City Observatory What Matters to the Success of Cities Fri, 11 Dec 2020 15:31:53 +0000 en-US hourly 1 91365037 The only reason some people drive is because we pay them to Tue, 08 Dec 2020 01:10:43 +0000 Here’s an insight from tolling:? A substantial portion of the people driving on our roadways are only there because we’re subsidizing the cost of their trip.

When we charge a toll to use a road, suddenly many of those using it find they don’t value it enough to pay even a fraction of the cost of the road’s cost.

Our most egregious subsidies?are to those drivers who demand to travel at the peak hour when roadway space is scarce, and which is the most expensive problem to fix.

The biggest problem with transportation is we don’t price road use correctly, to reflect back to road users the costs that their decisions impose on society and everyone else traveling.? In essence, we have daily urban traffic jams for the same reason Ben and Jerry have long lines on their annual Free Cone Day: when you don’t price something valuable, it gets rationed by queuing and patience.? What’s worse is a lot of people who are driving on many roads at the rush hour is essentially because we are paying them to do so.

Freeways are only “free” in the sense that, no matter when you drive, you pay the same marginal price:? Nothing.? Of course,? we all pay for roads through things like the gas tax and vehicle registration fees (as well as a host of other general taxes), but the point is, whether you use a road at the peak hour or not has no effect on how much you pay to drive.? Whether you use it at 2 am when there are literally no other cars on the road, or you use it when it’s jammed at rush hour, makes no difference.? And because peak hour capacity is in short supply, and is damned expensive to increase, “free” roads are a massive subsidy from the general public to the relatively few of us who use roads at the peak.

When we ask road users to pay even a modest fraction of the cost of providing that expensive peak hour road capacity, many of them tell us, by voting with their feet (or their tires), that they simply don’t value the roadway enough to pay for even a tiny fraction of its cost.

The latest example of this comes from Seattle, where Washington State has spent about $3.3 billion tearing down the old elevated Alaskan Way highway viaduct that marred the city’s waterfront for decades, and replaced it with an expensive new tunnel bored under downtown.? After the tunnel was completed, it was “free” for a while, but a year ago, the state asked users to pay tolls, which vary from $1.25 to $2.25 per trip, plus a $2 surcharge, if you don’t have a transponder.

Now keep in mind that tolling will cover less than 10 percent of the cost of the tunnel, about $200 million of the more than $3 billion cost. When the tunnel was first opened, it carried more than 75,000 cars per day.

The Alaskan Way Viaduct (Wikimedia Commons)

As soon as the state asked those using the tunnel to make a modest contribution to its cost, that number dropped to 55,000.? Here’s the official analysis from WSDOT:

Of the 20,000 trips that diverted from the tunnel after tolling began, data indicates that roughly 10,000 trips used other routes (primarily Alaskan Way, Elliott Avenue, and I-5) or switched from driving to riding transit. Ferries and water taxi ridership were largely unchanged. The remaining 10,000 trips are not accounted for using existing roadway sensors and automated passenger counters on buses, however, anecdotal data suggests that some trips were discontinued as people embraced teleworking, bicycling and other active forms of transportation, or by using an unmonitored route.

What this really means is more than a quarter (20,000 of 75,000 users) used the tunnel because only somebody else paid for more than ninety percent of the cost of their trip.? And contrary to the usual doomsday scenario’s of highway agencies, most of that traffic isn’t displaced onto city streets or alternate routes, it simply disappears.? Again, the evidence from Seattle’s tunnel has been that neither abrupt changes in capacity or tolling produced noticeable worsening of traffic elsewhere in the city.

Here’s another example, also taken from the State of Washington, although it spills over—as we’ll see—into the state of Oregon.? To set the scene: Vancouver Washington, sits just north of the Columbia River, which forms the border between the two states, and is part of the Portland Metropolitan area.?Washington has a sales tax, Oregon doesn’t.? There just two bridges—I-5 and I-205—connecting the 400,000 Vancouver area residents with jobs and stores in Oregon.? Washington residents who shop in Oregon avoid state and local sales taxes of more than 8 percent, meaning a $200 shopping trip saves a resident more than $16 in sales taxes.? Washington is, in effect, paying its residents to drive to Oregon to shop.

Washington residents fill the parking lots at Oregon stores to avoid their state’s eight percent sales tax; they’re essentially paid to drive to Oregon to shop.

We’ve estimated that the average Vancouver household saves more than $1,000 in sales taxes per year by shopping in Oregon and that shopping trips account for between 10 percent and 20 percent of the traffic on the two Interstate bridges.? Not incidentally, this shopping traffic is a key reason why the two states are considering spending more than $3 billion to widen the I-5 bridge.

Want less traffic and pollution? Stop paying people to drive

This has to be the key insight for transportation policy:? The reason we have traffic congestion is essentially because we’re paying people to drive.? As soon as we ask drivers to pay even a fraction of the cost of the roads they’re using, large numbers of them find other routes, or simply take fewer trips.? In a world where we’re losing the fight against climate change principally because we’re driving more and more each year, a logical first step is to stop paying people to drive their cars.? That’s exactly what policies like road pricing, and parking pricing do:? they ask those who benefit from using their cars to pay for a larger fraction of the cost of providing the services they enjoy.

One of the fascinating, and least widely understood aspects of the science of traffic jams is that it takes only a small reduction in traffic levels to keep roads flowing freely.? As long as traffic levels stay below a tipping point where the road becomes saturated and loses capacity, the road works well. Adding (or subtracting) just a few cars when traffic is at this tipping point makes a huge difference both in travel times and how many cars a road can carry. This is just what happened during the height of the pandemic, when reduced demand kept Portland-area freeways below their tipping point, and enabled them to carry more cars at the rush hour than they did in “normal” times. Pricing a roadway causes a minority of travelers to change their trips, but it’s enough to keep the roadway flowing freely. A common argument against pricing is that some people simply don’t have alternatives to driving, or driving at a particular time; and that’s true.? But the data show that a significant minority of those on the road will immediately change their behavior given even a small financial incentive—and that segment of the population staying away is enough to make the road system work much, much better for everyone else who doesn’t have that flexibility.

The old saying “you get what you pay for” applies with a vengeance to transportation:? We pay people to drive, and so they do, with the result that we get chronic congestion, air pollution, and aggravated climate change.? A sensible policy of charging road users based on when and where they travel would both dramatically reduce traffic congestion—by encouraging those who are only on the road because someone else is paying for the trip to choose another time or destination—and also reduce pollution and greenhouse gases.? Those who paid would be getting what the British call “value for money”—by tolls would get them a quicker and more predictable trip than is possible at any price now.



The real $3.4 billion hole in the I-5 bridge project Mon, 30 Nov 2020 23:50:44 +0000 The Oregon and Washington transportation departments understated the funding gap for a revived I-5 Columbia River Bridge by more than $1 billion

Correcting for an arithmetic error increases the gap between identified revenues and potential costs from $2.3 billion to $3.4 billion.

ODOT & WSDOT also used too low an inflation factor for escalating project costs, understating total costs by a further $680 to $860 million.

Preliminary estimates appear to leave out costs of the revived planning effort and compensation to river users for the new bridge’s lower navigation clearance.

And ODOT and WSDOT have a history of under-estimating costs and over-estimating revenues.

The dreadful transportation news from the Pacific Northwest this month is the continuing plans of the Washington and Oregon transportation departments to revive the years-dead Columbia River Crossing project.? That project foundered in 2014, after nearly a decade of planning—and roughly $200 million spent on staff and consultants—because neither state had the money to pay for the project.

This past year, the two states have scraped up another $50 million and are hiring consultants and dusting off the old CRC plans, with the thought of reviving the project.? They’ve concocted a totally false story that if they don’t start construction on a new bridge by 2025, they’ll have to repay the US Department of Transportation the $140 million in federal money they spent earlier. As we demonstrated a year ago, that claim is incorrect, Federal Highway Administration regulations provide that if the states select the “No-Build” alternative at the end of the NEPA review process, there is no repayment liability.

But now, as the last time round, the big issue is who will pay for the project.? And neither state has the money.? Last week, the two state DOTs released their “Draft Conceptual Finance Plan,” which isn’t so much a plan as it is a picture of giant hole in the ground that they’d like to fill with money, if they can find some. As Clark County Today reported, money is still the sticking point for this project:

Sen. Lee Beyer (Oregon’s 6th District) stated he believed the major problem of the project will be “an inability to fund the project.”

Bottom line on the plan:? The two DOT’s told the legislators overseeing their work that the estimated size of the hole is between $1.8 and $2.3 billion.? Senator Beyer seemed to express considerable skepticism that even this range was within reach.

But even if one believes their cost estimates and revenue projections—and one shouldn’t as we’ll explore in a minute—the two agencies couldn’t even do the arithmetic correctly to state the actual range of estimates of the size of the hole in their finance “plan.”? The real gap, according to the two DOTs’ own numbers ranges as high as $3.4 billion, more than a billion dollars higher than the maximum gap they estimated.

