Friday, May 30, 2014

SLC is less than seven hours away from eleven national parks

Just a quick note before the weekend. One of the main benefits (obviously) of living in Salt Lake City is the fact that one is surrounded by amazing outdoor recreation opportunities. This is true both in terms of the canyons that surround SLC, but also in terms of the many national parks just a few hours away. I thought I'd note the driving time (using Google Maps estimates) to each of these parks for quick reference:

So much to see! Even though we're headed into the busier summer season, my wife and I have found that many sections of these parks can be relatively empty even over holiday weekends. Enjoy!

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Lyft and Uber are now operating in SLC and could drastically change local transportation

Lots of new and exciting SLC transportation options have appeared over the last few weeks. First, Lyft, an
The 'staches are now roaming SLC
app-based ride sharing service, launched locally April 19th and appears to be thriving. Second, Uber SLC appears to have officially launched on Tuesday (more below). How Lyft works is that local residents work (part or full time) as Lyft drivers and provide a taxi-like service that's cheaper, faster, and much more convenient than regular taxis. To use it, all you do is download the Lyft app, enter credit card information, and then request a driver. If you live within the I-215 loop, drivers are often close. Last night I saw about 10 cars in the downtown area; here's how things look at the moment:

Lyft typically costs around 30% less than a comparable cab ride. Lyft drivers do go through a background check and the company provides plenty of insurance. Apparently the pricing structure varies by city and time of day; I'm going to do some on-the-ground research on this and post more on this soon.

Here's a code for a free ride (up to $25) for new Lyft users.

Uber, which was founded in 2009 and is now in dozens of cities, just Launched in SLC on May 27th. This company provides a similar car-sharing service to Lyft and is providing 20 rides for free (per customer) through June 9th to celebrate their launch. Here's the coupon code and main SLC page.

These two new transportation options are fabulous for consumers and I'm excited to wrote more about them in the coming weeks. Already, though, traditional taxi companies are complaining and the city may look to further restrict how Lyft and Uber operate locally. In this case, I would urge SLC government to stay out of the way and let consumers decide what works. Much more to come!

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The monthly costs of owning a house around SLC

Recently we looked at what percentage of SLC paychecks are going towards housing (by neighborhood). We saw that people in fancier areas are often over-extended on their houses. Relatedly, I've been fascinated about the trade-off people often make, moving further away from the city for cheaper housing and trading it for a longer commute. I want to see how this works in SLC (and if it's worth it). First, we've noticed that South Jordan is growing and building like crazy. In the post mentioned above, we noticed that those moving out to South Jordan and other neighborhoods further from SLC proper aren't typically spending a smaller percent of their paycheck on housing than those nearer the city center. But I wasn't sure if that was because people living in those areas have smaller paychecks to begin with, or if the housing out in the further-flung reaches of the valley is just as expensive as that in SLC itself. Overall, are people moving further from the city to save money on housing or to be able to buy a bigger house (both because there's more space and cheaper housing per square foot)?

Again, we turn to this data to attempt to answer the question. Here I'll plot average monthly housing cost in and around SLC:

Interestingly, people are typically spending more on housing costs in West Jordan, South Jordan, Herriman, and Draper than they are in Murray, Midvale, Millcreek, and SLC proper. Amazingly, monthly housing costs in the lower Avenues as well as East Millcreek and Canyon Rim are consistently cheaper than are housing costs in South Jordan. This is hard to believe, but appears backed up by SL Tribune data (on house prices by zip code) here. Overall, it appears people are flocking the fringes of the Salt Lake Valley because they desire an enormous house, not because they want to save money.

Note: I conclude that the higher housing costs in South Jordan, West Jordan, etc are mainly due to house size (compared to the rest of the valley) because it doesn't appear that prices are being driven up by a lack of supply in these suburban areas. If anywhere, SLC proper has the constrained supply of housing. I would love house size by neighborhood data if anyone has it.

Also note: if house down payments (as a percentage of house price) vary strongly across the valley, this would change the analysis somewhat, but until we have that data we'd have to guess people are using (typically very small) down payments of roughly similar percentages.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

SLC has direct international flights to where?

Just as sort of a housekeeping note, I wanted to list the direct flights to foreign cities from SLC International. I recently found out the Tokyo direct flight had ended a couple years back and wanted to see what the current situation is at SLC Intl.

Looks like seven international direct flights for now to three countries. A list of all direct flights from SLC International can be found here.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Where are SLC residents most over-extended on their houses? It's where the "rich" live

Despite the fact that society thinks people who live in big houses are rich, one's level of consumption can be so deceiving in terms of accurately describing the person's true financial status to the rest of society. It's so odd that most cultures still use items of conspicuous consumption as some sort of barometer for the individual consumer's financial health. And it's insidious, even today, after the debt-fueled melt down of 2009 left millions of over-extended families, corporations, and even cities up a perilous creek. Certainly the Salt Lake Valley contains its fair share of those flaunting their non-existent wealth by buying the large house, huge truck, or fancy car. But, where does this charade happen the most? Where are people most over-extended on their house? We once again turn to this database for the answer, which brings us a map of housing costs as a percent of household income:

First, the census bureau states that spending more than 30% of one's income on housing costs is perilous to one's finances. This site says families should stay below 28%. But what are people in SLC actually doing? Interestingly, in SLC proper the upper-most parts of the Avenues are the most over-extended on their houses, where such costs are taking more than 45% of families' monthly paychecks. Note that the other largest swath of people buying too much house for their paycheck is in the opposite end of the valley, between Sandy and Draper, up along the mountains. In fact, Draper in its entirety is above 30%. Surprisingly, South Jordan residents also look to be spending a disproportionate amount of their checks on housing (30-40%) compared with the rest of the valley, even though the city's known for rapidly increasing its housing supply. I figured people were moving to South Jordan in droves because it was good for their finances, but that doesn't look to be the case.

