A net zero blind spot

Stanford claims its campus will be 100 percent solar powered . . . provided you ignore cars.

A flashy news release caught our eye this week.  Stanford University is reporting that its campus will be 100 percent powered by solar energy very soon.

In the echo chamber that is social media, that claim got a lot of attention and repetition, and predictably morphed into an even more sweeping accomplishment.  Climate Solutions tweeted that Stanford would be the first major university to achieve 100 percent clean energy.

To be clear, Stanford’s press release didn’t make that claim, but any time you tout “hashtag 100 percent” anything, people tend to focus on the “100” and not on the universe to which that is applied.  When you read the fine print, it’s clear that the “100 percent” claim applies only the the campus buildings, not to how students, faculty, staff and visitor actually get to and from the campus to for education, research and entertainment.

Buildings get a lot of attention; you have to use energy to heat, light, and cool them, and run computers and other equipment, but as with the rest of America, the far bigger source of energy use and carbon emissions is not the buildings themselves, but the energy and pollution generated by traveling to and from them.  In California, cars account for 5 times as much greenhouse gas production (28 percent) as all commercial buildings (5.5 percent).

In the case of Stanford University, The “100 percent  solar” claims definitely doesn’t include the campus’s nearly 20,000 parking spaces, most of which are used by internal combustion fueled cars.   About 58 percent of those working on campus arrive by private car. And that produces vastly more carbon emissions that just building operations.

To its credit, in recent years, the university has been taking steps to build more on-campus housing, and to meet the travel demand from expansion without increasing the total number of car trips, but it’s still the case that cars and travel are the university’s leading source of greenhouse gas emissions.  So far the university’s own sustainability plan has counted mostly building-related emissions, and avoided counting what it classifies as “Scope 3” emissions associated with university travel.  They’re planning to address those emissions in the future.

While it’s technically true that the building energy may come from solar, it’s important to recognize that the buildings have no utility unless people travel to and from them on a regular basis.  The parking lots, and the cars they service are an integral–and in fact dominant–part of the university’s carbon footprint.  It’s all well and good to celebrate greater use of solar power, but before anyone makes “100 percent” or zero net carbon about any particular institution, they would do well to consider all their emissions, not just one component.


Insurance and the Cost of Living: Homeowners Insurance

Yesterday, we explored the differences in car insurance premiums in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas. Today, we will take a look at homeowners insurance rates. Unlike car insurance, homeowners insurance is not required in states. Still, this insurance can be required by a mortgage lender, and it is an important action to protect one’s home. Premiums vary across the US, with location being one of the strongest determinants of price. Differences in weather, proximity to disaster-prone areas, crime rates, and density can vary home insurance rates across different metropolitan areas. We will explore these variations in insurance premiums and consider how it might affect the overall cost of living. 

Home insurance rates are important to examine right now because of the growing impact of climate change on our built environments. Differences in insurance costs among cities may become even larger in the years ahead.  The growth in wildfires and extreme weather events associated with climate change has already produced record insurance payouts. Insurance models are generally based upon historical data. They calculate the expected payout and create prices accordingly. What happens when climate change shifts trends in unpredictable ways? Just last year, disaster payouts from reinsurers, the firms that insure the insurance companies, were the fifth highest in history. Climate change prompts insurance companies, and the “re-insurers” who share these risks to reevaluate their rate-setting models. When the risk for payout increases, so does the cost of insurance. Mother Nature plays a crucial role when considering insurance rates. Nature’s volatility can significantly heighten your premiums.

Which cities have the least (and most) expensive home insurance rates?

Home insurance rates have similar variables that impact the rates across the country. The greater the likelihood for damage to the home, the more expensive the rate will be. We used Insure.com data to compile the average annual home insurance rates across 52 of the largest metropolitan areas in the country. Unfortunately, Insure.com did not have any estimates for Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA. The site did not have clear methodologies on the rate, however, it was uniform throughout so we can examine the relative differences across these metro areas. Among the large metro areas, the median rate was $2118.  (Cities have somewhat higher rates than rural areas, which is why the large city median is north of the national average of $1631). 

The cities with the highest home insurance rates were Miami, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, and Detroit. The lowest home insurance rates were found in San Jose, San Diego, San Francisco, Sacramento, and Los Angeles. Among large metro areas, California appears to be the cheapest state to insure your home. In fact, with Seattle, Portland, and Las Vegas all below the 25th percentile as well, the West Coast proves to be a relatively inexpensive place to insure your home. The South? Not so much. Eight Southern cities are above the 75th percentile. 

The risk of extreme weather in these regions appears to be a significant factor for these differences. Miami and New Orleans have hurricane seasons every year. In 2020, there were a record breaking 30 named hurricanes during the Atlantic hurricane season, with 11 landfalling in the United States. The risk for home damage due to the prevalence of events like this increases insurance rates. As climate change continues to disrupt the trends of the weather, we can expect home insurance rates to rise. Other regions also face their own unique risks: Oklahoma City is in a high risk zone for tornados, fires, and earthquakes. These natural disaster risks push up premiums. While there are wildfire and earthquake risks in the West, they haven’t produced dramatically higher insurance rates—yet. We will likely see changes in this over time as we continue to feel increasing impacts of climate change though. 

Insurance and the Cost of Living

Just like we did yesterday for auto insurance, we compared the BEA’s RPP for Rent with the insurance data below. What we found: a slight negative correlation for homeowners insurance. However, when looking at the graph, you can see California standing out as an outlier, bringing down the correlation. When the RPP for Rent ranges from 80 to 150, there is a clear positive association between the insurance premiums and the price parity. This trend points us to consider that there might be an increasing effect for insurance rates and housing costs.

Let’s consider two cities: Oklahoma City and Seattle. According to Insure.com, the average annual homeowners insurance rate in Oklahoma City is $6045, while Seattle’s average rate is $1214. Clearly, there is a notable difference between these two premiums. When we compared the sprawl tax to cost of living, we used estimates of rent differential as a benchmark for cost of living. The cost of housing varies the most across metropolitan areas, so this was an effective measure for comparison. The typical resident in Oklahoma City paid roughly $2,525 less in annual rent/housing costs compared to the typical large metropolitan area. In Seattle, the typical resident paid approximately $2,055 more. From our Insure.com data, the annual housing insurance premium in Oklahoma City is $3,927 above the median premium across large metro areas. Seattle, on the other hand, has an annual premium that is $904 less than the median rate. These data suggest Oklahoma City’s high homeowner’s insurance rates effectively cancel out the lower rents in the metro area. The cost of housing is heightened significantly by homeowners insurance, placing Seattle and Oklahoma City on roughly the same pedestal. Seattle’s lower cost of insurance made up for the high rents. A cost of living comparison that omits these significant variations in insurance costs probably isn’t reliable.

