do more of what Anderson does—search for clues, wherever they may lie, whether this means interviewing, observing, counting, or issuing a FOIA request for data.

If you search hard enough, you can find pockets of experimentation, where sociologists stay timely and relevant without losing rigor. It is not accidental they tend to move closer to our media-frenzied world, not away from it, because it’s there that some of the most illuminating social science is being done, free of academic conventions and strictures. At Brown and Harvard, sociologists are using the provocative HBO series, The Wire, to teach students about urban inequality. At Princeton and Michigan, faculty make documentary films and harness narrative-nonfiction approaches to invigorate their research and writing. At Boston University, a model turned sociologist uses her experiences to peek behind the unforgiving world of fashion and celebrity. And the Supreme Court’s decision to grant the plaintiffs a “class” status in the Wal-Mart gender-discrimination case will hinge on an amicus brief submitted by a sociologist of labor. None of this spirited work occurs without risk, as I’ve found out through personal experience. Each time I finish a documentary film, one of my colleagues will invariably ask, “When are you going to stop and get back to doing real sociology?”

I have several thoughts about this:

1. I think it is helpful (and perhaps unusual) to see this piece at rather than in an academic journal. At the same time, is this only possible for an academic like Venkatesh who has a best-selling popular book (Gang Leader For a Day) and is also tied to the Freakonomics crowd?

2. Venkatesh seems to be bringing up two issues.

a. The first issue is one of direction: what are the main issues or areas in which sociology could substantially contribute to society? If some of the issues of the early days such as race (still an issue but Anderson’s data suggests it is exists in different forms) and urbanization (generally settled in favor of suburbanization in America) are no longer that noteworthy, what is next? Consumerism? Gender? Inequality between the rich and poor? Exposing the contradictions still present in society (Venkatesh’s conclusion)?

This is not a new issue. Isn’t this what public sociology was supposed to solve? There also has been some talk about fragmentation within the discipline and whether sociology has a core. Additionally, there is occasional conversation about why sociology doesn’t seem to get the same kind of public or policy attention as other fields.

b. The second issue is one of data. While both Anderson and Venkatesh are well-known for practicing urban ethnography (as Venkatesh notes, a tradition going back to the early 20th century work of the Chicago School), Venkatesh notes that even Anderson had to move on to a different technique (interviewing) to find the new story. More broadly, Venkatesh places this change within a larger battle between quantitative and qualitative data where people on each side discuss what is “real” data.

This quantitative vs. qualitative debate has also been around for a while. One effort in recent years to address this moves to mixed methods where researchers use multiple sources and techniques to reach a conclusion. But it also seems that one common way to critique the work of others is to jump right to the methodology and suggest that it is limited to the point that one cannot come to much of a conclusion. Most (if not all) data is not perfect and there are often legitimate questions regarding validity and reliability but researchers are often working with the best available data given time and monetary constraints.

In the end, I’m not sure Venkatesh provides many answers. So, perhaps just like his own conclusions regarding Anderson’s book (“Better to point [these contradictions] out, however speculative and provisional the results may be, than to hide from the truth.”), we should be content just that these issues have been outlined.

(Here is an outsider’s take on this piece: “One thing that’s the matter with sociology is that like economics the discipline’s certitude of conclusion outran its methodological rigor. Being less charitable, sociology is just an ideology which occasionally dons the gown of dispassionate objectivity to maintain a semblance of respectability.” Ouch.)

Continued issues for Walmart in Chicago

Even with discussions last year suggesting more amity between Walmart and the city of Chicago (and an earlier post here), there are still some issues for the retailer in the city.

1. Over the weekend, activists in Little Village, a neighborhood on Chicago’s west side, said they think Walmart should locate one of their stores in their neighborhood rather than just building on the south side:

At a news conference Sunday afternoon at 26th Street and Kolin, Raul Montes Jr. said people could benefit from having a Wal-Mart more centrally located in the city, vs. the locations on the South Side, which are currently planned.

Montes says Wal-Mart would do well at 26th and Kostner, which has been vacant for years. Montes says he and others in Little Village have sent letters to their alderman over the past few months and have so far, gotten no response.

He says they feel ignored.

2. Last night, Walmart representatives presented plans to residents of Lakeview, a neighborhood on the north side, regarding a proposed smaller version of their store called “Walmart Market.” There was some opposition from the crowd:

About 200 people — many wearing anti-Wal-Mart buttons and stickers — filed into the Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ to hear the proposal.

John Bisio, a Wal-Mart Stores Inc. public affairs senior manager, said that although he recognized the citizens’ concerns, the smaller facility at Broadway and Surf Street would not interfere with the neighborhood’s character…

But many in the audience could be heard snickering at company representatives’ arguments for why the 32,000-square-foot Walmart Market would be good for the North Side neighborhood.

After the presentation, several residents overwhelmingly shouted down the proposal and urged Alderman Tunney to push forth the zoning limitation in City Council.

It is interesting to contrast these two responses to Walmart: one neighborhood wants a store while another is very skeptical and thinks the store is unnecessary and could harm the neighborhood.

But with big box stores wanting to move into cities (Target recently talking about plans to open on State Street as well as recently opening their first store in Manhattan), these discussions will continue to take place.

2010 Census figures show growing urban population

In the last 110 years, the United States has become very urbanized: in 1900, 60.4% of the population was rural and 29.6% urban while in 1990, those numbers changed to 24.8% rural and 75.2% urban. New 2010 Census figures show that this trend has continued:

The U.S. population grew by 27 million over the decade, to 308 million. But growth was unevenly distributed. Metropolitan areas, defined as the collection of small cities and suburbs that surround an urban core with at least 50,000 people, accounted for most of the gain, growing 10.8% over the decade to 257.7 million people.

