Urban econ problem

Winter 2014

ECON 146

Urban Economics


Sample Field Essay Topics


One of the course requirements is to write a field essay.  What that entails depends on the topic.  But it is expected that you will apply urban economics to an element of the Los Angeles urban economy, and that this will entail some work “in the field” — data collection, interviews, or visits to an historical archive, for example, and NOT simply pulling material off the internet   A field essay should be about ten pages, double-spaced, and should be submitted as a hard copy by the final day of classes.  The field essay will be graded on the basis of how enterprising you are, how well researched and well written your essay is, and how interesting I find your topic.  Maps, graphs, and pictures strengthen a field essay.

Two bonus points will be given for generating a map relevant to your topic using mapping software.

You are strongly advised to start work on your field essay soon. Many students leave working on the essay until late in the term, and find that they do not have time to do the required research.

Below is a list of sample essay topics.  You are encouraged to choose your own essay topic, since I am more likely to find it interesting.  Please submit your proposed essay in class on Thursday, February 6.  You are not required to write on your proposed essay topic.  I just want to check that your proposed topic is appropriate.  Most proposed topics are appropriate.  Those that are not do not have sufficient economic substance, are too broad, or do not involve fieldwork.

  1. Take any census tract in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. Comparing the results of the 2000 and 2010 Censuses, describe the changes in the census tract over the decade (population, income, racial, and demographic composition, housing quality, — ).  From interviews with local residents, provide tentative explanations for these changes.
  1. Examine the economics and politics of a particular application for a zoning variance.
  1. Describe the pattern of residential lot size zoning in Riverside or in your hometown. What is its history and rationale?
  1. Until about twenty years ago, most cities and towns in the US had “Euclidean I” zoning systems, which strictly separate land uses. Since then there has been a movement towards “Euclidean II” zoning, which entails more mixed land uses.  Take a particular city or town in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, and investigate whether this movement has occurred there.
  1. Take a firm in the Los Angeles metropolitan area with more than 100 employees. Investigate why it chose to locate in this metropolitan area and why it chose the location it did.
  1. Take an innovation-oriented start-up firm in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. Investigate why it chose to locate in this metropolitan area and why it chose the location it did.
  1. Describe the mix and location of stores in one of Riverside’s (or your home town) shopping centers or retail districts. Provide a tentative explanation.
  1. Why caused the boom in the Los Angeles economy from 2000-2007?
  1. Describe the pattern of mortgage foreclosures in Riverside (or your home town) from 2008 to the present.
  1. Consider a household that is having trouble meeting its mortgage payments. What options does it have? How should it decide which of these options to choose?
  1. Consider a bank that has a customer that is late on its mortgage payments. What options does it have? How should it decide which of these options to choose?
  1. When a bank forecloses on a home, what happens to the home? Who manages the property, and how and when will the bank sell it?
  1. Trace the recent history of the financial industry in downtown Los Angeles.
  1. Why is the Los Angeles metropolitan area not prominent in the biotech industry?
  1. I have been told that Los Angeles is an international leader in “industrial design”. What is industrial design? What are the characteristics of the industry? How important is it in the Los Angeles economy? Is Los Angeles indeed an international leader?
  1. Discuss the growth in imports from China through the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach from 2010 to the present.
  1. A large proportion of the imports from China through the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are shipped by freight train or by truck to inland depots (many in the Inland Empire, and some in Riverside), where they are stored in warehouses and then distributed nationally. Describe the location and economics of one of these warehouses.
  1. Boston and New York have distinct retail/entertainment and business/financial centers. Does Los Angeles?
  1. About four years ago there was an article in a local magazine indicating that Riverside’s “jobs-housing” ratio had moved about 1.0, indicating that it is now more of an employment center than a residential center. How is the jobs-housing ratio measured? Trace the history of the jobs-housing ratio in Riverside over the last two decades.  How has Riverside’s jobs-housing ratio been affected by the economic crisis?
  1. Describe the spatial development of Riverside (or your home town) over the last century, and relate it to population growth and changes in the transportation system.
  1. Discuss the history of the rail freight network in the Los Angeles metropolitan area.
  1. What proportion of the land in Riverside (or your home town) is devoted to roads? This question will require the use of GIS and satellite imaging.