Here's SLC proper:

Funnily enough, those most over-extended on their house are those in the Capitol Hill area, highest parts of the Avenues, in Federal Heights, and in the Harvard Yale District, with a couple of other pockets of over-extension south of I-215.

Potential lessons here? In SLC, those living in particularly fancy areas are generally having a harder time paying for their housing than the rest of us. People who spend lots of money on houses don't necessarily have great jobs! Also, people who are moving out to South Jordan, West Jordan, and Draper don't have an easier time paying their mortgage than those who live closer to SLC proper.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

SLC household income by neighborhood

Yesterday, I wrote about housing and transportation spending in SLC using a newly-found dataset. Today I thought I'd put up a map from the same site on household income by neighborhood, as what it shows doesn't fit with my preconceptions.

While the legend is cutoff (for overall compactness), you can extrapolate, or zoom as you wish here. What I hadn't realized before is that the Salt Lake Valley is no longer defined by an east-west income gradient, as seemed to be the case for much of the valley the past couple of decades. Interestingly, all along the I-15 corridor, we find that household income is lowest near I-15, but is significantly higher toward the mountains on either side. Surprisingly, West Valley City and Kearns household incomes are notably higher than those in South Salt Lake or even Millcreek. Seeing how incomes are relatively low near I-15, but housing and transport spending (as % of income) there is also relatively low, those areas must have an amazing combination of either low house prices and/or fantastic transit access. We'll suss this out in future posts.

Ty Burrell loves SLC, and doesn't care who knows it

For those of you not aware, Ty Burrell, of Modern Family fame, lives in SLC much of the year and co-owns Bar-X at 155 E 200 S. In March he and several co-owners opened the Beer Bar just next door. And apparently he really really loves SLC, and is quite effusive about it. This appeared on the Huffington Post yesterday:
Dear Salt Lake City,
Ours has been a relatively brief love, but a strong one nonetheless. I met you in 1999 when I did a play at the Pioneer Theatre Company as a way of spending more time near my girlfriend, now wife, Holly. I loved you immediately for your humility and your unassuming nature.

Over the next 10 years my wife and I travelled back and forth to spend time with family and began to fall deeper in love with your incredibly affordable lifestyle and immediate access to the outdoors. We fell so deeply that we didn't feel like we could be apart anymore and we moved from New York in 2008.

I'm sorry but over the past 6 years we've become stalkers. It's your fault. We didn't realize the incredible impact that having the differing viewpoints of both the religious and secular populations of Utah would have on us. So many cities are actually mono-cultures and Salt Lake has an inherent diversity that's not always apparent. We didn't realize that the earnest, good nature of your citizens would lead to a feeling of wanting to pitch in even more, or that it would lead to us investing in this growing community. Nor did we realize that the same qualities of affordability and proximity to nature that brought us here would also bring thousands of creative folks wanting to raise their families in this ridiculously beautiful place.

I'm fairly certain that you're about to explode onto the national scene in the way that some other smaller cities have in the past 10 years. I will try to keep my jealousies at bay as people move here. I'll make you a deal. If, as you grow, you pay attention with great detail to traffic, air quality, conservation, affordable housing, and social justice, then I will work hard to never get so weirdly possessive that you need to take out a restraining order.

With Love, Ty

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Where in SLC do people spend most of their paychecks on housing and transportation?

When deciding where to live, one of the trade-offs people often make is enduring a longer commute to be able to enjoy the lower house prices available on a city's periphery. Is that a smart trade? An amazing housing and transportation affordability index provides perspective at the neighborhood level, and here's what the Salt Lake Valley looks like, in terms of the percent of one's paycheck spent on housing and transportation:

It's hard to make fair comparisons here, as houses vary in size from area to area. So we can't say those living in the core are getting more housing sq ft and job access per dollar than those on the periphery. Incomes also, of course, vary by area. What we can say, however, is that those living near SLC's CBD and near I-15 do spend less of their paychecks on housing and transportation each month than those living in places like Draper, Herriman, and most of South Jordan (by up to 20%). The particular sweet spots appear to be the east side of SLC's CBD and South Salt Lake. The site also has great maps on local incomes, vehicle miles traveled, population density, car ownership, and transit costs. Good stuff!

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Utah's gas tax in 1927 was double what it is today

Not sure if you've noticed, but The Atlantic has started a new site called CityLab, which has been producing all sorts of interesting articles on issues faced by US cities and states. The article of interest today discusses how many states' gas taxes are at record lows. And, yes, Utah is one of them. I'll keep this brief, but this following chart shows how Utah's gas tax today compares with what it was in 1927.

It turns out Utah's gas tax in 1927 was twice what it is today (!), after adjusting for inflation. And in 1927 we didn't know that air pollution kills ~94,000 people per year in North America, that climate change may threaten our way of life, that living at lower density makes us poorer and less productive, and that driving makes us fat. We could discourage all of these things with a higher gas tax.

In addition, Utah is facing a $15 billion shortfall in its transportation budget over the next 30 years. See page 32 of Utah's Unified Transportation Plan for more. So it appears that a higher gax tax would be extremely helpful in that realm too.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Yes, ~97% of climate scientists are convinced humans are causing climate change

Sadly, there’s still much confusion among the public about climate change and whether we’re the cause of it. However, this isn’t the case among scientists, who now are as certain that humans are responsible for climate change as they are that smoking causes cancer. I thought I'd use this post to highlight several articles which survey the scientific community on the matter of global warming. If you're looking for a more concise and authoritative post, NASA's version is here.

