Sunday, April 25th, 2010

Thoughts on a Federal Policy for American Cities

America is a metropolitan nation, as has been tirelessly documented by the Brookings Institution and many others. Two-thirds of Americans live in the top 100 metro areas, which generate 68% of employment and 75% of GDP. You’ve heard the stats before I’m sure.

Yet the federal government has often given cities short shrift, preferring to think instead of the federal-state partnership through our system of federalism. The Obama administration has brought a new focus on cities, creating the first ever White House Office of Urban Affairs, but we are still a long way from having a real 21st century federal policy for America’s cities.

I’ll share some thoughts on a federal urban policy today, though clearly am not laying out any sort of a complete program myself. I just want to highlight some key considerations and ideas to stimulate thinking and conversation.

The Importance of Flexibility

The first thing to consider is the danger of a stronger federal urban policy. The biggest risk is that of the federal government imposing a one-size-fits-all model on cities. It is the nature of governments to promote uniform rules. Also, urban policy is incredibly faddish. As a result, we tend to do pretty much the same thing in almost every city around the country, whether that be freeways yesterday or bike lanes today.

But our country is incredibly diverse and only getting more so. Our cities are likewise are diverse to match. Indeed, they often have radically different demographics, histories, economies, etc. The needs of one place are vastly different from those of others. Policies that are right for Chicago may be wrong for Detroit. Those that are right for Detroit would probably be wrong for Columbus, Ohio.

Economist Joe Cortright, who did much of the research behind the CEOs for Cities initiatives, has said that the four issues cities must pay attention to are talent, innovation, connection, and distinctiveness. Per Cortright:

The point about distinctiveness is the most important issue for cities. There is no single model for the city of the future. One failing of public policy work is that it often assumes there is only one model for cities to follow. While there are common elements like talent, innovation and connections, they all mean different things in different places.

The challenge is for each city to figure out its special niche so that it can define its strategic opportunities. What can they do differently or better than others? What about their populations, DNA, culture, traditions, history and specialized knowledge make them unique?

And Harvard business professor Michael Porter, the godfather of strategy, has said that “competitive strategy is about being different. It means deliberately choosing a different set of activities to deliver a unique matrix of value.”

Being distinctive, being different, are important to urban success. You have to find your niche as a city. That means you actually have to do something different. A federal policy where everyone was more or less forced to do the same basic things would be antithetical to the development of the rich tapestry of diverse and specialized cities that we need to create in order to promote urban success and prosperity across this country.

In that light, one key element that should underpin federal urban policy is flexibility. That is, the federal government needs to be willing to give broad discretion to cities and regions to pursue different approaches, even if those sometimes don’t agree with what some federal officials might prefer. This might seem like the opposite of a federal policy, but it is not, as we’ll see.


The first area we need reform in is transportation. Today most transportation funding is allocated to highways and flows down through state DOT’s. This lets the states siphon off the money for boondoggles. It seems unlikely the states will ever stop doing this voluntarily, so the federal government ought to look at changing the way it distributes money.

The first way to do this is to directly allocate the bulk of transportation funds to MPO’s whose size exceeds a certain threshold, such as urbanized areas of greater than one million people. The MPO would be the conduit for the money directly from the federal government. Some type of analysis could be done to calculate the cost to maintain rural interstates and federal aid highways, plus some reasonable expansion funds. That money could continue to flow to the state DOT’s. Perhaps they could also administer funds for smaller urban areas that lack the technical expertise to do it themselves. But the majority of the money should go directly to metro areas. Remember, these metro areas account for a the bulk of the population, jobs, and economic output, so this is where the money probably should be going. Let’s cut out the middle man, which will probably be more efficient to boot.

Secondly, this money ought to be in the form of bulk flexible funding, not all these byzantine special funding programs that restrict money to certain highly specific uses. This is the way we bring flexibility.

A city like New York needs big dollars for new heavy rail investments. They could perhaps allocate their money to that. Maybe Chicago feels it needs more transit operating funds. It should be allowed to use some of its annual federal funding for operating needs if it wants. Portland might want to stress bike infrastructure. Some cities might even choose to build highways. Believe it or not, rapidly growing cities do need more road infrastructure. The key is to let cities choose for themselves.

