Elections Finance Infrastructure

Both parties claim support for investing in infrastructure. But how will they do it?


» The Republican Party, despite its claims about the importance of infrastructure—and big promises from Donald Trump—pushes a more limited federal role. Democrats, in line with Hillary Clinton, advocate large new investments.

During an election year where trade and terrorism have taken center stage, it’s hardly surprising issues related to transportation have played a limited role in the national discussion about how to move the U.S. forward. Some have noted that urban policy has largely been ignored, despite the fact that many American cities continue to face considerable problems related to public investment, poverty, and economic growth.

Yet the reality is that the Democratic and Republican parties and their respective candidates for the presidency, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, have laid out positions on the future of the nation’s transportation system through party platforms, candidate issue memos, and public statements. The approval of the two parties’ platforms over the past two weeks motivated me to provide a detailed summary of the differences between the platforms.

On issues related to the funding, mass transit, biking, and the environment, the two parties have staked out dramatically different views about how they envision the future of the nation’s transportation system. Democrats are proposing an expansive increase in federal support for transportation investment, with a focus on building access to opportunity, bolstering access to non-automobile modes, reducing the impacts of climate change, and maintaining the role of unions.

Republicans, on the other hand, propose no increase in federal spending (though Mr. Trump may disagree), an elimination of the federal role in funding non-automotive transportation, an emphasis on pollution-spewing modes and energy sources, and a reduction in the role of unions.

A summary of the proposals

Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton Republican Party and Donald Trump
Federal role in transportation Expand to emphasize multimodalism; encourage connections between transportation, cities, climate, and social equity Reduce to only encompass highways (GOP); or fund all types of transportation (Trump)
Funding for transportation Roughly double overall spending using business tax reform, create infrastructure bank Do not adjust funding to inflation (GOP); or expand massively through unknown means (Trump)
Transit and intercity rail Increase support to build social equity and combat climate change Eliminate federal role (GOP); or improve (Trump)
Non-motorized modes Improve funding for biking and walking projects Eliminate federal role
Climate change Orient transportation investments toward responding to climate change Do nothing to address climate change; invest in coal
Project management Support union requirements Eliminate union requirements

Here are the resources for your own evaluation:

Before I delve into the details of the differences between the two parties’ policy proposals, it is vital to emphasize that party platforms and the positions of presidential candidates hardly guarantee the enactment of policy; there is a big difference between agreeing on a proposal and actually legislating change. In many ways, the Democratic and Republican platforms in 2016 are quite similar to those in 2012, and much of the suggestions then have not even been discussed in the halls of Congress, let alone been implemented. For change to occur, presidents need support from members of the House and Senate, who may come from other the other party or who may simply not care about the same issues.

Nevertheless, understanding how the parties and their candidates differ is essential to understanding the dynamics of this election and can help us evaluate how to vote this fall.

The role of the federal government

The Republican platform notes almost at the start of the document that “Our country’s investments in transportation and other public construction have traditionally been non-partisan. Everyone agrees on the need for clean water and safe roads, rail, bridges, ports, and airports.”

This sentiment—that transportation is a bipartisan or apolitical issue—is often repeated by proponents of investment in the nation’s infrastructure as an argument for making it a priority and getting representatives to work together across the aisle. Yet the divergence in goals for the nation’s transportation programs between the Democratic and Republican parties this year show that transportation is quite a political issue, one that is subject to debate and which elicits quite different policy prescriptions.

That’s a good thing! It means that our electoral process can influence how the future of our transportation system looks, and that questions about what transportation is right are subject to public debate, not bureaucratic, expert-driven, and hidden policy making.

The difference between how Democrats and Republicans think about transportation is a reflection of the two parties’ respective views of the federal government’s role.

Republicans use their platform to express a limited view of Washington’s contribution to the infrastructure system, and define the government’s role strictly. “We propose to remove from the Highway Trust Fund programs that should not be the business of the federal government,” the platform states. For Republicans, this has a specific meaning: The federal government should only spend transportation money on automobile commuters (I document the specifics below).