  1. Choose two industries that you would expect to have a strong incentive to locate close to one another. Identify where the jobs in those industries are actually located in the Los Angeles metropolitan area.  Is your hypothesis confirmed? What other factors influence the intra-metropolitan location of the two industries?
  1. What is the ratio of the total value of land in the Los Angeles metropolitan area to its annual economic product?
  1. Using the Small-Giuliano definition, identify an employment subcenter in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, and trace how it has grown and how its industrial composition has changed.
  1. Los Angeles is identified internationally as the center of the film industry.  How important is the film industry to the Los Angeles economy? What proportion of the metropolitan area’s labor force are employed, directly and indirectly, by the industry.
  1. The vacancy rate signals a market’s tightness. Low vacancy rates typically precede a development boom.  Trace the vacancy rate and the volume of new construction for a particular real estate market (e.g. office space in downtown LA) over the last two decades.
  1. The Governor closed down redevelopment programs in the state, claiming that they did not contribute much to redevelopment. Identify a project in the Riverside area (or your home town) financed at least partially with redevelopment funds.  Perform an informal cost-benefit analysis of the project.
  1. We have all been stuck at railway crossings in Riverside. There is a long-term plan to build underpasses beneath or overpasses above all the major railway crossings in Riverside.  One project that has been completed is on Magnolia Street near the Magnolia Center (which is near the Riverside Plaza).  Perform an informal cost-benefit analysis of the project.
  1. Identify the locations of a particular type of retail store in the Riverside area (e.g., pizza parlors, hair salons, clothing stores, jewelry stores, gas stations), and provide a tentative explanation for them.
  1. Identify a public housing project. Review the history of the project, and discuss its current state.  (Caution: In doing research on any aspect of the ghetto economy, please be prudent and do your field research accompanied by a friend.)
  1. Interview half a dozen homeless people. On the basis of your interviews, provide an anatomy of the homeless and suggest a policy that could be implemented to mitigate the homelessness problem.
  1. Describe the time path of rents and values for a particular neighborhood over the last decade. Provide a tentative explanation for the patterns.  What do you expect to happen to rents and values over the next year, and why?
  1. Describe the evolution of a particular neighborhood over the last two decades. Explain the evolution, and forecast how it will change over the next few years. You may choose to focus on a particular aspect or aspects of the neighborhood (population composition, housing quality, social capital).
  1. Many households refinance their homes. Take an actual situation (perhaps your parents’ or a relative’s) and do a careful financial analysis of the various refinancing options.  Discuss the pros and cons of the various options.
  1. Take a particular apartment or house that is used for off-campus housing. Undertake a financial analysis of the property, and indicate how much a prudent investor should be willing to pay for the property.
  1. Identify a neighborhood in Los Angeles that is currently undergoing gentrification. (A research colleague is studying North Hollywood).  In what ways is the neighborhood changing? Why is the change occurring?
  1. Where do households with incomes below the poverty line live in the Los Angeles metropolitan area?
  1. Consider any neighborhood. What is the average height of the building, the average coverage ratio, and the average floor-area ratio? Why were these heights and coverage ratios chosen?
  1. In many metropolitan areas in the US, housing abandonment has been a problem. Is housing abandonment a problem in any neighborhoods in the Los Angeles metropolitan area? If it is, explain why abandonment has occurred in one of the neighborhoods.  If it is not, explain why abandonment is not a problem in the LA Metro area.
  1. Trace the history of the downtown office market from 1995 (a slump year) through the present (another slump year, with a boom in the middle), in terms of rents, values, vacancy rates, and construction volume. To what extent was the real estate cycle driven by national macroeconomic conditions, and to what extent by local economic conditions?
  1. New immigrant groups tend to cluster together on particular blocks or in particular neighborhoods. In the process, the prior residents, often predominantly from another ethnic group, get displaced.  Examine the process for a particular block or sub-neighborhood.
  1. Gentrification displaces existing renters, who can no longer afford the higher rents. Identify a neighborhood in Los Angeles that is either undergoing gentrification at the moment or was gentrified during the boom years.  Where did the displaced residents relocate to?
  1. In most cities in the US, there was massive out-migration of whites from the central cities to the suburbs in the 1950’s and 1960’s, with much of the downtown area becoming African-American “ghettoes”. My impression is that this phenomenon was less dramatic in LA than elsewhere.  Is my impression correct? If so, why was the phenomenon less dramatic here? One possible explanation is that the construction of freeways, and suburbanization, occurred earlier in LA than elsewhere.  Another is that racism was not as strong.  Another is that LA was not a preferred destination of African-Americans in their migration out of the rural south.
