Selling Oregon into highway bondage

Borrowing billions to widen roads endangers the climate and finances

It’s doubly wrong to burden future generations with the environmental costs of wider roads, and then also send them the bill

Bond financing of new capacity puts expansion ahead of repair and endangers the financial soundness of the transportation system

Oregon Governor Kate Brown has just signed legislation that passed the Oregon Legislature,  HB 3055, which authorizes the Oregon Department of Transportation to issue revenue bonds to finance potentially billions of dollars of highway widening projects in the Portland metropolitan area.

The Oregon DOT plan: Borrow billions to build more roads to make environmental catastrophe even worse.

Oregon DOT is planning to widen freeways in Portland, including the Rose Quarter I-5 project, which we’ve now proven is designed to be wide enough to accomodate ten lanes.  It’s excessive width is the reason this project costs $800 million, and will cost even more if promised covers are constructed.  The department is working on a multi-billion dollar list of other freeway expansion projections, including a revived Columbia River Crossing, a widening I-205, a new Boone Bridge and widening Highway 217.  As we know from the fundamental law of road congestion, each additional lane mile of urban highways has the effect of generating more travel, more traffic and more pollution; these projects will certainly and measurably increase greenhouse gas emissions.

HB 3055 allows ODOT to adopt a “borrow, spend and build, then only later toll” approach to construction which is guaranteed to produce oversized facilities, that require increased traffic to avoid being a financial burden.  ODOT’s own consultants on tolling have said that modest tolls could avoid the need to build any additional capacity on key Portland freeways, including the Rose Quarter.

ODOT  is planning to embark upon a speculative financing scheme authorized by HB 3055 to issue potentially billions of dollars of bonds to widen highways throughout the Portland area.  In theory, the bonds would be repaid by tolls, but ODOT has exactly zero experience in forecasting toll revenues. Forecasting toll revenue is a notoriously difficult business, and many toll roads and bridges have been forced into bankruptcy or bailouts because toll revenues didn’t match over-optimistic projections.

That’s a problem, because HB 3055 allows ODOT to pledge, without limitation, all of its future revenues from state taxes and federal grants, to the repayment of bonds issued to pay the cost of toll funded highway expansion projects. If toll revenues are insufficient, ODOT would be required to take money from every other available source, including state and federal funds for road maintenance around the state, and use it to satisfy bond obligations.

Coupled with the fact that its major projects of the past two decades have all ended up costing double or more what they were projected, bond financing freeway widening exposes the state to financial risk.  And when toll revenues aren’t enough to cover construction costs, ODOT is pledging every dollar available to it to bondholders, putting them in line ahead of every other project in the state, including maintaining our existing roads.

What’s worse:  this Faustian bond bargain commits Oregon to filling newly widened roads with traffic in order to generate the money to pay bond holders.  Borrowing creates the perverse financial incentive to maintain and increase traffic (and attendant climate pollution) in order to be able to pay off bonds and is directly contrary to the state’s adopted legal goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This approach is doubly evil:  it widens roads and generates traffic that will make climate change worse, and sticks future generations with the bill for paying for these roads, whether they’re used or not.

This plan to bond for huge highway expansions in the Portland area takes the state in exactly the wrong direction, in contradiction to our stated values:   it would worsen our state’s carbon footprint, make us financially beholden to financial markets to generate traffic to repay bonds, and send the bill for this destructive and unneeded capacity to future generations of Oregonians, while undercutting the financial stability of the state transportation system.

Welcome to Portland Secretary Pete! Now about the Rose Quarter Freeway

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is visiting Oregon to learn more about local transportation issues. The local advocacy group No More Freeways has sent him an open letter to provide some background for his visit.

Here’s what Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg needs to know about Oregon DOT’s proposed $800 million neighborhood-wrecking, climate-destroying I-5 Rose Quarter Freeway widening project.

Under Buttigieg’s leadership, USDOT has set a new direction for US transportation policy.  He’s explicitly acknowledged the role that federally directed and supported freeway building played in destroying urban neighborhoods, especially neighborhoods of color.  And he’s called for measures to explicitly offset the damage done and restore those places.  The new administration is taking a decidedly different direction, telling TXDOT to call a timeout on its plans to widen I-45 through Houston, over concerns about civil rights.

This letter from No More Freeways tells how Portland’s freeway fight intersects with the key agenda items of the Biden Administration:  promoting equity and taking climate change seriously.


Burn, baby, burn: ODOT’s climate strategy

The Oregon Department of Transportation is in complete denial about climate change

Oregon DOT has drafted a so-called “Climate Action Plan” that is merely perfunctory and performative busywork.

The devastation of climate change is now blindingly manifest.  Last month, temperatures in Oregon’s capital Salem, hit 117 degrees.  The state is locked in drought, and already facing more wildfires, on top of last year’s devastating fire season.  Cities across the nation are swathed in the smoke from Western wildfires—largest among them Oregon’s Bootleg fire—and are daily witnessing orange-tinged sunsets.

Earth Observatory, July 2021.

All this is plainly due to climate change, and in Oregon, transportation is the leading source of greenhouse gases.

If there were every a time to change direction on climate, this would be it.  But plainly, the Oregon Department of Transportation is locked on cruise control, moving ahead with plans inspired by the dreams of the 1950s rather than the increasingly grim reality of the the 2050s.

ODOT’s climate denialism

While the Oregon Department of Transportation mouths the words of climate awareness, the substance of its plans make it clear that it is engaged in cynical climate denialism.  Its State Transportation Strategy (STS)—which claims to address state greenhouse gas reduction goals, never acknowledges that Oregon is failing to reduce greenhouse gases as mandated by law because of increased driving.

In Oregon, transportation, and specifically driving, is the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions, contributing 40 percent of statewide greenhouse gases.  And while we’ve made some progress cleaning electricity generation and reducing industrial emissions, transportation greenhouse gases are increasing, up 1,000 pounds per person annually in the Portland metropolitan area over just the last five years

To date, Oregon’s and ODOT’s plans to reduce transportation greenhouse gases have amounted to less than nothing.  According to DEQ statistics, driving related greenhouse gases are were 25 percent above 1990 levels in 2018.  Given the state’s objective of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 10 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 (and 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050), we’re headed in exactly the wrong direction.

In the face of this epic failure to make progress, and in the wake of the most extreme weather ever recorded, ODOT is proposing to actually make the problem worse by spending billions widened Portland area freeways, and going deeply into debt to do so, as we discussed earlier.

As the Oregon Environmental Council and 20 other local environmental organizations wrote to the Oregon Transportation Commission:

Transportation-related emissions make up nearly 40% of Oregon’s total greenhouse gas emissions and continue to steadily increase. The investments that ODOT has made to address climate, while valuable, are profoundly insufficient given the scale and urgency with which we must reduce emissions to avert the worst of the grim and chaotic future we are already experiencing.

ODOT’s “climate action plan”:  Cynical, meaningless and wrong

In theory, the Oregon Department of Transportation is going to combat climate change through  is a five-year climate action plan, which is supposed to represent the agency’s response to a call from Governor Brown to take climate more seriously.  It’s a sketchy and vague grab-bag of piecemeal and largely performative actions, packaged along with some deceptive claims about transportation’s contribution to climate change.  And its policies make it clear that the agency is principally concerned with continuing to build more roads, and get ever larger budgets.

