Street Grids May Make Cities Hotter

In 1995, an unbearable heatwave in Chicago, with temperatures reaching above 100 degrees, killed an estimated 739 people. The extreme heat was in part a consequence of the urban heat island effect, which makes downtown areas ostensibly warmer than their surrounding suburban and rural areas. The difference is even starker at night: even as the temperature cools, the release of heat absorbed during the day by asphalt and densely packed buildings can make the downtown area some 20 degrees warmer in some cities.

By now, scientists know that the density of buildings, the absorption of light by those buildings, and the relative lack of vegetation in cities are major contributors to the urban heat island effect. It’s why cities like Chicago are hoping to find relief through green roofs and reflective construction materials, or through planting more trees and banning cars. In a more radical move, Los Angeles even began painting their roads white as part of Mayor Eric Garcetti’s effort to bring down the city’s temperature by just under 2 degrees over the next 20 years.

Yet Roland Pellenq, a senior research scientist at MIT’s Concrete Sustainability Hub, wondered how much the actual layout of a city area contributes to the intensity of the urban heat island effect. To find the answer, Pellenq and his team turned to physics.

In a paper published last month in the journal Physical Review Letters, he and his team concluded that the “texture” of a city makes a big difference. Grids may be making cities much warmer than nearby suburbs and countryside.

It all began while Pellenq was on his coffee break, looking at Boston’s skyline from across the Charles River. To him, the buildings resembled water molecules piled up on a surface. So, he thought, “why don’t we calculate the relative position of [the buildings] and see if there is a pattern of order that emerges?” Pellenq told CityLab. Indeed, the fingerprints of cities like Boston and Los Angeles mirror the disorderly atomic structure of liquids and glass, while the likes of Chicago and New York City, with their streets and avenues perpendicular to one another, exhibit a more orderly configuration found in crystals.

Some cities have a more “liquid-like” layout, while others are more crystalline in structure. (Courtesy of Roland Pellenq)

Pellenq’s team calculated the temperature difference between urban areas and their suburban or rural counterparts for 14 U.S. cities, using years’ worth of data from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration. To find the correlation between texture and temperature, they first quantified the “local order” of each city’s urban layout, using Google Maps to analyze how buildings are organized within a three-mile radius of a weather station.

Then, adapting formulas that physicists use to measure atomic interaction in condensed materials, they assigned each city a score between 0 and 1, with 0 indicating a liquid-like layout in which buildings are loosely packed and organized randomly, and 1 signifying a perfectly ordered structure. (Most cities fell between 0.5 and 0.9.)

The researchers concluded that the more tightly packed that cities are, the more intense the urban heat island effect is—no surprise there. “The heat problem is really a short-range interaction between buildings,” said Pellenq. “Basically, one surface of a building is radiating heat to the next [building].” That energy tends to accumulate within so-called heat canyons created between those buildings.

More surprising, though, they found that cities with more rigid grid-like street patterns (that is, a higher local order) tended to display a higher temperature difference between their urban and rural areas. This has to do with air flow, said Pellenq. In disorganized cities, the air tends to flow uniformly with little or no interruption. But the perpendicular streets of Chicago and the like often trap heat by disrupting that airflow.

As existing cities expand and new ones crop up, particularly throughout Asia and Africa, Pellenq said this finding should be incorporated into planning. Designers of urban districts in colder regions may want to consider a grid-like pattern to retain heat, while those in warmer regions might consider introducing some form of disorder into the layout.

Forethought like that can make a big difference over time in terms of financial spending and climate change. Consider that roughly nine out of 10 households in the U.S. have air conditioners, which are turned on even before the peak of summer. And as the world heats up, countries like China and India are increasingly mirroring America’s addiction to artificial cooling. One study estimated that the world is poised to add 700 million AC units by 2030, which translates to massive energy costs and consumption—not to mention a big boost in carbon emissions. But beyond that, Pellenq noted, the design of a city can mean life or death as climate change fuels more deadly heatwaves in the future.

The urban heat island effect is complex, of course, and there’s more research needed to round out Pellenq’s analysis. He hopes to study the air flow in cities and how that factors into his model, and wants to expand his research to beyond that three-mile radius. But as cities are already demonstrating, architecture, materials science, and natural landscaping each has its own role in curbing the urban heating island effect. So everything has to be considered.

“It’s not one [factor] or the other,” Pellenq said. “It’s probably one and the other.”

When Living Near Transit Doesn’t Lower Transportation Costs

In the U.S., whether you own a car is the main determinant of how much you spend to get around—gas alone costs the average American nearly $3,000 annually. So it stands to follow that living in neighborhoods with good public transit access should reduce your transportation expenses. This notion of “location efficiency” is one of the reasons that many housing advocates (including supporters of the now-dead SB 827, the radical transit-oriented housing proposal in California) are so passionate about building affordable units near train and bus stops.

