Why parking should pay its way instead of getting a free ride

Hartford Connecticut considers a pioneering move to make parking pay its way

A higher parking tax works much like a “lite” version of land value taxation (LVT)

Surface parking lots are highly subsidized polluters

As Donald Shoup lays out in exhaustive detail in his 733-page masterpiece, The High Cost of Free Parking, the subsidies we provide for car storage have shredded the fabric of America’s urban areas.  By giving over so much land to cars, we weaken and undermine the things that make cities work well:  the opportunities for easy interaction. There’s  evidence that the effects of parking are causal:  from 1960 onward, an increase in parking provision from 0.1 to 0.5 parking space per person was associated with an increase in automobile mode share of roughly 30 percentage points according to a study of nine cities.  We have too much parking for many reasons:  we’ve subsidized highway construction and suburban homes, we’ve mandated parking for most new residential and commercial buildings, and we’ve decimated transit systems. But a key contributor to overparking is the strong financial incentives built into tax systems.

Parking is subsidized by our current tax system

In effect, our system of local property taxation plays a key role in subsidizing parking and car use.  In nearly all US cities, the property tax is assessed equally on the value of both land and improvements, so if one improves a piece of property (by constructing or enlarging a building), the owner’s property taxes go up.  The contrary is also true, if a property is unimproved, or just covered in gravel or asphalt, the owner typically pays lower taxes based only on the value of the bare land.  In cities with high vacancy rates, the property tax actually rewards landowners who demolish buildings. The perverse incentives created by raising taxes on those who improve their land with active uses like offices, stores and homes, led Henry George in the 19th Century to propose a “single” tax on land, what is now generally called the “land value tax” (LVT).

The Land Value Tax fixes the anti-development incentives built in to the property tax:  Constructing a new building doesn’t cause the owners taxes to rise.  And those who own valuable property can’t avoid or minimize taxes by leaving it fallow; if a downtown block is zoned for office use, for example, it pays high taxes even if it’s a vacant lot.  But despite its appeal, there’s been little enthusiasm for land value taxes in the US; only one large city, Pittsburgh has seriously flirted with the idea, for a time taxing property more heavily than improvements.  But, elsewhere, it’s been a non-starter.

Higher fees for parking as a “lite” land value tax

The City Council of Hartford Connecticut is considering an expanded fee on private commercial parking lots and structures that mimics some of the important features of a land value tax:  Call it LVT-lite.  In Hartford, as in many US cities, much of the downtown area is given over to car parking, and surface parking lots pay lower rates than those lots with improvements.  The low rate of taxation on parking lots lowers the holding costs for landowners, and makes parking a more profitable use than developing these lots for other more intensive uses. One way to change that dynamic is to raise taxes or fees on parking, which is exactly what the city’s proposed ordinance would do.

As University of Connecticut engineering professor Norman Garrick has shown, Hartford’s downtown has been hollowed out by the construction of parking.  As Garrick explains:

Since 1960, the number of parking spaces in downtown Hartford increased by more that 300 percent — from 15,000 to 46,000 spaces. This change has had a profound and devastating effect on the structure and function of the city (see accompanying maps) as one historic building after another was demolished.

Not surprisingly, the proliferation of freeways and surface parking lots (shown in red) has coincided with a dramatic decline in the city’s population.

The Hartford ordinance would establish a sliding scale of fees for parking lots and structures based on the number of parking spaces.  The fee would start in 2022, and be phased in over a period of years.  When fully implemented, for large parking lots, the incremental fee works out to $125 per parking space per year, which is about 25 cents per working day per parking space.  Hartford’s proposed policy would but in place incentives to better use urban space, and to discourage excessive car travel.  As the Parking Reform Network‘s Tony Jordan told us:

. . . parking stall fees are good policy because they would contribute simultaneously to several important policy objectives. Parking stall fees, particularly surface stalls, will encourage better uses of urban space, which I think is a big consideration in Hartford. Per stall fees internalize more of the costs of someone’s decision to drive and raise revenue that can and should be used to encourage and subsidize other modes. The environmental and traffic benefits from mode shift are obvious.

Is taxing parking fair?  A parable of parking subsidies:  Stormwater

We’ll bet you didn’t know that Hartford had a multi-billion dollar subway system.

Superficially, it might seem like raising fees on parking is somehow “picking on” cars and car ownership.  There should be a rational basis for any tax, and when it comes to parking there are very good reasons to raise fees and taxes to offset for the car subsidies built into our current systems of public finance.

It’s worth stepping back a bit and considering just how much subsidy is extended to parking, and to car travel in general.  Some of the biggest subsidies are not on anyone’s radar.  Take for example the cost of dealing with stormwater.  Hartford, like many US cities, has an antiquated system of combined storm and sanitary sewers; when there’s a heavy rainfall, water from streets, roofs and—wait for it—parking lots, flows into storm sewers, overwhelms the sanitary sewer system, and produces combined discharges of untreated sewage and stormwater into, in Hartford’s case, the Connecticut River.  The city is under a court order to fix the system, and is in the process of spending $2.5 billion to solve the problem.  The solution includes building a four-mile long 18-foot diameter tunnel—essentially a subway for stormwater.  (That’s not hyperbole; single-track subway tunnels, like San Francisco’s central subway are 20 feet in diameter).

Hartford’s 4-mile cross-town subway—for stormwater

To pay for the project, Hartford and surrounding cities are charging their residents a “Clean Water Project Charge” on their water bills.  Local residents actually pay more for the stormwater system, per gallon, than they pay for their domestic water ($4.05 per hundred cubic feet for domestic water consumed, and are charged $4.10 per hundred feet of water used to pay for stormwater).  But keep in mind that the stormwater doesn’t result from domestic water use—it results from runoff from roofs, roads and parking lots.

While some cities charge based on the amount of a user’s “impervious surfaces,” Hartford does not.  As a result, neither cars, nor parking lots pay anything toward the stormwater problems they cause.  And it is these impervious surfaces, like parking lots that contribute enormously to the quantity and (bad) quality of stormwater.  Since they are large and impervious, they create the huge peak flows that cause overflows. And it’s also the case that cars—via pollution from tires, leaking engine oil and gasoline, and brake linings—produce some of the most toxic elements in stormwater runoff.

Charging residential water users, but not car users and parking lots is, in turn, an equity issue:  a Hartford resident who may not even own a car (per the US Census, roughly 23 percent of Hartford residents live in households that don’t own a car) has to pay for this problem through their water bill.  Meanwhile, a suburban commuter from outside the water district area would pay nothing toward Hartford’s stormwater system.  In short, their are good reasons of efficiency and fairness for asking parking lot owners to pay more toward dealing with the costs they impose.

For cities, imposing fees on parking makes fiscal and land use sense.  For too long, we’ve subsidized the assault on urban living by cars, and nothing has been more detrimental to cities than dedicating scarce and valuable urban land to car storage. Many of these subsidies are buried—literally and figuratively—in the way we pay for urban infrastructure, like stormwater runoff.  In Hartford, and many other cities, we have the perverse situation where carless households are taxed to cleanup runoff from streets and parking lots, while road users pay nothing for the damages they cause. Ultimately, an full-fledged land value tax would help correct the perverse incentives in the current property tax, but until then, charging a higher fees for parking lots is more efficient and fairer.

Editor’s note:  This post has been revised to correct a math error in the originally published version.  We originally reported the fee worked out to approximately 50 cents per day when fully implemented, but failed to note that the fee is biennial, rather than annual. The fee at the margin, when fully implemented in several years, will be 25 cents per working day.  The fee is phased in over a period of years.

A regional green new deal for Portland

by Garlynn Woodsong

Editor’s note:City Observatory is pleased to publish this commentary by Garlynn Woodsong. Garlynn is the Managing Director of the planning consultancy Woodsong Associates, and has more than 20 years of experience in regional planning, urban analytics and real estate development. Instrumental in the development and deployment of the RapidFire and UrbanFootprint urban/regional scenario planning decision-support tools while with Calthorpe Associates in Berkeley, CA, his focus is on making the connections between planning, greenhouse gas emission reductions, public health, and inclusive economic development. For more information, or to contact Garlynn, visit this website.

  • The Portland region should rethink its transportation vision and explicitly pursue only projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
  • The climate emergency demands a new regional transport authority, with a clear and objective climate test.
  • This should be paired with a new regional infrastructure bank featuring a revolving loan fund for both transportation and housing projects, to provide pathways to opportunity for historically oppressed populations.

With the failure of Metro’s 2020 transportation measure at the ballot, it has become clear that the Portland region needs to take a clear, hard look at its transportation system, and how it can manage it to reduce GHG emissions, build out incomplete transit, walking and bicycling infrastructure networks, ensure that critical regional infrastructure maintenance needs are fulfilled, and address historic inequities.

The solutions that could work for Portland certainly could point the way towards models replicable elsewhere; many others regions are also experiencing the same pressures and needs as Portland and Oregon.

Need for Visionary Leadership

First off, what we need, what each place needs to implement these solutions, is visionary leadership: leaders who have the vision to see the enormity of the challenges we face, and to respond appropriately.

These challenges include those related to climate change, such as the need to reduce GHG emissions, to sequester carbon, and to engage in managed retreat from areas at risk of sea level rise or wildfire burn; those related to inequality, such as historic racial and ongoing economic segregation; those related to the economy, such as the impact of COVID-19 on our local businesses, homelessness, and the housing crisis; and those related to sustainability, including the need for municipal fiscal solvency, and access to clean air, water, and energy.


These challenges must be clearly stated as problem statements for strategic planning events where political leaders and senior staff from local jurisdictions and partner agencies are empowered to develop consensus around strategies to achieve solutions as quickly as possible, given the urgency of the overlapping crises we face. These strategies should guide legislative agendas, work programs, and all other related work, so there is no question as to strategic direction or how day-to-day work fits into the puzzle of implementing change for goal achievement.

(Garlynn Woodsong)

The vision that is needed to meet the moment and guide the path forward towards a metropolitan region in 2050 where our goals have been achieved must involve three basic elements:

  • A well-managed, adequately funded multi-modal transportation system that produces less than 10% of the emissions of our current system by right-sizing roadway capacity to match the lower total VMT that will be needed to attain goals, allowing for greater mobility through zero-emission transit, complete and safe bicycle and pedestrian networks, and the deployment of hi-tech mobility management solutions including on-demand transportation and ride-sharing tools
  • An equitable land use system that reduces demand for transportation system elements and energy in ways that are conducive to meeting our climate goals for 2050, by providing plentiful housing and economic opportunities for people of all backgrounds to live in 15-minute neighborhoods.
  • A sense of urgency that powers the quick implementation of temporary solutions that can evolve over time in response to lessons learned through deployment, and is facilitated by visionary leadership engaging in enlightened decision-making to deploy strategies and tools quickly that are supportive of every aspect of the vision, such as a carbon tax with an equity kicker that can serve to provide income to populations in need while taxing activities that produce carbon emissions at levels sufficient to bring down those emissions.

We need leaders who can quickly pivot to articulating and implementing this vision, and abandon the efforts that so many current leaders engage in of defending and perpetuating status quo programs that are not designed to deliver components of the vision, and indeed suck resources away from other efforts that could more quickly implement aspects of the vision. We must stop efforts to defend business as usual for government programs, such as highway expansion, that are antithetical to achieving this vision.

Declare a Regional Climate Emergency

One part of the solution is declare a climate emergency, and, using emergency powers, to re-consider all committed TIP and RTP projects, ranking each one by its estimated effectiveness. Any project that results in a net potential increase in GHG emissions must be eliminated from further consideration for funding. Of those that remain, those that should be prioritized for funding include those that will provide the most benefit to historically underserved communities, those that change the design of facilities to ensure safer outcomes, and those that will produce the greatest decrease in GHG emissions, including the build-out of historically under-built modal networks for bicycles, pedestrians, and zero-GHG-emission transit.

The project assessments that are needed to rank projects by their potential effectiveness at reducing GHG emissions and attaining other elements of the vision must be independent of agencies that have a history of pushing a single agenda, such as state transportation departments that evolved from origins as highway departments without ever shedding a single-minded focus on highways as the only solution worth the lion’s share of transportation expenditures. Project assessment must be science-based, evidence-based, and outcomes-based, and not based on results from travel models originally built for the purpose of sizing freeways to accommodate growing automobile traffic. Empirical evidence must replace model results as the gold standard, meaning that places that already embody the principles and elements of the vision should be studied and replicated.

The vision of places that achieve our goals for climate action and for equitable development is of places that are walkable, with most regular destinations accessible by foot within 10 to 15 minutes, and transit available as a pedestrian trip extending tool that allows destinations further away to be accessed. We can achieve this vision by building more such neighborhoods, by building more housing within the 15-minute neighborhoods we already have, and by ensuring that housing is provided that is affordable for people of all incomes, not just those that can be provided for by the profit-dependent sectors of the market. We can cost-effectively achieve no part of this vision by continuing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars widening and expanding our already-over-built highway system.

