Market Urbanism https://www.marketurbanism.com Liberalizing cities | From the bottom up Sat, 08 Aug 2020 14:08:45 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.1.1 https://i2.wp.com/www.marketurbanism.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/cropped-Market-Urbanism-icon.png?fit=32%2C32&ssl=1 Market Urbanism https://www.marketurbanism.com 32 32 3505127 The Amazing Housing Politics of Spider-Man https://www.marketurbanism.com/2020/08/07/the-amazing-housing-politics-of-spider-man/ https://www.marketurbanism.com/2020/08/07/the-amazing-housing-politics-of-spider-man/#respond Fri, 07 Aug 2020 13:49:13 +0000 http://marketurbanism.com/?p=24429 Nolan Gray plunges into the Sam Raimi "Spider-Man" trilogy to uncover the housing problems (and solutions) of expensive cities like New York.

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How can Spider-Man possibly afford to live in New York? And how can we make the city more affordable for dear Aunt May? In the first episode of my brand new YouTube series on pop-culture urbanism, we dig into the Sam Raimi “Spider-Man” trilogy to uncover the housing problems (and solutions) of expensive cities like New York.

Be sure to follow future episodes by subscribing to the Pacific Legal Foundation on YouTube! We have a lot of content in the hopper that you won’t want to miss.


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The Limits of the Singapore Housing Model https://www.marketurbanism.com/2020/08/05/the-limits-of-the-singapore-housing-model/ https://www.marketurbanism.com/2020/08/05/the-limits-of-the-singapore-housing-model/#respond Wed, 05 Aug 2020 17:22:04 +0000 http://marketurbanism.com/?p=23315 In 2015, urban studies professor Anne Haila published a book on Singapore’s land ownership and housing system called Urban Land Rent: Singapore as a Property State. The Singapore housing model has recently been getting some attention for its widespread homeownership and affordability relative to high-cost coastal cities in the United States. Both Haila and, recently, […]

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In 2015, urban studies professor Anne Haila published a book on Singapore’s land ownership and housing system called Urban Land Rent: Singapore as a Property State. The Singapore housing model has recently been getting some attention for its widespread homeownership and affordability relative to high-cost coastal cities in the United States. Both Haila and, recently, writers at Bloomberg and CityLab approach Singapore uncritically. And Singapore’s housing market does offer some key lessons to the United States. But unlike the story Haila and some other U.S. commentators have told, it has its downsides. Singapore’s housing market works much better for households near the middle of its income distribution relative to the highest-cost U.S. regions, but provides severely inadequate housing for its low-income migrant workers.

The Mechanics of Singapore’s Public Housing

In Singapore, 90% of the land is government-owned, and about 80% of citizens and legal residents live in owner-occupied public housing on leased land. Extensive government landholdings and a leasehold system date back to the country’s colonial era. Following Singaporean independence in 1965, the People’s Action Party, which has been in power ever since, has expanded state land holdings. At independence, about 50% of Singapore was government-owned, reaching its current level of holdings in 2002. Government land ownership has been accomplished through eminent domain along with land reclamation, which has increased the size of the island by a quarter.

Government land is auctioned for housing and other types of development primarily as 99-year leases. The Housing and Development Board (HDB), a government agency, builds the majority of new housing, but some higher-end housing is privately developed. The HDB and private developers compete for land at auctions, and both pay market prices for it. Unlike the U.S. public housing system under which units remain government-owned and are leased to low-income tenants, Singapore’s public housing is primarily sold to middle-income buyers. Purchasers then have the right to live in their flat, sell it at a market-rate price, or lease it to a tenant until the building’s 99-year lease expires.

While Haila didn’t find evidence that Singapore policymakers studied Henry George, she and others have pointed out that their system offers some of the benefits of reducing the rents landowners collect. In his classic Progress and Poverty, George argues that land rents cause poverty because landlords’ monopoly over their property permits them to increase rents when productivity rises. He posits that rents to land prevent wages from rising above a near-subsistence level for many workers. In Singapore, where government land ownership largely prevents individuals from capturing rising land rents, policymakers had a contradictory hypothesis–that keeping housing affordable would also have the effect of keeping wages low, with affordable labor making Singapore an attractive investment opportunity for foreign firms.

Does Singapore succeed at housing affordability?

Yes and no. The median flat in Singapore costs $408,000, 4.6 times the median income. This puts it on par with Salt Lake City, a level of affordability that Demographia categorizes as “Seriously Unaffordable,” but more affordable than many coastal cities in the U.S where the ratio stretches as high as 8.5 in San Jose.