But does moving to a transit-rich neighborhood mean a person’s transportation costs systematically come down? Not according to a new paper that studies a decade’s worth of income dynamics for 11,000 American families, rich and poor. The study, published recently in the journal Housing Policy and Debate, finds almost no relationship between lower transportation spending and neighborhoods with better bus and subway connections when studied through the lens of real-world household spending.

The findings may give pause to those interested in how housing and transportation, the largest household expenses in the U.S., intersect in wallets and bank accounts. Years of research and widely-used data indices from the community development organization Center for Neighborhood Technology and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development have implied that the more transit-rich a neighborhood is, the less people spend on transportation, and therefore the more “affordable” that area is. But while these indices are built mostly on models that estimate transportation expenditures for typical households, this paper studied direct measurements of these expenses of real people over time. The results did not match up. (That said, a leader of the prevailing school of location-efficiency said that there is good reason for this, and called into question the premise of the paper. Read on for his rebuttal.)

This figure shows a weak relationship between lower transportation costs and higher transit accessibility. (Smart & Klein, Housing Policy and Debate)

Authors Nicholas Klein, a transportation planning professor at Cornell University, and Michael J. Smart, a professor of urban planning at Rutgers, relied on a source of data that had not previously been used for studying this topic: part of the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID). This nationally representative household survey began in 1968 and has tracked in detail the basic expenses of the same thousands of American families since. Klein and Smart used a confidential, geocoded version of PSID that reflected the total transportation expenditures (including vehicle purchases, gasoline, repairs, insurance, transit fares, and others) of 11,000 families across income brackets and neighborhoods, between 2003 and 2013. It was only one set of numbers, Klein and Smart acknowledged, but “it punches above its weight by following the same families over time as they move, and with rich detail on actual expenditures,” they said in an email to CityLab.

The authors followed three methods to test the location efficiency hypothesis against the ten years of survey data. First, they took “snapshots” of the PSID families at different moments in time, examining the basic relationship between lower transportation costs and higher transit access (as measured by the number of jobs accessible by public transit within 30 minutes). They found a weak correlation, not the strong diagonal line they expected.

This figure shows weak relationships between lower transportation costs and higher transit accessibility, at different intervals of time after moving. (Smart & Klein, Housing Policy and Debate)

Next, the authors charted how a change in transit accessibility affected a change in a family’s transportation spending, immediately after moving from one neighborhood to another and then two, four, eight, and ten years after moving. Again, they found almost no systematic effect.

“Some people do move and see their costs go down—but there are almost as many people whose expenses go up,” Klein said in an interview.

Finally, they built a model that looked specifically at how transportation expenses changed, in actual dollars, among families who relocated to better or worse transit environments. Again, across income brackets, they saw only a weak relationship between the two. Only by moving from the very extremes of the transit accessibility did families see more significant savings. “By going from the very bottom of the transit access scale to the absolute top, you’d save $58 per month,” Smart said. But such a transition was not the norm.

Likewise, population density, employment density, walkability, and neighborhood compactness did not significantly affect transportation spending, either, the authors found. While some families spent less on getting around when the shape of their neighborhoods changed, almost as many families spent more. Indeed, the transportation expenses of non-movers and movers alike were largely unaffected by transit access. All of this was contrary to the strong relationships between transit access and household expenses that Klein and Smart expected based on the existing literature.

The simplest way to think about these findings is in terms of car ownership, the big-ticket item among household transportation expenses. On paper, it’s easy for planners and policymakers to believe that families who live in neighborhoods where they could give up their cars do, in fact, give them up. But according to this study, transit access turns out to be low on the list of factors that actually push people to give up their cars. Much more important are the number of adults and jobs in their households, how many children they have, their annual income, and the cities they moved to and from.

A screenshot of Center for Neighborhood Technology’s Housing + Transportation Affordability Index, which shows in light to dark green areas of higher and lower “location efficiency.” (Center for Neighborhood Technology)

“It’s not that transit doesn’t help people,” said Klein. “But lots of people who are making totally rational decisions not to use transit and to have their car are doing it to help their family.”

The implications for housing planners and decision-makers, then, is that policies that assume good transit will lead to lower household spending won’t necessarily work for all families, especially those who aren’t already intent on giving up their cars. That includes “location efficiency mortgages,” or LEM, a transit-oriented housing financing idea that was piloted in the 1990s and early 2000s, and which petered out around the recession.

The paper has inspired conversation among housing and transportation researchers, who called attention to the new study on Twitter last week. Dan Immergluck, a professor at the Urban Studies Institute at Georgia State University, tweeted that the paper “calls into serious question” the focus among housing advocates on building affordable units only near transit. There may be other good reasons to do so, he added in an email to CityLab, but “locating affordable housing near transit may not lead to as much cost savings as such modeled estimates imply.”

