A world of fewer cars and less driving

Auto industry consultants KPMG see fewer cars and less driving in our future

That may be bad for the car business, but good for the environment and cities

One clear implication: hold off building new road capacity

There’s little question that the pandemic has altered the way we live in the present, the big unresolved questions are how this experience will change the way we live in the future.

One of the most powerful effects of staying-at-home during the pandemic has been a dramatic drop in car travel, with vehicle miles traveled in typical metropolitan areas declining by more than half in the first two months after the domestic onset of the pandemic.

We’ve adapted in a variety of ways; many professional and administrative workers have figured out how to work remotely from home, which has reduced commute trips.  At the same time, we’ve turned to internet shopping and delivery services for a larger number and wider array of goods and services that would ordinarily have required trips (mostly car trips) from home.  Our new familiarity and growing alacrity with Zoom, Amazon, Instacart, Doordash and their ilk could translate into permanent changes in the amount of car travel. Even though these are imperfect substitutes for high-touch and face-to-face experiences, they could definitely reduce travel by some amount.

That question is of keen interest to many, and especially to the world’s car-makers.  KPMG, the international accounting and management consulting firm has a practice devoted entirely to the automotive industry (car-makers and their suppliers) and has dived deeply into the likely impacts of pandemic-induced travel behavior changes on the demand for driving (and cars). Their report, Automotive’s new reality: Fewer trips, fewer miles, fewer cars?, is aimed at the auto industry, but has important implications for cities and transportation.  If, as KPMG predicts, we drive less and buy fewer cars, that should substantially reduce urban traffic congestion and pollution, and eliminate the purported reason to expand road capacity.

KPMG’s headline finding is that changes in commuting and shopping travel will sharply cut into car travel in the US:

. . . we estimate that total U.S. VMT could drop by 140 billion to 270 billion miles per year. The first-order effect would be a reduced need to own a vehicle and lower demand for new and used cars. We estimate that car ownership could fall from 1.97 to as little as 1.87 vehicles per household. That may not sound like much, but it could translate into 7 million to 14 million fewer vehicles on U.S. roads.

These changes would be driven by a permanent shift to more “work-at-home” and more online shopping.

Retail:  A dramatic reduction in shopping trips.

As we’ve stressed before at City Observatory, on-line shopping reduces vehicle miles of travel (VMT), because the reduction in car travel to and from stores dwarfs the increase in vehicle miles traveled to make deliveries. MIT Economist Will Wheaton estimates that on-line shopping is produces about 30 times fewer VMT than car travel to brick and mortar stores.  KPMG estimates that the growth of on-line shopping and delivery could reduce shopping tripes by 10 to 30 percent, reducing driving by as much as 130 billion miles per year, equal to up to 5 percent of all personal VMT.

Fewer trips, and less driving means fewer cars

Fewer commute trips and fewer shopping trips has an obvious implication for the automobile industry:  it’s likely that consumers will buy fewer cars.  Overall, the KPMG study estimates that there would be a 5 percent reduction in car ownership per household, and that this in turn would mean 7 million to 14 million fewer vehicles on the road.

While it might be bad if you’re in the car business, fewer cars and less driving would produce huge benefits for many of us, and especially in cities. Already in the pandemic, cities have experienced the cleanest air in decades as auto-pollution has declined from less driving. Less driving also generally means fewer car crashes and car deaths, a point which KPMG acknowledges, with an decidedly pro-industry spin:

Falling VMT would also affect used-car sales and aftermarket parts and service: less driving also means less wear and tear on vehicles, as well as a decline in traffic accidents, cutting into the lucrative collision parts business.

And less driving should mean less road building

And here’s the big public policy implication:  fewer cars on the road means less demand for car infrastructure. Keep in mind that the usual rationale for road-building and road widening is that we’re driving more and more every year.  If car driving and car ownership are going down, then logically, we should need to build fewer roads than we would otherwise.

Reducing vehicle miles of travel is the surest, most economical, and most environmentally beneficial way to reduce traffic congestion and emissions.  As the experience of the Coronavirus has demonstrated, reduced levels of travel have translated into more efficient highways, in some cases actually moving more cars at the peak hour faster than when we allow highways to become saturated by excess demand.

Already, state and local highway agencies should have gotten a pretty strong signal about falling demand for roadway capacity in the form of declining gasoline tax receipts. Just as KPMG is warning the automotive industry to plan for a world with fewer cars and less driving, state Departments of Transportation should be heeding the same call.

Some will doubt that KPMG is clairvoyant on these matters, but regardless of whether one believes their projections or not, there’s a very strong argument to be made that cities and states should hold off on committing to major capital construction projects that are predicated on an ever-growing amount of vehicular travel.  In a year or two, once we’ve (hopefully) worked our way past the Covid-19 pandemic and the recession it induced, we’ll have a better idea of how the behavioral changes play out in terms of travel demand. Now is not the time to be widening highways.

The Exodus that never happened

The greatest urban myth of the Covid-19 pandemic is that fear of density has triggered an exodus from cities.

The latest data show an increase in interest in dense urban locations.

At City Observatory, we’ve regularly challenged two widely repeated myths about the Corona Virus.  The first is that urban density is a cause of Covid-19, and the second, and closely related, is a claim that fear of density in a pandemic era is sending people streaming to the suburbs and beyond.

Our recent report, Youth Movement, confirmed the depth and breadth of the long-term trend of well-educated adults moving in large numbers to close-in urban neighborhoods. And the real-time data from real estate market search activity confirmed that cities were still highly attractive, gaining market share in total search activity from suburbs and more rural areas, according to data gathered in April by Zillow and Apartment List.com

Now, with even more data in hand, the picture remains very much the same.  Apartment List.com economists Rob Warnock and Chris Salviati have done a thorough analysis comparing the pattern of apartment search activity in the nation’s 50 largest metro areas between the first and second quarters of 2020; basically the period just before the pandemic struck with full force, and then the three months during which much of America was reeling from the virus and stuck in lock-down, with lots of time to consider possible new living locations.

Bottom line:  As revealed by apartment search activity, interest in cities actually increased in the second quarter compared to the first, relative to other locations, including suburbs, other less dense cities, and rural areas.

Overall, apartment search activity is up in the second quarter:  More people are looking to move (or perhaps sheltering in place has given us all a lot more time to spend on the computer, and therefore gives more people more time to look at new places).  Either way, the ApartmentList data don’t show any flight from density.  Warnock and Salviati looked to see whether people were looking to move to a higher density city, a lower density city, or a city with about the same density. Nationally, they found that the share of searches for apartments in cities with higher density than one’s current residence grew about four percent, while the share of searches in similar or lower density cities actually declined.

Overall, the data undercut the idea that density considerations are reshaping the demand for apartments.  They conclude:

But even if renters are a bit more likely to search in new locations, they are not eschewing density. In anything, we actually see a slightly greater appetite for density than we did prior to the pandemic. Among users searching beyond their current city in Q2, just over 35 percent are looking for homes in a city with higher population density than where they currently live, a 4 percent increase quarter-over-quarter. Despite density’s bad reputation recently, searches to lower-density cities have actually ticked down 3 percent quarter-over-quarter.

Helpfully, Apartment List.com provides detailed data for the 50 largest markets, so we can see how this plays out in different parts of the country.  Its especially interesting to look at the New York City metro area.  For the first months of the pandemic, it was the epicenter, with rates of new reported cases far higher than in the rest of the country. (The fact that Covid-19 hit metro NYC so hard and so early is undoubtedly one reason that some leaped to equate density with viral risk). ApartmentList.com’s data show that searches by those living in New York City for apartments in the city increased, relative to searches elsewhere; meanwhile for those looking at the New York City metro area, the share of searches for apartments in the five boroughs actually increased relative to the rest of the metro area. Between the first and second quarters of 2020; the share of searches by NYC residents within the five boroughs was up 12 percent, the share of searches outside the city, whether to a outlying suburb, a different metro or different state, or to a lower density metro all declined.


