Monthly Archives: March 2017

Census 2016: The Sunbelt Strikes Back

Just some short thoughts for now, perhaps more soon if time permits.

The Census Bureau released its 2016 county population estimates late last week, and the numbers show a reversion to the trends of the 1990s and early 2000s: Sunbelt suburbs are growing faster than legacy cities. Blame land use policies if you like (I sure will) but those are the facts.

If cities are not growing as fast as once thought, though, it hasn’t been to the benefit of rural areas. Small counties were disproportionately represented among counties that lost population. The table below shows the number of counties gaining or losing population by county size.


Of the 37 counties that had a 3% or greater population loss, 27 had population under 10,000 and 36 had population under 50,000. The only sizeable county to lose 3% or greater was San Juan County, NM, which lost -3.05% of its 2015 population of 118,701 and has lost over 11% of its population since 2010. It is the only county of over 100,000 people to lose anywhere near that much; the next closest was Cambria County, PA, which lost 6%.

Further, of the 456 counties that lost over 1% of their population, 424 had population of 50,000 or less. Only 3 had population over 200,000 (St Louis city, Baltimore city, & Muscogee County GA). Of the 45 counties with population of 1,000,000 or more, only 6 lost population: Cuyahoga OH (Cleveland), Wayne MI (Detroit), Cook IL (Chicago), Suffolk NY (Long Island), Allegheny PA (Pittsburgh), and St Louis MO (St Louis suburbs). Six had population growth over 2% (Mecklenberg NC, Travix TX, Hillsborough FL, Clark NV, Orange FL, and Wake NC).

In short, the census estimates reflect long-standing trends of rapid growth in the Sunbelt and stagnation in the Rust Belt.

It’s a little unfair to compare small counties and very large counties, because it’s easier to have a large percentage swing in a small county. For example, Los Angeles County has over 10 million people, and there are probably some communities of 10,000 therein that shrank. The graph below avoids this problem by showing the distribution of counties gaining and losing population for counties up to 500,000 people. As we can see, the distribution skews towards the negative side for counties with population under 50,000 and toward the positive side for counties with population above 50,000.


For counties with over 1,000,000 people, the fastest growing counties are all in the Sunbelt, dominated by places like NC, FL, TX, and NV. Perhaps the most impressive county was Maricopa AZ (Phoenix) which grew by almost 2% and over 80,000 people. The fastest growing was Wake NC with 2.43%.

In California, the fastest growing big county (population over 250,000) was Placer, in the Sacramento suburbs, with 1.64%. Unlike many counties, growth in Riverside County actually picked up last year, with 35,000 people or 1.48%. Riverside was also the only big county in California to have a large positive contribution from domestic migration. The negative domestic migration from California counties is shocking: more domestic migrants (75,168) left LA County than the two largest domestic migrant gaining counties combined – not coincidentally, Maricopa County with 43,189 and Clark County NV with 27,735.

There will surely be many takes on the meaning of this census data, but the simple take here is that this is just a triumph of people doing what they’re allowed to do. A lot of economic growth in the US is in the Sunbelt, so people are moving there, and they’re moving to suburbs because that’s what you’re allowed to build. As for why growth is in the Sunbelt, that’s a more complicated question. The structural reasons for the decline of rural counties and the continued stagnation of Rust Belt cities are beyond the means of this blog.

However, given California’s high and still-rising cost of housing, our story isn’t very complicated: the economy is pretty good and lots of people want to live here, but we don’t build enough housing to let them do it. High housing costs are hurting California, and the sooner we do something about it, the better.

Driverless Cars & Commute Times

One of many unknowns with driverless cars is what their impact on traffic will be. Boosters have predicted that driverless cars will reduce traffic by reducing the number of vehicles needed to serve travel demand and reducing following distances between cars. Detractors have predicted that these effects will be more than offset by latent demand for travel that will come out of the shadows when it gets easier to travel in a car, by being cheaper or less stressful, which will encourage people to travel more and longer distances.

We may be getting ahead of ourselves since we don’t know when true driverless cars will become available and achieve a large enough market share to have a big difference. However, it is worth considering what we can learn from differences in commuting time by travel mode.

The graph below presents the mean commute time for various travel modes for ten relatively large metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) in the US. The data was compiled by Governing Magazine.


Just about all cities have mean drive alone commute times of 25-30 minutes, with Portland being the low at 24 minutes and DC the high at 32 minutes. Transit commute times are about 1.5 to 1.8 times as long as drive alone commute times, and commuter rail commute times are about 2.0 to 2.5 times as long. Commute times are remarkably consistent across MSAs. Interestingly, Riverside has the longest commuter rail commute time, which reflects its dual role as its own MSA and as LA/OC’s more distant suburbs.

Since many transit riders are captive riders, especially in places like LA and Riverside, perhaps it is best to focus on the comparison between commuter rail and drive alone, since many commuter rail riders are choice riders. The data strongly suggests that people are willing to put up with much longer commutes when they don’t have to drive the vehicle themselves, which would support the idea that people will increase their commute length if they can use driverless cars.

This data, from a 2009 Census report, aligns with that conclusion. Note that carpoolers, who have to drive some of the time but not all the time, are willing to put up with longer commutes than drive alone, but not as long as public transportation.


Driverless cars may be even more enticing than commuter rail, as there’s no inconvenience of having other passengers. On the other hand, unreliability caused by traffic may be a deterrent. The appeal of driverless cars will also be uneven, as certain types of work do not lend themselves very well to being done by oneself in a moving car. In addition, many people will not have the schedule flexibility to increase their commute; for example, if you have kids, you may not be able to or want to leave them in child care for a longer time every day. On the balance, though, it seems likely that if driverless cars become widespread, commuting times will get longer.

