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Portland: Don’t move or close schools to widen freeways

Adah Crandall is a sophomore at Grant High School. She is the co-lead of Portland Youth Climate Strike and an organizer with Sunrise PDX’s Youth Vs ODOT campaign, a biweekly series of rallies fighting for the decarbonization of Oregon’s transportation systems.


City Observatory is pleased to publish this commentary by Adah Crandall on a proposal currently being considered to move Harriet Tubman Middle School to facilitate the $1.25 billion widening of the Interstate 5 freeway through Portland’s Rose Quarter.  Crandall’s advocacy was recently profiled in a report by Bloomberg CityLab.  Portland Public Schools (PPS) is considering an option that would close another predominantly Black school (Martin Luther King, Jr., Elementary) to provide a new site for Tubman.

Crandall gave this testimony to the Portland School Board on January 25, 2022.  A full video of her testimony is here:



Good evening board members, my name is Adah Crandall and I’m a sophomore at Grant High School.

I’m here tonight because I am extremely concerned about your proposed relocation of Harriet Tubman Middle School. It’s finals week right now, and I should be studying for my algebra test tomorrow morning. But instead, here I am at a school board meeting begging you to do what is right and not displace students to accommodate the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure in the middle of a climate crisis.

In preparation for this, I spent some time looking into PPS’s bullying policy, because here’s the thing: I think the Oregon Department of Transportation is a bully, and that you all are bystanders doing nothing about it. And I don’t know what you all were taught, but what I learned in your school system is that when you see someone being picked on, you’re supposed to stand up for them.

So why is it that when ODOT’s proposed freeway expansion is literally cutting into Tubman’s backyard and threatening to displace hundreds of students, your response is to just give in and let it happen? The PPS website says bullying is “strictly prohibited and shall not be tolerated,” and to me it seems like you’re breaking your own rule. Why aren’t you modeling to students what it means to be an active ally and stand up against injustice?

As a former Tubman student, I know the pollution at Tubman is dangerous- no students should have to worry about if the air they’re breathing at recess will one day cause asthma or lung cancer. But the decision to move the school rather than fight the freeway expansion follows the same short- sighted line of thinking that started the climate crisis in the first place. Yes, you can move student’s away from the direct threat of pollution, but you cannot move them away from the life of climate disasters they’re inheriting as a result of your decision to support fueling this crisis without making ODOT even study the alternatives.

ODOT has bullied you into thinking this freeway expansion is inevitable, but it’s not. PPS could avoid all the community disruption associated with displacing Tubman and potentially King Elementary by simply forcing ODOT to consider “not building the freeway”. The project just lost a key federal approval last week, remains tied up in multiple lawsuits, and is currently $500 million short. These recent updates are a massive step forward for efforts to stop the expansion, efforts that for some reason, PPS seems to be completely ignoring.

I urge you to join in with the community groups demanding ODOT fully study the environmental impact of the Rose Quarter freeway expansion, which would include studying congestion pricing, an alternative that would reduce congestion and pollution rather than increasing it.

At the last board meeting I attended, I asked each of you to raise your hand if climate justice was important to you, and as I remember with striking clarity, everyone had their hand up. This is your chance to follow through on that promise. Don’t just raise your hands, raise your voices, and raise your standards. If you truly value climate justice, you will not settle for the displacement of students to accommodate expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure into the backyard of a middle school.

If you truly care about climate justice, you will not let ODOT get away with this and destroy my generation’s future. Tonight I urge you to stand true to the values you teach students, and dare to imagine a better world. Stand up for us.


Editor’s Note (March 29, 2022):  Portland Public Schools subsequently decided not to relocate the Harriet Tubman School to the King school location.  It is exploring other locations in Portland’s Albina neighborhood.

Transportation trends and disparities

If you aren’t talking about our two-caste transportation system, you’re not really addressing equity.

Portland’s regional government is looking forward at trends in the transportation system and their implications for equity.  In December, City Observatory submitted its analysis of these trends for Metro’s consideration.

Local and regional leaders are increasingly promoting concerns of equity in transportation, as well they should.  But many analyses of equity leave out the most fundamental inequity in the structure of transportation:  our explicit two-caste system that privileges those who can afford and can operate cars, and systematically disadvantages everyone else:  those too young, too old, too infirm or too poor to own and operate a motor vehicle.  Those in the lower caste are condemned to lives of impaired access to the economy and society, and greater risk of death and injury when they do travel. Many of the other observed inequities in transportation flow directly from this two caste system.

If governments are serious about rectifying inequities in transportation they have to look past symptoms and superficial manifestations to underlying causes.  A careful consideration of these trends will take them in this direction.


Trend Disparities
Portland will continue to have a two-caste transportation system, with priority for those who can afford to, and are legally and physically able to operate a car (the upper caste), and lower priority for those too poor, too young, too old, to operate a car (the lower caste). Most of the other inequities (safety, pollution, lack of access and discrimination) flow from this two-caste system. Low income people, people of color, and the old and the young are disproportionately consigned to being in the lower caste by our car-dependent transportation system.






Portland area transportation greenhouse gas emissions have increased by 1,000 pounds per person annually (14 percent) over the past few years, and show no signs of declining, despite state, regional and local plans calling for a reduction in GHGs. The region will have to take much bolder action than any laid out in the RTP to comply with adoption laws. Climate change caused by GHG emissions disproportionately come from higher income households and lower density sprawling neighborhoods, and disproportionately affects low income neighborhoods.



ODOT plans to spend billions of dollars widening area freeways, which will induce additional travel; Gas taxes from road use don’t cover anything approaching the cost of building and maintaining freeways, meaning that their costs are subsidized by non-users. Freeways are only usable to people who can afford the roughly $5,000 annual cost of owning and operating a car. Car ownership is much lower among low income populations and people of color.   A car dependent transportation system doesn’t work for those who can afford to own a car and those who can’t or shouldn’t drive.
The number of persons killed on Portland area streets and roads has increased steadily. Pedestrians and other vulnerable road users account for half of deaths. Most transportation spending is devoted to enabling vehicles to move faster making roads more dangerous for non-car travelers People of color, low income people, and the young and old are disproportionately likely to be pedestrians, cyclists and vulnerable road users. Spending most transportation dollars on freeways, which are the least deadly roadways is inequitable.
Gasoline prices and gas taxes don’t cover the fiscal, social or environmental costs caused by driving. These costs, which range into the billions of dollars annually, are shifted to non-users.


