Getting real about restorative justice in Albina

Drawings don’t constitute restorative justice

ODOT shows fancy drawings about what might be built, but isn’t talking about actually paying to build anything

Just building the housing shown in its diagrams would require $160 million to $260 million

Even that would replace only a fraction of the housing destroyed by ODOT highway building in Albina

The Oregon Department of Transportation is going to great lengths to cloak its $800 million I-5 Rose Quarter Freeway widening project in the language of restorative justice.  Starting in the 1950s, ODOT built not just one or two, but three different highways through the historically Black Albina neighborhood, and is now back with plans to widen the largest of these, but is now pretending to care about restoring the neighborhood.  To that end, its appointed an “Historic Albina Advisory Board”—after disbanding another community advisory group which had asked too many uncomfortable questions.

Housing is essential to restorative justice in Albina

The real challenge to restorative justice in Albina is more housing.  The aerial photo here shows the Albina neighborhood as it existed in 1948; the red-lined areas are properties takes or demolished for the construction of Interstate Avenue in 1951, the I-5 Freeway in 1961 and the Fremont Bridge and aborted Prescott Freeway in the early 1970s.  Albina was torn apart by these ODOT highway projects and its housing stock decimated. Given that ODOT’s highway building triggered the destruction of thousands of homes in Albina (the neighborhood’s population declined by more than 60 percent, from 14,000 to less than 4,000, it’s hardly surprising that getting more housing built is a key priority.


The ODOT consultants report that that one of the key strategies for building community wealth is to create affordable housing.

ODOT’s making it look like there will be housing as part of its plans

ODOT staff and consultants have presented the HAAB with surveys and focus group information on what restorative justice might look like.  An “Independent Cover Assessment” consulting group has even prepared drawings showing alternative development plans for the area near I-5.  The drawings feature examples from other cities of Black cultural and community facilities, and prominently include diagrams showing large new multifamily housing to be built on top of or near the freeway.  Here are two such diagrams, (the yellow colored buildings are residential apartments).  Concept 1 has four large residential buildings, Concept 5 has 5 large residential buildings.


But who’s going to pay for that housing?  It’s going to cost $160-260 million and ODOT is offering . . nothing.

It’s all well and good to talk about housing, but how, exactly, would it get built?  These colorful illustrations are really just misleading puffery and magical thinking unless there’s a realistic plan for paying for the project.  The availability of the land is the easy part.  The hard part is getting money for construction.  To get an idea of how much it would cost, we can look just a few blocks away to the newly completed Louisa Flowers Building.  It was just finished and has 204 studio, one bedroom and two bedroom apartments.  Its development and construction cost about $71 million, and Home Forward, the city of Portland’s housing agency paid $3 million for the site.  The project cost about $380 per square foot, with the overall cost per housing unit working out to about $350,000.

The Louisa Flowers affordable housing building in Portland (Portland Tribune)

The Independent Cover Assessment shows that the residential buildings (shown in yellow) in its two concepts would make up about half to 60 percent of the 900,000 to 1.1 million square feet of buildings to be build atop or adjacent to the freeway.  Those figures imply about 430,000 square feet or about 470 apartments in Scenario 1, to 680,000 square feet or roughly 740 apartments in Scenario 5.

If you could build those apartments for the same cost as Louisa Flowers (you couldn’t, of course; costs have gone up), that means the yellow colored buildings shown in these renderings would cost between $160 million and $260 million to develop and construct.

In short, unless you’ve got between $160 and $260 million (just for the housing part, mind you), those pictures are just a fantasy.

If ODOT actually had a budget for the construction of that housing, in order to, you know, promote restorative justice, then it would be perfectly valid to include this as part of the project discussion.  But ODOT hasn’t committed a dime to actually paying to build this housing.

And you could say, in theory, (and it would have to be theoretical, because ODOT has made no such commitment), that ODOT would be contributing the land for these buildings.  But as noted in the case of Louisa Flowers, the cost of the land is less than 5 percent of the cost of constructing the project.  If housing is key to restorative justice in Albina, and if ODOT is committed to restorative justice, it seems like it ought to come up with the other 95 percent as well, rather than expecting unnamed others to do the heavy lifting for it.

Housing is essential to restorative justice in Albina.  Simply drawing pictures of housing isn’t justice, it’s cynical vaporware, an attempt to create the illusion that ODOT cares, when its only real interest is in building a vastly wider freeway.  The state highway department readily spent money to demolish housing in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, but apparently isn’t willing to spend any of its money to replace that housing today. And the irony is, if you really want to have restorative justice and more housing, you don’t need to build a wider freeway.  In fact, a wider road would make the area less desirable for housing. ODOT’s plan to widen the freeway—and further inundate this neighborhood with more car traffic—doesn’t so much heal the repeated wounds it has inflicted on Albina, as it does to make them even worse.


ODOT’s peer review panel admits it didn’t validate Rose Quarter travel forecasts

ODOT has claimed a “peer review panel” vindicated its air pollution analysis

Now the panel says they didn’t look into the accuracy of ODOT’s travel forecast

Travel forecasts are critical, because they determine air and noise pollution impacts

In short:  the peers have done nothing to disprove the critiques of ODOT’s flawed traffic modeling

A key claim opponents made about the I-5 Rose Quarter freeway-widening project is that the traffic projections are wrong, over-stating baseline traffic by pretending the CRC was built in 2015, exaggerating “no-build” traffic levels by allowing link volumes to exceed capacity, and under-estimating “build” volumes by failing to account for induced demand and also modeling a 6-lane roadway rather than the 8- or 10-lane roadway they’re actually constructing.

ODOT’s defense is that their environmental modeling was endorsed by a so-called independent peer review panel.  As we pointed out when panel’s report was released, this was largely a whitewash.  As we wrote at City Observatory last June, when the Panel’s report was released, the critical problem was that the panel failed to look at the flawed traffic projections on which the air and noise estimates are based.  We wrote:

In theory, the PRP undertook an environmental review, looking at air pollution, greenhouse gases and noise pollution. But because all these impacts depend on the volume of traffic and whether the project increases or decreases traffic, they are all subsidiary to the accuracy of the traffic modeling. And the panel apparently did absolutely nothing to validate the accuracy of these traffic projections.

The air and noise impacts of the project come from vehicles using the freeway; both air pollution and noise pollution increase with the increasing number of cars and trucks on the roadway.  If ODOT got the traffic numbers wrong, then the pollution estimates are wrong as well.

The Peer Review Panel admits it didn’t evaluate the validity of traffic forecasts

Earlier this month, the leader of the peer review panel publicly acknowledged that the group she led did not take any critical look at the travel forecasts.  On April 5, ODOT consultant and panel facilitator Grace Crunican presented the so-called “peer review” panel results to the Historic Albina Advisory Board.   Board member John Washington asked about the traffic projections. Crunican  said that the peer review committee didn’t judge whether their were accurate or appropriate and only looked at whether the model’s outputs were correctly used to compute air/noise impacts.
Here’s the transcript:

John Washington  (Historic Albina Advisory Board)
We had a public announcement about some people suing us or something, right. And how closely related is what they’re talking about to what you’re talking about?

Grace Crunican  (ODOT Peer Review Consultant)
It is related. What they [No More Freeways] are saying is that the traffic data that was provided, that ODOT provided as a basis of the analysis that they did, is not accurate. We were not charged with looking at that traffic analysis original data.  We were looking at the implications of the traffic data that was there. We did ask some questions about it and we got mostly the information, some of the information, Megan gave us today.  She can say it again, but in my lay terms, she used the models from the metro area, she used Metro’s models and she used City of Portland’s model. And they did their analysis and then what we looked at is, given how much traffic was going through, and we look at the air quality analysis that was done. And that’s where our work was, and so the underlying data is what somebody is trying to challenge, the No [More] freeway people, I think are trying to challenge, and we looked at how that data was applied, and found that it was applied appropriately.

Historic Albina Advisory Board, April 5, 2021,  Meeting Video at 1:03:45.  (Emphasis added)

Crunican: “we were not charged with looking at that traffic analysis.” (Youtube)

In effect, the peer review panel simply assumed that ODOT’s traffic projections were right.  It took no independent effort to examine those projections, nor did it consider any of the technical objections that No More Freeways and other commenters offered to the model.  For reference, City Observatory has documented the critique extensively:  It includes inflated baseline traffic due the counterfactual assumption that the Columbia River Crossing was built in 2015; the over-assignment of traffic to congested road links in the No-Build scenario, and the failure to model the effects of induced demand in the build scenario, as well as the fact that ODOT modeled a six-lane freeway, rather than the 10-lane roadway that the project actually proposes to construct.
This is important because ODOT relied on the peer review panel to discredit the critique of its flawed traffic modeling. When it released the report, in June 2020, it claimed that the peer review  “supported ODOT’s findings for air, greenhouse gas and noise impacts” for the freeway widening.

 In January 2020, the Oregon Transportation Commission directed ODOT to conduct an environmental peer review associated with the project’s Environmental Assessment after hearing stakeholder concern over the potential impacts from the project related to air quality, noise and greenhouse gas emissions.  The Peer Review Report supported ODOT’s findings for air, greenhouse gas, and noise impacts for the project.

Most recently, ODOT used the peer review panel as a kind of talisman to ward off criticism after No More Freeways filed suit against the Federal Highway Administration challenging the project.  Here is ODOT spokesperson Tia Williams in Willamette Week:

“This project underwent a robust environmental assessment that showed future air quality would improve in part due to the congestion relief provided by this project. Those findings were reviewed and confirmed by a panel of national air quality and transportation experts. We are confident in the findings,” a statement from ODOT provided by spokesperson Tia Williams said.

At long last, the peer review panel has shown a modicum of independence:  It has made it clear that claims that its review “supports” ODOT’s work and “confirms” its findings are simply false.  The panel members were instructed to look only at a small, and as it turns out, derivative question, and simply ignored whether the freeway widening increases traffic.  This is hardly a reasonable basis for a claim that this project has “no significant environmental impact.”

The freight fable: Moving trucks is not longer the key to economic prosperity

It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.  Upton Sinclair

It’s even harder to get a trucking industry lobbyist or a highway department booster to understand something when their salaries depend on not understanding it.

Oregon’s economy has de-coupled from freight movement; our economic success stems from doing things other that simply moving more and more freight.

State officials and the trucking lobbyists they’ve hand-picked as “public” representatives are selling myths in an effort to justify wasting billions to expand highways.

Here’s a simple fact:  Truck movements across the Columbia River in Portland are down 19 percent in the past fifteen years.  This fact comes from data tabulated by the Oregon Department of Transportation, which has automatic vehicle counters on the roadways leading up to the I-5 and I-205 bridges that connect Oregon and Washington.  Here’s the data, which is taken directly from the traffic counting website operated by ODOT.  It shows heavy freight truck movements.

For highway boosters, this simple fact is an inconvenient truth.  Here’s why:  they’re trying to justify a nearly $5 billion freeway widening project on Interstate 5 as somehow essential to accomodating a flood of trucks, which if they’re delayed even slightly, will somehow mean the demise of one of the nation’s most robust metropolitan economies.  Don’t get us wrong, traffic congestion is a routine feature of successful metropolitan economies, but there’s actually no evidence that adding a freeway lane (or three) has any measurable effect on a metro area’s economic prosperity.  But ODOT and freight industry boosters are keen to argue that freight volumes are increasing in lock step with the economy, and if they’re hindered in any way, our economic ruin awaits us.

The trouble is, as this simple chart shows, that’s not true.   Despite declining freight movement, the Oregon economy has boomed.

The Portland and Oregon economies rebounded sharply after the 2007-2009 recession, and they did so without increasing the number of heavy trucks moving across the Columbia River on the I-5 and I-205 bridges. The truckers and highway types are likely to want to blame the recession, but what’s really striking is that through 2019, I-5 and I-205 truck traffic never recovered to pre-recession levels after a decade of robust economic growth.  Not only that, but truck volumes actually declined from 2013 through 2016, as the economy was growing rapidly.  The key takeaway here is that Oregon’s economy grows just fine, thank you, even with no more trucks crossing the Columbia River.

