Monday, February 23, 2015

Where the Data Leads Us

For a long time, I had a reader on Petaluma Patch who would regularly challenge various points I’d written, although the word “challenge” may give him too much credit.  Using the strawman approach, he would misunderstand an aspect of my argument, perhaps intentionally, and then try to demolish the misrepresented point with emotional arguments and appeals to dubious authority (Agenda 21 was frequently cited), thereby supposedly refuting my entire argument. 

During one of the periodic Patch reboots, I lost the reader.  I don’t miss him.  Despite his flimsy and insubstantial arguments, I always feared that readers who might be inclined toward unjustified opposition to urbanism would latch onto his comments and accord them more credibility than they deserved.

But I also miss the reader just a little bit.  His comments were like 70 mile per hour batting practice fastballs.  Bashing them into the bleachers could be a good warmup for the game conditions to follow.

As one example, he would often note the high sales prices at a land-use project that had elements of urbanism and cite them as proof that urbanism is elitist.  Over multiple opportunities, I honed a three-part response:

(1)    Housing cost is only part of the financial aspect of an urbanist lifestyle.  If the housing location allows a family to live with fewer vehicles, the effective cost would be less than it seems.
(2)    The cost of urban housing is often driven upwards by city policies on impact fees and infrastructure improvements, as urbanist projects are frequently used to subsidize financially unsustainable suburban development.  The cost of that negative subsidy shouldn’t count against the concept of urbanism.
(3)    Urbanism is popular and under-served.  Unsatisfied market demand often allows a surcharge, which means we need more urbanist projects, not fewer. 

I felt confident that in this three-part answer, which felt like three hard hit line-drives.  But I retained a touch of reservation.  While I felt that each of the answers was correct, and could point to facts to support each point, there seemed to a lack of a comprehensive data-based assessment of land use that would truly support the case for urbanism.  I was driving the batting practice fastballs into the power alleys, but was perhaps falling short of the fences.

So it was with satisfaction that I attended a recent program at which the Federal Reserve Bank, hosting the meeting in coordination with the UC Davis Center for Regional Change and others, introduced their book “What Counts: Harnessing Data for America’s Communities”.  (The book was co-edited by the Urban Institute.)

The thrust of the book is to apply the best available data to social questions such as transit-oriented development and gentrification.  The answers that were offered during the meeting weren’t definitive, largely because the data isn’t nearly as comprehensive as might be hoped, but they were a step in the right direction and defined a path toward better, more data-driven land-use decisions.

The most poignant moment of the session came when Carl Anthony, an long-time advocate for urban investment benefitting the financially-challenged and now a leader with Breakthrough Communities, told of his surprise when he learned of the data showing that many urban projects of the type he’d championed were now serving the more affluent, with the folks that Anthony had hoped to benefit having been pushed to suburbs.

To Anthony’s credit, he bemoaned the unfortunate turn of events only briefly before turning himself to a new data-driven approach to solving the problem he had already spent years tackling.  It was a remarkable show of resilience from someone who was nearing the end of his working career and who had to be helped to the podium because of blindness.

There’s not space today to share all the insights garnered from the program and the book, but I can offer a couple of tastes.

For one, there has long been a goal to create a housing/jobs balance in Bay Area communities, with the thought that doing so would allow shorter commutes.  But a deeper dive into the data shows that even if a balance is approximately reached, the balance doesn’t persist across the economic spectrum.  There are significant pockets of the Bay Area in which the number of low wage jobs outweighs the number of affordable housing units by more than 4 to 1.  In the North Bay, the most significant pocket is around San Rafael.

For another, there was data that the average commute for low-wage workers was becoming significantly longer than for average-wage workers, so the people least able to afford transportation were increasingly obligated to pay higher transportation costs.  (To reiterate, this isn’t a failure of urbanism, it’s a failure to implement proper policies to facilitate good urbanism.  We need urbanism, but we especially need good urbanism.)

With the additional data in hand, if my old nemesis ever resurfaces I can be increasingly assured of taking his weak-armed batting practice fastballs into the upper rows of the bleachers.  And that feels good.

In my next post, I’ll dig into a couple of the papers in “What Counts”.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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