Under-charging users for the costs of driving results in more driving, and more social costs that would otherwise occur, and unfairly imposes these damages and costs on non-users, who tend to be disproportionately low income and people of color.
Public policies will continue to allow unpriced use of public roads by cars while charging prices for use of transit. Congestion on public streets by unpriced private automobiles diminishes the speed and efficiency of public transit, which lowers its productivity, decreases its services levels and competitiveness, which lowers ridership and increases costs. Low income people and people of color, as well as the very young and very old are more likely to be transit-dependent than the overall population. They disproportionately bear the costs of worse bus service caused by the unpriced use of public streets by private cars.


Public policies will continue to subsidize free on street parking for most car owners at a cost of tens or hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Free and subsidized parking only benefits those who own cars, and disproportionately benefits higher income and whiter populations.
Roads and streets continue to contribute 50 percent or more to stormwater runoff, which causes pollution, and is expensive to fix.   Yet streets and roads, and their users pay nothing toward costs of stormwater collection and treatment. These costs are largely shifted to water users, especially households, many of whom don’t own or drive cars. Low income populations and people of color are disproportionately likely to be responsible for paying costs of stormwater due to costs shifted on to residences.





Adjacency is not a good measure of equity







Currently Metro relies on measures of adjacency (i.e. the demographic composition of census tracts adjacent to transportation infrastructure) to determine whether projects are equitable; This approach ignores the negative effects of proximity to many types of infrastructure, particularly highways)..
Accessibility Measures should be used, rather than mobility.









The performance of the transportation system should be judged by accessibility (the number of destinations one can easily reach), rather than by mobility (distance and speed traveled).   Maximizing accessibility is consistent with the region’s environmental, social and land use objectives; maximizing mobility undercuts key objectives and is more expensive.
Equity is best served by direct payments rather that more spending to increase supply.



Measures such as Portland’s transportation wallet can promote equity by giving more purchasing power and a wider array of options to low income households and targeted populations.
Target VMT reductions. Reduced VMT is needed to achieve the state and region’s legislatively mandated GHG reduction goals. Portland decreased VMT 1.5 percent per year between 2005 and 2013. VMT reduction saves money and stimulates the local economy, which benefits disadvantaged populations. The 1.5 mile per day decrease in average trips between 2005 and 2013 saved the region $600 million per year on transportation expense, which benefited the local economy.
Transportation spending targets peak hour car trips.


Peak hour car commuters have vastly higher incomes than the general population, and those who commute by transit, bike or walking
Green Dividend: Measures that reduce transportation costs have, in the past, created a “green dividend” for local households. Failure to continue to decrease VMT and transportation expense would be a missed opportunity to improve the region’s economy.



Transportation is costly: the average household spends 15 percent of its income on transportation.   Policies that reduce the amount of travel that households need to make, as measured by average VMT, reduce household expenses and increase household disposable income. Transportation expenditures are particularly burdensome for lower income households.
Demand for Walkability. Walkable neighborhoods are in high demand and short supply. More housing in dense, high demand locations results in fewer VMT, lower GHG emissions, and higher use of transit, biking and walking.



More and more people are interested in living in walkable urban neighborhoods, which are in short supply.   The failure to build enough housing in walkable neighborhoods drives up housing prices, and makes it more difficult for low income households to be able to live in walkable neighborhoods, where transportation costs are lower.

Metro’s “Don’t Look Up” Climate Policy

Metro, Portland’s regional government, says it has a plan to reduce transportation greenhouse gases

But in the 8 years since adopting the plan, the agency hasn’t bothered to look at data on GHGs—which have increased 22 percent, or more than one million tons annually.

Metro’s Climate Plan is “Don’t Look Up” 

In the new movie “Don’t Look Up,” Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio play two scientists who identify a planet-killing comet headed for earth.  Their warnings go largely ignored, and by the end of the movie, there’s an active anti-scientific movement, which as the comet becomes visible in the sky, tells its adherents to simply “Don’t look up.”

The movie is an allegory for our climate peril:  faced with mounting scientific evidence about the trajectory of climate change, and the increasingly evident manifestation of heat waves, storms, flooding and fires, too many of our leaders are simply looking away.

And in Portland, which prides itself as being a green leader, the regional government has, effectively been pursuing a “Don’t Look Up” climate policy.

Noble intentions, soaring rhetoric

Here’s the background.  In 2007, the State Legislature set a goal of reducing Oregon greenhouse gas emissions by 75 percent by 2050.  And in 2014, Metro, Portland’s regional government adopted what it called a “Climate Smart Strategy” to reduce greenhouse gasses.

On paper, seems good.

The Metro plan had a few policy ideas for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, for example by expanding transit and promoting more compact land uses, which would enable more cycling and walking.  But for the most part, it relied on expectations that federal and state regulations and car makers would figure out a way to quickly make cars non-polluting.  Recognizing—at the time, at least—that there was a lot of uncertainty in the efficacy of these policies and the evolution of technology, Metro promised that if its efforts weren’t reducing greenhouse gasses, it would revisit the plan and take even tougher measures.

Here it is, eight years later.  How is that “Climate Smart Strategy” working out?

Well, you might read through Metro planning documents, but nowhere in them will you find any data on the change in transportation-related greenhouse gases in Metro’s planning area in the years since 2014.  In essence, after adopting its plan, Metro hasn’t looked up.

But just like in the movie, scientists are looking up.  And what they see, specifically in Portland, is that the Metro strategy is failing—greenhouse gas emissions are increasing, not decreasing, as called for in Metro’s plan.

Here, the parts of Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence are played by real-life Boston University physicists Conor Gately, Lucy Hutyra and Ian Sue Wing.  Their research was sponsored by NASA, published by the National Academy of Science, and their database is maintained by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.  What they’ve done is to create a nearly four-decade long, very high resolution map of greenhouse gas emissions from on-road transportation in the US.  They’ve mapped emissions down to a 1 kilometer (0.6 Mile) square grid for the entire nation, for each year from 1980 through 2017.  (There are more details about the project below). Their data is the best evidence we have on the trajectory of this comet.  And for Portland, the news is not good.