A fig leaf for business as usual

Appropriately, the plan’s signature  graphic element is a single leaf—a fig-leaf as it were— superimposed over an outline of the map of Oregon. Never has an info-graphic been more appropriate:  this document is fig-leaf covering what would be, upon any closer inspection, an obscene document.


ODOT’s climate plan has no measurable goals and no accountability

ODOT is a staffed by engineers, so you might think they’d have some actual quantitative measures of the problem they face, and the impact of the steps they’re proposing.  his a remarkable plan which contains no statement of the problem in terms of quantities of greenhouse gases emitted, no goal for their reduction (to 25 percent of 1990 levels by 2050, as mandated by law), and no evidence that individually or collectively the measures described in the plan will have any quantitative effect on greenhouse gas emissions whatsoever.  It’s merely a perfunctory checklist of actions, which once taken, will absolve ODOT of any further responsibility to worry about climate issues.  There’s simply no accountability for any reduction in greenhouse gases.

The lack of accountability is apparent in the framing of the document; there’s no acknowledgement that transportation greenhouse gas emissions have gotten worse since the development of ODOT’s first climate fig-leaf, it’s “Sustainable  Transportation Strategy” eight years ago.

Reducing GHG’s isn’t a priority:  Getting more money for ODOT is

Climate may be in the title, but the substance of the plan is really about ODOT’s 1950s era highway-building values.  It’s clear from the get-go that this strategy actually isn’t interested in reducing greenhouse gases.  The document states clearly it has three main priorities (pages 7-8):  promoting equity, building the transportation system, and assuring ODOT has enough money.  Reducing greenhouse gases didn’t even make the list.

It’s worth noting that with equity, as with climate, there are no measurable objectives.  It’s just lip service from an agency that has repeatedly pushed city destroying highways through minority neighborhoods, and which plans to atone for this damage by making the highways even wider.

Pricing is a source of revenue, not a means to manage demand or reduce climate pollution

Potentially, pricing could have a major impact on greenhouse gas emissions.  Fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions actually did decrease through 2014 when gas prices were high. But ODOT has no plans to using pricing to achieve climate objectives. The plan mentions pricing, but only to pay for more roads; there’s no commitment to use pricing to reduce greenhouse gases, vehicle miles of travel or traffic congestion.  The only stated policy concern is generating enough revenue to fund ODOT construction projects,

“Pricing:  Price the transportation system appropriately to recover the full costs to maintain and operate the system.”

The plan contains no provisions to reflect price of environmental damage back to system users—ODOT wants to get paid to build more roads, but resists having it or highway users pay for the damage their emissions cause.  As we’ve noted, ODOT backed off from pricing based in part on its consultations with avowed climate change deniers it appointed to its “stakeholder” group.

Falsely claims making traffic move faster will reduce emissions

The strategy repeats a false claim that Oregon DOT can reduce emissions by making traffic move faster.  One of the plan’s action items is “System efficiency” which it defines as

“. . . improve the efficiency of the existing system to reduce congestion and vehicle emissions.”

What this really means, in practice, is that ODOT spends more money on elaborate computers, variable advisory speed signs and signboards that show estimated travel times on some highways.  None of these so called “intelligent transportation systems” have been demonstrated to measurably reduce either congestion or greenhouse gases.  Moreover, to the extent they do lower congestion, they induce additional travel demand, and the scientific literature has shown that increased travel more than wipes out any emission reductions from improved traffic flow.  This is precisely the false set of claims that ODOT conceded it made to the Legislature in 2015 when it lied about estimates of emission reductions from these “system efficiency projects.”

It’s “climate lens” is really an eye-patch, turning a blind eye to induced demand

The climate plan says a “climate lens” will be applied to the State Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) projects, but is silent on the application of any such standard to megaprojects like  the I-5 Rose Quarter project, the revived Columbia River Crossing or any of the billions in other proposed Portland area freeway widening projects.  The induced demand calculator developed by the University of California Davis from the best available science shows these kinds of freeway widening projects will produce hundreds of thousands of tons of additional greenhouse gas emissions.

The so-called “climate lens” is simply a glib PR talking point that has no impact or meaning. If you were at all serious about climate, a real climate test would have the agency put on hold all additions to state highway capacity.

The climate plan reiterates a discredited claim that greenhouse gases can be reduced by widening roads and making traffic move faster, something that’s been shown scientifically to induce more driving and pollution.

Technocratic climate denialism

Future generations, enduring the brunt of increasingly intolerable summers and extreme weather, seeing Oregon’s forests and natural beauty decimated by climate change will look back to the decisions ODOT is making now and ask how it could simply ignore this problem, ignore the demonstrated science about its causes, and then commit literally billions of dollars to make it worse, dollars that future generations will be forced to repay.

This may seem like a simple, routine technical matter.  It’s not.  Its an irrevocable commitment to burn our state, to cower in ignorance in the face of an existential challenge, and an effort to cling to an outdated ideology that created this problem.


Miami’s E-Scooters: Revisiting the Double Standard

In Miami, e-scooters pay four to 50 times as much to use the public roads as cars

If we want to encourage greener, safer travel, we should align the prices we charge with our values

Florida is home to some of the most unsafe cities to be a pedestrian or a cyclist. Miami is currently attempting to change their image as an auto-dominated city and create a more inclusive transportation network along their downtown streets. They hope to increase the safety of bikers, pedestrians, and e-scooter riders. The Miami-Dade County of Transportation and Public Works Department plans to add bollards and concrete barriers along three miles of city streets to create protected lanes for bikes and scooters. Part of their plan to pay for this new infrastructure? A daily fee on e-scooters. The tax code reads that:

“operators shall remit to the city a motorized scooter fee in an amount of $1.00 per motorized scooter per day. The motorized scooter fee shall be calculated monthly based on the number of scooters authorized by the city of the current period…. During the duration of the pilot program, this motorized scooter fee shall be designated for sidewalk/sidewalk area, and/or street improvements within pilot program area.”

At City Observatory, we examined Portland’s scooter pilot program in 2019. The implementation of e-scooters into the city had positive results. Scooters were most used during peak travel hours, consequently reducing congestion. They provided a greener solution for people to make short trips throughout the city’s downtown. The program was successful and popular, but it left us wondering about how differently the Portland Bureau of Transportation treats these micro-mobility solutions as opposed to large, gas-guzzling automobiles. In Portland, we estimated  that scooter riders were paying ten times as much in fees per mile traveled than car users pay in gas taxes. For example, if payments were based on the amount of space taken up on the streets or the pollution generated, drivers should have been paying significantly more than scooter users. 

Miami’s new pilot program is another example of this stark double standard. Once again, we focus on how much the city charges different vehicles to use its roads. Miami’s tax code charges each scooter $1 per day. How does that compare to what it charges for a car? 

Gas taxes are a key source of local and state revenue for road infrastructure. The total tax imposed in Miami-Dade County on gasoline sums to 36.6 cents per gallon. If we assume the average car gets about 25 miles per gallon, the average vehicle in Miami pays a little more than 1 cent per mile traveled. Miami residents drive 19.2 miles daily according to the Federal Highway Administration. After some quick math, our estimate for the daily price car users pay in Miami comes to roughly 25 cents. This means, on a daily basis, e-scooters pay four times more per day than cars do.