Lisa Schweitzer, a professor of public policy and transportation planning at the University of Southern California, tweeted, “I have always [had] trouble with the basic idea of the LEM.” Just because someone has “access” to an amenity, she continued, doesn’t mean they’ll use it.

The findings of this paper may call to mind a paradigm shift in the realm of affordability research. For more than a decade, affordability indices from CNT and HUD have been widely used by researchers, planners, policymakers, and nonprofits to study and guide real-world development and policy decisions. They also encourage prospective homeowners to use them to evaluate where to live. Both indices factor in transportation in addition to housing costs as measures of a neighborhood’s affordability at the census block level. They rely on the assumption that the built environment is a key determinant of how much a person spends on transportation; this paper suggests that this is not the case.

However, this is only one paper, and no single study is likely to settle any academic debate. More research could be used to validate Klein and Smart’s findings. Furthermore, Scott Bernstein, the president and co-founder of CNT and one of the principal authors behind its widely used Housing + Transportation Affordability Index, took issue with the idea that this paper poses a serious challenge to his own years of research. In fact, he felt that the paper’s premise mischaracterizes the fundamental intentions of his work.

In a detailed statement provided to CityLab, Bernstein said that the CNT index uses a model drawn from peer-reviewed research and that includes many factors that drive household transportation costs. It has been tested against “real” data, including vehicle odometer readings from millions of households. Klein and Smart used overly narrow samples and metrics from which to draw broad conclusions, Bernstein argues. And fundamentally, while Klein and Smart are measuring the expenses of individual families who move, CNT’s index is supposed to measure the potential affordability of a place. “People can, and often do, spend less in areas with high location efficiency,” Bernstein said.

But Klein and Smart said that studying families who change neighborhoods gets to the heart of the affordability question. It is individuals, after all, who bear the costs of transportation, not neighborhoods. If a place is supposed to be more affordable because of its good transit access, people who move to that place should expect to see some savings, they said.

Perhaps the paper’s significance was best summed up by Smart’s mother, who was apparently unfazed by its somewhat surprising conclusion. “She was like, ‘Of course,’” Smart recalled. “’Everyone loves cars. It doesn’t matter where you live.’”

How Unhappiness Helped Elect Trump

Like more than half of American voters, I woke up severely depressed the morning after Election Day 2016. As my wife and I wiped the tears from our eyes, she turned to me and said: “As terrible as we feel, can you imagine what the backlash would have been if the election had gone the other way?” Her comments reflect a basic reality: For large numbers of Americans, happiness and well-being increasingly turn on who is elected.

That intuition is confirmed in newly released polling data from Gallup that focuses on the link between partisan voting and well-being. Gallup’s analysis is part of a study done in partnership with researchers at the Yale School of Medicine and the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, and originally published in the journal PLOS ONE. The study finds that the places that swung most for Trump were those whose residents had the lowest levels of improvement in their happiness or life satisfaction under the Obama administration, whereas the places that swung most for Hilary Clinton saw among the highest levels of improvement in well-being during that same time.

These findings are based on more than 175,000 interviews (conducted in 2016) with Americans in more than 3,000 counties, representing all 50 states and Washington, D.C.

It is widely believed that Trump tapped into increased feelings of anger and anxiety, particularly among white working-class voters outside of large urban areas. But like the presumption that the results of the 2016 election were about economic hardship, this seems to be myth more than reality.

Counties that experienced the biggest surge in Trump voters were not appreciably more likely to have residents who reported higher levels of anger and worry. In fact, counties that went more for Clinton actually had slightly larger shares of residents who said they experienced high degrees of anger and worry than those that swung the most toward Trump, as the table below shows. That said, the counties that swung the most toward Clinton also had slightly higher levels of happiness and enjoyment than those that swung the most for Trump.

Data by Gallup. Chart by Madison McVeigh/CityLab

(Note: As seen in the rows of the table, the researchers grouped U.S. counties into six clusters based on the change in their vote for president from 2012 to 2016. The spectrum ranges from a gain of more than 10 percentage points for Republican voters in 2016 to a Democratic gain of more than 10 points.)

The fact that there is no observable relationship between negative day-to-day emotions and political shifts seems to contradict the notion that high levels of anger, stress, and worry are what led to Trump’s election.

What the research shows instead is that it’s how people think about the bigger picture of their lives, and not just their daily experiences, that drove the big vote swings of 2016. Indeed, the counties that saw the largest jump in votes for the Republican presidential candidate between 2012 and 2016 were made up of residents who also reported the lowest levels of both satisfaction with their current lives and optimism about the future.

Furthermore, residents of counties that saw the biggest surge in Republican voting didn’t just report lower levels of satisfaction with their current and future lives; they reported lower levels of improvement on these measures since 2012, even though both have improved among all adults nationwide over the same period. By contrast, counties that saw the largest jump in votes for the Democratic candidate reported above-average levels on both metrics.