  1. Applied housing market analysis typically treats a city’s housing market as a related set of submarkets. Examine the student rental housing submarket in Riverside, and relate its recent experience (rents and vacancy rates) to what has been happening in the broader Riverside housing market.
  1. Many universities have a “student ghetto” close by. UCR doesn’t seem to.  Why not?
  1. When I first lived in Boston in the 1960’s, towns were identified by their residents’ race, income level, and religion. (e.g., South Boston, which has been featured in several recent movies,  was (and largely remains) working-class Irish-Catholic, and Brookline was largely Jewish).  I have never heard neighborhoods in the LA Metro Area identified by the religion of their residents.  Trace the history of religion in neighborhood identification in the LA Metro Area.
  1. Identify the residential location history of a particular ethnic group in the LA Metro Area (Mexican-Americans, Koreans, Chinese, etc.). When they originally settle in a metropolitan area, most ethnic groups live in an ethnic enclave downtown.  Their children then often move to ethnic, suburban neighborhoods. Does this pattern apply to the ethnic group you are considering?
  1. The most significant federal housing program is Section 8. Document the size of the program for Riverside (or your home town).  In the city you study, who is eligible for section 8 housing, how are Section 8 rents determined, and (since Section 8 is not an entitlement program) how is the Section 8 housing budget rationed — who actually gets the housing?
  1. Discuss what could be done to improve the quality of service for one of the Riverside bus lines or the Metroliner without added expenditure.
  1. Discuss the broad trends in the finances of the Riverside Transit Agency over the last fifteen years. What has happened to ridership? What proportion of costs do fare revenues cover? Has there been significant upgrading of the rolling stock?  Has the general quality of service — punctuality, frequency of service, comfort — improved? Provide a tentative explanation for these trends.
  1. According to the Texas Transportation Institute, Los Angeles was for several years prior to the economic crisis the most congested metropolitan area in the US, and last year moved back into the number one ranking. How did the TTI measure this? Critically discuss their method. Tomtom has recently developed a new congestion measure, and applied it to all major metro areas in North America and Europe.  According to its measure, too, Los Angeles is currently the most congested metro area in the US.  How does its measure differ from the TTI measure?
  1. I sometimes use the rule of thumb that commuters will tolerate commutes of up to half an hour in each direction but not much beyond that. That rule of thumb is not quite accurate.  Average commute times are somewhat higher in larger metro areas.  What is the elasticity of average commute time with respect to metropolitan population in the US? Why is it not larger?
  1. What has happened to average commute times in the LA Metro Area over the past thirty years? It is surprising that they have not risen more than they have, particularly considering that population has grown considerably over that period without a commensurate increase in the size of the freeway network. Provide an explanation.
  1. Over the past at least 20 years, there has been a concerted effort by both the state and local governments to increase transit modal share in the LA Metro Area. Has the effort been effective in increasing the modal share? What percentage of the transportation budgets have been spent on mass transit? Do you think that the expenditure on upgrading the mass transit system has been justified?  Why or why not?
  1. One margin of adjustment to increased traffic congestion is increased dispersion of work start times. Document this for the Los Angeles metropolitan area over the past thirty years.
  1. I have been impressed by the sophistication and efficiency of Riverside’s traffic lighting system. Document the history of its implementation.
  1. Identify a component of transportation infrastructure. How are costs shared between federal, state, and local governments in the provision of this type of transportation infrastructure, and with respect to operating costs (both labor costs and running stock)? What is the rationale for the current system of cost sharing? Is it effective?
  1. It is often argued that there is a “capital-intensity bias” in mass transit — that transit authorities employ technologies that are more capital intensive than is efficient. Discuss the economics of this phenomenon.  Does this criticism apply to mass transit in the LA Metro Area?
  1. When I was a student, mass transit boosters were advocating “jitney services” (a jitney is a mini-bus). You call in, and a jitney will be dispatched to pick you up.  The argument was that jitney services should be popular since they provide door-to-door service at a considerably lower price than taxis. All the jitney systems that were introduced failed.  Recently there has been a resurgence of interest in “para-transit” because real-time routing and scheduling is now so much more efficient than it used to be.  Why did the earlier jitney services fail? What are the current prospects for para-transit services?