Indeed, the Republican mentality on transportation investment can perhaps best be summarized in its assessment of President Obama’s policies:

“The current Administration has a different approach. It subordinates civil engineering to social engineering as it pursues an exclusively urban vision of dense housing and government transit. Its ill-named Livability Initiative is meant to ‘coerce people out of their cars.'”

This argument, perhaps, is founded on the idea that highways travel between states and that the road network, especially the Interstate one (originally funded by Republican President Dwight Eisenhower), goes between states and therefore needs a federal role. Anything other than that is removed from discussion.

Democrats, on the other hand, have a far broader view of how the federal government should act. The party platform notes that “We need major federal investments to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure and put millions of Americans back to work… we will dramatically increase federal infrastructure funding for our cities—making significant new investments in roads and bridges, public transit…” Ms. Clinton’s policy on transit is diametrically opposed to that of the Republicans; her campaign’s mentality can be summarized in the following statement:

“This underinvestment is particularly costly for many low-income communities and communities of color, as a dearth of reliable and efficient public transportation options often creates a huge barrier to Americans attempting to build better lives. Clinton will prioritize and increase investments in public transit to connect Americans to jobs, spur economic growth, and improve quality of life in our communities…”

The Democratic platform explicitly connects the need to rebuild and expand the nation’s multimodal transportation system as an effort not only to improve mobility, but also to add jobs, “expand the middle class,” address “the climate emergency,” and improve quality of life in the nation’s cities and suburbs. In other words, for Democrats, the federal role should not only grow in size, but also in breadth, encompassing the role transportation plays in realms of life that are affected by transportation, beyond transportation infrastructure investment itself.


The Democratic Party’s position on funding the national transportation system is easier to explain than the Republican one because Ms. Clinton and her party appear to be largely on the same page. The party’s platform, as noted above, suggests an expanded federal and more federal funding, and so does Ms. Clinton. In fact, her policy prescription is a $275 billion boost in funding over five years, of which $250 billion would go directly to public infrastructure investment. This program is similar to the funding proposals President Obama has put forward over the past eight years and it would roughly double funding allocations for transportation in the U.S. Like previous Obama Administration proposals, the plan would be fully funded through business tax reform, not (historically more typical) user fees such as an increase in the gas tax. I am not qualified to judge whether this funding proposal is realistic or not.

Both the party platform and Ms. Clinton would reauthorize the Build American Bond program and the platform notes that the party would “continue to support the interest tax exemption on municipal bonds,” both of which would allow local governments to fund more transportation investment at the local level.

Ms. Clinton also emphasizes potential expansion of the TIGER grant and TIFIA loan programs, which have been boons for cities across the country investing in local projects from the Cincinnati Streetcar to the Chicago Riverwalk. In addition, she points to a potentially revolutionary change by suggesting the “launch [of] a pilot program to explore new ways of getting formula funding, including formula highway funds, directly into the hands of local governments.” This would allow cities and counties to receive their transportation funding allocations from Washington without getting the funds passed through from the states first.

The Republican platform essentially takes the opposite tack. The document notes that “with most of the states increasing their own funding for transportation, we oppose a further increase in the federal gas tax.” While the platform does recognize the importance of infrastructure, it suggests that the federal government should not be paying for any more of it, rather focusing on “remov[ing] legal roadblocks to public-private partnership agreements” to “expand the carrying capacity of roads and bridges.”

Mr. Trump has expressed a very different view of the federal role on transportation infrastructure investment. During a debate, he noted that the U.S. should have spent the money it used on wars on infrastructure; “if we could’ve spent that $4 trillion in the United States to fix our roads, our bridges and all of the other problems… we would’ve been a lot better off.” According to an article by Eric Levitz in New York, Trump has described a “trillion-dollar rebuilding plan… one of the biggest projects this country has ever undertaken.” He has spoken positively of the New Deal, which was a vast federal program that runs contrary to Republican orthodoxy.

Unlike Ms. Clinton, though, Mr. Trump has provided no details on his infrastructure funding plans. He has provided no information on exactly how much funding he would actually provide, how that money would be allocated, and how the money would be raised. It is difficult to take the ideas he has noted in speeches seriously, particularly since his colleagues in the House and Senate would be working off the party’s anti-federal-investment platform.

