Sunday, February 27th, 2011

A Better Way to Find, Look At, Analyze and Display Civic Data

You all know that I love doing data driven posts. But I found myself frustrated that it would make me literally hours to create even simple blog posts doing what I figured was very basic analysis like putting up something about what happened in the latest Census estimates release. There was just tons of tedious work involved.

It can be surprisingly difficult to answer seemingly basic questions about cities, like:

  • Which large metro areas grew their GDP the most in the last year?
  • How does Chicago benchmark against New York on job creation?
  • What counties in Indiana increased their Hispanic population share in the last decade by the most?
  • How did the population growth rate in the city of Chicago compare to Cook County, the metro area, state, and nation last year?
  • Where do the people who move to Indianapolis come from?

Answering these questions can involve lots of drudge work to download raw data, manipulate it in Excel to find what you want, then to type it into an HTML table or put it into a chart you can use in a post, presentation, or document. It take literally take hours, sometimes days.

There are tons of free tools that let you access data, but every one I’ve seen is almost useless for real data analysis. They more or less only let you look up facts – like the population of Chicago – or display grids of numbers. It’s telling that the Census Bureau’s tool is actually called “Fact Finder.” If they create graphs, it’s mostly what they want to show, not what you to, and almost invariably only in Flash, so that you can’t take it out of their system without doing a screen shot.

Conversely, there are tons of pro tools that do fantastic stuff, programs like SAS, ArcGIS, or Moody’s The problem is that these cost huge amounts of money, are aimed at high end power users doing hard core statistical analysis and the like, or both; and are often hard to use as a result. There’s a reason that there’s an entire job category out there called “GIS Analyst”.

So I gave up in my search to find something that met my needs, and instead decided to build my own private database and query tools. Then I discovered that’s what half the world is doing, which seems like a waste. So I figured if this is so valuable to me, which it is, maybe it’s valuable to others and they might use it too.

And so my latest venture, the Telestrian data terminal was born. (See For people who work with data about cities, counties, regions, and states, Telestrian is all about providing three bigtime benefits:

  • Huge time and money savings. I can honestly say that having Telestrian for my own use during development has reduced the amount of time I spend on many data analysis tasks by over 95%. I’m serious. Stuff that would have taken me hours or been nearly impossible before I can now do in a few seconds. And as we all know, time is money.
  • New capabilities. Notice that I’ve been posting more maps lately? That’s because I can actually make them now. And with Telestrian, so can you – and a lot more.
  • New revenue opportunities. If you are a consultant, I’ll show you how Telestrian can power new types of engagements you can sell. In fact, I originally thought it would make a nice proprietary tool for my own consulting business.

And if you’re wondering whether this is the system with the IRS migration data, the answer is Yes! so read on.

You can read more about the benefits and walk through a few examples in my white paper, A Better Way to Find, Look At, Analyze, and Display Civic Data. I’ll highlight a few examples of the benefits in action.

Massive Time Savings

You’ve seen lots of studies that rate metro areas on college degree attainment, like Brookings’ wonderful State of Metropolitan America. Let’s say we’re doing an update to that study for them, and want to look specifically at growth in the share of people who have professional or graduate degrees. Which of the top 100 metros areas had the greatest change in their percentage of population with graduate or professional degrees?

With the Telestrian system, you can answer that question in about 30 seconds. We just go do that data element and do it. Telestrian gives you a common toolset on every data element. The Query tab is what most people gravitate to, since it is what lets you look up data by geography and date like other sites do. But that’s arguably the least powerful thing in the system. If you go to Analyze, you can run powerful parameterized queries that let you mine the data in a snap. Here’s the query you want. You can click to enlarge this screen shot:

Note that we set a threshold to only look at places greater than 510,000 people in population. This gives us the top 100, which is what Brookings looks at.

Bam, here’s the answer:

You’ll note that on the left there are a ton of options for working with the results. Maybe we want to dump that into a blog post like this one in a form you can actually read, for example. In just a couple clicks we can export an HTML table that we can paste right here:

Row Metro 2000 2009 Change in % of Total Adult (25+) Population
1 Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV 607,122 (19.1%) 820,534 (22.6%) 3.49%
2 Buffalo-Niagara Falls, NY 74,319 (9.5%) 96,625 (12.5%) 3.05%
3 Baltimore-Towson, MD 201,072 (11.9%) 267,724 (14.8%) 2.95%
4 Boston-Cambridge-Quincy, MA-NH 455,971 (15.4%) 574,092 (18.3%) 2.94%
5 Poughkeepsie-Newburgh-Middletown, NY 41,647 (10.5%) 57,859 (13.3%) 2.85%
6 Worcester, MA 50,857 (10.3%) 70,294 (13.1%) 2.82%
7 Hartford-West Hartford-East Hartford, CT 96,943 (12.5%) 123,378 (15.3%) 2.80%
8 St. Louis, MO-IL 158,331 (9.0%) 220,061 (11.6%) 2.61%
9 Portland-South Portland-Biddeford, ME 34,082 (10.2%) 46,163 (12.8%) 2.54%
10 Columbia, SC 37,534 (9.1%) 55,623 (11.6%) 2.52%

Or maybe put these into a bar chart. Voilà!