What’s the relationship between home values and insurance rates?  In general, we would expect that insurance premiums would be higher in cities with expensive housing, as it would be more expensive to repair or replace a home in an expensive metro than a lower priced one.  Overall, there is a positive but modest relationship between home prices and insurance rates. Generally, the more valuable a home is, the more expensive it will be to insure it. 

High homeowners premiums are likely to hike up the cost of living. However, low homeowners premiums in Western metro areas like Seattle, San Jose, and Sacramento at least partially offset higher annual housing costs. In contrast, some seemingly affordable Southern metro areas like New Orleans, Oklahoma City, and Memphis could have some or all of their affordability advantage eroded by notably high insurance premiums. These areas are where insurance makes its biggest impact in the overall cost of living. 

Although homeowners insurance isn’t mandated by law like auto insurance, it is widespread and many homeowners regard it as essential, making it an important element to include in cost-of-living comparisons. Auto insurance likely plays a smaller role in the overall cost of living. Owning and insuring a car is not a requirement in all places, so the lack of need for auto insurance (and other car maintenance) could help lower the cost of living. It is difficult to fully quantify the cost of living across different areas because there is value in the external benefits of different cities. These cost of living comparisons struggle to encapture the amenities which cities can provide for their constituents. Still, insurance has the potential to play a mighty role in the cost of living. Auto and home insurance can require thousands of dollars out of consumers’ pockets each year. The impacts of climate change on our world will increase those premiums. Climate change is making a more volatile and uncertain world. As extreme weather risks intensify, the demand for insurance will as well. The role of insurance will heighten as we move into the future and it will be important to keep in mind how hefty the price tag is across the nation. The role in cost of living may not be entirely significant now, but as the world becomes more unpredictable, we could see the price to protect your belongings rise to new heights.



Note: This post has been updated to provide a link to insure.com‘s website.

Insurance and the Cost of Living: Auto Insurance

Everyone loves to compare the affordability of different cities, and most of the attention gets focused on differences in housing prices and rents. Clearly, these are a major component of living costs, and they vary substantially across the nation.  But as we’ve regularly pointed out at City Observatory, transportation costs also vary widely across cities, and some places that have somewhat more costly housing also have more compact development patterns and less sprawl, and therefore enable their residents to spend less on cars and gasoline for transportation. These differences can create a significant impact on the overall cost of living across cities. We’ve computed the difference in city living costs in our Sprawl Tax report.

There’s another important component to differing living costs across the nation that we think deserves additional attention: insurance costs. Nearly all drivers and the majority of homeowners carry insurance on their cars and homes. Insurance premiums vary widely across the US, based on differences in crash rates, losses to natural disasters, and state-to-state variations in legal standards (as well as other factors). Today we’re going to start looking more closely at these variations—we’ll start with differences in car insurance costs, and tomorrow, look at home insurance.

Car insurance is a requirement for many people living in auto-dependent places. Wide sprawling metropolitan areas often require more miles to be driven for commuting. We are curious about the role that insurance plays in relation to the cost of living. When a car is required to commute to work or the store, insurance is a necessity to protect yourself and the car. The price of insurance is dependent upon one’s personal background as well as the makeup of one’s setting. Location plays a major role, whether it be state policy, natural regional differences, or the composition of the insurance pool around you. Insurance can become a vital and costly expense for Americans. The magnitude of that expense could severely influence the way we view the overall cost of living across major cities. 

Which cities have the least (and most) expensive auto insurance rates?

Using data from TheZebra.com, we compiled the average annual auto insurance premiums across the 53 largest metropolitan areas in the United States. The Zebra estimated the typical premium paid by a 30 year old single male driving a Honda Accord. In the typical large US metropolitan area, the average automobile insurance premium is about $1,800 per year.  The rankings of large metros are shown below. Premiums in these large metros are higher than the overall national average auto insurance premium. In general, rural areas have generally lower rates. Insurance companies base their rates upon the perceived risk at obtaining a claim. The more at-risk the company is at receiving a claim, the higher their insurance rates will be. Cities increase the risk, as insurance companies report that claims are higher in urban areas, thus their rates increase accordingly.

The cities with the highest car insurance rates were Detroit, New Orleans, Miami, and New York. Detroit, by far the highest, had an average insurance rate of $6,280. The Motor City has annual prices approximately four times higher than the median rate for large metropolitan areas. The cities with the lowest car insurance premiums were Cincinnati, Charlotte, Virginia Beach, and Raleigh. These annual rates were all between $900 and $1200, significantly lower than the highest tier. Generally inexpensive cities (25th percentile) and generally expensive cities (75th percentile) vary by $670.

Other living cost estimates, like the sprawl tax, vary differently than auto insurance rates. The sprawl tax in particular has less extreme values, yet a wider range of variation across the middle of the data. The median sprawl tax, $1,302, is less than the median insurance rate by roughly $500. At the same time, the sprawl tax in generally inexpensive cities compared to generally expensive cities is nearly $1000, a greater difference than insurance rates. Insurance premiums in the most expensive cities are by far greater than the sprawl tax. These clear outliers make the distribution of auto insurance premiums standout compared to other living cost estimates. 

Another interesting difference can be seen by examining which cities standout across sprawl tax and car insurance. For instance, New Orleans and New York are two of the most expensive cities to insure your car. Yet, they have the lowest sprawl tax. Moreover, five of the ten most expensive cities to insure your car are all below the 25th percentile for the sprawl tax. Let’s take a closer look at the relationship between miles traveled and insurance rates. Using data from the Center for Neighborhood Technology, we compiled the annual vehicle miles traveled per household across metropolitan areas and compared it to the auto premiums. We assumed that we would see a positive relationship. The more miles you drive, the greater your risk for filing a claim. Instead, we found the opposite – auto insurance rates decreased as annual VMT per household increased.

Insurance rates were lower in the places where people drove more often. Insurance rates were higher in places where people had lower sprawl taxes. Why? Car dependence. In sprawling metropolitan areas, people need to drive themselves to get where they need to go. People are reliant on their cars for nearly all commuting travel, which in turn makes insurance a necessity. Insurance pools grow with more insurers distributing the risk of payout across more people, which consequently decreases rates. Sprawl may have a negative impact on insurance rates because of its impact on the demand for insurance. 

We believe that the structure of insurance policy is a strong contributor in the variation of rates across metro areas. State laws regulate the market for automotive insurance policies, which can be choice no-fault, a tort liability, or a combination of both. A no-fault state means that in the event of an accident, neither driver is deemed “at fault” and both drivers use their insurance to cover their own damages. As a result of this, no-fault states require personal injury protection (PIP) to cover medical costs, economic benefits, and death benefits. This additional protection on top of the ordinary liability can raise prices. Michigan is a no-fault state that also requires personal property insurance (PPI), and Detroit feels the consequences of that. In fact, 6 out of the top 10 cities for annual auto insurance rates (Detroit, Miami, New York, Tampa, Grand Rapids, and Philadelphia) are all in no-fault states. PIP requirements are likely a key player for the higher prices. Starting in July 2020, the state of Michigan readjusted their auto insurance policy to allow the insured to choose their level of PIP. This may lead to reductions in overall costs in the nation’s most expensive city for car insurance.

