Greenwashing auto infrastructure: Natick’s diverging diamond

A proposed interchange in Natick, Mass. is a classic example of greenwashing

The diverging diamond is an idea entirely given over to making things better for cars, and creates a disorienting, circuitous and dangerous world for pedestrians and cyclists.

The intersection of highways 9 and 27 in Natick Massachusetts, just east of Boston, is no urban wonderland.  It’s a classic American highway strip, with a line of car dealers (Dodge, Jeep, Volvo, and others),  the 9/27 mall has a “Stop and Shop” grocery store, but predictably turns its back on the intersection, and the roadways are ringed with acres of surface parking lots.

MassDOT, the state transportation agency is proposing the revamp the intersection, and one of their proposed designs is a “diverging diamond” interchange, that flips traffic to run on the left-hand side of two-way roadways, and creates an intricate weave of ramps that enables most vehicles to proceed through the intersection in almost any direction without stopping. A description of the project presented to the region’s metropolitan planning organization described the project in glowing “multimodal terms”

The modified interchange will include dedicated off-street facilities for pedestrians and cyclists, including a separate bike-ped bridge over Route 9 in between two spans that will support vehicular traffic. The enhanced shared-use facilities will improve connections to Natick Center and the nearby Cochituate Rail Trail.

Here’s the illustration of the diverging diamond proposed by MassDOT.  As you can see, its an intricate basket-weave of ramps, roadways and intersections.

To look at the illustration, you might get the impression that this is a kind of bucolic rural park, riven with pleasant walkways and filled with ambling pedestrians. There’s even a proposed separate pedestrian bridge running East-West across  Route 27.  Indeed, if you look closely at the rendering, it shows dozens and dozens of dots (presumably people walking) on pedestrian paths, sidewalks and crosswalks in and adjacent to the intersection.  If you count all the dots—and we did—the artist is conveying the impression that at any one time there are more than 110 people walking around or through this intersection.

Not only is that an absurdly large number—a quick perusal of Google streetview images shows no pedestrians on the current sidewalks and crosswalks in the area, and there’s precious little reason to believe that many people are walking from the U-haul or the Midas Muffler shop in the Southeast corner of the intersection to the Valvoline Oil Change shop or the Austin Liquor store in the Northeast Corner.

Current conditions at the intersection of Routes 9 & 27 in Natick (Google Streetview)

In truth, this is a profoundly pedestrian hostile design. The diverging diamond interchange flips the direction of traffic, so that cars are running on the left hand side of the roadway, creating deadly confusion for pedestrians used to seeing traffic on the right.  The basket-weave of ramps creates more conflicts for pedestrians, to cross from one side of route 27 to the other (even with the separate pedestrian overpass) requires people walking to negotiate at least six cross walks.  Between a lack of destinations, an environment swarming with cars going in every direction, and a lack of amenities, its hard to imagine anyone walking here.

While the project rendering creates the impression that the area will be chock-a-block with pedestrians, the rendering makes cars virtually disappear.  The illustration shows that once the project is built, routes 9 and 27 will be only lightly trafficked (one wonders why MassDOT is planning to spend anything on an intersection that’s so under-used).  We counted the number of cars, too–each red dot represents a vehicle. The illustration shows just 70 vehicles on routes 9 and 27, and on the myriad weaving ramps and connectors.

Red dots are vehicles, numerals are numbers of “pedestrian” dots in each block

If it’s really the case that about 50 percent more people are walking through this area at any given time than are driving, then maybe MassDOT should consider an entirely different design, one that prioritizes pedestrians.

But we know that all of the fictitious dot-people are just there to green-wash—or perhaps pedestrian-wash—what is in reality an entirely automobile-oriented project.  The illustration is a classic example of the kind of deception practiced by highway departments around the country, generating distorted and misleading renderings to create the illusion that they’re designing “pedestrian friendly infrastructure.

As we’ve discussed before, many of these projects are performative, or are simply automobile infrastructure masquerading as pedestrian infrastructure. Building remedial protections for pedestrians in hostile, vehicle dominated environments, with few or no walkable destinations doesn’t create walkable communities.

And diverging diamond intersections like this one are among the most inimical to pedestrians.  They’re designed with the purpose of speeding traffic and reducing or eliminating the number of times a driver must stop or yield at an intersection.  By creating the expectation that one can go faster, and stop or yield less, the intersections inherently make things more dangerous for pedestrians and for cyclists.

Our colleague Chuck Marohn at Strong Towns took a close look at arguments that the diverging diamond creates a pedestrian friendly setting. In his view, that’s a claim that would only fool a highway engineer. He’s got a video walk-through of a diverging diamond in Missouri that shows how hostile these intersections are to foot-traffic. His conclusion:  the diverging diamond is an “apostasy when it comes to pedestrians and pedestrian traffic.” His judgment is echoed by Schroeder’s study of diverging diamonds reports that vehicles accelerating to freeway speeds are unlikely to yield:



Bastian Schroeder, Ph.D., P.E. Director of Highway Systems, NC State University, Institute for Transportation Research and Education, Observations of Pedestrian Behavior and Facilities at Diverging Diamond Interchanges. (2015)

Editor’s Note:  A hat tip to Charles Denison IV, @cden4, for tweeting this gem.

An open letter to the Oregon Transportation Commission

For years, the Oregon Department of Transportation has concealed its plans to build a ten lane freeway through Portland’s Rose Quarter

We’re calling on the state to do a full environmental impact statement that assesses the impact of the project they actually intend to build.

An open letter to the Oregon Transportation Commission.

Regular readers of City Observatory will know that we’ve long been casting a close and critical eye on plans to spend $800 million to widen a mile and a half long stretch of interstate freeway in Portland, Oregon.  As we’ve explained, we think this particular freeway fight encapsulates many of the fundamental urban issues of our time:  How we grapple with climate change, re-imagine our cities as more just, inclusive and accessible communities, and how we right the damage done by the urban freeway building of the past.

In its advocacy for this project, the Oregon Department of Transportation has sought to convey the idea that it isn’t really widening the freeway at all.  At worst, its PR campaign claims, they’re adding two “auxiliary” lanes.

But for years, the agency has carefully hidden the true scale of the project.  It’s never publicly released detailed plans showing the roadway’s actual width, despite repeated challenges and questions from the public.

Now new documents show the agency has long been planning a 160-foot wide roadway, more than enough for an eight or ten-lane freeway with full urban shoulders.  It’s apparent now, in retrospect, that agency staff have long known this to be the case, and have willfully concealed this information from the public through a combination of misleading illustrations and outright lies in response to direct questions about the size of the proposed freeway.

This matters because portraying this project as the addition of just two lanes dramatically understates its impact in adding traffic, increasing noise, air pollution and greenhouse gases, and impairing the health and livability of nearby neighborhoods. These are exactly the kinds of impacts that the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires be revealed before undertaking a major federal project, and rather than honestly disclosing them, this agency has intentionally and aggressively hidden them.

In an open letter to the Oregon Transportation Commission, City Observatory’s Joe Cortright calls for the agency to honestly disclose its plans, and to undertake a full and fair environmental impact statement that shows the traffic, environmental and social effects of the actual 10-lane freeway it is proposing to build.


Is the pandemic driving rents down? Or up?

Since Covid started, rents are down in some cities, but up in most

“Superstar” cities have experienced the most notable declines; the demographics of renters in these cities are different than elsewhere.

Rent declines are also much more common in larger cities, with higher levels of rents.

City Observatory is pleased to publish this guest post from Alan Mallach.  Alan is a senior fellow with the Center for Community Progress, known for his work on legacy cities, neighborhood change and affordable housing. His most recent book is The Divided City: Poverty and Prosperity in Urban America, and he is currently co-authoring a book on neighborhood change.

Alan Mallach

A lot of attention has been given to the decline in rents in a handful of high-profile superstar cities like San Francisco or Washington DC. But, as I’ve had occasion to observe in the past, those cities are only a handful among the hundreds of cities and housing markets across the United States. The real question is whether the trends observed in the superstar cities reflect broader national trends, or whether – once again – they are the outliers in a larger, more complicated picture. 

To get a sense of the trends, I looked at rental data gathered by the website Apartment List (www. by city, pulling out those of the 100 largest cities for which data was provided, supplementing it with data from smaller cities as well as metro-level data. I looked at the trend for all rental units between January 2020 and January 2021, and for comparison purposes, the preceding year. While far from a complete picture of the rental markets in the United States or even in these cities, it’s a useful starting point for an overall perspective on what’s going on. This short piece will try to highlight some initial findings and offer some suggestions about the mechanisms behind the trends. 

The short answer is yes, they are outliers. More cities are still seeing increases in median rents than decreases in the face of the pandemic, by a ratio of roughly 3 to 2. 

Figure 1: The 100 largest cities by rent change from January 2020 to January 2021

Still, the fact that over a third of all cities saw declining rents, and in many cases significant declines, is notable. The year before, rents declined in only 6 out of 95 cities, and in no case by as much as 2 percent. 

Two clear patterns jumped out: 

  • The bigger the city, the more likely rents were to decline. Rents, on average, declined by 6 percent from January to January in the nation’s 10 largest cities. The only one where rents went up was Phoenix, while rents stayed flat in San Diego.
  • The higher rents were before the pandemic, the more likely rents were to decline. Rents on average went up 2 percent in the 10 lowest rent cities but went down by a whopping 13 percent in the 10 highest rent cities. 

Looking at the ‘top 10’ and ‘bottom 10’ in terms of rent increases or declines, and how their January 2020 rent ranked out of 100 cities, shows an interesting pattern. 

Of the cities with the greatest declines, most are recognizable as superstar cities, with Jersey City and Arlington being appendages – from a housing market standpoint – of New York and Washington respectively. Chicago and Minneapolis are less so, but both have seen extensive construction of upscale rental housing over the past 10 or so years. All but the last two are in the top rent quintile. By contrast, the cities with the greatest rent increases are medium-sized and smaller Sunbelt cities well outside superstar cities’ orbits. While these cities tend to skew toward moderately low rents, they are far from the lowest rent cities.  

The following chart (Figure 2B) shows the relationship between the change in rent over the past 12 months and the average level of rents in January 2021.  (The size of circles corresponds to the relative population of each city; hover over a circle to see the identity of each city and its rent level and rent change).

