Thursday, October 6th, 2011

The Cost of Congestion, The Value of Transit

Last week the Texas Transportation Institute released the 2011 edition of its benchmark Urban Mobility Report. It is packed full of useful statistics about roadway networks, congestion, and public transit, though is not without its critics (see below). I’d like to highlight some of the more interesting findings out of this.

The Value of Transit

One of the values TTI estimates is the number of additional hours of delay each peak hour commuter would incur annual if public transportation were discontinued. In effect, this is one key benefit to motorists of public transport. Here are the top 10 cities:

Obviously New York is far and away the winner with 63 hours of additional delay per peak period auto commuter if its transit system were discontinued. TTI puts the value of an hour of time at $16.30, so this translates into an average of $1026.90 in dollar benefits to each and every auto commuter in greater New York City from transit. That’s not nothing.

To further show the value of transit to New Yorkers, let’s do a quick back of the envelope type calculation for illustrative purposes. The median household income in metro New York is $61,927. If each home with an auto commuter in it has one and only one commuter who obtains the average benefit, and incomes of auto commuters follow the overall, then this auto benefit is equivalent to 1.66% of income. You can think of it as sort of like a 1.5 percentage point cut in the income tax rate for those households, just based on the value delivered to them.

Now of course those households probably make contributions towards transit through taxes and otherwise, but clearly they are also getting a return even if they don’t ever ride transit personally. Also, this considers only peak period commuters, not non-peak drivers (who also experience significant delay in New York) or the value of transit to commercial vehicles, which is likely big as well given than NYC incurs over $2 billion in cost due to trucking delays from congestion.

After NYC, the savings drop off rapidly, but there are six additional cities with more than 10 hours of delay savings per peak commuter, so they probably get something material out of it.

On an aggregate basis, the total value of congestion avoided as a result of public transit is impressively high as well, as this look at the top ten cities shows (in millions of dollars):

Again, New York dominates the charts with nearly $8 billion in savings. But even down the charts there’s big money. In Chicago, which is gearing up for another round of fare hikes and service cuts, the cost of congestion avoided due to public transit is about the same as the combined operating budget of all regional transit agencies. Chicago transit is effectively self-funded in terms of benefits delivered to motorists alone.

Commercial Vehicle Traffic

TTI has also started trying to break out the cost of delays to commercial vehicles. Here are the top ten cities for trucking congestion delays, in millions of dollars:

It doesn’t surprise me to see Chicago is number one, given its status as the nation’s premier transport hub and the large number of highways that pass through it.

Lane Miles

When looking at congestion, I think it’s also relevant to consider the size of the roadway network relative to the population. TTI reports freeway and arterial lane miles, so we can do this calculation. Here are the top ten cities for freeway lane miles per capita, for metro areas greater than one million people.*

The one that jumps out at me is Cleveland. As a shrinking region, it would appear to be significantly over-supplied with freeways. I think this shows the excess infrastructure overhang that hurts these places in trying to turn around decline.

Here are the bottom ten:

Note: Riverside has a likely data error in the master TTI spreadsheet the artificially lowers its score here.

Again unsurprisingly, the big cities with bad congestion have a comparatively low number of freeway lane miles per capita. Make particular note of Chicago as we’ll come back to it.

TTI and Its Critics

I could do a lot more on the TTI report, and maybe I will in future posts, but I wanted to address the notion that TTI’s measures have been “debunked” as some have said.

The root of this goes back to a CEOs for Cities report called “Driven Apart” that basically says that TTI and the way they measure things are wrong, and that different measures would be more appropriate.

I doubt most of those who link to that report approvingly have ever read what it says in detail. I’ll freely admit I haven’t either. But having looked at previous work Joe Cortright did, I’m confident it’s technically sound.

Regardless, I think that this is never going to gain mind share with the greater public, and that only the hard core urbanist true believes are going to be impressed with it.

Let me explain why in contrast to the extremely successful CEOs for Cities “Talent Dividend” research which shows the size of the prize for increasing educational attainment. Firstly, in education there is already unanimous consensus that we need to raise education attainment, even if there are debates about getting there. So this is preaching to the crowd. Second, the idea that raising educational attainment boosts incomes its intuitively obvious because in our everyday experience, the people we interact with on a daily basis who have more education tend to make more money. And the causal link is clear. The Talent Dividend merely takes this everyday experience and makes it real at the macro level, showing the size of the prize. Also, its policy prescription of shooting for a one percentage point increase in college degree attainment is intuitively achievable.

Now contrast this with Driven Apart. Here we have low consensus about what we want to achieve. Additionally, the notion that places like Chicago are somehow better than Charlotte for drivers is counter-intuitive and flies in the face of the everyday experience of Chicagoans.

