The Great Disconnect: The perverse rhetoric of gentrification

The Great Disconnect

By Jason Segedy

City Observatory is pleased to publish this guest commentary from Akron’s Jason Segedy.  It originally appeared on his blog.



As this decade draws to a close, the story of urban America is increasingly about the great disconnect between a small number of large cities that are thriving, and a much larger number of cities of all sizes that are continuing to fall behind.

What’s true for a handful of large cities is increasingly untrue for the majority of cities in the vast middle of the country. Nowhere is the great disconnect more apparent than in the debate about gentrification.

Gentrification is a hot topic of conversation in coastal cities, like New York, Washington, and San Francisco, with expensive living costs that are also home to influential journalists and academics.

Writing about gentrification has become a cottage industry for many pundits and urban policy wonks.  Many of the earlier pieces penned on the topic were important, thought-provoking, and well-reasoned.

But what started as the airing of thoughtful, reasonable, and understandable concerns about displacement and inequality in a handful of coastal cities, has turned into intellectual dishonesty, irrational hysteria, and even self-parody, particularly when it is applied to the long-suffering cities of the Rust Belt.

Peter Moskowitz’s How to Kill a City, which Josh Stephens accurately calls “an ideological rant in the guise of journalism” makes it clear that no matter how many times he mentions Detroit, it is clear that the New Yorker simply doesn’t really understand the place.  He says: “The new Detroit is now nearly a closed-loop…It is possible to live in this new Detroit and never set foot in the old one.” I’ve got news for him.  Detroit has been like that for 50 years.  It’s just that the closed-loop was called 8-Mile Road.  Gentrification didn’t kill Detroit.  Urban decline did.  And we can be confident that more decline won’t resurrect it.

A recent New York Times piece on Climate Change warns us that although Duluth may benefit from “climate refugees”, new growth raises the specter of (you guessed it) gentrification.  In case you were wondering, Duluth has been steadily losing population since 1960.

Then there’s Samuel Stein’s Capital City, which at least gets points for originality by dispensing with blaming hipsters or developers for gentrification, and aims its sights squarely on my overwhelmingly leftward-leaning profession of urban planning, even going so far as to say that “proto-planners” (whatever that means) were responsible for Native American genocide as they “enabled the country’s murderous westward expansion, and mapped the rail networks and other infrastructure that made it possible.“

There is even a movement called “Just Green Enough”, which is premised on the idea that parks in poor neighborhoods shouldn’t be made “too nice” in order to prevent displacement by gentrification. Precious energy and effort is expended on endless worry and discussion (and in some cases, active opposition) to a nice park, a new ice cream shop, or a new grocery store, because it could potentially displace someone.

Meanwhile, the poor themselves continue to languish in disinvested and actively-avoided neighborhoods, without any of the amenities or conveniences that the activists and academics have (and take for granted) in their own neighborhoods.

However well-intentioned, these efforts end up doing the same thing – ensuring that people living in poor neighborhoods continue to have the worst of everything, confined to separate and unequal places with substandard facilities and amenities, all “for their own good”.

How elitist, patronizing, and sad.

For those interested in separating data-driven fact from ideologically-driven fiction, a new report, American Neighborhood Change in the 21st Century: Gentrification and Decline, provides a welcome corrective.

Anyone who is serious about understanding urban public policy, equity, and neighborhood change, should read this report.  It is an easy read.

The report examines the ways in which neighborhoods in the 50 largest U.S. metropolitan areas are growing or shrinking; getting richer or poorer; rebuilding or disintegrating.  It quantifies the degree to which neighborhoods are experiencing economic growth, displacement of low-income people, concentration of poverty, and abandonment.

It finds that the most common form of American neighborhood change, by far, is poverty concentration, rather than wealth concentration.  Low-income residents are exposed to neighborhood decline far more than gentrification.  In fact, there was no metropolitan area in the nation where a low-income person was more likely to live in an economically expanding neighborhood than in an economically declining neighborhood.

The findings mirror what Alan Mallach says in his must-read book, The Divided City: gentrifying areas are rarely the most distressed areas of a city, particularly where demolition has unraveled a neighborhood’s fabric, and where few attractive homes or buildings of any kind remain; and predominately African-American neighborhoods are less, not more, likely to experience gentrification than largely white, working-class neighborhoods.

Instead, gentrification typically follows a pattern of black neighborhood avoidance.  Rather than being subject to displacement by gentrification, urban residents who are both black and poor are far more likely to be left behind in neighborhoods experiencing widespread vacancy, abandonment, and disinvestment.

Instead of displacement by gentrification, what we are seeing in most cities in my part of the country, including Detroit, could be described as displacement by decline – as middle class residents, African-Americans in particular, frustrated by the continued social and economic disintegration of their neighborhoods, are moving to safer and more attractive neighborhoods in the suburbs.

While the urban renaissance in a handful of neighborhoods gets all the headlines, it is the rapid concentration of poverty and urban decline that is far more prevalent – and troubling.

I’ve lived my entire life in Akron, which, like Duluth and Detroit, has been losing population and wealth for 60 years now.  Those of us who work on behalf of (and love) these places do our best to fight poverty, abandonment, and urban decline every single day.  Living here, it is hard for me to understand getting worked up in anger at someone with some money in their pocket renovating an old house in an urban neighborhood, opening a brewery, or leasing a brand-new apartment downtown.

I hope that this new report’s findings serve as a wake-up-call to the people who worry so much about the potential downside of urban revitalization, that they are overlooking the far greater challenges of inter-generational poverty, uneven economic growth, disinvestment, abandonment, urban sprawl, and pervasive and entrenched racial and economic segregation.

I see a lot of people, even here in the Rust Belt, who are energized about gentrification, and convinced that it is the enemy.  It’s considered a sexy topic for activism.

But I don’t see the same level of passionate activism being applied to fighting the spread of concentrated urban poverty, neighborhood abandonment, or the yawning racial and economic chasm between older cities like Akron, Cleveland, Detroit, and their newer suburbs.

And let’s be honest.  Those are big, messy, complicated, systemic, extremely intractable problems, and there is nothing sexy about them.  They don’t lend themselves to clever yard sign slogans or quick-take podcasts.  Most people would rather not think about them, because there is not a lot that the average person can even do about them.

But they are the urban problems we need to face.  They are the existential challenges to our cities and to the people who live in them

New development does not always mean displacement, and revitalization is not always a synonym for gentrification.

Gentrification has become a useless word.  Words lose their value whey they no longer have an agreed-upon meaning.  No one knows what the hell that word means anymore.  It’s time to retire it.

Parking and equity in cities

The average price of a monthly parking permit in cities is $2.25, compared to $70.00 for a transit pass.

Everything you need to know about equity and privilege in urban transportation is reflected in how much we charge for parking compared to transit

The triumph of asphalt socialism is reflected in providing unlimited free or underpriced private car storage on public streets (a scarce and valuable commodity) while charging people to make use of transit, (a public good with positive externalities, and plenty of excess capacity).

The benefits of free private car storage of city streets accrue to those wealthy enough to own cars; Those who can’t afford cars get no benefit, plus they have to pay to use the only feasible alternative for many trips:  transit.

No one should invoke the term “equity” in urban transportation without insisting that we start asking those who convert public property to private use for car storage pay for the privilege.

University of Northern Illinois professor Chris Goodman recently compiled data for the nation’s 30 largest cities on the price cities charge for on street parking permits compared to the price of a transit pass.  In every single city, the price of a transit pass exceeds the price of parking by a factor of ten to twenty or more.  For the median city in Goodman’s sample, the monthly cost of a parking pass was $2.25, compared to the a cost of $77.00 for a monthly transit pass. (Our calculation of the median price of parking permit includes only those cities that charge for on-street parking permits; ten of the top 30 cities don’t). Even when cities charge for on street parking, the monthly cost is usually less than a single bus ticket.

We’ve reproduced Goodman’s tabulations in graphic form here.  Cities are ranked according to the amount charged for transit passes, from lowest to highest.

It’s worth noting that the prices of parking permits are only for those areas where cities require permits, and on most streets, in most cities, including, bizarrely New York City, street parking is completely unpriced almost everywhere.  In effect, the prices shown for parking in Goodman’s sample overstate what city’s actually charge for parking:  it’s mostly zero.

The disparity between what people pay to park their cars on the public street (nothing or very little) and what they have to pay to use transit speaks volumes about privilege and equity in transportation.  To take advantage of free or low cost on street parking, you have to own a car, which automatically means the poorest households receive little or no benefit; meanwhile, because car ownership is highly correlated with income, more of the benefits go to high income households.

It’s also worth noting that private car storage on the street has all the aspects of a private good:  In economic terms its rivalrous and excludable.  When you park your car along a street you deprive others of the opportunity to use that space. Others can include other car owners who might like to park there, as well as other road users, who might want to walk, cycle, or say, in the era of Covid, set up tables for a bar or restaurant.

In contrast, transit has many of the characteristics of a public good.  Except at peak hours (in pre-Covid times, that is) buses and trains almost always have excess capacity, so your use of a train or bus seldom deprives others of its utility. In addition, transit has positive externalities:  it results it less traffic congestion and pollution, and lower energy use than car travel, and supports walkable urban destinations.  Finally, its worth noting that the only places where transit really works well in the United States are in the areas where cities charge for parking.  When street parking is free, people own cars and drive, depriving transit systems of customers and revenue, and skewing the transit ridership to the dispossessed and powerless.

From an economic and an equity standpoint, it would make vastly more sense to make on-street parking expensive (to reflect its real costs) and to make transit cheap or free.

The way we price transit, and don’t price private car storage in the public realm, is evidence of “Asphalt Socialism“–subsidies for cars and driving, and high prices and penalties for those who take transit.  As Dr. King once observed, we have socialism for the rich and rugged free enterprise discipline of the market for the poor. In an era when so many urbanists and transportation advocates profess great concern for equity, the subsidies to parking are one of the most inequitable aspects of the urban realm.

Covid-19 is now a rural and red state pandemic

Covid-19 now disproportionately affects rural America, and is hitting red states harder than blue ones.

OK, reporters, we’re waiting for the stories about rural Americans decamping to cities (or suburbs) and from red states to blue ones, where they will be safe from the pandemics.

In the early months of the pandemic, reporters were quick to cast the Covid-19 pandemic as the rotten fruit of urbanism:  density, we were told, was the cause of the disease, and its was now a certainty that Americans—at least those with the means to do so—would flee cities to escape the virus.

We pointed outagain, and again, and again—that the data didn’t support the connection between density and spread of the virus.  Some of the world’s densest cities largely avoided the pandemic; some of America’s most rural areas, like the Navajo Nation, have been the hardest hit.  The data show that overcrowded housing, poverty, lack of access to medical care, and poor adherence to social distancing protocols, not urban density, is what amplifies the spread of the disease.

It’s actually now the case that for the most part, the pandemic is worse in rural America than in the nation’s metro areas.  Our friends at the Daily Yonder, who’ve been tracking the spread of the virus since early Spring, now conclude that

Rural and urban infection numbers are headed in opposite directions, meaning rural areas are now generating a disproportionately high number of new infections. Starting in early August, rural counties started to account for a larger share of Covid-19 cases (this week at 18%) and deaths (now 19%) than their population (at 14.03%).

They’ve mapped the places where the current level of new cases is highest:  it’s clearly in the heartland of rural America. The worst hit areas stretch in a band of red from the Gulf Coast to the Dakotas.

Yonder’s analysis is echoed, using slightly different definitions and data, by Indeed’s Jed Kolko, who charts the steady decline of new cases in large metros, and shows that the nation’s rural areas and less populous metro areas now have higher rates of new cases than large urban areas.

Jed Kolko, Indeed

Brookings Institution’s Bill Frey has also been tracking the Coronavirus (again, using a slightly different definition) and comes to very similar conclusions. Frey’s tabulations show that the distinction between overall case rates between urban and rural areas has basically disappeared in recent months.

Bill Frey, Brookings Institution

Frey’s taken another perspective on the data, sorting data by the political leanings of states as well as by metropolitan size.  Here’s his chart showing the recent rate of new cases per capita for different sizes of metro areas, split out by whether they’re located in a red state (voted for Trump in 2016), or a blue state (voted for Clinton).  In every class of metro and non-metro area, current case rates are higher in red states than blue states.

