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Freeway widening for whomst?

Widening freeways is no way to promote equity.  The proposed $5 billion widening of I-5 between Portland and Vancouver is purportedly being undertaken with “an equity lens,” but widening Portland’s I-5 freeway serves higher income, predominantly white workers commuting from Washington suburbs to jobs in Oregon.

The median income of peak hour, drive alone commuters to Oregon from Clark County is $106,000; significantly higher than for the region as a whole (about $78,000).  

More than 53 percent of peak hour drive alone commuters are from households with incomes over $100,000; fewer than 15 percent of these peak hour car commuters have incomes under $50,000 annually.

Some 86 percent of peak hour, drive-alone commuters are non-HIspanic whites, according to the 2019 American Community Survey; only 14 percent of these peak hour car commuters are persons of color.  Peak hour drivers are half as likely to be people of color (14 percent) as are residents of the region (28 percent).

Clark County is less diverse than the rest of the Portland metro area; its residents of color are vastly more likely to work at jobs in Clark County than to commute to jobs in Oregon.

The proposal to spend $5 billion to widen a 5-mile stretch of I-5 between Portland and Vancouver is being marketed with a generous dose of equity washing.  While it is branded the “Interstate Bridge Replacement” or IBR,  replacing the bridge is less than a quarter of the total cost; most of the expense  involves plans to double the width of the freeway to handle more peak hour traffic. The project has gone to some lengths to characterize suburban Clark County as an increasingly diverse population to create the illusion that the freeway widening project is primarily about helping low and moderate income households and people of color travel through the region.  A quick look at Census data shows these equity claims are simply false.  Peak hour freeway travelers commuting from homes in Washington to jobs in Oregon are overwhelmingly wealthy and white compared to the region’s average resident.


Equity? A proposed super-sized $5 billion freeway would mostly serve peak hour commuters with incomes over $100,000, 86 percent of whom are non-HIspanic whites.

What this project would do is widen from 6 lanes, to as many as 14 lanes, five miles of Interstate 5 between Portland and Vancouver.  The principal reason for the project is a claim that traffic volumes on I-5 cause the road to be congested.  But congestion is primarily a peak hour problem, and is caused by a large and largely uni-directional flow of daily commuter traffic.  About 60,000 Clark County residents work at jobs in Oregon, and they commute across either the I-5 or I-205 bridges.  Fewer than a third that many Oregonians work in Clark County, with the result being that the principal traffic tie-ups coincide with workers driving from Clark County in the morning, and back to Clark County in the evening.  Plainly, this is a project that is justified largely on trying to provide additional capacity for these commuters.  That being the case, who are they?

Census data show that the beneficiaries of the IBR project would overwhelmingly be whiter and higher income than the residents of the Portland metro area.  As with most suburbs in the United States, Clark County’s residents, who are those most likely to use the IBR project, are statistically whiter and wealthier than the residents of the rest of the metropolitan area.  In addition, the most regular users of the I-5 and I-205 bridges are much more likely to be white and higher income than the average Clark County resident.  This is especially true of peak hour work commuting from Clark County Washington to jobs in Oregon, which is disproportionately composed of higher income, non-Hispanic white residents.

Peak hour, drive-alone commuters are overwhelmingly white and wealthy

Data from the American Community Survey enable us to identify the demographic characteristics of peak hour, drive-alone commuters going from Clark County Washington to jobs in Oregon on a daily basis. Here are the demographics of the nearly 20,000 workers who drive themselves from Clark County to jobs in Oregon, and who leave their homes between 6:30 AM and 8:30 AM daily.  Some 53 percent of peak hour, drive-alone commuters from Clark County to Oregon jobs lived in households with annual incomes of more than $100,000.  The median income of these peak hour drivers was $106,000 in 2019, well above the averages for Clark County and the region.

Fully 86 percent of the peak hour, drive-along commuters from Clark County to Oregon jobs were non-Hispanic whites.  Only about 14 percent of these peak hour drivers were persons of color.  The racial/ethnic composition of these peak hour car commuters is far less diverse than that of Clark County, or the region.  Clark County workers who work in Clark County are about 50 percent more likely to be people of color than those who commute to jobs in Oregon.

Clark County is whiter and wealthier than the region and Portland

Suburban Clark County, Washington is whiter and wealthier than the rest of the Portland metropolitan area, and the City of Portland. Clark County may be more racially and ethnically diverse than it once was, but so is the entire nation.  And it’s still disproportionately whiter and wealthier than the rest of the region.  Only about 23 percent of its residents are people of color, compared to about 38 percent for the region as a whole, and about 30 percent for Portland, according to the 2019 American Community Survey. Clark County’s median household income of $80,500 is higher than for the region ($78,400) and for the City of Portland ($76,200).

Few low income and workers of color commute to Oregon from Clark County

Not only is Clark County less diverse than the rest of the Portland region, only a small fraction of its low income workers and workers of color commute to jobs in Oregon at the peak hour.  More than ten times as many low income workers and workers of color who live in Clark County work at jobs in Clark County than commute to jobs in Oregon.  About 38,000 Clark County workers in households with incomes of $50,000 or less work at jobs in Clark County; only about 2,800 are peak hour, drive-alone commuters to jobs in Oregon.  About 31,000 Clark County workers of color work at jobs in Clark County.  If we’re concerned about addressing the transportation needs of low income workers and workers of color in Clark County, we should probably focus our attention on the vast majority of them who are working at jobs in the county, not the comparatively small number commuting to Oregon.

Middle and upper income households are far more likely to commute to jobs in Oregon

In general, for Clark County residents, the higher your income, the more likely you are to commute to a job in Oregon.  Only about 1 in 5 workers in households with incomes less than $40,000 in Clark County commute to jobs in Oregon.  About 30 percent of workers in middle and upper income families in Clark County commute to Oregon jobs, meaning that these higher income households are about 50 percent more likely to commute to jobs in Oregon than lower income households.


Data notes

Data for this post is from 2019 American Community Survey, via the indispensabile  University of Minnesota IPUMS project:

Steven Ruggles, Sarah Flood, Ronald Goeken, Josiah Grover, Erin Meyer, Jose Pacas and Matthew Sobek. IPUMS USA: Version 10.0 [dataset]. Minneapolis, MN: IPUMS, 2021.

The I-5 bridge “replacement” con

Oregon and Washington highway builders have re-branded the failed Columbia River Crossing as a “bridge replacement” project:  It’s not.

Less than 30 percent of the cost of the nearly $5 billion project is actually for replacing the existing highway bridge, according to independent accountants.

Most of the cost is for widening the freeway and rebuilding interchanges for miles north and south of the bridge crossing, replacing the current bridge is somewhere between $500 million and one billion.

Calling $5 billion, 5-mile long freeway a “replacement bridge” is like saying if you buy a new $55,000 truck it’s a “tire replacement.” 