Here’s how they made their mistake.? The DOTs constructed “high” and “low” estimates of revenues and expenditures for each of two alternatives (a widened freeway plus bus rapid transit system, and a freeway plus light rail line).? For each cost and each revenue estimate has a separate high and low estimate.? They computed the range of estimates by combining the low estimate of costs to the low estimate of revenues and comparing it with the high estimate of costs and high estimate of revenues for each alternative.? (The red arrows on the table below show how they’ve lined up the low estimates of cost with the low estimates of funding, and likewise with the two high estimates).

ODOT’s incorrect table claiming a $1.8 to $2.3 billion gap.

But that’s wrong:? The true range is illustrated by combining the low range of costs and the high range of revenues and comparing it to the high range of costs and the low range of revenues. The following chart fixes the error in ODOT’s estimates, and now compares a combination of the low range of revenues with the high range of expenses, showing that there’s a potential funding gap of up to $3.4 billion—fully a billion dollars more than acknowledged in ODOT presentation. We’ve literally just re-arranged the “funding assumption” rows in the ODOT chart above to line up the “low cost” assumption with the “high revenue” assumption, and the “high cost” assumption with the “low revenue” assumption, and then recalculated the values in the right-most column to reflect this change.? This generates the correct range of estimates of the gap implied by these figures.

Our corrected table shows the real gap could be as high as $3.4 billion.

The truly risky case here, and the one the states need to plan for if they’re moving forward, is a project that has costs at the high end, and that has revenues at the low end.? And in that case the gap is roughly $3.4 billion.

Now it’s true, that under the most optimistic reading, (high revenues and low costs) the gap might be only $800 million), but what this presentation has done is greatly overstate the precision and understate the financial risk associated with this project.?Rather than being a relatively narrow gap of $2 billion plus or minus a couple of hundred million, the range of possible estimates of the gap are from a little less than a billion to nearly three and a half billion. But that’s not all.

But even these figures can’t be trusted.

There is, of course, another shoe (or two) that will drop here:? The two DOTs, ODOT in particular, have a lousy record in accurately forecasting project costs.? Less than a year ago, ODOT bumped up its cost estimate for the I-5 Rose Quarter project (just a few miles south of this proposed bridge) by 75 percent, from $450 million to as much as $800 million.? The estimates presented here are described as “initial”—they’ve simply been extracted from 2012 vintage CRC estimates, and inflated to current and year-of-expenditure dollars.? Already, these estimates are probably low.

For starters, in inflating the estimates from 2012 levels to 2020 levels, the two DOTs have pegged annual construction cost inflation to 2 percent per year.? But in the real world, according to the US Department of Transportation, highway construction costs have risen at an annual rate of 3.0 percent from the third quarter of 2012 to the third quarter of 2019 (the latest period for which data are available.? This higher actual increase in highway costs already recorded between 2012 and 2020 means that ODOT and WSDOT have underestimated the current (2020) cost of the base CRC project by about a quarter of a billion dollars.? Assuming that they similarly under-estimate inflation over the next decade (using a 2.0 percent inflation factor, rather than the 3.0 percent inflation factor we’ve experienced over the past decade, increases the year of expenditure cost of the project to between $4.0 billion and $5.7 billion, an increase of between $680 million and $860 million from the estimates made by the DOTs.? These changes represent an increase in the revenue “gap” for the project.? Combined with the earlier arithmetic error in calculating the range (above) that means that the funding gap could easily be more than $4.2 billion.

But there are other problems with the gap estimate.? While the new revenue estimates count the $50 million Oregon and Washington have chipped in for the renewed planning effort, but there’s nothing that indicates that those costs were added to the old 2012 estimates of construction costs (which assumed planning was essentially complete).? It’s also unclear whether the project costs include any of the promised $86 million compensation payments for river users whose access to the river will be impaired by the proposed bridge’s new fixed span. And since the agencies haven’t designed or selected the project, its impossible to say what the real cost might be. But we know one thing for sure:? the state DOTs almost never guess low.

Both ODOT and WSDOT routinely go over budget on major projects.? WSDOT is already $223 million over budget on the Alaskan Way Viaduct’s replacement tunnel, and faces an unresolved lawsuit for $480 million more in costs associated with a failed tunnel boring machine.? ODOT’s largest recent project, a five-mile widening of Highway 20 was 5 years late and more than $200 million over budget.? A series of major ODOT projects over the past two decades have experienced cost overruns averaging 200 percent.? When something is called a “draft conceptual” finance plan, that’s simply bureaucratic code for “we’re low-balling the cost estimate now and we’ll certainly raise it later.”

Similarly, the two agency’s have equally lousy in estimating revenues, and most notably, toll revenues.? Back when the CRC was being planned, WSDOT was in the process of developing a financial plan for the SR 99 deep bore tunnel under Seattle (which replaced the now-demolished Alaskan Way viaduct).? WSDOT confidently told the state legislature that tolling the new tunnel would generate $400 million toward its construction costs.? Even before the tunnel was built, that number was cut in half; current experience shows that the revenue could be even less than that.

So, all in all, the financial exposure to Oregon and Washington is easily in the range of $4 billion, but is likely to go up from there, as the project will no doubt cost more, and tolls will likely generate less revenue than forecast.

It’s alarming that with a $50 million budget, and with responsibility for a multi-billion dollar project, Oregon and Washington’s DOT’s could make a billion dollar math error in a such a vitally important calculation.? In doing so, they understated the liability the two states face, and created a false illusion that there’s a narrow range of uncertainty about the size of the gap the project faces.? Is this incompetence or deceit?? Can it be both?

More cynical greenwashing from the highway industry Mon, 16 Nov 2020 17:42:06 +0000 There’s no shortage of cynical greenwashing to sell climate-killing highway widening projects

GeorgiaDOT and AASHTO have a new PR gimmick to promote the same old product

AASHTO—the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials—was touting one of their innovative environmental programs, something called “Planning and Environmental Linkages.”? Its currently being deployed by the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT).

Planning and Environmental Linkages or PEL represents a collaborative and integrated approach to transportation decision-making that 1) considers environmental, community, and economic goals early in the transportation planning process, and 2) uses the information, analysis, and products developed during planning to inform the environmental review process.

The benefits include: Improved relationships with stakeholders; improved project delivery timelines; and better transportation programs and projects.

The description is replete with the appropriate buzzwords—collaborative, stakeholders, improved—but its clear from the description that this greenwash pure and simple.? Note that PEL only gives procedural weight to environmental and community factors—it will “consider” them—but offers no substantive metrics, like reducing vehicle miles traveled, or lower greenhouse gas emissions.? It says it will “use” this information in the planning process, but doesn’t say how. (In our experience, it’s usually for denial and obfuscation). Ultimately, there’s no question of the objective here:? delivering transportation projects:? The only tool we have is a hammer, and by God, all our problems are nails.

The greenwash is epitomized by the PEL logo, which looks more like something designed for the Sierra Club, than a highway agency.


There’s a turquoise blue sky, white mountains, a green forest and a blue highway.? There’s a single, soaring bird, but nary a car to be seen anywhere.

But the reality of what the GDOT is planning and what it will look like on the ground is dramatically different.?This becomes clear when one digs deeper into the example of “Planning and Environmental Linkages” offered by AASHTO. Its a huge project to widen I-85 in the Atlanta metro area.? The plan is plainly to add vastly more car-carrying capacity on I-85, through a combination of additional travel lanes, shoulder driving, “auxiliary lanes,” the construction of “collector/distributor” side-roads along the freeway, and mammoth new car-oriented intersections, like this diverging diamond interchange.

To get a more detailed idea of how they’d integrate environmental concerns into project planning, we took a quickly look at the “I-85 PLANNING AND ENVIRONMENTAL LINKAGES (PEL) STUDY Corridor Strategies Memo.? Strangely for a report that promises to address “environmental linkages” there’s virtually no mention of the environment, or the highway’s negative impact on the climate and adjacent communities.? The words “climate,” “pollution,” “greenhouse gas,” “emissions” do not appear anywhere 30-page report. There are two mentions of “bicycles”, one of them in the context of diverging diamond interchanges, which are notoriously hostile to non-auto travelers.? The message of the document is clear:? the word “environment” might be on the cover, but the needs of the environment and non-auto users are simply irrelevant to the final outcome.

If you really cared about environment, you might pay attention to the fact that greenhouse gas emissions from transportation have been increasing steadily and sharply in Georgia.? Since 2012, metro Atlanta’s average emissions per capita are up more than 1,000 pounds per person.

In short, this is all about generating the perception that GDOT cares about the environment.? It doesn’t.? It includes environmental concerns in only the vaguest and most procedural senses, not specifying any substantive or measurable goals.? It focuses on options that are all about making driving easier and expanding capacity, with lip service given to alternative modes.? And it doesn’t even bother to acknowledge pressing environmental problems.