Bill Frey, Brookings Institution

The implication here seems clear:  Places that lean Democratic appear to be much more successful in fighting the spread of the Coronavirus than roughly similar sized places in Republican states.  Correlation isn’t causation, of course, but it is striking that more than six months after the seriousness of the pandemic became clear, that some places are doing a far better job of controlling its spread than others.

We’re just waiting now for a new wave of journalism on Covid-19:  We want to hear reporters telling stories of people moving from rural areas and from Red States to escape the scourge of the Coronavirus.  Given the standards of the earlier urban flight stories, this won’t be hard, just find one or two people who are moving from a rural area or red state to a blue city, toss in some quotes from the real estate agent who handled the transaction, and you’ve got your trend.  C’mon reporters, don’t be the last one to get on this bandwagon.

Editor’s Note: This post has been revised to correct typographical errors.


How to make gentrification even worse

Banning new construction is a great way to push up home values and accelerate gentrification

Cities are conflicted and confused about how to protect affordability

“Stop the world – I want to get off” was the title of Anthony Newley’s 1961 musical, but it seems like the core policy vision of a growing number of urban leaders faced with gentrification. An article earlier this month in the Washington Post portrayed building moratoriums put in place in Atlanta and Chicago in order to fend off gentrification. These efforts are certain to backfire.

Not a conundrum, at all. Bans are simply counter-productive and make housing less affordable.

As we wrote back in February, Atlanta’s ban on new building permits near the improved Westside Park at Bellwood Quarry is simply going to push up demand for existing housing. If prospective buyers can’t find a home in a new condominium or apartment building, they’re likely to bid up the price of existing housing in the area. Lessening the competition is a bonanza for house-flippers.

Still, the Washington Post seems at best, puzzled about what’s going on:  The article is titled “Building bans and affordable housing:  a construction conundrum.”  The article says city officials and residents in both Atlanta and Chicago hope that bans will keep things from changing.  But bans aren’t a conundrum:  they’re simply counterproductive, if your aim is to encourage affordability.  In the face of growing demand for urban living in places like Atlanta’s Westside Park and Chicago’s 606 Trail, limiting the supply of new housing only accelerates inflation.  Moratoria and bans may create the illusion that something is being done, but residents will quickly find that prices will simply keep rising. (For the record, this isn’t the first time we’ve questioned the Post’s grasp of housing economics).

The housing contradiction:  Affordability vs. wealth building

At City Observatory, we’ve long emphasized the fundamental contradiction between America’s two prime housing policy goals:  promoting affordability and building wealth.  Housing can’t build wealth unless it appreciates; and by definition, appreciation means housing is getting more unaffordable.  That contradiction is very much in evidence in Atlanta.

A recent series of investigative reports by public radio station WABE, relates instances in which cash buyers and home flippers are buying up homes in the Black neighborhoods near Atlanta’s Beltline. Current homeowners are often unaware of the current value of their home, and buyers with a wad of cash (and better knowledge about the housing market) can swoop in and buy a property for much less than its market value.  That’s led local officials to call for better education and awareness; Georgia State’s Dan Immergluck thinks seller’s ought to be provided with a current Zillow or Redfin estimate of the value of their home prior to finalizing any sale.

It’s easy to have mixed emotions about the potential windfall these long-time homeowners may receive (assuming they’re not hustled).  On the one hand, this is very definition of neighborhood change and “displacement.” These folks are going to sell their homes and, in all likelihood, move out of the neighborhood.  The new residents will likely be younger, better educated, and whiter.  But, on the other hand, these sellers will have gotten some wealth via homeownership. As Andre Perry and his colleagues have documented, houses in predominantly Black neighborhoods have historically sold at a twenty percent discount to otherwise similar homes in predominantly white neighborhoods; the appreciation gained by these sellers signifies that at least in this neighborhood, Black homeowners are starting to close that gap.  And that’s a stark contrast to the situation that Pete Saunders has described in predominantly Black neighborhoods in Detroit and other Midwestern cities, where homeownership has been a millstone, rather than a gold mine, for Black households.  From a purely financial standpoint, for current Black homeowners, the only thing worse than having your neighborhood gentrify, is not having it gentrify.

What’s a city to do?

The underlying problem of many depressed urban neighborhoods is the problem of disinvestment. When some new investment finally comes to these places (whether public investment, like the improvements to Westside Park, or new residential construction), that’s a potential opportunity to help improve the economy of the area.  Rising rents worsen affordability, but as we’ve suggested at City Observatory, tapping rising property values (and associated tax revenues) through tax increment financing, can provide a way to acquire or build affordable housing in the neighborhood as a way of making the sure the neighborhood is accessible to households with a range of incomes as investment proceeds.

What’s really clear is that building bans simply make the problem worse, and create a field day for flippers. Much as we might like to stop the world and get off, that’s not an option.  Cities have to figure out ways to make change and new investment work for a broad segment of the community.



City Beat: No flight to Portland’s suburbs

Another anecdote-fueled, data-starved article repeats the “suburban flight” meme, this time for Portland.

Actual market data show the central city’s market remains strong

Janet Eastman, writing in the Portland, Oregonian, offers up yet another example of a popular journalistic trope, the “Coronavirus is triggering a flight to the suburbs.”

Never mind, of course, the point that the pandemic is just as bad, and in many cases worse in the nation’s suburbs than it is in cities, a mythical belief that density aggravates the Coronavirus is continually being repeated by journalists.  We’ve pushed back against stories making this claim from The Wall Street JournalNational Public Radio, and The New York Times.

The evidence for the story consists entirely of anecdotes of two households who have recently moved from the city of Portland to one of its nearby suburbs, peppered with quotes from a handful of real estate agents about panicky buyers and bidding wars.  While this make strike some observers as unusual, it isn’t.  People are always moving into and out of the city from its suburbs; the movements are in both directions.  So finding a handful of households moving to the suburbs can be done at any time. But it doesn’t signify a trend, or even that the movement is more in one direction rather than another.

For that, we need data. Some of the best real-time data on housing market trends comes from the web-based real estate search sites that track where people are looking for housing, and how rents and home prices are changing in response to shifting demand.

One of the biggest real estate web-sites, Zillow, just completed an extensive analysis of exactly this question:  whether suburbs were seeing their market share increase at the expense of cities.  They looked at data from across the nation, and their conclusion was unambiguous:

Are people fleeing the cities for greener suburban pastures? Some faint signals may have emerged in certain places, but by and large, the data show that suburban housing markets have not strengthened at a disproportionately rapid pace compared to urban markets. Both region types appear to be hot sellers’ markets right now – while many suburban areas have seen strong improvement in housing activity in recent months, so, too, have many urban areas.

Zillow’s Economic Research team analyzed a variety of Zillow data points in order to illustrate this trend. Data related to for-sale listings are generally the best indicator of real-time housing market activity, and in all but a few cases, suburban markets and urban markets have seen similar changes in activity in recent months: about the same share of homes selling above their list price, similar  changes in the typical time homes spend on the market before an offer is accepted, and recent improvements in newly pending sales have been about the same across each region type.

[emphasis in original]

Of course, that’s the national pattern.  What about Portland, specifically?  Again, Zillow’s analysis shows that in fact, in Portland, the opposite is the case.  Zillow’s data show suburban rents have decelerated by about 1.9 percent since February, but urban rents have decelerated by only about 1.1 percent, a little over half as much.  Zillow’s data on home searches also shows that buyers remain even more interested in city homes relative to suburban ones than they were prior to the pandemic. And Portland followed this pattern as well, with urban searches increasing their market share relative to suburban searches in Portland at the height of the pandemic. Oregon state economist Josh Lehner points out that there’s been no shift in the city of Portland’s share of regional home sales during the pandemic.

“Urban flight” as collective journalistic hysteria

NPR’s On the Media took a close look at these stories and concluded that the “urban flight” meme is both widespread and utterly false.  In an incisive article at real estate website Curbed, Jeff Andrews attributes the popularity of these stories to biases of reporters:

Given that the media industry is concentrated in Manhattan — with another good chunk in San Francisco — journalists seem to be confusing the minor outbound migration from two ridiculously expensive areas with the double dose of demand happening across the country.

More insidiously, some members of the media are willing to peddle stories about nonexistent carnage in the streets, extrapolating that the cities — all cities, but especially the diverse, Democratic–led ones — are headed for inevitable collapse. And it’s hard not to separate that dark fantasy from a Republican talking point.

But, according to the data, it’s just not happening.

The idea that the pandemic has upended real estate markets and is triggering a flood of migrants to suburbs and rural areas has enormous appeal for reporters and their editors. Anecdotes to the contrary notwithstanding, there’s virtually no data to show this is happening.

City Beat is City Observatory’s occasional feature pushing back on stories in the popular media that we think are mistakenly beating up on cities.

Lived segregation in US cities

We’re much less segregated during the day, and when we’re away from home

Commercial and public spaces are important venues for interaction with people from other racial/ethnic groups

Patterns of experienced segregation tend to mirror residential segregation across metro areas.

In the US, we measure racial and ethnic segregation using census data that reports where we live. For example, the rankings of white/non-white segregation in US metro areas that we reported last month are based on residential data from the American Community Survey. But looking just at where we live (or sleep) doesn’t tell us everything about segregation.  Some worry that while we may live near each other, we don’t spend a lot of time with people from other racial/ethnic groups. Indirect measures—like the extent of interracial marriage—confirm that less segregated places do have more inter-group interaction, where and when that kind of interaction happens outside of residential neighborhoods has been a bit of mystery—until now.

A new paper from economists Susan Athey, Billy Ferguson, Matthew Gentzkow and Tobias Schmidt uses anonymized cell-phone data to look at patterns of racial segregation in US metro areas over the course of the day and in different locations.  We may live in different neighborhoods, but do our daily activities, like working, shopping, dining and entertaining, cause use to be less segregated? Their answer is a definite yes.

Athey, et al, use a “isolation index” to measure the extent to which white and non-white persons interact with one another over the course of the day. Also, because their underlying data is anonymized, they can’t directly observe the race/ethnicity of individuals, and so rely on census data on the race and ethnicity of their neighborhoods (actually, census blocks) to classify observations.  Consequently, their results are best thought of as showing the extent to which people who live in predominantly white neighborhoods interact with people who live in predominantly non-white neighborhoods in different places and at different times of the day.

The paper’s key insight is a new and broader computation of the lived, or in their words “experienced” level of segregation in US cities over time and space.  As a rule, we’re less segregated over the course of our daily routines than we are when we’re at home.  As with conventional measures of residential segregation, there are wide variations across cities, with some cities much more segregated than others.

Segregation by Time of Day and Place

The cell-phone data allow the authors to compute the isolation index by time of day, and it turns out we’re most isolated from one another (by race and ethnicity) when we’re in our homes.  Over the course of the day, though, we’re much more likely to interact with people from different racial/ethnic groups.  The following chart plots the hourly variation in the experienced isolation index relative to the residential isolation index for large cities.  Higher levels indicate more segregation. The data show a consistent pattern across cities, with isolation being highest overnight, dropping during the morning.  Mixing peaks at about Noon, and declines thereafter.  At midday, people are about 40 percent less segregated than they are overnight.

The cellphone data also enable the authors to compute isolation indexes for different kinds of locations.  As noted home locations tend to have the highest levels of isolation, but many commercial and social settings produce much higher levels of mixing (lower levels of isolation).

The cell phone data allows the authors to look at a variety of destinations. In general all of the locations (schools, parks, retail, restaurants, bars, entertainment) are broadly similar.  Accommodations and entertainment seem to have the greatest levels of intergroup mixing.

Which metros have the lowest levels of segregation?

Athey, et al look at the patterns of isolation across metropolitan areas and compare them to common measures of residential segregation.   The following table shows their estimates of experienced segregation for metro areas with a population of 1 million or more.  Metro areas are ranked according to the isolation index, with the least segregated (lowest scores) first, and most segregated (highest scores) last.

Similar to a ranking of segregation in the central urban counties of the nation’s large metropolitan areas that we published last month at City Observatory, Portland has the lowest level of both residential and experienced segregation of any large US metro area, followed by Seattle, Minneapolis, Raleigh and San Francisco.  The cities with the highest levels of experienced segregation include Milwaukee, Detroit and St. Louis.

Experienced segregation largely mirrors residential segregation.

In general, cities with high levels of residential segregation also tend to have higher levels of experienced segregation. The following chart shows the relationship between residential segregation (on the vertical axis) and experienced segregation (on the horizontal axis).  There’s a strong positive correlation between the two types of segregation (with experienced segregation being considerably less than residential segregation in most metropolitan areas.

