The Week Observed, August 30, 2019

What City Observatory did this week

1. 20 Reasons to ignore the Texas Transportation Institute’s Urban Mobility Report. It’s back. After a four-year hiatus Texas A&M University’s transportation institute trotted out another iteration of its periodic urban mobility report, which predictably claims (as it does every time) that traffic congestion is a horrible problem and is getting worse. We and others have long since debunked the methodology, data and findings of the UMR:  it’s core measure, the travel time index, is misleading and penalizes cities with compact development and short commutes; its fixated on car travel and literally regards pedestrians as “inappropriate data”.  It treats time lost from being able to exceed legal speed limits as an economic cost to drivers. It values increased travel time in congestion at a rate five-times higher than what people actually pay to avoid congestion. And that’s just the tip of a larger iceberg:  We identify 20 reasons why, as in years past, you can and should ignore the Urban Mobility Report. Its discredited propaganda designed to justify more and wider roads, a failed strategy which has never worked and as only made car dependence, sprawl and traffic worse.

2. Round 1 in Portland’s freeway fight goes to the scrappy upstarts.  For the past couple of years we’ve been reporting on the Oregon Department of Transportation’s proposal to spend half a billion dollars widening a mile-long stretch of I-5 near downtown Portland. The local press reports a major victory for project opponents:  ODOT has given up trying to pursue the short-form environmental assessment, and instead will do a full-scale Environmental Impact Statement. That will add between one and three years to the project development process, and hopefully fix the manifest problems in the ODOT analysis to date create an opportunity to consider some alternatives actually promote safety, reduce driving, and improve the environment.


Must read

1. Do community preference housing policies enshrine segregation? Anti-gentrification efforts often call for neighborhood preference policies affordable housing opportunities (for example, giving local neighborhood residents preferential access to new affordable apartments that become available). Next City explores the potential problem with these policies: they tend to lock-in patterns of segregation, and deny people the opportunity to move to a different neighborhood. Because many city neighborhoods are substantially segregated, these policies tend to keep them that way. Fair housing activists have challenged neighborhood preference rules in New York and San Francisco; Seattle is wrestling with you to avoid reinforcing segregation.

2. Michigan cities need more congestion and gentrification. Never one to shy away from a controversial proposition, Michigan Future’s President Lou Glazer argues that contrary to popular belief, what Detroit and other Michigan cities need is both more congestion and more gentrification. In his view, rising home values and more traffic are closely related to more demand for a city, and its a lack of demand for Michigan cities that is at the root of most of their current problems. None of this is to say that gentrification and congestion aren’t problems themselves, but for economically struggling cities, its a better class of problem to be wrestling with. As always, Glazer is worth a read.

3. India mandates RFID tags for all vehicles. If you think about it, the ubiquitous stamped metal license plate used to identify cars is a 19th century technology. India has mandated that starting next year, all vehicles must have a radio frequency identification (RFID) tag–a windshield-mounted sticker, similar to the fast-pass technology used in many states in the US.  The change will enable a shift to all-electronic toll collection.

Road Transport and Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari announced that FASTags will become mandatory for all vehicles from December this year. This means that any vehicle, private or commercial, which has the FASTag will be able to swiftly make contactless payments at toll plazas on national highways and be on their way.

In a related story half a world away, the San Jose Mercury News reports a new California law requiring temporary metal plates instead of unreadable temporary paper licenses has  reduced toll evasion 75 percent on Bay Area highways and bridges. Owners of new cars would delay getting (or mounting) new license plates and dodge paying tolls. The one area where “smart” technology makes the most sense is assuring all vehicle operators obey the law.

4. YIMBY gets political.  Software engineer Steven Buss is a YIMBY activist in San Francisco. He’s got an essay laying out a clear political strategy for moving the YIMBY agenda forward in San Francisco, starting with running for key positions in the local Democratic Party, and then nominating (and electing) housing-friendly candidates to the city’s board of Supervisors. In Buss’s view, homeowners and landlords now control the city, and are effectively blocking new construction (restricting supply and thereby keeping rents and home values high). It’s as much a hard-edged financial calculation as a political manifesto: Buss has an interesting calculation showing that this rent-seeking has enabled landowners to capture a significant fraction of the value created by the city’s tech economy. Bottom line: Tech folks used to say that software was eating the world — “now landlords are eating everything.”

In the news

The Houston Chronicle’s Dug Begley quotes City Observatory’s Joe Cortright on the methodological flaws in the latest urban mobility report.

Its back, and its still wrong: the Urban Mobility Report

After a four year hiatus, the Texas Transportation Institute has once again generated its misleading Urban Mobility Report–and its still wrong.

The UMR has been comprehensively debunked–it has never been peer-reviewed nor have its authors responded to authoritative critiques, it relies on a series of false premises, penalizes cities with compact development patterns and short commutes, ignores non-automobile travelers, and exaggerates all of its key claims.  We’ll have an updated look at the latest iteration of the UMR (which relies on the same discredited methodology).  In the mean time, here’s what we’ve written at City Observatory about this and other similar congestion cost “studies.”

The top ten reason’s to ignore the Urban Mobility Report.

Is congestion worse now? The Urban Mobility Report can’t tell us.

Another tall tale from the Texas Transportation Institute.

Boo! The annual carmaggedon scare is upon us.

Our essay, the Cappuccino Congestion Index, explains why, fundamentally, the methods used by TTI and others are utterly meaningless as measures of consumer costs.

Unsurprisingly, the newest iteration of the report is sponsored by the Texas Department of Transportation. And as always, the message is “build, baby, build.”  The UMR has always been thinly veiled propaganda for building more and wider roads. It’s not designed either to help understand the root causes of traffic congestion (i.e. underpriced roadways), nor to fashion meaningful solutions.  No one should take it seriously.

Todd Litman of the Victoria Transportation Policy Institute has written a comprehensive critique of the Urban Mobility Report.

Our own detailed critique of the Urban Mobility Report–“Measuring Urban Transportation Performance”– is published here.







Portland’s freeway fight: Round 1 goes to the scrappy upstarts

Community opposition forces Oregon Department of Transportation to do a full Environmental Impact Statement on its half-billion dollar Rose Quarter freeway widening project.

For the past two years, we’ve been deeply engaged in the unfolding battle over the Oregon Department of Transportation’s proposal to spend half a billion dollars widening a mile long stretch of Interstate 5 near downtown Portland.  ODOT has been pushing the project on a fast-track, aiming to use the accelerated “Environmental Assessment” process to get a finding of “no significant environmental impact” so that it can move forward quickly to construction.

ODOT’s proposed Rose Quarter I-5 Freeway Widening doubles down on the project that sliced through this neighborhood.


A growing grassroots movement, led by the community group No More Freeways, has led an aggressive campaign against the freeway widening. It mustered more widespread opposition to the project, leading to roughly 90 percent of the more than 2,000 comments submitted on the environmental assessment opposing the a wider freeway. At City Observatory, we’ve documented numerous flaws the the Rose Quarter Freeway widening project’s environmental assessment:

  • It’s based on the un-revealed assumption that the region builds the moribund $3.5 billion Columbia River Crossing project
  • It proposes engineering a right-of-way wide enough to accomodate 8 traffic lanes, and falsely claims that the project doesn’t increase freeway capacity.
  • It omits an analysis of legislatively mandated congestion pricing for the I-5 freeway
  • And these points are just the tip of a much larger iceberg of flaws and misrepresentations; we’ve cataloged more than 25 flaws with the freeway widening proposal.

The fight over the Rose Quarter Freeway widening project has drawn national attention. CityLab called it “the freeway fight of the century.”  National experts, like Robin Chase, Jeff Speck and Janette Sadik-Khan have all pointed to freeway widening as an epic betrayal of Portland’s supposedly progressive transportation and environmental values.