Public transportation and intercity rail

Mr. Trump has similarly articulated views contrary to the rest of his party with respect to transit and intercity rail. He has expressed excitement by the speed of Chinese high-speed trains, while American ones “go chug… chug… chug,” according to him. And he has noted that “we have to spend money on mass transit… we have to spend a lot of money.”

The Republican platform, on the other hand, argues strongly against funding transit, noting that “we propose to phase out the federal transit program.” The argument is that “mass transit [is] an inherently local affair that serves only a small portion of the population, concentrated in six big cities.” This is an exaggeration (the top ten transit cities account for 47 percent of U.S. transit commuters), but it is worth noting that Republicans have in recent years received few votes in cities, which are dominates by Democratic voters, which provides one explanation for their reluctance to invest in transit.

Intercity rail is similarly held in contempt; the platform notes that taxpayers “must subsidize every [Amtrak] ticket” and that “we reaffirm our intention to end federal support for boondoggles like California’s high-speed train to nowhere.” The Republican policy is to “allow private ventures to provide passenger service in the northeast corridor” (which is the one place where Amtrak is profitable). The platform does not explicitly suggest defunding the public rail agency, however.

Ms. Clinton’s campaign, on the other hand, suggests “buil[ding] a faster, safer, and higher-capacity passenger rail system… to meet rapidly growing demand and build a more mobile America.” While in Florida, she affirmed her support for that state’s canceled project; “we’re going to do more to fight climate change by getting more cars off the road and more passengers into high-speed rail.”

She has also noted significant support for transit. Her campaign notes that “Hillary will increase investments in public transit to connect Americans to jobs, spur economic growth, and improve quality of life in our communities.” She has made no such commitment to investing in highways or roadway infrastructure.

Non-motorized modes

Rarely discussed and even more rarely funded are non-motorized transportation modes like biking and walking, which nonetheless could play a growing role in the national transportation system if political actors made an effort to emphasize them in planning and funding. Between 20 and 40 percent of all trips in European countries are conducted by cycle or by foot, and this is a model a federal transportation policy could emulate if the political conditions were right.

In the Republican Party platform, however, these modes are dismissed as outside of the federal purpose. The document recommends that “bike-share programs, sidewalks, recreational trails, landscaping…” be no longer funded through the federal transportation program. The document notes that “these worthwhile enterprises should be funded through other sources,” which, based on the platform’s overall tone, suggests that the states should take up the cause.

Ms. Clinton’s campaign policy presents an entirely different message, noting that “she will also support bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure—reducing carbon emissions, improving public health and safety, and further providing Americans with affordable transportation options.” Given Ms. Clinton’s overall campaign message supporting a continuation of Barack Obama’s presidency, it seems likely that this could come in the form of TIGER grants and an emphasis on multimodalism in other grants.

Climate change

Transportation accounts for about 20 percent of world carbon emissions from fuel, and while the U.S. has made substantial progress over the past few decades in improving the efficiency of household appliances, electronics, lighting, and power plants, the transportation industry continues to be a major polluter. The Obama Administration has required significant increases in automobile fuel economy, which is an important step, but more action is needed if the U.S. is to reach the goals it agreed to as part of last year’s Paris agreement.

The Democratic platform integrates climate change as an essential issue (the “climate challenge,” as the document calls it) throughout, and the language is particularly strong in the sections related to transportation. The party notes “we will protect communities from the impact of climate change and help them to mitigate its effects by investing in green and resilient infrastructure… We will transform American transportation by reducing oil consumption through cleaner fuels, vehicle electrification increasing the fuel efficiency of cars, boilers, ships, and trucks. We will make new investments in public transportation and build bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure across our urban and suburban areas.” The goal is to “reduc[e] greenhouse gas emissions more than 80 percent below 2005 levels by 2050.”

