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After Years of Unchecked Sprawl, Employment Inches Closer to the City

To hear some urbanists talk, you’d think the outer suburbs have been abandoned wholesale, lawn-mowers still running with no one to drive them, picket fences left open in the owners’ haste to beat it to the city.

A new Brookings report puts the re-urbanization of America in perspective. During the economic crisis, from 2007 to 2010, job sprawl receded ever so slightly. And not everywhere. Actually, in more than half of the 100 biggest metro areas, job sprawl actually increased — it just increased less than it decreased in the other ones.

All in all, the economy shed jobs virtually everywhere between 2007 and 2010. So the rush to create new jobs in the outer reaches of suburbia halted, because there were no new jobs, period. As it happened, though, urban cores lost a slightly smaller share of their jobs than outer-ring areas.

Report author Elizabeth Kneebone has been tracking job sprawl trends for years, and she says that although there are still more jobs outside cities than in them, the recession has had a notable impact.

“After dropping two percentage points from 2000 to 2007, the share of metropolitan jobs within three miles of downtown stabilized from 2007 to 2010,” she wrote. “However, by 2010 nearly twice the share of jobs was located at least 10 miles away from downtown (43 percent) as within three miles of downtown (23 percent).”

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Confronted With Congestion Pricing, People Clamor for Transit, Gas Tax

Three scenarios for congestion pricing: 1) priced lanes on all major highways, 2) a mileage charge levied on all roads and streets, and 3) priced zones. Image: MWCOG/Brookings

Could a congestion pricing program work in the DC region? Maybe. But first, officials would need to get the public on board — no easy task. A report on the conclusions from five public forums, held in the region between October 2011 and January 2012, suggest that more and better transportation options need to be in place before a congestion charge is levied, so that commuters feel they have options.

The National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board, together with the Brookings Institution, found that the 300 people they talked to are skeptical of any government plan to get more money, and are sorely undereducated about how transportation funding works. The study was funded by FHWA as a followup to a 2003 study to determine the technical viability and potential benefits of congestion pricing. Now they want to know the political viability of such an idea.

The biggest barrier to acceptance is the simple fact that people don’t understand transportation. The participants in the study didn’t know that funding was a problem or a cause of many of the inadequacies of the system. They didn’t know how much the gas tax is, that it doesn’t rise with inflation, or that it hasn’t changed in 20 years.

They don’t see themselves and their own driving as contributors to the problem of congestion. They blame construction and other drivers (especially those from “other jurisdictions” — DC and Virginia residents love to beat up on “Maryland drivers”) — anything but their own driving. They assume that congestion pricing can’t work because everyone on the road is there because they have to be. They don’t think they, or their fellow drivers, have choices in travel behavior.

The Washington region is relatively well-served by transit and ride-sharing, so many of them were probably wrong in assuming they don’t have options. Be that as it may, participants were supportive of adding new transportation options. Even the most car-centric people — those who live far outside the urban core and drive alone to work — thought it was important to build more transit and facilities for biking and walking.

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Brookings: Revive State Infrastructure Banks to Stretch Transpo Dollars

In these days of stagnant gas taxes, state and local governments are scrambling for new ways to finance infrastructure. Rahm Emanuel has his $7 billion Chicago Infrastructure Trust, and Antonio Villaraigosa has his America Fast Forward. Even John Kasich in Ohio is trying to sell advertising at rest stops to shore up ODOT.

In a new report, the Brookings Institution offers another potential answer: state infrastructure banks. These financing agencies offer local governments low-interest loans for important infrastructure projects, and they can attract additional private capital.

“With Washington gridlocked and retrenching, the new state banking models offer a hopeful counterpoint to national dysfunction,” said Brookings’ Mark Muro in a press release.

State infrastructure banks aren’t a new tool. The first ones were created with an infusion of federal cash in the early 1990s. Today, 33 states have an infrastructure bank or a state revolving fund. These institutions have financed about $9 billion in infrastructure spending for 1,200 projects. About 88 percent of the total spending, however, went to road projects.

Republicans wanted to include federal funding to recapitalize SIBs in the transportation reauthorization, but MAP-21 did not offer any changes to the way these institutions are structured. The bill didn’t include a national infrastructure bank either, which Republicans oppose.