I am inclined to be pro-urban and pro-transit. But I’ve commuted in Chicago and can tell you that traffic is simply horrific. Complaining about traffic and the CTA are two of the most common Chicago pastimes. Not only that, traffic has been getting worse over the years. This is not just commuting. Expressways like the Kennedy and Eisenhower are now basically backed up all day. Even on a Saturday or Sunday, traffic frequently grinds to a halt. As near as I can tell, the ramp from the inbound Ryan to the outbound Ike is backed up effectively 24 hours a day. The numerous six way intersections like Belmont/Lincoln/Ashland and Fullerton/Damen/Elston make driving around the city a chore as you sit through multiple lights. (And hope you don’t have to turn left).

Now the Driven Apart report doesn’t deny this, but simply suggests that’s the wrong way to look at it. Rather, we need to consider distance, etc. and that it’s the total time driving that counts. Here’s the chart comparing Chicago and Charlotte:

Perhaps the “average” trip is shorter. However, what shapes most people’s view of traffic is commuting. And according to the Census Bureau, Chicago’s average commute time is longer than Charlotte’s:

A look at the distribution of commute times suggests that it’s better to commute in Charlotte than Chicago across the board:

Even if non-commute trips are on average far shorter and take less time in Charlotte, I can tell you that in Chicago, because of the unpredictability of traffic and transit, people routinely build huge extra time buffers into their journey, which is deadweight loss if your trip turns out to be short.

Driven Apart suggest that the real culprit we should be looking at is sprawl. I agree that’s a key problem. However, Chicago is one of the most sprawling regions in the US. Indeed, that’s one reason it’s traffic is so bad. This has been tirelessly documented by the Center for Neighborhood Technology and others. Talk to any urbanist planning group in Chicago, and restraining sprawl is a top priority. As I noted in my census coverage, virtually all Chicago growth in this stagnant region has been in the exurban areas. The region seems to actively promote this, with items such as extended Metra service to Elburn and a planned $69 million interchange expansion at I-90 and Route 47 in exurban Huntley. The sprawl has even spread into Rockford, whose metro area is seeing a big influx of people from Chicago despite its depressed economic state.

Beyond sprawl, Chicago also has the third lowest freeway lane miles per capita of any metro area in the US greater than one million people, though it does better when looking at arterial lane-miles.

So whatever the merits of Driven Apart (and I’m not claiming any of it is per se wrong), implying something like Chicago is better than Charlotte for drivers falls into the category of “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.” Something that is effectively a technical argument is never going to sell, particularly when it flies in the face of the everyday experience of people who live in these cities. I know both Chicago and Indy (another city cited for its sprawly commutes in the Driven Apart study) intimately from a driver’s perspective, and there’s simply no comparison. In terms of getting places, Indy is just indisputably better to me. I don’t think I could ever be convinced to think otherwise.

Given this, I think the idea that traditional measure of congestion are going to be dethroned is a long shot at best.

* Note that TTI urban areas are not metro areas but a bespoke region. The population used for thresholding which regions to include was the Census population of the metro area, but the population value used for per capita calculation was the population of the TTI region as reported by TTI.

Tuesday, October 4th, 2011

Race Matters in Milwaukee – Part 4: Segregation and Education by Nathaniel Holton

It has been suggested that education is the civil rights issue of our time, and there is no question that the black community continues to lag behind when it comes to all matters of education. This is especially so here in Milwaukee, where MPS reading scores lag behind those of other major urban school districts, state black reading scores are the worst in the nation, and the percent of blacks with a college education is lower here than it is in most other places. These are crisis-level facts.

This has not completely escaped the community’s notice. Everybody understands the importance of improving Milwaukee Public Schools. And while massive disagreement concerning proposed changes ultimately resulted in the prevailing of the status quo, rather than some sort of meaningful compromise or reform, at least the community showed that it was energized and willing to fight for local education.

But one thing that seems to continue to escape notice, maybe since the time that Chapter 220 was created, is the impact that segregation has on education.

Segregation and 4th Grade Reading Scores

The landmark study on segregation by the U.S Census Bureau ranked several dozen metro areas in terms of how segregated each is. Meanwhile, the Trial Urban District Assessment ranked 18 participating urban school districts in various standardized test scores. In total, 14 metro areas, including Milwaukee, were included in both studies. Each of these urban school districts contends with the issues of poverty and parenting that are frequently cited as the primary reasons for MPS’ struggles.

The graph below shows the level of segregation and the 2009 black 4th grade reading scores of the 14 districts that were included in both studies.

The link between segregation and black 4th grade reading scores is “significant“ at the 99% level, and segregation “explains” 45% of the variance in the reading scores. Note also that the link between segregation and overall reading scores (for all races) is significant at the 95% level and explains 37% of the variance in the reading scores. Milwaukee black 4th grade median reading score was second worst, ahead of only Detroit.

Segregation and Bachelor’s Degrees

The yearly American Community Survey keeps track of how many people ages 25 and older have acquired a bachelor’s degree. The graph below shows metro area segregation and the percent of the black population within the metro area that has a bachelor’s degree, averaged from 2006 to 2008. The correlation is significant at the 99% level and explains 32% of the variance in the percent of the black population that has a bachelor’s degree.