A city’s demographics are also important to consider when thinking about insurance rates. We have explored discrimination in automobile insurance before at City Observatory. We found that there were higher auto insurance rates in black neighborhoods, even those with safe drivers. Black drivers were found to be less likely to speed, yet they pay substantially more because of living in a predominantly Black neighborhood. A quick look at our data shows that several of the cities with the largest Black populations—Detroit, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Baltimore—face some of the highest premiums of all the 53 largest metros. Race and population demographics could help explain some of this variation in average insurance premiums across the country.

Auto Insurance and the Cost of Living

As we explained in our Sprawl Tax series, the Bureau of Economic Analysis Regional Price Parities (RPP) is the most comprehensive measure we have of inter-metropolitan differences in consumer prices. Variations in rents are the largest component of overall cost-of-living variations between cities. But, how does the variation in auto insurance premiums relate to the variation in housing costs? Does the cost of insuring your car significantly change the cost of living? We compared the BEA’s RPP for Rent with the insurance data below. BEA’s RPP for rent does not include the cost of insurance. Insurance is included within the RPP for services, however it does not hold significant weight on their calculations (only about 6%).  

Comparing insurance rates to BEA RPP’s for rent, we find a slightly positive relationship with auto insurance and cost of living. This trend points us to consider that there might be an increasing effect for auto insurance rates and housing costs. However, when thinking about insurance and the cost of living, it is imperative to consider the quantity of insurance. Whether or not someone insures their car is dependent upon the makeup of the city. 

For example, in New York City, auto insurance is quite expensive, but owning a car is not a necessity for living within the city. The accessibility of consistent public transportation and the walkability of the city remove the need for a car and thus auto insurance. An interesting trend we have noticed in our data is that as annual vehicle miles traveled per household increases, the insurance rate decreases. So, while insurance rates might be high in cities like New York, a car is not a vital aspect of living within the city. New York’s relatively high car insurance rates aren’t a cost burden for the large number of households that don’t own cars. This is similar to our takeaways comparing insurance to the sprawl tax. High insurance rates may be more due in part to a lesser demand to drive a car and thus a lesser demand to insure an automobile. Car dependence makes auto insurance a necessary additional cost of living. However, limited sprawl and accessible alternative modes of transportation create an environment where insurance is not required. While this may cause rates to increase, it does not imply an increase in the overall cost of living. 

The real impact on the cost of living arises when automobile insurance is a required aspect of living. Looking objectively at the rankings does not paint the picture of cost of living. We must consider the auto dependence and the sprawl tax across these metropolitan areas to attribute the cost of insurance into transportation costs. It seems simple: people who don’t drive don’t insure cars. For those who must drive, auto insurance can pose an expensive burden annually. For those who don’t, the omission of auto insurance from their expenses is a valuable amenity. It is important to consider not only how much insurance costs but where the costs are necessary.

All in all, the cost of insuring a car can create a serious dent in your paycheck depending upon where you live. If you move across Pennsylvania from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, your rates could increase by over $1000. The variation between these cities is notable. Racism and the structure of insurance policy may be major contributors, but other factors, like density and land use policy, might help explain this variation as well. Car dependence results in car insurance dependence. When you have to drive, insurance can place a burden onto your budget. This is where the impact on cost of living appears. People can save a whole lot of money annually when they do not need to insure an automobile.


BIB: The bad infrastructure bill

Four lamentations about a bad infrastructure bill

From the standpoint of the climate crisis, the infrastructure bill that passed the Senate is, at a minimum, a tremendous blown opportunity.  Transportation, especially private cars, are the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions in the US.  We have an auto-dependent, climate-destroying transportation system because we’ve massively subsidized driving and sprawl, and penalized or prohibited dense walkable urban development.  The Senate bill just repeats the epic blunder of throwing more money at road building, and even worse this time, drivers are excused from paying the costs of the bill—a triumph for asphalt socialism.

You’ve probably seen “BIB,” Michelin’s famous cartoon mascot for its tires (and tourist guides).  Coincidentally—and perhaps appropriately—BIB is the nickname of the Senate-passed bi-partisan infrastructure bill. and the animated stack of tires is an fitting mascot for the legislation.  It’s all about driving and jovially oblivious to the deep systemic problems in our approach to transportation finance.

Michelin’s BIB is the true mascot of the Bi-Partisan Infrastructure Bill; Two thumbs up for more subsidies to auto dependence, climate destruction and asphalt socialism.

Others, including Transportation for America, NACTO, Streetsblog, the Eno Foundation and Politico have written about the details behind the bill.  You should definitely read their analyses.  But allow us to pull out just four themes—lamentations, if you will—that explain why this triumph of bipartisanship is a disaster for safety, climate, and fiscal responsibility.

1. $200 billion for more deadly, climate killing highways.  The centerpiece of the bill is more money for roads and bridges, which in practice means wider roadways and more capacity.  The Senate Bill writes a $200 billion check for state highway builders, which is likely to fund wider roads and bridges that will generate more traffic, more pollution, more climate-destroying greenhouse gases, and more sprawl.  The National Association of City Transportation officials observes:

. . . the infrastructure bill passed today by the Senate keeps our nation on an unsafe and unsustainable path. It continues to prioritize building the infrastructure that most contributes to the U.S.’s worst-in-class safety record and extraordinarily high climate emissions: new highways. With transportation as the largest source of U.S. climate emissions, and 80% of those coming from driving, the Senate’s bill goes in the wrong direction, giving a whopping $200 billion in virtually unrestricted funding to this unsustainable mode.

Ironically the Senate passed the bill the same week the International Panel on Climate Change released its latest and most dire warning about the damage done by these greenhouse gas emissions.  The Senate Bill not only does nothing, but promises to squander vastly more resources to make the problem worse.

2. No accountability for climate, safety or good repair.  It’s a considerable exaggeration to say we have a federal “transportation policy.”  In effect, while it mouths a national interest in a safe, well-maintained and sustainable transportation system, the Senate bill just continues a system in which the federal government writes huge checks to state highway builders and . . . looks the other way.  There are no requirements with any teeth that hold states accountable for the most basic of outcomes, and the Senate bill continues this system, as Beth Osborne of Transportation for America explains.

. . . the Senate also supercharged the highway program with a historic amount while failing to provide any new accountability for making progress on repair, safety, equity, climate, or jobs access outcomes.

