Portland’s Phony, Failing Climate Strategy

Portland has soaring climate rhetoric, but 1,000 pounds per person more in greenhouse gases from driving

Portland has adopted bold climate goals, but when it comes to the single largest local source of greenhouse gas emissions, we’re moving rapidly in the wrong direction.  Greenhouse gas emissions in the Portland area have grown by more than 1,000 pounds per person in just the past five years.  Here are the data, gathered from the national DARTE transportation emissions database.


Data are stated in kilograms of carbon per person.  After declining for years, Portland’s driving emissions went up from 3,423 kilograms per person in 2013 to 3,892 kilograms in 2017.

These data are the foundation of the op-ed published in the Oregonian on December 15.  “Portland’s phony, failing climate strategy.”

The City’s own Climate Action Plan, adopted in 2015, said that even with widespread vehicle electrification, the city would need to reduce driving by more than half  by 2050 in order to meet its adopted goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to by 80 percent from their 1990 levels.

Instead, driving and driving-related emissions have increased.  What’s worse is that around the region, public leaders are pushing to spend billions of dollars to widen existing freeways which will only encourage more driving and more carbon pollution.

As the op-ed concludes:

Our leaders are pretending to be climate champions, but their actions make them effectively the worst sort of climate change denialists, giving the impression that something is being done, while enabling the same failed policies and spending decisions that created the climate crisis to march on unquestioned.


Freeway deja vu all over again: The freeway builders ignore school kids

The Oregon Department of Transportation has a decades long-tradition of ignoring Portland Public Schools when it comes to freeway projects

So here’s our story so far.  The Oregon Department of Transportation, ODOT, is proposing to spend half a billion dollars widening a mile long stretch of freeway in Portland adjacent to the Rose Quarter.  We’ve chronicled the numerous objections to the project at City Observatory:  It won’t reduce traffic congestion, it will generate additional driving (and greenhouse gas emissions), it will lower the quality of life in the central city, doesn’t do anything to address the carnage of ODOT roadways, and a host of other concerns.

A key problem with the project is that it expands the footprint of the I-5 freeway into the school grounds of the Harriet Tubman Middle School. As we’ve related at City Observatory, the school (which predates the freeway by a decade) bears the brunt of air pollution, which has increasingly been shown to affect student achievement. (It’s also monumentally unfair that cash-strapped Portland Public Schools have had to spend millions to filter the school’s air enough to make it breathable for students).  Suffice to say, Portland Public Schools has raised serious concerns about the project.

Like thousands of other Portlanders, the school board has asked ODOT to prepare a full-scale environmental impact statement, one which would fully disclose the project’s health and environmental impacts and fully consider alternatives. For a time, it appeared that ODOT would acquiesce to these demands.

Deja vu: ODOT built I5 right next to Tubman School in 1962, and plans to widen it to be even closer now.

But now, it appears that ODOT plans to plow ahead based solely on its flawed, short-form Environmental Assessment, ignoring the school board’s concerns.  As Blair Stenvick of the Portland Mercury reports, PPS officials are angry. They’ve adopted a resolution calling out the Oregon Transportation Commission for moving forward without a careful look at the serious issues that have been raised:

“At this time,” reads the PPS resolution, “the OTC has privately stated that it plans to unilaterally take action at its December 17 public meeting without addressing any of the troubling and significant impacts that the widening will have on students and community health.”

To anyone familiar with the history of the I-5 freeway, this shouldn’t come as any surprise.  This is exactly what the Oregon State Highway Department (what ODOT used to be called), did to Portland Public Schools 60 years ago when this segment of the I-5 freeway was first built.  Back when it was just a line on the map, it was called the “Minnesota” freeway, because its proposed route essentially obliterated Minnesota Avenue.  The I-5 route sliced trough the schoolyard of the Eliot School (shown above in red), bisected the attendance areas of several other schools, closed off dozens of city streets, and focused traffic on others that were prime travel routes to local schools. Not surprisingly, local school district officials were alarmed. But the planning process gave them little opportunity to voice their concerns.

Let’s turn the microphone over to Eliot Henry Fackler, writing his master’s thesis “Protesting Portland’s Freeways:  Highway Engineering and Citizen Activism in the Interstate Era” at the University of Oregon about the freeway fight (published in 2009).  Just as today, in the early 1960s, PPS officials raised serious concerns about the freeway’s impacts on students.  It was assured that their concerns would be addressed, but . . . the agency went ahead with its plans exactly as announced, making no allowances for the school district’s concerns.

It did not take long for Portlanders to see the negative consequences of imposing massive interstate highways on a functional cityscape. On June 23, 1961, the Portland City Council and state road engineer Tom Edwards met with citizens concerned over permanent street closures caused by the partly-finished Minnesota Freeway. The route, a section of Interstate 5, sliced through the city’s Albina neighborhood.

Fifty-one streets had already been dead-ended to make way for the new depressed highway in the city’s only predominantly African American neighborhood. “I think it is unfortunate that this has not come to our attention until at this late time,” Howard Cherry, a member of the Portland School Board stated. “I would like to be heard at a proper time with the council and the highway commission.” Likewise, Daniel McGoodwin of the American Institute of Architects (AlA) implored the Highway Commission to “find a less damaging solution.” Reading from a statement prepared by the AlA, McGoodwin argued that the freeway “would create a great problem for the city and disrupt long established neighborhood patterns.”

The criticisms made by a qualified architect like McGoodwin put City Commissioner William Bowes on the defensive. “We have done everything you can think of to make it as attractive as possible,” he said, adding, “if you can call a freeway attractive.” The most incisive critique came from local architect Howard Glazer who complained that the highway designers’ failure to consult with residents was “an example of what’s happened before and will undoubtedly happen again.” When presented with a map showing the freeway skirting the edge of the neighborhood, Glazer pointed out that the map “is a slice of the city and doesn’t show adjacent territory.” No matter how carefully they were planned, urban interstates would reduce residents’ ability to quickly get groceries, visit friends, go to school, or attend church. At the meeting’s conclusion, state engineer Edwards assured those in attendance that “every attempt will be made to solve these problems.’, The freeway opened to traffic in December 1963.  No changes were made to the route.