In early 2019, as ODOT moved forward with its Environmental Assessment, community opposition grew; BikePortland’s Jonathan Maus explains:

There was intense pressure on ODOT to more fully examine the impacts of this project. Grassroots group No More Freeways PDX led a blistering campaign that called into question many elements of the EA and their activism helped the issue garner major attention. Organizations like Albina Vision, Portland Public Schools, Oregon Environmental Council and even Metro said the agency’s analysis didn’t go far enough and raised more questions than it answered. State House Representative Karin Power, Multnomah County Commissioner Susheela Jayapal, and Portland City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly also called for an EIS.

All that push back has appeared to force the Oregon Department of Transportation to change directions. Portland alt-weekly Willamette Week reports that ODOT is not going to seek a finding of “no significant impact” and instead will prepare a full EIS for the project. This represents a major setback, although not a final defeat, for the proposed freeway widening.  It’s likely to mean a one to three year delay to prepare a full-blown environmental impact statement.

State transportation officials are tight-lipped about their reasons–so far declining to confirm widespread reports that the decision has already been made to go to a full environmental impact statement. But press accounts point to strong opposition from community groups, including the Albina Vision project and Portland Public Schools (whose Harriet Tubman Middle School would be affected by the freeway widening).  It’s also probable that state and federal agencies recognized that project opponents had a strong shot at prevailing in any legal challenge to the sufficiency of the Environmental Assessment.

What remains to be seen is whether the agency will take this restart as an opportunity to fully address the manifold criticisms that have been levied of the project, the analyses presented to support it, and the process the agency as followed (offering nothing other that a freeway widening or nothing).  A serious EIS would look at the real challenges posed by climate change, would carefully appraise the opportunities to invest in transit, cycling and walking, and use congestion pricing to better manage freeway capacity, while promoting safety and restoring the urban environment rent asunder by freeway construction in the 1960s.

Round 1 goes to the scrappy community groups and environmental activists. But there’s little doubt that the freeway-building advocates will push forward. We’ll keep following the fight.



Get Out!: Moving to a new neighborhood to escape poverty

  • For many families, the way out of poverty is to move to a better neighborhood
  • A new study shows modest investments in information combined with supportive services can help them make that move.
  • We need to rethink attachment to neighborhood, and see moving as one way out of poverty for many low income households

The Seattle Experiment: Encouraging moves to opportunity

The arc of Raj Chetty’s work has been to convincingly illuminate, via big data, the critical role that neighborhood characteristics play in shaping our life chances, particularly for kids growing up in poverty. His project’s latest work, now under the banner of Opportunity Insights, is to test some of his findings in the real world with policy experiments. A new paper reports the results of a housing voucher experiment in Seattle, designed to figure out and overcome the barriers low income families face in getting housing in neighborhoods with better life chances.

The study’s approach and methodology are explained in some detail in excellent articles at Vox and CityLab, so we won’t reprise them here.  In most basic terms, the experiment consisted of randomly assigning families scheduled to receive housing vouchers to an experimental group–which received additional information about high opportunity neighborhoods along with customized counseling, and work with landlords–to a control group, which received just vouchers.

When provided with better information and some supporting services, voucher holders select and obtain housing in neighborhoods with higher levels of economic opportunity.  The results are stunningly large:  Those who got information and support services were 40 percentage points more likely to obtain housing in high opportunity neighborhoods than a control group, who just received vouchers; about 54 percent of “treated” participants moved into high opportunity neighborhoods, compared to just 14 percent in the control group.

To get an idea of what this means on the ground, consider this map of King County.  The area’s high opportunity neighborhoods are shaded in blue, and are principally located to the north and east of downtown Seattle. Most of the voucher holders in the control group (red pushpins) selected apartments in the Western half of the county, and especially in southern King County, where there are few high opportunity neighborhoods. (This mirrors a consistent pattern across the country in which most voucher holders are concentrated in lower income neighborhoods).  In contrast, a high fraction of the treatment group (the green push pins) selected housing in high opportunity areas (blue shading).

It’s too early, of course, to observe the lifetime effects of kids in the treatment and control groups as they grow up in these different neighborhoods (although the study will track families over time). But given Chetty, et al’s estimates of the difference in expected lifetime earnings between kids who’ve grown up in high opportunity v. high poverty neighborhoods in past decades, the author’s estimate kids in treatment families will earn an  additional $200,000 over a lifetime, with an equivalent net present value at birth of $85,000.

An earlier indicator of success, however, is qualitative analysis.  By a wide margin, those in the experimental program who moved to high opportunity neighborhoods are much more satisfied with their housing and their neighborhood, and report they are much more likely to stay than those in the control group.

. . . the treatment increased the share of families who report being “very satisfied” with their new neighborhoods by 33.6 percentage points (s.e. = 11.6, p < 0.01), from 28.6% in the control group to 62.2% in the treatment group

This kind of experiment is the gold standard of social science research methodologies:  a random-selection trial  that provides regular housing vouchers (with no added services) to a control group, and a set of information, counseling, preparation and modest financial support for move in costs (application fees, deposits, paying off outstanding utility bills, etc).

There are some important limits to the study; it’s scale is small, and ultimately, the effectiveness of the program hinges on there being enough affordable apartments in high opportunity neighborhoods.  The experiment, with just a few hundred households was hardly enough to strain the market, but the fact that even in a hot market like Seattle, low income households were able to find apartments was encouraging. Ultimately, though, the ability scale up the promising results of this program will hinge, yet again, on expanding the housing supply, particularly in high opportunity neighborhoods.

Housing search and barriers to moving to high opportunity neighborhoods

The fact that some places offer better living and better opportunities, while confirmed in dramatic detail by Chetty, et al’s work, isn’t exactly a secret.  But despite being aware that other places might offer a better shot out of poverty, many low income families seem rooted in low opportunity neighborhoods.  The big question is: “Why?”

The Seattle experiment illuminates how a series of small and seemingly prosaic barriers get in the way of making these moves. Time and the press of circumstance curtail the duration and scope of housing search. A significant fraction of program participants are dealing with medical and emotional challenges, and even domestic violence. The need to care for children, get to and from work, and deal with other challenges leaves them little time to explore the housing market. The supportive services help widen the areas voucher recipients consider and with help, they look at other neighborhoods, and much more frequently choose high opportunity places.

Its easy to imagine how people get trapped into considering only a limited number of choices.  If you’ve only lived in one part of town (a low opportunity part), your awareness of housing options in other places may be limited.
It’s likely that few of your friends, neighbors, co-workers or others have that familiarity as well.  Some housing opportunities in high opportunity neighborhoods may either be effectively invisible to low income families, or seem distant and unattainable.  It’s also clear that special efforts to work through the bureaucracy of rental applications, rectifying credit history issues, coming up with application fees and deposits, and not incidentally, overcoming discrimination are all important to getting different results.
Studies by Krysan and Crowder show that the choice set of neighborhoods is socially constrained, and affected by limited information, bias, and discrimination.  Other illuminating work on black migration shows that African-Americans who move to a different metropolitan area are much more likely to live in integrated neighborhoods than African-Americans who make moves within a metropolitan area.  One’s prior experience with a place constrains and informs the selection process. For many low income households, their only frame of reference is living in low opportunity neighborhoods, which contributes to the persistence of poverty.
What the Seattle experiment shows is that some modest and feasible efforts to provide information and services, and to lower the barriers between landlords and voucher holders reveals a dramatically different set of locational preferences on the part of low income households.

Bottom Line:  Most low income households don’t have a strong commitment to low opportunity neighborhoods. 

As the report concludes:

Low-income families tend to live in neighborhoods that offer limited prospects for upward income mobility, amplifying the persistence of poverty across generations. This paper has shown that this pattern of segregation is not driven by deep-rooted preferences among tenants or landlords. Rather, low-income families live in such areas primarily because of barriers that prevent them from moving to higher-opportunity neighborhoods – barriers that can be addressed through short-term assistance in the housing search process. These findings challenge canonical economic models of neighborhood choice in which residential sorting patterns are determined primarily by families’ preferences and call for greater modeling of the underlying structure of search costs.