The Athey, et al, research has important implications for thinking about how we can more quickly foster more integrated communities. Because we move to different housing relatively infrequently, and because housing markets change even more slowly, changing patterns of residential segregation take time. But the fact that we already have higher levels of intergroup exposure in a range of public and commercial spaces suggests that they may be easier and more fruitful opportunities to promote integration.  As the author’s explain:

People spend substantial time away from their home neighborhoods, and when they do they are much more likely to encounter diverse others than they would at home. Commercial places like restaurants and retail shops are a particularly strong force pulling against segregation, while local amenities such as churches and schools tend to remain more segregated. One implication is that public goods that are tied to residential boundaries should be a particular focus of efforts to combat segregation.

Susan Athey, Billy A. Ferguson, Matthew Gentzkow, and Tobias Schmidt, Experienced Segregation, Working Paper 27572

Why this Portland transit veteran is voting no on Metro’s bond

Editor’s Note: City Observatory is pleased to present this guest commentary from GB Arrington, longtime veteran of Portland’s transit and land use planning systems, explaining why he’s against a proposed $5 billion transportation bond measure proposed by Metro that will be voted in the Portland region this November.

By GB Arrington

When I stepped down as TriMet’s Director of Strategic and Long Range Planning, the TriMet Board gave me a fancy brass clock engraved with “You may not like the message, but you know it’s true.” So, here is the unvarnished truth, a vote for Metro’s $5 billion Transportation Bond Measure will hurt the region’s livability. It’s a bad idea, and that is why I’m voting no.

The measure Metro referred to the voters is an example of broken old-time transportation politics. You will be voting on a Christmas tree loaded down with sprawl inducing road projects and a new MAX light rail line to Washington County that simply does not stand up to rigorous analysis. Metro paved the measure’s way to the ballot by giving every part of the region an earmark for a pet project. New suburban highway capacity in Clackamas County. Bridge replacement in Multnomah County. Quicker access to Port of Portland airport parking garages.

For two plus decades my job at TriMet was to help set the future direction and weigh in on the decisions required to help assure the success of TriMet and the region. I was part of the team planning the region’s first MAX lines. I sat at the table shaping Metro’s Region 2040 land use and transportation plan. And I lead the planning to create livable mixed-use communities around the east and westside MAX lines. Collectively, we worked to ensure the livability of the region’s residents and getting more riders for TriMet.

The opening of the Portland Transit Mall in 1978, when I was a young planner, was the region’s first installment in a signature strategy that would repeat itself over and over — using transit investments to help achieve broader community building objectives. In that case to help revitalize a declining downtown. After decades of hard work, the Portland region rightly won global acclaim for how it pioneered linking new transit investments with land use to leverage its vision to “grow up, not out.”

Sadly, Metro has now chosen conventional political pork barrel over being the steward of the region’s livability. Metro’s proposed transportation measure departs from its past track record of success and innovation. The most expensive project in the package, the $2.8 billion SW Corridor light rail project, is a perfect case in point on what’s wrong. Don’t be fooled by the hyperbole, the SW Corridor has always been a very expensive politically driven project with marginal transit and land use benefits.

The region did the best MAX corridors first. So, it should come as no surprise that corridor number eight does not stack-up well compared to corridor one, two or three. That may help explain why ridership on recent MAX lines have failed to meet projections. The newest line to Milwaukie forecasted 17,000 average daily riders by 2016. So far, before COVID, it has averaged less than 11,000 daily riders – 35 percent less than promised.

Some inherent challenges unavoidably came with the territory when TriMet and Metro chose a politically expedient low-density auto-dominated corridor for MAX line number eight. At the end of the day, compared to other MAX projects, the SW Corridor has too few riders, costs too much, and does too little to continue the region’s legacy of using transit to create livable vibrant equitable transit-oriented places.

TriMet and Metro are counting on 50 percent of the SW Corridor’s funding to come from the Federal government. I helped write the federal rules to evaluate which projects qualify for funding. Demand nationally for federal transit funding has grown by about 70% over the past few years.

With limited discretionary federal funds, the national competition is highly competitive. Apart from the politics, the equation for who gets funded is pretty simple. The capital costs of each project are divided by its benefits (ridership and transit friendly land use). Projects that meet the criteria set by Congress are then eligible for funding.  The critical numbers the federal government will be looking at to evaluate the SW Corridor are moving in the wrong direction. Ridership forecasts have gone down more than 12 percent this year, while capital costs to build the project have climbed and climbed. Fewer benefits and more costs. That may add-up to a fatal flaw in the region’s financial plan for getting federal funding.   The SW Corridor also fails to actually connect to important destinations in this part of the region.

A big unknown for the project remains unanswered. How to serve “Pill Hill,” —Oregon Health and Science University—the biggest ridership generator on the corridor. TriMet is more than a year late with a multi-million dollar decision on the Marquam Hill Connector to move some 10,000 daily riders up nearly 120 vertical feet from the Gibbs Street station and then disperse them in different directions, another 100–200 feet higher on the hill. TriMet can’t tell you the cost, the technology or how it gets paid for.  Similarly, the light rail line also doesn’t serve Portland Community College’s Sylvania Campus.

Don’t just take my word on the SW Corridor projects flaws. Former Metro President David Bragdon, now executive director of the TransitCenter, a New York City think tank, summed up it up well for Willamette Week in March:

“The current low-density land uses and auto-dominant street design along Barbur [Boulevard] are big challenges. For a line to succeed, it needs to have a whole lot more housing and job density, and much more pedestrian-oriented streetscapes and station areas, than that corridor currently does.”

It saddens me to vote no. I love the Portland region. And I’m privileged to have been a pioneer in helping set the direction for transit and land use in Portland over nearly a quarter of a century.

I’ve spent the next 20 years as a consultant working in more than 25 states and eight foreign counties applying the lessons I learned in Portland. So, I’m very surprised TriMet and Metro lost sight of their job to deliver livability to the region’s citizens. Going along with political backslapping and road building is not what made the region stand out as a global model of livability. Pursuing political business as usual is a sure- fired recipe for making Portland more like sprawling auto-oriented Houston than the Portland we have long worked and aspired to be. I ask you to join me in voting no and committing to work with TriMet and Metro to get the region to get back on the right track.

GB Arrington was TriMet’s Director of Strategic and Long Range Planning in a career that spanned from 1975 to 1999. He left to join Parsons Brinckerhoff (now WSP) where he led a global planning and design practice from 1999 to 2012. Time Magazine highlighted GB’s plan for Tysons Corner, VA as one of “10 Ideas for Changing the World Right Now.” GB is a Former board member and a founder ofRail~Volution. Since 2012 he has been the principal of GB Place Making, LLC.

The myth of pedestrian infrastructure in a world of cars

Big money “pedestrian” projects are often remedial and performative; their real purpose is to serve faster car traffic.

One of the biggest lies in transportation planning is calling something “multi-modal.”  When somebody tells you a project is “multi-modal,” you can safely bet that its really for cars and trucks with some decorative frills appended for bikes and pedestrians.  A four- or six-lane arterial, posted for 45 miles per hour, and with crossings every half mile or more isn’t pedestrian friendly no matter how wide the sidewalks are on either side of the road.

Much of what is labeled pedestrian infrastructure is in reality car infrastructure.  In a place populated entirely by pedestrians and bicycles, for example, there’s no need for wide rights of way, grade separations or traffic signals. In even the most crowded cities, people simply walk or ride around one another. If its just people walking, there aren’t even lane markings.  Humans have long had the ability to avoid collisions, using subtle visual cues. Pedestrian friendly places don’t need elaborate infrastructure.

When we build a sidewalk along a busy arterial, or put in a traffic signal or build a pedestrian overpass, we may call it “pedestrian” infrastructure, but the only reason it’s actually needed is because of the presence  and primacy of cars.  And its purpose is primarily to benefit cars, speeding car travel, by freeing them from the need to pay attention to or yield to pedestrians (or to only have to do so under strictly limited conditions).  If a pedestrian crosses outside a sidewalk, or against a light, the law routinely exempts vehicle drivers from any penalties from hitting or killing them.

Most elaborate “pedestrian” infrastructure is really car infrastructure. As an example, lets have a look at Lake Mary, Florida, a suburb of Orlando. Like much of suburban Florida, Lake Mary is a grid of multi-lane arterials. One of the city’s highest crash locations, according to its transportation plan, is the intersection of Lake Mary Boulevard and Country Club Road.  Lake Mary Boulevard is 7-lanes wide, with turn-lanes and through traffic lanes, and is a daunting obstacle for pedestrians, so the city has constructed two pedestrian bridges over the highway, with a 153-foot span.

Italian-inspired walkability: Passeggiata, anyone?  (DRMP Engineering)

The engineering firm that built the crossing describes it as a “having a Mediterranean/Italian style.” and touts its “highly decorative safety enclosure and decorative cladding walls .”  Anyone who has ever walked for five minutes in an Italian city will be hard pressed to find any substantive resemblance.  The ramps needed to reach the elevated structure roughly triple the crossing distance for pedestrians, which probably explains while people still use the grade-level crosswalk.

(Google Streetview)

These elaborate and expensive pedestrian bridges are at best a remedial effort to minimize the danger this environment poses to anyone who isn’t in a car. They don’t really make the area any more desirable for walking. The real problem is not the infrastructure, or lack thereof, but a built environment that’s inhospitable to walking and cycling.  Even the densest parts of Lake Mary get a Walk Score of 49 “car dependent” and most housing has Walk Scores of 20 or less, meaning that people need a car for almost all of their basic travel.  Here’s a heat map, the yellow and red areas have Walk Scores of less than 50 (car-dependent), the gray areas are below 10.

Here’s another, example, from Port Wentworth, a suburb of Savannah, Georgia.  Here, the Georgia Department of Transportation has built a $4 million pedestrian overpass over a four-lane highway, Augusta Road (GA-21).  The bridge’s 178-foot span  connects a new residential subdivision on one side of the highway with other subdivisions and a local school on the other. The overpass features lengthy serpentine switchbacks on both sides, more than quadrupling the distance one has to walk as opposed to using the highway’s crosswalk.

US 21 pedestrian crossing, Port Wentworth, GA (ICE)

The total population of Port Wentworth (in 2018) was about 8,500 persons, so the $4.1 million cost of the overpass works out to about $500 per capita.  Few if any cities in the US spend so much per capita on “walkability.”

But Port Wentworth is anything but walkable.  Redfin calculates the city’s overall Walk Score as 20.  Of the apartments for rent on either side of Augusta Road, a handful have scores in the low teens; most are under ten, and several have a Walk Score of “1” the lowest possible score. Even with a prodigious investment in “pedestrian” infrastructure, this is not a place for people walking or biking.

The irony of course is that Port Wentworth is a suburb of one of America’s most delightfully walkable cities, Savannah.  The indelible imprint of its 18th Century town planning with regular squares, tree-shaded streets and a mix of housing, all laid out for walking–no $4 million highway over-crossings to be seen. Hundreds of thousands of tourists come to Savannah each year, mostly just to walk around, in a way that’s impossible nearly anywhere else in North American city, in neighborhoods that are illegal to build in almost every municipality.

“Pedestrian infrastructure” is an oxymoron.  In a place that’s hospitable to people and walking pedestrians don’t need separate “infrastructure”—they can use the streets as a place to walk, just as humans have done for the several thousand years in which there were cities but no cars.

Much of what purports to be “pedestrian” infrastructure, is really car infrastructure, and is only necessary in a world that’s dominated by car travel, in places that are laid out to privilege cars. It’s telling that the “level of service” provided to pedestrians (nominally for their safety) would never be tolerated in any freshly built or “improved” highway project:  The the ramps to reach overpasses double, triple or quadruple the distance a pedestrian must travel to cross a roadway, and require them to ascend and descend a substantial grade.  No highway engineer would build a bypass that doubled or tripled travel times for cars, but they regularly do this for people on foot.

A somewhat better form of pedestrian “infrastructure” if we actually could create such a thing, might look more like raised crosswalks. Sandy James has a nice definition. Raised crosswalks, she writes:

. . . are walkable speed humps that are at the same grade as the sidewalk on either side of the street. The raised crosswalk serve to  elevate the pedestrian, and slow vehicular traffic . . .