While the Republican Party has been resistant to acknowledge the existence of climate change at all in recent years, this year’s platform strikes a somewhat softened tone, nothing that “climate change is far from this nation’s most pressing national security issue.” While seemingly recognizing that global temperatures are rising, the platform suggests that the answer is to do nothing about it; there is no mention of the role of transportation in increasing pollution. In addition, the platform seems to encourage the further use of polluting sources for powering the increasingly electrified transportation system, noting that “the Democratic Party does not understand that coal is an abundant, clean, affordable, reliable domestic energy resource.”

Project management

Both Ms. Clinton’s policy language and the Republican platform suggest they plan to streamline permitting to reduce transportation construction costs. The Republicans specifically note that they would “reform provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act.” Neither has been particularly specific on those reforms, however.

The Republicans, who rarely sympathize with organized labor, emphasize a “repeal of the Davis-Bacon law,” which requires federally supported projects to pay workers “prevailing wages,” that are often quite a bit higher than the wages paid to non-union workers. Democrats, on the other hand, “support high labor standards… and the right to form or join a union.”

One item of note is the “Buy America” rule that most federal transportation projects include and which, in essence, requires that most components of a construction project be made in America, and which, in some cases, increases costs and may reduce quality. During his speech in support of Mr. Trump at the Republican National Convention, New Jersey Governor and Trump campaign supporter Chris Christie criticized Ms. Clinton for not supporting Buy America. It is true that Ms. Clinton and President Obama did, in fact, oppose a Buy America provision, but it is also true that, confusingly, Mr. Christie himself vetoed legislation related to Buy America. Even so, both parties have supported Buy America in the past and are likely to do so into the future.

How about the other parties?

Recent polls suggest that the candidates of the Democratic and Republican parties would collect more than 80 percent of the vote if the election were held today, and no third party has ever won a U.S. presidential election. Nevertheless, I would be remiss to ignore the Green and Libertarian parties, whose candidates could play an important role in the 2016 election.

The rather short Libertarian Party’s platform, approved in May, says nothing about transportation directly. The party “call[s] for the repeal of…all federal programs and services not required under the U.S. Constitution” and states that “governments should not incur debt.” Each of these clauses suggest that a Libertarian government would push for the elimination of all but “post roads” (which are included in the Constitution’s Article I, Section 8). Based on this, the Libertarian Party led by presidential candidate Gary Johnson would not support federal loan programs such as TIFIA or federal support for mass transit.

The Green Party platform takes a significant stand in favor of investment in mass transit and other “ecologically sound forms of transportation that minimize pollution and maximize efficiency.” The Green Party, led by presidential candidate Jill Stein, would also “place a moratorium on highway widening,” “eliminat[e] free parking,” and “make streets, neighborhoods and commercial districts more pedestrian friendly.”

Photo at top: From Flickr user Colleen P (cc).

General Urbanism

Reorienting our discussion of city growth

los angeles

» Over the decades, cities change size, but they gain and lose population in varying ways: Some in-town, some on greenfield land. How does that impact our understanding of population change?

Every few months, the U.S. Census releases new data on population change, chronicling the rise and fall of America’s cities, counties, and regions as they grow and shrink. The data are fascinating, bringing us useful insights about migration flows and economic shifts. They also point to fundamental changes in the places Americans live: Houston over Chicago, Phoenix over Philadelphia, and so on. And they produce breathless news reports that emphasize that the fastest-growing places are 15 cities you’ve never heard of.

Yet as data are released and evaluated, the trends as described by the levels of information presented by the Census often fail to directly represent underlying facts about how cities are changing–or they at least do not do so adequately. Comparing the changes in population size in the Birmingham and Buffalo regions, for example, explains very little about the health of their respective center cities. Comparing how the cities of Houston and New York have grown overall tells us little about how their in-town neighborhoods have held up over time.

This post delves into the question of how to measure population growth in urban environments by examining frequently used measures of demographic change and comparing them to alternatives. It is geared toward a discussion of demography rather than transportation, but its implications are important for how we think about cities and their component parts, including transportation. Indeed, as I’ll delve into in this article, the question of what cities are growing and what cities aren’t is at the core of some of the most pressing debates in today’s urban planning–so understanding how a place’s population change is occurring is essential.