Figure 2B:  Change in rents and rent levels, 100 largest US cities

What can explain this pattern? There may be a few factors at work. A major one is the difference in the character of the renter population. The cities with the greatest declines are cities where large numbers of renters are young and affluent, a market to whom those cities’ rental developers and landlords have been increasingly catering in recent years. Many of these renters appear to be moving – in part out of these cities, but also in part to homeownership in the same cities. Notably, the 10 cities with the greatest rent declines saw a simultaneous average 6 percent  increase from December 2019 to December 2020 in Zillow’s Home Value Index. It also is likely to reflect a decline in in-migration of young, affluent renters, as suggested by recent research from the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, as the same reasons that have prompted out-migration have made in-migration, at least for the time being, less appealing. 

Strong anecdotal evidence suggests that the declines are largely concentrated in the upscale or Class A rental market, as a recent report from WAMU in Washington DC noted,

“The drop [in rent levels] is driven primarily by price reductions in “Class A” apartments — newly-built units that have more luxurious amenities: Think buildings like The Apollo on H St. NE, or The Hepburn in Kalorama. As of October, the average rent for apartments like these dropped from $2,669 to $2,387 per month.” 

It’s not surprising.  Driven by Millennial migration, the upscale rental sector has been riding a wave for the past decade. Reflecting typical copycat developer behavior, upscale rentals have arguably been overbuilt in all of the cities seeing the sharpest declines in rent levels. Thousands of units have been built on spec, and with previous downtown workers moving out and fewer new workers coming in, vacancies increased and demand plummeted. Supply may eventually adjust to reflect lower demand, but that may take years. 

In most cities, however, renters are mostly lower to middle income, which brings in another factor. 

Upper income, highly educated workers are far more likely to have shifted to working from home during the pandemic than lower-income, less educated workers. As Figure 3 (from the Census Bureau’s Housing Pulse Survey) shows, two-thirds of workers in households with incomes over $100,000 (and nearly three-quarters of those with incomes over $200,000)  have moved to full or part time telework, compared to little more than 15% of those earning under $35,000. The education gap is similar. 

Source: Census Bureau, Housing Pulse Survey

With mortgage interest rates at all-time lows, affluent teleworkers can easily segue to homeownership. For a couple paying $2500 or $3000 in rent, a mortgage on a $600,000 house in a large, expensive city is only a moderate reach, and a $300,000 house in a smaller, attractive but more moderately priced city is a bargain.  

Low wage workers, who tend to be concentrated in service, health care, distribution or other sectors where working from home is not an option and often lack the means to become homeowners, are less likely to move. Thus, cities like Cleveland or Des Moines, where renters are predominantly lower income households, are seeing little change in rental demand. What they are likely to see, although its impact will not be visible until well into 2021 or later, is growth in rental arrears, as thousands of lower income tenants who have lost their jobs find it impossible to make rent payments. Unless forestalled by adequately funded rental assistance, that could end up creating far more dire problems for far more people than rent declines in upscale San Francisco apartment buildings. The threat of evictions, however, is unlikely to lead to declines in rent levels, at least in the short run, as landlords try to compensate for lost rental income. 

Few tears need be shed for the owners and developers of upscale apartment buildings in superstar cities. A correction was timely if not overdue. A more important question is whether the high-wage employment that drove the wave will grow back, or whether telework will become increasingly the norm. If the latter, not only are rents unlikely to revive, but the knock-on effects to the retail and service sectors supported by high-wage employment could be disastrous, with bars, restaurants, dry cleaners and other firms going out of business and thousands of lower-wage workers left unemployed. 

If the markets in these cities can be considered losers, those of the secondary cities of the Sunbelt shown in Figure 2 may be considered at least so far the winners. Not only have they seen sharp rent increases, but they saw even greater sales price inflation, with house values going up an average of 13% in the past year, well above the national average. Boise, Idaho topped the charts with a whopping 21% annual increase, while, according to Albuquerque Business First“the [Albuquerque] market shows no signs of slowing down, with homes going for record high prices and newly-listed property going under contract in less than 30 days.”  Whether what’s good for the housing market in these cities is good for the people who live there, of course, is another matter. 

Progress Zero: Lofty vision but increasing deaths and injuries

Vision Zero is a popular and widely embraced safety campaign, but the latest data shows Portland is not only not on track, it’s going in the wrong direction when it comes to road safety

Multi-lane, car-dominated urban arterials are the big killers, and instead of fixing them, the Oregon DOT is wasting billions on widening extremely safe freeways

Cheaper gas since 2014 has fueled more driving, more crashes and more deaths.  Vision Zero isn’t working.

Portland’s regional government, Metro, does a thorough job of tracking and compiling road safety measures. Its latest report, including data through the end of calendar years 2019 tracks progress against the region’s adopted “vision zero” goals.

Portland area road deaths:  Rising when they’re supposed to be falling. 

Source: Metro.

Metro calculates progress using the five-year moving average of the number of roadway fatalities in the Metro planning area.  The vision zero plan, incorporated in the 2018 Regional Transportation Plan, calls for that to trend down to zero by 2035, and the dashed red line shows the progress that would be needed to achieve that objective.  But as the 2015-2019 trend (solid black line) shows, the region is moving in the wrong direction at an accelerating pace.  The blue rectangles show the five year moving average (e.g. 2019 is the average of the deaths for 2015 through 2019).  The small blue triangles corresponding to the actual number of road deaths in each year.  In 2019, the five year moving average was 83 deaths, the actual number of deaths was 95, and the Vision Zero plan called for a reduction to 55 deaths.

The tragic topline numbers of fatalities, if anything understate the region’s comprehensive failure to make progress on Vision Zero.  Metro tracks 25 separate measures of system safety, such as fatalities and injuries for different road users in the aggregate, and per capita or per million miles traveled.  Metro’s annual report shows that the region is on-track to make exactly none of these 25 objectives, and has made improvements from 2015 levels on just two (both related to bike safety).

Deadly arterials are the big problem

Periodically, Metro undertakes a “State of Safety” Report that looks at these data in greater detail through the lenses of different geographies and road types.  Their latest report confirmed earlier findings.  Multi-lane arterials are far and away the largest sources of deadly and injurious crashes.  These roadways create inherent conflicts between vehicles, bikes and pedestrians; high speeds and multiple lanes result in more crashes, injuries and deaths. On average, the region’s arterials have five times as many serious crashes per mile traveled as freeways, according to the Metro study, a finding they called “one of the most conclusive relationships in this study.”

This same pattern holds nationally.  A recent national study looked at every major road segment in the nation and identified the 65 of the worst pedestrian crash hot-spots, places that had eight or more pedestrian fatalities in a 1,000 meter road section in an eight year period.  These hot spots, really killing zones,  shared a series of common characteristics:

Nearly all (97%) were multilane roadways, with 70% requiring pedestrians to cross five or more lanes. More than three-quarters had speed limits of 30 mph or higher, and 62% had traffic volumes exceeding 25,000 vehicles per day.

Schneider, R. J., Sanders, R., Proulx, F., & Moayyed, H. (2021). United States fatal pedestrian crash hot spot locations and characteristics. Journal of Transport and Land Use14(1), 1-23.

Cheap gas = More roadway deaths

Importantly, as we’ve pointed out at City Observatory, the surge in traffic deaths has a lot to do with the big decrease in gas prices in 2014.  Up until 2014, Portland area traffic deaths averaged (over five years) was less than 60 per year.  Since 2015, the five year average has exceeded 60 deaths per year every year, and is increasingly rapidly.

ODOT is squandering billions on freeway widenings that are unrelated to the rising death toll

While the region continues to fail to make progress on reducing crashes and associated deaths and injuries, the Oregon Department of Transportation continues to move ahead with plans to plow billions of dollars into widening area freeways, which are far and away safer than these deadly arterial streets.  ODOT operates many of the region’s most deadly arterial roadways, including Powell Boulevard, Barbur Boulevard, 82nd Avenue, the Tualatin Valley Highway and McLoughlin Boulevard.  ODOT has falsely claimed that the Rose Quarter I-5 freeway which it is widening at a cost of nearly $800 million, has the “highest crash rate in Oregon”.  This stretch of freeway chiefly has minor “fender bender” crashes, and is classified by Metro as a “minor safety project.”

Vision Zero is threatening to become yet another empty marketing campaign; a slogan that simulates concern while allowing business-as-usual—meaning increasing carnage—while providing cover for the highway lobby to squander additional billions of dollars on so-called improvement projects that do little or nothing to reduce growing toll of deaths and injuries on our roads. Metro’s check-in on safety metrics shows our current efforts are failing.  What will the region do to show that its serious about improving safety?

A new framework for equitable economic development

Editor’s Note: Darrene Hackler is a consultant and a senior advisor with Smart Incentives. Darrene brings economic development expertise in economic equity and inclusive growth, entrepreneurship and small business, and innovation. She helps policy makers, economic developers, and foundations build partnerships that can strengthen local economic development ecosystems through strategic plans, policy analysis, incentives analysis, and technical assistance. For more information contact and follow her @dhackler and @SmartIncentives.

  • Equity is the big challenge facing community and local economic development. Everywhere, there are some people and some neighborhoods that are left out or left behind no matter how strong the economy. In the face of economic dislocations like the Great Recession and the COVID-19 pandemic, these disparities are amplified.
  • If you are a Mayor, city council, or local economic development official, and you’re wrestling with how to make sure you’re making equitable growth possible, here are three concrete steps you should be taking. 
  1. Engage residents to determine priorities and share data to clearly define the nature of economic challenges that residents confront.
  2. Work together with residents to design efforts and programs that address the identified challenges and priorities.
  3. Co-create quantifiable measures of performance to demonstrate progress, share the responsibility of data collection with community organizations, and regularly report on outcomes and impacts to build trust and make modifications.

Today’s policy makers and economic developers are confronting severe economic disruptions. Many places that have never recovered losses suffered during the Great Recession now fear greater income and housing disparities and unequal opportunities as they face the “40-year” global macroeconomic after-effects of COVID-19.  My firm, Smart Incentives, works with communities to achieve equitable targeted development goals and helps them create pathways to opportunity and prosperity that include all community members. 

The Pew Charitable Trusts asked us to take a closer look at the successes and failures of equitable development efforts across the nation. We looked at more than 50 such efforts and carefully profiled four in-depth to develop our findings. Our report, Reflecting Community Priorities In Economic Development Practices, offers today’s leaders tools to address inequitable economic conditions and adapt their economic development efforts so that more of their residents prosper. The efforts suggest the need for a broad range voices to be at the table—residents, community groups, businesses, philanthropies, economic developers, and governments—working together to co-design their economic futures. 