Here’s what their data show for the tri-county Portland metro area:

The green line on the chart is the actual amount of greenhouse gas emissions from transportation in Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington Counties from 1990 through 2017.  The blue line shows the trajectory of emissions needed to achieve the greenhouse gas reduction goals spelled out in Metro’s 2014 climate action plan.  In 2013, the year before Metro adopted its plan, emissions were about 6 million tons.  The plan envisioned the emissions levels going down by roughly a million tons by 2017.  But instead, as the green line shows, transportation greenhouse gas emissions in the Portland area increased by nearly 1 million tons a year after 2013, to 7 million tons.

Metro’s “Climate Smart Strategy” isn’t just somehow behind schedule.  It is failing.  Emissions are increasing, not decreasing.  The comet is accelerating towards earth. So what are the leaders doing?

Not looking up

Metro’s climate plan promised to track emissions.  To be sure, Metro has published annual sustainability reports since 2014.  And they proudly mention the adoption of the Climate Smart Strategy.  But the only thing Metro tracks in these reports is greenhouse gas emissions (and other environmental effects) of its own internal business operations.  There’s absolutely no mention of overall regional trends from the transportation system Metro is charged with planning.  Neither does the 2018 Regional Transportation Plan provide a time series of data showing the trend in regional transportation greenhouse gas emissions.

Metro’s plan also promised to take additional and tougher measures if those in the Climate Smart Strategy weren’t working fast enough.  On page 1 of the 2014 strategy document, Metro committed to periodically assessing its progress and said:

If the assessment finds the region is deviating significantly from the Climate Smart Strategy performance monitoring target, then Metro will work with local, regional and state partners to consider the revision or replacement of policies, strategies and actions to ensure the region remains on track with meeting adopted targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

But if you don’t track your progress, you don’t have to admit you’re failing and you don’t have to  bother with considering more serious steps to reduce greenhouse gases.  Don’t. Look. Up.  It’s a recipe for disaster, and it’s the approach Metro is taking.

The science behind the DARTE database.

The tragedy here is that we have sound scientific data that tell us what is happening.  The research, undertaken over a period of years, sponsored by NASA, gives us a very granular, long-term picture of how our climate efforts are fairing.  You can’t claim to be taking climate change seriously if you aren’t paying attention to this kind of data.

Gately, C., L.R. Hutyra, and I.S. Wing. 2019. DARTE Annual On-road CO2 Emissions on a 1-km Grid, Conterminous USA, V2, 1980-2017. ORNL DAAC, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, USA.

Their results were featured in the New York Times in October 2019.  We alerted Metro staff to the availability and importance of this data in October 2019 (Cortright to Kloster, October 16, 2019).

Why the proposed $5 billion I-5 bridge is a climate disaster

The plan to spend $5 billion widening the I-5 Bridge Over the Columbia River would produce 100,000 additional metric tons of greenhouse gases per year, according to the induced travel calculator

Metro’s 2020 transportation package would have cut greenhouse gases by 5,200 tons per year– 20 times less than the additional greenhouse gases created by freeway widening.

Widening freeways induces additional travel. It’s an established scientific fact:  widening urban freeways prompts more miles of travel and consequently, more greenhouse gas emissions.  The effect is so well-documented that its referred to as the “fundamental law of road congestion.”

Based on a synthesis of the latest award-winning peer-reviewed scientific research and work by scholars at the University of California, Davis‘s National Transportation Center, the Natural Resources Defense Council developed the induced travel calculator that computes the additional amount of greenhouse gases produced by an additional lane-mile of freeway capacity in each of the nation’s metro areas.

The proposed Columbia River Crossing, now re-branded as the “I-5 bridge replacement project”, contemplates a 12-lane wide, 5 mile long freeway between Portland and Vancouver, effectively doubling the size of the existing I-5 freeway and adding 30 lane miles of freeway (3 lanes in each of 2 directions for 5 miles).  Freeway advocates have claimed that the bridge might only be 10 lanes, but as public records requests revealed, the bridge structure is designed to carry twelve lanes, and in many places the proposed roadway is 14 lanes wide.

The Induced Travel Calculator shows that this increase in roadway capacity in Portland would produce an addition 155 to 233 million miles of travel annually, leading to burning an additional 11 million gallons of gas.  That in turn would translate into additional annual greenhouse gases of about 100,000 tons (at roughly 20 pounds of CO2e per gallon of gas).

How big is that amount?  Well, to put in perspective, let’s compare it to the expected greenhouse gas reductions from other possible transportation investments.  In 2020, Metro advances a multi-billion dollar transportation spending project including light rail, bus lanes, pedestrian and safety improvements and other projects.  Metro estimated that this package of investments would reduce greenhouse gases by about 5,200 metric tons per year.

State, regional and local government officials all recognize that we’re in the midst of a climate crisis.  It should be apparent to any casual observer that widening freeways takes us in the opposite direction of our stated commitments to reduce greenhouse gases.  In fact, the best scientific estimates of the emissions from added freeway capacity suggests that widening I-5 would generate 20 times more greenhouse gas emissions than would have been saved by the multi-billion dollar package of projects proposed by Metro last year.  Given the cost and difficulty of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the last thing we should be doing is making the problem worse.

Oregon, Washington advance I-5 bridge based on outdated traffic projections

The Oregon and Washington Departments of Transportation are advancing their $5 billion freeway widening plan based on outdated 15-year-old traffic projections. No new projections have been prepared since the 2007 estimates used in the project’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement,

The two state DOTs are essentially “flying blind” assuming that out-dated traffic projections provide a reasonable basis for sizing and designing and new bridge, and rejecting other alternatives.

The two agencies have spent two years and tens of millions of dollars but not done the most basic preliminary work to accurately predict future traffic levels.

The Oregon DOT has specifically violated Governor Kate Brown’s pledge that new traffic analyses would be done prior to determining the “best solution” for the I-5 bridge project.

The two agencies have no plans to publish new traffic studies until mid-to-late 2022—months after determining a final design and asking for other local sponsors to approve.