3. Inequitable asphalt socialism, and the cynical joke of “user pays”.  The great myth of road finance in the US is that we have a “user pays” system.  Truth is that’s never been the case, as road users have forever been subsidized, and shifted the social, environmental and health costs of the road system off onto others.  The Senate had no stomach for asking road users to pay a higher gas tax to support roads, so instead, they’ve turned the  highway “trust fund” into the trust-fund baby of the BIB, getting a huge infusion of general fund money, which will simply be added onto the national debt, with the costs ultimately being repaid, with interest, from income taxes.

An analysis by the ENO Foundation shows that the Senate bill transfers $118 billion to the highway trust fund from the general fund, bringing the total amount of the bailout of highway funds to more than $272 billion since 2008.

We know that despite Congress dumping more than $200 billion of general fund revenue into the highway portion of the fund, that car apologists will continue to make the false argument that we have a “user pays” system, and that spending money on any non-auto form of transportation is somehow stealing from drivers.  This bill completely disconnects use of the transportation system from the obligation to pay for its costs:  what we call asphalt socialism.

4. We could have done better.  House Transportation and Infrastructure Chair Peter DeFazio managed to engineer passage of a decent stab at transportation reform in the House, only to see it “gutted and stuffed” by the Senate.

The bill that passed the House earlier this year contained provisions that at least gently nudged expenditure priorities in favor of “fix-it first” policies that would put repairs ahead of expansion, would require at least an effort to consider how highway construction leads to greenhouse gas emissions, and would have held states accountable for actually improving safety (rather than just talking about it).  All that language was purged from the Senate BIB.

Politico‘s Tanya Snyder offers a succinct insider explanation of the politics of the bill from an anonymous former congressional staffer:

“It’s not that it was bipartisan; it was a least common denominator approach,” said the former aide, who worked on the transportation bills that Congress enacted in 2012 and 2015, both of which were hailed as triumphs of bipartisanship. Larger ambitions, he said, “fail to get addressed because of the insistence on staying in the very, very narrow area of bipartisan agreement and we recreate the status quo.”

So what the BIB really does is recycle and perpetuate a badly broken transportation finance system that promises to make our climate, community, health and transportation problems worse, not better.


To solve climate, we need electric cars—and a lot less driving

Electric vehicles will help, but we need to do much more to reduce driving

Editor’s Note:  City Observatory is pleased to offer this guest commentary by Matthew Lewis.  Matthew is Director of Communications for California YIMBY, a pro-housing organization working to make infill housing legal and affordable in all California cities. For 20 years, he has worked on climate and energy policy and technology development at the local, regional, national, and international levels. 

The deadly heat waves, epic floods, and worsening droughts around the world are forcing a reckoning on climate change: We messed up, badly, and the earth’s rapidly destabilizing climate system is the consequence. 

There are many “mistakes” that have brought us to this moment of truth — powering our economies on coal and methane gas, cutting down rainforest to grow beef, soy, and palm oil — but one of the biggest and most intractable: Car culture, NIMBYism, and their  incumbent challenges in energy use, land use, social equity, and human health and safety. 

Cars are not only the leading source of climate pollution in the United States, they’re also the leading cause of premature death for young Americans and a disproportionate cause of negative health outcomes: air pollution and sedentary lifestyles are major contributors to American morbidity and mortality, not to mention the 2 million Americans who are permanently injured every year by car crashes.

But there’s a problem: We’ve spent 50 years tearing down our cities and remaking them for sprawling, single-family house development, entirely reliant on the automobile. The climate crisis is urgent, and we don’t have time to completely undo this mistake and re-build our cities from scratch.

So, the question becomes: How much time do we have? Can we simply swap out electric cars for gasoline vehicles, and solve the climate crisis? The answer: Unequivocally, no. There are simply too many cars, too many of them run on gasoline, and most new cars sold today still run on gasoline. 

To make matters worse, our current urban land use policies are still controlled, in most cities, by NIMBYs opposed to more housing; who defend parking as a divine right; who oppose safe street interventions that save lives and make communities more walkable; and who block efficient transit interventions, like dedicated bus lanes. 

When it comes to climate change, NIMBYism is a huge factor in exacerbating pollution from cars, but it’s also led to the point where we have no choice in the matter: By forcing workers to live far from their jobs, and by allowing the car industry to continue selling gasoline vehicles, we have foreclosed the option of achieving a climate-friendly car culture.

As of this writing, there are 280 million cars and trucks in the American fleet, and 278 million of them run on gasoline. In an average year, Americans buy around 17 million new cars. So, in a scenario where 100% of new car sales were electric in 2021, it would be 2037 before all U.S. cars and trucks are electric (assuming no growth in the size of the fleet). 

But we’re nowhere near 100 percent EV sales in 2021. Current estimates suggest the earliest date when the last gasoline car will be sold is sometime in the 2040s. In fact, the car industry is still focused on selling primarily gasoline cars, and primarily gas-guzzlers like pickup trucks and SUVs. And it’s made clear that its intention is to continue selling these climate-destroying beasts for most of the rest of this decade.  

What that means: It will be a long, long time before the U.S. vehicle fleet will be all electric. Exactly how long depends on a number of variables, but the various scenarios are not hard to imagine — and in fact, experts have run the numbers and are converging on broad agreement:

If electric cars are going to be a part of the climate solution, Americans will have to drive much less. How much less is somewhat of an open question; but the California experience is illustrative. In 2018, the California Air Resources Board did the math on fleet turnover. What they found:

California cannot meet its climate goals without curbing growth in single-occupancy vehicle activity. 

Even if the share of new car sales that are ZEVs [zero-emissions vehicles] grows nearly 10-fold from today, California would still need to reduce VMT [vehicle miles travelled] per capita 25 percent to achieve the necessary reductions for 2030.

Furthermore, strategies to curb VMT growth help address other problems that focusing exclusively on future vehicle and fuels technologies do not. For example, spending less time behind the steering wheel and more time walking or cycling home, with the family, or out with friends can improve public health by reducing chronic disease burdens and preventing early death through transport-related physical activity. 

California’s existing plans for electric vehicles aimed to have 1.5 million ZEVs on the road by 2025, and 4.2 million by 2030. As of 2021, there are 425,000 BEVs registered in the state — meaning the electrified fleet has to grow 10x in the next 9 years, with sales that exceed the best-year ever, every year

But even at that breakneck pace, it won’t be enough to undo the damage done by the one-two punch of the car industry’s focus on selling gas guzzlers, and California cities’ commitment to defending NIMBY housing and land use policies. 

In sum: With all the gasoline vehicles still driving around for the next 15 to 20 years, EVs won’t be able to close the gap in pollution reduction fast enough. We’re out of time.

Others have done their own calculations, with similar results; one of the more recent among these, by researchers with Carnegie Mellon University, did not mince words about the pickle we’re in:

Transportation deep decarbonization not only depends on electricity decarbonization, but also has a total travel budget, representing a maximum total vehicle travel threshold that still enables meeting a midcentury climate target. This makes encouraging ride sharing, reducing total vehicle travel, and increasing fuel economy in both human-driven and future automated vehicles increasingly important to deep decarbonization.