The findings are the exact opposite of what one would expect if the headlines about an urban exodus were correct. Rather than looking to less dense suburbs, or exploring other states, apartment search activity is focusing more on dense city locations:

While stories of Americans abandoning cities proliferate, our search data present a far more nuanced account of COVID-19’s impact on housing choice. Since the start of the pandemic, users have, on the whole, become slightly more likely to search in cities with higher population density than where they currently live. Similarly, searches from suburbs to core cities have become more common, rather than the other way around.

While the New York pattern holds for most metro areas, there are a handful of cities that are seeing a decline in central city search activity, but as Warnock and Salviati point out, there are local factors in each case that likely explain these trends. Boston has seen a decline in central city search share relative to suburbs, as has San Francisco and Chicago. In San Francisco, high housing costs coupled with increased remote working opportunities may have blunted demand, but that has mostly shifted to nearby markets like Oakland and Berkeley. In Boston’s case, the softening of housing markets may be related to declining demand from college students, who make up a disproportionate share of renters and who are facing extreme uncertainty about school schedules.

As we’ve pointed out, irrational fears about the negative health effects of urban living have a long history in the US.  The “teeming tenements” view of cities underlies many of the misleading anecdote fueled stories about people leaving cities. But the hard data show that suburbs and sprawling sunbelt cities are just as vulnerable to the Coronavirus, and while poverty and housing overcrowding are risk factors, there’s nothing about urban density itself that intensifies the spread of the disease.

CityBeat: NPR’s suburban flight story

Yet another entry in the trumped-up pandemic-fueled suburban flight narrative

Anecdotes aside, there’s no data that people are fleeing cities to avoid the Coronavirus

The data show young, well-educated adults moving to urban centers everywhere, and no decline in interest in urban markets during the pandemic

As we’ve chronicled at City Observatory, there’s a welter of press accounts claiming that people are fleeing cities to escape the Coronavirus.

The latest installment in this genre is Uri Berliner’s piece for National Public Radio.  Titled “New Yorkers Look To Suburbs And Beyond. Other City Dwellers May Be Next” it has the typical lede:  The pandemic is driving people from cities in droves:

Trends often start in New York. The latest: quitting the city and moving to the suburbs. If not quite an exodus, the pandemic has sent enough New Yorkers to the exits to shake up the area’s housing market.

Like the other stories of its ilk, this one is organized around the vignette of a wealthy professional couple living in a city apartment who has decided to chuck it all and move to a leafy bucolic suburb. In this case, its Miriam Kanter and Steven Kanaplue, who lived in Manhattan’s  Upper West Side, but were exhausted and appalled by the toll of Coronavirus. They recently moved to a single family home in Montclair, New Jersey.  We’re also treated to some self-promotional market hype from a local real estate agent in New Jersey, the “hypercompetitive bidding” for Montclair homes, we’re told is a “blood sport.”

Smiling, but their move to this suburb increased their risk of contracting Covid-19 by about one-third (NPR).

But there are a number of key facts that spoil this just-so story.

First, we learn, several paragraphs down into the story that Kanter and Kanplue were already already looking to move out of the city before the virus struck. There’s no question that as people age, they tend to suburbanize; there’s no news here.

Second, there’s a deep flaw in the “flight to the suburbs theory”—the virus is hitting New York suburbs even harder than it hit the city. The couple will be no doubt disappointed to learn that their choice of residence, suburban Essex County New Jersey has an even higher rate of Covid-19 cases per capita than the county they left (New York County, which corresponds to Manhattan).  According to the USA Facts tabulation, Essex County has about 2,368 cases per 100,000 population compared to 1,776 cases per 100,000 in Manhattan. Overall, based on the population data, the odds of getting Covid-19 are about one-third greater in their new suburban location than in the urban location they left. But the couple—and NPR—never bother to verify that the fundamental premise behind the story (that Covid-19 is somehow worse in cities) is actually true—because its not.

Third, there’s a very good question about whether any anecdote about one couple moving signals a shift in the market. While it may make for less charming radio, some actual data would be useful.  The NPR story is leavened with quotes from Redfin’s CEO Glen Kelman about the increased volume of searches for single family homes.  But as we’ve documented at City Observatory, the overwhelming trend, especially among well-educated young adults is a movement toward cities.  The phenomenon is both widespread (every single large metro area chalked up gains in its number of 25-34 year-old college-educated adults since 2010; and is accelerating nearly everywhere.  Moreover, real estate search data monitored at the height of the pandemic by Zillow and Apartment List, report no decline in interest in urban locations like New York; in fact, Zillow’s data show searches for urban properties outpacing those of suburban properties, compared to the pre-Pandemic era.

The media, even usually reliable sources like National Public Radio, seem eager to embrace the pandemic-powered urban exodus myth.  If they’d bother to look closely at the data, they’d be reporting that moving to the suburbs does nothing to insulate one from the virus (especially in New York), and that if anything, the trend toward city living seems resilient in the face of the virus.


Dominos falling on Rose Quarter freeway widening

Last week, over the space of about 24 hours, the prospects for Portland’s proposed the Rose Quarter freeway widening dimmed almost to extinction.

Leaders of Portland’s African-American community have concluded that the Oregon DOT had no intention of altering the project in response to community concerns, and when they withdrew, a host of local leaders pulled out as well.

The duplicity of ODOT is well-known to seasoned veterans in the region.

For several years, the Oregon Department of Transportation has been proposing to widen the I-5 freeway opposite downtown Portland near the Rose Quarter. At City Observatory, we’ve taken a close look at the project’s flawed traffic forecasts, environmental projections, phony safety claims, impact on cyclists and pedestrians, deceptive public relations, climate impacts and cost overruns. In addition to all these issues, the project doubles down on the historical insult to Portland’s African-American community; promoting more traffic and pollution in the neighborhood destroyed by the freeway’s original construction, and moving the roadway even closer to Harriet Tubman Middle School, which serves primarily children of color. While ODOT has offered up the feeble palliative of partial “covers” over the freeway (in reality glorified and traffic-choked overpasses), the project now appears to have foundered over opposition from the local African-American community, led by the Albina Vision Trust (AVT).  For the past several years, the trust has been pushing for a plan to revitalize the neighborhood to promote restorative justice for the damage wrought by the freeway and urban renewal. The decision by AVT to pull its support for the freeway widening appears, in very short order, to have tipped the political balance against the freeway widening project. Here’s a chronology that shows just how fast these events happened.

Dominos falling on the Rose Quarter Freeway widening project

June 30, 2020 12:06 pm Item: Albina Vision Trust (AVT) renounces its support for the freeway, and withdraws from the project’s “Executive Steering Committee.” The Oregonian’s Andrew Theen tweeted:

In a June 30 letter to the Oregon Transportation Commission, Albina Vision Trust Director Winta Yohannes wrote:
Effective immediately, the Albina Vision Trust is withdrawing its participation from all engagement with the I-5 Rose Quarter Improvement Project.

The AVT team has engaged in this project for two-plus years, which has included the dedication of significant board and staff resources since the “reset” in January 2020. We believe that this project presented ODOT at its partners the opportunity to consider how a major public investment could be in service a broader community visions for healing, the generation of short and long-term wealth creation opportunities, and caring for our children who are here today and those who live in lower Albina in the future.Despite our good faith efforts we do not see our engagement resulting in meaningful changes to the project or its anticipated outcomes. For this reason we can no longer support the project. To be clear, we do not assign any individual claim. We are called to adhere to our organizational responsibility to ensure our actions and resources are aligned with our stated values.

