Equity and Metro’s $5 Billion Transportation Bond

Advocates for a $5 billion transportation bond that Portland area voters will be deciding in November are making a specious argument about it being an equity measure.

Its largest single project, a multi-billion dollar light rail line serves the some of the region’s whitest and wealthiest neighborhoods and has as its destination a suburban lifestyle mall.

The bulk of the money in the measure supports projects in highway corridors, including a subsidy to cars driving to the Portland airport.

Because the measure does nothing according to the advocate’s own estimates to reduce greenhouse gases, it’s inequitable to the frontline communities that bear the burden of climate change.

Some of the proponents of a $5 billion tax measure being presented to Portland’s voters on November 3 are claiming that it’s a way to right historic wrongs to the poor and people of color.  CityLab published one such commentary last week, with a headline asserting that the measure will help communities of color; it features a picture of one of Portland’s right rail lines.

But if you look closely at the measure, it’s really just transportation pork barrel politics, like the days of old, and the biggest shares of the money go to projects that disproportionately benefit whiter communities and higher income households. Despite a relative handful of measures—like free and reduced price transit for school aged kids—that make sense on their own, it’s a package that consists mostly of road projects that could and should be paid for by road users through the gas tax.  Instead, car users get the equivalent of a 30 cent a gallon subsidy for driving. What’s worse, is that the measure cannibalizes the payroll tax—which the region has used for 50 years to subsidize transit operations—to fund capital expenditures, at a time when the local transit system is facing desperate financial conditions.

But let’s focus on the biggest single project in the Metro package:  roughly a billion dollars toward the local share of the costs of a $3 billion expansion of the region’s light rail system.  On paper, that seems good, but as long-time Tri-Met planner GB Arrington pointed out, this particular light rail project makes no sense as a transit or urban development measure.

The claim in the CityLab article is that the measure “invests in Black and Brown communities.” But when it comes to the single biggest project in the package, the proposed Southwest Light Rail benefits the whitest, wealthiest part of the region. The same is true of other major components of the package, which chiefly invest in highway corridors, not neighborhoods. Here are the facts.

SW light rail would disproportionately serve Portland’s whitest neighborhoods

At City Observatory, we’ve extensively studied the racial and ethnic diversity of the nation’s largest metro areas, including Portland. While Portland has fewer Black residents than most large metros, it has proportionately more Hispanic and Asian residents, and it is overall, one of the least racially and ethnically segregated metro areas in the nation. But like every large US metro area, it has a share of neighborhoods that are not diverse, and that are disproportionately composed of white, non-Hispanic residents.

As part of our study, America’s Most Diverse, Mixed Income Neighborhoods, we identified all of the non-diverse predominantly white neighborhoods in the nation’s 50 largest metro areas.  We computed racial diversity using the Racial and Ethnic Diversity Index (REDI), and flagged those tracts that were among the 20 percent least diverse of all tracts in large metro areas nationally, and in which the majority racial/ethnic group was white, non-Hispanic.  Here’s a map of the Portland area’s non-diverse, white neighborhoods.

Source:  American’s Most Diverse, Mixed Income Neighobrhoods (Red-shaded areas are low-diversity white, non-Hispanic neighborhoods.)

Red-shaded areas are low diversity, majority white neighborhoods. (Source:  America’s Most Diverse, Mixed Income Neighborhoods).

The area with the largest concentration of these non-diverse white neighborhoods is the the southwest quadrant of the city of Portland, an area running from the city’s West Hills to the city of Lake Oswego. The route of the proposed Southwest Corridor light rail line bisects this large concentration of non-diverse neighborhoods.  Here’s a close-up of the same data, with the route of the light rail line super-imposed on these low-diversity white neighborhoods.

Red-shaded areas are low diversity, majority white neighborhoods. (Source:  America’s Most Diverse, Mixed Income Neighborhoods).


Light Rail to Portland’s high income suburbs

Not surprisingly, these predominantly white neighborhoods are also among the wealthiest in the region. The neighborhoods of southwest Portland and the suburbs in this part of the region are hardly distressed communities.  Don’t take our word for it:  Let’s look at the Distressed Communities Index just released by the Economic Innovation Group.  It ranks all the zip codes on the US on a 100 point scale of economic distress, based on a combination of income, poverty, and employment indicators.  The proposed SW Light Rail project runs through four zip codes outside of downtown Portland:  97239, 97219, 97223 and 97224.  Three of these four are rated “prosperous”–the highest income of five categories in the EIG ranking, and one is rated “comfortable.”  None are mid-tier, at-risk, or distressed.

Source: Economic Innovation Group

The average incomes of these neighborhoods are higher than for Multnomah County, the region’s most central, urban county.  Median household incomes in zip code 97219 are among the highest in the region, at just slightly less than $100,000.  The following chart shows the county-wide median and the median incomes in the four zip codes directly served by the proposed light rail line.

Destination:  Suburban shopping mall

The southern terminus of the proposed Southwest Light Rail line is a “lifestyle center” shopping mall called Bridgeport Village.

Bridgeport Village is home to a host of national chain stores catering to high-end households.  The mall’s owners describe it as:

. . . an outstanding and enviable array of exclusive, internationally renowned stores and boutiques which include The Container Store, Anthropologie, GAP, Lululemon, Apple, Crate & Barrel, Brandy Melville, Madewell, Sephora, Sundance, Eileen Fisher, MAC Cosmetics, Tommy Bahama, Soft Surroundings and the largest Regal IMAX Theatre in the state.

They too, note the area’s high income demographics.  The mall’s primary trade area has an average household income of $89,000 compared to $74,000 in the rest of the metropolitan area.

Other projects also chiefly benefit white, wealthy populations

Another project subsidized by the bond measure is a massive freeway interchange serving Portland International Airport.  The interchange will make it quicker and easier for people to drive to the airport (and not incidentally, undercut the relative attractiveness of the already existing light rail service that goes direct to the airport terminal). And the users of facilities like the airport have higher incomes that the rest of the region’s population.  According to Statista, person with an income of $80,000 a year is about 6 times more likely to be a frequent air traveler than someone with an income under $40,000 per year.  Ironically, because the Port of Portland charges market rates for parking ($3 an hour; $24/day) it’s the one place where car users actually shoulder something approaching the cost of their trips, and the Port could easily fund this road improvement out of the fees it charges users; but it prefers to ask that the general public subsidize car trips to and from the airport.

The project proponents claim that the proposal will support investments in safety and pedestrian improvements in the region.  But the bulk of these monies are focused on highway corridors. As we’ve discussed at City Observatory, as a practical matter, “pedestrian safety” improvements in and along highways are of dubious value in creating more walkability, and are in many cases, actually highway improvements—designed to facilitate more and faster car travel.

What this tells us about equity

Urban leaders around the nation are grappling daily with the question of how to fashion policies that achieve “equity.”  There’s a cacophony of voices calling for greater equity, but no definitive yardsticks to say what this means, or measure whether we’re making progress, or even moving in the right direction.  If a light rail line through the richest, whitest portion of a region contributes to “equity” than arguably pretty much any investment could.  Likewise projects that expand capacity on suburban highways, or make it easier to drive to the airport, rather than take the light rail system we’ve already built.

There are pieces of the Portland measure that do support equity, like free and reduced price transit fares. But the most expensive items in the package hardly serve disadvantaged front-line communities. Beyond that, we know that low income communities and people of color are those most likely to bear the brunt of the effects of climate change, which means that the Metro bond measure’s abject failure to reduce the region’s transportation greenhouse gases is, itself, highly inequitable.