We suggest that equitable and inclusive development is outcome-driven for residents and begins by prioritizing community engagement and clearly linking that engagement to actionable initiatives with measurable results. This is a challenge facing nearly every city government and community leader because often these efforts must include recognizing the inequitable results of past policies and taking active efforts to rebuild community trust. Our work profiles how those stakeholders are seeking and finding common ground, before lawsuits are filed or projects are cancelled.   

We break our insights into a Determine-Design-Evaluate framework to profile how governments and communities can work together effectively to ensure that a community’s goals and priorities are reflected in economic development efforts and create equitable and inclusive outcomes. 



Equitable community engagement practices acknowledge a shared history and often coalesce around data-driven findings that establish a common understanding of today’s challenges. They move engagement from a process to inform residents to a forum centered on listening, learning, partnering, and empowering the community to be part of the decision-making process—long advised by Sherry Arnstein and International Association for Public Participation. Both residents and organizations slowly engage more voices as trust and respect are built. Sustaining trust and respect requires that people’s time, expertise, and contributions are valued (and compensated financially).  


Residents tend to offer a more holistic view of what can make their communities better. Responsive, holistic programs and policies must not rely exclusively on narrow individual government agencies’ or departments’ work plans to achieve community priorities. Cross-government and external partnerships that engage civic societies, the private sector, and anchor institutions across the community are usually necessary to make desired progress on community priorities. These efforts are place conscious, people-centric, and expand business and economic initiatives to reach small neighborhood businesses, overcoming the problems of place-based financial-centric strategies highlighted by Josh Goodman. In addition, appropriate resources should be devoted to continued engagement, program design, and implementation. 


We call for a new set of in-between indicators that are just right”, using metrics, key performance indicators, dashboards, and annual reports that engage community partners in the data collection and provide meaningful transparency and accountability for economic development efforts and equitable engagement processes. Skepticism of glossy reports that “sell” results has led to more serious attempts to measure and report on outcomes achieved on behalf of the community. Our scan of proposed measurement and evaluation structures suggests that much data will be collected and disseminated, but many communities will still struggle to provide high-quality, valuable reporting that will truly inform residents about how communities are changing in line with their priorities. Thoughtful and effective storytelling can also be a useful addition to “just right” formal metrics by providing relatable, tangible examples that connect programs and policies to community priorities.  

Reflecting Community Priorities In Economic Development Practices exhibits the various determine-design-evaluate methods that can guide investments that actively address historical inequities of economic development and engender greater trust after years of divisiveness with surrounding communities.


Inclusionary Zoning: Portland’s Wile E. Coyote moment has arrived

Portland’s inclusionary zoning requirement is a slow-motion train-wreck; apartment completions are down by two-thirds, and the development pipeline is drying up

This will lead to slower housing supply growth and increasing rents for everyone over the next two to three years

Inclusionary Zoning (IZ) creates perverse incentives to under-utilize available land

In December 2016, Portland’s City Council enacted a strong inclusionary housing requirement.  Henceforth, all new apartment buildings in Portland would have to set-aside a portion of their units for low- and moderate income housing. Unlike other cities that either made compliance voluntary, or largely (or entirely) offset the cost of the added units with density bonuses or subsidies (or other quid pro quo), the Portland ordinance applied to nearly all apartment buildings larger than 20 units. The new requirement didn’t kick in until February 2017, and there was a land rush of developers who filed under the old rules.  That produced a temporary flood of new apartment buildings, that have, over the past four years, mostly been built.

Investment markets work with lags for a variety of reasons.  It takes time to plan, obtain permission for, and actually build new housing, and multi-family housing takes longer than single family housing.  As a result, there’s a multi-year pipeline.  When there are housing shortages, as there were in the early days of the recovery from the Great Recession, supply can’t expand as rapidly as demand, and rents get bid up.  The reverse is also true; a glut of building in good times produces new apartment supply that holds down rents, at least for a while.  That effect has concealed the negative consequences of Portland’s inclusionary zoning policy.

As we observed in May of 2019, the initial implementation of inclusionary zoning resulted in a kind of counter-intuitive acceleration of apartment construction.

. . .  the first two years of inclusionary zoning in Portland have been a game-theory win-win for housing affordability. The threat of tougher future requirements prompted a whole lot of investment to happen much earlier than it otherwise would have, and new developments, added to those already under construction, have helped deliver a lot more new apartments in Portland.

Portland reaches its Wile E. Coyote moment

Back in 2019, we said that Portland’s apartment market was in the midst of the “don’t look down” portion of its Wile E. Coyote experience. The momentum from pre-IZ housing applications filled the construction pipeline, and led to a steady increase in the number of new apartment completions.  And, as we’ve noted, the increase in supply pushed up vacancy rates, and rent increases, which had been in the double digit range in 2015, fell to just 1-2 percent per year, according to Apartment LIst data.

But now, Wile E. Coyote has looked down, and seen nothing holding him up. Data compiled by local economic consulting firm ECONorthwest tracks the number of apartment permits issued in Portland over the past 15 years.  It shows the surge in new apartments in 2017 largely holding up in 2018 and 2019, but then plummeting by roughly two-thirds in 2020, from an average of 4,500 new apartments per year to fewer than 1,500.

The ECONW analysis of the building permit data is echoed by other market analysts.  Noel Johnson’s website, EnvisionPDXtrends also has data on Portland’s development pipeline showing a diminished volume of new apartment construction activity since the inception of the city’s inclusionary housing requirements.

Portland apartment completions (EnvisionPDXtrends)

Similarly Patrick Barry, of the Barry Apartment Report, says that there’s been a sharp fall off in the number of new multi-family building permits applied for in Multnomah County (which contains the City of Portland).  New apartment permits in the county have fallen more than 60 percent in the past year, from  5,165 units in 2019 to 2,043 in 2020.

By all measures, Wile E. Coyote is plummeting to the desert floor.

Lean years ahead for apartment deliveries

What’s even more ominous, though, is a parallel decline in new projects in the application process.  It takes time (two or even three years) for a project to go from permit application to “for lease,” so much of Portland’s apartment supply for 2022 and 2023 (when, by all accounts the economy is expected to be booming again), is essentially already baked into the cake of filed permit applications.  Again, ECONW tracks these new permit applications using city data.  Entry into the pipeline is defined as “set up” activity, when an applicant pre-files or files for a new building permit.  The number of set ups for apartment units peaked in 2016 and 2017 at slightly more than 6,000 new units per year.  Since then, new setups have declined by a third in 2018 and 2019 to about 4,000 per year.  In 2020, new setups were about 2,600, less than half their 2017 level.

Just as the past two to three years have produced a kind of temporary win-win of greater apartment deliveries and slowing rent inflation, the next couple of years seem almost certain to have exactly the opposite:  declining numbers of new apartments, and rising rents.  Already, national forecasters like Zillow are predicting a rapid rebound in demand for urban markets in the post-pandemic period.

Developers will likely wait for the City of Portland to realize the devastating effects of these burdensome IZ requirements and to relax them, or wait for rents to rise enough to support the costs of building new apartments and covering the cost of subsidized units, or simply resign themselves to building smaller, 20-unit buildings, that do much less to expand housing supply and may mean permanently under-utilizing sites that are well-situated to accommodate even greater density.

The Mansard effect

Some of the effects of Portland’s IZ requirements will be quirky and permanent changes to the building stock  For example, one key feature of Portland’s inclusionary zoning rule is that it exempts buildings with 20 or fewer apartments from the inclusionary housing requirement, apparently based on the assumption that such a requirement would make these smaller projects uneconomical.  But what that exemption has done is to prompt many developers to shift to these smaller buildings.  Over the past couple of years, data from the city show that the number of 16-20 unit apartments has (red line) while the number of 21-25 unit buildings (green line) has disappeared.  The number of 16-20 unit buildings in 2020 was 143 percent higher than the 2014-2016 average; the number of 21-25 unit buildings was 100 percent lower (zero) than its 2014-16 average.

For reference, as noted above, total apartment completions declined about 67 percent over this time. The 20-unit and under exemption essentially incentivizes developers to build fewer apartments, and because residential structures tend to be long-lived, once a site is built out at 20 units when it could have been 25 or 30 units, that additional housing will be foreclosed for 50 or 100 years.

Also, developers have noted that the inclusionary provision applies on a building-by-building basis, so by dividing a development project up into a series of 20-unit or smaller buildings, a developer can build many apartments without having to comply with the inclusionary requirement.  That shows up, for example in a recent development in Northwest Portland, where developer Noel Johnson is building eight five-story residential buildings, with a total of 145 units on a small urban infill site.  Again, because each building is 20 or fewer units, the inclusionary requirements don’t apply.

Northbound 30 (Jones Architecture and Waechter Architecture, via Next Portland).

Doing this development as eight different buildings may not the most efficient arrangement, but (to this economist’s eye) the result isn’t unaesthetic.  Johnson points out that dividing the project into multiple buildings assures that each apartment is a corner unit (dual-aspect to you English housey types), which make them more desirable.  It’s an example of how regulation can prompt innovation.

The effect of restrictive land use regulations on urban architectural form has a long history. Mansard windows, now a cherished hallmark of Parisian architecture, soared to popularity as a dodge on city building restrictions.  Buildings in Paris were limited to just 20 meters (about 65 feet), but the rules provided the height would be measured at the building’s cornice.  As a result, a floor or two stepped back behind a steeply angled gambrel roof didn’t count against the height limit.  (Fun fact: back in the days before elevators, apartments on the top floors of buildings commanded rents because tenants had to walk up every flight of stairs; the mansard-enabled apartments essentially functioned as a kind of affordable housing bonus).

Paris builders used Mansard roofs to evade the city’s 20 meter height limit

While the Mansard roofs are endearing, they’re a visible and enduring symbol of the power of regulation to alter the housing market.  And more significant than the changes to the housing that gets built, are the ways that regulations cause new housing not to be built at all can have even greater, but unfortunately largely unseen impacts.  The new apartments that aren’t being built now in Portland will almost certainly lead to higher rents and less affordability in the years ahead—exactly the opposite of the expressed intentions of those who enacted this policy.  It’s the apartments that aren’t being built that are the real legacy of inclusionary zoning.