Raised Crosswalk in Sydney (David Levinson)

Raised crosswalks make a space more comfortable for pedestrians, and marginally slower for cars. But perhaps most importantly the raised crosswalks redefine the “ownership” of space; they signal to drivers and pedestrians alike that the walkers have priority:  that cars are driving across a sidewalk, rather than pedestrians are walking across a road.  Curbs (and curb cuts) signify to everyone that pedestrians are stepping out of “their” space, and into the space “owned” by the driver. But in the US, raised crosswalks are extremely rare. Again, though, raised crosswalks are really only necessary because of cars, so they are actually car infrastructure, not pedestrian infrastructure.

The takeaway here is that real pedestrian infrastructure is about a dense, mixed use area that shuns or at least slows private automobiles. A place with a mix of housing types (apartments, duplexes or triplexes and single family homes), local-serving businesses, and a grid of streets, rather than the rigid, hierarchical arterial/collector/cul-de-sac model of most post WWII US suburbs.  It’s about neighborhoods like old Savannah, where people don’t have to cross multi-lane arterials to shop, attend school or visit a public park. Walkability and pedestrian safety are really about building great places, not more infrastructure.

And that, it a nutshell, is one of the big problems with Portland Metro’s proposed $5 billion transportation ballot measure.  It proposes spending lots of money on “pedestrian” improvements to a series of highway corridors, the multi-lane, car-dominated arterials that slice through the region. They are undoubtedly a safety menace. But money for wider sidewalks, better illuminated crosswalks, and even grade separated crossings like those shown above won’t do much, if anything to make these areas or the region more walkable, because in the end, these corridors are still dedicated to moving lots of cars as fast as possible. If the region really wants to promote walkability, it needs to focus on building places, especially town centers and main streets, where car traffic is shunted or shunned, and people on foot or on bikes are the dominant and prioritized use.  Its about place—not “infrastructure.”



Is there anything “smart” about smart cities?

Big data and new technology make bold promises about solving urban problems, but not only fall well short of solutions, but actually can end up making things worse.

Why we’re skeptical of the “smart city” movement.

You can’t be an urbanist or care about cities without hearing—a lot—from the folks in the “Smart Cities” movement. The idea is that there’s nothing wrong with cities that a healthy does of information (especially “big data”) or technology can’t solve. The result has been an seemingly unending series of claims that we an fix problems as challenging as housing, traffic and inequality simply by building more elaborate models based on big data, or deploying new forms of technology.  Color us skeptical:  It’s hard to see how we’ll make better decisions with even bigger data when policy makers seem to routinely ignore the small and obvious data that’s already well in hand.

As an example, we start with a fairly simple problem. Lots of Americans would like to be able to walk to more common destinations.  They pay a substantial premium for living in housing and neighborhoods with high levels of walkability. Yet we seem to be consistently building more cities and neighborhoods that are wildly car-dependent. Surely, if smart cities and technology are the solution, they ought to be able to grapple with this basic problem. But they aren’t.

We’ve frequently picked on Houston, a city which is notoriously hostile to people who want to walk (although all American cities need to improve in this regard).  The typical technocratic/smart city approach which gathers copious data about current travel patterns (which themselves reflect a car-dominated world), contain almost no information about walking and biking, and even more importantly, never ask the question of whether people would prefer places that made it easier, more convenient and safer to walk, compared to ones optimized for vehicle movement.The way the “smart city” and technology folks approach it, “fixing” cities and transportation is all about vehicles, as their simulations illustrate.

MIT’s “Drivewave”

In the “smart city” world, this kind of thinking leads to claims that we can eliminate all traffic lights at intersections, turning vehicle control over to centralized computers (essentially forgetting about bikes and pedestrians), or that autonomous taxis could eliminate congestion, but which ignore fundamental concepts like induced demand. Researchers at MIT and the University of Texas came up with these ideas, and simply assumed pedestrians and cyclists don’t exist, as Eric Jaffe explained, to these auto-oriented engineers:

It’s natural to model intersections as if cars were the only mode that mattered—especially when computer drivers make every move predictable. The driverless intersection we presented a few years ago, based on work from computer scientists Peter Stone and Kurt Dresner of the University of Texas at Austin, made the same assumptions: lots of cars, no people or bikes.

Even really smart people, armed with loads of data and “design-thinking” tend to ask questions that are fundamentally too narrowly drawn, and that emphasize movement for movement’s sake, rather than harnessed to any greater sense of well-being or quality of life.
Transportation planners and self-proclaimed “smart city” technologists focus on optimizing cities for vehicle movement, and place little or no value on optimizing the quality of place for people, whether they’re walking, biking, or just choosing to be in a particular place. The “Big Data/Smart City” viewpoint imagines that making cities work is only about getting from “A” to “B”, when in reality the urban challenge is creating places that people want to “be.” That’s a big, big problem.

The real challenge for cities is being more ambitious and aspirational in building the  livable and inclusive places we want.  That’s less about tweaking the performance of systems like transportation, and more about building strong community engagement around the vision we have for the future.  Consider housing, which is an economic, affordability and equity challenge.  Again, there are abundant technological solutions, like 3-D printing houses, that are provocative, but don’t deal with the fundamental institutional problem that we simply make it illegal to build affordable housing in lots of places in the US. The YIMBY-led effort to build a coalition around the idea of allowing “missing middle” housing is really key to all these objectives (and environmental ones, as well). And, as Portland’s recent experience experience in legalizing duplexes and creating greater affordability with its Residential Infill Project shows, this isn’t just or even primarily about wonky modeling, it’s about political engagement.  Technology, modeling and data can play a supporting role, but the challenge is organizational, political and communication. Promises of an easy technical fix, moreover, create a kind of Gresham’s law in which the prospect of impractical but technologically exciting vaporware drives out fundamental institutional reform. See, for example, Elon Musk’s magical hyperloop, currently serving as an excuse not to fix mass transit in many cities, as Alissa Walker trenchantly observes:

And each time city leaders promote one of his [Elon Musk’s] fantastical ideas—tiny tunnels! autonomous vehicles! platooning!—it does serious damage to the real-life solutions being proposed by experts that will actually make life better for their residents.

Elon Musk’s Boring Company: Habitrail’s for Teslas?

In theory, big data and smart city models should help us make better decisions, in practice, they’re slaves to broken and biased policies

Almost a decade and two mayors ago, IBM’s Smart City team came to Portland to show off some of its elaborate models of urban systems. There’s precious little evidence that the IBM smart city modeling has had any staying power in the city.  Take for example climate change (which is something the IBM model was meant to address).  As it turns out, Portland didn’t use this modeling for the 2015 Climate Action Plan; and since then, the city has pretty much walked away from a rigorous look at how reducing driving is the key to achieving our stated (and now more ambitious) climate goals.

The bigger question is how models and their results get used in the political/institutional setting in which we live. Models, especially big complex ones, are generally wielded as weapons by institutions to avoid or deflect scrutiny of their big decisions.  Highway builders like the Oregon Department of Transportation routinely cook the books in their transportation modeling to justify giant projects like CRC and Rose Quarter.  The public lacks the energy and resources to contest this technical work, and it becomes a huge barrier to change and fair consideration of alternatives.

Frequently, state highway agencies and regional planning models that create such models construct them in ways that systematically rule out important factors.  Portland’s Metro has gone to great lengths to deny that there’s any such thing as the price elasticity of demand (perhaps the most fundamental concept in economics), arguing that driving will increase regardless of the price of gasoline.  That leads Metro, in turn to ignore the most powerful policy levers it could deploy to reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, and help bolster transit ridership. It’s chosen financing mechanism actually subsidizes driving, which undercuts all of its stated goals of reducing emissions and discouraging sprawl.

And even when the models show that plans aren’t achieving our goals, the powers that be simply ignore them:  Witness Metro’s $5 billion transportation package which will, according to their estimates, reduce transportation greenhouse gases in the Portland area by 5/100ths of one percent—essentially nothing. In the face of growing evidence that their climate plans are feeble and failing, we get the repetition of discredited myths (we’ll reduce greenhouse gases by reducing idling in traffic by widening roads).  And the consensus of state DOTs calls for climate arson in the form of spending hundreds of billions of dollars on new highway capacity.
Much of the  “smart cities” work is engaged in and tolerated only to the extent that it supports, or at least doesn’t get in the way of the status quo megaprojects that these organizations want.  Bottom line:  the “smart cities” effort focuses mostly on developing algorithms for the optimal arrangement of deck chairs on the Titanic, and hasn’t convinced anyone to change course to avoid icebergs.

Big Data, Bright Lights, Blind Spots

Shining the light of big data changes our perception:
But our vision changes,
our pupils constrict, our focus narrows.
Many things that were shades of gray are now fully illuminated.

But outside the glare of the big data spotlight,
everything else is plunged into darkness.
This is the profound bias of big data,
it illuminates some things, but darkens others.
And it does so in ways that mean we make bad decisions.

We are drawn to the light.
Focused on solving the problems we see
and dismissing—out of ignorance—the ones we can’t.
When we measure movement,
we inherently advantage those who are moving through
over those who are in or of a place, stationary.
When we measure vehicles,
we inherently advantage vehicles, and penalize those who do not have vehicles

As a result, we end up spending resources and building places
for the people who do not want to be there,
in the process, making them worse for the people who do.
Little surprise that people with choices move away

The toxic flood of cars, not just the freeway, crushed Albina

Restorative Justice & A Viable Neighborhood

What destroyed the Albina community?  What will it take to restore it?

It wasn’t just the freeway, it was the onslaught of cars, that transformed Albina into a bleak and barren car-dominated landscape.

In the 1950s, Portland’s segregation forced nearly all its African-American residents to live in or near the lower Albina neighborhood.  During that decade, Albina was one of the cities densest neighborhoods, full of houses, apartments and local businesses.    In the late fifties and early sixties, the construction of Memorial Coliseum, urban renewal and finally, the I-5 freeway all triggered the neighborhood’s decline. Everyone now acknowledges that the construction of the I-5 Freeway through Albina was a classic example of the Oregon Department of Transportation’s institutional racism.


The construction of ODOT’s freeways triggered a wave of demolition and abandonment that caused the neighborhoods population to fall by two thirds.  To be sure, ODOT demolished hundreds of homes.  But the coming the the freeway and a flood-tide of cars traffic swept away the remaining population of the neighborhood.

The big question going forward is how to right that wrong. If we’re seeking restorative justice, what will it take to make a viable neighborhood?

It was the cars, not just the freeway, that destroyed Albina

It wasn’t so much the freeway that undermined the health of the neighborhood as all the cars the freeway brought. A better place for cars means a worse place for people.

Construction of the freeway was only part of the problem. Yes–the freeway wiped out more than 300 houses as it sliced through North and Northeast neighborhoods. But the real damage was done after construction was complete:  it was the flood of cars, chiefly suburban commuters and shoppers that transformed the area from a viable neighborhood, to a car-choked collection of parking lots, gas stations, and auto-oriented businesses. Most of the decline in population in Albina happened years after the freeway was built. The flood of cars undercut neighborhood livability, and population steadily declined in the 60s, 70s and and 80s. As people moved away, neighborhood businesses that served local residents, many owned by African-Americans, died.  More cars, fewer people, fewer businesses, and a shrunken impoverished neighborhood.

ODOT’s proposal to spend as much as $1.45 billion is supposed to revitalize the neighborhood. But flaw in the proposed freeway widening is that it makes both these problems–the freeway and local car traffic–worse. It widens the freeway–pushing it even closer to other uses like the Harriet Tubman Middle School, and funnels even more cars not just on the freeway but on local streets, like Vancouver, Williams, Broadway and Weidler. Plus ODOT would cut back the corners of major intersections to enable cars to drive even faster on these streets, and would its relocated freeway ramps would add more than a million miles of car travel to local streets.

Capping a small segment of the freeway does not create a neighborhood

We’re told that “caps”—actually just slightly wider freeway overpasses—will somehow magically heal the neighborhood.   But again, the problem is not just with one or two blocks, but about giving over the whole neighborhood to transient uses (like the Moda Center and Convention Center) and the demolition of housing and neighborhood sized streets. The construction of I-5, combined with the Memorial Coliseum, obliterated the dense street grid that underpinned Albina.

Creating a few blocks of buildable land, sitting directly over the noise and pollution of the widened I-5 freeway, and surrounded by fast-moving traffic on arterials and freeway-on-ramps is a pedestrian hostile environment that no one will want to linger and a place where no business will thrive.  The one example that freeway advocates point to, a cap over I-80 in Reno, houses a Walgreens drugstore and its parking lot; a transient, car-oriented use, not the hub of a revitalized neighborhood.