The point is that without a clear definition of what constitutes “equity,” this criterion is meaningless. Given our current approach to the subject, “equity” is as vague, personal, and subjective as “beauty.”

Our discussions of equity need to be far more specific and quantifiable:  Who benefits, and how much?  And how do we address the underlying inequities that are built into the existing institutional arrangements for transportation, and that are never questioned:  like virtually universal free parking, or policies that prioritize the faster movement of cars over the safety and livability of urban neighborhoods? Is there anything more equitable than adequate funding for bus operations to assure greater frequency?  We should make equity a key criteria for guiding our transportation policies, but we should do so in a way that systematically makes our overall society more equitable, rather than being a subjective talking point for a particular pet project.

It’s worth imagining what a real, equity-driven regional agenda would look like. For starters, it wouldn’t be based on the premise that everything has to be viewed through the lens of transportation. While inequity manifests itself in the transportation system, the problem is much broader and more fundamental, and is rooted in land use and housing policies, like the prevalence of single family zoning in the Southwest corridor that this proposal does nothing about. An equity focused agenda might also try to learn from and adapt based on the lessons of the Covid pandemic. Arguably right now, widespread and free or inexpensive access to high-speed Internet is a more salient equity issue. Framing this single largest investment in the region’s history solely as a transportation issue forces all communities to play a transportation game rather consider more broadly the range of investments that would provide the livability and opportunity communities are asking for.  Finally, a real equity measure should pay as much attention to how monies are raised as it does to how they’re spent, and be funded by assessing the costs to users.  People are adaptable, transportation systems much less so.  Investing in steel and concrete before investing in new patterns of cost allocation and usage is today short-sighted and should be unthinkable.



Red states are now the red zone for Covid-19

Covid-19 now disproportionately affects rural America, and is hitting red states harder than blue ones. Rural counties have 14 percent of US population and 21 percent of new Covid-19 cases.

The nation’s largest, densest urban counties now have Covid-19 rates lower than mid-sized and smaller metros and rural areas.

This shift to a largely rural and red state pandemic undercuts the premise for the “urban flight” narrative that’s dominated media coverage.

Reporters:  We’re still 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.

Last month, we highlighted three different analyses of the data on Covid-19 case counts that showed a striking pattern in the spread of the virus, with the nation’s rural areas and red states having much higher levels of new reported cases than urban areas.  Now we have another four weeks of data—and they show that rural areas and red states are now even harder hit than the nation’s urban areas and blue states. Indeed economist Jed Kolko and the team at the Daily Yonder have both updated their analyses of the geography of Covid.

Kolko’s numbers show that the disease continues to worsen in smaller metros and rural areas, and it is the centers of the nation’s most populous metro areas that have been the most successful in suppressing the virus. His chart shows the variation in the number of new cases per million population by metro size.

The lowest rates of new cases are found in the urban counties of large metro areas; meanwhile, the number of new cases in the smallest metro areas and rural towns is far higher, reaching the peaks recorded in April and July. The path of the disease has diverged sharply between urban and rural areas since mid-August, with far worse performance in the most sparsely settled places.  Notice the pattern of the blue line, which represents the most urban counties in large metro areas: it’s gone from above average in April, to middle of the pack in July, to the bottom in October, showing that urban areas have made dramatic progress relative to the rest of the nation in managing the pandemic.

The geographic variation in the pandemic is clearly illustrated by the maps created by our friends at the Daily Yonder.  They’ve used the federal government’s red zone classification (a county with more than 100 new cases in a week per 100,000 population) to show where the disease is spreading fastest.

Daily Yonder.

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.  The Covid pandemic is now dramatically worse in rural America:  21 percent of new cases last week were in rural America, compared to just 14 percent of US population; until August, rural areas were under-represented in new cases.

Brookings Institution’s Bill Frey has also been tracking the Coronavirus (again, using a slightly different definition) and comes to very similar conclusions. Frey has also made the obvious connection between red states and red zones.  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.

Where’s the new narrative?

Early on, we saw a veritable journalistic sub-genre of urban flight fiction:  everyone was fleeing cities to escape the Coronavirus.  Henceforth, the story went, Americans would decamp from crowded, unhealthy cities, to safer suburbs and rural areas.  We’ve profiled—and punctured—the median press account several times:  some wealthy middle aged professional couple who formerly resided in a big city (usually New York), had tired of the trials of the Coronavirus, and moved to New Jersey, or California.  The story was usually punctuated with hand-waving by the local realtor who handled their purchase, crowing over a big uptick in interest from city-dwellers.  The trouble of course is that the “urban flight” story isn’t borne out by actual data for real estate markets:  in fact, growth in searches for homes and apartments in denser city neighborhoods out-paced those in suburbs and rural areas in the early days of the pandemic, according to Zillow and ApartmentList.

But more to the point, the premise of the “urban flight” story turns out to be flatly wrong:  density doesn’t cause or exacerbate the pandemic, and leafy suburbs and bucolic rural communities aren’t immune in any way from the Coronavirus. Now, after more than half a year of experience with the pandemic, and a much clearer understanding of why it spreads, and how to stop it, it’s clear that the disease is dramatically worse in small town and rural America.

So where, we ask, are the journalistic stories about rural residents packing up, Joad-like, and fleeing to cities?  We’re just waiting to hear reporters chronicling 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. It’s been a month, and we still haven’t seen the stories, which probably tells us more about America’s lingering anti-urban bias than it does about the pandemic or migration trends.






The amazing disappearing urban exodus

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

US Post Office data show that the supposed urban exodus was just a trickle, and Americans moved even less in the last quarter than they did a year ago.

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

Are we moving more?

If there were any truth to the urban exodus stories, you’d expect it to clearly show up in increased migration. But are more people moving now that pre-Covid-19?  One of the clearest ways to get a handle on this is through the US Postal Service.  When people move from one home to another, they fill out a change-of-address form.  The USPS tabulates this data monthly, and helpfully distinguishes between temporary and permanent moves.

MyMove.Com, a moving services website has prepared a new report summarizing these data.  The most compelling chart shows monthly data on permanent changes of address for 2019 and 2020.

If we believe the “urban exodus” theory, we’d expect to see a large and sustained increase in changes-of-address in the months after the advent of the virus, compared to the same month in the previous year.  The data show nothing of the kind.  While there’s a jump upward in moves in the first months of the virus—total moves up by about 21 percent compared to the year earlier in March and 10 percent in April, that surge didn’t persist..  (The month to month variation in 2019 and 2020 is pretty similar, suggesting that the variation in movement is normal, rather than unusual).  Moreover, though, total changes-of-address declined in May and June compared to the same months in 2019—precisely the opposite of what one would expect if the Coronavirus had prompted people to migrate.  Perhaps the most charitable explanation one can attach to the data is that the pandemic accelerated some moves–moves that would have happened in the summer, happened earlier; that would explain the jump up in March and April and the subsequent slide in May and June.

In the last three months for which there is data—that is, combining data for May, June and July—changes of address are down 2.5 percent compared to 2019. Bottom line:  If the pandemic permanently changed expectations, we should be seeing a steady increase in moving, compared to a year ago:  we don’t.  The “more moving” myth is busted.