Regional Transportation Authority

The Portland metro region, like any metropolitan region, contains a network of arterial streets and railroads that are not currently being managed for their highest and best use: there are many ways to potentially measure this, including the maximum amount of movement of people and goods, or the greatest amount of economic activity, or the most general benefit for the most people, for the lowest amount of carbon emissions. However you measure it, the current system is weighted too heavily towards providing room for vehicles that emit large amounts of carbon emissions to transport relatively few people or goods per square foot per hour.

We can look to Translink in Vancouver, B.C.,, and to the Bay Area Toll Authority (BATA) and the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway, and Transportation District in the San Francisco region, for models that show the way towards raising revenue from transportation system operations to pay for the operations, maintenance, expansion, and system completion of bridges, arterial transportation system elements, transit, and regional bicycle and pedestrian facilities including on and off street trails and facilities.

A proposal that is suggested by these examples would be to create and/or vest regional government with the authority to price and manage the regional arterial road, bridge, and trail system, as well as the regional heavy rail system, so that the right of way and facilities could be upgraded using funds from congestion pricing, tolls, and other sources to provide for a complete regional transit and bicycle/pedestrian system, while reducing the automobile capacity of facilities in line with anticipated VMT reduction goals, under a policy framework that places the highest priority on reducing carbon emissions.

The simplest path forward in the Portland region would be to create a new authority, managed by Metro, and given functions now split between ODOT, TriMet, Metro, and the transportation departments/bureaus of the cities and counties within the region. These functions would include those related to operations, management and pricing of the regional arterial road, transit, bicycle, and pedestrian systems.

Regional Infrastructure Bank

To ensure that transport projects play their part in reducing GHG emissions without causing harm to existing communities, a new regional transportation authority should be paired with a complementary new regional infrastructure bank that is empowered with seed funding for a revolving loan fund for building both new links in the transportation system and new homes nearby, to provide pathways to opportunity for historically oppressed populations to build equity and avoid displacement.

Projects needed to achieve regional goals that would be eligible for funding by a new regional Bank could include housing, transportation, or other eligible projects, such as providing seed funding for Local Improvement Districts and Tax Increment Financing efforts that otherwise would face multiple gap years following their initiation until their tax base began producing expected returns, or seed money for a regional revolving housing loan fund accessible by community land trusts, housing cooperatives, and non-profit housing developers.

Urgent Times Require Urgent Action

Finally, Portland’s Rose Lanes project points the way towards a new way of thinking about quick-build-and-deploy projects that can deliver the most benefit as quickly as possible for the least amount of up-front capital.


Could regional Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems be quickly deployed using existing rolling stock (at least to start off with), paint, signs, and temporary platforms, so as we all come out of COVID we emerge into a re-structured world that is hyper-focused on reducing GHG emissions as a part of a comprehensive community-building program?

Could regional protected bikeway networks similarly be completed as a part of the same or similar initiatives?

Could regional commuter rail systems be deployed on existing tracks to quickly add center-to-center zero-emission express transit connectivity, such as downtown Portland to downtown Vancouver, WA, much sooner than would otherwise be possible if dependent on traditional 8-12 year capital project delivery schedules?

A Regional Green New Deal

We need to act like our house is on fire, and this thinking needs to permeate every aspect of our collective decision-making processes. We need a Green New Deal locally, regionally, and nationally. Let’s work together to articulate what that means, and how to achieve it. If capital funds are holding us back from achieving that vision, then let’s put forth a funding proposal, such as an equitable carbon tax, that truly matches the moment.

In Portland and Oregon, much of our current success rests on the shoulders of decisions made by visionary leaders of generations past, including the vision to abandon freeway building in favor of light rail, to institute and enforce metropolitan Urban Growth Boundaries, and to embrace downtown revitalization rather than continued suburban sprawl. Portlanders are lucky to have had such visionary past leaders. It is time for the leaders of the current moment, in the Portland region and everywhere else too, to be visionary in articulating solutions to today’s problems, to build on the vision of leaders from years past in ways that advance the goals of protecting farm and forest land, reduce GHG emissions sufficiently to meet our 2050 targets, and build more equitable communities that offer housing opportunities affordable for and economic opportunities available to all residents.

2021: Time to get serious about climate

Our new year’s resolution should be to take climate action seriously.

Time is running out to actually do something that will reduce the steady growth of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, which is triggering irreversible damage to ecosystems around the planet.  There are four big takeaways you should know about climate:

1. We’re falling further and further behind our stated goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, principally because since 2014 we’re driving more.  That’s true in cities around the country, including our own home Portland.  Transportation agencies are particularly complicit in this failure, and are chiefly rationalizing “pollution as usual” in the guise of climate strategy.

2. Pledges alone won’t accomplish anything. Saying you support the Paris Accords and plan to emit much less greenhouse gas a two or three decades from now doesn’t count for anything without immediate actions now to lower emissions.

3. Cities are central to the climate solution: We need to build more great walkable city neighborhoods, and more housing in the great walkable neighborhoods we already have.

4. Pricing carbon (as well as pricing driving and parking) can go a long way to creating the incentives and leveraging the financial resources and human ingenuity needed to save the planet.

We’ve been making this case for some time now at City Observatory; today’s commentary pulls together all the various threads of our argument. Our focus is on our home, Portland and Oregon, which are self-styled climate leaders, but the lessons apply with equal or greater force to cities and states across the nation.

1.  We’re not making progress.

In Portland, per capita greenhouse gas emissions from transportation have increased more than 14 percent since 2013, by about 1,000 pounds per person. Total greenhouse gas emissions from transportation have increased by about 1.6 million tons per year over that time.

Portland had pledged to start a new climate conversation in the fall—there’s no information about it yet on the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability’s website, although Portland is advancing a proposal for a $25 per ton fee on greenhouse gas emissions for some polluters, a topic we’ll address in an upcoming commentary.

Highway builders rationalizing pollution as usual

Our institutions are still mired in the thinking of the 1950s, when they need to be helping using build the low-carbon world of 2050.  Major agencies, like state highway departments are engaged in systematic denial about their role in causing and helping to solve climate change.  For example, the Oregon Department of Transportation is proposing billions of dollars to widen freeways, which will inevitably lead to additional greenhouse gas emissions.  The Oregon Department of Transportation lied about the likely greenhouse gas emission reductions from so-called “operational treatments”—things like ramp-metering and variable speed signs, which led to the defeat of a 2015 highway spending bill. The Oregon Department of Transportation’s newly appointed director Kris Strickler, repeated the discredited myth that wider freeways could reduce greenhouse gases by lowering idling in traffic in his confirmation hearing.  The Oregon Transportation Commission has steadfastly refused to apply any kind of climate test to freeway widening projects, simply choosing to ignore the statutory state mandate to reduce greenhouse gases.

Regional planning organizations, which should have the cross-cutting perspective needed to think about climate, land use, housing and transportation, have been no better.  Metro, Portland’s regional government has adopted what amounts to a “Why Bother” climate strategy. Metro is nominally in favor of climate action, but has meekly rationalized business-as-usual/pollution-as-usual.  The technocratic details of its so-called “Climate Smart Strategy” call for only a trivial reduction in driving.

The regional government’s real priorities were apparent in its 2020 transportation bond measure  would have spent $5 billion mostly in highway corridors and reduced greenhouse gases by less than 0.5 percent.  Mercifully, voters overwhelmingly rejected the measure in the November 2020 ballot.  Along the way Metro even fielded propaganda-like surveys that intimated that building more roadway capacity to reduce congestion would lower greenhouse gas emissions.

2. Pledges won’t accomplish anything by themselves.

Groundhog’s Day:  In Oregon, every year, we observe Groundhog’s day, with a vengeance when it comes to climate.  As we’ve chronicled at City Observatory we’ve been stuck in the same tragic loop, in 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020. We piously declare our fealty to the Paris climate accords and reaffirm our commitment to reduce greenhouse gases by 80 percent or more by some year ending in zero two or three decades hence, but when you look at the accounting our carbon emissions have actually increased.

We’ll always have Paris:  Mayors are always happy to make climate pledges, but then little comes of them. Up and down the West Coast, where climate awareness and activism are widespread, there’s widespread failure to make meaningful progress in reducing greenhouse gases.  In the four jurisdictions that make up “Ecotopia”—California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia—local inventories show carbon emissions increasing.

It’s clear that our previous efforts haven’t been enough.  The City of Portland wrote a “final report” on the implementation of its 2015 Climate Action Plan, patting itself on the back for ticking off items on a checklist, but papering over the inconvenient fact that greenhouse gas emissions have increased rather than decreasing as called for in the plan.  As we said last fall, the City awarded itself a “participation trophy” for climate action, that’s not acceptable if we’re serious about climate change.

What we observe locally in Portland with projects like the proposed $800 million I-5 Rose Quarter freeway widening project are symptomatic of a larger national campaign by the highway lobby to deny, ignore and aggravate climate change.  Most conspicuous of these efforts is a call from the Transportation Research Board—itself an arm of the National Academy of Sciences—to spend additional hundreds of billions of dollars subsidizing literally trillions of miles of additional driving. Even climate mayors are little better.  As Curbed’s Alissa Walker points out:

. . .  members of the Climate Mayors coalition — including many who sit on a new task force to “serve as critical voices within the network” — are actively widening highways, often right through the center of their cities, despite the fact that climate goals they set do not allow for any increases in driving.

For example, Phoenix has developed its own climate action plan, and has a goal of reducing carbon emissions, but will spend several hundred million dollars, chiefly from sales taxes, to widen local freeways and subsidize more driving and sprawl.

Highway builders cloak their environmental destruction with cute, greenwashed logos and slogans, and misleading renderings that make giant freeways look like pedestrian dominated parks.

“Planning and environmental linkages” — a cover for greenwashing more and wider roadways.

In place of tangible reductions in travel or greenhouse gases, we get self-awarded participation trophies for trivial or even counterproductive measures.  Washington, DC, proclaimed itself a “LEED Platinum City” but the practical details of what that means for greenhouse gas emissions is murky at best, and the region is embarked on a massive freeway expansion strategy. Instead of tangible efforts to reduce greenhouse gases by reducing vehicle miles of travel, we get token efforts to the paint fossil fuel infrastructure in a coat of greenwash.  A classic example is a LEED certified free parking structure at the national renewable energy lab in Golden Colorado subsidizes auto travel to its suburban campus.

3. Cities are the solution.

Ultimately, cities are the cornerstone of a livable, sustainable climate strategy.  As the Coalition for and Urban Transition has written, we should be striving to build places that are compact, clean and connected.


Our friend Ethan Seltzer wrote in 2019 that it was time to get real about climate change, and to focus on building our cities to reduce the need to travel so much:

. . . transportation emissions are going to frustrate the best of our climate goals unless we find ways to diminish our dependence on auto travel for every minute aspect of our modern lives.

Building more housing in dense, transit-served locations is an essential strategy for fighting climate change. Efforts like California State Senator Scott Weiner’s SB 827 (legalizing apartments near transit) and Oregon’s missing middle housing (legalizing four-plex buildings in single family zones) promote affordability, and lessen vehicle travel.  Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has popularized the idea of a 15-minute city, and building more neighborhoods where most or all of our daily needs can be met with a 15 minute trip on foot or by bike would dramatically reduce carbon emissions. Building more housing would also help lower rents and reduce displacement.

4.  Pricing Carbon

A carbon tax is needed, not as a panacea but to realign everyone’s information and incentives in ways that support greenhouse gas reduction. Including the price of carbon in every good and service sends powerful and universal signals to consumers and producers about which things are green and which aren’t. Economists and Scientists Agree:  To save the planet, we’ve got to price carbon. The convoluted and widely gamed claims of environmental responsibility from everything from “LEED” building standards to “food-miles,” impose an impossible cognitive burden on consumers.  We lack the technical knowledge and processing power and time to calculate the carbon footprint of every decision, but we can quickly and easily assimilate information from different prices.  Perhaps most importantly, carbon pricing sends critical signals to inventors and investors about where they ought to be spending their intellectual and financial capital.  A carbon tax makes every dirty project and technology less profitable, and every clean project and alternative more feasible, sooner.  We can and should engage in efforts to regulate the worst and most dispensable forms of greenhouse gases (like chlorofluorocarbons), and we should educate people as much as possible about how to live in harmony with the planet, but these efforts will work best in a world where the damage carbon does is reflected back to everyone in the prices and profits they see from their actions.

A two cent solution for climate change.  The cost of pricing carbon isn’t out of line with fees that we regularly and willingly pay to limit environmental damage. Portland charges nearly $100 a ton for bulk garbage disposal, but you can use the region’s airshed to dispose of as much carbon as you want for free.

Pricing roadways, as well as a carbon emissions, can reduce road congestion. The high price of cheap gasoline.  We know that incentives work, when the price of oil and gasoline fell in global markets in 2014, driving, which had been declining, suddenly shot up.