Development on the I-80 Freeway Cap in Reno

A freeway cap is no place for parks, sidewalk cafes, restaurants or grocery stores.  Its just another desolate off-ramp, designed for the needs of outsiders and travelers, not local residents.  The proposed highway cap would be bisected by the northbound freeway on-ramp to I-5, as well as four major arterials carrying traffic to and from the freeway (Vancouver, Williams, Broadway and and Weidler).  The project’s caps can only hold 3- to 5- story “lightweight” buildings, and OregonDOT is providing no funding to build anything on the site.  It doesn’t even know what it will put atop its bare concrete covers.  This is only a restorative space if you’re a highway engineer.

A neighborhood for the people who live there, or people driving through?

In cities across the country, freeways and the car-dependent development patterns and urban depopulation they’ve engendered have divided and decimated historically Black urban neighborhoods.  As the Los Angeles Times editorialized:  the real monuments to institutional racism are the nation’s urban freeways.

Freeways, and the high speed on-ramps and arterials that feed them  privilege people in cars driving through a neighborhood over the people on foot,  biking, breathing and just living in the neighborhood.  ODOT’s proposed I-5 freeway widening privileges the interests of peak hour car commuters from Clark County (75 percent white and with average incomes of $82,500) over the kids who attend Tubman School (two-thirds kids of color; half on free and reduced price lunches), and others who live in the neighborhood (where fewer than half of workers drive alone to work: most walk, bike or take transit, according to census data).

If we want to want to make amends to those whose neighborhood was devastated by the I-5 freeway and its car-dependent development pattern, the last thing we want to do is widen the freeway that caused this problem. And freeway covers, no matter how elaborate or expensive won’t replace the housing lost or the damage done to the fabric of the entire Lower Albina area.


Vancouver Columbian: Suburban drivers matter

Who are the real beneficiaries of the $800 million I-5 Rose Quarter project?  Vancouver, Washington commuters, who won’t pay a dime for its construction.

Wider freeways just double down on the damage done to city neighborhoods and privilege suburban commuters over communities of color.

The editors of a suburban newspaper say the quiet part out loud:  the Rose Quarter freeway is really about serving suburban commuters and building a multi-billion dollar Columbia River Bridge.

Support for the $800 million Rose Quarter Freeway widening in Portland took a serious hit earlier this summer after a key Black advocacy group pulled out of the project. When the Albina Vision Trust walked away from the project’s advisory committee, so too did other key leaders, including Mayor Ted Wheeler. Overnight, the huge project went from fast track to off the rails.

Tellingly, the first local journal to weigh in with an editorial opinion was Vancouver’s Columbian newspaper, in a July 5th piece “In Our View: Leadership needed to clear I-5 roadblocks.”

A principal cause of the traffic jams on I-5, including at the Rose Quarter, comes from the tens of thousands of suburban Washington residents who drive their cars to jobs and stores in Oregon. From their perch on the North side of the Columbia, its editor’s priorities are clear:  widen the road, and build a giant new bridge to make it easier for Clark County residents to drive to Oregon:

Those efforts often have focused on the need for improvements through the heart of Portland, with critics pointing out that a new bridge will be inadequate if southbound drivers suddenly come to a standstill because of backups in the Rose Quarter area some 6 miles to the south.

Just as in the 1960s, when the freeway was built, the Albina neighborhood (and much of the rest of Portland) was just an inconvenient “roadblock” to those who wanted to live in Vancouver and drive to jobs and stores in Oregon.

The Columbian’s editorial tells you everything you need to know about the winners and losers in this freeway widening project.  The winners will be commuters from Washington, who get a new wider freeway which they hope (incorrectly, as it turns out) will make it easier for them to drive fast through the city of Portland.  Oregonians, meanwhile get stuck with the entire $800 million bill, and neighborhood residents and school kids at Harriet Tubman School get to breath even more car exhaust from the freeway.

It’s evidence of the institutional racism embedded in the transportation system that we routinely—and repeatedly—sacrifice the livability of urban neighborhoods (including historically Black neighborhoods like Lower Albina) for the convenience of suburban motorists, whose only interest in the area is driving through it as fast as they can.

Freeways are still racist

As we engage in national introspection about the embedded roots of racism, our freeway-dominated car-dependent transportation system plays an undeniable role. A Los Angeles Times Op-Ed posed and answered the question: Want to tear down insidious monuments to racism and segregation? Bulldoze L.A. freeways.  Highway planners intentionally routed freeways through Black neighborhoods and used freeways to create barriers between neighborhoods. And the sprawl enabled by massive freeway construction fueled white flight from the city. In Los Angeles, freeways drove segregation:

. . .neither the Klan nor legally dubious covenants nor flagrantly unconstitutional land grabs were arguably as effective as the automobile and its attendant infrastructure at turning Los Angeles into an intentionally segregated city.

This argument echoes across the nation.  Writing in the Hartford Courant, Thomas Broderick says:

For those looking to move beyond symbolism and tear down monuments that literally perpetuate structural racism and promote inequality, tearing down Connecticut’s urban highways should be a top priority. . . . It is difficult to overstate the devastation urban freeways wrought on the state’s cities.. . . Today, these highways reinforce the state’s unfortunate pattern: wealthy, majority-white suburbs trampling over and through impoverished majority-minority cities.

In Detroit, Nithin Nejenda, writes in the Free Press:

The protests over George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis Police have brought to the forefront the variety of ways in which our society continues to harbor white supremacy and perpetuate racism. Part of this reckoning involves removing racist monuments, including the Christopher Columbus statue that the City of Detroit recently put in storage.  But if we’re going to get serious about removing symbols of this country’s endemic racism, we shouldn’t stop there. Detroit’s most persistent, visible, and disruptive symbols of racism are its freeways.

Freeway widening for whomst?

Built in the early 1960s, Portland’s  I-5 freeway slashed through the middle of the Albina Neighborhood, historic center of the city’s once highly segregated Black community. ODOT likes to portray the freeway widening project as atoning for its past sins. It acknowledges that the freeway played a central role in devastating the neighborhood, that its an inarguable racist legacy.

While ODOT would like us to believe that this racism is purely  a thing of the past, the project itself is yet another repetition of the same privileging of (disproportionately white) car commuters over disproportionately poor and communities of color  who live in the area today. As we’ve shown at City Observatory, peak hour car commuters from Clark County, Washington have vastly higher incomes and are much more likely to be white than residents of the neighborhoods bisected by I-5 in Albina.  Albina has one of the highest rates of transit use, cycling and walking of any neighborhood.

Subsidizing the suburbs

The Columbian’s quick and unqualified lamentation about the prospective downfall of the project raises an important question:  If this stretch of freeway is so important to Southwest Washington travelers, why should the state of Oregon pay of the entire $800 million cost of building it? Why, is ODOT prioritizing this, rather than say, fixing the urban highways it runs in Portland which are the region’s most lethal?

A primary reason for traffic congestion on I-5 and I-205 is Washington residents driving to Oregon to evade Washington’s 8.2 percent sales tax on most retail purchases. We estimate that Clark County residents avoid about $120 million in sales tax annually, about $1,000 per year for the typical household. These shopping trips account for 10-20 percent of all the cross river traffic.

Peak hour tolling of I-5 and I-205 would immediately and dramatically reduce traffic congestion in the Portland area, in part by shifting many, if not most of these price-sensitive tax-avoidance trips to off-peak hours.  But even though the Oregon Legislature directed ODOT to implement congestion pricing three years ago, the agency is plainly dragging its feet in actually carrying out the 2017 law.

The Rose Quarter freeway widening is all about the Columbia River Crossing

In addition to revealing who the Rose Quarter project is really for, the Columbian editorial also speaks another truth that Oregon DOT officials have tried to conceal: The Rose Quarter widening is needed to service traffic from a new and much wider I-5 Bridge across the Columbia River, the project formerly known as the Columbia River Crossing.  The Columbian plainly makes the connection:

Improvements to the Rose Quarter area are inextricably linked to Clark County and efforts to replace the Interstate 5 Bridge.

City Observatory’s analysis of the Rose Quarter’s Environmental Assessment document revealed that Oregon DOT officials had buried all references to the CRC, but predicated their traffic models on the counterfactual assumption that the CRC was built in 2015.

The nation’s freeways, particularly the stretch of I-5 through Rose Quarter, are not just historic symbols of racism, they continue to be active contributors to the economic, racial, and spatial divisions of our metropolitan areas.

It’s no secret:  the divisions are acknowledged even in pop culture  One (of many) video parodies of Portlandia caricatures Vancouver (“The Dream of Suburbia is alive in Vancouver). At the end of the video, Melanie (the stand-in for Carrie Brownstein) has made it to the mall parking lot in Vancouver where the rest of the cast is singing. Asked what took her so long she says:  “I got stuck  on the I-5 bridge.” Her ersatz Fred Armisten responds: “Yeah, they need to replace that thing with a bigger bridge–and make Portland pay for it.”

The dream of the suburbs is alive in Vancouver (Youtube)


Manufacturing consent for highway widening

ODOT doesn’t want to hear the questions its Community Advisory Committee raises about the proposed $800 million Rose Quarter Freeway widening project–so it fires them.

Agency staff misrepresent public testimony to public officials, minimizing objections, and failing to report substantive critiques of agency errors.

An ever-shifting set process with constantly changing committees lacks legitimacy.

As regular City Observatory readers will know, we’ve been closely following plans by the Oregon Department of Transportation to spend $800 million to widen a mile-long stretch of Interstate 5 through North Portland near the Rose Quarter. There’s been extraordinary and widespread community opposition.

In an effort to ameliorate the community critique, last year the agency settled on appointing a Community Advisory Committee for the project. Ostensibly, the committee’s role was to offer ODOT advise about the project, but as is now clearly the case, ODOT didn’t actually want to get any advice from the community.  That’s been apparent for a couple of months now, since one key group, the Albina Vision Trust, walked away from the project, triggering an avalanche of defections from local political officials.  After working with ODOT for two years, the organization gave up in frustration over ODOT’s intransigence, as its Director, Winta Yohannes told Willamette Week:

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. . . .  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.

Last week, ODOT took the unusual step of firing the Community Advisory Committee, which had, in its first few meetings, held on-line due to pandemic restrictions, raised serious questions about the project, and challenged ODOT’s efforts to muzzle the Committee. As Bike Portland’s Jonathan Maus reported:

The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) has just taken the rare step of closing down its own advisory committee in favor of a new one that will consist of mostly hand-picked members. It’s the latest twist in ODOT’s effort to resuscitate the highly controversial, $800 million I-5 Rose Quarter mega-project that’s been on life support for months.

While ODOT says the move is an effort, “To intentionally center voices of the Black community,” it also allows them to avoid difficult questions from skeptical and frustrated committee members, one of whom had already resigned and several others who planned to follow suit.

Turning a deaf ear to the community is a long tradition at ODOT.

In theory, public involvement ought to be a vehicle for assuring that major projects move forward with a full and fair understanding of all public views. Soliciting input from the public in meetings and forums should provide decision-makers with more complete information to make better decisions.

But in practice, the process has become weaponized by bureaucrats who’ve already decided what they want to do.  Public involvement becomes a process for exhausting and outlasting those with legitimate concerns, and then falsely presenting a sanitized simulacrum of consent. And if, as a last resort, your selected advisory committee doesn’t roll over and agree with you, you simply fire them.

Hiding and minimizing public objections and expert technical commentary

The periodic reorganization of the public involvement process allows ODOT staff to simply “disappear” the negative comments made in previous phases of the process, and start a new conversation, controlled by ODOT staff.  As the Rose Quarter project has developed, the agency has had several different advisory committees. In 2019, it put out an Environmental Assessment, and under pressure from opponents, held a public hearing to receive comments, which were overwhelmingly negative.

As was apparent from the experience of the community advisory committee, ODOT staff use their control over the agenda to block difficult questions and minimize or squelch dissenting opinions. But ODOT uses the same tactic to spoon feed its nominal overseers, the Oregon Transportation Commission, a distorted picture of public opinion about the project.