Another way to look at this is to consider the amount the city charges per mile. A case study analyzing the e-scooter program in Indianapolis provides us with a template of what micro-mobility travel could look like in a major city like Miami. The Indianapolis e-scooter program averaged 4,830 trips per day and a median number of scooters in service per day of 1,654. This gives us an estimate of 2.92 daily trips for a unique scooter. The median trip length in this program was .7 miles. If we assume that Miami would see similar daily usage, scooters paying the city’s daily dollar fee pay roughly 34.2 cents per trip and 48.9 cents per mile. As we estimated above, the average vehicle in Miami pays roughly 1 cent per mile traveled, nearly 50 times less than our e-scooter estimate. Scooters in Miami will travel significantly shorter distances than cars in the city, however, they will likely be paying at vastly higher rates for using the roads. 

The City of Miami is not making a poor decision adding infrastructure to protect bikes, scooters, and pedestrians. The experiment in Portland showcased that there is a positive impact of increasing micro-mobility accessibility. There will be rewards from restructuring a car-dominated downtown to create safe, viable options for other modes of transportation. While their mission is in good faith, the partial funding by scooter fees begs the question: why are cars paying so much less each day?

Cars impose the most negative externalities onto the roadway. They are heavier. They take up more space. They create unsafe environments for other users of the road. Yet, the 25 pound scooter which is small enough to sit on the sidewalk pays 4 times as much to use the road each day. Research performed in London finds that e-scooter rentals could replace 5 million car trips, reducing both traffic congestion and CO2 emissions. These micromobility options provide a path to a transportation system that is safer, greener, and more efficient. If this is the future we want, it is imperative that we appropriately charge the most damaging and dangerous vehicles on our roads. Our prices ought to reflect our goals and our values. The disparities between what we charge those who use cars and scooters are a double standard that transportation departments must consider. Shouldn’t cars be paying more to improve the roads and make the city a safer place?

It’s back, and it’s even dumber than ever: The Urban Mobility Report

There was an unprecedented decline in traffic congestion in the US last year.  According to the Urban Mobility Report, there’s essentially nothing we can learn from this experience

The Texas Transportation Institute has always been apologists and propagandists for the highway lobby

TTI reports fail the basic scientific test of responding to repeated detailed critiques of methodology, measures and findings

Every year (or so), the Texas Transportation Institute generates something called the “Urban Mobility Report,” which is a dire lamentation on the supposed costs that urban traffic congestion imposes on Americans.

This past week, they’ve issued their latest report, covering 2020.  As everyone knows, the Covid-19 pandemic produced an instant and abrupt change in US travel patterns.  And that’s noted in the latest UMR.  Their measure of congestion—which, as we’ll explain in a minute, is deeply flawed and biased—actually showed a epic decline in congestion costs in 2020.  So far, so good. But wait.

Now, for scientists and the intellectually curious, you would think that actually experiencing a dramatic decline in traffic congestion would be, if not a cause for celebration, at least an opportunity to better understand the dynamics of the problem they’re purportedly concerned with solving.

Here’s the big, salient fact about traffic in 2020:  Travel declined by about 15-20 percent, but congestion—as measured by TTI—fell by about half. Here’s the data on quarterly travel volumes in 2020 compared to the previous year.  In the second half of the year, travel was down about 15-20 percent.

While travel went down a bit, traffic congestion went down a lot.  Even in the second half of the year, as travel had rebounded, traffic congestion, measured here by TTI’s own estimate of hours of delay, was down 40 to 50 percent from 2019 levels.

As we’ve stressed at City Observatory, this non-linearity (a small decline in travel produces a big decline in congestion) is the most important insight we can have about how to deal with traffic.  In Portland, during the height of the pandemic-fueled travel reductions, the city’s major freeways carried more cars at the rush hour, at higher speeds, because traffic levels were kept below the tipping point that causes cascading delays.

Traffic congestion is a demand problem:  too much demand at certain times, specifically peak hours.  If we can reduce demand, or shift travel to off-peak times, we can dramatically reduce congestion.  We have traffic congestion because we don’t price roads; we don’t systematically reflect back to users the costs their travel decisions impose on others.

The only effective solutions to traffic congestion involve congestion pricing, but “pricing” is one word you won’t find anywhere in the 2021 Urban Mobility Report.  The word “toll” appears exactly once.

TTI has never grasped the fundamental economics of traffic congestion.  They’ve always pretended that the transportation system can be run as if every day was free ice cream day at Ben and Jerry’s.  If you don’t charge users for your product, you get lines around the block and you’re always running short of money.

The real lesson of the pandemic, if we recognize it, is that measures to alter travel demand, especially ones that incorporate real time pricing, can re-shape demand in ways that reduce congestion.  In fact, evidence from the pandemic shows that avoiding over-loading roads at peak hours can maintain consistent high travel speeds and higher levels of vehicle throughout.

However, if you read the TTI report, you’ll never learn any of that. Instead, what you’ll hear is that when the pandemic abates, the world of transportation will trend back toward increased traffic and congestion, and well, we’ll just have to build more capacity to accommodate it.

Add capacity in critical corridors — We just need “more” in some places. Increases in freight and person movement often require new or expanded facilities. Important corridors or growing regions can benefit from more street and highway lanes, new or expanded public transportation facilities, and larger bus and rail fleets.

That’s TTI doing what it has always done:  providing a rationalization for ever more highways in the name of trying—counterproductively, as it turns out—to reduce congestion.

Flawed, biased and unscientific

Though it has been produced for decades, the Texas Transportation Institute’s Urban Mobility Report is essentially propaganda for road-building, not a critical analysis of transportation policy.  It is designed to generate heat, not shed light.  We and others have repeatedly refuted and debunked the methodology, metrics, and findings in this and prior TTI reports.  Some of the highlights:

  • Its core measure of delay, the “travel time index” ignores the distance of trips across metro areas, and incorrectly penalizes cities with compact development and shorter trips, while rewarding sprawling metros with very long commutes.
  • Claims that congestion imposes net costs on travelers is based on the false assumption that enough highway capacity could be constructed so that peak hour travel was never slower than off-peak hour travel.
  • The first three decades of the report’s congestion estimates are based on a flawed and unscientific extrapolation of speed-volume tables, and are inconsistent with other measures of actual travel time.  The report presents as a single time series estimates made using wildly varying methodologies.
  • As Victoria Transportation Policy Institute’s Todd Litman has shown, the report’s authors have repeatedly failed to respond to thorough and well-researched critiques of their methodology.

Our experiences with a very changed transportation system during the Covid-19 pandemic could have been (and could still be) a powerful learning moment as to how to build more just, sustainable and efficient cities.  We observed that reducing transportation demand can greatly improve the function of the transportation system, reducing congestion and travel times, and improving air quality.  Greater emphasis on walking, biking, and repurposing public space for people instead of car movement and car storage can make our cities better places to live, rather than merely easier to drive through.  Alas, these are lessons that will never be learned by anyone who places any credence in the Urban Mobility Report.