Nearly a decade ago, the “Columbia River Crossing—the multi-billion dollar plan to build a wider I-5 freeway between Portland and Vancouver—collapsed of its own fiscal weight, after both the Oregon and Washington Legislatures refused to pony up an estimated $450 million each (as well as signing a blank check to cover future cost overruns and revenue shortfalls). Project advocates delayed for as long as they could revealing the project’s true price tag and actually asking for the money, and when they finally did, legislators balked.

Promoters of the newly re-chrisented “Interstate Bridge Replacement (IBR) Program” have been assiduous in their efforts not to talk about the scale or cost of the project. In two years, they’ve yet to produce a single, new comprehensive illustration of the project—something that’s a standard fare in megaprojects.

That new name is part of the sale pitch.  Ever since attempting to breathe life back into the failed Columbia River Crossing project, the Oregon and Washington Departments of Transportation and their coterie of consultants have been engaged in an extensive effort to rebrand the project to make it more salable. (According to Clark County Today, over the past two years, $5.3 million—more than a quarter of the project’s $21 million spending—has been for “communications.”)

It’s no longer ever referred to as  the “Columbia River Crossing”—although the project’s expensive PR consultants failed to get that talking point to the White House, as President Biden recently referred to it by it’s obsolete moniker.  instead, it’s the far more modest “I-5 bridge replacement program”.  The project’s public materials talk mostly about the existing bridge, and as we’ve noted, almost never reveal that the total project is 5 miles long, that it contemplates widening this stretch of freeway to 12 (or more lanes), will cost upwards of $5 billion, and require minimum tolls of $5 for every round trip across the river.  Project staff are even leery of letting anyone look at computer renderings of the project.

The drawings of the Columbia River Crossing hint at just how massive this project would be.  The following animated GIF shows the design for the CRC as it crosses Hayden Island, superimposed on an aerial view of the existing freeway.  And none of what’s shown in this particular illustration includes the actual bridge structure crossing the Columbia River (which would be out of frame to the left).

The plans for Hayden Island show that much of the area would be paved over in a complex web of on- and off-ramps, flyovers, and multi-lane arterials.  Little wonder the residents of the island are strongly opposed to the project, saying:  “the massive footprint over Hayden Island .  .  . will destroy our community.”  (Hi-Noon Newsletter, January 26, 2022).

On and off ramps for the Columbia River Crossing on Hayden Island, south of the Columbia River.

Calling it just a “replacement” is PR gimmick to conceal all these elements of the project.  But it also conceals where the real money is going:  the reality is that the “replacement” of the two existing I-5 bridges, is just a small part of the project’s total costs—less than 30 percent according to independent estimates.

The “bridge” part of the IBR is less than 30 percent of total costs

In 2012, forensic accountant Tiffany Couch undertook a detailed audit of the CRC cost estimates.  Her analysis showed that the portion of project costs attributable to the bridge structure was $796.5 million—just a shade under $800 million.  Her analysis showed these costs represented just 23 percent of the total $3.49 billion price tag for the entire project..

Acuity Group, Inc., Report #6 Columbia River Crossing – Cost Allocation Discrepancies, April 8, 2013

The estimates by Acuity Group differ from the summary level budget breakdowns publicly distributed at the time by the CRC project staff.   According to Acuity, CRC transferred a portion of the costs associated with interchange overpass construction to the “bridge” portion of the project, effectively understating the cost of the freeway widening on either side of the river, and overstating the cost of the river crossing itself:

According to the CRC’s own detailed budgets, the costs to build the interchanges in Oregon and Washington are expected to cost hundreds of millions more than what is being reported to legislators, public officials, and the citizens of Oregon and Washington. Conversely, the CRC’s own detailed budget shows that the cost to tear down and rebuild the interstate bridge is hundreds of millions less than what is being reported.

According to the forensic accountants, ODOT and WSDOT shifted a portion of the cost of reconstructing interchanges north and south of the bridge by allocating all of the costs associated with overpass structures for these interchanges to the category “interstate bridge”:

. . . we found that when we allocated the cost of the overpasses associated with each interchange to the cost of the interstate bridge, we were able to reconcile to the CRC’s public communications and maps.

Replacing the existing bridge capacity might be only $500 million

Even at $800 million, this price estimate is too high to count as a “replacement” cost, because  much of the cost is associated with increasing the bridge’s capacity to 12 lanes, rather than simply replacing the existing 6 traffic lanes.  Inasmuch as the CRC plan calls for building two side-by-side bridges (each about 90 feet wide), the cost of “replacing” the existing structure with a new one is just the cost of one of these two bridges.  That means the cost of a like-for-like bridge replacement would be less than $500 million.

The CRC and IBR projects are proposing two new bridges: only one is a “replacement;” the other is an expansion.

It also now appears that the revived IBR project will be even larger and more expensive than the CRC.  For example, it has at a minimum added in some expenses that were cut out of the final CRC design, such as the North Portland Harbor Bridge, spanning the a slough south of the Columbia River (which would add about $200 million to the project’s cost).

What this means is that, if the “IBR’ were just about replacing the I-5 Columbia River bridges, its cost would be far smaller—in all likelihood less than $1 billion.  A right-sized bridge would be much more affordable, and wouldn’t raise the strong environmental objections that are associated with the DOTs freeway widening plans.

The IBR Project is still hiding the cost

The epic failure of the Columbia River Crossing had everything to do with the project’s unwillingness to talk frankly about finances, and the same mistake is being repeated this time as well.  It’s fair to ask, why should we rely on ten-year old cost estimates in sussing out the actual cost of “replacing” the current bridges?

The reason is that, so far, after more than two years of work to revive the project, ODOT and WSDOT have yet to produce any new cost estimates.  Their “draft” financial plan, released in November 2020, is based on the old CRC budget, with some adjustments for inflation.  In the past year, none of the meetings of the “Executive Steering Group” supposedly charged overseeing the project has discussed project costs or financing.

The fact that the project hasn’t done new, ground-up cost estimates isn’t an oversight—it’s a conscious strategy, to avoid revealing the true cost and scale of the project—and subjecting themselves to the kind of scrutiny offered in the Acuity forensic analysis of the CRC budget.

It’s a bit like going to the car dealership to get a new set of radials for your fifteen-year old F150, and coming back home in a  new $50,000 pickup truck, and telling your spouse that it’s a “tire replacement” program.

