What City Observatory this week

1. How the Oregon Department of Transportation destroyed a Portland neighborhood, Part 2:  The Moses Meat Axe.  We continue our historical look at the role that freeway construction (and the traffic it brought) destroyed Portland’s Albina neighborhood.  Our story began in the early 1950s with the construction of a waterfront highway, and reached a crescendo in 1962, when the construction of Interstate 5 wiped out much of the neighborhoods housing stock. leveled dozens of blocks, and forever transformed the area from a primarily residential neighborhood to a car-dominated landscape.

We’ve got a detailed before-and-after look at how the construction of I-5 wiped out a large much of this historically black neighborhood. It wasn’t just the road’s right of way, but the flood of car traffic that the freeway brought to this area.  As is often said, past is prologue.  Today the Oregon Department of Transportation is proposing to spend $800 million to further widen the gash that I-5 cut through this neighborhood.  It’s a reasonable question to ask why this historic error is being repeated.

2.  The Cappuccino Congestion Index.  Media reports regularly regurgitate the largely phony claims about how traffic congestion costs travelers untold billions of dollars in wasted time. To illustrate how misleading these fictitious numbers are, we’ve used the same methodology and actual data to compute the value of time lost standing in line waiting to get coffee from your local barista. Just like roadways, your coffee shop is subject to peak demand, and when everyone else wants their caffeine fix at the same time, you can expect to queue up for yours.

Just as Starbucks and its local competitors don’t find it economical to expand their retail footprint and hire enough staff so that wait times go to zero (your coffee would be too expensive or their business would be unprofitable) it makes no sense to try to build enough roads so that there’s no delay. Ponder that the next time you’re waiting for your doppio macchiato.

Must read

1. What’s really needed in an infrastructure bill:  Better policy.  Transportation for America’s Beth Osborne has some succinct advice about what needs to be in the vaunted trillion-dollar-plus infrastructure package:  Fixing America’s badly broken transportation policy, which squanders resources while making environmental, social and transportation problems worse.  Simply doing (and building) more of the same has led to more driving, more pollution, and more deaths of vulnerable road users.  Before we throw more money at this flawed system, we need to fix it:

This time around, Americans want an infrastructure package that addresses economic recovery through job creation; rebuilds crumbling roads, bridges, and transit systems; and reduces climate emissions and racial inequities. But our existing federal transportation programs aren’t built to achieve these outcomes—no matter how much more money is pumped into them. In fact, they often produce the opposite result: building new infrastructure we can’t afford to maintain, driving up emissions and creating barriers to people of color trying to get to work and essential services.

2. Patrick Sharkey on the causes of the 2020 Crime Wave.  After decades of long term decline in urban crime rates, many cities experienced a wave of increased crime and violence in 2020.  The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson interviewed Princeton’s Patrick Sharkey, one of the nation’s pre-eminent experts on the subject.  Sharkey points out that any explanation for shifting crime rates is always complex, but in the past year, the disruption to social life wrought by the pandemic:  unemployment, the closure of business and civic institutions and schools, all contributed to greater crime and violence in cities across the country, especially in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty.  As Sharkey explains, a pandemic is a kind of perfect storm for crime:

Last year, everyday patterns of life broke down. Schools shut down. Young people were on their own. There was a widespread sense of a crisis and a surge in gun ownership. People stopped making their way to institutions that they know and where they spend their time. That type of destabilization is what creates the conditions for violence to emerge.

Sharkey acknowledges that an increase in policing is one of the factors behind the statistical decline in crime over the past couple of decades; but in his view more stringent policing isn’t a sustainable strategy. The excesses of policing may have reduced crime, but then also planted the seeds of unrest.  In his view, we can’t rely on a model of brute force, punishment and imprisonment in the long run.

3. Todd Litman’s review of Patrick Condon’s polemic, “Sick City”  Patrick Condon’s new book, Sick City: Disease, Race, Inequality and Urban Land, is at it’s heart, a denial that the supply and demand have any utility in helping us understand problems of housing affordability and availability.  The estimable Todd Litman of the Victoria Transportation Policy Institute has a scathing review of Condon’s book, effectively dismantling most of his key claims.  In his usual methodical and deeply footnoted way, Litman challenges each of Condon’s key propositions, patiently laying out his case. For example, Condon claims that upzoning simply leads to added developer profits rather than augmenting supply and holding down or reducing rents. Litman walks through a series of studies showing the reverse is true.  In the end, he concludes:

Condon does planners, housing advocates, and their clients a disservice by rejecting one of the most effective policies for increasing affordability: upzoning in walkable urban neighborhoods.

New Knowledge

Our new knowledge feature will return next week.

In the News

Todd LItman’s Planetizen review included references to a pair of City Observatory commentaries, one looking at the negative effects of Portland’s inclusionary zoning requirement and another assessing the literature on the role of housing supply increases in reducing displacement.

Strongtowns re-published our analysis of Massachusetts Department of Transportation proposal to build a “diverging diamond” interchange.  While gussied up with gallons of greenwash, the project represents yet another auto-centric re-making of the suburban landscape.