First, here's an article by Naomi Oreskes, which was published in Science, one of the world’s top scientific journals, in 2004:
Policy-makers and the media, particularly in the United States, frequently assert that climate science is highly uncertain. Some have used this as an argument against adopting strong measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. For example, while discussing a major U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report on the risks of climate change, then-EPA administrator Christine Whitman argued, “As [the report] went through review, there was less consensus on the science and conclusions on climate change” (1). Some corporations whose revenues might be adversely affected by controls on carbon dioxide emissions have also alleged major uncertainties in the science (2). Such statements suggest that there might be substantive disagreement in the scientific community about the reality of anthropogenic climate change. This is not the case.
The scientific consensus is clearly expressed in the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Created in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environmental Programme, IPCC's purpose is to evaluate the state of climate science as a basis for informed policy action, primarily on the basis of peer-reviewed and published scientific literature (3). In its most recent assessment, IPCC states unequivocally that the consensus of scientific opinion is that Earth's climate is being affected by human activities: “Human activities … are modifying the concentration of atmospheric constituents … that absorb or scatter radiant energy. … [M]ost of the observed warming over the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations” [p. 21 in (4)].
IPCC is not alone in its conclusions. In recent years, all major scientific bodies in the United States whose members' expertise bears directly on the matter have issued similar statements. For example, the National Academy of Sciences report, Climate Change Science: An Analysis of Some Key Questions, begins: “Greenhouse gases are accumulating in Earth's atmosphere as a result of human activities, causing surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures to rise” [p. 1 in (5)]. The report explicitly asks whether the IPCC assessment is a fair summary of professional scientific thinking, and answers yes: “The IPCC's conclusion that most of the observed warming of the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations accurately reflects the current thinking of the scientific community on this issue” [p. 3 in (5)].
Others agree. The American Meteorological Society (6), the American Geophysical Union (7), and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) all have issued statements in recent years concluding that the evidence for human modification of climate is compelling (8).
The drafting of such reports and statements involves many opportunities for comment, criticism, and revision, and it is not likely that they would diverge greatly from the opinions of the societies' members. Nevertheless, they might downplay legitimate dissenting opinions. That hypothesis was tested by analyzing 928 abstracts, published in refereed scientific journals between 1993 and 2003, and listed in the ISI database with the keywords “climate change” (9).
The 928 papers were divided into six categories: explicit endorsement of the consensus position, evaluation of impacts, mitigation proposals, methods, paleoclimate analysis, and rejection of the consensus position. Of all the papers, 75% fell into the first three categories, either explicitly or implicitly accepting the consensus view; 25% dealt with methods or paleoclimate, taking no position on current anthropogenic climate change. Remarkably, none of the papers disagreed with the consensus position.
Admittedly, authors evaluating impacts, developing methods, or studying paleoclimatic change might believe that current climate change is natural. However, none of these papers argued that point.
Peter Doran and Maggie Zimmerman also surveyed that state of climate science and published an article in EOS, Transactions American Geophysical Union, in 2009. This article invited 10,257 earth scientists to participate in a survey that was composed of the following questions:
1. When compared with pre-1800s levels, do you think that mean global temperatures have generally risen, fallen, or remained relatively constant?
2. Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures?
The authors received 3,146 responses, and found the following:
Results show that overall, 90% of participants answered “risen” to question 1 and 82% answered yes to question 2. In general, as the level of active research and specialization in climate science increases, so does agreement with the two primary questions (Figure 1). In our survey, the most specialized and knowledgeable respondents (with regard to climate change) are those who listed climate science as their area of expertise and who also have published more than 50% of their recent peer-reviewed papers on the subject of climate change (79 individuals in total). Of these specialists, 96.2% (76 of 79) answered “risen” to question 1 and 97.4% (75 of 77) answered yes to question 2.
William Anderegg and colleagues, similarly surveyed the science of climate change, and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in 2010. Here’s the abstract:
Although preliminary estimates from published literature and expert surveys suggest striking agreement among climate scientists on the tenets of anthropogenic climate change (ACC), the American public expresses substantial doubt about both the anthropogenic cause and the level of scientific agreement underpinning ACC. A broad analysis of the climate scientist community itself, the distribution of credibility of dissenting researchers relative to agreeing researchers, and the level of agreement among top climate experts has not been conducted and would inform future ACC discussions. Here, we use an extensive dataset of 1,372 climate researchers and their publication and citation data to show that (i) 97–98% of the climate researchers most actively publishing in the field support the tenets of ACC outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and (ii) the relative climate expertise and scientific prominence of the researchers unconvinced of ACC are substantially below that of the convinced researchers.
Finally, John Cook and colleagues published a paper in 2013 in Environmental Research Letters (ERL). Here’s the abstract:
We analyze the evolution of the scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming (AGW) in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, examining 11 944 climate abstracts from 1991–2011 matching the topics ‘global climate change’ or ‘global warming’. We find that 66.4% of abstracts expressed no position on AGW, 32.6% endorsed AGW, 0.7% rejected AGW and 0.3% were uncertain about the cause of global warming. Among abstracts expressing a position on AGW, 97.1% endorsed the consensus position that humans are causing global warming. In a second phase of this study, we invited authors to rate their own papers. Compared to abstract ratings, a smaller percentage of self-rated papers expressed no position on AGW (35.5%). Among self-rated papers expressing a position on AGW, 97.2% endorsed the consensus. For both abstract ratings and authors’ self-ratings, the percentage of endorsements among papers expressing a position on AGW marginally increased over time. Our analysis indicates that the number of papers rejecting the consensus on AGW is a vanishingly small proportion of the published research.
While we probably can't know precisely what percentage of climate scientists believe humans are to blame for climate change, the 97% number looks reliable, as it's been confirmed by three independent studies. And certainly a consensus among scientists does not mean that the research related to climate change should stop. Far from it. But when ~97% of scientists are convinced of something, perhaps the rest of us should listen?