In this time, 12.3% of the black population in metro Milwaukee had a bachelor’s degree, the worst out of all of the metro areas included in the segregation study.

The graph below shows metro area segregation and the white/black bachelor’s degree disparity, defined as the ratio of percent of white people with a degree divided by percent of black people with a degree. Once again, correlation is significant at the 99% level and this time explains 30% of the variance in the white/black disparity.

Metro Milwaukee’s white/black degree disparity of 2.79 (34.3%/12.3%) was the worst out of all the metro areas in the segregation study.

What Does It Mean?

It is pretty clear that segregation and poor education outcomes correlate with one another. This does not prove that segregation causes poor education outcomes, or even that poor education outcomes cause segregation. But, as is the case with other socioeconomic indicators, segregation can be tied to the problems of Milwaukee that we all experience and are concerned with. It will be hard to move Milwaukee forward in jobs and education without impacting our segregation. With all of the talk about jobs and education during this election season, this is something that ought to be kept in mind.

This post originally appeared in The Milwaukee Drum on September 29, 2010.

Wednesday, September 28th, 2011

San Francisco: The City

I can’t resist yet another great urban time lapse, this one of San Francisco. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.

Tuesday, September 27th, 2011

Race Matters in Milwaukee – Part 3: The Effects of Milwaukee’s Segregation by Nathaniel Holton

Racial segregation is one branch in a thicket of economic and quality of life issues that together form the challenges of the day for Milwaukee. As Part 2 of the series suggested and as various researchers have shown, segregation is both cause and effect of such challenges as income disparity, wealth accumulation, brain drain, unemployment, education disparities, health disparities, and so on.

Oftentimes it seems that civic leaders don’t talk of the problems of racial segregation, and instead focus on non race-centered issues that relate to it, such as jobs and education. These are more tangible and politically sensible, but the fact of the matter is that Milwaukee’s thicket of issues is a package deal, and ignoring racial segregation imperils efforts to attack the issues that relate to it. Jobs aren’t gained or lost in a vacuum, and our childrens’ education can’t be separated from the structure of the communities that our children reside in. For Milwaukee to truly move on its issues, the battle against segregation has to be waged alongside the battle for jobs and education.

To make this point clear, information on segregation and income described in earlier articles in the series can be viewed together to see how they are connected. The metric used for segregation in the graphs below is the average metro black/white segregation ranking, which was taken from the U.S Census Bureau’s study on segregation (see Part I). In this metric, recall that metro Milwaukee was ranked as #1, the most segregated metro area in the country.

In the graphs below, each blue dot represents a different metro area and the trend line shows the overall correlation between segregation and the other statistic. Also, each graph can be clicked on to see a larger view.

Black Income

Segregation can most easily be connected to black family income. As previously discussed, low average incomes in the black community bring about segregation. Meanwhile, segregation decreases black income in part because it limits access to employment.

The connection between segregation and black income is significant. If a city were to improve by ten spots in the segregation rankings (e.g. going from 1st to 11th), that would correlate to a rise in black median family income of over $3,800 per year.

This is not surprising. In the famous Gautreaux housing mobility experiment, statistically identical groups of low income families were either assigned to live in low-income housing in segregated areas or were given vouchers to live in mostly white suburbs. Those families that moved to the suburbs saw higher employment, higher income, and better results in education compared to the families that remained in segregated environments.

Income Disparity

Segregation decreases the black community’s piece of the pie. Seven of the top ten metro areas that had the worst income disparity were also in the top ten for most segregated metro areas. One of the three exceptions, Kansas City, is just outside of the top ten, at 11th most segregated. If you want the black community to stay poor relative to whites, keep the black community highly segregated.

Gross Domestic Product

While decreasing segregation correlates with higher black income, what needs to be emphasized is the fact that decreasing segregation benefits the entire metro area. Gross domestic product (GDP) is a measure of economic activity for a metro area. Since metro areas with larger populations will naturally have more economic activity than metro areas with smaller populations, GDP per capita* can be used to make apples-to-apples comparisons between metro areas. When politicians talk about growing the economy, they are talking about increasing Milwaukee’s GDP per capita.

Less segregated places tend to have stronger economies than more segregated places. For the average metro area, a ten spot improvement in the segregation rankings correlates with a GDP per capita increase of over $1,600 per year. Suburban communities suspicious of any talk of decreasing segregation should be apprised of this.

* The number used here is the average metro GDP per capita between 2001 and 2008, in chained 2001 dollars.

White Income

Those who have put in hard work trying to uplift the black community often run into resistance from suburbs that consider community uplifting proposals to be a direct attack on their own quality of life and well-being. However, it has to be stressed that decreasing segregation benefits everyone, this doesn’t have to be a zero sum game. Good strategies that reduce segregation would directly benefit white households as well as black households. A ten spot improvement in the segregation rankings translates to an increase in white median household income of over $1,300 per year.