Housing finance in Singapore makes housing accessible to many households at even lower prices. HDB, the provider of most of the city-state’s housing, develops housing at a range of price points affordable to households of different income levels, from studios for seniors, to 3-room flats to higher-end “Executive” flats. HDB provides new flats to buyers at subsidized rates, with income caps for various new units.

Singapore mandates contributions to individual savings accounts, requiring workers to contribute 20% of their pay into individual accounts in the Central Provident Fund. Employers are required to contribute an additional 17% of salaries. Individuals may use the funds in their CPF accounts to help fund a downpayment and monthly mortgage payments.

After residents have lived in the subsidized flat that they purchased for at least five years, they have the right to sell the flat at market value. Throughout their lifetime, residents may purchase two subsidized units from HDB that they can resell at market-rate prices, often reflecting substantial appreciation. Thus, as in countries that aren’t so reliant on public housing, Singapore policymakers’ constituents have conflicting interests. Homebuyers want prices to remain lower while owners want to see more appreciation.

Housing Politics in Singapore

Singapore’s city-state government’s approach to redevelopment stands in stark contrast to how localities in much more expensive regions have used zoning to constrain housing supply. The Singapore Land Authority (SLA) handles land use planning and manages state land. Haila writes:

In 2011 SLA unveiled a new vision, Limited Land, Unlimited Space, embodying ‘the notion that the scarcity of land in Singapore should not be a constraint. Rather it is an opportunity for greater innovation and creativity in land use’.

SLA and HDB both work to ensure consistent opportunities for development and redevelopment on the island to prevent housing constraints from resulting in widespread housing unaffordability. Relative to U.S. cities today, the Singapore model is more like what development in fast-growing U.S. cities looked like prior to zoning. Before local zoning ordinances limited development, fast-growing U.S. cities were characterized both by rapid greenfield development and rapid redevelopment of central locations (see Manhattan Move Uptown by Charles Lockwood for the Manhattan pre-zoning development history). Perplexingly, Haila denies that zoning plays a role in high housing costs:

High land prices and zoning authorities are often blamed for unaffordable housing. However, house prices are not high because land is expensive but vice versa: house prices determine land prices as rent theory explains. The reason for insufficient land supply and high house prices is not planning authorities zoning too little residential land, but that the monopoly of land makes land scarce and invites speculation.

Haila is correct that demand for housing is a key determinant of land prices. But zoning is also a key determinant of both land prices and house prices as a result. Haila argues that prior to her, social scientists have failed to study the importance of land development rights. But urban economists and other social scientists have extensively studied the effects of development rights under zoning. At a regional level, extensive evidence indicates that land use regulations reduce housing supply elasticity and lead to high prices when met with high housing demand. Unlike in the U.S., where many localities use zoning as a tool to severely limit construction and inflate house prices, a key success of the Singapore model is permitting a steady stream of new development to maintain access to housing.

In Haila’s telling, it’s land speculation alone that causes high house prices by incentivizing land owners to underuse land in anticipation of future price increases. She blames speculative house-price increases on those who purchase land or homes that they keep vacant. However vacancy rates in high-cost cities including Singapore are in fact generally very low.

Speculation simply means purchasing an asset with the expectation that it will be worth more in the future. Owner-occupants are speculating when they purchase housing in cities with high price-to-rent ratios rather than renting when current prices make renting look like the better deal. Singaporeans certainly purchase HDB flats with asset price increase in mind. As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said, “The HDB flat is not just a shelter but also a key investment asset…over the long term, the value of HDB flats depends on the strength of the Singapore economy. Provided Singapore continues to do well, our flats will maintain their value, and Singaporeans can enjoy an appreciating asset.”

However policy designed to ensure redevelopment and new housing supply in Singapore has limited the gains to speculation relative to the windfalls that homeowners in the expensive coastal regions of the U.S. have received. Compared to in the U.S., in Singapore, affordability for new buyers plays a more important consideration in housing policy.

Noah Smith argues that Singapore has “done a better job than the U.S. of using housing to build and transfer wealth across generations…. Because the government manages the supply of new homes, it can ensure that young people earn a decent return by the time they retire.” And this is the line that the SLA and HDB have attempted to walk. Haila explains that Singaporean policymakers have target a rate of leases from the country’s land bank to maintain a rate of house price appreciation that offers gains to purchasers of subsidized HDB flats, but to prevent a level of appreciation that would put new purchases out of reach for many citizens.

Who loses in the Singapore system?

The line to walk between promoting affordability and wealth-building is a difficult one. While Singapore’s model serves many households well, by balancing affordability of subsidized HDB flats with steady appreciation, the system doesn’t serve everyone well. Crucially, of Singapore’s 5.6 million population, about one-fifth are not citizens or residents. These foreign workers are generally shut out from the HDB system although Haila points out some exceptions have been made in an effort to attract skilled foreign workers.

