Urban Life and Pandemics

Pandemics have always been the enemy of dense, urban life. Cities, where people live in close quarters and mix with people from other places, are ideal breeding grounds for contagions. So far, by contrast, there have been comparatively few coronavirus infections in the vast middle of the United States, particularly in the rural reaches. When the bubonic plague devastated Europe, as the historian William McNeill noted, the cosmopolitan centers of Renaissance Italy fared far worse than the reaches of Poland or other parts of Central Europe. Those grandees who could, like some contemporary wealthy New Yorkers, fled to their country homes, where the chance of infection was slighter.

Even before covid-19 hit, large urban centers like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago were losing population; more than 90 percent of all population growth since 2010 has taken place in the suburbs or exurbs. Millennials, as a new study from Heartland Forward demonstrates, based on an analysis of census numbers, increasingly head to cities and towns in the middle of the country and away from the supposed “magnets” of New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

The current pestilence is likely to accelerate those shifts, which bear major ramifications for how Americans get to work. Transit ridership was doing poorly before the crisis, declining throughout the country, while telecommuting and driving alone continue to grow. With the specter of contagion, city-dwellers are told to avoid crowded subways, removing a critical element that makes ultradense cities work. In New York, subway traffic is down precipitously, as many commuters now work at home instead. Toronto is eliminating much of its downtown train service. The Washington Metro is also cutting back.

Just as progressives and environmentalists hoped the era of automotive dominance and suburban sprawl was coming to end, a globalized world that spreads pandemics quickly will push workers back into their cars and out to the hinterlands.

This piece first appeared in the The Washington Post.

Joel Kotkin @joelkotkin, a presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University, is executive director of the Urban Reform Institute. His forthcoming book is “The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class.”

Where to Obtain Coronavirus Data

Various internet sites are now providing up to date information on the coronavirus at the international level. Two sources are described below:

Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering. This site provides a world map, that shows cumulative confirmed cases and active cases (choices available on the map). It is possible to zoom on the map to the state level in the United States, for total confirmed cases, recoveries, deaths and active cases (confirmed cases minus deaths and recoveries). Zooming to the sub-national level is also possible for the provinces (provincial level jurisdictions) of China, the provinces of Canada and the states of Australia.

The map also provides total global confirmed cases (which were 212,000 on March 18), total recoveries (83,000), deaths (8,700).

We ran into some difficulties with the website, with some data not appearing. However, multiple reloading solved the problem (simply clicking on the web address, without leaving the website).

South China Morning Post: Hong Kong’s premier English newspaper provides similar global data in a simpler format than the Johns Hopkins data (the data varies between the two, though not substantially).

The great advantage about these two sites is their consistency of approach and comprehensiveness, which makes it possible to obtain a snapshot of the situation in the geographies that interest virtually any web visitor.

Photograph: Screenshot of Johns Hopkins Covid-19 Global Cases

Boris on Costly High Speed Rail: “Keep Digging” the Hole

Referring to HS2, the under-construction high speed rail line from London to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “in a hole the size of HS2, the only thing to do is keep digging." He was replying to Brayton Brent, a 10-year old interviewer on a Skynews kid’s program.

HS2 is under review for possible cancellation and the current thinking is that the Johnson government will decide to go ahead with the project.

When approved in 2012, the project was to cost £33 billion. Costs have nearly tripled to £107 billion, inflation adjusted.

WSJ Editorial: How Politics Created the Oregon Housing Shortage

A January 5, 2020 Wall Street Journal editorial examines Oregon’s housing affordability crisis. The editorial, “The Housing Shortage in Profile: Construction in Oregon dropped to the lowest level since World War II” not only describes the immediate consequences of Oregon’s recently enacted land use regulations but also provides the four decade context that has done so much damage to its middle-class. Oregon’s median house prices have generally at least doubled relative to household incomes since 1990.

A couple of excerpts follow:

“Politicians bemoan the lack of affordable housing, but their policies often create the problem. Look no further than Oregon, where restrictive zoning and mandates have yielded the lowest rate of residential construction in decades.

“Oregon’s land-use rules have been dysfunctional for decades. In the 1970s lawmakers worried about sprawl imposed strict limits on urban expansion. These urban growth boundaries have failed to adjust sufficiently to growing populations, choking residential development despite high demand. Rising housing prices are the inevitable result of this government-imposed scarcity."

Read the entire piece here: Wall Street Journal.

Google Chooses Mississippi

The Memphis Commercial Appeal has reported that Google will open its first US operations center in the northeast Mississippi. This area includes the suburbs and exurbs of the Memphis, TN-MS-AR metropolitan area.

Troy Dickerson, vice president of the Google Operations Center told WREG Channel 3 News: “We are excited to continue growing our workforce across the southeast and are confident that Mississippi will be a great home for Google,” “This operations center will give us the opportunity to hire amazing local talent as we expand in the region.”

Mississippi US Senator Roger Wicker told WREG Channel 3 News that “Google’s decision to locate more than 350 jobs and their first U.S. Operations Center in Mississippi is a testament to our state’s great workers and pro-growth policies, I am glad to welcome one of the most innovative companies in the world to northwestern Mississippi.”