It’s always been a bloated boondoggle

In less guarded moments, influential local politicians have been outspoken about the excessive costs generated by ODOT and WSDOT.   Congressman Peter DeFazio famously declared the Columbia River Crossing project to be a gold-plated monstrosity.  In the Oregonian on August 14, 2011, Representative DeFazio said:

“I kept on telling the project to keep the costs down, don’t build a gold-plated project,” a clearly frustrated DeFazio said. “How can you have a $4 billion project? They let the engineers loose, told them to solve all the region’s infrastructure problems in one fell swoop… They need to get it all straight and come up with a viable project, a viable financing plan that can withstand a vigorous review.”
(Manning, Jeff. “Columbia River Crossing could be a casualty of the federal budget crunch”, The Oregonian, August 14, 2011).
Later, Representative DeFazio told Oregon Public Broadcasting:
“I said, how can it cost three or four billion bucks to go across the Columbia River?  . . . The Columbia River Crossing problem was thrown out to engineers, it wasn’t overseen: they said solve all the problems in this twelve-mile corridor and they did it in a big engineering way, and not in an appropriate way.”
“Think Out Loud,” Oregon Public Broadcasting, August 18, 2011.

The irony is that if this project were just about replacing the bridge, rather than building a massive freeway, not only would the project be vastly cheaper, there’d almost surely be less public opposition to the project.  The objection isn’t to having a safe, functional bridge, its to building a giant highway that will worsen pollution and bankrupt taxpayers and commuters.

ODOT’s forecasting double standard

Oregon’s highway agency rigs its projections to maximize revenue and downplay its culpability for climate challenge

ODOT has two different standards for forecasting:  When it forecasts revenue, it says it will ignore adopted policies–especially ones that will reduce its revenue.  When it forecasts greenhouse gas emissions, assumes policies that don’t exist–especially ones that will magically make greenhouse gas emissions decline.

Revenue forecasts are “purely based on historical data” and don’t include adopted policies.  Greenhouse gas emission forecasts are based on “goals” and “wishes” and are explicitly not an extrapolation of past trends.

The inflated revenue forecasts are used to justify (and help fund) highway widening; the greenhouse gas emission forecasts are used to absolve the agency from any responsibility to reduce driving related greenhouse gas emissions.

As we’ve pointed out, the Oregon Department of Transportation keeps two sets of books when it comes to climate emissions.  It tells the public that it cares about climate and greenhouse gas emissions in its largely performative “Climate Action Plan,” but when it comes to the agency’s budget, it tells financial markets it’s counting on Oregonians burning just as much gas—and creating just as much carbon pollution—a decade from now as they do today.

ODOT’s officials have defended their revenue forecasts as being merely passive representations of current trends, unaffected and unfiltered by state policy objectives.  Somehow these actions that produce revenue are beyond either their control or responsibility.

But when it comes to the agency’s climate plan, they’ve gone out of their way to make highly speculative assumptions that all kinds of other actors—consumers, automobile manufacturers, the federal government and other state agencies—will make radically different decisions or implement entirely new policies that lead to reductions in greenhouse gases.

ODOT has a double-standard for forecasting—when it comes to forecasting climate, and especially establishing its responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions—it will make elaborate and speculative assumptions about other people doing things that will make the problem go away.  When it comes to estimating its own revenue (which it then uses to justify building new roadways and borrowing for more), it assumes that nothing will change and that it can safely ignore already adopted legal requirements to implement congestion pricing and limit greenhouse gases—both of which will reduce gas tax revenue.  It’s a deceitful, inconsistent and self-serving approach to forecasting.

ODOT Revenue Forecasts:  We assume nothing will change and ignore our own adopted laws.

Earlier, we pointed out that ODOT’s revenue forecasts are utterly at odds with claims it will reduce transportation greenhouse gas emissions, as mandated by state law, and directed by Governor’s executive order.  ODOT representatives defended their forecasts in the media by saying that the agency’s forecasting approach was merely to extrapolate existing trends, and that its forecasts were in no way a reflection of its policy objectives.

Here’s ODOT spokesman Don Hamilton responding to Willamette Week.

“ODOT revenue forecasts are based purely on consumer patterns and historical data,” says ODOT spokesman Don Hamilton. “They are not based on what we want to see.”

The forecasts also don’t take into account the reductions in driving that may come with “congestion pricing” or other ODOT initiatives, Hamilton says.

“As Oregon executes many of its climate-focused programs, we expect gas sales to decline, and we will revise our gas sales forecasts to reflect those changes as they occur.”

Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Dave Miller pushed the agency’s top planner, Amanda Pietz to explain the discrepancy:

Dave Miller: . . .  I want to focus on a new critique that I’m sure you’re aware of. It came about a week and a half ago from the frequent ODOT critic Joe Cortright, the economist. He put out a report digging into the agency’s estimates given to financial markets about expected gasoline tax revenues through the end of this decade. This was his summary: “What ODOT official revenue forecasts are telling us is that the agency fully expects us to be generating just as much greenhouse gasses from driving in 2030 as we are today. Indeed,” he wrote, “the agency is counting on it to pay its bills.” Amanda Pietz, how do you explain this?

Amanda Pietz: I think it goes back to the earlier statement I was making. When we do our revenue forecasts it’s often looking back at the trends then and projecting those forward without necessarily seeing some of the interventions take hold and create those changes.[Emphasis added].

Dave Miller: I’m slightly confused by that, and that jibes with what an ODOT spokesman said when there was an article about it this week in Willamette Week. But aren’t you supposed to give bond markets a projection that is as accurate as possible? If the whole point is [to say] “trust us, we’ve got revenue coming in, we can back these bonds and here’s our estimate for how the money is going to be coming in,” why don’t you factor in all the things you say you’re going to be doing so economic markets can know to trust you?

Amanda Pietz: Part of what is done when we look at things is [that] we have to rely on something very solid – a clear policy change, a solidified investment that’s been amended into our investment strategy in a way that’s very clear, it’s solid. I think what you’re seeing is an agency that’s recognized that we’re a contributor to the problem in the last year and [is] starting to make some changes and modifications. Now when those take hold and the degree to which they’re solidified [so] that we can roll them into our financial assumptions, my guess is another six months to a year before you start to see some of those. Another key example of that is DEQ has its Climate Protection program which will set limits on fuel sales that will have a big impact on that revenue forecast. That’s in draft form, not finalized. When that’s finalized, becomes implemented, and there’s clarity around what that looks like, that’s when it gets rolled into the financial assumptions. Similar things for us, too. I mentioned we’re investing over $50 million dollars in transportation electrification. We should see fuel sales drop as a result of that. Until we figure out exactly where we’re placing that, how we’re going to leverage with our private partners to put those in the right locations, [that’s when] we can factor that into our revenue forecast.[Emphasis added].

ODOT Climate Forecasts:  Wishes and speculation, including magical policies that don’t exist

When it comes to making forecasts about future automobile emissions, and whether the agency will need to do anything to curtail the growth of driving in order to achieve the state’s statutory greenhouse gas reduction goals ODOT has an entirely different approach to forecasting.  It makes heroic assumptions about things that might happen, if somebody else does them.  It pretends that policies that don’t exist will be adopted and aggressively implemented. And all of these assumptions are skewed in a very particular way, i.e. to reduce or eliminate any need for ODOT to take responsibility for cutting greenhouse gases from cars and driving in Oregon.