The table below shows the share of residents who expressed high levels of satisfaction with their current lives as well as high levels of optimism about the future, across these six clusters of voters. In the counties where the 2016 vote swung Republican by 10 or more percentage points from 2012, only 61 percent of residents reported a high level of satisfaction with their current life, and 58 percent reported high levels of optimism for the future. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the counties where the vote swung Democratic by 10 or more percentage points, 73 percent of residents reported a high level of satisfaction with their current life and 72 percent reported a high level of optimism for the future.

In the table below, the column marked “Current life satisfaction” describes the percentage of people who ranked their current life satisfaction between 7 and 10 on a scale of 1 to 10. The “Future life optimism” column shows the percentage of people who ranked their optimism about the future between 8 and 10.

Data by Gallup. Chart by Madison McVeigh/CityLab

The same pattern comes through in the next table, which charts the percentage change in current life satisfaction and in optimism for the future across these six major voting groups.

Data by Gallup. Chart by Madison McVeigh/CityLab

In counties where Trump increased the Republican share of votes by more than 10 percent, current life satisfaction improved by just 1.7 percent, and optimism for the future improved by just 1.6 percent. But in counties where Clinton gained more than 10 percent over Obama, current life satisfaction had improved by 2.7 percent and optimism for the future by 3 percent.

It is not anger, anxiety, or worry that lead to big vote swings, but a lingering feeling of unhappiness and a lack of optimism about the future. This kind of unhappiness with current conditions and unease about what the future holds appears to shape how people vote.

The connection between unhappiness and vote swings is something for politicians, pundits, and all Americans to be aware of, especially in America’s current climate of declining happiness. According to another Gallup poll from earlier this year, America saw the largest year-over-year drop in well-being between 2016 and 2017 in the 10 years that Gallup has tracked this data. If Democrats want to recapture the House of Representatives in 2018 and win back the presidency in 2020, it is this declining happiness that they have to confront.

CityLab Daily: Raising the Rent

Keep up with the most pressing, interesting, and important city stories of the day. Sign up for the CityLab Daily newsletter here.


What We’re Following

HUD piles on the bills: A new bill backed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development would raise rents for housing aid recipients, and could let public-housing authorities and landlords set work requirements for their tenants. HUD Secretary Ben Carson says the goal is to relieve lengthy waitlists for housing aid and to incentivize “self-sufficiency,” but the proposal has alarmed housing experts. CityLab’s Kriston Capps explains what this means in his story: Why HUD Wants to Raise the Rent

Andrew Small

More on CityLab

Where the YIMBYs Can Win

The defeat of SB 827, California’s ambitious pro-housing bill, masks a wider trend: Similar initiatives are on the march nationwide.

Nolan Gray

Can Detroit’s Suburbs Survive a Downtown Revival?

The city is experiencing a sustained real estate boom, poaching employers—even pro sports teams—from surrounding municipalities. Places like Southfield, Pontiac, and Dearborn will have to find ways to keep up.

Amy Crawford

Fixing Infrastructure When the Feds Won’t Help

Local transportation and utility projects could sure use federal assistance. But these mayors are going it alone.

John Surico

America’s Justice System Has the Wrong Goals

Two former prosecutors argue that we need a justice system that values a breadth of solutions rather than one that rewards incarceration financially and professionally.

Lauren-Brooke Eisen and Miriam Aroni Krinsky

After Van Attack, Toronto Balances Grief and Resolve

A city that has long prized diversity is grappling with new security fears after Monday’s vehicle attack that killed 10 pedestrians.

Chris Bateman

Map of the Day

(Urban Institute)

Economic growth doesn’t necessarily go hand-in-hand with economic and racial inclusion. That’s the finding of a new in-depth Urban Institute analysis of the 274 largest cities in America. The study measures economic growth from 1980 to 2013 alongside measures of economic health and racial disparities to rank inclusive and recovering cities. CityLab’s Tanvi Misra digs into the report’s takeaways from successful cities that improved inclusion as they grew.

The report’s top 10 cities for overall inclusion tended to be mid-sized cities in California—from Fremont to Santa Clara to Carlsbad—with Bellevue, Washington, and Naperville, Illinois, also ranking high. Meanwhile, bigger cities landed in the bottom ranks, with Dallas, Houston, Phoenix, Atlanta, and Miami all performing poorly on overall inclusion.

What We’re Reading

This app declares war on loud restaurants (Vox)

How to not be a bully behind the wheel (Streetsblog)

Redlining has taken a huge toll on property values. But not everywhere. (Slate)

How ICE mines local police databases (In Justice Today)

A portrait of the South, served up one Waffle House order at a time (The New York Times)

Tell your friends about the CityLab Daily! Forward this newsletter to someone who loves cities and encourage them to subscribe. Send your own comments, feedback, and tips to

Where the YIMBYs Can Win

Last week, the most ambitious upzoning in American history died in committee. Designed to address California’s housing crisis, SB 827 would have permitted new four- and five-story multifamily housing within a half-mile of transit without having to undergo reviews, clearing away parking requirements and other local regulations used by homeowners to block new development.