In the bag: Pricing works

Denver’s new bag fee is another object lesson on how to use economics to achieve environmental objectives. 

Now do it for greenhouse gases

Starting this month, you’ll have to pay 10 cents for each disposable paper or plastic bag you fill with groceries in Denver.  The requirement goes statewide in 2023, under a  Colorado law that is similar to provisions adopted in other cities (London and Chicago have bag fees) and other states.  Last year, Oregon adopted a law, which mostly bans single use plastic grocery bags, and requires grocery stores to charge a 5 cent fee for every paper bag they provide to customers. These rules all harnesses economic incentives to encourage consumers to remember to bring their own re-usable shopping bags to the store.

There are a lot of reasons to dislike single-use grocery bags; it is a form of waste that is obvious to almost everyone, and bags, especially the plastic ones, are a highly annoying and visible source of litter. Plastic bags also jam up the sorting machines in recycling plants; Portland’s Metro asked consumers to put bags in the trash, rather than recycle them.  If the experience of other places that have implemented bag fees (like Chicago and London) are any indication, Oregon can expect a pretty dramatic reduction in the number of single use bags shoppers take. England’s 5 pence fee on plastic bags reduced the number of bags by almost 90 percent in a few years.   It’s a small, but potent example of how getting the prices right can quickly, and mostly painlessly, help us achieve an environmental objective.  It’s a parable to embrace.

It’s not like we haven’t tried this before.  Many states have bottle deposit laws that provide the same kind of smart economic nudge. These bag fee comes on the heels—well, half a century—after Oregon enacted its first in the nation bottle bill, in 1971. Requiring a mandatory deposit on beer and soda bottles and cans produced a dramatic reduction in litter, and led to widespread recycling. The state has a smart performance based system for setting deposits:  when recycling rates failed to meet established goals, the bottle deposit was raised from a nickel to a dime.  About a dozen states have similar laws now, but most states, including Colorado, haven’t adopted a bottle bill.

Tokenism and Cognitive Bias

But while the bag fee and its cousin the bottle deposit, are a homely, teachable examples of environmental economics, they also represent  a deeper and darker message about the challenges we face in tackling our larger environmental challenges.  The key question is:  if we’re easily able to adopt economic incentives for bags, bottle and cans, why can’t we apply this same tool to the really big problems, same of climate change.

The answer has a lot to do with our distinct cognitive biases:  We are aware of, and pay attention to somethings, and are oblivious to others.  Almost everyone shops for groceries regularly.  Everyone encounters litter (it is visible and annoying).  Everyone throws away (or recycles) single-use bags, cans and bottles.

Small scale recycling efforts are a kind of environmental ablution:  we go through a ritual to demonstrate to ourselves (and others) our moral commitment to saving the planet. These strategies have real, but small environmental benefits.  Trash is ugly and annoying, and often a hazard to wildlife, but it is not the reason the polar ice caps are melting.

Our cognitive bias stems from the fact that carbon emissions, particularly from cars are invisible, odorless and tasteless; they do no cumulate locally, but rather disperse globally.  If cars deposited a charcoal briquet every hundred meters or so (which is roughly the amount of carbon they emit), the vast piles of carbon the clogged our streets would immediately prompt us to clean them up, and ban internal combustion engines (just as we no longer tolerate horse manure and how people are expected to clean up after their dogs). But because carbon is invisible and dispersed globally, we don’t care.

So, ironically, we’re very good at small scale tokenism, like the ban on plastic straws in San Francisco.  It gives a simulacrum of sacrifice, but makes almost no difference to the larger environmental catastrophe we face. Yet it gives us as individuals and our leaders who enact such policies, the impression that we’re doing something. Too often, we engage in Nieman Marcus environmentalism:  engaging in conspicuous displays of “green” consumerism. That may be great for assuaging personal guilt, but does little or nothing to resolve the larger social problem of climate change.

The bag fee is 10 to 20 times higher than a carbon tax

Colorado’s  10 cent bag fee works about to a little less than 2 cents per 10 grams.  A kraft paper bag weights about 55 grams. That means that consumers are paying a fee of about 80 cents per pound for their paper bag (454 grams * .09 cents per gram).  On a metric ton basis, that means consumers are paying a fee of about $1,800 per ton.

To put that in context, most of the commonly forwarded ideas for a carbon tax suggest that a carbon fee of $50 to $100 per ton would lead to a dramatic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Disposable shopping bag fees ask consumers to pay a fee that is by any reckoning about ten to twenty times higher than the fee we ought to be charging for carbon pollution.

If we can charge a bag fee, we can implement some form of carbon pricing. If we do, we’ll discover that consumers, producers and the overall economy can adapt quickly.


The Week Observed, July 16, 2021

What City Observatory did this week

An open letter to Secretary Pete Buttigieg on his visit to Oregon.  Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg came to Oregon this week to look at some local transportation innovations.  The group No More Freeways, which opposes an Oregon Department of Transportation plan to widen I-5 through Portland’s Rose Quarter wanted to enrich his travelogue with some additional information.

In light of the Biden Administration’s commitment to promoting equity, restoring the damage done by the construction of freeways through urban neighborhoods and fighting climate change, the letter suggests that Buttigieg might want to direct the Federal Highway Administration to do a full Environmental Impact Statement on the ten-lane $800 million freeway-widening project, rather than claiming it has “no significant environmental impact.”

Must read

1. Covid didn’t kill cities.  When the coronavirus shut down New York City in the spring of 2020, fears about the future of urban life ran wild. Were we ever going to see cities thrive again? Was it unsafe to live in highly dense areas? People prophesied that the pandemic would bring the End of Cities. This doomsday never arrived though. Cities survived the catastrophic event, as they always do. In this New York Times article, Emily Badger ponders the question, “What is so alluring about the perpetually imminent End of Cities?” The author explores the roots of this narrative and its connection to personal experience as well as aspirations. Anti-urban sentiment has been present since early America as cities have been intrinsically tied to corruption and the stereotypes surrounding people of color and immigrants. Badger speculates that there is an anti-urban element within all of us, which can be triggered by uncomfortable moments. It makes us feel as though a city can be punished for its adverse qualities. The pandemic provided a reason to be alarmed by the nature of city life and provided a form of “retribution,” making this doomsday narrative attractive. However, this sentiment is predominantly one of White professionals and fails to capture the reality of most residents. At the end of the day, the catastrophic end of cities has not arrived. Cities will persevere through this pandemic and the next.

2. How bad is rent inflation?  Alarming says the WaPo.  Not so fast says Kevin Drum.

“Rent prices are up 7.5 percent so far this year,” cried The Washington Post this week. Using and Zillow data, Heather Long makes their case for this alarming spike in rental prices across the country. The article highlights the increases in rent prices of cities like Phoenix, Boise, and Stockton (deemed the “Inland West”). Long calls on prospering landlords and struggling residents to further her argument. The article concludes with an ominous warning for inflation: if rent prices continue to increase at these exorbitant rates, we should be prepared for other prices to increase as well.

Kevin Drum disagrees. In his blog post, Drum refutes Long’s claims of stark rises in rental prices using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. He argues:

“Not only have rents not risen 7.5% so far this year, BLS says they’ve risen a paltry 0.5% in big cities and less than 1% in midsize cities since January. And rent growth has been falling steadily for over a year. Compared to 12 months ago, rent is up a very modest 1.2% in big cities and 2.6% in midsize cities.”

