Revealed: ODOT’s Secret Plans for a 10-Lane Rose Quarter Freeway

For years, ODOT has been planning to build a 10 lane freeway at the Rose Quarter, not the 6 lanes it has advertised.

Three previously undisclosed files show ODOT is planning for a 160 foot wide roadway at Broadway-Weidler, more than enough for a 10 lane freeway with full urban shoulders.

ODOT has failed to analyze the traffic, environmental and health impacts from an expansion to ten lanes; not disclosing these reasonably foreseeable impacts is a violation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

For years, the Oregon Department of Transportation has represented its plans to widen I-5 through the Rose Quarter in Portland as a minor addition of a pair of “auxiliary” lanes to the existing four lanes than carry I-5 through this area.  The agency has repeatedly declined to answer direct questions about the actual physical width of the roadway it is engineering, instead it relies on an incomplete and misleading illustration published in its Environmental Assessment.

Now, No More Freeways, a Portland citizen advocacy group has obtained documents showing that ODOT is actually planning a 160 foot roadway, one more than adequate to accommodate a full ten lane freeway. A story from Willamette Week, “Questions about the footprint of the I-5 Rose Quarter project intensify“, reveals that the Oregon Department of Transportation has long concealed data on the actual width of the freeway it is planning to build through Portland’s Rose Quarter.

ODOT has previously and repeatedly refused to answer basic questions about the width of the freeway.  These documents, which include detailed plans developed by ODOT and its contractors, shows the agency has long known exactly how wide a freeway it is planning, and has designed overpass structures to provide a full 160 feet of buildable space for Interstate 5 roadway at Broadway and Weidler. There’s no doubt, however, that the agency will continue to claim that it’s building a six lane freeway, but no one should believe them: there’s no reason to engineer a massive 160 foot wide roadway for only six lanes, as their own engineering documents, disclosed below show.  Moreover, this kind of deception is an established pattern for ODOT; in 2010 they assured Portland Mayor Sam Adams that they were shrinking the proposed Columbia River Crossing from 12-lanes to 10; instead, they kept the proposed bridge as wide as before and simply deleted all the references to its actual physical width from final environmental documents

Misleading and incomplete information in the Environmental Assessment

The only information provided about the width of the Rose Quarter Freeway was included in a single illustration contained in the project’s 2019 Environmental Assessment.  This illustration, which omits the overall width of the project shows only the dimensions of travel lanes and shoulders.  Together these add up to 126 feet.  That width, as we’ve pointed out at City Observatory, would easily hold an eight-lane freeway.

ODOT’s Misleading EA Illustration:  Six lanes in 126 feet

The following illustrations are taken from the Rose Quarter Environmental Assessment’s Right of Way Report.  We have added the black annotation with arrows indicating the width of the roadway; ODOT’s original illustrations do not provide this information, but we have calculated it from aerial imagery (existing) and by summing the lane and shoulder widths indicated on ODOT illustration (proposed).

What really fits in ODOT’s 160 foot roadway: 10 lanes of freeway 

We’ve drawn a new version of ODOT’s illustration that shows the actual size of the roadway they are proposing to build (on approximately the same scale as ODOT’s illustrations -above).  We’ve also shown how many lanes of traffic this roadway will accommodate.  Our diagram also shows the dimensions of travel lanes, and inside and outside shoulders an allowance for the freeway median and its structures.  This illustration makes it clear that ODOT is building a roadway that will easily accommodate a full ten-lane freeway.

ODOT’s actual freeway cross section at Broadway-Weidler

The undisclosed evidence of the 160 foot roadway.

Throughout the environmental review process and afterwards, the Oregon Department of Transportation has repeatedly declined to disclose the actual width, in feet, of the roadway it is planning to build through the Rose Quarter.

We’ve independently verified ODOT’s decision to engineer a 160-wide roadway based on three different documents.

File 1:  HDR Cover Analysis Memorandum, 2016

In April 2016,  ODOT consultants HDR prepared this memorandum to provide design parameters for the development of a proposal to construct covers over the freeway.  Figure two of this diagram shows the cross section of the freeway as proposed to be built under Broadway and Weidler overpasses.  The measurements on the diagram show two 80 foot spans on either side of a median support structure for a total width of 160 feet.  The detailed roadway section shows six 12 foot travel lanes, four 12 foot shoulders, and two unlabeled, vacant 17′ sections on either side of the outside shoulders.  The measurements on this diagram help explain the 126 foot section shown in ODOT’s illustrations above:  The illustration excludes the two 17 foot sections; adding back these sections brings the right of way to its full 160 foot width (126+34=160).  This detailed plan shows that actual travel lanes (36 feet; three 12 foot lanes on each side of the freeway) utilize less than half of the 80 feet of roadway under the overpass, with more space devoted to shoulders (24 feet in two shoulders) and an unlabeled 17 foot section (41 feet total).

Memo, April 7, 2016. From Andy Johnson (HDR) and Ron Hughes (AECOM), to Mike Mason and John Makler (ODOT), Subject:  Broadway/Weidler Lid Structure Design Concept Feasibility Analysis.

File 2:  CAD-Design Files

No More Freeways obtained a set of ODOT Computer Aided Design (CAD) files showing the plan for the proposed freeway.  We opened this file in a CAD program and used the file’s internal scale tool to measure the total distance of the roadway section as it crossed under the Broadway and Weidler overpasses.  The roadway section is shown in green; the total width of the roadway is 160 feet.

File 3:  Landscape Plans

ODOT hired landscape architect Marianne Zarkin (as a subcontractor to Nelson Nygaard and HDR) to develop a landscape plan for a proposed freeway cover.  Her firm’s website contains a plan of the proposed hardscape and landscaping for the freeway cover, and an included cross-section diagram illustrates the width of the freeway.  The files are un-dated.  While the diagram itself lacks a scale, it does show the size and location of freeway lanes.  Based on the nominal 12′ width of these lanes, the plan shows that the Broadway-Weidler overpass would span a distance of more than 150 feet.

Editor’s Note (February 25, 2021):  After this commentary was originally published, these images were removed from the publicly accessible location on Zarkin’s website. The link that directed to the image shown above now shows as “not found,” as shown below:

City Observatory retains copies downloaded from the website on 24 February 2021.

Why this matters:  More traffic, more pollution, an invalid environmental assessment

ODOT has attempted to minimize the traffic, environmental, health and noise effects of its freeway widening project by representing it as the addition of only two “auxiliary” lanes to the existing four-lane freeway.  These newly revealed plans show that ODOT is actually planning a ten-lane freeway, which would accommodate vastly more traffic, and as a result would have far different and much greater impacts on the area’s livability, safety, and environment.

Constructing additional lanes will induce additional traffic demand, leading to large increases in vehicle miles traveled, air pollution emissions and greenhouse gases.  A ten-lane freeway will, for example, increase the air pollution exposure of students at Harriet Tubman Middle School, which abuts the widened freeway.  The traffic from the ten lane freeway will flood adjacent city streets, making them more hazardous for cyclists and pedestrians.  A higher level of traffic through the Rose Quarter will also make sites on or near the freeway (like the proposed caps) noisier and more polluted than revealed in the Environmental Assessment.


Oregon’s I-5 bridge costs just went up $150 million

Buried in an Oregon Department of Transportation presentation earlier this month is an acknowledgement that the I-5 bridge replacement “contribution” from Oregon will be as much as $1 billion—up from a maximum of $850 million just two months earlier.

The I-5 bridge replacement project (formerly known as the Columbia River Crossing) is a proposal for a multi-billion dollar freeway widening and bridge-expansion program between Portland and Vancouver.  The original CRC project died after costing nearly $200 million for staff and consultants in 2014, but has been revived in the past year.

The cost to Oregon of reviving this boondoggle just jumped to $1 billion.

Late last year, we took a close look at the project’s initial financial plans, which show the project could cost as much as $4.8 billion (and considerably more if more realistic inflation estimates are used). We also identified a fundamental math error in the estimation of the project’s financial gap, i.e. the difference between expected costs and potential revenues.  The Oregon and Washington transportation departments—ODOT and WSDOT—understated the maximum size of the funding gap (i.e. what happens in the two state’s realize the low end of expected revenues and incur the high end of expected costs), by more than $1 billion; the total gap the two state’s face is $3.4 billion.  That hole will have to be filled for the project to move forward.  While both states have indicated an interest in reviving the project, neither has committed funds, so a big question now is, how much will they have to contribute.  The Oregon Department of Transportation was telling legislators one thing a couple of months ago, and something a good deal more expensive now.

December 2020:  Oregon contribution $650 to $850 million

ODOT has been including its estimates of Oregon’s share of these costs in its presentations to state legislators.  On December 10, 2021, ODOT testified to the Legislature that Oregon’s contribution to the I-5 bridge project would be $650 million to $850 million.  (The second colored bar on this chart is identified as “Interstate Bridge Replacement Contribution”

February 2021:  Oregon contribution $750 to $850 million
That estimate is no longer operative.  In a presentation to the Legislature on February 4, 2021, the Department included this diagram, showing the state’s contribution to the project was now $750 million to 1 billion.  The chart is almost identical to the chart presented in December, only the price tag of the I-5 bridge project has changed.
In presenting this chart to the Joint Transportation Committee, ODOT’s Brendan Finn made no mention of the increase in Oregon’s expected contribution.  Instead, he drew the committee’s attention to the timetable for implementation of tolling, and didn’t discuss any of the budgetary amounts listed on this chart.  No one on the committee commented on or questioned the budget amounts.
By comparison to financial plans for the original CRC, this represents essentially a doubling of the state contribution to project costs.  The adopted CRC finance plan called for Oregon and Washington to each chip in $450 million, with the balance of the project to be paid for by tolls, federal transportation funds, and hoped for earmarks.  This change in Oregon’s contribution also implies that the total cost of the project has likely increased by between $200 and $300 million since December, as project costs are divided evenly between the two states by agreement of their state transportation commissions.
Steadily escalating project costs, with under-estimates early on, and cost-overruns later are a routine feature of ODOT projects.  Just a year ago, after long telling the Oregon Legislature that the Rose Quarter freeway widening project would cost $450 million, ODOT raised the project’s price tag to as much as $795 million.  Cost-overruns of 200 percent or more have been common on large ODOT highway projects like the Highway 20 Pioneer Mountain-Eddyville segment, the Newberg-Dundee bypass and Portland’s Grand Avenue Viaduct.
While the allocation of much smaller amounts to bicycle, pedestrian and safety projects generates substantial debate and visible resistance from ODOT, the implied decision to increase the allocation for a major freeway-widening project doesn’t even merit a mention to the Legislature, and is accomplished, seemingly, with a deft change to a single powerpoint slide.  This is typical of ODOT budget practices which conveniently find “unanticipated” revenue whenever it’s time to fund a major highway project.
Even though Oregon and Washington have already spent nearly $200 million on the CRC, and committed another $50 million to the planning effort to revive the project, there’s still considerable uncertainty about the project’s actual dimensions, costs, and revenues.  All one can say with any confidence, based on long experience, is that the project’s total price tag is likely to go even higher.