The data suggest that while long term residence in an area might appear to be represent high attachment to a particular neighborhood, it is really in many cases a lack of knowledge, time and resources to become aware of other alternatives. As the authors explain, its hard to reconcile the widespread and consistent pattern of satisfaction reported by those  moving to high opportunity neighborhoods with strong attachment to their old neighborhoods.

The underlying assumption of many debates about neighborhoods and poverty is that people are tightly bound to place.  The reason we’re concerned about displacement is the sense that when people are “forced out” of a neighborhood that they have lived in and are attached to, that their networks of resources and connections are automatically and perhaps irreparably damaged.
A subsidiary argument could be made that low income households have, at least by dint of staying, chosen their neighborhoods, and despite some objectively negative effects, they feel that other factors (family, neighbors of similar ethnicity or income, or just familiarity) justify their choice.  In fact, as Chetty and his colleagues note, this assumption of “revealed preference”—that people have essentially voted with their feet and chosen the neighborhood that maximizes their well-being—underlies the canonical Rosen-Roback model of assessing urban amenities. The results of the experiment cast a great deal of doubt on that assumption.
A key takeaway from the Seattle experiment is that a very large fraction of low income residents would actually prefer not to live in low opportunity neighborhoods—provided they’re given the information and assistance to make that choice.

This has important implications for how we think about neighborhood change and migration. As we discussed last week in the context of two recent studies of gentrification, it’s often taken as a given that if a low income households moves out of a neighborhood it’s necessarily a bad thing: some equate movement with displacement. But this study (and more broadly the work of the Equality of Opportunity Project) suggests that for a significant fraction of households, moving to a better neighborhood is a path out of poverty.

A series of studies, including most recently reports  New York University, and from the Philadelphia Federal Reserve)  show that gentrification tends to produce very small increases in the rate at which low income households move out of gentrifying neighborhoods. That’s true in part because of the high rate of home-moving by low income households.  The average rental tenure in the United States is roughly two years; a wide majority  of all low income renters move over a decade or so, regardless of whether their neighborhood has gentrified or not.  Undoubtedly, as Matthew Desmond has demonstrated in Evicted, involuntary relocation is both an effect and a cause of persistent poverty. But that shouldn’t lead us to conclude that all moves represent displacement, or assume that reducing movement is always a positive in itself.

Its simply unreasonable–and unfair–to ask low income families to wait until their neighborhood gets better to find a better life for themselves and their children. For many, their best hope will be to find housing in a neighborhood that’s safer, has better schools and has less concentrated poverty and its associated ills. This experiment shows how we might move in that direction.


Peter Bergman, Raj Chetty, Stefanie DeLuca, Nathaniel Hendren, Lawrence Katz & Christopher Palmer, Creating Moves to Opportunity: Experimental Evidence on Barriers to Neighborhood Choice,  August 2019


CityLab: Everything you think you know about gentrification is wrong

Facts are stubborn things: And they don’t support the folk wisdom equating gentrification with displacement.

There’s a palpable and growing amount of cognitive dissonance between the accepted conventional wisdom about the intrinsically evil nature of gentrification, and a body of careful detailed research that shows that its either not bad, or actually produces measurable benefits. That cognitive dissonance is on full display in CityLab’s recent reporting on a new study of gentrification in New York.

It’s almost taken as a given by many that gentrification is synonymous with displacement. But a new study from New York University (and one from last week from the Philadelphia Federal Reserve) provide the best evidence yet that there’s essentially no difference in out-migration rates between gentrifying and non-gentrifying neighborhoods. In his article,  “Gentrification Did Not Displace NYC’s Most Vulnerable Children“, Kriston Capps bluntly and accurately summarizes the results of Ingrid Gould Ellen’s study of kids born to Medicaid families in New York City:

Using Medicaid data, researchers found that most low-income children in the city’s gentrifying neighborhoods stayed, even as affluent newcomers moved in.

Low-income children born into neighborhoods in New York City that later gentrified were no more likely to be pushed out over a seven-year period than children born into low-income places that did not gentrify, according to a new study that follows exactly where these vulnerable families lived and moved.

The study’s findings turn the conventional wisdom about the link between gentrification and displacement on its head. Low-income children who remained in their gentrifying neighborhoods saw a 3 percent greater decline in neighborhood poverty than those in low-income neighborhoods that didn’t gentrify.

CityLab calls these conclusions “surprising” and “counter-intuitive”, but these studies confirm a wealth of other research, going back more than a decade that reach essentially the same conclusion.  Gentrification is rare and seldom seems to produce displacement of long term residents. We’ve covered these studies at City Observatory, hereherehere, here, and here.

Still, Capps felt a strong need to cushion the blow for his readers:

If you are, like many CityLab readers, a mortal foe of gentrification, the study doesn’t necessarily mean that your world is now upside down. The picture that the study paints is complicated.

Translation:  “Don’t worry, you can still cling to your knee jerk antipathy to gentrification.” Capps assures disbelievers that they can discount this study, because, “it’s complicated.” That’s a pretty straightforward dodge:  it may be complicated, but there’s now a very large body of evidence that you can’t blame gentrification for displacement, which is the most common argument as to its harm. And one theoretical complication he flags, that gentrification may impose higher burdens of people of color, well, actually isn’t borne out by the data in the NYU study, as Capps acknowledges:

The NYU researchers concede that using averages for a sample of thousands of children could conceal specific harms: : After all, housing discrimination makes it much harder for black and Latinx households to find safe and affordable housing. When the researchers ran the model for children of different races, though, they found few differences. There was no evidence of elevated mobility (greater displacement) for children of any race.

Surely, this is complicated.  But the weight of evidence is now pretty clear that gentrification is not, on balance a bad thing, and in fact, may produce substantial benefits:  the Philadelphia Fed study confirms that gentrification produces benefits for long-term residents who remain in the neighborhood. So actually, if you are a mortal foe of gentrification, especially who equates gentrification with displacement, it’s time, as Brad DeLong would say, to mark your beliefs to market.

A shifting rationalization: Conflating moving and displacement

Implicitly, there’s a new line of argument about the hardships faced by poor households:  Gentrification may not force people to move, but these studies show that low income renters move a lot, and moving is per se bad.  Capps concedes that gentrification isn’t causing displacement, but that the high levels of movement of low income households is the problem:

Instead, displacement is a near-constant in the lives of vulnerable families—a force that isn’t correlated with gentrification. Understanding how displacement works is crucial in providing housing to low-income families who seriously lack residential stability, which is key to everything.

This line of argument  conflates “mobility” with “displacement”.  For example:

There was no evidence of elevated mobility (greater displacement) for children of any race.

Rates of mobility (or displacement) for families living in subsidized housing (31 percent) or public housing (36 percent) were far lower than children in marketplace housing.

Undoubtedly, transitory and uncertain tenure is a huge burden for poor families, as Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, clearly demonstrates.  But it’s a stretch to equate every household move with displacement.  Movement or migration may be an indicator of displacement, but isn’t the same thing. Careful studies of migration have shown that low income renters move for lots of reasons: changes in family status (marriage, divorce or separation), change of jobs, etc.).  Most of these moves are self-reported as voluntary in surveys.  Martin and Beck found that about one-quarter of moves by low income renters were “involuntary.”

More importantly, moving is often either an indicator of success or a path to opportunity.  Low income people move out of neighborhoods when their economic conditions improve (to be able to afford a safer place, better schools, nicer amenities) or simply to get better access to jobs.  The evidence from the latest analyses of the Moving to Opportunity program and Eric Chyn’s analysis of family relocations in Chicago shows that moving to a better neighborhood is one of the most important routes out of poverty for kids in low income households. In one of the most detailed and nuanced studies of residential mobility of low income households with children, scholars at the Urban Institute tracked household moves in low income neighborhoods in ten cities over a period of years.  Claudia Coulton, Brett Theodos and Margery Turner  found that moving was an essential path out of poverty for many households.