In other words: In order for electric vehicles to solve climate, we need people to drive less. That combination — of less driving, and vehicle electrification — is the only pathway to climate stability. 

Ironically, this problem of the need for fewer cars is entirely of the car industry’s creation. For decades, the industry has fought efforts to make cars cleaner, to reduce air and climate pollution, and to transition their product away from deadly, inefficient, polluting machines to clean, efficient mobility devices. 

If we had started the transition to clean, electric vehicles 20 years ago, it would be slightly more accurate to say we can continue our current, sprawling housing and transportation patterns and rely on fleet electrification. But the car industry has spent those 20 years pivoting to SUVs and pickup trucks as their primary product. 

What this means: Urban land use reform, affordable housing, reliable transit, and safe streets are now top-priority, must-have interventions for climate change. We have to end the era of car-powered suburban sprawl, and make it legal — and less expensive — to build housing in our urban cores, or in the central business districts of suburban areas, near jobs, transit, and services. 

Denser areas not only have dramatically lower carbon emissions from transportation than suburban and rural developments; but they also use substantially less energy per home — as much as 50% less. 

The writing is on the wall. The car industry missed its climate window for electric sprawl, and the NIMBYs forced the issue with their selfish opposition to infill housing. At this stage, if electric vehicles are to play a major role in solving the climate crisis — which they must — they have to be paired with dramatic land use reform that shortens or eliminates a substantial portion of all vehicle trips, and replaces them with transit, walking, biking, shared vehicles, and other forms of mobility. 

Only by combining a rapid deployment of electric vehicles with an equally rapid elimination of the need for most Americans to own and drive a personal vehicle in the first place can we have a shot at climate stability. 



Further reading

America’s berry best cities

Why Boston and Portland are the berry-best metros, and why it matters

Summer is the height of berry season in most of the US, and nothing beats a fresh, locally grown blackberry, blueberry or raspberry.  Today we’re ranking large metro areas in the US based on how many berries they grow (which we’re proxying using USDA data for farm acreage devoted to commercially raising berries of one sort or another).  While you can find at least some local berries almost everywhere, a few places really have an abundance of summer fruit.

The overall leader is the Boston metro area, which is located at the Southern end of the nation’s cranberry-bog belt, and which has more than 12,000 acres devoted to raising berries in the counties that make up the metro area.  Second is Portland, at the head of the Willamette Valley, with 11,500 acres of berry farms, which produces a wide array of berries.  Other top metros include Tampa (a big producer of early season fruit) and Grand Rapids (a big blueberry producer).  Almost every metro area has at least a few commercial farms, but they’re rare in many dry places, like Austin, Denver, Las Vegas and Phoenix.  Of the 53 US metro areas with more than a million population, here are the top 25 metro areas, ranked by acres of berries grown:

Berry acreage by metro area (USDA Food Atlas)

Also near the top of the list, Philadelphia has a wealth of local berry farms.  In the west, they call it “U-pick”; in Philly it’s called “PYO–pick your own” and the Inquirer has lists of farms within thirty miles of center city where you can harvest your own blueberries or strawberries.

The economic importance of local, perishable things

While it might seem like ranking cities based on the presence of summer fruit is a bit esoteric, bear with us.  There’s a really good reason for thinking this is important.  A while back, for example, Paul Krugman waxed poetic about fruit and economic theory.  Krugman was just back from Europe, and thirsting for summer fruits coming into season. That led him to reflect on a fundamental flaw in economic logic, the notion that more choice is always better. The short, uncertain season for his mangoes and figs, makes them all the more valuable, not less so. He observes:

 . . . seasonal fruits — things that aren’t available all year round, at least in version you’d want to eat – have arrived. Mangoes! Fresh figs!  What makes them so great now is precisely the fact that you can’t get them most of the year. . . .The textbooks (mine included) tell you that more choice is always better. But a lot of things gain value precisely because they aren’t an option most of the time. I’d probably get tired of fresh figs and mangoes if I could get them all year round. But still, if you imagine that being rich enough to have anything you want, any time you want it, would make you happy, you’re almost surely wrong.

We’ve written about other things—ranking cities by the numbers of locally owned restaurants, for example.  As the urbanist Jane Jacobs observed its these distinctive local experiences that make places special.  Every city has its own unique strengths—the big challenge is to understand, appreciate and build on them.  That’s what makes a great city.

The Week Observed, August 27, 2021

What City Observatory did this week

Is the campus 100 percent clean energy?  (Only if you don’t count the cars and parking lots).  Stanford University announced that its near to realizing a goal to move all of its campus electricity to solar production, and that predictably generated a lot of positive press, some of which made the more sweeping claim that all of Stanford’s energy was now sustainable.

The university’s statement was more circumspect, and the campus sustainability plan notes that it still has a lot of work to do to deal with so-called “scope 3” emissions (all the greenhouse gases that come from people traveling to and from campus on university business.

Must read

1. Why we need to reduce driving to address climate change.  In an essay for the Rocky Mountain Institute, Brian Yudkin, Duncan Kay, Jane Marsh and Jackson Tomchek  argue that new policies to change land use and encourage more active transportation are central to reducing driving and greenhouse gas emissions from cars.  The essay neatly recites the facts about the central role driving plays in climate change, and sketches out policy options, especially including promoting urban infill development and transit-oriented housing, as well as pricing housing and stopping investments in new highway capacity. They push back directly on the predictable questions about equity, noting that we routinely overlook the inherent inequity of our current car-dependent transportation system.

Transportation investments overwhelmingly favor the personal vehicle over public transit and other non-drivers despite the oversized environmental and social costs associated with driving. Further, because the federal government uses tax dollars to fund transportation, non-drivers are essentially subsidizing drivers.

2. Is Uber burning through its cash reserves?  Self proclaimed ride-hailing “disruptors” Uber and Lyft have made a mark on urban transportation over the past several years.  The big question going forward is whether they have viable financial models. Analyst Hubert Horan has sifted through the two company’s latest financial reports, and concludes that neither is profitable, and both are quickly burning through the cash generated by their initial public offerings.  Uber has tried, during the pandemic to pivot to food delivery, but with no apparent positive effect on profitability.  Horan calculates that Uber had negative 38 percent profit margin on sales in the first half of 2021.  He goes on to argue:

Uber’s operating crisis has seriously, perhaps fatally, undermined the narrative that its stakeholders had accepted for so many years. Customers have begun to doubt their longstanding view that they could rely on Uber to provide service at good prices whenever they wanted.  If current prices persist, they will begin to realize that Uber now costs more than the traditional taxi companies they drove out of business. . . Uber had never “disrupted” urban car service economics. It can no longer provide the subsidies to keep drivers and customers happy. As noted, Uber’s cash position has fallen by over $8 billion since the 2019 IPO. While it still has $6 billion on hand, a company that has lost $28 billion in the last 5 ½ years cannot expect to be able to raise significant new equity . . .