I’m not sure what the federal role is here, but we also need some type of MPO reform to make sure that MPO’s don’t start acting like state DOT’s. In particular, way too many MPO’s have a “one municpality, one vote” system where a tiny suburb gets as much say as the central city. Perhaps this is best addressed through broader regionalism initiatives, as I don’t see how successful regionalism could be imposed from outside.

Lastly, there’s high speed rail. I can certainly respect that many people might think it’s a boondoggle. The cost is very high and the benefits speculative outside of the Northeast corridor. But if we do move forward with it, we should at least make sure it has a shot of succeeding. That means making sure: a) we have real high speed rail, not a 110-MPH Amtrak on steroids system, b) that we charter a real high speed rail operating authority or hire a competent overseas operator and don’t rely on Amtrak to run it, c) we make sure it stays as a major metropolitan service, without being forced to serve and stop at every small town along the way. (I don’t object to occasional “stoptrein” service, as long as the bulk of service is limited stop).

I previously wrote a long take on high speed rail in the Midwest addressing these points in more detail.


This is a broad topic I’ll only touch on. A lot of federal housing programs seem to be restricted to areas with very low income levels and towards projects that have a certain percentage of low income residents. Again, I think we need more flexibility here.

For example, for a city like Chicago, the main issue might be affordable housing. That’s less of an issue in smaller cities where housing is virtually free given the levels of abandonment. A city like Cleveland might want to emphasize spending money on demolition of vacant structures. Other cities might want to look at middle class neighborhoods that are declining and try to stabilize them through public investment before they become the next basket case. (This seems to be a huge gap in the federal program right now).

Environmental Policy

Environmental policy with regards to cities needs to start from the premise that the most environmentally friendly thing we can do is to have more people living in cities. Thus the aim of federal environmental policy should be to increase the attractiveness of cities vs. greenfield developments on the fringe.

Unfortunately, much policy has exactly the opposite effect. Particularly the Clean Water Act might be one of the most important forthcoming drivers of sprawl. Pretty much every older city is facing a multi-billion dollar bill to eliminate combined sewer overflows to comply with the act. A noble goal. But the costs of compliance are staggering and will only encourage people to flee to the fringes. (In general, even places with regional sewer utilities have plenty of suburban areas that are outside its boundaries and thus are not burdened with these costs). CSO remediation is the biggest local capital project in pretty much every city I track.

Also, the preferred approach today to compliance is a so-called “deep tunnel”, where excess sewage is stored in huge underground tunnels bored into bedrock. This is a pretty horrible waste of money. Today there are much better ways to do this using modern green infrastructure such as green roofs, rain gardens/swales, permeable pavements, etc. But the EPA hasn’t been with the program on this. Cincinnati wanted to do this and got shot down. Philadelphia is trying now and we’ll see where they get. This should be encouraged. We need to stop pursuing 1970’s solutions.

There are two big things the federal government could do here. First, the President could tell the EPA to get serious about green stormwater management and do everything possible to put a halt to any more deep tunnels. Second, the federal government ought to pick up tab for Clean Water Act Compliance.

Now some people say that the federal government is spending too much money. I agree. So let’s stop the endless stream of bailouts for what Reihan Salam called the “McMansion-and-Hummer economy” and start focusing what we do spend on investment in the upgrades of basic urban infrastructure that will actually power our future economy. And in this case the money is being spent one way or the other. The question is whether or not we’ll do it in a way that promotes sprawl or not.

I outlined a more complete case for both of these actions in two previous posts called “A Better Road to Clean Water Act Compliance” and “Clean Water Act Compliance Costs are Hurting Our Cities and Promoting Sprawl.”

Similarly, rather than using federal funds to guarantee AIG credit default swaps at par and the like, how about putting some of that money into more brownfield cleanup initiatives, lead paint abatement, and otherwise removing some of the environmental barriers to urban living and redevelopment?

Immigration Reform

However you feel about this matter, I think most can agree that the current approach where we have neither enforcement, nor regularization has created an untenable situation. We need to get this situation resolved.