Spinning the moving data

The lack of any increase in permanent moves should completely puncture the “urban exodus” claims, but that’s such a durable meme that those who write about the data can’t seem to bring themselves to concede it’s wrong.  In releasing its report, MyMove breathlessly plays up the urban flight story.  It’s release is titled, “Coronavirus Moving Study: People Left Big Cities, Temporary Moves Spiked In First 6 Months of COVID-19 Pandemic.” The body of the release claims (with no data) that:

Now that people can continue with their life remotely, they can do so from anywhere. And so people are leaving big, densely populated areas and spreading out to suburbs or smaller communities across the country — at least for now.

The report’s subhead shouts out the plays up the statistic that:

Over 15.9 million people have moved during the coronavirus, according to USPS data.

But lots of Americans are always moving. You have to dig a bit deeper to see that 15.4 million people moved in the same months of the preceding year, which means that there’s been only about a 4 percent increase in total moves.  In addition, most of that increase is due to temporary moves, not permanent ones; permanent moves are up just 2 percent.

Once again we have a report that implies that there’s an urban exodus, but then presents data that shows there’s been virtually no change in the level or pattern of moves compared to pre-Covid days.

The MyMove report also repeats the false claim about a connection between urban density and Covid:

The impact of urban density on coronavirus moving trends:

. . .  it’s only logical that large, densely populated cities and crowded spaces present a higher risk of spreading and contracting COVID-19, and that people would relocate to areas with fewer people, where the risk of infection could be lower.

True, denser cities were hit first, but we and others have presented detailed statistical evidence discrediting the “density=covid” claim.  Moreover, in the past two months, the character of the pandemic has completely reversed:  Covid-19 is now a rural and red state plague. New cases are far more prevalent in rural American and small metro areas, while the nation’s densest urban counties now have the lowest number of new cases per capita.

The anti-urban bias that conceals the continued strength of cities

While the copywriters haven’t seemed to have figured this out yet, the underlying data shows that there hasn’t been a surge in permanent migration, and the cities aren’t hemorrhaging residents. The data, unlike the copy, puncture the myth of an urban exodus.

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

As we pointed out this summer, real-time data on apartment search activity showed that interest in cities increased, rather than decreasing.  Data compiled by  Apartment List.com economists Rob Warnock and Chris Salviati for nation’s 50 largest metro areas between the first and second quarters of 2020 showed interest in cities actually increased in the second quarter compared to the first, relative to other locations, including suburbs, other less dense cities, and rural areas. The findings are the exact opposite of what one would expect if the headlines about an urban exodus were correct. Rather than looking to less dense suburbs, or exploring other states, apartment search activity is focusing more on dense city locations.

In a fact-based world, that would put an end to these “fleeing the cities” stories. What the claims of urban exodus reflect are a persistent anti-urban bias embedded in many of these accounts.  The “teeming tenements” view of cities underlies many of the misleading anecdote fueled stories about people leaving cities. Sadly, the idea-virus that is the urban exodus myth seems just as persistent as the Coronavirus itself. But at City Observatory, we’ll keep working on the vaccine.

The Week Observed, October 2, 2020

What City Observatory did this week

1. Carmaggedon never comes, Portland edition. It’s a favored myth that any reduction in road capacity will automatically trigger gridlock, and highway engineers regularly inveigh against reallocating road capacity to promote safety or facilitate other users.  But real world experience with abrupt and significant reductions in road capacity shows that traffic declines in response.  Portland just closed half of its key I-5 freeway bridge for a week, and forecasts of gridlock and four-mile long queues simply didn’t occur.  Portland’s Oregonian reported that “forecasts calling for a nightmarish region-wide traffic catastrophe failed to materialize … travel patterns largely followed the normal cycle.”

The reason?  Travelers rapidly change their behavior in response to changes in road capacity, as many road users have choice about when, whether, by what route and how they travel.  The fact that carmaggedon never comes should remind us of the hollow and self-serving nature of highway engineer forecasts.

2. Gentrification’s big disconnect. We’re pleased to publish this guest commentary from Akron’s Jason Segedy, who stresses the profound disparity between the plight of low income neighborhoods in most of the nation’s cities and exaggerated concerns about the adverse effects of new investment, aka “gentrification.”

Must read

1. Matt Yglesias:  Much more housing. In the wake of World War II, many feared that peace would cause the US to lapse back into the doldrums of the Great Recession.  That fear was a major impetus to big federal subsidies to housing, highways (and sprawl). But the postwar housing boom did help power the economy, and Vox’s Matt Yglesias argues its time for another dose of this medicine:

A combination of rental assistance for consumers, capital funding for affordable housing, and regulatory relief for builders of all kinds could unleash a massive boom in new construction, creating countless blue-collar jobs and laying the foundation for a new era of inclusive prosperity.

Yglesias claims that we have a shortage of housing, but in our view, it’s more accurate to say we have a maldistribution of housing:  too much housing in the hands of empty-nesters in suburbs, too little housing in prosperous cities and high-opportunity neighborhoods.  Agree with Yglesias or not, this is a productive debate to be having.

2. A surge in biking, big data from Strava. Many dedicated cylcists use the Strava app to track their trips and measure their performance against other cyclists. With millions of trips in its database, Strava provides one indicator of the growth of cycling in cities across the US. Strava published some of this data, which show a significant uptick in cycling activity during the pandemic  Here are the data for New York City.

Strava has compiled this aggregated data into a new web-based tool called “Metro” that lets planners track cycling data for specific locales.

3. Covid cuts a diagonal slice through cities and suburbs. The inimitable Johnny Sanphillippo of Granola Shotgun has one of his signature photo-laden essays about how commercial and public spaces in cities and suburbs are faring in the wake of the CoronaVirus. While many are quick to proclaim the end of cities, Sanphillippo argues that the effects aren’t simple and clear cut, and the pandemic is creating winners and losers in every geography.

There’s a lot of talk on the interwebs these days about the mass exodus from big cities. . . .. The migration of frightened people seeking safety in the hinterland…. But the reality is more nuanced than suburbanites or country folks grasp. We aren’t seeing the end of cities and the triumph of the outskirts. Instead we’re experiencing a complex patchwork of winners and losers everywhere.

Parks and other civic spaces in cities are flourishing as people look to social-distance while experiencing the public realm.  In the suburbs, many big box stores, like WalMart and Home Depot still thrive, by much of the rest of retail, especially the small in-between stores that fill out malls and strip centers are being decimated.


New Knowledge

Electric cars won’t be enough to fight climate change, and pose their own problems.

One view of climate change–espoused by many highway departments–is that fighting climate change is simply a matter of electrifying the vehicle fleet. Just replace internal combustion engines with battery electric models, and voila, greenhouse gases disappear, with no need to change anyone’s travel patterns or land uses, and best of all, highway department’s can just keep building more roads, a kind of electric business as usual for them.

The trouble is, converting to an all electric fleet is a pipedream.  A new study from the University of Toronto tackles the details of what such a transition would entail, and the results are daunting. The authors estimate that fighting climate change would require 90 percent of the vehicle fleet to be electrified by 2050, up from less than 3/10ths of one percent of all vehicles today. Not only is that not plausible, the most optimistic estimates suggest that the best we might do by then is get to 50 percent electric vehicles, but the massive ramp up of electrification has costs of its own.

The biggest one is that we’d need vastly more electricity–the author’s estimate that achieving 90 percent electrification would require about 41 percent more electric generation.  Beyond that, that load (with its own peaking and geography) would put a massive strain on the power distribution system and would likely require considerable new infrastructure in both power generation and transmission. In addition, building that many electric cars and their batteries, entails significant environmental costs and the mining of scarce materials in many sensitive places.

Alexandre Milovanoff, I. Daniel Posen & Heather L. MacLean, Electrification of light-duty vehicle fleet alone will not meet mitigation targets, Nature Climate Change (2020).