Equitable Carbon Fee and Dividend

An equitable carbon fee and dividend should be set to a price level necessary to achieve GHG reduction goals; kicker payment should be set so 70% of people receive a net income after paying carbon tax or at least break even.

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.  Earlier, Garlynn wrote “A Regional Green New Deal for Portland” at City Observatory.


One thing that has been made abundantly clear during the pandemic of 2020 (and beyond) is the importance of making social payments to help people deal with a difficult and shared transition. During 2020, this transition was due to COVID-19, and involved large portions of the population ceasing to commute or otherwise engage in normal activities outside of the home that involved other people or indoor spaces. There was wide recognition that payments needed to be made to help everyone cope with the expense of the pandemic, as mitigation for a shared national social emergency.

As I write this, Congress is currently debating the right size and number of payments to send, and to whom they should be sent, in order to mitigate for some of the personal impacts of this long and drawn-out national crisis. There is wide recognition that, in this context, it is in everyone’s best interest to make sure all of us have the resources we need to survive; the debate is over the details.

We must now also contend with the transition from a fossil-fuel-dominated economy to a post-carbon economy in order to stave off the worst potential impacts of climate change. Climate change is, in many ways, like a much slower moving pandemic, one  where the majority of the body counts still lie years, decades, or centuries in the future, rather than right now (with fears of potential consequences a few weeks from now flowing from any poor decision-making in the present). Yet, we are beginning to see that, even now, the demands for some kind of restitution are being made for those who face potential job or gig losses due to fossil fuel pipelines being canceled under the Biden administration.

These demands are not wrong. 

If we are to be successful in enacting a just transition away from a fossil-fuel-powered economy to a carbon-free economy, there will be a steady decline in job opportunities in occupations tied to fossil fuels, such as coal mining, oil drilling, and fossil fuel pipeline building. We must therefore construct a framework to provide climate adjustment aid payments to individuals, to help pay for retraining, retooling, investments, and for equity reasons. I would argue that this should come in the form of a carbon dividend that is paid for by a carbon fee.

For decades, economists have recommended the use of a carbon tax to achieve the necessary GHG emissions reductions we need to prevent the worst impacts of climate change. Yet, within the United States, carbon taxes have not yet been deployed broadly. Most recently, a proposal for a carbon tax was defeated at the ballot box in Washington State, thanks to heavy spending by fossil fuel interests.

To date, however, we have not yet seen a proposal at the ballot box for an equitable carbon tax, which I would argue should instead be called a carbon fee-and-dividend program. This is what we need, however, to power our just transition away from fossil fuels, and to “build back better” the carbon-free economy of the future that we need — without leaving anyone behind.

A carbon fee will necessarily impose additional costs on households and businesses. To ensure that it is not regressive, it must thus be paired with a carbon dividend payment, so that lower-income households are not unfairly burdened by the expense of the fee. That’s a baseline: that the dividend for the average person should cover (or more than cover) their costs of reducing carbon emissions; they could either spend their dividend to lower their emissions and avoid the carbon fee, or if they didn’t have a good way to do that, the dividend would at least cover the costs of the fee of the typical person. We might fund additional benefits, providing higher payments to folks within certain targeted communities, such as those that experience disproportionate burdens from an economic transition away from fossil fuels. These could include both a sort of extended unemployment payments to individuals, as well as a kind of climate loan (perhaps modeled after the Paycheck Protection Program [PPP]) to finance businesses that convert to carbon-free processes.

Affordable, zero-emission homes could be financed with low-interest loans.

Here are the elements that such a program should contain, whether enacted by local municipalities, regions, states, or at the national level:

  • The carbon fee should be applied upstream, that is, at the level at which fossil fuels or fossil fuel-derived products enter the economy of the taxing jurisdiction, based on the amount of embodied carbon they contain (their carbon emission potential), as well as the amount of carbon used to produce them.
  • The price of the carbon fee should be set at a meaningful level to begin with, such as $15 per ton of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions potential (a level proposed by Brookings); not so low as to be completely ineffective, and not so high as to provide a shock to the economy.
  • The price of the carbon fee should escalate steadily over time, at a rate that is estimated to deliver the emissions reductions we need to achieve our climate goals.  Estimates vary widely on how high the fee would need to go in order to put us on track to keep temperatures from rising above 1.5C by 2030.  The IMF estimates it would need to rise to $75 per ton of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions by 2030; other estimates are higher.  But once we are on track, the carbon fee (and payments) would flatten out automatically. 
  • A robust modeling and monitoring program would need to accompany the program, to ensure that the tax rate is set properly to deliver the needed emissions reductions from all sectors of the economy; for instance, if Vehicle Miles Traveled doesn’t decrease by an amount that, combined with the penetration of electric vehicles and blending of renewable fuels, delivers the necessary carbon emissions reductions by a certain year, then the carbon fee should be automatically adjusted upwards to a level estimated (using best available evidence as to the elasticity of demand for fuel containing carbon based on changes to its price) to deliver the necessary emissions reductions by an agency with authority to do so without political interference.
  • Some of the revenue from the program should be returned to individual households on a sliding scale, with no revenue returned to households making 200% or more of median income (currently about $140,000 per year), but sufficient revenue returned so that 70% of households making less than 200% of median income will experience no net increase in household expenses due to the carbon fee during the first five years of its roll-out.
  • These payments to households should come in the form of a check from the government, delivered monthly or quarterly, so that there is a regular, continuing benefit that can be banked on by regular folks — the same regular folks whose support will be needed to pass an initiative at the ballot box, or support a politician taking a vote in a city hall, county seat, regional council chamber, or state or national capital.
  • The remainder of the revenue from the carbon fee should be used to finance the transition away from fossil fuels to a carbon-free economy. 
  • A public bank should be funded by the carbon fee and empowered to make low-interest loans, using a revolving loan fund, to finance investments that will reduce emissions. This could take the form of a secondary market for loans originated by private lenders; the point is to make the funding available at comparatively low interest rates. These investments could include anything from a household seeking to buy an electric vehicle and install solar/wind power generating facilities and energy storage solutions, to companies seeking to replace fossil fuel consuming processes with renewable processes. Repayment terms should be set to ensure that individuals and companies receiving financing will experience a net benefit, that is, a reduced operating cost level after participating in a bank-funded program in comparison to their previous expenditures for fossil fuel-based energy.
  • Certain public investments, such as high speed rail, electric-powered public transit, creating walkable neighborhoods, and similar public infrastructure, should be funded using carbon fee revenue through a grant program to fund the transition away from fossil fuels. We won’t be able to reduce emissions sufficiently to achieve our targets using electric cars and solar panels alone; we also need to transition to compact communities built around walking, rather than driving, in order to reduce the demand for energy to a level we can provide within the limited time available between now and 2035, and 2050. Public investments will need to be made to implement this transition, and the carbon fee can provide the funding.

The beauty of such a carbon fee and dividend program, is that it provides the funding mechanism to households and businesses to pay for a transition away from fossil fuel consumption. If a household currently owns something that requires fossil fuels, such as an internal combustion-powered automobile, then it should be able to obtain financing from the public bank to purchase an electric vehicle, with payments covered by the divided (up to a certain reasonable amount). Then, if at any point a household wants to switch from using the dividend payments to pay for gasoline, to using them to service the car payments for a new electric vehicle, it will have the mechanism to do so without impacting the balance of the household budget. Critically, the carbon dividend payments should be made first, before the carbon fee comes due, to ensure that the most vulnerable members of the community are not harmed by its initial roll-out.

Trees sequester large amounts of carbon. A carbon tax could fund activities to protect and replant forests.

If a business currently owns something that requires fossil fuels, such as a blast furnace to produce steel that is powered by coal coke, then it should be eligible for low-interest financing to replace the fuel source for the blast furnace with electric power or renewable energy.

Such a program won’t be sufficient, by itself, to achieve our total emissions reductions goals by 2050. However, as a part of a larger Green New Deal-esque program that includes investments in urbanism to reduce overall demand for energy in the transportation and building sectors, it could be the critical factor that provides financing to ensure the success of much of the balance of the policy package.

Critically, an equitable dividend as a part of a carbon fee initiative will ensure that a harsher burden is not imposed on households with lower incomes, and thus it will prove to be a progressive, rather than regressive, solution to climate change.  One valuable lesson of the Covid-19 pandemic has been that it makes sense, in the face of a dire crisis that threatens everyone, to make payments to help those most affected or who need to adapt for the benefit of all.  We should apply that lesson to the climate crisis.

How freeways kill cities

Freeways slash population in cities, and prompt growth in suburbs

Within city centers, the closer your neighborhood was to the freeway, the more its population declined.

In suburbs, the closer your neighborhood was to the freeway, the more it tended to grow.

It’s been obvious for a long, long time that the automobile is fundamentally corrosive to urban form.  Not only do roads, highways and parking lots devour urban space, they also cause the dispersion of people and activity in ways that make it impossible in many places to live without a car.  Cars, abetted by public policy, have remade cities in their image, and fostered car dependency, effectively acting as a paralytic toxin to urban living.

Even before we had good data, this was manifest to thoughtful observers, such as James Marston Fitch who wrote in The New York Times in 1960:

The automobile has not merely taken over the street, it has dissolved the living tissue of the city.  Its appetite for space is absolutely insatiable; moving and parked, it devours urban land, leaving buildings as mere islands of habitable space in a sea of dangerous and ugly traffic.

Now, six decades later, we can look at the historic record to measure just how true this observation was. Federal Reserve economists Jeffrey Brinkman and Jeffrey Lin have looked at the historical relationship between neighborhood growth and proximity to freeways.  Their data shows freeways have decimated city neighborhoods and propelled suburban population growth.

In the center of the region, more freeways are associated with population decline, and the closer you are to the freeway, the more population tends to decline.

Freeways are toxic to urban neighborhoods and a tonic to suburban sprawl

On the suburban fringe, freeways both tend to stimulate more population growth, and the most positive effect on growth tends to be quite close to the freeway, and the growth inducing effect attenuates the further one gets from the freeway.  The devastation wrought by urban freeways isn’t limited just to knocking down houses, but extends to undermining the vitality of the surviving portion of a neighborhood.  With fewer people and more traffic, a neighborhood loses its critical mass needed to support businesses and civic institutions, triggering a downward spiral.  As images like these, from Portland’s Albina neighborhood make clear, freeways have devastating effects.

The Moses meat-ax slices hacks through North Portland (1962).

