Mobility on the Decline

Faced with an economic downturn and a bursting real estate bubble, Americans look to be staying put in greater numbers. According to Ball State demographer Michael Hicks, interviewed in an article examining the trend in the San Francisco Chronicle, "Property values have dropped so much, people can't pick up and move the way they used to."

In April, the Census Bureau reported that in 2008, the "national mover rate," declined to 11.9 percent, down from 13.2 percent in 2007. This marks the "lowest rate since the bureau began tracking these data in 1948." As William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institute, puts it, "the most footloose nation in the world is now staying put."

According to Frey, the middle of the decade was marked by a "mobility bubble," spurred on "by easy credit and superheated housing growth in newer parts of the Sun Belt and exurbs throughout the country". As the recession took hold through 2008, migration to suburbs and exurbs fell "flat in a hurry," showing "just how rapidly changing housing market conditions can affect population shifts."

While, as Frey suggests, people may be moving into suburbs and exurbs at a slower rate, central cities within metro areas continue to lose population. The Census Bureau reports that during 2008 "principal cities within metropolitan areas experienced a net loss of 2 million movers, while the suburbs had a net gain of 2.2 million movers." While the downturn in migration may help central cities hold onto some of their population, Frey contends that "it remains to be seen whether the migration-fueled engines of the early 2000s—especially the Sun Belt and outer metropolitan suburbs—will regain their former status."

NGVideo: Reviving Plotlands

Everybody knows we urgently need to build more homes in Britain, but how, when and where will this happen? WORLDbytes interviewed Ian Abley, an architect and manager of Audacity at the plotlands in Dunton, Essex where from the 1920s East End working class couples built cheap homes themselves. Could we do this now? Ian Abley argues we should collectively break the Town & Country Planning law of 1947 which made buying and building on redundant farmland, like the plotlands, illegal.

More information and related resources are available here.

This video and its description are derived from original content by with the express permission of their authors. To see the original full-length video, visit this page.

Bad Times Getting Worse for Older Americans

Olivia S. Mitchell, of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, told ABC News that “roughly $2 trillion has been lost in 401(k)s and pension plans during the recession.” (According to The Economist, worldwide private pension funds lost $5.4 trillion last year. I wonder if/when the media will start calling it a depression?)

As stock values go down, the value of the company pension plan investments fall with it. In good times, companies can put cash into the plans to make up the short fall. But with all the financial turmoil around us now, companies don’t have the cash and are unable to borrow it. Some companies are capping payouts and some are offering lump-sum payouts instead of, or in combination with, monthly payments. Other companies are abandoning traditional pensions – where the payouts are defined in advance of retirement – for 401(k) plans – where the contributions are defined instead and the payouts are left uncertain. That puts the risk of bad investments and market collapses on the backs of the workers instead of the companies.

For employees who are in traditional pension plans, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) was created in 1974 to insure pensions. If your employer goes bankrupt, your pension could still be OK if the plan pays insurance premiums to PBGC. However, the coverage is limited to $54,000 a year for workers who retire at age 65, less if you retire early. The PBGC’s investment assets went down 12 percent between September 2007 to September 2008 (latest financial statements available). That’s on top of a large (albeit falling) deficit of $11 billion (their liabilities are greater than their assets). This is the company that is supposed to protect your pension if your company goes into bankruptcy. Technically, they can’t meet today’s obligations…

If your employer is in financial trouble and you are expecting to earn more than the pension insurance will cover you may need to think about working during retirement to make up the difference. According to an article published by Wharton in 2007, the Senior Citizens Freedom to Work Act “repealed the Social Security earnings limit, allowing workers 65 through 69 to earn income without losing Social Security benefits.” Good thing, too. Looks like they’ll need to keep working to make it through the depression.

Smart Growth Bill Vetoed

Texas Governor Rick Perry has vetoed a bill that would have created a state level “smart growth” program. The veto message is below.

June 19, 2009

Pursuant to Article IV, Section 14, of the Texas Constitution, I, Rick Perry, Governor of Texas, do hereby disapprove of and veto Senate Bill No. 2169 of the 81st Texas Legislature, Regular Session, due to the following objections:

Senate Bill No. 2169 would create a new governmental body that would centralize the decision-making process in Austin for the planning of communities through an interagency work group on “smart growth” policy. Decisions about the growth of communities should be made by local governments closest to the people living and working in these areas. Local governments can already adopt “smart growth” policies based on the desires of the community without a state-led effort that endorses such planning. This legislation would promote a one-size-fits-all approach to land use and planning that would not work across a state as large and diverse as Texas.

IN TESTIMONY WHEREOF, I have signed my name officially and caused the Seal of the State to be affixed hereto at Austin, this the 19th day of June, 2009.

