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Another flawed Inrix Congestion Cost report

Sigh. Here we are again, another year, and yet another uninformative, and actively misleading congestion cost report from Inrix.

More myth and misdirection from highly numerate charlatans.

Burying the lede:  Traffic congestion is now lower than it was in 2019, and congestion declined twice as much as the decline in vehicle travel.

Today, Inrix released its latest “Global Traffic Scorecard,” which purports to rank US and Global cities based on traffic congestion levels.Over the years, we’ve reviewed Inrix annual traffic scorecard reports.  They’re monotonous in their sameness.  Congestion, we’re told, is very bad and very costly.  But little of this is true or more importantly, actionable.  The estimates of supposed congestion “costs” simply aren’t true because neither Inrix (nor anyone else) has specified how they’d eliminate congestion at a cost less than the supposed dollar value of time lost.  Without a clear idea of how one could go about eliminating these costs, the information simply isn’t actionable.  As we’ve explained in our “Reporter’s Guide to Congestion Cost Studies,” these reports are rife with conceptual and methodological errors.  Today’s Inrix report is still marred by these same problems.

There are a couple of improvements in this report from the rest of the literature. Inrix spends some time on traffic crashes and deaths, and notes the troubling increase in crashes despite the decline in vehicle miles traveled. To their credit, Inrix this year has carefully avoided claiming or implying that expanding highway capacity would somehow reduce congestion.  That claim has been definitively and scientifically debunked.  We know that, thanks to the fundamental law of road congestion, that more road capacity will simply induce more car travel, fully offsetting any supposed congestion-busting benefits.  But that won’t stop many Inrix clients, notably state highway departments, from pointing to Inrix data as the reason they should be given tens of billions of dollars to widen roads.  And that’s apparently the real purpose of the Inrix report, to curry favor with potential highway department clients.

Most of what we’ve said about previous Inrix congestion reports apply with equal force to this one.  We’ll highlight a few points.

First, if you read closely, you’ll learn that time lost to congestion in the US is still lower than it was three years ago, prior to the pandemic.  Inrix reports that congestion time losses were 20 percent lower in 2022 than 2019, 4.8 billion hours, down from 6 billion hours.  This is good news.

Second, that reduction in congestion should be celebrated, and should also be a teachable moment. If we’re so concerned about congestion, then the experience of the past few years ought to be studied to see if we can learn something.  Right off the top, there’s a really important fact that’s buried in the Inrix report: While congestion declined by 20 percent from 2019, traffic (vehicle miles traveled or VMT) went down by just 9 percent.

The fact that congestion declined more than twice as much as VMT is a critical observation:  It means that demand management can reduce congestion, and that modest changes in travel volumes produce disproportionately large improvements in transportation system function.  If instead of managing demand with a pandemic and lockdowns, we did something a little more nuanced, like road pricing, we could achieve real and lasting congestion reductions.  That’s exactly the sort of actionable information that ought to be in this report, but which is missing.

Third, there are a whole bunch of other important things that are missing as well.  If you search through the latest Inrix report, here are some words you simply won’t find:  “sprawl,” “pollution,” “emissions,”  “carbon,” “climate,”  “induced demand,” “pricing,” and “tolling.” Trying to talk about urban transportation systems without considering their effects on these other pressing problems is a measure of how detached the UMR is from the reality of the 21st century.  Transportation is the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions in the US, and these emission are increasing. The Inrix report exists solely to feed an overriding obsession with speed and congestion as the. criterion for setting transportation policy.

Fourth, in reality the city rankings are meaningless.  The measure Inrix uses totally ignores the differences in distances among Metro areas.  The fact that you have to drive twice as far, on average, in Houston or Atlanta as you do in Chicago or Boston, doesn’t figure in to the “cost” of commuting.  As we’ve shown, this particular measure inaccurately penalizes compact cities where people make shorter trips, because it looks only at the difference between peak and non-peak travel times.  Cities with shorter travel distances generate less car travel (vehicle miles traveled), emit much less greenhouse gas emissions, and save their residents billions of dollars in avoided travel costs compared to sprawling, car-centric metro areas.  The best way to reduce the cost of transportation, and time lost is to have more compact development, something we’ve demonstrated in in our previous analysis.  And while the Inrix report spends a lot of time talking about the added burden of high gas costs, it completely leaves out the fact that higher gas prices are much more burdensome in cities and neighborhoods where people have to drive long distances.

Fifth, the Inrix rankings are a profoundly car-centric view of the world. Inrix likes to tout its “big data” noting that its estimates are drawn from billions of data points.  But those data points are almost entirely cars and trucks.  There’s an old saying “if you don’t count it, it doesn’t count.” They leaven their reporting with a handful of statistics on bikes and pedestrians, but these are drawn from the rare reports compiled by cities, not from Inrix data. The car and bike data, and the actual variation in commuting distances, simply don’t figure into the Inrix rankings.  In short, if you don’t travel by car, you really don’t count in the Inrix rankings.

Sixth, there’s no evidence that driving faster makes us happier.  Inrix and other congestion reports prey on our sense of annoyance and victimization about traffic congestion.  It’s all these other people who are slowing us down, and we’d be better off if they were gone and we could drive faster.  But cities that are optimized for speed simply sprawl further and require more driving, making us more car dependent and costing us more money.

Finally, it’s truly disappointing that such a rich and detailed source of information should be used largely for car-based propaganda.  Reports like these aren’t really designed to help diagnose or solve problems, but simply to generate heat.  They’ll be used in predictably misleading ways by road-widening advocates.  More or bigger data doesn’t help us solve our problems when its filtered through this incomplete and biased framework.

Our reviews of previous Inrix Scorecards

In 2018, we lampooned the predictable alarmist tone of the congestion report:

Cue the extreme telephoto shots of freeways!

Wallow in the pity of commuters stuck in traffic because of all those other people!

Wail that congestion is getting worse and worse!

We noted that the 2017 Inrix report adopted a new and more expansive definition of congestion costs which further inflated its estimates.

Older studies like TTI, estimated dollar costs based on the additional time spent on a trip due to congestion: So if a trip that took ten minutes in un-congested traffic took a total of 15 minutes in a congested time period, they would monetize the value of the five minutes of additional time spent. The Inrix report appears to monetize the total value of time spent in congested conditions, i.e. anytime travel speeds fell below 65 percent of free flow speeds.

In 2016, we gave the Inrix report card a “D” 

In 2015, we pointed out that the Inrix study had a number of contradictory conclusions, and that Inrix had “disappeared” much of its earlier data showing that high gas prices had demonstrably reduced traffic congestion in US cities.

For more information and analysis about the conceptual and methodological problems in these “congestion cost studies,” see our Reporter’s Guide.




A reporter’s guide to congestion cost studies

Reporters:  read this before you write a “cost of congestion” story.

Congestion cost studies are a classic example of pseudo-science:  Big data and bad assumptions produce meaningless results

Using this absurd methodology, you can show:

Waiting at traffic signals costs us $8 billion a year—ignoring what it would cost in time and money to have roads with no traffic lights.

Our lack of flying cars costs us hundreds of billions of dollars of travel time—never mind that putting everyone in a flying car would be financially and physically impossible.

Something is actually a “cost” only if there’s a cheaper and physically possible alternative

There’s a robust literature debunking the congestion cost studies from Texas Transportation Institute, Inrix, and Tom-Tom.

Every year or so, one or more traffic-counting organizations trots out a report claiming that congestion is costing us tens of billions dollars each year.  Despite the “big data” and elaborate estimates, the results are simply bunk, because they’re based on a flawed premise.  Each of these reports calculates as the “cost” of congestion how much longer a trip takes at peak hours compared to off-peak hours, but fails to define what actions or policies could produce such a change in traffic, and how much they would cost.  Every one of these reports tallies up the supposed “costs” of congestion, without telling how to solve the problem or what it would cost.

Traffic Lights Cost Billions

You can apply this idea of computing a “cost” to any kind of waiting.  We’ve done it, tongue-in-cheek, but calculator in hand, for cappuccino.  Others take this notion seriously.  For example, crack statisticians at the University of Maryland have sifted through reams, nay gigabytes, of big data, and have produced a comprehensive, nationwide estimate of the amount of time lost when we sit, waiting for red lights to turn green.

According to these University of Maryland estimates, time lost sitting at traffic signals amounts to 329 million vehicle hours of delay, and costs us $8.6 billion dollars per year.  They estimate that time spent waiting at traffic signals is roughly three-fifths as great as the 561 million vehicle hours of delay associated with routine “recurring” traffic congestion.