The authors’ key findings which aggregate data from 64 metropolitan areas for the period from 1950 to 2010 show the typical effects.

The authors have summarized their findings in one particularly dense graphic, which we present below.  It deserves a bit of explanation.  (For clarity, we’ve annotated it slightly with lines and shading to highlight key issues.)

First, the chart breaks all the neighborhoods (census tracts) in a metropolitan area into four columns, arrayed left to right, based on how close they are to the city center.  The closest-in urban tracts are shown on the left (above the legend “city center”) and in increasing order of distance from the city center are three other groups, 2.5 to 5 miles away, 5 to 10 miles away, and 10 to 50 miles away.  The vertical axis on this chart corresponds to the (log) growth rate of the population of neighborhoods between 1950 and 2010.  We’ve drawn a line at zero (no growth), and shaded negative values (population decline) as yellow.

Finally, each column is subdivided based on the distance from a tract to the nearest local freeway.  So, for example, the leftmost column shows neighborhoods within 2.5 miles of the city center, and the line within the column illustrates the change in population in those neighborhoods based on their distance to the nearest freeway.

Looking at that left-most column, we see that there’s nearly 100 percent decline in population in close-in neighborhoods a mile or less from the nearest freeway.  In an urban setting freeways largely wipe out population.  Population declines are less severe, but still substantial 2 and 3 miles away.  The period 1950 to 2010 was one of urban decline, but as this chart shows, the urban neighborhoods that fared the best were the ones that were furthest from freeways.

Overall, the further you move from the center of the region, the more the effect of freeway proximity becomes positive for population growth.  Population growth is negative close to city centers, split between declining and increasing 2.5 to five miles away, and increasing fastest in tracts 5-10 and 10 or more miles from the city center.

The inflection point where freeways go from being a detriment to a stimulus to population growth seems to be about five miles from the city center.  Beyond 5 miles from the city center, the localized effect of freeways shifts from highly negative, to positive.  From 5-10 miles, the highest levels of growth are neighborhoods closest to freeways.  For those areas beyond ten miles, growth peaks about 2-3 miles from the nearest freeway, but declines sharply thereafter.  Freeway access is a tonic to growth in suburbs and the metro periphery.

Brinkman and Lin’s work adds additional depth to research done on this subject by other economists. Professor Nathan Baum-Snow found that each additional radial freeway constructed through a city reduced the city’s population by 18 percent.  In urban settings, freeways are toxic to population growth.  Neighborhoods close to freeways in and near city centers suffer the most severe population decline.

Jeffrey Brinkman and Jeffrey Lin, “Freeway Revolts!,” Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia Research Department Working Paper 19-29, July 2019,



Covid Migration: Temporary, young, economically insecure

There’s relatively little migration in the wake of Covid-19

Most Covid-related migration is temporary, involves moving in with friends or relatives, and not leaving a metro area

It’s not professionals fleeing cities:  Covid-related movers tend to be young (many are students), and are prompted by economic distress

From the earliest days of the pandemic, pundits predicted that the Covid-19 virus would prompt rapid and permanent migration away from cities.  First, it was the concern that city residents were somehow more susceptible to the Coronavirus—prompted by a weak correlation driven mainly by high infection rates in New York in the early days of the pandemic, but which completely reversed as rural areas now have higher rates of cases and deaths.  Then the argument morphed:  Now, thanks to Zoom and other web-technology, we can all work at home, so there’s no reason for companies to pay for expensive offices (or for workers to live in expensive cities).  We think the pessimism about cities is massively overstated for at least seven reasons.   In both cases, this theory has been fueled by anecdotes of highly paid professional workers de-camping from big cities to smaller cities, or rural ones.

But these anecdotes seriously mis-represent the nature and scale of migration.  First, as we’ve noted earlier, migrants in these anecdotes don’t usually leave metro areas at all (many examples are people who were already considering a move to nearby suburbs), but even when they do leave a New York or a San Francisco, its for another, albeit smaller, tech center, like Seattle.

Many of these journalistic anecdotes suffer from what our friend Jarrett Walker calls “elite projection“:  a tendency to view things from the perspective of the richest and most advantaged, rather from the average person. Early stories profiled Upper Eastside neighborhoods deserted by their residents harboring in the Hamptons or Adirondacks.  That genre continues in the vaccine era, as well.  Consider this gem from Bloomberg:

A new study sheds some light on who’s actually moving in the post-Covid world and why.  It’s not so much mid-career professionals moving permanently; it’s really much more economically distressed younger adults, moving in (or back in) with family and friends; movers also disproportionately people of color.

Pew Research, which bills its work as that of a “fact tank” provides some insights into the actual extent, character and motivations of the Covid-induced movement.  Their recent survey of 15,000 adults nationally included a battery of migration-related questions.  They’ve shared some of the top-line results from the survey.  Here are the highlights:

Not many people moved due to Covid. All in all about five percent of all Americans report having moved due to the Covid-19 pandemic and its related fallout. (Even that number is smaller than it seems, because it includes temporary moves.  Of the 5 percent who reported moving due to concerns about Covid (or related economic problems), about one in six said their move was so permanent that they “bought or rented a new home on a long-term basis.”  (Unhelpfully, the Pew migration question asks whether people moved either temporarily or permanently, but fails to define either of these terms. If a family spent a week or a weekend away from New York at the height of the pandemic outbreak in March, would the answer be yes?)

Economic reasons seem to dominate moves. Particularly in the past few months, it has been the economic hardship, rather than concern about the Covid-19 virus itself that seems to be prompting moves.  Financial reasons, including job loss account for a third of all moves.  The more common story is not moving to work remotely, but moving because one has no work.

The demographics: Young, Hispanic, and lower income. Overall, about 5 percent of Americans report either a temporary or permanent move, but 18-29 year olds are twice as likely as other Americans to report a move, Hispanics are nearly twice as likely.  How many of the press accounts of Covid migration speak to twenty-something people of color moving back in with their family, because they’ve lost their job?  That’s a far more representative migrant than the older, wealthier, mid-career professional who can afford to buy a new home and who’s so secure in their work that they can work at a distance.


Students and School Figure prominently.  A significant amount of recorded moves seem to be students unable to attend school. That’s implied by the demographic data (those 18-29 are twice as likely to move), by the places they move to (a plurality of movers go to live with Mom, Dad or another relative), and by the direct answer to the question about why people move: About one in seven who reported moving due to Covid through November said it was because their college campus or school had closed.

Few people cite more space or remote work as a motivation.  While the narrative about taking advantage of remote work to get a bigger home, and “zoom it in” figures prominently in journalistic accounts, it’s rare according to the survey.  Pew reports:

. . . people who moved due to the virus said the main reason was that they needed more space (2%) or were able to work remotely (1%).

None of these survey results seem to provide strong evidence for a re-ordering of America’s locational preferences in the wake of Covid. The fact that most moves are among young adults with lower incomes, suggests it’s not the higher income, mid- to late-career professionals abandoning cities for suburbs or rural areas that accounts for much of the reported migration.  Whether in the midst of the pandemic’s rising caseload, or waiting impatiently for the vaccine roll-out, it’s easy to make overblown predictions about urban flight.  Cities have long weathered such crises, and rebounded in their wake.  They will again.

Albina Then and Now

Albina then and now

Basically, Albina was wiped out by
Interstate Ave 99E (ODOT)   1951
Memorial Coliseum (City) 1958
I-5 1962
Emmanuel Hospital (PDC)  1970s
Blanchard Center (PPS)  1980
Convention Center 1990 (expanded 2003)
Moda Center/Rose Garden 1995
But ODOT’s two highways cut all this off from the rest of the city.  99E/Interstate cut the
neighborhood off from the River; I-5 cut if off from the rest of N/NE Portland.

Overview of Albina, 1948 versus Today


Memorial Coliseum 1975

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The I-5 Freeway’s Construction Footprint


Fremont Bridge Ramps


How housing segregation reduces Black wealth

Black-owned homes are valued at a discount to all housing, but the disparity is worst in highly segregated metro areas

There’s a strong correlation between metropolitan segregation and black-white housing wealth disparities

More progress in racial integration is likely a key to reducing Black-white wealth disparities

It’s long been known that US housing markets and policy have combined to produce a huge disparity in housing wealth between Black and white families in the US.  Andre Perry and his colleagues at the Brookings Institution, for example, have estimated that owner-occupied homes in Black neighborhoods are undervalued by $48,000 per home on average.

The racial/ethnic home value gap

A new report from real estate analytics firm Zillow drills down on the racial/ethnic home value disparity.  Using a combination of home sales data and information from the American Community Survey, they estimate the average home value in different markets around the country for several racial/ethnic groups—Blacks, Latinx, Asian, non-Hispanic whites, indigenous people and Pacific Islanders.  Home values are systematically lower for most people of color, with Black households experiencing the biggest gap, with their homes being valued about 15 percent lower than all homes in the US.

The Zillow data also track the trends in the racial home value disparity over time.  The collapse of the housing bubble caused racial disparities to widen, but they’ve narrowed a bit in recent years.  Zillow explains:

Prior to the Great Recession, the gap between Black-owned home values and all home values was about 15% — if the typical U.S. home at the time was worth $1, the typical black-owned home was worth $0.85 — according to a Zillow analysis of home values in communities with different racial compositions. The gap grew to 20% by March 2014 after years of job losses and elevated foreclosures. Similarly, the ratio of Latinx home values to all home values hit bottom in May 2012 at 86% — down from 88% before the housing bubble. It has taken almost a decade for the typical home owned by a Black or Latinx homeowner to roughly get back to where it was relative to the standard U.S. home in 2007.

While the overall average is a 15 percent devaluation for Black-owned homes relative to all homes, there are wide variations among metropolitan areas.  As the Zillow report notes, the disparity is as little as 1 percent in some metropolitan areas (Riverside, CA) and more than 40 percent in others (Birmingham, Buffalo and Detroit).  It’s apparent that the pattern of variation across metro areas isn’t random.  Cities in the West, as a rule have lower disparities than cities in the Northeast and Midwest.

How segregation drives the housing value gap

One thing we know about race and US cities is that there is a wide variation in the level of housing segregation.  As we noted last year, some US cities have much lower levels of white/non-white segregation than others.  We investigate the relationship between segregation and racial home value disparities by looking at data for large US metro areas.  We draw on metropolitan level estimates of the black-white dissimilarity index computed by the Brookings Institution, and compare them to Zillow’s estimate of the gap between Black-owned home values and all home values for those same metro areas.

This chart shows the level of Black-white segregation on the horizontal axis (with higher levels of segregation corresponding to higher values on the index) and the relative value of Black-owned homes to all homes on the vertical axis (all the values are negative because in every market, Black-owned homes are valued at a discount to all homes.  These data show a clear negative relationship between segregation and the home value gap:  The more segregated a metro area, the greater the gap in housing values.  Black households who own homes in more segregated metro areas suffer a greater housing value gap that Black households who live in less segregated metro areas.