More than 300,000 migrant workers without access to HDB flats live in crowded, dirty dormitories with up to 80 people sharing a single toilet. Housing conditions for these low-income workers in Singapore are much worse than for the typical low-income worker in U.S. cities with comparable levels of affordability for median income earners. Singapore is currently experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak of ten of thousands of cases, nearly all of them among foreign workers living in dormitories.

I’ve argued previously that the availability of bare bones, low-cost housing for low-income workers is an essential part of communities that provide economic opportunity for all. But in the Singaporean system, where the SLA determines how many foreign workers may live where, no market process disciplines the provision of housing that balances cost-effectiveness with desirability, in terms of either location or quality. In a system in which land goes to those willing to pay the most for, those willing to live in denser housing can outbid those who want larger, fancier homes. But this is not an option in Singapore, and instead housing policy for foreign workers has largely been shaped by citizens’ and residents’ NIMBYism toward foreign workers.

Singapore’s system is also designed to encourage heterosexual marriage, childbearing, and living with extended family. For those who want to live in alternative arrangements, HDB offers many fewer benefits. While married Singaporeans become eligible to purchase HDB flats at age 21, singles aren’t permitted to purchase until age 35, and gay marriage is not allowed. Notably Singapore’s housing policy has so far not successfully increased fertility; Singapore’s total fertility rate stands at below 1.2, among the lowest in the world.

Concerns about the values of aging flats are also increasing as seniors are relying on their home equity to help fund their retirement, and yet the prices of older flats inevitably fall as the end of their leasehold term approaches. At the end of a 99-year lease, land and its improvements revert to SLA ownership with no compensation for flat owners. In 1995, the Singapore government established a program called the Selective En bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS), under which the government takes over selected buildings in mature estates for redevelopment prior to the expiration of their 99-year lease, compensating the residents for their HDB flats and offering them a chance to purchase in the new development that will take its place. But National Development Minister Lawrence Wong has urged HDB flat owners not to count on this option, as SERS has only worked out for four percent of flat owners to date.

What can the U.S. take away from Singapore?

Haila argues that “Singapore has solved the housing problem” but this certainly isn’t true for those shut out from the HDB system. But the system does allow most citizens the opportunity to both enter the housing market at a reasonable price and sell at a reasonable return.

Were the U.S. as a whole, or a U.S. city to attempt to implement the Singapore system, one key challenge would be building as cost efficiently as the HDB does. The HDB builds flats that are about 1000 square feet for about $135,000 according to some estimates. In high-cost U.S. cities, subsidized housing costs multiples of that price to build, in part because Singapore relies on low-wage migrant workers and also in part, as Conor Dougherty explains of California, it is “a well-known absurdity of the affordable-housing system that it frequently costs more to build no-frills non-profit apartments than it did to build high-end for-profit condos. The public sector [has] too much going on, too many political mouths to feed, to make an even semi-serious attempt to address it.”

The largest U.S. public housing system by far, the New York City Housing Authority, doesn’t build new housing, but currently spends more on both operating costs and capital expenses for the housing they manage relative to private landlords with terrible results. While social housing supporters suggest that foreign systems like Singapore’s could simply be copied in the U.S. with similar outcomes, government-provided housing at reasonable costs would require major reforms to U.S. politics and bureaucracy. Unlike in Singapore’s city-state system, levels of government and various agencies would likely be working at cross-purposes. Congress and federal agencies may want to support low-cost housing in desirable locations, but exclusionary localities that would be involved in siting and managing subsidized housing may attempt to thwart success.

However, any U.S. city where politicians have the will could make major reforms based on the SLA’s motto of “limited land, unlimited space.” Singapore has put development and redevelopment of its land to work to maintain the availability and affordability of flats for the people the system is designed to serve.

The description of SERS has been corrected. Thanks to Singapore resident Chris for pointing out an inaccuracy.

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The “Renters Are Evil” Argument For Zoning https://www.marketurbanism.com/2020/07/10/the-renters-are-evil-argument-for-zoning/ Fri, 10 Jul 2020 21:51:51 +0000 http://marketurbanism.com/?p=15561 Charles Marohn’s recent article in The American Conservative on the evils of single-family zoning received over 200 comments. The most provocative responses were the ones forthrightly defending exclusion, on the grounds that renters are dangerous and must be excluded at all costs.  For example, one person wrote:  “People of all races also have a right […]

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Charles Marohn’s recent article in The American Conservative on the evils of single-family zoning received over 200 comments. The most provocative responses were the ones forthrightly defending exclusion, on the grounds that renters are dangerous and must be excluded at all costs.  For example, one person wrote:  “People of all races also have a right to escape from uncivil society… Renters are entirely different in their outlook and practices than home owners in how one regards their neighborhood. For one it transactional, for the other its their dream and investment.” 