This University of Maryland study calculates that roughly 19 percent of all traffic congestion is due to waiting at traffic signals.  Those traffic lights do get in your way and slow you down.

Traffic signals cause delays as vehicles queue at intersections. In 10 states, traffic signals are the top cause of traffic congestion, though congestion levels overall remain relatively low in those states. For example, even though Alaska ranked highest in the country in percentage of delay caused by signals at 53%, it ranked 42nd in terms of total hours of delay caused by signals.

As an accounting exercise, there’s little reason to doubt these calculations. But whether they constitute a “loss” is highly doubtful, because there’s no question that we’d all collectively lose more time in travel if there were no traffic lights.  The policy implication of this finding is not that we should be tearing out or turning off traffic signals.  That would be absurd, of course.  And what the claims of time spent waiting at traffic lights constitute an actual “loss” rests on the assumption that there’s some other traffic-light free way of managing the flow of traffic at intersections that would involve less total travel time for those now waiting.  Simply getting rid of traffic lights—and say replacing them with stop signs—would likely decrease the throughput of many intersections and actually increase delays (though it might beneficially reduce traffic speeds and improve safety for vulnerable road users). Theoretically one might replace every single traffic light in the US with a fully grade separated interchange without stops.

Let’s suppose, for a moment, that you could instantly replace all of the 330,000 or so traffic signals in the US with grade-separated interchanges that eliminated traffic signals.  That might eliminate all the time “lost” by vehicles waiting at traffic lights, but it would come at a cost.  At say, $10 million per intersection (which is probably a conservative estimate) that would cost about $3.3 trillion, all that to save maybe $8.6 billion per year.  Time spent waiting at traffic lights is costly, only if you ignore the vastly greater cost of doing anything to try to reduce it.

It’s easy to point out that the theory about the “time loss” due to traffic lights is pretty silly.  But what’s true of the elaborate (but fundamentally wrong-headed) estimates of the time “lost” to traffic signals is that it also holds for all the other estimates of supposed congestion costs.  For years, a range of highly numerate charlatans have been purporting to compute the value of time lost to traffic congestion. The congestion cost studies generated by the Texas Transportation Institute, Inrix, Tom-Tom and others invariably conclude that traffic congestion costs us billions of dollars a year.  Their copious data creates the illusion of statistical precision without providing any actually useful knowledge.  They generate heat, but don’t shed any light: The congestion cost estimates are part of the propaganda effort of the road-builders, who assert we need to spend even more billions to widen roads to recoup these losses.

It’s an example of a measurement that’s literally true, but quite meaningless.  It’s true in the sense that people probably due spend millions of hours, collectively sitting at traffic lights or traveling more slowly because of congestion.  It’s meaningless, because there’s not some real world alternative where you could build enough road capacity to eliminate these delays.  So, as an elaborate accounting exercise, you can use big data and computing power to produce this estimate, but the result is a factoid that conveys no useful, actionable information—just as we’ve shown with our Cappuccino Congestion Index, which totes up the billions of dollars American’s “lose” waiting in line at coffee shops.

Where are my flying cars?  Think of all the congestion costs they’ll save!

The sky’s the limit if you want to generate large estimates of the supposed time “lost” due to slower than imaginable travel.  Consider for example flying cars, which according to this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES), are just about to darken our skies.  One company, ASKA, is showing a four-seat prototype that can whisk you and a friend at speeds of up to 150 miles per hour, land in the space of a helipad, and park in an area no larger than a conventional parking space.

An Aska-A5 flying car ($789,000) at CES. (CNET)

Unsurprisingly, the flying car advocates are pitching it as a solution to traffic congestion (move over Elon Musk):

. . . who doesn’t want to hop over the traffic? The Aska A5 can fly at a maximum speed of 150 mph and travel 250 miles on a single charge. That could cut a 100-mile car trip down to just 30 minutes. Aska’s Kaplinsky sees the A5 flying car tackling long commutes, allowing them to move to more affordable communities further away from big cities and reduce the number of regular cars they own, he said, adding that most people would probably use them when needed through a ride-sharing service

If you could travel by flying car to all your destinations, it would shave hours a day off your total travel time.  Imagine all the time we could save if everybody had a flying car, and what those savings would be worth.  With a spreadsheet and some travel data, you could work out an estimate of how many million hours might be saved and how many tens or hundreds billions of dollars that saved travel time would be worth.  You could produce a report arguing that the personal flying car shortage costs us in lost time and money.  It would be a large but meaningless number, because there’s no world where its financially feasible, much less physically possible, for everyone to take every trip by flying car.  The price per flying car is a cool $789,000 (plus operating costs), and there aren’t enough heliports or heliport-adjacent landing spots to accommodate everyone; not to mention that there’s no air traffic control system for thousands of such vehicles moving over cities.  The only way to make meaning of such numbers is in the context of plausible, real-world alternatives.  And that’s exactly what these cost of congestion studies almost invariably fail to consider.  Something is only a “cost” if there’s an actual practical alternative that would save the lost time without incurring even greater monetary costs in doing so.  Imaginary savings from an impossible, or impossibly expensive alternative aren’t savings at all.

It’s tempting to believe that more data will make the answers to our vexing problems, like traffic congestion, clearer.  But the reverse is often true:  an avalanche of big data obscure a fundamental truth.  That’s what’s going on here.

More Background on Congestion Cost Reports

City Observatory has written extensively on the flaws of past congestion cost studies.  Here are some of our commentaries:

Want to know more?

Really want to wonk out on all the methodological, conceptual and data flaws in these congestion cost reports?  Here are two key resources:  First, our own Measuring Urban Transportation Performance report:


And second, Todd Litman of Victoria Transportation Policy Institute’s critique of the urban mobility report.


Driving stakes, selling bonds: ODOT’s freeway boondoggle plan

The Oregon Department of Transportation is launching a series of boondoggle freeways, with no idea of their ultimate cost, and issuing bonds that will obligate the public to pay for expensive and un-needed highways.

Future generations will have to pay off the bonds AND suffer the climate consequences

The classic Robert Moses scam:  Drive stakes, sell bonds

Debt is a powerful drug.  Issuing bonds to pay for roads passes on to future generations the cost of the choices we make today.  Once issued, repaying bonds takes precedence over any other use of state and federal highway funds. Launching a multi-billion dollar highway expansion plan in the Portland metro area jeopardizes the state’s ability to fund every other transportation priority, statewide, for the next two decades.

The Oregon Department of Transportation has embarked an unprecedented, multi-billion dollar highway expansion spree in Oregon.  And they’re doing it without financing in hand, and instead are planning to issue bonds that will irrevocably commit the state to these projects, no matter how expensive or un-needed they may be.

It has already started one project, the half billion dollar I-205 Abernethy Bridge, without permanent funding in place.    The I-205’s bloated cost and minimal benefits have recently earned it national honors as a highway boondoggle:

Streetsblog, USA: Oregon’s I-205 highway boondoggle (2022)

And this is just one of several billion dollar plus projects for which ODOT is pursuing a build now, pay later approach. ODOT is moving forward with plans for the Interstate Bridge project, which it now admits could cost as much as $7.5 billion. It’s also trying to launch the $1.45 billion I-5 Rose Quarter project with only a tiny fraction of the needed funding. That’s nearly $10 billion in road construction. Significantly, the cost of every one of these projects has increased sharply in the past couple of years.

How can it do that?

First, ODOTit has figured that it once it starts these projects, no one will stop them.  And it’s financing these projects by issuing debt.  Its first step will be issuing up to $600 million in short-term bonds, secured by future state highway fund revenues.  This short term borrowing is the government equivalent of a payday loan.  They’re promising bond buyers first call on moneys in the state highway fund, hoping that, by the time they have to pay back the bonds, they’ll have a system of tolls in place to pay that will provide the needed revenue.  And then they’ll issue permanent bonds, backed by the promise of future toll revenue and use those bonds to pay off the short term “payday” loan.  But that presumes a number of things:  critically, that tolls will produce enough revenue to pay back those bonds.

That’s exactly what’s happening with the I-205 Abernethy Bridge and the I-5 Rose Quarter freeway widening.