As it turns out, roverall ents are not increasing by the alarming 7.5 percent. The Washington Post article essentially cherry-picks booming rents in selected cities. It ignores the declining rental prices in bigger metropolitan areas like Seattle and New York. Rents will always be surging in some cities and lagging in others, but that does not justify causing alarm across the entire nation. Don’t fret, today’s boom in Phoenix’s rental prices unlikely to trigger national inflation.

3. Single-family zoning and the right:  False populism of the NIMBYs.  Writing at New York Magazine, Eric Levitz underscores the contradictions and faux-populism of right-wing commentators like Tucker Carlson, who fail to acknowledge the critical role that single family zoning has in worsening housing affordability for low and middle income households, while simultaneously decrying policies that would make housing more affordable.  Levitz writes:

‘What makes his [Tucker Carlson’s] defense of single-family zoning so instructive is that it’s both anti-free-market and anti-working-class…. For the downtrodden “forgotten men and women” whom right-wing populists claim to champion, single-family zoning is actually a scourge. It prevents homeowners in economically depressed regions from affordably relocating to thriving metros. And it forces renters to forfeit an ever-higher share of their income to landlords…. Viewed from the perspective of society as a whole, single-family zoning is ruinous….

Carlson and others may be addressing economic anxieties, but they are those of homeowners looking to guard their wealth, and to maintain financial, geographic and social distance from the lower class.

Carlsonism is a politics of downward-looking class resentment disguised as its opposite…. This era’s self-styled populist conservatives have consistently demonstrated their fealty to small-time capitalists—and contempt for the median laborer—in just about every major policy fight of Biden’s tenure.

As we’ve shown at City Observatory, housing wealth (and appreciation) accrues largely to wealthier, whiter, older households.  If we’re talking about working class Americans, especially younger generations and people of color, single family zoning isn’t helping them prosper.

New Knowledge

Black Entrepreneurs, Job Creation, and Financial Constraints.    According to the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finance, the current racial wealth gap remains awfully similar to the 1960s. The median and mean wealth of Black families is less than 15 percent of white families. What impact does this disparity have on Black entrepreneurs and their business? 

Research by Mee Jung Kim, Kyung Min Lee, J. David Brown, and John S. Earle analyzes these Black-White differentials in wealth, financial constraint, and employment. Black-owned businesses tend to have fewer resources, creating a greater dependence on outside funding. At the same time, they are less likely to receive a bank loan. Overall, Black owners face greater financial constraints compared to white owners, a phenomenon likely inflated by information asymmetries and racial discrimination. The research provides an in-depth look at the differences in characteristics among Black and white businesses. The authors find that Black owners, on average, are more likely to be younger, have higher education, greater motivations for entrepreneurship, and manage younger, smaller firms compared to white owners. Black-owned businesses have about 12 percent fewer employees that white-owned businesses. However, the researchers’ empirical analysis implies that with the same financial access, Black-owned firms would actually be significantly larger than white-owned firms. 

The research also explores the impact of an intervention, the Community Reinvestment Act. They find that increased access to credit enables Black-owned firms to grow faster.  Expanded credit access enabled by the CRA raises employment by 5-7 percent more at Black businesses compared to white firms in the treated neighborhoods. The researchers have a thoughtful discussion on the impact financial constraints have on Black businesses. Their comparison of firm characteristics and employment coupled with an analysis of the CRA underscores a key roadblock Black businesses must overcome. Black entrepreneurs face greater financial constraints, limiting their ability for growth, employment, and success. Looking forward, increasing their financial access through policy like the CRA can help alleviate the disparities we see today.

In the News

D Magazine asks “What’s a convention center worth to Dallas?”  They question whether the city should puts hundreds of millions into upgrading its convention center, given the dim prospects for this business and the ruinous competition among cities.  They cite a City Observatory op-ed co-authored by former Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and Joe Cortright, outlining the grim economics of the convention business.

The Week Observed, July 30, 2021

What City Observatory did this week

Oregon Department of Transportation’s Climate Fig-Leaf.  Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gases in Oregon, and the state’s Department of Transportation is—yet again—advancing PR heavy strategy documents that contain no measurable objectives or accountability.  The latest plan, a so-called “Climate Action Plan,” repeats disproven climate myths (that idling in traffic is a key source of greenhouse gas emissions, or that electronic freeway signs will reduce carbon emissions).

A cynical fig-leaf from Oregon DOT

Instead of real action items, the document offers a string of mostly meaningless busy-work tasks, none of which have any demonstrable effect in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Strikingly, the document doesn’t acknowledge that transportation accounts for 20 million tons of greenhouse gases in Oregon a year, and that amount has gone up since ODOT first advanced its “Sustainable Transportation Strategy” eight years ago.  When you read the details of the plan, the agency’s real priorities are apparent:  getting more money to build roads.  The Oregon Department of Transportation is complicit in concealing and worsening climate change, just as the state is being plunged into record heatwaves and wildfires.

Must read

1. Why solving climate change requires tackling land use.  The transportation sector is responsible for largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, emitting 1.6 billion metric tons of CO2 equivalents annually. Writing for Center for American Progress, Kevin DeGood argues:
“Climate change cannot be addressed without reforming land use, and land use cannot be changed without reforming transportation.”
So, how can we reform transportation and land use? DeGood highlights the solutions necessary to fixing unsustainable transportation systems by comparing the transportation systems of Washington DC and Ohio and advocating for the INVEST act. Urban density promotes more economical transportation; each mile of roadway in the District of Columbia  supports 4 1/2 times as many residents compared as Ohio, and over 50 percent of its residents commute by transit, bike, or walk. The capital’s system is more efficient, productive, and environmentally friendly compared to Ohio, showcasing a potential for sustainable transportation and land use system at a human scale. The INVEST act, already passed by the House, provides changes to the national transportation goals and creates new environmental benchmarks for states to receive federal funding. DeGood argues that steps need to be taken to combat climate change and create a healthier, sustainable nation.
2. How we saved 3 hours a week by not commuting. The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently released the American Time Use Survey results from May to December of 2019 and 2020. They explored time we spent in work, leisure, travel, childcare, and more. Their comparisons of time usage in 2019 and 2020 present some compelling takeaways. As many of us experienced, the prevalence of remote work increased in 2020. The rate nearly doubled, rising 20 percent points from 2019. For many, the commute to work transformed into a short walk to your desk. Time spent traveling decreased by 26 minutes per day, from 1.2 hours in 2019 to 47 minutes in 2020. We saved an average of 3 hours a week by not commuting to work this past year. How’d you take advantage of that time?

3. The electric car obsession is getting in the way of reducing transportation greenhouse gases.  More and more electric cars are on the road today.  But electrification can’t be the only means of reducing transportation greenhouse gases. However, solely focusing on an electric fleet of automobiles is hindering progress towards our goal of net zero emissions. In fact, it would take decades to see significant progress and eliminate the global supply of fossil fuel cars. Christian Brand wants you to put down your Tesla catalogue and consider a better solution – active travel. Brand and his associates at Oxford present their research on active transportation (walking, cycling, and e-biking) and its ability to reduce global emissions in this article. Emissions from one bike ride can be more than 30 times lower than a drive in a fossil fuel car and about 10 times lower than an electric car. Brand advocates for active travel and urges cities to make safer, more accessible roads for bikes and pedestrians. He asserts,

“Active travel can contribute to tackling the climate emergency earlier than electric vehicles, while also providing affordable, reliable, clean, healthy and congestion-busting transportation.”