A move, however, does not always signal problems. For a substantial minority of families, residential mobility represents a positive choice. Across the Making Connections neighborhoods, 3 of every 10 movers were up-and-out movers, often becoming homeowners in better neighborhoods where they were more satisfied and optimistic.

And conversely, some households perceive residential “stability” as a bad thing:  they feel stuck in neighborhoods with limited opportunities and amenities. In Coulton, Theodos & Turner’s study, a fifth of long term residents in low income neighborhoods were classified as “dissatisfied stayers.”

In just the same way that we shouldn’t leap to the conclusion that gentrification causes displacement (or inevitably harms long time neighborhood residents), we shouldn’t assume that every move by a low income household out of a low income neighborhood is either involuntary, or results in hardship and that neighborhood stability is a sign of success. It’s more complicated than that. Ultimately, if we’re concerned about involuntary displacement, our focus ought to be on poverty.  As Matthew Desmond writes:

. . . if we want to understand why so many families are forcibly displaced from their homes, “poverty” rather than “gentrification” is a better concept to apply.

For too long, the debate about gentrification has hinged on grossly over-simplified narratives, that assume that neighborhoods never change, and that any movement in or out of a neighborhood is negative. It’s a very good thing that we’re finally applying evidence to understand the causes and effects of neighborhood change. To its credit, CityLab accurately reports that the New York University study (like earlier ones) show little or no relationship between gentrification and displacement. Hopefully this increasingly fact-based narrative will lead us to productive policy discussions about how to harness new investment in low income neighborhoods to assure diversity, and will also alert us to the far larger challenge of addressing concentrated poverty.


Portland’s food cart pod is dead, long live Portland’s food cart pods!

How food carts illustrate the importance of dynamic change in cities.

There’s a tension in the city between the permanent (or seemingly permanent) and the fleeting, between the immutability of the built environment and the minute-by-minute change in human behavior. Great cities not only change, but the excel at incorporating and encouraging change.

There are deep lamentations and wailing about the death, three weeks ago of one Portland’s largest and longest running food cart pods. For more than a decade, a cacophony of cuisine sprung up on the edges of a surface parking lot between 9th and 10th and 11th Avenues and Alder and Washington Streets.  You had your choice of everything from tacos to tempeh, pad thai to potato knishes. The site was a lively gathering place, especially at lunchtime and in evenings.

But its all gone now. The carts have been cleared away.


The block is being leveled for a new 35-story development that will include offices, residences and a Ritz-Carlton Hotel (the first in the Pacific Northwest).  On one level its the story of the most diabolical capitalism imaginable: hardy family-run immigrant entrepreneurs tossed out on their ear to make way for a chic hotel that caters to the one-percent. (For good measure, the block is part of an Opportunity Zone, and so investors are likely to get a cushy capital gains tax break on the $600 million project.

A tower rises where food carts once ruled: The Block 216 development, (Next Portland)

The foodies at Eater plaintively asked “Can Portland’s food carts survive the city’s development boom.” Their article somewhat misleadingly appeared to blame city government for the decision to close the carts, saying “When the city shut down a downtown cart pod to make way for a hotel, dozens of small-business owners — many of whom are immigrants — felt left in the lurch.”  While the parking lot that hosted the carts was called “City Center Parking” it was a private company, operating on private land, and the plans for developing the site have been widely publicized for a year now. Still, the carts that occupied the site are scrambling to find new locations.

In true Portland fashion, however, steps are already underway to buffer the impact of the change. Ultimately, the new development will include one street facing with “food hall” space for small scale food proprietors.  (We doubt seriously that it will approach the gritty edge-of-the-parking lot charm of what it replaced, but it does at least provide space for some businesses to continue. That’s at least two- to three-years off, and won’t have enough space for everyone to return, so the city is setting aside space in one of its North Park blocks, just a couple of blocks away for the food carts to settle.

But the bigger picture is that foods carts are, and ought to be, a decidedly mercurial and always evolving aspect of urban space.  They’re great for quickly activating under-used spaces at low cost; the number and composition of carts in a pod is usually steadily changing as different carts go out of business, move to different locations, or in a handful of cases, make the jump to brick and mortar.  And pods themselves are a cheap market research: a pod in the burgeoning East Side Industrial District (on Stark and Martin Luther King) flourished for a while, but has reverted to parking (and staging for nearby construction).  Southeast Portland’s popular Tidbit food cart pod, hailed as one of the best in the city, lasted just three years, and has given away to an apartment building–but other pods have started or grown nearby.

Tidbit: A great food cart pod, it lasted just three years.

And fear not gentle (or hungry) reader:  Portland continues to have a robust street-food scene. At last count there are more than 500 carts–so many, and changing so frequently that there’s a full time web-site dedicated to tracking their comings and goings. licensed mobile food vendors in the city.  There are food cart pods in neighborhoods throughout the city, each with its own distinct atmosphere and assortment of cuisines. Plus, they represent the adaptive reuse of urban space. One food cart pod on Killingsworth Street is a re-purposed gas station, which has seamlessly woven the garage, pump island and surrounding lot into a series interconnected dining spaces and play areas. And food carts are a great entrepreneurial opportunity for immigrants: helpfully, Multnomah County, which licenses carts, provides application materials and guidance in Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Thai, Korean, Vietnamese and Arabic).

The ephemeral quality of food carts also needs to be viewed in the context of the restaurant business, which itself is rife with turnover. The restaurant business is a fickle and fashion oriented one, and the struggle to develop the next new thing is only only slightly less pressing than in the tech world.

The real lesson about food carts and food cart pods may not be so much about protecting the existing locations, but instead making it sure that its always possible to up-cycle, even temporarily, under-used bits of the urban landscape. Cities, at their best, are living and dynamic, and open to new ideas, new businesses and new arrangements.  The openness to new things necessarily means that at least some of the old things will change. The opportunities to innovate, improve, and occasionally fail will move the city forward.  So, to answer Eater’s question, food carts will continue, even with Portland’s development boom.  They’ll find new niches and adapt as the city changes, which is a lesson for all of us. Bon Appetite!

The Week Observed, August 23, 2019

What City Observatory did this week

Portland’s food cart pods are dead; long live Portland’s food cart pods. Portland is famous as a foodie town, and one of the city’s claims to fame is having more than 500 food carts, mostly grouped in pods offering a range of different cuisines. One of the oldest and largest of these located in the city’s downtown, around the periphery of a square block surface parking lot, was unceremoniously swept away last month. The city and vendors are scrambling to provide new locations, and some foodies fear that this signals the cart’s demise (their former site will be redeveloped as a tony hotel and condo project.

But we’re much more optimistic about the cart’s futures. Food carts are an intrinsically ephemeral and ever evolving part of the city’s urban fabric. They fill in and activate vacant and under-used spaces, and their presence changes consumer and market perceptions of a neighborhood’s potential. While their former surface parking lot will be redeveloped, there are lots of other places in the city and downtown that will continue to host hundreds of other carts. Like the restaurant business itself, these will morph and change. Accepting and appreciating their temporal limits is better than expecting, or worse yet planning to prevent them ever changing.

Must read

1. Microsoft: Ubiquitous road-pricing is in your future. Microsoft is taking a keen interest in tolling technology, combining satellite data and tracking with cloud computing to pricing every segment of every road everywhere in real time. Microsoft’s chief economist, Michael Schwarz traced out the possibilities in a forum with the International Bridge Tunnel and Turnpike Association.

As we’ve argued at City Observatory, variable road pricing provides travelers with value for money.  With congestion charging, Schwarz said, “the cost of tolls will be exactly the same as the value of the time saved. You have given people some of their time back but taken some money from them. Nobody will miss the traffic congestion.”