Levels of data reporting

The U.S. Census collects data about people, either as a full sample (on decennial years) or using sample-based estimates (through the American Community Survey). These data are aggregated by the Bureau to different geographical levels. Depending on the sample used and the year collected, they are aggregated to the block, block group, tract, place (city), county, metropolitan statistical area (region), and other geographies, which are then used by analysts to make conclusions about the way in which the country’s population is changing.

The typical way for demographers to make comparisons between centers of population is to use regional (MSA) data and to track their changes, as MSAs provide a broad view of a place’s demographics and offer insight into how that place is evolving, regardless of political boundaries. The justification for this approach is based on the fact that boundaries in different places work differently.

For example, the city of Philadelphia is the major center city of its region (and jobs center), and it happens to share borders with Philadelphia County, the major county in the region. On the other hand, while Boston is the largest city in its region, the city of Cambridge next door has a large share of the region’s jobs and many of its dense, urban neighborhoods. Meanwhile, while Boston is in Suffolk County, there are other municipalities also in Suffolk County, and Cambridge is not in Suffolk County. As a result, comparing trends in Philadelphia with Boston as cities or Philadelphia with Suffolk as counties with one another at the national level could result in inappropriate conclusions.

Yet there are significant tradeoffs in using a regional level of analysis, as well. Indeed, every level of analysis has advantages and disadvantages, as summarized by the following table.

Level Advantages Disadvantages
Region (MSA)
  • Represents broader economic and commuting geography.
  • Does not require abiding by “arbitrary” political boundaries.
  • Allows reasonable region-to-region comparisons.
  • Fails to account for differences in politics between jurisdictions, which may influence growth. MSAs are not political entities.
  • Masks issues occurring at the local level and fails to compare suburb to suburb or inner city to inner city.
  • Usually has fixed boundaries.
  • Counties at the center of a metro area often represent the “inner city” dynamics of a place.
  • Counties typically have minimal political power compared to states and cities.
  • Counties are rarely “understandable” for lay people.
  • A county in some cases can be regional in scope (Bexar, TX) or just be a part of a city (New York, NY).
City (“place”)
  • Cities are the base level of local jurisdiction most people understand, so they are relatable.
  • Cities often have strong political environments that likely influence growth significantly.
  • Boundaries change over time, especially in Sunbelt cities with annexation powers.
  • City trends do not necessarily represent the region as a whole, and suburbs are usually cities in their own right, confusing matters.
Tract, block group, block
  • Represent local-level trends most effectively.
  • Do not represent broader trends.
  • May not accurately represent “neighborhoods” because of arbitrary boundaries.

How, then, can we compare cities across the country with one another? If no Census geography is problem-free, are cross-regional comparisons useless?

The answer is to first determine what it is, exactly, that we are trying to ask. If the question is, for example, which areas of the country are growing most quickly, looking at regional demographics make sense (rather than, say, emphasizing large percentage growth in tiny cities). If the question is whether different political approaches are affecting growth differently, then examining population in cities may be effective.

But if the question is something more complicated, such as how similar neighborhoods in different places around the country are acting, these Census geographies often cease to be relevant. This is particularly important for understanding transportation trends, since the way people move around is often directly related to the physical characteristics of the places people live and work. But cities or regions as a whole rarely respond to this issue because cities are often too big and inadequately uniform.

Components of urban population change

More than just pondering the rather simple (but important!) question of what metropolitan regions are growing or declining most quickly, I wanted to get a better sense of how specific parts of regions changed over time. I wanted to be able to answer questions more relevant to urban transportation patterns, like how downtowns in various cities grow or shrink over time. Downtowns are almost uniformly the places in urban regions with the highest transit, walking, and biking mode shares; their health is indicative of whether a region is moving in the right direction on that front. Similarly, how much are already-developed areas of cities changing over time? This is particularly relevant for understanding the pace of infill development, to determine whether cities are adapting to become denser places, or whether they are focusing on suburban growth instead.

To conduct this analysis, I moved beyond the standard Census geographies and to create more appropriate and nationally comparable methods. Taking as a base the 100 largest U.S. cities in 1960 (many of which, though not all of which, are the same as today’s 100 largest cities), I compared changes in not only (a) the overall population within city boundaries, but also (b) the areas of those cities that were already built up in 1960 (with a density of at least 4,000 people per square mile*), and (c) the areas within 1.5 and 3 miles of city hall, irrespective of whether those areas are within the relevant city or not.