But this inconvenient truth was treated with dismay and denial, by the Washington Trucking Association’s lobbyist, Sherri Call, nominally a “public representative” on the Community Advisory Group for what the Oregon and Washington Transportation Department’s call the “I-5 Bridge Replacement Project” but which is really meant to be a rubber stamp for a five-mile long, 12-lane wide freeway that just happens to cross a river.  We submitted the ODOT data shown in the chart above for the record at the Community Advisory Group’s March, 24, 2021 meeting.  Call was apoplectic at the idea that anyone could suggest that freight volumes were going down.  Describing a discussion in one of the meeting’s breakout groups she said:

We talked a little bit about the public comment process and I was glad to hear [Project Manager] Greg [Johnson]’s commentary on that, you know, if I share that it kind of got under my skin a little bit, a caller that called in and mentioned the reduction in freight volumes over the years and caused me to go on and do some offline research and that’s actually not the case that has increased and not only that the general traffic has increased as well. And, you know, Greg [Johnson], very eloquently I think put it there basically the people that are calling in are not held to the same standard as, as you folks in the bridge office who are accountable not just to the public but to people internally and people on both sides of the state so that, that is, you know, good for us to be mindful of.

Notably, Call didn’t cite any actual data to prove her point.  But she did confide that she shared her concerns with the project’s manager Greg Johnson, who claimed, according to Call, that “people calling in aren’t held to the same standard” as the project’s promoters in the transportation department.

For the record, it’s important to note that like Call, Johnson didn’t offer any data showing an increase in freight volumes on I-5 across the Columbia River.  Simple asserting an article of faith—and wrapping it in a little sidelong character assassination— was apparently sufficient.  As Upton Sinclair said, it’s difficult to get a person to understand a fact when their salary depends on them not understanding it.

But again, here’s the simple truth:  the volume of freight trucks moving on I-5 and I-205 across the Columbia River is, and remains, lower today than 13 years ago.  And not by a little, by a lot—almost a fifth.  The ODOT data show that there are half a million fewer trucks using the two bridges today than in 2006.

And miraculously, the Oregon economy has not collapsed.  In fact, since 2006, both the Oregon and Portland metro economies have outperformed the US economy, whether measured by employment or gross domestic product.  We’ve managed to grow our economy with less truck movement than we had more than a decade ago.  What that signals is that economic success isn’t simply a product of moving more stuff.  In fact, the most successful economies are the ones which generate new ideas and new services, not simply move more stuff. In the 21st century, success is about doing more with what we have, or even less, and that’s where Oregon has excelled. Our old, resource-based economy could grow only by cutting and shipping more trees or grain; but today, Oregon’s economic growth is driven by a range of knowledge-based industries that expand their output, income, and jobs, without moving ever more trucks.

In the end, though, this argument boils down to simple facts.  If Sheri Call and Gregg Johnson are right, that more and more trucks are needing to move across the Columbia for our economy to succeed, and that widening I-5 at a cost of billions will somehow stimulate more industrial activity, let them present the data, any data, to prove that.  So far they haven’t.  All we have so far is snide claims that they’re somehow held to a higher standard of proof, something they’ve manifestly failed to demonstrate.




Wholly Moses: Pave now, pay later

Oregon legislation goes whole hog on highways

HB 3065 would launch a whole new round of freeway boondoggles, and plunge the state into debt to pay for them

The classic Robert Moses scam:  Drive stakes, sell bonds

The Oregon Legislature is considering a bill, HB 3065, which while it sounds technical and innocuous, is really designed to launch a whole series of new freeway expansion mega-projects in the Portland area.  By authorizing the Oregon Department of Transportation to get started on several of these projects, and to finance them by short-term borrowing and bonds, backed with a legal pledge of both future toll revenues and other state and federal transportation funds, the bill mimics a classic scam developed by America’s original highway builder/power broker, Robert Moses, in the 1930s.

If there is a villain in American urbanism, it is Robert Moses, who for decades, guided public investment in New York, a city and state that to today, still bears the deep imprint of his choices, chief among them, the decision to remake much of the region to facilitate the movement of automobiles. Part of his legacy is the toll bridges and a network of highways that slashed through urban neighborhoods—in his words—like a meat-ax.  But there’s another more subtle, but equally enduring element of the Moses legacy:  a pattern of practice followed to this day, in one form or another, by highway departments around the country.

The latest manifestation of Moses’ malignant legacy is in the form of a bill in the Oregon Legislature.  House Bill 3065 proposes to give the Oregon Department of Transportation power start a series of expensive Portland area highway projects, and issue debt to pay for their (unspecified and unlimited costs), and in the process pledge much of the state’s future transportation revenue, including any monies raised from tolls to pay for these projects.  Along the way, the bill undoes most of the positive attributes of road-pricing authorized by the 2017 Oregon Legislature, which specifically mandated value pricing (aka “congestion pricing’ on Portland area freeways.  As we’ve frequently pointed out at City Observatory, and as born out by the experience of cities around the world and in the US, even a modest price charged for peak hour freeway use would likely resolve the region’s congestion problems.  (That conclusion was also echoed by ODOT’s own consultants three years ago).

What we have in HB 3065, however, is something that is a kind of perpetual motion road-building machine. It authorizes ODOT to issue bonds for a series of megaprojects, and to obligate current and future state revenue, including future toll revenues to pay back those bonds.  It’s a kind of “pave now, pay later” strategy that Moses would embrace, and bears two key hallmarks of Moses’ own work:  driving stakes to force funding commitments to ill-defined, open-ended projects, and using bond covenants to block any legislative oversight or repudiation of his future actions.

Moses locked up all the revenue from publicly financed bridges and tunnels, and at a time when public transit was starved for investment, plowed it all back into a steady stream of new road capacity that demolished neighborhoods, furthered sprawl and increased car dependence.  The Oregon Department of Transportation seems determined to take a page out of the Moses playbook with new amendments.

To see how these two patented Moses gimmicks work, we turn the microphone over to his biographer, Robert Caro.

The Power Broker | Robert Caro

Driving Stakes

The key techniques are two-fold:  First, just getting projects started.  Several of these projects (the I-5 Bridge replacement, and the I-5 Boone Bridge), haven’t even completed their planning, so their full costs are unknown.  The second technique is to issue bonds to pay for the project, secured by toll revenues.

Early on, Moses learned the value of starting construction of a highway—driving stakes in the ground—even if he didn’t have all the financing in place, and regardless of whether he knew (or honestly revealed) the actual total cost of the project.  Just getting something started made it almost impossible for legislators or other officials to deny him whatever resources he needed to finish the project.  Caro writes:

Once you did something physically, it was very hard for even a judge to undo it.  If judges, who had to submit themselves to the decision of the electorate only infrequently, were thus hogtied by the physical beginning of a project, how much more so would be public officials who had to stand for re-election year by year? . . . once you physically began a project, there would always be some way found of obtaining the money to complete it. “Once you sink that first stake,” he would often say, “they’ll never make you pull it up.”

And this tactic turned minimizing or hiding the true cost of a project into an indispensable means of getting things moving:

Misleading and underestimating, in fact, might be the only way to get a project started.  . . . Once they had authorized that small initial expenditure and you had spent it, they would not be able to avoid giving you the rest when you asked for it. . . . Once a Legislature gave you money to start  a project, it would be virtually forced to give you the money to finish it.  The stakes you drove should be thin-pointed—wedge-shaped, in fact on the end.  Once you got the end of the wedge for a project into the public treasury, it would be easy to hammer in the rest.  (Caro at 218-219)

Selling Bonds

One of Moses’ key insights was that municipal revenue bonds worked like an alternative, overriding form of government authority, in his case, overriding future legislative control or second thoughts. The contract between bond issuers (like a state agency) and bond buyers can’t be impaired by future legislative changes. A promise to dedicate certain revenues to an agency in a bond indenture can tie them up for years or decades, or as Moses showed, forever.  Bonds, once issued, become a virtually unbreakable contract.  Once ODOT sells bonds backed by the pledges of toll revenue (and other federal and state transportation revenues) the state is permanently, and preemptively committed to giving it all the toll revenue (and in the case of HB 3065, forfeiting other revenue to make up any shortfall).

Caro explains the original structure Moses crafted when he drafted amendments to New York statutes governing bonds issued by his Triborough Bridge Authority.

Legislation can be amended or repealed.  If legislators were in some future year to come to feel that they had been deceived into granting Robert Moses wider powers than they hand intended—the right to keep tolls on a bridge even after the bridge was paid for, for example—they would simply revoke those powers. But a contract cannot be amended or repealed by anyone except the parties to it.  Its obligations could not be impaired by anyone—not even the governing legislature of a sovereign state.  Section Nine, Paragraphs 2 and 4, Clauses a through i, gave Robert Moses the right to embody in Triborough’s bonds all the powers he had been given in the legislation creating Triborough. Therefore, from the moment the bonds were sold (thereby putting into effect the contract they represented) , the powers he had been given in the legislation could be revoked only by the mutual consent of both Moses and the bondholders.  They could not be revoked by the Authority or by the City whose mere instrumentality he was supposed to be.
(Caro, at 629-630)

The combination of these two strategies—driving stakes and selling bonds—is enough to lock the state into an expensive and environmentally destructive freeway building spree.  And once the bill passes, and the bonds are sold, future legislatures will find themselves as powerless to rein in ODOT as New York was to stop the Moses meat ax from hacking through New York City.


How ODOT destroyed Albina, part 3: The Fremont Bridge ramps

ODOT’s Fremont Bridge wiped out multiple blocks of the Albina neighborhood

A freeway you’ve never heard of leveled dozens of blocks in North and Northeast Portland

The stub of a proposed “Prescott Freeway” still scars the neighborhood

This is the third of a three-part series looking at how ODOT freeways wiped out much of the Albina neighborhood in a little over two decades.  Part I showed how the Oregon State Highway Department cut the neighborhood off from the Willamette River in 1951 by the construction of Highway 99W (Interstate Avenue).  Part 2 looked at the construction of Interstate 5 in the early 1960s, which slashed through the middle of Albina.  Today, in Part 3, we show how an unfinished freeway dealt a third major blow to the neighborhood in the early 1970s.

Portland’s unfinished Prescott Freeway

Back in the 1960s, Portland, like many cities had grandiose plans for freeways everywhere.  Portland’s plan, called PVMTS (the Portland Vancouver Metropolitan Transportation Study) called for the city to be carved up by a grid of freeways every few miles.  One of those freeways was the so-called Prescott or Rose City Freeway, running from Swan Island to 82nd Avenue.  Even though it was never completed, this ODOT roadway had (and continues to have) a devastating effect on the Albina neighborhood.

Portland’s planned 1960s freeway grid: The green highways were fortunately never built.

The Prescott Freeway (shown top center in the map above) was designed to connect I-5 and I-205.  the freeway would have cut diagonally from the Fremont Bridge, across North  Portland, and East to (an unbuilt) 52nd Avenue Freeway and then to I-205 near Portland Airport.  As the plan below shows, the segment in North Portland’s Albina neighborhood would have connected to Interstate 5 at a massive cloverleaf intersection at the East end of the Fremont Bridge.

Plans for the Prescott Freeway weren’t abandoned until work on the Fremont Bridge and its approaches were well underway.  The Oregon Department of Transportation built about a third of a mile of expressway at the East end of the bridge, but with no freeway to connect to, the expressway was simply truncated to connect to NE Kerby Street.


Because the Prescott Freeway angled diagonally across the neighborhood, it tore apart the pre-existing street grid.  These two overlaid photographs show the neighborhood as it appeared in 1948 (a nearly continuous street grid, filled with homes and businesses) replaced by a newly constructed freeway in 1975 (with much of the housing demolished and the street grid broken).  You can move the slider left and right across the photo to see how the neighborhood looked before and after freeway construction.

The effect of freeway construction wasn’t confined just to the area paved for traffic.  Because the intersection was designed for a full set of ramps connecting all the freeways (I-5, I-405 and Prescott), several blocks on either side of the roadway were acquired or demolished.  Local streets were truncated and North Kerby Avenue was re-routed into a wide new boulevard, ultimately forming the border for the Emanuel Hospital campus, which expanded onto blocks leveled near the freeway.

The following map shows the area altered in the wake of freeway construction around what is now the Kerby Avenue off ramp from the Fremont Bridge.  This 1962 image shows the ongoing construction of I-5 at the left hand side of the photo.  The area taken or demolished at the time of the Fremont bridge ramp construction in the early 1970s is bounded in red.


As the photographic evidence makes clear, this part of the Albina neighborhood had a well-connected street grid, and hundreds of intact houses, at least until ODOT’s freeway construction efforts played out.