June 30, 2020 12:47 pm Item: Portland Transportation Commissioner Chloe Eudaly announces she, too, is opposed to the project, and is off the Committee as well.

. . . after the first executive steering committee, it became clear to me that ODOT was determined to move forward with the project as planned, that they were resistant to congestion pricing, that the steering committee was to be treated as an advisory body with no governing authority, that ODOT did not seem to grasp the concept of restorative justice, and we were unlikely to achieve the outcomes we were seeking.

June 30, 2020 1:31 pm Item:  Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler follows suit.

June 30, 2020, 9:00 PM.  Item:  Portland City Council adopts its long awaited climate emergency resolution.  The change of heart on the freeway widening comes at an auspicious time, as OPB’s Rebecca Ellis noted:

Hours earlier, this resolution would have placed council members in the uncomfortable position of advocating for policies to mitigate climate change, while simultaneously supporting a freeway widening project that climate activists have argued will increase traffic and worsen emissions.

The Council voted unanimously to adopt an amendment proposed by Commissioner Eudaly strengthening the cities requirement that demand management measures like congestion pricing be implemented before the city will support any new freeways.

Be it resolved, that since freeway expansions disproportionately harm communities of color and increase carbon emissions, the City of Portland will require demand management,  implemented equitably and in close cooperation with BIPOC communities, before any future freeway construction or expansion project.

The change strengthens the existing provisions of the City’s adopted Central City Plan, part of its comprehensive plan,

Wheeler amplified on his earlier remarks backing away from the project, according to OPB:

“ODOT has not met our goals around community and economic development or climate,” said Wheeler. “And going forward I will look forward to collaborating with transportation Commissioner Eudaly to prioritize congestion pricing strategies for our existing freeways within Portland.”

July 1, 2020 11:00 AM Item: At her weekly press conference (focused mainly on the response to Covid-19), Governor Kate Brown is asked about the Rose Quarter Freeway.  She too indicates the project won’t go forward for lack of support from the African-American community:

. . . in terms of the Rose Quarter, I think we all need to take a look at all of these transportation projects in light of the economic disruption that we’re seeing statewide and frankly, nationally.  That said, we’re not going to proceed with this particular project—with the Rose Quarter project—without community support and engagement from the Black and African-American community. It’s my hope that this particular project can be part of righting historic wrongs and I’m committed to bringing people back to the table for that discussion.

As The Oregonian reported, Brown’s statement doesn’t say she’s backing away from the project; instead its clear she’ll try to get Albina Vision back to the table:

Brown did not say that she had pulled her support from the Rose Quarter project, which the Oregon Legislature authorized and agreed to fund under a mammoth 2017 transportation package. But she said, “It’s my hope that this particular project can be part of righting historic wrongs.” And she said she is “committed to bringing people back to the table” to discuss how the planned changes to the interstate and its surroundings can and should accomplish that.

Portland’s Stop Work Order

Portland’s City Council clearly illustrated their current position on Monday, July 6th by unanimously signing a letter to city staff, directing them to immediately stop work on the project.  (City staff have been tasked with working with ODOT on project planning and survey work). The July 6 letter reads, in part,

Effectively immediately, we are directing all City Bureaus to suspend all operations until further notice related to the I-5 Rose Quarter Improvement Project,.  This includes attending meetings, providing technical support or responding to project emails.”

The net effect of the local political exodus from Rose Quarter Steering Committeee, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Jeff Mapes, is a major blow” to the project. Mapes says while ODOT is trying to say it will work with its “now estranged local partners,” that it  will be “hard for Wheeler and Eudaly to reverse course, and its likely that ODOT will have to retool the project.”

Albina Vision:  Disrespected. Will they deal?

Project backers are desperately looking for a way, to get the Albina Vision Trust, in Governor Brown’s words, to “return to the table.” How likely is that to happen? In the past few days, AVT leaders, speaking in media interviews, have conveyed the roots of their disenchantment with ODOT.  They run deep.

Speaking with Willamette Week’s Mark Zusman, Yohannes made it clear that her organization’s opposition didn’t stem from narrow concerns about freeway caps or air quality near the Tubman middle school, but rather with ODOT’s intransigence about the scope of the project and the need to redress this historic wrongs done to the district.

There is not one or two issues. All of us who have signed on as partners in many letters to the OTC over the last year—that includes Albina Vision, the Mayor’s Office, Commissioner Eudaly’s office, Metro, and Multnomah County Commissioner Vega-Peterson—we have always said that the way that you can address these issues is by comprehensively looking at the project. If there is a process to evaluate the entire scope then you can actually problem-solve these issues one by one. What we never got from ODOT was a willingness to explore with us what is worth having for a half a billion to a billion dollar investment. And if what we have is a project which you described, then that’s not enough. It’s so much easier to reduce this down to an issue about caps or an issue about the school, when really it’s a comprehensive issue about the Department of Transportation once again looking at our communities as one that they can run through without considering the people and communities that exist around it today and in the future. (emphasis added)

Albina Vision board member Zari Santner, speaking on OPB’s Think Out Loud on July 7 explained:

“We have not received any indication that they are willing to change the plans that they have for this freeway work since ten years ago, and we have finally decided that they are interested in talking about change but not really actually making any change.”

We’ve seen a lot of talk about process, but no indication that the process was going to lead to an outcome that would really satisfy all the people who were sitting around the [Executive Steering Committee] table. As I said, it was talking about change, but no change. At the June 21 meeting of the Executive Steering Committee, a draft charter language of this committee was put forward by ODOT and included in it was, and I quote “move forward the House Bill 2017 defined I-5 Rose Quarter Improvement Project,” which basically means the project that was presented to the Legislature in 2017, without any modification.

No one should be surprised that ODOT’s “involvement” efforts with stakeholders are simply a sham to dodge and delay, while ODOT blunders ahead with the freeway project it always wanted. In fact, the motto of the agency’s new “Urban Mobility Office” spells this out explicitly:

From the Urban Mobility Office’s May 27, 2020 presentation to the Oregon Transportation Commission.

“Process is the project”: When the bureaucrats tell you that their job is to shine you on, you should take them at their word.

Analysis:  Why the project failed

In addition to the concerns raised by Albina Vision, there are powerful, and essentially un-contradicted arguments against the project on traffic, environmental, safety, urban design and other grounds. More than 90 percent of the over 2,000 comments submitted on the project’s environmental assessment opposed the freeway widening. The fact that key political leaders (notably Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and Metro President Lynn Peterson) could claim that the project produced benefits for the African-American community was the thin reed on which the two could choose to ignore these copious arguments (and widespread community opposition).  This dynamic was captured by Bike Portland’s 2019 editorial cartoon on the subject:

For a time, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and Metro President Lynn Peterson could use Albina Vision as an excuse for a badly flawed, widely opposed freeway widening project; No more. (Concept: Jonathan Maus/ Bike Portland – Illustration & Copyright: Cloe Ashton, May 2019).

The fate of the project nearly came to a head earlier this year, when the Oregon Transportation Commission elected to bull ahead with the project without preparing a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), instead choosing to rely on a much thinner (and deeply flawed) Environmental Assessment. Key leaders, including Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, Multnomah County Commissioner Jessica Vega-Peterson, Metro President Lynn Peterson and Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek had been asking for a full EIS to address the project’s manifold problems.  They and others relented, as part of a privately negotiated “reset” in which ODOT agreed to create a so-called “Executive Steering Committee,” to guide the project. The ESC, which held its first meeting May 22, included representatives from the City, Multnomah County, Metro, Portland Public Schools, and the Albina Vision Trust.  But as Albina Vision’s statements show, they now realize that  the executive steering committee is simply bureaucratic window dressing, there to create the illusion of involvement and consent; it had no power to modify the project in any significant fashion.