Phoenix: Climate Hypocrisy Tue, 01 Dec 2020 19:24:41 +0000 You can’t be a climate mayor—and your city can’t be a climate city — if you’re widening freeways

Phoenix says it’s going to reduce greenhouse gases 90 percent by 2050, but the city’s transportation greenhouse gases have risen 1,000 pounds per person since 2014, and it’s planning to spend hundreds of millions widening?freeways.

Around the country, and around the world, leaders are pledging to solve the climate problem—someday, in the distant future.? Typically, these pledges claim that a city (or other organization) will be “net zero” by some year ending in zero (2040, 2050), or that it will reduce its emissions (or usually, some carefully selected fraction of the greenhouse gas emissions it is responsible for), by a stated percentage. These multi-decade pledges aren’t really pledges that these leaders will be responsible for achieving:? it will be their successors, several steps removed, who will be in charge when the day of reckoning comes.

One of the world’s leading climate activists is calling “BS” on this phony and deceptive strategy.??Greta Thunberg is challenging leaders to? commit to change now, rather than waiting:

“When it’s about something that is in 10 years’ time, they are more than happy to vote for it because that doesn’t really impact them. But when it’s something that actually has an effect, right here right now, they don’t want to touch it. It really shows the hypocrisy.”

“They mean something symbolically, but if you look at what they actually include, or more importantly exclude, there are so many loopholes. We shouldn’t be focusing on dates 10, 20 or even 30 years in the future. If we don’t reduce our emissions now, then those distant targets won’t mean anything because our carbon budgets will be long gone.”

“. . . we can have as many conferences as we want, but it will just be negotiations, empty words, loopholes and greenwash.”

One doesn’t have to look far to find a city that is pledging to be much, much better (in a few decades), while its current efforts are failing perceptibly, and its actively spending money that will make the problem worse.? Today, we’ll pick on Phoenix, but much the same story could be told about many other cities.? Mayors are proclaiming loudly that there’s a climate emergency, and very visibly endorsing the Paris Accords, but at the same time are planning to put vast sums of scarce public resources into building more roads that will only make the problem worse. What makes this particularly egregious is that nearly everywhere, increased driving is now the single largest and fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions.? The one thing cities can do to fight climate change is reduce the need to travel by car; and widening freeways does just the opposite:? it subsidizes driving, and promote sprawl and car dependence.

Phoenix is developing a new climate action plan, because it’s required to do so for joining the C40 cities organization

The city’s goal is to complete CAP updates by year’s end in part due to Phoenix having joined C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group earlier this year.

“One of those things that C40 cities require is completion … or an updated climate action plan by the end of this year,” Environment Program Coordinator Roseanne Albright . . .”

Like a lot of cities, it has goals of reducing climate pollution . . . someday.? Here’s the provisional goal according to the city’s website.

Headed in the wrong direction

All well and good to have a reduction goal for the next couple of decades.? But what climate data show is that Phoenix–like most cities is utterly failing to make progress in reducing its greenhouse gas emissions.? Data from the national DARTE database of transportation greenhouse gas emissions shows that metropolitan Phoenix is rapidly going in the wrong direction.? Its GHG per capita which had been flat to trending downward in the first half of the last decade (even as the economy was recovering from the Great Recession) grew rapidly after the big drop in gas prices in 2014.? Today, the average Phoenix resident emits about 1,000 pounds more greenhouse gases from transportation than in 2014.


Going faster—in the wrong direction:? A wider freeway

Even as they proclaim their climate goals, the Phoenix is embarking on a massive $700 million freeway widening project, with the full support of its mayor.? The plan would widen an eleven mile stretch I-10 through Phoenix to as many as 16 lanes.

According to Planetizen, Phoenix’s Mayor is all on board:

Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego is quoted in the article touting the safety benefits of the proposed project, along with its potential economic benefits. On that latter score, Mayor Gallego cites the potential for $658 million in new economic activity.

The project’s video notes that there will be as many three pedestrian and bike overpasses, but makes it clear that these are currently only conjectural:? “multi-use bridges for pedestrians and bicyclists could span the freeway.”? Plus, as we’ve noted at City Observatory, this kind of “pedestrian” infrastructure is really primarily designed to serve cars and doesn’t contribute to a more walkable city.

Finally, much of the cost of the measure is being subsidized from a regional sales tax.? So in essence, the region’s residents will have to pay for the wider freeway whether they use it or not.? This amounts to a massive subsidy to more driving, and predictably will lead to even more sprawling development, longer commutes and more greenhouse gases.

In a way, its unfair to pick on Phoenix. (For the record, we’ve been unstinting at City Observatory in our critique of Portland’s failed climate efforts).? Other cities around the country, who ostensibly care about climate change or who have endorsed the Paris accords are pursuing their own massive freeway widening projects, as James Brasuell has chronicled. The list includes projects in Houston, Los Angeles, Akron, Indiana, and Maryland.? As Brasuell says:

Some of the politicians and agencies behind these plans claim to be climate warriors without being held accountable to their promises. Others are climate arsonists, who are not being held accountable to the consequences of these actions.

Tragically, these efforts are even being promoted by the National Science Foundation, under whose auspices that Transportation Research Board published a report calling for billions more in subsidies for road construction to facilitate literally trillions of more miles of driving, building a true highway to hell.

Why—and where—Metro’s $5 billion transportation bond measure failed Wed, 11 Nov 2020 22:16:01 +0000 Portland voters resoundingly defeated a proposed multi-billion dollar payroll tax to pay for transportation projects

The two areas slated for the biggest benefits voted against the measure:? The Southwest Corridor and East Portland both opposed the measure

A generous electorate didn’t want to spend billions on transportation

A few months back, we laid out the case against a $5 billion transportation bond measure proposed by Portland’s regional government, Metro. In the November election, voters rejected the measure by a 58 percent to 42 percent margin.

It’s difficult to argue that the measure failed because of widespread anti-tax sentiment:? Voters in the Portland and Multnomah County, in the center of the region, approved every single money measure on the ballot, except for Metro’s transportation tax.? Portland voters approved a $400 million parks levy (64 percent yes), a $1.2 billion school bond (75 percent yes), a $400 million library bond (60 percent yes). They voted to impose a new high earner tax to fund tuition-free preschool education.? These votes come on top of other measures they approved strongly in the May primary election, including multi-billion dollar regional tax to fund homeless services and extension of a 10 cent a gallon Portland city gas tax—which passed with an 77 to 23 percent margin of victory.

Opponents of the measure, chiefly the area’s business community, mounted a? $2 million campaign that mostly emphasized a series of anti-tax messages. But many in the community shared our concerns that the measure did nothing to reduce greenhouse gases. More generally, it appears that the public wasn’t convinced of the benefits of this proposed spending package, which would have been the most expensive single such effort in the region’s history. You’d think that $5 billion worth of projects, chosen after a year-long involvement process, would produce strong support, especially among the likely beneficiaries of these projects. But the evidence suggests that the measure failed to generate much support in two sets of neighborhoods that were singled out for major expenditures, in Southwest Portland and in East Portland.

The pattern of support and opposition in Multnomah County

While there hasn’t been any post-election polling to lay out the reasons for the measure’s crushing defeat, there are some clear clues in the geography of election returns. In particular,?election returns for Multnomah County, which are available at the precinct level show, the distinct geography of support for and opposition to the Metro measure.? (Precinct data for Clackamas and Washington counties weren’t available as of publication date).

This map shows the overall pattern of votes in Multnomah County, with areas supporting the measure shaded green, those opposed shaded yellow, and those extremely opposed (fewer than 35% “yes” votes), shaded red.

Support came from a green core. Within the county, the precincts which voted in favor of the measure are in the city’s close-in urban neighborhoods, including downtown, and adjacent neighborhoods in Southeast, Northeast and parts of North Portland.? Outside these areas, voters were opposed.?The support for the measure came from a handful of precincts on Portland’s westside, in and near downtown, and a swath of close-in urban neighborhoods in North, Northeast and Southeast Portland. These neighborhoods tend to have the highest levels of transit ridership and bike commuting in the region, as well as being politically liberal. The pattern of voting in favor of the measure closely resembles the split between incumbent Mayor Ted Wheeler (who was re-elected) and his challenger, Sarah Iannarone; Iannarone, the progressive, did best in the same precincts that voted for the measure.

Source: Multnomah County Elections.

The map of the left shows the electoral split for the Metro Bond, with the light colors representing yes votes and the darker colors “No” votes.? The map of the right shows the plurality winner of the Portland Mayor’s race, with moderate incumbent Ted Wheeler in light blue, and progressive challenger Sarah Iannarone in dark gray.? The Metro measure did best in those precincts most favorable to Iannarone.? More liberal-leaning neighborhoods supported the measure, but it wasn’t enough to produce a majority even in Multnomah County.