A Tragedy in 3 Acts:  ODOT highways decimated Albina

Over the course of a little more than two decades, the Oregon Department of Transportation’s highway building wiped out much of Albina. Adding together the land taken by the Highway 99W construction in 1951, the building of I-5 in the early 1960s, and finally the Fremont Bridge and stillborn Prescott Freeway in the 1970s, ODOT’s road-building left a huge scar on the Albina neighborhood.  The following aerial photo shows the neighborhood in as it existing in 1948; the areas bordered in red show blocks where housing and businesses were demolished when each of these three highways were built.


The effects weren’t confined to just the buildings knocked down for the roadway itself.  Construction efforts directly acquired and demolished a considerable amount of adjacent property (some of which was never used as freeway plans were abandoned). The wholesale demolition of housing deprived the neighborhood of critical mass to support local businesses and schools, population declined by two-thirds in Albina, and property values plunged.  Much of the neighborhood’s former housing was given over to surface parking lots.  The freeways eviscerated the local street grid, dividing the neighborhood into isolated pockets of remaining housing, in an area increasingly given over to a handful of large institutional uses (an arena, a hospital, a school headquarters), and dominated by large flows of car traffic, mostly from outside the neighborhood.  ODOT’s highways were pivotal in the devastation of Albina neighborhood.


Taking Tubman: ODOT’s plan to build a freeway on school grounds

ODOT’s proposed I-5 Rose Quarter project would turn a school yard into a freeway

The widened I-5 freeway will make already unhealthy air even worse

Pollution from high volume roads has been shown to lower student achievement

ODOT also proposes to build sound walls in Tubman’s school yard

Portland’s Harriet Tubman Middle School is one of the city’s most diverse.  Located in the heart of what historically was the center of the state’s African-American population, more than 60 percent of those enrolled are students of color. The Harriet Tubman School has long been the focal point in the struggle against racist policies.  Community activism helped save the school in the 1980s. There’s another historical legacy nearby as well:  the Interstate 5 Freeway, which, as we’ve chronicled was rammed through the neighborhood in the early 1960s, and which triggered a two-thirds decline in Albina’s population in just two decades.

We’re looking at Tubman Middle School today because the Oregon Department of Transportation is proposing to double-down on the environmental insult done to the area by widening the I-5 freeway, moving it even closer to the school.  As Oregon Public Broadcasting has reported, ODOT wants to move the freeway onto school property, and also build two 1,000-foot long, 22-foot tall noise walls between the school and the expanded freeway.   On Friday April 9, 150 community members rallied at the school to oppose the freeway widening project.  Two of the speakers were 9th grade students Adah Crandall and Malina Yuen, who had attended Tubman.

Harriet Tubman Middle School rally against the Rose Quarter freeway widening project, April 9, 2021.

Moving the freeway closer to the school

When it was built in the early 1960s, the freeway sliced through a portion of the then Eliot School’s grounds, removing a portion of both the school yard and the adjacent Lillis-Albina Park.  Plans for a wider I-5 Rose Quarter Freeway showed it would move the roadway closer to the school.  The group No More Freeways commissioned the following video showing how the freeway would cut away the hillside between the current roadway and the school.  No More Freeways filed suit in federal court to challenge the project’s environmental impact statement on April 2.

ODOT’s $800 million plan to cut away the hillside and move the I-5 freeway closer to Tubman Middle School. (Click for video).

Taking School Property

It hasn’t always been clear that the new freeway would intrude onto school property.  Newly obtained documents, released as part of a public records request, show that ODOT intends to take property now owned by the school district for its expanded freeway.  The following diagram shows the ODOT plans overlaid on a City of Portland map of property lines.  The turquoise lines on the chart correspond to property lines. The red cross-hatched area on the diagram is school property that would be taken for the freeway.

It’s a bit difficult to visualize the proposed taking of school property, so we’ve created a separate map which shows the take as a solid red area.  It’s clear that the new, wider freeway will be built by expanding on Tubman School property.  In a very real sense, we’re taking this land away from neighborhood school kids, and turning its use over to people driving through the area on the Interstate highway.

Estimated area of Portland Public School Property to be taken for freeway expansion (red).

A wider freeway will worsen already unhealthy air at Tubman Middle School

The major environmental issue posed by the proximity of the I-5 freeway to Harriet Tubman Middle School is the air pollution from automobile traffic on the roadway.  In its discussion of the issue, ODOT has been deceptive and inaccurate, both in estimating levels of pollution, and describing the standards of review required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

ODOT has dramatically understated the air pollution associated with the freeway widening for several reasons.  First, as we’ve pointed out, it has modeled traffic only for a six-lane freeway, when in fact the 160 foot roadway it is building could accomodate 10 lanes, and vastly more traffic.  Second, its traffic modeling made factually false assumptions about both baseline and no-build levels of traffic on I-5 (inflating them by assuming that the Columbia River Crossing had been built in 2015 and allowing the model to have volumes in excess of capacity in the no-build scenario).  Third, it understated the amount of traffic growth (and pollution) in the build scenario, because its modeling made no allowance for induced demand from added capacity.

In addition, ODOT (and its peer review panel) engaged in a bit of regulatory sleight-of-hand in characterizing the project’s air quality impacts.  First, ODOT has repeatedly claimed that air quality in the area will be better in the future under the build scenario than it is today.  That may be true, but if it is, it is only because of factors entirely external to the project, specifically a changing vehicle mix (i.e. assumptions that fossil fueled vehicles become cleaner due to fuel efficiency requirements, and that a larger fraction of the fleet is electrified).  Whether this is true or not, it is actually irrelevant for purposes of the analysis required under NEPA.  NEPA requires a comparison of environmental effects with and without the project (i.e. “build” vs. “no-build”).  Since we will get vehicle efficiency and electrification regardless of whether this project is built or not, the fact that pollution levels are less than today (or not) are irrelevant.  The real, and unanswered (or incorrectly answered) question is whether air pollution will be higher under the “build” scenario, rather than the “no-build” scenario.  As we enumerated above, because ODOT systematically over-estimated “no-build” traffic, and systematically under-estimated “build” traffic, it got that analysis wrong.  Application of a scientifically calibrated induced travel calculator to the project shows that widening I-5 will generate millions more miles of car travel and thousands of tons more greenhouse gases and pollution each year.

The second bit of sleight of hand is claims by ODOT and its peer review panel that the project is either in compliance with the Clean Air Act or that no analysis of this project is required by the Clean Air Act (CAA).  That’s interesting information, but for the purposes of complying with NEPA, is irrelevant.  NEPA requires a disclosure of a project’s environmental impact, not simply an assurance that the project hasn’t violated some other federal law.  The peer review panel maintains that because Portland is not a “non-attainment” area under CAA, that ODOT is not required to do a “hot spot” analysis of the project.  The panel and ODOT also maintain that because no regulatory standards exist for greenhouse gas emissions, the project need not consider them.  Again, this may be true under the Clean Air Act, but by omitting this information, ODOT is failing to meet its obligations under NEPA to reveal the environmental effects of the measure.  In addition, NEPA requires that a project demonstrate conformity with applicable state and local laws; Oregon statutes call for an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions statewide by 2050, and nothing in the project’s environmental assessment indicates how this project would comply; again, estimates using the induced travel calculator indicate the project will generate 8-15,000 additional tons of greenhouse gases annually.

Third, and perhaps most important, none of this analysis indicates whether either current or future levels of air pollution at Tubman School will be healthy or tolerable for Tubman students, staff and the public.  Even at current traffic levels, Tubman School’s air quality is problematic.  An independent assessment advised the school district to restrict outdoor activities by students.  The district spent more than $12 million of its own funds to add air filtration to make air inside the building safe for students to breathe.  Portland School Board member Julia Brim-Edwards raised exactly this issue at the March 22, 2021 meeting of the Executive Steering Committee.  In reply, she was told by members of the peer review panel that they didn’t look at that issue and that they were only tasked with judging compliance.

It is entirely possible for a freeway-widening project not to violate the Clean Air Act but also to worsen air pollution in a way that is deleterious to the health and well-being of people near the freeway.  We have a growing body of scientific evidence that higher levels of traffic near schools tend to impair student performance.  A recent study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that after controlling for a variety of other factors, proximity to high volume roadways (like I-5) had a statistically significant negative effect on student performance on standardized assessment tests.  According to ODOT, this stretch of road carries about 120,000 vehicles per day, putting in the highest category on this chart, and the expansion project would allow even more cars in this area.

Jennifer Heissel, Claudia Persico, David Simon,
Does pollution drive achievement? The effect of traffic pollution on academic performance.
NBER Working Paper No. 25489.

A closer freeway means more noise pollution and towering sound walls

But ODOT isn’t just going to take school property for the freeway.  It is also proposing to build two 1,000-foot long, 22-foot tall noise walls between the newly widened roadway and the school.   In the following ODOT diagram—taken from the project’s 2019 environmental assessment—the two walls are shown as “2a” and “2b” and are shaded purple.


The exact location of these noise walls doesn’t appear to be final.  The plans are a bit vague as to whether they’ll be built on ODOT property or on the school grounds. In theory, the walls are supposed to attenuate the noise from the closer, wider freeway at the school. In fact, ODOT’s own peer review panel raised concerns about whether the walls would be effective, and recommended that the walls be moved closer to Tubman School.  This would almost certainly mean that the walls would be built on school property—so in addition to having some of its land taken for the roadway, the panel’s recommendation is that a further portion of school property be taken for the noise wall.

From the March 22, 2021, ESC meeting, slide summarizing the Peer Review:

The two twenty foot walls will be roughly as tall as the Tubman building itself (and are nearly twice as tall as the Berlin Wall), while they might reduce sound somewhat, they’ll also turn the school’s grounds into a cramped area dominated by a 1,000 foot long concrete wall, arguably more like a prison yard than a school yard.

Making a mockery of equity and restorative justice

As we’ve made clear at City Observatory, decades of highway building by the Oregon Department of Transportation decimated the Albina neighborhood, leading directly to a decline of two-thirds in the neighborhood’s population (the leading to the Eliot School—original occupant of today’s Tubman building—being merged with the nearby Boise School, because of falling enrollment.  The Oregon Department of Transportation’s I-5 Rose Quarter Freeway widening project benefits car travelers, particularly suburban commuters, while imposing significant financial, health and learning costs on Tubman students.  While the average peak hour single occupancy car commuter from Clark County Washington has a median household income of $82,000; half of Tubman students are on free and reduced price lunches.  In addition, three quarters of those commuters a non-Hispanic whites, while two thirds of the Tubman student body is children of color.  The $800 million project will subsidize these car commuters, and meanwhile Portland Public Schools has had to spend $12 million (that could otherwise be spent improving education) on making the air in the school building fit to breathe.  These stark disparities in who bears the costs and who gets the benefits of this freeway widening make a mockery of its claim to be promoting “restorative justice.”



Fighting Climate Change is Inherently Equitable

Happy Earth Day, Everyone!

If we care about equity, we need to make rapid progress on climate change

Equity needs to be defined by substantive outcomes, not vacuous rhetoric and elaborate process.

Ultimately equity is about outcomes, not merely process. The demonstrable results a decade or two from now have to be measurably more equitable and just than what we have today.

The overriding priority for Earth Day is taking serious action to blunt climate change. But while there’s a growing, though still far from universal, agreement that climate change is real, there’s a problem.  Many advocates are making claims about equity an obstacle to taking decisive action to reduce greenhouse gases.  Change is always hard, especially for the powerless and disadvantaged.  But we have to find ways to save the planet, while buffering the impact on the hardest hit. Somewhat ironically, our experience with Coronavirus shows how we can tackle these twin objectives by tackling them separately and simultaneously, rather than insisting that they somehow be combined and that one be subordinated to another.

Case in point:  Last year, Portland voters considered (and rejected) a multi-billion dollar ballot measure that was a typical example example of a process that nominally simulates equity, but which does nothing to address climate change.  It has the trappings of inclusion–a process that has seats at the table for youth and people of color/frontline communities, and has the rhetoric of equity.  It has also  gone through a stilted and misleading exercise of classifying projects as equitable based on whether they happen to be near neighborhoods with high concentrations of low income people or people of color.  On this criteria, the original construction of I-5, which plowed through the middle of the region’s largest African American community would have been scored as “highly equitable.”  The cumulative result of a proposed $4 billion expenditure does nothing to reduce climate change–generating by the staff’s own estimates a five one-hundredths of one percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.  By failing in its primary task–to reduce GHGs–the result is inequitable, because the continued march of climate change will bear most heavily on low income populations.