I’m generally a state and local policy guy who generally focuses on what cities can do for themselves to be more successful. But the federal government clearly has a major role to play in urban success or failure as well. The key again is to ramp up federal involvement without putting our cities into a straitjacket of red tape or imposing a one-size-fits-all model. Think about these cities: Detroit, San Francisco, Charleston, Miami, and Oklahoma City. I just picked those off the top of my head, but it is easy to see how remarkably diverse they are and the very different needs, challenges, and opportunities they have. We need a federal policy that recognizes that. Obviously this is but a sampling of the issues, but hopefully provides some food for thought.

Topics: Public Policy, Strategic Planning, Sustainability, Transportation

27 Responses to “Thoughts on a Federal Policy for American Cities”

  1. Pete from Baltimore says:

    MR Renn
    You make many good points [especially about how each city has different needs and problems]. But i notice you left out the problem of crime.

    I realise that the issue of crime isnt much in the national news. And that it has decreased nationwide.

    But in my opinion it affects many of the things that you mentioned.

    For instance why are there houses worth only a hundred dollars in Detroit and Baltimore? I know for a fact that in Baltimore many of these houses are in fairly good condition.And there are many people ,especially immigrants, that have the skills to upgrade these houses. So why havent they?

    Its not just about lack of jobs. There are plenty of jobs within 30 minute WALK [ let alone bus ride] from some of the hell-hole sections of Baltimore. The area above , and just below , Johns Hopkins Hospital[ the biggest private employer in Maryland] is desolate and very, very poor.

    The problem is crime. Thats what is causing people to leave many of these neighborhoods .And that is whats stopping people from moving into them.

    Crime has disrupted the usual laws of supply and demand.Under normal circumstances someone would buy a hundred dollar house if only to retire to or to have a second home on the East Coast or something like that.

    Crime also affects jobs. Part of why companies avoid places like Gary or Detroit is that they have high crime rates and are known for that.

    It also hurts transportation. I myself take public transit and i can say the Baltimore’s public transit is actually pretty safe. But fairly or not, it does have a bad reputation because of a few criminal acts that have occoured. This has caused many people that i know to rule out public transit for thier commute.

    If you were ever to visit Baltimore MR Renn and were to go down North Avenue you would be amazed at the beautiful pre-2nd World War architecture. You would probably be impressed by how close the house are to stores and to the downtown area. You would probably think that the area is a perfect example of an urban neighborhood that is walkable.

    And i can garuntee you MR Renn that you would also not get out of your car in this area because it is a dangerous neighborhood. And thats whats sad! Take away the drugs and crime from most of the Baltimore neighborhoods. Take away the junkies and the drug dealers. And what you have is beautiful neighborhoods of early 20 th century rowhouses that people would love to live in.

    Its a small but significant group of people that are causing our urban neighborhoods to decline. And they are of all races[ there are a lot of white junkies and dealers in Baltimore ]. Until this problem can be dealt with there is little that anyone can do for places like Detroit and Gary and Baltimore and Newark.

    I am not saying that crime is the ONLY issue. But it is what is stopping solutions to many of the other problems that cities face.

  2. Alex B. says:

    To defend Aaron’s points – I don’t think this list was ever meant to be exhaustive. It’s also talking about federal issues – the Feds certainly have a role in urban crime prevention, but I can’t speak to whether that role needs to change or not, nor how Federal policy on crime could or should be changed specifically to help cities.

    Same thing could be said for education – schools are clearly a critical part of urban revitalization, but I can’t speak with any knowledge as to what a better federal role should be or how that role should differ for cities vs. suburbs vs. rural areas, etc.

  3. Pete from Baltimore says:

    Alex B. at comment #2

    MR Alex , you are correct in that crime and education arent dealt with on the Federal level as much. I also want to make clear that i wasnt attacking MR Renn’s points.

    My basic point was that crime is often the proverbial “elephant in the room” when urban policy and planning is discussed.

    I might also add that it affects eduction. Its not just the qaulity of education in urban areas that worry parents. Its also fears about the safety of their child. Or fears about bad influences on thier children[ drugs,gangs ,ect].

    I realise that crime is not MR Renn’s main focus on this blog.And of course ,there is nothing wrong with that.This isnt a “crime blog”. But i dont think that crime can go completly unmentioned in any discussion of urban planning or urban renewal .