In other words, homeowners are better citizens, and thus must be protected from disorderly renters.  What’s wrong with this argument?

If you really believe homeowners are better citizens, you would want homeownership to be as cheap as possible, so that more people could become homeowners. For example, you would be positively eager to have small, cheap houses in homeowner zones, or even for-sale condos.

But homeowners have a financial incentive to do the opposite: to make home ownership as scarce and expensive as possible, so they can sell their house for as much money as possible (or to use a common euphemism, to “build wealth”). 

And they usually favor zoning policies that do exactly that- that is, by excluding smaller, cheaper-to-build houses, inflate home prices and make homeownership unaffordable for many people.

In other words, government can encourage home ownership as a source of alleged good citizenship, and can try to make home ownership a source of vast wealth- but it can’t do both. In the United States (and especially on the coasts) local government has chosen the latter path.

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Review: The Urban Mystique, by Josh Stephens https://www.marketurbanism.com/2020/06/22/review-the-urban-mystique-by-josh-stephens/ Mon, 22 Jun 2020 18:08:35 +0000 http://marketurbanism.com/?p=15236 This book, available from solimarbooks.com, is a set of very short essays (averaging about three to five pages) on topics related to urban planning. Like me, Stephens generally values walkable cities and favors more new housing in cities. So naturally I am predisposed to like this book. But there are other urbanist and market books […]

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This book, available from solimarbooks.com, is a set of very short essays (averaging about three to five pages) on topics related to urban planning. Like me, Stephens generally values walkable cities and favors more new housing in cities. So naturally I am predisposed to like this book.

But there are other urbanist and market books on the market. What makes this one unique? First, it focuses on Southern California, rather than taking a nationwide or worldwide perspective (though Stephens does have a few essays about other cities). Second, the book’s short-essay format means that one does not have to read a huge amount of text to understand his arguments.

Because the book is a group of short essays, it doesn’t have one long argument. However, a few of the more interesting essays address:

  1. The negative side effects of liquor license regulation. Stephens writes that the Los Angeles zoning process gives homeowners effective veto power over new bars. As a result, the neighborhood near UCLA has no bars, which in turn causes UCLA students go to other neighborhoods to drink, elevating the risk to the public from drunk driving.
  2. The Brooklyn Dodgers’ move to Los Angeles; Los Angeles facilitated the transfer by giving land to the Dodgers- but only after a referendum passed with support from African-American and Latino neighborhoods. On the other hand, the construction of Dodger Stadium displaced a Latino community. To me, this story illustrates that arguments about “equity” can be simplistic. Los Angeles Latinos were both more likely than suburban whites to support Dodger Stadium, yet were more likely to be displaced by that stadium. So was having a stadium more equitable or less equitable than having no stadium? (On the other hand, a stadium that displaced no one might have been more equitable than either outcome).
  3. Why developers are so often vilified. Stephens suggests that this may be because their products are visible on the streets to people who don’t use them, who can condemn those products as they walk or drive past them. By contrast, if we don’t buy a consumer product we might never know what it looks like.

More broadly, Stephens points out the gap between what urban planners want and what actually happens. Urban planners are often blamed for overregulation; but Stephens suggests that most urban planners share his vision for Los Angeles, but are frustrated by neighborhood activists’ veto power over new development.

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More on Subways and COVID-19 https://www.marketurbanism.com/2020/06/08/more-on-subways-and-covid-19/ Mon, 08 Jun 2020 17:12:25 +0000 http://marketurbanism.com/?p=14959 After reading an article suggesting that New York’s subways seeded COVID-19, Salim Furth’s response to that article on this blog, and one or two other pieces, I decided to write a more scholarly piece summarizing the various arguments. The piece is at https://works.bepress.com/lewyn/196/ For those of who you don’t feel like downloading the full paper, […]

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After reading an article suggesting that New York’s subways seeded COVID-19, Salim Furth’s response to that article on this blog, and one or two other pieces, I decided to write a more scholarly piece summarizing the various arguments. The piece is at https://works.bepress.com/lewyn/196/

For those of who you don’t feel like downloading the full paper, here’s a summary:

  1. Jeffrey Harris of MIT (whose article seeded this controversy) wrote that COVID-19 infections rose most rapidly before subway ridership began to decline; this alone, of course, is not a strong argument because as subway ridership declined, many other crowded places (such as restaurants) were also shutting down. Harris also notes that infections rose more slowly in Manhattan, where ridership declined most rapidly. However, a majority of the city’s jobs are in Manhattan. Thus, Manhattan’s lower subway ridership may have been a reflection not of changed behavior by Manhattan residents, but of the citywide loss of jobs as non-Manhattanites stopped riding the subway to Manhattan jobs. Furthermore, Alon Levy writes that ridership did not decline as rapidly in residential parts of Manhattan (which nevertheless have low infection rates).