Schwarz acknowledges the current political resistance to road-pricing, but argues that once a comprehensive congestion charging system is demonstrated at scale in some city (it could be New York), then there will be a tipping point where other cities will see the benefits of adopting such a system:

It will only take one forward-looking or extremely cash-strapped authority to implement congestion charging. Once that happens in one city, everybody else will see the money they are making and the lack of congestion – making it a better place to live. Other will soon follow.

2. Who’s really responsible for gentrification?  Homeowners who block new housing. Randy Shaw, author of Generation Priced Out, has a compelling Op-ed at Beyond Chron calling out the real culprits in the gentrification saga.  In his view, it’s homeowners, who use their substantial local political clout to block up-zoning and new development, especially of apartments. As Shaw points out, the media regularly cast homeowners as well-intended opponents of change (protecting neighborhood character), while developers are the villains in the gentrification melodrama.  This gets things pretty much backwards because blocking increases in housing supply is the real cause of higher rents and displacement. As Shaw says:

Banning apartments from single family home neighborhoods limits new residents to those who can afford to purchase a home. Banning new multi-unit construction also artificially reduces supply, driving up home prices for existing owners. That’s how most San Francisco neighborhoods, and those in other high-housing cost cities,  gentrified. It happened with little or no multi-unit construction. Yet homeowners have adeptly  shifted blame for the gentrification of urban neighborhoods from their own land use policies to builders—even when no building has occurred.

The naive assumption that blocking new housing construction will keep a neighborhood just as it is, and somehow prevent gentrification, is instead a recipe for even more intense competition for a limited supply of housing, especially existing apartments.

3. The decline of Black middle neighborhoods.  Allan Mallach, author of The Divided City, explores the processes of neighborhood change in black neighborhoods in an essay for Shelterforce. He relates data showing the steady erosion of black homeownership in a series of Northeast and Midwest cities. After the bust in housing, the number of mortgages issued to black households has failed to recover, and more importantly, black homebuyers are increasingly buying outside of traditionally black middle neighborhoods. Mallach describes the data for St. Louis:

In 2007, Black homebuyers obtained 801 mortgages to buy homes in the city of St. Louis. Of those, 541, or two-thirds, were for homes in predominately (80 percent or more) African-American neighborhoods, mostly the middle neighborhoods I’m talking about. . . . Ten years later, in 2017, Black homebuyers obtained 281 mortgages in St. Louis. But only 84, or less than one-third, were in predominately African-American neighborhoods.

The paucity of black homebuyers and the evaporating demand for homeownership in black neighborhoods has led to a further erosion of those neighborhoods (as well as driving down home values there). Mallach describes similar patterns in Cleveland and Detroit: black families are increasingly buying homes in suburbs and integrated neighborhoods. While this is driven by, and may accentuate decline of traditionally black neighborhoods, its not surprising:

On the one hand, one can argue that Black homebuyers are making sound, rational decisions for themselves and their families. . . .  Many of those suburbs offer (or at least appear to offer) distinct advantages over central city neighborhoods in terms of safety, schools, and public services. For many young Black homebuyers, suburbs may be becoming the default option. . . .By moving to a suburb or a racially-mixed urban neighborhood, a Black homebuyer dramatically increases the odds that their property will appreciate.

4. Micromobility in Portland. The range of small-form, non-automobile modes of urban transportation is morphing right in front of our eyes, with the advent of shared-bicycles, e-scooters, and various models of electric bicycles. With more range, comfort, and convenience, these modes are opening up non-auto transportation to a growing segment of the population.  Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Jeff Mapes profiles Annie Rudwick, who uses a electric assist cargo bike for her daily four mile work commute with two small children.

An electric SUV. (Photo: Cheyenne Thorp, OPB)

Annie is able to commute by bike not just because of the improved technology, but critically because of Portland’s relatively compact development pattern (she lives in a close-in urban neighborhood, and her medical campus employer is also adjacent to downtown) and because the city has invested in a growing network of bike paths. And economics figures into the decision as well:  parking costs about $13 per day at her workplace and her employer, Oregon Health and Science University pays her $1.50 a day to cycle (and throws in free valet bike-parking).  Innovation, infrastructure and incentives all have important and mutually reinforcing roles to play in accelerating the micro-mobility revolution.

New Knowledge

The steady and significant decline in teen moms. The Pew Charitable Trusts has a nice chart showing how much progress the nation has made in reducing teen motherhood in the past several decades. Births to teen moms have declined from 96 per 1,000 15-19 year old women in the early 1960s, to just 17.4 per 1,000 in 2018. The decline has been especially strong in the past decade, with the teen birth rate falling by more than half since 2008.

Teen motherhood is a significant predictor of reduced life chances for children, because younger mothers often lack the resources (and partners) to successfully raise kids. Having kids at an early age is a big challenge for teen moms as well. The Pew report cites a number of reasons for the decline; teens today are less sexually active than their peers of earlier decades, and more likely to use contraception. Both the teen birth rate and the abortion rate have declined over time.

The Week Observed, August 30, 2019

What City Observatory did this week


Must read

1. Why Detroit (and other cities) need more gentrification and congestion. Michigan Future’s Lou Glazer has a provocative essay arguing that Detroit and other struggling cities would actually benefit from more gentrification and congestion.  In a word, both phenomena are indicators that there’s growing demand for urban space, and for struggling cities, its the lack of demand that underlies poverty and a range of other problems. While it seems counterintuitive to some, higher rents and more traffic are correlates of a robust economy.  As Glazer argues:

What people don’t think about is that for both gentrification and congestion the positives far outweigh the negatives. The reason I continue to make the case that Detroit––really all Michigan cities––need more gentrification and congestion is both are signs of demand. People wanting to live and work there and business wanting to locate there. Successful communities (whether it is a neighborhood, community or region) are places with high demand. Places with low demand are some combination of declining and distressed.

New Knowledge


The Week Observed, August 16, 2019

What City Observatory did this week

Copenhagen’s success:  More than just bike lanes.  Copenhagen is one of the world’s great cycling cities, and its accomplishments are a a beacon to those looking to build more bike friendly places.  Most commuters in the city now travel by bike on a daily basis. Part of the city’s success stems from significant investment in bike infrastructure. While that’s critical, many Copenhagen boosters overlook some of the other significant aspects of Danish policy.  Notably, Danes pay a 100 percent tax on new vehicles (essentially doubling the price of new cars), and also pay hefty taxes on motor fuel.  In addition, the city is zoned for a much higher level of density that US cities, and invests heavily in affordable housing:  nearly 20 percent of Danes live in some form of social housing.  Making dense urban living abundant and affordable, and asking cars to pay something closer to their full social and environmental costs is also essential to promoting cycling.

Must read

1. Green cities are dense cities. Sightline’s Alan Durning has a provocative comparison of the density levels in three Pacific Northwest cities (Vancouver, Seattle and Portland) and some similar sized European cities (Paris, Vienna and Barcelona). The European cities are, not surprisingly vastly denser (even though all three have notably large public greenspaces).  This becomes clear when you overlay the municipal boundaries of the pairs of cities.  Here’s Portland compared to Vienna; Vienna has three times as many people in a slightly larger space.

As Durning writes, higher density translates directly into a greener place.

Paris is almost six times as densely settled as Seattle. Barcelona is three times as dense as Vancouver. And Vienna is more than twice as dense as Portland . . . Compact, populous cities save so much energy by sharing walls, shortening trips, and shedding cars that they are to urban planning what windmills are to the electric grid: indispensable climate protectors.

It’s also worth noting that because all these cities do a better job of enabling the construction of dense new housing (and here, Vienna is an exemplar), they are relatively more affordable than the American cities, which still make it difficult or impossible to build anything other than single family homes in much or most of their territory (although that’s changing with just passed planning laws).