First, the Abernethy Bridge. ODOT moved ahead with this project even though it didn’t have an approved funding plan in place.  It also went ahead with the project even as the construction bids came in twice as high as the program’s cost estimate ($500 million, up from $250 million in 2018).  It is paying for the Abernethy Bridge in the short term by taking money that the Legislature initially earmarked for the I-5 Rose Quarter project.  ODOT also plans to issue $600 million in short-term bonds.  And ultimately, it hopes to repay these sources of borrowing with money it gets from selling more bonds to be paid back from future tolls.  But tolling hasn’t gotten approval through the federal environmental review process–and may not–but regardless the state will have to pay off these bonds.

Second, there’s the I-5 Rose Quarter project.  In 2017, the Oregon Legislature approved the project, based on ODOT’s estimate that the project would cost $450 million.  The Legislature earmarked that amount in gas taxes for the Rose Quarter, but in 2021, allowed ODOT to also use this same money for the Abernethy Bridge.  In the mean time, however, the cost of the Rose Quarter project doubled and then tripled:  it now stands at as much as $1.45 billion.  But, as noted, ODOT has diverted most of the original $450 million provided by the Legislature to the Abernethy Bridge project–so now that Rose Quarter project is perhaps a billion dollar–or more short of the money needed to pay for its construction.

Even so, it’s apparent that ODOT plans to move the project forward, even though it doesn’t have identified funds to pay for all of it.  It’s planning an “Early Work” package of a few selected construction projects.  It is the classic “driving stakes” strategy to get the project started, and then come back to the Legislature to ask for money to finish the job—no matter how much it ends up costing.

Ultimately, ODOT is counting on toll-backed bonds to pay for both projects.  Oregon Transportation Commission Chairman Bob Van Brocklin testified in March, 2022 that all these projects hinge on toll financing.  But as yet, ODOT hasn’t undertaken the detailed financial analyses that will be required to sell toll backed bonds.  Both private markets and the federal government require bond issuers to commission independent “investment grade analyses” that develop realistic estimates of actual toll revenue.  Without an investment grade analysis, it’s effectively impossible to know how much money in bonds the state would be able to sell to finance either of these projects.

Oregon DOT has no experience actually collecting tolls, and consequently, no real experience in projecting how much toll revenue these facilities might provide.  But the financial consequences of this approach are very clear.  If, and more likely, when toll revenues aren’t as much as are needed to pay for these projects, the state will be legally obligated to dip into other transportation funds (state highway funds, and under the terms of HB 3055, passed by the Legislature two years ago, federal transportation grants) to pay off bond holders before the state spends money on anything else.

If this seems like a risky and foolhardy strategy, it is because that’s exactly what it is.  Unless, of course, you are a state highway agency that only cares about building more and more roads.  For the manic road-builder, this is an ideal strategy:  it allows you to build as much as you want today, and whether the tolls are sufficient or not, future legislatures and future taxpayers will be required to make up any shortfalls.  And, as we’ve noted, in the face of the climate crisis, this approach to road finance is deeply perverse:  Once the state builds more roadways, if its efforts to reduce driving (and cut carbon emissions) are successful, the toll revenue shortfall will have to be made up by cutting other transportation spending.  The state will even be obligated to use federal funds (which can be used flexibly for transit, walking, and cycling projects that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions) to pay off the bond-holders who financed the under-used highway capacity.

Wholly Moses

This strategy of driving stakes (getting projects started, even before their full costs are known) and selling bonds issuing debt that legally obligates the state to finish the projects, is a classic road-building scheme.   Oregon DOT’s plan to get started on several of these projects, and to finance them by short-term borrowing and bonds, backed with a legal pledge of both future toll revenues and other state and federal transportation funds, mimics the classic scam developed by America’s original highway builder/power broker, Robert Moses, in the 1930s.

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

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

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

The Power Broker | Robert Caro

Driving Stakes

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

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

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

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

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

Selling Bonds

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

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

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

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



The Week Observed, January 27, 2023

What City Observatory did this week

Driving stakes, selling bonds, overdosing on debt.  The Oregon Department of Transportation is following a well trodden path to push the state toward a massive highway expansion project. For example, Oregon DOT has kicked off the half billion dollar I-205 project with no permanent funding in place, instead relying on short term borrowing.  It’s planning the same for the $1.45 billion I-5 Rose Quarter project.
Taking a page from the Robert Moses playbook, they’re planning to drive stakes on three billion-dollar-plus highway expansions, and then issue bonds to pay their costs.  The bonding will obligate the state to pay off these projects ahead of every other transportation priority for the next several decades.  Debt is a powerful drug, and Oregonians should be wary of the financial burden the highway builders are pinning on them.

Must Read

Induced Distance:  Earlier this month, we and others criticized the latest iteration of the congestion cost scare-mongering reports, this one from Inrix. These fictional and inflated congestion cost estimates are used as a rationale for road-widening projects, which are inherently self-defeating, because of induced demand:  building more roadway capacity simply induces more driving.  But it’s actually worse than that. Lloyd Alter, writing at Treehugger, adds another dimension to these critiques, pointing out that building more roads also leads to greater distances between destinations.  The more land we use for roads, parking lots, yards, and setbacks, the further away are all of the places we want to travel to.  Alter credits Bart Hawkins Kreps with coining the term, “induced distance”

It’s widely recognized that if you keep adding more traffic lanes, there will be more traffic—that’s ‘induced demand.’ Just as important is that as we clear space for wider roads and more parking, we push destinations farther apart—that’s ‘induced distance.’ As bad as induced distance is for drivers, it’s even worse for the pedestrians who now need to walk much farther to get around in their formerly compact cities.”

This is one of those instances in which a picture is worth a thousand words, from Twitter:

That’s true in a physical sense, but to add to it, we also need to acknowledge that car-centric transportation systems tip the economic balance in favor of large scale uses and penalize smaller scale firms (for example, enabling big box retail, and killing off local, mom and pop stores).

How inclusionary housing makes housing less affordable.  San Francisco has some of the most expensive housing in the United States, and in a seeming paradox, some of the nation’s most stringent affordable housing regulations. The city requires developers of new apartment buildings to set aside a portion of new apartments to be rented at rates affordable to low and moderate income households.  But these requirements make much new development uneconomical.

A new study prepared for the city by real estate consultants at Century| Urban, shows that for rental housing, the city affordability requirements make development uneconomical for 19 of 20 studied pro-formas, and for the the one-in-twenty that came close to pencilling out, it didn’t comply with the city’s affordability standard.  Housing advocates like to take credit for the relative handful of affordable units that do get built under inclusionary requirements, but what they and others miss is the vast amount of housing that simply doesn’t get built at all because of these requirements, and this constraint on housing supply actually makes affordability worse–for everyone.

There’s no such thing as affordable housing.  Much housing discourse is an argument over whether we should be building affordable housing or market rate housing.  That misses the critical point that affordability isn’t determined by the characteristics of a particular house or apartment, but by the overall balance between supply and demand in a city.  What determines whether a particular home is affordable has to do with how many homes we have.  As Daniel Herriges of Strong Towns explains:

Developers don’t build affordable apartments or unaffordable apartments. They build apartments. Some are, no doubt, nicer than others, but this alone doesn’t make them expensive or inexpensive. That only happens when those apartments are sold or rented. At that point, the price is determined in a transaction that is influenced by market forces, public policy, or both.

And here’s a tangible example.  Two similar Victorian homes (one in Scranton, another in San Francisco) sell for wildly different prices.

The Scranton one is, by any standard pretty affordable.  But that’s almost entirely because it is in a market where supply has more than kept up with demand.

We’ve made a similar case looking at the variation in prices among the millions of ranch homes built in the US in the 1950s and 1960s.  The reason some are affordable and others are not, as Herriges points out, has little to do with the structure, as built.

In the News

Pennsylvania’s Center Square cited City Observatory’s analysis that subsidies for electric car purchases tend to disproportionately benefit high income households.

Note:  An earlier version of this post mistakenly identified the location of the Scranton home.  Our apologies!


The Week Observed, January 20, 2023

What City Observatory did this week

Dr. King: Socialism for the rich and rugged free enterprise capitalism for the poor.  We’re reminded this year of Dr. Martin Luther King’s observation that our cities, and the public policies that shape them, are deeply enmeshed in our history of racism.

Whenever the government provides opportunities in privileges for white people and rich people they call it “subsidized” when they do it for Negro and poor people they call it “welfare.” The fact that is the everybody in this country lives on welfare. Suburbia was built with federally subsidized credit. And highways that take our white brothers out to the suburbs were built with federally subsidized money to the tune of 90 percent. Everybody is on welfare in this country. The problem is that we all too often have socialism for the rich and rugged free enterprise capitalism for the poor.