  1. Discuss the economics of urban trees, paying particular attention to appropriate local government policy. For example, should local governments subsidize residents to plant trees on their property? How much should a local government spend on maintaining trees on public property? When should a local government cut down a tree on public property?
  1. The Los Angeles metro area has been a pioneer in providing different levels of service to different users of a particular freeway. Diamond lanes (high-occupancy vehicle lanes), HOT (high-occupancy or tolling) lanes (e.g., a section of the I-91), and responsive tolling lanes (part of the I-215 before here and San Diego).  Discuss the history, and strengths and weaknesses, of each of these policies.
  1. Compared to many other metropolitan areas in the US, freeway travel in the Los Angeles metropolitan area is very “rough”. What standards do the federal and state governments employ with respects to road surface improvement? Are these standards observed? Are these standards appropriate? What are the costs and benefits of making freeways less rough?
  1. The average freeway speed is considerably higher in the LA Metro Area than it is in most other metropolitan areas in the US. In the other metro areas, the highway police routinely impose fines for travel 10 mph over the speed limit and very heavy fines for travel 20 mph over the speed limit.  This doesn’t seem to be the case in California. Is it unofficial state highway policy to permit travel at high speeds on the freeways? Is the freeway accident rate higher in CA than in other states?
  1. What are the determinants of car insurance rates in the LA metro area?
  1. Car insurance rates used to be exceptionally high in the downtown areas of East Coast cities because of vehicle theft. My impression is that vehicle theft is not as important as it used to be.  Is this correct? If I am correct, has the fall been due to improvements in car-theft-prevention technology?
  1. I read an article on taxi policy at airports stating that the biggest problem with allowing any taxi to pick up at the airport is drivers cheating on fares. Is this a problem at LAX and the other LA airports? What policies could be introduced to induce taxi drivers to be more honest?
  1. Investigate the economics of a private parking garage.
  1. For many years, the City of Riverside has been debating curbside parking pricing policy. Donald Shoup, “Mr. Parking”, has been advocating first-best efficient pricing of all parking (e.g. employer-provided parking and shopping center parking), and most recently has been advocating setting curbside meter rates such that the occupancy rate of parking spaces is 85%.   What is Riverside’s current policy? Does it conform to Donald Shoup’s recommended policies? If not, should Riverside adopt Donald Shoup’s recommended policies, and why or why not?
  1. Should parking garages be operated privately or publicly? Why? If they are operated privately, should they be taxed? If yes, how? Should they be regulated? If so, how? Discuss this question with reference to a particular city in the LA Metro Area.
  1. What is UCR’s parking policy? How could it be improved? Argue economically.
  1. Discuss the pros and cons of privatizing towing of cars that violate parking regulations.
  1. Why does downtown Riverside offer so few amenities to students?
  1. Is it by chance that the highest-crime neighborhood in Riverside is down University Avenue, close to the university? Is this just an historical accident or perhaps because drug dealers are drawn to the profitable university market?
  1. Most universities have a funky neighborhood close to the university where students can hang out in coffee shops, etc., between classes. The closest thing UCR has is University Village.  Document the history of University Village, and evaluate its success.
  1. Most undergraduate students develop a real affection for their college town or city. Most UCR undergraduates, however, seem to develop little affection for Riverside.  To what extent is this due to UCR being largely a commuter campus (to what extent is it?)? The City would benefit from having a larger proportion of its undergraduate students choose to remain in Riverside after graduation.  What could the City do to make Riverside more attractive to university students?
  1. Back thirty years ago, almost all US cities had moribund (dying) downtowns. Since then many cities’ downtowns have been revitalized.  The best-known examples are Manhattan, Brooklyn, Boston, and Washington, DC, which were crime ridden and run down and contained a lot of abandoned buildings as late as the early 1980’s, and are now thriving.  Much the same is true of smaller cities.  In the LA area, the downtowns of Pasadena and Pomona have (as I understand it) been revitalized.  Downtown Riverside however has not.  In fact, in a recent book on downtown revitalization, Riverside was used as an example of redevelopment failure.  Trace the history of the City’s attempts to revitalize downtown.  Why has it been unsuccessful?
  1. Review the history of Proposition 13. Why has it had such an adverse effect on state finances in general, and on K-12 education in particular?
  1. How has the passage of Proposition 30 affect the local public finances of the city of Riverside, or some other city in the Metro Area.
  1. One response of state governments (which supposedly have a balanced budget requirement) to economic crisis is to mandate that local governments provide services that it previously provided without providing funding (“unfunded mandates”). The result is that the economic crisis is pushed down to local governments, which respond by cutting back on many programs, including “safety net” programs for the very poor.

