Public Policy

It’s a Feature, Not a Bug: Inequality in Liberal Cities

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Republican Presidential DebatersAt the November 10, 2015 Republican presidential debate, candidate Rand Paul said that inequality in cities — the gap between the rich and poor — “seems to be worst in cities run by Democrats.” His comment received rousing applause from the audience, and much media attention.

To be fair, Paul got the data right (for the most part). Liberal cities do have worse inequality than the national average, and the largest, most dynamic cities are the most unequal. But not for the reasons Paul thinks.

Inequality is a feature of liberal cities, not a bug, Emily Badger explains for the Washington Post’s Wonk Blog. Big cities, those most often run by Democrats, simultaneously welcome the poor and attract the wealthy, leading to inequality. Badger writes that, on the other hand, “Exclusionary suburbs that keep out the poor and working class appear, on paper, awfully egalitarian (everyone makes $100,000!).”

Simply Put, Paul’s implication — that Republican policies are better suited to address inequality or bring people out of poverty than Democratic ones — are hogwash. Thankfully, his comment is receiving the attention it deserves, and a myth about cities that Paul sought to perpetuate is being dispelled instead.


When ‘To Protect and Serve’ Becomes ‘To Shame and Ridicule’

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NYC HomelessThe disparity between the “haves” and “have nots” is perhaps nowhere more striking than in New York City. One end of the economic spectrum is best symbolized by the array of new condominium skyscrapers reshaping the city’s skyline (top price, $95 million). Pan down 1,000 feet or so, and the economics shift just as precipitously. At street level, huddled in doorways or sleeping on park benches, are the city’s poorest of the poor. New York’s homeless population is at an all-time high, at around 59,000. New Yorkers’ reactions have ranged from concerned to outraged.

New York’s Mayor Bill de Blasio has been the recipient of most of the ire over this issue, since homelessness spiked on his watch. But it is the recent actions of the police that have come under fire of late. In a bizarre attempt to draw attention to minor law infractions or signs of disorder (the so-called “broken window” theory of policing), police in New York posted hundreds of photographs of homeless people onto a Flickr account (since removed) titled “Peek-a-Boo.”

The New York Post seems to be the only news outlet that reacted positively to the police’s actions, calling the city’s homeless, many of whom are mentally ill, “vagrants” and “bums,” and intimating that their “quality of life crimes” were deserving of public ridicule. The rest of the sensible media recognized the police’s actions for what they were: an insensitive shaming that further ostracizes a marginalized class of people, and another misstep by police who are quickly gaining a reputation as bullies rather than protectors.

Photo by Flickr User Paolo Margori

New Research Reveals the Cost of Sprawl to Municipal Coffers

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[By Paul Goddin for Mobility Lab]

A suburban development

Ever since the Roman Empire, local governments have had great control over land use. Today, this control is exerted through zoning regulations, tax policies, and infrastructure-investment decisions. Municipalities can choose to develop in an unconnected, low-density, suburban-style manner, or they can consider more compact, connected urban land uses.

These decisions have enormous implications for a municipality’s finances, according to a new report from non-profit Smart Growth America and real-estate advisory firm RCLCO.

The report, The Fiscal Implications of Development Patterns, is authored by Smart Growth America’s Chris Zimmerman and RCLCO’s Lee Sobel. They analyze the dollar costs to municipalities of different land-use patterns, concluding that, overall, dispersed, car-dependent land use patterns result in higher costs to municipalities than dense, urban development. Choosing sprawl over density, the authors state, could have multimillion-dollar consequences.

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A Bikeshare Station on Every Corner?

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[By Paul Goddin for Greater Greater Washington and Mobility Lab]

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A new study from the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) says people use bikeshare more when a given area has more stations. But the study makes a density recommendation that’s going to be hard to ever meet, and not everyone agrees it’s a good idea in the first place.

NACTO’s report, released April 28th, adds to the growing body of research that says station density is a key factor in a bikeshare system’s success. While that claim isn’t controversial in itself, NACTO’s suggestions regarding station density cause a bit more friction.

NACTO recommends that cities place bikeshare stations no more than 1,000 feet apart—that is, at a density of 28 stations per square mile. This density would put a bike share station within a five-minute walk of each resident in a city.

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Two Main Reasons D.C. Transit Ridership is Decreasing

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[By Paul Goddin for Mobility Lab and GreaterGreaterWashington]


Americans took a record 10.75 billion trips on public transportation in 2014, according to annual ridership statistics released this month by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA).

This is up from 10.65 billion trips in 2013, with the number of trips outpacing population growth. In a year of low gasoline prices, the increase is welcome news for the public transportation industry.

Nevertheless, CityLab’s Eric Jaffe has advised caution at reading too much into these numbers, pointing out that New York City’s transit ridership skews the data, and that overall, bus ridership is down. Also, Washington D.C.’s ridership numbers have been decreasing. Apart from the ART Bus in Arlington, Washingtonians’ use of public transportation declined between 2013 and 2014. The decreases are not dramatic, but are still worrisome.

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The Federal Government is Making Your Commute Worse

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[By Paul Goddin for Mobility Lab]


There are a lot of reasons to be frustrated with the gridlocked federal government, but when it comes to transportation, this headline probably hits home the hardest. And it is the primary claim of a report released today, Subsidizing Congestion, by TransitCenter and The Frontier Group, that describes the numerous ways in which a relatively obscure U.S. tax policy impacts commuters.

The commuter tax benefit is a subsidy that allows employees to withhold money from their paychecks, tax-free, to spend on transit usage, parking fees, and other commute-related expenses.

From 2009 through 2013, the benefit was equal for all employees regardless of whether they drove or took transit. About a year ago, however, Congress decreased the cap on transit benefits from $245 to $130 per month. At the same time, the cap was increased for drivers, capped at $250 per month.

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Bikesharing, Carsharing Discussed at Mobility Summit

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[By Paul Goddin for Mobility Lab, published on June 10, 2014]


Congressman Earl Blumenauer began the two-day Innovation in Mobility Public Policy Summit in Washington D.C. calling for multimodal transportation systems.

The Oregon Democrat described how transit, walking, and cycling are all necessary in order to “coax more capacity” out of our current transportation systems. And it seems, by the focus of speakers on a panel called “How Local Governments are Using Innovation to Complete Multimodal Transportation Systems,” that localities are primarily focused on the bikesharing and car-sharing elements of the transportation sharing economy.

These shared-use modes tend to be excellent at filling in the gaps and extending the reach of current regional transit systems.

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