The flood of investor cash that has gone into ride hailing has propped up its adoption and growth, but it’s far from clear that, at least at current pricing levels, that its sustainable.

New Knowledge

Evaporating evidence for the existence and importance of “food deserts.”  Few ideas have gotten more traction, more quickly than the idea of “food deserts”  the notion that some communities, especially the poor and people of color, suffer from poor nutrition because of a lack of nearby grocery stores.  The “food desert” metaphor has a simple, and powerful imagery, but increasingly the evidence for this thesis is evaporating under closer scrutiny.  Already scholars have challenged the purported link between nutrition and store proximity; a new report from the Brookings Institution takes a closer look at some of the problematic analyses of geographic proximity.
Geographic analyses often count the number of stores in nearby neighborhoods and use this metric as a proximity for food access. But as George and Tomer illustrate, this often misses the fact that nearby grocery stores may be technically in a different neighborhood, a problem compounded by the fact that Census Tract boundaries often follow major arterials and stores are located right on the boundary between neighborhoods.
A related problem is that census tracts, commonly used to define neighborhoods, are geographically much smaller in cities than they are in suburbs or rural areas.  In a city, a tract might include only a few dozen blocks, while a suburban tract would incorporate many square miles, overstating the proximity of stores in suburbs relative to dense urban neighborhoods.
George and Tomer also cite USDA survey data showing that few American consumers (regardless of income or car ownership) shop at the nearest store; the average travel to a store is about 2-3 miles.  Looking only at the nearest store or even the immediate neighborhood doesn’t capture actual shopping choices.
While the ability to map purported “deserts” captures the eye and the imagination, George and Tomer remind us that income and financial security, not store proximity is by far a bigger factor affecting nutrition and health for most Americans.  Nearby stores are of little use if you don’t have the income to afford healthy food.  As the author’s succinctly put it:
. . .  food deserts are a red herring in terms of ending food insecurity in the United States. As the USDA stated bluntly in a 2014 study of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) participants: “Geographic access to food was generally not associated with the percentage of households that were food insecure.” Even with perfect, universal access to food retailers, millions of Americans would not be able to afford enough food, or enough of the kinds of food, to meet their household’s needs.
The food desert is a graphically compelling “just so” story that over-simplifies the food security challenge, and diverts attention from more fundamental causes.  As the Brookings authors conclude, we need a new approach to thinking about this problem.
Caroline George and Adie Tomer, Beyond ‘food deserts’: America needs a new approach to mapping food insecurity, Brookings Institution, August 17, 2021. https://www.brookings.edu/research/beyond-food-deserts-america-needs-a-new-approach-to-mapping-food-insecurity/

In the News

Slate’s Henry Grabar quotes City Observatory’s Joe Cortright in his article, “The perverse reason its easier to build new highways than new subways.”

The Week Observed, August 20, 2021

What City Observatory did this week

Cost of Living and Auto Insurance. We often compare the affordability of different cities with a clear focus on housing prices and rents. This week at City Observatory we are interested in the role that insurance plays in the cost of living across metropolitan areas. Location has a major influence in the amount of money consumers pay to insure their assets. A driver in Detroit can pay thousands of dollars more insuring their car than a driver in Chicago. Why? Here, we explore the notable variation of auto insurance across the largest metropolitan areas in the United States and consider the reasons for these differences.

We find that Detroit, New Orleans, and Miami have the highest annual auto insurance rates and that there is wide variation across metro areas. Racial demographics and state insurance policy appear to be major players in this variation. Millions of Americans drive their cars every single day. A car dependent society is reliant on car insurance as well. Rates can make a major dent in your wallet every year and where you live may be the reason why.

Cost of Living and Homeowner’s Insurance. The impacts of climate change on our built environment have been increasing in recent years. Disaster payouts from reinsurers, the firms that insure the insurance companies, were the fifth highest in history last year. As the world becomes a more volatile place, homeowners insurance rates will be adjusted accordingly. In this piece, we examine how homeowners insurance rates vary across the largest metropolitan areas in the United States and how these rates contribute to the overall cost of living. What we found – Miami, New Orleans, and Oklahoma City had the highest rates while five California metro areas had the lowest.

The risk of extreme weather in Southern cities appears to heighten the rates of homeowners insurance. As a result of this, insurance rates in generally affordable metro areas like Oklahoma City and Memphis heighten the overall cost of living, potentially high enough to cancel out the lower rents. Homeowners insurance rates have notable variation across the metro areas. In the future, the price of insuring your home could have a significant influence on the overall cost of living in disaster-prone metropolitan areas as we continue to experience the impacts of climate change. When the risk for extreme weather increases, the role of insurance will increase too.

Must read

1. Vancouver considers road pricing.  No urban center in the United States has implemented an extensive pricing system that charges vehicles for road usage. Vancouver, BC may be the first. Back in 2018, the regional transportation authority, TransLink, commissioned a mobility pricing study. What they found in Metro Vancouver were “increased travel time reliability, reduced traffic and a potential reduction in transit fees, among others.” Last November, the city began a $1.5 million study into mobility pricing. While a politically challenging solution, mobility pricing appears to be a great policy tool for reducing greenhouse gases and encouraging other transportation options. Vancouver is a city with goals to reduce congestion and improve its carbon footprint, hoping to be the greenest city in Canada. If they really desire that title, charging vehicles for road usage may be a impactful solution.

2. Colorado greenhouse gas budget for the highway system?  Colorado Public Radio reports that Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) has published a rule that would tie future transportation system investments to progress in meeting the state’s adopted greenhouse gas reduction goals.  At first glance, this seems like an important step in the right direction:  If Colorado regions aren’t making progres toward greenhouse gas reduction goals, they should shift their spending measure that encourage transit, walking and cycling, and de-emphasize road capacity.  There’s a strong parallel here to the Clean Air Act, which limits highway construction in places that have failed to achieve attainment for national air quality standards.   In broad brush terms, the regulations do that, but with an important asterisk:  they assume that the state will make heroic progress in the adoption of electric vehicles.  What happens, it will be interesting to know, if EV adoption falls short of the state’s very optimistic assumptions?  As always with policy measures, and climate policies in particular, the devil is in the details.