The portents were today’s experience were clearly foreshadowed in the original debate over the freeway.  Some of the most important–and to today’s ears, familiar, arguments were featured in a June 24, 1961 story published in the Portland Oregonian (from which Fackler’s story is, in part, drawn).

It’s clear that the highway department was simply announcing what it was going to do, with no real thought given to modifying its plans. Attorneys confirmed that the process was not to consider objections, the Portland school board had been given no notice, and was assured it would be listened to–and was then ignored. Even at the time, participants foresaw that this would happen again.

The City Attorney advised the public attending the City Council meeting that it was simply an information session, not a hearing, and that they had nothing to say about the freeway; the Oregonian relates:

City Attorney Alexander Brown said, “This is not a hearing, it’s an informational meeting. It is unfortunate that the word ‘hearing’ was used in connection with this session. The inference of a hearing is that objections may be considered.”

Dr. Howard Cherry, a member of the Portland School Board objected to the freeway’s poor planning, saying:

“I think it is unfortunate that this has not come to our attention until at this late time. And I would like to be heard at a proper time with the council and the highway commission.”

According to the reporting by the Oregonian, City Commissioner William Boles

“assured Cherry that the council will be very glad to sit down and discuss the problem of traffic on Alberta Street with the school board.”

Presciently, one prominent citizen who testified, Howard Glazer, worried about the effects of the freeway on local street traffic and warned that the state had regularly–and would again, ignore local concerns:

“. . . an example of of what has happened before, and will undoubtedly happen again.”

As today’s Portland school board members, it is happening again. For history buffs, here’s a grainy image of the June 24, 1961 Portland Oregonian story.  Deja vu!

Editor’s Note:  This commentary has been revised to note that the Portland School Board has adopted the resolution calling for a full environmental impact statement.

ODOT’s Climate Lie: An idle theory of greenhouse gas emissions

ODOT Director Kris Strickler makes a phony claim that we can fight climate change by reducing traffic idling in congestion

Asked about how his agency will respond to the challenge of climate change, newly nominated Oregon Department of Transportation Director Kris Strickler repeated a long discredited lie, claiming that measures to speed traffic by reducing congestion will reduce carbon emissions. The implication is that idling in traffic is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, and that somehow if we could just reduce traffic congestion and idling, greenhouse gases emissions would decline.  That claim is made with absolutely no scientific evidence and has been repeatedly disproven by research, including a seminal study done in Oregon.  But Strickler insisted in repeating the phony claim in his confirmation hearing by the Oregon State Senate on November 19.  Here’s a transcription of what he told state senators.

…. it’s clear about 40% of the greenhouse gas emissions are from the transportation sector, so it’s an important aspect of the work we do.   I believe that there is no silver bullet, there is no single answer to address GHG emissions overnight.   And its something on our task list and our to-do list as a priority for us as we go forward and we need to attack it in multiple avenues.   One is, clearly, through design decisions that we can help to free up and move congested areas, because we know that cars sitting in traffic, frankly, emitting the emissions is not necessarily the best way to manage greenhouse gas reductions.   The other is elements around electrification of the fleet, and other statewide priority-based decisions that are coming forward and that, frankly, that you’ve been discussing as part of these deliberations for the past few sessions, and so all of these things contribute to the overall strategy and we want to do our part …..
Not only is the claim not substantiated by any scientific evidence, pretty much the opposite is true:  measures that speed traffic in urban settings tend to increase carbon emissions.  Thankfully, Portland’s media is challenging this claim.  BikePortland’s Jonathan Maus, in an article entitled “Oregon Senate confirms ODOT director who says freeway widening is a climate change strategy,” writes “Strickler’s confidence that getting traffic ‘moving a little bit better’ will lead to emission reductions is surprising given that research on the topic gives reason to believe otherwise.”
And Rachel Monahan of Willamette Week, writes in “New Oregon Transportation Director Has a Plan for Climate Change: Get traffic moving.” But she points out that the scientific evidence shows that getting traffic to move faster doesn’t reduce emissions:   ” . . . less congestion leads to more cars, because more people want to drive—a concept known as induced demand. And more cars mean more emissions.”

This myth has been repeatedly debunked

The science on this question is unequivocal and uncontested:  making traffic move faster in urban settings, whether by expanding capacity or “operational improvements” to increase traffic flow tends to induce more traffic.  The higher volume of traffic causes congestion to quickly return to previous levels, and the combination of more vehicle miles of travel and no long term change in congestion, means that greenhouse gas emissions actually go up.  The literature refers to this as “the fundamental law of road congestion.”  The most definitive study of the question was completed right here in Oregon, by transportation researchers Alex Bigazzi and Miguel Figliozzi, in a paper published by the Transportation Research Board,. Their work showed that increasing capacity on congested roads to allow traffic to move faster and more smoothly actually increases total emissions.

For those who are interested, here’s a link to the video of Alex Bigazzi presenting the findings of his research at Portland State University in 2011.  The takeway:  greenhouse gases are tied to how much and how far we drive, not to the speed of traffic or the time spent idling.  There’s no relationship between overall traffic congestion and carbon emissions. Bigazzi’s research shows that for Portland, per traveler greenhouse gas emissions have decreased as congestion has increased. From 1995 onward, Bigazzi says, even though congestion went up (the measure shown as TTI on the chart below), emissions declined. The decline in emissions was driven overwhelmingly by a decrease in vehicle miles traveled.

The only feasible way to reduce congestion and reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to work to lower vehicle miles of travel. Unfortunately, that one proven strategy is one that ODOT has done nothing to consider or seriously explore.

ODOT has a history of lying to the legislature about carbon emissions

Strickler’s claim isn’t the first time at Oregon Department of Transportation Director has lied to the Oregon Legislature about carbon emissions.  In 2015, then-Director Matt Garrett had to retract claims that his department had been making that “operational improvements” to Oregon highways would produce significant reductions in carbon emissions.  The ODOT estimates of carbon reductions from projects like ramp meters and road signs overstated carbon reductions by a factor of at least five, and probably a good deal more. This was particularly salient because ODOT’s claims about potential carbon reductions were a key rationale for seeking legislative approval for additional funding for highway projects. The department’s acknowledgement of its deception led to the collapse of the 2015 transportation package.