These assumptions are built into the State Transportation Strategy (STS), developed by ODOT to sketch out how Oregon might reduce transportation greenhouse gases in the decades ahead.  In a memo prepared for the Land Conservation and Development Commission, explaining the STS modeling, Brian Gregor, who was ODOT’s modeler, explained ODOT’s approach to estimating future greenhouse gas emissions from cars.

The members on the Core Tech Team from the Departments of Environmental Quality and Energy agreed that the STS “trend line” is a reasonable reflection of goals that California, Oregon, and other states participating in the multi-state ZEV standards wish to achieve. They caution, however, that this planning trend does not reflect recent trends in vehicle fuel economy. Substantial efforts on the part of states and the federal government will be necessary to make this planning trend a reality. [Emphasis added].

A footnote on page 30 of the LCDC report makes this point even more clearly:

It is important to note that these ‘trend lines’ represent the trend in the model results given the vehicle assumptions in the STS recommended scenario. They do not represent an extrapolation of past trend. [Emphasis added].

The contrast couldn’t be sharper:  when it comes to estimating an elevated level of future revenue, ODOT discounts anything that will reduce driving or pollution, and won’t even consider the impact of policies, like congestion pricing, which were approved by the Legislature in 2017.  But when it comes to optimistic speculation about technologies or policies that might lower future vehicle emissions—absolving ODOT of the need to act—the agency will definitely count on policies that haven’t been adopted by anyone.  It’s a clear and calculated strategy to avoid responsibility for doing anything to address climate change.

Clearly, ODOT’s current revenue forecasts are counting on the failure of the state’s climate efforts.  They’re assuring financial markets that Oregon will collection hundreds of millions of dollars in motor fuel tax revenues with which to repay bonds it will use to expand the state’s highways, encouraging and subsidizing more driving and greenhouse gas emissions.  It may seem like an arcane detail, but it’s the kind of technocratic climate arson that’s routinely practiced by state highway departments.


The Week Observed, February 25, 2022

What City Observatory did this week

Freeway widening for whomst?  Woke-washing is all the rage among those pushing highway projects these days, and there’s no better example that Portland’s I-5 “bridge replacement” project (really a 5 mile long, 12 lane wide, $5 billion road expansion).  It’s being sold as a boon for low income workers pushed to distant suburbs by rising home prices.  But the reality, as told by Census data, is very different, the peak hour, drive-alone commuters who are the principal beneficiaries of the project are overwhelmingly wealthy and white:  86 percent of them are non-Hispanic whites; their median income is $106,000–figures for both are far greater than for the rest of the Portland metro area.


Must read

The housing theory of everything.  This is a long essay, but well worth the read (as the author’s say, it is a theory of everything.”)  Their core argument is that our housing policy failures spill over into everything from the wealth gap and inequality, to urban sprawl, political polarization and climate change.

The tight supply of housing in the nation’s most productive metropolitan areas has both equity and economic growth implications. The US economy is measurably smaller than it would be if more workers lived in the most productive places, and the high cost of housing has made it harder for lower income workers to migrate to the places with the greatest opportunity—and has limited their economic gains when they do move there.

The scope and subject matter of this essay (though perhaps not its style) is an echo of Kim May Cutler’s  magisterial essay “How burrowing owls lead to vomiting anarchists .”  Both works, in different ways, tie together in a compelling way urban problems that superficially seem disconnected.  It’s something you’ll want to read.

As the pandemic ebbs, driving rebounds.  Bryn Huxley-Reicher of the Frontier Group has published a great analysis of the rebound in driving in the past few months and frames a more important question:  what next?

Little surprise that the waning of the pandemic has produced a rebound in driving nearly as sharp as the decline we experienced starting in March 2020. Per capita driving has bounced back almost to the same level it was at prior to the pandemic. This is one important bit of evidence to suggest that at least some of the changes we observed during the pandemic are transitory—and it remains to be seen how much of other trends, particularly work at home, will revert to their pre-pandemic form.

The big question going forward, for climate and for the economy, is whether VMT per capita will increase in the years ahead. Increased driving makes attaining our climate goals harder, and also increases the financial burden on households. Huxley-Reicher helpfully looks back at previous forecasts of future VMT growth made by the US departments of energy and transportation. There’s a consistent “hockey stick” quality to these forecasts. Even though driving has been flattening out in recent years, the forecasts always predict a significant acceleration of driving, which never seems to happen. The black line showing “actual” VMT per capita is almost invariably lower than the low end of the federal forecasts. It’s indicative of the underlying bias in much of this modeling, and also fails to explicitly recognize that policy can, and given our climate crisis, should be making it possible for Americans to drive less—something we got a small taste of during the past two years.

Jerusalem Demsas on gentrification housing.  (Really, a “must watch.”) There’s a fair amount of folk wisdom when it comes to housing markets, notably a tendency to deny some of the fundamental precepts of market economics. For example, there’s a widespread and oft-repeated claim that the construction of new market rate housing in a neighborhood drives up prices for surrounding houses.  It’s common to single out the nearly ubiquitous “five over one” apartment buildings that are going up in cities around the country has harbingers of gentrificaiton and dispalcement.  This video challenges this view. i

Understandably, it is the kind of inference people can draw when they see new housing going up in “hot” neighborhoods. But this casual inference gets cause and effect backwards—it’s rising demand, signalled by rising prices, that prompts the new construction, not the other way round. And moreover, choking off the supply of new housing only further constraints supply and tends to push prices higher. Demsas offers some simple illustrations of how this works that despite their simplicity are grounded in some of the latest and most thorough academic research on the subject.

New Knowledge

Neighborhood effects:  What we know.   For decades, scholars have been studying how where you live influences your lifetime opportunities.  You’ve heard the aphorism that “zip codes are destiny,” and there are plainly patterns of poverty and prosperity, opportunity and struggle across the landscape of the nation, and within cities, among different neighborhoods.  What’s been difficult is separating out the effects that are due to sorting (successful people moving to prosperous places, and impoverished ones moving to, or trapped in places of concentrated poverty), from the causal effects of place.

Famously, the decision to undertake a kind of social science experiment triggered by the relocation of tenants from Chicago housing projects in the wake of a lawsuit challenging racial discrimination unleashed of flood of data and scholarship on the subject.  Two of the leading authors in the field, Lawrence Katz and Erik Chyn have written a summary of this evolving field for the Journal of Economic Literature.  It’s a great way to get familiar with what’s been learned about neighborhood effects in the past few decades.