But before its untimely death, the ambitious bill managed to garner a lot of media attention, and across the country, a number of campaigns are underway to facilitate new transit-oriented housing that should give advocates of the pro-development “Yes In My Backyard” movement hope. In California, SB 827 might have even provided valuable cover for a slate of other smaller housing reforms.

There’s SB 831, for example, which is currently being considered in the California legislature. It would close loopholes to the state’s recent preemption of “granny flats” or accessory dwelling units (ADUs), which have flowered since the state preempted local ADU ordinances in 2016. SB 828 and AB 1771 would also build on previous affordable housing efforts, giving teeth to the state’s current “fair share” requirements for housing construction. Under today’s weak rules, many cities can play elaborate shell games to get out of these requirements, but SB 828 would tighten up on the process at the comprehensive planning phase and ensure that more needed housing is built.

Other bills aim to ease the development hurdles facing new housing for farmworkers in agricultural regions and new housing near transit in the Bay Area. These legislative initiatives are more focused and technical than SB 827, but taken together, they would legalize a lot of new housing in the Golden State.

Beyond California, YIMBY fever is catching in Massachusetts, where state legislators are taking a serious look at zoning reform as a way to alleviate the commonwealth’s mounting housing affordability crisis. As Renée Loth notes in the Boston Globe, the current patchwork of local land-use rules and prohibitions serves to limit the supply of new housing and preserve historical patterns of racial segregation.

Back in 2016, the Massachusetts Senate passed a bill that would have set statewide standards for new ADUs and multifamily housing among other things, but the bill ultimately failed to become law. With Governor Charlie Baker taking a stand on the need to address the housing demand-housing supply mismatch, it’s likely that some form of this zoning reform will re-emerge later this year as a supplement to new state initiatives to build affordable housing. One proposal that the governor has already advanced calls for easing barriers to rezonings, which currently require an onerously high level (75 percent, or a supermajority) of support from voters to pass. While critics decry the reform as a threat to local government, it would ultimately take a major tool out of the NIMBY toolbox.

Smaller local battles to legalize housing are also underway as YIMBY groups form and mobilize in cities across the country. In Minneapolis, the YIMBY activist group Neighbors for More Neighbors is advocating for allowing small, four-unit apartment buildings called fourplexes in any area of the city zoned for residential, with support from members on city council and the mayor. This would allow many single-family homes in expensive urban neighborhoods to be converted into small apartment buildings, adding new housing close to downtown.

In Boulder, Colorado—host of the inaugural YIMBYtown conference in 2016—activists worked to legalize and ease the process of forming housing co-ops, which provide greater housing choice and affordable options for residents.

And in Austin—a city that seems to be turning into San Francisco in more ways than one—a burgeoning YIMBY movement is having an impact on the city’s ongoing zoning overhaul. When an early draft of the new code—dubbed “CodeNEXT”—was revealed, the group put the plan’s drafters on blast; subsequent drafts eased restrictions on ADUs and residential development in commercial areas. Their work, they assure us, isn’t done.

The setback of SB 827 may have been a disappointment for YIMBYs. But the bill helped start a bold new national conversation about what can be done to address the nation’s worsening housing affordability crisis. The Overton Window, or the range of viable policy fixes for this crisis, has been slammed open, and more and more policymakers in cities and states across the country are taking the issue seriously. The defeat of SB 827 isn’t the end of the YIMBY movement. If this flurry of new state and local land-use reform initiatives indicates anything, it may only be the beginning.

Mid-Sized City Mayors Aren’t Waiting Around for Trump

When the Trump administration released its long-awaited infrastructure plan in February, one of the loudest voices of dissent came from mayors. That was no surprise: The legislation called upon cities to prove that they can cough up 80 percent of the costs for federally funded infrastructure projects, before the feds picked up the remaining 20 percent. In effect, only $200 billion of the $1.5 trillion total would actually come from Washington, and only after a round of cuts to existing infrastructure programs. With so little support from Uncle Sam, it seemed barely defensible as a federal “plan.”

“At a minimum, we’re asking for an equal partnership of 50 percent funding from the federal level to local governments,” said Karen Freeman-Wilson, the mayor of Gary, Indiana, and vice president of the National League of Cities (NLC), after the bill was announced.

But when it comes to building and maintaining infrastructure, many urban areas have grown increasingly familiar with workarounds to self-fund projects. And not just large cities like Los Angeles, which passed a $121 billion transit sales tax measure in 2016. In New York, Virginia, and New Jersey, public-private partnerships have brought in banks and private firms to help pay for bridge and road repairs.

Mid-sized cities are playing ball, too.