Yes, Telestrian system even truncates those overly long metro area names if you want it to. At this point we’ve spent about one total minute in the system.

If you’ve worked with this data at all, you’ll know that it comes from two completely different data sets. The 2000 data comes from Census 2000 and the 2009 data comes from the American Community Survey. So you’d have to manually extract both, merge them, merge in the population data somehow, trim it down to the top 100 metros, calculate the percentage attainment, calculate the percentage point change, sort on that, then hand create the tables or charts. But what’s worse, you may remember that the Census 2000 data is distributed in that old 1990’s era CMSA/PMSA stuff that isn’t comparable with today’s metro area definitions. So you have to download the county data and manually re-aggregate all the 2000 data to current metros yourself, unless you find a source that did it for you already.

Or you can just spend about a minute in the Telestrian tool.

Beyond change in the percentage of a parent data value, there are several other functions you can use in your search too, such as total raw value, total change, percent change, density, and location quotient. The Telestrian data terminal can almost turn you into a one man Brookings Institution.

New Capabilities

Calculating data like the above is tedious, but conceivably doable. But there are some things that are almost impossible to do yourself without the right tools. One of them is to create thematic maps of your results, like those red-blue election maps. Most people create those with ArcGIS, but if you don’t have or can’t use it, or don’t have a graphic designer on call, making one can be almost impossible. I sure didn’t know how to make them.

Using ArcGIS to make a simple thematic map is like using a tactical nuclear weapon to get rid of the spider in your bath tub. That’s why I built it right into the system, letting you render almost any of those Analyze queries directly to a thematic map. We do that in the app on the Map tab, which is similar to analyze but gives you some other options. Let’s just map our same query for all US metros:

In blues, we see places where the percentage of people with graduate degrees increased, in reds those where it actually decreased. I could have picked my own thresholds for coloring, but decided to go with one of the built in algorithms, in this case a 5 bucket sort. This took about 30 seconds total to create by the way, so don’t think that just because I filed this under “new capability” it doesn’t mean it wouldn’t save you lots of time too even if you already have and can use ArcGIS.

By the way, these maps are images files (PNG), not Flash, so you can actually right click and save them to use them as you see fit. And you can make them pretty much as big or small as you want with no resolution loss or distortion. To see an example of what I mean by that, just click here.

Make More Money

This one also saves time and gives you new capabilities, but additionally it enables consultants to make more money too. Cities and states spend hundreds of millions of dollars on human capital and “brain drain” initiatives. But frankly very few places have much of a clue about their human capital networks. Where do people who move in come from? Where do people to leave go? How much money and how big of families are they taking or leaving?

A big problem is the data. The Census Bureau only publishes net migration, but doesn’t talk about where people come from or go to. The IRS publishes that in its migration data, but it is super painful to use. For one thing, other than the last handful of years, the data only comes in the form of over 3,500 Excel spreadsheets. (They will mail those to you on a CD for $500). And the data only tracks state-state and county-to-county when often what we really care about is metro-metro or metro-state. Unless you have and can use (sparse matrix, anyone?) a tool like SAS (which is thousands of dollars a year and doesn’t come with any data) and crack the code on data import, it’s virtually hopeless.

But with Telestrian, all that data has been processed for you, and presented not just at the county-county and state-state level, but also at the metro-metro, and metro-state level. And there are tons of summary metrics taken from the IRS files, as well as other bespoke calculations of things like migration rates and intra-metro migration (e.g., core to suburb moves). Over 100 items in all.

Want to know where the money is going when it leaves Atlanta and how much of it ends up there? Here you go, looking at 2000-2008:

Of course this data is available in raw form, exportable to Excel if you want it. Again, it’s about 30 seconds or so to make this.

This only scratches the surface of what you can do with migration. I hope it is easy to see that there are huge market opportunities for consultants to use this to start helping cities and states map out their human capital networks and find ways to take advantage of them. Much more on this later.

So What Is Telestrian?

So what does Telestrian actually do? A full feature summary is available for your perusal, but in brief, Telestrian provides the following.

  • Data Repository. It contains an aggregated data repository of over 600 data elements, including core data such as population, sex, age, race, migration, education, immigration, commuting, highway congestion, health data, labor force and unemployment, jobs and wages, GDP, personal and household income, poverty, and more. I consider this a “starter set” and there’s virtually unlimited room to expand, which I have big ambitions to do.
  • Common Analysis Toolset. Run parameterized queries to mine the data and analyze results sets. Includes things like filtering by state or population; applying functions like percent change, total change, or location quotient; and calculating CAGR, index values, percentage of parent, and much more.
  • Task Automation. In addition to automatically applying functions like the above, Telestrian also automatically applies rollups of regions, allows saving of commonly used geography lists so you don’t have to recreate them over and over, defining custom regions, etc. The various components of the system are also integrated to enable rapid end to end processing.