The justification for spending upwards of $5 billion on a massive expansion of the I-5 freeway between Vancouver and Portland—a project misleadingly branded as a mere “bridge replacement”—is the notion that there will be a huge increase in traffic between the two cities.  That notion is based on traffic forecasts prepared by the Oregon and Washington Departments of Transportation.  As with all transportation projects, estimates of how much demand there will be are key to deciding whether projects are needed and justified, for determining how they’ll be designed and what their worth, and critically, assessing their environmental impacts.

Traffic Projections for the I-5 Bridge are based on 15 year old data

When it comes to the “I-5 Bridge Replacement Project,” which has been proceeding for more than two years, there are no new traffic projections.  The latest traffic numbers the Oregon and Washington Departments of Transportation are from the project’s Final Environmental Impact Statement, published in 2011.  They predict that without the project, traffic on the I-5 bridge will increase to 184,000 vehicles per day, and produce high levels of congestion.

Columbia River Crossing Final Environmental Impact Statement , 2011, Chapter 3, page 3-30.


These numbers are the same as were presented in the project’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement, published in 2008.  In fact, the traffic analysis for the project was completed in 2007, and is based on traffic data gathered in 2005.


Columbia River Crossing Draft Environmental Impact Statement , 2008, Traffic Technical Report, page 47

How, it is reasonable to ask, is it possible to plan for a $5 billion project without bothering to update the most fundamental data used to design, justify, and evaluate the environmental impacts of the project?

Traffic Projections are Central to Project Design and Environmental Impact

The basis for any major transportation investment is some sort of careful statistical analysis to project future travel volumes.  How many people might travel in a region or a corridor, and what are the various options for accommodating their travel?  The statistical models used to generate these data, should, in theory, inform the design of particular alternatives and shape the choices.  In particular, traffic forecasts are essential to evaluating the environmental effects of alternatives:  which alternative will have lower levels of pollution?

We have many concerns about the quality and biases built into the models used by state Departments of Transportation, but without a doubt, these statistical estimates are in theory, the intellectual foundation for any claims about the need for a project.  Without traffic estimates, highway engineers are simply predicating key project decisions on their personal opinions rather than demonstrated facts.  In this case, the engineers guiding the I-5 bridge project are engaged in nothing more than faith-based project planning.

For the past two years, the Oregon and Washington Departments of Transportation have been trying to revive the corpse of the Columbia River Crossing, a multi-billion dollar boondoggle that died in 2014.  In the process, they’ve told a series of lies, beginning with the false claim that unless they move forward with the moribund project, that they’d have to repay $140 million in federal money spent on planning the original project.  (That’s not true!).

In September, the staff of the misnamed “Interstate Bridge Replacement Program” debuted their final and definitive list of project alternatives.  Every one of them is centered on a something labeled as a ten lane bridge, with typical illustrations like this:

If the past is any guide, the agency will draw pictures of a ten-lane bridge, but then size it to accomodate 12 or 14 lanes of traffic—exactly what they did with the failed Columbia River Crossing.  In reality the project is likely to look like these renderings of the Columbia River Crossing—12- or 14- lane, five-mile long freeway.

In the process, the staff has ruled out a range of other alternatives, like improving transit, instituting pricing, improving local connections, and constructing a supplemental bridge, rather than a replacement.  The staff published a series of memos in August, 2021, claiming, based on technical work done by the original CRC process more than a decade ago,  that these alternatives “failed to meet the project’s purpose and need,” the first item of which is “growing travel demand and congestion.” Whether any of these alternatives can meet “growing travel demand” and result in lower congestion depends critically on the assumptions one makes about future levels of traffic.  Similarly, the as yet un-resolved question of how wide the bridge needs to be also hinges on these same traffic forecasts.

For two years, ODOT has disobeyed Governor Brown’s order to prepare new forecasts first

The need for updated forecasts was recognized when the project was revived in 2019.  At the time, Governor Kate Brown promised that a first order of business would be revised forecasts to shape the project.  On November 18, 2019, Brown said:

“I think what else is key is that we’re going to be doing a traffic analysis ahead of time to help us determine what’s the best solution for the I-5 Bridge Replacement Project.”

Clearly, Governor Brown envisioned that we would do a traffic study first—”ahead of time”—and allow the data to shape decision.  But that’s not what has happened.  Let’s turn the microphone over to Clark County Today, which specifically asked the managers of the bridge project the status of their traffic projections, which were originally promised  in 2019.

It is now almost two years later. Has the IBRP team conducted a new traffic analysis to determine what’s the best solution for the I-5 Bridge replacement project? Clark County Today asked for the details of any traffic analysis.

“The Interstate Bridge Replacement (IBR) program is currently collecting new traffic data and conducting preliminary traffic modeling that will be used to inform the evaluation of preliminary design options that will be considered to identify the IBR solution early next year,” said Frank Green, IBR assistant program administrator. “More in-depth traffic modeling is expected to be completed in mid to late 2022 as a critical component of the federal environmental review process.”

The IBRP team has no plans to release forecasts until after making design decisions

That timetable was confirmed at the December meeting of the project’s Executive Steering Committee.  The project’s schedule calls for developing a resolution defining a “locally preferred alternative” by April 2022, and securing endorsements of that solution by June 2022.


Meanwhile, ODOT and WSDOT have no plans to complete serious traffic modeling—which would address the impact of tolling on traffic levels—for two or three more years.  In its November presentation on its tolling plans, the agencies made it clear that they are putting off serious “investment grade” forecasts—like the ones made for the CRC, which showed traffic on I-5 would never recover to pre-construction levels, until 2025.

What this means in practice, is that the only traffic projections that the project has were the ones prepared for its original environmental analysis.  These were published originally in 2008, and based on 2005 base year data.  As a practical matter, ODOT and WSDOT are planning this bridge based on data that is now more than 15 years out of date.

