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Thursday data: digging into the numbers and the market

Two recent studies have me digging into data on the market for cities and urban life, though both are unrelated. One is the recently-released census data, and the second is a worldwide survey on the sharing economy.

As I noted last week, the Census Bureau released some new numbers on 2013 population. As Pete Saunders noted, the numbers are complicated by the fact that some large cities have a lot of car-oriented development in their city limits, and quite a few suburbs are very walkable places. So, a clean city/suburb distinction is tricky, as is a pre-WWII/post-WWII. William H. Frey has this take on the numbers:

Still, the new numbers for 2012-13, suggest a closing of the city-suburb growth gap with the small downtick in city growth and an even tinier suburban growth uptick. This modest suburban growth rise is reinforced by a separate updated analysis of exurban counties that showed their population growth rise from a low 0.4 percent in 2011-2012 to 0.6 percent in 2012-2013. This is still well below the exurban growth rates of around 2 percent during the high suburbanization years in the middle of last decade.

So where are cities headed for the rest of the decade? This initial city growth upsurge could well be attributable to recession’s aftermath and the suburban housing market slowdown. If that were the case, then the  newly reported city growth slowdown and modest exurban gains could  signal that past suburban growth patterns are re-emerging.

Yet city growth levels remain strong by the standards of recent history. Moreover, the cities that are growing most rapidly are located in areas with economies and amenities that are attractive to millennials, graduates and young professionals, who make up a growing portion of potential movers. So while it is too soon to anoint this the “decade of the city,” the persistence of big city growth is hard to ignore.

Andy Kiersz strikes a contrary note:

Americans still love the suburbs, and are still moving there from big cities.

According to the Census Bureau's most recent release on inter-county migration shows that in some of the nation's largest cities, the trend is to move out to far-flung suburbs. The Census keeps track of population flows between different counties by using data from the 2007-2011 American Community Survey.

Look, if the question is, has the move back to the cities been exaggerated? Of course it has. Journalists love a story, and it's a great story. But it also has the benefit of some truth to it. Yes, many, many people still love the suburbs and will continue to do so. We're in a transitional era, and I fully expect it to be another couple of decades before the 20th century car culture truly recedes. After all, it's been in the makings for 100 years.

But Kiersz and Wendell Cox are being disingenuous in their analysis. The new numbers are in fact very positive for cities. The percentages matter more than raw numbers, and the percentages are very encouraging. It's a sea change from the 1980's and 90's. Population has stabilized or returned in nearly all cities, money has returned, and cities are much safer and cleaner. This is in large part due to understanding that cities function best as havens for people and walking, not speeding cars and parking. As those lessons continue to be reinforced, we'll see more and more positive numbers for cities. The market for urban living is certainly not 100% of the population, but it's far, far more than what is apparent in today's built world.

Moving on...

Nielsen Newswire released a global study of the sharing economy. Most interesting to me is how when the questions went from general to specific, how quickly the numbers changed:

It turns out that more than two-thirds (68%) of global respondents in Nielsen’s survey said they are willing to share their personal assets for financial gain. Similarly, 66 percent say they’re likely to use or rent products or services from others in a share community.

...

The next grouping of products include just about anything that isn’t nailed down. Power tools (23%), bicycles (22%), clothing (22%), household items (22%), sports equipment (22%) and cars (21%) were regarded as shareable by roughly one-fifth of global respondents. Less-popular sharing items include outdoor camping gear (18%), furniture (17%), homes (15%) and motorcycles (13%).

Like all surveys, the specific trade-offs and questions are what matter most. The percentages on the latter seem about right to me, as I've always viewed much of the sharing economy as a very appealing market to a niche, not a majority of the population. Hopefully Nielsen will track this over time and see if attitudes change in coming years.

Off to press

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