Must Read

Once again, transportation is the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions.  StreetsblogUSA reports the latest data on climate change, and as for the past few years, the leading source of greenhouse gases in the US is transportation.  Here are the data gathered by the Rhodium Group:

While we continue to make progress, slowly, in reducing emissions from industry, electricity production and buildings, emissions from transportation are not noticeably lower than they were a decade ago (about 2 billion metric tons).  In spite of improved fuel economy and vehicle electrification, transportation emissions are contributing little toward achieving greenhouse gas reduction goals.  We obviously need to do much more to reduce transportation emissions if we’re to address climate change.

It’s time to stop coddling cars.  For too long, we’ve pursued a banal “all of the above” strategy, thinking that just adding a few more alternatives to automobile transportation will fundamentally shift our travel patterns (and reduce our carbon emissions).  In a powerful essay at Dezeen, Phineas Harper says we have to be more forthright about discouraging car travel if we’re to make any progress.  Cities, he writes, should not just build green transport, but actively dismantle car infrastructure.  Car transportation is so privileged and so subsidized that simply creating “alternatives” does little to undermine the automobile’s hegemony over urban space.  One of the best ways to break with the past is to simply stop trying to fight automobile congestion; though it may seem paradoxical to some, Harper argues:

Managed strategically, congestion is critical in supporting the transition to safe, sustainable transport.

Frustration with slow and congested automobile traffic creates demand for real alternatives, like walkable urban spaces.  In contrast, building more roads to relieve congestion simply prompts more driving and pollution.  And there’s no reason to believe in a technical fix for this problem:

Moreover, car-based urbanism, electric or not, is inherently unsustainable, creating low-density, inefficient and dangerous cities. A grieving parent will find little comfort in learning their child was run over by a Tesla Cybertruck rather than a diesel 4×4.

Harper’s advice challenges the widely repeated slogan that we can tackle our transportation problems with “multi-modalism,” which is usually just a marketing gimmick to sanitize a giant highway project with a few token bike-lanes or sidewalks.

New Knowledge

Rent growth in US 100 US cities over the past five years in one chart.  The housing market is both national and local.  There are big national trends that affect every place, as when we have a pandemic, or there’s a recession or sudden surge in inflation.  But every local market is a different from the nation, with some leading and others lagging national trends.  You can see the whole pattern of rent price changes in the US in a comprehensive new visualization created by Rob Warnock at Apartment List.

This chart shows the month-by-month price changes in the 100 largest US market from 2018 through 2022.  Price increases are shown in red, declines in blue; markets are ordered from largest to smallest on the vertical axis.  You can immediately see the surge in rents nationwide in 2021 as a red-band.  You can also see a cooling of rental price inflation in the last quarter of 2022 in nearly every US market.  Its also obvious that there is an underlying seasonal pattern to rent price fluctuations, which rents generally increasing the first half of the year and declining in the second half.

The Apartment List website has a detailed description of the methodology and explores and explains many of the key trends in the data, breaking down the year-by-year developments.  It’s hard to find such a compact and detailed overview of the US rental market.  If you want to get some perspective that goes beyond the last month’s or last year’s inflation data, and visualize trends in city rental markets at glance, this is the place to go.

In the News

Streetsblog re-published our “Reporter’s Guide to Congestion Cost Studies,” exposing the flawed premise underlying the claims that we lose billions of dollars each year to congestion.

The Week Observed, January 13, 2023

What City Observatory did this week

A reporter’s guide to congestion cost studies.  For more than a decade, we and others have been taking a close, hard and critical look at congestion cost reports generated by groups like the Texas Transportation Institute, Tom-Tom, and Inrix.  The reports all follow a common pattern, generating seemingly alarming, but simply ginned-up pseudo-statistics about how much congestion supposedly “costs” us. As we point out, you could calculate even higher estimates of time lost in travel because we don’t all have flying cars.  The number would be vastly higher than the imagined “losses” due to not being able to drive fast all the time, and just as realistic.

Here we’ve published a reporter’s guide to these reports, something we hope those in the media will consider before they publish yet another extreme telephoto image of freeway traffic along with an uncritical recitation of these highly questionable statistics.

Another flawed Inrix congestion cost report.  It’s back, and its still bad, the 2023 version of the Inrix traffic scorecard.  Like previous editions, this uses a fundamentally flawed concept (the travel time index) to construct absurd estimates of the supposed “cost” of road congestion.  The report’s estimates assume there’s some feasible (and cost-effective) way to enable all travelers to travel at “free flow” speeds every hour of every day.  We know (see our leading Must Read article below) that widening roads doesn’t produce faster traffic speeds.

This is just more myth and misdirection from highly numerate charlatans. Plus, this year’s report buries a pretty startling lede:  Traffic congestion is now lower than it was in 2019, and congestion declined twice as much as the decline in vehicle travel.  That factoid alone should prompt policy makers to look seriously at demand management, via congestion pricing, if we’re serious about congestion.

The case against the I-5 Rose Quarter Freeway widening project.  Portland is weighing whether to spend as much as $1.45 billion dollars widening a mile-long stretch of the I-5 freeway at the Rose Quarter near downtown. We’ve dug deeply into this idea at City Observatory, and we’ve published more than 50 commentaries addressing various aspects of the project over the past four years.  From massive cost-overruns, to flawed traffic projections, to phony claims that this is a “safety project,” to a new freeway off-ramp that endangers bikes, pedestrians and other users with a dangerous hairpin turn, there’s plenty not to like about this project.  We summarize more than 50 City Observatory commentaries we’ve published over the past four years.

Must Read

Yet more media coverage of the fundamental law of road congestion.  The New York Times has a powerful and visual summary of the growing evidence for the the role of induced travel in erasing the promised travel benefits of freeway expansion projects.

Across the country, in Los Angeles, New Jersey and Houston, freeway widening projects have utterly failed to reduce congestion  Writer Eden Weingart offers a simple explanation:

When a congested road is widened, travel times go down — at first. But then people change their behaviors. After hearing a highway is less busy, commuters might switch from transit to driving or change the route they take to work. Some may even choose to move farther away.

And this story is bolstered by an impressive and growing body of scientific evidence.

“It’s a pretty basic economic principle that if you reduce the price of a good then people will consume more of it,” Susan Handy, a professor of environmental science and policy at the University of California, Davis, said. “That’s essentially what we’re doing when we expand freeways.”

The article helpfully cites several of the research papers on the subject, and quotes Matt Turner, co-author of the definitive “fundamental law of road congestion,” on the willful ignorance of those who still deny the reality of induced travel:

“If you keep adding lanes because you want to reduce traffic congestion, you have to be really determined not to learn from history,”

But state highway departments, flush with billions of dollars in federal infrastructure funds, are primed to squander them in another futile and counterproductive round of freeway construction.

New Knowledge

European cities are getting denser.  For many decades, cities around the world have generally been growing less dense:  housing and population have tended to sprawl outward from city centers.  A new article looks at patterns in European densification, and finds a surprising reversal of this trend in many, though not all, European cities.

The paper’s key findings are summarized in maps showing the European cities that became more dense (blue) and those that became less dense or sprawled (red) in two successive time periods, (2006-2012 and 2012 to 2018).  In the early period, most European cities were becoming less dense.  In the latter period, cities in much of the center of Europe became more dense.

The exceptions in the latter period were in Iberia and Eastern Europe–which got less dense over time.  Strikingly, density gains were recorded in much of the UK, France, Germany and Italy.  This recent, and now relatively widespread increase in densities may signal an urban resurgence.

The author’s point out that the housing supply plays a key role in facilitating a quick reversal to densification. The decline in density in the previous decade (and perhaps earlier) provided sufficient housing supply for many cities to grow more dense with population growth.  As the author’s explain:

By densifying, many cities in the sample could accommodate a great population increase in a short period of time with only little expansion of residential areas. This means that a buffer capacity of unused housing stock was available to satisfy the new demand. In cities with long-lasting densification trends, specific policies, e.g. on urban regeneration, may increase the availability of housing units within the urban boundaries.

In the US, low rates of housing vacancy, especially in superstar cities, make it hard to densify quickly, because adding population requires building more housing.

Chiara Cortinovis, DAvide Geneletti & Dagmar Haase, Higher immigration and lower land take rates are driving a new densification wave in European cities,Urban Sustainability Volume 2, Article number: 19 (2022).