Neighborhoods that stood to get projects voted against the measure

In theory, at least two geographic constituencies should have been big beneficiaries of the measure.? The biggest single project in the package, the SouthWest Light Rail, earmarked for nearly $1 billion of Metro money, would have built a new light rail line with stations in neighborhoods in Southwest Portland.? But apparently this area didn’t care:? All of the Multnomah County precincts through which the project would have run voted against the measure.

Another constituency that was supposed to benefit from the measure were residents of East Portland.?Metro stressed that the measure was designed to improve equity, by investing in transit, safety and pedestrian improvements, especially in low income neighborhoods like those along 82nd Avenue in East Portland.??This area, formerly part of unincorporated East Multnomah County, has some of the region’s weakest transportation infrastructure, with many unpaved streets and relatively few sidewalks. In recent decades, income levels in this area have slipped relative to the region, and advocates of the measure made a particularly strong point that spending in East Portland would address serious equity concerns. But the election returns show that there was no outpouring of support from these neighborhoods. East Portland is generally regarded as the area East of 82nd Avenue.? The map below zooms in on Portland’s East side, and shows a clear dividing line at 82nd Avenue (the red line on the map). Only 2 precincts East of 82nd Avenue voted in favor of the measure; nearly all were opposed. Many of the precincts in the area were strongly opposed, with fewer than 35 percent “Yes” votes. Claims that this measure would advance equity and improve safety generated no support in the very communities would ostensibly benefit from the measure.

No support in the suburbs, either

The Metro electorate includes voters in three counties, Multnomah (which includes nearly all of Portland) and two suburban counties:? Clackamas and Washington.? The measure lost in Multnomah County by a 54/46 margin, and was defeated by an even larger margin in each of the two counties. Neither of these counties has yet released precinct-level returns through the Secretary of State’s website, so we haven’t analyzed their geography here.


Limits of the “Christmas Tree” approach

From the outset, the Metro measure was fashioned as a kind of giant Christmas tree, with a raft of projects each designed to appeal to a specific constituency: a billion dollars for Tri-Met’s next light rail line, a freeway interchange for the Port of Portland’s airport, new highways in suburban Clackamas County, a big contribution to Multnomah County’s plan to replace the Burnside Bridge, sidewalk and safety projects to appeal to pedestrian advocates, and transit fare subsidies for students.? Seemingly everyone participating in Metro’s process got a little something and endorsed the package. Metro’s effort’s seemed dominated by an at times cynical political perspective. Early on, they fielded misleading push-polls falsely claiming that measures to reduce traffic congestion would reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

It was all well and good to come up with a list of projects, but Metro’s political calculus doomed this effort when it came to deciding how to pay for it. Supposedly because a gas tax didn’t poll well, Metro’s leader’s tried to stick it to “someone else” —the someone else being the region’s larger employers. The actual funding, a selective payroll tax, was decided only at the last minute, and with little public debate, and Metro chose to exclude itself another other local governments from paying the tax. In theory, a measure that only taxed big businesses and exexempted politically popular small businesses, and which was pitched as a tax that someone else would pay, should poll well. But in the end, it generated considerable ire with the business community, which opposed it, and the “no” campaign’s messages clearly resonated with the voters.

In our view, it was unwise from a policy standpoint to choose a method of paying for this package with little or no relation to transportation. The payroll tax amounted to the equivalent of a 30 cent a gallon subsidy to gasoline purchases, compared to the more conventional way of paying for road improvements through the fuel taxes. Ironically, as the 77 percent “yes” vote for extending the City of Portland’s 10 cent per gallon just six months ago demonstrates, voters and the business community had little problem, when asked,? in paying for transportation in a direct and visible way. Moreover, Portland passed a gas tax with a margin of more than 100,000 votes, a block that would have dramatically bolstered chances for regional success even if suburbs were intransigent.

For whatever reason, 2020 was a year when Portland area voters were willing to vote for big tax increases for a wide ranges for services, from dealing with homelessness, to parks, to libraries, to schools and pre-school education. The failure of the Metro measure in this environment shows considerable miscalculation, both in terms of what the measure proposed to fund, and how it proposed to pay for it.




Systemic racism and automobile insurance Thu, 05 Nov 2020 16:02:50 +0000 Does geographic rating of car insurance amount to 21st Century redlining?

Car insurance rates vary more based on who your neighbors are than on your driving record

The premium penalty for living in a Black neighborhood is twice as large as for being an aggressive driver.

States should ban using small geographies, like zip codes, to set insurance rates.

In the the past several months, there’s been increased attention paid to whether our transportation system is equitable.? Public policy debates have hinged on whether or not building bike lanes is equitable, and whether major regional transportation packages benefit disadvantaged communities.? Huge and hidden subsidies that chiefly benefit higher income households, like nearly universal free parking, seldom get questioned from an equity perspective.

As we’ve stressed, its impossible to understand the equity aspects of transportation without looking comprehensively at the whole system. And one important aspect of transportation is the nearly universal requirement that everyone who drives a car purchase car insurance. After depreciation, insurance, along with fuel, is the largest cost of operating a car.? (If your vehicle gets 20 miles per gallon and you drive 12,000 miles per year, you buy about 600 gallons of gas; at current prices, of about $2.12 per gallon, you spend roughly $1,272 on fuel, which is very much in the same ballpark as the typical auto insurance premium ($1,463) reported by Insurify.

But are car insurance premiums fair and equitable? Insurers vary rates widely depending on what neighborhood you live in, for reasons that are far from clear. Insurance firms claim that geography is correlated with loss, but car insurers are famously opaque about the data and algorithms they use to set geographic rates, claiming that this information represents trade secrets.

But just as with housing discrimination, we can observe the effect of these algorithms in practice.? And there are some consistent patterns.? A growing body of evidence suggests people who live in predominantly Black neighborhoods pay higher prices than otherwise similar drivers who live in predominantly white neighborhoods.

Higher auto insurance rates in Black neighborhoods, even for safe drivers

Most recently, insurance website Insurify analyzed the variables that most influence automobile insurance rates. It found that drivers with good records living in predominantly African-American neighborhoods paid higher rates, on average, than drivers with “incidents” — i.e. a previous crash or serious violation — in predominantly white neighborhoods.? As Insurify’s chart below shows, safe drivers in Black neighborhoods pay about $2,100 per year on average, which is more than the roughly $1,700 to $1,800 that drivers with bad records pay, on average, in predominantly white neighborhoods.

Overall, the rate premium you pay for being a bad driver is less than for living in a Black neighborhood.? Insurify looks in detail at what it calls “aggressive drivers”–those with infractions like reckless driving, failure to yield or stop, street-racing, tail-gating, and hit-and-run driving.? Overall, fewer than 5 percent of all drivers fall into this “aggressive driver” category.? On average, according to Insurify, these aggressive drivers pay about $350 more more than safe drivers.

That’s a far smaller premium than insurance companies charge to drivers living in predominantly Black neighborhoods compared to white neighborhoods. Insurify’s data show that a safe driver living in a Black neighborhood pays about $700 more than a safe driver living in a predominantly white neighborhood.? Insurance rates impose about twice as large a penalty for living in a Black neighborhood than they do for being an aggressive driver. What makes this particularly egregious and ironic is other independent data that suggests that Black drivers are less likely to speed than other drivers.

Insurify’s findings echo what others have reported. There’s a formidable body of evidence documenting these consistent patterns of discrimination.

In 2017,?ProPublica?and Consumer Reports conducted a detailed comparison of automobile insurance rates charged in different neighborhoods in California, Illinois, Missouri and Texas.? It found that on average, otherwise similar drivers paid 30 percent higher premiums if they lived in predominantly minority zip codes.

A 2007 analysis of insurances rates in Los Angeles by Ong and Stoll found that even after accounting for differences in risk of loss at the neighborhood level, rates varied substantially according to the racial/ethnic and economic status of area residents, with higher rates especially in Black and Latino neighborhoods.

It’s likely that these trends can be amplified by the increasing sophistication with which insurance companies vary rates charged to different persons, based on how they shop. The rates that insurance companies charge to different individuals are essentially opaque to outsiders, meaning that the its difficult or impossible to hold companies accountable for the discriminatory effect of their rate-setting.

The solution:? Aggregate to much larger geographies

The best way to address this problem is to prohibit automobile insurance companies from setting rates based on excessively small geographies.? In theory, it might make sense to vary rates, by say, zip code, if car owners did all of their driving only in the zip code in which they lived.? But people drive over much larger geographies. According to the Brookings Institution, the average trip in large US metro areas is seven miles—a distance that spans many zip codes. While some insurance firms are offering “pay by the mile plans,” most insurance places little if any weight in the distance traveled, and to the extent it pays attention to any geographic factors, it’s only where a car is regularly parked at night, not where its actually driven. Even those who live in low claim zip codes may spend much of their time driving in areas with higher claims.