David Bragdon, former President of Metro, and now director of the Transit Center in New York, explained to Bike Portland why the effort failed.

“This final gambit was doomed by its core fallacy, the Governor’s apparent belief that a faux ‘engagement’ process manipulated by the State Highway Department with a predetermined outcome in mind would somehow produce the ‘right’ way to do something that is inherently wrong. The flaw in that assumption is that there IS no ‘right’ way to inflict more traffic and pollution on children of color and a waterfront park, and create more congestion – which is inevitably what this project was going to do, pretty drawings and insincere promises about caps notwithstanding. The State Highway Department tried to variously either co-opt, dupe, bully or bribe everyone, with falsified traffic forecasts, fraudulent fiscal fantasies and general incompetence and bad faith. Those standard ODOT tactics have now earned widespread, inalterable opposition from the community and a majority of local elected officials.

Bragdon knows whereof he speaks: A decade ago he led Metro when ODOT was pushing forward with the failed Columbia River Crossing project. Just as now, ODOT promised concessions to local governments and community groups, but as the process wore on, then ignored or reneged on those promises. For example, ODOT acceded, on paper, to then-Mayor Sam Adams insistence to reduce the size of the highway bridge from 12 lanes to 10, but instead of shrinking the bridge,  simply erased all the references to its actual physical width. Another example: A similar highway cap in Vancouver Washington, promoted as an elaborate landscaped connector between downtown Vancouver and historic Fort Vancouver was reduced to “bare bones” when the project went through “value-engineering.”

This dog ain’t dead yet

This rapid turn of events certainly doesn’t bode well for the future of the Rose Quarter freeway widening project, but its not enough to kill it—yet. For reference, the Washington and Oregon Legislature’s pulled the plug on the $3 billion Columbia River Crossing project (just a few miles north on I-5 from the Rose Quarter) in 2013.  But the project has lingered on, zombie-like, as a footnote buried deep in project plans. And sure enough, within the past year, the two states have ponied up tens of millions of dollars to try to re-animate the corpse.

Similar vestiges of the Rose Quarter project are buried in state law, Metro’s regional transportation plan and the City’s Central City plan, and will need to be excised before the project is completely dead.

If the region’s leaders are serious about terminating this project, or at least triggering a real conversation about how to rethink its scope to meet their stated goal of “restorative justice,” a good place to start would be rescinding the $129 million that the Metro has approved for project engineering and site acquisition just three months ago.

As Portland City Planning and Sustainability Commission member (and No More Freeways leader) Chris Smith puts it, the future of the Rose Quarter has to be decided in the context of how the region treats freeways as part of its stated goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  ODOT—which is in denial about how more road capacity leads to more traffic and emissions—is still seeking to build a gigantic new freeway bridge across the Columbia River, which in large part is driving its case for the Rose Quarter project.

I don’t think this will be really over until after the Columbia River Crossing is settled. The CRC discussion should be about the whole I-5 corridor from Battle Ground to Wilsonville (or Salem) and ideally would include the whole freeway network in the region. We need to establish the role of the freeway network in our climate change plans. We can’t do that effectively project-by-project.”

In some senses, the project may be more in danger of succumbing to fiscal reality that a local veto. The decline in driving prompted by the pandemic (and induced recession) is sharply cutting state gas tax revenues (which are needed to pay for the project).  Meanwhile, the cost of the Rose Quarter freeway widening has ballooned from $450 million (promised to the 2017 Legislature) to as much as $795 million—that before meeting any of the demands by the Albina Vision Trust for repairing the damage done by the freeway’s original construction. ODOT may simply not have the resources to build this project. Governor Kate Brown prefaced her comments about the Rose Quarter project by alluding to the need to re-evaluate the state’s entire investment plan in light of the new fiscal situation, saying:

. . . we all need to take a look at all of these transportation projects in light of the economic disruption that we’re seeing statewide and frankly, nationally.

Deja vu all over again

For long-time transportation advocates, like Bragdon and Mayor Sam Adams, ODOT’s duplicity on the Rose Quarter isn’t a surprise. It seems that with every decade’s megaproject, community groups must learn once again that the agency isn’t to be trusted. In 2009, the Bicycle Transportation Alliance (since morphed into the Street Trust), similarly dropped its participation from the Columbia River Crossing after being abused and mislead by the Oregon Department of Transportation.  Here’s Elly Blue’s 2009 Bike Portland article, describing Michelle Poyourow’s resignation from that project’s steering committee:

“The BTA can no longer justify pouring our members’ precious resources into a project that is bad for the health and vitality of this region and now has a lousy bike and pedestrian facility to boot.”

Poyourow told BikePortland on Friday that she believes the BTA can effectively influence the project without sitting on — and thereby tacitly endorsing — the committee.

“The problem with the CRC is it’s just been deaf to community input,” she said, adding that bicycle advocates are not the only group to have had concerns about the bridge brushed aside. “They’re not listening. They’re determined to do what they’re going to do.”

It’s a decade later, its a different Governor, different members of the Oregon Transportation Commission and a different set of local officials and community leaders, but ODOT’s modus operandi is just the same. The process steps like the Executive Steering Committee are just cynical and insincere efforts to divert, delay and obscure criticism and pave the way for a wider road. And this isn’t just a decade-old problem, its a half-century long tradition. The original construction of I-5 through this neighborhood was riddled with exactly the same kind of tactics.

When the freeway was being planned, local officials objected to its impacts on neighborhoods and schools. The freeway bisected the attendance area for the Ockley Green Elementary School, meaning many students could no longer easily walk to school. Several local neighborhood streets were transformed into busy, high speed off ramps. In the planning process, local officials raised these concerns with the state highway department, and were offered assurances that “every effort” would be made to solve these problems. University of Oregon historian Henry Fackler describes the 1961 meeting convened by the city to address the effects of street closures:

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.

Six decades later, ODOT is still running the same scam. For the moment at least, the Albina Vision Trust isn’t falling for it.

Portland awards itself a participation trophy for climate

Portland is utterly failing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, but not to worry, its ticking lots of boxes in its bureaucratic check-list.

The city walks away from its 2015 Climate Action Plan after an increase in greenhouse gases, but promises to do better (and more equitably) in the future.

Portland’s greenhouse gas emissions increased by 440,000 tons per year, instead of decreasing as called for in its 2015 plan.

Increased driving due to cheap gas has wiped out all the city’s climate progress in other sectors in the past five years.

We’re frequently told that when it comes to dealing with climate change, if our national government doesn’t step up (and it hasn’t under the current administration), not to worry, because the nation’s cities, and the mayors who lead them are as green as can be.

To be sure, mayors have loudly proclaimed their commitments to (future) greenhouse gas reductions, and fealty to the Paris Climate Accords, but rhetoric and pledges are one thing, and lower rates of carbon emissions are another. While plans are nice, we really need to be focusing on the results that the plans are producing.

When it comes to Portland, one of the self-proclaimed leaders of North American climate change cities, the results are disappointing, and the explanations are, at best, disingenuous.

Portland was one of the first cities in the US, to adopt and explicit grenehouse gas reduction goal in 1993.  The city’s website boasts:

Portland is tackling climate change head on. We were the first US city to adopt a carbon reduction strategy in 1993, and our cutting-edge Climate Action Plan put us on a path to reducing emissions by 80% in 2050.

Noble and far sighted, to be sure, but a quarter of a century later, how is the city doing in actually, you know, reducing greenhouse gases?