Note: in 2013 a group of prominent skeptics managed to get a paper published which claims to refute the 97% number found by Cook et al. 2013 (mentioned above). This paper, Legates et al. 2013, instead finds that 0.3% of climate scientists are convinced that humans are warming the planet. While anyone who's spent time around climate scientists knows the 0.3% number is absurd (and should probably just be ignored), a commenter from here best explains how Legates et al. went wrong:
The Cook et al paper rates agreement on a scale going from "explicit AGW greater than 50%"to "explicit AGW less than 50%" of the cause of recent warming. The Legates et al nonsense appears to be derived almost entirely from Monckton's claims that only the most explicit endorsement counts, and that all other studied papers are part of the numerator - utterly absurd, as the Cook et al paper quite clearly stated that 97% of the papers that expressed an opinion agreed with the consensus. And their data supports that conclusion. I would consider that a deliberate misinterpretation of the Cook et al study parameters on Legates et al's part.
For those who want to examine the Cook et al. 2013 data (and get a sense of typical climate research abstracts for themselves), it's right here.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Generous social safety nets aren't the cause of Europe's problems

From time to time you hear people blaming Europe's economic woes on their generous welfare states. I've always wanted to look more closely at the relationship between the two and have finally gotten around to it. Here I've plotted up European unemployment rates by country versus each country's tax level. Tax data (for 2011) is from here and unemployment data (for Nov 2011) is from here.

It seems that the relationship is the opposite of what we'd expect from listening to the cable news economics of the last couple of decades. Northern Europe continues to demonstrate that countries can successfully combine generous social safety nets with robust economies. The countries struggling the most in Europe, interestingly, are those with the lowest tax rates. See here for more. Remember this figure when US politicians warn that by increasing our social safety net we'll head further down the road toward European-style crisis.

Note: for those interested, the adjusted R^2 here is 0.49 and the R code is below (R is amazing, by the way):

unemployment_by_country <- c(8.3, 9.8, 23, 14.1, 5.6, 9.3, 4.9, 7.2, 7.9, 7.4, 3.3, 18.9, 15, 7.6, 4.3) #as of nov 2011, from the Guardian
names <- c("United Kingdom", "France", "Spain", "Portugal", "", "Italy", "Netherlands", "Belgium","", "", "", "Greece", "Ireland", "", "")
taxes_percent_gdp <- c(36.1, 43.9, 31.4, 33.2, 38.7, 42.5, 38.4, 44.1, 47.7, 44.3, 42.5, 32.4, 28.9, 43.4, 42.0) # in 2011, from eurostat
plot(taxes_percent_gdp, unemployment_by_country, main="European unemployment vs tax rate by country",ylab="Unemployment rate (%)",xlab="Taxes as % of GDP",pch=19)

fit <- lm(unemployment_by_country ~ taxes_percent_gdp)
lm(formula = unemployment_by_country ~ taxes_percent_gdp)

#Adjust labels
text(taxes_percent_gdp,unemployment_by_country,labels=names,cex=0.8, pos=1, col="red")
text(44.3,7.4,"Sweden",adj=c(0,-1),cex=0.8, col="red")
text(43.4,7.6,"Finland",adj=c(1.2,.5),cex=0.8, col="red")
text(42.0,4.3,"Austria",adj=c(0,-1),cex=0.8, col="red")
text(42.5,3.3,"Norway",adj=c(-.2,0),cex=0.8, col="red")
text(38.7,5.6,"Germany",adj=c(-.2,0),cex=0.8, col="red")
text(47.7,7.9,"Denmark",adj=c(.7,1),cex=0.8, col="red")

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Amtrak through SLC? Every night east and west

Perhaps you've been down to the intermodal hub lately. If not, you might want to check it out. There are many features, but one of the most interesting things about the hub, and the focus of this post, is the fact that it's home to SLC's only Amtrak station. The corresponding route? One of Amtrak's last remaining cross country jaunts, the California Zephyr, which has been in service since 1983. This 51 hour route runs every day from San Francisco (actually Emeryville) to Chicago and vice versa. Despite the fact that it's scenic, novel, and leisurely, the tickets aren't cheap. It runs $140 for a seat and $663 for a guaranteed bed (what they call a "Superliner Rommette", but in other parts of the world might be called a hard or soft sleeper) on May 28th from here to Chicago (34 hours). From here to San Francisco on the same date, it runs $98 for a seat and $215 for a sleeper (18 hours) which is a veritable steal compared with a sleeper to Chicago .

Every night at 11:30PM the train to San Francisco passes through the SLC Amtrak station and at 3:30AM it passes through heading toward Chicago. When my wife and I were dating and were out late one night, I convinced her we should head over to the station to watch the train stop on its way towards Chicago. She tolerated it, but thought I was crazy. Cross country passenger trains didn't seem a real SLC thing until seeing it person, but if one listens closely around 11:30PM (and I imagine 3:30AM) one can hear the whistle blog before it departs. The Amtrak "building" at the intermodal hub  is a bit of a ramshackle affair and was built in 1999, making them the first tenants of the intermodal hub. It appears a temporary shelter was constructed and the promised permanent structure has never been built. The office only opens for an hour or so before each departure, which makes it difficult to wander down there and get a sense of any SLC train culture.

Fancy California by morning?
SLC Amtrak office: opens at ~10PM

After leaving SLC en route to San Francisco, the train's next stop isn't till Elko, NV. BUT, if you're looking to soak up some of that old-timey feel of the rails in Utah, after passing through SLC towards Chicago, the train also makes stops in Provo (see also here), Helper (see also here), and Green River (see also here). So for those counting, Utah has four cross country passenger train stations.

See here for more on Amtrak at the Intermodal hub, and here for more on the California Zephr. Amtrak has a surprisingly informative guide to the route, which has a bit of a 1960s feel ot it, here.

In terms of history, from 1977-1986 the Union Pacific Depot (now the music venue "the Depot") served as the SLC Amtrak station, after which Amtrak moved to the Denver and Rio Grand Western Depot (otherwise known as the Rio Grand Depot) from 1986-1999, after which Amtrak moved to the Intermodal hub. The Rio Grand Depot today now serves as the home of the Utah State Historical Society, the Rio Gallery, and perhaps a ghost. The under-sung Rio Grande Cafe adjoins the old building.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Is the US one of the most successful countries on earth? Doesn't appear so

First, let me say that, yes, the US is one of the richest countries on earth. While the per-capita comparisons at this link don't account for how many hours we work (which is a lot), it does still show the US as richer than most developed countries (though our middle class is no longer the world's richest). And, of course, the US has many amazing attributes besides its wealth. But, I'm not sure we've been cognizant of important advances happening around the world. Sure, the US is rich, but if that wealth doesn't lead to healthier, longer lives, then perhaps something is amiss?