2. Housing policy advice for Salt Lake City.  The Marron Institute’s Brandon Fuller, writing in the Salt Lake Tribune, offers his views on how to address that city’s growing housing affordability challenges.  Based on his review of the research in the field, Fuller has a series of do’s and don’ts:  On the do list, is expanding housing supply, including ADUs and SROs (accessory dwelling units and single room occupancy housing).  Legalizing these forms of housing can make a material difference in housing availability and affordability for low income populations and have a minimal urban footprint. Also on the “do” list:  use a portion of Tax Increment Financing to subsidize affordable housing development (a Portland policy we’ve profiled at City Observatory).  Top of the “Don’t” list:  inclusionary housing requirements.  As Fuller notes, while politically appealing, inclusionary housing requirements act like a tax on new housing supply, discouraging development and tending to tighten housing supply and, perversely, drive up market rents.  While tailored for the current debates in Salt Lake City, we suspect this advice has equal merit in many other cities across the country.

3. Reflections on gentrification.  New York Magazine‘s Intelligencer section has a thoughtful essay reflecting on the debates around gentrification in light of new research that’s come out in the past few months.  Two of the most careful and comprehensive studies taken to date, by the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank and New York University researchers, show that there’s little, if any displacement from gentrifying neighborhoods.

Despite the evidence that the impacts are minimal, there’s still a strong opposition to gentrification, that generally manifests itself in trying to block any change.  As the Intelligencer essay points out, this is often counterproductive.  Measures that block new housing can drive up rents, and even set-aside policies that reserve affordable housing for neighborhood residents can simply reinforce patterns of segregation.  Ultimately, policy has to acknowledge that neighborhoods will change, and give more thought to figuring out how to assure that the benefits of that change are widely shared:

Government should be making it easier, not harder, for people to change addresses if and when they want to. As newcomers roll in, with or without college educations, nobody has the right to tell them they shouldn’t or can’t. In the short term, gentrification makes neighborhoods more, not less, economically diverse and more racially integrated. The problem is that over time, those advantages dissipate, though not uniformly, and temporarily mixed neighborhoods become homogeneous again, and each new population in turn defends the turf it colonized. Diversity, not preservation, should be the goal. Instead of expending vast amounts of energy trying to shield fragile communities from change, we should make sure they reap its benefits.

In the news

Writing in the East Oregonian, Kevin Fraser cites City Observatory’s analysis of four-decade changes in neighborhood demographics in the nation’s 50 largest metropolitan areas.

The Week Observed, August 9, 2019

What City Observatory did this week

How helping families move to better neighborhoods reduces segregation and promotes opportunity. The work of the Opportunity Insights project, led by Harvard’s Raj Chetty, has shown convincingly that where you grow up has a profound influence on your life’s path. Kids from low income families that grow up in mixed income neighborhoods tend to have higher incomes (and are less frequently incarcerated) than otherwise similar kids who grow up in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty. A new demonstration program in Seattle has used housing vouchers, coupled with intensive support services for prospective tenants (and landlords) to see whether low income households will, given the chance, choose higher opportunity neighborhoods. The findings show that modest support services increase the number of families moving to high opportunity neighborhoods by 40 percentage points, compared to a control group of families offered housing vouchers, but no support.

The demonstration project also shows that families moving to high opportunity neighborhoods are much more satisfied with their new housing and neighborhoods than the control group. Based on the Opportunity Insights research, kids growing up in these neighborhoods can be expected to have considerably higher incomes as adults. In addition, the study also points out that we shouldn’t assume that low income households are highly attached to low opportunity neighborhoods–given somewhat better information, and some supporting services, many are happy to move to new neighborhoods that give their kids a chance for a better life.

Must read

1. Vehicle miles traveled by Uber and Lyft. The exact contribution of ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft to urban traffic congestion has been a murky topic: the companies have been reluctant to share the copious data they’ve compiled about where and how much their ride-hailed vehicles traveled. That appears to be changing, a little. According to CityLab, the firms jointly engaged transportation planners Fehr and Peers to compile data on ride-hailed trips for a number of cities.  These show that while ride-hailing makes up about 1-3 percent of metro level travel, the figure is much higher (7-12 percent in core counties of large metro areas like Boston, Seattle and Washington.

The real issue is in urban centers, where ride-hailed rides are disproportionately concentrated. As we’ve noted before at City Observatory, ride-hailing demand is closely associated with drinking, flying, and paying for parking. The cost of parking is a brake on driving to center cities, but Uber and Lyft avoid parking charges, and thereby drive additional travel in city centers.

The geographic concentration of Uber and Lyft traffic is clear evidence of the effect of pricing (and subsidies) on car use.  Ride-hailing overcomes one cost of car use (parking charges) and has a significant subsidy (the billions of dollars Uber and Lyft shareholders are paying to cover money-losing service). The policy lesson here has less to do with ride-hailing, and much more to do with road pricing:  If we price scarce and valuable city streets effectively, we’ll get less car traffic and less congestion. The Uber/Lyft business model (paying a la care for car travel, with rates varying by location and time of day is the core o the solution to urban traffic congestion.

2. Gentrification data:  Hard-headed and hard-hearted? Writing at Greater Greater Washington, Alex Baca and Nick Finio reflect on the recent Philadelphia Federal Reserve study on gentrification. The heavily quantitative study (which we profiled at City Observatory) makes the strongest case yet that gentrification is rare, and seldom results in displacement of long-term residents. As Baca argues, while the numbers are indisputable, the underlying power imbalance between “the movers and the shaken,” the long history of urban change working to the disadvantage of the poor and people of color, and the often difficult to define sense of loss of neighborhood identity mean that the numbers alone don’t tell the whole story. Most concretely, the symbolism of gentrification–the construction of new housing–is simultaneously emblematic of an influx of capital, and also the best hope of minimizing displacement.

By the transitive property of signifiers of neighborhood change, the very new buildings that could possibly mitigate some negative effects of newcomers, by literally absorbing them without much displacement, are almost universally regarded as symbolizing the physical and cultural exclusion of current residents. Data can nearly never account for that.

3. Autonomous Vehicles start testing in New York. The New York Times provides a peak at a trial run of autonomous vehicles in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, by Optimus, an AV startup.  Optimus has low speed electric shuttles traveling a loop around the yard providing free rides to workers and visitors in a relatively controlled environment. As in other places, the vehicles are staffed by human attendants monitoring their performance, and occasionally stepping in when the vehicles AI seems baffled. Brooklynites interviewed about the vehicles seemed skeptical of their utility.  As the article reports:

Matt Cortright, an architectural designer who rides his bike to work (the cars have a bike rack), said that a driverless car is still a car. “My general perception is we have too many cars already and adding cars without drivers doesn’t solve the problem.” he said.

Plus, he added, “If I get hit by a car, I want to be able to sue the person driving it.”

New knowledge

How health care ate our take home pay. Axios has a succinct chart showing how much of our change in compensation over the past several decades has gone to health care costs. The average household’s income, in real, inflation-adjusted terms has barely budged–up 2 percent–since 1999.  But health care costs have gone up 121 percent (again, inflation-adjusted).  Health care works out to the equivalent of roughly 30 percent of median household income, about $18,800 per year out of a total income of $61,400 per year.

In the news

City Observatory’s Joe Cortright is quoted in a Bloomberg Business story exploring the challenges of tapping the asset value of public land to tackle affordable housing in Seattle.