The answer to that question is supposed to be spelled out in a progress report on the the city’s adopted 2015 Climate Action Plan. The city’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability last month published “final” report card on the city’s efforts. But rather than being an honest report card, the document amounts to the bureaucratic equivalent of a third-grade participation trophy. The city congratulates itself for its efforts, but the true test of progress, a reduction measured in tons of carbon emissions, shows the plan has been a failure.

The  city’s “Final Progress Report” almost completely glosses over the failure to cut emissions modestly in the past five years, and now the City has quickly moved on to a much more ambitious interim goal to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent from 1990 levels (up from 40 percent), in its new Climate Emergency Declaration.

Let’s get to the heart of the matter:  The key element on the plan is reducing emissions.  Here’s the report’s summary of our progress:

The 2018 data also shows that carbon reductions have started to plateau and that current emissions trends are not sufficient to meet the needed reduction targets that need to be achieved. To achieve the goal of a 50% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 as identified by climate science, local emissions must be reduced by an additional 31% in the next 10 years. This is a daunting task.

Actually, the report doesn’t present the actual emissions data; instead, it links to another report (the September 2019 report we wrote about here) that has the  data, and that report includes data only through 2017.

A checklist isn’t a climate strategy

The bulk of the city’s self-congratulatory report card consists of describing a laundry list of 247 actions that were mentioned in the previous climate action plan, and briefly rating each as either complete, on track or “facing obstacles.  The actions include sweeping and important policies that would make a big difference (like Item 1H: carbon pricing, which is “facing obstacles), and administrivia, like planning for actions with minimal benefits (“Item 6B: explore options intelligent transportation system, complete).  Nothing in the report calculates or categorizes the impact of any of these individual actions on the region’s greenhouse gas reduction progress (or lack thereof).

Wow! 77% of 247 Actions are on track: But the one indicator that matters—carbon emissions—is going in the wrong direction. (Portland Climate Action Plan Report, 2020).

Put another way:  If you successfully implemented all or most of your checklist actions, and you’re not making progress on reducing GHG, then something is fundamentally wrong with your plan.

Plans have to be accountable, not just for endless checklists of busy-work tasks, but actually achieving measurable results. Ironically, the plan itself calls for more measurability, but as noted above, it simply failed to report the annual data showing that by the CAP’s own metrics, that its failing.

It’s the equivalent of a grade-school participation trophy:  The City and County laud themselves for implementing about three-quarters of their 250 checklist items, but gloss over the fact that greenhouse gases, particularly from transportation are rising.
In 2013, the base year for statistics used in preparing the 2015 Climate Action Plan, Multnomah County’s total emissions were estimated at 7,260,000 tons.  According to the latest climate inventory (linked to, but not actually quoted in the progress report), the level of emissions in 2017 (the latest year for which data is available), were 7,702,000 tons. (We dig into the detail of these estimates below). Thus, Portland’s  total GHG are higher in 2017 than in 2013 according to the city’s own numbers, i.e. since Portland adopted the 2015 plan we’ve made zero (actually negative) progress.  The report spins this as “plateauing” but we all know that unless we make steady progress in reducing GHG, the task becomes exponentially more difficult in the years ahead.  Nobody would call having your 8th grader still reading at the 3rd grade level five years later as “plateauing.”

Mission unaccomplished

Its clear from the tone of the report card, that the City is simply walking away from its 2015 plan–even though its substantive goals haven’t been accomplished.  The title of the report is “Final Progress Report.”  All of the references to the plan are in the past tense, for example:

The Climate Action Plan was an important roadmap over the last five years to help ensure the City and County continued their progress toward carbon reduction goals. The 2015 Climate Action Plan broke important new ground by including several important elements:

(Report, page 65).

City officials promise accountability, but if they simply walk away from plans after five years, without seriously acknowledging their failure, and analyzing the reasons for that failure, and begin by writing a new plan, de novo, as the city now proposes, there is no accountability. Moreover, the city’s “final report” disappears the few bits of serious number-crunching that were done in the 2015 plan, showing that we’d need to dramatically reduce vehicle miles of car travel in order to achieve our carbon goals.

The 2015 plan was explicit about what would be needed.  It laid out a carbon budget that did the math on what we would have to do to reach our goals. Specifically:

For example, by 2030 emissions from the building energy and transportation sector must be approximately 40 percent below 1990 levels (see Table 1). In 2050, residents must be able to meet all of their needs while using 62 percent less electricity and driving 64 percent fewer miles than they do today (see Table 2). (This also assumes a shift to cleaner electricity sources and more efficient vehicles.)

Climate Action Plan, 2015, page 19

In place of tangible, measurable indicators of progress toward our stated goal, the City’s climate emergency declaration offers  vague exhortations about future process.

As they walk away from the 2015 plan, there’s as yet  no plan to take its place.  There are vague statements about process going forward, descriptions of how the city might do something else, but few if any actual policies.  The City’s Climate Emergency Resolution directs BPS, by the fall of this year to “co-convene a process” to “identify and implement strategies that will advance a shared solution.”

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that no later than Fall 2020, the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability is directed to work closely with other City bureaus, Multnomah County, frontline communities, and youth-led organizations to establish and co-convene a new and ongoing climate justice initiative that will provide a framework for government and community to work together as equal partners to identify and implement strategies that will advance a shared vision for climate justice and action;

But this new process and the plan it produces, and its specifics are in the future.  For now the city has simply closed the book on the 2015 plan, and awarded itself a participation trophy for having done so.

Portland’s 2015 Climate Action Plan has been an abject failure

Its important to look in detail at the data on carbon emissions in Portland for the past decade. They show that the city’s climate change efforts, so far, have failed.  In the three years prior to the adoption of the Climate Action Plan (2010 through 2013), the city managed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 250,000 tons per year; In the four years between the plan’s baseline and the latest available data, emissions have increased by 110,000 tons per year. In 2013, Portland GHG’s were 7.26 million tons; in 2017, they were 7.7 million tons, an annual increase of 1.5 percent per year, at a time the Climate Action Plan called for an annual reduction of 1.4 percent per year.

In the most basic sense, more greenhouse gas emissions mean your plan isn’t working. The plan characterizes this whopping failure as a “plateauing.”

It also conceals the failure by constantly referring to a 1990 baseline, rather than looking a recent trends (i.e. the past two, five or ten years).  In essence, the plan takes credit for emission reductions that happened in the two decades years before the 2015 plan was adopted (i.e. 1990 to 2010), and simply ignores the fact that Portland’s GHG are now going in the wrong direction.

Plateauing is a tacit admission of failure for a plan that depends on large and consistent reductions in emissions.  But, to be clear, emissions haven’t plateaued:  Portland’s total greenhouse gas emissions as calculated by the city, have risen by 440,000 tons between the CAP baseline year (2013) and the latest year for which data are available (2017).

It’s telling that the report includes no chart showing the needed path of emission reductions between now and 2030 or 2050.  Such charts are a staple of climate plans, including the 2015 CAP, which laid out this roadmap for GHG reductions:

The path laid out in Portland’s 2015 Climate Action Plan

If they’d replicated this chart, with data showing actual progress from 2013 to 2017, and showing their new, much more aggressive goal, it would look like this.

The 2015 Climate Action Plan, the 2020 Climate Emergency Declaration, and Reality

On this chart, the blue line shows actual emissions (as reported by the city), the 2015 plan (the orange line) and the 2020 Climate Emergency Goal (green line).  By 2017, in order to be on a path to achieving its 2030 goal, the City needed to reduce greenhouse gases by 25 percent below their 1990 levels; instead, as we’ve noted greenhouse gases rose, and were at 15 percent below 1990 levels.  The fact that the blue line is above the orange line shows the city isn’t meeting its previous goal.