These data show that there are seven metro areas—Birmingham, Buffalo, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukie and St. Louis— that have particularly high levels of segregation and a particularly wide racial housing value gap.  These metros are clustered in the lower right of our diagram; all have Black-white segregation index values of 70 or more, and in every metro, Black-owned housing is valued at at least an 37 percent discount to all housing.

At the other end of the spectrum, metro areas with low levels of segregation have very small racial housing value gaps.  San Antonio, Riverside, Portland, and Virginia Beach have Black/white segregation scores of less than 51 and have racial housing gaps that are less than 6 percent.

But even excluding these extreme cases, there’s still a noticeable relationship between the racial housing value gap and segregation in less segregated metro areas:  In general, the less segregated a metro area, the small the racial housing value gap.

We are rightly concerned about the wealth gap between people of color and the nation’s non-HIspanic white population.  We have a system where homeownership is a large fraction of wealth for most households, especially those who do not have high incomes.  These data suggest that making continuing progress in promoting neighborhood integration is key to ameliorating the housing value gaps that underlie the observed wealth gap.

America’s K-shaped housing market

Home prices are soaring, rents are falling

The disparate impact of the recession on high income and low income households in driving the housing market in two directions at once.

Job losses have been concentrated among the lowest earning workers, who are disproportionately renters. Meanwhile high earning workers have seen no net job losses, and they are disproportionately homeowners and home buyers.

The K-Shaped Recession

When the Covid-19 virus struck in early 2020, it abruptly plunged the nation into the sharpest economic downturn we’ve ever recorded.  But job losses weren’t even distributed across the economy.  Some workers, especially those in front-line service work, were much more likely to lose their jobs (and to be unable to work-at-home), while others have pretty much kept their jobs, despite disruptions to commuting and work routines.  What we’ve observed is what many are calling a “K-shaped recession” with devastating economic consequences for some, and no change in earnings for others.

Harvard economist Raj Chetty and his team at Opportunity Insights have assembled an impressive array of high-frequency big data from private sources to provide an unusually detailed look at the change in the economy in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak.  Their website, Track the Recovery, has a compelling chart that shows the very different employment trajectories of highly paid and low paid workers.  They’ve broken up all US workers by earnings quartile; this chart shows the employment levels for those in the lowest quartile (annual earnings under $27,000 annually) and in the highest quartile (over $60,0000).  While employment for high wage workers is actually higher now than before the pandemic, employment for low wage workers has plummeted by 21 percent since January of 2020.  The recession is essentially over for high paid workers, but lingers on for those with the lowest earnings.

A principal reason for this divergence has to do with the differential effects of lockdowns and business closures on different occupations.  High paid professional workers have vastly more opportunities to continue their jobs by working at home.  Service and retail workers at essential businesses, meanwhile can’t “zoom it in” and have experienced much greater layoffs and reductions in hours of work.

The K-Shaped Housing Market

The K-shaped trajectory of the overall economy is mirrored in the housing market.  Home prices and rents have moved in opposite directions since the start of the pandemic.  Home price inflation (shown in blue), according to the Case-Shiller National Home price index had been in the 4-5 percent range prior to the pandemic, have essentially doubled to more than nine percent.  At the same time, the BLS estimates of rents (shown in red) paid by US city residents have fallen from a little under 4 percent year over year, to barely two percent.  (The yellow shaded area is the recession)

Other sources of housing market data confirm the K-shaped divergence in rents and housing prices since the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic and recession.  Here we’ve mapped monthly year-over-year changes in housing prices (from Zillow) and apartment rents (from Apartment  These data show that the rate of home price inflation, which had been ebbing for the previous two years, has essentially doubled from 4 percent annually to 8 percent annually since the onset of the pandemic.  Meanwhile rent inflation, which had been steady at about slightly over 2 percent per year has turned negative, and is declining at about a 1.5 percent annual rate.

Low wage workers are renters; high wage workers are homeowners (and home buyers).

There’s an obvious explanation for the different trajectories of house prices and rents:  Low income workers rent; high income workers own and buy homes. High income households have been barely grazed by the Covid-19 recession.  In fact, the combination of low interest rates and enforced savings (because many kinds of consumption spending, including dining, entertainment, travel and even much retail have been constrained by lockdowns), mean higher income households may find housing a much more attractive spending item.  If you can’t go out to dinner, or take a vacation, you have more money to spend on a new home.  Low wage workers are in the opposite situation.  Low wage workers have borne the brunt of the recession; they are also much more likely to be renters than higher income households.

According to data from the 2019 American Community Survey—via the indispensable IPUMS* website—among working age Americans, households with incomes of less than $40,000 a year (roughly the bottom quartile of households in this category), about 66 percent are renters.  In contrast, of households in the top quartile (with incomes of more than $100,000 per year), 78 percent are homeowners.  The decline in employment during this recession has been concentrated on those households most likely to rent.  Meanwhile, employment among those households most likely to be homeowners has actually increased.  This divergence clearly explains why rents are falling, while home prices are rising:  In the aggregate, renters are bearing the brunt of job losses while homeowners have largely avoided a decline in employment.

The distinctly K-shaped nature of the recession, and of the housing market, are closely related. This sharp and sudden divergence in the fates of high income and low income households, and rental and for-sale housing markets is clearly a product of the Covid-19 recession. Over the course of the coming year, as the Covid-19 vaccine rolls out, and the economy recovers, it seems likely that we’ll see employment gains among low income workers.  As their economic condition improves, that’s likely to diminish substantially the downward pressures we’ve seen on rents for the past year.

* – Steven Ruggles, Sarah Flood, Ronald Goeken, Josiah Grover, Erin Meyer, Jose Pacas and Matthew Sobek. IPUMS USA: Version 10.0 [dataset]. Minneapolis, MN: IPUMS, 2021.

Calculating induced demand at the Rose Quarter

Widening I-5 at the  Rose Quarter in Portland will produce an addition 17.4 to 34.8 million miles of vehicle travel and 7.8 to 15.5 thousand tons of greenhouse gases per year.

These estimates come from a customized calibration of the induced travel calculator to the Portland Metropolitan Area.

It’s scientifically proven that increasing freeway capacity in dense urban environments stimulates additional car travel.  The explanation is simple:

Attempts to address traffic congestion commonly rely on increasing roadway capacity, e.g. by building new roadways or adding lanes to existing facilities. But studies examining that approach indicate it is only a temporary fix. They consistently show that adding roadway capacity in congested areas actually increases network-wide vehicle miles traveled (VMT) by a nearly equivalent proportion within a few years, reducing or negating the initial congestion relief. That increase in VMT is called “induced travel.”

The phenomenon of induced demand is so well-demonstrated that its known as the “fundamental law” of road congestion.  As the experience with Houston’s 23-lane Katy Freeway shows, no matter how many lanes you add to a freeway in a dense urban setting, added capacity simply prompts more driving

Transportation experts at the University of California Davis National Center for Sustainable Transportation have developed an induced travel calculator, based on the best available scientific information on the effect of added freeway capacity on vehicle travel.  The developers of the calculator—Jamey Volker, Amy Lee and Susan Handy—have published a peer-reviewed article describing the empirical estimates in the literature showing the connection between capacity and VMT.  In their journal article, the authors 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.

The purpose of this model is to provide an independent, scientifically sound means of measuring the environmental effects of major transportation projects.

Induced Demand Calculator; Results shown for Sacramento-Davis metropolitan area.

In addition, because greenhouse gases are directly related to vehicle miles of travel—each thousand mile traveled by a typical automobile produces about .466 tons of greenhouse gases—the calculator also can be used to show the climate change impact of freeway expansion projects.

A Portland-calibrated version of the Induced Travel Calculator

After consulting with the authors of California calculator, we calibrated the calculator for use in the Portland metropolitan area.  The key variables in the calculator include the number of interstate freeway lane miles in the urbanized portion of the metropolitan area, and the number of vehicle miles of travel on those roadways.  The literature on induced demand shows that vehicle travel exhibits and unit elasticity with respect to roadway capacity:  a one percent increase in road capacity tends to result in a one percent increase in vehicle miles traveled.

Using data from the US Department of Transportation (vehicles miles traveled) and from the Oregon and Washington departments of transportation (interstate freeway lane miles) inside urbanized areas, we created a Portland-metro specific version of the California calculator.

We computed the induced travel impact of two possible scenarios for the proposed I-5 Rose Quarter Freeway widening project using Portland-calibrated version of the calculator.  Option one was expanding the current 1.5 mile stretch of freeway from 4 lanes to 6 (which is how the Oregon Department of Transportation describes the project, although they misleadingly call the added lanes “auxiliary” lanes.  Option two is expanding the same stretch of freeway to eight lanes, which is what would easily fit in the 126 foot wide right of way that Oregon DOT proposes to construct.

The calculator suggests that the expansion to six lanes would add about 17.4 million vehicle miles per year to travel in the Portland metropolitan area, and that the expansion to eight lanes would add 34.8 million vehicle miles of travel.

These additional vehicle miles of travel have many negative effects.  As “fundamental law” suggests, they’ll entirely offset congestion reduction benefits of freeway widening.  In addition, there will be an increase in air pollution proportionate to the increase in vehicle travel.  Additional VMT translates directly into increased greenhouse gas emissions, at nearly a half ton of greenhouse gases per thousand miles, this means that the widened freeway can be expected to increase greenhouse gas pollution in Portland by between 7.7 and 15.5 thousand tons per year.

The Volker/Lee/Handy model represents the latest, independent, state of the art method for estimating greenhouse gases associated with freeway expansion projects.  This, and not the self-serving and incorrect estimates generated by the Oregon Department of Transportation should be used to define the environmental impacts of this project.


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

The author wants to thank  Doctor Volker for reviewing the methodology and data used in the Portland version of the calculator.  Any errors are solely the responsibility of City Observatory.


Congestion Pricing: ODOT is disobeying an order from Governor Brown

More than a year ago, Oregon Governor Kate Brown directed ODOT to “include a full review of  congestion pricing” before deciding whether or not to do a full environmental impact statement for the proposed I-5 Rose Quarter Freeway widening project.

ODOT simply ignored the Governor’s request, and instead is delaying its congestion pricing efforts, and proceeding full speed ahead with the Rose Quarter with no Environmental Impact Statement that would include pricing.

ODOT has produced no analysis of the effects of pricing as part of its Rose Quarter environmental review, and has said “congestion pricing was not considered” 

Congestion pricing could dramatically reduce congestion at the Rose Quarter according to ODOT’s own studies (which are not included in the project’s Environmental Assessment).  Pricing is exactly the kind of effective and also reasonably foreseeable alternative that the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires be considered.  ODOT has both disobeyed the Governor and violated NEPA.