In her December 17, 2019 presentation to the Oregon Transportation Commission, Project manager Megan Channell summarized the entirety of the public comment on the $800 million Rose Quarter Freeway widening project as touching on just three issues:  climate, noise and air quality:

I would say there’s three key areas where the community has had significant interest, being air quality, climate change and noise.
I’ll also note that under our current administration, there’s  an executive order that actually does not require climate change and greenhouse gas evaluations as part of NEPA evaluations, but given the interest and importance of that in our community and our state we were of course taking that on as part of this environmental assessment.
So again, the air quality, these three, along with all the other topics again followed federal processes and most current modeling tools to come up with the evaluation and the findings. In those found that the project, the build alternative, would not result in an increase of air pollutants or greenhouse gas emissions.  It would also not result in noise. . an increase in noise that would be perceptible to the human ear.  When you look specifically at Harriet Tubman Middle School, which is adjacent to the project area, relative to noise, the project does, despite the increased noise not being perceptible, the project does recommend  a sound wall in that area to mitigate existing noise levels . . .


What Channell left out of her presentation to the Oregon Transportation Commission was the fact there had been an outpouring of more than 2,000 comments on the project, with 90 percent opposed. She also left out that the grounds for opposition included a far wider array of issues.  Instead, ODOT portrayed the comments as minor disagreements about implementation, rather than outright and detailed opposition, much of which disproved the supposed traffic and safety rationales that the agency advanced to sell the project.

And for the record, this isn’t about “sour grapes” for those who had contrary opinions: nor is it about ODOT bowing to the wishes of every commenter.  The issue hear is that ODOT staff, having heard the objections from the community, fails to relay them on to decision-makers, and instead, paints a false picture of widespread support and only modest disagreement with the overall scope of the project.

One example:  Steve Bozzone, Boise neighborhood

ODOT has had public involvement activities in this project for a decade.  One Boise neighborhood resident, Steve Bozzone has been a member of the project’s earlier public involvement committee since 2012.  Here’s were his comments to ODOT’s environmental assessment in 2019:

ODOT failed to consider HOT lanes, HOV lanes, tolling, or pro rated/pro tem highway ramps as design options for this project. During the public design process many proposals were submitted by participants that included these concepts. ODOT dismissed all alternative design concepts without any explanation for why they were unacceptable by ODOT’s standards. Those alternative concepts all lead to less surface, soil and environmental impacts.The alternative proposals all cost less funding and disruption to local air quality and pollution. They also mitigate the surface level neighborhood congestion created by the highway’s location in the heart of central Portland. Those concepts deserve to be adequately considered and not thrown out at ODOT’s whim. Attached to my comment I am submit into the record the attached previously submitted letter containing earlier expressed concerns from 2012, which ODOT has never addressed or responded to.

How ODOT manipulated its public involvement committees

In an effort to evade and bury these criticisms, in January, 2020, ODOT set about creating yet another advisory group, (the one fired this month).  ODOT is solicited the community for members, sending out emails and a neighborhood mailer, calling for volunteers.

The project team has heard from the community about the importance of continued public engagement. The CAC is one example of how the project will intentionally seek community input, further extend opportunities for the public to engage, and bring community interests and values into the decision-making process. As the project moves forward, ODOT will demonstrate and communicate how the CAC’s input meaningfully informs project decisions.

Allow us to translate this into English:

We will expect you to sit through endless hours of meetings, and we will dictate the content of these meetings, and exclude or limit positions that differ from those of the Department of Transportation.  No matter what you say, we will treat your participation as an endorsement of whatever we choose to do, and the fact of your attendance will be used as evidence of public support for our position.  If you say anything critical or negative of about the project, you will be ignored, and it will not appear in the written reports or summaries of public involvement.

The group ended up having three meetings, all on-line, thanks to pandemic restrictions. But from the outset, members of the committee challenged ODOT’s efforts to limit the scope of their oversight, and raised numerous, and apparently, uncomfortable questions about the project.  And rather than answer, ODOT chose to simply disband the group for asking questions  that the agency didn’t like.

ODOT has delegitimized its entire public involvement process.  It should be apparent to everyone that the advisory committee’s only purpose is to agree with ODOT; if it doesn’t do so it will be ignored, fired, and replaced.

Crushing real public input is a long standing practice

Twisting public involvement to manufacture consent is a well-established practice at the Oregon Department of Transportation. Bike Portland’s Jonathan Maus summarized years of experience with the agency in his article “You can tell ODOT what to do with their I-5 Rose Quarter Project on New Advisory Committee.”

ODOT ends up using the time and ideas of committee members while using their involvement to move the project along, check a box for the OTC [Oregon Transportation Commission], and create a narrative that everyone involved has locked arms in support of the project.

That’s what they did to push their controversial Columbia River Crossing project. In 2009, a Bicycle Transportation Alliance (now The Street Trust) staffer was a member of a CRC advisory committee. When a key decision was on the table, a disgusted BTA rep had seen enough. “The BTA is done with this public involvement theater,” said Michelle Poyourow, before leaving the committee. “We’re not going to play this game any more.”

Unfortunately, ODOT is still playing this game.

Editor’s Note: We’ve borrowed the title for this commentary from Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s 1988 book on the political economy of the mass media. Unfortunately, the public relations profession seems to have treated this work as a guidebook, rather than a cautionary tale.

The Week Observed, September 25, 2020

What City Observatory did this week

1. Why free parking is one of the most inequitable aspect of our transportation system. There’s a lot of well-founded anger over the inequitable aspects of transportation:  the burdens of policing, fare enforcement, and road crashes all fall disproportionately on low income households and communities of color. But a little recognized and pervasive inequity in transportation is the fact that we charge people vastly more for using transit than we do for parking.  Data compiled by Northern Illinois University’s Chris Goodman show that most cities charge their residents 20 or 30 times a much for a monthly transit pass as they do for a monthly street parking permit (when they charge anything at all).  That makes no sense from an efficiency or equity standpoint.  Those who own cars have higher incomes than those who use (and who depend on transit). Private car storage in the public right of way is the conversion of common wealth to private use without compensation, and those who park on-street deprive other users of the potential ouse of that space. In contrast, public transit systems provide significant social benefits (less pollution and congestion), and usually have excess capacity. It makes no sense to charge little or nothing for parking, and too much for transit.

2. How to make gentrification worseBanning new construction is a great way to push up home values and accelerate gentrification.  Cities are conflicted and confused about how to protect affordability.  “Stop the world – I want to get off” was the title of Anthony Newley’s 1961 musical, but it seems like the core policy vision of a growing number of urban leaders faced with gentrification. An article earlier this month in the Washington Post portrayed building moratoriums put in place in Atlanta and Chicago in order to fend off gentrification. These efforts are certain to backfire. Blocking new development in the face of growing demand for urban space ironically plays into the hands of speculators and flippers by driving up the value of existing housing.  In the face of a shortage of great urban spaces, cities need to look for ways to accomodate more people, of all income groups, not simply to block change.

Must read

This week’s must read articles are a reminder of the important political dynamics that surround land use decision-making and the challenges of balancing local interests with broad public concerns like job creation and housing affordability.

1. Why state action is essential to reform local land use laws. Sightline Institute’s Michael Andersen reflects on some of the key policy (and political) lessons from Oregon’s legalization of multi-plex housing in the state’s single family zones.  A first key point is that state action helped get the ball rolling: It’s always difficult in a single neighborhood or city to agree to additional development (see below); up-zoning is the classic prisoner’s dilemma.  Having a state step in and require every city to allow a range of housing types overcomes this problem.  The second point Andersen makes is a subtle, and seldom recognized one: creating a bias for action.  The biggest obstacle to reform, Andersen notes is the inertia of the status quo.  Once the state sets a deadline for change it shifts the discussion from whether to do things differently, to a more productive question about what change makes the most sense.

2. NIMBY’s  triumphant in NYC. The New York Times reports that a major redevelopment project in Brooklyn’s Industry City is dead, thanks to local opposition, based on concerns about, among other things, gentrification.  The Industry City proposal involved redeveloping part of Brooklyn’s waterfront for, among other things, as many as 20,000 new jobs.

3. Ending member privilege. Brandon Fuller ties the demise of the Industry City proposal to a widely shared feature of many local land use processes: “aldermanic privilege.” In cities that elect council members by single member districts, there’s frequently a formal or informal practice of granting individual councilors veto power over land use approvals in “their” districts. A series of studies has shown that cities which have such single member districts systematically allow less housing, and in particular fewer apartments, than cities that don’t have this system. Single member districts escalate the political significance of parochial concerns, and City Councilor’s are often under tremendous pressure to protect “their” neighborhood from adverse effects. Multiplied across a city, that’s a recipe for NIMBYism.

In the News

City Observatory Director Joe Cortright is quoted in The Oregonian’s insightful article on following up on a predicted carmaggedon in Portland.  Half of a major interstate bridge was closed for a week, and despite predictions of gridlock, things were actually fine.

Streetsblog republished our commentary on equity and subsidized private car storage in the public right of way as “It Shouldn’t Cost 31x More To Take Transit Than Park.”


The Week Observed, October 30, 2020

What City Observatory did this week

Equity and Metro’s $5 billion transportation bond. This week, Portland residents are voting on a proposed $5 billion payroll tax/bond measure to fund a range of transportation projects. A favorite talking point of advocates is that the measure advances equity, because it will expand transit to black and brown communities.  But the measure’s single largest project, the $3 billion expansion of light rail, chiefly serves some of the region’s wealthiest and whitest neighborhoods, and has as its destination a tony suburban shopping center.

The bulk of the package essentially subsidizes car travel by paying for projects located in highway corridors. While the measure does some good things, like subsidizing transit fares for low income populations, it may also jeopardize the use of the payroll tax, which for a half century has underwritten transit operations.  A quest to build shiny new capitla projects may undercut the essential work of maintaining bus service, which is very much at issue in the post-Covid era. Fraught and subjective claims about “equity” are mudding the discussion of transportation policy. In the absence of a clear definition of what we mean by equity, and specific metrics for measuring progress, this term is clouding public debate, rather than advancing it.

Must read

1. Driving down emissions. An important new report from Smart Growth America and Transportation for America puts changing the way we get around front-and-center in our efforts to tackle climate change.  Excessive driving is the key reason for America’s growing greenhouse gas emissions.The report lays out a clearly explained, cleverly illustrated explanation for how we got in this mess:  Building more and more road capacity has induced more driving, and progressively led to the sprawling of homes, stores, and jobs, that have made us more car-dependent.

The focus on transportation as transportation distracts us from a more fundamental truth:  we’ve made in uneconomical and illegal to build the kinds of places where people don’t need a car to live:

Yet the deep irony is that there is huge unsated demand for communities where it’s safe and convenient to take transit, walk, and bike to get around, but policy decisions that prohibit building or adding housing to those types of places and require streets designed for cars to move quickly have artificially constrained the supply of these places.

The report lays out five key steps that federal, state and local governments should be keeping foremost in mind, and it also punctures the notion that we can solve our greenhouse gas problems solely with the technical fix of electrifying cars.

  1. Getting onerous government regulations out of the way of providing more homes where people naturally drive less;
  2. Making safety the top priority for street design to encourage more short trips; 
  3. Instituting GHG reduction and less driving as goals of the transportation system; 
  4. Investing heavily in other options for getting around; and 
  5. Prioritizing access to destinations

2. Los Angeles delays a freeway expansion. Like many state DOTs, the California highway department advanced with plans to widen the 5 and 605 freeways in Souther California. It’s now apparent that the highway-widening will lead to the demolition of hundreds of homes, and that has prompted Metro, the region’s transportation planning body, to call a time out. Importantly, the Metro Board directed the highway planners to specifically add a transportation system management/demand management alternative to the project’s environmental impact statement.  Making better use of the existing roadway can lower pollution, lessen costs and avoid destroying even more of adjacent neighborhoods. It’s an alternative that should get much higher priority in every city.

3. More institutional racism in transportation: insurance rates. (Hat-tip to Streetsblog USA for highlighting this study). Auto insurance website Insurify has a study looking at differences in rates charged to drivers by race. It concludes that:

Cities and towns with majority black residents experience among the highest quote prices compared to cities of any other racial makeup, regardless of how clean their driving record is. A driver with a clean record living in a majority-black neighborhood pays almost 20 percent more for car insurance on average than a driver living in a majority-white neighborhood who has prior driving offenses.

What’s perhaps most offensive about these disparities, is the fact that who your neighbors are has a bigger impact on your insurance rates than how safe you are as a driver.  Drivers with good records in majority black neighborhoods pay about $2,100 per year, or $800 more than the $1,300 similarly safe drivers in majority white, non-Hispanic neighborhoods.  But as Insurify notes drivers with bad records pay only about $400 more on average than drivers with a tarnished driving history. It’s a system that puts a bigger premium on where you live than how you drive, and does so in a way that systematically penalizes people of color.