  • Visualization. Render results to bar, column, area, line, and pie charts (Flash or image), or export to Excel/CSV or HTML tables. Thematic maps can be made at the national level for states, counties or metros, or at the state level for counties.

The focus of the system is data about cities, counties, regions (MSA, CSA, EA, etc), and states, though national level data is also available.

Pricing is currently on an annual basis at only $495/year (a bit over than $40 a month). But for a limited time to my loyal readers who work for organizations who might be able to use this, I am offering it at $395/year (less than $35/month). If you use it for one project like that grad degree one, it already paid for itself. I might offer a monthly plan in the future, but it will be at a price premium to the annual, and not include access to IRS data. A free trial is available with no credit card required and no obligation so you can try it for yourself without risk. IRS data is not included in the trial.

Consider that just to have the IRS send you their raw data on a CD – in the form of over 3,500 spreadsheets – is $500 by itself. You’d pay well over $300/year just for GIS free mapping with something like Indiemapper. To say nothing of the untold thousands you could spend on high end products.

For those of you who work as consultants, planners, journalists, analysts, economic developers, agency staffers, etc. who work with this data and need to do more than just look up simple facts, I’d ask you to take a look, and if you see the value – which I’m confident you will – please buy.

Since this is the official launch day, I’d ask that you please be gentle if we run into performance or other type issues right here at the start. I will increase site capacity as fast as I can if need be, and of course candid feedback is always welcome. Again, the link is

I’ll wrap up with a couple more fun examples, but before I do I want to tell you a few problems Telestrian is NOT designed to solve:

  • If you need statistical analysis like multi-variate regressions, you need SAS or SPSS or something.
  • If you need data at the zip code, Census tract, or other level below city or county, you need tools from ESRI or one of the many specialist providers who will help you decide where to locate your store or whatever else you need.
  • If you need to look at detailed breakdows like jobs at the 4-digit NAICS code or black-female-and-hispanic, look for something like Moody’s
  • If you need to know the unemployment rate the minute it hits the wire, get a Bloomberg terminal.
  • If you need non-US data, again go get Moody’s

If you have problems like these that involve very detailed, complex, or time sensitive considerations, I’m sorry. You probably do need to spend a lot of money and hire some specialists.

Fun With Data

Here are a couple more fun pieces of data analysis.

First, a comparison of job growth in New York vs. Chicago vs. the US. I actually go through how to do this example in the Telestrian User’s Guide (yes, the system actually has documentation).

This is a great example of how you can query data at any geography level simultaneous if the data supports it, and the use of indexes for comparison of regions with very different sizes. If you’re familiar with the Current Employment Statistics, you’ll also know that the US data and Metro data come from two separate data sets, but I allow you to query them together.

By the way, I created every single chart in my Chicago vs. New York blog post from last fall combined in about five minutes using a development version of the system. If you at all benchmark or compare cities, I think you’re in the sweet spot of the product. That’s doubly true if you compare places at different geographic levels (such as metro vs. nation or county vs. state, etc) since Telestrian puts no arbitrary restrictions on what geographies you can query together.

One more. Here’s a national county map of unemployment rates for October 2010 (not seasonally adjusted):

It’s a cool graphic, but I especially posted it because data visualization guru Nathan Yau wrote a long blog post at his widely read blog Flowing Data that explained how to a create a map almost like this in 14 easy steps – easy if you know how to program in Python that is. As he put it, “There are about a million ways to make a choropleth map. You know, the maps that color regions by some metric. The problem is that a lot of solutions require expensive software or have a high learning curve…or both.” Yau’s solution requires you know to know how to write computer software. Telestrian is almost de minimis in cost to any real organization and only requires you to know how to surf the net. With that, about 30 seconds later you can have your map.

You can also check out my recent metro GDP post, or my Chicago Census post, which used this system to power the data analysis.

Thanks so much for reading and I hope you’ll check it out and decide to buy – remember, it’s It’s a great way to support the work I do – but much more importantly I’m confident the business value is very real and significant because I’m enjoying it every day myself.

Friday, February 25th, 2011

Replay: Transit Ridership Framework

You might have a hard time believing I’ve spent most of my career in consulting due to the lack of Power Point presentations on my blog. While I’ll admit to not being partial to the tool, I can create frameworks. Going forward, I’ll occasionally share some that are relevant to cities, starting today with public transit.

Last year I won first prize in a global transit competition sponsored by the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce. The goal was to devise a strategy for boosting regional transit ridership to one billion rides annually. If you’d like, you can read my winning entry, which won out over 125 others from around the world.

My plan includes over 50 potential actions that could be undertaken. You could think of them as being organized around the following framework.

In short, to boost ridership you need to create ridership demand, which you accomplish by increasing the number of transit addressable trips, then making transit the mode of choice for them. You then have to supply the capacity and pay for it, as well as creating an appropriate governance and operating model structure.

Generating transit addressable trips comes primarily by boosting CBD employment and land use policy changes. Making transit the mode of choice involves creating a transit service with the right mix of price, end-to-end journey time, and quality of experience versus other modes. Capacity is provided by more efficiently utilizing what you have and building new where appropriate. Financing – which includes capital and operating – typically comes from a mixture of federal assistance, sales taxes, and fares. I would favor a greater reliance on transit value capture, however.