And its worth noting just how much more ambitious the new goal of cutting emissions to 50 percent of 1990 levels by 2030 (and to zero net emissions by 2050) is.  The much steeper slope of the green line (the new climate emergency goal) implies a vastly bigger lift than the previous (2015) plan, the orange line. Meeting the 2030 goal will require more than twice as much annual reduction (110,000 tons vs 220,000 tons), each year, from now through 2030. The 2015 plan required that the City reduce its emissions by about 1.7 percent per year over 17 years to reach its goal of a 40 percent reduction; its new climate emergency declaration requires a 4.1 percent annual emissions reduction over the next decade to reach its higher 50 percent objective.

The city has raised the bar at exactly the time that its shown that its current efforts simply aren’t working. And unlike the 2015 plan, there’s no detailed calculation of how we’ll achieve this vastly greater level of emissions reductions. Recall that the 2015 plan said we’d need to cut driving in half to achieve a more modest goal over a longer period of time. If the city is serious about achieving this goal, as opposed to just posturing, its essential that they show how the goal can be reached. They haven’t.

What’s needed:  A laser like focus on reducing GHG from driving

The startling omission from the report is the fact that it’s been the increase in driving over the past five years that’s undercut our progress toward our stated climate change goals. The report neatly glosses over the fact that emissions, especially from transportation, are rising.  It presents one chart showing GHG in 2000 and in 2018 (the year of the latest GHG inventory) and omits data for individual years.

The City’s report  card makes it look as if very little has happened—the transportation emissions have gone up, and just a little  Leaving out the annual data conceals a much bleaker reality:  In the past five years, Portland has recorded huge increases in greenhouse gas emissions.  Here are the annual data from the independent, nationally-normed estimates prepared as part of the DARTE GHG inventory, showing the  Portland area’s greenhouse gas emissions from transportation. (These data are for the entire metropolitan area).

As we’ve noted before at City Observatory, the Portland made good progress until 2013, when increased driving due to cheaper fuel costs produced a surge in vehicle miles traveled and carbon emissions. Portland’s carbon emissions increased by 1,000 pounds per person annually between 2013 and 2018, more than wiping out all the other progress made in reducing greenhouse gases in other sectors.

Portland’s won’t make progress in reducing greenhouse gases until it finds a way to reduce vehicle miles traveled.  And it will need to reduce them substantially. As noted above, when it wrote the 2015 plan, the city did the math to figure out how big a reduction in driving would be needed.  Then, when transportation emissions were lower (and the city’s climate goals less aggressive) the city’s calculations showed we’d need a 62 percent decline in VMT. Our backsliding combined with a tougher goal means we’ll need to reduce driving even more to achieve the objective laid out in the Climate Emergency Declaration.

Dealing with climate change is a serious existential threat to humanity. Its good that the city is willing to acknowledge this, and that it has an important role to play in reducing greenhouse gases. This will be a challenging task, and it is not made easier by presenting reports that conceal fundamental failures to move forward, that hide key data and analysis that tell us where we really are, and which avoid accountability for failing to make meaningful progress toward our stated goals.


The Week Observed, July 31 2020

What City Observatory did this week

1. The abject failure of Portland’s Climate Action Plan. Last month, Portland issued the final report on its 2015 Climate Action Plan. It emphasizes that the city took action on three-quarters of the items on the plan’s checklist, but glosses over the most important measure of results:  the fact that Portland’s carbon emissions have actually increased in the past five years.

The City’s adopted 2015 Climate Action Plan called for putting Portland on a path to reduce greenhouse gases by a cumulative 25 percent from 1990 levels by 2020, but instead, emissions increased, and the city is stuck only 15 percent below 1990 levels. A newly issued “final” progress report on the 2015 plan mostly papers over this failure, and the reasons for it (increased driving due to cheaper gas). Portland has now adopted a “Climate Emergency Declaration” that sets an even more ambitious goal (a 50 percent reduction from 1990 levels by 2030), but hasn’t done the math or spelled out the steps that will be needed to achieve that goal. Instead, it mostly promises to convene a new conversation about climate which will be more equitable and inclusive, starting in the fall of 2020.

2. Auto industry experts forecast a permanent decline in driving and car sales.  KPMG, management consultants to auto makers and their suppliers, has taken a close look at changed behavior in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.  Many more of us are working at home, and shopping on-line, trends that KPMG expects to translate into permanent changes in behavior even after the pandemic subsides. For example, they estimate that car travel associated with shopping could decline by 10 to 30 percent, eliminating 40 to 130 billion miles of vehicle travel each year.

Less car driving means lower car sales—and less lucrative car repair—but also means fewer crashes, injuries and deaths and less pollution.  KPMG is warning its clients to prepare for a smaller auto market in the years ahead. Another groups that should pay attention to these forecasts is highway builders:  Less driving means less need for new and wider roads. Hopefully, lower gas tax receipts are already sending that message.

Must read

1. Exclusive communities deepen metropolitan inequality.  Brookings Institution’s Jenny Schuetz has a timely look at the way that exclusionary practices in some suburban jurisdictions drive metropolitan inequality and segregation. Schuetz explores the relationship between housing affordability and racial and ethnic composition of neighborhoods in cities in four large metro areas. She finds that exclusive suburban jurisdictions effectively exclude minorities by driving up rents. As she explains:

Whether or not expensive communities intend to bar entry to lower-income households, high housing costs are as prohibitive a barrier as more overt forms of discrimination. As long as there are substantial racial gaps in income and wealth, expensive communities will effectively be off limits to most Black and Latino households—as well as to renter households of all races.

The result is the most expensive cities in any metro area tend to have far fewer people of color than the overall metro area.  Here are data for four large metros: Dallas, Detroit, Los Angles, Washington

2. The high (and inequitable) cost of city parking. Writing at the Washington Post, Ike Brannon, channelling his inner Donald Shoup, calls out the high social and environmental costs and inequitable impacts of the district’s under-priced street parking. Residents pay just $35 a year for a street parking permit, well below the market value of parking (as high as $2-3,000 per year in the Adams-Morgan neighborhood). Car owners are, on average much wealthier, and much more likely to be white than the average DC resident, meaning that this subsidy is delivered chiefly to higher income households, and is unavailable to those who can’t afford (or choose not to have) a car. But it isn’t just that people when out cars don’t benefit from under-priced parking, they pay an added cost in terms of worse transit service.

 . . . the ubiquity of parked cars slows down buses. For example, the L2 from Woodley Park to Farragut has five stops where a handful of parked cars can delay the bus by one to two minutes. The result is that thousands of bus riders lose five to seven minutes each day (and that’s one way) to accommodate 20 to 25 car owners.

In addition, the obsession with parking supply is a chief reason for NIMBY opposition to new housing. More residents would mean more competition for free or under-priced parking, so existing residents push to assure plenty of parking by blocking more housing. The result is that everyone pays higher rents because not enough housing is built to accomodate all those who would like to live in urban neighborhoods. Free and under-priced parking is the scourge of healthy, livable and fair cities.

New Knowledge

Why the ward system leads to higher rents. Many cities elect their governing bodies by single member districts. Voting rights advocates have pushed for single member districts as a way to secure representation for geographically concentrated minorities, and courts have ordered some cities to replace their “at-large” City Councils with members elected by district. But single member districts have the pernicious effect of amplifying the “NIMBY”—Not in my backyard—dominance of local land use decisions.  Unlike city councilors elected city-wide, members elected ward tend to be especially sensitive to the most localized aspects of decisions. By rule or custom, many ward-systems grant a personal veto—in Chicago “Aldermanic privilege”—for all land use decisions in their district.

While this effect is well-known in practice, there’s been little systematic investigation of the cumulative effects of ward-system on housing supply, until now.  Evan Mast, of the Upjohn Institute has assembled a unique database of cities and their housing markets, which traces the housing supply changes in cities that did, and didn’t change from at-large to single-member district representation.