New Knowledge

Distressed Communities Index.  Which cities and neighborhoods are doing well and which are struggling?  The Economic Innovation Group has a useful new tool that ranks the nation’s communities from healthiest to most troubled on a series of socioeconomic indicators. They’ve created versatile web-based tool that lets you quickly access data for a range of geographies.

The EIG tool groups communities into five broad categories from “prosperous” and “comfortable” to “at-risk” and “distressed.”  The categorizations are based on seven indicators, including income, poverty rates, educational attainment, and employment and establishment growth.  The tool allows users to view data for counties, congressional districts and zip codes. The zip code level data is the most illuminating and covers 25,000 zip codes which include 99 percent of the US population.

The reports findings are summarized in a live map of the nation, and you can drill down to specific geographies. Blue colors are most prosperous, reds are most distressed.

The Distressed Communities Index is a convenient, and transparent tool for quickly visualizing geographic patterns of neighborhood economic performance.  Here, as an example, are two metro scale maps showing Seattle and Cleveland.

Nearly all of Cleveland’s core zip codes are classified as distressed; none of the zip codes in the Seattle area are distressed.  In both cities, most suburbs are classified as either prosperous or comfortable; much of Seattle’s close-in area is likewise classed as prosperous. These data clearly illustrate the different economic geographies of thriving and struggling metro areas.

In the News

Oregon Public Broadcasting‘s Jeff Mapes has an in-depth analysis examining how the Trump Administration’s policies have affected the Oregon economy.  City Observatory’s Joe Cortright is quoted as pointing out that despite claims that tax cuts and deregulation would fuel growth, Oregon’s economy continued on the same trajectory it established during the Obama years, at least until the mishandling of the Coronavirus epidemic produced the sharpest and deepest downturn in a century.

The Week Observed, September 18, 2020

What City Observatory did this week

1. Lived segregation in US cities. Our standard measure of urban segregation, whether people reside in different neighborhoods, doesn’t really capture the way people from different racial and ethnic groups interact in cities on a daily basis. A new paper uses data gathered from cell phone records to look at the extent of mixing and isolation in the nations metro areas. It finds we’re generally much less segregated during the middle of the day than we are in the evenings, and that a range of public spaces and commercial ones, including parks, restaurants and entertainment venues, have much higher integration that residential neighborhoods.

The data also show which cities have the highest—and lowest—levels of “experienced” integration.  We have rankings for the largest US metro areas; Portland, Seattle and Minneapolis have the least “lived” segregation; Milwaukee, Detroit and St. Louis have the highest levels of  segregation by this measure.  The patterns of experienced segregation tend to parallel patterns of residential segregation.

2. Vancouver’s Columbian:  “Suburban commuters matter.”  After more than a year of working with the Oregon Department of Transportation on the proposed $800 million I-5 Rose Quarter freeway-widening project, a key Black community group pulled out of the project, prompting many local political leaders to withdraw their support. Who jumped in to support the project? The editors of the Vancouver Columbian, a suburban newspaper, who finally said the quiet part out loud:  The real beneficiaries of the freeway widening are not local residents, but car commuters from Washington State, who will now be further inconvenienced because the road won’t we widened to allow even more cars to drive faster through this historically African-American community.

Freeways, and freeway-widening privilege wealthier, whiter suburban commuters over urban residents, who are disproportionately lower income, people of color, and who travel by means other than cars. Plus the $800 million Rose Quarter widening is just a stalking horse for reviving an even larger multi-billion dollar freeway project to add more car capacity across the Columbia River. The racism of freeways isn’t some dim, historic vestige, its a current and continuing reality in urban areas.

3. Covid is now a rural, red-state pandemic.  Early on, people were quick to equate the Covid-19 pandemic with cities, and to incorrectly attribute the virus’s spread to density. That’s been disproven again and again.  It’s now the case that the pandemic is worse in rural areas than in large cities.  We compile analyses from three different sources (Brookings’ Bill Frey, Indeed’s Jed Kolko, and the Daily Yonder) showing how rural and red the pandemic as become.  What’s striking now is that, regardless of city size or urban/rural status, the pandemic is worse in red states than blue ones.  What we’re waiting for now is a swarm of media stories chronicling the exodus of people from small towns and red states to avoid the virus.

4. City Beat: No, people are not fleeing Portland for its suburbs. It’s becoming a favorite storyline in the media; frightened by the prospect of the Coronavirus, homebuyers are supposedly fleeing cities for their suburbs or surrounding hinterlands. The fact that the virus has spread to rural and small town America puts the lie to the premise, but its still being repeated, most recently by the Portland, Oregonian.  Stories like these are always documented with anecdotes of one or a handful of households moving to the suburbs, or further, but since people are always moving in (and out) of cities, this is meaningless. The data shows that urban markets, including Portland, remain robust.

Must read

1. SUV’s and Climate Change.  The sport utility vehicle (SUV) has become the symbol of climate change, but according to new data reported in the Guardian, its more than a symbol, its a tangible cause of increasing greenhouse gas emissions. The data from the International Energy Agency show that SUVs added more than 500 million metric tons per year to carb on emissions over the eight-year period 2010 to 2018, making them the second largest source of the increase in greenhouse gases.

Part of the growth of SUV’s reflects the substitution of SUVs for standard cars in the world’s vehicle fleets; emissions from non-SUV cars actually decreased but were overwhelmed by the increase in SUV emissions.

2. An international perspective on America’s housing affordability problems. It may seem like the price of housing is a purely domestic concern, but the an article by political scientists Sam Winter-Levy and Bryan Schonfeld in the journal Foreign Affairs weighs in on US housing affordability with an informative piece that reminds us that the result of the world has mostly figured out how to deal with housing. The US (and the UK) are virtually alone in the world in allowing NIMBY’s virtually unlimited sway over whether and where to build new housing. Japan, which had a housing crisis two decades ago, implemented national policies to legalize denser housing almost everywhere.  As Foreign Affairs explains:

. . . the national government passed a series of reforms assuming control over land use and reducing the ability of local opponents to block new housing construction. The government then eased planning restrictions in Tokyo, allowing taller and denser buildings. Since then, the city’s rate of housing construction has risen by 30 percent. In 2014, construction started on more new houses in Tokyo than in the entire state of California or in all of England. While the average price of a home in San Francisco and London increased by 231 percent and 441 percent, respectively, between 1995 and 2015, in Tokyo it remained essentially unchanged.

Underlying the US problem is the notion that housing ought to be a great investment, which as we’ve pointed out at City Observatory, is a recipe for policies and politics that automatically lead to higher home prices and less affordability. Other nation’s have lower rates of homeownership and much better housing affordability. Perhaps, as the authors argue, its time for a little less American exceptionalism.

3. Driving less, dying more.  The Coronavirus has created a powerful transportation safety experiment.  The volume of traffic, measured by vehicle miles traveled has fallen nearly 20 percent.  But total traffic fatalities, according to data just released for the first six months of 2020, have barely budged.  That means that the per mile rate of fatalities has increased significantly:

The National Safety Council (NSC) estimate of total motor-vehicle deaths in the first six months of 2020 is 18,300, up 1% from the preliminary 2019 estimate of 18,200. . . .  The estimated mileage death rate for the first six months is 1.37 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, up 20% from the revised 2019 rate of 1.14. Estimated vehicle miles traveled for the first six months of 2020 indicate nearly a 17% decrease compared to last year from 1,595 billion to 1,331 billion.

The most likely reason:  Fewer cars on the road prompts more speeding and reckless driving by those remaining. It’s a reminder that some level of traffic congestion actually saves lives by slowing vehicles and reducing the number and severity of crashes.

New Knowledge

Road safety:  Driver error or bad design? You’ll often hear claims that most crashes, and associated injuries and fatalities, should be chalked up to “driver error.” The implication is that the cause is essentially random and uncontrollable.  But what if driver’s are actually responding to visual cues in the built environment about how fast to drive, and how carefully to look out for other road users?  If such cues are important, then crashes aren’t random or unavoidable, or even necessarily the driver’s fault, but are really attributable to bad road design.

A new study published in the Journal of Planning Education and Research addresses exactly this issue.  The full study itself is gated here, but Beth Osborne has a terrific summary of the research published at the State Smart Transportation Institute.

. . . the design of the built environment primes drivers’ expectations about potential conflicts or hazards and to what risks they should be prepared to respond. The embedded conditions in the built environment can cause “inattentional blindness”: situations in which drivers look but still do not see a conflict type that the design doesn’t prepare the driver to watch out for (usually pedestrians, bicyclists or motorcyclists).

The key point here is that we need to evaluate traffic safety from a cognitive and behavioral perspective, recognizing that context and the physical environment condition the way drivers act. Many road design standards that provide more room for error (wider lanes, clear zones, wide rights-of-way, and building setbacks) also send driver’s unmistakeable cues that they can and should drive faster, and that this space is exclusively for their use.  Other design choices may prompt safer behavior: We all instinctively tend to drive more slowly and carefully on narrow roads, with limited visibility and many obvious indications that other users are present.  As places work to achieve Vision Zero, its worth keeping in mind that rethinking the behavioral cues give to drivers may be more effective in protecting vulnerable road users than added doses of infrastructure.

Eric Dumbaugh, Dibakar Saha & Louis Merlin, “Toward Safe Systems: Traffic Safety, Cognition, and the Built Environment,” Journal of Planning Education and Research. August 2020. doi:10.1177/0739456X20931915

In the News

Flossin Magazine published Joe Cortright’s essay “Restorative Justice: Will ODOT’s $800 million freeway widening restore Albina, or just repeat past injustices?”

Thanks to Greater Greater Washington for pointing its readers to our commentary pointing out that much of what is called “pedestrian infrastructure” is needed only because of the prevalence of cars, and is really infrastructure that benefits car travelers, not people walking.

The Week Observed, September 11, 2020

What City Observatory did this week

1.  Manufacturing consent for highway widening. In the early days of freeway battles, state highway departments were power blind and tone-deaf, and citizen activists often triumphed in the court of public opinion.  In the past several decades though, highway builders have become much more adept at manipulating the process of “citizen involvement,” to project an image of widespread support and to stifle, outlast and ignore opposition.

2. Why one long-time Portland transit leader is opposing Metro’s $5 billion transportation plan.  We’re pleased to publish a guest commentary from GB Arrington, one of the veteran architects of Portland’s transit system. He argues that Portland Metro’s proposed bond measure, to be voted on in November, is a wasteful and ineffective investment, guided largely by political considerations rather than sound planning objectives.  Arrington writes:

TriMet and Metro lost sight of their job to deliver livability to the region’s citizens. Going along with political backslapping and road building is not what made the region stand out as a global model of livability. Pursuing political business as usual is a sure- fired recipe for making Portland more like sprawling auto-oriented Houston than the Portland we have long worked and aspired to be.

3. Is there anything smart about “smart cities?” One of the most popular urbanist buzzwords is “smart cities,” a coinage and a line of thought that implies that there’s no urban problem that can’t be tackled by some combination of technology and big data. Color us skeptical.  Policy makers routinely ignore the unambiguous “small data” that’s already at hand, and some of our worst problems stem from a lack of imagination and ambition, rather than a lack of data.  To the contrary, “big data” is often wielded by the existing institutions (like state highway departments) to create an illusion of scientific validity for projects that make our transportation problems worse (and our cities less livable).

Glib and self-serving claims about new technologies (we’re looking at you Elon) often become an excuse for policy makers to ignore tangible if prosaic challenges (like running buses and legalizing housing) in favor of hopes that computer renderings will magically materialize and obviate these problems.

Must read

1. How cities come back from disaster. In the midst of a pandemic, widespread protests about police brutality and racism, its hard to see a clear way forward. Fear and pessimism are leading many to predict (falsely in our view, see above) an urban exodus. Writing at The Atlantic, Derek Thompson takes a longer and more optimistic view. Cities have experienced cataclysms and disasters before, and rather than extinguishing urban settlement, they’ve generally prompted innovation and change. The epidemics of the 19th Century led to much improved sanitation, urban parks and more robust public health systems. Thompson argues that Covid-19 will be another catalyst to innovation. He has his own theories about what those innovations will be, and we might even end up making cities even better than they were before the pandemic:

Altogether, this is a vision of a 21st-century city remade with public health in mind, achieving the neat trick of being both more populated and more capacious. An urban world with half as many cars would be a triumph. Indoor office and retail space would become less valuable, outdoor space would become more essential, and city streets would be reclaimed by the people.