For example, note the figures in this table:

Notice that adult mortality, or one's chance of dying between the ages of 15-60, is twice as high in the US as it is in Iceland, and notably higher in the US than in every other rich country in our sample. Maternal mortality has been in the news of late, and indeed, it appears that US mothers are seven times more likely to die due to the effects of childbirth than is the case in Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Austria. Separately, and I'm not sure how many people followed this at the time, but remember when Singapore caned a US citizen (yes, caned) for theft and vandalism? Well, interestingly, Singapore has one third the incarceration rate of the US. Weird, right? What's weirder is that the US imprisons people at thirteen times the rate of Japan, the Netherlands, or Iceland. Oh, and children in the US are twice as likely to die before age one than are the children of Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Japan, and Singapore.

Shouldn't US politicians make an issue out of this so we can, like, catch up, or something? If anyone out there is really feeling good about the US right now and has data showing us as being awesome at various things, I'd love to see it. It'd be good for morale.

Source notes:

1. Probability of dying between birth and age 1 per 1000 live births in 2012. Data here.

2. Maternal mortality rate per 100,000 live births in 2013. Data here.

3. Probability of dying between 15 and 60 years of age per 1000 population for 2012. Data here.

4. Life expectancy at birth (in years). Data here.

5. Prisoners per 100,000 population. Data here.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Despite the talk of urbanization, most large cities are becoming less dense (including SLC)

When comparing cities in terms of density, as we've done numerous times here, it's difficult to get an accurate picture of the typical density at which the average person lives in a particular city. Luckily the census bureau has a data set that uses a population weighted density, which helps solve this. Instead of just dividing a city's area by its population (which is the basic method), this alternative metric calculates a weighted average density across the census tracts that make up a city. We could think of it as calculating the population density at which the average person lives, which is handy. See this Richard Florida article for the data itself and further comments. While the average population density of the US in 2010 was 87.4 people/sq mi (using the old metric), the average person lived at a density of 5,369 people/sq mi, which is about the population density of Baltimore. Keep this in mind when you hear people (politicians especially) talking about small towns as being the "real America."

In order to check how this data compares with my preconceptions, I'll compare several notable (and local) Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) by this metric, first sorting by 2010 weighted density (in people/sq mi):

No surprise that NYC and San Francisco are at the top of this new metric, although who would of thought LA and Las Vegas were so dense? I was in these cities a few weeks ago, and they both always seem less dense than SLC. So much for perceptions. I suppose that LA shows one can have high density and still maintain a car culture (see the hilarious Curb Your Enthusiasm for more on LA culture). Also interesting is the fact that Houston and Phoenix are notably more dense than Minneapolis, which prides itself on its public transportation, bike culture, and urban living. Finally, note the surprisingly low density of St George and the fact that it was the one of the fastest growing MSAs in the nation the last several years. While I don't want to get sidetracked, the fact that people are moving to such low density cities in droves may be part of the cause of our lack of median wage growth the last couple of decades.

To see which MSAs are becoming more dense, we'll sort by change in weighted density from 2000 to 2010:

Again, it appears that overall people are moving to lower-density areas, as only five of these 19 MSAs (which house a large chunk of the country's population) became more dense from 2000-2010. Note that despite the talk of urbanization in many large cities today, only Portland, Seattle, and DC increased their average density over this period. Salt Lake City, sadly, did not. Anyone know what's been going on in Chicago since 2000 that's causing it to lose density much faster than any other large city?

Overall, this data is interesting, but hard to square with preconceptions (which means I'll have to rethink things). How is Las Vegas so dense when it seems so flat and spreadout?!

Monday, May 12, 2014

No, transferring federal land to Utah wouldn't help our economy

Utah has been in the news of late because several local politicians want the federal government to cede its vast land holdings in Utah to the state itself. Rep Ken Ivory, one of the biggest proponents of this, has often asserted that the land transfer would bring jobs to the state. Like in this tweet:

Well, would the land transfer bring jobs to the state? If that's indeed the case, we'd expect states with less federally controlled land to be doing better economically. To evaluate this, I’ve made a scatterplot of unemployment by state (data from here) vs percentage of federal land holdings per state (data from here). You can judge whether Rep Ivory’s economic thinking is accurate:

Of course, if there were a strong relationship between these two variables, we'd expect the points to lie along a 45 degree angle. This doesn't happen; instead, the linear regression line is nearly vertical. In addition, the R^2 values of 0.01 and -0.01 show that there is no discernible effect of federally owned land on state unemployment rate. Interestingly, Utah and Nevada, the two states with the two highest percentages or federal land holdings, are nearly opposite of each other in terms of recent economic performance.

Note: there will be a debate on this land transfer issue at SLC's main library on Wednesday at 7PM. It will be between Reps Ivory and Lockhart on one side, and University of Utah professor Dan McCool and former BLM director Pat Shea on the other.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Fancy a liveable city?

Each year the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) publishes its livability index, which ranks cities worldwide by five metrics: stability, infrastructure, education, health care, and culture and environment. Here are the details. The 2013 results are on the right. (Note: the cost of living and median income are not included in the rankings.)