Levy also asserts that Harris’s reliance on data from subway entrances is misleading in one technical but important respect.  If a Manhattan stops riding the subway to a Manhattan job, this means there are two fewer subway entries for that person.  On the other hand, if a Queens resident stops riding the subway to a Manhattan job, this means there is one fewer Queens entry and one fewer Manhattan entry.[  Why does this matter?  Suppose that on March 1, there were 100 Manhattan-to-Manhattan commuters and 100 Queens-to-Manhattan commuters, and a week later 30 of each group stop riding the subway.  Because there were 90 fewer entries at Manhattan stations (60 from the first group and 30 from the second group), one might think Manhattan subway ridership declined by 90 percent, when in fact it declined by only 30 percent.


2. Harris also relies on the pattern of infections by zip code- and in particular, infections in zip codes along subway lines, because any given rider of a subway line can be infected not only by residents of their own neighborhood, but also by riders who enter at other subway stations on the rider’s route (which perhaps explains why neighborhoods at the end of subway lines tend to have high infection levels). He finds that some subway lines had more drastic declines in ridership than other subway lines- and that the subway lines with more dramatic declines in March ridership also had lower infection rates as of early April. I’m not sure whether the other commentators fully address this point, but maybe I’m missing something.

3. Harris relies on unusually high infection rates among subway workers. Levy responds that subway workers and subway riders do not experience the same risks- subway workers had risks that subway riders did not experience (such as picking up possibly-contaminated rubbish without masks) while conversely, not all subway workers ride packed rush-hour trains.

Any comments?

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The “everybody left Manhattan” argument (updated 5-15 to reflect recent data) https://www.marketurbanism.com/2020/05/07/the-everybody-left-manhattan-scam/ Thu, 07 May 2020 22:24:03 +0000 http://marketurbanism.com/?p=14619 The COVID-19 epidemic has led to a lot of argument about the role of urban form; defenders of the Sprawl Faith argue that New York’s high infection and fatality rate is proof that transit and density are bad, bad, bad. On the other hand, urbanists point out that within the New York metro area, there […]

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The COVID-19 epidemic has led to a lot of argument about the role of urban form; defenders of the Sprawl Faith argue that New York’s high infection and fatality rate is proof that transit and density are bad, bad, bad. On the other hand, urbanists point out that within the New York metro area, there is no correlation between transit use and COVID-19. Manhattan is the most dense and transit-oriented part of the metro area, and yet every outer borough, including car-dependent Staten Island, has higher death and infection rates. In fact, three suburban counties (Nassau, Rockland, and Westchester) are also worse off than Manhattan. Two more (Suffolk and Orange) have higher infection rates but slightly lower death rates. So it seems obvious that density and transit have been blamed a bit too much by some people.

But this argument has led to a counterargument: that all the Manhattan statistics are useless because most Manhattanites are rich people who fled the city, so of course there are few records of Manhattan infections.

This argument contains a grain of truth. In fact, more people did leave Manhattan than the outer boroughs: according to a New York Times story based oha few estimates based on monitoring smartphones, between 13 and 19 percent.

But the gap between Manhattan and the outer boroughs is far greater. Currently, Manhattan’s COVID-19 death rate is 11.7 per 10,000 residents. By contrast, the Bronx’s death rate is 21.3 per 100,000- 82 percent higher. The Queens death rate is 20.6 per 100,000- 76 percent higher. Brooklyn’s death rate is 17.9- 53 percent higher.

It could be argued that even if borough-wide data is still useful, neighborhood COVID-19 data is not, because some Manhattan neighborhoods lost far more than 20 percent of their population. For example, the neighborhood that has lost the most population is the student-oriented East Village,* where population has gone down by half. I haven’t found any data on COVID-19 deaths by zip code, but I have found data on infections.** The East Village corresponds roughly with zip code 10003, which has 757 diagnosed cases per 100,000 residents. By contrast, the worst off outer-borough neighborhoods have over 4000 cases per 100,000 residents. In other words, even if we double the East Village infection rate to account for people who left (to 1500 per 100,000), its infection rate is still less than half that of the hardest-hit outer borough neighborhoods. The East Village is hardly atypical; as of May 12, only one zip code south of Columbia University had over 1500 cases per 100,000, and many had under 1000.