Editor’s Note:  Thanks to Mike Wilkerson of ECONorthwest and Noel Johnson of for sharing their tabulations of Portland apartment permit data.  Opinions and analysis presented here solely reflect the views of City Observatory.

The Fundamental, Global Law of Road Congestion

Studies from around the world have validated the existence of induced demand:  each improvement to freeway capacity in urban areas generates more traffic.

The best available science worldwide—in Europe, Japan and North America—shows a “unit-elasticity” of travel with respect to capacity:  A 1 percent expansion of capacity tends to generate 1 percent more vehicle miles traveled.

The fundamental law of road congestion requires us to fix broken traffic models and stop widening highways in a futile effort to reduce congestion.

Call it what you will:  Jevons Paradox, Braess Paradox, Marchetti’s Constant or Downs’ Triple Convergence, the science confirms them all.

Induced demand:  More road capacity produces more traffic

At City Observatory, we’ve related the classic example of North America’s widest freeway, the 23-lane Katy Freeway in Houston.  It’s been successively widened many times, most recently at a cost of $3 billion, and within three years of its expansion, commute times were even longer than before.

But there’s much more than anecdotes like the Katy Freeway to buttress the observation of induced demand.  Sophisticated, in-depth studies of transportation infrastructure and traffic levels, that look at entire nations and measure traffic changes over decades find what is now being called “the fundamental law of road congestion.”  An increase in road capacity directly generates a proportional increase in traffic, with the effect that congestion and travel times quickly return to (or worsen from) pre-expansion levels.  Simply put, expanding road capacity is a futile, and self-defeating effort.  Urban highway expansion is the labor of Sisyphus.

Two recent and definitive studies are Duranton and Turner’s “Fundamental Law of Road Congestion,” and more recently Kent Hymel’s “If you build it they will drive” both of these studies use data for the US and find a unit elasticity of traffic with respect to roadway expansion. Hsu and Zhang found a nearly identical result for roadway expansion projects in Japan.

Europe:  Still more evidence Induced Demand and the fundamental law of road congestion

The latest evidence of the universality of the fundamental law comes from Europe.  Three researchers from the University of Barcelona use two decades of data for hundreds of European cities to replicate the methodology used by Duranton and Turner and Hymel in the U.S.  They find very similar results, confirming the fundamental law of road congestion.  The best estimate is that the elasticity of travel with respect to capacity is essentially unitary:  a one percent increase in highway capacity generates a one percent increase in vehicle travel.

We use data for the 545 largest European cities to estimate the elasticity of a measure of congestion with respect to highway expansion. The results indicate that this elasticity is in the range close to 1. This suggests that expansion of the highway network induced the demand for car travel, and so, on average, the level of congestion remained roughly unchanged in the period 1985–2005. In other words, we show that investments in highways did not effectively relieve traffic congestion.

Congestion in Edinburgh (The Herald)

Tolling is the only way to avoid the induced demand trap

Garcia-Lopez, Pasidis and Viladecans-Marsal examine how the prevalence of tolled roadways affects the induced demand effect.  Cities that toll a higher proportion of their highway system have a much smaller induced demand effect.  Their analysis concludes that traffic is highly elastic in response to capacity expansions in cities with no tolls (each 1 percent in capacity results in a nearly 2 percent incrase in travel; which traffic is highly inelastic in cities with 100 percent tolled highways (a 1 percent increase in capacity results in a 0.3 percent increase int raffic:

(1) highway improvements increase congestion, (2) the effect is smaller in cities with tolls, and (3) the fundamental law is mainly related to cities without tolls or with a low percentage of tolled highways. In particular, and focusing on our preferred specification in column 3 (using a continuous interaction), a 1% increase in lane kilometers increases congestion by 1.9% in cities without tolls and by only 0.3% (=1.9-1.6) in cities with tolls in all their highways (100% share of tolled highways). Some simple computations show that the fundamental law applies to cities with a share of tolled highways below 56%. These results can be regarded as novel evidence in line with recent literature suggesting that the solution to traffic congestion is the adoption of ’congestion’ pricing policies.

Policy implications:  Fix broken traffic models; Stop widening highways

The fundamental law of road congestion is a demonstrated scientific fact, with unambiguous implications for public policy.  First and foremost, the fundamental law signals that the folk wisdom (repeated by highway boosters) that we can somehow “build our way out” of traffic congestion is utterly false.  More roads simply generate more traffic and more sprawl.  Cities and states should stop spending money on road widening projects to reduce congestion.  There’s a second, more subtle and technocratic point as well.  The fiction that more capacity will somehow reduce congestion is actually hard-wired into many of the “four-step” traffic models highway departments use to plan (and justify) highway widening.  The models are calibrated in a way that either ignores or denies the existence of induced demand, usually by simply assuming that the level of traffic demand is fixed, and unaffected by either journey times, delays or congestion.  At best models may crudely re-route traffic in response to congestion, but they fail to alter aggregate trip demand, especially in the long run.  As a result, as Jamey Volker, Susan Handy and Amy Lee show, most existing travel models create the false illusion that a wider road will lead to faster traffic.  Transportation planners–and funding entities, like the Federal Highway Administration—should insist that transportation models be updated to reflect scientific reality. The induced travel calculator shows how this can be done, now.

A truth with many names and discoverers

While this new study from Barcelona, and the similar papers by Duranton & Turner, Hymel, and Hu and Zhang all elaborate in great statistical detail on this finding, the basic concept is well understood, and has been for decades (or longer).  The scientific validation of the phenomenon of induced demand buttresses a series of related explanations:  the Jevons Paradox, the Braess Paradox, and Marchetti’s constant and the Triple Convergence.

Jevons Paradox holds that an increase in efficiency in resource use will generate an increase in resource consumption rather than a decrease.  English economist William Stanley Jevons predicted greater efficiency in using coal would increase its use in 1863.  The efficiency gain seems paradoxical, if one assumes that demand is unaffected by the lower price of a more efficient process, but by making something more efficient, we generate additional demand.

Braess’s Paradox is the application of this general idea specifically to traffic.  German engineer Dietrich Braess postulated exactly this in 1968.

Marchetti’s constant is a corollary to these paradoxes:  It observes that the amount of time human’s devote to daily travel remains constant regardless of improvements in transportation technology. Whether walking, riding horses or streetcars, or driving cars, we devote about an average of an hour a day to travel.  Marchetti’s constant means that we use improvements in transportation to travel further, rather than saving time, a result fully consistent with the fundamental law of road congestion. (The observation has been made independently by many observers including Bertrand Russell as early as 1934.

Down’s Triple Convergence, in his 1992 book Stuck in Traffic, economist Anthony Downs described the existence of a “triple convergence” in which changes in road infrastructure prompted changes in the mode (i.e. transit to car), time, or destination of trips in ways that would lead to congestion reappearing even after an expansion of road capacity.

Miquel-Àngel Garcia-López & Ilias Pasidis & Elisabet Viladecans-Marsal, 2020. “Congestion in highways when tolls and railroads matter: Evidence from European cities,” Working Papers wpdea2011, Department of Applied Economics at Universitat Autonoma of Barcelona.



How ODOT destroyed Albina: The I-5 Meat Axe

Interstate 5 “Meat Axe” slashed through the Albina Neighborhood in 1962

This was the second of three acts by ODOT that destroyed housing and isolated Albina

Building the I-5 freeway led to the demolition of housing well-outside the freeway right of way, and flooded the neighborhood with car traffic, ending its residential character and turning into an auto-oriented landscape of parking lots, gas stations and car dealerships.

New York City’s Robert Moses is cast—accurately—as the villain who routinely rammed freeways through city neighborhoods.  Freeways, Moses said “. . . must go right through cities, and not around them, . . . When you’re operating in an overbuilt metropolis you have to hack your way with a meat axe.” (Moses, 1954, quoted in Mohl, 2002).

And Moses, the subject of Robert Caro’s epic biography The Power Broker, actually wielded his meat axe in Portland. The original route of the Interstate 5, which at the time was called the “Eastbank Freeway” was recommended by none other than Moses, who came to the city in 1943 with a group of his “Moses Men,” to recommend a public works program for the region, which recommended the city be carved up by a series of freeways.

As part of its efforts to sell a $800 million I-5 freeway widening project in Portland, ODOT, the Oregon Department of Transportation, has made quite a show of acknowledging its complicity in destroying the Albina neighborhood, which six decades ago, was the segregated home of a plurality of the city’s Black residents.  But its role didn’t start with the construction of I-5 in the early sixties, nor did it end then.  ODOT has made repeatedly hemmed in and destroyed Albina, starting more than seventy years ago.

In part I of this series, we unearthed the largely forgotten—and entirely unacknowledged—role the Oregon Department of Transportation played in triggering the downfall of Portland’s Albina neighborhood in 1951, with its decision to build a mile-long extension of Highway 99W (Interstate Avenue) along the Willamette River. Of all the public “investments” that dismantled Albina, this was the first, but not the last.

1962:  ODOT’s I-5 cuts through Albina

Less than a decade later, the Oregon State Highway Department was back, with another apply another  meat axe to the Albina neighborhood, in the form of the construction of Interstate 5.  It chose a route for the new Interstate 5, largely parallel to and less than a mile east, cutting through the heart of the Albina neighborhood.  And in true 1960’s freeway fashion, the right of way wasn’t just a narrow slice of land, the highway department condemned and demolished businesses and housing for several blocks on either side of the land eventually used for the roadway.

That’s apparent in this 1962 photo showing the project’s construction:


In its effort to sell a new $800 million widening of the I-5 freeway through what’s now called the Rose Quarter (to build, as we’ve shown a ten lane freeway), ODOT has made a conspicuous show of apologizing for the original construction of the freeway.  But in our view, the apology has been glossed over ODOT’s role.  Their public relations materials have dramatically understated damage done to the neighborhood.

Here’s a diagram prepared by ODOT consultants, to show how the freeway affected the Albina neighborhoods as it appeared in 1954 (i.e. after ODOT had already built Highway 99W).  ODOT’s historical map shows the homes and businesses as they existed in 1954, and then overlays the I-5 freeway itself as a pair of slender pink lines.  But this significantly understates the scale of the demolition in Albina.  The freeway’s true footprint involved acquiring and demolishing property on both sides of the roadway, as shown in the solid red lines on the right.  Critically, I-5 disconnected much of the Albina street grid.