Equity has to be about more than proximity, about glowing rhetoric, and about enervating involvement processes.

From a hyperlocal perspective, the most equitable solution might seem to be to spare frontline communities from having to do anything or bear any burden. If each local planning effort prioritizes insulating its frontline community from burden or cost, above taking effective action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, then collectively we’ll make no progress in solving our shared, global climate crisis.  As Alon Levy has persuasively argued, putting “rebuilding trust” ahead of taking action on the street is a self-defeating strategy

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

And that will be the most inequitable outcome of all, because as everyone has stipulated, the frontline communities will bear the brunt of the costs associated with climate disruption.

Our community can’t do anything effective to reduce GHGs because it would have a disproportionate impact on our frontline communities.  Somebody else, somewhere else, ought to bear the burden of solving this problem.

But that risks being a recipe for universal inaction, or a prescription for performative but largely ineffectual policies.  When asked to come up with an example of Portland’s future climate policies, the city’s planning director highlighted a potential future mandate for electric car charging in new multi-family buildings, ignoring that a disappearingly small fraction of low income people live in new apartments, can afford electric cars, or even own cars, and that parking mandates have been shown to drive up housing costs, reduce affordability, and encourage sprawl and car-dependent development.

Equity advocates make a powerful, persuasive and true case that the effects of climate change are disproportionately felt by the poor and people of color.

In an important sense, if you’ve got enough income, you are likely to be able to escape, avoid or mitigate many of the personal negative effects of climate change. You can move to a state or neighborhood that is far from rising seas, or wildfires, or unbearable heat. Its always been the case that people with more income use it to buy nicer places to live, which is the main reason why you find nicer parks, more tree cover, lower crime and better air quality in high income neighborhoods.  Neighborhoods that don’t offer those amenities lose people who have the income to move elsewhere.  The result is that low income people end up in housing that is less pleasant, has fewer natural amenities, has higher crime, and is more likely to induce asthma–and is more vulnerable to climate change.

Things we do to reduce global levels of pollution have disproportionate benefits for the poor.  Consider eliminating lead from gasoline.  There’s an increasingly impressive body of evidence that points to the serious cognitive and behavioral effects of lead air pollution. When the federal government phased out lead as a gasoline additive in the 1980s, it had measurable effects on the school achievement and crime levels in cities around the nation, and particularly benefited kids in low income neighborhoods.  It was an inherently equitable strategy.

Yet banning lead also produced a regressive increase in the price of gasoline.  Oil companies used lead as an “anti-knock” additive because it was cheaper than blending higher octane fuels that didn’t cause pre-ignition (knocking).  Estimates are that banning lead probably drove up fuel prices about two cents a gallon or so, and as we all know, a price increase is regressive, because it bears more heavily on the poor than the rich.  But would anyone argue that it would have been more equitable, especially to the poor, to keep lead in fuel so that gas would continue to be cheap?

Those who are most vulnerable are the poor, especially the globally poor, who lack the resources to adapt or escape the effects of climate change.  A world in which we fail to slow or reverse climate change is a world that is in every meaningful sense more inequitable than the one we live in today.

There’s an important logical implication from these facts:  Strategies to reduce climate change are inherently equitable.  Some rich people may be indifferent between a world that is 2 degrees centigrade warmer than today; hundreds of millions of poor people aren’t–they will be inescapably worse off.

Helping victims is a separate tasks from innovating solutions

We have to distinguish the fundamentally different tasks of finding solutions and easing the burden of victims.  While the globally poor and communities of color are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, that fact doesn’t imbue them with any special wisdom about the solution to the problem.

Here’s an analogous situation we’ve all lived through.  Consider the coronavirus (Covid-19).  It disproportionately affects people in infected locations, and like most viruses, is especially dangerous to the elderly and those with fragile lungs and immune systems. Yet the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines did not  emerge from the personal knowledge and experience of those victims. Nothing about being a victim necessarily qualifies one to design a solution.

In fact, many of the immediate steps we need to take to minimize the spread and severity of coronavirus impinge directly on the well-being of victims.  We quarantine them.  And for the most part people in quarantine understand and agree that the personal discomfort and risk that quarantine poses for them is more than outweighed by the social good of limiting the spread of the disease. But surely no one believes that the optimal decision about whether to quarantine the passengers and crew of a cruise ship for an additional two-weeks will most optimally be made by a vote of those on-board.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t prioritize and generously aid victims. The pandemic provides another lesson about separate tasks of helping innocent victims while aggressively pursuing solutions. The US government has approved multiple trillion dollar aid packages, including a range of direct payments, forgivable business loans, extended unemployment insurance and other measures, recognizing that no one should be forced to bear the costs and dislocation caused by the need to fight the pandemic by throttling large parts of the economy.  But these efforts were independent of the effort to develop vaccines and promote social distancing.

Harking back to our example of lead in gasoline:  It’s unclear whether focus groups addressing chronically low achievement and high crime rates in urban neighborhoods in the United States in the 1970s would have identified reducing the lead content of gasoline as a high priority strategy.  For complex global problems, victimhood isn’t a substitute for science.

The key criterion for judging climate strategies has to be whether they are effective. An ineffectual strategy arrived at by a “just” process does not advance the cause of equity.

Climate change is not somehow the unique product of the continuing inequities in our society. While there’s little doubt that racism and poverty amplify and concentrate the negative effects of climate change, it is also true that vibrant, highly equal social democracies like those of Western Europe face exactly the same technical, organizational and economic challenges that the US does in fashioning and implementing climate change policies. Even in a world with a perfectly equitable distribution of income and and absence of racism, we would face the same challenge of figuring out how to reduce the level of carbon in the atmosphere.

None of this is to gainsay that we shouldn’t be sensitive to the negative effects of strategies implemented to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on the poor. That’s why economists overwhelmingly favor some version of the carbon tax-and-dividend or cap-and-dividend approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. A well constructed carbon tax would provide a direct method of compensating vulnerable populations who bear a disproportionate share of the impact of climate change. And unlike piecemeal and performative steps, would provide the scale of resources needed to meaningful mitigate the burdens of solving this shared global problem.


Why cheap gas is our real climate and transportation policy

Forget about lofty greenhouse gas reduction goals and vision zero, our real climate and transportation policy is cheap gas

The fall in gas prices in 2014 led to more driving, more SUV purchases, less transit ridership, more deaths and more greenhouse gas emissions

In retrospect, 2014 was a turning point for driving, climate and safety.  What happened that year reversed or undid many positive changes in US transportation and climate trends.  Up until 2014, traffic deaths had been declining, driving was basically flat, people were buying more cars and fewer SUVs, transit ridership was up.  After 2014, all of those indicators got worse.  Understanding why this happened should provide us with a keen insight about the importance of prices to all our important policies.

In life, there are pivotal moments when things change.  As the Bard wrote,

There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat.

The summer and fall of 2014 was one of those turning points; the event was noticed at the time, but its effects have become prominent only with the passage of time.  The event was the collapse of global oil prices, which in a short period of weeks caused a dramatic decline in gasoline prices.  As any economist would expect, that decline in prices generated a change in consumer behavior.  With the benefit of five years of data since the oil price collapse, we can now trace out the effects of cheaper gas on driving, pollution, traffic deaths and transit ridership.  We can also see its reflections in the market for vehicles.  This analysis looks back at the changes in gasoline prices and driving, crash deaths, pollution, transit use and car-buying from 2014 through the onset of the pandemic in early 2020.

The Inflection Point

In the third quarter of 2014, gas prices in the US collapsed.  From March 2011 through August 2014, gas prices in the US averaged $3.57 per gallon.  From November 2014 through the end of 2019, gas prices averaged $2.47, more than 30 percent less in nominal terms.

This phase-change in gas prices from consistently more than three and a half dollars a gallon to consistently less than two and a half dollars a gallon had a clear impact on behavior.  The third quarter of 2014 was an inflection point in US transportation, triggered by a sharp decline in gas prices.

It led to more driving, more greenhouse gases, more road fatalities.

It led to a shift in consumer purchases from cars to SUVS.

It caused a decline in transit ridership.

Prior to 2014, the nation was making progress or holding its own on key indicators of a better transportation system.  Americans were driving less, and riding transit more.  Greenhouse gases from transportation had peaked, and were not increasing. Road fatalities had flatlined.  After the inflection point, in the third quarter of 2016, every one of these indicators deteriorated.

Collapsing oil and gas prices

Except for a short, sharp dip during the depths of the Great Recession, oil prices remained near $100 per barrel from 2006 through 2014. The following chart shows the prices of a barrel of oil (the green line, representing the reference price for a barrel of West Texas Intermediate), and the retail price of a gallon of gasoline (the red line).  The two prices are almost perfect correlated.

In June 2014, oil prices were above $100 per barrel, but over the next few months, the price of oil collapsed.  By September, oil prices were below $50 per barrel–a 50 percent decline.  Gasoline prices decreased by a similar amount.  This third quarter collapse in energy prices was a major inflection point for the energy markets, with important implications for transportation.

Oil and Gas Prices, 2000 to 2019


More driving

Between 2011 and 2013, Americans drove an average of about 3 trillion miles per year.  That figure had been declining in the mid-2000s due to higher prices and continued flat in the first four to five years of the economic recovery.  Only after 2014 did driving tick up, to an annual rate of 3.2 trillion miles per year.  Cheaper gas produced 200 billion additional miles of driving in the US.  Up until 2014, per capita driving in the US was declining; after the inflection point Americans started driving more for the first time in a decade.  The following chart shows in blue the total number of miles driven by Americans (monthly data reported on an annualized basis), and in red the nominal price of a gallon of regular gas.  The decline in gas prices coincides almost exactly with the sharp increase in vehicle travel in late 2014 and early 2015.

Gas prices and total miles driven

If there is a hopeful sign in this data, it is the flattening out of the growth in driving starting in 2018; arguably the lower price of gasoline shifted driving up, but the rate of growth in driving has slowed as gas prices have stabilized at their new lower levels.

More greenhouse gases

Transportation is now the largest source of greenhouse gases in the US, and private automobiles are the largest source of transportation greenhouse gas emissions.  The DARTE transportation emissions inventory calculates the amount of greenhouse gases associated with transportation throughout the US.  Greenhouse gas emissions from transportation peaked and were trending down prior to the Great Recession.  In the early years of the recovery from the recession, transportation related greenhouse gas emissions averaged about 1,500 million tons.  With lower gas prices, and increased driving, greenhouse gases increased after 2013, rising to about 1,580 million tons in 2017, and increase of about 5 percent.


More Light Trucks and SUVs

Cheaper gas also triggered a big change in vehicle buying habits.  Automobiles are divided into two categories in the US:  passenger vehicles and light trucks; the light truck category includes sport utility vehicles.  As a class, cars have much higher fuel economy that light trucks and sport utility vehicles. From the late 1990s through 2013, the two categories almost evenly divided the market, and followed the same trends (with sales of both types rising and falling together).  From the middle of 2014 onward, there’s been a sharp divergence in sales, with sales of passenger cars falling sharply and sales of light trucks and sport utility vehicles rising rapidly. The emergence of the gap between auto sales and light truck sales coincides exactly with the drop in fuel prices.

US Sales of Cars and Light Trucks/SUVs

This divergence is driven substantially by the lower price of fuel.  Economic analyst Bill McBride writing at Calculated Risk summarizes.

“Over time the mix has changed toward more and more light trucks and SUVs. Only when oil prices are high, does the trend slow or reverse.”

Because vehicles have a relatively long life (the average vehicle in the US is 12 years old), purchasing decisions made now will influence gas consumption and emissions for many years to come.  One effect of cheap gas prices today is to “lock in” a relatively less efficient fleet that we might have had, if consumers had gotten different signals about the cost of fuel.

More Traffic Deaths

The long term trend in US traffic deaths has been mostly downward.  Traffic deaths were essentially flat from 2010 through 2014, at about 33,000 per year.  After the decline in gas prices, traffic deaths jumped by about 9 percent, averaging about 37,000 deaths per year. Prior to the decline in gas prices, we were holding our own, if not making progress in improving road safety; after the inflection point, traffic fatalities got noticeably worse.