  4. Alon Levy says:

    There are really two benefits to doing things federally. First, the feds don’t care about whether factories relocate to California or South Carolina; this means they don’t engage in as many shady deals with big business subsidizing relocation. Effectively, the federal government acts as a free trade enforcer among the states, preventing mutual beggar-thy-neighbor policies.

    And second, the feds can leverage bulk buying, and engage in projects that span multiple state or metro areas. They can also change bad regulations more easily, instead of continually beg for changes or for money.

  5. Alon Levy says:

    Speaking of schools: that’s clearly one area in which the feds are necessary to avoid destructive competition among local areas. When school districts compete for teachers, the richest districts get all the good teachers, and everyone else gets scraps. Crime is a little more delicate, but, again, ask yourself whether Baltimore would be as bad as it is if it had the crime fighting resources of Westchester County, New York.

  6. There’s a good argument to be made for at least some transfer of tax revenue from DC to local jurisdictions–in other words, Uncle Sam takes less and the local governments take more, which they may spend as they like on local infrastructure, without having to turn around and beg Uncle Sam. I’m not sure I’d swing the pendelum entirely away from Federal involvement, for some of the reasons Alon indicates, but the current system, wherein DC is the only place with sufficient capital to do anything more complicated than filling potholes or cleaning graffiti off of bus shelters, is inefficient and obnoxious. And when you get an ideologue like Dubya in the White House, it can be devastating. (Of course, many on the right feel the same about Obama, right or wrong).

  7. The states and MPOs already have many available flexible funds to spend money on other priorities, the problem is that most of them always just flex them for roads. That was why ISTEA was such a landmark bill, it allowed for more flexibility. Ultimately MPOs and DOTs need to be given reason to do the right thing. What the right thing is seems to be the constant question.

  8. Roland S says:

    I agree with your points about unique needs. It would be great to see transportation infrastructure here in New Orleans, but realistically, the majority of our federal dollars need to go towards stormwater protection and wetland restoration, and anti-poverty initiatives such as public housing, Head Start, etc. These same problems with levees and poverty affect both New Orleans and its Jefferson Parish suburbs – part of the reason why most new growth is occurring across Lake Pontchartrain on the North Shore.

    Fortunately, New Orleans’ storm and sanitary sewers have been separated since 1895, so no worries about the Clean Water Act! (even though both systems are now crumbling…)

  9. Anon says:

    Interesting post. Sometimes I think about giving up on getting any help from the state or Feds. But they still create the context.

    I completely agree with Pete. Crime and the perception of crime are the #1 issue. They reach into everything else. Public transit, housing, business investment.

    The Section 8 program (federal) is having enormous unintented consequences. Deconcentrating poverty seems a noble goal, and everyone cites the Chicago Moving to Opportunity experiment as proof of its effectiveness. Any gains will be temporary because the program is tipping every neighborhood where rents meet the criteria. We’re just destroying another huge swath of housing stock and infrastructure.

    Alon, you’re overemphasizing the money. Most teachers, if given the option between (a) $40,000 for teaching a classroom of motivated, disciplined children with employed, married parents or (b) $80,000 for teaching a class of children from the chaotic households in our inner cities, would choose (a) without hesitation. Inner city districts spend more per student than most suburban districts, contrary to the media narrative. That money can’t buy a stable family life, which is why the results never materialize.

  10. Sid Burgess says:


    I am not sure why we would think that the federal government would be unbiased about a factory location. I feel very confident that if the Federal government had more to do with our metros we would see more increases in “pork” projects. In fact, Congress would love nothing more than to make special deals for their districts. Eventually, these factories would lobby heavily representatives in order to get that special tax credit.

    I know Aaron’s intentions are the best but I don’t believe that because the parts influence the whole, the whole must therefore dictate the how the parts operate. Let their influence be a natural “consequence”, not a reason for shifting the power to the federal government.

    For the record, I wont pretend that local cities don’t make special deals, however, it is still much much easier to hold councilmen accountable than congress.

  11. Sid Burgess says:

    Additionally, it is nearly impossible for me to attend or watch meetings that take place in DC. Decisions made for my city should be made where I can participate.