Other state DOT’s are moving away from repeating the idling myth

More progressive state transportation agencies are now acknowledging that induced demand is a reality.  In California, which has some of the most stringent climate legislation, CalTrans (the state road building agency) has adopted a new policy which officially recognizes that adding road capacity in urban areas leads to more miles of travel and greater greenhouse gas emissions.  As Streetsblog California reported:

The department acknowledges that its current practices have not solved urban congestion and instead have led to more driving, more emissions, and unsafe conditions for people who don’t drive.  To address the resulting auto delay, projects were required to widen roads and intersections to allow more vehicles through faster. Those mitigations made driving easier and faster, while the experience and safety of other road users was ignored. Result: more driving. “This widespread response to new capacity is the reason we have been unable to reduce congestion in urban areas for more than a short time,” said Chris Schmidt, who manages Caltrans’ S.B. 743 program and led the recent webinar. . . . “These changes are profound, and will challenge the state of practice for all of us,” said Schmidt

California has done detailed work to understand the relationship between added road capacity and transportation emissions, and has even constructed a calculator, which when applied to projects like ODOT’s proposed Rose Quarter freeway widening project, shows that the project will increase greenhouse gas emissions. Oregon should insist that its transportation department adopt the latest, scientifically grounded approach to this subject, rather than repeated discredited myths.

Even ODOT’s own technical work concedes that reducing congestion doesn’t lower emissions

Finally, this isn’t a mystery.  The technical staff at the Oregon Department of Transportation have written reports that concede that measures to improve traffic flow, whether capacity improvements or operational improvements, are going to have the effect of increasing traffic and greenhouse gas emissions.  In their research publication “Oregon Strategic Assessment – Regional Strategic Planning Model” ODOT staff concede that when congestion is higher people travel shorter distances; which is simply a backwards way of saying that when congestion is lower, people travel more:

At the end of the day, it appears that most transportation department’s don’t care about greenhouse gases (or pollution, or safety).  What they care about is building more roads.  And they’ll simply say whatever they need to say to rationalize continuing to do that, no matter how many people are killed on the roadways or how much damage is inflicted to the environment.  Counting on the dissembling, conflicted, self-interested architects of the system that created our car-dependent, climate-destroying transportation system to produce a solution is a recipe for catastrophe.


This post has been revised to correct an error in spelling Rachel Monahan’s name.

Transportation planners flunk Econ 101: Price elasticity of demand

The most basic concept in economics is that higher prices lead to less consumption, yet this fact is routinely ignored in transportation planning and policy.

If we got the prices right, many of our most pressing transportation problems would be much easier to tackle

If we have too much of some things, and not enough of others, its a pretty good indication that the prices are wrong.  We have, for example, too much traffic at peak hours in most of the nation’s cities.  That’s because the price of peak hour road space (zero) and the price of parking (below cost and often zero) are too low.

OK, we understand:  that undergraduate economics course you took some years back was not your favorite. But if you learned one thing, it was probably this: we can represent the demand for a product (or service) with a “demand curve” that shows the relationship between the amount that consumers will buy and based on the price of the good in question.  The quintessential microeconomics chart is one that shows quantity demanded on the horizontal axis and price on the vertical axis. Demand curves slope down and to the right, meaning that at high prices consumers buy very small amounts of a given commodity, and at lower prices they buy more.  (See the red line on this chart).


The most basic concept in economics is the idea that when the price of something goes up, people buy less of it.  This relationship turns out to be critically important to understanding things like transportation, energy consumption, and climate change.  For example, when the price of gasoline goes up, people adjust their behavior so that they buy less.  In the short term they may cancel or combine some trips, in the longer term they might buy a more fuel efficient car, or move to a location where its easier to bike, walk, take transit, or drive fewer miles for daily errands. This basic fact is the intuition behind the carbon tax, as explained by Bill Nye (who for your benefit, doesn’t invoke the demand curve to make this point).

Bill Nye, the economics guy, explains the price elasticity of demand.

And the reason we’re in such a mess in the US when it comes to sprawl, car dependence and carbon emissions, is that driving is so cheap that we do way, way to much of it.  The total social, health and environmental cost of driving—above and beyond what drivers pay is measured in the billions.  Trucking alone has negative social costs of as much as $128 billion per year.

When we get the prices right, or closer to right, people are remarkably capable of adjusting their behavior.  We see that in places like Louisville Kentucky, where a $1 a trip toll for using an interstate bridge reduced traffic levels by about 40 percent, and produced nearly empty freeways at rush hour, or more recently in Seattle, where tolling a newly opened downtown tunnel reduced traffic by a third, and also reduced traffic on nearby city streets.

Higher fuel prices = less driving

The clearest example of the price elasticity of demand in transportation is for gasoline prices.  When gas prices go up (in a significant and sustained way) people adjust their behavior, by driving less, riding transit more, buying more fuel efficient vehicles, and moving to more central locations. The simplest way to show this relationship is to look at the average price of gasoline in the US, and compare it to the average number of miles people drive each year.  Here are the data from the US DOT (miles traveled, per person per day) and average gas prices (from the US Department of Energy).

Around the turn of the millennium, gasoline was cheap, and had been so for a long time, and Americans reacted predictably, driving more and more each year.  But starting in the early 2000’s gas prices started rising, and particularly after 2004, gasoline was noticeably more expensive than it had been in the prior decade.  At exactly the same time, the number of miles driven by Americans peaked, and then started declining.  As the nation experienced $4 a gallon gas for the first time in 2007, driving dropped precipitously.  The drop continued through the Great Recession (more about that in a minute) and the decline in driving continued right on through 2014.

In 2014, the global price of oil collapsed, and almost overnight, retail gasoline prices fell by about 40 percent.  In June 2014, the average price of gas was $3.69, just seven months later, the price was $2.04, a decline of 44 percent.

Very quickly, consumers reacted to the new lower price of gasoline.  Vehicle miles traveled per person shot up, from 25.7 vehicle miles traveled per person in 2014 to 26.9 vehicle miles traveled per person in 2017. And the increase in driving, predictably, led to an increase in traffic deaths.