A good first step would be to aggregate rating territories to much larger areas, counties or even better groups of counties like metropolitan areas.? While people spend relatively little time driving in their own zip code, metropolitan areas are defined by the federal government to encompass commuting sheds, and most people do most of their driving in the metro area in which they work.? There’s clear precedent for this kind of measure:? insurance companies have, for example, been barred from using gender to set rates for auto insurance in California and several other states.

Instead of being based on who your neighbors are, your insurance rates ought to be based on how you drive, and how much you drive.? Some insurers have developed pay-by-the-mile insurance rates, and some have plans that monitor driver behavior, but these are optional and offer modest discounts.? You still get a better deal if you live in the right zip code than if you are a hyper-cautious, low-mileage driver, and that’s not equitable.

Covid & Cities: Reasons for optimism Mon, 09 Nov 2020 19:33:41 +0000 There are several? compelling reasons—the seven “C’s”—to believe cities will thrive and prosper in a post-pandemic world:

  • Competition: Zooming it in works when everyone has to do it, but if you work remotely while others are in the office, you are at a competitive disadvantage in contributing to and advancing in your work, especially if you are early in your career.
  • Consumption: Cities are about more than work.? They provide us with varied, abundant and diverse experiences and opportunities for social interaction and consumption.?
  • Couples: Young people are drawn to cities because they are? the best place to find life partners.? Once partnered, cities offer more opportunities for both partners to pursue their careers.
  • Careers: Cities are still the best place to find your way in life and build skills, networks and a reputation that enable you to be as successful and fulfilled as possible.
  • Creativity: The serendipitous interaction that happens most and best in cities is what fuels our knowledge-based economy.
  • Camaraderie and Commitment:? Being there matters. Face-to-face in place shows you care, and you’re committed. It’s about being in the room where it happened, not in the Zoom where it happened.
  • Civic commons: Cities are still the place we come together for collective experiences, from concerts and celebrations to rallies and protests. The pandemic has rekindled our awareness of how important public spaces are for enabling us to connect.

To hear many tell it, cities are either doomed or in for a prodigious reset.? They claim the lingering and resurgent Covid-19 virus, and the heightened fear of future pandemics has soured people on working and living in cities. Especially for those fortunate workers and firms who’ve been able to work remotely, the theory goes, there’s no reason to go back to the office ever.

If you’re zooming it in from your desktop, these people think, it doesn’t matter at all where that desktop is.

It’s a short step from that observation to the conjecture that there’s no reason for people or businesses to pay the premium in rents for downtown offices or urban locations.? Businesses can decamp to cheaper suburban offices or small towns, or dispense with offices altogether. And their workers can move to distant suburbs or rural hamlets, mostly working via telepresence, coming to the office once or twice a week, or even more rarely. In this world, who needs cities?

The idea that centrifugal forces are about to tear cities apart is an old one. Back in the Twenties, the advent of electrification prompted urbanist Lewis Mumford to predict that manufacturing would fly from cities to small towns and rural areas, as electric machinery would free manufacturing from the need to build massive factories. At the dawn of the Internet in the 1990s, techno-soothsayers proclaimed the “death of distance” and predicted a wave of decentralization.? Neither of those things happened.

Nobel economics laureate Robert Lucas posed the question “Why don’t cities fly apart?” He observed there’s nothing in the theory of production to hold them together. Land is always less expensive outside cities.? His answer, in the form of a rhetorical question:? “What can people be paying Chicago or New York rents for except to be near other people?” And being close to other people, which is so hard now, is the core reason why we should be optimistic about the future of cities in a post-pandemic world.

No one can say with certainty that Covid won’t somehow be a new Black Death that depopulates whole cities and inverts the economic order, but there are good reasons to be sanguine about the prospects for cities.? I group these signs of hope into seven “C’s”.


To be sure, the Covid pandemic has proved the efficacy of remote work at a scale never before achieved. According to the Dallas Federal Reserve, in the early days of the pandemic about 35 percent of those still employed were working exclusively at home. While many firms have repeatedly postponed the date at which workers will return to offices, the share of workers working exclusively at home has already declined in recent months to about 24 percent of all employed workers. That figure may seem low to some, but that’s likely because college-educated workers are far more likely to be working at home; about half of all college-educated workers were working remotely in April, compared to about 40 percent today.? Over time, we can expect more work and more workers to return to the office.

As those who suffer Zoom fatigue can testify, there are profound limits to the utility of remote work. It’s the kiss-through-the-screen door, lacking the breadth, warmth, and serendipity of in-person interactions. Regardless of how fast the internet connection or the number of pixels, there’s just so much more bandwidth to interpersonal human communication than can be delivered through a computer screen.? But in addition to the limits of the technology, there’s another key factor:? competition.

As long as everyone has to work remotely, every worker is in the same boat.? But someday soon, more and more of us will start working back in the office.? Those who work in the office will be better connected to the business, in the stream of more information; they’ll also be seen as having more commitment, and be able to discern the subtle cues (and bolster the in-person relationships) that privilege them over other workers. In short, those who work at a distance will be less competitive for pay, promotions, responsibility, and opportunity.

As humans, we’ll always attach more importance to the knowledge, processes and decisions that are tempered by face-to-face interaction. You want to be in the room where it happened, not the zoom where it happened, because the really big decisions are going to get made face-to-face, not on a zoom call.

While everyone’s zooming it in, you’re not at a disadvantage. But when if most, or even some of the people are in the office, you have less information, connection, and power than they do. That’s true immediately and becomes even more important over time.

There’s a reason why most of the stories we hear about people leaving the city involve mid-career or older professionals. It’s the same reason why young people, just starting their careers, gravitate toward cities:? cities are great places to develop skills, build networks and establish a professional reputation. Once you’ve established all those things, usually after a couple of decades of hard work, then maybe you can think about down-shifting and working remotely from Boulder or Bend. But if you’re just starting out, small towns and rural areas offer few ways to find the challenging opportunities, hone professional skills, network with peers and mentors, and build a compelling resume.

The importance of “being there” is critically important when it comes to promotions and layoffs. When looking to promote, organizations prize workers who show zeal, enthusiasm and commitment. If nothing else, it is hard to overlook those who are in the office every day. And the reverse is true:? out-of-sight—or off-site—is out of mind, making you more vulnerable to downsizing. Doubt that’s real? In the early 80s I worked for a public agency in Portland. Herb, one of the agency’s long-time employees, had qualified for a six-month professional sabbatical after two decades of service.? He left the office to do detailed research in his field. Meanwhile, in the midst of a recession, the agency had to slash staff.? It was a tough, tense time for supervisors to decide who’d be let go.? It was little surprise that Herb, someone they didn’t see regularly, ended up on the layoff list.

In short, we shouldn’t confuse the temporary, make-do nature of current work-at-home measures with the environment we’ll find ourselves in when we re-open. To always or primarily work at a distance when your colleagues are in the office puts you at a competitive disadvantage. The role of competition is muted now when we’re all forced to work at a distance—but it will assuredly reassert itself in the days ahead.


The underlying assumption of the urban dispersion argument is that the only reason people live in and near cities is to be close to jobs. Cities are more job-rich and productive than rural areas. That’s one reason people prefer cities, to be sure, but hardly the only one. Economists have increasingly pointed to the role that social, environmental, cultural and commercial amenities play in attracting people to cities. As we’ve documented, well-educated young adults have been moving to cities in increasing numbers.? And the evidence suggests that their migration to cities is because that’s where they desire to live; if anything, jobs are following people to cities, rather than the other way around.

It’s hard to see now, in the midst of social distancing, but the big attraction of cities, as economist Robert Lucas described, is being near other people, both to directly interact with them, but then to enjoy the panoply of services, opportunity and activities that exist when there are lots of other people with similar interests in the same area.? The density of cities provides the minimum customer base needed to support the things we value.

And to be sure, many forms of consumption have gone online.? You can get Netflix anywhere, and anything on Amazon is equally available to everyone.? But what’s ubiquitous on the Internet is, by definition, irrelevant to location; it makes no difference.? What does differ is all of the non-Internet goods, services and activities, and cities have unusually rich and diverse arrays of these things.

In the wake of the pandemic, there’s a huge pent-up demand for the kind of personal and social interaction we used to take for granted in the “before times.” Given the slightest hint that it might be safe, people are again flocking to bars and restaurants, to parties and concerts.? While many are foolish to do so now, at some point, as the pandemic subsides, we’ll see a renewed surge to these high touch experiences.? City advantage in retailing and social activities stems from its ability to bundle experiences with the activities of daily life. And in cities, we’re constantly inventing and discovering new experiences. Remember:? the years immediately after the 1918 pandemic were the Roaring 20’s replete with jazz, flappers, and prohibition; it was a period of urban libertine excess by comparison to previous times. People don’t just live in cities because they are close to jobs; they live in cities because of the wealth of consumption opportunities, consuming not just private goods and services, but public spaces, amenities and opportunities for social interaction.? Those advantages will reassert themselves in the post-Covid world, regardless of the scope of remote work.