*One interesting area for further research is: who is (disproportionately) leaving town? Is it students with parents who have a spare bedroom? Seniors with country homes? Or families with children? The East Village is younger than the average city neighborhood, but this is less true of other Manhattan neighborhoods where many people have left, so we don’t really know. It could be argued that everyone who left is an old person with a house in Suffolk County (the most common location for vacation homes in metro New York). But according to Census data, there are just over 53,000 housing units used for “seasonal or recreational use” in Suffolk County. If you assume that each unit is used by two Manhattan residents (which may not be the case) that’s just over 100,000 people, still only 7 percent of Manhattan’s population. This is of course a silly assumption since presumably some of these units are owned by non-Manhattanites; on the other hand, some Manhattanites might have country homes in other places.

**Which is less reliable, in my opinion, because there are far more people who suffer from COVID-19 than there are who have been tested for it.

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Automobiles Seeded the Massive Coronavirus Epidemic in New York City https://www.marketurbanism.com/2020/04/19/automobiles-seeded-the-massive-coronavirus-epidemic-in-new-york-city/ Sun, 19 Apr 2020 19:44:16 +0000 http://marketurbanism.com/?p=14406 New York City is an epicenter of the global novel coronavirus pandemic. Through April 16, there were 1,458 confirmed cases per 100,000 residents in New York City. Always in the media eye, and larger than any other American city, New York City has become the symbol of the crisis, even as suburban counties nearby suffer […]

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New York City is an epicenter of the global novel coronavirus pandemic. Through April 16, there were 1,458 confirmed cases per 100,000 residents in New York City. Always in the media eye, and larger than any other American city, New York City has become the symbol of the crisis, even as suburban counties nearby suffer higher rates of infection.

In a paper dated April 13, 2020, Jeffrey E. Harris of M.I.T. claims that “New York City’s multitentacled subway system was a major disseminator – if not the principal transmission vehicle – of coronavirus infection during the initial takeoff of the massive epidemic.” Oddly, he does not go on to offer evidence in support of this claim in his paper.

Conversely, as I will show, data show that local infections were negatively correlated with subway use, even when controlling for demographic data. Although this correlation study does not establish causation, it more reliably characterizes the spread of the virus than the intuitions and visual inspections that Harris relies on. 

Data

In an ongoing crisis with a shortage of tests, all infection and mortality data come with a major asterisk: we do not fully know the extent of the data. Only when all-cause mortality data and more-extensive testing data are available can any conclusions be confirmed. This study, like Harris’ and others, is subject to potentially massive measurement error.

Data from the American Community Survey (2018 5-year averages) show that commuting modes vary extensively across New York City. New York is broken into Community Districts (CDs), which generally correspond (on either a one-to-one or two-to-one basis) with Census Public Use Microdata Areas (PUMAs). These 55 areas contain between 110,000 and 241,000 people each. The most car-dependent PUMA (Staten Island CD3) has a car-commute share of 75%; the least car-dependent PUMA is Manhattan CD 1 & 2 with just 4% commuting by car. Generally, subway and automobile commuting are mirror images – the correlation is -.88 – even though a substantial share of New Yorkers use non-subway transit, walking, or biking to get to work. The subway commute share varies from 2.5% (Staten Island CD3 again) to 72% (Manhattan CD10 – Central Harlem). Other transit, mostly buses, is positively correlated with automobile share; both reflect the absence of subway access. However, other transit use never exceeds 29%.

In addition to commuting data, I report some ACS demographic data by PUMA.

New York City began publishing Zip code-level data on coronavirus tests and infections on April 1. These data reflect positive tests that result from virus exposures that took place up to two weeks prior. Ideally, one would prefer to use data from mid- to late-March to identify geographic patterns underlying the early spread. Citywide, 18,035 cases are reported from tests administered March 1 – March 20; we might think of these as the wave of cases contracted mainly before the city substantially shut down over the weekend of March 14. Tests administered March 21 to 30 added another 40,230 cases; these cases may have been contracted during the shutdown. Thus, it is possible that a majority of even the earliest available detailed-geography data are from post-shutdown infections.

As of April 1, the city could identify a clear coronavirus hotspot centered on Corona, Queens (because apparently the Grim Reaper has a cruel sense of humor). But by then the virus was everywhere.

I use a geographic correspondence file to ascribe Zip code level infection data to PUMAs. The borders are not generally coterminous, but many Zip codes are contained entirely in a single PUMA.

Correlations

Table 1 shows that the April 1 case rate was positively correlated with automobile and, to a lesser degree, non-subway transit commute shares. Measures of affluence and access to healthcare are negatively correlated with the case rate. Asian share is uncorrelated with case rate.