  12. Everett says:

    Why not have a federal urban policy that prescribes goals to be met rather than methods to be applied? It could be a set of goals with federal receivership the consequence for not meeting stated goals. Maybe a bit like CAFE standards on a broad scale. For example, cities and states would have to meet certain percentages for transit ridership, exhaust emissions, residential density, literacy, etc, based on geographical zones. The Fed could use the money they would have spent on subsidizing specific solutions to instead subsidize general industries that provide these solutions (wind/solar/geothermal power, green transit, etc…).

    Too similar to what we already have? Has this failed somewhere else already? I don’t know.

    Aaron, I don’t necessarily agree that money should follow taxpayers, dollar for dollar. A reward for one group is a punishment for its opposite. Rural areas should not be punished for not having economies of scale; the flip side of the benefits of economies of scale. Not to say that current spending is balanced, of course.

  13. Curt says:

    Aaron underscored the need for federal assistance recently over on the skyscraper forums, and correct me if I am wrong, but he singled out Indianapolis as a place that has taken suggestions at the highest levels, only to go back to the same old thing when it came down to taking action.

    Perhaps some “motivation” from higher on up could change these old trends. It is difficult to strike out on your own when the voter base (as a whole), especially in Indy where people stick to traditional values, doesn’t stand on that progressive ground.

  14. John Sterr says:

    Just because homes are vacant dose not mean they need to be demolished. More creative problem solving is necessary regarding abandoned housing. In Indy for example it is ironic that a home that is delinquent in taxes can be bought at tax sale or from the land bank by private citizens or CDCs, but homes where taxes are paid, that are often abondoned have to be torn down due to health and hospital violations (broken windows, tall weeds, etc). The vast majority of these homes are not in a condition that warrants demolition and need to be reclaimed by the city for future development. Mayor Ballard is proposing using 30 million dollars from the sale of the water utility to fund demolitions. 3000 homes going to the landfill is a waste. These homes need to be viewed as an oppurtunity and not a blight.

  15. cdc guy says:

    Everett, an example of failure in setting Federal and State performance standards in a complex multi-variable environment: No Child Left Behind and any number of state “pay for performance in schools” programs.

    I don’t think it would work any better in Federal urban policy than in education policy.

    Failing cities (like failing schools) are seldom one-dimensional in their failures, even though successful cities may appear to be one-dimensional in their success.

    Portland had a development boom around its streetcar line; everyone should build streetcar lines. Indianapolis had success with its sports strategy and downtown stadia; everyone should build downtown stadia and seek sports franchises and sporting events. San Antonio built the Riverwalk; everyone should build a downtown canal. Except there’s a “first mover” advantage that doesn’t necessarily accrue to the “me too” (“best practices”) followers.

  16. cdc guy says:

    I should add: downtown stadia and sports teams, riverwalk attractions, and streetcars are not likely to “save” Detroit even though they’re “best urban practices” that produce results elsewhere.

    On the other hand, that exact suite of “best practice” enhancements might help downtown Oklahoma City to blossom (and no doubt encourage another generation of urban planning consultants to promote them).

  17. wkg in bham says:

    Value of planning: I am skeptical that the Feds would be any more successful at this than anyone else. AR enumerates several pitfalls. He charitably omitted sheer incompetence.

    One should also remember that suburban voters are, by far, the largest voting block out there. Are you sure you would want Congressmen beholden to their suburban power-base to have much of a role in city policy?

    Is there a track-record of Federal Urban Management to make a judgment regarding its potential effectiveness? The one city they do have significant control over, Washington D.C., does not instill a lot of confidence.

    As AR astutely pointed out, cities should purposely be different. It is good that many different approaches are being tried. Even an utter failure like Detroit offers valuable lessons.

    Crime as an issue: I concur with @1 regarding this issue. But he and the other (e.g. @9) are speaking of street crime. There is another type of crime that needs to be addressed and here the Feds can be of enormous help. That is corrupt municipal government. The DOJ should be moving against this vigorously – but aren’t. I have my (skeptical) ideas about why this is the case. I won’t belabor you with them.