Pricing carbon and roads, with the proceeds either used to facilitate low-carbon living or rebated to lower income households can also make our cities and our transportation systems more just.  There’s nothing equitable about an automobile dependent transportation system:  it makes those without cars or who can’t (or shouldn’t) drive second class citizensRoad pricing is inherently fair, because it makes buses run faster.

We’ve dawdled and dissembled on climate for too long.  We need to acknowledge that our current efforts aren’t working, and focus on the growing greenhouse gases from automobile emissions.  Pledges, good intentions and greenwashing are diverting us from the need to change our cities to allow low carbon living. Building more places where common destinations are close at hand, and building more housing in the high demand locations that already have these amenities is good for the climate, housing affordability and equity. Putting a price on carbon assigns responsibility, aligns incentives and provides the resources to make steady progress to reducing greenhouse gases.

Portland carbon tax should apply to all big polluters

By all means, Portland should adopt its proposed healthy climate fee, a $25 ton carbon tax

But make sure it applies to the biggest and fastest growing sources of greenhouse gases in the region

The healthy climate fee should apply to freeways and air travel, not just 30 firms who produce 5 percent of regional GHG emissions.

The City of Portland has proposed a new “healthy climate fee” on a range of businesses and organizations that it says discharge more than 150 tons of greenhouse gases in the city.  Like most economists, we’re all on board with the idea of pricing carbon.  The reason we have a climate crisis is we allow everyone to use the common atmosphere as a dump for carbon without compensating society for the damage done.  Economists are unanimous that pricing carbon is essential to avoiding climate catastrophe:  it simultaneously discourages bad behavior, rewards low polluting activities, creates incentives for cleaner investments and spurs the innovation needed to make all this happen.  And, as we’ve pointed out the price needed to trigger these changes is modest—less on a per pound basis than the fee we charge for grocery bags or the deposits charged on soda cans or indeed for disposing of solid waste.

The only objection we have to this proposed fee is that it doesn’t go nearly far enough.  It exempts more than 95 percent of all the region’s carbon pollution.  The proposed climate fee is targeted at those who own or operate facilities that generate 2,500 tons of carbon dioxide or more per year.

The city’s inventory lists 35 such facilities, including steel mills, bakeries, oil storage depots and other manufacturing facilities, but also universities, hospitals, and a wastewater treatment plant.  The city has used air pollution permit data to estimate the tax liability of the firms it thinks will be subject to the tax.  Collectively, it expects them to pay “healthy climate fees” of about $9.2 million annually on 370,000 tons of carbon emissions.

That seems like an impressive number, but in fact only amounts to about 5 percent of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions.  But by its own reckoning, the City of Portland (Multnomah County) produces more than 7.7 million  tons of greenhouse gases per year.  So this measure taxes small  but visible fraction the areas total emissions.  What it leaves out is revealing.

As we’ve pointed out repeatedly at City Observatory, Portland is failing in its effort to meet its climate goals because of the big increase in carbon emissions associated with transportation, particularly from increased driving.  Transportation accounts for 41 percent of county greenhouse gas emissions, and unlike emissions from residential, commercial and industrial uses, which are all significantly lower than in 1990, these emissions are increasing.  In essence, the key reason the city is failing achieve the goals laid out in its 2015 climate plan is due to more transportation emissions. The bulk of the increase is due to increased driving since 2014, when gas prices declined, so this is actually an area where some economic incentives might do some good.

If the region is going to take climate change seriously, it should be focused not just on a handful of institutions that account for less than a twentieth of greenhouse gases, and instead focus on the biggest and fastest growing part of the climate problem.  If we think about transportation as a system, it’s clear that the region’s transportation facilities, its freeways and airports are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions.  If we’re going to charge such a fee at all, we ought to  include in our list of large “facilities” that are even bigger sources of greenhouse gases: the city’s interstate freeways (owned and operated by the Oregon Department of Transportation) and Portland International Airport (operated by the Port of Portland),

Carbon emissions from ODOT Interstate freeways in Portland:  550,000 tons per year

So how much greenhouse gas pollution is produced by ODOT’s interstate freeways in the City of Portland?  We don’t have exact data, but we can triangulate a reasonably good estimate.  According to the Federal Highway Administration, on an annual (Pre-Covid) basis, there are about 2.9 billion vehicle miles of travel on Interstate freeways in the Oregon portion of the Portland metropolitan area.   We apportion this traffic proportional to lane miles of interstate freeway in each county; Multnomah County includes about 53 percent of the tri-county area’s inventory of interstate lane miles, according to ODOT.  We further assume that 80 percent of Multnomah County mileage is in Portland.  This means that driving on Portland’s interstate freeways amounts to about 1.2 billion miles per year, and at a very conservative passenger car average of .445 kilograms of carbon per mile, produces about 550,000 tons of carbon emissions per year.

Freeways are fossil fuel infrastructure. These ODOT facilities produce more carbon emissions than all the industries taxed under Portland’s proposed “Healthy Climate Fee.”

If ODOT’s interstate freeways were treated as a “facility” and paid the $25 per ton fee for the emissions from the operation of the facility, it would pay the City of Portland about $14 million per year.

Carbon emissions from Portland International Airport:  1.5 million tons per year

Air travel is a major contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions, and Portland International Airport (aka PDX), the region’s principal air terminal the facility in Portland most closely associated with those emissions. In 2019, according to Federal Aviation Administration data, nearly 20 million passengers flying out of Portland International Airport logged about 11 billion “revenue passenger miles” of travel.  Air travel produces about 88 grams of greenhouse gases per revenue passenger kilometer, which means that PDX air travel generated about 1.5 million tons of emissions  per year (88 * 11,000,000,000*1.6/1000000).  This calculation suggests that PDX is responsible for about three-fourths of one percent of all US aviation greenhouse gas emissions, which total about 200 million tons per year, a figure roughly consistent with the region’s share of US economic activity.

Air travel is a large source of global greenhouse gases.

If Portland International Airport  were treated as a “facility” and paid the $25 per ton fee for the emissions from the operation of the facility, it would pay the City of Portland about $38 million per year.

Parenthetically:  It has to be said that the Port of Portland has a profound blind-spot when it comes to its greenhouse gas footprint.  According to the Port’s environmental report, it only counts emissions from its own vehicles, utility plant and purchased electricity, and not from the travel to and from the airport.  The port owns up to just 50,000 tons per year in greenhouse gas emissions, just 3 percent of the amount attributable to air travel.  Neither does the port count the emissions from the cars that drive to park in its garages.  That’s rather like a gun manufacturer counting as “gun deaths” only those people who were pistol-whipped and excluding those killed by bullets.

Let’s have a fair and inclusive Healthy Climate Fee

Together, these two facilities (ODOT’s interstate freeways and PDX) account for more than five times as much carbon pollution than the 35 facilities inventoried by the City of Portland and included in its proposed ordinance.   (We believe the city’s own inventory of Portland greenhouse gas emissions significantly undercounts greenhouse gases associated with air travel in and out of PDX).

It’s clear that the city believes it has the authority to impose this fee on local, state and federal governments.  It’s proposing to charge the city-owned wastewater plant more than $1 million annually, and also charge state entities (Oregon Health & Science University, the Port of Portland and Portland State University), and even the federal government (the Veterans Administration, which operates a large hospital.  The Port of Portland and the Oregon Department of Transportation both own and operate facilities that emit more than 150 tons of greenhouse gases per year.  They ought to be subject to the healthy climate fee, too.

In our view, it makes perfect sense of the city to implement a carbon tax or “healthy climate fee.”  But if it does, it should do so in a way that applies it to most or all carbon pollution, not just a twentieth of all emissions.  The city’s approach to a carbon tax is indefensibly narrow.  It gives a pass to the biggest and fastest growing sources of carbon pollution in Portland:  transportation emissions.  It’s a kind of “carrotism” the notion that climate change can be dealt with without inconveniencing anyone, when in fact, it is all of our daily decisions, especially of how much to drive and fly, that is principally responsible for greenhouse gases.  It’s politically convenient to tag a few large, visible polluters, but collectively they’re absolutely smaller than just two entities we’ve identified here, and they’re not the areas where we’re failing to make progress.

A carbon tax makes a huge amount of sense, but exempting 95 percent of all the emissions in the region from the tax, and loading its cost on just a few entities is just arbitrary.  If we’re really in a climate emergency, we should apply the carbon fee broadly.


  1.  An empty soda can weighs 17 grams; several states impose a 5 cent deposit per can; that works out to a deposit of about $2,900 per ton of can weight).  Metro will charge you about $100 ton for the non-recyclable garbage you dispose of, about 5 times what Portland would charge you if you put that same amount of carbon in the atmosphere.
  2. Carrotism is a term coined by Economist Guilio Matteoli, it is the idea is that “climate change policy should consist entirely of enticing incentives (carrots) avoiding any restriction, regulation or even monetary disincentives (sticks); I.e. we will just glide smoothly into zero-carbon without anyone being inconvenienced ever.”

Housing discrimination is baked into zoning

The real housing discrimination today is institutional, not personal

The unfinished business of dismantling the institutional racism built into zoning

Overt, personal discrimination in housing is just the tip of the iceberg, the great and devastating mass of discrimination is below the surface, in the form of apartment bans and minimum lot sizes.

Is there anything more ugly, hurtful and personal than saying to someone, I don’t want you to live here because of your race, ethnicity, religious beliefs, or gender identity?  Thanks to Federal and State fair housing laws, it’s now the case that this kind of overt discrimination is illegal.  And it is unquestionably right that proscribe and punish this kind of fundamentally anti-social behavior.

But the face of discrimination has changed in the five decades since the Fair Housing Act was adopted.  There continue to be, to be sure, horrendous and insulting instances of overt housing discrimination.  But today the real housing discrimination is far more subtle and pervasive than a “need not apply” sign, or even a disingenuous “the apartment’s already been rented” claim.

Rome, GA, 1943. (Esther Bubley, photographer. “A sign at the Greyhound bus station.” Collection of the Library of Congress)

The most pernicious forms of discrimination are those that are deeply embedded in our policies, and that are executed by impersonal laws and constrained markets, not sneering racists.

Patterns of overt housing discrimination.

One of the most reliable and widely practiced means of detecting discrimination and enforcing fair housing laws is “testing”–sending otherwise identical applications, with varying racial or ethnic backgrounds, to apply for the same home or apartment, and observing whether they are treated similarly, or not. Likewise, state and federal agencies also receive and tabulate complains of discrimination from those who feel they’ve been unfairly denied access to housing.

A recent study of the geographic pattern of housing discrimination in Detroit—Residential Racial and Socioeconomic Segregation as Predictors of Housing Discrimination in Detroit Metropolitan Area—looked at several decades of data on fair housing complaints, with the objective of observing  where discriminatory behavior seemed to be most prevalent.

As an aside, it’s rare in an academic paper that you find an author reporting data that clearly falsifies their priors.  Like clockwork, most published papers seem to confirm, or at worst refine, the author’s pre-existing theses about the subject at hand.  What makes this study from Detroit remarkable, in part, is that the authors find that their previous hypothesis was exactly wrong.

The authors started out with the idea that housing discrimination, particularly against black applicants, would be more common in predominantly white neighborhoods.  On its face, that makes sense:  racial tensions and discrimination ought to occur more often when prospective renters or buyers are from a different race or ethnicity than is predominant in a neighborhood.  The author’s of this study were surprising to find that in the Detroit area, reported instances of housing discrimination are lower in white communities, higher income neighborhoods, and in places with more expensive housing.

Detroit is a logical place to study discrimination; it is one of the two or three most segregated metro areas in the country. The city of Detroit and surrounding Wayne County are disproportionately Black, suburban Macomb and outlying cities are disproportionately white.

One of the historic reasons for segregation in the US is housing discrimination:  landlords, real estate agents, and sellers refused to sell or rent housing to Black families. (More than 90 percent of the complaints in the study involved discrimination on the basis of race).  The authors relate the long literature on housing discrimination, and advance a couple of theories, involving a distaste on the part of White families for having Black neighbors, and a desire of landlords and real estate agents to curry favor (and business) from these racist households, and notions that discrimination is somehow more profitable for sellers and landlords (something that economists tend to dispute).

The author’s hypothesize that because of the roots of discrimination are based on white racism, that the incidence of housing discrimination ought to be greater in Whiter, more expensive, and higher income communities.  Surprisingly, they find that just the opposite is true:  reported housing discrimination complaints are proportionately much more common in Detroit area neighborhoods that have a higher Black population, more affordable housing and more modest incomes.

Contrary to our hypotheses, findings reported here suggest that housing discrimination incidents in the DMA [Detroit Metropolitan Area] were lower in neighborhoods with greater proportions of NHW[non-Hispanic whites], homeowners, and higher median household incomes. We discuss the potential for housing discrimination to perpetuate segregation by maintaining racialized residents in certain neighborhoods. Our findings suggest that housing discrimination is more likely to occur in neighborhoods with higher percentage of NHB [non-Hispanic Black] residents, more renters, and lower median household incomes

The authors ruminate that perhaps their seemingly counter-intuitive finding is a product of under-reporting of discrimination in white neighborhoods, but as with assertions of widespread voter fraud in the last presidential election, there’s no evidence that’s the case.