The key finding:  as expected, cities that shifted to single-member districts saw a significant slowing in the rate of the approval of new housing construction, compared to otherwise similar cities that retained their at large systems. Overall, cities that switched to the ward system saw a 21 percent decrease in new housing production after doing so.  The decreases were disproportionately concentrated in multifamily housing, where new production declined 38 percent (single family homes were down, too, but only about 11 percent).

Ward-based systems amplify the political power of NIMBY opposition to housing, and thereby limit expansion of the housing supply, and likely drive up rents and home values, which may be a gain for incumbent homeowners, but means less housing affordability for everyone in a city.

Evan Mast, Warding Off Development Local Control, Housing Supply, and NIMBYs, W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, July 10, 2020

In the News

Now is the wrong time for a multi-billion dollar transportation package for the Portland metropolitan area, City Observatory Director Joe Cortright told Willamette Week.  The region would be better advised to wait and see how the decline in driving caused by the pandemic (and predicted to continue by auto industry experts) changes the need for transportation investments.

The Week Observed, July 24 2020

What City Observatory did this week

The exodus that never happened. You’ve probably seen stories bouncing around the media for the past few months claiming that fears that density makes people more susceptible to the pandemic are prompting people to leave cities in droves. While and enterprising reporter can always find an anecdote to build such a story upon, the data don’t support that thesis. The latest bit of evidence comes from ApartmentList.com, which has done a detailed analysis of where people are searching for new apartments. Contrary to the media hype, interest in cities is actually up, with the market share of searches for cities outpacing suburbs and rural areas.

Even in the New York City metro area, the center of the pandemic (until recently), search activity in the five boroughs was up, while searches in surrounding cities and suburbs declined. ApartmentList has detailed data for the top 50 metro areas; all but a handful follow the national trend—toward, and not away from, dense cities.

Must read

1. Are Big Oil’s days as a political force numbered? The decline in oil prices, the stock market, and growing adoption of renewable energy sources have dealt a significant economic blow to the fossil fuel industry. Coal is mostly dying, and oil and gas companies are troubled. Sightline Institute’s Alan Durning speculates that this economic decline likely presages a parallel decline in political power—but with a lag.  As he explains:

. . . politics lags economics. Political change lags because beliefs solidify early in politicians’ careers. It lags because enduring relationships among power players outlast the realities in which they form. It lags because institutional advantages persist in law, policy, and custom.

For cities, the political power of the fossil fuel industry has largely been a negative. Cheap gasoline has fueled sprawl, and many of the costs and externalities of car dependence have been borne largely by cities and their residents. While Durning’s thesis seems fundamentally correct, dying or even declining industries can often double down on political strategies in an effort to stave of the inevitable, so we shouldn’t look for the political influence of this industry to disappear any time soon.

2. Challenging the “out-of-scale” myth. Listen to a controversy about virtually any new building or development, and you’re virtually certain to hear this objection, what’s proposed is “out-of-scale” with the surrounding community. It’s a coded way of objecting to more density (and more neighbors, and often, a more integrated neighborhood).  The implication is that all new development has to resemble what went before.  StrongTowns Daniel Herriges challenges both the aesthetics and logic of the “out-of-scale argument, and points out that the variation we observe is a natural part of cities:

Buildings are developed at different times, and in a rapidly changing city with permissive zoning rules, eclecticism will be the natural result of simple randomness. A place with rising land values will see some plots of land redeveloped at a higher density, while others—maybe right next door—are not, perhaps for no other reason than the owner has not wished to sell.

Perhaps the reason we hear this argument so much is that its an inevitable truism:  When houses or stores were first built on a previously vacant site, they were, by defnition, “out-of-scale” with their surroundings.  The process of development is always about some buildings having a different scale than others.

Out of scale! (Strong Towns)

3. As the cars come back, the buses slow down. As America gradually, and fitfully, reopens in the wake of the pandemic, auto traffic, which had fallen by more than half in nearly all US cities, is growing again. And in New York, where the virus hit hardest, rebounding traffic has had a measurable effect on bus travel speeds.  Streetsblog NYC reports bus speeds are down citywide:

Manhattan buses fared the worst in the slowdown, going from 7.6 miles per hour in May down to 6.8 miles per hour in June, a 10.5-percent drop in bus speeds. Brooklyn and Queens buses also faced steep percentage declines in the same time period, going from 8.5 miles per hour to 7.7 miles per hour (down 9.4 percent) and 10.8 miles per hour to 9.8 miles per hour (down 9.2 percent), respectively.

Its worth noting that slower bus speeds penalize the transit dependent, and lower the attractiveness and increase the cost of public transit. As we’ve pointed out before at City Observatory, slower bus speeds are inherently inequitable, given the lower incomes and more limited choices of transit dependent persons. In all of the brouhaha over whether we’re adequately applying an “equity” lens to transportation policy, there’s never been an opportunity for anyone to question the equity of how infinite and essentially free use of streets by cars results in inequitable outcomes for bus riders.  As with so many things, the pandemic revealed the costs that our auto-dependent transportation system imposed on everyone; it’s an opportunity to learn and fix things, if we choose.

4.  More highway to hell.  The road lobby is in complete denial about climate change. Latest case in point: a new report from TRIP, a highway lobby group, calling for hundreds of billions of dollars of additional spending on highways. No acknowledgement that highways have produced pollution and sprawl, eviscerated cities, and produced a car-dependent transportation system that is fundamentally inequitable. And no mention at all of climate change; the word “greenhouse” doesn’t appear anywhere in its report; “climate” appears exactly once: in reference to the impact of moisture on roadwear.

Pavement deterioration is caused by a combination of traffic, moisture and climate. Moisture often works its way into road surfaces and the materials that form the road’s foundation.

The fact that transportation accounts for 40 percent of US greenhouse gases, and is increasing:  not TRIP’s problem. And tragically, as we’ve pointed out before, the Transportation Research Board, an arm of the National Academies of Science, is being used as a shill by the highway lobby to promote more road spending, more car dependence, and more greenhouse gas emissions, putting us all on the highway to hell.

New Knowledge

Slow streets are safe streets. The National Asscoiation of City Transportation Officials has a new guide to creating safer city streets:  City Limits: Setting Safe Speed Limits on Urban Streets. For decades, car-oriented highway departments have used the pseudo-scientific 85 percent rule to allow speeding drivers to set the legal limit of speeds on urban streets, with predictable results for traffic safety, especially pedestrian deaths. While the rest of the industrialized world has made steady progress in reducing traffic deaths, the US has not.

In addition to making the case that slower city streets are safer for everyone, the NACTO manual lays out clear how-to guidelines for implementing slower speeds, with methods and results drawn from member cities. In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, there’s a new appreciation of how car-dominated the urban realm has become.  This manual provides practical advice on how to change that, and make our streets safer.


The Week Observed, July 17, 2020

What City Observatory did this week

Dominos falling on Portland’s Rose Quarter freeway widening project. In the space of just a few hours two weeks ago, local political support for an $800 million freeway widening project collapsed, after local African-American groups pulled out of the project’s steering committee. We trace the rapid-fire chronology of local leaders bailing on the project, and then dig deeper into the reasons why support for this massive project evaporated so quickly.

Portland’s Mayor and Metro President were clinging to the Albina Vision to justify the I-5 Rose Quarter Freeway widening–no more. (Concept: Jonathan Maus/ Bike Portland – Illustration & Copyright: Cloe Ashton, May 2019).