A little background.  In 2017, the Oregon Legislature passed HB 2017, transportation finance legislation that raised the state gas tax and vehicle licensing fees, and which authorized several freeway widening projects, and also directed the Oregon Department of Transportation to implement congestion pricing on Portland area freeways. Pricing the I-5 freeway, rather than expanding it, could reduce or eliminate traffic congestion faster, and at far lower cost. According to the National Environmental Policy Act, that’s exactly the kind of alternative that ODOT and the Federal Highway Administration are required to evaluate and discuss in the environmental review of a project.  And ODOT’s own studies have shown that pricing the I-5 freeway would dramatically reduce traffic congestion.  But there’s simply no mention of congestion pricing in the Rose Quarter freeway widening Environmental Assessment.

Governor Brown:  “Include a full review of congestion pricing.”

In December, 2019, Oregon Governor Kate Brown instructed the Oregon Department of Transportation to include  review of congestion pricing, in its decision on how to proceed with an environmental review of the proposed $800 million I-5 Rose Quarter Freeway widening project. In her December 16, 2019 letter to the Oregon Transportation Commission, Governor Kate Brown asked for a “full review of congestion pricing, and how its implementation would impact the Rose Quarter,” before the OTC made a decision on the environmental review path.

The environmental review path, in this case, consisted of a decision as to whether to move forward with a full Environmental Impact Statement, one which included a full and complete assessment of the effects of road pricing.  Despite the Governor’s explicit instruction to undertake a “full review of congestion pricing”  ODOT simply ignored this instruction, and said it would not undertake an Environmental Impact Statement at all.

ODOT:  We’re not going to look at congestion pricing in the Rose Quarter environmental review

When ODOT and the Federal Highway Administration released their FONSI—Finding of No Significant Environmental Impact—they simply ignored the Governor’s instruction, and claimed that they weren’t required by federal law to consider tolling (untrue), and that they would look at the effects of tolling later—only after they move forward with the Rose Quarter project.

On October 30, 2020, ten months after the Governor’s letter, having neither published nor provided any additional information about the impacts of congestion pricing, ODOT and its federal Partners adopted a “Finding of No Significant Impact” (FONSI).  In the FONSI, ODOT made it clear that it would not look at the impacts of tolling on the Rose Quarter, saying that this congestion would be the subject of “further study” with analysis “expected by the end of 2022.”

Tolling: Tolling (also referred to as congestion pricing or value pricing) on I-5 was not considered to be reasonably foreseeable at the time the Environmental Assessment was being prepared because tolling on I-5 was not included in the financially constrained project list in the 2014 Regional Transportation Plan (RTP), nor is it currently included in the financially constrained project list in the 2018 RTP. Congestion pricing on I-5 is currently (as of October 2020) being studied by ODOT, consistent with Legislative direction to the OTC in House Bill 2017 “to pursue and implement tolling on I-5 and I-205 in the Portland metropolitan region to help manage traffic congestion.” During the 2018 ODOT Value Pricing Feasibility Analysis, the I-5 corridor segment between SW Multnomah and N Going was identified for further study. Managing traffic congestion and mobility through tolling on this I-5 segment could provide one of the largest benefits to the most regional travelers and the state-wide economy. Further, additional traffic and mobility analysis will be initiated that will help identify where tolling would begin and end on I-5 and the type of tolling to be utilized; this planning work and technical analysis is expected to be completed by the end of 2022. The results of this analysis will inform the starting timeframe and alternatives for a formal environmental review process.

[Emphasis added.]

In short, instead of including congestion pricing in the Rose Quarter environmental review, ODOT simply announced that it would proceed with the Rose Quarter as is, and address road pricing only after the Rose Quarter project moves forward.

ODOT is delaying action on congestion pricing until after Rose Quarter starts construction

ODOT is dragging its feet on a 2017 legislative mandate to implement congestion pricing. And contrary to the claims made in the FONSI, ODOT has no plans to even finish planning for congestion pricing before 2023.  Just weeks after issuing the FONSI, on December 10, 2020, ODOT Director Kris Strickler and ODOT Manger Brendan Finn presented a schedule to the Oregon Legislature showing that the congestion pricing planning phase would continue until the end of 2023.  The schedule also shows that the agency plans to commence construction on the I-5 Rose Quarter project a year before it even completes planning for congestion pricing in the Portland Area.

Under this schedule, Rose Quarter construction (the diagonally shaded section) would start as early as 2022, while the planning for congestion pricing would not be complete until 2024.  There’s also an ambiguous “design/build, test and implement” phase that lasts until 2027.

Congestion pricing is highly foreseeable:  It’s mandated by law

Notice that ODOT’s explanation simply ignored the Governor’s explicit instruction, and instead makes the assertion that due to federal regulations, ODOT need not address pricing, because somehow it was not “reasonably foreseeable.”  That of course, is nonsense:  congestion pricing has been mandated by state law since 2017, well before the completion of ODOT’s Environmental Assessment.  It’s simply false to claim that it isn’t foreseeable. Whether or not a project is listed in the Regional Transportation Plan or not does not determine whether it is “reasonably foreseeable.”  The legal standard under NEPA is much broader as the Environmental Protection Agency says:

The critical question is “What future actions are reasonably foreseeable?”. Court decisions on this topic have generally concluded that reasonably foreseeable future actions need to be considered even if they are not specific proposals. The criterion for excluding future actions is whether they are “speculative.” The NEPA document should include discussion of future actions to be taken by the action agency.

ODOT has been directed by law to adopted congestion pricing; it is not in any sense speculative, and it is plainly a “future action to be taken by the action agency” and needs to be addressed in the environmental review, whether or not its part of the Regional Transportation Plan.

ODOT’s other studies show pricing would reduce congestion at the Rose Quarter

The studies undertaken by the Oregon Department of Transportation conclude that congestion pricing could measurably reduce traffic congestion on I-5. The analysis concludes that the project would reduce congestion and improve travel time reliability on I-5.  It would save travel time for trucks and buses.  It enables higher speeds and greater throughput on the freeway–because it eliminates the hyper-congestion that occurs when roads are unpriced. Here’s an excerpt from page 17, of the report.  We highlighted in bold the most salient bits of the analysis:

Overall, Concept 2 – Priced Roadway, will reduce congestion for all travelers on the priced facility. This will produce overall improvement in travel time reliability and efficiency for all users of I-5 and I-205.  [Concept 2 is] Likely to provide the highest level of congestion relief of the initial pricing concepts examined. [It] Controls demand on all lanes and, therefore, allows the highest level of traffic management to maintain both relatively high speeds and relatively high throughput on both I-5 and I-205. Vehicles 10,000 pounds and more (such as many freight trucks and transit vehicles) would benefit from travel time improvements on the managed facilities.  Pricing recovers lost functional capacity due to hyper-congestion, providing greater carrying volume with pricing than without. This means that diversion impacts may be minimal, but still warrant consideration and study.

This concept is relatively inexpensive to implement, and significantly less expensive than concepts that include substantial physical improvements to the pavement and bridge infrastructure.

Oregon Department of Transportation,, (2018). Portland Metro Area Value Pricing Feasibility Analysis Final Round 1 Concept Evaluation and Recommendations Technical Memorandum #3, 2018. [Emphasis added].

The Week Observed, February 5, 2021

What City Observatory this week

1. Calculating induced travel. Widening freeways to reduce traffic congestion in dense urban areas inevitably fails because of the scientifically demonstrated problem of induced demand; something so common and well-documented it’s called the “fundamental law of road congestion.” Experts at the UC Davis National Center for Sustainable Transportation have developed an “induced demand calculator” for California metro areas, and with their assistance, we’ve calibrated it for computing increased travel from capacity expansion in the Portland metro area.

The calculator shows that widening I-5 at Portland’s Rose Quarter would add between 17.8 and 34.6 million additional miles of vehicle travel and 7.8 to 15.6 thousand tons of greenhouse gases per year.  This calculation, based on an independent, peer-reviewed methodology disproves false claims made in Oregon Department of Transportation’s environment assessment that the project will have no effect on greenhouse gases.

2. America’s K-shaped housing market.  By now, you’ve probably heard our current economic downturn described as a K-shaped recession. The “K” refers to the diverging fortunes of low-wage and high-wage workers. Layoffs have been disproportionately concentrated among the lowest paid quarter of the workforce, where employment is down more than 20 percent; while employment among high income workers has actually increased. That’s reflected in the housing market, where rents are falling, while home prices are soaring.

The same dynamic is at work:  two-thirds of low-wage workers rent; while nearly 80 percent of high wage workers are homeowners (or homebuyers). The peculiar, and very different shape of the Covid-19 recession explains much of what’s happening in US housing markets.

3. Again, it’s Groundhog’s Day, again.  If it seems like we’re stuck in a loop, when it comes to climate change, it’s because we are.  The latest report of the Oregon Global Warming Commission is out, and it shows just what similar reports showed 2 and 4 years ago:  despite our stated goals of reducing greenhouse gases, we’re not anywhere close to being on track.  The main culprit:  increased emissions from driving, which according to the independent DARTE database have increased by about 1,000 pounds per person in the past five years.

We’re sure that this year’s report will stimulate another round of solemn declarations about the gravity of the climate emergency, but at this rate, we’ll be doing the Groundhog doom-loop for years to come as the planet burns around us.

Must read

1. Induced Travel from Parking.  The idea that added freeway capacity generates additional travel is well-established.  A new study also shows that building more parking also induces more car travel.  Sightline’s Michael Andersen highlights the study findings froma San Francisco housing lottery to filter out what researchers call “selection effects”—the idea that maybe people who tend to drive less anyhow gravitate toward places with fewer parking spots.  Because people were randomly assigned to different housing, the observed differences in driving can’t be attribution to this sorting effect.  And the study shows that indeed, people who lived in places with fewer parking spaces tended to own fewer cars and to drive less.

To economists, this makes perfect sense:  anything that lowers the cost of driving or car ownership tends to encourage more driving.  More space on roadways, more plentiful (and almost always free) parking spaces, low gasoline prices, and free use of the atmosphere as a dump for carbon and other pollutants, all subsidize car use and result in more miles driven.  The study is powerful evidence for the climate benefits of policies that eliminate parking requirements, and which more generally reduce the supply of parking.

2. Don’t Block Gentrification:  Use it to improve the neighborhood for all.  Pete Saunders, who blogs at Corner Side Yard has a provocative essay at Bloomberg Opinion.  As Saunders notes, gentrification is actually surprisingly rare; for the most part, in large US metro areas, rich neighborhoods are getting richer and poor neighborhoods are getting poorer.  While the few places that are transitioning between the two are the flashpoints for discontent, we should view them as finally providing the kind of investment many urban neighborhoods need to overcome poverty; as Saunders says:

Gentrification should be a chance to expand opportunity, not diminish it.