The authors largely overlook a simpler and more obvious explanation:  Private discrimination is actually unnecessary in these wealthier, predominantly white neighborhoods because its built into the zoning codes.  A combination of large lot zoning and apartment bans in suburbs mean that most people of color don’t have the means to afford housing in white, higher income and higher valued neighborhoods.  Discrimination is effective achieved, to paraphrase Richard Rothstein, “by color of law”—freeing homeowners, landlords and sellers in these neighborhoods from the messy and distasteful business of having to personally engage in discrimination.  Prospective tenants and homebuyers are excluded by high home values and rents.

There’s a further point here, as well:  Housing discrimination as enforced through the zoning code is actually more about class than it is about race.  By themselves, high rents and high home values don’t exclude higher income Black households from these more affluent and predominantly white neighborhoods.  And the trend that we’ve seen in the past several decades is that higher income black households have become increasingly suburbanized and integrated.  Patrick Sharkey finds

. . . black middle and upper classes have transitioned out of central-city, primarily black neighborhoods into a more diverse group of racially mixed residential settings that are increasingly located in suburban areas.

The problems of segregation for low income people of color has actually been accentuated by this process of income polarization.  As David Rusk has shown, income polarization has increased sharply for the nation’s black population.  In the heyday of segregation, high income and low income black families tended to live in the same neighborhoods, and in the aggregate, Blacks were less segregated by income than whites.  Today, as high income black households have increasingly suburbanized, Blacks are vastly more segregated by income that Whites.  That’s exactly what’s happened in the Detroit metro, as Rusk’s analysis shows.

It’s probably more the case today that housing discrimination is driven by classism even more than racism; suburban homeowners are probably more alarmed by affordable housing than they are by a Black family moving in next door. Half a century ago, discrimination was more overt and personal; today its accomplished through land use regulations and housing prices that make sure that those of limited means, who are disproportionately people of color, simply can’t apply.

Addressing institutionalized housing discrimination

Today the more common and persistent source of housing discrimination isn’t the egregious actions of racist real estate agents or landlords, it’s the largely unquestioned and pervasive use of local land use powers to bake income discrimination into the legal fabric defining the housing market.

Problems are so much simpler when they have an identifiable villain and victim, and a clearcut transgression.  A good drama demands it.  And the morality and personal impact of discrimination is so much more obvious when we can talk about how one person, by a single decision, mistreats another person.  This happens, and is egregious and wrong, and under the Fair Housing Act, illegal.

It’s easier and more dramatic to visualize discrimination as being the product of the way one person treats another person; the way a landlord or a real estate agent steers prospective applicants to noe neighborhood rather than another based on their race, or asks for a higher rent than advertised or tells a prospective applicant that the homes already been rented or sold.  But the truth is that these clumsy, obvious and personally offensive kinds of discrimination are at best, the tip of the iceberg of real housing discrimination in the US.

The truly sophisticated form of discrimination is arranging the rules of the game to assure that nothing as messy and emotional as face-to-face dissembling is required.  You simply make sure that applicants are dissuaded or precluded from even looking for housing in your community.  If your suburb doesn’t allow apartments, and mandates only large-lot single family homes, you don’t need practice case-by-case personal discrimination, because no renters will actually appear.

But today, it is far from the most common kind of housing discrimination Americans experience.  Instead, the big problem of housing discrimination is baked into the legal framework that defines the entire real estate market.

If we only look for those instances of personal and direct discrimination, we’ll miss the larger forms of discrimination that are literally encoded into our land use system. In an important sense, the Fair Housing laws need to be made to apply to the municipalities that wield zoning power to practice this kind of discrimination, and also to the State legislatures who delegate the unfettered use of these powers. And that is the unfinished business of dismantling the institutional racism that still shapes access to housing in the United States.

Roshanak Mehdipanah, Kiana Bess, Steve Tomkowiak, Audrey Richardson, Carmen Stokes, Denise White Perkins, Suzanne Cleage, Barbara A. Israel, and Amy J. Schulz, “Residential Racial and Socioeconomic Segregation as Predictors of Housing Discrimination in Detroit Metropolitan Area,” Sustainability (2020), 12, 10429; doi:10.3390/su122410429 www.mdpi.com/journal/sustainability

More performative pedestrian infrastructure

Houston’s “Energy Corridor” gets a pedestrian makeover, but just one thing seems to be missing.

Bollards and better landscaping can’t offset the increased danger from wider, faster slip lanes.

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

Houston’s “Energy Corridor” is a commercial district west of Downtown Houston that’s home to a number of energy companies like BP and Conoco Phillips.  Unsurprisingly, it’s a heavily auto-dominated area.  We read with great interest last week a news report describing a new pedestrian infrastructure project at the intersection of two main arterials, Eldridge Parkway and Memorial Drive.

The Houston Chronicle hailed it in an article titled “The Energy Corridor District unveils west Houston’s first protected intersection.”  Here’s an aerial view of the project.

See all the pedestrian infrastructure? (This is actually the “after” picture.)

To be sure, there are wide sidewalks, clearly marked crosswalks, attractive plantings, and new signal lights.  But essentially the only “protection” for pedestrians and cyclists are a series of bollards.  If you step back and consider the setting of the project, its apparent that it remains an auto-dominated and pedestrian hostile environment.

For starters, the inescapable fact is that you have two busy multi-lane arterials–the kind of roadway that’s been consistently shown to be the most deadly to pedestrians. Nearly 60,000 cars a day go through this intersection.  Second, a key feature of the project is two right turn “slip lanes” that slice through the corners of the intersections.  Slip lanes like these allow (and encourage) cars to make faster turns, and also increase the crossing distance for pedestrians.  The slip lanes have marked crosswalks, but they appear to be governed only by “yield” signs, not traffic lights, and Houston drivers are notorious for not yielding even when the law requires it. (We’ve got more detail on these slip lanes, and their problems, below).

Let’s zoom in to street level.

Sidewalks, crosswalks, even bollards, but no actual pedestrians.

These pedestrian safety problems are apparent when you look at the promotional photographs provided by the project’s sponsors, the Energy Corridor District.  The illustrations show a nice new intersection, but you’ll notice one element conspicuous by its absence:  pedestrians.

Of course the project’s design aimed to be very pedestrian oriented.  You can tell that from the artist’s pre-construction concept.  Like so many such illustrations, it shows roughly as many pedestrians and cyclists as cars (we counted 38 cars and 41 pedestrians and bikes).  The reality of course is closer to all cars and zero bikes and pedestrians.

The big underlying problem though is that the Energy Corridor is a place laid out for cars and car travel. The reason no one walks in Houston, or in its Energy Corridor, as in so many such places in the US, is that there’s very little nearby to walk to.  (Pro-tip:  any area that describes itself as a “corridor” is almost always an auto-dominated, pedestrian-hostile space, a place people travel through, rather than being in).  The Energy Corridor is just a short distance from Houston’s mammoth Katy Freeway, the nation’s widest. A quick glance at Google maps that shows that within a block or two of the intersection you have a single bank, a convenience store, a CVS drug store and a lone Chinese restaurant—and almost no other retail or service businesses.

With 60,000 cars zooming by, with slip lanes that encourage drivers to take fast right turns, and with nothing nearby to walk to, it really doesn’t matter how wide are the sidewalks or how beautiful the plantings or how numerous the bollards.  While this has the veneer and some of the trappings of walkability, it’s just not a walkable area. There’s a lot of loose talk about “retrofitting suburbs” and “walkable suburbanism” but examples like this show just how hollow and meaningless those terms can be. And while we’re picking on Houston here, you can find similar examples of performative pedestrian infrastructure in almost every US city.

As we’ve said, 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 it’s 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 some bollards, we may call it “pedestrian” infrastructure, but the only reason it’s actually needed is because of the presence  and primacy of cars.  It is at best remedial, and its purpose is primarily to benefit cars, speeding car travel by freeing drivers from the need to pay attention to or yield to pedestrians (or to only have to do so under strictly limited conditions).

Last year, we highlighted this example from Orlando suburb, Lake Mary, where the  city has constructed two pedestrian bridges over the highway, with a 153-foot span.

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

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.

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.

Real pedestrian infrastructure is 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 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 piecemeal and largely decorative so-called infrastructure.

More on slip lanes

Transportation for America’s Stephen Davis explains that slip lanes are inherently dangerous because they encourage cars to speed through intersections:

Slip lanes are dangerous because they prioritize vehicle speed over the safety of everyone who needs to use the road.  Slip lanes increase the distance that people have to cover to cross a street, put people into spots that are often the hardest for drivers to see, and encourage drivers not to slow down when approaching an intersection and a crosswalk—the precise moment they should be the most careful.

While advertised as improving pedestrian safety, this project actually widens and lengthens the existing slip lanes.  It also increases the slip lane’s radius of curvature, enabling cars to make the turn even faster than would be possible in the narrower, sharper slip lane they replaced.  Both the wider distance of the new slip lane, and the faster speeds it tends to encourage actually make the intersection more dangerous for pedestrians than before.  Here are two Google Streetview images of the intersection of westbound Memorial Drive onto northbound Eldridge Parkway

Slip Lane– BEFORE (2018)

Slip Lane– AFTER (2020)



Widening I-5 at the Rose Quarter will increase greenhouse gases

Adding more freeway capacity at the Rose Quarter will thousands of tons to the region’s greenhouse gas emissions

If you say you believe in science, and you take climate change seriously, you can’t support spending $800 million or more to widen a freeway.


  • Wider freeways—including additional ramps and “auxiliary lanes”—induce additional car travel which increases greenhouse gas emissions.
  • The I-5 Rose Quarter project will add approximately 33,000 vehicles per day to I-5 traffic, according to ODOT’s own estimates
  • These 33,000 vehicles will directly add 56,000 daily vehicle miles of travel and indirectly add 178,000 daily vehicle miles of travel.
  • Additional vehicle travel will directly produce between 8,000 tons of greenhouse gas emission per year; and with induced travel outside the project a total increase of 35,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year
  • The engineered right-of-way for the Rose Quarter project allows for eight standard freeway lanes, which would double freeway capacity in this area and further increase vehicle travel and greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Claims that widening freeways will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by reducing crashes and idling have been disproven.
This is what $800 million of fossil fuel infrastructure looks like.

Additional Vehicle Miles of Travel and Greenhouse Gases, ODOT estimates

Currently, I-5 at the Rose Quarter carries about 122,000 vehicles per day.  With the Rose Quarter freeway widening project proposed by the Oregon Department of Transportation, we estimate that traffic will increase to 155,000 vehicles per day.  This represents an increase of 33,000 vehicles per day over current levels.

I-5 North Volumes Existing conditions 2016 v. with Freeway Widening
Northbound Southbound Total Implied ADT
Time Period RQ Existing Conditions (2016)
AM Peak 8AM-9AM 2,146 5,133 7,279 122,000
PM Peak 5PM-6PM 3,360 3,639 6,999 122,000
Widened I-5 RQ Conditions (2045)
AM Peak 8AM-9AM 4,680 5,176 9,856 148,945
PM Peak 5PM-6PM 4,707 5,070 9,777 161,385
Average 155,165
RQ Existing, “2016 Existing Conditions” “Mainline North of Going”
Existing Volumes from pages 333-340 of ODOT “Volume Tables”, dated 5-21-18

We’ve had to compute that estimate ourselves, because, as we have noted, ODOT has suppressed inclusion of average daily traffic figures (the most commonly used traffic volume statistic) from the project’s Environmental Assessment.  To compute average daily traffic from the hourly data in the EA, we have factored up hourly traffic to daily levels, at given the current relationship between peak and total daily travel. Peak hour travel accounts for about 14 percent of daily travel; we’ve used the reciprocal of this amount as our multiplier to calculate future ADT implied by ODOT projections.

Today, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average vehicle emits about 411 grams of greenhouse gases per vehicle mile traveled.

Incremental Greenhouse Gas Emissions, I-5 Rose Quarter Project
Line Item Direct Indirect
1 grams per mile 411 411
2 vehicles per day 33,000 33,000
3 miles per vehicle 1.7 5.4
4 miles per day 56,100 178,200
5 grams per day 23,057,100 73,240,200
6 tons per day 23 73
7 tons per year 8,416 26,733
1 EPA estimate of greenhouse gases per vehicle mile traveled
2 ODOT estimate of increased traffic on I-5
3 Length of project (1.7 miles), average commute (7.1 miles)
4 Line 2 * Line 3
5 Line 1 * Line 2
6 Line 5 * 1,000,000
7 Line 6 * 365

Conservatively, we estimate that the additional 33,000 vehicles per day traveling on just the widened 1.7 mile segment of the I-5 Rose Quarter freeway will generate and additional 56,000 vehicle miles traveled per day, and in turn, that will produce about an additional 8,400 tons of greenhouse gases annually.