Their solutions to national issues was the topic of a policy forum last week at New York University that brought together four mayors from mid-size cities across the U.S.: Peter Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana; Nan Whaley of Dayton, Ohio; John Giles of Mesa, Arizona; and Toni Harp of New Haven, Connecticut. Their cities represent a mix of economic challenges and political proclivities (Giles is a Republican; the rest are Democrats), but they all share at least one thing: a growing list of infrastructure needs, which have become a ballooning financial burden for cities in recent years.

Like many cities in America, Dayton had a longstanding pothole problem, but not enough funds to fix them. So, 2016, the first income tax increase in 32 years—from 2.25 to 2.5 percent—was presented to voters as a way to fund road repavement, among other things. A resident who earned $35,000 would have to pay $1.60 more a week under the eight-year levy, which would ultimately generate $11 million a year in additional revenue. The measure was approved by a margin of 12 points. And, in addition to fixing potholes, the tax has gone to funding universal pre-K, the hiring of more police officers, and the mowing of lawns on vacant lots.

“Folks trust when local communities say they’re going to do something, and they know where to find you when you don’t. Secondly, [residents] know how to get it done, and we know it has to get done,” Whaley told the audience in downtown Manhattan.

According to John Giles, the mayor of Mesa, “local governments don’t sit still, because we can’t.” The smaller cities of the greater Phoenix area faced a serious congestion issue in the 1990s on their vast network of freeways, he said. In 1985, the Arizona Legislature allowed cities and counties to create their own regional public transit authorities, but it wasn’t until a series of half-cent taxes were passed in Maricopa County in the late 1990s that construction on a light rail system began, to help alleviate traffic. “It was a horrible situation,” Giles recalled. “Out of frustration, our voters passed a regional sales tax that will sunset here in over 4 or 5 years, and we’re already talking about what’s next.”

No wonder. Opening in 2008, the 26-mile line, a part of Valley Metro, is now the 13th busiest light-rail system in America, serving nearly 50,000 daily riders (and counting). It connects Mesa to downtown Phoenix, ASU, and Tempe—all of which have seen rapid growth in recent years—and a two-mile extension into Mesa’s downtown is expected to be completed by spring 2019. A 2015 report said the light rail alone has led to $8.2 billion in development in the area.

“There’s been a requirement in our community for the last couple of years that, in order to qualify for tax breaks, you need to be within a half-mile of transit,” Giles said. “That has allowed these [housing development] projects to come in. Now we have a pretty good foothold, so every mile or so along the light rail corridor, we have affordable housing projects.”

It’s not just taxes that cities are employing to improve their infrastructure. In South Bend, Indiana, Peter Buttigieg has gained national recognition (and presidential buzz) in part because the 36-year-old has launched data initiatives to modernize road repairs, and water utilities. One such pilot, Buttigieg said, will install smartphone-like cameras in the windshields of road repair crews that can monitor hot spots for potholes—rampant in South Bend—and feed the data back to the city for repair. Another partnership with a local startup gathered data on where and when water systems fail most, in order to predict them before they happen, he said. In 2012, South Bend became the first city in America to effectively bring the sewer system onto the cloud. “We need to do things like this to wring every bit of efficiency out of the systems,” he said at the forum. “Because Washington is just not going to be there.”

But cities can only achieve so much on their own. There are bigger projects that, experts say, cannot be achieved without federal assistance.

“From bridges to broadband, cities are doing everything possible to rebuild and reimagine America’s infrastructure. But this is simply not enough to close the nation’s $2 trillion investment gap—cities cannot shoulder this burden on our own,” said Mark Stodola, the mayor of Little Rock, Arkansas, and president of the NLC, in a statement to CityLab. “We need a strong federal partnership that invests in our cities and America’s workforce, so that we are building for 2050 not just repairing 1950.”

The national organization offers a few examples of projects that beg for federal help. Hattiesburg, Mississippi, has water infrastructure needs that are estimated to cost up to $500 million, of which the small city can only cover a mere fraction. In fast-growing San Antonio, Texas, streets, sidewalks, and drainage utilities need to be expanded and updated, at a price tag well into the billions. And officials from Gilcrest, a small city in Colorado where 16 percent of residents live below the federal poverty level, said in a press release provided by the NLC that “the ability to fund multi-million-dollar projects”—like sewer lines, storm infrastructure, and an aging town hall—“is simply not here.”

Federal assistance of any scale does not appear to be on the immediate horizon. During one of his administration’s periodic “infrastructure weeks” in March, President Trump told reporters that the plan will have to wait until after the midterm elections in November, which will likely decide which party controls “the power of the purse” in Washington.

“It’s unfortunate,” said Nan Whaley, of Dayton, Ohio, at the forum. “[Infrastructure] could be much better served if the state and federal government stepped in, and created a partnership like we used to have. We call for that all the time.”

But in the meantime, they’re not waiting around.