    Pseudo-criminal behavior: The Educational, Law Enforcement, Public Works etc. functions in many (most?) large cities operate at an abysmally poor level. Proposals to remedy the situation are actively opposed by the “incumbents’ club”.

    The one thing the Feds used to be able to do was to offer big financial incentives to comply with its “vision”. They are broke now and don’t even have that tool at their disposal. Many, if not most, State Governments are in the same condition. If the cities are going to change, they’re probably going to have to do it on their own. I think that’s a good thing.

  18. Alon Levy says:

    The feds are significantly less incompetent and corrupt than local governments (e.g. I can’t imagine the feds making the same curriculum decisions as Texas). Yes, they have pork problems in Congress. But overall the distribution of power in Congress works differently from competition among the local government. If the federal government is a free trade agreement, then Congressional pork is the debate over how to distribute the mutual gains from trade.

    The feds aren’t broke, either. Unlike states, they have the ability to run deficits or substantially raise taxes. Furthermore, US debt is considered the safest investment in the world, which guarantees low interest rates for deficit spending, especially during recessions. States not only have to pay higher interests on bonds, but also get penalized during recessions.

    Suburban school districts do spend more than inner-city districts within each metro area. For example, in New York, the favored quarter suburbs spent $22,000 per student ten years ago and the city $11,000; that the gap has shrunk to $25,000-$17,000 since then should count as an explanation for why city educational performance has improved.

    The notion that it’s all about married, employed parents doesn’t explain why the racial division in school performance is black/Hispanic versus white/Asian. In terms of both unemployment and two-parent families, Hispanics are performing barely worse than whites, and far better than blacks. If it were just family characteristics, you’d expect Hispanics to be performing almost on a par with whites. This alone should tell you there’s something else going on here.

    NCLB was a failure of federal/state integration. When the feds let the states run things but set general standards, things don’t work out so well. Having multiple standards creates opportunities to seek economic rent and game the system. The better-run educational systems worldwide do not have this game: they usually have the national government make most of the decisions and control the funding. Canada is an exception to this rule, but it has the same issue on the provincial level; it’s nothing like in the US, where the primary decision makers are fractured school districts.

  19. Robert Munson says:

    As for the new federal policy, let’s set its chief goal similarly to medicine’s Hippocratic Oath: “Do no harm.”

    This certainly involves cutting out the middle man (the states) as Aaron suggests for MPOs. And having greater flexibility also increases the chances of federal money doing no harm.

    But before the federal government becomes too proactive in solving problems that history shows it is ill-suited for, it should have a track record of, at least, doing substantially less harm.

  20. Pete from Baltimore says:

    If there is a way for the Federal Government to help cities i think it would be in improving transportation between them. Obviously the Federal Government has started to do that with high speed rail.

    I myself dont think that high speed rail is a cure all. But i know that one of the main reason for recent gentrification in Baltimore is from Washington DC workers moving to Baltimore because of the cheaper cost of living.

    Highspeed rail between the two cities would further that trend.And a high speed rail line between Detroit and Chicago could creat a similiar trend in those two cities. At 270 miles apart i doubt whether many people live in Detroit and work in Chicago. But if high speed rail can reduce the commute to under two hours and preferably closer to an hour then its possible that Detroit could attract some people who work in Chicago.

    Yes, it would be better if Detroit could create jobs closer to home. But first they need a tax base.

  21. Alon Levy says:

    Pete: at Chicago-Detroit distances, very few people would use HSR for commuting. HSR commuter towns tend to be located closer in – about 50-100 miles, with a few at 150. Potential HSR commuter towns to Chicago include Milwaukee, Waukesha, South Bend, Lafayette, Champaign, Bloomington, and Fort Wayne; all of those could expect some revitalization and gentrification if HSR came about.

    But honestly, I think sometimes the HSR discussion punts on the much more pressing issue of local and regional mass transit. At average European costs, a very large nationwide HSR program would cost about $300 billion. It sounds like a lot, but it would take a trillion dollars to get local transit up to par with medium-size European and Japanese cities, at European costs; at American costs, make it $2-3 trillion. Clearly, this isn’t something local governments can do. They don’t have the money or the ability to start fights with reticent freight railroads, and besides, such a program would require an overhaul of FRA regulations.