The area outlined in red on the right hand side of this diagram shows blocks where multiple structures that existed in 1948 had been demolished by 1962, as shown in aerial photographs (see below). This includes both the land occupied by the freeway itself, as well as land cleared as part of the construction process.

The I-5 Freeway Construction Footprint

To get a closer look at this reality, compare these pairs of aerial photographs taken before and after I-5 construction.  The reality is the I-5 freeway leveled whole city blocks on either side of the right of way.  This pair of images allows you to see a “before” and “after” view of the neighborhood.  The before image from 1948 shows the housing and businesses that existed prior to freeway construction; the after shows what was demolished by 1962.  We haven’t been able to obtain data showing a complete list of the properties ODOT acquired and demolished, so we’ve relied on photo interpretation to identify blocks where housing or buildings that existed in 1948 had been demolished in 1962. It may be that some privately owned homes adjacent to the freeway were abandoned by their owners and demolished.

Albina:  From the Steel Bridge to N. Cook Street

Our first pair of aerial photographs shows the entirety of Albina from the Steel Bridge on the South to N. Cook Street (just near the Boise-Eliot School) on the North.  (The original 1948 photograph is truncated on the East)

1948                         ↔                          1962


Close Up:  The southern part of Albina

The damage done by the construction of the I-5 freeway is even more apparent when we zoom in to the southern portion of the neighborhood, the area between the Broadway and Steel bridges, and between the Willamette River and Martin Luther King Boulevard (called Union Avenue in 1962).

1948                           ↔                       1962


Freeway traffic, not just the roadway, is what doomed Albina

The result of ODOT’s highway construction was to obliterate much of Albina, and to isolate the remaining parts of the neighborhood. Predictably, the neighborhood’s population collapsed between 1950 and 1970, as the area was given over to the automobile. Much of the decline in population in Albina happened years after the freeway was built. The flood of cars undercut neighborhood livability, and population steadily declined in the 60s, 70s and 80s. As people moved away, neighborhood businesses that served local residents, many owned by African-Americans, died. More cars, fewer people, fewer businesses, and a shrunken impoverished neighborhood Building the freeway clearly privileged the interests of those driving through the area, especially suburban commuters, over the people who actually lived here.


The construction of I-5 was the second act in a three-part tragedy that doomed the Albina neighborhood.  The first was the construction of Highway 99W in 1951, cutting the neighborhood off from the River.  The I-5 freeway construction in 1962 demolished a huge share of the neighborhoods housing, and irrevocably turned this residential area into an auto-dominated sea of parking lots, roadways, gas stations and car dealerships.  But as we’ll see, there was a third act in the early 1970s that largely completed the encirclement and destruction of the neighborhood by ODOT highways.

It’s sometimes said that what’s past is prologue.  The ODOT public relations campaign for the $800 million Rose Quarter I-5 freeway widening project aims to portray it as a mere minor tweak to the existing roadway, the addition of a couple of inconsequential “auxiliary lanes.” They’re implying that if the footprint of the freeway isn’t expanded much there are no impacts.  Not only is that not true—the hidden plan is to build a 10-lane freeway through—the Rose Quarter, but the real impacts are driven by the flood of cars this would enable.  The real problem with the Rose Quarter freeway is not so much that the project increases the freeway’s footprint—which it does, in ways that ODOT has actively concealed—but rather that by adding additional road capacity, the I-5 Rose Quarter freeway widening project repeats the damage to the neighborhood by injecting even more vehicles into this car-dominated environment.  If we learn anything from history, this is not an error that we should allow to be repeated.


How ODOT destroyed Albina: The untold story

I-5 wasn’t the first highway that carved up Portland’s historically black Albina Neighborhood.

Seventy years ago, ODOT spent the equivalent of more than $80 million in today’s dollars to cut the Albina neighborhood off from the Willamette River.

ODOT’s highways destroyed housing and isolated Albina, lead to a two-thirds reduction in population between 1950 and 1970.

Demolishing neighborhoods for state highways is ODOT’s raison d’etre.

As part of its efforts to sell a $800 million I-5 freeway widening project in Portland, ODOT, the Oregon Department of Transportation, has made quite a show of acknowledging its complicity in destroying the Albina neighborhood, which six decades ago, was the segregated home of a plurality of the city’s Black residents.  But its role didn’t start with the construction of I-5 in the early sixties, nor did it end then.  ODOT has made repeatedly hemmed in and destroyed Albina, starting more than seventy years ago.

In 1950, the Oregon State Highway Department built a mile-long extension of Highway 99W that cut Albina off from the Willamette River, and began the process of destroying the housing and businesses that made up the neighborhood.

It’s lost to the living memory of all but a handful of Oregonians, but before 1950, there was no “North Interstate Avenue” between the Steel Bridge and North Tillamook Street (several blocks North of the Broadway Bridge.  In 1950, the Oregon State Highway Department leveled dozens of houses, and removed city streets.  Here’s a grainy contemporaneous news photo from the Oregonian showing the nearly completed Interstate Avenue highway.

(1951, December 23). Oregonian, p. 8

Before the highway was built, this whole area was mostly housing.  In 1950, the Oregon State Highway Department spent the equivalent of $80 million in today’s money to demolish the portion of the Albina neighborhood along the Willamette River to construct a new limited access highway.  The following map shows, bordered in red, the housing that ODOT demolished for Interstate Avenue.  This destruction has been acknowledged only in passing by ODOT in its Rose Quarter freeway widening work.*


Albina in 1948 and 1962

To get a sense of how the neighborhood changed, we’ve overlaid the 1948 image of the neighborhood with its 1962 appearance.  The entire area between the Memorial Coliseum and the River was cleared by ODOT for Interstate Avenue.  Albina was now cut off from the river by a state highway.

What ODOT hasn’t acknowledged as part of the Rose Quarter discussion is how its demolition of the neighborhood actually began even earlier, in 1950, when the department  built a highway extension from the Steel Bridge to Interstate Avenue.  Ironically, this highway (US 99W), was an extension of the westside Harbor Drive, which opened in 1943 and famously removed in 1974, and transformed into Portland’s Tom McCall Waterfront Park, replete with verdant lawns and cherry trees. The city’s tonier west-side had its riverbank 99W highway turned into a park; the predominantly Black Albina neighborhood’s segment of the 99W highway remains an auto-dominated arterial to this day.

Conspicuously, the ODOT narratives about its culpability for the destruction of Albina are generally confined to looking just at current right of way of the I-5 freeway.  But in fact, its role in demolishing the Albina neighborhood began more than a decade earlier, with the construction of the Highway 99W/Interstate Avenue extension, and continued for more than a decade later—with the construction of the Fremont Bridge and ramps, which further devastated the Albina community (and which is conveniently left out of ODOT project maps—more about that in an upcoming City Observatory commentary).

But in 1950, to speed the flow of traffic in and through Portland, the State Highway Department (the more accurately named predecessor of today’s ODOT), condemned and demolished a strip of houses along the Willamette River for an  mile-long highway project.

(1951, October 25). Oregonian, p. 40

In 1950, the project cost $3,500,000.  Inflated by the Engineering News Record’s Construction Cost Index, that’s a project that would cost over $80 million today.

Prior to 1950, the dense neighborhood of Albina ran downhill from NE Grand and Union Avenues all the way to the Willamette River.  The neighborhood was a dense network of gridded residential streets, and its two Census Tracts (22 & 23) had more than 14,000 residents. By the time of the 1960 Census, the neighborhood’s population had declined by more than a third, to a little over 9,000.  The construction of Interstate Avenue (Highway 99W), an extension of Harbor Drive was just the first of a series of project that systematically demolished most of the housing in the Albina neighborhood.  In 1960, the city cleared away housing next to Interstate Avenue in part for the new Memorial Coliseum, but mostly to provide for a swath of surface parking lots around the new arena.


The result of ODOT’s highway construction was to obliterate much of Albina, and to isolate the remaining parts of the neighborhood. Predictably, the neighborhood’s population collapsed between 1950 and 1970, as the area was given over to the automobile.


The real problem with the Rose Quarter freeway is not so much that the project increases the freeway’s footprint—which it does, in ways that ODOT has actively concealed—but rather that by adding additional road capacity, the I-5 Rose Quarter freeway widening project injects even more vehicles into this car-dominated environment.  The local neighborhood association, has come to exactly that conclusion, and they’re correct: The Eliot Neighborhood Association’s land use chair has written:

The only real change the project would make to the surrounding area would be widening the highway, a car-capacity increase that will barely change travel times through the area. It would also serve to put more cars into our local street network, which has led to renderings showing even wider streets through the area than we have now. This would increase road noise and reduce the value of land around the project area.


* Editor’s Note:  The originally published version of this story incorrectly claimed that ODOT’s Rose Quarter analysis had not acknowledged the destruction of housing by the construction of Interstate Avenue in the early 1950s.  In fact, one table contained in the project’s environmental justice section concedes that this project demolished at least 80 homes.  Thanks to a regular reader who pointed this out.  City Observatory regrets this error.


The Week Observed, April 9, 2021

What City Observatory this week

1. How ODOT destroyed Albina:  Part 3 the Phantom Freeway.  Even a freeway that never got built played a key role in demolishing part of Portland’s Albina neighborhood.  In parts 1 and 2 of this series, we showed how construction of state highway 99W in 1951 and Interstate 5 in 1962 destroyed a substantial part of this predominantly Black neighborhood’s housing stock, and propelled its steady population and economic decline.   In Part 3, we look at portion of this neighborhood flattened to accomodate a freeway that itself was never completed.  The planned Prescott Freeway would have cut across North and Northeast Portland.  Before it was cancelled, the Oregon Department of Transportation built a third of a mile stretch connected to the East End of the Fremont Bridge in Portland.  The footprint of that freeway demolished most of the houses shown in the red bounded area on this 1962 aerial photo.

The neighborhood-killing effects of the freeway didn’t end with housing demolition and road construction; the flood of cars created by the freeway fundamentally altered the character of the neighborhood, making the surviving housing less desirable, and promoting a range of car-dependent uses, notably parking lots, that further erode a neighborhood’s residential viability.