If we want to get to net zero emissions quickly, we must consider the importance of active travel.

4.  Cities aren’t cesspools. The narrative that cities are hellacious centers of violence, crime, and deadly vices is so 1975. As the Covid pandemic and the culture wars remind us, athe anti-urban impulse is a recurring theme in American politics, one that widens the  disconnect between rural and urban America. Writing for the New York Times, Paul Krugman criticizes the myth and those who benefit from it. Krugman disputes the narrative of urban doom by exploring the social problems of the ‘eastern heartland’ as well as the impacts of COVID-19 on the nation. The mythology of urban vice and rural virtue overlooks both the common strengths and problems of both regions, and also neatly elides the fact that powerhouse urban economies generate the bulk of national revenue that subsidizes red states and rural areas.


The Week Observed, July 23, 2021

What City Observatory did this week

Selling Oregon into highway bondage.  Oregon is moving ahead with plans to issue hundreds of millions—and ultimately billions of dollars of debt to widen Portland-area freeways.  And it will send the bill to future generations, and perversely, commit the state to ever increasing levels of traffic in order to satisfy bond-holders.  Just the right strategy for dealing with a manifest climate crisis, right?

The single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the state is transportation, and those emissions are growing, up 1,000 pounds per person in the Portland metro area in the past five years.

And the Oregon Department of Transportation’s plan for responding:  building even more highways in the Portland metro area; and not only that, going deeply into debt to pay for those highways—burdening future generations with both the financial and environmental costs of more driving.  In theory, the bonds will be repaid by tolls, but the agency has no history of forecasting toll revenue, and routinely overspends its budgets on megaprojects. And tolling essentially commits the state to increasing traffic levels in order to pay back bondholders.  It’s the height of intergenerational climate warfare, and its packaged as business as usual, technocratic trivia.

Must read

1. Returning to the office:  Young workers value in-person work.  There’s a lot of glib prognostication that the advent of zoom will lead to remote work displacing office work, and undercutting city economies.  But the assumption that everyone does well working remotely misses the fact that in-person workplace interactions are more  powerful and important for some functions (team-building, socialization, feedback) and some workers (especially younger ones).  While seasoned veterans can take their accumulated knowledge and networks and work remotely, young workers are still learning and forming complex ties and forging an identity.  As  Erica Pandley at Axios:

Transitioning to remote work is far easier for veteran employees who have already developed social capital in the workplace and know how a company operates. Freshly minted members of the workforce stand to miss out on those valuable skills and opportunities if they can’t come back to the office. . . . A whopping 40% of college students and recent graduates prefer fully in-person work, according to a new poll by Generation Lab.

The survey says three quarters of young workers feel they miss out of office community by working remotely, and two in five would lose out on mentoring.  Two-thirds of young workers say they want in-person feedback from their managers, rather than receiving a written report or chatting over Zoom.  This kind of face-to-face interaction is what has propelled the growth of city economies, and been especially important to young people, for decades.  We shouldn’t expect it to disappear now.

2. Would Texas be better off spending $25 billion on something other than more highways?  Texas has recently begun to move ahead on plans to expand highway I-35 through downtown Austin. The stated goal is to provide more efficient and safer travel for the hundreds of thousands of drivers who use the highway everyday. Although, as we’ve explored numerous times at City Observatory, increasing the number of lanes does not lead to more efficient travel. So, what if the state of Texas did not expand their highways? Megan Kimble at the Texas Observer takes it a step farther. She ponders:

“What if, instead of building our aging roads back wider and higher—doubling down on the displacement that began in the 1950s and the climate consequences unfolding now—we removed those highways altogether? What if we restored the scarred, paved-over land they inhabit and gave it back to the communities it was taken from?”

Kimble writes a thoughtful and informative piece on the state of Texas highways and the possibility for transcendent change. She interviews planners and activists within the state, exploring what the potential for the highway land could be. This “What if” question is not just imagination. It is an idea for real, substantial change. Expanding the roadway will only bring more congestion. Taking it away could create more equitable and sustainable communities for all, particularly those harshly impacted by the highway’s construction.

3.  More reasons not to believe the Urban Mobility Report.  If you read City Observatory in the past few weeks, you likely saw our critique of the Texas Transportation Institute’s newest “Urban Mobility Report.” This flawed and biased report failed to provide a critical analysis of transportation policy. Instead, it presents a road building propaganda piece that neglects the necessary fundamentals of a qualified report. Writing for Planetizen, Todd Litman provides his own critique of the UMR. He explains that the paradigm in transportation planning has shifted. The new approach has become comprehensive, focusing on multi-modal transportation, social equity, environmental quality, and more. Does the UMR take this new paradigm into consideration? Not at all. Litman criticizes the UMR’s sole focus on congestion and automotive travel. He expresses that the UMR’s analysis is “neither comprehensive nor objective.” He writes that the report “tends to overvalue urban roadway expansions and undervalue other congestion reduction strategies that provide more co-benefits, such as the congestion reduction strategy that also increases affordability, improves public health and safety, or reduces pollution emissions.” Litman provides a thorough and needed critique of the UMR and explores more appropriate solutions to the important transportation issues.

New Knowledge??

Our “New Knowledge” feature this week has question marks appended because, as we’ll explain, we’re not at all sure this particular article gets things right.  But because it purports to shed light on the very salient question of how upzoning city neighborhoods affects population change, we think it’s worth a closer look, and some skepticism.

Columbia University’s Jenna Davis has published a journal article, and a web commentary summarizing this work.  The paper looks at the demographic change in New York City census tracts between 2000 and 2010, and reports finding a correlation between city initiated zone changes and an increased probability that the share of non-HIspanic white population increases.  Tracts that had city upzoning were about 25 percent more likely to experience an increase in white population share than tracts that weren’t upzoned.  It’s pretty clear that many will read this study as somehow proving tha upzoning makes neighborhoods whiter.  Davis says her findings imply that “upzonings might accelerate, rather than temper, gentrification pressures.”

We think there are several problems with drawing this conclusion.  They include timing, threshold effects, other demographic factors, causation, and a poorly described dependent variable.

The dependent variable in this analysis is an increased share of non-Hispanic white population.  The paper doesn’t say how many Census Tracts experienced an increased share of white population in New York between 2000 and 2010.  Demographic change in most neighborhoods is slow and small; relatively few neighborhoods totally change their demographic composition. To put this in perspective, over the 40 years between 1970 and 2010, just 10 of 443 majority Black census tracts in the New York metro area transitioned to majority white composition (about 2 percent).  (Data from the Brown University Longitudinal Tract Database).