Investigate a safety net program in Riverside, and trace its experience over the last decade.  What effects have this experience had on the welfare of the truly disadvantaged.

  1. Investigate the economics of garbage collection in the City of Riverside. Does the current policy work well? What improvements could be instituted?
  1. With the reduction in property tax revenues due to both Proposition 13 and the sharp fall in property values, local governments have been looking for alternative sources of revenue. One is “fees”, another is an increase in city sales tax increment.  How has Riverside (or any other city of your choice in the LA Metropolitan Area) increased its non-property-tax revenues?
  1. During my second year in Riverside, I got three hefty fines from violations recorded by traffic cameras. Many of the jurisdictions in the LA Metro Area have discontinued their traffic camera programs on the grounds that they were not cost effective.  Riverside however has maintained the program.  Is this because it has been cost effective in Riverside? Evaluate the program.
  1. Document the decline in the quality of K-12 education in California since the passing of Proposition 13 generally or in a particular city. This decline can be measured in terms of reduced funding and poorer performance.
  1. In light of the theory of incentives (including auction theory), examine the tendering process — how government contracts are awarded — in the City of Riverside, and suggest improvements.
  1. Over forty years ago, Jonathan Kozol wrote a famous book, Death at an Early Age, recounting his bad experiences as a teacher in an inner city Boston school.  Visit an inner city Los Angeles school, and collect statistics on funding, teacher “quality”, student performance, absenteeism rates, violence discipline, graduation and literacy rates, etc.
  1. At about the same time, there was considerable conflict in Boston over school desegregation and busing. Federally mandated busing programs have since been discontinued.  Trace the history of busing to achieve racial mixing (whether federal, state, or local policy) in the City of Los Angeles.  What is the current situation? How could it be improved?
  1. Examine the costs and benefits of recycling either at UCR or in a city in the LA Metro Area.
  1. The State of California is justly proud of its record in reducing air pollution. Review this record.  “Industry” has been arguing that continuing current policies or introducing new ones to further reduce air pollution in the LA Metro area will cause a loss of jobs (via a loss of competitiveness), which Los Angeles can ill afford in this time of economic crisis.  Evaluate this argument, both qualitatively and quantitatively.
  1. Evidence has been accumulating that children living close to a freeway have a much higher incidence of asthma (and some other medical problems as well). Because of the traffic noise, most neighborhoods close to freeway are low income.  Review the evidence.  What should be done to deal with the problem?
  1. The City of Los Angeles has been trying for a long time to revitalize its downtown area. Review its redevelopment initiatives.  In what ways have they been successful and unsuccessful?
  1. On a city map (LA, Riverside, or any other city in the LA Metro Area), plot the incidence of various felonies for different neighborhoods. What empirical regularities do you observe? That is, what are the correlates of high rates of various felonies and neighborhood characteristics?
  1. In the nation as whole, residential segregation by race/ethnicity has been decreasing while residential segregation by income has been increasing. Comparing the results of the 2010 and 2000 US Censuses (or the 1990 and 2000 Censuses) determine whether this occurred in either the entire LA Metro Area or in a city in the Metro Area.
  1. Metropolitan areas are less segregated in California than in cities in the Northeast and North-central states. Document this statement, and propose a tentative explanation for this empirical regularity.
  1. Visit two McDonald’s (or any other fast-food chain), one located in a poor, downtown neighborhood, the other in a wealthy suburban city/town. If wages are significantly higher in the wealthy suburban city/town, why do inner city young people not commute to work at McDonald’s in the wealthy suburb?