2.  Wholly Moses.  A bill in the Oregon Legislature aims to revive two of the tricks power broker Robert Moses used to ram freeways through New York City decades ago. The bill, HB 3065, would authorize the Oregon Department of Transportation to start a series of freeway widening mega-projects, and also let it pledge tolls, and a wide array of other federal and state transportation revenues to repay bonds used to finance the projects.

The combination of driving stakes and selling bonds could lead to a situation where there’s never any future opportunity for elected legislators to question or rein in these projects. Moses discovered that bond covenants could be used to permanently encumber critical sources of revenue, like tolls.  The provisions of HB 3065, as it is proposed to be amended, would essentially allow the Oregon Department of Transportation to similarly encumber all of Oregon’s future toll revenues to repay a series of vaguely defined freeway expansion projects.  It’s an old stratagem that Oregon legislators should be wise to.

Must read

1. Cities will come back.  Enrico Moretti, author of The New Geography of Jobs, has heard the claims that the Covid pandemic’s proof of concept of work-at-home means the end of cities as we know them.  He isn’t having any of it.  In an interview with Jerusalem Demsas of Vox, Moretti argues that neither the virus nor technology has permanently undone the key reason we gather together in cities:  together, we’re more productive.  Moretti’s work and that of other economists shows that agglomeration economies (economic gains from being close to other people with similar and complementary skills and knowledge) produce greater innovation, productivity and economic growth.  These gains draw people and businesses to cities, and are the driving force powering superstar cities like San Francisco, but they operate in cities of all sizes.  As Moretti concludes.

. . . the economic geography of employment after Covid will look a lot like before Covid.  If you have to show up at the office three or four days a week, you still need to live in the metro area where your office is. The link between place of work and place of residence will be restored and people will flock back to places like the Bay Area or Seattle or New York or Boston for the same reason that they were flocking to these places before Covid.

Also, as we’ve noted at City Observatory, people are drawn to cities not just because of job opportunities, but because of the rich networks of social and consumption opportunities that abound in dense, successful cities. These agglomeration economies in production and consumption are likely to reassert their importance as the pandemic fades.

2. Climate Qualms about Biden’s Infrastructure Bill:  Farhad Manjoo, writing at The New York Times, points out that highway departments are likely to use money targeted for road repairs to expand highway capacity, leading to more greenhouse gas emissions, rather than fewer:

. . . one of every five miles of roadway in America is rated in poor condition — but when given federal money for roads, states often spend a lot of it on expansion rather than repair.  This is counterproductive. New roads are often justified as a way to reduce traffic, but that’s not how traffic works — new and expanded roads tend to encourage more driving, just making congestion worse. New roads also make for more maintenance, adding to the backlog of repairs.

There’s plenty of vitally important work to upgrade America’s transportation system, especially its sparse public transit networks, and deadly pedestrian and bike infrastructure.  The Biden Administration’s policy statements are pointed in the right direction, calling generally for fixing things first, and addressing the historical damage caused to many neighborhoods, but the devil will be in thousands of administrative details.

3.  The freeway battle is TransAtlantic.  At City Observatory, we spend a lot of time looking at the climate effects of freeway expansion proposals in the US, but the issue is global.  In the UK, where the nation has a long-standing official commitment to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, environmental activists are pushing back against the apparent hypocrisy of the national government’s £27 billion proposal to expand “motorways” in England and Scotland.  The Guardian reports on a legal challenge brought by the group Transport Action Network, arguing that the Ministry for Transport’s environmental assessment understates greenhouse gas emissions from the building spree by a factor of 100, by among other things, failing to account for the embodied emissions resulting from construction, and from induced demand.  As the Guardian points out, two of the UK’s prominent transport experts, have testified against the government’s position.

Jillian Anable, professor of transport and energy at the University of Leeds, testified: “We are not aware of any calculation by the DfT of a cumulative figure for carbon emissions through to 2050, arising from all the road schemes funded by the RIS2 … and covering construction emissions as well as ongoing increases in emissions due to higher vehicle speeds and induced traffic.

Freeway opponents in Portland and in cities around the US are making similar challenges to the environmental analyses developed by state highway departments.  It will be interesting to see how courts on both sides of the Atlantic weigh these arguments.

New Knowledge

The unfolding urban rebound. The analysts at have their finger on the pulse of the nation’s rental marketplace, and it’s one of the most important place to look for signs of urban life in a post-pandemic world.  They track rental rates, and importantly, apartment search activity, across and within metro areas throughout the United States.  While it was popular, especially in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, to predict an unending urban exodus, due to fears of density, the team at Apartment List were always a bit charry to that hypothesis.

Their latest take on the nation’s rental markets shows an unfolding urban rebound.  Not only were the predictions of urban exodus overblown, but it appears that interest in big cities, and particularly in the denser portion of those cities never really waned.  In their view, what we’ve seen is really “urban churn” rather than urban exodus.  To be sure, its possible that the pandemic (and low interest rates) accelerated the movement of some people out of cities; but people are always moving in and out of cities, and in Apartment List’s view, there are lots more people looking to take the place of those who may have left.

That’s what they’re seeing in the data.  In market after market, interest in apartments in dense central locations (primary cities) is outpacing interest in their surrounding suburbs, with search activity up consistently more, compared to a year ago in city neighborhoods.  They also note that the decline in market rents in some cities, particularly superstars like San Francisco, Seattle and others, is likely to stimulate even more interest, as some who might not have looked in those cities for affordability reasons now searching there.  In that way, ApartmentList reasons, the rental rate decline is at least partly self-correcting.  They conclude:

. . . there has been significant speculation about what the pandemic would mean for the future of cities. Predictions of urban exodus felt intuitive, given that social distancing requirements put a pause on many of the activities that make city life vibrant, while at the same time, remote work had freed many Americans from needing to live close to their jobs. Despite this narrative, our search data show that big, dense cities are maintaining their allure even as some residents move away. . . . It is important to keep in mind that these data reflect search activity rather than complete moves, but we see clear evidence that interest in big cities has not waned . . . All in all, the “urban exodus” narrative seems to be one that we can close the door on.

In the News

Bloomberg CityLab included City Observatory’s analysis of the flaws in planning for Portland’s $800 million Rose Quarter Freeway widening project in its story about freeway fights in Houston, Milwaukee and Portland.

Streetsblog cited City Observatory’s reporting on the damage done to the historically Black Albina neighborhood by the construction of multiple state highways; damage that would be aggravated by widening I-5 at the Rose Quarter.


The Week Observed, March 26, 2021

What City Observatory this week

1. How ODOT destroyed Albina.  Urban freeways have been lethal to neighborhoods, especially neighborhoods of color, in cities throughout the nation.  While the construction of Interstate freeways gets much of the attention (as it should), the weaponization of highway construction in minority neighborhoods actually predates the Interstate system.  In Portland, in 1951, the state highway department built a mile long extension of US Highway 99W along the Willamette River which cut the predominantly black neighborhood off from the waterfront.

That was the first of a series of road projects, culminating in I-5 and the Fremont I-405 Bridge which wiped out much of the neighborhoods housing, and propelled the neighborhood’s decline.  Albina’s population fell by nearly two-thirds from 1950 to 1970.

2. Highway greenwashing: Natick’s diverging diamond:  Highway departments know that their traditional asphalt everywhere solutions play poorly with a public more attuned to climate change and quality of life.  So nowadays, they dress up highway expansion projects with an artistically crafted veneer of green and pedestrian friendly images.  The latest example of this comes from Natick, MA, just outside Boston, where MassDOT is looking to turn an existing 1950s era highway interchange into a much larger “diverging diamond.”


Must read

1. Five against I-45.  Paris has Mayor Anne Hidalgo, Houston has County Judge Lina Hidalgo. Both are forceful and articulate advocates of re-thinking urban transportation to create fairer, safer, healthier and more successful cities.  In a concise must-watch eight minute video, Judge Hidalgo makes a definitive five point case against TXDOT’s plan to spend billions to widen I-45 through the middle of Houston.  It’s bad for road safety, for air quality and health, would displace hundreds and wouldn’t solve the highway’s chronic congestion problem.  Instead, she argues, the city ought to be investing in alternatives like bus rapid transit, narrowing the footprint of the project, and prioritizing people over futile attempts to make cars move faster.

If you want a picture of what urban leaders can do in the face of truly retrograde highway widening efforts, just watch this video . . . and share it with friends.

2. Embracing Reduced Demand.  City Observatory readers will be very familiar with the concept of induced demand, the idea that building more highway capacity tends to generate additional traffic, quickly erasing any congestion reduction benefits from wider roads. But the reverse is also true:  reducing road capacity generally causes traffic to disappear.  The phenomenon of “reduced demand,” says CNU’s Robert Steuteville, should be an important precept for transportation planning.  Too often, highway agencies push back against projects to calm traffic, reduce speeds and accomodate bikes and pedestrians, arguing that reduced road capacity will produce congestion or gridlock.  But as Steuteville points out, time after time, cities have made major reductions in road capacity, often by tearing out entire freeways, and rather than traffic getting worse, it largely evaporates.  The trouble with some current freeway removal projects, for example in Syracuse and Buffalo, is that if anything, engineers are still too timid in applying this fundamental lesson.  The boulevards designed to replace freeways are often over-sized, out of an irrational fear of gridlock.  He concludes:

You really don’t believe in induced demand, if you don’t also believe in reduced demand. Traffic engineering/planning is going on a hundred years as a profession. It’s time to learn from history, to believe the science, to get smart about street design, to fully use the idea of reduced demand where it has the potential to improve a city’s economy, society, and mobility.

3. A solution for the diverging diamond blues.  Jeff Speck, author of Walkable Cities, also weighed in on Natick’s proposed diverging diamond interchange.  His critique strikes a frustrated, plaintive tone, asking a series of devastating questions, including:

How can we create a park that nobody will use, and then give it unhealthy air quality?  How do we ensure that this large, valuable parcel never produces revenue? How do we communicate to aliens our plans to abandon earth?

Speck also offered a better solution, one that backs away from expanding the highway, slows traffic, and makes the area at least somewhat better for pedestrians.  Based on some successful examples in Indiana, he proposes that MassDOT consider a kind of elongated traffic circle, a peanut interchange, that naturally slows highway traffic and accommodates multiple turning movements (without consuming a vast land area and creating a disorienting experience for pedestrians).