Declining Transit Use

Cheaper fuel is an inducement for people to drive, rather than take transit.  As gas prices rose in the mid-2000s, transit systems around the country experienced notable increases in ridership. There was a slight dip due to the Great Recession, but ridership rebounded quickly and was still growing through early 2014.  Transit ridership peaked at about 900 million monthly riders in mid-2014, but then declined by about 9 percent to 820,000 daily riders by 2018.  Prior to the inflection point in 2014, transit ridership was growing; after the collapse of gas prices, transit ridership experienced a sustained decline.  (We’ve truncated this graph at January, 2020, so it does not reflect the effect of Covid-19 on transit ridership).

US Transit Ridership 2000 to 2020


Lessons of the inflection: Prices matter

At a critical inflection point, the price of gas plummeted by almost a third.  That produced an additional 200 billion miles of driving each year, generated an increase in greenhouse gas emissions of 800 million tons, was associated with and is associated 4,000 additional highway deaths.  It also produced a sharp and persistent decline in transit use, and has dramatically altered the composition of vehicle sales away from the most economical types to heavier, less fuel efficient light trucks and SUVs.  This chart summarizes the key changes from 2014 until the period just before the Coronavirus pandemic.

The abrupt decline in fuel prices in the third quarter of 2014 is a powerful natural experiment illustrating the price elasticity of demand, and its straightforward effects on driving, pollution, safety, and transit. The magnitude of the increase in driving coincides closely to academic estimates of the price elasticity of demand; a 30 percent decrease in fuel prices was associated with an 8 percent increase in miles driven.

This inflection point is strong evidence of the importance of harnessing prices to shape travel behavior and achieve policy objectives. And here’s the critical point:  all of our efforts to reduce greenhouse gases with vehicle electrification and more efficient cars, all of our investments in public transit, and all of our “Vision Zero” plans are dwarfed by the impact of changing fuel prices.  Cheap gasoline dramatically undermines public policies to promote public health and safety, to support accessible urban places, and to save the planet.

Policy frameworks that ignore the importance of pricing promise to squander vast amounts of resources by trying to subsidize people and firms to act against the powerful economic incentives created by cheap energy.  In the face of cheap energy, policies to reduce traffic deaths, promote transit and urbanism, and lower greenhouse gas emissions, are greatly handicapped if not doomed to fail.  Conversely, higher prices for energy–which would fully reflect the social and environmental damages wrought by car driving–would change this headwind into a tailwind. All of these measures (promoting transit, traffic safety and reducing pollution) are vastly easier to achieve in a world where driving fossil fuel cars isn’t so artificially cheap.



Alexa: What is Cascadia Vision 2050?

A tech-centered vision of the future of the Pacific Northwest envisions creating a series of new urban centers 40 to 100 miles away from the region’s current largest cities—Seattle, Vancouver and Portland.

The answer to sustainability isn’t building new cities somewhere else, it’s making the urban centers we already have more inclusive, prosperous and sustainable.

By Ethan Seltzer

City Observatory is pleased to feature this guest commentary by Ethan Seltzer. Ethan Seltzer is an Emeritus Professor in the Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State University. He previously served as the President of the City of Portland Planning Commission and as the Land Use Supervisor for Metro, the regional government. He has lived and worked in Oregon and the Portland region since 1980 and is a contributor to City Observatory. 


“A region is an area safely larger than the last one to whose problems we found no solution.”

Jane Jacobs

The Cascadia Innovation Corridor Partnership—a project of Challenge Seattle and the Business Council of British Columbia—is the latest organization to claim Cascadia as its territory of interest and to promote interconnections between Vancouver BC, Seattle, and Portland as the solution to our problems. You can view their vision for our region at Connect Cascadia.

To their credit, the Partnership is trying to envision how we’ll welcome 5 million new residents in the I-5 corridor over the next 30 years without blowing apart the reasons that this has been a good place for people for over 14,000 years.

Any vision for Cascadia has to position itself within this landscape, its livability, and the closeness of nature that has attracted and kept so many here through economic ups and downs, and as other parts of North America have thrived. The most recent term of art for matching growth with livability and environmental quality has been sustainability, and the Partnership is proposing nothing less than the build-out of Cascadia as a “global model for sustainable growth.”

While seeking to be a model for any other place is of questionable significance for sustainability either here or elsewhere, at least aspiring to be more sustainable is an important goal. It doesn’t take a lot of digging to see that we have a bunch of work to do. We are nowhere close to meeting our carbon emission goals, and the trends are in the wrong direction. Our iconic salmon in this region continue to decline in number and in health. Forests on both sides of the border are in deplorable condition. The entire region is attempting to build itself out of its failing transportation and transit systems despite employing the same strategies that got us into this mess. And social justice, a presumed cornerstone for sustainable development, remains in the eye of the beholder.

You might expect a manifesto for the next global sustainability leader to explicitly address at least some of these in a convincing way. Unfortunately, the effort isn’t there, now or perhaps ever. Their vision for sustainability, borrowed from the World Bank, posits that sustainable cities have three central features: a growing economy, declining greenhouse gas emissions, and livability for all. The Partnership expects to become a global sustainability leader by focusing on housing and “development”, transportation, and environmental stewardship, in sum poor proxies for even the World Bank’s definition of the term.

Their proposal is to expect little out of the three central cities other than current trends, including the growth of their suburbs, and to grow new population centers out of existing mid-sized cities located 40-100 miles from each of the three central cities. All of this would be linked by high speed rail. If only it made some sense.

Three problems with this vision

The first problem: Most of what they present is not actually about Cascadia. Most of it is how we might appear in contrast to other so-called megaregions. We never got anywhere by trying to be better versions of other places. This vision does nothing to paint a picture of a better Cascadia. Instead we get a picture of a Cascadia marginally better than other places we’d rather not be, and rather not live.

Second problem: there is nothing bold or even new about growing outlying cities into bigger places. In 1938 Lewis Mumford was hired by the Northwest Regional Council to visit Cascadia and think about how the provision of cheap, plentiful electricity at Bonneville could change the Northwest. His report, issued in early 1939, basically concluded that existing cities should not be the location for new growth because they were already lost. Instead, the new development coming with all that power ought to go into new garden cities in the countryside.

Mumford’s prescription was inspired more out of concern over inadequate town planning than sustainability, but the “logic” is not unfamiliar. Like the Partnership’s vision, Mumford’s was equally sketchy, and both of them promise the same thing: innovative growth and development brought about by avoiding the real problems already present in real places. Whether the “hub cities” proposed by the partnership or the garden cities that Mumford famously championed, both completely ignore the dynamics of sprawl and the engines of growth and infrastructure development that have already made growth management terrifically elusive even in Cascadia.

Fundamentally, putting our chips on these new towns while writing off the existing cities might work as a real estate strategy, but there is no way that our northern temperate rainforest will become a sustainability leader if we leave out the cities. Any convincing tale of sustainability leadership has to be about the whole thing, not about the favored locations.

Third problem: This is ultimately an infrastructure vision, not a vision for sustainability. The central goal here seems to be the development of some sort of high speed rail. However, it occurs over very short distances likely to do little to get people out of their cars. Where is real road pricing? What will they do to ensure that relatively short commutes in and out of hub cities will not be accompanied by even worse carbon emissions performance in the future? Back in the 30s, Mumford and Benton MacKaye came up with the notion of the “townless highway” as a means for coping with the already evident problem of car-based sprawl. It never came to pass, and instead we’ve got the highways and sprawling housing we only know too well.

What might be an authentic vision of Cascadia ?

There are other weaknesses here, but instead of focusing on the inadequacies of this vision, I’d rather offer some building blocks for a real vision for Cascadia. To begin with, for business organizations to not focus on what would make their own operations more sustainable first seems like a giant omission.

What can the members of these organizations making up the Partnership do to reduce employee commutes? Certainly the pandemic has given us all some ideas. And what can they do to even make their own operations more sustainable? Where are they located right now, and what are the implications for both equity and sustainability of creating isolated corporate campuses? What do they sell, and how do we, as a region, take into account their business practices and product lines when assessing our supposed sustainability? How is their political and economic power helping to make Cascadia a better place, a healthier place for everyone to live? In essence, “Physician, heal thyself.” That could be innovative, and impressive.

Next, what are Cascadia’s weakest links when it comes to being the most sustainable place it can be? Where do we get our water from? Energy? What can we do to make both of those more sustainable now? How do we use our land and other natural resources? What condition are they in? Where and when are we making decisions today that foreclose future generations from inhabiting this place in their own time as we have been able to do today?

More to the point, what have we missed by largely dismissing the lessons learned by 14,000 years of indigenous inhabitation in this landscape? What aren’t we doing that we should be doing? While we’re on that topic, what will this vision do, specifically, to lift up the Indian nations in our midst? How will we embrace our history here, all of it, in a more sustainable version of what we’ve created? Whose voices need to be central in any “vision” for a sustainable Cascadia?

And speaking of the landscape, the rural parts of Cascadia are conspicuously absent in the Partnership’s vision. What, in fact, are the right boundaries for Cascadia? Is I-5 even a relevant unit for understanding the geography of our livability here? The fact that this partnership’s vision is defined by a freeway corridor speaks volumes all by itself. Interestingly, the Partnership has a subcommittee on “sustainable agriculture”. Where is their voice in this work?

Will moving significant population closer to the farms and forests make farms and forests more sustainable in the future? Perhaps if you own a lot of forest land that you hope to one day convert to ranchettes. But probably not if the thin margins for primary producers need to compete for land, the basic infrastructure for farming and forestry, with the tech wizards to be served by this plan.

Rather than building a region for the next 5 million, why not build it for the folks already here? If the vision really is sustainable, the next 5 million will be able to do just fine. Keep in mind that people are amazingly adaptive. How are folks already adapting to the presumed inadequacies of our transportation systems and our housing supply? What can we do to support what they’re doing to live a good life now? What can we do to increase and improve the stores of human capital that every Cascadian has and deserves? Where is education and training in the Partnership’s vision? What would Cascadia be doing if it had, as its primary goal, to ensure that all residents can find a satisfying place in the economy growing here and globally? What can and should the visionaries of today learn from the people and communities around them?

One of the central tenets of sustainable planning is that those with the least choices out to have more and better ones. Getting well-off households to work more quickly isn’t our biggest problem. It’s getting those with the least a better shot at thriving along with the rest of us. Consider a metaphor: the Oregon Beach Bill has declared that every inch of the Oregon Coast ought to be accessible to all of us. What would the equivalent be for Cascadia? What have we, to date, made inaccessible to too many that we need to advance today?

Sustainability has to be about more than technology and shorter faster commutes

Sadly, the default in exercises like this one seems to be a vision for faster commutes. What would a 21st century education and training system look like? What do we need to do to make sure that it spans all the borders within Cascadia? What if people sought to come to Cascadia not to get rich but to get smarter throughout their working lives?

Sustainability is not just a vision for urban form and function. Similarly, Cascadia is not just a setting for meeting the needs of ascendant corporate sectors. The Partnership wants to teach the world a lesson about sustainability. We can do that if we focus on creating a place where we can all be human in the best ways possible. That would be innovative. That would attract the attention of the world. That should attract the interest of us all.

The Week Observed, April 2, 2021

What City Observatory this week

1. How the Oregon Department of Transportation destroyed a Portland neighborhood, Part 2:  The Moses Meat Axe.  We continue our historical look at the role that freeway construction (and the traffic it brought) destroyed Portland’s Albina neighborhood.  Our story began in the early 1950s with the construction of a waterfront highway, and reached a crescendo in 1962, when the construction of Interstate 5 wiped out much of the neighborhoods housing stock. leveled dozens of blocks, and forever transformed the area from a primarily residential neighborhood to a car-dominated landscape.

We’ve got a detailed before-and-after look at how the construction of I-5 wiped out a large much of this historically black neighborhood. It wasn’t just the road’s right of way, but the flood of car traffic that the freeway brought to this area.  As is often said, past is prologue.  Today the Oregon Department of Transportation is proposing to spend $800 million to further widen the gash that I-5 cut through this neighborhood.  It’s a reasonable question to ask why this historic error is being repeated.

2.  The Cappuccino Congestion Index.  Media reports regularly regurgitate the largely phony claims about how traffic congestion costs travelers untold billions of dollars in wasted time. To illustrate how misleading these fictitious numbers are, we’ve used the same methodology and actual data to compute the value of time lost standing in line waiting to get coffee from your local barista. Just like roadways, your coffee shop is subject to peak demand, and when everyone else wants their caffeine fix at the same time, you can expect to queue up for yours.