While consumption may be overlooked, work is still important.? But “work” isn’t just about the ability to do your existing job.? It’s your ability to build an entire career. That means finding a job, and also finding a path to subsequent jobs that offer successively higher pay and satisfaction.? One of the decisive economic advantages of cities is their thick labor markets.? There are many jobs, many different kinds of jobs, and many different employers. This array of opportunities and “ladders” enable workers and firms to make good matches, for firms to find those who can meet their special needs, for workers to find employers who tap their skills. This process is dynamic and ongoing, fueled by the scale of cities.

If we visualize the economy as a kind of large-scale task rabbit or atomistic gig-economy, where everyone is evaluated instantaneously and one-off for a particular short-term task, then arguably, the Internet-mediated labor market may be all we need. In the longer run, though, people are looking for careers, and, at minimum, for the opportunity to steadily progress to better jobs. The wide array of jobs and potential networks in cities make them a far richer territory for pursuing one’s career.

If no one ever changed jobs, if firms didn’t hire new workers, if tasks were well-defined and unchanging, and workers didn’t expect to develop new skills, then perhaps all these interactions could happen virtually.? But workers, especially the professionals who can work remotely don’t work at a single job their whole career. Remote work is, in many ways, a “make-do” solution for a static situation. Likewise, reputation and networks, which still have a substantial geographic component, amplify the value of place.? For a time, a worker or organization can take all of its established routines and do them at a distance. But the process of on-boarding new workers and integrating them into existing teams, and developing new skills and new routines and new products, is vastly more complicated at a distance. Organizations that depend exclusively on remote work will likely find themselves to be less nimble and competitive than those who can more quickly build effective teams with face-to-face interaction.


Location decisions aren’t just individual decisions, nor are they fixed.? Most of us find and live with partners, and cities offer decisive advantages in finding partners and meeting the shared needs of a couple.? Cities are, both because of their size and diverse social and cultural options, “meet markets,” where there are more potential partners to find.? The increasing concentration of well-educated young adults in cities both fuels, and is fueled by the meeting and mating dynamic.

Sex and the City is a real thing.? Cities are both a place to find your partner and a place where both you and your partner can simultaneously realize your professional dreams. As Matt Kahn and Dora Costa have shown in their research on “power couples”—couples where both partners have a four-year degree or higher—cities offer another advantage.? City labor markets are sufficiently large and diverse as to more reliably offer employment and career prospects for both ambitious partners than are smaller and more rural locations. Anyone who works for a college, hospital or large firm located in a small rural town well knows the “trailing spouse” problem:? these locations are at a disadvantage in recruiting talent because both the candidate and their spouse will be looking for long-term employment opportunities.

If anything, the pandemic has created a pent-up demand for people seeking partners. That alone will be a substantial impetus to urban economies as we overcome the Covid virus.


Intense and serendipitous interaction seems to be the key to creativity.? In his book the Triumph of the City, Ed Glaeser cites numerous examples where the concentration of talent in a particular location produces a kind of critical mass of innovation. Other economists who’ve studied the geography of scientific advances in high tech industries find that proximity is a powerful explainer in the productivity and resilience of places like Silicon Valley and Cambridge, Massachusetts.

And urbanist Jane Jacobs reminds us that the ability of cities to throw diverse people together in unexpected combinations is the dynamic force that gives rise to “new work”—the stream of innovations that advance culture and the economy. Economists studying these “knowledge spillovers” have concluded that close physical proximity plays a key role.? The productivity and innovation benefits from being in a cluster of similar firms dissipates rapidly with distance.?Rosenthal and Strange cite studies showing that most of the benefits flow from being within a few miles, to less than 1,000 feet, and for some industries, the benefits come from being in the same building or on adjacent floors.

Knowledge creation is a fundamentally social activity.? We make knowledge and apply it to real needs in society by combining what we know with what others know, and through that process coming to understand not how brilliant we are but what it is that we don’t yet know. And again, creativity thrives in many different environments, but it really goes nuts in places where lots of folks are doing lots of things and creating combinations no one ever thought of. That fact has given cities and enduring economic edge, and will continue to do so.

Camaraderie and Commitment

Oregon legislator and one-time forest products industry executive Bernie Agrons once told me, “The world is run by those who show up.”? Being there matters.? Those who are on site have a disproportionate impact on the directions of an event, a company, a movement.? Showing up demonstrates to others in a tangible way the depth of your commitment and builds an unspoken network of bonds and obligations to others.? There is no more profound dismissal of someone’s engagement than to say that “they’re phoning it in.”? In the future, those who commit to being there will have a decisive advantage over those who simply “zoom it in.”

The choice isn’t “home or office,” but “home and office.”??

In the long run, distance work isn’t a substitute for working in the office, lab or factory. It’s a complement.? Everyone who works in the office also has all of the networks and information that are available through Zoom, or the internet, or through whatever web-based application an organization uses to structure its processes.? But the point is that they have these telepresence assets, plus all of the advantages of being in the heart of things. Those who work remotely will always be “remote” in critical ways from their peers and organization.

Civic space

Stay at home orders and the need for social distancing have made us more acutely aware of the vital role that public spaces play in giving us opportunities to associate, to see and be seen, and to mix with others. Barred from gyms and health clubs and bored at being home-bound, more Americans have taken to public streets and public parks to walk and recreate, and to witness signs of life that seem almost normal. And in recent months, city parks, squares and streets have been the place where we have assembled to seek redress of our grievances and to declare that Black Lives Matter. Even as we had to social distance and wear masks, we gathered together in the urban public realm to make our voices heard; we didn’t (and couldn’t) do so simply by clicking like on a Tweet or a Facebook post.

National Public Radio

Public parks in US cities are in part a legacy of the pandemics of the 19th Century, when shared open space was viewed as a way to bolster public health. Cities around the nation, like Oakland, have created “slow streets” that prioritize biking and walking and slow traffic, improving neighborhood livability and opening the public realm to more diverse uses. Restaurants have spilled onto city sidewalks and into spaces formerly used primarily for parking cars. The density and diversity of cities means that there are more opportunities to rethink public space to support these kinds of activities.

Cities are still compelling

Mired as we are in the depths of a third wave of the pandemic, it is hard to think about a post-Covid world.? We have our heads down and faces masked in our socially distanced quarantine foxholes and can’t imagine a time when we can stick our heads up, much less walk around.? It’s still a shocking departure from the blissfully ignorant world where we crowded together, shared the air in cramped spaces, and touched freely. But cities have long endured these kinds of crises and have always flourished when they passed. As Canadian economist Amine Ouzad has shown, despite severe short term shocks, enduring fundamentals ultimately propel urban success.

The pessimism about cities ignores the vital role cities play in bringing us together. Fundamentally, we’re social animals, and we want to be with other people.? Cities are emblematic of more than a grudging willingness to live together.? Rather, they are perhaps the greatest human achievement and the manifestation of how we are most truly human, together.? It’s time to stop regarding cities as consolation prizes and recognize them as the prize.

Equity and Metro’s $5 Billion Transportation Bond Mon, 26 Oct 2020 16:52:00 +0000 Advocates for a $5 billion transportation bond that Portland area voters will be deciding in November are making a specious argument about it being an equity measure.

Its largest single project, a multi-billion dollar light rail line serves the some of the region’s whitest and wealthiest neighborhoods and has as its destination a suburban lifestyle mall.

The bulk of the money in the measure supports projects in highway corridors, including a subsidy to cars driving to the Portland airport.

Because the measure does nothing according to the advocate’s own estimates to reduce greenhouse gases, it’s inequitable to the frontline communities that bear the burden of climate change.

Some of the proponents of a $5 billion tax measure being presented to Portland’s voters on November 3 are claiming that it’s a way to right historic wrongs to the poor and people of color.? CityLab published one such commentary last week, with a headline asserting that the measure will help communities of color; it features a picture of one of Portland’s right rail lines.

But if you look closely at the measure, it’s really just transportation pork barrel politics, like the days of old, and the biggest shares of the money go to projects that disproportionately benefit whiter communities and higher income households. Despite a relative handful of measures—like free and reduced price transit for school aged kids—that make sense on their own, it’s a package that consists mostly of road projects that could and should be paid for by road users through the gas tax.? Instead, car users get the equivalent of a 30 cent a gallon subsidy for driving. What’s worse, is that the measure cannibalizes the payroll tax—which the region has used for 50 years to subsidize transit operations—to fund capital expenditures, at a time when the local transit system is facing desperate financial conditions.

But let’s focus on the biggest single project in the Metro package:? roughly a billion dollars toward the local share of the costs of a $3 billion expansion of the region’s light rail system.? On paper, that seems good, but as long-time Tri-Met planner GB Arrington pointed out, this particular light rail project makes no sense as a transit or urban development measure.