Racial Animus

Advancing mutually beneficial policies that would decrease segregation requires the entire community to understand that they have something to gain from this effort. Unfortunately, in a catch-22, metro Milwaukee’s segregation separates people and makes it difficult for us to see our shared fate.

Ever since the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel opened up comments on its online articles, there have been many examples of the sorts of outrageously ignorant, racially-tinged comments that could only be made by individuals who have no understanding or experience with people who don’t look like them. Here are a few unedited examples:

I suggest building an enormous wall with borders of 43 to the east, 94 to the south, 84th st to the west and brown deer to the north and then pull all city services out of that area and let the inhabitants figure it out for themselves. I’m so sick of hearing how bad they have it and about the terrible crime it is such BS. Stop making excuses for your inability to pull yourselves up by your bootstraps like every other immigrant that came to america over our 235 year history. Even the mexicans have made something of themselves, they might be just as violent but at least they aren’t lazy and many of them can’t get welfare so they bust their asses trying to make a better life for their families.

-poundsb27, 2/27/2010, City’s mean streets hard on young blacks

This is a character issue and all about common decency; a civil society must follow the rules that are in place. It just so happens that the people in this society that have the most problem with common decency are black. Its just a fact, society has to deal with this every day.”

-OneTug, 3/1/2010, MPS, Ald Will Wade butt heads over hat removal policy

Get all these stupid liberals together in one spot, load them on a bus, and ship them all out of town. When the hell are blacks gonna stop ruining the city and get their crap together?

-SkylarTatlock, 3/1/2010, MPS, Ald Will Wade butt heads over hat removal policy

We can only work together on our problems when we can look at our fellow citizens and see a reflection of ourselves. Decreasing segregation would help increase this sort of shared understanding, but increasing the shared understanding is required to collectively agree to do something about segregation. It’s a chicken and egg problem.

Job Growth

With good reason, Milwaukee’s most preeminent civic leaders are falling over each other talking about jobs. Whether by advocating for the magic of tax cuts or by celebrating the bribery of businesses, jobs are the main issue. But in case we start losing sight of the forest for the trees, or the rhetoric and ribbon cutting for the reality, we need to note that metro Milwaukee lost over 30,000 civilian jobs from December 2007 to December 2009. Jobs are obviously critical. Creating them and obtaining the socioeconomic benefit that comes with higher employment will be fleeting at best if Milwaukee’s segregation is not addressed.

Milwaukee’s job loss since the beginning of the recession (December 2007) represents a 3.85% decrease in the number of civilian jobs in the metro area. Most communities have been hit hard by the Great Recession, but as always seems to be the case, Milwaukee has been hit harder than most others. No local politician can control local job growth. The global economy can and does overwhelm even the best laid local plans at a moment’s notice. Local leaders can only be responsible for ensuring that Milwaukee fares better through the ups and downs of the global economy than other metro areas. Instead of making promises that only an uncontrollable global economy can make good on, our local leaders should be working on ensuring that metro Milwaukee outperforms our competitors.

In this effort, our local leaders have failed. Metro Milwaukee had the 6th worst civilian job loss amongst the 36 cities that were measured on segregation. Using a different metric and comparing metro Milwaukee to the 38 areas that have a workforce of at least 750,000, Milwaukee had the 3rd worst job loss in 2009.

The reasons for this are surely complex, but what has to be understood is that Milwaukee’s segregation puts it at a competitive disadvantage in today’s global market. Until it is adequately addressed, we will continue to see metro Milwaukee underperform relative to other cities.

This post originally appeared in The Milwaukee Drum on March 8, 2010.

Sunday, September 25th, 2011

A Decade in College Degree Attainment

Metro area college degree attainment, 2010

This week the Census Bureau released its 2010 data from the American Community Survey. The ACS is what contains many of the core demographic characteristics that are frequently opined upon, such as college degree attainment, commute times, etc.

It used to be that the Census Bureau collected this information during the decennial census using the so-called “long form” that went to one out of every ten households. But that was discontinued as of this census and has been replaced with with the ACS. The ACS reports data more frequently (annually for geographies larger than a certain size), but has a smaller sample size and so there’s lot of statistical noise that I don’t think we are used to dealing with yet. For example, in 2008 the Indianapolis metro area ranked #3 in the US for growth in college degree attainment over the course of the decade to date among metros greater than one million people. But in the 2010 data Indy ranked #28 on the same measure. There are fluctuations year to year and the margin of error needs to be accounted for in serious statistical analysis. Nevertheless, this is what we have to work with.

I’m going to roll out a series of posts covering the highlights of some of this data. I’ll start with educational attainment, since that is something that is so key to upward social mobility and urban economic success.