To give some further perspective on this, I’ll share some considerations around various aspects of the framework.

Generating Transit Addressable Trips

Transit addressable trips are those that can reasonably be served by public transit. For example, a trip to Wal-Mart anchored shopping center or a suburban office park is generally fairly difficult to service by transit, at least for choice riders. We need to generate demand for more of the trips that are.

For work trips, the place to start is the Central Business District. CBD’s are generally fairly dense, constitute the largest single employment base in the region, were historically served by transit and thus are walkable, and are generally the focus of the transit that exists today, at least in the United States. The more jobs in the CBD, the better for transit.

Unfortunately, this is a challenging matter. Jobs have been decentralizing from downtowns for decades. Most cities have a fairly low percentage of their regional jobs in the CBD. This isn’t per se a problem as long as the CBD holds a significant job base, as it does in places like New York and Chicago.

The problem is that outside of the tier one cities, CBD employment has been experiencing absolute declines. Last year a Toledo Blade series documented how all of Ohio’s top seven downtowns were losing jobs. Even a great performing city like Columbus lost over 12,000 private sector downtown jobs between 2000 and 2005. This is not to pick on Ohio since I’d speculate most other places would show the same.

I have done a lot of thinking on this topic, but we’ll have to save that for another day. Suffice it to say that this will be a challenge outside of tier one cities. But as the key to the central city’s tax base, it’s an important matter to tackle even without the transit considerations.

Beyond that, land use policy is something I’m sure my readers already get. You need some level of density and walkability along transit lines and near rail stations.

Making Transit the Mode of Choice

Apart from a small hard core, I fundamentally do not believe people will choose to ride transit to save the planet or otherwise because it is the right thing to do. Rather, they are going to make the mode choice that seems best to them based on a combination of price, end-to-end journey time, and quality of experience.

Price again is where the CBD is poised to shine since that typically features expensive parking. This is the easy lever to win. Outside of CBD commuting though, the price equation can change dramatically. When you can park for free near a restaurant, for example, the price of round trip bus fare for two ($9 in Chicago) is a material amount of money. Heck, you can sometimes valet park for less than that. This off peak, non-commute price disincentive is one reason suggested that small cities should have fareless transit.

Price is also a consideration for automobile. Pricing roadway travel, especially congestion pricing to help ease peak of the peak travel, could potentially help transit even more. Also parking prices and taxes.

End to end journey time will almost always favor the automobile. It’s tough to address that. Most of the periods that feature express runs are during peak periods, targeting CBD commuters only, which is a group that already has reasons to take transit. Again, this is going to be tough for transit, but not necessarily a killer.

Quality of experience is an interesting one. Generally I think many people would prefer the private interior of their own car to a bus or train with other people. However, there’s a lot that can be done to make the experience better, as anyone who has used a first class overseas transit system can attest. And of course commuting in bad traffic is like a form of torture at times.

Also, the rise of wireless devices means transit time can be productive time. This might even favor longer commutes by transit since you can get some uninterrupted work time. Many people I know get lots of work done on Metra trains, for example.


It’s obvious that we need to build the capacity to serve the market we want, but I’d like to highlight the idea of optimization of existing capacity. Public transit is to some extent like an airline. Once you decide how many vehicles and runs to put on the street, it is more or less a fixed cost business to operate. So you want to make sure that none of those seats go empty.

As with many things, adding capacity at the peak of the peak period is costly. For example, the CTA spent $550 million to lengthen platforms to enable eight car Ravenswood L trains that are only needed during rush periods. The rest of the time that capacity is useless.

To avoid having to add this type of very expensive but limited use capacity, we should look at how we can shift peak demand to shoulder periods or off peak. Variable pricing is one way to do this. I already wrote about this in my post “Transit Pricing Reconsidered.”

Of course, this is a nice problem to have. Many smaller cities would dearly love to have fully occupied buses.


How do we pay for this? Typically capital comes from a mixture of federal grants and bonds backed by sales taxes. Operating subsidies also come from things like sales and real estate transfer taxes. One problem with this is that it implies funding a more or less fixed cost system with variable/cyclical revenues. Without healthy reserves, this will lead to periodic “doomsdays”.

My preferred method of financing is transit value capture, where transit is funded through increases in the land values created by transit. I wrote about this previously as well.

Governance and Operating Models

This is not the sexy part of transit, but needs to be carefully considered. Often the current structures are more or less the result of legacy choices and aren’t appropriate to the current or desired environment. Changing them can be politically difficult, however. Part of this is recognizing that no system of government investment will be made purely on an ROI basis. Thus we need to find a way to strike the right balance among civic objectives in a way that enables real benefits to be delivered.

Obviously this only touches the surface of these items. I just wanted highlight some of the matters that must be considered when planning transit systems inside of an overall high-level framework for doing so.

This post originally ran on January 21, 2010.

Thursday, February 24th, 2011

New Metro GDP Data Released

The Bureau of Economic Analysis yesterday released the 2009 data for metropolitan area GDP. Their headline, “Economic Decline Widespread in 2009,” should come as a surprise to no one.