In the News

Strongtowns featured our analysis of the overwrought predictions of Carmaggedon that traffic engineers use to scare the public in its article, “Carpocalypse Never?”


The Week Observed, October 9, 2020

What City Observatory did this week

Let’s fight congestion with a PR campaign.  For decades, when pressed to do something to improve road safety, city and state transportation officials have responded with . . . marketing campaigns. As the federally funded publicity around October’s National Pedestrian Safety Month makes clear, this mostly amounts to shifting blame for dangerous roads to vulnerable road users. We’re told safety is a “shared responsibility.”

Let’s try the costumed super hero approach for congestion.

Our modest proposal suggests that transportation officials ought to apply this same approach to fighting congestion:  A good marketing campaign could make it clear that traffic congestion is a product of lots of poor decisions by travelers, and that we should all take personal responsibility for our contribution to and exposure to traffic congestion. If we used that approach to congestion, the billions we save could be used to dramatically improve safety.

Must read

1. Environmental Justice has to be more than just a procedural step. It’s well known that the nation’s urban freeways sliced through and devastated many communities of color, and that’s prompted requirements that today’s environmental review processes for big transportation projects require a consideration of environmental justice (EJ).  But too often, highway builders treat these EJ requirements as just another check-box to tick off in a largely bureaucratic process. Maryland Delegate Sara Love, who represents a district bisected by freeways, points out that this purely procedural approach to EJ ignores the ongoing damage that roads (and the traffic and pollution they generate) continue to have today.  She writes:

In the 1960s the construction of Interstate 495 cut through the heart of many communities of color and low-income communities without consideration of their existence, their survival or their character and caused them great harm. Here we are, 60 years later and the Hogan administration is doing the same thing with its I-495 highway widening project. . . . The responsibility of the government — and the right thing to do — is not to exacerbate prior injustices, but to reverse them.

Tweeting about a similar dynamic in the Portland metro area, Transit Center’s David Bragdon likens the efforts to superficially address environmental justice as asking local residents to design the artwork that can be stenciled on the sides of the napalm bombs the DOT has already determined it will be dropping on your neighborhood. As long as we treat environmental justice as a procedural step, rather than a measurable, substantive requirement, we’ll get these kinds of results.

2. We’re holding on to cars and trucks longer, and that’s a threat to the environment. One of the key assumptions in many climate strategies is that we’ll start building cleaner vehicles (either electric or lower emission internal combustion cars), and that as consumers replace their existing vehicles, we’ll reduce emissions. Plans that call for all cars to be electric by 2035 or 2040 invariably refer only to newly purchased cars. But consumers are hanging on to their cars longer now than ever, and these older, dirtier cars mean higher levels of pollution, and less impact from new car requirements.  Over the past two decades, the average age of cars on the road has increased about 30 percent; and since the average is 11.6 years, many of the cars on the road are more than 15 or 20 years old.  This means that many of the cars sold today will be on the road in 2035 or 2040.

It’s possible we’ll look more and more like Cuba, where in 1950s era Fords and Chevies have been kept on the road indefinitely. Ultimately, we need strategies, like carbon pricing, that discourage the use of high polluting vehicles.

New Knowledge

The real cost of driving. We drive a lot in the US because many of the social and environmental costs associated with driving are shifted to the public at large, rather than paid directly by those who drive. The subsidies are buried in a complex web of taxes and regulations (like parking requirements) that make businesses and homes more expensive to keep driving cheaper.  We pay for the health and safety costs of driving through a range of general taxes.  How much would it cost to drive if we asked drivers to take responsibility for all the costs their decisions impose on others?

A study from the UK attempts to work out those costs.  The estimates are specific to the UK, but are a good rough indicator of total costs. The bottom line:  the social and environmental costs of driving gasoline powered cars work out to about 11.5 euro cents per kilometer traveled.  Translated into dollars (at 1.18 USD/Euro) and miles (at .62 miles/kilometer) that means that the social and environmental  costs of driving are about 22 cents per mile.

In the US, of course, gas taxes are just a tiny fraction of that amount:  The federal gas tax is about 18 cents per gallon; the median state has a gas tax of about 30 cents per gallon.  With cars averaging about 20 miles per gallon fuel consumption, that means that they’re paying about 2.5 cents per mile traveled, barely more than 10 percent of the social and environmental costs of driving. In a world where drivers stepped up and took direct responsibility for the costs they impose on others, they be paying 8 to 10 times more in road taxes than we currently charge in the US.

David Newbery, Transport Policy for a Post-Covid UK, Cambridge Working Papers in Economics: 2081.  7 August 2020

In the News

GreenBiz republished Joe Cortright’s commentary on the inequity of charging fares for the use of transit while allowing people to use the public right of way for private car storage either for free or at vastly discounted prices.

The Week Observed, October 16, 2020

What City Observatory did this week

1. Covid-19 is now worst in rural areas and red states. Early on in the pandemic, it seemed like everyone attributed the spread of the Coronavirus to big cities and density. It turns out, more than half a year on, that’s not the case. The epidemic is now far worse in the nation’s rural areas, which have 21 percent of new cases but just 14 percent of US population. A broad swath of rural and small metro America from the Gulf Coast to the Dakota’s, the politically red heartland is now the redzone for the virus.

The gap between urban and rural areas has widened in the past month, and we’re still waiting for the nation’s reporters to start filing stories about rural residents fleeing to the safety of the nation’s big cities, which now have, by far the lowest new case rates.

2. Equity and Parks. We’re pleased to present a guest commentary from Carol Coletta, President and CEO of Memphis Riverparks.  Her remarks to the International Downtown Association’s 66th annual meeting make a strong connection between vibrant urban spaces, particularly parks, and promoting the kind of social mixing that’s needed to promote social mixing, break down the growing divisions in America, and broaden empathy.  Downtown parks and public spaces are particularly important because they are the spaces most widely available to people from throughout the community.  As Carol writes:

Successful downtowns increasingly depend on great public space.  And great public space located in a downtown is more likely to be equitable space because of its location, not despite its location.

The pandemic has reminded us of the importance of these public spaces to our daily lives. One hopes that out of this crisis will grow a greater realization of the role they can play in bringing us closer together.

Must read

1. Building more roads won’t help America’s economy.  From “infrastructure week” to presidential campaign shibboleths, the idea that we can revive our economy by building more roads and bridges is a commonplace. While it may have been true in the middle of the 20th Century, it’s flat out wrong today, as Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns argues in a commentary for CNN:

When local governments don’t maintain what they already have, can they credibly justify building more? Instead of pursuing economic growth through system expansion, recovery must be based on a firm commitment to maintaining what has already been built and squeezing higher returns out of these existing infrastructure investments.
2. Housing affordability in Boston suburbs by allowing more apartment near transit. An article by a team from Boston and the Brookings Institution makes the case for an upzoning of land near transit stations in the Boston area.  Many of the region’s suburbs allow only single family homes, including in areas adjacent to transit. These highly accessible locations command very high land values, and because one can only build a single housing unit on most lots, the houses are very expensive. Allowing more houses to be built on this expensive, accessible land lowers the land cost of each unit.  The author’s estimate that allowing multifamily housing near stations would make the neighborhood affordable to households earning about half the median income of the typical suburb, expanding the opportunity to live in those suburbs to far more Boston metro residents. And while the direct beneficiaries would be middle income households, allowing more suburban housing near transit takes the pressure off urban neighborhoods:
Additionally, a statewide upzoning that allows developers to build in the most affluent, exclusive communities would take some of the pressure off moderate-income neighborhoods such as East Boston and Malden, which have been providing much of the region’s new housing. Allowing new construction in affluent, mostly white communities is one of the most effective ways to reduce the risk of gentrification and displacement in lower-income Black and Latino or Hispanic communities.
What’s true for Boston holds for many other high cost US metro areas:  Allowing more housing in accessible, in-demand locations can directly promote affordability in these neighborhoods, and is likely to have spillover benefits for affordability in the rest of the region.
3.  Playing politics with transit safety.  The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) criticizes a a new proposal from the Trump Administration to deny funding to “anarchist” cities for efforts toassure transit systems are safe from the Covid-19 virus:
Following instructions from the White House, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) disqualified transit agencies in New York City, Seattle, and Portland from participating in a new grant program to research methods to slow the spread of coronavirus on buses and trains. This move puts transit operators’ and riders’ safety at risk and sets a dangerous precedent that could undermine future economic recovery efforts.
NACTO was joined in its statement by The Transit Center, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Transportation for America.