New Knowledge

Less is more:  How reducing vehicle miles traveled improves the economy.  For decades, there’s been a naive assumption that more movement (meaning more driving) somehow makes us richer.  Turns out that was probably never true, and today, the places that are built in a way that enables people to drive less are more economically successful.  That’s the conclusion of a research review conducted by USC transportation professor Marlon Boarnet and his colleagues. This research emphasizes a theme we’ve long advocated at City Observatory:  urban form that reduces vehicle miles traveled (VMT) saves consumers money that they can spend to make their lives better.  That reallocated spending can produce measurable local economic gains.

The research is conveniently summarized in a new 2-page non-technical publication, “Urban Design that Reduces Vehicle Miles Traveled Can Create Economic Benefits.” This policy brief summarizes studies that look at the economic impacts of low-traffic neighborhoods.  It finds, neighborhood businesses can benefit from walkability, in some cases, street closures or traffic lane reductions are associated with improved neighborhood business activity, and that house prices are higher in places with VMT-reducing urban design.

Boarnet, M.G., Burinskiy, E., Deadrick, L., Gullen, D., Ryu, N. (2017). The Economic Benefits of Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT)- Reducing Placemaking: Synthesizing a New View. UC Davis: National Center for Sustainable Transportation. Retrieved from



The Week Observed, March 19, 2021

What City Observatory this week

1. An open letter to the Oregon Transportation Commission.  For more than two years, City Observatory and others have been shining a bright light on the Oregon Department of Transportation’s proposed $800 million I-5 Rose Quarter Freeway widening project in Portland.  All that time, ODOT has maintained its planning a minor change to the freeway, adding a couple of auxiliary lanes to the exiting four-lane freeway.  But new documents show the agency has long been planning a 160-foot wide roadway, more than enough for an eight or ten-lane freeway.  It’s apparent now, in retrospect, that agency staff have long known this to be the case, and have willfully concealed this information from the public through a combination of misleading illustrations and outright lies in response to direct questions about the size of the proposed freeway.  In an open letter to the Oregon Transportation Commission, City Observatory’s Joe Cortright calls for the agency to honestly disclose its plans, and to undertake a full and fair environmental impact statement that shows the traffic, environmental and social effects of the actual 10-lane freeway its proposing to build.


2.  Are rents going up or going down?  We’re pleased to publish a guest commentary from Alan Mallach, author of Divided City, examining the past year’s trends in rents across major US cities.  Using data from Apartment List, Mallach traces out the variations across the country.  About a third of cities have seen declines, but two-thirds have registered increases.

The patterns have been anything but random:  declines have been concentrated in larger cities and in techy superstars, like San Francisco and Seattle.  Smaller and mid-sized metro areas haven’t seen these declines.  Mallach traces the most probable source of these variations to the differences in the demographics of the renter population in different cities.  The cities with the greatest declines are cities where large numbers of renters are young and affluent, a market to whom those cities’ rental developers and landlords have been increasingly catering in recent years. Many of these renters appear to be moving – in part out of these cities, but also in part to homeownership in the same cities.  These fast-growing tech cities have seen a fall-off in net migration in the past year, leading to at least a temporary glut of apartments, and falling rents.  Outside these cities, though, we haven’t seen demand collapse, and rents have continued to increase.

Must read

1. The conservative war against cars. We think of the “war on cars” as a kind of progressive or radical environmental agenda, but a very compelling case against massively subsidizing a transition to electric vehicles comes from a surprising source:  The American Conservative.  Jordan McGillis has a powerful article arguing that vehicle electrification represents car culture capturing climate policy, and, in the process blowing a once in a lifetime opportunity to fix the damage that cars have done to our communities, landscape and environment.  Here’s McGillis:

All of the effort directed towards EV adoption would be better expended on improving our development patterns, bringing them to human-scale and reducing the necessity of the automobile. The obvious reform candidate is zoning. . . .  Zoning exclusively for single-family homes artificially flattens our cities, necessitates daily automobile commutes, and increases our greenhouse gas emissions. . . . Instead of subsidizing new cars, we ought to allow more varied land use so that cars are not so central to our lives. Despite the EV campaigners’ fixation with the old paradigm, the scales of car culture are beginning to fall from Americans’ eyes. Walkability is in vogue and fewer young people today are viewing the car as a ticket to freedom.

Already the automobile industry is working to use electrification as an excuse not to question the  hegemony and destructive effects of our over-reliance on the private automobile.  The climate crisis and the lessons of the pandemic (where we’ve dramatically reduced our driving) should teach us that its possible to reclaim and rebuild our communities so we’re not so dependent on cars.

2.  Buses, buses, everywhere.  Please.  Farhad Manjoo writing at the New York Times makes the case that if we’re concerned about climate, cities and transportation equity, a first logical step would be doubling the frequency of bus service in the nation’s cities.  The arguments will be familiar to readers of City Observatory.  Too often, discussions of urban transportation and infrastructure get distracted by tech vaporware (like Elon Musk’s habitrail) or self-interested pleas from highway builders to throw hundreds of billions into the dead-end road building of the 1950s.  Manjoo quotes Transit Center’s Steve Higashide, Human Transit’s Jarrett Walker and Transportation for America’s Beth Osborne, all leading experts in this field.  More buses would be equitable, green and fast acting, and would help the nation’s cities rebound from the Covid recession.

3.  YIMBY for New York suburbs.  The Manhattan Institute’s Alan Kober writes about efforts to stem exclusionary zoning in New York State.  While California continues to be a national battleground in the YIMBY (Yes in My Backyard) efforts, the same problems of using widespread single family zoning and apartment bans to promote economic segregation is at work in the suburbs around New York.  Kober points to the wide disparities in income between the Bronx and neighboring Westchester County, which are a product in many respects of exclusionary zoning practices in the suburbs.  Kober outlines legislation pending in New York which would require local jurisdictions to allow apartments by right in transit served locations and to legalize accessory dwelling units in most residential zones.

New Knowledge

Jacob Brown and Ryan Enos, America’s deepening political segregation.  An extraordinarily fine-grained look at the extent to which Democrats and Republicans are segregated not just into red states and blue states, but red streets and blue streets.

Using voter files, Brown and Enos take the exact residential location of every voter in the United States and calculate their spatially weighted exposure to their 1,000 nearest neighbors. This allows measures of segregation between partisans at any level of geography.

One of the challenges of computing segregation indices is that data tend to get aggregated into arbitrary geographic units (counties, municipalities, precincts, census tracts) and while useful as a rough approximation, such units impart their own biases to understanding true segregation.  Brown and Enos have overcome that aggregation problem by computing, for every registered voter in the US, the partisan composition of the nearest 1,000 other registered voters.

This approach clearly illustrates the fractal quality of political polarization in the US.  We’re not merely divided into red states and blue states, blue cities and red suburbs, but within cities and neighborhoods, we’re highly sorted as well:  Republicans have mostly republican neighbors; democrats have mostly democratic neighbors.

Sorting at a gross level is no  no surprise, but choosing different neighborhoods in a city or different streets or housing in neighborhood also appears to be at work.  Choice of housing type and neighborhood amenities could be a factor driving partisan sorting:

While the best available evidence shows that most voters consider the partisan composition of an area to be low on their list of priorities when choosing neighbourhoods, it is still possible that partisan differences in income and lifestyle preferences, such as transportation and type of housing, may drive some voters to select different cities, neighbourhoods and, in some cases, streets or houses within neighbourhoods, even if partisanship is not an explicit criterion for selection.

The measurement of partisan sorting for 180 million voters” (2021).

In addition to the article, Brown and Enos have produced detailed maps showing the geography of the partisan divide in every US metropolitan area.

In the News

Next City’s Sandy Smith cited our commentary on the “Fundamental, Global Law of Road Congestion” in his survey of freeway-widening fights around the country.

Planetizen featured our analysis of the impact of Portland’s inclusionary zoning policy on new apartment construction.

In its reporting on the US DOT decision to suspend work on the proposed I-45 expansion project, Houston Public Media cited our analysis showing the failure of the widening of the Katy Freeway to reduce traffic congestion.


The Week Observed, March 12, 2021

What City Observatory this week

1. The failure of Vision Zero.  Like many regions, the Portland metropolitan area has embraced the idea of Vision Zero; a strategy of planning to take concrete steps over time to reduce the number of deaths and serious injuries from road crashes to zero.  A key step in Vision Zero is setting—and monitoring—well-defined targets for steady progress over time.  Metro, Portland’s regional planning agency has just produced a report card for the region’s efforts through 2019; and its pretty clear that the result is all “F’s”:  Of 25 Vision Zero indicators, the region is on track to achieve exactly none of them.  Rather than decreasing, as called for the in Vision Zero plan, roadway deaths are increasing sharply.

As the region’s safety planners have known for some time, roadway deaths are highly concentrated on the region’s multi-lane arterial highways.  But rather than fix these, the state highway department, ODOT, is devoting billions to widening major freeways (which are among the region’s safest roads already).  In addition, lower gas prices since 2014 have spurred more driving, more crashes and more deaths. Vision Zero is a noble target, but it’s apparent in the Portland region, that the current plan is failing in every respect.

2. Portland’s apartment market has its “Wile E. Coyote” Moment.  Ever since the implementation of one of the nation’s toughest inclusionary zoning requirements in early 2017, Portland’s apartment market has been like Warner Brothers “Wile E. Coyote”:  motoring on rapidly through clear air with no visible means of support.  Apartment starts and completions—propelled by a land rush of applications filed to beat the inclusionary zoning requirements—have produced increased apartment supplies, rising vacancies, and lower rents.  But finally, the coyote has looked down:  Apartment completions have fallen by roughly two-thirds in the past year, and there’s very little in the pipeline now.

There’s clear evidence developers are put off by the inclusionary zoning requirement:  there’s been a surge in 20 unit (and smaller) apartment buildings (exempt from the IZ requirement): meanwhile no new apartments in the 21-25 unit range have been completed in the past year.  As we warned two years ago, the temporary incentives created by the IZ’s “grandfathering” provisions provided a temporary respite for the housing market, and now the negative impacts on the inclusionary requirements are crushing the development of new apartments.  The negative effects on housing supply will be felt for many years, and will cast a long shadow over housing affordability in Portland.