Just as Starbucks and its local competitors don’t find it economical to expand their retail footprint and hire enough staff so that wait times go to zero (your coffee would be too expensive or their business would be unprofitable) it makes no sense to try to build enough roads so that there’s no delay. Ponder that the next time you’re waiting for your doppio macchiato.

Must read

1. What’s really needed in an infrastructure bill:  Better policy.  Transportation for America’s Beth Osborne has some succinct advice about what needs to be in the vaunted trillion-dollar-plus infrastructure package:  Fixing America’s badly broken transportation policy, which squanders resources while making environmental, social and transportation problems worse.  Simply doing (and building) more of the same has led to more driving, more pollution, and more deaths of vulnerable road users.  Before we throw more money at this flawed system, we need to fix it:

This time around, Americans want an infrastructure package that addresses economic recovery through job creation; rebuilds crumbling roads, bridges, and transit systems; and reduces climate emissions and racial inequities. But our existing federal transportation programs aren’t built to achieve these outcomes—no matter how much more money is pumped into them. In fact, they often produce the opposite result: building new infrastructure we can’t afford to maintain, driving up emissions and creating barriers to people of color trying to get to work and essential services.

2. Patrick Sharkey on the causes of the 2020 Crime Wave.  After decades of long term decline in urban crime rates, many cities experienced a wave of increased crime and violence in 2020.  The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson interviewed Princeton’s Patrick Sharkey, one of the nation’s pre-eminent experts on the subject.  Sharkey points out that any explanation for shifting crime rates is always complex, but in the past year, the disruption to social life wrought by the pandemic:  unemployment, the closure of business and civic institutions and schools, all contributed to greater crime and violence in cities across the country, especially in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty.  As Sharkey explains, a pandemic is a kind of perfect storm for crime:

Last year, everyday patterns of life broke down. Schools shut down. Young people were on their own. There was a widespread sense of a crisis and a surge in gun ownership. People stopped making their way to institutions that they know and where they spend their time. That type of destabilization is what creates the conditions for violence to emerge.

Sharkey acknowledges that an increase in policing is one of the factors behind the statistical decline in crime over the past couple of decades; but in his view more stringent policing isn’t a sustainable strategy. The excesses of policing may have reduced crime, but then also planted the seeds of unrest.  In his view, we can’t rely on a model of brute force, punishment and imprisonment in the long run.

3. Todd Litman’s review of Patrick Condon’s polemic, “Sick City”  Patrick Condon’s new book, Sick City: Disease, Race, Inequality and Urban Land, is at it’s heart, a denial that the supply and demand have any utility in helping us understand problems of housing affordability and availability.  The estimable Todd Litman of the Victoria Transportation Policy Institute has a scathing review of Condon’s book, effectively dismantling most of his key claims.  In his usual methodical and deeply footnoted way, Litman challenges each of Condon’s key propositions, patiently laying out his case. For example, Condon claims that upzoning simply leads to added developer profits rather than augmenting supply and holding down or reducing rents. Litman walks through a series of studies showing the reverse is true.  In the end, he concludes:

Condon does planners, housing advocates, and their clients a disservice by rejecting one of the most effective policies for increasing affordability: upzoning in walkable urban neighborhoods.

New Knowledge

Our new knowledge feature will return next week.

In the News

Todd LItman’s Planetizen review included references to a pair of City Observatory commentaries, one looking at the negative effects of Portland’s inclusionary zoning requirement and another assessing the literature on the role of housing supply increases in reducing displacement.

Strongtowns re-published our analysis of Massachusetts Department of Transportation proposal to build a “diverging diamond” interchange.  While gussied up with gallons of greenwash, the project represents yet another auto-centric re-making of the suburban landscape.

The Week Observed, April 16, 2021

What City Observatory this week

1. Taking Tubman:  The Oregon Department of Transportation is planning to widen the Interstate 5 freeway in Portland into the backyard of Harriet Tubman Middle School.  The $800 million widening project doubles down on the historical damage that ODOT highway construction has done to this neighborhood, and literally moves the freeway onto school grounds.  The project also includes erecting two 1,000 foot long, 22 foot high “noise walls” (roughly twice the height of the Berlin Wall) between the school and the freeway.  Already, the air at the school is unhealthy–so much so that the Portland school district had to spend $12 million on filtration equipment to make air inside the building clean enough to breathe.

A wider freeway will increase traffic, air pollution, and noise pollution at Tubman and in the surrounding neighborhood.  At an April 9 demonstration, students and neighbors spoke out against the project.

2.  ODOT’s peer review panel backs away from Rose Quarter traffic forecasts.  A key dispute in the battle over the proposed I-5 Rose Quarter freeway widening project is whether it will increase air and noise pollution.  Critics–including City Observatory–have pointed to flaws in the project’s traffic modeling that cause it to overstate traffic and pollution in the “no-build scenario” and to understate Induced demand in the build scenario.  These errors, coupled with previously hidden plans showing ODOT plans a 10-lane freeway, rather than the 6-lane facility in modeled, mean that the project’s environmental assessment is wrong. In attempting to defend its flawed modeling, ODOT has repeatedly pointed to a “peer review” panel it convened in 2020.  But last week, the leader of that peer review panel specifically said that they did not look at the accuracy of ODOT’s traffic projects, and can’t vouch for them.  The peer review panel has made it clear that claims that its review “supports” ODOT’s work and “confirms” its findings are simply false.  The panel members were instructed to look only at a small, and as it turns out, derivative question, and simply ignored whether the freeway widening increases traffic.

3. Our real climate and transportation policy is cheap gas.  Mayors and Governors like to tout bold climate goals (typically decades in the future), but our real climate policy is expressed by what we’re doing right now.  And across the nation, regardless of your rhetoric, your real climate policy is expressed at the gas pump.  The very low prices that Americans pay for gasoline are the dominant policy decision for both climate and urban transportation.  A quick look back at the past seven years shows that the 40 percent decline in gas prices in 2014 caused a whole range of key climate and transportation policy measures to move rapidly in the wrong direction.  Public transit ridership, which had been increased, fell abruptly.  Miles driven, which had plateaued, suddenly grew.  Greenhouse gas emissions from transportation and road deaths increased sharply.  And Americans, who had been buying equal numbers of cars and SUVs, decisively shifted to buying about 70 percent SUVs.

As long as we persist in keeping fuel prices low, both by global standards, and relative to the damage done by all this driving, we’ll continue to have frustratingly poor transportation systems and ever worsening climate problems.

Must read

1. Ed Glaeser on tying infrastructure funding to zoning reform.  Part of the Biden Administration’s $1.9 trillion infrastructure package is a grant program that would give local governments money in recognition of efforts to eliminate exclusionary zoning policies, like large lot sizes, apartment bans and parking requirements.  But, according to Glaeser, dean of US urban economists, this carrot is too small to motivate policy changes, especially among the jurisdictions who practice the most egregious and persistent forms of exclusion.  He argues:

. . . a competitive grant program is too weak to overcome the entrenched interests — like the homeowners who control local zoning boards and the wealthy residents of cooperatives who oppose all neighborhood change — that limit building in productive places.  If the president wants to break the country out of its zoning straitjacket, the infrastructure plan should ensure that no benefits go to states that fail to make verifiable progress enabling housing construction in their high-wage, high-opportunity areas.
As we’ve pointed out, there’s a kind of prisoner’s dilemma dynamic to local exclusion:  individual suburbs and neighborhoods have strong incentives to not collaborate and have the burdens shifted to other places.  The trouble with a program of limited incentives is it is just those communities that most value their exclusive nature, and least need federal funds (i.e. the wealthiest places) are the one’s who will be list motivated to change by this kind of “small carrot” policy.

2.  Community Benefits Agreement in Sacramento.  Big new investments in distressed urban neighborhoods often raise concerns about displacement, and one of the ways to assure that the benefits of new investment are widely shared is a community benefits agreement.  Darrene Hackler lays out the process and details that produced a community benefits agreement for Sacramento’s proposed Innovation District. The University of California Davis is partnering to build a $1 billion research and development center, and the city and developers have agreed to a $50 million fund to provide a range of benefits including affordable housing in the area.  Hackler’s report, published at Smart Incentives, also includes an analysis of community benefit agreements in other cities.

3.  What good is transit if people can’t live nearby?  Sightline’s Michael Andersen reports on legislation pending before the Oregon Legislature to automatically legalize higher density housing near transit service. As Anderson explains,

On land zoned for housing within one-eighth of a mile of a high-capacity transit station, the bill would strike down local bans on buildings that create up to 45 homes per net acre. In other words, it would legalize three-story attached housing within about three blocks of stations.  . . . there’s [also] a provision for greater flexibility: jurisdictions can also opt to keep lower density at some stops and legalize five to six story buildings at other stops, if they prefer, as long as they achieve the same overall density within the 1/8-mile station areas.

It is, as Andersen argues, a modest ask.  But nonetheless, it’s drawn the opposition of NIMBY’s, and surprisingly, some transit agencies.  The NIMBY opposition is predictable.  Transit agencies fear that if transit service (like frequent buses or new light rail stops) brings with it a guarantee of higher allowable densities, it will be harder for them to expand service. As Andersen points out, however, does it make any sense to spend scarce transit resources improving service to an area that doesn’t have the kind of densities needed to make transit work?

4.  How to repair the damage done by urban freeways.  Usually our Week Observed must read feature highlights insightful views that have already been published, but this week, we’re alerting you to an upcoming event that’s something you might want to attend.

Sponsored by the Third Way and Transportation for America, the webinar is on April 20.  Registration is free.

New Knowledge

Subsidizing single family houses aggravated climate change.  A recent study published in Environmental Science and Technology considers how our national policy of subsidizing single family housing has led to an increase in the nation’s carbon emissions.  A series of federal (and local) policies have tilted the housing market toward single family homes:  the construction of the interstate highway system, subsidies to homeownership, redlining of many urban neighborhoods, and local zoning that greatly restricts multifamily development.  The authors of this paper construct a counterfactual estimate of what US residential greenhouse gas emissions would be if these policies had been more neutral between single- and multi-family housing.

The following chart summarizes their analysis of a series of counterfactual estimates of US residential energy demand based on varying mixes of housing types and sizes.  The two left hand columns show the mix of housing units (actual and counterfactual); the net effect is changing about 14 million houses built between 1970 and 2015 from single family to multifamily, about a 14 percent shift in the share of multi-family homes in the housing stock in 2015. The five right hand columns show the total residential energy consumption associated with a series of alternatives where housing sizes vary.  The greatest reductions in energy use are associated with a switch to 30 percent or 50 percent smaller units.  Just moving the average household to this mix of multi-and single family, without changing housing unit size (CF 2), reduces per household residential energy consumption more than one-fourth from the levels actually recorded.


Shifting to more multi-family housing would lower energy consumption, decrease household energy bills and lower greenhouse gas emissions.  As the authors conclude:

Federal housing policy changes have encouraged construction of single-family housing and suppressed multifamily housing, increasing residential energy demand and GHG emissions. Increasing the multifamily share of housing can be expected to produce energy large savings, even with no change of household income or floor area. Policies that suppress demand and restrict supply of multifamily housing thereby directly obstruct a large potential for residential GHG emission reductions. Housing policy can support climate policy by removing barriers and disincentives to multifamily housing.

Finally, if anything, its likely that these estimates understate the energy savings and greenhouse gas reductions from increase multi-family housing.  Multi-family housing has, by definition, higher density, and higher density tends to be associated with lower car ownership and fewer vehicle miles traveled per person, so it is likely that there would be savings in transportation related energy and pollution as well, factors not estimated in this paper.

Peter Berrill, Kenneth T. Gillingham & Edgar G. Hertwich, “Linking Housing Policy, Housing Typology, and Residential Energy Demand in the United States,” Environ. Sci. Technol. 2021, 55, 4, 2224–2233.  Publication Date:January 28, 2021.

In the News

Bike Portland featured Joe Cortright’s remarks at the No More Freeways rally at Harriet Tubman Middle School.


The Week Observed, April 30, 2021

What City Observatory this week

1. Restorative justice without funding is a sham.  Portland’s Albina neighborhood was decimated by the construction of three Oregon Department of Transportation highway projects in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, causing the neighborhood’s population to drop by more than 60 percent.  Part of the marketing pitch for the current effort to spend $800 million to widen the Interstate 5 freeway through the neighborhood is claims that it will contribute to “restorative justice.”  That’s a dubious claim to be sure.  Work prepared by project consultants shows that the proposed freeway covers are too small and too swamped by traffic to be of any value.  These consultants have developed some other development alternatives which show what a more restorative approach would look like.  Unsurprisingly, they hinge on building lots of housing to replace that demolished by the freeway.  On this diagram, the yellow buildings are imagined new housing.