New Knowledge

New insight on urban travel patterns. Brookings Institution’s Bass Center for Transformative Placemaking has a fascinating new report on the connections between land use and travel patterns. The report taps data from cell phones and smart devices assembled by Replica to profile travel patterns in six US metropolitan areas:  Birmingham, Chicago, Dallas, Kansas City, Portland and Sacramento.

The study reports that cell phone data shows that the average trip taken in these metro areas was about 7.3 miles, and that the typical resident traveled about 21 miles per day. But those average mask significant variations, across metro areas, neighborhoods and individuals.  Some metro areas have shorter trips:  Portland’s average trip is 6.2 miles; Kansas City’s is 8.2 miles.  Also, trip distances vary significantly across neighborhoods within metro areas, with urban neighborhoods generally having shorter trips than suburban ones.  And finally, the data show that most trips are actually shorter.

A majority of trips in most metro areas are shorter than 4 miles; the seven mile average is a product of relatively few much longer trips.

This new Brookings study adds to the growing body of work tapping the stream of big data from cell phones and other smart devices to provide new data about transportation behavior.  While its tantalizing in its detail, we’ll want to develop more experience with the data to better understand how it relates to other sources of data on travel patterns.

Adie Tomer, Joseph Kane, Jennifer Vey, Connecting people and places: Exploring new measures of travel behavior, October 2020. Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Center for Transformative Placemaking, Brookings Institution.

In the News

Bike Portland called our analysis of the proposed $5 billion transportation bond measure in Portland “a scathing takedown” and a “serious critique” of the measure.

The Portland Mercury also cited our analysis of the proposed Portland Metro transportation bond measure in its election editorial.

The Week Observed, October 23, 2020

What City Observatory did this week

1. Now we are six. We marked City Observatory’s sixth birthday this week, and took a few moments to reflect back on the journey, and to thank all those who helped us on our way, and to look forward to the vital role that cities will continue to play in tackling tough national problems.

2. The amazing disappearing urban exodus. The meme that the urban density causes or aggravates the Coronavirus, and is leading people to flee cities is every bit as persistent as the pandemic itself. New data on postal change-of-address filings shows that there’s been at best a minor blip in people moving—up just 2 percent since the virus first spread.  In fact, over the past three months for which data is available, the rate of permanent moves is actually lower than it was in the same three months in 2019. Despite the fact that the data show there’s no significant change in migration, press accounts insist on repeating myths out people leaving cities.

Must read

1. Elon Musk’s hyperloop vaporware. The Boring Company’s claims that its hyperloop technology is going to disrupt urban transit are evaporating even before its Las Vegas demonstration project is complete. What was pitched originally as a exciting new automated underground system, is now just Teslas in a tunnel, and probably with human drivers. Tech Crunch reports that not only will individual vehicles only carry 5 passengers maximum, but the logistics of loading passengers will likely slash the system’s actual capacity to as little as a quarter of what Musk’s team claimed.  As Human Transit’s Jarrett Walker always reminds us, these car-based solutions run up against barriers of fundamental geometry, that can’t be disrupted.

2. The urban interstate and the damage done (Indianapolis edition).  Across the nation in the 1950s and 1960s, highway engineers demolished vibrant, walkable urban neighborhoods, chiefly to speed suburban car commuters through an increasingly sprawling landscape. Daniel Bradley of WRxx-TV has a terrific essay relating the story of the construction of Interstates 65 and 70 through Indianapolis, and the destruction of the neighborhoods (and renting of the urban fabric they caused).  More than 8,000 buildings were demolished and 17,000 persons displaced by the freeways. And the freeways dealt a body-blow to what had been the kind of urban spaces cities are struggling today to re-create:

“They don’t really realize it was a huge network of neighborhoods,” said [Paula] Brooks, an environmental health senior associate with the Hoosier Environmental Council and a Ransom Place neighborhood advocate. “It was a truly mixed-use urban neighborhood, the kind of neighborhood these young urbanists are fantasizing about now. You could get everything you needed. There were grocery stores and dry cleaners. Restaurants and beauty shops. For recreation, people could go to the park, a bowling alley or a skating rink.

You can tell the same stories for scores of other US cities.  It was a monumentally expensive and unthinking commitment to reshaping the places we live for the convenience of those driving through, and we’re still struggling to overcome the damage today.

3. Traffic safety: Something is 94 percent wrong. Dan Kostelec, writing at StreetsblogNYC debunks the oft-repeated claim that 94 percent of traffic deaths are due to “human error.” This framing of the causes of “accidents” is a favorite both of highway engineers and autonomous vehicle advocates.  The latter imagine that eliminating human’s from driving will, automatically, eliminate nearly all crashes. The highway engineers rely on the claim to deflect responsibility for designing and building roads that create dangerous conditions and that are unforgiving of the likely “errors” that they cause. For example, wide straight roads, with few pedestrian crossings, prompt speeding and give those on foot few options.  The trouble, Kostelec, argues, is the 94 percent number is a fabrication:

Simply put: It’s not true. Crashes are more complex than that and we need to understand all those factors to stand a chance at reducing traffic deaths in the United States.

New Knowledge

Urban density an Covid-19. A recent paper on the timing and severity of the Covid-19 pandemic, and its connection to urban density dispels the key myths about the Coronavirus. Particularly in the early days of the pandemic, the highest number of cases were recorded in large metro areas, like New York City; that observation led many to conclude that urban density itself was a cause (or aggravator) of virus spread.

But this paper from economists at the London School of Economics, takes a more nuanced view of the spread of the virus.  The authors look not just at overall death rates from Covid-19, but also at the timing of outbreaks.  Their key insight is that more populous and denser metropolitan areas were more likely to be hit early in the pandemic, and that smaller, less dense, and less populated metro areas, and rural areas were more likely to be hit later.  The timing of the disease reflects the breadth and depth of connections that large metro areas have with the rest of the country and the world; the vector of the virus is contacts, and large metro areas have more, and more diverse contacts than smaller metros and rural areas.

Ultimately, though, we are all connected, and the virus—as we’ve noted at City Observatory—has spread virtually everywhere.  As this paper observes, the rate of deaths from the disease, once the virus has reached an area, is essentially no different in higher density areas than lower density ones.  The key chart from the paper is this one, which shows the death rate, per 100,000 population, 45 days after the first death from Covid-19.  Data are for counties, with the death rate shown on the vertical axis, and the county’s population density on the horizontal axis.