But first I’ll put in a brief plug for my Telestrian tool. The Census Bureau site for distributing this data is a disaster. As one Brookings senior fellow put it, “Lots of Census data yesterday, today. Lots of angles, stories, conclusions. One shared sentiment: new American Factfinder is AWFUL” and “New Factfinder making mainframe punchcards look appealing.” Telestrian is designed for very rapid basic analysis and comparative benchmarking moreso than simple fact lookups (though it can do that do). In fact, I generated every table, graph and map in this post in ten total minutes with it. Even if you aren’t in the market for a commercial product, there’s a no credit card required free trial period, so if you are interested in perusing the ACS data and don’t want to beat your head against the wall with the Census Factfinder, I encourage you to check it out. Telestrian doesn’t have every data element, but it has a lot of interesting stuff.

College Degree Attainment

College degree attainment (the percentage of adults with a bachelors degree or higher), is one of the most critical factors in urban success. If you’d like to know more, just check out all the great research on it under the heading of “talent dividend” over at CEOs for Cities.

The map at the top of the post is 2010 college degree attainment for metro areas. Here are the top ten, among those with a population greater than one million, showing total number of people with degrees and the attainment percentage:

Row Metro Area 2010
1 Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV 1,758,297 (46.8%)
2 San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA 558,519 (45.3%)
3 San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont, CA 1,317,354 (43.4%)
4 Boston-Cambridge-Quincy, MA-NH 1,335,276 (43.0%)
5 Raleigh-Cary, NC 301,012 (41.0%)
6 Austin-Round Rock-San Marcos, TX 429,163 (39.4%)
7 Denver-Aurora-Broomfield, CO 651,661 (38.2%)
8 Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI 822,321 (37.9%)
9 Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA 867,193 (37.0%)
10 New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, NY-NJ-PA 4,613,445 (36.0%)

And here’s the bottom ten:

Row Metro Area 2010
1 Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA 499,663 (19.5%)
2 Las Vegas-Paradise, NV 278,387 (21.6%)
3 Memphis, TN-MS-AR 209,987 (25.1%)
4 San Antonio-New Braunfels, TX 344,247 (25.4%)
5 Louisville/Jefferson County, KY-IN 224,392 (25.8%)
6 Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, FL 513,182 (26.2%)
7 Birmingham-Hoover, AL 198,856 (26.3%)
8 New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner, LA 209,916 (26.8%)
9 Jacksonville, FL 241,801 (26.9%)
10 Phoenix-Mesa-Glendale, AZ 731,643 (27.2%)

While we are on the topic, here is a map of college degree attainment by state:

State college degree attainment, 2010

And here is county level college degree attainment for those counties covered by the 1-year ACS:

County college degree attainment, 2010

Changes in College Degree Attainment

Beyond just the raw 2010 numbers, it’s interesting to look at which places are growing their college degree attainment the most. That is, which places are growing their talent base. So here’s a look at metros by their change in college degree attainment over the last decade:

Change in percentage of adults with college degrees, 2000-2010.

Some places already have very high college degree attainment, which can make it tougher to grow even higher. Speaking of which, the US as a whole raised its college degree attainment as well. To some extent, this is purely a function of demographics. Older generations have lower educational levels than younger ones. (None of my grandparents had a college degree, and my father’s parents never even finished high school. I don’t think that was atypical for their day).

What might be more interesting to look at is whether places are increasing their college degree attainment faster or slower than the US overall. There’s a measure that does capture that. It’s called location quotient, and is used in economic analysis to measure the concentration of industries in certain locations.

An economist told me once that he likes to look at this for all sorts of things, not just industry clusters. The formula works for other stuff. I really haven’t seen this used before, so caveat emptor, but here’s a look at shifts in location quotient for metro areas over the course of the decade:

Metro area change in location quotient for college degree attainment, 2000-2010. Increase in LQ in blue, decrease in red.

The blue metro areas had a higher concentration of college degrees relative to the nation as a whole in 2010 than they did in 2000. The red ones a lower concentration. This is certainly an interesting area for further exploration.

While I’m on the topic, here’s the same chart, only limited to graduate and professional degrees. There’s some interesting variability here.

Metro area change in location quotient for graduate and professional degree attainment, 2000-2010. Increase in LQ in blue, decrease in red.

A Closer Look at Indianapolis

Just as one more granular example, I wanted to take a look at the Indianapolis vertical. Here’s 2010 college degree attainment for the city, metro, state, and America as a whole:

College degree attainment, 2010

As we know, urban regions tend to be more highly educated. Here we see that while Indiana is one of the lowest states in terms of college degree attainment, the Indy metro area actually beats the US average. However, the city of Indianapolis falls short of the US average. Because Indy is a consolidated city-county government that includes a lot of inner ring suburban areas, it’s hard to draw conclusions about the true urban core, but it does seem clear that the center is less educated than the periphery of the metro.

Now lets look at the change in attainment for the decade:

Change in the percentage of adults with a college degree, 2000-2010.

Here we see that the rich get richer, as Indy metro not only started out on a higher base, but had the best showing in attainment growth as well. OTOH, going back to our LQ measure, Indiana actually boosted its LQ while the Indy region was stagnant. That’s because this is a percentage point change, not a percentage change, and growing from a low base makes it easier to boost LQ. It’s one of the quirks of that formula.