And “imagined” is really the correct description, because nothing in the I-5 freeway widening project actually includes funding for this housing.  Just building the five yellow boxes on this chart would cost between $160 million and $260 million.  That’s a noble goal, but without funding, its meaningless.  True restorative justice has to be more than colorful illustrations showing imaginary buildings; it has to be a tangible commitment of real resources.

2. Pricing would fix traffic congestion in Portland’s Rose Quarter without widening the freeway.  The I-5 Rose Quarter project would spend $800 million to widen the freeway to as many as ten lanes.  But according to ODOT’s own consultants you could achieve all of the congestion reduction benefits of ODOT’s proposed widening without spending a dime on construction.  The 2017 Oregon Legislature directed ODOT to implement congestion pricing on Portland area freeways.

3. Why “new towns” aren’t the way for Cascadia to promote sustainability. We’re pleased to publish a guest commentary from Ethan Seltzer taking a close look at a proposal to direct the Pacific Northwest’s future population growth into a series of satellite cities 40 to 100 miles from the established population centers of Vancouver, Seattle and Portland.  This “new cities” proposal for regional growth comes from a tech group called the “Cascadia Innovation Corridor.”

As Seltzer points out, the idea of shifting growth out of established cities is a reprise of a historical theme from a century ago.  The idea that one can minimize or avoid the perceived problems of existing cities by building new ones hasn’t panned out in practice.

Must read

1. Let’s not give the streets back to cars.  Janette Sadik-Kahn and Seth Solomonow, co-authors of Streetfight, have an Atlantic article arguing that cities ought to capitalize on, rather than retreat from the reclamation of street space that occurred during the pandemic.  Across the country, cities have taken space that was used for car storage or movement, and re-dedicated in cycling, walking, dining and other, more human-scaled uses.

To serve their residents well, U.S. cities can’t just return to the pre-pandemic norm. They need to come back more resilient, more sustainable, more economically connected, and more equitable. Reclaiming city streets from the domination of cars is never easy, but it will never be easier than it is right now.

While cities used the pandemic to re-think many long held assumptions about how to design urban spaces, there’s powerful auto-centric inertia coded into the legal and regulatory framework.  For example, the federal governments manual for street design makes it hard for cities to enable more active uses of local streets.

2. Has the hot housing market convinced people we need to increase supply?  Writing at Slate, Henry Grabar recites tales of the frothiness of the current housing market, with prospective homebuyers in many cities being repeatedly out-bid as housing prices spike.  The palpable frustration with short supplies and rising prices, Grabar speculates, may finally convince people that we need housing policies that increase housing supply. The housing policy debate has been characterized by denial and urban myths (that vacant condos owned by speculators are the cause of the shortage).  Grabar hopes that those who are getting outbid for housing will be radicalized and active:

But for every winner there will be many losers, and maybe the process can radicalize these would-be buyers, and their friends, and their parents, and the people they talk to. There really aren’t enough places to live. Those people can channel their frustration with bidding wars into political activism aimed at housing suppressants like parking requirements, restrictive zoning, and density limits. If appeals to neither historical wrongs nor economic growth get the job done, a strong dose of self-interest can’t hurt.


New Knowledge

How SUVs made our climate problems much worse.  In the past two decades, Americans have bought fewer and fewer cars. The bad news, of course, is that we’re buying and driving far more trucks and sport utility vehicles (SUVs).  Our energy and air quality policies have been counting on a “technical fix” to cars, in the form of fuel economy standards, with the idea that progressively more efficient vehicles would reduce energy consumption, pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

But there’s been a kind of “rebound” effect, where rather than continuing to buy the same mix of vehicles, consumers have been buying larger, heavier and less fuel efficient trucks and SUVs.

The problem with SUVs is not just their fuel economy, however. They stay in the vehicle fleet longer, with 32.4% of them still on the road after 20 years, compared to just 15.7% for cars (US EPA, NHTSA, and California Air Resources Board, 2016). Kovach 8 Drivers also use them more; average lifetime VMT is 18.3% higher for SUVs (US Department of Transportation, 2006).

The net effect of the additional truck and SUV purchases has been to increase fuel consumption and greenhouse gases, compared to a world where the the passenger car market share state stable.  The report estimates that the shift to SUVs and  light trucks will produce 867-3,519 million short tons of greenhouse gases across their lifetimes, compared to alternative scenarios. Collectively, this emissions increase is enough to  enough to offset 19-75% of the projected savings from the model year 2011-2025 CAFE standards

Tim Kovach, The rise of SUVs in the US and its impact on greenhouse gas emissions from 2000-2017April 2021.  DOI:10.13140/RG.2.2.10190.5920

The Week Observed, April 23, 2021

What City Observatory this week

1. Fighting climate change is inherently equitable. While there’s a growing recognition of the existential threat posed by climate change, it’s becoming increasingly frequent to pit equity concerns against decisive action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  It shouldn’t and doesn’t have to be this way.  Climate change disproportionately affects those with the fewest resources and least power, and consequently reducing climate change is itself  intrinsically equitable. But measures to reduce greenhouse gases will require some big changes, and those with the least resources and power will also be the least well equipped to adapt to change, which should not be an argument for not reducing greenhouse gases, but instead should be an argument for mitigating the negative effects of change.  As a practical matter, that’s exactly the approach we’ve taken in dealing with Covid-19; we insisted on social distancing (policies that disproportionately affected the poor and front line workers), but then also put literally trillions of dollars into direct payments to individuals, loans to businesses, and expanded unemployment insurance, to mitigate the difficulty of coping with that change.  That approach, of simultaneously, but separately taking aggressive action and also buffering those who bear the brunt of change should guide our climate policy.

2. Portland’s freight follies.  It’s a shopworn myth that the success of urban economies depends on freight movement.  To be sure, if there were no roads, it would be hard to operate a modern economy, but the argument is made that somehow more roads (and hopefully less traffic congestion) will somehow generate economic growth.  Highway advocates maintain that failure to build more roads to accomodate an ever-increasing number of trucks will cause economic growth to slow, halt or reverse.  Portland’s experience over the past two decades shows that’s simply untrue.

Truck volumes across the two interstate bridges over the Columbia River has declined almost 20 percent since 2006, even as the economy has grown by a more than 30 percent.  In a very real sense, economic activity and prosperity aren’t determined by how much freight we move or how fast.

Must read

1. An induced demand calculator for Colorado.  The Rocky Mountain Institute and NRDC released an induced travel calculator showing that each additional lane mile of highway built in the state result in 2 to 8 million additional miles of vehicle travel and lead to burning an addition 200,000 gallons of gasoline, with attendant air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.  The calculator is based on the latest scientific research on induced demand, and follows a template developed by Susan Handy and Jamey Volker at the University of California, Davis.

As Handy and Volker’s research has shown, the standard travel models used by state highway departments to justify new capacity consistently underestimate the additional travel and pollution caused by such projects. A customized calculator, calibrated to local road and driving data is a valuable tool for freeway fighters to challenge expansion projects.

2. The decline of the corner store.  For decades, the decline of the independent, local retail store has been a lament in small towns and big cities.  The Covid-19 pandemic has been another blow to small retailers.  Governing‘s Alan Ehrenhalt reminds us of many of the key virtues of these small, locally owned mainstreet stores.  Harking back to Jane Jacobs, small shops provide the interesting walkable destinations that enliven cities and put the “eyes on the street” that add to a sense of security.  It also turns out that many of the “third places” that enliven urban living are commercial establishments of one sort or another (restaurants, coffee shops, bookstores, and the like) and their decline undercuts urban livability. The decline of retail has many causes, but one of them is that Americans, particularly the middle class, have shifted their shopping to national chains, big boxes and on-line retail. In turn, much of the decline has fallen on the middle-class entrepreneurs that started and ran those businesses.  As Ehrenhalt explores, there aren’t any easy answers to reversing these trends.

3. Chuck Marohn on Infrastructure.  Writing at Strong Towns, Chuck Marohn contributes some important insight to the national debate about infrastructure.  Too much focus has been put on net infrastructure investment, Marohn argues.  Like other capital assets, infrastructure depreciates over time, and our net investment in infrastructure is the difference between new spending, and the deterioration of existing infrastructure.  If our net is too low, it may not be because we’re not build enough new infrastructure, but rather because the old, over-built infrastructure we have is depreciating so fast.  On the sprawling suburban fringe, it’s often the case that we’ve built more infrastructure than we can afford to maintain.  Building even more infrastructure doesn’t solve that problem, but actually makes it worse, by increasing the maintenance deficit and depreciation burden. Marohn explains:

The problem we’re struggling with today is not how little we’re spending, it is how much we built and now have to maintain, and how little we got for those investments. We’re meant to read these shortcomings [the backlog of deferred maintenance] as a consequence of disinvestment. They’re not. They are a consequence of overinvestment, of decades of unproductive infrastructure spending accumulating to crowd out good investments today. It’s true that you don’t have to pay for road maintenance if you don’t build the road, but once you build the road, you are committed. Forever.

Before we go throwing a lot more money at our broken infrastructure system, we should ask why its broken, and figure out how we right size infrastructure so that it isn’t a financial black hole.

New Knowledge

The divergent paths of urban and rural America. Bob Cushing, a frequent contributor to Daily Yonder, has a comprehensive new analysis of the diverging patterns of population growth in the nation’s counties. Cushing uses a rubric for classifying counties by population size and density, a topic we’ve explored in depth at City Observatory.

There’s much to this analysis, and it merits a close look.  We’ll highlight one particularly striking finding:  the very different trajectories of the most urban and most rural parts of the nation.  Cushing uses counties to trace out urban/rural differences, and this chart compares the most urban counties (the central county of each of the 50 largest US metro areas, with the most rural places (counties that aren’t adjacent to any metro area, even small ones).  Back in the 1970s, these very rural areas were, collectively growing almost as much as urban centers.  Since then, and especially in the past decade, it’s mostly been accelerating decline in these very rural areas (red), and strong growth in very urban ones (blue).

There are other interesting findings.  More than a third of US counties lost population over the past 50 years, with most of the declining places being rural.  It’s also important to keep in mind that in every size or urbanness category, there are both gainers and losers.  Suburban counties in the largest metro areas have been the largest net gainers over the past half century; While in the aggregate rural areas have gained population, but the pattern of change is much more mixed than for other categories.  Collectively, rural counties adjacent to metropolitan areas have fared better than more remote rural counties.

Robert Cushing, “Population Gains and Losses Create Two Americas, and the Difference Is Mostly along Rural-Urban Lines,” Daily Yonder, April 15, 2021.

In the News

Nick Kristof’s column “Lessons for America from a Weird Portland,” offering a generally upbeat outlook for Portland’s future in The New York Times cites City Observatory’s analysis of the decline in new apartment construction due to the city’s inclusionary zoning ordinance.



ODOT consultant: Pricing is a better fix for the Rose Quarter

Oregon DOT’s own consultants say congestion pricing would be a better way to fix congestion at the I-5 Rose Quarter than spending $800 million.

Pricing would improve traffic flow and add capacity equal to another full lane of traffic, according to WSP who called it “our best alternative” for dealing with the Rose Quarter

Failing to advance pricing as an alternative in the environmental review violates the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Governor’s direction.  The City of Portland also made its willingness to go along with this project conditional, based on ODOT implementing pricing prior to constructing this project.

Nearly two years ago, City Observatory pointed out that congestion pricing would be a far more economical and effective way to fix congestion on I-5 that spending half a billion dollars widening the freeway at the Rose Quarter. Since then, the project’s price tag has ballooned to nearly $800 million.

But more importantly:  The Oregon Department of Transportation’s own consultants have explicitly testified that congestion pricing would be a better, cheaper way to fix congestion than this expensive project.  They hired WSP—a global traffic engineering firm—to study a range of pricing alternatives for area freeways, including Interstate 5.  While the scope of the project was much broader (details below), WSP’s Chris Swenson testified that pricing would be especially effective and economical at the Rose Quarter.  On February 28, 2018  he told Portland Value Pricing Policy Advisory Committee Meeting, that congestion pricing would eliminate “flow breakdowns” and produce just as much traffic relief as building an additional travel lane.