Must read

1. Are people leaving California?  Natalie Holmes of the Policy Lab at the University of California offers an analysis of credit bureau change of address data to assess migration in and out of the Golden State.  They find that while there has been a sharp increase in net movement out of the City of San Francisco, there’s no evidence of an exodus from California as a whole.  Most of those leaving San FRancisco are moving to other locations in the Bay Area, and to a lesser extent elsewhere in the state, rather than other states.  As Holmes notes:

San Francisco has seen a 31% increase in departures and 21% decrease in entrances since the end of March 2020. Net exits from San Francisco increased 649%, from 5,200 to 38,800.

The credit report data for the past five years show a gradual and continuing increase in the number of out-migrants (blue line) and a flat-lining, and recent slight decline in in-migrants (yellow line).  The data show a strong seasonal pattern to movement activity.  Its also important to note that credit report data likely undercount certain groups (international immigrants and young adults, who may not have established credit records; in states like California, this likely significantly undercounts in-migrants).

2. A close look at the limits of NIMBYism.  Toronto’s Globe and Mail architecture critic Alex Bozikovic has a compelling essay on the origins of, and problems emanating from North American NIMBYism (Not in My Backyard).  In Canada, as in the US, land use decisions are heavily biased toward protecting the status quo, especially in the form of giving single family zoned neighborhoods effective veto power over new development.  The inevitable result has been rising home prices, declining affordability, and intensified economic (and racial/ethnic) segregation.  The solution according to Bozikovic is to allow much more density and variety of housing in cities, with an explicit objective of growing upward and inward, rather than ever outward.  In rousing few closing paragraphs, he writes:

What good is accomplished by locking down so much of our cities to change – so that you must be affluent to live there? Where would be the harm in allowing more big things next to small things, more houses giving way to apartment buildings? People of different generations, income levels and interests living together? . . .   More social housing would be crucial. Progressives in the world of housing policy are often skeptical of such a bargain. But our current regime does little for the less privileged; it builds segregation and inequality, and encourages middle-class people to settle in car-oriented suburbs.  . . . The policy objective should be simple: All new growth should happen in places that are already built out. No more building on greenfields. No more sprawl.

3. Making Houston safer for pedestrians.  A couple of months back, we took Houston to task for what we called “performative pedestrian infrastructure.”  The Houston-based Kinder Institute’s Andy Olin wrote a thoughtful reply to our analysis.  In the spirit of constructive dialog that its offered, we urge City Observatory readers to consider this article. Olin’s key point is that as auto-dominated as Houston is (and most other US cities are), you have to start somewhere.

New Knowledge

Even more dangerous by design.  For the past several years, Smart Growth America has been highlighting the safety flaws literally engineered into our current road system:  the way we build roads in the US inherently puts people, especially vulnerable road users on foot and on bikes, in harm’s way. Far from being accidents, the huge and continuing volume of crashes is a reflection of the conscious design choices we’ve made.  Dangerous by Design, 2021 shows that xxxxx

The report illustrates that our streets are disproportionately deadly for people of color and older Americans.  Hispanic, Black and elderly persons are much more likely to suffer death or serious injury as pedestrians.  There’s also a distinctive geographic pattern to pedestrian death rates; Sunbelt states from Arizona to Florida consistently have the highest rates of pedestrian fatalities.

The growing number of pedestrian deaths is symptomatic of the structural biases in road design:  Engineers routinely prioritize vehicle speed and throughput over making streets safe places to bike and walk.  Wide, multi-lane arterial roads, with sweeping corners and slip lanes encourage high speeds regardless of posted limits and create inherent danger for pedestrians. Smart Growth America argues for “complete streets” policies that prioritize the safety of vulnerable users over higher vehicle speeds:  until we adopt such policies, it’s likely the pedestrian death toll will continue to rise.

Smart Growth America, Dangerous by Design, 2021.

In the News

Strong Towns re-published our essay, “The Fundamental, Global Law of Road Congestion,” detailing international studies that show that additional freeway capacity simply generates a proportionate increase in traffic, meaning road widening is an inherently futile tactic for reducing congestion.

Alan Ehrenhalt, of Governing, gave City Observatory a shout out in his column:  “Where Americans are moving, and why they are really doing it.”  His conclusion:  despite what you may have read, there’s no urban exodus and young adults aren’t decamping from Brooklyn to Mayberry.


The Week Observed, March 5, 2021

What City Observatory this week

1. The fundamental global law of traffic congestion.  For years, urbanists have stressed the concept of induced demand, based on the nearly universal observation that widening urban roadways simply leads to more traffic and recurring congestion.  Repeated studies in the United States have confirmed that any increase in urban roadway capacity leads quickly to a proportionate increase in vehicle miles traveled.  A new study extends this analysis to several hundred European cities, and find the same result:  a one percent increase in road capacity tends to lead in short order to a one percent increase in vehicle miles traveled.

You can’t build your way out of congestion, anywhere.

The study finds two factors that ameliorate this pernicious relationship: tolls and transit.  Cities that charge a toll for the use of urban roadways have a dramatically lower level of induced demand, as do cities with extensive rail transit systems.  In North America, in Japan, and in Europe, all these studies confirm that widening freeways to reduce congestion is inherently futile.  We need to stop wasting money on this discredited and environmentally disastrous transportation policy.

2. A new framework for equity in economic development. We’re pleased to offer a guest commentary from Darrene Hackler, summarizing the results of a new report her firm has published on behalf of Pew Charitable Trusts.  Equity is the big challenge facing community and local economic development. Everywhere, there are some people and some neighborhoods that are left out or left behind no matter how strong the economy.  After surveying development efforts around the country, Hackler outlines three key steps that can guide effective and equitable economic development practices.  Her “Determine-Design-Evaluate” framework addresses how to tap local knowledge and support and how to establish accountability for performance.


Must read

1. Alan Durning on the contradiction at the heart of US housing policy.  Housing can’t be affordable and also be a great wealth-building investment.  Sightline Institute’s Alan Durning echoes a theme we’ve long emphasized at City Observatory:  there’s a fundamental and glaring contradiction between our two key housing policy aims. The subsidies we provide to home-ownership (skewed heavily to higher income households) and the restrictions on building more housing in high demand locations, help drive up home prices, which increases the wealth of incumbent homeowners, but simultaneously tends to make housing less affordable for everyone else. If we’re ever going to seriously work on making housing more affordable, we’ve got to confront local land use policies that restrict the supply of housing and drive up rents, and as Durning points out, we’ve also got to re-think the tax treatment of homes and mortgages.  As Durning says:

. . .  in an affordability-first housing economy, it’s a good bet that housing policy would stop subsidizing mortgage borrowing, property taxes, capital gains, ownership over renting, and the financialized mortgage industry.

While these tax breaks have been regarded as politically sacrosanct for decades, recent cuts to the mortgage interest deduction were included in the 2017 tax reform act, and Durning’s political analysis suggests that this may set the stage for further changes.

2. Rebounding rents in superstar cities? One of the most striking real estate market changes during the Covid-19 pandemic has been the sharp decline in apartment rents in some of the nation’s strongest urban centers. Rents have gone down in San Francisco, New York and other large cities, leading some to predict a prolonged decline.  But Apartment List’s latest rent report suggests that markets in these cities are starting to turn around, as evidenced by upticks in rent levels in large cities at the end of 2020.  Cities that saw significant declines in 2020 have seen modest increases in the first part of 2021:  San Francisco rents are up 1.2 percent; Boston’s are up about 3 percent.  Among the 10 cities with the largest year-over-year declines in 2020, only one, New York recorded declining rents in February, and that was a 0.1 percent decline.

As we’ve noted, housing has been subject to the “K-shape” effect, with higher income households driving up housing prices, while rents have fallen because job and income losses have been concentrated among lower income households. As the vaccine roll out continues, the Coronavirus recession fades, and the economy revives, it is likely that urban housing demand in these superstars will rebound, and rents will make up much of the ground given in 2020.

3. Increasing urban job density on the eve of the pandemic.  The Brookings Institution has new estimates of the increasing density of jobs in the nation’s large metro areas. Their analysis, based on geographically detailed federal employment data through 2018 shows that, in what turned out to be the penultimate year of the last economic expansion, that employment grew increasingly dense in large cities.  The biggest gains in density were recorded by “superstar” cities like San Francisco, New York and Seattle, but the pattern of increasing density held for most of the nation’s large metro areas.

There’s a pronounced industrial pattern to job densification; the biggest gains in job density are attributable to the clustering of information technology, professional service and financial jobs in a relative handful of large metro areas. There’s obviously been much speculation about how work-at-home practices may alter these patterns, but these data show that on the eve of the pandemic, there was a strong tendency for activity to concentrate in dense locations in just a few metro areas.

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 neighborhoods.  That’s clearly important, but significantly, leaves out how much we mix as we move amoung neighborhoods and in and around 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 Jennifer 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 travel between neighborhoods that have different racial/ethnic compositions.  They divide city neighborhoods into four broad categories (Black, White, Hispanic or Mixed) and measure the extent to which people who live in one type of neighborhood travel to the other types of neighborhoods.  Their summary measure, called the “segregated mobility index” which identifies the extent to which people from different races tend to travel only to neighborhoods in their same category.   As the author’s stress, this is fundamentally a measure of “neighborhood connectedness” and is not a measure of individual activity.  The following chart shows the relationship between residential segregation—as measured by a traditional black/white dissimilarity index—and segregated mobility (as measured by this study’s new segregated mobility index.  Both indices run from 0 to 1, with values closer to 1 indicating greater degrees of segregation (zero indicates no segregation;  one indicates perfect segregation).

This chart suggests that residential segregation has a strong influence on segregated mobility:  Cities with high levels of residential racial segregation also tend to have high levels of segregated mobility.  That said, there’s still considerable variation in segregated mobility among  cities with similar levels of housing segregation.  For example, New Orleans and Detroit have similar levels of housing segregation, but there’s much more neighborhood mixing, as measured by the segregated mobility index, in New Orleans, than in Detroit. This suggests that some cities do a better job of enabling/promoting inter-group mixing outside one’s local neighborhood than others.  Understanding what factors in cities facilitate greater mixing is a next step for this kind of research.
Jennifer Candipan, Nolan Edward Phillips, Robert Sampson, and Mario Small, “From Residence to Movement: The Nature of Racial Segregation in Everyday Urban Mobility,” Urban Studies, 0042098020978965.

In the News

KATU television news has a story reporting on the previously secret plans by the Oregon Department of Transportation to build a 10-lane wide freeway at Portland’s Rose Quarter. An Oregon DOT official concedes that the report shows that the agency has a “trust deficit.”