There’s more here than can be summarized neatly, but one of the key findings has to do with differing results for children and adults.  It turns out that the kind of neighborhood you grow up in has profound and lifelong effects.  Kids who move to more opportunity rich locations, especially those who do so at an early age, tend to significantly outperform their otherwise similar peers to remain in disadvantaged neighborhoods, on a range of social and economic indicators.  But the older the child at the time they move to a stronger neighborhood, the smaller the effect.  And for adults, the literature shows that moving to an opportunity-rich neighborhood seldom has a statistically significant impact on key economic outcomes.  The perspectives and networks we establish in our formative, earlier years seem to have a lasting effect.  As the author’s conclude:

The Moving to Opportunity experiment generated beneficial impacts on long-run economic outcomes of moves to higher-opportunity areas only for younger children who received a larger “dosage” of childhood exposure to improved neighborhood environments relative to their older counterparts. Disruption costs of moves across different types of neighborhoods could potentially outweigh the small exposure gains for older children

This body of research is central to our thinking about poverty–especially understanding the devastating effects of neighborhoods of concentrated poverty–and related problems, like discrimination.  There’s much more here, and whether you’re looking for an introduction to the scholarship on the subject or a refresher and update, this is an indispensable article.

Erik Chyn and Lawrence Katz, “Neighborhoods Matter: Assessing the Evidence for Place Effects,” Journal of Economic Perspectives, Volume 35, Number 4, Fall 2021, pages 197–222

In the news

Planetizen summarized some of the crazy rent inflation numbers being reported for markets around the country, and reminded its readers about our critique of some indices which rely on noisy and volatile on-line listings data to estimate inflation.

The Week Observed, February 4, 2022

What City Observatory did this week

Climate and our Groundhog Day Doom Loop.  It’s Groundhog  Day—again—and we’re stuck in exactly the same place when it comes to climate policy.  Scientists are regularly offering up increasing dire warnings and every more irrefutable evidence of climate change. Extreme weather events: fires, floods, drought, hurricanes are becoming increasingly more common.

And our climate policy still mostly consists of telling ourselves that we’ll reduce our greenhouse gas emissions a couple of decades from now.  We’ve been tracking Oregon’s climate progress every Groundhog day for the past seven years, and just as Bill Murray experienced, nothing has changed.  If anything, its getting worse:  greenhouse gas emissions have increased, and we’re planning to spend additional billions widening freeways, which will surely make the problem worse. Maybe next year will be different.

Must read

New perspectives on road safety from US DOT.  Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg announced a major new emphasis on safety for the department: the National Roadway Safety Strategy.  There’s a lot to like here:  The plan acknowledges that the current toll of death and injuries is unacceptable, and its going to take more than exhortations to better behavior to solve the problem.  The strategy promises to look at road design, and considering safety to non-occupants in vehicle safety standards. USDOT is going to take another look at the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices, which has traditionally favored car movement over pedestrian and bike safety.  Harvard’s David Zipper, interviewed Secretary Buttigieg for Slate, and asked him a lot of the tough questions we would have liked answered, notably why more attention hasn’t been devoted to addressing the growing size (and lethality) of sport utility vehicles.  This interview will give you some clear insights about what to expect from the US DOT strategy.

Portland climate activists challenge their state DOT.  Vice’s Aaron Gordon has a report from the front-lines of the Youth vs. ODOT climate battle in Oregon.  He profiles high school student Adah Crandall, who’s been leading weekly protests in front of the highway department’s Portland offices for most of the past year, and who’s been skipping classes to testify to state and local decision-makers about the climate crisis, pleading with them to stop spending public funds expanding fossil fuel infrastructure.

More problems with inclusionary zoning in Portland (Maine).  A number of cities have adopted inclusionary zoning requirements that mandate that those who build new apartment buildings set aside a portion of the new units to be rented at below market rates for low and moderate income households.  While well-intentioned, the cost of complying with these requirements can often prompt a reduction in new construction, with the result that fewer units get built, and housing shortages worsen.  That’s exactly what appears to have happened in Portland, Maine, which instituted its requirement that most new apartment projects set-aside xx percent of their units as affordable housing. MaineBiz reports:

In 2020, prior to the new inclusionary zoning provision, 756 residential units were put on the planning books. In the roughly one year since passing the provision in November 2020, only 139 units had been put on the books — a decrease of 81.6%, according to a study by the Boulos Co.

We’ve previously chronicled how this appears to have reduced housing production in Portland, Oregon, a new report from Portland, Maine says that their requirements have had a similar effect, reducing new apartment starts by 25 percent from pre-IZ levels.

Moving more cars trumps safety, Texas edition.  For the past five years, San Antonio has been working to convert its Broadway Street from a wide, auto dominated arterial to a calmer, safer, more pedestrian oriented street.  Before the Interstate system was built, Broadway STreet was the route of a state highway and was controlled by the Texas Department of Transportation, but with most traffic moved to the interstate, the city has been working to redevelop the area, and had been cooperating with a plan to create a road diet for Broadway, to support public investments that will make the neighborhood more livable and walkable.

This plan for San Antonio’s Broadway Street nixed to favor car movement.

All that came to a crashing halt last week when TXDOT pulled the plug on its prior agreement to return Broadway to city jurisdiction.  Press reports suggest that Texas Governor Greg Abbott intervened, putting a higher priority on moving cars over making a place more suitable for people.

New Knowledge

How higher gas prices reduced sprawl.  The advent of cars about a century ago enabled much more decentralized development patterns.  A new study concludes that the price of gasoline has a direct and significant effect on how much we sprawl, and how much farm and forest land is lost to urbanization.

The heyday for sprawl was the second half of the twentieth century, but since then, even though US population and income have continued to increase, the rate of decentralization has fallen sharply.  Led by Daniel Bigelow, an economist at Montana State University, the authors used an inventory of US land to track development over time.  Nationally, land conversion (from resource uses to urban development) peaked at about 2 million acres per year in the mid 1990s, but has fallen to about a quarter that amount in recent years.

The authors look at the economic correlates of land conversion and find that the rate of land conversion  is correlated with long term changes in gasoline prices.  Declining gas prices produce more land conversion; increasing gas prices produce less land conversion.  The authors write:

Computed at the average county-level commuting time of 19 min, the average annual gasoline price decrease of $0.05 during the last two decades of the 20th century boosted annual land development by 6.06%, while the increase in gasoline prices in the second half of the study period ($0.03 annually) decreased land development by 2.84% per year.

Graphically, they summarize the connection between gas prices and urban land development across areas with differing commute times as follows:

The key finding of the study is that changing gas prices had their largest effects in locations with the longest commutes.  In the 1982-2000 period, when real gasoline prices were decreasing, the positive effect on land development was greatest in locations with longer commutes.  In the 2001-2015 period, when real gas prices were increasing, the declines in land development were greatest in the areas with longer commutes.  As the authors elaborate:

[In the first half of the study period] average change in gasoline price increased development by 6.11%–7.12% for counties with average commuting times longer than 15 min, while counties with shorter commuting times were unaffected by gasoline price changes (figure 4). Similarly, in the second half of the study period, when gasoline prices were increasing, the estimated decrease in land development was largest for counties characterized by longer commuting times. Counties with average commuting times over 12 min saw a decrease in development ranging from −2.63% to −3.31%, with shorter-commute counties not seeing any impact.