In the News

Our analysis showing that widening the Katy Freeway did nothing to reduce average travel times in Houston was quoted in this week’s New York Times article on the futility of road widening to lessen congestion.

Streetsblog featured comments from City Observatory’s Joe Cortright in its analysis of the latest Inrix congestion cost report.

The Week Observed, January 6, 2023

What City Observatory did this week

The case against the I-5 Rose Quarter freeway widening.  This week marked the end of public comment on the Supplemental Environmental Assessment for the Oregon Department of Transportation’s proposed $1.45 billion I-5 Rose Quarter freeway widening projects.  At a billion dollars a mile, its one of the world’s most expensive, and anachronistic freeway projects.  It proposes to double down on the damage done to Portland’s historically Black Albina neighborhood, flooding the area with even more traffic, and making local streets less safe and desirable for residents, and people biking and walking. If ever there were a project that needed a full Environmental Impact Statement, this is one, but instead, ODOT is asserting that the project has “no significant environmental impact.” Here we summarize more than 50 City Observatory commentaries published over the past five years explaining the project’s true economic, environmental and social impacts.

Traffic is declining at the Rose Quarter: ODOT growth projections are fiction.   ODOT’s own traffic data shows that daily traffic (ADT) has been declining for 25 years, by -0.55 percent per year. The ODOT modeling inexplicably predicts that traffic will suddenly start growing through 2045, growing by 0.68 percent per year. 

ODOT’s modeling falsely claims that traffic will be the same regardless of whether the I-5 freeway is expanded, contrary to the established science of induced travel. These ADT statistics aren’t contained in the project’s traffic reports, but can be calculated from data contained in its safety analysis. ODOT has violated its own standards for documenting traffic projections, and violated national standards for maintaining integrity of traffic projections.

The truth about ODOT’s proposed $1.45 billion freeway widening.  It’s really an 8 or 10-lane highway expansion, not just the addition of so-called “auxiliary” lanes.”  The project is engineered to be vastly wider than needed so it can be re-striped after it is constructed.  ODOT has failed to reveal these facts in its Environmental Assessment.

  • To avoid intruding on the Eastbank Esplanade, ODOT has dropped its plans to widen the viaduct overhanging the pathway, but will squeeze in another lane of traffic by re-striping the existing 83′ wide viaduct.
  • At the project’s key pinch point, the Weidler overpass, ODOT is engineering a crazy-wide 160 foot wide roadway ostensibly for just for six travel lanes.  But this roadway is more than enough to fit 8 or even 10 lanes of traffic, just by striping it as they are now planning to stripe the viaduct section of the project.
  • ODOT’s environmental analysis has violated NEPA by failing to consider this “reasonably foreseeable” eventuality that ODOT will re-stripe the project to 8 or more lanes, which would produce even more traffic, air pollution and greenhouse gases, impacts that are required to be disclosed.

  • ODOT has also violated NEPA by failing to consider a narrower right of way: 96 feet would be sufficient to accommodate its added “auxiliary lanes” and would have fewer environmental impacts and lower costs.
  • ODOT’s safety analysis for its narrowing of the viaduct section shows that narrower lanes and shoulders make almost no difference to the crash rate, and further show that the project’s claims that it would reduce crashes on I-5 by 50 percent are exaggerated by a factor of at least seven. The analysis also shows that the project has a safety benefit-cost ratio of about 1 to 200, meaning it costs ODOT $2 for 1 cent of traffic crash reductions, about 2,000 times less cost-effective that typical safety projects.
  • The safety analysis also confirms that ODOT made now allowance for the effects of induced demand:  It makes it clear that the project assumed that traffic levels would be exactly the same in 2045 regardless of whether the freeway was expanded or not.

The IBR project: Too much money for too many interchanges.   The real expense of the $5 billion I-5 bridge replacement project isn’t actually building a new bridge over the Columbia River:  It’s widening miles of freeway and rebuilding every intersection north and south of the river.  A decade ago, an independent panel of experts convened by OR and WA governor’s strongly recommended to ODOR and WSDOT that they eliminate one or more intersections. The panel concluded that 70 percent of the cost of the project was rebuilding 7 interchanges in five miles.The experts told ODOT and WSDOT that project interchange spacing violates both federal and state design standards. The expert panel concluded that eliminating interchanges would reduce project cost, improve safety, and improve traffic flow.

Failing to look at removing or simplifying intersections after getting this expert advice is arbitrary and capricious; ODOT and WSDOT are violating the National Environmental Policy Act’s requirement that they take a hard look at reasonable alternatives.

Must Read

Jerusalem Demsas thinks that promoting homeownership as a national investment policy was a mistake.  Writing at The Atlantic, Jerusalem Demsas as a provocative essay that takes on one of the most cherished myths in America, the importance of homeownership as a broadly shared wealth-building strategy.  She starts with an observation we’ve long stressed at City Observatory:  housing policy is based on a fundamental contradiction:  we want housing to be affordable, and we want it to be a great investment.  You simply can’t have it both ways.  And in practice, a whole raft of policies, from the federal tax code to local zoning strongly favor making housing unaffordable (especially for the young, poor, and renters) at the expense of making it a great investment for older, wealthier long-time home-owners.

While homeownership is touted as a universal wealth-building strategy, whether you make a return on investment depends heavily on when, where and how you buy.  Homeownership has tended to increase rather than reduce wealth inequality because lower income households tend to buy at the wrong time, in the wrong place, and end up paying higher prices and interest rates, which cut into their financial returns.  And, over time, most of the accumulated wealth from housing investment has ended up in the hands of older Americans who had the tax-favored good luck to buy when (and where) they did.

The policy lesson from this is clear:  we ought to stop selling (and subsidizing) homeownership, and put our policy emphasis plainly on promoting affordability.  Demsas writes:

I should be explicit here: Policy makers should completely abandon trying to preserve or improve property values and instead make their focus a housing market abundant with cheap and diverse housing types able to satisfy the needs of people at every income level and stage of life. As such, people would move between homes as their circumstances necessitate. Housing would stop being scarce and thus its attractiveness as an investment would diminish greatly, for both homeowners and larger entities. The government should encourage and aid low-wealth households to save through diversified index funds as it eliminates the tax benefits that pull people into homeownership regardless of the consequences.

Perhaps growing awareness of the long-brewing housing crisis in the US will lead more people to give some thought to this idea.

New Knowledge

Insights into 15 minute living.  Economist Ed Glaeser and a team of researchers have used mobile phone and amenity location data to look at the relationship between accessibility and “15 minute walking”.

The authors gather data on 11 billion (!) 2019 trips to “points of interest” (a grab bag term for destinations ranging from schools and parks to grocery stores and restaurants).  They then examine differences in trip-making patterns between locations with abundant local destinations and those with fewer destinations nearby.  The data provide a useful test-bed for seeing how living in a “15-minute neighborhood”–a place with lots of common destinations within a 15 minute walk–influences travel behavior.

The core conclusion of the study is that people who live in neighborhoods with higher levels of access (more nearby destinations), tend, on average to have shorter trips. There is considerable variation across metropolitan areas in the share of “15 minute” trips, ranging from as few as 10 percent in sprawling Atlanta to as many as 40 percent in New York.  Metros with more accessible destinations, on average, had a higher fraction of these 15 minute trips.
The authors conclude:
In a statistical sense, 15-minute access can explain eighty percent of the variation in 15-minute usage across metropolitan areas and 74 percent of the variation in usage within metropolitan areas. A one percentile increase in access is associated with a .8 percentage point increase in the share of trips that are within 15 minutes walking distance. This coefficient is not particularly sensitive to other controls, including population density, income and share of the population in the block group that owns a car. This correlation does not imply that encouraging more mixed-use development within residential areas will reduce average trip times, but it is certainly compatible with that hypothesis

Timur Abbiasov, Cate Heine, Edward L. Glaeser, Carlo Ratti, Sadegh Sabouri, Arianna Salazar, and Miranda Paolo Santi, The 15-minute city quantified using mobility data, NBER Working Paper 30752 NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH

In the News

Commentaries by City Observatory’s Daniel Kay Hertz and Joe Cortright were featured prominently in Jerusalem Demsas’ Atlantic article on the problems with homeownership policy.  Demsaas quoted Hertz’s observation that housing is a sustained intergenerational transfer of wealth from old to young, and Cortright’s analysis of why, in practice, homeownership turns out to be a wealth destroying strategy for the poor and people of color.