But the decline in gas prices was more or less a one-off stimulus to increased driving. Gas prices stopped going down, and trended mostly sideways after early 2017.  And not surprisingly (to an economist at least), the rebound in per person driving flattened out. In short, the dollar or so a gallon reduction in gas prices that persisted after 2014 added about a mile a day to the average distance traveled by Americans, but didn’t put us back on the growth path of the late 1990s.

It’s hard to find a clearer and more easily understandable example of how price elasticity of demand works.  If you want people to drive less, raise the price of driving.  (Gasoline is the most visible variable price associated with car use; too most drivers, their car payments, maintenance and insurance are relatively fixed costs). Gasoline (and parking) are just about the only things that fluctuate with the number and distance of trips taken.

What the studies say

Economists routinely study the price elasticity of demand using gasoline as a classic example.  Studying gasoline markets is a tempting target because its a relatively fungible commodity (a gallon of 87 Octane unleaded gasoline is the same in one city or state as another, and remains comparable over time), there’s a treasure trove of data on prices (the federal government publishes weekly average price data), and it’s a purchase that consumers make often.

The indispensable Todd Litman has published a summary of the literature on the price elasticity of demand for gasoline.  In general the estimates are that the price elasticity is 0.1 in the short run and 0.3 in the long run.  And elasticity of 0.3 means that a 10 percent increase in gas prices is associated with a 3 percent decrease in consumption.  Elasticities are almost greater in the long run because over time, consumers have more different possible ways of responding to a change in prices.  If the price of gas goes up a $1 a gallon tomorrow, you cannot instantaneously change your job and commute, your vehicle, your place of residence etc).  But over time, faced with higher prices, consumers do all these things, and others, and can reduce how many gallons they buy and how many miles they drive.

There are good reasons to believe that many of the economic subsidies under-estimate the elasticity of demand, especially in the long run.  Most studies look at relatively short term responses to price changes, and measure changes in prices that themselves are both small, and frequently varying.  There’s a lot of “noise” in gasoline prices, with prices fluctuating by 5 or 10 cents a gallon month to month or seasonally.  It’s unlikely that consumers react to these small of temporary fluctuations in price in the same way that they react to a large and permanent change in prices.  As Litman notes, people appear to have a stronger reaction to changes in fuel taxes (which are more nearly permanent) than they do to fluctuations in market prices. In addition, most elasticity estimates are based on time-series data for US markets.  The cross-sectional international data on fuel prices and driving shows that in countries where gasoline is more expensive, people drive many fewer miles.  The strength of this relationship underscores how, in the long run, permanently higher prices for fuel are reflected in changes in the built environment, household location, transit use, and other factors, that aren’t captured by estimates of short term changes.

We can also see the same pattern within and across US cities. Where driving trips are more expensive, chiefly because of the cost of parking, people avoid driving their cars.  Transit trips are disproportionately taken to destinations where parking is limited and expensive; conversely, few people take transit to places where parking is abundant and free.  Charging for parking is a kind of surrogate road pricing that produces discernible changes in behavior.

Transportation planners don’t believe in price elasticity or prices as policy

As we’ve pointed out at City Observatory, the higher price of fuel has an important side benefit.  By reducing the total amount of travel, higher gas prices turn out to be an extraordinarily effective means of reducing traffic congestion.  Between 2010 and 2012, when fuel prices were high, traffic monitoring firm Inrix reported that traffic congestion went down in every US metropolitan areas but one.  One of the key factors at work here is the non-linear relationship between traffic volumes and traffic congestion.  Traffic congestion is a “tipping point” phenomenon—roads function at high capacity right up to the point where they become congested, and after that point is reached, an additional car (or ten) causes the road to slow down and lose capacity.  As long as you can keep traffic below the tipping point, roads work well.  And, as it turns out, that’s just what high fuel prices do, and the small reduction in traffic volume produces a big decrease in traffic congestion; Inrix data show that a 2-3 percent decrease in traffic volumes between 2010 and 2012 was associated with a 30 percent decline in traffic congestion.

Given the abundant practical and scientific evidence of the price elasticity of demand, and the dramatic congestion-busting benefits of small reductions in traffic, you’d think that transportation planners would be keen to understand and use prices, especially fuel prices, as a key component of the transportation policies and plans.

But in fact, when it comes to price elasticity, many transportation planners are flat-earthers.  They either ignore or deny the existence of any price elasticity of demand.  Take the transportation modelers working for Portland’s regional government, Metro.  When pressed about how their modeling of future transportation demand accounts for possible changes in fuel prices, they essentially argue that fuel prices have no effect whatsoever.

Fuel costs within the Metro travel demand model are considered as part of the auto operating cost, which consists of gasoline and oil, tires, and general vehicle maintenance costs on a per mile basis. This cost is $0.21 per mile (in 2010$ — $0.25 per mile in 2019$), and is derived from Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS), Energy Information Administration (EIA) and AAA data. Empirical evidence has shown that auto operating costs tend to remain stable or decrease over time, regardless of short term fuel cost fluctuations. VMT per capita has not been shown to be highly correlated to fuel price fluctuations over the medium and long-term which is the scale of time used in our planning analysis. Long-term increases in fuel cost will result in wider adoption of fuel-saving technologies, which offset the increases in cost. Instead fluctuation in VMT per capita tend to be most correlated with economic health (employment) and this accounts for the changes between 2005 and 2015, with the 2008-2012 slump in VMT occurring with the decreased regional employment in our region associated with the Great Recession.

(Source: Email from Metro Staff, dated October 23, 2019).

It’s possible, of course, to have a debate about what the appropriate value is for the price elasticity of demand. We think, especially from a look at the international cross-sectional evidence that it’s probably higher than the 0.1 short term/ 0.3 long term estimates presented by Litman.  It might be lower.  But there’s no study, anywhere, that supports an estimate of 0.0, which is exactly the figure that the Metro modelers are using.  In their view, it doesn’t matter whether gas is 10 cents a gallon or 10 dollars a gallon, they’re predicting exactly the same amount of travel.