The BEA focuses on the year on year change. I’d rather look at the full span of the data that’s available, which is now 2001-2009. Here’s a look at percent change in total real metro area GDP during that time period:

And here are the top ten metro areas over one million in population on this metric:

Row Metro 2001 2009 Pct Change
1 Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro, OR-WA 81,505 114,028 39.90%
2 Oklahoma City, OK 43,835 59,532 35.81%
3 Austin-Round Rock-San Marcos, TX 55,466 75,136 35.46%
4 Las Vegas-Paradise, NV 63,730 82,255 29.07%
5 Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford, FL 71,940 91,400 27.05%
6 Phoenix-Mesa-Glendale, AZ 138,780 174,617 25.82%
7 Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV 294,656 368,793 25.16%
8 San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA 117,447 146,448 24.69%
9 Salt Lake City, UT 48,157 59,603 23.77%
10 San Diego-Carlsbad-San Marcos, CA 126,875 155,850 22.84%

Per capita tells is a little bit different story. Here’s a map of US metro areas for percent change in real GDP per capita:

The stunning collapse in real per capita GDP and also the erosion in per capita personal income relative to the nation is one of the key reasons I see Atlanta as a region with far more troubles than is generally assumed.

Here are the top ten large metros again:

Row Metro 2001 2009 Pct Change
1 Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro, OR-WA 41,256 50,863 23.29%
2 Oklahoma City, OK 39,573 48,507 22.58%
3 San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA 67,299 79,604 18.28%
4 San Diego-Carlsbad-San Marcos, CA 44,252 51,035 15.33%
5 San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont, CA 63,260 72,259 14.23%
6 Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana, CA 46,147 52,158 13.03%
7 Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV 59,801 67,344 12.61%
8 Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News, VA-NC 37,960 42,521 12.02%
9 Buffalo-Niagara Falls, NY 31,160 34,472 10.63%
10 New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner, LA 49,100 53,835 9.64%

All I can say is, this data looks great for Portland. That city isn’t perfect to be sure, but on the GDP side of the house, the plan is working beautifully. Contrary to slacker stereotypes, high value work is increasingly being produced there.

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011

Census 2010 and Urbanizing Indiana

I have another post up at New Geography called “Census 2010: Urbanizing Indiana.” Similar to my Chicago piece, this looks at the latest Census results for Indianapolis and Indiana.

For Indy, the story has some similarities to Chicago. The core (Center Township) badly missed expectations, but there were differences as well. Black population growth in Indy was strong, and the inner suburban (township) areas fared better than expected, particularly on the south side.

For Indiana as a whole, growth continued to be heavily metro focused. The map below says it all. It highlights those counties that grew faster than the statewide average:

Check out the piece for full details.

Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

Collective Pride, Worthy Choices by John L. Krauss

When you ask people locally where they’re from, they’ll specify an area of our community. They’ll say, “I’m from Fishers,” or Avon or Greenwood.

But when traveling, those same people will answer the question differently. They’ll say, “I’m from Indianapolis.”

Indianapolis is Central Indiana’s focal point. If our region were a newspaper, Indianapolis would be the banner headline. If we were sports apparel, it would be our swoosh. If we were a hit song, it would be our chorus.

But while the region needs Indianapolis to be strong, Indianapolis cannot sustain and grow its national status without strong surrounding communities.

In other words, to be a super city, we must be a super region.

To explain our interdependence, choose your favorite cliché: “You can’t be a suburb of nothing.” “We’re all in this together.” “A rising tide lifts all boats.” All these notions are true. So rather than erect more barriers born of fear and parochialism, it’s in our individual and collective best interest to celebrate and invest in regionalism.

Too often, when people hear “regionalism,” they fear we have to become homogenous – that we must evolve into a one-size-fits-all, nine-county Uni-Gov where all the shots are called from the 25th floor of Indianapolis’ City-County Building.

Our super-city status, however, depends not on homogeneity, but on ever-expanding choices available to all of our residents, visitors, businesses, students and more.

From arts to sports, libraries to restaurants, established neighborhoods to new exurbs, choice is what makes our community superb.

We’re more likely to sustain and grow our job market with a broad choice of industries and businesses.

We’re more likely to build value in our homes and control our cost of living with a choice of transportation (e.g., cars, commuter rail, buses).

We’re more likely to have affordable, desirable housing for all if we have choices in every price range and living style.

We’re more likely to have a well-educated work force if we have high-quality school choices for all of our students.

We’re more likely to enhance human health if we have choices for recreation, medical research, health education and treatment of disease.

We’re more likely to stem the brain drain, raise children who want to live here, and attract workers from other places if we have choices in education, enrichment and entertainment.

We’re more likely to succeed in a global economy if we have cultural choices that attract, retain and engage diverse people. Call it a mosaic, a cornucopia or quilt, choices are Central Indiana’s linchpin, our point of difference, our brand. Rather than flee from those choices or isolate one another, we must encourage and invest in them.