2. Still missing in Minneapolis: Missing Middle Housing.  Last year, with great fanfare in housing policy wonkdom, Minneapolis “abolished” single family zoning and allowed the construction of triplexes in most areas zoned for single houses. Nearly a year on, CityPages reports the fruit of the policy breakthrough:  three new triplexes. So far, at least, not the housing supply avalanche that proponents hoped and opponents feared.  Writing at Strong Towns, Daniel Herriges downplays the shortfall, reminding us that the rezone was “necessary, but not sufficient” to get more housing. It’s still the case that triplexes are subject to the same setback requirements and lot coverage limits that applied to single family homes, which may leave precious little room to squeeze in a triplex or even a duplex.

Still missing in Minneapolis.

Portland’s new Residential Infill Project anticipated these challenges, creating incentives for building more units. The Minneapolis experience is a reminder that single-family zoning is much more than the headline in the zoning code, their are myriad details, from height limits, to setbacks, to floor-area-ratios, to parking requirements to design review that effectively determine what can be built.

New Knowledge

The power and persistence of long-distance migrants on economic prosperity.  Our studies at City Observatory have stressed the important role that talented young people moving to cities have on regional economic success.  A new study that looks backwards at the patterns of migration within the US confirms that places that attract new residents, particularly from long distances, experience significant and enduring economic gains.  Viola von Berlepsch and Andrés Rodríguez-Pose studied the patterns of internal migration in the US in the late 19th Century and traced out the economic performance of regions through the 20th Century.  They find that counties that attracted high numbers of migrants, particularly from far away tended to have stronger economic performance than those counties that attracted relatively few migrants from distant locations. Specifically, levels of per capita income in 2010 are positively correlated with the distance that migrants traveled to a county in 1880, controlling for a wide range of other factors.

The idea that openness to newcomers can catalyze growth is not a new one; what’s striking about this study is how the patterns of openness a century ago are still reflected in the variations in economic performance today.

. . . internal migrants having crossed state-lines between their birth state and destination exert a significant and positive long-term impact on the economic performance of the receiving regions. They leave a trace which is still evident more than 100 years after the settlement took place. Counties that attracted a large share of domestic migrants around the turn of the 20th century have become and remain more prosperous in 2010 than those largely bypassed by internal out-of-state migration streams . . . the bigger the distance travelled, the greater the positive long-term economic legacy. Counties that drew a large number of long-distance migrants around the turn of the 20th century have been more dynamic over the next century.

von Berlepsch, Viola and Rodríguez-Pose,Andrés (2019) The missing ingredient: distance internal migration and its long-term economic impact in the United States. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies.

In the News

Thanks to Streetsblog and Strong Towns for republishing our essay, “Why most pedestrian infrastructure is really car infrastructure.”  The Overhead Wire reports that it was their most read story on September 8.

Pedestrian infrastructure?

Pedestrians don’t need infrastructure, so much as they need vibrant urban places, with closely spaced destinations, something that’s both rare and illegal in most of the nation’s suburban areas. Expensive pedestrian crossings like these, are at best remedial measures, and don’t do what’s needed to make places truly walkable.

The Week Observed, September 4, 2020

What City Observatory did this week

Why most pedestrian infrastructure is really car infrastructure. One of the most misleading terms you’ll hear in transportation is “multi-modal” which in practice means a highway for cars and trucks, with largely decorative provisions for pedestrians and bicyclists. We look at a couple of examples of pedestrian overpasses in Florida and Georgia, which while ostensibly built for the benefit of people walking, are really only necessary because of a car-dominated environment.  In addition, unlike highway “improvements” pedestrians overpasses almost always mean longer, more arduous journeys for pedestrians, and serve mainly to free drivers from having to slow down or watch out for non-vehicular travel.

Pedestrian infrastructure?

Pedestrians don’t need infrastructure, so much as they need vibrant urban places, with closely spaced destinations, something that’s both rare and illegal in most of the nation’s suburban areas. Expensive pedestrian crossings like these, are at best remedial measures, and don’t do what’s needed to make places truly walkable.

Must read

1. Facebook:  I’ll take Manhattan. Despite all the doom-saying about the future of work in dense cities, Facebook is moving forward with plans to lease 700,000  square feet of office space in the Farley Post Office Building near Penn Station in New York City.  The reason? It’s all about access to talent.

The RealDeal reports that even in software, that quintessential computer-using business, innovation and productivity are all about close, face-to-face human interaction:

“So much of what we do is collaborative,” Rosenthal said. “[Software is] like writing a book together where all the plots have to connect and make sense and there are thousands of authors. It’s really hard to do if you’re not co-located in the same space and it’s important to even be able to see each other in the same space.”

2. Covid is now worse in rural areas and smaller metros than in big cities.  Indeed economist Jed Kolko has been tracking county level Covid-19 case data by his urban/rural county typology.  While the pandemic was famously worse in some of the nation’s big cities—notably New York—in the spring, with the second wave of the virus, the pattern has reversed.  Its now the case that the rates of reported cases are now higher in smaller metros and rural areas than in the densest urban counties of large metro areas.

And in the past month, there’s been a notable further divergence in reported cases per capita, with rural and small metro areas collectively seeing the largest uptick.  The highest and fastest rising rates are in non-metropolitan areas and the smallest metros; the lowest rates are now in the central counties of metros with a million or more population. While there are important qualifications for any urban/rural county classification system, these data show that the notion that vulnerability Covid-19 was primarily a product of urban density is a, shall we say, “rural myth.”

In the News

Writing at Michigan Future, Lou Glazer makes a strong case for the future of downtowns, quoting our “Youth Movement” CityReport:  “High density, high amenity neighborhoods are not going away.”

BikePortland directed its readers to our commentary, “The case against Metro’s $5 billion transportation bond.”

Carmaggedon does a no-show in Portland

Once again, Carmaggedon doesn’t materialize; Shutting down half of the I-5 Interstate Bridge over the Columbia River for a week barely caused a ripple in traffic

It’s a teachable moment if we pay attention:  traffic adapts quickly to limits in road capacity

The most favored myth of traffic reporters and highway departments is the notion of traffic diversion:  If you restrict road capacity in any one location, then it will spill over to adjacent streets and create gridlock.  It’s invariably used as an argument against any plans to slow car movement or repurpose capacity for transit, cyclists or people walking.

Time and again, however, when road capacity is reduced, either by design or accident, the predicted gridlock fails to materialize.  Earlier this year, New York closed 14th Street to most car traffic; speeds on parallel streets 13th and 15th, were unaffected, according to traffic monitoring firm Inrix. Similarly, Seattle’s experience with closing the Alaskan Way viaduct (now demolished), and imposing tolls on its replacement, the Highway 99 Tunnel, failed to generate the predicted traffic diversion and gridlock.

Crying Carmaggedon, again

The latest case study of comes from Portland.  Portland is connected to suburbs in Southwest Washington by two Interstate highway bridges that crossing Columbia River. The oldest of the two bridges that carry Interstate 5 over the river , built in 1917, needed to have one of the trunnions that carry the weight of its lift-span replaced, an operation that required the bridge to be closed to traffic for a week. The I-5 bridges usually carry about 120,000 to 130,000 vehicles per day, but that capacity was cut in half as both Northbound and Southbound traffic were diverted to the newer structure.  So instead of 6 lanes, the I-5 freeway was reduced to 3 lanes.

Not surprisingly, the Oregon and Washington Department’s of Transportation predicted massive traffic tie-ups.  The two highway departments predicted four-mile long backups, leading the Vancouver Columbian to forecast that the region would be mired in “trunnion trauma“:

If drivers do not change their travel habits, estimates indicate that backups could stretch for 4 miles on either side of the Columbia River, and the duration of congestion could nearly triple, from seven to 20 hours a day.

Traffic catastrophe “didn’t materialize”

The weeklong closure of the bridge ended Friday September 25, and prompted a story looking back at the region’s experience by The Oregonian’s  transportation beat-reporter Andrew Theen.  He found that despite some occasional slowdowns, traffic between the two states was little different than any other week.


. . . travel patterns largely followed the normal cycle: Evening trips northbound across either of the two bridges were a slog, but that’s typically the case with scores of residents working on the Oregon side of the metro area, even during a pandemic.

Deja vu all over again: A reprise of 1997

Long-time Portland-area residents will know that this is not the first time the bridge has been closed to replace a trunnion. To great fanfare, the bridge was closed for just this purpose in 1997.  The predictions of carpocalypse were even more dire then.  That led local officials to mount a massive PR campaign, to put additional buses on the road, and even arrange for a temporary commuter rail service between Portland and Vancouver.  And then, just as today, the expected gridlock never happened.  Local media were stunned that it was so uneventful.

Back in 1997, a clearly surprised Oregonian team of reporters summed up the experience in a September 16 story: “Gridlock? It’s a breeze for savvy commuters.”

Officials predicted monster traffic jams on the freeways and main arteries in Vancouver and Portland. Total gridlock, most planners said weeks before Tuesday’s closure. But the expected calamity was over before it started, in part because of a media blitz and mass transit options set up by transportation officials.

You’d have thought that this experience would make the two states’ highway departments more reticent to forecast traffic disaster.  Not so.  Local highway engineers gravely warned, things would be worse this time:

This year’s closure likely won’t be so smooth, primarily due to growth in Clark County. Since the September 1997 project, the county’s population has increased by about 175,000.

“I seriously doubt we will see a replay,” said Ryan Lopossa, Vancouver’s streets and transportation manager. “There are just so many people who make that crossing.”

The trunnion experience echoes many other If this gives you a bit of deja vu, dear reader, it should.  Back in January, just before the tunnel opened, the city had to commence demolition of the old viaduct, in order to connect on ramps to the new tunnel.  As a result, the city suddenly lost its old waterfront freeway, and didn’t have access to the new tunnel. State highway officials warned that the city was in for weeks of gridlock.  But when they closed the viaduct, not only did nothing happen, but as we related at City Observatory, traffic on most of downtown Seattle got better. Rather than simply diverting to other city streets, traffic levels went down; as the Seattle Times reported “traffic just disappeared.”

What road closures teach us about travel demand

So what’s going on here? Arguably, our mental model of traffic is just wrong. We tend to think of traffic volumes, and trip-making generally as inexorable forces of nature.  The diurnal flow of traffic on urban roadways seems just as regular and predictable as the tides.

What this misses is that there’s a deep behavioral basis to travel. Human beings will shift their behavior in response to changing circumstances. If road capacity is impaired or priced, many people can choose not to travel, change when they travel, change where they travel, or even change their mode of travel. The fact that Carmageddon almost never comes is powerful evidence of induced demand: people travel on roadways because the capacity is available for their trips, when when the capacity goes away or its price goes up, trip making changes to reduce traffic.

If we visualize travel demand as an fixed, irreducible quantity, or an incompressible liquid, it’s easy to imagine that there will be Carmaggedon when a major link of the transportation system goes away.  But in the face of changed transportation system, people change their behavior.  Traffic and congestion is more like a gas, expanding and contracting to fill available space. And while we tend to believe that most people have no choice and when and where they travel, the truth is many people do, and that they respond quickly to changes in the transportation system.  Its a corollary of induced demand:  when we build new capacity in urban roadways, traffic grows quickly to fill it, resulting in more travel and continuing traffic jams. What we have here is “reduced demand”–when we cut the supply of urban road space, traffic volumes fall.

If drivers quickly change their behavior in response traffic capacity, it’s a sign that engineers are crying “Wolf” when they make claims that reducing car capacity of a particular road will produce “gridlock.”  This is a signal that road diets, which have been shown to greatly improve safety and encourage walking and cycling, don’t have anything approaching the kinds of adverse effects on travel that highway engineers often predict.

Carmaggedon never comes

The phenomenon of reduced demand is so common and well-documented that it is simply unremarkable.  Whether it was Los Angeles closing a major section of freeway to replace overpasses, or Atlanta’s I-85 freeway collapse, or the I-35 bridge failure in Minneapolis, or the demolition of San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway, we’ve seen that time and again when freeway capacity is abruptly reduced, traffic levels fall as well. There’s a lesson here, if we’re willing to learn it:  if you want to reduce traffic congestion, reduce traffic levels. Whether you do it by restricting capacity, or (more sensibly) by imposing tolls that ask motorist to pay for even a fraction of the cost of the roads they’re using, you get a much more efficient system.