The impact of these changes over time is significant.  They estimate that the slowdown in land conversion caused by higher gas prices kept more than 4 million acres from being converted to urban use since 2000.  These findings have significant implications for understanding the effects of vehicle electrification:  electric cars are likely to have far lower operating costs that fossil-fueled vehicles.  This study suggests that declining fuel costs will trigger another wave of sprawl:  keep that in mind when someone claims EVs are “non-polluting.”

Daniel P. BigelowDavid J. Lewis and Christopher Mihiar, A major shift in U.S. land development avoids significant losses in forest and agricultural land.” Environmental Research Letters 2022.

In the news

Willamette Week tells the story of how Louisville squandered a billion dollars on a massive freeway project.  It’s plan to double the width of the I-65 bridges over the Ohio River exactly parallels plans for an I-5 Columbia River Bridge in Portland.  The problem, as we’ve pointed out at City Observatory, is that tolling reduced traffic enough that no expansion was needed.

The Week Observed, February 11, 2022

What City Observatory did this week

The “replacement” bridge con.  It’s telling that perhaps the largest single consulting expense for Oregon and Washington transportation departments’ efforts to revive the failed multi-billion Columbia River Crossing project is $5 million for “communications” consultants.  The project has emphasized a misleading rebranding to call it mere “bridge replacement” project, when it fact less than 30 percent of the cost of the nearly $5 billion project is actually for replacing the existing highway bridge, according to independent accountants. And since the project is proposing to effectively double the existing capacity of the I-5 bridge over the Columbia River by building two side-by-side bridges, half of the expense of the bridge part of the project is really an expansion, not a replacement.

Most of the cost of the so-called “Interstate Bridge Replacement” project is for widening the freeway and rebuilding interchanges for miles north and south of the bridge crossing.   The actual “replacement” cost of the current bridge is somewhere between $500 million and one billion. Calling $5 billion, 5-mile long freeway a “replacement bridge” is like saying if you buy a new $55,000 truck it’s a “tire replacement.”

Must read

How traffic engineers ruin your town.  Recovering engineer Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns explains how the apparently innocuous and technocratic approach of traffic engineers systematically undermines the livability of urban spaces.  He relates how in his hometown, traffic engineers have dictated that one local mainstreet must carry 30,000 cars a day, without forcing them to ever slow down.  In order, engineers prioritize speed, volume, safety and cost.  Local quality of life doesn’t figure in, with the net result being, as Marohn puts it:

The city must be degraded, the quality of life of its residents diminished, and local business opportunities stifled, in order to improve the convenience of commuters who have chosen to live outside of the city. The design of this street must prioritize their convenience over all else.

The priority afforded to car movement undercuts the livability of the city, drives away more residents and businesses to distant (and less trafficked) suburbs, and increases car-dependency.  What we need to do is set clear priorities that favor the interests of those who live in a city over those who are simply passing through:

What if we all agreed that the quality of the city’s neighborhoods, the success of its local businesses, and the safety of its residents, were the paramount concern?  . . . the new design of Washington Street would narrow lanes, widen sidewalks, bring in vegetation and human-scaled lighting, prioritize people walking, give deference to cross-traffic instead of throughput . .  while it might make commutes a little longer for those who have chosen to live outside the city, that delay would be offset in time by an increasing number of people who choose to live in the city’s neighborhoods, the improved business community that could expand offerings in response to a responsive local market, a shift in the number of trips that could now be made by biking and walking, and the local wealth saved from an overall reduction in vehicle miles traveled.

Why car dependent transportation is inherently discriminatory.    In an article originally published at, and republished by Streetsblog, Basav Sen argues that the US transportation system fuels inequality and that prioritizing private vehicle use leaves the poor and people of color behind. The problem is fundamentally two-fold:  First, low income households and people of color are dramatically less likely to own or have access to a car; 40 percent of those in the lowest income quintile don’t own cars.  Second, even for those who do own cars, the cost of their operation is effectively a regressive tax, requiring them to spend a much larger fraction of their income on transportation than higher income households.

A transportation system where people have to rely on their own vehicles doesn’t merely exclude those who don’t own vehicles – it imposes a severe financial burden on poorer households that do own vehicles.

The USPS vehicle procurement process and subverting NEPA. By now, everyone’s read about the Postal Service’s plan to buy 160,000 inefficient, heavy, expensive, fossil-fueled mail trucks.  Vice’s Aaron Gordon has done some phenomenal reporting, showing for example that USPS specified the vehicles had to be at least one pound over the limit for “light vehicles” which would have required them to be (somewhat) cleaner).

The USPS approach to vehicle procurement also reveals a profound flaw in the environmental review process:  as a federal agency, the Postal Service has to do an environmental impact statement on its procurement, including, estimating how much pollution their vehicles will create, and considering alternatives (you know, like electric vehicles).  But the EIS is written by the agency, which in this case had already made its decision, and which crafted a  decidedly narrow EIS to back up their decision.  As Gordon explains, USPS ruled out considering EVs because some delivery routes (fewer than 10 percent) are longer that 70 miles, what it considers to be the range of electric vehicles, and failed to consider any alternatives which would have a mix of vehicles tailored to the actual lengths of delivery routes. Other agencies with more technical knowledge on emissions, like the Environmental Protection Agency had virtually no input on the decision, or the EIS.  As long as the polluter gets to write their own EIS, they’ll get just the results they’re paying for.  If the EIS isn’t conducted by a truly independent agency (as opposed to a profit-seeking contractor) it at least ought to be undertaken using scientific guidelines set by someone with subject matter expertise, and not a vested interest in the outcome.

New Knowledge

Who gains from rent control?  A new study from two University of Potsdam economists looks at the impacts of rent control on high income and low income households. Recent experimentation with rent control in Germany (where municipal limits were enaçted, and then struck down by courts), coupled with detailed micro-data on the rental marketplace, provides a basis for examining the impact of rent control on different households.

The paper offers two key findings:  first, that the benefits of rent control flow disproportionately to higher income households, and that second that rent control tends to increase the level of income segregation in the city.

While rent control policies are usually promoted as a way to help low income households, rent controls typically apply to all of the rental housing in a subject jurisdiction, regardless of the rent level of the apartment or the income level of the household. Many of the benefits of rent control are captured by higher income households.  In effect, rent control can dissuade higher income households from moving out of their rent-controlled apartments to new market rate housing.  This, in turn, means fewer apartments are vacated and become available to other households.

As we’ve noted, the moving chains generated by new housing development are a key way in which existing housing filters to moderate and lower income households.  If high income households remain in their rent controlled apartments, this source of new supply doesn’t materialize.

The second key finding looks at the whether income segregation increases or decreases under rent control.  One argument frequently made for rent control is that it enables low or moderate income households to remain in neighborhoods that would otherwise gentrify, increasing income integration.  But this paper suggests that the opposite happens, as high income households remain or increase in central neighborhoods.