The correlations strengthen over time: affluence is a very strong, negative predictor of (log) case growth during April, partially because affluent people have fled the city in large numbers.

Of course, many of these variables are correlated among themselves; income and bachelors share are almost perfectly aligned, while subway and automobile shares are photo negatives. Thus, I use ordinary least squares to measure the controlled correlations (dropping some variables to avoid collinearity).

For reference, the average case rate per thousand is 4.6; the range is 2.9 to 8.2. A coefficient X can be easily interpreted: a ten percentage point difference in the independent variable is associated with an X/10 increase in the dependent variable. Thus, a PUMA with a 10 percentage point higher automobile commuting share is expected to have 0.32 more cases per thousand.

Put another way, a standard deviation increase in automobile commuting share (17 percentage points) accounts for almost half a standard deviation of the case rate.

The relationship between automobile share and COVID-19 case rate is the only significant one. It persists despite the outliers, not because of them, as Figure 2 shows.

Finally, in Figure 3, we see a very strong association between car commuting and the growth in case count after April 1. The three Staten Island PUMAs (in orange) occupy the upper right-hand corner of the graph. Although their infection rates were only a bit above average on April 1, their case counts grew fast. Regression 2 confirms the effect, and shows much more explanatory power from the same controls.

Robustness

To check the robustness of these controlled correlations, I ran Regression 1 five times, each time dropping one borough. When the Bronx or Queens is omitted does the coefficient for automobile commute share become insignificant at the 10 percent level, although the coefficient remains similar. The results do not, as one might reasonably suspect, rely on the uniqueness of Manhattan.

In Regression 3, below, I include transit shares of commuting instead of automobile shares. Both subway and other transit commute share are negatively associated with Apr. 1 case rate. (If I include both automobile share and subway share in the same regression, one of them becomes insignificant and small due to the collinearity between them).

Reviewing Harris (2020)

This study has used very different methods than Harris (2020) to analyze the same phenomenon, but come to the opposite conclusion. This section reviews Harris’ methods.

Harris first introduces a figure showing that subway use declined precipitously beginning around Wednesday, March 11th. New reported cases finally leveled off around March 16th, as subway use was cratering. As Harris notes, however, this is likely endogenous. Figure 3 below is a reproduction of Harris’ Figure 3, except instead of subway entries, the blue bars show meals eaten in restaurants (relative to a year prior) as measured by OpenTable. All sorts of activities declined in unison as the city became aware of the spreading disease.

Harris’ second piece of evidence is that subway ridership declined differentially during the crisis: least in Staten Island and the Bronx; most in Manhattan. Manhattan also slowed its COVID-19 growth rate most drastically. Harris claims that this is consistent with (though not proof of) subways as the primary vector of transmission.

However, if subways (or ferries) are the primary vector, why is Staten Island, with a 67 percent automobile commute share, just as susceptible to COVID-19 case growth as the rest of the city? The change in transit usage is plausibly consistent with Harris’ hypothesis; the level of transit usage is inconsistent with it.

Next, Harris shows us a map which suggests– visually – that the Q46 bus, which terminates at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, has spread coronavirus along Union Boulevard in Queens. Harris, to his credit, does not mention this: in a city so dense with bus routes and subway tracks, almost any spatially-correlated pattern will match some transit corridor. Harris does, however, insinuate that the Flushing Local might be a culprit, but only makes the suggestion via a narrative. He never comes out and says it.

Harris argues, perhaps reasonably, that subway lines (not stops) are the correct unit of analysis. But he does not use this analytical tool.

As the culmination of his argument, Harris presents a map of New York, with some of its subways lines shown, which suggests an obvious and immediate visual conclusion: COVID-19 infection rates, as of April 12, are highest in the least-dense, most automobile-dependent, peripheral parts of New York City. I reproduce his powerful image below.

Refuting Harris is quite difficult, since he makes few clear claims and develops no argument, either verbal or quantitative. Instead, each piece of data is caveated:

  • “Simple comparison of the two trends in Figure 1 cannot by itself answer questions of causation.” (p. 4)
  • “[It] would be inappropriate to draw firm conclusions from what would amount to a Manhattan-versus-the-rest study.” (p. 7)
  • “[We’re] already at a juncture where some readers may react with extreme skepticism.” (p. 12)
  • “An overall assessment of these research efforts would surely lead a scientific reviewer to conclude that cause-and-effect is difficult to prove.” (p. 16)

In fact, the only clear claim in Harris’ paper is the title: “The Subways Seeded the Massive Coronavirus Epidemic in New York City.” The data analysis presented in this study provides far more evidence against that title than Harris musters in its favor.