The Week Observed, August 2, 2019

What City Observatory did this week

1. CityLab: Everything you think you know about gentrification is wrong. We take a look at a recent CityLab article reporting (faithfully) the findings of some recent research on gentrification in New York City. The study, which looked at households with kids in the Medicaid program, found that low income families living in gentrifying neighborhoods were no more likely to move than those living in non-gentrifying neighborhoods. The study, like others that have been published recently (and actually, for several years) undercuts the widespread belief that gentrification is synonymous with displacement. CityLab called the findings “surprising” and “counter-intuitive” and took pains to reassure its readers that they should still feel okay about being “mortal foes” of gentrification, because, well, it’s complicated. While it may be complicated, this new study–and a growing body of evidence clearly disproves the folk wisdom equating gentrification and displacement. And efforts to backstop the argument by equating any movement by residents of low income neighborhoods with displacement, grossly oversimplifies how people escape poverty and how neighborhoods change.

2. A modest proposal: Apply the Americans with Disabilities Act to highways. For the past three decades, the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has prompted significant changes to the public realm, making buildings, accommodations and public transport more accessible to those with disabilities. For transit operators, the cost of providing access has been substantial: they’ve had to retrofit transit vehicles, and also offer alternatives like dial-a-ride service. We question why a similar standard isn’t applied to the nation’s highways:  If you’re disabled and unable to drive a car, highways and freeways are no more accessible to you that a bus with steep stairs. But the best highway agencies can do–belatedly, and under court order–is install pedestrian ramps at freeway exits. That hardly makes the freeway itself usable for the disabled.  We’d propose that highway departments be required to provide service–like fixed route buses, or dial-a-ride service–so that even those with disabilities have access to the nation’s highway system.

Transit agencies make accommodations for the disabled–highway departments, not so much.

3. Put a price on carbon: Economists and scientists agree. It’s rare you find economists of all stripes agreeing on something, but here’s one thing:  If we’re serious about doing anything to check climate change, putting a price on carbon is an essential step.  There’s a short, sharp statement signed by dozens of the nation’s leading economists, including recent Nobel laureates. And if that isn’t enough, Bill Nye–the Science Guy–has weighed in with his own succinct explanation of how carbon taxes work. And Bill, who exhibited tremendous patience teaching us science when we were younger, is now visibly upset that we don’t seem to be paying attention to the seriousness of the climate crisis.  His salty explanation of the economics of carbon pricing is worth a watch.

Must read

1. The Democratic Presidential candidates and America’s two housing crises. For the first time in decades, housing is showing up as a presidential election issue, with several candidates offering policy proposals. Matt Yglesias of Vox has a spot-on analysis explaining that we have two distinct housing problems. The first is that many low income people simply don’t earn enough to afford housing, and our current system of subsidies reaches fewer than a quarter of those eligible. (Most housing subsidies, delivered through the tax code, go to high income homeowners). The second problem is that cities (and the states that empower them) make it too hard to build housing in the economically prosperous cities that people want to live in. The shortage of housing in these cities drives up prices, which affects everyone. Providing more support for low income families will require the federal government to adjust its priorities; getting cities to allow more housing in high demand areas will be a tougher task for a President, because land use decisions have been effectively left to cities and to states.

2. Jenny Schuetz on the candidates positions on housing. The perfect chaser for Yglesias high level analysis of the policy issues is Brookings’ Jenny Schuetz expository for The Atlantic on the different housing proposals that each candidate is advancing. About half the candidates have advanced specific ideas. The median candidate policy is some combination of increased subsidies for housing for low income households (addressing poverty) and some federal incentives for cities to deregulate apartment construction (to address supply constraints).  As she notes, one policy is conspicuous by its absence: a big expansion of public housing, something that is regularly endorsed by many on the left. The real issue may not be the wonky details, so much as the overall vision; housing policy remains mired in the past, and until we agree on what we’re trying to accomplish, real policy changes may be hard to come by.  As Schuetz writes:

The United States needs an affirmative vision of a 21st-century housing policy. Since the 1950s, Washington has followed an implicit strategy of encouraging homeownership in low-density, car-centric suburbs. Today we need a new strategy that embraces the country’s assets and challenges: a more diverse population, stubborn regional economic disparities, and the ever more tangible impacts of climate change.

3. Required parking is vastly under used. One of the painful ironies of urban transportation is that we have copious information about road use, and pathetically little information about the vast amount of land and infrastructure devoted to parking. A new study from the Metropolitan Area Planning Council sheds light on how under-used apartment parking lots are in Greater Boston. Cities require developers to build, at great expense, off-street parking as a condition of getting building approval.  MAPC’s survey shows that even late at night, when residents should be home and their cars parked on-site, only 70 percent of parking spaces are in use.  There’s considerable variation across properties and communities:  at a quarter of the sites they surveyed, fewer than half of all parking spaces were in use. But the net effect of the requirements is to require developers to build, and tenants to pay for parking that isn’t used.  That drives up the cost of housing for everyone.  The solution? Cities should eliminate parking requirements and wherever possible uncouple the business of selling car storage from the business of leasing apartments.


Copenhagen: More than bike lanes

Correctly pricing car use and promoting dense urban development are keys to promoting cycling

The Los Angeles Times has a gushy article–“Copenhagen has taken bicycle commuting to a whole new level,“–extolling the virtues of cycling in Copenhagen.  What with a vast network of bike lines and even bike-superhighways, and a robust public commitment to making cycling a viable transportation alternative, the Danish capital is a model of how to free a city from domination by cars. Long a leader in this endeavor, Copenhagen continues to build on its success:  fully 62 percent of commutes are by bike, up from 36 percent just seven years ago.

Biking in Copenhagen (Los Angeles Times)

Its an impressive accomplishment, and for good reason Copenhagen stands as a model of how a prosperous Western city can consciously undertake policies that lessen its reliance on automobile transportation and reduce carbon emissions and other air pollution by making it easier and more convenient to get around by bicycle.

The LA Times chalks up Copenhagen’s success to a combination of political leadership, and the investment of about $115 million in cycling infrastructure in the past decade.  Copenhagen has on-street bike lanes, dedicated bike boulevards, and even bike- and pedestrian-only bridges.  Cycling has achieved social and cultural critical mass.  People of all ages, different genders and social stations ride their bikes: cycling is not the exclusive province of the athletic, the young and the spandex-clad. And most everyone rides some variant of the simple, upright single-speed black city-bike.  As an occasional visitor to the city, its a joy to rent a bicycle and use it as your primary means of transportation.

For those who have made the pilgrimage to Copenhagen, and come away with a romantic vision of re-making their auto-dominated city into a more bike-friendly place, there’s a lot than can be learned.  While leadership and infrastructure are certainly keys to building a bike-friendly city, too many re-tellings of Copenhagen’s success–leave out some of the most important ingredients.  (Aside from a reference to parking violations costs as much as $80, the LA Times article spells out none of the details about how car travel is priced in Denmark).  A close look at the specific policies for taxing and pricing of cars and fuel, and promoting dense urban development are key to understanding why Copenhagen has been so successful.

Like most Western European nations, Denmark imposes heavy taxes on gasoline.  The typical price of a liter of gas in Denmark today is about 10.70 Danish Kronor (DKK), which works out to about $5.70 per gallon (about US$ 0.14 per DKK and 3.78 liters per gallon).  Because of higher taxes, gasoline costs roughly twice as much in Denmark as it does in the US. Cheap gasoline is a strong inducement to own and drive cars.  Expensive gasoline prompts people to make very different choices, both about where to live and how to travel. (Plus the tax revenue is a vital source of funding for bike infrastructure, transit, and a range of public services).

Also, Denmark imposes a 150 percent excise tax on most new vehicle purchases.  So a basic economy car which would have a retail price of say $20,000 in the US would cost upwards of $50,000 in Denmark.  (The tax has been reduced from a previous level of 180 percent).  Unsurprisingly, only about 29 percent of Copenhagen households own cars.  Making cars and driving more expensive creates powerful incentives for people to live in places where there are good alternatives to car travel (including transit, walking and cycling), and to utilize these modes regularly.