The key to this is having a process for encouraging engagement between long-time residents and newcomers, identifying and bolstering a community’s distinctive assets, and connecting long-time residents to expanding housing and job opportunities.  And, as he warns, just trying to block change wastes an incredible opportunity to utilize the investment in cities to provide wider benefits to those who’ve been cut off:

Plenty of cities have been starved for decades of revitalizing investment; they would benefit just as much from a concerted effort to increase opportunity and affordable housing, while preserving key institutions. One thing is certain: If we transition away from the back-to-the-city movement of the last 30 years without making moreof our cities better, we’ll be worse for it.

3. The dominance of the SUV.  One of the most important indicators for the future trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions is the size and weight of private vehicles.  Between 2004 and 2014, when gas prices were rising or high, consumers responded by buying more passenger vehicles which are generally smaller, more fuel efficient and less polluting than light trucks or sport utility vehicles (SUVs).  But since gas prices plunged in 2014, the market shart of these light trucks and SUV’s has steadily increased.  The latest data, tabulated by Calculated Risk’s Bill McBride makes this clear:

Back in 2008 and 2009, most of the vehicles sold were passenger cars.  Now the market share of SUVs and light trucks is quickly approaching 80 percent.  Many state greenhouse gas reduction plans were founded on the assumption that the passenger car share would increase, which it hasn’t. Moreover, because vehicles last 15 years or more, the heavy, polluting vehicles being purchased today will still be on the road in the 2030s, as the climate crisis becomes increasingly dire.

New Knowledge

Who really pays property taxes?  More than 100 million Americans rent their homes, and their landlords use a portion of the rent they pay to pay property taxes.  One of the key questions in thinking about local public finance is how much of the cost of local property taxes is borne by renters (i.e. simply passed on to renters in the form of higher rents) as opposed to being borne by landlords (in the form of lower profits).  The answer to this question has a lot to say about whether the property tax is regressive or not:  If renters bear all or most of the cost of property taxes, the tax tends to be regressive, because renters are generally lower income than the rest of the population.  Landlords are, on average, better off, so if they bear the cost of property taxes, that suggests that the tax is less regressive (and might even be proportional to income or progressive).
A new study from David J. Schwegman of American University John Yinger of Syracuse University aims to answer that question using some detailed micro-data from rental housing in Buffalo, New York City and Rochester.  The study’s key finding is that it is landlords, rather than tenants, who bear most of the cost of property taxes.  While many studies assume that the tax load is equally split between renters and landlords, the Schwegman/Yinger study suggests most of the burden of the property tax is borne by landlords:
. . . our results suggest that the owners of rental units, who are more likely to be higher-income individuals, bear the majority of a property tax increase. Thus, the property tax is, in fact, more likely to be a proportional tax over the income distribution than previously evaluated. .
This in turn suggests that the portion of rent paid that goes to pay property taxes is less than generally assumed.  On average, most states assume that about 18 percent of rent paid by renters goes to property taxes.  The Scwegman/Yinger estimates suggest that the real figure is much lower, around 9 percent.  This is important because several states have renter tax relief programs that are based on higher estimates.
David J. Schwegman and John Yinger, “The Shifting of the Property Tax on Urban Renters: Evidence from New York State’s Homestead Tax Option,” CES 20-43 December, 2020

In the News

Strong Towns republished our critique of self-styled “pedestrian infrastructure” in Houston which mostly prioritizes car travel and effectively perpetuates and worsens a  hazardous pedestrian hostile environment.


The Week Observed, February 12, 2021

What City Observatory this week

1.  How housing segregation reduces Black wealth.  Black-owned homes are valued at a discount to all housing, but the disparity is worst in highly segregated metro areas.  There’s a strong correlation between metropolitan segregation and black-white housing wealth disparities. Black-owned homes in less segregated metro areas suffer a much smaller value reduction that Black-owned homes in highly segregated metro areas.  The value penalty suffered by Black homeowners is greatest in hyper-segregated metro areas, shown in the lower right hand corner of this chart.

Half a century after the passage of federal fair housing legislation, the persistent segregation of many US metro areas is still imposing a financial hardship on Black households. More progress in racial integration is likely a key to reducing Black-white wealth disparities.

2. Disobeying the Governor on congestion pricing.  The Oregon Department of Transportation has specifically disobeyed an order from Governor Kate Brown to take a hard look at congestion pricing before deciding on the course of its environmental review for the proposed $800 million I-5 Rose Quarter freeway widening project. In December 2019, the Governor directed her transportation agency to carefully consider how congestion pricing on I-5—mandated by the Legislature in 2017—would affect the need for the freeway widening project. Separate ODOT studies showed that pricing could eliminate the need to widen the freeway, but ODOT decided to move ahead without including any analysis of pricing in the project’s Environmental Assessment.

Must read

1. Zillow prediction for 2021:  A city rebound:  In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, we heard dire predictions that cities were doomed, both out of a mistaken fear that urban density spread the virus, and then based on the assumption that work-at-home would undercut downtown employment.  As we’ve pointed out at City Observatory, rents have softened relative to home prices, and some of the biggest declines have been in superstar cities, like San Francisco and New York.  But as we begin to turn the corner on the pandemic, there are signs that process will reverse.  The analysts at Zillow are bullish about a city rental rebound in 2021, fueled by young adults coming to cities.

In 2021, those that may have left cities temporarily during the pandemic will likely return as a vaccine becomes more widely available and local economies begin to open up again. Young adults moved back in with their parents at much higher rates this year than last, with nearly 2 million 18 to 25 years old still living at home in August. The majority of this age cohort tend to be renters and 46% of Gen Z renters tend to rent in urban areas, suggesting that when young people are ready to strike out again they will return to amenity-rich cities.

2. Where New York City is gaining and losing housing.  A new report from the New York City Planning Department provides a clear picture of where the city is gaining–and losing–housing units.  Since 2010, New York has added a net total of about 200,000 housing units, but growth has been concentrated in just a few areas in the city.  And, strikingly, some neighborhoods have actually seen their housing stock shrink.

Overall, the cities growth has occurred primarily on the west side of Manhattan and in relatively close-in neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens.  There’s been very little growth in much of the city.  A third of the city’s growth is in just three areas, all of them former industrial or commercial zones that have been redeveloped for high density residential use, including conspicuously Hudson Yards.

Perhaps the most surprising finding in the report is the fact that neighborhoods in the Upper East Side and Upper West Side are actually experiencing a net decline in housing units.  This is mostly due to remodeling projects that join two (or more) previously independent apartments or houses into a single much larger home.  It’s a reminder that when prices are high and it’s difficult to build new homes, that results in pressure spilling over into the existing housing stock, making it both scarcer and more expensive.   New York’s ten year retrospective on the change in its housing stock is an invaluable baseline for thinking about urban housing issues.  Does your city have a report like this?

3.  A wonder down under:  Falling rents and home prices in Sydney.  Sydney, Australia is one of the world’s most beautiful and expensive cities.  But in the past couple of years, thanks to local policies that make it somewhat easier to build denser housing, both home prices and rents have come down.  A new essay from Anya Martin, describes what happened.  Long concerned about housing affordability problems, the state government of New South Wales set up a regional planning commission to assign housing production targets to local governments in and around Sydney.

As with California’s similar “Regional Housing Needs Allocation” (RHNA) there was a lot of pushback from local governments, especially in higher income suburbs, but in the end, the policy had the effect of facilitating higher densities.  According to Martin, the number of new housing units permitted in the Greater Sydney area rose from an average of 20,000 per year prior to the change, to about 36,000 per year over the past five years.  And, in turn, that’s led to a decline in rents and home prices:

From a peak of A$550 per week in 2015 (£310, US $420), the median unit rent had fallen a substantial 7.3% by December 2019. House prices fell from a median of A$1,075,000 in December 2017 to A$865,000 a year later.

Sydney housing is still expensive, by any standard, but the progress made so far shows that expanding the supply of housing with policies that make it easier to build to higher densities represents movement in the right direction.

New Knowledge

How fighting climate change can improve human health. It turns out the reducing greenhouse gas emissions isn’t just good for the planet, its good for your health, too.  The kinds of measures we need to take to reduce carbon pollution (driving less, walking and biking more, eating less meat and more plant-based food) also will produce significant health benefits.  How significant?  A new study published in the Lancet evaluates the health benefits of alternate greenhouse gas reduction strategies compared to the current trajectory of emissions in several major countries.
The authors conclude that pursuing the goals set in the Paris accords would produce substantial health benefits, and that these could be amplified if climate policies explicitly embraced health-related objectives.  The study compares a “business as usual” current pathways scenario, with two alternatives:  a “sustainability” scenario (SPS) aimed at emissions reductions alone, and a health-focused scenario (HPS), that emphasizes interventions with the greatest health effects.  As the author’s conclude:
Compared with the current pathways scenario, the sustainable pathways scenario resulted in an annual reduction of 1.18 million air pollution-related deaths, 5.86 million diet-related deaths, and 1.15 million deaths due to physical inactivity, across the nine countries, by 2040. Adopting the more ambitious health in all climate policies scenario would result in a further reduction of 462 000 annual deaths attributable to air pollution, 572 000 annual deaths attributable to diet, and 943 000 annual deaths attributable to physical inactivity. These benefits were attributable to the mitigation of direct greenhouse gas emissions and the commensurate actions that reduce exposure to harmful pollutants, as well as improved diets and safe physical activity.
The improvements in mortality are a product both of less pollution (including both greenhouse gases, and other pollutants like particulates, which are reduced in tandem with GHGs), and also with the beneficial health effects of better diet and exercise from the implementation of measures to reduce car travel and carbon-intensive foods.  The report estimates population-adjusted numbers of deaths avoided for nine countries.
Ian Hamilton, Harry Kennard, Alice McGushin, et al, “The public health implications of the Paris Agreement: a modelling study,” The Lancet Planetary HealthFebruary, 2021, DOI:

In the News

WBFO in Buffalo, cited our ranking of cities by level of housing segregation in their report, “A history of Redlining: housing group calls for more equitable mortgage lending practices.”

The Week Observed, February 19, 2021

What City Observatory this week

1. Covid migrationDisproportionately young, economically stressed and people of color.  Data shows the moves prompted by Covid-19 are more reflective of economic distress for the vulnerable than a reordering of urban location preferences of older professionals.  A new survey from the Pew Research Center shines a bright light on the actual volume and motivation of migration in the pandemic era.  We highlight some of the findings.  Notably, there’s relatively little migration in the wake of Covid-19.  Most Covid-related migration is temporary, involves moving in with friends or relatives, and not leaving a metro area.  It’s also  not professionals fleeing cities:  Covid-related movers tend to be young (many are students), and are prompted by economic distress


Pew’s data show that fewer than one in seven moves attributable to Covid-19 are “permanent” and that mover’s tend to be disproportionately persons of color.