The poor showing of the city of Indianapolis is something that should definitely be worrying. It would be interesting to do a similar analysis for other metros, but alas that’s all for today.

Tuesday, September 20th, 2011

Race Matters in Milwaukee – Part 2: The Causes of Milwaukee’s Segregation by Nathaniel Holton

[ This week we continue with our Race Matters in Milwaukee series by Nathaniel Holton. Please keep in mind when viewing that they do not have a zero origin – Aaron. ]

Racial segregation is a phenomenon with complex historical roots. The legacy of slavery, discriminatory housing policies, redlining, employment discrimination, tax inequity, racist covenants, and a wide variety of other practices swirled together to create a segregated Milwaukee. For an exhaustive documentation of Milwaukee’s history of segregation, I highly recommend “A Report on Past Discrimination Against African-Americans in Milwaukee, 1835-1999,” by Ruth Zubrensky (available in most Milwaukee Public Libraries). We won’t know where to go until we understand how we got here, and Zubrensky does a wonderful job of tracing that path.

While Milwaukee’s history is unique, social forces and government policies created and fortified residential segregation throughout the country. So why is it worse in Milwaukee than most anywhere else?

Income Disparity and Housing Disparity

On average, housing in the area’s suburbs is considerably more expensive than housing within the City of Milwaukee. In looking at the ten biggest municipalities in metro Milwaukee, the recent median selling price of housing in the City of Milwaukee was well below every other municipality.

That suburban housing is more expensive than city housing isn’t unique. What distinguishes metro Milwaukee from other areas is the incredible racial disparity in median household incomes in metro Milwaukee, which prevents many minorities from being able to afford suburban housing. According to the most recent American Community Survey, metro Milwaukee has the 2nd worst black/white household income ratio amongst the country’s 50 largest metro areas. The median white household earns $79,145 while the median black household earns $33,273. This amounts to black households earning 42 cents on the white dollar.

Riverside, CA had the best ratio at 85 cents on the dollar, twice as good as Milwaukee. The bottom of the chart was dominated by Midwest cities, who tend to have relatively similar socioeconomic issues. However, even amongst this less competitive group, Milwaukee is still underperforming.

The income disparity reveals Milwaukee’s unique racial issues. One explanation for it is the education disparity. Just in the city alone, blacks are about twice as likely as whites to not have a high school diploma, and are almost three times less likely to have a college degree.

Worse yet, metro Milwaukee has the largest disparity between black and white unemployment in the country! This disparity can be partly explained by the spatial mismatch between black residents and jobs (which, in a circularity, is largely a result of racial segregation). Literally all of the net job growth in metro Milwaukee over the last several decades has taken place outside the City of Milwaukee. Meanwhile, black residents are concentrated in the city’s northside and are far less likely to own a car. This is especially important because public transportation in metro Milwaukee is sorely lacking. It’s hard to have a job when you can’t get to it.

(from Milwaukee Urban Atlas)

Yet another reason for the racial income disparity is brain drain. Many of black Milwaukee’s brightest young minds leave the city to pursue an education and never come back, resulting in the cream being continuously skimmed off the crop. Oftentimes, they wind up in the south, where racial income disparities are less extreme and where educated blacks can feel at home in many cities. Many educated blacks look at Milwaukee as a city in decline, a city with awful race relations, and a city where educated blacks have few peers and fewer opportunities for career advancement (I know folks in this boat, and I was formerly in this camp as well). In yet another circularity, segregation is bred by income disparity which is bred by black brain drain which is bred by a negative racial climate which is bred by segregation.

Just this cursory look hints at the complexity of Milwaukee’s racial income disparity. Each of the mentioned elements, along with others unmentioned, cause and affect each other and perpetuate segregation. But even this web of income disparity-linked socioeconomic issues cannot fully explain the extreme degree of Milwaukee’s segregation. Higher incomes for minorities do not protect against segregation, as segregation nationally among blacks with incomes over $60,000 is almost as large as the overall racial segregation that persists.

Personal Preference

Much of the area’s segregation is the result of personal preference. The Public Policy Forum conducted a local survey on housing preferences in 2004. Significant majorities of whites, blacks, and Latinos agreed that “most people” take racial characteristics of the community into account when deciding where to live. When speaking for themselves, the survey revealed that the racial or ethnic makeup of a neighborhood was of great importance to 32% of blacks, 25% of Latinos, and 12% of whites.

A majority of whites who gave an answer said that, in their ideal neighborhood, nearby black families would be less than half of the population, only a few in number, or nonexistent. A majority of blacks who gave an answer said the same thing about nearby white families.

A separate 2006 survey found that a majority of whites and 60% of blacks believe it is common sense for whites to avoid non-white neighborhoods. On the flip side, over 40% of both blacks and whites believed it was common sense for blacks to avoid white neighborhoods.

Just as with the income disparity, personal preference is a cause and an effect of segregation. It shouldn’t be a surprise that people who grow up surrounded by people who all look like them end up preferring to live amongst people who look like them.