Governor of Texas


Report on the Jobless Recovery: 18.7% Effective Unemployment Rate in May

Is the recent talk of "green shoots" coming out of this recession realistic? A recent report from the New America Foundation outlines the strong likelihood of a jobless recession that "could perpetuate the crises in the housing and banking sectors and prevent a sustainable and healthy economic recovery." A jobless recovery will prevent the wage growth necessary to stimulate business investment, maintain consumption, and pay down debt.

The report outlines a constructed measure of effective employment: BLS's measurement of unemployed, 2.2 million marginally attached workers, and 9.1 million workers employed part time only because they can't find full time work plus another 4.4 million Americans who want to work but gave up the search over a year ago. This results in an 18.68% effective unemployment rate.

Other highlights from the report:

  • The US economy must add 125,000 jobs per month just to keep pace with population growth.
  • Employment growth is further hindered by continued productivity gains through this recession.
  • As of Q1 2009, only 27% of employers experiencing mass layoffs anticipate rehiring some of the displaced workers.
  • The most severe unemployement and job losses are occurring in sectors comprising the productive economy, precisely the sectors that must grow to shift from the debt-financed growth of the recent past to growth driven by production and consumption made possible by rising incomes.
  • Mass unemployment is now fueling home foreclosures on prime mortgages: 5.7% of prime fixed-rate loans were overdue or in foreclosure last quarter, up from 3.2% a year earlier.

Read the full report at New American Contract and check out the NAC's Value Added blog.

Debates on Airport Rail

Running a little behind this week, so I just wanted to pass along this story from USA Today on domestic airports adding rail service. People love the service, of course, and many airports are doing it, but later in the article they get to the economic irrationality of it in America's decentralized car-centric cities (as opposed to Europe and Asia).

Still, airport-rail ridership in the USA is woefully low compared with other countries, says Andrew Sharp, director general of the U.K.-based International Air Rail Organisation. In many European and Asian airports, 20% to 30% of travelers get to and from the airport using rail. In the USA, ridership typically ranges from 2% to 5%, he says.


Ongoing debates

Like most large construction projects, airport rail proposals face stiff headwinds. Opponents challenge funding sources and new taxes and cite preferences for cars and buses. But the central argument in most debates has centered around ridership, specifically whether airports have enough demand to justify millions in cost.

BART's connection to SFO, completed in 2003, has yet to reach BART's initial ridership forecast and is still not profitable. Prior to construction, BART projected there would be 17,800 average daily boardings to and from the airport by the year 2010. As of this month, SFO ridership was at about 11,000.

Frank Sterling and Juliet Ellis, activists in the Bay Area, also questioned BART's plans to spend $500 million for Oakland International's people-mover and its decision to charge $6 for the service vs. $3 for the current shuttle bus.

"The proposal to charge double that for the new connector might drive away customers, unless it delivers twice the value," they wrote in a recent newspaper commentary, "Can East Bay residents afford this?"

Then they use some of my favorite arguments from past posts:

These are appropriate debates, Coogan says. Some cities are better off sticking to buses, he says. For example, LAX's FlyAway Bus, which provides non-stop rides to various neighborhoods in Southern California, is more convenient for many travelers than the metro.

For some cities, it'd be wiser to spend scarce funds for extending metro to public transportation-friendly suburbs before considering airports, Coogan adds.

"How often does a person go to work? And how often does a person go to Paris in a year?" he says.

More on these arguments here, here, and here (near the bottom). As I said in one of those posts: I agree, and I've said before that the market here is a niche one plenty well served by buses: young singles who can't get a ride to/from the airport. Business travelers will almost always rent a car or take a taxi. Families won't schlep their luggage on transit. Most others will have friends or family pick them up or drop them off. And our off-site airport parking is dirt cheap. The ridership drivers just aren't there.

New Mitsubishi Car: Climate Friendlier than New York Transit

Further demonstrating the ability of technology to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, Mitsubishi has announced development of a lithium battery driven car, to be sold within two years. The car, the "MIEV Plug-In Electric First Drive" would travel as much as 100 miles (160 kilometers) between charges.

United States Data and Comparisons: GHG Emissions per Passenger Mile/Passenger KM are indicated below (From power plants – variation is due to mix of fuel sources used in producing electricity)

Average United States: 61 grams/37 grams

Lowest (Vermont): 1.4 grams/0,7 grams

Highest (North Dakota): 102 grams/62 grams

The average GHG reduction compared to the current US automobile and sport utility vehicle fleet average would be 83 percent. The car would emit approximately less than one-half the GHGs per passenger mile as transit in New York area (the best in the nation) and one-fourth the overall US transit average.