Moreover, we anticipate that widening the freeway in this location will induce additional automobile travel on roads connected to this section of freeway.  The 1.7 miles traveled on this segment of roadway is just a portion of typical trips. Given that the average commute trip in the Portland metropolitan area is 7.1 miles each way, we anticipate that the freeway widening will produce an additional 5.4 miles of travel elsewhere in the region, for a total of 178,00 additional vehicle miles traveled per day region wide, which in turn will produce an additional 27,800 tons of greenhouse gases per year.

Combining the direct and indirect effects of additional freeway capacity on travel, the Rose Quarter Freeway widening project is likely to increase Portland area greenhouse gas emissions by more than 35,000 tons per year.

ODOT did not analyze or model the effects of induced demand

While ODOT maintains that the I-5 Rose Quarter Freeway widening project will reduce congestion, that is because it has crafted a model which, by its construction, rules out the possibility of induced demand.  ODOT’s “static assignment model” has been shown to over-estimate traffic levels in base case situations, and understate traffic volumes in “build” scenarios, with the effect that they are systematically unable to accurately predict increased traffic due to induced demand.

The modeling has two related sources of bias:  First, it assumes that in the base case, travel patterns are not influenced by roadway congestion (i.e. that travelers don’t alter trip making behavior to avoid congestion).  These models also allow predicted traffic volumes to exceed the physical capacity of roadways, something that is simply impossible, but which again, leads to over-stating base case volumes.  Second, the models fail to predict that trip-making will respond to increases in capacity.

The EA makes no mention of induced demand, the phenomenon by which increases in highway capacity in urban areas generate additional travel that leads to a recurrence of congestion at even higher levels of traffic. (A text search of both the EA and its Traffic Technical Report show no mention of the word “induced”).

In all of its analyses, the EA uses a single set of assumptions about future land use and travel demand, including the distribution of jobs and population within the metropolitan area general, and within the Project Impact Area in particular. This analysis assumes that building (or not building) this additional freeway capacity will have no impact whatsoever on the pattern and intensity of traffic over the next two or more decades.

This approach has two effects, both of which subvert the analysis of environment impacts and which violate NEPA. In the “No-Build” scenario, levels of traffic are improperly inflated, producing much higher level estimates of congestion than will actually occur. In each of the “Build” alternatives, levels of traffic are systematically understated. This bias causes the EA to mischaracterize the relative merits of the build and no-build alternatives, and therefore violates NEPA.

The phenomenon of induced demand is so well-established in the academic literature that it is referred to as the “Fundamental Law of Road Congestion.”  Add as many un-priced lanes as you like in a dense, urban environment and that capacity will elicit additional trip-making that quickly fills new lanes to their previously congested levels. In the extreme, one ends up with Houston’s 23-lane Katy Freeway, successively widened at the cost of billions of dollars, but which now has even longer travel times than before its most recent widening.

These findings hold for the Rose Quarter Project as well. Key project staff have publicly conceded that the project will not produce significant improvements in regular, daily traffic congestion, which engineers refer to as “recurring congestion.”

Induced demand is firmly established science

It is well established in the scientific literature that increased roadway capacity generates additional vehicle travel. The definitive work by Duranton and Turner estimates that there is, in the long run, a unit elasticity of miles traveled with respect to road capacity, i.e. each 1 percent increase in road capacity generates a 1 percent increase in vehicle miles traveled:

This paper analyzes new data describing city-level traffic in the continental US between 1983 and 2003. Our estimates of the elasticity of MSA interstate highway VKT with respect to lane kilometers are 0.86 in OLS, 1.00 in first difference, and 1.03 with IV. Because our instruments provide a plausible source of exogenous variation, we regard 1.03 as the most defensible estimate. We take this as a confirmation of the “fundamental law of highway congestion” suggested by Downs (1962), where the extension of interstate highways is met with a proportional increase in traffic for US MSAs.

More recently, Hymel (2019) has independently reached a nearly identical conclusion.  His analysis concludes:

These findings offer persuasive evidence supporting the fundamental law of traffic congestion, and indicate that capacity expansion is not a viable long-term solution to urban traffic congestion. Across specifications of the dynamic model that controlled for endogenous lane-mileage and state fixed effects, the within-group estimator generated long-run induced demand elasticities ranging from 0.892 and 1.063, all with very small standard errors. . . . Furthermore, results from the dynamic model suggest that after five years, induced vehicle travel is expected to grow to 90% of its equilibrium level, quickly decreasing traffic speeds on the new roadway capacity.”

More comprehensive and independent reviews of the literature on induced demand have reached essentially the opposite conclusion from that asserted in the EA. These reviews include: Avin, U., R. Cervero, et al. (2007), Litman, (2007) and Williams-Derry, C. (2007), and Handy & Boarnet (2014). I

Whether development is consistent with local land use plans or not bears no necessary relationship to whether there is induced demand. Many different levels of development (from vacant to fully allowed density with variances) are possible under any local land use plan. Asserting that the level of development is “consistent” with land use plans is a straightforward evasion of the requirement to consider the impacts of induced demand. This is simply irrelevant to determining whether there may be impacts. Local land use plans only specify the maximum amount of development that may occur in the area influenced by the project. There is a wide range of possible levels and intensities of development that are possible under these land use plans, from no development to the full maximum allowed by law.

The fundamental law of road congestion is so well know that it has long been reflected in administrative guidance for the preparation of environmental reviews of road construction projects.  The Federal Highway Administration guidelines for preparing environmental impact statements clearly instruct the analysis of induced impacts: It specifically anticipates a different analysis for each alternative “substantial, foreseeable, induced development should be presented for each alternative”

  1. Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) — FORMAT AND CONTENT

  2. Environmental Consequences

 Land Use Impacts

This discussion should identify the current development trends and the State and/or local government plans and policies on land use and growth in the area which will be impacted by the proposed project.

These plans and policies are normally reflected in the area’s comprehensive development plan, and include land use, transportation, public facilities, housing, community services, and other areas.

The land use discussion should assess the consistency of the alternatives with the comprehensive development plans adopted for the area and (if applicable) other plans used in the development of the transportation plan required by Section 134. The secondary social, economic, and environmental impacts of any substantial, foreseeable, induced development should be presented for each alternative, including adverse effects on existing communities. Where possible, the distinction between planned and unplanned growth should be identified.

October 30, 1987 (http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/legsregs/directives/techadvs/T664008a.htm)

The FHWA has developed substantial technical resources to illustrate how induced demand can be estimated for projects such as the CRC. For example, DeCourla-Souza and Cohen document long-term demand elasticities of traffic with regard to travel time averaging -0.57 and ranging from -0.2 to -1.0. This means that in the long run, all other things being equal, a 10% reduction in travel time in a corridor would be associated with a 5.7% higher level of traffic. (Patrick DeCorla-Souza and Harry Cohen, Accounting For Induced Travel In Evaluation Of Urban Highway Expansion, 1998.) More recent estimates by Duranton and Turner (2011), and Hymel (2019)  put the long-term elasticity of traffic with respect to capacity at 1.0: an increase in capacity is exactly offset by an increase in travel.

A  review of transportation models used in estimating future demand and project benefits, including the type used in this process, concludes:

“Failure to account for indirect demand effects likely exaggerates the travel-time savings benefits of capacity expansion and ignores the potentially substantial land use shifts that might occur because of the marginal increase in accessibility provided.”
Avin, U., R. Cervero, et al. (2007). Forecasting Indirect Land Use Effects of Transportation Projects. Washington, DC, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) Standing Committee on the Environment. (Page 5).

ODOT’s claims about GHG are false

ODOT has advanced two claims about the project’s potential for reducing greenhouse gases.  It has argued that the project will reduce the number of crashes in the corridor, and thereby lower the amount of greenhouse gases emitted when cars drive slowly. Similarly, but more generally, it has argued that by reducing congestion, the project will raise travel speeds, reduce idling and lower overall greenhouse gases.  Both of these claims have been disproven by independent research.

Non-recurring delay will not be reduced

In addition the Rose Quarter project has no demonstrable real-world evidence that the freeway widening will reduce delays associated with automobile crashes, so called “non-recurring congestion.” Just a few years ago, ODOT widened a nearby stretch of I-5 which carries mostly the same traffic, adding a travel lane and widening shoulders (just as it proposes to do at the Rose Quarter). ODOT’s own crash statistics show that the rate of crashes on this stretch of road not only did not decrease, but actually increased in the years following the freeway widening.

ODOT’s claims that additional lanes and wider shoulders will reduce crashes are based on it’s claim that it used a computer spreadsheet called ISAT to calculate probable crashes (Traffic Technical Report). However, the user manual for the ISATe model says that the model is not applicable to freeway segments that are controlled by ramp meters. (Ramp meters control the flow of traffic onto the roadway and reduce the likelihood of crashes associated with merging). This model is not a valid basis for predicting crashes or changes in the number of crashes because this segment of roadway includes ramp meters. See Bonneson, et al., 2012.

ODOT’s experience with I-5 suggests that widening one bottleneck at one point in the system only speeds and intensifies the process of traffic congestion at other bottlenecks in the system. For example, ODOT has made improvements to I-5 in the area north of Lombard Street, including the freeway widening project described in the previous paragraph). While this has removed some “bottlenecks” in some locations, it has funneled more vehicles, more rapidly into others, with the result that these locations become congested sooner, and actually lose capacity. The I-5 bridges now carry about 10 percent fewer vehicles in the afternoon peak hour than they did 10 and 20 years ago. (“Backfire: How widening freeways can make traffic congestion worse,” February 26, 2019, City Observatory Commentary). Similarly, an ODOT project to increase the capacity of the freeway interchange on I-5 at Woodburn also apparently has resulted in no reduction in crashes, and may actually be associated with an increase in more severe crashes (and attendant delays). See,  “Safety Last: What we’ve learned from ‘improving’ the I-5 freeway,” March 21, 2019, City Observatory Commentary).

Claims that less congestion will reduce idling and lower greenhouse gas emissions have been disproven

Claims that the project will result in less carbon emissions are based on the the discredited theory that smoothing traffic flow and reducing idling results in lower carbon emissions. That claim has been discredited by Bigazzi and Figgliozzi (2010), Williams-Derry (2007), Noland & Quddus (2006).

Also, experience has shown that carbon estimates prepared by the Oregon Department of Transportation are untrustworthy. In 2015, The Director of the Oregon Department of Transportation conceded publicly to the Legislature that ODOT had exaggerated by a factor of more than four the possible carbon emission reductions associated with certain transportation projects.

It doesn’t matter what you call the added lanes

And we don’t buy for a minute that it matters in any way that ODOT wants to call the additional lanes its building “auxiliary lanes”.  If the point is that the right hand lane on I-5 at the Rose Quarter is handling merging traffic, that is true whether the facility is 2 lanes in each direction or three.  If we apply ODOT’s logic and nomenclature to the current setup, the freeway now consists of one through lane and one auxiliary lane–and the proposed project would increase that to two through-lanes and one auxiliary lane. Using sophistry and shifting definitions doesn’t change the fact that this project adds lane miles of freeway. And more lane miles of freeway, as these calculators show, produces millions more miles of driving and thousands of tons more greenhouse gas emissions every year.


Avin, U., R. Cervero, et al. (2007). Forecasting Indirect Land Use Effects of Transportation Projects. Washington, DC, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) Standing Committee on the Environment.

Bonneson, J., Pratt, M., and Geedipally, S., (et al), Enhanced Interchange Safety Analysis Tool: User Manual, National Cooperative Highway Research Program, Project 17-45, Enhanced Safety Prediction Methodology and Analysis Tool for Freeways and Interchanges, May 2012.

Bigazzi, A. and Figliozzi, M., 2010, An Analysis of the Relative Efficiency of Freeway Congestion as an Emissions Reduction Strategy.

DeCorla-Souza, P. and H. Cohen (1998). Accounting For Induced Travel In Evaluation Of Urban Highway Expansion. Washington, Federal Highway Administration.

Duranton, G., & Turner, M. A. (2011). The fundamental law of road congestion: Evidence from US cities. American Economic Review, 101(6), 2616-52.

October 30, 1987 (http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/legsregs/directives/techadvs/T664008a.htm)

Handy, S., & Boarnet, M. G. (2014). Impact of Highway Capacity and Induced Travel on Passenger Vehicle Use and Greenhouse Gas Emissions. California Environmental Protection Agency, Air Resources Board.             https://www.arb.ca.gov/cc/sb375/policies/hwycapacity/highway_capacity_bkgd.pdf

Hymel, K. (2019). If you build it, they will drive: Measuring induced demand for vehicle travel in urban areas. Transport policy76, 57-66.