The case against the I-5 Rose Quarter Freeway widening

Portland is weighing whether to spend as much as $1.45 billion dollars widening a mile-long stretch of the I-5 freeway at the Rose Quarter near downtown. We’ve dug deeply into this idea at City Observatory, and we’ve published more than 50 commentaries addressing various aspects of the project over the past four years.  Here’s a synopsis:

Traffic congestion

Traffic is declining at the Rose Quarter: ODOT growth projections are fiction. December 22, 2022. ODOT’s own traffic data shows that daily traffic (ADT) has been declining for 25 years, by -0.55 percent per year. The ODOT modeling inexplicably predicts that traffic will suddenly start growing through 2045, growing by 0.68 percent per year. ODOT’s modeling falsely claims that traffic will be the same regardless of whether the I-5 freeway is expanded, contrary to the established science of induced travel. These ADT statistics aren’t contained in the project’s traffic reports, but can be calculated from data contained in its safety analysis. ODOT has violated its own standards for documenting traffic projections, and violated national standards for maintaining integrity of traffic projections.

The black box: Hiding the facts about freeway widening. November 28, 2022. State DOT officials have crafted an Supplemental Environmental Assessment that conceals more than it reveals. The Rose Quarter traffic report contains no data on “average daily traffic” the most common measure of vehicle travel. Three and a half years later and ODOT’s Rose Quarter’s Traffic Modeling is still a closely guarded secret. The new SEA makes no changes to the regional traffic modeling done for the 2019 EA, which was done 7 years ago in 2015. The report misleadingly cites “volume to capacity ratios” without revealing either volumes or capacities.

Wider freeways don’t reduce congestion.  March 4, 2019. The best argument that highway planners can muster for the Rose Quarter freeway widening is that it might somehow relieve congestion by reducing the number of crashes, but when they widened a stretch of I-5 just north of the Rose Quarter a decade ago, crashes not only didn’t decrease, crash rates actually went up.

Rose Quarter freeway widening won’t reduce congestion, March 2, 2019. Wider urban freeways have never reduced congestion, due to “induced demand” a problem so predictable, that experts call it “the fundamental law of road congestion.” Even the experts from ODOT and the Portland Bureau of Transportation concede that the freeway widening will do nothing to reduce daily “recurring” traffic congestion.

Backfire: How widening freeways can make traffic congestion worse, February 26, 2019.  It’s an article of faith among highway builders and boosters that adding more capacity will make freeways flow more smoothly. But in reality, widening a road or intersection at one point simply funnels more vehicles into the next bottleneck more quickly–which can lead a road to become congested even faster. That’s what’s happened on I-5 Northbound in Portland, where the I-5 bridge over the Columbia River carry fewer vehicles in the peak hour now because improvements to the freeway and intersections have overwhelmed the bridge bottleneck.

Congestion pricing is a better solution for the Rose Quarter, March 26, 2019. Congestion pricing on I-5 would dramatically reduce congestion, improve freight and transit travel times, and do so at far lower cost than freeway widening, according to . . . the Oregon Department of Transportation. Pricing has been approved by the state Legislature, but ODOT has violated NEPA by failing to include any mention of it in the Rose Quarter Environmental Assessment.

How tax evasion fuels traffic congestion in Portland, March 15, 2019. A big part of traffic congestion on I-5 and I-205 as they cross the Columbia River is due to Washington residents shopping in Oregon to evade Washington’s high retail sales tax (Oregon has none). Vancouver residents evade $120 million in sales tax per year by shopping in Oregon, but account for between 10 and 20 percent of all traffic across the river. 

Reducing congestion: Katy didn’t, December 27, 2016.  Add as many lanes as you like in an urban setting and you’ll only increase the level of traffic and congestion.  That’s the lesson of Houston’s Katy Freeway, successively widened to a total of 23 lanes, at a cost of billions, but with the latest widening, travel times on the freeway are now slower than before it was expanded.

ODOT’s I-5 Rose Quarter “Improvement”: A million more miles of local traffic. December 7, 2022. ODOT’s proposed relocation of the I-5 Southbound off-ramp at the Rose Quarter will add 1.3 million miles of vehicle travel to local streets each year. Moving the I-5 on ramp a thousand feet further south creates longer journeys for the 12,000 cars exiting the freeway at this ramp each day. The new ramp location requires extensive out-of-direction travel for all vehicles connecting to local streets. With more miles driven on local streets, and more turning movements at local intersections, hazards for all road users, but especially persons biking and walking, increase substantially.

Flat Earth Sophistry. December 30, 2022.  The science of induced travel is well proven, but state DOTs are in utter denial. Widening freeways not only fails to reduce congestion, it inevitably results in more vehicle travel and more pollution. The Oregon Department of Transportation has published a technical manual banning the consideration of induced travel in Oregon highway projects.


The Rose Quarter’s Big U-Turn: Deadman’s Curve? November 15, 2022.
The redesign of the I-5 Rose Quarter project creates a hazardous new hairpin off-ramp from a Interstate 5. Is ODOT’s supposed “safety” project really creating a new “Deadman’s Curve” at the Moda Center? Bike riders will have to negotiate on Portland’s busy North Williams bikeway will have to negotiate two back-to-back freeway ramps that carry more than 20,000 cars per day.

ODOT:  Our Rose Quarter “safety” project will increase crashes.  November 19, 2022.  A newly revealed ODOT report shows the redesign of the I-5 Rose Quarter project will:

  • creates a dangerous hairpin turn on the I-5 Southbound off-ramp
  • increase crashes 13 percent
  • violate the agency’s own highway design standards
  • result in trucks turning into adjacent lanes and forcing cars onto highway shoulders
  • necessitate a 1,000 foot long “storage area” to handle cars exiting the freeway
  • require even wider, more expensive freeway covers that will be less buildable

ODOT’s safety lie is back, bigger than ever. October 18, 2022. Oregon DOT is using phony claims about safety to sell a $1.45 billion freeway widening project.People are regularly being killed on ODOT roadways and the agency claims that it lacks the resources to fix these problems. Meanwhile, it proposes to spend billions of dollars widening freeways where virtually no one is killed or injured and labels this a “safety” project. A wider I-5 freeway will do nothing to improve road safety in Portland.

Oregon DOT admits it lied about I-5 safety. March 17, 2020. Oregon’s Department of Transportation concedes it was lying about crashes on I-5 at the Rose Quarter. For year’s ODOT falsely claimed that I-5 at the Rose Quarter was the ‘highest crash location in Oregon.” After repeatedly pointing out this lie, we finally got ODOT to retract this from their website.

Safety: Using the big lie to sell wider freeways, March 19, 2019. ODOT claims that the I-5 Rose Quarter is the state’s “#1 crash location.” But that’s not true.  Other Portland area ODOT roads, including Barbur Boulevard, Powell Boulevard and 82nd Avenue have crash rates that are as much as 3 times higher, and worse, these streets cause fatalities, which the freeway doesn’t. Crying “safety” is a calculated, “Big Lie” marketing gimmick, that would spend half a billion dollars on a roadway that contributes nothing to the state’s growing traffic death toll.

Safety last: What we’ve learned from “improving” the I-5 freeway, March 21, 2019. ODOT has also “improved” freeway interchanges south of Portland as well.  It improved the Woodburn interchange in 2015, hoping to reduce crashes–but they increased instead.  The interchange had two serious crashes, producing extensive delays in February 2019.

Carbon and pollution


Whitewashing the freeway widening. June 4, 2020. A so-called “peer review” panel was kept in the dark about critiques of the highway department’s flawed projections This is a thinly veiled attempt to whitewash flawed analysis. These are the products of a hand-picked, spoon-fed group, asked by ODOT to address only a narrow and largely subsidiary set of questions and told to ignore fundamental issues.

Widening I-5 at the Rose Quarter will increase greenhouse gases. January 26, 2021. Adding more freeway capacity at the Rose Quarter will thousands of tons to the region’s greenhouse gas emissions. freeways—including additional ramps and “auxiliary lanes”—induce additional car travel which increases greenhouse gas emissions.

  • The I-5 Rose Quarter project will add approximately 33,000 vehicles per day to I-5 traffic, according to ODOT’s own estimates
  • These 33,000 vehicles will directly add 56,000 daily vehicle miles of travel and indirectly add 178,000 daily vehicle miles of travel.
  • Additional vehicle travel will directly produce between 8,000 tons of greenhouse gas emission per year; and with induced travel outside the project a total increase of 35,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year.