View of the World from 9th Avenue

Looking outside the boundaries of the five boroughs, New York’s experience does not appear to be anomalous.  The five large suburban counties in New York State all report higher case rates than New York City (as of April 16), although their COVID-19 death rates are lower. Suburban counties in New Jersey report comparable case rates to New York City.

Globally, transit-dependent cities have not been hit particularly hard. Asian cities with extremely high rates of transit use, such as Hong Kong and Seoul, are among the safest places in the world at the moment. European transit hubs like London and Paris have fared less well, though they are nowhere near as hard-hit as New York. Alon Levy has shown that in Germany, transit-dependent cities do not appear to have systematically higher infection rates.

Policies, and perhaps culture, appear to have a large impact on infection rate. To the small extent that transportation options matter, automobiles appear to be more dangerous disease vectors than subways.

Discussion

One thorny issue remains: how could automobiles spread a virus? They carry at most a few passengers, who are often members of the same household anyway. Strangers’ hands don’t touch your steering wheel as they touch the straps and bars in a subway car. Like many people, I have avoided public transit since early March, but driven regularly.

There are two reasonable explanations for the likely fact that coronavirus spreads more along roads than rails. First, subway-dependent people may have cut their travel more than car-dependent people. Since travel brings us in contact with others at our destinations (stores, jobs, restaurants), the excess drop in travel may have made subway people safer precisely because the subway seems so dangerous.

Second, and less obviously, subway-dependent people likely have more geographically-determined circles of contact. Car owners can move freely well beyond their immediate neighborhood. In the language of networks, non-car owners are more likely to approximate “neighbor flooding”; car owners to approximate “uniform gossip” (hat tip to Wesley Chow for this conceptual framework). That is, if a grocery store in a low-car-ownership neighborhood becomes an infectious spot, it is likely to infect a bunch of people who will all “reinfect” each other at the drug store and the park. In a car-oriented context, by contrast, infected grocery customers would drive off to different pharmacies and parks and infect other people.

Taken together, the global trends, suburb versus city infection rates, and neighborhood trends within New York suggest that transit-dependent cities are easier to protect from viral infections even when the transit system remains open. How to re-open the city safely remains a vital question, and strong, sensible safety measures, such as mask requirements and constant station cleaning, should be the default.

This study suggests that far more attention should be paid to the dangers of spreading coronavirus by car. In New York City, immediately increasing the tolls on the city’s bridges and tunnels would discourage people from coming in and out of the city, spreading the virus as they go.

In suburban locales fighting severe outbreaks, limited-access highways ought to be closed to most drivers. High travel speeds on empty highways allows drivers to rapidly spread disease to previously unaffected areas. Keeping drivers on low-speed local roads discourages people from indulging their wanderlust and helps geographically contain outbreaks. However, like the subway, roads and driving are an essential aspect of maintaining the crucial infrastructure – health, food, utilities, information – that allows us the luxury of a long-term lockdown. And as the economy reopens, car commuters will need to be return to their usual routes. Drivers need to understand that they pose a risk of rapid geographic spread, and thus need to take extra precautions in interactions outside their own neighborhoods.

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Do cities have too much public space? https://www.marketurbanism.com/2020/03/02/do-cities-have-too-much-public-space/ Mon, 02 Mar 2020 20:54:34 +0000 http://marketurbanism.com/?p=13882 My sense is that parks and similar forms of public space tend to be far less controversial than housing or industry. But an interesting paper by Israeli architecture professor Hillel Schocken suggests that a city can have too much public space. He begins by asking: why do cities exist? He writes that cities allow people […]

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My sense is that parks and similar forms of public space tend to be far less controversial than housing or industry. But an interesting paper by Israeli architecture professor Hillel Schocken suggests that a city can have too much public space.

He begins by asking: why do cities exist? He writes that cities allow people to “widen contact with as many people as possible… The more people one came in contact with the more he increased his chances of finding a suitable mate or potential “business partners” with whom he might exchange goods.” Thus, cities need places where one can come into contract with people that one does not already know.

He adds that “the more public space per person within a study area ­ the lower are the chances that people may enjoy mutual presence in public space. ” In other words, if most of the city is parkland or roads,your chances of actually meeting another person in the park is lower, since most of the parkland will be unoccupied at any given time.

Schocken suggests that his view is supported by data: he studies four cities and the most pedestrian-friendly ones (Nice and a Brazilian favela) have relatively low amounts of public space per person, while Ashdod, Israel (which is more auto-oriented) has more, perhaps because more land is used for roads than in the other towns studied. He also studies Poundbury, a British new urbanist development which he thinks has far too much public space and is thus not as lively as it could be.

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