Kneebone, E., & Holmes, N. (2015). The growing distance between people and jobs in metropolitan America. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, Metropolitan Policy Program.  https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Srvy_JobsProximity.pdf

Litman, T. (2019). Generated Traffic and Induced Travel Implications for Transport Planning. Victoria, BC, Victoria Transport Policy Institute.

Marshall, N. L. (2018). Forecasting the impossible: The status quo of estimating traffic flows with static traffic assignment and the future of dynamic traffic assignment. Research in Transportation Business & Management. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2210539517301232?via%3Dihub

Noland, R. B., & Quddus, M. A. (2006). Flow improvements and vehicle emissions: effects of trip generation and emission control technology. Transportation Research Part D: Transport and Environment, 11(1), 1-14.

Parsons Brinckerhoff, Land Use-Transportation Literature Review for the I-5 Trade Corridor Regional Land Use Committee, September 17, 2001. Pages 4-5 http://nepa.fhwa.dot.gov/ReNEPA/ReNepa.nsf/All+Documents/CCECF4D789DB510E85256CE6006142A0/$FILE/land_use_literature_review.pdf

Williams-Derry, C. (2007). Increases in greenhouse-gas emissions from highway-widening projects. Seattle, Sightline Institute.

The Week Observed, January 15, 2024

What City Observatory this week

1. The Urban Institute gets inclusion backwards. The Urban Institute has released an updated set of estimates that purport to measure which US cities are the most inclusive.  The report is conceptually flawed, and actually gets its conclusions backwards, classifying some of the nation’s most exclusive places as “inclusive.” Highly equal cities are almost always either exclusive suburban enclaves (that achieve homogeneity by rigid zoning limits that exclude the poor) or impoverished cities that have been abandoned by upper and middle income households, leaving them homogeneous but poor. (For example, many of Urban’s Institute’s “most inclusive cities” are suburbs like Bellevue, Naperville and Santa Clara–among the wealthiest 20 cities in the US; while Detroit and Cleveland are also highly ranked for inclusiveness. Small geographies, neighborhoods/cities that have high levels of measured income inequality (90/10 ratio, Gini Index) are generally much more inclusive than comparable geographies that with lower levels of measured inequality.  Rich and poor living closer together produces more measured inequality, but also means greater inclusion.

2. Parking should pay its way:  Hartford’s land value tax lite.  One of the perverse effects of the US system of property taxation is that improving urban property, by say building apartments, offices or stores, triggers an increase in tax liability.  That tends to discourage development and reward low value uses of valuable urban land. Effectively the biggest subsidies from this arrangement go to surface parking lots, which usually pay taxes only on the value of land. While in theory a land-value tax would fix this incentive problem, its politically hard to change the whole tax system.  Hartford, Connecticut has a proposal to up fees on parking lots by a modest amount (about 50 cents per space per day) to fund transportation.  The fee would work like a kind of land value tax “lite.”  This is definitely a step toward making the tax system fairer; as parking lots don’t pay anything close to their full-freight in local finance. Take for example stormwater:  Hartford’s building a multi-billion dollar subway for sewage, largely to deal with the runoff from roads and parking lots.  City water users pay the full cost of this project; cars and parking lots pay nothing for a problem they largely create.  More cities should look into asking parking to pay its way.

Must read

1.  The geography of sedition:  Geolocation of Parler Videos, 6 January 2021.

2.  A roundup of what’s been written about Covid-19 and cities.  At City Observatory, we’ve spent a good deal of time tracking data on the Coronavirus pandemic as it spread, paying particular attention to a couple of themes, one linking density to the virus, something which appeared as a popular theory early on, but which must now deal with higher rates of death in rural areas.  A second theme looks at the future of urban areas in an era of work-at-home for many professionals.  James Brasuell at Planetizen has compiled a comprehensive list of news articles and blog posts on these themes; it’s a useful resource for following the debate.

3. Todd Litman:  Housing first, cars last.  Leave it to one-man transportation think tank Todd LItman to succinctly make lay out the definitive strategy for advancing equitable urbanism.  In an essay at Planetizen, Litman writes:

Our current laws do not mandate housing for people, but virtually all jurisdictions do mandate an abundant and costly supply of housing for motor vehicles. Our zoning codes require that most buildings include numerous parking spaces that are generally unpriced, which is a huge and unfair subsidy for automobile use. This increases housing costs, encourages driving, and forces car-free households to pay for expensive parking facilities they don’t need.

There’s a shortage of affordable housing nearly everywhere, particularly in some of our most livable cities. But at the same time, we’re awash in “free” (meaning un-priced) parking, with three or four or more parking spaces for every car in most metro areas.  Indeed, parking requirements essentially tax housing to subsidize parking.  Reversing this fundamentally wrong-headed prioritization is the key to building better  and more equitable cities.

4.  How Covid-19 debunked one old gentrification myth.  Jake Ambinder, writing in the Atlantic.  One of the most resilient folk narratives of gentrification is the idea that by building more housing greedy developers drive up rents and cause displacement.  Not only has that theory never made much sense, and has been disproven by repeated studies, but the deflation of demand in some previously super-heated urban markets shows that when demand and supply are in closer balance, rents actually come down.  The real cause of the affordability crisis in thriving metro areas isn’t the developers, but the constraints on development fomented and defended by NIMBY homeowners.  The prevalence of single-family zoning and widespread apartment bans wrought by nominally pro-environment homeowner groups constrict housing supply, drive up rents, and trigger displacement.  As Ambinder concludes:

The homeowner-friendly slow-growth activism that marked American cities in the late twentieth century is thus best understood not as the predecessor of today’s anti-gentrification politics but as the progenitor of the gentrification crisis itself. In wealthy coastal cities today, one need not develop skyscrapers or shopping malls to be a speculator in urban property. With widespread housing scarcity, simply owning a modest home in Berkeley or Brooklyn will suffice.

New Knowledge

Tragically slow progress in improving vehicle fuel efficiency.  For decades, the big technical fix to our energy problems was the idea that imposing progressively tougher fuel economy standards on the sale of new vehicles would lower energy consumption.  That same idea has been bolted on to many climate action plans (don’t worry, new cars will consume less fuel, and therefore generate fewer greenhouse gases).  A new tabulation of real world fuel consumption and driving data by Michael Sivak shows that what progress we made in this regard largely petered out more than a decade ago, and alarmingly, in the latest year for which data are available, fuel economy actually declined.
Early on, there was a lot of low hanging fruit, and fuel economy improved dramatically between the late 1970s and 1990.  But from 1990 through 2004, there was basically no change in average fuel economy.  Between 2004 and 2008, fuel economy improved appreciably.  Overall, there’s been a startling slowdown in the improvement in fuel economy.  Sivak calculates that from 1973 to 1991, fuel efficiency improved by 2.3 percent per year, since 2008, fuel efficiency has improved by 0.2 percent per year.  In other words, it now takes us ten times as long to get a given improvement in fuel efficiency as it did 40 years ago.
As economists, we’d be remiss if we didn’t note that a lot of these changes had everything to do with fuel prices.  Fuel prices were flat (declining in real terms) during the 1990s, and there was a big jump in oil prices in the early 2000’s.  Car buyers responded both times, buying less fuel efficient vehicles when gas was cheap in the 1990s, and more efficient vehicles as fuel prices rose after 2004.
Since 2010, progress has been very slow.  More and more Americans are buying sport utility vehicles, and the decline in gas prices after 2014 has prompted purchases of more large vehicles, with the predictable result that fuel economy fleetwide actually declined in the most recent year.  As Sivak notes in his analysis, vehicle purchase decisions cast a long shadow in terms of fuel consumption and pollution.  Only about 6 percent of the vehicle fleet turns over in any given year, and the average vehicle lasts for almost 12 years.  This means that much of the fleet that will be on the road in 2030 consists of the large, inefficient vehicles people are buying today.
Finally, it’s worth noting that if anything, Sivak’s numbers actually understate the failure of efficiency standards, because they only consider the per-vehicle and per-mile energy consumption.  The combination of somewhat more efficient vehicles and low energy prices has prompted people (at least prior to Covid-19) to drive more miles, producing even more emissions in the aggregate.  Simply making individual cars more efficient is easily overwhelmed by more driving, with all its external costs.
There’s a naive, carrotist belief that we can painlessly achieve our energy efficiency and climate goals simply by mandating progressively more efficient cars.  The data shows this strategy isn’t working.
Michael Sivak, “Actual fuel economy of cars and light trucks: 1966-2019,” Green Car Congress, January 7, 2021.

The Week Observed, January 22, 2021

What City Observatory this week

Institutionalized housing discrimination. A recent study of housing discrimination in Detroit came to a seemingly surprising conclusion:  Fair housing complaints were less likely to be filed in higher income, higher priced predominantly white neighborhoods than in lower income neighborhoods that were predominantly Black.  The study’s authors were puzzled by the finding, but we think there’s a pretty clear explanation. In expensive mostly white suburbs, there’s no need to practice the overt discrimination of turning down applicants of color, or telling them the house is rented (or under offer):  The high price of housing, dictated by restrictive local zoning codes, automatically performs that chore.  Large lot single family zoning and apartment bans reshape the housing market to make it simply unaffordable for low income people to move into some communities, and given the correlation between poverty and race, this has much the same effect as in-your-face discrimination.

In 2021, it’s the case that the most widespread and pernicious forms of housing discrimination are the subtle institutionalized racism embedded in systems like zoning.

Must read

1. Four reasons why public housing isn’t going to solve our affordability problems. Some housing advocates are hoping that the new Biden Administration will embrace the construction of more public housing as one cornerstone of its ruban policy.  The Brookings Institution’s Jenny Schuetz makes the case that public housing is unlikely to be an effective solution.  A central problem is that the same land use restrictions that block market rate housing (apartment bans, parking requirements, arbitrary review processes) apply with equal or greater force to public housing. Moreover, the institutional capacity of public housing authorities to actually plan and build new housing has atrophied dramatically; and most authorities are overwhelmed with managing the maintenance burden of the legacy public housing stock.  Finally, for any given amount of resources, other types of subsidies—like expanding housing vouchers, or acquiring and redeveloping existing housing—may provide more benefits more quickly to more people.

2. Why the linear city is a straight line leading nowhere.  With great fanfare, and fancy animation, developers have announced plans to build a futuristic 100-mile long linear city in Saudi Arabia.

While it’s billed as a startling new idea, it isn’t.  The linear city was proposed, tried, and failed in the 19th Century, as Vice’s Aaron Gordon points out.

This new iteration is wrapped in all the buzzwords of contemporary urbanism:  there won’t be any cars; all transport will be underground, and people will walk everywhere.If techno-futurism has perfected anything, it is the art of unwittingly re-inventing old ideas, inflating them to a scale so epic that it accentuates all of the idea’s flaws, and presenting it in a slick hype video as the Only Way Forward.

Grandiose plans advanced by high priced consultants are common in this part of the world.  Plan’s for Masdar, a smart green new city in Abu Dhabi, are largely stillborn after a decade.  While only a few very wealthy places can really indulge these futurist follies, it’s all too common for urban leaders to hope for a simple technical fix, rather than tackling the more fundamental problems close at hand.  As Gordon explains:

. . . one of the many problems city governments have is they all too often dig deep into the well of techno-futurist ideas like “smart cities” and “artificial intelligence” when much more realistic solutions like zoning reform and elimination of parking minimums and making certain streets car-free are right there for the taking. They may be hard to do and will piss some people off in the process, but at least they will ultimately solve problems and make people’s lives better.

3. Why are US transit construction costs so damn high?  A recent report from the Eno Foundation argues that its a misperception that transit construction costs are higher in the US than the rest of the world.  But Alon Levy, writing at Pedestrian Observations, begs to differ.  Levy, who maintains an extensive global database on construction costs argues that the Eno study is biased for several reasons:  it looks mostly at light rail, not full rapid transit, it leaves out cost estimates for high income Asian countries, and it also leaves out lesser known (and lower cost) light rail and tram systems in smaller European countries and cities.  The point-counterpoint between Levy and Eno provides a useful framework for answering this complex question.

