What City Observatory this week

Don’t be fooled again.  The Oregon and Washington state highway departments are up to their old tricks in trying to push a multi-billion dollar highway building boondoggle in the POrtland area.  A guest editorial from David Bragdon, formerly President of Portland’s regional government, recounts the lies and deceptive tactics the agencies used in their failed push for the original Columbia River Crossing a decade ago, which did nothing to improve the region’s transportation system, but squandered roughly $200 million on consultants and botched plans.

As Bragdon relates, the two state DOTs are pushing the same high pressure sales tactics of fictitious deadlines and requirements to get the region’s leaders to go along with what now looks like a $5 billion project.

Must read

1. Why the hybrid office won’t last.  There’s immense speculation that our pandemic-induced experience with work-at-home will lead firms and workers to abandon the idea of getting everyone together in offices or other workplaces.  Other’s maintain we’ll get more of hybrid model, working in the office a few days a week, and the rest of the time at home.  Not so fast, argues behavioral scientist Jon Levy.  Writing in the Boston Globe, he concludes that the productivity advantages of close contact, and the disadvantages of being “out of the loop” when working remotely, will have most (or all) of us headed back to the office, pretty much as soon as vaccine deployment allows.

2.   Brookings:  Reducing greenhouse gases requires changing land use.  Adie Tomer, Jenny Schuetz and two co-authors from Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program take a hard look at what it will take to make meaningful progress on fighting climate change.  We’ll certainly need to electrify transportation as much as we can, and clean up electric generation, but that won’t be enough:  we’ve got to fundamentally change American land use patterns.

Simply put, the United States cannot reach its GHG reduction targets if our urban areas continue to grow as they have in the past. After decades of sprawl, the U.S. has the dubious honor of being a world leader in both building-related energy consumption and vehicle miles traveled per capita. Making matters worse, lower-density development also pollutes our water and requires higher relative emissions during the initial construction. That leaves the country with no choice: We must prioritize development in the kinds of neighborhoods that permanently reduce total driving and consume less energy.

There’s little doubt the Brookings analysis is right; if anything though, they might be even more pointed in their policy prescriptions.  For example, liberalizing zoning to ease “missing middle” housing like duplexes and triplexes is important, but the big gains for climate are likely to come from widely legalizing apartments, particularly in transit served locations, as State Senate Scott Wiener has proposed in California.

3.  Maryland dials back a big freeway expansion project.  For several years, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan has been pushing a public-private partnership to widen more than 30 miles of the Capital Beltway around Washington DC.  It appears that the Governor is now backing off from a big part of that plan, at least for the time being.  Local officials opposing the project say it signals a shift in policy from the Biden Administration.  Maryland Matters reports that Montgomery County Council President Tom Hucker says:

. . . the state’s decision to drop a large piece of the original plan appeared to be an acknowledgement that President Biden and U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg have a vastly different philosophy than the prior administration.  The state’s approach “abjectly fails the test for transportation projects that the federal government now has — that they move people and not vehicles, and that they pass a climate test and a racial equity test,” Hucker said. “This 1970s-style project fails those 21st century standards.”

Freeway opponents around the country will want to take a close look at this decision.

Must attend

Freeway Fighters Social Hour (Thursday, May 20 @ 7pm ET)

Are you fighting to stop a highway expansion or engaged in a campaign to take down a highway in your community? Come meet others from across the country grappling with similar issues and share what you’re working on. The Congress for the New Urbanism is hosting a virtual Freeway Fighters Social Hour on Thursday, May 20th at 7pm ET. Contact Ben Crowther at bcrowther@cnu.org for a Zoom invitation!

New Knowledge

Does high speed rail benefit intermediate communities?  One of the explicit objectives of many high speed rail projects is to decentralize economic activity and relieve the perceived pressure on urban centers. But in practice, does the construction of high speed rail to smaller towns actually result in job or population decentralization.

Japan has long had the world’s most extensive high speed train network, and it provides a good laboratory for observing the long term effects on development patterns.  A new study by Hans Koster, Takatoshi Tabuchi, Jacques-François Thisse concludes that high speed rail has the unexpected effect of diminishing smaller intermediate communities.

They explain this seemingly paradoxical finding by noting that improved transportation is subject to distance effects, that is, faster travel is of more importance to longer trips than to shorter ones.  As a result, time savings at closer, intermediate destinations don’t make much difference to location economies.  In fact, better transport creates greater competition for those locations, meaning businesses face more competition from larger hubs.  As they explain:

. . .  there is a trade-off between a ‘hub effect’ and a ‘market size effect’. In presence of long-haul economies, the hub effect implies that a connection to the new infrastructure makes it easier to reach other places through lower transport costs. This in turn attracts more firms and employment. By contrast, the market size effect implies that if a region is small, it is easier for firms to set up a business in a core region and to transport goods or people to the small, connected region instead.

High speed rail may bring a nation or a region closer together, but it doesn’t necessarily have positive benefits to every community connected to the network.  In particular, this study suggests that assumptions that high speed rail would bolster new or expanded satellite cities—an idea proposed for the Pacific Northwest and challenged here by our colleague Ethan Seltzer—has the rail effect almost exactly backward.

Koster, H., T. Tabuchi and J. F. Thisse (2021), “To be connected or not to be connected? The role of long-haul economies”, CEPR Discussion Paper 15905.

In the News

The unlikely couple of Richard Florida and Joel Kotkin quoted City Observatory’s analysis of the migration patterns of the young and restless in their commentary on the likely trajectory of post-Covid cities.

The Oregonian cited City Observatory Director Joe Cortright’s testimony to the Oregon Legislature in its coverage of proposed toll-bond legislation.

Writing in The Oregon Catalyst, Lars Larson highlighted our description of the so-called I-5 bridge replacement project, which is really a $5 billion, 5-mile long 12 lane freeway that will be paid for, in part, by $5 round trip tolls.