When pressed to reconcile their position with the historical data showing the reversal and then decline in driving per capita when gas prices accelerated in the middle of the last decade, transportation planners (like a CEO on a bad-news earnings call) jump to blame the economy:  It was the Great Recession that causes the decline in driving, they argue.

There are at least three huge problems with that blame-game.  The first is that vehicle miles traveled per person flattened out and started declining well before the Great Recession occurred, so unless you’re arguing consumers were somehow clairvoyant, that’s not an explanation.  The second is that vehicle miles traveled per person continued to decline even after the Great Recession ended and the US was growing robustly again.  According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the Great Recession ended in May 2009—the shaded gray bars on the chart above.  In fact, US employment grew for five full years through 2014, with continuing declines in VMT/person.  Third, as we’ve noted before, the rebound in VMT per capita was tied directly to the decline in fuel prices, and petered out almost completely when gas prices stopped declining.  If VMT were driven just by job growth as these planners assert, it would still be growing; it isn’t.

Why this matters:  Getting the prices right helps achieve all of our goals

Because of well-demonstrated responsiveness of consumers to higher prices, pricing can be our most effective strategy for reducing road congestion and decreasing energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Yet tragically, those who are preparing the technical basis for future transportation plans are in complete denial that price elasticity of demand exists.  In fact, they implicitly argue that the demand for driving is perfectly inelastic—that no matter what price we charge for fuel, drivers will drive exactly the same number of miles, by the same modes, to the same destinations.  That is certainly a simplifying assumption—it’s harder to model a world with different prices and demand for travel than to build a model where behavior isn’t affected by price changes. But what that means is that the model is unrealistic: it’s a simplification that does violence to the utility of the model and importantly, uses a deeply buried technical process to preclude any discussion of one of the most powerful and effective tools available for achieving our stated policy objectives.

What this means is that our plans for the future are systematically ignoring one of the most powerful forces that we can use to reduce traffic congestion (and not incidentally, greenhouse gas emissions).  If we have higher prices for gasoline, people will drive less, we’ll have less traffic congestion, we won’t need to build as many roads, and our transit system will work better. In addition, there’s powerful evidence that cheap gasoline has stimulated more driving, which has led to proportionately greater numbers of crashes, injuries and deaths on the nation’s roadways. By denying that prices matter, transportation planners are missing a huge opportunity to harness market forces to achieve all of the policy objectives we’re hoping to further.

Addendum:  More understatement of Price Elasticity of Demand

A newly released Metro report on possible options for financing a regional transportation measure also significantly understate the price elasticity of demand for travel. The report, prepared by ECONW, contains references to two articles, which it refers to as “studies.”  In fact, neither is a study, and in both cases the data presented don’t support the claims made.

The first is from a 2014 US Energy Department website.  It’s worth noting that this is a web news article (“Today in Energy”) rather than an actual study.  The author speculates on the effects of the 2014 decline in retail gasoline prices.  The article doesn’t actually look at data in comparing VMT and gasoline prices from the period after the decline in gas prices; in fact, it only shows data through 2012 (see the chart below). As shown above, the decline in gas prices was followed by a reversal in the decline in VMT–exactly opposite of what this article predicted.

The second item is from a similar US Department of Labor website. This website article’s lead author is described as a “former summer intern.”  Just like the Energy Department web article, this report isn’t a formal economic study, doesn’t cite any literature, and reports no data post-2014.  Also, it focuses only on gasoline consumption, not VMT. The report says that there wasn’t a “dramatic” decrease in gasoline consumption.  But the data in the DoL report show that per household gasoline consumption declined by 16 percent between 2005 and 2014 (from 844 to 707 gallons per household), during a period of high and rising gas prices, fully consistent with the idea higher gas prices dampen fuel consumption and driving. Finally, it’s worth noting that the term “inelastic” means an elasticity of less than one, i.e. that a 1% increase in the price of good produces less than a 1% decline in its consumption.  “Inelastic” doesn’t mean zero elasticity, i.e. that the price has no effect on the quantity demanded.

Even the Oregon Department of Transportation concedes that gas prices play a key role in shaping vehicle miles traveled.  Their 2018 report on the non-attainment of state climate goals says, ” . . . lower gas prices coupled with higher incomes and post-recession increases in driving means that vehicle miles traveled (VMT) have increased in Oregon.”



The Week Observed, December 13, 2019

What City Observatory this week

1. Oregon DOT repeats its idle lie about emissions. It’s every highway builder’s go-to response to climate change:  we could reduce greenhouse gas emissions if we could just keep cars from having to idle in traffic. That turns out to be a great way to rationalize any highway-widening project. Which is exactly why new Oregon Department of Transportation Director Kris Strickler invoked this claim in his recent confirmation hearing.  But its also the case that its an utterly unfounded urban myth that making cars move faster will reduce carbon pollution. Just the opposite, in fact. Measures that speed cars (whether additional lanes, better signal timing, or “improved” intersections) just prompt more people to drive. It’s this induced demand effect–now so well-demonstrated that its call the “fundamental law of road congestion”–more than wipes out any gains from lower idling. More and longer car trips, not time spent idling, are what cause increased greenhouse gas emissions.

2. A long history of highway department ignoring school kids. The latest objection to the Oregon Department of Transportation’s Rose Quarter freeway widening project comes from the Portland School Board, which has voted to ask for a full-scale environmental impact statement for the $500 million project which moves the I-5 freeway even closer to the Tubman Middle School. The district has already had to spend millions on air filtration equipment to make the school habitable; a wider freeway with more traffic would likely increase the impact on kids, and an array of new studies are showing long term damage to learning from chronic exposure to auto pollution. But if history is any guide, the school board seems likely to be ignored. Six decades ago, its predecessors raised very similar objections to the original siting of the freeway next to the school, and despite assurances from city and state officials that their concerns would be addressed, the freeway was built exactly as planned, slicing off part of Tubman’s school yard, bisecting attendance areas for other nearby schools, and dead-ending dozens of neighborhood streets.  Of course, in the early sixties, there was no National Environmental Policy Act, and no one knew for sure how harmful pollution was.  Will this time be different?