Pushing for a decision before updating traffic forecasts is engineering malpractice, and violated NEPA

When the project managers say that they need to build a bridge that is at least 10 lanes wide, it’s based on these outdated projections, rather than current, accurate information.  This isn’t so much fact-based engineering as it is faith-based speculation.  They’ve decided the bridge needs a minimum of ten travel lanes, without first doing a traffic forecast. The I-5 Bridge Project’s Manager has made it clear for nearly a year—well in advance of any technical analyses or any new traffic information—that they’ve already decided what they’re going to do.  Clark County Today summarized a January, 2021 presentation by Greg Johnson:

During discussions at Monday’s EAG meeting, Administrator Johnson made the following statement.
“One of the things that I also tell folks, if you’re here and you think we’re going to talk about a third bridge, or we’re going to talk about not doing the Interstate Bridge, you’re in the wrong meeting.  The whether we’re gonna do this has been decided. “

John Ley, “Revelations surface from the two ‘advisory’ group meetings on the Interstate Bridge,” Clark County Today, January 28, 2021.

Saying that the project must be ten lanes wide, or claiming that other alternatives don’t adequately meet the project’s stated purpose and need are, in the absence of traffic forecasts, simply arbitrary and capricious.  The fact that project managers have repeatedly made definitive statements that no other options will be considered, and that the bridge will be ten lanes wide before even undertaking traffic analysis, shows that they have no intention of allowing the data to drive their decisions, and are signalling that they will cook the modeling to justify this pre-made decision about the project’s size and scope.

Concealing or lying about traffic models is nothing new for ODOT. When it released its environmental assessment for the I-5 Rose Quarter freeway widening project, it entirely omitted any data on “average daily traffic”—the most basic yardstick of travel volumes, and also purposely concealed its modeling assumption that its base year, 2015 traffic volumes were based on the entirely fictional assumption that the I-5 Columbia River Crossing had already been built. As we’ve said, this is the opposite of planning.



The Week Observed, January 7, 2022

What City Observatory did this week

1. Metro’s failing climate strategy. Portland Metro’s Climate Smart Strategy, adopted in 2014, has been an abject failure. Portland area transportation greenhouse gasses are up 22 percent since the plan was adopted: instead of falling by 1 million tons per year, emissions have increased by 1 million tons annually, to more than 7 million tons, putting us even further from our climate goals.

Metro’s subsequent 2018 RTP has watered down the region’s climate effort far below what is needed to comply with Oregon’s statutory greenhouse gas reduction goal, based on the assumption that 90 percent of emission reductions would be accomplished with cleaner vehicles. All of Metro’s key assumptions about transit, vehicle turnover, technology adoption, and driving, have been proven wrong. The plan has set a goal for reducing vehicle miles traveled that is actually weaker than the reductions the region achieved in the decade prior to the adoption of the “Climate Smart Strategy.” The agency has not acknowledged the failure of its climate efforts, and is at the same time moving forward to allow the Oregon Department of Transportation to build a series of freeway widening projects that will add more than 140,000 tons of greenhouse gasses per year.

2. Why the I-5 Bridge Replacement is a Climate Disaster. The plan to spend $5 billion widening the I-5 Bridge Over the Columbia River would produce 100,000 additional metric tons of greenhouse gases per year, according to the induced travel calculator. Metro’s 2020 transportation package would have cut greenhouse gases by 5,200 tons per year– 20 times less than the additional greenhouse gases created by freeway widening.

3. Oregon, Washington advance I-5 bridge based on outdated traffic projections.  The Oregon and Washington Departments of Transportation are advancing their $5 billion freeway widening plan based on outdated 15-year-old traffic projections. No new projections have been prepared since the 2007 estimates used in the project’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement.

The two state DOTs are essentially “flying blind” assuming that out-dated traffic projections provide a reasonable basis for sizing and designing and new bridge, and rejecting other alternatives. The two agencies have spent two years and tens of millions of dollars but not done the most basic preliminary work to accurately predict future traffic levels. The Oregon DOT has specifically violated Governor Kate Brown’s pledge that new traffic analyses would be done prior to determining the “best solution” for the I-5 bridge project. The two agencies have no plans to publish new traffic studies until mid-to-late 2022—months after determining a final design and asking for other local sponsors to approve.

Must read

How we build cities matters for climate policy.  Rushaine Goulbourn and Jennie Schuetz of Brookings Metro offer up a comparative analysis of housing development patterns in three US cities (Atlanta, Chicago, and Washington) that sheds important light on the connect between urban density and combating climate change.  People living in denser, more centralized metro areas tend to drive less and walk and use transit more than their counterparts living in more sprawling metro areas.  While historically most housing growth has occurred and the periphery, that’s beginning to change, and our ability to capitalize on the demand for urban living could pay important environmental dividends.  The encouraging sign is that central cities have been doing somewhat better.

However, the urban core makes up a larger share of new housing post-Great Recession in all three metro areas. Since 2010, permits in the urban core were nearly half of total permits in Chicago and more than one-quarter of total permits in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. These trends are consistent with increasing demand for high amenity central cities across much of the U.S.

Misapplying value capture to parking policy.  Writing at Substack, Darrell Owens criticizes the tortured logic that some non-profit advocates have used to try to hold parking reform hostage in a vain attempt to generate additional funds for affordable housing.  It’s long been recognized that parking requirements drive up the cost of development, particularly for the most modestly priced apartments. Policy has focused on lessening or eliminating parking requirements, but the notion that this somehow might result in added profits for real estate developers or land owners, has led some affordable housing advocates to insist on extracting some payment in exchange for rolling back parking. In practice that hasn’t worked, and in contrast, recent experience in San Diego shows that simply lessening parking requirements produced far more construction, including affordable construction than under the more tortured negotiation approach.  As Owens writes:

. . . after parking minimums near transit were abolished in 2018, density bonus units increased by five-fold. This means developers were more likely to provide on-site low-income units after reduction of parking requirements, not less (as predicted by planning value capture theory). And non-profit low-income housing developers massively increased their production during this period.   . . . Real life evidence does not suggest that parking requirements are being traded for affordable units. . . . given what we have learned about the need to reduce auto emissions (EVs alone won’t do it, according to the California Air Resources Board), requiring parking as pretextual planning and praying that private developers will want to bargain it away is courting climate disaster.

New Knowledge

Explaining the induced demand calculator.  UC Davis researcher Jamey Volker presented a webinar explaining the science basis of the Induced Travel Calculator.  The calculator serves as the model for the Rocky Mountain Institute’s SHIFT calculator, and is also being used in California as part of environmental reviews for highway expansion projects.  Volker’s presentation succinctly describes the key mechanisms behind induced travel, summarizes the growing body of literature that confirms the quantitative estimates of its impact, and discusses how the calculator can be applied in environmental reviews.