Rural areas, meanwhile, grew just 4.5% to 51 million. Many regions—from the Great Plains to the Mississippi Delta to rural New England—saw population declines. About 46% of rural counties lost population in the decade, including almost 60% of rural counties that aren’t adjacent to a metro area, according to an analysis of Census data by Kenneth Johnson, senior demographer at the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire.

Based on these 2010 figures of 308 million US residents (though the population now is just over 311 million), that means 83.67% of the US lives in metropolitan areas. I still want to see the breakdown of urban areas: how much of the population now lives in suburbs (50.0% of Americans in 2000 compared to 30.3% percent in central cities – page 33 of this report) compared to cities. It is interesting to note that rural areas have still grown in population even as nearly half of rural counties lost population. Where exactly are the rural growth spots and are these exurbs that will soon become part of a metropolitan region or tourist spots?

(The rest of the article talks about how the population continues to grow more in the South and West. Read more about that here.)

USA Today says McMansions are “out of vogue”

Citing recent housing figures, USA Today argues that McMansions are “out of vogue”:

Fran DiBello of Cleveland didn’t need a lot of room. For her, a three-story townhome has everything she could need.

“I really like the style of this home,” she says. “It’s very efficient. The appliances, the heat.”

It also has a view of Lake Erie and an 8-minute commute to work. Ten years ago, this neighborhood wasn’t here; 10 years ago, these homes would have been over shadowed by the McMansion.

“A McMansion was a trophy — often times a house with five or six bedrooms when you only needed two,” says Scott Phillips, real-estate agent with Keller Williams in Clevekand.

The median size of homes purchased in 2008, the most recent year for which figures are available, is 1,825 square feet. For first-time buyers it is 1,580 square feet, according to the National Association of Realtors.

A majority of the homes Phillips sells are less than 1,700 square feet.

Some consider it an outgrowth of being green; others see it as people living within their means.

Another shift in housing trends also means a move closer to the city’s core, Phillips says.

Numbers show that 90% of home sales nationwide are to young professionals looking for urban housing.

“People like to live where they’re closer to the amenities, the parks, nightlife, grocery stores,” he says.

The article seems to invoke several meanings of McMansions:

1. A more suburban home. This is contrasted with a desire for more urban homes in these tougher economic times.

2. A large home, a “trophy” where people bought a bunch of space that they really didn’t need. It is also suggested that this is wasteful of both money and resources (not being “green”).

But overall, the real story of the article seems not be about McMansions but about the most recent patterns: a shrinking median size of homes purchased and a rise in demand for urban housing among young professionals. This is contrasted with the “McMansion,” that exemplar of all suburban housing and of American housing excess.

About these newer trends:

1. This article cites the median size of homes purchased in 2008. The typical figures cited for home size is the size of the average new home purchased. This figure is still over 2,400 square feet though this is down a bit from the peak of several years ago. The median size is rarely cited and this article doesn’t provide any comparison so that we would know how this size in 2008 compares with previous years.

2. I also had not heard of this figure that “90% of home sales nationwide are to young professionals looking for urban housing.” This is remarkable if it is true. It suggests that this group is the primary one driving the market and that they clearly prefer more urban living. This corroborates what the National Association of Home Builders has discussed.

3. Is this a long-term trend or will Americans seek larger homes once the economy picks up? See my thoughts here.

Considering what the “green Loop” might look like

Amidst talk of eco-cities, a Chicago architectural firm has put together a plan to reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent within Chicago’s Loop. How to accomplish this: retrofit older buildings rather than building a lot of new, green buildings.

The architects break what they call the Central Loop into four types of buildings: heritage buildings (1880-1945), which are clad in heat-absorbing masonry and have operable windows; midcentury modern buildings (1945-75), which hog energy due to their vast expanses of glass and heavy reliance on air conditioning; post-energy-crisis buildings (1975-2000), which show greater energy-efficiency but are burdened by an unanticipated rise in computer use; and energy-conscious buildings (2000-present), which continue to improve efficiency but are in relatively short supply.

That brings us to the heart of the matter: The key to cutting pollution isn’t building new green buildings. There simply aren’t enough of them to make a difference. The only way to lower our carbon footprint is to make the buildings we already have more energy-efficient.

That’s possible, as evidenced by the recent transformation of the Merchandise Mart, the massive yet graceful Art Deco commercial and trade show building along the Chicago River. At 4.2 million gross square feet, it’s one of the world’s largest buildings. By taking a variety of steps — from installing energy-saving water pumps to promoting eco-friendly products to the building’s tenants — the Mart cut its overall energy consumption by 21 percent from 2006 to 2010, executives there say.

I wonder how this plan would be received by businesses and building owners. While they suggest energy costs will decrease in the long run and rents may increase, such retrofitting could be costly in the short-term and there could be some anxiety about doing these things in the middle of a tough real estate and business market.

And how much would the City of Chicago really get behind this? Mayor Daley has drawn plaudits in the past for promoting ideas like rooftop gardens but these are limited in number. The City itself faces significant financial troubles in the coming years and I imagine issues like jobs, pensions, crime and the number of police in the streets, will dominate conversations for a while.

I would enjoy seeing their charts or models to see which particular buildings in the Loop use more or less energy. The picture that leads this report on the plan probably shows carbon emissions or energy use by building.