In so doing, it’s important that we value and acknowledge the ideas and choices of all kinds of people from all over the region, not just those that emerge from the center outward or from the top down. In considering those diverse ideas and choices, we must value not only our self-interest, but also our collective interest; not only short-term investment, but also long-term return on that investment.

Decades ago, when Uni-Gov was passed, Indiana lawmakers decided that Indianapolis wouldn’t be allowed to grow beyond its Marion County boundaries. Consequently, we are fiscally landlocked.

Today, that puts Indianapolis at risk from a tax base too small to support the city itself and to drive the region and state that depend upon it. Indianapolis is, after all, the principal economic engine not only for Central Indiana, but also for the state.

There’d undoubtedly be great resistance (as there should be) to such alternatives as commuter taxes. But we do need to explore region-wide, issue-specific investments in such measures as mass transit, quality of life or quality water – areas with collective responsibility that reap collective benefit.

We’ve come a long way since the days when we had few choices. Many people from within this city and beyond take pride in telling the world, “I’m from Indianapolis.” But we can’t have it both ways. A community worthy of collective pride depends on choices worthy of collective investment.

John Krauss directs the Indiana University Public Policy Institute and its Center for Urban Policy and the Environment.

This column originally appeared in the Indianapolis Star on February 6, 2010. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Sunday, February 20th, 2011

The Mobility Bank

Jim Russell pointed me at an interesting paper over at the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project. It is a proposal to create a “mobility bank” that would assist people in relocating to find greater economy opportunity in another part of the country.

I’ve previously written about this with some approval as a concept in the past. The idea is that a lot of people are effectively stuck in economically depressed communities because they are underwater on their house or simply can’t afford to move. They can then become a drain on their community for social services, along with depressing wages through boosting the labor force. But more importantly, the people who can’t find jobs or only find underemployment are robbed of the dignity of what they could otherwise achieve through their own work and efforts. If we could help them move to a location where the economy is better or better matches their skills, such as by getting them out of their mortgage, this could be a win-win-win.

It’s easy to understand why this would be a controversial policy to say the least. We don’t have a tradition of just writing off places, and those that stand to lose people under such a program would no doubt be offended that the feds or others were actually helping to rob them of what they see as their most precious resource: their people.

There’s a huge debate out there over helping people vs. helping places. From what I see, most commentators say that we should do both, but we should more emphasize people. But this is a difficult concept to operationalize in practice. This Brookings study by Jens Ludwig and Steven Raphael takes one crack at what favoring people might mean.

The idea is that people who are in communities in the top third in terms of unemployment would qualify for mobility loans from the federal government of up to $10,000. The amounts could be used for moving related expenses for moves over 50 miles, but also for things like traveling to cities to scout out opportunities and interview for jobs. These would be administered like student loans and run by the same agency. As with student loans, repayments would not start until the person who borrowed the money was gainfully employed. But to reduce the disincentive to work, repayment amounts would be capped at a maximum of 3% of the borrower’s income, and would fully be considered paid off after 120 payments, even if the full principal amount was not yet repaid. Yes, this means there could be a subsidy, but the authors consider that worth it.

Part of their rationale is mobility overall has been declining, as they show in the cart below:

Also, mobility has been lower for people with lower educational attainment, unsurprising given their generally lower earnings power to fund moves, interview in other cities, etc.

Some of these mobility declines likely resulted from non-economic factors. But no doubt today’s terrible economy and housing market have kept people from moving who might otherwise want to. By putting in place a program targeted at only struggling cities, this Mobility Bank plan would seek to bring the migration engine back to a more normal baseline, assisting people to better their lives and helping communities (even if some would no doubt not consider it such), while minimizing disincentives to work and required subsidies. I think this is an interesting proposal very much worth a look. While it might not be something everyone could personally endorse, it shows some serious thought into what a federal program for assisting people vs. places in economic recovery might look like apart from direct education/training or some such.

Friday, February 18th, 2011


Crowns are won by many friends and well-crammed money bags – Sophocles, Oedipus the King

For those of you in Chicago, there’s an interesting looking event coming up on March 22nd. The Chicago Council on Global Affairs Young Professionals group is bringing in Greg Lindsay, who co-wrote Aerotropolis, and noted local architect Jeanne Gang to talk about building cities according to the logic of globalization.

Top Stories

1. Joel Kotkin: America’s Biggest Brain Magnets

2. Esquire: Mike Bloomberg Will Save Us From Ourselves If We Let Him

3. Scott Eden: Fantasies Made Fresh – A 2004 article about a handful of towns across the river from St. Louis that are almost entirely supported by the strip club trade. Brought to my attention via

4. NYT: Mayor of Rust – Yet another feature, this time in the NYT Magazine, of Braddock, Pennsylvania mayor John Fetterman. I’ve got to admit that I can’t help but wonder whether the Braddock phenomenon has done more to help that city or John Fetterman, who’s become a media darling and mini-celebrity.