The slope of the regression line is almost perfectly flat, suggesting that there is no correlation between county density and death rates, 45 days after the instance of the first recorded Covid-19 death in a county.

This is a compelling analysis of the data because it offers a plausible explanation for the commonplace observation that the disease was worse first in several big cities, as well as the fact that the disease has, in the past several months, become increasingly prevalent and severe in smaller metros and rural areas.

Felipe Carozzi, Sandro Provenzano, Sefi Roth,
Urban Density and Covid-19,
CEP Discussion Paper No 1711 August 2020


In the News

Oregonian columnist Steve Duin cited our analysis of the proposed $5 billion Portland Metro bond measure in his commentary, “Your father’s transportation plan.”  Duin called our analysis “pointed and persuasive,” writing:

Cortright argues the wage tax “is unrelated to transportation, effectively taxing those who use the system least, and subsidizes those who drive and pollute the most.” It “cannibalizes the principle source of funding for transit operations” at a time when TriMet is in crisis.

And even though Metro trumpets its imperative to “reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prepare for a climate-changing future,” Measure 26-218 does virtually nothing, Cortright says, to reduce emissions.

Our analysis also figured prominently in the Oregonian’s coverage of the debate over the ballot measure.

Now we are six.

We’re six!

On October 17, 2014, we launched City Observatory, with the aim of providing solid, data-driven research on cities, and offering a timely and informed voice on urban policy issues. Six years—and more than a thousand posts later—we want to reflect on the journey we’ve taken and those who’ve helped, and spend a few minutes highlighting the key issues that we think will occupy us in the days ahead.


The importance of cities, even in the age of Covid

We’ve always viewed successful cities as the key to solving many of our most challenging national problems, from housing affordability, to traffic congestion, to poverty, and to staving off climate change.  Our thesis is that the nation is experiencing a shortage of cities–we have a huge demand for great urban living that is only partly being met. For example, what manifests as shortage of housing is fundamentally the imbalance between the kinds of places people want to live and where housing has been built.

The economic evidence for this thesis is strong.  Our “Dow of Cities” measurement emphasizes  there’s been an increasing demand for central urban locations, and a relative decline for peripheral suburban ones. Home prices in central, and especially in walkable urban neighborhoods has gone up because these places are highly valued, and because, in many cases, a combination of density limits, apartment bans, parking requirements and arbitrary, NIMBY-dominated approval processes have essentially made it illegal to build more of these kinds of neighborhoods.

The Covid-19 pandemic has us to question many of the thinks that we took for granted just a few months ago, and one of them is the continued attractiveness of cities. In the early days of the pandemic, when the outbreak was most severe in New York City, and a handful of other large metropolises, the popular press was full of claims that people were fleeing cities to escape the virus. We tapped current market data on home and apartment searches to show that wasn’t true, and that cities had actually gained market share relative to their suburbs in the wake of the pandemic. Now, months later, the pandemic is demonstrably worst in the nation’s rural areas and small metros; claims that the pandemic was a uniquely or primarily urban problem are completely discredited.

Our 2020 report “Youth Movement” demonstrated the power and prevalence of the movement of young adults to the close-in neighborhoods the of the nation’s large metro areas.  All of the nation’s 52 largest metro areas recorded gains in 25- to 34-year-old adults with a four-year degree in their close in urban neighborhoods, and that trend is accelerating in four-fiths of these metro areas. And contrary to claims that people are leaving cities, we’ve tapped The harbinger of this urban shift has been the locational preferences of young adults. We’ve shown that the “young and restless“–25 to 34 year olds with a four-year degree, are increasingly choosing to live in the close-in urban neighborhoods of the nation’s largest cities.

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, and a growing national movement against police violence and in favor of greater racial equity, there have been demonstrations in cities across the nation. While media reports focusing on cities, and especially violence, including police repression of protests creates the impression that this is somehow an urban problem.  But again, city’s aren’t the cause of violence or unrest, they’re really the crucible for generating the awareness and support for a new ranges of solutions.

Cities as the solution

Much of what’s written about cities is pigeon-holed into narrow policy categories:  transportation, housing, economic development, equity, sustainability. But to us all of these seemingly unrelated issues are facets of a single underlying urban challenge. How do we build great cities for all?

These past six years have been an exciting time for America’s cities. Some see the events of the past year as a challenge to cities. But we see the  pandemic and the growing awareness of the need for racial reconciliation  not as “urban problems” but as challenges that can best be met by building better, stronger cities.

As we’ve said, our national challenge in the years ahead is to capitalize on the growing demand for urban living to create greater opportunity for all. For decades, economic opportunity and wealth were decentralizing, moving from the center to the suburbs, and leaving the poor and people of color cut off from upward mobility.  The movement back to the center creates a situation in which we can use new investment and added economic activity to revitalize urban neighborhoods, improve public services and increase opportunities for those who’ve often been left behind. In the past, cities have been the place where we’ve pioneered both better public health (in the face of past diseases) and stronger social justice.  We believe cities can be the places that develop the solutions to these challenges.

Thanks to all our friends, sponsors and partners

Many thanks to all those who’ve made this endeavor possible over these past six years. This project simply wouldn’t have been possible without the efforts of our contributors and co-authors–including Daniel Kay Hertz, Dillon Mahmoudi, Michael Andersen, and Alex Baca.

We’re grateful to the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation for its founding support for City Observatory.  Along the way we also got a helping hand from the the Quicken Loans Community Fund.

None of this would have been possible without the support and encouragement of Carol Coletta.  City Observatory was her brain-child, and she’s continued to give us unerringly good advice.

It’s been an exciting time to be in the thick of national discussions about cities. If you’re a regular follower of City Observatory, you’ll be familiar with many of the key themes and lessons we’ve been emphasizing.



Let’s use a marketing campaign to solve traffic congestion

Here’s a thought:  Let’s fight traffic congestion using the same techniques DOT’s use to promote safety.

Let’s have  costumed superheroes weigh in against congestion, and spend billions on safety, instead of the other way around.

Why don’t we insist that driver’s take responsibility for the length of their commutes?

Today marks the first day of “National Pedestrian Safety month” and there’s a new federally-funded marketing campaign to raise awareness.  Tragically, as Streetsblog’s Kea Wilson documents, the campaign is rife with myths and centers of victim-blaming while ignoring the deep-seated and systemic reasons why our road system regularly kills and injures thousands of pedestrians.

But this PR approach to public safety betrays an even deeper bias in the way approach two different aspects of transportation:  Safety and Congestion.  There’s a profound disconnect in transportation policy:  When it comes to fighting congestion, highway departments spare no expense. They’ll right billion dollar checks to widen a mile or three of urban freeway in the name of speeding traffic (if only a little bit  and for a short time).  But when it comes to safety those same highway departments turn stingy, and manage only to find a few pennies, mostly for sanctimonious and ineffectual public service announcements.

Vision Zero is just the latest iteration of a long string of campaigns to promote greater safety. And if you’ll notice, the emphasis is on “campaign” as in communication campaign, marketing campaign or public awareness campaign. It regularly manifests itself if the victim-blaming, victim shaming ideas like “distracted walking”, and blatantly ignores the evidence that the surge in road fatalities since 2014 is directly correlated with the uptick in driving from lower gas prices. No one’s more privileged in American society that the driver a motor vehicle. Drivers are regularly excused from any consequences when the machines they operate kill other human beings.