Autonomous Vehicles and Roads: An Emerging Relationship

Is it out of the realm of possibility that the privatization that happened with other critical infrastructure in prior years in the US could also happen with the nation’s road network? It is a controversial and seemingly impossible thing to consider. Yet it is a question that only something as large and transformative as the autonomous vehicle can answer.

America’s Justice System Has the Wrong Goals

The image of a hard-charging prosecutor imploring a jury to throw the book at a defendant is a familiar scene that has played out in the country’s courtrooms—not to mention on its television screens—for decades. But today, that picture is changing as prosecutors and the public are increasingly recognizing the role these lawyers can play in bringing about a fairer and more equitable criminal justice system. Here we examine legislation and policies that have been introduced, and in some cases passed and implemented, at the federal, state, local, and office levels to facilitate this change, as well as presenting further solutions for rethinking what a successful justice system looks like.

Prosecutors are powerful actors who enter a defendant’s life at a critical juncture. They decide what charges to bring, if a case will be deflected from the justice system entirely, and whether to seek pretrial detention or cash bail—decisions that are the difference between incarceration and freedom. They hold the upper hand in plea bargaining (the pathway by which 94 percent of cases are resolved), determine whether someone will be judged by a jury of peers, or whether the case will be determined through a disposition offered by the prosecutor in exchange for a guilty plea. And their recommendation at sentencing is a powerful one: They can feed the epidemic of mass incarceration as many of them have for many years, or they can, instead, take steps to reverse it.

With 94 U.S. Attorneys and more than 2,400 elected local prosecutors (including state, county and district attorneys) prosecutors’ immense discretion touches every town, city, and state. So how can they exercise their clout to move toward more equitable and sensible approaches that reflect decades of lessons learned?

A newly released report by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law provides a blueprint. It outlines solutions for prosecutors to drive down incarceration rates, which have increased five-fold since the mid-1970s, while maintaining public safety. And it articulates the urgent need for change, noting that while the United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, we have nearly one-quarter of its prisoners.

Voters have shown that they want reform. Crime is no longer a wedge issue. Recent polls show that 71 percent of Americans support reducing the prison population—including 50 percent of Trump voters.

This desire is playing out in elections. Over the last few years, reform-minded prosecutors were elected in cities around the nation including Chicago, Houston, Denver, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Tampa, Jacksonville, and St. Louis.

These new leaders, like Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, are quickly making a push for change. Krasner issued a recent directive to his office’s prosecutors requiring them to state on the record how much a recommended sentence would cost taxpayers, and to justify the cost as necessary to public safety. Last year, district attorneys Kim Ogg and Mark Gonzalez in Texas adopted policies to avoid the criminalization of low-level marijuana cases. Kim Foxx, the State’s Attorney in Cook County, Illinois (Chicago), increased her office’s transparency by releasing a groundbreaking report revealing demographics of defendants prosecuted, and data on sentencing and dispositions. And in Florida, new state attorneys have dramatically reduced the number of juveniles prosecuted or brought into the adult system. Krasner, Ogg, Gonzalez and Foxx are all part of the Fair and Just Prosecution network, which brings together a new generation of leaders committed to advancing justice reform.

To be sure, prosecutorial reform alone will not end mass incarceration. Our laws have vested prosecutors with vast discretion to bring high (or low) charges and to trigger mandatory minimum or other extreme penalties. Real change cannot happen at the scale it needs to unless our criminal laws and sentencing laws are changed. That, too, is possible at both the state and federal level.

It requires passing legislation that flips the current metrics for evaluating prosecutors, who are too often rewarded for, and judged by indicting and prosecuting more cases, winning more convictions, and garnering longer sentences. Instead, Congress can provide bonus dollars to prosecutors’ offices that reduce crime and incarceration in their districts. This will encourage prosecutors to use prison only when necessary, and to shift practices to a more enlightened and equitable model.

Members of Congress have already introduced a bill that would achieve some of these goals. The Reverse Mass Incarceration Act removes the incentives in the 1994 Crime Bill that drove punitive cultures, and instead would pay states to decrease the number of people behind bars. The legislation authorizes $20 billion in funds over 10 years to states that reduce their prison populations by 7 percent every three years and keep crime stable or have it decrease.

States can similarly take charge of incentivizing local prosecutors to change their practices. Some, like Illinois, have established programs with local jurisdictions, where counties receive funding by reducing the number of people they send back to prison. In Illinois, the program saved $47 million over four years and diverted more than 2,000 nonviolent individuals while cutting recidivism by as much as 20 percent. Local lawmakers can also pass legislation that would charge counties for their share of the prison population—a tactic being employed in Ohio.

Other solutions for lawmakers include passing legislation that would change sentencing laws to eliminate prison outright for lower-level offenses. Policymakers could also slash prison sentences for other crimes. A growing volume of research shows that there is little or no relationship between length of incarceration and recidivism. Recalibrating prison sentences to meet goals of public safety and rehabilitation would net a 40 percent reduction in incarceration, as explained in a 2016 Brennan Center report.