Here’s what’s wrong with Oregon DOT’s Rose Quarter pollution claims. December 10, 2021.  10 reasons not to believe phony DOT claims that widening highways reduces pollution

Climate concerns crush Oregon highway funding bill, March 6, 2015. In 2015, a pending highway finance bill was killed when the Oregon Department of Transportation admitted it had provided estimates of carbon reductions that were wildly exaggerated and could not be verified. With a track record of producing carbon emission estimates that falsely flatter its preferred projects, should anyone trust the estimates contained in the Rose Quarter Environmental Assessment?

Widening the I-5 Freeway will add millions of miles of vehicle travel, March 4, 2019.  The University of California Davis has a calculator for estimating the effects of added freeway capacity on travel; it suggests that Rose Quarter freeway widening will produce 10 to 17 million additional miles of travel per year in Portland, as well as 5 to 8 thousand additional tons of carbon emissions per year.

Urban Myth Busting: Congestion, Idling and Carbon Emissions, July 6, 2017. The Rose Quarter project makes unsubstantiated claims that it will reduce carbon emissions, by reducing the number of cars idling in traffic; but the published scientific literature on the subject shows that gains from reduced idling due to capacity increases are more than offset by the increase in emissions due to induced travel demand.

Bike and pedestrian infrastructure and freeway covers

More proof of ODOT’s Rose Quarter Freeway coverup. June 16, 2021. Newly revealed documents show its roadway is vastly wider than needed for traffic, and also makes “buildable” freeway covers prohibitively expensive. If you really want just two additional lanes, you can do so much more cheaply and with less environmental destruction. The reality is ODOT is planning a 10 lane freeway at the Rose Quarter, and is lying about the covers and the project’s real cost and environmental impact.

ODOT reneges on Rose Quarter cover promises. November 14, 2022.
The Rose Quarter I-5 Revised Environmental Assessment shows that ODOT is already reneging on its sales pitch of using a highway widening to heal Portland’s Albina Neighborhood. It trumpeted “highway covers” as a development opportunity, falsely portraying them as being covered in buildings and housing—something the agency has no plans or funds to provide.The covers may be only partially buildable, suitable only for “lightweight” buildings, and face huge constraints. ODOT will declare the project “complete” as soon as it does some “temporary” landscaping. The covers will likely be vacant for years, unless somebody—not ODOT—pays to build on them. ODOT isn’t contributing a dime to build housing to replace what it destroyed, and its proposed covers are unlikely to ever become housing because they’re too expensive and unattractive to develop.

Distorted Images: Freeway widening is bad for pedestrians, March 14, 2019. ODOT has produced a handful of computer-generated renderings to show how its massive freeway widening project would affect surface streets in Northeast Portland. They’re carefully composed to exaggerate some features and conceal others. If you look closely, you can see how the plan is to round off corners at key intersections–speeding car traffic and increasing danger to pedestrians. In addition, ODOT illustrations show dozens of pedestrians and just a handful of cars on this busy city street: proportions that are off by a factor of 200 in showing the real world relationship of cars to people in this space.

The great freeway cover-up, December 13, 2017. ODOT’s freeway widening plans call for two over-sized freeway overpasses to be built (primarily to deal with construction staging in a dense urban environment). While it claims that the overpasses can be developed as public space, they’re too fragmented, noisy and hostile (thanks to thousands of fast moving cars on every side) to be useable public space.

The death of Flint Street, May 12, 2017. The proposed Rose Quarter freeway widening would demolish the existing Flint Avenue overpass, a low speed neighborhood street that runs parallel to a busy North-South couplet, and provides an important bike route with a gentle grade, and limited auto-traffic. *

Diverging Diamond Blues, December 19, 2017. A key element of the local street plan for the proposed Rose Quarter freeway widening project is turning a portion of North Williams Avenue into a miniature “diverging diamond” interchange–with traffic traveling on the wrong (left-hand) side of a two-ways street. This disorienting design is inherently pedestrian hostile. *

Equity and neighborhood effects

How a freeway destroyed a neighborhood, and may again, March 18, 2019. In 1962, construction of I-5 devastated Portland’s historically African-American Albina neighborhood.  Population declined by nearly two-thirds in the three decades after the freeway was built, as the area shifted from a residential area with local-serving businesses, to an auto-dominated landscape. The neighborhood has only started to rebound in recent years, and more auto traffic will likely undermine the area’s attractiveness.

The toxic flood of cars, not just the freeway, crushed Albina. September 16, 2020. Restorative Justice & A Viable Neighborhood. What destroyed the Albina community? What will it take to restore it? It wasn’t just the freeway, it was the onslaught of cars, that transformed Albina into a bleak and barren car-dominated landscape.

Getting real about restorative justice in Albina. April 26, 2021. Drawings don’t constitute restorative justice. ODOT shows fancy drawings about what might be built, but isn’t talking about actually paying to build anything. Just building the housing shown in its diagrams would require $160 million to $260 million. Even that would replace only a fraction of the housing destroyed by ODOT highway building in Albina.

Taking Tubman: ODOT’s plan to build a freeway on school grounds. April 13, 2021. ODOT’s proposed I-5 Rose Quarter project would turn a school yard into a freeway. The widened I-5 freeway will make already unhealthy air even worse. Pollution from high volume roads has been shown to lower student achievement. ODOT also proposes to build sound walls in Tubman’s school yard.

How ODOT destroyed Albina: The untold story. March 22, 2021.  I-5 wasn’t the first highway that carved up Portland’s historically black Albina Neighborhood. Seventy years ago, ODOT spent the equivalent of more than $80 million in today’s dollars to cut the Albina neighborhood off from the Willamette River. ODOT’s highways destroyed housing and isolated Albina, lead to a two-thirds reduction in population between 1950 and 1970. Demolishing neighborhoods for state highways is ODOT’s raison d’etre.

How ODOT destroyed Albina: The I-5 Meat Axe. March 30, 2021. Interstate 5 “Meat Axe” slashed through the Albina Neighborhood in 1962. This was the second of three acts by ODOT that destroyed housing and isolated Albina. Building the I-5 freeway led to the demolition of housing well-outside the freeway right of way, and flooded the neighborhood with car traffic, ending its residential character and turning into an auto-oriented landscape of parking lots, gas stations and car dealerships.

How ODOT destroyed Albina, part 3: The Fremont Bridge ramps. April 7, 2021. ODOT’s Fremont Bridge wiped out multiple blocks of the Albina neighborhood. A freeway you’ve never heard of leveled dozens of blocks in North and Northeast Portland. The stub of a proposed “Prescott Freeway” still scars the neighborhood.

Why do poor school kids have to clean up rich commuter’s pollution?, March 6, 2019. Portland’s Tubman Middle School, built more than a decade before the I-5 freeway sliced through the neighborhood would get an even larger dose of air pollution when the widened freeway is moved closer to classrooms. The school’s students–disproportionately low income and children of color, have had to see public school monies–more than $12 million–spent to clean up the school’s air; commuters on I-5, disproportionately white and higher income, paid nothing toward’s these costs.

Freeway-widening grifters: Woke-washing, fraud and incompetence. September 20, 2021.  The Oregon Department of Transportation’s glossy mailer to sell its $1.25 billion I-5 Rose Quarter Freeway widening project is a cynical, error-ridden marketing ploy. ODOT doesn’t show or tell about its wider freeway and more traffic, but instead tries to sell the project based on buildings it won’t contribute any money for building. ODOT sent an expensive mailer to thousands of Portland households studded with nearly two-dozen typographical errors.

Housing reparations for Northeast Portland, April 16, 2018. When it built the I-5 freeway in the 1960s, through the heart of Portland’s African-American neighborhood, it demolished–and never replaced–more than 300 homes. It outlandishly claims that a wider freeway will somehow redress that damage, but it could make a much better start by spending about $140 million to rebuild the housing it demolished.

Freeway widening for whomst? March 6, 2019. There’s a profound demographic disparity between those who benefit from I-5 freeway widening and those who bill bear its costs.  Beneficiaries are disproportionately, out-of-state commuters; single occupancy peak hour commuters from Vancouver Washington earn an average of more than $82,000, 50 percent more than those who live in North and Northeast Portland and who commute by bike, transit or walking, and more than double the income of those households in the area who don’t own cars.