More Chrysler Super Bowl Responses

There are a few additional articles out there about the Chrysler Super Bowl ad I thought you might like. One is Andrew Shears’ Detroit, Eminem, and Chrysler’s Geographic Imagination. Another is by St. Louis journalist Tim Logan who writes about Chrysler’s Super Bowl ad and the power of a city’s brand. And over at Grist, Sarah Goodyear asks, How Do You Sell a City Without Selling Out?

Ed Glaeser on the Daley Show

You may have noticed that Ed Glaeser is ubiquitous these days as he’s out touting his new book The Triumph of the City. Here’s an appearance he did on the Daily Show (if the video doesn’t display click here).

World and National Roundup

Saskia Sassen: Talking Back to Your Intelligent City

Ed Glaeser: How skyscrapers can save the city

Ben Schulman: China’s empty trains and other unintended consequences

Cogito Urbanus: The Future of American Cities May Be Vancouver, BC

Linda Baker: White in the White City

Jason Tinkey: Night Falls on Hoboken

Atlanta Journal-Constitution: We’re Not Really Rooting for Ourselves Anymore

Ray Leach: Will the Midwest Become the Next Silicon Valley?. See also: Can You Really Build a Great Tech Firm Outside Silicon Valley

Detroit Blog: Desolation Angel

Wes Janz: This is Flint, Michigan

WSJ: Pittsburgh’s Pension Woes Call for a Hail Mary

Indy Star: Beyond the Big Game – The Indy Star is taking a year long look at what’s next for the city of Indianapolis.

Ed Glaeser: Assessing the Daley Legacy in Chicago

Changing Gears: Daley and Chicago’s Economic Transformation

Richard Longworth: City of Narrow Shoulders

James Warren: Chicago’s Inequities Belie World-Class Imagery

Stifling Highway Dissent in North Carolina

There was an interesting story in North Carolina, where the state’s transportation officials are trying to prosecute someone for practicing engineering without a license for submitting an eight page traffic analysis on behalf of his neighborhood association. I guess you can provide input during the public involvement process, just don’t be too good at it.

Post Script

And here’s a classic from the one and only Fail Blog:

Thursday, February 17th, 2011

The Big City CBD Advantage

It’s interesting to look at the divergent fortunes of cities. One thing I’ve noticed is that while virtually every small city Central Business District (CBD) has had significant private sector employment declines to the point where they are now very dependent on the public and quasi-public sectors plus perhaps a few legacy headquarters, some of the biggest city CBDs have actually managed to sustain themselves as major commercial engines. This includes New York, Chicago, and Boston, though you could also add DC as a specialized sort of government company town. I suspect San Francisco would be in this group, except that it almost deliberately abandoned its CBD and even the pretense of being a commercial city out of abhorrence at the specter of “Manhattanization” there. LA of course never had much of a traditional CBD.

There are a lot of traditional explanations for this such as density and such. But I think in those really big areas, one advantage is simply the size of the commute shed there. They are able to effectively concentrate people from over a very wide area in a way that other places simply can’t match.

New York and Chicago are the best examples. They have massive commuter rail systems that radiate in all directions from their central cores. This make it possible to commute to Chicago’s Loop from as wide a range as from South Bend, Indiana to Kenosha, Wisconsin. You could even go as far as Milwaukee, as there are plenty of commuters on Amtrak’s Hiawatha service.

By contrast, if you are located in an office park on Lake-Cook Rd in north suburban Northbrook, you have a much more limited area from which to draw. In fact I spent some time working in one of those, and noticed how heavily skewed to the north the residences of the people who worked there with me were. There were plenty of people who lived in Wisconsin and drove in. But very few from the south half of the metro area. It’s just not feasible for most people to commute some of those routes via car given the horrific traffic.

This restricted commuting shed almost by definition limits the number of people who can work at an employer located there. Whereas someone located in downtown Chicago can draw from the entire metro area with ease. This gives a business a much wider potential talent pool from which to draw. This might not make a difference for more general business skills, but for specialized skills (and especially the need to aggregate different types of specialized skills together) the ability to pool and concentrate the resources that the entire metro area can bring to bear might indeed make a difference.

I suspect the ability of businesses located in these central cores to draw from the entire region in the way that suburban business locations can’t is one of their key draws.

By contrast, places like Indianapolis or Nashville are much smaller and much less congested. You can commute from anywhere to anywhere by car with ease. In fact, favored quarter development patterns in these cities actually mean that to be in the center of gravity of the white collar labor force, a business should locate away from downtown. It’s no big surprise why they’ve retained much less of a hold on private sector commerce. I’ll have much more to say on that topic in a future post.

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011

Chicago Takes a Census Shellacking

I know I’ve been on a negative streak about Chicago lately, and here’s another one. But rest assured good news is coming soon, starting with a post tomorrow. I’ve got several others in the hopper, but they still need some development.

At any rate, the census results just released for Illinois were bad news for Chicago. I discuss this over at New Geography in my post “Chicago Takes a Census Shellacking.”

The city had a negative downside population surprise, losing 200,000 people and coming in well under the 2009 estimates. It particularly bled black population, but the non-Hispanic white population declined too. Hispanics increased, but Chicago actually added fewer total than Indianapolis, a city less than 1/3 its size.