We find that rent control leads to an increase in segregation: compared to the baseline, the city-wide dissimilarity index rises from 0.2323 to 0.2606. When looking at the ZIP code specific change in concentration, we find that the increase in concentration is particularly driven by an increase in the concentration of high income households in the regulated central city ZIP codes . . .  This finding stands in contrast to popular arguments which view rent control as a measure to preserve a relatively even income mix in central cities.

Rainhold Borck and Niklas Gohl, “Gentrification and Affordable Housing Policies,” CESifo Working Paper No. 9454, November 29, 2021.

In the news

City Observatory’s Joe Cortright is quoted in Bike Portland‘s article, “Parsing the ‘electric cars won’t save us’ debate.”

The Week Observed, February 18, 2022

What City Observatory did this week

Oregon’s highway agency rigs its projections to maximize revenue and downplay its culpability for climate challenge.  ODOT has two different standards for forecasting:  When it forecasts revenue, it says it will ignore adopted policies—especially ones that will reduce its revenue.  When it forecasts greenhouse gas emissions, assumes policies that don’t exist—especially ones that will magically make greenhouse gas emissions decline. Revenue forecasts are “purely based on historical data” and don’t include adopted policies.  Greenhouse gas emission forecasts are based on “goals” and “wishes” and are explicitly not an extrapolation of past trends. The inflated revenue forecasts are used to justify (and help fund) highway widening; the greenhouse gas emission forecasts are used to absolve the agency from any responsibility to reduce driving related greenhouse gas emissions.

Must read

How freeway widening undercuts our climate policies.  Will the trillion dollar bipartisan infrastructure law be the foundation of stronger efforts to fight climate change, or will it be used to subsidize highway expansions that will increase greenhouse gases?  That’s the challenge, explains Brad Plumer, writing in The New York Times.  Transportation has emerged as the single largest source of US greenhouse gas emissions. Parts of the infrastructure bill, such as those promoting electric vehicles and charging stations, have the potential to reduce greenhouse gases.  But highway expansions encourage more driving and increase pollution:

The core problem, environmentalists say, is a phenomenon known as “induced traffic demand.” When states build new roads or add lanes to congested highways, instead of reducing traffic, more cars show up to fill the available space. Induced demand explains why, when Texas widened the Katy Freeway in Houston to more than 20 lanes in 2011, at a cost of $2.8 billion, congestion returned to previous levels within a few years.

Plumer notes that some states, such as Colorado, have adopted policies to consider the greenhouse gas effects of highway expansions.  But for most states, highway departments are still in denial that induced demand exists, or simply don’t care.

FHWA Policy Guidance for Infrastructure Funds.  Bloomberg’s Lillianna Byington, reports on the Biden Administration’s efforts to lay out policy guidance for the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) which would prioritize climate and “fix-it-first” efforts.   The Federal Highway Administration is pushing states to fix existing roads with the bill’s expanded funding. She reports:

In “most cases” highway money through the infrastructure law should be used to repair and maintain existing infrastructure before spending on “expansions for additional general purpose capacity,” Federal Highway Administration Deputy Administrator Stephanie Pollack said in the guidance memo dated Dec. 16.

The efforts to emphasize climate and repair have gotten pushback from some highway agencies and Republican Governors who want unfettered discretion to spend money on expansion projects.  While its likely that states will still have considerable sway on the spending of formula allocation funds, many of the new resources available under IIJA are competitive grants that will be decided by FHWA, likely using these policies.

Promoting transit:  A great way to improve road safety.  Writing at Slate, David Zipper highlights a routinely overlooked strategy for making our transportation system safer:  promoting more travel by transit.  Most road safety efforts don’t ever question our mode of travel.  Zipper points out that travel by bus and train is dramatically less risky for passengers than travel by car.  In addition, buses and trains are almost certainly safer for vulnerable road users, like those persons traveling by bike or on foot, because professional drivers are, on average, considerably safer than car drivers.  A key part of our safety strategy ought to be making transit more convenient, more frequent and cheaper as a way of promoting safety.

New Knowledge

Fixer Upper:  A primer on improving US housing policy.  Brookings Institution economist Jennie Schuetz is one of the most incisive housing policy scholars in the nation, and she has a new must-read book:  Fixer Upper:  How to repair America’s broken housing systems.

Housing is often a complex and wonky subject, especially when addressed by economists, but Schuetz makes her case in a clear and non-technical way.  In a nutshell:  We have too little housing in the places that are in highest demand, largely because we’ve devolved much of the authority for approving housing to local or neighborhood groups whose interests conflict with broader social and environmental objectives.  We also have a national system of subsidies that encourages low density development at the urban fringe (adding to environmental damage and burdening us with greater transportation challenges).  The system of subsidies is overwhelmingly skewed to helping wealthy people buy ever larger homes, while we provide rental housing assistance to less than fourth of the low income households who would be eligible. Around this kernel are a series of inter-related political, economic and social issues, all of which influence and are influenced by housing policy.

Much could be done to make US housing policy better.  Schuetz neatly condenses her prescription into a lucid series of chapter headings that underscore what needs to be done to improve US housing policy.  For example:

  • Build More Homes Where People Want to Live
  • Stop Building Homes in the Wrong Places
  • Give Poor People Money
  • Homeownership Should Be Only One Component of Household Wealth
  • High-Quality Community Infrastructure Is Expensive, But It Benefits Everyone

Each chapter explains the rationale behind this advice, and lays out the academic evidence in favor of the policy.  The book concludes with two chapters laying out the political challenges of improving housing policy, including overcoming the myopia imposed by the highly local nature of land use decision making, and figuring out how to construction new political coalitions that can enact innovative policies to address housing.

There’s much here, both for readers who are well-versed in housing policy and politics and those who aren’t.  If you’re just starting out to try to make sense of the complexity of housing policy, “Fixer Upper” serves as a comprehensive and practical orientation.  And if you consider yourself a housing expert, you’ll find a thoughtful framework for integrating all of the varied aspects of housing policy.

Jennie Schuetz, Fixer Upper:  How to repair America’s broken housing systems, Brookings Institution Press, February 22, 2022

In the news

In its article on infrastructure and climate change, The New York Times pointed its readers to City Observatory’s analysis of the failure of the widening of Houston’s Katy Freeway to alleviate traffic congestion:
Writing at Planetizen, in an essay entitled, “Urban Villages for the Proletariat, Todd Litman describes how dense urban growth promotes equity, and cites City Observatory’s commentary on how the role of cities in promoting intergenerational economic mobility.

Climate: Our Groundhog Day Doom Loop

Every year, the same story:  We profess to care about climate change, but we’re driving more and greenhouse gas emissions are rising rapidly.