There are a host of environmental, financial and social reasons to oppose this flawed project, but its apparent death-knell was the continuation of a decades-long cavalier attitude of the Oregon highway department to community concerns. While the project is yet completely dead, it is so out-of-touch with our understanding of urban transportation, our needs to seriously combat climate change, and the long-delayed effort to make meaningful reparations for the damage done to the historically Black neighborhood, than one can only hope it expires soon.

Must read

1. Why reducing car travel and prioritizing buses is inherently equitable. Our experience with the Coronvirus-induced Stay-at-Home orders has shown how “less-car” cities work better for everyone. Some of the best evidence comes from New York City, where lessened car traffic has accelerated bus speeds. Streetsblog NYC points out:

The decrease in car traffic during the coronavirus pandemic shows exactly what the mayor could do to help bus riders. For example, the M22 — which stops at the corner of Worth and Centre streets — inched along at just 4.8 miles-per-hour in June, 2018, according to data from the MTA. But during the height of the city’s lockdown, when car use dropped by 78 percent, bus speeds on that same route went up to 7.4 miles-per-hour — yet the city has made no moves to ensure that fewer private cars block MTA buses, whose riders are mostly people of color with an average income of $28,455 a year.

If we’re looking to have a fairer and more sustainable transportation system, one of the best things we can do is discourage private car use in cities.

2. Covid-19 Trends and Foot Traffic by city. The American Enterprise Institute’s Housing Center has assembled a very clever visualization showing the trends in foot traffic at stores, restaurants and other destinations (gathered from anonymized cell location data) and the rate of reported cases of Covid-19 in the nation’s 40 largest metro areas.  The data show the disparate patterns of the disease in different places, and how our collective willingness to Stay-at-Home blunted the spread of the virus—for a while. This chart shows foot traffic (blue) normed to pre-pandemic levels and new cases per 100,000 population per week (red), from mid-March to early July,

New York City, as well known, bore the brunt of the pandemic early on, but has brought new case counts down sharply.  Meanwhile, in other cities, notably Miami and Phoenix, reopening in mid-to-late May triggered a dramatic rise in cases.  Strikingly, in the past two weeks, foot traffic has tapered off almost everywhere, in part due to the July 4 holiday, but also, apparently due to increased reticence to venture forth as the pandemic’s second wave hits.

3.  Death to the Park and Ride.  For a long time, transit projects have been conceived as ways to lure commuters out of their private cars, for a portion of their journeys, anyway. That’s why many new and expanded high capacity transit projects feature expensive, publicly subsidized parking garages. It’s increasingly clear that this approach is counterproductive to environmental and equity goals.

A bleak Toronto park and ride lot. (Matt Pinder)

Matt Pinder, blogging at Beyond the Automobile, writes that now is the time to close the book on this auto centered strategy. It’s led us to build stations in the wrong places, turned station areas into desolate car-dominated spaces, and is fundamentally inequitable:

The park-and-ride is also a problematic public asset because it privileges the wealthy. A commuter on the [Toronto’s] GO Train whose household makes more than $125,000 per year is nearly twice as likely to drive to the station compared to someone with a household income of less than $40,000 per year. When parking is free, the cost to build, operate, and maintain it is bundled into the cost of the transit fare. In other words, when park-and-ride is free, the poorer riders subsidize the wealthier ones.

Pinder argues that the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic is a good time to think about repurposing park-and-ride lots as dense, mixed use areas. Rather than catering to a twice-a-weekday flood of commuters, transit ought to enable walkable places and car-free living. The result would be more sustainable and more equitable.

New Knowledge

Housing shortages are behind gentrification pressures.  The Urban Institute has a new study looking at the connection between housing supply and gentrification.  The study uses data from home mortgages to look at the income levels of home buyers, and compares them to the income level of the neighborhood in which they’re purchasing homes. The study operationalizes “gentrification” as higher income buyers representing a disproportionately large share of home buyers in a neighborhood relative to its current income. The author’s find a strong relationship between expensive housing markets (attributable to a shortage of housing) and the degree to which high income mortgage borrowers buy homes disproportionately in low- or moderate income neighborhoods.

This chart summarizes the data for the 74 large metro areas included in the analysis and finds that using this metric, gentrification is higher in markets with a shortage of housing.

Our examination reveals that, in many MSAs, high housing costs—resulting from a lack of available housing—cause affluent buyers to look for homes in low- and moderate-income (LMI) neighborhoods. That means cities’ housing supply can determine how fast gentrification may occur. Boosting the supply of housing can slow the pace of new buyers moving into lower-income neighborhoods.

The implication of this study will seem counter-intuitive to many.Its commonplace to argue that new market-rate housing is a cause of gentrification, but its actually the case that the reverse is true:  The way to lessen gentrification pressure is to build more housing.

It’s also worth noting that the usual caveats about eliding the difference between “gentrifying” and “gentrified” apply here. This study, like many others, describes a neighborhood as “gentrifying” if the proportion of high income purchasers exceeds the current high income share in the neighborhood. These “gentrifying” neighborhoods can remain much more income-diverse than the typical neighborhood in a metropolitan area.

Laurie Goodman, Ellen Seidman & Jun Zhu, To Understand a City’s Pace of Gentrification, Look At Its Housing Supply, Urban Institute, June 24, 2020

In the News


The Week Observed, July 10, 2020

What City Observatory did this week

CityBeat: NPR urban flight story. The pack animals of the media have settled on a single, oft-repeated narrative about cities and Covid-19; that fear of the virus will lead people to move to the suburbs. The latest iteration of this trope is an NPR story, focused on a couple moving from New York City’s Upper West Side to suburban Montclair, New Jersey. There are several problems with the story (starting with the fact that the couple was already planning to move prior to the pandemic). More importantly, the risk of contracting the virus is about one-third greater in the suburb they’ve chosen than in Manhattan. More broadly, the data don’t bear out this claim: well-educated young adults are moving to cities in increasing numbers, and real estate search data from the height of the pandemic show no decline (and even a slight increase) in interest in urban locations.

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1. Stop more building roads. In an Op-Ed published by The New York Times, engineering professors Shoshanna Saxe and 

Most developed countries already have effective road systems; they can be maintained, but the economic benefits of expansion are marginal and the downsides significant. Road construction is environmentally destructive, and it promotes urban sprawl, congestion, air pollution and inequality.

The Hippocratic oath requires that physicians “First, do no harm.”  It’s advice that ought to apply with equal, if not greater force to engineers. Our transportation system, and the sprawl and climate crisis it has spawned, are the product of spending too much on transportation, not too little.

2. And take the cars off the streets of Manhattan. Farhad Manjoo has a long-form on-line essay (with singing and dancing graphics) in The New York Times, arguing that now is the time to ban privately owned cars from Manhattan. The pandemic has given city dwellers everywhere a better sense of what life would be like with fewer cars, and how we might better use our scarce public road space to serve a wider variety of uses (an users). Manjoo makes a detailed and comprehensive case for the safety, environmental and livability benefits of greatly reducing the number of cars on the island. Drawing on the work of a number of urbanists, Manjoo sketches out what life might be like with fewer cars in New York City:

Underscoring all of the reasons for a ban is simple equity.  Most people in New York don’t own cars, and don’t use them to travel to work or other destinations; its simply unfair to prioritize the needs of a generally wealthier few over the many especially when cars degrade everyone’s quality of life.  To quote Manjoo:

The amount of space devoted to cars in Manhattan is not just wasteful, but, in a deeper sense, unfair to the millions of New Yorkers who have no need for cars. More than half of the city’s households do not own a car, and of those who do, most do not use them for commuting. . . . New York’s drivers are essentially being given enormous tracts of land for their own pleasure and convenience.

Streets ought to give priority to the people who live in the city, and who want to be there, rather than those who simply want to travel through it (or use the public realm for free storage of their personal vehicles. No city is better position to lead the way in this revolution than New York.