Robert Puentes, director of Brookings’ Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative, emphasized that while SIBs can address some funding problems, they are no substitute for a national infrastructure bank. SIBs can be inappropriate funding mechanisms for projects of truly national significance or that cross state lines.

“They are similar in name only, ” Puentes said. “They would fulfill very different functions.”

Indeed, SIBs vary greatly in their effectiveness. Of the existing 33 SIBs, 10 are inactive. The major factors that determine success, according to Brookings, are pretty simple: The SIBs must have sufficient capital, and they have to apply market discipline when selecting projects, prioritizing those that offer multiple benefits and strong economic returns.

Many times, however, the most competitive projects are toll roads. It’s often hard for transit to compete when the overriding interest is in direct return on investment from users, rather than public benefit.


Brookings: Inadequate Transit and Sprawl Cut Off Workers From Jobs

Transit access to employment is especially weak in the Midwest and South. Source: Brookings Institution

If there’s a problem connecting workers with workplaces, it stands to reason that there’s a problem connecting workplaces with workers. A new report from the Brookings Institution has teased out the subtleties of this side of the transit/jobs equation.

Last year, Brookings found that, on average, 70 percent of jobs in a metropolitan region are inaccessible to a typical resident via transit. Or at least, it would take over 90 minutes each way to get there.

This time around, Brookings looked at how large a pool of potential employees each employer has access to, assuming those employees would use transit to commute to work. And just as only 30 percent of jobs are accessible to most workers, only 27 percent of workers are accessible to most jobs, they found.

In terms of general access to transit, 70 percent of people in metropolitan areas live in neighborhoods that are served by transit and more than 75 percent of jobs are served by transit. Not surprisingly, the big divide is between suburban and urban locations within those metro areas. In cities, 95 percent of jobs are in transit-served neighborhoods, while in suburbs, only 64 percent of employers have transit service.

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Brookings: Suburban-Style Zoning Linked to Educational Inequality

Metro areas in the Northeast were found to have the highest "test-score gaps," a measure of educational inequality. Brookings found this was linked to economic segregation reinforced by large lot zoning in suburban jurisdictions. Image: Brookings

What do laws that mandate large yards and prevent walkable development have to do with educational opportunity? Turns out, there’s an important connection.

The Brookings Institution recently examined educational inequality across the U.S. by race and income. One of the key findings was that large-lot zoning requirements effectively restrict access to quality education for low-income children, hindering their long-term economic prospects.

Restrictive zoning laws are widespread. Brookings reports that 84 percent of municipalities impose some minimum lot size, the average being 0.4 acres. The authors note that this is larger than the average lot size of a single-family home in America — 0.26 acres. In other words, in most places it’s illegal just to build a home of typical size.

The authors report that these laws “effectively block low-income students and their families from living near or attending” public schools where students perform well on state exams. In areas with large lot laws, it is significantly more expensive to live near good public schools than it is in areas without restrictive zoning, according to the study.

This in turn has a significant effect on educational attainment and economic opportunity. Low-income students who attend top schools score two percent higher than state averages, according to Brookings. Low-income students attending low-performing schools score 18.5 percent below average.

The authors believe their research points to the inadequacy of education reforms like school vouchers or merit pay for teachers:

All of these reform strategies have one thing in common: They try to improve disadvantaged students’ access to high-performing schools through education policy. These reform ideas certainly have merit and should be carefully evaluated and considered, but they do not address one very important mechanism that sorts poor students into the lowest-scoring schools: housing policy. Housing and education policies should work together to promote access to improved school environments for low-income and minority children.

The most ambitious and consequential policy reform along these lines would be to eliminate exclusionary zoning altogether. In an ideal world, the federal government or states would forbid local governments from discriminating based on housing type (e.g. single-family attached or multi-family) or size (lot, floor, or frontage size). They could even agree to compensate jurisdictions for any disproportionate increases in local expenditures that resulted from higher density or lower-income development. Eliminating exclusionary zoning laws could produce large educational and economic benefits for low-income and minority children and families, and the U.S. economy as a whole. Unfortunately, the likelihood of such a reform, however market-oriented it may be, seems low at this time.

Barring such sweeping policy reforms, the authors point to regional or local housing and land use policies that could have an impact on improving educational equality, such as inclusionary zoning (compelling developments to include a certain percentage of low-income units) and focusing dense development near existing job centers and transit lines.