Oregon is stuck in an endless loop of lofty rhetoric, distant goals, and zero actual progress

Another year, another Groundhog Day, and another bleak report that we’re not making any progress on Climate Change.  The Oregon Global Warming Commission’s latest report reads like its predecessors.  It chronicles the growing climate crisis, yet again declaring the state’s adopted goal to have lower carbon emissions by 2050, and presenting the data showing that we’re utterly failing to make meaningful progress. Here’s the key takeaway from the report:  The yellow lines show the state’s stated goals, the dotted orange lines show the path we’re on.  And if you look at the black (“actual”) line, you’ll see that emissions have actually increased since 2010.  In short, in no way are we on track to meet our adopted goals.

If that sounds like something you’ve heard before, because, just like the movie Groundhog’s Day, when it comes to climate change Oregon is caught in an endless loop, repeating the same dire diagnosis, litany of prescriptions and non-existent process.

Once again, we find ourselves in the same predicament as Bill Murray in the 1993 movie, Groundhog’s Day–waking up every morning to discover that it’s still February 2, and that he’s done nothing to change any of the behaviors that have messed up his life.

The difference this year was that a series of catastrophic forest fires smothered most of the state in clouds of smoke for a solid week in September 2020.  The fires destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres of forest, forced tens of thousands of Oregonians to evacuate their homes, destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses.  Having experienced it first hand, it was an apocalyptic scene.

Bottom line: the state is failing to meet its legislatively adopted greenhouse gas reduction goals.  The state had set an interim target of reducing emissions by a very modest 10 percent from 1990 levels by 2020.  The final 2020 data aren’t in yet, but it’s clear that the state will fail to meet that goal, and not by a little, but by a lot—26 percent to be exact—according to the commision:

While Oregon met the 2010 emissions reduction goal established in 2007, we are highly unlikely to meet the 2020 goal. Preliminary 2019 sector-based emissions data and GHG emissions projections indicate that Oregon’s 2020 emissions are likely to exceed the State’s 2020 emissions reduction goal by approximately 26 percent or 13.4 million metric tons of CO2e, erasing most of the gains we had made between 2010 and 2014.

We gave ourselves three decades to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by just 10 percent, and instead over that time, increased them by more than 10 percent.  How realistic is it to expect that we’ll meet our adopted goal of reducing emissions by 75 percent from 1990 levels (more than 77 percent from today’s levels) by 2050.

The original inspiration for our Groundhog’s Day commentary was the 2017 report of the Oregon Global Warming Commission, a body set up to monitor how well the state was doing in achieving its legally adopted goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 75 percent from 1990 levels by the year 2050. In addition to its goal, Oregon has a tiny citizen commission charged with riding herd on the state’s emissions inventory, and looking to see what, if any progress the state is making in reducing greenhouse gases. The short story four years ago was:  Not very good.  Although the state reduced some power plant and industrial emissions, nearly all these gains were wiped out by increased driving. The 2017 Legislature that received that report not only did essentially nothing in response, it arguably laid the groundwork to make the problem worse, by approving a new transportation finance package providing upwards of a billion dollars to widen Portland area freeways.

It’s now the case that transportation is the single largest source of greenhouse gases, and for the past several years, Oregon’s emissions are rising. And the culprit is clear:  More driving.  As we’ve pointed out at City Observatory: the decline in gasoline prices in mid-2014 prompted an increasing in driving and with it, an increase in crashes and carbon pollution.  Per capita greenhouse gas emissions from transportation have increased more than 14 percent since 2013, by about 1,000 pounds per person. Total greenhouse gas emissions from transportation have increased by about 1.6 million tons per year over that time.

As a result of the growth in driving and related emissions, and slower than expected progress in reducing emissions from other sources, there’s no way the state on the path it needs to be on to reach its 2050 goal. Transportation emissions are actually increasing from their 2010 levels—at a time when the state’s climate strategy called for them to be declining. (In the chart below, the blue line is the glide slope to achieving the state’s adopted 2050 goal, and the pale green line is the estimate of where the state is headed).

The best estimate is that rather than the eighty percent reduction from 1990 levels that the state has set as a goal, we’ll see barely a 20 percent reduction by 2050.  And these reductions are predicated on assumptions about more rapid fleet turnover, lower sales of trucks and SUVs, and steadily tougher fuel economy standards, when in fact the fleet is getting older (and staying dirtier), trucks and SUVs have dramatically increased their market share, and the federal government has walked back its fuel economy standards.  So its highly unlikely that even the 20 percent reduction by 2050 will be realized.

As the commission notes in its latest report, it will take more than electrifying vehicles as fast as possible to come anywhere close to meeting the state’s goals:

It is critical that the state leverages resources to support the use of clean vehicles and fuels and reduce vehicle miles traveled per capita. Technological advancements and penetration of ZEVs alone won’t be enough to meet emissions goals. We encourage the Legislature to fully fund the necessary follow-on work identified by the agencies. We also need to take steps to help people drive less by strategically redesigning our communities and transportation systems. 

(emphasis added)

In the best of all possible worlds, this warning would prompt the Governor and legislators–ever mindful of their legally enacted commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions–to redouble their efforts and figure out ways to discourage carbon pollution, especially from transportation. After all, Oregon’s government passed a law mandating a reduction in greenhouse gases.  In the law adopted in 2007, the state committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 10 percent from 1990 levels by the year 2020, and the further goal of reducing them by 75 percent by 2050. Many other states and cities have similar adopted goals. But few cities are actually achieving these goals, as a recent audit by the Brookings Institution makes clear.

The reason is that there’s a deep flaw in the “pledge now, pollute less later” approach. Despite the high-minded and quantitative nature of these goals, the actual date for their achievement is set far so in the future, as to be beyond the expected political lifetime of any of the public officials adopting these goals. And there’s no mechanism, aside from moral suasion, to require accomplishment of these goals. So in practice, what they may do is simply give politicians cover for conspicuously expressing concern about climate change, without actually having to do anything substantive or difficult to attain it.

The Hippocratic Oath directs physicians, first, “to do no harm.”  The same ought to apply to state and local governments who profess to care about climate change. If we know driving is the biggest source of carbon pollution, and it’s causing us to increase emissions when we need to be decreasing them, the very last thing we should be doing is expanding freeways, which encourage people to drive even more. That’s why we think that Portland area freeway widening projects like the proposed $1.2 billion expansion of I-5 should be taken off the table.  That money—and billions of dollars in other subsidies to automobile transportation—would be far better spent in building communities that are designed to enable low carbon living.

The International Panel on Climate Change has made it clear in its most recent report that we’re rapidly approaching a point of no return if we’re to avoid serious and permanent damage to the climate. We’re going to need something more than soothing rhetoric and distant goals to avoid dramatically altering our planet. As we wrote in a year ago,  2021 would have been a good time to start taking climate change seriously.  We’ve mostly squandered another year, unless things change, next year’s  Groundhog Day will be depressingly similar, and even more grim.