So here’s today’s modest proposal:  Let’s turn those priorities around.  Let’s have highway departments use marketing campaigns to fight congestion, and spend real dollars on improving safety.  Let’s have a potent message of personal responsibility when it comes to commutes and congestion, and make moving the needle on traffic deaths and injuries the arbiter of where we spend transportation system dollars.

Why do we always fight safety problems with P. R. campaigns?

The death toll for pedestrians is rising. But as far as highway departments and auto advocates are concerned, the appropriate way to tackle this problem is through communication and public education. New York City has spent $2.5 million on a dozen billboards and several hundred bus placards proclaiming (among other things) “Car crashes are not accidents.  Your choices behind the wheel matter.” Los Angeles has spent $2 million to commission eight community groups and artists organizations to teach their friends and neighbors about the role everyone can play in reducing traffic deaths. Some cities have colorful characters to stir the public’s imagination.

San Diego’s efforts safety efforts are led by Captain Vision Zero. Why don’t we have cartoon characters fight congestion, and spend real money on safety, instead of the other way ’round?

It’s cute and eye-catching, but it betrays the trivialization of the problem.  Writing about one such effort, Curbed’s Alissa Walker tweeted:

This Wednesday is #NationalWalktoSchoolDay (it’s also #CleanAirDayCA). Come show your support for students who have to use streets so dangerous they require superpowers to cross them.

They shouldn’t need superheroes. They need elected officials who care.

And too often, so-called safety campaigns are thinly-veiled messages that blame pedestrians for car crashes, like a now-cancelled ad produced in Portland.

If you have a strong sense of deja vu when it comes to public relations-centered traffic safety efforts, there’s a good reason for that.  Every few years we come out with a new set of slogans and a marketing campaign to match. As Jim Wilcox wrote on the Oregon Transportation Forum in 2015:

In 2008, following increased concerns about pedestrian and bicycle safety, leaders in Portland and Eugene got behind a safety campaign called “Eye to Eye“. Partnering with AAA, funds were procured, PR was purchased, graphics were created, media was bought, and local safe transportation advocates stood with civic leaders to roll out the campaign as the media clicked away.

However, within a year or two, the campaign lost steam as already limited funds dried up. But people felt like they did something,  helping to assuage the sense of responsibility for continued pedestrian deaths.

. . .  Our long history of failing to achieve significant increases in pedestrian safety leads a lot to be said and done. I think we should start thinking of the next campaign because the will be another after more pedestrians are killed. I suggest it be called “Seeing Red”.

So be it.  But if a good marketing campaign is the right approach to achieving road safety, then let’s use the same approach to traffic congestion. Instead of building new roads–which just subsidize bad behavior and encourage more trip making, more pollution and more sprawl–let’s educate drivers on how to avoid congestion.

Where’s “personal responsibility” when we talk about traffic congestion?

One of the favored themes of these safety PR campaigns is “responsibility.” Everyone has to take greater responsibility for the impacts of their actions on the safety of other road users.  Here’s the boilerplate from a typical campaign from North Carolina:

Why don’t we have have highway agencies that tell people that the length of their commute is their personal responsibility?  They decide where to live, they choose which jobs they’re going to apply for and take, they decide how long a commute and by what means and at what time they’re going to travel.  Let’s have some public service ads encouraging commuters to own-up to the consequences of their choices, rather than just assuming we ought to throw more money at freeways to (maybe) make their commute a little easier.

Ironically, most Americans have already figured out how to minimize lengthy commutes and their exposure to traffic congestion. Fully 58 million American commuters spend less than 20 minutes in their journey to work, according to the American Community Survey.  They’ve made choices about where to live, and found jobs close enough to home that they are only minimally exposed to traffic congestion.

But there’s much we can do as individuals to reduce traffic and our travel times.  We can travel at off-peak hours, and negotiate flexible work schedules that let us travel at times when roads (and transit services) are less congested.  We can telecommute more.

We can walk, ride bikes and take transit and carpool instead of driving our private car by ourselves.  All of these modes of travel let us carve out valuable time for healthy exercise (biking and walking), time to read, rest or listen to music or audio-books (transit) or socialize with friends and colleagues (car pooling).  Studies have show that nothing has bigger negative effects on personal happiness than long solo commutes.

And we can encourage and support others who pursue these kinds of alternatives.

Finally, when we move or look for a new job, we can put a premium on housing or employment options that have a short commute. A short commute is like a permanent, tax-free raise: You get to spend less time engaged with work-related tasks.

Its all a matter of personal responsibility:  you can make choices that expose yourself to congestion—and make congestion worse for everyone else—or you can make choices that give you more free time, a healthier lifestyle, and make you happier.

If we devoted a fraction of the effort and expense that now goes to pseudo-scientific quantification of the supposed “costs of congestion,” we’d have plenty of money for an aggressive, no-holds-barred public relations campaign telling people to change their commuting behavior to reduce their exposure to traffic congestion.

What’s particularly ironic of course, is the extent to which truly global, social problems, ones which will only be solved (if they ever are) by large scale collective action—like climate change—have been readily re-packaged as a series of personal tips and tricks:  Ten things you can do to save the planet:  un-plug your computer when you’re not using it, switch to compact fluorescent or LED light bulbs, drive a bit slower, cut down on food waste, recycle, use a revolving door whenever possible, turn the water off when you’re brushing your teeth.

So when it comes to congestion, it’s time to roll out the kind of PR only effort that we’ve long applied to safety.  So start devising slogans, printing bumper stickers, renting billboards and commissioning PSAs:  I’m sure if we can just get everyone to pitch in and change their attitudes, take more responsibility, and behave better. That’ll improve traffic.

And actually, we have some tangible real world evidence that it works:  Consider Seattle’s repeated experiences with Carmaggedon. The city closed a downtown freeway that had carried about 90,000 cars per day. The closure was preceded with widespread media coverage and a campaign to encourage people to ride transit, bike and walk, and avoid the area at rush hour. The city feared Carmaggedon again when it started tolling a tunnel built to replace the closed freeway. Both times, rather than being much worse than usual, traffic conditions were actually somewhat better–because some commuters made different choices.

And, maybe, just maybe, when it comes to talking about traffic congestion, state  transportation officials can adopt the same passive, fatalistic and blame-shifting rhetorical approach that they’ve so adeptly applied to traffic deaths. Congestion, like “accidents,” is just one of those things that happen; it’s too bad, but that’s just the way things are, you know.

A little more cavalier neglect of whining commuters coupled with a public relations approach to tackling congestion  might actually free up some real money to save lives by making roads and streets safer. And a PR campaign won’t be any less effective in reducing congestion that widening roads.


Equity and Parks

Last week, our friend and colleague, Carol Coletta delivered a “master talk” to the 66th Annual Conference of the International Downtown Association. Carol is President & CEO, Memphis River Parks Partnership, and a recognized thought leader on urban issues. Here are her reflections on the role of parks and public spaces in meeting the key challenges of our time, overcoming social distance and building stronger and more successful communities.

Great public spaces, especially parks in and near downtowns can be an essential venue for social and economic mixing, promoting both vitality and empathy:  Equity does not sit in opposition to a thriving, appealing cityIt is central to it.  

Successful downtowns increasingly depend on great public space.  And great public space located in a downtown is more likely to be equitable space because of its location, not despite its location.  


Equity and Parks

These past six months have been more challenging to downtowns than any I remember – and I’ve been working on, investing in and living in downtowns for almost half a century.  We are being asked to reconsider everything we believe about downtowns – why they are important, and how they work.  