Must read

1. Climate-talking mayors are inexplicably building more freeways. We’ve long noted the discrepancy between the bold climate rhetoric of some Mayors and their political support for more and wider freeways. Curbed’s Alissa Walker lists progressive cities around the country, including Los Angeles, Houston, Portland, Austin, Chicago and Detroit who are planning to spend billions to widen freeways, in spite of their Mayor’s ostensible pledges to be moving to reduce carbon pollution. Walker writes:

. . . climate mayors are currently allowing massive expansions of highway infrastructure in their cities. There are at least nine major highway-widening projects with costs totaling $26 billion proposed or currently underway in U.S. metropolitan areas governed by members of the Climate Mayors group.

As Brent Toderian has frequently said, if you want to understand someone’s real priorities, look at their budget.  The spending priorities of these ostensible climate leaders shows that their actual priorities really aren’t very concerned about the climate crisis.

2. Inequality has gotten worse in almost every city–maybe inequality isn’t a local problem. Emily Badger and Kevin Quealy of The New York Times have a nice visualization of the growing wage inequality experienced in almost every US city over the past four decades.  Their animation shows that the gap between the 90th percentile wage and the 10th percentile wage; i.e. the difference between the average hourly earnings of the person at the bottom of the top ten percent of all wage earners and the average hourly earnings of the person at the top of the bottom ten percent of all wage earners.  In most metro areas, the 90th percentile worker earned about four times as much as the 10th percentile worker in 1980; by 2010, this had increased to five to six times times as much in 2015.

As we know, changes at the top and bottom of the wage distribution have accounted for this gap.  Some high paid occupations and industries have recorded much higher than average increases in wages. Conversely, at the low end of the labor market, the minimum wage has failed to keep pace with inflation. While the levels of wage inequality vary across metropolitan areas, the striking point here is that wage inequality has increased almost everywhere, suggesting that a common set of national factors, rather than principally local ones, are behind growing inequality.

3. Brookings calls for a fundamental re-thinking of federal infrastructure policy.  Everyone seems to agree that “infrastructure” is really important to the economy and the environment, but beyond glib generalities, there’s a world of nuance that makes all the difference. The Brookings Institution has a new report calling for re-visiting of the first principles guilding infrastructure. A big part of our current problems–especially climate change, and economic segregation–are a product of the kinds of investments we’ve made in infrastructure.  More of the same–more freeways, more far-flung sewer and water systems and so on, are likely only to exacerbate sprawl and create more car dependence.  As the report’s lead author, Adie Tomer writes:

Current infrastructure networks and land uses make our climate insecurity worse. The transportation sector is now the country’s top source of greenhouse gas emissions, representing 29% of the national total. The country continues to convert rural land into urban and suburban development faster than overall population growth, leading to greater stormwater runoff, higher fuel consumption, and accelerated loss of tree cover, wetlands, and other natural resources.

The default political trajectory for infrastructure is simply to plow more money into existing programs, like the highway trust fund, that simply repeat the mistakes of the past.  Brookings is calling for a careful look at how we change the framework and incentives around our infrastructure investment to align with the challenges we now face, particularly the climate crisis and growing inequality.  That conversation is long overdue.

New Knowledge

Food deserts?  Fuggedaboutit.  One of the most popular urban theories of the past decade or so has been the notion of food deserts, the idea that low income households have poor nutrition because they don’t have local stores that sell healthy food. The policy implication has been taken to be that if we could just get more healthy food closer to low income households, their health status would improve.

A recent study from six economists uses some extremely rich and detailed data on consumer spending patterns, and traces the effects of the opening of new supermarkets on the buying patterns of nearby residents.  It finds, contrary to popular belief, that significant changes the the local array of “good foods” have almost no effect on the buying patterns of nearby residents. For example, the entry of a new supermarket into a food desert tends to reduce sales at other nearby supermarkets, rather than shifting the composition of consumer spending away from less healthy stores (like convenience stores).

The authors show that there are strong correlations between income and education, and the propensity of consumers to purchase healthier foods.  By their estimates, only a tiny fraction of the variation in healthy food consumption is explained by supply-side factors (i.e. proximity to stores with healthier food).

Entry of a new supermarket has economically small effects on healthy grocery purchases, and we can conclude that differential local supermarket density explains no more than about 1.5 percent of the difference in healthy eating between high- and low-income households. The data clearly show why this is the case: Americans travel a long way for shopping, so even people who live in “food deserts” with no supermarkets get most of their groceries from supermarkets. Entry of a new supermarket nearby therefore mostly diverts purchases from other supermarkets. This analysis reframes the discussion of food deserts in two ways. First, the notion of a “food desert” is misleading if it is based on a market definition that understates consumers’ willingness-to-travel. Second, any benefits of “combatting” food deserts derive less from healthy eating and more from reducing travel costs

If we’re really concerned about nutrition, the author’s argue that some strategic changes to the SNAP (supplemental nutrition assistance program, long called Food Stamps) might be a more powerful way to encourage consumers to make healthier choices.  Right now, SNAP provides the same subsidy for low nutrition foods as high nutrition foods; a system that lowered or eliminated subsidies for the least nutritious foods and increased them for the most nutritious foods would generate healthier purchases.

Hunt Allcott, Rebecca Diamond, Jean-Pierre Dubé, Jessie Handbury, Ilya Rahkovsky, and Molly Schnell, Food Deserts and the Causes of Nutritional Inequality,  NBER Working Paper No. 24094

In addition to the technical working paper, the lead authors have published a short, eminently readable non-technical summary of their findings at The Conversation.

In the News

Willamette Week and BikePortland highlighted our debunking of Oregon Department of Transportation official claims that wider freeways will reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The Week Observed, December 20, 2019

What City Observatory this week

1. Portland’s progress (or lack thereof) on climate. Portland likes to present itself as a climate leader, but the latest data on transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions shows that Portland is losing ground in a big way. Portland’s transportation greenhouse gas emissions have increased by 1,000 pounds per person since 2013, a major setback to city efforts to set an example of how to achieve globally agreed upon climate goals.