Choose Energy Publishes Energy Rates by State

Choose Energy tracks energy rates by state. Find your state on the interactive map below to see the latest average rate, its rank among other states and the percentage change from the previous month. Learn more at


What Works for Seattle Doesn't Work for the Rest of Puget Sound

A new study released by WPC, authored by national transportation expert and urban policy analyst Wendell Cox, puts Seattle transit hype into perspective.

Cox evaluated population, employment, and commute trip data for the Puget Sound and found that automobiles are used by more than two-thirds of commuters to get to work throughout the Puget Sound.

Transit boosters often point to Commute Seattle survey data to bolster their view that transit is regionally popular and should be expanded to generate more work trips and reduce driving. They rely on the survey’s statistic that 48% of commuters get to downtown Seattle by transit. That’s true, but it’s a niche market, Cox says, as only about 12% of Puget Sound employment is located in downtown Seattle.

Outside of downtown Seattle, 76% of work trips are made by car. This will continue to be the case into the future.

Read the rest of the piece at Washington Policy Center.

Mariya Frost is the Director of the Coles Center for Transportation at Washington Policy Center. She is a graduate of the University of Washington with a degree in Political Science. She is on the Board of Directors for the Eastside Transportation Association, a member of the Jim MacIsaac Research Committee, and a member of the Women of Washington civic group. She and her husband live in Tacoma.

Former London Mayor Blames Jewish Vote for Labour Loss

The Daily Mirror (London) headline reads: “Ken Livingstone says it's 'the end' for Jeremy Corbyn and blames 'Jewish vote'” Livingstone, the former two-term mayor of London commented on the landslide Jeremy Corbyn Labour Party loss, saying “The Jewish vote wasn’t very helpful.”

Numbers may not be the former mayor’s strength. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and his Tories racked up a 2.7 million electoral majority in the election. Of course, British parliamentary elections, like American presidential elections are not determined by the popular vote. It is not known how many voters among the 650 constituencies would need to have changed their votes for Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn to become prime minister.

However, the vote margin dwarfs any possible number of Jewish votes. The Jewish population of the United Kingdom is estimated at under 300,000. If Jews voted in the same proportion as other UK citizens, there would have been fewer than 150,000 votes. Even if it is assumed that cutting the Johnson total in half, it would have required the unanimous votes of nine times as many Jews as live in the United Kingdom to have permitted Corbyn to move into #10 Downing Street.

Livingstone was indefinitely suspended by the Labour Party and reportedly faced “a full probe into his alleged anti-Semitism” (see: “Ken Livingstone suspended from Labour indefinitely and will face full anti-Semitism probe”). Livingston subsequently resigned from the Party.

Johnson succeeded Livingstone in the mayor’s office and also served two terms, before entering parliament and now winning the election to earn a full term.

Bertaud Book Suggested for Australian PM Scott Morrison's Reading List

Australia’s Grattan Institute has included former World Bank principal planner’s Order Without Design: How Markets Shape Cities on its annual “Prime Minister’s Summer Reading List” (Summer starts in just a couple of weeks there). It is a good recommendation. We reviewed the book earlier this year.

Some excerpts from that review follow:

“Alain Bertaud’s new book, Order without Design: How Markets Shape Cities (MIT Press), is particularly timely, because of the rising concern about the challenges facing middle-income households. The broad based affluence that followed World War II brought unprecedented affluence to many millions of people, principally in the high income nations. This also raised the standard of living for people living in or near poverty. The progress has been well documented by economists, such as Diedre McClosky and Robert Gordon.”

Bertaud says that “current planning practices place “constraints put on the supply of urban land and floor space by restrictive regulations” that “are causing severe urban dysfunctions.” According to Bertaud, urban planners pay insufficient heed to urban economics:

‘I think that, worldwide, the unfamiliarity with basic urban economic concepts by those in charge of managing cities is one of the major problems of our time.’”

And that:

“Poorly conceived urban strategies are not just innocent utopias. They misdirect scarce urban investments toward locations where they are the least needed and, in doing so, greatly reduce the welfare of urban households. These failed strategies make housing less affordable and increase the time spent commuting.”

Finally, Bertaud offers advice that is “spot on” for leaders interested in preserving the middle class:

“The main objective of the planner should be to maintain mobility and housing affordability as a city’s population increases and it diversifies its activities (emphasis added).”

Many more state and provincial leaders need to read this volume than Prime Minister Morrison.

Australia's High-Rise Apartment Crash Turns Apocalyptic

Yesterday, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) released its dwelling approvals data for November, which revealed that dwelling approvals nationally have crashed by 35% in trend terms from the March 2015 peak, driven by a mammoth 52% decline in unit and apartment approvals.

Today, I want to focus on the high-rise apartment segment, which is driving the bust and is also the subject of deep concerns around quality.

The next chart shows the picture at the national level in annual terms, which shows that high-rise apartment approvals have crashed by 53% since peaking in October 2015:

As shown above, there were 36,691 high-rise apartments approved across the nation in the year to October 2019, well down from the peak of 78,089 in the year to October 2015.

Detached house and townhouse approvals are also falling swiftly; albeit at a slower rate.

Below are the same charts at the state and territory level:

The high - rise apartment approvals crash has been driven by NSW (-57%), VIC (-57%) and QLD (-70%), which have all fallen massively from peak. ACT’s high-rise approvals have also crashed (-40%).

The below chart shows the high-rise bust across the major markets:

The crash is broad-based, nasty and ongoing. It is the smoking gun of RBA panic.