Carol Coletta

Not one of us really knows how this will all turn out.  But I am going to go out on a limb here and tell you there are two sure bets:  Investing in parks and Investing in equity. And if we do it right, an investment in parks will be an investment in equity.

Here in Memphis, we are in the final stages of a capital campaign to build a 31-acre park on the Mississippi River adjacent to downtown.  This follows the completion of three other capital projects on the riverfront in the past two years – the remaking of two parks that carried Confederate names and creating a five-mile bike/ped trail along our riverfront.  

Two other major projects are currently underway:  the restoration of the largest historic Cobblestone Landing in America and a complete transformation of our original “Main” library, also on the riverfront.  

This work was sparked by Memphis’ participation in a groundbreaking initiative called “Reimagining the Civic Commons.”  The initiative is supported by the JPB Foundation, Knight Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, and the William Penn Foundation, along with, in our case, the Hyde Family Foundation and the City of Memphis. 

This initiative challenged us to think of civic assets as having purpose beyond the obvious – to lay claim to the reality that assets like parks, trails, libraries, cultural centers and the like can and should increase civic engagement, promote environmental sustainability, add value to their surrounding neighborhoods and promote socio-economic mixing.

You can think of it the four e’s:  

  • Engagement
  • Environment
  • Economy
  • Equity

But to do that – to get these assets to perform in new ways — is a heavier lift than I imagined when we birthed this five years ago.  Why?  

We encountered four principle hurdles:  

  • Parks, libraries, trails, and cultural centers are industries, whose leadership and employees have historically been trained, like most of us, to think narrowly and vertically about their work.
  • These assets are created and then operated with “minimum viable product” budgets that drive away people with financial options for where they spend time.
  • These assets are too often an afterthought for those who fund them.  They are considered “nice to have” but not essential infrastructure. 
  • The fear of “gentrification” looms so large that the desire to build and run great assets with the power to attract people across the income spectrum is immediately deemed suspect.

This last hurdle – fear of “gentrification” – is a special problem for civic assets built in downtowns.  Too often, downtown parks or cultural centers or libraries are considered “glamour assets.”  And they are located downtown.  Thus, they cannot possibly be equitable.  

I fervently disagree.  What we’re building in downtown Memphis demonstrates why.  

Yes, downtown Memphis is a neighborhood that has “turned around” from predominantly low income to higher income.  But it is surrounded on the east by a crescent of persistently poor neighborhoods – neighborhoods that are home to 40% of the city’s poor children.  The riverfront is within walking or biking distance of these kids.  And they come… every day.

In fact, the riverfront is some of the most equitable space in Memphis – it is free, it is open to everyone, it is one of the few public places in the region where you now find very poor people and very rich people sharing the same space.  The reason?  It feels like a vacation – special, elevated – because it is clean, it’s beautifully landscaped, it’s well designed and well managed, and it’s fun.  Turns out, if you create the right environment, people mostly enjoy being in the company of strangers.   

That’s in the DNA of any successful downtown.  You may have to work hard these days to get low income housing in downtowns.  But you typically don’t have to work hard at all to get low income people to public spaces in downtown.

Why does that matter?  Because sharing space regularly with strangers – including those who don’t look like you — breeds empathy.  Empathy is essential to community.  And community is essential to democracy.

As blues artist Keb Mo once put it, “You can’t feel ‘em, if you can’t see ‘em.”  The public space you create in downtown allows us to “see ‘em.”   

We know that if people of different incomes live in close proximity to one another, there is far more upward mobility for poor people.  The research on that is clear.

The problem is, we haven’t figured out how to make that alluring, to make that stick or to do it at scale.

We can’t force rich people and poor people to live near each other or send their kids to the same schools.  But we can encourage what I believe is the next best thing by seducing them into a shared, robust public life.  

Nothing about that is easy.  The design, maintenance and management of public space must be ambitious, sometimes clever and always resolute.  But public space that routinely attracts people across the income spectrum and across demographics feels to me like the “gateway drug” to shared community, a healthy democracy, and more equitable economies.

I wish we could all run the experiment on that.  Take the next five years and operate our public spaces and our downtowns through a mission lens of creating shared community, healthy democracy and equitable economies.  Sign me up for that!  

As ambitious as that may be, does our pursuit of equity end with providing space so alluring, so seductive that it attracts people of all incomes?  Hardly!

In addition to creating welcoming space for all, our equity strategy has three more parts.

It starts closest to home with staff and board.  How do we hire?  How do we pay?  How do we promote?  And how do we recruit to our board?  

The next layer is our contracting.  In our last two capital projects, we had Minority and Women-Owned Business Enterprise performance on one project at 43% and the other at 86%.  Our MWBE operating expense purchasing is at 38%, increasing from 8% in the two years since our current leadership team began. 

The final layer is connecting with the community.  And in Memphis, that means, in particular, African-Americans, because Memphis is a majority black city, in a majority black county, in a  metro area that is predominantly African-American.  If black Memphians aren’t showing up in big numbers in our workforce, on our board and in our parks, we are missing the market.  

We connect with the community in all the traditional ways, of course.  We show up at community fairs, we do talks, open houses, public Zoom meetings, we invited students to help us build one park, volunteers to help us on special projects each month and high school students to work alongside the design team on our new park.  We program specifically with socio-economic mixing in mind – different demographics occupying the same space at the same time.

But we are also working to establish welcoming physical connections to that crescent of disadvantaged neighborhoods just outside of downtown. It is striking how disconnected a neighborhood only 8 or 9 blocks away from the riverfront can feel because of missing sidewalks, dilapidated buildings and vacant lots.  We are working hard to change that. 

Is it enough?  No.  But the strategy I’ve described is mission-critical and is being accomplished with no major new “outside” funding.  

Convincing people to “live life in public” is one of the greatest services you and I can perform for our cities.  Because parks are not just places to unwind or recreate, just like downtowns are not simply places to conduct business.  They are deeply necessary platforms for equity.

Adam Gopnik, writing in The New Yorker, described the mixing we need in cities this way:  “Cities shine by bringing like-minded people in from the hinterland (gays, geeks, Jews, artists, bohemians), but they thrive by asking unlike-minded people to live together in the enveloping metropolis. While the clumping is fun, the coexistence is the greater social miracle.”  

So think of yourself as an alchemist trying to spark that social miracle of coexistence of unlike-minded [and unlike-looking] people.  When you believe that is at the heart of your mission, that’s where the equity work begins.  And in today’s very divided, very fraught, very threatened nation, it can, indeed, feel as daunting to achieve as a miracle.

But remember:  Equity does not sit in opposition to a thriving, appealing cityIt is central to it.  

The good news is that a commitment to equity should be the easy organizational choice.  

  • If you have a more diverse staff, you benefit from their diverse perspectives.  
  • If you grow the talent of your staff, you benefit and so do they.
  • If your board is more diverse, their broader networks benefit your mission.  
  • If you find more minority contractors, you have more choices on whom you hire.  Plus, you benefit from their support and their networks, and the community in which you exist and that you serve gets stronger.  
  • If your connections to the community are broadened (and deepened), you gain new perspective, new support, and in the best circumstances, you and your community get stronger.

We don’t know all we need to know about the future of our downtowns just yet.  We don’t know how they will change.  

But we do know this:  Great downtowns increasingly depend on great public space.  And great public space located in a downtown is more likely to be equitable space because of its location, not despite its location.   

If there is anything the past six months have taught us, it is this:  public space and the pursuit of equity are more important than ever.  They ought to be joined at the hip.  This is the moment for us to make big bets on both because they are the most certain bets we can make.