Perhaps instead of vying for the bigger house or fancier car we should be moving to Canada, Australia, Austria, New Zealand, or Finland? These guys dominate the top ten according to the EIU. Recall that Canada has the world's richest middle class these days, and with three cities in the top ten here, looks to be doing pretty well for itself. US cities apparently suffered from poor infrastructure and relatively high crime scores. In addition, many of the world's most successful cities weren't at the top of the list. Here's why:
Global business centres tend to be victims of their own success. The “big city buzz” that they enjoy can overstretch infrastructure and cause higher crime rates. New York, London, Paris and Tokyo are all prestigious hubs with a wealth of recreational activity, but all suffer from higher levels of crime, congestion and public transport problems than would be deemed comfortable. The question is how much wages, the cost of living and personal taste for a location can offset liveability factors. Although global centres fare less well in the ranking than mid-sized cities, for example, they still sit within the highest tier of liveability, so should be considered broadly comparable, especially when compared with the worst-scoring locations.
Interesting! This nicely describes the trade-off between income and overall liveability in the highest density cities. I should mention this trade-off more, as money certainly isn't everything. The Economist Intelligence Unit also held a competition wherein people developed a different set of city metrics, and the index developed by the winner of the competition included a spatial characteristics score (woohooo!) on top of the EIU's normal criteria above. Here's what this entailed:
The aim of this submission is to complement the existing EIU Liveability index with an awareness of cities’ spatial characteristics. In practical terms, this means proportionately reducing the weight of the five categories of Stability, Healthcare, Culture and Environment, Education and Infrastructure to 75% and adding in a sixth category (spatial characteristics) that carries a weight of 25%. This new category seeks to account for spatial aspects of city life: urban form (sprawl, green space), the geographical situation of the city (natural assets, isolation and connectivity), cultural assets and pollution.
These spatial characteristics were evaluated for 70 out of the 140 cities in the Liveability index because of time and resource availability. The selection of these 70 cities was guided by population size and geographical distribution. The importance of these spatial characteristics stems from their inherently democratic quality: all residents can benefit from the natural assets in the city’s vicinity, but all can also suffer from high air pollution. It is because of this indiscriminate effect on all residents that I chose to give spatial characteristics the highest weight of all categories: it is an aspect of city life that can be enjoyed by all and escaped by none.
The 2012 results and how they compare to the EIU Liveability index above are here:

Note that when weighting desirable spatial characteristics, Hong Kong jumps to the #1 spot overall, "although [it] scored relatively poorly for pollution and cultural assets." What was most surprising is the fact that Toronto takes an unexpected dive in this index because of weak scores for isolation and cultural assets (This last item appears to rely solely on the distribution of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, which I don't believe should be the dominant factor here.) I'm excited to survey Toronto's true assets (diverse street food?) when the wife and I are there next month. The one annoying caveat with this spatially adjusted index is the fact that Melbourne, Vancouver, and Vienna weren't calculated, although Sydney and Toronto make decent proxy cities. All in all, this spatially adjusted city metric provides a interesting alternative the EIUs Liveability index for 70 of the world's most important cities.

Note: here's a larger breakdown that includes US cities (click to zoom):

Much more on the EIU Liveability index here (for 2013) and here (for 2012). Details on the spatially adjusted liveability index (for 2012) are here.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

New smart gun can only be fired by its owner, but it's not allowed in America

To begin, I'll turn the mic over to the Economist. We'll put this one in the 'things I don't get about America' file.
This smart, but no smarter please
SINCE January 1st 3,551 people have been killed by gun violence in America, according to the Gun Violence Archive. The victims include Endia Martin, a 14-year-old girl, who was shot in the back in Chicago last week after an argument with a former friend over a boy. The weapon that was used to kill Martin, a .38 special revolver, began as a legal gun, reports the Chicago Tribune, but somehow it made its way to into this adolescent tussle, turning a flare up between young girls into a deadly tragedy.
Wouldn't it be great if there was a way to prevent guns from falling into the wrong hands?
As it happens, guns that work only when they are in the hands of their legal owners do indeed exist. Armatrix, a German company that makes a .22-calibre “smart gun”, had plans recently to begin selling them in America. But then something odd happened: the very people who were trying to bring these guns to market began receiving threats from gun enthusiasts. Belinda Padilla, the head of the American division of Armatix,no longer picks up the phone if she doesn’t recognise the caller, having fielded too many scary calls. Andy Raymond, a gun-dealer in Maryland, decided not to sell the Armatrix guns after receiving death threats. Both Ms Padilla and Mr Raymond are pro-gun; they simply believe there is room in the market for some with safety mechanisms. But aggressive and antagonistic campaigns from gun-lovers have ensured that not a single American gun-dealer will risk selling Armatrix smart guns.
That's... a little troubling. Looking at this awesome Wiki data on gun-related death rates per country (which has a handy sorting feature), we can see how the US stacks up against other developed countries. This is deaths per 100k people per year:

Yup, that's right. Because your forefathers decided to come to the US rather than staying in the UK (for example), you're 41 times as likely to die at the hands of a gun.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Despite the howls of some, the feds should keep all their western land

Open in perpetuity or a future suburb?
You may have heard about a local push to have the federal government relinquish its large land holdings in the west. While I'll detail this group more below, by way of general background, the federal government owns over half of the total land in Nevada, Utah, Idaho, and Oregon. Around the west in general, federal land holdings are much higher than they are in the east, largely because the attitude toward land management changed as these western states gained their statehood in the late 1800s. Think Teddy Roosevelt and the birth of the national park system. But the change in land use policies during this period wasn’t necessarily seen as an environmental movement. Here’s Vox:
"In the 1890s, there was a huge concern about the prospect of a timber famine, and timber was every bit as important to the national economy as fossil fuels are now," [James] McCarthy says. It was the main building material, was critical for railroads and mining, and was used as a primary fuel source in many places. "People said we absolutely have to have a reliable steady supply of timber, and we clearly can't trust private interests to do that, so we'd better have the federal government do it."
As a result, the US government decided around 1891 to start holding onto most of the federal lands it still had. And most of those lands were in the West — because it was the last main region to be settled.
Fast forward to today. Ken Ivory, a Utah legislator, is heading up a movement (via the American Lands Council, or ALC) to push the federal government to cede these large land holdings back the states, where he says they rightly belong. Ivory's website points out the legal path forward and highlights occasions when such transfers have happened in the past. What he fails to do is convincingly explain how this would help the average Utahn. Since I'm not a lawyer, I'll stay away from the legal implications and will instead focus on whether this switch in ownership would actually solve any real problems. Primarily I’ll highlight and comment on the so-called problems this land swap would fix as noted in his Key Points and video.