New Knowledge

Can policy reduce inequality?  For a long time, we’ve known that housing segregation and school segregation have been instrumental in creating and perpetuating racial disparities in opportunity and economic prosperity.  Due to our heavily localized systems of school finance and administration, the quality of a child’s education depends in large part on how nice a neighborhood his or her parents can afford. Since at least Brown v. Board of Education more than 65 years ago, public policy has aimed at trying to reduce disparities by decreasing segregation in schools, and equalizing resources.
In a thoughtful essay that draws on some of the best of recent research, Harvard economist Richard Murnane makes a strong case that we have to do more than desegregate schools and raise test scores if we are to redress persistent racial disparities in economic outcomes. While schools are central to life chances, it’s not just the school that influences outcomes. Schools are embedded in the communities in which they operate and it’s a combination of the richer resources, fewer obstacles, stronger peers and more abundant social capital in mixed income neighborhoods that gives rise to big improvements in economic opportunity.
Murnane highlights the findings from the Moving to Opportunity studies, summarized by Lawrence Katz and others, Eric Chyn’s analysis of the movement of families out of Chicago public housing, and data on the effects of Charlotte’s school lottery program.  In every case, these studies showed that while moving kids from low income families to desegregated schools in middle and upper income neighborhoods had modest effects on their test scores, they were associated with big improvements in life outcomes, measured by higher earnings and lower probability of incarceration. The Chicago housing study found that former public housing tenants who were relocated to middle income neighborhoods had a higher probability of employment and higher earnings than otherwise similar students who stayed in the neighborhood. The Charlotte study found that low income students who won the lottery to attend high-demand schools had lower rates of incarceration for boys and higher rates of college attendance for girls.
Murnane argues that the combination of better soft skills, different experiences and expectations, and different peer groups plays a key role in enabling kids from low income households to succeed in these places.
 . . . it is not choice per se that matters. It is growing up in neighborhoods with lower crime rates and more economically advantaged neighbors and attending better schools with children from more economically advantaged families.
Our focus on schools and education needs to move beyond raising test scores to a more comprehensive understanding of the role of social skills (like reliability; persistence in the face of challenges; listening, negotiating, and communicating effectively; and the ability to work productively in groups with people of different backgrounds) as well as the role of context. Segregated schools, particularly in high poverty neighborhoods present students with more challenges, fewer social resources, and thinner networks, all of which make it harder to succeed in life.  As Murnane concludes:
Given the history of housing segregation in America and the funding structure of American schooling, a great many Black children grow up in high-poverty, unsafe neighborhoods and attend underfunded schools that do not prepare them for success in post-secondary education and the labor market. But the studies described above make a strong case that reducing the social isolation in which a great many low-income Black families live and their children attend school are powerful strategies for reducing race-based intergenerational inequalities.
Richard Murnane, “Can Policy Interventions Reduce Inequality? Looking Beyond Test Scores for Evidence” The Digest (William T. Grant Foundation), No. 6, January 2021.

In the News

StreetsblogUSA republished our analysis of Hartford’s proposed parking fees under the title, “How to stop giving parking developers a free ride.”

The Hartford Courant also wrote about our analysis of the proposed increase in parking fees.


The Week Observed, January 29, 2021

What City Observatory this week

1. Why Portland’s Rose Quarter Freeway widening will increase greenhouse gas emissions.  The Oregon Department of Transportation hashas falsely claimed its $800 million freeway widening project has no impact on greenhouse gas emissions.  We examine traffic data produced by ODOT which shows that the widening will increase average daily traffic above today’s levels and produce tens of thousands of tons of additional greenhouse gases. The ODOT numbers are certainly an underestimate because they completely discount the certainty of induced demand:  the scientifically demonstrated increase in vehicle travel that results from expanding freeway capacity in dense urban areas.

2. More performative pedestrian infrastructure.  News reports hailed a new “protected” intersection in Houston, which prompted us to take a close look at the project.  To be sure, as depicted in the artist’s conception, there are wider sidewalks, better lighting, nicer plantings, and even bollards (which we take to be the “protected” part).  But if you step back, the project is just another failed attempt to remediate a fundamentally pedestrian hostile environment. The project actually widens and lengthens two “slip” lanes, which accelerates turning traffic and increases danger for crossing pedestrians.

Pedestrian “infrastructure”- but no pedestrians, because it’s not a walkable place.

Pedestrians must still cross two busy, multi-lane arterial streets that carry about 60,000 cars per day.  And the local neighborhood has almost no walkable destinations nearby.  As we’ve said, much of what gets labeled pedestrian infrastructure, is really to convenience car travelers, and does nothing to fix the fundamental problems of pedestrian hostile development patterns.

Must read

1. Will economics support post-Covid cities?  Economist and Bloomberg columnist Noah Smith muses on whether economic forces will enable smart, flexible workers to “zoom it in” from remote locations instead of living and working in Superstar cities.  He discounts some of the key agglomeration economies that the driven city growth in the past several decades, including the productivity of workers in dense urban offices, and the knowledge spillovers that come from proximity and competition.  The most economic enduring factor attracting talented workers to cities, Smith thinks is urban amentiies:

For young people, this means bars, music venues, fun social events, lots of potential friends in their age group, and — probably the most important piece — opportunities to meet romantic partners. For older people this means a large variety of good restaurants and cultural events like musicals.  For this reason, distributed workforces might just mean that knowledge workers live in different superstar cities.

Thus even if some workers are no longer bound to one large city, their most favored alternative may still be yet another superstar city.  Smith relates that his migration has taken him from New York to San Francisco, and his next move, if there is one, is likely to be to Tokyo.  When it comes to urban amenities—and the diverse crowds of smart, discerning and innovative customers that support them—there’s still no substitute for a great city.

2. American’s broadly favor public housing . . . just not in their back yard (or neighborhood).  A new survey from Data for Progress shows remarkably strong public support for the idea of putting more federal tax dollars into building or subsidizing the construction of affordable housing.

That’s encouraging news given that today’s principal low income housing program, housing choice vouchers reaches only about one in five eligible households.  The Biden Administration is proposing ramping up funding for vouchers, but whether we get more affordable housing, especially in desirable opportunity neighborhoods still hinges on whether local land use controls allow its economical construction; apartment bans and minimum lot sizes make affordable housing uneconomical in many US neighborhoods, and there’s little support, and predictable and vociferous opposition any time there’s a specific proposed project that would change this pattern.

3.  Rights of Way.  Houston Architect Christof Spieler has a thoughtful essay challenging the car-centric practices that dominate transportation policy in his (and other) cities.  Texas metro areas, from Houston, to Dallas, to Austin, continue to be caught in an endless cycle of roadbuilding, projecting that traffic will increase in the future, building more roads to accomodate, and than find that traffic still increases further.

The widening of I-35 in Austin is an assertion that traffic will inevitably continue to increase, and that the only way to handle that is to add traffic lanes. This is a direct projection from the past, a continuation of a decades-long strategy used as Austin grew from 130,000 people in the 1950s to 978,000 today. I-35 was built in the 1960s along the old East Avenue, a six-lane road. The original highway had four lanes, two in each direction. . . . The distance the average resident of the Austin region drives increased for decades. TxDOT sees a freeway where traffic travels at 15 mph at rush hour and concludes that the only reasonable response is to add lanes. The question this workshop poses is what the best way is to add those four new lanes, and how to minimize the impacts those lanes will inevitably have on the city.  However, those additional highways have been as much a cause of additional driving as they have been a result of it.

Ultimately, Spieler argues, the answers to the questions about what Texas cities (and others should do) don’t emerge from travel demand models that simply call for repeating past mistakes, they call for us to think about what kind of places we want to inhabit in the future.

New Knowledge

How close is “close” in local labor markets?  There’s a widespread, but largely naive belief in economic development circles that in order to help the unemployed, you’ve got to create jobs in or very near the neighborhoods in which they live. On some level, the notion is appealing:  it ought to be easier to find a job if its just down the street or at least a short commute away.
But a new study from one of the economic development field’s most respected scholars, Upjohn Institute’s Tim Bartik, takes a very close look at that question and comes up with an answer that, on its face, seems to debunk the “hyperlocal”  view of job accessibility.  The scholarly variant of the “local jobs” notion is called the “job mismatch” hypothesis, the idea that low income populations or dis-favored groups live in neighborhoods that are far from job centers, and that this lack of propinquity causes their higher levels of unemployment.
At the other end of the spectrum from the  “hyper-local” view is the “regional labor market” view–the notion that people’s employment prospects are most heavily influenced by the overall level of job creation in an entire labor market.  Labor markets are usually defined as multi-county metropolitan areas, and a key factor in drawing metro boundaries is data on worker commuting patterns.  The key idea here is that a healthy regional labor market produces, both directly and indirectly, more job opportunities for everyone, regardless of whether they happen to be in or near one’s own neighborhood.
Bartik’s research finds strong support for the “regional labor market view” and finds that the health of the regional labor market has a lot more to do with the unemployed getting jobs that with the growth (or lack of growth) of jobs nearby.  Bartik uses a geography called “commuting zones”—slightly larger than metro areas—and finds that job growth in these areas is more important to explaining increased employment than neighborhood level changes.  Within a metropolitan area (or commuting zone) job creation tends to benefit residents of more-distressed counties; targeted job creation in distressed counties has only modestly more benefits that job creation throughout the metro area (or commuting zone).

Bartik’s paper complements other recent urban economics research that challenges the geographically reductionist view of labor markets.  Michael Lens and his co-authors found no correlation between proximity to jobs and earnings gains for low income households.  Raj Chetty and his colleagues found little evidence of proximity of nearby jobs and lifetime earnings.

Major policy initiatives, like Opportunity Zones, have a kind of “propinquity” model of opportunity: the notion that having jobs nearby, ideally in the same neighborhood, is the key to helping people move out of poverty.  These studies cast serious doubt on this simplistic notion.

Timothy J. Bartik, “How Long-Run Effects of Local Demand Shocks on Employment Rates Vary with Local Labor Market Distress,” W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, Upjohn Institute working paper ; 21-339, January 21, 2021, DOI: 10.17848/wp21-339

In the News

Willamette Week quotes City Observatory’s Joe Cortright on Portland’s proposed carbon tax for a handful of large polluters—one that unfortunately exempts the biggest sources of greenhouse gases.


The Week Observed, January 8, 2021

What City Observatory this week

1. 2021 is when we have to get real about tackling climate change.  We’ve boiled our analysis of the climate challenge down to four key points:

  1. Pledges alone won’t accomplish anything. Saying you support the Paris Accords and plan to emit much less greenhouse gas a two or three decades from now doesn’t count for anything without immediate actions now to lower emissions.
  2. We’re falling further and further behind our stated goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, principally because since 2014 we’re driving more.  That’s true in cities around the country, including our own home Portland.  Transportation agencies are particularly complicit in this failure, and are chiefly rationalizing “pollution as usual” in the guise of climate strategy.
  3. Cities are central to the climate solution: We need to build more great walkable city neighborhoods, and more housing in the great walkable neighborhoods we already have.
  4. Pricing carbon (as well as pricing driving and parking) can go a long way to creating the incentives and leveraging the financial resources and human ingenuity needed to save the planet.

2. If Portland’s going to have a carbon tax, let’s make it apply to the biggest and fastest growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions.  The City of Portland has proposed a $25/ton “healthy climate” fee, which we think is a good idea, but doesn’t go far enough.  The city’s proposal would apply the fee only to about 30 “facilities” around the city that together account for only about 5 percent of the cities carbon footprint.  In our view, the fee ought to be extended to two of the largest sources of greenhouse gases, travel on the Oregon Department of Transportation’s interstate freeways in Portland, and flights in and out of Portland International Airport. Together, these two sources account for several times more carbon pollution than the three dozen facilities singled out in the cities proposed ordinance.

3.  A Green New Deal for Portland?  In the wake of the failure at the polls of a multi-billion transportation proposal, the region could use new leadership and a new direction for metro Portland’s transportation and climate efforts.  We’re pleased to present a guest commentary from planner and strategist Garlynn Windsong speaking to what the Portland metropolitan area could be doing to seriously address the climate crisis.

Must read

1. Streets before trust.  Alon Levy of Pedestrian Observations has an insightful column about the unfortunate paralysis created by insisting that we make community trust a pre-requisite for meaningful changes to the urban environment. In Levy’s view, the way we’re most likely to build trust with dispossessed communities in by tangible actions, not extended if sympathetic conversations.

There’s an emerging mentality among left-wing urban planners in the US called “trust before streets.” It’s a terrible idea that should disappear, a culmination of about 50 or 60 years of learned helplessness in the American public sector. . . . The correct way forward is to think in terms of state capacity first, and in particular about using the state to enact tangible change, which includes providing better public transportation and remaking streets to be safer to people who are not driving. Trust follows – in fact, among low-trust people, seeing the state provide meaningful tangible change is what can create trust, and not endless public meetings in which an untrusted state professes its commitment to social justice.

Nothing Levy says denies the real disempowerment that low income and BIPOC communities experience; it acknowledges that actions speak much louder than words. The problem is that too frequently the processes that are used to simulate trust building via public involvement become a substitute for more direct and tangible measures to redress past injustices.

2. Automobile Dependency and Equity.  The irreplaceable Todd Litman has a timely essay looking at the inherent inequity of our automobile centric transportation system.  One of the key findings:  while owning an automobile can increase a low income household’s access to jobs, on average it ends up costing them more for car payments, fuel insurance and repairs that it generates in increased income.  As Litman summarizes:

. . .  low-income households that obtained a car were able to work more hours and earn approximately $2,300 more per year, which sounds great, but they spent an additional $4,100 annually on their vehicles, so they ended up with less time and less money overall. For many lower-income people, automobiles are an economic trap: they force people to work harder so they can earn more money so they can pay vehicle expenses to commute to their job, making them worse off overall.