2. Lessons in the price elasticity of demand for transportation planners.  Perhaps the most fundamental notion in economics is the idea that when the price of something goes up, people buy less of it.  International comparisons, and the nation’s own experience with gas prices over the past two decades confirm that this applies to gasoline and driving.  High gasoline prices are associated with lower levels of driving. The high and rising price of gas from 2004-2014 was associated with an unprecedented decline in per capita driving; a trend that was unfortunately reversed when oil prices collapsed in the second half of 2014 (triggering more driving, more SUV purchases, and not surprisingly, more crashes and road deaths. Prices exert a powerful effect on behavior; unfortunately many transportation planners ignore or deny the role that prices play in shaping urban transportation and land use. More fully reflecting back to users the costs associated with their choices would make it much easier to achieve our environmental and safety objectives.

Must read

1. The high cost of driving. One of our maxims at City Observatory is that that when it comes to driving, the price is wrong. The decision to rely heavily on private automobiles as our primary means of urban transport is shaped by the fact that car travel is dramatically under-priced and heavily subsidized.  A new study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology compiles the total cost associated with car travel in the Bay State.  It discovers that cars cost the average household $14,000 per year, with most of those costs due and payable whether or not one owns a car.  Less than half of the cost of car transportation ($27.4 billion of the $64 billion) are the private costs of paid by drivers.  Most of the cost is loaded on the public sector, and user fees (like gas taxes and vehicle registration fees) cover less than a third of the public sector’s costs of providing roads, parking, emergency services and other costs, as well as dealing with pollution and environmental consequences. Thus, most of the cost of car travel is hidden, and gets rolled up in all sorts of other bills, concealing from drivers (and citizens) the high cost of our auto-dependent transportation system.

2. Jane Jacobs & Robert Moses: the graphic novela. Sarah Mirk and Jackie Roche have collaborated to produce a short graphic novel relating some the lessons from Jane Jacob’s famous “Death and LIfe of Great America Cities.” Comic books, of course, need a super-villain, and real-life has supplied one, Robert Moses, New York’s master-builder and indeed, “The Power Broker.”

The extraordinary illustrations bring Jacobs, and some of her key insights to life (see the sidewalk ballet, below); if you haven’t read her books or Robert Caro’s biography of Moses, this will whet your appetite; if not it will remind you of the larger than life character of these two adversaries.

There’s a lot to like, and this is highly recommended, but we found one small annoyance, Mirk and Roche claim that Jacobs’ insights about the desirability of urban living have been “corrupted” by exploitative developers, who they blame for rising rents and gentrification. In our view, that misses the fact that the high and rising rents in dense walkable neighborhoods are really a product of their paucity, and of Jacob’s views neatly capturing what more and more American’s, especially younger generations are hungering for: more great urban places. But that’s a minor quibble:  The whole thing is a visual delight, and is available on-line at the Nib; be sure to have a look.

3. You can’t spell “Hyperloop” without hype. Why bother with the difficult nitty gritty of existing technologies like buses and trains when you can engage in the magical thinking of the hyperloop? Never mind that the technology is utterly unproven and the costs are unknown, cities around the country are treating it as a viable if not preferred alternative for a range of transportation challenges. While most media coverage is of the fawning variety, Aaron Gordon of Jalopnik takes a refreshingly skeptical view of the technology in a piece entitled “Hyperloop is the Midwest’s  Answer to a Question that No One is Asking.” Gordon takes a close look at a proposal to build a hyperloop between Cleveland and Chicago. Backers have produced a study claiming that it will produce hundreds of billions of dollars in increased property values and a range of other benefits. Like similar claims for sports stadiums, such studies are generally grossly inflated, and fail to consider the redistributive effects.  Gordon looks for details, and finds them, lacking:

Despite the study’s 156-page length, it is extremely light on methodology or the assumptions baked into the calculations. In fact, any mention of study methodology or assumptions directs inquiring minds to an appendix. However, the feasibility study does not have an appendix…

New Knowledge

Maybe Uber and Lyft are increasing transit ridership.  One of the most oft-voiced concerns about the growth of ride-hailing is the idea that it is cannibalizing ridership from transit systems.  A new study from three economists looks at the connection between the growth of ride-hailing and transit ridership trends in cities across the country.

Like other studies they proxy for the extent of ride-hailing by looking at the data Uber and Lyft entered a particular market, and also use data on the number of google searches for the company’s brand names to estimate growth ride hailing.  They then look to see whether entry is correlated with increases or decreases in transit ridership in the area.

In the aggregate, the authors found that transit ridership increased after Uber’s entry into the market.  Their overall data, summarized below, show that transit ridership was essentially flat in the months preceding the entry of ride-hailing, and then tended to increase somewhat in the following months.

The effect varied according across markets and transit providers, with large markets seeing the greatest complementary impact (i.e. ride-hailing being associated with increases in transit ridership).

One challenge, as we’ve noted with other similar studies of ride-hailing, is that the number of months since entry into a market or the number of searches, is at best a crude proxy for ride hailing, and misses the distinct temporal and spatial concentration of ride hailing activity (mostly on weekend nights, and in downtowns and to and from airports). Ride-hailing is much more likely to affect transit ridership in some locations and at some times than others, and these studies don’t exploit these variations to understand impacts. As the authors note, this is a subject the deserves further exploration.

Jonathan Hall, Craig Palsson & Joseph Price, “Is Uber a substitute or complement for public transit?,” Journal of Urban Economics (108:36-50) 2019.

Hat-tip to Bloomerg’s Noah Smith for highlighting this study.

In the News

Joe Cortright’s Op-Ed, “Portland’s phony, failing climate policy,” was published in the December 14, 2020 Oregonian.

Oregon Public Broadcasting quoted City Observatory’s Joe Cortright as applauding Governor Kate Brown’s call for the Oregon Transportation Commission to closely examine using congestion pricing to address Portland’s transportation problems.

Happy Holidays!

City Observatory will be on holiday break through the end of the calendar year. We’ll return with our regular commentary and “The Week Observed” in January. To all, a joyous holiday season and a Happy New Year.