1. One of the main reasons for this land transfer, according to Ivory’s website, is because the states would do a better job of environmental stewardship than the federal government. In the video, millions of dead animals and forest fires are mentioned as being of grave concern to Ivory's movement. Really? Hmm. Elsewhere on the website, Ivory shows excitement about the extra revenue this state-owned land would bring in via property taxes. The fact that this is mentioned alongside his passion for better environmental stewardship is odd. Either say the state needs the money, or that the land is currently being poorly managed for future generations. Selling off half of it to private interests while better managing the public forests on the half that remains wouldn't make the forests or the squirrels better off in aggregate. The kind of wilderness that most benefits forests and animals is the kind that's vast and left alone.

The fact that Ivory includes “millions of dead animals” and forest fires on his list of reasons (for the transfer) lends a sort of grab-baggy feel to it. Perhaps he realizes there aren't just a few important, convincing arguments for the change?

If Ivory (and local legislators) want to raise more money, they should raise what are called Pigovian taxes to discourage socially harmful behavior, thus killing two birds with one stone.
  1. Raise gas taxes, both to better fund public transit, subsidize state-wide Hive Passes, and maintain roads.
  2. Implement congestion pricingLondon and Singapore, for example, have done this successfully for years. The US loves using the market to make sure there are no bread or ipad shortages, so why not use it to assure there aren't road space shortages?
  3. Tax pollution; even if you don't believe in global warming, air pollution kills 94k people in North America each year. Yes, business would complain, but currently corporate profits are flush and these doesn't appear to be the kind of business Utah wants to attract anyhow (note the focus on the Silicon Slopes area).
  4. Switch from a property tax to a true land tax, which would raise much more money than the property tax and have the added benefit of encouraging people to build on geographically important land (ie, near city centers), rather than letting it sit vacant. Call it a funding/sprawl solver.
By implementing these kinds of policies, Utah would not only reduce sprawl, but also be able to cut its tax rate on personal income and corporate earnings, which would likely get a lot of GOP support and be a more sensible way to bring higher incomes and more economic growth to Utah (compared with vast land swaps).

2) Ivory mentions wanting the land swap in order to bolster small towns across Utah. While, the American idyll of a living on farm or in a small town still remains, few Utahns still live like that. In fact, the population outside of the Wasatch Front and the St George area accounts for only ~15% of Utahns (via Wikipedia calculations). Small towns and remote communities offer lower wages, fewer economic opportunities, and pollute much more per capita than metropolitan areas. While people should certainly be able to live wherever they can rent or buy a house, I'm not sure society should encourage people to move to such low-wage parts of the state. If anything, we should encourage people to move to more productive areas.

3) Somewhat strangely, one of Ivory’s main justifications for this land transfer is because he’s worried about the federal government’s finances. Apparently, selling off much of this private land will make it so Utah can tell the feds to take a hike? (You’ll notice here that currently Utah is a net taker from the federal government.) What people don’t generally realize is the fact that the government isn’t having any sort of debt crisis. First piece of evidence: the yield on a 10 year Treasury Bond is 2.59%. Does that sound like the interest rate you’d charge someone who is a credit risk? See here for more on this.

Overall, Mr Ivory doesn't really come up with good reasons why we should transfer federally owned land into the hands of the Utah government. Some of the problems he’s trying to solve don’t really exist, and the problems he mentions that are actually problems can be solved in much easier ways. The loser in keeping the status quo? Those “millions” of scared animals trying to make a life under federal control on all that empty space in southern Utah.

Note: A few real problems to be solved in this country include the following: 1) stagnating wages for half the population; 2) housing is increasingly unaffordable; 3) even after the ACA, 30 million people won't have health insurance, 4) 5 million people currently don't have health insurance because the GOP politicians in certain states won't expand Medicaid, even though their residents are paying taxes for it 5) our infrastructure isn't being maintained, 6) our immigration policies are insane, 7) ~30,000 people die in traffic accidents each year; 8) global warming isn't going away; 9) tuition expenses are growing like mad; 10) network neutrality is at serious risk; and 11) health care cost growth is still too high.

Also note: I'd love to hear from anyone who has any thoughts on the land swap. This is meant to start a discussion, not end it. My views are subject to change.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

SLC entertainment blog is here to rock your intermountain world

In terms of SLC cultural goings-on, I've recently found a great local entertainment blog called SLCene. It's written by Dan Nailen and Glen Warchol, who've covered local events for the Trib and the DesNews for years. I remember reading Dan's comprehensive coverage of SLC club shows back in the early 2000s, and I'm happy to note his coverage is just as passionate as ever. One of the best features is SLCene Suggests. Here's their write-up for tonight's Kilby Court show featuring Holly Golightly and the Brokeoffs: 
Holly Golightly always had an ear for American roots music, even when the Brit-born singer/songwriter was working solo. She paired up with Texas-born Lawyer Dave a few years back in a musical and personal partnership, and as a result Golightly’s music is even more striking for its sure way with traditional American music, whether she’s delving into blues, R&B, country or straight-up honky-tonk tunes. Their collaboration has been noteworthy not only for the resulting music on albums like the excellent new It’s Her Fault, but for their decision to live in rural Georgia, farming the land between writing, recording and touring. They even recorded the new album right there on the ol’ homestead. In the cozy confines of Kilby Court, expect Golightly and Lawyer Dave to deliver something special. Breezeway and George Nelson open the show.
Just check em out already!

Monday, May 5, 2014

Peer review, etc

Over the weekend I had an interesting discussion, wherein I was accused of acting deceptively in certain posts on this blog. While I've certainly rushed a post here or there, the over-arching policy themes are couched in academic research. To provide a little more heft behind some of the policies I've advocated, I thought I'd share some of the relevant studies.