Milwaukee Residency Requirement

Both the City of Milwaukee and MPS require their employees to reside in the City of Milwaukee. While metro Milwaukee is only about 16% black, the city and MPS workforce are each around one-quarter black. The residency requirement disproportionately impacts black residents.

More to the point, black city and MPS employees represent a sizable share of black residents with enough income to afford to live outside of the city. According to the American Community Survey, there are approximately 16,000 black households with an income over $50,000 in metro Milwaukee, a range that will capture most public employee households. According to the above sources, the City of Milwaukee and MPS collectively employ somewhere around 3,500 black residents. If one assumes that some of these employees are married to each other, such that 3,500 employees make up 3,200 households, this means that 20% of metro Milwaukee’s mobile black households are forced by their employer to live in the City of Milwaukee.

These are “back of the envelope” calculations, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to find that Milwaukee’s residency requirement is a contributing factor to segregation in metro Milwaukee.

Racial Discrimination

Of course, direct discrimination still has a negative impact on segregation. Exclusionary zoning, predatory lending, and discrimination in homeowners insurance are all causes of Milwaukee’s segregation.

Employment discrimination persists. People with “white-sounding” names on their resume are 50% more likely to get a call back from an employer than those with “black-sounding” names on an otherwise identical resume. A study done in Milwaukee showed that white felons were more likely to get a call back from a potential employer than black applicants who have clean records. Those that blame black people exclusively for Milwaukee’s income disparity should mind these examples of overt and explainable-only-by-racism discrimination that persist in our society. That said, focusing too much on discrimination makes it acceptable to avoid personal responsibility in the black community. Things won’t improve until personal responsibility is broadly embraced.


The above list of segregation causes is not meant to be exhaustive or authoritative, but it’s enough to provide a framework for further discussion. Feel free to add in other causes and elements of Milwaukee’s segregation in the comments section.

This article originally appeared in The Milwaukee Drum on February 1, 2010.

Comments Off on Race Matters in Milwaukee – Part 2: The Causes of Milwaukee’s Segregation by Nathaniel Holton
Topics: Demographic Analysis
Cities: Milwaukee

Friday, September 16th, 2011

New York Stands High

Crain’s New York Business recently released its 2011 City Facts compilation and chose to title it, “New York Stands High” as they found much to celebrate in the numbers. Among them:

  • The most incredible stat to me is that NYC jobs in 2011 fell only 56K short of their all time peak in 1969. If the economy ever gets back on track, this seems likely to only go up.
  • Despite its roots in a financial crisis, Crain’s labels the recent recession as “The Great Recession That Wasn’t”, describing it as “one of the mildest since WWII” in terms of NYC job losses. This will no doubt infuriate bailout skeptics.
  • The number of companies operating in downtown Manhattan now surpasses its pre-9/11 total. Rents have been stagnant, however and vacancies are projected to climb.
  • The tech sector finally surpassed its dotcom/Silicon Alley level peak in 2000, and NYC is on the verge of overtaking Boston as the #2 destination for tech venture capital investment.
  • Though some claim many people were missed, the 2010 census showed an increase in NYC population and the city is now at an all time population high.
  • The population is increasingly diverse, with, for example, Asians now accounting for over one million city residents.
  • The population of downtown Manhattan grew by 150% between 2000 and 2011. Downtown apartment prices have more than doubled since 9/11.
  • Between 2007 and 2011, national home prices dropped by 19.1% from peak, while Manhattan apartments actually went up 9.1% in price.

The numbers aren’t uniformly good for the city, but it has performed very well comparatively. I think this illustrates more than anything the emerging two-track economy of which we’ve read so much, which is fueling an ever widening income gap, etc. What’s good for NYC isn’t necessarily good for America, and the model of success represented by the city (as well as other outliers like Washington, DC) simply can’t be replicated elsewhere. Thus these places don’t really represent a model of success for others to emulate, and they have only a limited amount to say on what urban policy should be elsewhere. Nevertheless, in a global economy, America does need places like NYC and Silicon Valley to be as competitive and prosperous as they can be. The challenge is how to bring about a more broad based prosperity that provides jobs and upward mobility to average Americans.

Tuesday, September 13th, 2011

Race Matters In Milwaukee – Part 1B: How Segregated Is Milwaukee? (con’t) by Nathaniel Holton

[ You can read Part 1A of this series here. ]

It turns out that Milwaukee is not the most segregated metro area after all.


Racial Map of Milwaukee



Racial Map of Detroit


(Both graphics by Eric Fisher)


The landmark report on segregation by the U.S Census Bureau published five measure of segregation. As previously discussed, this report ranked metro areas with a sufficiently large black population on how racially segregated they were. Then, the U.S Census Bureau averaged these rankings, and used that average to conclude that Milwaukee was the most segregated metro area in the country.

After all of the sophisticated statistical analysis that went into the production of the five segregation measures, it is surprising that the U.S Census Bureau would produce an overall segregation rank by averaging the segregation measure ranks, and not the measures themselves. As the following example shows, this distorts things.