The claim in the CityLab article is that the measure “invests in Black and Brown communities.” But when it comes to the single biggest project in the package, the proposed Southwest Light Rail benefits the whitest, wealthiest part of the region. The same is true of other major components of the package, which chiefly invest in highway corridors, not neighborhoods. Here are the facts.

SW light rail would disproportionately serve Portland’s whitest neighborhoods

At City Observatory, we’ve extensively studied the racial and ethnic diversity of the nation’s largest metro areas, including Portland. While Portland has fewer Black residents than most large metros, it has proportionately more Hispanic and Asian residents, and it is overall, one of the least racially and ethnically segregated metro areas in the nation. But like every large US metro area, it has a share of neighborhoods that are not diverse, and that are disproportionately composed of white, non-Hispanic residents.

As part of our study, America’s Most Diverse, Mixed Income Neighborhoods, we identified all of the non-diverse predominantly white neighborhoods in the nation’s 50 largest metro areas.? We computed racial diversity using the Racial and Ethnic Diversity Index (REDI), and flagged those tracts that were among the 20 percent least diverse of all tracts in large metro areas nationally, and in which the majority racial/ethnic group was white, non-Hispanic.? Here’s a map of the Portland area’s non-diverse, white neighborhoods.

Source:? American’s Most Diverse, Mixed Income Neighobrhoods (Red-shaded areas are low-diversity white, non-Hispanic neighborhoods.)

Red-shaded areas are low diversity, majority white neighborhoods. (Source:? America’s Most Diverse, Mixed Income Neighborhoods).

The area with the largest concentration of these non-diverse white neighborhoods is the the southwest quadrant of the city of Portland, an area running from the city’s West Hills to the city of Lake Oswego. The route of the proposed Southwest Corridor light rail line bisects this large concentration of non-diverse neighborhoods.? Here’s a close-up of the same data, with the route of the light rail line super-imposed on these low-diversity white neighborhoods.

Red-shaded areas are low diversity, majority white neighborhoods.?(Source:? America’s Most Diverse, Mixed Income Neighborhoods).


Light Rail to Portland’s high income suburbs

Not surprisingly, these predominantly white neighborhoods are also among the wealthiest in the region. The neighborhoods of southwest Portland and the suburbs in this part of the region are hardly distressed communities.? Don’t take our word for it:? Let’s look at the Distressed Communities Index just released by the Economic Innovation Group.? It ranks all the zip codes on the US on a 100 point scale of economic distress, based on a combination of income, poverty, and employment indicators.? The proposed SW Light Rail project runs through four zip codes outside of downtown Portland:? 97239, 97219, 97223 and 97224.? Three of these four are rated “prosperous”–the highest income of five categories in the EIG ranking, and one is rated “comfortable.”? None are mid-tier, at-risk, or distressed.

Source: Economic Innovation Group

The average incomes of these neighborhoods are higher than for Multnomah County, the region’s most central, urban county.? Median household incomes in zip code 97219 are among the highest in the region, at just slightly less than $100,000.? The following chart shows the county-wide median and the median incomes in the four zip codes directly served by the proposed light rail line.

Destination:? Suburban shopping mall

The southern terminus of the proposed Southwest Light Rail line is a “lifestyle center” shopping mall called Bridgeport Village.

Bridgeport Village is home to a host of national chain stores catering to high-end households.? The mall’s owners describe it as:

. . . an outstanding and enviable array of exclusive, internationally renowned stores and boutiques which include The Container Store, Anthropologie,?GAP,?Lululemon, Apple, Crate & Barrel, Brandy Melville, Madewell, Sephora, Sundance, Eileen Fisher, MAC Cosmetics, Tommy Bahama, Soft Surroundings and the largest Regal IMAX Theatre in the state.

They too, note the area’s high income demographics.? The mall’s primary trade area has an average household income of $89,000 compared to $74,000 in the rest of the metropolitan area.

Other projects also chiefly benefit white, wealthy populations

Another project subsidized by the bond measure is a massive freeway interchange serving Portland International Airport.? The interchange will make it quicker and easier for people to drive to the airport (and not incidentally, undercut the relative attractiveness of the already existing light rail service that goes direct to the airport terminal). And the users of facilities like the airport have higher incomes that the rest of the region’s population.??According to Statista, person with an income of $80,000 a year is about 6 times more likely to be a frequent air traveler than someone with an income under $40,000 per year.? Ironically, because the Port of Portland charges market rates for parking ($3 an hour; $24/day) it’s the one place where car users actually shoulder something approaching the cost of their trips, and the Port could easily fund this road improvement out of the fees it charges users; but it prefers to ask that the general public subsidize car trips to and from the airport.

The project proponents claim that the proposal will support investments in safety and pedestrian improvements in the region.? But the bulk of these monies are focused on highway corridors. As we’ve discussed at City Observatory, as a practical matter, “pedestrian safety” improvements in and along highways are of dubious value in creating more walkability, and are in many cases, actually highway improvements—designed to facilitate more and faster car travel.

What this tells us about equity

Urban leaders around the nation are grappling daily with the question of how to fashion policies that achieve “equity.”? There’s a cacophony of voices calling for greater equity, but no definitive yardsticks to say what this means, or measure whether we’re making progress, or even moving in the right direction.? If a light rail line through the richest, whitest portion of a region contributes to “equity” than arguably pretty much any investment could.? Likewise projects that expand capacity on suburban highways, or make it easier to drive to the airport, rather than take the light rail system we’ve already built.

There are pieces of the Portland measure that do support equity, like free and reduced price transit fares. But the most expensive items in the package hardly serve disadvantaged front-line communities. Beyond that, we know that low income communities and people of color are those most likely to bear the brunt of the effects of climate change, which means that the Metro bond measure’s abject failure to reduce the region’s transportation greenhouse gases is, itself, highly inequitable.

The point is that without a clear definition of what constitutes “equity,” this criterion is meaningless. Given our current approach to the subject, “equity” is as vague, personal, and subjective as “beauty.”

Our discussions of equity need to be far more specific and quantifiable:? Who benefits, and how much?? And how do we address the underlying inequities that are built into the existing institutional arrangements for transportation, and that are never questioned:? like virtually universal free parking, or policies that prioritize the faster movement of cars over the safety and livability of urban neighborhoods? Is there anything more equitable than adequate funding for bus operations to assure greater frequency?? We should make equity a key criteria for guiding our transportation policies, but we should do so in a way that systematically makes our overall society more equitable, rather than being a subjective talking point for a particular pet project.

It’s worth imagining what a real, equity-driven regional agenda would look like. For starters, it wouldn’t be based on the premise that everything has to be viewed through the lens of transportation. While inequity manifests itself in the transportation system, the problem is much broader and more fundamental, and is rooted in land use and housing policies, like the prevalence of single family zoning in the Southwest corridor that this proposal does nothing about. An equity focused agenda might also try to learn from and adapt based on the lessons of the Covid pandemic. Arguably right now, widespread and free or inexpensive access to high-speed Internet is a more salient equity issue.?Framing this single largest investment in the region’s history solely as a transportation issue forces all communities to play a transportation game rather consider more broadly the range of investments that would provide the livability and opportunity communities are asking for.? Finally, a real equity measure should pay as much attention to how monies are raised as it does to how they’re spent, and be funded by assessing the costs to users.? People are adaptable, transportation systems much less so.? Investing in steel and concrete before investing in new patterns of cost allocation and usage is today short-sighted and should be unthinkable.



The Great Disconnect: The perverse rhetoric of gentrification Tue, 29 Sep 2020 16:16:43 +0000 The Great Disconnect

By Jason Segedy

City Observatory is pleased to publish this guest commentary from Akron’s Jason Segedy.? It originally appeared on his blog.



As this decade draws to a close, the story of urban America is increasingly about the great disconnect between a small number of large cities that are thriving, and a much larger number of cities of all sizes that are continuing to fall behind.

What’s true for a handful of large cities is increasingly untrue for the majority of cities in the vast middle of the country. Nowhere is the great disconnect more apparent than in the debate about gentrification.

Gentrification is a hot topic of conversation in coastal cities, like New York, Washington, and San Francisco, with expensive living costs that are also home to influential journalists and academics.

Writing about gentrification has become a cottage industry for many pundits and urban policy wonks. ?Many of the earlier pieces penned on the topic were important, thought-provoking, and well-reasoned.

But what started as the airing of thoughtful, reasonable, and understandable concerns about displacement and inequality in a handful of coastal cities, has turned into intellectual dishonesty, irrational hysteria, and even self-parody, particularly when it is applied to the long-suffering cities of the Rust Belt.