The following four maps illustrate how these geographies look for four representative cities–Las Vegas, Indianapolis, Houston, and New York City. The cities have changed dramatically between 1960 and 2014. Las Vegas, Indianapolis, and Houston increased the area within their city boundaries dramatically through annexation or, in the case of Indianapolis, a merger with the surrounding county. New York City, on the other hand, has the same boundaries, with the exception of some landfill such as at Battery Park City.

The areas that were built up in 1960 also differ considerably between the cities. Whereas most of 1960 Indianapolis had neighborhoods of densities of more than 4,000 people per square mile, less than half of Las Vegas did and Houston’s density was arrayed along corridors emanating from downtown. Finally, while the areas within 3 miles of Houston city hall are entirely within the city, those within 3 miles of Las Vegas and New York city halls include suburban jurisdictions (including parts of New Jersey, in the case of New York City).

las_vegas indianapolis
houston new_york

When examining just a comparison between changes in population in the city as a whole and those in the neighborhoods that were already built up in 1960, some remarkable trends become apparent.

As the following interactive graph shows (mouse over the graph to get more information; not all cities are shown in the X-axis), very few cities saw significant overall growth between 1960 and 2014 in neighborhoods that were already built up. Houston and San Antonio, which each gained hundreds of thousands of people overall during that period, also each lost more than 100,000 people in their already-built up areas. So did Indianapolis, Columbus, Louisville, and Memphis. What’s surprising is that these are cities often acclaimed for their dramatic growth over the past few decades. Yet their growth has been premised largely on annexation–suburbanization–even as their already-built up cores have declined.

In fact, the average of the 100 largest cities grew by 48 percent overall. Yet the average city also lost 28 percent of its residents within its neighborhoods that were built up in 1960.

Some cities did expand through infill quite dramatically, and Los Angeles is a true outlier on this front, gaining almost 1,000,000 people in areas that were already at least partially built up. Other coastal cities had similar but less dramatic trends, like San Diego, San Jose, Long Beach, Miami, San Francisco, Seattle, Arlington (VA) and Oakland. San Francisco is often singled out as a place where growth is not moving fast enough, yet this chart illustrates that the city is at least as willing to accept infill growth as most others.

Of course, change from 1960 is just one criterion to measure change in urban environment. The following graph illustrates how the built-up neighborhoods in 1960 fared over the next few decades. In some cases, they rebounded from significant declines in the 60s and 70s; in others, their populations have continued to fall. (Note: this paragraph and the following graph added in a post-publishing update.)

Looking at areas within 1.5 and 3 miles of city halls produces equally interesting results. While these areas often overlap with the areas that were built up in 1960, they do not match directly as many downtowns had few residents in 1960 (look at the map of downtown Manhattan above, for example), and they often include communities outside of the city itself.

When looking at these neighborhoods, as shown in the following chart, the overall trend is negative: The preponderance of U.S. cities has lost a significant number of people within 1.5 miles of city hall and between 1.5 and 3 miles of city hall, with Philadelphia, Baltimore, New Orleans, and St. Louis leading the way.

There are some clear exceptions, however: San Jose, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Miami, Long Beach, Honolulu, Arlington, and Austin each grew dramatically within these core areas. New York City and Chicago grew dramatically (in fact, more than any other cities) very close to their city halls–but they also lost a significant number of people between 1.5 miles and 3 miles of downtown.

It is worth pointing out that these trends have changed over time and that choosing a starting point in 1960 was an arbitrary choice based on the availability of Census tract-level data for that year.

As the following graph illustrates, the population of the neighborhoods within 1.5 miles of city hall in the 100 largest cities has changed dramatically over time, and while the change from 1960 to 2014 is a key indicator, it is not all meaningful. Indeed, it is interesting to point out that of the areas within 1.5 miles of city hall of the 100 largest cities, only 5 grew between 1960 and 1970, but 6 grew between 1970 and 1980, 35 between 1980 and 1990, 51 between 1990 and 2000, and 53 between 2000 and 2014. In other words, while the central areas of most large cities are still less populated than they were in 1960, many have recovered a significant share of their population in the intervening years.