UC Davis researcher Jamey Volker

The key insight behind the theory of induced demand is that improvements to a roadway, such as additional lanes, or other measures that improve the flow of traffic, have the effect of lowering the “time cost” of travel.  Faced with a lower time cost of travel, people’s behavior quickly changes:  they take more trips, longer trips, trips to more distant destinations, and choose car travel more often.  In addition, over time, household and business location decisions may shift to a more dispersed pattern.  The net result of all of these behavioral shifts is to create additional travel, which quickly returns congestion levels to pre-improvement conditions.

A key problem is that the travel models used by state highway agencies don’t accurately reflect what’s known about induced demand.  Volker explains:

Many models, and particularly the traditional four-step models do not include all the feedback loops necessary to capture the behavioral changes caused by capacity expansion.  So, for example, not many models feed changes in estimated travel times into the trip distribution or trip generation stages of the model, and ignore improved travel times from a capacity expansion could increase the number of trips that households and freight operators choose to make, or cause them to choose more distant trip destinations.

Over the past decade, a series of econometric studies, chiefly in the United States, but also in Europe and Japan have confirmed the specific quantitative relationship between capacity expansions and increased traffic.  As Volker summarizes the research, studies have generally converged on a “unit elasticity” of traffic with respect to capacity expansions:  a one percent increase in capacity is associated with a one percent increase in vehicle miles traveled.

That’s important because in underscores the futility of adding capacity to try to reduce congestion:  more capacity in urban areas simply generates more traffic, undercutting any time savings and increase traffic and greenhouse gas emissions.

Finally, Volker points out that the calculator provides a scientifically-grounded means of efficiently estimating the amount of additional vehicle miles traveled that would be generated by a highway expansion, and by extension, the amount of added pollution greenhouse gases.

. . . there’s a burgeoning movement here to look more induced travel, whether it’s under CEQA analysis or the NEPA analysis in another state, or a joint NEPA analysis in California.Induced travel is so important for these analyses and it’s also important for cost-benefit analyses; how much VMT your project causes has a direct relationship with how much air pollution or greenhouse gas emissions will be emitted, and also what the cost and benefits of the project will be. Is it going to actually reduce congestion and if so, for how long? That could significantly affect the benefit calculus of cost benefit analysis.

Caltrans has already started using the UC Davis calculator in its project assessments, and has provided funding for UC Davis to further refine the calculator.  Other state DOT’s which profess to care about climate ought to be doing the same.

Dr. Jamey Volker, “Caltrans Planning Horizons: Induced Vehicle Travel in the Environmental Review Process.” Webinar. September 29, 2021

In the news

BikePortland quoted City Observatory’s analysis of biased way in which state highway departments use traffic models to downplay the negative environmental effects of highway expansions.

The Week Observed, January 14, 2022

What City Observatory did this week

What does equity mean when we have a caste-based transportation system? Transportation and planning debates around the country increasingly ponder how we rectify long-standing inequities in transportation access that have disadvantaged the poor and people of color.  In Oregon, the Department of Transportation has an elaborate “equitable mobility” effort as part of its analysis of tolling. And Portland’s Metro similarly is reviewing transportation trends to see how they differentially affect historically disempowered groups.

This discussion is fine, and long overdue, but for the most part ignores the equity elephant in the room:  America’s two-caste transportation system.  We have one transportation system for those wealthy and able enough to own and drive a car, and another, entirely inferior transportation system for those too young, too old, too infirm or too poor to be able to either own or drive a private vehicle.  There are other manifest inequities in the transportation system, but most of them stem from, or are amplified by this two-caste system.

Those in the lower-caste face dramatically longer travel times, less accessibility to jobs, parks, schools, and amenities, and face dramatically greater risk in traveling than those in the privileged caste.  In a policy memorandum to Portland’s Metro regional government, we’ve highlighted the role of the caste system, and pointed out that its virtually impossible to meaningfully improve equity without addressing this divide.

Must read

The look of gentrification.  One of the chief criticisms of gentrification is aesthetic:  Supposedly new buildings or new businesses both symbolize and cause gentrification.  A fancy coffee shop, a new apartment block.  But Darrell Owen challenges the notion that these symbols tell us much about the causes, and even less about the cures, for gentrification.

As Owens argues, the cause of gentrification is the increased demand for housing in what were formerly disinvested neighborhoods, coupled with the tendency of new arrivals to insist on “status quo-ism”–trying to keep things from changing.  It’s tempting to paint particular people or buildings as victims, but this misses the underlying causes:

Caricatures like skinny white bike bros or some scooter make convenient distractions away from the longstanding unaffordability that the original gentrifiers often created. Many of the first wave gentrifiers had consumed existing housing back when it was cheap, then made it impossible to add more housing to mitigate additional residents like themselves, thus increasing displacement onto incumbents. Bernal, the Haight, South Berkeley, North Oakland—all these neighborhoods experienced this. “I’m the good one,” the first-wave gentrifier insists. “The neighborhood gentrified only after I got here.”  No, the neighborhood gentrified because you got here.

To Owens, the gentrification occurs because of the limits imposed on the construction of new housing:  It isn’t the new buildings that cause gentrification, it’s the ban on new buildings that has the effect of driving up prices and displacing long-time residents.

Those who fought attempts to grow the housing capacity of our old neighborhood got what they wanted: all the same old houses, parks and stores. But at the expense of the people who had lived there in the first place by trading them for new arrivals. Population growth does not require displacement when you prioritize making space rather than the aesthetic of buildings.