  1. The State has implemented many programs attempting to induce modal switching from the automobile to mass transit. There is an ongoing debate on the success of these programs generally and individually.  From an economic perspective, evaluate the success of the Metroliner (or any one of its routes).
  1. Many interesting programs have been instituted under AB 32 (California’s Global Warming Solutions Act). As I understand it, one of these programs requires cities that permit new subdivisions to be constructed to be CO2 neutral, and the City of Riverside has responded by implementing a program of subsidies for home insulation.  These provide the city with credits, against which they can grant permits for new construction.  Report on one of the many programs that has been implemented under the aegis of AB 32.
  1. The City of Riverside has a program that subsidizes the conversion of a wet garden to a dry garden. Describe the program, and evaluate its effectiveness.
  1. There has been a lot of discussion of alternative energy sources. I have received the occasional flyer offering subsidies for me to convert part or all of my energy consumption to solar.  Describe the program, and evaluate its effectiveness.
  1. There has been much discussion in the press of the fall in the crime rate, from a high in the 1980’s. Discuss what factors have been responsible for the fall for a city in the LA Metro Area. Crime tends to be counter-cyclical.  Has crime risen in your city in since the start of the economic crisis in 2008?
  1. Document the history and success (or failure) of a particular neighborhood improvement project in the LA Metropolitan area.
  1. Visit one or two families in a public housing project. Describe the family’s problems.  Determine the range of social services available to the family to assist with its problems.  Identify problems in the delivery of these social services.  From your mini case study, discuss improvements that could be made to the social service system.
  1. Discuss the finances of a public museum in the Los Angeles metropolitan area.
  1. Why are there so few parks in the city of Los Angeles?
  1. Policymakers have been encouraging the construction of “green” (environmentally friendly) buildings. One method is certification.  Describe one certification program and how it affected the construction of one certified building in the Los Angeles Metro Area.
  1. Discuss the history of some ethnic community in Riverside, or any other city in the LA Metro Area, from an economic perspective.
  1. I was recently told that the City of Riverside has abandoned the idea of introducing a tram system. My understanding is that the first line was to connect downtown and the university, the second was to run along Market/Magnolia.  Why was the project considered, and why was it abandoned?
  1. Last year I attended a “conversation” with former Mayor Villaraigosa on transportation policy in the City of Los Angeles. He indicated that, due to the difficulty in getting funding from the State government, one of his funding innovations has been to convert HOV lanes to HOT lanes and to use the revenue collected to fund an LRT lines adjacent to the freeways with the HOT lanes.  Document the policy and evaluate its success to date.
  1. The baby-boomers are reaching retirement age. This, and the general graying of the population, will result in policies being implemented that increasingly take into account geriatric concerns. One concern is elderly mobility, especially making it easier for the elderly to walk in downtown areas.  What policies have been implemented to deal with this issue?
  1. An increasing proportion of the aged will choose to live in their homes for as long as they are physically able to do so. This suggests that many homes will be modified to improve the “functionality” of the age. To what extent is this occurring?
  1. An increasing proportion of the aged will choose to live in their homes for as long as they are financially able to do so. One way they can make continuing to live in their own homes is to take out a “reverse mortgage”.  Explain how a reverse mortgage works? What proportion of the elderly take out reverse mortgages? What are some of the problems associated with reverse mortgages?
  1. Riverside has an apparently very successful program of neighborhood parks. Examine the history of its neighborhood parks program. Is it a model program that other cities should copy?

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