Imagine three people whose wealth is measured in three different ways. You want to rank them in overall wealth by averaging their wealth from each measurement. In parenthesis below is the rank of how wealthy each person is compared to the other two people.

If you’re just averaging the money in each measurement, Aaron is the wealthiest person and would rank number one. But if you average the rankings, Brett’s average ranking (the average of 1, 1, and 2) is better than Aaron’s average ranking (the average of 1, 2, and 2).

Detroit is like Aaron. It has the worst segregation measures, but not the worst average ranking. Milwaukee is like Brett. We do not have the worst segregation measures, but we do have the worst average ranking.

When the segregation measures are standardized and averaged, Detroit comes out as the most segregated metro area in the country. Milwaukee comes out at number two. Here are the top five segregated metro areas using this way to measure:

The U.S Census Bureau may have had a good reason for going with their method. And, none of this changes the fact that Milwaukee is highly segregated, and that this remains a central challenge to our future. There’s little excitement in knowing that Milwaukee is “second only to Detroit” in yet another measure of socioeconomic health. At the same time, the stigma of being the most segregated place in the country is a damaging one. As it turns out, it’s not necessarily legitimate.

Sometime next year, the 2010 Census should be completed and we will be able to see how Milwaukee stacks up in segregation and many other areas. In the meantime, it is still important to look at the impact that segregation has on our health and our future.

This article originally appeared in The Milwaukee Drum.

Comments Off on Race Matters In Milwaukee – Part 1B: How Segregated Is Milwaukee? (con’t) by Nathaniel Holton
Topics: Demographic Analysis
Cities: Detroit, Milwaukee

Sunday, September 11th, 2011

Remembering 9/11

The Falling Man by Richard Drew, image via Wikipedia. You can read Tom Junod’s essay on this photo at Esquire.

On 9/11 I was at O’Hare airport, waiting to board a United Airlines flight to Denver. In fact, the plane was boarding, and right as I handed my boarding pass to the agent, I was told that there would be a delay in anyone else getting on the plane. Milling around the gate, I saw a group of people gathered around the CNN Airport monitor so I took a look at saw President Bush walking away from a podium. I asked someone what was up and they told me a plane had just crashed into the World Trade Center.

At this point the TV was shut off. I wandered around to various gates trying to find a monitor that was working, but every TV in the public areas of the airport was shut off. So I walked down to a bar, hoping they’d have their own TV, and sure enough there was CNN with the mind boggling pictures of the WTC engulfed in flames and smoke. I remember thinking to myself, “I can only see one tower. Where’s the other one?” I couldn’t believe a building like that could just be gone. A few minutes later the second tower collapsed live in front of me, and I could believe it then.

At this point I decided that I’d better get the heck out of the airport before the whole thing was put on lockdown and I wasn’t allowed to leave. So I went back to the garage and drove home to Evanston and spent the rest of the day like most Americans – glued to the TV set.

There’s not much I can add to what has already been said about this event, but on the one day of the year in which we generally allow ourselves to look back at the pictures and video of the reality of what happened on that day, I too will post a few photos as a reminder. Yes, these are graphic, but so was what happened then. I’ll only post handful. They are enough.

Saturday, September 10th, 2011

Indy: Help Keep the Historic “Georgia St.” Name

The city of Indianapolis has a fantastic project under way downtown to take several lanes of Georgia St. away from cars and give them to people between the convention center and Conseco Fieldhouse. I hope to profile this prominently when complete because I think it’s another great leading edge public space example from the city – one that would be getting a lot more airplay if it were in a city that were more on the urbanist radar.

But there’s one aspect of this that’s not so great – a plan to rename Georgia St. Oddly, the backers of this don’t actually have a name in mind. They just want to chuck the existing one and are doing a design by committee on a new name. The one suggestion I’ve seen floated publicly, Hospitality Way, it utterly cringe-worthy and shows that while improving on a solid, historic name like Georgia St. would be difficult, picking something far worse will be depressingly easy. It would be a shame to have such a fantastic multi-million dollar public space project marred by having the city become a laughingstock to the nation by picking a goofy name.

You can help, however. There’s a survey out you can take in which you can give your opinion. I strongly encourage you to visit this survey and say that Georgia St. should stay. Here’s a link: Georgia St. Renaming Survey. Of course, if you don’t legitimately believe this, I would tell you to say what you really think. But it doesn’t take much to imagine how this renaming might go very badly.

There is also a Facebook page to “Keep Historic Georgia St.” you can join. They have news and additional suggestions for how you can take action. Lest you wonder, this is indeed a historic name, dating back to the original Ralston Plan plat of the city. And back in July the Indianapolis Business Journal ran a story on this planned change in which Yours Truly was quoted.

Of course, not all is lost from this renaming. It has spawned plenty of interesting suggestions. My favorite so far was someone who said, “They could call it Peyton Manning Way, then shut it down for construction the rest of the season….”

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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