Peter Moskowitz’s?How to Kill a City, which Josh Stephens accurately?calls?“an ideological rant in the guise of journalism” makes it clear that no matter how many times he mentions Detroit, it is clear that the New Yorker simply doesn’t really understand the place. ?He says: “The new Detroit is now nearly a closed-loop…It is possible to live in this new Detroit and never set foot in the old one.” I’ve got news for him. ?Detroit has been like that for 50 years. ?It’s just that the closed-loop was called 8-Mile Road. ?Gentrification didn’t kill Detroit. ?Urban decline did. ?And we can be confident that more decline won’t resurrect it.

A recent New York Times?piece?on Climate Change warns us that although Duluth may benefit from “climate refugees”, new growth raises the specter of (you guessed it) gentrification. ?In case you were wondering, Duluth has been steadily losing population since 1960.

Then there’s Samuel Stein’s?Capital City, which at least gets points for originality by dispensing with blaming hipsters or developers for gentrification, and aims its sights squarely on my overwhelmingly leftward-leaning profession of urban planning, even going so far as to say that “proto-planners” (whatever that means) were responsible for Native American genocide as they “enabled the country’s murderous westward expansion, and mapped the rail networks and other infrastructure that made it possible.“

There is even a movement called?“Just Green Enough”, which is premised on the idea that parks in poor neighborhoods shouldn’t be made?“too nice” in order to prevent displacement by gentrification. Precious energy and effort is expended on endless worry and discussion (and in some cases, active opposition) to a nice park, a new ice cream shop, or a new grocery store, because it could potentially displace someone.

Meanwhile, the poor themselves continue to languish?in disinvested and actively-avoided neighborhoods, without any of the amenities or conveniences that the activists and academics have (and take for granted) in their own neighborhoods.

However well-intentioned, these efforts end up doing the same thing – ensuring that people living in poor neighborhoods continue to have the worst of everything, confined to separate and unequal places with substandard facilities and amenities, all?“for their own good”.

How elitist, patronizing, and sad.

For those interested in separating data-driven fact from ideologically-driven fiction, a new report,?American Neighborhood Change in the 21st Century: Gentrification and Decline, provides a welcome corrective.

Anyone who is serious about understanding urban public policy, equity, and neighborhood change, should read this report. ?It is an easy read.

The report examines the ways in which neighborhoods in the 50 largest U.S. metropolitan areas are growing or shrinking; getting richer or poorer; rebuilding or disintegrating. ?It quantifies the degree to which neighborhoods are experiencing economic growth, displacement of low-income people, concentration of poverty, and abandonment.

It finds that the most common form of American neighborhood change, by far, is poverty concentration, rather than wealth concentration. ?Low-income residents are exposed to neighborhood decline far more than gentrification. ?In fact, there was no metropolitan area in the nation where a low-income person was more likely to live in an economically expanding neighborhood than in an economically declining neighborhood.

The findings mirror what Alan Mallach says in his must-read book,?The Divided City: gentrifying areas are rarely the most distressed areas of a city, particularly where demolition has unraveled a neighborhood’s fabric, and where few attractive homes or buildings of any kind remain; and predominately African-American neighborhoods are less, not more, likely to experience gentrification than largely white, working-class neighborhoods.

Instead, gentrification typically follows a pattern of black neighborhood avoidance. ?Rather than being subject to displacement by gentrification, urban residents who are both black and poor are far more likely to be left behind in neighborhoods experiencing widespread vacancy, abandonment, and disinvestment.

Instead of displacement by gentrification, what we are seeing in most cities in my part of the country, including Detroit, could be described as displacement by decline – as middle class residents, African-Americans in particular, frustrated by the continued social and economic disintegration of their neighborhoods, are moving to safer and more attractive neighborhoods in the suburbs.

While the urban renaissance in a handful of neighborhoods gets all the headlines, it is the rapid concentration of poverty and urban decline that is far more prevalent – and troubling.

I’ve lived my entire life in Akron, which, like Duluth and Detroit, has been losing population and wealth for 60 years now. ?Those of us who work on behalf of (and love) these places do our best to fight poverty, abandonment, and urban decline every single day. ?Living here, it is hard for me to understand getting worked up in anger at someone with some money in their pocket renovating an old house in an urban neighborhood, opening a brewery, or leasing a brand-new apartment downtown.

I hope that this new report’s?findings?serve as a wake-up-call to the people who worry so much about the potential downside of urban revitalization, that they are overlooking the far greater challenges of inter-generational poverty, uneven economic growth, disinvestment, abandonment, urban sprawl, and pervasive and entrenched racial and economic segregation.

I see a lot of people, even here in the Rust Belt, who are energized about gentrification, and convinced that it is the enemy. ?It’s considered a sexy topic for activism.

But I don’t see the same level of passionate activism being applied to fighting the spread of concentrated urban poverty, neighborhood abandonment, or the yawning racial and economic chasm between older cities like Akron, Cleveland, Detroit, and their newer suburbs.

And let’s be honest. ?Those are big, messy, complicated, systemic, extremely intractable problems, and there is nothing sexy about them. ?They don’t lend themselves to clever yard sign slogans or quick-take podcasts. ?Most people would rather not think about them, because there is not a lot that the average person can even do about them.

But they are the urban problems we need to face. ?They are the existential challenges to our cities and to the people who live in them

New development does not always mean displacement, and revitalization is not always a synonym for gentrification.

Gentrification has become a useless word. ?Words lose their value whey they no longer have an agreed-upon meaning. ?No one knows what the hell that word means anymore. ?It’s time to retire it.

Parking and equity in cities Tue, 22 Sep 2020 14:15:24 +0000 The average price of a monthly parking permit in cities is $2.25, compared to $70.00 for a transit pass.

Everything you need to know about equity and privilege in urban transportation is reflected in how much we charge for parking compared to transit

The triumph of asphalt socialism is reflected in providing unlimited free or underpriced private car storage on public streets (a scarce and valuable commodity) while charging people to make use of transit, (a public good with positive externalities, and plenty of excess capacity).

The benefits of free private car storage of city streets accrue to those wealthy enough to own cars; Those who can’t afford cars get no benefit, plus they have to pay to use the only feasible alternative for many trips:? transit.

No one should invoke the term “equity” in urban transportation without insisting that we start asking those who convert public property to private use for car storage pay for the privilege.

University of Northern Illinois professor Chris Goodman recently compiled data for the nation’s 30 largest cities on the price cities charge for on street parking permits compared to the price of a transit pass.? In every single city, the price of a transit pass exceeds the price of parking by a factor of ten to twenty or more.? For the median city in Goodman’s sample, the monthly cost of a parking pass was $2.25, compared to the a cost of $77.00 for a monthly transit pass. (Our calculation of the median price of parking permit includes only those cities that charge for on-street parking permits; ten of the top 30 cities don’t). Even when cities charge for on street parking, the monthly cost is usually less than a single bus ticket.

We’ve reproduced Goodman’s tabulations in graphic form here.? Cities are ranked according to the amount charged for transit passes, from lowest to highest.

It’s worth noting that the prices of parking permits are only for those areas where cities require permits, and on most streets, in most cities, including, bizarrely New York City, street parking is completely unpriced almost everywhere.? In effect, the prices shown for parking in Goodman’s sample overstate what city’s actually charge for parking:? it’s mostly zero.

The disparity between what people pay to park their cars on the public street (nothing or very little) and what they have to pay to use transit speaks volumes about privilege and equity in transportation.? To take advantage of free or low cost on street parking, you have to own a car, which automatically means the poorest households receive little or no benefit; meanwhile, because car ownership is highly correlated with income, more of the benefits go to high income households.

It’s also worth noting that private car storage on the street has all the aspects of a private good:? In economic terms its rivalrous and excludable.? When you park your car along a street you deprive others of the opportunity to use that space. Others can include other car owners who might like to park there, as well as other road users, who might want to walk, cycle, or say, in the era of Covid, set up tables for a bar or restaurant.

In contrast, transit has many of the characteristics of a public good.? Except at peak hours (in pre-Covid times, that is) buses and trains almost always have excess capacity, so your use of a train or bus seldom deprives others of its utility. In addition, transit has positive externalities:? it results it less traffic congestion and pollution, and lower energy use than car travel, and supports walkable urban destinations.? Finally, its worth noting that the only places where transit really works well in the United States are in the areas where cities charge for parking.? When street parking is free, people own cars and drive, depriving transit systems of customers and revenue, and skewing the transit ridership to the dispossessed and powerless.

From an economic and an equity standpoint, it would make vastly more sense to make on-street parking expensive (to reflect its real costs) and to make transit cheap or free.

The way we price transit, and don’t price private car storage in the public realm, is evidence of “Asphalt Socialism“–subsidies for cars and driving, and high prices and penalties for those who take transit.? As Dr. King once observed, we have socialism for the rich and rugged free enterprise discipline of the market for the poor. In an era when so many urbanists and transportation advocates profess great concern for equity, the subsidies to parking are one of the most inequitable aspects of the urban realm.