3.Interview with Courtney Cobbs:  Issues of equity and sustainability are deeply intertwined in transportation systems across the United States. Courtney Cobb, co-editor of Streetsblog Chicago, writes about the intersection of these issues, seeking to improve Chicago’s transportation. Here, she answer questions about sustainable transportation in the Windy City. Cobb explains the lack of focus on the city’s transit system and the need for better bus and bike infrastructure. When asked what she could redesign Chicago’s transportation, she states, “The vast majority of our buses would have priority on the streets. So they would have their own dedicated lane, they would have signal priority where the lights change to benefit the bus.” The advocate expresses her vision for the future and how to incorporate equitable solutions into Chicago’s transportation system. Cobb gives an eloquent interview about the current state of Chicago’s transportation, the improvements it needs, and what it could transform into

New Knowledge

Sprawl v. Mid-Rise v. High Rise: Which is best for climate?  A new paper claiming that mid-rise (3-8 story) buildings are the climate-friendly sweet spot for urban development has gotten a lot of attention in the past week.  The claim is that—in Goldilocks fashion—neither low density nor high density development are optimal for building emissions, but that mid-rise development is “just right.”
The paper published in Nature’s Urban Sustainability looks at the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions associated with constructing and operating buildings, particularly residential buildings.  It constructs a series of models of different urban forms, with data calibrated from actual cities.
The finding comes with a huge asterisk, however:  The study only looks a building-related energy use, and not associated transportation energy.  Transportation is a larger source of greenhouse gas emissions that building operations, and moreover, land use development patterns and density have a profound impact on transportation uses, and therefore greeenhouse gas emissions and energy use.  Sprawling development patterns result in much higher levels of car ownership, more driving, less walking, and less efficient transit.  Leaving out transportation emissions is a serious flaw in this study.
The study points to Paris as a paragon of “mid-rise” develoopment in contrast to a high rise city like New York.  Few cities achieve even Paris levels of density or transit availability, which means that  the “high rise v. mid-rise” argument is a bit of a red-herring.  Perhaps more importantly as the work of Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo to reduce car traffic, encourage cycling and promote 15-minute living shows, this higher level of density is a cornerstone to achieving significant reductions in transportation-related greenhouse gases.
Pomponi, F., Saint, R., Arehart, J.H. et al. Decoupling density from tallness in analysing the life cycle greenhouse gas emissions of citiesnpj Urban Sustain 1, 33 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s42949-021-00034-w

In the News

Writing for Smart Cities Dive, Wayne Ting, CEO of Lime, referenced City Observatory’s Eli Molloy work on micromobility in Miami.

“A recent City Observatory study found that Miami’s e-scooter fees charged scooter operators 50 times more than car operators on a per-mile basis to travel on city streets. This is not the way to incentivize sustainable transportation.”


The Week Observed, August 13, 2021

What City Observatory did this week

1. Tackling climate change will require electric cars, and a lot less driving.  We’re pleased to publish a guest commentary from CalYimby’s Matthew Lewis looking at the challenge of addressing the role of transportation in climate change.  Electric vehicles are a step in the right direction, to be sure, but Lewis argues we’ll need to do a lot more to reduce driving if we want to make progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions on the timetable needed to avert global catastrophe, and also to minimize all the other social, environmental and health consequences that flow from our auto-dependent development patterns and lifestyles.

2. BIB:  Bad Infrastructure Bill.  This week, with much fanfare about bi-partisanship, the Senate passed its version of an infrastructure bill.  Transportation for America, NACTO, Streetsblog and others have offer detailed analyses of the bill, aka “BIB” or Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill.  We summarize its contents in the form of four lamentations:  it’s going to squander more than $200 billion, mostly on widening roads that will increase pollution, it has not accountability for actually better results, it is a massive dose of “asphalt socialism” that makes a mockery of the supposed “user pays” principle.  Plus, we could have done so much better, based on legislation that passed the House.  In the end, “BIB” is a fitting name for the bill, as its really the kind of legislation that would chiefly endear itself to the Michelin tire mascot:


Must read

1.  America’s sprawling urban growth.  Where has land development been surging across the country? Which cities have been growing fastest? This interactive Washington Post piece showcases the nation’s land development growth from 2001-2019. The biggest sprawl we’ve seen in the country has been in the South and Southwest. Maricopa County, including Phoenix, has seen the most growth since 2000 with more than 270 square miles of new development. Other Sunbelt cities, like Boise, Las Vegas, and Atlanta, have likewise recorded staggering growth. Housing affordability and availability seems to play a vital role in the inward movement of development and sprawl. Industries have been moving into the Sun Belt which has helped contribute to its sprawl. Demographic shifts also play a meaningful role. As baby boomers walk into retirement, the older population grows, which sustains the growth in Florida and the Southwest, home for many retirees. This piece offers a compelling look at America’s evolution in the new millennium. Go pick where you are from to examine the growth your hometown has seen in the last two decades.

2.  Road design privileges cars.  In 2012, Jeff Speck published Walkable City illustrating a range of ideas of reducing car-dependence and increasing walkability in urban areas. Over the last decade, some of these then-progressive and groundbreaking ideas have become increasingly popular. Here, Governing interviews Speck revisiting topics from his book and discussing the impact of remote work on cities. His answers explore the growth of the urban planning field, its current state, and how it can continue to improve. The polls show that people want more livable cities. In Boston, 81 percent of randomly polled individuals said they wanted to keep the street parklets put in place due to COVID and 79 percent were in favor of keeping the additional bike lanes. While the public opinion is tilting toward walkability, institutions and policies lag: Cars still control the roads. Speck explains this lack of progress,

Intellectually, and in terms of platforms you see among progressive politicians, there has been a lot of ground gained since 2012. But it’s still super hard to get these things done, as we’re seeing now with the reversion of some of these COVID-19 amenities back to the way they were before. Typically, a minority of people who speak loudly are pretty effective in overruling majority public opinion in favor of more walkable places.

Speck also discusses how road design can impact driving behavior and the livability of cities. They talk about the differences across metro areas as well as the significant effects of COVID on the roads. We may be approaching a decade since Walkable City was published, yet its core concepts remain to be important today.

3.  Houston’s Freeway Fighters push back against TXDOT.  Drama surrounding TxDOT’s I-45 expansion project has been rising as the public comment period draws to a close. Its plan to expand the freeway to mitigate congestion has been widely criticized by opponents arguing that expansion would worsen air quality and displace hundreds of families. Opponents have asked for a smaller, less disruptive plan that would lessen environmental damage and neighborhood dislocation. In response, TxDOT has threatened project funding:  “If the project is not approved, a TxDOT spokesperson said last week that the agency could take the money and use it elsewhere.”  Even though the public comment period has ended this week, the fight against TxDOT’s threat and their highway plan will continue in weeks to come.