The Week Observed, December 6, 2019

What City Observatory did the past couple of weeks

1. Using seismic scare stories to sell freeways. The Pacific Northwest is living on the edge; sometime (possibly tomorrow, possible several hundred years from now) we’ll experience a Cascadia subduction earthquake that will do significant damage to the region’s infrastructure.  Fear of that event is real, but is also a potent talking point for selling freeway expansion. In a guest commentary, Robert Liberty looks at claims made by officials of the Oregon Department of Transportation, that the I-5 bridges over the Columbia River are vulnerable to the quake. As Liberty points out, the department’s own assessments of seismic risk show that these bridges are no more at risk than others.

2. Why Cyber Monday won’t cause Gridlock Tuesday. Black Friday, the biggest brick-and-mortar shopping day is here, soon to be followed by Cyber-Monday’s on-line seasonal peak. The growth of e-commerce has fueled rampant speculation that city streets will be clogged by Fedex and UPS trucks delivering an ever larger stream of packages. That concern is misplaced: every package delivery means fewer miles traveled for shopping; MIT transportation expert William Wheaton estimates that e-commerce produces 30 times less vehicle miles of travel per dollar spent than brick and mortar shopping. National travel data bear this out: shopping travel has declined in the past decade, especially among young adults who do the most on-line shopping. There’s another factor at work here as well:  the more packages they deliver, the more efficient UPS and Fedex become, more packages mean a higher “delivery density”–i.e. fewer miles traveled per package, which increases their advantage over brick and mortar shopping as volumes increase. So when you see that Fedex truck dropping off a package, keep in mind it means 30 fewer cars on the road to the mall.

Must read

1. New York contemplates the end of free parking. The New York Times reports that there are serious discussions about eliminating free parking in much of the city. There are an estimated 3 million on-street parking spaces in the city of New York, about one for every three New Yorkers, and more than 95 percent of them are free. Because they’re unpriced, they’re chronically in short supply. It’s also a huge subsidy from the majority of New Yorkers who don’t own cars, to those residents (and non-residents who do). Giving away valuable public street space for private car storage cripples the city’s ability to move people more efficiently and safely by transit, bikes and walk,ing, An interesting historical note: New York City only legalized on-street, overnight parking in the 1940s; at the time the city considered a $60 monthly fee (which works out to about $640 in today’s money); instead, it let car owners use the streets for free subject to the city’s arcane “alternate side of the street parking rules.”  A city of 10 million people with 3 million “free” parking spaces will always have too many cars, too much traffic, and too little money to fix its transportation problems.

2. Airports and Climate Change:  As we all know, transportation is now the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the US. While the bulk of emissions come from our cars and trucks, a large and growing share of emissions come from increased flying. While there’s growing consciousness about the personal culpability for emissions, aka “flight shaming,” Curbed’s Alissa Walker makes a strong case that our policies for subsidizing air travel and especially airport construction, contribute to air travel emissions.  The federal government collects billions in ticket taxes which are funneled back into airport subsidies. Local governments also finance airport construction, and especially finance land-side infrastructure (parking lots and car rental facilities) that combine one source of greenhouse gas emissions (planes) with another (cars).  Metro New York will spend $28 billion upgrading and expanding its airports; what if, instead, it was spending that much on inter-city rail transportation, Walker asks? We all have tough choices to make if we’re going to reduce our climate impact, that isn’t made any easier by these systemic biases in favor of high carbon modes of travel.

3. End Apartment Bans to Save the Planet.  Sightline Institute calls our attention to a new report from the United Nations which definitely raises the stakes for housing policy. You may think of the YIMBY “Yes in my back yard” movement as a highly local effort primarily concerned about housing affordability. But as the UN report makes clear, legalizing apartments in urban centers is an essential strategy for fighting climate change. In the US and elsewhere, the most common land use policies have made it difficult or impossible to build additional density in the most walkable, transit served locations, with the result that new development is pushed to the urban fringe, creating car-dependent housing patterns that will be locked in place for decades. As the report says:

“In some locations, spatial planning prevents the construction of multifamily residences and locks in suburban forms at high social and environmental costs.”

Multifamily buildings have a lower carbon footprint both because they tend to be smaller (per person) than single family homes, and because common wall construction reduces energy consumption. But more importantly, multifamily buildings in dense urban settings reduce vehicle miles of travel and carbon emissions from transportation. As this report suggests, YIMBY policies to allow more housing are important both for improving housing affordability locally, and tackling climate change globally.

Put this in your backyard to lower housing costs and save the planet.

New Knowledge

How Title I discourages integration. One of the most important federal education programs is Title I, which provides supplemental funding for elementary and secondary schools with a high proportion of low income students. Schools with lots of kids from low income families often face a double challenge, because of low property values, they have limited local financial resources, and the concentration of kids with economic and educational challenges makes it more costly to provide an equivalent education. Title I helps offset this difference by providing additional funding to schools in poor cities and neighborhoods.

But there’s a rub: As a new report from the National Coalition for School Diversity points out, because the Title I funding is tied to the fraction of kids in a school or school district from families below the poverty line, when a school or district does a better job of integrating, it can face the loss of funds. Federal and local administrative policies for Title I typically set some thresholds for qualifying for Title I funding, and when a school falls below that line, it can lose funding. This creates a penalty for schools that integrate. One school in Brooklyn fell just below a local 60 percent poverty threshold and lost $120,000 in annual funding.

It’s a gnarly problem:  Title I funds are limited, and the intent of the law is to target money to schools that have the highest concentrations of need. But the data on the value of economic integration are extremely powerful: the less we concentrate kids from low income families in specific schools or districts, the better their educational outcomes. One suggested solution is to have a “hold harmless” provision that protects schools (at least for a period of time) from a reduction in Title I funding if they fall just below an eligibility threshold.

National Coalition for School Diversity, Title I Funding and School Integration: The Current Funding Formula’s Disincentives to Deconcentrate Poverty and Potential Ways Forward, Diversity Issue Brief No. 9, November 2019

In the News

In a blog post entitled “The $140 million lie” The Vancouver Columbian praised our analysis of federal funding requirements for the proposed Columbia River Crossing as “meticulous” (it turns out that if Oregon and Washington choose a “No-Build” alternative they aren’t required to repay federal planning funds (contrary to a claim made by state DOT officials.

Correction:  Our November 19 Week Observed mistakenly placed Bloomington, Indiana in a different state; we regret the error.