Concealing facts and lying to sell freeway widening

An open letter to the Oregon Transportation Commission. March 18, 2021.
For years, the Oregon Department of Transportation has concealed its plans to build a ten lane freeway through Portland’s Rose Quarter. We’ve documented how ODOT concealed the actual width of its proposed freeway from the public, in violation of the letter and spirit of the National Environmental Policy Act. We’re calling on the state to do a full environmental impact statement that assesses the impact of the project they actually intend to build.

The Black Box: Hiding the facts about freeway widening, March 12, 2019. The most basic metric for understanding a road project is something called “Average Daily Traffic” or ADT, a count of the total number of vehicles that use a stretch of roadway on a typical day. That’s an essential input for estimating congestion, air pollution, carbon emissions and assessing safety. But it’s also one statistic that you won’t find anywhere in the Rose Quarter freeway widening project’s Environmental Assessment or its Traffic Technical Report:  all the ADT numbers have been suppressed. It’s like a financial report that has no dollar amounts. Leaving out basic traffic data keeps the public in the dark about key elements of the project.

Why won’t ODOT tell us how wide their freeway is? December 1, 2022. After more than three years of public debate, ODOT still won’t tell anyone how wide a freeway they’re planning to build at the Rose Quarter.  ODOT’s plans appear to provide for a 160-foot wide roadway, wide enough to accommodate a ten lane freeway, not just two additional “auxiliary” lanes. ODOT is trying to avoid NEPA, by building a wide roadway now, and then re-striping it for more lanes after it is built. The agency has utterly failed to examine the traffic, pollution and safety effects of the ten-lane roadway they’ll actually build.

Orwellian Freeway Widening, March 5, 2019. Don’t call it widening the freeway, it’s an “improvement” project. And those aren’t freeway lanes that are being added? They’re harmless “auxiliary lanes.” The Oregon Department of Transportation is torturing logic, common sense and the English language as it relentlessly markets its plans to widen I-5 and the Rose Quarter.  

More Orwell from the Oregon Department of Transportation, April 2, 2019.  We have always been at war with EastAsia.  Within 24 hours ODOT took two entirely different positions regarding the Columbia River Crossing, first denying it had any connection to the proposed $500 million Rose Quarter Freeway widening project, and then saying it was integral to the plans for the freeway widening. Similarly, ODOT first denied the existence of any engineering plans or drawings for the freeway-widening, and then, when pressed conceded that they existed, then ultimately under legal threat, producing 33 gigabytes of such plans. Willfully lying about and concealing key facts about the project is a violation of NEPA and of the public trust.

National transportation experts to Portland: You’re doing it wrong, March 25, 2019.  The nation’s leading experts on urban transportation–Janette Sadik-Khan, Robin Chase, Jennifer Keesmaat and others–have some choice words about freeway widening for Portland:  Don’t!

ODOT’s real agenda:  Massive freeways at the Rose Quarter and Columbia River

The Hidden Rose Quarter MegaFreeway, March 13, 2019. Though its promoted as just adding a couple of “auxiliary lanes” the Rose Quarter project calls for building a massive 126 foot right of way through Northeast Portland, enough to fit a full eight-lane freeway. Once the $500 million is spent at the Rose Quarter, it will only take a few hours with a paint truck to create a much wider freeway.

There’s a $3 billion bridge hidden in the Rose Quarter Project EA, March 27, 2019. Hidden in the plans for the Rose Quarter project is the assumption that Portland will also build an $3 billion, 12-lane wide freeway across the Columbia River–in fact, the Rose Quarter project is needed chiefly to deal with induced demand from this project.

Why won’t ODOT tell us how wide their freeway is? December 1, 2022.  After more than three years of public debate, ODOT still won’t tell anyone how wide a freeway they’re planning to build at the Rose Quarter. ODOT’s plans appear to provide for a 160-foot wide roadway, wide enough to accommodate a ten lane freeway, not just two additional “auxiliary” lanes. ODOT is trying to avoid NEPA, by building a wide roadway now, and then re-striping it for more lanes after it is built. The agency has utterly failed to examine the traffic, pollution and safety effects of the ten-lane roadway they’ll actually build.

Revealed: ODOT’s Secret Plans for a 10-Lane Rose Quarter Freeway. February 24, 2021. For years, ODOT has been planning to build a 10 lane freeway at the Rose Quarter, not the 6 lanes it has advertised. Three previously undisclosed files show ODOT is planning for a 160 foot wide roadway at Broadway-Weidler, more than enough for a 10 lane freeway with full urban shoulders. ODOT has failed to analyze the traffic, environmental and health impacts from an expansion to ten lanes; not disclosing these reasonably foreseeable impacts is a violation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

Calculating induced demand at the Rose Quarter. February 1, 2021. Widening I-5 at the Rose Quarter in Portland will produce an addition 17.4 to 34.8 million miles of vehicle travel and 7.8 to 15.5 thousand tons of greenhouse gases per year. These estimates come from a customized calibration of the induced travel calculator to the Portland Metropolitan Area.

Congestion Pricing: ODOT is disobeying an order from Governor Brown. February 8, 2021.  More than a year ago, Oregon Governor Kate Brown directed ODOT to “include a full review of congestion pricing” before deciding whether or not to do a full environmental impact statement for the proposed I-5 Rose Quarter Freeway widening project. ODOT simply ignored the Governor’s request, and instead is delaying its congestion pricing efforts, and proceeding full speed ahead with the Rose Quarter with no Environmental Impact Statement that would include pricing. ODOT has produced no analysis of the effects of pricing as part of its Rose Quarter environmental review, and has said “congestion pricing was not considered.”

Cost Overruns

ODOT: Exploding whales and cost overruns. March 9, 2020. ODOT’s I-5 Rose Quarter freeway project which was estimated to cost $450 million in 2017, had its pricetag nearly doubled to $795 million in 2020.

Another exploding whale: ODOT’s freeway widening cost triples. September 16, 2021. It now looks like Oregon DOT’s I-5 Rose Quarter $450 million freeway widening project will cost more than $1.25 billion. The project’s estimated cost has nearly tripled in just four years, and still has further cost overrun risk. Even OTC commissioners question whether it’s worth more than a billion dollars to widen a 1.5 mile stretch of freeway. The Oregon DOT has experienced massive cost-overruns on all of its largest construction projects, and has systematically concealed and understated the frequency and scale of cost overruns.


* – Two features of the I-5 Rose Quarter project that we criticized in 2019 have been changed:  The project no longer proposes to demolish the Flint Avenue overpass, and no longer proposes to construct a “diverging diamond” interchange.



Dr. King: Socialism for the rich and rugged free enterprise capitalism for the poor

It’s a long road to redressing inequality

Fifty-five years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed the stilted rhetoric used use to talk about public spending to promote the social good:

Whenever the government provides opportunities in privileges for white people and rich people they call it “subsidized” when they do it for Negro and poor people they call it “welfare.” The fact that is the everybody in this country lives on welfare. Suburbia was built with federally subsidized credit. And highways that take our white brothers out to the suburbs were built with federally subsidized money to the tune of 90 percent. Everybody is on welfare in this country. The problem is that we all to often have socialism for the rich and rugged free enterprise capitalism for the poor. That’s the problem.

“The Minister to the Valley,” February 23, 1968, From the archives of the SCLC.*


At City Observatory, we can add nothing to the eloquence of his analysis.  What we can do, in our fashion, is to simply add two data points that confirm that, fifty years later, too little has changed in this regard.

Today, the federal government spends nearly a quarter of a trillion dollars on housing subsidies each year, in the form of tax breaks for mortgage interest, property taxes, capital gains, and the exclusion of imputed rental income.  Nearly all of the value of this goes to the nation’s highest income households. Meanwhile, only about 20 percent of low income households eligible for rent subsidies get anything from a chronically under-funded voucher program.

Over the past decade, Congress has repeatedly bailed out the Highway Trust Fund with general fund monies, to the tune of $140 billion.  The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law continues and expands this transportation welfare, funneling $600 billion in general fund revenues—not “user fees” into the existing, broken transportation system in ways that will lead to more highway construction, more driving, more pollution, and faster climate change.  We continue to build new highways, chiefly for the benefit of those who own cars and live in suburbs, while transit systems that provide critical access to the poor are falling apart.

The problems that Dr. King spoke to then are still with us today. His words are an inspiration to our continued efforts to redress these inequities and build a fairer, more just and sustainable world.

* A hat tip to @kaseyklimes for reminding us of the quotation and sleuthing its provenance.