New Knowledge

The diffusion of technology.  One of the most important characteristics of today’s knowledge economy is the clustering or agglomeration of activity in tech centers.  The clustering phenomenon is well-documented and is both the goal and bane of economic development efforts (the goal is building one’s own cluster; the bane is the difficulty of dislodging activity from dominant clusters to other places.  A novel new study from five economists and financial analysts uses textual analysis of patents, job postings and corporate earnings calls to track the origin and diffusion of new technologies (like cloud computing), from the places they are invented to the rest of the economy.  As the authors explain:
By intersecting the text from these three sources, we are able to trace mentions of disruptive innovations from their original patents to the conversations of executives and investors at large firms, and finally to job postings that advertise positions involved with using or producing these technologies. Using this approach, we are able to determine which innovations or sets of innovations (‘technologies’) affect businesses, trace these back to the locations and firms where they emerged, and track their diffusion through jobs advertised in different regions, occupations, and industries over time.
The study begins by identifying the geographic origins of economically significant breakthrough technologies.  These commercially successful technologies are geographically concentrated in a few clusters (40 percent are in California metro areas, for example), and these commercially successful patents are more geographically concentrated than overall patent activity.
The work shows that technology (and tech jobs) tend to stay concentrated, but do in fact diffuse over time.  One of the more interesting dimensions of the study is its analysis of the connection between technological diffusion and job skill levels.  Over time, as technologies mature, more job listings for low skilled jobs include references to the technology (that is, over time, technology moves from primarily or exclusively high skilled work, to wider cross-section of the labor force.
Similarly, the authors are able to track the diffusion of location of jobs as well.  For any given technology, low skilled jobs diffuse from tech centers more rapidly than high skilled jobs. It takes 20 years on average for low skill jobs associated with a new technology to diffuse, but as much as four decades for higher skilled employment.
Nicholas Bloom, Tarek Hassan, Aakash Kalyani, Josh Lerner, Ahmed Tahoun, How Disruptive Technologies Diffuse, VOX EU, 10 August 2021, https://voxeu.org/article/how-disruptive-technologies-diffuse

In the News

Streetsblog USA republished Matthew Lewis’s City Observatory guest commentary on EVs and reducing greenhouse gases.

The Week Observed, August 6, 2021

What City Observatory did this week

America’s berry best cities.  It’s the height of the summer fruit season and berries are ripening across the country.  Nothing beats a fresh local berry in season. We’ve ranked the nation’s most populous metro areas based on their commercial production of all kinds of berries:  cranberries, raspberries, strawberries, blackberries and blueberries.  The berry-best metros by our measure include Boston, Portland and Tampa.  Here’s the complete list of the 25 metros with the most planted berries.

Berries are more than just a seasonal diversion:  they’re marker of the kind of distinctive local products and experiences that enrich city living.  We quote both Paul Krugman and Jane Jacobs, who wax poetic about how the spatial and the seasonal variations in experiences influence our well-being and the wealth of cities.

Must read

1. Are battery buses ready for Primetime?  Nearly all of the nation’s transit buses run on diesel fuel.  Ultimately, the climate friendly solution to transit will be to electrify, and a few transit systems have been rolling out battery electric buses, with mixed results.  Are these just temporary teething problems of a new technology, or symptomatic of long term weaknesses?  Vice’s Aaron Gordon looks at the experience of Foothills Transit in Los Angeles, which has been operating battery buses for more than a decade.  The big question going forward is whether the problems that have cropped up can be fixed soon enough to help make a difference to the climate crisis.

2. Paris as a paragon of housing affordability?  Sightline’s Alan Durning is currently writing a series of articles called “Winning Housing Abundance.” Paris takes the stage in his most recent piece. Why? Their remarkable fight out of a housing shortage. Before 2008, Paris was a lot like other Western countries. Their big cities were in residential lockdown and stark social divisions could be seen across neighborhoods. After 2008, something different happened in Paris – they built houses, and lots of them. In this article, Durning explores how France did such a tremendous job growing the housing stock in Greater Paris and the lessons we can learn from their policies. Strong national leadership, effective rental support and social welfare, and quasi-public developers helped the country succeed in supplying homes. There was a housing transformation started by strong, inspired political leaders. Every neighborhood in Paris was pushed to do its part, and they provided. As a result, legitimate growth occurred across the entire metro area. Durning leaves readers with one lasting question, “If Paris could do it, why not we?”

3. Malls to apartments?  It’s happening in Salem, Oregon.  As we all know, between the pandemic and the growth of e-commerce, it’s been a tough time for retail. Many chain stores and malls have gone dark over the past few years, leaving unused property and parking lots.  At the same time, the housing market has gotten tighter.  The obvious opportunity would seem to be converting vacant stores into apartments.  That’s exactly what seems to be slated for downtown Salem, Oregon, where a former Nordstrom store is going to be re-developed into 160 apartments.  If it makes sense in a mid-sized city, perhaps there are many more such opportunities in the nation’s larger metros?

New Knowledge

Evaluating equity and effectiveness of climate change strategies.  Many cities around the country are pursuing climate change strategies, and increasingly, there are calls for such strategies to be implemented in an “equitable” fashion.  The trouble is that equity, like beauty, tends to be subjectively defined and be in the eye of the beholder.  A new paper from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government offers some practical advice on how to evaluate various investment alternatives both for their impact on climate and equity.

In 2020, Denver voters approved a sales tax increase dedicated about $30 to $40 million annually to fighting climate change, and directing that monies be spent to pursue equity in the community. (We’ll set aside for a moment a question the author’s sidestep: whether a sales tax (generally regressive) is a sensible way to fund a climate initiative, especially compared to pricing carbon emissions, parking, or driving).

As the authors point out, individual investments tend to vary in their effectiveness and equity components.  While there are some investments that admirably meet both objectives, more commonly there’s a tradeoff between equity and efficiency.  They depict this tradeoff as follows:

Perhaps the paper’s most salient bit of advice is that the evaluation should be done more on a portfolio than on an investment-by-investment basis.  Not every single project will equally advance equity and climate goals.  The objective should be to construct a portfolio that maximizes both, in all likelihood with a diverse array of options.

When building such a policy portfolio, it is important to note that not every program has to be “win-win” in terms of equity and GHG impact, but rather CASR should consider the aggregate climate and equity impact from an entire suite of policy options.

Integrating equity considerations into climate planning has produced many bold pronouncements, but few carefully thought out methodologies.  This is one that’s worth a close look.

Rani Murali & Emily Kent, Equitable and effective climate change mitigation:  Policy Analysis in the City and County of Denver, Colorado, Harvard Kennedy School of Government, April 2021.

In the News

Investment website Seeking Alpha quoted City Observatory’s Joe Cortright on the likely effects of increased gas prices on driving patterns and commercial shopping behavior.

“And when inflation pushes gas prices higher, as it did in 1980 and 1981, there is even more incentive to choose the closest option when grocery shopping. According to an analysis by economist Joe Cortright, higher gas prices result in fewer miles driven. Perhaps you’ve noticed gas prices climbing recently. Consider, too, that Walmart has more stores than any other grocery chain in the United States, making it even more likely that it is the discount retailer that is closest to you.”