States can also end cash bail, and instead make detention decisions based in-part on an objective analysis of whether a defendant poses a flight risk or a threat to public safety. That assessment, which best practices dictate should be gender and race neutral, can be influenced by an individual’s family ties, circumstances around the offense allegedly committed, and more.

Reform is on its way, as Philadelphia, Texas, Florida, Chicago, and elsewhere show. But there is much more work to be done at both the federal and state level to encourage other prosecutors to follow suit. It’s time to embrace practices that respond to today’s problems, and promote effective, efficient, and just policies.

MapLab: The Cartography of Chaos

Welcome to the latest edition of MapLab. Sign up to receive this newsletter in your inbox here.

Compass points: order and disorder

Once upon a time, in many a glove compartment around Los Angeles County, you’d find a Thomas Guide: 600-plus pages of street maps of the Southern California metropolis. Issued in annual editions from the late 1940s through the 2000s, the quintessential street atlases made L.A. sprawl navigable for fresh arrivals and lifers alike. Locals would memorize the Thomas Guide page numbers and coordinates of their homes and gave directions that way. Though he rarely needed to open it, my own dad kept a curled-edge copy tucked behind his passenger’s seat, like a talisman against wayward turns.

A detail of a 1938 road atlas of Los Angeles and its vicinity, published by the Thomas Brothers. Their street maps were later simply called “The Thomas Guide.” (Thomas Brothers/Rand McNally/Courtesy of David Rumsey and the David Rumsey Map Collection)

Now, these backseat bibles are rarely spotted outside of libraries. Satellite imagery and digital navigation systems have pushed the Thomas Guide (and its draftsmen) out of relevance. If one map has replaced it as an institution, it’s Waze, the turn-by-turn directions app with a billion-dollar algorithm that updates constantly to highlight the quickest and least trafficky routes. It, too, has opened up L.A. streets for new and experienced drivers. But while Thomas Guides gave drivers a feeling of mastery over confounding urban grids, Waze has toppled a sense of order about which streets are for what, and whom. No one likes to be lost, but not everyone wants to be found.

This month, one L.A. city councilmember threatened to sue Google, Waze’s owner, for failing to address the new heavy commuter traffic in his affluent residential district near the gridlocked I-405, citing “dangerous conditions.” Communities across the U.S. and Israel have tried to throw off the app’s congestion-conjuring chaos, too, including Leonia, New Jersey. The small town adjacent to a Manhattan commuter bridge has taken perhaps the most radical approach: banning non-resident drivers during rush hour. Now, as John Surico reported for CityLab last week, the Waze backlash is having a backlash—this time from small business owners, who argue that the economy needs through-traffic. Undoubtedly, there’s more Waze-crazing to come.

A detail of a 1960 Thomas Guide map of East L.A. You can see why you’d need a map. (Thomas Brothers/Rand McNally/Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)

More on trusting the map: Nine accidents caused by following GPS too closely. Waze keeps getting blamed for directing bike couriers through the Lincoln Tunnel. The rise and fall of the Thomas Guide.

Write me: Send me a snapshot of a trusty paper guide, past or present, with a few lines about why you love it.  

Startographers of the month

So, I was unable to name any of the 15 airports from the last MapLab. But readers Tom Woolorton, Fabian Blache IV, Bryon Thurber, and Justin Guan delivered 100 percent correct identifications of Geraldine Sarmiento’s skeletal outlines of the world’s busiest landing pads. Perhaps there was some collusion between the last two guessers: both are aviation planners at the global engineering firm Arup. “We have worked with several of these airports as clients so my familiarity with half of them was through work,” Guan wrote in an email. As for Woolorton, he guessed several from memory and turned to Google Maps to confirm the rest. “I don’t know if we win anything but I spent far too long figuring these out to not send them in,” he wrote. Sorry, Tom, no prize but admiration.

Mappy links

The mango mousse under dispute. (Reuters/Handout)

Dissent will be served: Diplomats at the historic Inter Korean summit on Friday will dine on mango mousse featuring an edible map of an island territory disputed between South Korea and Japan. Japan is displeased. ♦ Attention Wilco fans: an atlas of Chicago’s brutalist gems. ♦ Strong ties to poverty: the geography of health in the United States. ♦ All over the place: where the teacher pay gap is getting wider. ♦ From the department of bathymetry: scientists are on track to map the entire ocean floor by 2030. ♦ Head above water: U.S. Congress is seriously considering modernizing how federal flood maps are created. ♦ Watch this space: The Supreme Court is sharply divided over a partisan gerrymandering case regarding Texas district maps, one of two such cases this term.

Mark your calendars: Brazil will celebrate Dia do Cartógrafo, “a tribute to the professionals responsible for studying and producing geographical maps” on May 6.

I know you’ve got a friend with a vicious Waze complaint. Forward her this email, and sign up for MapLab here.

See you in May!