A rural reality check on remote work.  The increasingly wide adoption of remote work in the wake of the Covid pandemic has given rise to renewed prognostications that rural economies will be buoyed by an influx of talented workers from cities.  Writing at Cardinal News, Dwayne Yancey offers a reality check and some cautions.  A first important bit of context is acknowledging that the population decline in rural America is deep-seated and long-lived:  rural counties are older, deaths outnumber births, and much of this is baked in the demographic cake.  While migration is benefiting some rural areas, it tends to be those places with high levels of amenities, and formerly rural counties that have become de facto exurbs by virtue of proximity to strong metro areas.  Also working against a general rural rebound is the continuing decline in the number of Americans who move each year–a trend which continued during the pandemic.  Finally, there’s the issue of “The Big Sort”–Bill Bishop’s term for the increasing tendency of migrants to choose to move to communities where people share their interests.  Migrants from predominately blue cities will tend to gravitate to those communities that echo their values, a finding highlighted in a recent Redfin survey.  As Yancey concludes:

This Redfin report raises the question of whether left-leaning office workers are going to want to pick up their computers and move to conservative areas. If not, then that greatly reduces the opportunities for those conservative rural areas to benefit from any migration of remote workers. Maybe only the conservatives will relocate and maybe that will be enough, maybe more than enough, to make a difference demographically.


New Knowledge

Racial discrimination in renting.  It’s long been the case that Black and Brown Americans have faced discrimination in rental housing markets. A new study measures discrimination in large metro areas.

The study tests for discrimination by sending landlords inquiries about potential rental apartments using fictional applicant names that are highly correlated with White, African-American or Hispanic identities.  For example, the survey sent out inquiries identified as being from Shanice Thomas, Pedro Sanchez, and Erica Cox among others. The study randomly sent more than 25,000 inquiries to property managers, and tallied the rate of responses by racial/ethnic identification in 50 metro areas across the country.

Overall, the study found that those with potential renters with identifiably African-American or Hispanic names were less likely to receive a response from a property manager than those with identifiably White names.  African-American names were about 5.6 percent less likely to receive a response; Hispanic names were about 2.7 percent less likely to receive a response.

The study stratified its findings by city, so its possible to compare the degree of discrimination by region and metropolitan area.  Overall, the study found that discrimination was more widespread in the Northeast and Midwest, and tended to be lower in the West.  It also found that there was a correlation between racial/ethnic segregation and discrimination:  Metros with higher levels of segregation tended to have higher levels of measured rental discrimination against Black and Brown applicants.

The study ranks metropolitan areas by discrimination (as measured by differential response rates).  The following chart shows the response rate differential for African-Americans (left column) and Hispanics (right column), ranked from highest (most discrimination) to lowest.  The horizontal lines on the chart are the 90 percent confidence interval of the estimated differential for each metro area; lines intersecting the zero vertical line are not significantly different from zero.

Chicago, Los Angeles and Louisville have the highest levels of disparity for Black respondents; New Orleans, Columbus and Jacksonville have the lowest.  Louisville, Houston, and Providence have the most discrimination against Hispanics;  Phoenix, Sacramento and Tampa have the least.  Interestingly, the authors report that there is very little correlation between discrimination against Black as opposed to Hispanic applicants at the Metro level.  This suggests that local market factors may be at work.

Peter Christensen, Ignacio Sarmiento-Barbieri & Christopher Timmins, Racial Discrimination and Housing Outcomes in the United States Rental Market, NBER WORKING PAPER 29516.  DOI 10.3386/w29516

In the news

Bike Portland directed its readers to City Observatory’s analysis of Metro’s failing “Climate Smart Strategy.”

The Week Observed, January 21, 2022

What City Observatory did this week

Metro’s “Don’t look up” climate strategy.  In the new film, Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence play scientists who find that the nation’s leaders simply refuse to take seriously their warnings of an impending global catastrophe. Their efforts even produce a backlash, as skeptics simply refuse to look at the sky, even as a planet-killing comet becomes visibly larger day after day.

In Portland, life imitates art.  Metro, Portland’s regional government, says it has a plan to reduce transportation greenhouse gases But in the 8 years since adopting the plan, the agency hasn’t bothered to look at data on the region’s production of greenhouse gases from transportation—which have increased 22 percent, or more than one million tons annually. In effect, Metro’s Climate Plan is “Don’t Look Up.”

Must read

How would large scale upzoning affect land prices?  At Strong Towns, Daniel Herriges argues that the belief that upzoning must always raise land prices is a classic example of the fallacy of composition.  His key point is that they price and market dynamics of upzoning a single lot (or a limited area) in a market with high demand will produce very different effects than a much broader upzoning.  In a world where multi-family development sites are rare, prices would be higher than where such sites were common.  To the extent that small, scale spot-rezonings of property increase the values of those properties, its because such properties are rare.  And the real question is not whether the value of up=zoned properties increase, so much as what happens to the values of already more densely zoned property; arguably increasing the number of properties where more density is allowed decreases the value (or lessens the increase in value) in sites that previously had that designation.

Driving inflation.  Headline CPI inflation reached roughly seven percent last month, and the biggest increases in prices in the past year have been closely linked to the increased cost of driving, as pointed out by the Eno Foundation’s Jeff Davis.  Over the past twelve months, gasoline prices have jumped up 49.5 percent (from their depressed, pre-vaccine lows, and used car prices are also sharply higher, up 37.3 percent.

There are a couple of key takeaways here:  First, our car-dependent transportation system is something that makes most US households vulnerable to inflation.  Second, those who live car-free or car-light lifestyles are actually insulated from many of the negative effects of this particular bout of inflation.  And before you get too upset with the current inflationary peak, it’s worth noting that fuel prices have long been volatile (and will continue to be), and that the current surge in used vehicle prices is most likely a very short-term reflection of recent bottlenecks in new automobile production, something that’s likely to abate in the next few months.

New Knowledge

Chain reaction:  How building new market rate housing increases supply for low and moderate income households.

When new housing gets built, it’s most common that its occupants move from somewhere else, usually in the same city.  When they do, the homes they left are then available to be rented out (or sold) to other households.  These knock-on vacancies aren’t obvious in most common housing data and are hard to track, but are a key way, that, over time, housing becomes more available to households throughout the income spectrum.

In Finland, however, which has a national housing register that tracks the occupants of every housing unit, it’s possible to see what happens when new housing gets built, and how this chain of moves plays out.  A new study from the VATT Institute for Economic Research does just that, using anonymized data to track household moves in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area for a period of 10 years.  Helsinki has a metropolitan population of about 1.2 million.