The fact that there’s a correlation between upzoning and the probability of a white share increase doesn’t say anything about the direction of causality:  It is possible, even probable, that the city chose neighborhoods to upzone where the white population share was increasing.  The study also doesn’t apparently have any minimum threshold for the increase in the white share of the population:  even a 0.1 percent increase in share might qualify.  Also, it’s worth noting that even if the share of the white population increases, that doesn’t necessarily imply that the number of non-white residents of a neighborhood decreases; new housing units could allow both more white and more non-white residents in a neighborhood, even if the shares of the two groups change.

That possibility is heightened by the timing of upzones.  According to the paper, the average upzone occurred just 18 months before the 2010 Census.  That’s not enough time to actually build additional housing, and this suggests that the demographic change, if any, occurred mostly before the upzoning.  Notice that the paper doesn’t look to see whether, or how many additional housing units were built; it’s implicitly arguing that the rezoning itself, even without construction, caused the observed demographic change.

It’s also worth noting that other variables included in the estimation had a much bigger impact on neighborhood change.  In particular, there was a strong correlation between an increased share of the white population and the share of the neighborhood that was either married or had children.  One key component of population change is births, and if a particular neighborhood had a disproportionate share of of White residents in their child-bearing years relative to neighborhood’s overall population, you would expect the demographic composition of the neighborhood to shift based on births of white children—a factor unrelated to zoning.

Jenna Davis, “How do upzonings impact neighborhood demographic change? Examining
the link between land use policy and gentrification in New York City.”  Land Use Policy 103 (2021).

Jenna Davis, “Double edged sword of upzoning?”

In the News

Streetsblog quoted City Observatory’s Joe Cortright in it’s article about expensive plans to rebuild a failed pedestrian bridge over DC’s Anacostia Freeway.

“The way our infrastructure decisions are presented is that we’re always doing piecemeal, remedial patches to the existing flawed system. DC will spend it looks like $25 million to rebuild back something that is at best a kind of band-aid … Once you’ve spent $25 million ‘fixing’ this pedestrian bridge, you’ve essentially committed yourself to the indefinite future of the freeway it crosses.”

The Week Observed, July 9, 2021

What City Observatory did this week

1. Miami’s double standard for charging road users.  The City of Miami is hoping to make their streets a safer place for bikes and scooters by building protected lanes along three miles of the city’s downtown. The city plans to pay for this infrastructure by taxing each registered scooter daily. This fee got us thinking – how does the price we charge scooters compare to the price that we charge cars? What we found: e-scooters are paying four to 50 times as much to use the public roads as cars. Automobiles take up the most space, create unsafe environments for other users, and damage the roads. Scooters help reduce congestion, fit on a sidewalk, and provide environmentally friendly ways to travel through a city. Yet, scooters pay significantly more to use the road. If we want greener, safer, and more efficient transportation systems, we ought to reconsider how we charge its users.

2. It works for bags, bottles and cans, why not try it for carbon?  A newly enacted law in Denver requires grocery stores to charge customers a dime for each grocery bag they take. Echoing similar bag fees in other places, this provides a gentle economic nudge to more ecologically sustainable behavior. And the evidence is that it works–it London, single use bags are down 90 percent. We ought to be applying the same straightforward logic to carbon pollution, and ironically, the bag fee, on a weight basis is 20 times higher than the charge most experts recommend for carbon pricing.

Must read

1. Giving up on the “user pays” principal for cars and driving.  The nation is in need for roads, bridges, and transit infrastructure. Gasoline taxes, a “user pay” system, have long been a method that the United States has funded these needs, but the tax level has been untouchable for nearly 30 years. As a result of inflation and increasingly fuel-efficient cars, the Highway Trust Fund has struggled to get the same impact from the gas tax. The House’s new surface transportation bill has no mention of this gas tax. Instead, the Highway Trust Fund is receiving cash from deficit financing. The bill is financed by  a one-time $148 billion transfer from the U.S. Treasury to Highway Trust Fund. What this amounts to is a massive subsidy to more driving, more pollution and more greenhouse gas emissions.  If we really had a “user pays” system, as with a carbon tax or a congestion fee, we’d have a lot less traffic and congestion.

2. Which downtown’s are most dependent on a return to the office?    Downtowns are much like investment portfolios – the more diverse, the more resilient they will be. The New York Times’ Emily Badger and Quoctrung Bui examine the state of downtown business districts across the nation. According to their analysis, some cities have downtown business districts with office space taking up 70-80 percent of all real estate. These office dominated cities are susceptible to shocks, recessions, and especially global pandemics. Kourtney Garnett, the head of Downtown Dallas, Inc., offers a solution to strengthen these city centers: “Build more residences, diversify the economy, give people reasons to linger past 5 pm.”  There’s a surprisingly large variation across metro areas in terms of the amount of downtown space devoted to offices, retail, hotels, residential and other uses, as this NYT chart illustrates.

3. Let’s build mixed income housing in high income, high amenity, high opportunity neighborhoods.  The United States housing supply shortage is a dire issue that continues to grow. The struggle to find affordable housing with desired amenities has pushed middle-income households further and further from city centers, increasing sprawl and commute times. Suburban growth also tends to fuel auto-dependence and increase total vehicle miles of travel by households, key contributors to climate change.. The need for housing supply and the climate impact of increased transportation present two huge problems. In this article, Zack Subin suggests a combined solution to both problems. He writes that, “we must reduce vehicle miles traveled by investing in inclusive, complete, compact, transit-oriented communities.” Subin explores the potential opportunity for mixed-income housing to create low-carbon-footprint neighborhoods and increase the housing supply. If we create housing in the right neighborhoods, we could see significant positive impacts in the nation’s pollution emissions and housing supply. Climate advocates, come join the housing movement so we can meet our pollution and equity goals together.

New Knowledge

The food landscape of rural America.  There’s been a lot of concern raised about food access in urban areas, in particular the idea that food deserts contribute to poor nutrition (the evidence for this is weak).  There’s little dispute however, that physical access to food stores is lowest in the nation’s rural counties, where there are few stores and people routinely have to travel great distances.  A new report from the USDA reports on the changes in the rural food retailing landscape.

The report looks at trends over the 25 year period from 1990 through 2015.  Through most of that time the total number of food retailers in the US was increasing, but since the Great Recession, the most common types of food retailers—grocery stores, convenience stores and supercenters—have declined in number.  In contrast, the number of Dollar stores has increased.

The report focuses on the trends in the nation’s non-metropolitan counties.  Overall, most of the food retailers in these counties are single-establishment firms (think small, often-family owned traditional grocery stores).  While more numerous than other types, these stores are much smaller (grossing about $800,000 per year, compared to $4-10 million per year for a chain supermarket), and their numbers are dwindling.  Weak economies in rural areas, and competition from national chains, and more recently Dollar stores, is cutting into the financial viability of these businesses.

The net effect of these changes was to reduce food availability and choice in many non-metro areas:

Among urban nonmetro counties, the percentage of counties with fewer than 8 food retailers per 10,000 people increased from 21 percent to 33 percent. The number of food retailers per capita decreased by 16 percent for these counties. Among rural nonmetro counties, the percentage of counties with fewer than 8 food retailers per 10,000 people increased from 11 percent to 27 percent. The number of food retailers per capita decreased by 19 percent for these counties. The percentage of rural nonmetro counties with no food retailers increased from 1 percent to 3 percent.