European Union Comparison: The MIEV would be 40 percent less GHG intensive that is required by the newly adopted European Union fuel economy requirements for 2020 (the equivalent of 101 grams per passenger mile or 62 grams per passenger kilometer).

The above calculations assume the US national vehicle occupancy rate of 1.6. The comparison to the present fleet includes upstream production and transport activities.

Sources: Mitsubishi site, Edmunds Review

Mapping Democratic Primary Shifts in Virginia

In the first Democratic primary for Virginia governor in ages, the boy from Bath County embarrassed the two guys from NoVA.  Creigh Deeds won a strong 50% over Terry McAuliffe’s 26% and Brian Moran’s 24%.  What’s striking is that he won ten out of 11 congressional districts, even beating Moran 43-40% in his brother’s district, the 8th, and losing only the majority black 3rd, held by Rep. Bobby Scott, to Terry.

A few interesting points:

  • Talk about a base - In Criegh’s home county and three surrounding counties - Bath, Allegheny, Highland and Rockbridge - 4398 votes were cast. 4091 were for Creigh.  In all of Highland County, for example, Moran got only 3 votes while Creigh received over 1200.
  • Creigh won Clinton voters - Remember the Obama-Clinton map where Clinton won everywhere west of the Blue Ridge and Obama won the urban crescent? Well, it’s clear that Creigh won many of those same Clinton voters.
  • Dissecting the Obama coalition - Creigh will have no problem winning the Prius drivers in Arlington and Alexandria who are true blue Dems and lovingly supported Jim Webb despite some conservative views. What Creigh needs to worry about is the other leg of the Obama coalition - African-American voters in Richmond, Southside and Tidewater.
  • Terry won the black vote - Terry won a plurality in Bobby Scott’s district that stretches from the Seven Cities up to east Richmond. I remember Terry’s early ads were at the Newport News shipyard, and he later visited Hampton with He needed to do really well there, not just win a plurality.
  • Don’t sleep on C’Ville - Charlottesville and Albemarle are major bastions of liberal Democratic votes. The fact that Creigh’s state Senate seat covers these communities gave him a strong start in this crucial pocket.
  • The WaPo effect - Most armchair pundits think Creigh won because of his Washington Post endorsement. In reality, Creigh locked up downstate voters with cheap TV ads early and only contested NoVA once he got the endorsement. He wasn’t scheduled to appear at the VA FREE lunch until he won the WaPo nod, and his signs cropped up virtually overnight up here.
  • A balanced ticket - My sources tell me that Gov. Tim Kaine is psyched about the geographic balance of the ticket - A Gov candidate from the hills, an LG candidate from the Beach, and an AG candidate from the NoVA burbs.  Republicans, for their part, also boast a balanced ticket with VA Beach, Richmond and Fairfax County all represented.
  • What about NoVA? - For the second gubernatorial election in a row, both parties elected candidates from outside NoVA.  So will the ad wars be fought in Roanoke, Richmond and Hampton Roads, or will they spend the big money in Washington?
  • The Clintons just don’t play well in VA - Bill Clinton never won Virginia, despite taking a number of border states, including West Virginia and Kentucky.  Hillary got smoked here. And Bill’s right hand man Terry ultimately failed.  Maybe those Clinton robocalls hurt more than they helped?
  • The engine of VA - Virginia’s economic success has a big part to do with the booms in Fairfax, Loudoun, Price William and Henrico counties - Creigh won all of these, just like Kaine did in the ‘05 general and Obama did in the ‘08 general.

So how will Creigh Deeds stack up against Bob McDonnell?  That’s the subject of another post, but it’s clear that the map is going to be dynamic and scrambled and that the battlegrounds will be constantly evolving.  NoVA, which accounts for one out of every seven votes in Virginia, is obviously the big prize, but Deeds will certainly try to make inroads in McDonnell’s base in Hampton Roads and we can bet on McDonnell going for the F-150 Democrats in Creigh’s neck of the woods.  Let the games begin.

Chicago: Preventing the Self-Destruction of Diversity

Chicago's urban core has boomed in a way that makes most other cities jealous. Every time you turn around, it seems, another gem is added to it. The Renzo Piano designed Modern Wing at the Art Institute recently opened its doors to general, if not universal, acclaim, for example.

But while this boom is to be celebrated, and clearly it has been necessary to sustain the animating life force of the city as a whole, there are long term threats that need to be considered.

The first is that all booms tend to contain within themselves the seeds of their own collapse. We've seen that with the bubble, the real estate bubble, and the finance bubble, the last two of which are really weighing on Chicago. Growth feeds on itself in a type of positive reinforcement loop. If it hits a certain point, it can really take off, as in a typically "hockey stick" diagram. The problem is that some point the trend reaches the point of exhaustion, and the hangover can be a bear. Most stable systems employ negative feedback controls or stabilizers to "take away the punch bowl just as the party is getting started".