2.  Guest contributor Garlynn Woodsong returns with a follow on commentary suggesting an equitable carbon fee and dividend should be set to a price level necessary to achieve GHG reduction goals; kicker payment should be set so 70% of people receive a net income after paying carbon tax or at least break even.  There’s an important lesson from our response to the pandemic:  In the face of a shared crisis, it makes sense to provide generous financial support for those who have to adjust their lives and liveliehoods in order to tackle a big problem.  A carbon dividend, financed by the proceeds of a carbon emissions fee would provide the wherewithal to help most people make needed changes to changes to their carbon footprint, and would offset the financial cost of the transition to those who couldn’t easily or quickly change.

Must read

1.  To meet climate goals, think outside the electric car.  Writing at Bloomberg CityLab, Transportation for America’s Beth Osborne, and Rocky Mountain Institute’s Ben Holland point out the limits of assuming that the problems of our auto-dominated transportation system can be met solely by electrifying cars.   Cleaner cars will help, but it will take decades to replace the existing fleet, and the larger the number of cars, the harder it is to achieve our shared climate goals.

The truth is very simple: If we continue to design our communities and transportation systems to require more driving alone, even if it’s in an electric car, it makes decarbonization far harder. According to Rocky Mountain Institute’s analysis, the U.S. transportation sector needs to reduce carbon emissions 43 percent by 2030 in order to align with 1.5° C climate goals — requiring that we put 70 million EVs on the road and reduce per-capita vehicle miles traveled (VMT) by 20 percent in the next nine years. Even under the most ambitious EV adoption scenarios, we must still reduce driving.

2.  People who leave San Francisco don’t go far.  There’s a lot of hand-wringing that the rise of work-at-home means the death of San Francisco.  While anecdotes about of CEOs and handfuls of professionals leaving the Bay Area for Texas or Florida, there’s been a lack of hard data on the subject.  The San Francisco Chronicle reports that US Postal Service change-of-address filings show that out-migration from the City of San Francisco, while up in 2020, is mostly to other parts of the Bay Area and California.

City economist, Ted Egan reports that migration patterns follow a well-worn path with most movement to nearby suburbs. Few people are moving out of state, and according to the Chronicle, Egan argues that the fact they reside nearby could represent a post-pandemic “silver lining” for San Francisco:

“You are not going to have to worry about getting them to move back from Boise.  It looks more like normal pre-COVID migration flows.  People are settling in to nearby Bay Area suburbs.  They are going to Sacramento and L.A. . . . Austin, Texas is way down the list, Portland is way down the list. New York is way down the list.”

3.  How highways make traffic worse.  This one is more of a “must watch”: Vox’s video explainer of why widening urban highways doesn’t reduce congestion.  If you’re looking for a simple, graphic explanation of how induced demand works, you’ll want to watch—and share—this video.  The video recites one of our favorite stories in this vein, the multi-billion dollar widening of Houston’s Katy Freeway, now North America’s widest—which spectacularly failed to reduce congestion.  Within just a few years of the widening project being completed, commute times in this corridor were longer than ever.  The freeway simply served to make the region even more sprawling, car-dependent and climate wrecking than before.


New Knowledge

A flowering of research on local housing supply and rents.  In the past year or so, there have been a number of new studies on the very localized effects of new housing construction.  These are important because they shed a light on how building more housing affects rents in nearby buildings, and whether and to what extent new construction results in, or reduces, housing displacement.  We’ve profiled several of these studies at City Observatory, and helpfully a new publication from the UCLA Lewis Center has a careful, largely non-technical review that compares and contrasts their findings, and what they mean for housing policy debates.

This synopsis of six studies finds that the consensus is that the construction of market rate housing tends to make neighborhood housing more affordable than it would otherwise be.  Five of the six studies conclude that market-rate housing makes nearby housing more affordable across all income levels of rental units; the sixth study finds mixed results with the affordability benefits confined to lower rents for higher end apartments.

In their conclusion, Phillips, Manville and Lens note that a principal reason for expanding market rate development in low income neighborhoods is the land use restrictions that effectively preclude more development in higher income areas.  Because single family zoning and tortuous development approval processes make it impossible to build more market rate housing in established high income areas, the demand for these units spills over onto some low income communities, raising the affordability and gentrification concerns that fuel public debate:

. . . this whole discussion — of what happens when new development arrives in a neighborhood where many lower-income people live — could be largely avoided if we built new housing mostly in higher-income, higher-resourced communities. Development in more affluent places, where fewer residents are precariously housed, could allow more people access to opportunities and alleviate demand pressures elsewhere in a region. But such development rarely happens now, because zoning prevents it.

Tragically, it seems, that a frequent policy prescription is to make low income neighborhoods as potent in blocking new development as their high income peers, a kind of NIMBY-for-all solution that’s only likely to worsen price pressures and displacement across an entire market.

Shane Phillips, Michael Manville & Michael LensResearch Roundup: The Effect of Market-Rate Development on Neighborhood Rents, UCLA Lewis Center for Regional Studies, February 17, 2021

In the News

UrbanTurf, a Washington, DC-based real estate information site pointed its readers to our analysis showing the connection between city segregation and the Black-white wealth gap.


The Week Observed, February 26, 2021

What City Observatory this week

1. Revealed: Oregon Department of Transportation’s secret plans for a ten-lane I-5 freeway at the Rose Quarter.  For years, ODOT has been claiming that its $800 million freeway widening project is just a minor tweak that will add two so-called “auxiliary” lanes to the I-5 freeway.  City Observatory has obtained three previously undisclosed files show ODOT is planning for a 160 foot wide roadway at Broadway-Weidler, more than enough for a 10 lane freeway with full urban shoulders.

ODOT has failed to analyze the traffic, environmental and health impacts from an expansion to ten lanes; not disclosing these reasonably foreseeable impacts is a violation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

2. The cost to Oregon of reviving the failed Columbia River Crossing project just went up by $150 million.  Buried in an Oregon Department of Transportation presentation earlier this month is an acknowledgement that the I-5 bridge replacement “contribution” from Oregon will be as much as $1 billion—up from a maximum of $850 million just two months earlier.

Must read

1. xx

2. Cities, Covid and the Fog of War.  City Observatory friend David Gisburg and his colleague Dave Smith, both Cincinnati-based executive recruiters have been interviewing city leaders around the country on the lessons to be learned from the Covid-19 pandemic.  They’ve summarized the results of more than 100 interviews in an essay entitled “Fog of War.”  It’s an apt metaphor:  In the midst of the pandemic, we’ve all had to deal with dire and largely unanticipated problems, often with incomplete misleading or misinterpreted information.  In the face of this danger and uncertainty, how should urban leader’s respond?  Their summary, Downtown Leaders – 2020 Lessons Learned: The Pandemic, Civil Unrest and Future Impact, addresses several critical urban topics including: How downtown and center-city leaders responded to the exceptional challenges presented during the year of COVID. Identifies the unique value downtown organizations provided to meet critical needs during a pandemic while driving future visioning. Provides and overview of downtown challenges and opportunities for 2021 and beyond.  Characterizes leadership lessons learned and “talent” required to meet future challenges.  The report draws on  more than 100 Zoom conversations with downtown CEO’s, industry consultants, philanthropists, and market influencers between August, 2020 and January, 2021. The Fog of War explores 9 key issues and addresses “headwinds” and “tailwinds” faced by downtown leaders as they navigated the swirling urban landscape created by COVID-19.

3.  Bellevue thinks another freeway interchange will solve its traffic problems.  Portland isn’t the only city that thinks that congestion can be solved by throwing more money at antiquated freeway solutions.  The fast growing suburb east of Seattle hopes that by adding more interchanges to I-405 near the cities downtown it can lessen congestion.  But, as The Urbanist points out, this kind of solution invariably makes the problem worse.

I-405 northbound car traffic with bridges and skyscrapers in the background.

Bellevue needs another freeway interchange


New Knowledge

Lived Segregation.  Most of our understanding of the nature of urban residential segregation comes from Census data on housing, and looks at the extent to which people from different income or racial/ethnic groups live in different houses.  That’s clearly important, but significantly, leaves out how much we mix as we move around neighborhoods and cities on a daily basis (or at least the way we used to, in a pre-pandemic world.  As with so many things, the mass of big data created by our electronic connections creates a new source of information about patterns of segregation.  A new study from Brown University sociologist xxx Candipan, and her colleagues uses geolocated twitter data to study patterns of movement in 50 large US cities.
They’ve used this data to measure the extent to which people from predominantly black neighborhoods xxxx <defn>.  As a summary measure, they’ve created a new “mobility segregation index” which identifies the extent to which people from different races tend to travel only in xxxx

In the News

Willamette Week quoted City Observatory’s Joe Cortright in its story revealing the previously undisclosed plans by the Oregon Department of Transportation to widen I-5 to ten lanes at the Rose Quarter in Portland.

Streetsblog California pointed its readers to our customized Portland version of the Induced Demand calculator.

The Niskanen Center’s newsletter, This Week in Land Use Regulation highlighted our commentary on the connection between segregation and racial housing value disparities.



Again, it’s Groundhog’s Day, again

Every year, the same story:  We profess to care about climate change, but we’re driving more and greenhouse gas emissions are rising rapidly.

Oregon is stuck in an endless loop of lofty rhetoric, distant goals, and zero actual progress

Another year, another Groundhog’s Day, and another bleak report that we’re not making any progress on Climate Change.  Last month, the Oregon Global Warming Commission released its latest annual report chronicling the growing climate crisis, yet again declaring the state’s adopted goal to have lower carbon emissions by 2050, and presenting the data showing that we’re utterly failing to make meaningful progress. Here’s the key takeaway from the report:  The yellow lines show the state’s stated goals, the dotted orange lines show the path we’re on.  And if you look at the black (“actual”) line, you’ll see that emissions have actually increased since 2010.  In short, in no way are we on track to meet our adopted goals.

If that sounds like something you’ve heard before, because, just like the movie Groundhog’s Day, when it comes to climate change Oregon is caught in an endless loop, repeating the same dire diagnosis, litany of prescriptions and non-existent process.

Once again, we find ourselves in the same predicament as Bill Murray in the 1993 movie, Groundhog’s Day–waking up every morning to discover that it’s still February 2, and that he’s done nothing to change any of the behaviors that have messed up his life.

The difference this year was that a series of catastrophic forest fires smothered most of the state in clouds of smoke for a solid week in September 2020.  The fires destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres of forest, forced tens of thousands of Oregonians to evacuate their homes, destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses.  Having experienced it first hand, it was an apocalyptic scene.