Overall, the median number of grocery stores per capita in non-metro areas decreased about 40 percent since 1990, that means that rural residents are even further from food, on average, than they were 25 years ago.

Stevens, Alexander, Clare Cho, Metin Çakır, Xiangwen Kong, and Michael Boland June 2021. The Food Retail Landscape Across Rural America, EIB-223, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service.

In the News

The Overhead Wire named our City Observatory analysis of the latest iteration of the deeply flawed Texas Transportation Institute Urban Mobility report—“It’s back and it’s dumber than ever“—it’s most read story on July 6.

The Week Observed, July 2, 2021

What City Observatory did this week

1. The Texas Transportation Institute is back, and it’s still wrong about traffic congestion.  Every year or so, a group of researchers at Texas A&M University produce report purporting to calculate the cost of congestion in US metro areas. Their flawed and biased methodology has been discredited multiple times, but the researchers continue to make unsupportable claims about alleged numbers of lost hours due to congestion.  This year is a particular blown opportunity to make sense of the nature of our transportation problems because congestion went down virtually everywhere, by unprecedented amounts.

If you were researchers really interested in figuring out a way to reduce congestion, you would use this experience to figure out how to craft policies that mimic (minus the downsides) the traffic reducing effects of the pandemic.  The experience of the pandemic shows that reducing traffic demand, which can be accomplished by road pricing, would be more effective and less costly that building new roads, but you’ll find no mention of “pricing” in the latest TTI report.

2. What’s behind the big run-up in home prices? Lower interest rates.  In the past year, average home prices in the US have risen more than 14 percent according to the Case-Shiller index.  There’s been widespread frenzy in the housing market, with bidding wars and a paucity of homes for sale. The decline in home mortgage interest rates is one of the key factors behind the increase in home prices.  Mortgage rates have fallen roughly a full percentage point, from about 3.7 percent in early 2020 to 2.7 percent in early 2021.

Lower mortgage rates translate directly into greater ability to bid a higher amount for the purchase price of a home.  The decline in rates enabled a household that could afford a $1,800 monthly mortgage payment to get a $340,000 mortgage, rather than just $300,000.  That decline in interest rates is an important, but likely one-off stimulus to home prices.

Must read

1. Undercutting urbanism and transit with downzoning in Philadelphia.  Here, in a nutshell, is America’s urban problem.  As Plan Philly explains, the Philadelphia City Council just voted to impose a height limit of 38 feet on the city’s Girard Avenue, a street that has a major trolley line that connect to two of the city’s big subways.

Dense housing and transit work best together.

By limiting the size of homes than can be built on this street to three-story rowhouses, the city simultaneously worsens housing affordability, reduces transit ridership, and likely contributes to neighborhood displacement.  We know that there’s a shortage of walkable, transit served locations, and transit ridership is directly proportional to neighborhood density.  As Daniel Trubman pointed out, limiting density along Girard Avenue doesn’t reduce demand for housing. Instead, it simply displaces the demand to other parts of the neighborhood, likely driving up home prices and increasing displacement:

The strategy in every other Philadelphia neighborhood has been to upzone the major avenues. By downzoning everything, there will just be more impetus to buy and flip the individual houses.

The effort to protect desirable, transit-served neighborhoods from change with building restrictions, while politically popular, worsens housing affordability and undercuts efforts to promote transit ridership.

2. Remote work won’t save the “heartland.”  There are widespread prognostications that with the advent of Zoom, there’s just no reason why businesses or workers who’ve mastered remote work won’t move away from expensive cities.  If you can work from anywhere, why pay high rents?  Mark Muro and his colleagues at Brookings Institution throw cold water on this thesis.  They mine US Postal Service change of address data to examine the regional patterns of migration in the wake of the Covid driven work-at-home experience.  They find that while there has been some movement outward from the most expensive superstar cities (New York, San Francisco, Seattle), precious little of that migration has produced population gains in the so-called “heartland (which they define as the states not on the Pacific or Atlantic coasts, plus Texas and the Rocky Mountains).  

The reason:  Most moves are local, either within the same metro area or state, or within the same region.  Only a tiny fraction of moves from either coast are to the interior of the country, and Rocky Mountain states are doing better than the “heartland.” In addition, the Brookings analysts point out, remote work is declining rapidly as the pandemic ebbs.

3. A vision for sustainable, post-pandemic cities.  San Francisco-based SPUR is a world leader in thinking about urban policies.  This month, they have a short, timely and optimistic essay reminding us that done right, cities are the solution to many of our social and environmental challenges.  “Greetings from 2070” tells us the California of the future became more just, sustainable, and livable by building more apartments, tearing out urban freeways, and systematically ending the use of fossil fuels.  Denser, more affordable urban living with less driving, easier walking and cycling and better transit would enable us to build the kind of neighborhoods currently in short supply.

In the face of irrefutable daily evidence of climate chaos and in the wake of a devastating pandemic, projecting this kind of optimistic vision of a possible future is one key to moving us collectively in the right direction.  We certainly will find it difficult to make any progress if we simply rely on the indefinite continuation of the trends and policies that got us to this situation.

New Knowledge

Cities after Covid.  The widespread roll-out of Covid-19 vaccines is quickly restoring optimism that there will be life after this pandemic. But the question remains: what effects of the past year will be transitory and reversed, and what will become the proverbial “New Normal?”  Three prominent urban geographers tackle that important question in a new essay in Urban Studies.

According to Richard Florida, Andres Rodríguez-Pose and Michael Storper, the short answer is:  We don’t know.  This article provides a useful framework for thinking about Covid and cities, and sorts out glib (and largely wrong) claims about the effects of the pandemic from the more interesting and challenging questions.  Helpfully, the author’s dismiss the widely circulating claim that early-on associated the spread of Covid with cities and density.  While cities were harder hit earlier, this really reflected their global connectedness, rather than any intrinsic vulnerability that density created to the disease.  Indeed, during the pandemic’s more severe later waves, infections and deaths have been more prevalent in rural areas.

They have a very thoughtful discussion of the limits of telework, and come away skeptical that it will fundamentally undercut the forces concentrating economic activity in cities, especially superstars.  They note that while remote work is a reasonably good substitute for one-on-one meetings on projects already underway with colleagues that one already knows, the situation is very different for more complex and innovative tasks, and for building the networks and social capital that enable organizations to succeed.

There is little evidence that telework can successfully establish networks, socialise new participants and permit the evaluation of partners in creative work that depends on high levels of tacit knowledge and partner evaluation ‘between the lines’. . . . The use of telework will certainly accelerate with the forced experiment of the pandemic. But the substitution effect will reach its limits . . . as time goes on, as existing activities wear down their stock of acquired networks and as the need to move on to new projects with new collaborators increases.

For some workers, it is possible that work will be the hybrid model, a mix of office and remote work. Looking forward, a key question is how pandemic related health concerns and greater personal and business experience with remote working will influence the location of population and economic activity.

Florida, R., Rodríguez-Pose, A., & Storper, M. (2021). Cities in a post-COVID world. Urban Studies

In the News

Next City highlighted City Observatory’s analysis of the I-5 Rose Quarter freeway widening project in its article, “Critic, Contractor Call for Shrinking of Freeway Widening Project in Oregon”