The real challenge, however, is what Jane Jacobs called the "self destruction of diversity". Thriving urban districts require a mixtures of users and uses acting to mutually sustain and energize a neighborhood. But what has a tendency to happen is that, as an area becomes popular, land values go up and rents go up. There is greater demand for and competition for the space. Because of this, the most economically successful use of the moment tends to become increasingly dominant. This is particularly the case if that use benefits from face to face interactions among multiple players in the space and clustering economics.

Jacobs also talked about the requirement that neighborhoods contain buildings of a mixture of ages, such that they require differing levels of economic rent. New enterprises, particularly in wholly new fields, often require space that is available at low cost. So if there are no low cost buildings in an area, tomorrow's new industries can't often get started in a place at all. While she didn't quite put it this way, this notion is often paraphrased as "new ideas require old buildings".

The boom in Chicago causes concern on both of these fronts. Firstly, the great Loop area is increasingly dominated by two uses: financial and business services for the global city function of Chicago, and entertainment/tourism. To some extent, the Loop has always had these characteristics as a typical CBD. And in many respects, the streets are far more active today than they were in an era not that long ago when the streets in the Loop really did roll up at 6pm.

The real problem is that the boom in the Loop has generated enormous opportunity for profit in the redevelopment of older buildings. Many older buildings have been demolished completely, or preserved only the form of the "facadectomy". A number of vintage office skyscrapers have been converted to residential use. The high rent district, which used to apply mostly to the core of Loop, now extends far to the West and South instead of just the traditional north. The number of places where one can obtain low-rent space in the greater Loop area would appear to have declined significantly.

The same forces are operating in residential areas, which are increasingly taking on the cast of New Urbanist suburbs. Housing prices keep out all but the already affluent in many places. Rents have followed suit, leading to a predominance of swanky establishements catering primarily to consumption by the upscale: restaurants, clubs, boutiques, spas, etc. A number of formerly industrial districts have been reborn as more or less single use large format retail strips.

What will the long term affect of this be? I don't know. I do think it is something worth of consideration. Affordable housing is obviously something that is on the radar of many groups. But the idea of affordable office or industrial space less so. We want the Loop to be successful, but also I think there should be policies developed that are designed to actively sustain its diversity over time.

The danger is that the Loop becomes increasingly concentrated in ever most high value specialized services. (I've even suggested how we might encourage this through cross-regional collaboration). This can be good in that it keeps Chicago a player at the pinnacle of the global economy. But it also exposes Chicago to the risk of niche exhaustion. And with the global city functions an artifact of globalization as we know it today, any disruption or further evolution of that model could seriously hit Chicago.

As I've long argued, in an ever more rapidly changing, uncertain world, it is critical for cities to have a diversity of strategies and future options for success, and not put all their eggs in one basket. Chicago needs to continue reinforcing its success, but it also needs to look at how to diversify that success so that when, as it inevitably will, economic needs change, Chicago is right there with the next new thing. While picking winners and losers is a problematic concept, at a minimum the city should be looking at how to preserve the conditions necessary for success.

Interestingly, the city has already taken some steps here. It created the concept of a "Planned Manufacturing District" to prevent residential encroachment into surviving manufacturing zones like the Kinzie Corridor. A good move. While mono-use isn't always a good thing, for a traditionally manufacturing area, I think this is a decent strategy. We should be looking at similar means of preserving the favorable economics for new ideas in the urban core as well.

More Chicago:

Chicago: A Declaration of Independence

Reconnecting the Hinterland Series
Part 1A: Metropolitan Connections
Part 1B: High Speed Rail
Part 2A: Onshore Outsourcing
Part 2B: On Innovation

On the Chicago Economy
Chicago: Corporate Headquarters and the Global City
The Financial Crisis: Good for Chicago?

Balancing the California Budget

The battle to find ways to close California's gaping $24 billion budget shortfall continues, with Governor Schwarzenegger calling for deep cuts and reorganization throughout state government. Last week, making a "rare speech to a joint session of the Legislature," Gov. Schwarzenegger argued that the state has "run out of time," and faces a situation where "Our wallet is empty, our bank is closed, and our credit is dried up".

The challenges facing California's policy makers in balancing the budget can be examined by checking out the Los Angeles Times' "Interactive California Budget Balancer". While the state has many different options available to it, making cuts to potentially popular programs will only serve to irritate interest groups which argue for the efficacy and essential nature of their favored programs. Couple this reluctance to make cuts with popular resistance to tax increases, recently seen when voters rejected a set of measures on May 19, and one can better understand the true magnitude of the budget impasse facing the state.