More troubling is rampant exurban growth, with Cook, DuPage, and Lake all struggling a bit while places like Kendall County explode. Is it any wonder we’re broke and our traffic congestion is so bad?

Here’s the Illinois population percent change map:

Tuesday, February 15th, 2011

Hoping Detroit Fails by Jim Russell

The backlash has begun. SmartPlanet links to a Mother Jones piece that rips the Chrysler ad I discussed yesterday. The critique has become, in my view, a vacuous cliché:

But there’s a lot to dislike here: the fact that a major bailout recipient is dishing beaucoup bucks for a one-off ad to boost its image; the cynical racism (or at least colonialism) of positioning Chrysler as a tough, gritty, 8 Mile-style brand that’s perfect for what marketers call the “urban core” demographic; and using Detroit poverty porn to hawk your product while simultaneously trying to deride the media’s recent Detroit poverty porn.

The charge of exploiting “poverty porn” is reminiscent of the scathing rebuke of the Levi’s campaign that sells jeans using Braddock’s ruin porn. That’s an important connection to make. The Associated Press offers a watered-down version of the concern:

“Detroit’s ascendancy mirrors Eminem’s own struggles and accomplishments,” Chrysler brand CEO and President Olivier Francois said in an e-mail to the AP. “This is not simply yet another celebrity in a TV spot. It has meaning. Like his music and story, the new Chrysler is ‘Imported from Detroit’ with pride.”

Of course, the tagline is not without some irony: Italian automaker Fiat Group SpA now owns 25 percent of Chrysler, and the ad was produced by Wieden + Kennedy, a Portland, Ore.-based agency known for its work with Nike. Chrysler switched after its previous advertising agency, a famous firm called BBDO, closed its Detroit office.

Does Wieden + Kennedy ring a bell? Mother Jones went after the Nike connection. I immediately thought of the “Ready to Work” campaign that featured Braddock. In fact, the Chrysler ad seems similar in its use of Rust Belt Chic. The agency is located in Portland, OR and has its finger on the pulse of the urban frontier. The swipe at the emerald cities in the definition of Detroit cool is ironic.

The other thread running through the negative reaction to the Chrysler ad is Fiat’s ownership stake and the US government bailout of the American auto company. Why are taxpayers propping up a foreign company?

The [Nike] shoe waiting to drop is Chrysler abandoning Detroit for Turin, Italy. We bail you out and then you spit in our face, raking in corporate profits. Detroit is left with only a sleek ad, 15-minutes of fame.

But hold on a second:

Sergio Marchionne, chief executive of Fiat and Chrysler, has been forced on the defensive after causing a political firestorm in Italy by suggesting he could move the Italian company’s headquarters from Turin to the US and saying Chrysler’s bail-out loans from the US government carried “shyster rates”.

His comments come just a month after he won tough labour concessions at Fiat’s flagship Turin plant on a pledge that he would not move production to cheaper sites in North America or eastern Europe.

Fiat is a symbol of Italy’s industrial might, and business leaders say any decision by Mr Marchionne to reduce its presence there would have a disastrous effect on the country’s already weak image as a place for foreign investment. Pierluigi Bersani, leader of the opposition Democratic party, demanding an explanation from Mr Marchionne said it was unacceptable for “Turin and the country to become a suburb of Detroit”.

The above is from yesterday’s news cycle. After all is said and done, Turin might be the city left high-and-dry. Detroit will be the one stealing jobs from abroad. Of all the pontificating (good and bad) about the Super Bowl spot, not a single blog post or article mentions the shitstorm rising from Marchionne’s comments. There is no consideration of the bigger picture.

Which brings me back to Detroit and the huge task that city faces to revitalize:

“When I was elected, I thought I knew what was going on, but I got here and found out [that] in the short term, things were way worse than I ever imagined,” Bing said. “Financially. Ethically. From a policy standpoint. We were on the brink of a financial calamity.”

Twenty-one months into the job, that’s where the city remains. With no salvation in sight, Bing, 67, has embarked on a mission few in his position have ever had to take on: dramatically shrinking a major American metropolis. To do so, Bing has issued an open invitation: anyone with a proposal, plan, theory – a notion, even – is welcome to try to save his crumbling city.

The people trying to save the city tended to respond positively to the Chrysler ad. Maybe poverty porn sells a few cars. But it can also rally many to the cause. The Mother Jones invective is what is postcolonial, exploitative. I’m from the Rust Belt. Don’t tell me what the score is. I’m not being seduced by ruin porn and I’m not buying your lefty propaganda.

A crumbling Detroit is supposed to teach us how capitalism is evil. Those wielding Marxist theory want Detroit to fail. It is supposed to fail. The idea that nothing good can come from the promotion of consumerism is oppressive ideological thinking. I’m not interested in Mother Jones telling me what the ad means. I can decide for myself. I can be inspired and still point a damning finger at Chrysler. Doing so doesn’t make me a hypocrite. It means I’m an active consumer of media. That cuts both ways as far as Mother Jones is concerned.

This post originally appeared in Burgh Diaspora.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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