Bottom line: the state is failing to meet its legislatively adopted greenhouse gas reduction goals.  The state had set an interim target of reducing emissions by a very modest 10 percent from 1990 levels by 2020.  The final 2020 data aren’t in yet, but it’s clear that the state will fail to meet that goal, and not by a little, but by a lot—26 percent to be exact—according to the commision:

While Oregon met the 2010 emissions reduction goal established in 2007, we are highly unlikely to meet the 2020 goal. Preliminary 2019 sector-based emissions data and GHG emissions projections indicate that Oregon’s 2020 emissions are likely to exceed the State’s 2020 emissions reduction goal by approximately 26 percent or 13.4 million metric tons of CO2e, erasing most of the gains we had made between 2010 and 2014.

We gave ourselves three decades to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by just 10 percent, and instead over that time, increased them by more than 10 percent.  How realistic is it to expect that we’ll meet our adopted goal of reducing emissions by 75 percent from 1990 levels (more than 77 percent from today’s levels) by 2050.

The original inspiration for our Groundhog’s Day commentary was the 2017 report of the Oregon Global Warming Commission, a body set up to monitor how well the state was doing in achieving its legally adopted goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 75 percent from 1990 levels by the year 2050. In addition to its goal, Oregon has a tiny citizen commission charged with riding herd on the state’s emissions inventory, and looking to see what, if any progress the state is making in reducing greenhouse gases. The short story four years ago was:  Not very good.  Although the state reduced some power plant and industrial emissions, nearly all these gains were wiped out by increased driving. The 2017 Legislature that received that report not only did essentially nothing in response, it arguably laid the groundwork to make the problem worse, by approving a new transportation finance package providing upwards of a billion dollars to widen Portland area freeways.

It’s now the case that transportation is the single largest source of greenhouse gases, and for the past several years, Oregon’s emissions are rising. And the culprit is clear:  More driving.  As we’ve pointed out at City Observatory: the decline in gasoline prices in mid-2014 prompted an increasing in driving and with it, an increase in crashes and carbon pollution.  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.

As a result of the growth in driving and related emissions, and slower than expected progress in reducing emissions from other sources, there’s no way the state on the path it needs to be on to reach its 2050 goal. Transportation emissions are actually increasing from their 2010 levels—at a time when the state’s climate strategy called for them to be declining. (In the chart below, the blue line is the glide slope to achieving the state’s adopted 2050 goal, and the pale green line is the estimate of where the state is headed).

The best estimate is that rather than the eighty percent reduction from 1990 levels that the state has set as a goal, we’ll see barely a 20 percent reduction by 2050.  And these reductions are predicated on assumptions about more rapid fleet turnover, lower sales of trucks and SUVs, and steadily tougher fuel economy standards, when in fact the fleet is getting older (and staying dirtier), trucks and SUVs have dramatically increased their market share, and the federal government has walked back its fuel economy standards.  So its highly unlikely that even the 20 percent reduction by 2050 will be realized.

As the Commission notes in its latest report, it will take more than electrifying vehicles as fast as possible to come anywhere close to meeting the state’s goals:

It is critical that the state leverages resources to support the use of clean vehicles and fuels and reduce vehicle miles traveled per capita. Technological advancements and penetration of ZEVs alone won’t be enough to meet emissions goals. We encourage the Legislature to fully fund the necessary follow-on work identified by the agencies. We also need to take steps to help people drive less by strategically redesigning our communities and transportation systems. 

(emphasis added)

In the best of all possible worlds, this warning would prompt the Governor and legislators–ever mindful of their legally enacted commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions–to redouble their efforts and figure out ways to discourage carbon pollution, especially from transportation. After all, Oregon’s government passed a law mandating a reduction in greenhouse gases.  In the law adopted in 2007, the state committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 10 percent from 1990 levels by the year 2020, and the further goal of reducing them by 75 percent by 2050. Many other states and cities have similar adopted goals. But few cities are actually achieving these goals, as a recent audit by the Brookings Institution makes clear.

The reason is that there’s a deep flaw in the “pledge now, pollute less later” approach. Despite the high-minded and quantitative nature of these goals, the actual date for their achievement is set far so in the future, as to be beyond the expected political lifetime of any of the public officials adopting these goals. And there’s no mechanism, aside from moral suasion, to require accomplishment of these goals. So in practice, what they may do is simply give politicians cover for conspicuously expressing concern about climate change, without actually having to do anything substantive or difficult to attain it.

The Hippocratic Oath directs physicians, first, “to do no harm.”  The same ought to apply to state and local governments who profess to care about climate change. If we know driving is the biggest source of carbon pollution, and it’s causing us to increase emissions when we need to be decreasing them, the very last thing we should be doing is expanding freeways, which encourage people to drive even more. That’s why we think that Portland area freeway widening projects like the proposed $800 million expansion of I-5 should be taken off the table.  That money—and billions of dollars in other subsidies to automobile transportation—would be far better spent in building communities that are designed to enable low carbon living.

The International Panel on Climate Change has made it clear in its most recent report that we’re rapidly approaching a point of no return if we’re to avoid serious and permanent damage to the climate. We’re going to need something more than soothing rhetoric and distant goals to avoid dramatically altering our planet. As we wrote in our first commentary of the year, 2021 is the time when we need to start taking climate change seriously; if we don’t future Groundhog Day’s will be depressingly similar, and even more grim.


Urban myth busting: New rental housing and median-income households

The price of new housing is a poor gauge of housing affordability

Increasing housing supply over time, coupled with individual housing units moving down-market as they age, provides affordability

New cars are unaffordable to most households; used cars are the source of affordable driving

Discovery Channel’s always entertaining “Mythbusters” series ran for fourteen seasons before ending in 2016. If you didn’t see the show, co-hosts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman constructed elaborate (often explosive) experiments to test whether something you see on television or in the movies could actually happen in real life. (Sadly, you can’t make a bullet curve no matter how fast you flick your arm.)  


At City Observatory, we feel compelled to enter into this void, and we’ll start by doing our own urban myth-busting. Today: Does building new high-priced apartments, affordable only by middle- and upper-income families, make housing less affordable for lower income households?

We’ve heard this claim time and again in public hearings: new rental housing charges higher rents than existing apartments, and must therefore be making affordability problems worse.

Even Harvard University’s Joint Center on Housing Studies has reprised this line: “50 percent of rental households make less than $34,000 per year, but only 10 percent of new multi-family units are affordable at this income.”

From this statistical observation, it’s a short leap to the conclusion that building new housing is part of the affordability problem. The Wall Street Journal reported that “much of the new supply is aimed at higher-income renters.” The Journal also claimed: “A focus by builders on high-end apartments helps explain why rents are soaring across the country.”

New construction in San Francisco. Credit: torbakhopper, Flickr
New construction in San Francisco. Credit: torbakhopper, Flickr


On its surface, this sounds terrible. But the key context missing here is that in the United States, we have almost never built new market-rate housing for low-income households. New housing—rental and owner-occupied—overwhelmingly tends to get built for middle- and upper-income households. So how do affordable market-rate housing units get created? As new housing ages, it depreciates, and prices and rents decline, relative to newer houses. (At some point, usually after half a century or more, the process reverses, as surviving houses—which are often those of the highest quality—become increasingly historic, and then appreciate.)

What really matters is not whether new housing is created at a price point that low- and moderate-income households can afford, but rather, whether the overall housing supply increases enough that the existing housing stock can “filter down” to low and moderate income households. As we’ve written, that process depends on wealthier people moving into newer, more desirable homes. Where the construction of those homes is highly constrained, those wealthier households end up bidding up the price of older housing—preventing it from filtering down to lower income households and providing for more affordability.

This isn’t theoretical: As we’ve discussed before at City Observatory, the vast majority of today’s actually existing affordable housing is not subsidized below-market housing, but market-rate housing that has depreciated, or “filtered.” Syracuse economist Stuart Rosenthal estimates that the median value of rental housing declines by about 2.2% per year. As its price falls, lower-income people move in. Rosenthal estimates that rental housing that is 20 years old is occupied, on average, by households with incomes about half the level of incomes of those who occupy new rental housing.

Screen Shot 2015-11-09 at 9.55.56 AM
Apartments get cheaper up until they’re about 50 years old.

In its 2014 report, the California Legislative Analyst’s Office noted that as housing ages, it becomes more affordable. Housing that likely was considered “luxury” when first built declined to the middle of the housing market within 25 years. Take the 1960s-era apartments built in Marietta, a suburb of Atlanta: When they were new, they were middle to upper income housing, occupied by single professionals, gradually, as they aged, they slid down-market, to the point where the city passed an $85 million bond issue to acquire and demolish them as a way of reducing a concentration of low income households in the Franklin Road neighborhood.

New cars are unaffordable to low income households, too

Here’s another way to look at the connection between affordability and the price of new things: cars. (After houses, cars are frequently the most expensive consumer durable that most Americans purchase.)

Exactly the same thing could be said of new car purchases: Most new cars aren’t affordable to the typical household either—the average sale price of a new car is nearly $34,000.

Credit: Brian Timmermeister, Flickr
Credit: Brian Timmermeister, Flickr


In fact, using the same kind of approach that Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies used to assess rental affordability, reported that the median family can afford to buy the typical new car in only one large metropolitan area. Similar to the “30 percent of income” rule widely—and in our view inappropriately—used to gauge housing affordability, they assume that the typical household makes an 20 percent down payment, finances its purchase over four years and pays no more than 10 percent of its income for a car payment. They report in most metros that the typical family falls 30 to 40 percent short of being able to afford a new car. So most households deal with car affordability pretty much like they deal with housing affordability: by buying used.

When it comes to anything new and long-lived, higher-income households buy most of the output. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, households in the two highest income quintiles accounted for about 67 percent of the purchase of new cars in the US in 2001. New car buyers are getting progressively older, and are more likely to be high income. According to the National Automobile Dealers Association, the median new car buyer is 52 years old and has an income of about $80,000, compared to an average age of 37 and an income of $50,000 for the overall population.

But there’s no outcry about America’s “affordable car crisis.” The reason: high-income households buy newer cars; most of the rest of us buy used cars—which are more affordable after they’ve depreciated for a while.That’s even more true of housing, which is much longer lived. Nationally, 68 percent of the nation’s rental housing is more than 30 years old—so only about 10 percent of the nation’s renters live in apartments built in the last decade.

New houses, like new cars, are sold primarily to higher income households—and affordability comes from getting a bargain when the car (or house or apartment) has depreciated. Building more high priced new apartments, in fact, is critical to generate the filtering down of older housing that constitutes the affordable housing supply.

This myth is busted: building more high end housing doesn’t make housing less affordable.