Diverging paths to growth

Of the 15 largest U.S. cities in 2014, 13 grew between 1960 and 2014. Yet of those 15, only 7 grew in the areas within 1.5 miles of city hall, and only 5 grew in their respective neighborhoods that were already built up in 1960. Even New York City, whose growth has been outpaced by just a few cities, has increased in population only in areas that were underdeveloped before from the perspective of residential occupancy, such as on Staten Island, in the financial district, and on land that was reclaimed from the rivers.

Los Angeles is an outlier, seeing stellar growth both overall and through infill development during this period.


Seen alternatively, examine the following chart illustrating how the 100 largest cities in 1960 have changed over time when separated by region (by chance, 1960’s 100 largest cities are roughly evenly distributed between the Midwest, Northeast, South, and West).

What’s intriguing is that though large cities in the South and West grew spectacularly over this period (the median city grew by more than 50 percent overall even as the median cities in the Midwest and Northeast lost people during that period), their infill development–particularly in the South–stalled out. Indeed, the median city in the South, much as in the Midwest, saw its 1960 developed areas decline in population by more than 40 percent; the median city in those two regions also experienced a decline in population in the 1.5 miles closest to city hall of more than 50 percent.

From the perspective of these alternative measurements, cities in the Northeast actually appear closer in trends to those in the West than those in the Midwest and South.


Implications for discussing population data

The U.S. has gained more than 140 million people since 1960, and the growth of its largest cities has at least to some degree corresponded to that; the total population of the 100 largest cities in 1960 grew from 47.5 million then to 57.4 million in 2014. Yet this growth has come largely through annexation and not through infill development or construction downtown, as I’ve noted above. This gives some clue as to why the country’s residents continue to rely on personal automobiles to get around. Overall, this paints a worrying picture about the renaissance that many cities appear to be going through; is it simply a blip on the overall continued suburbanization of the country?

Yet by evaluating growth from a different perspective using the indicators I presented above (surely there are other measures that would also be helpful) suggests that we need a more nuanced look at population growth. It is simultaneously true that Chicago lost the country’s second-largest number of inhabitants between 1960 and 2014 and that the same city gained the second-largest number of inhabitants living within 1.5 miles of city hall. It is simultaneously true that San Antonio gained almost 800,000 people in the city as a whole even as it lost more than 100,000 people in the areas that were already developed in 1960.

nominal percent

Why take these alternative measures of city growth so seriously? They should help us question whether the cities that grew fastest from 1960 to 2014 were Las Vegas, San Jose, and Austin or, alternatively, Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Miami or perhaps New York City, Chicago, and Honolulu. Each tells a different but useful tale about demographic change.

These measures might help us to understand, for example, how it is possible for half-vacant neighborhoods to exist just blocks from central Houston, which is otherwise booming. Or it may help us to understand why that city’s transit ridership has increased by just 5 percent since 1996 even though the city has grown by more than 25 percent since then. And they might help us get a better idea of what cities are truly regenerating their inner-city neighborhoods versus those that are simply gobbling up suburban growth to feed into their growing population counts.

Much of the rhetoric in the urban planning discourse over the past few years has focused on the lack of adequate housing construction in many of our cities’ most-desired communities. This is, no doubt, one of the most pressing issues facing places where supply has not kept up with demand and, as a result, rents have risen out of control.

Cities like San Francisco, notably, are frequently cited for inappropriately preventing growth, whereas places like Houston have been lauded for their unbelievable growth. Yet the data presented above should make us question this argument, or at least make us evaluate whether it conclusions correspond to actual demographic change. How is it that “growing” Houston lost almost 120,000 people in its neighborhoods that were already developed in 1960, while “growth-inhibiting” San Francisco gained more than 70,000 in its similar communities? Context matters.

* I used this density measure because it approximates mid-level suburban density levels.

Image at top: Construction in Los Angeles, from Flickr user fliegender (cc)