There’s nothing equitable about a transportation system that works well only for those who can afford and operate an expensive private motor vehicle.

3. A big fraction of metro moves appear to be short-term.  A key facet of the “urban flight” stories associated with the pandemic was data on people looking to change metro areas. Chris Salviati, who analyzes apartment web search activity at ApartmentList.com reports that a larger than normal share of movers are looking for short-term leases, suggesting that what movement has been observed may be reversed as the pandemic and recession subside.  For example, there’s been a big uptick in searches for short term leases in places like Honolulu:  Who wouldn’t want to ride out the pandemic there?

According to Apartment Lists analysis of millions of searches, declines in some markets like San Francisco have been driven more by a reduction in in-bound moves than an increase in out-bound activity. It appears that the market is reflecting uncertainty about the immediate economic situation, rather than a permanent, long-term shift in location preferences.

New Knowledge

It’s become increasingly clear in the past decade that induced demand makes freeway widening futile as a congestion reduction strategy.  Building more roads generates more and longer car trips, which show up as an increase in vehicle miles traveled (VMT), air pollution and sprawl. That’s a fact that the existing four-step models used by state highway departments to justify freeway construction and expansion projects simply aren’t designed to incorporate.  An analysis by transportation experts Jamey Volker, Amy Lee and Susan Handy of the UC Davis Institute for Transportation Studies concludes:
. . .  most models do not include all of the feedback loops necessary to represent the secondary effects of capacity expansion. These models were designed to estimate the effect of capacity expansion on travel times for a given population and employment level for the region. . . . Few models feed the estimated travel times back into the trip distribution or trip generation stages of the model, thereby ignoring the possibility that improved travel times will increase the number of trips that residents choose to make or the possibility that they will choose more distant destinations for their trips. Few models feed estimated travel times back into assumptions about the distribution and growth of population and employment that also influence the frequency and length of trips. In short, the models may do an adequate job of accounting for changes in route and shifts in mode, but they underestimate increases in VMT attributable to increases in trip frequencies and lengths that the capacity expansion will induce.
The academic literature on that subject has converged on the idea of unit elasticity, that in dense urban environments, a one-percent increase in highway capacity generates a one percent increase in vehicle travel.  Volker, Lee and Handy have used that analysis to construct an induced travel calculator, calibrated for California freeways, that estimates the additional vehicle miles of travel induced by an expansion of roadway capacity.
The article examines how induced demand has (and usually hasn’t) been addressed in planning for five major highway expansion projects in California.  They find that highway departments usually only address induced demand in response to public comments, rarely apply state-of-the-art modeling to their analysis, and routinely underestimate the effects of induced demand, by as much as an order of magnitude.  If we’re serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, highway expansion projects need to be routinely analyzed using models that reflect the best available science, and which explicitly model the impacts of induced demand.
Jamey M. B. Volker, Amy E. Lee, Susan Handy, “Induced Vehicle Travel in the Environmental Review Process,” Transportation Research Record, Volume: 2674 issue: 7, (July, 2020)pages 468-479

In the News

Bloomberg CityLab editor David Dudley has a long column, fondly remembering his lengthy pre-pandemic commute to work; in it he quotes our observations about the relative rarity of super-commuting.


The Urban Institute gets inclusion backwards, again

The Urban Institute has released an updated set of estimates that purport to measure which US cities are the most inclusive.  The report is conceptually flawed, and actually gets its conclusions backwards, classifying some of the nation’s most exclusive places as “inclusive.” 

We all want our cities to be more inclusive. While it’s an agreed upon goal, measuring inclusiveness turns out to be difficult and complicated. A set of measures developed by the Urban Institute in 2018, and updated late last year, unfortunately paint a picture of inclusion that is misleading and incorrectly portrays wealthy suburban enclaves as inclusive.  In this commentary, we present our analysis of the problems with the Urban Institute’s measures of inclusion, published at its website “Measuring Inclusion in America’s Cities.”

If we’re going to make real progress in addressing community inequities in the US, we need a system for defining and measuring “inclusiveness,” both so we can identify those places that are doing well, and which need most to improve, as well as to to learn from more successful places about what policies and practices support inclusion, and to enable everyone to measure their progress toward greater inclusion over time.  Absent such definitions and metrics, it’s difficult to figure out what works, and what doesn’t.  While well intended, the metrics offered by the Urban Institute are actually a step in the wrong direction, obscuring our understanding of which places are most inclusive, and what policies it would take to expand inclusion.

Two years ago, when this ranking system was first published, we released a five-part review and critique of its approach, definitions and conclusions.  We found:

  • The Urban Institute’s definitions rest on the conceptually flawed idea that cities that are more homogenous are more inclusive; in fact, homogeneity is usually a sign of exclusion, not inclusion. This leads the report to get inclusion backwards and classify some of the nation’s most exclusive suburban enclaves as “inclusive.”
  • The Urban Institute methodology ignores metropolitan context, treating racially homogenous cities in segregated metro areas “inclusive.” For example, both the city of Detroit and several of its suburbs are rated as highly inclusive, even though the metropolitan area is among the nation’s most racially and economically segregated.
  • The Urban Institute methodology classifies a series of high income suburban cities with restrictive zoning policies as inclusive. Urban Institute claims that the nation’s most “inclusive cities” are a series of high income enclaves in the nation’s large metro areas, such as Naperville, IL, Bellevue, WA, Plano, TX and Sunnyvale, CA; all places with median family incomes of over $100,000.
  • City boundaries are an inappropriate and misleading basis for estimating inclusiveness; because of their widely varying size and composition, municipalities are a poor choice for computing and comparing equitable outcomes.
  • City boundaries change over time; The Urban Institute did not adjust its estimates over time to account for annexations and mergers, treating growth through annexation as an indicator of economic prosperity.

If you take the Urban Institute report literally—which you shouldn’t—you will believe that the nation’s most inclusive communities are mostly a bunch of the toniest suburbs in the nation’s large metro areas—Sunnyvale, CA, Plano, TX, Bellevue, WA, Torrance, CA, Naperville, IL and Carlsbad, CA—all places with median family incomes in excess of $100,000 per year.  Here we’ve taken the Urban Institute’s latest data, which ranks cities from most inclusive to least inclusive.  Median family incomes are shown for each city.

The problem is that instead of measuring inclusivity, UI’s metrics actually measure homogeneity.  They look only at the demographics within a city’s boundaries, and rate a place highly if all its residents have similar levels of income, poverty, employment and homeownership. It’s true that there are very small differences in homeownership, employment, and poverty by race in many expensive suburbs, but that’s because their high home prices exclude low income people generally, and assure if people of color live there, they too have high incomes and high rates of homeownership and low rates of poverty and unemployment.

Similarly, that’s also why some very economically distressed places get rated highly for inclusion—if all or nearly all residents are equally poor, their measured disparities are small. But while these places are homogenous, they’re not inclusive.  In fact, just the opposite.  High income suburbs exclude by having extremely high housing costs, and those high housing costs are created and enforced by local land use policies, especially single family zoning. Low income cities exclude by having too few amenities or opportunities to retain households with high incomes:  When middle and upper income households move away, a neighborhood of concentrated poverty is more homogenous, and by the Urban Institute formulation, “more inclusive.”  We think that’s just backwards.

To its credit, the Urban Institute makes all of the data and formulas it used for ranking cities easily available.  They present detailed city level data on population, income, employment poverty, racial and economic segregation, and other key demographic indicators.  But this is a case of negative synergy:  the end product (the composite inclusiveness measure computed by Urban Institute) is less informative than sum of its parts (all of the data points).  The ranking system actually conceals and misrepresents the inclusiveness (or exclusiveness) of cities, rather than providing useful and accurate information.

As a consequence, the report is a poor guide, both to who’s doing well in achieving inclusion, and what cities (and policies) might be thought of as means to advance inclusion.

As we’ve stressed at City Observatory, building more inclusive metropolitan areas, and in particular, reducing the amount of racial/ethnic and economic segregation is critical to building a more equitable nation.  Unfortunately, the metrics and conclusions offered in this report about which places are inclusive are simply wrong, and consequently provide no useful guidance to local or national leaders about the way forward.

Just because you stick that sign on it doesn’t mean it’s inclusive.

The Urban Institute Report:  Measuring Inclusion

In 2018,  the Urban Institute released its report, “Measuring Inclusion in America’s Cities.” The study presented  a series of metrics of racial disparities, income disparities and economic performance of the nation’s 274 largest cities, and examining how these have changed over time. It aims to benchmark where cities stand on inclusion, understand how inclusion relates to economic growth, and provide lessons for policy makers.

We’ve taken a close look at the report, and while well-documented and certainly well-intended, we’re concerned that some of the metrics it offers and some of the findings it presents make an already tortuously difficult policy area even more confusing.

The paradoxical relationship between inclusion and equality 

Paradoxically, at the very local level equality is fundamentally at odds with inclusion

On its face, it seems like defining inclusion would be simple. It ought to be the absence of disparities in a community. But the reality its much more complicated. Measured economic disparities in a city can be very small, if for example, everyone is rich or everyone is poor.

Urban Institute’s report measures two different dimensions of inclusion, racial inclusion and economic inclusion. In the case of racial inclusion, they look at segregation (whether the white and non-white residents of a particular live in different or similar neighborhoods), and whether there are disparities in educational attainment and home-ownership between whites and non-whites. They also look at the total fraction of the population of a city that is non-white.

In almost every case, the Urban Institute report defines inter-group disparities as an indicator of a lack of inclusion. If, for example, homeownership rates differ greatly between persons of color and whites, that suggests an area isn’t inclusive.

With each of these measures, cities score highest if they have very little inter-group variation.  If white and non-white incomes, unemployment rates, and homeownership rates are very similar, the Urban Institute defines an city as “inclusive.” For example, if everyone in a community is high income, regardless of race or ethnicity, then it is “inclusive.”  Similarly, if everyone in a community is low income, regardless of race or ethnicity, then it is also “inclusive.”

There’s some merit to this idea, but it’s really focusing on “equality” rather than “inclusion.”  It’s entirely possible for a community to be “equal” without at all being inclusive.  In fact, communities that are exclusive tend to be highly equal.  If, for example, you have a community where all housing costs at least $500,000 and there are no apartments, it’s unlikely that you will have many poor, or unemployed, or renters. And it may be that there are very limited economic disparities between residents of different racial and ethnic groups (everyone who can afford to live in such a community, regardless of race or ethnicity, almost certainly has a high income).

Conversely, very inclusive places, where people of widely varying incomes reside, almost by definition have high levels of inequality. A community composed of equal measures rich and poor, homeowners and renters, and with a wide variety of housing sizes and types, including mansions and public housing, will have larger measured disparities in incomes, in homeownership rates, in poverty and so on. It’s a seeming paradox: a place that is truly diverse and inclusive, whether measured by income or race and ethnicity, by definition needs to unequal.

This is not the first time this issue has arisen: We’ve pointed out that applying a broad standard of equality to small geographic areas produces a kind of weird parallax effect: places that have low levels of measure income disparity tend to be homogenous (usually all rich, or all poor), meaning that they are either exclusive or failing.  The geography of inequality is anti-fractal:  high levels of measured inequality at small geographies mean exactly the opposite of what they mean at large geographies.

The bottom line is that a truly inclusive place may in fact have high levels of measured disparity. As a result, there’s an important conceptual flaw in metrics that focus solely on the localized presence of disparities to discuss inclusion.

To summarize:

  • Cities don’t generate income distributions among their populations, so much as they include (or exclude) different income groups. City inequality is not a linear microcosm of national income inequality.
  • Highly equal cities are almost always either exclusive suburban enclaves (that achieve homogeneity by rigid zoning limits that exclude the poor) or impoverished cities that have been abandoned by upper and middle income households, leaving them homogeneous but poor. (For example, many of Urban’s Institute’s “most inclusive cities” are suburbs like Bellevue, Naperville and Santa Clara–among the wealthiest 20 cities in the US; while Detroit and Cleveland are also highly ranked for inclusiveness.
  • Small geographies, neighborhoods/cities that have high levels of measured income inequality (90/10 ratio, Gini Index) are generally much more inclusive than comparable geographies that with lower levels of measured inequality.  Rich and poor living closer together produces more measured inequality, but also means greater inclusion.

We want to stress that we have enormous respect for the researchers at the Urban Institute: over the years we’ve learned tremendously from their work. We and everyone who cares about cities has a huge debt for their scholarship and advocacy. They’ve provided powerful evidence of the huge economic and human toll continuing racial and economic disparities in their report “The Cost of Segregation.” Our own report on concentrated poverty Lost in Place, draws liberally from the canonical work by Urban Institute scholars. The critique presented here is meant to advance our shared understanding of how we can build more inclusive cities. We conferred with the authors of the report in 2018 after it was released and shared these concerns with them. The analysis presented here remains solely the responsibility of City Observatory.