The authors identify new private market and social housing units built in Helsinki, and track the chains of vacancies created when households move into these new units.  While higher income households tend to move into newly built, market rate units, the housing that these households vacate tends to then be occupied by successively lower income households.  The key finding, quantitatively, is that the construction of 100 new market rate units in central Helsinki leads to 60 housing vacancies in the bottom half of the neighborhood income distribution, and of these, about 29 are in the bottom quintile of the neighborhood income distribution.  As the authors conclude:

. . . people moving into the new centrally located buildings . . .  have much higher incomes and are more likely to be highly-educated than both the Helsinki Metropolitan Area (HMA) population on average and the people who move to other locations in the HMA during our time window. New housing built in expensive areas of the city does indeed primarily house the better-off. However, the moving chains triggered by these new units reach middle- and low-income neighborhoods quickly, within a year or two. Our register data also allows us to show that low-income individuals are part of the moving chains. This is direct revealed-preference evidence that low-income individuals in the city area also benefit from new expensive housing, even when the new units are allocated to individuals higher up in the income distribution.

The findings of the Finnish study closely mirror research by Evan Mast for US cities.  Mast found that the construction of new market rate apartments in the US led to a chain of moves which resulted in increased housing opportunities for low and moderate income households, a process we likened to adding more chairs in a game of musical chairs.

In addition to tracking chains for market rate housing, the authors also track moving chains created by the construction of publicly subsidized social housing.  Construction of 100 new units of social housing leads to 75 housing vacancies in the bottom half of the neighborhood income distribution, of which 43 are in the bottom quintile.  This means that while social housing does provide more housing supply for lower income households, market rate production does nearly as well.  These charts compare moving chains market rate (right) and social housing (left) by income group.  While more than half of market rate units are initially occupied by housings in the top income quintile (>P80, pink), their share steadily declines in successive rounds, and below middle (<P50, blue) and lower income (<P20, gray), take most units in later rounds.  The pattern of vacancies by income group in rounds 4-6 are very similar for social and market rate housing, suggesting that both kinds of increment to supply ultimately result housing for low and moderate income households.

This finding echoes a result obtained by Chapple and Zuk in their study of the Bay Area which found that the construction of two new units of market rate housing had the same effect in reducing displacement as constructing one unit of subsidized affordable housing.

Bratu, Cristina & Harjunen, Oskari & Saarimaa, Tuukka, 2021. “City-wide effects of new housing supply: Evidence from moving chains,” Working Papers 146, VATT Institute for Economic Research.

The Week Observed, January 28, 2022

What City Observatory did this week

Why Portland shouldn’t be moving elementary and middle schools to widen freeways.  We’re pleased to publish a guest commentary from Adah Crandall, a high school sophomore and climate activist, who recently testified to the Portland School Board in opposition to move two schools to accommodate the Rose Quarter I-5 freeway widening project.  Crandall and others have been protesting the project weekly at Oregon Department of Transportation headquarters in Portland, and spoke out against the project’s impact on school kids:

As a former Tubman student, I know the pollution at Tubman is dangerous- no students should have to worry about if the air they’re breathing at recess will one day cause asthma or lung cancer. But the decision to move the school rather than fight the freeway expansion follows the same short- sighted line of thinking that started the climate crisis in the first place. Yes, you can move student’s away from the direct threat of pollution, but you cannot move them away from the life of climate disasters they’re inheriting as a result of your decision to support fueling this crisis without making ODOT even study the alternatives.

Crandall invoked the school district’s own anti-bullying policy, urging them not to be bullied by the Oregon Department of Transportation, and instead, to stick up not only for the interest of their students, but for the district’s professed interest in fighting climate change.

Must read

Housing supply and rents in Tokyo:  20 percent more apartments = 10 percent lower rents.  Tokyo is one of the world’s largest and densest cities, and surprisingly, has relatively affordable housing.  And recent data suggest that the city has managed to expand its housing supply and lower rents.  The following charts were prepared by Urban  and posted on Twitter, and are based on Japanese statistics.  Between 2008 and 2018, nominal rents per tatami mat (a Japanese metric for expressing home size, notionally similar to rooms) fell from about 6,400 yen to 5,800, a decline of almost 10 percent.  At the same time, the total number of privately rented apartments in the Tokyo Prefecture increased by almost 20 percent, from 2.2 million to 2.7 million.

Unlike US cities, Tokyo has land use laws which readily allow increased density in urban areas, making it easy to increase housing supply where there is demand.  The result seems clear:  allowing more housing to be built causes rents to decline.

Road Warriors:  Climate concerns collide with freeway widening plans in PortlandBloomberg’s Laura Bliss offers an in-depth exploration of the controversy brewing in Portland over plans to widen the I-5 freeway at the Rose Quarter.  (Our lead commentary is authored by Adah Crandall, who’s profiled in the CityLab article.)  It’s not just a local battle:  around the country, state highway departments are dusting off long dormant highway expansion plans, thanks in no small measure to the availability of billions of additional federal dollars as part of the new infrastructure law.  Those projects are colliding head on with the climate pledges that states and cities have made.  Transportation is now the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the US, and the phenomenon of induced demand means that additional roadway capacity not only fails to alleviate congestion, but it adds to vehicle travel, and increases greenhouse gas emissions.  Young climate advocates in Portland have clearly grasped the connection between wildfires and 117 degree days and ODOT’s plans to widen freeways, and they’re calling political leaders to account for the generational inequity of these projects.

What causes homelessness:  Drug abuse or housing shortages?  Michael Schellenberg’s popular new book “San Fransicko:  Why progressives ruin cities” tries to make the case that drug abuse and decadent and permissive policies, not housing shortages, are behind the rise of homelessness in many western cities.  It’s a provocative hypothesis, and there’s little question that drug addiction is correlated with homelessness, but Ned Resnikoff of The University of California San Francisco’s Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative deeply disputes Schellenberg’s thesis.  Resnikoff offers a thoughtful critique of the book, and digs deep into several key studies underlining the correlation between housing costs and homelessness.  For example, he points to this from the Harvard Joint Center of Housing Studies:

There’s little question that the causes, and solutions for homelessness are complicated.  And, as Resnikoff emphasizes the relationship between drugs and homelessness is bi-directional:  those troubled by drug addiction are more vulnerable to homelessness; those who lose their housing are more susceptible to drugs.  Trying to claim that housing availability and housing costs aren’t the root problem doesn’t bring us closer to a solution.