In the Rose Quarter particularly, the cost of new lanes new capacity is significant. You’ve got a lot of things on structure there, which makes it very expensive. I know that there is a Rose Quarter project. That isn’t online, and it is in the model. However, I think that our best alternative, because of the cost of new lanes–it’s not saying no new lanes ever it’s not saying you can’t do it—it’s just given what we were told, this is what you need to analyze. Your best option is to get traffic running much better in every lane in each lane, and right now with the flow breakdowns that you’ve got during the peak periods, that’s not happening. So if we could get a 50% improvement in those two lanes—And that’s very doable—then you’re effectively adding a new lane of capacity on a two lane section, and it would operate as if it were three lanes versus what it’s operating today.


ODOT consultant Swenson: To deal with Rose Quarter congestion, pricing would be “our best alternative” . . . “effectively adding a new lane of capacity”

So rather than squandering the better part of a billion dollars, the state could achieve the same objective, faster, more effectively and far more cheaply by implementing congestion pricing.

Tragically, the project’s environmental assessment didn’t consider that as a possible alternative. But look high and low in the Environmental Assessment and its Traffic Technical Report and you’ll find not a single mention of pricing. In our view, that’s a plain violation of the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires a consideration of a full range of reasonable alternatives.  In fact, ODOT and the Federal Highway Administration specifically excluded an analysis of congestion pricing, claiming that there was no need to do so because the congestion pricing wasn’t identified as a project in the Regional Transportation Plan.  ODOT also ignored a specific direction from Oregon Governor Kate Brown to analyze congestion pricing as part of its environmental review of the project.

Congestion pricing is a better solution for Portland traffic

Now in some places, you might be able to argue that congestion pricing is far-fetched or politically infeasible.  In Oregon, as it turns out, its neither:  In fact, it’s already been adopted as law.  Two years ago, Oregon’s Legislature adopted HB 2017, which directed the state Department of Transportation to begin work to implement congestion pricing on Interstate 5 and Interstate 205 in the Portland metropolitan area.  In addition, the City of Portland made its planning approval of the Rose Quarter project conditional on ODOT implementing congestion pricing on I-5. The city’s adopted Central City Plan specifically calls for congestion pricing to be implemented in conjunction with the Rose Quarter project:

ODOT, in partnership with PBOT will implement congestion pricing and TDM options to mitigate for climate impacts as soon as feasible and prior to the opening of the project.
(Central City Plan, page 139)

In addition, in December 2017, Portland’s City Council voted unanimously to endorse congestion pricing as part of the city’s future transportation planning. Last year, the state transportation department published a preliminary analysis of several pricing alternatives.  Among the proposals is one, called “Concept 2” which would extend pricing to all lanes of these two major freeways.

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

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

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

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

Bottom line:  congestion pricing works better for freeway users, freight mobility, and transit riders; in keeps unpriced traffic from causing hyper-congestion and effectively and is vastly cheaper than building new lanes and bridges.  It is also likely to result in minimal, if any diversion to local streets.

Omitting pricing as an alternative in the Environmental Assessment violates the National Environmental Policy Act

This is clearly a viable alternative to widening the freeway at the Rose Quarter.  Viable is actually a significant understatement:  pricing isn’t simply a viable alternative, it’s arguably, on its face, a superior alternative).  But that’s beside the point.  From a legal standpoint, not seriously evaluating road pricing as an alternative to expensive, environmentally damaging road widening is violates NEPA’s requirement for a robust analysis of alternatives.

The substantive requirements for alternative analysis are spelled out in 40 CFR1502.  As explained by the Federal Highway Administration,

The Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) refers to the alternatives analysis section as the “heart of the EIS,” and requires agencies to:

1. Rigorously explore and objectively evaluate all reasonable alternatives and for alternatives which were eliminated from detailed study, briefly discuss the reasons for their having been eliminated.

2. Devote substantial treatment to each alternative considered in detail including the proposed action so that reviewers may evaluate their comparative merits.

The FHWA guidance requires that the agency clearly state the rationale for not advancing reasonable alternatives:

Alternatives analysis should clearly indicate why and how the particular range of project alternatives was developed, including what kind of public and agency input was used. In addition, alternatives analysis should explain why and how alternatives were eliminated from consideration. It must be made clear what criteria were used to eliminate alternatives, at what point in the process the alternatives were removed, who was involved in establishing the criteria for assessing alternatives, and the measures for assessing the alternatives’ effectiveness.

Nothing in the EA describes the criteria used to select or eliminate alternatives, nor is any analysis offered for the the failure to advance pricing as an alternative in its own right.  It’s simply arbitrary and capricious of the Oregon Department of TRansportation and the Federal Highway Administration to produce an Environmental Assessment which takes no notice of efforts they are both currently undertaking to implement road pricing on this very roadway.

Moreover, while NEPA requires that congestion pricing be evaluated separately as an alternative, it is also the case that road pricing ought to be incorporated in the analysis as part of the No-Build alternative.  The implementation of road pricing in the next decade or so is, in NEPA terms, a reasonably foreseeable event.  Just as the Environmental Analysis has incorporated its expectations about the growing electrification and increased fuel efficiency of future vehicles in its forecasts of emissions (due to the future implementation of fuel economy regulations), it should likewise include the analysis of congestion pricing, which is also a reasonably foreseeable part of the regulatory environment in the next decade or so.

Pricing first, building (if at all) later is the smarter choice

It’s likely that implementing road pricing would obviate entirely the need for capital construction at the Rose Quarter.  But even if it didn’t, it is far more prudent from both a fiscal and environmental standpoint to implement congestion pricing first, to determine which, if any, “improvements” are needed at the Rose Quarter to reduce congestion and improve safety. The “build first-price later” strategy is a recipe for squandering scarce public resources on roads that people don’t value and won’t use.  As we chronicled at City Observatory, Louisville spent a billion dollars adding capacity to its I-65 bridge over the Ohio River, only to discover that traffic volumes fell by almost half when they started charging a modest toll to bridge users.  It’s financially, as well as ecologically prudent to toll first, and then invest in capacity, when, were and as needed, only later.

Editor’s Note:  A hat tip to Portland transportation advocate Doug Allen for pointing us to Mr. Swenson’s testimony.  This post has been revised to provide an updated link to the consultant’s report.


The Cappuccino Congestion Index

The Cappuccino Congestion Index shows how you can show how anything costs Americans billions and billions

We’re continuing told that congestion is a grievous threat to urban well-being. It’s annoying to queue up for anything, but traffic congestion has spawned a cottage industry of ginning up reports that transform our annoyance with waiting in lines into an imagined economic calamity. Using the same logic and methodology that underpins these traffic studies, its possible to demonstrate another insidious threat to the nation’s economic productivity: costly and growing coffee congestion.


Yes, there’s another black fluid that’s even more important than oil to the functioning of the U.S. economy: coffee. Because an estimated 100 million of us American workers can’t begin a productive work day without an early morning jolt of caffeine, and because one-third of these coffee drinkers regularly consume espresso drinks, lattes and cappuccinos, there is significant and growing congestion in coffee lines around the country. That’s costing us a lot of money. Consider these facts:

  • Delays waiting in line at the coffee shop for your daily latte, cappuccino or mocha cost U.S. consumers $4 billion every year in lost time;
  • The typical coffee drinker loses more time waiting in line at Starbucks than in traffic congestion;
  • Delays in getting your coffee are likely to increase because our coffee delivery infrastructure isn’t increasing as fast as coffee consumption.

Access to caffeine is provided by the nation’s growing corps of baristas and coffee bars. The largest of these, Starbucks, operates some 12,000 locations in the U.S. alone. Any delay in getting this vital beverage is going to impact a worker’s start time–and perhaps their day’s productivity. It’s true that sometimes, you can walk right up and get the triple espresso you need. Other times, however, you have to wait behind a phalanx ordering double, no-whip mochas with a pump of three different syrups, or an orange-mocha frappuccino. These delays in the coffee line are costly.

To figure out exactly how costly, we’ve applied the “travel time index” created by the Texas Transportation Institute to measure the economic impact of this delay on American coffee drinkers. For more than three decades TTI has used this index to calculate the dollar cost of traffic delays–here we use the same technique to figure the value of “coffee delays.”

The travel time index is the difference in time required for a rush hour commute compared to the same trip in non-congested conditions. According to Inrix, the travel tracking firm, the travel time index for the United States in July 2014  was 7.6, meaning that a commute trip that took 20 minutes in off-peak times would take an additional 91 seconds at the peak hour.

We constructed data on the relationship between customer volume and average service times for a series of Portland area coffee shops.  We used the 95th percentile time of 15 seconds as our estimate of “free flow” ordering conditions—how long it takes to enter the shop and place an order.  In our data-gathering, as the shop became more crowded, customers had to queue up. The time to place orders rose from an average of 30 to 40 seconds, to two to three minutes in “congested” conditions. The following chart shows our estimate of the relationship between customer volume and average wait times.


Following the TTI methodology, we treat any additional time that customers have to spend waiting to place their order beyond what would be required in free flow times (i.e. more than 15 seconds) as delay attributable to coffee congestion.

Based on our observations and of typical coffee shops and other data, we were able to estimate the approximate flow of customers over the course of a day. We regard a typical coffee shop as one that has about 650 transactions daily. While most transactions are for a single consumer, some are for two or more consumers, so we use a consumer per transaction factor of 1.2. This means the typical coffee shop provides beverages (and other items) for about 750 consumers. We estimate the distribution of customers per hour over the course of the day based on overall patterns of hourly traffic, with the busiest times in the morning, and volume tapering off in the afternoon.

We then apply our speed/volume relationship (chart above) to our estimates of hourly volume to estimate the amount of delay experienced by customers in each hour.  When you scale these estimates up to reflect the millions of Americans waiting in line for their needed caffeine each day, the total value of time lost to cappuccino congestion costs consumers more than $4 billion annually. (Math below).


This is—of course—our regular April First commentary, and savvy readers will recognize it is tongue in cheek, but only partly so.  (The data are real, by the way!) The real April Fools Joke here is the application of this same tortured thinking to a description and a diagnosis of the nation’s traffic problems.

The Texas Transportation Institute’s  best estimate is that travel delays cost the average American between one and two minutes on their typical commute trip. While its possible–as we’ve done here–to apply a wage rate to that time and multiply by the total number of Americans to get an impressively large total, its not clear that the few odd minutes here and there have real value. This is why for years, we and others have debunked the TTI report. (The clumping of reported average commute times in the American Community Survey around values ending in “0” and “5” shows Americans don’t have that precise a sense of their average travel time anyhow.)

The “billions and billions” argument used by TTI to describe the cost of traffic congestion is a rhetorical device to generate alarm. The trouble is, when applied to transportation planning it leads to some misleading conclusions. Advocates argue regularly that the “costs of congestion” justify spending added billions in scarce public resources on expanding highways, supposedly to reduce time lost to congestion. There’s just no evidence this works–induced demand from new capacity causes traffic to expand and travel times to continue to lag:  Los Angeles just spent a whopping billion dollars to widen Interstate 405, with no measurable impact on congestion or traffic delays.

No one would expect to Starbucks to build enough locations—and hire enough baristas—so that everyone could enjoy the 15 second order times that you can experience when there’s a lull. Consumers are smart enough to understand that if you want a coffee the same time as everyone else, you’re probably going to have to queue up for a few minutes.

But strangely, when it comes to highways, we don’t recognize the trivially small scale of the expected time savings (a minute or two per person) and we don’t consider a kind of careful cost-benefit analysis that would tell us that very few transportation projects actually generate the kinds of sustained travel time savings that would make them economically worthwhile.

Ponder that as you wait in line for your cappuccino.  We’ll be just ahead of you ordering a double-espresso macchiato (and holding a stopwatch).

Want to know more?

Here’s the math:  We estimate that a peak times (around 10am) the typical Starbucks makes about 100 transactions, representing about 120 customers.  The average wait time is about two and one-half minutes–of which about two minutes and 15 second represents delay, compared to free flow conditions.  We make a similar computation for each hour of the day (customers are fewer and delays shorter at other hours).  Collectively customers at an typical store experience about 21 person hours of delay per day (that’s an average of a little over 90 seconds per customer).  We monetize the value of this delay at $15 per hour, and multiply it by 365 days and 12,000 Starbucks stores.  Since Starbucks represents about 35 percent of all coffee shops in the US, we scale this up to get a total value of time lost to coffee service delays of slightly more than $4 billion.