Finally, its worth noting that the density and ownership of housing in Copenhagen is very different than in US cities.  Copenhagen is relatively dense.  Nearly 60 percent of households live in multi-family housing.  Also, Denmark has a system of tenant-governed social housing.  About 20 percent of the nation’s population lives in social housing that is constructed and governed by tenant cooperatives.  Cycling is more convenient in higher density communities.

There’s a lot we can learn from the design and operation of bike lanes in Copenhagen, and the lessons about leadership and the need to make investment are real.  But that’s only part of the story.  Public policies that ask car owners to take greater responsibility for the cost of roads and emissions, and the conscious decision to build housing at much higher densities make cycling more attractive and feasible than car travel for many trips.  As we always stress at City Observatory, the dysfunction in our transportation system stems fundamentally from charging the wrong price for roads. Stories, like this one from the Guardian, extolling the Copenhagen cycling success story shouldn’t leave out the essential role of correctly pricing cars and fuel and building dense housing.

The top twenty reasons to ignore TTI’s latest Urban Mobility Report

It’s hard to find a more biased and misleading example of pseudo-science than the Texas Transportation Institute’s Urban Mobility Report. Here are our top 20 reasons why you should ignore the latest version.

Since the 1980s, Texas A&M University’s Texas Transportation Institute has periodically trotted out various versions of its  “Urban Mobility Report,” which purports to estimate the dollar cost of urban traffic congestion.  The report has been repeatedly debunked (by us, and others), but after a four-year hiatus, its back, and its making the same false claims based on the same discredited premises.  There’s so much that is wrong with this report, that its hard to fit all of the criticisms into a single blog post.  

If you’re walking, cycling or taking the bus, you’re “inappropriate data” and are not included in the “Urban Mobility Report.”

But to quickly summarize the lengthy case against the UMR, we’ve pulled together a sort of Cliffs Notes version of the problems with the UMR, skimmable by people who just want a quick overview of the issues, without all the background. So without any further ado, the top twenty reasons to be skeptical of the “Urban Mobility Report”:

  1. TTI claims that the UMR proves traffic is worse than at any time since 1982—but major methodological changes make these invalid.
  2. The UMR, in the words of Victoria Transportation Policy Institute executive director Todd Litman, “ignores basic research principles,” including failing to allow other experts to review its data and findings—the sort of “peer review” that is foundational to social science investigations. The 2019 iteration of the report simply ignores the multiple, widely published critiques of its methodology. 
  3. As the Eno Foundation’s Rob Puentes notes, the UMR measures mobility, not access. That is, cities get high scores if you can drive really fast—not if you can actually reach jobs or amenities in less time.
  4. In many cases, the UMR counts an inability to drive faster than the speed limit as “congestion.” The 2019 report counts any reduction of freeway speeds from 65 miles per hour as “time lost to congestion” even if the posted speed limit is 50 or 55 miles per hour. It’s indefensible that this report treats the inability to break the law as a “cost,” especially when speeding is proven to be a major contributor to road fatalities.
  5. The report fails to acknowledge that there’s simply no feasible way to build enough road capacity that all vehicles could travel at free flow speeds (often in excess of speed limits) every hour of the day. The cost of building such capacity would be vastly greater than the supposed “cost” of congestion, meaning that in reality the net cost of congestion is zero (or less).
  6. The UMR completely ignores the effects of induced demand: building more road capacity stimulates more sprawling development patterns, and more driving, which actually aggravate congestion and lead to more pollution and higher costs for the public and commuters. The phenomenon of induced demand is now so well-established that its referred to as “the fundamental law of road congestion.”
  7. Practical experience with capacity expansion has shown that wider roads don’t reduce congestion. In TTI’s own backyard, the multiple widenings of Houston’s massive 23-lane Katy Freeway have only produced more traffic and even slower travel times. There’s simply no evidence than more capacity reduces congestion.
  8. Its remarkable that as traffic engineers, the authors of the UMR ignore the fact that freeways carry the highest amount of traffic at speeds of about 45 miles per hour. (At higher speeds, car spacing increases and roads can carry fewer cars). Building enough capacity to allow 55 or 65 mile per hour speeds is vastly more expensive and less efficient than designing to accomodate a speed that maximizes throughput. This is advocacy for waste.
  9. The UMR has no solution for congestion because it lacks a credible explanation as to why congestion exists in the first place. While the report acknowledges (p. 12) there’s an “imbalance” between demand and supply, it fails to consider that the fact that we charge a zero price for road use means that demand inevitably overwhelms supply in urban areas. As we’ve illustrated with the Ben and Jerry’s seminar on transportation economics, a zero price for a valuable commodity is the cause of congestion and queueing.
  10. The UMR claims that congestion got worse every year between 2009 and 2014, but contemporaneously published data from Inrix (supposedly the source of the UMR estimates)—show that tell show that nationally congestion declined by about 30 percent during these years, due largely to a decline in vehicle miles traveled.   Inrix has disappeared this data from its servers, and the Texas Transportation Institute has never explained the discrepancy.
  11. Despite claims that they favor a mix of measures including transit and more density, the TTI’s travel time index actually penalizes compact cities and places that undertake measures that shorten work trips. The TTI scorecard perversely incentivizes sprawl and ignores the costs associated with longer trips.
  12. The UMR purports to show that commuters in some areas are much worse off due to congestion, but survey data show that there’s simply no correlation (if not a reverse correlation) between the UMR’s key metric (the travel time index) and self-reported satisfaction with the urban transportation system.  People who live in more congested places are not less happy with their urban transport systems than people who live in less congested places.
  13. The UMR’s prediction that traffic will get much worse in the coming years is based on a model that simply pretends the last decade didn’t happen.
  14. The report greatly exaggerates the value commuters attach to travel time savings. The report calculates the value of travel time at $15 per hour, but actual experience with High Occupancy Toll lanes, where people have the option in real time to buy a faster trip, shows that the typical traveler values travel time at just $3 per hour; this single adjustment would lower the supposed value of time “lost”to congestion by 80 percent.
  15. The UMR says that adding road capacity will reduce congestion—but 92 of the top 99 places where congestion increased according to the previous UMR increased their roadway miles per capita. Building more roads won’t reduce congestion or improve access without land use changes and other transportation investments.
  16. The “Urban Mobility Report” is in fact a report just about driving. Public transit, walking, and biking—essential parts of the transportation network in any city—are almost entirely left out. The UMR  actually notes (p. 15) that excludes data on people walking: “The proprietary process filters inappropriate data (e.g., pedestrians walking next to a street)” (This is the sole reference to “pedestrians” in the entire UMR; the word “bike” also appears just once).  If you walk, bike or take transit you simply don’t exist in the eyes of TTI.
  17. The UMR has just a single reference to safety, in a section dealing with autonomous vehicles. There’s no acknowledgement that higher road speeds and more VMT are strongly correlated with increased crashes and traffic deaths. More driving means more dying.
  18. Here’s a list of words you won’t find in the Urban Mobility Report:  “sprawl,” “pollution,” “emissions,” injuries”, “deaths,” “carbon,” “climate,” “VMT”, “induced demand,” “pricing,” “tolling.” Trying to talk about urban transportation systems without considering their effects on these other pressing problems is a measure of how detached the UMR is from the reality of the 21st century.
  19. The 2019 UMR has carefully avoided any references to tolling or road pricing, the one approach to congestion management that’s been proven to work in cities around the world. The 2015 UMR specifically recommended high occupancy toll lanes as a possible solution–the new report (p. 13) omits that recommendation.
  20. The UMR creates a fictitious time trend by ignoring changes in its methodology.  To support its claim that congestion is increasing, the UMR reports data going back to 1982  even though TTI’s methodology has changed several times since then.  The model for through 2007 didn’t actually measure congestion: it simply assumed that increased vehicle volumes automatically produce slower speeds, which is not necessarily accurate. The report’s data from 2007 and earlier isn’t comparable the data that comes afterwards, and can’t legitimately be used to make claims about whether traffic is better or worse than in earlier periods.