  22. cdc guy says:

    Two comments back-to-back above point out some value of state DOTs: mobility within MPOs vs. mobility between them.

    Rural highways look like boondoggles because they run through unpopulated areas out here in Flyover Country. But they typically connect cities with their hinterland region or with other cities.

    Example: the central Indiana MPO would be much more interested in 5 lanes of I-69 between Indianapolis and Anderson than in two lanes of (new) I-69 from Indianapolis to Bloomington, Washington, and Evansville. But for political and economic development reasons, a governor might be interested in the a highway through the poorest part of the state. The MPO doesn’t answer to the governor or voters of the state, but the head of the DOT does.

    As Alon points out, for the time being we’re going to have to get between cities in vehicles on highways and aircraft because we really need to invest in and subsidize urban mass transit (outside the NEC, Chicago, and SFO) far worse than we need to invest in and subsidize HSR. HSR would be worth nothing without robust urban transit in every city it served.

  23. cdc guy says:

    To the idea of a “federal policy” and flexible funding for cities: that’s what CDBG (Community Development Block Grant) is for. Instead of stipulated grants for various “one size fits all” Federal programs, CDBG allows entitlement cities to lay out their own program for the money. The spectrum is pretty broad: housing re-development, commercial development, infrastructure improvement in support of both, economic develompent funding.

    If Indy’s mayor wants to bulldoze derelict homes and rebuild new energy-efficient ones with some of the money, he can so allocate it…and Cincinnati’s mayor can allocate money for housing rehab…and Dayton’s mayor can put it in efforts to attract and retain jobs. (All three cities probably fund their Planning department with it.)

  24. Anon says:

    see page 55
    And a large share of Hispanics work in less stable fields (more layoffs, longer unemployment spells)

    On school spending:
    This sample is small, but already finds areas where urban expenditures are higher. Comparing favored “quarter” spending is misleading. By definition, that quarter is an exception.

  25. Alon Levy says:

    Most of the criticism of rural highways isn’t their existence as much as their disproportionate funding, which comes from disproportionate political influence. This is something that can’t really be fixed with MPOs: if the feds start funding MPOs, Congressional pork will force them to give even more funding to rural equivalents.

    (My position on HSR isn’t so much that you need connecting transit for it to work, even though you do. Rather, it’s that it’s sometimes a good investment and sometimes a mediocre one, but at any rate urban mass transit just needs more money, even if it lacks in pizzazz. The actual connecting transit to the HSR station is okay in many American cities; it just doesn’t get you to any other destination.)

  26. Alon Levy says:

    Anon, the favored quarters are where all the good schools are. New York has plenty of suburbs that don’t spend more money per student than the city does, but those schools do not feature on top public school lists, do not raise property values in the entire district, and are not personally familiar to every Ivy League admissions officer.

    The examples in the GAO report don’t really say where the schools are. It’s easy to find counterexamples to the general trend: for example, a school with a lot of ESL and special needs kids will get more funding. But on average, a non-special needs kid will get less money in the city than in rich suburbs, and there’s a strong correlation between funding and performance. There’s even a correlation between the educational gap in a region and the level of segregation and funding disparities in it.

    Even Moynihan, advocating less spending in the inner city, admitted the spending-performance correlation existed on the state level. His argument against it is that the distance to Canada is a stronger correlate of performance. However, this isn’t surprising if you look at living costs-adjusted spending. The low-spending, high-performance states all happen to be low-cost rural states near Canada, and the medium-spending, low-performance states, California and Florida, are high-cost and lie far to the south. Leaving aside the spurious distance to Canada metric, spending remains as the strongest correlate of state performance in schools.

    The BLS link you give shows Hispanics as being right in the middle between whites and blacks in unemployment. This is unusually high for them: pre-recession, they were closer to whites. It doesn’t explain the fact that in terms of school performance, blacks and Hispanics lump together.

  27. Alon Levy says:

    As for the CDC link: Hispanics have a high rate of births to unmarried mothers, but a large majority of Hispanic children live in two-parent families – check the Census Bureau. Presumably, Hispanics’ lower divorce rates mean that their one-parent families are more likely to come from single motherhood than from post-birth divorce.

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