Higher densities make us productive (and thus raises wages):

High density areas emit less pollution per capita:

Worker productivity increases with city size:

Driving makes us fat more than inactivity makes us fat:

People are moving to the South because that's where housing supply is greatest:

Note: All discussion is welcome! I'm looking to learn here, which I did from the discussion this weekend. After the mentioned chat, I did dial back some of the comments in this post

Friday, May 2, 2014

How does SLC income stack up against other cities?

Quick comparison today of income by city, after the cost of living is accounted for. This figure was made using R (which is amazing) and the data comes from the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Despite what many people think, it appears that many of our larger cities do produce higher incomes for residents, even after the cost of living is considered. Not all though, as LA and Phoenix residents have more moderate incomes, despite their large city size. Besides Houston, it appears that there's a correlation between density and income here, which would make sense. The fact that people are moving in large numbers to cities with cheap housing (think St George and Phoenix) instead of moving to cities with high-incomes may be causing part of nation's economic malaise the past decade or so.

Note: this is personal income per-capita, or the GDP of a particular city divided by its number of residents.

Also note: cities are categorized by MSA. Admittedly, it's hard to easily see how density plays into this figure (hence the strike-through), although having seemingly un-dense St George, SLC, Boise, Ogden, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and LA towards the bottom of the list appears to align with what I've stated re: the effect of density on wages. Scatter-plot to come! In addition, large student populations of Provo and Logan affect their positioning in the above figure. If anyone has real income data by city that's broken down by age, please let me know.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Commuting by bike? It's getting safer, but US (and SLC) still not interested in making strides

Playing around with Google Maps recently I noticed that my commute to work was only about 5-10 minutes longer by bike than by bus. For some reason, I was blown away by that and have started riding home each day (using the bus in the morning). The exercise, convenience, and freedom have really been amazing and I would encourage those with any interest in biking, to check out what their bike commute would entail. (If you haven’t seen it, GMaps has a handy toggle between car, public transit, bike, and walk when looking at a route.)

Naturally, I was curious about the overall numbers on how many people bike to work, how dangerous it is, and how it varies across countries. First, I found this great study, from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which provided this interesting table showing biking deaths over time in the US.

Note that, while there’s been a downward trend the last few years, 618 US cycling deaths occurred in 2010, which was 2% of all traffic fatalities. This gives the US a bicycling death rate of 2 per million people per year (regardless of miles traveled; see Table 4). In terms of deaths per mi (or km) traveled, from 2002-2005 the US experienced 5.8 cycling deaths per 100 million km cycled. That sounds low, right? Here’s a comparison across several rich countries using a useful (and very readable) study from researchers at Rutgers:

Note that by riding a bike one mile in the US you’re 3-5 times more likely to die than if you were riding one mile Europe. As a (new) cyclist, that’s a bit disconcerting. While cycling has become safer in the US in recent years, we don’t seem to be closing the safety gap with other developed countries. I’ll quote the Rutgers study:
Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands have greatly improved cycling safety since 1970. Although levels of cycling have increased in all three countries over the past 35 years, the total number of cycling fatalities has declined by over 70% (5, 12, 17, 18). By comparison, cycling fatalities have fallen by less than 30% in the USA over the same period (2). These trends in cycling safety correspond to overall traffic safety trends. Thus, total traffic fatalities for all modes have also declined much more in Europe than in the USA (19).
Note that the numbers in parentheses are references. Similar to vehicle deaths in general (which we discussed on Tuesday), the US is lagging far behind other developed countries in making our roads safer. Interestingly, the Rutgers study notes that cycling in Europe isn't necessarily safer because helmets are more widely used. In The Netherlands, which has the safest cycling of any country, "less than one percent of adult cyclists wear helmets." So, what are other rich countries doing to make cycling safer? Here's a list:
  • Extensive traffic calming, which includes lower vehicle speed limits, narrower streets, and car-free zones in the city center
  • "Special bike lanes leading up to the intersection, with advance stop lines for cyclists, far ahead of waiting cars
  • Advance green traffic signals for cyclists, and extra green signal phases for cyclists at intersections with heavy cycling volumes
  • Turn restrictions for cars, while all turns allowed for cyclists
  • Highly visible, distinctively colored bike lane crossings at intersections
  • Special cyclist-activated traffic lights
  • Timing traffic lights to provide a “green wave” for cyclists instead of for cars, generally assuming 14-22km/hr bike speed
  • Moving bike pathways a bit further away from their parallel streets when they approach intersections to help avoid collisions with right-turning cars"

And finally, here is a breakdown by trips on bicycle for various age groups and across Germany, Denmark, The Netherlands, and the US:

Even back in 2000-2002 ~25% of all trips in The Netherlands were made on bicycle. It appears that much improvement in Europe has been made since then, as by 2012, 37% of residents of Copenhagen, Denmark were making their daily commute on bikes. This article has that statistic and much more on Copenhagen's focus on cycling. Apparently they're shooting for 50% of commutes on bike by 2015.

Overall, however, a sad picture of cycling safety in the US and the trends aren't great either. Considering the air quality problems in SLC in recent years, one would think lawmakers would be striving to make the roads safer for cyclists, and encouraging more people to take it up. But even Mayor Becker, who's a cyclist himself, hasn't been pushing for the improvements listed above. Recently GREENbike has gotten attention locally, and it is nice, but even it doesn't do much to make bike commutes any safer. What's going on, SLC?

Note: for those who say people can't bike in SLC winters, here's an article on cycling in Minneapolis, which some claim is the #1 bike city in the US and has a large cyclist population year round. Here's a US cycling study, which in terms of commuter cycling rates, shows Portland at 6%, Minneapolis at 4.5%, Seattle at 4.1%, and San Francisco at 3.8%, and Salt Lake City at 3.5%. This study (Figure 11) says cycling comprised only 1% of all commutes in Utah in 2012.