The End of Measure S is Just the Beginning

Yesterday, in a low turnout city primary election where the demographics of people that turned out to vote (older, whiter, homeowners) should have been as favorable as possible, voters in the city of Los Angeles soundly rejected Measure S. The NIMBY ballot initiative that would have worsened LA’s housing crisis failed 69-31, a greater than 2 to 1 margin.

It’s important to note how significant this vote was. This is the first time in nearly 50 years that opponents of development in Los Angeles have not gotten their way with planning and development ballot initiatives. Ever since the “environmentalist” candidates were elected to city council around 1970, we have been making it harder to build housing in LA. When they wanted downzoning in the first Westside community plans in the early 70s, they got it. When they wanted to kill the “Centers Plan”, they did. When they wanted to kill development on LA’s commercial boulevards, they passed Prop U in 1986, led by many of the same “environmentalists”. When they wanted to stop the Wilshire subway in its tracks and ban new subway construction, they did it with Prop A in 1998. When they didn’t like the new Hollywood Community Plan that allowed more density around the Metro Red Line, they got it tossed out in court. Last night that changed, and we should appreciate how significant that is.

The end of Measure S is just the beginning, though. It is undeniable that the status quo is not meeting the housing needs of the city or region. It is causing people to pay far too much for shelter. It is not working for many low-income neighborhoods, which suffer decades of disinvestment only to see a sudden rush of interest that causes displacement. While we took a big step towards not making things worse last night, we still have a long way to go to make them better.

Now is the time to capitalize on the positive momentum coming from the passage of Measure M, Measure HHH, and Measure H, and the failure of Measure S. The people of the region have shown their commitment to expanding transit, providing desperately needed housing and services to the homeless, and rejecting an exclusionary view of Los Angeles. When they look back, we look forward.

Let’s take that energy and build a positive view for the future of Los Angeles that we know we can achieve if we work together. There are people all across the region that believe in LA and want to make it a city that is welcoming and provides opportunity to everyone.

If you are interested in helping develop and build that future for LA, I encourage you to check out Abundant Housing LA, because we really want it to be a group that helps advance the housing interests of everyone in the region. If you’re worried about the slow pace of building in LA, we want to hear from you. If you’re worried about displacement, we want to hear from you. If you’re worried about building more affordable units, we want to hear from you. If you’re worried about providing enough housing for everyone in LA in any way, we want to hear from you. Let’s work together and help LA provide opportunity for everyone, and be the city of the future again.

Why Are There No Shovel-Ready Projects?

A recent Bloomberg article raises questions about the ability of the Trump Administration to execute a big infrastructure plan due to a lack of shovel-ready projects. Personally, my doubts are at a higher level: Republicans are riven by division on whether they should back an infrastructure plan at all, and Trump is destroying any chance he had to win Democratic votes by spending all his political capital on racist immigration policies that are hugely unpopular with the Democratic base.

However, perhaps it’s an interesting question why there are few shovel-ready projects. While conventional wisdom holds that environmental review prevents the US from doing big infrastructure projects, other developed nations in Europe and Asia seem to get things done, and one presumes they have established environmental laws as well. Projects can get held up for years by lawsuits on the adequacy of environmental studies, but the federal and state governments can always exempt projects from environmental review if they want to anyway.

Some more realistic causes are as follows:

  • Design takes time. A large project will be in design for over a year before construction can start. I recently worked on a moderately complex project where we were in design for 18 months before construction started, and that was rushed. You can throw more resources at design, but at some point this is to little avail, since the constraints become things like allowing the owner time to review submittals and providing adequate time for coordination between design disciplines. If you add in 6-12 months for the government to pass a funding bill, and 12 months or so for environmental review, it is pretty easy to see how you could not make it to construction before the sun sets on the political administration that came up with the infrastructure plan.
  • An obvious follow-up question is why it should matter if the political administration changes. I’m not sure how this compares with other countries, but different administrations in the US often have very different priorities. A Republican administration may cancel plans for transit projects that have not yet made it very far into construction, such as ARC in New Jersey. A Democratic administration may not be interested in continuing plans to build rural freeways that generate little economic activity. In some cases, such as some FTA funding, you’re not allowed to finish the design until you have funding identified for construction and operations, which means the design won’t be done when the infrastructure funding plan comes along.
  • It’s hard to just complete a design, put it on the shelf, and dust it off when the funding shows up. Depending on how long it’s been, the design may be out of date and no longer comply with current design standards and codes. The existing conditions in the field may have changed, necessitating new survey and redesign. The environmental permitting may expire and require a new analysis.

In other words, the political time frame is often too short to accomplish a large project. The long delay in completing the Bay Bridge East Span replacement, the example cited in the Bloomberg article, was almost entirely due to the political machinations of two mayors (Willie Brown and Jerry Brown) and two governors (Pete Wilson and Arnold Schwarzenegger). Caltrans’ original proposal, derided as a freeway on stilts, could have been completed decades sooner and at lower cost, had anyone cared to build it.

This is actually a strength of the self-help measures passed by voters in California counties, such as LA’s Measure R or Orange County’s Measure M2. These measures frequently set the agenda of projects or types of projects to be delivered, and provide a rough timeline for implementation, on a long enough horizon that there is continuity through election cycles.

All of that said, the United States has fairly well-developed existing infrastructure that needs a lot of upkeep. Routine maintenance work, such as resurfacing roads, rebuilding sidewalks, and replacing water lines, is usually exempt from environmental review and requires minimal design work. I think a lot of people in LA would appreciate a program that focused on resurfacing streets in poor condition and repairing broken sidewalks.

At a national level, it is going to continue to be a struggle to deliver large projects if the planning horizon never extends beyond the next election. But there’s a lot of basic maintenance we could be doing as well – things that are plenty shovel-ready, if you want to build them.